By: Lao She
Translated by: Tony Blishen
Lao She (Shu Qingchun, 1899-1966) was a prolific and patriotic author of satirical stories and novels. He taught at the then School of Oriental Studies in London between 1925 and 1928. He died in tragic circumstances during the Cultural Revolution. This translation is published here with the kind permission of the author’s family.
I first read this short story over fifty years ago. It was the first piece of written Chinese that made me laugh out aloud. Published in 1933, it describes an overnight train journey from Beijing to Dezhou in Shandong province. The author was an admirer of Dickens and there seems something distinctly Dickensian about Mr Jodhpurs. As I translated it I gained the impression that the author had carefully weighed every single word for effect. This economy of means reinforces the wry, dry humour.
– Tony Blishen
Lao She’s comic masterpiece, Mr Ma and Son, revealing what life was like for Chinese people in London in the 1920s, was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2013, translated by William Dolby and with an introduction by Julia Lovell. Lao She in London, by Anne Witchard was published by the Hong Kong University Press in 2012.
The train had not yet left Peking Station. Mr Jodhpurs, who occupied the compartment’s upper berth – jodhpurs, spectacles, a dark satin western style jacket with a writing brush tucked into the breast pocket, and feet resplendent in dark velvet slippers – asked, very amiably: ‘Did you get on at Peking?’
I was slightly taken aback. The train hadn’t moved; if I hadn’t got on at Peking where on earth had I got on?! I could only counter-attack. ‘Where did you get on’ – very amiably too, hoping that he would say Wuhan or Suiyuan, for if that were the case, it meant Chinese trains no longer required rails but were free to roam at will. He said nothing, looked at his berth and then with all his strength, but seemingly unconscious of it, bawled: ‘Steward!’
At that particular moment the steward was busy moving things and finding berths for other passengers. Yet at such an urgent summons, one that required even the gravest of tasks to be abandoned, he came running.
‘Fetch me a rug,’ bawled Mr Jodhpurs.
‘Please wait just a little, Sir,’ said the steward politely, ‘I will put one out for you immediately the train starts.’
Mr Jodhpurs briefly excavated a nostril with his index finger but otherwise did nothing.
The steward managed no more than a couple of steps.
‘Steward!’ This time the whole train seemed to quake.
The steward whirled round.
‘Fetch me a pillow.’ Mr Jodhpurs had probably already admitted to himself that the rug could come later but he needed the pillow, and that had to come first.
‘Please wait a moment, Sir, the very moment I’ve finished with all this I’ll bring you the rug and pillow together.’ The steward spoke rapidly but as politely as ever.
Seeing no reaction from Mr Jodhpurs, the steward turned to leave. This time the whole train resounded: ‘Steward!’
The steward nearly fell over his feet in fright and quickly turned round.
‘Fetch some tea!’
‘If the gentleman could wait just a little, hot water for the tea will be here directly the train starts.’
Mr Jodhpurs showed no expression whatsoever. The steward smiled deliberately in apology and, turning slowly to avoid embarrassment, was all prepared to leave when there was a thunderclap behind him: ‘Steward!”
Deafened, rather than pretending not to hear, he walked quickly away without looking back.
‘Steward!’ ‘Steward!!’ ‘Steward!!!’ yelled Mr Jodhpurs, each time louder than the last. On the platform, a crowd of well-wishers seeing passengers off rushed up, thinking that either the train had caught fire or that there had been a fatal accident. The steward didn’t turn his head. Mr Jodhpurs excavated his nostril with a finger once more and sat down on my berth.
‘Steward!’ he called again the moment he sat down, but the steward didn’t come. Gazing at his knees, his face fell as far as it would go. Then: ‘In second class are you?’ This was addressed to me. I was confused again. I had certainly bought a second class ticket, was he suggesting that I was in the wrong carriage?
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘Second class. This is second class. Second class has sleeping berths. Starting soon are we? Steward!’
I picked up a newspaper.
He stood and counted his luggage, eight pieces in all, piled on the other berth – he had occupied both top berths. He counted them twice, then asked: ‘And your luggage?’ I kept quiet – a mistake, as his question had been well intentioned, and he followed it up, saying: ‘Wretched steward, why didn’t he shift your luggage for you?’
I had to say it: ‘I don’t have any luggage.’
‘Uh!’ he made me jump, as if travelling by train without luggage was somehow contrary to morality. ‘If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have needed a ticket for those four suitcases of mine.’
I lost this time. ‘Huh?’ I said to myself, ‘lucky it’s like this, otherwise with four more suitcases where would we sleep?’
Another passenger entered and took the berth opposite mine. Apart from a flat leather briefcase he had no luggage either.
‘Uh?!’ uttered Mr Jodhpurs once more, ‘If I’d known neither of you had any luggage I wouldn’t have needed a ticket for the coffin either.’
