From Sea to Sea

Letter VIII

by Rudyard Kipling

Love and let love, and so will I,
But, sweet, for me no more with you,
Not while I live, not though I die.
Good-night, good-bye!

I AM entirely the man about town, and sickness is no word for my sentiments. It began with an idle word in a bar-room. It ended goodness knows where. That the world should hold French, German, and Italian ladies of the Ancient Profession is no great marvel; but it is to one who has lived in India something shocking to meet again Englishwomen in the same sisterhood. When an opulent papa sends his son and heir round the world to enlarge his mind, does he reflect, I wonder, on the places into which the innocent strolls under the guidance of equally inexperienced friends? I am disposed to think that he does not. In the interest of the opulent papa, and from a genuine desire to see what they call Life, with a Capital Hell, I went through Hong-Kong for the space of a night. I am glad that I am not a happy father with a stray son who thinks that he knows all the ropes. Vice must be pretty much the same all the round world over, but if a man wishes to get out of pleasure with it, let him go to HongKong.

‘Of course things are out and away better at ’Frisco,’ said my guide, ‘but we consider this very fair for the Island.’ It was not till a fat person in a black dressing-gown began to squeal demands for horrible stuff called ‘a bottle of wine’ that I began to understand the glory of the situation. I was seeing Life. ‘Life’ is a great thing. It consists in swigging sweet champagne that was stolen from a steward of the P. and O., and exchanging bad words with pale-faced baggages who laugh demnibly without effort and without emotion. The argot of the real ‘chippy ‘(this means man of the world—Anglice, a half-drunk youth with his hat on the back of his head) is not easy to come at. It requires an apprenticeship in America. I stood appalled at the depth and richness of the American language, of which I was privileged to hear a special dialect. There were girls who had been to Leadville and Denver and the wilds of the wilder west, who had acted in minor companies, and who had generally misconducted themselves in a hundred weary ways. They chattered like daws and shovelled down the sickly liquor that made the rooms reek. As long as they talked sensibly things were amusing, but a sufficiency of liquor made the mask drop, and verily they swore by all their gods, chief of whom is Obidicut. Very many men have heard a white woman swear, but some few, and among these I have been, are denied the experience. It is quite a revelation; and if nobody tilts you backwards out of your chair, you can reflect on heaps of things connected with it. So they cursed and they drank and they told tales, sitting in a circle, till I felt that this was really Life and a thing to be quitted if I wished to like it. The young man who knew a thing or two, and gave the girls leave to sell him if they could, was there of course; and the hussies sold him as he stood for all he considered himself worth; and I saw the by-play. Surely the safest way to be fooled is to know everything. Then there was an interlude and some more shrieks and howls, which the generous public took as indicating immense mirth and enjoyment of Life; and I came to yet another establishment, where the landlady lacked the half of her left lung, as a cough betrayed, but was none the less amusing in a dreary way, until she also dropped the mask and the playful jesting began. All the jokes I had heard before at the other place. It is a poor sort of Life that cannot spring one new jest a day. More than ever did the youth cock his hat and explain that he was a real ‘chippy,’ and that there were no flies on him. Any one without a cast-iron head would be ‘real chippy’ next morning after one glass of that sirupy champagne. I understand now why men feel insulted when sweet fizz is offered to them. The second interview closed as the landlady gracefully coughed us into the passage, and so into the healthy, silent streets. She was very ill indeed, and announced that she had but four months more to live.

‘Are we going to hold these dismal levees all through the night?’ I demanded at the fourth house, where I dreaded the repetition of the thrice-told tales.

‘It’s better in ’Frisco. Must amuse the girls a little bit, y’ know. Walk round and wake ’em up. That’s Life. You never saw it in India?’ was the reply.

‘No, thank God, I didn’t. A week of this would make me hang myself,’ I returned, leaning wearily against a door-post. There were very loud sounds of revelry by night here, and the inmates needed no waking up. One of them was recovering from a debauch of three days, and the other was just entering upon the same course. Providence protected me all through. A certain austere beauty of countenance had made every one take me for a doctor or a parson—a qualified parson, I think; and so I was spared many of the more pronounced jokes, and could sit and contemplate the Life that was so sweet. I thought of the Oxonian in Tom and Jerry playing jigs at the spinet,—you have seen the old-fashioned plate?—while Corinthian Tom and Corinthian Kate danced a stately saraband in a little carpeted room. The worst of it was, the women were real women and pretty, and like some people I knew, and when they stopped the insensate racket for a while they were well behaved.

‘Pass for real ladies anywhere,’ said my friend. ‘Aren’t these things well managed?’

Then Corinthian Kate began to bellow for more drinks,—it was three in the morning,—and the current of hideous talk recommenced.

They spoke about themselves as ‘gay.’ This does not look much on paper. To appreciate the full grimness of the sarcasm hear it from their lips amid their own surroundings. I winked with vigour to show that I appreciated Life and was a real chippy, and that upon me, too, there were no flies. There is an intoxication in company that carries a man to excess of mirth; but when a party of four deliberately sit down to drink and swear, the bottom tumbles out of the amusement somehow, and loathing and boredom follow. A night’s reflection has convinced me that there is no hell for these women in another world. They have their own in this Life, and I have been through it a little way. Still carrying the brevet rank of doctor, it was my duty to watch through the night to the dawn a patient—gay, toujours gay, remember—quivering on the verge of a complaint called the ‘jumps.’ Corinthian Kate will get hers later on. Her companion, emerging from a heavy drink, was more than enough for me. She was an unmitigated horror, until I lost detestation in genuine pity. The fear of death was upon her for a reason that you shall hear.

‘I say, you say you come from India. Do you know anything about cholera?’

