“I wonder,” said Ruth. “Couldn’t you speak to him?”
“What?—and be insulted for my trouble? No, thank you!”
“That is it. You complain of a condition, but you leave the correction to someone else.”
The spinster had no retort to offer such directness. This child was frequently disconcerting. Prudence attacked her chicken wing.
“If I spoke to him, my interest might be misinterpreted.”
“Where did you go to school?” Prudence asked, seeking a new channel, for the old one appeared to be full of hidden reefs.
“I never went to school.”
“But you are educated!”—astonished.
“That depends upon what you call educated. Still, my tutor was a highly educated scholar—my father.” Neither spinster noticed the reluctance in the tones.
“Ah! I see. He suddenly realized that he could not keep you for ever in this part of the world; so he sends you to your aunt. That dress! Only a man—and an unworldly one—would have permitted you to proceed on your adventure dressed in a gown thirty years out of date. What is your father’s business?”
The question was an impertinence, but Ruth was not aware of that.
“Souls,” she answered, drily.
“A missioner! That illuminates everything.” The spinster’s face actually became warm. “You will finish your education in the East and return. I see.”
“No. I shall never come back.”
Something in the child’s voice, something in her manner, warned the spinster that her well-meaning inquisitiveness had received a set-back and that it would be dangerous to press it forward again. What she had termed illuminative now appeared to be only another phase of the mystery which enveloped the child. A sinister thought edged in. Who could say that the girl’s father had not once been a fashionable clergyman in the States and that drink had got him and forced him down, step by step, until—to use the child’s odd expression—he had come upon the beach? She was cynical, this spinster. There was no such a thing as perfection in a mixed world. Clergymen were human. Still, it was rather terrible to suspect that one had fallen from grace, but nevertheless the thing was possible. With the last glimmer of decency he had sent the daughter to his sister. The poor child! What frightful things she must have seen on that island of hers!
The noise of crashing glass caused a diversion; and Ruth turned gratefully toward the sound.
The young man had knocked over the siphon. He rose, steadied himself, then walked out of the dining room. Except for the dull eyes and the extreme pallor of his face, there was nothing else to indicate that he was deep in liquor. He did not stagger in the least. And in this fact lay his danger. The man who staggers, whose face is flushed, whose attitude is either noisily friendly or truculent, has some chance; liquor bends him eventually. But men of the Spurlock type, who walk straight, who are unobtrusive and intensely pale, they break swiftly and inexplicably. They seldom arrive on the beach. There are way-stations—even terminals.