Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

The Paw

IT was the maidenly month of April, though it was not to be known in Pennyfields except by the calendar: a season of song and quickening blood. Beyond London, amid the spray of meadow and orchard, bird and bee were making carnival, but here one still gambled and waited to find a boat. Limehouse has no seasons. It has not even the divisions of day and night. Boats must sail at all hours at the will of the tide, and their swarthy crews are ever about. It has no means of marking the pomp of the year’s procession. Lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move on the meadows. In Limehouse there are only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness, and winter a time of fog. There may perhaps be those who long to escape from it when the calendar calls spring, to kiss their faces to the grass, to lose their tired souls in tangles of green shade; but they are hardly to be met with. For the most, Limehouse is sufficient. These rather futile green fields and songs of birds and bud-spangled trees are all very well, if you have the limited mind, but how much sweeter are the things of the hands, the darling friendliness of the streets!

It was this season of flower and awakening that was the setting for the most shuddering tale that the Chinese quarter can tell.

It is of Greaser Flanagan, gateman at a docks station, and his woman: how she was stolen from him by Phung-tsin, the Chink, and of Flanagan’s revenge.

Now Greaser Flanagan was a weak man, physically and morally flabby. Your strong man fears nothing but himself. The Greaser feared everything but himself. He feared God, he feared the devil, and other men’s opinions and their hands, and he feared life and death. He did not fear himself, for he was in the wretched position of knowing himself for the thing he was.

He was not a bad man. He had neither the courage for evil nor the tenderness for good. He was a Nothing. He did not smoke. He seldom swore. He did not drink. But he was a bit of a hop-hoad, and did sometimes hire an upper room in the Causeway, and sprawl his restless nerves on the solitary bed, with a pipe of li-un or a handful of snow, and from it snatch some of the rich delights that life gave to others.

Now narcotised sensibilities are all very well for the grey routine of life. They help you to bridge the gaps. They carry you through the tedium of things, and hold you in velvet and silk against the petty jolts and jars. But when the big crisis comes, the grief of a lifetime . . . well, that you feel just ten times deeper and longer than the normal person. God! How it bites and stings and lacerates, and bites again, and tears the roots out of you, and creeps into every nerve and tissue of you, and sucks at the bones! How it scalds and itches and bruises and burns the body of you, and colours every moment of thought, and strangles your sleep!

So the Greaser found it. For the Greaser loved his wife with the miserable, furious passion of a weak thing. He loved her to life and death as such men do when they rise to it at all. He only lived when with her. Opium could not give him what even the sense of neighbourhood with her could give him. Of all things in the world he loved only her; his crawling blood only ran warm when she was by.

Which was not as often as it should have been, for she took her departures when and as she chose. Sometimes she would be out for a day, and return in the dark morning, without explanation or excuse.

And suddenly, on a bright Sunday, he lost her for all. She went from him to a yellow man in Pennyfields, leaving a derisive note of final farewell. The brutality of the blow got him like a knife on a wound. Something fouled within him, and for an hour or so he was stupid — a mere flabby Thing in a cotton suit. Then, as his faculties returned, they returned in fevered form. Something had happened. He was a new man — a man with an idea — a fixed goal — a haunting.

The Chinky must be killed. He wanted to kill him, but he knew he had not the pluck or the strength to do it. Did he hate Daffodil, his girl? No; he loved her with a more absurd little passion than before. He wanted her back, but not to harm her. It was the Chinky on whom all his thin rage was directed.

The Chinky must be killed.

The Chinky must be killed.

Round and round his brain it rolled. . . . Kill the Chink. He realised dimly that his life had now but one purpose, the outing of the Chink. In his slow, untaught mind a dozen snakely schemes uncoiled themselves, but all were impracticable for him. For all his brute ignorance, however, he had, as people of the soil often have, a perception which sometimes leads directly to surprisingly shrewd conclusions, to which the educated mind only comes by steps of thought.

He sat on the edge of a rickety chair, his hands on his knees, his face to the floor; and so he sat, all through that Sunday evening, thinking, planning; now determined, now fearing. But that night he began his work, and in five days it was done.

