Excerpt from the unpublished novel
by Carmichael Pemberton
When there are slack hours and one has become tired or jaded of the usual frivolities of the same old theatres, of the same old nightspots and revues, of the usual haunts and pubs and low-lit beer-cellars, of listening to the dreary bands playing the same old tunes; of the same weary, lily-white ladies plying their fares upon the street or the playhouse lobby or the hotel bar, then one should look to the East. From the embankment along the Thames to the bilge-water and cobweb sky of Limehouse it is but an eastbound omnibus or a rattling carriage ride of the underground to the Limehouse Station. It is but a few miles traversed but in those few miles one has truly taken a journey from West to East and in so doing one has left behind the same old songs and food and dances and life itself. For in the East life here is full and large. Life here is raw and stripped of it’s fancy wrappings. Here Life collides with a different culture and different amusements and different vices. And here too Life can be repellent, for there are houses one may pass that seem to murmur of dreadful things. Windows from which there peer frightful eyes. For having left the West behind, one becomes aware that there is something here along those narrow, throttled byways which seems to be crawling insidiously as if to infect the blood. Excitement, filth, love, entertainment, and death. For as you enter the harsh circus of the forlorn, of the casual labourers, the outcasts and petty thieves, the whores and the seemingly ineffectual shopkeepers. There is a shadow that looms large. Here there lies the pleasures of the pipe, of young yellow girls, of cards, and dice, and dominos, of large stakes but they are watched and owned by the infamous Tongs – and of a far more sinister nocturnal power whose name perhaps Is known but remains fearsome to even whisper.
Thus in Limehouse. Here one can find anonymity or one can quickly disappear to furtive underhand designs of those whose deeds are done in twilight because they are of evil intent.
And so, our jaunty cadet, having stepped out of the surprising finery of a smut purveyor’s residence, put his cap on and pulled the collar of his coat up against the brisk winter’s wind, as it tears apart the frosty plume of his breath. Hands in his coat pockets he proceeds to promenade down the Chelsea embankment until he arrives at the Westminster underground station. It’s quite the trek, but he takes his time, for he is seemingly deep in thought, staring out at the ships in the Thames.
In the distance the sound of Big Ben, echoing through the city, is a sudden reminder of the vastness of London – and the many places in which not only Bradley McFarlane may have found refuge were he not a captive, held now somewhere within the darken recesses of the city, in which these nocturnal creatures of the fantastical may while away the hours of the day. He instinctively shudders – the unreality of it all is near incomprehension.
He takes the District Rail underground as far as Mark Lane, before getting off and stopping off for a bite at a small cafe near the Tower of London. As it is Sunday, the usual work a week crowd is off celebrating the God of All – and then, when the sanctuary doors swing wide, it is homeward bound for a grand Sunday meal. For the Cadet it is a light meal and a cup of tea with the proprietor, who in the slack time engages in a bit a playful banter and a long over do catching up as to the Cadet’s escapades. One of which the large moustached owner of the gas lit café suspects he is even now a part of, for the Cadet rising from his seat, settles his account and indicates he shall return but momentarily to continue their discussion of the ash blonde clerk and a bottle of pinched champagne as soon as he returns from the WC.
Only the moment turned into minutes, ten to be precise, and the affable proprietor collected the Cadet’s accounting and put it way in the till, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed the café, wondering from whom the jaunty Cadet was evading? For he was more than certain he would find his cap stored behind the upper tank of the toilet, and the dirty window left ajar.
Although the pavement is slick with ice and snow, there is ever the parade in Limehouse. The Cadet, newly deposited from the underground arises from Limehouse Station and walks measuredly, his head down and hands in his pockets. He turns off Poplar where there are yellow girls that live on the raw edges, and begins to make his way along Narrow Street. His new civilian cap he wears pulled low so that his eyes are all but concealed and yet he can furtively observe his surroundings. He suddenly steps aside a big black man with Oriental features whose slow tread is unswerving. In so doing he nearly collides with a creeping yellow man – who says something under his breath in either Chinese, Japanese, or Philippinese. He takes notice of a huge Hindoo who is walking rather slyly up close to the shop fronts. The Cadet maintains his pace, neither slowing or quickening with any obstacle. For in Limehouse it is best to become one with the shops and the public-houses, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner, the forlorn tenements. He had to become accustomed once more the perfume of the street – a scent of last week.
