"The stupid bruiser," Edward Dunsack declared in a thin bitterness that startled the girl at his side. "The low sea bully!" He was gazing at the resolute back of Captain Ammidon. A surprising hatred filled him at the memory of the other's intolerant gaze, the careless contempt of his words. He thought, oddly enough, of the delicate and ingenious tortures practiced on offenders in China; the pleasant mental picture followed of Ammidon bowed in a wooden collar, of Gerrit Ammidon bambooed, sliced, slowly choking…. With an intense sense of horror he caught himself dwelling on these dripping visions. His hands clasped rigidly, a sweat stood out on his brow, in a realization that was at once dread and a self-loathing.
About him lay the tranquil Salem water, the still wharves, the familiar roofs and green tree tops. This wasn't Canton, he told himself, but America: there was Nettie; only a few streets away was his father's house, his own home, all solid and safe and reassuring. China was a thing of the past, its insidious secret hold broken. It was now only a dream of evil fascination from which he had waked to the reality, the saving substance, of Derby Wharf. "It's his domineering manner," he explained the outburst to Nettie; "all shipmasters have it—as if the world were a vessel they damned from a quarter-deck in the sky. I never could put up with them."
"He is very kind, really," she replied, looking away over the harbor. "It is so queer—marrying a Chinese woman like that. How will he ever get along with her or be happy?"
"He won't," Edward Dunsack asserted. "Leave that to time." He studied her attentively. "Was it anything to you?" he asked.
"It might have been," she acknowledged listlessly, her gaze still on the horizon. "He came to see me two or three times, quite differently from other nice men, and took me to a concert at the Philharmonic Society. He was getting to like me, I could tell that, when grandfather interfered—"
"I see," Dunsack interrupted, "with the immorality of the supermoral."
"Whatever it was he was past bearing. No one could blame Gerrit for getting into a fury. The next day I stood almost in this spot, it was late afternoon too, and watched the Nautilus sail away. All the canvas was set and I could see her for a long time. When the last trace had gone it seemed to me that my life had sunk too … out there."
"The old man's a fool," he said bluntly of his father. "How do you suppose he got hold of a Manchu?" he shifted his thought, addressing the stillness about them rather than his companion. "Don't imagine for a minute that you are superior to her," he told Nettie more directly. "There is nothing more remarkable. They must be gorgeous," a faint color stained his long cheeks. "What incredible luck," he murmured.
He was thinking avidly of the women of China—the little gay girls like toys, the momentary glimpses of enameled faces in hurrying red-flowered sedan chairs, faces of ivory stained with carmine, in gold-crusted headdresses. A sudden impatience at Nettie Vollar's obvious person and clothes expanded to a detestation of an atmosphere he had but a minute or so before welcomed as an escape from something infinitely worse than death. Now it seemed impossible to spend a life in Salem. It would have been better, when he had been released by Heard and Company, to have taken the position open in the Dutch Hong.
He was in a continual state of such vacillation, as if he were the seat of two separate and antagonistic personalities; rather, he changed the figure, in him the East struggled with the West. It was necessary for the latter to triumph. The difficulty lay in the fact that the first was represented by an actual circumstance while the other was only a dim apprehension, a weakened allegiance to ties never strong.
He cursed the extraordinary chance that, against every probability, had brought the chest of opium safely to him here. Its purchase had been the result of habit evading his will, he had despatched it—in that seesawing contest—by a precarious route, half hoping that it would be lost or seized; and, when he had seen the chest carried down Hardy Street to his door, a species of terror had fastened upon him, a premonition of an evil spirit flickering above him in a turning of oily smoke. Why hadn't he pitched the thing into the water at the foot of their yard! There was time still: he would take the balls of opium and dispose of them secretly. A sudden energy, a renewed sense of strength, flooded him. This distaste for Nettie changed into a pity at the ill luck that had followed her: she didn't deserve it. Generous emotions expanded his heart. He dreamed of taking hold of his father's small commerce in rum and sugar with the West Indies and turning it into a concern as rich and powerful as Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone.