There had been born to Daffodil and the Greaser a daughter. He had never much noticed the child, for he was not demonstrative, and was not at ease with any children or animals. The three of them had lived in one dirty, bare room in the throttled byway of Formosa Terrace, one room in which they commonly lived, slept, ate and toileted. As he lay on his ragged bed, sleepless, that night, he suddenly saw, clearly, as though the Fates had placed it in his hand, the weapon whereby he should achieve his desire. He dared not do it himself. His limbs had shaken for hours at the mere notion of the act. He was afraid of a fight with the Chinky; and he leapt to a cold, wet terror at the prospect of the Old Bailey and the light cord. But . . . as this new idea came to him, he lay and shivered with joy; the joy that a craftsman will take in a difficult task skilfully performed. In fifteen minutes it was all planned. It could be done — oh, easy! The result would hurt no one. A few years’ detention in a good home for the culprit, and then release under official auspices — nothing of any consequence. He knew well the material he had to work upon — nervous, resilient material, responsive to suggestion, half paralysed by command — and how to work upon it in such a way that nothing could be traced to him. Oh, it was too damned easy, with that material — namely, the fruit of a hysterical, erotic girl and a weedy opium-jolter. He lay and pinched his white face and the limp hair about his mouth, and chortled. He would start now. In the corner of the room farthest from the window was young Myrtle’s mattress. He crawled out of bed, stretched himself horribly, and moved over the bare floor to where she lay lost and lovely in sleep. Had the Greaser heard of what he was about to do as the conduct of another, he would have turned sick. But the man was mad, soberly mad. The thought of having the horrid Chinky stark and stiff and bloodless in a day or two was so sweet that it burned all other emotion out of him. Gawd — to think of it! Even now, when Limehouse Church was squeaking one o’clock, perhaps the Chinky’s lemon hands were upon the skin of his Daffodil! Now, perhaps, he was stripping her, kissing, with his long, wet lips, all the beauty of white arms and breast, and knowing by now, as well as the Greaser, every bit of that shining body that had been his for eleven years, and still was his — his — his! Gawd! It was suffocating to think about! If he was a strong man — if he could get the throat of the lousy Chinky in his hands, and squeeze the wind out of it! But he had seen him fight, he knew the dexterity of his tactics. That dexterity, however, would not avail against this new scheme.

So he grabbed the thin blanket that covered Myrtle, flung it off, and, before she was awake, half-a-dozen sharp, light blows had fallen on the exposed little form from a switch. Three gasps of surprise, and then a scream of pain tore through the night. Again and again he whipped her, against her screams and struggles. All about the writhing limbs the fang fell, until screams and appeals sank to moans and a fight for breath; and then a hoarse voice came to her out of the dark:

“Know what that’s for?” She had not the strength to force a word, but at a sharp cut she pleaded through automatic sobs.

“That’s ‘cos yer ma’s gone with the yeller man, that is. So now yer know. The yeller man took yer ma away, damn ’im, and I gotter look after yeh meself now. So that’ll learn yeh to be’ave yerself — see? Someone ought to stick a knife into that bloody Chink — that’s what they ought. Now, hold yer row and go to sleep, else you’ll have some more.”

As quickly as he had descended on her, he left her and returned to bed, and there he lay murmuring to himself. And when Myrtle, with stifled cries and sobs and chokings, fell at last into a late sleep, it was with terror in her heart, and a voice in her ears that was mumbling: “Someone’s gotter stick a knife inside that bloody Chink!”

Next morning he said nothing of the happenings of the night, but he did not go to work. And suddenly he called her to him, and stood her between his knees, and so held her in a vice. For some three minutes he held her thus, staring at her, silent and motionless. The child stood, scarcely supported by the little strength that was in her, like a mesmerised rabbit.

Then a hand concealed behind him shot up savagely at her cheek. She reeled, but made no movement to break away, and as she fell sideways across him, a lean dog-whip curled with a clever crack about her legs. He made her stand up, and caressed her with the whip, letting her cower away, and bringing her smartly back, and then, through her strangled screams and moans, she became aware that he was singing. The tune was a music-hall lilt, and the song was:

“Someone oughter stick a knife — stick a knife — stick a knife — someone oughter stick a knife acrost that bloody Chink!”

On went the merry song, while little supplications, and moans rising to screams, and screams dropping to moans, punctuated it, and with each scream and gasp he suffered a thrill of ecstasy. Then he made her undress, and slashed her round the room, slashed her to a faint, and himself to a whirlwind of profanity, all to the little tune of the Chink. As she dropped in a grey swoon at the window, her eyes closed, her breathing scarcely perceptible, he got the water-jug and flung its contents full over her. A mechanical panting and muscular jerks were the only sign of life; she was now but a quivering organism. But he took her arm and twisted it, and the new shock of pain aroused her to the tune of “Stick a knife — stick a knife — inside that bloody Chink!” She was too weak to make any sound, or to plead for release; and while the Greaser got some cheap whisky from a cupboard, and forced her mouth open, and poured some few drops down, there was a terrible silence where a moment ago had been lunatic screams and the voice of the whip.

