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   Chapter 20 THE DOOR WITH THE RED LABEL

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 11754

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"Mellican gell see ole Chineseman smokee opum pipe?" the girl asked.

"Why, you speak English!" exclaimed Angela, forgetting in her surprise that here was only a very little of China set in the midst of a great deal of America.

"I go school one time," said the girl. "Dis times I fo'get sometings. You come Chinese gell. You velly pletty."

Angela laughed, and went, guilty but excited. This was too good an adventure to miss. Schermerhorn must know the inhabitants and habits of this place, and he would guess what had become of her, when they found her gone. "So are you very pretty," she smiled.

"Yes," replied the girl, in her little metallic voice. "I like you. You like me. You give one dollah; I take you see Chinese man smokes mo' 'n all oddeh mens. He velly old-knows ebelyting."

"Oh, I am to pay you a dollar! So it isn't all for love of my beaux yeux," murmured Angela. But she gave the sum, glad that she had spent most of her money in buying jade and ivory, which now encumbered Nick's pockets. The girl took first her dollar and next her gloved hand. Then, opening one of the unpainted doors in the long, dusky passage, she led her companion into a dark cellar.

"Where are you taking me?" Angela inquired, thinking with sudden longing of the lighted room of the musician, where Nick was perhaps beginning to look for her.

"Next-do'h house," replied the girl calmly; and Angela would have been ashamed to draw back, even had curiosity and a faint excitement not compelled her to go on. At one end of the cellar was a wooden stairway, very steep, going both up and down. She and her conductor went down one flight, then along a short passage, then up some steps, then down a few more. Angela was enjoying the experience, but her joy was spiced with fear.

The two girls were in a very strange house, much stranger, Angela thought, than the one they had left. It was a rabbit-warren of tiny, boxlike rooms, threaded with narrow, labyrinthine passages, just wide enough for two slim persons to pass side by side. The rough wooden walls were neither painted nor stained, and the knot-holes were stuffed with rags. Here and there a rude door was open, hanging crookedly on its hinges, while the occupant talked with a friend outside, or prepared for an expedition, laden with kitchen utensils, coal and food, to the common cooking-place of the rabbit colony-a queer and dismal set of iron shelves, long and narrow, sticking out from a wall, and calling itself an oven.

Each door of each tiny room, which housed an individual or a whole family, had the name of the owner upon it, in Chinese characters, black and sprawling, on a red label; and at one whose paper name-plate was peeling off, Angela's companion stopped. "Li Hung Sun; we makee visit," she announced, and opened the door without knocking.

Angela had seen furniture packing cases as big as that room, and extremely like it. On one of the wooden walls, above a bunk which took up nearly half the space, were a rough shelf and a few cheap, Chinese panel pictures and posters. Beside the bunk, and exactly the same height from the floor with its ragged strip of old matting was a box, in use as a table, covered with black oilcloth. On this were grouped some toy chairs and chests, made of tiny seashells pasted on cardboard; a vase with one flower in it; a miniature mirror, and some fetish charms and photographs, evidently for sale. But on the bunk itself lay a thing which made Angela forget all the surroundings. A thin, stabbing pain shot through her heart, as if it had been pricked with a needle. She was face to face with tragedy in a form hardly human; and though her plump little guide was smiling, Angela wished that she had listened to Nick's advice. For here was something never to be forgotten, something which would haunt her through years of dark hours, dreaming or waking. She knew that the thought of this box of a room and what she now saw in it would come suddenly to darken bright moments, as the sun is all at once overcast by a black thundercloud; and that in the midst of some pleasure she would find herself wondering if the idol-like figure still lived and suffered.

A little bag of bones and yellow skin that once had been a man lay on the wooden bunk, whose hard surface was softened only by a piece of matting. From the shrivelled face a pair of eyes looked up; deep-set, utterly tragic, utterly resigned. The face might have been on earth for sixty or seventy years perhaps. But the eyes were as old as the world, neither bright nor dull, yet wise with a terrible wisdom far removed from joy or sorrow. The shrivelled shell of a body was a mere prison for a soul to which torture and existence had become inseparable, and almost equally unimportant.

"Oh, we ought not to come in!" Angela exclaimed involuntarily, on the threshold of this secret.

The weary face faintly smiled, with a smile like a dim gleam of light flickering over the features of a mummy.

"Come in. Many people come see me," said a voice as old as the eyes, and sad with the fatal sadness that has forgotten hope. It was a very small, weak voice, almost like a voice heard at the other end of a long-distance telephone, and it spoke excellent English.

Silently Angela obeyed; and seeing a broken, cane-seated chair which she had not noticed before, dropped into it as the low voice asked her to sit down. She was not afraid now, but sadness gripped her.

"You wish see me smoke opium, lady?" the old man asked, his tone monotonous, devoid of interest, his face a mask. The light of a tallow candle flared into his eyes, and wavered over his egg-shaped head, which was entirely bald save for its queue.

"Oh, no," Angela answered, horrified, "I beg you won't smoke for me!"

