Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

The Father of Yoto

SWEET human hearts — a tale of carnival, moon-haunted nights: a tale of the spring-tide, of the flower and the leaf ripening to fruit: a gossamer thing of dreamy-lanterned streets, told by my friend, Tai Ling, of West India Dock Road. Its scene is not the Hoang Ho or the sun-loved islands of the East, but Limehouse. Nevertheless it is a fairy tale, because so human.

Marigold Vassiloff was a glorious girl. The epithet is not mine, but Tai Ling’s. Marigold lived under the tremendous glooms of the East and West India Docks; and what she didn’t know about the more universal aspects of human life, though she was yet short of twenty, was hardly to be known. You know, perhaps, the East India Dock, which lies a little north of its big brother, the West India Dock: a place of savagely masculine character, evoking the brassy mood. By daytime a cold, nauseous light hangs about it; at night a devilish darkness settles upon it.

You know, perhaps, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner in the surrounding maze of streets, the “general” shops with their assorted rags, their broken iron, and their glum-faced basins of kitchen waste; and the lurid-seeming creatures that glide from nowhere into nothing — Arab, Lascar, Pacific Islander, Chinky, Hindoo, and so on, each carrying his own perfume. You know, too, the streets of plunging hoof and horn that cross and re-cross the waterways, the gaunt chimneys that stick their derisive tongues to the skies. You know the cobbly courts, the bestrewn alleys, through which at night gas-jets asthmatically splutter; and the mephitic glooms and silences of the dock-side. You know these things, and I need not attempt to illuminate them for you.

But you do not know that in this place there are creatures with the lust for life racing in their veins; creatures hot for the moment and its carnival; children of delicate graces; young hearts asking only that they may be happy for their hour. You do not know that there are girls on these raw edges of London to whom silks and wine and song are things to be desired but never experienced. Neither do you know that one of these creatures, my Marigold, was the heroine of one of the most fantastic adventures of which I have heard.

It may offend your taste, and in that case you may reject it. Yet I trust you will agree that any young thing, moving in that dank daylight, that devilish darkness, is fully justified in taking her moments of gaiety as and when she may. There may be callow minds that cry No; and for them I have no answer. There are minds to which the repulsive — such as Poplar High Street — is supremely beautiful, and to whom anything frankly human is indelicate, if not ugly. You need, however, to be a futurist to discover ecstatic beauty in the torn wastes of tiles, the groupings of iron and stone, and the nightmare of chimney-stacks and gas-works. Barking Road, as it dips and rises with a sweep as lovely as a flying bird’s, may be a thing to fire the trained imagination, and so may be the subtle tones of flame and shade in the byways, and the airy tracery of the Great Eastern Railway arches. But these crazy things touch only those who do not live among them: who comfortably wake and sleep and eat in Hampstead and Streatham. The beauty which neither time nor tears can fade is hardly to be come by east of Aldgate Pump; if you look for it there and think that you find it, I may tell you that you are a poseur; you may take your seat at a St. John’s Wood breakfast-table, and stay there.

Marigold was not a futurist. She was an apple-cheeked girl, lovely and brave and bright. The Pool at night never shook her to wonder. Masthead, smoke-stack, creaking crane, and the perfect chiming of the overlying purples evoked nothing responsive in her. If she desired beauty at all, it was the beauty of the chocolate box or the biscuit tin. Wherefore Poplar and Limehouse were a weariness to her. She was a malcontent; and one can hardly blame her, for she was a girl of girls. When she dreamed of happier things, which she did many times a week, and could not get them, she took the next best thing. A sound philosophy, you will agree. She flogged a jaded heart in the loud music hall, the saloons of the dock-side, and found some minutes’ respite from the eternal grief of things in the arms of any salt-browned man who caught her fancy.

