- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation and dialect in the original book have been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
Tales of the Orient
ELLEN N. LA MOTTE
Author of "The Backwash of War," Etc
New York George H. Doran Company Copyright, 1919, by George H. Doran Company Printed in the United States of America
The stories "Under A Wineglass," "Homesick" and "The Yellow Streak" are published by courtesy of the Century Magazine.
I THE YELLOW STREAK 11
II ON THE HEIGHTS 33
III HOMESICK 65
IV CIVILIZATION 93
V MISUNDERSTANDING 121
VI PRISONERS 141
VII CANTERBURY CHIMES 177
VIII UNDER A WINEGLASS 217
IX CHOLERA 235
X COSMIC JUSTICE 247
THE YELLOW STREAK
THE YELLOW STREAK
He came out to Shanghai a generation ago, in those days when Shanghai was not as respectable as it is now—whatever that says to you. It was, of course, a great change from Home, and its crude pleasures and crude companions gave him somewhat of a shock. For he was of decent stock, with a certain sense of the fitness of things, and the beach-combers, adventurers, rough traders and general riff-raff of the China Coast, gathered in Shanghai, did not offer him the society he desired. He was often obliged to associate with them, however, more or less, in a business way, for his humble position as minor clerk in a big corporation entailed certain responsibilities out of hours, and this responsibility he could not shirk, for fear of losing his position. Thus, by these acts of civility, more or less enforced, he was often led into a loose sort of intimacy, into companionship with people who were distasteful to his rather fastidious nature. But what can you expect on the China Coast? He was rather an upright sort of young man, delicate and abstemious, and the East being new to him, shocked him. He took pleasure in walking along the Bund, marvelling at the great river full of the ships of the world, marvelling at the crowds from the four corners of the world who disembarked from these ships and scattered along the broad and sunny thoroughfare, seeking amusements of a primitive sort. But in these amusements he took no part. For himself, a gentleman, they did not attract. Not for long. The sing-song girls and the "American girls" were coarse, vulgar creatures and he did not like them. It was no better in the back streets—bars and saloons, gaming houses and opium divans, all the coarse paraphernalia of pleasure, as the China Coast understood the word, left him unmoved. These things had little influence upon him, and the men who liked them overmuch, who chaffed him because of his squeamishness and distaste of them, were not such friends as he needed in his life. However, there were few alternatives. There was almost nothing else for it. Companionship of this kind, or the absolute loneliness of a hotel bedroom were the alternatives which confronted him. He had very little money,—just a modest salary—therefore the excitement of trading, of big, shady deals, said nothing to him. He went to the races, a shy onlooker. He could not afford to risk his little salary in betting. Above all things, he was cautious. Consequently life did not offer him much outside of office hours, and in office hours it offered him nothing at all. You will see from this that he was a very limited person, incapable of expansion. Now as a rule, life in the Far East does not have this effect upon young men. It is generally stimulating and exciting, even to the most unimaginative, while the novelty of it, the utter freedom and lack of restraint and absence of conventional public opinion is such that usually, within a very short time, one becomes unfitted to return to a more formal society. In the old days of a generation ago, life on the China Coast was probably much more exciting and inciting than it is to-day, although to-day, in all conscience, the checks are off. But our young man was rather fine, rather extraordinarily fastidious, and moreover, he had a very healthy young appetite for the normal. The offscourings of the world and of society rolled into Shanghai with the inflow of each yellow tide of the Yangtzse, and somehow, he resented that deposit. He resented it, because from that deposit he must pick out his friends. Therefore instead of accepting the situation, instead of drinking himself into acquiescence, or drugging himself into acquiescence, he found himself quite resolved to remain firmly and consciously outside of it. In consequence of which decision he remained homesick and lonely, and his presence in the community was soon forgotten or overlooked. Shy and priggish, he continued to lead his lonely life. In his solitary walks along the Bund, there was no one to take his arm and snigger suggestions into his ear, and lead him into an open doorway where the suggestions could be carried out. He had come out to the East for a long term of years, and the prospect of these interminable years made his position worse. Not that it shook his decision to remain aloof and detached from the call of the East—his decision was not shaken in the slightest, which seemed almost a pity.
Like all foreigners, of course, he had his own opinions of the Chinese. They were an inferior, yellow race, and therefore despicable. But having also a firm, unshakable opinion of his own race, especially of those individuals of his race in which a yellow streak predominated, he held the Chinese in no way inferior to these yellow-streaked individuals. Which argues broadmindedness and fairmindedness. Of the two, perhaps, he thought the Chinese preferable—under certain circumstances. Yet he knew them to be irritating in business dealings, corrupt, dishonest—on the whole he felt profound scorn for them. But as they had been made to suit the purposes of the ruling races of the world—such, for example, as himself, untainted by a yellow streak—he had to that extent, at least, succumbed to the current opinions of Shanghai. He resolved to make use of them—of one, at least, in particular.
He wanted a home. Wanted it desperately. He wanted to indulge his quiet, domestic tastes, to live in peace a normal, peaceful life, far apart from the glittering trivialities of the back streets of the town. He wanted a home of his own, a refuge to turn to at the end of each long, monotonous day. You see, he was not an adventurer, a gambler, a wastrel, and he wanted a quiet home with a companion to greet him, to take care of him, to serve him in many ways. There was no girl in England whom he wanted to come out to marry him. Had there been such a girl, he would probably not have allowed her to come. He was a decent young man, and the climate was such, here on the China Coast, that few women could stand it without more of the comforts and luxury than his small salary could have paid for. So finally, at the end of a year or two, he got himself the home he wanted, in partnership with a little Chinese girl who answered every purpose. He was not in love with her, in any exalted sense, but she supplied certain needs, and at the end of his long days, he had the refuge that he craved. She kept him from going to the bad.
His few friends—friends, however, being hardly the word to apply to his few casual acquaintances,—were greatly surprised at this. Such an establishment seemed to them the last sort of thing a man of this type would have gone in for. He had seemed such a decent sort, too. Really, a few professed to be quite shocked—they said you never knew how the East would affect a person, especially a decent person. For themselves, they preferred looser bonds, with less responsibility. They said this to each other between drinks, and there was then, as now, much drinking in Shanghai. A few even said this to each other quite seriously, as they lay in pairs on opium divans, smoking opium, with little Chinese girls filling their pipes—girls who would afterwards be as complaisant as was required. One man who had lost his last cent at the gambling wheels, professed great astonishment at this departure from the usual track, a departure quite unnecessary since there were so many ways of amusing oneself out here in the East. Of course such unions were common enough, heaven knows—there was nothing unusual about it. But then such fastidious people did not as a rule go in for them. It was not the menage, it was the fact that this particular young man had set up such, that caused the comment. The comment, however, was short-lived. There was too much else to think about.
Rogers liked his new life very much. Never for a moment did he think of marrying the girl. That, of course, never dawned on him. Recollect, he was in all things decent and correct, and such a step would have been suicidal. Until the time came for him to go Home, she was merely being made use of—and to be useful to the ruling races is the main object in life for the Chinese. They exist for the profit and benefit of the superior races, and this is the correct, standard opinion of their value, and there are few on the China Coast, from Hongkong upwards, who will disagree with it.
In time, a son was born to Rogers, and for a while it filled him with dismay. It was a contingency he had not foreseen, a responsibility he had not contemplated, had not even thought he could afford. But in time he grew used to the boy, and, in a vague way, fond of him. He disturbed him very little, and counted very little in his life, after all. Later, as the years rolled by, he began to feel some responsibility towards the child. He despised half-breeds, naturally—every one does. They are worse than natives, having inherited the weakness of both ancestries. He was sincerely glad to be rid of the whole business, when, at the end of about fifteen years, he was called home to England. It had all served his purpose, this establishment of his, and thanks to it, he was still clean and straight, undemoralised by the insidious, undermining influences of the East. When he returned to his native land, he could find himself a home upon orthodox lines and live happily ever afterwards. Before he left Shanghai, he sent his little Chinese girl, a woman long ago, of course, back to her native province in the interior, well supplied with money and with the household furniture. For the boy he had arranged everything. He was to be educated in some good, commercial way, fitted to take care of himself in the future. Through his lawyer, he set aside a certain sum for this purpose, to be expended annually until the lad was old enough to earn his own living. In all ways Rogers was thoughtful and decent, far-sighted and provident. No one could accuse him of selfishness. He did not desert his woman, turn her adrift unprovided for, as many another would have done. No, thank heavens, he thought to himself as he leaned over the rail of the ship, fast making its way down the yellow tide, he had still preserved his sense of honour. So many men go to pieces out in the East, but he, somehow, had managed to keep himself clear and clean.
Rogers drops out of the tale at this point, and as the ship slips out of sight down the lower reaches of the Yangtzse, so does he disappear from this story. It is to the boy that we must now turn our attention, the half-caste boy who had received such a heritage of decency and honour from one side of his house. In passing, let it be also said that his mother, too, was a very decent little woman, in a humble, Chinese way, and that his inheritance from this despised Chinese side was not discreditable. His mother had gone obediently back to the provinces, as had been arranged, the house passed into other hands, and the half-caste boy was sent off to school somewhere, to finish his education. Being young, he consoled himself after a time for the loss of his home, its sudden and complete collapse. The memory of that home, however, left deep traces upon him.
