Flood of Fire | Chapter 23 of 29

Author: Amitav Ghosh | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4931 Views | Add a Review

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Seventeen

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Two days after the start of the English New Year, Compton came over to Whampoa unexpectedly, bearing freshly issued orders for the Cambridge to move to a new position. She was to be taken downriver to the island of North Wantung, which lay directly opposite Humen, at the centre of the Tiger’s Mouth.

The Cambridge weighed anchor that very day, with Compton on board: he was under instructions to accompany the crew. About the reasons for these changes he said nothing and Neel knew better than to ask.

This was the first time the Cambridge had undertaken a voyage of any length. Somewhat to Neel’s surprise the crew performed well together and the vessel made good time.

As they sailed downriver it became apparent to both Neel and Jodu that some kind of military action – offensive or defensive – was imminent. Extensive preparations were in progress along the river: earthworks and fortifications were being strengthened; new, camouflaged gun-emplacements had been built, and flotillas of war-junks were patrolling the channel. Twice, the Cambridge had to stop to pick up contingents of ‘water-braves’: they were travelling upriver to augment the naval force that was stationed at Humen, under the command of Admiral Guan Tiaifei (whom Neel and Compton had seen in action, in those very waters, fifteen months before).

On drawing abreast of Humen, they spotted a vessel with an American flag lying at anchor near the customs house. The flag was a decoy, Compton told Neel; the ship was actually carrying a cargo of tea for Lancelot Dent, the prominent British merchant. The transaction had been arranged by Dent’s old compradore, Peng Bao, who was now Governor-General Qishan’s translator.

That a man in as prominent a position as Peng Bao was openly colluding with an infamous opium trader like Lancelot Dent was shocking enough to Neel. But he soon learnt that this was by no means the worst of it: Compton told him that after Commissioner Lin’s removal from power many of Guangdong’s officials had gone back to their old ways and were busy feathering their own nests.

The Cambridge dropped anchor just off the tip of North Wantung Island, which was a steeply rising massif of rock, in the centre of the mile-wide channel. Here too there was a formidable fort, equipped with many heavy guns. Not far from the fort were the moorings of a new defensive barrier: a massive iron chain that ran all the way across the main shipping channel, to Humen.

Later that day Admiral Guan arrived in person to inspect the Cambridge.

Neel and the lascars watched from a respectful distance as the ship’s Chinese officers showed the admiral around: he was a distinguished-looking man in his early sixties: plainly dressed, in a dark, winter cape; on his hat was a red button. Compton explained later that this was an emblem of very high rank.

Before returning to his own junk the admiral offered a few words of encouragement to the lascars, telling them the British might attack any day and that they would earn rich rewards if they succeeded in bringing down a warship: the prize money for a seventy-four-gun frigate had now been raised to fifty thousand Spanish dollars.

Neel’s impression was of a genial, capable and highly intelligent man; this assessment was shared by Jodu who said that the admiral seemed much more knowledgeable and businesslike than the other dignitaries who had visited the Cambridge.

The next morning Neel, Jodu, Compton and a few others took a tour of the Tiger’s Mouth in a sailboat. Cruising around that wide expanse of water Neel understood how this section of the channel came by its name: narrow at both ends, the basin seemed to be bounded by powerful jaws on all sides. At one end the river flowed in as if through a gullet: here lay the area’s mightiest defences – the battlements and gun-emplacements of Humen and North Wantung. At the other end, where the river debouched into the estuary, lay two more sets of fortifications: the island of Shaitok – or Chuenpee as it was known to foreigners – was on the eastern side. Facing it across the channel was another citadel, on the headland known as Tytock.

At the end of the tour their party went ashore and walked around Chuenpee. Neel saw that there had been many changes in the fifteen months since he and Compton had last visited the island. The hamlet they had stayed in was now empty, abandoned by its inhabitants. At that time the island had been defended by two fortresses: one was on a hilltop while the other was a fortified gun-emplacement on the shore. The two had now been joined together to form a single rambling fort, enclosed by ramparts that ran all the way up the hill. These in turn were flanked by a dry moat and breastworks.

Seen from the ramparts of Chuenpee the whole of the Tiger’s Mouth looked like a vast fortified stronghold with a lake at its centre: on every eminence and promontory there were battlements and batteries. On all sides of the channel were gun-ports, hundreds of them, each marked with a colourful device: the head of a tiger.

The fortifications were impressive enough to reassure even Jodu, who had earlier voiced some doubts about the effectiveness of the defences. The British would not be able to break through, he declared confidently; not unless they destroyed every single fort.

They returned to the Cambridge in high good humour; it seemed to them that the Tiger’s Mouth was like a trap primed to close upon the British fleet.

*

Soon after the start of the English New Year the weather turned very cold and the Pearl River estuary was whipped by icy winds. On Saw Chow Island, where there was little cover, the effects were especially severe: the sepoys and camp-followers were forced into a kind of semi-hibernation; only when it was absolutely necessary did they leave their tents. Few were those who thought of anything but stuffing their stomachs and huddling under their coverings.

The sepoys were fortunate in that they had been issued greatcoats before the winter chill set in. The fifers and drummers were also lucky for they too had received woollen capes; although these were not as warm as the sepoys’ coats, they had the advantage that they could be spread out at night. Nor did the banjee-boys have any reason to complain for they were well-off compared to the camp-followers, many of whom had not received any cold-weather clothes at all. The woollens were meant to be provided by the sirdars of every group, but only the honest ones, of whom there were very few, were willing to defray the costs – and even they offered no more than a blanket or two, to be used as garments during the day and coverings at night. For the most part, the sirdars were skinflinting kanjooses who thought only of their own pockets: they gave their followers nothing more than a few moth-eaten lengths of cheap, cotton cloth – these men were left with no option but to spend their own meagre earnings on locally made quilted jackets.

But when icy blasts lashed the treeless island, even the best clothing offered little protection. Predictably, dozens of men fell ill and the field-hospital was soon filled to capacity.

Through much of the time that the weather was at its worst – the first days of January – Captain Mee was on leave in Macau. It was not till 6 January that he came back to Saw Chow, and within minutes of his return Kesri received a summons to report to his tent.

The captain offered no explanations for his absence and nor was it Kesri’s place to ask questions: they got briskly down to business.

The expedition’s high command had at last come to a decision, said the captain: an attack was to be launched on the fortifications of the Tiger’s Mouth. It would be a complex, amphibious operation involving ships, soldiers, marines and small-arms’ men from the warships.

Rolling out a chart, the captain pointed out the fortifications and gun-emplacements that encircled the Tiger’s Mouth. Their configuration was such that an attack from the seaward side would necessarily have to commence by neutralizing the two outermost forts – Chuenpee on the right bank of the channel and Tytock on the left. The operation would therefore start with simultaneous assaults on both positions: the Bengal Volunteers were to be a part of the force that would attack Chuenpee. The Enterprize would transport them to the landing-point – a beach, some two miles east of the island’s gun-emplacements.

There would be an early reveille and the sepoys were to be ready to embark by 7 a.m. the next day, said the captain. This time they would deploy in full marching order, with drummers, fifers, gun-lascars, runners, golondauzes, bhistis and, of course, medical attendants; their baggage was to be packed accordingly.

