From Sea to Sea

Letter VI

by Rudyard Kipling

We are not divided,
All one body we—
One in hope and doctrine,
One in Charity.

WHEN one comes to a new station the first thing to do is to call on the inhabitants. This duty I had neglected, preferring to consort with Chinese till the Sabbath, when I learnt that Singapur went to the Botanical Gardens and listened to secular music.

All the Englishmen in the island congregated there. The Botanical Gardens would have been lovely at Kew, but here, where one knew that they were the only place of recreation open to the inhabitants, they were not pleasant. All the plants of all the tropics grew there together, and the orchid-house was roofed with thin battens of wood—just enough to keep off the direct rays of the sun. It held waxy-white splendours from Manila, the Philippines, and tropical Africa—plants that were half-slugs, drawing nourishment apparently from their own wooden labels; but there was no difference between the temperature of the orchid-house and the open air; both were heavy, dank, and steaming. I would have given a month’s pay—but I have no month’s pay!—for a clear breath of stifling hot wind from the sands of Sirsa, for the darkness of a Punjab dust-storm, in exchange for the perspiring plants, and the tree-fern that sweated audibly.

Just when I was most impressed with my measureless distance from India, my carriage advanced to the sound of slow music, and I found myself in the middle of an Indian station—not quite as big as Allahabad, and infinitely prettier than Lucknow. It overlooked the gardens that sloped in ridge and hollow below; and the barracks were set in much greenery, and there was a mess-house that suggested long and cooling drinks, and there walked round about a British band. It was just We Our Noble Selves. In the centre was the pretty Memsahib with light hair and fascinating manners, and the plump little Memsahib that talks to everybody and is in everybody’s confidence, and the spinster fresh from home, and the bean-fed, well-groomed subaltern with the light coat and fox-terrier. On the benches sat the fat colonel, and the large judge, and the engineer’s wife, and the merchant-man and his family after their kind—male and female met I them, and but for the little fact that they were entire strangers to me, I would have saluted them all as old friends. I knew what they were talking about, could see them taking stock of one another’s dresses out of the corners of their eyes, could see the young men backing and filling across the ground in order to walk with the young maidens, and could hear the ‘Do you think so’s ‘and ‘Not realty’s’ of our polite conversation. It is an awful thing to sit in a hired carriage and watch one’s own people, and know that though you know their life, you have neither part nor lot in it.

I am a shadow now; alas! alas!
Upon the skirts of human nature dwelling,

I said mournfully to the Professor. He was looking at Mrs. ——, or some one so like her that it came to the same thing. ‘Am I travelling round the world to discover these people?’ said he. ‘I’ve seen ’em all before. There’s Captain Such-an-one and Colonel Such-another and Miss What’s-itsname as large as life and twice as pale.’

The Professor had hit it. That was the difference. People in Singapur are dead-white—as white as Naaman—and the veins on the backs of their hands are painted in indigo.

It is as though the Rains were just over, and none of the womenfolk had been allowed to go to the hills. Yet no one talks about the unhealthiness of Singapur. A man lives well and happily until he begins to feel unwell. Then he feels worse because the climate allows him no chance of pulling himself together—and then he dies. Typhoid fever appears to be one gate of death, as it is in India; also liver. The nicest thing in the civil station which lies, of course, far from the native town, and boasts pretty little bungalows—is Thomas—dear, white-robed, swaggering, smoking, swearing Thomas Atkins the unchangeable, who listens to the band and wanders down the bazaars, and slings the unmentionable adjective about the palm trees exactly as though he were in Mian Mir. The 58th (Northamptonshire) live in these parts; so Singapur is quite safe, you see.

Nobody would speak to me in the gardens, though I felt that they ought to have invited me to drink, and I crept back to my hotel to eat six different fresh chutnies with one curry.

