An unexpected rendezvous ends in disaster
|Captain McKendree breathed in very much the same way now, leaning upon the bulwark of the Nephelai, as he did that afternoon in Canton. The remainder of his stay in the Swedish Factory was filled with nervous eyes and mistrust of every Chinaman there. It was highly illogical, condemning the entire race for the assumed actions of a few--but how was he to know who was and was not involved? McKendree spent most of his time in the dining room, sitting alone with a glass of some fine spirit, wishing their stay to be over, yet simultaneously wishing it had never begun.
Houqua had darted in and out of view like a panther circling its prey. McKendree had tried to discuss his disquietude with Gaskill, but the fool could not follow a thought if it wasn’t the Pied Piper. He was always talking with the Hong, discussing the future of trade, inquiring into the specific goods. On one of his meanderings through the factory, McKendree nearly fell upon the captain and the merchant engaged in a whispered discussion. Upon their notice of the third's wary ears, they halted their conversation, avoiding contact with McKendree's eyes until he stumbled away. What he heard made him ponder. Fulminated mercury, something about fulminated mercury.
Another time, Gaskill had left a slip of paper at a card table after tea, leaving hurriedly when he was told the time as though he was late for some event. McKendree shoved it into his breast pocket before retiring to his room as inconspicuously as possible. There, he tore the letter out and tried to make out the pointed script of the other captain. On the top was scrawled a shopping list of sorts, a list of various goods that were available in the market. But below them were the word “Rendezvous" along with a date, the sixth of August, and a crude map of what must have been the Persian Gulf. There were several X's marked along the Gulf, none of which appeared more significant than the others. He returned it to the table the next morning, and it disappeared within an hour. He did not mention it to anyone.
McKendree spoke little to anyone during the remainder of his stay. He even distanced himself from Jardine as though associating him with the plot. Again, he knew just how illogical it was, but sometimes a man just has to forego all knowledge and understanding and simply fill himself with one emotion. Or that is how he reconciled it to himself.
Within the margin of time Houqua had promised, the two clippers set out back down the Pearl River. For nearly five hours, dozens of coolies made the journey back and forth from the shore to the clippers still anchored at Whampoa. The stay had been a relatively uneventful one for the crewmembers. Four new crosses adorned the Whampoa graveyard, two the result of dysentery, one from a drunken sailor drowning while trying to swim to a flower boat, and one marking the site of a man shot by a Chinaman. He had deserved it.
McKendree turned again to the north, something he had not done when they had departed from Canton. He had wished to leave the foul place far behind. He had not smiled when Houqua had made his final farewell. His bright smile had grown increasingly menacing in McKendree's eyes, and his words were laced with disdain. No one else seemed to notice.
They had sailed west until the Persian Gulf had appeared to the starboard. Far East Goods had an outpost in the merchant city of Basra, located at the northern tip of the gulf. It was a necessary stop in order to save a later trip across Europe and to the British colonies around the Middle East. They passed several pirate ships that would no doubt have accosted them had they not only just previously taken captive an American vessel. At Umm Qasr, the Basra port, they stayed for hardly a night, leaving as soon as they could. And for good reason, too, for just hours after disembarking, the Sunis burned a Shiite vessel in the harbor, setting the entire port into flames.
But it was for none of these reasons that McKendree and Trunnell had spied in both the direction they had come and the direction they were headed. McKendree gave the bulwark one final pat before returning to the helm. Trunnell had already given the order, several whistles had sounded, and the men had begun moving about much quicker despite the blistering heat. It was the sixth of August, and it appeared as though today was the Rendezvous.
"Sir!" the helmsman Patrick Wadsworth shouted, waking McKendree from his memories, "The wind is beginning to catch, and I surely won't be able to keep her in line."
McKendree nodded. "Furl the sails," he returned, staring at Wadsworth but addressing Trunnell. More calls and shouts and whistles. Men began scurrying up lines attached to the mast to put away the sails. "And ready the small bower."
It was the perfect storm, in more ways than one. Edward Green had spotted it first, his eyes sharper than most spy glasses. There was a ship to the south, larger than a pirate ship and definitely not Western. The bow displayed a fearsome dragon as those of the Chinese war junks. Its cannons vastly outnumbered the arsenal of the clippers combined. This ship was imperial. Rumor was that the emperor sent them out after ships that it was discovered had smuggled opium into China. And no doubt, McKendree thought, this was all Houqua's doing. What better way to gain capital than by selling without having the goods ever reach their destination?
But that was not all. As though fate was wishing the encounter sooner, a shamal had appeared from the north. Already, the horizon appeared brown as the great wind carried with it sand even from Jordan straight south into the gulf. The winds were driving south-by-southwest toward the shallow, western shore. They needed to turn to port, straight into the approaching junk. And as a final slap across the face, those manning the mounted cannons on the clippers would hardly be able to see their enemy when the Arabian sand would begin cutting them down. The junk's cannons were belowdecks, safe from the innumerable tiny bullets.
"Captain!" It was Green again. He was on the bow, peering toward the south. "They're sending out a boat!"
The captain raised the glass to his eye. Indeed, they were. It was like a miniature duckboat, small, flat, and maneuvered by oars run by several coolies. There were six coolies and one man standing, his arms hidden in massive, black sleeves. McKendree took in a sharp breath. "What is he up to?" It was Houqua.
Wadsworth requested his attention again. The wind was beginning to howl, and the first of the grains of sand began to bite at McKendree's face. "This wind is picking up too much!" He had to shout to be heard by the captain who was three meters away. "The bower, it's time!" McKendree noticed for the first time how Wadsworth was straining to keep the vessel going south. His full body weight was pushed against the wheel, and even then, beads of sweat were tracing their way over his brow. McKendree shouted the order.