‘Better get to it, jaldee havildar.’

Ji, Kaptán-sah’b.

*

It took only a few minutes for the whole camp to learn that B Company was to go into action the next day, with a full complement of supporters.

In the fifers’ tent the weather was quickly forgotten as the boys got down to checking their equipment and taking inventory of the contents of their knapsacks. This would be Raju’s first deployment and he was careful to follow Dicky’s lead in making his preparations, down to details like stuffing a few sugary sweets into his pockets: ‘You’ll see, men – when the fighting starts it helps to have something sweet in your mouth. Adds to the fun.’

Having experienced battle before, Dicky was full of bravado – yet Raju could sense a change in his mood. That night, huddled together under their shared blankets, Dicky was very restless, thrashing about and moaning in his sleep. He woke not just Raju but several others as well, earning himself volleys of curses, fisticuffs and kicks.

‘Shut your gob, bugger, and let us sleep – there’s fighting ahead tomorrow. You can cry all you like then.’

The next day Kesri was up long before dawn. Accompanied by two lance-naiks he went from tent to tent, lantern in hand, carrying out random inspections to make sure that the sepoys had packed their knapsacks exactly as required by Heavy Marching Orders: with a spare uniform, including a second koortee and another pair of shoes; a durree to sleep on and a ‘cumbly’ blanket, the last being neatly rolled up and strapped under the brass lota that sat atop every knapsack.

The fifers and drummers also rose early and they were among the first to take up stations on the beach, to provide accompaniment for the sepoys as they paraded. It was a cold morning and a thick mist had risen off the surface of the water, dimming the glow of the sun.

The tide crested just before the Enterprize arrived. Because the water was high, the unit was spared the bother of using lighters for the embarkation: the steamer was able to nudge her bows so close to the shore that a gangplank was all that was required to go on board.

The followers went first and while they were boarding the ‘bell of arms’ was rung to summon the sepoys to roll-call: it turned out that so many were in hospital that the company was at three-quarters its usual strength.

After roll-call the sepoys fell in line in front of the gangplank, their tall, black topees receding into the mist. Then, with drums beating and fifes trilling, they went marching up to the steamer, their Brown Besses slung over their shoulders. After the sepoys came the banjee-boys, and then the officers, in ascending order of seniority. Captain Mee was the last to board, and the steamer’s paddle-wheels began to churn even as the gangplank was being pulled in after him. With water foaming around the hull, the vessel turned her head slowly northwards.

The fifers and drummers were seated between the bows. As the steamer built up speed they were hit head-on by the wind. They huddled together, teeth chattering, and Raju buried his face between his knees; he was sleepy enough to fall into a doze. When he looked up again he found, to his surprise, that the mist had lifted and the skies had cleared. The steamer was cruising through a miles-wide wedge of water, a deep, iridescent blue in colour. Looming on either side were ranges of serene grey-green mountains.

Dead ahead lay the twin hills of Chuenpee: the larger of the two was crowned by an impressive set of ramparts and towers, with hundreds of colourful pennants and banners fluttering on the battlements: some were long strips of cloth, with ideograms imprinted on a crimson background; some were shaped like doubled flames, with green and yellow edges; some were immense streamers on which dragons undulated as if in flight.

As they came closer they saw that the battlements were bristling with guns and gun-ports. Only one part of the island lay beyond the reach of the hilltop battery: this was the section that was sheltered by the second hill. There lay the landing-point.

The waters around the landing-point were thronged with vessels of many sorts. Three steamers, Madagascar, Queen and Nemesis had pushed close in to shore and were discharging their detachments directly on to the beach. The larger warships were at anchor in deeper water: these consisted of two frigates – the forty-four-gun Druid and the twenty-eight-gun Calliope – and four smaller warships. Their contingents were in the process of being ferried ashore in cutters and longboats.

Such was the congestion that the Enterprize had to hold back for a bit. As a result Raju was able to observe the debarkation as though it were an exercise staged specially for his benefit. The spectacle was mesmerizing: the complex manoeuvres were carried out with clockwork precision, soldiers and sailors working in synchronized co-ordination as one cutter after another pulled up to the beach to offload its men and munitions.

By the time B Company reached the shore the landing of troops was almost complete: there were around fourteen hundred soldiers assembled on the beach, along with a couple of hundred camp-followers and auxiliaries, almost all of whom were Indians. Of the fighting men about half were sepoys: six hundred and seven from the 37th Madras and seventy-six from B Company. Amongst the British troops the largest contingent was a five-hundred-strong battalion of Royal Marines; the rest consisted of artillerymen and a detachment of convalescents who had been evacuated from Chusan.

In command was an officer of the Royal Irish, Major Pratt. At his orders the heavy artillery led the way, with teams of gun-lascars dragging two six-pounders and one massive twenty-four-pound howitzer up the road that led to the top of the island’s second hill. After them came the marines and then the Madras sepoys. The Bengal detachment brought up the rear. The fifers and drummers were grouped together at the centre of the column, flanked by sepoys on either side.

As they marched up the hill clouds of dust rose from the sepoys’ stamping feet, blowing straight into the fifers’ faces. Raju was flustered at first and missed several notes, but only Dicky seemed to notice. He flashed Raju a nod and a wink which did much to settle his nerves.

Soon, absorbed in the effort of keeping his fingers and feet moving in correct time, the flutters in Raju’s stomach abated and he fixed his eyes on the back of the fifer in front, making sure that he was neither too far nor too close. So absorbed was he that he did not hear the sound of cannon-fire in the distance; it was Dicky who alerted him to it by jogging his elbow.

Kesri was at the head of the Bengal detachment with Captain Mee. Just as they reached the top of the ridge the guns on the opposite hill opened up. But the shells fell well short and they had no reason to seek shelter. Kesri was able to take careful stock of the island’s defences and he saw at once that its newly built fortifications were vulnerable on many counts: although the ramparts were tall and solid, they were constructed in an old-fashioned way. They ran straight, like curtain walls: there were no projections to create interlocking fields of fire; nor were there any angles or buttresses to provide additional stability. The breastworks that ran along the walls were also of an antique variety, known to sepoys as bãs-ke-zanjeer – ‘bamboo chains’. They were made of sharpened staves, nailed together to form a continuous barrier: the officers called them ‘Frisian horses’.

The fire from the fort’s guns and ginjalls had grown steadily heavier as Kesri and Captain Mee stood on the crest of the hill, surveying the defences. But the barrage continued to be ineffective with most of the shots going awry, slamming into the hillside and throwing up geysers of dirt. The landing-party’s artillerymen were able to go unhurriedly about their business as they assembled their own field-pieces and howitzers.

At a signal from Captain Mee, B Company’s golondauzes and gun-lascars stepped ahead to set up their own artillery pieces. Maddow was, as usual, carrying two wheels of a gun-carriage; after slinging them off his shoulders he fell in with the other loaders, each of whom was holding a projectile, ready to reload.

There was a moment of stillness as the gun-crews awaited the order to fire. Then a cry went echoing down the line and the golondauzes lowered their smoking fusils to the touch-holes of their weapons. Suddenly, with a great roar, the guns erupted and the hillside was blanketed in black smoke.

