Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

Knight–Errant

YOU may know Henry Wiggin on sight: Henry, the sloppily robed, the slippery faced, with hands deep in pockets, shuffling along the Limehouse streets, hugging the walls in modest self-effacement, one eye sweeping the scene before him, the other creeping sinuously to the rear; Henry, the copper’s nark, the simple, the unsuspecting, knowing not the ways of deceit or the speech of the unrighteous. But Henry has of late become outmoded. After fifteen years of narking he finds that he is getting stale; he is a back number. A new generation has arisen, and with it a new school of nark diplomacy with principles very complex. Business has fallen off, the slops no longer trust him; and the exhilarating pastime of narking has become, for Henry, a weariness of the flesh. Time back, his hands, as a nark, were clean; but in these troublous days he must perforce touch jobs which, in his senescent youth, would have revolted his quick sense of nark honour.

His downfall began with that utter abandonment of principle in the Poppy Gardens excitement. And, if you possess a sufficiently adventurous spirit to penetrate into those strange streets where the prudent never so much as peep, and to hazard inquiries concerning Henry the Blahsted Nark, the full explanation, which follows below, will be given you — though in an amplified form, richer in the vivid adjective.

It is now known that it was no professional point that led him to slide back on the one person in the world who was more to him than gold or silver or many beers. It was something more tremendous, more incomprehensible, more . . . you know. The two people concerned are unfortunately inaccessible to the general public and even to the ubiquitous pressman. Both of them, in their different ways, shrink from notoriety with a timidity as sharp as that which distinguishes the lady novelist. But pressmen are not the only people who can get stories. Here is Henry’s.

Henry had a brother, a dearly loved companion, whom, from infancy, he had cherished with a love that is not usual among brothers under the Poplar arches. For this brother he had, when a nipper, pinched from coffee-stalls, so that he should not go supperless to bed. He had “raked” and “glimmed,” and on two occasions he was caught doing honest work for his young brother. The one soft spot in his heart was for brother Bert. But this brother . . . Alas, how often does one find similar cases in families! Two brothers may be brought up amid the same daily surroundings, under the same careful parentage, enjoying each the same advantages. Yet, while one pursues the bright and peaceful path of virtue, the other will deviate to the great green ocean of iniquity. It is idle to shirk the truth. Let the sordid fact be admitted. While Henry Wiggin was a copper’s nark, brother Bert was a burglar. He stole things, and sold them to Mr Fence Cohen round the corner, and was not ashamed. Henry knew that this was wrong, and the dishonesty of his brother was a load to him. Often he had sought to lead those erring feet into the Straight Way, but his fond efforts were repulsed.

“‘Enery — if yeh don’t stop shootin’ yeh mouth at me, I’ll push yeh blasted face in!”

On the great night when Romance peeped coyly into the life of Henry Wiggin, he and Bert were noisily guzzling fried fish and taters and draught stout in their one-room cottage, back of the Poplar arches — Number 2 Poppy Gardens. Poppy Gardens, slumbrous and alluring as its name may be, is neither slumbrous nor alluring. Rather, it is full of quick perils for the unwary. It has not only its record of blood, but also its record of strange doings which can only be matched by the records of certain byways about Portman Square. The only difference is that in the one place you have dirt, decay, and yellow and black faces. In the other, you have luxury and gorgeous appurtenance.

Wherefore it was stupid, stupid, with that ostrich-like stupidity that distinguishes the descendants of noble families who have intermarried with their kind; I say it was stupid for Lady Dorothy Grandolin to choose this, of all places, for her first excursion into slum-land, in order to gather material for her great work: Why I am a Socialist: a Confession of Faith; Together with some Proposals for Ameliorating the Condition of the Very Poor; with Copious Appendices by the Fabian Society. Far better might she have fared in the Dials; in Lambeth; even in Hoxton. But no; it must be Limehouse — and at night. Really, one feels that she deserved all she got.

