I stared up at that yellow-gleaming window, in the sloping, ill-favoured house-front, agony and guilt swelling in my heart, which only vengeance could cast out. Poppy’s death was Tommy Chang’s fault, for if it was not Chang’s, it was – dammit, it could be nobody’s but his!
Giddy with unaccustomed courage, I marched up to the brown, peeling door and rapped smartly upon it with the head of my walking-cane. There was a grumble and creak of stair-treads, and after a minute the door cracked open and half of a pale, suspicious female visage peered out at me. I remembered those blunt features and cold blue eyes well: they belonged to Chinee Kate, Chang’s wife in common-law, and partner in his hideous business. With her legendary facility for recalling the faces of customers, she recognised me as a friend, and dragged the door a little wider to let me in, screwing her thin mouth into something like a smile.
“Mister Edwards!” she greeted me – for so I had styled myself on my long-ago visits to the place, fearing even then that my true name might find its way somehow to the ears of my colleagues at Chambers if I let it slip. “Ain’t seen you for a long time! Thought we’d lost you, Tommy did. Come back for a taste of London’s Finest Pipe, is it?”
I nodded at her curtly, wishing her already out of my way; but she turned with heavy deliberation and preceded me on the stairs, her wide, draggled skirts swaying with infuriating, hypnotic slowness as she puffed up to the first-floor door. She was not a delicate creature, Kate; not in any sense of the word, and at one time had rejoiced in the reputation of being the strongest woman in Wapping. It was said that she was the only person in London ever to best Chang in a fight, and that his forfeit had been to take her up the aisle – or whatever the Chinese equivalent was. I did not, of course, believe half the nonsense talked about her; but watching those wooden treads sag with each ponderous step, I was reminded of just how effective a keeper she was of both the door and the peace in Chang’s house: I should have to hope that she did not weigh in on our confrontation.
Having attained the head of the stairs, Kate shuffled aside and drew the scuffed old velvet drape for me with a sort of bowing curtsey, inviting me with a gap-toothed smile to enter.
Inside, Chang’s was just as it had always been: a fuggy, low-ceilinged room, long and broad, with a huddle of broken-backed couches and a sagging iron bedstead at its centre. Dark Oriental paper with tarnished gilding hung askew on the bulging walls, in between tuppenny prints of dragons of every variety, colour and size – but chiefly, of course, Chinese. Around the periphery of the room, retreating into its deep, forgiving shadows, were other items of salvaged furniture; once-grand armchairs and chaises-longues, divans and daybeds, settles and fat, padded sofas, their velveteen now split and scarred, and dark with greasy smoke. A thick, acrid aroma permeated the room, and the oily exhalations of the poppy fugged my vision, but I could yet see that on and over these couches (and sometimes sprawled beside them, as if they had fallen and could not get up), lolled stupefied men and one or two women; chiefly, by the looks of them, sailors or dock-workers, hawkers and whores. Not one of these persons raised their eyes or turned their head as I entered that stuffy, tenebrous room; I was of less interest to them than a fly crawling across the ceiling. Long, I prayed, should this attitude prevail.
Beside the door stood a small sturdy table which bore a kettle, almost as large as itself, full of inferior China tea: this was to soothe the dry throats of the customers, and a small tin cup of the pale brew was provided free of charge by Tommy with each pipe smoked. Sometimes Kate prepared the pipes over the small steady flame of the opium-lamp, and Chang poured the tea; sometimes it was the other way around, but in either case there was no doubt that Chang’s was a smooth, efficient and well-run establishment – for an opium den.
I turned and surveyed the room: Chang’s tall, burly figure was not immediately apparent, and I turned to Kate, a question in my eyes.
“E’s in the kitchen,” she said apologetically, “making ‘is supper. Won’t let me do it, bless ‘im – says I chop the veg all wrong. But I can set up yer pipe for you, love – just find a bed to your liking and I’ll bring it right over.”
