In which Lord Durnleigh tries to extricate himself from the opium den, and we meet Madam Wei.
When Lord Durnleigh awoke again, he was sadly certain that this was indeed cold, hard reality. Rather than the rather pleasant euphoria that was the reason for visiting Madam Wei’s and smoking opium in order to achieve the aforementioned euphoria, all he felt was a grittiness in his eyes, a painfully parched mouth and already the itch of desire for more smoke.
One of Madam Wei’s attentive staff was gently shaking him awake, anguished apology written across her face for having to do anything quite so crass and rude to an honoured guest.
As much as Madam Wei liked to charm and see to each of her guest’s needs with humble yet efficient service, Lord Durnleigh was very aware that that was just what it was: a service that was paid for, and that service ran dry when the payment ran its course. Madam Wei might act like a slightly flustered hostess, but he knew her for the shrewd and hard businesswoman she was.
Lord Durnleigh rose from his couch and allowed himself a slight stretch - anything more wouldn’t be seemly for a gentleman. Even
in an opium den in a less than salubrious area of London, standards had to be maintained. In lieu of a valet, he allowed the attendee to smooth out his jacket and adjust his cravat, and while she did so, he felt an unfamiliar lump that was quite spoiling the superb lines of his jacket. Investigating, he extracted the offending lump and stared at
The wad of fabric certainly did not originate from Lord Durnleigh’s bespoke-tailored wardrobe, and he was momentarily confused, and then the incident with the Asian man resurfaced in his memory. Recalling it in more detail, after momentarily thinking that he had either been most foolish or more under the influence of the smoke than he cared to admit, the words ‘treasure’, ‘fortune’ and ‘glory’ presented themselves to him for his further consideration. Naturally, the words ‘curse’ and ‘deadly’ were conveniently ignored as not applying to people such as himself.
Rather than spoil the cut of his jacket that did such a splendid job
of showing off his trim figure, Lord Durnleigh held the fabric in his gloved hand. Even now, without the grip of the smoke to alter his perceptions, he was reluctant to dismiss and dispose of the object, which was curious as generally Lord Durnleigh both dismissed and disposed of anything that was beneath his notice, which, considering the levels of his disdain for the majority of the world, rather narrowed down the list of things that he did approve of.
The Chinese girl did a admirable job of making Lord Durnleigh presentable once more. If it weren’t for the fact that Lord Durnleigh was male, privileged, British and living in a certain age, he might have considered that she did an excellent job. However, Lord Durnleigh was male, privileged and most definitely British, and in this time that also made him arrogant, chauvinistic, and more than a little racist, so he barely nodded his thanks to the now bowing girl before walking from the room.
While the opium den was far from being the height of Oriental interior design, Madam Wei did know her customers’ expectations and played up to them accordingly. Pleasingly exotic - yet to Madam Wei's eyes and vastly more educated tastes - vulgar, clumsy and
crude Chinese paintings graced the walls of the otherwise dingy hallway, which in Madam Wei’s view was the best place for them as here they could not offend her otherwise refined tastes any more than was necessary.
Lord Durnleigh entered the parlour, which was decorated in much the same manner to the untrained eye but was of much higher quality and taste to the connoisseur, as this was Madam Wei’s lair, and as such was the home to rare and expensive objects. Jade, coral and ivory carvings stood on intricate stands, the gaslight caressing their polished surfaces.
Pieces of calligraphic work of sublime quality that almost made Madam Wei weep to look at them hung at auspicious points, and incense so delicate and rare scented the air. The room was designed to be a delight to vision and scent, and calming to the spirit, and
was a stark contrast to the in comparison austere in rooms where her customers indulged themselves. For someone more perceptive, this would tell them one thing: that Madam Wei cared very much more for herself than her customers.
As usual, she was laying in wait for him. She was well aware of both Lord Durnleigh’s identity and station, despite him never revealing either to her personally. Madam Wei however, had her ways of finding out information that she desired. Due to this knowledge,
she was keen to keep Lord Durnleigh happy and content, not only for the revenue he provided - the one thing that Madam Wei truly cared about - but also for the connections and information that he was a potential source of.
Madam Wei, despite her considerable bulk, rose gracefully from behind her desk where to Lord Durnleigh’s eyes she was doing something arcane and mysterious with an abacus, and fluttered over to him. ‘Madam’ might be what she insisted all her customers call her (her employees called her something infinitely more respectful than the vulgar name she presented to the yang guizi), but despite her flowing and beautifully embroidered robe, she was clearly a very large man.
Her eyes were almost lost in the smooth globe of her face, compounded by the ingratiating smile she displayed on catching sight of Lord Durnleigh, and her long pigtail swung behind her. Surprising considering her size and bulk, her voice was high and fluting, further confusing and blurring the lines of her gender and identity.
