Chapter XIII. A Chandu Party




From the restaurant at which she had had supper with Sir Lucien, Rita proceeded to Duke Street. Alighting from Pyne's car at the door, they went up to the flat of the organizer of the opium party--Mr. Cyrus Kilfane. One other guest was already present--a slender, fair woman, who was introduced by the American as Mollie Gretna, but whose weakly pretty face Rita recognized as that of a notorious society divorcee, foremost in the van of every new craze, a past-mistress of the smartest vices.

Kilfane had sallow, expressionless features and drooping, light- colored eyes. His straw-hued hair, brushed back from a sloping brow, hung lankly down upon his coat-collar. Long familiarity with China's ruling vice and contact with those who practiced it had brought about that mysterious physical alteration--apparently reflecting a mental change--so often to be seen in one who has consorted with Chinamen. Even the light eyes seemed to have grown slightly oblique; the voice, the unimpassioned greeting, were those of a son of Cathay. He carried himself with a stoop and had a queer, shuffling gait.

"Ah, my dear daughter," he murmured in a solemnly facetious manner, "how glad I am to welcome you to our poppy circle."

He slowly turned his half-closed eyes in Pyne's direction, and slowly turned them back again.

"Do you seek forgetfulness of old joys?" he asked. "This is my own case and Pyne's. Or do you, as Mollie does, seek new joys--youth's eternal quest?"

Rita laughed with a careless abandon which belonged to that part of her character veiled from the outer world.

"I think I agree with Miss Gretna," she said lightly. "There is not so much happiness in life that I want to forget the little I have had."

"Happiness," murmured Kilfane. "There is no real happiness. Happiness is smoke. Let us smoke."

"I am curious, but half afraid," declared Rita. "I have heard that opium sometimes has no other effect than to make one frightfully ill."

"Oh, my dear!" cried Miss Gretna, with a foolish giggling laugh, "you will love it! Such fascinating dreams! Such delightful adventures!"

"Other drugs," drawled Sir Lucien, "merely stimulate one's normal mental activities. Chandu is a key to another life. Cocaine, for instance enhances our capacity for work. It is only a heretic like De Quincey who prostitutes the magic gum to such base purposes. Chandu is misunderstood in Europe; in Asia it is the companion of the aesthete's leisure."

"But surely," said Rita, "one pipe of opium will not produce all these wonders."

"Some people never experience them at all," interrupted Miss Gretna. "The great idea is to get into a comfortable position, and just resign yourself--let yourself go. Oh, it's heavenly!"

Cyrus Kilfane turned his dull eyes in Rita's direction.

"A question of temperament and adaptability," he murmured. "De Quincey, Pyne"--slowly turning towards the baronet--"is didactic, of course; but his Confessions may be true, nevertheless. He forgets, you see, that he possessed an unusual constitution, and the temperament of a Norwegian herring. He forgets, too, that he was a laudanum drinker, not an opium smoker. Now you, my daughter"--the lustreless eyes again sought Rita's flushed face--"are vivid--intensely vital. If you can succeed in resigning yourself to the hypnosis induced your experiences will be delightful. Trust your Uncle Cy."

Leaving Rita chatting with Miss Gretna, Kilfane took Pyne aside, offering him a cigarette from an ornate, jewelled case.

"Hello," said the baronet, "can you still get these?"

"With the utmost difficulty," murmured Kilfane, returning the case to his pocket. "Lola charges me five guineas a hundred for them, and only supplies them as a favor. I shall be glad to get back home, Pyne. The right stuff is the wrong price in London."

Sir Lucien laughed sardonically, lighting Kilfane's cigarette and then his own.

"I find it so myself," he said. "Everything except opium is to be had at Kazmah's, and nothing except opium interests me."

"He supplies me with cocaine," murmured the comedian. "His figure works out, as nearly as I can estimate it, at 10s 7 1/2d. a grain. I saw him about it yesterday afternoon, pointing out to the brown guy that as the wholesale price is roughly 2 1/4d., I regarded his margin of profit as somewhat broad."

