Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England

IT is an episode in the life and death of Beryl Hermione Maud Chudder and of Croucher Stumpley, and it is told because it is beautiful, and because the rest of England arose in its fat, satin’d, Bayswater wrath, and called it beastly. Horrid things have to be told with it, as with all tales of Limehouse; but hear the story, if you will, and be gentle, be pitiful.

The Croucher, known also as the Prize Packet and the Panther, was only a boy, just nineteen; and when he quitted the ring one Saturday night at Netherlands, after a heavy and fast fifteen rounds, in which only the gong had saved his opponent from the knockout, it was with a free mind, careless of the future, joyful in the present. He had no fight in view for another two months; therefore he could cut loose a bit, for, in wine or want, he was always gay. There had, then, been drinks after the fight — several; but it was the last that did the trick — an over-ripe gin. It had made him ill, and he had slouched away from the boys to be ill quietly. Now he wanted something to pull him together again, for he thought — as one does think after three or four — that five or six might do the trick; so behold him, at ten-thirty on this Saturday night, loafing along East India Dock Road, and turning into Pennyfields. From Pennyfields he drifted over West India Dock Road, passed a house where a window seemed deliberately to wink at him, and so swung into that Causeway where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West. Here he was known and popular with the Chinkies, for he was a quiet lad, with nothing of bombast, and liked to talk with them. Besides, he was famous. He had knocked out Nobby Keeks, the Limehouse Wonder, and had once had Seaman Hunks in serious difficulties for ten rounds, though matched above his weight; and altogether was regarded as a likely investment by the gang that backed him.

In the Causeway all was secrecy and half tones. The winter’s day had died in a wrath of flame and cloud, and now pinpoints of light pricked the curtain of mist. The shuttered gloom of the quarter showed strangely menacing. Every whispering house seemed an abode of dread things. Every window seemed filled with frightful eyes. Every corner, half lit by the bleak light of a naked gas-jet, seemed to harbour unholy things, and a sense of danger hung on every step. The Causeway was just a fog of yellow faces and labial murmurings.

The Croucher entered the little bar at the corner. The company was poor: two bashful Chinkies and two dock drunks. As he strode in, one of the drunks was talking in tones five sizes larger than life. The landlord was maintaining his reputation for suaviter in modo by informing him at intervals that he was a perfect bloody nuisance to any respectable house, and the sooner he drank up and cleared and never came near his bar again, the better; while his pal attended to the fortiter in re by prodding him repeatedly over the kidneys.

“Well, if yer want a woman, have a woman, and shut up about it.”

“Aw right. I’ll give ten bob for one to-night — there!” And with a proud hand he jumped a half-sovereign on the table and caught it.

The Croucher had a brandy, and followed the conversation without listening. He was, as he said, off-colour. Bad-tempered about everything, like, and didn’t know why. Everything was all right. But . . . well, he just felt like that. He wanted something to happen. Something new. His thoughts swam away like roving fish, and came back suddenly, as the roaring of the two drunks dropped. It was one of the Chinks who was talking now, in a whisper:

“Ah said get you one for twelve shillings.”

The drunk thrust up a distorted jaw and stared at him. The stare was meant to be strong and piercing; it was merely idiotic.

“What’s she like?”

“Dark. Heap plitty.”

“Give you ten bob.”

“No. Twelve shillings. Nice gel.”

“Where’s she come from? How long you had her?”

Now the Croucher pricked up his ears and butted in. He had an idea. Here was something that might amuse him for a bit, and take off that sickish feeling. A nice girl. . . . Good fun. Yes, rather. He had wanted something fresh, some kind of excitement to stir things up a bit. He felt better already.

“‘Ere, Chinky,” he called. “Leave that blasted drunk and come over here. Got somethink for yeh.”

The blasted drunk got up, by a grip on the Chink’s coat tail, and mentioned that he’d show kids whether they could insult a perfly respectable sailor by . . . He then saw that the kid was the Croucher, and his mate pulled him back, and he slid off the seat and was no more heard of.

“Look here, Chinky,” murmured Croucher, “I’ll . . . what you going to have? Right-o. Two brandies, quick. . . . Is this all right, this gel?”

“Sh! Les. Always all light with Wing Too, eh?”

“Well, listen. I’m on to that. See?”

Wing Foo slid aside, and conferred with his fat yellow friend.

“All light,” he agreed, returning to the Croucher. “You come ‘long now, and see her. You have my room, les.”

The three slid into the Causeway together. The air was busy with the wailing of a Chinese fiddle. All about them was gloom; twilit shops; snatches of honeyed talk; fusty smells; bits of traffic; seamen singing. They crossed the road, slipped Pennyfields, and came to the house set with its back to the corner whose single window had winked at the Croucher a few minutes past.

