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Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

The Russian Quarter

Thomas Burke

  • Thomas Burke, a young newspaper man in London, came into quick recognition with his first book, Nights in Town (published in America as Nights in London) in 1915. His first really popular success, however, was Limehouse Nights, less satisfactory to those who had read the first book, as it was largely a repetition of the same material in fiction form. (In fact, Mr. Burke holds what must be almost a record among authors by having worked over nearly the identical substance in four different versions—as essays and sketches, in Nights in Town; as short stories, in Limehouse Nights; as a novel, in Twinkletoes; as poetry, in The Song Book of Quong Lee of Limehouse.)
  • Mr. Burke has specialized on London, and with great ability. In the Limehouse series his colorings seem just a little too consciously vivid, his roguishness a little too studied, to be quite satisfying. The Outer Circle, a volume of rambles in the London suburbs, is to me more truly a work of art.

  • I HAD known the quarter for many years before it interested me. It was not until I was prowling around on a Fleet Street assignment that I learned to hate it. A murder had been committed over a café in Lupin Street; a popular murder, fruity, cleverly done, and with a sex interest. Of course every newspaper and agency developed a virtuous anxiety to track the culprit, and all resources were directed to that end. Journalism is perhaps the only profession in which so fine a public spirit may be found. So it was that the North Country paper of which I was a hanger-on flung every available man into the fighting line, and the editor told me that I might, in place of the casual paragraphs for the London Letter, do something good on the Vassiloff murder.

    It was a night of cold rain, and the pavements were dashed with smears of light from the shop windows. Through the streaming streets my hansom leaped; and as I looked from the window, and noted the despondent biliousness of Bethanal Green, I realized that the grass withereth, the flower fadeth.

    I dismissed the cab at Brick Lane, and, continuing the tradition which had been instilled into me by my predecessor on the London Letter, I turned into one of the hostelries and had a vodka to keep the cold out. Little Russia was shutting up. The old shawled women, who sit at every corner with huge baskets of black bread and sweet cakes, were departing beneath umbrellas. The stalls of Osborn Street, usually dressed with foreign-looking confectionery, were also retiring. Indeed, everybody seemed to be slinking away, and as I sipped my vodka, and felt it burn me with raw fire, I cursed news editors and all publics which desired to read about murders. I was perfectly sure that I shouldn’t do the least good; so I had another, and gazed through the kaleidoscopic window, rushing with rain, at the cheerful world that held me.

    Oh, so sad it is, this quarter! By day the streets are a depression, with their frowzy doss-houses and their vapo-baths. Gray and sickly is the light. Gray and sickly, too, are the leering shops, and gray and sickly are the people and the children. Everything has followed the grass and the flowers. Childhood has no place; so above the roofs you may see the surly points of a Council School. Such games as happen are played but listlessly, and each little face is smirched. The gaunt warehouses hardly support their lopping heads, and the low, beetling, gabled houses of the alleys seem for ever to brood on nights of bitter adventure. Fit objects for contempt by day they may be, but when night creeps upon London, the hideous darkness that can almost be touched, then their faces become very powers of terror, and the cautious soul, wandered from the comfort of the main streets, walks and walks in a frenzy, seeking outlet and finding none. Sometimes a hoarse laugh will break sharp on his ear. Then he runs.

    Well, I finished my second, and then sauntered out. As I was passing a cruel-looking passage, a girl stepped forward. She looked at me. I looked at her. She had the haunting melancholy of Russia in her face, but her voice was as the voice of Cockaigne. For she spoke and said:—

    “Funny-looking little guy, ain’t you?”

    I suppose I was. So I smiled and said: “We are as God made us, old girl.”

    She giggled.…

    I said I felt sure I should do no good on the Vassiloff murder. I didn’t. For just then two of her friends came out of the court, each with a boy. It was apparent that she had no boy. I had no idea what the occasion might be, but the other four marched ahead, crying, “Come on!” And, surprised, yet knowing of no good reason for being surprised, I felt the girl’s arm slip into mine, and we joined the main column.…

    That is one of London’s greatest charms: it is always ready to toss you little encounters of this sort, if you are out for them.

    Across the road we went, through mire and puddle, and down a long, winding court. At about midway our friends disappeared, and, suddenly drawn to the right, I was pushed from behind up a steep, fusty stair. Then I knew where we were going. We were going to the tenements where most of the Russians meet of an evening. The atmosphere in these places is a little more cheerful than that of the café—if you can imagine a Russian ever rising to cheerfulness. Most of the girls lodge over the milliners’ shops, and thither their friends resort. Every establishment here has a piano, for music, with them, is a somber passion rather than a diversion. You will not hear comic opera, but if you want to climb the lost heights of melody, stand in Bell Yard, and listen to a piano, lost in the high glooms, wailing the heart of Chopin, or Rubinstein or Glazounoff through the fingers of pale, moist girls, while the ghost of Peter the Painter parades the naphtha’d highways.

