Rita Dresden married Monte Irvin in the spring and bade farewell to the stage. The goal long held in view was attained at last. But another farewell which at one time she had contemplated eagerly no longer appeared desirable or even possible. To cocamania had been added a tolerance for opium, and at the last party given by Cyrus Kilfane she had learned that she could smoke nearly as much opium as the American habitue.
The altered attitude of Sir Lucien surprised and annoyed her. He, who had first introduced her to the spirit of the coca leaf and to the goddess of the poppy, seemed suddenly to have determined to convince her of the folly of these communions. He only succeeded in losing her confidence. She twice visited the "House of a Hundred Raptures" with Mollie Gretna, and once with Mollie and Kilfane, unknown to Sir Lucien.
Urgent affairs of some kind necessitated his leaving England a few weeks before the date fixed for Rita's wedding, and as Kilfane had already returned to America, Rita recognized with a certain dismay that she would be left to her own resources--handicapped by the presence of a watchful husband. This subtle change in her view of Monte Irvin she was incapable of appreciating, for Rita was no psychologist. But the effect of the drug habit was pointedly illustrated by the fact that in a period of little more than six months, from regarding Monte Irvin as a rock of refuge--a chance of salvation--she had come to regard him in the light of an obstacle to her indulgence. Not that her respect had diminished. She really loved at last, and so well that the idea of discovery by this man whose wholesomeness was the trait of character which most potently attracted her, was too appalling to be contemplated. The chance of discovery would be enhanced, she recognized, by the absence of her friends and accomplices.
Of course she was acquainted with many other devotees. In fact, she met so many of them that she had grown reconciled to her habits, believing them to be common to all "smart" people--a part of the Bohemian life. The truth of the matter was that she had become a prominent member of a coterie closely knit and associated by a bond of mutual vice--a kind of masonry whereof Kazmah of Bond Street was Grand Master and Mrs. Sin Grand Mistress.
The relations existing between Kazmah and his clients were of a most peculiar nature, too, and must have piqued the curiosity of anyone but a drug-slave. Having seen him once, in his oracular cave, Rita had been accepted as one of the initiated. Thereafter she had had no occasion to interview the strange, immobile Egyptian, nor had she experienced any desire to do so. The method of obtaining drugs was a simple one. She had merely to present herself at the establishment in Bond Street and to purchase either a flask of perfume or a box of sweetmeats. There were several varieties of perfume, and each corresponded to a particular drug. The sweetmeats corresponded to morphine. Rashid, the attendant, knew all Kazmah's clients, and with the box or flask he gave them a quantity of the required drug. This scheme was precautionary. For if a visitor should chance to be challenged on leaving the place, there was the legitimate purchase to show in evidence of the purpose of the visit.
No conversation was necessary, merely the selection of a scent and the exchange of a sum of money. Rashid retired to wrap up the purchase, and with it a second and smaller package was slipped into the customer's hand. That the prices charged were excessive--nay, ridiculous--did not concern Rita, for, in common with the rest of her kind, she was careless of expenditure.
Opium, alone, Kazmah did not sell. He sold morphine, tincture of opium, and other preparations; but those who sought the solace of the pipe were compelled to deal with Mrs. Sin. She would arrange parties, or would prepare the "Hundred Raptures" in Limehouse for visitors; but, except in the form of opiated cigarettes, she could rarely be induced to part with any of the precious gum. Thus she cleverly kept a firm hold upon the devotees of the poppy.
Drug-takers form a kind of brotherhood, and outside the charmed circle they are secretive as members of the Mafia, the Camorra, or the Catouse-Menegant.
In this secrecy, which, indeed, is a recognized symptom of drug mania, lay Kazmah's security. Rita experienced no desire to peer behind the veil which, literally and metaphorically, he had placed between himself and the world. At first she had been vaguely curious, and had questioned Sir Lucien and others, but nobody seemed to know the real identity of Kazmah, and nobody seemed to care provided that he continued to supply drugs. They all led secret, veiled lives, these slaves of the laboratory, and that Kazmah should do likewise did not surprise them. He had excellent reasons.
During this early stage of faint curiosity she had suggested to Sir Lucien that for Kazmah to conduct a dream-reading business seemed to be to add to the likelihood of police interference.
The baronet had smiled sardonically.
"It is an additional safeguard," he had assured her "It corresponds to the method of a notorious Paris assassin who was very generally regarded by the police as a cunning pickpocket. Kazmah's business of 'dreamreading' does not actually come within the Act. He is clever enough for that. Remember, he does not profess to tell fortunes. It also enables him to balk idle curiosity."
At the time of her marriage Rita was hopelessly in the toils, and had been really panic-stricken at the prospect--once so golden--of a protracted sojourn abroad. The war, which rendered travel impossible, she regarded rather in the light of a heaven-sent boon. Irvin, though personally favoring a quiet ceremony, recognized that Rita cherished a desire to quit theatreland in a chariot of fire, and accordingly the wedding was on a scale of magnificence which outshone that of any other celebrated during the season. Even the lugubrious Mr. Esden, who gave his daughter away, was seen to smile twice. Mrs. Esden moved in a rarified atmosphere of gratified ambition and parental pride, which no doubt closely resembled that which the angels breathe.
