Limehouse Silk

Illustration for "Limehouse Silk" Copyright (c) Toe Keen, Used under license

Story by A. S. Worth / Illustration by Toe Keen

“John Eustace Li,” said the American, squinting at the card in his fat hand. “Funny name for a chink, ain’t it?”

John Li, who had begun moving toward the sideboard where he kept whisky and cigars, now forebore to offer his prospective client refreshment.

“My mother,” he said, seating himself again behind his desk, “was as English as Devonshire cream, Mr Slote. John and Eustace were her brothers’ names.”

“Half-breed, eh?” growled Slote, letting the card drop back onto the salver from which Li had taken it.

Almost without exception, visitors to Li’s office fell into one of two categories, and each tended to treat him with some measure of disrespect, distrust, or both.

The natives of Chinatown, who came to him as a kind of court of last resort, seeking justice in some (usually sordid) local matter, were suspicious of his Savile Row suits and flawless Oxonian accent.

And to the European (or, in the case of the claret-faced man with the egregious necktie presently standing before him, American) client…well, Li was only a Chinaman, after all—despite his Savile Row suits and flawless Oxonian accent…

Still, there was good money to be made, retrieving a wayward brother from a gambling house or opium den, and so Li had choked down many a slight in the three years since he had established his consulting practice in Limehouse, on the borderline (as it were) between White and Yellow London.

But on this occasion, the hour was growing late, and John Li was bothered by a toothache, so he was more than ordinarily tempted to usher his obnoxious visitor back out into the yammer and bustle of West India Dock Road, affecting a bleating cry of “No speekee, no speekee…”

He waited a moment, however, and this impulse passed.

“Suppose we get down to business,” he said then, indicating a large arm-chair opposite his desk, into which Slote lowered himself with a grunt. “Especially as you have traveled such a long way to London, Mr. Slote. From Ohio, I think, by your accent?”

If the man was impressed, he did not show it. “Cleveland,” he said shortly, then: “Well, like I said before, Li, the concierge at the Imperial gave me your address. Seems you’d helped get a pal of his out of a scrape hereabouts, in some den of iniquity or another. Dope, is what he said,” added Slote, with a wink and a leer.

Li inclined his head slightly, in a nod of grave understanding.

“Well, I’ve reason to believe my eldest boy—he’s a medical student here, at the University of London—I think he’s caught up in a scrape of his own, and I’m not ashamed to say I’m awful worried. I don’t mean dope,” he hastened to add, “but a girl—a chink. Music-hall performer, or something of the kind. You understand me, eh, Li?”

“I understand perfectly,” said Li, taking a cigarette from the box on his desk and lighting it. “You wish me to prevent the generation of any half-breeds.”

Slote’s claret-coloured face grew yet darker.

“Look here, Li, if you’re a-going to treat this like a joke—”

Li held up a deprecating hand.

“My sincere apologies, Mr. Slote. Orientals, as is well known, possess a queer sense of humour. Pray continue.”

The American glowered at him a moment longer, then sighed and said:

“Well, my Tommy, he—why, he’s plumb disappeared, Mr Li—vanished off the face of the damned earth. Him and the girl both, according to the police, though as far as I’m concerned, the yellow hussy can stay vanished.”

“An elopement, perhaps?” ventured Li, after a discreet pause. “Possibly your son, knowing your views on, er, miscegenation…”

But Slote was emphatically shaking his head.

“No, no, Mr. Li, that won’t do. It’s been over seven weeks now, and his mother’s near out of her mind. Tommy wouldn’t let her suffer that way. And not a word to the University either. That ain’t how we raised the boy, Mr. Li.”

“Well then, have you any idea who last saw your son?”

“The last white man, yes, I think so. Tommy was sharing rooms with a big hulking Irish lad, name of Malone. I went to see him yesterday. He told me that the chink girl came by the flat one night, a great blubbering mess, and soon after, Tommy tells this Malone that he’s got to go out, and help the girl look for her uncle, down in Chinatown.”

Li made a note. “I don’t suppose you know the girl’s name, or the uncle’s?”

