Ruth lost the point entirely. The doctor expected her to seize upon the subtl_nference that there was something furtive, even criminal, in the manner th_atient set this obligation upon humanity at large, to look after him in th_vent of his death. The idea of anything criminal never entered her thoughts.
Any man might have endeavoured to protect himself in this fashion, a man wit_o one to care, with an unnameable terror at the thought (as if it mattered!) of being buried in alien earth, far from the familiar places he loved.
Close upon this came another thought. She had no place she loved. In all thi_orld there was no sacred ground that said to her: Return! She was of al_uman beings the most lonely. Even now, during the recurring doubts of th_uture, the thought of the island was repellent. She hated it, she hated th_ission-house; she hated the sleek lagoon, the palms, the burning sky. Bu_ome day she would find a place to love: there would be rosy apples on th_oughs, and there would be flurries of snow blowing into her face. It wa_stonishing how often this picture returned: cold rosy apples and flurries o_now.
"The poor young man!" she said.
The doctor sensed that his bolt had gone wrong, but he could not tell how o_hy. He dared not go on. He was not sure that the boy had put himself beyon_he pale; merely, the boy's actions pointed that way. If he laid his ow_uspicions boldly before the girl, and in the end the boy came clean, he woul_lways be haunted by the witless cruelty of the act.
That night in his den he smoked many pipes. Twice he cleaned the old briar; still there was no improvement. He poured a pinch of tobacco into his palm an_niffed. The weed was all right. Probably something he had eaten. He wa_lways forgetting that his tummy was fifty-four years old.
He would certainly welcome McClintock's advent. Mac would have some new yarn_o spin and a fresh turn-over to his celebrated liver. He was a comforting, humorous old ruffian; but there were few men in the Orient more deeply read i_sychology and physiognomy. It was, in a way, something of a joke to th_octor: psychology and physiognomy on an island which white folks did no_isit more than three or four times a year, only then when they had to. Wh_id the beggar hang on down there, when he could have enjoyed all tha_ivilization had to offer? Yes, he would be mighty glad to see McClintock; an_he sooner he came the better.
Sometimes at sea a skipper will order his men to trim, batten down th_atches, and clear the deck of all litter. The barometer says nothing, neithe_he sky nor the water; the skipper has the "feel" that out yonder there's _ig blow moving. Now the doctor had the "feel" that somewhere ahead la_anger. It was below consciousness, elusive; so he sent out a call to hi_riend, defensively.
* * * * *
At the end of each day Ah Cum would inquire as to the progress of the patient, and invariably the answer was: "About the same." This went on for ten days.
Then Ah Cum was notified that the patient had sat up in bed for quarter of a_our. Promptly Ah Cum wired the information to O'Higgins in Hong-Kong. Th_etective reckoned that his quarry would be up in ten days more.
To Ruth the thought of Hartford no longer projected upon her vision a city o_pires and houses and tree-lined streets. Her fanciful imagination no longe_rew pictures of the aunt in the doorway of a wooden house, her arms extende_n welcome. The doctor's lessons, perhaps delivered with too much seriou_mphasis, had destroyed that buoyant confidence in her ability to take care o_erself.
Between Canton and Hartford two giants had risen, invisible but menacing—Fea_nd Doubt. The unknown, previously so attractive, now presented anothe_ace—blank. The doctor had not heard from his people. She was reasonabl_ertain why. They did not want her.
Thus, all her interest in life began to centre upon the patient, who wa_pparently quite as anchorless as she was. Sometimes a whole morning woul_ass without Spurlock uttering a word beyond the request for a drink of water.
Again, he would ask a few questions, and Ruth would answer them. He woul_epeat them innumerable times, and patiently Ruth would repeat her answers.
"What is your name?"
"Enschede; Ruth Enschede."
"En-shad-ay. You are French?"
"No. Dutch; Pennsylvania Dutch."
And then his interest would cease. Perhaps an hour later he would begin again.
At other times he seemed to have regained the normal completely. He woul_iscuss something she had been reading, and he would give her some unexpecte_ngle, setting a fictional character before her with astonishing clearness.
Then suddenly the curtain would fall.
"What is your name?" To-day, however, he broke the monotony. "An American.
Enschede—that's a queer name."
"I'm a queer girl," she replied with a smile.
Perhaps this was the real turning point: the hour in which the disordered min_egan permanently to readjust itself.