In the meantime two steamers, Queen and Nemesis, had also manoeuvred themselves into shelling distance of the battlements on the hill. Now a jet of flame spurted out of the muzzle of the Queen’s enormous sixty-eight-pounder; at the same time the two pivot-guns of the Nemesis began to rattle, shooting canister. These were powerful anti-personnel weapons – cans filled with musket-balls. When fired, the canisters would explode in the barrel, creating hailstorms of bullets.

It was as if a tempest of fire and iron were pouring up the hill; within minutes pillars of smoke began to rise out of the forts.

*

Shireen was at the breakfast table, eating a plate of akoori, when the first dull thuds of distant cannon-fire were heard in Macau. Dinyar was sitting across from her, and he glanced up with an expression of surprise.

Oh! Seroo thie gayou – so it’s started after all! I didn’t think they’d go through with it.

With what?

The offensive. I’d wagered that the Plenipotty would find some excuse to dither again.

Shireen could think of nothing to say: with trembling hands she reached into the folds of her dress, to touch her kasti, for reassurance.

You should be glad, Shireen-auntie, said Dinyar cheerfully. It’s good news for all of us. It’ll speed up our compensation.

Fond as Shireen was of Dinyar, she could not let this pass.

But Dinyar, think of the men! And the boys too!

Oh they’ll be all right, said Dinyar with a laugh. No harm will come to them – not while they have the Nemesis for protection.

Picking up a bell, Dinyar called for his hat and cane; now that the battle had started he would have to settle his lost wager. On his way out, he stopped at the door. Don’t worry, Shireen-auntie, he said. We’re perfectly safe here. Look!

Shireen saw that he was pointing to the Inner Harbour, where a British sloop-o’-war lay at anchor, bristling with guns.

With Dinyar gone the sound of cannon-fire seemed to grow even louder. Abandoning her breakfast, Shireen went to her bedroom and seated herself in front of the small altar that she had set up in one corner, with a lamp burning under a picture of Zarathustra. Opening her Khordeh Avesta prayer-book Shireen began to recite the ‘Srosh Bãz’ prayer: Pa name yazdan Hormazd … May the Creator, Ahura Mazda, Lord of the Universe …

This prayer had always been her first recourse in times of trouble. Often in the past it had helped to lighten the load of whatever was weighing on her mind – but now, with the sound of gunfire drumming in her ears, she found it hard to recite the words properly. Faces she had come to know on the Hind kept appearing before her: Captain Mee, the fifers, Kesri Singh.

As she was coming to the last lines of the prayer Shireen heard a squeak from the front gate. Thinking that it was Zadig Bey she put away the prayer-book and moved to her sitting room.

But when the steward opened the door it was not Zadig Bey who stepped inside but a woman in a veil.

‘Mrs Burnham! Cathy! This is a surprise.’

‘I hope you don’t mind, Shireen …’

It turned out that Mrs Burnham had just moved into a house that her husband had rented, at the end of the road. But he was away on the commodore’s ship so she was on her own.

‘I thought it would be nice to have a little gup-shup, Shireen-dear, and couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.’

‘Of course. I’m glad you came.’

When Mrs Burnham’s veil came off Shireen saw that she was deathly pale, as she had been on her first visit to the villa.

‘Are you feeling poorly again, Cathy?’

‘No, it’s not that …’ Mrs Burnham closed her eyes.

‘It’s the guns, isn’t it?’

Mrs Burnham nodded. ‘My head went into a chukker the moment the firing began.’

‘It’s distressing, isn’t it?’

‘Well, it shouldn’t be for me,’ said Mrs Burnham. ‘I grew up with cannon-fire, you know. It was always in the background in the cantonments where we lived; artillerymen were forever doing live drills, so the sound was all too familiar. But it’s a different kind of tumasher, isn’t it, when it’s a real battle, and the men who are in harm’s way are known to you?’

Shireen nodded. ‘Ever since it started I’ve been seeing their faces – especially the havildar and Captain Mee.’

‘I have too.’

Mrs Burnham folded her hands in her lap and lowered her eyes. ‘Except that I keep seeing them as they were twenty years ago.’

‘Were they very different then?’

‘Not Kesri Singh perhaps,’ said Mrs Burnham. ‘But Neville – Captain Mee – he certainly was.’

Shireen sensed that Mrs Burnham needed to unburden herself of something. She said gently: ‘Did you know Captain Mee well then?’

‘Yes.’ Mrs Burnham paused and her voice fell to a whisper. ‘To tell you the truth, Shireen, I knew him as well as I’ve ever known anyone.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes, Shireen, it’s true.’ Mrs Burnham’s words began to tumble out in a rush. ‘There was a time when I knew Neville so well that I never wanted to have anything to do with any other man.’

‘So what went wrong?’ said Shireen.

Mrs Burnham made a tiny gesture of resignation. ‘My parents …’

There was no need to say any more.

Shireen nodded, in sympathy. ‘Did you not see him again after that?’

‘No. I had lost track of him until the day I came here, to this house, to invite you to the levée. And after that, when he came to the Anahita on New Year’s Day, it was as if kismet had handed him back to me, wiping away all those years. In my heart it was as though not a day had passed.’

She stopped to jerk her head in the direction of the estuary. ‘And now he’s over there – in the midst of the fighting. He was in Macau these last few days and it was the most precious time of my life. I don’t think I could bear to lose him again.’

Opening her reticule, Mrs Burnham took out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. ‘I must seem utterly depraved to you, Shireen. But please don’t think too badly of me; none of this would have happened if I had been as lucky as you.’

‘What on earth do you mean, Cathy?’

‘I mean, if I too had been fortunate in marriage.’

‘Fortunate?’

The word had burst involuntarily from Shireen’s lips but once it was said she too was seized by a need to unburden herself. ‘Oh Cathy – my marriage was not what you think.’

‘Really?’

‘After my husband died,’ said Shireen softly, ‘I discovered that he had a mistress and another family, here, in China.’

‘No!’

‘Yes, Cathy, it’s true. It was a terrible shock to me. I could not believe that he, who had always seemed so devoted, so dutiful and devout, could be entangled in this way with someone from another country, someone who did not share his faith.’

Now Shireen too paused to dab her eyes. ‘It’s only now that I’ve begun to understand how life takes those turns.’

Mrs Burnham gave her a long, searching look and then came to sit beside her. ‘Things have changed for you, haven’t they, Shireen,’ she said gently, ‘ever since Mr Karabedian came into your life?’

Shireen was choking now; all she could do was nod.

‘But Shireen,’ Mrs Burnham whispered, ‘you’re very lucky you know. You are a widow; you can remarry.’

‘That’s impossible,’ said Shireen adamantly. ‘My children, my family, my community – they would never forgive me. And I have a duty to them after all.’

Mrs Burnham slipped her hand into Shireen’s and gave it a squeeze.

‘Have we not done enough by our duty, Shireen? Do we not also have a duty to ourselves?’

The question caught Shireen unawares, shocking her into silence. She was still trying to think of an answer when a steward stepped in to say that Karabedian-sah’b was at the front door.

