A/N: The practice of foot binding is steeped in many stories of its possible origin, but all agree it began in the T'ang Dynasty (618-906). Outlawed by the Communists in China, it was still practiced as late as 1949. There are reputed to be under 400 women left in China with bound feet.
A Mother's duty was to build her daughter's character and ensure a beneficial marriage. Un-bound woman were said to have "clown feet." Many districts in the South left the women unbound, due to farm work. Although started by the aristocrats, binding was done by many a poor woman in hopes that her daughter would rise above her station. It was also said to be popularized because of the belief that the shifted pelvic gate produced a more pleasurable experience for the husband during intercourse.
The Golden Lotus
Chapter Four: September, Doornsteeg Docks, Ghent, Belgium
Javier turned towards the boat; they had gotten the crate under control and were hoisting it out. But after it rose a few feet above the water, the winch cut loose with a flurry of rapidly flying chains and dropped it back into the inky water. It sank like a stone into the river. "Oh my God."
Javier climbed into the wagon, and sat down heavily on the seat. Erik took up the reigns; a sharp crack got the horses moving. Driving the wagon away from the river, they built up speed as they left behind the shouting men who were jumping into the river.
Javier took one last look, seeing the old man, Yunhua, his shoulders hunched, standing vigil like a marble angel in a graveyard. He grabbed hold of the seat, as Martin whipped the horses again.
They slowed only enough to take a corner and another before Erik whipped the horses again. The wheels clattered on the cobblestones, jarring enough to tear apart the wheel rims. Javier held on, too deadened to worry about being smashed into a building in the next turn. Sliding down into the dark embrace of the water was the little girl he had hoped to help.
Erik reined in the horses so sharply, their shod hoofs cast sparks on the stones as they tried to stop. Their heads jerked up, slinging froth over their backs. They stood quivering in their traces. The sudden stillness after the ride shook Javier from his reverie. Erik jumped down to the street.
"What," Javier said, looking around. He stood shakily gaping down at the scarred man. "What the hell did you just do?" He dropped down off the wagon and grabbed Martin by the arm, "You cold hearted bastard! You just dropped that little girl to her death!"
Erik shrugged off Javier's arm. "No, you imbecile, that was only one of the crates marked with a flower." He gestured grandly towards the other crate that sat nestled in the line with the ones marked with horses.
Javier could only stare at the crate. He felt an odd prickling sensation in his eyes, and thought he might actually shed tears he was so relieved.
Erik added, "That is, of course, unless you have forgotten how I trained you to load your crates." The Spaniard's face was a study in shifting emotions; relief, startlement, befuddlement, and then anger.
"I did it the way you taught me," he said indignantly.
Erik gave him a small smile, "Now you know why." He climbed up onto the wagon, tapping on the crate calling, "Mei-Mei?"
There came a small tapping sound from the crate and a muffled voice.
"Grab the crow bar from under the seat, Javier. We can get her out now."
The nails shrieked as they separated from the wooden lid of the crate, curled inside the enormous porcelain pot was the small girl, she looked up at them and smiled.
Erik started to reach for the child, but held back. The old nightmare crawled inside him; maybe she would be afraid of him. "Javier, get her out of there and follow me," he said gruffly.
He led them into an alley, and into the back of the storefront building of the man who had given them the key to the Garden house. Javier offered the child to a waiting Chinese woman who smoothed the girl's hair and gave her a kiss. "Thank You." She said in stilted French.
Javier and Erik stepped back as they prepared to change the girl's clothing. "She will go with us now," the old man who ran the store said. "She will be safe."
Erik looked at Javier, and took a hold of his arm. "Come on, we still have cargo to load."
Javier waved at the little girl. The woman picked up the child, but the girl started working her legs and reaching back to Javier. The woman brought her over, leaning; the girl gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Good-bye, Querida," he said, stroking her small dark head.
Erik turned envious eyes away. This was not for him. He waited for Javier to join him when a small hand touched his shoulder. Turning he saw the woman had brought the girl near, her small hands clenching for him. Leaning down, he watched as her little face came closer, and she gave him a sloppy kiss on his chin. Pulling back she smiled, "Sie-sie," she said.
"You're welcome, Mei-Mei," he said gently. He left the store quickly, Javier wasn't the only sentimental fool in the building, he felt the mist of tears in his eyes.
"How did you rig the crate to drop?" Javier asked.
