Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke

Tai Fu and Pansy Greers

NOW it came to pass that Mohammed Ali stood upon the steps of the Asiatics’ Home, and swore — not as you and I swear, but richly, with a feeling for colour and sting, strong in the vivid adjective. He swore in a bastard dialect compounded of Urdu, Chinese and Cocknese, and a swear skilfully dished up from these ingredients is — well, have you ever put cayenne on your mustard? Mohammed Ali was very cross, for his girl, his white girl, Pansy Greers, had given him the chuck, and for the reason which has brought many a good fellow the chuck — namely, lack of money.

Pansy was in trouble, and wanted money, of which he had none, for he was a destitute Oriental. Often they had gone about together, and in his way he had loved her. The girls of this quarter have a penchant for coloured boys, based, perhaps, on the attraction of repulsion. However, now that Mohammed Ali had failed her when put to the test, he was told that he need not again ask her to walk through Poplar Gardens. So he stood on the steps, and swore, while Pansy ———

Well, Pansy was in trouble, and this was the way of it.

Pansy lived in Pekin Street. About her window the wires wove a network, and the beat of waters, as they slapped about the wharves, was day and night in her ears. At evenings there came to her the wail of the Pennyfields Orient, or the hysterical chortlings of an organ with music-hall ditties. She worked at Bennett’s Cocoa Rooms in East India Dock Road; and life for her, as for most of her class, was just a dark house in a dark street. From the morning’s flush to the subtle evening, she stood at steaming urns, breathing an air limp with the smell of food, and serving unhealthy eatables to cabmen, draymen, and, occasionally, a yellow or black or brown sailor.

She was not pretty. The curse of labour was on her face, and she carried no delicacies wherewith to veil her maidenhood. From dawn to dusk, from spring to spring, she had trodden the golden hours in this routine, and knew, yet scarcely felt, the slow sucking of her ripening powers. Twenty-one she was; yet life had never sung to her. Toil, and again toil, was all she knew — toil on a weakened body, improperly fed; for your work-girl of the East seldom knows how to nourish herself. Pansy lived, for the most part, on tea and sweets.

She was a good girl. Others of her set found escape and joys in many crude festivities — music halls, “hops,” and brute embraces and kisses and intimacy with the boys. But she cared for none of these. Her friends allowed that she had no go, and hinted, with harsh indecencies, that if the truth were told your quiet ones were often worst. Her Sundays she spent tucked in bed with East Lynne or Forget-me-Not; but, although her little head gloated on gilded sin, she had never once tasted it, for she loved but one human thing — her blowsy mother. Her mother, too, loved but one thing — not a human thing, but a bottled article — gin.

So, too soon, her mother came to die.

Pansy came home from the shop one night; climbed the stark stairs to their room; stopped to chi-ike the half-naked children playing on the landing. Murmuring a ragtime melody, she slouched in, and . . .

The room was dark, and she felt a sudden nameless chill.

She lit the lamp. Mother was dead.

Those that live, as Pansy did, all their days in physical contact with the brutality of things become too broken for complaint or remonstrance. This shock left Pansy just cold and numb, acceptant. It never occurred to her that hers was a hard lot, that life was not what it ought to be; vaguely she had stumbled on the truth of going on, whatever happened. So she went on. One thing alone spun dully on her brain, apart from the grief of losing her one pal, and that was — how to provide a funeral such as mother had always desired. For mother, after many years of gin, was sentimental. She wanted to be buried outside the parish, with her man. She wanted a brave show. A real handsome funeral, don’t forget. Feathers, flowers, pall, and a nice sit-down for the guests afterwards. When, however, you have paid the rent, bought food and dressed yourself, there isn’t much to save for burial out of eight-and-sixpence a week. Neighbours, who are always friends in Poplar, brought their little gifts of love; what they had, they gave; but that was still a long way from a really swell planting.

