Seated in the library, placidly waiting for Edward Dunsack to go, Taou Yuen studied him briefly. A long or thoughtful survey was unnecessary: the opium was rapidly mastering him. That fact absorbed all the rest. She had an immeasurable contempt for such physical and moral weakness; all the three religions fused in her overwhelmingly condemned self-indulgence; her philosophy, the practical side of Lao-tze's teaching, emphasized the utter futility of surrender to the five senses. At the same time he was the subject of some interest: he was an American who had lived in China, and not only on the fringe of the treaty ports—he had penetrated to some extent into the spirit, the life, of things Chinese; while she, Taou Yuen, was amazingly married to Gerrit Ammidon, was a Manchu here, in America.
Absolutely immobile, her hands folded in her lap, she considered these facts, each in relation to the other: there was wisdom hidden in them for her. If Mr. Dunsack had retained the ordinary blustering Western commercial mind, his knowledge of China confined to the tea houses and streets, he would probably be prosperous and strong to-day. The wisdom lay in this—that here she must remain Manchu, Chinese; any attempt to become a part of this incomprehensible country, any effort to involve herself in its mysterious acts or thought, would be disastrous. She must remain calm, unassertive, let the eternal Tao take its way.
Edward Dunsack looked actually comic: he was staring rudely, with a foolish air of flattery, and breathing in labored gasps—like a coolie who had run miles with a heavy palanquin. Then her mind, hardly reacting from immediate objects, returned to the contemplation of the deeper significance of her presence here. Bent in on itself her thought twisted like a moonflower vine about the solid fact of Gerrit. She realized, of course, that he must have had the past of any healthy honorable man of his age, and that it would have included at least one woman. However, when even the present was an almost complete puzzle his past had been so lost to her that she had not considered it until now.
"You must overlook my unceremonious speech," Edward Dunsack proceeded in creditable Chinese. "It was clumsy, but I was deeply affected. It is my niece, you see, who was hurt, and who has a very sad history. Then there are some special circumstances. I'd have to explain a great deal before you could understand why she sent for your husband and why he left so hurriedly."
"There is nothing you need tell me," Taou Yuen replied in her slow careful English. "Manchu eyes can see as well as American."
"A thousand times better." He, too, returned to his native speech. "It is delightful to talk to a truly civilized being. All that would have to be shouted at the women of Salem is unnecessary now. You see—you understand the heart of a man."
"I understand you," she said impersonally.
"I wonder if you do," he speculated. "You ought to see what—how much—I think of you. My brain holds nothing else," he declared in a low intense voice, drawing nearer to her.
She had a momentary, purely feminine shrinking from his emaciated shaking frame, the burning eyes in a face dead like a citron; then her placidity returned, the assurance that it was all ordained, that his gestures, the pumping of his diseased heart, had no more individual significance than the movements of a mechanical figure operated by strings, here the strings of supreme Fate. She even smiled slightly, a smile not the mark of approval or humor, but an expression of absolute composure. It drove him at once into febrile excitement.
"At least I understand you," he cried; "far more than you suppose! You can't impress me with your air of a Gautama. I know the freedom of your country. It doesn't shock you to realize that your husband has gone to see a woman he loved, perhaps loves still, and you are not disturbed at my speaking like this."
Here, she knew, regarding him no more than a shrilling locust, was the center about which for a moment blindly her thoughts of Gerrit and herself had revolved. His past—"a woman he loved." But it didn't in the least upset her present peace of mind, her confidence in Gerrit. There was a sharp distinction between the eternal, the divine, Tao, that which is and must prevail, and the personal Tao, subject to rebellion and all the evil of Yin; and she felt that her husband's Tao was good. Out of this she remarked negligently:
"After all, you are more ignorant of China than I thought. But, of course, you saw only the common and low side. You have not heard of the books girls are taught from—'The Sacred Edict' and 'Mirror of the Heart.' You don't know even the first rule of 'The Book of Rites,' 'Let your face and attitude be grave and thoughtful,' and the second, 'Let your steps be deliberate and regular.'" She paused, conveying by her manner that he was already vanishing and that she was relieved.
