The dejection, the sense of a difference that held from him any comprehension of the vast maze of shore life, persisted as Gerrit Ammidon walked toward home. It was such an unusual feeling that he was conscious of it; he examined and speculated upon his despondency as if it had been something actually before him. The result of this was a still increased disturbance. He didn't like such strange qualities arbitrarily forcing their way into his being—he had the navigator's necessity for a clear understanding of the combined elements within and without which resulted in a harmonious, or at least predictable, movement. He distrusted all fogs. In a manner the course before him was plain—married to Taou Yuen, shipmaster in his family's firm, he had simple duties to perform, no part of which included sailing in strange or dangerous waters; yet though this was beyond argument he was still troubled by a great number of unpleasant conditions of mind and obscure pressures.
Gradually, however, his normal indignation returned, the contempt for a society without perceptible justice, centered principally in what Nettie Vollar had had from life. This, he assured himself, wasn't because he was in any way involved with her; but because it was such a flagrant case. She was a very nice girl. It was entirely allowable that he should admit that. As a fact, he warmly felt that he was her friend; the past justified, no, insisted on, that at least. He wondered exactly how fond he had been of her—in other words, how near he had come to marrying her. It had been an obvious possibility, decidedly; but the desire had never become actual. No, his feeling for her had never broken the bounds of a natural liking and a desire to secure decent treatment for her. The last had been vain.
If his mental searching had ended there it would have presented no difficulties, created no fog; but, unfortunately, there was another element which he admitted with great reluctance, an inborn discomfort. Although he had been clear about what had actually happened with Nettie there was reasonable doubt that the same limitations had operated with her. Briefly she had missed him more than he had realized. He explained this to his sense of innate masculine diffidence by the loneliness of her days. She had missed him….something within whispered that she still did. Women, he remembered hearing, were like that.
In the light, the possibility, of this he saw that he had done her a great wrong.
It had been his damned headlong ignorance of the dangerous quality of life, the irresponsibility of a child with gunpowder. With all this in his mind it seemed doubly imperative that he should do something for her; he owed her, he was forced to admit, more than a mere impersonal consideration. His thoughts returned unbidden to the fact that she—she had liked him. He insisted almost angrily on the past tense, but it surprised him and gave him a perceptible warm glow. Nettie was very pleasing: he inferred that she was a creature of deep emotions, affections.
At this he shook himself abruptly—such things were not permissible. Gerrit felt a swift sense of shame; they injured Nettie. His mind shifted to Taou Yuen. He found her asleep on the day bed she preferred, her elaborate headdress resting above the narrow pillow of black wicker. He could distinguish her face, pallid in the blue gloom, and a delicate, half-shut hand. He was flooded with the intense admiration which increasingly formed his chief thought of her; this, with the obvious racial difference, put her, as it were, on an elevation—a beautifully lacquered vase above his own blundering person. She was calm, serious and good, in the absolute Western definitions of those terms; she had her emotions under faultless control. Taou Yuen should be an ideal wife for any man; she was, he corrected the form sharply. All that he knew of her was admirable; the part which constantly baffled him didn't touch their relationship.
It was reasonable to expect small differences between her and Salem: at times her calm chilled him by a swift glimpse of utter coldness, at times he would have liked her gravity to melt into something less than ivory perfection; even her goodness had oppressed him. The last hadn't the human quality of, for example, Nettie Vollar's goodness, colored by rebellion, torn by doubt, and yet triumphing.
If he only understood the three religions of China, if he were an intellectual man, Gerrit realized, he could have grasped his wife more fully. He was completely ignorant of Chinese history, of all the forces that had united to form Taou Yuen. For instance: he was unable to reconcile her elevated spirit with the "absurd superstitions" that influenced almost her every act—the enormous number of lucky and unlucky days, the coin hung on his bed, the yellow charm against sickness and red against evil spirits; only yesterday she had burnt a paper form representing thunder and drunk its ashes in a cup of tea. She was tremendously in earnest about the evil spirits—they were, she maintained, lurking everywhere, in all shapes and degrees of harm. Edward Dunsack was possessed, she declared; but he had pointed out that opium was a sufficient explanation of anything evil in him, and that it was unnecessary to look for a more fantastic reason.
He lay awake for a comparatively long while, as he had several times lately, divided between his consciousness and the regular breathing of his wife. If the past had brought Nettie Vollar to depend on him in some slight degree Taou Yuen did so absolutely: except for him she was lost in a strange world. Yet Taou Yuen didn't seem helpless in the manner of Nettie. He had once before thought of the former as finely tempered metal. Her transcendent resignation, with its consequent lack of sympathetic contact with the imperfect humanity of—well, Nettie, gave Taou Yuen a dangerous freedom from all that bound Salem in comparative safety.
