We see we’ve posted nothing since March, as we have been busy scribbling in Yang Shen, so perhaps it’s time to set forth some of what we have been working on in draft, or as Joyce called his work on Finnegan’s Wake, Work in Progress. What follows is a draft excerpt from Book II, Chapter 32 Holding the Line, Section 5, describing the reconnaissance Fletcher makes on Ah-shan’s junk of the water route from Kuangfulin to “Tsingpoo” (i.e. Qingpu, or Ch’ing-p’u). An earlier related post, Researching Locations in Virtual Earth and Sky, describes the mapping in Google Earth of the route between KFL and Tsingpoo that guided the fictional recon.
This post will be followed in coming months by a posting of a draft of Chapter 33 Assault on Tsingpoo, which makes frequent reference to narrative and imagery that appears in this segment about the recon.
Yang Shen, Book II, Chapter 32, Section 5
Up the creek to Tsingpoo’s easy, he thought, but just how to get back humihingapa? Let’s not retire on foot through miles of cotton fields chased by rebel hordes. Poke their nest tho’ and they’ll swarm out damn mad flicking nasty little stingers. Engage. Exterminate. Extricate.
Fletcher stood above the camp landing as dawn limned the horizon and streaked Ah-shan’s junk sails and hull with glowing lemon light. Still asleep she is, crew below, only two Manilamen on deck watch. Dressed down to the boards, halyard, lifts and sheets snugged home, lugsail fan-folded and lashed to the yard, yulohs and tiller stowed, unstayed old Foochow pine mainmast stepped in a two-foot high tabernacle and groaning with each roll. Fore and mizzen masts unshipped for small backwaters, their tabernacles empty, sanctuaries now for a Chinese Stella Maris or haunts for homeless water sprites, sea nymphs, and selkies, like the tiny tile-roofed shrines in the middle of smelly rice paddies. Hundred pound hemp sacks of, maybe rice, stacked on each side of the tabernacles ̶ what has she got those for? Leeboard off the gun’le and set over the side for a gangplank.
He smiled at the recollection of how quickly Ah-shan had brought down that mast ̶ using the yuloh sweep as a sheerleg joined to the foot of the mast ̶ the first time he had set eyes on her fifty-foot junk. Ca’go lighter of forty tons, twelve-foot beam, five-foot draft ̶ she’s served us well. Living quarters and galley inside the flimsy deckhouse, wooden crates, hempen bags, and bundles of firewood crammed into the bamboo-floored stern gallery, overhangs the rudder by what, four feet? Draft that shallow can go into all the foul canals and fetid creeks of the entire Yangtze delta. Jupiter fading, Venus, Orion washed out, no moon this early. Sentries said moon set at 11:00pm last night. How many more days, five? She’ll set at 4:00am that morning, too low to light the frightened faces of Foreign Rifles. Be up when we start tho’ and that’ll give ‘em the jimjams. Rebel river patrols…can we get past them to Tsingpoo for recon?
The junk awakened in the early morning chill. Ah-shan and Little Chang crawled out of the house, and crewmen climbed up out of the hold yawning and stretching. Soon they all were clacking chopsticks on porcelain rice bowls, gorging on glutinous rice with cabbage braised in sesame oil, and dried salted mackerel flakes. Lao Chang never appeared and Fletcher guessed he was not aboard. Probably couldn’t leave a mahjong game.
“Ma,” Little Chang said, “where are we going 媽我們往那理?”
“Wu-te wants to go see Ch’ing-p’u 武德要看看青浦.”
“We already saw Ch’ing-p’u ̶ why go again 青浦已經看了 ̶ 為甚麼再去?”
“Rebels. Wu-te will fight the rebels there 賊. 武德要打青浦的賊.”
“Why do foreign devils fight Chinese 為甚麼有洋鬼子要打中國人?”
“Make money 賺錢. Fighting rebels makes big money 打賊賺大錢.”
“Chinese should fight the rebels 應該有中國人打賊.”
“Some do. Green Flags, militia. Just can’t beat them 有是有.綠營民團.打不過.”
“Can the foreign devils beat the rebels 洋鬼子能打的過賊麼?”
“Good weapons 武器好. And they reconnoiter first 他們也先偵察.”
To stay out of the way of the crew about to start working the junk, Fletcher, Vincente, and the interpreter Mr. Fan clambered up onto bundles of firewood in the stern gallery, dressed like coolies in ragged jackets and short trousers with wide-brimmed straw hats to conceal their faces. On a crate between them Fletcher laid flat a large chart marked with Chinese characters. “This shows the waterways from Kuangfulin to Tsingpoo. Ah-shan made it for us yesterday so we can put notes on it in English as we move along today. Ah-shan will call out village names to Mr. Fan and he will point to them on the chart so we can write down the names.”
