The Chink and the Child
by Thomas Burke
IT is a tale of love and lovers that they tell in
the low-lit Causeway that slinks from West India
Dock Road to the dark waste of waters beyond. In
Pennyfields, too, you may hear it; and I do not
doubt that it is told in far-away Tai-Ping, in
Singapore, in Tokio, in Shanghai, and those other
gay-lamped haunts of wonder whither the wandering
people of Limehouse go and whence they return
so casually. It is a tale for tears, and should
you hear it in the lilied tongue of the yellow men,
it would awaken in you all your pity. In our bald
speech it must, unhappily, lose its essential
fragrance, that quality that will lift an affair of
squalor into the loftier spheres of passion and
imagination, beauty and sorrow. It will sound
unconvincing, a little... you know... the
kind of thing that is best forgotten. Perhaps...
It is Battling Burrows, the lightning
welter-weight of Shadwell, the box o' tricks, the Tetrarch
of the ring, who enters first. Battling Burrows,
the pride of Ratcliff, Poplar and Limehouse, and
the despair of his manager and backers. For he
loved wine, woman and song; and the boxing world
held that he couldn't last long on that. There was
any amount of money in him for his parasites if
only the damned women could be cut out; but again
and again would he disappear from his training
quarters on the eve of a big fight, to consort with
Molly and Dolly, and to drink other things than
barley-water and lemon-juice.
Wherefore Chuck Lightfoot, his manager, forced
him to fight on any and every occasion while he was
good and a money-maker; for at any moment the
collapse might come, and Chuck would be called upon
by his creditors to strip off that "shirt" which at
every contest he laid upon his man.
Battling was of a type that is too common
in the eastern districts of London; a type that
upsets all accepted classifications. He wouldn't
be classed. He was a curious mixture of
athleticism and degeneracy. He could run like a
deer, leap like a greyhound, fight like a machine,
and drink like a suction-hose. He was a bully; he
had the courage of the high hero. He was an
open-air sport; he had the vices of a french
It was one of his love adventures that properly
begins this tale; for the girl had come to Battling
one night with a recital of terrible happenings, of
an angered parent, of a slammed door.... In
her arms was a bundle of white rags. Now Battling,
like so many sensualists, was also a
sentimentalist. He took that bundle of white rags;
he paid the girl money to get into the country;
and the bundle of white rags had existed in and
about his domicile in Pekin Street, Limehouse,
for some eleven years. Her position was
nondescript; to the casual observer it would seem
that she was Battling's relief punch-ball--an
unpleasant post for any human creature to occupy,
especially if you are a little girl of twelve, and
the place be the one-room household of the
lightning welter-weight. When Battling was cross
with his manager... well, it is indefensible to
strike your manager or to throw chairs at him,
if he is a good manager; but to use a dog-whip
on a small child is permissible and quite as
satisfying at least, he found it so. On these
occasions, then, when very cross with his sparring
partners, or over-flushed with victory and juice of
the grape, he would flog Lucy. But he was reputed
by the boys to be a good fellow. He only whipped
the child when he was drunk; and he was only drunk
for eight months of the year.
For just over twelve years this bruised little
body had crept about Poplar and Limehouse.
Always the white face was scarred with red, or
black-furrowed with tears; always in her steps
and in her look was expectation of dread things.
Night after night her sleep was broken by the
cheerful Battling's brute voice and violent hands;
and terrible were the lessons which life taught her
in those few years. Yet, for all the starved face
and the transfixed air, there was a lurking beauty
about her, a something that called you in the
soft curve of her cheek that cried for kisses and
was fed with blows, and in the splendid
mournfulness that grew in eyes and lips. The brown
hair chimed against the pale face, like the
rounding of a verse. The blue cotton frock and the
broken shoes could not break the loveliness of her
slender figure or the shy grace of her movements
as she flitted about the squalid alleys of the
docks; though in all that region of wasted life and
toil and decay, there was not one that noticed her,
Now there lived in Chinatown, in one lousy
room over Mr. Tai Fu's store in Pennyfields, a
wandering yellow man, named Cheng Huan. Cheng Huan
was a poet. He did not realize it He had never
been able to understand why he was unpopular; and
he died without knowing. But a poet he was, tinged
with the materialism of his race, and in his poor
listening heart strange echoes would awake of which
he himself was barely conscious. He regarded
things differently from other sailors; he felt
things more passionately, and things which they
felt not at all; so he lived alone instead of at
one of the lodging-houses. Every evening he would
sit at his window and watch the street. Then, a
little later, he would take a jolt of opium at the
place at the corner of Formosa Street.
