ELEANOR H. PORTER
With Illustrations by Lucius Wolcott Hitchcock
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
To My Friend
MRS. JAMES D. PARKER
I. THE GREAT TERROR
III. FOR JERRY AND NED
VI. LIGHTS OUT
VII. SUSAN TO THE RESCUE
VIII. AUNT NETTIE MEETS HER MATCH
IX. SUSAN SPEAKS HER MIND
X. AND NETTIE COLEBROOK SPEAKS HERS
XI. NOT PATS BUT SCRATCHES
XII. CALLERS FOR "KEITHIE"
XIII. FREE VERSE—A LA SUSAN
XIV. A SURPRISE ALL AROUND
XV. AGAIN SUSAN TAKES A HAND
XVI. THE WORRY OF IT
XVII. DANIEL BURTON TAKES THE PLUNGE
XVIII. "MISS STEWART"
XIX. A MATTER OF LETTERS
XX. WITH CHIN UP
XXI. THE LION
XXII. HOW COULD YOU, MAZIE?
XXIII. JOHN MCGUIRE
XXIV. AS SUSAN SAW IT
XXV. KEITH TO THE RESCUE
XXVI. MAZIE AGAIN
XXVII. FOR THE SAKE OF JOHN
XXVIII. THE WAY
XXIX. DOROTHY TRIES HER HAND
XXX. DANIEL BURTON'S "JOB"
XXXI. WHAT SUSAN DID NOT SEE
XXXII. THE KEY
XXXIII. AND ALL ON ACCOUNT OF SUSAN
"I must go, now. I—must—go!"
Susan Betts talking with Mrs. McGuire over the back-yard fence
"Want you? I always want you!"
"You've helped more—than you'll ever know"
He gave her almost no chance to say anything herself
Keith's arm shot out and his hand fell, covering hers
It was well that the Japanese screen on the front piazza was down
THE GREAT TERROR
It was on his fourteenth birthday that Keith Burton discovered the Great Terror, though he did not know it by that name until some days afterward. He knew only, to his surprise and distress, that the "Treasure Island," given to him by his father for a birthday present, was printed in type so blurred and poor that he could scarcely read it.
He said nothing, of course. In fact he shut the book very hastily, with a quick, sidewise look, lest his father should see and notice the imperfection of his gift.
Poor father! He would feel so bad after he had taken all that pains and spent all that money—and for something not absolutely necessary, too! And then to get cheated like that. For, of course, he had been cheated—such horrid print that nobody could read.
But it was only a day or two later that Keith found some more horrid print. This time it was in his father's weekly journal that came every Saturday morning. He found it again that night in a magazine, and yet again the next day in the Sunday newspaper.
Then, before he had evolved a satisfactory explanation in his own mind of this phenomenon, he heard Susan Betts talking with Mrs. McGuire over the back-yard fence.
Susan Betts began the conversation. But that was nothing strange: Susan Betts always began the conversation.
"Have you heard about poor old Harrington?" she demanded in what Keith called her "excitingest" voice. Then, as was always the case when she spoke in that voice, she plunged on without waiting for a reply, as if fearful lest her bit of news fall from the other pair of lips first. "Well, he's blind—stone blind. He couldn't see a dollar bill—not if you shook it right before his eyes."
"Sho! you don't say!" Mrs. McGuire dropped the wet sheet back into the basket and came to the fence on her side concernedly. "Now, ain't that too bad?"
"Yes, ain't it? An' he so kind, an' now so blind! It jest makes me sick." Susan whipped open the twisted folds of a wet towel. Susan seldom stopped her work to talk. "But I saw it comin' long ago. An' he did, too, poor man!"
Mrs. McGuire lifted a bony hand to her face and tucked a flying wisp of hair behind her right ear.
"Then if he saw it comin', why couldn't he do somethin' to stop it?" she demanded.
"I don't know. But he couldn't. Dr. Chandler said he couldn't. An' they had a man up from Boston—one of them eye socialists what doesn't doctor anythin' but eyes—an' he said he couldn't."
Keith, on his knees before the beet-bed adjoining the clothes-yard, sat back on his heels and eyed the two women with frowning interest.
He knew old Mr. Harrington. So did all the boys. Never was there a kite or a gun or a jack-knife so far gone that Uncle Joe Harrington could not "fix it" somehow. And he was always so jolly about it, and so glad to do it. But it took eyes to do such things, and if now he was going to be blind—
"An' you say it's been comin' on gradual?" questioned Mrs. McGuire. "Why, I hadn't heard-"
"No, there hain't no one heard," interrupted Susan. "He didn't say nothin' ter nobody, hardly, only me, I guess, an' I suspicioned it, or he wouldn't 'a' said it to me, probably. Ye see, I found out he wa'n't readin' 'em—the papers Mr. Burton has me take up ter him every week. An' he owned up, when I took him ter task for it, that he couldn't read 'em. They was gettin' all blurred."
"Blurred?" It was a startled little cry from the boy down by the beet- bed; but neither Susan nor Mrs. McGuire heard—perhaps because at almost the same moment Mrs. McGuire had excitedly asked the same question.
"Blurred?" she cried.
"Yes; all run tergether like—the printin', ye know——so he couldn't tell one letter from t'other. 'T wa'n't only a little at first. Why, he thought 't was jest somethin' the matter with the printin' itself; an'—"
"And WASN'T it the printing at ALL?"
The boy was on his feet now. His face was a little white and strained- looking, as he asked the question.
"Why, no, dearie. Didn't you hear Susan tell Mis' McGuire jest now? 'T was his EYES, an' he didn't know it. He was gettin' blind, an' that was jest the beginnin'."
Susan's capable hands picked up another wet towel and snapped it open by way of emphasis.
"The b-beginning?" stammered the boy. "But—but ALL beginnings don't— don't end like that, do they?"
Susan Betts laughed indulgently and jammed the clothespin a little deeper on to the towel.
"Bless the child! Won't ye hear that, now?" she laughed with a shrug. "An' how should I know? I guess if Susan Betts could tell the end of all the beginnin's as soon as they're begun, she wouldn't be hangin' out your daddy's washin', my boy. She'd be sittin' on a red velvet sofa with a gold cupola over her head a-chargin' five dollars apiece for tellin' yer fortune. Yes, sir, she would!"
"But—but about Uncle Joe," persisted the boy. "Can't he really see— at all, Susan?"
"There, there, child, don't think anything more about it. Indeed, forsooth, I'm tellin' the truth, but I s'pose I hadn't oughter told it before you. Still, you'd 'a' found it out quick enough—an' you with your tops an' balls always runnin' up there. An' that's what the poor soul seemed to feel the worst about," she went on, addressing Mrs. McGuire, who was still leaning on the division fence.
"'If only I could see enough ter help the boys!' he moaned over an' over again. It made me feel awful bad. I was that upset I jest couldn't sleep that night, an' I had ter get up an' write. But it made a real pretty poem. My fuse always works better in the night, anyhow. 'The wail of the toys'—that's what I called it—had the toys tell the story, ye know, all the kites an' jack-knives an' balls an' bats that he's fixed for the boys all these years, an' how bad they felt because he couldn't do it any more. Like this, ye know:
'Oh, woe is me, said the baseball bat, Oh, woe is me, said the kite.'
'T was real pretty, if I do say it, an' touchy, too."
"For mercy's sake, Susan Betts, if you ain't the greatest!" ejaculated Mrs. McGuire, with disapproving admiration. "If you was dyin' I believe you'd stop to write a poem for yer gravestone!"
Susan Betts chuckled wickedly, but her voice was gravity itself.
"Oh, I wouldn't have ter do that, Mis' McGuire. I've got that done already."
"Susan Betts, you haven't!" gasped the scandalized woman on the other side of the fence.
"Haven't I? Listen," challenged Susan Betts, striking an attitude. Her face was abnormally grave, though her eyes were merry.
"Here lieth a woman whose name was Betts, An' I s'pose she'll deserve whatever she gets; But if she hadn't been Betts she might 'a' been Better, She might even been Best if her name would 'a' let her."
"Susan!" gasped Mrs. McGuire once more; but Susan only chuckled again wickedly, and fell to work on her basket of clothes in good earnest.
A moment later she was holding up with stern disapproval two socks with gaping heels.
"Keith Burton, here's them scandalous socks again! Now, do you go tell your father that I won't touch 'em. I won't mend 'em another once. He must get you a new pair—two new pairs, right away. Do you hear?"
But Keith did not hear. Keith was not there to hear. Still with that strained, white look on his face he had hurried out of the yard and through the gate.
Mrs. McGuire, however, did hear.
"My stars, Susan Betts, it's lucky your bark is worse than your bite!" she exclaimed. "Mend 'em, indeed! They won't be dry before you've got your darnin' egg in 'em."
Susan laughed ruefully. Then she sighed:—at arms' length she was holding up another pair of yawning socks.
"I know it. And look at them, too," she snapped, in growing wrath. "But what's a body goin' to do? The boy'd go half-naked before his father would sense it, with his nose in that paint-box. Much as ever as he's got sense enough ter put on his own clothes—and he WOULDN'T know WHEN ter put on CLEAN ones, if I didn't spread 'em out for him!"
"I know it. Too bad, too bad," murmured Mrs. McGuire, with a virtuous shake of her head. "An' he with his fine bringin'-up, an' now to be so shiftless an' good-for-nothin', an'—"
But Susan Betts was interrupting, her eyes flashing.
"If you please, I'll thank you to say no more like that about my master," she said with dignity. "He's neither shiftless, nor good-for- nothin'. His character is unbleachable! He's an artist an' a scholar an' a gentleman, an' a very superlative man. It's because he knows so much that—that he jest hain't got room for common things like clothes an' holes in socks."
"Stuff an' nonsense!" retorted Mrs. McGuire nettled in her turn. "I guess I've known Dan'l Burton as long as you have; an' as for his bein' your master—he can't call his soul his own when you're around, an' you know it."
But Susan, with a disdainful sniff, picked up her now empty clothes- basket and marched into the house.
Down the road Keith had reached the turn and was climbing the hill that led to old Mr. Harrington's shabby cottage.
The boy's eyes were fixed straight ahead. A squirrel whisked his tail alluringly from the bushes at the left, and a robin twittered from a tree branch on the right. But the boy neither saw nor heard—and when before had Keith Burton failed to respond to a furred or feathered challenge like that?
