Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

Gracie Goodnight

GRACIE GOODNIGHT had the loveliest hair that ever was seen east of Aldgate Pump — where lies that land of lovely girls and luxurious locks. It was this head of hers — melodious as an autumn sunset — that turned the discordant head of old fat Kang Foo Ah, and made it reel with delicious fancies, and led him to hire her as a daily girl to clean up his home and serve in his odoriferous shop.

It was legendary in Limehouse that old Kang Foo Ah knew a thing or three. When he took that little shop in Pennyfields, business was, according to those best qualified to speak, rotten. Yet now — in the short space of eighteen months — he had a very comfortable fortune stowed away in safe places known to himself. Where his predecessor and his rivals laid out threepence and made fourpence, Kang Foo Ah would lay out threepence and make sixpence-halfpenny. As he stood behind his counter, with the glorious-headed Gracie, nimble-fingered and deft of brain, at his side, he would smile blandly upon her and upon his customers; his hands, begemmed like a Hatton Garden Jew’s, folded across his stomach. He positively exuded prosperity, so that its waves seemed to beat upon you and set you tingling with that veneration which the very wisest of us feel toward material success.

Everything of the best and latest was in his shop. There were dried sharks’ fins, pickled eggs, twenty years old, bitter melons, lychee fruits, dried chrysanthemum buds, tea, sweet cakes, “chandu” and its apparatus, betel nut, some bright keen knives, and an automatic cash register; while on the walls were Chinese prints, The Police Budget, strips of dried duck and fish, some culinary utensils, and three little black bottles of fire-extinguisher, with printed instructions for use, which showed that Kang Foo Ah was doing so well that he had insured his premises with a respectable fire insurance company.

Oh — and, of course, there was Gracie Goodnight; perhaps the happiest touch which earned for Kang’s store the reputation of having always the best and the latest. The boys, yellow and white and black, would come to the store and spend more money than they could afford on cigarettes which they didn’t want and dried fruits which they couldn’t eat; and Gracie would throw out casual invitations to come again and bring a friend and have a cup of tea in the little curtained room at the back, where she served or sat in converse of an evening.

So they came again, and the bank balance of Kang Foo Ah . . . did it not grow and flourish exceedingly, like the green bay-tree? It did; and as he grew fatter and more prosperous, so, like all mankind, he grew more independent, insolent, overbearing. In a current phrase, he began to throw himself about. In another current phrase, equally expressive, though less polite, he began to make himself a damned nuisance. At times he was simply unbearable; yet there was none in Chinatown to stand up to him and put him back in his place. They endured him meekly, because he was successful and they were not.

The honour of putting him to bed was reserved for an insignificant gentleman, not of Chinatown, who resided on the borders of Poplar and Blackwall. He kept the Blue Lantern, at the corner of Shan-tung Place, and it was a respectable house; he had often said so. Now as Kang Foo Ah had never yet known any to stand up to him, he foolishly began to believe that none ever would do so. He overlooked the fact that he had never yet matched himself against the landlord of a London public-house. . . .

This story properly begins with Kang tumbling into the private bar of the aforesaid house, and demanding a gin and rum, mixed. The landlord declined to serve him. Kang called him pseudonyms.

Then the landlord spoke, wagging an illustrative finger as one who makes the Thirdly point in his Advent sermon.

“Look here,” he said, “I don’t mind you coming to my ’ouse and getting drunk. No. BUT . . . what I do object to is yer getting drunk at someone else’s ’ouse, and coming ’ere to be sick. Now clear out, old cock, and toddle ‘ome. A lemon-and-bismuth, and you’ll be top-hole in the morning. Off yeh go.”

Kang caught the bar with both hands, and leered in his slimy way.

“Kang Foo Ah fine fellow . . . ” he began; but he was cut short.

“Listen,” said Boniface. “Shall I tell you what you are? Yer a perfect dam nuisance to any decent ’ouse. That’s what you are. A perfect dam nuisance. Yeh never come ’ere but what yer drunk. Never. Yeh may be a very clever chap, and yeh may have lots of money. But yer a damned nuisance, and it won’t trouble me if I never see yer fat face in my ’ouse again. And that’s telling yeh. Straight. Yeh know now, doncher? Now beat it, else I’ll sick the cops on yeh. Beat it.”

In the phrase in which the only onlooker told the story, Kang was properly told off. He slithered and gibbered for a moment; then he was propelled by the shoulder, through the swing doors, to the cold pavement beyond. His voice could be heard in protest.

“Fairly got the monkeys,” said the landlord to the only onlooker, as he returned to the bar. “Fairly got ’em. ‘Ear what he called me?”

“Got the monkeys?” echoed the only onlooker, who had never forgotten that he had once been refused credit by this house. “I should think ‘e would get the monkeys. Anyone’d git the monkeys wiv you talkin’ to ’em like that. Got no tack, you ain’t. Bin and lorst a good customer, now, and all because of yer swank. Didn’ you tell ’im you’d be glad to miss ‘is vacant face? Didn’ you say ‘e was the stink what comes out of Wapping at night? Didn’ you say ‘e’d make a bug sorry ‘e was masheeshing around in the same bed with ’im? Course ‘e got the monkeys. Who wouldn’t? You oughter learn tack.”