He walks up to a building that by all rights should have been condemned years ago and would have been in any other borough of the great city. Somewhere along Narrow Street a gramophone’s needle has been placed upon a melancholy groove which escapes from an open window. The Cadet’s attention caught on the plaintive tones looks to see if he can detect the window – and why it would be open on such a cold and mournful looking day. But it is Limehouse – and does there have to be a reason?
He produces a pair of keys from his pocket and as he does so he instinctively casts a wary eye for he is well aware the authorities here are but a perfunctory occurrence – usually when some slum tourist’s quest for entertainment comes to a bad end. He stops for a moment, palming his keys as he looks askance at some toff rounding the corner. He is dressed in evening wear, which appears quite unkempt. The Cadet stands for a moment, the music of the gramophone echoing in the winter air as the gent passes by, awkwardly, all but slipping to fall on a patch of nearly invisible ice. There is the lingering scent of opium about him. It quickly dissipates in the odour now of the river, from which comes the gull’s cry.
The gent cautiously continuing on his way down Narrow Street, the Cadet stands before the door and takes one of the palmed keys and unlocks his mail slot. There are two letters. One from an acquaintance he has intentionally kept some distance from and the other an old acquaintance of his mother’s. He smiles and stuffs the letters into his coat pocket and unlocks the door quickly pushing it open to step inside, well aware the odours of the river and scent of fried fish will only be slightly abated once indoors.
He closes the door behind him and stands for a moment, as he lets his eyes adjust to the musty hall in front of him. The interior is dimly lit – the light of day filtering through a small, high, filthy window. He replaced his keys into his pocket and walking over to the stairs, along the near wall, carefully stepped over the man snoring mightily, having passed out before he made it to his room and bed.
“Afternoon Gary.” The Cadet rather jaunty remarks, to receive only a mumble for a response.
On the second floor he walks along the rough planks of the hall to the third door, and there he unlocks the door to his rather furtive Limehouse residence – one he keeps in case his old life comes hurrying up out of the shadows to haunt him. As he entered the room he is startled to find a slight Oriental of mixed heritage standing at the window – his back to the Cadet. Smoke from a cigarette arising in the grey light of day falling through the dirty windowpane, “Welcome home. It good to see you old friend."
It is Sam Tai Ling.
In all of Limehouse, if there was one with whom the Cadet, should he find himself with his back against a wall, would be inclined to trust to have standing alongside him, it would be Sam Tai Ling of the Blue Lantern. A well-kept place, where one would find an international menu of surprisingly well prepared dishes, or, if an appetizing meal wasn’t one’s desired evening fare, then there could be found in one or two of the back rooms a game of fan-tan, or a shot whiskey or gin and a nice rice wine, if not a pellet for one’s pipe, or, the purchase of other varieties of Oriental delight – an if one were not so Celestially inclined, there was of course the pleasure one or two very young white girls could bring. The Blue Lantern was as well-known as was Sam Tai Ling, who, upon first appearance, seemed to be one of the most genial souls one should ever happen to meet in this carnival of cynicism and menace. A loveable character radiating a charismatic gleam in his eye and a wide, pleasant smile – for among those whom he first meets he appears not at all to be among the immoral denizens one is well warned of upon entering Limehouse. But for one to be moral one must first subscribe to some morality. And Tai Ling does not. For as he says: ‘You cannot do right until you have first done wrong.” But then as the Cadet well knows, wrong and right are not particularly words Sam Tai Ling truly understands. For the Cadet, who has walked these harsh streets and frequented the dim-lit bars, knew the Sam Ti Ling behind the genial mask. A very dangerous man who had once been a member of the infamous Chinese brotherhood, the Azure Dragon Tong. Which incredible he belong no longer. A story the Cadet longed to hear but one which Sam Ti Ling nor the Azure Dragon ever spoke.
