Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

The Gorilla and the Girl

IN an underground chamber near the furtive Causeway, Saturnalia was being celebrated. The room which lay below the sign of the Blue Lantern was lit by shy gas-jets and furnished with wooden tables and chairs. Strange scents held the air. Bottled beer and whisky crowded a small table at the far end, and near this table stood the owner of the house, Mr. Hunk Bottles. At other small tables were cards and various devices for killing time and money. All those who were well seen in Limehouse and Poplar were here, and the informed observer could recognise many memorable faces. Chuck Lightfoot and Battling Burrows were engaged in a comparatively peaceable game of fan-tan with Sway Lim and Quong Tart; at any rate the noise they were making could not have been heard beyond Custom House. Tai Ling and his Marigold were there, very merry, and Pansy Greers, with an escort from the Pool, attracted much attention in a dress which finished where it ought to have begun. Ding–Dong was there: Perce Sleep; Paris Pete; Polly the Pug; Jenny Jackson’s Provence Boys, so called because they frequented that café; the Chatwood Kid, from whom no safe could withhold its secrets; and, in fact, all the golden boys and naughty girls of the district were snatching their moment of solace. Old Foo Ah lolloped on a chair, slumbering in the heavy content of a kangaroo. That masculine lady, Tidal Basin Sal, sprawled on a shabby private-bar lounge with a little girl, whom she would alternately kiss and slap proprietorially. A nigger from the Polynesians made himself a nuisance to the air and the company; and on a table at the extreme end stood little Gina of the Chinatown, slightly drunk, and with clothing disarranged, singing that most thrilling and provocative of rag-times:

“You’re here and I’m here, So what do we care?”

“Yerss,” the Monico Kid was saying, in a sedulously acquired American accent, “had a tumble to-day. I was hustling the match with Flash Fred, and we took a big nig off the water for the works. I stood for the finish on him, and it listens like good music to me, cos he don’t tip me. Fred spotted him and officed me to pull the rough stuff. Rough’s my middle name. I wrote the book about it. But the nig was fresh and shouted for the blue boys. See my eye? Well, we handed out some punk stuff, and then I levanted, and now I’m lying cavey a bit, see? Gaw, there ain’t nothing to this rough-neck stuff. I figger on quittin’ ‘fore long. Dick the Duke was pinched t’other day. I went t’ear it. A stretch? Lorlummy, they fair shied the book at ’im and told ’im to add up the sentences. Yerss . . . it’s all a wangle.”

But the couple on whom Hunk kept the most careful eye were his young daughter, Lois, and little Batty Bertello, the son of the sharpest copper’s nark in the quarter. These two sat apart, on a lounge, clasped in one another’s arms, their feet drawn up from the floor, lip locked to lip in the ecstasy of self-discovery; for the man the ecstasy of possession, for the girl the ecstasy of surrender.

Lois had picked up Batty in Tunnel Gardens one Sunday night, and although from the age of ten she had been accustomed to kisses and embraces from boy admirers, she realised, when Batty first kissed her, that here was something different. There was nothing soppy about him . . . rather, something kind of curious . . . big and strong, like. He seemed to give everything; yet gave you the rummy feeling of having held something in reserve, something that you were not good enough for. You didn’t know what it was or how great it was, and it made you kind of mad to find out. And when he kissed you . . . She wondered if she were a bad, nasty girl for wanting to have his hands about her. All her person was at once soothed and titillated by the throb of his pulses when they clasped; she was a responsive instrument on which he played the eternal melody. She felt that she could hold no secrets from him; so at risk of losing him she told him the whole truth about herself; told it in that voice of hers, fragile and firm as fluted china and ringing with the tender tones of far-away bells. How that she was the daughter of the terrible Hunk Bottles, and lived in that bad house, the Blue Lantern, and how that her father was the lifelong enemy of his father, Jumbo Bertello. And Batty had laughed, and they had continued to love.

