The Courtesan: A Heartbreaking Historical Epic of Loss, Loyalty and Love

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9781785770166: The Courtesan: A Heartbreaking Historical Epic of Loss, Loyalty and Love

A sweeping historical epic of a young Chinese woman in imperial Europe - perfect for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha The year is 1881, the era of China's humiliation at the hands of imperialist Europe. Seven-year-old Sai Jinhua is left alone and unprotected, her life transformed after her mandarin father's summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. Now an orphan, Jinhua is sold to a brothel and put to work as a 'money tree', enduring the very worst of human nature thanks to the friendship and wisdom of the crippled brothel maid. But when an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, her world begins to expand. With him she will travel to Vienna, seeing things she has never imagined, and opening her heart to dreams she has never dared to dream . . . Based on the true story of Sai Jinhua, Alexandra Curry's debut novel, The Courtesan, travels from the depths of the Chinese empire to the palaces of Vienna, and tells the true story of one young woman's journey from the depths of poverty to the centre of Chinese history.

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About the Author:

Alexandra Curry is a Canadian of Austrian and British parentage who has spent happy years living in Asia, Europe, Canada, and the United States. A graduate of Wellesley College, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2015 by Alexandra Curry

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Curry, Alexandra Gambrill

The Courtesan : a novel in six parts / Alexandra Gambrill Curry.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-698-40527-1

I. Title.

PS3603.U77485C68 2015

813'.6—dc23

2014047864

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author’s use of names of historical figures, places, or events is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

This book is dedicated to my sister, Judy Gambrill Brewer, who did not live to read it—or to fulfill the promise of a life that should have been long and rich and joyful. She was the best and most voracious reader I have ever known, and there is no doubt but that this novel would have been the better for her wisdom.

 

Deis dignus vindicibus nodus

A knot worthy of the gods to untie

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Preface

PART ONE

Autumn Begins

1 | THE DAY

2 | DESTINED TO BREAK

3 | TIME THAT HAS PASSED

4 | ONE FOOT CANNOT STAND

5 | THE HOUSE WITH THE WIDE GATE

6 | THE HALL OF ROUND MOON AND PASSIONATE LOVE

7 | MEMORIES OF WINDBLOWN DUST

8 | WAITING FOR A MOON

9 | THE DAY OF THE SMALLEST MOON

10 | WINTER BEGINS

PART TWO

Art of the Bedchamber

11 | WHAT IS UNENDURABLE

12 | LIGHTING THE BIG CANDLES

13 | HOW IT IS

14 | BIRDS OF SADNESS

15 | LIKE A PIECE OF PAPER

16 | THE EYE WILL SEE

17 | SNARLING AT A SHADOW

18 | THE POINT OF A NEEDLE

19 | LIKE A SMILE AND YET NOT

PART THREE

Facing Madam Hong

20 | THE TENTH DAY OF THE CONCUBINE

21 | WHEN THE UNREAL IS TAKEN FOR THE REAL

22 | THE FOUR VIRTUES

23 | A WAVE WITHOUT WIND

24 | KNOW YOUR ENEMY

PART FOUR

Palais Kinsky

25 | A SINGLE STEP

26 | FOAM ON WATER

27 | THE SEMBLANCE OF A THING

28 | BETTER TO LIGHT A CANDLE

29 | BE AFRAID OF STANDING STILL

30 | LIEBELEI

31 | THINK FIRST ABOUT THE PRESENT

32 | AZURE SPRINGS FROM BLUE

33 | THE HEART AND THE SENSES

34 | THE PALEST INK

35 | A THOUSAND NEW PATHS

36 | COME, SIT THEE DOWN—

37 | THE WAY A WOMAN SERVES HER HUSBAND

PART FIVE

Hall of Midsummer Dreams

38 | DREAMING OF PLUMS

39 | THREE MEN MAKE A TIGER

40 | THE STINK OF A EUNUCH

41 | A CARPET OF NEEDLES

42 | A NARROW ALLEY

43 | TEN THOUSAND BONES

44 | SPIRIT AND SOUL UPSIDE DOWN

45 | DIES IRAE

PART SIX

The Courtesan’s Child

46 | THE LION AND THE BUTTERFLY

47 | THE PINE IN WINTER

48 | THE FUTURE IS LONG

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

Selected Bibliography

Permission

About the Author

PREFACE

The story of Sai Jinhua has been told before.

It has been told in the language of poems, plays, novels, and opera.

Sai Jinhua has been called a heroine—and a woman of depravity.

Her life has been shaped, and reshaped, and twisted into allegory.

The courtesan’s story was banned, at times, in the place of her birth; at other times she was praised to the nine heavens.

Sai Jinhua has been a legend in China for a hundred years.

What follows is a new telling—without agenda and without politics: the story of a woman’s life the way it might have been.