The door yielded at a push, and they entered the main room, lit by a forlorn candle. The elder Chink extended a fiat hand. The Croucher filled it with thirty pieces of silver, and the bargain was made. One of them disappeared, and a moment or so later the purchase appeared at the foot of the stairs which led from the fireplace. On seeing the Croucher her colour grew, and she gave a quick gasp of surprise which was unnoticed by the Chinks. But the Croucher caught it. Beryl Hermione Maud was dark and just fourteen; a neat little figure, not very tall for her age, but strangely intuitive, over-ripe, one might say. Morally, she had grown too fast. Though only fourteen years were marked in the swift lines of her form, in her face were all the wisdom and all the tears of the ages. She was one of those precocities which abound in this region. She had a genius for life, for divining its mysteries, where others wait on long years of experience. Her father had said that she was a fast little bitch because she stayed out late and lengthened her skirts, and he threatened to wallop her if she didn’t behave herself. She then made the mistake of assuming that this new dignity afforded her the protection of maturity, and proceeded to further liberties. Her father made haste to shake her belief in this idea, and to remind her that she was only fourteen, by turning up those lengthened skirts and giving her the spanking she deserved. This so exasperated her that she ran away from Tidal Basin, and here she was with the yellow men.

She really was a dainty production. Not beautiful in the Greek sense, for there is nothing more tedious than the Greek idea of beauty and proportion. Beryl Hermione Maud’s beauty was more interesting; indefinite, wayward. The features were irregular, but there was some quality in the face that called you back. To look into it was to look into the solemn deeps of a cathedral. Only the lips held any touch of grossness. Her skin was translucent and fine. Her thick loaded curls tumbled to her neck. Her glances were steady and reticent, and in her movements was the shy dignity of the child.

The Croucher was fairly drunk by this time, but he was sober enough to look at her and discover that she was desirable, and had great joy to give to men. He swayed across to her, and put his steely arms about her white neck. She greeted him with a smile, and remained limp and passive under his embrace, her face lifted, expectant. A shudder ran about her of delight, fear, and wonder. He was about to seal the bargain with an unholy kiss when through the hush of the hour came the crack of a revolver shot.

All started. A moment later came a great shout, and then a babble. There was chorus of many feet. The noise swelled to a broad roar, the feet came faster.

Smack! came a stone at the window, and a trickling of broken glass. The Croucher swung away from Beryl Hermione Maud and looked out. A man, his whole body insane with fear, was running to the house; behind him was a nightmare of pursuers. Five seconds, and he was at the door. Without knowing why, the Croucher pulled it open. The man collapsed in the little room. The Croucher shut the door.

“Good Gawd, the ol’ man!”

“Let yer old dad in, boy! Gimme a chance! . . . Oh, Gawd. They nearly ‘ad me. I done a murder. Just ‘ad time to run. Old Borden told me you’d gone with the Chinks. ‘Elp me, boy, ‘elp me. Don’t let ’em git me. They’ll ‘ang me. ‘Ang me. Oh, Christ — they’re coming!” His voice rose to a scream. “Don’t go back on me. Gimme a chance to hide. Keep ’em back while I get wind. I can’t run no more. Go out, and ‘it ’em, boy. You can. Stand by yer dad!”

But the Croucher was not wanting these appeals. Already he had dragged the old man up, and sat him in a chair. Now there was a fury of police whistles spurting into the night like water on a fire. The anger of the streets came to them in throbbing blasts. The Croucher slipped to the window. From under his coat he drew a Smith–Wesson. The old man stretched a stupid hand.

“D— d — d — don’t! Don’t shoot ’em. Fight ’em!”

“Blast you — and shut up!” snapped the Croucher. “It’s all right. It’ll just stop ’em. It’s blanks.”

He raised the gun to the broken pane and fired, twice. It did stop ’em. It wasn’t blank. It was ball.

The leading officer went down and out. The next man took his bullet in the thigh. Both tumbled ridiculously, and the crowd behind gyrated on them like a bioscope “comic.” Those who were able sorted themselves out and ran zealously home. The others remained to struggle and to pray.

“Bloody fool!” cried the old man. “You done it now. Oh, Christ. We both done a murder now. Gawd ‘elp us!”

“Damn good job!”

Stumpley, the elder, collapsed in his chair again, his face white and damp with sweat. The Chinks waited, as ever, impassive. The Croucher stood out, alert, commanding.

“Bolt the door,” said the Croucher.

“Clamp the windows,” said the Croucher.

“Light the lamp,” said the Croucher.

The door was bolted, the windows clamped, the lamp lit. The four men regarded one another. Behind them, in the shaking shadow, stood Beryl Hermione Maud. Then the Croucher saw her. “Send the girl upstairs,” he said; and she went.