To-day there was an air of dogged determination about even the way he set one foot before the other. He had the air of one who sees his goal ahead and cannot reach it soon enough. Yet when Keith arrived at the sagging, open gate before the Harrington cottage, he stopped short as if the gate were closed; and his next steps were slow and hesitant. Walking on the grass at the edge of the path he made no sound as he approached the stoop, on which sat an old man.
At the steps, as at the gate, Keith stopped and waited, his gaze on the motionless figure in the rocking-chair. The old man sat with hands folded on his cane-top, his eyes apparently looking straight ahead.
Slowly the boy lifted his right arm and waved it soundlessly. He lifted his left—but there was no waving flourish. Instead it fell impotently almost before it was lifted. On the stoop the old man still sat motionless, his eyes still gazing straight ahead.
Again the boy hesitated; then, with an elaborately careless air, he shuffled his feet on the gravel walk and called cheerfully:
"Hullo, Uncle Joe."
"Hullo! Oh, hullo! It's Keith Burton, ain't it?"
The old head turned with the vague indecision of the newly blind, and a trembling hand thrust itself aimlessly forward. "It IS Keith—ain't it?"
"Oh, yes, sir, I'm Keith."
The boy, with a quick look about him, awkwardly shook the fluttering fingers—Keith was not in the habit of shaking hands with people, least of all with Uncle Joe Harrington. He sat down then on the step at the old man's feet.
"What did ye bring ter-day, my boy?" asked the man eagerly; then with a quick change of manner, he sighed, "but I'm afraid I can't fix it, anyhow."
"Oh, no, sir, you don't have to. I didn't bring anything to be mended to-day." Unconsciously Keith had raised his voice. He was speaking loudly, and very politely.
The old man fell back in his chair. He looked relieved, yet disappointed.
"Oh, well, that's all right, then. I'm glad. That is, of course, if I could have fixed it for you—His sentence remained unfinished. A profound gloom settled over his countenance.
"But I didn't bring anything for you to fix," reiterated the boy, in a yet louder tone.
"There, there, my boy, you don't have to shout." The old man shifted uneasily hi his seat. "I ain't deaf. I'm only—I suppose you know, Keith, what's come to me in my old age."
"Yes, sir, I—I do." The boy hitched a little nearer to the two ill- shod feet on the floor near him. "And—and I wanted to ask you. Yours hurt a lot, didn't they?—I mean, your eyes; they—they ached, didn't they, before they—they got—blind?" He spoke eagerly, almost hopefully.
The old man shook his head.
"No, not much. I s'pose I ought to be thankful I was spared that."
The boy wet his dry lips and swallowed.
"But, Uncle Joe, 'most always, I guess, when—when folks are going to be blind, they—they DO ache, don't they?"
Again the old man stirred restlessly.
"I don't know. I only know about—myself."
"But—well, anyhow, it never comes till you're old—real old, does it?" Keith's voice vibrated with confidence this time.
"Old? I ain't so very old. I'm only seventy-five," bridled Harrington resentfully. "Besides anyhow, the doctor said age didn't have nothin' ter do with this kind of blindness. It comes ter young folks, real young folks, sometimes."
"Oh-h!" The boy wet his lips and swallowed again a bit convulsively. With eyes fearful and questioning he searched the old man's face. Twice he opened his mouth as if to speak; but each time he closed it again with the words left unsaid. Then, with a breathless rush, very much like desperation, he burst out:
"But it's always an awful long time comin', isn't it? Blindness is. It's years and years before it really gets here, isn't it?"
"Hm-m; well, I can't say. I can only speak for myself, Keith."
"Yes, sir, I know, sir; and that's what I wanted to ask—about you," plunged on Keith feverishly. "When did you notice it first, and what was it?"
The old man drew a long sigh.
"Why, I don't know as I can tell, exactly. 'T was quite a spell comin' on—I know that; and't wasn't much of anything at first. 'T was just that I couldn't see ter read clear an' distinct. It was all sort of blurred."
"Kind of run together?" Just above his breath Keith asked the question.
"Yes, that's it exactly. An' I thought somethin' ailed my glasses, an' so I got some new ones. An' I thought at first maybe it helped. But it didn't. Then it got so that't wa'n't only the printin' ter books an' papers that was blurred, but ev'rything a little ways off was in a fog, like, an' I couldn't see anything real clear an' distinct."
"Oh, but things—other things—don't look a mite foggy to me," cried the boy.
"'Course they don't! Why should they? They didn't to me—once," retorted the man impatiently. "But now—" Again he left a sentence unfinished.
"But how soon did—did you get—all blind, after that?" stammered the boy, breaking the long, uncomfortable silence that had followed the old man's unfinished sentence.
"Oh, five or six months—maybe more. I don't know exactly. I know it came, that's all. I guess if 't was you it wouldn't make no difference HOW it came, if it came, boy." "N-no, of course not," chattered Keith, springing suddenly to his feet. "But I guess it isn't coming to me—of course't isn't coming to me! Well, good-bye, Uncle Joe, I got to go now. Good-bye!"
He spoke fearlessly, blithely, and his chin was at a confident tilt. He even whistled as he walked down the hill. But in his heart—in his heart Keith knew that beside him that very minute stalked that shadowy, intangible creature that had dogged his footsteps ever since his fourteenth birthday-gift from his father; and he knew it now by name—The Great Terror.
Keith's chin was still high and his gaze still straight ahead when he reached the foot of Harrington Hill. Perhaps that explained why he did not see the two young misses on the fence by the side of the road until a derisively gleeful shout called his attention to their presence.
"Well, Keith Burton, I should like to know if you're blind!" challenged a merry voice.
The boy turned with a start so violent that the girls giggled again gleefully. "Dear, dear, did we scare him? We're so sorry!"
The boy flushed painfully. Keith did not like girls—that is, he SAID he did not like them. They made him conscious of his hands and feet, and stiffened his tongue so that it would not obey his will. The prettier the girls were, the more acute was his discomfiture. Particularly, therefore, did he dislike these two girls—they were the prettiest of the lot. They were Mazie Sanborn and her friend Dorothy Parkman.
Mazie was the daughter of the town's richest manufacturer, and Dorothy was her cousin from Chicago, who made such long visits to her Eastern relatives that it seemed sometimes almost as if she were as much of a Hinsdale girl as was Mazie herself.
To-day Mazie's blue eyes and Dorothy's brown ones were full of mischief.
"Well, why don't you say something? Why don't you apologize?" demanded Mazie.
'"Pol—pologize? What for?" In his embarrassed misery Keith resorted to bravado in voice and manner.
"Why, for passing us by in that impertinent fashion," returned Mazie loftily. "Do you think that is the way ladies should be treated?" (Mazie was thirteen and Dorothy fourteen.) "The idea!"
For a minute Keith stared helplessly, shifting from one foot to the other. Then, with an inarticulate grunt, he turned away.
But Mazie was not to be so easily thwarted. With a mere flit of her hand she tossed aside a score of years, and became instantly nothing more than a wheedling little girl coaxing a playmate.
"Aw, Keithie, don't get mad! I was only fooling. Say, tell me, HAVE you been up to Uncle Joe Harrington's?"
Because Mazie had caught his arm and now held it tightly, the boy perforce came to a stop.
"Well, what if I have?" he resorted to bravado again.
"And is he blind, honestly?" Mazie's voice became hushed and awestruck.
"Uh-huh." The boy nodded his head with elaborate unconcern, but he shifted his feet uneasily.
"And he can't see a thing—not a thing?" breathed Mazie.
"'Course he can't, if he's blind!" Keith showed irritation now, and pulled not too gently at the arm still held in Mazie's firm little fingers.
"Blind! Ugghh!" interposed Miss Dorothy, shuddering visibly. "Oh, how can you bear to look at him, Keith Burton? I couldn't!"
A sudden wave of red surged over the boy's face. The next instant it had receded, leaving only a white, strained terror.
"Well, he ain't to blame for it, if he is blind, is he?" chattered the boy, a bit incoherently. "If you're blind you're blind, and you can't help yourself." And with a jerk he freed himself from Mazie's grasp and hurried down the road toward home.
But when he reached the bend of the road he turned and looked back. The two girls had returned to their perch on the fence, and were deeply absorbed in something one of them held in her hand.
"And she said she couldn't bear—to look at 'em—if they were blind," he whispered. Then, wheeling about, he ran down the road as fast as he could. Nor did he stop till he had entered his own gate.
"Well, Keith Burton, I should like to know where you've been," cried the irate voice of Susan Betts from the doorway.
"Oh, just walking. Why?"
"Because I've been huntin' and huntin' for you.
But, oh, dear me, You're worse'n a flea, So what's the use of talkin'? You always say, As you did to-day, I've just been out a-walkin'!"
"But what did you want me for?"
"I didn't want you. Your pa wanted you. But, then, for that matter, he's always wantin' you. Any time, if you look at him real good an' hard enough to get his attention, he'll stare a minute, an' then say: 'Where's Keith?' An' when he gets to the other shore, I suppose he'll do it all the more."
"Oh, no, he won't—not if it's talking poetry. Father never talks poetry. What makes you talk it so much, Susan? Nobody else does."
Susan laughed good-humoredly.
"Lan' sakes, child, I don't know, only I jest can't help it. Why, everything inside of me jest swings along to a regular tune—kind of keeps time, like. It's always been so. Why, Keithie, boy, it's been my joy—There, you see—jest like that! I didn't know that was comin'. It jest—jest came. That's all. I can make a rhyme 'most any time. Oh, of course, most generally, when I write real poems, I have to sit down with a pencil an' paper, an' write 'em out. It's only the spontaneous combustion kind that comes all in a minute, without predisposed thinkin'. Now, run along to your pa, child. He wants you. He's been frettin' the last hour for you, jest because he didn't know exactly where you was. Goodness me! I only hope I'll never have to live with him if anything happens to you."
The boy had crossed the room; but with his hand on the door knob he turned sharply.
"W-what do you mean by that?"
Susan Betts gave a despairing gesture.
"Lan' sakes, child, how you do hold a body up! I meant what I said— that I didn't want the job of livin' with your pa if anything happened to you. You know as well as I do that he thinks you're the very axle for the earth to whirl 'round on. But, there, I don't know as I wonder—jest you left, so!"
