In the room that had been his since early maturity Gerrit Ammidon gave an involuntary sigh of relief. Taou Yuen, his wife, was standing in the middle of the floor, gazing about with a faint and polite smile. Her eyes rested on a yellow camphor chest—one of the set brought home by his father—on a severe high range of drawers made of sycamore with six legs, on her brilliant reflection in the eagle-crowned mirror above the mantel, and the sleigh bed with low heavily curved ends.
The situation below, however brief and, on the whole, reasonably conducted, had been surprisingly difficult. At the same time that he had felt no necessity to apologize for his marriage he had known that Taou Yuen must surprise, yes—shock, his family. She was Chinese, to them a heathen: they would be unable to comprehend any mitigating dignity of rank. Where they'd actually suffer, he realized, would be in the attitude of Salem, the stupid gabble, the censure and cold pity caused by his wife.
Personally he regarded these with the contempt he felt for so many of the qualities that on shore bound the interests of everyone into a single common concern. It gave him pleasure to assault the authority and importance of such public prejudice and self-opinion; but, unavoidably implicating his family, at once a part of himself and Salem, he was conscious of the fact that he had laid them all open to disagreeable moments. He was sorry for this, and his regret, principally materialized by his father's hurt confusion, had unexpectedly cast a shadow on a scene to which he had looked forward with a distinct sense of comedy. Where the realities were concerned he had no fear of Taou Yuen's ability to justify herself completely. He possessed a stupendous admiration for her.
He watched her now with the mingled understanding and mystification that gave his life with her such a decided charm. Her gaze had fastened on the mirror-stand above the drawers: she must be wondering if she would have to paint and prepare herself for him here, openly. He knew that she considered it a great impropriety for her face to be seen bare; all the elaborate processes of her morning toilet must be privately conducted. He recognized this, but had no idea what she actually thought of the room, of his family, of the astonishing situation into which her heart had betrayed her.
One and then another early hope he saw at once were vain. It had seemed to him that in America, in Salem, she might become less evidently Chinese; not in the incongruous horror of Western clothes, but in her attitude, in a surrender to superficial customs; he had pictured her as merging distinctively into the local scene. In China he had hoped that in the vicinity of Washington Square and Pleasant Street she would appear less Eastern; but, beyond all doubt, here she was enormously more so. The strange repressed surrounding accentuated every detail of her Manchu pomp and color. The frank splendor of her satins and carved jades and embroidery, her immobile striking face loaded with carmine and glinting headdress, the flawless loveliness of hands with the pointed nail protectors, were, in his room, infinitely dramatized.
The other, less secure possibility that she might essentially change perished silently. In a way his wish had been a presumption—that a member of the oldest and most subtle civilization existing would, if she were able, adopt such comparatively crude habits of life and thought.
She moved slowly up to the bed, examining it curiously; and again he understood her look of doubt—in China beds were called kang, or stoves, from the fact that they were more often than not a platform of brick with an opening beneath for hot coals. She fingered the ball fringe of the coverlet, and then turned with amazement to the soft pillow. A hand with the stone bracelet falling back from her smooth wrist rose to the complicated edifice of her headdress.
"Your pillow is coming along from the ship," he told her; "the women here do up their hair every morning."
She considered this with geranium lips slightly parted on flawless teeth, and nodded slowly. The westering sun striking through the window overlooking the Common illuminated her with a flat gold unreality.
"I'll have a day bed brought for you," he continued, realizing that, as the result of fortunate chance, she understood most of what he said without an actual command of the individual words. In reply she sank before him in the deep Manchu gesture with one knee sweeping the floor, the humility of her posture dignified by grace. He touched the crystal globe of an earring, pinched her chin, in the half light manner by which he instinctively expressed his affection for her. She was calm and pleased. "Taou Yuen," he continued, "you miss Shanghai, with the wall of ten gates and the river Woosung stuck full of masts. You'll never think Salem is a paradise like Soochow."
"This is your city," she replied, slowly choosing the words. "Your ancestors are here." There was not a shade of regret in her voice or manner. He tried once more, and as vainly as ever, to penetrate the veil of her perfect serenity. She never, it became apparent, descended from the most inflexible self-control; small emotions—surface gayety of mood, curiosity, the faintest possible indication of contempt, he had learned to distinguish; the fact that she cared enough for him to desert every familiar circumstance was evident; but beyond these he was powerless to reach.
