The Limehouse Incident

The following is an excerpt from Master of Villainy, A Biography of Sax Rohmer By Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.ISBN 0-8792-032-8

FICTION LIVES LONGER THAN FACT. AT THE MERE MENTION OF THE NAME "Limehouse," what images spring inevitably to mind? A vista of dark streets, shadowy yellow-faced forms, the brief flash of a knife blade, a scream in the night, a bloated corpse fished up from the murky waters of the Thames.... London's Chinatown has long since vanished. But the legend of Limehouse lives on- due in no small part to the writings of one man: Sax Rohmer.

The legend was not always a legend. Before the First World War, it was a fact that the warren of narrow streets and alleyways in the neighborhood of West India Dock Road, Pennyfields, and Limehouse Causeway formed a no-man's-land which honest citizens hesitated to penetrate after dark. It was a fact that the Metropolitan Police honored the area with double patrols. The precise toll of lives lost in that sombre labyrinth cannot be estimated. The region housed an Asiatic community, firmly entrenched and largely criminal, which lived by laws foreign to and older than the laws of England. This was the secret empire controlled by the fabulous, but fictitious, Dr. Fu Manchu.

Or was he entirely fictitious?

Only Sax Rohmer, his creator, knew the answer. As I begin the story of that supreme master of fictional villainy, it is perhaps natural that my thoughts should go first to Limehouse.

I think of an evil night in the year 1911. Chilly fingers of mist were stealing up from the river. A vintage taxi with brass headlamps crawled noisily and not too confidently through streets peopled only by furtive shadows. No fit background, certainly, for an attractive young woman, save in the opening pages of a Sax Rohmer story. Yet she was there. As the taxi drew level with a street lamp, the light gleamed momentarily on red-gold hair and revealed anxious eyes, searching- for this was a Sax Rohmer story in real life. The woman in the taxi was his wife. And Sax was missing- in Limehouse.

Then in his late twenties, Sax had so far shown no interest in things Chinese. As a writer of "Oriental" mystery stories, he was already establishing something of a reputation. But the stories he wrote were chiefly of Egypt and the Middle East, where his heart really lay, and where it always remained. His marriage to Elizabeth was happy and successful. By comparison with the early days when they had literally struggled against starvation, they were now comfortably settled.

And then, six months previous to the night in question, the shadow of Chinatown fell upon their lives, in the form of an unexpected commission from a magazine editor, requesting an article on Limehouse. The choice, from the editor's point of view, was logical enough. Sax's stories were "Oriental," and "Oriental" at that time meant anything east of Istanbul.

More than half a century later, Elizabeth still shudders at the memory of what followed: the long lonely nights when Sax failed to appear at the dinner table, and often remained absent till the small hours of the morning. What the editor wanted was information about a certain "Mr. King." Nobody, apparently, had ever met Mr. King, but he was said to be a considerable property owner, a known drug trafficker and, according to rumor, the guiding hand in half the underworld activities of Limehouse.

Sax went boldly to work. He combed the squalid streets, night after night, in search of a man better avoided. That his success might well mean adding his own name to the list of Mr. King's alleged victims does not seem to have occurred to him, but it occurred vividly to Elizabeth. Not yet twenty-five and very much in love, she spent sleepless hours at the bedroom window of their home in Herne Hill, watching anxiously for the returning lights of Sax's cab. To her secret relief, however, Sax's main objective remained unachieved when the deadline for the finished article arrived. Lt was written and printed. Sax had unearthed more than enough odd information to satisfy both editor and readers, and nobody complained except the author. He had not seen Mr. King.

For the next few months, life at Herne Hill was back to normal- or as normal as life with Sax was ever likely to be. Then, for the second time, the shadow fell. Suddenly, without a word of explanation, a new series of absences began. Again Sax failed to show up for dinner. Again the far watches of the night found him missing.

Elizabeth was piqued but not at first alarmed. Sax's movements were always erratic and often, by commonplace standards, totally inconsiderate. There were a dozen places he might have gone to. But so many late nights in a row were unusual even for Sax. She began to look for him and gradually, as it dawned upon her that he was missing from all his regular haunts, annoyance gave place to something like panic. The search became frantic. Theaters, the Eccentric Club, the Hambone Club.... No one had seen him!

Elizabeth returned home tired and bewildered. She could think of no other place where he might be. Least of all did she think of Limehouse; so far as she knew, the Limehouse business was over and done with. And then, shocking in its unexpectedness, came the telephone call from Helen Charles, an acquaintance from her stage days.

