THE RAGGED EDGE
BY HAROLD MACGRATH
AUTHOR OF DRUMS OF JEOPARDY, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTOPLAY PRODUCED BY DISTINCTIVE PICTURES CORPORATION
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
THE RAGGED EDGE
The Master is inordinately fond of young fools. That is why they are permitted to rush in where angels fear to tread—and survive their daring! This supreme protection, this unwritten warranty to disregard all laws, occult or apparent, divine or earthly, may be attributed to the fact that none but young fools dream gloriously. For such of us as pretend to be wise—and we are but fools in a lesser degree—we know that humanity moves onward only by the impellant of fine dreams. Sometimes these dreams are simple and tender; sometimes they are magnificent.
With what airs we human atoms invest ourselves! What ridiculous fancies of our importance! We believe we have destinies, when we have only destinations: that we are something immortal, when each of us is in truth only the repository of a dream. The dream flowers and is harvested, and we are left by the wayside, having served our singular purpose in the scheme of progress: as the orange is tossed aside when sucked of its ruddy juice.
We middle-aged fools and we old fools can no longer dream. We have only those phantoms called memories, which are the husks of dreams. Disillusion stands in one doorway of our house and Mockery in the other.
This is a tale of two young fools.
* * * * *
In the daytime the streets of the ancient city of Canton are yet filled with the original confusion—human beings in quest of food. There is turmoil, shouts, cries, jostlings, milling congestions that suddenly break and flow in opposite directions.
It was a gray day in the spring of 1910. A tourist caravan of four pole-chairs jogged along a narrow street. It had rained during the night, and the patch-work pavement was greasy with mud. From a bi-secting street came shouting and music. At a sign from Ah Cum, official custodian of the sightseers, the pole-chair coolies pressed toward the left and halted.
A wedding procession turned the corner. All the world over a wedding procession arouses laughter and derision in the bystanders. Even the children jeer. It may be instinctive; it may be that children vaguely realize that at the end of all wedding journeys is disillusion.
The girl in the forward chair raised herself a little, the better to see the gorgeous blue palanquin of the dimly visible bride.
"What a wonderful colour!" she exclaimed.
"Kingfisher feathers," said Ah Cum. "It is an ordinary wedding," he added; "some shopkeeper's daughter. Probably she was married years ago and is now merely on the way to her husband's house. The palanquin is hired and so is the procession. Quite ordinary."
The air in the narrow street, which was not eight feet wide, swarmed with smells impossible to define; but all at once the pleasantly pungent odour of Chinese incense drifted across the girl's face, and gratefully she quickened her inhalations.
In her ears there was a medley of sound: wailing music, rumbling tom-toms and sputtering firecrackers. She had never before heard the noise of firecrackers, and in the beginning the sputtering racket caused her to wince. Presently the odour of burnt powder mingled agreeably with that of the incense.
She was conscious of a ceaseless undercurrent of sound—the guttural Chinese tongue. She foraged about in her mind for some satisfying equivalent which would express in English this gurgling drone the Chinese called a language. At length she hit upon it: bubbling water. Her eyebrows, pulled down by the stress of thought, now resumed their normal arches; and pleased with her discovery, she smiled.
To Ah Cum, who was watching her covertly, the smile was like a bit of unexpected sunshine. What with these converging roofs that shut out all but a hand's breadth of the sky, sunshine was rare at this point. If it came at all, it was as fleeting as the girl's smile.
The wedding procession passed on, and the cynical rabble poured in behind. The pole-chair caravan resumed its journey.
The girl wished that she had come afoot, despite the knowledge that she would have suffered many inconveniences, accidental and intentional jostling, insolence and ribald jest. The Cantonese, excepting in the shops where he expects profit, always resents the intrusion of the fan-quei—foreign devil. The chair was torture. It hung from the centre of a stout pole, each end of which rested upon the calloused shoulder of a coolie; an ordinary Occidental chair with a foot-rest. The coolies proceeded at a swinging, mincing trot, which gave to the suspended seat a dancing action similar to that of a suddenly agitated hanging-spring of a birdcage. It was impossible to meet the motion bodily.
Her shoulders began to ache. Her head felt absurdly like one of those noddling manikins in the Hong-Kong curio-shops. Jiggle-joggle, jiggle-joggle...! For each pause she was grateful. Whenever Ah Cum (whose normal stride was sufficient to keep him at the side of her chair) pointed out something of interest, she had to strain the cords in her neck to focus her glance upon the object. Supposing the wire should break and her head tumble off her shoulders into the street? The whimsey caused another smile to ripple across her lips.
This amazing world she had set forth to discover! Yesterday at this time she had had no thought in her head about Canton. America, the land of rosy apples and snowstorms, beckoned, and she wanted to fly thitherward. Yet, here she was, in the ancient Chinese city, weaving in and out of the narrow streets some scarcely wide enough for two men to walk abreast, streets that boiled and eddied with yellow human beings, who worshipped strange gods, ate strange foods, and diffused strange suffocating smells. These were less like streets than labyrinths, hewn through an eternal twilight. It was only when they came into a square that daylight had a positive quality.
So many things she saw that her interest stumbled rather than leaped from object to object. Rows of roasted duck, brilliantly varnished; luscious vegetables, which she had been warned against; baskets of melon seed and water-chestnuts; men working in teak and blackwood; fan makers and jade cutters; eggs preserved in what appeared to her as petrified muck; bird's nests and shark fins. She glimpsed Chinese penury when she entered a square given over to the fishmongers. Carp, tench, and roach were so divided that even the fins, heads and fleshless spines were sold. There were doorways to peer into, dim cluttered holes with shadowy forms moving about, potters and rug-weavers.
Through one doorway she saw a grave Chinaman standing on a stage-like platform. He wore a long coat, beautifully flowered, and a hat with a turned up brim. Balanced on his nose were enormous tortoise-shell spectacles. A ragged gray moustache drooped from the corners of his mouth and a ragged wisp of whisker hung from his chin. She was informed by Ah Cum that the Chinaman was one of the literati and that he was expounding the deathless philosophy of Confucius, which, summed up, signified that the end of all philosophy is Nothing.
Through yet another doorway she observed an ancient silk brocade loom. Ah Cum halted the caravan and indicated that they might step within and watch. On a stool eight feet high sat a small boy in a faded blue cotton, his face like that of young Buddha. He held in his hands many threads. From time to time the man below would shout, and the boy would let the threads go with the snap of a harpist, only to recover them instantly. There was a strip of old rose brocade in the making that set an ache in the girl's heart for the want of it.
The girl wondered what effect the information would have upon Ah Cum if she told him that until a month ago she had never seen a city, she had never seen a telephone, a railway train, an automobile, a lift, a paved street. She was almost tempted to tell him, if only to see the cracks of surprise and incredulity break the immobility of his yellow countenance.
But no; she must step warily. Curiosity held her by one hand, urging her to recklessness, and caution held her by the other. Her safety lay in pretense—that what she saw was as a tale twice told.
A phase of mental activity that men called courage: to summon at will this energy which barred the ingress of the long cold fingers of fear, which cleared the throat of stuffiness and kept the glance level and ever forward. She possessed it, astonishing fact! She had summoned this energy so continuously during the past four weeks that now it was abiding; she knew that it would always be with her, on guard. And immeasurable was the calm evolved from this knowledge.
The light touch of Ah Cum's hand upon her arm broke the thread of retrospective thought; and her gray eyes began to register again the things she saw.
"Jade," said Ah Cum.
She turned away from the doorway of the silk loom to observe. Pole coolies came joggling along with bobbing blocks of jade—white jade, splashed and veined with translucent emerald green.
"On the way to the cutters," said Ah Cum. "But we must be getting along if we are to lunch in the tower of the water-clock."
As if an order had come to her somewhere out of space, the girl glanced sideways at the other young fool.
So far she had not heard the sound of his voice. The tail-ender of this little caravan, he had been rather out of it. But he had shown no desire for information, no curiosity. Whenever they stepped from the chairs, he stepped down. If they entered a shop, he paused by the doorway, as if waiting for the journey to be resumed.
Young, not much older than she was: she was twenty and he was possibly twenty-four. She liked his face; it had on it the suggestion of gentleness, of fineness. She was lamentably without comparisons; such few young men as she had seen—white men—had been on the beach, pitiful and terrible objects.
The word handsome was a little beyond her grasp. She could not apply it in this instance because she was not sure the application would be correct. Perhaps what urged her interest in the young man's direction was the dead whiteness of his face, the puffed eyelids and the bloodshot whites. She knew the significance: the red corpuscle was being burnt out by the fires of alcohol. Was he, too, on the way to the beach? What a pity! All alone, and none to warn him of the abject wretchedness at the end of Drink.
Only the night before, in the dining room of the Hong-Kong Hotel, she had watched him empty glass after glass of whisky, and shudder and shudder. He did not like it. Why, then, did he touch it?
As he climbed heavily into his chair, she was able to note the little beads of sweat under the cracked nether lip. He was in misery; he was paying for last night's debauch. His clothes were smartly pressed, his linen white, his jaws cleanly shaven; but the day would come when he would grow indifferent to bodily cleanliness. What a pity!
For all her ignorance of material things—the human inventions which served the physical comforts of man—how much she knew about man himself! She had seen him bereft of all those spiritual props which permit man to walk on two feet instead of four—broken, without resilience. And now she was witnessing or observing the complicated machinery of civilization through which they had come, at length to land on the beach of her island. She knew now the supreme human energy which sent men to hell or carried them to their earthly heights. Selfishness.
Supposing she saw the young man at dinner that night, emptying his bottle? She could not go to him, sit down and draw the sordid pictures she had seen so often. In her case the barrier was not selfishness but the perception that her interest would be misinterpreted, naturally. What right had a young woman to possess the scarring and intimate knowledge of that dreg of human society, the beachcomber?
Ah Cum lived at No. 6 Chiu Ping le, Chiu Yam Street. He was a Canton guide, highly educated, having been graduated from Yale University. If he took a fancy to you, he invited you to the house for tea, bitter and yellow and served in little cups without handles. If you knew anything about Canton ware, you were, as like as not, sorely tempted to stuff a teacup into your pocket.