His own emotions were hardly less obscured: the dominating feeling was his admiration for her exquisite worldly wisdom, the perfection of her bodily beauty, and the philosophy which bore her above the countless trivialities that destroyed the dignity of western minds. He realized that her paint and embroidery covered a spirit as cold and tempered as fine metal. She was totally without the social sentiment of his own world; but she was equally innocent of its nauseous hypocrisy, the pretensions of a piety covering commercial dishonesty, obscenity of thought and spreading scandal. The injustice he saw practiced on shore had always turned him with a sense of relief to the cleansing challenge of the sea; always, brought in contact with cunning and self-seeking men and heartless schemes, with women cheapened by a conviction of the indecency of life, he was in a state of hot indignation. From all this Taou Yuen offered a complete escape.
On the purely feminine side she was a constant delight, the last possible refinement, he told himself, of instinct and effect. She was incapable of the least vulgarity; never for an instant did she flag from the necessity of beauty, never had he seen her too weary for an adornment laborious in a hundred difficult conventions. She was, too, a continuous source of entertainment, even as his wife she never ceased to be a spectacle; his consciousness of her as a being outside himself persisted.
"I must go down and see where our things are," he said, rising. In the hall he stopped before the tall clock whose striking was a part of his early memories. Below, the house seemed empty; and, instead of turning to the front door and his purpose, he went into the drawing-room.
The long glass doors to the garden were open, and the interior was filled with the scent of lilacs. The room itself had always reminded him of them—it was pale in color, cool gilt and lavender brocade and white panels. Nothing had been moved or changed: the inlaid cylinder fall desk with its garlands of painted flowers on the light waxed wood stood at the left, the pole screen with the embroidered bouquet was before the fire blind, the girandoles, scrolled in ormolu and hung with crystal lusters, held the shimmer of golden reflections on the walls.
He had remembered the drawing-room at Java Head as a place of enchanted perfection; in his childhood its still serenity had seemed a presentment of what might be hoped for in heaven. The thought of the room as it was now, open but a little dim to the lilacs and warm afternoon, had haunted him as the measure of all peace and serenity in moments of extreme danger, his ship laboring in elemental catastrophes and in remote seas. Its fragrance had touched him through the miasma of Whampoa Reach, waiting for the lighters of tea to float down from Canton; standing off in the thunder squalls of the night for the morning sea breeze to take him into Rio; over a cognac in the coffee stalls of the French market at New Orleans, the chanteys ringing from the cotton gangs along the levees:
"Were you ever down in Mobile Bay? Aye, aye, pump away."
As he left the room he saw Laurel, William's youngest child, and he imprisoned her in an arm. "You haven't asked what I've got for you in my sea chest," he said. Gerrit was very fond of all four of the rosy-cheeked vigorous girls, and a sense of injury touched him at Laurel's reserved manner. She studied him with a wondering uneasy concern. This he realized was the result of bring home Taou Yuen; and an aggravated impatience, a growing rebellion, seized him. He wouldn't stay with his wife at Java Head a day longer than necessary; and if anyone, in his family or outside, showed the slightest disdain he could retaliate with his knowledge of local pettiness, the backbiting enmities and secret lapses.
God knew he didn't want trouble, all he asked was a reasonable liberty, the semblance, anyhow, of a courtesy toward his wife. Whatever might be said would be of no moment to her—except in the attitude of his father—and Taou Yuen's indifference furnished a splendid example for himself. He wondered why the devil he was continually putting his fingers in affairs that couldn't concern him. No one thanked him for his trouble, they considered him something of a fool—a good sailor but peculiar. The damned unexpected twists of his sense of the absurd, too, got him into constant difficulty.