Slote shook his head impatiently. “They’re all pretty well alike, ain’t they, Chinese names? Anyway, seems the old man’s a degenerate of some kind. Lost his shirt at Mah-Jongg or the like, and no respectable employer would have him. Anyhow, he hadn’t been seen for days, and his relations were near to frantic about the old chink. The girl was powerful worried. Sobbed out something about looking for work at ‘the silk house.’”

Li looked up sharply.

“The silk house,” he repeated.

“That’s what she said, according to Malone. ‘Uncle go to the silk house, never come back.’”

A silence followed, during which Li frowned at the glowing tip of his cigarette.

“Well, that’s why I come to you, Li,” said Slote at last, holding up his fat hands imploringly. “What sort of a clue is that, I ask you? Finding a ‘silk house’ in Chinatown’s about like looking for a partic’lar lump of coal in Newcastle, I reckon. I sure wouldn’t know where to start, that’s for sure.”

Li looked abstractedly at his cigarette for another minute, then abruptly ground it out, stood, and said:

“I will look into the matter, Mr Slote. I cannot promise you a happy result, but I will look into the matter.”

His client also rose.

“Well, that’s mighty—er, I’m awfully glad to hear it, Mr Li. Did I mention I’m staying at the Imperial? O.K. then. I’ll wait for your report. I reckon I don’t need to tell you that money’s no object.”

He even offered to shake Li’s hand, and the detective did not refuse.

 

Soon after Slote’s departure, Li shut up the office and made his way, deep in thought, through the tangle of streets leading towards the docks. At a little café near Limehouse Reach he supped on noodles and tea, and looked out upon the darkening river, and continued his reflections.

The silk house.

Li knew that this could have only one meaning.

“Like looking for a partic’lar coal in Newcastle,” Slote had said—and it was quite true, certainly, that silk was imported in great quantities in Limehouse, like tea and porcelain ware and other Eastern goods.

But there was only one place in London’s Chinatown that—purportedly—manufactured it: a mysterious company that was said, indeed, to be exporters of silk, producing a fabric of such distinctive quality that it was sought after by discerning buyers as far away as Persia, India, even China itself.

In fact, Li had first become aware of the existence of the place when, happening to be in a shop in Pekin Street, he had overheard the factotum of a Prussian nobleman (for such he had, in stentorian tones, declared himself to be) asking the proprietor if he had any of “the so-fabled Limehouse silk” in his stock. That gentleman had silenced him with a gesture, then led him into the back of the shop, and from that day Li had nursed an unofficial curiosity regarding “the so-fabled Limehouse silk” and the shadowy manufactory where, ostensibly, it was produced.

Having had, before now at least, no professional reason to investigate the place, Li had confined himself to picking up, in a desultory way, such information as he could about it. It had, he quickly learned, a very unsavoury reputation, though Li could discover very little by way of specifics.

When he asked the locals about it, or mentioned the phrase “Limehouse silk” to them, many affected not to understand him at all, though the guarded look in their eyes told a different tale. Others acknowledged the existence of the “silk house,” but spoke only vaguely of it, as a place prudent folk would wish to avoid.

One child had been more frank, informing him matter-of-factly that it was a haunted place, guarded by devils, where ghosts plied the looms by night.

The local branch of the Metropolitan Police, Li had ascertained, did not know of its existence at all.

He had managed, after some effort, to discover its location, along a particularly lonely stretch of the river across from Rotherhithe, and strolled once or twice past its unlovely bulk, wondering what its brick walls might conceal…

His own idea was that the place was probably a front for some illegal activity—the importation of opium being the most likely possibility. (Perhaps, he mused, “Limehouse silk” was a code phrase for a peculiarly potent variety of the drug?) He had, in any case, strong doubts as to whether the place had anything to do with silk at all.

Tonight, it seemed, Fate had sent him, in the form of a vulgar American client, the opportunity—or the excuse—at last to satisfy his curiosity…

Li finished eating, paid his bill, and continued on his way.

It was a chill November evening, and the overcast sky was rapidly darkening by the time he turned onto the long, cobblestoned street he remembered, flanked on both sides by warehouses stained black by soot and shadow.

