Chapter XXIII. John McGuire
 

So imperative was the knock at the kitchen door at six o'clock that July morning that Susan almost fell down the back stairs in her haste to obey the summons.

"Lan' sakes, Mis' McGuire, what a start you did give--why, Mis' McGuire, what is it?" she interrupted herself, aghast, as Mrs. McGuire, white-faced and wild-eyed, swept past her and began to pace up and down the kitchen floor, moaning frenziedly:

"It's come--it's come--I knew't would come. Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?"

"What's come?"

"Oh, John, John, my boy, my boy!"

"You don't mean he's--dead?"

"No, no, worse than that, worse than that!" moaned the woman, wringing her hands. "Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?"

With a firm grasp Susan caught the twisting fingers and gently but resolutely forced their owner into a chair.

"Do? You'll jest calm yourself right down an' tell me all about it, Mis' McGuire. This rampagin' 'round the kitchen like this don't do no sort of good, an' it's awful on your nerves. An' furthermore an' moreover, no matter what't is that ails your John, it can't be worse'n death; for while there's life there's hope, you know."

"But it is, it is, I tell you," sobbed Mrs. McGuire still swaying her body back and forth. "Susan, my boy is--blind." With the utterance of the dread word Mrs. McGuire stiffened suddenly into rigid horror, her eyes staring straight into Susan's.

"Mis' McGuire!" breathed Susan in dismay; then hopefully, "But maybe 'twas a mistake."

The woman shook her head. She went back to her swaying from side to side.

"No, 'twas a dispatch. It came this mornin'. Just now. Mr. McGuire was gone, an' there wasn't anybody there but the children, an' they're asleep. That's why I came over. I had to. I had to talk to some one!"

"Of course, you did! An' you shall, you poor lamb. You shall tell me all about it. What was it? What happened?"

"I don't know. I just know he's blind, an' that he's comin' home. He's on his way now. My John--blind! Oh, Susan, what shall I do, what shall I do?"

"Then he probably ain't sick, or hurt anywheres else, if he's on his way home--leastways, he ain't hurt bad. You can be glad for that, Mis' McGuire."

"I don't know, I don't know. Maybe he is. It didn't say. It just said blinded," chattered Mrs. McGuire feverishly. "They get them home just as soon as they can when they're blinded. We were readin' about it only yesterday in the paper--how they did send 'em home right away. Oh, how little I thought that my son John would be one of 'em--my John!"

"But your John ain't the only one, Mis' McGuire. There's other Johns, too. Look at our Keith here."

"I know, I know."

"An' I wonder how he'll take this--about your John?"

"He'll know what it means," choked Mrs. McGuire.

"He sure will--an' he'll feel bad. I know that. He ain't hisself, anyway, these days."

"He ain't?" Mrs. McGuire asked the question abstractedly, her mind plainly on her own trouble; but Susan, intent on her trouble, did not need even the question to spur her tongue.

"No, he ain't. Oh, he's brave an' cheerful. He's awful cheerful, even cheerfuler than he was a month ago. He's too cheerful, Mis' McGuire. There's somethin' back of it I don't like. He--"

But Mrs. McGuire was not listening. Wringing her hands she had sprung to her feet and was pacing the floor again, moaning: "Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?" A minute later, only weeping afresh at Susan's every effort to comfort her, she stumbled out of the kitchen and hurried across the yard to her own door.

Watching her from the window, Susan drew a long sigh.

"I wonder how he will take--But, lan' sakes, this ain't gettin' my breakfast," she ejaculated with a hurried glance at the clock on the little shelf over the stove.

There was nothing, apparently, to distinguish breakfast that morning from a dozen other breakfasts that had gone before. Keith and his father talked cheerfully of various matters, and Susan waited upon them with her usual briskness. If Susan was more silent than usual, and if her eyes sought Keith's face more frequently than was her habit, no one, apparently, noticed it. Susan did fancy, however, that she saw a new tenseness in Keith's face, a new nervousness in his manner; but that, perhaps, was because she was watching him so closely, and because he was so constantly in her mind, owing to her apprehension as to how he would take the news of John McGuire's blindness.

From the very first Susan had determined not to tell her news until after Mr. Burton had left the house. She could not have explained it even to herself, but she had a feeling that it would be better to tell Keith when he was alone. She planned, also, to tell him casually, as it were, in the midst of other conversation--not as if it were the one thing on her mind. In accordance with this, therefore, she forced herself to finish her dishes and to set her kitchen in order before she sought Keith in the living-room.

