Continuing the exploits of an adventurer in early 20th Century China
Young? I was hardly young. Well, compared to the inveterate priest... never mind. All I had said was that I did not entirely ignore God, only when it was convenient. Yeah, I suppose I had crossed the line with the good father, but surely by this time he expected nothing better than my usual charm and witty banter.
I glanced at Ping, my Chinese boy, and received his cold, near-expressionless gaze - he was not happy with me, either - then turned back to Father Hopfinger. "Father, forgive my impetuous tongue. I should not have said what I said."
Father Hopfinger's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed as he stared at me with obvious dismay, apparently doubting my verity, which of course I had frequently given him cause to do. He quietly sighed, then rubbed the flat of one hand along the top of his thinning, white-haired scalp. He looked from me to the canvas bag of silver he held in his other hand, then shook his head, though his expression had softened to an aspect of conciliation.
"My son, the children at the mission will be very grateful to you. Your offering will provision them for several months." The good father headed a mission school in Peking that had taken in a number of orphans following the Boxer Uprising of 1900, an uprising that had been brutally crushed by the joint forces of all the great western powers and Japan. The orphans were Christians, the children of parents who were slaughtered by their neighbors for submitting to the religion of the long-nose foreign devils.
Father Hopfinger turned his portly body to enter the mission doors, then slowly turned back to me. "My son, God will bless you for your offering. Yet, I suspect you kept plenty of silver in your pocket for drinking and whoring while you're here in Peking."
I nodded, though I tried to look contrite. "I am but a man, father."
"My son, you must rise above your carnal nature." Purpose had returned to the good father's voice. "If you would but try you would find God forgiving of weakness."
A slight, but sly smile crept across my lips. "Oh, but father, that is what the silver is for."
Father Hopfinger's eyes clouded with renewed anger. "Do you believe atoning is nothing more than to purchase forgiveness?" Then, louder, "Do you think-"
I winked and smiled broadly.
The old priest snapped his jaw shut and breathed a loud sigh through his very wide nostrils, then said with weariness in his voice, "Go with God, William Kirsch." He shook his head and turned away, muttering, "For reasons that defy me, he seems to travel with you whether you deserve him or not."
The train ride from Peking to Chinan-fu required an evening, a night, and part of the next morning. The morning had seemed as good a time as any for a birthday party. Ping was fifteen; my boy was becoming a man. We didn't have cake with frosting, but I was able to purchase steamed cornmeal cakes and roasted sweet potatoes from the throng of food vendors who descend on trains at every stop along the tracks. I even purchased rich, hot cocoa-at a rich price-from an enterprising young Chinese who had switched from selling tea to the sweet favorite of so many westerners.
Ping lifted the lid from the heavy card box to reveal his birthday present: a brand new revolver. His wide, astonished eyes raised to stare at mine. "For me?" he asked incredulously.
I chuckled. "Of course it's for you! Why do you think I've had you practicing with my Peacemaker?"
Ping carefully unholstered the revolver and examined the piece, adoration brimming in his eyes. He bowed low and said, "I am most honoured, Mister Bill."
The weapon was a Smith and Wesson five-shot .38-caliber double-action, blued and with black hard rubber grip plates; the last thing you want in China is flashy. It had cost me almost forty-five over-priced American dollars when it included a belt with ammo loops, and even that had been a good deal in China; the underpowered weapon was being removed from production after the thirty-eights received bad publicity from the army during the Philippine Insurrection. Gun buyers now wanted the forty-fours or even the new Colt automatics. But, for Ping's small hands, the thirty-eight was perfect.
I'd bought myself a present as well, not a new gun, but a new hat from a Tientsin clothier. It was a fine J.B. Stetson Dakota with a three-and-a-half inch brim, black-not a good color for field work, but it was made from fur rather than wool felt, which meant I would get long, durable wear out of it. I must say it helped to create a gentlemanly image of me, or at least it did when I bothered to shave.
I parted the heavy velvet curtains covering the window of our first-class compartment (even the Chinese frowned on westerners travelling by anything other than first-class) and glanced out; the train should be nearing our destination soon. "Keep the gun and holster out of sight under your coat," I instructed Ping. "Half the value of a handgun is the surprise your enemy suffers when he suddenly learns you have it."
The boy beamed a broad smile and nodded his head with such exaggeration that his long, black, braided queue bobbed from behind his back. "Yes, sir, Mister Bill," he replied with the same exaggeration. "And thank you, sir!"
I shook my head mildly and smiled back. "You've no need to thank me, Ping. It is a gift, yes, but you've well earned it." The smile faded from my lips; he was likely to soon earn it again.