Yes; Kang Foo Ah had got the monkeys. He had them so badly that when he returned to the shop in Pennyfields, and caught Gracie in the act of nicking a few dry cakes, he discharged her. He did not discharge her with any great exercise of “tack.” He merely bellowed upon her to go; and when she stood looking at him in dumb wonder, he grabbed her by the shoulders, pinched her neck, tore at her lovely hair, and thrust her bodily over the step into the narrow street, even as himself had been flung by the keeper of the Blue Lantern. He tossed her hat and jacket after her, crying:

“Go, thieving girl! Go, robber. Daughter of a dog . . . Go!”

Now in, Gracie’s heart there burned a very savage flame of self-respect. She was fond of herself, and her trim little person and her wondrous hair were to her sacred things, not lightly to be mauled by anyone, and certainly to be held pure from the loathly yellow hands of a Chinky. But what fed that flame with furious fuel was Kang’s roared accusation of Thief. All Pennyfields — Chinks and whites — turned out to hear and to see. They cackled and chi-iked. All heard the wretched name. Many saw the violent expulsion, and late-comers arrived at least in time for the fun of seeing Gracie retrieve her hat and jacket from the puddle where they had fallen, put them on, and march away crying frightful things upon her employer, and throwing, deftly, a piece of road mud so that it spread, pancake-wise, over his window. None moved to help her or to sympathise; they were either telling or hearing the tale; and, beautiful as she might be, she was now a figure for ridicule, a thing of no account, cast down and unheroic. They had patronised the shop for her smiles and her chatter; but now she was absurd, and her physical charms availed her nothing in this moment of undignified distress. They stood around and laughed. They pointed fingers, and their mouths went wide at the pathetic, screaming, stamping little figure, whose flying hair, ruffled clothing, vociferant hands and impotent indignation gave her momentarily the air of a pantomime dame.

“I’ll git back on him. Christ, I will!” she cried, and kicked a furious foot in his direction as she swept like a baby tornado into West India Dock Road. She’d fix him, good and plenty. She’d learn him to fire white girls out like that. She’d learn him to put his slimy hands on her neck, and to mess his fingers in Gracie Goodnight’s hair. She’d show him what. You wait. Not today, perhaps, or to-morrow, but she’d get him all right, before long. She’d put it acrost him for calling Gracie Goodnight a thief. She’d show the nasty, dirty, slimy, crawling, leery old reptile how he could catch hold of a decent girl with his beastly, filthy, stinking, yellow old fingers. Not half, she wouldn’t. . . .

Of course, she had stolen. Admitted at once. But would anyone but that fat old beast take any notice of a mouldy old cake? And then to sling you off without notice. And in that way, too — putting his hands on you and throwing you out. And then chucking your things at you in the gutter. Oh, my word . . . but he’d cop out.

He did. . . .

Gracie cried herself to sleep on her solitary and doubtfully clean pillow that night, after much hard thinking. Two days later, after a consultation with a few pals at a near corner, she came to the loud conclusion that pride was all very well, and all that sort of thing; but after all, you’d got to live somehow. She would, then, sink her pride, and go and ask old fat Kang Foo Ah to take her back and give her another chance. It was known that the two days had marked a distinct drop in the takings of the store, especially in the little curtained room at the back where tea and cakes were served of an evening. Probably he’d be glad to overlook it, and take her on again. She would go that night; and she let all Chinatown know of her decision to ask pardon of Kang.

That night she went. It was a reasonably clear night, for Limehouse, and the lights of the Asiatic quarter glowed like bright beads against their mellow backgrounds of ebony and olive. A sharp breeze from the river rushed up Pennyfields, and shop signs were swaying, and skirts and petticoats were being blown about, teasing the yellow boys with little peeps of delicate stocking and soft leg. Gracie came along with her friends, holding hats and bowing before the wind. She had brought her friends because, she said, she felt rather kind of squiffy about the job, and it would sort of buck her up if they went with her. Besides, you never knew: he might fly at her again.

The expected happened, as it usually does. Kang Foo Ah was again in a bad mood. He was seated behind his counter, gazing ruefully at the little tea-room, now empty of voice and light laughter and revenue. A large white-shaded lamp stood firmly on the counter, and, for the rest, the shop was lighted by two Chinese lanterns which hung dreamily on the wall.

To him went Gracie, bold of bearing but knocking at the knees. Outside, in the narrow roadway, her three friends — two girls and a lad — stood to watch the fun and, if need be, to render assistance. They saw Gracie go in and address her master. They saw him start up and wag a severe head. They saw Gracie press the argument, and move to the side of the counter against the lamp. Words passed. The old man seemed to grow angry; his gestures and his lips were far from friendly. Gracie leaned forward with a new argument. His face darkened, He answered. Gracie retorted. Then his great arm shot swiftly up. Gracie jumped back with the fleetness of a startled faun. Her muff caught the white china lamp. It went with a crash and a rush of flame to the floor.

