31 December 1856 Wednesday Morning
ANDREW Adams banged open the front door of the Bee Hive Tavern by employing the drunk and disorderly French sailor as a battering ram, and, planting a foot firmly on the seat of his duck trousers, sent the man sailing out into the street. By stretching out his legs and flapping his arms, the Frenchman just managed to keep his balance, but the motion made him appear ridiculous. Sailors, whores, ship chandlers and boarding house owners spilled out into the street, hoping to be entertained by yet another Hong Kong street brawl. Passing Chinese policemen in conical hats and filthy uniforms laughed and pointed, infuriating the sailor still further.
As the man reached for his sheath knife, he spun around to see Adams withdrawing his own knife from his boot. Adams spoke in the calm, steady manner he used on all drunks who began fights inside the tavern; a tone of voice perfectly balanced between threat and empathy. "You're addled with ale, mate, but there's no need for trouble; go back to your ship and sleep it off." Adams pointed the tip of his razor-sharp blade to the nearby White Swan Tavern. "Or try your luck there."
The sailor hesitated. He looked at Adams for several seconds, sizing him up as an opponent. Something he saw made him move his hand away from the hilt of his knife. He gave Adams a mock salute and spat out something in French which Adams didn't understand. Ignoring the taunts of the disappointed crowd, the man disappeared down a lane in the direction of Thieves Hamlet.
As the crowd dispersed, Adams replaced his knife and turned back toward the tavern. He stared for a moment at the large wooden sign above the door. He read the lines just below the colorful bee hive swarming with bees.
Within this hive, we're all alive
And pleasant is our honey;
If you are dry, step in and try
We sell for ready money
The week before, drunken soldiers from the 59th Regiment had used the sign for target practice and, as Anne had reminded him more than once, the several bullet holes dotting the tavern's motto would have to be patched.
Adams pulled his monkey jacket tighter against the morning cold and walked down the lane to the harbor. He balanced himself upon a large stone and shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. Amid the Western frigates and brigs and sloops-of-war and clipper ships, the huge Chinese junk was still there. Adams estimated its length at over two-hundred-and-twenty feet and its beam at nearly forty-five feet. A Chinese admiral had commanded her at the head of a fleet of over two hundred imperial war junks. It was far more majestic than any junk Adams had ever seen and was the special prize of Rear-Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, K.C.B., highly decorated Commander of British Naval Forces in the China Seas, who had just recently returned from having given the defiant city of Canton a useless and inconsequential shelling. Not having enough troops to attack by land, Seymour had withdrawn his squadron and returned to Hong Kong to await reinforcements; but his "retreat" had been reported to the Dragon Throne in Peking as a great victory against the "long-nosed barbarians" occupying Hong Kong Island.
The junk was a five-masted, black-and-red vessel with square stern and square bow. The battened sails had been lowered and they clung to the lower reaches of the masts like spiked insects fluttering helplessly in the breeze. Colorful flags still draped the foremast and a pennant with an angry, five-clawed dragon against a background of imperial yellow clung to the mainmast. Adams squinted to examine the deck cannon. If his plan succeeded, before the day was over, he and Captain Weslien would put those cannon to good use.
Adams glanced at his cheap mosaic pocket watch. It was just before noon. He looked across the harbor at Kowloon, then glanced to the west, where, several hours from now, Weslien would be sailing the mail steamer into the harbor. Weslien was a friend and a courageous man but, in his stubborn way, even more foolhardy than Adams. The Chinese were seeking revenge on "foreign-devils" any way they could get it, and, to Adam's way of thinking, sailing a mail steamer from Canton's port of Whampoa to Hong Kong wasn't worth risking one's head.
On the maindeck of the nearest clipper, wealthy men in top hats and frock coats strode about with a proprietary air, and as Adams observed them, he reflected on the irony of his position. He was one of the few people living in Hong Kong who actually liked Hong Kong. Yet he disliked most of the people in it. The snobbish merchants and traders and their equally snobbish wives treated the place like a kind of whore, a variety of low-class prostitute, which was to be exploited but never respected; a convenient place in which to revel in a life cushioned by punkah-pullers and servants and stables and carriages; while grabbing as much money in any way they could. After which they would scamper off to England or to some other foreign shore with their ill-gotten profits to live the lives of cultured ladies and gentlemen. Despite his lack of financial success, Adams was staying; there was an excitement in Hong Kong, a bustling atmosphere and a feeling in the air that almost anything was possible, a mood he had found in no other place in Asia. Since the first day he'd arrived, he'd felt as if an unspoken promise of success had been made to anyone willing to remain in good times and bad. Thus far, the fulfillment of the promise had been well out of his reach, but as long as he could live in Hong Kong on his own terms, this often endangered and always peevish, petulant, gossipy little island community was exactly where he wanted to be.
But that didn't mean an obnoxious Yank couldn't have some fun at the expense of a pompous lymie admiral and haughty British merchants. And, tonight, on board the most magnificent Chinese war junk Adams had ever seen, he and Weslien would provide the town of Victoria with a bit of excitement. Right in the middle of Hong Kong Harbor and at the center of the most powerful naval fleet ever assembled in the East.
31 December 1856 Wednesday Afternoon
CAPTAIN Weslien stood on the foredeck of the postal steamer Thistle, squinted at his timepiece and cursed loudly. It was nearly four. The steamer had been out of Whampoa since late morning and was only now off Second Bar Creek. Because of the unusually shallow water in French River, the mail ship's feed pipes had clogged with mud, and the delay to clear them meant that his vessel would arrive in Hong Kong several hours late. The first time he'd ever been late on the Canton - Hong Kong run. Nothing he could do now except grumble to himself and hope that nothing else occurred to delay him still further.
He watched for a moment as two Chinese fishing trawlers with nets glistening in the brittle, pale sun of late December moved between the Thistle and small, uninhabited islands with sparse vegetation and rocky shores. The heavily patched but still efficient butterfly-wing sails glided past the Thistle's port side. In his long career, Captain Weslien had seen similar picturesque junks with romantic sails become plundering birds of prey as soon as a ready and weak prize came within range, and his eyes were expertly scanning their decks for cleverly camouflaged cannon.
Once he'd decided the junks were not a threat, Captain Weslien shifted his gaze to the poorly repaired funnel of his own steamer. Barely one month before, his vessel had been attacked by Chinese pirates, sending shot crashing through the steamer's funnel and port side. One well-aimed cannon ball had passed an inch above the deck, shattered the door of his cabin, and severed the left leg of Captain Weslien's favorite crewman, a young Siamese who had worked under him in the Siamese navy.
Even through the thick leather soles of his sea boots, Captain Weslien could feel the pounding of the engine and the powerful vibrations through the deck of the ship. With its light cargo of letters, packages and a few odds-and-ends from ship captains near Canton, the Thistle sat high in the Pearl River's muddy water; yet the vessel's battered machinery creaked and groaned at its task as if laboring under the strain of hauling heavy cargo.
As the steamer passed between several small barren islands, the water grew more placid and the diminished shadow of the ship's smoke seemed almost a solid object skimming the surface of the muddy yellow water. One island boasted a few small trees lining the ridge of its bare brown slopes like "celestial" sentries guarding against "outside barbarians." On others, dark brown shrubbery climbed like an advancing army through narrow valleys between cone-shaped granite hills.
Captain Weslien ordered a "Manilla man," to take the wheel and left the upper deck. As he walked toward the engine room hatchway he caught sight of one of the Thistle's few Caucasian passengers, a seriously ill private belonging to the Royal Artillery. The seizure of a vessel by merciless Chinese "braves" posing as passengers was not uncommon in these waters and Captain Weslien wished a few more members of the Royal Artillery had come aboard. He knew that two of his passengers were merchants - one an English dealer in tea and one an American dealer in silk; and he doubted that they would be much use if Chinese pirates made a determined effort to board.
Most of the baggage of the Chinese had been searched, but, despite his suggestion to the ship's owners, not their persons. And he was certain that that was where they would conceal their Chinese choppers. He knew he'd feel much better once they reached Hong Kong. Not that that tiny island offered complete safety either. Barely more than one thousand foreigners on the island and aboard ships in the harbor and about fifty thousand Chinese workers and servants and scum and thieves and spies of the "mandarins." And thanks to the huge ego of Canton's imperious Commissioner Yeh as well as that of Hong Kong's Governor John Bowring, war between China and Britain had broken out. But even the boldest fleets of piratical Chinese junks stayed far out of range of the cannon lining the decks of Western ships-of-the-line anchored in Hong Kong harbor.
Beneath the ship's low beams, Captain Weslien was forced to stoop as he looked down into the engine room and called to his First Engineer, whom he knew to be secretly drinking. Still, Davis did his work well and Captain Weslien had decided that if his 'nipping at the cable' didn't affect his work, he'd say nothing about it. "Stoker keeping up the steam, Mr. Davis?"
Davis moved toward the bottom of the stairs. His friendly face, blackened with grease and sweat, broke into a grin. "Aye, aye, Capt'n. I had ma hands full for a while, but she's runnin' smooth as a whistle now." Davis held up his hand. "I've got ma lucky ring back now, Capt'n. Dinna fash yerse'el."
Captain Weslien had decided not to bring up the subject of his engineer's latest scandal but as long as it was out he pursued it. "Yes, I heard some scuttlebutt that you had a bit of bad joss last time you were in Hong Kong. Something about a theft involving a young lady."
"The cockish wench stole ma ring, she did. And a fine friend of mine she was too."
"Wasn't she a prostitute in one of Hong Kong's brothels, Mr. Davis?"
Davis sat on the bottom stair and wiped sweat out of his eyes with the back of one calloused and filthy hand. "A duly licensed brothel, Capt'n. Duly licensed."
Captain Weslien was amused despite his loathing for the Chinamen's low-class prostitutes. And even if there were any refined looking women among the celestials they had had their feet hideously bound up at an early age to keep them small; a process which insured the poor woman's feet would remain in a grotesque and painful condition forever.
The Captain moved a step down the stairs into the engine room. "Well, I'll tell you what I've heard in Whampoa, Mr. Davis. The Viceroy of the Two Kiang has ordered all brothels in remote vicinities to relocate to the most inhabited and exposed areas of towns and cities. And the entrances are to be only three feet high and one foot wide, so that the poor Chinamen who want to frequent such places will have to incur the odium of crawling on hands and knees into the 'establishments,' as you call them."
Davis sighed. "I dinna ken, Capt'n, why men in authority forget that a man, like a vessel, needs to clear his pipes every now and again and blow off a bit of steam. There's nae shame ta me in crawling up to a beautiful lassy's side, if that's the rule. It's nae how I get there that counts but how I get on once I'm there."
"The thole pins are missing!"
Captain Weslien recognized the panicked voice of the Royal Artilleryman from the direction of the starboard fore-gangway and knew instantly that he had been right in wanting to search the Chinese passengers. Thole pins act as the fulcrum of the oars of the lifeboat and if the pins were missing, there would be no way to row the boat and escape; which meant someone on board had planned a massacre.
Seconds after he'd heard the cry of the Royal Artilleryman, he heard another scream, that of a Chinese: "Sha fan kwei! (Kill the foreign devils!)" Even as he turned, he saw the shadows of several figures along the deck to his right. He had just made a move to run aft in an attempt to reach the cabin and get hold of his revolver when he felt an arm roughly grasp his throat. There was more shock than pain. The cleaver wielded by the first Chinese behind him struck deep into the Captain's neck, severing several vertebrae and piercing his spinal cord. The longknife of the second Chinese missed the spinal column and pierced the left kidney. The Captain was clinically dead before his body had completed its tumbling fall to the floor of the engine room.
Davis stared slack-jawed at the body lying beside him for only a moment and then ran headlong up the stairs. He reached the deck holding only a wrench. He was immediately surrounded by three Chinese armed with knives and cleavers. He lunged at the nearest with the wrench, and felt the blade of a knife enter his back.
As he twisted away he ran forward and grappled with a Chinese "brave" busily engaged in prying a musket from the hands of the dying artilleryman. Davis struck the man with the wrench and managed to snatch the musket away. He aimed it at point blank range and fired. The man's left ear disappeared in a cloud of white smoke and he fell to the deck screaming. At the sound of others approaching, Davis turned to employ the musket as a club but was knocked to the deck by a blow to the head. Despite the pain in his back and head, he managed to fling himself partly onto the gunwale and was about to throw himself into the sea when he felt other sharp pains; then sensations devoid of pain reached his brain. And then nothing.
31 December 1856 Wednesday Evening
THE dinghy slipped soundlessly into the starboard shadow of an American barkentine and the two men in the boat held their breath while the black-hulled, four-oared, water-police boat passed to the west. The police boat was rowed silently by dark-faced Tanka Chinese in their green police coats and by Sikh constables in their native dress topped with maroon and black turbans. They passed close enough so that the men in the dinghy could discern the buttons on the coats and the thin gold strips on the turbans. One European constable armed with a percussion cap pistol and a short, broad cutlass sat in the sternsheets as stiffly as a corpse. He stared into the patch of darkness where Adams and Robinson sat frozen in their dingy, gripping blackened oars in muffled oarlocks then, noticing nothing, looked away.
Once the police boat had passed, the men expertly and smoothly glided the dinghy away from the Hong Kong side of the harbor toward where the captured mandarin junk lay anchored astern of the British brig. From Andrew Adams's view on the port side of the dinghy, the brig's slightly swaying bowsprit lantern seemed to be rolling about the dark mass of mountains on the Kowloon side of the harbor, now nearly indistinguishable in the darkness from the night itself.
Adams gripped his oar and passed the bottle of whiskey to the hollow-cheeked, weasel of a man beside him; the man gave him a feral grin and nodded an exaggerated thank you. He somehow managed to keep his filthy cap on as he threw his head back and gulped it down, whiskey dribbling onto his black-and-white whiskers and tattered seaman's jacket.
He pressed his mouth to his sleeve to smother a wracking cough. Adams had heard the same harsh cough in other men he had known in the East. A cough created by love of drink which eventually got even the best of men dismissed from service on even the worst of ships.
A French frigate was anchored near the luxurious East Point bungalow of the colony's leading British company, Jardine-Matheson, and music from a New Year's Eve party on board drifted across the harbor to the two men in the boat. No doubt musicians had been borrowed from the private band aboard Admiral Seymour's 74-gun frigate. Ship captains joined with Hong Kong's elite to dance on the weather deck beneath strings of colored lanterns while, at midships, 'ladies' and 'gentlemen' drank champagne and rum punch. The moon hovered just above the frigate's mizzenmast as if the heavens themselves were holding a ball-shaped lantern aloft in honor of Hong Kong's ruling class.
Adams reflected that men like himself might live in Hong Kong for a hundred years and never receive an invitation to an elite affair or even an acknowledgement from Hong Kong's elite that men such as Andrew Adams existed. He knew from experience that the lines dividing the classes of whites in Hong Kong were as firm as that which divided "foreign devils" from the "celestials."
Along the northern shore of Hong Kong Island, to the west, lights from the town of Victoria lit up the lower reaches of the mountain known as "the Peak." The brightest lights were from the "European" houses spread out above Queen's Road and, to the east, from Murray Barracks. West of the Barracks and well above the brilliantly lit Hong Kong Club they could see the lights of Government House. Adams imagined for a moment the fourth governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, leaning over a table to make a shot in his private billiard room or entertaining Hong Kong's elite in his saloon. He smiled at the thought of spicing up the governor's evening with an unexpected diversion.
Adams smelled the whiskey breath of the man beside him and knew he would most likely regret bringing Peter Robinson to assist him; for one thing his years of firing cannons in a myriad of sea battles for one navy or another had left him all but deaf. But Weslien still had not arrived and Robinson was the only one foolhardy enough to accompany him; and before he had been relieved of duty for drunkenness he had probably captained more gun crews aboard more ships than anyone in Hong Kong.
Adams knew how much pride Weslien took in never being late on the Canton to Hong Kong run and he feared the worst. But, as Robinson has said, there was nothing they could do about it until morning light; then they'd hire someone to take them upriver. Besides, Adams had heard gup in the tavern that the Chinese junk might be towed by a steam frigate to Macao the following morning. It had to be done tonight.
Adams gave a sigh of relief when at last a bank of clouds passed across the moon and stars, darkening their patch of the harbor. They pulled their oars in perfect unison glided between an American steam-sloop and a British 16-gun paddle steamer. Adams reflected that if New Year's eve called forth extra lights as decoration it also insured that there would be less vigilance among inebriated crewmen who were even now too busy belting out bawdy chanteys to notice the small dingy passing silently through the darkness.
He could discern the outline of the huge junk looming up in the darkness ahead. At the bow, iron flukes had been secured to hardwood anchors with strips of bamboo. As they approached, the men rowed silently under the stern of the junk, most of which had been elaborately carved with geometric designs and decorated with fierce tigers. The raised quarter deck and high poop towered above them.
