After a series of mental gymnastics—occupying the space of a few seconds—it came to him with a shock that here was a new specimen of the species. At the same time he comprehended that she was as pure and lovely as the white orchid of Borneo and that she did not carry that ridiculous shield called false modesty. He could talk to her as frankly as he could to a man, that she would not take offence at anything so long as it was in the form of explanation. On the other hand, there was a subconscious impression that she would be able to read instantly anything unclean in a man’s eye. All her questions would have as a background the idea of future defence.
“The geisha and the sing-song girl are professional entertainers. They are not bad girls, but the average tourist has that misconception of them. If some of them are bad in the sense you mean, it is because there are bad folks in all walks of life. They sell only their talents, not their bodies; they are not girls of the street.”
The phrase was new, but Ruth nodded understandingly.
“Still,” went on the manager, “they are slaves in a sense; they are bought and sold until their original indebtedness is paid. A father is in debt, we’ll say. He sells his daughter to a geisha or a sing-song master, and the girl is rented out until the debt is paid. Then the work is optional; they go on their own. There are sing-song girls in Hong-Kong and Shanghai who are famous and wealthy. Sometimes they marry well. If they become bad it is through inclination, not necessity.”
Again Ruth nodded.
“To go a little further. Morality is a point of view. It is an Occidental point of view. The Oriental has no equivalent. What you would look upon as immorality is here merely an established custom, three thousand years older than Christianity, accepted with no more ado than that which would accompany you should you become a clerk in a shop.”
“That is what I wanted to know,” said Ruth gravely. “The poor things!”
The manager laughed. “Your sympathy is being wasted. They are the only happy women in the Orient.”
“Do you suppose he knew?”
“He? Oh, you mean Mr. Taber?” He wondered if this crystal being was interested in that blundering fool who had gone recklessly into the city. “I don’t know what his idea was.”
“Will there be any danger?”
“To Mr. Taber? There is a possibility. Canton at night is as much China as the border town of Lan-Chow-fu. A white man takes his life in his hands. But Ah Cum is widely known for his luck. Besides,” he added cynically, “it is said that God watches over fools and drunken men.”
This expression was old in Ruth’s ears. She had heard the trader utter it many times.
“Thank you,” she said, and left the office.
The manager stared at the empty doorway for a space, shrugged, and returned to his ledgers. The uncanny directness of those gray eyes, the absence of diffidence, the beauty of the face in profile (full, it seemed a little too broad to make for perfect beauty), the mellow voice that came full and free, without hesitance, all combined to mark her as the most unusual young woman he had ever met. He was certain that those lips of hers had never known the natural and pardonable simper of youth.