"My dear, I've just seen the most extraordinary thing! I'd been down to the docks to meet some friends off a boat, and there, on the way back, I saw Sax walking along the street with a Chinese girl who was carrying a baby in her arms!"

A quick word from the tall young man seated at Elizabeth's side, and the taxi jolted to a standstill by the lighted windows of a public house, evidently close to the river. The whistle of a tugboat hooted mournfully.

"Charley Brown's," Frank Wyatt said. "Hold on here while I take a look around." He climbed down into the street, vanished through a swing door and was out again in less than a minute, shaking his head.

"Not in there, anyway. But two of my deckhands are. I nipped out quick before they spotted me."

Frank Wyatt was the bachelor son of a nearby neighbor in Herne Hill. He was a ship's officer on a P. & O. boat sailing between London and Brisbane, and was soon to become the youngest liner captain in the Mercantile Marine. Knowing him to be on shore leave, Elizabeth had sought his aid in her search, and had been lucky enough to find him at home.

"What next?" she asked wearily.

Frank hesitated, frowning. "Let's have another look at those pictures."

Reaching into the cab, he took a crumpled magazine from the damp clutch of Elizabeth's fingers and spread out the creases in the light of the headlamps. Sax's "Limehouse" article was the only clue they had, and not a very good one, since he had very carefully avoided naming the places he visited. But to a man intimately familiar with the dock area, the photographs might mean something. Frank stared thoughtfully at a picture of what seemed to be a restaurant, and glanced at the caption beneath. "Where East is West." He grinned.

"Don't know what it's called, but I think I know where it is. In Limehouse Causeway. We could try."

Elizabeth said nothing. Weighed down by a cold sense of hopelessness, she felt half sorry for having started out on this crazy quest. Yet, back at the house, with Helen's maliciously triumphant voice still ringing in her ears (she was under no illusions about the quality of Helen's friendship) she had known she must do something or go mad.

"Brace up, old girl! Not on the rocks yet, you know!"

Elizabeth smiled faintly, though she felt more like crying. Frank was an incorrigible comedian, but she couldn't rise to his mood. Nevertheless, she was thankful for his presence, without which any attempt at a search would have been impossible. Frank leaned forward in his seat, calling out directions. Fifty yards ahead, the street lamps glowed yellowly through a haze of mist. The taxi swung to the right into a road which appeared to lead straight into the river; they passed under a railway bridge and halted before a dimly lit doorway.

"That's it," Frank said, "Will you wait, or-"

"Can I come in with you?"

"Yes, if you want to." He laughed and stepped out on the pavement, extending his hand. "Safe enough- anyway, till about midnight."

"And after that?"

"Well, it depends. Shipmate of mine once tried to break up the joint single-handed. We got him out, heavily holed, but not a total loss!"

They descended steps to a cellar furnished with cheap tables and chairs, a sizeable bar counter and an upright piano with a cracked front. At the moment there were few customers. Dotted about sparsely in twos and threes, they looked more sorrowful than sinister.

The man who came from behind the bar to take Frank's order for coffee (and a pint of beer for the driver) was the most unlikely cocktail of humanity that Elizabeth had ever seen. He had greying woolly hair, leering blue eyes, an acquiline nose, thick lips and a complexion like a dried lemon. The man stared at her for a moment, then shrugged and turned away. Elizabeth glanced around mechanically, without interest. She had seen immediately that it was the place shown in the photograph and that Sax was not there.

A Negro appeared from somewhere and sat down at the piano. Two couples stood up and began to dance. The bartender returned with thick china cups, hideously chipped and minus saucers, extorted a shilling, and vanished again behind the bar.

"Is he the proprietor?" Elizabeth asked.

Frank nodded.

"Then he'd probably remember about Sax being here with the photographer. Ask him."

"All right. Stay here and don't get into mischief."

He stood up and walked over to the bar. Elizabeth looked doubtfully at her cup and wondered if the coffee were doped. If so, it had been a pretty clumsy job, for the stuff certainly tasted nothing like coffee. Frank seemed to be taking a long time, and some of the customers were looking at her in a way she didn't like. She was relieved when he came back.

"He remembers all right, but he swears he's never seen him since." Frank was still laughing. "Well, I ask you! If old Sax really did have a fancy bit in these parts, which I doubt, do you think he'd bring her dancing down here?"