Adams scanned what he could see of the deck for any sign of a watch. He heard no sounds and saw no movement. Keeping a close eye on the deck of the nearby British brig, where he knew there would be a watch, he reached out and grabbed the junk's makeshift ladder and quickly secured the dinghy. Motioning to Peter to follow, Adams began climbing the rope ladder; just as the striking of ships' bells sounded ten o'clock from nearly every ship of any size in the harbor. Adams gripped the hemp rungs of the ladder and froze in place, his heart beating wildly. The bell at the brig's forecastle joined in sounding two pair of two bells and beneath the clanging he could hear Peter Robinson's violent fit of coughing.
After several seconds of silence, Adams climbed the ladder and slipped quietly over the side. Both men sat on the deck in shadow with their backs against the gunwale listening to the sounds of water lapping its bows and the creaking of its wood. They were so close to the brig they could hear the breeze blowing through her rigging.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness on deck, Adams could see that most of the junk's sails had been damaged by fire, the main mast had been partly blown away and the midships area was cluttered with debris. The British had given her a pounding before capturing her. He wondered if the Chinamen had put up much of a fight or if they had jumped overboard at the sound of the first cannonball.
At a crouch, they moved slowly to the stern and up to the poop deck. Again, Adams threw a quick glance toward the shore; this time he strained to see the lights below the European settlement in the area known as Taipingshan - "Great Peace Mountain." The area inhabited mainly by Chinese and disreputable "Europeans," and known for ramshackle housing, low class brothels, bawdy taverns and gambling and opium dens.
He knew by now nearly everyone in the Bee Hive Tavern would be listening expectantly. Anne Wilkinson, his live-in-lady for the last eleven months, would be serving drinks and angrily denouncing those who had dared Adams to do it. She had been dead set against his taking up the bet; Adams knew she was probably right - it meant a long prison term if he was caught, but if he could bring it off he would be ten quid richer. Plus he would have the satisfaction of having put one over on the Queen's Navy. In the end, a chance to take the mickey out of Hong Kong's "proper society" had proved irresistible.
Adams felt about his monkey bag to ensure that his powder horns and lint stock were secure and then rose to all of his six-foot height. Suddenly, the door of the forecastle on the brig opened. A shaft of light pierced the darkness and fell across the deck of the brig nearly reaching the bow of the junk. A figure walked slowly to the stern of the ship and leaned on the rail, lighting a pipe. As Adams and Robinson sank soundlessly back down into the shadows of the poop the figure called out to the junk. "Hey! McPhee!"
A man rose up from an area of darkness near the junk's bow and gave out a kind of lethargic hiss. "What is it?"
"Just makin' sure you don't get lonely over there. I'm pleased ta' see you're wide awake on New Year's Eve. But I wonder if you even know how many bells have gone."
The man aboard the junk gave forth with a stream of curses and slipped back down out of sight. Sounds of singing and laughter spilled out of the brig's forecastle. After another minute the man on the brig conversed briefly with a seaman on "first" watch and then reentered the forecastle and again all was dark and silent.
Adams reached to his neck and untied his kerchief. He motioned to his companion and slowly, cautiously stepping over nearly invisible tangles of rope and broken bits of bamboo battens, they crossed the deck and moved up behind the figure. The seaman was caught completely unaware. Adams quickly pinned his arms behind him as Robinson gagged him, then together they tied his arms with a double slip knot.
The two men carried the still struggling man to midships and then lowered him into the shadows behind the furled mainsail and what remained of the mainmast. Adams spoke quietly. "Just playing a practical joke, mate. Sorry about the inconvenience. But we'll have to ask you to keep real quiet until we've finished. You do understand, don't you?"
The man angrily tried to speak through his gag. Adams unsheathed the knife at his belt and pressed the blade against the soft skin below the man's Adam's apple. The man grew quiet and nodded. "Good. Now, are you the only deck watch on board?"
The sailor nodded.
Adams looked at the "8-pounders" lining the deck and the round shot nearby. The "eight pounds" referred to the weight of the ball the cannon fired, and he knew that even a poorly constructed Chinese 8-pound cannon would weigh several hundred pounds. The 24-pounders were still in place as well but the 8-pounders were all he needed; besides, it would be all he and Robinson could do to maneuver an 8-pounder. He had been concerned that the British might have already removed the shot and, against whatever odds, he'd have to try to break into the cannon store on the brig. But the British had seen no particular reason to expect any trouble from the Chinamen over one more captured "pirate" junk; especially with several ships-of-the-line of the British Navy anchored in the harbor.
"All right, then, we're going to fire a few of your 8-pounders as a royal salute to Her Majesty's Navy. Can we count on you to keep silent or do we have to send you off to dreamland?" As the man shook his head vigorously, Adams moved off to check the cannon.
Robinson took a long swig of whiskey and stared at the man - almost a boy - before him while fingering the hilt of his knife with his calloused fingers. Over his long period at sea, he had fought both with and against British bluejackets and he had developed very mixed feelings of deep comradeship and bitter enmity toward sailors of Her Majesty's Navy. In his early years in the Orient, he'd on more than one occasion risked his life to save a "bloody tar" from being waylaid by Chinese footpads in Hong Kong or kidnapped by Chinese pirates in the South China Sea, but now - wreck of a man that he was - neither the British nor the American Navy had any use for him and he felt the bitterness of a man who understood exactly in what degrading and undignified way he would end his days.
Robinson looked toward the nearest area of shore and saw the lights of North Barracks, the New Naval Stores and Wellington Battery. He looked toward the east and saw a few lights in the chop boat belonging to the wealthy and powerful tea trader, Richard Tarrant. He knew where to look for the Seaman's Hospital and he tried to spot any lights which might still be burning in its admissions office, but the area was already dark. Over the past few months, Robinson had spent several weeks there and he knew he would soon be there again - permanently. He and any seaman who could afford the seventy-five cents a day were allowed to cough themselves to death in the hospital's public ward.
But the wide eyes and extreme youth of the boy before him evoked memories of all the wide-eyed young men he had known at sea. The two British sailors who had been hanged from the foreyard arms for the "unnatural crime" - only one had begged for mercy but both had had eyes like his: filled with as much fear as there was water in the ocean. And the wide eyes of those who had died in battle at sea. "Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God..." And the sight of corpses sliding into their watery grave. To the circling sharks. And he remembered the long list of "D.D.'s" on the books of all the ships he'd sailed - "Discharged - dead." The ghosts who never left him. Except when he drank.
Robinson grew suddenly embarrassed as he realized he had spoken the words aloud. As Adams returned, Robinson stared into the frightened eyes of the callow young man before him and wondered if he too would end his days in one of the same undignified and loathsome ways as the others; as if for a seaman in the lower decks there was any other way. Finally, he poured a bit from the bottle onto the seaman's gag. "Wish us luck, you lymie bastard."
31 December 1856 Wednesday Evening
DESPITE his pot belly and bovine nature, the coolie hired to pull the cord of the Bridges's punkah appeared to the Bridges as a young man, probably somewhere in his early 20's. In fact, the "boy" was 39, and two hundred miles to the north, near the fishing village of Swatow, his wife and four children depended on his small salary for their existence. Not to mention his own mother and grandparents. His father had simply disappeared one day while looking for work as a ship's carpenter and it was assumed he had been murdered by a rival clan or kidnapped by those who sold Chinese to foreigners as coolie slaves in foreign lands. Lands from which no one taken had ever returned. His younger brother had been sold to pay a gambling debt, and his two older brothers had perished in nearby Kwangtung Province in one of the endless series of battles between Manchu armies of the Peking government and the Taiping rebel forces fighting them. His brothers had taken a blood oath to rise up and cast out the Manchus, the warrior people from the north who had imposed their will on China since the mid-17th century; but Sammy had never felt the need to rush into battle with anyone. His sister's husband had died of disease and, within months of his funeral, during a prolonged drought when the ricefields were dry and cracked and the wells empty, his sister had simply starved to death. By comparison, pulling the cord of a large calico-covered bamboo fan over the heads of foreign devils in their Hong Kong bungalow while they fed themselves strange food with strange utensils was not unpleasant duty for a Chinese coolie in perilous times.
The closest he had ever come to pronouncing Mrs. Bridges's name correctly was "Mississie Balijahze" and his name was likewise unpronounceable to Mary Bridges. Hence, during one of Mrs. Bridges's light-hearted, that is to say, sherry-induced moods, he had been dubbed "Sammy," after a particularly obtuse and unintentionally humorous brother of Mr. Bridges living in London. As Sammy had especially protruding ears and was walleyed as well, her husband had strenuously objected but to no avail.
He now sat cross-legged on the floor of a narrow hallway just outside the dining room. His bony shoulders and large head were propped against the wall a few feet beneath a sampler with the embroidered slogan: "Give us this Day Our Daily Bread." His arms moved methodically, even rhythmically, with the serenity of a happy Buddha, pulling down on the cord which passed through a hole in the wall and swayed the multi-colored punkah over the dining room dinner table from side to side. He had formerly accomplished his task while crouched in a corner of the dining room but, at Mississy Bridges's insistence, a hole had been drilled into the wall, and Sammy now pulled the punkah from a position where guests would not be forced to notice his distracting and somewhat discomforting presence. Although his right eye turned outward, presenting an abnormal amount of white, his brain had long since learned to ignore the signal from the walleye and to pay attention only to signals sent by his normal eye; hence, the double vision of his childhood days was a thing of the past.
As punkah-pullers go, Sammy was by no means slow-witted, and, as he worked, he spent much of his time staring at, and perhaps to a limited extent, appreciating, a large painting of England's Lake District with comely long-nosed couples in exotic barbarian dress strolling arm in arm just above the bottom edge of the gilded frame. The men holding the women's arms while walking confirmed Sammy's impression that foreign women needed assistance in all things. But the only conclusion he had drawn from the painting was an impression, almost a definite memory, of having visited such a place himself. And, indeed, Sammy's deja vu was more than yet another opium dream. For as foreign families in Hong Kong tended to leave the colony after a few years time, their auctioned possessions often served as decorations or necessities in several houses before finally being shipped back to London or New York or Sydney or simply being cast aside. And, several years before, the exotic Lake District painting had once hung in the living room of one of Sammy's former employers, a ship chandler from Liverpool, whose susceptibility to Hong Kong's many diseases left him resting in peace in the colony's rapidly expanding Colonial Cemetery.
Sammy stared at the crinolines worn by the women in the painting. He had heard many rumors about the bodies of foreign women being so misshapen that they had always to be concealed beneath such huge dresses, and he did his best never to come into close proximity with foreign women.
It was a good twenty minutes after the dinner had begun that Chan Amei, one of the kitchen staff, passing from the kitchen to the dining room with yet another bottle of wine, stooped furtively beside him before continuing quickly on her way. Pulling the punkah was considered a demeaning job by nearly all classes of household servants from cook to chair coolie, which probably explained why Sammy found that Chan Amei had left him a tall, slightly chipped glass of purloined claret nearly half full. A bit of sympathy that 'mississie' need know nothing about. Sammy pulled slowly on the punkah with both well-calloused hands, while somehow managing to hold the glass steady, and began sipping - thus laying the groundwork for the abrupt and memorable ending of what would otherwise have been a very commendable, but rather ordinary, Hong Kong dinner party.
31 December 1856 Wednesday Evening
MUSCLES straining, Adams and Robinson heaved together on the hand spike and levered the last cannon into position, then stepped back and looked over their handiwork.
Once they had severed the rattan ropes lashing the 8-pounders to the gunwales, into each barrel they had rammed a gunpowder cartridge, a piece of wadding, the round shot itself, and a second piece of wadding. As was the case with all Chinese junks, the cannons themselves were mounted on solid blocks of wood without any method of adjustment for accuracy. No elevation; no depression. It was all right with Adams. He neither expected nor wanted the cast iron eight-pound round shots to reach any ship in the harbor; this was just for fun; and for ten quid.
Robinson had filled each touch hole with powder from their horns, inserted his priming wire through each cannon's hole, and punctured the cartridges. Together they brought out the slow burning cord on their lint stocks which Adams lit with a Lucifer match. All that remained was to light the powder leading to the touch holes. Robinson turned to Adams and smiled a kind of leer. He raised his lint stock high in salute and spoke in a mock-serious, raspy whisper. "Ready for battle, Cap'n."
Adams stepped over the breech rope and tackles and debris and flung the hand spike over the rail. He watched it disappear into the water below with as little sound as a jumping fish might make. His muscles ached from maneuvering the cannon and the skin on his hands was black and scraped. For just a moment he allowed himself to think of the likely consequences if they were caught but, as Anne had told him the first night they'd met in the tavern, there was something inside him that couldn't resist accepting a challenge. The more dangerous, the longer the odds, the better. He had soon learned that more than anything else he might have in common with the Chinese, it was their love of gambling. Anyplace. Anytime. On anything. So be it. He turned to Peter Robinson and raised his fist. "Then let's do it, you besotted barnacle-back! Let's show these pompous colonial bastards that Yanks know a thing or two about throwing iron."
The brig and its prize junk were anchored somewhat away from other ships in the harbor and Adams had no reason to doubt that a bit of "thrown iron" would cause no real damage; besides, they had been careful to aim the cannons away from the only vessel in sight, the permanently moored and barely visible chop boat of Richard Tarrant. But as the only nearby lamps were those on the brig, neither of the men had noticed the nearly invisible outline of the small boat lying in darkness a bit toward the east.
That very same small boat claimed the attention of a lone figure on board the Jardine family's frigate. Sipping his green-tea punch as far from the polka music as he could distance himself, the elderly head of Messrs. Bowra & Company leaned on the rail and stared out into the darkness. He was still seething at the treatment he had received at the hands of condescending, quill-pushing government officials the previous afternoon. Despite his repeated arguments, they had insisted first to his Chinese compradore, then to his Portuguese clerk and finally, personally to him, that the government magazine was full and they could not in any way assist Bowra & Co. with its storage problems.
And so it was that Messrs. Bowra & Company's small powder boat had just that morning been loaded with 60 kegs of gunpowder and, for safety's sake, been anchored a good distance away from other ships in the harbor. Unmanned and unseen in the darkness, it was now a mere cannon shot away from the captured junk.
31 December 1856 Wednesday Evening
"IT is beyond my comprehension..." Those at the dining table politely waited until Richard Tarrant enjoyed his final bite of quail before learning exactly what was beyond his comprehension. "...how our governor can reduce our police force - mockery though it may be - when rumors of Chinese pirate fleets preparing to attack Victoria are reported almost daily!"
Mary Bridges was the small gathering's hostess, and as she poised her fork over the remainder of her egg-shaped quail - its clear, golden outer layer of port wine jelly made luminous by the light of the oil lamp and candles - she worried where such a remark might lead. Her husband, William, had guided the conversation to the burning of the Canton merchant houses by Chinese mobs in mid-December to the coming races at Happy Valley but somehow Richard Tarrant and his wife would again return to the subject of Hong Kong's police force as relentlessly as the colony's mosquitoes incessantly searched for blood. And while he obviously had total contempt for the force, his wife, Daffany, seemed almost fascinated by it.
Not unlike many other women in Hong Kong, Mary Bridges had always felt a mild dislike toward Daffany Tarrant but she had to admit she was attractive and well-turned out in her resplendent off-the-shoulder red-and-white silk crinoline even if the dip in her neckline was decidedly more than fashionably low.
Mary Bridges reflected on the gup she had heard about her dinner guest whispered on walks at Scandal Point after services at St. John's Cathedral, slyly alluded to in Mrs. Lemon's Millinery shop on Queen's Road and once, even on the verandah of the Hong Kong club. Nothing was ever spoken outright but the meaning alluded to was clear: Daffany Tarrant had a lover. She was at least 15 years younger than her husband, and, according to those whose business it was to know about such things, was having a passionate affair with a man at least ten years younger than herself.
Mary Bridges glanced at Charles May as he leaned slightly backward to allow a Chinese servant to place a small silver tureen before him. His indulgent smile indicated he was not yet ready to respond to an attack on his handling of the colony's police force. At least not an attack delivered by one of the colony's most important businessmen. Not yet. But as he began sipping his consomme, she noticed his slight but sudden stiffening. She rather liked Charles May. He was even leaner than her own husband, nearly the same age and with his thinning brown hair and pale, almost chalky, complexion he might have - at a distance, at least - passed for her husband's brother. Of course, even Mary Bridges would have to admit that there the resemblance ended. Her own husband was every bit as shrewd and clever - "unscrupulous and social climbing" some might say - as an ambitious Hong Kong barrister had to be whereas Superintendent of Police May seemed completely direct and uncomplicated in his manner. She was uncertain if he was a particularly good superintendent or not, but she would be the first to admit that if there was one thing Hong Kong needed, it was a few more unpretentious and straight-forward people.
As Superintendent of Police, he had been twelve years in Hong Kong and, though doing his best, was still referred to in the press as the head of the "disorganized group of lawless, inebriated elements who call themselves a police force." He had once been with London's Scotland Yard and as Mary Bridges observed Charles May's wife, a quiet but intelligent woman with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, she wondered if Harriet May dearly wished she and her husband had never left England.