“What we look for Koronel? Bridge, island, shallow water, sand bar I know, like on Confucius.”
“Width and depth of the canals, ferries, shore garrisons, rebel pickets. Size and number of villages, distance between them, and if they are occupied by rebels. At Tsingpoo we’ll scout the best place to land for an attack, locate towers, lakes, moats, ditches, and look for places where guns can be offloaded. Oh, by the way, for a while we can expect to meet only imperial patrol junks that probably will ignore us, but keep a weather eye out for rebel river patrols.”
“Have lebah patlo’ boat?” Mr. Fan said, looking around nervously.
“What kind banka?” Vincente said.
“Ah-shan!” Fletcher called out. “What do the rebel river patrol junks look like?”
“阿姍, 賊的水保甲船是什麼樣子?” Mr. Fan said.
“啊, 那些快蟹不像水保甲船. 他們快蟹有红色或是黄色三角形的旗子也没有藍色條紋的船帆. 船頭还有大炮容易看到.”
“Ah-shan, she say lebah boat no hab brue rine on sail, only hab big gun up flont. You lookee fo’ big gun.”
“No blue and white striped sail like the constable boats, only cannon in the bow.” Fletcher cringed at the pidgin; often he got only a bearing on its meaning.
“Si, entiendo pare,” Vincente said. “Rebel junk have flag, too, like we see on Yangtze, and Nanking.”
“Yes, those black-bordered red or yellow three-cornered flags.”
Not very enthusiastic, our interpreter ̶ official junks all have flags. Fallen off since his humiliation by governor Hsüeh Huan’s interpreter Showy at Kading and Taitsan last month. My petitions, pleas, prayers to draft a replacement still get only “belly soon, Wu-te, belly soon” from Takee. Have to depend on Ah-shan to keep Mr. Fan in harness for this day’s work.
Flags, the interpreter fumed inwardly! Ch’i-ssu jen 氣死人exasperating! Vulgar grating racket, English. Pig grunts and squeals, not pleasant and melodic like Cantonese. Old woman’s just as bad with her rasping country prattle ̶ they’re all disgusting, these northerners. Why am I here, banished to this far frontier like Commissioner Lin 林則徐 or the poet Su Tung-po 蘇東坡, walled around by uncouth barbarians, won’t let me go back to Shanghai, back to Takee bank, make me eat their awful food, sleep with vermin, fight rebels? Zyu-lei 豬脷 pig tongue. Too little to see. She picked me up to see the carts. One stall to the next. Hsiao-chou Village food street 小洲村小吃街. Ngaap-san 鴨腎 duck gizzard. Siu jyu gaap 燒乳鴿 deep-fried marinated pigeon. Zaa loeng 炸兩 rice-crepe wrapped dough sticks. No need to go to the rebels, rebels’ll be here soon enough. Look how the rabble of these squalid villages live here in poverty and ignorance 家貧如洗愚昧無知. Stupid villagers just shiver in their hovels waiting for rebels to come steal their crops, drag men away to Ch’ing-p’u for slaves, make whores of their women, leave their parents to beg in the streets and starve. No loss if the rebels slaughter them all ̶ this rabble is too dimwitted to deserve any better. T’ai-chi Hang 泰記行, respected there, no stupid foreigners, no wild rebels. Long gown, clerks bow, doors open, sedan chairs, teahouses, wine cups and gaming chips, willowy courtesans, clouds and rain. Sleep.
Fletcher was startled by the rattle of musketry. Ha! Little Chang’s tossing strings of firecrackers overboard at river demons, shades in the deep that would exchange their ghostly existence for the lives of the living. Ought to scare the bejeezus outta them ̶ did me. Rebels too, one might hope. And there’s Ah-shan and her crew before the empty foremast tabernacle kneeling to their little clay idol, lighting incense to beg protection of their pagan Stella Maris Ma-zoo-po, their goddess of the sea, ringing the bell to wake her up.
“We’ll be getting underway now,” he said aloud.
Ah-shan fetched the long wooden tiller and shoved one end into the rudder post just forward of the stern gallery. Crewmen brought up the leeboard gangplank and replaced it on the larboard gunwale, then took down the yuloh sweeps and mounted them on wood blocks at the bow. All hands gathered at the mainmast to haul the rectangular brown cotton and bamboo-batten lugsail clattering up the mast in rhythm with their song. Even underway Ah-shan at the tiller and the crew at the yulohs kept up noisy chants in time with the ceaseless gyre of the yuloh blades.