It was a curious situation. The Chinks didn’t give a damn either way. They were all in for a picnic now — or something worse than a picnic — if there is anything worse. Life or death — it was all one to them. The old man had killed someone; he would be hanged. The boy had killed someone; he would be hanged. They would be charged with harbouring, and facts about the little girl, and about other business of theirs would come out. So, as there would be trouble any way, they were quite prepared to take what came. Then there was the old man, palsied with fright, hoping, anticipating, hysterical and inarticulate. Then there was the Croucher, in love with life, but game enough to play his part and keep his funk locked tightly inside him. Finally there was the girl, who — but what she felt is but a matter for conjecture. So far, she had shown about as much emotion as any girl of her age shows when the music-teacher arrives. The others took a clear attitude on the situation. She was a dark horse. Indeed, she might just as well not have been there, and, so far as the men were concerned, she was not. She was simply forgotten.

They sent her upstairs and left her, while they argued and fought and barricaded. But she must have thought hard and lived many hard years during those two days of the Swatow Street siege, when she waited in the upper room, forlorn and helpless.

Presently one of the Chinks retired and came back with two revolvers and a small tin box.

“Guns,” he said simply.

“Gimme a shot o’ dope,” slobbered the old man. “Gimme a jolt, Chinky.”

The Croucher stared at the guns. “Oh. Going to ‘ave a run for yer money, old cock? Well, we’re all in, now. Only a matter o’ time. They’re bound to win in the end. Tip out the bunce, old sport. Ball, all the time. If they’re going to take me alive, they’ll lose half-a-dozen of their boys first. They’re all round the back now. I ‘eard ’em. We can’t get out. It’s rope for me and dad. And it’s a stretch for you two. Round to the back, you Chinky. Keep the window and the door. Good job I’m drunk. You — up to the back window. Watch for ladders. We’ll show ’em something.”

He did. You will recall the affair. How the police surrounded that little Fort Chabrol. How the deadly aim of the half-drunk Croucher and the cold Chinkies got home on the Metropolitan Police Force again and again. How the Croucher worked the front of the house, which faces the whole length of the street, and how the Chinkies took the back and the roof. How the police, in their helplessness against such fatalistic defiance of their authority, appealed to Government, and how the Government sent down a detachment of the Guards. You will recall how, in the great contest of four men and a girl v. the Rest of England, it was the Rest of England that went down. The overwhelming minority quietly laughed at them. Of course, you cannot kill an English institution with ridicule, for ridicule presupposes a sense of proportion in the thing ridiculed; but there was another way by which the lonely five put the rest of England to confusion.

It was all very wicked. Murder had been done. It is impossible to justify the situation in any way. In Bayswater and all other haunts of unbridled chastity the men and the girl were tortured, burnt alive, stewed in oil, and submitted to every conceivable pain and penalty for their saucy effrontery. Yet somehow, there was a touch about the whole thing, this spectacle of four men defying the whole law and order of the greatest country in the world, that thrilled every man with any devil in him.

It thrilled the Croucher. The theatricality of it appealed irresistibly to him. Just then, he lived gloriously. While old Stumpley snivelled and convulsed, he and his Chinks put up a splendid fight. Through a little air-hole of the shuttered window Croucher wrought his will on all invaders, and when the Guards erected their barricade at the end of the street he roared.

Zpt! Zpt! Zpt! Their rifles spat vicious death, and tinkles of glass and plaster announced the coming of the bullets. But, by the irony of things, the defenders remained untouched.

It was on the night of the second day that the Croucher began to be tired, and to feel that things must be ended. He and the Chinks had accepted the situation, and had kicked old man Stumpley into a corner. Then they had taken turns in watching and sleeping. The rest of England had kept up a desultory plopetty-plop-plop at their blockhouse, bringing down bits of plaster and woodwork and other defenceless things. But it could not go on for ever; and two days of siege, with constant gripping of a gun, is too much for the nerves, even when you know that death is at the end of it. He did not fancy walking out and being shot down, though this is what the old man wished to do; in fact they had had to hold him down in his chair that very morning to prevent him. He did not fancy the inglorious death of a self-directed bullet; and he certainly was not going to a mute surrender and the farce of an Old Bailey trial. He asked something larger, something with more . . .

He then discovered that his thoughts were running in the same track as on the night that began the trouble, and association of ideas at once brought the girl to his mind. Gawd! Here he was going out, and he hadn’t had his time, his damfinold time that he had promised himself. After all, he might as well have his penn’orth. He’d done murder, which was the worst thing you could do. So he might just as well get some fun out of lesser offences. What-o! It happened to be his turn to watch; but he might just as well have company for the watch; and, anyway, there was nothing to watch for. There, before them, was the whole of English civilisation, holding back in fear of four men with a large supply of cartridges. England hoped to starve them into surrender so that it could hang them comfortably; that much of their tactics he had divined. So — on with the dance! And then — Ta-ta!

