Chapter VIII. Aunt Nettie Meets Her Match
 

Mrs. Nettie Colebrook came at half-past five. She was a small, nervous-looking woman with pale-blue eyes and pale-yellow hair. She greeted her brother with a burst of tears.

"Oh, Daniel, Daniel, how can you stand it--how can you stand it!" she cried, throwing herself upon the man's somewhat unresponsive shoulder.

"There, there, Nettie, control yourself, do!" besought the man uncomfortably, trying to withdraw himself from the clinging arms.

"But how can you stand it!--your only son--blind!" wailed Mrs. Colebrook, with a fresh burst of sobs.

"I notice some things have to be stood," observed Susan grimly. Susan, with Mrs. Colebrook's traveling-bag in her hand, was waiting with obvious impatience to escort her visitor upstairs to her room.

Susan's terse comment accomplished what Daniel Burton's admonition had been quite powerless to bring about. Mrs. Colebrook stopped sobbing at once, and drew herself somewhat haughtily erect.

"And, pray, who is this?" she demanded, looking from one to the other.

"Well, 'this' happens to be the hired girl, an' she's got some biscuits in the oven," explained Susan crisply. "If you'll be so good, ma'am, I'll show you upstairs to your room."

"Daniel!" appealed Mrs. Colebrook, plainly aghast.

But her brother, with a helpless gesture, had turned away, and Susan, bag in hand, was already halfway up the stairs. With heightened color and a muttered "Impertinence!" Mrs. Colebrook turned and followed Susan to the floor above.

A little way down the hall Susan threw open a door.

"I swept, but I didn't have no time to dust," she announced as she put down the bag. "There's a duster in that little bag there. Don't lock the door. Somethin' ails it. If you do you'll have to go out the window down a ladder. There's towels in the top drawer, an' you'll have to fill the pitcher every day, 'cause there's a crack an' it leaks, an' you can't put in the water only to where the crack is. Is there anything more you want?"

"Thank you. If you'll kindly take me to Master Keith's room, that will be all that I require," answered Mrs. Colebrook frigidly, as she unpinned her hat and laid that on top of her coat on the bed.

"All right, ma'am. He's a whole lot better. He's been up an' dressed to-day, but he's gone back to bed now. His room is right down here, jest across the hall," finished Susan, throwing wide the door.

There was a choking cry, a swift rush of feet, then Mrs. Colebrook, on her knees, was sobbing at the bedside.

"Oh, Keithie, Keithie, my poor blind boy! What will you do? How will you ever live? Never to see again, never to see again! Oh, my poor boy, my poor blind boy!"

Susan, at the door, flung both hands above her head, then plunged down the stairs.

"Fool! Fool! Fool!" she snarled at the biscuits in the oven. "Don't you know anything?" Yet the biscuits in the oven were puffing up and browning beautifully, as the best of biscuits should.

When Susan's strident call for supper rang through the hall, Mrs. Colebrook was with her brother in the studio. She had been bemoaning and bewailing the cruel fate that had overtaken "that dear boy," and had just asked for the seventh time how he could stand it, when from the hall below came:

     "Supper's ready, supper's ready,
      Hurry up or you'll be late.
      Then you'll sure be cross an' heady,
      If there's nothin' left to ate."

"Daniel, what in the world is the meaning of that?" she interrupted sharply.

"That? Oh, that is Susan's--er--supper bell," shrugged the man, with a little uneasy gesture.

"You mean that you've heard it before?--that that is her usual method of summoning you to your meals?"

"Y-yes, when she's good-natured," returned the man, with a still more uneasy shifting of his position. "Come, shall we go down?"

"Daniel! And you stand it?"

"Oh, come, come! You don't understand--conditions here. Besides, I've tried to stop it."

"Tried to stop it!"

"Yes. Oh, well, try yourself, if you think it's so easy. I give you my full and free permission. Try it."

"Try it! I shan't try anything of the sort. I shall stop it."

"Humph!" shrugged the man. "Oh, very well, then. Suppose we go down."

"But what does that poor little blind boy eat? How can he eat-- anything?"

"Why, I--I don't know." The man gave an irritably helpless gesture. "The nurse--she used to--You'll have to ask Susan. She'll know."

"Susan! That impossible woman! Daniel, how do you stand her?"

Daniel Burton shrugged his shoulders again. Then suddenly he gave a short, grim laugh.

"I notice there are some things that have to be stood," he observed, so exactly in imitation of Susan that it was a pity only Mrs. Nettie Colebrook's unappreciative ears got the benefit of it.

In the dining-room a disapproving Susan stood by the table.

"I thought you wasn't never comin'. The hash is gettin' cold."

Mrs. Colebrook gasped audibly.

"Yes, yes, I know," murmured Mr. Burton conciliatingly. "But we're here now, Susan."