In the first place, he was inordinately proud of his white blood. He did not know that it had cost his guardian considerable searching to find a school where white blood was not objected to—when running in Chinese veins. His schoolmates, of European blood, were less tolerant than the school authorities. He therefore soon found his white blood to be a curse. There is no need to go into this in detail. For every one who knows the East, knows the contempt that is shown a half-breed, a Eurasian. Neither fish, flesh nor fowl—an object of general distrust and disgust. Oh, useful enough in business circles, since they can usually speak both languages, which is, of course, an advantage. But socially, impossible. In time, he passed into a banking house, where certain of his qualities were appreciated, but outside of banking hours he was confronted with a worse problem than that which had beset his father. He felt himself too good for the Chinese. His mother's people did not appeal to him, he did not like their manners and customs. Above all things he wanted to be English, like his father, whom in his imagination he had magnified into a sort of god. But his father's people would have none of him. Even the clerks in the bank only spoke to him on necessary business, during business hours, and cut him dead on the street. As for the roysterers and beach-combers gathered in the bars of the hotels, they made him feel, low as they were, that they were not yet sunk low enough to enjoy such companionship as his. It was very depressing and made him feel very sad. He did not at first feel any resentment or bitterness towards his absent father, disappeared forever from his horizon. But it gave him a profound sense of depression. True, there were many other half-breeds for him to associate with—the China Coast is full of such—but they, like himself, were ambitious for the society of the white man. What he craved was the society of the white man, to which, from one side of his house, he was so justly entitled. He was not a very noticeable half-breed either, for his features were regular, and he was not darker than is compatible with a good sunburn. But just the same, it was unmistakable, this touch of the tar brush, to the discriminating European eye. He seemed inordinately slow witted—it took him a long time to realise his situation. He argued it out with himself constantly, and could arrive at no logical explanation. If his mother, pure Chinese, was good enough for his father, why was not he, only half-Chinese, good enough for his father's people? Especially in view of the fact that his father's history was by no means uncommon. His father and his kind had left behind them a trail of half-breeds—thousands of them. If his mother had been good enough for his father—— His thoughts went round and round in a puzzled, enquiring circle, and still the problem remained unsolved. For he was very young, and not as yet experienced.
He was well educated. Why had his father seen to that? And he was well provided for, and was now making money on his own account. He bought very good clothes with his money, and went in the bar of one of the big hotels, beautifully dressed, and took a drink at the bar and looked round to see who would drink with him. He could never catch a responsive eye, so was forced to drink alone. He hated drinking, anyway. In many ways he was like his father. The petty clerks who were at the office failed to see him at the race course. He hated the races, anyway. In many respects he was like his father. But he was far more lonely than his father had ever been. Thus he went about very lonely, too proud to associate with the straight Chinese, his mother's people, and humbled and snubbed by the people of his father's race.
He was twenty years old when the Great War upset Europe. Shanghai was a mass of excitement. The newspapers were ablaze. Men were needed for the army. One of the clerks in the office resigned his post and went home to enlist. In the first rush of enthusiasm, many other young Englishmen in many other offices resigned their positions and enlisted, although not a large number of them did so. For it was inconceivable that the war could last more than a few weeks—when the first P. and O. boat reached London, it would doubtless all be over. During the excitement of those early days, some of the office force so far forgot themselves as to speak to him on the subject. They asked his opinion, what he thought of it. They did not ask the shroff, the Chinese accountant, what he thought of it. But they asked him. His heart warmed! They were speaking to him at last as an equal, as one who could understand, who knew things English, by reason of his English blood.
So the Autumn came, and still the papers continued full of appeals for men. No more of the office force enlisted, and their manner towards him, of cold indifference, was resumed again after the one outburst of friendliness occasioned by the first excitement. Still the papers contained their appeals for men. But the men in the other offices round town did not seem to enlist either. He marvelled a little. Doubtless, however, England was so great and so invincible that she did not need them. But why then these appeals? Soon he learned that these young men could not be spared from their offices in the Far East. They were indispensable to the trade of the mighty Empire. Still, he remained puzzled. One day, in a fit of boldness, he ventured to ask the young man at the next stool why he did not go. According to the papers, England was clamouring loudly for her sons.
"Enlist!" exclaimed the young Englishman angrily, colouring red. "Why don't you enlist yourself? You say you're an Englishman, I believe!"
The half-breed did not see the sneer. A great flood of light filled his soul. He was English! One half of him was English! England was calling for her own—and he was one of her own! He would answer the call. A high, hot wave of exultation passed over him. His spirit was uplifted, exalted. The glorious opportunity had come to prove himself—to answer the call of the blood! Why had he never thought of it before!
For days afterwards he went about in a dream of excitement, his soul dwelling on lofty heights. He asked to be released from his position, and his request was granted. The manager shook hands with him and wished him luck. His brother clerks nodded to him, on the day of his departure, and wished him a good voyage. They did not shake hands with him, and were not enthusiastic, as he hoped they would be. His spirits were a little dashed by their indifference. However, they had always slighted him, so it was nothing unusual. It would be different after he had proved himself—it would be all right after he had proved himself, had proved to himself and to them, that English blood ran in his veins, and that he was answering the call of the blood.
His adventures in the war do not concern us. They concern us no more than the gap in the office, caused by his departure, concerned his employer or his brother clerks. Within a few weeks, his place was taken by another young Englishman, just out, and the office routine went on as usual, and no one gave a thought to the young recruit who had gone to the war. Just one comment was made. "Rather cheeky of him, you know, fancying himself an Englishman." Then the matter dropped. Gambling and polo and golf and cocktails claimed the attention of those who remained, and life in Shanghai continued normal as usual.
In due course of time, his proving completed, he returned to his native land. As the ship dropped anchor in the lower harbour, his heart beat fast with a curious emotion. An unexpected emotion, Chinese in its reactions. The sight of the yellow, muddy Yangtzse moved him strangely. It was his river. It belonged, somehow, to him. He stood, a lonely figure, on the deck, clad in ill-fitting, civilian clothes, not nearly so jaunty as those he used to wear before he went away. His clothes fell away from him strangely, for illness had wasted him, and his collar stood out stiffly from his scrawny neck. One leg was gone, shot away above the knee, and he hobbled painfully down the gangplank and on to the tender, using his crutches very awkwardly.
The great, brown, muddy Yangtzse! His own river! The ships of the world lay anchored in the harbour, the ships of all the world! The tender made its way upward against the rushing tide, and great, clumsy junks floated downstream. As they neared the dock, crowds of bobbing sampans, with square, painted eyes—so that they might see where they were going—came out and surrounded them. A miserable emotion overcame him. They were his junks—he understood them. They were his sampans, with their square, painted eyes—eyes that the foreigners pointed to and laughed at! He understood them all—they were all his!
Presently he found himself upon the crowded Bund, surrounded by a crowd of men and women, laughing, joyous foreigners, who had come to meet their own from overseas. No one was there to meet him, but it was not surprising. He had sent word to no one, because he had no one to send word to. He was undecided where to go, and he hobbled along a little, to get out of the crowd, and to plan a little what he should do. As he stood there undecided, waiting a little, hanging upon his crutches, two young men came along, sleek, well-fed, laughing. He recognised them at once—two of his old colleagues in the office. They glanced in his direction, looked down on his pinned-up trouser leg, caught his eye, and then, without sign of recognition, passed on.
He was still a half-breed.
ON THE HEIGHTS
ON THE HEIGHTS
Rivers made his way to China many years ago. He was an adventurer, a ne'er-do-weel, and China in those days was just about good enough for him. Since he was English, it might have seemed more natural for him to have gone to India, or the Straits Settlements, or one of the other colonies of the mighty Empire, but for some reason, China drew him. He was more likely to meet his own sort in China, where no questions would be asked. And he did meet his own sort—people just like himself, other adventurers and ne'er-do-weels, and their companionship was no great benefit to him. So he drifted about all over China, around the coast towns and back into the interior, to and fro, searching for opportunities to make his fortune. But being the kind of man he was, fortune seemed always to elude him. In course of time he became rather well known on the China Coast—known as a beach-comber. And even when he went into the remote, interior province of Szechuan, where he lived a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence for several years, he was also known as a beach-comber. Which shows that being two thousand miles inland does not alter the characteristics associated with that name.
Personally, he was not a bad sort. Men liked him, that is, men of his own type. Some of them succeeded better than he did, and afterwards referred to him as "poor old Rivers," although he was not really old at that time. Neither was he really old either, when he died, several years later. He was rather interesting too, in a way, since he had experienced many adventures in the course of his wanderings in remote parts of the country, which adventures were rather tellable. He even knew a lot about China, too, which is more than most people do who have lived in China many years. Had he been of that sort, he might have written rather valuable books, containing his shrewd observations and intimate, underhand knowledge of political and economic conditions. But he was emphatically not of that sort, so continued to lead his disreputable, roving life for a period of ten years. At the end of which time he met a plaintive little Englishwoman, just out from Home, and she, knowing nothing whatever of Rivers, but being taken with his glib tongue and rather handsome person, married him.