His father was standing outside the principal entrance; and, as he joined him on the steps, he saw two men from the Nautilus carrying his ship's desk by the beckets let in the ends. The wind was blowing gently up Pleasant Street; the men, at his gesture, lifted their burden up the steps, between the direction of the wind and Jeremy Ammidon. The latter rose instantly into one of his dark rages:
"What do you mean, you damned packetrats—coming up a companionway to the windward of me! I'll have no whalers' habits here." He repeated discontentedly that everything on sea and land had fallen into a decline. Others followed with a number of Korean boxes, strapped and locked with copper, and wicker baskets. A man in charge said to Gerrit Ammidon:
"The chest was left for Mr. Dunsack at the foot of Hardy Street, sir, as you ordered. The inspector sent it off complimentary with your personal things." Gerrit asked, "He didn't stop to get a whiff of it then?" The other shook his head. "Edward Dunsack asked me to ship it here and explained that it was only junk he was bringing home, but what it amounts to is about a case of Patna opium. He's lucky."
They turned inside, William was in the library, and Gerrit instinctively followed his father into the room. William surveyed him with a moody discontent. "What I can't understand," he proceeded; "is why you call it a marriage, why you brought your woman here to us, to Rhoda and the children."
"It's simple enough," Gerrit replied; "Taou Yuen is my wife, we are married exactly as Rhoda and you are. She is not my woman in the sense you mean. I won't allow that, William."
"How can it matter what you will or will not allow when everyone'll think the other? Shipmasters have had Chinese mistresses before, yes, and smuggled them into Salem; but this conduct of yours is beyond speech."
Gerrit Ammidon said:
"Don't carry this too far." Anger like a hot cloud oppressed him. "I am married legally and, if anything, by a ceremony less preposterous than your own. Taou Yuen is not open to any man or woman's suspicions. I am overwhelmingly indebted to her."
"But she's not your race," William Ammidon muttered; "she is a Confucian or Taoist, or some such thing."
"You're Unitarian one day a week, and father is Congregational, Hodie's a Methodist, and no one knows what I am," Gerrit cried. "Good God, what does all that matter! Isn't a religion a religion? Do you suppose a Lord worth the name would be anything but entertained by such spiteful little dogmas. A sincere greased nigger with his voodoo must be as good as any of us."
"That is too strong, Gerrit," Jeremy objected. "You'll get nowhere crying down Christianity."
"If I could find it," the younger declared bitterly, "I'd feel differently. It's right enough in the Bible. …Well, we'll go on to Boston to-morrow."
"This is your home," his father repeated. "Naturally William, all of us have been disturbed; but nothing beyond that. I trust we are a loyal family. What you've done can't be mended with hard words."
"She may become very fashionable," Gerrit mockingly told his brother. "It'll be a blow to Camilla," Jeremy chuckled. "Some rice must be cooked."
"Manchus don't live on rice," Gerrit replied. "They don't bind the feet either nor wear the common Chinese clothes. Rhoda will understand better."
Again in his room he found his wife bending over a gorgeous heap of satins, bright mazarines and ornaments. "We'll go down to supper soon," he told her. Already there were signs of her presence about the room: the chest of drawers was covered with gold and jade and green amber, painted paper fans set on ivory and tortoise shell, and lacquer fan boxes; coral hairpins, sandalwood combs, silver rouge pots and rose quartz perfume bottles with canary silk cords and tassels. On a familiar table was her pipe, wound in gilt wire, and the flowered satin tobacco case. An old coin was hanging at the head of the bed, a charm against evil spirits; and on a stand was the amethyst image of Kuan-Yin pu tze, the Goddess of Mercy.
Taou Yuen sank on the floor with a little embarrassed laugh at the confusion in which he had surprised her. "Let your attitude be grave," he quoted from the Book of Rites with a pretended severity. Her amusement rose in a ripple of mirth. He opened his desk, rearranging the disorder brought about by its transportation; and, when he turned, she was prostrate in the last rays of the sun. "O-me-to-Fuh," she breathed; "O-me-to-Fuh," the invocation to Buddha. This at an end she announced, "Now I am grave and respectful for your family."
Supper, Gerrit admitted to himself, promised to be a painful occasion; conversation rose sporadically and quickly died in glances of irrepressible curiosity directed at his wife. She, on the contrary, showed no pointed interest in her surroundings; and, in her hesitating slurred English, answered Rhoda's few questions without putting any in return. Camilla preserved a frozen silence; Sidsall was pleasantly conciliating in her attitude toward the novel situation; Janet, her lips moving noiselessly, was rapt in amazement; and Laurel smiled, abashed at meeting Taou Yuen's eyes.