Elizabeth shook her head imperceptibly. Sax and a Chinese girl, and a baby. . . In her heart of hearts, she didn't believe it either. She knew that Helen would say anything to make trouble; she'd always had her eye on Sax. Yet a fantastic story like that... surely it couldn't have been made up. Elizabeth no longer knew what to think, but the mere suspicion of Sax being mixed up in some sordid affair in Limehouse was enough to make her feel ill. "It was silly to come," she whispered. "I think we'd better go home."

"Rot!" Frank said breezily. "Still one more shot in the locker. Here, look at this."

He spread out the magazine on the table between them, pointing to a passage in the text.

Fong Wah, who deals in strange delicacies, is a powerfully built man, with a large mole above his left eyebrow; he is apparently prosperous and much respected by his neighbours, but in more ways than one something of a mystery. He is a person of considerable culture. On the matter which had really brought me to him, however, he proved no more helpful than the others. Any reference to the whereabouts of Mr. King was enough to make him change the subject. It is infuriating- because I am sure he knows....

"That's the old bird to go after!" Frank grinned boyishly.

"That's where Sax would go- if anywhere. Fong Wah's!"

"But we don't know where he lives!"

"Maybe I do. I've been thinking." Frank stood up, ramming the folded magazine down into his overcoat pocket. "Could be the place my purser buys China tea for his missus. It's a chance, anyway. Come on! "

The taximan, a taciturn stoic with a walrus moustache, drove on without comment. Now, turning back from the river, maritime Limehouse was left behind and the narrow streets were those of a foreign city. Lights from a profusion of tiny shops, most of them still open, shone on signboards lettered in vertical Chinese script. Strange, high-pitched voices and a flash of discordant music, patches of shadow out of which Oriental faces peered curiously at the intruders....

Fong Wah's, though it proved not difficult to find, appeared at first sight to be closed. But lights within suggested life. The door swung inwards to a sound of distant tinkling, a smell of joss sticks, stale fish and cinnamon. The counter and the shelves were piled with tins, packages and jars. Aromatic and unidentifiable things dangled from the low ceiling.

"Chinese oysters, bamboo shoots, sharks' fins and water chestnuts. .. ." According to Sax, this mean little establishment was crammed with half the things dear to a Chinese palate. "Lily roots and edible seaweed; eggs buried for twenty years or more and preserved in a coating of earth; birds' nests...."

But before Elizabeth could remember more, the bead curtain behind the counter parted to reveal a figure straight out of fantasy. Garbed in the high-collared sheath of a Chinese dress, she looked less a human being than a dainty work of art in porcelain.

"Is this Fong Wah's?" Frank demanded.

The girl nodded.

"Then we'd like a word with him, if you don't mind."

She nodded again and disappeared through the curtain. Frank turned towards Elizabeth with a grin on his face that made her want to slap him- because she knew he was thinking what she was thinking. For an instant she glared at him; then the swish of the beads switched her gaze back to the curtained opening. There, beside the Chinese girl, stood a slim young man in a lounge suit, a man with lean, ascetic features, dark eyebrows and strangely compelling eyes.

"My God! Sax!"

Elizabeth clutched vaguely at Frank's arm and held on hard till the room stopped spinning.

"Hallo, darling!" Sax said quietly. His face showed surprise, but neither embarrassment nor any consciousness that he had done anything unusual. "What's this, Frank? Have you taken on personally conducted tours of Chinatown?"

The girl, who appeared to be about sixteen, spoke suddenly in a soft, bell-like voice. "You are welcome to the house of Fong Wah. My husband begs you to take tea with him."

Still dizzy with bewilderment, Elizabeth found herself piloted through the curtain and into a stuffy little room, curiously furnished, with a black lacquered shrine in one corner. Wisps of perfumed smoke wreathed up before the tranquil face of a brass Buddha. Near it, like a second image, a man in a loose silk robe and padded slippers sat upright in a high, square-shaped armchair of intricately inlaid wood, reminiscent of a throne. On the wall behind hung a peculiarly curved sword in a shagreen scabbard.

"My wife and my friend, Frank Wyatt," Sax said briefly. "They've come to look for me."

Fong Wah rose impressively from his throne and bowed twice. Tall for a Chinese, and curiously dignified, he looked nothing like a shopkeeper and old enough to be the girl's grandfather. His face was a mush of fine lines, like a map of Asia. With his own hands, he placed chairs for them, adding cushions. Elizabeth sat down gingerly, glancing nervously over her shoulder. In the dark interior of a narrow cupboard without a door, a long-bodied creature like an outsize weasel sat watching her with wicked, beady eyes. She stifled a scream.