They, too, would have a big white house on Washington Square or Chestnut Street, with servants—Chinese servants—and horses and great ships sailing in, laden with the East. Why not indeed! He, Edward Dunsack, had more brains than Jeremy Ammidon, that stiff old man with a face the color of a damask plum. His niece would go to all the balls at Franklin and Hamilton Halls, the injustice of her position overcome by an impressively increasing fortune. Abstractly he patted her shoulder with a hand as long and gaunt and yellow as his face. All this would come as a result of throwing the opium into the harbor. It was as good as accomplished.
In the face of his prospective well-being he felt already the equal of anyone in Salem. If Gerrit Ammidon had married a Manchu lady it was his privilege, no, duty, to call and put his experience in things Chinese at their command. She would speak only a little if any English; no one here understood the preparation of her food—her delicate necessity for dishes not the property of an entire household; a hundred such details of which the infinitely cruder West must be ignorant. He thought complacently that he would understand her better than anyone else in Salem, in Boston, in America; far better than her husband. She would without doubt learn to depend on him: they would laugh together at the manners and people about them. Ammidon would be away for long periods on the China service.—
His dreams broke off with a sardonic laugh, a repetition of the tone in which he had objurgated the ship-master. Such visions were the property of youth, and he was forty-two, forty-two and nothing more than a discredited clerk who had fled across the world from a shadow. But he was right—he had seen white men who had caught the breath of China accepting just such opportunities as the one offered to him after his dismissal by Augustine Heard. At the Dutch Hong he'd be expected to talk about his late employer. Such situations, he had realized in a rarely illuminating flash, were only temporary, a descending flight.
These men resembled the fate of, say, a brig sailing into the China Sea in all the perfection of order of the British Marine: at, perhaps, Hong Kong, sold to a native firm, she would be refitted under an extravagant flag, and slowly the order would depart until, in a slovenly tangle of rigging and defilement, she'd be seen yawing on secret and nauseous errands.
A homely chime of bells was repeated from the town; a ship's fast strained resinously with the changing tide. "It will be getting on toward supper," Nettie told him. They walked slowly from the wharf, turned silently into Derby Street and Hardy on their way home. Beyond the inner fence of the garden the thick uneven sod reaching to the water was dark and cool against the luminous flush of evening. A sound of frying and heavy odor came from the kitchen, and Kate Vollar's voice informed them that the meal was ready.
Barzil Dunsack bowed his head over the table and pronounced a grace in startlingly resonant tones, the reverent humility of his words oddly emphasized by a sort of angry impatience. It seemed as if he at once subjected himself to his God and expressed a certain dissatisfaction with His forbearance. Edward Dunsack was plunged in the thought of the resolution he intended to fulfill that evening.
The throwing away of the opium had lost a part of its symbolic meaning. It now seemed even a little rash when he could find an immediate highly profitable market—the opium had cost him seven hundred dollars in China. But he must, he realized, be firm. Afterwards, in his room facing away from the street over darkening yards and gables and foliage, he stood gazing at the chest of mango wood that held the drug. Edward Dunsack unlocked and lifted the lid. On the tray before him were twenty balls, each the size of his two fists, wrapped in a hard skin of poppy leaves, and there was a similar number beneath. It was obvious that he couldn't carry a tray through the house, and he took out two balls, after which he secured the remainder.
He walked quickly down the stair and through the close turning of the lower hall that led through a side door to the yard. A pale rectangle of lamplight fell from the sitting room window over a brick path and ground tramped bare of grass; a clinking of dishes sounded in the kitchen. The sod was damp, and perhaps eight feet below the wooden buttress of the land the water showed impenetrably black.
Safely there he passed a tense hand over a brow suddenly wet; he was shaking as if in the grip of a chill. His condition needed drastic measures. The cold heavy opium gave out its tantalizing odor. In a minute it would be disposed of and he would go for more. He calculated that this necessitated twenty trips at the present rate—a bag might serve his purpose better. He raised an arm with an opium ball, but his hand remained suspended in air. An inarticulate protest seized him, a suffocating sense of impending loss. He would never be able to get Patna opium here; it was a valuable medical property. His nerves shook at the thought of its delights. Then as if without his volition and against every intention, his arm described a short arc and his hand was empty. There was the impact of a solid object striking the water, a faint ripple on the motionless expanse, and then absolute silence.
