Strange Interview

FROM Tai-Pan by James Clavell

The village of Aberdeen lay dark and humid and silent under the full moon. The streets were deserted and the doors of the huts barred tight. Hundreds of sampans were moored in the still, muddy waters. And though they were as jam-packed as the huts, there was neither sound nor movement aboard.

Struan was standing at the prearranged place, at the fork in the path just outside the village, beside the well. The well was rock-lipped and Struan had hung three lanterns on it. He was alone and his gold fob watch told him it was almost time. He wondered if Wu Kwok and his men would come from the village or from the sampans or from the desolate hills. Or from the sea.

He studied the sea. Nothing moved but the waves. Somewhere out in the darkness, sailing close-hauled, was China Cloud, her men at action stations. Too far for those aboard to observe him closely, but near enough to see the light of the lanterns. Struan’s orders were that if the lanterns were abruptly extinguished, the men were to take to the boats and come ashore with musket and cutlass.

The muted voices of the handful of men he had brought along wafted up faintly from the beach. They were waiting beside the two cutters, armed and ready, also watching the lanterns’ light. He listened intently but could not distinguish what they were saying. I’d be safer to be completely alone, he told himself. I want no prying eyes in this. But to be ashore alone wi’out guards’d be foolish. Worse, it’d be testing my joss. Aye.

He stiffened as a dog snarled in the quiet of the village. He listened intently and watched for moving shadows. But he saw none and knew that the dog was only scavenging. He leaned back against the well and began to relax, content to be back on the island. Content that May-may and the children were safe in the house that had been built for them in Happy Valley.

Robb and Culum had handled expertly all that had to be done while he was away. The small house, with surrounding walls and strong gates, had been completed. Two hundred and fifty men had worked on it day and night.

There were still many details to be finished and all of the garden yet to be planted, but the house itself was habitable and mostly furnished. It was built of bricks and had a fireplace and wooden roof. The rooms were beamed. Many of the walls were paper-covered, but a few were painted, and all had glass windows.

The house faced the sea and contained a master suite and dining room and large living room. And, to the west, a latticed haven around a garden, private from the rest of the house. Here were May-may’s quarters and the children’s rooms, and beyond them the servants’ quarters.

Struan had brought May-may and the children and Ah Sam, the amah, with him into the house the day before yesterday and had settled them there. A trusted cook boy named Lim Din and a wash amah and makee-learnee—as apprentice scullion maids were called—had come back with him from Canton.

And though no Europeans had seen May-may, most of them were sure that the Tai-Pan had brought his mistress into the first permanent habitation on Hong Kong. They chuckled among themselves, or denounced him through their jealousy. But they said nothing to their wives. In due course they would want to bring their own mistresses and the less said the better. The wives who suspected held their peace. There was nothing they could do.

Struan had been very pleased with his house and with the progress on the warehouses and factory. And also with the results of his public coldness toward Culum. Culum had told him covertly that already he had had the first tentative probe from Brock, and that Wilf Tillman had invited him aboard Cooper-Tillman’s expensive opium hulk and had entertained him lavishly.

Culum had said that trade was discussed—how the future of Asia depended vitally on cooperation, particularly between the Anglo-Saxon races. He had said that Shevaun had been at dinner and that she had been very beautiful and vivacious.

A fish leaped out of the water, hung for a moment in the air, and fell back again. Struan watched for a moment, listening. Then he relaxed again and let his mind roam.

Shevaun’d make a good match for Culum, Struan thought dispassionately. Or for yoursel’. Aye. She’d make a fine hostess and an interesting addition to the banquets you’ll be giving in London. To the lords and ladies and members of Parliament. And Cabinet ministers. Will you buy yoursel’ a baronetcy? You could afford to ten times over. If Blue Cloud’s home first. Or second, even third—so long as she’s safe. If the season’s trade is safely concluded, then you can buy yoursel’ an earldom.

Shevaun’s young enough. She’d bring a useful dowry and interesting political connections. What about Jeff Cooper? He’s head over heels in love with her. If she says no to him, that’s his problem.

What about May-may? Would a Chinese wife bar you from the inner sanctum? Certainly. She would weigh the dice heavily against you. Out of the question.