‘A little,’ I answered. The voice of the questioner was cracked and quavering. A long pause.

‘I say, Doctor, what are the symptoms of cholera? A woman died just over the street there last week.’

‘This is pleasant,’ I thought. ‘But I must remember that it is Life.’

‘She died last week—cholera. My God, I tell you she was dead in six hours! I guess I’ll get cholera, too. I can’t, though. Can I? I thought I had it two days ago. It hurt me terribly. I can’t get it, can I? It never attacks people twice, does it? Oh, say it doesn’t and be d—d to you. Doctor, what are the symptoms of cholera?’

I waited till she had detailed her own attack, assured her that these and no others were the symptoms, and—may this be set to my credit—that cholera never attacked twice. This soothed her for ten minutes. Then she sprang up with an oath and shrieked:—

‘I won’t be buried in Hong-Kong. That frightens me. When I die—of cholera—take me to ’Frisco and bury me there. In ’Frisco—Lone Mountain ’Frisco—you hear, Doctor?’

I heard and promised. Outside the birds were beginning to twitter, and the dawn was pencilling the shutters.

‘I say, Doctor, did you ever know Cora Pearl?’

‘Knew of her.’ I wondered whether she was going to walk round the room to all eternity with her eyes glaring at the ceiling and her hands twisting and untwisting one within the other.

‘Well,’ she began, in an impressive whisper, ‘it was young Duval shot himself on her mat, and made a bloody mess there. I mean real bloody. You don’t carry a pistol, Doctor? Savile did. You didn’t know Savile. He was my husband in the States. But I’m English, pure English. That’s what I am. Let’s have a bottle of wine, I’m so nervous. Not good for me? What the—No, you’re a doctor. You know what’s good against cholera. Tell me! Tell me.’

She crossed to the shutters and stared out, her hand upon the bolt, and the bolt clacked against the wood because of the tremulous hand.

‘I tell you Corinthian Kate’s drunk—full as she can hold. She’s always drinking. Did you ever see my shoulder—these two marks on it? They were given me by a man—a gentleman—the night before last. I didn’t fall against any furniture. He struck me with his cane twice, the beast, the beast, the beast! If I had been full, I’d have knocked the dust out of him. The beast! But I only went into the verandah and cried fit to break my heart. Oh, the beast!’

She paced the room, chafing her shoulder and crooning over it as though it were an animal. Then she swore at the man. Then she fell into a sort of stupor, but moaned and swore at the man in her sleep, and wailed for her amah to come and dress her shoulder.

Asleep she was not unlovely, but the mouth twitched and the body was shaken with shiverings, and there was no peace in her at all. Daylight showed her purple-eyed, slack-cheeked, and staring, racked with a headache and the nervous twitches. Indeed I was seeing Life; but it did not amuse me, for I felt that I, though I only made capital of her extreme woe, was guilty equally with the rest of my kind that had brought her here.

Then she told lies. At least I was informed that they were lies later on by the real man of the world. They related to herself and her people, and if untrue must have been motiveless, for all was sordid and sorrowful, though she tried to gild the page with a book of photos which linked her to her past. Not being a man of the world, I prefer to believe that the tales were true, and thank her for the honour she did me in the telling.

I had fancied that the house had nothing sadder to show me than her face. Here was I wrong. Corinthian Kate had really been drinking, and rose up reeling drunk, which is an awful thing to witness, and makes one’s head ache sympathetically. Something had gone wrong in the slatternly menage where the plated tea-services were mixed with cheap china; and the household was being called to account. I watched her clutching the mosquito-net for support, a horror and an offence in the eye of the guiltless day. I heard her swear in a thick, sodden voice as I have never yet heard a man swear, and I marvelled that the house did not thunder in on our heads. Her companion interposed, but was borne down by a torrent of blasphemy, and the half a dozen little dogs that infested the room removed themselves beyond reach of Corinthian Kate’s hand or foot. That she was a handsome woman only made the matter worse. The companion collapsed shivering on one of the couches, and Kate swayed to and fro and cursed God and man and earth and heaven with puffed lips. If Alma-Tadema could have painted her,—an arrangement in white, black hair, flashing eyes, and bare feet,—we should have seen the true likeness of the Eternal Priestess of Humanity. Or she would have been better drawn when the passion was over, tottering across the room, a champagne glass held high above her head, shouting, at ten o’clock in the morning, for some more of the infamous brewage that was even then poisoning the air of the whole house. She got her liquor, and the two women sat down to share it together. That was their breakfast.

I went away very sick and miserable, and as the door closed I saw the two drinking.

‘Out and away better is ’Frisco,’ said the real ‘chippy ‘one. ‘But you see they are awfully nice—could pass for ladies any time they like. I tell you a man has to go round and keep his eyes open among them when he’s seeing a little sporting life.’

I have seen all that I wish to see, and henceforward I will pass. There may be better champagne and better drinkers in ’Frisco and elsewhere, but the talk will be the same, and the mouldiness and staleness of it all will be the same till the end of time. If this be Life give me a little honest death, without drinks and without foul jesting. Any way you look at it ’tis a poor performance, badly played, and too near to a tragedy to be pleasant. But it seems to amuse the young man wandering about the world, and I cannot believe that it is altogether good for him—unless, indeed, it makes him fonder of his home.

And mine was the greater sin. I was driven by no gust of passion, but went in cold blood to make my account of this Inferno, and to measure the measureless miseries of life. For the wholly insignificant sum of thirty dollars I had purchased information and disgust more than I required, and the right to look after a woman half crazed with drink and fear the third part of a terrible night. Mine was the greater sin.

When we stepped back into the world I was glad that the fog stood between myself and the heaven above.