Chapter XIX. A Matter of Letters
 

Susan said afterward, in speaking of that spring, that "'twas nothin' but jest one serious of letters." And, indeed, life did seem to be mostly made up of letters.

At the sanatorium Keith was waiting for spring and the new doctor; and that the waiting was proving to be a little nerve-racking was proved by the infrequency of his letters home, and the shortness and uncommunicativeness of such as did come.

Letters to him from Hinsdale were longer and were invariably bright and cheery. Yet they did not really tell so much, after all. To be sure, they did contain frequent reference to "your Miss Stewart," and gave carefully casual accounts of what she did and said. In the very first letter Susan had hit upon the idea of always referring to the young lady as "your Miss Stewart."

"Then we won't be tellin' no lies," she had explained to Mr. Burton, '"cause she is his 'Miss Stewart.' See? She certainly don't belong to no one else under that name--that's sure!"

But however communicative as regards "Miss Stewart" the letters were, they were very far from that as regarded some other matters. For instance: neither in Daniel Burton's letters, nor in Susan's, was there any reference to the new clerk in McGuire's grocery store. So far as anything that Keith knew to the contrary, his father was still painting unsalable pictures in the Burton home-stead studio.

But even these were not all the letters that spring. There were the letters of John McGuire from far-away France--really wonderful letters--letters that brought to the little New England town the very breath of the battle-field itself, the smell of its smoke, the shrieks of its shells. And with Mr. Burton, with Susan, with the whole neighborhood indeed, Mrs. McGuire shared them. They were even printed occasionally in the town's weekly newspaper. And they were talked of everywhere, day in and day out. No wonder, then, that, to Susan, the spring seemed but a "serious of letters."

It was in May that the great Paris doctor was expected; but late in April came a letter from Dr. Stewart saying that, owing to war conditions, the doctor had been delayed. He would not reach this country now until July--which meant two more months of weary waiting for Keith and for Keith's friends at home.

It was just here that Susan's patience snapped.

"When you get yourself screwed up to stand jest so much, an' then they come along with jest a little more, somethin's got to break, I tell you. Well, I've broke."

Whether as a result of the "break" or not, Susan did not say, neither did she mention whether it was to assuage her own grief or to alleviate Keith's; but whatever it was, Susan wrote these verses and sent them to Keith:

  BY THE DAY

 When our back is nigh to breakin',
 An' our strength is nearly gone,
 An' along there comes the layin'
 Of another burden on--

 If we'll only jest remember,
 No matter what's to pay,
 That 'tisn't yet December,
 An' we're livin' by the day.

'Most any one can stand it--
 What jest to-day has brought.
 It's when we try to lump it,
 An' take it by the lot!

 Why, any back would double,
 An' any legs'll bend,
 If we pile on all the trouble
 Meant to last us till the end!

 So if we'll jest remember,
 Half the woe from life we'll rob
 If we'll only take it "by the day,"
 An' not live it "by the job."

"Of course that ''tisn't yet December' is poem license, and hain't really got much sense to it," wrote Susan in the letter she sent with the verses. "I put it in mostly to rhyme with 'remember.' (There simply wasn't a thing to rhyme with that word!) But, do you know, after I got it down I saw it really could mean somethin', after all-- kind of diabolical-like for the end of life, you know, like December is the end of the year.

"Well, anyhow, they done me lots of good, them verses did, an' I hope they will you."

In June Dorothy Parkman was graduated from the Hinsdale Academy. Both Mr. Burton and Susan attended the exercises, though not together. Then Susan sat down and wrote a glowing account of the affair to Keith, dilating upon the fine showing that "your Miss Stewart" made.

"It can't last forever, of course--this subtractin' Miss Stewart's name for Dorothy Parkman," she said to Mr. Burton, when she handed him the letter to mail. "But I'm jest bound an' determined it shall last till that there Paris doctor gets his hands on him. An' she ain't goin' back now to her father's for quite a spell--Miss Dorothy, I mean," further explained Susan. "I guess she don't want to take no chances herself of his findin' out--jest yet," declared Susan, with a sage wag of her head. "Anyhow, she's had an inspiration to go see a girl down to the beach, an' she's goin'. So we're safe for a while. But, oh, if July'd only hurry up an' come!"

And yet, when July came--

They were so glad, afterward, that Dr. Stewart wrote the letter that in a measure prepared them for the bad news. He wrote the day before the operation. He said that the great oculist was immensely interested in the case and eager to see what he could do--though he could hold out no sort of promise that he would be able to accomplish the desired results. Dr. Stewart warned them, therefore, not to expect anything-- though, of course, they might hope. Hard on the heels of the letter came the telegram. The operation had been performed--and had failed, they feared. They could not tell surely, however, until the bandages were removed, which would be early in August. But even if it had failed, there was yet one more chance, the doctor wrote. He would say nothing about that, however, until he was obliged to.

In August he wrote about it. He was obliged to. The operation had been so near a failure that they might as well call it that. The Paris oculist, however, had not given up hope. There was just one man in the world who might accomplish the seemingly impossible and give back sight to Keith's eyes--at least a measure of sight, he said. This man lived in London. He had been singularly successful in several of the few similar cases known to the profession. Therefore, with their kind permission, the great Paris doctor would take Keith back with him to his brother oculist in London. He would like to take ship at once, as soon as arrangements could possibly be made. There would be delay enough, anyway, as it was. So far as any question of pay was concerned, the indebtedness would be on their side entirely if they were privileged to perform the operation, for each new case of this very rare malady added knowledge of untold value to the profession, hence to humanity in general. He begged, therefore, a prompt word of permission from Keith's father.

"Don't you give it, don't you give it!" chattered Susan, with white lips, when the proposition was made clear to her.

"Why, Susan, I thought you'd be willing to try anything, anything--for Keith's sake."

"An' so I would, sir, anything in season. But not this. Do you think I'd set that blessed boy afloat on top of them submarines an' gas- mines, an' to go to London for them German Zepherin's to rain down bombs an' shrapnel on his head, an' he not bein' able to see a thing to dodge 'em when he sees 'em comin'? Why, Daniel Burton, I'm ashamed of you--to think of it, for a minute!"

"There, there, Susan, that will do. You mean well, I know; but this is a matter that I shall have to settle for myself, for myself," he muttered with stern dignity, rising to his feet. Yet when he left the room a moment later, head and shoulders bowed, he looked so old and worn that Susan, gazing after him, put a spasmodic hand to her throat.

"An' I jest know I'm goin' to lose 'em both now," she choked as she turned away.

Keith went to London. Then came more weeks of weary, anxious waiting. Letters were not so regular now, nor so frequent. Definite news was hard to obtain. Yet in the end it came all too soon--and it was piteously definite.

Keith was coming home. The great London doctor, too, had--failed.