The boy abandoned his position at the door, and came close to Susan Betts's side.
"That's what I've always wanted to know. Other boys have brothers and sisters and—a mother. But I can't ever remember anybody only dad. Wasn't there ever any one else?"
Susan Betts drew a long sigh.
"There were two brothers, but they died before you was born. Then there was—your mother."
"But I never—knew her?"
"No, child. When they opened the door of Heaven to let you out she slipped in, poor lamb. An' then you was all your father had left. So of course he dotes on you. Goodness me, there ain't no end to the fine things he's goin' ter have you be when you grow up."
"Yes, I know." The boy caught his breath convulsively and turned away. "I guess I'll go—to dad."
At the end of the hall upstairs was the studio. Dad would probably be there. Keith knew that. Dad was always there, when he wasn't sleeping or eating, or out tramping through the woods. He would be sitting before the easel now "puttering" over a picture, as Susan called it. Susan said he was a very "insufficient, uncapacious" man—but that was when she was angry or tried with him. She never let any one else say such things about him.
Still, dad WAS very different from other dads. Keith had to acknowledge that—to himself. Other boys' dads had offices and stores and shops and factories where they worked, or else they were doctors or ministers; and there was always money to get things with—things that boys needed; shoes and stockings and new clothes, and candy and baseball bats and kites and jack-knives.
Dad didn't have anything but a studio, and there never seemed to be much money. What there was, was an "annual," Susan said, whatever that was. Anyway, whatever it was, it was too small, and not nearly large enough to cover expenses. Susan had an awful time to get enough to buy their food with sometimes. She was always telling dad that she'd GOT to have a little to buy eggs or butter or meat with.
And there were her wages—dad was always behind on those. And when the bills came in at the first of the month, it was always awful then: dad worried and frowning and unhappy and apologetic and explaining; Susan cross and half-crying. Strange men, not overpleasant-looking, ringing the doorbell peremptorily. And never a place at all where a boy might feel comfortable to stay. Dad was always talking then, especially, how he was sure he was going to sell THIS picture. But he never sold it. At least, Keith never knew him to. And after a while he would begin a new picture, and be SURE he was going to sell THAT.
But not only was dad different from other boys' dads, but the house was different. First it was very old, and full of very old furniture and dishes. Then blinds and windows and locks and doors were always getting out of order; and they were apt to remain so, for there was never any money to fix things with. There was also a mortgage on the house. That is, Susan said there was; and by the way she said it, it would seem to be something not at all attractive or desirable. Just what a mortgage was, Keith did not exactly understand; but, for that matter, quite probably Susan herself did not. Susan always liked to use big words, and some of them she did not always know the meaning of, dad said.
To-day, in the hallway, Keith stood a hesitant minute before his father's door. Then slowly he pushed it open.
"Did you want me, dad?" he asked.
The man at the easel sprang to his feet. He was a tall, slender man, with finely cut features and a pointed, blond beard. Susan had once described him as "an awfully nice man to take care of, but not worth a cent when it comes to takin' care of you." Yet there was every evidence of loving protection in the arm he threw around his boy just now.
"Want you? I always want you!" he cried affectionately. "Look! Do you remember that moss we brought home yesterday? Well, I've got its twin now." Triumphantly he pointed to the lower left-hand corner of the picture on the easel, where was a carefully blended mass of greens and browns.
"Oh, yes, why, so't is." (Keith had long since learned to see in his father's pictures what his father saw.) "Say, dad, I wish't you'd tell me about—my little brothers. Won't you, please?"
"And, Keith, look—do you recognize that little path? It's the one we saw yesterday. I'm going to call this picture 'The Woodland Path'—and I think it's going to be about the very best thing I ever did."
Keith was not surprised that his question had been turned aside: questions that his father did not like to answer were always turned aside. Usually Keith submitted with what grace he could muster; but to-day he was in a persistent mood that would not be denied.
"Dad, WHY won't you tell me about my brothers? Please, what were their names, and how old were they, and why did they die?"
"God knows why they died—I don't!" The man's arm about the boy's shoulder tightened convulsively.
"But how old were they?"
"Ned was seven and Jerry was four, and they were the light of my eyes, and—But why do you make me tell you? Isn't it enough, Keith, that they went, one after the other, not two days apart? And then the sun went out and left the world gray and cold and cheerless, for the next day—your mother went."
"And how about me, dad?"
The man did not seem to have heard. Still with his arm about the boy's shoulder, he had dropped back into the seat before the easel. His eyes now were somberly fixed out the window.
"Wasn't I—anywhere, dad?"
With a start the man turned. His arm tightened again. His eyes grew moist and very tender.
"Anywhere? You're everywhere now, my boy. I'm afraid, at the first, the very first, I didn't like to see you very well, perhaps because you were ALL there was left. Then, little by little, I found you were looking at me with your mother's eyes, and touching me with the fingers of Ned and Jerry. And now—why, boy, you're everything. You're Ned and Jerry and your mother all in one, my boy, my boy!"
Keith stirred restlessly. A horrible tightness came to his throat, yet there was a big lump that must be swallowed.
"Er—that—that Woodland Path picture is going to be great, dad, great!" he said then, in a very loud, though slightly husky, voice. "Come on, let's—-"
From the hall Susan's voice interrupted, chanting in a high-pitched singsong:
"Dinner's ready, dinner's ready, Hurry up, or you'll be late, Then you'll sure be cross and heady If there's nothin' left to ate."
Keith gave a relieved whoop and bounded toward the door. Never had Susan's "dinner-bell" been a more welcome sound. Surely, at dinner, his throat would have to loosen up, and that lump could then be swallowed.
More slowly Keith's father rose from his chair.
"How impossible Susan is," he sighed. "I believe she grows worse every day. Still I suppose I ought to be thankful she's good-natured—which that absurd doggerel of hers proves that she is. However, I should like to put a stop to it. I declare, I believe I will put a stop to it, too! I'm going to insist on her announcing her meals in a proper manner. Oh, Susan," he began resolutely, as he flung open the dining- room door.
"Well, sir?" Susan stood at attention, her arms akimbo.
"Susan, I—I insist—that is, I wish—-"
"You was sayin'—" she reminded him coldly, as he came to a helpless pause.
"Yes. That is, I was saying—" His eyes wavered and fell to the table. "Oh, hash—red-flannel hash! That's fine, Susan!"
But Susan was not to be cajoled. Her eyes still regarded him coldly.
"Yes, sir, hash. We most generally does have beet hash after b'iled dinner, sir. You was sayin'?"
"Nothing, Susan, nothing. I—I've changed my mind," murmured the man hastily, pulling out his chair. "Well, Keith, will you have some of Susan's nice hash?"
"Yes, sir," said Keith.
Susan said nothing. But was there a quiet smile on her lips as she left the room? If so, neither the man nor the boy seemed to notice it.
As for the very obvious change of attitude on the part of the man— Keith had witnessed a like phenomenon altogether too often to give it a second thought. And as for the doggerel that had brought about the situation—that, also, was too familiar to cause comment.
It had been years since Susan first called them to dinner with her "poem"; but Keith could remember just how pleased she had been, and how gayly she had repeated it over and over, so as not to forget it.
"Oh, of course I know that 'ate' ain't good etiquette in that place," she had admitted at the time. "It should be 'eat.' But 'eat' don't rhyme, an' 'ate' does. So I'm goin' to use it. An' I can, anyhow. It's poem license; an' that'll let you do anything."
Since then she had used the verse for every meal—except when she was out of temper—and by substituting breakfast or supper for dinner, she had a call that was conveniently universal.
The fact that she used it ONLY when she was good-natured constituted an unfailing barometer of the atmospheric condition of the kitchen, and was really, in a way, no small convenience—especially for little boys in quest of cookies or bread-and-jam. As for the master of the house—this was not the first time he had threatened an energetic warfare against that "absurd doggerel" (which he had cordially abhorred from the very first); neither would it probably be the last time that Susan's calm "Well, sir?" should send him into ignominious defeat before the battle was even begun. And, really, after all was said and done, there was still that one unfailing refuge for his discomforted recollection: he could be thankful, when he heard it, that she was good-natured; and with Susan that was no small thing to be thankful for, as everybody knew—who knew Susan.
To-day, therefore, the defeat was not so bitter as to take all the sweetness out of the "red-flannel" hash, and the frown on Daniel Burton's face was quite gone when Susan brought in the dessert. Nor did it return that night, even when Susan's shrill voice caroled through the hall:
"Supper's ready, supper's ready, Hurry up, or you'll be late, Then you'll sure be cross and heady If there's nothin' left to ate."
FOR JERRY AND NED
It was Susan Betts who discovered that Keith was not reading so much that summer.
"An' him with his nose always in a book before," as she said one day to Mrs. McGuire. "An' he don't act natural, somehow, neither, ter my way of thinkin'. Have YOU noticed anything?"
"Why, no, I don't know as I have," answered Mrs. McGuire from the other side of the fence, "except that he's always traipsin' off to the woods with his father. But then, he's always done that, more or less."
"Indeed he has! But always before he's lugged along a book, sometimes two; an' now—why he hain't even read the book his father give him on his birthday. I know, 'cause I asked him one day what 't was about, an' he said he didn't know; he hadn't read it."
"Deary me, Susan! Well, what if he hadn't? I shouldn't fret about that. My gracious, Susan, if you had four children same as I have, instead of one, I guess you wouldn't do no worryin' jest because a boy didn't read a book. Though, as for my John, he—-"
Susan lifted her chin.
"I wasn't talkin' about your children, Mis' McGuire," she interrupted. "An' I reckon nobody'd do no worryin' if they didn't read. But Master Keith is a different supposition entirely. He's very intelligible, Master Keith is, and so is his father before him. Books is food to them—real food. Hain't you ever heard of folks devourin' books? Well, they do it. Of course I don't mean literaryly, but metaphysically."
"Oh, land o' love, Susan Betts!" cried Mrs. McGuire, throwing up both hands and turning away scornfully. "Of course, when you get to talkin' like that, NOBODY can say anything to you! However in the world that poor Mr. Burton puts up with you, I don't see. I wouldn't—not a day—not a single day!" And by way of emphasis she entered her house and shut the door with a slam.
Susan Betts, left alone, shrugged her shoulders disdainfully.
