Chapter XVII. The Black Smoke




Up an uncarpeted stair Cyrus Kilfane led the party, and into a kind of lumber-room lighted by a tin oil lamp and filled to overflowing with heterogeneous and unsavory rubbish. Here were garments, male and female, no less than five dilapidated bowler hats, more tea-chests, broken lamps, tattered fragments of cocoanut-matting, steel bed-laths and straw mattresses, ruins of chairs--the whole diffusing an indescribably unpleasant odor.

Opening a cupboard door, Kilfane revealed a number of pendent, ragged garments, and two more bowler hats. Holding the garments aside, he banged upon the back of the cupboard--three blows, a pause, and then two blows.

Following a brief interval, during which even Mollie Gretna was held silent by the strangeness of the proceedings,

"Who is it?" inquired a muffled voice.

"Cy and the crowd," answered Kilfane.

Thereupon ensued a grating noise, and hats and garments swung suddenly backward, revealing a doorway in which Mrs. Sin stood framed. She wore a Japanese kimona of embroidered green silk and a pair of green and gold brocaded slippers which possessed higher heels than Rita remembered to have seen even Mrs. Sin mounted upon before. Her ankles were bare, and it was impossible to determine in what manner she was clad beneath the kimona. Undoubtedly she had a certain dark beauty, of a bold, abandoned type.

"Come right in," she directed. "Mind your head, Lucy."

The quartette filed through into a carpeted corridor, and Mrs. Sin reclosed the false back of the cupboard, which, viewed from the other side, proved to be a door fitted into a recess in the corridor of the adjoining house. This recess ceased to exist when a second and heavier door was closed upon the first.

"You know," murmured Kilfane, "old Sin Sin has his uses, Lola. Those doors are perfectly made."

"Pooh!" scoffed the woman, with a flash of her dark eyes; "he is half a ship's carpenter and half an ape!"

She moved along the passage, her arm linked in that of Sir Lucien. The others followed, and:

"Is she truly married to that dreadful Chinaman?" whispered Mollie Gretna.

"Yes, I believe so," murmured Kilfane. "She is known as Mrs. Sin Sin Wa."

"Oh!" Mollie's eyes opened widely. "I almost envy her! I have read that Chinamen tie their wives to beams in the roof and lash them with leather thongs until they swoon. I could die for a man who lashed me with leather thongs. Englishmen are so ridiculously gentle to women."

Opening a door on the left of the corridor, Mrs. Sin displayed a room screened off into three sections. One shaded lamp high up near the ceiling served to light all the cubicles, which were heated by small charcoal stoves. These cubicles were identical in shape and appointment, each being draped with quaint Chinese tapestry and containing rugs, a silken divan, an armchair, and a low, Eastern table.

"Choose for yourself," said Mrs. Sin, turning to Rita and Mollie Gretna. "Nobody else come tonight. You two in this room, eh? Next door each other for company."

She withdrew, leaving the two girls together. Mollie clasped her hands ecstatically.

"Oh, my dear!" she said. "What do you think of it all?"

"Well," confessed Rita, looking about her, "personally I feel rather nervous."

"My dear!" cried Mollie. "I am simply quivering with delicious terror!"

Rita became silent again, looking about her, and listening. The harsh voice of the Cuban-Jewess could be heard from a neighboring room, but otherwise a perfect stillness reigned in the house of Sin Sin Wa. She remembered that Mrs. Sin had said, "It is quiet--so quiet."

"The idea of undressing and reclining on these divans in real oriental fashion," declared Mollie, giggling, "makes me feel that I am an odalisque already. I have dreamed that I was an odalisque, dear--after smoking, you know. It was heavenly. At least, I don't know that 'heavenly' is quite the right word."

And now that evil spirit of abandonment came to Rita--communicated to her, possibly, by her companion. Dread, together with a certain sense of moral reluctance, departed, and she began to enjoy the adventure at last. It was as though something in the faintly perfumed atmosphere of the place had entered into her blood, driving out reserve and stifling conscience.

When Sir Lucien reappeared she ran to him excitedly, her charming face flushed and her eyes sparkling.

"Oh, Lucy," she cried, "how long will our things be? I'm keen to smoke!"

