I paused one day to watch Mr. Willoughby at his work, staying out of sight behind the shelter of the mast. He sat for a moment, a look of quiet satisfaction on his face, contemplating the finished page. I couldn’t read the characters, of course, but the shape of the whole thing was somehow very pleasing to look at.
Then he glanced quickly around, as though checking to see that no one was coming, picked up the brush, and with great care, added a final character, in the upper left corner of the page. Without asking, I knew it was his signature.
He sighed then, and lifted his face to look out over the rail. Not inscrutable, by any means, his expression was filled with a dreaming delight, and I knew that whatever he saw, it was neither the ship, nor the heaving ocean beyond.
At last, he sighed again and shook his head, as though to himself. He laid hands on the paper, and quickly, gently, folded it, once, and twice, and again. Then rising to his feet, he went to the rail, extended his hands over the water, and let the folded white shape fall.
It tumbled toward the water. Then the wind caught it and whirled it upward, a bit of white receding in the distance, looking much like the gulls and terns who squawked behind the ship in search of scraps.
Mr. Willoughby didn’t stay to watch it, but turned away from the rail and went below, the dream still stamped on his small, round face.
MR. WILLOUGHBY’S TALE
As we passed the center of the Atlantic gyre and headed south, the days and evenings became warm, and the off-duty crew began to congregate on the forecastle for a time after supper, to sing songs, dance to Brodie Cooper’s fiddle, or listen to stories. With the same instinct that makes children camping in the wood tell ghost stories, the men seemed particularly fond of horrible tales of shipwreck and the perils of the sea.
As we passed farther south, and out the realm of Kraken and sea serpent, the mood for monsters passed, and the men began instead to tell stories of their homes.
It was after most of these had been exhausted that Maitland, the cabin boy, turned to Mr. Willoughby, crouched as usual against the foot of the mast, with his cup cradled to his chest.
“How was it that you came from China, Willoughby?” Maitland asked curiously. “I’ve not seen more than a handful of Chinese sailors, though folk do say as there’s a great many people in China. Is it such a fine place that the inhabitants don’t care to take leave of it, perhaps?”
At first demurring, the little Chinese seemed mildly flattered at the interest provoked by this question. With a bit more urging, he consented to tell of his departure from his homeland—requiring only that Jamie should translate for him, his own English being inadequate to the task. Jamie readily agreeing, he sat down beside Mr. Willoughby, and cocked his head to listen.
“I was a Mandarin,” Mr. Willoughby began, in Jamie’s voice, “a Mandarin of letters, one gifted in composition. I wore a silk gown, embroidered in very many colors, and over this, the scholar’s blue silk gown, with the badge of my office embroidered upon breast and back—the figure of a feng-huang—a bird of fire.”
“I think he means a phoenix,” Jamie added, turning to me for a moment before directing his attention back to the patiently waiting Mr. Willoughby, who began speaking again at once.
“I was born in Pekin, the Imperial City of the Son of Heaven—”
“That is how they call their emperor,” Fergus whispered to me. “Such presumption, to equate their king with the Lord Jesus!”
“Shh,” hissed several people, turning indignant faces toward Fergus. He made a rude gesture at Maxwell Gordon, but fell silent, turning back to the small figure sitting crouched against the mast.
“I was found early to have some skill in composition, and while I was not at first adept in the use of brush and ink, I learned at last with great effort to make the representations of my brush resemble the ideas that danced like cranes within my mind. And so I came to the notice of Wu-Xien, a Mandarin of the Imperial Household, who took me to live with him, and oversaw my training.
“I rose rapidly in merit and eminence, so that before my twenty-sixth birthday, I had attained a globe of red coral upon my hat. And then came an evil wind, that blew the seeds of misfortune into my garden. It may be that I was cursed by an enemy, or perhaps that in my arrogance I had omitted to make proper sacrifice—for surely I was not lacking in reverence to my ancestors, being careful always to visit my family’s tomb each year, and to have joss sticks always burning in the Hall of Ancestors—”
“If his compositions were always so long-winded, no doubt the Son of Heaven lost patience and tossed him in the river,” Fergus muttered cynically.
“—but whatever the cause,” Jamie’s voice continued, “my poetry came before the eyes of Wan-Mei, the Emperor’s Second Wife. Second Wife was a woman of great power, having borne no less than four sons, and when she asked that I might become part of her own household, the request was granted at once.”
“And what was wrong wi’ that?” demanded Gordon, leaning forward in interest. “A chance to get on in the world, surely?”
Mr. Willoughby evidently understood the question, for he nodded in Gordon’s direction as he continued, and Jamie’s voice took up the story.
“Oh, the honor was inestimable; I should have had a large house of my own within the walls of the palace, and a guard of soldiers to escort my palanquin, with a triple umbrella borne before me in symbol of my office, and perhaps even a peacock feather for my hat. My name would have been inscribed in letters of gold in the Book of Merit.”
The little Chinaman paused, scratching at his scalp. The hair had begun to sprout from the shaved part, making him look rather like a tennis ball.
