Chapter V. Waiting
 

Not for some days after his return from Boston did Keith venture out upon the street. He knew then at once that the whole town had heard all about his trip to Boston and what the doctors had said. He tried not to see the curious glances cast in his direction. He tried not to care that the youngest McGuire children stood at their gate and whispered, with fingers plainly pointing toward himself.

He did not go near the schoolhouse, and he stayed at the post-office until he felt sure all the scholars must have reached home. Then, just at the corner of his own street, he met Mazie Sanborn and Dorothy Parkman face to face. He would have passed quickly, with the briefest sort of recognition, but Mazie stopped him short.

"Keith, oh, Keith, it isn't true, is it?" she cried breathlessly. "You aren't going to be blind?"

"Mazie, how could you!" cried Dorothy sharply. And because she shuddered and half turned away, Keith saw only the shudder and the turning away, and did not realize that it was rebuke and remonstrance, and not aversion, that Dorothy was expressing so forcibly.

Keith stiffened.

"Say, Keith, I'm awfully sorry, and so's Dorothy. Why, she hasn't talked about a thing, hardly, but that, since she heard of it."

"Mazie, I have, too," protested Dorothy sharply.

"Well, anyway, it was she who insisted on coming around this way to- day," teased Mazie wickedly; "and when I---"

"I'm going home, whether you are or not," cut in Miss Dorothy, with dignity. And with a low chuckle Mazie tossed a good-bye to Keith and followed her lead.

Keith, his chin aggressively high, strode in the opposite direction.

"I suppose she wanted to see how really bad I did look," he was muttering fiercely, under his breath. "Well, she needn't worry. If I do get blind, I'll take good care she don't have to look at me, nor Mazie, nor any of the rest of them."

Keith went out on the street very little after that, and especially he kept away from it after school hours. They were not easy--those winter days. The snow lay deep in the woods, and it was too cold for long walks. He could not read, nor paint, nor draw, nor use his eyes about anything that tried them. But he was by no means idle. He had found now "the boy to do the reading"--his father. For hours every day they studied together, Keith memorizing, where it was necessary, what his father read, always discussing and working out the problems together. That he could not paint or draw was a great cross to his father, he knew.

Keith noticed, too,--and noticed it with a growing heartache,--that nothing was ever said now about his being Jerry and Ned and dad himself all in a bunch. And he understood, of course, that if he was going to be blind, he could not be Jerry and--

But Keith was honestly trying not to think of that; and he welcomed most heartily anything or anybody that helped him toward that end.

Now there was Susan. Not once had Susan ever spoken to him of his eyes, whether he could or could not see. But Susan knew about it. He was sure of that. First he suspected it when he found her, the next day after his return from Boston, crying in the pantry.

Susan crying! Keith stood in the doorway and stared unbelievingly. He had not supposed that Susan could cry.

"Why, Susan!" he gasped. "What is the matter?"

He never forgot the look on Susan's face as she sprang toward him, or the quick cry she gave.

"Oh, Keith, my boy, my boy!" Then instantly she straightened back, caught up a knife, and began to peel an onion from a pan on the shelf before her. "Cryin'? Nonsense!" she snapped quaveringly. "Can't a body peel a pan of onions without being accused of cryin' about somethin'? Shucks! What should I be cryin' for, anyway, to be sure?

      Some things need a knife,
      An' some things need a pill,
      An' some things jest a laugh'll make a cure.
      But jest you bet your life,
      You may cry jest fit to kill,
      An' never cure nothin'--that is sure.

That's what I always say when I see folks cryin'. An' it's so, too. Here, Keith, want a cooky? An' take a jam tart, too. I made 'em this mornin', 'specially for you."

With which astounding procedure--for her--Susan pushed a plate of cookies and tarts toward him, then picked up her pan of onions and hurried into the kitchen.

Once again Keith stared. Cookies and jam tarts, and made for him? If anything, this was even more incomprehensible than were the tears in Susan's eyes. Then suddenly the suspicion came to him--Susan knew. And this was her way---

The suspicion did not become a certainty, however, until two days later. Then he overheard Susan and Mrs. McGuire talking in the kitchen. He had slipped into the pantry to look for another of those cookies made for him, when he heard Mrs. McGuire burst into the kitchen and accost Susan agitatedly. And her first words were such that he could not bring himself to step out into view.