"What will Master Keith have for his supper?" questioned Mrs. Colebrook, lifting her chin a little.

"He's already had his supper, ma'am. I took it up myself."

"What was it?" Mrs. Colebrook asked the question haughtily, imperiously.

Susan's eyes grew cold like steel.

"It was what he asked for, ma'am, an' he's ate it. Do you want your tea strong or weak, ma'am?"

Mrs. Colebrook bit her lip.

"I'll not take any tea at all," she said coldly. "And, Susan!"

"Yes, ma'am." Susan turned, her hand on the doorknob.

"Hereafter I will take up Master Keith's meals myself. He is in my charge now."

There was no reply--in words. But the dining-room door after Susan shut with a short, crisp snap.

After supper Mrs. Colebrook went out into the kitchen.

"You may prepare oatmeal and dry toast and a glass of milk for Master Keith to-morrow morning, Susan. I will take them up myself."

"He won't eat 'em. He don't like 'em--not none of them things."

"I think he will if I tell him to. At all events, they are what he should eat, and you may prepare them as I said."

"Very well, ma'am."

Susan's lips came together in a thin, white line, and Mrs. Colebrook left the kitchen.

Keith did not eat his toast and oatmeal the next morning, though his aunt sat on the edge of the bed, called him her poor, afflicted, darling boy, and attempted to feed him herself with a spoon.

Keith turned his face to the wall and said he didn't want any breakfast. Whereupon his aunt sighed, and stroked his head; and Keith hated to have his head stroked, as Susan could have told her.

"Of course, you don't want any breakfast, you poor, sightless lamb," she moaned. "And I don't blame you. Oh, Keithie, Keithie, when I see you lying there like that, with your poor useless eyes--! But you must eat, dear, you must eat. Now, come, just a weeny, teeny mouthful to please auntie!"

But Keith turned his face even more determinedly to the wall, and moved his limbs under the bed clothes in a motion very much like a kick. He would have nothing whatever to do with the "weeny, teeny mouthfuls," not even to please auntie. And after a vain attempt to remove his tortured head, entirely away from those gently stroking ringers, he said he guessed he would get up and be dressed.

"Oh, Keithie, are you well enough, dear? Are you sure you are strong enough? I'm sure you must be ill this morning. You haven't eaten a bit of breakfast. And if anything should happen to you when you were in my care--"

"Of course I'm well enough," insisted the boy irritably.

"Then I'll get your clothes, dear, and help you dress, if you will be careful not to overdo."

"I don't want any help."

"Why, Keithie, you'll have to have some one help you. How do you suppose your poor blind eyes are going to let you dress yourself all alone, when you can't see a thing? Why, dear child, you'll have to have help now about everything you do. Now I'll get your clothes. Where are they, dear? In this closet?"

"I don't know. I don't want 'em. I--I've decided I don't want to get up, after all."

"You are too tired, then?"

"Yes, I'm too tired." And Keith, with another spasmodic jerk under the bedclothes, turned his face to the wall again.

"All right, dear, you shan't. That's the better way, I think myself," sighed his aunt. "I wouldn't have you overtax yourself for the world. Now isn't there anything, anything I can do for you?"

And Keith said no, not a thing, not a single thing. And his face was still to the wall.

"Then if you're all right, absolutely all right, I'll go out to walk and get a little fresh air. Now don't move. Don't stir. Try to go to sleep if you can. And if you want anything, just ring. I'll put this little bell right by your hand on the bed; and you must ring if you want anything, anything. Then Susan will come and get it for you. There, the bell's right here. See? Oh, no, no, you can't see!" she broke off suddenly, with a wailing sob. "Why will I keep talking to you as if you could?"

"Well, I wish you would talk to me as if I could see," stormed Keith passionately, sitting upright in bed and flinging out his arms. "I tell you I don't want to be different! It's because I am different that I am so---"

But his aunt, aghast, interrupted him, and pushed him back.

"Oh, Keithie, darling, lie down! You mustn't thrash yourself around like that," she remonstrated. "Why, you'll make yourself ill. There, that's better. Now go to sleep. I'm going out before you can talk any more, and get yourself all worked up again," she finished, hurrying out of the room with the breakfast tray.

A little later in the kitchen she faced Susan a bit haughtily.

"Master Keith is going to sleep," she said, putting down the breakfast tray. "I have left a bell within reach of his hand, and he will call you if he wants anything. I am going out to get a little air."

"All right, ma'am." Susan kept right on with the dish she was drying.

"You are sure you can hear the bell?"

"Oh, yes, my hearin' ain't repaired in the least, ma'am." Susan turned her back and picked up another dish. Plainly, for Susan, the matter was closed.