"Simple physics," Erik replied. "First I estimated the weight of the crate with Mei-Mei in it. Then I had to figure out, if a crate went in and took on water, how heavy would it be? The answer was 160 pounds because the porcelains were 20 gallon sized, and water is 8 pounds per gallon. So, I rigged the gear on the cargo winch to fail when it was pulled by the extra weight."
Javier helped him put another crate in the hold. "Alright, I understand that, but when did you do it? I was with you the whole time."
"No you weren't. In the warehouse I had you walk away. Yunhua was in the office, and I asked him how much Mei-Mei weighed and which crate she would be in."
"Ah, but there were two crates marked with a flower," Javier replied, thinking he had found a flaw in the story.
"I marked it when we put it in the wagon. I ran the toe of my boot over the bottom of the crate, leaving a black line." Erik gave Javier a moment to further figure out the mystery.
"Yes, but how did Yunhua know? Did he see you?"
"No. Remember when you asked if someone was guarding the crates?"
"Yes," Erik said simply.
"Yes, but…when did you get a chance to tell them?"
"I turned my back to the boat and replied to you, when I did I brushed my hand over the crate. Wang Te-k'un's other conspirator saw it, and relayed the information to Yunhua who was to arrive, and try to help get the crate, furthering the story that the girl had drowned." He stopped, leaving Javier to ruminate over the details of the evening.
"One thing," Javier held up a hand. "This means the Wang family will be after you. You can't come back to Ghent can you?"
Erik agreed, "The Wang's will definitely not forget this. Of course, in a few months the Father will emigrate and join Mei-Mei, so they will eventually put it all together."
Javier considered Martin; he had willingly sacrificed a part of his livelihood for a child he would never see again. "You are a good man."
Erik gave a bark of laughter, "That isn't what you thought about an hour ago." Despite his outward reaction, Javier's words were now etched somewhere on his heart.
"What are they going to pay you for all of this?"
Erik watched the Spaniard as he spoke, "All the dragon and horse crate porcelains."
"Is that all?" Javier actually felt faint. They had put themselves in danger for some large Chinese flower pots?
Erik later pulled a dark lacquered box out of one of those pots. Decorated with mother of pearl flowers, and lined in red silk the box contained a bank draft. Javier's share was easily what he would make in the next year.
Sitting with the box later, Erik noticed how once it was open, there was a small area where the bottom inside was not flush with the dimensions of the box. Turning the box around, he moved his fingers over it, and was rewarded when a small door at the back popped open revealing a small compartment. He had just the right sized item to store in such a spot.
"I've been bought out; we are now employed by De La Shaumette."
Javier wasn't surprised, Martin was always restless, but lately his movements seemed more taut than usual. He must have tired of the river; they had been pulling in short hauls that kept them running in and out of Rouen for the last month.
"We are to meet with him at his home," Erik told him, "this is the address."
Javier took the card the man offered. It was one of those proper cards men with money had printed. The embossed letters at the top had 'DLS' and a street address just south of the river. At the bottom was written a date and time. He grinned, "What, no carriage to pick us up?"
Erik shook his head and walked away, "Just be sure you bathe, you oaf."
Javier looked at his work shirt, "Hey, I bathe."
Stepping up to the door he knocked, and was ushered in by a slight older man. "Monsieur De La Shaumette says to proceed up stairs. Just at the top and on the left is the Study." He turned away, "Oh, and knock. He doesn't like to be disturbed." The servant was joined by a woman, and they both left the house.
How odd, to make an appointment at the hour when the servants were due to leave for the day. Javier shrugged mentally; men with money could do as they pleased. He proceeded to the study door, and rapped once. A voice drifted through, "Enter."
Swinging open the door, Javier took in a wood paneled room. To his right was a chair and side table by a fireplace. Standing in front of the fireplace was a man dressed in a dark frock coat, his hands behind his back, he stared impassively.
"Come in, Javier."
The voice was recognizable, the apparition before him was not. "Madre de Dios," Javier said. The black patch was gone, replaced by a white material that covered his face from just above his lips to his hair line. The hair was combed back and brushed his elaborate collar. His cravat sported a large scintillating jewel. Javier's eyes went back to the mask; he had a perfectly good right eye?
"Close the door, Monsieur Fernandez, and your mouth. You're not here to catch flies like a frog." Erik walked to the large desk that sat behind the door. He lifted two brandy snifters, and offered one to Javier, "I thought you might need this." The younger man's face was almost comical.