As the wife of a confirmed beach-comber she had rather a hard time of it. But for all that she was so plaintive and so supine, there was a certain quality of force within her, and she insisted upon some provision for the future. They were living in the interior at that time, not too far in, and Rivers had come down to Shanghai to negotiate some transactions for a certain firm. He could do things like that well enough when he wanted to, as he had a certain ability, and a knowledge of two or three Chinese dialects, and these things he could put to account when he felt like it. Aided by his wife, stimulated by her quiet, subtle insistence, he put through the business entrusted to him, and the business promised success. Which meant that the interior town in which they found themselves would soon be opened to foreign trade. And as a new trade centre, however small, Europeans would come to the town from time to time and require a night's lodging. Here was where Mrs. Rivers saw her chance and took it. In her simple, wholly supine way, she realised that there were nothing but Chinese inns in the place, and therefore it would be a good opportunity to open a hotel for foreigners. Numbers of foreigners would soon be arriving, thanks to Rivers' efforts, and as he was now out of employment (having gone on a prolonged spree to celebrate his success and been discharged in consequence), there still remained an opportunity for helping foreigners in another way. Personally, he would have preferred to open a gambling house, but the risks were too great. At that time the town was not yet fully civilized or Europeanised, and he realised that he would encounter considerable opposition to this scheme from the Chinese—and he was without sufficient influence or protection to oppose them. His wife, therefore, insisted upon the hotel, and he saw her point. She did not make it in behalf of her own welfare, or the welfare of possible future children. She merely made it as an opportunity that a man of his parts ought not to miss. He had made a few hundred dollars out of his deal, and fortunately, had not spent all of it on his grand carouse. There was enough left for the new enterprise.
So they took a temple. Buddhism being in a decadent state in China, and the temples being in a still further state of decay, it was an easy matter to arrange things with the priests. The temple selected was a large, rambling affair, with many compounds and many rooms, situated in the heart of the city, and near the newly opened offices of the newly established firm, the nucleus of this coming trade centre of China. A hundred dollars Mex. rented it for a year, and Mrs. Rivers spent many days sweeping and cleaning it, while Rivers himself helped occasionally, and hired several coolies to assist in the work as well. The monks' houses were washed and whitewashed; clean, new mats spread on the floors, cheap European cots installed, with wash basins, jugs and chairs, and other accessories such as are not found in native inns. The main part of the temple still remained open for worship, with the dusty gods on the altars and the dingy hangings in place as usual. The faithful, such as there were, still had access to it, and the priests lived in one of the compounds, but all the other compounds were given over to Rivers for his new enterprise. Thus the prejudices of the townspeople were not excited, the old priests cleared a hundred dollars Mex., while the new tenants were at liberty to pursue their venture to its most profitable limits. Mrs. Rivers managed the housekeeping, assisted by a capable Chinese cook, and Rivers had a sign painted, in English, bearing the words "Temple Hotel." Fortunately it was summertime, so there were no expenses for artificial heat, an item which would have taxed their small capital beyond its limits.
Two weeks after the Temple Hotel swung out its sign, the first guest arrived, the manager of the new company. He came to town reluctantly, dreading the discomforts of a Chinese inn, and bringing with him his food and bedding roll, intending to sleep in his cart in the courtyard. Consequently he was greatly pleased and greatly surprised to find a European hotel, and he stayed there ten days in perfect comfort. Mrs. Rivers treated him royally—lost money on him, in fact, but it was a good investment. At parting, the manager told Rivers that his wife was a marvel, as indeed she was. Then he went down to Shanghai and spread the news among his friends, and from that time on, the success of the Temple Hotel was assured. True, Rivers still continued to be a good fellow, that is, he continued to drink pretty hard, but his guests overlooked it and his wife was used to it, and the establishment continued to flourish. In a year or two the railroad came along, and a period of great prosperity set in all round.
Like most foreigners, Rivers had a profound contempt for the Chinese. They were inferior beings, made for servants and underlings, and to serve the dominant race. He was at no pains to conceal this dislike, and backed it up by blows and curses as occasion required. In this he was not alone, however, nor in any way peculiar. Others of his race feel the same contempt for the Chinese and manifest it by similar demonstrations. Lying drunk under a walnut tree of the main courtyard, Rivers had only to raise his eyes to his blue-coated, pig-tailed coolies, to be immensely aware of his superiority. Kwong, his number-one boy, used to survey him thus stretched upon the ground, while Rivers, helpless, would explain to Kwong what deep and profound contempt he felt for all those who had not his advantages—the great, God-given advantage of a white skin. The lower down one is on the social and moral plane, the more necessary to emphasize the distinction between the races. Kwong used to listen, imperturbable, thinking his own thoughts. When his master beat him, he submitted. His impassive face expressed no emotion, neither assent nor dissent.
Except for incidents like these, of some frequency, things went on very well with Rivers for three or four years, and then something happened. He had barely time to bundle his wife and children aboard an English ship lying in harbour and send them down river to Shanghai, before the revolution broke out. He himself stayed behind to see it through, living in the comparative security of his Consulate, for the outbreak was not directed against foreigners and he was safe enough outside the city, in the newly acquired concession. On this particular day, when things had reached their climax and the rebels were sacking and burning the town, Rivers leaned over the ramparts of the city wall and watched them. The whole Tartar City was in flames, including the Temple Hotel. He watched it burn with satisfaction. When things quieted down, he would put in his claim for an indemnity. The Chinese government, whichever or whatever it happened to be, should be made to pay handsomely for his loss. Really, at this stage of his fortunes nothing could have been more opportune. The Temple Hotel had reached the limit of its capacity, and he had been obliged to turn away guests. Moreover the priests, shrewd old sinners, had begun to clamour for increased rental. They had detected signs of prosperity—as indeed, who could not detect it—and for some time past they had been urging that a hundred dollars Mex. a year was inadequate compensation. Well, this revolution, whatever it was all about, would put a stop to all that. Rivers would claim, and would undoubtedly receive, an ample indemnity, with which money he would build himself a fine modern hostelry, such as befitted this flourishing new trade centre, and as befitted himself, shrewd and clever man of affairs. Altogether, this revolution was a most timely and fortunate occurrence. He surveyed the scene beneath him, but a good way off, be it said. Shrieks and yells, firing and destruction, and the whole Tartar City in names and fast crumbling into ashes.
The revolution settled itself in due time. The rebels either got what they wanted, or didn't get what they wanted, or changed their minds about wanting it after all, as sometimes happens with Chinese uprisings. Whichever way it was, law and order were finally restored and life resumed itself again on normal lines, although the Tartar City, lying within the Chinese City, was a total wreck. What happened in consequence to the despoiled and dispersed Manchu element is no concern of ours.
Rivers put in his claim for an indemnity and got it. It was awarded promptly, that is, with the delay of only a few months, and he at once set out to build himself a fine hotel, in accordance with his highest ambitions. The construction was entrusted to a native contractor, and while the work progressed apace, he and his wife went down river to Shanghai, and the children were sent north somewhere to a mission school. During this enforced residence in Shanghai, in which city he had been known some years ago as a pronounced beach-comber and ne'er-do-weel, he was obliged to live practically without funds. However, he was able to borrow on the strength of his indemnity, but to do him justice, he limited his borrowings to the lowest terms, not wishing to encroach upon his capital. In all this economy of living, his wife assisted him greatly, for although supine and flexible there was that quality of force about her which we have mentioned before.
As befitted a person who had lost his all in a Chinese uprising and had been rewarded with a large sum of money in return, Rivers was particularly bitter against the Chinese. His old contempt and hatred flared up to large proportions, and he expressed his feelings openly and freely, especially at those times when alcohol clouded his judgment. Moreover, he was living in Shanghai now, where it was easy to express his feelings in the classic way approved by foreigners, and sanctioned by the customs and usages of the International Settlement. He delighted to walk along the Bund, among crowds of burdened coolies bending and panting under great sacks of rice, and to see them shrink and swerve as he approached, fearing a blow of his stick. When he rode in rickshaws, he habitually cheated the coolie of his proper fare, secure in the knowledge that the Chinese had no redress, could appeal to no one, and must accept a few coppers or none at all, at his pleasure. If the coolie objected, Rivers still had the rights of it. A crowd might collect, vociferating in their vile jargon, but it mattered nothing. A word from Rivers to a passing European, to a policeman, to any one whose word carries in the Settlement, was sufficient. He had but to explain that one of these impertinent yellow pigs had tried to extort three times the legal fare, and his case was won. No coolie could successfully contradict the word of a foreigner, no police court, should matters go as far as that, would take a Chinaman's word against that of a white man. He was quite secure in his bullying, in his dishonesty, in his brutality, and there is no place on earth where the white man is more secure in his whitemanishness than in this Settlement, administered by the ruling races of the world. Rivers thoroughly enjoyed these street fracases, in which he was the natural and logical victor. He enjoyed telling about them afterward, for they served to illustrate his conception of the Chinese character and of the Chinese race in general. It was but natural for him to feel this way, seeing what losses he had suffered through the revolution. As he told of his losses, it was not apparent to an outsider that the hotel had not been utterly and entirely his property, instead of an old Buddhist temple rented from the priests for one hundred dollars Mex. a year.
Besides Rivers, others in the town in the interior had suffered hardships. Among them was his number-one boy, Kwong, who had served him faithfully for several years. Kwong had been rather hard hit by the uprising. His wretched little hovel had been burned to the ground, his wife had fallen victim to a bullet, while his two younger children disappeared during the excitement and were never heard of again. Killed, presumably. After the victorious rebels had had their way, all that remained to Kwong was his son Liu, aged eighteen, and these two decided to come down to Shanghai and earn their living amidst more civilized surroundings. One of the strongest arguments in favour of the International Settlement is that it affords safety and protection to the Chinese. They flock to it in great numbers, preferring the just and beneficent administration of the white man to the uncertainties of native rule. So Kwong and his son made their way down the Yangtzse, floating down river on a stately junk with ragged matting sails. It was the tide, and a bamboo pole for pushing, rather than any assistance derived from the ragged sails, which eventually landed them in the safe harbour of Whangpoo Creek, and stranded them on the mud flats below Garden Bridge.