"That would do well enough if you were a scholar, or a bonze," he retorted; "but such innocence in a fashionable woman is a pretense. If you are so pure how can you explain your gold and bracelets and pins, all the marks of your worldly rank? Lao-tze taught, 'Rich and high but proud brings about its own misfortune.'" He was so close to her now that she caught a faint sickly reek from his body. It seemed to her that she could see his identity, his reason, vanish, replaced by madness in his staring eyes.
"I worship you," he murmured.
"Opium," she spoke disdainfully.
"Your own tobacco is drugged," he asserted. "But that's not important. I tell you I worship you, the most beautiful person in the world. These fools in Salem, even your husband, can't realize one-tenth of your perfection; they can't venerate you as I do. And now that Ammidon has gone back to the first, we are free too."
"You are a liar," she said with an unexpected colloquial ease.
A darker color stained his dry cheeks. "You saw him," he replied. "Did he get pale or didn't he? And did he or not rush from the room like a man in a fever? I tell you it's no use pretending with me; say what you please I know how delicate your senses are. I'll tell you this too: It's written in our progression that we should meet here, yes, and be a great deal to each other. It was written in the beginning, and we had been drawing together through a million cycles before Gerrit Ammidon stumbled across you."
Taou Yuen was surprised by a sudden conviction that a part of this, at least, was so. No living thing, however minute, escaped from the weariness of movement, either ending in final and blessed suspension or condemned to struggle on and on through countless lives of tormenting passion. All had this dignity of hope or despair; all she encountered were humble, impressive or debased in the working of the mighty law. She had been guilty, as this American had pointed out, of dangerous and wrong pride, and she accepted her lesson willingly. There was, however, an annoying conflict between Edward Dunsack, the example, the impersonal, and Edward Dunsack making violent profession of his unspeakable desire for her. Even the word seemed to soil her; but there was no other. He went recklessly on, trying to increase his advantage:
"We're made to be together."
"If we are it is because of some great wickedness of mine. If we are, then perhaps I am lost. But it is allowed to resist evil, at least, as far as staying out of its touch is resistance."
"Nothing can keep you from me," he declared. Another short step and his knees would be brushing her gown. A stronger wave of dislike, shrinking, anger, drowned her logical and higher resignation. "It is time for you to go," she said, her voice still even.
It seemed to her that she could feel his hot quivering touch and, all her philosophy dropping from her, she rose quickly. "If this were China," she told him, in a cold fury, "you'd be cut up with knives, in the court-yard where I could look on. But even here I can ring for a servant; and when Captain Ammidon comes back he'll know what to say to you."
She could see that the last affected him; he hesitated, drew back, his hanging fingers clasping and unclasping. That, she thought, relieved, would dispose of him. Then it was clear that his insanity persisted even in the face of the considerable threat of Gerrit's hot pride and violent tempers.
"It's our destiny," he repeated firmly in his borrowed faith, at once a little terrifying and a little ridiculous in the alien mold. His lips twitched and his bony forehead glistened in a fine sweat. Now, thoroughly roused, she laughed at him in open contempt.
"Diseased," she cried, "take your sores away! Dog licked by dogs. Bowl of filth," she was speaking in Chinese, in words of one syllable like the biting of a hair whip. Edward Dunsack gasped, as if actual blows cut him; he stood with one hand half raised, appalled at the sudden vicious rush of her anger. A leaden pallor took the place of his normal sallow coloring, and it was evident that he had difficulty in withstanding the pressure of his laboring heart. He stood between her and the door and she had a premonition that it would be useless to attempt to avoid him or escape. She could, however, call, and some one, there were a score of people about the house, must certainly appear. At that moment she saw a deep change sweep over his countenance, taking place in his every fiber. There was an inner wrenching of Edward Dunsack's being, a blurring and infusion of blood in his eyes, a breath longer and more agonized than any before, and she was looking closely into the face of an overwhelming hatred.
