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IN THE OPIUM DEN
Interrupting a spell of warm, fine weather the night had set in wet and stormy. The squalid streets through which Stuart and Gaston Max made their way looked more than normally deserted and uninviting. The wind moaned and the rain accompanied with a dreary tattoo. Sometimes a siren wailed out upon the river.
"We are nearly there," said Max. "Pardieu! they are well concealed, those fellows. I have not seen so much as an eyebrow."
"It would be encouraging to get a glimpse of some one!" replied Stuart.
"Ah, but bad--inartistic. It is the next door, I think ... yes. I hope they have no special way of knocking."
Upon the door of a dark and apparently deserted shop he rapped.
Both had anticipated an interval of waiting, and both were astonished when the door opened almost at once, revealing a blackly cavernous interior.
"Go off! Too late! Shuttee shop!" chattered a voice out of the darkness.
Max thrust his way resolutely in, followed by Stuart. "Shut the door, Ah-Fang-Fu!" he said curtly, speaking with a laboured French accent. "Scorpion!"
The door was closed by the invisible Chinaman, there was a sound of soft movements and a hurricane-lantern suddenly made its appearance. Its light revealed the interior of a nondescript untidy little shop and revealed the presence of an old and very wrinkled Chinaman who held the lantern. He wore a blue smock and a bowler hat and his face possessed the absolute impassivity of an image. As he leaned over the counter, scrutinising his visitors, Max thrust forward the golden scorpion held in the palm of his hand.
"Hoi, hoi" chattered the Chinaman. "Fo-Hi fellers, eh? You hab got plenty much late. Other fellers Fo-Hi pidgin plenty much sooner. You one time catchee allee same bhobbery, b'long number one joss-pidgin man!"
Being covertly nudged by Max:
"Cut the palaver, Pidgin," growled Stuart.
"Allee lightee," chattered Ah-Fang-Fu, for evidently this was he. "You play one piecee pipee till Fo-Hi got." Raising the lantern, he led the way through a door at the back of the shop. Descending four wooden steps, Stuart and Max found themselves in the opium-den.
"Full up. No loom," said the Chinaman.
It was a low-ceilinged apartment, the beams of the roof sloping slightly upward from west to east. The centre part of the wall at the back was covered with matting hung from the rough cornice supporting the beams. To the right of the matting was the door communicating with the shop, and to the left were bunks. Other bunks lined the southerly wall, except where, set in the thickness of the bare brick and plaster, a second strong door was partly hidden by a pile of empty packing-cases and an untidy litter of straw and matting.
Along the northern wall were more bunks, and an open wooden stair, with a handrail, ascended to a small landing or platform before a third door high up in the wall. A few mats were strewn about the floor. The place was dimly lighted by a red-shaded lamp swung from the centre of the ceiling and near the foot of the stairs another lamp (of the common tin variety) stood upon a box near which was a broken cane chair. Opium-pipes, tins, and a pack of cards were on this box.
All the bunks appeared to be occupied. Most of the occupants were lying motionless, but one or two were noisily sucking at the opium-pipes. These had not yet attained to the opium-smokers Nirvana. So much did Gaston Max, a trained observer, gather in one swift glance. Then Ah-Fang-Fu, leaving the lantern in the shop, descended the four steps and crossing the room began to arrange two mats with round head-cushions near to the empty packing-cases. Stuart and Max remained by the door.
"You see," whispered Max, "he has taken you on trust! And he did not appear to recognise me. It is as I thought. The place is 'open to the public' as usual, and Ah-Fang-Fu does a roaring trade, one would judge. For the benefit of patrons not affiliated to the order we have to pretend to smoke."
"Yes," replied Stuart with repressed excitement--"until someone called Fo-Hi is at home, or visible; the word 'got' may mean either of those things."
"Fo-Hi," whispered Max, "is 'The Scorpion!'
"I believe you are right," said Stuart--who had good reason to know it. "My God! what a foul den! The reek is suffocating. Look at that yellow lifeless face yonder, and see that other fellow whose hand hangs limply down upon the floor. Those bunks might be occupied by corpses for all the evidence of life that some of them show."
"Morbleu! do not raise your voice; for some of them are occupied by 'Scorpions.' You noted the words of Ah-Fang? Ssh!"