He was tall, slender, and suave. He spoke English with astonishing facility and with a purity which often embarrassed his tourists. He made his headquarters at the Victoria on the Sha-mien, and generally met the Hong-Kong packet in the morning. You left Hong-Kong at night, by way of the Pearl River, and arrived in Canton the next morning. Ah Cum presented his black-bordered card to such individuals as seemed likely to require his services.
This morning his entourage (as he jestingly called it) consisted of the girl, two spinsters (Prudence and Angelina Jedson), prim and doubtful of the world, and the young man who appeared to be considerably the worse for the alcohol he had consumed.
In the beginning Ah Cum would run his glance speculatively over the assortment and select that individual who promised to be the most companionable. He was a philosopher. Usually his charges bored him with their interrogative chatter, for he knew that his information more often than not went into one ear and out of the other. To-day he selected the girl, and gave her the lead-chair. He motioned the young man to the rear chair, because at that hour the youth appeared to be a quantity close to zero. Being a Chinaman in blood and instinct, he despised all spinsters; they were parasites. A woman was born to have children, particularly male children.
Half a day had turned the corner of the hours; and Ah Cum admitted that this girl puzzled him. He dug about in his mind for a term to fit her, and he came upon the word new. She was new, unlike any other woman he had met in all his wide travel. He could not tell whether she was English or American. From long experience with both races he had acquired definitions, but none snugly applied to this girl. Her roving eagerness was at all times shaded with shyness, reserve, repression. Her voice was soft and singularly musical; but from time to time she uttered old-fashioned words which forced him to grope mentally. She had neither the semi-boisterousness of the average American girl nor the chilling insolence of the English.
Ah, these English! They travelled all over, up and down the world, not to acquire information but rather to leave the impress of their superiority as a race. It was most amusing. They would suffer amazing hardships to hunt the snow-leopard; but in the Temple of Five Hundred Gods they would not take the trouble to ask the name of one!
But this girl, she was alone. That added to his puzzle. At this moment she was staring ahead; and again came the opportunity to study her. Fine but strong lines marked the profile: that would speak for courage and resolution. She was as fair as the lily of the lotus. That suggested delicacy; and yet her young body was strong and vital. Whence had she come: whither was she bound?
A temporary congestion in the street held up the caravan for a spell; and Ah Cum looked backward to note if any of the party had become separated. It was then that the young man entered his thought with some permanency: because there was no apparent reason for his joining the tour, since from the beginning he had shown no interest in anything. He never asked questions; he never addressed his companions; and frequently he took off his cap and wiped his forehead. For the first time it occurred to Ah Cum that the young man might not be quite conscious of his surroundings, that he might be moving in that comatose state which is the aftermath of a long debauch. For all that, Ah Cum was forced to admit that his charge did not look dissipated.
Ah Cum was more or less familiar with alcoholic types. In the genuinely dissipated face there was always a suggestion of slyness in ambush, peeping out of the wrinkles around the eyes and the lips. Upon this young fellow's face there were no wrinkles, only shadows, in the hollows of the cheeks and under the eyes. He was more like a man who had left his bed in the middle of convalescence.
Ah Cum's glance returned to the girl. Of course, it really signified nothing in this careless part of the world that she was travelling alone. What gave the puzzling twist to an ordinary situation was her manner: she was guileless. She reminded him of his linnet, when he gave the bird the freedom of the house: it became filled with a wild gaiety which bordered on madness. All that was needed to complete the simile was that the girl should burst into song.
But, alas! Ah Cum shrugged philosophically. His commissions this day would not fill his metal pipe with one wad of tobacco. The spinsters had purchased one grass-linen tablecloth; the girl and the young man had purchased nothing. That she had not bought one piece of linen subtly established in Ah Cum's mind the fact that she had no home, that the instinct was not there, or she would have made some purchase against the future.
Between his lectures—and primarily he was an itinerant lecturer—he manoeuvred in vain to acquire some facts regarding the girl, who she was, whence she had come; but always she countered with: "What is that?" Guileless she might be; simple, never.
It was noon when the caravan reached the tower of the water-clock. Here they would be having lunch. Ah Cum said that it was customary to give the chair boys small money for rice. The four tourists contributed varied sums: the spinsters ten cents each, the girl a shilling, the young man a Mexican dollar. The lunches were individual affairs: sandwiches, bottled olives and jam commandeered from the Victoria.
"You are alone?" said one of the spinsters—Prudence Jedson.
"Yes," answered the girl.
"Aren't you afraid?"
"They know what?"
"When and when not to speak. You have only to look resolute and proceed upon your way."
Ah Cum lent an ear covertly.
"How old are you?" demanded Miss Prudence.
The spinsters offered a good example of how singular each human being is, despite the fact that in sisters the basic corpuscle is the same. Prudence was the substance and Angelina the shadow; for Angelina never offered opinions, she only agreed with those advanced by Prudence.
"I am twenty," said the girl.
Prudence shook her head. "You must have travelled a good deal to know so much about men."
The girl smiled and began to munch a sandwich. Secretly she was gratified to be assigned to the role of an old traveller. Still, it was true about men. Seldom they molested a woman who appeared to know where she was going and who kept her glance resolutely to the fore.
Said Prudence, with commendable human kindness: "My sister and I are going on to Shanghai and Peking. If you are going that way, why not join us."
The girl's blood ran warmly for a minute. "That is very kind of you, but I am on my way to America. Up to dinner yesterday I did not expect to come to Canton. I was the last on board. Wasn't the river beautiful under the moonlight?"
"We did not leave our cabins. Did you bring any luggage?"
"All I own. In this part of the world it is wise never to be separated from your luggage."
The girl fished into the bottle for an olive. How clever she was, to fool everybody so easily! Not yet had any one suspected the truth: that she was, in a certain worldly sense, only four weeks old, that her every act had been written down on paper beforehand, and that her success lay in rigidly observing the rules which she herself had drafted to govern her conduct.
She finished the olive and looked up. Directly in range stood the strange young man, although he was at the far side of the loft. He was leaning against a window frame, his hat in his hand. She noted the dank hair on his forehead, the sweat of revolting nature. What a pity! But why?
There was no way over this puzzle, nor under it, nor around it: that men should drink, knowing the inevitable payment. This young man did not drink because he sought the false happiness that lured men to the bottle. To her mind, recalling the picture of him the night before, there had been something tragic in the grim silent manner of his tippling. Peg after peg had gone down his blistered throat, but never had a smile touched his lips, never had his gaze roved inquisitively. Apparently he had projected beyond his table some hypnotic thought, for it had held him all through the dining hour.
Evidently he was gazing at the dull red roofs of the city: but was he registering what he saw? Never glance sideways at man, the old Kanaka woman had said. Yes, yes; that was all very well in ordinary cases; but yonder was a soul in travail, if ever she had seen one. Here was not the individual against whom she had been warned. He had not addressed to her even the most ordinary courtesy of fellow travellers; she doubted that he was even aware of her existence. She went further: she doubted that he was fully conscious of where he was.
Suddenly she became aware of the fact that he had brought no lunch. A little kindness would not bring the world tumbling about her ears. So she approached him with sandwiches.
"You forgot your lunch," she said. "Won't you take these?"
For a space he merely stared at her, perhaps wondering if she were real. Then a bit of colour flowed into his sunken white cheeks.
"Thank you; but I've a pocket full of water-chestnuts. I'm not hungry."
"Better eat these, even if you don't want them," she urged. "My name is Ruth Enschede."
"Mine is Howard Spurlock."
Immediately he stepped back. Instinctively she imitated this action, chilled and a little frightened at the expression of terror that confronted her. Why should he stare at her in this fashion?—for all the world as if she had pointed a pistol at his head?
He had said it, spoken it like that ... his own name! After all these weeks of trying to obliterate even the memory of it!... to have given it to this girl without her asking!
The thought of peril cleared a space in the alcoholic fog. He saw the expression on the girl's face and understood what it signified, that it was the reflected pattern of his own. He shut his eyes and groped for the wall to steady himself, wondering if this bit of mummery would get over.
"I beg your pardon!... A bit rocky this morning.... That window there.... Cloud back of your hat!" He opened his eyes again.
"I understand," she said. The poor boy, imagining things! "That's want of substantial food. Better take these sandwiches."
"All right; and thank you. I'll eat them when we start. Just now the water-chestnuts...."
She smiled, and returned to the spinsters.
Spurlock began to munch his water-chestnuts. What he needed was not a food but a flavour; and the cocoanut taste of the chestnuts soothed his burning tongue and throat. He had let go his name so easily as that! What was the name she had given? Ruth something; he could not remember. What a frightened fool he was! If he could not remember her name, it was equally possible that already she had forgotten his. Conscience was always digging sudden pits for his feet and common sense ridiculing his fears. Mirages, over which he was constantly throwing bridges which were wasted efforts, since invariably they spanned solid ground.
But he would make it a point not to speak again to the girl. If he adhered to this policy—to keep away from her inconspicuously—she would forget the name by night, and to-morrow even the bearer of it would sink below the level of recollection. That was life. They were only passers-by.
Drink for him had a queer phase. It did not cheer or fortify him with false courage and recklessness; it simply enveloped him in a mist of unreality. A shudder rippled across his shoulders. He hated the taste of it. The first peg was torture. But for all that, it offered relief; his brain, stupefied by the fumes, grew dull, and conscience lost its edge to bite.
He wiped the sweat from his chin and forehead. His hand shook so violently that he dropped the handkerchief; and he let it lie on the floor because he dared not stoop.
Ah Cum, sensing the difficulty, approached, recovered the damp handkerchief and returned it.
"Very interesting," said the Chinaman, with a wave of his tapering hand toward the roofs. "It reminds you of a red sea suddenly petrified."
"Or the flat stones in the meadows, teeming with life underneath. Ants."
"You are from America?"
"Yes." But Spurlock put up his guard.
"I am a Yale man," said Ah Cum.