It was at this point that Pansy prayed. It is seldom that they pray about the docks: the bread-and-butter race is a hard one, and the pace is cruel, and any slackening means disqualification, and praying, as Pansy had said, real good praying, takes time and thought. But her praying was made, and sharp and clear there came to her an answer. She went to Mohammed Ali, and Mohammed Ali, as recorded, failed her. But . . . she remembered Tai Fu. She remembered a creeping, scrofulous thing that had once or twice come to the Cocoa Rooms, and leered damply upon her. Now, like so many of the settlers in the Chinese quarter, Tai Fu had money — lots of it. How they make their money in London is a mystery, but make it they do, probably at the fan-tan table when their flush compatriots come off the boats; and Tai Fu was reputed to be one of the richest, though he lived sparsely. Perhaps he was saving so as to realise a cherished dream of returning to his native river town, and spending his later days in tranquillity and some magnificence. Certainly he spent little, and his pen-yen was his one expense.

He was a dreadful doper. Sometimes he would chew betel nut or bhang or hashish, but mostly it was a big jolt of yen-shi, for he got more value from that. He was a connoisseur, and used his selected yen-shi and yen-hok as an Englishman uses a Cabanas.

The first slow inhalations brought him nothing, but, as he continued, there would come a sweet, purring warmth about the limbs. This effect was purely physical: the brain was left cold and awake, the thought uncoloured. But slowly, as the draws grew deeper, the details of the room would fade, there would be a soft thunder in the ears, his eyes would close, and about the head gathered a cloud of lilac, at first opaque, but gradually lightening in consistency till it became but a shy gauze. Then, with all control of the faculties in suspension, out of the nebula would swim infinite delicacies of phantasy and rhythm, of the ethereal reality of a rose-leaf. There would be faces, half revealed and half secret, under torrents of loaded curls; faces, now dusky, now strangely white; faces pure and haunting, and faces of creeping sin, floating without movement, fading and appearing. Faces sad almost to tears; then laughing, languishing faces; then cold, profound, animal faces — the faces of women, for the most part, but now and then faces of children and indeterminate faces.

As the stupor developed, it would bring music to the ears, and a sense of the glory of the immediate moment, when every tissue of the body would be keyed to a pitch of ecstasy almost too sweet to be borne. Then, with a squall of brass in the ears, the colour would change, and this time it would hold stranger allurements. The whole dream, indeed, built itself as one builds a sumptuous banquet of the blending of many flavours and essences, each course a subtle, unmarked progression on its predecessor.

The last stage of the dope-dream would be a chaos of music and a frenzy of frock and limb and curl against delirious backgrounds. Always the background was the Causeway, Orientalised. The little café would leap and bulge to a white temple, the chimney against the sky would sprout into a pagoda, and there would be the low pulsing of tom-toms. The street would sway itself out of all proportion, and grotesque staircases would dip to it from the dim-starred night; and it would be filled with pale girls, half-garbed in white and silver, and gold and blue.

Tai Fu had never known a white girl. He was a loathly creature, old and fat and steamy, and none of the girls would have him, for all his wealth. His attitude to the world was the cold, pitiless attitude of the overfed and the over-wined. But it was of him that Pansy thought in her trouble, and when he called at the cocoa shop, she, sick-limbed and eyes a-blear, but still working, since there was nothing else she could do, and it killed thought — she told him her tale. He grinned, loose-lipped, with anticipation of delight. What she asked him, in effect, was: would he lend her the money for the funeral? And Tai Fu said at once that he would, if, that is, she . . .

Well, she was a good girl, but she loved her mother as she loved nothing else, human or celestial. A dying wish was to her more sacred than a social form.

She would. She did. Tai Fu got the white girl he had only known in hop-smoke.

She went to him that night at his house in the Causeway. He opened the door himself, and flung a low-lidded, wine-whipped glance about her that seemed to undress her where she stood, noting her fault and charm as one notes an animal. He did not love her; there was no sentiment in this business. Brute cunning and greed were in his brow, and lust was in his lips. He wanted her, and he had got her — quite cheaply, too.

She went to him; and she came away with some gold pieces. But in her face was a look of horror which she carries to-day.

What he did to her in the blackness of that curtained room of his had best not be imagined. But she came away with a deep, cold desire and determination to kill him — and she was not the kind of girl who lightly stains her finger with a crime of that colour. She came away with bruised limbs and body, with torn hair, and a face paled to death.

However, her vow was kept. Mother had her funeral, which drew crowds from everywhere. There were pickles and ham, and coffee and beer and tea, and plum cake and jam, and flowers and — oh, everything classy.