Of course there was a woman involved as there almost always is in a story as clouded as Sam Tai Ling’s – or at least in the little that the Cadet knew. A white woman, an actress by the name of Florence McLaren. But that is name long lost in the mists and fog of Limehouse – as it is only found on a missing person’s case in a cold case file in Scotland Yard – for no one ever truly missed Florence McLaren other than perhaps Mr Morphine. And today – no one, other than Sam Tai Ling, is ever allowed to call Lascar Sal, who owned the Coca Room, Florence. She is a woman with a most mysterious past. A woman, who is another very dangerous resident of Limehouse.
“Ah dear Sam.” The Cadet replied as he removed his cap and closed the door of this meagrely furnished two-room apartment, which had long since seen its better days.
There was a table, a couple of chairs, a wardrobe and dresser, a small narrow bed, with a beaded curtain separating the main room from the small narrow kitchen. It was not quite wretched, for there were far lousier rooms to be had, but for the Cadet this had never intended to serve as a residence. It was a well concealed hide-away should the need arise. “It is good to see you as well. You seem in better health then when I last saw you."
Dressed in a black oriental jacket and slacks, the slender Oriental wore as well a black cap. He turned to offer a wide smile at the Cadet “Ah, fortune does seem to smile upon me. As well as you.” He lifted the cigarette to his lips, “Please excuse my intrusion – but, that uniform, in Limehouse is ever like the receipt of an urgent telegram telling me my old friend is arriving.”
The Cadet offered a smile as he placed his cap down and walks over to the coal brining stove and pulls an oil lamp off the shelf, setting it on the small stable near the window. “It’s the stripe on the pants isn’t it. The cap is civilian, the coat is generic, but the damned stripe gives it all away.” He took out a match and snapping a flare of a flame as he lifted the glass and lit the wick of the oil lamp, off putting some of the gloom. He then pulled out the two dusty hardwood framed and wicker seated chairs and sits in one of them, motioning for Sam to do the same.
Sam nods and returns the smile: “It is but the little things in life, my friend.” He took a seat with the smoke of his cigarette seemingly creating a halo about him. He rather languidly motioned to an envelope lying on the table between them. “It would be wise, my friend, to so inform such a lovely young lady that it is not wise to be on Narrow Street alone.”
The Cadet notices the envelope for the first time. And picks it up, examining it. He gives Sam a quizzical look, who in return looks at him quite passively, as he exhales a curling plume of cigarette smoke. “I listen and I hear from one of my ears that there is quite a lovely lady – young and white and lost I presume – but no, I hear again, and it seems she seeks out the humble rooms of who, but my friend – who stays away for far too long. I think, I know he is not here, for if he were to be, it would a Sunday – and alas – it is not a Sunday. And so, I step out from the Blue Lantern to find her here, outside your door, most anxious, for she is uncertain of the slot – she thinks: will he get the letter?” He explains all so casually, "I step up and offer to allow her to leave it here for you? Now, am I not a good friend?’
The Cadet smiles, “Sure thing Sam, but you are also a good friend to everyone, when first they meet you.” He checks to see if the envelope has been tampered with before putting it in his coat pocket with the other two letters, pulling out a pre rolled cigarette in it’s place. “So how long have you been waiting? Not long I hope?”
“Only a short time. As I said, word comes to me that my friend is seen leaving Limehouse Station. And I say, ah, it must now be Sunday. For as I said, it is only upon a Sunday he comes around to see his old friends. And alas, here you are.” He flicks ashes upon the dusty floor boards. “And as you see, I have made sure your letter from so sweet a young lady is safe and awaits to find itself in your hand.” He smiles, "Perhaps you should read it. She was most anxious and in the greatest of hurries. But alas, I think it was more than merely from Limehouse she wishes to be departed.”
“Perhaps.” he picks up the oil lamp to light his cigarette. “I figure most would. Would you like to take your Blue Lantern out of Limehouse? Say, set up shop in say, Whitechapel, or even Lambeth?” he breaths in the smoke, setting the lamp down before exhaling a long plume out of the corner of his mouth.
“Limehouse without the Blue Lantern?” Sam Tai Ling remarked, “It would hardly be the same. And I? I would not be the same, for Limehouse and I have been for long time one among the other. But what of you? How fares my friend? Times are good?"
The Cadet sighed and leaned back in his chair. “To be fully honest my old friend, no. My buddy at the Admiralty has gone missing. Worse yet, the peelers are after him. That bird, assuming it’s who I think it is, is his sweetheart.”