"Yale? Why, so am I." There was no danger in admitting this fact. Spurlock offered his hand, which Ah Cum accepted gravely. A broken laugh followed the action. "Yale!" Spurlock's gaze shifted to the dead hills beyond the window; when it returned to the Chinaman there was astonishment instead of interest: as if Ah Cum had been a phantom a moment since and was now actually a human being. "Yale!" A Chinaman who had gone to Yale!
"Yes. Civil engineering. Mentally but not physically competent. Had to give up the work and take to this. I'm not noble; so my honourable ancestors will not turn over in their graves."
"Graves." Spurlock pointed in the sloping fields outside the walls. "I've counted ten coffins so far."
"Ah, yes. The land about these walls is a common graveyard. Every day in the year you will witness such scenes. There are no funerals among the poor, only burials. And many of these deaths could be avoided if it were not for superstition. Superstition is the Chinese Reaper. Rituals instead of medicines. Sometimes I try to talk. I might as well try to build a ladder to heaven. We must take the children—of any race—if we would teach knowledge. Age is set, impervious to innovations."
The Chinaman paused. He saw that his words were falling upon dull ears. He turned to observe what this object was that had so unexpectedly diverted the young man's attention. It was the girl. She was standing before a window, against the background of the rain-burdened April sky. There was enough contra-light to render her ethereal.
Spurlock was basically a poet, quick to recognize beauty, animate or inanimate, and to transcribe it in unuttered words. He was always word-building, a metaphorist, lavish with singing adjectives; but often he built in confusion because it was difficult to describe something beautiful in a new yet simple way.
He had not noticed the girl particularly when she offered the sandwiches; but in this moment he found her beautiful. Her face reminded him of a delicate unglazed porcelain cup, filled with blond wine. But there was something else; and in his befogged mental state the comparison eluded him.
Ruth broke the exquisite pose by summoning Ah Cum, who was lured into a lecture upon the water-clock. This left Spurlock alone.
He began munching his water-chestnuts—a small brown radish-shaped vegetable, with the flavour of coconut—that grow along the river brims. Below the window he saw two coolies carrying a coffin, which presently they callously dumped into a yawning pit. This made the eleventh. There were no mourners. But what did the occupant of the box care? The laugh was always with the dead: they were out of the muddle.
From the unlovely hillside his glance strayed to the several five-story towers of the pawnshops. Celestial Uncles! Spurlock chuckled, and a bit of chestnut, going down the wrong way, set him to coughing violently. When the paroxysm passed, he was forced to lean against the window-jamb for support.
"That young man had better watch his cough," said Spinster Prudence. "He acts queerly, too."
"They always act like that after drink," said Ruth, casually.
She intercepted the glance the spinsters exchanged, and immediately sensed that she had said too much. There was no way of recalling the words; so she waited.
"Miss Enschede—such an odd name!—are you French?"
"Oh, no. Pennsylvania Dutch. But I have never seen America. I was born on an island in the South Seas. I am on my way to an aunt who lives in Hartford, Connecticut."
The spinsters nodded approvingly. Hartford had a very respectable sound.
Ruth did not consider it necessary, however, to add that she had not notified this aunt of her coming, that she did not know whether the aunt still resided in Hartford or was underground. These two elderly ladies would call her stark mad. Perhaps she was.
"And you have seen ... drunken men?" Prudence's tones were full of suppressed horror.
"Often. A very small settlement, mostly natives. There was a trader—a man who bought copra and pearls. Not a bad man as men go, but he would sell whisky and gin. Over here men drink because they are lonely; and when they drink too hard and too long, they wind up on the beach."
The spinsters stared at her blankly.
Ruth went on to explain. "When a man reaches the lowest scale through drink, we call him a beachcomber. I suppose the phrase—the word—originally meant a man who searched for food on the beach. The poor things! Oh, it was quite dreadful. It is queer, but men of education and good birth fall swiftest and lowest."
She sent a covert glance toward the young man. She alone of them all knew that he was on the first leg of the terrible journey to the beach. Somebody ought to talk to him, warn him. He was all alone, like herself.
"What are those odd-looking things on the roofs?" she asked of Ah Cum.
"Pigs and fish, to fend off the visitations of the devil." Ah Cum smiled. "After all, I believe we Chinese have the right idea. The devil is on top, not below. We aren't between him and heaven; he is between us and heaven."
The spinsters had no counter-philosophy to offer; so they turned to Ruth, who had singularly and unconsciously invested herself with glamour, the glamour of adventure, which the old maids did not recognize as such because they were only tourists. This child at once alarmed and thrilled them. She had come across the wicked South Seas which were still infested with cannibals; she had seen drunkenness and called men beachcombers; who was this moment as innocent as a babe, and in the next uttered some bitter wisdom it had taken a thousand years of philosophy to evolve. And there was that dress of hers! She must be warned that she had been imposed upon.
"You'll pardon an old woman, Miss Enschede," said Sister Prudence; "but where in this world did you get that dress?"
Ruth picked up both sides of the skirt and spread it, looking down. "Is there anything wrong with it?"
"Wrong? Why, you have been imposed upon somewhere. That dress is thirty years old, if a day."
"Oh!" Ruth laughed softly. "That is easily explained. I haven't much money; I don't know how much it is going to cost me to reach Hartford; so I fixed over a couple of my mother's dresses. It doesn't look bad, does it?"
"Mercy, no! That wasn't the thought. It was that somebody had cheated you."
The spinster did not ask if the mother lived; the question was inconsequent. No mother would have sent her daughter into the world with such a wardrobe. Straitened circumstances would not have mattered; a mother would have managed somehow. In the '80s such a dress would have indicated considerable financial means; under the sun-helmet it was an anachronism; and yet it served only to add a quainter charm to the girl's beauty.
"Do you know what you make me think of?"
"As if you had stepped out of some old family album."
The feminine vanities in Ruth were quiescent; nothing had ever occurred in her life to tingle them into action. She was dressed as a white woman should be; and that for the present satisfied her instincts. But she threw a verbal bombshell into the spinsters' camp.
"What is a family album?"
"You poor child, do you mean to tell me you've never seen a family album? Why, it's a book filled with the photographs of your grandmothers and grandfathers, your aunts and uncles and cousins, your mother and father when they were little."
Ruth stood with drawn brows; she was trying to recall. "No; we never had one; at least, I never saw it."
The lack of a family album for some reason put a little ache in her heart. Grandmothers and grandfathers and uncles and aunts ... to love and to coddle lonely little girls.
"You poor child!" said Prudence.
"Then I am old-fashioned. Is that it? I thought this very pretty."
"So it is, child. But one changes the style of one's clothes yearly. Of course, this does not apply to uninteresting old maids," Prudence modified with a dry little smile.
"But this is good enough to travel in, isn't it?"
"To be sure it is. When you reach San Francisco, you can buy something more appropriate." It occurred to the spinster to ask: "Have you ever seen a fashion magazine?"
"No. Sometimes we had the Illustrated London News and Tit-Bits. Sailors would leave them at the trader's."
"Alice in Wonderland!" cried Prudence, perhaps a little enviously.
"Oh, I've read that!"
Spurlock had heard distinctly enough all of this odd conversation; but until the spinster's reference to the family album, no phrase had been sufficient in strength of attraction to break the trend of his own unhappy thoughts. Out of an old family album: here was the very comparison that had eluded him. His literary instincts began to stir. A South Sea island girl, and this was her first adventure into civilization. Here was the corner-stone of a capital story; but he knew that Howard Spurlock would never write it.
Other phrases returned now, like echoes. The beachcomber, the lowest in the human scale; and some day he would enter into this estate. Between him and the beach stood the sum of six hundred dollars.
But one thing troubled him, and because of it he might never arrive on the beach. A new inexplicable madness that urged him to shrill ironically the story of his coat—to take it off and fling it at the feet of any stranger who chanced to be nigh.
"Look at it!" he felt like screaming. "Clean and spotless, but beginning to show the wear and tear of constant use. I have worn it for weeks and weeks. I have slept with it under my pillow. Observe it—a blue-serge coat. Ever hear of the djinn in the bottle? Like enough. But did you ever hear of a djinn in a blue-serge coat? Stitched in!"
Something like this was always rushing into his throat; and he had to sink his nails into his palms to stop his mouth. Very fascinating, though, trying to analyse the impulse. It was not an affair of the conscience; it was vaguely based upon insolence and defiance. He wondered if these abnormal mental activities presaged illness. To be ill and helpless.
He went on munching his water-chestnuts, and stared at the skyline. He hated horizons. He was always visualizing the Hand whenever he let his gaze rest upon the horizon. An enormous Hand that rose up swiftly, blotting out the sky. A Hand that strove to reach his shoulder, relentless, soulless but lawful. The scrutiny of any strange man provoked a sweaty terror. What a God-forsaken fool he was! And dimly, out there somewhere in the South Seas—the beach!
Already he sensed the fascination of the inevitable; and with this fascination came the idea of haste, to get there quickly and have done. Odd, but he had never thought of the beach until this girl (who looked as if she had stepped out of the family album) referred to it with a familiarity which was as astonishing as it was profoundly sad.
The beach: to get there as quickly as he could, to reach the white man's nadir of abasement and gather the promise of that soothing indifference which comes with the final disintegration of the fibres of conscience. He had an objective now.
The tourists returned to the Sha-mien at four o'clock. They were silent and no longer observant, being more or less exhausted by the tedious action of the chairs. Even Ah Cum had resumed his Oriental shell of reserve. To reach the Sha-mien—and particularly the Hotel Victoria—one crossed a narrow canal, always choked with rocking sampans over and about which swarmed yellow men and women and children in varied shades of faded blue cotton. At sunset the swarming abruptly ceased; even the sampans appeared to draw closer together, with the quiet of water-fowl. There is everywhere at night in China the original fear of darkness.
From the portals of the hotel—scarcely fifty yards from the canal—one saw the blank face of the ancient city of Canton. Blank it was, except for a gate near the bridgehead. Into this hole in the wall and out of it the native stream flowed from sunrise to sunset, when the stream mysteriously ceased. The silence of Canton at night was sinister, for none could prophesy what form of mob might suddenly boil out.