Being illiterate people, father and son, unskilled labour was all that presented itself, so they became rickshaw coolies, as so many country people do. During a year, some two hundred thousand men, young and old and mostly from up-country, take up the work of rickshaw runners. It is not profitable employment, and the work is hard, and many of them drop out—the come-and-go of rickshaw runners is enormous, a great, unstable, floating population. Kwong and Liu hired a rickshaw between them, for a dollar and ten cents a day, and their united exertions barely covered the day's hire. Sometimes they had a few coppers over and above the daily expenses, sometimes they fell below that sum and had to make up the deficit on the morrow. On the occasions when they were in debt to the proprietor, they were forced to forego the small outlay required for food, and neither could afford a meagre bowl of millet. Pulling a rickshaw on an empty stomach is not conducive to health. Kwong, being an older man, found the strain very difficult, and Liu, being but a fledgling and weak and undeveloped at that, also found it difficult. They were always tired, nearly always hungry, and part of the time ill. And what neither could understand was the passengers' objection to paying the legal fare. Now and then, of course, they had a windfall in the shape of a tourist or a drunken sailor from a cruiser, but these exceptions were few and far between. Necessarily so, considering the number of rickshaws, and that the tram cars were strong competitors as well.
They were also surprised at the attitude of the Europeans. The first time that Liu was struck over the head by a beautiful Malacca cane, he was aghast with astonishment—and pain. Fortunately he knew enough not to hit hack. Not understanding English, he did not know that he was being directed to turn up the Peking Road, and accordingly had run swiftly past the Peking Road until brought to his senses, so to speak, by a silver knob above the ear, which made him dizzy with pain. As time passed, however, he grew accustomed to this attitude of the ruling race, and accepted the blows without remonstrance, knowing that remonstrance was vain. His fellow coolies soon taught him that. He and his kind were but dogs in the sight of the foreigners, and must accept a dog's treatment in consequence. Once a lady leaned far forward in the rickshaw and gave him a vicious kick. Up till then, he had not realised that the women of the white race also had this same feeling towards him. But what can one expect? If a man lowers himself to the plane of an animal and gets between shafts, he must expect an animal's treatment. In certain communities, however, there are societies to protect animals.
Matters went along like this for some months, and Kwong and Liu barely kept themselves going. However, they managed to keep out of debt for the rickshaw hire, which was in itself an achievement. Rivers also continued to live in Shanghai at this time, making up-river trips now and then to inspect the progress of his new hotel, which was favourable. As he landed at the Bund one day, returning from one of these excursions, he chanced to step into the rickshaw pulled by his old servitor, Kwong. Kwong made him a respectful salute, but Rivers, preoccupied, failed to recognise his former servant in the old and filthy coolie who stood between the shafts of an old and shabby rickshaw. He always made it a point to select old rickshaws, pulled by broken down men. They looked habitually underpaid, and were probably used to it, and were therefore less likely to raise objections at the end of the trip than one of the swift young runners who stood about the European hotels. Remember, in extenuation, that Rivers was living on credit at this time, on borrowed money, and he did not like to be more extravagant than he had to.
The day was a piping hot one, and the distance Rivers travelled was something under three miles, out on the edge of French Town. When he alighted, he found but three copper cents in his pocket, all that was left him after a considerable carouse on the river boat coming down. He tendered this sum to the panting and sweating Kwong, who stood exhausted but respectful, hoping in a friendly way that his old master would recognise him. To do Rivers justice, he did not recognise his former servant, nor did he have more than three copper cents in his possession, although that fact was known to him when he stepped into the rickshaw and directed the coolie to French Town, extreme limits. Kwong indignantly rejected the copper cents, and Rivers flung them into the dust and turned away. Kwong ran after him, expostulating, catching him by the coat sleeve. Rivers turned savagely. The wide road was deserted, and in a flash he brought his heavy blackwood stick across Kwong's face with a terrific blow. The coolie fell sprawling in the dust at his old master's feet, and Rivers, furious, kicked him savagely in the stomach, again and again, until the man lay still and ceased writhing. Blood gushed from his mouth, making a puddle in the dust, a puddle which turned black and thick about the edges.
In an instant Rivers was sobered. He glanced swiftly up and down the road, and to his dismay, saw a crowd of blue coated figures running in his direction. He had barely time to stoop down and pick up the tell-tale coppers before he was surrounded by a noisy and excited group of Chinese, gesticulating furiously and rending the hot, blue air with their outlandish cries. A policeman came in sight, and a passing motor filled with foreigners stopped to see the trouble. He had overdone things, surely. There was nothing for it but the police station.
Now such accidents are not infrequent in Shanghai, the white man's city built in China, administered by the white men to their own advantage, and to the advantage of the Chinese who seek protection under the white man's just and beneficent rule. However, human life is very cheap in China, cheaper than most places in the Orient, although that is not saying much. It would, therefore, have been very easy for Rivers to have extricated himself from this scrape had he possessed any money. Two hundred and fifty dollars, Mex. is the usual price for a coolie's life when an affair of this kind happens. There is a well established precedent to this effect. Unfortunately for Rivers, he did not possess two hundred and fifty dollars, for as has been said, he was at this time living on borrowed money. Nothing for it then but a trial, and certain unpleasant publicity. Happily, there were no witnesses to the occurrence, and Rivers' plea of self-defence would naturally he accepted. It was an unpleasant business, however, but there was no other way out of it, seeing that he was bankrupt.
The trial took place with due dignity. Evidence, produced after an autopsy, proved that at the time of the accident Kwong was in a very poor state of health. Every one knows that the work of a rickshaw coolie is hard, the physical strain exceedingly severe. Four years, at the outside, is the average life of a rickshaw runner, after which he must change his occupation to something more suited to a physical wreck. Much testimony was produced to show that Kwong had long ago reached that point. He was courting death, defying death, every day. It was his own fault. He had great varicose veins in his legs, which were large and swollen. His heart, constantly overtaxed by running with heavy weights, was enlarged and ready to burst any moment. His spleen also was greatly dilated and ready to burst—in fact, it was not at all clear whether after such a long run—three miles in such heat—he would not have dropped dead anyway. Such cases were of daily occurrence, too numerous to mention. The slight blow he had received—a mere push as defendant had stated under oath—was probably nothing more than a mere unfortunate coincidence.
Such being the evidence, and the courts being administered by Europeans, and there being no doubt whatever of the quality of justice administered by Europeans in their own behalf, it is not surprising that Rivers was acquitted. The verdict returned was, Accidental death due to rupture of the spleen, caused by over-exertion. Rivers was a good deal shaken, however, when he stepped out of the courtroom, into the hot, bright sunshine, and received the congratulations of his friends. He had heard so many disgusting medical details of the havoc caused by rickshaw pulling, that he resolved to be very careful in future about hitting these impudent, good-for-nothing swine.
Amongst the crowd in the courtroom, but practically unnoticed, sat Liu, son of the late Kwong. The proceedings being in English, he was unable to follow them, but he knew enough to realise that the slayer of his father was being tried. Presumably his life was at stake, as was befitting under the circumstances. Therefore his surprise was great when the outcome of the case was explained to him by a Chinese friend who understood English, and his astonishment, if such it may be called, was still more intense upon seeing Rivers walk out of the courtroom receiving congratulatory handshakes as he passed. To the ignorant mind of the young Chinese, Rivers was being felicitated for having committed murder. He was unable to draw any fine distinctions, or to understand that these congratulations were not intended for Rivers personally, but because his acquittal strengthened established precedents. Precedents that rendered unassailable the status of the ruling race. Liu was therefore filled with an overmastering and bitter hatred of Rivers, and had he realised what the acquittal stood for, would probably have been filled with an equally intense hatred for the dominant race in general. Not understanding that, however, he concentrated his feelings upon Rivers, and resolved to bring him to account in accord with simpler, less civilized standards.
Within two months, the Temple Hotel was finished and ready for use. Much foreign furniture had been sent up from Shanghai, and Rivers and his wife also removed themselves to the up-river town and set about their business. Rivers was glad to leave Shanghai; he had had enough of it, since his unlucky episode, and was glad to bury himself in the comparative obscurity of the interior. Life resumed itself smoothly once again, and he prospered exceedingly.
His attitude towards the natives, however, was more domineering than ever, now that he had recovered from the unpleasant two weeks that preceded his trial. These two weeks had been more uncomfortable than he liked to think about, but safely away from the scene of the disturbance, he became more abusive, more brutal than ever in his attitude towards the Chinese. His servants horribly feared him, yet did his bidding with alacrity. The reputation of a man who could kill when he chose, with impunity, stood him in good stead. Liu, the son of Kwong, followed him up-river and obtained a place in his household as pidgeon-cook, assistant to number-one cook. Rivers failed to recognize his new servant, and at such times as he encountered him, was delighted with the servile attitude of the youth, and called him "Son of a Turtle" which is the worst insult in the Chinese language.
