He had said it, spoken it like that … his own name! After all these weeks o_rying to obliterate even the memory of it!… to have given it to this gir_ithout her asking!
The thought of peril cleared a space in the alcoholic fog. He saw th_xpression on the girl's face and understood what it signified, that it wa_he reflected pattern of his own. He shut his eyes and groped for the wall t_teady himself, wondering if this bit of mummery would get over.
"I beg your pardon!… A bit rocky this morning…. That window there…. Cloud bac_f your hat!" He opened his eyes again.
"I understand," she said. The poor boy, imagining things! "That's want o_ubstantial 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 bu_ flavour; and the cocoanut taste of the chestnuts soothed his burning tongu_nd throat. He had let go his name so easily as that! What was the name sh_ad given? Ruth something; he could not remember. What a frightened fool h_as! If he could not remember her name, it was equally possible that alread_he had forgotten his. Conscience was always digging sudden pits for his fee_nd common sense ridiculing his fears. Mirages, over which he was constantl_hrowing bridges which were wasted efforts, since invariably they spanne_olid ground.
But he would make it a point not to speak again to the girl. If he adhered t_his policy—to keep away from her inconspicuously—she would forget the name b_ight, and to-morrow even the bearer of it would sink below the level o_ecollection. That was life. They were only passers-by.
Drink for him had a queer phase. It did not cheer or fortify him with fals_ourage and recklessness; it simply enveloped him in a mist of unreality. _hudder rippled across his shoulders. He hated the taste of it. The first pe_as torture. But for all that, it offered relief; his brain, stupefied by th_umes, grew dull, and conscience lost its edge to bite.
He wiped the sweat from his chin and forehead. His hand shook so violentl_hat he dropped the handkerchief; and he let it lie on the floor because h_ared not stoop.
Ah Cum, sensing the difficulty, approached, recovered the damp handkerchie_nd returned it.
"Very interesting," said the Chinaman, with a wave of his tapering hand towar_he 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. Spurloc_ffered his hand, which Ah Cum accepted gravely. A broken laugh followed th_ction. "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 huma_eing. "Yale!" A Chinaman who had gone to Yale!
"Yes. Civil engineering. Mentally but not physically competent. Had to give u_he work and take to this. I'm not noble; so my honourable ancestors will no_urn over in their graves."
"Graves." Spurlock pointed in the sloping fields outside the walls. "I'v_ounted ten coffins so far."
"Ah, yes. The land about these walls is a common graveyard. Every day in th_ear you will witness such scenes. There are no funerals among the poor, onl_urials. And many of these deaths could be avoided if it were not fo_uperstition. Superstition is the Chinese Reaper. Rituals instead o_edicines. Sometimes I try to talk. I might as well try to build a ladder t_eaven. We must take the children—of any race—if we would teach knowledge. Ag_s set, impervious to innovations."
The Chinaman paused. He saw that his words were falling upon dull ears. H_urned to observe what this object was that had so unexpectedly diverted th_oung man's attention. It was the girl. She was standing before a window, against the background of the rain-burdened April sky. There was enoug_ontra-light to render her ethereal.
Spurlock was basically a poet, quick to recognize beauty, animate o_nanimate, and to transcribe it in unuttered words. He was always word- building, a metaphorist, lavish with singing adjectives; but often he built i_onfusion because it was difficult to describe something beautiful in a ne_et simple way.
He had not noticed the girl particularly when she offered the sandwiches; bu_n this moment he found her beautiful. Her face reminded him of a delicat_nglazed 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 _ecture 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 windo_e saw two coolies carrying a coffin, which presently they callously dumpe_nto a yawning pit. This made the eleventh. There were no mourners. But wha_id the occupant of the box care? The laugh was always with the dead: the_ere out of the muddle.
From the unlovely hillside his glance strayed to the several five-story tower_f the pawnshops. Celestial Uncles! Spurlock chuckled, and a bit of chestnut, going down the wrong way, set him to coughing violently. When the paroxys_assed, he was forced to lean against the window-jamb for support.
"That young man had better watch his cough," said Spinster Prudence. "He act_ueerly, too."
"They always act like that after drink," said Ruth, casually.
She intercepted the glance the spinsters exchanged, and immediately sense_hat she had said too much. There was no way of recalling the words; so sh_aited.
"Miss Enschede—such an odd name!—are you French?"
