Thieves Hamlet

   

 

There is a day of reckoning coming for you, John Chinaman; and but little will be found on the credit side of your account.

 English language newspaper editorial in Hong Kong 1857

 

 

 These English barbarians - these kindred of dogs and boars, unmannerly, devoid of all knowledge of propriety in human intercourse - wolves and jackals in their greed - lustful, incestuous, bestial - wandering hither and thither reckless and regardless of all rights human and divine - like flocks ofcarrion crows to the carcass....

 

Chinese placard posted in Hong Kong 1857

 

                            

  

THIEVES HAMLET

  

CHAPTER ONE

  

PEKING

 

1 May 1856

 If the baby cried now she knew all was lost.  She would most likely be tortured and strangled and the child thrown down a well.  Or buried alive far from the towering walls of the palace. Any living relatives would be punished severely along with their entire family.  Her late father had been a Chinese official working among the Manchus inside the Tartar or Inner City, and he would be demoted posthumously.  Her father’s ancestral tombs destroyed, graves unearthed, and the bones of their ancestors scattered in the winds or cast to the wolves.  And her wandering ghost would roam the earth without rest.

     Less than an hour before, she had slipped into a storeroom in the Outer Court of the Forbidden City.  In the seldom used room, lit only by the feeble flame of an opium lamp, she stood concealed by the rows of ornate palace lanterns and bundles of incense and candles which surrounded her.  There she had cradled the infant in her arms while the aged eunuch had blown fumes of opium into its mouth.  Each time the eunuch inhaled, a feeble glow inside the tiny brass bowl of his opium pipe revealed his incredibly wrinkled face and heavy-lidded eyes.  The sickeningly sweet odor of the drug in such close quarters made the woman queasy but the infant had finally stopped crying and gone to sleep.  Together they had carefully placed the baby inside a bamboo carrier disguised as a fruit basket.  And its outer layer was lined with fruit.  But beneath the rose apples and pears and dragon fruit was the child she had vowed to save or else she would die with it.

     There was joy on many faces as the Emperor’s concubine had produced a son and the celebratory mood of all within the Forbidden City had kept even the guards in a jovial mood.  The sounds of bells and drums and firecrackers reverberated from the massive scarlet walls and penetrated every courtyard.  Opera troupes and musicians were everywhere.  Red lanterns were wrapped about bronze lamps and hung from tree limbs and red and green – China’s auspicious colors – were worn by nearly everyone.  And, as she had hoped, many residing in the Great Within and even guards stationed at various gates were besotted with rice wine.

     Disguised as an ordinary maid, and with a maid’s wooden tally at her belt, she had managed to pass from the Forbidden City through a palace gate into the Imperial City which surrounded it without being challenged – just one of hundreds of palace maids on an errand.  But now, at the most crucial part of her escape, she could feel the child beginning to stir. 

     The eunuch had argued with her in his high-pitched falsetto voice insisting she should attempt her escape in darkness, at the fifth watch near dawn.  But she knew the gates from the Imperial City into the Inner City were lightly guarded when the guards had their lunch.  Some even took their tea and baked sweet potatoes from commoners. 

     And so she had made her way among the thousands of maids, eunuchs and workmen of the Forbidden City and passed into the Imperial City and from there into the Inner City where over one hundred thousand elite Bannermen and their families lived.  Thousands of guards, drawn from the Bannermen, guarded the sixteen gates of the Inner and Outer cities and it was here where she would have to be most careful.  If she could pass into the Chinese or Outer City others waited to assist her.

     Few clouds drifted across a deep blue sky and at times sunlight reflecting from golden tiled roofs nearly blinded her.  She walked with her head down and an unvaried gait.  She must appear as just one more insignificant maid working in the vast city-palace of the Son of Heaven.

     Of the possible gates into the Chinese city, through which the servant staff were allowed to pass, she had chosen the one where the market area was bustling and crowded.  For just a fleeting moment, she dared look up, and then walked as nonchalantly as she could toward the Imperial Guards.  They wore bright yellow riding jackets and one-eyed peacock feathers adorned their summer-style hats.  They were meticulously searching workers entering the palace for weapons and those leaving for anything they might have stolen.  But she could see they were in a jovial mood and her hopes of escaping undetected soared.  If only the baby would remain still and silent.

     The guard to her left was occupied, suspiciously checking the authenticity of a worker’s identifying tally on his waist belt.  She heard the child utter a sound but it was lost to those around her in the noise of firecrackers outside the gate.  The woman fell in with a stream of workers moving around the guard and was almost through the gate when the infant moved, causing a dragon fruit to fall to the ground.  In her panic, as she reached for it, a rose apple tumbled from the basket as well. 

     The guard nearest her reached down and picked up the dragon fruit, eyeing it suspiciously.  He curtly waved her closer and began examining her tally.  Before he could even ask why she was taking fruit from the Inner City she handed him the note the eunuch had given her.  The note was forged as was the seal but it bore the name of the chief secretary of the eunuchs, one of the most powerful eunuchs inside the Forbidden City. 

