Mandarin gold, p.1

Mandarin-Gold, page 1



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  Mandarin Gold


  James Leasor

  Published by

  James Leasor Ltd

  81 Dovercourt Road, London SE22 8UW

  This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  ISBN 978-1-908291-38-7

  First published 1973

  This edition published 2011

  © James Leasor 1973, Estate of James Leasor 2011

  For Stuart

  For gold in physic is a cordial; Therefore he loved gold in special.

  Canterbury Tales: Prologue Geoffrey Chaucer


  In Which Dr Robert Gunn Goes Ashore

  Robert Gunn was a tall man, and when he came up on deck the mahogany treads of the companionway creaked beneath his weight. He had to bend to clear the archway that opened on to the sharp, bright sunlight.

  He leaned on the ship's rail, feeling the wood's welcome warmth on his bare arms. It was his birthday; May the fourth, eighteen hundred and thirty-three, and he was twenty-five. The stinking, spiced air blowing from the Chinese mainland made him wrinkle his. face in distaste and spit. The Pearl River, yellow and oily, carried the spittle beneath the bows of the clipper Trelawney, and away to the South China Sea.

  The ship lay off Whampoa Island, a few miles from Canton, the only port on the Chinese coast where Europeans and Americans were grudgingly allowed to land, however briefly, for trading purposes.

  At Whampoa, cargoes had to be offloaded into junks and sampans and rowed or taken under their matted sails, like giant fans, up-river to Canton. The Barbarians, as the Chinese contemptuously called all Westerners, were allowed brief leave ashore, and then back on board again, lest they should corrupt any of the subjects of the Emperor, Tao Kuang, the Son of Heaven, who ruled his celestial empire from his remote palace in Peking, the forbidden city, nearly fifteen hundred miles away; on the northern extremity of his kingdom.

  In Canton, a small group of waterfront buildings, known as factories, but in fact warehouses and agencies rather than places where goods were manufactured, were the only bridgehead of European and American traders to three hundred million potential Chinese customers. The possibilities of trade were indeed dazzling, but the reality was rather less impressive. China was a closed country, virtually sealed off from the rest of the world, and content to be so. What need had Tao Kuang's subjects with the cotton goods, furs and scrap iron which the sweating Western Barbarians so assiduously tried to sell them? Chinese merchants were willing to export their surplus tea and silk and rhubarb; but even this was done through compassion, because they believed that without rhubarb the inhabitants of the Western world —shown on their maps as little more than a scattering of islands around a central China, the ruler of the universe — would die from constipation.

  But Robert Gunn, lately graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland, and on his first visit to the East as a ship's surgeon, was not thinking about this unlikely medical problem. He was thinking about himself.

  He saw, as though for the. first time, the yellow water gurgling and sucking greedily at the-slimy timbers of the ship, and he was back once more in the little fishing port of Herne Bay on the Kent coast, walking along the shingle. The wind from that green sea felt fresh on his face, not warm and scented as here.

  Marion, the' girl he was going to marry, to whom he had just given an engagement ring bought with the few guineas he had earned helping the local general practitioner, was by his side.

  ‘I’ll be back within the year,' Gunn had assured her. 'Then we will marry. One trip east with the chances of preferment I may find in Bombay or Calcutta, or even in China, and I'll be able to buy a house and put up my plate.'

  'How wonderful,' Marion had said, and he believed she meant it, for she rarely enthused about anything. She smiled and patted his arm, and he had looked down fondly at her from his greater height.

  They had kissed then, or rather she had turned up her face to submit to his kiss, and he had felt the outline of her small breasts through her bodice. There was no fire in her response, and there never had been, he admitted now; he might have been manipulating the rubber likeness of a woman. But then ladies did not show their enjoyment of such things as a doxy might. They simply endured coarse male advances; and, if married, as their wifely duty. Yet Gunn had seen labourers and girls picking hops, and their eyes glowed at each other with animal longing. There had never been such feeling between Marion and him. He had told himself that no doubt it might grow, but now he knew it never would; he had been deluding himself.

  Only hours before, the mail from England had been handed up into the ship. The letters had come by fast new steamship to Alexandria, and then overland by camel caravan to the other side of the Red Sea, where another of these vessels, just coming into service, had belched its smoky way to Bombay, then on to Calcutta and Singapore, and finally, here; the farthest East that any Westerner could travel. There seemed something symbolic in this fact. Gunn had reached the end of a journey; after this, wherever he sailed, he would be returning. Now, he felt no need to hurry back.

  He put his hand in his pocket, took out the letter, screwing up his eyes against the glare of the sun reflected from the river flowing to the estuary known as the Bogue or the Bocca Tigris — the Tiger's Mouth — the name that early Portuguese voyagers had given to it three hundred years earlier.

  His father's familiar handwriting made his throat tighten with a sudden wish to be home in the little house that overlooked that other gentler sea. Gunn's father was the local schoolmaster; his mother had shared his delight when Robert had won a place at a Scottish university, for she was Scottish. They would both have discussed this letter which already was months out of date. He spread the opening page on the warm, rounded rail and read it again.