"Well, 'nobody asked you, sir, she said,'" she quoted, under her breath, and slammed her door, also, by way of emphasis.
Yet both Susan and Mrs. McGuire knew very well that the next day would find them again in the usual friendly intercourse over the back-yard fence.
Susan Betts was a neighbor's daughter. She had lived all her life in the town, and she knew everybody. Just because she happened to work in Daniel Burton's kitchen was no reason, to her mind, why she should not be allowed to express her opinion freely on all occasions, and on all subjects, and to all persons. Such being her conviction she conducted herself accordingly. And Susan always lived up to her convictions.
In the kitchen to-day she found Keith.
"Oh, I say, Susan, I was looking for you. Dad wants you."
"I don't know; but I GUESS it's because he wants to have something besides beans and codfish and fish-hash to eat. Anyhow, he SAID he was going to speak to you about it."
Susan stiffened into inexorable sternness.
"So he's goin' ter speak ter me, is he? Well, 't will be mighty little good that'll do, as he ought to know very well. Beefsteaks an' roast fowls cost money. Has he got the money for me?"
Without waiting for an answer to her question, she strode through the door leading to the dining-room and shut it crisply behind her.
The boy did not follow her. Alone, in the kitchen he drummed idly on the window-pane, watching the first few drops of a shower that had been darkening the sky for an hour past.
After a minute he turned slowly and gazed with listless eyes about the kitchen. On the table lay a folded newspaper. After a moment's hesitation he crossed the room toward it. He had the air of one impelled by some inner force against his will.
He picked the paper up, but did not at once look at it. In fact, he looked anywhere but at it. Then, with a sudden jerk, he faced it. Shivering a little he held it nearer, then farther away, then nearer again. Then, with an inarticulate little cry he dropped the paper and hurried from the room.
No one knew better than Keith himself that he was not reading much this summer. Not that he put it into words, but he had a feeling that so long as he was not SEEING how blurred the printed words were, he would not be sure that they were blurred. Yet he knew that always, whenever he saw a book or paper, his fingers fairly tingled to pick it up—and make sure. Most of the time, however, Keith tried not to notice the books and papers. Systematically he tried to forget that there were books and papers—and he tried to forget the Great Terror.
Sometimes he persuaded himself that he was doing this. He contrived to keep himself very busy that summer. Almost every day, when it did not rain, he was off for a long walk with his father in the woods. His father liked to walk in the woods. Keith never had to urge him to do that. And what good times they had!—except that Keith did wish that his father would not talk quite so much about what great things he, Keith, was going to do when he should have become a man—and a great artist.
One day he ventured to remonstrate.
"But, dad, maybe I—I shan't be a great artist at all. Maybe I shan't be even a little one. Maybe I shall be just a—a man."
Keith never forgot his father's answer nor his father's anguished face as he made that answer.
"Keith, I don't ever want you to let me hear you say that again. I want you to KNOW that you're going to succeed. And you will succeed. God will not be so cruel as to deny me that. I have failed. You needn't shake your head, boy, and say 'Oh, dad!' like that. I know perfectly well what I'm talking about. I HAVE FAILED—-though it is not often that I'll admit it, even to myself. But when I heard you say to-day—-
"Keith, listen to me. You've got to succeed. You've got to succeed not only for yourself, but for Jerry and Ned, and for—me. All my hopes for Jerry and Ned and for—myself are in you, boy. That's why, in all our walks together, and at home in the studio, I'm trying to teach you something that you will want to know by and by."
Keith never remonstrated with his father after that. He felt worse than ever now when his father talked of what great things he was going to do; but he knew that remonstrances would do no good, but rather harm; and he did not want to hear his father talk again as he had talked that day, about Jerry and Ned and himself. As if it were not bad enough, under the best of conditions, to have to be great and famous for one's two dead brothers and one's father; while if one were blind—-
But Keith refused to think of that. He tried very hard, also, to absorb everything that his father endeavored to teach him. He listened and watched and said "yes, sir," and he did his best to make the chalks and charcoal that were put into his hands follow the copy set for him.
To be sure, in this last undertaking, his efforts were not always successful. The lines wavered and blurred and were far from clear. Still, they were not half so bad as the print in books; and if it should not get any worse—Besides, had he not always loved to draw cats and dogs and faces ever since he could hold a pencil?
And so, with some measure of hope as to the results, he was setting himself to be that great and famous artist that his father said he must be.
But it was not all work for Keith these summer days. There were games and picnics and berry expeditions with the boys and girls, all of which he hailed with delight—one did not have to read, or even study wavering lines and figures, on picnics or berrying expeditions! And that WAS a relief. To be sure, there was nearly always Mazie, and if there was Mazie, there was bound to be Dorothy. And Dorothy had said— Some way he could never see Dorothy without remembering what she did say on that day he had come home from Uncle Joe Harrington's.
Not that he exactly blamed her, either. For was not he himself acting as if he felt the same way and did not like to look at blind persons? Else why did he so persistently keep away from Uncle Joe now? Not once, since that first day, had he been up to see the poor old blind man. And before—why, before he used to go several times a week.
And so the summer passed, and September came. And September brought a new problem—school. And school meant books.
Two days before school began Keith sought Susan Betts in the kitchen.
"Say, Susan, that was awfully good johnny-cake we had this morning."
Susan picked up another plate to dry and turned toward her visitor. Her face was sternly grave, though there was something very like a twinkle in her eye.
"There ain't no cookies, if that's what you're wantin'," she said.
"Aw, Susan, I never said a word about cookies."
"Then what is it you want? It's plain to be seen there's something, I ween."
"My, how easy you do make rhymes, Susan. What's that 'I ween' mean?"
"Now, Keith Burton, this beatin' the bush like this don't do one mite of good. You might jest as well out with it first as last. Now, what is it you want?"
Keith drew a long sigh.
"Well, Susan, there IS something—a little something—only I meant what I said about the johnny-cake and the rhymes; truly, I did."
"Well?" Susan was smiling faintly.
"Susan, you know you can make dad do anything."
Susan began to stiffen, and Keith hastened to disarm her.
"No, no, truly! This is the part I want. You CAN make dad do anything; and I want you to do it for me."
"Make him let me off from school any more."
"Let you off from school!" In her stupefied amazement Susan actually forgot to pick up another plate from the dishpan.
"Yes. Tell him I'm sick, or 't isn't good for me. And truly, 't isn't good for me. And truly, I am quite a little sick, Susan. I don't feel well a bit. There's a kind of sinking feeling in my stomach, and—-"
But Susan had found her wits and her tongue by this time, and she gave free rein to her wrath.
"Let you off from school, indeed! Why, Keith Burton, I'm ashamed of you—an' you that I've always boasted of! What do you want to do—grow up a perfect ignominious?"
Keith drew back resentfully, and uptilted his chin.
"No, Susan Betts, I'm not wanting to be a—a ignominious, and I don't intend to be one, either. I'm going to be an artist—a great big famous artist, and I don't NEED school for that. How are multiplication tables and history and grammar going to help me paint big pictures? That's what I want to know. But I'm afraid that dad— Say, WON'T you tell dad that I don't NEED books any more, and—-"But he stopped short, so extraordinary was the expression that had come to Susan Betts's face. If it were possible to think of Susan Betts as crying, he should think she was going to cry now.
"Need books? Why, child, there ain't nobody but what needs books. An' I guess I know! What do you suppose I wouldn't give now if I could 'a' had books an' book-learnin' when I was young? I could 'a' writ real poetry then that would sell. I could 'a' spoke out an' said things that are in my soul, an' that I CAN'T say now, 'cause I don't know the words that—that will impress what I mean. Now, look a-here, Keith Burton, you're young. You've got a chance. Do you see to it that you make good. An' it's books that will help you do it."
"But books won't help me paint, Susan."
"They will, too. Books will help you do anything."
"Then you won't ask dad?"
"Indeed, I won't."
"But I don't see how books—-" With a long sigh Keith turned away.
In the studio the next morning he faced his father.
"Dad, you can't learn to paint pictures by just READING how to do it, can you?"
"You certainly cannot, my boy."
"There! I told Susan Betts so, but she wouldn't LISTEN to me. And so— I don't have to go to school any more, do I?"
"Don't have to go to school any more! Why, Keith, what an absurd idea! Of course you've got to go to school!"
"But just to be an artist and paint pictures, I don't see—-"
But his father cut him short and would not listen.
Five minutes later a very disappointed, disheartened young lad left the studio and walked slowly down the hall.
There was no way out of it. If one were successfully to be Jerry and Ned and dad and one's self, all in one, there was nothing but school and more school, and, yes, college, that would give one the proper training. Dad had said it.
Keith went to school the next morning. With an oh-well-I-don't-care air he slung his books over his shoulder and swung out the gate, whistling blithely.
It might not be so bad, after all, he was telling himself. Perhaps the print would be plainer now. Anyway, he could learn a lot in class listening to the others; and maybe some of the boys would study with him, and do the reading part.
But it was not to be so easy as Keith hoped for. To begin with, the print had not grown any clearer. It was more blurred than ever. To be sure, it was much worse with one eye than with the other; but he could not keep one eye shut all the time. Besides—his eyes ached now if he tried to use them much, and grew red and inflamed, and he was afraid his father would notice them. He began to see strange flashes of rainbow light now, too. And sometimes little haloes around the lamp flame. As if one could study books with all that!
True, he learned something in class—but naturally he was never called upon to recite what had already been given, so he invariably failed miserably when it came to his turn. Even the "boy to study with" proved to be a delusion and a snare, for no boy was found who cared to do "all the reading," without being told the reason why it was expected of him—and that was exactly what Keith was straining every nerve to keep to himself.
And so week in and week out Keith stumbled along through those misery- filled days, each one seemingly a little more unbearable than the last. Of course, it could not continue indefinitely, and Keith, in his heart, knew it. Almost every lesson was more or less of a failure, and recitation hour was a torture and a torment. The teacher alternately reproved and reproached him, with frequent appeals to his pride, holding up for comparison his splendid standing of the past. His classmates gibed and jeered mercilessly. And Keith stood it all. Only a tightening of his lips and a new misery in his eyes showed that he had heard and understood. He made neither apology nor explanation. Above all, by neither word nor sign did he betray that, because the print in his books was blurred, he could not study.
Then came the day when his report card was sent to his father, and he himself was summoned to the studio to answer for it.