"Oh, no. Pennsylvania Dutch. But I have never seen America. I was born on a_sland 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 notifie_his aunt of her coming, that she did not know whether the aunt still reside_n Hartford or was underground. These two elderly ladies would call her star_ad. Perhaps she was.
"And you have seen … drunken men?" Prudence's tones were full of suppresse_orror.
"Often. A very small settlement, mostly natives. There was a trader—a man wh_ought copra and pearls. Not a bad man as men go, but he would sell whisky an_in. Over here men drink because they are lonely; and when they drink too har_nd 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 _an who searched for food on the beach. The poor things! Oh, it was quit_readful. It is queer, but men of education and good birth fall swiftest an_owest."
She sent a covert glance toward the young man. She alone of them all knew tha_e was on the first leg of the terrible journey to the beach. Somebody ough_o 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, no_elow. 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, wh_ad singularly and unconsciously invested herself with glamour, the glamour o_dventure, which the old maids did not recognize as such because they wer_nly tourists. This child at once alarmed and thrilled them. She had com_cross the wicked South Seas which were still infested with cannibals; she ha_een drunkenness and called men beachcombers; who was this moment as innocen_s a babe, and in the next uttered some bitter wisdom it had taken a thousan_ears of philosophy to evolve. And there was that dress of hers! She must b_arned that she had been imposed upon.
"You'll pardon an old woman, Miss Enschede," said Sister Prudence; "but wher_n this world did you get that dress?"
Ruth picked up both sides of the skirt and spread it, looking down. "Is ther_nything wrong with it?"
"Wrong? Why, you have been imposed upon somewhere. That dress is thirty year_ld, if a day."
"Oh!" Ruth laughed softly. "That is easily explained. I haven't much money; _on't know how much it is going to cost me to reach Hartford; so I fixed ove_ 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 manage_omehow. In the '80s such a dress would have indicated considerable financia_eans; under the sun-helmet it was an anachronism; and yet it served only t_dd 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 he_ife 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 verba_ombshell 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 wer_ittle."
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 coddl_onely 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. O_ourse, this does not apply to uninteresting old maids," Prudence modifie_ith 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 mor_ppropriate." It occurred to the spinster to ask: "Have you ever seen _ashion magazine?"
"No. Sometimes we had the _Illustrated London News_ and _Tit-Bits._ Sailor_ould 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 unti_he spinster's reference to the family album, no phrase had been sufficient i_trength of attraction to break the trend of his own unhappy thoughts. Out o_n old family album: here was the very comparison that had eluded him. Hi_iterary instincts began to stir. A South Sea island girl, and this was he_irst adventure into civilization. Here was the corner-stone of a capita_tory; but he knew that Howard Spurlock would never write it.
Other phrases returned now, like echoes. The beachcomber, the lowest in th_uman scale; and some day he would enter into this estate. Between him and th_each stood the sum of six hundred dollars.
But one thing troubled him, and because of it he might never arrive on th_each. A new inexplicable madness that urged him to shrill ironically th_tory of his coat—to take it off and fling it at the feet of any stranger wh_hanced to be nigh.
"Look at it!" he felt like screaming. "Clean and spotless, but beginning t_how the wear and tear of constant use. I have worn it for weeks and weeks. _ave slept with it under my pillow. Observe it—a blue-serge coat. Ever hear o_he djinn in the bottle? Like enough. But did you ever hear of a djinn in _lue-serge coat? _Stitched_ in!"
Something like this was always rushing into his throat; and he had to sink hi_ails into his palms to stop his mouth. Very fascinating, though, trying t_nalyse the impulse. It was not an affair of the conscience; it was vaguel_ased upon insolence and defiance. He wondered if these abnormal menta_ctivities presaged illness. To be ill and helpless.
He went on munching his water-chestnuts, and stared at the skyline. He hate_orizons. He was always visualizing the Hand whenever he let his gaze res_pon 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. Th_crutiny of any strange man provoked a sweaty terror. What a God-forsaken foo_e was! And dimly, out there somewhere in the South Seas—the beach!
Already he sensed the fascination of the inevitable; and with this fascinatio_ame the idea of haste, to get there quickly and have done. Odd, but he ha_ever thought of the beach until this girl (who looked as if she had steppe_ut of the family album) referred to it with a familiarity which was a_stonishing as it was profoundly sad.
The beach: to get there as quickly as he could, to reach the white man's nadi_f abasement and gather the promise of that soothing indifference which come_ith the final disintegration of the fibres of conscience. He had an objectiv_ow.