No Cantonese was in those days permitted to cross to the Sha-mien after sunset without a license. To simplify matters, he carried a coloured paper lantern upon which his license number was painted in Arabic numerals. It added to the picturesqueness of the Sha-mien night to observe these gaily coloured lanterns dancing hither and yon like June fireflies in a meadow.
Meantime the spinsters sought the dining room where tea was being served. They had much to talk about, or rather Miss Prudence had.
"But she is a dear," said Angelina, timidly.
"I'll admit that. But I don't understand her; she's over my head. She leaves me almost without comparisons. She is like some character out of Phra the Phoenician: she's been buried for thirty years and just been excavated. That's the way she strikes me. And it's uncanny."
"But I never saw anybody more alive."
"Who wouldn't be lively after thirty years' sleep? Did you hear her explain about beachcombers? And yet she looks at one with the straightest glance I ever saw. Still, I'm glad she didn't accept my invitation to join us. I shouldn't care to have attention constantly drawn to us. This world over here! Everything's upside-down or back-end-to. Humph!"
"What's the matter?"
Spurlock passed by on the way to the bar. Apparently he did not see his recent companions. There was a strained, eager expression on his face.
"Going to befuddle himself between now and dinner," was the comment of Prudence.
"The poor young man!" sighed Angelina.
"Pah! He's a fool. I never saw a man who wasn't."
"There was Father," suggested Angelina gently.
"Ninny! What did we know about Father, except when he was around the house? But where is the girl? She said something about having tea with us. I want to know more about her. I wonder if she has any idea how oddly beautiful she is?"
Ruth at that precise moment was engaged by a relative wonder. She was posing before the mirror, critically, miserably, defensively, and perhaps bewilderedly. What was the matter with the dress? She could not see. For the past four weeks mirrors had been her delight, a new toy. Here was one that subtly mocked her.
Life is a patchwork of impressions, of vanishing personalities. Each human contact leaves some indelible mark. The spinsters—who on the morrow would vanish out of the girl's life for ever—had already left their imprint upon her imagination. Clothes. Henceforth Ruth would closely observe her fellow women and note the hang of their skirts.
Around her neck was a little gold chain. She gathered up the chain, revealing a locket which had lain hidden in her bosom. The locket contained the face of her mother—all the family album she had. She studied the face and tried to visualize the body, clothed in the dress which had created the spinsters' astonishment. Very well. To-morrow, when she returned to Hong-Kong, she would purchase a simple but modern dress. Anything that drew attention to her must be avoided.
She dropped the locket into its sweet hiding place. It was precious for two reasons: it was the photograph of her beautiful mother whom she could not remember, and it would identify her to the aunt in Hartford.
She uttered a little ejaculative note of joy and rushed to the bed. A dozen books lay upon the counterpane. Oh, the beautiful books! Romance, adventure, love stories! She gathered up the books in her arms and cuddled them, as a mother might have cuddled a child. Love stories! It was of negligible importance that these books were bound in paper; Romance lay unalterably within. All these wonderful comrades, henceforth and for ever hers. She would never again be lonely. Les Miserables, A Tale of Two Cities, Henry Esmond, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Marble Faun ... Love stories!
Until her arrival in Singapore, she had never read a novel. Pilgrim's Progress, The Life of Martin Luther and Alice in Wonderland (the only fairy-story she had been permitted to read) were the sum total of her library. But in the appendix of the dictionary she had discovered magic names—Hugo, Dumas, Thackeray, Hawthorne, Lytton. She had also discovered the names of Grimm and Andersen; but at that time she had not been able to visualize "the pale slender things with gossamer wings"—fairies. The world into which she was so boldly venturing was going to be wonderful, but never so wonderful as the world within these paper covers. Already Cosette was her chosen friend. Daily contact with actual human beings all the more inclined her toward the imaginative.
Joyous, she felt the need of physical expression; and her body began to sway sinuously, to glide and turn and twist about the room. As she danced there was in her ears the faded echo of wooden tom-toms.
Eventually her movements carried her to the little stand at the side of the bed. There lay upon this stand a book bound in limp black leather—the Holy Bible.
Her glance, absorbing the gilt letters and their significance, communicated to her poised body a species of paralysis. She stood without motion and without strength. The books slid from her arms and fluttered to the floor. Presently repellance grew under the frozen mask of astonishment and dissipated it.
"No!" she cried. "No, no!"
With a gesture, fierce and intolerant, she seized the Bible and thrust it out of sight, into the drawer. Then, her body still tense with the atoms of anger, she sat down upon the edge of the bed and rocked from side to side. But shortly this movement ceased. The recollection of the forlorn and loveless years—stirred into consciousness by the unexpected confrontation—bent her as the high wind bends the water-reed.
"My father!" she whispered. "My own father!"
Queerly the room and its objects receded and vanished; and there intervened a series of mental pictures that so long as she lived would ever be recurring. She saw the moonlit waters, the black shadow of the proa, the moon-fire that ran down the far edge of the bellying sail, the silent natives: no sound except the slapping of the outrigger and the low sibilant murmur of water falling away from the sides—and the beating of her heart. The flight.
How she had fought her eagerness in the beginning, lest it reveal her ignorance of the marvels of mankind! The terror and ecstasy of that night in Singapore—the first city she had ever seen! There was still the impression that something akin to a miracle had piloted her successfully from one ordeal to another.
The clerk at the Raffles Hotel had accorded her but scant interest. She had, it was true, accepted doubtfully the pen he had offered. She had not been sufficiently prompted in relation to the ways of caravansaries; but her mind had been alert and receptive. Almost at once she had comprehended that she was expected to write down her name and address, which she did, in slanting cobwebby lettering, perhaps a trifle laboriously. Ruth Enschede, Hartford, Conn. The address was of course her destination, thousands of miles away, an infinitesimal spot in a terrifying space.
She could visualize the picture she had presented, particularly the battered papier-mache kitbag at her feet. In Europe or in America people would have smiled; but in Singapore—the half-way port of the world—where a human kaleidoscope tumbles continuously east and west, no one had remarked her.
She would never forget the agony of that first meal in the great dining room. She could have dined alone in her room; but courage had demanded that she face the ordeal and have done with it. Every eye seemed focussed upon her; and yet she had known the sensation to be the conceit of her imagination.
The beautiful gowns and the flashing bare shoulders and arms of the women had disturbed and distressed her. Women, she had been taught, who exposed the flesh of their bodies under the eyes of man were in a special catagory of the damned. Almost instantly she had recognized the fallacy of such a statement. These women could not be bad, else the hotel would not have permitted them to enter! Still, the scene presented a riddle: to give immunity to the black women who went about all but naked and to damn the white for exposing their shoulders!
She had eaten but little; all her hunger had been in her eyes—and in her heart. Loneliness—something that was almost physical: as if the vitality had been taken out of the air she breathed. The longing to talk to someone! But in the end she had gone to her room without giving in to the craving.
Once in the room, the door locked, the sense of loneliness had dropped away from her as the mists used to drop away from the mountain in the morning. Even then she had understood vaguely that she had touched upon some philosophy of life: that one was never lonely when alone, only in the midst of crowds.
Another picture slid across her vision. She saw herself begin a slow, sinuous dance: and stop suddenly in the middle of a figure, conscious that the dance was not impromptu, her own, but native—the same dance she had quitted but a few minutes gone. She had fallen into it naturally, the only expression of the dance she had ever seen or known, and that a stolen sweet. That was odd: when young people were joyous, they had to express it physically. But native! She must watch out.
She remembered that she had not gone to bed until two o'clock in the morning. She had carried a chair into the room veranda and had watched and listened until the night silences had lengthened and only occasionally she heard a voice or the rattle of rickshaw wheels in the courtyard.
The great ordeal—that which she had most dreaded—had proved to be no ordeal at all. The kindly American consul-general had himself taken her to the bank, where her banknotes had been exchanged for a letter of credit, and had thoroughly advised her. Everything had so far come to pass as the withered old Kanaka woman had foretold.
"The Golden One knows that I have seen the world; therefore follow my instructions. Never glance sideways at man. Nothing else matters."
The prison bars of circumstance, they no longer encompassed her. Her wings were oddly weak, but for all that she could fly. That was the glorious if bewildering truth. She had left for ever the cage, the galling leash: she was free. The misty caravans of which she had dreamed were become actualities. She had but to choose. All about her, hither and yon, lay the enticing Unknown. Romance! The romance of passing faces, of wires that carried voices and words to the far ends of the world, of tremendous mechanisms that propelled ships and trains! And, oh the beautiful books!
She swiftly knelt upon the floor and once more gathered the books to her heart.
At dinner the spinsters invited Ruth to sit at their table, an invitation she accepted gratefully. She was not afraid exactly, but there was that about her loneliness to-night she distrusted. Detached, it was not impossible that she would be forced to leave the dining room because of invading tears. To be near someone, even someone who made a pretense of friendliness, to hear voices, her own intermingling, would serve as a rehabilitating tonic. The world had grown dark and wide, and she was very small. Doubts began to rise up all about her, plucking at her confidence. Could she go through with it? She must. She would never, never go back.
As usual the substantive sister—Prudence—did all the talking for the pair; Angelina, the shadow, offered only her submitting nods. Sometimes she missed her cue and nodded affirmatively when the gesture should have been the reverse; and Prudence would send her a sharp glance of disapproval. Angelina's distress over these mischances was pathetic.
None of this by-play escaped Ruth, whose sense of humour needed no developing. That she possessed any sense of humour was in itself one of those human miracles which metaphysicians are always pothering over without arriving anywhere; for her previous environment had been particularly humourless. But if she smiled at all it was with her eyes. To-night she could have hugged both the old maids.
"Somebody ought to get hold of that young man," said Prudence, grimly, as she nodded in Spurlock's direction. "Look at him!"