PART ONE

Autumn Begins

THE SIXTH YEAR OF
THE GUANGXU REIGN

1881

Suzhou

1

THE DAY

Lao Mangzi

It is the Hour of the Snake, a time of day when the sun works hard to warm the earth. The black cockerel with the all-knowing eye struts, haunting the execution ground as he always does, and Lao Mangzi is wondering what he always wonders: Is the man guilty?

He is quite still, this man, a most venerable person kneeling in the shadow of a high pagoda, his eyes cast down toward the earth. He has a neat queue and a straight spine; his hands are tied behind his back. A mandarin, he is wearing glasses and a grass-cloth gown that is too thin for this morning’s chill air, and he appears to be studying the splotches of blood, newly spilled and not his own, splattered on the ground in front of him. He seems unconcerned about the rabble that has gathered to watch his beheading.

With such a crowd at hand Lao Mangzi feels important and not a little conspicuous; although he cannot count so well beyond ten—or thirteen—he thinks there must be a thousand pairs of eyes at least, and all of them are looking at him. The apron he has just put on over his blood-spattered tunic is bright, imperial yellow—the color of an egg-yolk, his low and worthless wife said when she saw it. It is a color not often seen in this place, not that Lao Mangzi would know about that. To him, the apron is like everything else, a muted shade of gray. His name, Old Blind Eye, a name he was given and of which he is more than a little ashamed, implies that he is sightless, but this is quite inaccurate; it is only colors Lao Mangzi cannot see. Other things—most things, in fact—he sees quite as well as the next fellow.

It was the dead of night when the envoy arrived on a galloping horse from Peking. He carried a torch with a flame that soared, and he woke Lao Mangzi from a deep dream. “I bring this decree from the Great and Glorious Guangxu Emperor,” the envoy said.And from the Current Divine Mother Empress Dowager Cixi of the great Qing Empire,” he continued after a large breath. He handed Lao Mangzi a scroll and a package wrapped in silk. The scroll was an imperial order for the summary execution of the scholar official whose name is Sai Anguo of Suzhou Prefecture, a man who was born in the seventeenth year of the illustrious Daoguang emperor. “Decapitation without delay,” the envoy announced more loudly than was needed for Lao Mangzi’s ears to hear. “The arrest is taking place right now,” he said, and sleepy neighbors peeked out of their doorways to see who had come at this late hour.

The envoy’s horse was magnificent; his boots were black, his helmet richly tasseled. Later, when Lao Mangzi had unwrapped the egg-yolk apron and held it out to show his wife, she shrank away from it. Her eyes were round with fear. Lao Mangzi knows she doesn’t like his line of work. But is he guilty, this kneeling, venerable mandarin? Does a man like this deserve the knife, the saw, the axe—the sword?

The boy, whose head has just rolled from his shoulders, whose blood is still seeping into the ground, was certainly guilty. Guilty of stealing a meat bun. Guilty of having an empty belly. An executioner knows better than most that a bowl of rice is a bowl of rice, and a man’s fate is a man’s fate. And yet, Lao Mangzi prides himself on knowing who is innocent and who is not. There is more to his craft than a swipe of the sword. The bowl of rice must be avenged, of course, but sometimes Lao Mangzi worries about the ghosts who are missing their heads when they pass to the spirit world in the Western Heaven. Sometimes Lao Mangzi sees blood in his dreams, and he sees it then the way others see it always. He sees it as the mandarin sees the boy’s blood now: thick and rich and bright—and red.

Unlike the boy, the mandarin has been offered narcotics and a hood, both of which he declined, and a reed mat on which to kneel, which he accepted with a deep bow. He seems unafraid, something Lao Mangzi has never seen in one whose head he is about to cut off. The boy knelt, hunched and shivering, and he drew his child-size shoulders sharply upward when Lao Mangzi signaled the final moment with a quick intake of breath and the raising of his two hands, sword in full swing. That last shrug and the vulnerable scrunch of the neck always come when the sword is ready to plunge. But perhaps not this time. The quiet mandarin is different from the others, Lao Mangzi thinks. He will not shrink back. This man is brave and dignified, someone to be honored.

In his last moments the boy sobbed aloud, and he soiled himself, and Lao Mangzi decided to think of him as innocent. He knows just how tempting a meat bun can be. He knows the way that hunger can tug at your guts and whisk away all notion of what it is to steal another man’s possessions.