It was during the early days of her married life, and while Sir Lucien was still abroad, that Rita began to experience difficulty in obtaining the drugs which she required. She had lost touch to a certain extent with her former associates; but she had retained her maid, Nina, and the girl regularly went to Kazmah's and returned with the little flasks of perfume. When an accredited representative was sent upon such a mission, Kazmah dispatched the drugs disguised in a scent flask; but on each successive occasion that Nina went to him the prices increased, and finally became so exorbitant that even Rita grew astonished and dismayed.
She mentioned the matter to another habitue, a lady of title addicted to the use of the hypodermic syringe, and learned that she (Rita) was being charged nearly twice as much as her friend.
"I should bring the man to his senses, dear," said her ladyship. "I know a doctor who will be only too glad to supply you. When I say a doctor, he is no longer recognized by the B.M.A., but he's none the less clever and kind for all that."
To the clever and kind medical man Rita repaired on the following day, bearing a written introduction from her friend. The discredited physician supplied her for a short time, charging only moderate fees. Then, suddenly, this second source of supply was closed. The man declared that he was being watched by the police, and that he dared not continue to supply her with cocaine and veronal. His shifty eyes gave the lie to his words, but he was firm in his resolution, whatever may have led him to it, and Rita was driven back to Kazmah. His charges had become more exorbitant than ever, but her need was imperative. Nevertheless, she endeavored to find another drug dealer, and after a time was again successful.
At a certain supper club she was introduced to a suave little man, quite palpably an uninterned alien, who smilingly offered to provide her with any drug to be found in the British Pharmacopeia, at most moderate charges. With this little German-Jew villain she made a pact, reflecting that, provided that his wares were of good quality, she had triumphed over Kazmah.
The craving for chandu seized her sometimes and refused to be exorcised by morphia, laudanum, or any other form of opium; but she had not dared to spend a night at the "House of a Hundred Raptures" since her marriage. Her new German friend volunteered to supply the necessary gum, outfit, and to provide an apartment where she might safely indulge in smoking. She declined--at first. But finally, on Mollie Gretna's return from France, where she had been acting as a nurse, Rita and Mollie accepted the suave alien's invitation to spend an evening in his private opium divan.
Many thousands of careers were wrecked by the war, and to the war and the consequent absence of her husband Rita undoubtedly owed her relapse into opium-smoking. That she would have continued secretly to employ cocaine, veronal, and possibly morphine was probable enough; but the constant society of Monte Irvin must have made it extremely difficult for her to indulge the craving for chandu. She began to regret the gaiety of her old life. Loneliness and monotony plunged her into a state of suicidal depression, and she grasped eagerly at every promise of excitement.
It was at about this time that she met Margaret Halley, and between the two, so contrary in disposition, a close friendship arose. The girl doctor ere long discovered Rita's secret, of course, and the discovery was hastened by an event which occurred shortly after they had become acquainted.
The suave alien gentleman disappeared.
That was the entire story in five words--or all of the story that Rita ever learned. His apartments were labelled "To Let," and the night clubs knew him no more. Rita for a time was deprived of drugs, and the nervous collapse which resulted revealed to Margaret Halley's trained perceptions the truth respecting her friend.
Kazmah's terms proved to be more outrageous than ever, but Rita found herself again compelled to resort to the Egyptian. She went personally to the rooms in old Bond Street and arranged with Rashid to see Kazmah on the following day, Friday, for Kazmah only received visitors by appointment. As it chanced, Sir Lucien Pyne returned to England on Thursday night and called upon Rita at Prince's Gate. She welcomed him as a friend in need, unfolding the pitiful story, to the truth of which her nervous condition bore eloquent testimony.
Sir Lucien began to pace up and down the charming little room in which Rita had received him. She watched him, haggard-eyed. Presently:
"Leave Kazmah to me," he said. "If you visit him he will merely shield himself behind the mystical business, or assure you that he is making no profit on his sales. Kilfane had similar trouble with him."
"Then you will see him?" asked Rita.
"I will make a point of interviewing him in the morning. Meanwhile, if you will send Nina around to Albemarle Street in about an hour I will see what can be done."
"Oh, Lucy," whispered Rita, "what a pal you are."
Sir Lucien smiled in his cold fashion.
"I try to be," he said enigmatically; "but I don't always succeed." He turned to her. "Have you ever thought of giving up this doping?" he asked. "Have you ever realized that with increasing tolerance the quantities must increase as well, and that a day is sure to come when--"
Rita repressed a nervous shudder.
"You are trying to frighten me," she replied. "You have tried before; I don't know why. But it's no good, Lucy. You know I cannot give it up."
"You can try."
"I don't want to try!" she cried irritably. "It will be time enough when Monte is back again, and we can really 'live.' This wretched existence, with everything restricted and rationed, and all one's friends in Flanders or Mesopotamia or somewhere, drives me mad! I tell you I should die, Lucy, if I tried to do without it now."
The hollow presence of reform contemplated in a hazy future did not deceive Sir Lucien. He suppressed a sigh, and changed the topic of conversation.
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