He dressed first, as usual, in the morning, while she stirred only enough to get her pipe and tobacco, on the floor at her side. Outside, the elms were losing their fresh greenness in the dusty film of midsummer; the Square held an ugly litter from the fireworks of last evening. William, too, was about, but he was uncommunicative, his brow scored in a frown. Their father, always down before the others, had returned from the inspection of his trees, and was tramping back and forth in the library. The elder seemed unrested by the night, his skin, as Rhoda had pointed out, was baggy.
"Now that the Nautilus is afloat again," Jeremy Ammidon said, "you'll want to be at sea." Examining this natural conclusion, Gerrit was surprised, startled, to find that it was no longer true. For the first time in his memory he was not anxious to be under sail. This of course was caused by a natural perplexity about Taou Yuen's comfort and happiness.
"I don't know what the firm's plans are for me," he answered cautiously.
"There is some talk of taking me out of the China trade for the
California runs. I shouldn't like that."
Jeremy was turning at his secretary, and he stopped to pound his fist on its narrow ledge. "It's that damned Griffiths again and his cursed jackknife hull!" he exclaimed. The dark tide suffused his countenance. Gerrit studied him thoughtfully: he didn't know just how much William had yet told their father about the sweeping changes taking place in Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone. He did see, however, that it was unwise to excite the old gentleman unduly.
"I was saying only yesterday," he put in pacifically, "that you and myself are getting to be old models—" he broke off as William entered the library. The latter evidently grasped at once the subject of their discussion, for he went on in a firm voice somewhat contradicted by a restrained but palpable anxiety:
"Now, father, this was bound to come up and you must sit down and listen quietly." The elder, on the verge of a tempestuous reply, constrained himself to a painful attention. "It's useless to point out to you the beneficial changes in sea carrying, for you are certain to deny their good and drag out the past. So I am simply forced to tell you that after careful consideration we have decided to line the firm with the events of the day and hold our place in the growing pressure of competition. This may sound brutal, but it was forced on us by the attitude you have adopted. Shortly, this is what we intend, in fact are doing:
"Orders have been placed with George Raynes at Portsmouth and Jackson up in Boston for clippers of a thousand and twelve hundred tons and another is almost ready to be launched from Curtis' Chelsea shipyard. It oughtn't to be necessary to call your attention again to the fact that the Sea Witch has brought the passage from Hong Kong to something like three months. The profits of the California trade will be enormous and depend entirely on speed.
"I'll admit that this is a big thing, it will cut sharply into our funds—something like a quarter of a million dollars. But, if you will be patient for a little only, I can promise that you'll see astonishing returns. At the same time we have no intention of giving up China and India, but we'll limit ourselves more closely in the nature of the cargoes, practically nothing but tea unbroken from Canton to Boston. I'll be glad to go into all this in detail at the countinghouse, where we have the statistics and specifications."
To Gerrit's surprise Jeremy Ammidon sat quietly at the end of William's speech; he wasn't even looking at them, but had his gaze bent upon the floor. There was a commanding, even impressive, quality in his silence that forced the respect of both his sons. More—it made Gerrit overwhelmingly conscious of his affection, his deep admiration, for his father. He recalled the latter's memorable voyage in the little Two Capes—the barque of two hundred and nine tons—into the dangers, so imminent to a master, of uncomprehended waters and thousands of miles with, for the most part, only the sheerest dead reckoning. Jeremy Ammidon said finally:
"If it's done it's done. I used to think there were two Ammidons in the firm, not to mention Gerrit; but it seems there's only one. A man who has never been to sea." He rose and marched, slower and more ponderous than ever before, to the cupboard where he kept the square bottle of Medford rum; there, with trembling hands, he poured himself out a measure. He shut the glass door, but stood for an oppressive space with his back to the room, seeing that old vision of struggle or accomplishment.
"I suppose I've been a damned nuisance about the countinghouse for a long time," he pronounced, turning. William rose. "You made it," he said; "it's you. God forgive me if I have been impatient or forgetful of all we owe you." There was a stir of skirts in the doorway, and Rhoda entered. "Breakfast—" she stopped, and with a quick glance at her husband and Gerrit went at once to Jeremy Ammidon. "They've been bothering you again," she declared, and turned an expression of bright anger on the younger men. "Ah, how hard and hateful and blind you are!" she cried.
William, with a hopeless gesture, walked from the room. Gerrit moved to a window facing the Square; but he saw nothing of its sultry yellow-green expanse—he was remembering how as a child, his mother already dead, a nurse had held him up on Derby Wharf to see his father sweep into port from the long voyage to the East. He caught again the resonant voice, as if sounding from a hold of ribbed oak, the tremendous vigor of the arm that swept him up to a bearded face. He couldn't bring himself to move now and see an old haggard man clinging with tremulous emotion and tears to the sympathy, the strength, of a woman.
