Chapter XVIII. "Miss Stewart"
 

It was just after Christmas that another letter came from Keith. It was addressed as usual to Susan. Keith had explained in his second letter that he was always going to write to Susan, so that she might read it to his father, thus saving him the disagreeableness of seeing how crooked and uneven some of his lines were. His father had remonstrated--feebly; but Keith still wrote to Susan.

Keith had been improving in his writing very rapidly, however, since those earliest letters, and most of his letters now were models of even lines and carefully formed characters. But this letter Susan saw at once was very different. It bore unmistakable marks of haste, agitation, and lack of care. It began abruptly, after the briefest of salutations:

Why didn't you tell me you knew Miss Stewart? She says she knows you real well, and father, too, and that she's been to the house lots of times, and that she's going back to Hinsdale next week, and that she is going to school there this year, and will graduate in June.

Oh, she didn't tell me all this at once, you bet your sweet life. I had to worm it out of her little by little. But what I want to know is, why you folks didn't tell me anything about it--that you knew her, and all that? But you never said a word--not a word. Neither you nor dad. But she says she knows dad real well. Funny dad never mentioned it!

Miss Stewart sure is a peach of a girl all right and the best ever to me. She's always hunting up new games for me to play. She's taught me two this time, and she's read two books to me. There's a new fellow here named Henty, and we play a lot together. I am well, and getting along all right. Guess that's all for this time. Love to all.

KEITH

P.S. Now don't forget to tell me why you never said a thing that you knew Miss Stewart.

K.

"Well, now I guess the kettle is in the fire, all right!" ejaculated Susan, folding the letter with hands that shook a little.

"What do you mean?" asked Daniel Burton.

"Why, about that girl, of course. He'll find out now she's Dorothy Parkman. He can't help findin' it out!" "Well, what if he does?" demanded the man, a bit impatiently.

"'What if he does?'" repeated Susan, with lofty scorn. "I guess you'll find what 'tis when that boy does find out she's Dorothy Parkman, an' then won't have nothin' more to do with her, nor her father, nor her father's new doctor, nor anything that is hers."

"Nonsense, Susan, don't be silly," snapped the man, still more irritably. "'Nor her father, nor her father's new doctor, nor anything that is hers,' indeed! You sound for all the world as if you were chanting a catechism! What's the matter? Doesn't the boy like Miss Dorothy?"

"Why, Daniel Burton, you know he don't! I told you long ago all about it, when I explained how we'd got to give her father a resumed name, so Keith wouldn't know, an'--"

"Oh, that! What she said about not wanting to see blind people? Nonsense, Susan, that was years ago, when they were children! Why, Keith's a man, nearly. You're forgetting--he'll be eighteen next June, Susan."

"That's all right, Mr. Burton." Susan's lips snapped together grimly and her chin assumed its most defiant tilt. "I ain't sayin' he ain't. But there's some cases where age don't make a mite of difference, an' you'll find this is one of 'em. You mark my words, Daniel Burton. I have seen jest as big fools at eighteen, an' eighty, for that matter, as I have at eight. 'T ain't a matter of decree at all. Keith Burton got it into his head when he was first goin' blind that Dorothy Parkman would hate to look at him if ever he did get blind; an' he just vowed an' determined that if ever he did get that way, she shouldn't see him. Well, now he's blind. An' if you think he's forgot what Dorothy Parkman said, you'd oughter been with me when she came to see him with Mazie Sanborn one day, or even when they just called up to him on the piazza one mornin'."

"Well, well, very likely," conceded the man irritably; "but I still must remind you, Susan, that all this was some time ago. Keith's got more sense now." "Maybe--an' then again maybe not. However, we'll see --what we will see," she mumbled, as she left the room with a little defiant toss of her head.

Susan did not answer Keith's letter at once. Just how she was going to answer that particular question concerning their acquaintance with "Miss Stewart" she did not know, nor could she get any assistance from Daniel Burton on the subject.

"Why, tell him the truth, of course," was all that Daniel Burton would answer, with a shrug, in reply to her urgent appeals for aid in the matter. This, Susan, in utter horror, refused to do.

"But surely you don't expect to keep it secret forever who she is, do you?" demanded Daniel Burton scornfully one day.

"Of course I don't. But I'm going to keep it jest as long as I can," avowed Susan doggedly. "An' maybe I can keep it--till he gets his blessed eyes back. I shan't care if he does find out then."

"I don't think--we'll any of us--mind anything then, Susan," said the man softly, a little brokenly. And Susan, looking into his face, turned away suddenly, to hide her own.

That evening Susan heard that Dorothy Parkman was expected to arrive in Hinsdale in two days.

"I'll jest wait, then, an' intervene the young lady my own self," she mused, as she walked home from the post-office. "This tryin' to settle Dorothy Parkman's affairs without Dorothy Parkman is like havin' omelet with omelet left out," she finished, nodding to herself all in the dark, as she turned in at the Burton gateway.

Dorothy Parkman came two days later. As was usual now she came at once to the house. Susan on the watch, met her at the door, before she could touch the bell.

"Come in, come in! My, but I'm glad to see you!" exclaimed Susan fervently, fairly pulling her visitor into the house. "Now tell me everything---every single thing."

"Why, there isn't much to tell, Susan. Mr. Keith is about the same, and--"

"No, no, I mean--about you" interrupted Susan, motioning the girl to a chair, and drawing her own chair nearer. "About your bein' in Hinsdale an' knowin' us, an' all that, an' his finding it out."

"Oh, that!" The color flew instantly into Miss Dorothy's cheeks. "Then he's--he's written you?"