嗨喲嗨吆嗨喲嗨呀 hai-yo, hai-yao, hai-yo, hai-yah
水草漫漫太湖岸 water grass lines the shore of Lake Taihu
湖上飃飄來風一陣 a sudden breeze floats over the lake
嗨喲嗨吆嗨喲嗨呀 hai-yo, hai-yao, hai-yo, hai-yah
The junk drifted into the sluggish current, rolling in the turbid brown swell, cold river slapping at the water-worn hull, the sloshing leeboard trailing dirty white foam, the junk’s hull rattling as it scraped over gravelly places in the creek bed. The lugsail caught a little breeze and bellied out and in a few minutes they were well away from the camp landing.
“Kuang-fu-lin, Wu-te 廣福林, 武德,” Ah-shan called out from the tiller. “Big Luck Forest” Old Huang had dubbed the place. The canal turned south and entered a 300-foot wide moorage with villages on both sides. Open galleries of shops under tall willows lined each side of the creek, and behind the shops the green glazed ceramic tile roofs of private homes peeked over white plaster walls. Long walls without doors or windows sometimes ended in a large, circular entrance with a round door instead of a square gate. At the center of a cluster of houses on the right bank there was a large temple with rooftop ridges that curled gracefully upward at the ends into sharp points in a compound surrounded by a faded red wall dingy white in patches where the plaster had fallen away. Leaving Kuangfulin the junk lowered its mast for a steeply arched footbridge of stone with carved stone balustrades swept by the hanging branches of weeping willows.
“Fu-lin Ts’un, Wu-te 富林村, 武德.” Fletcher wrote “Rich Forest Village.” Old houses of rough slate-hued stone smoothed over with crumbling white plaster and roofed with dark gray tile edged the canal, their sliding doors of polished dark brown wood opened to let in the day. Long rows of white-walled houses with dark blue or gray tile roofs followed on, perched atop chiseled gray stone piers with stone railings, separated at intervals by wide gray stone steps under drooping willows. Children in dingy colors walked to school beneath strings of faded red paper lanterns swaying in the breeze. Old men sitting on stone steps or in cane chairs watched junks and sampans float past.
Fletcher peered into the unwalled villages as far as the narrow, meandering lanes and alleys would permit, searching for rebel pickets, defensible positions along a landward route of retreat, and landmarks to add to his map. Streets and alleys, Fletcher thought, tack a crooked course to confound straight-line navigators like ghosts and devils, as well as the baleful glare of the yang-kuei-tzu, the damnyankee foreign devils. He saw only throngs of people crowding around temple gates, puppet plays, and itinerant street vendors, people living outside along the streets and alleys as if their houses were too small to contain their bustling lives.
Scruffy street urchins gamboled around old men perched on stools in the warm sun smoking long slender pipes, pudgy toddlers stood quayside with chopsticks waving over rice bowls moored below their mouths, and old ladies squatting on stone steps washed clothes in the murky canal water.
Down one alley a brawny blacksmith forged iron tools over a charcoal brazier, a scrawny letter writer squatted at his portable desk, and a sausage vendor dangled a string of sausages over the flame of a small grill.
In another alley a knife-sharpener with a grinding wheel slung over his shoulder cried out “磨刀 hone knives,” a wispy barber sat a portly shopkeeper down on a stool to shave his forehead, and a bandy-legged tinker trundled a cart of jangling pots and pans.
How sublimely ignorant of the world. They go about business unaware of what happens beyond their river. Garibaldi’s Red Shirts unify Italy, Japanese Regent nearly assassinated, Pony Express arrives in Sacramento, Paiutes war in Utah and Maoris fight in New Zealand, store clerks pan gold at Pike’s Peak, argument rages over the descent of men from monkeys, Harper’s Weekly issues more of the Woman in White, and the Republican Party goes an’ nominates ol’ Uncle Abe for president of the Union. They don’t know any of that ̶ no newspaper, telegraph, town crier ̶ and wouldn’t care even if they did know. But then…is there some reason why they should? Mine’s a habit, foraging facts as a hedge against the future, an addiction, but these people live day to day, hand to mouth, and don’t want to know any more about the future than a fortuneteller can tell them: long life, wealth, wives, sons, serenity. Suppose I tossed it all overboard, shaved my head, donned a yellow robe, retired to the mountains, meditated beside waterfalls. How the hell did I get here anyway?