He was aghast at his wanton act, the irreparable waste of a precious substance, and cursed in a low audible Cantonese. Whose concern was it if he did, very occasionally, smoke a "pistol"? How could it possibly matter! The dreams about a great foreign commerce, a white house like the Ammidons', were futile; it was too late. He could expect nothing from life but the unspeakable monotony of his father's dwelling, the bare office. He had worked hard, been as full of splendid early resolutions as anyone, and he wasn't blamable if chance balked his ambition. A soul was nothing more than a twisting leaf in the wind of fate. There remained only to take what escape was offered—golden visions, luxury, beauty beyond all earth.
His contrary determination seemed of less actuality than the imagined echoing of the splash that still hung in his brain. It was a thing far away, belonging to another time, another man; like the memory of a period of charming ignorance. The thought of it wove a strand of melancholy into his present mature realization like the delicate scent of blossoming trees borne to him on the evening air, barely perceptible and then lost in the pungency of the opium. The latter became, mystically, all China, the irresistible fascination that had gradually possessed his imagination, dulling the associations of his heredity and birth, calling him further and further into its secretive heart.
He returned to his room, where he put back the second ball in the tray of its chest. An extraordinary weariness hung over him, there was a sense of leaden weight in his arms and feet. Flashes of a different perception pierced his apathy; a voice, seemingly outside his being, whispered of danger, evil and danger…. A twisting leaf, he told himself again with his deep fatalism.
The memory of Gerrit Ammidon's crisp blue gaze, his vigorous gestures and speech, became an intolerable affront, representing the far lost point of his own departure. His contrary feelings met and grappled in his mind; but in the end the past, Salem, was always defeated, weaker, more faintly perceived. In a great many essentials, he told himself, he had become Chinese in sympathy and fiber.
The lamp threw a smooth gleam over the mango wood chest, and he bent, turning the key in the ornamental brass lock. He could reconsider the disposal of the opium to-morrow; there was no hurry; he had no intention of becoming a victim to the drug. That would be an inconceivable stupidity, the negation of all the philosophy he had gained. Very occasionally—
His thoughts swung to the surprising fact of Ammidon's Chinese wife: if, as he had first suspected, she were a common woman of the port who had made a fool of the dull sailor he perceived the making of a very entertaining comedy. There would be the keenest irony in exposing her to himself before the complacent ignorance of her husband. He knew such women: convicted in Chinese, perhaps before the entire Ammidon family, not a muscle of her face would betray surprise or concern. She might try to murder him, very ingeniously, but never descend to the intrigue, the lies, of a Western woman placed in the same position. She'd stoically accept the situation. These visions ran rapidly, vividly, through his brain; he was accustomed to them; a greater part of his waking life was filled with such pictures, infinitely more alluring, persuasive, than the disappointing actuality. He got out of his clothes, and, in a loose gown of black silk, sat at his open window, his chin sunk in the palm of a hand, his face set against the night.
The next morning, at the breakfast table, he listened with a fleering mouth to his father's long dogmatic grace before meat. His sister sat opposite their parent, her gaze lowered in a perpetual amazement, her entire person stamped with a stupid humility. There was nothing humble, however, in Nettie; the crisp French coloring positively crackled with an electric energy; her mouth was set in a rebellious red blot. Studying her, Edward Dunsack saw that she was prettier than he had first realized on his return to Salem. He speculated over the story she had told him yesterday about Gerrit Ammidon's attachment. What an incredible idiot their father had been: Edward would have relished Gerrit as a brother-in-law; good would have come to them all from such a connection.
If he had been in America at the time no such error would have been permitted. With his counsel Nettie would have caught Ammidon beyond any escape. He wondered if the girl had actually cared for the shipmaster or if the affair had been nothing more than a sop to her wounded pride and isolation. In a way beyond his present understanding this seemed to be considerably important. If she had loved him no one could predict what her attitude might be in any future development of their contact; but if her pride only had been involved, injured, she might readily be an instrument for his own obscure purposes.