Tai Ling was right. She was a moon-blossom. Impossible to imagine what she might have been in gentler surroundings. As it was she was too cruelly beautiful for human nature’s daily food. Her face had not the pure and perfect beauty such as you may find in the well-kept inmates of an Ealing High School. But above that face was a crown of thunderous hair, shot with an elfish sheen, which burned the heart out of any man creature who spotted her. She was small, but ripe-breasted, and moved like a cat. The very lines of her limbs were an ecstasy, and she had, too, an odd, wide laugh — and knew how to use it.

Now it happened one night, when her head was tangled in a net of dreams, that she sought escape in the Causeway, in the little white café where you may take noodle, chop suey, China tea, and other exotic foods. She was the only white thing there. Yellow men and brown were there, and one tan-skinned woman, but Marigold was the only pure product of these islands. At a far table, behind the bead curtain in the corner, sat Tai Ling. He saw her, and lit to a sudden delight of her.

Tai Ling was a queer bird. Not immoral, for, to be immoral, you must first subscribe to some conventional morality. Tai Ling did not. You cannot do wrong until you have first done right. Tai Ling had not. He was just non-moral; and right and wrong were words he did not understand. He was in love with life, and song, and wine, and warmth, and the beauty of little girls. The world to him, as to Marigold, was a pause on a journey, where one might take one’s idle pleasure, while others strewed the path with mirth and roses. He knew only two divisions of people — the gay and the stupid. The problems of this life and the next passed him by. He never turned aside from pleasure, or resisted an invitation to the feast.

In fact, by our standards, a complete rogue; yet the most joyous I have known. I never knew a man with so seductive a smile. It has driven the virtuously indignant heart out of me many a time, and I never knew a girl, white or coloured, who could withstand it. I almost believe it would have beaten down the frigid steel ramparts that begird the English “lady.” It thrilled and tickled you as does the gayest music of Mozart. It had not the mere lightness of frivolity, but, like that music, it had the deep-plumbing gaiety of the love of life, for joy and sorrow.

The moment Tai Ling caught Marigold’s eye, the heart in him sprang like a bird to song, and he began to smile. I say began, for an Oriental smile is not an affair of a swift moment. It has a birth and a beginning. It awakes — hesitates — grows, and at last from the sad chrysalis emerges the butterfly.

A Chinese smile at the full is one of the subtlest expressions of which the human face is capable.

The mischief was done. Marigold went down before that smile without even putting up her guard. Swift on the uptake, she tossed it back to him, and her maddening laugh ran across the room. Tai Ling waited until she drew out a frowsy packet of cigarettes; then back to her he carried the laugh, and slipped a lighted match over her shoulder almost before the cigarette was at her mouth.

It was aptly done. He sat down beside her, and took graceful charge of her hand, while he encircled her waist. He had been flying to and fro long enough on P. & O. boats to have picked up, during his London sojourns, a fair Cockney vocabulary, which he used with a liquid accent; and he began talk with her, in honey-flavoured phrases, of Swatow, of Yokohama, Fuji Yama, Sarawak; of flowered islands, white towns and green bays, and sunlight like wine, and . . . oh, a thousand things that the little cloudy head spun at hearing.

They had more tea and cigarettes, and he bought a scented spice for her, and they left the café together, at about midnight, very glad.

When Marigold gave herself to Tai Ling, as I have explained in that row of dots, she did so because she was happy, and because Tai Ling had amused her, and was pleased with her. But why she met him again and yet again, it is difficult to say. It is difficult also to understand why Tai Ling, who so loved sunshine, and flower and blue water, should have lingered in fusty Limehouse for the space of a year. But the two of them seemed to understand their conduct, and both were happy. For Tai Ling had a little apartment in the Causeway, and thither Marigold would flit from time to time, until . . .

One evening, as they loafed together in the hot, lousy dusk, when the silence was so sharp that a footstep seemed to shatter the night, he learnt, in a flood of joy and curiosity and apprehension, that he was about to become papa.