Wi’out the right sort of wife English social life will be impossible. Diplomacy is mostly settled in private drawing rooms, in luxury. Perhaps the daughter, of a lord, or earl or Cabinet minister? Wait till you’re home, eh? There’s plenty of time.

Is there?

A dog barked shrilly among the sampans and then shrieked as others fell on it. The sounds of the death battle rose and fell, then ceased. Silence again but for the furtive growling, scuffling, ripping in the darkness as the victors began to feed.

Struan was watching the sampans, his back to the lanterns. He saw a shadow move, and another, and soon a silent press of Chinese was leaving the floating village and grouping on the shore. He saw Scragger.

Struan held his pistol loosely and waited calmly, searching the darkness for Wu Kwok. The men came up with the path noiselessly, Scragger cautiously in the middle. They stopped near the well and stared at Struan. All were young, in their early twenties, all dressed in black tunics and black trousers, thonged sandals on their feet, large coolie hats masking their faces.

“Top of the evening, Tai-Pan,” Scragger said softly, on guard and readying for instant retreat.

“Where’s Wu Kwok?”

“He asks your pardon, like, but he be powerful busy. Here be the ’undred. Take the pick and let’s be off, hey?”

“Tell them to split themsel’ into tens and to strip.”

“Strip, did y’say?”

“Aye. Strip, by God!”

Scragger blinked at Struan. Then he shrugged and went back to the men and spoke in soft singsong. The Chinese chattered quietly, then sorted themselves into separate tens and took off their clothes.

Struan beckoned to the first ten and they walked into the light. From some of the groups he picked one, from others two or three, from a few, none. He chose with utmost care. He knew he was assembling a task force which would spearhead his advance into the heart of China. If he could bend them to his will. The men who would not meet his eye he excluded immediately. Those whose queues were ratty and unkempt he passed over. Those with weak physiques were not considered. Those whose faces were dotted with smallpox marks had a point in their favor—for Struan knew that smallpox ravaged ships in all the seas, and that a man who had had the disease and had recovered was a man immune and strong and one who knew the value of life. Those with well-healed knife wounds he favored. Those who bore their nakedness carelessly he approved. Those who bore their nakedness with hostility he scrutinized painstakingly, knowing that violence and the sea are shipmates. Some he picked for the hatred in their eyes and some only because of a hunch he had when he looked into their faces.

Scragger watched the selecting with growing impatience. He drew his knife and repeatedly threw it into the dirt.

At last Struan had finished. “These are the men I want. They can all dress now.”

Scragger barked an order and the men dressed. Struan took out a sheaf of papers and handed one to Scragger.

“You can read this out to them.”

“Wot be it?”

“A regulation indenture. Rates of pay and terms of five years’ service. They’re all to sign one.”

“I doan read. An’ wot’s paper for, eh? Wu Fang Choi’s tol’ them they be yorn for five year.”

Struan gave him another sheet covered with Chinese characters. “Give this to someone who can read. They’ll each sign or I will na accept them and the deal is off.”

“Doings things ri’ht proper, baint you?” Scragger took the paper and called out to a short, pockmarked Chinese who had been selected. The man came forward, and taking the paper, studied it under the lantern’s light. Scragger jerked a thumb at those who had been rejected and they disappeared into the sampans.

The man began to read.

“What’s his name?”

“Fong.”

“Fong what?”

“Fong wot you likes. Who’s t’know wot name these monkeys run under?”

The Chinese were listening intently to Fong. At one point a muted, nervous gust of laughter wafted from them. “Wot’s funny?” Scragger asked in Cantonese. Fong took a long time to explain.

Scragger turned on Struan. “Wot’s all this about, eh? They’s to promise not to fornicate and not to marry for the five year? That baint proper. Wot d’you think they be?”

“That’s just the normal clause, Scragger. All indentures have the same.”

“Not seamen’s papers, by God.”

“They’re to be captains and officers, so they must have indenture papers. To make it legal.”

“Very unproper, if you asks me. You mean they can’t bed a doxy for five years?”

“It’s only a formality. But they canna marry.”

Scragger turned and made a short speech. Again there was laughter. “I sayed they’s to obey you like God all-bloody-mighty. ’Cepting in fornication.” He wiped the sweat off his face. “Wu Fang’s tol’ ’em they be yors for five year. So there be no need to worry.”

