Chapter XXI. The Lion
 

Keith had not been home a week before it was seen that Hinsdale was inclined to make a lion of the boy.

Women brought him jelly and fruit, and men clapped him on the shoulder and said, "How are you, my boy?" in voices that were not quite steady. Young girls brought him flowers, and asked Susan if they could not read or sing or do something to amuse him. Children stood about the gate and stared, talking in awe-struck whispers, happy if they could catch a glimpse of his face at the window.

A part of this Susan succeeded in keeping from Keith--Susan had a well-founded belief that Keith would not care to be a lion. But a great deal of it came to his knowledge, of course, in spite of anything she could do. However, she told herself that she need not have worried, for if Keith had recognized it for what it was, he made no sign; and even Susan herself could find no fault with his behavior. He was cordial, cheery, almost gay, outwardly. But inwardly--

Susan was still keeping her eyes on Keith.

Mrs. McGuire came often to see Keith. She said she knew he would want to hear John's letters. And there were all the old ones, besides the new ones that came from time to time. She brought them all, and read them to him. She talked about the young soldier, too, a great deal, to the blind boy--She explained to Susan that she wanted to do everything she could to get him out of himself and interest him in the world outside; and that she didn't know any better way to do it than to tell him of these brave soldiers who were doing something so really worth while in the world.

"An' he's so interested--the dear boy!" she concluded, with a sigh. "An' so brave! I think he's the bravest thing I ever saw, Susan Betts."

"Yes, he is--brave," said Susan, a little shortly--so shortly that Mrs. McGuire opened her eyes a bit, and wondered why Susan's lips had snapped tight shut in that straight, hard line.

"But what ails the woman?" she muttered to herself, vexedly, as she crossed the back yard to her own door. "Wasn't she herself always braggin' about his bein' so brave? Humph! There's no such thing as pleasin' some folks, it seems!" finished Mrs. McGuire as she entered her own door.

But Mrs. McGuire was not the only frequent caller. There was Mazie Sanborn.

Mazie began by coming every two or three days with flowers and fudge. Then she brought the latest novel one day and suggested that she read it to Keith.

Susan was skeptical of this, even fearful. She had not forgotten Keith's frenzied avoidance of such callers in the old days. But to her surprise now Keith welcomed Mazie joyously--so joyously that Susan began to suspect that behind the joyousness lay an eagerness to welcome anything that would help him to forget himself.

She was the more suspicious of this during the days that followed, as she saw this same nervous eagerness displayed every time any one called at the house. Susan's joy then at Keith's gracious response to visitors' attentions changed to a vague uneasiness. Behind and beyond it all lay an intangible something upon which Susan could not place her finger, but which filled her heart with distrust. And so still she kept her eyes on Keith.

In June Dorothy Parkman came to Hinsdale. She came at once to see Susan. But she would only step inside the hall, and she spoke low and hurriedly, looking fearfully toward the closed doors beyond the stairway.

"I had to come--to see how he was," she began, a little breathlessly. "And I wanted to ask you if you thought I could do any good or--or be any help to him, either as Miss Stewart or Dorothy Parkman. Only I--I suppose I would have to be Dorothy Parkman now. I couldn't keep the other up forever, of course. But I don't know how to tell--" She stopped, and looked again fearfully toward the closed doors. "Susan, how--how is he?" she finished unsteadily.

"He's well--very well."

"He sees people--Mazie says he sees everybody now.

'Yes, oh, yes, he sees people."

'That's why I thought perhaps he wouldn't mind me now--I mean the real me," faltered the girl wistfully. "Maybe." Susan's sigh and frown expressed doubt.

"But he's real brave," challenged the girl quickly. "Mazie said he was."

"I know. Everybody says--he's brave." There was an odd constraint in Susan's voice, but the girl was too intent on her own problem to notice it.

"And that's why I hoped--about me, you know--that he wouldn't mind-- now. And, of course, it can't make any difference--about his eyes, for he doesn't need father, or--or any one now." Her voice broke. "Oh, Susan, I want to help, some way, if I can! would he see me, do you think?"

"He ought to. He sees everybody else."

"I know. Mazie says--"

"Does Mazie know about you?" interrupted Susan. "I mean, about your being 'Miss Stewart'?"

"A little, but not much. I told her once that he 'most always called me 'Miss Stewart,' but I never made anything of it, and I never told her how much I saw of him out home. Some way, I--" She stopped short, with a quick indrawing of her breath. In the doorway down the hall stood Keith.

"Susan, I thought I heard--was Miss Stewart here?" he demanded excitedly.

With only the briefest of hesitations and a half-despairing, half- relieved look into Susan's startled eyes, the young girl hurried forward.

