Part Second. Mrs. Sin
Chapter XVI. Limehouse
 

It was on the following Tuesday evening that Mrs. Sin came to the theatre, accompanied by Mollie Gretna. Rita instructed that she should be shown up to the dressing-room. The personality of this singular woman interested her keenly. Mrs. Sin was well known in certain Bohemian quarters, but was always spoken of as one speaks of a pet vice. Not to know Mrs. Sin was to be outside the magic circle which embraced the exclusively smart people who practiced the latest absurdities.

The so-called artistic temperament is compounded of great strength and great weakness; its virtues are whiter than those of ordinary people and its vices blacker. For such a personality Mrs. Sin embodied the idea of secret pleasure. Her bold good looks repelled Rita, but the knowledge in her dark eyes was alluring.

"I arrange for you for Saturday night," she said. "Cy Kilfane is coming with Mollie, and you bring--"

"Oh," replied Rita hesitatingly, "I am sorry you have gone to so much trouble."

"No trouble, my dear," Mrs. Sin assured her. "Just a little matter of business, and you can pay the bill when it suits you."

"I am frightfully excited!" cried Mollie Gretna. "It is so nice of you to have asked me to join your party. Of course Cy goes practically every week, but I have always wanted another girl to go with. Oh, I shall be in a perfectly delicious panic when I find myself all among funny Chinamen and things! I think there is something so magnificently wicked-looking about a pigtail--and the very name of Limehouse thrills me to the soul!"

That fixity of purpose which had enabled Rita to avoid the cunning snares set for her feet and to snatch triumph from the very cauldron of shame without burning her fingers availed her not at all in dealing with Mrs. Sin. The image of Monte receded before this appeal to the secret pleasure-loving woman, of insatiable curiosity, primitive and unmoral, who dwells, according to a modern cynic philosopher, within every daughter of Eve touched by the fire of genius.

She accepted the arrangement for Saturday, and before her visitors had left the dressing-room her mind was busy with plausible deceits to cover the sojourn in Chinatown. Something of Mollie Gretna's foolish enthusiasm had communicated itself to Rita.

Later in the evening Sir Lucien called, and on hearing of the scheme grew silent. Rita glancing at his reflection in the mirror, detected a black and angry look upon his face. She turned to him.

"Why, Lucy," she said, "don't you want me to go?"

He smiled in his sardonic fashion.

"Your wishes are mine, Rita," he replied.

She was watching him closely.

"But you don't seem keen," she persisted. "Are you angry with me?"

"Angry?"

"We are still friends, aren't we?"

"Of course. Do you doubt my friendship?"

Rita's maid came in to assist her in changing for the third act, and Pyne went out of the room. But, in spite of his assurances, Rita could not forget that fierce, almost savage expression which had appeared upon his face when she had told him of Mrs. Sin's visit.

Later she taxed him on the point, but he suffered her inquiry with imperturbable sangfroid, and she found herself no wiser respecting the cause of his annoyance. Painful twinges of conscience came during the ensuing days, when she found herself in her fiance's company, but she never once seriously contemplated dropping the acquaintance of Mrs. Sin.

She thought, vaguely, as she had many times thought before, of cutting adrift from the entire clique, but there was no return of that sincere emotional desire to reform which she had experienced on the day that Monte Irvin had taken her hand, in blind trust, and had asked her to be his wife. Had she analyzed, or been capable of analyzing, her intentions with regard to the future, she would have learned that daily they inclined more and more towards compromise. The drug habit was sapping will and weakening morale, insidiously, imperceptibly. She was caught in a current of that "sacred river" seen in an opium-trance by Coleridge, and which ran--

    "Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea."

Pyne's big car was at the stage-door on the fateful Saturday night, for Rita had brought her dressing-case to the theatre, and having called for Kilfane and Mollie Gretna they were to proceed direct to Limehouse.

Rita, as she entered the car, noticed that Juan Mareno, Sir Lucien's man, and not the chauffeur with whom she was acquainted, sat at the wheel. As they drove off:

"Why is Mareno driving tonight, Lucy?" she asked.

Sir Lucien glanced aside at her.

"He is in my confidence," he replied. "Fraser is not."

"Oh, I see. You don't want Fraser to know about the Limehouse journey?"

"Naturally I don't. He would talk to all the men at the garage, and from South Audleystreet the tit-bit of scandal would percolate through every stratum of society."

Rita was silent for a few moments, then:

"Were you thinking about Monte?" she asked diffidently.

Pyne laughed.

"He would scarcely approve, would he?"

"No," replied Rita. "Was that why you were angry when I told you I was going?"

"This 'anger,' to which you constantly revert, had no existence outside your own imagination, Rita. But" he hesitated--"you will have to consider your position, dear, now that you are the future Mrs. Monte." Rita felt her cheeks flush, and she did not reply immediately.

