Dragon Wind Rising
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by Frances Burke
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: Peking, 1900, and a dragon wind of rebellion rages across China, bringing death and destruction to the hated foreign devils. Lea Stafford, a fledgling overseas correspondent, survives a massacre at a mission station only to be trapped by Boxers in the British Legation, along with Michael Attwood, a mysterious adventurer. Finding love almost too late, they must face the screaming hordes attacking the walls of the Tartar City. Historical Romantic Adventure by Frances Burke; originally published by Robert Hale Ltd. [UK]
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2007
eBookwise Release Date: June 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [382 KB]
Reading time: 236-330 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
What was that smell? With handkerchief to my nose, I breathed shallowly, finally identifying a mix of week-old shellfish and raw human effluent, with a tang of spices and incense that only served to increase the eye-watering pungency filling the railway carriage. Then with an inward smile for my daintiness, I put the handkerchief away. A woman aspiring to a man's job in a foreign land, with only her own wits and strength for support, had best be prepared to ignore anything short of real pain.
Iron wheels jolted and lurched over points and, as the train slowed, I rose, buttoning my jacket and tucking my bodice firmly beneath the band of my travelling skirt. At the same time I dislodged the fine grit that I'd had rapidly learned was an unavoidable part of northern China's spring -- that, and the heat already building and spreading from Mongolian deserts across the Great Wall to fall upon the parched land. But I'd dressed for it, with a loose corset, thin petticoats and a costume in practical linen, amber brown as maple resin. I've been told the colour matches my eyes, and I'm inclined to agree.
As I pulled down my portmanteau, I experienced a shiver of eagerness and perhaps just a tinge of apprehension. A new century hovered on the horizon, and the Old World was disappearing; but parts of it still looked back, clinging on to the past, and this was one of them. What might I encounter in one of the most mysterious kingdoms left on the earth? With my best straw hat skewered firmly into place, I prepared for the adventure.
Peking Station teemed like a human ant hill. I stepped down through a fog of steam onto a platform area that seemed to have not one square inch of room to accommodate my luggage and me. Yet somehow the mass of bobbing heads and millipede brown legs made a place. My trunk landed beside me with a thump, to be immediately seized by a thin, pigtailed man who hoisted its weight upon his back and set off, butting a path through the crowd, with myself in hot pursuit. Being taller than average, I could keep him in sight, but the distance between us widened, despite my efforts to keep up.
I raised my voice. 'Hey there, porter! Wait for me.'
He increased his pace.
My voice rose accordingly. He continued on his way. I appealed to the people around me. 'Excuse me. Kindly let me pass. Can you let me through, please?' Tapping shoulders politely did no good. Then, spotting a few decidedly western-style hats dotted through the crowd, I used the penetrating tone that had served me well on more than one occasion, while, at the same time, waving my serviceable black umbrella like a semaphore flag. 'Sir, can you help me?'
It was hopeless. The cacophony produced by the locomotive, still wheezing and snorting, and the shrill, vociferous crowd drowned me out. Desperate at the sight of my trunk disappearing, I tried a few pokes with my umbrella point. Bare legs skipped nimbly aside, their owners grinning at me amiably, and I forged ahead to eventually emerge into a street lined with rickshaws and two-wheeled covered carts. There my panting porter awaited me, still doubled under his burden. Slightly breathless myself, I raised a scolding finger, but the little man's guileless, gap-toothed smile arrested me. He then jerked his head in the direction of a rickshaw.
'Taitai go hotel? Go legation?' he chirped.
Several rickshaw men trotted up hopefully. Relieved, I gave my address as the Peking Hotel, paid the porter a handful of the quaint holed coins called cash, more than adequate recompense, judging by his expression, and climbed into the nearest vehicle, settling myself against the cushion with anticipation. Having carefully stowed the luggage, the man took up his shafts and set off in the direction of the city wall.
There we plunged into a long dim tunnel, emerging, full of expectation, into the first and largest of the triple cities that formed the capital. I thought: first impressions. I simply had to fix in my mind the sights and sounds of this extraordinary country before becoming accustomed, that is, if ever I could do so.