"I've been wondering, until this morning, if you were real."
"I've been wondering, too."
"Are you a real nurse?"
"Why do you wish to know?"
"Professional nurses wear a sort of uniform."
"While I look as if I had stepped out of the family album?"
He frowned perplexedly. "Where did I hear that before?"
"Perhaps that first day, in the water-clock tower."
"I imagine I've been in a kind of trance."
"And now you are back in the world again, with things to do and places to go.
There is a button loose on that coat under your pillow. Shall I sew it on fo_ou?"
"If you wish."
This readiness to surrender the coat to her surprised Ruth. She had prepare_erself to meet violent protest, a recurrence of that burning glance. But in _oment she believed she understood. He was normal now, and the coat was only _oat. It had been his fevered imagination that had endued the garment wit_ome extraordinary value. Gently she raised his head and withdrew the coa_rom under the pillow.
"Why did I want it under my pillow?" he asked.
"You were a little out of your head."
Gravely he watched the needle flash to and fro. He noted the strong whit_eeth as they snipped the thread. At length the task was done, and she jabbe_he needle into a cushion, folded the coat, and rose.
"Do you want it back under the pillow?"
"Hang it over a chair. Or, better still, put all my clothes in the trunk. The_itter up the room. The key is in my trousers."
This business over, she returned to the bedside with the key. She felt _ittle ashamed of herself, a bit of a hypocrite. Every article in the trun_as fully known to her, through a recounting of the list by the doctor. T_and the key back in silence was like offering a lie.
"Put it under my pillow," he said.
Immediately she had spoken of the loose button he knew that henceforth he mus_how no concern over the disposition of that coat. He must not in any way cal_heir attention to it. He must preserve it, however, as they preserved the Ar_f the Covenant. It was his redemption, his ticket out of hell—that blue-serg_oat. To witness this girl sewing on a loose button, flopping the coat abou_n her knees, tickled his ironic sense of humour; and laughter bubbled int_is throat. He smothered it down with such a good will that the reaction se_is heart to pounding. The walls rocked, the footrail of the bed wavered, an_he girl's head had the nebulosity of a composite photograph. So he shut hi_yes. Presently he heard her voice.
"I must tell you," she was saying. "We went through your belongings. We di_ot know where to send … in case you died. There was nothing in the pockets o_he coat."
"Don't worry about that." He opened his eyes again.
"I wanted you to know. There is nobody, then?"
"Oh, there is an aunt. But if I were dying of thirst, in a desert, I would no_ccept a cup of water at her hands. Will you read to me? I am tired; and th_ound of your voice makes me drowsy."
Half an hour later she laid aside the book. He was asleep. She leaned forward, her chin in her palms, her elbows on her knees, and she set her gaze upon hi_ace and kept it there in dreamy contemplation. Supposing he too wanted lov_nd his arms were as empty as hers?
Some living thing that depended upon her. The doll she had never owned, th_at and the dog that had never been hers: here they were, strangel_ncorporated in this sleeping man. He depended upon her, for his medicine, fo_is drink, for the little amusement it was now permissible to give him. Th_nowledge breathed into her heart a satisfying warmth.
At noon the doctor himself arrived. "Go to lunch," he ordered Ruth. He wante_o talk with the patient, test him variously; and he wanted to be alone wit_im while he put these tests. His idea was to get behind this sustaine_istlessness. "How goes it?" he began, heartily. "A bit up in the world again; eh?"
"Why did you bother with me?"
"Because no human being has the right to die. Death belongs to God, youn_an."
"Ah." The tone was neutral.
"And had you been the worst scoundrel unhung, I'd have seen to it that you ha_he same care, the same chance. But don't thank me; thank Miss Enschede. Sh_aught the fact that it was something more than strong drink that laid yo_ut. If they hadn't sent for me, you'd have pegged out before morning."
"Then I owe my life to her?"
"What do you want me to do?"
The doctor thought this query gave hopeful promise. "Always remember the fact.
She is something different. When I told her that there were no availabl_urses this side of Hong-Kong, she offered her services at once, and broke he_ourney. And I need not tell you that her hotel bill is running on the same a_ours."
"Do you want me to tell her that I am grateful?"
"Well, aren't you?"
"I don't know; I really don't know."
"Look here, my boy, that attitude is all damned nonsense. Here you are, young, sound, with a heart that will recover in no time, provided you keep liquor ou_f it. And you talk like that! What the devil have you been up to, to land i_his bog?" It was a cast at random.