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I want to go Home! I want to go back to India! I am miserable. The steamship Nawab at this time of the year ought to have been empty, instead of which we have one hundred first-class passengers and sixty-six second. All the pretty girls are in the latter class. Something must have happened at Colombo—two steamers must have clashed. We have the results of the collision, and we are a menagerie. The captain says that there ought to have been only ten or twelve passengers by rights, and had the rush been anticipated, a larger steamer would have been provided. Personally, I consider that half our shipmates ought to be thrown overboard. They are only travelling round the world for pleasure, and that sort of dissipation leads to the forming of hasty and intemperate opinions. Anyhow, give me freedom and the cockroaches of the British India, where we dined on deck, altered the hours of the meals by plebiscite, and were lords of all we saw. You know the chain-gang regulations of the P. and O.: how you must approach the captain standing on your head with your feet waving reverently; how you must crawl into the presence of the chief steward on your belly and call him Thrice-Puissant Bottlewasher; how you must not smoke abaft the sheep-pens; must not stand in the companion; must put on a clean coat when the ship’s library is opened; and, crowning injustice, must order your drinks for tiffin and dinner one meal in advance? How can a man full of Pilsener beer reach that keen-set state of quiescence needful for ordering his dinner liquor? This shows ignorance of human nature. The P. and O. want healthy competition. They call their captains commanders and act as though ’twere a favour to allow you to embark. Again, freedom and the British India for ever, and down with the comforts of a coolie-ship and the prices of a palace!

There are about thirty women on board, and I have been watching with a certain amount of indignation their concerted attempt at killing the stewardess,—a delicate and sweet-mannered lady. I think they will accomplish their end. The saloon is ninety feet long, and the stewardess runs up and down it for nine hours a day. In her intervals of relaxation she carries cups of beef-tea to the frail sylphs who cannot exist without food between 9 A.M. and 1 P.M. This morning she advanced to me and said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world: ‘Shall I take away your tea-cup, sir?’ She was a real white woman, and the saloon was full of hulking, halfbred Portuguese. One young Englishman let her take his cup, and actually did not turn round when he handed it! This is awful, and teaches me, as nothing else has done, how far I am from the blessed East. She (the stewardess) talks standing up, to men who sit down!

We in India are currently supposed to be unkind to our servants. I should very much like to see a sweeper doing one-half of the work these strapping white matrons and maids exact from their sister. They make her carry things about and don’t even say, ‘Thank you.’ She has no name, and if you bawl, ‘Stewardess,’ she is bound to come. Isn’t it degrading?

But the real reason of my wish to return is because I have met a lump of Chicago Jews and am afraid that I shall meet many more. The ship is full of Americans, but the American-German-Jew boy is the most awful of all. One of them has money, and wanders from bow to stern asking strangers to drink, bossing lotteries on the run, and committing other atrocities. It is currently reported that he is dying. Unfortunately he does not die quickly enough.

But the real monstrosity of the ship is an American who is not quite grown up. I cannot call it a boy, though officially it is only eight, wears a striped jacket, and eats with the children. It has the wearied appearance of an infant monkey—there are lines round its mouth and under its eyebrows. When it has nothing else to do it will answer to the name of Albert. It has been two years on the continuous travel; has spent a month in India; has seen Constantinople, Tripoli, Spain; has lived in tents and on horseback for thirty days and thirty nights, as it was careful to inform me; and has exhausted the round of this world’s delights. There is no flesh on its bones, and it lives in the smoking-room financing the arrangements of the daily lottery. I was afraid of it, but it followed me, and in a level expressionless voice began to tell me how lotteries were constructed. When I protested that I knew, it continued without regarding the interruption, and finally, as a reward for my patience, volunteered to give me the names and idiosyncrasies of all on board. Then it vanished through the smoking-room window because the door was only eight feet high, and therefore too narrow for that bulk of abnormal experiences. On certain subjects it was partly better informed than I; on others it displayed the infinite credulity of a two-year-old. But the wearied eyes were ever the same. They will be the same when it is fifty. I was more sorry for it than I could say. All its reminiscences had got jumbled, and incidents of Spain were baled into Turkey and India. Some day a schoolmaster will get hold of it and try to educate it, and I should dearly like to see at which end he will begin. The head is too full already and the—the other part does not exist. Albert is, I presume, but an ordinary American child. He was to me a revelation. Now I want to see a little American girl—but not now—not just now. My nerves are shattered by the Jews and Albert; and unless they recover their tone I shall turn back at Yokohama.