On Distant Shores – Episode 58

Margaret swept into Rose Forbes’s Beacon Hill mansion with an airy smile. She felt too determined to be afraid at what she was about to do, although her heart was beating hard.

“It’s so nice to see you, Margaret,” Rose said as she rose from her chair in the spacious drawing-room. “It has been too long.”

“Indeed it has.” Margaret exchanged pleasantries as she removed her mantle and bonnet and handed them to the waiting maid. “I’m so pleased to have seen you at the musicale last week,” she continued. “We must catch up on our news.”

Rose smiled and began to pour the tea into delicate porcelain cups.

“Indeed. Robert did mention that Henry has returned from China. I trust he had a safe journey?”

Margaret thought of his crew captive in Kowloon.

“I am thankful he has returned home,” she said simply. “Although his ship did not.”

“Such a pity,” Rose murmured. “Robert, you know, has not sailed to China for many years. It is so dangerous these days.”

Margaret nodded. She’d known Robert Forbes did not currently trade with China, but he might in the future – especially if he thought the Opium War would be resolved in the traders’ favour. Yet would she find proof of such a thing if she managed to get into his study?

Her mind raced even as she accepted a cup of tea and sipped it carefully. How could she contrive a way to leave the drawing-room and find the man’s study? She wished she had thought of some decisive plan before arriving, but nothing had come to mind.

She’d hoped something might occur to her once she’d seen the Forbes’s house, but her mind remained blank as she listened to Rose’s desultory comments on the upcoming season and made her own mindless replies, all the while desperately trying to think of a way to excuse herself.

A half hour passed and Margaret knew that Rose would expect her to take her leave soon. Extending her stay much beyond that would be seen as both rude and out of character. Yet she still had not thought of a way to get into Robert Forbes’s study.

A gentle commotion was heard outside, and then the maid admitted Elizabeth Malton, a mutual acquaintance of theirs, into the drawing-room.

“Elizabeth!” Rose stood gracefully. “How lovely to see you.”

The maid took Elizabeth’s outer things and left the room, and Rose poured more tea. Margaret took her only chance.

“I must not stay any longer,” she said, trying to keep her voice bright and airy. “But you must not disturb yourselves. Don’t bother to summon the maid, Rose. I can surely see myself out.” With a quick, charming smile to emphasise her point, Margaret turned towards the door before Rose could insist otherwise.

She barely heard the other women’s farewells over the hard thudding of her own heart. The entry hall of the mansion was empty and silent, save for the murmur of voices from the room she’d just left.

Several panelled doors led off the hall, but Margaret had no idea which one might be Robert Forbes’s study and she knew she could not afford any margin of error.

Taking a deep breath, she crossed the hall and turned the brass handle of one of the doors. It opened with a tiny squeak, making Margaret’s blood race. She peeked in, and saw what looked like a small morning room. Quickly she closed the door and tried the one on the other side.

It opened into a masculine-looking room, with rich, crimson drapes and a large walnut desk scattered with papers. A study. Margaret breathed a sigh of relief and slipped into the empty room, quietly closing the door behind her.

She tiptoed quickly to the desk and began to examine the papers, trying not to disturb them. She had assured Henry that if she were caught in such a position as this, she would merely be embarrassed, but as Margaret picked up one paper and scanned it before turning to another, she knew she was taking a greater risk than that. She would be ruined socially, and perhaps worse . . . especially if Robert Forbes were involved in anything of a private or possibly illegal nature.

Of course, opium trade was not illegal in this country, she reminded herself. Men engaged in it proudly enough, and some had even published pamphlets extolling the benefits of the trade. Yet Zexu wanted names, and no matter how many pamphlets were printed in this country, Margaret doubted such men wished the High Commissioner to know them personally.

She reached for another sheet, saw this letter was from Russell and Company, one of America’s great trading houses in Canton. Robert Forbes was intending to take over its leadership.

With her breath held, Margaret read the rest of the letter. Was this enough proof? Her hands trembling, she folded the paper, intending to slip it into her reticule. She heard voices outside the door, and she tensed, frozen behind the desk as she watched the door handle turn.

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”.