"Susan," she had cried, "it ain't true, is it? Is it true that Keith Burton is going--blind? My John says---"

"Sh-h! You don't have to shout it out like that, do ye?" demanded Susan crossly, yet in a voice that was far from steady. "Besides, that's a very extravagated statement."

"You mean exaggerated, I suppose," retorted Mrs. McGuire impatiently. "Well, I'm sure I'm glad if it is, of course. But can't you tell me anything about it? Or, don't you know?"

Keith knew--though he could not see her--just how Susan was drawing herself up to her full height.

"I guess I know--all there is to know, Mis' McGuire," she said then coldly. "But there ain't anybody knows anything. We're jest waitin' to see." Her voice had grown unsteady again.

"You mean he may be blind, later?"

"Yes."

"Oh, the poor boy! Ain't that terrible? How can they stand it?"

"I notice there are things in this world that have to be stood. An' when they have to be stood, they might as well be--stood, an' done with it."

"Yes, I suppose so," sighed Mrs. McGuire. Then, after a pause: "But what is it--that's makin' him blind?"

"I don't know. They ain't sayin'. I thought maybe't was a catamount, but they say't ain't that."

"But when is it liable to come?"

"Come? How do I know? How does anybody know?" snapped Susan tartly. "Look a-here, Mis' McGuire, you must excuse me from discoursin' particulars. We don't talk 'em here. None of us don't."

"Well, you needn't be so short about it, Susan Betts. I'm only tryin' to show a little sympathy. You don't seem to realize at all what a dreadful thing this is. My John says---"

"Don't I--don't I?" Susan's voice shook with emotion. "Don't you s'pose that I know what it would be with the sun put out, an' the moon an' the stars, an' never a thing to look at but black darkness all the rest of your life? Never to be able to see the blue sky, or your father's face, or--But talkin' about it don't help any. Look a-here, if somethin' awful was goin' to happen to you, would you want folks to be talkin' to you all the time about it? No, I guess you wouldn't. An' so we don't talk here. We're just--waitin'. It may come in a year, it may come sooner, or later. It may not come at all. An' while we are waitin' there ain't nothin' we can do except to do ev'rything the doctor tells us, an' hope--'t won't ever come."

Even Mrs. McGuire could have had no further doubt about Susan's "caring." No one who heard Susan's voice then could have doubted it. Mrs. McGuire, for a moment, made no answer; then, with an inarticulate something that might have passed for almost any sort of comment, she rose to her feet and left the house.

In the pantry, Keith, the cookies long since forgotten, shamelessly listened at the door and held his breath to see which way Susan's footsteps led. Then, when he knew that the kitchen was empty, he slipped out, still cookyless, and hurried upstairs to his own room.

Keith understood, after that, why Susan did not talk to him about his eyes; and because he knew she would not talk, he felt at ease and at peace with her.

It was not so with others. With others (except with his father) he never knew when a dread question or a hated comment was to be made. And so he came to avoid those others more and more.

At the first signs of spring, and long before the snow was off the ground, Keith took to the woods. When his father did not care to go, he went alone. It was as if he wanted to fill his inner consciousness with the sights and sounds of his beloved out-of-doors, so that when his outer eyes were darkened, his inner eyes might still hold the pictures. Keith did not say this, even to himself; but when every day Susan questioned him minutely as to what he had seen, and begged him to describe every budding tree and every sunset, he wondered; was it possible that Susan, too, was trying to fill that inner consciousness with visions?

Keith was thrown a good deal with Susan these days. Sometimes it seemed as if there were almost no one but Susan. Certainly all those others who talked and questioned--he did not want to be with them. And his father--sometimes it seemed to Keith that his father did not like to be with him as well as he used to. And, of course, if he was going to be blind--Dad never had liked disagreeable subjects. Had he become --a disagreeable subject?

And so there seemed, indeed, at times, no one but Susan. Susan, however, was a host in herself. Susan was never cross now, and almost always she had a cooky or a jam tart for him. She told lots of funny stories, and there were always her rhymes and jingles. She had a new one every day, sometimes two or three a day.

There was no subject too big or too little for Susan to put into rhyme. Susan said that something inside of her was a gushing siphon of poems, anyway, and she just had to get them out of her system. And she told Keith that spring always made the siphon gush worse than ever, for some reason. She didn't know why.

Keith suspected that she said this by way of an excuse for repeating so many of her verses to him just now. But Keith was not deceived. He had not forgotten what Susan had said to Mrs. McGuire in the kitchen that day; and he knew very well that all this especial attention to him was only Susan's way of trying to help him "wait."