This morning, the mandarin’s first wife sent for Lao Mangzi. It was just before dawn, before the day had even begun—it was after her husband’s arrest. Dry-eyed, mute, neither young nor old, with her face made strange by the flame of a lantern, she dropped a coin into his hand, and the coin gleamed more brightly even than the flame. A bodhi-seed rosary darkened the woman’s wrist, and her eyes searched Lao Mangzi’s face. She said nothing, but he understood her meaning. She wants a sharp sword. A single cut. A swift death for her husband. Lao Mangzi nodded and bowed, and he murmured, “A mi tuo fo.” A Buddhist blessing for the Buddhist wife. And he marveled at the great house in which the woman lives. Afterward, he honed the blade of his sword on a whetstone he turned with his callused toes and then tested it on the turnip his own wife will boil for supper. Lao Mangzi’s stomach clenched at the sound of the blade slicing through crisp vegetable flesh, and with a single swipe the turnip split. It was his wife who bent down to pick up the pieces and carry them into the house.

A new twinge in his belly reminds Lao Mangzi now that he need not waste his pity. This woman with the dark rosary whose husband kneels and waits for death will dine this evening on much better food than a poor turnip and a few grains of rice. She is lucky in some things, maybe in most. And then Lao Mangzi thinks of something his late and virtuous mother said: “A single happiness can scatter a thousand sorrows.” His thoughts go to the coin in his pocket, and to the slab of pork he will bring home to his cold dwelling to boil with the turnip, and to his worthless old wife, who will give him a rare smile when she sees what he has brought. And then his eyes crinkle, and he smiles broadly at the thought of his children with their bellies full of not just rice but pork-meat as well, and maybe a skewer of candied fruit.

Now the crowds are pressing closer, hungry to see blood. Five guards wearing dome-shaped helmets snap their whips to hold them back. And yet, Lao Mangzi knows that when he raises his sword high in the air most of the onlookers will flinch and shrink back and turn their eyes away, and they will think of the wolf in front and the tiger behind, and how their own fates may change to the worst, and how this can happen in less time than it takes to drink a cup of water. Almost, Lao Mangzi thinks, that quickly. And then, when the sword has fallen and the blood has spurted and the head has rolled like a cabbage onto the ground, the crowd will rush forward as one, every man wanting to dip a coin or two in the mandarin’s blood for good luck.

The black cockerel is blinking, and Lao Mangzi is thinking, not for the first time, that the lacquered creature is passing judgment. The bird steps in front of the mandarin and puts his profile on display, and his wide eye sees all. “Innocent,” the executioner confirms, and he is certain of the truth of this. The cockerel is almost never wrong, and as everyone knows, in these times even chance remarks can lead to a public execution.

The great bell at the Cold Mountain Temple is beginning to toll. Air is moving, and around the pagoda’s roof in nine umbrella layers the sky is a cheerful color that to Lao Mangzi is just another shade of gray. It is time to shed the layers of imperial silk that cover his sword. They fall to his feet in a crumpled heap. The rooster ruffles his feathers, and the blade shines like a honed sliver of crescent moon, and Lao Mangzi runs his thumb across it one last time. A thin line of blood beads, and he nods and thinks briefly how lucky he is to be color-blind in daylight. The sun is moving across the sky, and the shadow of the pagoda tilts, then bows over the crowd and darkens the mandarin’s face. Overhead, geese with wide wings and rough, untidy honks fly westward in a not-quite-perfect skein formation—and the mandarin looks up and murmurs something so sad, so full of anguish, that years later Lao Mangzi will remember what he said and how he said it. “A poet can capture the essence of birds,” he says, “with the choice of just a few words. If I had a single moment more to teach my tiny daughter, what are the words that I would choose? What would I say to make her strong for the life she will live, alone and unprotected in these troubled times?” He speaks so softly that only Lao Mangzi, bending to remove the mandarin’s glasses, can hear him.

The crowd is restless. The mandarin is facing west, his chin lifted. Drenched in sweat, the executioner tightens his grip on his sword, and closes his eyes, and repeats the blessing: “A mi tuo fo.” May the Buddha protect you. His hands soar, and his shoulders heave, and Lao Mangzi is thinking of the tiny daughter who will live alone in troubled times, and who will not learn one more thing from her father. He knows that the quick, guttural grunt of his breath will be the last sound her father hears. That, and the cockerel’s all-knowing crow, and Lao Mangzi wonders, What will she do, this little child, when the mandarin father is dead?

THE DAY BEFORE

Jinhua

“Baba, when you went to visit the emperor, did you see his dragon chair and his tiger sword with sharpness on two sides?”

Baba is sitting at the edge of Jinhua’s bed. His face is gold from the glow of the lantern and marked with feathery lines.

“I did, Small Daughter,” he answers, and the sound of his voice soothes her as it always does when it is late and time for bed. “I saw the dragon throne and the sword and much, much more. And tomorrow, when I have rested from my long journey, I will tell you stories about how it was in Peking with the emperor, and you, my little pearl, will tell me a story that I have never heard before.”

Outside in the garden, the crickets are singing because that is what crickets do in autumn before they die in winter, and the sound of them ebbs and surges like a vast ocean song, and the moon is huge and low and tinged with red.

“Baba, the Forbidden City is very far away from here. I really, really wish you didn’t have to...

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