"Indeed!"

"The first time I had ever seen him, Pyne. I brought an introduction from Dr. Silver, of New York, and Kazmah supplied me without question --at a price."

"You always saw Rashid?"

"Yes. If there were other visitors I waited. But yesterday I made a personal appointment with Kazmah. He pretended to think I had come to have a dream interpreted. He is clever, Pyne. He never moved a muscle throughout the interview. But finally he assured me that all the receivers in England had amalgamated, and that the price he charged represented a very narrow margin of profit. Of course he is a liar. He is making a fortune. Do you know him personally?"

"No," replied Sir Lucien. "outside his Bond Street home of mystery he is unknown. A clever man, as you say. You obtain your opium from Lola?"

"Yes. Kazmah sent her to me. She keeps me on ridiculously low rations, and if I had not brought my own outfit I don't think she would have sold me one. Of course, her game is beating up clients for the Limehouse dive."

"You have visited 'The House of a Hundred Raptures'?"

"Many times, at week-ends. Opium, like wine, is better enjoyed in company."

"Does she post you the opium?"

"Oh, no; my man goes to Limehouse for it. Ah! here she is."

A woman came in, carrying a brown leather attache case. She had left her hat and coat in the hall, and wore a smart blue serge skirt and a white blouse. She was not tall, but she possessed a remarkably beautiful figure which the cut of her garments was not intended to disguise, and her height was appreciably increased by a pair of suede shoes having the most wonderful heels which Rita ever remembered to have seen worn on or off the stage. They seemed to make her small feet appear smaller, and lent to her slender ankles an exaggerated frontal curve.

Her hair was of that true, glossy black which suggests the blue sheen of raven's plumage, and her thickly fringed eyes were dark and southern as her hair. She had full, voluptuous lips, and a bold self- assurance. In the swift, calculating glance which she cast about the room there was something greedy and evil; and when it rested upon Rita Dresden's dainty beauty to the evil greed was added cruelty.

"Another little sister, dear Lola," murmured Kilfane. "of course, you know who it is? This, my daughter," turning the sleepy glance towards Rita, "is our officiating priestess, Mrs. Sin."

The woman so strangely named revealed her gleaming teeth in a swift, unpleasant smile, then her nostrils dilated and she glanced about her suspiciously.

"Someone smokes the chandu cigarettes," she said, speaking in a low tone which, nevertheless, failed to disguise her harsh voice, and with a very marked accent.

"I am the offender, dear Lola," said Kilfane, dreamily waving his cigarette towards her. "I have managed to make the last hundred spin out. You have brought me a new supply?"

"Oh no, indeed," replied Mrs. Sin, tossing her head in a manner oddly reminiscent of a once famous Spanish dancer. "Next Tuesday you get some more. Ah! it is no good! You talk and talk and it cannot alter anything. Until they come I cannot give them to you."

"But it appears to me," murmured Kilfane, "that the supply is always growing less."

"Of course. The best goes all to Edinburgh now. I have only three sticks of Yezd left of all my stock."

"But the cigarettes."

"Are from Buenos Ayres? Yes. But Buenos Ayres must get the opium before we get the cigarettes, eh? Five cases come to London on Tuesday, Cy. Be of good courage, my dear."

She patted the sallow cheek of the American with her jewelled fingers, and turned aside, glancing about her.

"Yes." murmured Kilfane. "We are all present, Lola. I have had the room prepared. Come, my children, let us enter the poppy portico."

He opened a door and stood aside, waving one thin yellow hand between the first two fingers of which smouldered the drugged cigarette. Led by Mrs. Sin the company filed into an apartment evidently intended for a drawing-room, but which had been hastily transformed into an opium divan.