“However, there is a condition of service within the Imperial Household; all the servants of the royal wives must be eunuchs.”
A gasp of horror greeted this, followed by a babble of agitated comment, in which the remarks “Bloody heathen!” and “Yellow bastards!” were heard to predominate.
“What is a eunuch?” Marsali asked, looking bewildered.
“Nothing you need ever concern yourself with, chèrie,” Fergus assured her, slipping an arm about her shoulders. “So you ran, mon ami?” he addressed Mr. Willoughby in tones of deepest sympathy. “I should do the same, without doubt!”
A deep murmur of heartfelt approbation reinforced this sentiment. Mr. Willoughby seemed somewhat heartened by such evident approval; he bobbed his head once or twice at his listeners before resuming his story.
“It was most dishonorable of me to refuse the Emperor’s gift. And yet—it is a grievous weakness—I had fallen in love with a woman.”
There was a sympathetic sigh at this, most sailors being wildly romantic souls, but Mr. Willoughby stopped, jerking at Jamie’s sleeve and saying something to him.
“Oh, I’m wrong,” Jamie corrected himself. “He says it was not ‘a woman’—just ‘Woman’—all women, or the idea of women in general, he means. That’s it?” he asked, looking down at Mr. Willoughby.
The Chinaman nodded, satisfied, and sat back. The moon was full up by now, three-quarters full, and bright enough to show the little Mandarin’s face as he talked.
“Yes,” he said, through Jamie, “I thought much of women; their grace and beauty, blooming like lotus flowers, floating like milkweed on the wind. And the myriad sounds of them, sometimes like the chatter of ricebirds, or the song of nightingales; sometimes the cawing of crows,” he added with a smile that creased his eyes to slits and brought his hearers to laughter, “but even then I loved them.
“I wrote all my poems to Woman—sometimes they were addressed to one lady or another, but most often to Woman alone. To the taste of br**sts like apricots, the warm scent of a woman’s navel when she wakens in the winter, the warmth of a mound that fills your hand like a peach, split with ripeness.”
Fergus, scandalized, put his hands over Marsali’s ears, but the rest of his hearers were most receptive.
“No wonder the wee fellow was an esteemed poet,” Raeburn said with approval. “It’s verra heathen, but I like it!”
“Worth a red knob on your hat, anyday,” Maitland agreed.
“Almost worth learning a bit of Chinee for,” the master’s mate chimed in, eyeing Mr. Willoughby with fresh interest. “Does he have a lot of those poems?”
Jamie waved the audience—by now augmented by most of the off-duty hands—to silence and said, “Go on, then,” to Mr. Willoughby.
“I fled on the Night of Lanterns,” the Chinaman said. “A great festival, and one when people would be thronging the streets; there would be no danger of being noticed by the watchmen. Just after dark, as the processions were assembling throughout the city, I put on the garments of a traveler—”
“That’s like a pilgrim,” Jamie interjected, “they go to visit their ancestors’ tombs far away, and wear white clothes—that’s for mourning, ye ken?”
“—and I left my house. I made my way through the crowds without difficulty, carrying a small anonymous lantern I had bought—one without my name and place of residence painted on it. The watchmen were hammering upon their bamboo drums, the servants of the great households beating gongs, and from the roof of the palace, fireworks were being set off in great profusion.”
The small round face was marked by nostalgia, as he remembered.
“It was in a way a most appropriate farewell for a poet,” he said. “Fleeing nameless, to the sound of great applause. As I passed the soldiers’ garrison at the city gate, I looked back, to see the many roofs of the Palace outlined by bursting flowers of red and gold. It looked like a magic garden—and a forbidden one, for me.”
Yi Tien Cho had made his way without incident through the night, but had nearly been caught the next day.
“I had forgotten my fingernails,” he said. He spread out a hand, small and short-fingered, the nails bitten to the quicks. “For a Mandarin has long nails, as symbol that he is not obliged to work with his hands, and my own were the length of one of my finger joints.”
A servant at the house where he had stopped for refreshment next day saw them, and ran to tell the guard. Yi Tien Cho ran, too, and succeeded at last in eluding his pursuers by sliding into a wet ditch and lying hidden in the bushes.
“While lying there, I destroyed my nails, of course,” he said. He waggled the little finger of his right hand. “I was obliged to tear that nail out, for it had a golden da zi inlaid in it, which I could not dislodge.”
He had stolen a peasant’s clothes from a bush where they had been hung to dry, leaving the torn-out nail with its golden character in exchange, and made his way slowly across country toward the coast. At first he paid for his food with the small store of money he had brought away, but outside Lulong he met with a band of robbers, who took his money but left him his life.
“And after that,” he said simply, “I stole food when I could, and starved when I could not. And at last the wind of fortune changed a little, and I met with a group of traveling apothecaries, on their way to the physicians’ fair near the coast. In return for my skill at drawing banners for their booth and composing labels extolling the virtues of their medicines, they carried me along with them.”