He had come to London by devious ways. He
had loafed on the Bund at Shanghai. The fateful
intervention of a crimp had landed him on a
boat. He got to Cardiff, and sojourned in its
Chinatown; thence to Liverpool, to Glasgow;
thence, by a ticket from the Asiatics' Aid Society,
to Limehouse, where he remained for two
reasons--because it cost him nothing to live there, and
because he was too lazy to find a boat to take
him back to Shanghai.
So he would lounge and smoke cheap cigarettes,
and sit at his window, from which point he had
many times observed the lyrical Lucy. He noticed
her casually. Another day, he observed her, not
casually. Later, he looked long at her; later
still, he began to watch for her and for that
strangely provocative something about the toss
of the head and the hang of the little blue skirt
as it coyly kissed her knee.
Then that beauty which all Limehouse had missed
smote Cheng. Straight to his heart it went, and
cried itself into his very blood. Thereafter the
spirit of poetry broke her blossoms all about his
odorous chamber. Nothing was the same.
Pennyfields became a happy-lanterned street, and
the monotonous fiddle in the house opposite was the
music of his fathers. Bits of old song floated
through his mind: little sweet verses of Le
Tai-pih, murmuring of plum blossom, rice-field and
stream. Day by day he would moon at his window, or
shuffle about the streets, lighting to a flame when
Lucy would pass and gravely return his quiet
regard; and night after night, too, he would dream
of a pale, lily-lovely child.
And now the Fates moved swiftly various pieces on
their sinister board, and all that followed
happened with a speed and precision that showed
direction from higher ways.
It was Wednesday night in Limehouse, and for
once clear of mist. Out of the colored darkness
of the Causeway stole the muffled wail of reed
instruments, and, though every window was
closely shuttered, between the joints shot jets of
light and stealthy voices, and you could hear the
whisper of slippered feet, and the stuttering steps
and the sadist. It was to the café in the middle
of the Causeway, lit by the pallid blue light that
is the symbol of China throughout the world, that
Cheng Huan came, to take a dish of noodle and some
tea. Thence he moved to another house whose stairs
ran straight to the street,and above whose doorway
a lamp glowed like an evil eye. At this
establishment he mostly took his pipe of "chandu"
and a brief chat with the keeper of the house, for,
although not popular, and very silent, he liked
sometimes to be in the presence of his compatriots.
Like a figure of a shadowgraph he slid through the
door and up the stairs.
The chamber he entered was a bit of the Orient
squatting at the portals of the West. It was a
well-kept place where one might play a game of
fan-tan or take a shot or so of li-un, or purchase
other varieties of Oriental delight. It was sunk
in a purple dusk, though here and there a lantern
strung the glooms. Low couches lay around the
walls, and strange men decorated them: Chinese,
Japs, Malays, Lascars, with one or two white girls;
and sleek, noiseless attendants swam from couch to
couch. Away in the far corner sprawled a lank
figure in brown shirting, its nerveless fingers
curled about the stem of a spent pipe. On one of
the lounges a scorbutic nigger sat with a Jewess
from Shadwell. Squatting on a table in the center,
beneath one of the lanterns, was a musician with a
reed, blinking upon the company like a sly cat, and
making his melody of six repeated notes.
The atmosphere churned. The dirt of years,
tobacco of many growings, opium, betel nut, and
moist flesh allied themselves in one grand assault
against the nostrils.
As Cheng brooded on his insect-ridden cushion,
of a sudden the lantern above the musician was
caught by the ribbon of his reed. It danced and
flung a hazy radiance on a divan in the shadow.
He saw--started--half rose. His heart galloped,
and the blood pounded in his quiet veins. Then
he dropped again, crouched, and stared.
O lily-flowers and plum blossoms! O silver
streams and dim-starred skies! O wine and roses,
song and laughter! For there, kneeling on a mass
of rugs, mazed and big-eyed, but understanding,
was Lucy... his Lucy... his little maid.
