A phase of mental activity that men called courage: to summon at will this energy which barred the ingress of the long cold fingers of fear, which cleared the throat of stuffiness and kept the glance level and ever forward. She possessed it, astonishing fact! She had summoned this energy so continuously during the past four weeks that now it was abiding; she knew that it would always be with her, on guard. And immeasurable was the calm evolved from this knowledge.
The light touch of Ah Cum’s hand upon her arm broke the thread of retrospective thought; and her gray eyes began to register again the things she saw.
“Jade,” said Ah Cum.
She turned away from the doorway of the silk loom to observe. Pole coolies came joggling along with bobbing blocks of jade—white jade, splashed and veined with translucent emerald green.
“On the way to the cutters,” said Ah Cum. “But we must be getting along if we are to lunch in the tower of the water-clock.”
As if an order had come to her somewhere out of space, the girl glanced sideways at the other young fool.
So far she had not heard the sound of his voice. The tail-ender of this little caravan, he had been rather out of it. But he had shown no desire for information, no curiosity. Whenever they stepped from the chairs, he stepped down. If they entered a shop, he paused by the doorway, as if waiting for the journey to be resumed.
Young, not much older than she was: she was twenty and he was possibly twenty-four. She liked his face; it had on it the suggestion of gentleness, of fineness. She was lamentably without comparisons; such few young men as she had seen—white men—had been on the beach, pitiful and terrible objects.
The word handsome was a little beyond her grasp. She could not apply it in this instance because she was not sure the application would be correct. Perhaps what urged her interest in the young man’s direction was the dead whiteness of his face, the puffed eyelids and the bloodshot whites. She knew the significance: the red corpuscle was being burnt out by the fires of alcohol. Was he, too, on the way to the beach? What a pity! All alone, and none to warn him of the abject wretchedness at the end of Drink.
Only the night before, in the dining room of the Hong-Kong Hotel, she had watched him empty glass after glass of whisky, and shudder and shudder. He did not like it. Why, then, did he touch it?
As he climbed heavily into his chair, she was able to note the little beads of sweat under the cracked nether lip. He was in misery; he was paying for last night’s debauch. His clothes were smartly pressed, his linen white, his jaws cleanly shaven; but the day would come when he would grow indifferent to bodily cleanliness. What a pity!
For all her ignorance of material things—the human inventions which served the physical comforts of man—how much she knew about man himself! She had seen him bereft of all those spiritual props which permit man to walk on two feet instead of four—broken, without resilience. And now she was witnessing or observing the complicated machinery of civilization through which they had come, at length to land on the beach of her island. She knew now the supreme human energy which sent men to hell or carried them to their earthly heights. Selfishness.