Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
VII. The Fantastics
Downstream from The Pool, a little way below Shadwell, an uncouth row of dilapidated dwellings in those days stood--or, better, squatted, like a mute company of draggletail crones--atop a river-wall whose ancient blocks, all ropy with the slime of centuries, peered dimly out through groups of crazy spiles at the restless pageant of Thames-life.
Viewed by day, say from the deck of a river steamer, the spectacle they offered was, according to bias of mood and disposition, unlovely and drear or colourful and romantic: Whistler might have etched these houses, Dickens have staged therein a lowly tragedy, Thomas Burke have made of one a frame for some vignette unforgettable of Limehouse life.
Builded of stone or brick or both as to their landward faces, without exception they presented to the river false backs of wooden framework which overhung the water. Ordinarily, their windows were tight-shut, the panes opaque with accumulated grime--many were broken and boarded. Their look was dismal, their squalor desperate.
Below, by day, heavy wherries swung moored to the ooze-clad spiles or, when the tide was out, sprawled upon stinking mud-flats with a gesture of pathetic helplessness peculiar to stranded watercraft. Seldom was one observed in use: to all seeming they existed for purposes of atmosphere alone.
More seldom still did any dwelling betray evidence of inhabitation beyond faint wisps of smoke, like ghosts of famine, drifting from the chimneypots, or--perhaps--some unabashed exhibit of red flannel hung out to dry with wrist or ankle-bands nipped between a window-sash and sill.
By night, however, a stir of furtive life was to be surmised from cryptic lights that flared and faded behind the crusted window-glass or fell through opened floor-traps to the thick black element that swirled about the spiles, and from guarded calls as well, inarticulate cries of hate and love and pain, rumours of close and crude carousal.
And ever and again the belated riverfarer would encounter one of the wherries, its long oars swung by brawny arms and backs, stealing secretly across the inky waters on some errand no less dark.
On land the buildings lined a cobbled street, from dawn to dark a thoroughfare for thundering lorries and, twice daily, in murk of early morning and gloom of early night, scoured by a nondescript rabble employed in the vast dockyards whose man-made forests of masts and cordage, funnels and cranes, on either hand lifted angular black silhouettes against the misty silver of the sky.
Black and white and yellow and brown, men of every race and skin, they came and went, their brief hours loud with babel of strange tongues and a scuffling of countless feet like the sound of surf; and their goings left the street strangely hushed, a way of sinister reticences, its winding length ill-lighted by infrequent corner-lamps, its mephitic glooms enlivened by windows of public houses all saffron with specious promise of purchasable good-fellowship.
One of these, the Red Moon, faced the row of waterfront houses, standing at the intersection of a street which struck inland to the pulsing heart of Limehouse. A retired bully of the prize-ring ruled with a high hand over its several bars and many patrons, yellow men and white girls, deck-hands and dock-workers, pugilistic and criminal celebrities of the quarter, and their sycophants. Its revels rendered the nights cacophonous, its portals sucked in streams of sweethearts and more impersonal lovers of life and laughter, and spewed out sots close-locked in embraces of maudlin affection or brutal combat. Bobbies kept an eye on the Red Moon, a respectful one: interference with the time-hallowed customs and prerogatives of its clientele was something to be adventured with extreme discretion.
Out of the hinterland of Limehouse, a tall man came to the Red Moon that night, walking with long, loose-jointed strides, holding his head high and looking over the heads of all he passed with a fixed, far gaze. He had a hatchet-face, sallow, with lantern jaws, a petulant mouth, hot eyes that showed too much white above their pupils. A lank black mane greased his collar. His garments, shoddy but whole, were stained and bleached in spots, apparently the work of acids, and so wrinkled and shapeless as to suggest that their owner slept without undressing as a matter of habit. The pockets of his coat bulged noticeably.
Shouldering heedlessly into the saloon-bar, he found it deserted except for a chinless potman: the liveliest evening trade was always plied in the cheaper bars adjacent.
One glance sufficed to identify him: with a surly nod the potman ducked behind a partition to call the proprietor. Drinks were in order when this last appeared; and a brief conference in undertones ended when, having made careful reconnaissance, the publican nodded shortly to the patron, a jerk of his thumb designating a small door let into the wall to one side of the bar proper.
Through this the tall man passed to find himself upon a dark stairway, at the foot of which another door admitted to an underground chamber where an apparently exclusive social gathering was in session of Saturnalia.
In one corner a long-suffering piano was taking cruel punishment at the hands of a flashily dressed, sharp-faced man of horsey type. Flanking him, two young women of the world, with that insouciance which appertains--in Limehouse--to sweet sixteen, were chanting shrilly to his accompaniment: both more than comfortably drunk. In the middle of the room assorted lawbreakers gathered round a table were playing fan-tan at the top of their lungs. At smaller tables men and women sat consuming poisons of which they were obviously in no crying need; while in bunks builded against one wall devotees of the pipe reclined in various stages of beatitude. The air was hot, and foul with cigarette smoke, sickening fumes of sizzling opium, effluvia of beer and spirits, sour reek of sweating flesh.
Incurious glances greeted the newcomer: none paid him more heed than an indifferent nod. On his part, brief but comprehensive survey having deepened the stamp of scorn upon his features, he ignored them all and, proceeding directly to a bunk of the lowermost tier, aroused its occupant with a smart tap on the shoulder.