Later in the morning, to his immense relief, Jeremy Ammidon regained a surprising amount of composure. At first determined never to return to Liberty Street, toward noon Gerrit found him in the hall with his broad hat and wanghee. "I'll just have a slant at those specifications," he remarked. "Like as not they've left off the hatch coamings." Gerrit suggested, "Since it's so hot why don't you have the carriage round?" The other voiced his customary disparagement of that vehicle. "If I see that I'm going to be late for dinner," he added, "I'll get one of the young men to fetch me something. I don't want to give Rhoda any trouble."
Still, on the steps, he lingered, gazing pridefully up at the bulk of the house he had built; his eyes rested on the brass plate, engraved with the words Java Head, on the dignified white door. "A lot of talk when I had that done," he commented; "people said they'd never heard of it, ought to have my name there for convenience if nothing else. They didn't know. It would take a sailor for that. Don't forget to tell Rhoda not to wait if I'm late. All those girls of hers get hungry. I expect William consulted Laurel about this new move," he ended with a gleam of humor. "She's a great hand for a clipper since she talked to Captain Waterman." He was down the steps, starting deliberately across the street. There was a last mutter of doubt. The bulky slow figure in yellow Chinese silk moved away and Gerrit returned to the shadowed tranquillity of the library.
More than any other place in the house it bore the impression of his father. He wandered about the room, lost in its associations, stopped in front of the tall narrow walnut bookcase and took out one of the small company of Jeremy Ammidon's logs, reading disconnectedly in the precise script:
"Tuesday, December 24. 132 days out. All this day gentle breezes and cloudy. Saw kelp, birds, etc.
"Tacked ship to the eastward under short sail. At daylight made all sail to SW. Gentle breezes and clear pleasant weather. Saw huge shoals of flying fish."
"May 19, 11 days out. Hainan in sight, bearing from W by N to NNW. At sunset the breeze died away and hauled off the land. All night light breezes. Made all possible sail to the SSW. At the same time set the extremity of Hainan which bore NW by N to N. Past three Chinese vessels steering NNE. Saw much scum on the water and at 11 A.M. lost sight of land."
"November 14, 65 days out. These twenty-four hours commences with variable breezes at west and smooth sea. Saw brig steering to the Eastward. The land of Sumatra bearing SW by W to SE by S. Tied rips."
He returned the log to its resting place with a quiet smile at the last period. It was all incredibly simple—a lost simplicity of navigation and a lost innocent wonder at the Mare Atlanticum of old fable.
Neither William nor Jeremy Ammidon was present for dinner. They were, Gerrit concluded, submerged in the effort to bring the changing activities of the firm into the latter's comprehension. His foot was on the stair leading up to his wife, when there was a violent knocking on the front door. It sounded with a startling abruptness in the shut hall, and Gerrit instinctively answered without waiting for a servant. The flushed and breathless young man before him was evidently perturbed by his appearance. He stammered:
"Captain Ammidon, you—you must come down to the countinghouse. At once, please!"
His thoughts, directed upon his father, gathered into a chilling certainty. "Captain Jeremy is sick?" he demanded instantly. The hesitation of the other seemed to confirm an infinitely greater calamity. "Dead?" he asked again, in a flooding misery of apprehension. The clerk nodded:
"In a second, like," he continued. "All we know they were talking in Mr.
William Ammidon's room—one of the boys was out that minute getting the
old gentleman some lunch—when we heard a fall, it was quite plain, and
"That will do," Gerrit cut him short. He turned into the house, rapidly considering what must follow. He'd go, certainly; but first he must warn Rhoda, she would have the girls to prepare…. Rhoda had always been exceptionally considerate and fond of Jeremy Ammidon. He found her at the entrance to her room, and said, "My father is dead." Her warm color sank and tears filled her eyes.
Hurrying over Bath Street to Liberty his grief was held in check by the pressing actualities of the moment. He had time, however, to feel glad that he had spent the morning largely in warm thoughts of the dead man.
He passed rapidly into the entrance of the establishment of Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone. Immediately on the right there was an open railed enclosure of desks in the center of which a group of clerks watched him with mingled respect and curiosity as he continued to the inner shut space. It was a large light room with windows on Charter Street. William's expansive flat-topped desk with its inked green baize was on the left, and, under a number of framed sere ships' letters and privateersmen's Bonds of the War of 1812, Gerrit saw the heavy body extended on a broad wooden bench, a familiar orange Bombay handkerchief spread over the face.