Sam frowns slightly as he brings the cigarette to his lips, “Ah, so the most lovely one regretfully does not seek to spend time with my friend. This is a great sorrow. As to this friend of yours – has he gone missing in his own regards? Or have others seen to it that he has been misplaced?”
The Cadet leaned his chair back against the wall a bit. “I’m inclined to figure the latter. I don’t peg him as the most surreptitious of folk, but I have been wrong before, as you well know.”
Sam Tai Ling now breaks into a wide smile. “Ah, yes. Sing-a-song Joe and the poor Flash Florrie. I told you long time, Sing-a-song Joe was the one to watch as his half-wittedness had far more of the wit about him, seeing as how the Salvation Army would not enlist him, the Asylum would not have him, and the Coppers seemed far too bored of him; whereas Flash Florrie, she was but bedevilled by far too much a reputation – none of it good. Only I knew, Flash Florrie, long time and she had had her man Greaser Flanagan done in by the Roseleaf Boys – and if she were to have been a nark it would have been then she would have taken up the traffic with the coppers.”
The Cadet frowned as it was one of the very few times he had been so gulled. Sing-a-song Joe with is penny-whistle and half tied shoes. He had been well and truly gulled and that was a fact. “Yeah well we both were well fooled by Gracie Goodnight.”
Sam laughed, “Gracie Goodnight. The loveliest hair that ever was seen east of Aldgate Pump. Melodious as an autumn sunset
. Oh, now that girl knew a thing or three.” His cigarette lingering about the curled lips of a smile of some fond reflection, “We have seen one too many kiss-me girls, you and I.”
Tilted back in his chair the Cadet nodded, “That we have, Sam—that we have.”
“This lovely, the sweet of heart to your friend,” Sam replied, tapping ashes to the floor from his cigarette, as he cut his eyes toward the Cadet, “There is something of her that tell me she knows one too many tricks and her sleeve holds others. Beware, my friend. But, for you – I shall see what my many eyes may see and hear what my countless ears may hear of this missing friend of yours. I would be correct in surmising that he of whom you speak, this the Lieutenant, he is the one being sought for the most unfortunate death of the woman whose bits and pieces were found cast upon the Embankment?" And he drops the stub of his cigarette to the floor and crushes it with the toe of his shoe.
“The very same. I do appreciate it Sam. I know we go way back, but still, I owe you one. If you could put an eye or two on the bird too. I just want to make sure she’s safe. As you say, it is not wise for a young lady to be on Narrow Street alone.”
Sam nods, "This I have done, for I made certain she was safely escorted back to Limehouse Station. And should she return, my eyes will see.” He leans back in his chair, "This lovely bird who flies to you, she is sweetness to this Lieutenant for whom the peelers seek? Then many eyes may be upon her. His in longing to find an opportune time to meet, and those who seek him – knowing he may long for her lips. For they are indeed lips that should be kissed.”
“You are right, she is a lovely bird.” The Cadet nodded, but their conversation was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a distant knocking. Knocking insistent upon the front door of the shabby building.
Sam Tai Ling looks to the Cadet and then rises to step over to the dirty window which looked out upon Narrow Street below, while the Cadet tipped his chair forward and stood up,. Grabbing his cap from the stovetop, he goes over to slightly open the door of the room in order to listen as he hears the knocking and the snoring of the vagabond Gary still lying at the foot of the stairs.
The knocking continues.
Sam turns from the window, "Ah, my friend, it is the lovely bird – come to your nest. Best you answer your door.”
The Cadet closes the door and steps quickly over to the window, where Sam Tai Ling make room to allow him to risk a glance out to see. There below, he sees all too familiar loveliness of Veronica Wells who stands nervously before the front door. She knocks again and tires the latch – but it is locked.
“I suppose she wised up to leaving her message with a complete stranger.” The Cadet remarked as he hurried to the door of his room, “I’ll be back.”
San Tai Ling stood, hands clasped casually behind his back, at the filthy window and looked down to Narrow Street. He took notice of a man fumbling and shouldering his way along the street, growing ever near the lovely chestnut hair beauty standing at the Cadet’s door. Sam’s left hand rose to signal through the dirt of the windowpane.