Chapter XXV. Keith to the Rescue
 

John McGuire had not been home twenty-four hours before it was known that he "took it powerful hard."

To Keith Susan told what she had learned.

"They say he utterly refuses to see any one outside the family; an' that he'd rather not see even his own folks--that he's always askin' 'em to let him alone."

"Is he ill or wounded otherwise?" asked Keith.

"No, he ain't hurt outwardly or infernally, except his eyes, an' he says that's the worst of it, one woman told me. He's as sound as a nut, an' good for a hundred years yet. If he'd only been smashed up good an' solid, so's he'd have some hope of dyin' pretty quick, he wouldn't mind it, he says. But to live along like this--!--oh, he's in an awful state of mind, everybody says."

"I can--imagine it," sighed Keith. And by the way he turned away Susan knew that he did not care to talk any more.

An hour later Mrs. McGuire hurried into Susan's kitchen. Mrs. McGuire was looking thin and worn these days. From her half-buttoned shoes to her half-combed hair she was showing the results of strain and anxiety. With a long sigh she dropped into one of the kitchen chairs.

"Well, Mis' McGuire, if you ain't the stranger!" Susan greeted her cordially.

"Yes, I know," sighed Mrs. McGuire. "But, you see, I can't leave-- him." As she spoke she looked anxiously through the window toward her own door. "Mr. McGuire's with him, now, so I got away."

"But there's Bess an' Harry," began Susan,

"We don't leave him with the children, ever," interposed Mrs. McGuire, with another hurried glance through the window. "We--don't dare to. You see, once we found--we found him with his father's old pistol. Oh, Susan, it--it was awful!"

"Yes, it--must have been." Susan, after one swift glance into her visitor's face, had turned her back suddenly. She was busy now with the dampers of her kitchen stove.

"Of course we took it right away," went on Mrs. McGuire, "an' put it where he'll never get it again. But we're always afraid there'll be somethin' somewhere that he will get hold of. You see, he's so despondent--in such a terrible state!"

"Yes, I know," nodded Susan. Susan had abandoned her dampers, and had turned right about face again. "If only he'd see folks now."

"Yes, an' that's what I came over to talk to you about," cried Mrs. McGuire eagerly. "We haven't been able to get him to see anybody--not anybody. But I've been wonderin' if he wouldn't see Keith, if we could work it right. You see he says he just won't be stared at; an' Keith, poor boy, couldn't stare, an' John knows it. Oh, Susan, do you suppose we could manage it?"

"Why, of course. I'll tell him right away, an' he'll go over; I know he'll go!" exclaimed Susan, all interest at once.

"Oh, but that wouldn't do at all!" cried Mrs. McGuire. "Don't you see? John refuses, absolutely refuses, to see any one; an' he wouldn't see Keith, if I should ask him to. But he's interested in Keith--I know he's that, for once, when I was talkin' to Mr. McGuire about Keith, John broke in an' asked two or three questions, an' he's never done that before, about anybody. An' so I was pretty sure it was because Keith was blind, you know, like himself."

"Yes, I see, I see."

"An' if I can only manage it so they'll meet without John's knowin' they're goin' to, I believe he'll get to talkin' with him before he knows it; an' that it'll do him a world of good. Anyway, somethin's got to be done, Susan--it's got to be--to get him out of this awful state he's in."

"Well, we'll do it. I know we can do it some way."

"You think Keith'll do his part?" Mrs. McGuire's eyes were anxious.

"I'm sure he will--when he understands."

"Then listen," proposed Mrs. McGuire eagerly. "I'll get my John out on to the back porch to-morrow mornin'. That's the only place outdoors I can get him--he can't be seen from the street there, you know. I'll get him there as near ten o'clock as I can. You be on the watch, an' as soon as I get him all nicely fixed, you get Keith to come out into your yard an' stroll over to the fence an' speak to him, an' then come up on to the porch an' sit down, just naturally. He can do that all right, can't he? It's just wonderful--the way he gets around everywhere, with that little cane of his!"

"Yes, oh, yes."