Then he dragged her up, and bade her dress, and amused himself with playing the switch about her beaten limbs, still chanting his song; and at last he flung her to a corner, and went out, locking the door upon her.

He had begun his work well. For as she lay there, sick with pain, bleeding and lacerated and quivering, knowing nothing of the reason for this change in the nature of things, but conscious only that it was not so before ma went away, she had in her head a horrible tune that jangled, and would not leave her. It tripped to the racing of her burning pulse, to the throbbing of her scorched body, and to the beating of the dynamo in the gas-station beyond the window:

“Someone ought to stick a knife — stick a knife — stick a knife — someone ought to stick a knife across that bloody Chink!”

What happened during the next four days in that loathly room can hardly be told. Day and night there were screamings and entreaties. Not one night’s rest did she know. Sleep for an hour he would give her, and then she would be awakened by a voice singing a familiar song of “Stick-a-knife,” and lean hands that worked horrors upon her rosy limbs.

The lemon-coloured curls and the delicate, light beauty of her, so like her mother, must often have smote him, but he never swerved from his aim, and in a day or two she became an automaton, anticipating his wish, moving at a turn of his head, obedient to his unspoken word. As his idea progressed by these methods he found that the beast that lies in all of us had burst its chain, and a lust of torture possessed him. He seemed to lose himself in a welter of cruelty, yet never lost his sense of direction.

In the intervals of these debauches and the pursuance of his plan, his love-mad heart would be full to sickness for his lost Daffodil, and the beauty of her, and her ways and speech — how thus she would go, and thus, and say so and so. He would awake at night and not find her by him, and his very bones would yearn for the girl who had chucked him for a yellow man. And then he would think upon his plan, and, thinking upon that, he would try to further it; and once the beast of cruelty was loosed again, it would run in him with a consuming pace, until he began to fear that the child would be too overdone for his desire.

At last, on the fourth day, he neared the end. She had been laid across the chair and beaten almost to physical insensibility, and the inevitable reaction on the mind had left her mentally quiescent, blank. He had timed it cunningly. For all his abandonment to the passion of torment, some poison in his blood had led him clearly to his goal; and it was almost with a shriek of glee that he heard her speak after one of those assaults which she had come to regard as normal and to accept without surprise.

“Dad — why don’t someone kill the Chink, then?”

He held himself well in hand, and answered casually: “‘Cos they’re all afraid, that’s why.”

“No one couldn’t kill the Chink, could they?”

“Course they could. Easy. Any afternoon. All them lot goes to sleep every afternoon — Chinky, too, in a dark room. Anyone could kill ’im then. As easy! I’d like someone to do it, that I would. Taking yer ma away from you and me, dammim!”

“How’d they do it, then?”

“Why — ” He caught her by the frock, and dragged her to him. The physical pain of the four days had left her half animal, and in her face, swollen with tears, was a vacant look with less of intelligent consciousness than a cat’s. She did not notice that the hand that pulled her was not cruel, but gentle. “Why, easy he’d do it. He’d go to the Chink’s house — the brown ’un at the corner — and he’d slip through the door, ‘cos it’s alwis open. And he’d creep to the back room where the Chinky sleeps, all in the dark. And he’d creeeeep up to the bed. And he’d have the knife in both hands. And he’d bring it down — Squelch! — into the Chinky’s neck — so!”

He pantomimed, and noticed with delight that the child’s face was drawn, as in one who strives to learn a lesson.

“But why don’ someone do it, then, and bring ma back to us?”

“Oh — ‘cos they’re afraid. And ‘cos they mustn’t — that’s why. It’d be murder. Killing people ain’t right. Murder’s awful wicked.”

“Don’t you wish Chinky was dead, dad? I do.”

“Not ‘arf I don’t. I’d be a better man if Chinky was dead. It ain’t right to say that, but I wish he was. But there . . . you don’t want to think about that kind of thing. It ain’t nice. Don’t you go thinking about it. And don’t talk about it no more. Else you’ll get some more of what I just done to yer!”

Next morning, he summoned her, and tore the frock from her, and whipped her again, and tied her to the bed, suspended, so that her feet twisted and just touched the ground. And there he left her till noon. Again and again her aching head would droop, and throw the weight on her arms, and every time she raised it she would see, on the mantelshelf before her, a knife that was not there before — a large, lean knife — and a cheap “sticky-back” photograph — a portrait of the Chink. And as she swayed with the sustained torture, in her little brain sluggish thoughts began to crawl, and the golden head was moved to much strange reasoning.