I was hardly prepared for the assault upon all senses. Reveling in the sheer exotic strangeness of my surroundings, I began mentally storing impressions that mere words could not describe. Certainly words are my tools, but there were other, more potent triggers, like the flash of sunlight on orange tiles, the trill of a songbird in a bamboo cage, a sudden wave of incense from the door of a temple, dust flying up beneath the runner's heels and the ubiquitous Gobi grit blowing in my face. Or a sudden blaze of color as a fiercely splendid dragon writhing upon a silk banner shimmered across our path. These were the things I'd remember about my first hour in Peking.
Again I was struck by the beauty of vivid tiles gleaming atop a storied circular building, later identified as the Temple of Heaven, where the Emperor annually prayed to his ancestors for a good harvest. To the left another temple rose, and ahead a vast, never-ending sea of tip-tilted roofs.
The runner between the shafts turned into a marketplace and was engulfed in a crowd that slowed him to a stop. Men, women and children milled about, screaming abuse and aiming missiles into an open shed in one corner of the market. From the vantage point of the rickshaw I looked over the heads of the crowd and felt my breath catch in horror. A man, half-naked, bones almost sticking through his skin, hung tied to two beams, as if crucified. About his throat a rope was being slowly tightened. His eyes and tongue bulged, but the torturer clearly took pride in his skill, releasing pressure, then tightening once more, prolonging the agony for the enjoyment of the onlookers. The victim, already dripping with filth, was being used by the crowd as a human coconut shy, and the glee on the faces of young children turned my stomach.
It's not my business, I thought, even as I jumped to my feet, umbrella in hand, trembling with outrage. 'Stop it! Stop it at once!' I shouted. My voice carried over the babble and heads turned towards me, pigtails bobbing in a sea of alien faces alight with the kind of ugly enjoyment I commonly associate with schoolboy bullying. I could not believe these were the same smiling people I had met off the ship and in the port, the friendly workers in the fields who had raised a hand to the passing train. These individuals were a mob, and clearly they'd neither understood nor cared about me. As they turned back to their sport, I sprang from the rickshaw on a wave of such anger that I fear my usual common sense deserted me. Flailing my umbrella, I forced my way through the crowd, shouting all the time that this was murder and it must be stopped.
When I finally reached the shed at the corner I halted, struck by the agonized gaze of the man strapped to the cross. Pity choked me, and for a moment I stood silent in the face of suffering. The onlookers shifted, drawing in on me. Then another voice rang across the market square, male, English speaking, authoritative.
'What the devil do you think you're doing, woman?'
Startled, I turned. The crowd broke, scrambling to avoid being trampled as a horseman forced a passage, using his animal as a ram until he reached my side. I looked up into a darkly tanned face with the brightest blue eyes, at present as chilly as arctic skies. The man's voice, its educated accents unmistakable, sounded as uncompromising as his manner.
About to take issue with this, I suddenly realized that I actually had no idea what I was doing. Emotion had carried me this far, but where to go from here ...
Correctly reading my indecision, he snapped, 'Step lively, then. Give me your arm and come up on my boot. We've got to get out of here.'
Awareness hit me. I could feel the surrounding hostility building to a climax. My skin crawled with anticipation of the first blow. Why, in the name of common sense, had I rushed in without any thought of consequences? What could I hope to achieve against such odds? Reacting to the horseman's urgency, I grasped his arm and jumped. My boot scraped his as my not inconsiderable weight soared, landing untidily astride behind him.
I looked down at the half-strangled man with a feeling of helpless shame and whispered, 'I'm so sorry', more to myself than him.
Then the horse leaped forward and people scrambled once more to escape flying hoofs. Hands dragged at my skirts, something squashy hit me in the middle of the back; but we were through and away, galloping out of the market, threading through a twist of alleys onto a main street. I hung on to the man's waist, jolting and sliding. My straw boater tilted forward, the pins loosening from my hair, allowing it to come down and stream behind in a chestnut banner. And all the time I burned inwardly with the knowledge that I'd deserted a fellow human being in extremis. No good reminding myself that I was one against many, without any standing in this country, unable even to make myself understood by its inhabitants. I had been cowardly and couldn't rationalize my way out of that.