For a moment, she realized, he had even considered killing her with his flickering hands. Then that impulse subsided before a sidelong expression of cunning. "With all your Manchu attitudes," he mocked her, "yes, your aristocratic pretense of mourning and marks of rank, you are no different from the little pleasure girls. Your vocabulary and mind are the same. I was a fool for a while; I saw nothing but your satins and painted face. I forgot you were yellow, I had forgotten that all China's yellow. It's yellow, yellow, yellow and never can be white. I shut my eyes to it and it dragged me down into its slime." His voice was hysterical with an agony of rending spiritual torment and hopeless grief. "It poisoned me little by little, with the smell of its rivers and the cursed smell of its pleasures. Then the opium. A year after I had lost my position, everything; and when I came over here it followed me … in my own blood. Even then I might have broken away, I almost had, when Gerrit Ammidon brought you to Salem. You came at a time when I was fighting hardest to throw it all off. You see—you fascinated me. You were all that was most alluring of China, and I wanted you so badly, it all came back so, that I went to the opium to find you."
"Progression," she said ironically.
"Perhaps," he muttered. "Who knows? I'm finished for this life anyhow.
You did that. I can't even keep the books for my father's penny trade."
His hands crept rigidly toward her. If they touched her she would be degraded for ever. Yet she was incapable of flight, her throat refused the cry which she had been debating; alternate waves of revulsion and stoical resignation passed over her with chills of acute terror. Yet she managed to preserve an unstirred exterior; and that, she observed, began to influence him. His loathing was as great as ever; but his vision, that had been fixed in a blaze of fury, broke, avoided her direct scrutiny, her appearance of statue-like unconcern.
There was a sound of quick light feet in the hall, the bright voice of one of Gerrit's nieces. Edward Dunsack fell into a profound abstraction: he turned and walked away from her, standing with his back to the room at a window that opened upon the broad green park. He was so weak that he was forced to support himself with a hand on the wall.
Taou Yuen was motionless for a perceptible space, and then moved toward the door in a dignified composure. All this had come from the utter impropriety of the life in America. Dunsack glanced at her as she withdrew, and for a moment she saw his fine profile sharp and dark against the light-flooded window. His lips stirred but she heard no sound. Then she was on the stair mounting to her room.
There mechanically she filled her pipe; but doing this she noticed that her hands were trembling. How lamentably she had failed in the preservation, the assertion, of her superiority, not as a Manchu, but in the deeper, the only true sense of the word—in submission.
"Requite hatred with virtue."
She spoke Lao-tze's admonition aloud and, in the customary devious channel of her mental processes, her thoughts returned to her early life, her girlhood, so marred by sickness that the Emperor had surrendered his customary proprietary right in the daughters of Manchu nobles.
Surrounding the fact of her early suffering, which had kept her out of the active gayety of brothers and sisters, she remembered in the clearest detail her father's house in the north; the later residences in Canton and Shanghai, even the delightful river gardens of the summer place at Soochow, were less vivid. Inside the massive tiled stone wall the rooms—there were a hundred at least—faced in squares on the inner courtyard, and were connected by glass enclosed verandas. The reception houses of the front court, the deeply carved wooden platform with its scarlet covering, were of the greatest elegance; they were always astir with the numerous secretaries, the Chinese writers and messengers, the mafoos and chair coolies, the servants and blind musicians with the old songs, The Millet's in Flower and Kuan Kuan Go to the Ospreys. The side door to the women's apartments, however, opened into a retreat, where her father's concubine, he had but one, trailed like a bird of paradise, and there was the constant musical drip of a fountain in an old granite basin. There, during the years when she was lame, Taou Yuen mostly stayed.
She had been dropped from a palanquin in her sixth year; sharp pains soon after burned in her hip, and the corresponding leg had perceptibly shortened. A great many remedies were tried in vain—burning with charcoal, the application of black plasters, sweating, acupuncture—sticking long needles into the afflicted part. The doctors declared that the five elements of her body—the metal, wood, water, fire and earth, were hopelessly out of equilibrium. Her mother had then called necromancers and devil charmers; lucky and unlucky days were explored; strange rites were conducted before her terrified eyes screwed into the determination to show no alarm.
A year, perhaps, after they had become resigned to her injury, her father, always a man of the most liberal ideas, had suddenly brought into the garden to see her an English doctor passing through China. Against the wailing protests of the women the Englishman had been given authority to treat her; and he had caused to be made a thin steel brace, clasping Taou Yuen's waist and extending in a rigid band down the length of her injured leg. After putting a high shoe on her other foot he had commanded them to keep the brace on her for two years.
