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HOME > Science Fiction > The City of Dreadful Night > CHAPTER VI.THE CITY OF DREADFUL NIGHT.
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 “And since they cannot spend or use aright The little time here given them in trust,
But it in weary undelight
Of foolish , and trouble, and lust—
They naturally claimeth to inherit
The Future—that their merit
May have full scope.... As surely is most just.”
—The City of Dreadful Night.
The difficulty is to prevent this account from growing unwholesome. But one cannot rake through a big city without encountering muck.
The Police kept their word. In five short minutes, as they had , their charge was lost as he had never been lost before. “Where are we now?” “Somewhere off the Chitpore Road, but you wouldn’t understand if you were told. Follow now, and step pretty much where we step—there’s a good deal of hereabouts.”
The thick, night shuts in everything. We have gone beyond the ancestral houses of the Ghoses of the Boses, beyond the lamps, the smells, and the crowd of Chitpore Road, and have come to a great of packed houses—just such mysterious, as Dickens would have loved. There is no breath of breeze here, and the air is perceptibly warmer. There is little in the drift, and the utmost in the spacing of what, for want of a better name, we must call the streets. If Calcutta keeps such luxuries as of and Paving, they die before they reach this place. The air is heavy with a faint, sour stench—the essence of long-neglected abominations—and it cannot escape from among the tall, three-storied houses. “This, my dear sir, is a respectable quarter as quarters go. That house at the head of the , with the elaborate stucco-work round the top of the door, was built long ago by a midwife. Great people used to live here once. Now it’s the—Aha! Look out for that carriage.” A big mail-phaeton crashes out of the darkness and, recklessly driven, disappears. The wonder is how it ever got into this of narrow streets, where nobody seems to be moving, and where the dull of the city’s life only comes faintly and by snatches. “Now it’s the what?” “St. John’s Wood of Calcutta—for the rich Babus. That ‘fitton’ belonged to one of them.” “Well it’s not much of a place to look at.” “Don’t judge by appearances. About here live the women who have beggared kings. We aren’t going to let you down into unadulterated all at once. You must see it first with the on—and mind that rotten board.”
Stand at the bottom of a lift and look upward. Then you will get both the size and the design of the tiny courtyard round which one of these big dark houses is built. The central square may be perhaps ten feet every way, but the balconies that run inside it overhang, and seem to cut away half the available space. To reach the square a man must go round many corners, down a covered-in way, and up and down two or three baffling and confused steps. There are no lamps to guide, and the of the establishment seem to be compelled to sleep in the passages. The central square, the or whatever it must be called, with the faint, sour smell which finds its way into every room. “Now you will understand,” say the Police , as their charge blunders, shin-first, into a well-dark staircase, “that these are not the sort of places
to visit alone.” “Who wants to? Of all the disgusting, dens—Holy Cupid, what’s this?”
A glare of light on the stair-head, a clink of innumerable bangles, a of much fine gauze, and the Dainty stands revealed, blazing—literally blazing—with from head to foot. Take one of the fairest miniatures that the Delhi painters draw, and multiply it by ten; throw in one of Angelica Kaufmann’s best portraits, and add anything that you can think of from Beckford to Lalla Rookh, and you will still fall short of the merits of that perfect face. For an instant, even the grim, professional gravity of the Police is relaxed in the presence of the Dainty Iniquity with the , who so invites every one to be seated, and such as she conceives the palates of the would prefer. Her Abigails are only one degree less gorgeous than she. Half a lakh, or fifty thousand pounds’ worth—it is easier to credit the latter statement than the former—are disposed upon her little body. Each hand carries five jewelled rings which are connected by golden chains to a great jewelled boss of gold in the centre of the back of the hand. Ear-rings weighted with emeralds and pearls, diamond nose-rings, and how many other hundred articles make up the list of adornments. English furniture of a gorgeous and gimcrack kind, chandeliers and a collection of atrocious prints—something, but not altogether, like the on boxes—are about the house, and on every landing—let us trust this is a mistake—lies, , or loafs a Bengali who can talk English with unholy . The suggests—only suggests, mind—a grim possibility of the affectation of excessive by day, tempered with the sort of unwholesome after dusk—this loafing and lobbying and and smoking, and, unless the bottles lie tippling among the -tongued handmaidens of the Dainty Iniquity. How many men follow this double, deleterious sort of life? The Police are dumb.
“Now don’t go talking about ‘domiciliary visits’ just because this one happens to be a pretty woman. We’ve got to know these creatures. They make the rich man and the poor spend their money; and when a man can’t get money for ’em honestly, he comes under our notice. Now do you see? If there was any domiciliary ‘visit’ about it, the whole houseful would be hidden past our finding as soon as we turned up in the courtyard. We’re friends—to a certain extent.” And, indeed, it seemed no difficult thing to be friends to any extent with the Dainty Iniquity who was so surpassingly different from all that experience taught of the beauty of the East. Here was the face from which a man could write Lalla Rookhs by the dozen, and believe every work that he wrote. Hers was the beauty that Byron sang of when he wrote—
“Remember, if you come here alone, the chances are that you’ll be clubbed, or stuck, or, anyhow, mobbed. You’ll understand that this part of the world is shut to Europeans—absolutely. Mind the steps, and follow on.” The vision dies out in the smells and gross darkness of the night, in evil, time-rotten brickwork, and another wilderness of shut-up houses, wherein it seems that people do continually and feebly strum stringed instruments of a and wailsome nature.
Follows, after another into a passage of a court-yard, and up a staircase, the of a Fat Vice, in whom is no sort of romance, nor beauty, but unlimited coarse humor. She too is studded with jewels, and her house is even finer than the house of the other, and more with the extraordinary men who speak such good English and are so to the Police. The Fat Vice has been a great leader of fashion in her day, and stripped a zemindar Raja to his last acre—insomuch that he ended in the House of Correction for a theft committed for her sake. Native opinion has it that she is a “monstrous well-preserved woman.” On this point, as on some others, the races will agree to differ.
The scene changes suddenly as a slide in a magic lantern. Dainty Iniquity and Fat Vice slide away on a roll of streets and , each more squalid than its . We are “somewhere at the back of the Machua Bazar,” well in the heart of the city. There are no houses here—nothing but acres and acres, it seems, of foul wattle-and-dab huts, any one of which would be a disgrace to a frontier village. The whole arrangement is a
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