Presently Lois swung herself from the lounge and began to “cook” for her boy. On a small table she spread the lay-out; lit the lamp; dug out the treacly hop from the toey and held it against the flame. It bubbled furiously, and the air was charged with a loathsome sweetness. Then, holding the bamboo pipe in one hand, she scraped the bowl with a yen-shi-gow, and kneaded the brown clot with the yen-hok. Slowly it changed colour as the poison gases escaped. Then she broke a piece in her finger, and dropped it into the bowl, and handed the stem to Batty. He puffed languorously, and thick blue smoke rolled from him.

But Hunk Bottles regarded the scene with slow anger. Lois was ignoring his commands. When he had heard that she was going with the son of a copper’s nark he had drawn her aside and had spoken forceful words. He had said:

“Look ’ere, me gel, you be careful. Less you go round with that young Bertello the better. Y’know what ‘is old man is, doncher? Well, be careful what yeh talk about. Cos if any of my business gets out . . . Well” (he hit the air with a fat hand) “if I do catch yeh talkin’ at all, I’ll break every bone in yeh blinkin’ body. I’ll take the copper-stick to yeh and won’t let up till every bit of yeh’s broken. Else I’ll give yeh to one o’ the Chinks to do what ‘e likes with. So now yeh know. See?”

Lois knew that this was not an idle threat. She had seen things done at the Blue Lantern. There were rooms into which she was not permitted to pry. Once in the cellar she had seen little glass tubes of peculiar shape, coloured papers, and a big machine. She had seen men who came to the private bar, and never called for a drink, but had one given them, and who sat and mumbled across the counter for hours at a stretch.

And Batty . . . he, too, knew a bit. He wanted to take her away from the lowering Causeway and the malefic air of the quarter. But he knew that old Hunk would never consent to marriage; Lois was too useful in the bar as a draw to custom. He knew, too, that if he took her forcibly away Hunk would be after them and would drag her back. The only way by which he could get her would be to remove Hunk for a spell, and the only means by which this could be accomplished. . . . At this point he saw clear. Very little stood between Hunk and the Thames Police Court. A little definite evidence and old Jumbo Bertello could work a raid at the right moment.

So, the night after the Saturnalia, he took Lois for a bus-ride, and he talked and talked to her. She told him what her dad would do to her if . . . But he dashed in and assured her that there was not one moment’s danger to her little dear body; not a moment’s. One tiny scrap of evidence in his hands and she would be safe with him for ever.

Well, that night certain pieces of coloured paper passed from the hands of Lois to those of her Batty, and from Batty they passed to the old copper’s nark. Jumbo hugged those pieces of coloured paper in his breast-pocket and was glad. He would go straight to the station and deposit them, and thus he would be helping his kid to marry the girl he wanted and would also be helping himself to rewards of a more substantial kind. He passed the Star of the East, and noted mechanically that it was closing time; but he noted with a very actual interest that a crowd had assembled at a near corner. Now Jumbo was a man of simple tastes. Above all else he loved the divine simplicity of a fight, and a street crowd acted on him as a red rag on a bull. At such a spectacle his eyes would light up, his nostrils quiver, his hands clench and unclench and his feet dance a double shuffle until, unable longer to remain neutral, he would charge in and lend a hand to whichever party in the contest seemed to be getting the worse. So it was to-night. Within half-a-minute he was in the centre of the crowd. At the end of the full minute he was prostrate on the ground, his skull cracked on the edge of the kerb.

The inquest was held on the following day, and the full report in the local paper contained the following passage:—

“The deceased was known in the district as a man who has, on frequent occasions, been of material assistance to the police in the carrying out of their duties in the Dockside. In his pockets were found 1s. 6 1/2d. in coppers and several slips of crisp, coloured paper of a curious quality unknown to any of the paper-makers in London. It is understood that the police are pursuing inquiries.”

Old Hunk Bottles came down to supper in the parlour of the Blue Lantern at half-past eight that evening, and while Lois ministered to him with parched face and a trembling hand he called for the local paper. The skin of her whole body seemed to go white and damp, and her sunset hair took fire. She saw him turn to the police-court reports and inquests. She saw him read, with a preliminary chuckle of satisfaction, the report on the death of the copper’s nark. And then, like a rabbit before a snake, she shrank against the wall as she saw his face change, and the paper droop from his hands. Very terrible were the eyes that glared at her. She would have made a rush for the door, but every nerve of her was sucked dry. Then the glare faded from his face and he became curiously natural.