Rumour among the den’s staff - conducted in hushed whispers where they were convinced that no-one could hear them (they were wrong in this) - speculated that Madam Wei was a eunuch from the Imperial household, banished from the Forbidden City for some undisclosed yet deliciously horrifying slight involving a priceless
relic from an early dynasty. Honour had demanded that she be exiled not only from the imperial sight, but from the Middle Kingdom entirely, which went some way to explaining her presence in this fog-bound city.
While Madam Wei went through her usual ritual of outrageously flattering Lord Durnleigh and ensuring that he knew just how much she valued his custom despite the lowly and unsatisfactory service that she and her staff provided, her keen eyes took in the fabric held in his hands. As intimately familiar as she was with silk and its many uses - which included some fascinatingly esoteric erotic uses; her duties as an imperial eunuch necessitating such intimate knowledge - it’s weave, quality and origin was not immediately apparent, which only made it infinitely more intriguing and valuable.
“What is that rag you holding, honoured sir?” asked Madam Wei, feigning both outrage and obsequiousness with consummate skill at the same time as maintaining her fake Chinese accent. Madame Wei could in fact speak English - as well as several other languages - better than their native speakers, but it never hurt to make people think that they were better than you.
“I hope you not pick up such a lowly thing at Madam Wei’s!” Disgust at such an undignified and aesthetically unappealing object seeped from every poorly-pronounced syllable.
“No, no. Do not trouble yourself over this… trifle.” reassured Lord Durnleigh, soothing Madam Wei’s considerably ruffled feathers, and despite a lingering fog in his brain and the beginning of the itch for more smoke under his skin, thinking very quickly. Just as Madam Wei greased the wheels of commerce with flattery to ensure that customers kept coming back (their growing addiction and lack of competition not withstanding), Lord Durnleigh had long ago recognised that placating her and playing Madam Wei’s game meant that a higher quality product was presented on subsequent visits. That Madam Wei was a Grand Master of a game that Lord Durnleigh had never heard of let alone played never entered into his head.
“It is but something I purchased for Mother.” lied Lord Durnleigh smoothly, his mother having died quite some time ago, “She adores such curiosities from the Orient.”
“Ahh, so,” sighed Madam Wei, laying it on especially thick. Had she been able to grow a moustache, she would have been twirling it in glee. Instead, she bowed slightly and held out both hands for the fabric.
“This unworthy person could help with gift for honoured Mother perhaps?” The smile she plastered on her face helped to hide the avaricious glitter in her eyes.
As a British gentleman and peer of the realm to boot, Lord Durnleigh automatically assumed that he was better than everyone else, but he did have to grudgingly admit that there might be some slight gaps in his education. Knowledge of fabric was one of them - wasn’t that what those tailor chappies were for? With an admirable show of nonchalance, he handed the material to Madam Wei.
Immediately she could feel that although of an unfamiliar make,
the silk was of superior quality. It’s weave was fine, and the piece was made heavy with additional embroidery.
With the respect an expert gives a thing of such obvious quality -
she was already cursing Lord Durnleigh in her head in colourful Mandarin over his rough treatment of such an object - she gently unfolded the silk. Lord Durnleigh, Madam Wei and her hovering attendant, despite themselves, all leaned in to see more clearly
what was now displayed on the fabric.
That it was a map was no longer in question. Lush green islands
lay on a turquoise sea, one island dominating the material. Lord Durnleigh could see immaculate roads, buildings and other objects he could not readily identify picked out in exquisitely small stitches. Really, the level of detail was quite astonishing, even to someone as uninterested in such things as Lord Durnleigh.
Madam Wei, while also taking in the beautiful colours - undimmed by rough treatment - and the depiction of the archipelago, was most taken by the text. Written in the same tiny stitches, there was lettering scattered all over the piece of fabric, tantalising her with snatches of understanding.
“Like Sanskrit, but not…” she murmured.
“What was that?” asked Lord Durnleigh politely. Cursing herself for her momentary lapse of her usual iron control, Madam Wei tore
her eyes from the map and addressed Lord Durnleigh. Despite her reluctance to give away information that might gain her profit in the future,
“The script, honoured one,” she said, gesturing with an elegantly manicured hand, “It bears some similarity to Sanskrit, which this pitiable servant has some knowledge of, but it is… different.”
Immediately dismissing this as trivial and not worthy of him
because he didn’t understand it, Lord Durnleigh asked a more obvious question,
“What island is it depicting? Where is it?” He had not forgotten that this was allegedly a map to fabulous treasure. Knowing where it was was the first step to acquiring said fabulous treasure.
Caught up in the wonder of examining what was very clearly an exceptionally beautiful piece of work, Madam Wei was unexpectedly honest.
“I do not know.” that admission worryied even her, as her knowledge was not inconsiderable on a surprisingly diverse number of topics. “Somewhere in Asia because of the writing, that much is clear,” her lapse into considerably more fluent English went unnoticed by her audience.