With no other escort than a groom — who knew a chap down here — she stood in West India Dock Road, near the Asiatics’ Home; and, to be strictly impartial, she was a rather effective bit of colour, so far as raiment went. You have certainly seen her photographs in the sixpenny weeklies, or reproductions, in The Year’s Pictures, of those elegant studies by Sargent and Shannon. It cannot be said that she is beautiful, though the post card public raves about her; for her beauty is classical and Greek, which means that she is about as interesting as a hard-boiled egg. However, if we acknowledge her divinity we must regret that she should ever have embraced the blue-serge god, and regret still more that her waxen fingers should have itched with the fever of propagandist authorship. However, she was determined to do a book on the Very Poor; nothing would stop her. Her little soul blazed in a riot of fine fire for the cause. Yesterday, it was Auction; the day before it was Settlements; to-day, the Very Poor. And in papa’s drawing-room there was no doubt that the Very Poor was a toy to be played with very prettily; for it is the one success of these people that they can do things with an air.

So she stood in the damp darkness of Little Asia, skirts daintily aloof, while the groom sought for the chap he knew down here. She felt that it must be a queer and inspiring situation to know a man down here. Yet Dixon seemed to think nothing of it. It seemed too frightfully awful that people should live here. Never mind; Socialism was growing day by day among the right people, and ———

Then Dixon returned with the chap he knew down there, and Lady Dorothy thought of Grosvenor Square, and shrank as she viewed their cicerone. For he was Ho Ling, fat and steamy; and he sidled to her out of the mist, threatening and shrinking, with that queer mixture of self-conceit and self-contempt which is the Chinese character. It may be that Dixon was up to something in bringing his mistress here; one never knows. But here she was, and here was the yellow Ho Ling; and, with a feminine fear of cowardice, she nerved herself to go through with it. She had heard that the Chinese quarter offered splendid material for studies in squalor, as well as an atmosphere of the awful and romantic. Her first glances did not encourage her in this idea; for these streets and people are only awful and romantic to those who have awful and romantic minds. Lady Dorothy hadn’t. She had only awful manners.

With Ho Ling in front, Lady Dorothy following, and Dixon in the rear, they crossed the road.

Henry Wiggin lifted the jug from the coverless deal table, inverted it on his face, held it for a moment, then set it down with a crack, voluptuously rolling his lips. That was all right, that was. Heaven help the chaps what hadn’t got no beer that night; that’s all he’d got to say. He was leading from this to a few brief but sincere observations to his brother Bert on the prices of malt liquors, when, on the grimy window, which, in the fashion of the district, stood flush with the pavement, came two or three secret taps. Each started; each in different ways. Henry half rose from his chair, and became at once alert, commanding, standing out. Bert’s glance shot to half-a-dozen points at once, and he seemed to dissolve into himself. For a few seconds the room was chokingly silent. Then, with a swift, gliding movement, Henry reached the window, and, as Bert flung back from the light’s radius, he stealthily opened it. It creaked yearningly, and immediately a yellow face filled its vacancy.

“Ullo. It is I— Ho Ling. Lady here — all same lah-de-dah — going — how you say — slumming. Parted half-a-bar. Wants to see inside places. Will my serene friend go halves if she come into here, and part more half-bars? How you say?”

“Wotto. I’m on. Wait ‘alf-a-jiff.” He closed the window, and made for the door. “‘S all right, Bert. On’y a toff gointer shell out. Wants to squint round our place. We go halves with Chinky whatever she parts.”

“Sure it’s a toff?” in a voice meant to be a whisper but suggesting the friction of sandpaper. “Sure it ain’t a plant?”

“Course it ain’t. Old ‘O Ling’s all right.” He fiddled with the handle of the door, opened it, and stood back, only mildly interested in the lah-de-dah who was invading the privacy of his home. If he had any feeling at all, it was a slight impatience of this aloof creature of the world above; the sort of mild irritation that the convicts feel when they stand on railway stations, the objects of the curious stares of hundreds of people who are at liberty and think nothing of being so.

There was a moment’s hesitation; then, into the fishy, beery, shaggy atmosphere of the room stole a whiff of the ampler ether and diviner air of Mayfair. Into the arc of yellow candle-light, into the astonished gaze of Henry, and into the professionally quickened stare of Bert, stepped the warm, human actuality of A Duke’s Daughter, from last year’s academy. Behind her, in the doorway, calm and inscrutable as a Pentonville warder, stood Ho Ling, careful to be a witness of the amount parted. Behind him, in the deep, dark gloom of the archway, was the groom.

Lady Dorothy gazed around. She saw a carpetless room, furnished only with a bed on the floor, a couple of chairs, and a table littered with fried fish and chips and a couple of stone jugs. In the elusive twilight, it was impossible to obtain a single full view, and the bobbing candle made this still more difficult. By the table stood Henry, in all his greasy glory, a tasteful set-off to the walls which dripped with moisture from the railway above.