“Well,” he remarked, “bits of coloured paper don’t prove much, do they? Let ’em make all the inquiries they like about their bits of coloured paper. They won’t git far on that. But there’s one thing that bits of coloured paper do prove when they’re in old Jumbo’s pockets, and that is, that you’re going through it to-night, me gel. Right through it.”

She cuddled the wall and hunched her shoulders as though against an immediate blow.

“Ar, you can skulk, yeh little copper’s nark, but yer in for it now. What d’I tell yeh? Eh?” He spoke in syrupy tones, terribly menacing. “What d’I tell yeh I’d do? Answer, yeh skunk, answer! Come on!” He approached her with a quick step, and snatched her wrists from her face. “Answer me. What d’I say I’d do to yeh?”

“Break every bone in me body,” she whimpered.

“That’s right. But I changed me mind. It’ll make too much noise round the Blue Lantern. I got something better for you, me darling. Y’know our top room?”

She was silent, and he shook her like a dog. “Answer! Know our top room?”

“Yes, dad.”

“Where we keep old Kang Foo’s gorilla what he brought from the Straits?”

“Yes, dad.”

“Well, the safest place for little copper’s narks is a top room where they can’t get out. That’s where you’re going to-night. Going to be locked in the top room with old Kang’s gorilla. ‘E’ll look after yeh all right. That’ll learn yeh to keep yeh tongue quiet. See? That’s what I’m going to do. Lock you in the dark room with the big monkey. And if yeh don’t know what a gorilla can do to a gel when it gets ‘er alone, yeh soon will. So now! ”

“Oh . . . dad. . . . ” She blubbered, a sick dread filling all her face. “I di’n’ do nothing. I dunno nothin’ ‘bout it,” she lied. “I dunno nothing. I ain’t been blabbin’.”

“Aw, yeh damn little liar!” He lifted a large hand over her. “I’ll give yeh somethin’ extra for lyin’ if yeh don’t cut it. Now then, up yeh go and sleep with little ‘Rilla. No nonsense.”

What happened then was not pleasant to see. She struggled. She screamed hoarse screams which made scarce any sound. She kicked and bit. Her dramatic hair tumbled in a torrent. And her big father flung two arms about her, mishandled her, and dragged her with rattling cries up the steep stair. When they reached the top landing, to which she had never before ascended, and the loft of a room which, she had heard, Kang Foo rented as a stable for his gorilla, all fight was gone from her. A limp, moaning bundle was flung into the thickly dark room. She heard the rattle of a chain as though the beast had been unloosed, and then the door slammed and clicked, and she was alone with the huge, hairy horror.

In a sudden access of despairing strength she rushed to the window, barred inside and out, and hammered with soft fists and screamed: “Help! Help! Dad’s locked me up with a monkey!”

It was about half-an-hour later that one came to Batty Bertello, who was taking a glass to the memory of the deceased dad and also to buck himself up a bit, and told him that he had passed the Blue Lantern and had heard a girl’s voice screaming from a top window something about being shut up with a monkey. And Batty, who suddenly realised that Hunk Bottles had heard of those slips of paper, dropped his glass and, with love-madness in his face, dashed for the door, crying:

“Come on, boys! All of yeh! Old Hunk’s murdering his Lois!”

And the boys, scenting a fight, went on. They didn’t know where the fight was or whom they were going to fight. It was sufficient that there was a fight. Through brusque streets and timid passages they chased Batty, and when he broke, like a crash of thunder, into the private bar, they followed him.

“Over, boys!” he cried, and to the intense delight of all he placed a hand on the bar and vaulted the beer engines, bringing down only two glasses. Fired by his example, they followed, and then Hunk Bottles was rushed to the ropes by the crowd — that is, to the farther wall of his own parlour. They lowered upon him; they beetled, arms ready for battle. In the front centre was the alert Batty.