But Keith was not in the living-room; neither was he on the porch or anywhere in the yard.

With a troubled frown on her face Susan climbed the stairs to the second floor. Keith's room was silent, and empty, so far as human presence was concerned. So, too, was the studio, and every other room on that floor.

At the front of the attic stairs Susan hesitated. The troubled frown on her face deepened as she glanced up the steep, narrow stairway.

She did not like to have Keith go off by himself to the attic, and already now twice before she had found him up there, poking in the drawers of an old desk that had been his father's. He had shut the drawers quickly and had laughingly turned aside her questions when she had asked him what in the world he was doing up there. And he had got up immediately and had gone downstairs with her. But she had not liked the look on his face. And to-day, as she hesitated at the foot of the stairs, she was remembering that look. But for only a moment. Resolutely then she lifted her chin, ran up the stairs, and opened the attic door.

Over at the desk by the window there was a swift movement--but not so swift that Susan did not see the revolver pushed under some loose papers.

"Is that you, Susan?" asked Keith sharply. "Yes, honey. I jest came up to get somethin'."

Susan's face was white like paper, and her hands were cold and shaking, but her voice, except for a certain breathlessness, was cheerfully steady. With more or less noise and with a running fire of inconsequent comment, she rummaged among the trunks and boxes, gradually working her way to, ward the desk where Keith still sat.

At the desk, with a sudden swift movement, she thrust the papers to one side and dropped her hand on the revolver. At the same moment Keith's arm shot out and his hand fell, covering hers.

She saw his young face flush and harden and his mouth set into stern lines.

"Susan, you'll be good enough, please, to take your hand off that," he said then sharply.

There was a moment's tense silence. Susan's eyes, agonized and pleading, were on his face. But Keith could not see that. He could only hear her words a moment later--light words, with a hidden laugh in them, yet spoken with that same curious breathlessness.

"Faith, honey, an' how can I, with your own hand holdin' mine so tight?"

Keith removed his hand instantly. His set face darkened.

"This is not a joke, Susan, and I shall have to depend on your honor to let that revolver stay where it is. Unfortunately I am unable to see whether I am obeyed or not."

It was Susan's turn to flush. She drew back at once, leaving the weapon uncovered on the desk between them.

"I'm not takin' the pistol, Keith." The laugh was all gone from Susan's voice now. So, too, was the breathlessness. The voice was steady, grave, but very gentle. "We take matches an' pizen an' knives away from children--not from grown men, Keith. The pistol is right where you can reach it--if you want it."

She saw the fingers of Keith's hand twitch and tighten. Otherwise there was no answer. After a moment she went on speaking.

"But let me say jest this: 'tain't like you to be a--quitter, Keith." She saw him wince, but she did not wait for him to speak. "An' after you've done this thing, there ain't any one in the world goin' to be so sorry as you'll be. You mark my words."

It was like a sharp knife cutting a taut cord. The tense muscles relaxed and Keith gave a sudden laugh. True, it was a short laugh, and a bitter one; but it was a laugh.

"You forget, Susan. If--if I carried that out I wouldn't be in the world--to care."

"Shucks! You'd be in some world, Keith Burton, an' you know it. An' you'd feel nice lookin' down on the mess you'd made of this world, wouldn't you?"

"Well, if I was looking, I'd be seeing, wouldn't I?" cut in the youth grimly. "Don't forget, Susan, that I'd be seeing, please."

"Seein' ain't everything, Keith Burton. Jest remember that. There is some things you'd rather be blind than see. An' that's one of 'em. Besides, seein' ain't the only sensible you've got, an' there's such a lot of things you can do, an'--"

"Oh, yes, I know," interrupted Keith fiercely, flinging out both his hands. "I can feel a book, and eat my dinner, and I can hear the shouts of the people cheering the boys that go marching by my door. But I'm tired of it all. I tell you I can't stand it--I can't, Susan. Yes, I know that's a cheap way out of it," he went on, after a choking pause, with a wave of his hand toward the revolver on the desk;" and a cowardly one, too. I know all that. And maybe I wouldn't have--have done it to-day, even if you hadn't come. I found it last week, and it --fascinated me. It seemed such an easy way out of it. Since then I've been up here two or three times just to--to feel of it. Somehow I liked to know it was here, and that, if--if I just couldn't stand things another minute--

"But--I've tried to be decent, honest I have. But I'm tired of being amused and 'tended to like a ten-year-old boy. I don't want flowers and jellies and candies brought in to me. I don't want to read and play solitaire and checkers week in and week out. I want to be over there, doing a man's work. Look at Ted, and Tom, and Jack Green, and John McGuire!"