She had still not quite gotten over the shock of the Mays and the Tarrants actually accepting their dinner invitations and this made her a bit cross toward both Richard Tarrant and Charles May. Richard Tarrant was a member of the Legislative Council and was the senior resident partner at an agency house specializing in exporting tea; the very same house her husband had brilliantly and successfully defended in a legal action filed against it by a former partner. During the trial, the two men had worked well together and Tarrant had often praised her husband's financial acumen as well as his ability as a barrister, but the dinner invitation had been issued with no expectation that someone in Tarrant's exalted position would ever accept. True, her own husband had been briefly appointed as Acting Attorney-General when the Attorney-General was away on leave, but everyone knew that those appointments were less a reflection of William Bridges's standing in the community and more a necessity because of the lack of qualified barristers among Hong Kong's small "European" population.
Richard Tarrant, on the other hand, was the product of, above all else, old family money and intimate relationships with all the right politicians in London. As for her own husband, neither his Oxford education, nor Middle Temple background, nor his honorary Doctor of Civil Law nor, for that matter, any amount of temporary government positions would ever place him on Tarrant's level, and it was quite clear that any seat William Bridges ever held on the Legislative Council would be both brief and "provisional."
And she was equally puzzled over the presence of Charles May and his wife; except for the opposite reason. Charles May had ably assisted her husband in recovering silver that had been stolen from his law office on Queen's Road and in catching the thief as well, but it was not to be expected that he would actually accept an invitation issued out of gratitude. Surely he and his wife understood that in Hong Kong people from different social classes did not mix socially; it was simply not done. Mary Bridges thought of the irony: their expected guests - those in their own social circle - had declined to attend while those above and below them in social rank unexpectedly accepted. True - the Mays and Tarrants were getting along together as might be expected: like a snake and a mongoose. But for the first time in her six-year stay in Hong Kong, Mary Bridges was attending a dinner party in which members of the upper class, middle class and lower-middle class were dining together. It was, for Mary Bridges, something incredible, almost indecent. And she was beginning to feel an as yet ill-defined premonition if not a firm belief that she would regret it. Of course, as Mary Bridges was well aware, because of the enormous circumference of women's crinolines, had everyone invited actually accepted, there might well have been insufficient room around the dinner table for all her guests. And that might have proved even more embarrassing.
Mary Bridges pretended not to notice as Richard Tarrant surreptitiously peered through his gold spectacles at the ornately decorated mantel clock and then at his pocket watch. She decided he wanted to give the impression he would rather be elsewhere; or perhaps he simply wanted to remind his hosts that he had magnanimously and inexplicably favored their invitation over that of the Jardines and the New Year party aboard their frigate. But she also knew her husband could use some well-connected introductions from Richard Tarrant; and, in his pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, William Bridges, like others in constant pursuit of money in Hong Kong, would no doubt accept such slights without protest.
She decided Charles May needed rescuing from attacks on his police force and therefore on him, but that changing the subject too abruptly would be too obvious; but as something must be done she settled on asking an innocuous question about the subject under discussion. However, before Mary Bridges could open her mouth, Daffany Tarrant spoke again. "The police will increase in numbers and in efficiency, one hopes." Mrs. Tarrant's smile reminded Mary of a Malay kris she had once seen which a native run amok had used to hack to death a British rubber planter outside Kuala Lumpur. But in this case, May's response was briefly delayed by the ships' bells sounding in the harbor.
Charles May smiled pleasantly. "Believe me, madam, I do the best I can. Many of my men are simply ex-sailors and some are actually fugitives who have jumped ship. But you may rest assured I impress upon them that it is the job of the police to request passes of any suspicious-looking persons. And all Chinese at night must carry lanterns or else-"
Richard Tarrant interrupted. "Balderdash! You can walk through Victoria any night you choose, Mr. May, and I will wager you will find Chinamen parading the streets with lanterns, and even more without lanterns. If only our police would ask to see their passes!"
Mary Bridges had no faith in any of the so-called policemen in Hong Kong, be they British, American, Australian, Portuguese from Macau, Lascars from India, Malay from the Straits Settlements or local Chinese. Each was as wretched as the other. But she was, after all, the hostess, and she at last interceded to protect her guests from attack and her party from disaster. "How do you find the soup, Mr. Tarrant?"
Tarrant's anger immediately dissipated. "Excellent, my dear, Mrs. Bridges. It is truly delicious."
In the polite expressions of agreement which followed, William Bridges glanced up at a flying insect, and the erratic motion of the punkah itself which caught his attention. One moment it was flying faster than ever and then there was almost no movement at all. He decided if the "boy" found it difficult to properly pull a punkah, if he was that useless, he would have to be dismissed.
His thoughts on punkah-pulling were interrupted by Richard Tarrant again glancing at his pocket watch and clearing his throat. His flushed face deepened as if attempting to match his amethyst ring. "Why Sir John Bowring does not form all able-bodied men into a special constabulary instead of simply increasing our inefficient police force and-"
Daffany Tarrant placed her hand on her husband's and squeezed. Tarrant made a hurried apology for raising his voice and, before continuing, gave his undeniably beautiful wife an adoring smile. As he turned away from his wife, Tarrant's expression altered from one of adoration to one of indignation and he would no doubt have expounded still more on the many flaws of Sir John Bowring had Charles May not been summoned to the front door by a servant. It was then that William Bridges rose to the occasion while finishing his second glass of Beaujolais and related a genuinely amusing story which did much to add a bit of levity to the atmosphere at the table.
As Mary Bridges joined in the laughter she felt genuine pride in her husband's ability to entertain but was by no means blind to his many traits which others found disagreeable: His expressed desire to be addressed as "Doctor" Bridges despite the honorary nature of his degree; his unscrupulous financial dealings and aggressive pursuit of clients; his high rates of interest for money-lending carried on even when he was in government service; and his sycophantic behavior toward anyone in a position of power. Besides, if he hadn't had the good fortune to attend Exeter College with the nephew of a former governor of Hong Kong, William Bridges would most likely be barely surviving as one more barrister among London's many struggling barristers. Because she never confronted her husband or questioned his methods, William Bridges mistook his wife's silence as acquiescence in the social contract, but the truth might have surprised him: Mary Bridges tolerated his many character defects not because she wished to climb socially, but because she genuinely loved him. And she would have loved him had they been poor.
As the laughter died down, Charles May returned ashen-faced to the room. "Mrs. Bridges, you must forgive my bad manners but my assistant, Mr. Smithers - the gentleman at the door - has brought some most distressing news. I'm afraid we have a tragedy on our hands. I must return to my office at the Central Police Station at once."
It was Richard Tarrant who broke the silence. "Well, do go on, Mr. May. Not another drunken seaman carried off by Chinamen, I would hope."
"It's the Thistle, sir. She's been found."
After a brief silence, Richard Tarrant stuttered over the word he was attempting to pronounce. "Found?"
"Yes, sir. Apparently, so-called 'mandarin braves' posing as Chinese passengers surprised and overpowered the crew."
Daffany Tarrant leaned slightly forward and spread her hands flat on the table as if about to push herself up but remained in her seat. She glanced at her husband and then back to May. Her face seemed to have been drained of blood. "But surely everyone on board...everyone on board was released?"
"I'm afraid not, madam. Some of the Chinese crew were released unharmed but it looks as if all Europeans aboard the Thistle were massacred." May looked genuinely concerned about Daffany Tarrant's health. "Perhaps you'd better lie down, Mrs. Tarrant." Daffany Tarrant appeared not to have heard him, but May's suggestion seemed to galvanize the others into standing.
Even as the five people around the table rose as one, the first of the junk's six cannons was fired. Except for Charles May turning in the direction of the harbor, no one moved. Then the second cannon was fired, and, after several seconds, the third. In the several second pause between the third and the fourth, William Bridges managed to speak. "What in the devil is all that about?"
The shock of the Thistle massacre as well as the sudden cannon fire had disoriented those in the room and, for several seconds, rendered them immobile. Rumors of a determined Chinese attack on Hong Kong had been bandied about for months and, no doubt, that possibility now entered their thoughts. Response to such rumors had always been met with a defiant, "They wouldn't dare!" But given the unsettled conditions of Southern China and the hatred of mandarin officials toward the foreign devils who had seized Hong Kong Island, who really knew what the 'celestials' would dare? Yet after the fourth cannon had sounded everyone in the room was collected enough to follow Charles May in the direction of the verandah overlooking the harbor.
In the Hong Kong of the period, however, there seemed to have been an unwritten but invariable rule that, not unlike explosions along a string of Chinese firecrackers, one disaster would always follow another. And, sure enough, as the second cannon fired, Sammy sprang to his feet. This particular night's opium dream had taken the form of his childhood aboard a junk and the cool evenings spent in the South China Sea when the only sound was the creaking of the China fir as the junk rocked in the swells of the sea.
Unfortunately, the combination of opium and wine he had consumed, combined with the sound of cannon, had conjured up a nightmarish vision of outside barbarians boarding his father's junk and massacring all on board. By the sound of the third cannon, in his panic to escape the carnage, Sammy was hurling himself blindly through the hallway and into the dining room, eyes wide and pigtail flying wildly behind him. Presenting a vision of some kind of celestial dervish, Sammy first spotted William Bridges who had the presence of mind to hold out his arms in an attempt to calm his punkah puller. But as Bridges's complexion was unusually white, in Sammy's mind the foreign-devil ghost-dealer in coolie slaves who had most likely taken his father was now beckoning to him as well.
Sammy headed straight for the stone china, glittering silverware, delicate porcelain, cut glass flip cups, blown glass whale oil lamp, sperm whale's head candles, past a swooning Mary Bridges and leapt (in his opium dream, at least) overboard - or, more precisely, onto the Damask table linen of Mary Bridges's carefully decorated mahogany dining table. Although the table was perfectly suitable for dinner parties, it was a Regency-style single pedestal type with a tilt top and, as such, it was no match for the belly-flop plunge of a panicked Chinese punkah-puller.
According to accounts of the evening later in circulation at the Hong Kong Club, Sammy's lunge had occurred an instant before the final cannon shot sounded and just seconds before an enormous explosion shook Hong Kong harbor and the entire town of Victoria; and according to such gossip, known as "gup" at the time, the white shell of Charles May's dessert, fully loaded with fruit and cream, had shot up like an errant cannon ball and lodged between Daffany Tarrant's not inconsiderable breasts, giving rise to unkind speculation at such obvious symbolism. Only William Bridges himself received any direct injury from the disaster in the form of a cut finger from the shards of a smashed wine glass. It would be several days before Mary Bridges spoke of the incident, and when she did, it was to make it quite clear that she never wished to speak of the incident. The slightest allusion to the broken plates and glasses, the badly damaged balloon-back dining chairs which had miraculously made the long voyage out to Hong Kong without a scratch, the stained crinolines and frock coats, the spilled food - all was enough to cause her to sink once again into the shock and embarrassment of that evening. A shock and embarrassment so profound that heavy doses of Wray's Tonic Mixture, a liberal amount of Holloway's pills, and half a bottle of Ayer's Cherry Pectoral seemed incapable of alleviating it.
31 December 1856 Wednesday Evening
EVEN as Adams and Robinson rushed toward the gangway of the junk to make good their escape, everything that had been above the water line on the powder boat, and most below, disintegrated somewhere inside a brilliant golden fireball of flame and smoke, and the power of the explosion slammed them forcefully down onto the debris-laden deck. Adams knew it was the loudest sound he had ever heard. He felt as if, along with the headache and the ringing in his ears, heated lead weights were being forced into each of his eardrums.
He rolled over onto his back and found that the moon, the stars and the shore lights were completely obscured by the thick swirls of gunpowder. He felt a sharp, stinging pain in his shoulder and reached up to extract a long, thin slice of bamboo deeply embedded in his muscle. He gripped the bamboo, gritted his teeth and yanked it out. Blood immediately spurted out, soaking his striped woolen shirt and baggy trousers.
Peter Robinson pushed himself onto his feet and, stumbling sideways, felt about his body to make sure nothing was missing. To Adams, he appeared as a tipsy sailor might look engaged in a bizarre and slightly humorous dance. As Robinson began brushing himself off, he tried to discern other ships through the smoke. "By God, Andrew, I'd say one of our irons scored a hit." Then he saw the blood and reached down to pull Adams to his feet. "Are you hurt?"
Adams felt he was seeing everything in the midst of some kind of nightmarish vision of hell. Everything seemed out-of-focus and moving in an unnatural slow motion. It was as if the explosion had sent him plummeting to the bottom of the sea and made him a disinterested observer of events swirling around him. He fought to collect his senses. He could see that Robinson's muttonchop whiskers were blacker than before and his face was streaked with dirt and grime. He knew his own fringe beard, which framed his face from under his chin up to his ears, must look the same. The sharp reek of gunpowder filled the air. "Just a splinter. See to the sailor."
The men untied the frightened sailor and removed the gag. Adams pressed the kerchief over his own shoulder, passed it quickly under his armpit and tied it. Drops of blood streaked down his arm onto the tattoo of a schooner-in-full-sail on his left forearm. As they made their way over the rail and down the ladder, they could glimpse excited sailors crowding at the stern of the brig. They were shouting to McPhee as McPhee shook off his daze and shouted back and pointed toward their dinghy. A boatswain's pipe shrilled in the darkness.
The men grabbed the oars and began rowing shakily. "Pull for the shore for all you're worth, Robbie. If we can stay inside this smoke we might be able to lose them."
When it was obvious they were rowing against each other, Robinson shouted at him. "Which shore?!"
"Kowloon-side would be better!"
Adams spared a second to look toward the shore of mainland China. It too was lost in thick layers of pungent, sulfuric smoke. "Have you forgotten the Chinamen own Kowloon? I don't even have my pistol with me. They'll cut off our heads!"
"What do you think Admiral Seymour will do, mate? Give us medals? We must have hit a powder boat!"
Robinson cursed the empty bottle. "Never did a man need a dose from the foretopman's bottle as now." He struggled to row in unison with Adams but splashed the boat with water. "How can we be sure we didn't hit the munitions room of a ship?"
Adams could feel the pain in his shoulder growing worse. The kerchief was imbued with blood and drops were spattering his sea boots like rain. He tailored his speech pattern to his rowing. "Because if we did that we're going to hang."
Robinson shouted into Adam's nearly useless ear. "Andrew, me lad, I think this time we've sailed a bit too close to the wind. Those boatswains' pipes are calling up all hands. If you've got any gods, pray to them now. For both of us."
Adams strained to see shore lights. "Let's try for Bonham Strand. We might be able to sneak ashore there." Although the smoke was slowly dissipating, Adams could hear excited voices and boatswain's whistles floating across the water before he could see the boats. He knew the boats of each ship would be out looking for them: gigs, cutters, pinnaces, jolly boats - all filled with enraged American, English, Danish and French sailors, all with one thought in mind. Excited voices in speakers' trumpets notified any seaman within hearing range that they were looking for two Americans in a dingy.
The water around them reflected a light steadily growing in intensity, spurring Adams to row with every ounce of strength he had. When the light grew still brighter, Adams turned, expecting to see the bow of a ship's boat catching up with him. What he saw was worse than anything he could have imagined. Sparks from a cannon's muzzle had ignited the wood of the junk and burning fragments from the explosion had landed on the junk's mat sails. Admiral Seymour's prize, his recently captured five-masted, mandarin Chinese junk - the ornately-carved, former imperial flagship of the celestial navy - was ablaze. Then and there Andrew Adams knew two things: First, he should have asked for more than ten quid. Second, Robinson was right; they should have tried for Kowloon. ..................
31 December 1856 Wednesday Evening
A few minutes after she heard the ships' bells ring out ten o'clock, about the time Adams and Robinson were tying up McPhee, Anne Sutherland finally gave up trying to discern Andrew Adam's dinghy in the darkness. She turned away from the harbor and began walking back to the Bee Hive Tavern. As she adjusted her shawl and walked up the narrow dark lane that led to Queen's Road, she pressed her violet-scented handkerchief to her nose. The smells along the shore as well as those in the alley never failed to make her stomach churn. Every night it was the same: dead fish, rotten food, malodorous sewage and worse. But tonight she was as disgusted with herself as she was with the foul odors of Hong Kong's notorious Taipingshan district.
Why she had to fall in love with any man, let alone one who took dares at any odds from friend and foe alike, was beyond her. What good would ten pounds do Andrew Adams if he was rotting in a cell at the central police station? After San Francisco, Anne had promised herself never again to fall for anyone. Especially a man like Andrew Adams. She would use her good looks and womanly wiles to build up a nest egg and settle down somewhere as a respectable woman. She would then meet respectable gentlemen, for whom she had an elaborate tale prepared about a non-existent elder brother who, having succumbed to yellow fever, (or dysentery, or from being wounded in the Mexican War - she would decide that later), had left her his modest but untainted inheritance. And yet here she was again working in yet another low-class tavern in the sleazy section of yet another port and helplessly in love with the same kind of man. Except now she was closer to thirty than to twenty. Not all the men who had pursued her over the years were without prospects, but none with even a dash of respectability had quickened her pulse or stirred any emotional response within her. She had never understood why she was so mesmerized by handsome, penniless, devil-may-care, ne'er-do-wells who would happily abandon her the first time the master of a decent sailing ship agreed to take them somewhere across the world. Somewhere where they would no doubt find another easy mark just like her.
