It was on his fourteenth birthday that Keith Burton discovered the Great Terror, though he did not know it by that name until some days afterward. He knew only, to his surprise and distress, that the "Treasure Island," given to him by his father for a birthday present, was printed in type so blurred and poor that he could scarcely read it.
He said nothing, of course. In fact he shut the book very hastily, with a quick, sidewise look, lest his father should see and notice the imperfection of his gift.
Poor father! He would feel so bad after he had taken all that pains and spent all that money--and for something not absolutely necessary, too! And then to get cheated like that. For, of course, he had been cheated--such horrid print that nobody could read.
But it was only a day or two later that Keith found some more horrid print. This time it was in his father's weekly journal that came every Saturday morning. He found it again that night in a magazine, and yet again the next day in the Sunday newspaper.
Then, before he had evolved a satisfactory explanation in his own mind of this phenomenon, he heard Susan Betts talking with Mrs. McGuire over the back-yard fence.
Susan Betts began the conversation. But that was nothing strange: Susan Betts always began the conversation.
"Have you heard about poor old Harrington?" she demanded in what Keith called her "excitingest" voice. Then, as was always the case when she spoke in that voice, she plunged on without waiting for a reply, as if fearful lest her bit of news fall from the other pair of lips first. "Well, he's blind--stone blind. He couldn't see a dollar bill--not if you shook it right before his eyes."
"Sho! you don't say!" Mrs. McGuire dropped the wet sheet back into the basket and came to the fence on her side concernedly. "Now, ain't that too bad?"
"Yes, ain't it? An' he so kind, an' now so blind! It jest makes me sick." Susan whipped open the twisted folds of a wet towel. Susan seldom stopped her work to talk. "But I saw it comin' long ago. An' he did, too, poor man!"
Mrs. McGuire lifted a bony hand to her face and tucked a flying wisp of hair behind her right ear.
"Then if he saw it comin', why couldn't he do somethin' to stop it?" she demanded.
"I don't know. But he couldn't. Dr. Chandler said he couldn't. An' they had a man up from Boston--one of them eye socialists what doesn't doctor anythin' but eyes--an' he said he couldn't."
Keith, on his knees before the beet-bed adjoining the clothes-yard, sat back on his heels and eyed the two women with frowning interest.
He knew old Mr. Harrington. So did all the boys. Never was there a kite or a gun or a jack-knife so far gone that Uncle Joe Harrington could not "fix it" somehow. And he was always so jolly about it, and so glad to do it. But it took eyes to do such things, and if now he was going to be blind--
"An' you say it's been comin' on gradual?" questioned Mrs. McGuire. "Why, I hadn't heard-"
"No, there hain't no one heard," interrupted Susan. "He didn't say nothin' ter nobody, hardly, only me, I guess, an' I suspicioned it, or he wouldn't 'a' said it to me, probably. Ye see, I found out he wa'n't readin' 'em--the papers Mr. Burton has me take up ter him every week. An' he owned up, when I took him ter task for it, that he couldn't read 'em. They was gettin' all blurred."
"Blurred?" It was a startled little cry from the boy down by the beet- bed; but neither Susan nor Mrs. McGuire heard--perhaps because at almost the same moment Mrs. McGuire had excitedly asked the same question.
"Blurred?" she cried.
"Yes; all run tergether like--the printin', ye know----so he couldn't tell one letter from t'other. 'T wa'n't only a little at first. Why, he thought 't was jest somethin' the matter with the printin' itself; an'--"
"And wasn't it the printing at all?"
The boy was on his feet now. His face was a little white and strained- looking, as he asked the question.
"Why, no, dearie. Didn't you hear Susan tell Mis' McGuire jest now? 'T was his eyes, an' he didn't know it. He was gettin' blind, an' that was jest the beginnin'."
Susan's capable hands picked up another wet towel and snapped it open by way of emphasis.
"The b-beginning?" stammered the boy. "But--but all beginnings don't-- don't end like that, do they?"
Susan Betts laughed indulgently and jammed the clothespin a little deeper on to the towel.
"Bless the child! Won't ye hear that, now?" she laughed with a shrug. "An' how should I know? I guess if Susan Betts could tell the end of all the beginnin's as soon as they're begun, she wouldn't be hangin' out your daddy's washin', my boy. She'd be sittin' on a red velvet sofa with a gold cupola over her head a-chargin' five dollars apiece for tellin' yer fortune. Yes, sir, she would!"
"But--but about Uncle Joe," persisted the boy. "Can't he really see-- at all, Susan?"
"There, there, child, don't think anything more about it. Indeed, forsooth, I'm tellin' the truth, but I s'pose I hadn't oughter told it before you. Still, you'd 'a' found it out quick enough--an' you with your tops an' balls always runnin' up there. An' that's what the poor soul seemed to feel the worst about," she went on, addressing Mrs. McGuire, who was still leaning on the division fence.
"'If only I could see enough ter help the boys!' he moaned over an' over again. It made me feel awful bad. I was that upset I jest couldn't sleep that night, an' I had ter get up an' write. But it made a real pretty poem. My fuse always works better in the night, anyhow. 'The wail of the toys'--that's what I called it--had the toys tell the story, ye know, all the kites an' jack-knives an' balls an' bats that he's fixed for the boys all these years, an' how bad they felt because he couldn't do it any more. Like this, ye know:
'Oh, woe is me, said the baseball bat, Oh, woe is me, said the kite.'
'T was real pretty, if I do say it, an' touchy, too."
"For mercy's sake, Susan Betts, if you ain't the greatest!" ejaculated Mrs. McGuire, with disapproving admiration. "If you was dyin' I believe you'd stop to write a poem for yer gravestone!"
