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A Novel The Imperial China Trilogy
By Robert Elegant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Robert S. Elegant and Moira Elegant
All rights reserved.
May 28, 1900
Mary Philippa Osgood was four weeks removed from the twentieth birthday that would, by the rigid standards of the late Victorian era, transform her from a young woman into a spinster. Never during the preceding nineteen years and eleven months had she been as acutely aware of her own body as she was at 8:15 on the morning of May 28, 1900. Dancing across the ruffled Pearl River Estuary, the gusts that swelled the vestigial sails of the Orion molded her ankle-length dress to the curves of her bosom, her hips, and her legs.
Before leaving England seven weeks earlier, she had bought a new dress for £5, her Aunt Margaret's generous going-away gift. The motherly wife of the major commanding the home depot of the Royal Wessex Fusiliers had helped her select the long-wearing dark blue serge the Stepney mercers recommended as "eminently suitable for summer." But the "lightweight" fabric was a sackcloth torment in the 92 heat and 93 percent humidity when the Orion left the fresh sea air behind on entering the western approaches to Hong Kong.
She had daringly discarded her camisole along with two of her three petticoats, and she wore her lightest stays. The major's wife had confided that the corsets suitable for the English summer could be agonizingly confining in the faraway, subtropical Crown Colony. Nonetheless, Mary was uncomfortably aware of her nipples' swelling under the chafing serge. Perspiration dripped between her full breasts, trickling down to tremble on the secret tendrils of hair that covered the parts she thought of as "the place between my thighs." Though she remembered shameful dreams, she had never known such intense awareness of her body before this voyage. Was this, she wondered uneasily, the spell of the sensuous, sinful East? She was profoundly conscious of being a woman, not only a woman in all her parts, but a white woman surrounded by men of color.
Soft-padded fingers grasped her elbow to steady her against the ship's motion with excessive concern, though her own hands gripped the foredeck rail. The pressure was light and deferential, but, she felt in her heightened awareness, somehow predatory. Abruptly, her North Country common sense asserted itself. She laughed at her fancies and brushed back a tendril of red-gold hair. The gesture strained her breasts against the light serge, and her companion caught his breath.
"Miss Osgood, there it is, just over the horizon. You can see the loom against the clouds."
Hilary Metcalfe's deep voice recalled her to a reality different from any she had known. Orion was steaming among rocky islets veined with emerald vegetation, which lay upon the wind-brushed sea like meteorites. In the distance on her left a wisp of smoke rose, and a dark shape that might have been a small craft bobbed beneath an elongated, vertical shadow that might have been a sail. She saw no other sign of human life. Yet her nostrils were assailed by unfamiliar odors that swamped the clean tang of the sea: wood-smoke and incense; an unpleasant mustiness and the reek of corruption; a nauseatingly fecal stench and a garlic-laden, many-spiced scent.
"The fragrance of the East, essence of the Orient," Metcalfe rumbled in her ear. "They call it Hong Kong — the Fragrant Port. There's the stench of decay, of course, but mainly the effluvia of the chief Chinese occupation — eating. There's wood-smoke, garlic, coriander, anise, vinegar, oyster sauce, dried fish, and barbecued pork. And, over all, dark brown, pungent soy-sauce."
She had learned early in the voyage that Mr. Metcalfe was a pedant. She knew the type well, for she had earned her keep as a governess since her mother's death two years earlier. As she would not a few months earlier, she applied the word to a man who seemed venerable at fifty-six. The journey had taught her that she was quicker, more forceful, and more perceptive than most young women in the sixty-second year of the reign of Her Most Excellent Majesty, Victoria, By the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and of Her Other Realms and Territories over the Sea, Queen; Empress of India; Defender of the Faith. She guarded her knowledge of her capabilities, and she could flutter her eyelashes as fetchingly as the most helpless Victorian miss. Besides, she had learned much from Hilary Metcalfe, who was neither patronizing nor importunate. She had also learned that she could bend Metcalfe and the ship's officers to her wishes, not only by feminine guile, but by calm persistence.