Never in all the memory of his brother had William Ammidon been so stricken. As he entered James Saltonstone left studying a list hastily scribbled on a half sheet of the firm's writing paper. He nodded silently to Gerrit, who advanced to the covered face and lifted the handkerchief. There were still traces of congestion, but a marblelike pallor had taken the place of the familiar ruddy color. Something of the heaviness of his old age, the blurring thickness of long inactivity, had vanished, giving his still countenance an expression of vigor, resolution, contradicted by an arm trailing like the loose end of a heavy rope on the floor. William, with a clenched hand on his desk, spoke with difficulty:
"You must know this, Gerrit; and then I'll ask you never to allude to it again. It might be argued that—that James and I killed him, but absolutely without intention, by accident. Gerrit, I loved him more than I took time to know. Well, you may or may not have heard that we own two topsail schooners in the opium trade, between India, Ningpo and Amoy, but you do know how father detested anything to do with the drug. We said nothing to him about this; it seemed necessary, no—permissible. But to-day when we were coming to a peaceable understanding about the new contracts he stumbled over one of the schooner's manifests. Mislaid, you see—a clerk! It swept him to his feet in a rage, he couldn't speak, and—and he had walked, it was hot…."
Gerrit Ammidon made no answer; there was nothing to be said. He was shaken by a burning anger at the cupidity, the ugly commercial grasping, to which his father had been sacrificed. A gulf opened between him and his brother and James Saltonstone; he was as different from them as the sea was from the land, as the wind-swept deck of the Nautilus was from this dry building with its stifling papers and greed. He might be in the service of the firm—Gerrit was not incorporated in the partnership—he might carry their cargoes for the multiplication of the profit, but his essential service and responsibility, his life, were addressed to another and infinitely higher and more difficult consummation than the stowed kegs of Spanish dollars, the bills of sale. This was composed of the struggle with the immeasurable elements of the seas and winds, the safety of lives, the endless trying of his endurance and will and luck.
"Now," he spoke with a perceptible bitterness, "you can have your way without interference, without his mixing up your papers or making the blunders of a slow sort of honesty."
"I am under no obligation to your judgment or opinion," William replied stiffly. "There are always complications you will never penetrate nor carry. At present your assistance is more necessary than any display of temper."
The funeral gathered and ebbed in a long procession of carriages through a sultry noon, the services at the grave concluded by the symbolic dropping of the earth on Jeremy Ammidon's coffin lowered into the deep narrow clay pit. The large varied throng lingered for a breath, as if unable to take their attention from the raw opening that had absorbed the shipmaster, and then there was a determined and reassuring commonplace murmur, a hurrying away into the vital warmth of the day.
The evening was the loveliest summer and the garden of Java Head could afford: a slow moon disentangled itself from the indigo foliage at the back of the stable and soared with an increasing brilliancy, bathing the sod and summerhouse and poplars, the metallic box borders and spiked flower beds, in a crystal clearness. The Ammidons sat about the willow, Rhoda with a hand affectionately on her husband's arm, the children—Laurel and Janet staying without remark long past their accustomed hours for bed—still and white under the blanching moon. Gerrit intently studied his wife, Taou Yuen, in a concentrated manner. She, too, was in white, the Chinese mark of sorrow.
Suddenly in the face of his suffering and memories she had appeared startlingly remote, as if, from standing close beside him, she were moving farther and farther away. The image was made profoundly disconcerting by the fact that they acted without their own accord; it took the aspect of a purely arbitrary phenomenon over which they had no control. At the same time Nettie Vollar was surprisingly near, actual—he could see every line and shading of her vivid face; he felt the warm impact of her instant sympathy. He had caught a glimpse of Barzil Dunsack at the funeral; but the other was immediately hidden by the crowd, and Gerrit had been unable to discover whether his son and daughter or Nettie had accompanied him.
His thoughts turned in a score of associations and questions to Nettie; but when he found himself trying to picture her exact employment at the present moment he was angrily aroused. He had, he realized, considered nothing else for the past hour, and his preoccupation was growing more intense, personal. He stirred abruptly, and fixed his mind on the imminent changes from his father's death. First the possibility would develop of his becoming a member of the firm; but to this, he silently declared, he would not agree. His gaze rested with a faint underlying animosity on William, seated upright in a somber absorption, and a disparagement of the latter's activities and scale of values. Gerrit saw that there must be a pacific legal knot to untangle; the division of Jeremy's estate would require time—he had somewhere heard that such affairs often dragged on for a year; and now he was again in a fever of impatience to be away, safe, at sea. He added the more portentous word with the vague self-assurance that it was only the customary expression of his notable ignorance of land; but it echoed with an ominous special insistence in his mind.
The Nautilus, he recalled, was once more afloat, repaired; and a plan occurred to him that seemed to dispose of all his difficulties, even of the distasteful possibility of the California clipper service. He could take the ship as part of his inheritance; and, though ostensibly sailing her in the interest of the firm, make such voyages and ports, carry such cargoes, as his independence dictated. The Nautilus, with a cargo out of tin and dyes and cotton manufactures, and forty or fifty thousand trade dollars, would represent a sum of nearly two hundred thousand; but as a family they were very rich; he'd have more than that; and bank the remainder intact to the credit of his wife.