Oh! And again — oh! And did people really live down here? Was it allowed? Didn’t the authorities ——? Was this all there was — one room? Did they eat and sleep and do everything here? And was this all the furniture? Really? But however did they manage? Did they really mean to say . . . But they couldn’t, surely . . . How . . . well . . . Was that the bed — that thing over there? And had they no . . . Dear-dear. How terrible. How ——

Oh! What was that? A rat? A RAT? Ugh! How horrid! She skipped lightly aside, and as she did so the bracelets on her wrists jingled, and the small chatelaine bag at her waist jingled, and her wrist-watch and the brooch at her alabaster throat were whipped to a thousand sparkling fragments by the thin light. And as they sang, Bert’s ears tingled, even as a war-horse’s at the noise of battle.

He considered the situation. From the outer world came little sound. The bewildering maze of arches shut them completely from the rattle of the main streets, and Poppy Gardens was deserted. A train rumbled heavily over the arches — a long train carrying a host of woes that grumbled and whined. It passed, and left a stillness more utter. It was simply tempting Providence to let the occasion pass. It was simply asking for it.

He looked; he saw; he appreciated. His fingers moved. On her entry he had been standing back in the corner, beyond the dancing reach of the light, and, with subconscious discretion, he had maintained his position. Now he saw the magnificent meaning of it. And as Lady Dorothy, prettily shrinking, moved from point to point of the cramped room, he thrust forward his scrubby lips until they reached Henry’s shoulder.

“It’s a sorf job!”

Henry at the table turned his head, and his eyes raked the ceiling. “I’m ashamed of yeh, Bert,” he whispered.

“Make old Ling take that kid off,” came from Bert. “Tell ’im we’ll share.”

“Bert — oh, yeh low blaggard!”

But Bert, from his gloomy corner, caught Ho Ling’s eye, and mouthed him. And Ho Ling knew. He turned back into the dark street. He spoke to the groom, and his mumbling voice came sleepily to the others, like the lazy hum of busy bees. Four footsteps grated on the rough asphalt and gradually dimmed away. Silence.

Bert moved a foot forward, and tapped his brother’s ankle. There was no response. He repeated the action. But Henry had dropped into his chair before the odorous litter of three-pieces-and-chips in paper, and was staring, staring, quietly but with passionate adoration, at the lady who shed her lambent light on Number 2 Poppy Gardens. For though Henry’s calling, if it is to be followed with success — and five years ago Henry was the narkiest nark in East London — demands a hardened cynicism, a resolute stoniness, yet his heart was still young, in places, and a faint spark of humanity still glowed, not only for Bert, but for the world in general. But Henry knew nothing of the ways of love. None of the rosebuds of Limehouse had won his regard or even his fleeting fancy. In his middle age he was heartwhole. And now, into the serenity of that middle age had burst a whirlwind. He gazed — and gazed. Here stood this — this — “ayngel” was the only word that came to his halting mind — here she stood, a rose among dank river weeds, in his bedroom, next to him, ‘Enery, the blahsted copper’s nark. It was too wonderful. It was too — oh, too . . .

He was trapped. He was in love. Soft voices sang to him, and he became oblivious to all save the dark head of Dorothy, standing out in the misty light, a vague circle of radiance enchanting his dulled eyes.

So that Bert tapped his brother’s foot vainly.

Then Dorothy moved a pace toward Henry. Bert, still unseen, drew snakily back. She stood against the table, looking down on the seated figure. Her dress rustled against his fingers, and he thrilled with pulsing heat, because of the body loaded with graces and undiscovered wonders that it clothed. The glamour of her close neighbourhood and the peaceful perfume of violet that stole from her fired him with a senseless glory, and he longed to assert his right to her admiration. She was talking, but he heard no words. He only knew that she was standing against him; and as he stared, unseeing, about the room with its whiffy table, its towzled bed, its scratched walls (set alight by the shivering candle, as though the whole world were joining him in his tremor), he felt well content. He would like to sit like this for ever and for ever. This English rose, this sleek angel, this . . .

Ah! Henry felt at that moment that it was Providence and nothing less. Providence. Only so could it be explained. It was, without the least doubt, some divinity protecting this wandering angel that moved Henry, at that critical moment, to turn his head. For what he saw, as he turned, was a corner of thick velvety darkness; and from that corner emerged a pair of swart, whiskered hands. Slowly they swam, slowly, toward the fair neck of Lady Dorothy as she talked to Henry in ostrich-like security. Henry stared.