     As no males other than the emperor and the princes and the eunuchs were allowed to remain overnight inside the Inner Court, a eunuch’s proximity to the emperor, the princes and the court ladies could give him enormous power, and those in favor could easily pass on a positive word to one whom a mere gate guard would never dare to speak.  Conversely, gossip from a malevolent eunuch in an influential position could quickly end a guard’s career.  

     The guard remained suspicious and surly but handed back the note and curtly motioned for her to leave.  Outside the gate she quickly spotted the promised contact: an elderly flower seller with large, fragrant flowers – red, white, yellow.  The flowers were in ceramic pots lining a wooden cart.  The cart had two rear wheels and, fixed to a shaft, a wooden stake held up the front end.  On the side of the cart, below the pulling poles, was the painting of a chi-lin, a unicorn: an auspicious creature featured in many Chinese legends but known in particular as the guardian of children.

     The woman unhurriedly pulled out the stake, placed herself between the poles, lifted the front of the cart, and wheeled it away from the gate.  Keeping her distance, the young woman pushed her way through the crowd of merchants, traders, dealers, customers and beggars and followed.  She could hear the child crying now but soon, if the gods continued to favor them, they would be among friends.         


 

Chapter two

 

Southern China near Hong Kong

16 November 1857

 

 

DESPITE the growing darkness, from his position at the edge of the bamboo grove, Andrew Adams should have been able to see Duck Foot’s men.  Several of her best were positioned within yards of Adams and yet he had neither heard nor seen any sign of them for over an hour.  The only movement was that of the tall plumes of the bamboo shrubs which swayed in the breeze and an occasional wildfowl or wild pig seeking shelter.  Even the insects had grown silent.

Duck Foot had removed her outlying camp guards and moved most of her followers away toward the north.  Adams had fought with her before and knew well the ferocity and skill of her small army; a rebel band he often supplied with flint, powder and occasionally weapons.  The bulk of the fighters were Hakka ethnic warriors, but there were also Taiping revolutionaries, local Triad men, and other Chinese who simply hated their Manchu rulers and wanted to overthrow their forcefully imposed Ch’ing Dynasty.     It was not the first time Adams had been the only foreigner or “foreign devil” at the scene of a battle inside Chinese territory above British Hong Kong.  Still, he wished he’d had a few of his mates from Hong Kong with him, especially Peter Robinson.  Robinson hated to miss out on any skirmish Adams got himself involved in, and Adams could have used him, but Robinson was in no shape to remain motionless for several hours and, as both men knew, his drinker’s cough would have given their position away.  After much persuasion, he had finally agreed to remain in Hong Kong at the Seaman’s Hospital.


 

Adams was among those concealed about half way up the hillock farthest from where the small detachment of Ch’ing soldiers were expected to appear.  As far as Adams could learn, they would be facing local soldiers who probably only half-heartedly fought on behalf of their Manchu masters.  The gossip in Hong Kong taverns, known as “gup,” was that the Chinamen fled at the first loud boom of cannon discharged from a foreign frigate or the first fiery streak of a Congreve rocket.  But Adams had fought both Chinese and Manchu warriors before and had more than once seen displays of suicidal courage from both. 

Below him stretched the stubble of a rice crop, which had been ploughed under and left to decompose to serve as manure for spring crops.  On both sides of their former camp were deep man-made ditches which separated hillocks of rice paddy from those with rows of sweet potatoes.  The ditches had been dug just before the previous rainy season to carry off the excessive rain water and they extended well behind the enemy encampment.  The ditches were now dry and, assuming Duck Foot’s plan worked, they would serve as a means of concealing her troops so she could surround and surprise her enemy just as they were launching their own attack; an enemy whose only means of escape would be into the waiting ambush of Adams and those with him.

Adams again checked his weapons.  He had lost the use of his Deane-Adams revolver in an earlier skirmish and Duck Foot had given him what she could.  His sheath knife had been replaced with another and, in his hand he held a long-barreled Colt Paterson percussion revolver. 

Duck Foot had kept the revolver in pristine condition but it was nearly twenty years old and had always been a fragile weapon at best.  Made before loading levers were invented, it would mean reloading the five-shot cylinder would be a slow process; and in the heat of battle that defect could prove disastrous.  It also had no trigger guard which meant - once he cocked the hammer and the folding trigger sprang out - he’d have to be especially careful not to accidentally trigger it.  One shot and the Ch’ing forces would be aware of the ambush.