There were many practical aspects of his marriage that he had not stopped to weigh in its precipitant consummation. The problem, pointed out by Rhoda, of his absence from Taou Yuen on cruise could not be solved with the facility he had taken for granted. It was as impossible to leave her happily here—he was aware of her growing impatience with Western habit—as it would be for him to become a contented part of Chinese home life; and not only was she uncomfortably cramped and sick on shipboard, but he doubted whether he could persuade his crews to sail with her. Superstitious able seamen balked at the presence of even a normal wife aft; and a Chinese would be regarded as a sign of certain disaster.
He would have to establish her somewhere in the East Indies; and he viewed with a new dislike all such tropical settings. His entire life threatened to become an affair of damnable palm trees and Oriental stenches. Gerrit Ammidon broke into a cold sweat at the realization of the far more direct implication that had taken substance in his mind. The thing was going entirely too far! He wondered irritably at the obscure cause for such violent inner agitations.
Rhoda Ammidon with a dim smile rose, gathering her daughters about her, and departed in a pale cloud of muslin. Taou Yuen, with her murmuring formal politeness, moved away too, leaving the brothers together. Whatever sympathetic intercourse they might otherwise have had, whatever shared memories of their boyhood and their father, were made impossible by William's admission of the immediate cause of the elder's death.
"The Saltonstones are going into Boston this fall," William said abruptly. "It is necessary for one of us to live there; and Caroline has always had a hankering for wider society. Rhoda, I was surprised to learn, wishes to remain here at Java Head for a year or so anyway. She has a very real affection for the place. But I tell her when the girls are older Boston, or perhaps New York, will give them far greater opportunities. Sidsall, stranger still, was in tears at the whole thing; she seemed ridiculously upset about leaving."
The vision of Nettie Vollar persisted, bright and disturbing. Once he was at sea, Gerrit told himself, on the circumscribed freedom of his quarter-deck, he would lose the unsettling fever burning at that instant in his veins. But the memory of long solitary passages with nothing to distract his mind through week upon week after the ship took the trades, when hour upon hour his thoughts turned inward on themselves and reviewed every past act and feeling, made doubtful even that old release. The trouble was that he instinctively avoided any square facing of the difficulty that had multiplied with such amazing rapidity—like a banyan tree—about the present and the shadowed future. This he was forced to admit, but grimly added that there could be only one answer to whatever he might lay bare—the adherence to the single fundamental duty of which he never lost sight. No port was gained by changing blindly from course to course, that way lay the reefs; a man could but keep steadily by the compass. That, at least, was all he could see, propose, for himself, being rather limited and lacking the resources which others of greater knowledge so confidently explored.
After breakfast on the following morning he mounted the dignified staircase, with the sweeping railing of red narra wood and high Palladian window at the turn, to his wife. In their room he was bathed in a cold sweat of dismay at a sudden detached view of Taou Yuen in her complete Manchu mourning for his father. An unhemmed garment of coarse white hemp hung in ravelings about slippers of sackcloth; what had been an elaborate headdress was hidden under a binding of the bleached hemp; she wore no paint nor flowers; her pins and earrings were pasted with dough, and her expression was drugged with the contemplative fervor of what had evidently been a religious ceremonial.
"For the wise old man, for your father," she said. She was exhausted and sank onto the day bed; but almost immediately her hand reached out in the direction of her pipe, and she smiled faintly at him. He clenched his sinewy hands, the muscles of his jaw knotted, as he gazed steadily at the woman, the Manchu woman, he had of his own free accord married. It sickened him that, for the drawing of a breath, he had regarded Taou Yuen with such appalling injustice—injustice, the evil he hated and condemned more than any other. What, in the name of God, was he made of that he could sink so low!
"We'll leave here soon," he declared abruptly; "the Nautilus will be ready for sea almost any time."
He could recognize, from his slight knowledge of her, that Taou Yuen welcomed the news. "Shanghai?" she asked. He nodded. It came over him that he was no longer young. His father had retired from the sea within a few years of his own present age and built Java Head, the house that was to be a final harbor of unalloyed happiness. No such prospect awaited him; he had one of the premonitions that were more certain than the most solid realities—as long as he lived he must sail in ships, struggling with winds and calms, with currents and cockling and placid seas. Well, that was natural, inevitable, what he would have chosen. At the same time he dwelt, with a sensation of loneliness, on the green garden and drawing-room filled in June with the scent of lilacs, on Rhoda surrounded by her girls.
When the question of the division of Jeremy Amnudon's estate came up, he was, as he had foreseen, urged to become a partner of the firm; and, when that failed, told that it was his vested duty to continue in his present capacity as a shipmaster in all their interests. He was seated with Saltonstone and William in the countinghouse and he could tell from his brother's ill-restrained impatience that the other considered him hardly more than a clumsy-witted, stubborn fool before the mast of the facts of actual life.
