Chapter XII. Callers for "Keithie"
 

And so inch by inch Susan fought her way, and inch by inch she gained ground. Sometimes it was by coaxing, sometimes by scolding; perhaps most often by taunts and dares, and shrewd appeals to Keith's pride. But by whatever it was, each day saw some stride forward, some new victory that Keith had won over his blindness, until by the end of the week the boy could move about the house and wait upon himself with a facility almost unbelievable when one remembered his listless helplessness of a week before.

Then one day there entered into the case a brand-new element, a dainty element in white muslin and fluttering blue ribbons--Mazie Sanborn and Dorothy Parkman.

"We heard Keithie was lots better and up and dressed now," chirped Mazie, when Susan answered her ring; "and so we've brought him some flowers. Please can't we see him?"

Susan hesitated. Susan had not forgotten Keith's feverish retreat from Mazie's greeting called up to the veranda the month before. But then, for that matter, had he not retreated from everything until she determinedly took him in hand? And he must some time begin to mingle with the world outside the four walls of his house!

Why not now? What better chance could she hope to have for him to begin than this? Where could she find two more charmingly alluring ambassadors of that outside world than right here on the door-step now?

Susan's lips snapped together with a little defiant nod of her head, then parted in a cordial smile.

"Sure, you may see him," she cried, "an' it's glad that I am to have you come! It'll do him good. Come in, come in!" And with only a heightened color to show her trepidation as to the reception that might be accorded her charges, she threw open the sitting-room door. "Well, Keith, here's company come on purpose to see you. An' they've brought you some flowers," she announced gayly.

"No, no, Susan, I--I don't want to see them," stammered the boy. He had leaped to his feet, a painful red flooding his face.

"Well, I like that!" bridled Mazie, with playful indignation; "and when Dorothy and I have taken all this trouble to come and--"

"Is Dorothy here, too?" interrupted the boy sharply.

"Yes, Keith I am--here." Dorothy was almost crying, and her voice sounded harsh and unnatural.

"And we brought you these," interposed Mazie brightly, crossing the room to his side and holding out the flowers. Then, with a little embarrassed laugh, as he did not take them, she thrust them into his fingers. "Oh, I forgot. You can't see them, can you?"

"Mazie!" remonstrated the half-smothered voice of Dorothy.

But it was Susan who came promptly to the rescue.

"Yes, an' ain't they pretty?" she cried, taking them from Keith's unresisting fingers. "Here, let me put 'em in water, an' you two sit down. I always did love coronation pinks," she declared briskly, as she left the room.

She was not gone long. Very quickly she came back, with the flowers in a vase. Keith had dropped back into his chair; but he was plainly so unwilling a host that Susan evidently thought best to assist him. She set the vase on a little stand near Keith's chair, then dropped herself on to the huge haircloth sofa near by.

"My, but I don't mind settin' myself awhile," she smiled. "Guess I'm tired."

"I should think you would be." Mazie, grown suddenly a bit stiff and stilted, was obviously trying to be very polite and "grown up." "There must be an awful lot to do here. Mother says she don't see how you stand it."

"Pooh! Not so very much!" scoffed Susan, instantly on her guard. "Keith here's gettin' so smart he won't let me do anything hardly for him now."

Oh, but there must be a lot of things," began Mazie," that he can't do, and--"

"Er--what a lovely big, sunny room," interrupted Dorothy hastily, so hastily that Susan threw a sharp glance into her face to see if she were really interrupting Mazie for a purpose. "I love big rooms."

"Yes, so do I," chimed in Mazie. "And I always wanted to see the inside of this house, too."

"What for?" Keith's curiosity got the better of his vexed reticence, and forced the question from his lips.

"Oh, just 'cause I've heard folks say 'twas so wonderful--old, you know, and full of rare old things, and there wasn't another for miles around like it. But I don't see--That is," she corrected herself, stumbling a little, "you probably don't keep them in this room, anyway."

"Why, they do, too," interfered Dorothy, with suddenly pink cheeks. "This room is just full of the loveliest kind of old things, just like the things father is always getting--only nicer. Now that, right there in the corner, all full of drawers--We've got one almost just exactly like that out home, and father just dotes on it. That is a--a highboy, isn't it?" she appealed to Susan. "And it is very old, isn't it?"

"A highboy? Old? Lan' sakes, child," laughed Susan. "Maybe 'tis. I ain't sayin' 'tisn't, though I'm free to confess I never heard it called that. But it's old enough, if that's all it needs; it's old enough to be a highman by this time, I reckon," chuckled Susan. "Mr. Burton was tellin' me one day how it belonged to his great-grand- mother."

"Kind of funny-looking, though, isn't it?" commented Mazie.

"Father'd love it, so'd Aunt Hattie," avowed Dorothy, evidently not slow to detect the lack of appreciation in Mazie's voice. "And I do, too," she finished, with a tinge of defiance.

Mazie laughed.

"Well, all right, you may, for all I care," she retorted. Then to Keith she turned with sudden disconcerting abruptness: "Say, Keith, what do you do all day?"

