Chapter XXVII. For the Sake of John
 

In due course Daniel Burton and his son Keith returned from the funeral of their kinswoman, Mrs. Nancy Holworthy.

The town, aware now of the stupendous change that had come to the fortunes of the Burton family, stared, gossiped, shook wise heads of prophecy, then passed on to the next sensation--which happened to be the return of four soldiers from across the seas; three crippled, one blinded.

At the Burton homestead the changes did not seem so stupendous, after all. True, Daniel Burton had abandoned the peddling of peas and beans across the counter, and had, at the earnest solicitation of his son, got out his easel and placed a fresh canvas upon it; but he obviously worked half-heartedly, and he still roamed the house after reading the evening paper, and spent even more time before the great war map on his studio wall.

True, also, disgruntled tradesmen no longer rang peremptory peals on the doorbell, and the postman's load of bills on the first of the month was perceptibly decreased. The dinner-table, too, bore evidence that a scanty purse no longer controlled the larder, but no new china or cut-glass graced the board, and Susan's longed-for bouillon spoons had never materialized. Locks and doors and sagging blinds had received prompt attention, and already the house was being prepared for a new coat of paint; but no startling alterations or improvements were promised by the evidence, and Keith was still to be seen almost daily on the McGuire back porch, as before, or on his own, with John McGuire.

It is no wonder, surely, that very soon the town ceased to stare and gossip, or even to shake wise heads of prophecy.

Nancy Holworthy's death was two months in the past when one day Keith came home from John McGuire's back porch in very evident excitement and agitation.

"Why, Keith, what's the matter? What is the matter?" demanded Susan concernedly.

"Nothing. That is, I--I did not know I acted as if anything was the matter," stammered the youth.

"Well, you do. Now, tell me, what is it?"

"Nothing, nothing, Susan. Nothing you can help." Keith was pacing back and forth and up and down the living-room, not even using his cane to define the familiar limits of his pathway. Suddenly he turned and stopped short, his whole body quivering with emotion. "Susan, I can't! I can't--stand it," he moaned.

"I know, Keith. But, what is it--now?"

"John McGuire. He's been telling me how it is--over there. Why, Susan, I could see it--see it, I tell you, and, oh, I did so want to be there to help. He told me how they held it--the little clump of trees that meant so much to us, and how one by one they fell--those brave fellows with him. I could see it. I could hear it. I could hear the horrid din of the guns and shells, and the crash of falling trees about us; and the shouts and groans of the men at our side. And they needed men-- more men--to take the place of those that had fallen. Even one man counted there--counted for, oh, so much!--for at the last there was just one man left---John McGuire. And to hear him tell it--it was wonderful, wonderful!"

"I know, I know," nodded Susan. "It was like his letters--you could see things. He made you see 'em. An' that's what he always did--made you see things--even when he was a little boy. His mother told me. He wanted to write, you know. He was goin' to be a writer, before--this happened. An' now---" The sentence trailed off into the silence unfinished.

"And to think of all that to-day being wasted on a blind baby tied to a picture puzzle," moaned Keith, resuming his nervous pacing of the room. "If only a man--a real man could have heard him--one that could go and do a man's work--! Why, Susan, that story, as he told it, would make a stone fight. I never heard anything like it. I never supposed there could be anything like that battle. He never talked like this, until to-day. Oh, he's told me a little, from time to time. But to- day, to-day, he just poured out his heart to me--me!--and there are so many who need just that message to stir them from their smug complacency--men who could fight, and win: men who would fight, and win, if only they could see and hear and know, as I saw and heard and knew this afternoon. And there it was, wasted, wasted, worse than wasted on--me!"

Chokingly Keith turned away, but with a sudden cry Susan caught his arm.

"No, no, Keith, it wasn't wasted--you mustn't let it be wasted," she panted. "Listen! You want others to hear it--what you heard--don't you?"

"Why, y-yes, Susan; but---"

"Then make 'em hear it," she interrupted. "You can--you can!"

"How?"

"Make him write it down, jest as he talks. He can--he wants to. He's always wanted to. Then publish it in a book, so everybody can see it and hear it, as you did."

"Oh, Susan, if we only could!" A dawning hope had come into Keith Burton's face, but almost at once it faded into gray disappointment. "We couldn't do it, though, Susan. He couldn't do it. You know he can't write at all. He's only begun to practice a little bit. He'd never get it down, with the fire and the vim in it, learning to write as he'd have to. What do you suppose Lincoln's Gettysburg Speech would have been if he'd had to stop to learn how to spell and to write each word before he could put it down?"

