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Mr. and Mrs. Sin Fat

Edward Dyson

MR. SIN FAT arrived in Australia in the year of grace 1870, a poor and friendless man. He entered the great city of Melbourne, a stranger in a strange country, possessed only of a blue dungaree suit that had served him long and faithfully in his distant home, ninepence in coppers, and as much of his fatherland spread over his surface and deposited in the cracks and crannies of his gaunt person as he could conveniently carry.

Sin Fat was not tall and athletic, nor fair to look upon—in truth, he was stunted, and as plain of face as the pottery gods that he had learned to revere at his good mother’s knee. His complexion was so distraught by an uncongenial climate that it possessed less bloom and beauty than the inside of a sun-dried lambskin; his features were turned and twisted and pulled awry till they resembled excrescences and indentations on a pie-melon, and his lank, lean limbs were mute evidence of a life of privation and toil. In point of fact, Sin Fat was so ungainly and so sparing of personal attractions at this period of his existence that his homely visage soon became the theme of popular comment, and “ugly as Sin” is an aphorism which will survive as long as the English language is spoken.

The humble immigrant paid no poll-tax; he was a duly certified subject of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, towards whose throne and person he possessed an ardent and undying affection, as he told the Customs officer in mutilated English and accents tremulous and low. For Sin was by nature bashful and conciliatory, his tones were unctuous, and his humble carriage excited the derision of a distempered and woe-worn dog which had its habitat amongst the lumber on the wharf—a vagrant, craven mongrel, that lived in a perpetual state of cringe, yet which assumed something of dignity in the presence of a still meaner creature, and boldly pursued Sin Fat as he ambled away, and assailed him in the rearmost parts of his frame. But the lowly foreigner continued on his road with downcast eyes and an expression of religious meekness, till, as if guided by instinct or the power of affinity, he slunk into that nest of pestilence between Little Bourke and Lonsdale streets, and was lost amongst the hordes which there do congregate.

Fifteen years ago the Chinese Camp at Ballarat East was a large and populous suburb. Thousands of prosperous, but unkempt and wasted, disciples of Confucius lodged in a nest of tottering, vermin-ravaged, smoke-begrimed hovels, of which no independent hog would accept a protracted tenure. The area extending from the main road to back beyond the old Llanberris was almost covered with the broken-backed tenements of squalid, immoral heathens, who followed various light and remunerative callings—peddling tea, gimcrack fancy goods, and moonstruck fish; fossicking on the Yarrowee and Black Hill flats; or prowling round with a pair of shabby baskets strung on a stick, collecting rags, bones, and bottles, or any movable items of intrinsic value which could be reached through the fence when the proprietor’s attention was otherwise engaged, and each and all supplementing their income by deeply-planned nocturnal raids on distant poultry yards, fruit farms, wood-heaps, or sluice-boxes. A couple of serpentine streets, inhabited by grimy pagans, still remain, but the majority of the Chows have migrated to other diggings, some have returned to the homes of their childhood, and some have gone to heaven. The staggering shanties which still remain are a good sample of the sties that littered the flat in ’73—decrepid dens, reaching away in all directions for something to lean against, indented on one side, bulged on the other—compiled of logs, stones, palings flattened tins and battered pans, and roofed with sugar-mats. The common Chinaman glories in these little snug cries. When by some chance he becomes possessed of a home with a respectable exterior he straightway hews a hole in the roof, boards up the windows with borrowed planks, and disfigures the front with scraps of tin and old battens—whether in accordance with a perverted taste or out of a guileful desire to mislead the tax-assessor is beyond Caucasian comprehension.

It was evening, after a day hot enough to blister the ear of an elephant. Sin Fat’s work was done, and he jogged homewards along a little side-street in Ballarat East. He bore the orthodox Chinese baskets, a pair which had evidently been in active business for some considerable time, and, judging from the hooked stick in his hand and the grateful aroma of old bones and such things which clung to him like a brother, Sin was following the calling of a “Rag John.” S. Fat, as we now see him with the eye of faith, is physically much improved since he landed in Australia; he does not appear to have missed meals so regularly of late, and his predatory success has lent him an air of confidence and self-esteem, though he smiles with his old deference and still clings with superstitious awe to the dirt of his fatherland, now cemented by grit of Australian origin.