Tables, chairs, and other items of furniture had been stacked against one of the walls and the floor spread with rugs, skins, and numerous silk cushions. A gas fire was alight, but before it had been placed an ornate Japanese screen whereon birds of dazzling plumage hovered amid the leaves of gilded palm trees. In the centre of the room stood a small card-table, and upon it were a large brass tray and an ivory pedestal exquisitely carved in the form of a nude figure having one arm upraised. The figure supported a lamp, the light of which was subdued by a barrel-shaped shade of Chinese workmanship.

Mollie Gretna giggled hysterically.

"Make yourself comfortable, dear," she cried to Rita, dropping down upon a heap of cushions stacked in a recess beside the fireplace. "I am going to take off my shoes. The last time, Cyrus, when I woke up my feet were quite numb."

"You should come down to my place," said Mrs. Sin, setting the leather case on the little card-table beside the lamp. "You have there your own little room and silken sheets to lie in, and it is quiet--so quiet."

"Oh!" cried Mollie Gretna, "I must come! But I daren't go alone. Will you come with me, dear?" turning to Rita.

"I don't know," was the reply. "I may not like opium."

"But if you do--and I know you will?"

"Why," said Rita, glancing rapidly at Pyne, "I suppose it would be a novel experience."

"Let me arrange it for you," came the harsh voice of Mrs. Sin. "Lucy will drive you both down--won't you, my dear?" The shadowed eyes glanced aside at Sir Lucien Pyne.

"Certainly," he replied. "I am always at the ladies' service."

Rita Dresden settled herself luxuriously into a nest of silk and fur in another corner of the room, regarding the baronet coquettishly through her half-lowered lashes.

"I won't go unless it is my party, Lucy," she said. "You must let me pay."

"A detail," murmured Pyne, crossing and standing beside her.

Interest now became centred upon the preparations being made by Mrs. Sin. From the attache case she took out a lacquered box, silken-lined like a jewel-casket. It contained four singular-looking pipes, the parts of which she began to fit together. The first and largest of these had a thick bamboo stem, an amber mouthpiece, and a tiny, disproportionate bowl of brass. The second was much smaller and was of some dark, highly-polished wood, mounted with silver conceived in an ornate Chinese design representing a long-tailed lizard. The mouthpiece was of jade. The third and fourth pipes were yet smaller, a perfectly matched pair in figured ivory of exquisite workmanship, delicately gold-mounted.

"These for the ladies," said Mrs. Sin, holding up the pair. "You"-- glancing at Kilfane--"have got your own pipe, I know."

She laid them upon the tray, and now took out of the case a little copper lamp, a smaller lacquered box and a silver spatula, her jewelled fingers handling the queer implements with a familiarity bred of habit.

"What a strange woman!" whispered Rita to Pyne. "Is she an oriental?"

"Cuban-Jewess," he replied in a low voice.

Mrs. Sin carefully lighted the lamp, which burned with a short, bluish flame, and, opening the lacquered box, she dipped the spatula into the thick gummy substance which it contained and twisted the little instrument round and round between her fingers, presently withdrawing it with a globule of chandu, about the size of a bean, adhering to the end. She glanced aside at Kilfane.

"Chinese way, eh?" she said.

She began to twirl the prepared opium above the flame of the lamp. From it a slight, sickly smelling vapor arose. No one spoke, but all watched her closely; and Rita was conscious of a growing, pleasurable excitement. When by evaporation the chandu had become reduced to the size of a small pea, and a vague spirituous blue flame began to dance round the end of the spatula, Mrs. Sin pressed it adroitly into the tiny bowl of one of the ivory pipes, having first held the bowl inverted for a moment over the lamp. She turned to Rita.

"The guest of the evening," she said. "Do not be afraid. Inhale--oh, so gentle--and blow the smoke from the nostrils. You know how to smoke?"

"The same as a cigarette?" asked Rita excitedly, as Mrs. Sin bent over her.

"The same, but very, very gentle."

Rita took the pipe and raised the mouthpiece to the lips.



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