Of all carnal delights that over which opium rules as the presiding genius is most shrouded in mystery. It is invested with a weird and fantastic interest (for which its Oriental origin is doubtless in some degree accountable), and there hovers about it a vague fascination, such as is felt towards ghostly legend and the lore of fairy land. There exists a strange yearning to make more intimate acquaintance with the miraculous drug concerning which there is so much whispering, and at the same time a superstitions dread of approaching it, such as, when it comes to the pinch, possesses the rustic believer in the efficacy of repeating a prayer backwards as a means of raising the devil. It is the vulgar supposition that the one occupation of the lives of eastern grandees is to recline on soft cushions and indulge in the charming narcotic; that the thousand and one seductive stories contained in the ‘Arabian Nights’ were composed by writers whose senses were steeped in it, and that our Poet Laureate and his brethren constantly draw inspiration from it, either through a pipe-stem or by means of mastication. Furthermore, it is largely believed that any man might become a poet, or at least a writer of flowing and flowery prose, if he only possessed courage sufficient to avail himself of this convenient picklock of the gates of paradise.
And who shall tell of the multitude of youthful aspirants for poetic fame who have daringly grasped the magic key and essayed to apply it? Also, and alas! who shall make known to an unkind world the many who have bungled over the gentle burglary, who have failed at the gate, and come away with no more delightful sensation than that which might arise through butting their unlucky heads against the bars of it? That is the most tantalising part of the business. Opium may be procured - any chemist will sell you an ounce of it for eighteen pence - but possessed of it and not of the secret of its use, the novice is no better off than he would be if he set up as a painter on the strength of a colour-box and a few brushes. It is this secret that constitutes the rarity of the luxury. To be enjoyed, the opium must be prepared by a competent hand. There are few such in London, few, that is, who are willing to receive pupils and give lessons. How limited their number is determined by the fact that when an ‘opium master’ is discovered, even though his den is situate in, without exception, the most vile and villainous part of the metropolis, he is regarded as a person worth visiting by lords and dukes •~‘ and even princes and kings. The writer hereof, taking it for granted that a sight that could draw earls and princes to Bluegate Fields could, not be otherwise than highly curious and interesting, ventured a journey thither recently.
Only such of the public as are accustomed to read the police news in the daily papers can form any idea as to the kind of place Bluegate Fields is. Commonly it is known as ‘Tiger Bay’; on account of the number of ferocious she creatures in petticoats that lurk and lair there. It is a narrow lane opening on to High Street, Shadwell, at one end, and St. George’s Street at the other. To the left and right of the narrow lane are many villainous courts and alleys, consisting of one-story high hovels, each one accommodating as many lodgers as might reasonably occupy an eight-roomed house. The inhabitants of Bluegate Fields are the worst in England, consisting of man-trappers for the shipping lying in the river just below, and the tigresses before mentioned, who inveigle tipsy sailors from the many surrounding abominable dens ‘licensed for dancing and music,’ and drug them and strip and rob and ill use them, and pickpockets and coiners and robbers of every degree. The mere blacking of an eye or extraction of human hair by the violent process of dragging it from the head is not regarded in the light of an assault in Bluegate Fields but rather as a pleasant pastime to beguile the lazy hours of daylight. Judging from the reports of the Thames Police Court, nothing of less importance than the biting off of a nose or an ear, or the fracture of a skull with a poker, calls for the interference of the police. It is a fact that while I was inquiring at a public-house for the address of Chi Ki, the Chinaman, I overheard two women at the bar discussing a murderous assault that had happened in the ‘Fields’ that morning. ‘What I say is,’ remarked the elder woman of the two, who was a fat woman with a horribly dirty face and a blue seam across her nose that was curiously suggestive of the rim of a pewter pot, ‘what I say is, if I wants it, punch me. Punch me in the face and black my eyes, or punch me about the head. Kick me if you like; I don’t so much mind that; but when it comes to pokers and shovels, it’s a little too hot.’