The recounting of his delayed return offered Gerrit a welcome relief from the pervading strain: "There's no tea to speak of at Shanghai, and I took on a mixed cargo—pongees and porcelain and matting. I got camphor and cassia and seven hundred peculs of ginger; then I decided to lay a course to Manilla for some of the cheroots father likes. The weather was fine, I had a good cargo, and, well—we pleasured out to Honolulu. I was riding the island horses and shipping oil when the schooner Kahemameha arrived from the coast with the news of the gold discovery in California. Every boat in the harbor was loaded to the trucks, crowded with passengers at their weight in ginseng, and laid for San Francisco…. Well, I was caught with the rest.
"Five thousand dollars was offered me to carry a gentleman and his attendant. Two others would pay three for the same purpose. Stowage was worth what you asked…. The Nautilus made a good run; then, about a day from land, Mr. Broadrick told me that there wouldn't be a seaman on the ship an hour after we anchored. They were all crazy with gold fever, he said. I could see, too, that they were excited; the watch hung under the weather rail jabbering like parrots; an uglier crew of sea lawyers never developed.
"There was one thing to do and I did it—called them aft and gave them some hot scouse. They'd shipped for Salem and there they must go. I didn't anchor, but stood off—the harbor was crowded with deserted vessels like some hell for ships—and sent the jolly boat in with the passengers and a couple of men. They didn't come back, you may be sure. The consignment for San Francisco I carried out that evening, for I made sail at once."
"You had a pretty time getting a way on her," Jeremy Ammidon remarked.
"I did," Gerrit acknowledged shortly. "The second mate's ear was taken loose by a belaying pin that flew out of the dark like a gull. Mr. Broadrick had a bad minute in the port forecastle after he had ordered all hands on deck a third time. The fine weather left us, though, and that kept the crew busy; we carried away the fore-royal mast and yard before we were within a thousand miles of the latitude of the Horn. That hit us like a cannon ball of ice. You know what it is at its worst," he told his father; "weeks of snow and hail and fog and gales; and not for anything can you keep an easting. God knows how a ship lives through the seas; but she does, she does, and you lose the Magellan clouds astern."
The old man nodded.
Gerrit was relieved, however, when supper ended and his wife formally departed for her room. Immediately slipping a hand inside Rhoda's arm he conducted her to the drawing-room. "I'd like you to know more about it," he said directly.
"It was very extraordinary. A Lú Kikwáng was a high official of the Canton Customs, and when Shanghai was declared an open port in forty-two they made him hoppo there. I remembered him at Canton, a dignified old duck with eighty or a hundred servants to keep anyone from possibly speaking to him of business, but there had been some trouble about foreign vessels selling saltpeter illegally and—he knew some English—we had quite a friendly little consultation. Yet it hadn't prepared me for his coming off to the Nautilus at Shanghai with a linguist and an air of the greatest mystery. His manner was beautiful, of course, absolutely tranquil and that made what they said, what he hoped, seem even wilder than it was.
"His son, it appeared, had married and was accidentally drowned in the Great Canal hardly a month after the ceremony. His widow belonged, then, to the husband's family, and from that moment her father-in-law had had nothing but bad luck. He had been robbed, his best stallion died, there had been a flood in his tea which not only spoiled the crop but filled the ground with silt—it was impossible to relate his calamities. He consulted a necromancer at last and learned that it was all caused by the presence of Taou Yuen.
"This, you see, made the difficulty, as it's a frightful disgrace to return a married daughter to her own father's home, and Lú had grown very fond of her. She was extremely clever and virtuous, he said. The other thing was to kill her or force her to commit suicide. He told me very calmly that he would like to avoid this.
"Then, in the linguist's most flowery manner, they went on with what Lú Kikwáng proposed. He had recognized that I was a man of 'superior propriety' and he wondered if I would take Taou Yuen away to America with me. Very secretly though—there would be an uproar if it were known that a Manchu woman had been married to a foreigner. I could see her first in his garden without her knowing anything about it.
"It's needless to tell you that I went with them that afternoon. A meeting was arranged for the next day—" he broke off, sitting forward with elbows on knees, gazing fixedly at his clasped hands.