He seemed to have entered another world. Not a hundred yards away to his left, he knew, lay the noise and activity of Formosa Street, while just beyond the hulking buildings on his right flowed the Thames, with its multifarious traffic of hulls, barges, and lighters.

Here on this nameless street, however, not a soul could be seen. The only signs of life were within the building with the words LIMEHOUSE SILK CO. painted crookedly on its front, alongside a cluster of inscrutable ideographs.

Its windows glowed with a ruddy, flickering light, momentarily darkening whenever a silhouetted figure passed by. Not a sound, however, issued from within—it was, Li thought, rather like a cinematograph or magic lantern show…

Li walked past without stopping; then, when he had gone fifty or so paces further, he doubled back and entered the adjacent warehouse, which was quite deserted, through a broken window.

He found a crate to use as a seat, and, muffling himself up as best he could against the chill, positioned himself at a window from which he could watch both the front and rear of the other building.

There he sat, breathing the mingled odour of mildew and cardamom, and listening to the scurrying of rats, while the hours passed slowly by.

Night fell, and the moon came out, and ragged-edged, star-spattered holes began to appear in the clouds above.

At length he heard the faint sound of a church-bell—St. Anne’s, probably—tolling midnight, and moments later a straggling line of men emerged from the back door of the warehouse, and shuffled towards the embankment overlooking the river.

Li produced a pair of field-glasses and, leaning forward, scrutinised the departing labourers.

There were perhaps two dozen in all, and Li thought by their weary, blank faces, which he could see well enough in the moonlight, that all were Lascars. Certainly none was a Chinaman, or a white…

One by one they went over the embankment, descending by means of a ladder affixed to the granite wall.

When the last of them had vanished over the edge, Li exited the warehouse through another window and hastened to the embankment.

Looking down, he could see the Lascars seated at the oars of four long rowing-boats, with lanterns winking above the sterns. Slowly the boats began to move away from the shore, and Li watched them for a few minutes, idly wondering where they might be bound.

Then he turned round and went to the door through which the Lascars had come.

There was a lock, but it was not a very good one, and a minute later Li stood within a cathedral-like space, illuminated piecemeal by the moonlight that streamed in great broken shafts through the windows.

He saw at once that, his earlier hypothesis notwithstanding, silk was indeed produced here, and in not inconsiderable quantity.

Not that this dispelled, of course, the mystery of the three missing persons. If anything, Li thought, it rather intensified it…

The place, he saw, was warehouse and manufactory both: in the center stood some ten or twelve Jacquard looms of unusual size, casting long black shadows on the floor. Terraced balconies ran round the four walls, piled high with bales and crates.

Then something brushed against Li’s cheek, and he started. Putting a hand to his face, he looked up and saw that the air was alive with fluttering moths.

So, he reflected, the place was hatchery as well…

But then—where were the worms?

Electric torch in hand, Li made a thorough search of the warehouse floor, finding nothing inconsistent with the practice of sericulture: there were barrels of tiny white cocoons, boiling-vats (now empty), winding-reels, and boxes full of bobbins.

Then the light of his torch happened to fall upon a distant corner in which the moths seemed to cluster more thickly.

Drawing nearer, he saw that the cloud of erratically flitting insects hovered above a large trap-door set in the wooden floor.

As he knelt to lift it, he felt the feeble beating of papery wings on his face, and the mad idea struck him that the moths were attempting vainly to repel the intruder into their sanctum…

Brushing the thought—and the moths—irritably away, Li threw back the trap with a clattering thud and, with the beam of his torch to guide him, picked his way cautiously down a long narrow flight of stone steps, into an immense cellar lit vaguely by a kind of crepuscular ruddiness.

Down below, the moths were yet more plentiful, clustering round the few scattered paper lanterns which, Li now saw, provided the only illumination. They crawled, too, upon the countless bales, or sacks, or boxes, which, Li dimly perceived, lay in neat rows upon the packed-earth floor.

Except…

Li let the light of his torch move about the enormous vault, and fought down a wave of horror and disgust.