His jaw hardened, and when he spoke it was with a drawl more marked than usual.

"Mareno will be here almost immediately," he answered.

The tone constituted a rebuff, and Rita's coquetry deserted her, leaving her mortified and piqued. She stared at Pyne, biting her lip.

"You don't like me tonight," she declared. "if I look ugly, it's your fault; you told me to wear this horrid old costume!"

He laughed in a forced, unnatural way.

"You are quite well aware that you could never look otherwise than maddeningly beautiful," he said harshly. "Do you want me to recall the fact to you again that you are shortly to be Monte Irvin's wife--or should you prefer me to remind you that you have declined to be mine?"

Turning slowly, he walked away, but:

"Oh, Lucy!" whispered Rita.

He paused, looking back.

"I know now why you didn't want me to come," she said. "I--I'm sorry."

The hard look left Sir Lucien's face immediately and was replaced by a curious, indefinable expression, an expression which rarely appeared there.

"You only know half the reason," he replied softly.

At that moment Mrs. Sin came in, followed by Mareno carrying two dressing-cases. Mollie Gretna had run off to Kilfane, and could be heard talking loudly in another room; but, called by Mrs. Sin, she now returned, wide-eyed with excitement.

Mrs. Sin cast a lightning glance at Sir Lucien, and then addressed Rita.

"Which of these three rooms you choose?" she asked, revealing her teeth in one of those rapid smiles which were mirthless as the eternal smile of Sin Sin Wa.

"Oh," said Rita hurriedly, "I don't know. Which do you want, Mollie?"

"I love this end one!" cried Mollie. "It has cushions which simply reek of oriental voluptuousness and cruelty. It reminds me of a delicious book I have been reading called Musk, Hashish, and Blood."

"Hashish!" said Mrs. Sin, and laughed harshly. "One night you shall eat the hashish, and then--"

She snapped her fingers, glancing from Rita to Pyne.

"Oh, really? Is that a promise?" asked Mollie eagerly.

"No, no!" answered Mrs. Sin. "It is a threat!"

Something in the tone of her voice as she uttered the last four words in mock dramatic fashion caused Mollie and Rita to stare at one another questioningly. That suddenly altered tone had awakened an elusive memory, but neither of them could succeed in identifying it.

Mareno, a lean, swarthy fellow, his foreign cast of countenance accentuated by close-cut side-whiskers, deposited Miss Gretna's case in the cubicle which she had selected and, Rita pointing to that adjoining it, he disposed the second case beside the divan and departed silently. As the sound of a closing door reached them:

"You notice how quiet it is?" asked Mrs. Sin.

"Yes," replied Rita. "It is extraordinarily quiet."

"This an empty house--'To let,'" explained Mrs. Sin. "We watch it stay so. Sin the landlord, see? Windows all boarded up and everything padded. No sound outside, no sound inside. Sin call it the 'House of a Hundred Raptures,' after the one he have in Buenos Ayres."

The voice of Cyrus Kilfane came, querulous, from a neighboring room.

"Lola, my dear, I am almost ready."

"Ho!" Mrs. Sin uttered a deep-toned laugh. "He is a glutton for chandu! I am coming, Cy."

She turned and went out. Sir Lucien paused for a moment, permitting her to pass, and:

"Good night, Rita," he said in a low voice. "Happy dreams!"

He moved away.

"Lucy!" called Rita softly.

"Yes?"

"Is it--is it really safe here?"

Pyne glanced over his shoulder towards the retreating figure of Mrs. Sin, then:

"I shall be awake," he replied. "I would rather you had not come, but since you are here you must go through with it." He glanced again along the narrow passage created by the presence of the partitions, and spoke in a voice lower yet. "You have never really trusted me, Rita. You were wise. But you can trust me now. Good night, dear."

He walked out of the room and along the carpeted corridor to a little apartment at the back of the house, furnished comfortably but in execrably bad taste. A cheerful fire was burning in the grate, the flue of which had been ingeniously diverted by Sin Sin Wa so that the smoke issued from a chimney of the adjoining premises. On the mantelshelf, which was garishly draped, were a number of photographs of Mrs. Sin in Spanish dancing costume.

