Chapter III. For Jerry and Ned
 

It was Susan Betts who discovered that Keith was not reading so much that summer.

"An' him with his nose always in a book before," as she said one day to Mrs. McGuire. "An' he don't act natural, somehow, neither, ter my way of thinkin'. Have you noticed anything?"

"Why, no, I don't know as I have," answered Mrs. McGuire from the other side of the fence, "except that he's always traipsin' off to the woods with his father. But then, he's always done that, more or less."

"Indeed he has! But always before he's lugged along a book, sometimes two; an' now--why he hain't even read the book his father give him on his birthday. I know, 'cause I asked him one day what 't was about, an' he said he didn't know; he hadn't read it."

"Deary me, Susan! Well, what if he hadn't? I shouldn't fret about that. My gracious, Susan, if you had four children same as I have, instead of one, I guess you wouldn't do no worryin' jest because a boy didn't read a book. Though, as for my John, he---"

Susan lifted her chin.

"I wasn't talkin' about your children, Mis' McGuire," she interrupted. "An' I reckon nobody'd do no worryin' if they didn't read. But Master Keith is a different supposition entirely. He's very intelligible, Master Keith is, and so is his father before him. Books is food to them--real food. Hain't you ever heard of folks devourin' books? Well, they do it. Of course I don't mean literaryly, but metaphysically."

"Oh, land o' love, Susan Betts!" cried Mrs. McGuire, throwing up both hands and turning away scornfully. "Of course, when you get to talkin' like that, nobody can say anything to you! However in the world that poor Mr. Burton puts up with you, I don't see. I wouldn't--not a day--not a single day!" And by way of emphasis she entered her house and shut the door with a slam.

Susan Betts, left alone, shrugged her shoulders disdainfully.

"Well, 'nobody asked you, sir, she said,'" she quoted, under her breath, and slammed her door, also, by way of emphasis.

Yet both Susan and Mrs. McGuire knew very well that the next day would find them again in the usual friendly intercourse over the back-yard fence.

Susan Betts was a neighbor's daughter. She had lived all her life in the town, and she knew everybody. Just because she happened to work in Daniel Burton's kitchen was no reason, to her mind, why she should not be allowed to express her opinion freely on all occasions, and on all subjects, and to all persons. Such being her conviction she conducted herself accordingly. And Susan always lived up to her convictions.

In the kitchen to-day she found Keith.

"Oh, I say, Susan, I was looking for you. Dad wants you."

"What for?"

"I don't know; but I guess it's because he wants to have something besides beans and codfish and fish-hash to eat. Anyhow, he said he was going to speak to you about it."

Susan stiffened into inexorable sternness.

"So he's goin' ter speak ter me, is he? Well, 't will be mighty little good that'll do, as he ought to know very well. Beefsteaks an' roast fowls cost money. Has he got the money for me?"

Without waiting for an answer to her question, she strode through the door leading to the dining-room and shut it crisply behind her.

The boy did not follow her. Alone, in the kitchen he drummed idly on the window-pane, watching the first few drops of a shower that had been darkening the sky for an hour past.

After a minute he turned slowly and gazed with listless eyes about the kitchen. On the table lay a folded newspaper. After a moment's hesitation he crossed the room toward it. He had the air of one impelled by some inner force against his will.

He picked the paper up, but did not at once look at it. In fact, he looked anywhere but at it. Then, with a sudden jerk, he faced it. Shivering a little he held it nearer, then farther away, then nearer again. Then, with an inarticulate little cry he dropped the paper and hurried from the room.

No one knew better than Keith himself that he was not reading much this summer. Not that he put it into words, but he had a feeling that so long as he was not seeing how blurred the printed words were, he would not be sure that they were blurred. Yet he knew that always, whenever he saw a book or paper, his fingers fairly tingled to pick it up--and make sure. Most of the time, however, Keith tried not to notice the books and papers. Systematically he tried to forget that there were books and papers--and he tried to forget the Great Terror.

Sometimes he persuaded himself that he was doing this. He contrived to keep himself very busy that summer. Almost every day, when it did not rain, he was off for a long walk with his father in the woods. His father liked to walk in the woods. Keith never had to urge him to do that. And what good times they had!--except that Keith did wish that his father would not talk quite so much about what great things he, Keith, was going to do when he should have become a man--and a great artist.

One day he ventured to remonstrate.

"But, dad, maybe I--I shan't be a great artist at all. Maybe I shan't be even a little one. Maybe I shall be just a--a man."

Keith never forgot his father's answer nor his father's anguished face as he made that answer.

"Keith, I don't ever want you to let me hear you say that again. I want you to know that you're going to succeed. And you will succeed. God will not be so cruel as to deny me that. I have failed. You needn't shake your head, boy, and say 'Oh, dad!' like that. I know perfectly well what I'm talking about. I have failed---though it is not often that I'll admit it, even to myself. But when I heard you say to-day---

"Keith, listen to me. You've got to succeed. You've got to succeed not only for yourself, but for Jerry and Ned, and for--me. All my hopes for Jerry and Ned and for--myself are in you, boy. That's why, in all our walks together, and at home in the studio, I'm trying to teach you something that you will want to know by and by."

Keith never remonstrated with his father after that. He felt worse than ever now when his father talked of what great things he was going to do; but he knew that remonstrances would do no good, but rather harm; and he did not want to hear his father talk again as he had talked that day, about Jerry and Ned and himself. As if it were not bad enough, under the best of conditions, to have to be great and famous for one's two dead brothers and one's father; while if one were blind---

But Keith refused to think of that. He tried very hard, also, to absorb everything that his father endeavored to teach him. He listened and watched and said "yes, sir," and he did his best to make the chalks and charcoal that were put into his hands follow the copy set for him.

To be sure, in this last undertaking, his efforts were not always successful. The lines wavered and blurred and were far from clear. Still, they were not half so bad as the print in books; and if it should not get any worse--Besides, had he not always loved to draw cats and dogs and faces ever since he could hold a pencil?

And so, with some measure of hope as to the results, he was setting himself to be that great and famous artist that his father said he must be.

But it was not all work for Keith these summer days. There were games and picnics and berry expeditions with the boys and girls, all of which he hailed with delight--one did not have to read, or even study wavering lines and figures, on picnics or berrying expeditions! And that was a relief. To be sure, there was nearly always Mazie, and if there was Mazie, there was bound to be Dorothy. And Dorothy had said-- Some way he could never see Dorothy without remembering what she did say on that day he had come home from Uncle Joe Harrington's.

Not that he exactly blamed her, either. For was not he himself acting as if he felt the same way and did not like to look at blind persons? Else why did he so persistently keep away from Uncle Joe now? Not once, since that first day, had he been up to see the poor old blind man. And before--why, before he used to go several times a week.