“買飲用水 buy drinking water” called out a water carrier going door to door ladling water out of wooden buckets for housewives living too far from the village well; other street peddlers added to the dissonance with shouts of “買瓜子 buy melon seeds,” “買麻油 buy sesame oil,” “買門神 buy a gate god” and other bawling that mixed with the chants of the junk crew.
嗨喲嗨吆嗨喲嗨呀 hai-yo, hai-yao, hai-yo, hai-yah
水色山光映斜陽 sunset shimmers in mountain light on the water
湖面點點是帆影 specks on the lake surface are glimmering sails
嗨喲嗨吆嗨喲嗨呀 hai-yo, hai-yao, hai-yo, hai-yah
Ah-shan turned to the stern gallery and said “Shen-ching T’ang 沈涇塘.” Mr. Fan pointed to the Chinese characters beside a canal on the map and Fletcher wrote “Shen-ching Canal” in English. The junk turned to starboard into this new canal.
“Tsingpoo not north?” Vincente said. Fletcher traced the route on the chart, following it southeast from Kuangfulin, then west to a large canal that went north and northwest to Tsingpoo. “Get lost in dark very easy,” Vincente said, smiling.
“That’s why we are doing this once in the daylight and taking notes. It would be better if we had a good timepiece to measure distances. Without one, we can only make our best estimates using this old pocket watch I borrowed from my brother in Shanghai. Another thing ̶ watch beyond the waterways for routes we can take if we must retreat by land without guard boats.”
“Not come back on canal?”
“Anything can happen, Vincente. A good general…well, commander…okay, a good koronel plans for all eventualities, for everything that can happen. So, watch inland, too, behind the villages, for open fields of dry cotton or wet rice, orchards, stone walls or wood fences, and roads. How wide are the roads, what is their direction, are they dry or wet, and can they pass artillery.”
“You think of many things, pare. Do you ever rest from thinking?”
“Time enough to rest when I’m dead, Vincente. When I am no longer humihinga pa.”
“Well, pare, may you breath for many more years.”
“You too, Vincente.”
A few minutes later Ah-shan called out “Hsiu-chou T’ang 秀州塘, Niu-t’ou Chi 牛頭磯.” Ahead the Shen-ching T’ang intersected a north-south canal called the Hsiu-chou Canal and the waterway opened wide. Silt deposited here had built an island at the center and made a small moorage called Ox-head Jetty. The next bridge they had to strike the mast to pass under was marked 秀野橋, the Hsiu-yeh Bridge. Further on the canal turned north and low hills appeared above green willows and the white blossoms crowning osier dogwood along the left bank. The land opened up into miles of broad fields and paddies with only a few villages near the water. The junk drifted along quietly for a long while until the path alongside the canal began to be crowded with country folk wheeling barrows and carts toward the next town for market day.
“Tung Wu-jia Chuang 東吳家庄,” Ah-shan called out. East Wu-family Village. Ah-shan said farmers started out early on a market day walking miles from inland. Sampans piled high with cabbage, eggplant, bitter melon, oranges, sugarcane, jute, pigs and chickens, wicker baskets, and home-woven cotton cloth and pongee silk sculled along the creeks, and ferries boated produce to market across the canal from Hsi Wu Ts’un 西吳村, West Wu Village. Yuloh sampan ferries were always where there was a village across the waterway or farmers worked fields on the opposite bank, and larger sampans even barged ox-carts. Tradesmen came from as far away as Sung-chiang. Stalls and booths in the market town would soon be packed with farm produce and trade goods just like the market at Kuang-fu-lin in spite of the rebel blight not far away. In the past vendors had come from Ch’ing-p’u to the market days but no longer. Not so many people came to the market at all now with the rebels at Ch’ing-p’u ̶ many villagers had left for Sung-chiang and Shang-hai.
A closer look revealed a great many beggars squatting around the fringes of the market. Here and elsewhere along the waterways from time to time Fletcher saw smoke rising from places inland and wondered if it was the smolder of charred rice chaff or the ash of burnt villages.