*

Once the bombardment had started, the banjee-boys were allowed a brief rest: they seated themselves on the ground, in a sheltered spot. As the barrage intensified they could feel the shock-waves coursing through the earth and into their bodies. The sound was so loud that Raju had to clap his hands over his ears.

Then Dicky jogged his elbow: ‘Look – over there.’

Glancing down the line Raju spotted a man coming towards them with something that looked like a dead goat on his back.

‘It’s the bhisti, bringing water,’ whispered Dicky. ‘This is it – it’s going to start now. The bhisti always comes before the charge.’

When the bhisti reached him Raju drank his fill from the spout of the mussuck before filling his water-flask. Then, following Dicky’s example, he popped a sweet into his mouth.

Just as abruptly as it had begun the barrage stopped. A strange, crackling quiet followed, in which screams could be heard, echoing over from the Chinese lines. Then Captain Mee shouted, ‘Fix bayonets!’ and the fife-major began to call out orders in rapid succession. Suddenly the boys were all on their feet, advancing in echelon, in pace with the sepoys who flanked them on both sides.

Even though Raju had practised the manoeuvre many times he found himself struggling for breath, head spinning. In drills no one warned you about the dust, or the pall of smoke; nor did they tell you that the sepoy beside you might stumble on a cannonball’s crater and lurch towards you in such a way that his bayonet would miss your face by inches. The noise too was almost overpowering, the sheer volume of it: the thudding of feet, the pounding of drums, the ‘Har-har-Mahadev’ battle-cry of the sepoys, and above all that, the whistle and shriek of shots passing overhead. And cutting through all that noise was the eerie, reverberating sound of bullets hitting bayonets.

Raising his eyes, Raju saw that they were now very close to the walls of the fort: he could see the heads of the defenders, topped with conical caps, desperately trying to aim their antiquated matchlocks, which were fired not with a trigger but by holding a slow-burning wick over the touch-hole.

Then all of a sudden the advance stopped.

‘Prepare to fire!’ shouted Captain Mee and the sepoys fell to their knees to prime their muskets. On the next command the soldiers and sepoys threw up a curtain of fire, to cover the sappers who were racing ahead to plant explosives along the breastworks.

The respite came as a godsend to Raju; his throat was parched, his nose clogged with dust, his eyes smarting from the smoke. Within seconds his flask was empty and when a bhisti appeared it seemed as if a prayer had been answered; Raju clung to the spout, sluicing water over his face and into his mouth; he would have emptied the mussuck if Dicky hadn’t shouldered him aside.

In the distance, at the foot of the hill, down by the water, there was another eruption of flame as the Queen and the Nemesis began a second bombardment, aimed, this time, not at the fortifications on the hill but the gun-emplacements along the shore. Then came an explosion that silenced everything else: it was the blast of the sappers’ charges, going off under the breastworks on the hill. When the smoke and debris had cleared Raju caught a glimpse of Major Pratt, with his sabre drawn, racing towards a breach in the walls, followed by a company of marines.

The banjee-boys jumped to their feet, expecting that B Company would be the next to charge into the breach. But then suddenly the fife-major sprang up in front of them: instead of signalling a charge they were to pipe the sepoys’ column into wheeling to the left, on the double.

What was happening? Were they advancing or retreating? Raju did not know or care; his only thought was of staying in step with the other banjee-boys.

They were going downhill now, so the pace accelerated steadily until the whole detachment seemed to be running headlong. One by one the fifers gave up trying to blow on their instruments; there was not enough breath in their lungs. Glimpsing blue waters ahead, Raju realized that they were almost at the bottom of the hill.

Then the road made another turn and they found themselves on an incline that led to the rear of the fort. They saw that the ramparts had crumbled under the bombardment from the two steamers; they saw also that the vessels were still abreast of the battery. The strip of water between them and the shore was filled with the bodies of defendants: some were still alive, thrashing about helplessly. The sailors on the steamers’ decks were picking them off, one by one.

Kesri was in the first rank when the rear of the fort came into view. He saw that hundreds of Chinese soldiers were pouring out of the gates. He guessed that they were being driven out of the walls by the marines, who had attacked the shore-side battery after storming down from the hilltop fort. Now the remaining defendants were rushing out to meet the sepoys in a headlong charge: having endured a bombardment of terrifying intensity they seemed almost to welcome the prospect of hand-to-hand combat.

But the sepoys were prepared for the onrush; falling to their knees they met the charge with a barrage of bullets, mowing down the vanguard and causing panic in the ranks behind. And then, with the Chinese front lines already decimated, the sepoys fell upon the milling survivors at close quarters, with swords and bayonets.

When the two lines collided the shock reverberated through the column. The pace slowed so abruptly that Raju bumped up against the fifer in front of him. Brought suddenly to a halt, Raju and Dicky stood motionless, fifes hanging uselessly in their hands. All around them metal was clanging on metal, drowning out the cries of dying men.

Slowly as the carnage unfolded, Raju and Dicky were pushed ahead by the irresistible weight of those behind them. After a few paces they found themselves stepping over the heaped bodies of slaughtered defenders. Almost without exception the clothes of the Chinese soldiers were scorched or burned – this was true even of those who were still on their feet. When hit by a bullet or a bayonet their clothing would burst into flame and they would light up like torches.

Suddenly the fife-major materialized again, within the cloud of smoke; he told Raju and Dicky to get to work, slinging corpses off the road. Tucking their fifes into their belts they took hold of a pair of lifeless ankles and dragged the corpse to the side of the road, where the hillside sloped into the water, a few yards away. As the body rolled down they noticed that the narrow strip of shore between the road and the channel was filled with the corpses of defenders. They were lying in piles, two or three deep in some places. Many had rolled into the water; the channel seemed to be full of them, floating like logs. On some, the clothes were still burning.

The boys turned away abruptly and went back to the road. As they were taking hold of another corpse they heard a grunting sound close by and looked up.

A few yards ahead a fallen Chinese soldier had struggled to his feet: his clothes were scorched and his left arm was hanging uselessly at his side, almost severed at the shoulder. In his right hand was a sabre which he raised when his eyes found Raju and Dicky. Pressing up against each other they froze in shock as the man stumbled towards them, brandishing his sword.

Then Dicky found his voice and screamed: ‘Bachao!’ – and miraculously a sepoy emerged from the swirling cloud of dust and bayoneted the man through the stomach. Scarcely pausing to look at the two boys, the sepoy put one foot on the corpse, wrenched out his bayonet, and plunged back into the fray.

As Raju’s breath returned he realized that his trowsers were wet. He was staring at the dark patch when Dicky said: ‘Don’t worry about it, men. Happens to everyone. It’ll dry up soon.’

Glancing at his friend, Raju saw that Dicky’s trowsers showed a similar stain.

*

Less than a hundred yards away Kesri was trying, vainly, to hold back his men.

From his position at the head of the Bengal detachment he had seen the carnage unfold, as the defenders ran straight into the sepoys’ barrage of bullets. In the beginning Captain Mee and a few other officers had called on the surviving Chinese soldiers to surrender. Uncomprehending and panicked, they had responded instead by flailing about with their weapons. The officers had perforce had to cut them down, and as the lines closed, the marines and sepoys had abandoned themselves to a frenzy of blood-letting.

