An Epic In Yellow by Gilbert Parker

Story type: Literature

There was a culminating growth of irritation on board the Merrie Monarch. The Captain was markedly fitful and, to a layman’s eye, unreliable at the helm; the Hon. Skye Terryer was smoking violently, and the Newspaper Correspondent–representing an American syndicate–chewed his cigar in silence.

“Yes,” Gregson, the Member of Parliament, continued, “if I had my way I’d muster every mob of Chinamen in Australia, I’d have one thundering big roundup, and into the Pacific and the Indian Sea they’d go, to the crack of a stock-whip or of something more convincing.” The Hon. Skye Terryer was in agreement with the Squatting Member in the principle of his argument if not in the violence of his remedies. He was a young travelling Englishman; one of that class who are Radicals at twenty, Independents at thirty, and Conservatives at forty. He had not yet reached the intermediate stage. He saw in this madcap Radical Member one of the crude but strong expressions of advanced civilisation. He had the noble ideal of Australia as a land trodden only by the Caucasian. The Correspondent, much to our surprise, had by occasional interjections at the beginning of the discussion showed that he was not antipathetic to Mongolian immigration. The Captain?

“Yes, I’d give ’em Botany Bay, my word!” added the Member as an anti-climax.

The Captain let go the helm with a suddenness which took our breath away, apparently regardless that we were going straight as an arrow on the Island of Pentecost, the shore of which, in its topaz and emerald tints, was pretty enough to look at but not to attack, end on. He pushed both hands down deep into his pockets and squared himself for war.

“Gregson,” he said, “that kind of talk may be good enough for Parliament and for labour meetings, but it is not proper diet for the Merrie Monarch. It’s a kind of political gospel that’s no better than the creed of the Malay who runs amuck. God’s Providence–where would your Port Darwin Country have been without the Chinaman? What would have come to tropical agriculture in North Queensland if it had not been for the same? And what would all your cities do for vegetables to eat and clean shirts to their backs if it was not for the Chinkie? As for their morals, look at the police records of any well-regulated city where they are–well-regulated, mind you, not like San Francisco! I pity the morals of a man and the stupidity of him and the benightedness of him that would drive the Chinaman out at the point of the bayonet or by the crack of a rifle. I pity that man, and–and I wash my hands of him.”

And having said all this with a strong Scotch accent the Captain opportunely turned to his duty and prevented us from trying conclusions with the walls of a precipice, over which fell silver streams of water like giant ropes up which the Naiads might climb to the balmy enclosures where the Dryads dwelt. The beauty of the scene was but a mechanical impression, to be remembered afterward when thousands of miles away, for the American Correspondent now at last lit his cigar and took up the strain.

“Say, the Captain’s right,” he said. “You English are awful prigs and hypocrites, politically; as selfish a lot as you’ll find on the face of the globe. But in this matter of the Chinaman there isn’t any difference between a man from Oregon and one from Sydney, only the Oregonian isn’t a prig and a hypocrite; he’s only a brute, a bragging, hard-handed brute. He got the Chinaman to build his railways–he couldn’t get any other race to do it–same fix as the planter in North Queensland with the Polynesian; and to serve him in pioneer times and open up the country, and when that was done he turns round and says: ‘Out you go, you Chinkie–out you go and out you stay! We’re going to reap this harvest all alone; we’re going to Chicago you clean off the table!’ And Washington, the Home of Freedom and Tammany Tigers, shoves a prohibitive Bill through the Legislature, as Parkes did in Sydney; only Parkes talked a lot of Sunday-school business about the solidarity of the British race, and Australia for the Australians, and all that patter; and the Oregonian showed his dirty palm of selfishness straight out, and didn’t blush either. ‘Give ’em Botany Bay! Give’em the stock-whip and the rifle!’ That’s a nice gospel for the Anglo-Saxon dispensation.”

The suddenness of the attack overwhelmed the Member, but he was choking with wrath. Had he not stone-walled in the New South Wales Parliament for nine hours, and been placed on a Royal Commission for that service? “My word!” But the box of cigars was here amiably passed, and what seemed like a series of international complications was stayed. It was perhaps fortunate, however, that at this moment a new interest sprang up. We were rounding a lofty headland crowned with groves of cocoa-palms and bananas and with trailing skirts of flowers and vines, when we saw ahead of us a pretty little bay, and on the shore a human being plainly not a Polynesian. Up the hillside that rose suddenly from the beach was a thatched dwelling, not built open all round like most native houses, and apparently having but one doorway. In front of the house, and near it, was a tall staff, and on the staff the British Flag.