"Not for you," he said. "I smoke all times. I must now. If not, I suffer too much. It is

the smoking keeps me alive. I cannot eat, or only a little. My throats shuts up. But when I smoke, for a few minutes after I am happy. Then I wait a while, and bimeby I smoke again."

"Surely-surely-you can't smoke opium all day and all night?" Angela murmured, her lips dry. She seemed to know what he felt, and to feel it with him. It was a dreadful sensation, that physical knowledge, racking her nerves like a phase of nightmare.

"Nearly all day and all night, for I do not sleep much; perhaps two hours in twenty-four. Once, a long time ago, the opium made me sleep. I had nice dreams. Now it makes me wide awake. But I do not suffer, only for a few minutes. When it gets too bad, I begin again."

"What is it like-the suffering?" Angela half whispered.

"Cramps, and aching in my bones. Maybe you never had a toothache-you are too young. But it is like that all over my body. I wish to die then. And I will before long. The death will not hurt much if I keep on smoking. My heart will stop, that is all. It will give me a chance to begin again."

"In another world-yes," said Angela. "But-couldn't you stop smoking? Take medicine of some sort-have treatment from a doctor--"

"Too late, long time ago," he answered, with a calm, fatal smile. But his eyes lit with a faint spark of anticipation, and his cheeks worked with a slight twitching of the nerves, for, as he talked, in short sentences, he was quietly rolling and cooking his dose of opium. Into a large pipe, which looked to Angela like a queer, enormous flute with a metal spout halfway down its length, he pushed a pill he had rolled, ramming it in with a long pin, and cooking it in the flame of a small spirit lamp. He did not speak again until he had pulled strenuously at the pipe a few times. Then he went on talking, his face unchanged, unless it appeared rather fuller, less seamed with the wrinkles of intense nerve strain.

"You see," he said, "that is all I do. I was in a good deal of pain, but I am used to it. Now I'm contented for a few minutes. While I have this happiness, I feel willing to pay the price. But it is a big price. I warn the young men who come to see me not to begin opium smoking. It is so easy. You think you will try, to find out what it is like; and then you will stop. But you do not stop. Four weeks-six weeks-and it is finished for you. You are on the road where I am. That was the way with me. It is the way with every one who starts on that road and goes not back before the turn. Better not start, for the dreams are too good at first."

His resignation to the chains forged by himself seemed to Angela the saddest part of all. He was beyond help, and knew it, did not even think of it.

She had a strange burning behind her eyes, as she listened, though she was not inclined to cry.

"It is awful," she whispered. "Such days-such nights-such years. But-you do not lie here always?"

"Most of the time," he answered, the little spark of physical contentment beginning to dim in his eyes already. "I am very weak. I do not walk, except when I go down the passage to cook a little coffee once a day. Or sometimes I crawl out in the sun. But soon I come back. I can stand only a few minutes. I am too light in the head, when I get on my feet. When I was young I was tall and large. But a man shrinks small after the opium gets him."

"How you must regret!" Angela sighed.

"I do not know. Why regret when it is too late? I regret that it is hard to find opium. It is forbidden now, and very dear. I sell the cleanings of my pipe-the yenshee, we call it-so I keep going."

"How can you bear to sell to others what has ruined your life?" Angela could not help asking.

"I would do anything now to have opium," he said calmly. "But it is the old smokers who smoke the yenshee, not the young ones. So I do no harm."

Angela sprang up, shuddering. "Is there nothing I can do to help you?" she pleaded, her eyes turned from him, as he began to cook another pill.

"You can buy something I sell. That will help. Do you like this?" And he pointed to a little painted china group of three monkeys, one of which covered its ears, another its eyes, and the third its mouth. "You know what it means? 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.' It is the motto of our people."

"Yes-I'll buy that. It's a good motto," Angela stammered. Taking up the little figures, she laid a five-dollar gold piece on the box table, knowing only too well what it would buy.

"You wish to see me smoke this other pipe?" and he put it to his toothless mouth.

"No-I can't bear it."

She pushed past the Chinese girl, hardly knowing what she did. She felt faint and sick, as if she must have fresh air. As her hand fumbled for the latch, the door was pushed violently open, and Hilliard came in, with Schermerhorn at his back.

"Thank Heaven!" Nick stammered. He was very pale.

"You gave us a pretty bad scare, Miss," added the man, who had been informed that Nick was "not her husband."

"Lucky I thought of this house, and this old chap."

"But-there was no danger," Angela defended herself. "Nothing could have happened."

"Most anything can happen-in Chinatown," mumbled Schermerhorn. "Did you ever read a story by Norris called The Third Circle?"

"Not yet," said Angela. "I bought the book, but--"

"Well, read that story when you get home to-night, Miss, and maybe you'll know what your young gentleman here went through."

Her "young gentleman!" But Angela did not smile. A thing would have had to be very funny to strike her as laughable just then.

"No, don't read it to-night," said Nick. "Wait till another time."

"Will you forgive me?" she asked, looking at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't suppose you'd mind much."

"I was in-Hades for a few minutes," said Nick, hastily qualifying the remark he had been about to make.

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