Through the dusk she must have felt his intent
gaze upon her; for he crouched there, fascinated,
staring into the now obscured corner where she
But the sickness which momentarily gripped
him on finding in this place his snowy-breasted
pearl passed and gave place to great joy. She
was here; he would talk with her. Little English
he had, but simple words, those with few gutturals,
he had managed to pick up; so he rose, the
masterful lover, and, with feline movements,
crossed the nightmare chamber to claim his own
If you wonder how Lucy came to be in this bagnio,
the explanation is simple. Battling was in
training. He had flogged her that day before
starting work; he had then had a few brandies--not
many, some eighteen or nineteen--and had
locked the door of his room and taken the key
Lucy was, therefore, homeless, and a girl somewhat
older than Lucy, so old and so wise, as girls are
in that region, saw in her a possible source of
revenue. So there they were, and to them appeared
From what horrors he saved her that night cannot
be told, for her ways were too audaciously childish
to hold her long from harm in such a place. What
he brought to her was love and death.
For he sat by her. He looked at her--reverently
yet passionately. He touched her--wistfully yet
eagerly. He locked a finger in her wondrous hair.
She did not start away; she did tremble. She knew
well what she had to be afraid of in that place;
but she was not afraid of Cheng. She pierced the
mephitic gloom and scanned his face. No, she was
not afraid. His yellow hands, his yellow face, his
smooth black hair... well, he was the first thing
that had ever spoken soft words to her; the first
thing that had ever laid a hand upon her that was
not brutal; the first thing that had deferred in
manner towards her as though she, too, had a right
to live. She knew his words were sweet, though
she did not understand them. Nor can they be
set down. Half that he spoke was in village
Chinese; the rest in a mangling of English which
no distorted spelling could possibly reproduce.
But he drew her back against the cushions and
asked her name, and she told him; and he inquired
her age, and she told him; and he had then two
beautiful words which came easily to his tongue.
He repeated them again and again:
"Lucia... li'l Lucia.... Twelve....
Twelve." Musical phrases they were, dropping
from his lips, and to the child who heard her name
pronounced so lovingly, they were the lost heights
of melody. She clung to him, and he to her.
She held his strong arm in both of hers as they
crouched on the divan, and nestled her cheek
against his coat.
Well... he took her home to his wretched
"Li'l Lucia, come-a-home... Lucia."
His heart was on fire. As they slipped out of
the noisomeness into the night air and crossed
the West India Dock Road into Pennyfields, they
passed unnoticed. It was late, for one thing, and
for another... well, nobody cared particularly.
His blood rang with soft music and the solemnity of
drums, for surely he had found now what for many
years he had sought--his world's one flower.
Wanderer he was, from Tuan-tsen to Shanghai,
Shanghai to Glasgow... Cardiff... Liverpool...
London. He had dreamed often of the women of his
native land; perchance one of them should be his
flower. Women, indeed, there had been. Swatow...
he had recollections of certain rose-winged hours
in coast cities. At many places to which chance
had led him a little bird had perched itself upon
his heart but so lightly and for so brief a while
as hardly to be felt. But now--now he had found her
in this alabaster Cockney child. So that he was
glad and had great joy of himself and the blue and
silver night, and the harsh flares of the Poplar
You will observe that he had claimed her, but
had not asked himself whether she were of an age
for love. The white perfection of the child had
captivated every sense. It may be that he forgot
that he was in London and not in Tuan-tsen. It may
be that he did not care. Of that nothing can be
told. All that is known is that his love was a
pure and holy thing. Of that we may be sure, for
his worst enemies have said it.
Slowly, softly they mounted the stairs to his
room, and with almost an obeisance he entered and
drew her in. A bank of cloud raced to the east and
a full moon thrust a sharp sword of light upon
them. Silence lay over all Pennyfields. With a
bird-like movement, she looked up at him--her face
alight, her tiny hands upon his coat--clinging,
wondering, trusting. He took her hand and kissed
it; repeated the kiss upon her cheek and lip and
little bosom, twirling his fingers in her hair.
Docilely and echoing the smile of his lemon lips in
a way that thrilled him almost to laughter, she
returned his kisses impetuously, gladly.
He clasped the nestling to him. Bruised,
tearful, with the love of life almost thrashed out
of her, she had fluttered to him out of the evil
"O li'l Lucia!" And he put soft hands upon
her, and smoothed her and crooned over her many
gracious things in his flowered speech. So they
stood in the moonlight, while she told him the
story of her father, of her beatings, and
starvings, and unhappiness.
"O li'l Lucia.... White Blossom.... Twelve....
Twelve years old!"
As he spoke, the clock above the Milwall Docks
shot twelve crashing notes across the night. When
the last echo died, he moved to a cupboard, and
from it he drew strange things... formless
masses of blue and gold, magical things of silk,
and a vessel that was surely Aladdin's lamp, and
a box of spices. He took these robes, and, with
tender, reverent fingers, removed from his White
Blossom the besmirched rags that covered her,
and robed her again, and led her then to the heap
of stuff that was his bed, and bestowed her safely.