I glanced across the chamber, to where a thin line of brighter light betrayed the presence of a door set flush into the badly-papered wall. Kate followed my gaze with curiosity rather than dismay, and I jerked my head at the place.
She nodded. “Aye, sir – but Tommy don’t like to be disturbed while he’s eating. Now why don’t you
let me –”
“Thank you, Kate, but I have some business to conduct. It shan’t take long, I promise.” I tried to keep the grim threat from my voice.
She shrugged and rolled her eyes, as if to say do what you will, but don’t say I didn’t warn you, and settling her broad-gauge bulk in the wing-backed armchair next to the kettle, took up a stringy old piece of knitting and affected to ignore me completely. I strode across the room to the door and, resisting the impulse to knock, entered directly. It was a tiny, cramped place – no more than a side-room, really, with a little spirit-stove, table and chair, in which Chang sat, poking morsels of fragrant rice and beef between his thin lips with chopsticks, the Illustrated London News spread before him on the table-top. He looked up in indignant surprise as I entered, set down his bowl carefully, and evidently taking me for an importunate customer, pointed a long finger back the way I had come.
“Excuse me, esteemed sir,” he said in his modulated, perfect English, “I am occupied, as you see. My wife will attend to your needs, if you tell her what you would like.”
Heat rose in my face: I fingered the knobbed cane in my hands. “I do not think she will be able to provide what I have come for.”
His elegant dark eyebrows rose. Did he recognise me yet? He had not Kate’s knack for faces, but I had been a good customer of his, once. Could I have changed so much, when he had not altered, it seemed, by a single hair?
“And what is that?”
“Retribution!” I burst out, half-raising my cane to show I meant business.
Chang’s narrowed eyes crinkled and his wide mouth widened further, displaying his exquisite teeth. His head kicked back and he gave a peal of musical, girlish laughter.
“Indeed! What have I done, may I ask, to deserve this punishment?”
“How dare you laugh at me, sir? This is no laughing matter. A woman has died!”
Now he cocked his head, suddenly alert as a parrot, and the mirth dropped from his face like a mask. “What? What woman?”
“Poppy of Corn-street – burned to death in her own room, smoking the stuff you sold her, feeding an addiction you supplied!”
His black eyes lost their dangerous glint, and his face relaxed into melancholy. “Ah, poor Poppy. And little Jane too … Yes, I heard the news. A regrettable accident, but hardly my fault.” He spread his large hands insouciantly. “She was a hopeless opium-drunk. These things happen. What can one do? And, if I may be so bold as to ask, what concern is it of yours?”
“I am – I was … her friend,” I told him with as much dignity as I could muster. At this, he looked closer at me, and I had the feeling he was stripping the years and hairs from my face in his imagination, and comparing it to the rogues’ gallery of clients he kept inside his head.
“Of course,” he said, with some interest. “Mr … Edwards, yes? How nice to see you again. Well, well, so you kept up with her after all. She said she had some sort of benefactor who provided for Jane, and I must confess, you don’t look like the sort of cheapjack starver she usually dragged back. I am sorry for your loss, naturally, but you understand, as a man of business, that I cannot turn custom away.”
The smooth reasonableness of his tone set fury churning in my gut. “Damn it! You could at least have made her smoke it here, like the others, and watched over her! How many doped creatures have you had to douse in your time?”
Chang shook his head sorrowfully, as if saddened by my stubborn incomprehension of his dilemma. “Mr. Edwards, please: I must endeavour to accommodate my best customers, or they will go elsewhere. Poppy needed to be at home for her gentleman clients, and she wished to smoke her pipe: what was I to do? She purchased a lamp and a pipe from me, and Kate showed her how to prepare it: what could be simpler? We had a very nice little arrangement until the unfortunate … well, until last week.”