"You make that very clear, Gerrit," his sister-in-law replied; "I now understand the past almost as well as yourself; but it's the future I'm in doubt about. I saw immediately that your wife was not an ordinary woman; it would be much easier if she were. Certainly you don't intend to stay here, at Java Head; but that is immaterial. Wherever you go in America it will not be suitable for her. She'll be no more at home with your friends than you with hers. I feel terribly sad about it, Gerrit; you were as selfish as only a man can be."
"You are unjust, Rhoda," he protested. "Taou Yuen was willing to come. She had read about other countries and saw a great deal of the English wife of a rich Dutch factor at Shanghai; as Lú Kikwáng said, she's wonderfully intelligent. I think she is happy, too."
"Rubbish! Of course she loves you; I am not talking about that. How will she get along while you are away on your long voyages? She couldn't possibly live in the cabin of a ship, and do you suppose she'd be contented in Salem with you absent for a year!"
"We have as many chances of success as any other marriage," he asserted.
"The whole business is foolish enough."
"That opinion might do for a single shipmaster, with only a month or two out of the year on land. When you were free, Gerrit, your impatience with convention was refreshing and possible. But can't you see that you have given up your liberty! You have tied your hands. However loudly you may cry out against society now you are a part of us, foolish or not. You'll find that your wife has anchored you in Salem, Boston or Singapore, no matter where you go: people will reach and hurt you through her.
"She is very gorgeous and placid, superior on the surface; but the heart,
Gerrit—that isn't made of jade and ivory and silk."
"I'll bring down your presents to-morrow," he told her, avoiding any further present discussion of his marriage. "Has father failed, do you think? His tempers are vigorous as ever."
"He seems baggier about the eyes and throat. He is just as quick, but it exhausts him more. Things would be much better if he were only content to let William manage at the countinghouse. Times are shifting so quickly with these new clipper ships and direct passages and political changes."
"There's no longer any doubt about the clippers," Gerrit declared; "the
California gold rush will attend to that."
In his room he found Taou Yuen, in soft white silk worked with bamboo leaves, on the day bed, smoking. She rose immediately as he entered; and, coming close to him, ran her cool fingers through his hair. He stood gazing out at the dim oil flares that marked the confines of Washington Square, considering all that Rhoda had said. Strangely enough it led his thoughts away from his wife; they reverted to Nettie Vollar.
He had been, he realized, very nearly in love with her: what he meant by that inaccurate term was that if the affair had continued a little longer he would have insisted on marrying her. Nettie was not indifferent to him. An impersonal feeling had attracted him to her—a resentment of her treatment by the larger part of Salem, particularly the oblique admiration of the men. His supersensitiveness to any form of injustice had driven him into the protest of calling and accompanying her, with an exaggerated politeness, about the streets. It had not been difficult; she was warm-blooded, luxurious, a very vivid woman. Gerrit, however, had made a point of repressing any response to that aspect of their intercourse—the sheerest necessity for the preservation of his disdain.
She had cried on his shoulder, in his arms, practically; he had acted in the purely fraternal manner. But the thing was reaching a natural conclusion when her grandfather, Barzil Dunsack, had interfered with his unsupportably frank accusations and command. The Nautilus had been ready for sea, and his, Gerrit's, imperious resentment had carried him out of the Dunsacks' house—to Shanghai and Taou Yuen—without another word to Nettie.
How strangely life progressed, without chart or intelligent observations or papers! He heard the tap of his wife's pipe; there was a faint sweetish odor of drugged tobacco and the scent of cloves in which she saturated herself. Outside was Salem, dim and without perceptible movement; the clock in the hall struck ten. Taou Yuen didn't approach him again nor speak; her perceptions were wonderfully acute.