He slipped upstairs to the room where they had locked Beryl Hermione Maud, lest she might make trouble. He unlocked the door and entered.

It is not definitely known what happened at that interview. He was there some while, and, when he came down, he came down, not gay and light-hearted, as he had gone, but morose, changed. Something in his face, in his manner, had altered. It was as though he had tightened up. He moved about as a man pondering on something which he is near to solving. The subject of his pondering was Beryl Hermione Maud. For this had happened — in those few full moments he had awakened to the meaning of love.

When he awoke in the late morning, after relief by Wing Foo, he learned that his old dad was lying in the roadway just outside. He had dashed out before either could stop him, and had gone down to half-a-dozen shots.

That settled it. They might as well finish their cartridges and then finish the whole thing. They might as well ——

What the hell was that coming downstairs? Smell it? Burning — eh? Smoke — look at it! Gawd!

The Croucher leapt upstairs.

He leapt upstairs to Beryl Hermione Maud. But the smoke came from her room. He roared at the door and dashed upon it. It swung open. Flame alone held it. She was gone. Then he turned, and saw her on the narrow landing, choking and blinking through a cloud of smoke, as in a dream.

“What the bloody —— Come outer that!” he yelled, and grabbed her sleeve. “Quick — it’ll be on us in a minute.” He shoved her before him to the stairs, but she drew back. “Who done it?” he gasped.

“No — no. Stop. I done it. There was some paraffin in the cupboard there. And some matches. I started the wall where the paper was loose. It’ll be through in a jiffy. . . . No, I ain’t going down.”

“What the devil . . . What the —— Don’ be a fool. You can get out. I’ll come wiv yer. Quick — it’s catching the stairs!”

There they stood in the golden haze, while tongues of flame lisped wickedly about them. The heat was insufferable, the smoke asphyxiating. Suddenly, through the crackling of wood, came a revolver shot. The Croucher leaned over the crazy banister. Wing Foo had found honourable death.

Beryl Hermione Maud softly touched his arm. “Come in here. This room. It’ll get here last.” Something in her voice, her gesture, struck him silly. He couldn’t have commanded at that moment. He obeyed.

When in the little room, she shut the door, and snakes of smoke crawled under it. Then she stepped quietly to him, put her hands about his face, and kissed him.

There, virtually, the story ends, though much happened between them before their course was run. There was talk, curious talk, the talk of a woman of thirty to the man of her life, monstrous to hear from a child to a boy of nineteen. There were embraces, garrulous silences, kisses, fears and tremblings. In those moments the Croucher awoke to a sense of the bigness of things. He became enveloped in something . . . a kind of . . . well, the situation and — oh, everything. The murder, the siege, all London waiting for him, and that sort of thing. It gave him a new emotion; he felt proud and clean all through. He felt, in his own phrase, like as though he was going to find something he’d been hunting for for years and forgotten.

One would like to know more, perhaps, for it might help us to live, and teach us something of pity. But it is not to be known; and, after all, these were the little moments of their lives, sacred to themselves. One can conjecture what passed — the terribly inspired things that were said, the ridiculously tragic things that were done. One guesses that the Croucher stood mazed and dumb and blustering with gesture as Beryl stretched impassioned hands to him and screamed that she loved him, had loved him for years, as he went conqueringly about Limehouse, and that she had fired the house that they might die together.

And one knows what happened in the last three minutes, for the wide window fell, and those below saw clearly. The front of the house was a mouth of flame. The troops and police closed in. A fire engine jangled insanely at the end of Pekin Street. People shouted. People screamed. And they heard Beryl Hermione Maud speak.

“Open the door. It’ll be over quicker. Kiss me, Croucher.”

They saw the Croucher open the door and spring again to her side, as an octopus of fire writhed upon them. A police officer yelled obscure advice. A fireman dashed forward and grew suddenly frantic, for though everything was at hand, nothing could be done. The nearest hydrant was many yards away, and the engine had to make a circuit. Even the pressmen were momentarily awed.

Beryl flung furious arms about her boy, and again was heard to speak.

“You afraid?”

“Wiv you? Christ Almighty, no. But . . . oh . . . you . . . young . . . wonderful . . . ought to live. ‘Tain’t fair. It’s bloody. You ain’t had your time . . . and you ain’t done nothing wrong. I deserve what I got, but . . . Steady — it’s coming now.”

They saw him pull her back on his arm. They saw him put a large hand over her mouth and drag her where the smoke rolled.

“Easy — hoses!”

“Stir up, damyeh. Lively, there.”

“Finished with engine.”

“Stand clear, dammit, stand clear. Salvage up.”

“Take report, Simpson. Smart now. Two bodies . . . ”

“Oh, dammit, do stand clear!”

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