Then the hands met, and their meeting was signalled by a quick scream that died as soon as uttered into a gasping flutter. It must be repeated that Henry loved his brother, and though, from childhood onward, they had differed widely on points of ethics, never once had either raised his hand against the other. But to-night romance had steeped Henry’s soul; he was moon-mad; the fairies had kissed him. Thus he explained it next morning, but none would hear him.

For, the moment Bert’s hands enclosed Dorothy’s neck, Henry, full of that tough, bony strength peculiar to those who live lives of enforced abstinence, sprang up, and his left went THK! squarely between Bert’s eyes. The grasp was loosened, and Henry grabbed Dorothy’s wrist and swung back his arm, jerking her clean across the room. She screamed. He followed it with a second blow on Bert’s nose. Bert staggered, dazed.

“Wha’-wha’? Hands orf yeh brother, ‘Enery. What yeh doin’? ‘Ittin’ yer own brother?” There was ineffable surprise and reproach in his tone.

But Henry left him in no doubt, for he now saw red, and a third smack landed on Bert’s jaw. Then Bert, too, arose in his wrath. Henry, however, in his professional career had had vast experience in tough scrums of this kind, in narrow space, while Bert knew but little of any warfare except that of the streets. As Henry drew back, tightly strung for Bert’s rush, his leg shot out behind him, caught the corner of the table and sent it and the candle sprawling to the floor with a doleful bump and a rush of chips.

Then the fun began. For of all sports that can ever be devised, there can be none more inspiriting than a fight in the dark. To Henry, in the peculiar circumstances, it was the time of his life. He thrilled and burned with the desire to perform great deeds. He would have liked very much to die in this fight. Quixote never so thrilled for Dulcinea as Henry Wiggin for Lady Dorothy. He became all-powerful; nothing was impossible. He could have fought a thousand Berts and have joyed in the encounter. An intense primed vigour swept over his spare jockey frame, and he knew, even so late, the meaning of life and love. Lady Dorothy screamed.

“Oh, yeh snipe!” cried Bert, with furious curses; and his rubber slippers sup-supped on the floor as he fumbled for his recreant brother. Henry retreated to the wall, and his pawing hand found Lady Dorothy. She screamed and shrank.

“Shut up, yeh fool!” he cried, in excess of enthusiasm. “Give yehself away, yeh chump. Steady — I’ll get yeh out.” He dragged her along the wall while Bert fumed and panted like a caged animal.

“Gotcher!” A sudden rush forward and he spread himself over the upturned table. More language, and Lady Dorothy, had her senses been fully alert, might have culled material for half-a-dozen slum novels from her first excursion into Limehouse.

“‘Alf a mo’, ‘alf a mo’,” whispered Henry, consolingly, as he felt her shake against him. “I’ll get the door in a minute. So bloody dark, though. Steady — ‘e’s close now. Bert — don’ be a fool. Yeh’ll get the rozzers on yeh.”

But Bert was beating the air with a Poplar sandbag, and it was clear from his remarks that he was very cross. It seemed doubtful that he would hear reason. Lady Dorothy screamed.

“‘Alf a mo’, lidy. I’ll — ” He broke off with a rude word, for the sandbag had made its mark on his shoulder. Now he wanted Bert’s blood as a personal satisfaction, and he left his lady by the wall and charged gloriously into the darkness. “I’ll break yeh face if I get yeh, Bert. I’ll split yeh lousy throat.”

His hand groped and clawed; it touched something soft. The something darted back, and almost immediately came a volley of throttled screams that set Henry writhing with a lust for blood. There followed a little clitter, as of dropping peas, and a wrench and a snap.

“Gottem!”

“Bert — yeh bleeding twicer, if I get ‘old of yeh I’ll — ” and the rest of his speech cannot be set down. He snaked along the wall and his stretched hand struck the door knob. The situation was critical. The thick darkness veiled everything from him. Somewhere, in that pool of mystery, was Lady Dorothy in the vandal clutches of brother Bert. Too, she was silent. Henry opened the door, and looked out on a darkness and a silence thicker than those of the room. A train rumbled over the long-suffering arches. When it had faded into the beyond, he stepped out and put one hand to his mouth. Along the hollow, draughty archway a queer call rang in a little hurricane.

