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  ― 178 ―

A Study in White and Yellow.

“Him Kum Sing” and the Mongolian's beady eyes glanced at the bony countenance and tall, gaunt, Salvation-army-garbed figure of his interrogator. He pointed toward a bloated form in a brown smock that was hustling with a rock of the shoulders through his lean, half-naked countrymen as they crowded into the semi-dark compartment. Then the speaker's eyes vanished in a mesh of wrinkles. In a few seconds they stole insidiously out again, furtively taking in the dogged twitching of the woman's thin lips, and the cold glitter of her pale-blue eyes as they fastened on the object of her enquiry. Yet to all outward seeming the woman was complacently gazing on the white-robed banker moving to and fro behind the massive wooden balusters that reached from the smooth-worn counter to the low, dingy ceiling and divided the chamber into the two compartments. Presently, her eyes slowly wandered from the bloated figure of Kum Sing, now leaning heavily against the counter, and settled on the two placards affixed to the otherwise naked wall, the one a local money-bank's guarantee that £500 lay on deposit in the name of Lee Kong, the


  ― 179 ―
other its duplicate in Chinese—evidence enough in that Mongolian quarter that Lee Kong's gambling den was worthy of patronage. The squalid crowd suddenly ceased its cackle, and its many eyes brilliantly alight all at once with the insatiable delirium of gambling, turned towards the white-robed banker, who had approached the balusters. The banker's clerk, also in a white robe, was seated at a mahogany table, ticking off something in a book like a ledger under the luminous gleam of two huge lamps. In a sing-song voice, not unlike some religious chant, the banker began reading the winning numbers of the tickets to an accompaniment of long sighs and many interjections and lamentations from the gazing, wrinkled, yellow crowd. The compartment reeked with the taint of decayed vegetables and of dried sweat that clung to the stained garments and dilapidated drab shirts, with the confused exhalations of acrid breath, of bodies recently come from the manure pits, and from the pungent smoke of the opium dens. The banker ceased and turned away, and immediately the brilliant lights faded from the slant eyes of his listeners. The compartment rapidly emptied itself of all but the owners of winning tickets, who breasted the counter. The bloated figure of Kum Sing waddled out, closely followed by the woman.

In the dark alley the woman quickened her steps, as


  ― 180 ―
if to accost Kum Sing, but the impulse died away, and she dropped behind him, moving stealthily. Several times her eyes glanced towards the starry strip above that slit in the bewildering bogglement of squat hovels that exhaled an effluvium as of drugs, and her lips moved as though she were praying. On either side of the alley hutch-like doors kept opening silently in the darkness as she passed, disclosing under the flicker and glare of the candles and slush lamps hushed figures staring at gambling tables, or white women crouching in passages, squatting in corners, lounging in and out of kennel-like dens. The Salvation-army woman noticed that whatever the woman happened to be doing when the doors opened their livid faces invariably turned towards the dark alley before they shut to again. A droning hum hung over the alley, frequently diversified by cackles and sharp stabbing “Yah! Yahs!” The hot night pressed down like a curtain. Slippered feet shuffled in and out of passages like tunnels.

All at once the woman stopped, staring at the black aperture in the windowless flat wall through which Kum Sing had disappeared. Stooping through it with a determined pluck at her coarse dress, she ascended the narrow, foot-worn, wooden staircase, guided by a guttering lamp nailed to the wall at the top. A hot, greasy air spumed into her face, making her feel sick


  ― 181 ―
and dizzy with its peculiar nauseating pungency. Holding her breath, she peered into the murkiness of what appeared a cellar above ground. At first she could only discern the tiny opium lamps set near the mats spread out in parallel rows the whole length of the oblong wooden cellar. They pricked with their spots of light the half-lifted gloom, and reflected on the sluggish, black coils of smoke loitering under the suffocating clouds near the ceiling. The smokers gradually bulked on her view. Each had his flat-bowled pipe with its long, thick bamboo stem beside him—some of them stretched cut on their backs, some with their legs curled up, and all of the appearance of dried-up, attenuated anatomies awaiting the varnish prior to being packed in cases and sent to a museum. One grunted in his throat; another sighed heavily; a third “Yah-yahed” wearily to himself with little sobbing sounds. Several scarcely seemed to breathe at all.

On one side of the cellar was a row of bunks, all empty but the one at the end above which a slush lamp hung flaring from the ceiling. There a young woman lay with upturned face and shut eyes. Beyond these bunks a spread of thick canvas, suspended on rings driven into the wall, concealed the entrance to an adjoining room. When the Salvation-army woman's eyes caught sight of that colorless upturned face, a spasm passed over her countenance. Her lips tightened,


  ― 182 ―
and she rapidly tiptoed between the lines of recumbent figures towards the bunk. A head bobbed up from a mat, and its blinking eyes followed her. Another jutted into view from the top of the staircase. She saw neither; her eyes were fixed with wild intentness on the upturned face, devouring its every line. It seemed, for the moment, as though some great passion would flood her with tears or drive her to frenzy. Craning her head till her lips almost touched the sleeper's ear, she tensely breathed:

“Lottie!”

The occupant of the bunk seemed jerked into a sitting posture by some hidden spring. Her eyes were like those of a panic-stricken animal.

“It's me. Come quick. Don't speak—they'll hear you,” whispered the other.

The young woman's face was now of a corpse-like pallor, and seemed to have become attenuated. Her lips moved, yet there was no sound.

The other's eyes were blinded with tears, but her lips were rigid as metal. She moistened her lips with her tongue, and whispered:

“Where are your things? Don't speak loud. God forgive me for what I did!” and she fumbled among the blankets.

