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Chapter 4


OUR OVERSEAS MEN


All things considered, there are only two kinds of men in the
world--those that stay at home and those that do not. The second are the
most interesting. Some day a man will bethink himself and write a book
about the breed in a book called 'The Book of the Overseas Club,' for it
is at the clubhouses all the way from Aden to Yokohama that the life of
the Outside Men is best seen and their talk is best heard. A strong
family likeness runs through both buildings and members, and a large and
careless hospitality is the note. There is always the same open-doored,
high-ceiled house, with matting on the floors; the same come and go of
dark-skinned servants, and the same assembly of men talking horse or
business, in raiment that would fatally scandalise a London committee,
among files of newspapers from a fortnight to five weeks old. The life
of the Outside Men includes plenty of sunshine, and as much air as may
be stirring. At the Cape, where the Dutch housewives distil and sell the
very potent Vanderhum, and the absurd home-made hansom cabs waddle up
and down the yellow dust of Adderley Street, are the members of the big
import and export firms, the shipping and insurance offices, inventors
of mines, and exploiters of new territories with now and then an officer
strayed from India to buy mules for the Government, a Government House
aide-de-camp, a sprinkling of the officers of the garrison, tanned
skippers of the Union and Castle Lines, and naval men from the squadron
at Simon's Town. Here they talk of the sins of Cecil Rhodes, the
insolence of Natal, the beauties or otherwise of the solid Boer vote,
and the dates of the steamers. The _argot_ is Dutch and Kaffir, and
every one can hum the national anthem that begins 'Pack your kit and
trek, Johnny Bowlegs.' In the stately Hongkong Clubhouse, which is to
the further what the Bengal Club is to the nearer East, you meet much
the same gathering, _minus_ the mining speculators and _plus_ men whose
talk is of tea, silk, shortings, and Shanghai ponies. The speech of the
Outside Men at this point becomes fearfully mixed with pidgin-English
and local Chinese terms, rounded with corrupt Portuguese. At Melbourne,
in a long verandah giving on a grass plot, where laughing-jackasses
laugh very horribly, sit wool-kings, premiers, and breeders of horses
after their kind. The older men talk of the days of the Eureka Stockade
and the younger of 'shearing wars' in North Queensland, while the
traveller moves timidly among them wondering what under the world every
third word means. At Wellington, overlooking the harbour (all
right-minded clubs should command the sea), another, and yet a like,
sort of men speak of sheep, the rabbits, the land-courts, and the
ancient heresies of Sir Julius Vogel; and their more expressive
sentences borrow from the Maori. And elsewhere, and elsewhere, and
elsewhere among the Outside Men it is the same--the same mixture of
every trade, calling, and profession under the sun; the same clash of
conflicting interests touching the uttermost parts of the earth; the
same intimate, and sometimes appalling knowledge of your neighbour's
business and shortcomings; the same large-palmed hospitality, and the
same interest on the part of the, younger men in the legs of a horse.
Decidedly, it is at the Overseas Club all the world over that you get to
know some little of the life of the community. London is egoistical, and
the world for her ends with the four-mile cab radius. There is no
provincialism like the provincialism of London. That big slack-water
coated with the drift and rubbish of a thousand men's thoughts esteems
itself the open sea because the waves of all the oceans break on her
borders. To those in her midst she is terribly imposing, but they forget
that there is more than one kind of imposition. Look back upon her from
ten thousand miles, when the mail is just in at the Overseas Club, and
she is wondrous tiny. Nine-tenths of her news--so vital, so epoch-making
over there--loses its significance, and the rest is as the scuffling of
ghosts in a back-attic.