I could not stand any more of this hypocritical cant: I thought of Poppy’s grey sunken face, her hooded, hungry eyes when I had seen her last – she had told me she was “under the weather”, and, wrapped up in my own petty miseries, I did not question her. I should have known, should have seen, should have saved her, and now it was too late! I turned the blast of my self-hatred onto Chang, my voice husky and shaking.
“You are a peddler of poison: no more and no less. Look at those wretches scattered across your den! Search in their blind eyes – you will find no soul there, only an empty craving for more of the drug, and more, and more!”
Chang smiled dangerously. “I do not judge my customers, sir: I provide a service. In that sense, my work is rather like yours, don’t you think? No matter whether your client is murderer, thief or nun, you are sworn to serve them to the best of your ability. I do the same.”
How dared he compare my noble profession with his miserable pandering to the weak and hopeless! The wrath simmering in me flared up again, and this time I could not control it – nor did I wish to. I would tear his house of dark dreams to the ground! I would make him sorry – I would make him pay!
“No more,” I said in a thick, heavy voice. “No more.”
Chang rose slowly from his seat to his full height; he was tall for a Chinaman, a shade under six feet. I overtopped him by less than an inch, and he was considerably broader than me. But I did not flinch, only stared steadily into his glimmering black eyes.
“What d’you mean by that?” he said.
“What I say. No more. Close this place, or I will close it for you. Find an honest job, a new life. I don’t care what you do, but this place is a waiting-room for the grave: I will not suffer it to exist!”
“Oh, won’t you now?” Chang rejoined, still as a cat poised to pounce – waiting, perhaps, to see how I might enforce my absurd demand. “And what are you going to do about it?”
I lifted my stick and pointed it straight at him. “This!” I said, and smacked it down on the flimsy table between us, so that his rice-bowl smashed into flinders, and the table-top cracked. Chang jumped back, a momentary flicker of shock in his dark eyes – it was the only time, in the years since I had known the fellow, I had ever seen him genuinely unsettled.
I took advantage of his surprise to turn and dash into the main room, laying about me wildly with my stick. I knocked pipes from hands, and drinks from tables: I hauled opium-soaked sots from couches and pushed them bodily towards the door, crying “No more! Get out! No more!” Most of the poor wretches were too befuddled by their precious drug to know what I was about, or to do more than stumble a few steps before sinking to the floor again in ineffable lassitude, but I managed to get a good few blows in on Chang’s elaborate instruments of enslavement. The slender, fragile bamboo pipes shattered under my stick, snapping in half like twigs, and the japanned trays clattered and flew across the room as I swung at them. After a frozen moment of shock and disbelief, Kate lumbered up from her station beside the door and shouted in a terrible voice to know what the hell I thought I was doing.
“Harrowing Hell!” I cried, with vengeful madness, and brandished my cane at her to warn her back. Her eyes narrowed and she pushed the sleeves up her meaty forearms, in unconscious preparation for a brawl. I wasted no breath telling her I did not mean to harm her, only to raze this pit – for I have never in my life struck a woman, and did not intend to start now. But she, perhaps feeling herself threatened, did what any frightened animal might in such a situation, and hurled herself at me bodily, attack being her natural first line of defence. I was not prepared for this, and staggered back, my cane braced across my body in order to protect myself without harming her – and fell straight into Chang’s wide-spread arms. In an instant, he had my elbows pinned behind me, his ferocious strength forcing my shoulders back and my arms almost from their sockets: Kate reached forward, snatched my cane and broke it across her thick knee, a malevolent sneer on her doughy face.
“You’d turn wild on us, would you? Running about like a madman, screaming your ‘ead off, all over some stupid tart without the sense to put ‘erself out? Oh, yes, I ‘eard. I know what this is about!” As she spoke, she slapped my cheeks contemptuously, as if disciplining an errant school-boy. Then she shoved me hard in the chest with the flat of her hand, pushing me off-balance to sink deeper into Chang’s violent embrace.