"John McGuire!" It was a faltering cry from Susan, but Keith did not even hear.

"What are they doing, and what am I doing? Yet you people expect me to sit here contented with a dice-box and a deck of playing-cards, and be glad I can do that much. Oh, well, I suppose I ought to be. But when I sit here alone day after day and think and think--"

"But, Keith, we don't want you to do that," interposed Susan feverishly. "Now there's Miss Dorothy--if you'd only let her--"

"But I tell you I don't want to be babied and pitied and 'tended to by young women who are sorry for me. I want to do the helping part of the time. And if I see a girl I--I could care for, I want to be able to ask her like a man to marry me; and then if she says 'yes,' I want to be able to take care of her myself--not have her take care of me and marry me out of pity and feed me fudge and flowers! And there's-- dad."

Keith's voice broke and stopped. Susan, watching his impassioned face, wet her lips and swallowed convulsively. Then Keith began again.

"Susan, do you know the one big thing that drives me up here every time, in spite of myself? It's the thought of--dad. How do you suppose I feel to think of dad peddling peas and beans and potatoes down to McGuire's grocery store?--dad!"

Susan lifted her head defiantly.

"Well, now look a-here, Keith Burton, let me tell you that peddlin' peas an' beans an' potatoes is jest as honorary as paintin' pictures, an'--"

"I'm not saying it isn't," cut in the boy incisively. "I'm merely saying that, as I happen to know, he prefers to paint pictures--and I prefer to have him. And he'd be doing it this minute--if it wasn't for his having to support me, and you know it, Susan."

"Well, what of it? It don't hurt him any."

"It hurts me, Susan. And when I think of all the things he hoped--of me. I was going to be Jerry and Ned and myself; and I was going to make him so proud, Susan, so proud! I was going to make up to him all that he had lost. All day under the trees up on the hill, I used to lie and dream of what I was going to be some day--the great pictures I was going to paint--for dad. The great fame that was going to come to me--for dad. The money I was going to earn--for dad: I saw dad, old and white-haired, leaning on me. I saw the old house restored--all the locks and keys and sagging blinds, the cracked ceilings and tattered wallpaper--all made fresh and new. And dad so proud and happy in it all--so proud and happy that perhaps he'd think I really had made up for Jerry and Ned, and his own lost hopes.

"And, now, look at me! Useless, worse than useless--all my life a burden to him and to everybody else. Susan, I can't stand it. I can't. That's why I want to end it all. It would be so simple--such an easy way--out."

"Yes, 'twould--for quitters. Quitters always take easy ways out. But you ain't no quitter, Keith Burton. Besides, 't wouldn't end it. You know that. 'Twould jest be shuttin' the door of this room an' openin' the one to the next. You've had a good Christian bringin' up, Keith Burton, an' you know as well as I do that your eternal, immoral soul ain't goin' to be snuffled out of existence by no pistol shot, no matter how many times you pull the jigger."

Keith laughed--and with the laugh his tense muscles relaxed.

"All right, Susan," he shrugged a little grimly. "I'll concede your point. You made it--perhaps better than you know. But--well, it isn't so pleasant always to be the hook, you know," he finished bitterly.

"The--hook?" frowned Susan.

Keith laughed again grimly.

"Perhaps you've forgotten--but I haven't. I heard you talking to Mrs. McGuire one day. You said that everybody was either a hook or an eye, and that more than half the folks were hooks hanging on to somebody else. And that's why some eyes had more than their share of hooks hanging on to them. You see--I remembered. I knew then, when you said it, that I was a hook, and--"

"Keith Burton, I never thought of you when I said that," interrupted Susan agitatedly.

"Perhaps not; but I did. Why, Susan, of course I'm a hook--an old, bent, rusty hook. But I can hang on--oh, yes, I can hang on--to anybody that will let me! But, Susan, don't you see?--sometimes it seems as if I'd give the whole world if just for once I could feel that I--that some one was hanging on to me! that I was of some use somewhere."