His gaze, above their heads, rested on the framed pass of the ship Mocha, one of his father's last commands, over the bench where he had lain dead. It was given by the President, James Monroe, in 1818, its white paper seal embossed on the stained parchment. It had an engraving of a lighthouse and spired town on the dark water's edge, and above, a picture of a ship with everything drawing in a fair wind, the upper sails torn off on a dotted wavering line for the purpose of identification with its stub.
"No," he told them quietly, "I'll go my own way as I said; with the Nautilus, if that can be arranged." He rose with a nod of finality, and James Saltonstone remarked, "Jeremy to the life." Gerrit replied, "I'd not ask anything better."
Through the evening he heard little but the discussion of Mr. Folk's
approaching visit to Salem. The President was to leave the train at the
Beverly Depot at three P.M. and be fetched with Secretary Buchanan and
Marshal Barnes in a barouche with six horses and met at the outskirts of
Salem by the city authorities.
There would be a Beverly cavalcade, the city guard was ordered to muster at the armory; while an evening parade at five o'clock and the military ball in Franklin Hall were to follow.
But when the day and occasion actually arrived it was spoiled by a succession of unforeseen mishaps. The train was late and the presidential party in a fever of haste—the procession, hurrying through the massed public-school children and throngs of Chestnut Street, gave a perfunctory attention to the salutes and short address of the mayor. The President's reply, hardly more than a few introductory phrases, cut short, the barouche was sent plunging over its route with the Secretary crying, "Drive on! Drive on!" and Marshal Barnes swearing and expectorating in callous profusion.
Some of the crowd, the Ammidons heard, had been knocked down and injured in the pell-mell of the rush. Gerrit's countenance showed his contempt of what he held to be a characteristically ludicrous farce. After all, his wishes in regard to the Nautilus had been easy of execution, the ship was now his; he was already contracting for a cargo. He had been to see Mr. Broadrick, his first mate, and the latter was assembling the chief members of the crew. As always at the prospect of sailing he was unsettled, concerned with countless details of departure—like a vessel straining at her last anchor.
Seated in the library with Taou Yuen—he had called her aside from her fixed passage to their room from the garden—he was recounting his main plans for the near future, when he became aware of an arrival on the steps outside. He heard a servant's voice, and, immediately after, the woman appeared in the doorway; but she was forced aside by Edward Dunsack. Gerrit's quick resentment flared at such an unmannered intrusion, and he moved ungraciously forward. The servant explained impotently, "I told him I would see—"
"Yes?" Gerrit Ammidon demanded.
Dunsack bowed ceremoniously to Taou Yuen, then he faced the other. On the verge of speech he hesitated, as if an unexpected development made inadequate whatever he had been prepared to say; then, with a sudden decision, he hurried into an emotional jumble of words. "I can tell you in a breath—Nettie was badly hurt in that cursed rabble yesterday. It looks as if she was actually struck by one of the horses. She was unconscious, and then delirious; now she is in her right mind but very weak; and, since she wished to see you, I volunteered to put our pride in my pocket and carry her message."
An instant numbing pain compressed Gerrit's heart; he felt that, in an involuntary exclamation, he had clearly shown the depth of his dismay. Damn the fellow, why had he burst out in this public indecent manner! The situation he had plausibly created, the thing he managed to insinuate, was an insult to them all—to his wife, Taou Yuen, coldly composed beyond, himself and to Nettie. He stood with his level gaze fixed in an enraged perplexity on Edward Dunsack's sallow countenance, deep sunk on its bony structure, conscious that there was no possibility of a satisfactory or even coherent reply.
"Something was said about this afternoon," the other added. That period, Gerrit realized, was nearly over. But above every other consideration rose the knowledge that he would have to see Nettie Vollar, badly injured, as she desired. The common humanity of that necessity left him no choice.
He turned to Taou Yuen with a brief formal explanation. A friend, their families had been associated for years, had been hurt and sent for him…. Return immediately. He paused, in the act of leaving, at the door of the library, waiting for Edward Dunsack to join him; but the other had resolutely turned his back upon Gerrit. He showed no indication of departure. Gerrit Ammidon was at the point of an exasperated direction; but that, in the light of Dunsack's purpose there, appeared ridiculously abrupt; and confident of his wife's supreme ability to control any situation he continued without further hesitation to the street, hurrying in a mounting anxiety toward the Dunsacks'.
Dwelling on his conduct in the library, at the sudden announcement of Nettie's accident, he felt that he had acted in a precipitant if not actually confused way. As a fact, it had all been largely mechanical; his oppression, his dread for Nettie, had made everything else dim to see and faint to hear. Dunsack's grimacing face, the immobile figure of his wife, the familiar sweep of the room, had been things of no more substance than a cloud between him and the only other reality existing. He had no memory, for instance, of having stopped to secure his hat, but he found it swinging characteristically in a hand. And now even the semblance of reasonable speech and conduct he had managed to command vanished before a panic that all but forced him into a run.
