Chapter II. Dad
 

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."