In a moment we, too, had the British Flag flying at our mast-head.

Long ago I ceased to wonder at coincidences, still I confess I was scarcely prepared for the Correspondent’s exclamation, as, taking the marine glass from his eyes, he said: “Well, I’m decalogued if it ain’t a Chinaman!”

It certainly was so. Here on the Island of Pentecost, in the New Hebrides, was a Celestial washing clothes on the beach as much at home as though he were in Tacoma or Cooktown. The Member’s “My oath!” Skye Terryer’s “Ah!” and the Captain’s chuckle were as weighty with importance as though the whole question of Chinese immigration were now to be settled. As we hove-to and dropped anchor, a boat was pushed out into the surf by a man who had hurriedly come down the beach from the house. In a moment or two he was alongside. An English face and an English voice greeted us, and in the doorway of the house were an English woman and her child.

What pleasure this meeting gave to us and to the trader–for such he was, those only can know who have sailed these Southern Seas through long and nerveless tropic days, and have lived, as this man did with his wife and child, for months never seeing a white face, and ever in danger of an attack from cannibal tribes, who, when apparently most disposed to amity, are really planning a massacre. Yet with that instinct of gain so strong in the Anglo-Saxon, this trader had dared the worst for the chance of making money quickly and plentifully by the sale of copra to occasional vessels. The Chinaman had come with the trader from Queensland, and we were assured was “as good as gold.” If colour counted, he looked it. At this the pro-Mongolian magnanimously forbore to show any signs of triumph. The Correspondent, on the contrary, turned to the Chinaman and began chaffing him; he continued it as the others, save myself, passed on towards the house.

This was the close of the dialogue: “Well, John, how are you getting on?”

“Welly good,” was John’s reply; “thirletty dollars a month, and learn the plan of salvation.”

The Correspondent laughed.

“Well, you good Englishman, John? You like British flag? You fight?”

And John, blinking jaundicely, replied: “John allee samee Linglishman-muchee fightee blimeby–nigger no eatee China boy;” and he chuckled.

A day and a night we lingered in the little Bay of Vivi, and then we left it behind; each of us, however, watching till we could see the house on the hillside and the flag no longer, and one at least wondering if that secret passage into the hills from the palm-thatched home would ever be used as the white dwellers fled for their lives.

We had promised that, if we came near Pentecost again on our cruise, we would spend another idle day in the pretty bay. Two months passed and then we kept our word. As we rounded the lofty headland the Correspondent said: “Say, I’m hankering after that baby!” But the Captain at the moment hoarsely cried: “God’s love! but where are the house and the flag?”

There was no house and there was no flag above the Bay of Vivi.

Ten minutes afterwards we stood beside the flag-staff, and at our feet lay a moaning, mangled figure. It was the Chinaman, and over his gashed misery were drawn the folds of the flag that had flown on the staff. What horror we feared for those who were not to be seen needs no telling here.

As for the Chinaman, it was as he said; the cannibals would not “eatee Chinee boy.” They were fastidious. They had left him, disdaining even to take his head for a trophy.

Hours after, on board the Merrie Monarch, we learned in fragments the sad story. It was John Chinaman that covered the retreat of the wife and child into the hills when the husband had fallen.

The last words that the dying Chinkie said were these: “Blitish flag wellee good thing keepee China boy walm; plentee good thing China boy sleepee in all a-time.”

So it was. With rude rites and reverent hands, we lowered him to the deep from the decks of the Merrie Monarch, and round him was that flag under which he had fought for English woman and English child so valorously.

“And he went like a warrior into his rest
With the Union Jack around him.”

That was the paraphrasing epitaph the Correspondent wrote for him in the pretty Bay of Vivi, and when he read it, we all drank in silence to the memory of “a Chinkie.”

We found the mother and the child on the other side of the island ere a week had passed, and bore them away in safety. They speak to-day of a member of a despised race, as one who showed

“The constant service of the antique world.”