Lost in thought, she was almost in sight of the first tavern, The White Swan, when she noticed a shadow fall across the end of the lane. She had heard the rumor that a Western prostitute had been found brutally murdered in a lane leading from nearby Lyndhurst Terrace, and for just a few seconds, she froze. When she looked up, two Chinese policemen with wide conical hats, nankeen trousers and muskets almost as tall as they were, blocked her path. The first, standing as tall as his height would allow him, looked her over suspiciously and challenged her. "Who go there?"
Anne was startled out of her thoughts and angry that the celestials had seen her fear. "Who do you think go here, you bloody fool? I'm a barmaid at the Bee Hive. Haven't you got anything better to do than to bother innocent residents trying to make a living? Now shove off!"
The Chinese conversed rapidly with each other in their sing-song Cantonese dialect and began laughing. The one who had spoken gave her a smirk and spoke again. He pointed to her round hat with its lace curtain. "So vely solly, Missie, but my t'ink you Chinee lady. Hat b'long you same-same b'long Hakka."
Anne thought of the plaited bamboo disc, edged with a black cotton shade worn by Hakka women and realized in the darkness one might bear a slight resemblance to the other. Still, how dare a Chinaman suggest her new Cranbourne street bonnet, the latest in fashion, just off the boat from London, made her look like a celestial!
Anne walked angrily past them, allowing the flounces of her crinoline to brush against the more talkative of the two. She passed the White Swan Tavern, Briton's Boast Tavern, the Bombay Tavern, the Neptune Tavern, Uncle Tom's Tavern and paused at the door of the Bee Hive Tavern at the corner of Queen's Road and Gough Street. The sound of raucous shouts and drunken laughter spilled out from the taverns in the area. The tavern quarter was tumultuous every night but she knew on New Year's eve she could expect the worst.
She reached into her fringed and beaded black satin purse, retrieved a small hand mirror that had once belonged to her mother, and began freshening her rouge. She used her index finger to redden first one cheek and then the other. Yes, she knew men still found her attractive. She was complimented on each of her attributes at least a dozen times a week. The small, heart-shaped mouth, the dark green eyes, the auburn hair, the milky complexion, the fetching figure. But how much faith was a woman to place in the compliments of men just off a long ship's voyage? Men who had been without women for months if not years?
Still, when she needed it, she knew she also possessed a valuable repertoire of well-practiced feminine wiles which included, at a moment's notice, a winning smile or a come-hither glance or a sympathetic frown or a way of walking which sent her crinoline swaying back and forth, with just enough of a tilt to inadvertently reveal glimpses of her lovely ankles. Why then wasn't she in turn attracted to a man of substance; a man with character; or at least someone who didn't lie with every breath. Like Andrew Adams.
She cast one last glance toward the portion of the harbor she could see from the doorway then opened the door and stepped inside. The smoke of cheap tobacco in clay pipes, sounds of drunken laughter and indignant cursing and the smell of stale beer, cheap whale oil and open spittoons immediately assailed her. Men and women sat on stained wooden chairs crowded about brass-edged wooden tables covered with glasses and bottles, pipes and purses, knife-engraved drawings and spilled beer - members of each group shouting to one another in the din. Around them, except for a space beside the bar itself, oil lamps, candles and framed paintings of magnificent sailing ships locked in battle lined the walls. A kettle full of water for tea hung on a hook over the fire in the small brick-lined fireplace. The mantle above it was crowded with candlesticks and steins and the model of a 44-gun frigate given to the tavern by a talented but destitute American sailor in exchange for food and drink. The frigate was the pride and joy of the tavern owner but it had been damaged in a recent bar brawl. Anne worried that when the man eventually returned from tending his brothels in Macau, he might just decide to fire them both.
Affixed to the wall in the reserved space near the bar were handbills advertising newly arrived goods; schedules of arrivals and departures of merchant vessels; notices to mariners of space available aboard ships for able-bodied seamen; warnings to shipmasters of treacherous shoals and other dangers of the deep with longitudes and latitudes provided; invitations to sermons from the Seaman's Chapel at nearby Jervois Street and crude but painstakingly written letters from sailors at sea to women working in the Bee Hive Tavern, women already in the arms of other men. Another announcement of yet another drunken and inattentive sailor being robbed by Chinamen had been placed there by Superintendent of Police, Charles May, in the vain hope that someone heading back to a ship or off to his boardinghouse might pay some attention or take some precaution if he were sober enough to do so.
Beside a table near the door, with his huge glowing red face framed between his black leather cap and his Vandyke beard, Ian McKenna accompanied his own spirited playing on his prized rosewood and leather concertina. It was his way of cadging drinks. Resplendent in his red-and-green kerchief knotted about his thick neck, his coarse, long-sleeved green shirt, double-breasted waistcoat and checkered corduroy trousers, he spread his enormous beer belly above the table where two drunken soldiers of the 59th regiment were pawing two completely sober and very enterprising Englishwomen. While the women drank their "ladies drinks" and listened attentively to the stories of the soldiers, Ian McKenna sang his heart out in his rich baritone, moving in mid-stream from moderato to allegro:
Well, she stole all me sovereigns and she stole all me gold,
And all me tobaccy she's already sold;
She might sell even me - and I won't shed a tear -
For I love my dear mom, and my message is clear:
A mom is a woman, and don't you forget!
A mom is a woman, and if she's upset!
Then hell and high water is what you will get!
As McKenna ended his playing with a forceful closing of the concertina's bellows between his huge hands, a shout from one of the sailors at another table rose above the din. "Anne, where did you run off to? Come over and join the party."
Anne scowled at the sailor and continued on toward the bar. "Can't you see I'm a workin' girl? And what decent, church-going, and very proper lady like myself would want to find herself at your table, anyway?"
Among the taunts and laughter of his mates the sailor bent over, spat a brown stream of tobacco into a spittoon beneath the table and then yelled again. "Hey, belay that kind of talk or, by God, we'll head on over to the White Swan. The ladies there know how to treat visitors with utmost court'sy!"
Anne shouted now from behind the bar. "You'll do nothing of the sort; from what I hear, you'll not even dare step inside; at least not until you've paid up your bill there with something more than a flying fore-topsail."
In response to Anne's accurate description of how sailors often sail away without paying their bills, an even louder barrage of laughter rang out from the table and Anne abruptly turned her back to the men. She smoothed a white muslin apron over her pink muslin crinoline and began washing and wiping glasses and mugs.
Ian McKenna placed his concertina on the counter and studied the slate near the figurehead marked "Bill of Fare." All prices were quoted in the currency most accepted in Hong Kong and coastal China, i.e., Mexican silver dollars which had been minted in Spain's South American possessions and shipped into East Asia by way of Manila. Without question, this had been his best New Year's eve take ever; more than enough for dinner and beer and repaying debts, and if the sailors would stay drunk enough and generous enough his tips might buy him a Yorkshire pudding or some of Anne's incomparable mince pie before the night was over. "You're touchy tonight, Anne, darlin'."
"And why shouldn't I be? You and the other fools in this tavern can sing and laugh and joke while sending him off to get himself killed or captured for ten pounds. And how does he run this tavern from prison? Have you thought about that?!"
Like many sailors who had been denied fresh food for months, even years, at a time, Ian McKenna's thoughts had actually been more on homemade food, and the thought of losing out on the mince pie - the chopped apples, spices, suet, raisins and meat - brought forth his sweetest and most charming Irish accent, the plaintive, Irish lilt Andrew Adams had once compared to a welcome wind kissing a ship's sails.
"Now, Anne, luv-"
"I'll be havin' none of your 'Anne luv's' this evening, thank you, Mr. McKenna. You and your friends had just better hope no harm comes to Andrew. If it does, you've 'ad your last drink in the Bee Hive."
Anne looked up as the door burst open and two drunken American policemen stumbled into the tavern, barely able to hold onto their muskets. As the policemen passed a table, a British seaman stretched his leg out. The first policeman stumbled over the man's boot, lost his balance and fell heavily to the floor. In the few seconds it took the American to stand up and face off with his British antagonist, Anne grabbed the wooden belaying pin kept behind the bar and quickly rushed in between the two policemen. She placed her other hand firmly on the barrel of the policeman's musket, keeping it pointed to the floor. "Not in here you don't. If you have a problem, then, by God, outside is the place to settle it."
The American stared first at his opponent and then at the belaying pin. He handed his musket to his companion. "Damn right we'll settle it outside." With that, he turned and made for the door. Amidst cries of, "Show the bloody Yank a thing or two," and "put the limejuicer's rigging lights out," the British sailor and his friends also made a rush for the door. The American policemen and their supporters reached it first and angrily flung it open - just in time to hear, from somewhere just to the north of the town, the most thunderous explosion anyone in the colony's taverns had ever heard.
While nearly everyone from the Bee Hive rushed out into the street and down to the harbor, Anne stood completely still, the belaying pin dangling at her side. Her face drained of color and she seemed almost not to breathe. Ian McKenna closed his concertina and made his way slowly out the door of the tavern knowing full well there would be no mince pie for him at the Bee Hive for a very long time.
1 January, 1857 Thursday Morning
In the early morning darkness, Andrew Adams could just make out the fat bloated rat as it scampered cautiously about the cold, damp floor of the cell and made its way closer to his wound. When Adams painfully raised his leg as far as the shackles would allow, the rat dashed back into the fireplace. The stench in the close air of the crowded cell was overpowering. Sweat, urine, vomit, odors from the commode bucket, and the putrefaction of his own wound made him too nauseous to sleep. The coughing and snoring and muttering of other prisoners and the almost constant sobbing of an emaciated Chinese prisoner desperate for his opium pipe would have kept him awake in any case.
Adams could hear the drunken sailors returning to their ships after a night on the town, their loud voices raised in laughter, anger or in song as they staggered along Queen's Road; and the mid-watch crews of ships in the harbor ringing out the old year.
The only door to the cell was on the Queen's Road side, just a few feet from Adams's head. Where the weak shaft of light streaming through the wall aperture ended, it illuminated several prostate forms, and over the sleeping men he could see the slow, tentative movement of cockroaches. He turned to disentangle himself from John Robinson's outstretched arm and thought of the bad joss that had befallen him; or, rather, that he had brought on himself.
They had actually managed to escape the ships' boats and jump to shore just west of Gilman's Bazaar when, as luck would have it, several Indian police constables had materialized out of the darkness. With no money readily available to offer as a bribe, Adams had tried to talk their way past them, first with humor and then with indignation, but once the Lascars had raised their musket barrels, he knew the game was up. He also knew it was much better to be incarcerated in a Hong Kong police station than to have been captured by angry sailors and placed in a ship's brig under the custody of the British Navy. Although it was possible Admiral Seymour might yet decide to arrange for them to spend some time aboard his flagship. Still, when all was said and done, no one other than himself had been hurt and, without question, it had been one hell of an explosion.
After nearly an hour of being interrogated by Charles May and his assistant superintendent, they had been placed in a cell to await their fate. Charles May had impressed him. Even when being baited, the man had never once lost his temper and had even prevented his assistant superintendent from striking him. Once May had made up his mind that Adams and Robinson were acting out a bet, and that the explosion had been accidental, he seemed anxious to deal with other problems. May had left instructions with the head turnkey to have his wound tended to. Instead, the turnkey indulged his streak of sadism by squeezing Adams's shoulder and grinning. Adams had knocked him down and out with one well-placed fist to the man's jaw. But his assistants had manacled him and watched with satisfaction as the revived turnkey took his revenge in the form of a savage beating with his truncheon.
It was just before dawn that Adams understood what it was that preoccupied Charles May. He had heard one of the prisoners speak of the fate of the Thistle. Captain Weslien had been one of the regulars in the Bee Hive and one of the best friends Adams had ever had in the East. He was remembering the adventures he had had with Weslien in Siam when Peter Robinson's voice startled him from his thoughts.
"Awake and ready for what comes, Peter. Though I am damn sorry I got you into this."
"Belay that kind of talk, mate. Thanks to you, I'll probably have ballads sung about me. And there is one thing in our favor so far."
Adams tried to shift his body weight to lessen the throbbing pain in his shoulder. Both of his eyes ached and there was a deep pain in his side where he had been kicked. "What's that, Peter?"
"We're still at the Crossroads station. They've no gallows here. As long as we're here we're not going to be hanged. It's when they escort us to the Central station that we might think of trying to escape." He moved his own face closer to Adam's to examine the damage the beating had caused and then cursed. "I tell you this, lad, I'd be willing to feel the hemp noose around my neck if I could just first get my hands on the cowardly Cockney bastard that beat you."
Adams rested his head against the slightly damp plaster of the wall. "He had his day; I'll have mine."
For nearly an hour Adam's fatigue won out over his pain and he drifted off into a light sleep. Occasionally, he was woken by the sounds of hawkers' cries. "Mai chu hut chuk," was repeated enough times to bring him fully awake. "Pig's blood congee." He reflected that by the time he was fed, even that would probably sound good enough to eat.
It was growing light when Adams was woken by the grating sound of a key turning noisily inside the lock of the huge cell door. When it opened, the turnkey and two assistants entered the room with lanterns. In the faint light and shifting shadows cast by the moving lanterns, the thickset, rotund figures of the three men inside their camlet frocks seemed to lengthen and contract as they moved. And except for the unkempt, bushy side whiskers of the head turnkey, the men were basically similar in appearance. To the Chinese eye, the camlet frocks of the police were more green than blue, and Adams reflected that the Chinese term for them - luk yee kwai or, "green jacket devils" - was as apt as it was exact.
As they moved to Adams other prisoners hurriedly scampered or rolled out of their path. One of the assistants placed his arms under Adams's shoulders and roughly stood him up. Despite his best effort, Adams couldn't help grimacing in pain.
The turnkey looked him over with satisfaction. "Did yeu 'ave a good rest then, guv'nor?" When Adams didn't reply, the man cupped Adams's chin with his meaty hand and stuck his face an inch in front of it. "Much az oy like yur comp'ny, oy got ordahs to take yeu to see somebody. No doubt, somebody wot would like to offer yeu iz 'arty congratulations on your little feat in the 'arbor. Az oy'm a man wot believes in pi'ee and mercy, even now oy be preparin' a very special last meal for yah in case yeu rungry."
Adams did his best to smile. "Much obliged, mate. I could see at a glance you were a gentleman. You wouldn't happen to have any grog about, would you?"
The turnkey grabbed Adams's shoulders with both hands and gave him a vicious shove. Adams fell painfully against the door.
Robinson started up but was shoved down by an assistant's truncheon. "You bastard. When was the last time you fought fair? With your father for your mother's favor?"
The turnkey smiled at Robinson and walked slowly over to stand by his boots looking down at him. "And may oy offah yeu my yarty congratulations on your bit 'o darin'?" The turnkey suddenly and viciously kicked Robinson in the balls and watched with satisfaction as Robinson doubled over in agony. He looked menacingly at the other prisoners cowering out of his reach and, nodding to his men to take Adams out, left the room.
1 January 1857 Thursday Morning
ANDREW Adams was led, with his arms still shackled behind his back, up Wellington Street into the charge room of the Central Police Station. It was a journey starting in the midst of the squalid, cheek-by-jowl houses of Taipingshan and continuing past airy two-story British bungalows commanding magnificent views of the harbor.
Agents of mandarin officials had placed placards about the streets ordering all Chinese in Hong Kong to cease doing business with the "outside barbarians" and to return to China. Some of Taipingshan's merchants had reluctantly acquiesced out of fear for their lives or for the lives of their relatives inside China and the doorways of their shops had been battened down with cold weather shutters fitted with upright wooden bars.
As he walked, he looked over his left shoulder. Below Wellington Street was Stanley Street and below that was Queen's Road, the town's main thoroughfare stretching from East to West along the harbor. Below a mass of grey clouds obscuring the faintest of blue skies, he could glimpse wharves, Chinese markets known as "bazaars," residences, offices, stores, godowns of the Europeans, and the Oriental Bank Building. Men in top hats and morning coats entered offices of some of the leading merchants and traders.
The harbor was still crowded with merchant ships, ships of war, vessels blowing steam and arriving or departing vessels in full sail. It seemed as bustling as ever although it gave Adams some satisfaction to see that there was one less Chinese junk and one less powder boat than there had been the day before. Across the harbor, yellowish-grey mist swirled about the rugged hills of Kowloon. He thought of how Peter Robinson had suggested that Kowloon was the better bet for an escape - Chinamen or no Chinamen. And Adams knew now that they couldn't have done much worse on the Chinese mainland. Whatever happened, Andrew Adams vowed there was no way he would spend a long stretch of years in an English prison. He'd rather die trying to escape.
The constables guided Adams away from the harbor, walking single file and leaning slightly forward to compensate for the steep incline of the street, and Adams stared up at the mountain known as the Peak, the few bungalows perched on its terraced ridges boasting large gardens and stables. Behind the houses, tinged with the rays of the early morning sun, a sea of white laundry had been stretched out to dry.
