She smiled, and returned to the spinsters.
Spurlock began to munch his water-chestnuts. What he needed was not a food but a flavour; and the cocoanut taste of the chestnuts soothed his burning tongue and throat. He had let go his name so easily as that! What was the name she had given? Ruth something; he could not remember. What a frightened fool he was! If he could not remember her name, it was equally possible that already she had forgotten his. Conscience was always digging sudden pits for his feet and common sense ridiculing his fears. Mirages, over which he was constantly throwing bridges which were wasted efforts, since invariably they spanned solid ground.
But he would make it a point not to speak again to the girl. If he adhered to this policy—to keep away from her inconspicuously—she would forget the name by night, and to-morrow even the bearer of it would sink below the level of recollection. That was life. They were only passers-by.
Drink for him had a queer phase. It did not cheer or fortify him with false courage and recklessness; it simply enveloped him in a mist of unreality. A shudder rippled across his shoulders. He hated the taste of it. The first peg was torture. But for all that, it offered relief; his brain, stupefied by the fumes, grew dull, and conscience lost its edge to bite.
He wiped the sweat from his chin and forehead. His hand shook so violently that he dropped the handkerchief; and he let it lie on the floor because he dared not stoop.
Ah Cum, sensing the difficulty, approached, recovered the damp handkerchief and returned it.
“Very interesting,” said the Chinaman, with a wave of his tapering hand toward the roofs. “It reminds you of a red sea suddenly petrified.”
“Or the flat stones in the meadows, teeming with life underneath. Ants.”
“You are from America?”
“Yes.” But Spurlock put up his guard.
“I am a Yale man,” said Ah Cum.
“Yale? Why, so am I.” There was no danger in admitting this fact. Spurlock offered his hand, which Ah Cum accepted gravely. A broken laugh followed the action. “Yale!” Spurlock’s gaze shifted to the dead hills beyond the window; when it returned to the Chinaman there was astonishment instead of interest: as if Ah Cum had been a phantom a moment since and was now actually a human being. “Yale!” A Chinaman who had gone to Yale!
“Yes. Civil engineering. Mentally but not physically competent. Had to give up the work and take to this. I’m not noble; so my honourable ancestors will not turn over in their graves.”
“Graves.” Spurlock pointed in the sloping fields outside the walls. “I’ve counted ten coffins so far.”
“Ah, yes. The land about these walls is a common graveyard. Every day in the year you will witness such scenes. There are no funerals among the poor, only burials. And many of these deaths could be avoided if it were not for superstition. Superstition is the Chinese Reaper. Rituals instead of medicines. Sometimes I try to talk. I might as well try to build a ladder to heaven. We must take the children—of any race—if we would teach knowledge. Age is set, impervious to innovations.”