Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tales of Chinatown LALA HUANG

"No," said Lala Huang, "I don't like London--not this part of London."

"Where would you rather be?" asked Durham. "In China?"

Dusk had dropped its merciful curtain over Limehouse, and as the two paced slowly along West India Dock Road it seemed to the detective that a sort of glamour had crept into the scene.

He was a clever man within his limitations, and cultured up to a point; but he was not philosopher enough to know that he viewed the purlieus of Limehouse through a haze of Oriental mystery conjured up by the conversation of his companion. Temple bells there were in the clangour of the road cars. The smoke-stacks had a semblance of pagodas. Burma she had conjured up before him, and China, and the soft islands where she had first seen the light. For as well as a streak of European, there was Kanaka blood in Lala, which lent her an appeal quite new to Durham, insidious and therefore dangerous.

"Not China," she replied. "Somehow I don't think I shall ever see China again. But my father is rich, and it is dreadful to think that we live here when there are so many more beautiful places to live in."

"Then why does he stay?" asked Durham with curiosity.

"For money, always for money," answered Lala, shrugging her shoulders. "Yet if it is not to bring happiness, what good is it?"

"What good indeed?" murmured Durham.

"There is no fun for me," said the girl pathetically. "Sometimes someone nice comes to do business, but mostly they are Jews, Jews, always Jews, and------" Again she shrugged eloquently.

Durham perceived the very opening for which he had been seeking..

"You evidently don't like Jews," he said endeavouring to speak lightly.

"No," murmured the girl, "I don't think I do. Some are nice, though. I think it is the same with every kind of people--there are good and bad."

"Were you ever in America?" asked Durham.


"I was just thinking," he explained, "that I have known several American Jews who were quite good fellows."

"Yes?" said Lala, looking up at him naively, "I met one not long ago. He was not nice at all."

"Oh!" exclaimed Durham, startled by this admission, which he had not anticipated. "One of your father's customers?"

"Yes, a man named Cohen."


"A funny little chap," continued the girl. "He tried to make love to me." She lowered her lashes roguishly. "I knew all along he was pretending. He was a thief, I think. I was afraid of him."

Durham did some rapid thinking, then:

"Did you say his name was Cohen?" he asked.

"That was the name he gave."

"A man named Cohen, an American, was found dead in the river quite recently."

Lala stopped dead and clutched his arm.

"How do you know?" she demanded.

"There was a paragraph in this morning's paper."

She hesitated, then:

"Did it describe him?" she asked.

"No," replied Durham, "I don't think it did in detail. At least, the only part of the description which I remember is that he wore a large and valuable diamond on his left hand."

"Oh!" whispered Lala.

She released her grip of Durham's arm and went on.

"What?" he asked. "Did you think it was someone you knew?"

"I did know him," she replied simply. "The man who was found drowned. It is the same. I am sure now, because of the diamond ring. What paper did you read it in? I want to read it myself."

"I'm afraid I can't remember. It was probably the Daily Mail."

"Had he been drowned?"

"I presume so--yes," replied Durham guardedly.

Lala Huang was silent for some time while they paced on through the dusk. Then:

"How strange!" she said in a low voice.

"I am sorry I mentioned it," declared Durham. "But how was I to know it was your friend?"

"He was no friend of mine," returned the girl sharply. "I hated him. But it is strange nevertheless. I am sure he intended to rob my father."

"And is that why you think it strange?"

"Yes," she said, but her voice was almost inaudible.

They were come now to the narrow street communicating with the courtway in which the great treasure-house of Huang Chow was situated, and; Lala stopped at the corner.

"It was nice of you to walk along with me," she said. "Do you live in Limehouse?"

"No," replied Durham, "I don't. As a matter of fact, I came down here to-night in the hope of seeing you again."

"Did you?"

The girl glanced up at him doubtfully, and his distaste for the task set him by his superior increased with the passing of every moment. He was a man of some imagination, a great reader, and ambitious professionally. He appreciated the fact that Chief Inspector Kerry looked for great things from him, but for this type of work he had little inclination.

There was too much chivalry in his make-up to enable him to play upon a woman's sentiments, even in the interests of justice. By whatever means the man Cohen had met his death, and whether or no the Chinaman Pi Lung had died by the same hand, Lala Huang was innocent of any complicity in these matters, he was perfectly well assured.

Doubts were to come later when he was away from her, when he had had leisure to consider that she might regard him in the light of a third potential rifler of her father's treasure-house. But at the moment, looking down into her dark eyes, he reproached himself and wondered where his true duty lay.

"It is so gray and dull and sordid here," said the girl, looking down the darkened street. "There is no one much to talk to."

"But you have your business interests to keep you employed during the day, after all."

"I hate it all. I hate it all."

"But you seem to have perfect freedom?"

"Yes. My mother, you see, was not Chinese."

"But you wish to leave Limehouse?"

"I do. I do. Just now it is not so bad, but in the winter how I tire of the gray skies, the endless drizzling rain. Oh!" She shrank back into the shadow of a doorway, clutching at Durham's arm. "Don't let Ah Fu see me."

"Ah Fu? Who is Ah Fu?" asked Durham, also drawing back as a furtive figure went slinking down the opposite side of the street.

"My father's servant. He let you in this morning."

"And why must he not see you?"

"I don't trust him. I think he tells my father things."

"What is it that he carries in his hand?"

"A birdcage, I expect."

"A birdcage?"


He caught the gleam of her eyes as she looked up at him out of the shadow.

"Is he, then, a bird-fancier?"

"No, no, I can't explain because I don't understand myself. But Ah Fu goes to a place in Shadwell regularly and buys young birds, always very young ones and very little ones."

"For what or for whom?"

"I don't know."

"Have you an aviary in your house?"


"Do you mean that they disappear, these purchases of Ah Fu's?"

"I often see him carrying a cage of young birds, but we have no birds in the house."

"How perfectly extraordinary!" muttered Durham.

"I distrust Ah Fu," whispered the girl. "I am glad he did not see me with you."

"Young birds," murmured Durham absently. "What kind of young birds? Any particular breed?"

"No; canaries, linnets--all sorts. Isn't it funny?" The girl laughed in a childish way. "And now I think Ah Fu will have gone in, so I must say good night."

But when presently Detective Durham found himself walking back along West India Dock Road, his mind's eye was set upon the slinking figure of a Chinaman carrying a birdcage.

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