“Why’re you so nervous, eh?”

“Nothing. Nothing, I tells you.”

Fong continued to read. There was a hush and someone asked for a clause to be repeated. Scragger’s interest increased. It was about their pay. Potential captains were to be paid fifty pounds for the first year, seventy the second and the third, a hundred when they had a first mate’s ticket and a hundred and fifty with their master’s. A sixtieth share of profits for any ships they captained. A bonus of twenty pounds if they learned English in three months.

“A hundred and fifty nicker be more’n they be earning in ten years,” Scragger said.

“You want a job?”

“I be happy with me present employ, thankee kindly.” He screwed up his face as a thought struck him. “Wu Fang won’t be paying all that nicker,” he said cagily.

“He will na be asked. These men’ll earn every penny, you can be sure of that. Or they’ll be beached.”

“So long as me guv’s not to pay, you pays ’em wot you likes and wastes yor own money.”

After Fong had finished reading the document, Struan made each man write his name in characters on a copy. Every man could write. And he made each man daub his left palm with chop ink and imprint the palm on the back of the paper.

“Wot be that for?”

“Every hand palm’s different. Now I know each man—whatever his name. Where’re the boys?”

“You want the men t’ the boats?”

“Aye.” Struan gave Fong a lantern and motioned him to the beach. The other men followed silently.

“The picking and papering were clever, Tai-Pan. Yo’re right smart.” Scragger sucked the end of his knife pensively. “I heared you one-upped Brock right proper. Over the bullion too.”

Struan glanced back at Scragger, abruptly suspicious. “There were Europeans in that attack, so Brock said. Were you one of them?”

“If I’d been ordered in by Wu Fang, Tai-Pan, there beed no failure. Wu Fang Choi doan like failure. Musta beed some poxy locals. Terrible.” Scragger peered around the darkness. When he’d made sure they were quite alone, he spoke conspiratorially. “Wu Kwok be Fukienese. He come from Quemoy, up the coast, eh? You know the island?”

“Aye.”

“Midsummer Night there be a festival. Wu Kwok be there for sure. Something to do with his ancestors.” Scragger’s eyes took on a malevolent glitter. “If a frigate or two was cruising there, why, he be caught like a poxy gutter rat in a barrel.”

Struan smiled scornfully. “That he would!”

“It be th’ truth I tells you, by God. You’ve me oath, by God. That bugger tricked me into giving you me oath when it were lie and I’ll not forgive that. Scragger’s oath be as good as yorn!”

“Aye. Of course. Do you think I’d trust a man who’d sell his master like a rat?”

“He baint my master. Wu Fang Choi’s me guv’, no one else. I swore ’legiance to him, no other. You’ve me oath.”

Struan contemplated Scragger. “I’ll think about Midsummer Night.”

“You’ve me oath. I want him deaded, by God. A man’s oath be all he’s got twixt hisself and damnation. That swine took mine, God curse him, so I wants him deaded to pay.”

“Where’re the boys?”

“They’s to be toffs, like you sayed?”

“Hurry it up, I want to be off.”

Scragger turned and whistled into the darkness. Three small shadows moved out of the sampans. The boys walked cautiously down the rickety gangplank onto the ground and hurried up the path. Struan’s eyes widened as the boys came into the light. One was Chinese. One was Eurasian. And the last was a grubby little English urchin. The Chinese boy was richly gowned, his queue thick and well plaited. He carried a bag. The other two were pathetically dressed in grimy pseudo-English boys’ clothes—their frock coats homespun, their little top hats battered, and their trousers and shoes homemade and crudely stitched. Over the shoulders each carried a stick with a bundle dangling from the end.

All the boys tried desperately—and unsuccessfully—to cover their anxiety.

“This be Wu Pak Chuk,” Scragger said. The Chinese boy bowed nervously. “He be Wu Fang Choi’s grandson. One of ’em, but not from Wu Kwok. And these be me own lads.” He pointed proudly at the little urchin, who flinched involuntarily. “This be Fred. He be six. And this’n’s Bert, seven.”