Both Lord Durnleigh and Madam Wei were broken from their reveries by a flurry of referential Chinese from the forgotten attendant.
"我大胆道歉 荣誉一 这不值得的仆人乞求你的宽恕 对于这样的不及时中断 但也有一些在下面"* and she made unmistakable gestures of turning the fabric over.
* "I abjectly apologise Honoured one, this unworthy servant begs your forgiveness for such an untimely interruption, but there is also something on the underside."
Seemingly under the thrall of the map, Madame Wei slowly and
with great care turned over the embroidered silk. Rather than
seeing the expected underside of the map - her rebuke to the
foolish attendant dying unuttered on her lips - they saw something else entirely.
Flashing brightly even under the subdued and gentle lighting of
the parlour, the figure on this side of the map was resplendently depicted in rich gold threads. What were obviously meant to be rubies and emeralds graced his brow, while yet more rubies and
a waterfall of pearls cascaded down his chest.
He sat crosslegged on a throne, looking calm and regal, yet otherworldly. A figure made of gold, surrounded by tiny figures bowing in supplication before him. While clearly human-like, human he was not. A long tail snaked out behind him and his large ears and muzzle, while handsomely rendered in gold silk was undeniably that of a monkey.
“孫悟空?”* she murmured, Lord Durnleigh momentarily forgotten.
Making a decision based on instinct just as much as material desire, she boldly said,
“I will buy this from you.” Usually anything she said was peppered with protestations of unworthiness and apologies for many an imagined slight on her honoured guest, so this bluntness was jarring.
The unexpected directness of the statement - not even a question - brought Lord Durnleigh out from his own contemplation of the golden figure rather abruptly.
Looking sharply at the ex imperial eunuch, he saw naked desire in her face, which of course had the immediate effect of ensuring that Lord Durnleigh would never surrender the map to her.
Gently pulling the embroidered silk towards him, Madam Wei reluctantly surrendering it rather than begin an unseemly and potentially damaging tug of war, Lord Durnleigh folded the map into a small square with slightly more reverence that he had previously shown the object.
“I’m afraid that is impossible Madam.” he said, regret colouring his voice. “I have promised Mother, and she is so looking forward to displaying it in her drawing room for the delight of her ladies.” Blatantly untrue of course, but honour forbade both he and Madam Wei from going against familial propriety. Despite this, Madam Wei tried again,
“I can offer…” she began, but - rather rudely - she was interrupted before she could even begin the bargaining process.
“My apologies Madam Wei. You understand how I am bound by my promises.” said Lord Durnleigh, with a small smile for his filial duty. “Mother would be so disappointed.”
Setting her face in a socially acceptable yet still disappointed smile, Madam Wei bowed and murmured acquiescing phrases to Lord Durneligh, all the while cursing her lack of subtlety. Still, she thought, brightening, while Lord Durnleigh had something she now wanted, she still had something that he wanted and would very soon urgently need, so the bargaining process was not at an end. While she derived great pleasure in the ownership of such beautiful objects, the acquisition of said objects gave her just as much pleasure. As she had often been told by the Dowager Empress whom she had most intimately served, the path to the Sevenfold Enclosure of Heavenly Pleasure was just as pleasing as the destination itself. It was all a game, and she did so enjoy playing.
Enduring the unsightly lump it created, Lord Durnleigh hid the
map away from Madam Wei’s gaze in his jacket. Making his usual observances to Madam Wei, with assurances that he would soon grace them again with his honoured presence, Lord Durnleigh made his escape from her lair, leaving a frustrated Madam Wei pouting over more than just her usual protestations over her unworthy self, service and establishment.
Making his way out of the lavish parlour into the considerably more humble hallway that was the entrance to the mundane world, he did not pause as he moved past another man sitting rather stiffly on one of the mismatched chairs lined up against the wall.
“Ah, Dewbury,” he said, addressing the man who had risen at Lord Durnleigh’s approach. “ We have a stop to make before heading back to the townhouse.”
“Very good, Sir.” replied the man, clearly in the employ of Lord Durnleigh.
Not pausing in his stride, or acknowledging that his man had been waiting for quite some time at his master’s pleasure in an opium den, Lord Durnleigh made his way to the front door, only stopping
to wait for Dewbury to open it for him.
A hansom cab was duly hailed - it not being the done thing to have his own liveried carriage waiting outside the opium den, uncomfortable questions and eyebrows would both be raised at
that - and the men settled themselves in, ignoring the usual forms
of etiquette and precedence in light that such things had to be ignored when visiting opium dens. As this was far from the first
time that such an arrangement had been made, both men had made their peace with the uncomfortably familiar close quarters
of the cab’s interior.
“To where shall I direct the cabby, my Lord?” asked Dewbury.
There was no small amount of anticipation and satisfaction in his voice when Lord Durnleigh replied,
“The British Museum, Dewbury. With all haste.”
The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea