Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tales of Chinatown A HINT OF INCENSE

One Chinaman more or less does not make any very great difference to the authorities responsible for maintaining law and order in Limehouse. Asiatic settlers are at liberty to follow their national propensities, and to knife one another within reason. This is wisdom. Such recreations are allowed, if not encouraged, by all wise rulers of Eastern peoples.

"Found drowned," too, is a verdict which has covered many a dark mystery of old Thames, but "Found in the river, death having been due to the action of some poison unknown," is a finding which even in the case of a Chinaman is calculated to stimulate the jaded official mind.

New Scotland Yard had given Durham a roving commission, and had been justified in the fact that the second victim, and this time not a Chinaman, had been found under almost identical conditions. The link with the establishment of Huang Chow was incomplete, and Durham fully recognized that it was up to him to make it sound and incontestable.

Jim Poland was not the only man in the East End who knew that the dead Chinaman had been in negotiation with Huang Chow. Kerry knew it, and had passed the information on to Durham.

Some mystery surrounded the life of the old dealer, who was said to be a mandarin of high rank, but his exact association with the deaths first of the Chinaman Pi Lung, and second of Cohen, remained to be proved. Certain critics have declared the Metropolitan detective service to be obsolete and inefficient. Kerry, as a potential superintendent, resented these criticisms, and in his protege Durham, perceived a member of the new generation who was likely in time to produce results calculated to remove this stigma.

Durham recognized that a greater responsibility rested upon his shoulders than the actual importance of the case might have indicated; and now, proceeding warily along the deserted streets, he found his brain to be extraordinarily active and his imagination very much alive.

There is a night life in Limehouse, as he had learned, but it is a mole life, a subterranean life, of which no sign appears above ground after a certain hour. Nevertheless, as he entered the area which harbours those strange, hidden resorts the rumour of which has served to create the glamour of Chinatown, he found himself to be thinking of the great influence said to be wielded by Huang Chow, and wondering if unseen spies watched his movements.

Lala was Oriental, and now, alone in the night, distrust leapt into being within him. He had been attracted by her and had pitied her. He told himself now that this was because of her dark beauty and the essentially feminine appeal which she made. She was perhaps a vampire of the most dangerous sort, one who lured men to strange deaths for some sinister object beyond reach of a Western imagination.

He found himself doubting the success of those tactics upon which, earlier in the day, he had congratulated himself. Perhaps beneath the guise of Hampden, who bought antique furniture on commission, those cunning old eyes beneath the horn-rimmed spectacles had perceived the detective hidden, or at least had marked subterfuge.

While he could not count Lala a conquest--for he had not even attempted to make love to her--the ease with which he had developed the acquaintance now, afforded matter for suspicion.

At the entrance to the court communicating with the establishment of Huang Chow he paused, looking cautiously about him. The men on the Limehouse beats had been warned of the investigation afoot tonight, and there was a plain-clothes man on point duty at no great distance away, although carefully hidden, so that Durham had quite failed to detect his presence.

Durham wore rough clothes and rubber-soled shoes; and now, as he entered the court, he was thinking of the official report of the police sergeant who, not so many hours before, had paid a visit to the house of Huang Chow in order to question him respecting his knowledge of the dead man Cohen, and to learn when last he had seen him.

Old Huang, who had received his caller in the large room upstairs, the room which boasted the presence of the writing- dais, had exhibited no trace of confusion, assuring the sergeant that he had not seen the man Cohen for several days. Cohen had come to him with an American introduction, which he, Huang, believed to be forged, and had wanted him to undertake a shady agency, respecting the details of which he remained peculiarly reticent. In short, nothing had been gained by this official interrogation, and Huang blandly denied any knowledge of an attempted burglary of his establishment.

"What have I to lose?" he had asked the inquirer. "A lot of old lumber which I have accumulated during many years, and a reputation for being wealthy, due to my lonely habits and to the ignorance of those who live around me."

Durham, mentally reviewing the words of the report, reconstructed the scene in his mind; and now, having come to the end of the lane where the iron post rested, he stood staring up at a place in the ancient wall where several bricks had decayed, and where it was possible, according to the statement of the man Poland, to climb up on to a piece of sloping roof, and thence gain the skylight through which Cohen had obtained admittance on the night of his death.

He made sure that his automatic pistol was in his pocket, questioned the dull sounds of the riverside for a moment, looking about him anxiously, and then, using the leaning post as a stepping-stone, he succeeded in wedging his foot into a crevice in the wall. By the exercise of some agility he scrambled up to the top, and presently found himself lying upon a sloping roof.

The skylight remained well out of reach, but his rubber-soled shoes enabled him to creep up the slates until he could grasp the framework with his hands. Presently he found himself perched upon the trap which, if his information could be relied upon, possessed no fastener, or one so faulty that the trap could be raised by means of a brad-awl. He carried one in his pocket, and, screwing it into the framework, he lifted it cautiously, making very little noise.

The trap opened, and up to his nostrils there stole a queer, indefinable odour, partly that which belongs to old Oriental furniture and stuffs, but having mingled with it a hint of incense and of something else not so easily named. He recognized the smell of that strange store-room, which, as Mr. Hampden, he had recently visited.

For one moment he thought he could detect the distant note of a bell. But, listening, he heard nothing, and was reassured.

He rested the trap back against the frame, and shone the ray of an electric torch down into the darkness beneath him. The light fell upon the top of a low carven table, dragon-legged and gilded. Upon it rested the model pagoda constructed of human teeth, and there was something in this discovery which made Durham feel inclined to shudder. However, the impulse was only a passing one.

He measured the distance with his eye. The little table stood beside a deep divan, and he saw that with care it would be possible to drop upon this divan without making much noise. He calculated its exact position before replacing the torch in his pocket, and then, resting back against one side of the frame, he clutched the other with his hands. He wriggled gradually down until further purchase became impossible. He then let himself drop, and swung for a moment by his hands before releasing his hold.

He fell, as he had calculated, upon the divan. It creaked ominously. Catching his foot in the cushions, he stumbled and lay forward for a moment upon his face, listening intently.

The room was very hot but nothing stirred.

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