The main door of Barzil Dunsack's house was open on the narrow somber region within; he knocked sharply against the wood at the side and was immediately answered by the appearance of Kate Vollar.
"This is a great kindness, Captain Ammidon," she told him in her negative voice; "come in here, please." He looked hastily about the formal space into which she led him, expecting to see Nettie prostrate, but she was not there. "How is she?" he demanded impatiently.
"Nettie?" her mother turned as if surprised by an unexpected twist of the situation. "Oh, why she'll mend all right, the doctor says; but it will be slow. Her arm had an ugly slithering break, and she suffers with it all the time." A pause followed, in which she met his interrogation with a growing mystification. "I suppose Edward told you," she ventured finally. The sense of being at a loss was swiftly communicated to him.
"Your brother said Nettie wanted to see me," he returned bluntly.
"Now, however could Edward do a thing like that!" she cried in deep distress. "Why, there's no truth to it. I asked him myself to see if you'd kindly stop and give me some advice. What put it in my head was that once your father offered—he told Nettie to let him know if there was anything to be done. Edward Dunsack isn't just right in his head."
Gerrit was filled with a mingling sense of disappointment, relief that Nettie was no worse, and the uncomfortable conviction that he had behaved like an hysterical fool. He, too, but angrily, wondered why Dunsack had invented such an apparently pointless lie. Probably Kate Vollar was right, and her brother's wits, soaked in opium, had wandered into a realm of insane fabrications. He composed himself—the first feeling blotting out his other emotions—to meet the deprecating interrogation before him.
"I should be glad to do what I could in my father's place."
"In a way," she continued, "it's about Edward. When he came back from China and decided to stay in Salem his father turned all the books over to him; he was to tend to everything in the way of accounts and shipments; and, he said, he would make us all rich in a year or so. But, instead, he has neglected the clerking until we can't tell what's going or coming. Edward hasn't—hasn't quite been himself lately," she paused and Gerrit nodded shortly. "Now we're not wealthy, Captain Ammidon, we never got more than just enough from our West India trade; but in the last couple of months, with Edward like he is and father too old for columns of figuring—he's dreadful forgetful now—not a dollar was made. The schooners are slow, behind the times I guess, we've had to scrape; yet it's been something…. They're both awful hard to do with," she stopped hopelessly.
"You must get a reliable man in charge. Some one who knows the West India shipping should go over your entire property, decide what is necessary, then borrow the money. We can find that without trouble. I'll make only one condition: That is the complete restraint of your brother. It is known that he has the opium habit, he is a dangerous—"
He stopped at the echo of a thin persistent tapping from above. "That's Nettie," Kate Vollar said; "the way she calls me. I'll ask you to excuse me for a minute." When she returned her face bore an unaccustomed flush. "Nettie heard you in the hall or through the stovepipe." She spoke doubtfully: "She'd like to see you, but I don't know if it would be right with her in bed. Still, I promised I'd tell you."
He rose promptly. The woman stood aside at the upper door and he at once saw Nettie lying with her vigorous black hair sprawling in a thick twist across the pillow. Her face was pinched, it seemed thin, and the brilliancy and size of her eyes were exaggerated. One arm, clumsy and inanimate in splints, was extended over the cotton spread; but with the other hand she was feverishly busy with her appearance. She smiled, a wan tremulous movement that again shut the pain like a leaden casket about his heart.
"Do go away, mother!" Nettie directed Kate Vollar hovering behind them. "Your fidgeting will make me scream." With an incoherent murmur she vanished from the room. The girl motioned toward a chair, and Gerrit drew it forward to a table that bore water and a small glass bowl partly covered by a sheet of paper, holding a number of symmetrical reddish-black pills. "Opium," Nettie told him, following his gaze; "I cried dreadfully with the hurt at first. It's dear, and Edward made those from some he had. You know, I watched him roll them right here; it was wonderful how quickly he did it, each exactly alike, two grains." She told him the circumstances of her accident while he sat with his eyes steadily on her face, his hands folded.
He was quiet, without visible emotion or speech; but there was an utter tumult, a tumult like the spiral of a hurricane, within him. Rebellious feelings, tyrannical desires and thoughts, swept through him in waves of heat and cold. Nettie's voice grew weak, the shadows deepened under her eyes, for a little they closed; and but for the faint stir of the coverlet over her heart she was so pallid, so still, that she might have been dead. Moved by an uncontrollable fear he bent toward her and touched her hand. Her gaze slowly widened, and, turning over her palm, she weakly grasped his fingers. A great sigh of contentment fluttered from her dry lips. "Gerrit," she whispered, barely audible. He leaned forward, blinded by his passion for her.