Inside the Wellington Street gate of the Central Police Station, he was signed for and turned over to a British Deputy Inspector who promptly replaced his shackles with another set and led him toward the charge room. He passed through a narrow hallway which smelled vaguely of congee, garlic, curry and, from the stables below, horse sweat. Portuguese, Indian, Chinese and British constables, as well as station coolies, peered out from their cubicles and rooms to stare at the madman who had caused all the excitement. When he passed an inspector, Adams gave him a conspiratorial grin and spoke with a Cockney accent. "Beggin' yor pardin, guv'nor, bu' you l'ave to excuse me for not salu'in'." The man gave him the kind of indignant stare a member of the British Empire reserved for lesser, obviously inferior and extremely distasteful mortals. Adams had been on the receiving end of such stares in Hong Kong before. Many times.
From the ground floor, he was led up a flight of stairs to the first floor, then, again, to the second floor. He was led down another hallway, this time passing spacious offices reserved for the higher-ranking police officers. He stood in front of a large desk in one corner of a cluttered room that seemed to serve as some kind of temporary office as well as charge room. The desk was as untidy as the room, with rulers, Indian rubber, spilled stacks of requisition forms, vouchers, charge sheets and drafts of notices.
A stack of floor boards, trays of nails and carpenter's tools had been piled high at the other side of the room. He could hear carpenters banging and sawing somewhere down a hallway. The window's wooden venetian blinds were up and through it Adams could see over the high stone wall encircling the prison: prisoners in the mill yard were breaking rock - granite for the colony's many new roads. Behind them was the treadwheel itself, an elongated horizontal wooden cylinder nearly 20 feet in length, and over five feet in diameter, designed and built solely as a punishment for wrongdoers. Stepping boards ran along the entire length of the cylinder, each spaced about eight inches below the next. Eight men - both Chinese and Europeans - stood about a foot apart along the constantly turning boards leaning slightly forward to hold with both hands a horizontal handrail fixed behind the wheel at chest level. The stepping boards were similar to the float boards of a paddle wheel steamer, and as the wheel slowly revolved, and the stepping board he stood upon descended, each man was forced to again lift up his foot and place it upon the next step, which in turn kept the wheel turning, forcing him to take yet another step. The mens' backs were to Adams and they performed their useless, monotonous and repetitious labor in silence. Adams reflected that everything English had been transplanted to Hong Kong or else duplicated in Hong Kong as exactly as possible: including their discipline equipment and correction techniques and philosophy of punishment.
Charles May looked up from his paperwork and his tea and sat up sharply. "Who did that to you?"
Adams noticed that May appeared fatigued and harassed. And even in his blue camlet frock he looked like a man unaccustomed to and uncomfortable in a uniform. He was neither young nor old, attractive nor unattractive - just a weary, perhaps, even a pleasant man, immersed in unpleasant tasks. "One of the rats at your Crossroads station. Don't worry about it. I'll settle it my own way in my own time."
May stared at Adam's face and blood-stained clothes and grimaced. He immediately ordered a Chinese constable to fetch the colonial surgeon, and waved the British deputy inspector out of the room. He moved around the desk and unlocked the shackles. "One thing we don't need in this colony is more lawlessness. Sit down." Then he sat down again behind his desk and brought out a small folder. He opened it and looked up at Adams. "I'm sorry about what happened at the jail. But from what I'm learning of your personal history, misfortunes like this seem to happen to you with some regularity."
While May shuffled papers to bring some order to his file, Adams began squeezing his wrists and forearms to regain circulation. He glanced at the map of southern China on the wall behind May. It showed Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula across the harbor and the Pearl River with its many inlets and islands all the way up to Canton. Areas where piratical fleets might be hiding or had been hiding or were known to be hiding were marked with various colored pins. He shifted slightly in his chair to glance at the notices on the walls. There were regulations for everything from firearm inspections to proper methods of challenging passersby. He glanced at the notice nearest him.
All dogs found astray between the hours at 10 p.m.
and 6 a.m. without a collar with the owners name
thereon, will be destroyed by the police.
Across the bottom of the notice someone with a red pencil had written, "If not first eaten by the Celestials!"
On a shelf below the notices were books on prisons and a vase with no flowers. Adams couldn't make up his mind as to exactly what the titles said about Charles May's attitude toward prison discipline; but he was certain the treadwheel was not a good omen. He cleared his throat. "My main misfortune at the moment is needing to relieve myself."
May hesitated only a second, then called to a British constable who took Adams out and guarded him while he was at the privy. Adams couldn't make up his mind if he could see traces of blood in his urine or not. The beating had been brutal but, as far as he could tell, had broken nothing. As he walked, he attempted to keep every detail he saw locked in his memory with a possible future escape attempt in mind. The locations of the stable, cook houses, cells, walls, privies, police store, office rooms, weapons room and landings: Anything he could see entered the map he was drawing in his mind.
When he returned to the charge room, there was another man in the room. A well-built, barrel-chested, man in civilian clothes he had never met but had seen occasionally frequenting Hong Kong's taverns. He looked to be in his early thirties, and appeared to be the kind of peeler who considered himself the cock of the walk. His frock coat made a tight fit over his muscular torso and the angle of his low-crowned "wide-awake" hat gave him an air of a casual confidence bordering on arrogance. He sat on a pile of lumber and stared at Adams while toying with his ebony walking stick. "So this is the one-man man-of-war who decided to attack Hong Kong Harbor." He smiled broadly at his own sense of humor. Adams could tell the man was British but his accent was not pronounced. He was nearly his own height and about his own age, possibly just a bit younger. And probably a bit stronger. He tried to remember when he'd last seen him but failed to recall any definite time or place. The man's face was clean-shaven, but there was something about the expression in the deep-set eyes and the thin slash of a mouth which suggested his ways of enforcing the law were closer to those of the turnkey than to those of Charles May.
May poured a cup of tea and handed it to Adams. "Sit down, Mr. Adams. I'd like you to meet police detective Derek Burke." Burke favored him with a nod and a raise of his walking stick.
Adams sat down and drank the tea. He decided immediately it was the cheapest kind of tea, guailo cha, or "foreign devil tea," - that prepared by Chinese who realize their masters wouldn't know good quality tea if it bit them so, by constantly and carefully substituting inferior for superior brands, gain a few extra copper cash each week. Still, it warmed his insides and gave him the jolt of vitality he needed.
May squinted at his files. "Several entries in this file would indicate this isn't your first encounter with Hong Kong's legal system."
Adams placed the empty tea cup near the pot for a refill. "A few disagreements in taverns that got out of hand."
May refilled his cup and lifted the file closer to his eyes. As he looked it over he squinted. "If I am reading this God-awful scribble correctly, you fought with Matthew Perry at Tabasco."
"No, that was my brother, Richard. And he was with him later when Perry persuaded the Japanese to open up a bit." Or rather, as Adams conceded to himself, when Perry's steamships overawed the Japanese into signing a treaty.
"Your brother was on board the Mississippi?"
May dipped his cheap steel pen into his inkwell and began making a note in his file. "So you did not participate in the war with Mexico at all?"
"I was with Commodore Sloat when we took San Francisco and Monterey."
"But then you left military service, is that correct?"
"I liked the looks of California. And life on board ship was a bit confining."
May spoke while scribbling in the file with his pen and swore under his breath when the ink ran. "So is confinement in one of Her Majesty's prisons, Mr. Adams."
Adams watched May fumble about with his blotting paper and took another gulp of tea. "I don't suppose you'd have something a bit stronger."
May's face clouded over. Adams perceived that since he'd returned to the room, there had been a subtle change in May's personality; as if, in the presence of his police detective, the Superintendent of Police felt it necessary to show firmness in how he handled prisoners. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Adams, and lest it slip your mind, you are in some extremely serious trouble here. There are those who are still vehemently insisting I hand you over to representatives of Her Majesty's Navy for an Admiralty Court. I am certain you would in that case receive precisely what you deserve. It is, however, my firm belief that you fall within my jurisdiction. You should be pleased to know that Governor Bowring agrees with my point of view in the matter and that might save you and your friend from hanging from the yardarms of one of Her Majesty's ships. Nevertheless, hulling the Admiral's flagship was not-"
Adams was stunned. "Hulling the Admiral's flagship?"
"That's what I said, Mr. Adams. I learned this morning that one of your roundshots is embedded in the bow of the Calcutta. That, in addition to burning the imperial junk, destroying the powder boat, trespassing, and recklessly discharging cannon in the harbor could keep you incarcerated for a very long and unpleasant stay with us."
Adams spoke with a mixture of pride and surprise. "I never dreamed those 8-pounders could reach that far."
Burke idly tapped his walking stick against a tray of nails. "Yes, well, according to the Superintendent, it seems all the rest of it was accidental as well. The fire, the explosion. Or so you say. Anyone ever referred to you as a loose cannon on deck before?"
Adams suddenly remembered the last time he had seen the man. It had been around the southern side of the island, in the fishing village of Chek Pai Wan, more recently referred to as Aberdeen. Burke had viciously struck a Chinese hawker with his walking stick because the stove the man carried on his shoulder pole had accidently hit his frock coat. As he spoke, Adams gave Burke an unfriendly stare. "Anyone ever referred to you as a man who thinks its fun to beat Chinamen?"
Burke lay his stick across a tray of nails and rose in a threatening manner. "It may just be that beating Yanks like you is more fun."
May's voice was sharp. "Sit down, Mr. Burke." Burke turned slowly to May and then back to Adams. He gave Adams an almost imperceptible nod, an open sneer, and sat down again. Adams returned the stare with his own slight smile.
May reached into a drawer and took out a Meerschaum pipe, unhurriedly filled the rich brown bowl with tobacco from a brightly colored lead jar and tapped it down with an ivory stopper. He took a short wax friction match from a container on his watch chain and circled the bowl of his pipe, inhaling so that the flame dipped into the tobacco. The scent of a fragrant Turkish tobacco filled the air. As bluish smoke wreaths hovered just overhead, May glanced down at the open file and, after a few moments of silence, he looked up at Adams. "It says here, Mr. Adams, that you are a fluent speaker of the Chinese language; both Mandarin and the Cantonese dialect. Is that correct?"
Adams stared at Burke and back to May. "I am when it's to my advantage to be. Is this one of those times?"
"I think before we can determine that we shall have to put you to a bit of a test." May nodded to his detective and Burke left the room. He was back within seconds. Two portly, middle-aged Chinese followed him into the room. Their long, glossy queues stretched from under their small caps and down the backs of their long blue robes. One of the queues ended with black silk attached and the other with white silk. The one with black silk wore an enormous pair of tortoise-shell spectacles held in place, in Chinese fashion, by small weights tied to the ends of strings which passed over his ears. He was not the gruff type Adams expected to be working with the Hong Kong police and he guessed he was a businessman willing to do the foreign-devil police a favor in hopes of having it returned some day. The second he had seen on several occasions; he was the owner of the pawnshop where Adams often had to leave whatever valuables he had in order to pay the rent. He had never spoken directly to the man but Adams knew the man also recognized him.
Burke sat down again while the Chinese stood between him and Charles May. May nodded to the pawnbroker who immediately turned to Adams and spoke quickly in Mandarin.
"Sir, this humble person has been asked to test your Chinese to see how fluent it is. Can you tell me if you understand me now?"
Adams realized the man was speaking with a heavy Peking accent. The heavy "r" suffixes always made him think of the Peking style of speech as the Scottish accent of China. He spoke to the man in Peking-accented mandarin even faster than he had been spoken to. "Your accent is so heavy it makes my ears ring. Did you just get off a boat from Peking?" "Oh, no, sir, I have been working as a pawnbroker here in Hong Kong for several years. But, you are right. I am originally from Peking."
Adams glanced at the white cord on the man's queue and the white knob on his winter cap. "Someone has died in your family?"
"Yes, sir. My venerable father has left the hall."
At certain times of the year, it was common practice for Chinese to place their out-of-season clothes with pawnshops as a way to keep them well looked after or to obtain a bit of ready cash to ensure their debts could be paid - as they must be - by Chinese New Year. Whatever the reason, there was not the stigma associated with pawning possessions in China as in the West. Still, the man well knew Adams would loose face with the other foreigners in the room if he disclosed that Adams had been doing "business" with his establishment. Obviously, the man had no intention of doing so.
The pawnbroker had unconsciously moved slightly toward the police detective and Adams spoke quickly. "I'd be a bit careful, there; I hear this fellow likes to bed Chinese men with long, well-groomed queues, just like yours."
The man jumped away and gave out an involuntary exclamation of surprise and fear. "Uhhh!?"
May stopped drinking his tea in mid-sip. "What in the devil is the matter with you?"
While the second Chinese lowered his gaze to the floor to avoid revealing his smile, the pawnbroker now spoke in English. "His mandarin is excellent, sir."
May turned to the second man. "Well, then, get on with it."
The second Chinese raised his head but seemed to have difficulty in deciding how to address Adams. He knew Adams was a prisoner in a great deal of trouble but he also understood that he was a member of the race - if not the exact country - which had seized and now ruled Hong Kong. He tailored his manner of speaking to balance perfectly between humility and arrogance. "I have been asked to determine if your Cantonese is-"
As Adams stared at the man, he realized his mistake; he wasn't a businessman but a teacher. His fingers and the sleeves of his robe showed fresh flecks of ink and Adams could even spot a trace of ink stain on the man's lips, the sign of a scholar who often keeps the hair of his brush moist by wetting it with his lips. Adams had seen the type before: the poor scholar who probably flunked the imperial examinations and was eking out a living teaching kids while waiting for the next round of exams. Adams interrupted in fluent Cantonese. His tone was conspiratorial. "Look, I'll tell you what, what do you say if your friend and you and me rush these two foreign devils now and cut off their heads. Then we'll go over the wall and find a fast-boat in the harbor. We'll get maybe fifty silver dollars for their heads in Canton. Maybe for each of them! What do you say: you with me?"
The Chinese stared wide-eyed at Adams and then burst into laughter. May impatiently waved both of them out of the room.
"I take it their laughter was at our expense, Mr. Adams, but I think you've answered our question and passed the test." He looked toward Burke who gave him a shrug and a nod of agreement. May's lips worked on the stem of his pipe without success. He lit it again then, as smoke spiraled upward, continued. "The Chinese crew of the Thistle was released unharmed in Macau and is now being brought back to Hong Kong for questioning. They should be here in the early afternoon. It is quite possible that some of the Chinese crew members were in collusion with the murderers of the Europeans on board. I would like you to interpret for me at the inquest."
Adams was immediately suspicious. "Why me?"
"The police court interpreter is extremely ill, the supreme court's interpreter is under investigation for various improprieties and, needless to say, I cannot trust the celestials outside the justice system to interpret for me."
That, Adams thought, didn't explain why Charles May couldn't call upon the one or two Hong Kong-based missionaries fluent in Chinese for help, but he said nothing. "And if I do this?"
May folded his hands and rested his chin on them. The curling ribbons of smoke from his meerschaum ascended gracefully into the room's hovering bluish haze. "If you do this, and do it well, that will be taken into consideration when the time comes for your sentencing. You'll notice you have still not been formally charged with anything. In a case such as yours, various interpretations could be placed on your actions, from a harmless prank which got out of hand to intentional destruction of Her Majesty's property."
Burke stood up, stretched, and sat down again. "And there is one other thing, Yank. We would like to catch the Chinamen who planned and carried out the attack on the Thistle. The hulk of the vessel has been found - burned and stripped, of course. We intend to sail into Chinese waters and find the so-called mandarin braves who did this and let them know how we feel about it. The day hasn't yet arrived when the scum of southern China can murder innocent foreigners with impunity. Your language ability should serve us well on this mission. Of course, we might have to bribe, threaten, interrogate..."
In yet another attempt to get an even draw, May again employed his stopper to tamp down the loose tobacco in his pipe and slowly circled the match over the bowl. "Whatever methods we use, clear communication will be necessary." He looked over at Adams and chose his words carefully. "Of course, we also are aware of your connections inside China which could prove valuable in finding the murderers."
Adams unhurriedly finished his tea, set the cup down and gave May a blank stare. "What connections would those be?"
Burke gave him another smirk. "With bloody pirates!"
"Rebels. People fighting to throw off the yoke of the Manchus are not pirates, they're rebels. Why is that so difficult for limejuicers like you to understand?"
Burke spoke heatedly. "When a man is getting his throat cut he doesn't much care what the bloody heathen is called, now does he?"
Adams harbored no doubt that sooner or later he and Derek Burke would go to loggerheads with one another. "The rebels I deal with are not interested in-"
May interrupted while dismissing Adams's argument with a wave of his hand. In the sudden movement of air, ascending smoke wreaths broke up and reformed. "Call them what you will, we know you're "associated" with one of the Chinese anti-Manchu armies above Macau. They're more or less in control of the area where we found the Thistle. I think your connection with people there can help us find these bastards. And if, as you say, your rebel friends are not given to doing that sort of thing then they should have no objection to aiding us in our search."
Again, Burke fixed Adams with his mirthless smile. "Of course, I will be with you. At all times."