“Where’s Lois?”

“G-gone to bed!” answered Hunk, taken aback by the sudden invasion. Then, attempting to recover: “‘Ere, what the devil’s all this? ‘Ere — Joe, fetch the cops. ‘Ere — I— ”

“Shut up!” snapped Batty. “Liar. You shut ‘er up with a monkey upstairs.”

“Liar, I ‘aven’t!”

“Liar, you ‘ave!”

“Yerss, you ‘ave!” roared the crowd, not knowing what it was he had done. “Down ’im, boys. Dot ’im one. Cop ‘old o’ Joe — don’t let ’im out.”

The potman was dragged also into the parlour and the few loungers in the four-ale bar took the opportunity to come round and help themselves to further drinks. “‘E’s shut Lois up with a monkey. Aw — dirty dog. Less go up and get ‘er out.”

But then the potman cried upon them: “Don’ be damn fools. Wod yer talkin’ about. ‘Ow can ‘e shut ‘er up wiv a monkey — eh? Yer plurry pie-cans! ‘Ow can ‘e? We ain’t got no monkey ’ere!”

“Liar!” cried everybody, as a matter of principle.

“I ain’t a liar. Go an’ see fer yehselves.

We ain’t got no monkey ’ere. Ain’t ‘ad one ’ere for nearly a year. Old Kang Foo sold his to Bostock. Don’ make such damn fools o’ yesselves. Nothin’ ain’t been done to the gel. Old ‘Unk’s on’y punished ‘er cos she’s too chippy. She’s ‘is daughter. Got a right to, ain’t ‘e? If she’d bin mine I’d ‘ave give ‘er a good spankin’. ‘E’s on’y sent ‘er up to the room to frighten ‘er. It’s empty — absolutely empty.”

“Then what’s the screamin’ and rowin’ that’s bin going on all the time? Eh? Listen!”

Low noises came from above. “Cos she’s frightened — ‘at’s why. There’s nothin’ there.”

“Yerss, that’s it,” said the aggrieved Hunk, still wedged against the wall by the crowd. “Yeh makin’ yesselves dam fools. Specially this dam little snipe, son of a copper’s nark. Go up and see fer yesselves since yeh so pushin’. Go on — up yeh go. She’s all right — quiet enough now, cos she’s found out there’s nothing there. I on’y sent ‘er there to get a fright. There warn’t no blasted monkey there.”

“Well, we know the kind o’ swine you are, Hunk. Don’t stand arguin’ there. Get on up!”

“I ain’t a-arguin’ wiv yer. I’m a-telling of yeh. We ain’t got no monkey. Not fer a year. So now. Go on up and see fer yes-selves, yeh dirty lot of poke-noses. She ain’t ‘urt; on’y scared. Half-a-hour in a dark room’ll learn ‘er to be’ave, and it wouldn’t do some of you no ‘arm. Go on! Get up my clean stairs and knock everything to pieces, yeh pack of flat-faced pleading chameleons!” He stopped and spluttered and shook himself with impotent anger. Any one of the crowd he could have put on the floor with one hand, but he recognised that a gang was a gang, and he accepted the situation. He flung a hand to the stair. “Go on — up yeh go — the ‘ole pleadin’ lot of yeh!”

So up they went.

At the top of the house all was very still. The sounds of the river came in little low laps. The noises of the street were scarcely heard at all. They paused in a body at the door. The potman was with them with the key. He unlocked the door, shoved it with a casual hand, and piped:

“Come on, kid — come on out. Some of yeh lovely narky friends think we bin murderin’ yeh.” The boys clustered in an awkward bunch at the door, peering into the darkness. But nobody came out; nobody answered; no sound at all was to be heard. “Strike a light!” shouted a voice. Far below, the silence was bespattered with muddy laughter from the four-ale bar.

The light was brought, and they crowded in. On the bare floor of the room lay Lois. Portions of her clothing were strewn here and there. Her released hair rippled mischievously over her bosom disclosed to the waist. Her stiff hands were curled into her disordered dress. She was dead. The room was otherwise empty.

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