He made a slight motion and both boys doffed their hats and bowed and mumbled something through their panic and looked back at their father to see if they had done it right. Bert, the Eurasian boy, had had his queue coiled under his hat, but now, from all the fidgeting, the queue hung down his back. The urchin’s hair was filthy and, like his father’s, tied with a piece of tarred hemp at the nape of his neck.

“Come over here, lads,” Struan said compassionately.

The urchin took his half brother’s hand and the two came slowly forward. They stopped, barely breathing. The English boy wiped a dribble of mucus from his nose with the back of his hand.

“You’re Fred?”

“Yus, Yor Worship,” he whispered, scarcely audible.

“Speak up, lad,” Scragger said, and the boy blurted out, “Yus, Yor Worship, I be Fred.”

“I be Bert, Yor Worship.” The Eurasian quailed as Struan looked at him. He was a tall, handsome lad with beautiful teeth and golden skin. He was the tallest of the three.

Struan glanced at Wu Pak. The boy lowered his eyes and scuffed at the earth.

“He does na speak English?”

“No. But Bert here speaks his tongue. An’ Fred some words. Bert’s ma be Fukienese.” Scragger’s discomfort worsened.

“Where’s your mother, Fred?”

“Dead, Yor Worship,” the urchin choked out. “She be dead, sirr.”

“She be deaded two year back. Scurvy got her,” Scragger said.

“You’ve Englishwomen with your fleet?”

“Some has. Back over there, lads,” he said, and his sons fled to where he was pointing and stood rock-still, out of hearing. Wu Pak hesitated, then ran back and stood close beside them.

Scragger dropped his voice. “Fred’s ma were convict. Transported ten year for stealing coal in the depth of winter. We was married by a priest in Australia but he were renegade so maybe it weren’t proper. We was married anyways. I give her me oath afore she deaded to do right by the lad.”

Struan took out more papers. “These give me guardianship of the boys. Until they’re twenty-one. You can sign for your sons but what about Wu Pak? Should be a relation.”

“I’ll put me mark on all. You got one for me to show Wu Fang? Wot I signeded?”

“Aye. You can take one.”

Struan began to fill in the names, but Scragger stopped him. “Tai-Pan, doan put Scragger on the boys. Put another name. Any you likes—no, doan tell me wot,” he added quickly. “Any name. You think of a good one.” The sweat was beading his forehead. His fingers trembled as he took the pencil and made his mark. “Fred’s to forget me. An’ his ma. Do yor best with Bert, eh? His ma’s still me woman and she bain’t bad, for a heathen. Do yor best for ’em and you’ve a friend for life. Me oath on’t. They both beed taught to say their prayers proper.” He blew his nose in his fingers and wiped them on his trousers. “Wu Pak’s got to write once a month to Jin-qua. Oh yus, and yor t’bill Jin-qua for the schooling and wot. Once a year. They’s all to go to the same school and vittle together.”

He beckoned to the Chinese boy. Wu Pak came forward reluctantly. Scragger jerked a thumb toward the boats and the boy left obediently. Then he beckoned his sons.

“I be off now, lads.”

The boys ran to him and clung to him and begged him not to send them away, their tears streaming and terror overwhelming them. But he pushed them off and forced his voice hard. “Be off with you now. Obey the Tai-Pan here. He’s t’be like a dad to yer.”

“Doan send us’n off, Dad,” Fred said piteously. “I beed a good boy. Bert’n me be good boys, Dad, doan send us’n off.”

They stood in the enormousness of their grief, their shoulders heaving.

Scragger cleared his throat noisily and spat. After a second’s hesitation, he jerked out his knife and seized Bert’s queue. The Eurasian squealed with horror and tried to fight free. But Scragger chopped off the queue and cuffed the hysterical boy hard enough to bring him out of shock, but no harder.

“Oh, Dad,” Fred said tremulously in his little piping voice, “you knowed Bert promised his mum to keep his hair proper.”

“Better I do’s it, Fred, afore another,” Scragger said, his voice breaking. “Bert doan need it now. He’s t’be toff like you.”

“I doan want to be toff, I want t’ stay home.”

Scragger tousled Bert’s head a last time. And Fred’s.

“ ’Bye, my sons,” he said. He rushed away and the night swallowed him.

✥❆✥❆✥❆✥❆✥

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Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 5:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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