Liu bided his time, for time is of no moment in the Orient. His hatred grew from day to day, but he continued to wait. He wished to see Rivers thoroughly successful, at the height of his career, before calling him to account. Since he would have to pay for his revenge with his life—not being a European—he determined that a white man at the top of his pride would be a more fitting victim than one who had not yet climbed the ladder. Such was his simple reasoning. Under his long blue coat there hung a long, thin knife, whetted to razor sharpness on both edges.
Summer came again, and the blazing heat of mid-China, lay over the land. Mrs. Rivers went north to join her children, and the number of guests in the hotel diminished to two or three. Business and tourists came to a standstill during these scorching weeks, and Rivers finally went down to Shanghai for a few days' jollification. He left his affairs in the hands of the shroff, the Chinese accountant, who could be trusted to manage them for a short time.
He returned unexpectedly one night about eleven o'clock, quite drunk. The few guests had retired and the hotel was closed. At the gate, the watchman lay asleep beside his lantern, and when Rivers let himself in with his key, he found Liu in the lounge, also asleep. He cursed Liu, but submitted to the steady, supporting arm which the boy place around his waist, and was led to bed without difficulty. Liu assisted his master to undress, folding up the crumpled, white linen clothes with silver buttons, and laying them neatly across a chair. He was an excellent servant. Then he retired from the room, listening outside the door till he heard sounds of heavy, stertorous breathing. At that moment, the contempt of the Chinese for the dominant race was even greater than Rivers' contempt for the inferior one.
When the proprietor's breathing had assumed reassuring proportions, Liu opened the door cautiously, and stepped lightly into the room. He then locked it with equal caution, slipped quietly across to the verandah, and passed out through the long, wide-open windows. The verandah was a dozen feet from the ground, and the dark passage below, leading to the gate, was deserted. At the other end sat the watchman with his lantern, presumably asleep. Liu had not heard his drum tap for an hour. A shaft of moonlight penetrated the room, and a light wind blowing in from outside gently stirred the mosquito curtains over the bed. Liu tiptoed to the bed, and with infinite care drew the netting aside and stood surveying his victim. Rivers lay quite still with arms outstretched, fat and bloated, breathing with hoarse, blowing sounds, quite repulsive. The moonlight was sufficient to enable Liu to see the dark outline upon the bed, and to gauge where he would strike. He hovered over his victim, exultant, prolonging from minute to minute this strange, new feeling of power and dominance. That was what it meant to be a white man—to feel this feeling always—always—all one's life, not merely for a few brief, exhilarating moments! And with that feeling of power and dominance was the ability to inflict pain, horrible, frightful pain. That also was part of the white man's heritage, this ability to inflict pain and suffering at will. And after that, death. Liu also had the power to inflict death. Leaning over the bed, with the long, keen knife in his steady clutch, he was for those glorious moments the equal of the white man! He prolonged his sensations breathlessly—this sense of superb power, this superb ability to inflict humiliation, pain and death.
A mosquito lit on Rivers' blotched cheek, and he raised a heavy arm to brush it away. Then he relaxed again with a snore. Liu paused, waiting. The glorious exaltation was mounting higher. It occurred to him to sharpen these sensations, to heighten them. After all, he was about to kill a drunken man in a drunken sleep. He wanted something better. He wanted to feel his power over a conscious man, a man conscious and aware of what was to befall him. Even as his father had been conscious and aware of what was befalling him, even as thousands of his countrymen were awake and aware, knowing what was being done to them—by the dominant race. He wished Rivers awake and aware. It involved greater risk, but it was worth it. Therefore, with the point of his sharp, keen knife, he gently prodded the throat of the sleeper, lying supine before him under the moon rays. Gently, very gently, he prodded the exposed throat, placed the point of his knife very gently upon his heaving, corded larynx, which pulsed inward and outward under the heaving, stertorous breaths. Gently he stimulated the corded, puffing throat, gently, with the point of his sharp knife.
The result was as he wished. First Rivers stirred, moved a restless arm, flopped an impotent, heavy arm that fell back upon the pillow, an arm that failed to reach its objective, to quell the tickling, cold point prodded into his throat. Then as he slowly grew conscious, the movements of the arm became more coordinated. Into his drunken mind came the fixed sensation of a disturbance at his throat. He became conscious, opened a heavy eye, and fixed it upon Liu, without at the same time feeling the pressing point at his throat. Liu saw his returning consciousness, and leaning over him, pressed upon his throat, ever so lightly, the point of his long knife. Thus for a moment or two they regarded each other, Liu having the advantage. But so it had always been. Having the advantage was one of the attributes of the dominant race. Thus for those few brief seconds, Liu experienced the whole glory of it. And as little by little Rivers emerged from the drunken to the conscious, to the abjectly, cravenly conscious, so Liu mounted to the heights.
Then he saw that Rivers was about to cry out. To let forth a roaring bellow, a howling bellow. Enough. He had tasted the whole of it. He had felt, for prolonged and glorious moments, the feelings of the superior race. Therefore he drove home, silently, his sharp, keen knife, and stifled the mad bellow that was about to be let forth. After which, he crept very cautiously to the balcony, and peered anxiously up and down the dark alleyway beneath. He lowered himself with infinite caution over the railing. He had become once more the cringing Oriental.
A Chinese gentleman, with his arms tucked up inside the brocaded sleeves of his satin coat, stood one day with one foot in China and the other upon European soil. From time to time he bore with alternate weight upon the right foot, on Chinese soil, and then upon the left foot, upon European soil, and his mental attitude shifted from right to left accordingly. The foot upon Chinese soil reflected upward to his brain the restriction of Chinese laws, the breaking of which were accompanied by heavy penalties. The foot upon European soil reassured him as to his ability to indulge himself, with no penalties whatsoever. Therefore, after balancing himself for a few moments first upon this foot, then upon that, he gave way to his inclinations and resolved to indulge them. In certain matters, Europeans were more liberal than Chinese.
From this you will see that he had been standing with one foot in China, where opium traffic was prohibited, where heavy fines were attached to opium smoking and to opium buying, where heavy jail sentences were imposed upon those who smoked or bought opium, while the other foot, planted upon the ground of the Foreign Concession, assured him of his absolute freedom to buy opium in any quantity he chose, and to smoke himself to a standstill in an opium den licensed under European auspices. In his saner moments, when not under the influence of the drug, he resented the European occupation of certain parts of Chinese territory, but when his craving for opium occurred—which it did with great frequency—he was delighted to realise that there were certain parts of China not under the authority of the drastic laws of China, which laws prohibited with such drastic and heavy penalties the indulgences he craved. Therefore he swayed himself backwards and forwards for a space, first upon this foot, then upon that, and finally withdrew both feet into the Foreign Concession, and directed his steps to a shop where opium was sold under European influence. The shop was capacious but dark. He stated his requirements and they were measured out to him—a large keg was withdrawn from its place on a shelf, and a gentle Chinese, clad, like himself, in satin brocade, dug into the contents of the keg with a ladle and withdrew from it a black, molasses-like substance, which ran slowly and gummily from the ladle into the small silver box which the customer had produced. The box finally filled, with some of the gummy, black contents running over the edges, our gentleman withdrew himself, having accomplished his purpose. Tucked into the security of his belt, it was impossible to detect the contraband as he again stepped over the boundary line which separated Chinese from European soil.
Half an hour after our Chinese gentleman had stepped across the boundary line into the native city, with a large supply of opium concealed in his belt, part of which he would retail to certain friends who had not time enough to run across into the European concession to buy it for themselves, a young Englishman stood, by curious coincidence, upon the same spot recently occupied by the Chinese. He also stood with one foot upon Chinese soil, with the other upon the soil of the Foreign Concession, and regretted, with considerable vehemence, that at this dividing line his efforts must cease. He had been pursuing, for perhaps a mile, the proprietor of a certain gambling den, whom he wished to apprehend. But at the boundary line, which the Chinese had reached before him, his prey had escaped. He was off somewhere, safe in the devious lanes and burrows of the native city. Therefore he stood baffled, and finally made his way back into the Settlement, along the quais, and finally reached his rooms. He pondered somewhat over the situation. That which was permitted on Chinese territory, was prohibited in the foreign holdings—and the reverse. It just depended whether you were on this side the line or that, as to whether or not you were a lawbreaker. Morality appeared arbitrary, determined by geographical lines—a matter of dollars and cents. Lawson walked slowly along the Bund, turning the matter over in his rather limited mind. Take the opium business, he considered. The Chinese considered it harmful, and wished to abolish it. Very good. Yet the Foreign Concessions made money out of it and insisted upon selling it.
Take another example, he reflected—gambling, his job. Or rather, his job was the suppression of gambling—in the foreign holdings. The Chinese considered it harmless, a matter of individual inclination. Very good. But the foreigners considered it a vice, and he, Lawson, was appointed to run to earth Chinese fan-tan houses, in the Concession, and suppress them. Yet his own people, the foreigners, gambled freely and uproariously in their own establishments—at the races, and at certain houses which they maintained for their pleasure. True, these houses were not in the Concession—for some reason the foreigners had set their face against gambling in the Concession—yet they maintained their establishments, their showy and luxurious establishments, outside the Concession and upon Chinese soil. They must pay a handsome squeeze for the privilege. Yet it was difficult to reconcile. What was right and wrong, anyway? What was moral or immoral, anyway? Lawson, of very limited intelligence, walked along, sorely puzzled. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander—well, two very different kinds of sauces, composed of very different ingredients, as far as he could see. Lawson, being a young man of limited intelligence, was greatly puzzled. He had been greatly bothered over this for a long time. It began to look to him—very vaguely—as if morality was not an abstract but a concrete affair.
