Unlike its sister colony in New York, there are no show places in Limehouse. The visitor sees nothing but mean streets and dark doorways. The superficial inquirer comes away convinced that the romance of the Asiatic district has no existence outside the imaginations of writers of fiction. Yet here lies a secret quarter, as secret and as strange, in its smaller way, as its parent in China which is called the Purple Forbidden City.
On a morning when mist lay over the Thames reaches, softening the harshness of the dock buildings and lending an air of mystery to the vessels stealing out upon the tide, a man walked briskly along Limehouse Causeway, looking about him inquiringly, as one unfamiliar with the neighbourhood. Presently he seemed to recognize a turning to the right, and he pursued this for a time, now walking more slowly.
A European woman, holding a half-caste baby in her arms, stood in an open doorway, watching him uninterestedly. Otherwise, except for one neatly dressed young Chinaman, who passed him about halfway along the street, there was nothing which could have told the visitor that he had crossed the borderline dividing West from East and was now in an Oriental town.
A very narrow alleyway between two dingy houses proved to be the spot for which he was looking; and, having stared about him for a while, he entered this alleyway. At the farther end it was crossed T-fashion, by another alley, the only object of interest being an iron post at the crossing, and the scenery being made up entirely of hideous brick walls.
About halfway along on the left, set in one of these walls, were strong wooden gates, apparently those of a warehouse. Beside them was a door approached by two very dirty steps. There was a bell-push near the door, but upon neither of these entrances was there any plate to indicate the name of the proprietor of the establishment.
From his pocket-book the visitor extracted a card, consulted something written upon it, and then pressed the bell.
It was very quiet in this dingy little court. No sound of the busy thoroughfares penetrated here; and although the passage forming the top of the "T" practically marked the river bank, only dimly could one discern the sounds which belong to a seaport.
Presently the door was opened by a Chinese boy who wore the ordinary native working dress, and who regarded the man upon the step with oblique, tired-looking eyes.
"Mr. Huang Chow?" asked the caller.
The boy nodded.
"You wantchee him see?"
"If he is at home."
The boy glanced at the card, which the visitor still held between finger and thumb, and extended his hand silently. The card was surrendered. It was that of an antique dealer of Dover Street, Piccadilly, and written upon the back was the following: "Mr. Hampden would like to do business with you." The signature of the dealer followed.
The boy turned and passed along a dim and perfectly unfurnished passage which the opening of the door had revealed, while Mr. Hampden stood upon the step and lighted a cigarette.
In less than a minute the boy returned and beckoned to him to come in. As he did so, and the door was closed, he almost stumbled, so dark was the passage.
Presently, guided by the boy, he found himself in a very business-like little office, where a girl sat at an American desk, looking up at him inquiringly.
She was of a dark and arresting type. Without being pretty in the European sense, there was something appealing in her fine, dark eyes, and she possessed the inviting smile which is the heritage of Eastern women. Her dress was not unlike that of any other business girl, except that the neck of her blouse was cut very low, a fashion affected by many Eurasians, and she wore a gaily coloured sash, and large and very costly pearl ear-rings. As Mr. Hampden paused in the doorway:
"Good morning," said the girl, glancing down at the card which lay upon the desk before her. "You come from Mr. Isaacs, eh?"
She looked at him with a caressing glance from beneath half- lowered lashes, but missed no detail of his appearance. She did not quite like his moustache, and thought that he would have looked better cleanshaven. Nevertheless, he was a well-set-up fellow, and her manner evidenced approval.
"Yes," he replied, smiling genially. "I have a small commission to execute, and I am told that you can help me."
The girl paused for a moment, and then:
"Yes, very likely," she said, speaking good English but with an odd intonation. "It is not jade? We have very little jade."
"No, no. I wanted an enamelled casket."
"Cloisonne? Yes, we have several."
She pressed a bell, and, glancing up at the boy who had stood throughout the interview at the visitor's elbow, addressed him rapidly in Chinese. He nodded his head and led the way through a second doorway. Closing this, he opened a third and ushered Mr. Hampden into a room which nearly caused the latter to gasp with astonishment.
One who had blundered from Whitechapel into the Khan Khalil, who had been transported upon a magic carpet from a tube station to the Taj Mahal, of dropped suddenly upon Lebanon hills to find himself looking down upon the pearly domes and jewelled gardens of Damascus, could not well have been more surprised. This great treasure-house of old Huang Chow was one of Chinatown's secrets-- a secret shared only by those whose commercial interests were identical with the interests of Huang Chow.
The place was artificially lighted by lamps which themselves were beautiful objects of art, and which swung from the massive beams of the ceiling. The floor of the warehouse, which was partly of stone, was covered with thick matting, and spread upon it were rugs and carpets of Karadagh, Kermanshah, Sultan-abad, and Khorassan, with lesser-known loomings of almost equal beauty. Skins of rare beasts overlay the divans. Furniture of ivory, of ebony and lemonwood, preciously inlaid, gave to the place an air of cunning confusion. There were tall cabinets, there were caskets and chests of exquisite lacquer and enamel, loot of an emperor's palace; robes heavy with gold; slippers studded with jewels; strange carven ivories; glittering weapons; pots, jars, and bowls, as delicate and as fragile as the petals of a lily.
Last, but not least, sitting cross-legged upon a low couch, was old Huang Chow, smoking a great curved pipe, and peering half blindly across the place through large horn-rimmed spectacles. This couch was set immediately beside a wide ascending staircase, richly carpeted, and on the other side of the staircase, in a corresponding recess, upon a gilded trestle carved to represent the four claws of a dragon, rested perhaps the strangest exhibit of that strange collection--a Chinese coffin of exquisite workmanship.
The boy retired, and Mr. Hampden found himself alone with Huang Chow. No word had been exchanged between master and servant, but:
"Good morning, Mr. Hampden," said the Chinaman in a high, thin voice. "Please be seated. It is from Mr. Isaacs you come?"