“Ch’i-chia Ts’un 戚家村.” Ch’i Family Village. Sampans sculled by slender women wearing broad conical hats drifted beneath teahouse balconies, women calling out in sing-song melodies the virtues of their vegetables, their ceramic pots, cups and bowls, their cut cane, bamboo or reeds, or just singing water songs about the beauties of Chiang-nan. Temples faced the canal, with tall carved gates open to the waterway, inside looking like the Temple of the Fire God in Shanghai, with altars draped in red cloth, muffled brass gongs, the tock-tock-tock of tapping on wooden fish, life-size effigies of Taoist gods, iron urns entwined by black dragons, drifting clouds of incense. More small children and old ladies stood alongside the stone quay each with a porcelain bowl held to their mouth with chopsticks shoveling in steamed rice. That’s how they say hello, Fetcher mused, by asking have you eaten rice. Habit of walking around with a bowl of rice stuck to your face evidently starts young and lasts till you’re old and gray. More cormorant fishermen moving their birds from pond to pond. People coming down narrow village lanes with buckets to get water from the canal.
Ah-shan broke out in a new song: “Yao ah yao, yao tao wai-p’o chi’iao 搖啊搖, 搖到外婆橋.” Mr. Fan said it was a children’s nursery rhyme that meant “rowing ah rowing, rowing to grandma’s bridge.” More like “sculling ah sculling,” Fletcher thought. Someone on shore waved and sang out: “Yao ah yao, yao tao na-li pao 搖啊搖, 搖到那理跑?” Where are you rowing to? Ah-shan sang in reply.
喜鵲門前叫喳喳 magpies whisper at my door
兩只黃狗抬我轎two yellow dogs lift my chair
把我抬到外婆橋carry me to grandma’s bridge
油煎鍋貼炸年羔for fried dumplings and sticky rice cakes
“Chung Chia Shan 鍾賈山.” Ah-shan turned west out of the Shen-ching Canal into a smaller canal that circled the base of a low hill and led past another water village. Chung Family and Chia Family Mountain. Behind it was a hill twice as large, perhaps 300 feet high, with a tall, round pagoda on the highest peak. Ah-shan called it “T’ien-ma Shan 天馬山,” Sky Horse Hill. An opera boat passed under purple wisteria hanging from a gray stone bridge and entered the canal through the village, just a sampan covered with plaited rattan, inside brass gongs, silver cymbals, drums, er-hu, p’i-p’a, flutes and horns all huddled together playing the old music for the high-pitched nasal voices of the singers. People crowded together along stone railings to listen and small children skipped along beside the boat mimicking the high falsettos. However, the boisterous vitality of the water villages that had followed the junk along the canal for miles started to change as they neared the rebel-controlled shoreline. As the number of rebel junks prowling the muddy waters increased, the vivacity of river life decreased until the canal was as silent as the sailor’s cemetery.
The junk passed under another bridge, the Hou-kuan T’ang Ch’iao 后官塘橋. They came out from under the bridge into what seemed a different landscape. The change in the character of the land was not sudden, as it had been in Nanking, but almost imperceptible like the dull edge of a shadow that gradually dimmed, a thin penumbra of pique that sluggishly darkened to malice. The shadow over the villages became a shroud that lay on the land.
“What that boat?” Vincente said to Ah-shan, pointing over the tiller.
“賊快蟹 rebel fast crab!” Ah-shan whispered. “Little Chang, get in the house! The rest of you just keep sculling and don’t look around.” Fletcher, Vincente and Mr. Fan huddled together and bent their heads forward so their faces could not be seen beneath their coolie hats. A black-bordered red pennant on the river patrol mainmast flapped in the breeze, a 12-pounder poked out over her bow, and gingals trimmed the waist. She hailed Ah-shan and hove to beside the junk. Ah-shan went to the waist, said something to an officer, and handed him a piece of paper. The officer glanced along the deck, counted the hundred pound hemp sacks next to the empty tabernacles, then stared at the men on the stern gallery. Ah-shan spoke up again, more loudly, the officer looked at the paper again then handed it back to her and waved her on. Ah-shan returned to the tiller and got under way.
“What’s that paper?” Fletcher asked. She handed it to him.
“Taiping river pass, for transport of rice to Ch’ing-p’u.”
Fletcher smiled and then laughed. “When did you think of this?”
“Bought it yesterday, when we came up here without you.”
“Ah-shan, you are one great lady. Ting-hao, ting-hao 丁好丁好.”
Ah-shan turned back from the tiller and gave Fletcher a big black-toothed grin, knowing the river pass would be worth a big bonus from the Foreign Rifles.
