THE establishment of Yeh Ling was just between the desert of Reed Street and the sown of that great and glittering thoroughfare which is theatreland. The desert graduated down from the respectable, if gloomy, houses where innumerable milliners, modistes, and dentists had their signs before the doors and their workrooms and clinics on divers landings, to the howling wilderness of Bennet Street, and in this particular case the description often applied so lightly is aptly and faithfully affixed, for Bennet Street howled by day and howled in a shriller key by night. Its roadway was a playground for the progeny of this prolific neighbourhood, and a "ring" in which all manner of local blood-feuds were settled by waist-bare men, whilst their slatternly women squealed their encouragement or vocalized their apprehensions.
Yeh Ling's restaurant had begun at the respectable end of the street and he had specialized in strange Chinese dishes.
Later it had crept nearer and nearer and nearer to The Lights, one house after another having been acquired by the unhappy-looking Oriental, its founder.
Then, with a rush, it arrived on the main street, acquired a rich but sedate facia, a French chef, and a staff of Italian waiters under the popular Signor Maciduino, most urbane of maitres d'hotel, and because of gilded and visible tiles, became "The Golden Roof." Beneath those tiles it was a place of rosewood panelling and soft shaded lights. There was a gilded elevator to carry you to the first and second floors where the private dining-rooms were—these had doors of plate-glass, curtained diaphanously. Yeh Ling thought that this was carrying respectability a little too far, but his patron was adamant on the matter.
Certain rooms had no plate-glass doors, but these were very discreetly apportioned. One such was never under any circumstances hired to diners, however important or impeccable they might be. It was the end room, No. 6, near the service doorway which led through a labyrinth of crooked and cross passages to the old building in Reed Street. This remained almost unchanged as it had been in the days of Yeh Ling's earlier struggles. Men and women came here for Chinese dishes and were supplied by soft-footed waiters from Han-Kow, which was Yeh Ling's native province.
The patrons of the old establishment lamented the arrival of Yeh Ling's prosperity and sneered at his well-dressed customers. The well-dressed customers being, for the most part, entirely ignorant that their humble neighbours had existence, ate their expensive meals unmoved and at certain hours danced sedately to the strains of The Old Original South Carolina Syncopated Orchestra, which Yeh Ling had hired regardless of expense.
He only visited the fashionable part of his property on one day of the year, the Chinese New Year, a queer little figure in a swallow-tailed coat, white-vested, white-gloved, and tightly, as well as whitely, collared.
At other times he sat at ease midway between the desert and the sown in a pokey little parlour hung about with vivid pictures which he had cut from the covers of magazines. Here, in a black silk robe, he pulled at his long-stemmed pipe. At half-past seven every night, except Sundays, he went to a door which opened on to the street, and was the door of one of those houses which linked the two restaurants, and here he would wait, his hand upon the knob. Sometimes the girl came first, sometimes the old man. Whichever it was, they usually passed in without a word and went up to Room No. 6. With their arrival Yeh Ling went back to his parlour to smoke and write letters of great length and beauty to his son at Han-Kow, for Yeh Ling's son was a man of great learning and position, being both a poet and a scholar. He had been admitted a member of the Forest of Pencils, which is at least the equivalent of being elected an Academician.
Sometimes Yeh Ling would devote himself to the matter of his new building at Shanford and dream dreams of an Excellency who would be its honoured master—for all things are possible in a land which makes education a test of choice for Ambassadorial appointments.
He never saw the two guests depart. They found their way to the door alone, and soon after eight the room was empty, No waiter served them; their meals were placed in readiness on a small buffet, and as No. 6 was veiled from the observations of the curious by a curtain which stretched across the passage, only Yeh Ling knew them.
On the first Monday of every month, Yeh Ling went up to the room and kow-towed to its solitary occupant. The old man was always alone on these occasions. On such a Monday with a large lacquered cash-box in his hand and a fat book under his arm, Yeh Ling entered the presence of the man in No. 6, put down his impedimenta on the buffet, and did his reverence.
"Sit down," said Jesse Trasmere, and he spoke in the sibilant dialect of the lower provinces. Yeh Ling obeyed, hiding his hands respectfully in the full sleeves of his gown.
"The profits this week have fallen, excellency," said Yeh Ling, but without apology. "The weather has been very fine and many of our clients are out of town."
He exposed his hands to open the cash-box and bring out four packages of paper money. These he divided into two, three of the packages to the right and one to the left. The old man took the three packages, which were nearest to him, and grunted.
"The police came last night and asked to be shown over the houses," Yeh Ling went on impassively. "They desired to see the cellars, because they think always that Chinamen have smoke-places in their cellars."
"Humph!" said Mr. Trasmere. He was thumbing the money in his hand. "This is good, Yeh Ling."
He slipped the money into a black bag which was on the floor at his feet. Yeh Ling shook his head, thereby indicating his agreement.
"Do you remember in Fi Sang a man who worked for me?"
The old man agreed to the appellation.
"He is coming to this country," said Mr. Trasmere, chewing on a tooth-pick. He was a hard-faced man between sixty and seventy. A rusty black frock-coat ill fitted his spare form, his old-fashioned collar was frayed at the edge, and the black shoe-string tie that encircled his lean throat had been so long in use that it had lost whatever rigidity it had ever possessed, and hung limp in two tangled bunches on either side of the knot. His eyes were a hard granite blue, his face ridged and scaled with callosities until it was lizard-like in its coarseness.
"Yes, he is coming to this country. He will come here as soon as he finds his way about town, and that will be mighty soon, for Wellington Brown is a traveller! Yeh Ling, this man is troublesome. I should be happy if he were sleeping on the Terraces of the Night."
Again Yeh Ling shook his head.
"He cannot be killed—here," he said. "The illustrious knows that my hands are clean—"
"Are you a man—or—wild-mind?" snarled the other. "Do I kill men or ask that they should be killed? Even on the Amur, where life is cheap, I have done no more than put a man to the torture because he stole my gold. No, this Drinker must be made quiet. He smokes the pipe of the Pleasant Experience. You have no pipe-room. I would not tolerate such a thing. But you know places… "
"I know a hundred and a hundred," said Yeh Ling, cheerfully for him.
He accompanied his master to the door, and when it had closed upon him he returned swiftly to his parlour and summoned a stunted man of his race.
"Go after the old man and see that no harm comes to him," he said.
It seemed from his tone almost as though this guardianship was novel, but in exactly the same words the shuffling Chinaman had received identical instructions every day for six years when the thud of the closing street-door came to Yeh Ling's keen ears. Every day except Sunday.
He himself never went out after Jesse Trasmere. He had other duties, which commenced at eleven and usually kept him busy until the early hours of the morning.