The oil ran, and the fire flew up to the counter where the dried skins hung. In five seconds the shop window was ablaze. Gracie screamed. The old man roared; and they both screamed again, for, in jumping backward, Gracie had struck with the feather of her hat one of the pendulous lanterns which, thus agitated, had fired itself, and the flaming paper had dropped on Kang’s side of the counter, where were candles and an oil-tank.

Pennyfields, through the voices of Gracie’s three friends, screamed too, and swiftly the shops and the lodging-houses were cleared of their companies. Over pavement and roadway the yellow boys crowded and danced and peered, while Gracie stood still, her hands at her glorious head, screaming . . . screaming . . . screaming. . . .

The massive dignified Kang Foo Ah roared and capered, for he was imprisoned in the narrow space behind the counter, and fire was all about him. The doorway was blocked with mad flames; exit was impossible there; and the oil-tank at the other end shot random spears in every direction. Gracie, with crouching limbs and hands clasped in a gesture of primitive fear, crept back and back. They were lovely hands, white and slim and shapely, and even as he danced and howled, Kang wondered why he had driven them away from his counter. The boy friend outside made a gallant effort to dash in to her, but smoke and flame easily beat him off.

Now the street began to scream useless advice, admonition and encouragement. Women in safety added their little bit to the screaming. They cried that it would spread, and soon furniture from distant houses was crashing and bounding to the pavement; and mattresses were flung out from upper windows, to receive the indecent figures of their owners. Above the clamour a lone voice cried something intelligible, and soon one heard an engine that raved and jangled in West India Dock Road.

Kang Foo Ah danced to the rhythm of a merry tune. “Save me! Save me!” he babbled. “I give heap plenty money anyone save me. I give hundred pounds — two hundred pounds — anyone save me. Ooo! Save me!” And his voice trailed into mournful nothings.

But Gracie had now crept back to the little tea-room, and she cried, in her clear, shrill voice: “Stand still, mister! I’ll save you. I’m going to save you!” And, to the crowd: “Stand clear, there! I know a way to save him. Mind the glass! Look out!”

A swift white hand reached to the wall and dragged down the little wire cage holding the extinguisher bottles which the wary insurance company had provided. But when Kang saw what she would be at, he danced a dervish dance more furiously, and roared at her in great agony.

“No — no — no. Get water. Get water. Ao! Put bottles down. Ao!”

But in the oblivious courage of the desperate, Gracie heard him not. She held one bottle poised in a light hand, approached as near the flames as she dared, and flung it shrewdly and accurately at his feet. The second she flung, and the third she flung, and then dropped back, panting from the heat and the smoke, to the tea-room, where she clutched with fumbling fingers at the bead curtain, and collapsed in a swoon.

And terrible things now happened. For the first bottle and the second bottle and the third bottle smashed at the feet of Kang Foo Ah, and the fire did not subside. It rose over the counter, faster and faster, until he was swallowed in a mouth of white fire, through which, for a moment, one saw his idiot yellow face and antic limbs. Then, mercifully, he disappeared. . . .

The engine, brave with noise and glitter, forced a way up the street, and in ten minutes the men had the fire well under, and Gracie was on the pavement with first-aid men about her. As the water coursed over her neck, and the brandy slid between her lips, she made little movements, and murmured.

“I done my best,” she sobbed. “I done my best. I tried to save him. And the shop, too. What happened? Is he all right?”

“Now, kid,” said the crowd, “that’s all right. Don’t you worry. Feeling better? That’s the style.”

“Yes; you done all right, you did. No; we couldn’t get him. He was under before we could get in. Extinguishers wasn’t much good in that bloody furnace.”

“It was the damn pluckiest thing ever I see. You done your best. No one can’t do more’n that. Way you kept your nerve and copped hold of them things.”

“I see it all, I did. ‘Aving a row, wasn’t you? When he knocked the lamp over, trying to wollop you one? Ah, he was an old blighter, when all’s said and done.”

So Gracie, pale, trembling and dumb, was lifted to her feet and handed over to her friends, who took her home. The inquest was held next day, and various witnesses were called, including the three friends who had seen everything from start to finish. And Gracie was complimented by the Coroner and the Brigade Superintendent on her courage, self-control and resource. It was added that the Royal Humane Society had been apprised of the facts of the case; and although Kang Foo Ah had perished in the fire, it was certainly not because anything that could have been done had been left undone; Miss Gracie Goodnight had done more, far more, than anyone, especially a woman, could have been expected to do in such circumstances.

There were cheers for Gracie as she left the court, and four photographers from news agencies and picture papers stepped forward with levelled cameras to get lasting records of that glorious, smiling head. The smile in those pictures, which you may find if you hunt up the files, is as strange and inscrutable as the smile of Mona Lisa, though there is that in its pose which seems to say: “Hands off. I’ll learn anybody to mess my hair about.”

For, now that Kang Foo Ah is out of it, little Gracie Goodnight is the only person in the world who knows that those extinguisher bottles had been emptied of their contents and refilled with kerosene.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51