"An' so you're goin' to be, honey. I know you be," urged Susan eagerly. "Just remember all them fellers that wrote books an' give lecturing an'--"

"Oh, yes, I know," interposed Keith, with a faint smile. "You were a good old soul, Susan, to read me all those charming tales, and I understood of course, what you were doing it for. You wanted me to go and do likewise. But I couldn't write a book to save my soul, Susan, and my voice would stick in my throat at the second word of a 'lecturing.'"

"But there'll be somethin', Keith, I know there'll be somethin'. God never locked up the doors of your eyes without givin' you the key to some other door. It's jest that you hain't found it yet."

"Perhaps. I certainly haven't found it--that's sure," retorted the lad bitterly. "And just why He saw fit to send me this blindness--"

"We don't have to know," interposed Susan quickly; "an' questionin' about it don't settle nothin', anyhow. If we've got it, we've got it, an' if it's somethin' we can't possibly help, the only questionin' worth anything then is how are we goin' to stand it. You see, there's more'n one way of standin' things."

"Yes, I know there is." Keith stirred restlessly in his seat.

"An' some ways is better than others."

"There, there, Susan, I know just what you're going to say, and it's all very true, of course," cried Keith, stirring still more restlessly. "But you see T don't happen to feel like hearing it just now. Oh, yes, I know I've got lots to be thankful for. I can hear, and feel, and taste, and walk; and I should be glad for all of them. And I am, of course. I should declare that all's well with the world, and that both sides of the street are sunny, and that there isn't any shadow anywhere. There, you see! I know all that you would say, Susan, and I've said it, so as to save you the trouble."

"Humph!" commented Susan, bridling a little; then suddenly, she gave a sly chuckle. "That's all very well an' good, Master Keith Burton, but there's one more thing I would have said if I was doin' the sayin'!"

"Well?"

"About that both sides of the street bein' sunny--it seems to me that the man what says, yes, he knows one side is shady an' troublous, but that he thinks it'll be healthier an' happier for him an' everybody else 'round him if he walks on the sunny side, an' then walks there-- it seems to me he's got the spots all knocked off that feller what says there ain't no shady side!"

Keith gave a low laugh--a laugh more nearly normal than Susan had heard him give for several days.

"All right, Susan, I'll accept your amendment and--we'll let it go that one side is shady, and that I'm supposed to determinedly pick the sunny side. Anything more?"

"M-more?"

"That you came up to say to me--yes. You know I have just saved you the trouble of saying part of it."

"Oh!" Susan laughed light-heartedly. (This was Keith--her Keith that she knew.) "No that's all I--" She stopped short in dismay! All the color and lightness disappeared from her face, leaving it suddenly white and drawn. "That is," she faltered, "there was somethin' else--I was goin' to say, about--about John McGuire. He--"

"I don't care to hear it." Keith had frozen instantly into frigid aloofness. Stern lines had come to his boyish mouth.

"But--but, Keith, Mrs. McGuire came over to-"

"To read another of those precious letters, of course," cut in Keith angrily, "but I tell you I don't want to hear it. Do you suppose a caged bird likes to hear of the woods and fields and tree-tops while he's tied to a three-inch swing between two gilt bars? Well, hardly! There's lots that I do have to stand, Susan, but I don't have to stand that."

Susan caught her breath with a half sob.

"But, Keith, I wasn't going to tell you of--of woods an' fields an' tree-tops this time. You see--now he's in a cage himself."

"What do you mean?"

"He's coming home. He's--blind."

Keith leaped from his chair.

"Blind? John McGuire?"

"Yes."

"Oh-h-h!" Long years of past suffering and of future woe filled the short little word to bursting, as Keith dropped back into his chair. For a moment he sat silent, his whole self held rigid. Then, unsteadily he asked the question:

"What--happened?"

"They don't know. It was a dispatch that came this mornin'. He was blinded, an' is on his way home. That's all."

"That's--enough."

"Yes, I knew you'd--understand."

"Yes, I do--understand."

Susan hesitated. Keith still sat, with his unseeing gaze straight ahead, his body tense and motionless. On the desk within reach lay the revolver. Cautiously Susan half extended her hand toward it, then drew it back. She glanced again at Keith's absorbed face, then turned and made her way quietly down the stairs.

At the bottom of the attic flight she glanced back. "He won't touch it now, I'm sure," she breathed. "An', anyhow, we only take knives an' pizen away from children--not grown men!"