Chapter IV. School
 

And so the summer passed, and September came. And September brought a new problem--school. And school meant books.

Two days before school began Keith sought Susan Betts in the kitchen.

"Say, Susan, that was awfully good johnny-cake we had this morning."

Susan picked up another plate to dry and turned toward her visitor. Her face was sternly grave, though there was something very like a twinkle in her eye.

"There ain't no cookies, if that's what you're wantin'," she said.

"Aw, Susan, I never said a word about cookies."

"Then what is it you want? It's plain to be seen there's something, I ween."

"My, how easy you do make rhymes, Susan. What's that 'I ween' mean?"

"Now, Keith Burton, this beatin' the bush like this don't do one mite of good. You might jest as well out with it first as last. Now, what is it you want?"

Keith drew a long sigh.

"Well, Susan, there is something--a little something--only I meant what I said about the johnny-cake and the rhymes; truly, I did."

"Well?" Susan was smiling faintly.

"Susan, you know you can make dad do anything."

Susan began to stiffen, and Keith hastened to disarm her.

"No, no, truly! This is the part I want. You can make dad do anything; and I want you to do it for me."

"Do what?"

"Make him let me off from school any more."

"Let you off from school!" In her stupefied amazement Susan actually forgot to pick up another plate from the dishpan.

"Yes. Tell him I'm sick, or 't isn't good for me. And truly, 't isn't good for me. And truly, I am quite a little sick, Susan. I don't feel well a bit. There's a kind of sinking feeling in my stomach, and---"

But Susan had found her wits and her tongue by this time, and she gave free rein to her wrath.

"Let you off from school, indeed! Why, Keith Burton, I'm ashamed of you--an' you that I've always boasted of! What do you want to do--grow up a perfect ignominious?"

Keith drew back resentfully, and uptilted his chin.

"No, Susan Betts, I'm not wanting to be a--a ignominious, and I don't intend to be one, either. I'm going to be an artist--a great big famous artist, and I don't need school for that. How are multiplication tables and history and grammar going to help me paint big pictures? That's what I want to know. But I'm afraid that dad-- Say, won't you tell dad that I don't need books any more, and---"But he stopped short, so extraordinary was the expression that had come to Susan Betts's face. If it were possible to think of Susan Betts as crying, he should think she was going to cry now.

"Need books? Why, child, there ain't nobody but what needs books. An' I guess I know! What do you suppose I wouldn't give now if I could 'a' had books an' book-learnin' when I was young? I could 'a' writ real poetry then that would sell. I could 'a' spoke out an' said things that are in my soul, an' that I can't say now, 'cause I don't know the words that--that will impress what I mean. Now, look a-here, Keith Burton, you're young. You've got a chance. Do you see to it that you make good. An' it's books that will help you do it."

"But books won't help me paint, Susan."

"They will, too. Books will help you do anything."

"Then you won't ask dad?"

"Indeed, I won't."

"But I don't see how books---" With a long sigh Keith turned away.

In the studio the next morning he faced his father.

"Dad, you can't learn to paint pictures by just reading how to do it, can you?"

"You certainly cannot, my boy."

"There! I told Susan Betts so, but she wouldn't listen to me. And so-- I don't have to go to school any more, do I?"

"Don't have to go to school any more! Why, Keith, what an absurd idea! Of course you've got to go to school!"

"But just to be an artist and paint pictures, I don't see---"

But his father cut him short and would not listen.

Five minutes later a very disappointed, disheartened young lad left the studio and walked slowly down the hall.

There was no way out of it. If one were successfully to be Jerry and Ned and dad and one's self, all in one, there was nothing but school and more school, and, yes, college, that would give one the proper training. Dad had said it.

Keith went to school the next morning. With an oh-well-I-don't-care air he slung his books over his shoulder and swung out the gate, whistling blithely.

It might not be so bad, after all, he was telling himself. Perhaps the print would be plainer now. Anyway, he could learn a lot in class listening to the others; and maybe some of the boys would study with him, and do the reading part.

But it was not to be so easy as Keith hoped for. To begin with, the print had not grown any clearer. It was more blurred than ever. To be sure, it was much worse with one eye than with the other; but he could not keep one eye shut all the time. Besides--his eyes ached now if he tried to use them much, and grew red and inflamed, and he was afraid his father would notice them. He began to see strange flashes of rainbow light now, too. And sometimes little haloes around the lamp flame. As if one could study books with all that!

