Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

The Cue

DOWN Wapping way, where the streets rush right and left to water-side and depot, life ran high. Tide was at flood, and below the Old Stairs the waters lashed themselves to fury. Against the savage purple of the night rose a few wisps of rigging and some gruff funnels: lyrics in steel and iron, their leaping lines as correct and ecstatic as a rhymed verse. Under the cold glare of the arc lights, gangs of Asiatics hurried with that impassive swiftness which gives no impression of haste. The acrid tang of the East hung on every breath of air.

Hardly the place to which one would turn as to the city of his dreams; yet there are those who do. Hearts are broken by Blackwall Gardens. The pity and terror and wonder of first love burn in the blood and limbs of those who serve behind the counters of East India Dock Road or load up cargo boats at the landing-stages. Love-mad hands have buried knives in little white bosoms in Commercial Road, and songs are written by the moon across many a happy garret-window in Cable Street.

Once, in these streets, when the gas lamps glimmered and the night was stung with stars, I heard a tale.

The little music hall near the water-side had just slammed its doors on the last stage hand, and stood silent and dark. Stripped of its lights and noise, it gave rather the impression of last night’s beer: something flat and stale and squalid. It seemed conscious of the impression it created; there was something shamefaced about it, as of one caught doing unmentionable but necessary things.

At the mouth of the stage-door passage, illumined by a gas jet which flung a light so furtive as to hint that it could show a great deal more if it would, stood a man and a girl. The girl was covered from neck to foot in an old raincoat. The man wore soiled evening-dress, covered by an ulster. A bowler hat rode cockily on one side of his head. A thin cigar thrust itself impetuously from a corner of his large mouth. Approached from behind, he looked English, but his face was flat, and his head was round. The colour of his skin was a murky yellow. He had almonds for eyes. His hair was oily. He was a half-caste: the son of a Shadwell mother and a Chinese father.

He put both hands on the girl’s shoulders. He spoke to her, and his face lit with slow passion. She shook her head. She laughed.

“Nit, Chinky, nit. You’re a nice old boy, I know, and it was real kind of you to give me all those nice things. But it wouldn’t be fair for me to lead you on, y’know. I don’t love you. Not a bit. Never did. I’ve got my boy. The boy I work with. Been with him for five years now, I have. So that’s that. And now I must pop off, else the old thing will be wondering what’s happened to me.”

The half-caste musician glared down at her. He pawed her. He told her, in his labial enunciation, that she was too pretty for music-hall work. He told her that she was a wonderful girl, and murmured: “Sweet, lovely li’l girl. Oh, my beautiful, my beautiful!”

She tittered; and when she moved away he walked by her side, stroking her sleeve. She began to talk conversationally:

“Never mind, old boy. Cheer up. Rotten house to-night, wasn’t it? I thought we was going to get the bird, specially when you missed the cue for our change. Oh, and by the way, be careful of those changes, old boy. Y’see, Johnnie’s been doing that collapsing trapeze stunt for about five years now, and he always does it to The Bridal Chorus music. You want to watch that, y’know; you changed about half-a-tick too soon to-night, and anything like that jars him. See? Well, here’s my turning. So long, kid.”

But he did not let her go. His tone of casual compliment swiftly changed. He caught her wrists and held them. “I want you! “ His straight, flat lips were moist. She drew away; he pulled her to him, bent, swung her from her feet, and crushed her small body against his, bruising her little mouth with angry kisses.

But she raised a sharp hand and pushed him in the face.

“Here — steady on, Chinky!” she cried, using the name which she knew would sting him to the soul. She was disconcerted and inclined to be cross, while half laughing. “Don’t take liberties, my son. Specially with me. You’re only a yellow rat, y’know.”

Something flickered for an instant beneath his long, narrow lashes, and in another instant was gone. He bent again. “O li’l lovely girl. . . . My dear!” Some beast seemed to leap within him. His hands mauled her with intent cruelty, as though he would break and devour her.

“Don’t!” she enjoined. “Chuck it — you look such a silly fool! “ She thrust him away, and rearranged her disordered hair. She was not by any means afraid of him; wasn’t he only a poor, wretched half-caste? But at the same time she didn’t want him; didn’t like the odour of his oily black hair which was right under her nose, or the reek of stale smoke that hung about his dress-suit. She skipped out of his reach, and cocked a little finger at him, while she sang, light-heartedly:

“I love you, little yellow bird, But I love my libertee!”

Like a yellow wraith Cheng Brander faded into the night, his face and gait calm and inscrutable. Before him danced the face of Jewell Angell, like a lamp lit by the pure candour of her character: Jewell Angell, the lady partner in the music hall acrobatic turn of Diabolo and Angela.

He walked home, suffering an overmastering desire to hurt this beautiful, frail thing that had called him Yellow Rat. To strike her physically would, he knew, be useless; these fool English did not understand that women might justifiably be struck; and also, Jewell was, by her profession, too hard and sturdy, for all her appearance of frailty, to be hurt by any blow that he could deliver on her body. But there were, perchance, other ways. His half-Oriental brain uncoiled itself from its sensuous sloth and glided through a strange forest of ideas, and Cheng Brander slept that night in the bosom of this forest.