Our hero has disposed of his day’s collection of rags and rottenness, gleaned from the gutters and rubbish-heaps of the city, at a local marine-store, and he now hies him to his humble home and merited repose. But he is not lost to a sense of duty; his ever-watchful eye is open to detect an opportunity, however trifling, of increasing his diurnal income, and when he espies a goose, obese and matronly, making frantic endeavours to squeeze her portly form through a small aperture in a fowl-house behind a private residence, his soul is instantly fired with a desire to possess her—to call her his own, if only for a few hours.

Sin is a man of action; dropping his baskets, and casting aside all reserve, he enters the yard, and in a moment the well-conditioned bird is in his power. Tucking her under his arm, and stifling her noisy clamours, he turns to vacate the premises; but, alas for his circumspection, the door of the residence opens, and a fat woman, with a baby dangling over one arm, comes out to swear at a neighbour’s boy who is throwing stones at a cat on her roof. She has not noticed the enterprising Mongol, but “he who hesitates is lost,” and Sin’s native wit serves him well. Advancing boldly to the stout female, smiling obsequiously the while, and covering the brands and birth-marks of the goose with his jerkin, he blandly queries:

“Buy em goose, missee? Welly good, welly fat.”

“Naw!” snaps the woman, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Muchee fine goose, welly fat!” persists Sin, coyly smiling.

“Don’t want it; go away!”

“All li; some odder day, eh?” So Sin retreats, still smiling, and as he trots on his way congratulates himself, gibbering aloud in his rapture.

Sin had a bijou villa, built in his spare time from plans and specifications of his own making, and composed of old palings gleaned from neighbouring fences on moonless nights, and multitudinous other scraps and patches which were within the reach of a poor Chinee. The residence was a very comfortable one for summer wear; it had openings to catch the breeze from every point of the compass, and if the rain did come in at the roof—well, it ran out at the sides again. Standing at the front door one commanded an excellent view of a creek, embedded in whose thick yellow clay lay the decomposing remains of many domestic fauna. The house was within two minutes’ walk of a fantan­table and a Joss-house; it abutted on a stagnant pool, and received the balmy westerly breeze as it bounced off a candle-factory. Our hero was content with these few advantages for the time being, but by steady industry and frugality he hoped one day to run a gambling-hell of his own, and move in the best Celestial society in imported wooden boots. Sin was ambitious.

Sin Fat parted with his feathered prize to an epicurean fellow—countryman at a high figure before he reached his humble home. He knew that, had he not done so, Mrs. Sin Fat would have seized the earliest opportunity of converting the bird into square gin. Mrs. Fat was possessed of a deplorable habit of thus transmuting all kinds of personal property into liquor, in consequence of which it was part of her industrious husband’s policy to carefully place all articles readily saleable beyond her reach.

It was dark before Mr. Fat reached his own roof-tree. He groped his way into the parlour, which was also kitchen, bedroom, drawingroom, and outhouse, and lit a candle (candles were another of Mrs. Fat’s extravagances). The glare awoke a woman who was sleeping, sprawling amongst a few filthy rags on a low bunk at one end of the hut. She lifted herself on her hands, and gazed at the Chinaman with stupid, drunken eyes. A great shock of unkempt black hair fell about her sallow face, which, despite the ravages of drink, and that faint, strange Mongolian look which surely comes to the woman who consorts with Chinamen, still possessed something of beauty. Under earlier and more favourable circumstances her eyes had been full, dark, and luminous. Her features were well cut, the nose somewhat aquiline, the mouth large and sensual. A virago surely, with the temper of fifty devils—a woman abandoned to the filth and utter loathsomeness of a Chinese camp. About thirty-four years of age, tall, round with the unnatural obesity of a heavy drinker, intensely hating all about her—aye, and hating herself worse than all as she wallowed in the very dregs and slime of the social system—such was Mrs. Sin Fat.