He admitted this in an honest self-knowledge that he had refused recognition until now. Tender and reassuring words, wild declarations and plans for the future, crowded for expression; nothing else before the immensity of desire that possessed him was of the slightest concern; but not a syllable was spoken. A sharp line was ploughed between his brows; his breath came in short choked gusts, he was utterly the vessel of his longing, and yet an ultimate basic consideration, lost in the pounding of his veins, still restrained him.
"I love you, Gerrit," Nettie said; "I'll never stop till I die." Her face and voice were almost tranquil; she seemed to speak from a plane above the ordinary necessities of common existence, as if her pain, burning out her color and vigor and emotions, had given her the privilege of truth. Curiously enough when it seemed to him that she had expressed what should have sent him into a single consuming flame he grew at once completely calm. He, too, for the moment, reached her state of freedom from earth and flesh.
"I love you, Nettie," he replied simply.
However, he speedily dropped back into the sphere of actual responsibilities. He saw all the difficulties and hovering insidious shadows in which they might be lost. This, in turn, was pushed aside by the incredulous realization that Nettie's life and his had been spoiled by a thing no more important than a momentary flare of temper. If, as might have happened, he had overlooked Barzil Dunsack's ridiculous tirade, if he had turned into the yard where Nettie was standing instead of tramping away up Hardy Street, everything would have been well.
It was unjust, he cried inwardly, for such infinite consequences to proceed from unthinking anger! A great or tragic result should spring from great or tragic causes, the suffering and price measured by the error. He could see that Nettie was patiently waiting for him to solve the whole miserable problem of their future; she had an expression of relief which seemed to take a happy issue for granted. None was possible. A baffled rage cut his speech into quick brutal words flung like shot against her hope.
"I love you," he repeated, "yes. But what can that do for us now? I had my chance and I let it go. To-day I'm married, I'll be married to-morrow, probably till I die. Perhaps that wouldn't stop a man more intelligent—it might be just that—than I am; perhaps he'd go right after his love or happiness wherever or however it offered. There are men, too, who have the habit of a number of women. That is understood to be a custom with sailors. It has never been with me; as I say, maybe I am too stupid.
"What in the name of all the heavens would I do with Taou Yuen?" he demanded. "I can't desert her here, in America, leave her with William. I brought her thousands of miles away from her home, from all she knows and is. If I took her back and dropped her in China it would be murder."
An expression of unalloyed dreariness overspread Nettie's features. "I wish I had been killed right out," she said. The starkness of the words, of the reality they spoke, flowed over him like icy water; he felt that he was sinking, strangling, in a sea grimmer than any about Cape Horn. He was continually appalled by the realization that there was no escape, no smallest glimmer, leading from the pit into which they had stumbled. He had the sensation of wanting enormously to go with Nettie but was fast in chains that were locked on him by a power greater than his will.
"It's no good," his voice was flat.
"I don't believe I'll see you again," Nettie articulated; "now the Nautilus is near ready to sail. I can't stand it," she sobbed; "that last time you went out the harbor just about ended me, but this is worse, worse, worse. I'll—I'll take all the opium."
"No, you won't," he asserted, standing, confident that her spirit was too normal, too vitally healthy, for that. His gaze wandered about the room: her clothes were neatly piled and covered by a skirt on a chair; the mirror on her chest of drawers was broken, a corner missing; there was a total absence of the delicate toilet adjuncts of Rhoda and Taou Yuen—only a small paper of powder, a comb and brush, and the washstand with a couple of coarse towels. What dresses she had were hung behind a ridiculously inadequate drapery. She had so little with which to accomplish what, for a girl, was so much.
His emotion had retreated, leaving him dull-eyed, heavy of movement. The moment had come for his departure. Gerrit stood by the bed. Nettie turned away from him, her face was buried in the pillow, the uppermost free shoulder shook. "Good-by," he said. There was no answer and he patiently repeated the short tragic phrase. Still there was no sound from Nettie. There would be none. Even the impulse to touch her had died—died, he thought, with a great many feelings and hopes he once had. A fleet surprise invaded him at the absence of any impulse now to protest or indulge in wild passionate terms; he was surprised, too, at the fact that he was about to leave Nettie. The whole termination of the affair was bathed in an atmosphere of stale calm, like the air in a ship's hold.
Gerrit Ammidon gazed steadily at her averted head, at the generous line of her body under the coverlet; then, neither hasty nor hesitating in his walk, he left the room. Kate Vollar met him at the foot of the stair. "You understood," she said, "that I only bothered you because your father… because I was so put on?"
"You were quite right," he replied in a measured voice; "it will all be attended to. With the agreement I mentioned."
"How they'll take it I don't know."
"In some positions," he told her, "certain persons are without any choice. The facts are too great for them. I said nothing to Nettie of Edward Dunsack's reason for my coming," he added significantly. Out in the street he stopped, facing toward Java Head and evening; but, with a quiver of his lips, the vertical bitter line between his drawn brows, he turned and marched slowly, his head sunk, to where the Nautilus was berthed.