It was through that period of comparative inactivity that she acquired a habit of reading and thought, a certain grasp of philosophical attitude, common to the higher masculine Chinese mind but rare among their women. She had, for instance, later, read Laotze's Tao-teh-king, and been impressed by his tranquil elevation above the petty ills and concerns of life and the flesh. Her father, like all the ruling class, regarded Taoism—which had, indeed, degenerated into a mass of nonsense about the transmutation of base metals into gold and the elixir of life—with contempt. But this seemed to her no depreciation of the Greatly Eminent One or his philosophy of the two Taoes.
The household, or at least the family, worshipped in the form of Confucius; his precepts and admonitions, the sacred hiao or filial submission, the tablets and ancestral piety, were a part of her blood; as was the infinitely fainter infusion of Buddhism; yet in her intellectual brooding it was to the Tao-teh-king that she returned. She paused to recall that, the brace at last removed, she was practically completely recovered; but the bent, the bracing, given her mind had remained.
The colorful pageant of her first marriage, the smaller but splendidly appointed house of her husband—he was extremely intelligent and had honorably passed the examination for licentiate, one of only two hundred successful bachelors out of twenty thousand—and the period following his accidental drowning wheeled quickly through her brain….
Only Gerrit Ammidon was left.
She loved him, Taou Yuen realized, for a quality entirely independent of race: he had more than anyone else she knew the virtues of simplicity and purity announced by Chwang-Tze as the marks of the True Man. "We must become like little children," the Old Master had written. She had seen this at once in the amazing interview sanctioned by her father-in-law. Most women of her class, even widows, would have perished with shame at being exposed to a foreigner. But Lu Kikwang had expressed her difference from them in the terms of his proposal. His words had been "finely better" although the truth was that her curiosity had always mastered the other and more prudent instincts. Yet that alone would not have prostrated her before Gerrit Ammidon—death was not unthinkable—nor carried her into his strange terrifying ship and stranger life. The love had been born almost simultaneously with her first recognition of his character. Now her passion for him was close and jealous. A constant shifting between such humanity and the calm detachment which prefigured heaven was what most convinced her of the truths of Lao-tze.
All this took body at the announcement of Edward Dunsack about Gerrit and his niece. Certainly he might have had an affair; that she dismissed; but the insinuated permanence of this other affection was serious. She would not have believed Mr. Dunsack for an instant, but, as he had pointed out, Gerrit had undoubtedly been upset; he had turned pale and hurried away impolitely. It was by such apparently slight indications that the great inner currents of life were discovered. The fact that Chinese officials had more than one wife, or, to speak correctly, concubines in addition, had no bearing with Gerrit; such was not the custom with American men. It represented for him, yes—dishonor.
She laboriously recalled his every attitude since they had landed in America, and was obliged to admit that he had changed—he was less gay and though his manner was always considerate she recognized a growing impatience beneath his darker calm. Her philosophy was again torn in shreds by sharp feminine emotions. She was filled with jealousy and hatred and hurt pride. The clearest expression of his possible discontent had marked his face when he had suddenly come into their room and saw her rising from a prayer for his father. Gerrit's lips had been compressed, almost disdainful; at that moment, she knew unerringly, he found her ugly. Of course it had been the hideous garments of mourning.
She must wear the unhemmed sackcloth and dull slippers, bind her headdress and cover her pins with paste, for a hundred days; and then a second mourning of black or dark blue, and no flowers, for three years. It might well be that by then Gerrit, blind to these proprieties, would find her unendurable. Suddenly, in the tremendous difficulty of holding him against an entire world, his own and of which she was supremely ignorant, it seemed to her that she needed every possible means, every coral blossom and gold filament and finger of paint, the cunning intoxication of subtle dress and color and perfume. With a leaden sense of guilt, but in a fever of impatience, of haste, she stripped off the coarse hemp for her most elaborate satins, her santal and clover and carmine.