Next evening, as musical director of the dusty, outmoded theatre of varieties, he climbed to his chair, his blinking face as impassive as ever, his hand as steady. Some of the boys in the orchestra had often objected to working under a yellow peril, but he was a skilled musician, and the management kept him on because he drew to the hall the Oriental element of the quarter. He ducked from below, slid to his chair, and, on the tinkle of the stage manager’s bell, took up his baton, tapped, and led the boys through some rag-tag overture.

Diabolo and Angela were fourth call, and at the moment of the overture they were in their dressing-rooms, making up. Their turn consisted of an eccentric gymnastic display, culminating in a sensational drop by Diabolo from a trapeze fixed in the flies to a floating trapeze on the stage. The drop involved two somersaults, and the space and the moment must be nicely calculated so that his hands should arrive in precise juxtaposition with the swing of the lower trapeze. Every movement in the turn and the placing of every piece of property was worked out to the quarter-inch. The heightening or lowering of either trapeze, by the merest shade, would make a difference in the extent of his reach and might turn the double fall into disaster. Everything being fixed in the usual way — and he always personally superintended the fixing of his props — Diabolo knew exactly when to fall and how far to swing out. He would wait for The Bridal Chorus, catch the tact of the music in his pulses, and the rest was automatic, or, at any rate, sub-conscious. On the first note of a certain bar, he would swing off and arrive a second later, on the lower bar. For five years he had done the trick thus, and never once had he erred. It was as easy as stepping off the pavement; and so perfectly drilled were his muscles and nerve centres that he got no thrill of any kind out of his evening’s work.

The call-boy shot a bullet head through Diabolo’s door, and cried for band parts. They were flung at him — band parts composed of a medley of popular airs. He returned ten minutes later.

“The Six Italias are on, sir.”

“Right-o!” said Diabolo, and descended the stone stairs. In the wings he met Jewell, and they moved round the front cloth, before which a girl was snarling and dancing and divulging the fact that her wardrobe was of the scantiest. They moved among their props, pulling at this, altering that, and swearing at the stage hands, who accepted curses as other men accept remarks about the weather.

“Hope that yellow pussy’ll get your changes a bit smarter to-night,” said Jewell. “Did I tell you the little perisher’s been after me? Yep. . . . Fancy thinking I’d take him on! Fresh little greaser! Mauled me about, too. I pretty quick dropped it across him, you bet.”

“Good,” said Johnnie. “I’ll pull his yeller face to bits if he comes round you while I’m about. Tell him from me he’d best stop trifling with suicide. Better ring through, p’r’aps, and tell him to follow our marks on the score. Here — Fred — ring the band, will you, and tell him Diabolo and Angela want him to watch out for their cues, ‘cos he mucked ’em last night. Tell him we change to Number Five directly I’m up the rope.”

They drew back to the wings as the seriocomic girl kicked a clumsy and valedictory leg over the footlights and fell against the entrance curtain. They heard their symphony being blared by the brass, and then, with that self-sufficient, mincing gait traditional to the acrobat, they tripped on.

It was a poor house — a Tuesday night house — thin and cold. They did not go well; and while Diabolo was doing the greater share of the stunts, Jewell stood against the back-cloth, with arms behind her in the part of the attendant sprite. From there she was looking into the bleak, blank face of Cheng Brander, and she thought that a baboon might wag a baton with as much intelligence. His attitude in the chair was always the same: negligent, scornful. He saw nothing from his Olympian detachment, looked at none of the turns, smiled at none of their quips, but leant back in his chair at a comfortable angle, his elbow resting on the arm, his wrist directing the beat of the baton, his glance fixed either on the score or wandering to the roof.

Following a brilliant display of jugglery with Indian clubs, Johnnie bowed and danced himself up-stage, whence, by a pulley-rope, he was hauled to the flies. Jewell mouthed at the stage manager in the wings. The stage manager spoke through the telephone, and Cheng Brander, bending to the receiver, listened:

“Number Five,” said the voice to Cheng Brander.

“Number Nine,” said Cheng Brander to his men.

“One! Two! Three!” cried the voice of Johnnie from the flies. The audience could just perceive his head, as he swung by the legs from the upper trapeze.

“Number Nine,” Cheng Brander had said, and the band blared, not The Bridal Chorus, but Stars and Stripes. Johnnie was swinging in rhythm to a melody with which he was so familiar that he was expecting it before a bar was to be heard. He was anticipating the beat of The Bridal Chorus, and the muscles of his legs had, of their own accord, slacked their hold on the bar in readiness for the exact moment of release, when his ears told him of a mistake. Something was wrong somewhere — something — something. . . . In a fraction of a second he realised that the beat of the music was not the beat to which his nerves were keyed. In a fraction of a second he tried to recover, to check the incipient fall. But his nerves, thrown out of gear by this unexpected rhythm at such a moment, failed to respond. The trapeze swung forward. His hands clutched air. His legs went limp. He came down on his head. One heard a muffled blow as of something cracking.

A short, sharp gasp came from the house. Cheng bent forward and peered across the lights. The curtain fell, and the house rose, sick and disquieted. As it fell, the woman rushed down-stage, and bent with fond hands and inarticulate cries over the body of her boy.

“The man’s dead,” said Cheng. “The show’s stopped. Play them out with The Chinese Patrol.” He raised his baton, and his face was grave and inscrutable, save for a tiny flickering at the yellow eyelids, which told that he was very, very happy.

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