The morning following the impressive interment she cleared up the litter in her room, and went to work at the Cocoa Rooms.

“Sorry,” said the proprietor, “but you can’t come here no more. Sorry. But there’s a lot of talk going about. One of the Chinks got drunk last night, and has been saying things; and lots of people seen you go to his house the other night. Sorry; but I kept you here, it’d smash me with the outdoor trade, straight. Sorry. Here — you better have your week’s money. You’ll easy get something else, I dessay. Sorry, but it’s more’n I dare. Understand, doncher?”

Well, she did not get another job. All about Poplar, Limehouse and St George’s the wretched story had galloped, for Tai Fu had told what he had done to her, and it was a tale worth telling. She was a bad girl — she was abominable — that was clear. If she’d only gone wrong ordinary, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but this . . .

Cruel starings whipped her eyes wherever she went. Many came, curiously, with sympathy, eager to know, and from every side she heard, hot-eared, the low refrain: “Ah, there’s your quiet ones! Now, didn’t I only say — eh? — don’t that just show?”

She did not get another job. Here and there she appealed, but in vain; she was sent about her dirty business.

“I’d help you if I could, Pansy, but there — I can’t. So it’s no good. I got children to keep, and if I gave you a job here you know what it’d be. I’d lose business. Sorry; but you’re done. You’re down and out, me gel.”

She was. And when she realised that, tenser and colder became the desire to kill Tai Fu. She did not die. She did not wish to die. She did not dissolve in self-pity. It was a quieter business; the canker of the soul. She met a girl who had sometimes been to the Cocoa Rooms, and who was, indeed, watching for her, having heard the story. This friend gave her frocks and things and lessons in the art of man-leading, and Pansy began to grow and to live well, and to have money. Before her mother’s grave was lit with the cheap red clovers, the daughter was known to fifty boys and many strange beds. But never once did her great desire fade or fail. She would kill Tai Fu; if not now, then at some good time that should appear.

It was the day of the Feast of the New Year, the mid-January celebrations in which Limehouse lives deliriously for some thirty hours. Pennyfields, the Causeway and West India Dock Road were whipped to stormy life with decorations. The windows shook with flowers. The roofs laughed with flags. Lanterns were looped from house to house, and ran from roof to post in a frenzy of Oriental colour and movement.

In the morning there was the solemn procession with joss-sticks to the cemetery, where prayers were held over the graves of the Chinese, and lamentations were carried out in native fashion — with sweet cakes, and whisky, and wine, and other delectables, also with song and gesture and dance.

In the evening — ah! — dancing in the halls with the girls. The glamorous January evening of Chinatown — yellow men, with much money to spend — beribboned, white girls, gay, flaunting and fond of curious kisses — rainbow lanterns, now lit, and swaying lithely on their strings — noise, bustle and laughter of the cafés — mad waste of food and drink — all these things touch the affair with an alluring quality of dream. Surely the girls may be forgiven if they love on such a night and with such people. Surely the sad lights of the Scandinavian Seamen’s Home can have little attraction at an hour like this!

Of course, Pansy was there. She was known now. She was expected. Not by Tai Fu. With him she had had no dealings since the one night of horror she had spent under his roof. But to-night, in the gay confusion of the Causeway, she came suddenly and accidentally against his fat, greasy figure. She had apparently been jerked off her feet, and fell against his brown coat. He caught her. She looked up and, although on many occasions when he had invited her with a look in the street she had always killed him with a lip, she laughed.

“Ullo, Chinky dear! Fancy falling into your funny arms!”

He ambled, and smiled grotesquely. A small crowd, with fevered feet, mad for the hour, jostled and danced against them; and suddenly Pansy caught an outstretched yellow hand in one of hers, and, with the other circled about Tai Fu’s waist, commenced to pull the bunch of them round in a whirligig.

The others caught the spirit of it, and round and round they went, till Pansy, in a hysterical exhaustion, dropped out, and collapsed in high laughter against a shop. Tai Fu, his pulses hot for her again, dropped out, too, and moved to her side. The others slacked off in a scuffle, and one, noting Tai Fu, who was the richest of them still, cried in Cantonese that he should invite them in and play host. In a shrill metallic voice, Pansy seconded it, grabbed Tai Fu’s arm and bullied him into acceptance; and soon they were crowding to his upper room. The word went round that it was open doors at Tai Fu’s, and soon half the Causeway was struggling into one small room, snatching food and drink.