Just then he passed an opium shop, and considered again. That surely was a nasty game, yet his Government encouraged it—and made money from it. But the Chinese, on their side of the boundary line, were doing their best to suppress it. It was very difficult for them to make headway, however, since opium shops flourished and were encouraged by the foreign concessions, over which the Chinese had no control. Topsy turvy, anyway. No wonder a person like Lawson was unable to understand it. It all resolved itself into a question of money, after all. For after all, money was the main object of life, whether on the part of an individual or of a government. And since all governments were composed of individuals, and reflected the ideas of individuals, there you were!
By this time, young Lawson had become quite bored with life in the Far East. The romance was gone and it offered so little variety. One day was so like another, and every day, winter and summer, it was the same thing or the same sorts of things, and there was an intense sameness about it all. By day he did his work—that goes without saying—one has to work in the Far East, that is what one comes out to do. Otherwise, why come? Unless one is a tourist or a missionary, or a buyer of Chinese antiques, or has had an overwhelming desire to write a book upon international politics, a desire springing from the depths of gross ignorance. But after all, why not such a book? It reaches, if it reaches at all, a public still less informed, and misinformation is as valuable as no information at all, when we desire to interfere with the destiny of the Chinese. In his leisure moments, Lawson had tried his hand at such a book—until he suddenly realised that he had been in the Orient too long to make it a success. He knew just a trifle too much about affairs, and found himself setting forth facts which would lead to his undoing, as a minor official in the International Settlement—if he gave them publicity. He could not afford to lose his position. And he was by no means sure that the deep, unerring sense of justice, the innate instinct of the masses, would rally to his support. He had his own opinion of the ruling classes, but he trusted the masses still less.
It was a biting cold night, with a high wind from the north howling down the long streets and whipping the waters of the harbour into a fury. Junks strained at their anchors, tossed and heaved, and now and then one broke loose from its moorings and wandered about adrift, spreading infinite terror amongst the owners of other junks, who feared for their safety. A cruiser or two lay in the roads, and the French mail, and two or three Japanese cargo-boats, and half a dozen tramp ships from the China Coast, but none of these were unduly buffeted by the gale, which only created havoc among the junks and sampans. Lawson's lodgings overlooked the harbour, and he laid down his pen and moved from the table to the dark window, trying in vain to see what was going on without. Below, the long line of the quais was outlined by long rows of electric lights, swaying and tossing from their poles, and illuminating the shining, wet asphalt of the Bund. He was very, very tired of it all. So many years he had been out, and the same monotonous round must be gone through with, over and over again, day after day—until he made money enough to return home. And as a salaried clerk, a court runner, whose duty it was to enforce the laws against gambling in the Settlement, that day seemed very far distant indeed. Whenever he heard of a fan-tan place—and he heard of them every day—he must investigate, see that it was closed and the keepers, if he was lucky enough to catch them, duly punished. And the players as well. Now to eradicate gambling from amongst the Chinese is a difficult task, futile and ridiculous, a good waste of time and money. He wondered why his Government should attempt it. Foolish thing for his Government to do—yet what would become of Lawson if the undertaking were abolished? Taste tea, probably—apprentice himself to some tea merchant, and learn all the nasty role of tea spitting. From which you will see that Lawson was squeamish about some things, and did not envy those of his friends who had become tea tasters, and who moved all day up and down a long table, filled with rows of stupid little cups, with an attendant China boy forever shoving a cuspidor from one advanced position to another. And if not a tea taster, then some commercial house would absorb his energies, which would be worse still—close at his elbow a spectacled Chinese clicking all day upon a dirty little abacus,—checking him up, keeping tabs on him.
No, the work he had was better. But he was so tired of it. He leaned himself against the dripping, cold pane, and regarded the lights below, shining on the wet asphalt of the quais. He was thirty years old and ten years in the East had about done for him. The East does, for many people. Yes, he reflected bitterly, it had about done for him. It undermines people, in some mysterious manner, and in Lawson's case there had been so little to undermine. He had little imagination, and could never imagine the larger possibilities of life, and what he had missed, therefore the undermining of his character was of small account. He was only conscious of an intense boredom, and to-night the boredom was accentuated, because of the weather. He was too inert to splash about in such a driving rain in quest of a friend more weary than himself.
If he could just get out of it all! By which, understand, he had not the adventurous spirit of the beach-comber, the adventurer who combs pleasure and profits from the ports of the China Coast. He wasn't that sort. He had no desire to take a sampan and row out to the nearest cargo-boat and ship away to the Southern Seas, and sink himself in romance north or south of the Line. No, the mystery of the East, the romance of foreign lands made no appeal to him. And the everlasting monotony of his daily work, of his daily association with his few wearied friends, clerks and suchlike, all minor and unimportant cogs of the big machine overseas, offered him nothing. Very decidedly he was homesick. But his tired mind came upon a blank wall—he had no home to be homesick for. Nothing compelling, nothing to return to—all broken up long ago, such as it was, long before he had come out to the Orient. Yet he was longing for the sight of his native land again. Yes, that was it—just the familiar sight of it. It offered him nothing in the way of tie or kin, yet he was longing to see it again, just his own native land. He was exiled in China—and he was exiled at Home, when you got down to it—but to-night his home land drew him with overwhelming insistence.
What can you do, I'd like to know, when you are like this? Along the outskirts of the Settlement stood big houses, cheerful with lights, with home life, with all that the successful ones had brought out from Home, to establish Home in the Orient. But Lawson had nothing to do with these, with all the pompous, successful ones, who ignored him completely and were unaware of his existence. They were all superior to him, with the superiority that new-found money brings, and they looked down upon him as a cheap court runner, told off to round up the fan-tan playing Chinese. You see, Lawson was common—he had sprung from nothing and was nothing. But these others, these successful ones, they too had sprung from nothing, but out here in the Orient they had become important. Through the possession of certain qualities which Lawson did not possess, they had become large and prominent in the community. They referred to themselves, among each other, as "younger sons." Which left one to infer that they were of distinguished lineage. But Lawson knew better, and knew it with great bitterness. Like himself, they were indeed "younger sons"—of greengrocers. Therefore, for that reason perhaps, they went home seldom, for at home they were nobodies. Whereas out here—oh, out here, by reason of certain qualities which Lawson did not possess, they were important and pompous, and lived in big houses, with lights and guests and servants and motors. Therefore Lawson resented them, because they thought he was common. And he was common, he admitted bitterly, but so were they. Only they were successful, by reason of certain qualities which he did not possess. They ignored him, and left him alone in the community, and it is never very good to be too much alone, especially in the Far East. True, they provided him with his job—with his wretchedly paid little Government job, which they maintained for no altruistic or moral reasons. To suppress gambling amongst the Chinese? Perhaps. Incidentally, on the surface, it looked well. Looked well, he considered, coming from those who never helped the Chinese in anything else. Who exploited them, in all possible ways, and undermined them—undermined the Chinese who were pretty well done for anyway, by nature, being Chinese. No, he reflected savagely—he had heard the story—one night some big personage living in one of the big houses, to which he was never invited—had given a big dinner, with much wine and fine food and many guests and all the rest of it—and what happened? No servants, or rather many servants without liveries or clothing of any kind, everything having been pawned the evening before over the fan-tan tables. Therefore he, Lawson, was employed by Government to suppress these gambling houses, to keep the servants from stealing and pawning their liveries, making embarrassment in the big, foreign-style houses, making amusement and consternation and scandal. He had happened along shortly after this affair, and so obtained the appointment.
Lawson leaned his forehead against the cold glass, down which the rain poured in sheets. The lights of the French mail glimmered intermittently through the darkness—to-morrow she would weigh anchor and be off for Marseilles, for Home. Not that he had a home, as we have said, but he longed for the familiar look of things, for the crowds all speaking his own tongue, for the places he knew, the well known street signs, and the big hoardings. And he couldn't go back. He had not money enough to go back. Every penny of his little salary went for living expenses and living comes high in China. To say nothing of the passage money and the money for afterwards—— A gentle cough behind him made him turn round in a hurry. His China-boy stood expectantly in the doorway.
"What is it?" demanded Lawson sharply. Ah Chang drew in his breath, not wishing to breathe upon his superior. The indrawn, hissing noise irritated Lawson immensely. He had been out ten years, and in that time had never learned that Ah Chang and the others were showing him respect, deep proofs of Oriental respect, when they sucked in their breath with that hissing noise, to avoid breathing upon a superior. To Lawson it was just another horrid trait, another horrid native characteristic.
"Man come see Master," observed Ah Chang, addressing space impersonally. "Heap plenty important business. You see?"
Anything for a change this dreary evening. "Very well," said Lawson, "I see."