Here in Yokohama the Overseas Club has two mails and four sets of
papers--English, French, German, and American, as suits the variety of
its constitution--and the verandah by the sea, where the big telescope
stands, is a perpetual feast of the Pentecost. The population of the
club changes with each steamer in harbour, for the sea-captains swing
in, are met with 'Hello! where did you come from?' and mix at the bar
and billiard-tables for their appointed time and go to sea again. The
white-painted warships supply their contingent of members also, and
there are wonderful men, mines of most fascinating adventure, who have
an interest in sealing-brigs that go to the Kurile Islands, and somehow
get into trouble with the Russian authorities. Consuls and judges of the
Consular Courts meet men over on leave from the China ports, or it may
be Manila, and they all talk tea, silk, banking, and exchange with its
fixed residents. Everything is always as bad as it can possibly be, and
everybody is on the verge of ruin. That is why, when they have decided
that life is no longer worth living, they go down to the
skittle-alley--to commit suicide. From the outside, when a cool wind
blows among the papers and there is a sound of smashing ice in an inner
apartment, and every third man is talking about the approaching races,
the life seems to be a desirable one. 'What more could a man need to
make him happy?' says the passer-by. A perfect climate, a lovely
country, plenty of pleasant society, and the politest people on earth to
deal with. The resident smiles and invites the passer-by to stay through
July and August. Further, he presses him to do business with the
politest people on earth, and to continue so doing for a term of years.
Thus the traveller perceives beyond doubt that the resident is
prejudiced by the very fact of his residence, and gives it as his
matured opinion that Japan is a faultless land, marred only by the
presence of the foreign community. And yet, let us consider. It is the
foreign community that has made it possible for the traveller to come
and go from hotel to hotel, to get his passport for inland travel, to
telegraph his safe arrival to anxious friends, and generally enjoy
himself much more than he would have been able to do in his own country.
Government and gunboats may open a land, but it is the men of the
Overseas Club that keep it open. Their reward (not alone in Japan) is
the bland patronage or the scarcely-veiled contempt of those who profit
by their labours. It is hopeless to explain to a traveller who has been
'ohayoed' into half-a-dozen shops and 'sayonaraed' out of half-a-dozen
more and politely cheated in each one, that the Japanese is an Oriental,
and, therefore, embarrassingly economical of the truth. 'That's his
politeness,' says the traveller. 'He does not wish to hurt your
feelings. Love him and treat him like a brother, and he'll change.' To
treat one of the most secretive of races on a brotherly basis is not
very easy, and the natural politeness that enters into a signed and
sealed contract and undulates out of it so soon as it does not
sufficiently pay is more than embarrassing. It is almost annoying. The
want of fixity or commercial honour may be due to some natural infirmity
of the artistic temperament, or to the manner in which the climate has
affected, and his ruler has ruled, the man himself for untold centuries.

Those who know the East know, where the system of 'squeeze,' which is
commission, runs through every transaction of life, from the sale of a
groom's place upward, where the woman walks behind the man in the
streets, and where the peasant gives you for the distance to the next
town as many or as few miles as he thinks you will like, that these
things must be so. Those who do not know will not be persuaded till they
have lived there. The Overseas Club puts up its collective nose
scornfully when it hears of the New and Regenerate Japan sprung to life
since the 'seventies. It grins, with shame be it written, at an Imperial
Diet modelled on the German plan and a Code Napoléon à la Japonaise. It
is so far behind the New Era as to doubt that an Oriental country,
ridden by etiquette of the sternest, and social distinctions almost as
hard as those of caste, can be turned out to Western gauge in the
compass of a very young man's fife. And it _must_ be prejudiced, because
it is daily and hourly in contact with the Japanese, except when it can
do business with the Chinaman whom it prefers. Was there ever so
disgraceful a club!

Just at present, a crisis, full blown as a chrysanthemum, has developed
in the Imperial Diet. Both Houses accuse the Government of improper
interference--this Japanese for 'plenty stick and some bank-note'--at
the recent elections. They then did what was equivalent to passing a
vote of censure on the Ministry and refusing to vote government
measures. So far the wildest advocate of representative government could
have desired nothing better. Afterwards, things took a distinctly
Oriental turn. The Ministry refused to resign, and the Mikado prorogued
the Diet for a week to think things over. The Japanese papers are now at
issue over the event. Some say that representative government implies
party government, and others swear at large. The Overseas Club says for
the most part--'Skittles!'

It is a picturesque situation--one that suggests romances and
extravaganzas. Thus, imagine a dreaming Court intrenched behind a triple
line of moats where the lotus blooms in summer--a Court whose outer
fringe is aggressively European, but whose heart is Japan of long ago,
where a dreaming King sits among some wives or other things, amused from
time to time with magic-lantern shows and performing fleas--a holy King
whose sanctity is used to conjure with, and who twice a year gives
garden-parties where every one must come in top-hat and frock coat.
Round this Court, wavering between the splendours of the sleeping and
the variety shows of the Crystal Palace, place in furious but
carefully-veiled antagonism the fragments of newly shattered castes,
their natural Oriental eccentricities overlaid with borrowed Western
notions. Imagine now, a large and hungry bureaucracy, French in its
fretful insistence on detail where detail is of no earthly moment,
Oriental in its stress on etiquette and punctillo, recruited from a
military caste accustomed for ages past to despise alike farmer and
trader. This caste, we will suppose, is more or less imperfectly
controlled by a syndicate of three clans, which supply their own
nominees to the Ministry. These are adroit, versatile, and unscrupulous
men, hampered by no western prejudice in favour of carrying any plan to
completion. Through and at the bidding of these men, the holy Monarch
acts; and the acts are wonderful. To criticise these acts exists a
wild-cat Press, liable to suppression at any moment, as morbidly
sensitive to outside criticism as the American, and almost as childishly
untruthful, fungoid in the swiftness of its growth, and pitiable in its
unseasoned rashness. Backers of this press in its wilder moments,
lawless, ignorant, sensitive and vain, are the student class, educated
in the main at Government expense, and a thorn in the side of the State.
Judges without training handle laws without precedents, and new measures
are passed and abandoned with almost inconceivable levity. Out of the
welter of classes and interests that are not those of the common folk is
evolved the thing called Japanese policy that has the proportion and the
perspective of a Japanese picture.