"I know, I know," nodded Susan. "It's that way with me in my poetry. I jest have to get right ahead while the fuse burns, an' spell 'em somehow, anyhow, so's to get 'em down while I'm in the fit of it. He couldn't do it. I can see that now. But, Keith, couldn't you do it?-- take it down, I mean, as he talked, like a stylographer?"

Keith shook his head.

"I wish I could. But I couldn't, I know I couldn't. I couldn't begin to do it fast enough to keep up with him, and 't would spoil it all to have to ask him to slow down. When a man's got a couple of Huns coming straight for him, and he knows he's got to get 'em both at once, you can't very well sing out: 'Here, wait--wait a minute till I get that last sentence down!'"

"I know, I know," nodded Susan again. She paused, drew a long sigh, and turned her eyes out the window. Up the walk was coming Daniel Burton. His step was slow, his head was bowed. He looked like anything but the happy possessor of new wealth. Susan frowned as she watched him.

"I wish your father---" she began. Suddenly she stopped. A new light had leaped to her eyes. "Keith, Keith," she cried eagerly. "I have it! Your father--he could do it--I know he could!"

"Do what?"

"Take down John McGuire's story. Couldn't he do it?"

"Why, y-yes, he could, I think," hesitated Keith doubtfully. "He doesn't know shorthand, but he--he's got eyes" (Keith's voice broke a little) "and he could see what he was doing, and he could take down enough of it so he could patch it up afterwards, I'm sure. But Susan, John McGuire wouldn't tell it to him. Don't you see? He won't even see anybody but me, and he didn't talk like this even to me until to-day. How's dad going to hear it to write it down? Tell me that?"

"But he could overhear it, Keith. No, no, don't look like that," she protested hurriedly, as Keith began to frown. "Jest listen a minute. It would be jest as easy. He could be over on the grass right close, where he could hear every word; an' you could get John to talkin', an' as soon as he got really started on a story your father could begin to write, an' John wouldn't know a thing about it; an'--"

"Yes, you're quite right--John wouldn't know a thing about it," broke in Keith, with a passion so sudden and bitter that Susan fell back in dismay.

"Why, Keith!" she exclaimed, her startled eyes on his quivering face.

"I wonder if you think I'd do it!" he demanded. "I wonder if you really think I'd cheat that poor fellow into talking to me just because he hadn't eyes to see that I wasn't the only one in his audience!"

"But, Keith, he wouldn't mind; he wouldn't mind a bit," urged Susan, "if he didn't know an'--"

"Oh, no, he wouldn't mind being cheated and deceived and made a fool of, just because he couldn't see!"

"No, he wouldn't mind," persisted Susan stoutly. "It wouldn't be a mean listenin', nor sneak listenin'. It wouldn't be listenin' to things he didn't want us to hear. He'd be glad, after it was all done, an'--"

"Would he!" choked Keith, still more bitterly. "Maybe you think I was glad after it was all done, and I found I'd been fooled and cheated into thinking the girl that was reading and talking to me and playing games with me was a girl I had never known before--a girl who was what she pretended to be, a new friend doing it all because she wanted to, because she liked to."

"But, Keith, I'm sure that Dorothy liked--"

"There, there, Susan," interposed Keith, with quickly uplifted hand. "We'll not discuss it, please, Yes, I know, I began the subject myself, and it was my fault; but when I heard you say John McGuire would be glad when he found out how we'd lied to his poor blind eyes, I--I just couldn't hold it in. I had to say something. But never mind that now, Susan; only you'll--you'll have to understand I mean what I say. There's no letting dad copy that story on the sly."

"But there's a way, there must be a way," argued Susan feverishly. "Only think what it would mean to that boy if we could get him started to writin' books--what he's wanted to do all his life. Oh, Keith, why, he'd even forget his eyes then."

"It would--help some." Keith drew in his breath and held it a moment suspended. "And he'd even be helping us to win out--over there; for if we could get that story of his on paper as he told it to me, the fellow that reads it wouldn't need any recruiting station to send him over there. If there was only a way that father could--"

"There is, an' we'll find it," interposed Susan eagerly. "I know we will. An' Keith, it's goin' to be 'most as good for him as it is for John McGuire. He's nervous as a witch since he quit his job."

"I know." A swift cloud crossed the boy's face. "But 'twasn't giving up his job that's made him nervous, Susan, as you and I both know very well. However, we'll see. And you may be sure if there is a way I'll find it, Susan," he finished a bit wearily, as he turned to go upstairs.