    At the top of the stair I was pushed into a dark, fusty room, and guided to a low, fusty sofa or bed. Then some one struck a match, and a lamp was lit and set on the mantelshelf. It flung a soft, caressing radiance on its shabby home, and on its mistress, and on the other girls and boys. The boys were tough youngsters of the district, evidently very much at home, smoking Russian cigarettes and settling themselves on the bed in a manner that seemed curiously continental in Cockney toughs. I doubt if you would have loved the girls at that moment; and yet … you know … their black or brassy hair, their untidiness, and the cotton blouses half-dropped from their tumultuous breasts.…

    The girl who had collared me disappeared for a moment, and then brought a tray of Russian tea. “Help ’selves, boys!” We did so, and, watching the others, I discovered that it was the correct thing to lemon the ladies’ tea for them and stir it well and light their cigarettes. I did so for Katarina—that was her name—while she watched me with little truant locks of hair running everywhere, and a slow, alluring smile that seemed to hold all the agony and mystery of the steppes.

    The room, on which the wallpaper hung in dank strips, contained a full-sized bed and a chair bedstead, a washstand, a samovar, a potpourri of a carpet, and certain mysteries of feminine toilet. A rickety three-legged table stood by the window, and Katarina’s robes hung in a dainty riot of frill and color behind the door, which only shut when you thrust a peg of wood through a wired catch.

    One of the boys sprawled himself, in clumsy luxury, on the bed, and his girl arranged herself at his side, and when she was settled her hair tumbled in a shower of hairpins, and everybody laughed like children. The other girl went to the piano, and her boy squattted on the floor at her feet.

    She began to play.… You would not understand, I suppose, the intellectual emotion of the situation. It is more than curious to sit in these rooms, in the filthiest spot in London, and listen to Moszkowsky, Tchaikowsky, and Sibelius, played by a factory girl. It is … something indefinable. I had visited similar places in Stepney before, but then I had not had a couple of vodkas, and I had not been taken in tow by an unknown girl. They play and play, while tea and cigarettes, and sometimes vodka or whisky, go round; and as the room gets warmer. So does one’s sense of smell get sharper; so do the pale faces get moister; and so does one lone more and more for a breath of cold air from the Ural Mountains. The best you can do is to ascend to the flat roof, and take a deep breath of Spitalifields ozone. Then back to the room for more tea and more music.

    Sanya played.… Despite the unventilated room, the greasy appointments, and other details that would have turned the stomach of Kensington, that girl at the piano, her dress cunningly disarranged, playing, as no one would have dreamed she could play, the finer intensities of Wieniawski and Moussorgsky, shook all sense of responsibility from me. The burdens of life vanished. News editors and their assignments be damned. Enjoy yourself, was what the cold, insidious music said. Take your moments when the fates send them; that was life’s best lesson. Snatch the joy of the fleeting moment. Why ponder on time and tears?

    Devilish little fingers they were, Sanya’s. Her technique was not perhaps all that it might have been; she might not have won the Gold Medal of our whiteshirted academies, but she had enough temperament to make half a dozen Bechstein Hall virtuosi. From valse to nocturne, from sonata to prelude, her fancy ran. With crashing chords she dropped from “L’Automne Bacchanale” to the Nocturne in E flat; scarcely murmured of that, then tripped elvishly into Moszkowsky’s Waltz, and from that she dropped to a song of Tchaikowsky, almost heartbreaking in its childish beauty, and then to the lecherous music of the second act of “Tristan.” Mazurka, polonaise, and nocturne wailed in the stuffy chamber; her little hands lit up the enchanted gloom of the place with bright thrills, until the bed and the dingy surroundings faded into phantoms and left only two startled souls in colloquy: Katarina’s and mine.

    Katarina had settled, I forget how, on the sofa, and was reclining very comfortably with her head on my shoulder and both arms about me. We did not talk. No questions passed as to why we had picked one another up. There we were, warmed with vodka and tea, at eleven o’clock at night, five stories above the clamorous world, while her friend shook the silly souls out of us. With the shy boldness of my native country, I stretched a hand and inclosed her fingers. She smiled; a curious smile that no other girl in London could have given; not a flushed smile, or a startled smile, or a satisfied smile, or a coy smile; but a smile of companionship, which seemed to have realized the tragedy of our living. So it was that she had, by slow stages, reached her comfortable position, for as my hand wandered from finger to wrist, from wrist to soft, rounded arm, and so inclosed her neck, she slipped and buried me in an avalanche of flaming, scented tresses.