I was lucky in calling at the public-house where the two women were, since on inquiry I discovered that it was to this place that Chi Ki had directed all letters from his numerous friends. I was glad to find that the barmaid spoke of the opium master in a very respectful manner, calling him Mr. Chi Ki. She happened to know, moreover, that the distinguished Chinaman was from home; so I left with her a message for him to the effect that if it accorded with Mr. Chi Ki’s convenience, a gentleman would be glad to meet him on business at that hostelry at six o’clock the following evening.
He was punctual. Precisely as the clock marked six he put his head in at the door. ‘Mr. Chi Ki, here’s your gentleman,’ called out the obliging barmaid, and the Chinaman’s body followed his head, and he came towards me bowing low and rubbing his hands. I must confess that I was disappointed at Chi Ki’s appearance. Being so celebrated a character, with lords and marquises for his patrons and customers, I expected to see a man able and willing to demonstrate in his attire his native ideas of splendour. It would not have surprised me if so exalted a personage as an opium master had appeared dressed in gown of gold-embroidered crimson silk, and with a sash and curly-toed slippers; but poor Chi Ki was very poorly clad indeed. He is a man of ostlerish cut, wearing a long jacket and a comforter wisped round his neck, and tight trousers, and an old cloth cap on his head. He is lame of a leg, too, as many ostlers are. In a few words I explained my business, and without betraying the least astonishment at its nature he expressed his readiness to conduct me to his house there and then.
We went a little way into Bluegate Fields and then turned into the arched way of an alley, a trifle higher, may be, but not nearly so wide as an ordinary coal-cellar doorway. It was as dark as any coal-cellar. ‘Come along, sir,’ said Chi Ki encouragingly, in his pigeon English. ‘It is down at the bottom and turn round the corner; come along.’
We arrived at the bottom, and came on a tiny square of ill-looking little houses and an appalling odour of bad drainage, and Chi Ki guided me to a house in a corner as his. It was no larger than the rest and scarcely as good looking, on account of its many fractured window-panes and the rough-and-ready measures that had been resorted to to block out the wind. Pushing open the outer door, Chi Ki called at the foot of the stairs for a light. While we waited for it I peeped into the parlour, which was dark except for a little blinking fire in an iron skillet, crouching over which was a Chinaman, looking the picture of despair, with his knees supporting his arms and his head resting on his hands, and his pigtail slewed to the fore and projecting over his forehead as a unicorn wears his horn. I observed, too, that there was in the room a large bedstead, with a bed made the wrong way on it
It was an English voice that responded to Chi Ki’s demand for a light; and presently a youngish woman, very thin and pale-looking, and scarcely as tidy as she might have been, made her appearance above with a tallow candle in her hand, and politely invited me to walk up. We walked up, and at once came in full view of the renowned opium master’s public smoking-room, which served likewise for his private sitting-room and his private bedroom, and, judging from the handle of a saucepan and a suspicion of dirty plates under the bed, for his kitchen as well.
It was an extremely mean and miserable little room. The fireplace was very narrow, and the stove of the ancient narrow-waisted pattern. There was no fender. In the centre of the room was a small round table, and there were three wooden chairs. The chief and most conspicuous article of furniture the room contained was a large four-post bedstead, and a bed like the one downstairs. The bed was not arranged according to the English fashion. It was rolled up bolster-wise all along the length of the bedstead, leaving the mattress bare except for a large mat of Chinese grass. The bed-hangings were of some light Chinese gauze, but very dirty, and hitched up slatternly on the hanging-rails. The walls of the room were hung with a few tawdry pictures highly coloured, and contrasting grimly with the blackened walls, all stained above with rain-leakage, and below with the filthy saliva with which the smokers had besprinkled them. The ceiling was as black as the walls, and just over the window there had been an extensive fall of plaster, showing the laths, like grinning teeth in an ugly mouth.