True, he learned something in class--but naturally he was never called upon to recite what had already been given, so he invariably failed miserably when it came to his turn. Even the "boy to study with" proved to be a delusion and a snare, for no boy was found who cared to do "all the reading," without being told the reason why it was expected of him--and that was exactly what Keith was straining every nerve to keep to himself.

And so week in and week out Keith stumbled along through those misery- filled days, each one seemingly a little more unbearable than the last. Of course, it could not continue indefinitely, and Keith, in his heart, knew it. Almost every lesson was more or less of a failure, and recitation hour was a torture and a torment. The teacher alternately reproved and reproached him, with frequent appeals to his pride, holding up for comparison his splendid standing of the past. His classmates gibed and jeered mercilessly. And Keith stood it all. Only a tightening of his lips and a new misery in his eyes showed that he had heard and understood. He made neither apology nor explanation. Above all, by neither word nor sign did he betray that, because the print in his books was blurred, he could not study.

Then came the day when his report card was sent to his father, and he himself was summoned to the studio to answer for it.

"Well, my son, what is the meaning of that?"

Keith had never seen his father look so stern. He was holding up the card, face outward. Keith knew that the damning figures were there, and he suspected what they were, though he could see only a blurred mass of indistinct marks. With one last effort he attempted still to cling to his subterfuge.

"What--what is it?" he stammered.

"'What is it?'--and in the face of a record like that!" cried his father sternly. "That's exactly what I want to know. What is it? Is this the way, Keith, that you're showing me that you don't want to go to school? I haven't forgotten, you see, that you tried to beg off going this fall. Now, what is the matter?"

Keith shifted his position miserably. His face grew white and strained-looking.

"I--I couldn't seem to get my lessons, dad."

"Couldn't! You mean you wouldn't, Keith. Surely, you're not trying to make me think you couldn't have made a better record than this, if you'd tried."

There was no answer.

"Keith!" There was only pleading in the voice now--pleading with an unsteadiness more eloquent than words. "Have you forgotten so soon what I told you?--how now you hold all the hopes of Jerry and Ned and of--dad in your own two hands? Keith, do you think, do you really think you're treating Jerry and Ned and dad--square?"

For a moment there was no answer; then a very faint, constrained voice asked:

"What were those figures, dad?"

"Read for yourself." With the words the card was thrust into his hand.

Keith bent his head. His eyes apparently were studying the card.

"Suppose you read them aloud, Keith."

There was a moment's pause; then with a little convulsive breath the words came.

"I--can't--dad."

The man smiled grimly.

"Well, I don't know as I wonder. They are pretty bad. However, I guess we'll have to have them. Read them aloud, Keith."

"But, honest, dad, I can't. I mean--they're all blurred and run together." The boy's face was white like paper now.

Daniel Burton gave his son a quick glance.

"Blurred? Run together?" He reached for the card and held it a moment before his own eyes. Then sharply he looked at his son again. "You mean--Can't you read any of those figures--the largest ones?"

Keith shook his head.

"Why, Keith, how long---" A sudden change came to his face. "You mean --is that the reason you haven't been able to get your lessons, boy?"

Keith nodded dumbly, miserably.

"But, my dear boy, why in the world didn't you say so? Look here, Keith, how long has this been going on?"

There was no answer.

"Since the very first of school?"

"Before that."

"How long before that?"

"Last spring on my--birthday. I noticed it first--then."

"Good Heavens! As long as that, and never a word to me? Why, Keith, what in the world possessed you? Why didn't you tell me? We'd have had that fixed up long ago."

"Fixed up?" Keith's eyes were eager, incredulous.

"To be sure. We'd have had some glasses, of course."

Keith shook his head. All the light fled from his face.

"Uncle Joe Harrington tried that, but it didn't help--any."

"Uncle Joe! But Uncle Joe is---" Daniel Burton stopped short. A new look came to his eyes. Into his son's face he threw a glance at once fearful, searching, rebellious. Then he straightened up angrily.

"Nonsense, Keith! Don't get silly notions into your head," he snapped sharply. "It's nothing but a little near-sightedness, and we'll have some glasses to remedy that in no time. We'll go down to the optician's to-morrow. Meanwhile I'll drop a note to your teacher, and you needn't go to school again till we get your glasses."