As a jailor, Adams thought. But now he understood why they were choosing him rather than a missionary. The missionary would be willing to do the first job but not the second. It wasn't in their line of work to "interrogate." In an attempt to gain time to think, Adams also rose, stretched, and sat down again. "Three conditions. I want my friend out of jail and in the hospital. I want to attend the funeral of Captain Weslien and I want two days liberty to put my affairs in order."
May grew visibly angry. "That's preposterous! You can't expect us to allow you to walk about freely for two days so you can stow on board a ship and sail away leaving us looking like fools."
"I give you my word that if you keep your part of the bargain, I'll keep mine. Hong Kong is home for me, mate; I'm not going anywhere."
Burke scoffed. "Your word."
"And the reason you can trust me to carry out your bloody mission is because Captain Weslien saved my life in Siam. I owe him."
May thought that out while biting the stem of his pipe. "It's well known that Captain Weslien captained a riverboat in Bangkok, Mr. Adams. And served in the Siamese Navy. With all due respect for your veracity, how do we know you've even been in Siam?"
Adams shrugged and spoke in fluent Thai. When May merely stared at him, Adams said, "I said, 'If you won't take my word, call in a native Siamese speaker.'"
May exchanged glances with Burke. Burke fingered his cane and said nothing. May took a drink of tea and again looked over Adams's file before speaking. "I shall take your proposal up with my superiors. But, you understand, even if they agree, and even if you carry out your mission well, you'll only have a reduction in sentence. You will not be a free man."
"And don't forget," Burke added, "there is still the matter of compensation for Bowra & Company. You'll most likely end up in debtor's jail, in any case. People like you usually do."
Adams glared at Burke and leaned forward with his hands on his knees, ready for action. "Maybe you've got a lot to learn about people like me."
May stood up as if to prevent still more trouble. "I'll place you in a cell here and send the colonial surgeon in when he arrives. Meanwhile, I'll make enquiries regarding your... proposal. I should have word later this evening."
As Adams stood up, he began
to feel his plans for an escape might not be necessary after all. He always
knew when his joss was changing for the better. He could feel it in his
1 January 1857 Thursday Evening
INSIDE the dark, steamy and sweltering bakery, S.L. Chan had barely time enough to wipe the sweat from his brow before he felt the sting of the manager's queue across his bare back. Like many of the bakers and shift managers, S.L. was from China's Heungshan (Fragrant Mountain) district adjacent to Macau and, out of friendship or for profit, all could be counted on to look after one another. But the evening manager was an irritable, dour thick-necked giant from Namtao who was only too pleased to come upon a baker taking an unauthorized rest. The man would grip his own greasy calf-length queue with his huge, calloused hand and, putting his weight into it, vehemently whip the bare back of any baker for the slightest infraction.
S.L. leaned forward to escape any further blows and forcefully plunged his clenched fists into the dough trough, raised the sticky, clinging mass with his hands and flung it down again with a loud, heartfelt grunt. Other workers nearby, also shirtless and with queues coiled about their heads, and also fearing the wrath of the manager, pounded the dough with the same amount of sudden concentration and renewed intensity as S.L. S.L. kept up the rapid pace of his work until the manager had swaggered his bulk past the salt bin, around troughs full of fermenting dough, between two long rows of flour barrels and disappeared into the thick steam of the kneading machine.
S.L., known as "Monkey" because of his simian features, dark complexion and strange, shuttling, almost hunchbacked walk, worked the afternoon shift at the bakery which began, appropriately enough, at the Hour of the Monkey (three in the afternoon) and ended at midnight. He had worked in the E-Sing (Abundantly Prosperous) Bread and Biscuit Bakery for nearly three years and, until recently, the baker himself had singled him out for praise. But three months before, his opium habit had finally reached the point of no return; the point where it had ceased to be something he could walk away from - as it had been in the beginning. Now up to eleven pipes a day, he found he no longer had the will to work or ability to concentrate without opium. Too late he understood the truth of the saying, "it isn't the man who eats the opium, it's the opium that eats the man."
With still half an hour to go before his shift ended, he could feel the lethargy in his bones and the craving in his body. Dough for the following morning's bread had already been put into the oven and he wanted nothing more than to lie in his favorite opium tavern and experience the unparalleled bliss provided by sucking the whiffs of opium deep into his lungs. He knew the cause of his extreme restlessness and irritability was obvious to anyone who cared to look and, on more than one occasion, he had overheard other bakers refer to him as an "opium ghost."
And like so many other opium ghosts, he had already sold off anything of value belonging to his wife or himself, and his attempt to make up his previous losses at the gambling house just behind Endicott's Bazaar had ended in disaster. He now owed far more than he could hope to repay and no one at the bakery was foolish enough to lend him any more money.
He glanced past the Chinese wall shrine at the large foreign clock and angrily plunged his fists into the dough again and again and again. He withdrew an oblong piece of dough from the trough, raised one hand in the air and waited without movement as a fly landed on the near edge of the trough, and then with the sudden agility of a monkey, and the anger of an addict in need of opium, he smashed the strip of dough down and struck the fly senseless. It was the third fly of the day to feel his wrath, and as was the fate of the first two, the fly was lifelessly embedded in the dough. Monkey Chan then threw the lump of dough back into the trough and began kneading.
The bakery had the contract with the British to supply bread and ship biscuit to the English troops, and most of the thousand or so foreigners living in Hong Kong or aboard ships in the harbor took bread from the retail shop in Victoria or had it delivered to their houses or ships in the harbor early each morning. At least the "foreign devils" who had brought in the "foreign mud" (opium) to which Monkey Chan was now hopelessly addicted would have a few flies in their bread with his compliments.
Monkey Chan had known it was going to be a bad year. It was his fate. His nagging scold of a wife could burn as many joss-sticks before the temple gods as she liked, but nothing would change until the year was over; and thank the gods it almost was over: on the foreign-devil's 26th of January the Year of the Dragon would finally give way to the Year of the Snake; and not a minute too soon.
At the thought of his wife he became still more unhappy. Chan Amei worked at one of the foreign devil's houses; a situation which he disliked but one which brought in much needed income. He had often encouraged her to steal silver from the house but she had always angrily refused. Chan Amei lived in the servants' quarters of her foreign employer, and on the one or two days a week that he saw her at home it was getting more and more difficult to get money from her; she well knew it all went for opium pipes and gambling. Just before both hands of the clock pointed to "12," workers on the midnight shift appeared and Monkey Chan went with the other workers to wash and to eat. The idea of stealing something of value from the bakery occurred to him just as he finished splashing sticky dough off his arms and streaks of dirt off his face. On one occasion he had smuggled a dough knife out under his shirt but even the most disreputable pawnbroker in Hong Kong had had no use for it. In the last few months, his opium habit had robbed Monkey Chan of much of his appetite and he merely nibbled at the steamed pork dumplings and bean soup. He hardly joined in the conversation, most of which centered on gambling, money and the Chinese New Year, but he lingered long enough to ensure that he was the last to leave.
He entered the biscuit bakery on his usual route toward the back door. When he was safely past the bakehouse area, he entered a narrow passageway leading to the drying loft. Through a seldom used door, he walked back to the workers' eating area. From this he slipped unseen into a large cubicle which was part of an untidy storage area off the kitchen. The others of his shift had gone on ahead and he knew no one waited for him to exit.
He glanced about the room he was in. It was unevenly lit by narrow streaks of light which passed through interstices in the wooden wall from the oil lamps and candles in the kitchen. He could hear clearly the sound of men working and the scraping, scrubbing and banging of pots and pans used for boiling water to mix the flour, yeast and salt into a dough. He could tell they were excited about something but as they were Hakka "out-of-province people" he could understand little of their dialect.
He allowed his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness and then moved cautiously and soundlessly about the room. He slithered between flour baskets temporarily filled with short-handled scoops and biscuit markers, stepped carefully over stacks of iron pans, and avoided contact with a row of long-handled wooden shovels propped against the wall. His eyes fixed on several sets of scales on shelves against the wall opposite the kitchen and his mind did a rough calculation of the value of the smaller ones, those with smooth, thin sticks of ivory and tightly fitting wooden covers.
Something about the sudden quiet interrupted his calculations. The Hakka speakers had grown abruptly still and someone who sounded like the baker's father was speaking in a low, hushed but urgent voice. Then he thought he heard the baker himself say something about someone arriving too early.
Monkey Chan made his way as quietly as possible back to the wall separating his room from the kitchen. In the silence, the noise from the bakery was now just a soft murmur of voices and machinery. As he was almost there he heard a door open and slam shut and he heard the baker say, "Honorable Sir!" Monkey Chan stepped carefully onto a sack of flour, braced himself against the wall with his hands and peered through a tiny diamond-shaped hole into the kitchen.
The first thing he saw was a two-eyed peacock feather extending from the rear of a mandarin official's winter hat. The shock of seeing a mandarin official in Hong Kong had almost caused him to lose his balance but he managed to recover without making noise. He could feel a sudden chill down his spine and perspiration on his forehead which had nothing to do with his craving for opium.
He placed his eye back to the hole. At first, with the feather partially blocking his view, he could only hear voices. The first, familiar but unusually tentative and respectful, was that of the owner of the E-Sing Bakery, Cheung Ah-lum. The second was that of a haughty and very angry mandarin official.
"Honorable sir, I would like to explain-"
"Explain!?" As the official took a step forward and removed a sheet of paper from the long sleeve of his blue satin changpao, Monkey Chan could see the room more clearly. His boss was raising the wick of an oil lamp and beside him his father stood quietly, his head bent slightly forward and spectacles removed in respect. Although not very tall, the mandarin's erect posture and satin robe gave him the appearance of greater height. At the side of the mandarin and just behind him, the mandarin's assistant stood silently, a weasel of a man fondling his bamboo rod in a threatening manner and bathing in the glory of his master's power. His master's lapis lazuli hat button indicated that the mandarin had attained the fourth of the nine official ranks. Worse yet, the tiger on his embroidered robe indicated he was a military rather than civilian mandarin and there was no question this visit meant serious trouble for the owners of the bakery.
The mandarin studied the scroll for a moment and then glared at the baker. "Explain if your name is Cheung Ah-lum. And this man" - he looked toward Ah-lum's father who was now pouring tea - "your father, Cheung Wye-kong." Monkey Chan noticed how at the sound of his name, Cheung Wye-kong's hand shook slightly, spilling a small amount of tea onto the table.
The baker looked puzzled. "You know who we are."
At a scream from the mandarin's lackey, Cheung Ah-lum hastily added the words, "Venerable Sir."
The mandarin picked up the cup of tea and, without drinking from it, put it down again, farther from him. His voice was one of barely controlled anger. "That is strange. Because the Cheung Ah-lum my assistant spoke to ten days ago was told to quit his bakery business in Hong Kong and return to his native village within five days. Perhaps you have not seen the placards posted all over the streets of towns and villages in the southern districts; and over the streets of Hong Kong. Let us this time be sure there is no misunderstanding." The man moved the scroll slightly closer to his eyes and began reading: "'The acting magistrate of Heangshan, who has been promoted ten degrees, and recorded ten times, issues this proclamation. Whereas instructions have been received from the High Authority, that the English Barbarians are attacking Canton: it is necessary to stop all communication and trade with the barbarians. Therefore the people of all the different districts who are trading in Hong Kong, or employed in barbarian vessels and houses, are ordered to return to their native places, so as to have no dealing with the barbarians."
Monkey Chan pulled at the short, tough lengths of hair sprouting from the mole on his right cheek. He had heard the proclamation before. It and many others. Some from the Chinese officials warning of dire punishments for those who refused to leave Hong Kong and return to their native villages. Others from the English ruler of Hong Kong informing Chinese in Hong Kong of everything imaginable, from what hours night travel was forbidden to how near boats could be anchored to the shore. Whatever one did or didn't do in Hong Kong was almost certain to anger one side or the other. And Monkey Chan knew the enormous amount of pressure his boss was now under.
From his position above the mandarin, Monkey Chan could see the top of the mandarin's winter hat. Silk tassels radiating out from under the opaque blue ball at the center gave the impression of an exotic spider dangling a hundred reddish-orange legs. Monkey Chan cautiously shifted his position and tried to concentrate on the mandarin's words.
"'After this proclamation, if anyone that lives in Hong Kong refuses to return, they will be held to be traitors, and their fathers" - here the official paused and turned slightly in the direction of the baker's father - will be treated in the same manner. Do not disobey this special proclamation.'"
The official placed the proclamation on the table and reached for his tea. "This was issued in the sixth year, eleventh moon, twenty-eighth day of Emperor Hsien-Fung. Yet you have not prepared to leave."
The 25th of December. Six days ago. Monkey Chan listened to the fear in the voice of his boss: "The Celestial City will have no difficulty in routing the English barbarians." Even as he heard the baker speak this sentence, Monkey Chan wondered if mandarins such as these really believed that China's obsolete armies could prevent the western powers from seizing Canton at will. China's imperial examinations were still testing for knowledge of the works of Confucius and Mencius in an age of telegraphs, railroads and steamboats. Monkey Chan did not completely understand the first two but he had seen the steamboats in Hong Kong Harbor, and he was shrewd enough to know that, in some ways, China's officials seemed more ignorant than the common people.
He watched the men sit in silence as one of the baker's servants placed a platter of bread on the table and then quickly exited. With both hands holding the platter, the baker rose and offered the bread to the mandarin who, other than fingering the beads of his necklace, did not move. The beads were of amber, jade and coral and Monkey Chan found it difficult to take his eyes off them. The baker returned the platter to the table.
It was at that moment that Monkey Chan lost his balance. The flour in the sack beneath his cheap black cloth shoes shifted and in panic he thrust out his hand to steady himself. As he did so, his body slammed into the wall and he felt an excruciating pain shoot up his arm and into his shoulder. As he straightened himself, he brushed against a loose stack of iron pots. Cake and roll tins lying across the top pot began to rattle. Despite his pain, Monkey Chan reached out and steadied them, then held his breath. He was already sick to his stomach from lack of opium and the danger he now found himself in made him sweat profusely. He made a vow to the god of bakers that if he was not caught he would give up smoking foreign mud forever. It was then that he saw the angry face of the mandarin's assistant peering through the flimsy wall's diamond-shaped hole into the storeroom. .
1 January 1857 Thursday Evening
ANDREW Adams walked through the quiet, dark and fetid streets of Thieves Hamlet. His clothes were soaked with filth, sweat and dried blood. The stench of open sewers and stagnant, rubbish-filled pools of black liquid assailed his nostrils. Most foreigners who could afford to lived just to the West and Southwest of the business section of Victoria on streets such as Caine, Hollywood, and Robinson; those who could not afford that lived farther west with the Chinese in the disreputable Taipingshan area; and those who could not afford that - people such as Andrew Adams - lived farther west still; in the notorious area known as Thieves Hamlet; a footpads' paradise almost cheek by jowl with the long deserted British military barracks at Hangman's Point.
Charles May had placed him in a holding cell within the police station rather than inside the prison itself. Adams had to assume it had been an act of kindness meant to protect him from British prisoners and British guards inside the prison who would love to chastise an uppity Yank for hulling their admiral's flagship. Despite the constant ache in his shoulder, he had eventually caught up on the sleep he'd missed the night before and thanks to that, and to his understanding with May, he was feeling almost jovial. Adams had little doubt that his ability to carefully question the Chinese crew of the Thistle had helped change May's attitude toward a proposal he had once seen as "preposterous."
He turned into an unlighted lane carefully picking his way through mounds of debris where dead rats lay among piles of discarded rattan baskets still smelling of oysters and fish. A line of open holes prepared for lampposts which had yet to be erected greeted the unwary traveler and Adams crossed the path to avoid them.
A Chinese servant, on some late-hour errand, hurried past a matshed at a construction site above Bonham Strand, the light of his obligatory lantern streaking through the darkness. To the west, a Chinese prostitute's peels of laughter spilled out from the second story of a house with red-and-green lanterns. In front of the ground floor chandlery, anchors and capstans cast long shadows. From a window above the studio/shop of a Chinese painter, he could hear the shuffle of mahjongg tiles. Adams glanced above the roof to the sky and saw the thick bank of clouds hiding the moon, exactly what he had needed the night before.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Chinese-style bronze key. He pried the inner "H"-shaped bar from its casing and inserted the key into the matching "H"-shaped opening of the bronze Chinese padlock fastening the door to the jamb. The forked key compressed the springs of the lock forcing out the bolt from the other end. He removed the key, slid the lock off and put the key in his pocket. He pushed open the side door of an apothecary's shop, a large room on the ground floor of a nondescript, two-story building made of sun-baked brick and cheap planks of wood and went inside. From the inside he used the lock to again fasten the door to the jamb. The room was pitch dark and he took a candle from the table by the door, picked up a three-inch-long sulphur match from a pile he had placed nearby and lit it by snapping it through a pleat of sandpaper. At the sound of the match and at the brief shower of sparks, an inquisitive song thrush chirped out a few tentative queries from beneath a covered bamboo cage and then grew silent.