Ruth looked. He was draining a glass, and as he set it down he shuddered. A siphon and a whisky bottle stood before him. He measured out the portion of another peg, the bottle wavering in his hand. His food lay untouched about his plate. There was no disgust in Ruth's heart, only an infinite pity; for only the pitiful understand.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"I have no sympathy," replied Prudence, "with a man who deliberately fuddles himself with strong drink."
"You would, if you had seen what I have. Men in this part of the world drink to forget the things they have lost."
"And what should a young man like this one have to forget?" Prudence demanded to know.
"I wonder," said Ruth. "Couldn't you speak to him?"
"What?—and be insulted for my trouble? No, thank you!"
"That is it. You complain of a condition, but you leave the correction to someone else."
The spinster had no retort to offer such directness. This child was frequently disconcerting. Prudence attacked her chicken wing.
"If I spoke to him, my interest might be misinterpreted."
"Where did you go to school?" Prudence asked, seeking a new channel, for the old one appeared to be full of hidden reefs.
"I never went to school."
"But you are educated!"—astonished.
"That depends upon what you call educated. Still, my tutor was a highly educated scholar—my father." Neither spinster noticed the reluctance in the tones.
"Ah! I see. He suddenly realized that he could not keep you for ever in this part of the world; so he sends you to your aunt. That dress! Only a man—and an unworldly one—would have permitted you to proceed on your adventure dressed in a gown thirty years out of date. What is your father's business?"
The question was an impertinence, but Ruth was not aware of that.
"Souls," she answered, drily.
"A missioner! That illuminates everything." The spinster's face actually became warm. "You will finish your education in the East and return. I see."
"No. I shall never come back."
Something in the child's voice, something in her manner, warned the spinster that her well-meaning inquisitiveness had received a set-back and that it would be dangerous to press it forward again. What she had termed illuminative now appeared to be only another phase of the mystery which enveloped the child. A sinister thought edged in. Who could say that the girl's father had not once been a fashionable clergyman in the States and that drink had got him and forced him down, step by step, until—to use the child's odd expression—he had come upon the beach? She was cynical, this spinster. There was no such a thing as perfection in a mixed world. Clergymen were human. Still, it was rather terrible to suspect that one had fallen from grace, but nevertheless the thing was possible. With the last glimmer of decency he had sent the daughter to his sister. The poor child! What frightful things she must have seen on that island of hers!
The noise of crashing glass caused a diversion; and Ruth turned gratefully toward the sound.
The young man had knocked over the siphon. He rose, steadied himself, then walked out of the dining room. Except for the dull eyes and the extreme pallor of his face, there was nothing else to indicate that he was deep in liquor. He did not stagger in the least. And in this fact lay his danger. The man who staggers, whose face is flushed, whose attitude is either noisily friendly or truculent, has some chance; liquor bends him eventually. But men of the Spurlock type, who walk straight, who are unobtrusive and intensely pale, they break swiftly and inexplicably. They seldom arrive on the beach. There are way-stations—even terminals.
There was still the pity of understanding in Ruth's eyes. Perhaps it was loneliness. Perhaps he had lost his loved ones and was wandering over the world seeking forgetfulness. But he would die if he continued in this course. They were alike in one phase—loveless and lonely. If he died, here in this hotel, who would care? Or if she died, who would care?
A queer desire blossomed in her heart: to go to him, urge him to see the folly of trying to forget. Of what use was the temporary set-back to memory, when it always returned with redoubled poignancy?
Then came another thought, astonishing. This was the first young man who had drawn from her something more than speculative interest. True, on board the ships she had watched young men from afar, but only with that normal curiosity which is aroused in the presence of any new species. But after Singapore she found herself enduing them with the characteristics of the heroes in the novels she had just read for the first time. This one was Henry Esmond, that one the melancholy Marius, and so forth and so on; never any villains. It wasn't worth while to invest imaginatively a man with evil projects simply because he was physically ugly.
Some day she wanted to be loved as Marius loved Cosette; but there was another character which bit far more deeply into her mind. Why? Because she knew him in life, because, so long as she could remember, he had crossed and recrossed her vision—Sidney Carton. The wastrel, the ne'er-do-well, who went mostly nobly to a fine end.
Here, then, but for the time and place, might be another Sidney Carton. Given the proper incentive, who could say that he might not likewise go nobly to some fine end? She thrilled. To find the incentive! But how? Thither and yon the idea roved, seeking the way. But always this new phase in life which civilization called convention threw up barrier after barrier.
She could not go to him with a preachment against strong drink; she knew from experience that such a plan would be wasted effort. Had she not seen them go forth with tracts in their pockets and grins in their beards? To set fire to his imagination, to sting his sense of chivalry into being, to awaken his manhood, she must present some irresistible project. She recalled that day of the typhoon and the sloop crashing on the outer reefs. The heroism of two beach combers had saved all on board and their own manhood as well.
"Are you returning to Hong-Kong to-morrow by the day boat?"
For a moment Ruth was astonished at the sound of the spinster's voice. She had, by the magic of recollection, set the picture of the typhoon between herself and her table companions: the terrible rollers thundering on the white shore, the deafening bellow of the wind, the bending and snapping palms, the thatches of the native huts scattering inland, the blur of sand dust, and those two outcasts defying the elements.
"I don't know," she answered vaguely.
"But there's nothing more to see in Canton."
"Perhaps I'm too tired to plan for to-morrow. Those awful chairs!"
After dinner the spinsters proceeded to inscribe their accustomed quota of postcards, and Ruth was left to herself. She walked through the office to the door, aimlessly.
Beyond the steps was a pole-chair in readiness. One of the coolies held the paper lantern. Near by stood Ah Cum and the young unknown, the former protesting gently, the latter insistent upon his demands.
"I repeat," said Ah Cum, "that the venture is not propitious. Canton is all China at night. If we were set upon I could not defend you. But I can easily bring in a sing-song girl to play for you."
"No. I want to make my own selection."
"Very well, sir. But if you have considerable money, you had better leave it in the office safe. You can pay me when we return. The sing-song girls in Hong-Kong are far handsomer. That is a part of the show in Hong-Kong. But here it is China."
"If you will not take me, I'll find some guide who will."
"I will take you. I simply warn you."
Spurlock entered the office, passed Ruth without observing her (or if he did observe her, failed to recognize her), and deposited his funds with the manager.
"I advise you against this trip, Mr. Taber," said the manager. "Affairs are not normal in Canton at present. Only a few weeks ago there was a bloody battle on the bridge there between the soldiery and the local police. Look at these walls."
The walls were covered with racks of loaded rifles. In those revolutionary times one had to be prepared. Some Chinaman might take it into his head to shout: "Death to the foreign devils!" And out of that wall yonder would boil battle and murder and sudden death. A white man, wandering about the streets of Canton at night, was a challenge to such a catastrophe.
Taber. Ruth stared thoughtfully at the waiting coolies. That did not sound like the name the young man had offered in the tower of the water-clock. She remained by the door until the walls of the city swallowed the bobbing lantern. Then she went into the office.
"What is a sing-song girl?" she asked.
The manager twisted his moustache. "The same as a Japanese geisha girl."
"And what is a geisha girl?"
Not to have heard of the geisha! It was as if she had asked: "What is Paris?" What manner of tourist was this who had heard neither of the geisha of Japan nor of the sing-song girl of China? Before he could marshal the necessary phrases to explain, Ruth herself indicated her thought.
"A bad girl?" She put the question as she would have put any question—level-eyed and level-toned.
After a series of mental gymnastics—occupying the space of a few seconds—it came to him with a shock that here was a new specimen of the species. At the same time he comprehended that she was as pure and lovely as the white orchid of Borneo and that she did not carry that ridiculous shield called false modesty. He could talk to her as frankly as he could to a man, that she would not take offence at anything so long as it was in the form of explanation. On the other hand, there was a subconscious impression that she would be able to read instantly anything unclean in a man's eye. All her questions would have as a background the idea of future defence.
"The geisha and the sing-song girl are professional entertainers. They are not bad girls, but the average tourist has that misconception of them. If some of them are bad in the sense you mean, it is because there are bad folks in all walks of life. They sell only their talents, not their bodies; they are not girls of the street."
The phrase was new, but Ruth nodded understandingly.
"Still," went on the manager, "they are slaves in a sense; they are bought and sold until their original indebtedness is paid. A father is in debt, we'll say. He sells his daughter to a geisha or a sing-song master, and the girl is rented out until the debt is paid. Then the work is optional; they go on their own. There are sing-song girls in Hong-Kong and Shanghai who are famous and wealthy. Sometimes they marry well. If they become bad it is through inclination, not necessity."
Again Ruth nodded.
"To go a little further. Morality is a point of view. It is an Occidental point of view. The Oriental has no equivalent. What you would look upon as immorality is here merely an established custom, three thousand years older than Christianity, accepted with no more ado than that which would accompany you should you become a clerk in a shop."
"That is what I wanted to know," said Ruth gravely. "The poor things!"
The manager laughed. "Your sympathy is being wasted. They are the only happy women in the Orient."
"Do you suppose he knew?"
"He? Oh, you mean Mr. Taber?" He wondered if this crystal being was interested in that blundering fool who had gone recklessly into the city. "I don't know what his idea was."
"Will there be any danger?"
"To Mr. Taber? There is a possibility. Canton at night is as much China as the border town of Lan-Chow-fu. A white man takes his life in his hands. But Ah Cum is widely known for his luck. Besides," he added cynically, "it is said that God watches over fools and drunken men."
This expression was old in Ruth's ears. She had heard the trader utter it many times.
"Thank you," she said, and left the office.
The manager stared at the empty doorway for a space, shrugged, and returned to his ledgers. The uncanny directness of those gray eyes, the absence of diffidence, the beauty of the face in profile (full, it seemed a little too broad to make for perfect beauty), the mellow voice that came full and free, without hesitance, all combined to mark her as the most unusual young woman he had ever met. He was certain that those lips of hers had never known the natural and pardonable simper of youth.