"I don't understand you, Lucy," she declared at last. "How odd you are."

"Am I? Well, never mind. We will talk about my eccentricity later. Here is Cyrus."

Kilfane was standing in the entrance to the stage door of the theatre at which he was playing. As the car drew up he lifted two leather grips on to the step, and Mareno, descending, took charge of them.

"Come along, Mollie," said Kilfane, looking back.

Miss Gretna, very excited, ran out and got into the car beside Rita. Pyne lowered two of the collapsible seats for Kilfane and himself, and the party set out for Limehouse.

"Oh!" cried the fair-haired Mollie, grasping Rita's hand, "my heart began palpitating with excitement the moment I woke up this morning! How calm you are, dear."

"I am only calm outside," laughed Rita.

The joie de vivre and apparently unimpaired vitality, of this woman, for whom (if half that which rumor whispered were true) vice had no secrets, astonished Rita. Her physical resources were unusual, no doubt, because the demand made upon them by her mental activities was slight.

As the car sped along the Strand, where theatre-goers might still be seen making for tube, omnibus, and tramcar, and entered Fleet Street, where the car and taxicab traffic was less, a mutual silence fell upon the party. Two at least of the travellers were watching the lighted windows of the great newspaper offices with a vague sense of foreboding, and thinking how, bound upon a secret purpose, they were passing along the avenue of publicity. It is well that man lacks prescience. Neither Rita nor Sir Lucien could divine that a day was shortly to come when the hidden presses which throbbed about them that night should be busy with the story of the murder of one and disappearance of the other.

Around St. Paul's Churchyard whirled the car, its engine running strongly and almost noiselessly. The great bell of St. Paul's boomed out the half-hour.

"Oh!" cried Mollie Gretna, "how that made me jump! What a beautifully gloomy sound!"

Kilfane murmured some inaudible reply, but neither Pyne nor Rita spoke.

Cornhill and Leadenhall Street, along which presently their route lay, offered a prospect of lamp-lighted emptiness, but at Aldgate they found themselves amid East End throngs which afforded a marked contrast to those crowding theatreland; and from thence through Whitechapel and the seemingly endless Commercial Road it was a different world into which they had penetrated.

Rita hitherto had never seen the East End on a Saturday night, and the spectacle afforded by these busy marts, lighted by naphtha flames, in whose smoky glare Jews and Jewesses, Poles, Swedes, Easterns, dagoes, and halfcastes moved feverishly, was a fascinating one. She thought how utterly alien they were, the men and women of a world unknown to that society upon whose borders she dwelled; she wondered how they lived, where they lived, why they lived. The wet pavements were crowded with nondescript humanity, the night was filled with the unmusical voices of Hebrew hucksters, and the air laden with the smoky odor of their lamps. Tramcars and motorbuses were packed unwholesomely with these children of shadowland drawn together from the seven seas by the magnet of London.

She glanced at Pyne, but he was seemingly lost in abstraction, and Kilfane appeared to be asleep. Mollie Gretna was staring eagerly out on the opposite side of the car at a group of three dago sailors, whom Mareno had nearly run down, but she turned at that moment and caught Rita's glance.

"Don't you simply love it!" she cried. "Some of those men were really handsome, dear. If they would only wash I am sure I could adore them!"

"Even such charms as yours can be bought at too high a price,"' drawled Sir Lucien. "They would gladly do murder for you, but never wash."

Crossing Limehouse Canal, the car swung to the right into West India Dock Road. The uproar of the commercial thoroughfare was left far behind. Dark, narrow streets and sinister-looking alleys lay right and left of them, and into one of the narrowest and least inviting of all Mareno turned the car.

In the dimly-lighted doorway of a corner house the figure of a Chinaman showed as a motionless silhouette.

"Oh!" sighed Mollie Gretna rapturously, "a Chinaman! I begin to feel deliciously sinful!"

The car came to a standstill.

"We get out here and walk," said Sir Lucien. "It would not be wise to drive further. Mareno will deliver our baggage by hand presently."

"But we shall all be murdered," cried Mollie, "murdered in cold blood! I am dreadfully frightened!"

"Something of the kind is quite likely," drawled Sir Lucien, "if you draw attention to our presence in the neighborhood so deliberately. Walk ahead, Kilfane, with Mollie. Rita and I will follow at a discreet distance. Leave the door ajar."

Temporarily subdued by Pyne's icy manner, Miss Gretna became silent, and went on ahead with Cyrus Kilfane, who had preserved an almost unbroken silence throughout the journey. Rita and Sir Lucien followed slowly.

"What a creepy neighborhood," whispered Rita. "Look! Someone is standing in that doorway over there, watching us."

