Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

The Sign of the Lamp

HERE, O hearts that beat with mine, is the saddest of all tales. It is the tale of the breaking of a man’s faith in woman. A thousand arrows over their places of slumber. . . .

It was on the Bund of Shanghai that the father of Sway Lim had said these words to him: “Son, mistrust all white women; they are but pale devils; they shall ensnare you.”

But Lim had not listened; and it was Poppy Sturdish, of Limehouse and Poplar, who proved to him that his father spoke truth. Poppy was fair in the eyes of a Chinaman; she was an anaemic slip of a girl, with coarse skin and mean mouth, a frightened manner and a defiant glance. She had scarce any friends, for she was known to be a copper’s nark; thus came the fear in her step and the challenge in her eyes. Often she had blown the gaff on the secret games of Chinatown, for she spoke Cantonese and a little Swahili and some Hindustani, and could rustle it with the best of them; and it was her skill and shrewdness in directing the law to useful enterprises, such as the raiding of wicked houses, that caused her to be known in all local stations and courts as the Chinese Poppy.

She lived in the tactfully narrow Poplar High Street, that curls its nasty length from Limehouse to Blackwall, and directly opposite her cottage was the loathly lodging of Sway Lim — one room, black and smelly with dirt — next the home of the sailors of Japan. From his open window he could see into the room of the desirable Poppy, and by day and evening he would sit there, watching her movements, and listening with delight to her chief charm — that voice of hers that wailed in your heart long since it had ceased to wail in your ears. She was a bad girl, mean and treacherous; everybody knew that; but she was young and very pale; so that Sway Lim, wet-lipped, would gloat upon her from his window. Sometimes he would pluck at his plaintive fiddle, and make a song for her. Over the sad, yellow evening his voice would float in an old Malayan chanty:

“Love is kind to the least of men. . . . Eee-awa! Eee-awa!”

But a little while, and she had consented to walk with Lim, and to visit the Queen’s Theatre, and to take drinks — double gins — at the Blue Lantern. From him she accepted brooches and rings wherewith to deck the beauty of her twenty-five years; and when she questioned him whence he had the money for these things, he told her that he played fan-tan at the house of Ho Ling. This he did either not knowing or not caring that Poppy was a copper’s nark, and was under the sharp thumb of an inspector. He talked to Poppy as he had talked to none outside his native land. He told her of his home, of his childhood, of his prolific and wonderful parent, who had twelve mighty sons. He talked of a land of lilies and soft blue nights which he had left that he might adventure in strange countries, and see the beauties of the white girls of other lands, and learn great things, as befitted the first son of a proud house. He told her how well he played fan-tan, where he played it, and at what times, how many tricks he had acquired, and the heap plenty money he had made. And he sang to her: Yao chien wo ngai tzu nu.

All these things he told her in successive sweet evenings of June, when Limehouse was a city of rose and silver, and the odour of exotic spices lured every sense to the secret amiable delights of the pillow. All these things he told her; yet was he surprised when one night there came a knocking at the lower door of the house of Ho Ling, and a knocking at the back door of the house of Ho Ling, and a knocking at the upper door of the house of Ho Ling, and the ominously casual entrance of burly gentlemen in racing overcoats, bowler hats, and large boots. He was surprised when he was hauled away to a station, and detained for the night in the cells, and taken thence to Thames Police Court. Was he surprised when he saw the Chinese Poppy in court, chatting affably with the most important-looking gentleman in racing overcoat and bowler hat? He was not. His heart broke within him, and all emotion died. Tears came to his throat, but not to his eyes, so that when the interpreter questioned him, he could make no answer; his dignity dropped from him; he could but glare and mumble. “I loved her,” his heart cried silently; “I loved her, and she betrayed me. Treachery. Treachery.” And his companions in the dock, who, too, had warned him against the white girl, wagged wise, condemnatory heads that would have declared: “We told you so.”

His heart was broken by a white barbarian devil of a girl; and he addressed himself forthwith, quietly and tenderly, to vengeance. He paid his fine, and those of his companions, for he alone had sufficient money to save them from prison; and then he went home to his chamber, walking to a monotonous march of: “Treachery. Treachery.” As he turned into Poplar High Street he came upon Poppy, walking with a beefy youth, who glowered and looked very strong. As Poppy passed, she lifted a slim, white hand, smacked the face of Sway Lim and, with delicate, cruel fingers, pulled the nose of Sway Lim.