When Gerrit came in it had grown dark with night, and he explained that he had been busy inspecting the Nautilus' spars. She lighted a lamp, then another, all she could find, and studied him unobtrusively. She was shocked at the worn expression of his face; it seemed as if he had aged in the few hours since he had left the library. He was uneasy, silent; and, secretly dismayed, she saw that he was indifferent to her changed appearance, too. Taou Yuen debated the wisdom of telling him about the painful scene with Edward Dunsack; against her original intent she decided in the negative. She informed herself that the reason for this was a wish to preserve him, now that they were practically at the day of departure, from an unpleasant duty. But there was an underlying dimly apprehended and far different motive: she was afraid that it would blow into flame a situation that might otherwise be avoided, bring to life a past naturally dying or dead.
She saw that he was scarcely aware of her presence in the room, perhaps in his life. A period of resentment followed. "You are dull," she declared, "and I am going down to the garden for entertainment." Gerrit nodded. He would, he told her, be along shortly. Below she found Roger Brevard, with the oldest Ammidon girl and her mother.
Roger Brevard, she had discovered, was in love with Sidsall. The latter, it developed, was to leave shortly for a party; Mr. Brevard was not going; and, when Gerrit's sister-in-law walked across the grass with her daughter the man dropped into an easy conversation with Taou Yuen. She had a feeling, which she had tried in vain to lose, of the vulgarity, the impropriety of this. Yet she recognized that there was none of the former in Roger Brevard; he resembled quite a little her dead husband, Sié-Ngan-kwán; and for that reason she was more at ease with him—in spite of such unaccustomed familiarity—than with anyone else in Salem but Gerrit.
He was, she admitted condescendingly, almost as cultivated as the ordinary Chinese gentleman. Many of his thoughts, where she could understand their expression, might have come from a study of the sacred kings. At the same time her feminine perception realized that he had a genuine liking for her.
"You'll be delighted to leave Salem," he said, leaning forward and studying her.
"That would not be polite," she answered formally. "You have been so good. But it will give me pleasure to see Shanghai again. Anyone is happier with customs he understands."
"And prefers," he added. "Indeed, I'd choose some of your manners rather than ours. You see, you have been at the business of civilization so much longer than the rest of us."
"Our history begins two thousand years before your Christ," she told him; "our language has been spoken without change for thirty-three centuries, as you call them. But such facts are nothing. I would rather hear your non—nonsense," she stumbled over the word.
"Do you mean that what we call nonsense is really the most important?"
"Perhaps," she replied. "Devotion to the old and dead is greatly necessary yet you smile at it. I didn't mean that, but moons and lovers and music." He cried in protest, "We're terribly serious about those!"
"I hear nothing but talk about cargoes and sales and money."
"We keep the other under our hats," he instructed her. She was completely mystified, and he explained.
"In China," she remarked tentatively, "it is possible for a man to love two women at once, maybe one a little more than the other, but he can be kind and just and affectionate to them both. Tell me, is—is that possible with an American?"
"No!" he spoke emphatically. "We can love, in the way you mean, only one, perhaps only once. I wouldn't swear to that, but there are simply no exceptions to the first. Men are unfaithful, yes; but at a cost to themselves, or because they are incapable of restraint. To be unfaithful in anything is to fail, isn't it? You can lie to yourself as effectively as to anybody else."
She fixed a painful attention upon him, but lost at least a half of his meaning. However, one fact was clearer than ever—that Edward Dunsack had said an evil thing about her husband. "It seems," he went on, "that even spiritual concerns can be the result of long custom." If he was trying to find an excuse for Chinese habit she immediately disposed of it. "No," she said, "you are upside down. The spirit is first, the eternal Tao, everywhere alike, but the personal spirit is different in you and in us."
A sudden dejection seized her—now the difference seemed vaster than anything she had in common with Gerrit. A wave of oppressive nostalgia, of confusion and dread, submerged her in a faintly thunderous darkness. She felt everywhere about her the presence of evil and threatening shades. The approach of her husband, his heavy settling into a chair, did nothing to lighten her apprehension.
"How soon do we go?" she asked faintly.
"In two weeks, with nothing unexpected," he responded without interest or pleasure. It flashed through her mind that he was depressed at leaving Salem, that other woman. His present indifference was very far from the manner in which he had first discussed their leaving. Yet, even that, she recalled in the light of her present sensitiveness, had been unnaturally abrupt and clothed in a great many loud-sounding words. She told herself arbitrarily that Edward Dunsack had lied—for the purpose which his conduct afterward made clear—but her very feeling was proof that she believed he had spoken the truth.
