HE was an Irish sailor. He deserted his ship at Hong-Kong and took it into his head to walk across China. He spent three years wandering about the country, and soon acquired a very good knowledge of Chinese. He learned it, as is common among men of his class, with greater ease than do the more highly educated. He lived on his wits. He made a point of avoiding the British Consul, but went to the magistrate of each town he came to and represented himself as having been robbed on the way of all his money. His story was not improbable and it was told with a wealth of convincing detail which would have excited the admiration of so great a master as Captain Costigan. The magistrate, after the Chinese fashion, was anxious to get rid of him and was glad to do so at the cost of ten or fifteen dollars. If he could get no money he could generally count on a place to sleep in and a good meal. He had a certain rough humour which appealed to the Chinese. So he continued very successfully till he hit by misfortune on a magistrate of a different stamp. This man when he told his story said to him:
“You are nothing but a beggar and a vagabond. You must be beaten.”
He gave an order and the fellow was promptly taken out, thrown on the ground, and soundly thrashed. He was not only very much hurt, but exceedingly surprised, and what is more strangely mortified. It ruined his nerve. There and then he gave up his vagrant life and making his way to one of the out-ports applied to the commissioner of customs for a place as tide-waiter. It is not easy to find white men to take such posts and few questions are asked of those who seek them. He was given a job and you may see him now, a sun-burned, clean-shaven man of forty-five, florid and rather stout, in a neat blue uniform, boarding the steamers and the junks at a little riverside town, where the deputy-commissioner, the postmaster, a missionary, and he are the only Europeans. His knowledge of the Chinese and their ways makes him an invaluable servant. He has a little yellow wife and four children. He has no shame about his past and over a good stiff whisky he will tell you the whole story of his adventurous travels. But the beating is what he can never get over. It surprises him yet and he cannot, he simply cannot understand it. He has no ill-feeling towards the magistrate who ordered it; on the contrary it appeals to his sense of humour.
“He was a great old sportsman, the old blackguard,” he says. “Nerve, eh?”
W. Somerset Maugham: On A Chinese Screen, 1922
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