Part Second. Mrs. Sin
Chapter XIX. The Traffic
 

Sir Lucien came out into the alley wearing a greasy cloth cap pulled down over his eyes and an old overall, the collar turned up about a red woollen muffler which enveloped the lower part of his face. The odor of the outfit was disgusting, but this man's double life had brought him so frequently in contact with all forms of uncleanness, including that of the Far East, compared with which the dirt of the West is hygienic, that he suffered it without complaint.

A Chinese "boy" of indeterminable age, wearing a slop-shop suit and a cap, was waiting outside the door, and when Sin Sin Wa appeared, carefully locking up, he muttered something rapidly in his own sibilant language.

Sin Sin Wa made no reply. To his indoor attire he had added a pea-jacket and a bowler hat; and the oddly assorted trio set off westward, following the bank of the Thames in the direction of Limehouse Basin. The narrow, ill-lighted streets were quite deserted, but from the river and the riverside arose that ceaseless jangle of industry which belongs to the great port of London. On the Surrey shore whistles shrieked, and endless moving chains sent up their monstrous clangor into the night. Human voices sometimes rose above the din of machinery.

In silence the three pursued their way, crossing inlets and circling around basins dimly divined, turning to the right into a lane flanked by high, eyeless walls, and again to the left, finally to emerge nearly opposite a dilapidated gateway giving access to a small wharf, on the rickety gates bills were posted announcing, "This Wharf to Let." The annexed building appeared to be a mere shell. To the right again they turned, and once more to the left, halting before a two-story brick house which had apparently been converted into a barber's shop. In one of the grimy windows were some loose packets of cigarettes, a soapmaker's advertisement, and a card:

    SAM TUK
    BARBER

Opening the door with a key which he carried, the boy admitted Sir Lucien and Sin Sin Wa to the dimly-lighted interior of a room the pretensions of which to be regarded as a shaving saloon were supported by the presence of two chairs, a filthy towel, and a broken mug. Sin Sin Wa shuffled across to another door, and, followed by Sir Lucien, descended a stone stair to a little cellar apparently intended for storing coal. A tin lamp stood upon the bottom step.

Removing the lamp from the step, Sin Sin Wa set it on the cellar floor, which was black with coal dust, then closed and bolted the door. A heap of nondescript litter lay piled in a corner of the cellar. This Sin Sin Wa disturbed sufficiently to reveal a movable slab in the roughly paved floor. It was so ingeniously concealed by coal dust that one who had sought it unaided must have experienced great difficulty in detecting it. Furthermore, it could only be raised in the following manner:

A piece of strong iron wire, which lay among the other litter, was inserted in a narrow slot, apparently a crack in the stone. About an inch of the end of the wire being bent outward to form a right angle, when the seemingly useless piece of scrap-iron had been thrust through the slab and turned, it formed a handle by means of which the trap could be raised.

Again Sin Sin Wa took up the lamp, placing it at the brink of the opening revealed. A pair of wooden steps rested below, and Sir Lucien, who evidently was no stranger to the establishment, descended awkwardly, since there was barely room for a big man to pass. He found himself in the mouth of a low passage, unpaved and shored up with rough timbers in the manner of a mine-working. Sin Sin Wa followed with the lamp, drawing the slab down into its place behind him.

Stooping forward and bending his knees, Sir Lucien made his way along the passage, the Chinaman following. It was of considerable length, and terminated before a strong door bearing a massive lock. Sin Sin Wa reached over the stooping figure of Sir Lucien and unfastened the lock. The two emerged in a kind of dug-out. Part of it had evidently been in existence before the ingenious Sin Sin Wa had exercised his skill upon it, and was of solid brickwork and stone-paved; palpably a storage vault. But it had been altered to suit the Chinaman's purpose, and one end--that in which the passage came out--was timbered. It contained a long counter and many shelves; also a large oil-stove and a number of pots, pans, and queer-looking jars. On the counter stood a ship's lantern. The shelves were laden with packages and bottles. Behind the counter sat a venerable and perfectly bald Chinaman. The only trace of hair upon his countenance grew on the shrunken upper lip --mere wisps of white down. His skin was shrivelled like that of a preserved fig, and he wore big horn-rimmed spectacles. He never once exhibited the slightest evidence of life, and his head and face, and the horn-rimmed spectacles, might quite easily have passed for those of an unwrapped mummy. This was Sam Tuk.