“God! It's mother.” The words came as from a cavern.




  ― 183 ―

“Hush! Slip them on quick,” and she dragged Lottie's garments from the twisted blankets.

With the speed of lightning there leaped into the young woman's mind memories of her “fall,” her expulsion from her mother's home in Sydney, and the subsequent misery that scorched her soul like flame till she drifted to this North Queensland town and sank into the Pit. Her eyes lost their panic-stricken stare and filled with a sombre glow. Beads of perspiration appeared on her brow. A dull resentment displaced her heart's abortive response to her mother's appeal and struggled with a vague curiosity as to why her mother (of all people) wore Salvation-army clothes—her mother, a prize-fighter's wife. A passionate desire to discharge a volley of oaths at her, to heap abuse on her, was baulked by inquisitiveness, by a curious sense of homeliness at her mother's presence, and by some slight stirring of her human individuality so long suppressed by bestial conditions. She watched her mother fingering her jacket, and noted how her tears fell unheeded.

“You're sorry now, ain't you?” she asked with a little touch of triumph in her voice.

“I wasn't converted then. I didn't know your soul was going to perdition. See, here's your things.”

A shade of annoyance crossed Lottie's face. She petulantly pushed the garments aside.




  ― 184 ―

“You don't want a thing like me. I'm no good. You made me what I am, and you talk about my soul. I'm not balmy, mother, if I am in hell. I'm not coming——” Then hurriedly, as though half-repenting her words, “How did you know I was here?”

A hard determined expression had come into the mother's face as Lottie spoke. She replied, however, in a conciliatory voice:

“Through the Army. And I go back to Sydney in to-morrow's boat with you if I've to carry you.”

The last six words were decisive in tone. Lottie's gratified sense of her new found value to someone was rudely overset by her old wayward mood of defiance.

“You will!” With shrillness: “I'm my own missis, thank you. You'll take me to Sydney? What did you do to me when I was there? Turned me out without a crust.” . . Then she exploded. The other gazed at her with an expression half of stern pity, half of self-condemnation.

The vehement pitch of words was all at once clipped by the sharp voice of Kum Sing who had noiselessly approached from behind the canvas. His little snake-like eyes darted furious lights at the silenced girl, who sank back cowering under the shower of his needle-edged vocabulary. Though the Salvation-army woman did not know what had been said to her daughter, the pitiful spectacle of her shivering under the blanket with


  ― 185 ―
terrified eyes fixed on Kum Sing was evidence enough. The mother's sinews straightened with their old agility, and her eyes were dried with a smouldering fire behind their blue pallor.

“Whaffor you here, eh?”

Her eyes travelled rapidly over his broad body, rancid with fat, and rested on his yellow, flat, puffy face, dripping with sweat that shone under the lamp flare like grease.

Pig!”

The word fell pat, expressing deliberately, and with contemptuous disgust, her cold summing up of his appearance. His mammoth bulk heaved like a blanket of blubber under the rush of his fury.

“Hit him, mother,” shrilled the young woman as his swollen hands fell on the other's shoulders. His yell when the woman's bony fingers sank into the rank flesh of his arms as into ripe cheese died into a suffocating gasp when her swiftly-uplifted knee was violently projected into his capacious paunch. He flew back against the wall with a hollow boom like the note of a smitten drum.

In a moment the cellar was like an overturned anthill, alive with shouting yellow men, who hurried in from unsuspected gaps and crannies. Snatching her half-clad daughter from the bunk, the mother bent forward and coolly tilted the hanging lamp. A


  ― 186 ―
stream of blazing fat poured spluttering on the blankets and splashed into the wild-eyed faces confronting her. Hands plucked at her and smote as she fought her way in the stampede to the staircase. Smoke eddied round the running flames that hissed on the dried-up walls, and grew into blown clouds around the rushing figures. Borne helplessly on the panting, pushing, squeezing crowd that struggled foot by foot in pitch darkness down the staircase, and discharged its units, yelling like savages, into the alley, the mother, still clutching her child, staggered a few paces in the open air, fell on her knees, and feebly sank forward, releasing her burden.

“Mother, speak——”

Clang! clang! went the fire-bell in the street beyond. The crowd broke around the two figures and swerved in its flight.

“Mother, don't you hear me?” Then, as the red soakage from the saturated corset pressed warm and damp against her cheek, “Help! Help! Murder! Murder! Murder!”

The yellow faces turned towards them, yet still fled past. Smoke was now issuing from the roof of the building in dense masses. A plume of fire shot through it, hissing like a gigantic gas jet under tremendous pressure. There was a roar from the crowded street beyond. Still that dreadful cry of “Murder!” never for a moment ceased.




  ― 187 ―

A rush of helmeted figures through the alley scattered the yellow mob like chaff.

“Women!”

The big fireman was on his knees.

“What's up, my lass? What! stabbed?” The rough fingers pressed tenderly on the elder woman's wrist. The other saw the compassionate expression come into his bearded face as he gently turned the white, fixed countenance towards the increasing light of the fire, and her soul yearned as she sobbed bitterly.

“Hush, then? She's your mother, is she?” in a tone wistfully soft and pitiful, and in a voice like a trumpet to a fireman hurrying past:

“Hi! Jack, there's a woman here stabbed; help us to shift her.” Cheerily: “Don't cry, lass, we'll pull her round.” And finally, with a great volume of human heartiness: “Blast them Chows!”

The two fugitives were carried off to the young one's whimpering refrain: “My poor mother, my poor murdered mother.”

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