 
     It had been at least two hours since Adams had shared a meal with Duck Foot and her warriors but something in the boiled rice, scraps of vegetables and onions fried in oil had not agreed with him and he was willing his stomach to cease rumbling.  Even while watching the ploughed earth, his mind had wandered to some of his troubles: the tavern he managed in Hong Kong and of his live-in girlfriend, Anne Sutherland.  And what she would say when she realized he had gambled the rent money away yet again.  And whether or not the rundown boarding house they had leased would even pay for itself.  But when he caught his thoughts drifting he pushed them out of his mind and gave his full concentration to observing the rice crop and the forested series of hills beyond.     The night air was cool and with extremely slow movements he cautiously tightened his pea jacket around him.  He was just about to shift position to make himself more comfortable or at least less uncomfortable when he saw a slight movement among the stubble of the rice field.  He lowered his head and immediately his nostrils were filled with the smell of rotting vegetation and nightsoil.  He kept his eyes darting from place to place to keep his vision as keen as possible but for several minutes after the first sighting he saw no movement of any kind.  Then he saw it again: a long, low form, most likely the figure of a man crawling slowly toward them.  And then the field of stubble came alive with silent, crawling forms.  

He reached his forefinger out to touch his trigger guard, realized there wasn’t one, and quickly pulled his finger away.  He knew if he had spotted the enemy sneaking across the field, Duck Foot’s men had most likely seen their movements sooner.  The enemy’s forces had taken the bait but Adams would have to let Duck Foot’s main force make the first move.  From somewhere behind him he could barely hear the softly spoken question in Hakka dialect, ki to nyin loi?, “How many men are coming?” and the angry response, mok chang! “Silence!”

The steady stream of shadows had almost reached the camp when hundreds of Ch’ing soldiers suddenly stood up, screamed and charged.  Immediately, the fire of matchlocks and flintlocks and the whiz of arrows sounded from both the battlefield and from positions around him.  Adams stood and charged closer to the enemy to make accurate use of his Colt revolver.  He had covered about twenty yards when he stumbled over a patch of crepe myrtle and fell awkwardly to the ground.  A numbing pain shot through his wrist and the pistol spun off into the darkness.

He crawled about in the dark and groped with both hands until he felt the pistol.  He raised himself to his knees, cocked the hammer and prepared to take aim at Ch’ing soldiers charging the camp.  There were so many targets that Adams was quite certain that what Duck Foot had nonchalantly described as a “detachment” more accurately resembled a “division.”  Dozens of the soldiers were now less than fifty yards away.  Many had lit the lanterns they carried and Adams could make out several among them carrying green banners with red borders enclosing large golden dragons.


 

And then he saw something that made his stomach churn.  Several ferocious looking officers in full military dress were shooting arrows into the bamboo grove.  They were squat, tough-looking men with broad, flat faces above which were iron helmets with tall helmet rods, each displaying a tassel of horse-hair dyed reddish-orange.  Their coats of mail were decorated with studs.  Their bow sheaths were beautifully embroidered and there was a monstrous tiger-like face of plaited bamboo at their waist.

Amidst the myriad flashes of muskets and the sharp crack of Minie rifles, Adams could hear the sound of Manchu arrows thudding into nearby stalks of bamboo.  He crawled to an arrow that landed a few yards from him and quickly examined it.  Its head was of iron and its shaft was poplar rather than bamboo.  Its three tail feathers were from a horned falcon.  These were arrows used in battle by men in northern China, wind-resistant arrows superior to those made in the Canton region. 

And then he heard the whistling sounds from the perforated balls of the “singing arrows.”  These were shot above the heads of an enemy and their whistling noise grew in volume as they descended, producing, if not death, a very unnerving effect on anyone beneath them. 

Adams pulled one from the ground which had landed near his feet.  It was made of birch.  He ran his hand over the barbed point and then over the brightly colored feathers; feathers from Manchu pheasants.  Even as Adams aimed his revolver just a few inches below the nearest advancing helmet, he realized that Duck Foot and her rebel band had become enough of a threat to have attracted not merely Chinese militia and Chinese Green Standard soldiers, but also Manchu Bannermen, fierce defenders of the Ch’ing Dynasty.

Despite his warnings to Duck Foot, much of the flint and many of the percussion rifles he had managed to smuggle to her she in turn had sold at enormous profit to larger military units of Taiping rebels.  As long as the vicious Chinese civil war between the Manchus and the Taiping continued, there was enormous profit to be made selling weapons and ammunition to either side. But she clearly favored the Taipings as their leader was a Hakka and so was she.  Her proceeds had yet to be spent; but thanks to her decision to aid the Taipings, Adams was now face to face with a very large contingent of an imperial Ch’ing army.

 

 

 


 

Chapter three

Hong Kong

16 November 1857

 

EVEN among Hong Kong Chinese, the man would have been described as thin, but nothing about his bony frame or scraggly queue or jug-eared, nondescript face attracted any special notice from passersby.  From his dress and bearing, it was probably clear to other Chinese that he was not a lowly chair-bearer or cargo coolie but certainly not a particularly successful businessman either.  One might have taken him for a chief servant or cook in one of the foreign-devil houses a short distance to the east.  He had walked inconspicuously down the same narrow lane three times during the last several hours; but each time the street had been crowded with Chinese residents and hawkers and coolies, and he strode quickly by the door of the third house with hardly a glance in its direction. 