The horse slowed to a trot as we turned into a wide thoroughfare. The wind had dropped, and fretted arches pierced a clear afternoon sky, linking both sides of the bricked road, now lined with more elaborate buildings. Each swooping tile reflected sunlight like polished bronze and, perched on the turned-up corners and along the ridgepoles, little glazed figures of men and animals grinned or grimaced. Despite what had just happened, I sat straight and gazed around in growing delight.
My rescuer said briefly over his shoulder, 'We're coming to the Ha Ta Men, a principal gate into the Tartar City where westerners and Manchu nobles live. I take it you were on your way to one of the legations?''
'Actually, no. I'm booked into the Peking Hotel. I believe it's adjacent to the French Legation.' Awed by the immensity of the thirty-foot-thick wall dividing the two cities, and the sheer size of the gate, I craned to see the massive guardhouse above, just one of many erected along the length of the wall and above each gate. Its several floors were pierced by dozens of windows through which defenders could pour missiles down on attackers. I wondered for how many centuries these defenses had stood and how many times they had repelled invasion.
As though guessing my thoughts, the horseman launched into an informative speech over his shoulder. 'The Forbidden City, which is buried in the heart of the Tartar City, has similar walls, and also a wide moat for further protection. Kublai Khan had it built when he decided to move the Mongol capital from Karakorum far north beyond the Great Wall. It became one of the splendors of the East. He also designed a system of post roads right across the Mongol Empire, all leading to Peking. Along them passed imperial runners, horsemen and, in the frozen north, dog teams and sleds carrying messages and goods. Mongol cavalry patrols protected the merchant caravans and parties of travelers, and it was said that "a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely through the realm."'
Not relishing his lecturing tone, I was nevertheless impressed. He certainly seemed to know his Peking. His horse swerved suddenly and I had to raise my voice above the screeching chair-bearers blocked by a pair of bullock carts disputing the road. 'History isn't my forte, but would it have been some time during the thirteenth century?'
'That's right.' His evident surprise irked me. Did travel stains and a 'Colonial' accent necessarily spell ignorance? For the first time, I really examined what I could see of him. His thick hair, allowed to grow down unfashionably close to his collar, shone gold in certain lights, brown in shadow, and the strip of neck visible above his lightweight linen jacket belonged to a young man. My visual memory is sharp and, even from the earlier brief glimpse, I could recall a face worn by sunlight and wind, with crows-feet and perhaps a scar along the jaw. An adventurer's face, lived in and, at the time, distinctly unfriendly. Which was rather a pity. Not wishing to dwell on the horror still close behind, I turned to the important matter of my baggage. Like my umbrella, it had probably gone for ever. How would I survive without it, and with very little extra money for replacements?
Pondering this problem, I barely noticed when we entered a street lined with fine buildings behind high walls giving glimpses of trees and flowering shrubs. Here the air, although still foul, was overlaid with their sweetness. But what it would be like in the full heat of summer I could hardly bear to think. I shifted uncomfortably. My thighs chafed through my thin drawers and my whole body felt sticky with perspiration. I smelled of horse and whatever rotting vegetable clung to the back of my jacket. What a mess I was in. What an unholy mess. And before I'd had the smallest opportunity to prove myself.
The rider turned again, giving me the benefit of his piercing blue gaze before asking, 'Is anyone expecting you? I know the world's entry into a new century presages change, but it's still considered unusual for a decent female to travel alone in the East.'
I dropped my hands from his waist. 'Well, I am travelling alone, and I've been perfectly safe so far ...' I broke off, seeing the alley I'd backed into. Despite his old-fashioned prejudices, the man had probably saved my life. I said, as pleasantly as I could, 'I recognize that I had no right to interfere in that dreadful business, and that the consequences could have been dire for me. Thank you for your timely rescue.'
He looked over his shoulder, his lip twitching. Did he guess the words had been dragged from me? He said, 'I accept your thanks. But your actions were stupidly impulsive and dangerous. Do you agree?'