Mrs. Colebrook, after a vexed biting of her lip and a frowning glance toward Susan's substantial back, shrugged her shoulders and left the kitchen. A minute later, still hatless, she crossed the yard and entered the McGuires' side door.

"Take the air, indeed!" muttered Susan, watching from the kitchen window. "A whole lot of fresh air she'll get in Mis' McGuire's kitchen!"

With another glance to make sure that Mrs. Nettie Colebrook was safely behind the McGuires' closed door, Susan crossed the kitchen and lifted the napkin of the breakfast tray.

"Humph!" she grunted angrily, surveying the almost untouched breakfast. "I thought as much! But I was ready for you, my lady. Toast an' oatmeal, indeed!" With another glance over her shoulder at the McGuire side door Susan strode to the stove and took from the oven a plate of crisply browned hash and a hot corn muffin. Two minutes later, with a wonderfully appetizing-looking tray, she tapped at Keith's door and entered the room.

"Here's your breakfast, boy," she announced cheerily.

"I didn't want any breakfast," came crossly from the bed.

"Of course you didn't want that breakfast," scoffed Susan airily; "but you just look an' see what I've brought you!"

Look and see! Susan's dismayed face showed that she fully realized what she had said, and that she dreaded beyond words its effect on the blind boy in the bed.

She hesitated, and almost dropped the tray in her consternation. But the boy turned with a sudden eagerness that put to rout her dismay, and sent a glow of dazed wonder to her face instead.

"What have you got? Let me see." He was sitting up now. "Hash--and-- johnny-cake!" he crowed, as she set the tray before him, and he dropped his fingers lightly on the contents of the tray. "And don't they smell good! I don't know--I guess I am hungry, after all."

"Of course you're hungry!" Susan's voice was harsh, and she was fiercely brushing back the tears. "Now, eat it quick, or I'll be sick! Jest think what'll happen to Susan if that blessed aunt of yours comes an' finds me feedin' you red-flannel hash an' johnny-cake! Now I'll be up in ten minutes for the tray. See that you eat it up--every scrap," she admonished him, as she left the room.

Susan had found by experience that Keith ate much better when alone. She was not surprised, therefore, though she was very much pleased--at sight of the empty plates awaiting her when she went up for the tray at the end of the ten minutes.

"An' now what do you say to gettin' up?" she suggested cheerily, picking up the tray from the bed and setting it on the table.

"Can I dress myself?"

"Of course you can! What'll you bet you won't do it five minutes quicker this time, too? I'll get your clothes."

Halfway back across the room, clothes in hand, she was brought to a sudden halt by a peremptory: "What in the world is the meaning of this?" It was Mrs. Nettie Colebrook in the doorway.

"I'm gettin' Keith's clothes. He's goin' to get up."

"But Master Keith said he did not wish to get up."

"Changed his mind, maybe." The terseness of Susan's reply and the expression on her face showed that the emphasis on the "Master" was not lost upon her.

"Very well, then, that will do. You may go. I will help him dress."

"I don't want any help," declared Keith.

"Why, Keithie, darling, of course you want help! You forget, dear, you can't see now, and--"

"Oh, no, I don't forget," cut in Keith bitterly. "You don't let me forget a minute--not a minute. I don't want to get up now, anyhow. What's the use of gettin' up? I can't do anything!" And he fell back to his old position, with his face to the wall.

"There, there, dear, you are ill and overwrought," cried Mrs. Colebrook, hastening to the bedside. "It is just as I said, you are not fit to get up." Then, to Susan, sharply: "You may put Master Keith's clothes back in the closet. He will not need them to-day."

"No, ma'am, I don't think he will need them--now." Susan's eyes flashed ominously. But she hung the clothes back in the closet, picked up the tray, and left the room.

Susan's eyes flashed ominously, indeed, all the rest of the morning, while she was about her work; and at noon, when she gave the call to dinner, there was a curious metallic incisiveness in her voice, which made the call more strident than usual.

It was when Mrs. Colebrook went into the kitchen after dinner for Keith's tray that she said coldly to Susan:

"Susan, I don't like that absurd doggerel of yours."

"Doggerel?" Plainly Susan was genuinely ignorant of what she meant.

"Yes, that extraordinary dinner call of yours. As I said before, I don't like it."

There was a moment's dead silence. The first angry flash in Susan's eyes was followed by a demure smile.

"Don't you? Why, I thought it was real cute, now."

"Well, I don't. You'll kindly not use it any more, Susan," replied Mrs. Colebrook, with dignity.

Once again there was the briefest of silences, then quietly came Susan's answer:

"Oh, no, of course not, ma'am. I won't--when I work for you. There, Mis' Colebrook, here's your tray all ready."

And Mrs. Colebrook, without knowing exactly how it happened, found herself out in the hall with the tray in her hands.