The sense of loneliness that sometimes overtook him on shore deepened, a feeling of impotence, as if he had suddenly waked, lost and helpless, in an unfamiliar planet. There was the soft whisper of his wife's passage across the room. In the lamplight the paint on her cheeks made startling unnatural patches of—paint. The reflections slid over the liquid black mass of her hair, died in the lustrous creamy folds of her garment. She was at once grotesque and impressive, like a figure in a Chinese pantomime watched from the western auditorium of his inheritance. His fondness for her, his admiration, had not lessened. He surveyed his position, the presence here, in his room at Java Head, of Taou Yuen, with amazement; all the small culminating episodes lost, the result was beyond credence. His thoughts returned to Rhoda's accusation of selfishness, the disaster implied in her pity for his wife. He tried again to analyze his marriage, discover whatever justification, security, it possessed. Was his admiration for Taou Yuen sufficient provision for his part of their future together? It was founded largely on her superiority to the world he had known; and here it was necessary for him to convince himself that his wedding had not been merely the result of romantic accident. He knew that the sensual had had almost no part in it, it had been mental; an act of pity crystallizing his revolt against what he felt to be the impotence of "Christian" ethics. Yet this was not sufficient; for he, like Rhoda, had found under his wife's immobility the flux of immemorial woman.
No, it wasn't enough; but more existed, he was certain of that. No one could expect him, now, to experience the thrill of idealized passion that was the sole property of youth. What feeling he had had for Nettie—he was obliged to return to her from the fact that it was the only possible comparison—had come from very much the same source as the other. The old impersonal motives!
The danger, Rhoda pointed out, had been admitted when his marriage made impossible the continuation of that aloof position. He doubted that it could change him so utterly. The thought of the entertainment his wife would afford him in Salem expanded. He regretted that the best, the calling and comments of the women, was necessarily lost to him, but Taou Yuen would repeat a great deal: she, too, had a sly sense of the ridiculous. He hoped that his sister-in-law didn't suppose her helpless; the impenetrable Manchu control gave her a pitiless advantage over any less absolute civilization. In the darkness before sleep the heavy exotic scents in the room oppressed him strangely.
He rose early, and quietly dressing went out into the garden: buds on the June roses against the high blank fence on the street were swelling into visible crimson; there were the stamping of horses' feet on the cobbles of the stable inclosure, the heavy breathing and admonitions of the coachman wielding a currycomb. The sunlight streamed down through pale green willow and tall lilac bushes, through the octagonal latticed summerhouse and across the vivid sod to the drawing-room door. Gerrit turned, and entered the farther yard, where his father was inspecting the pear trees.
"The Nautilus will need new copper sheathing," Gerrit said: "she's pretty well stripped forward."
"Take her around to the Salem Marine Railway at the foot of English Street. A fine ship, Gerrit, with a proper hull. I tell you they'll never improve on the French lines."
"She won't go into the wind with a clipper," he admitted; "but I'll sail her on a fair breeze with anything afloat."
"If you come to that," his father asserted; "nothing handsomer will ever be seen than an East India-man in the northeast trades with the captain on the quarter-deck in a cocked hat and sword, the shoals of flying fish and albacore skittering about a transom as high and carved and gilded as a church, the royal pennant at the mainmast head. Maybe it would be the Earl of Balcarras with her cannons shining and the midshipmen running about."
"Yes," the younger man returned, "and taking in her light sails at sunset, dropping astern like an island. The John Company's ruining British shipping."
Jeremy Ammidon muttered one of his favorite pessimistic complaints. "What did you say her name was?" he demanded abruptly.
"Taou Yuen Ammidon," the elder pronounced experimentally. "It doesn't sound right, the two won't go together."
"But they have," Gerrit declared. He thought impatiently that he must listen to a repetition of Rhoda's assertions.
"I don't know much about 'em," Jeremy proceeded. "All I saw, when I was younger, was the little singing-girls playing mora and wailing over their infernal three-stringed fiddles something about the moon and a bowl of water lilies."
Taou Yuen did not come down to breakfast, and Gerrit stayed away from their room until her toilet must be finished. It was Sunday; and with the customary preparation for church under way William said:
"I suppose you will go down to the ship?"
The hidden question, the purpose of the inquiry, at once stirred into being all Gerrit's perversity. "No," he replied carelessly; "we'll go with you this morning."
"That's unheard of," William exclaimed heatedly; "a woman in all her paint and perfume and outrageous clothes in North Church, with—with my family! I won't have it, do you understand."
"No worse than what you see there every week," Gerrit retorted calmly; "corsets and feathers and female gimcracks. Plenty of rouge and cologne too. It will give them something new to stare at and whisper about."
William Ammidon choked on his anger, and his wife laid a gloved hand on his arm. "You must make up your mind to it," she told him. "It can't hurt anyone. She is Gerrit's wife, you see."