"Well, I thought he could. An' tell him to keep right on talkin' every minute so my John won't have a chance to get up an' go into the house. Of course, I shall be there myself, at first. We never leave him alone, you know. But as soon as Keith comes, I shall go. They'll get along better by themselves, I'm sure--only, of course, I shall be where I can keep watch out of the window. Now do you understand?"

"Yes, an' we can do it. I know we can do it."

"All right, then. I'm not so sure we can, but we'll try it, anyway," sighed Mrs. McGuire, rising to her feet, the old worry back on her face. "Well, I must be goin'. Mr. McGuire'll have a fit. He's as nervous as a witch when he's left alone with John. There! What did I tell you?" she broke off, with an expressive gesture and glance, as a careworn-looking man appeared in the doorway of the house across the two back yards, and peered anxiously over at the Burtons' kitchen door. "Now, don't forget--ten o'clock to-morrow mornin'."

"I won't forget," promised Susan cheerfully, "Now, do you go home an' set easy, Mis' McGuire, an' don't you fret no more. It's comin' out all right--all right, I tell you," she reiterated, as Mrs. McGuire hurried through the doorway.

But when Mrs. McGuire was gone Susan drew a dubious sigh; and her cheery smile had turned to a questioning frown as she went in search of Keith. Very evidently Susan was far from feeling quite so sure about Keith's cooperation as she would have Mrs. McGuire think.

Keith was in the living-room, his head bowed in his two hands, his elbows on the table before him. At the first sound of Susan's steps he lifted his head with a jerk.

"I was lookin' for you," began Susan the moment she had crossed the threshold. Susan had learned that Keith hated above all things to have to speak first, or to ask, "Who is it?" "Mis' McGuire's jest been here."

"Yes, I heard her voice," returned the boy indifferently.

"She was tellin' about her John."

"How is he getting along?"

"He's in a bad way. Oh, he's real well physicianally, but he's in a bad way in his mind."

"Well, you don't wonder, do you?"

"Oh, no, 'course not. Still, well, for one thing, he don't like to see folks."

"Strange! Now, I'd think he'd just dote on seeing folks, wouldn't you?"

Susan caught the full force of the sarcasm, but superbly she ignored it.

"Well, I don't know--maybe; but, anyhow, he don't, an' Mis' McGuire's that worried she don't know what to do. You see, she found him once with his daddy's pistol"--Susan was talking very fast now--"an' 'course that worked her up somethin' terrible. I'm afraid he hain't got much backbone. They don't dare to leave him alone a minute--not a minute. An' Mis' McGuire, she was wonderin' if--if you couldn't help 'em out some way."

"I?" The short ejaculation was full of amazement.

"Yes. That's what she come over for this mornin'."

"I? They forget." Keith fell back bitterly. "John McGuire might get hold of a dozen revolvers, and I wouldn't know it."

"Oh, 'twa'n't that. They didn't want you to watch him. They wanted you to--Well, it's jest this. Mis' McGuire thought as how if she could get her John out on the back porch, an' you happened to be in our back yard, an' should go over an' speak to him, maybe you'd get to talkin' with him, an' go up an' sit down. She thought maybe 'twould get him out of hisself that way. You see, he won't talk to--to most folks. He don't like to be stared at." (Susan threw a furtive glance into Keith's face, then looked quickly away.) "But she thought maybe he would talk to you."

"Yes, I--see." Keith drew in his breath with a little catch.

"An' so she said there wa'n't anybody anywhere that could help so much as you--if you would."

"Why, of course, if I really could help--"

Susan did not need to look into Keith's face to catch the longing and heart-hunger and dawning hope in the word left suspended on his lips. She felt her own throat tighten; but in a moment she managed to speak with steady cheerfulness.

"Well, you can. You can help a whole lot. I'm sure you can. An' Mis' McGuire is, too. An' what's more, you're the only one what can help 'em, in this case. So we'll keep watch to-morrow mornin', an' when he comes out on the porch--well, we'll see what we will see." And Susan, just as if her own heart was not singing a triumphant echo of the song she knew was in his, turned away with an elaborate air of indifference.

