“If I can attain Heaven for a pice, why should you be envious?”
Opium Smoker’s Proverb.
This is no work of mine. My friend, Gabral Misquitta, the half-caste, spoke it all, between moonset and morning, six weeks before he died; and I took it down from his mouth as he answered my questions so:—
It lies between the Copper-smith’s Gully and the pipe-stem sellers’ quarter, within a hundred yards, too, as the crow flies, of the Mosque of Wazir Khan. I don’t mind telling any one this much, but I defy him to find the Gate, however well he may think he knows the City. You might even go through the very gully it stands in a hundred times, and be none the wiser. We used to call the gully, “the Gully of the Black Smoke,” but its native name is altogether different of course. A loaded donkey couldn’t pass between the walls; and, at one point, just before you reach the Gate, a bulged house-front makes people go along all sideways.
It isn’t really a gate though. It’s a house. Old Fung–Tching had it first five years ago. He was a boot-maker in Calcutta. They say that he murdered his wife there when he was drunk. That was why he dropped bazar-rum and took to the Black Smoke instead. Later on, he came up north and opened the Gate as a house where you could get your smoke in peace and quiet. Mind you, it was a pukka, respectable opium-house, and not one of those stifling, sweltering chandoo-khanas, that you can find all over the City. No; the old man knew his business thoroughly, and he was most clean for a Chinaman. He was a one-eyed little chap, not much more than five feet high, and both his middle fingers were gone. All the same, he was the handiest man at rolling black pills I have ever seen. Never seemed to be touched by the Smoke, either; and what he took day and night, night and day, was a caution. I’ve been at it five years, and I can do my fair share of the Smoke with any one; but I was a child to Fung–Tching that way. All the same, the old man was keen on his money, very keen; and that’s what I can’t understand. I heard he saved a good deal before he died, but his nephew has got all that now; and the old man’s gone back to China to be buried.
He kept the big upper room, where his best customers gathered, as neat as a new pin. In one corner used to stand Fung–Tching’s Joss — almost as ugly as Fung–Tching — and there were always sticks burning under his nose; but you never smelt ’em when the pipes were going thick. Opposite the Joss was Fung–Tching’s coffin. He had spent a good deal of his savings on that, and whenever a new man came to the Gate he was always introduced to it. It was lacquered black, with red and gold writings on it, and I’ve heard that Fung–Tching brought it out all the way from China. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I know that, if I came first in the evening, I used to spread my mat just at the foot of it. It was a quiet corner you see, and a sort of breeze from the gully came in at the window now and then. Besides the mats, there was no other furniture in the room — only the coffin, and the old Joss all green and blue and purple with age and polish.
Fung–Tching never told us why he called the place “The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows.” (He was the only Chinaman I know who used bad-sounding fancy names. Most of them are flowery. As you’ll see in Calcutta.) We used to find that out for ourselves. Nothing grows on you so much, if you’re white, as the Black Smoke. A yellow man is made different. Opium doesn’t tell on him scarcely at all; but white and black suffer a good deal. Of course, there are some people that the Smoke doesn’t touch any more than tobacco would at first. They just doze a bit, as one would fall asleep naturally, and next morning they are almost fit for work. Now, I was one of that sort when I began, but I’ve been at it for five years pretty steadily, and its different now. There was an old aunt of mine, down Agra way, and she left me a little at her death. About sixty rupees a month secured. Sixty isn’t much. I can recollect a time, seems hundreds and hundreds of years ago, that I was getting my three hundred a month, and pickings, when I was working on a big timber contract in Calcutta.
I didn’t stick to that work for long. The Black Smoke does not allow of much other business; and even though I am very little affected by it, as men go, I couldn’t do a day’s work now to save my life. After all, sixty rupees is what I want. When old Fung–Tching was alive he used to draw the money for me, give me about half of it to live on (I eat very little), and the rest he kept himself. I was free of the Gate at any time of the day and night, and could smoke and sleep there when I liked, so I didn’t care. I know the old man made a good thing out of it; but that’s no matter. Nothing matters, much to me; and, besides, the money always came fresh and fresh each month.
There was ten of us met at the Gate when the place was first opened. Me, and two Baboos from a Government Office somewhere in Anarkulli, but they got the sack and couldn’t pay (no man who has to work in the daylight can do the Black Smoke for any length of time straight on); a Chinaman that was Fung–Tching’s nephew; a bazar-woman that had got a lot of money somehow; an English loafer — Mac–Somebody I think, but I have forgotten — that smoked heaps, but never seemed to pay anything (they said he had saved Fung–Tching’s life at some trial in Calcutta when he was a barrister): another Eurasian, like myself, from Madras; a half-caste woman, and a couple of men who said they had come from the North. I think they must have been Persians or Afghans or something. There are not more than five of us living now, but we come regular. I don’t know what happened to the Baboos; but the bazar-woman she died after six months of the Gate, and I think Fung–Tching took her bangles and nose-ring for himself. But I’m not certain. The Englishman, he drank as well as smoked, and he dropped off. One of the Persians got killed in a row at night by the big well near the mosque a long time ago, and the Police shut up the well, because they said it was full of foul air. They found him dead at the bottom of it. So, you see, there is only me, the Chinaman, the half-caste woman that we call the Memsahib (she used to live with Fung–Tching), the other Eurasian, and one of the Persians. The Memsahib looks very old now. I think she was a young woman when the Gate was opened; but we are all old for the matter of that. Hundreds and hundreds of years old. It is very hard to keep count of time in the Gate, and besides, time doesn’t matter to me. I draw my sixty rupees fresh and fresh every month. A very, very long while ago, when I used to be getting three hundred and fifty rupees a month, and pickings, on a big timber-contract at Calcutta, I had a wife of sorts. But she’s dead now. People said that I killed her by taking to the Black Smoke. Perhaps I did, but it’s so long since it doesn’t matter. Sometimes when I first came to the Gate, I used to feel sorry for it; but that’s all over and done with long ago, and I draw my sixty rupees fresh and fresh every month, and am quite happy. Not DRUNK happy, you know, but always quiet and soothed and contented.