My boss, Charlie Coltman, who happened to be Standard Oil's Peking district manager, had sent me by rail from Peking to Chinan-fu, an ancient walled city on the Yellow River roughly 250 miles south of Peking and the capital of the populous Shantung Province. After my run in a few months ago with Hauptmann Albrecht von Gloeckner of the German East Asia Brigade I had been sacked from my job with the Imperial Chinese government. Gloeckner had executed Ping's father for an unproven crime and then ordered that Ping be executed as well. With my usual politic tactfullness I stopped him by killing several German soldiers. Due to Gloeckner's "alleged" unlawful actions, the Chinese government had refused to turn me over to German authorities for trial; be that as it may, I was something of a hot potato and considered myself lucky to acquire a job as a "field manager" with Standard, though I well understood that "troubleshooter" was still an apt description of my expected job performance. In Chinan-fu I was to take delivery of a rather valuable shipment of silver and see it safely transported and deposited in the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank of Peking; the selling of cheap, mass-produced oil lamps and American kerosene was proving vastly profitable to Standard Oil.
The task wasn't likely to be as simple as it sounded. China was in revolution. Foreign meddling and the western powers' humiliation of the Manchu government had definitely played its part in the dissatisfaction of the masses, but the inability of the Manchus to curb corruption and poverty had fueled the fires of revolt for a century. On the face of it I supported the overthrow of the corrupt Manchu Dynasty; Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his western-educated reformers had the right ideas for China's future-Dr. Sun was even a Methodist Christian. It was the other side of the coin that chilled me: lurking just below the facade of humble indifference of the Chinese people was an abeyant violence that awaited only the spark of provocation; a great number of people had been killed in the last few weeks and many more were yet going to die, and the number could include a lot of westerners. The irony was that Dr. Sun didn't spark the uprising. Wouldn't you know it, westerners themselves were a primary cause of the turmoil. The hated foreigners wanted to build a railroad deep into western China, into the "tea province" of Szechwan. Just as the railroads had already done across northern China and the coastal lowlands, this new railroad would disrupt the centuries-old economy of carriers and carters.
The uprising had begun in early October in Wuchang up the Yangtze River. In less than a month the fires of rebellion had swept to the coast and taken Shanghai and most of the southern provinces. The great southern trade city of Canton would soon fall. Then the rebel armies would turn north. After a century of defeated and aborted revolts, it appeared that the Manchus' Mandate of Heaven had finally run out.
Our arrival at Chinan-fu revealed to us a crowded city in upheaval. Masses of refugees, marginally protected from the chill temperature of autumn by their padded cotton garments, were streaming in from the south, their meager belongings piled high on wooden wheelbarrows or hanging from poles carried across the shoulders of bowed, exhausted bodies. Yet others were streaming out, going north; rumors abounded of a warlord army approaching from the south-not rebels, but Imperial troops. Manchu control was fragmenting, Peking itself was in turmoil, and provincial generals were seizing what they could for themselves while there was loot to be had.
It wasn't yet mid-morning, yet the food vendors lining the market streets were nearly cleaned out. A few street vendors still offered, for those who had money, the last of their apples, pears, peppers, scallions, and, of course, cabbage. I observed that a vendor selling gelid, a foul, rubbery substance made with caked chicken blood, was having a slow day; apparently, even the spartan Chinese had their limits. But, with so many coming into the city, hunger would soon drive the refugees to consume anything they could find. Scuffling was already beginning and would soon turn to outright violence as the impoverished and hungry resolved to take by force what little was left that they might ease the ache of their empty bellies.
Ping and I headed into the straight streets and European architecture of the foreign settlement west of the walled city, known as Shang-pu, the trading quarter. I carried my rifle, a British Lee-Enfield Mark I, which was to my mind possibly the finest rifle then available, though I must admit I was partial to the Lee-Enfield's high-capacity ten-round clip. Ping, in his usual place a few feet behind me and watching my back, carried only his concealed revolver; in the cities it was not wise for whites to enrage the native masses by parading around with armed and recreant (at least to Asian thinking) Chinese protectors.
"This ugly place, Mister Bill," Ping said in English, loud enough to be
heard over the tumult of the masses of displaced Chinese coolies-even
foreign settlement there were far more Chinese than whites. He needn't
warned me. I had been observing the fierce, hate-filled glances cast
way. The Chinese blamed every ill event on western invaders-which, of
course, they were to some degree correct. I turned my head and opened
mouth to cast a needless warning to stay sharp-and found myself
to my knees well before my brain could register the sudden sharp pain
side of my head. My eyes made out the many pairs of western boots that
rushed towards me before my vision went black.
Next - Chapter 2: An Unwelcome Return
This story is copyright by James B. King. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)