“Home again, sweetheart!” she muttered. “home again to your true love, my tall, beautiful—Bah, you ugly thief! Get out or I’ll brain you!” And a list of profane ejaculations was smothered as she fell with her face amongst the rags once more, clutching vacantly for the empty bottle wherewith to assault her submissive husband.

This was Sin’s only weakness—this she-fiend, from whose bursts of passion he had often to fly for his life. He had found her one cold, wet night, stretched in the mud at the door of his hovel, and had taken her in. She was haggard, ragged, and so fearfully emaciated that the men turned from her with wry expressions, and this seemed her last chance. She and Sin Fat “got married.” She was possessed of one husband already, a portly Melbourne mechanic, but she had left him and her child years before—left him because he was a “fat old fool,” an opinion based on the fact that he did not kick her down and jump on her with his working boots when she flew into a tantrum. Other men had done this since, and she respected them. Sin fed her up, dressed her well, and then she left him, only to return again, worn with debauchery, to be dressed and fed, and to “clear” once more. She repeated this course several times, and her dutiful lord always received her with open arms; but at length an idea occurred to Sin: he refused to provide fine clothes, and then she stayed with him, and made merry by occasionally cracking his head with a gin-bottle—an empty bottle, of course, for she would rather that her dear lord should escape correction altogether than waste a “nobbler” of her favourite nectar. Sin bore his cross patiently, but it was not affection entirely that restrained him from dropping something unhealthy into her gin. We have said that he was ambitious; he had many plans, and this woman could dress well and ape the lady. He foresaw the time when she would be useful to him.

Sin had no intention of remaining a toiler and moiler all his life. He had done well in the rag-and-bone business, but it was laborious, and our hero had gentlemanly instincts—he wanted to acquire riches and fatty tissue without expending any more of the sweat of his brow than was absolutely necessary, and he but waited to increase his available capital before embarking in business. By a dispensation of Providence, the fulfilment of his laudable ambition was brought about earlier than he expected.

Midnight. The white moon floated low in the eastern sky, and thrust her sheeny beams like sword-blades through the crazy walls of Sin Fat’s home. A tall, willowy cat, with swan-like neck and attenuated frame, bestrode the ridge-pole, and stood black against the pallid orb of night, and lifting up her voice recited her woes to the listening spheres in accents wild and weird. All else was still. The camp lay like a cluster of islands in a lake of light. Sin’s sleep was calm and childlike, and his wife had ceased to toss and breathe half-uttered curses in his deaf ear. The moon rose higher and higher, and the long black shadows slowly folded towards their base. Suddenly and stealthily the ground opened like a yawning giant; Sin Fat’s villa trembled, tottered, and sank quietly into the black abyss, and where it had stood gaped a deep, dark pit—and a dusty cat, with a broken tail and a coat of many colours, tearing madly across the battery sands, seemed to be the only creature that quite realized the extent of the catastrophe. The Chinese camp at Ballarat is situated chiefly over “old ground.” The country has been worked so thoroughly that sections of the earth’s crust often settle down abruptly into the caverns below, accompanied by sundry Mongolian residences, to the exceeding discomfort of their greasy inhabitants.

At break of day the squalid denizens of the camp gathered about the chasm, at the bottom of which lay Mr. and Mrs. Sin Fat buried in the ruins. The Chows appointed a chairman, and discussed the situation with characteristic clamour and gesticulation, finally resolving by a large majority to call in white men to undertake the rescue. When there is work to be done which entails the probability of a broken head or the unearthing of a corpse, the heathen Chinee is sure to have a sore hand or an important engagement at some distance. White men came, and Mr. and Mrs. Sin Fat were fossicked out of the déris, full of dust, old nails, and wooden splinters, but not much the worse for their premature interment. Mrs. Fat thanked her rescuers, as she was hauled up through the roof of the hut, with a few well-chosen objurgations, terminating with a heartfelt wish that they might be instantly consigned to a region where frost and snow are unknown.