Yet, when to-morrow came, and when Keith went out into the yard in response to the presence of John McGuire on his back porch, the result was most disappointing--to Susan. To Keith it did not seem to be so much so. But perhaps Keith had not expected quite what Susan had expected. At all events, Keith came back to the house with a glow on his face and a springiness in his step that Susan had not seen there for months. Yet all that had happened was that Keith had called out from the gate a pleasant "Good-morning!" to the blinded soldier, and had followed it with an inconsequential word or two about the weather. John McGuire had answered a crisp, cold something, and had risen at once to go into the house. Keith, at the first sound of his feet on the porch floor, had turned with a cheery "Well, I must be going back to the house." Whereupon John McGuire had sat down again, and Mrs. McGuire, who at Keith's first words, had started to her feet, dropped back into her chair.

Apparently not much accomplished, certainly; yet there was the glow on Keith's face and the springiness in Keith's step; and when he reached the kitchen, he said this to Susan:

"The next time John McGuire is on the back porch, please let me know."

And Susan let him know, both then and at subsequent times.

It was a pretty game and one well worth the watching. Certainly Susan and Mrs. McGuire thought it so. On the one side were persistence and perseverance and infinite tact. On the other were a distrustful antagonism and a palpable longing for an understanding companionship.

At first the intercourse between the two blind youths consisted of a mere word or two tossed by Keith to the other who gave a still shorter word in reply. And even this was not every day, for John McGuire was not out on the porch every day. But as the month passed, he came more and more frequently, and one evening Mrs. McGuire confided to Susan the fact that John seemed actually to fret now if a storm kept him indoors.

"An' he listens for Keith to come along the fence--I know he does," she still further declared. "Oh, I know he doesn't let him say much yet, but he hasn't jumped up to go into the house once since those first two or three times, an' that's somethin'. An' what's more, he let Keith stay a whole minute at the gate talkin' yesterday!" she finished in triumph.

"Yes, an' the best of it is," chimed in Susan, "it's helpin' Keith Burton hisself jest as much as 'tis John McGuire. Why, he ain't the same boy since he's took to tryin' to get your John to talkin'. An' he asks me a dozen times a mornin' if John's out on the porch yet. An' when he is out there, he don't lose no time in goin' out hisself."

Yet it was the very next morning that Keith, after eagerly asking if John McGuire were on the back porch, did not go out. Instead he settled back in his chair and picked up one of his embossed books.

Susan frowned in amazed wonder, and opened her lips as if to speak. But after a glance at Keith's apparently absorbed face, she turned and went back to her work in the kitchen. Twice during the next ten minutes, however, she invented an excuse to pass again through the living-room, where Keith sat. Yet, though she said a pointed something each time about John McGuire on the back porch, Keith did not respond save with an indifferent word or two. And, greatly to her indignation, he was still sitting in his chair with his book when at noon John McGuire, on the porch across the back yard, rose from his seat and went into the house.

Susan was still more indignant when, the next morning, the same programme was repeated--except for the fact that Susan's reminders of John McGuire's presence on the back porch were even more pointed than they had been on the day before. Again the third morning it was the same. Susan resolved then to speak. She said to herself that "patience had ceased to be virtuous," and she lay awake half that night rehearsing a series of arguments and pleadings which she meant to present the next morning. She was the more incited to this owing to Mrs. McGuire's distracted reproaches the evening before.

"Why, John has asked for him, actually asked for him," Mrs. McGuire had wept. "An' it is cruel, the cruelest thing I ever saw, to get that poor boy all worked up to the point of really wantin' to talk with him, an' then stay away three whole days like this!"

On the fourth morning, therefore, when John McGuire appeared on the back porch, Susan went into the Burton living-room with the avowed determination of getting Keith out of the house and into the back yard, or of telling him exactly what she thought of him.

She had all of her elaborate scheming for nothing, however, for at her first terse announcement that John McGuire was on the back porch, Keith sprang to his feet with a cheery:

"So? Well, I guess I'll go out myself."

And Susan was left staring at him with open eyes and mouth--yet not too dazed to run to the open window and watch what happened.