"Written us! I should say he had! An' he wants to know why we hain't told him we know you. An', lan' sakes, Miss Dorothy, what can we tell him?"

"I--I don't know, Susan."

"But how'd you get in such a mess? How'd he find out to begin with?" demanded the woman.

Miss Dorothy drew a long sigh. "Oh, it was my fault, of course. I-- forgot. Still, it's a wonder I hadn't forgotten before. You see, inadvertently, I happened to drop a word about Mr. Burton. 'Do you know my dad?' he burst out. Then he asked another and another question. Of course, I saw right away that I must turn it off as if I supposed he'd known it all the time. It wouldn't do to make a secret of it and act embarrassed because he'd found it out, for of course then he'd suspect something wrong right away."

"Yes, yes, I s'pose so," admitted Susan worriedly. "But, lan' sakes, look at us! What are we goin' to say? Now he wants to know why we hain't told him about knowin' you."

"I don't know, Susan, I don't know." The girl shook her head and caught her breath a bit convulsively. "Of course, when I first let it go that I was 'Miss Stewart,' I never realized where it was going to lead, nor how--how hard it might be to keep it up. I've been expecting every day he'd find out, from some one there. But he hasn't--yet. Of course, Aunt Hattie, who keeps house for father, is in the secret, and she'd never give it away. Most of the patients don't know much about me, anyway. You see, I've never been there much. They just know vaguely of 'the doctor's daughter,' and they just naturally call her 'Miss Stewart.'"

"Yes, yes, I see, I see," nodded Susan, again still worriedly. "But what I'm thinkin' of is us, Miss Dorothy. How are we goin' to get 'round not mentionin' you all this time, without his findin' out who you be an' demandin' a full exposition of the whole affair. Say, look a-here, would it be--be very bad if he did find out you was Dorothy Parkman?"

"I'm afraid--it would be, Susan." The girl spoke slowly, a bit unsteadily. She had gone a little white at the question.

"Has he said anything?"

"Nothing, only he--When we were talking that day, and he was flinging out those questions one after another, about Hinsdale, and what I knew of it, he--he asked if I knew Dorothy Parkman."

"Miss Dorothy, he didn't!"

"But he did. It was awful, Susan. I felt like--like--"

"Of course you did," interposed Susan, her face all sympathy, "a- sailin' under false premises like that, an' when you were perfectly innocuous, too, of any sinfulness, an' was jest doing it for his best good an' peace of mind. Lan' sakes, what a prediction to be in! What did you say?"

"Why, I said yes, of course. I had to say yes. And I tried to turn it off right away, and not talk any more about it. But that was easy, anyway, for--for Mr. Keith himself dropped it. But I knew, by the way he looked, and said 'yes, I know her, too,' in that quiet, stern way of his, that--that I'd better not let him find out I was she--not if I wanted to--to stay in the room," she finished, laughing a little hysterically.

"Lan' sakes, you don't say!" frowned Susan.

"Yes; and so that's what makes me know that whatever you do, you mustn't let him know that I am Dorothy Parkman," cried the girl feverishly; "not now--not until he's seen the Paris doctor, for there's no knowing what he'd do. He'd be so angry, you see. He'd never forgive me, for on top of all the rest is the deceit--that I've been with him all these different times, and let him call me 'Miss Stewart.'"

"But how can we do that?" demanded Susan.

"Why, just turn it off lightly. Say, of course, you know me; and seem surprised that you never happened to mention it before. Tell him, oh, yes, I come quite often to tell you and Mr. Burton how he's getting along, and all that. Just make nothing of it--take it as a matter of course, not worth mentioning. See? Then go on and talk about something else. That'll fix it all right, I'm sure, Susan."

"Hm-m; maybe so, an' then again maybe not," observed Susan, with frowning doubt. "As I was tellin' Mr. Burton this mornin' we've got to be 'specially careful about Keith jest now. It's the most hypercritical time there can be--with him waitin' to see that big doctor, an' all--an' he mustn't be upset, no matter what happens, nor how many white lies we have to prognosticate here at home."

"I guess that's so, Susan." Miss Dorothy's eyes were twinkling now. "And, by the way, where is Mr. Burton? I haven't seen him yet."

"He ain't here."

"You don't mean he has gone out of town?" The girl had looked up in surprise at the crisp terseness of Susan's reply.

"Oh, no, he's--in Hinsdale."

"Painting any new pictures these days?" Miss Dorothy was on her feet to go. She asked the question plainly not for information, but to fill the embarrassing pause that Susan's second reply had brought to the conversation.

"No, he ain't," spoke up Susan with a vehemence as disconcerting as it was sudden. "He ain't paintin' nothin', an' he ain't drawin' nothin' neither--only molasses an' vinegar an' kerosene. He's clerkin' down to McGuire's grocery store, if you want to know. That's where he is."

"Why--Susan!"

"Yes, I know. You don't have to say nothin', Miss Dorothy. Besides, I wouldn't let you say it if you did. I won't let nobody say it but me. But I will say this much. When folks has set one foot in the cemetery, an' a lame one at that, an' can't see nor hear nor think straight, I don't think it's no hilarious offense to wish they'd hurry up an' get to where they could have all them handy facilities back again, an' leave their money to folks what has got their full complaint of senses, ready to enjoy life, if they get a chance. Oh, yes, I know you don't know what I'm talkin' about, an' perhaps it's jest as well you don't, Miss Dorothy. I hadn't oughter said it, anyhow. Well, I s'pose I've got to go write that letter to Keith now. Seein' as how you've come I can't put it off no longer. Goodness only knows, though, what I'm goin' to say," she sighed, as her visitor nodded back a wistful- eyed good-bye.