    Sanya at the piano shot a glance over her shoulder, a very sad-gay glance; she laughed, curiously, I almost said foreignly. I felt somehow as though I had been taken complete possession of by these people. I hardly belonged to myself. Fleet Street was but a street of dream. I seemed now to be awake and in an adorable captivity.

    With a final volley of chords, the pianist slid from the chair, and sat by her boy on the carpet, smoothing his face with tobacco-stained fingers, and languishing while her thick, over-ripe lips took his kisses as a baby bird takes food from its mother.

    We talked—all of us—in jerks and snatches. Then the oil in the lamp began to give out, and the room grew dim. Some one said: “Play something!” And some one said: “Too tired!” The girl reclining on the bed grew snappy. She did not lean for caresses. She seemed morose, preoccupied, almost impatient. Twice she snapped up her boy on a casual remark. I believe I talked vodka’d nonsense.…

    But suddenly there came a whisper of soft feet on the landing, and a secret tap at the door. Some one opened it, and slipped out. One heard the lazy hum of voices in busy conversation. Then silence; and some one entered the room and shut the door. One of the boys asked, casually, “What’s up?” His question was not answered, but the girl who had gone to the door snapped something in a sharp tone which might have been either Russian or Yiddish. Katarina loosened herself from me, and sat up. The girl on the bed sat up. The three of them spat angry phrases about, I called over to one of the boys: “What’s the joke? Anything Wrong?” and received a reply: “Ownshdiknow? I ain’t a ruddy Russian, am I?”

    Katarina suddenly drew back her flaming face. “Here,” she said, “you better go.”


    “Yes—fathead! Go’s what I said.”

    “But—” I began, looking and feeling like a flabbergasted cat.

    “Don’t I speak plain? Go!”

    I suppose a man never feels a finer idiot than when a woman tells him she doesn’t want him. If he ever does, it is when a woman tells him that she loves him. Katarina had given me the bullet, and, of course, I felt a fool; but I derived some consolation from the fact that the other boys were being told off. Clearly, big things were in the air, about to happen. Something, evidently, had already happened. I wondered.… Then I sat down on the sofa, and flatly told Katarina that I was not going unless I had a reason.

    “Oh,” she said, blithely, “ain’t you? This is my room, ain’t it? I brought you here, and you stay here just as long as I choose, and no longer. Who d’you think you are, saying you won’t go? This is my room. I let you come here for a drink, and you just got to go when I say. See?”

    I was about to make a second stand, when again there came a stealthy tap at the door, and the whispering of slippered feet. Sanya glided to the door, opened it, and disappeared. In a moment she came back, and called, “’Rina!” Katarina slipped from my embrace, went to the door, and disappeared too. One girl and three boys remained—in silence.

    Next moment Katarina reappeared, and said something to Sanya. Sanya pulled her boy by the arm, and went out. The other girl pushed her boy at the neck and literally threw him out. Katarina came over to me, and said: “Go, little fool!”

    I said: “Shan’t unless I know what the game is.”

    She stood over me; glared; searched for words to meet the occasion; found none. She gestured. I sat as rigid as an immobile comedian. Finally, she flung her arms, and swept away. At the door she turned; “Blasted little fool! He’ll do us both in if y’ain’t careful. You don’t know him. Both of us he’ll have. Serveyeh right.”

    She disappeared. I was alone. I heard the sup-sup of her slippered feet down the stair.

    I got up, and moved to the door. I heard nothing. I stood by the window, my thoughts dancing a ragtime. I wondered what to do, and how, and whether. I wondered what was up exactly. I wondered … well, I just wondered. My thoughts got into a tangle, sank, and swam, and sank again. Then there was a sudden struggle and spurt from the lamp, and it went black out. From a room across the landing a clock ticked menacingly. I saw, by the thin light from the window, the smoke of a discarded cigarette curling up and up to the ceiling like a snake.

    I went again to the door, peered down the steep stair and over the crazy balustrade. Nobody was about; no voices. I slipped swiftly down the five flights, met nobody. I stood in the slobbered vestibule. From afar I heard the sluck of the waters against the staples of the wharves, and the wicked hoot of the tugs.

    It was then that a sudden nameless fear seized me; it was that simple terror that comes from nothing but ourselves. I am not usually afraid of any man or thing. I am normally nervous, and there are three or four things that have power to terrify me. But I am not, I think, afraid. At that moment, however, I was afraid of everything: of the room I had left, of the house, of the people, of the inviting lights of the warehouses and the threatening shoals of the alleys.

    I stood a moment longer. Then I raced into Brick Lane, and out into the brilliance of Commercial Street.