The sight sickened Kesri: in all his years of soldiering he had never seen a slaughter like this one. There were corpses everywhere, many of them with black scorch-marks on their tunics. On some, the clothes were still burning: looking more closely, Kesri saw that the fires were caused by a fault in the defenders’ equipment. The powder for their guns was carried not in cartridges, as was the case with British troops, but in rolled-up paper tubes. These tubes were kept in a powder-pouch that was strapped across the chest. In the course of the fighting the flaps of these pouches would fly open, spilling powder over the soldiers’ tunics; the powder was then set alight by the wicks and flints of their matchlocks.

Turning to one side, Kesri skirted around the road, to the shattered ramparts of the waterside battery. The Union Jack was flying everywhere now – on the ramparts of Chuenpee and across the channel, on the fort of Tytock, which had been stormed in a similar fashion by another British landing-party.

Climbing through a breach in the wall, Kesri made his way into the nearby battery. Here too there was ample evidence of a massacre: bodies lay in piles around the craters where heavy shells had exploded; along the bottom of the ramparts lay the corpses of Chinese soldiers who had been felled by crumbling masonry. Plastered against the light-coloured stone of the walls, in bright, bloody splashes, were clumps of tissue and fragments of bone. Here and there splattered brains could be seen dribbling down like smashed egg-yolks.

Almost uniformly the clothes of the dead defenders were scorched with the marks of burning gunpowder. It took no great effort to imagine the panic among the defenders as the flames leapt from tunic to tunic.

In some of the gun-emplacements British marines and artillerymen were hard at work, rendering the big guns useless by hammering spikes into their touch-holes and knocking out their trunnions. Amongst them was a marine who often visited the wrestling pit at Saw Chow.

‘Damned fine set of guns they had here,’ said the marine to Kesri, stroking the gleaming brass barrel of a massive eight-pounder. ‘Have to hand it to Johnny Chinaman – he learns fast. Some of these guns are perfect copies of our own long-barrels. We even found some thirty-two-pounders. All newly cast – lucky for us they haven’t yet learnt how to use them properly. Look here.’ He kicked a block of wood that was wedged under the barrel. ‘These jackblocks kept them from lowering the barrels – that’s why so many of their shots went over us.’

In a corner, over a heap of corpses, hung a hastily scribbled sign, in English.

‘What does it say?’ Kesri asked.

The marine grinned, wiping his face with the back of his hand: ‘One of our sarjeants put it up. It says: “This is the road to glory.”‘

Turning away, Kesri walked in the other direction. Ahead lay a sharp corner, and on rounding it he found himself in a dim, narrow passageway. As his eyes grew accustomed to the light he saw that there was a Chinese soldier at the far end of the corridor. Kesri knew from his tall, plumed hat and his high boots that he was probably an officer. He had evidently suffered an injury, for there was a cleft in the armoured plates that covered his torso; blood was dripping through the cracks.

On catching sight of Kesri the soldier raised his heavy, two-handed sword. Kesri could tell from his crouched stance that he was gathering strength for one last charge.

Lowering his own sword, Kesri rested the tip on the ground and raised a hand, palm outward.

‘Surrender! Surrender!’ he called out. ‘No harm will come …’

Kesri knew, as he was saying the words, that they were useless. He could tell from the expression on the man’s face that even if he’d understood he would have chosen death over surrender. Sure enough, a moment later the man came rushing at Kesri, almost as though he were begging to be cut down, as indeed he was.

When he had pulled out his dripping sword, Kesri saw that the man’s eyes were still open. For the few seconds of life that remained to him, the man fixed his gaze on Kesri. His expression was one that Kesri had seen before, on campaigns in the Arakan and the hills of eastern India – he knew it to be the look that appears on men’s faces when they fight for their land, their homes, their families, their customs, everything they hold dear.

Seeing that expression again now it struck Kesri that in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight in that way – the way his father had fought at Assaye – for something that was your own; something that tied you to your fathers and mothers and those who had gone before them, back into the dimness of time.

An un-nameable grief came upon him then; falling to his knees he reached out to close the dead man’s eyes.

*

On the island of Hong Kong, the sound of cannon-fire, muted though it was by distance, was still menacing enough to keep the gardeners away from the nursery. Through the morning Paulette worked alone, trying to stay busy, watering, pruning, digging – but it was impossible to ignore that distant thudding.

Over the last year Paulette had grown accustomed to hearing sporadic bursts of musketry and cannon-fire in the distance – but this was different. Not only was it more prolonged, there was a concentrated menace in it, a savagery, that made it difficult to carry on as usual. It was hard not to think of death and dying; of spilt blood and torn flesh. In the midst of all that, caring for plants seemed futile.

Towards mid-morning, when the cannon-fire died away and a pall of smoke appeared on the northern horizon, Paulette broke off to sit in the shade of a tree.

What had happened? What did the smoke portend? She could not but wonder, although in some part of herself she did not really want to know.

In a while she spotted a figure coming up the path that led to the nursery. Training her spyglass on the slope she saw that the visitor was Freddie. She breathed a sigh of relief: with Freddie at least there would be no need to pretend to be cheerful, or brave, or anything like that. He would be content to be left to himself.

And her intuition was not wrong. Freddie greeted her from a distance, with a nod, and seated himself on one of the lower terraces of the nursery, with his back against the trunk of a leafy ficus tree.

For a while he sat motionless, staring northwards with his back to her. She too looked towards the distant clouds of smoke and when her eyes strayed back to him she saw that he had taken out his pipe. Something stirred in her and she went down and seated herself beside him, watching quietly as he arranged his implements on the grass.

‘You would like to smoke, eh Miss Paulette?’

She nodded. ‘I would like to try.’

‘You have not smoked before?’

‘No. Never.’

He turned to look at her, narrowing his eyes. ‘Why not?’

‘I had a fear of it,’ she said.

‘Fear? Why?’

‘I feared becoming a slave to it.’

‘Slave, eh?’ He gave her one of his rare smiles. ‘Opium will not make you slave, Miss Paulette. No. Opium will make you free.’

He inclined his head in the direction of the distant cloud of smoke. ‘It is they who are slaves, ne? Slaves to money, profit? They don’t take opium but still they are slaves to it. For them opium is just incense, lah, for their gods – money, profit. With opium they want to make whole world slaves for their gods. And they will win, because their gods are very strong, ne, strong as demons? When they win they too will see, only with opium can they escape these demons. Only smoke will hide them from their masters.’

In the meantime he had lit a long, sulphur-tipped match with a flint. Now he began to roast a tiny pellet of opium over the flame. When the pellet was properly scorched he handed his pipe to Paulette.

‘After opium catch fire I will put on dragon’s eye’ – he pointed to the tiny hole in the bowl of the pipe – ‘and you must suck hard. Smoke is precious, eh, must not waste.’

Once again he held the pellet to the flame and when it caught fire he placed it on the pipe’s bowl. ‘Now!’