The office where Barzil Dunsack conducted the limited affairs of his West India trading was a small one-room building back of the dwelling. There was a high desk at which a clerk stood, or balanced on a long-legged stool, a more formal secretary against the length of the wall, with a careful model of a full ship, the spars and standing rigging slack and the whole gray with dust, a built-in cupboard opposite, a dilapidated chair or so and a ten-plate iron stove for wood. A window looked out across the grass to the harbor and another opened blankly against a board fence.
There Edward Dunsack made a column of entries in a script fine and regular but occasionally showing an uncontrollably tremulous line. He was conscious of this tendency, growing through the past year; and he surveyed his writing with a feeling of angry dismay. Try as he might, with a frowning concentration, to pen the words and numerals firmly, presently his attention would slip, his hand waver ever so slightly, and a sudden stricken appearance of old age fasten on the characters…. By heaven, to-night he'd throw all that stinking stuff away!
Outside the day was immaculate, the expanse of the water was like celestial silk, such sails as he saw resembled white clouds. The early morning bird song had subsided, but a persistent robin was whistling from the grass by the open door. The curd-like petals of a magnolia were slowly shifting obliquely to the ground, he could hear the stir of Derby Street. He was inexpressibly weary of the struggle always racking his being: it seemed to him that in the midst of a serene world he was tormented by some inimicable and fatal power.
He fastened his thoughts on commonplace happier objects, on the page under his hand, the entries of Medford rum and sugar cane and molasses, and the infinitely larger affairs of Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone. There was no reason why he shouldn't call on Jeremy Ammidon's family. The latter had signified by his visit the desire to end the misunderstanding between them. He was as well born as Gerrit Ammidon; only ill chance had made them seem differently situated. Anyhow, unlike Canton, mere exterior position had comparatively little weight in Salem. The shipmasters, the more important merchants, arrogated a certain superiority to themselves: but it broke down before the inborn democracy of the local spirit.
That afternoon, he decided, he'd be in Pleasant Street; and later he dressed with the most meticulous care. A growing doubt seized him as he mounted the outside steps of the Ammidons' impressive house; but he crushed it down and firmly rapped with the polished knocker on the opened door.
The family, a servant told him, was in the garden; and he followed through a large white-paneled hall into a formal drawing-room and green space beyond. He was again uncertain before the number of people grouped about a summerhouse and apparently watching his approach with cold surprise. But Gerrit Ammidon stepped forward and greeted him with an adequately level civility.
"You know my father," he said, and Jeremy Ammidon, his heavy body in linen above which his face was dusky, put out an abrupt hand. There was a Mr. Brevard, a slender unconcerned person in very fashionable but restrained clothes; William Ammidon's wife, a large woman in India muslin, handsome enough, Edward Dunsack conceded, in the obvious American sense; a daughter of William's, a girl blooming into womanhood, far too vigorous and brightly colored for his taste; and Gerrit's wife.
The latter had been hidden from him at first, and he saw her suddenly, completely: his surprise caused him to stand in an awkward suspense—never had he imagined that a woman, even a Manchu, could be so beautiful! He recognized, in a score of unmistakable details, that she was of irreproachably high birth; her satins were embroidered with the symbols of nobility and matrimonial felicity; the gold fingernail guards, the jade and flowering pearls, her earrings and tasseled tobacco pouch and ivory fan, were all in the most superlative manner.
A deep pleasurable excitement filled him as he made his greeting in correct Chinese. The long delicate oval of her face showed no emotion at the sound of her native speech and she returned his periods in a slowly chosen mechanical English. Edward Dunsack thought that as he spoke an expression of distaste stamped Gerrit's features. However, he was left in no doubt: "My wife," the other instructed him, "prefers to speak English. That is the only way she has of picking it up."