Near-sightedness! Keith caught at the straw and held to it fiercely. Near-sightedness! Of course, it was that, and not blindness, like Uncle Joe's at all. Didn't dad know? Of course, he did! Still, if it was near-sightedness he ought to be able to see near to; and yet it was just as blurred--But, then, of course it was near-sightedness. Dad said it was.

They went to the optician's the next morning. It seemed there was an oculist, too, and he had to be seen. When the lengthy and arduous examinations were concluded, Keith drew a long breath. Surely now, after all that--

Just what they said Keith did not know. He knew only that he did not get any glasses, and that his father was very angry, and very much put out about something, and that he kept declaring that these old idiots didn't know their business, anyway, and the only thing to do was to go to Boston where there was somebody who did know his business.

They went to Boston a few days later. It was not a long journey, but Keith hailed it with delight, and was very much excited over the prospect of it. Still, he did not enjoy it very well, for with his father he had to go from one doctor to another, and none of them seemed really to understand his business--that is, not well enough to satisfy his father, else why did he go to so many? And there did not seem to be anywhere any glasses that would do any good.

Keith began to worry then, for fear that his father had been wrong, and that it was not near-sightedness after all. He could not forget Uncle Joe--and Uncle Joe had not been able to find any glasses that did any good. Besides, he heard his father and the doctors talking a great deal about "an accident," and a "consequent injury to the optic nerve"; and he had to answer a lot of questions about the time when he was eleven years old and ran into the big maple tree with his sled, cutting a bad gash in his forehead. But as if that, so long ago, could have anything to do with things looking blurred now!

But it did have something to do with it--several of the doctors said that; and they said it was possible that a slight operation now might arrest the disease. They would try it. Only one eye was badly affected at present.

So it was arranged that Keith should stay a month with one of the doctors, letting his father go back to Hinsdale.

It was not a pleasant experience, and it seemed to Keith anything but a "slight operation"; but at the end of the month the bandages were off, and his father had come to take him back home.

The print was not quite so blurred now, though it was still far from clear, and Keith noticed that his father and the doctors had a great deal to say to each other in very low tones, and that his father's face was very grave.

Then they started for home. On the journey his father talked cheerfully, even gayly; but Keith was not at all deceived. For perhaps half an hour he watched his father closely. Then he spoke.

"Dad, you might just as well tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"About those doctors--what they said."

"Why, they said all sorts of things, Keith. You heard them yourself." The man spoke lightly, still cheerily.

"Oh, yes, they said all sorts of things, but they didn't say anything particular before me. They always talked to you soft and low on one side. I want to know what they said then."

"Why, really, Keith, they---"

"Dad," interposed the boy a bit tensely, when his father's hesitation left the sentence unfinished, "you might just as well tell me. I know already it isn't good, or you'd have told me right away. And if it's bad--I might just as well know it now, 'cause I'll have to know it sometime. Dad, what did they say? Don't worry. I can stand it--honest, I can. I've got to stand it. Besides, I've been expecting it--ever so long. 'Keith, you're going to be blind.' I wish't you'd say it right out like that--if you've got to say it."

But the man shuddered and gave a low cry.

"No, no, Keith, never! I'll not say it. You're not going to be blind!"

"But didn't they say I was?"

"They said--they said it might be. They couldn't tell yet." The man wet his lips and cleared his throat huskily. "They said--it would be some time yet before they could tell, for sure. And even then, if it came, there might be another operation that--But for now, Keith, we've got to wait--that's all. I've got some drops, and there are certain things you'll have to do each day. You can't go to school, and you can't read, of course; but there are lots of things you can do. And there are lots of things we can do together--you'll see. And it's coming out all right. It's bound to come out all right."

"Yes, sir." Keith said the two words, then shut his lips tight. Keith could not trust himself to talk much just then. Babies and girls cried, of course; but men, and boys who were almost men--they did not cry.

For a long minute he said nothing; then, with his chin held high and his breath sternly under control, he said:

"Of course, dad, if I do get blind, you won't expect me to be Jerry, and Ned, and--and you, all in a bunch, then, will you?"

This time it was dad who could not speak--except with a strong right arm that clasped with a pressure that hurt.