For himself, he squatted on the floor before her,
holding one grubby little hand. There he crouched
all night, under the lyric moon, sleepless,
watchful; and sweet content was his. He had fallen
into an uncomfortable posture, and his muscles
ached intolerably. But she slept, and he dared not
move nor release her hand lest he should awaken
her. Weary and trustful, she slept, knowing that
the yellow man was kind and that she might sleep
with no fear of a steel hand smashing the delicate
structure of her dreams.
In the morning, when she awoke, still wearing
her blue and yellow silk, she gave a cry of
amazement. Cheng had been about. Many times had
he glided up and down the two flights of stairs,
and now at last his room was prepared for his
princess. It was swept and garnished, and was an
apartment worthy a maid who is loved by a
poet-prince. There was a bead curtain. There were
muslins of pink and white. There were four bowls
of flowers, clean, clear flowers to gladden the
white Blossom and set off her sharp beauty.
And there was a bowl of water, and a sweet lotion
for the bruise on her cheek.
When she had risen, her prince ministered to
her with rice and egg and tea. Cleansed and
robed and calm, she sat before him, perched on
the edge of many cushions as on a throne, with all
the grace of the child princess in the story. She
was a poem. The beauty hidden by neglect and
fatigue shone out now more clearly and vividly,
and from the head sunning over with curls to
the small white feet, now bathed and sandaled,
she seemed the living interpretation of a Chinese
lyric. And she was his; her sweet self, and her
prattle, and her birdlike ways were all his own.
Oh, beautifully they loved. For two days he
held her. Soft caresses from his yellow hands
and long, devout kisses were all their demonstration.
Each night he would tend her, as might
mother to child; and each night he watched and
sometimes slumbered at the foot of her couch.
But now there were those that ran to Battling
at his training quarters across the river, with the
news that his child had gone with a Chink--a
yellow man. And Battling was angry. He
discovered parental rights. He discovered
indignation. A yellow man after his kid! He'd
learn him. Battling did not like men who were not
born in the same great country as himself.
Particularly he disliked yellow men. His birth and
education in Shadwell had taught him that of all
creeping things that creep upon the earth the
most insidious is the Oriental in the West. And
a yellow man and a child. It was... as
you might say... so... kind of... well,
wasn't it? He bellowed that it was "unnacherel."
The yeller man would go through it. Yeller! It
was his supreme condemnation, his final epithet
for all conduct of which he disapproved.
There was no doubt that he was extremely
annoyed. He went to the Blue Lantern, in what
was once Ratcliff Highway, and thumped the bar,
and made all his world agree with him. And
when they agreed with him he got angrier still.
So that when, a few hours later, he climbed
through the ropes at the Netherlands to meet Bud
Tuffit for ten rounds, it was Bud's fight all the
time, and to that bright boy's astonishment he
was the victor on points at the end of the ten.
Battling slouched out of the ring, still more
determined to let the Chink have it where the
chicken had the ax. He left the house with two
pals and a black man, and a number of really
inspired curses from his manager.
On the evening of the third day, then, Cheng
slipped sleepily down the stairs to procure more
flowers and more rice. The genial Ho Ling, who
keeps the Canton store, held him in talk some
little while, and he was gone from his room perhaps
half-an-hour. Then he glided back, and climbed
with happy feet the forty stairs to his temple of
With a push of a finger he opened the door,
and the blood froze on his cheek, the flowers fell
from him. The temple was empty and desolate;
White Blossom was gone. The muslin hangings
were torn down and trampled underfoot. The
flowers had been flung from their bowls about
the floor, and the bowls lay in fifty fragments.
The joss was smashed. The cupboard had been
opened. Rice was scattered here and there. The
little straight bed had been jumped upon by brute
feet. Everything that could be smashed or
violated had been so treated, and--horror of all--the
blue and yellow silk robe had been rent in
pieces, tied in grotesque knots, and slung
derisively about the table legs.
I pray devoutly that you may never sufFer
what Cheng Huan suffered in that moment. The
pangs of death, with no dying; the sickness of
the soul which longs to escape and cannot; the
imprisoned animal within the breast which
struggles madly for a voice and finds none; all the
agonies of all the ages the agonies of every
abandoned lover and lost woman, past and to
come--all these things were his in that moment.