  'My dear son Robert,

  'It is with a heavy heart and a most reluctant hand, that I write to give you news of Marion.

  'As you know, it was our wish and yours that you would both be wedded on your return from the East, but something has happened which I must relate, although it grieves me to be the agent, however unwilling, of hurt and pain to you.

  ‘In brief, Marion has run away with a married man. You will remember Joss Cartwright, who had the general store in our village, and a branch of the same in Whitstable? His wife being, brought to bed for the fourth time in as many years, he has suddenly renounced her, his family and his business, and has gone away with Marion, no-one knows where.

  'Your mother and I heard this news from his brother, who is running the shops, pending whatever legal outcome there may be. We were both as astonished as he was. The man is nearly twice as old as Marion and of comfortable means, and a warden in our church.

  ‘There is only one consolation. Both your dear mother and I feel you will draw what comfort you can from it. Better to know the apple is rotten before you bite it. Better that this should have happened, hurtful as it is, before you married Marion, than after. No-one here has any news of where she may be, or where they intend to settle. Should news come to hand, I will most urgently post it to you. In the meantime, be assured of a place in the hearts and prayers of your mother and me.'

  Gunn could almost repeat the words off by heart; he had read them a dozen, two dozen times, since the letter had arrived. He remembered Cartwright's shop well. As
a boy he had often bought a pennyworth of liquorice, or a ha'porth of bull's eyes, kept in a giant, huge-mouthed bottle. Cartwright he remembered as a small, round man, with a beard, always wearing a white, stiff collar, and a gold watch-chain; he was like a thousand other tradesmen in a middling way of business, unremarkable and unremarked on. Yet some spark had caught unlikely fire and blazed between Marion and him. The chemistry of attraction had reacted so fiercely that Cartwright had abandoned everyone and everything, and taken Marion out of Gunn's life for ever.

  He straightened himself up and pushed the envelope into his pocket. He would go ashore tonight and drink; first, to remember Marion, not as she was, but as he imagined she had been, as he had told himself repeatedly she was. Then he would drink to forget; alcohol was a powerful passport to oblivion.

  A sound of shouting scattered his thoughts like the seagulls swooping over floating offal in the river. Griggs, the first mate, came across the deck to him; a swarthy, stocky man with bushy eyebrows and tattoos on his arms. He had been a sailor since his teens, always on the China run.

  'We've' just had permission to land at Canton,' he said. 'We're taking a longboat up now. Care to join us, doctor?'

  'Certainly,' said Gunn; anything to be away from his thoughts. 'Who's given us this permission?' he asked.


  'The who?’

  'Oh, the Emperor's man in Canton. That's the nearest we pronouncing his Chinese title. He has the job of controlling foreign trade in the city for-three years. In that time, he has to make a fortune — because it's cost him a fortune in bribes to get the post in the first place. So he squeezes every possible source of income. Mooring fees, permission to unload, harbour dues, duties on all sorts of things.

  'He has to pass on a good whack of his takings to the mandarins and other officials, and no doubt a lot also towards the Son of Heaven's expenses up in Peking. This means there's always a lot of bargaining before we agree on a price for unloading. If he was in a bad mood, we could have been stuck here for weeks.'

  'Why is the Hoppo so corrupt? If he's the Emperor's man, isn't he .paid a salary?'

  'Shouldn't think so for a moment. The Emperor doesn't care to become personally involved in sordid considerations of trade. He's above all that. We're the hung-mao-fan, the Red-Bristled Ones to him, the foreign devils who've sailed from our tiny islands across the seas — his seas by the way — simply to pay tribute to him.

  'The Hoppo is the man we must deal with. He controls a group of Chinese merchants who are the only ones allowed to trade with foreigners. They're called the Hong merchants. Rather like a music-hall turn, Hoppo and Hong, eh? The Emperor doesn't really want our money — or us. Especially us.'

  'Then why do we trade here at all? It seems a long way to sail just to be fooled about with.'

  'So it is. But one day this ridiculous business may end, and then the trade will go to the people .who have contacts here.

  'We make a profit on the tea and silk. The rhubarb which we're forced to take, we're not so keen about. Often we dump the whole cargo out at sea. But we have to humour them, and they believe it's their mission in life to see our bowels run freely. At a price, of course. And our mission is to get as much trade as we can.

  'Do you know that only a hundred and fifty years ago our total imports of China-tea were two pounds and two ounces weight exactly? And for the past ten years they have been worth nearly three and a half million pounds sterling every year? Why, the drink is so popular that the East India Company has to keep a year's supply always in stock in England by Act of Parliament. That's an indication of how the China trade could grow—if the Chinese allowed it to.

  'There are other reasons, too, of course. Mainly the Coast Trade.'

  'What does that involve?'

  'Mud. Foreign mud, which is what we call opium,' said Griggs. 'We don't usually shout much about this business, and no East India Company ship carries it, so the Company can deny all knowledge of the traffic. But it's the forbidden trade, and the richest in the world.

  'The Company makes a million a year out of it—a sixth of all its profit from the East. They've sown hundreds of thousands of acres in Bengal and Patna with poppies to grow the stuff.