I swallowed, counted to ten and nodded briefly. Arrogant Britisher, I thought, repressing rising hackles. Not exactly upper crust, with a trace of a regional burr, and more than a trace of superiority.
'Nevertheless,' he continued blandly, 'an action born of ignorance and human decency must be, in part, a credit to you.'
That stung me into retorting, 'It's a pity you were not moved "in part" in the same way. You might have stopped the torture, or at the very least reported it to the authorities. I've never come across anything so shocking in my life.'
'Ah, but the authorities were informed. You were, in fact, witnessing the legal execution of a criminal. If you stay in Peking you will soon find that shocks are an everyday occurrence.' He considerately removed his gaze from my red face to point out the gables of the Peking Hotel just ahead.
For once I found myself with nothing useful to say. This land and its people had medieval ways and I would need to make enormous adjustments. Shocks must be absorbed and bewildering contrasts reconciled. But this conversation would not be forgotten. If ever an inflated self-esteem needed puncturing, this man's did.
By the time I'd been helped down from the horse and escorted inside the hotel, I had regained my poise. Crossing the magnificently carpeted lobby, I met the desk clerk's query with assurance. 'My name is Miss Leanora Stafford and I booked a room by telegraph two days ago. Unfortunately, I have met with an accident and lost my baggage ...' I paused, following the clerk's pointing finger to a familiar initialed leather trunk and travelling case standing beneath a most beautiful inlaid screen. 'What on earth ...!' I whirled about, hearing an impudent chuckle. My rescuer stood behind me. His hair, in the light of a statuette lamp, shone like bronze, and his height and musculature were striking. Moreover, his disapproving expression had quite vanished. I reluctantly granted him a certain degree of attractiveness.
He said, 'Did you think you'd seen the last of it? Give your rickshaw man credit for honesty, if not for bravery. He might have made off at the first sign of trouble, but he will also have carried out his contract. You can recompense the hotel for his fee.'
With the recovery of my luggage, my spirits had risen. 'I see there's a great deal to learn about China.'
'Well I'd start right now, if I were you. It's only going to take you about three thousand years, and then you will have simply scratched the surface. China is like those cunningly carved ivory balls within balls, with no apparent ending. You find the entrance to one and think you've absorbed its intricacies, only to come across another, even more complicated and devious. It's the charm of the place.'
'I'm sure you are right, Mr ...?'
'Michael Attwood. It was a pleasure being of service to you, Miss Stafford.'
I held out my hand. 'I'm truly grateful.' I hesitated for a moment, remembering, then added, 'Our meeting was unfortunate, but I'll try to reconcile myself to other ways.'
'You will, if you want any peace of mind.'
His attention had drifted, and I followed his gaze to a woman standing in the entrance, her fashionable skirts swishing around neat little blue boots that quite wrung my heart with envy, or would, had I cared deeply for such things. Everything about the lady spelled elegance, from those boots to the curled egret plumes of her hat tilted at just the right angle on a dark coiffed head. She put back her veil to reveal a lovely complexion and extended both gloved arms to Michael Attwood. Her rich, contralto voice, conveyed amusement.
'Well, my corsair, how much damage have you wreaked today?'
Mentally comparing my dishevelment with the lady's exquisite appearance, I hastily said goodbye and moved towards the stairs. There my baggage and servants patiently waited beneath panels of writhing dragons and puffball clouds. Treading carpet and parquet floors suited to any palace, I followed on to an equally palatial room, sparing only a glance for my surroundings. The lovely woman intrigued me, as did her rather silly nickname for Mr. Attwood, but reaction had set in and now I simply longed for a bath and a chance to gather my impressions. With the amount of material I'd already absorbed, tomorrow would be time enough to begin my first report from the New York Daily's newly accredited Peking correspondent. It would be a human-interest piece, descriptive and exactly what my editor expected. But once I'd sunk myself into the reality of this fascinating place, he would be in for a surprise. The forceful and opinionated Mr. Attwood might mistake me for a simple tourist, but I'd prove to be a great deal more -- an investigative journalist with the skill and insight to equal, perhaps to surpass, the men who had gone before.