“Nan-wan Village 南灣村,” Ah-shan said quietly, stepping closer to the stern gallery. South Bend Village. A rubble of broken yellow brick lay along the foot of what once was a high wall that extended from house to house around the tree-lined perimeter of the nearly deserted village. The remains of a watchtower lay strewn across a dried-up shallow moat near a ramshackle drawbridge. Some distance back along the canal Fletcher had seen villagers busy as bees in a tar bucket rebuilding their collapsed walls, clearing away fallen debris, carting earth for ramparts, and carrying newly cut stone and brick for facings. Perhaps the villagers here had abandoned their town after it was pillaged by the rebels and there were not enough people to rebuild the walls. A village wall was rarely more than fifteen feet high, but even that could be a sufficient obstacle to break the rush of rebel marauders and turn them toward villages that offered less resistance. The wall and whatever local militia they could muster were their only protection, and the villagers would levy taxes upon themselves to restore their wall long before they ever would rely on provincial Green Flag troops to defend them.
As they came abreast of the stone quay the village erupted with the shouts of excited boys and men who appeared suddenly from nowhere. For a moment Fletcher feared he was the cause. Gongs clattered, horns brayed, drums beat as villagers grabbed wooden hoes and rakes and ran to outlying rice paddies and cotton fields. Min-tuan 民團, Ah-shan said. Village militia. In the rising mists it was difficult to tell tree trunk from rebel soldier; they waited to see some movement, squatting lower to be less visible, Fletcher thought, to the malignancy that surrounded them, that could come at them from any direction without warning, that struck them down with gingal, matchlock, pike and sword, with cruel weapons of cold iron that tore into the flesh and bone of their friends and neighbors and flung them riven and splintered to the earth.
“Tou-fu Pang 豆腐浜,” Ah-shan said. Ah-shan pointed to a smaller creek on the right. Beancurd Creek. Past the first turn of the creek the mast and sails of a large junk were visible above a thicket of reeds. That’s a big junk, Fletcher thought, for such a little creek. Wonder if we could get through there? Further on Ah-shan pointed to another small creek on the right. “Chu-hsiang Ching 珠湘涇.” Fletcher peered up the creek. Never get in there, he thought. He looked forward and swallowed hard. The banks on either side of the canal began to change color from black muck to streaks of dim gray and further along to shades of linen and ivory and finally to bone white and Fletcher recalled with a sinking stomach the streaks of alabaster clay and clutter of white sticks, stones, and broken pottery that tumbled down the canal embankments at Tanyang ̶ alabaster clay that turned out to be bone powder and ash above a white rubble of human skulls and bones. He saw again the glaring face of a wraith with intense black eyes and heavy black brows under a curious sort of coronet with a ruby flanked by gold medallions ̶ the Taiping Loyal King Li Hsiu-ch’eng ̶ his black eyes narrowing in anger as he reached for his bow. This, Fletcher thought, has to be more of your doing.
“Ch’eng-nan Ts’un 城南村,” Ah-shan whispered. South of City Village was a ruin of charred shops and houses collapsed upon each other and stone and mud bricks strewn across the streets. The place was deserted but for a few straggling families loading possessions from the last houses still standing, scattered villagers picking through the wreckage, and a handful of tattered old women near the landing desperate to sell congee, bean curd or tea leaves to any passerby, the human dregs left behind from rebel slaughter not worth carrying off with the men, women, and girls of the village.
Rebel shadows flickered through mists drifting behind the cowering village, horses snorting, bridles clanking, armor creaking, their dark threatening dudgeon swelling like a venomous snakebite and snuffing out light and laughter in the villages closest to their deadly walled lair. Fletcher did not have to see rebels ̶ they were in the frightened faces of villagers glancing over their shoulders toward the bleak walls of Tsingpoo. Rebels were in the curt exchanges between neighbors afraid to stay too long out of doors. Rebels were in the apprehensive silence of small children who sensed their parent’s dread without understanding the cause.
And of course their terrible work was everywhere. How can men made in the image of God do these terrible things, he wondered, recalling again the angry face of the Loyal King. Are you leading this swarm of ravenous locusts to devour the land in a rampage of Hakka hysteria? Not content to fight only soldiers, no Christian love for your enemy, love not but slay your neighbor, punish Amalek ̶ even the donkeys, execute His wrath on wrongdoers, slaughter all with unmarked foreheads, enslave those not murdered, fill the fields with the slain, cover the land with dead, stamp out sin like Chinese Puritans, whip them cut off their ears burn them at the stake, make their sacrifice a sweet savor to God, tarnish the Golden Rule, wash the cross with the blood of innocents, wash your feet in the blood of the wicked, and make a new law: only violence can destroy the Ch’ing. Lessons of Christ lost on the Christian Taiping, God’s will warped into a miserly creed by that maniac Hoong, a violent and savage messiah, a new messiah like John Brown, raise a Bleeding Kansas in Bloody China, another Harper’s Ferry apocalypse, release your Reign of Terror, only violence can destroy the Ch’ing, only violence can end slavery. Coolie kings slaughtering coolie kings must mean you were born violent because what you do to everyone else you do to yourselves as well. Abomination!