"Mongoose!" Sax said, smiling. "Keeps the rats down. Won't hurt you, if you don't touch him."

Their host spoke rapidly to the Chinese girl in their own language. She said, "Ho-a!" and went out.

"Suzee will bring tea for us," Fong Wah explained. His eyes suddenly met Elizabeth's, and a smile touched the corners of his lips. "She is my fourth wife."

All at once, the atmosphere seemed to have become that of a Chinese fairy tale. Suzee reappeared, carrying a tray set out with tiny, eggshell-thin cups of pale, fragrant tea and a freshly sliced orange. When they were all served, she knelt on the floor beside her husband, looking up at him with what seemed to be genuine affection.

Fong Wah inclined his head gravely towards Elizabeth, at the same time indicating Sax with a courtly gesture of his left hand. "My honored friend has brought comfort into the life of an old man far from his own country. For he listens with respect to my tales of China- as China used to be. I was not always a merchant."

And, as he talked on, in his queerly poetic way, Elizabeth studied the shrewd, all-seeing eyes and felt her doubts fading away. No man would easily deceive Fong Wah, and no man but a fool would try. Under the spell of his voice, hurt and anger slipped from her mind and time passed unnoticed till, suddenly, she was recalled to the present by the distant blare of a taxi horn. The frozen driver's stoicism had finally given way.

She stood up quickly. Then, while Sax lingered, taking formal leave of their host, she felt miniature fingers close upon her own- confidentially, like those of a child about to impart a secret- and looked round to find the Chinese girl beside her. "Before you go," Suzee whispered, "come and see the baby."

Elizabeth started. Baby? The girl looked little more than a baby herself. Still hopelessly bewildered, she allowed herself to be led into an adjoining room with an ornate sort of cot in one corner. Suzee went to it, beckoning her to follow. Looking down, Elizabeth saw a tiny face, like that of an ivory doll- all the rest hidden under the quilted mass of a scarlet eiderdown. He was sleeping.

"We are so proud of him," Suzee murmured. "Fong Wah has had three wives and seven daughters. But Huan is his only son." She stooped to arrange the eiderdown. "He is as beautiful as a flower. But now he is too pale, for he has not been very well." She stood up. "I took him to the doctor's this afternoon," she said, casually. "And, on the way home, I met your husband coming to visit us. We walked back together."

So, simply enough, the mystery ceased to be a mystery. But, throughout the long drive homewards, Sax remained curiously silent. Hands clasped on knees, he sat forward in his seat, his regard seemingly fixed on some distant point in another dimension. From Fong Wah's to Royal Mint Street he had spoken scarcely a dozen words.

Elizabeth, accustomed to his silences, began to feel apprehensive. Now that her own anger had evaporated, she was wondering if he might be angry with her. Even the irrepressible Frank seemed subdued. Finally, the suspense became unbearable.

"Shouldn't I have followed you?" she burst out, impulsively. "Have I upset something?"

Sax turned his face slowly towards her, passing a hand over his forehead like a man rousing himself with difficulty from some unusually vivid dream.

"No, no- it's not that. Last night, now- well, last night might have been a different story, but . . ."

He broke off, evidently aware that he was not making very good sense and seeming for a moment to arrange his thoughts by a conscious effort of will.

"Tonight was just a social call," he said quietly. "But necessary. Not to have made it would have been the grossest of discourtesies." He hesitated, then spoke again, quickly. "I owe Fong Wah more than I may yet realize myself, more than any of us may realize."

Frank looked across at him, astonished. "Owe? To Fong Wah? What?"

"His confidence." Suddenly, the speaker's voice rose to a note of exultation. "After all these months, he made up his mind to trust me, to give me the chance I needed. And so, thanks to old Fong Wah, at last- I've seen him!"

"Seen whom?" Elizabeth asked, puzzled. Then, as memory returned and comprehension dawned, she gasped. "My God! You mean- Mr. King?"

For a long moment, Sax did not answer. Again he seemed to be staring fixedly into space. And then, when he spoke, his reply was unexpected.

"I have seen . . . Dr. Fu Manchu."

Elizabeth and Frank stared at each other blankly. Neither of them had ever heard that name before.

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