I made up my mind. I would definitely take luggage the next time I went on a trip. Who could bear spending a night in the company of a coffin?
The steward went past the door.
‘Steward! Fetch me some towels!’
‘Wait a moment.’ The steward seemed determined on resistance.
Mr Jodhpurs took off his collar and tie and hung them on separate hooks. He now occupied all the hooks. His hat and overcoat already occupied two.
The train moved and Mr Jodhpurs suddenly decided to buy a newspaper, ‘Steward!’
The steward did not arrive. I gave him my newspaper, an idea inspired by the state of my eardrums.
He climbed into the upper berth, took off his slippers above me and knocked the dust from the soles. Then, with his head pillowed on a suitcase and his face covered with my newspaper, he was asleep before the train reached Yongding.
I could relax.
Before the train came to a stop at Fengtai there was a yell of ‘Steward!’ from overhead.
But Mr Jodhpurs did not wait for a reply; he was probably talking in his sleep.
After Fengtai the steward arrived with two pots of hot tea. I drank tea and chatted with the passenger opposite, a man in his forties, who was quite presentable with an even, unremarkable face. Just before Langfang ‘Steward!’ came like thunder from above.
The steward arrived, brows knotted, fit to devour all within sight.
‘What’s it this time? – Sir!’
‘Fetch some tea!’ pealed like brass the thunder from above.
‘Aren’t there two pots there already?’ said the steward indicating the table.
‘Another pot for the top berth!’
‘Very good!’ The steward withdrew.
‘No tea, just the hot water!’
I was afraid that the steward would lose his eyebrows all together.
‘Bring me a rug, pillow, towel and…’ he seemed to run out of ideas.
‘Please wait a little, Sir. Passengers will be getting on at Tianjin. I’ll bring it all along after Tianjin without delaying any of your precious sleep!’
The steward turned on his heel with a sniff and marched off as if never to return.
The hot water soon arrived but Mr Jodhpurs was in dreamland, the volume of his snoring just less than his shouts of ‘Steward!’ It continued rhythmically and, when the level dropped a little, was joined by the sound of grinding teeth.
‘Hot water, Sir.’
‘Here, hot water!’
‘In the W.C.!’
‘Steward! Where’s the W.C.?’
‘In a moment.’
‘Steward! Steward!! Steward!!!’
There was no response.
Phoo – phoo phoo – phoo.’ Mr Jodphurs was asleep again.
More passengers got on at Tianjin. Mr Jodhpurs woke and took a mouthful of water from the spout of the teapot. He knocked the dust from his slippers over my head again, put them on and slid down. Then he dug a finger into his nostril and looked outside. ‘Steward!’
It just so happened that the steward was passing the doorway.
‘Bring a rug!’
‘A rug, at once.’
Mr Jodhpurs went out and stood vacantly in the middle of the corridor, obstructing both passengers and porters. Then, with a hearty twist of the finger in his nostril, he moved along and stepped down on to the platform. He looked at the pears and didn’t buy any, he looked at the newspapers and didn’t buy any of them either. He watched the porters in their numbered jackets and did nothing. He got back on the train and called to me: ‘Tianjin, eh?’ I said nothing and he said to himself, ‘better ask the steward,’ followed immediately by a thunderous ‘Steward!’ I instantly regretted saying nothing and said quickly: ‘It’s Tianjin, all right’.
‘Always best to ask the steward…. Steward!’
I couldn’t repress a smile.
The train laboriously drew out of Tianjin station.
As soon as the train started the steward brought Mr Jodhpurs his rug, pillow and hand towel. Mr Jodhpurs screwed the towel into his ears for a full quarter of an hour and then used it to wipe the dust from his suitcases.
I counted that in the ten or so minutes between Tianjin’s two stations he shouted ‘Steward!’ forty or fifty times and the steward only came once. His question was: in what direction was the train travelling? The steward replied that he didn’t know. This prompted the suggestion that there should be somebody on the train who did know and that the steward should go and find out. The steward replied that even the train driver didn’t know his North from his South or his East from his West. Mr Jodhpurs almost changed colour as he asked: what if the train got lost? The steward didn’t answer but shed an eyebrow or two.
Mr Jodhpurs went to sleep again, this time with his head in a pair of socks, no dribble escaped below, it remained at the top of the carriage.
It went without saying that I slept not at all. I soon realised that without ear protectors sleep was impossible. Pity the people in the other compartments who had not come prepared to spend the night awake, but were forced by the rasping sound of his snoring to stare uselessly into the darkness.
My destination was Dezhou and we would arrive at dawn. Thank heavens!
The train stopped at Dezhou for half an hour, and I took a cab into the city with ‘Steward!’ still ringing in my ears.
More than a week has passed and I still envy the steward his eyebrows.