"Indeed I'm here," she cried gayly, giving a warm clasp to his eagerly outstretched hand "How do you do? Susan was just saying--."

But Susan was gone with upflung hands and a look that said "No, you don't rake me into this thing, young lady!" as plainly as if she had spoken the words themselves.

In the living-room a minute later, Keith began eager questioning.

"When did you come?"

"Yesterday."

"And you came to see me the very next day! Weren't you good? You knew how I wanted to see you."

"Oh, but I didn't," she laughed a little embarrassedly. "You're at home now, and you have all your old friends, and--"

"But they're not you. There's not any one like you," cut in the youth fervently. "And now you're going to stay a long time, aren't you?"

"Y-yes, several weeks, probably."

"Good! And you'll come every day to see me?"

"W-well, as to that-"

"It's too much to ask, of course," broke off Keith contritely. "And, truly, I don't want to impose on you."

"No, no, it isn't that," protested the girl quickly. "It's only--There are so many--"

"But I told you there isn't anybody like you, Miss Stewart. There isn't any one here that understands--like you. And it was you who first taught me to do--so many things." His voice faltered.

He paused, wet his lips, then plunged on hurriedly. "Miss Stewart, I don't say this sort of thing very often. I never said it before--to anybody. But I want you to know that I understood and appreciated just what you were doing all those weeks for me out there at the sanatorium. And it was the way you did it, with never a word or a hint that I was different. You did things, and you made me do things, without reminding me all the time that I was blind. I shall never forget that first day when you told me dad would want to hear from me; and then, before I could say a word, you put that paper in my hands, and my fingers fell on those lines that I could feel. And how I blessed you for not telling me those lines were there! Don't you see? Everybody here, that comes to see me, tells me--the lines are there."

"Yes, I--know." The girl's voice was low, a little breathless.

"And that's why I need you so much. If anybody in the whole world can make me forget for a minute, you can. You will come?"

"Why, of course, I'll come, and be glad to. You know I will. And I'm so glad if I've helped--any!"

"You've helped more--than you'll ever know. But, come--look! I've got a dandy new game here." And Keith, very obviously to hide the shake in his voice and the emotion in his face, turned gayly to a little stand near him and picked up a square cardboard box.

Half an hour later, Dorothy Parkman, passing through the hall on her way to the outer door, was waylaid by Susan.

"Sh-h! Don't speak here, but come with me," she whispered, leading the way through the diningroom. In the kitchen she stopped and turned eagerly. "Well, did you tell him?" she demanded.

Miss Dorothy shook her head, mutely, despairingly.

"You mean he don't know yet that you're Dorothy Parkman?"

"I mean just that."

"But, child alive, he'll find out--he can't help finding out--now."

"I know it. But I just couldn't tell him--I couldn't, Susan. I tried to do it two or three times. Indeed, I did. But the words just wouldn't come. And now I don't know when I can tell him."

"But he was tickled to death to see you. He showed it, Miss Dorothy."

"I know." A soft pink suffused the young girl's face. "But it was 'Miss Stewart' he was glad to see, not Dorothy Parkman. And, after the things he said--" She stopped and looked back over her shoulder toward the room she had just left.

"But, Miss Dorothy, don't you see? It'll be all right, now. You've shown him that you don't mind being with blind folks a mite. So now he won't care a bit when he knows you are Dorothy Parkman."

But the girl shook her head again.

"Yes, I know. He might not mind that part, perhaps; but I know he'd mind the deceit all these long months, and it wouldn't be easy to--to make him understand. He'd never forgive it--I know he wouldn't--to think I'd taken advantage of his not being able to see."

"Nonsense! Of course he would."

"He wouldn't. You don't know. Just to-day he said something about-- about some one who had tried to deceive him in a little thing, because he was blind; and I could see how bitter he was."

"But what are you goin' to do?"

"I don't know, Susan. It's harder than ever now," almost moaned the girl.

"You're comin' again?"

"Yes, oh, yes. I shall come as long as he'll let me. I know he wants me to. I know I have helped a little. He spoke--beautifully about that to-day. But, whether, after he finds out--" Her voice choked into silence and she turned her head quite away.

"There, there, dear, don't you fret," Susan comforted her. "You jest go home and think no more about it.

     When thinkin' won't mend it,
     Then thinkin' won't end it.

So what's the use? When you get ready, you jest come again; an' you keep a-comin', too. It'll all work out right. You see if it don't."

"Thank you, Susan. Oh, I'll come as long as I can," sighed the girl, turning to go. "But I'm not so sure how it'll turn out," she finished with a wistful smile over her shoulder as she opened the door.