Finality and stability are absent from its councils. To-day, for reasons
none can explain, it is pro-foreign to the verge of servility.
To-morrow, for reasons equally obscure, the pendulum swings back,
and--the students are heaving mud at the foreigners in the streets.
Vexatious, irresponsible, incoherent, and, above all, cheaply
mysterious, is the rule of the land--stultified by intrigue and
counter-intrigue, chequered with futile reforms begun on European lines
and light-heartedly thrown aside; studded, as a bower-bird's run is
studded with shells and shining pebbles, with plagiarisms from half the
world--an operetta of administration, wherein the shadow of the King
among his wives, Samurai policemen, doctors who have studied under
Pasteur, kid-gloved cavalry officers from St. Cyr, judges with
University degrees, harlots with fiddles, newspaper correspondents,
masters of the ancient ceremonies of the land, paid members of the Diet,
secret societies that borrow the knife and the dynamite of the Irish,
sons of dispossessed Daimios returned from Europe and waiting for what
may turn up, with ministers of the syndicate who have wrenched Japan
from her repose of twenty years ago, circle, flicker, shift, and reform,
in bewildering rings, round the foreign resident. Is the extravaganza
complete?

Somewhere in the background of the stage are the people of the land--of
whom a very limited proportion enjoy the privileges of representative
government. Whether in the past few years they have learned what the
thing means, or, learning, have the least intention of making any use of
it, is not clear. Meantime, the game of government goes forward as
merrily as a game of puss-in-the-corner, with the additional joy that
not more than half-a-dozen men know who is controlling it or what in
the wide world it intends to do. In Tokio live the steadily-diminishing
staff of Europeans employed by the Emperor as engineers, railway
experts, professors in the colleges and so forth. Before many years they
will all be dispensed with, and the country will set forth among the
nations alone and on its own responsibility.

In fifty years then, from the time that the intrusive American first
broke her peace, Japan will experience her new birth and, reorganised
from sandal to top-knot, play the _samisen_ in the march of modern
progress. This is the great advantage of being born into the New Era,
when individual and community alike can get something for nothing--pay
without work, education without effort, religion' without thought, and
free government without slow and bitter toil.

The Overseas Club, as has been said, is behind the spirit of the age. It
has to work for what it gets, and it does not always get what it works
for. Nor can its members take ship and go home when they please. Imagine
for a little, the contented frame of mind that is bred in a man by the
perpetual contemplation of a harbour full of steamers as a Piccadilly
cab-rank of hansoms. The weather is hot, we will suppose; something has
gone wrong with his work that day, or his children are not looking so
well as might be. Pretty tiled bungalows, bowered in roses and wistaria,
do not console him, and the voices of the politest people on earth jar
sorely. He knows every soul in the club, has thoroughly talked out
every subject of interest, and would give half a year's--oh, five
years'--pay for one lung-filling breath of air that has life in it, one
sniff of the haying grass, or half a mile of muddy London street where
the muffin bell tinkles in the four o'clock fog. Then the big liner
moves out across the staring blue of the bay. So-and-so and such-an-one,
both friends, are going home in her, and some one else goes next week by
the French mail. He, and he alone, it seems to him, must stay on; and it
is so maddeningly easy to go--for every one save himself. The boat's
smoke dies out along the horizon, and he is left alone with the warm
wind and the white dust of the Bund. Now Japan is a good place, a place
that men swear by and live in for thirty years at a stretch. There are
China ports a week's sail to the westward where life is really hard, and
where the sight of the restless shipping hurts very much indeed.
Tourists and you who travel the world over, be very gentle to the men of
the Overseas Clubs. Remember that, unlike yourselves, they have not come
here for the good of their health, and that the return ticket in your
wallet may possibly colour your views of their land. Perhaps it would
not be altogether wise on the strength of much kindness from Japanese
officials to recommend that these your countrymen be handed over lock,
stock, and barrel to a people that are beginning to experiment with
fresh-drafted half-grafted codes which do not include juries, to a
system that does not contemplate a free Press, to a suspicious
absolutism from which there is no appeal. Truly, it might be
interesting, but as surely it would begin in farce and end in tragedy,
that would leave the politest people on earth in no case to play at
civilised government for a long time to come. In his concession, where
he is an apologetic and much sat-upon importation, the foreign resident
does no harm. He does not always sue for money due to him on the part of
a Japanese. Once outside those limits, free to move into the heart of
the country, it would only be a question of time as to where and when
the trouble would begin. And in the long run it would not be the foreign
resident that would suffer. The imaginative eye can see the most
unpleasant possibilities, from a general overrunning of Japan by the
Chinaman, who is far the most important foreign resident, to the
shelling of Tokio by a joyous and bounding Democracy, anxious to
vindicate her national honour and to learn how her newly-made navy
works.

But there are scores of arguments that would confute and overwhelm this
somewhat gloomy view. The statistics of Japan, for instance, are as
beautiful and fit as neatly as the woodwork of her houses. By these it
would be possible to prove anything.


Rudyard Kipling

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