There was a customer waiting, which at once gave Chi Ki an opportunity for displaying the mysteries of his craft. The preparations for enjoying the luxury of opium smoking were curious enough. Chi Ki’s first move was to spread a piece of cloth on the mat that covered the mattress. Then he brought out a small common oil lamp and lit it and placed it in the centre of the piece of cloth. Next he produced a small box containing his smoking tools, and finally a little gallipot and an instrument like a flute, with a wooden cup with a lid to it screwed on at a distance of about three inches from the end. It was not a flute, however, but a pipe, - the pipe. As the customer caught sight of the odd-looking implement (he was quite a young man and more respectable - looking than Chi Ki himself) he licked his lips, and his eyes glistened like those of the domestic feline creature when it hears the welcome cry that announces its dinner. I asked permission to examine the pipe. It was simply an eighteen - inch length of yellow bamboo with the cup of dark-coloured baked clay before mentioned fitted into a sort of spiggot hole near the end. Had I been asked to appraise its value, I could not conscientiously have gone beyond fourpence.
‘He’s been offered five pound for that pipe,’ remarked English Mrs. Chi Ki, who appeared to be almost as proud of it as was her husband. ‘A gentleman offered him five pound for it last autumn.’
‘Why didn’t he sell it, and buy another ?‘ was my natural question; but at this old Chi Ki chuckled, and hugging the pipe chafed its bowl tenderly with his jacket cuff.
‘It’s worth ten pounds,’ said his wife; ‘it has had nothing but the best opium smoked in it these fourteen years.’
And she then went on further to enumerate the many excellences of the pipe; from which I gathered that its value was not after all so fanciful as at first appeared: since half a given quantity of opium would yield more satisfaction when smoked in a ripe, well-saturated old pipe than the whole quantity in a comparatively new one.
Chi Ki, having made all necessary preparations, got up on to the mattress on the bed, and, reclining at his ease, proceeded to load the pipe for his customer. I was curious to see how this was managed. The stuff in the gallipot looked exactly like thin treacle, and smelt like burnt sugar and laudanum. Decidedly it seemed queer stuff to load a pipe with. But it had yet to be cooked - grilled. Taking an iron bodkin from his little tool-chest, Chi Ki dipped the tip of it into the semi-liquid stuff, and withdrawing a little drop of it, held it in the flame of the lamp until it hardened somewhat. Keeping this still on the point of the bodkin, he dipped it again into the gallipot and again held it in the lamp flame, and repeated the process until a piece of the size of a large pea was accumulated and properly toasted. This was placed in the pipe-bowl, and the hungry customer sprang up on to the bed to enjoy it.
It was lit at the little lamp, and then the young Chinaman reclining at his ease, laid his head comfortably on the dirty counterpane that covered the rolled-up bed, and took the pipe-stem in his mouth. There is no mouthpiece to the pipe; the stem is cut sheer off, leaving something as thick as an office ruler to suck at. And suck the Chinaman did. He took the bamboo fairly into his mouth, and there was at once emitted from the pipe a gurgling sound— the spirits of ten thousand previously smoked pipe-loads stirred to life. As the smoker heard the delicious sound, the lids of his elongated eyes quivered in ecstasy, and he sucked harder, swallowing all the black smoke except just so little as he was bound to waste in the process of breathing. He was as economical as could be, however, and expelled but the merest thread of the precious smoke through his nostrils and none by means of his mouth. If his sensations induced by the indulgence were heavenly, his countenance grossly belied them. Gradually, as he sucked and swallowed, the veins of his forehead thickened, his cheeks flushed, and his half-closed eyes gleamed like those of a satisfied pig. Still he sucked, and the nostril wreaths came quicker and finer, and he grew more and more like an enraptured hog:
when suddenly the gurgling in the throat of the pipe-stein terminated in ‘a brief rattle, and, all was over. While the opium in the pipe was waning to extremity, Chi Ki had busied himself in the manufacture of a little cigarette composed of paper and common tobacco, and as the pipe-stem dropped from the mouth of the young Chinaman, Chi Ki promptly handed him the cigarette, which he proceeded to light and consume, with a languid relish edifying to behold. I inquired why this was, but beyond the assertion that it was always done, Chi Ki had no explanation to offer.