The canal jogged to the left and ended at a river about two hundred yards ahead. “Tian-p’u Ho 淀浦河,” Ah-shan whispered. Shallow Bank River. Across the river one hundred yards a high gray stone wall and gate reared up before them. Above the gate was a three-tiered wooden tower with eaves curved upward. “Ch’ing-p’u nan men, Wu-te 青浦南門, 武德,” Ah-shan whispered again. “That’s the south gate.” A narrow moat crossed by a drawbridge ran along the foot of the wall and flowed out from a water gate into the river. Outside the wall on the bank of the river a square pagoda of whitewashed stone seven stories high loomed over the gate, and beyond the town they could see the sharp peak of a low hill. The wall looked to be about twenty-five feet high. Fletcher clicked open his brother’s old pocket watch ̶ they had taken three hours and ten minutes to get to Tsingpoo from Kuangfulin. The canal had not been less than one hundred feet wide anywhere on their route, wide enough to pass the small fleet of guard boats he would bring to the assault.
As the junk left the canal Fletcher peered furtively through his small telescope and studied the misty river banks. That narrow corridor under the wall could land a force, he thought, but there’s no space for a besieging army with guns, especially horses. Flanking fire would come from the pagoda. River’s is too wide to fire effectively on the gate from the far side with small guns, not with 6-pounders. We’re supposed to take advantage of the ground, but there is no ground ̶ only water! Small guns could cover the landing from across the river, rake the tower and pagoda and clear the battlements with canister, like medieval archers did with arrows, but there’s no blasting through without heavy artillery. Gate’s larger, heavier than the Sungkiang east gate, so there’ll be no petards, either. Water gate has an iron grille on each side, probably closed at night. Drawbridge across the moat would be raised at night; have to get it down for a storming party to cross over. Climb the wall on scaling ladders. Even with surprise there’ll not be much time, rebels’ll swarm onto the wall. That wall looks strange. So does the gate. Stone freshly blown out of the wall and blast scars in the gate hastily repaired with light planking. You’d think the place has just been stormed. Rebels do that when they took Tsingpoo?
Ah-shan crossed the river, passing more rebel river patrol junks, and sculled around the tall square pagoda up into a wide willow-lined canal under the east wall. Scowling sentries atop the wall glared at the junk as it passed along the far side of the canal. Guards at the gates stared across the water at them. The foreigners scrunched down to make themselves as small as possible. The rebels, however, seemed to take no more notice of them than they did other junks in the river. Past the wary sentries and guards, Fletcher examined the east gate and north gate with care, furtively making notes about the height of the wall, guns above gates, water gates, bridges, towers, streams, ditches, and guards and sentries. On the west side of the town they drifted slowly past the gate there, observing the waterway was more than wide enough for dozens of guard boats to line up and fire their 4-pounders as a diversion.
How can we know the size of the garrison, what units in what strength, what sort of cannon and how many? We can’t learn any of that unless we get inside. No easier to get inside the walls here than it was at Sungkiang and we didn’t know the strength there, either. We need people who can get inside, need to send them in before we begin an engagement. Beggars ̶ hire the King of the Beggars to send his people into a town; might work if the money’s right. We can’t keep on attacking walled cities without knowing the strength of their garrisons!
Crossing the Shallow Bank River back into the Shen-ching Canal, Ah-shan’s junk passed a river patrol at the canal entrance. It was the junk that had stopped them before. She waved to them. The same officer she had shown her pass stepped to the rail and seemed to be staring at the hundred pound hemp sacks next to the empty tabernacles, maybe counting them. Once far enough past the river patrol, she told the crewman to skull harder and trimmed her lugsail to catch more wind.
Vincente looked up from under his coolie hat and glanced aft. He saw the rebel junk come about. “Letse! Dito sila ay dumating dammit, here they come!”
“That’s maybe a hundred yards,” Fletcher murmured.
“Yes, pare, and see ̶ they load the 12-pounder.”
“Come with me. Let’s help with those oars.”
Fletcher and Vincente jumped down from the stern gallery and started forward. Fletcher called to Ah-shan and jerked his thumb toward the stern. She turned to see the river patrol in pursuit.