The old Chinaman returned with his curious shuffling walk, raising his hand to beckon to them.
"Number one piece bunk, lo!" he chattered.
"Good enough," growled Stuart.
The two crossed and reclined upon the uncleanly mats.
"Make special loom," explained Ah-Fang-Fu. "Velly special chop!"
He passed from bunk to bunk, and presently came to a comatose Chinaman from whose limp hand, which hung down upon the floor, the pipe had dropped. This pipe Ah-Fang-Fu took from the smoker's fingers and returning to the box upon which the tin lamp was standing began calmly to load it.
"Good heavens!" muttered Stuart--"he is short of pipes! Pah! how the place reeks!"
Ah-Fang-Fu busied himself with a tin of opium, the pipe which he had taken from the sleeper, and another pipe--apparently the last of his stock--which lay near the lamp. Igniting the two, he crossed and handed them to Stuart and Max.
"Velly soon-lo!" he said and made a curious sign, touching his brow, his lips and his breast in a manner resembling that of a Moslem.
Max repeated the gesture and then lay back upon his elbow, raising the mouthpiece of the little pipe to his lips--but carefully avoiding contact.
Ah-Fang-Fu shuffled back to the broken cane chair, from which he had evidently arisen to admit his late visitors.
Inarticulate sounds proceeded from the bunks, breaking the sinister silence which now descended upon the den. Ah-Fang-Fu began to play Patience, constantly muttering to himself. The occasional wash of tidal water became audible, and once there came a scampering and squealing of rates from beneath the floor.
"Do you notice the sound of lapping water" whispered Stuart. "The place is evidently built upon a foundation of piles and the cellars must actually be submerged at high-tide."
"Pardieu! it is a death trap. What is this!"
A loud knocking sounded upon the street door. Ah-Fang-Fu rose and shuffled up the steps into the shop. He could be heard unbarring the outer door. Then:
"Too late! shuttee shop, shuttee shop!" sounded.
"I don't want nothin' out of your blasted shop, Pidgin!" roared a loud and thick voice. "I'm old Bill Bean, I am, and I want a pipe, I do!"
"Hullo, Bill!" replied the invisible 'Pidgin.' "Allee samee dlunk again!"
A red-bearded ship's fireman, wearing sea-boots, a rough blue suit similar to that which Stuart wore, a muffler and a peaked cap, lurched into view at the head of the steps.
"Blimey!" he roared, over his shoulder. "Drunk! Me drunk! An' all the pubs in these parts sell barley-water coloured brown! Blimey! Chuck it, Pidgin!"
Ah-Fang-Fu reappeared behind him. "Catchee dlunk ev'ly time for comee here," he chattered.
"'Taint 'umanly possible," declared the new arrival, staggering down the steps, "fer a 'ealthy sailorman to git drunk on coloured water just 'cause the publican calls it beer! I ain't drunk; I'm only miserable. Gimmee a pipe, Pidgin."
Ah-Fang-Fu barred the door and ascended.
"Comee here," he muttered, "my placee, all full up and no other placee b'long open."
Bill Bean slapped him boisterously on the back.
"Cut the palaver, Pidgin, and gimme a pipe. Piecee pipe, Pidgin!"
He lurched across the floor, nearly falling over Stuart's legs, took up a mat and a cushion, lurched into the further corner and cast himself down.
"Ain't I one o' yer oldest customers, Pidgin?" he inquired. "One o' yer oldest, I am."
"Blight side twelve-time," muttered the Chinaman. "Getchee me in tlouble, Bill. Number one police chop."
"Not the first time it wouldn't be!" retorted the fireman. "Not the first time as you've been in trouble, Pidgin. An' unless they 'ung yer--which it ain't 'umanly possible to 'ang a Chink--it wouldn't be the last--an' not by a damn long way ...an' not by a damn long way!"
Ah-Fang-Fu, shrugging resignedly, shuffled from bunk to bunk in quest of a disused pipe, found one, and returning to the extemporised table, began to load it, muttering to himself.
"Don't like to 'ear about your wicked past, do you?" continued Bill. "Wicked old yellow-faced 'eathen! Remember the 'dive' in 'Frisco, Pidgin? Wot a rough 'ouse! Remember when I come in--full up I was: me back teeth well under water--an' you tried to Shanghai me?"