Now he was making his fourth attempt and he knew he hadn’t much time before the people in the house returned.  Despite the lingering rays of the setting sun, in the congested Taipingshan area of Hong Kong, it was nearly dark, and in his baggy indigo shirt and trousers, he was effectively swallowed up by the lengthening shadows.  The man took care to avoid the wide, bell-shaped crinoline of a foreign devil prostitute guiding an inebriated foreign sailor to her room and he again turned onto the street.  To his relief, he now found the section of the street deserted.  He walked quickly to the door of the third house with the hurried but unconcealed motion of a busy man on an important errand.

Like several of the narrow fronted houses along the street, this one had a staple bar secured to the door.  But, as the well-bribed house coolie had promised, although the padlock had been cleverly positioned to appear closed, it was unfastened.  He removed the lock, pushed open the door and entered the house.  He closed it quickly but quietly then stood still, adjusting his eyes to the almost complete darkness and keeping his mouth open to conceal the sounds of his excited breathing.

An unpleasant stench filled the air, as if the occupants had been cooking with cotton seed oil.  It was a familiar smell to him as only the poor would use such oil in cooking and after his father and brothers had gone to war and never returned, he had spent years in poverty.  In the scant amount of light penetrating the small windows he began to discern the stairs leading up to a kind of mezzanine floor known as a cockloft.  The ground floor was one long room divided by open-work screens through which he could see a tiny courtyard at the back of the house.  He placed the padlock behind the door next to the wall and took several careful steps. The soles of his shoes -- layers of thick felt -- made almost no noise as they pressed against the China fir floor.

He peered into the darkness of the house.  A brass spittoon. A chest of drawers.  A covered bird cage.  Several shelves of books.  A small wooden statue of Kwan Kung -- God of War, surrounded by oranges and the ash of burned incense sticks.  Ordinary furniture and inexpensive wall scrolls made up what passed for a living room.  Nothing of value for a thief to steal. Which was fine with him as what he had come for was not something he would ever resell. 

He glanced briefly toward the courtyard kitchen and then began silently ascending the stairs to the sleeping quarters on the cockloft.  At the top of the stairs, he paused, then moved forward.  Inside the bedroom were still more shelves of books.  A table was covered with sewing material, needles and a pair of scissors.  A shelf fastened to the wall near the bed held two candles affixed, Chinese-style, onto pointed spikes.  As he passed a dressing box with its foreign-devil type mirror, the unexpected sight of his own reflection gave him a start. 

The man cautiously moved through the semi-darkness, past a wash-basin stand to a small dresser with a set of three drawers. He opened the first drawer and found the earthenware bowl of an opium pipe attached to a rattan stem.  Beside the pipe lay an opium tray broken into several pieces.  The second drawer had a wooden comb, makeup jars, hair ornaments, cheap jewelry and artificial flowers.  There was also a rectangular container which he recognized as a wedding box.  He opened the box and unfolded the top marriage document.  Although he could not read any of the black characters on red background, he had to satisfy himself that no gold or silver had been hidden in the box.  He folded the document, replaced the box and pulled out the third drawer.  Except for a few more articles used by opium smokers, and more hair pins, there was nothing. 

Just as he was beginning to despair at finding what he craved, he noticed the drawer flush with the side of the bed.  The drawer had actually been built into the bed and in the dim light he had almost missed it.  There was no knob but he reached into the recessed space under the drawer and slowly pulled it toward him. 

He ignored the colorful clothing, the heart-shaped purse and the embroidered headband.  Slowly and with reverence, he reached out and touched the red satin bed slippers, the ones a woman would wear in bed.  With both hands, he carefully removed the slippers from the drawer as if they were delicate living things. The feel of the smooth crimson satin and the sudden image of the texture and color contrasting of the woman’s pale ivory skin aroused him immediately.  He ran his fingertips slowly and lovingly over the bed shoes’ embroidered chrysanthemums, peonies and butterflies.  An expert on bound feet slippers, he recognized the style as that worn by women in the north of China. 

He placed the sole of one of the shoes in an outstretched hand and smiled.  These ‘golden lilies’ were without question no more than three inches in length.  Of all the ‘sleeping slippers’ he had stolen, these represented the ideal length of a woman’s bound foot bed slipper. 

He reached inside each slipper and imagined the bindings of the woman’s crippled feet snuggled into and embraced by the slippers as she lay on the bed.  His breathing was stronger now and his need more urgent.  He slowly brought one of the slippers to his face, allowing his nostrils to breath in the musty smell of bound feet which, for many Chinese men, served as an aphrodisiac.  He pressed his other hand, still holding the slipper, against his growing erection but willed himself to stop. In a house near Canton he had given in to his craving and masturbated before stealing the slippers, and he had nearly been caught. 