“Weeny — Weeny — Wee-ee-ee-ee-ny ”

Bert gave a gusty scream. He knew what it meant. “Gawd, ‘Enery, I’ll do yeh in for this, I’ll ‘ave — ”

“Where’bouts are yeh, lidy; whereabouts are yeh?”

“I’m here. He’s got — he’s — oh!” Tiny shrieks flitted from her like sparks from an engine.

And then the atmosphere became electric, as Henry, noting the position of the door, made a second dash into space. He heard the dragging of feet as Bert hustled his quarry away from the point at which she had spoken. He followed it, and this time he caught Bert and held him. For a moment or so they strained terribly; then Henry, with a lucky jerk, released the grip on Dorothy.

They closed. Henry got a favourite arm-lock on his brother, but blood was pounding and frothing, and violence was here more useful than skill. They stood rigid, and gasped and swore as terribly as our Army in Flanders, and they tugged and strained with no outward sign of movement. One could hear the small bones crick. Lady Dorothy stood in a corner and shrieked staccato. It seemed that neither would move for the next hour, when Bert, seeing a chance, shifted a foot for a closer grip, and with that movement the fight went to Henry. He gave a sudden jerk and twist, flattened his brother against his hard chest, hugged him in a bear-like embrace for a few seconds and swung him almost gently to the ground.

“Come, lidy — quick. ‘E’ll be up in a minute. Run! Fer the love of glory — run!”

He caught her and slid for the door; bumped against the corner of it; swore; found the exit and pulled Lady Dorothy, gasping thankfully, into the chill air and along the sounding arches, which already echoed the throbbing of feet — big feet. But he had no thought for what lay behind. With Dorothy’s lily hand clasped in his he raced through the night and the lone Poplar arches towards East India Dock Road.

“No, but, look ’ere,” said Bert; “hang it all, cancher see — ”

“Quite ‘nough from you,” said the constable. “Hear all that at the station, we can.”

Bert extended a hand tragically to argue, but, realising the futility of resisting the obvious, he sat on the edge of the floor-bed and relapsed into moody silence. He reflected on the utter hopelessness of human endeavour while such a thing as luck existed. And it was only the other day that he had pasted on his walls a motto, urging him to Do It Now. “ You was ‘asty, Bert,” he communed. “‘At’s alwis bin your fault — ‘aste.”

Then Henry, shoulders warped, hands pocketed, shuffled into the room. He looked disgustedly at the floor, littered with fish and chips and watered with two small pools of black beer. He looked around the room, as though around life generally, and his lip dropped and his teeth set. He seemed to see nobody.

“What-o, Hen, me boy!” said the constable amiably. “You look cheerful, you do. Look’s though you lost a tanner and found a last year’s Derby sweep ticket.”

Then, relapsing to business: “This is all right, though, this is.” He indicated the table, where lay a little heap of bracelets, a brooch, two or three sovereigns, some silver and a bag. “First time I ever knew you pop the daisy on yer brother, though. Fac. What was it?”

“Eh? What was . . .? Oh, he went for a — a lidy what was going round ’ere. She’s just got int’er carriage near ‘The Star of the East.’ You’ll find ‘er chap under the arches somewhere with old Ho Ling, the Chink. In ‘The Green Man’ I fink I saw ’em. Bert went for ‘er and swabbed the twinklers. ‘At’s all I know.” He sat down sourly by the table.

Bert sprang up frantically, but the constable put a spry grip on his arm. He squirmed. “What . . . No, but . . . What yeh doing . . . ’ere . . . I . . . Narkin’ on yer own brother! But yeh can’t! Yeh can’t do it! Playin’ the low-down nark on Bert. You . . . I . . . ”

It could be seen that this second shock was too terrible. The fight and the calling of the cops was a mortal offence, but at least understandable. But this . . .

“‘Ere, but it’s Bert, ‘Enery. Bert. You ain’t goin’ back on ol’ Bert. Now! ‘Enery, play up!” He implored with hands and face.

Henry slewed savagely round. In his eyes was the light that never was on sea or land. “Oh, shut orf!”

For the lips of Henry Wiggin, copper’s nark, had kissed those of Lady Dorothy Grandolin, all under the Poplar arches, and in the waistcoat pocket of Henry Wiggin, the copper’s nark, were the watch and chain of Lady Dorothy Grandolin.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32