Was she interested in that young ass who was risking his bones over there in the city? They had come up on the same boat. Still, one never could tell. The young fellow was almost as odd in his way as the girl was in hers. He seldom spoke, and drank with a persistence that was sinister. He was never drunk in the accepted meaning of the word; rather he walked in a kind of stupefaction. Supposing Ah Cum's luck failed for once?
The manager made a gesture of dismissal, and added up the bill for the Misses Jedson, who were returning to Hong-Kong in the morning.
Sidney Carton, thought Ruth, in pursuit of a sing-song girl! The idea was so incongruous that a cold little smile parted her lips. It seemed as if each time her imagination reached out investingly, an invisible lash beat it back. Still, she knew instinctively that all of Sidney Carton's life had not been put upon the printed page. But to go courting a slave-girl, at the risk of physical hurt! A shudder of distaste wrinkled her shoulders.
She opened the window, for the night was mild, and sat on the floor with her chin resting upon the window-sill. Even the stars were strangers. Where was this kindly world she had drawn so rosily in fancy? Disillusion everywhere. The spinsters were not kind; they were only curious because she was odd and wore a dress thirty years out of date. Later, when they returned home, she would serve as the topic of many conversations. Everybody looked askance at everybody else. To escape one phase of loneliness she had plunged into another, so vast that her courage sometimes faltered.
She recalled how she had stretched out her arms toward the magic blue horizon. Just beyond there would be her heart's desire. And in these crowded four weeks, what had she learned? That all horizons were lies: that smiles and handshakes and goodbyes and welcomes were lies: that there were really no to-morrows, only a treadmill of to-days: and that out of these lies and mirages she had plucked a bitter truth—she was alone.
She turned her cheek to the cold sill; and by and by the sill grew warm and wet with tears. She wanted to stay where she was; but tears were dangerous; the more she wept, the weaker she would become defensively. She rose briskly, turned on the light, and opened Les Miserables to the episode of the dark forest: where Jean Valjean reaches out and takes Cosette's frightful pail from her chapped little hands.
There must be persons tender and loving in this world. There must be real Valjeans, else how could authors write about them? Supposing some day she met one of these astonishing creators, who could make one cry and laugh and forget, who could thrill one with love and anger and tenderness?
Most of us have witnessed carnivals. Here are all our harlequins and columbines of the spoken and written drama. They flash to and fro, they thrill us with expectancy. Then, presto! What a dreary lot they are when the revellers lay aside the motley!
Ruth had come from a far South Sea isle. The world had not passed by but had gone around it in a tremendous half-circle. Many things were only words, sounds; she could not construct these words and sounds into objects; or, if she did, invariably missed the mark. Her education was remarkable in that it was overdeveloped here and underdeveloped there: the woman of thirty and the child of ten were always getting in each other's way. Until she had left her island, what she heard and what she saw were truths. And now she was discovering that even Nature was something of a liar, with her mirages and her horizons.
At the present moment she was living in a world of her own creation, a carnival of brave men and fair women, characters out of the tales she had so newly read for the first time. She could not resist enduing persons she met with the noble attributes of the fictional characters. We all did that in our youth, when first we came upon a fine story; else we were worthless metal indeed. So, step by step, and hurt by hurt, Ruth was learning that John Smith was John Smith and nobody else.
Presently she was again in that dreadful tavern of the Thenardiers. That was the wonder of these stories; one lived in them. Cosette sat under the table, still as a mouse, fondling her pitiful doll. Dolls. Ruth's gaze wandered from the printed page. She had never had a real doll. Instinct had forced her to create something out of rags to satisfy a mysterious craving. But a doll that rolled its eyes and had flaxen hair! Except for the manual labour—there had been natives to fetch and carry—she and Cosette were sisters in loneliness.
Perhaps an hour passed before she laid aside the book. A bobbing lantern, crossing the bridge—for she had not drawn the curtain—attracted her attention. She turned off the light and approached the window. She saw a pole-chair; that would be this Mr. Taber returning. Evidently Ah Cum's luck had held good.
As she stared her eyes grew accustomed to the night; and she discovered five persons instead of four. She remembered Taber's hat. (What was the name he had given her that day?) He was walking beside the chair upon which appeared to be a bundle of colours. She could not see clearly. All at once her heart began to patter queerly. He was bringing the sing-song girl to the hotel!
The strange cortege presently vanished below the window-sill. Curiosity to see what a sing-song girl was like took possession of Ruth's thoughts. She fought the inclination for a while, then surrendered. She was still fully dressed; so all she had to do was to pause before the mirror and give her hair a few pats.
Mirrors. Prior to the great adventure, her mirrors had been the still pools in the rocks after the ebb. She had never been able to discover where her father had hidden his shaving mirror.
When she entered the office a strange scene was presented to her startled gaze. The sing-song girl, her fiddle broken, was beating her forehead upon the floor and wailing: Ai, ai! Ai, ai! Spurlock—or Taber, as he called himself—sat slumped in a chair, staring with glazed eyes at nothing, absolutely uninterested in the confusion for which he was primarily accountable. The hotel manager was expostulating and Ah Cum was replying by a series of expressive shrugs.
"What has happened?" Ruth asked.
"A drunken idea," said Ah Cum, taking his hands out of his sleeves. "I could not make him understand."
"She cannot stay here," the manager declared.
"Why does she weep?" Ruth wanted to know.
Ah Cum explained. "She considers her future blasted beyond hope. Mr. Taber did not leave all his money in the office. He insisted on buying this girl for two hundred mex. He now tells her that she is free, no longer a slave. She doesn't understand; she believes he has taken a sudden dislike to her. Free, there is nothing left to her but the canal. Until two hours ago she was as contented and as happy as a linnet. If she returns to the house from which we took her, her companions will laugh at her and smother her with ridicule. On this side of the canal she has no place to go. Her people live in Heng-Chow, in the Hu-nan province. It is all very complex. It is the old story of a Westerner meddling with an Eastern custom."
"But why didn't you oppose him?"
"I had to let him have his way, else he might not have returned safely. One cannot successfully argue with a drunken man."
The object of this discussion sat motionless. The voices went into his ears but left no impression of their import. There was, in fact, only one clear thought in his fevered brain: he had reached the hotel without falling down.
The sing-song girl, seeing Ruth, extended her hands and began to chatter rapidly. Ruth made a little gesture, of infinite pity; and this was quickly seized upon by the slant-eyed Chinese girl. She crawled over and caught at the skirts of this white woman who understood.
"What is she saying to me?"
Ah Cum shrugged.
Ruth stared into the painted face, now sundrily cracked by the coursing tears. "But she is saying something to me! What is it?"
The hotel manager, who spoke Cantonese with facility, interpreted. He knew that he could translate literally. "She is saying that you, a woman, will readily understand the position in which she finds herself. She addresses you as the Flower of the Lotus, as the Resplendent Moonbeam."
"Just to give her her freedom?" said Ruth, turning to Ah Cum.
"Precisely. The chair is in the veranda. I will take her back. But of course the money will not be refunded.
"Then take her back," said the manager. "You knew better than to bring her here under the circumstances."
"Well," said Ah Cum, amiably, "when I argued against the venture, he threatened to go wandering about alone, I was most concerned in bringing him back unhurt."
He then spoke authoritatively to the girl. He appeared to thunder dire happenings if she did not obey him without further ado. He picked up the broken fiddle and beckoned. The sing-song girl rose and meekly pattered out of the office into the night.
Ruth crossed over to the dramatist of this tragicomedy and put a hand on his shoulder.
"I understand," she said. Her faith in human beings revived. "You tried to do something that was fine, and ... and civilization would not let you."
Spurlock turned his dull eyes and tried to focus hers. Suddenly he burst into wild laughter; but equally as suddenly something strangled the sound in his throat. He reached out a hand gropingly, sagged, and toppled out of the chair to the floor, where he lay very still.
The astonishing collapse of Spurlock created a tableau of short duration. Then the hotel manager struck his palms together sharply, and two Chinese "boys" came pattering in from the dining room. With a gesture which was without any kind of emotional expression, the manager indicated the silent crumpled figure on the floor and gave the room number. The Chinamen raised the limp body and carried it to the hall staircase, up which they mounted laboriously.
"A doctor at once!" cried Ruth excitedly.
"A doctor? What he needs is a good jolt of aromatic spirits of ammonia. I can get that at the bar," the manager said, curtly. He was not particularly grateful for the present situation.
"I warn you, if you do not send for a doctor immediately, you will have cause to regret it," Ruth declared vigorously. "Something more than whisky did that. Why did you let him have it?"
"Let him have it? I can't stand at the elbow of any of the guests and regulate his or her actions. So long as a man behaves himself, I can't refuse him liquor. But I'll call a doctor, since you order it. You'll be wasting his time. It is a plain case of alcoholic stupor. I've seen many cases like it."
He summoned another "boy" and rumbled some Cantonese. Immediately the "boy" went forth with his paper lantern, repeating a cry as he ran—warning to clear the way.
"Have the aromatic spirits of ammonia sent to Mr. Taber's room at once," Ruth ordered. "I will administer it."
"You, Miss Enschede?"—frankly astonished that one stranger should offer succour to another.
"There is nobody else. Someone ought to be with him until the doctor arrives. He may die."
The manager made a negative sign. "Your worry is needless."
"It wasn't the fumes of whisky that toppled him out of his chair. It was his heart. I once saw a man die after collapsing that way."
"You once saw a man die that way?" the manager echoed, his recent puzzlement returning full tide. Hartford, Connecticut; she had registered that address; but there was something so mystifyingly Oriental about her that the address only thickened the haze behind which she moved. "Where?"
"That can wait," she answered. "Please hurry the ammonia;" and Ruth turned away abruptly.
Above she found the two Chinamen squatted at the side of the door. They rose as she approached. She hastened past. She immediately took the pillows from under the head of the man who had two names, released the collar and tie, and arranged the arms alongside the body. His heart was beating, but faintly and slowly, with ominous intermissions. All alone; and nobody cared whether he lived or died.