The man quickly placed the slippers inside his sleeves and was about to move toward the stairs when he heard what sounded like movement coming from downstairs.  For nearly a minute, he stood completely still, straining to hear any sound.  Sweat had broken out on his forehead but he did not dare move his hand to wipe it away.  He heard only the sounds of bells from the foreign-devil ships in the harbor and pounding of hammers at a nearby construction site.  Just as he was about to pass the sound off as his imagination, he heard it again.  He moved his eyes about the room, wanting desperately to find another way out.  He knew there was none.  And then he heard the sound again.  Louder.

After several minutes of remaining almost perfectly still, the man’s heartbeat slowed and the metallic taste in his mouth lessened.  Despite his fear-induced nausea, he summoned up the courage to walk to the top of the stairs.  He could see nothing moving in the darkness below.  He had heard rumors of a ghost appearing in a nearby temple but the sounds he had heard seemed to be the movement of a live person.  Despite his almost immobilizing fear, he willed himself to concentrate on listening.

He walked cautiously down the stairs, stopping every few steps, holding his breath and expecting to be attacked at any moment.  When he reached the bottom without incident, he felt again as if he had merely imagined the sound of movement.  And then it occurred to him that what he had heard had undoubtedly been nothing more than the rustling of a bird inside the wadded silk cover of its cage.  As if in reassurance, at that exact moment, he heard the questioning chirp of the bird.

The man smiled at his own foolish fear.  He moved into the living room, past the angry eyes of the God of War and was a mere two or three yards away from the cage when he stumbled on something beneath him.  As he quickly attempted to move his foot, he stepped again on something bulkier, lost his balance and fell forward.  He managed to throw out his hands and break the fall but his face landed inches away from another face.  The eyes in the upturned face stared straight out at him with the sullen apathy of the dead. 

The thief gave an involuntary yelp, and as he moved his hand, it brushed against the hilt of the knife in the man’s chest and was soon covered with the viscous warmth of blood.  His eyes were already wide with fear when he felt something grip his ankle.  He let out a yell, tugged his leg from its grasp with all his might and jumped to his feet.  In almost total darkness, another man, obviously mortally wounded, lay on his stomach.  His arm outstretched, he opened his hand attempting to again clutch the thief’s bony ankle.

The thief screamed loudly, and when he saw what appeared to be the outline of a third body behind a screen, gave in completely to his dread and terror.  In his panic, he dashed past the shrine, accidentally knocking it to the floor, then turned and sprinted to the door.  He threw it open and rushed blindly out into the dark street – still in possession of the slippers -- smack into the arms of a passing British police inspector.   

 

                              


 

 

 

                         Chapter Four

 

THE Manchu officer blew on the end of his match cord, increasing the size of the red glow, and aimed his matchlock at Adams.  He began squeezing the trigger to lower the lit cord into the priming powder in the pan.  A split second before the powder was ignited, Adams fired into the man’s lower chest doubling him over and knocking him to the ground.  He fell forward onto his matchlock, and the lit match cord set fire to his thick winter robe.  As the fire rapidly spread through the robe’s cotton pads, the man screamed in agony and fear and made an effort to push himself up but was too seriously wounded to move.     

Within seconds the fire reached the first of the bamboo cartridge pouches strapped to his waist and the powder inside exploded setting off the powder in the remaining eleven pouches, one or two pouches at a time.  The dying man was burning alive while his body was violently twitching and jerking with each explosion.  Even before the last tube of loose powder exploded Adams could smell the mingled odors of gunpowder and burning human flesh.


 

A soldier rushed at him bearing a sword and a circular rattan shield with a tiger’s face.  Adams aimed his revolver at him, and the man held up the shield as if he was absolutely confident it could stop a bullet.  Adams fired twice.  The first bullet grazed the edge of the shield.  The second passed cleanly through the shield and the man looked at his own body in astonishment and disbelief, then fell to the ground mortally wounded.

He aimed his Colt at another Bannerman busily fitting an arrow to the string of his short recurve bow.  He pulled the trigger twice and both times the cylinder rotated but no shot was fired.  He threw the weapon to the ground and drew the knife from his belt sheath.  He rushed to the man, reached around his thick neck, and slit his throat. 

Holding the dying man before him as a shield he ran forward and smashed into two regular army Chinese with their swords raised about to slash one of Duck Foot’s women warriors.  He stabbed the first in the neck and threw him off then was kicked in the face by the satin boot of a passing Manchu, sending him sprawling off of an entangled mass of men and women warriors engaged in their death struggles.  He landed on his stomach, and started to rise but was kicked again by another satin boot to the face and before he could recover he looked up to make out a dark angry face beneath a tasseled helmet ornamented with gold.  Adams could see that the officer had stretched back the silk string of his bow and was about to release an iron-tipped arrow into his body.