At noon, he returned and released her, and let her dress, and gave her food. At about three o’clock he departed suddenly, leaving the door unlocked. He stayed away for part of an hour.

When he came back, the room was empty, and he had great joy. His heart sang; he flicked his fingers.

He squatted down by the fetid bed, chewing a piece of betel nut, and waited for her.

At four o’clock he heard the chatter of small feet in the passage, and then a little storm of frock and dishevelled stockings burst into the room, slipped and fell, and rose again, and fell yet again on seeing the Greaser’s sensual grin. Her face was whipped to a flame, and her breathing was hard. Her hands clutched the breast of her frock.

“Oh!” was the cry she gave, and for a moment she stood transfixed, expectant of an assault. And when it did not come, she ran on:

“Oh, dad, don’t beat me, don’t whip me.

Daddy, I only run out just to — to do some-think. I done it, dad. I done what they was frightened to do. Dad, aincher glad? I bin and killed him. I bin and killed the Chinky. I done him in, dad. All in the dark. He’s dead all right. I put it right in . . . both hands. Don’t whip me no more. I thought it’d bring ma back, p’r’aps. I thought. . . . Oooh! Don’t look like that . . . dad! . . . ”

His heart leapt. He could have howled with laughter. He wanted to kick his legs on the bed, and roll about. But he veiled all truth, and stared at the child with a face that assumed a grey terror.

“You done . . . what?” he asked, in slow tones of wonder. “You done . . . you killed someone. . . . Myrtle . . . killed that Chink. Oh — my — Gawd!”

“Yes,” she said, with stark simplicity, stupidly fingering a large knife which she had drawn from under her frock. “Yep. I done ’im proper. ‘Cos he took ma away from us. Look — here’s the knife. I went right in, all in the dark. Mind — it’s wet. It went right in. It didn’t half spurt out.”

“Oh, Gawd,” he screamed, acting better than he knew. “Blood. Oh, Gawd!” He sank limply to the bed, his figure a question mark. Then he leapt up, dashed to the door, and rushed, in a cloud of words, to the street, crying hoarsely:

“Oh, Gawd! Police! Police! Someone tell the police. My kid’s done a murder. Our Myrtle’s bin and killed a Chink. Oh, Gawd. Oh, Gawd. Come in, someone. Someone go in to her. She’s stuck a knife in a Chink, and she’s playing with it, and it’s got blood on it. Oh, Gawd, can’t someone tell the police!”

In the space of a minute, Formosa Terrace, at that hour torpid and deserted, awoke to furious life. A small, vivid crowd surrounded him, and he stood at its centre, gesturing wildly, his hair dropping, his face working, as, fifty times, he told his tale.

Then a whistle was blown, and slowly the police came; and some went to Pennyfields, to the house of the Chink, and another took the child, and the sergeant took the Greaser and questioned him. He had it all so pat, and was so suitably garrulous and agitated, that he noted with glee how suspicion fell from him.

Yes, the knife was his; it had been given him at the docks by a Malay. Yes, he did hate the Chink because the Chink had taken his wife, the child’s mother; and quite probably he had said that the Chink ought to die. Not the right thing to say, perhaps, but quite likely he’d said it, because he felt like that then. No, he hadn’t been to work to-day, but he’d been round at old Benny’s most of the morning, and the people downstairs saw him come in about an hour ago. Yes, he had punished the child several times lately. Had had to. His missus had gone with the Chink, and left him alone with the child to look after as well as himself, and he couldn’t manage her. He’d had to whip her because she was dirty. (He brushed away a well-forced tear.) But if ever he’d have thought anything like this was going to happen, he’d never have left that knife there. Gawd help him if he would. To think that his kid — his only kid — should do a murder. It was awful. What’d he done to deserve two blows like that? His wife gone; and now his little kid to kill someone. . . . Gawd.

And he broke upon the arms of the supporting constables.

Myrtle and he were taken to the station, the child wondering and a little pleased with the novelty; he with his life’s work done, his Daffodil’s ravisher put to sleep. His statement was taken again, and he was told that he must consider himself detained with the child, to which he brokenly concurred.

Now there came to the station the officers who had visited the Chink’s house, and they made a verbal report of what they had seen.

And suddenly, there burst upon the quiet station a great howl — the howl of a trapped beast, as Greaser Flanagan fell forward over the desk and hammered the floor with his fists.

“Yerss,” the constable was saying; “yerss — we bin there. Found the body all right. In bed. Knife wound through the neck — left side. On’y it ain’t the Chink. It’s a woman. It’s Daffodil Flanagan!”

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