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Chapter 3

  • 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.
  • "Thanks."
  • "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?"
  • "What?"
  • "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.