Bending over a box upon which rested a canvas-bound package was a burly seaman engaged in unknotting the twine with which the canvas was kept in place. As Sin Sin Wa and Sir Lucien came in he looked up, revealing a red-bearded, ugly face, very puffy under the eyes.

"Wotcher, Sin Sin!" he said gruffly. "Who's your long pal?"

"Friend," murmured Sin Sin Wa complacently. "You gotchee pukka stuff thisee time, George?"

"I allus brings the pukka stuff!" roared the seaman, ceasing to fumble with the knots and glaring at Sin Sin Wa. "Wotcher mean--pukka stuff?"

"Gotchee no use for bran," murmured Sin Sin Wa. "Gotchee no use for tin-tack. Gotchee no use for glue."

"Bran!" roared the man, his glance and pose very menacing. "Tin-tacks and glue! Who the flamin' 'ell ever tried to sell you glue?"

"Me only wantchee lemindee you," said Sin Sin Wa. "No pidgin."

"George" glared for a moment, breathing heavily; then he stooped and resumed his task, Sin Sin Wa and Sir Lucien watching him in silence. A sound of lapping water was faintly audible.

Opening the canvas wrappings, the man began to take out and place upon the counter a number of reddish balls of "leaf" opium, varying in weight from about eight ounces to a pound or more.

"H'm!" murmured Sin Sin Wa. "Smyrna stuff."

From a pocket of his pea-jacket he drew a long bodkin, and taking up one of the largest balls he thrust the bodkin in and then withdrew it, the steel stained a coffee color. Sin Sin Wa smelled and tasted the substance adhering to the bodkin, weighed the ball reflectively in his yellow palm, and then set it aside. He took up a second, whereupon:

"'Alf a mo', guvnor!" cried the seaman furiously. "D'you think I'm going to wait 'ere while you prods about in all the blasted lot? It's damn near high tide--I shan't get out. 'Alf time! Savvy? Shove it on the scales!"

Sin Sin Wa shook his head.

"Too muchee slick. Too muchee bhobbery," he murmured. "Sin Sin Wa gotchee sabby what him catchee buy or no pidgin."

"What's the game?" inquired George menacingly. "Don't you know a cake o' Smyrna when you smells it?"

"No sabby lead chop till ploddem withee dipper," explained the Chinaman, imperturbably.

"Lead!" shouted the man. "There ain't no bloody lead in 'em!"

"H'm," murmured Sin Sin Wa smilingly. "So fashion, eh? All velly proper."

He calmly inserted the bodkin in the second cake; seemed to meet with some obstruction, and laid the ball down upon the counter. From beneath his jacket he took out a clasp-knife attached to a steel chain. Undeterred by a savage roar from the purveyor, he cut the sticky mass in half, and digging his long nails into one of the halves, brought out two lead shots. He directed a glance of his beady eye upon the man.

"Bloody liar," he murmured sweetly. "Lobber."

"Who's a robber?" shouted George, his face flushing darkly, and apparently not resenting the earlier innuendo; "Who's a robber?"

"One sarcee Smyrna feller packee stuff so fashion," murmured Sin Sin Wa. "Thief-feller lobbee poor sailorman."

George jerked his peaked cap from his head, revealing a tangle of unkempt red hair. He scratched his skull with savage vigor.

"Blimey!" he said pathetically. "'Ere's a go! I been done brown, guv'nor."

"Lough luck," murmured Sin Sin Wa, and resumed his examination of the cakes of opium.