It was Green who uncatted the anchor, sending it from the hawsepipe down to the water. The rode sped out of the hause hole as the anchor made its way into the gulf. By the time the vessel started to turn to port, most of their vision was obscured by the sand carried by the shamal.
McKendree stood against the larboard gunwale, his glass again to his eye. "What is going on?" he muttered. The miniature duckboat had sidled the Discretion. They, too, had furled their sails. But that was not all. McKendree shifted his view to the bow and stern. His left ear stung from the flying sand, but for a moment he forgot about it. Gaskill had ordered the bower and the kedge to be laid, no doubt starboard and port. He had let down four anchors. He was rendezvousing with Houqua. He had slowed the ship down. This was planned. It suddenly made sense.
And yet, simultaneously, it made no sense. Chinese war junks never ventured beyond their waters unless they were hunting some merchant vessel. They were war ships, not ones fit for a Hong. Why would one be venturing this far west just to rendezvous? They had already finished the trading―unless there was something they had forgotten to take care of.
Even through the spyglass, McKendree could hardly see a thing for the countless bullets of sand were flying right into his face. He put up an arm over his nose and mouth to try to protect his bare skin from some of the pain, but it hardly mattered―his face was already numb and no doubt bleeding from micro abrasions in his skin.
Just as McKendree suspected, the Discretion tossed down several ropes that the attending coolies quickly fastened to the duckboat. A small ladder shot over the edge of the clipper, and the black-robed man―Houqua—began to climb while two coolies held the smaller boat steady against the larger's hulk. After Houqua had boarded, the remaining four coolies began to hand up large crates to the awaiting crewmembers. Gaskill had appeared on the deck and faced Houqua, each bending at the waist toward each other. It was then that McKendree noticed that in the latter's outstretched hands was an object.
Suddenly, the Nephelai lurched, and there was the sound of wood cracking. McKendree nearly fell over, steadied only by reflex of gripping the railing. He looked up to Green who shouted, just barely audible over the shamal, “Sir, it's the bower! The gulf's too shallow and we lost her!” He looked over the side of the railing to where the bower's chain should be but saw only a gaping hole. They had lost their bower, and if it was this shallow, it would be too dangerous to let out the kedge. But considering the fact that the Chinese junk was not in fact there to destroy them, the imperative to be able to drastically alter the ship's course lessened.
“Wadsworth, keep her sou'-by-southwest. Don't worry about the Chinese.” With this potential disaster averted, McKendree returned the spyglass and found the two conspirators, the Englishman and Chinaman, exchanging something. He could not get a good look at what it was, but he knew: it was a Chinese puzzle box. This was the Final Presentation, a trade that for some reason could not be performed in Canton and instead required the anonymity of the sea to take place.
By now, the Nephelai had pulled ahead of the anchored Discretion, who being further from the shore no doubt had the luxury of deeper water. McKendree compensated for his changing perspective by walking toward the stern of the clipper along the starboard rail. He guessed that 12 crates had been loaded onto the clipper, and the coolies were all awaiting the return of the hong who was engaging in several final words with Gaskill. Finally, he reached into his robe and pulled out what appeared to be a letter which Gaskill received, turned toward the duckboat, and climbed back down the ladder. In the high winds, both ships, along with the war junk, were being propeled to the south, but their reduced speeds left them in the wake of McKendree who now stood on the stern of the Nephelai.
McKendree watched until Houqua returned to the Chinese ship less than thirty meters away from the tea clipper before he put his glass down. What was Clarkson up to? What had he in mind with Houqua? Why had Gaskill gone along with this―did he not sense its dark nature, its conspiratorial undertones? The words that both Houqua and Jardine had said came back to him now: The world would never be the same.
What was in that box, and how could it change the world?
His train of thought would undoubtedly have continued, but his attention was instictively drawn toward the Discretion. Less than a second later, he realized that his awareness had made note of a sound, like that of metal clanging together. His eyes saw moments before his mind register that the kedge and bower lines were all taut, the ship brought to a nearly sudden and damaging halt. The mast swayed uneasily, Yeats in the crow's nest toppled onto the deck, along with several other hands who were trying to rescue some unfurling sails. Wood along the sides of the ship flew off in sprays of splinters, sending several in the belowdecks hurtling into the water. Everyone on deck went flying toward the bow, some toppling overboard and others being saved by colliding with various parts of the ship. The helmsman was unconscious, his head having hit one of the wheel's spokes.
The next several moments were the most troubling to McKendree, and he would wonder about them for the remainder of his life. He would make an official report, of course, on what happened to the Discretion based on objective facts and observations from his position. Green, being the only other soul watching to the north, would report similarly on the Chinese ship. However, they were the both of them haunted by what they knew in their hearts they truly saw. It did not make sense, and who could know for sure given the conditions of the shamal and the distance of the ships? It was only a split second, and the mind has a hard time processing that much in a single second.
Officially, both ships' anchors stuck fast on the shallow gulf floor, sending unstable fulminated mercury flying in the holds of the ships, detonating them and sending the ships up in flames. There were no survivors found.
But McKendree wrote a very different account in his personal diary, letting no reservations of judgment or claims of mental instability hinder him. He wrote what he saw, not just with his eyes, but with that sense that sees what truly happens, not just what the mind thinks happens.
The explosion was not the only thing McKendree spent the rest of his life wondering. He never forgot the odd rendezvous, the secretive conversations between Houqua and Gaskill, the foreboding of Jardine. And, of course, the puzzlebox. He never forgot that puzzlebox.