The things were not bales, or sacks, or boxes.

They were human bodies, and there were hundreds of them—laid side by side, with faces up, and torsos covered with blankets.

Collecting himself, Li went slowly among those ghastly rows, illuminating each face in turn. Most were Chinese. All were pale as milk, their eyes closed as in sleep. He shuddered as ash-coloured moths crept across eyelids, cheeks, throats.

For the moment Li suppressed every instinct to speculate. He could not imagine why anyone should wish to keep a charnel house beneath a silk manufacturing concern. Nor, just then, did he need to know. His only purpose was to find—

Ah! The beam of the torch fell upon a lean, wax-white countenance that might have been his client’s, thirty years and fifty pounds ago, and Li knew that he had found the remains of Thomas Slote.

He pulled back the blanket, intending to search the body for more definite proofs of identity.

But when the torchlight showed him what lay beneath, Li gave up all thought of touching the corpse, concentrating instead on the task of keeping his half-digested meal from rising again.

A great cross-shaped incision had been made in the young American’s jacket, waistcoat, and shirt, and the four flaps folded neatly back.

The same had been done to the skin and muscle beneath.

And in the glistening caldera thus revealed, a hideous congeries of viscera and wriggling white silkworms could be seen…

And the truth now forced itself upon Li’s brain…

This was the hatchery.

Here, too, lay the secret of the coveted Limehouse silk, prized by voluptuaries the world over: worms bred in dead men, dead women…worms fed not on mulberry leaves but on…

Li forced himself to look away from the horror of the lad’s belly, and now saw that fine strands of silk-thread, all but invisible, joined him to a young woman beside him—his paramour?—and her to the next body, and so on…

Were all the cadavers woven together so, in a great gossamer net-work?

Then Li happened to look up again, at Thomas Slote’s face.

The eyes were open now.

Li cried out, and took a startled step backwards…

And felt something sharp bite into his neck, and begin to tighten…

He wasted several precious seconds trying to dig his fingers beneath the garotte, before remembering the clasp-knife in his jacket pocket.

After a seeming eternity of fumbling he succeeded in grasping it, only to feel his heart sink a moment later when, jerked violently back by his unseen attacker, he nearly dropped it on the floor.

But he held on, and managed to open it with one hand (the other scrabbling futilely at the strangling cord) and began stabbing blindly behind his head, just past his own right ear.

On the third thrust the blade struck something solid, and Li heard a choking cry, and felt the murderous tension go suddenly slack.

Gulping down air, Li whirled round and saw a plump, bald Chinese man in a threadbare silk robe, looking down in shocked surprise at his own throat, from which the haft of Li’s knife protruded.

Then the man looked up at Li (who saw, he thought, relief in those eyes), before sinking, lifeless, to the ground.

Li stood for a minute or so above the body, panting and rubbing his neck with one shaking hand.

Then the whispers began.

Each sibilant voice was low and faint by itself, but there were hundreds of them, and they spoke all together, directly inside Li’s head, so that there was no escaping them.

 

you killed him

 

they said, and:

 

he kept us safe

 

These things the voices said over and over and over again, and they were not diminished one jot when Li clapped his hands over his ears and sought to bury his face in his chest.

Then they said:

 

you shall be him

 

in a million insinuating whispers, which raced round and round his head, seeming to enwrap his brain like silk-thread winding round a bobbin, in a numbing, stupefying cocoon…

And when, at last, Li let his hands fall from his ears, and looked up again, his face was slack and impassive in the ruddy light, his pupils enormous, black, dead.

Without a word he bent and took up the corpse’s wrists, and dragged it to the foot of those stone steps, while a myriad of glittering eyes looked on.

And there was, perhaps, just a touch of envy in those eyes as they watched their new servant shoulder his burden and stagger slowly upward, towards the great river that swallowed all, and the moon and stars, doubled tremulously in its oil-black surface—sights most of them had not seen for long years, and none of them would ever see again.

END


Next Week:

“Ten Nails In A Coffin” by Bruce Harris
Illustration by Joseph Valesquez