"Well, my son, what is the meaning of that?"
Keith had never seen his father look so stern. He was holding up the card, face outward. Keith knew that the damning figures were there, and he suspected what they were, though he could see only a blurred mass of indistinct marks. With one last effort he attempted still to cling to his subterfuge.
"What—what is it?" he stammered.
"'What is it?'—and in the face of a record like that!" cried his father sternly. "That's exactly what I want to know. What is it? Is this the way, Keith, that you're showing me that you don't want to go to school? I haven't forgotten, you see, that you tried to beg off going this fall. Now, what is the matter?"
Keith shifted his position miserably. His face grew white and strained-looking.
"I—I couldn't seem to get my lessons, dad."
"Couldn't! You mean you wouldn't, Keith. Surely, you're not trying to make me think you couldn't have made a better record than this, if you'd tried."
There was no answer.
"Keith!" There was only pleading in the voice now—pleading with an unsteadiness more eloquent than words. "Have you forgotten so soon what I told you?—how now you hold all the hopes of Jerry and Ned and of—dad in your own two hands? Keith, do you think, do you really think you're treating Jerry and Ned and dad—square?"
For a moment there was no answer; then a very faint, constrained voice asked:
"What were those figures, dad?"
"Read for yourself." With the words the card was thrust into his hand.
Keith bent his head. His eyes apparently were studying the card.
"Suppose you read them aloud, Keith."
There was a moment's pause; then with a little convulsive breath the words came.
The man smiled grimly.
"Well, I don't know as I wonder. They are pretty bad. However, I guess we'll have to have them. Read them aloud, Keith."
"But, honest, dad, I can't. I mean—they're all blurred and run together." The boy's face was white like paper now.
Daniel Burton gave his son a quick glance.
"Blurred? Run together?" He reached for the card and held it a moment before his own eyes. Then sharply he looked at his son again. "You mean—Can't you read any of those figures—the largest ones?"
Keith shook his head.
"Why, Keith, how long—-" A sudden change came to his face. "You mean —is that the reason you haven't been able to get your lessons, boy?"
Keith nodded dumbly, miserably.
"But, my dear boy, why in the world didn't you say so? Look here, Keith, how long has this been going on?"
There was no answer.
"Since the very first of school?"
"How long before that?"
"Last spring on my—birthday. I noticed it first—then."
"Good Heavens! As long as that, and never a word to me? Why, Keith, what in the world possessed you? Why didn't you tell me? We'd have had that fixed up long ago."
"Fixed up?" Keith's eyes were eager, incredulous.
"To be sure. We'd have had some glasses, of course."
Keith shook his head. All the light fled from his face.
"Uncle Joe Harrington tried that, but it didn't help—any."
"Uncle Joe! But Uncle Joe is—-" Daniel Burton stopped short. A new look came to his eyes. Into his son's face he threw a glance at once fearful, searching, rebellious. Then he straightened up angrily.
"Nonsense, Keith! Don't get silly notions into your head," he snapped sharply. "It's nothing but a little near-sightedness, and we'll have some glasses to remedy that in no time. We'll go down to the optician's to-morrow. Meanwhile I'll drop a note to your teacher, and you needn't go to school again till we get your glasses."
Near-sightedness! Keith caught at the straw and held to it fiercely. Near-sightedness! Of course, it was that, and not blindness, like Uncle Joe's at all. Didn't dad know? Of course, he did! Still, if it was near-sightedness he ought to be able to see near to; and yet it was just as blurred—But, then, of course it WAS near-sightedness. Dad said it was.
They went to the optician's the next morning. It seemed there was an oculist, too, and he had to be seen. When the lengthy and arduous examinations were concluded, Keith drew a long breath. Surely now, after all that—
Just what they said Keith did not know. He knew only that he did not get any glasses, and that his father was very angry, and very much put out about something, and that he kept declaring that these old idiots didn't know their business, anyway, and the only thing to do was to go to Boston where there was somebody who DID know his business.
They went to Boston a few days later. It was not a long journey, but Keith hailed it with delight, and was very much excited over the prospect of it. Still, he did not enjoy it very well, for with his father he had to go from one doctor to another, and none of them seemed really to understand his business—that is, not well enough to satisfy his father, else why did he go to so many? And there did not seem to be anywhere any glasses that would do any good.
Keith began to worry then, for fear that his father had been wrong, and that it was not near-sightedness after all. He could not forget Uncle Joe—and Uncle Joe had not been able to find any glasses that did any good. Besides, he heard his father and the doctors talking a great deal about "an accident," and a "consequent injury to the optic nerve"; and he had to answer a lot of questions about the time when he was eleven years old and ran into the big maple tree with his sled, cutting a bad gash in his forehead. But as if that, so long ago, could have anything to do with things looking blurred now!
But it did have something to do with it—several of the doctors said that; and they said it was possible that a slight operation now might arrest the disease. They would try it. Only one eye was badly affected at present.
So it was arranged that Keith should stay a month with one of the doctors, letting his father go back to Hinsdale.
It was not a pleasant experience, and it seemed to Keith anything but a "slight operation"; but at the end of the month the bandages were off, and his father had come to take him back home.
The print was not quite so blurred now, though it was still far from clear, and Keith noticed that his father and the doctors had a great deal to say to each other in very low tones, and that his father's face was very grave.
Then they started for home. On the journey his father talked cheerfully, even gayly; but Keith was not at all deceived. For perhaps half an hour he watched his father closely. Then he spoke.
"Dad, you might just as well tell me."
"Tell you what?"
"About those doctors—what they said."
"Why, they said all sorts of things, Keith. You heard them yourself." The man spoke lightly, still cheerily.
"Oh, yes, they said all sorts of things, but they didn't say anything PARTICULAR before me. They always talked to you soft and low on one side. I want to know what they said then."
"Why, really, Keith, they—-"
"Dad," interposed the boy a bit tensely, when his father's hesitation left the sentence unfinished, "you might just as well tell me. I know already it isn't good, or you'd have told me right away. And if it's bad—I might just as well know it now, 'cause I'll have to know it sometime. Dad, what did they say? Don't worry. I can stand it—honest, I can. I've GOT to stand it. Besides, I've been expecting it—ever so long. 'Keith, you're going to be blind.' I wish't you'd say it right out like that—if you've got to say it."
But the man shuddered and gave a low cry.
"No, no, Keith, never! I'll not say it. You're not going to be blind!"
"But didn't they say I was?"
"They said—they said it MIGHT be. They couldn't tell yet." The man wet his lips and cleared his throat huskily. "They said—it would be some time yet before they could tell, for sure. And even then, if it came, there might be another operation that—But for now, Keith, we've got to wait—that's all. I've got some drops, and there are certain things you'll have to do each day. You can't go to school, and you can't read, of course; but there are lots of things you can do. And there are lots of things we can do together—you'll see. And it's coming out all right. It's bound to come out all right."
"Yes, sir." Keith said the two words, then shut his lips tight. Keith could not trust himself to talk much just then. Babies and girls cried, of course; but men, and boys who were almost men—they did not cry.
For a long minute he said nothing; then, with his chin held high and his breath sternly under control, he said:
"Of course, dad, if I do get blind, you won't expect me to be Jerry, and Ned, and—and you, all in a bunch, then, will you?"
This time it was dad who could not speak—except with a strong right arm that clasped with a pressure that hurt.
Not for some days after his return from Boston did Keith venture out upon the street. He knew then at once that the whole town had heard all about his trip to Boston and what the doctors had said. He tried not to see the curious glances cast in his direction. He tried not to care that the youngest McGuire children stood at their gate and whispered, with fingers plainly pointing toward himself.
He did not go near the schoolhouse, and he stayed at the post-office until he felt sure all the scholars must have reached home. Then, just at the corner of his own street, he met Mazie Sanborn and Dorothy Parkman face to face. He would have passed quickly, with the briefest sort of recognition, but Mazie stopped him short.
"Keith, oh, Keith, it isn't true, is it?" she cried breathlessly. "You aren't going to be blind?"
"Mazie, how could you!" cried Dorothy sharply. And because she shuddered and half turned away, Keith saw only the shudder and the turning away, and did not realize that it was rebuke and remonstrance, and not aversion, that Dorothy was expressing so forcibly.
"Say, Keith, I'm awfully sorry, and so's Dorothy. Why, she hasn't talked about a thing, hardly, but that, since she heard of it."
"Mazie, I have, too," protested Dorothy sharply.
"Well, anyway, it was she who insisted on coming around this way to- day," teased Mazie wickedly; "and when I—-"
"I'm going home, whether you are or not," cut in Miss Dorothy, with dignity. And with a low chuckle Mazie tossed a good-bye to Keith and followed her lead.
Keith, his chin aggressively high, strode in the opposite direction.
"I suppose she wanted to see how really bad I did look," he was muttering fiercely, under his breath. "Well, she needn't worry. If I do get blind, I'll take good care she don't have to look at me, nor Mazie, nor any of the rest of them."
Keith went out on the street very little after that, and especially he kept away from it after school hours. They were not easy—those winter days. The snow lay deep in the woods, and it was too cold for long walks. He could not read, nor paint, nor draw, nor use his eyes about anything that tried them. But he was by no means idle. He had found now "the boy to do the reading"—his father. For hours every day they studied together, Keith memorizing, where it was necessary, what his father read, always discussing and working out the problems together. That he could not paint or draw was a great cross to his father, he knew.
Keith noticed, too,—and noticed it with a growing heartache,—that nothing was ever said now about his being Jerry and Ned and dad himself all in a bunch. And he understood, of course, that if he was going to be blind, he could not be Jerry and—
But Keith was honestly trying not to think of that; and he welcomed most heartily anything or anybody that helped him toward that end.
Now there was Susan. Not once had Susan ever spoken to him of his eyes, whether he could or could not see. But Susan knew about it. He was sure of that. First he suspected it when he found her, the next day after his return from Boston, crying in the pantry.
SUSAN CRYING! Keith stood in the doorway and stared unbelievingly. He had not supposed that Susan could cry.
"Why, Susan!" he gasped. "What IS the matter?"
He never forgot the look on Susan's face as she sprang toward him, or the quick cry she gave.
