Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tales of Chinatown THE PICTURE ON THE PAD

Lala Huang lay listening to the vague sounds which disturbed the silence of the night. Presently her thoughts made her sigh wearily. During the lifetime of her mother, who had died while Lala was yet a little girl, life had been different and so much brighter.

She imagined that in the mingled sounds of dock and river which came to her she could hear the roar of surf upon a golden beach. The stuffy air of Limehouse took on the hot fragrance of a tropic island, and she sighed again, but this time rapturously, for in spirit she was a child once more, lulled by the voice of the great Pacific.

Young as she was, the death of her mother had been a blow from which it had taken her several years to recover. Then had commenced those long travels with her father, from port to port, from ocean to ocean, sometimes settling awhile, but ever moving onward, onward.

He had had her educated after a fashion, and his love for her she did not doubt. But her mother's blood spoke more strongly than that part of her which was Chinese, and there was softness and a delicious languor in her nature which her father did not seem to understand, and of which he did not appear to approve.

She knew that he was wealthy. She knew that his ways were not straight ways, although that part of his business to which he had admitted her as an assistant, and an able one, was legitimate enough, or so it seemed.

Consignments of goods arrived at strange hours of the night at the establishment in Limehouse, and from this side of her father's transactions she was barred. The big double doors opening on the little courtyard would be opened by Ah Fu, and packing cases of varying sizes be taken in. Sometimes the sounds of these activities would reach her in her room in a distant part of the house; but only in the morning would she recognize their significance, when in the warehouse she would discover that some new and choice pieces had arrived.

She wondered with what object her father accumulated wealth, and hoped, against the promptings of her common sense, that he designed to return East, there to seek a retirement amidst the familiar and the beautiful things of the Orient which belonged to Lala's dream of heaven.

Stories about her father often reached her ears. She knew that he had held high rank in China before she had been born; but that he had sacrificed his rights in some way had always been her theory. She had been too young to understand the stories which her mother had told her sometimes; but that there were traits in the character of Huang Chow which it was not good for his daughter to know she appreciated and accepted as a secret sorrow.

He allowed her all the freedom to which her education entitled her. Her life was that of a European and not of an Oriental woman. She loved him in a way, but also feared him. She feared the dark and cruel side of his character, of which, at various periods during their life together, she had had terrifying glimpses.

She had decided that cruelty was his vice. In what way he gratified it she had never learned, nor did she desire to do so. There were periodical visits from the police, but she had learned long ago that her father was too clever to place himself within reach of the law.

However crooked one part of his business methods might be, his dealings with his clients were straight enough, so that no one had any object in betraying him; and the legality or otherwise of his foreign relations evidently afforded no case against him upon which the authorities could act, or upon which they cared to act.

In America it had been graft which had protected him. She had learned this accidentally, but never knew whether he bought his immunity in the same way in London.

Some of the rumours which reached her were terrifying. Latterly she had met many strange glances in her comings and goings about Limehouse. This peculiar atmosphere had always preceded the break-up of every home which they had shared. She divined the fact that in some way Huang Chow had outstayed his welcome in Chinatown, London. Where their next resting-place would be she could not imagine, but she prayed that it might be in some more sunny clime.

She found herself to be thinking over much of John Hampden. His bona fides were not above suspicion, but she could scarcely expect to meet a really white man in such an environment.

Lala would have liked to think that he was white, but could not force herself to do so. She would have liked to think that he sought her company because she appealed to him personally; but she had detected the fact that another motive underlay his attentions. She wondered if he could be another of those moths drawn by the light of that fabled wealth of her father.

It was curious, she reflected, that Huang Chow never checked-- indeed, openly countenanced--her friendship with the many chance acquaintances she had made, even when her own instincts told her that the men were crooked; so that, knowing the acumen of her father, she was well aware that he must know it too.

Several of these pseudo lovers of hers had died. It was a point which often occurred to her mind, but upon which she did not care to dwell even now. But John Hampden--John Hampden was different. He was not wholly sincere. She sighed wearily. But nevertheless he was not like some of the others.

She started up in bed, seized with a sudden dreadful idea. He was a detective!

She understood now why she had found so much that was white in him, but so much that was false. His presence seemed to be very near her. Something caressing in his voice echoed in her mind. She found herself to be listening to the muted sounds of Limehouse and of the waterway which flowed so close beside her.

That old longing for the home of her childhood returned tenfold, and tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She was falling in love with this man whose object was her father's ruin. A cold terror clutched at her heart. Even now, while their friendship was so new, so strange, there was a query, a stark, terrifying query, to stand up before her.

If put to the test, which would she choose?

She was unable to face that issue, and dropped back upon her pillow, stifling a sob.

Yes, he was a detective. In some way her father had at last attracted the serious attention of the law. Rumours of this were flying round Chinatown, to which she had not been entirely deaf. She thought of a hundred questions, a hundred silences, and grew more and more convinced of the truth.

What did he mean to do? Before her a ghostly company uprose--the shadows of some she had known with designs upon her father. John Hampden's design was different. But might he not join that mysterious company?

Now again she suddenly sprang upright, this time because of a definite sound which had reached her ears from within the house: a very faint, bell-like tinkling which ceased almost immediately. She had heard it one night before, and quite recently; indeed, on the night before she had met John Hampden. Cohen--Cohen, the Jew, had died that night!

She sprang lightly on to the floor, found her slippers, and threw a silk kimono over her nightrobe. She tiptoed cautiously to the door and opened it.

It was at this very moment that old Huang Chow, asleep in his cell-like apartment, was aroused by the tinkling of a bell set immediately above his head. He awoke instantly, raised his hand and stopped the bell. His expression, could anyone have been present to see it, was a thing unpleasant to behold. Triumph was in it, and cunning cruelty.

His long yellow fingers reached out for his hornrimmed spectacles which lay upon a little table beside him. Adjusting them, he pulled the curtains aside and shuffled silently across the large room.

Mounting the steps to the raised writing-table, he rested his elbows upon it, and peered down at that curious blotting-pad which had so provoked the curiosity of Durham. Could Durham have seen it now the mystery must have been solved. It was an ingenious camera obscura apparatus, and dimly depicted upon its surface appeared a reproduction of part of the storehouse beneath! The part of it which was visible was that touched by the light of an electric torch, carried by a man crossing the floor in the direction of the lacquered coffin upon the gilded pedestal!

Old Huang Chow chuckled silently, and his yellow fingers clutched the table edge as he moved to peer more closely into the picture.

"Poor fool!" he whispered in Chinese. "Poor fool!"

It was the man who had come with the introduction from Mr. Isaacs--a new impostor who sought to rob him, who sought to obtain information from his daughter, who had examined his premises last night, and had even penetrated upstairs, so that he, old Huang Chow, had been compelled to disconnect the apparatus and to feign sleep under the scrutiny of the intruder.

To-night it would be otherwise. To-night it would be otherwise.

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