She was now permitted freely to study the face. The comparisons upon which she could draw were few and confusingly new, mixed with reality and the loose artistic conceptions of heroes in fiction. The young male, as she had actually seen him, had been of the sailor type, hard-bitten, primordial, ruthless. For the face under her gaze she could find but one expression—fine. The shape of the head, the height and breadth of the brow, the angle of the nose, the cut of the chin and jaws, all were fine, of a type she had never before looked upon closely.
She saw now that it was not a dissipated face; it was as smooth and unlined as polished marble, which at present it resembled. Still, something had marked the face, something had left an indelible touch. Perhaps the sunken cheeks and the protruding cheekbones gave her this impression. What reassured her, however, more than anything else, was the shape of the mouth: it was warmly turned. The confirmed drunkard's mouth at length sets itself peculiarly; it becomes the mark by which thoughtful men know him. It was not in evidence here, not a sign of it.
A drunken idea, Ah Cum had called it. And yet it was basically a fine action. To buy the freedom of a poor little Chinese slave-girl! For what was the sing-song girl but a slave, the double slave of custom and of men? Ruth wanted to know keenly what had impelled the idea. Had he been trying to stop the grim descent, and had he dimly perceived that perhaps a fine deed would serve as the initial barrier? A drunken idea—a pearl in the midst of a rubbish heap. That terrible laughter, just before his senses had left him!
Why? Here was a word that volleyed at her from all directions, numbed and bewildered her: the multiple echoes of her own first utterance of the word. Why wasn't the world full of love, when love made happiness? Why did people hide their natural kindliness as if it were something shameful? Why shouldn't people say what they thought and act as they were inclined? Why all this pother about what one's neighbour thought, when this pother was not energized by any good will? Why was truth avoided as the plague? Why did this young man have one name on the hotel register and another on his lips? Why was she bothering about him at all? Why should there be this inexplicable compassion, when the normal sensation should have been repellance? Sidney Carton. Was that it? Had she clothed this unhappy young man with glamour? Or was it because he was so alone? She could not get through the husks to the kernel of what really actuated her.
Somewhere in the world would be his people, perhaps his mother; and it might soften the bitterness, of the return to consciousness if he found a woman at his bedside. More than this, it would serve to mitigate her own abysmal loneliness to pool it temporarily with his.
She drew up a chair and sat down, putting her palm on the damp, cold forehead. A bad sign; it signified that the heart action was in a precarious state. So far he had not stirred; from his bloodless lips had come no sound.
At length the manager arrived; and together he and Ruth succeeded in getting some of the aromatic spirits of ammonia down the patient's throat. But nothing followed to indicate that the liquid had stimulated the heart.
"You see?" Ruth said.
The manager conceded that he saw, that his original diagnosis was at fault. Superimposed was the agitating thought of what would follow the death of this unwelcome guest: confusion, poking authorities, British and American red tape. It would send business elsewhere; and the hotel business in Canton was never so prosperous that one could afford to lose a single guest. Clientele was of the most transitory character.
And then, there would be the question of money. Would there be enough in the young man's envelope to pay the doctor and the hotel bill—and in the event of his death, enough to ship the body home? So all things pointed to the happy circumstance of setting this young fool upon his feet again, of seeing him hence upon his journey. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
An hour later the doctor arrived; and after a thorough examination, he looked doubtful.
"He is dying?" whispered Ruth.
"Well, without immediate care he would have passed out. He's on the ragged edge. It depends upon what he was before he began this racket. Drink, and no sustaining food. But while there's life there's hope. There isn't a nurse this side of Hong-Kong to be had. I've only a Chinaman who is studying under me; but he's a good sport and will help us out during the crisis. This chap's recovery all depends upon the care he receives."
Out of nowhere Ruth heard her voice saying: "I will see to that."
"No. I do not even know his name."
The doctor sent her a sharp, quizzical glance. He could not quite make her out; a new type.
"Taber," said the manager; "Taber is the name."
For some reason she did not then understand, Ruth did not offer the information that Taber had another name.
"This is very fine of you, Miss...."
"Ah. Well, come back in half an hour. I'll send for Wu Fang. He speaks English. Not a job he may care about; but he's a good sport. The hard work will be his, until we yank this young fellow back from the brink. Run along now; but return in half an hour."
The doctor was in the middle fifties, gray and careworn, but with alert blue eyes and a gentle mouth. He smiled at Ruth as she turned away from the bed, smiled with both his mouth and eyes; and she knew that here would be a man of heart as well as of science. She went out into the hall, where she met the Jedsons in their kimonos.
"What has happened?" asked Sister Prudence. "We've heard coming and going."
"Mr. Taber is very ill."
"Oh." Prudence shrugged. "Well, what can you expect, guzzling poison like that? Are you returning with us to Hong-Kong in the morning?"
"No. I am going to help take care of him," said Ruth, quite ordinarily, as though taking care of unknown derelicts was an ordinary event in her life.
"What?—help take care of him? Why, you can't do that, Miss Enschede!" was the protest.
"Why can't I?"
"You will be compromised. It isn't as if he were stricken with typhoid or pneumonia or something like that. You will certainly be compromised."
"Compromised." Ruth repeated the word, not in the effect of a query, but ruminantly. "Mutual concessions," she added. "I don't quite understand the application."
Sister Prudence looked at Sister Angelina, who understood what was expected of her. Sister Angelina shook her head as if to say that such ignorance was beyond her.
"Why, it means that people will think evilly of you."
"For a bit of kindness?" Ruth was plainly bewildered.
"You poor child!" Prudence took Ruth's hands in her own. "I never saw the like of you! One has to guard one's actions constantly in this wicked world, if one is a woman, young and pretty. A woman such as I am might help take care of Mr. Taber and no one comment upon it. But you couldn't. Never in this world! Let the hotel people take care of him; it's their affair. They sold him the whisky. Come along with us in the morning. Your father...."
Prudence felt the hands stiffen oddly; and again the thought came to her that perhaps this poor child's father had once been, perhaps still was, in the same category as this Taber.
"It's a fine idea, my child, but you mustn't do it. Even if he were an old friend, you couldn't afford to do it. But a total stranger, a man you never saw twenty-four hours ago! It can't be thought of. It isn't your duty."
"I feel bewildered," said Ruth. "Is it wrong, then, to surrender to good impulses?"
"In the present instance, yes. Can't I make you understand? Perhaps it sounds cruel to you; but we women often have to be cruel defensively. You don't want people to snub you later. This isn't your island, child; it's the great world."
"So I perceive," said Ruth, withdrawing her hands. "He is all alone. Without care he will die."
"But, goodness me, the hotel will take care of him! Why not? They sold him the poison. Besides, I have my doubts that he is so very sick. Probably he will come around to-morrow and begin all over again. You're alone, too, child. I'm trying to make you see the worldly point of view, which always inclines toward the evil side of things."
"I have promised. After all, why should I care what strangers think?" Ruth asked with sudden heat. "Is there no charity? Isn't it understood?"
"Of course it is! In the present instance I can offer it and you can't, or shouldn't. There are unwritten laws governing human conduct. Who invented them? Nobody knows. But woe to those who disregard them! Of course, basically it is all wrong; and sometimes God must laugh at our ideas of rectitude. But to live at peace with your neighbour...."
Ruth brushed her eyes with one hand and with the other signed for the spinster to stop. "No more, please! I am bewildered enough. I understand nothing of what you say. I only know that it is right to do what I do."
"Well," said Sister Prudence, "remember, I tried to save you some future heartaches. God bless you, anyhow!" she added, with a spontaneity which surprised Sister Angelina into uttering an individual gasp. "Good-bye!"
For a moment Ruth was tempted to fling herself against the withered bosom; but long since she had learned repression. She remained stonily in the middle of the hallway until the spinsters' door shut them from view ... for ever.
Slowly Ruth entered her own room. She opened her suitcase—new and smelling strongly of leather—and took out of it a book, dogeared and precariously held together, bound in faded blue cloth and bearing the inscription: The Universal Handbook. Herein was the sum of human knowledge in essence.
In the beginning it was a dictionary. Words were given with their original meaning, without their ramifications. If you were a poet in need of rhymes, you had only to turn to a certain page. Or, if you were about to embark upon a nautical career, here was all the information required. It also told you how to write on all occasions, how to take out a patent, how to doctor a horse, and who Achates was. You could, if you were ambitious to round out your education, memorize certain popular foreign phrases.
But beyond "amicable agreement in which mutual concessions are made," the word "compromise" was as blank as the Canton wall at night. There were words, then, that ran on indefinitely, with reversals? Here they meant one thing; there, the exact opposite. To be sure, Ruth had dimly been aware of this; but now for the first time she was made painfully conscious of it. Mutual concessions!—and then to turn it around so that it suggested that an act of kindness might be interpreted as moral obloquy!
Walls; queer, invisible walls that receded whenever she reached out, but that still remained between her and what she sought. The wall of the sky, the wall of the horizon, the wall behind which each human being hid—the wall behind which she herself was hiding! If only her mother had lived, her darling mother!
Presently the unhappy puzzlement left her face; and an inward glow began to lighten it. The curtain before one mystery was torn aside, and she saw in reality what lay behind the impulse that had led her into the young man's room. Somebody to whom she would be necessary, who for days would have to depend upon her for the needs of life. An inarticulate instinct which now found expression. Upon what this instinct was based she could not say; she was conscious only of its insistence. Briefly explained, she was as the child who discards the rag baby for the living one. Spurlock was no longer a man before this instinct; he was a child in trouble.
Her cogitations were dissipated by a knock on the door. The visitor was the hotel manager, who respectfully announced that the doctor was ready for her. So Ruth took another step toward her destination, which we in our vanity call destiny.
"Will he live?" asked Ruth.
"Thanks to you," said the doctor. "Without proper medical care, he would have been dead by morning." He smiled at her as he smiled at death, cheerfully.
The doctor's smile is singular; there is no other smile that reaches the same level. It is the immediate inspiration of confidence; it alleviates pain, because we know by that smile that pain is soon to leave us; it becomes the bulwark against our depressive thoughts of death; and it is the promise that we still have a long way to go before we reach the Great Terminal.
