The City of Dreadful Night

by Rudyard Kipling


Deeper and Deeper Still

I built myself a lordly pleasure-house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, ‘0 Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well.’

The Palace of Art.


‘AND where next? I don’t like Colootollah.’ The Police and their charge are standing in the interminable waste of houses under the starlight. ‘To the lowest sink of all, but you wouldn’t know if you were told.’ They lead till they come to the last circle of the Inferno—a long, quiet, winding road. ‘There you are; you can see for yourself.’

But there is nothing to be seen. On one side are houses—gaunt and dark, naked and devoid of furniture; on the other, low, mean stalls, lighted, and with shamelessly open doors, where women stand and mutter and whisper one to another. There is a hush here, or at least the busy silence of an office or counting-house in working hours. One look down the street is sufficient. Lead on, gentlemen of the Calcutta Police. We do not love the lines of open doors, the flaring lamps within, the glimpses of the tawdry toilet-tables adorned with little plaster dogs, glass balls from Christmas-trees, and—for religion must not be despised though women be fallen—pictures of the saints and statuettes of the Virgin. The street is a long one, and other streets, full of the same pitiful wares, branch off from it.

‘Why are they so quiet? Why don’t they make a row and sing and shout, and so on?’ ‘Why should they, poor devils?’ say the Police, and fall to telling tales of horror, of women decoyed and shot into this trap. Then other tales that shatter one’s belief in all things and folk of good repute. ‘How can you Police have faith in humanity?’

‘That’s because you’re seeing it all in a lump for the first time, and it’s not nice that way. Makes a man jump rather, doesn’t it? But, recollect, you’ve asked for the worst places, and you can’t complain.’ ‘Who’s complaining? Bring on your atrocities. Isn’t that a European woman at that door?’ ‘Yes. Mrs. D——, widow of a soldier, mother of seven children.’ ‘Nine, if you please, and good evening to you,’ shrills Mrs. D——, leaning against the door-post, her arms folded on her bosom. She is a rather pretty, slightly made Eurasian, and whatever shame she may have owned she has long since cast behind her. A shapeless Burmo-native trot, with high cheek-bones and mouth like a shark, calls Mrs. D—— ‘Mem-Sahib.’ The word jars, unspeakably. Her life is a matter between herself and her Maker, but in that she—the widow of a soldier of the Queen—has stooped to this common foulness in the face of the city, she has offended against the White race. ‘You’re from up-country, and of course you don’t understand. There are any amount of that lot in the city,’ say the Police. Then the secret of the insolence of Calcutta is made plain. Small wonder the natives fail to respect the Sahib, seeing what they see and knowing what they know. In the good old days, the Honourable the Directors deported him or her who misbehaved grossly, and the white man preserved his face. He may have been a ruffian, but he was a ruffian on a large scale. He did not sink in the presence of the people. The natives are quite right to take the wall of the Sahib who has been at great pains to prove that he is of the same flesh and blood.

All this time Mrs. D—— stands on the threshold of her room and looks upon the men with unabashed eyes. Mrs. D—— is a lady with a story. She is not averse to telling it. ‘What was—ahem—the case in which you were—er—hmn—concerned, Mrs. D——?’ ‘They said I’d poisoned my husband by putting something into his drinking water.’ This is interesting. ‘And—ah—did you?’ ‘’Twasn’t proved,’ says Mrs. D—— with a laugh, a pleasant, lady-like laugh that does infinite credit to her education and upbringing. Worthy Mrs. D——! It would pay a novelist—a French one let us say—to pick you out of the stews and make you talk.

The Police move forward, into a region, of Mrs. D——’s. Everywhere are the empty houses, and the babbling women in print gowns. The clocks in the city are close upon midnight, but the Police show no signs of stopping. They plunge hither and thither, like wreckers into the surf; and each plunge brings up a sample of misery, filth and woe.

A woman—Eurasian—rises to a sitting position on a cot and blinks sleepily at the Police. Then she throws herself down with a grunt. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ‘I live in Markiss Lane and’—this with intense gravity —‘I’m so drunk.’ She has a rather striking gipsy-like face, but her language might be improved.

