On Distant Shores – Episode 29

One hand flew to Isabel’s throat as if of its own accord.

“Travel as an unmarried woman?” she said, the shock evident in her voice. “And what would I do when I arrived wherever it is this man is?”

“He’s in Burma,” Mr Anderson said and Isabel could only stare in shock.

Burma? She had only a vague notion of where such a place was.

“And this man’s name?” she finally asked in a whisper.

“George Jamison.”

“A Scot.”

“Of Scottish ancestry, yes, but he was born in America. His family is from Philadelphia, and he studied theology at Yale.”

“I see.” George Jamison. The name echoed in her head, meaningless and yet incredible.

“As for your arrival, of course you would need to marry Mr Jamison as soon as possible. It is quite unsuitable for you to remain in that country as an unmarried woman.”

“And if we don’t suit?” Isabel asked. She realised she was clutching the wooden arm rests of her chair so hard her knuckles were white.

“That would be difficult,” Mr Anderson said after a moment. “You could return on another ship, of course, but that would hardly be desirable.”

“No,” Isabel agreed. Return to Boston unwed? She’d rather remain in Burma and cast her lot with George Jamison, whoever he may be.

“He has written a letter,” Mr Anderson offered hesitantly. “He entrusted it to me, when I suggested I select one of the young ladies from our list. If you read it, you might feel as if you know him a bit more.”

A letter.

“Yes,” Isabel said. “I suppose that is true.”

“And if you decide you wish to pursue this course of action,” Mr Anderson continued, “we will make preparations for you to sail to India, and then on to Burma.”

Isabel felt the world spin dizzily around her and she blinked, willing the world to right itself. She could not faint in Mr Anderson’s office. He handed her a thin envelope which she took with nerveless fingers.

“And when would you expect me to sail?”

“A ship leaves Boston for Calcutta in a fortnight,” Mr Anderson told her, and the world spun again. “I would hope to see you on that ship.”

* * * *

“Your presence is requested by Commissioner Zexu.”

Henry turned towards the door at the sound of the Chinese bureaucrat’s precise English. For the last month he had been sequestered in this small room in the military fort of Kowloon’s Walled City, ever since the Chinese war junk had rescued them after the mast of the Charlotte had cracked – and possibly led them into more danger.

“I shall come at once,” he said with only a trace of irony, for despite the commissioner’s hospitable treatment, it was quite clear that Henry had little choice in the matter, or in any matter since his arrival.

He followed the servant who led him down a long hallway and then out into the main compound of the fort. Henry blinked in the bright sunlight, the strangeness of the sights still amazing him even after four weeks in the Walled City. Chinese soldiers trained with long wooden staffs, their robe-like garments and loose trousers so different from the kind of western military uniform Henry was used to.

The servant skirted the training soldiers and led him to a door on the opposite side of the fort, and into the presence of Lin Zexu, a high official in the Quing Dynasty and a fierce opponent of America and Britain’s opium trade with China.

He turned as Henry entered, his eyes narrowing in speculative assessment.

“Mr Moore. I trust your time in Kowloon has been comfortable?”

“Indeed, very much so, although I would like to inquire as to the welfare of my men.” Henry had not seen any of his crew since they’d arrived in Kowloon, and he’d spent many hours of anxiety over their wellbeing.

“Your men are all well cared for, I assure you.”

“Perhaps I could see them?”

“In due course.” Zexu stroked his thin beard, his narrowed gaze still fastened firmly on Henry. “You are aware, of course, that China and Great Britain are on the brink of a war.”

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.