On the way up the stairs Pansy leaned heavily against Tai Fu, sidling, nestling, and whispering words which he could not catch, but which sounded very sweet. He had his guests seated and bade them order from the restaurant waiter who had followed whatever they should require. Meantime, he squatted on a cane mat and drew Pansy to the cushions beside him; and there they sat, locked in one another’s arms, her curls on his yellow neck, her skirts about his feet in a froth of petticoat lace.

The fun lasted for hours. It seemed impossible to tire the company. Were they not feasting at the expense of Tai Fu, the miserly? But an Oriental revelry of the cheaper kind is a deadly affair, and Pansy found it so. The narcotised temperaments of the East, so blunted to joy or sorrow, catch a responsive note only from the loud and the barbaric. The solemn smokes swirled about the low room, and as it grew warmer and thicker, so did the faces grow moister and more pallid, so did the sense of smell grow sharper, and so did the bitter nightmare, brooding over the whole place, take hold on Pansy.

Tai Fu was drinking whisky, but Pansy only sipped tea. Her face, too, was pale and damp, but in that crowd, though now seared and world-weary, she was a wild rose. Suddenly she leaned heavily on her lover’s arm, her chin uptilted to him. He was staring stupidly across the lanterned apartment. But the gay insouciance of Pansy recalled him, as she lolled backward, for he gave a sudden start and a clipped exclamation.

She was frolicsome to-night. “What’s the matter, old dear?” she asked. “Found a pin? A-ah — naughty. Can’t cuddle English girls without finding a pin, somewhere, Fuey dear. No rose without a thorn!”

She languished against him, and this time he withdrew his arm, and fingered her neck with his long hand, smiling idiotically. She pulled a bottle across the floor and filled his glass. He drank to her and, as a fiddler, with a one-stringed instrument, started a crooning accompaniment, he struggled up and would have her dance. He tried to help her, but fell, a little heavily, and Pansy fell over him, and there they rolled, to the joy of the company. Then Pansy scrambled up and danced.

It was a danse macabre. In that evil-smelling room, with those secret faces peering at her through the reeking smoke, she felt sick with the wine and the tumult; but her lips laughed, and she danced merrily, and Tai Fu sprawled and declared that she was a lovely girl.

The music stopped. Pansy stopped dancing and swooned in a seductive exhaustion into his big arms.

“Oh — damn — the — pins!” he said, picking each English word with care, while he dragged Pansy closer and sprawled over the cushions. He drank more whisky, and again good humour prevailed, and had Pansy heard the comments that were made about her she would, in spite of her profession, have shrivelled.

Now Tai Fu’s hands became more familiar, and Pansy sportively rebuked him with an assumption of shocked virtue. He messed his fingers in her hair and drew her closer, pricking his arm with every embrace, while she reminded him that if you play with a bee you sometimes find the sting. But he was by now too drunk to feel mere pin-pricks, and he rolled his great carcass about with languid laughter.

Later, he drank more whisky, and then began to look sick. He even excused himself, as feeling faint, and got up. Pansy clung to him.

“Don’t go, old boy. Here — listen — don’t send me away hungry. Aren’t we going to have a little . . . love, eh, dearie?”

But he thrust her off. His jaw hung. He looked incipiently bilious. And suddenly he waved the company aside, and they, seeing that the show was at an end, straggled out, noisily and slowly. Pansy moved to him at the last, but it was certain that he was too sick for amusement, and he toddled with a friend to another room.

Pansy, left alone, went down the stairs and out into the clear, cold air and the midnight glitter of Poplar.

Tai Fu died that night of aconite poisoning. However, he had chewed strange leaves and preparations of leaves for so long that no one was much surprised. Certainly Pansy was not. When she heard of it, she murmured, “Oh!” airily, as though to say: “Damn good riddance.”

For when she had undressed in her bedroom, on the night of the feast, she had removed from the belt of her waist a fine needle, which had lain for forty-eight hours in a distillation of aconite.

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