A contempt filled Dunsack which he was barely able to keep from his voice and manner. He nodded shortly, and subsided into a study of Taou Yuen so open that she must have become aware of his interest. Seated on the bench that circled the interior of the latticed summerhouse she moved so that he could no longer see her face. Brevard was beside her, talking in a low amused voice: there was a ringing peal of laughter from Sidsall Ammidon and a faint infinitely well-bred ripple from Taou Yuen. The brilliant patch of her gown made an extraordinary effect in the Salem garden. Edward Dunsack recognized the scents that stirred from her, more Eastern and disturbing even than opium: there was a subtle natural odor of musk, the perfumes of henna and clove blossoms and santal.
A curious double feeling possessed him in the split consciousness of which he was capable—he had the sensation of having come, in the suave afternoon garden, on overwhelming disaster, and at the same time he was enraged by the play of Fate that had given such a woman to Gerrit Ammidon and denied him, with his special appreciation of Oriental charm, the slightest satisfaction. A more general hatred of Gerrit tightened to a consuming resentment of the other's blind fortune.
One thing was unmistakably borne upon him—in spite of the courtesy he was meeting it was clear that he could not hope to become a customary visitor at the Ammidons'. He was put definitely outside the community of interests in which Brevard easily entered. William Ammidon joined them, and something like astonishment at Dunsack's presence was visible on his complacent face.
He remained, however, in a stubborn resistance to small adverse signs in the hope of gaining some additional facts about Taou Yuen. She had been, he learned, a widow and Gerrit had married her with her father-in-law's consent although the latter was a rich official. He wanted to ask a thousand questions, but he knew that even if the Ammidons were too dense to grasp his curiosity, Taou Yuen herself would comprehend his impoliteness. Nowhere else could be found the wisdom and poise of a Manchu lady.
Jeremy Ammidon, in a lawn chair, a smoking cheroot in his fingers, asked him about affairs of Chinese government and commerce. As the old man talked he flushed darkly with quick indignation. "The English have made our political diplomats look like stuffed gulls!" he declared. "Look at their Orders in Council and the British Prize Courts," he proceeded, waving his cheroot; "stop an American vessel anywhere and pretend to find a deserting English sailor. With the Treaty of Ghent and cod-headed commissioners and a Congress that wouldn't know a ship from a bread barge the country's going to hell on greased ways! I've said it a thousand times and any man not a complete ass knows that you can't run a government without a strong head. Locofocos," he muttered.
Edward Dunsack listened to this tirade with an air of polite attention which hid completely the fact that he heard or comprehended scarcely a word. His thoughts were filled by the fragrant vision of Taou Yuen; already he was deep in the problem of how to see her again, to-morrow. It would be excessively difficult. Eastern women never, if they could avoid it, walked; and they were, he knew, entirely without the necessity that drove the women of Salem into a ceaseless round of calling and gossip. It was probable that, except to ride, she wouldn't leave the house and grounds. He cursed the chance quarrel that had set a customary void between the houses of Dunsack and Ammidon, the unfortunate affair of his sister and Vollar inescapably adding to the permanency of the breach; he particularly cursed Nettie. There, however, his mind took up the twisted thread of the vague possibility that the latter might be useful to him: he was amazed at the way in which his premonitions fitted into the pattern of situations yet to be materialized.
Edward Dunsack turned from his contemplation of Taou Yuen to a careful consideration of Gerrit Ammidon. The latter had a countenance which showed strong, easily summoned emotions. It was an intolerant face, Dunsack judged, and yet sentimental; and it was surprisingly young, guileless. At the same time it was unusually determined—an affair of uncomplicated surfaces, direct gaze, marked bone.
He questioned sharply, irritably, the length to which his projections had reached. What were they all about? The answer was presented by the glittering figure of the Manchu; she had risen and was standing in the entrance of the summerhouse. He thought, with a jerking pulse, of Oriental similes; she was a lotus-woman, a green slip of willow, an ambrosial moon, a mustard flower. Her teeth were white buds, her breasts blanched almonds.