Paulette put her mouth to the stem and sucked in her breath, drawing the fumes into her body. The smoke poured in like a flood, and when the tide ebbed it left in its wake a startling stillness. Just as smoke drives away insects, these fumes too seemed to have expelled everything that carries a sting: fear, anxiety, grief, sadness, disappointment, desire. In their place was a serenely peaceful nullity, a pain-free void.

Paulette lay back against the slope, resting her head on the grass. In a while, when Freddie too had had his fill, he lay beside her, with his head pillowed on his arms, looking up into the dark shade of the tree.

‘Tell me,’ said Paulette presently, ‘how did you learn to smoke?’

‘A woman taught me.’

‘A woman! Who was she?’

‘She was like me, lah – half-Indian, half-Chinese. Very beautiful – maybe too much.’

‘Why?’

‘Sometimes beauty is like curse, ne? For her men would kill, do anything. She needed guards – and I was one. I would bring opium for her to smoke, lah, and one day she ask me smoke with her; show me how, show me secrets. I had smoked before, but I never saw secrets till she show me.’

None of this seemed real to Paulette: it was as if a story had taken shape in the smoke. In that dreamlike state it did not seem too intrusive to ask: ‘And you – did you love her?’

A long time seemed to pass before Freddie answered. Paulette did not know whether the passage of the minutes was real or not: it was as if the hands of the clock in her head had come to a halt and time had changed into something else.

By the time Freddie spoke again she had almost forgotten what she had asked.

‘Don’t know, lah,’ he said. ‘Can’t say if it was love or no. Maybe it was like this smoke, ne, that is inside us now? It was stronger than feelings – like madness, or death.’

‘Why that? Why death?’

‘Because this woman, she belong my boss, she his concubine. He very big man; he “big brother” for many little brother, like me: his name Lenny Chan. Only if mad will a man love woman who belong to big brother. He will always find out, ne?’

‘Is that what happened?’

‘Yes, he find out and he send his men. They kill her – throw her in the river. Try to kill me too, but I get away. My mother hide me, but they find out, so they kill her too – instead of me.’

He laughed. ‘If Lenny Chan know I am here, I would not be alive for long. But he think I am dead, lah – does not know I have been reborn as Freddie Lee. Let us hope he does not find out.’

*

Jodu and Neel had climbed up the Cambridge’s foremast early that morning, as soon as they learnt that a convoy of British ships was approaching the Tiger’s Mouth. From there they had observed the action through a spyglass.

When the Chinese batteries on Chuenpee opened up they had cheered, confident that the British attack would be foiled. But all too soon, as the British began to bombard the fortifications on both sides of the channel, their confidence had turned to dismay. They had watched in disbelief as the walls of both Chuenpee and Tytock were torn open by cannonballs; their disbelief had deepened as they watched landing-parties setting off from the British steamers, in longboats and cutters, to launch frontal assaults on the gun-emplacements. Such was their vantage point that they had been able to observe the landing-parties as they swarmed over the battlements. But not until the end did they spot the sepoys who had circled around the hill to attack the gun-emplacements from the rear. This detachment came into view only after the sepoys had come around the slope.

The slaughter that ensued was largely obscured by dust and smoke but Neel and Jodu still had a vivid sense of what was unfolding, because of the increasing number of bodies in the water. Yet the full horror of it only became clear when shoals of charred and blackened bodies began to drift into the channel.

Not one of the British ships, so far as they could see, had suffered the slightest damage.

The speed with which it happened was as astounding as the one-sidedness of the destruction. The assault started at 9 a.m. by Neel’s watch; by 11 a.m. British flags were flying on both sides of the channel, atop Chuenpee as well as Tytock. The only remaining threat to the British was a squadron of war-junks commanded by Admiral Guan Tiaifei.

The junks had come under withering fire early in the operation. Outmatched, the squadron had retreated to a defensive position, at the edge of the bay that separated Chuenpee from Humen. Between them and the channel lay a sandbar – an impassable obstacle for the larger British vessels but not for those with a shallower draught.

The British fleet ignored the junks while they were occupied in the twin assault on Chuenpee and Tytock. Only when the forts had been stormed did the warships turn their attention to Admiral Guan’s squadron: a number of armed cutters went swarming in for the kill.

But before the cutters could close in they were nosed aside by the gleaming iron hull of the Nemesis. Speeding past the boats the steamer went straight into the shallows until finally her cutwater bit into the sandbar. Then, with a fearsome shrieking sound a volley of projectiles took flight from her foredeck – these, Neel realized, were the weapons that Zhong Lou-si had asked about: Congreve rockets, the prototypes of which had been invented in Bangalore. Arcing through the air, the rockets arrowed into the junks, with devastating effect. One of them hit a gunpowder magazine and a junk exploded with a deafening roar. Then it was as if a tide of fire had engulfed the creek: the entire Chinese squadron seemed to be ablaze.

Now gongs began to ring on the Cambridge, summoning the crew to their battle-stations. The entire outer tier of the Tiger’s Mouth defences was now in British hands so it seemed inevitable that the victorious warships would proceed to attack the next set of fortifications – the batteries of Humen and North Wantung Island, where the Cambridge was stationed.

But then came a surprise. Instead of advancing, the British warships pulled back to Chuenpee, to evacuate the men who had gone ashore a few hours earlier.

Evidently the attack had been postponed till the next day.

*

In the evening, after making sure that the sepoys and their followers were properly settled below deck, Kesri met with Captain Mee, to review the day’s action. The captain had suffered a slight wound: his upper arm had been grazed by a musket-ball and he was wearing a poultice, with his elbow in a sling and his raggy jacket hanging off his shoulder.

‘Sorry about your wound, sir,’ said Kesri.

‘Are you?’ The captain grinned. ‘I’m not. It’ll earn me a few weeks’ leave in Macau.’

The tally of casualties on the British side, said the captain, was thirty-eight wounded, with no fatalities. On the Chinese side the toll was estimated to be about six hundred killed and many more wounded. Thirty-eight heavy guns had been seized and spiked in Chuenpee; twenty-five on Tytock. Along with the guns found on the junks and elsewhere, the total number of cannon destroyed amounted to one hundred and seventy-three.

‘Our men did well today, havildar – Major Pratt was full of praise for them.’

‘Really, sir?’

Kesri knew that Captain Mee had long been hoping to have his name included in dispatches. ‘Any mention of you, sir, by the commander-sah’b?’

The captain shook his head. ‘No, havildar – not a word.’

‘Maybe tomorrow, sir?’ said Kesri. ‘There will be another action, no?’

‘I wouldn’t count on it, havildar,’ said Captain Mee. ‘I’m told the Plenipot is under pressure to call off the offensive. I believe a letter has been dispatched to the Chinese commanders explaining the procedures for surrender. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were sent back to our camps so that the higher-ups can go on with their endless buck-bucking.’

This sent a chilly pang of disappointment through Kesri. Now that a full-scale attack had been launched he had hoped that the campaign would at last be brought to a speedy conclusion.

But sure enough, the next morning, a boat with a white flag was seen heading over from Humen to the Plenipotentiary’s flagship.

Shortly afterwards Kesri learnt that the offensive had been called off and the Bengal Volunteers were to return to Saw Chow.