‘Come along,’ say the Police, ‘we’ll head back to Bentinck Street, and put you on the road to the Great Eastern.’ They walk long and steadily, and the talk falls on gambling hells. ‘You ought to see our men rush one of ’em. When we’ve marked a hell down, we post men at the entrances and carry it. Sometimes the Chinese bite, but as a rule they fight fair. It’s a pity we hadn’t a hell to show you. Let’s go in here—there may be something forward.’ ‘Here’ appears to be in the heart of a Chinese quarter, for the pigtails—do they ever go to bed?—are scuttling about the streets. ‘Never go into a Chinese place alone,’ say the Police, and swing open a postern gate in a strong, green door. Two Chinamen appear.

‘What are we going to see?’ ‘Japanese gir—— No, we aren’t, by Jove! Catch that Chinaman, quick.’ The pigtail is trying to double back across a courtyard into an inner chamber; but a large hand on his shoulder spins him round and puts him in rear of the line of advancing Englishmen, who are, be it observed, making a fair amount of noise with their boots. A second door is thrown open, and the visitors advance into a large, square room blazing with gas. Here thirteen pigtails, deaf and blind to the outer world, are bending over a table. The captured Chinaman dodges uneasily in the rear of the. procession. Five-ten-fifteen seconds pass, the Englishmen standing in the full light less than three paces from the absorbed gang who see nothing. Then the burly Superintendent brings his hand down on his thigh with a crack like a pistol-shot and shouts: ‘How do, John?’ Follows a frantic rush of scared Celestials, almost tumbling over each other in their anxiety to get ,clear. One pigtail scoops up a pile of copper money, another a chinaware soup-bowl, and only a little mound of accusing cowries remains on the white matting that covers the table. In less than half a minute two facts are forcibly brought home to the visitor. First, that a pigtail is largely composed of silk, and rasps the palm of the hand as it slides through; and secondly, that the forearm of a Chinaman is surprisingly muscular and well-developed. ‘What’s going to be done?’ ‘Nothing. There are only three of us, and all the ringleaders would get away. We’ve got ’em safe any time we want to catch ’em, if this little visit doesn’t make ’em shift their quarters. Hi! John. No pidgin to-night. Show how you makee play. That fat youngster there is our informer.’

Half the pigtails have fled into the darkness, but the remainder assured and trebly assured that the Police really mean ‘no pidgin,’ return to the table and stand round while the croupier manipulates the cowries, the little curved slip of bamboo, and the soup-bowl. They never gamble, these innocents. They only come to look on, and smoke opium in the next room. Yet as the game progresses their eyes light up, and one by one put their money on odd or even—the number of the cowries that are covered and left uncovered by the little soupbowl. Mythan is the name of the amusement, and, whatever may be its demerits, it is clean. The Police look on while their charge plays and loots a parchment-skinned horror—one of Swift’s Struldbrugs, strayed from Laputa—of the enormous sum of two annas. The return of this wealth, doubled, sets the loser beating his forehead against the table from sheer gratitude.

‘Most immoral game this. A man might drop five whole rupees, if he began playing at sun-down and kept it up all night. Don’t you ever play whist occasionally?’

‘Now, we didn’t bring you round to make fun of this department. A man can lose as much as ever he likes and he can fight as well, and if he loses all his money he steals to get more. A Chinaman is insane about gambling, and half his crime comes from it. It must be kept down. Here we are in Bentinck Street and you can be driven to the Great Eastern in a few minutes. Joss-houses? Oh yes. If you want more horrors, Superintendent Lamb will take you round with him to-morrow afternoon at five. Good night.’

The Police depart, and in a few minutes the silent respectability of Old Council House Street, with the grim Free Kirk at the end of it, is reached. All good Calcutta has gone to bed, the last tram has passed, and the peace of the night is upon the world. Would it be wise and rational to climb the spire of that Kirk, and shout: ‘O true believers! Decency is a fraud and a sham. There is nothing clean or pure or wholesome under the Stars, and we are all going to perdition together. Amen!’ On second thoughts it would not; for the spire is slippery, the night is hot, and the Police have been specially careful to warn their charge that he must not be carried away by the sight of horrors that cannot be written or hinted at.

‘Good morning,’ says the Policeman tramping the pavement in front of the Great Eastern, and he nods his head pleasantly to show that; he is the representative of Law and Peace and that the city of Calcutta is safe from itself at the present.