氣死人make me crazy! Why didn’t you land that rice somewhere at Ch’ing-p’u. No, you had to keep it to sell back at Kuang-fu-lin. 小氣老臭貨 stingy old scumbag. Look at the mess we’re in now. For a few extra dollars you have put our cherished benefactor 飲流懷源的恩人 Wu-te in danger as if he had not already made your family rich. 糟糕 this is awful! They’re getting closer. 媽祖菩薩保佑 Matsu Bodhisattva protect us! They’ll catch Wu-te…what would they do to a foreigner? Will they shoot that cannon? Of course, else why load it? They’ll destroy my junk. Can’t get another. How do Little Chang and I live without a junk? 媽祖娘娘求妳救救我們 Queen Matsu please save us! 我會買最好的茅臺酒洒祭酒,整個一瓶 I will pour into the sea an offering of the very best mao-t’ai liquor, a whole bottle! 還會敬很多籃子鮮花 also offer many baskets of fresh flowers. Quick, steer for the center, then come about for the shore. 哎喲, 討厭 ai-yo, how annoying ̶ that just slows us down, and they get closer. If Jesus helps Christian rebels does Matsu have to fight Jesus? 啊, 嚇死人 ah, frighten us to death! Tore right through my lugsail. Not a big hole, still draws. Sound came after, thunder after lightning. 請妳派顺風耳庇護我們 please send General Fair Wind Ears to protect us. Steer to the left; there, that puts more wind into the sail, makes us a little faster. Wu-te will break that sweep pushing so hard. Can’t keep this up much longer. 請妳派千里眼幫助脫險 please send General Thousand Mile Eyes to help us escape. Wait! How far to Tou-fu Pang 豆腐浜 Beancurd Creek. 多謝媽祖菩薩 thank you Matsu Bodhisattva. Little creek, risk death to go in there, run aground, but what if we get through and that clumsy river patrol goes aground. They draw more water. If they bite the bottom, then no more cannon. 抱頭鼠躥 we can hide our heads and creep off like rats.
Where’s she going, Fetcher thought? Into that creek, Bean Curd Creek. Patrol has our range, still shooting high. There goes another one, right along the gun’le ̶ not so high now. Looks like we have the draft, tall reeds’ll hide us. Bet she’s gambling the river patrol does not have the draft. Scraped bottom there, and there again. Wind’s picking up. Got ‘em trimming sail. Patrol boat coming into the creek, slowing ̶ they don’t like it. We’ll be around this bend in a moment. Another shot, almost got some ducks with that one ̶ look at ‘em scatter. Us too.
Fletcher’s last glance back toward the Bean Curd Creek entrance was of the mast of the rebel patrol tilted over toward Hong Kong. Her gun was silent.
Bean Curd Creek wandered easterly through open fields past tiny hamlets of a few houses surrounded by pale green willow and citron yellow gingko trees where farmers threshed yellow-brown grain and spread it out to dry in their courtyards. Crewmen stood on the bow and sounded with poles to help steer a course over shallows and the junk grounded only a few times when they had to push off using the poles. No one sang any songs.
The pine-green peak of Sky Horse Hill squinted over the flatland horizon on their starboard and was aft when the creek eventually joined a large north-south canal. Ah-shan turned south and before long they raised the hill, and the smaller Chung Family and Chia Family Mountain, and knew they were in the Shen-ching Canal and on their way back to Kuangfulin. Fletcher, however, felt no relief.
Instead, Fletcher was gripped by a growing apprehension as alarming as that seamen feel at the sight of a black squall swelling on the horizon. When they left Kuangfulin that morning and the crew started up the falsetto whoops and wails of their raucous shanties, Fletcher worried they would attract unwanted attention, but when the songs were answered from junks all along the river it seemed more like they blended in and would stand out only if they were silent. The crew was vibrant and full of spirit when they started off in that dawn, and spirits rose still more as village after village joined them in song, but as they came closer to the captive walled city and began to see the desolation wrought on the land and feel increasingly the malevolent hatred coming from the rebel Tartarus, their songs slowed, quieted to a dirge and then stopped altogether.
They need a Dies Irae, Fletcher thought, a requiem to meet the dreadful day, a lay for a dying land doomed to flaming holocaust, a Sancta Missa for the dead. A choir of Gregorian monks should take up the boatmen’s chant, censure in somber cadence the coming day of wrath, damn the demon descent from insolent battlements down into valle umbrae mortis, the valley of the shadow of death.