"Perhaps the Chinese don't have enough to eat, Mr. Metcalfe," she teased.
"Sometimes, Miss Osgood. But they're devoted, religiously devoted to their bellies — pardon an old man's directness. More than family, more than their gods, more than their Emperor, more than their ... anything else, they're devoted to their bellies."
"And to nothing else, Sir?"
"I didn't say that. The Chinese're also devoted to gold, and acquire wealth in many devious ways. They'll also labor hard — if they must. They are an ingenious race and a desperately industrious race, when all else fails. But they are also different from all other races."
Hilary Metcalfe paused to formulate his words precisely, straining instinctively to give his best to his eager pupil.
"We have moved slowly over the seas and through the weeks from one pole of civilization to another. The curious sights you saw in the Mediterranean, the Near East, India, and the Straits Settlements were but a gradual transition. You have now arrived at the true Antipodes. Even the Japanese are not more strange."
"How so, Mr. Metcalfe?" she asked.
Orion's captain had told her that the Metcalfes possessed much wealth amassed in the India trade. But Hilary Metcalfe worked as a clerk-interpreter in the Hong Kong trading house of Derwent, Hayes and Company, rather than tending his fortune in fashionable state. His occupation afforded him both opportunity and leisure to study the culture, the history, and the language of the Chinese. Though he might have taken a swift Peninsular and Oriental mail steamer that guaranteed passage to Hong Kong in just thirty-four days, his eccentricity had led him to sail on Orion, which was finally closing port on the fiftieth day after leaving the Pool of London.
Mary had been granted no such choice. The War Office, reluctant to disburse £60 for her passage on Orion, had flatly refused to pay a surcharge of ten guineas for a mail steamer. Only the cajoling of the major's wife had spared the lonely girl the rigors of a troopship, since her father was no more than the Bandmaster of the Regiment.
"How," Mary persisted, "are the Chinese different?"
"How?" Hilary Metcalfe echoed her question. "It's not just the claptrap you've heard — men wearing skirts and women trousers, soup at the end of the meal, brides wearing red, mourners wearing white — though all true enough. Their minds are made different ... antipodean, the other pole from ours. They'll scramble for a handful of coppers today, but disdain to plan to gain a bag of gold tomorrow. Hong Kong was a barren rock before we made it the world's third busiest port — soon, perhaps, the second."
Mary gasped in pretty wonder, though she was as much concerned about commerce as the dark side of the moon.
"We had to force the Chinese to trade," Hilary Metcalfe continued, "though they could've made Hong Kong or Canton their own goldmine. But they virtually compelled us to seize Hong Kong. And we get the lion's share. Some don't do badly, too shrewd not to. But the ruling classes, the Mandarins, profoundly despise trade — and despise us too."
Hilary Metcalfe pondered the inner resonance of his own words. The broad head beneath his checked deer-stalker cap withdrew like a turtle's into his heavy shoulders. He gestured toward the surrounding islands.
Two objects bobbing on the water caught Mary's eye. One was pale gray, and its swollen curves glittered repellently. The other, equally distended, was a livid black. From each four small posts thrust upright like warped tables abandoned to the sea. She caught her breath, when a rising wave displayed the bloated carcasses of a pig and a dog keeping strange convoy in death.
The horizon was speckled with islands. Some barren gray, others richly green, all seemed to appear from the depths as the broom of the wind dispersed the morning mist. The Orion was winding through a narrow channel. On her right two shoe-shaped boats lay on a dun-brown beach. On the left, a cliff loomed on the verge of a large land mass.
"Hong Kong?" Mary asked. "Hong Kong, finally? No, it can't be. It must be China, the mainland, there."
