He went on munching his water-chestnuts, and stared at the skyline. He hated horizons. He was always visualizing the Hand whenever he let his gaze rest upon the horizon. An enormous Hand that rose up swiftly, blotting out the sky. A Hand that strove to reach his shoulder, relentless, soulless but lawful. The scrutiny of any strange man provoked a sweaty terror. What a God-forsaken fool he was! And dimly, out there somewhere in the South Seas—the beach!
Already he sensed the fascination of the inevitable; and with this fascination came the idea of haste, to get there quickly and have done. Odd, but he had never thought of the beach until this girl (who looked as if she had stepped out of the family album) referred to it with a familiarity which was as astonishing as it was profoundly sad.
The beach: to get there as quickly as he could, to reach the white man’s nadir of abasement and gather the promise of that soothing indifference which comes with the final disintegration of the fibres of conscience. He had an objective now.
The tourists returned to the Sha-mien at four o’clock. They were silent and no longer observant, being more or less exhausted by the tedious action of the chairs. Even Ah Cum had resumed his Oriental shell of reserve. To reach the Sha-mien—and particularly the Hotel Victoria—one crossed a narrow canal, always choked with rocking sampans over and about which swarmed yellow men and women and children in varied shades of faded blue cotton. At sunset the swarming abruptly ceased; even the sampans appeared to draw closer together, with the quiet of water-fowl. There is everywhere at night in China the original fear of darkness.
From the portals of the hotel—scarcely fifty yards from the canal—one saw the blank face of the ancient city of Canton. Blank it was, except for a gate near the bridgehead. Into this hole in the wall and out of it the native stream flowed from sunrise to sunset, when the stream mysteriously ceased. The silence of Canton at night was sinister, for none could prophesy what form of mob might suddenly boil out.
No Cantonese was in those days permitted to cross to the Sha-mien after sunset without a license. To simplify matters, he carried a coloured paper lantern upon which his license number was painted in Arabic numerals. It added to the picturesqueness of the Sha-mien night to observe these gaily coloured lanterns dancing hither and yon like June fireflies in a meadow.
Meantime the spinsters sought the dining room where tea was being served. They had much to talk about, or rather Miss Prudence had.
“But she is a dear,” said Angelina, timidly.
“I’ll admit that. But I don’t understand her; she’s over my head. She leaves me almost without comparisons. She is like some character out of Phra the Phoenician: she’s been buried for thirty years and just been excavated. That’s the way she strikes me. And it’s uncanny.”