"Oh, Keith, my boy, my boy!" Then instantly she straightened back, caught up a knife, and began to peel an onion from a pan on the shelf before her. "Cryin'? Nonsense!" she snapped quaveringly. "Can't a body peel a pan of onions without being accused of cryin' about somethin'? Shucks! What should I be cryin' for, anyway, to be sure?
Some things need a knife, An' some things need a pill, An' some things jest a laugh'll make a cure. But jest you bet your life, You may cry jest fit to kill, An' never cure nothin'—that is sure.
That's what I always say when I see folks cryin'. An' it's so, too. Here, Keith, want a cooky? An' take a jam tart, too. I made 'em this mornin', 'specially for you."
With which astounding procedure—for her—Susan pushed a plate of cookies and tarts toward him, then picked up her pan of onions and hurried into the kitchen.
Once again Keith stared. Cookies and jam tarts, and made for him? If anything, this was even more incomprehensible than were the tears in Susan's eyes. Then suddenly the suspicion came to him—SUSAN KNEW. And this was her way—-
The suspicion did not become a certainty, however, until two days later. Then he overheard Susan and Mrs. McGuire talking in the kitchen. He had slipped into the pantry to look for another of those cookies made for him, when he heard Mrs. McGuire burst into the kitchen and accost Susan agitatedly. And her first words were such that he could not bring himself to step out into view.
"Susan," she had cried, "it ain't true, is it? IS it true that Keith Burton is going—BLIND? My John says—-"
"Sh-h! You don't have to shout it out like that, do ye?" demanded Susan crossly, yet in a voice that was far from steady. "Besides, that's a very extravagated statement."
"You mean exaggerated, I suppose," retorted Mrs. McGuire impatiently. "Well, I'm sure I'm glad if it is, of course. But can't you tell me anything about it? Or, don't you know?"
Keith knew—though he could not see her—just how Susan was drawing herself up to her full height.
"I guess I know—all there is to know, Mis' McGuire," she said then coldly. "But there ain't anybody KNOWS anything. We're jest waitin' to see." Her voice had grown unsteady again.
"You mean he MAY be blind, later?"
"Oh, the poor boy! Ain't that terrible? How CAN they stand it?"
"I notice there are things in this world that have to be stood. An' when they have to be stood, they might as well be—stood, an' done with it."
"Yes, I suppose so," sighed Mrs. McGuire. Then, after a pause: "But what is it—that's makin' him blind?"
"I don't know. They ain't sayin'. I thought maybe't was a catamount, but they say't ain't that."
"But when is it liable to come?"
"Come? How do I know? How does anybody know?" snapped Susan tartly. "Look a-here, Mis' McGuire, you must excuse me from discoursin' particulars. We don't talk 'em here. None of us don't."
"Well, you needn't be so short about it, Susan Betts. I'm only tryin' to show a little sympathy. You don't seem to realize at all what a dreadful thing this is. My John says—-"
"Don't I—DON'T I?" Susan's voice shook with emotion. "Don't you s'pose that I know what it would be with the sun put out, an' the moon an' the stars, an' never a thing to look at but black darkness all the rest of your life? Never to be able to see the blue sky, or your father's face, or—But talkin' about it don't help any. Look a-here, if somethin' awful was goin' to happen to you, would YOU want folks to be talkin' to you all the time about it? No, I guess you wouldn't. An' so we don't talk here. We're just—waitin'. It may come in a year, it may come sooner, or later. It may not come at all. An' while we ARE waitin' there ain't nothin' we can do except to do ev'rything the doctor tells us, an' hope—'t won't ever come."
Even Mrs. McGuire could have had no further doubt about Susan's "caring." No one who heard Susan's voice then could have doubted it. Mrs. McGuire, for a moment, made no answer; then, with an inarticulate something that might have passed for almost any sort of comment, she rose to her feet and left the house.
In the pantry, Keith, the cookies long since forgotten, shamelessly listened at the door and held his breath to see which way Susan's footsteps led. Then, when he knew that the kitchen was empty, he slipped out, still cookyless, and hurried upstairs to his own room.
Keith understood, after that, why Susan did not talk to him about his eyes; and because he knew she would not talk, he felt at ease and at peace with her.
It was not so with others. With others (except with his father) he never knew when a dread question or a hated comment was to be made. And so he came to avoid those others more and more.
At the first signs of spring, and long before the snow was off the ground, Keith took to the woods. When his father did not care to go, he went alone. It was as if he wanted to fill his inner consciousness with the sights and sounds of his beloved out-of-doors, so that when his outer eyes were darkened, his inner eyes might still hold the pictures. Keith did not say this, even to himself; but when every day Susan questioned him minutely as to what he had seen, and begged him to describe every budding tree and every sunset, he wondered; was it possible that Susan, too, was trying to fill that inner consciousness with visions?
Keith was thrown a good deal with Susan these days. Sometimes it seemed as if there were almost no one but Susan. Certainly all those others who talked and questioned—he did not want to be with them. And his father—sometimes it seemed to Keith that his father did not like to be with him as well as he used to. And, of course, if he was going to be blind—Dad never had liked disagreeable subjects. Had HE become —a disagreeable subject?
And so there seemed, indeed, at times, no one but Susan. Susan, however, was a host in herself. Susan was never cross now, and almost always she had a cooky or a jam tart for him. She told lots of funny stories, and there were always her rhymes and jingles. She had a new one every day, sometimes two or three a day.
There was no subject too big or too little for Susan to put into rhyme. Susan said that something inside of her was a gushing siphon of poems, anyway, and she just had to get them out of her system. And she told Keith that spring always made the siphon gush worse than ever, for some reason. She didn't know why.
Keith suspected that she said this by way of an excuse for repeating so many of her verses to him just now. But Keith was not deceived. He had not forgotten what Susan had said to Mrs. McGuire in the kitchen that day; and he knew very well that all this especial attention to him was only Susan's way of trying to help him "wait."
And so Keith waited, through the summer and into another winter. And April came. Keith was not listening to Susan's rhymes and jingles now, nor was he tramping through the woods in search of the first sign of spring. Both eyes had become badly affected now. Keith knew that and—
THE FOG HAD COME. Keith had seen the fog for several days before he knew what it was. He had supposed it to be really—fog. Then one day he said to Susan:
"Where's the sun? We haven't had any BRIGHT sun for days and days— just this horrid old foggy fog."
"Fog? Why, there ain't any fog!" exclaimed Susan. "The sun is as bright—-" She stopped short. Keith could not see her face very clearly—Keith was not seeing anything clearly these days. "Nonsense, Keith, of course, the sun is shinin'!" snapped Susan. "Now don't get silly notions in your head!" Then she turned and hurried from the room.
And Keith knew. And he knew that Susan knew.
Keith did not mention the fog to his father—dad did not like disagreeable subjects. But somebody must have mentioned it—Susan, perhaps. At all events, before the week was out Keith went with his father again to Boston.
It was a sorry journey. Keith did not need to go to Boston. Keith knew now. There was no one who could tell him anything. Dad might laugh and joke and call attention to everything amusing that he wanted to—it would make no difference. Besides, as if he could not hear the shake in dad's voice under all the fun, and as if he could not feel the tremble in dad's hand on his shoulder!
Boston was the same dreary round of testing, talk, and questions, hushed voices and furtive glances, hurried trips from place to place; only this time it was all sharper, shorter, more decisive, and there was no operation. It was not the time for that now, the doctors said. Moreover, this time dad did not laugh, or joke, or even talk on the homeward journey. But that, too, made no difference. Keith already knew.
He knew so well that he did not question him at all. But if he had not known, he would have known from Susan the next day. For he found Susan crying three times the next forenoon, and each time she snapped out so short and sharp about something so entirely foreign from what he asked her that he would have known that Susan knew.
Keith did wonder how many months it would be. Some way he had an idea it would be very few now. As long as it was coming he wished it would come, and come quick. This waiting business—On the whole he was glad that Susan was cross, and that his father spent his days shut away in his own room with orders that he was not to be disturbed. For, as for talking about this thing—
It was toward the last of July that Keith discovered how indistinct were growing the outlines of the big pictures on the wall at the end of the hall. Day by day he had to walk nearer and nearer before he could see them at all. He wondered just how many steps would bring him to the wall itself. He was tempted once to count them—but he could not bring himself to do that; so he knew then that in his heart he did not want to know just how many days it would be before—
But there came a day when he was but two steps away. He told himself it would be in two days then. But it did not come in two days. It did not come in a week. Then, very suddenly, it came.
He woke up one morning to find it quite dark. For a minute he thought it WAS dark; then the clock struck seven—and it was August.
Something within Keith seemed to snap then. The long-pent strain of months gave way. With one agonized cry of "Dad, it's come—it's come!" he sprang from the bed, then stood motionless in the middle of the room, his arms outstretched. But when his father and Susan reached the room he had fallen to the floor in a dead faint.
It was some weeks before Keith stood upright on his feet again. His illness was a long and serious one. Late in September, Mrs. McGuire, hanging out her clothes, accosted Susan over the back-yard fence.
"I heard down to the store last night that Keith Burton was goin' to get well."
"Of course he's goin' to get well," retorted Susan with emphasis. "I knew he was, all the time."
"All the same, I think it's a pity he is." Mrs. McGuire's lips came together a bit firmly. "He's stone blind, I hear, an' my John says—"
"Well, what if he is?" demanded Susan, almost fiercely. "You wouldn't kill the child, would you? Besides SEEIN' is only one of his facilities. He's got all the rest left. I reckon he'll show you he can do somethin' with them."
Mrs. McGuire shook her head mournfully.
"Poor boy, poor boy! How's he feel himself? Has he got his senses, his real senses yet?"
"He's just beginnin' to." The harshness in Susan's voice betrayed her difficulty in controlling it. "Up to now he hain't sensed anything, much. Of course, part of the time he hain't known ANYTHING—jest lay there in a stupid. Then, other times he's jest moaned of-of the dark— always the dark.
"At first he—when he talked—seemed to be walkin' through the woods; an' he'd tell all about what he saw; the 'purple sunsets,' an' 'dancin' leaves,' an' the merry little brooks hurryin' down the hillside,' till you could jest SEE the place he was talkin' about. But now—now he's comin' to full conscientiousness, the doctor says; an' he don't talk of anything only—only the dark. An' pretty quick he'll —know."
"An' yet you want that poor child to live, Susan Betts!"
"Of course I want him to live!"
"But what can he DO?"