"Neither, Miss Osgood," the Sinologue answered. "That's Lantao, Rocky Mount. It's bigger than Hong Kong, the biggest island. The Portuguese, who settled Macao three hundred and fifty years ago, called these islands the Ladrones — Thieves. They were home for a nest of pirates until we began cleaning them out sixty years ago. Pirates are still about, though they'll not bother us. But these islands are still the Ladrones. The big thieves've driven out the little thieves. Haphazard Chinese theft's given way to organized European theft."
"You sound as if you too hated the English. Do you really despise us?"
"Despise the English, Miss Osgood?" Mr. Metcalfe rallied. "Hardly. It would hardly do to despise myself. We've done fearful deeds here, but we've also done some magnificent things."
"Fearful and magnificent things, Mr. Metcalfe?" Mary prompted.
"Yes, both. Hong Kong was a barren, fever-ridden island of a few hundred fishermen and pirates, no more. We made it a great port. But we taught the people to hate us — and to fawn on us. We forced opium on them. The mansions you'll see aren't built on rock, but on the noxious juice of pretty poppies.
"You know, Miss Osgood, at this moment in Peking, the Chinese are rising. The Boxers, we call them. The Righteous Harmonious Society, they call themselves. A devil-worshiping sect that claims esoteric powers is stealthily backed by the Court of the Empress Dowager. The Boxers claim they can't be killed by our bullets. Nonsense, of course. But they know what they want. No nonsense about that. They're sworn to expel us from China. They want our blood."
"Our blood, Sir?"
"Our blood, your blood, Miss Osgood. We've forced their hands, forced the Chinese to trade with us when they wanted only to be left alone. We've done so with guns and arrogance, with rapine and destruction and slaughter."
"My father wrote we had to keep the upper hand or they'd be at our throats?"
"He's right, perhaps. So most people believe. But why? In part, because we've always kept them apart in Hong Kong, even farther apart than they wanted to keep us in China — the Chinese and the British are two different species, not different races. Between the two — a few Chinese we've won over, a few who cooperate for gain, a few déclassé Portuguese, and some Eurasians ... mixed bloods, your pardon, Miss Osgood. We've driven the Chinese, but they've done the work. They've sweated to build this British paradise in the Orient."
"You feel very strongly."
"That I do!" Mr. Metcalfe forced a chuckle. "Your father tells you we must keep the upper hand. He'll probably tell you the Chinese all hate us, that we can't trust one of them. He may tell you that a single drop of Chinese blood in a great Eurasian gentleman like Sir Jonathan Sekloong or the promising young man, Robert Hotung, makes him less than a man — neither proper Chinese pagan nor good British Christian.
"But such men have served us well — and served China well. Ten centuries ago, their ancestors were living with civilized grace on the mainland just over there to the north. No hive of bandits, thieves, and pirates, the mainland was a cultivated community. Yet I grow too heated — and there is Hong Kong."
The gray mass on the horizon had resolved into an island studded with irregular hills around a summit Mary knew was called Victoria Peak to honor the young Queen who had ascended the throne only four years before Hong Kong formally became a Crown Colony in 1842. Orion was passing a miniature island with a whitewashed lighthouse on its summit and two small houses clinging to its slopes. It was called Green Island, she knew from the maps she'd studied. On Hong Kong Island itself, rows of hovels built of bamboo, wood, and woven reeds descended in tiers like ramshackle steps to the harbor's edge.
Miniature high-pooped galleons tossed in the white capped waters. Their tattered sails were crazy-quilts of stained yellow, rusty brown, and faded purple stretched on frail bamboo ribs. She marveled that the fragile patchwork did not shred, but drove the clumsy vessels through the waves. They surged purposefully toward Orion, trailing twisted white wakes behind their square sterns.
Orion turned majestically to starboard, and her siren shrieked repeatedly. In Mary's bemused ears the wild ululation sounded both mournful and joyous. The ship was keening her sorrow at the long voyage's end while crying exultant greetings to the goal finally attained.
Mary shuddered involuntarily as the vista of the harbor opened before her. She would, she knew, stay no longer than a year before the Regiment was posted home to England. But her blood throbbed as if she had come to a long-awaited rendezvous in a place that was outlandishly strange, yet redolent with ancient memories. She was, at once, exhilarated and terrified.