As he crossed the room to the stairs, the light of the candle reflected eerily on the long counter and on the wall shelves behind. The shelves were lined with black-and-white containers of powdered medicine, dried herbs, crushed insects and various roots, leaves, seeds, bulbs and bark. Drawers were labeled with Chinese characters indicating everything from ginger roots to decayed wood fungus. As Adams moved the candle, the shadows of stag horns on the wall lengthened and lent a sinister aspect to jars of long flat beige sticks of tree bark. Above the horns carefully formed Chinese characters spelled out the boast, "Medicine Available Here from Every Province of the Empire!"
An elderly Chinese in a framed ancestor painting stared down at him with stern, unforgiving eyes. Adams wondered if the old boy had somehow known even then that two Yanks would one day be making love several times a week almost directly above his place of honor. Adams enjoyed living over an apothecary's shop; every time he passed through it he took deep breaths full of its herbal smell. As he put it to those spending some time and cash at the Bee Hive, it was the only place in Victoria that didn't smell of garbage, stinky bean curd, nightsoil or stale beer.
He stood at the bottom of the ladder to the second floor landing and quietly removed his boots. The ladder was merely a slanted length of wood on which wooden strips had been nailed to serve as rungs. He had just stepped off the top rung onto the landing when he saw the sudden movement. A streak of white moved out of the upstairs darkness and he felt something painfully crash down on his forearm. The candle went out as it bounced down the stairs. Adams ducked and spun against the wall. At the same time as something that sounded like a tea cup smashed against the wall inches from his head, he heard the fury of a woman's voice.
"You son of a bitch!"
It was not the first time Adams had been on the receiving end of a woman's anger nor the first nocturnal occasion in which he had had to face an incensed Anne and her uncanny expertise with a belaying pin. Adams had many times cursed the sailor who'd carried it off his frigate, engraved it with her name, and given it to her in the Bee Hive so that "she'd always be an 'onerable membah of the creu."
He made a run for the bedroom and found his foot caught fast in a cleverly positioned trap. He had no way of stopping the forward momentum of his rush and he went down hard, his foot still hopelessly ensnared. He tried dragging whatever it was after him but finally, accepting defeat, lay quietly on the floor like a beached whale while Anne lit an oil lamp on a bedside table. As the room lit up in the bright but uneven glow of the lamp, he realized he had been caught in the curved strips of her strategically placed whalebone cage crinoline. He attempted to speak in a jovial manner. "Anne, sweetheart, how many times have I told you - a belaying pin is for securing ropes on a ship, not to hit your lover with."
Anne turned to him, barefoot, dressed in a decorated, white cotton petticoat with her long, auburn hair spilling out from under her night cap. She held the belaying pin in her right hand, tapping it into her left hand, not without force. She looked at his wavy hair combed straight back from his forehead, his thin mustache and the way his curly fringe beard framed the rugged features of his handsome face and felt her resolve diminishing.
She had confronted the guards of both the Crossroads and Central police stations and demanded to be let in or at least to be allowed to send food in to him. They had not only refused but had spoken to her as if she were a prostitute. After a heated altercation, she had been threatened with arrest and she had left; but not before letting them know what she thought of the Hong Kong police. Now as she looked at Adams's face, she saw the battering he had taken and wanted to crush him to her breast. But her lack of resistance to whatever it was about him that made him irresistible to her made her even more angry. "Look at you! Was it worth ten quid!?"
"Anne, we hulled the Admiral's flagship! A cannonball crashed right into the starboard hull of-"
"I don't give a damn about some bloody lymie admiral's flagship! I care about you! Although God in heaven I don't know why." She threw the belaying pin in his direction and threw herself onto the bed and began to sob.
Adams ducked the pin as it bounced from the wall, extricated his foot from the crinoline cage and went to her on stockinged feet. He knew this time it would take time, effort and all the charm he could muster to soothe things over. There were times when he felt he genuinely loved her and he knew he would be willing to die to keep her safe. But he found it well nigh impossible to be faithful to one woman and he felt she understood that that was part of their bargain. Besides, women and their perspective on life had always puzzled him. True, it had been accidental, but it wasn't every day someone hulled a British Admiral's flagship and yet she acted as if it was a trivial achievement of no importance. Sometimes it seemed to Adams that it wasn't so much that men and women lied to one another, but simply that they shared no common experience, so that the words they spoke to each other had very different, easily misunderstood meanings. Or, as a henpecked Cantonese husband once described it, "it's like a chicken talking to a duck." He seemed to have an uncanny instinct for understanding the most exotic Siamese and Chinese customs but none whatsoever for fathoming the exotic ways of women.
He sat beside her on the lumpy mattress and suddenly remembered that, among other unkept promises, he had promised to do something about replacing it with a new one. He could barely make out her angry words spoken between sobs. "Do you think you'll keep your job at the tavern after this?!"
Adams pressed his handkerchief into her hand and tried his most reassuring tone. "Anne, honey, I've heard from Richard in San Francisco. The deal is on. In a week or so, there's a frigate coming in-"
"I don't want to hear about another goddamn deal! You and your brother are exactly alike. Never wanting to face reality! And when you do make money, you gamble it away, anyway! Why can't you settle down and build a life instead of chasing imaginary pots of gold at the end of rainbows?"
As he gently spoke her name and reached out his hand to stroke her hair, she turned to him and looked at him through tear-filled eyes. He hated it when she did that; she was the only woman who could ever make him feel a genuine sense of guilt. She wiped her eyes and nose with the handkerchief and spoke loud enough that he thought she might have been heard on the Kowloon side of the harbor. "I think I'm pregnant!"
Adams took a deep breath and then another. He was determined to speak without raising his voice. "Anne-"
"Don't you patronize me!"
"Anne, this is the second time in three months you think you're pregnant. And the fourth time in-"
"Well, this time I'm sure. Dr. Chang says-"
Adams groaned. "Anne, I told you, Chang doesn't know dried ginger from mung beans! Every time you've got a headache or a runny nose he says you might be pregnant!"
"Well, he says my yin and yang are out of balance, and my vital energy flow is weak, and...and my pulse is 'floating' and that-"
"'Floating'?! Last time he said your pulse was 'tremulous'!"
"You think pulses always stay the same?! Anyway, he says he'll see if it just might be irregular menstruation so he made up a batch of boluses."
"I'll just bet the old bastard did!"
Anne stuck out her chin in defiance. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"When Chang invited us to rent the upstairs and charged us so little, for just a brief moment, I thought I'd finally found a Chinaman who doesn't chase the dollar every second. I should have guessed he'd make it up by dumping on us every sack of so-called medicinal stems and roots and flowers in Southern China and charge for it like a highwayman!"
"Dr. Chang is very nice! He says there are dozens of kinds of pulse and-"
"Right! And dozens of foreign-devils who pay good money for sacks of twigs and beans! And if you are pregnant, is it fair to shout the news all over Hong Kong Island?"
"'Fair'? What does that mean?"
"When you found out you were wrong before, you didn't shout it then. Just once I'd like you to shout out that you're not pregnant!" Adams turned toward the window and shouted. "She's not pregnant!"
"You really are a bastard!"
Adams spoke while he took her by the shoulders and flung her over his knee. He quickly lifted her nightgown, held her in place with his left hand, and raised his right hand. "What you need is to be dry-docked and have your bottom overhauled!"
Held firm by his powerful grip, Anne struggled to escape. Adams had delivered several blows to her backside and was about to deliver another when he noticed the movement in the doorway. He wasn't certain but it seemed as if someone had drawn back just in time to avoid being seen. Still staring toward the doorway, Adams released Anne and slid off the bed. Anne immediately lashed out her legs, knocking him to the floor. She jumped on his back, pounding his head while emphasizing each blow with grunts of anger. Adams rose with her still gripping his back. "Anne, no! Anne, I saw something!"
She continued riding his back, now holding with one hand, pounding with the other. "You won't see anything when I finish with you! You worry me half to death and then you dare spank me?! If I were a man I'd beat the living daylights out of you!"
Adams managed to stumble forward through the doorway. He spotted the young, poorly dressed, Chinese just as the man ran swiftly and silently to the window. The same baggy jacket and trousers streaked with dirt; but this time the man had made a mistake; he hadn't bothered to wind his queue about his head or neck. It fell behind him, ending just below his waist. Adams decided that would be the thief's downfall.
As Anne held on to his shoulders, Adams chased after him. He reached out, grabbed the man's queue and yanked. "Gotcha!"
The thief threw himself through the window, expertly grabbed the top of the long bamboo pole propped against the outside of the building and slid to the ground. Adams stared at the man's queue in his hand. It was a false queue specially worn to come off in a pursuer's hand. It was also lined with fish-hooks. Adams winced as he pulled the hooks from his hand. Tiny streaks of red crisscrossed his palm. He leaned out the window, unintentionally banging Anne's forehead against its frame.
"Will you please get off?!"
As Anne slid off his back, Adam's saw the thief kick the base of the pole toward the house, sending it toppling over to the ground. The man then ran several steps, ripped off his bandanna under which his real queue was hidden, and turned to look up at Adams. It was the same thief Adams had chased twice before. He looked like a teenager but was probably well into his twenties. He was gaunt but wiry and swift as a fox. He looked up at Adams with a smug grin and made the motion of spanking himself. Adams shook his fist at him.
The thief feigned fright and pretended to run in place. He spoke in crude Cantonese. "Come on, old man, can't you move faster than the egg of a turtle?!"
In a country where one's ancestry was all-important, to accuse someone of being a "turtle's egg" - a bastard - was, to say the least, a serious insult. As a turtle leaves its eggs in the sand and moves on, its progeny never knows who its father is.
Adams shook his fist again and yelled in Cantonese. "You coffin-chisel!"
The man responded immediately, immensely enjoying yet another game of trading Cantonese insults with this mad foreigner. "Where is your queue, you tailless horse!?"
"May all your children be daughters!"
"May your grave be placed according to the wrong feng-shui."
Anne shouted at him and attempted to pull him away from the window. Adams ignored her. He hated to admit the thief was once again getting the best of him in the game and the bad feng shui was his best shot yet. "May your sons be caught cheating during the imperial examinations and ordered beheaded in disgrace!"
The thief laughed raucously and threw Adams an obscene gesture by thrusting his thumb between his first two fingers and pointing it at him.
Adams leaned still farther out the window. "If I ever catch you, I'll teach you some tortures even your Chinese executioners never learned. Go steal from some rich and corrupt colonial official and leave the poor alone!"
The man laughed, placed his hands together in Chinese salutation and bowed with mock politeness. With full histrionics, he then unwound his real queue from around his head and walked leisurely off into the night.
Adams ducked back inside and followed Anne - still holding her banged head - into the bedroom. Anne picked up a hat and hat box on the floor. "Look at this! My new Cranbourne bonnet! You stepped on it when you chased him! It's ruined."
Adams mumbled something about buying her another bonnet and looked about the room. He checked the pistol under his pillow and the knife behind a wall plank. The police had confiscated his best knife and he couldn't afford to lose any more weapons. "I didn't step on it; he did. Anyway, I don't think he got anything this time, so we're all right."
Anne angrily tossed the hat onto a table; feathers and artificial flowers fell to the floor in its wake. "Oh, sure, we're fine. You two have so much fun insulting each other why don't you invite him up for tea?"
"Anne, why is everything always my fault?"
She said nothing as she straightened the bed covers. Adams knew from experience that that was always a bad sign. Spanking often led to love-making; but cover-straightening was like putting a lock on all such possibilities. When she spoke, there was more resignation than anger in her voice. "Come into the kitchen and I'll put something on your face." He stopped her before she could leave the room and kissed her hard on the lips. When she didn't respond, he pulled away slightly. "I wish I could kiss your pain away, sweetheart."
She pulled her head back and stared at him for several seconds. "Well, as you're my biggest pain, you'd better kiss yourself."
Adams followed her out of
the bedroom with just the quickest glance at the unframed picture of the tall-masted
clipper ship in full sail on the wall. There were times when he could almost
see himself on deck and taste the salt spray; times when, against his better
sense, he was more than willing to sign on for a seaman's pay. Just to be free
and in motion. Domesticity often affected him that way.
1 January 1857 Thursday Evening
AFTER remaining perfectly still for what felt like an eternity, Monkey Chan heard the mandarin's assistant say the word, shu ("rat"), after which his distrustful face disappeared from the hole back into the kitchen. As a bakery is warm and as it was Hong Kong's cool season, it was natural enough for someone to assume that a sound in the storeroom was due to a rat scurrying about. Still, Monkey Chan dared not move.
After a few moments of silence the mandarin spoke again in his difficult-to-understand, out-of-province accent and Monkey Chan slowly let out his breath. His forehead was ice cold with sweat. "You are fond of bread now, are you, Ah-lum?"
Cheung Ah-lum shrugged and lowered his eyes to the floor. Inwardly, he was desperately trying to remember the exact form of address for a liang lan (transparent blue) button mandarin official. And whether the manner of address to a military official of the fourth rank would be different from that made to a civilian official of the same rank. "Excellent Sir, this unworthy disciple is a lowly baker and-"
The mandarin official fingered one of the pewter candlesticks as he spoke. "Perhaps you have grown a bit too fond of barbarian ways."
The baker's father bowed still lower. Like his son, he was tall for a Chinese and had an air of natural dignity about him. But both well knew the power of the mandarin. Monkey Chan waited to see if one of them would offer the man a bribe. It was the father who spoke. "Venerable Sir, my son is already preparing to return to his village. We all are. Give us a little more time. We cannot sell a bakery and a store in a day." The old man almost imperceptively lowered his voice. "Excellent sir, we are ignorant, insignificant merchants who know nothing of the world but perhaps there is a concrete way we could show you our genuine appreciation for your efforts in-"
The mandarin rose abruptly. This time the anger in his voice seemed almost murderous. Whether it was the anger of a patriot or of a man genuinely incensed because he'd been offered a bribe, Monkey Chan wasn't certain. "You have both been warned. You should leave Hong Kong immediately or, better still, you should strike a blow at the foreign devils and then leave. There are no exceptions to these orders. Your actions will determine your fate."
Monkey Chan could hear his boss escorting the mandarin to the rear door where he would disappear into his covered blue chair and be carried a matter of a few hundred steps to the shore. There in the darkness, well-bribed Chinese or Lascar policemen would fail to challenge him as his boat made its way back to the Kowloon side of the harbor. In any case, in the darkness, English authorities might suppose it to be only another bakery boat bringing bread out to a foreign ship.
When the baker returned, he swore liberally and then sat with his father at the table for nearly a minute without speaking. The light from the pewter candlesticks cast the men's shadows across the floor of the room. The observant mandarin had not failed to notice that the baker's candlesticks were made in the Western style: the base of the candles fitted into holders rather than being forced onto metal spikes. In troubled times, even the style of a candlestick could weigh heavily against a man.
Finally, his father sighed deeply then spoke in a low voice. "Soon, you will have to take your wife and children to Macau on the steamer and then cross into our village. Your mother and I will most likely go with you."
"Father, you know one of us has to be here to supervise the bakers. Especially with Chinese New Year almost here, I cannot simply-"
"Don't argue with me! This fool of a mandarin had no interest in a bribe! That is serious! If we're going to keep our heads and our business we're going to have to be very careful. You and I will remain in our village until just before Chinese New Year and then return to Hong Kong at night. Things here should be quiet for several days during the New Year festivities. Even the mandarins will not bother us then. After that, we'll decide whether to close the bakery or not."
The baker started to speak, then seemed to collapse back into the chair; all protest and all hope abandoned. His father pushed himself to his feet. "We'll leave at daybreak on the morning of the 15th." Together the two men left the room, their bearing and mood not unlike that of men being led to an execution ground.
Monkey Chan was illiterate, uneducated and hopelessly addicted to "foreign mud" but he was shrewd. With his vow to forswear opium already forgotten, a plan was forming in his mind. Or at least he was certain it would form after a few pipes of opium. As the pain in his right arm increased, he attempted to rub it with his left hand. Even spreading the fingers of his injured hand caused him to wince. He knew he would have to get something for it sooner or later but decided, despite the pain, that his being in the storage area when he was, might prove to be the luckiest night of his life.
He started to place one small set of scales inside his shirt then thought better of it. He couldn't take any chance of being fired now. Because if he played his cards right, he himself might soon be wearing a beautifully embroidered satin robe, and mandarin button!
1 January 1857 Thursday Evening
Derek Burke had arrived at Hangman's Point well before the midnight appointment and sat on a crumbling stone wall of the deserted barracks staring into the dark water off the western end of Hong Kong Island. Once the home of the 55th Regiment, yellow fever had decimated its strength until finally the barracks had been given up to the ravages of white ants, vegetation, heavy rains and overpowering sun. Hundreds of young soldiers had been brought out from English, Irish and Scottish homes only to find an early grave in the colony's Colonial Cemetery. He had been with them and he had been struck with fever but, against all odds, he had lived. It had been well over a decade ago, but he could still remember the laughter and comraderie of his fellow soldiers, the drills, the inspections, the carousing and, finally, the death.