“You ain’t gonna do ‘er any good that way, are ya?” she sneered, “And it’s too late for any other way – except maybe prayer. So why don’t you fuck off to church, eh, sonny boy, and light ‘er a candle, and leave decent folk alone?”
“Decent!” I spat, gasping – almost laughing at the absurdity of her words. “Decent? Look about you, Kate! Look to your soul! I warn you –”
“And I warn you,” she said, low and mean, her hot moist breath fouling my face, “that if I ever see you near here again you’ll get more’n a broken stick for yer trouble.”
“Kate,” said Tommy gently, and I could feel the bass rumble of his voice in his broad chest, pressed hard against my spine, “I think perhaps Mr. Edwards needs to calm down.”
She glanced up at him, her little blue eyes squinting in confusion. “He needs to –”
“Come, Katey,” soothed Tommy, changing his grip and wrapping his long arms about mine in a crushing bear-hug, “let us give our visitor what he really wants. What he came here for. Peace, and … relaxation.”
Peace? Relaxation? What mockery was this? I felt that I should never know their sweetness again, and certainly not in this debauched hovel, but Kate’s eyes suddenly crinkled and glittered in cruel delight, and she nodded avidly.
“Oh Tommy,” she said, glee oozing into her cracked voice, “you are a clever one! That’s just what he needs! You lay him down and I’ll fetch the pipe. Won’t be a tick.”
Chang tossed me onto a nearby divan as if I were a sack of rotten potatoes, and proceeded to pin me to it without visible effort. I had not encountered his exceptional strength before, and though I struggled desperately and cried aloud for release, my squirming and pleading was pathetically useless. The other denizens of the room regarded me with, at most, incurious stares and vague, benevolent smiles, and a few nodded slightly in approval as they spied Kate carrying the pipe and tray across the room towards me. When I saw it I redoubled my efforts to break free; but Kate, setting her burden down carefully beside me, added her weight and strength to Chang’s, and I knew I was lost. I could only wriggle and sob as she set the flame to the pipe and brought it to my lips: I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes in agony against the evil thing, but her strong fingers pinched my nostrils until I knew I must gasp for air, or else faint – and at last I was forced to suck in the first lungful of that sweet, deadly smoke I had tasted in years.
The effect was almost instantaneous. I coughed and spluttered, gagging on the pipe at first, for the breath of the poppy is harsh and heady, especially to one who has fallen out of the habit of it; but in a matter of moments I felt that dreadful, delicious languor dissolve all through my limbs and brain, and I slumped in Chang’s arms, flaccid as any rag-doll. It was a powerful dose, all right – my God, it would have quieted a bull! Not for nothing was Chang’s known as the Finest Pipe in London, for his poppy-juice had ever been stronger and purer than that found at the other dens. My anger and cares seemed to evaporate; my eyelids fluttered slowly, like the wings of butterflies at rest, and I felt a slow, yawning smile spread across my face, as the hated, beloved drug folded me once more in its warm and welcoming embrace.
Faintly, I felt Kate’s sturdy hand fumble in my coat and remove my note-case; faintly, I heard her coo over the two crisp bank-notes she found there. Tommy’s face loomed over me like a benevolent harvest moon, smiling, his soap-white teeth gleaming in the soft light, a five-pound note held delicately between his dextrous fingers.
“We will take this to pay for the damage you have caused,” he said, smiling, and I smiled back at him, delighted to oblige such an understanding friend.
“And this,” added Kate, smoothing the other note with her coarse hands, folding it thrice and tucking it into her grimy bodice, “to settle Poppy’s account. You wouldn’t want her to of died a debtor, would you dear?” She grinned, pink lips parting over snaggle teeth, and I nodded sleepily, the opium curling about my brain as a dragon might nestle its egg; the milky warmth of it, the lightness, the softness, the delectable drowsiness stealing over my limbs just as Kate’s nimble, questing fingers had over my wallet … and then, I knew no more.
Extracted from Katy Darby’s novel-in-progress, Hannah Hawking, or, A Newgate Story.