His entire life in China had been a preparation for the realization of the present moment. The sense of danger, of anger at Gerrit Ammidon, perished before the supreme emotion called up by Taou Yuen. He wanted to embrace her satin-shod feet, to cling to her odorous hands, such hands as were never formed out of China, like petals of coral. Not only her bodily charm intoxicated him, but the thought of her subtle mind added its attraction, its shadows never to be pierced by the blunted Western instinct, the knowledge of pleasures like perfumes, the calm blend of the eight diagrams of Confucius, the stoicism of the Buddhistic soul revolving perpetually in the urn of Fate, and of the aloof Tao of Lao-tze.
Brevard left with an easy familiarity, already planning a return, that filled Edward Dunsack with resentful envy. The sun had disappeared behind the house; long cool shadows swept down the garden; it was past time for him to go. A reluctance to move from the magic of Taou Yuen possessed him: he was unable to think how, when, he would next see her. He raged at the prohibition against speaking Chinese; that ability should give him an overwhelming advantage of Gerrit Ammidon. This was, of course, the reason that he had been virtually commanded to limit himself to English. Many of the forms of extreme Chinese courtesy were impossible to express in another language.
Finally he rose; in departing he emphasized the importance of Jeremy Ammidon—Taou Yuen should recognize and applaud that. He saw that she was watching him obliquely, her lips in repose, her hands still among the satin draperies. An American would have betrayed something of her reaction to him, he could have discovered a trace, an indication, of her thoughts; but the Manchu's face was as inscrutable as porcelain. William Ammidon nodded, the old man responded to his leave-taking with a degree of warmness, Gerrit at least smiled in a not unfriendly manner. Edward Dunsack bowed to Taou Yuen, and she gravely inclined her head. He had a last glimpse of her glowing in the green light of the inclosure of rose-bushes and poplars, emerald sod and tangled lilac trees.
At the supper table his sister's appearance in somber untidy black barége, Nettie's unrestrained gestures and speech, the coarse red cloth and plain boiled fare, all added to a discontent that he could scarcely restrain. With the utmost discrimination in delicate shades of beauty and luxury he was yet condemned to spend his days in surroundings hardly raised above poverty-stricken squalor. Incongruous as it was he could yet imagine Taou Yuen moving with a certain appropriateness about the Ammidons' spacious grounds and house; but he was absolutely unable to picture her here, on Hardy Street.
All the vivid scenes that continually formed and shifted in his mind gathered about Gerrit Ammidon's wife. He used this phrase in a contemptuously satirical manner: it was impossible for Ammidon actually to marry a Manchu. Such racial mating, he told himself, could not be consummated; there were too many deep antipathies of flesh and spirit; the man was too—too stupidly normal. Sooner or later he would swing back to his own. With him, Edward Dunsack, it was different; he always had an inner kinship with China; at first sight its streets and sounds, odors and ways, had seemed familiar, admirable.
The realization of this, when his place with Heard and Company collapsed, had sent him back to America, in a strange dread. He remembered how the vague fear had followed him to Derby Wharf. Now he laughed at it, welcoming every Chinese instinct he had. They seemed to throw a bridge across enormous difficulties, bringing him finally to Taou Yuen.
He lingered at the table after supper, his head sunk on his chest, revolving the various aspects of his position. One thing was definite—he must have Taou Yuen; it was unthinkable that she should continue with Gerrit Ammidon. It needed skillful planning, tortuous execution, but in the end he'd get his desire. He had no doubt of that. It was necessary. If she opposed him she would discover that he, too, could be subtle, Oriental, yes—dangerous. None of the stupid inhibitions that, for example, bound his father interfered with the free exercise of his personal wishes. He was beyond primitive morality.
An ecstasy of contemplation ravished his senses.
"Goodness, Uncle Edward," Nettie exclaimed, "you scared me, you looked so like a Chinee."
"There are no such people," he retorted sharply, exasperated by the vulgar error. She was undismayed; and when, in reply to the question, she learned that he had been at the Ammidons' her surprise increased his irritation. He saw from her manner that his calling there had been at least unexpected. Nettie interrupted the preparation of the table for breakfast, and dropped into a chair beyond him, her hands—the sleeves were rolled back to her elbows—clasped before her.