It overwhelmed him. He nearly choked. It was so astounding, so new, so wonderful, so . . . everything that was inexpressible. Such a thing had not happened before to him. Hitherto, he had but loved and ridden away, the gay deceiver. But now —— He questioned, and conjectured what was to be done; and Marigold replied airily that it didn’t matter much; that if she had a little money she could arrange things. She spoke of a Poplar hospital . . . good treatment . . . quite all right; and thereupon she collapsed at his feet in a tempest of curls and tears.

With that, his emotions cleared and calmed, and resolved themselves into one definite quantity — pride. He drew Marigold on to the cushions, and kissed her, and in his luscious tongue he sang to her; and this is, roughly, what he sang: an old song known to his father:

“O girl, the streams and trees glory in the glamour of spring; the bright sun drops about the green shrubs, and the falling flowers are scattered and fly away. The lonely cloud moves to the hill, and the birds find their leafy haunts. All things have a refuge to which they fly, but I alone have nothing to which to cling. Wherefore, under the moon I drink and sing to the fragrant blossom, and I hold you fast, O flower of the waters, O moon-blossom, O perfect light of day!

“Violets shall lie shining about your neck, and roses in your hair. Your holy hands shall be starred about with gems. Over the green and golden hills, and through the white streets we will wander while the dawn is violet-lidded; and I will hide you in your little nest at night, and love shall be over you for ever!”

That was his song, sung in Chinese. It was old — such songs are not now written in the country of Tai Ling, except by imitators — and Tai Ling might well have forgotten it in the hard labours of his seaman’s life. But he had not, and when it was finished, Marigold was pleased, and clung to him, and told him that she so loved him that she must not inflict this trouble upon him. But he would not hear her.

“Nonono, Malligold,” he murmured, while they raptured, “Malligold — lou shall not go. Lou shall stay with Tai Ling. Oh, lou’ll have evelything beautiful, all same English lady. Tai Ling have heap money — les — and lou shall have a li’l room. . . . Blimey — les . . . clever doctors . . . les.”

And he managed it. He arranged that chamber and that landlady, and that doctor and nurse were duly booked. And he glided in great joy next evening to the café, to inform his friends that he was about to have an heir. He talked loudly and volubly in his rich seaman’s lingo, and suddenly, in the same language, a voice shot through the clamour:

“Tai Ling, you speak no truth!”

Tai Ling sprang up, and his hand flew to the waist of his cotton trousers, and flew back, grasping a kreese.

“Tai Ling,” repeated the voice, still in Chinese, “I say you lie. I am the father of li’l Malligold’s babe!”

At that moment, anything might have happened, had not two shirt-sleeved waiters slipped dexterously between the claimants, and grasped their wrists. Tai Ling’s face was aflame with as much primitive emotion as an Oriental face may show. But his first rage died, as another voice came from the bead curtain at the rear of the little cluster.

“Tai Ling, Wing Foo, you both speak no truth. For Malligold has told me even this evening that the child is mine!” And the third claimant thrust a vehement face through the curtain, and swam down among them. “I,” he cried, his hands quarrelling nervously at his bosom, “I— I am the father of Malligold’s man-child!”

The glances of the three met like velveted blades. For one moment tragedy was in the air. Knives were still being grasped.

Then Tai Ling began his conquering smile. It was caught by the crowd and echoed, and in another moment light laughter was running about, with chattering voices and gesturing hands. The waiters released their hold on the prospective fathers, and the three competitors sat down to a table and called for tea and sweet cakes and cigarettes.