It was Susan who answered this. Indeed, it was Susan who answered a good many of the questions during the next fifteen minutes. Some she answered because she did not want Keith to answer them. More she answered because Keith would not answer them. To tell the truth, Keith was anything but a polite, gracious host. He let it be plainly understood that he was neither pleased at the call nor interested in the conversation. And the only semblance of eagerness in his demeanor that afternoon was when his young visitors rose to go.

In spite of Keith's worse than indifference, however, Susan was convinced that this call, and others like it, were exactly what was needed for Keith's best welfare and development. With all her skill and artifice, therefore, she exerted herself to make up for Keith's negligence. She told stories, rattled off absurd jingles, and laughed and talked with each young miss in turn, determined to make the call so great a success that the girls would wish to come again.

When she had bowed them out and closed the door behind them, she came back to Keith, intending to remonstrate with him for his very ungracious behavior. But before she could open her lips Keith himself had the floor.

"Susan Betts," he began passionately, as soon as she entered the room, "don't you ever let those girls in again. I won't have them. I won't have them, I tell you!

"Oh, for shame, Keith!--and when they were so kind and thoughtful, too!"

"It wasn't kindness and thoughtfulness," resented the boy. "It was spying out. They came to see how I took it. I know 'em. And that Dorothy Parkman--I don't know why she came. She said long ago that she couldn't bear--to look at 'em."

"Look at them?"

"Yes--blind folks. Her father is a big oculist--doctors eyes, you know. She told me once. And she said she couldn't bear to look at them; that--"

"An eye doctor?--a big one?" Susan was suddenly excited, alert.

"Yes, yes. And--"

"Where's he live?"

"I don't know. Where she does, I s'pose. I don't know where that is. She's here most of the time, and--"

"Is he a real big one?--a really, truly big one?"

"Yes, yes, I guess so." Keith had fallen wearily back in his chair, his strength spent. "Dad said he was one of the biggest in the country. And of course lots of--of blind people go there, and she sees them. Only she says she can't bear to see them, that she won't look at them. And--and she shan't come here--she shan't, Susan, to look at me, and--"

But Susan was not listening now. With chin up-tilted and a new fire in her eyes, she had turned toward the kitchen door.

Two days later, on her way to the store, Susan spied Dorothy Parkman across the street. Without hesitation or ceremony she went straight across and spoke to her.

"Is it true that your father is a big occultist, one of the biggest there is?" she demanded.

"A--what?" Dorothy frowned slightly.

"Occultist--doctors folks' eyes, you know. Is he? I heard he was."

"Oh! Y-yes--yes, he is." Miss Dorothy was giggling a bit now.

"Then, listen!" In her eagerness Susan had caught the girl's sleeve and held it. "Can't you get him to come on an' see you, right away, quick? Don't he want to take you home, or--or something?"

Dorothy laughed merrily.

"Why, Susan, are you in such a hurry as all that to get rid of me? Did I act so bad the other day that--"A sudden change crossed her face. Her eyes grew soft and luminous. "Was it for--Keith that you wanted father, Susan?"

"Yes." Susan's eyes blurred, and her voice choked.

"Well, then I'm glad to tell you he is coming by and by. He's coming to take me home for Christmas. But--he isn't going to stay long."

"That's all right--that's all right," retorted Susan, a little breathlessly. "If he'd jest look at the boy's eyes an' tell if--if he could fix 'em later. You see, we--we couldn't have it done now, 'cause there ain't any money to pay. But we'll have it later. We'll sure have it later, an' then--"

"Of course he'll look at them," interrupted Dorothy eagerly. "He'll love to, I know. He's always so interested in eyes, and new cases. And--and don't worry about the other part--the money, you know," nodded Dorothy, hurrying away then before Susan could protest.

As it happened Keith was more "difficult" than usual that afternoon, and Susan, thinking to rouse him from his lassitude, suddenly determined to tell him all about the wonderful piece of good fortune in store for him.

"How'd you like to have that little Miss Dorothy's daddy see your eyes, honey," she began eagerly, "an' tell--"

"I wouldn't let him see them." Keith spoke coldly, decisively.

"Oh, but he's one of the biggest occultists there is, an'--"

"I suppose you mean 'oculist,' Susan," interrupted Keith, still more coldly; "but that doesn't make any difference. I don't want him."

"But, Keith, if he--"

"I tell you I won't have him," snapped Keith irritably.

"But you've got to have somebody, an' if he's the biggest!" All the eager light had died out of Susan's face.

"I don't care if he is the biggest, he's Dorothy Parkman's father, and that's enough. I won't have him!"

"No, no; well, all right!" And Susan, terrified and dismayed, hurried from the room.

But though Susan was dismayed and terrified, she was far from being subdued. In the kitchen she lifted her chin defiantly.

"All right, Master Keith," she muttered to herself. "You can say what you want to, but you'll have him jest the same--only you won't know he's him. I'll jest tell him to call hisself another name for you. An' some time I'll find out what there is behind that Dorothy Parkman business. But 'tain't till Christmas, an' that's 'most two months off yet. Time enough for trouble when trouble knocks at the door; an' till it does knock, jest keep peggin' away."