In passing, why do we fear death? For our sins? Rather, isn't it the tremendous inherent human curiosity to know what is going to happen to-morrow that causes us to wince at the thought of annihilation? A subconscious resentment against the idea of entering darkness while our neighbour will proceed with his petty affairs as usual?
"It's nip and tuck," said the doctor; "but we'll pull him through. Probably his first serious bout with John Barleycorn. If he had eaten food, this wouldn't have happened. It is not a dissipated face."
"No; it is only—what shall I say?—troubled. The ragged edge."
"Yes. This is also the ragged edge of the world, too. It is the bottom of the cup, where all the dregs appear to settle. But this chap is good wine yet. We'll have him on his way before many days. But ... he must want to live in order that the inclination to repeat this incident may not recur. The manager tells me that you are an American. So am I. For ten years I've been trying to go home, but my conscience will not permit me, I hate the Orient. It drives one mad at times. Superstition—you knock into it whichever way you turn. The Oriental accepts my medicines kowtowing, and when my back is turned, chucks the stuff out of the window and burns joss-sticks. I hate this part of the world."
"So do I," replied Ruth.
"You have lived over here?"—astonished.
"I was born in the South Seas and I am on my way to America, to an aunt."
"Well, it's mighty fine of you to break your journey in this fashion—for someone you don't know, a passer-by."
He held out his dry hard hand into which she placed hers. The manager had sketched the girl's character, or rather had interpreted it, from the incidents which had happened since dinner. "You will find her new." New? That did not describe her. Here, indeed, was a type with which he had never until now come into contact—a natural woman. She would be extraordinarily interesting as a metaphysical study. She would be surrendering to all her impulses—particularly the good impulses—many of which society had condemned long since because they entailed too much trouble. Imagine her, putting herself to all this delay and inconvenience for a young wastrel she did not know and who, the moment he got on his feet, would doubtless pass out of her life without so much as Thank you! And it was ten to one that she would not comprehend the ingratitude. To such characters, fine actions are in themselves sufficient.
Perhaps her odd beauty—and that too was natural—stirred these thoughts into being. Ashen blonde, a shade that would never excite the cynical commentary which men applied to certain types of blondes. It would be protective; it would with age turn to silver unnoticeably. A disconcerting gray eye that had a mystifying depth. In the artificial light her skin had the tint and lustre of a yellow pearl. She would be healthy, too, and vigorous. Not the explosive vigour of the north-born, but that which would quietly meet physical hardships and bear them triumphantly.
All this while he was arranging the medicines on the stand and jotting down his instructions on a chart sheet. He had absorbed her in a single glance, and was now defining her as he worked. After a while he spoke again.
"Our talking will not bother him. He will be some time in this comatose state. Later, there will be fever, after I've got his heart pumping. Now, he must have folks somewhere. I'm going through his pockets. It's only right that his people should know where he is and what has happened to him."
But he searched in vain. Aside from some loose coin and a trunk key, there was nothing in the pockets: no mail, no letter of credit, not even a tailor's label. Immediately he grasped the fact that there was drama here, probably the old drama of the fugitive. He folded the garments carefully and replaced them on the chair.
"I'm afraid we'll have to dig into his trunk," he said. "There's nothing in his clothes. Perhaps I ought not to; but this isn't a case to fiddle-faddle over. Will you stand by and watch me?"
The contents of the trunk only thickened the fog. Here again the clothes were minus the labels. All the linen was new and stamped with the mark of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co., British merchants with branches all over the East. At the bottom of the trunk was a large manila envelope, unmarked. The doctor drew out the contents hopefully.
"By George!" he exclaimed. "Manuscripts! Why, this chap is a writer, or is trying to be. And will you look! His name neatly cut out from each title page. This is clear over my head."
"A novelist?" cried Ruth, thrilling. And yet the secondary emotion was one of suspicion. That a longing of hers should be realized in this strange fashion was difficult to believe: it vaguely suggested something of a trap.
"Or trying to be," answered the doctor. "Evidently he could not destroy these children of his. No doubt they've all been rejected; but he couldn't throw them overboard. I suspect he has a bit of vanity. I'll tell you what. I'll leave these out, and to-morrow you can read them through. Somewhere you may stumble upon a clew to his identity. To-morrow I'll wire Cook's and the American Express in Hong-Kong to see if there is any mail. Taber is the name. What is he—English or American?"
"American. What is a Yale man?"
"Did he say he was a Yale man?"
"He and Ah Cum were talking...."
"I see. Ah Cum is a Yale man and so is this Taber."
"But what is it?"
"An American university. Now, I'll be getting along. Give him his medicine every half hour. Keep his arms down. I'll have my man Wu over here as soon as I can get in touch with him. We'll get this chap on his feet if only to learn what the trouble is."
Downstairs he sought the hotel manager.
"Can you pull him through?" was the anxious question.
"Hope to. The next few hours will tell. But it's an odd case. His name is Taber?"
"Confidentially, I'm assured that he has another."
"What gives you that idea?"
"Well, we could find no letter of credit, no letters, no labels in his clothes—not a single clew to his real identity. And stony broke."
"Not quite," replied the manager. "He left an envelope with some money in it. Perhaps I'd better open it now." The envelope contained exactly five hundred dollars. "How long will he be laid up?"
"Three or four weeks, if he doesn't peg out during the night."
The manager began some computations. "There won't be much left for you," he said.
"That's usual. There never is much left for me. But I'm not worrying about that. The thing is to get the patient on his feet. He may have resources of which we know nothing," the doctor added optimistically.
"But, I say, that girl is a queer one."
"I shouldn't call her queer. She's fine. She'll be mighty interesting to watch."
"For an old bachelor?"
"A human old bachelor. Has she any funds?"
"She must have. She's headed for America. Of course, I don't believe she's what you would call flush. But I'll take care of her bill, if worst comes to worst. Evidently her foresight has saved me a funeral. I'll remember that. But "fine" is the word. How the deuce, though, am I going to account for her? People will be asking questions when they see her; and if I tell the truth, they'll start to snubbing her. You understand what I mean. I don't want her hurt. But we've got to cook up some kind of a story to protect her."
"I hadn't thought of that. It wouldn't do to say that she was from the hospital. She's too pretty and unusual. Besides, I'm afraid her simple honesty will spoil any invented yarn. When anybody is natural, these days, we dub them queer. The contact is disturbing; and we prefer going around the fact to facing it. Aren't we funny? And just as I was beginning to lose faith in human beings, to have someone like this come along! It is almost as if she were acting a role, and she isn't. I'll talk to her in the morning, but she won't understand what I'm driving at. Born on a South Sea island, she said."
"Ah! Now I can get a perspective. This is her first adventure. She isn't used to cities."
"But how in the Lord's name was she brought up? There's a queer story back of this somewhere."
The manager extended his hands at large, as if to deny any responsibility in the affair. "Never heard of a sing-song girl; never heard of a geisha! Flower of the Lotus: the sing-song girl called her that."
"The White Hollyhock would fit her better. There is something sensual in the thought of lotus flowers. Hollyhocks make one think of a bright June Sunday and the way to church!"
"Do you suppose that young fool has done anything?"
The doctor shrugged. "I don't know. I shouldn't care to express an opinion. I ought to stay the night through; but I'm late now for an operation at the hospital. Good night."
He departed, musing. How plainly he could see the patch of garden in the summer sunshine and the white hollyhocks nodding above the picket fence!
* * * * *
Ruth sat waiting for the half hour, subconsciously. Her thoughts were busy with the possibilities of this break in her journey. Somebody to depend upon her; somebody to have need of her, if only for a little while. In all her life no living thing had had to depend upon her, not even a dog or a cat. All other things were without weight or consequence before the fact that this poor young man would have to depend upon her for his life. The amazing tonic of the thought!
From time to time she laid her hand upon Spurlock's forehead: it was still cold. But the rise of the chest was quite perceptible now.
From where had he come, and why? An author! To her he would be no less interesting because he was unsuccessful. Stories ... love stories: and to-morrow she would know the joy of reading them! It was almost unbelievable; it was too good to be true. It filled her with indefinable fear. Until now none of her prayers had ever been answered. Why should God give particular attention to such a prayer, when He had ignored all others? Certainly there was a trap somewhere.
So, while she watched, distressed and bewildered by her tumbling thoughts, the packet, Canton bound, ruffled the placid waters of the Pearl River. In one of the cabins a man sat on the edge of his narrow bunk. In his muscular pudgy hand was a photograph, frayed at the corners, soiled from the contact of many hands: the portrait of a youth of eighteen.
The man was thick set, with a bright roving eye. The blue jaws suggested courage and tenacity. It was not a hard face, but it was resolute. As he balanced the photograph, a humorous twinkle came into his eyes.
Pure luck! If the boy had grown a moustache or a beard, a needle in the haystack would have been soft work. To stumble upon the trail through the agency of a bottle of whisky! Drank queer; so his bottle had rendered him conspicuous. And now, only twenty-four hours behind him ... that is, if he wasn't paddling by on the return route to Hong-Kong or had dropped down to Macao. But that possibility had been anticipated. He would have to return to Hong-Kong; and his trail would be picked up the moment he set foot on the Praya.
Pure luck! But for that bottle of whisky, nobody in the Hong-Kong Hotel would have been able to identify the photograph; and at this hour James Boyle O'Higgins would have been on the way to Yokohama, and the trail lost for ever.
The Hong-Kong packet lay alongside the warehouse frontage. Ah Cum patrolled the length of the boat innumerable times, but never letting his glance stray far from the gangplank. This was automatically rather than thoughtfully done; habit. His mind was busy with a resume of yesterday's unusual events.
The young man desperately ill and the girl taking care of him! Of course, there could be only one ending to such a bout with liquor, and that ending had come perhaps suddenly but not surprisingly. But the girl stood outside the circle of Ah Cum's knowledge—rather profound—of human impulses. Somehow logic could not explain her. Why should she trouble herself over that young fool, who was nothing to her; who, when he eventually sobered up, would not be able to recognize her, or if he did, as something phantasmagorical?