Sin stood on the brink of the aperture for some time after the thoughtless herd had dispersed, dolefully surveying the fragments of his late home. His mind was made up at last—he would not build again, he would go into business.

The year 1876 A.D. Little Bourke-street, Melbourne, Sunday morning. On both sides of the narrow thoroughfare were groups of sleek-looking Chinese, arrayed in imported clothes, their hands buried in their long sleeves, debating politics and theology, or more likely cavilling at the absurdly low price of “cabbagee” and “gleen pea,” the conversation occasionally eliciting a shrewd ejaculation from a dun-coloured philosopher a hundred yards off, or from a hoary, half-dressed pagan at a third-story window. They were a fat, comfortable-looking lot, and they aired their Sunday best on a fine Sabbath “allee same Eulopean.” In front of a smoky little shop, possessed of only one window, in which a roast fowl, beautifully browned and highly polished, hung suspended by a string, and served as a roost for half the flies in the lane, was congregated a particularly verbose and noisy crowd, attracted evidently by the brilliant conversational powers of one of their number—a short but enormously fat “John,” who leaned in the doorway. His stoutness was phenomenal; it would not have discredited the treatment of those wily men who prepare prize hogs for agricultural shows. Layers of blubber bulged about his eyes, leaving only two conical slits for him to peer through; his cheeks sagged below his great double chin, and his mighty neck rolled almost on to his shoulders, and vibrated like jelly with every movement. But his corporation was his greatest pride—it was the envy and admiration of all his friends; it jutted out, bold and precipitous, and seemed to defy the world. This Celestial phenomenon was dressed in the very latest Chinese style; gorgeous silks of many colours bedizened his capacious person; his feet were encased in the richest stub-toed wooden shoes; his hat was a brilliant building direct from the Flowery Land, and his proud tail swept the floor. A dandy dude was he—a heavy swell from home—oily and clean, looking as if he had been well scraped and polished with a greasy rag. He was jolly; his smiles went from his ears to his toes like ripples on a lake, and succeeded each other like winking—in fact, he was brimful of a wild sort of Chinese humour. We have read that the Chinese delight in punning; this man must have been the king of Mongolian punsters, judging from the merriment his every remark was wont to evoke. He was brimming with irony, sarcasm, and sparkling repartee. A white man could never grasp his witticisms; after translation they sounded much like childish nonsense, but anyone who listened to him would feel confident that he was a comical dog all the same.

In compliance with a suggestion from the portly host, the Chows streamed after him through the dark, dirty “shop” into a long, low room on the left, where were a number of tables covered with matting. Seating himself at the head of one of these, and producing the “tools,” the fat man prepared to preside over the game, his small eyes twinkling keenly enough now from out of the depths of his head; and soon all were enthralled in the mysteries of fan-tan. The Chinaman, stoical under all other circumstances, gambles like a fiend; these men were soon worked into a delirium of excitement, but the fat Mongolian was always cool, and whilst the sums of money before the players fluctuated, his increased steadily, surely.

A sign over the door of the little smoky shop translated into English implied that Sin Fat, Chinese cook, lived and plied his trade within, and was prepared to fulfil all orders with promptitude. That sign was a bold and brazen lie. Sin Fat was no cook, and the burnished fowl which hung in the window was only a “blind”—a window-blind, so to speak—intended to beguile “him foolee white feller.” Sin Fat ran a gambling-hell and something worse. Sin had attained his ambition; while making flesh he was also making money rapidly. Our hero, the poor broken Chow who had landed in the city not many years before without a shilling or a change of raiment, had, by patient industry and steadfastness of purpose, acquired an extensive business and a quantity of capital at interest. The colonial climate agreed with him, and he had many friends. When Constable Mahoney, Sergeant Mulduckie, or Private O’Brien met him they greeted him like a brother; they winked knowingly, dug him jocularly in the ribs, and insinuated that he was a sly dog. These zealous guardians of public property and morality had mastered the art which was necessary to every “mimber av the foorce” who would have his bank­book and little terrace in the suburbs—the art of not seeing too much.

