III. SHADOWS OF NIGHT.

There are certain clubs in the city where a man may purchase nightly oblivion for the modest sum of two or three annas; and hither come regularly, like homing pigeons at nightfall, the human flotsam and jetsam, which the tide of urban life now tosses into sight for a brief moment and now submerges within her bosom. Halt in that squalid lane which looks out upon the traffic of one of the most crowded thoroughfares and listen, if you will, for some sign of life in the dark, ungarnished house which towers above you. All is hushed in silence; no voice, no cry from within reaches the ear; the chal must be tenanted only by the shadows. Not so! At the far end of a passage, into which the sullage water drips, forming ill-smelling pools, a greasy curtain is suddenly lifted for a minute, disclosing several flickering lights girt about with what in the distance appear to be amorphous blocks of wood or washerman's bundles. Grope your way down the passage, push aside the curtain with your stick - it is far too foul to touch with the hand - and the mystery is made plain. The room with its tightly-closed shutters and smoke-blackened walls is filled with recumbent men, in various stages of deshabille, all sunk in the sleep which the bamboo-pipe and the little black pellets of opium ensure. The room is not a large one, for the habitual smoker prefers a small apartment, in which the fumes of the drug hang about easily; and its reeking walls are unadorned save with a chromo plan of the chief buildings at Mecca, a crude portrait of a Hindu goddess, and oleographs of British royalty. It were all the same if these were absent; for the opium-smoker comes not hither to see pictures, save those which the drugged brain fashions, and cares not for distinctions of race, creed or sovereignty. The proprietor of the club may be a Musalman; his patrons may be Hindus, Christians or Chinese; and the dreams which riot across the semi-consciousness of the latter are not concerned as a rule with heroes of either the spiritual or temporal kind.

 

The smokers lie all over the room in groups of four or five, each of whom is provided with a little wooden head-rest and lies curled up like a tired dog with his face towards the lamp in the centre of the group. In his hand is the bamboo-stemmed pipe, the bowl of which reminds one of the cheap china ink-bottles used in native offices, and close by lies the long thin needle which from time to time he dips in the saucer of opium-juice and holds in the flame until the juice frizzles into a tiny pellet fit for insertion in the bowl of the pipe. The room is heavy with vapour that clutches at the throat, for every cranny and interstice is covered with fragments of old sacking defying the passage of the night air. As you turn towards the door, a fat Mughal rises slowly from the ground and makes obeisance, saying that he is the proprietor. "Your club seems to pay, shet-ji! Is it always as well patronised as it is this evening?" "Aye, always," comes the sleepy answer, "for my opium is good, the daily subscription but small; and there be many whom trouble and sorrow have taught the road to peace. They come hither daily about sundown and dream till day-break, and again set forth upon their day's work. But they return, they always return until Sonapur claims them. They are of all kinds, my customers. There, mark you, is a Sikh embroiderer from Lahore; here is a Mahomedan fitter from the railway work-shops; this one keeps a tea shop in the Nall Bazaar, that one is a pedlar; and him you see smiling in his sleep, he is a seaman just arrived from a long voyage."

You hazard the question whether any of the customers ever die in this paradise of smoke-begotten dreams; and the answer comes: "Not often; for they that smoke opium are immune from plague and other sudden diseases. But the parrot which you see in the cage overhead was left to me by one who died just where the saheb now stands. He was a merchant of some status and used to travel to Singapore and South Africa before he came here. But once, after a longer journey than usual, he returned to find that his only son had died of the plague and that his wife had forgotten him for another. Therefore he cast aside his business and came hither in quest of forgetfulness. Here he daily smoked until his money was well-nigh spent, and then one night he died quietly, leaving me the parrot." You peer up through the fumes and discern one bright black eye fixed upon you half in anger, half in inquiry. The bird's plumage is soiled and smoke-darkened; but the eye is clear, wickedly clear, suggesting that its owner is the one creature in this languid atmosphere that never sleeps. What stories it could tell, if it could but speak-stories of sorrow, stories of evil, tales of the little kindnesses which the freemasonry of the opium-club teaches men to do unto one another. But, as if it shunned inquiry, it retreats to the back of its perch and drops a film over its eye, just as the smoke-film shutters in the consciousness of those over whom it mounts guard.