 

But an arrow from a warrior Adams knew as Hook-nosed Tam grazed the man’s thick neck, throwing him off balance and causing his arrow to land an inch from Adam’s ear.  The warrior screamed and fell to the ground, still attempting to draw his sword to kill Adams.  Adams lunged at him and managed to block his arm, preventing him from withdrawing his sword.  As Adams straddled him, the man grabbed Adam’s wrist, and with incredible strength, began twisting the knife upwards toward Adams’s face.  Adams’s attention was completely focused on his life-and-death struggle but, despite this, some part of his mind registered the clamor around him: the piercing rings of musket shots, the more muted sounds of matchlocks, the pings of ricochets, and shouts and shrieks of angry and dying men and women, the twang of bow strings and the whoosh of iron-tipped arrows.

Adams knew he was losing the test of strength to a badly wounded but uncommonly powerful soldier, so he suddenly took his left hand from the man’s right wrist and banged the palm of his hand against the man’s bleeding neck.  When his opponent screamed and relaxed his grip, Adams plunged the knife into his chest just above where he knew an inner network of iron protection would be positioned.

Adams leapt over a dying fighter and raced to two warriors turning over and over almost in slow motion, each struggling to thrust a knife into the other.  Adams kicked a Manchu soldier off a Taiping woman warrior.  As he rolled off trying to avoid Adams, his opponent stabbed the Manchu in the heart and then slashed his throat, her face contorted in hatred, all the while screaming in Hakka dialect “devil imp!”  The fighting near him was ending and as far as he could tell Duck Foot’s band was victorious.  But this was not the main battleground and he knew how badly outnumbered Duck Foot was.

As he raced down the hill toward Duck Foot’s position, Adams spotted what looked like a large, thick-bodied, yellow insect with many legs.  He realized it was one of the epaulets from Duck Foot’s jacket.  When he picked it up, he found it was smeared with blood.

The sky was partly overcast but was still bright with enough stars to reveal the battlefield.  And some of the soldiers continued the suicidal Chinese habit of carrying lanterns into battle.  But Adams realized that in the confusion and bedlam of fighting he was as likely to be struck with an arrow or musket ball fired by a friend as from an enemy.


 

In his attempt to dodge a shower of ‘singing’ arrows plunging from the sky around him, Adams leapt over a knoll and ran headlong into several of Duck Foot’s soldiers.  As he continued on toward her position, he heard the unmistakable roar of her four-barreled “mutiny” pistol, a type of pistol actually used to quell mutinies on board ships.  The four brass barrels on her wooden flintlock spread out to cover an area as wide as 70 degrees, suggesting the web of a duck’s foot; and it was this that gave both the pistol and Duck Foot herself her nickname.  

When he reached the site he found Duck Foot’s men had already won their battle with the Manchus and while some of her men rushed past him on their way to aid the hill tribesmen, others were already stripping the enemy dead and piling the material beside Duck Foot.  Adams spotted her as she was -- with difficulty -- slipping a green jade archer’s ring from the right hand thumb of a dead Manchu.  Her face was black from dirt, sweat and gunpowder, her part Hakka-part Western uniform was badly torn, and the misshapen mandarin official’s hat she wore – once worn by the Mandarin official who had killed her husband - had lost its peacock feather, but she seemed unhurt.  The crystal knob on the hat reflected the light of nearby lanterns almost as if it were a small but powerful beacon amidst the semi-darkness.      She looked at the ring and beamed with delight as she slipped it over her own finger, trying it for size.  Adams could feel the incongruity of a woman-warrior’s vanity amidst the turmoil and horror of war and death almost unnerving him.

All around her, the battlefield was littered with the debris of war: horn-and-wood bows with twisted silk strings and broad-headed arrows with fir shafts, ancient matchlocks and modern flintlocks, bamboo spears with iron-tipped points, tobacco pipes, fan and chopstick cases, oil-paper lanterns, bamboo powder measures, leather quivers, swords, helmets, leather ammunition bags, rattan shields, silk banners and triangular flags, Chinese muskets, long-barreled Chinese gingalls and, in all directions, the bodies of the dead and dying.


 

When she spotted Adams her grin widened and her gold teeth gleamed in the light of the lanterns.  She spoke matter-of-factly in Cantonese.  “They don’t want to fight us anymore, Ah-dam.  Most have retreated.  We will not follow.”

Adams recognized the calm, unruffled tone in her voice as that of a genuine soldier who has fought countless battles and who knows one day she too will die in battle.  When it is her time.  Adams tossed the epaulet to her.  “I’m glad you’re all right.  When I found this, I thought...”

Duck Foot looked at his tattered pea jacket and slashed trousers.  “You are wounded, An Yah-sz?” 

Adams smiled inwardly at Duck Foot’s use of the Chinese name she had given him; three Chinese characters that at least somewhat resembled Adams’s English name if not his character: “Peaceful, Elegant, Contemplation.”

Adams shook his head.  Just scratches.  But it would have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been for Hook-nosed Tam showing up when he did.”  Adams looked about.  “Where is he?”

Duck Foot stared into the woods and spoke in Cantonese.  “He is by the stream.  He’s washing his cuts.  He will be fine.”