She was a victim of an uneasy curiosity to see… she made a violent mental effort and recaptured the name—Nettie Vollar. Of course the latter had been the deliberate cause of whatever wickedness had threatened at the return of Gerrit with her, Taou Yuen. She had however no doubt of the extent of this: Gerrit was upright, faithful to the necessity Roger Brevard had explained; all that assaulted her happiness was on an incorporate plane, or, anyhow, in a procession of consequences extending far back and forward of their present lives.
But, she recognized, she had no excuse nor opportunity to see Nettie Vollar. Mrs. Ammidon, when she heard of the accident, had at once declared her intention of going to the Dunsacks' house; still that promised no chance of satisfying her own desire. The least politeness in the world prohibited her from going baldly in and demanding to see the woman. She couldn't, all at once, make convincing a sympathy or impersonal interest entirely contradictory to her insistent indifference. The best she could hope was for them to sail away as quickly as possible; when on the other side of the seas Gerrit would probably return to the simplicity of being she had adored.
Then a trivial and yet serious fear occurred to her—perhaps here, among all these dead-white women, he no longer held her beautiful. The word was his own, or it had been his; he had not repeated it, she realized, twice since they had been in Salem. Personally, she found the American women entirely undistinguished and dressed in grotesquely ugly and cheap clothes—not unlike paper lanterns bobbing along the ground. Their faces were shamelessly bare of paint and their manners would have disgraced the lowest servant in a Chinese courtyard. This was natural, from any consideration of the hideous or inappropriate things that surrounded them, and from the complete lack of what she could distinguish as either discipline or reverence. Yet Gerrit, a part of this, would be unable to share her attitude; she had heard him praise the appearance of women so insipid that she had turned expecting vainly an ironic smile.
Roger Brevard rose and made his bow, the only satisfactory approach to a courteous gesture she had met outside Gerrit's occasional half-humorous effort since leaving Shanghai. He stirred, muttered a perfunctory phrase, and sank back into obscurity.
Little quirks of unfamiliar disturbing feeling ran through Taou Yuen; her mind, it seemed, had become a thing of no importance; all that at one time had so largely ordered her life was superseded by these illogical emotions spreading apparently from her heart. The truth was, she told herself, that—with all her reading and philosophy—she had had little or no experience of actuality: the injury to her hip and quiet life in the gray garden at Canton, her protected existence in the women's apartments, whatever she might have learned from them neglected because of the general silliness of their chatter, the formal early marriage, had all combined for the preservation of her ignorance.
She regarded herself now with distrust; nothing could have been more unpleasant than the failure of her will, this swamping of her equanimity. She never lost for a moment the image of superiority that should be her perfect example, the non-assertion that was the way of heaven; but her comprehension was like a figure ruthlessly dragged about by an overpowering unreflective force. A sharp hatred of Nettie Vollar seared her mind and perished in a miserable sense of weakness.
Against the dark, charged with a confusion of the ten thousand things, she stared wearily and wakeful. She reminded herself again that Gerrit would soon be gone from Salem, alone with her on the long voyage to China; but he'd return to America, come back to Salem; and she knew that he would never bring her westward again. A period of depression followed which seemed to have no immediate connection with Gerrit; she had an indefinable feeling of struggling in vain against adversity, of opposition to an implacable power.
For a short while after she rose in the morning it appeared that she had regained her self-control, her reason; and a consequent happy relief irradiated her. But when Gerrit came up after she had finished her toilet and she saw, from his haggard face, that he too must have been awake, tormented, through the night, a passion of bitterness enveloped her at which all that had gone before turned pale. She could scarcely restrain herself from a noisy wailing accusation, and stood regarding him with a tense unnatural grimace, the result of her effort to preserve propriety. She told herself, at the tempest of vulgar phrases storming through her consciousness, that what Edward Dunsack had said about her being no better than the tea house girls was true, and she was aghast at the inner treachery capable of such self-betrayal. Not a quivering word, however, escaped; she managed a commonplace phrase and turned aside in a trivial pretext of occupation.
"I am going into Boston with Captain Dunsack on business connected with his schooners." The girl's grandfather! "Very well." She spoke placidly, and with a tempestuous heart watched him stride quickly about the park.