Pyne seated himself in an armchair and lighted a cigarette. Except for the ticking of a clock the room was silent as a padded cell. Upon a little Moorish table beside a deep, low settee lay a complete opium- smoking outfit.

Lolling back in the chair and crossing his legs, Sir Lucien became lost in abstraction, and he was thus seated when, some ten minutes later, Mrs. Sin came in.

"Ah!" she said, her harsh voice softened to a whisper. "I wondered. So you wait to smoke with me?" Pyne slowly turned his head, staring at her as she stood in the doorway, one hand resting on her hip and her shapely figure boldly outlined by the kimono.

"No," he replied. "I don't want to smoke. Are they all provided for?"

Mrs. Sin shook her head.

"Not Cy," she said. "Two pipes are nothing to him. He will need two more--perhaps three. But you are not going to smoke?"

"Not tonight, Lola."

She frowned, and was about to speak, when:

"Lola, my dear," came a distant, querulous murmur. "Give me another pipe."

Sin tossed her head, turned, and went out again. Sir Lucien lighted another cigarette. When finally the woman came back, Cyrus Kilfane had presumably attained the opium-smoker's paradise, for Lola closed the door and seated herself upon the arm of Sir Lucien's chair. She bent down, resting her dusky cheek against his.

"You smoke with me?" she whispered coaxingly.

"No, Lola, not tonight," he said, patting her jewel-laden hand and looking aside into the dark eyes which were watching him intently.

Mrs. Sin became silent for a few moments.

"Something has changed in you," she said at last. "You are different-- lately."

"Indeed!" drawled Sir Lucien. "Possibly you are right. Others have said the same thing."

"You have lots of money now. Your investments have been good. You want to become respectable, eh?"

Pyne smiled sardonically.

"Respectability is a question of appearance," he replied. "The change to which you refer would seem to go deeper."

"Very likely," murmured Mrs. Sin. "I know why you don't smoke. You have promised your pretty little friend that you will stay awake and see that nobody tries to cut her sweet white throat."

Sir Lucien listened imperturbably.

"She is certainly nervous," he admitted coolly. "I may add that I am sorry I brought her here."

"Oh," said Mrs. Sin, her voice rising half a note. "Then why do you bring her to the House?"

"She made the arrangement herself, and I took the easier path. I am considering your interests as much as my own, Lola. She is about to marry Monte Irvin, and if his suspicions were aroused he is quite capable of digging down to the 'Hundred Raptures.'"

"You brought her to Kazmah's."

"She was not at that time engaged to Irvin."

"Ah, I see. And now everybody says you are changed. Yes, she is a charming friend."

Pyne looked up into the half-veiled dark eyes.

"She never has been and never can be any more to me, Lola," he said.

At those words, designed to placate, the fire which smouldered in Lola's breast burst into sudden flame. She leapt to her feet, confronting Sir Lucien.

"I know! I know!" she cried harshly. "Do you think I am blind? If she had been like any of the others, do you suppose it would have mattered to me? But you respect her--you respect her!"

Eyes blazing and hands clenched, she stood before him, a woman mad with jealousy, not of a successful rival but of a respected one. She quivered with passion, and Pyne, perceiving his mistake too late, only preserved his wonted composure by dint of a great effort. He grasped Lola and drew her down on to the arm of the chair by sheer force, for she resisted savagely. His ready wit had been at work, and:

"What a little spitfire you are," he said, firmly grasping her arms, which felt rigid to the touch. "Surely you can understand? Rita amused me, at first. Then, when I found she was going to marry Monte Irvin I didn't bother about her any more. In fact, because I like and admire Irvin, I tried to keep her away from the dope. We don't want trouble with a man of that type, who has all sorts of influence. Besides, Monte Irvin is a good fellow."

Gradually, as he spoke, the rigid arms relaxed and the lithe body ceased to quiver. Finally, Lola sank back against his shoulder, sighing.

"I don't believe you," she whispered. "You are telling me lies. But you have always told me lies; one more does not matter, I suppose. How strong you are. You have hurt my wrists. You will smoke with me now?"

For a moment Pyne hesitated, then:

"Very well," he said. "Go and lie down. I will roast the chandu."



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