*

Through the night the Cambridge was swept by news and rumours. As the magnitude of the disaster sank in, emotions rose to an extreme pitch, with the Chinese officers and crewmen alternating between rage and numb despair.

When word spread of the role that ‘black aliens’ had played in the carnage at Chuenpee the attitude of the Chinese sailors began to change: the camaraderie that had developed between them and the lascars abruptly evaporated and a new coldness took its place. It was as if Neel, Jodu and the others were somehow responsible for the actions of the sepoys.

The fact that nothing was said openly only made matters worse. Neel was relieved when Compton lapsed into an accusatory outburst: Why, Neel, why? Why are your countrymen killing our people when there is no enmity between us?

But Compton, said Neel, why do you associate us with the sepoys? We are not all the same. Jodu and I could not be sepoys even if we wanted. And why would we want to be sepoys? The truth is that they have killed more people in Yindu than anywhere else.

The one piece of good news that night was that Admiral Guan was still alive – he was feared to have died when the war-junks were attacked. But it turned out that he had managed to escape to Humen.

In the small hours an order was received from the admiral’s command post instructing the Cambridge to move to a new position as soon as possible. Accordingly, when the sky began to lighten, the Cambridge moved away from the island of North Wantung, to the far bank of the channel, where there was another gun-emplacement. There they began to prepare for the impending attack.

At dawn, when three British frigates were seen to be moving up the channel the crew of the Cambridge were sent to their posts. But then, inexplicably, the frigates turned back.

It was not till later in the day that they learnt that negotiations had been re-opened; a team of mandarins was again parleying with the British Plenipotentiary.

Soon it became evident that the British had an additional reason for calling off their attack: no sooner had the talks begun than the ship that was carrying Lancelot Dent’s cargo began to move. Crossing the Tiger’s Mouth, the vessel sailed off in the direction of Hong Kong.

Everyone understood then that the merchant Dent was behind the stoppage in the fighting: he was the mohk hau haak sau – the ‘black hand behind the scene’. He had clearly paid huge cumshaws to the British commanders in order to ensure the safety of his cargo.

You see, said Compton bitterly. This is what happens when merchants and traders begin to run wars – hundreds of lives depend on bribes.

That evening Compton made a trip across the channel, to visit Humen. He came back with momentous news: Governor-General Qishan had capitulated; he had consented to many of the invaders’ demands, including the handing over of a sum of six million silver dollars, as compensation for confiscated opium. He had also agreed to give the British the base they had long been clamouring for: the island of Hong Kong – known as ‘Red Incense Burner Hill’ in Chinese official documents.

A formal understanding to this effect was to be drawn up in a couple of weeks.

*

The effects of the battle at Chuenpee were felt almost immediately at Hong Kong. Overnight, like litter from a faraway storm, swarms of boats began to drift into the bay. These were not shop-boats, loaded with provisions, souvenirs and produce, like those that came over from Kowloon every day. They were dilapidated, bedraggled sampans piled high with household goods – utensils, mats, stoves and clothing. Dogs, cats and poultry could be seen perched on their hooped bamboo roofs; on their prows sat broods of little children, many of them with wooden floats tied around their waists, to save them from drowning if they fell overboard.

It was as if a vast floating population were being carried in by the tides. Every night waves of boat-people would be swept in; in the morning Paulette would wake to find yet more sampans at anchor around the Redruth.

Freddie, who was now a daily visitor to the nursery, was perfectly at home amongst the floating population. ‘They are my people, ne?’ he said to Paulette. ‘My mother also was boatwoman – I was brought up with Dan people.’

But why were they coming over in such numbers? What was bringing them to Hong Kong?

‘Too much trouble for them in Guangdong now,’ said Freddie. ‘Land-people troubling them. They cannot stay, ne? Everyone say Hong Kong will soon be given to British. Boat-people think it will be safer here.’

Soon some of the new arrivals began to move ashore, building huts and shacks, settling where they could. The beach where Paulette’s daily climb began did not long remain deserted. A shack appeared at its far edge one day and within a week a hamlet seemed to have sprouted around it. Although the inhabitants seemed peaceable enough, Paulette was glad when Freddie offered to accompany her on her daily climb to the nursery: she accepted without hesitation.

Meanwhile the British were also expanding their presence on Hong Kong. Every day cutters and longboats would ply back and forth between the island and the bay, bringing over soldiers, sailors, shipowners and sightseers from the naval and merchant vessels that were at anchor around the island. Teams of surveyors would roam over the beaches and slopes, taking measurements and putting down stakes and markers.

One day a group of surveyors even turned up at the nursery – a half-dozen officious-looking men armed with tripods and measuring tapes. They left after asking a few questions about the plot and its ownership, apparently satisfied with Paulette’s explanation that it had been leased by her employer, Mr Penrose.

But after they’d gone, Freddie said: ‘Why they were asking so many questions, lah? You think maybe they want take the land?’

The thought was like a blow to the stomach for Paulette. ‘No!’ she cried. ‘They can’t! Surely they can’t?’

‘People are saying so, ne? British will take whatever they want when they get the island.’

Freddie explained that the original islanders, of whom there were only four thousand, had become very concerned about the recent changes. For centuries Red Incense Burner Hill had been considered a place of misery and misfortune – insalubrious, racked by disease and lashed by devastating typhoons. In the past, mainland people had gone to great lengths to avoid Hong Kong; the inhabitants had been objects of pity because they were condemned to eke out an existence on a barren, ill-starred island.

Now suddenly it was as if the island had been transformed into a lodestar. The old-time islanders had begun to fear that their land, their homes, would be expropriated by the British. Some were so alarmed that they were selling their property and moving to the mainland.

‘Maybe I talk to landlord, ne? Maybe he want to sell?’

A few days later Fitcher announced that the nursery’s landlord had come over to the Redruth and offered to sell the site, along with an adjoining stretch of land – two acres in total, for a sum of thirty Spanish dollars. Fitcher had leapt at the offer, handing over an advance of five dollars.

On the day when the formalities were completed Fitcher made one of his rare trips up to the nursery, in a sedan chair. After looking around a bit, he said: ‘Ee’ve done a fine job here, Paulette. Ee deserve to have it.’

‘What do you mean, sir?’

‘Didn’ee ken?’ said Fitcher, with a smile. ‘It’s for ee that I’ve bought it; the land’s to be eer dowry.’

*

Through the month of January the Parsi seths of Macau continued to gather at Dinyar’s villa every Sunday, for prayers followed by a meal in which a tureen of dhansak always took pride of place. But from week to week the mood of the gatherings varied wildly. The first Sunday after the Battle of Chuenpee, the seths were exultant; none of them doubted that the Celestials had learnt their lesson; after such a resounding defeat surely they would cut their losses and agree to meet the British demands? Surely they would understand that they had no option other than that of bringing a yet greater calamity upon themselves?

When attacked by a band of dacoits on a lonely road a man might risk losing a finger or two in order to save his treasure – but what sane man would endanger his arm or his head? The instinct for self-preservation was no less strong in the Chinese than in any other people: surely they would accept that the war was already lost? After all, it was clear enough that the Chinese army was bherem bhol ne mã’e pol – all show outside but hollow within. And besides, for a realm as vast as China the loss of a small, barren island like Hong Kong was a trifling matter. Nor was an indemnity of six million Spanish dollars any great matter either – amongst the merchants of Guangzhou there were several who could afford to pay it out of their pockets.

