Chapter XX. With Chin Up
 

Keith came in April. The day before he was expected, Susan, sweeping off the side porch, was accosted by Mrs. McGuire.

It was the first warm spring-like day, and Mrs. McGuire, bareheaded and coatless, had opened the back-yard gate and was picking her way across the spongy turf.

"My, but isn't this a great day, Susan!" she called, with an ecstatic, indrawn breath. "I only wish it was as nice under foot."

"Hain't you got no rubbers on?" Susan's disapproving eyes sought Mrs. McGuire's feet.

Mrs. McGuire laughed lightly.

"No. That's the one thing I leave off the first possible minute. Some way, I feel as if I was helpin' along the spring."

"Humph! Well, I should help along somethin' 'sides spring, I guess, if I did it. Besides, it strikes me rubbers ain't the only thing you're leavin' off." Susan's disapproving eyes had swept now to Mrs. McGuire's unprotected head and shoulders.

"Oh, I'm not cold. I love it. As if this glorious spring sunshine could do any one any harm! Susan, it's Lieutenant McGuire, now! I came over to tell you. My John's been promoted."

"Sho, you don't say! Ain't that wonderful, now?" Susan's broom stopped in midair,

"Not when you know my John!" The proud mother lifted her head a little. "'For bravery an' valiant service'--Lieutenant McGuire! Oh Susan, Susan, but I'm the proud woman this mornin'!"

"Yes, of course, of course, I ain't wonderin' you be!" Susan drew a long sigh and fell to sweeping again.

Mrs. McGuire, looking into Susan's face, came a step nearer. Her own face sobered.

"An' me braggin' like this, when you folks-! I know--you're thinkin' of that poor blind boy. An' it's just to-morrow that he comes, isn't it?"

Susan nodded dumbly.

"An' it's all ended now an' decided--he can't ever see, I s'pose," went on Mrs. McGuire. "I heard 'em talkin' down to the store last night. It seems terrible."

"Yes, it does." Susan was sweeping vigorously now, over and over again in the same place.

"I wonder how--he'll take it."

Susan stopped sweeping and turned with a jerk.

"Take it? He's got to take it, hain't he?" she demanded fiercely. "He's got to! An' things you've got to do, you do. That's all. You'll see. Keith Burton ain't no quitter. He'll take it with his head up an' his shoulders braced. I know. You'll see. Don't I remember the look on his blessed face that day he went away, an' stood on them steps there, callin' back his cheery good-bye?"

"But, Susan, there was hope then, an' there isn't any now--an' you haven't seen him since. You forget that."

"No, I don't," retorted Susan doggedly. "I ain't forgettin' nothin'. 'But you'll see!"

"An' he's older. He realizes more. Why, he must be--How old is he, anyway?"

"He'll be nineteen next June."

"Almost a man. Poor boy, poor boy--an' him with all these years of black darkness ahead of him! I tell you, Susan, I never appreciated my eyes as I have since Keith lost his. Seems as though anybody that's got their eyes hadn't ought to complain of--anything. I was thinkin' this mornin', comin' over, how good it was just to see the blue sky an' the sunshine an' the little buds breakin' through their brown jackets. Why, Susan, I never realized how good just seein' was--till I thought of Keith, who can't never see again."

"Yes. Well, I've got to go in now, Mis' McGuire. Good-bye."

Words, manner, and tone of voice were discourtesy itself; but Mrs. McGuire, looking at Susan's quivering face, brimming eyes, and set lips, knew it for what it was and did not mistake it for--discourtesy. But because she knew Susan would prefer it so, she turned away with a light "Yes, so've I. Good-bye!" which gave no sign that she had seen and understood.

Dr. Stewart came himself with Keith to Hinsdale and accompanied him to the house. It had been the doctor's own suggestion that neither the boy's father nor Susan should meet them at the train. Perhaps the doctor feared for that meeting. Naturally it would not be an easy one. Naturally too, he did not want to add one straw to Keith's already grievous burden. So he had written:

I will come to the house. As I am a little uncertain as to the train I can catch from Boston, do not try to meet me at the station.

"Jest as if we couldn't see through that subterranean!" Susan had muttered to herself over the dishes that morning. "I guess he knows what train he's goin' to take all right. He jest didn't want us to meet him an' make a scenic at the depot. I wonder if he thinks I would! Don't he think I knows anything?"

But, after all, it was very simple, very quiet, very ordinary. Dr. Stewart rang the bell and Susan went to the door. And there they stood: Keith, big and strong and handsome (Susan had forgotten that two years could transform a somewhat awkward boy into so fine and stalwart a youth); the doctor, pale, and with an apprehensive uncertainty in his eyes.

"Well, Susan, how are you?" Keith's voice was strong and steady, and the outstretched hand gripped hers with a clasp that hurt.