"You cutee palaber. All damn lie," muttered the Chinaman.
"Ho! a lie is it?" roared the other. "Wot about me wakin' up all of a tremble aboard o' the old Nancy Lee--aboard of a blasted wind-jammer! Me--a fireman! Wot about it? Wasn't that Shanghaiin'? Blighter! An' not a 'oat' in me pocket--not a 'bean'! Broke to the wide an' aboard of a old wind-jammer wot was a coffin-ship--a coffin-ship she was; an' 'er old man was the devil's father-in-law. Ho! lies! I don't think!"
"You cutee palaber!" chattered Ah-Fang-Fu, busy with the pipe. "You likee too much chin-chin. You make nice piece bhobbery."
"Not a 'bean'," continued Bill reminiscently--"not a 'oat.'" He sat up violently. "Even me pipe an' baccy was gone!" he shouted. "You'd even pinched me pipe an' baccy! You'd pinch the whiskers off a blind man, you would, Pidgin! 'And over the dope. Thank Gawd somebody's still the right stuff!"
Suddenly, from a bunk on the left of Gaston Max came a faint cry.
"Ah! He has bitten me!"
"'Ullo!" said Bill--"wotcher bin given' 'im, Pidgin? Chandu or hydrerphobia?"
Ah-Fang-Fu crossed and handed him the pipe.
"One piecee pipee. No more hab."
Bill grasped the pipe eagerly and raised it to his lips. Ah-Fang-Fu returned unmoved to his Patience and silence reclaimed the den, only broken by the inarticulate murmuring and the lapping of the tide.
"A genuine customer!" whispered Max.
"Ah!" came again, more faintly--"he ... has ... bitten ... me."
"Blimey!" said Bill in a drowsy voice--"'eave the chair at 'im, Pidgin."
Stuart was about to speak when Gaston Max furtively grasped his arm. "Ssh!" he whispered. "Do not move, but look ... at the top of the stair!"
Stuart turned his eyes. On the platform at the head of the stairs a Hindu was standing!
"Chunda Lal!" whispered Max. "Prepare for--anything!"
"Chunda Lal descended slowly. Ah-Fang-Fu continued to play Patience. The Hindu stood behind him and began to speak in a voice of subdued fervour and with soft Hindu modulations.
"Why do you allow them, strangers, coming here to-night!"
Ah-Fang-Fu continued complacently to arrange the cards.
"S'pose hab gotchee pidgin allee samee Chunda Lal hab got? Fo-Hi no catchee buy bled and cheese for Ah-Fang-Fu. He"--nodding casually in the direction of Bill Bean--"plitty soon all blissful."
"Be very careful, Ah-Fang-Fu," said Chunda Lal tensely. He lowered his voice. "Do you forget so soon what happen last week?"
"Some one comes here--we do not know how close he comes; perhaps he comes in--and he is of the police."
Ah-Fang-Fu shuffled uneasily in his chair.
"No police chop for Pidgin!" he muttered. "Same feller tumble in liver?"
"He is killed--yes; but suppose they find the writing he has made! Suppose he has written that it is here people meet together?"
"Makee chit tell my name? Muchee hard luck! Number one police chop."
"You say Fo-Hi not buying you bread and cheese. Perhaps it is Fo-Hi that save you from hanging!"
Ah-Fang-Fu hugged himself.
"Yak pozee!" (Very good) he muttered.
Chunda Lal raised his finger.
"Be very careful, Ah-Fang-Fu!"
"Allee time velly careful."
"But admit no more of them to come in, these strangers."
"Tchee, tchee! Velly ploper. Sometime big feller come in if Pidgin palaber or not. Pidgin never lude to big feller."
"Your life may depend on it," said Chunda Lal impressively. "How many are here?"
Ah-Fang-Fu turned at last from his cards, pointing in three directions, and, finally, at Gaston Max.
"Four?" said the Hindu--"how can it be?"
He peered from bunk to bunk, muttering something--a name apparently-- after scrutinizing each. When his gaze rested upon Max he started, stared hard, and meeting the gaze of the one visible eye, made the strange sign.
Max repeated it; and Chunda Lal turned again to the Chinaman. "Because of that drunken pig," he said, pointing at Bill Bean--"we must wait. See to it that he is the last."
He walked slowly up the stairs, opened the door at the top and disappeared.
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