Above, the shipmaster said to Taou Yuen: "We are going to church with the family." He surveyed her clothes with a faint glimmer of amusement. She had, he saw, made herself especially resplendent as a Manchu. The long gown was straw-colored satin with black bats—a symbol of happiness—whirling on thickly embroidered silver clouds, over which she wore a sleeve coat fastened with white jade and glittering with spangles of beaten copper. Her slippers were pale rose, and fresh apple blossoms, which she had had brought from the yard, made a headdress fixed with long silver and dull red ivory pins.
She smiled obediently at his announcement, and, with a fan of peacock silks and betel nuts in a pouch like a tea rose hanging by a cord from a jade button, she signified her readiness to proceed.
William had gone on foot with his girls, Jeremy was seldom in church, and Rhoda, Taou Yuen beside her with Gerrit facing them, followed in the barouche. It seemed to the latter that they were almost immediately at the door of North Church. The leisurely congregation filling the walk stiffened in incredulous amazement as Gerrit handed his wife to the pavement. Rhoda went promptly forward, nodding in response to countless stupefied greetings; while Gerrit Ammidon moved on at Taou Yuen's side.
Prepared, he restrained the latter from a prostration in the hall of the church. Nothing had changed: the umbrella trough still bore the numbers of the pews, the stair wound gloomily up to the organ loft. He again found the subdued interior, the maroon upholstery, the flat Gothic squares of the ceiling and dark red stone walls, a place of reposeful charm. The Ammidons had two of the box pews against the right wall: his brother and children were in the second, and, inside the other small inclosure, he shut the gate and took his place on a contracted corner bench. Taou Yuen sat with Rhoda against the back of the pew. The former, blazing like a gorgeous flower on the shadowed surface of a pool, smiled serenely at him.
He could hear the hum of subdued comment running like ignited powder through the church, familiar faces turned blankly toward him or nodded in patent confusion. The men, he noted, expressed a single rigid condemnation. The women, in crisp light dresses and ribboned bonnets, were franker in their curiosity. Taou Yuen was a loadstone for their glances. As the service progressed her face grew expressionless. Fretted sandalwood bracelets drooped over her folded hands, and miniature dragon flies quivered on the gold wires of her earrings; the sharp perfumes of the East drifted out and mingled with the Western scents of extracts and powders. He only saw that she was politely chewing betel nut. It wasn't, he told himself, reverting to his critical attitude toward Salem, that he was lacking in charity toward his neighbors, or that he felt any superiority; but the quality that signally roused his antagonism was precisely the men's present aspect of heavy censure and boundless propriety, their stolid attitude of justifying the spiritual consummation promised by the sermon and hymns.
The long night watches, the anxiety of the sea, the profound mysteries of the wheeling stars and the silence of the ocean at dawns, had given him, he dimly realized, an inarticulate reverence for the supreme mystery of creation. He was unable to put it into words or facile prayer but it was the guarded foundation of most that he was, and it bred in him a contempt for lesser signs. The religion of his birth, the faith of Taou Yuen, the fetishism of the Zanzibar Coast, he had regarded as equally important, or futile—the mere wash of the immensity of beauty, the inexorable destiny, that had seemed to breathe on him alone at the stern of his ship.
He lost himself now in the keenness of his remembered emotion: the church faded into a far horizon, he felt the slight heave of the ship and heard the creaking of the wheel as the steersman shifted his hands; from aloft came the faint slapping of the bunt lines on rigid canvas, the loose hemp slippers of the crew sounded across the deck, the water whispered alongside, the ship's bell was struck and repeated in a diminished note on the topgallant forecastle. The morning rose from below the edge of the sea and the pure air freshened…. His thoughts were recalled to the present by the dogmatic insistence of the clergyman's voice, promising heaven, threatening hell. His gaze rested on the chalky debility of Madra Clifford.
