When she entered the office a strange scene was presented to her startled gaze. The sing-song girl, her fiddle broken, was beating her forehead upon the floor and wailing: Ai, ai! Ai, ai! Spurlock—or Taber, as he called himself—sat slumped in a chair, staring with glazed eyes at nothing, absolutely uninterested in the confusion for which he was primarily accountable. The hotel manager was expostulating and Ah Cum was replying by a series of expressive shrugs.
“What has happened?” Ruth asked.
“A drunken idea,” said Ah Cum, taking his hands out of his sleeves. “I could not make him understand.”
“She cannot stay here,” the manager declared.
“Why does she weep?” Ruth wanted to know.
Ah Cum explained. “She considers her future blasted beyond hope. Mr. Taber did not leave all his money in the office. He insisted on buying this girl for two hundred mex. He now tells her that she is free, no longer a slave. She doesn’t understand; she believes he has taken a sudden dislike to her. Free, there is nothing left to her but the canal. Until two hours ago she was as contented and as happy as a linnet. If she returns to the house from which we took her, her companions will laugh at her and smother her with ridicule. On this side of the canal she has no place to go. Her people live in Heng-Chow, in the Hu-nan province. It is all very complex. It is the old story of a Westerner meddling with an Eastern custom.”
“But why didn’t you oppose him?”
“I had to let him have his way, else he might not have returned safely. One cannot successfully argue with a drunken man.”
The object of this discussion sat motionless. The voices went into his ears but left no impression of their import. There was, in fact, only one clear thought in his fevered brain: he had reached the hotel without falling down.
The sing-song girl, seeing Ruth, extended her hands and began to chatter rapidly. Ruth made a little gesture, of infinite pity; and this was quickly seized upon by the slant-eyed Chinese girl. She crawled over and caught at the skirts of this white woman who understood.
“What is she saying to me?”
Ah Cum shrugged.
Ruth stared into the painted face, now sundrily cracked by the coursing tears. “But she is saying something to me! What is it?”
The hotel manager, who spoke Cantonese with facility, interpreted. He knew that he could translate literally. “She is saying that you, a woman, will readily understand the position in which she finds herself. She addresses you as the Flower of the Lotus, as the Resplendent Moonbeam.”
“Just to give her her freedom?” said Ruth, turning to Ah Cum.
“Precisely. The chair is in the veranda. I will take her back. But of course the money will not be refunded.
“Then take her back,” said the manager. “You knew better than to bring her here under the circumstances.”