Then he found voice and gave a great cry, and
men from below came up to him; and they told
him how the man who boxed had been there with
a black man; how he had torn the robes from his
child, and dragged her down the stairs by her
hair; and how he had shouted aloud for Cheng
and had vowed to return and deal separately with
Now a terrible dignity came to Cheng, and the
soul of his great fathers swept over him. He
closed the door against them, and fell prostrate
over what had been the resting place of White
Blossom. Those without heard strange sounds as
of an animal in its last pains; and it was even so.
Cheng was dying. The sacrament of his high
and holy passion had been profaned; the last
sanctuary of the Oriental--his soul dignity--had
been assaulted. The love robes had been torn
to ribbons; the veil of his temple cut down. Life
was no longer possible; and life without his little
lady, his White Blossom, was no longer desirable.
Prostrate he lay for the space of some five
minutes. Then, in his face all the pride of accepted
destiny, he arose. He drew together the little
bed. With reverent hands he took the pieces of
blue and yellow silk, kissing them and fondling
them and placing them about the pillow. Silently
he gathered up the flowers, and the broken
earthenware, and burnt some prayer papers and
prepared himself for death.
Now it is the custom among those of the sect
of Cheng that the dying shall present love-gifts
to their enemies; and when he had set all in order,
he gathered his brown canvas coat about him,
stole from the house, and set out to find Battling
Burrows, bearing under the coat his love-gift to
Battling. White Blossom he had no hope of finding.
He had heard of Burrows many times; and
he judged that, now that she was taken from him,
never again would he hold those hands or touch
that laughing hair. Nor, if he did, could it
change things from what they were. Nothing
that was not a dog could live in the face of this
As he came before the house in Pekin Street,
where Battling lived, he murmured gracious
prayers. Fortunately, it was a night of thick
river mist, and through the enveloping velvet
none could observe or challenge him. The main
door was open, as are all doors in this district.
He writhed across the step, and through to the back
room, where again the door yielded to a touch.
Darkness. Darkness and silence, and a sense of
frightful things. He peered through it. Then
he fumbled under his jacket--found a match--struck
it. An inch of candle stood on the
mantel-shelf. He lit it. He looked round. No
sign of Burrows, but... Almost before he looked he
knew what awaited him. But the sense of finality
had kindly stunned him; he could suffer nothing
On the table lay a dog-whip. In the corner a
belt had been flung. Half across the greasy couch
lay White Blossom. A few rags of clothing were
about her pale, slim body; her hair hung limp
as her limbs; her eyes were closed. As Cheng
drew nearer and saw the savage red rails that ran
across and across the beloved body, he could not
scream--he could not think. He dropped beside
the couch. He laid gentle hands upon her, and
called soft names. She was warm to the touch.
The pulse was still.
Softly, oh, so softly, he bent over the little
frame that had enclosed his friend-spirit, and his
light kisses fell all about her. Then, with the
undirected movements of a sleep-walker, he
bestowed the rags decently about her, clasped her
in strong arms, and crept silently into the night.
From Pekin Street to Pennyfields it is but a
turn or two, and again he passed unobserved as
he bore his tired bird back to her nest. He laid
her upon the bed, and covered the lily limbs with
the blue and yellow silks and strewed upon her a
few of the trampled flowers. Then, with more
kisses and prayers, he crouched beside her.
So, in the ghastly Limehouse morning, they
were found--the dead child, and the Chink,
kneeling beside her, with a sharp knife gripped
in a vice-like hand, its blade far between his ribs.
Meantime, having vented his wrath on his
prodigal daughter, Battling, still cross, had
returned to the Blue Lantern, and there he stayed
with a brandy tumbler in his fist, forgetful of an
appointment at Premierland, whereby he should
have been in the ring at ten o'clock sharp. For
the space of an hour Chuck Lightfoot was going
blasphemously to and fro in Poplar, seeking
Battling and not finding him, and murmuring, in
tearful tones: "Battling--you dammanblasted
Battling--where are yeh?"
His opponent was in his corner sure enough,
but there was no fight. For Battling lurched
from the Blue Lantern to Pekin Street. He
lurched into his happy home, and he cursed Lucy,
and called for her. And finding no matches, he
lurched to where he knew the couch should be,
and flopped heavily down.
Now it is a peculiarity of the reptile tribe that
its members are impatient of being flopped on
without warning. So, when Battling flopped,
eighteen inches of writhing gristle upreared itself
on the couch, and got home on him as Bud Tuffit
had done the night before--one to the ear, one
to the throat, and another to the forearm.
Battling went down and out.
And he, too, was found in the morning, with
Cheng Huan's love-gift coiled about his neck.