His guardian angel warned Spurlock to speak carefully. "I have been ver_nhappy."
"So have we all. But we get over it. And you will."
After a moment Spurlock said: "Perhaps I am an ungrateful dog."
"That's better. Remember, if there's anything you'd like to get off you_hest, doctors and priests are in the same boat."
With no little effort—for the right words had a way of tumbling back out o_each—he marshalled his phrases, and as he uttered them, closed his eyes t_essen the possibility of a break. "I'm only a benighted fool; and having sai_hat, I have said everything. I'm one of those unfortunate duffers who hav_oo much imagination—the kind who build their own chimeras and then run awa_rom them. How long shall I be kept in this bed?"
"That's particularly up to you. Ten days should see you on your feet. But i_ou don't want to get up, maybe three times ten days."
There had never been, from that fatal hour eight months gone down to this, th_nclination to confess. He had often read about it, and once he ha_ncorporated it in a story, that invisible force which sent men to prison an_o the gallows, when a tongue controlled would have meant liberty indefinite.
As for himself, there had never been a touch of it. It was less will tha_ducation. Even in his fevered hours, so the girl had said, his tongue had no_etrayed him. Perhaps that sealed letter was a form of confession, and thu_elieved him on that score. And yet that could not be: it was a confessio_nly in the event of his death. Living, he knew that he would never send tha_etter.
His conscience, however, was entirely another affair. He could neither stifl_or deaden that. It was always jabbing him with white-hot barbs, waking o_leeping. But it never said: "Tell someone! Tell someone!" Was he something o_ moral pervert, then? Was it what he had lost—the familiar world—rather tha_hat he had done?
He stared dully at the footrail. For the present the desire to fly was gone.
No doubt that was due to his helplessness. When he was up and about, the ide_f flight would return. But how far could he fly on a few hundred? True, h_ight find a job somewhere; but every footstep from behind…!
"Who is she? Where does she come from?"
"You mean Miss Enschede?"
"Yes. That dress she has on—my mother might have worn it."
He was beginning to notice things, then? The doctor was pleased. The boy wa_oming around.
"Miss Enschede was born on an island in the South Seas. She is setting out fo_artford, Connecticut. The dress was her mother's, and she was wearing it t_ave a little extra money."
The doctor had entered the room fully determined to tell the patient the majo_art of Ruth's story, to inspire him with proper respect and gratitude.
Instead, he could not get beyond these minor details—why she wore the dress, whence she had come, and whither she was bound. The idea of this sudde_eluctance was elusive; the fact was evident but not the reason for it.
"How would you like a job on a copra plantation?" he asked, irrelevantly t_he thoughts crowding one another in his mind. "Out of the beaten track, wit_ real man for an employer? How would that strike you?"
Interest shot into Spurlock's eyes; it spread to his wan face. Out of th_eaten track! He must not appear too eager. "I'll need a job when I quit thi_ed. I'm not particular what or where."
"That kind of talk makes you sound like a white man. Of course, I can'_romise you the job definitely. But I've an old friend on the way here, and h_nows the game down there. If he hasn't a job for you, he'll know someone wh_as. Managers and accountants are always shifting about, so he tells me. It'_ighty lonesome down there for a man bred to cities."
"Find me the job. I don't care how lonesome it is."
Out of the beaten track! thought Spurlock. A forgotten island beyond the shi_anes, where that grim Hand would falter and move blindly in its search fo_im! From what he had read, there wouldn't be much to do; and in the idl_ours he could write.
"Thanks," he said, holding out a thin white hand. "I'll be very glad to tak_hat kind of a job, if you can find it."
"Well, that's fine. Got you interested in something, then? Would you like _eg?"
"No. I hated the stuff. There was a pleasant numbness in the bottle; that'_hy I went to it."
"Thought so. But I had to know for sure. Down there, whisky raises the ver_evil with white men. Don't build your hopes too high; but I will do what _an. While there's life there's hope. Buck up."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"You or this girl. There are, then, in this sorry world, people who can b_isinterestedly kind!"
The doctor laughed, gave Spurlock's shoulder a pat, and left the room. Outsid_he door he turned and stared at the panels. Why hadn't he gone on with th_irl's story? What instinct had stuffed it back into his throat? Why th_nexplicable impulse to hurry this rather pathetic derelict on his way?