In a moment or two, a tall Chinese shuffled into the room, bowing repeatedly with hands on knees. After which he passed his long slim hands up into the sleeves of his satin coat, and waited quietly till the boy withdrew. He gave a swift look about the room, a glance so hurried that it seemed impossible he could have satisfied himself that they were alone, and then began to speak. Lawson recognised him at once as the keeper of a house he had raided the week before, a big, crowded place, where the police had captured a score of players and much money. It was an important haul, a notorious den, that they had been after for a long time. Only it changed its location so often, moved from place to place each night, or so it seemed, that Lawson had spent months trying to find it. It is not easy finding such places in the crowded, native streets of the Concession, and he had stumbled upon it by a piece of sheer luck. And the proprietor had been heavily fined and heavily warned, yet here he stood to-night, silent, respectful, hands up his sleeves, waiting. For once in his life, Lawson's imagination worked. He foresaw something portentous looming in the background of that impenetrable mind, revealed in the steady, unblinking stare of those slanting Chinese eyes, fixed steadily and fearlessly and patiently upon his.
"Sit down," he commanded, with a sweep of his hand towards an upright chair.
* * * * *
After his visitor had departed, Lawson stood lost in thought. He was not angry, yet he should have been, he realised. Assuredly he should have been angry, assuredly he should have kicked his visitor downstairs. But as it was, he remained in deep thought, pondering over a suggestion that had been made to him. The suggestion, stripped of certain Oriental qualities of flowery phraseology and translated from pidgin-English into business English, was the merest, most vague hint of an exchange of favours. So slight was the hint, but so overwhelming the possibilities suggested, that, as we have said, Lawson had not kicked his visitor downstairs, but remained standing lost in thought for several moments after his departure. As he had stood earlier in the day, with one foot in the Foreign Concession, and the other on Chinese soil, considering the different standards that obtained in each, so he stood now, figuratively, on the boundary line of an ethical problem and swayed mentally first towards one side and then the other. The irony of it, the humour of it, appealed to him. It seemed so insanely just—just what you might expect. He had been asked—that was too definite a word—to forego his activities for a few brief weeks. And during those few brief weeks he could repay himself, week by week, on Friday nights——
He had been merely asked—too strong a word—the suggestion had been merely hinted at—he balanced himself back and forth over the problem. If his efforts during the next few weeks should prove fruitless, possible enough, considering the wily race he was dealing with——And in exchange, well, once a week on Friday night, he could slip outside the boundaries of the Concession to a large, foreign gambling house kept by and for his own people. By his own people, the Europeans, who employed him to eradicate gambling from amongst the Chinese. Do you wonder that he shifted himself back and forth, morally, first from this point of view, then to that? His own people who objected to gaming, when it involved the loss of their servants' liveries. But they had no such scruples when it came to their own pleasure. Therefore, for their own pleasure, careless of the inconsistency, they had established a very fine place of their own just outside the boundaries of the foreign Concession. Lawson had heard of the place before—the most famous, the most notorious on the China Coast. Kept by the son of a parson, so he had been told, a University graduate. Once, ten years ago, he had gone there and lost a month's pay in an evening. But now it was to be different. He could go there now, every Friday night, and reap the reward of his inability to discover Chinese dens within the Concession.
For nearly an hour he remained undecided, then determined to test the offer made him—but offer was too strong a word. And his salary was so meagre, so abominably small. And the people in the big houses would have none of him, they never invited him, he was left so alone, to himself. He was intensely homesick. Therefore, still on the boundary line, he went to the telephone and called up a certain number. In a confident manner he asked for a limousine. After which he got into his overcoat, muffled himself up well around the ears and nose, for the air outside was cold with a biting north wind, and the rain still drove slantwise in torrents. In a few moments Ah Chang announced that the calliage had come.
Round the earner from his lodgings on a side street and in darkness, stood a big car with the motor puffing violently. It was a big, handsome car, very long, and on the front seat sat two men in livery, one of whom jumped down briskly to open the door. Lawson entered and sank down into the soft cushions, for it was very luxurious. Then the car moved on briskly, without any directions from himself, and he leaned back upon the cushions and took pleasure in the luxury of it, and of the two men in livery upon the front seat, and enjoyed the pouring rain which dashed upon the glass, yet left him so dry and comfortable within. "They will only think it's inconsistent—that's all," he said to himself, "if they ever find out—which is unlikely."
Beyond the confines of the Settlement the motor rapidly made its way, slipping noiselessly over the smooth, wet asphalt, and then out along the bumpy roads beyond the city limits. All was dark now, the street lamps having been left behind with the ending of the good roads, and the car jolted along slowly, over deep ruts. A stretch of open country intervened between the Settlement and a native village of clustering mud huts. Lawson, having no imagination, was not impressed with his position. People did all sorts of things in China, just as elsewhere—only here, in China, it was so much easier to get away with it. His coming to-night might be considered inconsistent, he repeated over and over to himself, but nothing more. Every one did it, he reassured himself.
The car stopped finally, before a pair of high, very solid black gates, and the footman jumped off the box to open the door. He was conscious of a small grill with a yellow face peeping out, backed by flickering lantern light, of a rainy, windswept compound, with a shaft of light from an open door flooding the courtyard. Then he was inside a warm, bright anteroom, with an obsequious China-boy relieving him of overcoat and muffler, and he became aware of many big, fur-lined overcoats, hanging on pegs on the wall. Beyond, in the adjoining room, were two long tables, the players seated with their backs to him, absorbed. Only a few people were present, for the night was early. There was no one there he knew—even had there been, he would not have cared. He drew out a chair and seated himself confidently, while a China-boy pushed a box of cigars towards him, a very good brand. And behind came another boy with a tray of whisky and soda, while a third boy carried sandwiches. It was all very well done, he thought absently. The proprietor, being a parson's son and a University graduate, did it very well. There was no disorder, it was all beautifully done. He wondered what amount of squeeze the Chinese received, for allowing such a fine place to remain undisturbed on Chinese soil. A very big squeeze, certainly. They would surely be very grasping, considering the warfare waged against them, upon their own establishments, by the Europeans. It was all very interesting. Lawson considered the matter critically, from various angles, knowing what he knew. He sorted his chips carefully. It must pay the parson's son well, he concluded, to be able to run such a fine place, in such style, with so much to eat and drink and all, and with all those motors to carry out the guests. All this in addition to the squeeze—it must really be an enormous squeeze. And the people for whose amusement this was established, were the people who were employing him——
For a brief, fleeting second his eye rested upon the calm, unquestioning face of the Chinese at the wheel, brother of the proprietor of the fan-tan place he had raided a week ago. The placid eye of the Oriental fixed his for the fraction of a second, even as he called out the winning numbers. There was no recognition either way, yet Lawson felt himself flushing. The wheel spun again and slowly stopped, and he found himself gathering in thirty-five chips, raking them in with eager fingers over the green cloth. It was all right then, after all!
* * * * *
Lawson was going home. Speaking about this, some said, Well enough—he has become quite incompetent of late. Getting stale, probably. Unable to discover the obvious, losing his keenness. Ten years in the Far East about does for one. But with Lawson, the situation was different. He had become so tired of boundary lines, of perpetual swaying back and forth from one side to the other, without conviction. Geographical and moral concessions, wrong here, right there, had blurred his sense of the abstract. All he was conscious of was an overwhelming desire to leave it all and go home. And now he was going home. He was very glad. It hurt to be so glad. He was going away from China, forever. He was going back to his own land, where he was born, where he belonged, even though there was no one to welcome his return. There was no roof to receive him save an attic roof, rented for a few shillings a week. For though he had plenty of money now, he still thought in small sums. He was glad to be going home—the joy was painful. His chief praised him a little at parting, and said he had done good work and hoped his successor would do as well. Regretted his departure at this moment, since that old fellow who kept such a notorious den was breaking loose again, more villainous, more elusive than ever. Lawson heard this with astonishment, with infinite regret. Wished he could have stayed to see it ended.
He was going home. It hurt to be so glad. In all these years he had been so utterly lonely, so utterly miserable. His few companions came down to the landing stage on the Bund to see him off, to wish him luck. They were rather wistful, for they also knew loneliness. They had tried to forget about this longing for home in the many ways of forgetfulness that the East offered, nevertheless they were wistful. Lawson understood, he felt great pity for them. He advised them to get away before they were done for, for the East does for many people in the long run. The launch, waiting to take him down river where the steamer lay anchored, grated against the steps of the landing stage, as if eager to be off.
"I wish," said one of his friends, "that we had your luck—that we too were going home."
Lawson's heart ached for them. He had experience but no imagination. "Yes," he said simply, "it is very good to be going Home."
Maubert leaned against the counter in his wine-shop, reading a paper that had just come to him—an official looking paper, which he held unsteadily, unwillingly, and which trembled a little between his big, thick fingers. Behind the counter sat Madame Maubert, knitting. Before her, ranged neatly on the zinc covered shelf, was a row of inverted wine glasses, three of them still dripping, having been washed after the last customers by a hasty dip into a bucket of cold water.
"Mobilised," said Maubert slowly. "I am mobilised—at last." Madame Maubert looked up from her knitting. For a year now they had both been expecting this, for the war had been going on for over a year, and Maubert, while over age and below par in physical condition, was still a man and as such likely to be called into the reserves. The two exchanged glances.
"When?" asked Madame Maubert, resuming her clicking.
"At once, imbecile," replied her husband stolidly. "Naturally," he continued, "when one is at last sent for, there can be no delay. I must report at once."
"Oh, la la," said Madame Maubert, noncommittally.