And this is what Susan saw--and heard. Keith, with his almost uncannily skillful stick to guide him, sauntered down the path and called a cheery greeting to John McGuire--a John McGuire who, in his eagerness to respond, leaned away forward in his chair with a sudden flame of color in his face.

Keith still sauntered toward the dividing fence, pausing only to feel with his fingers and pick the one belated rose from the bush at the gate. He pushed the gate open then, still talking cheerfully, and the next moment Susan was holding her breath, for Keith had gone straight up the walk and up the steps, and had dropped himself into the vacant chair beside John McGuire--and John McGuire, after a faint start as if to rise, had fallen back in his seat, and had turned his face uncertainly, fearfully, yet with infinite longing, toward the blind youth at his side.

Susan looked then at Mrs. McGuire. Mrs. McGuire, too, was plainly holding her breath suspended. On her face, too, were uncertainty, fearfulness, and infinite longing. For a moment she watched the two boys intently. Then she rose and with cautious steps made her way into the house. After supper that night she came over and told Susan all about it. Her face was beaming.

"Did you see them?" she began breathlessly. "Wasn't it wonderful? A whole half-hour those two blessed boys sat there an' talked; an' John laughed twice, actually laughed."

"Yes, I know," nodded Susan, her own face no less beaming.

"An' to think how just last night I was scoldin' an' blamin' Keith because he didn't come over these last three days. An' I never saw at all what he was up to."

"Up to?" frowned Susan.

"Yes, yes! Don't you see? He did it on purpose--stayed away three whole days, so John would miss him an' want him. An' John did miss him. Why, he listened for him all the time. I could just see he was listenin'. An' that's what made me so angry, because Keith didn't come. The idea!--My boy wantin' somebody, an' that somebody not there!

"But I know now. I understand. An' I love him for it. He did it to make him want him. An' it worked. Why, if he'd come before, every day, just as usual, John wouldn't have talked with him. I know he wouldn't. But now--oh, Susan, it was wonderful, wonderful! I watched 'em from the window. I had to watch. I was afraid--still. An' of course I heard some things. An', oh, Susan, it was wonderful, the way that boy understood."

"You mean--Keith?"

"Yes. You see, first John began to talk just as he talks to us--ravin' because he's so strong an' well, an' likely to live to be a hundred; an' of how he'll look, one of these days, with his little tin cup held out for pennies an' his sign, 'Please Help the Blind,' an' of what he's got to look forward to all his life. Oh, Susan, it--it's enough to break the heart of a stone, when he talks like that."

Susan drew in her breath.

"Don't you s'pose I know? Well, I guess I do! But what did Keith say to him?"

"Nothin'. An' that was the first wonderful thing. You see, we--we always talk an' try to comfort him when he talks like that. But Keith didn't. He just let him talk, with nothin' but just a sympathetic word now an' then. But it wasn't long before I noticed a wonderful thing was happenin'. Keith was beginnin' to talk--not about that awful tin cup an' the pennies an' the sign, but about other things; first about the rose in his hand. An' pretty quick John was talkin' about it, too. He had the rose an' was smellin' of it. Then Keith had a new knife, an' he passed that over, an' pretty quick I saw that John had that little link puzzle of Keith's, an' was havin' a great time tryin' to straighten it out. That's the first time I heard him laugh.

"I began to realize then what Keith was doin'. He was fillin' John's mind full of somethin' else beside himself, for just a minute, an' was showin' him that there were things he could call by name, like the rose an' the knife an' the puzzle, even if he couldn't see 'em. Oh, Keith didn't say anything like that to him--trust him for that. But before John knew it, he was doin' it--callin' things by name, I mean.

"An' Keith is comin' again to-morrow. John told me so. An' if you could have seen his face when he said it! Oh, Susan, isn't it wonderful?" she finished fervently, as she turned to go.

"It is, indeed--wonderful," murmured Susan. But Susan's eyes were out the window on Keith's face--Keith and his father were coming up the walk talking; and on Keith's face was a light Susan had never seen there before.