She settled herself in a long motionless contemplation, fastening her mind upon the most elevated and revered ideas conceivable. She saw the eternal Tao flowing like a great green river of souls, smooth and mighty and resistless; and she willed that she too might become a part of that desirable self-effacement, safe in surrender. Men striving to create a Tao for personal ends beat out their lives in vain. It was the figure of the river developing, like floating on a deliberate all-powerful tide or struggling impotently against it.
Later a message came up from Mrs. Ammidon—she hoped that Taou Yuen would drive with her that afternoon. She dressed with the most particular care, in blue and dark greens, her shoulders thick with embroidered garlands and silver shou, her piled hair ornamented in glittering silver leaves and garnets.
She went down when she heard the horses on the street below but the barouche was empty except for the coachman. "Mrs. Ammidon left a half hour ago," a servant told her; "and sent the carriage back for you." They moved forward, going, she saw, into a part of the town where they seldom drove—the narrow crowded way by the wharves—and, turning shortly into a street that ended abruptly at the water, drew up before a dingy house on her right.
The door was open, and they waited, confident that Mrs. Ammidon would hear the clatter of hoofs and come out; but a far different appeared. She gazed for a silent space at Taou Yuen seated above her, as if confused by the glittering magnificence. It was probable that Gerrit's brother's wife had come there on an errand of charity for the woman was poor, dingy like the house, with a face drawn by suffering and material struggle.
"Of course you're Captain Ammidon's wife," she said; "and you are here after Mrs. William Ammidon. Well, she's gone; but she left a message for you. She will be at Henry Whipple's, the bookseller. After she saw Nettie she went right off to send her some things; wouldn't wait for the carriage. A kind-hearted determined body."
Taou Yuen leaned out to command the coachman to drive on; but the other, plainly bent on making the most of a rare opportunity for such a conversation, continued talking in her low resigned way.
"I was glad to have her too; Nettie gets pretty fretful up there with nobody but me, really. She hasn't been so well, either, since—" here she stopped abruptly, recommenced. "I like to see a person myself of Mrs. Ammidon's kind. I've been alone all day; father's gone to Boston and Edward away I don't know where."
Taou Yuen's curiosity to see Nettie Vollar returned infinitely multiplied; here, miraculously, was an opportunity for her to study the woman who was beyond any doubt an important part of Gerrit's past, present—it might be, his future. The men were gone. … She got resolutely down from the barouche. "Take me up to your daughter," she directed quietly.
"Why, that's very kind, but I don't know—Yes, certainly. Mind these stairs with your satin skirt; I don't always get around to the whole house."
Taou Yuen saw at once that Nettie Vollar was far sicker than she had realized: her head lay on the pillow absolutely spent, her brow damply plastered with hair and her eyes enlarged and dull. Taou Yuen drew a chair forward and sat beside a table with a glass bowl of small dark pills which from a just perceptible odor she recognized as opium. She looked intently, coldly, at the prostrate figure. A flush like match flames burned in Nettie Vollar's cheeks, and she said in a voice at once weak and sharp:
Taou Yuen nodded slowly, disdainfully.
"Oh, how could he!" the other exclaimed in what sounded like the thin echo of a passionate cry. "I knew you were Chinese, but I never realized it till this minute."
As Gerrit Ammidon's wife had feared she was totally unable to judge a single quality or feature of the girl before her. She looked exactly like all the others she had seen in Salem: in order to realize her she needed Gerrit's eyes, Gerrit's birth. Then one fact crept insidiously into her consciousness—here, in a way, was another being who had Gerrit Ammidon's childlike simplicity. That was the most terrifying discovery she could have made. Taou Yuen felt the return of the hateful irresistible emotions which had destroyed her self-control. She wanted to hurt Nettie Vollar in every possible way, to mock her with the fact that she had lost Gerrit perhaps never to see him again; she wanted to tell her that she, Taou Yuen, entirely understood her hopes, efforts, and that they were vain.