The service over, the aisle past the Ammidon pews was filled with a slow-moving inquisitive throng. Rhoda chose to wait until the greater part was past, and then she followed with the unmoved Taou Yuen and Gerrit. "This is my brother's wife," he heard the former say. "Mrs. Saltonstone, Gerrit's sister, Mrs. Clifford and Miss Vermeil. Yes… from Shanghai. Overdue. We were worried, of course." Taou Yuen smiled vigorously and flapped the vivid fan. Against her brilliant colors, the carved jade and embroideries, silver and apple blossoms, the other women looked colorless in wide book muslin and barége, with short veils of tulle illusion hanging from bonnets of rice straw and glazed crêpe. Palpably shocked by her Oriental face masked in paint, her Chinese "heathen" origin, yet they fingered the amazing needlework and wondered over the weight of her satins.
The men he knew gave him, for the most part, a curt greeting. They glanced more covertly at his wife; he understood exactly what thoughts brought out this condemnation soiled by private speculation; and his disdain mounted at their sleek backs and glossy tile, hats supported on stiffly bent arms.
After dinner he walked through the warm sunny emptiness of the afternoon to Derby Wharf and the Nautilus. Standing on the wharf, smoking a cheroot, he leaned back upon his cane, studying the ship with a gaze that missed no detail. There was not a sound from the water; across the harbor Peach's Point seemed about to dissolve in a faint green haze; a strong scent of mingled spices came from the warehouses. There was the splash of oars in the Basin beyond, and the more distant peal of a church bell.
At the sound of footfalls behind him he turned and saw Nettie Vollar and her uncle, Edward Dunsack. A dark color rose in the girl's cheek, and her hand pulled involuntarily at Dunsack's arm, as if she wished to retreat. Gerrit thought that she had aged since he had latest met her: Nettie's mouth, with its full, slightly drooping lower lip, had lost something of its fresh arch; her eyes, though they still preserved their black sparkle, were plainly resentful. Edward Dunsack, medium tall but thin almost to emaciation, had a riven sallow face with close-cut silvery hair and agate-brown eyes with contracted pupils.
"Well, Nettie," Gerrit said, moving forward promptly, "it's pleasant to see you again." Her hand was cold and still. "Dunsack, too."
"I am obliged to you for my chest," the latter told him, unmoved by
Gerrit's quizzical gaze.
"Glad to do it for you," the other replied; "it came ashore with my personal things, and so, perhaps, saved you something."
"Perhaps," Dunsack agreed levelly.
Looking down at the cob filling of the wharf, Nettie Vollar said, "You came home married, I hear, and to a Chinese lady."
Gerrit assented. "You'll certainly know her, and like her, too. Taou Yuen is very wise and without the prejudices—" he stopped, conscious of the stupidity of his attempted kindness. Nettie looked up defiantly, biting her lip—a familiar trick, he recalled. Dunsack interposed:
"You will find that the Chinese have none of your little sympathetic tricks. No foreigner could ever grasp the depth of their indifference to what you might call humanity. They are born wise, as you say, but weary. I suppose your wife plays the guitar skillfully and sings the Soochow Love Song."
Gerrit Ammidon studied him with somber eyes and a gathering temper: it was, however, impossible to decide whether the implication was deliberately insulting. He wouldn't have any Canton clerk, probably saturated with opium, insinuate that his affair was on the plane of that of a drunken sailor! "My wife," he said deliberately, "is a Manchu lady. You may know that they don't learn dialect songs nor ornament tea houses."
"Very remarkable," Dunsack returned imperturbably. "We never see them. How did you manage a go-between, and did you send the hour of your birth to the Calculator of Destinies? Then there is so much to remember in a Chinese wedding—the catties of tea and four silver ingots, the earrings and red and green silk and Tao priest to consult the gods." Gerrit heard this with a frowning countenance. If Nettie were not there he would put Dunsack forward with the hypothetical crew to which he belonged. He felt as sorry for Nettie, he discovered, as ever. It moved him to see her vivacity of life, her appealingly warm color, slowly dulled by Salem and the adventitious circumstance of her birth. What a dreary existence she led in the harsh atmosphere of her grandfather and the solemn house on Hardy Street! At one time he had fancied that he might change it… when now here was Taou Yuen, detached and superior, waiting in his room at Java Head.
"I stopped for a moment to look at the ship," he said, with the trace of an ungracious bow, "and must get back." The sunlight flung a warm moted veil over Nettie Vollar. She gave him a startled uncalculated glance of almost desperate appeal and his heart responded with a quickened thud. Edward Dunsack was sallow and enigmatic, with thin pinched lips.