The prison bars of circumstance, they no longer encompassed her. Her wings were oddly weak, but for all that she could fly. That was the glorious if bewildering truth. She had left for ever the cage, the galling leash: she was free. The misty caravans of which she had dreamed were become actualities. She had but to choose. All about her, hither and yon, lay the enticing Unknown. Romance! The romance of passing faces, of wires that carried voices and words to the far ends of the world, of tremendous mechanisms that propelled ships and trains! And, oh the beautiful books!
She swiftly knelt upon the floor and once more gathered the books to her heart.
At dinner the spinsters invited Ruth to sit at their table, an invitation she accepted gratefully. She was not afraid exactly, but there was that about her loneliness to-night she distrusted. Detached, it was not impossible that she would be forced to leave the dining room because of invading tears. To be near someone, even someone who made a pretense of friendliness, to hear voices, her own intermingling, would serve as a rehabilitating tonic. The world had grown dark and wide, and she was very small. Doubts began to rise up all about her, plucking at her confidence. Could she go through with it? She must. She would never, never go back.
As usual the substantive sister—Prudence—did all the talking for the pair; Angelina, the shadow, offered only her submitting nods. Sometimes she missed her cue and nodded affirmatively when the gesture should have been the reverse; and Prudence would send her a sharp glance of disapproval. Angelina’s distress over these mischances was pathetic.
None of this by-play escaped Ruth, whose sense of humour needed no developing. That she possessed any sense of humour was in itself one of those human miracles which metaphysicians are always pothering over without arriving anywhere; for her previous environment had been particularly humourless. But if she smiled at all it was with her eyes. To-night she could have hugged both the old maids.
“Somebody ought to get hold of that young man,” said Prudence, grimly, as she nodded in Spurlock’s direction. “Look at him!”
Ruth looked. He was draining a glass, and as he set it down he shuddered. A siphon and a whisky bottle stood before him. He measured out the portion of another peg, the bottle wavering in his hand. His food lay untouched about his plate. There was no disgust in Ruth’s heart, only an infinite pity; for only the pitiful understand.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I have no sympathy,” replied Prudence, “with a man who deliberately fuddles himself with strong drink.”
“You would, if you had seen what I have. Men in this part of the world drink to forget the things they have lost.”
“And what should a young man like this one have to forget?” Prudence demanded to know.