‘Was the lingering flavour of opium in the mouth objectionable?’ I asked.
‘No, indeed,’ replied Chi Ki, with a grin; ‘oh, no, no; it’s always done; I don’t know why, not in the least, but they will have the cigar afterwards.’
I can’t help thinking, however, that this taking tobacco after opium must be something more than a meaningless ‘custom.’ Perhaps an abrupt and sudden descent from paradise to earth would be too much for a Chinaman’s nerves, and so he applies himself to the milder narcotic by way of a gentle letting down.
What chiefly surprised me was the short time it took to consume the charging of a pipe. Prom the time of the young Chinaman’s taking the stem in his mouth till the opium was exhausted, not more than a minute and a half was occupied. In five minutes the cigarette was smoked and the customer took his departure. He paid no money, so I suppose he went ‘tick’ with Chi Ki; but as far as I could make out, his treat would cost about three halfpence. Evidently opium smoking is a more expensive enjoyment than dram drinking. Chi Ki showed me his ‘measures.’ They were three little ivory cups, the smallest the size of a lady’s thimble. For this full of the treacle-like opium, four-pence was charged; the next-sized cup was sixpence, and the largest a shilling. This, it seemed, included the loan of Chi Ki’s pipe as well as of the bed to lie on and the cigarette for after smoking, and the trouble of frizzling and preparing the drug.
Chi Ki keeps open house for opium smokers, and his chief customers are the sailors who arrive at the London ports. Sometimes, I was informed, trade was so slack that not more than two or three customers would apply all day long; while at other times it was as much as Chi Ki could do, distilling and frizzling and frying, to keep the smokers going. The opium has to be put through a peculiar process before it is reduced to the semi-liquid state. It has to be cooked. Chi Ki was good enough to crawl under the bedstead and produce therefrom, for my inspection, his implements of cookery, and to explain their use. I should hardly advise an amateur to essay opium brewing on the strength of my directions; but it seemed to me that the opium of the druggist is shredded into little slices, which are laid on a piece of stout coarse canvas, which is suspended in a small iron pot partly filled with water. In the process of boiling the essence of the opium drains through the canvas and forms a sediment at the bottom of the pot, leaving on the canvas the refuse, looking not unlike tea-leaves.
The cookery was performed at the miserable little fireplace before mentioned. Poor English Mrs. Chi Ki looks as though she is being gradually smoke-dried, and by and by will present the appearance of an Egyptian mummy.
‘I can stand a good deal of it,’ said she, ‘but sometimes it’s awful. Sometimes two or three ships come in at once, and then we have a houseful. Upstairs as well as down. We’ve had as many as fourteen smoking in this room at one time, and them that couldn’t find room on the bed lay all about the floor. There are only two pipes, one for the parlour, and one for the best room, - this room. It is hot work I assure you when we are busy. As soon as one has smoked out, another is ready to snatch at it; and it is in lighting the opium that the smoke is wasted so. They are awful hungry after it sometimes when they’ve gone a long while without and got their pay. They’ll smoke as much as a shilling’s worth out in half an hour, and there they’ll lay like logs. It don’t often make me ill; it makes me silly. I am ill sometimes, though. I was ill a-bed when the Prince of Wales and the other gentlemen came up here to see the smokers. There were only three or four of them, and they were friends like. I was sorry that the place was in such a muddle; but the Prince didn’t seem to mind.’
‘Yas,’ observed Chi Ki, suddenly lighting up; ‘the Prince, he say, “Come smokee pipe wi’ me, and bring you’ lady, whens conwenince.”
‘Ah, yes; but I don’t believe he meant it,’ said Mrs. Chi Ki, dubiously.
But the lame old Chinaman grinned and winked to himself knowingly; so that I should not be in the least surprised if, one of these fine days, the porter at Marlborough House is startled by a Celestial apparition.