"You must tell me everything," she declared eagerly. "What is she like? Do they seem happy? Did he hold her hand? Do Chinese women kiss? Is she tall or—"
"I can't remember a question out of your rattle," he interrupted her. He was about to give expression to his admiration for Taou Yuen, when he stopped, with tight lips. Here, perhaps, was the lever by which so much was to be shifted.
"She's Chinese," he said indifferently, "and that means yellow." Nettie made a gesture of distaste. "They seem to get along well enough. Of course, it's ridiculous to call it a marriage, and it seems to me very questionable to impose it on the Ammidons as that. The thing is—how long will it last, how soon will he get tired of her and send her back to Canton?"
Nettie Vollar closed her eyes, her hands were rigid. The lamplight, streaming up over her face, showed him that it was tense and pale and answered a question. Her feeling for Gerrit Ammidon had been more than a mere hurt pride. In addition to that he saw beyond any doubt the proof of its existence still. This complicated his problem: inspired only by a resentment that he might fan into hatred she would be far more pliable than in the grip of a genuine affection for Gerrit Ammidon. He understood the processes of the former, a flexible and useful steel; but no one could predict the vagaries, the absurd self-sacrifices, of love. Well, he'd have to work with what offered. That, he realized, was the strength of his philosophy—he accepted promptly, without vain regret, the means that lay at his hand.
"Ammidon seems worn," he said generally; "they were in the garden, and I had a few words privately with him." Nettie glanced swiftly across the table; her lips moved; but she repressed the obvious question trembling on them. "He showed, I think," he continued carefully, "a very improper interest in you."
"He asked if you were well and happy. I most certainly told him, for any number of reasons, for pride alone, that you were."
"Then you told a lie," she cried in a tone so hard that it surprised him.
"Of course," he went on smoothly, "I know that you are not, almost all your circumstances prohibit that. But I don't intend to circulate it in Salem. Opinion here may have forced you into a long loneliness, but I shan't give anyone the satisfaction of knowing it. And, after all, you have your grandfather mostly to blame. You would have been married to Gerrit Ammidon now if he hadn't interfered; you would have been walking about the Ammidons' garden with your hand on his arm in place of that Chinese prostitute."
"I don't see why you should make me so miserable," she declared. "I don't care anything about the garden, it isn't that. Why do you suppose he brought such a woman home?"
"Pique," he told her; "he couldn't care for her in the way he might for, well—you. As I said, he'll drop her on his next voyage to the East; he will leave her and probably never come back to Salem again. I hear that Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone are planning a new policy—bigger ships, clippers in the China and California trade; and that means removal to Boston. Their facilities here are no longer suitable."
She moved, her chin fell upon her hands, propped up with her elbows on the table. Apparently Edward Dunsack was gazing at the wall beyond her. Her breast gave a single sharp heave. When Nettie looked up her face was flushed. "I wish that I were really a bad woman," she spoke in a low vibrant voice.
"What is bad and what is good?" He still seemed to ignore her, considering a question that had no personal bearing. "In one country a thing is thought wrong and in another it is the highest virtue. In one age this or that is condemned, when, turn the calendar, and everyone is praising it." He became confidential, the image of kindness. "I'll tell you what I think is wicked," he pronounced, leaning toward her, "and that is the way you two were kept apart; unchristian is what I call it."
"Gerrit doesn't care," she said.
"How do you know?" he demanded. "I cannot agree with you. I don't find a great deal in him to admire, he is too simple and transparent; but there's no doubt of this, he is faithful. One idea, one affection, is all his head will hold."
"That's a beautiful trait." A palpable wistfulness settled over her.
"It's greatly admired," he agreed; "although not by me. I believe in taking what is yours, what you need, from life. I suppose that I have been away from proprieties so long that they have lost their importance. They seem to me of no greater weight than barriers of straw. But, of course, that mightn't suit you; probably, living in Salem as you have, its opinion is valuable."
"Salem!" she exclaimed bitterly. "What has it ever been to me but an unfair judgment? I owe Salem no consideration; I can't see that I owe any to life."