"Take no notice," he replied. "A cat could not pass along this street unobserved by the Chinese, but they will not interfere with us provided we do not interfere with them."

Kilfane had turned to the right into a narrow court, at the entrance to which stood an iron pillar. As he and his companion passed under the lamp in a rusty bracket which projected from the wall, they vanished into a place of shadows. There was a ceaseless chorus of distant machinery, and above it rose the grinding and rattling solo of a steam winch. Once a siren hooted apparently quite near them, and looking upward at a tangled, indeterminable mass which overhung the street at this point, Rita suddenly recognized it for a ship's bow-sprit.

"Why," she said, "we are right on the bank of the river!"

"Not quite," answered Pyne. "We are skirting a dock basin. We are nearly at our destination."

Passing in turn under the lamp, they entered the narrow court, and from a doorway immediately on the left a faint light shone out upon the wet pavement. Pyne pushed the door fully open and held it for Rita to enter. As she did so:

"Hello! hello!" croaked a harsh voice. "Number one p'lice chop, lo! Sin Sin Wa!"

The uncanny cracked voice proceeded to give an excellent imitation of a police whistle, and concluded with that of the clicking of castanets.

"Shut the door, Lucy," came the murmurous tones of Kilfane from the gloom of the stuffy little room, in the centre of which stood a stove wherefrom had proceeded the dim light shining out upon the pavement. "Light up, Sin Sin."

"Sin Sin Wa! Sin Sin Wa!" shrieked the voice, and again came the rattling of imaginary castanets. "Smartest leg in Buenos Ayres--Buenos Ayres--p'lice chop--p'lice chop, lo!"

"Oh," whispered Mollie Gretna, in the darkness, "I believe I am going to scream!"

Pyne closed the door, and a dimly discernible figure on the opposite side of the room stooped and opened a little cupboard in which was a lighted ship's lantern. The lantern being lifted out and set upon a rough table near the stove, it became possible to view the apartment and its occupants.

It was a small, low-ceiled place, having two doors, one opening upon the street and the other upon a narrow, uncarpeted passage. The window was boarded up. The ceiling had once been whitewashed and a few limp, dark fragments of paper still adhering to the walls proved that some forgotten decorator had exercised his art upon them in the past. A piece of well-worn matting lay upon the floor, and there were two chairs, a table, and a number of empty tea-chests in the room.

Upon one of the tea-chests placed beside the cupboard which had contained the lantern a Chinaman was seated. His skin was of so light a yellow color as to approximate to dirty white, and his face was pock-marked from neck to crown. He wore long, snake-like moustaches, which hung down below his chin. They grew from the extreme outer edges of his upper lip, the centre of which, usually the most hirsute, was hairless as the lip of an infant. He possessed the longest and thickest pigtail which could possibly grow upon a human scalp, and his left eye was permanently closed, so that a smile which adorned his extraordinary countenance seemed to lack the sympathy of his surviving eye, which, oblique, beady, held no mirth in its glittering depths.

The garments of the one-eyed Chinaman, who sat complacently smiling at the visitors, consisted of a loose blouse, blue trousers tucked into grey socks, and a pair of those native, thick-soled slippers which suggest to a Western critic the acme of discomfort. A raven, black as a bird of ebony, perched upon the Chinaman's shoulder, head a-tilt, surveying the newcomers with a beady, glittering left eye which strangely resembled the beady, glittering right eye of the Chinaman. For, singular, uncanny circumstance, this was a one-eyed raven which sat upon the shoulder of his one-eyed master!

Mollie Gretna uttered a stifled cry. "Oh!" she whispered. "I knew I was going to scream!"

The eye of Sin Sin Wa turned momentarily in her direction, but otherwise he did not stir a muscle.

"Are you ready for us, Sin?" asked Sir Lucien.

"All ready. Lola hate gotchee topside loom ready," replied the Chinaman in a soft, crooning voice.

"Go ahead, Kilfane," directed Sir Lucien.

He glanced at Rita, who was standing very near him, surveying the evil little room and its owner with ill-concealed disgust.

"This is merely the foyer, Rita," he said, smiling slightly. "The state apartments are upstairs and in the adjoining house."

"Oh," she murmured--and no more.

Kilfane and Mollie Gretna were passing through the inner doorway, and Mollie turned.

"Isn't it loathsomely delightful?" she cried.

"Smartest leg in Buenos Ayres!" shrieked the raven. "Sin Sin, Sin Sin!"

Uttering a frightened exclamation, Mollie disappeared along the passage. Sir Lucien indicated to Rita that she was to follow; and he, passing through last of the party, closed the door behind him.

Sin Sin Wa never moved, and the raven, settling down upon the Chinaman's shoulder, closed his serviceable eye.