"Quite different from what you pictured, but still somehow familiar, isn't it, Miss Osgood?"
Mr. Metcalfe's voice in her ear was almost drowned by the shrieking siren. She looked up half-fearfully at his blunt features dominated by the brooding gray eyes that had uncannily discerned her own feelings.
"I'll leave you now," the deep, gentle voice said. "It's better to see Hong Kong for the first time alone. Please don't forget you can reach me at Derwent's if you can find time from the round of gaiety — or if you need help."
She nodded abstractedly. Why, she wondered, should she possibly need Hilary Metcalfe's help? But the unease evoked by his remark was forgotten when she gazed upon the panorama of Hong Kong.
The harbor was forested with masts: the rope-and-wood tracery of sailing ships' masts crossed by square yards; the blunt masts of steamers; and the light-gray warships' tripod masts like little Eiffel Towers. Multitudes of wooden Chinese junks skittered through that forest under their patchwork sails. The all-pervading medley of odors was already as warmly familiar as the aroma of new-baked bread. For the first time, Mary told herself self-consciously, she knew that she had come to China.
Coolies wearing only flapping black trousers streamed through wide gates into the cavernous warehouses along the waterfront. Mary sensed the tension in the distant bronze figures that bore their burdens on bamboo poles across sweat-filmed shoulders. The scene shimmered in the heat waves rising from the stone pavements.
In the central district, buildings with crenelated façades offered shelter from the harsh sun beneath marquees supported by ornate pillars. Two strolling ladies in flowing dresses were obscured by the artificial gloom beneath the marquees, while white-clad gentlemen strode purposefully. Two signs in English stood out amid a welter of contorted Chinese writing: QUEEN'S BUILDING on the broad front of a four-story structure across the road from the seawall and the familiar legend PENINSULAR AND ORIENTAL.
A narrow path wound up The Peak, still half obscured by the veil of the morning mist. Two cathedrals dominated its lower slopes. The Catholic edifice on the right was mock-Gothic with half-buttresses; the Anglican was austere in its whitewashed simplicity. Between the churches stood a four-square mansion with sweeping steps set amid broad grounds. She recognized it from the photographs she had seen as Government House, the residence of the Governor of the Crown Colony.
Smaller villas dotted the winding roads. Most were white, but some were painted green or pink like those she had seen at Malta. All in all, Hong Kong was reassuringly, familiarly British, despite its faintly Mediterranean air. But the photographs had depicted neither the damp heat — a palpable entity as real as the stone buildings — nor the enveloping, pungent odors.
The anchor chain clattering through the hawse pipe recalled Mary to reality. But she was relieved of the multitude of tasks a journey's end normally entailed. Sweating profusely in a high-collared red uniform with silver facings, a sergeant of the Fusiliers appeared like a devil popping through a trapdoor in a Christmas pantomime. His heavy-featured, florid face and his familiar brass badges were blessedly familiar.
"Miss Osgood?" The sergeant's smile revealed discolored teeth. "Your Dad — pardon, Miss — Bandmaster Osgood presents his compliments. He can't meet you. The band's playing at Government House for the nobs. But I'm told off to look out for you. Sergeant Howells, Miss."
Coolies' bare feet slapped on the white-sanded deck. Mary flinched from the acrid stench of sweat, and her steamer trunk, swaying on a bamboo pole, swung sideways brushing her skirt.
"Hi, there Johnnie, makee slow, makee slow!" Sergeant Howells slashed at the nearer coolie with his bamboo stick. "Damned yellow fellow — you can hurtee Missy."
A broad welt appeared on the bronze back as if a crimson-dipped brush had been drawn across the corded, straining muscles. The coolie did not look up.
Excerpted from Dynasty by Robert Elegant. Copyright © 1977 Robert S. Elegant and Moira Elegant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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