The man watched him now in silence, only broken by exclamations of "Blimey" and "Flaming hell" when more shot was discovered. The tests concluded:

"Gotchee some more?" asked Sin Sin Wa.

From the canvas wrapping George took out and tossed on the counter a square packet wrapped in grease-paper.

"H'm," murmured Sin Sin Wa, "Patna. Where you catchee?"

"Off of a lascar," growled the man.

The cake of Indian opium was submitted to the same careful scrutiny as that which the balls of Turkish had already undergone, but the Patna opium proved to be unadulterated. Reaching over the counter Sin Sin Wa produced a pair of scales, and, watched keenly by George, weighed the leaf and then the cake.

"Ten-six Smyrna; one 'leben Patna," muttered Sin Sin Wa. "You catchee eighty jimmies."

"Eh?" roared George. "Eighty quid! Eighty quid! Flamin' blind o' Riley! D'you think I'm up the pole? Eighty quid? You're barmy!"

"Eighty-ten," murmured Sin Sin Wa. "Eighty jimmies opium; ten bob lead."

"I give more'n that for it!" cried the seaman. "An' I damn near hit a police boat comin' in, too!"

Sir Lucien spoke a few words rapidly in Chinese. Sin Sin Wa performed his curious oriental shrug, and taking a fat leather wallet from his hip-pocket, counted out the sum of eighty-five pounds upon the counter.

"You catchee eighty-five," he murmured. "Too muchee price."

The man grabbed the money and pocketed it without a word of acknowledgment. He turned and strode along the room, his heavy, iron-clamped boots ringing on the paved floor.

"Fetch a grim, Sin Sin," he cried. "I'll never get out if I don't jump to it."

Sin Sin Wa took the lantern from the counter and followed. Opening a door at the further end of the place, he set the lantern at the head of three descending wooden steps discovered. With the opening of the door the sound of lapping water had grown perceptibly louder. George clattered down the steps, which led to a second but much stouter door. Sin Sin Wa followed, nearly closing the first door, so that only a faint streak of light crept down to them.

The second door was opened, and the clangor of the Surrey shore suddenly proclaimed itself. Cold, damp air touched them, and the faint light of the lantern above cast their shadows over unctuous gliding water, which lapped the step upon which they stood. Slimy shapes uprose dim and ghostly from its darkly moving surface.

A boat was swinging from a ring beside the door, and into it George tumbled. He unhitched the lashings, and strongly thrust the boat out upon the water. Coming to the first of the dim shapes, he grasped it and thereby propelled the skiff to another beyond. These indistinct shapes were the piles supporting the structure of a wharf.

"Good night, guv'nor!" he cried hoarsely

"So-long," muttered Sin Sin Wa.

He waited until the boat was swallowed in the deeper shadows, then reclosed the water-gate and ascended to the room where Sir Lucien awaited. Such was the receiving office of Sin Sin Wa. While the wharf remained untenanted it was not likely to be discovered by the authorities, for even at low tide the river-door was invisible from passing craft. Prospective lessees who had taken the trouble to inquire about the rental had learned that it was so high as to be prohibitive.

Sin Sin Wa paid fair prices and paid cash. This was no more than a commercial necessity. For those who have opium, cocaine, veronal, or heroin to sell can always find a ready market in London and elsewhere. But one sufficiently curious and clever enough to have solved the riddle of the vacant wharf would have discovered that the mysterious owner who showed himself so loath to accept reasonable offers for the property could well afford to be thus independent. Those who control "the traffic" control El Dorado--a city of gold which, unlike the fabled Manoa, actually exists and yields its riches to the unscrupulous adventurer.

Smiling his mirthless, eternal smile, Sin Sin Wa placed the newly purchased stock upon a shelf immediately behind Sam Tuk; and Sam Tuk exhibited the first evidence of animation which had escaped him throughout the progress of the "deal." He slowly nodded his hairless head.