"Do? There ain't nothin' he can't do. Why, Mis' McGuire, listen! I've been readin' up. First, I felt as you do—a little. I—I didn't WANT him to live. Then I heard of somebody who was blind, an' what he did. He wrote a great book. I've forgotten its name, but it was somethin' about Paradise. PARADISE—an' he was in prison, too. Think of writin' about Paradise when you're shut up in jail—an' blind, at that! Well, I made up my mind if that man could see Paradise through them prison bars with his poor blind eyes, then Keith could. An' I was goin' to have him do it, too. An' so I went down to the library an' asked Miss Hemenway for a book about him. An' I read it. An' then she told me about more an' more folks that was blind, an' what they had done. An' I read about them, too."
"Well, gracious me, Susan Betts, if you ain't the limit!" commented Mrs. McGuire, half admiringly, half disapprovingly.
"Well, I did. An'—why, Mis' McGuire, you hain't any inception of an idea of what those men an' women an'—yes, children—did. Why, one of 'em wasn't only blind, but deaf an' dumb, too. She was a girl. An' now she writes books an' gives lecturin's, an', oh, ev'rything."
"Maybe. I ain't sayin' they don't. But I guess somebody else has to do a part of it. Look at Keith right here now. How are you goin' to take care of him when he gets up an' begins to walk around? Why, he can't see to walk or—or feed himself, or anything. Has the nurse gone?"
Susan shook her head. Her lips came together grimly.
"No. Goes next week, though. Land's sakes, but I hope that woman is expulsive enough! Them entrained nurses always cost a lot, I guess. But we've just had to have her while he was so sick. But she's goin' next week."
"But what ARE you goin' to do? You can't tag him around all day an' do your other work, too. Of course, there's his father—"
"His father! Good Heavens, woman, I wonder if you think I'd trust that boy to his father?" demanded Susan indignantly. "Why, once let him get his nose into that paint-box, an' he don't know anything—not anything. Why, I wouldn't trust him with a baby rabbit—if I cared for the rabbit. Besides, he don't like to be with Keith, nor see him, nor think of him. He feels so bad."
"Humph! Well, if he does feel bad I don't think that's a very nice way to show it. Not think of him, indeed! Well, I guess he'll find SOME one has got to think of him now. But there! that's what you might expect of Daniel Burton, I s'pose, moonin' all day over those silly pictures of his. As my John says—"
"They're not silly pictures," cut in Susan, flaring into instant wrath. "He HAS to paint pictures in order to get money to live, don't he? Well, then, let him paint. He's an artist—an extinguished artist —not just a common storekeeper." (Mr. McGuire, it might be mentioned in passing, kept a grocery store.) "An' if you're artistical, you're different from other folks. You have to be."
"Nonsense, Susan! That's all bosh, an' you know it. What if he does paint pictures? That hadn't ought to hinder him from takin' proper care of his own son, had it?"
"Yes, if he's blind." Susan spoke with firmness and decision. "You don't seem to understand at all, Mis' McGuire. Mr. Burton is an artist. Artists like flowers an' sunsets an' clouds an' brooks. They don't like disagreeable things. They don't want to see 'em or think about 'em. I know. It's that way with Mr. Burton. Before, when Keith was all right, he couldn't bear him out of his sight, an' he was goin' to have him do such big, fine, splendid things when he grew up. Now, since he's blind, he can't bear him IN his sight. He feels that bad. He just won't be with him if he can help it. But he ain't forgettin' him. He's thinkin' of him all the time. I KNOW. An' it's tellin' on him. He's lookin' thin an' bad an' sick. You see, he's so disappointed, when he'd counted on such big things for that boy!"
"Humph! Well, I'll risk HIM. It's Keith I'm worry in' about. Who is going to take care of him?"
Susan Betts frowned.
"Well, I could, I think. But there's a sister of Mr. Burton's—she's comin'."
"Not Nettie Colebrook?"
"Yes, Mis' Colebrook. That's her name. She's a widow, an' hain't got anything needin' her. She wrote an' offered, an' Mr. Burton said yes, if she'd be so kind. An' she's comin'."
"Next week. The day the nurse goes. Why? What makes you look so queer? Do you know—Mis' Colebrook?"
"Know Nettie Burton Colebrook? Well, I should say I did! I went to boardin'-school with her."
"Humph!" Susan threw a sharp glance into Mrs. McGuire's face. Susan looked as if she wanted to ask another question. But she did not ask it. "Humph!" she grunted again; and turned back to the sheet she was hanging on the line.
There was a brief pause, then Mrs. McGuire commented dryly:
"I notice you ain't doin' no rhymin' to-day, Susan."
"Ain't I? Well, perhaps I ain't. Some way, they don't come out now so natural an' easy-like."
"What's the matter? Ain't the machine workin'?"
Susan shook her head. Then she drew a long sigh. Picking up her empty basket she looked at it somberly.
"Not the way it did before. Some way, there don't seem anything inside of me now only dirges an' funeral marches. Everywhere, all day, everything I do an' everywhere I go I jest hear: 'Keith's blind, Keith's blind!' till it seems as if I jest couldn't bear it."
With something very like a sob Susan turned and hurried into the house.
SUSAN TO THE RESCUE
It was when the nurse was resting and Susan was with Keith that the boy came to a full, realizing sense of himself, on his lips the time- worn question asked by countless other minds back from that mysterious land of delirium:
"Where am I?"
Susan sprang to her feet, then dropped on her knees at the bedside.
"In your own bed—honey."
"Is that—Susan?" No wonder he asked the question. Whenever before had Susan talked like that?
"Sure it's Susan."
"But I can't—see you—or anything. Oh-h!" With a shudder and a quivering cry the boy flung out his hands, then covered his eyes with them. "I know, now, I know! It's come—it's come! I am—BLIND!"
"There, there, honey, don't, please don't. You'll break Susan's heart. An' you're SO much better now."
"Yes. You've been sick—very sick."
"Oh, several weeks. It's October now."
"And I've been blind all that time?"
"But I haven't known I was blind!"
"I want to go back—I want to go back, where I didn't know—again."
"Nonsense, Keith!" (Susan was beginning to talk more like herself.) "Go back to be sick? Of course you don't want to go back an' be sick! Listen!
Don't you worry, an' don't you fret. Somethin' better is comin' yet. Somethin' fine! What'll you bet? It's jest the thing you're wantin' ter get!
Come, come! We're goin' to have you up an' out in no time, now, boy!"
"I don't want to be up and out. I'm blind, Susan."
"An' there's your dad. He'll be mighty glad to know you're better. I'll call him."
"No, no, Susan—don't! Don't call him. He won't want to see me. Nobody will want to see me now. I'm blind, Susan—blind!"
"Shucks! Everybody will want to see you, so's to see how splendid you are, even if you are blind. Now don't talk any more—please don't; there's a good boy. You're gettin' yourself all worked up, an' then, oh, my, how that nurse will scold!"
"I shan't be splendid," moaned the boy. "I shan't be anything, now. I shan't be Jerry or Ned or dad. I shall be just ME. And I'll be pointed at everywhere; and they'll whisper and look and stare, and say, 'He's blind—he's blind—he's blind.' I tell you, Susan, I can't stand it. I can't—I can't! I want to go back. I want to go back to where I didn't—KNOW!"
The nurse came in then, and of course Susan was banished in disgrace. Of course, too, Keith was almost in hysterics, and his fever had gone away up again. He still talked in a high, shrill voice, and still thrashed his arms wildly about, till the little white powder the nurse gave him got in its blessed work. And then he slept.
Keith was entirely conscious the next day when Susan came in to sit with him while the nurse took her rest. But it was a very different Keith. It was a weary, spent, nerveless Keith that lay back on the pillow with scarcely so much as the flutter of an eyelid to show life.
"Is there anything I can get you, Keith?" she asked, when a long-drawn sigh convinced her that he was awake.
Only a faint shake of the head answered her.
"The doctor says you're lots better, Keith."
There was no sort of reply to this; and for another long minute Susan sat tense and motionless, watching the boy's face. Then, with almost a guilty look over her shoulder, she stammered:
"Keith, I don't want you to talk to me, but I do wish you'd just SPEAK to me."
But Keith only shook his head again faintly and turned his face away to the wall.
By and by the nurse came in, and Susan left the room. She went straight to the kitchen, and she did not so much as look toward Keith's father whom she met in the hall. In the kitchen Susan caught up a cloth and vigorously began to polish a brass faucet. The faucet was already a marvel of brightness; but perhaps Susan could not see that. One cannot always see clearly—through tears.
Keith was like this every day after that, when Susan came in to sit with him—silent, listless, seemingly devoid of life. Yet the doctor declared that physically the boy was practically well. And the nurse was going at the end of the week.
On the last day of the nurse's stay, Susan accosted her in the hall somewhat abruptly.
"Is it true that by an' by there could be an operator on that boy's eyes?"
"Oper—er—oh, operation! Yes, there might be, if he could only get strong enough to stand it. But it might not be successful, even then."
"But there's a chance?"
"Yes, there's a chance."
"I s'pose it—it would be mighty expulsive, though."
"Expulsive?" The young woman frowned slightly; then suddenly she smiled. "Oh! Oh, yes, I—I'm afraid it would—er—cost a good deal of money," she nodded over her shoulder as she went on into Keith's room.
That evening Susan sought her employer in the studio. Daniel Burton spent all his waking hours in the studio now. The woods and fields were nothing but a barren desert of loneliness to Daniel Burton— without Keith.
The very poise of Susan's head spelt aggressive determination as she entered the studio; and Daniel Burton shifted uneasily in his chair as he faced her. Nor did he fail to note that she carried some folded papers in her hand.
"Yes, yes, Susan, I know. Those bills are due, and past due," he cried nervously, before Susan could speak. "And I hoped to have the money, both for them and for your wages, long before this. But—-"
Susan stopped him short with an imperative gesture.
"T ain't bills, Mr. Burton, an't ain't wages. It's—it's somethin' else. Somethin' very importune." There was a subdued excitement in Susan's face and manner that was puzzling, yet most promising.
Unconsciously Daniel Burton sat a little straighter and lifted his chin—though his eyes were smiling.
"Oh, SUSAN!" It was as if a bubble had been pricked, leaving nothing but empty air.