Then, in some way never quite clear to her, Susan found herself in the big living-room with Keith and the doctor and Daniel Burton, all shaking hands and all talking at once. They sat down then, and their sentences became less broken, less incoherent. But they said only ordinary things about the day, the weather, the journey home, John McGuire, the war, the President's message, the entry of the United States into the conflict. There was nothing whatever said about eyes that could see or eyes that could not see, or operations that failed.

And by and by the doctor got up and said that he must go. To be sure, the good-byes were a little hurriedly spoken, and the voices were at a little higher pitch than was usual; and when the doctor had gone, Keith and his father went at once upstairs to the studio and shut the door.

Susan went out into the kitchen then and took up her neglected work. She made a great clatter of pans and dishes, and she sang lustily at her "mad song," and at several others. But every now and then, between songs and rattles, she would stop and listen intently; and twice she climbed halfway up the back stairs and stood poised, her breath suspended, her anxious eyes on that closed studio door.

Yet supper that night was another very ordinary occurrence, with Keith and his father talking of the war and Susan waiting upon them with a cheerfulness that was almost obtrusive.

In her own room that night, however, Susan addressed an imaginary Keith, all in the dark.

"You're fine an' splendid, an' I love you for it, Keith, my boy," she choked; "but you don't fool your old Susan. Your chin is up, jest as I said 'twould be, an' you're marchin' straight ahead. But inside, your heart is breakin'. Do you think I don't know? But we ain't goin' to let each other know we know, Keith, my boy. Not much we ain't! An' I guess if you can march straight ahead with your chin up, the rest of us can, all right. We'll see!"

And Susan was singing again the next morning when she did her breakfast dishes.

At ten o'clock Keith came into the kitchen.

"Where's dad, Susan? He isn't in the studio and I've looked in every room in the house and I can't find him anywhere." Keith spoke with the aggrieved air of one who has been deprived of his just rights.

Susan's countenance changed. "Why, Keith, don't you--that is, your father--Didn't he tell you?" stammered Susan.

"Tell me what?"

"Why, that--that he was goin' to be away."

"No, he didn't. What do you mean? Away where? How long?"

"Why, er--working."

"Sketching?--in this storm? Nonsense, Susan! Besides, he'd have taken me. He always took me. Susan, what's the matter? Where is dad?" A note of uncertainty, almost fear, had crept into the boy's voice. "You're keeping--something from me."

Susan caught her breath and threw a swift look into Keith's unseeing eyes. Then she laughed, hysterically, a bit noisily.

"Keepin' somethin' from you? Why, sure we ain't, boy! Didn't I jest tell you? He's workin' down to McGuire's."

"Working! Down to McGuire's!" Keith plainly did not yet understand.

"Sure! An' he's got a real good position, too." Susan spoke jauntily, enthusiastically.

"But the McGuires never buy pictures," frowned Keith, "or want--" He stopped short. Face, voice, and manner underwent a complete change. "Susan, you don't mean that dad is clerking down there behind that grocery counter!"

Susan saw and recognized the utter horror and dismay in Keith's lace, and quailed before it. But she managed in some way to keep her voice still triumphant.

"Sure he is! An' he gets real good wages, too, an'--" But Keith with a low cry had gone.

Before the noon dinner, however, he appeared again at the kitchen door. His face was very white now.

"Susan, how long has dad been doing this?"

"Oh, quite a while. Funny, now! Hain't he ever told you?"

"No. But there seem to be quite a number of things that you people haven't told me."

Susan winced, but she still held her ground jauntily.

"Oh, yes, quite a while," she nodded cheerfully. "An' he gets-"

"But doesn't he paint any more--at all?" interrupted the boy sharply.

"Why, no; no, I don't know that he does," tossed Susan airily. "An' of course, if he's found somethin' he likes better--"

"Susan, you don't have to talk like that to me" interposed Keith quietly. "I understand, of course. There are some things that can be seen without--eyes."

"Oh, but honest, Keith, he--" But once again Keith had gone and Susan found herself talking to empty air.

When Susan went into the dining-room that evening to wait at dinner, she went with fear and trepidation, and she looked apprehensively into the faces of the two men sitting opposite each other. But in the kitchen, a few minutes later, she muttered to herself:

"Pooh! I needn't have worried. They've got sense, both of 'em, an' they know that what's got to be has got to be. That's all. An' that it don't do no good to fuss. I needn't have worried."

But Susan did worry. She did not like the look on Keith's face. She did not like the nervous twitching of his hands. She did not like the exaggerated cheerfulness of his manner.

And Keith was cheerful. He played solitaire with his marked cards and whistled. He worked at his raised-picture puzzles and sang snatches of merry song. He talked with anybody who came near him--talked very fast and laughed a great deal. But behind the whistling and the singing and the laughter Susan detected a tense strain and nervousness that she did not like. And at times, when she knew Keith thought himself alone, there was an expression on his face that disturbed Susan not a little.

But because, outwardly, it was all "cheerfulness," Susan kept her peace; but she also kept her eyes on Keith.