Beyond the little shop adorned with the pendant fowl, stretched to the right and left till the back premises of the houses in the block seemed to be absorbed, were numerous small rooms—cabins reeking with the nauseating odour of opium and pollution and Chinamen, and always clouded with smoke. There was no order, no design, in the building of these cribs; big rooms had been portioned off and holes cut in partitions recklessly. You groped through the place, and might find your way, to your great surprise, into two or three filthy lanes at the back, right or left. The curious European, on a voyage of discovery, saw in these rooms, through the clouds of choking, evil-smelling opium fumes, debilitated Chinamen, with animalized faces, floating to hell in the midst of visions of heaven; lank, skinny coolies, Indians, and other vile Asiatics; and, worst of all, European girls, corrupt below anything else in nature, excepting only the ghouls they consorted with. Girls of sixteen, decoyed in at the front door by the sheen of silk and the jingle of gold, percolating through that terrible den, to be finally cast out amongst the slime and rottenness of the lanes—abject wrecks, with nothing of humanity left within them, and hardly the semblance without.

Mrs. Sin Fat was well and hearty; she had fine clothes galore, and no longer thought of deserting her dear lord—perhaps because she saw that he was not now so very anxious to prevent it. A great assistance in the business was the tall, dark woman, who could “put on style;” she clung to her old love—the gin-bottle—and frequently worked up a small cyclone, an hysterical fit peculiarly her own, which militated against the prosperity of the house by suspending business for the time being. In these moments she called herself many vile and unladylike names, bit her arms, tore her hair, spat upon her lord, and spurned him with something heavy and hard, even going to the extent of hurling bottles and other dangerous projectiles at the shaven heads of the best customers. This was unpleasant, but Sin condescended to overlook it when she sallied forth in fine raiment, with a thick veil concealing half her face, to wander in the public parks and gardens, and enter into conversation with young girls who were airing babies, or reading romances in the shade. She talked with them so sweetly (one at a time always) about babies, birds, or flowers; but she was at her best when describing with poetic fervour gorgeous dresses, all bespangled and glittering, or dwelling upon hats that were dreams of loveliness. She was always making appointments with these girls, and gradually, deftly leading them by a golden thread, she drew them into the shop of Sin Fat the cook, and the sign over the door might well have read:— “Abandon all hope ye who enter here!” Mrs. Fat was not always successful; but one success condoned for fifty failures. Sin Fat’s trade was so extensive that he was enabled to give other women commissions in this line; none of them, however, succeeded so well as his wife.

Two years rolled by, and Sin Fat’s business increased and multiplied in every branch. A polished fowl still hung in the little window, and the green and golden sign published the same old lie. Sin was even jollier and more rotund; he was looked up to as a Chow among Chows. His capital at interest had grown apace, and he fondly dreamed of selling out and returning home to the Flowery Land, there to buy a Celestial C.M.G-ship, and lord it as a representative Australian. His wife by this time was a source of grave uneasiness to him; her temper had intensified, she had grown hypochondriacal, and refused for months to tout for the business. Her bursts of passion were terrible to contemplate, and Sin Fat, Esq., had now attained a station so exalted that to be seen evading the wrath of a tall female armed with a poker or a bottle compromised his dignity. He felt that it was time to assert his authority.

One day Sin, as head of the firm, was overjoyed at the advent of a new victim. The decoy in this case was a loudly dressed young woman who shortly before had developed marvellous ability in that line. The new girl was aged about seventeen, tall, dark, and thin, but handsome—the spoilt daughter of a weak parent. She had been caught with the golden cord, and the hook had been baited with her own vanity. A few hours after her advent he was seated with her in the one room of the place which had any pretensions to cleanliness and attractions. It was draped and hung about with all kinds of ridiculous, highly-coloured Chinese gew-gaws, and fairly furnished. This was the bower into which all novices were first introduced; when they left it they had received their initial lesson in the hard course of misery just entered upon. Sin was introducing this girl to her first pipe of opium—that devil’s drug and Chinaman’s greatest ally. The obese Confucian prattled to her in tender tones, like the jolly old gallant he was, and the girl, half-stretched upon a sort of settee, laughed and joked with the boldness of an old hand.