It was enough. If a broken heart had not been enough, then this assault had crowned it. His holy of holies, his personal dignity, his nose, had been degraded. All the wrath of his fathers foamed in his blood. All the tears of the ages rushed over his heart. Innumerable little agonies scorched his flesh. Silently, swiftly, he crouched into himself as a tortoise into its shell, and, followed by the brute laughter of the beefy youth, he slipped by dark corners away.

Once in his chamber, he bowed himself before the joss, and burned many prayer papers that the powers might be propitiated and pleased to forward his schemes.

Now it was not long before the gentle, wet lips of Sway Lim had won from other lips, less gentle, but well moistened with beer and gin, certain things good to be known concerning Poppy Sturdish, or Chinese Poppy. He learnt that her heart and the beautiful body of her, loaded with infinite pale graces that never a yellow man might discover, had been freely rendered to another; not to the Inspector, but to a greater personage of Poplar: none other than the beefy youth, Hunk Bottles.

Hunk Bottles was not a good man. The life he led was not clean. He robbed and bashed. It was rumoured that he had done worse deeds, too, by night; but, as the leader of the Hunk Bottles Gang, and the sower of strife among the labourers, white, black, brown and yellow, of the docks, he was a fellow of some consequence, and there were times when the police looked steadily in the opposite direction when he approached.

But there was at last a day when public sentiment demanded that all local and personal considerations be set aside, and that Hunk Bottles be apprehended. For it had come to pass that murder had been done in Chinatown, in a nasty house near Pennyfields, where men played cards and other games, and sometimes quarrelled among themselves; and the police sought the murderer and found him not. Only they found in the hand of the murdered man half the sleeve of a coat: a coat of good material, a material which a local tailor recognised because he used very little of it, and had but two customers for it. One was his own father; the other was Hunk Bottles.

But Hunk Bottles had flown, and none knew whither. Yet were there two who could have made very shrewd guesses. One of these sat, with a broken heart, evening by evening, at his window, watching the opposite window, where sometimes a soft shape would dance across the blind, and dance with trampling feet upon his poor heart. Sometimes the door would open, and she would go forth, and he would watch her, and when she was gone, he would continue to watch the way she was gone, and would sit until she returned. Sometimes her window would open, too, and she would shoot a spiteful head through it, and cry to him, in her own rich tongue, that all yellow swine were offal to her. This man knew where Hunk Bottles might be found, for he had seen Hunk Bottles creep to the opposite door, at the dark hour of two in the morning, and he had seen a lowered light, had heard the crackle of a whisper, and the sweet hiss of stormy kisses showered upon the white body of Poppy, and her murmurous defiance: “I won’t give you up. Never. Never. Never. Take me dyin’ oath I won’t. Not if they kill me, Hunk. ‘Ope I’m in ‘ell first.”

Very swiftly the story spread through Limehouse from gentle Chinese lips, and it came, in less than an hour, to the police station. Fifteen minutes later the important gentleman in racing overcoat and bowler hat called upon Poppy, and challenged her. And when he had challenged her, he charged her with a mission. At first she was truculent; then sullen; then complacent. She took her dyin’ oath that she didn’t know where Hunk was. She only knew that he had been to her twice, very late at night. She did not know where he came from, or where he went. She was in deadly fear of him. Of course she ought to have give him up, but how could she? He’d split her throat. He carried a gun and knives. He’d do her in at once if he suspected. What could she do?

They talked . . . and talked. The Inspector’s large hand moved emphatically, patting the table as he made certain points.

“Don’t try to tell me,” he urged, in the off-hand way of the police officer. “I know all about it. You do what you got to do, and you needn’t be frightened of nobody. And you better do it, I give you my word, me gel; I got you fixed good and tight. So watch out. And don’t forget nothing. Now then . . . what’s your orders?”

In a dull, cold voice Poppy repeated a formula. “Put the lamp in the window, with the red shade on. When I got his gun and his two knives off him, I take the shade away. Then you comes in.”

“That’s it. Why, it’s as easy. . . . Just a little lovey-lovey. Kinder lead him on. Then sit him down on that there sofa, and love him some more. Then he’ll take off his belt, and other things. When he’s got his coat off, with the gun in it, get him over this side away from it. Never mind about the knives; he won’t get a chanst to use them. Then you put your hand up, to straighten your hair, like, and knock the shade off, accidental.