Javier closed the door, and stepped forward to take the drink. "Please tell me this is not some joke."
"Oh, no," Erik reassured him, "this is real." He went to the chair behind the desk and sat down, waving a hand towards one that sat opposite.
Javier sat down carefully; the chair was lined in leather, and looked expensive. He took another glance around the room, everything looked expensive, the carpet, the desk, and the chairs. He looked back at the man he knew as Charles Martin. "You are…"
"I am De La Shaumette," Erik replied. He gestured around the room. "Charles Martin could not afford this, nor would he be accepted in business circles. De La Shaumette is a newly arrived business man with three boats, and a growing number of investments."
Light was dawning in Javier's mind; his voice turned accusing, "This is what you did with all that money. This is why you lived on that stinking boat?"
Erik brows drew together, "My boat does not stink!"
"You know what I mean." Javier shook his head. "You should have had more, you were smart," he pointed towards his head, "always thinking the next step." He paused and took another sip of Brandy.
"And so I was," Erik replied smoothly. "But there are problems with this change in ownership. Charles Martin must still be seen occasionally. I want to keep the two men separate."
Javier snorted, "You mean you want to keep Martin busy doing your spying. There isn't a fly that farts on a wall in Paris that you don't know about it."
Erik smiled. "I made my money in information. I want to keep a finger on the pulse of the river. Very few of the speculators actually know what is going on along the docks. That has been one of my advantages." He pointed a finger at Javier, "And that is why I shall employ you."
Javier froze. Pieces were still falling into place, his mind replaying conversations they had had, the people he had met, the books. The entire picture was coming to light at last. "That's why you taught me to read."
"Exactly," Erik replied, "you will need that and several other skills as well to do your work for me. You will report here in the morning for your daily assignments."
"How am I going to explain this?" Javier asked. "People are going to ask questions."
Erik looked directly into his eyes, slowly turning his glass where it sat on the desk, "You tell them you work for De La Shaumette. That is all they need to know. I already have a reputation for privacy. No one has seen me except for my servants," he paused, his voice flat, "and you."
Javier heard the threat in that voice, the menace behind those intense green eyes. The message was implicitly clear; no one would know who De La Shaumette really was. He might be engaging in a deal with the devil himself, but this man had saved his life, and was offering him the chance to take a step up and out of the squalor of the docks. It was a chance that life in France would never hand to an immigrant Spaniard. He sat down his glass and got to his feet, offering this man his hand.
Erik took his hand in a firm grip. He didn't care for shaking hands, but this was more than a handshake. It was a pact between two men, men whose lives and fates depended upon the other. With Javier's assistance, he would move into a haven where no one would see the phantom's mask, into a life with a future.
"You start tomorrow." He withdrew a key from the pocket of his beautifully embroidered vest. "This is for the front door. Agnes and Etienne Bardou arrive before ten o'clock. They take care of some of my errands, and keep up my home." He sat down again to withdraw a piece of paper from one of the desk drawers, it was a bank draft. "This is your first month's salary."
Javier glanced at the draft. It was made out for an amount two and half times what he made in an average month on the river.
"Make sure some of that finds its way to your parents. Why they let you live with them is beyond me."
"That is the way it is done. A man stays to help repay the family until he weds." Javier considered the man before him. No wife, no family, was ever mentioned. Either life had somehow cast him adrift with no one, or he had lost what he had. He could not feel sorry for him; he was a survivor, and a smart one at that. "Rafaela and her husband are awaiting their second baby. No doubt my Mother will spend the money on her."
"Another child already, I thought she had just had her daughter," Erik mused.
"Monsieur, it only takes nine months to have another." He smiled lazily at the man across from him. "Now that you are not that surly pirate, you should give it a try."
Erik felt the stirring of hope, and crushed it like an annoying itch that forever was beyond being scratched. He made a careless open handed gesture indicating his face. "This never changes." He was surprised how raw his voice sounded. He was allowing a dying emotion to resurrect itself.
"It's not the face. It's what is in your eyes, Monsieur."
Erik spoke again as if he had not heard Javier's words. "No one looks beyond the mask."
"I learned to," Javier replied. They sat in silence finishing their drinks. Javier got up, "I'll see you in the morning."
With the same eye towards the artifice that had conjured Mei-Mei's supposed demise, Martin's magic had transformed Javier's life as well as his own.