 

Duck Foot spoke as she held the epaulet to the shoulder of her jacket as if determining how best to fix it.  She turned to holster her mutiny pistol inside her belt while issuing orders to Chinese around her.  One of them handed her his flintlock pistol. “Let’s see if we killed any big chiefs.”  She waved Chinese-style, with her palm down, and they followed behind her.  They walked through a bamboo grove and into deeper woods.  Several times Adams was forced to step over or walk around the bodies of dead soldiers.  As they walked, the sounds of intermittent gunfire reached their ears.

After no more than five minutes, Adams and Duck Foot stopped suddenly and simultaneously.  Adams started to speak but Duck Foot held out her hand to shush him.  The sound of something rustling about in nearby bushes grew louder and then stopped.  Adams thought he briefly heard a man’s voice but he couldn’t be certain.  It could have been wind whistling through the bamboo.  Duck Foot withdrew and cocked her pistol and Adams drew his knife.  The two of them walked slowly and cautiously toward the sound.


 

Adams heard a woman’s laugh just seconds before Duck Foot silently parted the tall grass.  Inside a small clearing he could make out the form of a woman sitting beside a man who was lying on his back.  The woman was one of the Taiping warriors Adams had seen at the camp.  As she lightly brushed her fingers across his forehead, the man had reached up with one of his hands and his fingers were cupping her chin.  The woman had removed her scarf and let her long hair descend; and because of its length and the length of the jacket she wore, Adams couldn’t be certain of what he was seeing; but it looked as if the man’s other hand had entered a side opening of her loose embroidered skirt, and was moving up and down over the section of the woman’s wide black silk trousers which covered her thighs.  Depending on interpretation, she might have been attending to the man’s cuts or she might have been playfully teasing him.

Suddenly, she spotted Duck Foot and cried out.  As she did so, she grabbed her bow and quiver and slid frantically away from Duck Foot while still sitting on the ground.  The man whirled with lightning speed and had a knife in his hand even before he had jumped to his feet.  Duck Foot stared at her lover without moving, holding the flintlock pistol pointed at his heart.  In the stillness, the Taiping woman’s gaze never left Duck Foot.  She snatched her scarf from the ground, replaced a short sword in the sash at her waist, and disappeared into the darkness.

Duck Foot lowered the pistol to her side, turned and walked silently past Adams.  Even in the darkness of the night Adams could see enough of her features to know that the normally jovial warrior had now become a woman scorned.  He glanced at Hook-nosed Tam who still held his knife at the ready as if his skill with the weapon could solve the problems his emotions had created.


 

                         Chapter five

                              

THE young woman made her way cautiously toward the cluster of tumble-down wooden houses near Hangman's Point known as Thieves Hamlet.  She hesitated at the bottom of a set of gradually descending granite steps and stared into the darkness of the deserted alley.  Even at this late hour, she could hear the cacophonous Chinese instruments and monotonous dirge of a Chinese funeral ceremony in a house nearby.  God-awful noise that passed for music and droning chants of Taoist monks that passed for language.  She could catch glimpses of the monks' huge sleeves as they swirled about one of the rooms in time to the music.  From somewhere along the shore a dog barked and, as always, more than one dog aboard Tanka boats in the harbor answered it.  But from what she could discern in the shadows, in the long dark alley leading to her cheap one-bedroom flat, all was still.

The lantern beside the rubbish-strewn vacant lot which burned peanut oil had been removed to make way for a kerosene lamp but the lamp had yet to be installed.  She had to admit it was easier to make money in Hong Kong's taverns than it had been in the public-houses of London's Shadwell and Rotherhithe, but at least London had gas lighting which was more than she could say for this bloody colony which, once the sun was down, appeared to her as dark as a wolf's mouth.


 

She smiled at the memories of her escapades in London.  While barely into her teens, she had been a well-known "snow dropper," someone who habitually steals linen from clotheslines, and she had been good at it.  The truth was whenever she had been caught it had been more by her own choice than against her will.      When it was time to have her own linen washed all she had

to do was to wait for a peeler to show up, then throw a brick through a shopfront's window; and she'd be sure to get a nice warm box inside a stone jug.  It sometimes seemed to her she'd been in just about every prison in England including the "Old Horse," the "Garden," the "Stone Jug" and, of course, Newgate, known to those who had lodged there as "The King's Head."

The only major prison she'd never been inside was Pentonville where prisoners were forced to wear masks to prevent recognition and where speaking was forbidden and where even chapel pew seats had dividers.  One of the few men she'd ever cared for had finally managed to hang himself there.


 

She raised the hem of her flounced merino crinoline and walked slowly down the dirty steps and onto the winding gravel path.  She had had a good night of it in the taverns and wanted to get inside and count up the money.  Men could call her a "bonnet," or a "bit-of-Muslin," or a "sheila," or a "fabulous drop," or a "swivel-eyed flash packet," or even a "doxy;" and they could even paw at her well-endowed bubblies with their eager tattooed and sunburned and callused hands while referring to them as "Cupid's kettle drums;" and, yes, they could spill their cheap beer onto her dress and cover her inviting white neck with their rum-soaked kisses; just so long as they were paying for her drinks.  And that they did; often more than they realized. 