One must admit that Marigold’s conduct was, as the politicians say, deserving of the highest censure; but, you see, she was young, and she needed money for this business — her first. Some small amounts, it appeared, she had managed to collect from Wing Foo and his friend, but neither of them had done what Tai Ling had done so magnanimously. You would have thought, perhaps, that by all the traditions of his race, Ling would have been exceedingly wroth at this discovery of infidelity on the part of one who had shared his bed. But he was not. He sat at the table, and smiled that inscrutable, shattering smile, and in fancy he folded Marigold within his brown arms. His was an easy-going disposition; human kindliness counted with him before tradition and national beliefs. A sweet fellow. A rogue himself, he did not demand perfection in others. No; the infidelity did not anger him. The only point about the business that really disturbed him was that there should be others who aspired to the fatherhood of this, Marigold’s first child, and, he believed, his.

So they sat and talked it over, and when they parted, and each went his way into the night, to tell his tale, Tai Ling went to the Poplar Hippodrome to drown his perplexity. There he witnessed the performance of a Chinese juggler, who blasphemed his assistants in the language of Kennington Gate, and was registered on the voting list at Camberwell as Rab M’Andrew. After sitting in the hall for some hour and a half, his ideas were adjusted, and he went to the house where Marigold was, and gently charged her with what he had heard. She fell at once to tears and protestations and explanations, and desired to go away from him for ever. She had not meant wrong; but . . . she did not know . . . and she had so wanted the money . . . and . . .

Well, he would not let her go. He caught her back, and thrust his forgiveness upon her; and the whole affair ought to have ended in disaster for both of them. But it did not, as you will see.

The next morning, there was a new development. The story of the café conversation was racing about Limehouse and Poplar, when it came to the ears of one, Chuck Lightfoot, a pugilistic promoter. Now parenthood is not an office which the Englishman lightly assumes, but Chuck straightway butted in, and demanded to know, with menaces, what was the matter with his claim. It wasn’t that he was specially anxious to father the child. Indeed, the success of his claim, and the resultant financial outlay, would have seriously disconcerted him. It was just the principle of the thing that riled him. Damn it, he wasn’t going to stand by and be dished by any lousy scarleteer of a yellow devil; not much. He asserted further that by reference to dates he could prove many things which went far to establish his claim; and, finally, if anyone wanted a fight, they’d only got to ask for it.

Apparently no one did; for Tai Ling went about with that smile of his, and shook all seriousness out of them. During the week he called a convocation at the house where he had installed Marigold, and where she now lay, and there they gathered — three yellow men, proud, jealous, reticent, and one vehement white man, hot-eared, inarticulate, and still ready to fight the lot of ’em. Clearly a mistake had happened somewhere. There had obviously been a miscalculation on somebody’s part, to say nothing of a regrettable oversight. But whose child it was remained for proof.

There, then, Marigold lay in a comfortable bed, comfortably attended, awaiting her time; while four men, only politely recognising each other’s existence, sat below and wrangled for the honour of the fatherhood. Was ever a woman in so shameful and so delicious a situation?

At about four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, it happened. . . .

News was brought downstairs. The child was yellow-white, with almond eyes, and it was unmistakably the child of Tai Ling.

Three of the claimants faded away before Tai Ling’s sweet obeisances and compliments, like wind over the grass; the third went raucously, with fierce gesture and trivial abuse.

Now in Tai Ling’s heart was great joy, and he ambled about that house, in his sleek little way, doing delicate, pretty things which no white man could have done or conceived. Seldom has a wooing and matrimony, so conducted, led to the house of bliss. But that is where Marigold and Tai Ling are living.

One day, when the baby Yoto was six weeks old, there arrived at the house six clusters of white flowers and six scented boxes — one for Marigold, one for Yoto, and one each for the three disappointed claimants; and, these love-gifts were duly delivered by Tai Ling himself to the recipients, all of whom received them sweetly, save Chuck Lightfoot; and what he said or did is of no account.

Tai Ling and Marigold are still in West India Dock Road, and very prosperous and happy they are, though, as I say, they have no right to be. Yoto has now a brother and a sister, each of whom is the owner of a little scented box. Visit them all one day, at the provision shop, which is the third as you pass Pennyfields; and they will tell you this story more delicately and fragrantly than I.

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