"But you don't know—you don't understand, yet," pleaded Susan, unerringly reading the disappointment in her employer's face. "It's to sell—to get some money, you know, for the operator on the poor lamb's eyes. I—I wanted to help, some way. An' this is REAL poetry—truly it is!—not the immaculate kind that I jest dash off! I've worked an' worked over this, an' I'm jest sure it'll sell, It's GOT to sell, Mr. Burton. We've jest got to have that money. An' now, I—I want to read 'em to you. Can't I, please?"
And this from Susan—this palpitating, pleading "please"! Daniel Burton, with a helpless gesture that expressed embarrassment, dismay, bewilderment, and resignation, threw up both hands and settled back in his chair.
"Why, of—of course, Susan, read them," he muttered as clearly as he could, considering the tightness that had come into his throat.
And Susan read this:
Oh, gentle Spring, I love thy rills, I love thy wooden, rocky rills, I love thy budsome beauty. But, oh, I hate o'er anything, Thy mud an' slush, oh, gentle Spring, When rubbers are a duty.
"That's the shortest—the other is longer," explained Susan, still the extraordinary, palpitating Susan, with the shining, pleading eyes.
"Yes, go on." Daniel Burton had to clear his throat before he could say even those two short words.
"I called this 'Them Things That Plague,'" said Susan. "An' it's really true, too. Don't you know? Things DO plague worse nights, when you can't sleep. An' you get to thinkin' an' thinkin'. Well, that's what made me write this." And she began to read:
THEM THINGS THAT PLAGUE
They come at night, them things that plague, An' gather round my bed. They cluster thick about the foot, An' lean on top the head.
They like the dark, them things that plague, For then they can be great, They loom like doom from out the gloom, An' shriek: "I am your Fate!"
But, after all, them things that plague Are cowards—Say not you?— To strike a man when he is down, An' in the darkness, too.
For if you'll watch them things that plague, Till comin' of the dawn, You'll find, when once you're on your feet, Them things that plague—are gone!
"There, ain't that true—every word of it?" she demanded. "An' there ain't hardly any poem license in it, too. I think they're a ways lots better when there ain't; but sometimes, of course, you jest have to use it. There! an' now I've read 'em both to you—an' how much do you s'pose I can get for 'em—the two of 'em, either singly or doubly?" Susan was still breathless, still shining-eyed—a strange, exotic Susan, that Daniel Burton had never seen before. "I've heard that writers—some writers—get lots of money, Mr. Burton, an' I can write more—lots more. Why, when I get to goin' they jest come autocratically—poems do—without any thinkin' at all; an'—But how much DO you think I ought to get?"
"Get? Good Heavens woman!" Daniel Burton was on his feet now trying to shake off the conflicting emotions that were all but paralyzing him. "Why, you can't get anything for those da—-" Just in time he pulled himself up. At that moment, too, he saw Susan's face. He sat down limply.
"Susan." He cleared his throat and began again. He tried to speak clearly, judiciously, kindly. "Susan, I'm afraid—that is, I'm not sure—Oh, hang it all, woman"—he was on his feet now—"send them, if you want to—but don't blame me for the consequences." And with a gesture, as of flinging the whole thing far from him, he turned his back and walked away.
"You mean—you don't think I can get hardly anything for 'em?" An extraordinarily meek, fearful Susan asked the question.
Only a shrug of the back-turned shoulders answered her.
"But, Mr. Burton, we—we've got to have the money for that operator; an', anyhow, I—I mean to try." With a quick indrawing of her breath she turned abruptly and left the studio.
That evening, in her own room, Susan pored over the two inexpensive magazines that came to the house. She was searching for poems and for addresses.
As she worked she began to look more cheerful. Both the magazines published poems, and if they published one poem they would another, of course, especially if the poem were a better one—and Susan could not help feeling that they were better (those poems of hers) than almost any she saw there in print before her. There was some SENSE to her poems, while those others—why, some of them didn't mean anything, not anything!—and they didn't even rhyme!
With real hope and courage, therefore, Susan laboriously copied off the addresses of the two magazines, directed two envelopes, and set herself to writing the first of her two letters. That done, she copied the letter, word for word—except for the title of the poem submitted.
It was a long letter. Susan told first of Keith and his misfortune, and the imperative need of money for the operation. Then she told something of herself, and of her habit of turning everything into rhyme; for she felt it due to them, she said, that they know something of the person with whom they were dealing. She touched again on the poverty of the household, and let it plainly be seen that she had high hopes of the money these poems were going to bring. She did not set a price. She would leave that to their own indiscretion, she said in closing.
It was midnight before Susan had copied this letter and prepared the two manuscripts for mailing. Then, tired, but happy, she went to bed.
It was the next day that the nurse went, and that Mrs. Colebrook came.
The doctor said that Keith might be dressed now, any day—that he should be dressed, in fact, and begin to take some exercise. He had already sat up in a chair every day for a week—and he was in no further need of medicine, except a tonic to build him up. In fact, all efforts now should be turned toward building him up, the doctor said. That was what he needed.
All this the nurse mentioned to Mr. Burton and to Susan, as she was leaving. She went away at two o'clock, and Mrs. Colebrook was not to come until half-past five. At one minute past two Susan crept to the door of Keith's room and pushed it open softly. The boy, his face to the wall, lay motionless. But he was not asleep. Susan knew that, for she had heard his voice not five minutes before, bidding the nurse good-bye. For one brief moment Susan hesitated. Then, briskly, she stepped into the room with a cheery:
"Well, Keith, here we are, just ourselves together. The nurse is gone an' I am on—how do you like the weather?"
"Yes, I know, she said she was going." The boy spoke listlessly, wearily, without turning his head.
"What do you say to gettin' up?"
Keith stirred restlessly.
"I was up this morning."
"Ho!" Susan tossed her head disdainfully. "I don't mean THAT way. I mean up—really up with your clothes on."
The boy shook his head again.
"I couldn't. I—I'm too tired."
"Nonsense! A great boy like you bein' too tired to get up! Why Keith, it'll do you good. You'll feel lots better when you're up an' dressed like folks again."
The boy gave a sudden cry.
"That's just it, Susan. Don't you see? I'll never be—like folks again."
"Nonsense! Jest as if a little thing like bein' blind was goin' to keep you from bein' like folks again!" Susan was speaking very loudly, very cheerfully—though with first one hand, then the other, she was brushing away the hot tears that were rolling down her cheeks. "Why, Keith, you're goin' to be better than folks—jest common folks. You're goin' to do the most wonderful things that—-"
"But I can't—I'm blind, I tell you!" cut in the boy. "I can't do— anything, now."
"But you can, an' you're goin' to," insisted Susan again. "You jest wait till I tell you; an' it's because you ARE blind that it's goin' to be so wonderful. But you can't do it jest lyin' abed there in that lazy fashion. Come, I'm goin' to get your clothes an' put 'em right on this chair here by the bed; then I'm goin' to give you twenty minutes to get into 'em. I shan't give you but fifteen tomorrow." Susan was moving swiftly around the room now, opening closet doors and bureau drawers.
"No, no, Susan, I can't get up," moaned the boy turning his face back to the wall. "I can't—I can't!"
"Yes, you can. Now, listen. They're all here, everything you need, on these two chairs by the bed."
"But how can I dress me when I can't see a thing?"
"You can feel, can't you?"
"Y-yes. But feeling isn't seeing. You don't KNOW."
Susan gave a sudden laugh—she would have told you it was a laugh—but it sounded more like a sob.
"But I do know, an' that's the funny part of it, Keith," she cried. "Listen! What do you s'pose your poor old Susan's been doin'? You'd never guess in a million years, so I'm goin' to tell you. For the last three mornin's she's tied up her eyes with a handkerchief an' then DRESSED herself, jest to make sure it COULD be done, you know."
"Susan, did you, really?" For the first time a faint trace of interest came into the boy's face.
"Sure I did! An' Keith, it was great fun, really, jest to see how smart I could be, doin' it. An' I timed myself, too. It took me twenty-five minutes the first time. Dear, dear, but I was clumsy! But I can do it lots quicker now, though I don't believe I'll ever do it as quick as you will."
"Do you think I could do it, really?"
"I know you could."
"I could try," faltered Keith dubiously.
"You ain't goin' to TRY, you're goin' to DO it," declared Susan. "Now, listen. I'm goin' out, but in jest twenty minutes I'm comin' back, an' I shall expect to find you all dressed. I—I shall be ashamed of you if you ain't." And without another glance at the boy, and before he could possibly protest, Susan hurried from the room.
Her head was still high, and her voice still determinedly clear—but in the hall outside the bedroom, Susan burst into such a storm of sobs that she had to hurry to the kitchen and shut herself in the pantry lest they be heard.
Later, when she had scornfully lashed herself into calmness, she came out into the kitchen and looked at the clock.
"An' I've been in there five minutes, I'll bet ye, over that fool cry in'," she stormed hotly to herself. "Great one, I am, to take care of that boy, if I can't control myself better than this!"
At the end of what she deemed to be twenty minutes, and after a fruitless "puttering" about the kitchen, Susan marched determinedly upstairs to Keith's room. At the door she did hesitate a breathless minute, then, resolutely, she pushed it open.
The boy, fully dressed, stood by the bed. His face was alight, almost eager.
"I did it—I did it, Susan! And if it hasn't been more than twenty minutes, I did it sooner than you!"
Susan tried to speak; but the tears were again chasing each other down her cheeks, and her face was working with emotion.
"Susan!" The boy put out his hand gropingly, turning his head with the pitiful uncertainty of the blind. "Susan, you are there, aren't you?"
Susan caught her breath chokingly, and strode into the room with a brisk clatter.
"Here? Sure I'm here—but so dumb with amazement an' admiration that I couldn't open my head—to see you standin' there all dressed like that! What did I tell you? I knew you could do it. Now, come, let's go see dad." She was at his side now, her arm linked into his.
But the boy drew back.
"No, no, Susan, not there. He—he wouldn't like it. Truly, he—he doesn't want to see me. You know he—he doesn't like to see disagreeable things."
"'Disagreeable things,' indeed!" exploded Susan, her features working again. "Well, I guess if he calls it disagreeable to see his son dressed up an' walkin' around—"
But Keith interrupted her once more, with an even stronger protest, and Susan was forced to content herself with leading her charge out on to the broad veranda that ran across the entire front of the house. There they walked back and forth, back and forth.