She knew as well as any woman how to make lonely soldiers and sailors part with their pay.  Bluejackets, Marines, men from the 59th, whaling men from New England, crews from opium clippers out of London and India, men with barely intelligible accents from Sydney and New Zealand: they all responded the same: Just enough encouragement; just enough promise; just enough show of flesh; just enough liquor in the glass.  Not to mention her blonde hair, blue eyes and dimpled smile.

Once a bluejacket was full and by, she had little trouble separating him from his valuables.  Make them think they're special and interesting and attractive and before they knew it, the copper cash and rupees and sovereigns and shillings and Spanish and Mexican dollars that had entered the taverns in their handkerchiefs or pockets or in the monkey bags around their necks were safely tucked inside secure compartments of her blue-and-maroon worsted bag.  She glanced with the pride of ownership at her expensive enamel watch and at the flat Scotch pebbles set into her handsome gold bracelet.  Gifts from gentlemen from New York and Liverpool whose nocturnal tastes ran to something other than boring evenings at the pianoforte, readings from the Bible and dull conversation with their very proper wives. 


 

Suddenly, the woman noticed movement near the door of her building.  She froze in place.  Even drunken sailors were getting themselves knocked on the head by Chinese gangs and robbed of their belongings; well, whatever belongings they might have left after a night of tavern-crawling along Queen's Road.  She was just reaching for a small single-barreled derringer in her purse when a figure dressed in black stepped toward her and smiled.  The woman let out her breath.  "Blimey!  It's you.  By the blessed virgin, you gave me a fright!  You silly blighter, what the devil are you doin' waitin' by a lady's door?"

The man smiled self-consciously and pointed in the direction of her bedroom.

"Ah, you'd be wanting a little something, would you?  Well, I worked myself half to death in the taverns tonight so I don't honestly know if I can give you your money's worth...Say, you're not much of a cackler tonight, are you?" 

The man lowered his gaze to the ground as if embarrassed by his obvious desire.  This fellow was a strange one, all right.  But she thought of the crinoline she wanted to make.  It would take 18 full yards of silk; very expensive silk.  And, when he had it, this fellow wasn't one to worry about spending a few quid for a good time.  She smiled at him and rubbed a pink tongue over her full, carmine-colored lips.  "Oh, all right, ducky, I'm not forgetting the lovely present you made me.  It's right here snug against me breast."  She draped her shawl more closely about her

shoulders and began walking past him toward the door.  "Come on, then, if you're coming."


 

She had hardly stepped by him when she felt the hand over her mouth.  She had both hands on the back of his when she saw the long marlin spike emerge from his jacket pocket.  She began to struggle when the hand with the spike moved upward and rested the point against the soft smooth skin of her throat as if to quiet her.  She stopped struggling.  Then the hand with the spike lowered itself, paused, and, in an instant, with tremendous force, plunged the tapered iron pin upward into her white neck just under her chin, and upward still, until, by an enormous strength born out of pure hatred, she was lifted by that spike and turned slowly around to face her attacker like a broken doll. She was too far into the grip of death to see the gleam of malevolence in the man's eyes. 

The spike was quickly withdrawn and she slumped silently to the ground, blood spurting from her neck, mouth and nose.  The man's eyes glittered with the sexual gratification he received as the memory of his life and death struggle in the tiny wave-tossed whaleboat blended with the sight of the beautiful dying woman:  his relentless harpoon thrusts and especially the final lance thrust puncturing the lungs of the fatally wounded whale.  The sight of the magnificent beast drowning in its own blood, turning the water blowing from its spout into a blood-red geyser.  Even in the midst of that peril, and in the exhaustion following it, there too, at the sight of that beautiful crimson eruption, he had achieved erection and orgasm.

The man bent over to wipe the spike clean along the flounces of her crinoline.  He paused as if undecided, then rested the spike in one of her open hands while he meticulously wiped the blood from his hands on her shawl.  He retrieved his spike, stood erect and soundlessly slid the spike back into his pocket.  From the same pocket he withdrew a small burgundy pennon.  He unfolded it carefully and for several seconds his eyes examined his victim from head to toe, then finally he lay the triangular pennant gently across her bosom.


 

He remained completely still for several seconds as if listening intensely to the chanting of the Taoist priests; as if he had performed one of the fiendish rites demanded by some exotic and exacting religion and was uncertain of what else was necessary, then knelt beside the woman on one knee and tenderly and gently stroked her hair.  And as tears welled in his eyes, all the anger and hatred he had felt burning inside him dissipated.  And he understood he had done the terrible thing yet again; the thing after last time he had sworn never to do.  And his hatred was replaced by self-loathing and shame and remorse.  And then the man was gone. 

                              

Sequel to Hangman's Point