So the talk went that Sunday, at lunch, and by the time the tureen of dhansak was removed everyone was convinced that the war was over, so much so that Dinyar even called for a demijohn of simkin to be opened, in celebration.

But the week after that there was less certainty: it appeared that the mandarins had once again succeeded in luring the Plenny-potty into their game of endless palavering. Then yet another week went by with nothing but more buck-buck, which cast everyone even deeper into the doldrums.

The Sunday after that despair turned to truculence and the seths began to talk about how they might bring some pressure to bear on Captain Elliot, to speed things up a little. On an impulse Dinyar suggested that they all go to Hong Kong in his ship, the Mor, to seek a meeting with the Plenipot. The proposal met with a warm welcome and it was decided that they would leave the next day.

Shireen was, as usual, a largely silent spectator at these deliberations: while the men talked she would orchestrate a steady flow of food and drink for them, from the villa’s kitchen. It was only after the guests had left that she asked Dinyar if she too could go to Hong Kong on the Mor. Ever solicitious, he declared that she was most welcome.

They left at noon the next day reaching Hong Kong after nightfall. It wasn’t till the next morning that they discovered that they had been singularly fortunate in the timing of their visit. An event of great significance was due to take place that day: Captain Elliot was to meet with Qishan near Chuenpee. A convention was to be signed whereby the Chinese would undertake to hand over Hong Kong to the British, along with an indemnity of six million Spanish dollars!

The Mors passengers gathered on deck to watch the flagging off of an impressive squadron of steamers and warships. Not everyone was convinced that the meeting would produce results: there had been so many delays and disappointments in the recent past that it was hard to believe that the end was really in sight. But even to the most sceptical onlooker it was evident, from the fanfare, the music and the prominent presence of Captain Elliot, that something significant was in the offing.

Only after the squad had departed did the seths notice that Hong Kong had changed in the last couple of weeks: they saw that a wave of settlers had washed up on the island’s shores; they noticed also that a cluster of buildings was already under construction at the eastern end of the bay.

That so much had happened without their being aware of it was a matter of no little concern to the seths. As soon as the Mor’s cutter could be lowered, they went hurrying over to see what was afoot on the island. When they returned, several hours later, they were seething. It appeared that the British military authorities had decided to hold on to Hong Kong a while ago, treaty or not; what was more, they had quietly allowed some leading British merchants to grab the choicest plots of land. There was a rocky protrusion at the eastern end of the bay that would serve very well as the foundation for a jetty; the promontory had been named East Point and some of the bigger British opium-trading firms were already constructing godowns and daftars in its vicinity.

None of this could have happened of course without the connivance of the expedition’s commanders; it was clear enough that they had been paid off by the top British merchants. But what else had been settled between them, under the table, with no one’s knowledge? Had all the best plots already been palmed off, in secret?

One of the seths said to Shireen: Bibiji, if your husband had been alive things would not have come to this. We Parsis would not have been kept in the dark, while the Angrezes pocketed the best bits of the island for themselves. As a member of the Select Committee Bahram-bhai would have found out; he would have warned us.

As the seth was speaking the now familiar sounds of muted cannon-fire came rolling in from somewhere over the horizon.

Hai! cried Shireen in alarm. Has the fighting started again?

Dinyar tilted his head, straining to listen. No, he said. It seems that they are firing minute-guns. They must be celebrating the signing of a treaty.

This added a fresh urgency to the seths’ discussions: they began to argue about how best to persuade the British to open up the island to other buyers, either through direct sales or auctions. Some of them pointed out that if it came to the worst they could always refuse to provide opium to their British counterparts in Bombay. This was a trump card of sorts, for in Bombay foreign merchants were completely dependent on Indian suppliers for the procurement of Malwa opium.

But Dinyar and a few others argued that this would be a dangerous course: if pressed, the British government would surely find some pretext for seizing supplies of opium at gunpoint. That was the ace that was hidden up the sleeves of the Jardines, Mathesons and Dents of the world. Despite all their cacklings about Free Trade, the truth was that their commercial advantages had nothing to do with markets or trade or more advanced business practices – it lay in the brute firepower of the British Empire’s guns and gunboats.

The argument was still raging when a steamer was seen to be hurrying towards Hong Kong from the direction of the Pearl River estuary. Training a telescope on it Dinyar announced that the vessel was none other than the Nemesis with Commodore Bremer on board.

Soon it became clear that the steamer was heading for the western end of Hong Kong Bay. This convinced Dinyar that something unusual was under way and he wasted no time in calling for his cutter to be readied: whatever was going on, he had no intention of being left in the dark.

You should come with us, he said to Shireen.

Why me?

You should take a look at the island at least. When you receive your compensation you’ll have plenty of money. Maybe you too should put in a bid for a plot.

What are you talking about, Dinyar? Shireen retorted. Why would I buy land here? What will I do with it?

Why not, Shireen-auntie? Your grandchildren might want it. Maybe some day it will be worth a lot of money: it’s not impossible. When my grandfather bought land in Bombay everyone laughed. But look at what it’s worth now.

Shireen thought it over and decided to go along for the ride, not with a plot of land in mind, but because a sunset breeze was whispering over the bay and the conditions were perfect for a short sailing trip. She fetched a hat and a veil and was lowered into the cutter by the Mor’s swing-lift.

In the meantime a longboat had been launched from the Nemesis: a group of officers could be seen seated inside, heading towards the island. They reached the shore in only a few minutes.

By the time the Mor’s cutter pulled in a ceremony was under way on the edge of the island, not far from Sheng Wan village. A Union Jack had been planted near the water, and Commodore Bremer was standing in front of it, addressing the other officers.

‘In the name of our Gracious Queen, I take possession of this island of Hong Kong on this day, the twenty-fifth of January, eighteen forty-one.’

‘Hear, hear!’

Raising glasses of champagne, the officers drank a toast.

‘In memory of this day,’ intoned the commodore, ‘let the spot on which we now stand be known forever as Possession Point.’

‘Hear, hear!’

Dinyar and the other seths went hurrying ahead to listen, but Shireen hung back diffidently.

In a while she heard a cough, and a familiar voice: ‘Bibiji …?’

‘Oh Zadig Bey! I’m glad to see you.’

‘I’m glad to see you too, Bibiji. Would you like to go for a walk?’

‘A walk, Zadig Bey?’ said Shireen with a laugh. ‘Why, are you looking around for land, like everyone else?’

‘Yes, Bibiji,’ said Zadig gravely, ‘I’ve been thinking that I would look.’ He paused to clear his throat: ‘But not just for myself.’

‘What do you mean, Zadig Bey?’

Zadig scratched his chin. ‘Bibiji, there is something I’ve been meaning to ask you and perhaps it’s fitting that I should ask now.’

‘Yes, Zadig Bey?’

A bright flush rose to his face as he turned to her.

‘Bibi …’

Zadig stopped and started again. ‘Shireen … will you marry me?’

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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