The ostensible drug-addict looked up dreamily, then opened his eyes wide, with surprising docility rolled out and, uttering no word, lurched to the fan-tan table. The tall man took his place, lay down, and drew together the unclean curtains of sleazy stuff provided to afford privacy to shrinking souls. This done, he turned on his side and knuckled in peculiar rhythm the back of the bunk, a solid panel which slipped smoothly to one side, permitting the man to tumble out into still another room, a cheerless place, with floor of stone and the smell of a vault.
When the panel had slipped back into place, closing out the bunk, the man stood in night absolute. But after a minute a slender beam of golden light struck suddenly athwart the darkness and found his face. This he endured impassively, only lifting a hand to describe an obscure sign. Immediately the light was shut off, a door opened in the wall opposite, dull light from behind disclosed the silhouette of a man in Chinese robes, his head inclined in a bow of courteous dignity.
In good English but with musical Eastern inflection a voice gave greeting:
"Good evening, Thirteen. You are awaited--and welcome!"
"Good evening, Shaik Tsin," the European replied in heavy un-English accents. "Number One is here, yes?"
"Not yet. But we have just received a telautographic message saying he is on his way."
Nodding impatiently, Thirteen passed through the door, which the Chinaman quickly closed and barred.
The chamber to which one gained admittance by ways so devious and fantastic was large--exactly how large it was difficult to guess, since all its walls were screened by black silk panels upon which golden dragons writhed and crawled. A thick carpet of black covered every inch of visible floor space, a black silk canopy hid the ceiling, and all the room was in deep shadow save the space immediately beneath a great lamp of opalescent glass, likewise draped in black.
Here stood an octagonal table of black teakwood, on seven sides of which seven chairs were placed. When Thirteen had taken his seat all these were occupied. On the eighth side an eighth chair stood empty on a low dais, the heavy carving of its high back, its massive arms and legs, picked out with gold.
The six who had anticipated Thirteen at this bizarre rendezvous hailed him as a familiar, according to their several idiosyncrasies, brusquely, indifferently, or with some semblance of cordiality. They made a motley crew.
Two were Englishman in appearance, though the figure of languid elegance in evening dress that might have graced the lounge of a West End club had a voice soft with Celtic brogue. The other owned a gross body clothed in loud checks and, with his mean blue eyes, his mottled complexion, and cunning leer, would not have seemed out of place in a betting-ring.
Aside from these there were a moon-faced Bengali babu, a dark Italian with flashing eyes and teeth, and a stout person of bovine Teutonic cast--the type that is sage, shrewd, easy-going when unopposed, but capable under provocation of exhibiting the most conscienceless brutality.
From this last Thirteen got his warmest welcome.
"You are late, mine friend."
"In good time, however," Thirteen responded with a nod toward the vacant chair. "More than that, the summons was handed me only twenty minutes ago."
"How was that?" the babu asked. "It was sent at six o'clock."
"I was at work in the laboratory and had left orders I was not to be disturbed. But for one thing"--the petulance of Thirteen's habitual expression was lightened by a flash of self-gratulation, and his voice shook a little with excitement--"I might not have received the summons before morning."
"And that one thing?"
"Success, comrades! At last--after months of experimentation--I have been successful!"
"'Ow?" dryly demanded the man in the checked suit.
"I have discovered a great secret--discovered, perfected, adapted it to common means at our command. Comrades, I tell you, to-night we hold all England in the hollow of our hands!"
With an incoherent exclamation and eyes afire the Russian sat forward. Unconsciously the others imitated his action. Only the man in evening dress made a show of remaining unimpressed.
"It's fine, fat words you're after using," he commented. "'All England in the hollow of our hands!' If they mean anything at all, comrade, they mean--"
"Everything!" Thirteen cut in with arrogant assertiveness; "all we've been waiting for, hoping for, praying for--the end of the ruling classes, extinction of the accursed aristocrats, subjugation of the thrice-damned bourgeois, the triumph of the proletariat, all at a single stroke, swift, subtle, and sure! Freedom for Ireland, freedom for India, freedom for England, the speedy spreading of that red dawn which lights the Russian skies to-day, till all the wide world basks in its warm radiance and acclaims us, comrades, its redeemers!"
"Lieber Gott!" the German breathed. "Colossal!"
"'Ear, 'ear!" the Englishman applauded, perfunctory and skeptical. "Bli'me if you didn't mike me forget where I was--'ad me thinking I was in 'Yde Park, you did, listening to a bloody horator on a box."
"You may laugh," Thirteen replied with a sour glance; "but when you have heard, you will not laugh. I am not boasting--I am telling you."
"Not a great deal," the Irishman suggested. "Your mouth is full of sounds and fury, but till you tell us more you'll have told us nothing."
The face of Thirteen grew darker still, and for a moment he seemed to meditate an angry retort; but he thought better of it, contenting himself with an impatient movement and a mutter: "All in good time; Number One is not here yet."
"W'y wyste time w'itin' for 'im?" demanded the Englishman. "'E's no good, 'e's done."
Thirteen's eyes narrowed. "How so?"
"'E's done, Number One is--finished, counted out, napoo! 'E's 'ad 'is d'y, and a pretty mess 'e's mide of it--and it's 'igh time, I say, for 'im to step down and let a better man tike 'old."
Growls in chorus endorsed this declaration of mutiny; but suddenly were stilled by a voice, sonorous and calm, from outside the circle:
"You think so, Seven? Well--who knows?--perhaps you are right."