He held out his walking stick as if it were a telescope and sighted over it to search the dark body of water stretching out beneath a starless sky. To the east, beyond the few scattered lights of Thieves Hamlet, he could just make out the lanterns of ships anchored in Hong Kong harbor. Behind him, the faded wooden doorways and partly collapsed walls surrounded a deserted, weed-infested quadrangle.
He was just about to rise and stretch his legs when he spotted the nondescript, one-masted junk emerging from the darkness. Shortly after it anchored, he saw the dinghy lowered and the almost imperceptible form of a man grappling with oars. The man began rowing the dinghy toward the boulders along the shore. Burke put aside his walking stick, rolled up his trousers and went to help pull up the boat.
The shiny brim of John Ryker's tight-fitting black cap shaded the eye patch over his left eye, his striped jersey was tucked into the type of loose duck trousers worn by sailors and he walked stiffly beside Burke through cold, ankle-deep water and across the shore to the ruins of the barracks on flat-soled shoes. The men had met on several occasions but even now Burke had difficulty in suppressing his shudder of disgust at the man's hideously disfigured face. As they faced one another among the rubble Ryker noticed his discomfort and roared with laughter. The hand he used to point to his own face had the tip of its index finger missing. "Still can't get used to the pleasurable sight of this mug, eh?"
"Sorry? Don't be. No need for 'sorry'. I got used to it a long time ago. And to the reaction of people when they first lay eyes on it. To me, it's just a game now; who can repress their shock and horror and disgust and who can't."
As they sat on the wall overlooking the sea, Burke searched for the right words. "Well, every man on a fighting ship knows there's more danger from wood splinters than from the cannon ball itself. I heard about-"
The man's eyes suddenly lost their mirth. "Wood splinters?! Is that what you thought did this?"
Burke shifted uncomfortably beneath the intensity of the one-eyed stare. "Well, the gup I was told was that wood splinters flew off into your face when a cannonball struck the mizzenmast of your ship."
Ryker gave him a mirthless smile and switched effortlessly into a lower class accent. Since he had been offered his first bribe, Burke had not been able to determine exactly which class background Ryker was from. His face was fixed forever but as for his grammar and pronunciation and accent he seemed to have the shifting ability of a chameleon. From Mayfair to Bethnel Green and everything in between. "Weren't no wood splinters that done this, mate. The gunner next to me took the ball in the back of the head. It blew his head apart. Them were splinters from his skull that done this. Bone fragments; not bloody wood splinters."
Burke could feel himself shuddering again. He was also angry - angry with himself; before he'd met Ryker he'd never been afraid of another man. But there was something about John Ryker that smelled of evil and death and decay. He seemed willing, even anxious, to flaunt his monstrous face, and made no attempt to hide his scars with side whiskers or beard or mustache. Their relationship had been very profitable for Burke - information on Charles May's plans and intentions in exchange for sycee "fine silk" bars of silver - but he always felt uncomfortable with him, as if there was something not quite human about the man. Burke was relieved when Ryker's gaze finally returned to the sea.
Even Burke didn't know which of the hundreds of small islands around Hong Kong Island was the base for Ryker's smuggling operation. The only thing he knew about him with any certainty was that he was one of several Englishman who'd once served aboard a fleet of pirate ships; ships that had specialized in seizing tea and opium vessels near Macau. It was when he'd double-crossed one of his own pirate bosses and tried to make it to Manila with a schooner filled with bales of the finest Hangchow silk that his face had been destroyed in battle and his piracy career had ended.
Now, it was the smuggling of arms to various factions involved in the Taiping Rebellion that was making him rich. And he had no qualms about delivering weapons of war to bitter opponents simultaneously if that's where the most profit was to be found. Manchu banner armies, local armies allied with the Manchus, the Taiping rebels, the Yellow Turbans, the hilltribes, piratical fleets - whoever paid the best price got the best weapons. And in a country where muzzle-loading, smooth-bore muskets were the main type of rifle, and where most weapons had been forged one and even two centuries ago, breech-loading rifles with rifled barrels could overwhelm an enemy in battle - and bring a fortune to anyone who could supply them in quantity.
Ryker spoke without turning to him. "I hear there was a bit of excitement in the harbor last night."
Burke laughed derisively. "A couple of drunken Americans fired off some cannon from the Admiral's latest prize. They hulled the flagship and blew up a powder boat." Burke shook his head. "They're lucky they're not hanging from yardarms."
Ryker spoke in the thoughtful manner of a man still puzzling as to how to best make use of recently acquired information. "And the latest gup is that Charles May has convinced himself it might be a good idea to take one of the Yanks along on your search for the murderers of the Thistle's crew."
Ryker's intimate knowledge of affairs in Hong Kong - whether of Government House or of Murray Barracks or of the police station or even of the Hong Kong Club - never ceased to amaze Burke. Every year he watched the Chinamen burn their paper money and effigies at the roadside to placate unseen ghosts; and that's exactly how Burke thought of Ryker - a hideous, malevolent, unseen ghost moving about Hong Kong privy to all that was said and done. "That's right. As an interpreter. He seems to speak several Oriental languages."
Ryker turned to stare at Burke directly. "He does." Then he went on in what for him was almost a jovial tone of voice. "Even your Governor Bowring speaks several languages. And at his age he's learning Chinese. Now that's British spunk! Wonderful." For several moments the only sounds were the waves on the beach and the noise of the crickets. The moon briefly fought its way through the clouds, disappeared, then fought its way clear again. "And when will you be leaving on this mission of revenge?"
"Day after tomorrow. Early morning. I want to get the bastards that did this. And maybe the Yank-"
"Aye. The Yank. Andrew Adams. He'll find that at last he bit off more than he can chew. Yes. Definitely. What a wonderful opportunity to eliminate Mr. Adams. And to place the blame for his death on those dastardly celestial pirates as well. I had wanted to deal with Adams face to face. But, no matter. I'll have something special prepared for him." Ryker suddenly jumped off the wall and began walking. "Come, Mr. Burke, let's stretch our legs."
Ryker was not a man one threw questions at and Burke understood that if the man wanted to tell him about any past involvement with Adams, Ryker would do so without being prodded. Burke came from an impoverished family of six brothers, three sisters, an alcoholic father and a mother who died young. His goal in life was, if not to die rich, at least to avoid dying in poverty as would most likely be the case on a policeman's salary. Still, this was the first time Ryker had ever spoken to him of murdering someone and he didn't like the sound of it.
Burke caught up with him and together they walked through a doorway into an abandoned messhall. They crossed the room, and entered what had once been a traditional Chinese-style bakery for the troops. From a beam overhead, a flat plate of iron was still suspended by chains over a copper which had once been filled with burning charcoal. They passed out another doorway into the quadrangle. The roots of a huge banyan tree spread across much of the yard, like the backbone of a prehistoric monster submerged in the earth. Burke was about to inquire about the next weapons shipment when he saw Ryker's right arm disappear in a blur of movement. The moonlight reflected on an object flying through the air toward a window. A voice cried out in the darkness and before Burke could move, Ryker was already inside one of the buildings.
Burke drew his own knife and followed Ryker into the nearly roofless room, but by then the brief but violent struggle was over. A scrawny, scrofulous Chinese man in his early 20's lay curled up on a mound of dirt moaning and clutching the handle of a knife in his breast. Ryker had grasped a far more muscular Chinese around the neck and was holding a large chopper at his throat. He ignored the rapid Cantonese his prisoner was shouting and spoke to Burke. "I saw them when I was coming up the beach. It looks like we were to be assassinated."
The man speaking rapidly in Cantonese suddenly switched to pidgin English. "No, no kill. My no kill. No wanchee trub. Only small listen-pidgin. Hearsay you talkee what. No wanchee kill."
Ryker spoke slowly and clearly, almost affably. "So, you were sent here to overhear our conversation. To see whom I met. And is your English really that good?"
The frightened man pointed to the dying Chinese. "Him number one piecey man can speak same-same you. Beforetime he belongey numba one first chop joss-pidgin-man Cantonside; catchee facey washey."
"I say, that is interesting, isn't it, Mr. Burke? His friend was baptized by a missionary in Canton and learned our language. Then he must have decided that there was more money in spying than in serving the Lord. That means this one is the 'muscle,' so to speak." Ryker tapped the man's shoulder with his cleaver. "Well, 'muscle,' who sent you to spy on us?"
The man, perhaps noticing Ryker's face for the first time, stared at him in horror.
Ryker spoke reassuringly. "Come, come, I know how pretty I am. Just tell us who sent you and we'll let you be on your way."
The man glanced briefly at his friend beside him, as his moaning and breathing became more pronounced, and then shook his head. Ryker looked out over the rubble of a collapsed brick wall toward the rocky shore. "Well, then, it's a beautiful night. Let's take a swim, shall we? First things first, however."
Holding his prisoner's throat with one hand, Ryker shifted his weight, took a quick step and in one swift motion brought the chopper down over the dying man's head. His prisoner screamed and Burke blanched. The blade landed an inch above the man's scalp, neatly severing his queue. "Mr. Burke, would you be a sterling chap and use that queue to tie this man's arms behind him?"
With the Chinese prisoner held between them, the men walked to the water, all the while Ryker singing as happily as a seaman making his way through the taverns of his favorite port.
Oh, for the love of our queen we sail on the sea
You can have London's ladies for a bob or for free
I've known all along it's the Navy for me.
We sail on the sea
We sail on the sea
It's the Navy for me!
While Burke held the now sullen prisoner near the water's edge, Ryker searched about the rocks as contented as a schoolboy looking for crabs. He returned with a long, heavy stone and deftly wrapped his prisoner's queue with it and tied it securely. He winked at Burke as a prankster might signal the commencement of a harmless joke and began walking his prisoner into waist-high water. "Would you be good enough to lift his feet, Mr. Burke?" Bracing himself for the cold, Burke waded into the water. He pulled the man's feet forward and upward, forcing his prisoner to stare at the night sky. "That's it, just hold his feet steady."
The prisoner began protesting again in Cantonese and, even with his arms tied behind him, did his best to squirm about. Burke grasped his slipper-style cotton shoes tightly around the ankles. Ryker held the stone in one hand and the man's queue in the other forcing him to remain face up just above the water. And then he abruptly let the stone drop. The queue slipped from Ryker's hand and the man's head immediately followed the stone into the water. While the prisoner began his confined but desperate underwater struggle, Ryker went through the motions of washing his hands and face while repeating snatches of his song. He glanced in the direction of his junk, now clearly visible in a silver ribbon of reflected moonlight stretching to the shore. He then reached into the water and pulled up the stone followed by the man's head.
Water streamed from his mouth and nostrils. Ryker gripped the stone and waited for the agonizing gasping for breath to subside. He allowed his prisoner to turn his head slightly to cough and to spit water, then he placed his mouth very near the man's ear and spoke with an almost falsetto voice filled with nearly deranged anger. "Well, ducky, how's your memory now? Hmmm? Nothing like a good swim to clear the cobwebs out, eh?" Ryker's laugh was that of someone demented.
The prisoner began coughing wildly while trying to speak a name. Ryker leaned still closer and spoke in a reassuring manner. "What's that? Who?..Yes, I thought so. Wong AChoy. Well, you see, there you are. Now I believe you. Wong Achoy wouldn't want us dead before he gets the weapons, would he? He just wanted to know where I am and what I'm up to. Maybe even to make certain he could ambush us here in the future if and when it should suit his purpose. Isn't that it?"
The man continued coughing and gasping uncontrollably. His body shook with spasms. Ryker stared at the man's face with what Burke believed to be pure malevolence and then, without warning, released the stone. The man's face suddenly jerked underwater. Ryker smiled down beneath the surface to where the man desperately struggled to raise his head. In a matter of seconds the thrashing stopped and, in the stillness, Burke realized he was holding the feet of a corpse. Burke had killed men before, but he had never murdered a man. He felt as if the man's feet were inseparably attached to him. He wasn't certain if he had the will power to release him.
Ryker clapped his hands together and playfully separated them. "You may let go now, Mr. Burke."
Burke quickly forced open his hands and the man's feet bobbed above the surface of the water, anchored by the queue-wrapped rock below. As they slowly sank beneath the waves, Burke backed away a step. Then another.
Ryker wadded through the water toward the shore. "Come, Mr. Burke, don't let the hapless victim of yet another Chinese gang fight bother you. I'm certain your Mr. May will arrest the Chinamen responsible. And speaking of Chinamen, let us see about the other fellow. He must be wondering what's keeping us."
Burke walked on rubbery legs toward the quadrangle of the abandoned barracks and said nothing. He glanced toward a nearby point a few hundred yards farther west where the gallows had once stood - Hangman's Point. Where, among crowds of silent Chinese locals and demonstrative foreign seamen, several pirates had met their deaths, some with bravado, some with fear, and most in sullen silence. Burke had to fight the urge to run.
When they reached the second man, they found him barely alive. The stubble of his recently cut queue atop his head gave him the look of a child. Ryker knelt beside him and spoke into his ear. "Can you take a message for us to Wong AChoy?" When the man merely moaned and gurgled, Ryker shook his head. "My, my, Mr. Burke, it doesn't look like we'll be able to send a message that way. However..."
Ryker extracted his knife from the man's chest, causing him to cry out in agony, then rose and walked to where the chopper lay. He returned to the man and stood over him. "I must get a message back to Wong Achoy that such actions are not to be tolerated. Chinamen pay well for foreign heads so perhaps he will appreciate the irony of this gesture."
Burke took a step back. "You're going to cut the Chinaman's head off?"
"Only to make a point, Mr. Burke. Only to make a point." He stared at Burke for a moment. "If you'd prefer not to see this, then, by all means, please wait at the wall."
Burke turned abruptly and walked along the path overgrown with weeds and tree roots. The messhall and bakery were said to be haunted by the men of the 55th Regiment and so the Chinese had left them alone; but most of the wooden walls, floors and ceilings of the barracks themselves had been broken up and taken away by Chinamen for construction of their huts. Still, the outline of the buildings' foundations were clearly visible. And towering above everything else was the crumbling brick chimney of the bakery. Along the upper surface, bricks had fallen from the center, giving the top of the chimney the shape of the letter "V" and, a few feet below the notch of the "V" two holes appeared side by side where still more bricks had fallen.
Burke remembered the involuntary shudders which he'd felt at the first sign of the cholera; the vomiting, the diarrhea, the nearly fatal dehydration; the hospital in such terrible condition that even the sickest men tried to avoid entering; and, at mealtimes, the nearly deserted mess hall. And he remembered how in July of 1843, when no more than one soldier in four could be mustered for formation, the barracks was abandoned and the remaining men of the devastated 55th Regiment were removed to the transport ship, Claudine. And yet even then the processions of funeral boats heavily laden with the bodies of his comrades continued their twice-daily journeys to Shark's Bay. Somehow, he had survived.
Burke leaned against the wall and stared at the Peak rising above the town of Victoria and then turned to look out to sea. Ryker's money was good and thus far he had requested nothing but information and Burke had been happy not to ask questions but Burke was beginning to understand that the man was planning something far more elaborate than simply another arms shipment into China. Something directed at Hong Kong itself.
Ryker approached the wall in quick strides. Like some kind of demonic ghoul, he carried the man's head under his arm wrapped securely in the man's bloodsoaked robe, smiling all the while a secret little smile as if it were an unexpected and slightly risque gift for a lover. Ryker stood beside him and spoke matter-of-factly. "It might be a while before they find the headless corpse; but when they do they'll realize what barbarians these celestials really are, fighting their internecine clan wars here in Hong Kong, the property of the Crown! As for us, we'll meet again here on the 14th. Midnight. By then I should know when we'll be bringing in the shipment of rifles. I'll want you with me for that, of course."
Burke felt his stomach churn violently and he couldn't seem to get rid of the metallic taste in his mouth and the phlegm in his throat. As he felt the full brunt of Ryker's one-eyed stare as well as the sight of his ruined face, Burke gave up his intention to ask questions. He saluted Ryker with his nightstick and tried to speak with a steady, almost jocular, voice. "All right, then. Until the 14th."
As he walked, Burke thought of what he'd seen of Ryker's personality. Ryker had not become so much like a schoolboy playing a prank as a man who reveled in shedding all inhibitions of civilization. Ryker had become visibly happy as soon as he'd realized he would soon be killing someone. Burke knew also he had been right to fear the man. He wondered if he had been warped even before his face had been turned into something hideous to look at. The gup was that in his youth, Ryker had been one of the best looking blokes about Hong Kong; a Johnny-among-the-maids who'd courted the ladies and broke their hearts.
Burke had almost reached what had once been the main road when he heard Ryker calling his name. He turned and saw him standing at the shore, still holding his bundle. The moonlight lit up the shiny brim of his tight-fitting black cap. He spoke with the friendly, matter-of-fact tone of a man who'd forgotten to mention a minor point. "And, Mr. Burke, regarding this Thistle business, I do hope you find and punish those guilty but - one thing above all else."
"For your profit and for my peace of mind, we must make absolutely certain Andrew Adams does not return to Hong Kong alive." With that, John Ryker headed for his junk, merrily singing snatches of his song. From where Burke stood, it seemed almost as if he were serenading the head of the Chinaman.
Hangman's Point continues. The novel is available in
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