The Lascar's Walking-Stick
THE big face of Limehouse Church clock stared through the window at us. It is rather a senseless face, because it is so full of cracks that you can find any hour in it you do not want, especially when in a hurry. But nobody with a life that had not wide areas of waste leisure in it would ever visit Hammond now, where he lives in a tenement building, in a room which overlooks the roofs and railway arches of Limehouse. Just outside his window the tower of the church is rather too large and too close.
Hammond has rooms in the tenement which are above the rest of the street. He surmounts many layers of dense humanity. The house is not the usual model dwelling. Once it knew better days. Once it was the residence of a shipowner, in the days when the London docks were full of clippers, and shipowners husbanded their own ships and liked to live near their work. The house has a broad and noble staircase, having a carved handrail as wide as a span; but much of the old and carved interior woodwork of the house is missing--firewood sometimes runs short there--and the rest is buried under years of paint and dirt.
Hammond never knows how many people share the house with him. "I've tried to find out, but the next day one of 'em has died and two more are born." It is such a hive that most of Hammond's friends gave up visiting him after discovering in what place he had secluded himself; but there he stays with his books and his camera, his pubs and his lightermen, Jews, Chinamen, sailors, and dock-labourers. Occasionally a missionary from the studios of Hampstead or Chelsea goes down to sort out Hammond from his surroundings, and to look him over for damage, when found.
"Did I ever tell you about Jabberjee?" Hammond asked me that afternoon.
No, he hadn't. Some of Hammond's work, which he had been showing me, was scattered over the floor, and he stepped among the litter and came and looked through the window with me. "A funny thing happened to me here," he said, "the other evening. A pal of mine died. The bills which advertise for the recovery of his body--you can see 'em in any pub about here--call him Joseph Cherry, commonly called Ginger. He was a lighterman, you know. There was a sing-song for the benefit of his wife and kids round at the George and Dragon, and I was going.
"On my way I stopped to look in at my favourite pawnshop. Do you know the country about here? Well, you have to mind your eye. You never know what will turn up. I never knew such a place. Not all of Limehouse gets into the Directory, not by a lot. It is bound on the east by China, on the north by Greenland, on the south by Cape Horn, and on the west by London Bridge.
"The main road near here is the foreshore of London. There's no doubt the sea beats on it--unless you are only a Chelsea chap, with your eyes bunged up with paint. All sorts of things drift along. All sorts of wreckage. It's like finding a cocoanut or a palm bole stranded in a Cornish cove. The stories I hear--one of you writer fellers ought to come and stay here, only I suppose you are too busy writing about things that really matter. You are like the bright youths in the art schools, drawing plaster casts till they don't know life when they see it.
"Well, about this pawnshop. It's a sort pocket--you know those places on the beach where a lot of flotsam strands--oceanic treasure-trove. I suppose the currents, for some reason sailors could explain, eddy round this pawnshop and leave things there. That pawnshop is the luckiest corner along our beach, and I stopped to turn over the sea litter.
"Of course, there was a lot of chronometers, and on top of a pile of 'em was a carved cocoanut. South Sea Islands, I suppose. Full of curious involuted lines-- a mist of lines--with a face peering through the mist, if you looked close enough. Rows of cheap watches hung on their chains, and there was a lot of second-hand meerschaum pipes, and a walrus tusk, carved about a little. What took my eye was an old Chinese bowl, because inside it was a little jade idol--a fearful little wretch, with mother-o'-pearl eyes. It would squat in your thoughts like a toad, that idol--eh, where does Jabberjee come in? Well, here he comes.
"I didn't know he was coming at all, you understand. I shouldn't have jumped more if the idol had winked at me.
"There stood Jabberjee. I didn't know that was his name, though. He was christened Jabberjee after the trouble, by a learned Limehouse schoolboy, who wore spectacles. Do I make myself clear?"
I murmured that I was a little dense, but time might carry out improvements. Hammond was talking on, though, without looking at me. "There the Lascar was. Lots of 'em about here, you know. He was the usual bundle of bones and blue cotton rags, and his gunny bags flapped on his stick legs like banners. He looked as uncertain as a candle-flame in a draught. Perhaps he was sixteen. I dunno. Maybe he was sixty. You can't tell these Johnnies. He had a shaven cranium, and his tight scalp might have been slipped over the bony bosses of his head with a shoe-horn.
"I don't know what he was saying. He cringed, and said something very quickly I thought he was speaking of something he had concealed on his person. Smuggled goods, likely. Tobacco.
"Looking over his shoulder, wishing he would go away, I saw a policeman in the dusk at the opposite corner, with his eye on us.
"Then I could see something was concealed under the Lascar's flimsies. He seemed trying to keep it quiet. He kept on talking, and I couldn't make out what he was driving at. I was looking at his clothes, wondering what the deuce he had concealed there. At last something came out of his rags. Talk about making you jump! It really did look like the head of a snake. It was, too, but attached to a walking-stick--sort of handle. A scaly head it was, in some shiny material. Its eyes were like a pair of rubies. They picked up the light somehow, and glittered.
"Now listen. I looked up then into the Lascar's face. I was surprised to find he was taller. Much taller. He put his face forward and down, so that I wanted to step back.
"He had an ugly look. He was smiling; the sweep was smiling, as though he knew he was a lot cleverer than I. Another thing. The place was suddenly quiet, and the houses and shops seemed to have fallen far back. The pavement was wider.
"There was something else, I noticed. The bobby had left the street corner, and was walking our way. The curious thing was, though, the more he walked the farther off he got, as though the road was being stretched under his feet.
"Mind you, I was still awake and critical. You know there is a substratum of your mind which is critical, when you are dreaming, standing looking on outside you, like a spectator.
"Then the stick touched my hand. I shouted. I must have yelled jolly loud, I think. I couldn't help it. That horrible thing seemed to wriggle in my fingers.
"It was the shout which brought the crowd. There was the policeman. I can't make out how he got there. 'Now, what's your little game?' he said. That brought the buildings up with a rush, and broke the road into the usual clatter.
"It was all quite simple. There was nothing in it then out of the ordinary. Just a usual Lascar, very frightened, waving a cheap cane with a handle like a snake's head. Then another policeman came up in a hurry, and pushed through the crowd. The crowd was on my side, maudlin and sympathetic. They knew all about it. The coolie had tried to stab me. An eager young lady in an apron asked a boy in front--he had just forced through--what was the matter. He knew all about it.
"'The Indian tried to bite the copper.'
"'Tried to bite him?'
"'Not 'arf he didn't.'
"The Hindoo was now nearly hysterical, and the kiddies were picking up his language fast. 'Now then, old Jabberjee,' said one nipper in spectacles. The crowd was laughing, and surging towards the police. I managed to edge out of it.
"'What's the trouble?' I asked a carman.
"'You see that P. and O. Johnny?' he said. 'Well, he knocked down that kid'--indicating the boy in spectacles--'and took tuppence from him.'
"I thought a lot about the whole thing on the way home," said Hammond. "I tell you the yarn for you to explain to the chaps who like to base their beliefs on the sure ground of what they can understand."