An utter self-loathing possessed her at the same time, a feeling of imminent danger as if she were walking with willfully shut eyes on the edge of a precipice above a black fatal void. Not a trace of this appeared on her schooled countenance; and once more she completely restrained any defiling speech. She deliberately shifted her point of view to another possible aspect of all that confronted her—it might be that this woman was a specter, a kwei, bent on Gerrit's destruction. Such a thing often happened. How much better if Nettie Vollar had been killed! She studied her with a renewed interest—a fresh question. Perhaps the other would die as it was. She was extremely weak; her spirit, Taou Yuen saw, lay listlessly in a listless body. Nettie Vollar slightly moved her injured arm, and that little effort exhausted her for a moment; her eyes closed, her face was as white as salt.
A further, almost philosophical, consideration engaged Taou Yuen's mind—this extraordinary occasion, her being with the other alone, Nettie Vollar's fragility, were, it might be, all a part of the working of the righteous Yang. In the light of this, then, she had been brought here for a purpose … the ending of a menace to her husband. She hesitated for a breath—if it were the opposite malignant Yin there was no bottom to the infamy into which she might fall. It was a tremendous question.
The actual execution of the practical suggestion, from either source, was extremely easy; she had but to lean forward, draw her heavy sleeve across the strained face, hold it there for a little, and Nettie Vollar would have died of—of any one of a number of reasonable causes. She, Taou Yuen, would call, politely distressed, for the mother … very regrettable.
She had no shrinking from the act itself, nothing that might have been called pity, a few more or less years in a single life were beneath serious consideration; it was the lives to come, the lingering doubt of which power led her on, which restrained and filled her mind. A flicker of rage darted through her calm questioning; her mental processes again faded. With her right arm across the supine body and enveloping the face in her left sleeve a single twist and Nettie Vollar would choke in a cloud of thick satin made gay with unfading flowers and the embroidered symbol of long life. She felt her body grow rigid with purpose when the sound of a footfall below held her motionless in an unreasoning dread.
It was not heavy, yet she was certain that it was not the woman's. A blur of voices drifted up to her, the dejected feminine tone and a thin querulous demand, surprise. Taou Yuen turned cold as stone: the sensation of oppressive danger increased until it seemed as if she, and not Nettie Vollar, were strangling. There was a profound stillness, then a shuffling tread on the stair, and Edward Dunsack entered, entered but stood without advancing, his back against a closed door.
Even since yesterday he had noticeably wasted, there were muscles of his face that twitched continuously; his hands, it seemed to her, writhed like worms. He said nothing, but stared at her with a fixed glittering vision; all his one time worship—it had been so much—was devoured in the hatred born in the Ammidon library. Frozen with apprehension she sat without movement; her face, she felt, as still as a lacquered mask.
To her astonishment—she had forgotten Nettie Vollar's existence—a shaken voice from the bed demanded:
"Uncle Edward, what's come over you! Don't you see Mrs. Ammidon! Oh—" her speech rose in a choked exclamation. Edward Dunsack had turned the key and was crossing the room with a dark twisted face, his eyes stark and demented. Taou Yuen, swung round toward the advancing figure, heard a long fluttering breath behind her. Perhaps Nettie Vollar had died of fright. The terror in her own brain dried up before an overwhelming realization—she had betrayed herself to the principle of evil. She was lost. Her thoughts were at once incredibly rapid and entirely vivid, logical: Edward Dunsack, ruined, in China; herself blinded, confused, destroyed in America. Yesterday she had held him powerless with the mere potency of her righteousness; but now she had no strength.
There was a loathsome murmur from his dusty lips. He intended to kill her, to mar and spoil her throat, a degradation forbidden by Confucius, an eternal disfigurement. This filled her with a renewed energy of horror…. Here there was none but a feeble woman to hear her if she called. She rose mechanically, a hand on the table; Taou Yuen saw Nettie Vollar's deathly pallid face rolled awkwardly from the pillow, and the bowl of opium. There were twenty or more pills. Without hesitation, even with a sense of relief, she swept the contents of the bowl into her palm. The effort of swallowing so many hard particles was almost convulsive and followed with a nauseous spasm.
Exhausted by mental effort she sank into a chair and a dullness like smoke settled over her. The figure of Edward Dunsack retreated to an infinite distance. The smoke moved in a great steady volume—the eternal and changeless Tao, without labor or desires, without…. Hatred requited with virtue … attracting all honor—mounting higher and higher from the consuming passions, the seething black lives of her immeasurable fall.