"I don't want to insist on that," he proceeded deliberately. "The tragedy of your position is that married to Ammidon everything in the past would have been overlooked, forgotten. Even now—" he stopped with a gesture indicating the presence still of large possibilities.
God, what a vacillating fool the girl was! He could say no more at present, and he rose, leaving the room with Nettie staring dully across the table. He went outside, to the grass fronting on the harbor. Here, last night, he had thrown the opium into the water. It seemed to him that he had lived through a complete existence since then: the presence of Taou Yuen had created a new world. He thought she walked to him through the gloom; he saw her slender body grow brighter as she approached; he heard her speak in a low native murmur; their hands caught in an eager tangle.
He put aside, momentarily, the problem of the difficulties of going again to the Ammidons' for an easier one—the bringing of Gerrit Ammidon here. He was confident that, thrown together on the still rim of the water, at evening, the emotion born between his niece and the shipmaster and prematurely choked would revive. He had no means of knowing Ammidon's present exact feeling for Nettie; he was counting only on a general theory of men and nature at large. He was already convinced, from very wide knowledge, experience, that the other could not form a permanent attachment to the Manchu; and Nettie's great difference, together with the romance of her unhappy position, must have a potent effect on the fellow's evident sentimentality. A dank air rose from the water, like the smell of death; and, with an uncontrollable shiver, he turned back toward the house.
In his room Edward Dunsack recalled that he had promised himself to throw away the remainder of the opium on this and succeeding nights. In view of that his movements were inexplicable: he got out from a locked chest the yen tsiang, a heavy tube of dark wood inlaid with silver ideograms and diminutive earthen cup at one end. Then he produced a small brass lamp, brushes, long needles, and a metal rod. Taking off his clothes, and in the somber black folds of the silk robe, he made various minutely careful preparations. Finally, extended on his bed, he dipped the end of the rod into opium the color of tar, kept it for a bubbling moment near the blaze of the lamp, and then crowded the drug into the pipe. He held the bowl to the flame and drew in a long deep inhalation. A second followed and the pipe was empty. He repeated this until he had smoked a mace.
A vivacious and brilliant state of being flooded him; he felt capable of profoundly witty conversation, and laughed at the solemn absurdities of the Ammidons, at his father attempting to call down a blessing out of the empty sky upon their food, at his sister's lugubrious countenance, the childish emotions of Nettie. What a nonsensical strutting business life was.
The confines of his room were lost in an amber radiance that filled all space; it was at once a light and a perfume and charged with a sense of impending rapture. A sparkling crimson shape floated down from infinite skies—Taou Yuen. She wore a bridal costume, cunningly embroidered with the phoenix, a hood of thin gold plate, and a band of red silk about her brow bore the eight copper figures of the beings who are immortal. Her hair was ornamented by the pure green jade pins of summer, her hanging wrists were heavy with virgin silver, while her face was like the desirous August moon flushed in low vapors.
He raised his bony arms—the wide silk sleeves falling back—his emaciated yellow hands. From under his dark eyelids there was a glitter of vision like the sheen on mica… Taou Yuen floated nearer.
Edward Dunsack woke suddenly, at the darkest ebb of night, and started hurriedly to his feet. A sickening vertigo, a whirling head, sent him lurching across the room. He came in contact with a chest of drawers, and clung to it with the feeling that his legs were shriveling beneath him. His consciousness slowly returned, and with it a pain like ruthless tearing fingers searched his body. The rectangle of the open window, only less dark than the room, promised a relief from the strangled effort of his breathing, and he fell across the ledge, lifting his face to a starless and unstirring heat. Waves of complete physical exhaustion passed over him. An utter horror fastened on his brain.
"Oh, God," he said, with numb lips, "we thank Thee for this, Thy daily blessing—" He broke off with an effort. That was his father pronouncing a grace. "Oh God—" he said again, when it seemed to him that in the darkness he saw the blank placidity of a Buddha carved from gray stone. Tears ran over his sunken cheeks, salt and warm like blood.