Secret of the Bazaars
Through the crowded bazaars of Bombay streamed the usual mixed crowd; a medley of people from all over India. Parsees in smart European clothes, topped with their peculiar shiny black hats; Hindus in fine muslin loin cloths, European jackets and shoes; tall, bearded Mohammedans; coolies, and half-castes; British soldiers and civilians; people of all nations visiting India — a strange mixed-pickle of nationalities and types, all moving through the welter of traffic.
All were busy with their normal affairs, haggling at the native stalls, taking the colourful scene, so typical of the mysterious East, as a matter of course. But beneath their feet in that corner of the bazaars was activity of quite a different kind, mysterious, sinister, and deadly.
Beneath the Null Bazaar — great mart of stolen goods, where a citizen can buy back what was stolen from his house the previous night — was an enormous underground room. At one end of this great chamber stood a furnace, its vivid glare striking on the half-naked brown bodies of the men who tended it. Like machines they scuttled about in the blazing heat.
Along one wall of the room stretched a work bench, at which other men worked with feverish energy, the sweat glistening on their dusky bodies. Against the opposite wall was another bench, fitted as a chemical laboratory, with retorts and jars and all the paraphernalia of the chemist.
One man worked alone at this bench, but though his face was concealed, his white skin betrayed him as a European. Together with every man in the room, he wore a gas mask, and the thick lenses over the eyes reflected strangely the glow of the furnace and the glitter of glass and metal as the men hurried about their strange business below the busy streets of Bombay.
Over the whole room hung a slight haze. That haze meant death, but it was not only because the gas issuing from where the chemist worked was more deadly than any used in war that these underground workers covered their faces. They welcomed the need for the masks because no man wanted his fellow-toilers to recognise him if they met in the street. Theirs was secret work, of a nature that would not bear exposure to the light of day. They dealt in death, for they were cogs in an evil scheme.
Although they worked together for hours at a stretch, no man knew his neighbour, nor had any been seen without a mask; but all were known to the Sahib, the power for evil who ruled this sinister place.
All the activity, however, was not confined to the neighbourhood of the furnace and the chemist's bench. At the far end of the room from the fire stood a cashier's desk — a pay-desk with brass grille, such as is seen in many restaurants — and there sat another hooded man. At either side of him stood large bins, which were collected from time to time by the workers at the furnace and emptied into the glowing melting-pot.
At varying intervals furtive figures, each stripped to the waist and hooded with a gas mask, came through a door by the desk. Each was challenged by a gigantic doorkeeper, who covered each shuffling newcomer with a silenced pistol.
"What business have you here?" demanded the guard.
"I am a dreamer of dreams," was the reply, "with dreams to sell!"
Each man produced packages from the pockets of his trousers or the voluminous folds of his loincloth, making a peculiar gesture with them; and the sharp eyes of the guard noted that about each wrist was a red silk thread.
"Dreams await the dreamer!"
With these words the guard passed each man on to the cashier's desk, where the packages were opened and the contents tipped on to a waiting tray. Gold glittered in the light, and the cashier sorted each offering with appraising eye. He weighed coins, ornaments, and jewellery, tested doubtful pieces with acid, and made an entry in the book before him. Then he paid out.
To some he gave rupee-notes, but the majority accepted payment in the form of small packages wrapped in tissue paper, at which they snatched eagerly. A marked change came over them then; they hurried out through the asbestos-lined door, almost running where before they had shuffled wearily.
They were ignored by the workers, who bustled like goblins around the furnace and the bench, hurrying hither and thither, emptying the bins, melting down the gold and moulding the finished product, while the chemist prepared his precipitates and his assistants at another bench took the dried powder and placed it in containers.
In the long room, with its glistening cement walls and floor, only the guard and the sellers spoke, for each worker knew his particular task and needed no instructions. Besides, each feared that his voice might betray his identity. Who could say that brother was not working beside brother, without either knowing, so secret was this organisation?
Only the Sahib knew, and he sat alone in an ante-room beyond the asbestos-lined door. He also wore a gas mask, despite the fact that the gas did not reach him, and the upper part of his body was covered with a long-sleeved, high-necked, black silk garment that left exposed no scrap of skin. The hood attached to his gas mask concealed his head completely, and gloves covered his hands; there was nothing to show if he was European or Indian.
To him came the furtive, shrinking carriers with their gold to sell, before they passed through into the workroom. They came slowly and furtively from behind a thick curtain that covered another doorway, and they trembled while the eyes of the Sahib studied them through the tinted lenses of his gas mask. The sellers were unmasked when they appeared before the Sahib.
The conversation with each applicant was cryptical.
"Good-morning, have you slept well?" asked the Sahib quietly, regardless of the time of day or night.
"I wish to be a dreamer of dreams," came the reply.
"Put out the light!" said the Sahib sharply, pointing to the switch that lay on the desk; but the applicant's reply was to show the packages he carried.
"I give you dreams. Help yourself," decided the Sahib; and this time he indicated an open box of small white tablets, but it was a reel of thread beside the box that the trembling man eagerly snatched. He broke off a short length of the silk thread and placed it before the Sahib; then held out both hands, palms uppermost.
With the speed of long practice the masked man twisted the red silk about each wrist.
"Put out the light," he repeated; and again the applicant ignored the switch, hurrying instead to a side table and donning one of the many gas masks that lay there waiting. He stripped off his upper clothing and dropped it into a box, then, with his gold concealed again, crossed to the door leading to the workroom. Without another word he opened the door and passed through to meet the guard, unaware that the sahib had signalled his approach by pressing a bell-push on the side of the desk.
When each man returned, his business with the cashier completed, he stripped off his mask and donned his clothing. Then he broke the red thread and dropped it into a basket by the silent Sahib. Then, wordless, the seller passed beyond the curtain, and so, by a secret route, up into the bustle of the bazaar above.
So great was the trade of these clandestine workers in gold that one seller had scarcely completed his deal and gone, before another, anxiously waiting at street level, received the signal to come down and face the Sahib. One by one they passed the tests and hastened on with their gold, and only the Sahib knew them for what they were — proud Pathans from North India — shrinking men of the "sweeper" caste, with the trinkets in gold they had managed to steal around the houses where they worked; half-castes with furtive eyes, even an occasional Britisher — thieves all of them, bringing their ill-gotten gains to where they could obtain the highest price.
They were bound together in crime, cogs in a ruthless machine, but although they frequently rubbed shoulders in the crowded bazaars on their way to and from the place of mystery, not one realised that the other was engaged on the same mission, so cunning was the Sahib's organisation.
Up in the street was the All-India Letter-Writing Service, a dingy shop which opened on to the narrow welter of traffic where Kalbadevi Road merges into Dhobi Talao. Ostensibly this was a business that sold typewriters and other writing materials, but behind the shop were a number of rooms where, as the flamboyant advertisements stated — "The best typists await to inscribe your correspondence with great rapidity in any language."
All day the typewriters clattered behind the closed doors of these rooms at the back of the shop, and voices could faintly be heard dictating in various languages; but what actually happened behind those doors would have interested the police. There were trapdoors in the floors, and steps that led down to where the Sahib waited, and through the All-India Letter-Writing Service passed a continual stream of gold to where the furnace and the chemist worked day and night.
Why? What was the motive behind the unending toil under the bazaar? Why had this clever, ruthless organisation come into being?
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