Suddenly the door opened and Mrs. Sin Fat entered. She had come to inspect the strange girl for the first time. She looked wild and uncanny enough as she stepped over the threshold, but when her eyes encountered the face of the new—comer her countenance became horrifying.

“Great——!” she whispered, supporting her shivering limbs against the door. The exclamation was not blasphemous—for a wonder—it was half a prayer, half the expression of strong inward agony. Then a fierce determination seemed to strengthen every muscle and sinew in her tall frame; she strode into the room, dashed the pipe from the girl’s hands, and, seizing her by the arms with a force that made the bones crack, she said hoarsely:

“Who are you, my fine miss? Your name? What’s your name? You need not scream, Jessie Hill. You see I know you. I have watched you from a distance for years. So your tender-hearted father has let you drift this way, as he did me. He is too kind for devils like us. You go out of this—back to your father! Do you hear me? You go now, and if you ever come here again I’ll stab you to death! Remember, I swear I will watch for you, and if you come here again I will kill you on the spot! They told you you would have rich dresses, handsome admirers, pockets full of gold, didn’t they? They have lied, as they lied to the miserable wretches who have gone before you. There is no finery here—nothing but filth and misery and degradation. Come here again, and I will throw your dead body into the gutter. Now, go!”

But the girl had fainted, and no wonder, for the woman gripped her like a vice, and her face was as frightful as a nightmare. Mrs. Sin Fat ran out for water; when she returned her husband had locked the outer door and placed the key in his pocket. She rushed at him in a fury, but checked herself with her hands in the air.

“That girl has got to go!” she hissed.

“No savee,” muttered Sin, putting on a bolder front than ever he had dared to do before.

“I tell you she shall go; she is my daughter, my child!”

“Nosavee! Stay here all a same.” And he crossed into another room. Sin had paid his agent a big commission on this girl, and was determined not to lose her. Besides, he had taken a fancy to her himself; he would rather have lost the mother than the daughter. Mrs. Sin Fat did not storm and rage, but turned away with a calmness that was unnatural, and presently followed Sin into the room, and came close to him, concealing one hand in the folds of her dress.

“That girl,” she said, calmly; “is she to go?”

“No, no! Go yourself——”

These memorable words were the last ever spoken by the great, the prosperous Sin Fat. A knife flashed before his eyes, and was driven to the hilt in his side. He fell forward with only a groan, and the fall forced the heavy handle of the weapon still deeper between his ribs. Mrs. Sin Fat, coolly removing the keys from his pocket, went out, followed by a little stream of bright blood, which ran along the floor under the closed door, as if to keep watch upon her, and entered the room where she had left the new girl—her own daughter, as the fates would have it. The new girl was sitting gazing about her, frightened and confused.

“Here, come with me,” said the woman, seizing her roughly by the arm; “come with me, and see the delightful life you will have of it in this house!” She led the girl through the vile den, showed her all its abominations, and at last pushed her into one of the filthy alleys. “Here,” she said, “you would be thrown out in a few months’ time, a degraded wretch. A fine, gay life, eh? Now go, and be a good woman if you can. So help me Heaven, if you ever come back I will kill you. Remember that, night and day!”

The girl hurried away, full of horror and fear, but saved and her mother followed her at a distance. Sin Fat was found, and duly inquested. A verdict of murder was returned, and a warrant issued for Mrs. Sin Fat, but she was never caught. Only one man ever cast eyes on her again. A week after the murder a stoical old ferryman was working his lumbering craft across the river late one night, when something struck the prow, turned slowly round, and quietly drifted with the dark waters. It was a body. It turned over after the contact with the boat, and the man saw a white, bleached face in the moonlight, surrounded by a mass of black hair, which formed a sombre halo. The ferryman looked after it curiously for a time, then resumed his rowing, muttering:

“Only a body! Well, I don’t want t’ be mixed up in no inkwests.”

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