  'But opium can have terrible effects on the poor devils who smoke too much, so the Chinese Emperor has forbidden all imports, which means there is a great risk in smuggling it. If you're caught selling or buying mud, you can face death by strangulation or decapitation.'

  'Opium possesses considerable medicinal value,' Gunn pointed out. 'It isn't all bad.'

  He had frequently prescribed it himself for a wide range of complaints: travel sickness, toothache, neuralgia, ulcers, insomnia; even for hysterics in women. Nearly all the patent medicines on which nannies relied so heavily in Britain — Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup, Godfrey's Cordial, Galby's Carminative and McMunn's Elixir — contained opium; sometimes as much as half a grain to a fluid ounce. Poor mothers, distracted by crying children, also fed their infants these elixirs by the spoonful. It quietened the children immediately; sometimes for ever. But then one could say the same for almost any other medicine, which was harmless in the right quantities, yet lethal if you swallowed too much of it.

  'I always thought opium came from China, not went to it. And I never imagined I'd ever be closely involved with it,' he went on.

  'We're not—personally,' said Griggs. 'But a lot here are, and the old Hoppo knows which side his bread's buttered on. He'll make ten times as much dealing illicitly in opium as he gets from our legal trade. Anyhow, that's nothing to do with us. If the Chinese are going to kill themselves smoking mud, they might as well do so at a profit to our Company as anyone else's.

  'Don't forget. Longboat's leaving in five minutes. It'll take us two hours to Canton if we catch the tide. If not, twice as long. Can you be ready?'

  'Of course.'

  Gunn went below decks to his cabin, a. small hutch, barely twelve foot square. A round porthole looked out over washboats with split bamboo roofs and curtained walls, each crewed by three or four girls, cheerfully calling out to the crew for any clothes that needed washing or mending. They were refreshingly honest. Sometimes, so Griggs had told him, when a ship sailed unexpectedly before all the crew's clothes had been laundered, the wash girls would keep them safely until the ship returned, twelve or eighteen months later. They were all shouting now.

  'Ah, you missee chiefee mate, how do you dooa?... I missee you long time.... I makee mendee youah shirt, yes? . . .'

  Gunn closed the porthole, and locked it, for his cabin was not only a sleeping place, but also the ship's surgery. Two rows of shelves had wide holes to accept his big round-stoppered bottles of tinctures and lotions. He also kept a stained wooden trunk, always locked, beneath-his bunk, for his instruments and dangerous drugs,

  He poured water from a ewer into the zinc basin, washed his hands quickly, dashed some over his face, combed his hair and was back on deck within minutes. Already, as he watched sailors ferrying food or unloading cargo, Marion's memory was fading, and the hurt diminished. In its place anew hardness was growing, like fresh skin over a wound.

  He had never possessed much money, and this shopkeeper fellow Cartwright was obviously richer than his family. However, Gunn had one important qualification; he was a doctor. This did not rank particularly high in the social strata, of course, but it gave him a possible edge on some rivals. He was paid nearly two hundred pounds a year and his keep as ship's surgeon, and he should also find opportunities of making money by trading ventures. Few men who sailed East did not return to England wealthier than they left.

  I'll grow rich somehow, he thought. Really rich. Then women will be proud if I just look at them, let alone offer them my name in marriage. Money alone might not guarantee happiness, or even a place in society, but provided you had enough, gold was a card of entry that eventually everyone honoured. For then you could buy your estate .and become a country squire, arrange for a seat in Parliamen
t, maybe even a title.

  He would make Marion sorry she had ever spurned him for a shopkeeper who dealt in peppermint bull's-eyes and aniseed balls. He felt more cheerful now; maybe Marion, quite unintentionally, had done him a good turn.

  The longboat drew alongside. Gunn climbed down the white ladder and the Trelawney soared above him like a sheer tarred wall from her gilded figurehead to ornamented stern, both freshly painted and shining with new varnish. The rigging, made a rope lattice against the blue sky, and the black and white chequers beneath the deck reflected the yellow water like a chess board. Well, if it is a chess board, Gunn told himself, then I will be king; never the pawn.

  Griggs and he sat in the stern. Twenty oars dipped and raised as the tars bent broad backs to their task. As they rowed, girls sculling small sampans shot out from shore, their boats laden with oranges and bananas. They cried out:.'You wantee fluit? Olanges, yes?'

  Some of the crew shouted back bawdily: 'You know what we want! We want fruit with hair on it!'

  These girls, using a single scull at the stern, twisting it with their wrists, could keep up for a hundred yards or more, until .finally they realized that the sailors were making fun of them, and fell back to await another boat, shouting: .'You all stinkee lying Englishmen!'

  The sun was very bright. What had seemed a yellow river, oily and scummy, from the Trelawney, now glowed like liquid gold. On either side, rice fields grew greener than an English lawn; there were temples and pagodas, and in the distance, mist had painted the hills pale blue. They passed lacquered house-boats, passenger vessels. with streamers and - paper lanterns, and war junks with eyes lacquered on their bows to see an enemy, and red and blue demons on their sterns to frighten them away.

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