How did I take to it? It began at Calcutta. I used to try it in my own house, just to see what it was like. I never went very far, but I think my wife must have died then. Anyhow, I found myself here, and got to know Fung–Tching. I don’t remember rightly how that came about; but he told me of the Gate and I used to go there, and, somehow, I have never got away from it since. Mind you, though, the Gate was a respectable place in Fung–Tching’s time where you could be comfortable, and not at all like the chandoo-khanas where the niggers go. No; it was clean and quiet, and not crowded. Of course, there were others beside us ten and the man; but we always had a mat apiece with a wadded woollen head-piece, all covered with black and red dragons and things; just like a coffin in the corner.
At the end of one’s third pipe the dragons used to move about and fight. I’ve watched ’em, many and many a night through. I used to regulate my Smoke that way, and now it takes a dozen pipes to make ’em stir. Besides, they are all torn and dirty, like the mats, and old Fung–Tching is dead. He died a couple of years ago, and gave me the pipe I always use now — a silver one, with queer beasts crawling up and down the receiver-bottle below the cup. Before that, I think, I used a big bamboo stem with a copper cup, a very small one, and a green jade mouthpiece. It was a little thicker than a walking-stick stem, and smoked sweet, very sweet. The bamboo seemed to suck up the smoke. Silver doesn’t, and I’ve got to clean it out now and then, that’s a great deal of trouble, but I smoke it for the old man’s sake. He must have made a good thing out of me, but he always gave me clean mats and pillows, and the best stuff you could get anywhere.
When he died, his nephew Tsin-ling took up the Gate, and he called it the “Temple of the Three Possessions;” but we old ones speak of it as the “Hundred Sorrows,” all the same. The nephew does things very shabbily, and I think the Memsahib must help him. She lives with him; same as she used to do with the old man. The two let in all sorts of low people, niggers and all, and the Black Smoke isn’t as good as it used to be. I’ve found burnt bran in my pipe over and over again. The old man would have died if that had happened in his time. Besides, the room is never cleaned, and all the mats are torn and cut at the edges. The coffin has gone — gone to China again — with the old man and two ounces of smoke inside it, in case he should want ’em on the way.
The Joss doesn’t get so many sticks burnt under his nose as he used to; that’s a sign of ill-luck, as sure as Death. He’s all brown, too, and no one ever attends to him. That’s the Memsahib’s work, I know; because, when Tsin-ling tried to burn gilt paper before him, she said it was a waste of money, and, if he kept a stick burning very slowly, the Joss wouldn’t know the difference. So now we’ve got the sticks mixed with a lot of glue, and they take half-an-hour longer to burn, and smell stinky. Let alone the smell of the room by itself. No business can get on if they try that sort of thing. The Joss doesn’t like it. I can see that. Late at night, sometimes, he turns all sorts of queer colors — blue and green and red — just as he used to do when old Fung–Tching was alive; and he rolls his eyes and stamps his feet like a devil.
I don’t know why I don’t leave the place and smoke quietly in a little room of my own in the bazar. Most like, Tsin-ling would kill me if I went away — he draws my sixty rupees now — and besides, it’s so much trouble, and I’ve grown to be very fond of the Gate. It’s not much to look at. Not what it was in the old man’s time, but I couldn’t leave it. I’ve seen so many come in and out. And I’ve seen so many die here on the mats that I should be afraid of dying in the open now. I’ve seen some things that people would call strange enough; but nothing is strange when you’re on the Black Smoke, except the Black Smoke. And if it was, it wouldn’t matter. Fung–Tching used to be very particular about his people, and never got in any one who’d give trouble by dying messy and such. But the nephew isn’t half so careful. He tells everywhere that he keeps a “first-chop” house. Never tries to get men in quietly, and make them comfortable like Fung–Tching did. That’s why the Gate is getting a little bit more known than it used to be. Among the niggers of course. The nephew daren’t get a white, or, for matter of that, a mixed skin into the place. He has to keep us three of course — me and the Memsahib and the other Eurasian. We’re fixtures. But he wouldn’t give us credit for a pipeful — not for anything.
One of these days, I hope, I shall die in the Gate. The Persian and the Madras man are terrible shaky now. They’ve got a boy to light their pipes for them. I always do that myself. Most like, I shall see them carried out before me. I don’t think I shall ever outlive the Memsahib or Tsin-ling. Women last longer than men at the Black–Smoke, and Tsin-ling has a deal of the old man’s blood in him, though he DOES smoke cheap stuff. The bazar-woman knew when she was going two days before her time; and SHE died on a clean mat with a nicely wadded pillow, and the old man hung up her pipe just above the Joss. He was always fond of her, I fancy. But he took her bangles just the same.
I should like to die like the bazar-woman — on a clean, cool mat with a pipe of good stuff between my lips. When I feel I’m going, I shall ask Tsin-ling for them, and he can draw my sixty rupees a month, fresh and fresh, as long as he pleases, and watch the black and red dragons have their last big fight together; and then. . . .
Well, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters much to me — only I wished Tsin-ling wouldn’t put bran into the Black Smoke.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56