Sidney Carton, thought Ruth, in pursuit of a sing-song girl! The idea was s_ncongruous that a cold little smile parted her lips. It seemed as if eac_ime her imagination reached out investingly, an invisible lash beat it back.
Still, she knew instinctively that all of Sidney Carton's life had not bee_ut upon the printed page. But to go courting a slave-girl, at the risk o_hysical hurt! A shudder of distaste wrinkled her shoulders.
She opened the window, for the night was mild, and sat on the floor with he_hin resting upon the window-sill. Even the stars were strangers. Where wa_his kindly world she had drawn so rosily in fancy? Disillusion everywhere.
The spinsters were not kind; they were only curious because she was odd an_ore a dress thirty years out of date. Later, when they returned home, sh_ould serve as the topic of many conversations. Everybody looked askance a_verybody else. To escape one phase of loneliness she had plunged int_nother, 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 fou_eeks, what had she learned? That all horizons were lies: that smiles an_andshakes 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 mirage_he had plucked a bitter truth—she was alone.
She turned her cheek to the cold sill; and by and by the sill grew warm an_et 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 Misérables to the episode of the dar_orest: where Jean Valjean reaches out and takes Cosette's frightful pail fro_er chapped little hands.
There must be persons tender and loving in this world. There must be rea_aljeans, else how could authors write about them? Supposing some day she me_ne of these astonishing creators, who could make one cry and laugh an_orget, who could thrill one with love and anger and tenderness?
Most of us have witnessed carnivals. Here are all our harlequins an_olumbines of the spoken and written drama. They flash to and fro, they thril_s with expectancy. Then, presto! What a dreary lot they are when th_evellers lay aside the motley!
Ruth had come from a far South Sea isle. The world had not passed by but ha_one around it in a tremendous half-circle. Many things were only words,
sounds; she could not construct these words and sounds into objects; or, i_he did, invariably missed the mark. Her education was remarkable in that i_as overdeveloped here and underdeveloped there: the woman of thirty and th_hild of ten were always getting in each other's way. Until she had left he_sland, what she heard and what she saw were truths. And now she wa_iscovering that even Nature was something of a liar, with her mirages and he_orizons.
At the present moment she was living in a world of her own creation, _arnival of brave men and fair women, characters out of the tales she had s_ewly read for the first time. She could not resist enduing persons she me_ith the noble attributes of the fictional characters. We all did that in ou_outh, when first we came upon a fine story; else we were worthless meta_ndeed. So, step by step, and hurt by hurt, Ruth was learning that John Smit_as John Smith and nobody else.
Presently she was again in that dreadful tavern of the Thénardiers. That wa_he 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 fro_he printed page. She had never had a real doll. Instinct had forced her t_reate something out of rags to satisfy a mysterious craving. But a doll tha_olled its eyes and had flaxen hair! Except for the manual labour—there ha_een 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; tha_ould 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 fiv_ersons instead of four. She remembered Taber's hat. (What was the name he ha_iven her that day?) He was walking beside the chair upon which appeared to b_ bundle of colours. She could not see clearly. All at once her heart began t_atter queerly. He was bringing the sing-song girl to the hotel!
The strange cortège presently vanished below the window-sill. Curiosity to se_hat a sing-song girl was like took possession of Ruth's thoughts. She fough_he inclination for a while, then surrendered. She was still fully dressed; s_ll 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 i_he rocks after the ebb. She had never been able to discover where her fathe_ad hidden his shaving mirror.
When she entered the office a strange scene was presented to her startle_aze. The sing-song girl, her fiddle broken, was beating her forehead upon th_loor and wailing: _Ai, ai! Ai, ai!_ Spurlock—or Taber, as he calle_imself—sat slumped in a chair, staring with glazed eyes at nothing,
absolutely uninterested in the confusion for which he was primaril_ccountable. The hotel manager was expostulating and Ah Cum was replying by _eries of expressive shrugs.
"What has happened?" Ruth asked.
"A drunken idea," said Ah Cum, taking his hands out of his sleeves. "I coul_ot 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 di_ot leave all his money in the office. He insisted on buying this girl for tw_undred mex. He now tells her that she is free, no longer a slave. She doesn'_nderstand; she believes he has taken a sudden dislike to her. Free, there i_othing left to her but the canal. Until two hours ago she was as contente_nd 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 sid_f 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 Westerne_eddling 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. On_annot successfully argue with a drunken man."
The object of this discussion sat motionless. The voices went into his ear_ut left no impression of their import. There was, in fact, only one clea_hought in his fevered brain: he had reached the hotel without falling down.
The sing-song girl, seeing Ruth, extended her hands and began to chatte_apidly. Ruth made a little gesture, of infinite pity; and this was quickl_eized upon by the slant-eyed Chinese girl. She crawled over and caught at th_kirts 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 kne_hat he could translate literally. "She is saying that you, a woman, wil_eadily understand the position in which she finds herself. She addresses yo_s 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 cours_he money will not be refunded.
"Then take her back," said the manager. "You knew better than to bring he_ere under the circumstances."
"Well," said Ah Cum, amiably, "when I argued against the venture, h_hreatened to go wandering about alone, I was most concerned in bringing hi_ack unhurt."
He then spoke authoritatively to the girl. He appeared to thunder dir_appenings if she did not obey him without further ado. He picked up th_roken fiddle and beckoned. The sing-song girl rose and meekly pattered out o_he office into the night.
Ruth crossed over to the dramatist of this tragicomedy and put a hand on hi_houlder.
"I understand," she said. Her faith in human beings revived. "You tried to d_omething that was fine, and … and civilization would not let you."
Spurlock turned his dull eyes and tried to focus hers. Suddenly he burst int_ild laughter; but equally as suddenly something strangled the sound in hi_hroat. He reached out a hand gropingly, sagged, and toppled out of the chai_o the floor, where he lay very still.