“Now mind yeh. . . . No hanky-panky. Else I’ll have to do it on yeh, as I ought to have done years ago. So mind yeh. I ain’t standing any khybosh. Not in these nor any other trousers. You do what you’re told, and things’ll be all the better for you for a long time to come. We shall be outside from now till he comes. So don’t try to slip out and bung him the word. It won’t be no good. And above all, don’t try to get gay with me. See? Ever read your Bible? Read it now, ‘fore he comes. There’s a yarn about a chap called Samson, and his gel Delilah. Tells you just how to do it!”

He had just snapped his last phrase when there came to both of them, very sharp and clear, the wailing of a Malayan chanty:

“Love is kind to the least of men. . . . Eee-awa! Eee-awa!”

Instinctively both looked up, and then they saw that the window was wide to the street, and at the opposite open window was a yellow face and head which blinked at them impassively under the hard morning light, and continued its melancholy entertainment. A few long hours followed, and then came Hunk Bottles, perilously, slipperily. He was whisked into the house as by a gust of wind, while in several grim corners several gentlemen in racing overcoats and bowler hats, and one in uniform, grinned quietly. For now it was Poppy’s charge to deliver the boy to his tormentors, and she should very terribly cop out if she failed in that charge.

That, however, was exactly what she meant to do. He had come, her own, very own Hunk; and she must get him away. Hunk and herself would escape or die together; and, if they died, several gentlemen in racing overcoats and bowler hats should die with them. There was a back entrance to her little house. The Inspector had not thought to post men there; after all, she was a copper’s nark, and he assumed that he had fairly frightened her by his instructions that morning. He had overlooked the fact that Poppy was a London girl, and that she loved Hunk Bottles. He had forgotten that the state of love is so very near to the state of death.

The moment Hunk was in her room, she spoke swift words to him. She told him of his peril; she told him of the instructions given to her. She repeated her oath of allegiance, and detailed her plan for escape.

“They’ll have to kill me first, Hunk. Sop me gob they will. I’m never going back on yeh. Never!” And she flung hot little arms about him, letting him play with her as he would while he urged her to pull herself together. When she had finished assaulting his scrubby face with wet kisses, she asked him if he had got his gun and his two knives, and he assured her that he had, as well as a knuckle-duster. And she asked him if he would make a fight for it if they were caught, and he said he would, and groaned aloud when she forced him to promise that, if the fight were lost, he would put her out before the cops could get her. They embraced again, and he sobbed soft things to her beauty and her faithfulness.

Then she took the lamp from the table, set the red shade very firmly upon it, and placed it in the window.

“Half-a-mo’, Hunk,” she whispered. “I’ll just slip away to the back, and make sure all’s clear.” She turned her face up to him as she retreated, and its pallor shone as though some sudden lamp of life had been lit within her, and a lonely Chinky at the opposite window groaned in his heart that no woman had ever given such a look to him.

But his face remained impassive, and, the moment she was gone from the room, he thrust across the narrow street a stiff, straight wire such as is used for fishing on the Great Yellow River, and so finely drawn that nothing could be seen of it in the road below.

Of a sudden the red shade of the lamp was twitched off.

Swiftly from their corners came several gentlemen in racing overcoats and bowler hats, one of whom carried a key. The door of the house was opened, and they disappeared. Ten seconds later they stood before Hunk Bottles, and Sway Lim at his window, breathing the scents of manioc and pickled eggs, saw them very clearly. He saw the sudden dismay on the face of the prisoner, and heard the sharp cry: “Copped, be Christ!” And then: “So she went to fetch yeh, the bitch!”

He saw him drop both hands in a gesture of surrender, and step forward. At the same moment, in the doorway appeared the pale, anguished figure of Poppy. She grasped the situation, and a spasm in her face showed that she grasped the awful construction that Hunk had placed upon it. She raised a protesting hand. Her lips moved as if to speak.

But Hunk, his face on fire with fury, grief and despair at this assumed betrayal by the woman he loved, waved her coldly away. He took his gun from his pocket, and handed it to the Inspector, who had held him covered. Poppy darted forward, but was dragged back. She screamed. Then, mercifully, she fainted; and did not hear, across the cruel night, a ripple of cold Oriental laughter and a voice that wailed an old Malayan chanty:

“Love is kind to the least of men. . . . Eee-awa! Eee-awa!”

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