On Distant Shores – Episode 47


“Henry, those men are the traitors,” Margaret said. “They shame their business and their country by smuggling the awful stuff in the first place. You say the nation of China is being enslaved – then these men are like slave traders! If you keep it from happening, you will be doing a great service not just to the Chinese nation, but to ours.”

Henry turned to her with a tired smile.

“You have always been my champion, dearest.”

“And I shall continue to be so.” She paused, frowning. “But what is compelling you to this? Has Zexu threatened you in some way?”

“He has kept my entire crew imprisoned in Kowloon.”

Margaret let out a soft gasp.

“Oh, Henry.”

“So you see, I am truly caught.”

“Then you must find these men and name them.”

“But how? I can hardly go nosing about their private papers.”

“No,” Margaret answered thoughtfully, “but I can.”

Henry’s jaw dropped before he snapped it shut and shook his head.

“Absolutely not, Margaret. I could never put you in such danger.”

“Danger?” She raised her eyebrows, determined to remain light. “We are speaking of your colleagues, are we not, Henry? The men whose wives I’ve entertained in this very room?”

“Perhaps, but –”

“I am much better placed than you to discover something,” Margaret persisted.

She felt a sudden, surprising flare of excitement at the thought. She’d once been radical, insisting on being tutored against her father’s wishes back in Scotland, starting a charity school for immigrants in Boston’s notorious Murder District. This felt almost like a new challenge.

“I could easily slip into a study,” she continued, “during an evening party or musicale. Really, it’s the simplest thing.”

“Simple! And if you were caught?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“If I am caught, I will be embarrassed,” she allowed. “And it will surely sever the friendship. But beyond that, who would want to have it known that I was snooping? If there are secrets to be hidden, the person in question will wish to keep them so.”

“Perhaps,” Henry allowed grudgingly. “But it is a poor man who allows his wife to do his work for him.”

“It is a humble and wise man,” Margaret corrected swiftly. “Who are we talking about, Henry? The Maltons? The Thorndikes?” She named two of the prominent shipping families in Boston.

“Daniel Malton is a churchgoing man,” Henry answered slowly. “And his wife is part of the American Temperance Society. I don’t think he would be involved in such things.”

“You must have thought of someone,” Margaret said.

Henry sighed before admitting reluctantly, “Robert Forbes.”

“Captain Forbes!” Margaret drew back a little. “But he is from the best of society –”

“Indeed.”

“I have not heard a word –”

“Nor would you. Not that the man makes much secret of it. He has no sympathy for the Chinese, at any rate. But it is hardly fit discussion for ladies.”

Margaret tutted impatiently.

“Really, Henry –”

“So he would say himself, Margaret. He does not talk business in mixed company.”

“If he makes no secret of it,” she answered slowly, “then it should be easy enough to find incriminating evidence.”

“Incriminating evidence!” Henry chuckled, the sound without humour. “You sound like one of London’s Bow Street Runners, my dear.”

“And so shall I have to act as one!” She smiled and crossed the room to take his hands. “If only my brother were here. A US Marshal would do nicely in this situation, I should think.”

“Sadly he would not have much progress. The opium trade is still legal, at least in this country.”

“But against the law in China. What do you think of this man, Zexu?”

Henry rubbed his jaw, considering.

“He is hard and unyielding, and I imagine quite ruthless. But he is also wise and, in his own way, fair. He wants to rid his country of opium, and I can certainly sympathise with that.”

“As can I. I may have never seen the far lands of China, but only last week Caroline was telling me of men addicted to ether in this country. A terrible thing.”

“So it is.”

“Then I shall do it.”

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 aspiring tip to new writers is to “write from your imagination”.