On Distant Shores – Episode 30

Henry tensed, but kept his voice even.

“And you are surely aware, Mr Zexu, that I am American and have no quarrel with China.”

“Yet we have a quarrel with your country, Mr Moore.”

“I did not know of it.”

Zexu stared at him broodingly for a long moment before turning away abruptly.

“Last year nine hundred tons of opium were smuggled into my country and some of that came from the city of your origin, Mr Moore. Boston, I believe.”

“I am from Boston,” Henry agreed levelly. “But I have no trade in opium. It is a foul business.”

“It is a foul business,” Zexu agreed quietly, “to see a man in the throes of an opium addiction. And it is happening to thousands of my countrymen, supplied by yours.

“Why were you coming to China, Mr Moore?”

“To purchase tea. It is a valuable commodity in my country.”

Zexu turned around, his eyebrows raised in polite incredulity.

“Am I expected to believe that you travelled halfway across the world with an empty hold, Mr Moore? In these trying times?”

“Indeed, Mr Zexu. Your country does not import any goods.”

“And yet,” Zexu said softly, “so much opium finds its way on to our shores.”

“You searched my ship,” Henry reminded him. “You saw for yourself the hold was empty.”

“You had sufficient time to offload your cargo,” Zexu replied. “Only last month I managed to empty twenty thousand chests of opium into the harbour of Canton in the space of a few hours.” He smiled coolly. “An act which will surely precipitate a war with Britain.”

Henry inclined his head in acknowledgement. War, he knew, was imminent. Zexu seemed almost to relish the prospect, or perhaps just the hoped-for end of the opium trade. He could hardly blame the man; opium was a dreadful thing. Still, he had hoped to finish his business in China before aggression broke out.

“I could,” Zexu said thoughtfully, “have you and your crew arrested for suspicion of trading in opium.”

A cold sweat broke out on Henry’s back and fear crawled along his spine. He thought of Margaret, the anxiety shadowing his eyes when he’d told her he intended to sail for China, the brave tilt of her chin when he’d said goodbye. How he missed her, and Charlotte, too. He longed to see them again, to tell them he loved them just once.

“I am innocent,” Henry replied steadily. “If I had dumped opium off my ship there would be traces of it in the wood, on the floor of the hold. You must have searched it thoroughly and seen there was nothing.”

Zexu stared at him, smiling faintly.

“You are a brave man, Mr Moore.”

“And an innocent one. I despise the opium trade as much as you do, Mr Zexu.”

Zexu was silent for a long moment. Then finally he spoke.

“If that is the case, then I may have some use for you, Mr Moore. In your own country, rather than mine.”

Relief made him almost tremble.

“Indeed,” he managed.

“I know there are traders out of Boston who are smuggling opium to this country. They are wily, and they attempt to escape me, but I know they exist. You will return to Boston, Mr Moore, and you will find the names of those who trade in opium. You will also provide me with evidence, so these men may never trade with China again.”

Henry stared at Zexu in disbelief. No-one spoke openly about the opium trade, but he surely knew that the most powerful men in Boston and indeed in all of America were involved in it. His livelihood and his life might be at risk if he attempted to expose them.

“You ask a great deal, Mr Zexu,” he finally said.

“It is true, and to ensure that you are as good as your word, Mr Moore, your crew will remain here in Kowloon.” Zexu smiled, but his eyes were still narrowed and shrewd. “Until you have given me evidence. I look forward to hearing from you.”

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”.