Maubert glanced round his shop, his little wine-shop, his lucrative little business that he had made successful. Very well. His wife must run it alone now, as best she could. As best she could, that was evident. She could do many things well. She must do it now while he went forth into service of some kind—into a munition factory probably, or perhaps near the front, as orderly to an officer, or as sentinel, perhaps, along some road in the First Zone of the Armies. He would not be placed on active service—he was too old for that. Nevertheless it meant a horrid jarring out of his usual routine of life, consequently he was angry and resentful, and there was no fine glow of pride or patriotism or such-like feeling in his breast. Bah! All that sort of thing had vanished from men long and long ago, after the first few bitter weeks of war and of realisation of the meaning of war. War was now an affair—a sordid, ugly affair, and Maubert knew it as well as any man. Living in his backwater of a village, keeper of the principal wine-shop of the village, his zinc counter rang every night under emphatic fists, emphasising emphatic remarks about the war, and the remarks were true but devoid of romance. They differed considerably from the tone of the daily press.
From the kitchen beyond came the clattering of dishes, and some talking in immature, childish voices, and the insistent, piping tones of a quite young child. They were all in there, all four of them, the eldest twelve, the youngest four, and Maubert and his wife leaned across the zinc counter and looked at each other.
"It is your fault," he said slowly, with conviction. His eyes, deep set, ugly, sunken, glared angrily into hers. "It is your fault that I am mobilised."
She sat still, rather bewildered, gazing at him steadily. "You wished it!" he began again, "You coward! You trembling coward!"
Still Madame Maubert made no sign, waiting further explanations. She laid down her knitting and took her elbows in her hands, and by gripping her elbows firmly, stopped the trembling he spoke of.
"You don't understand, eh?" he went on sneeringly. "Always thinking of yourself, of your pretty figure, how to keep yourself always here at the bar, pretty and attractive, ready to gossip with all comers. Nothing must interrupt that. You'd done your share, all that was necessary. And I—poor fool—I let you! I didn't insist—I gave in——"
"You wish to say——?" began Madame Maubert at last, breaking her silence.
"Yes! To say just that!" burst out Maubert. "Just that—you coward! When you might have—when you might have—made this out of the question for me." He shook his order for mobilisation. Again there was a noise from the kitchen, again the sound of many young voices, and one voice that ended in a cry, an irritated, angry, querulous howl.
"I see," said Madame Maubert slowly, "five instead of four—five would have made it safe for you—eh? I didn't think of that—at the time."
"Of your own self at the time—as always!" ground out Maubert, very angry. He was a very big man, of the bully type, with a red neck that swelled under his anger, or on the occasions when he had taken too much red wine—which meant that it swelled very often and made him a great brute, and his wife disliked him, and tried to put the zinc counter between them or anything else that gave shelter.
"You selfish coward!" he cried out again, and slammed his fist down, and then raised it again and shook it at her, "You could have saved me from this—this—being mobilised——! Five instead of four! Five instead of four! Then I would have been exempt, no matter what happened! You contemptible——"
He struck at his wife, but missed her. The doorway darkened and two soldiers entered, limping.
"My husband is mobilised," exclaimed Madame Maubert quickly. "His country needs him—he is rather elevated in consequence! Doubtless he will be of the auxiliaries, where there is less danger. Discomfort, perhaps, but less danger. Nevertheless he is regretful," she concluded scornfully. The simple soldiers, home on leave, laughed uproariously. They placed a few sous upon the counter and asked for wine, and drank to Maubert solicitously. Then they all drank together, to one another's good fortune, and to La Patrie.
Maubert was at the Front. Near it, that is, but in the First Zone of the Armies and shut off from communication with the rear. He was shut off from communication with his wife and family, isolated in a little hut standing by the roadside, his sentry box. A little box of straw standing upright on the roadside, and with just enough room for him inside, also standing upright. No more. Whenever he heard the whir of a motor coming down the road, he opened his front door and stood squarely in the middle of the roadway, waving a red flag by day or a lantern by night, and expecting, both night and day, to be run down and killed by the onrushing motor. He flagged the ambulances and got cursed for it. He flagged the General's car and got cursed for it. Impossible pieces of paper were shoved out to him to read, filled with unintelligible hieroglyphics, which he could not read, which he made a vain pretence of reading and then concluded were all right. After which the car or the ambulance dashed on again, and he communed with himself within his hut, wondering whether the car was carrying a uniformed spy, or whether the ambulance was carrying a spy hidden under its brown wings, beneath the seat somewhere. It was all so perplexing and precarious, this business of sentry duty. The papers issued by the D.E.S. were so illegible. Sometimes they were blue, sometimes pink, and the remarks written on them were such that no one could understand or know what they were about. People had the right to circulate by this road or that—and when they were trying to circulate by a route not specified in the blue or pink paper, they always explained glibly that it was because they had missed the way, and made the wrong turning. It was all so perplexing. Whenever he stopped their cars, the General was always so furiously impatient, and the ambulance drivers were always so furiously impatient, and one asked you if you did not respect the Army of France, and the other if you did not respect the wounded of France, if you had no pity for them, and must delay them—altogether it was very perplexing. Maubert always had the impression that if he failed in his duties, if he let through a general who wore stripes and medals galore, yet who was a spy general, that he would be courtmartialed and shot. Or if he let through an ambulance full of wounded—apparently—yet with a spy concealed in the body—that he would be courtmartialed and shot. Always he had in his mind this fear of being courtmartialed and shot, and it made him very nervous, and he did not like to tell people that he could barely read and write. Very barely able to read and write, and totally unable to read the hieroglyphics written on the pink and blue papers issued down the road by Headquarters, at the D.E.S. He felt that some one ought to know these facts about himself, these extenuating circumstances, in case of trouble. Yet he hesitated to give himself away. Bad as it was, there were worse jobs than sentry duty.
A little way down the road there was an estaminet, where he slept when he could, where he spent his leisure hours, where he bought as much wine as he could pay for. But his sentry box always confronted him, which leaked when it rained, and the wind blew through it, and on certain days, when there was much travel by the road, he hardly spent a moment inside it but was always standing in the mud and wind of the highway, waving his flag, and stopping impatient, snorting motors. And always pretending that he could read the pink and blue papers, angrily thrust out for his inspection. Too great a responsibility for one who could barely read and write.
Came the time, eventually, for his leave. Five days permission. One day to get to Paris. One day from Paris to his province. One day in his province at home with his wife. One day back to Paris, one day to get back to his sentry box in the First Zone of the Armies. Not much time, all considered. He bought a bottle of wine at the estaminet, and got aboard the train for Paris. Somewhere along the route came a long stop, and he bought another bottle of wine—forty centimes. Another stop, and another bottle of wine. He thought much of his wife during these long hours of the journey—thoughts augmented and made glowing by three bottles of wine. She wasn't so bad, after all.
The Gare Montparnasse was reached, and he got off, dizzily, to change trains. He knew, vaguely, that to get to his province in the interior, he must first somehow get to the Gare du Nord. There was a Metro entrance somewhere about the Gare Montparnasse and he tried to find it. The Metro would take him to the Gare du Nord. No good. Such crowds of people all about, and they called him Mon Vieux, and pulled him this way and that, laughing with him, offering him cigarettes and happy comments, received by a brain in which three bottles of wine were already fermenting. Thus it happened that he missed the Metro entrance, and instead of finding a metro to take him to the Gare du Nord, he missed the entrance, turned quite wrong, and walked up the middle of the rue de la Gaiete. And because of the three bottles of wine within him—entirely within his head—he walked light-heartedly up the rue de la Gaiete, with his helmet tossed backwards on his shaggy head, his heavy kit swinging in disordered fashion from his shoulders, his mouth open, shouting meaningless things to the passers-by, and his steps very short, jerky and unsteady. Thus it happened, that many people, seeing him in this condition, shuddered, and asked what France had come to, when she must place her faith in such men as that. Other people, however, laughed at him, and made way for him, or closed in on him and squeezed his arm, and whispered things into his ears. Back and forth he ricochetted along the narrow street, singing and swinging, mouth open, with strange, happy cries coming from it. Some laughed and said what a pity, and others laughed and said how perfectly natural and what could you expect.
Presently down the street came a big, double decked tramcar, and Maubert stood in front of the tramcar, refusing to give way. It should have presented a blue paper to him—or a pink paper—anyway, there he stood in front of it, asking for its permission to circulate, and as it had no permission, it stopped within an inch of running over him, while the conductor leaned forward shouting curses. Then it was that a firm but gentle hand inserted itself within Maubert's arm, while a firm but gentle voice asked Maubert to be a good boy and come with her. Maubert was very dazed, and also perplexed that he had not received a paper from the big, double-decked tramcar, which obviously had no right to circulate without such permission, sanctioned by himself. He was gently drawn off the tracks, by that unknown arm, while the big tramcar proceeded on its way without permission. It was all wrong, yet Maubert felt himself drawn to one side of the roadway, felt himself still propelled along by that gentle but firm arm, and looked to see who was leading him. He was quite satisfied by what he saw. The three bottles of wine made him very uncritical, but they also inflamed certain other faculties. To these other faculties his befogged mind gave quick response. To Hell with the tramcar, papers or no papers, pink or blue. Also, although not quite so emphatically, he relinquished all thoughts of arriving at the Gare du Nord, and of finding a train to take him home to his province, where his wife lived. The reasons that made him desire his wife, were quite satisfied with the gentle pressure on his arm. Thus it happened that big Maubert, shaggy and dirty and drunk, reeling down the rue de la Gaiete, very suddenly gave up all idea of finding his way to his province in the interior.