Susan Betts chuckled wickedly, but her voice was gravity itself.
"Oh, I wouldn't have ter do that, Mis' McGuire. I've got that done already."
"Susan Betts, you haven't!" gasped the scandalized woman on the other side of the fence.
"Haven't I? Listen," challenged Susan Betts, striking an attitude. Her face was abnormally grave, though her eyes were merry.
"Here lieth a woman whose name was Betts, An' I s'pose she'll deserve whatever she gets; But if she hadn't been Betts she might 'a' been Better, She might even been Best if her name would 'a' let her."
"Susan!" gasped Mrs. McGuire once more; but Susan only chuckled again wickedly, and fell to work on her basket of clothes in good earnest.
A moment later she was holding up with stern disapproval two socks with gaping heels.
"Keith Burton, here's them scandalous socks again! Now, do you go tell your father that I won't touch 'em. I won't mend 'em another once. He must get you a new pair--two new pairs, right away. Do you hear?"
But Keith did not hear. Keith was not there to hear. Still with that strained, white look on his face he had hurried out of the yard and through the gate.
Mrs. McGuire, however, did hear.
"My stars, Susan Betts, it's lucky your bark is worse than your bite!" she exclaimed. "Mend 'em, indeed! They won't be dry before you've got your darnin' egg in 'em."
Susan laughed ruefully. Then she sighed:--at arms' length she was holding up another pair of yawning socks.
"I know it. And look at them, too," she snapped, in growing wrath. "But what's a body goin' to do? The boy'd go half-naked before his father would sense it, with his nose in that paint-box. Much as ever as he's got sense enough ter put on his own clothes--and he wouldn't know when ter put on clean ones, if I didn't spread 'em out for him!"
"I know it. Too bad, too bad," murmured Mrs. McGuire, with a virtuous shake of her head. "An' he with his fine bringin'-up, an' now to be so shiftless an' good-for-nothin', an'--"
But Susan Betts was interrupting, her eyes flashing.
"If you please, I'll thank you to say no more like that about my master," she said with dignity. "He's neither shiftless, nor good-for- nothin'. His character is unbleachable! He's an artist an' a scholar an' a gentleman, an' a very superlative man. It's because he knows so much that--that he jest hain't got room for common things like clothes an' holes in socks."
"Stuff an' nonsense!" retorted Mrs. McGuire nettled in her turn. "I guess I've known Dan'l Burton as long as you have; an' as for his bein' your master--he can't call his soul his own when you're around, an' you know it."
But Susan, with a disdainful sniff, picked up her now empty clothes- basket and marched into the house.
Down the road Keith had reached the turn and was climbing the hill that led to old Mr. Harrington's shabby cottage.
The boy's eyes were fixed straight ahead. A squirrel whisked his tail alluringly from the bushes at the left, and a robin twittered from a tree branch on the right. But the boy neither saw nor heard--and when before had Keith Burton failed to respond to a furred or feathered challenge like that?
To-day there was an air of dogged determination about even the way he set one foot before the other. He had the air of one who sees his goal ahead and cannot reach it soon enough. Yet when Keith arrived at the sagging, open gate before the Harrington cottage, he stopped short as if the gate were closed; and his next steps were slow and hesitant. Walking on the grass at the edge of the path he made no sound as he approached the stoop, on which sat an old man.
At the steps, as at the gate, Keith stopped and waited, his gaze on the motionless figure in the rocking-chair. The old man sat with hands folded on his cane-top, his eyes apparently looking straight ahead.
Slowly the boy lifted his right arm and waved it soundlessly. He lifted his left--but there was no waving flourish. Instead it fell impotently almost before it was lifted. On the stoop the old man still sat motionless, his eyes still gazing straight ahead.
Again the boy hesitated; then, with an elaborately careless air, he shuffled his feet on the gravel walk and called cheerfully:
"Hullo, Uncle Joe."
"Hullo! Oh, hullo! It's Keith Burton, ain't it?"
The old head turned with the vague indecision of the newly blind, and a trembling hand thrust itself aimlessly forward. "It is Keith--ain't it?"
"Oh, yes, sir, I'm Keith."
The boy, with a quick look about him, awkwardly shook the fluttering fingers--Keith was not in the habit of shaking hands with people, least of all with Uncle Joe Harrington. He sat down then on the step at the old man's feet.
"What did ye bring ter-day, my boy?" asked the man eagerly; then with a quick change of manner, he sighed, "but I'm afraid I can't fix it, anyhow."
"Oh, no, sir, you don't have to. I didn't bring anything to be mended to-day." Unconsciously Keith had raised his voice. He was speaking loudly, and very politely.
The old man fell back in his chair. He looked relieved, yet disappointed.
"Oh, well, that's all right, then. I'm glad. That is, of course, if I could have fixed it for you--His sentence remained unfinished. A profound gloom settled over his countenance.
"But I didn't bring anything for you to fix," reiterated the boy, in a yet louder tone.
"There, there, my boy, you don't have to shout." The old man shifted uneasily hi his seat. "I ain't deaf. I'm only--I suppose you know, Keith, what's come to me in my old age."
"Yes, sir, I--I do." The boy hitched a little nearer to the two ill- shod feet on the floor near him. "And--and I wanted to ask you. Yours hurt a lot, didn't they?--I mean, your eyes; they--they ached, didn't they, before they--they got--blind?" He spoke eagerly, almost hopefully.
The old man shook his head.
"No, not much. I s'pose I ought to be thankful I was spared that."
The boy wet his dry lips and swallowed.
"But, Uncle Joe, 'most always, I guess, when--when folks are going to be blind, they--they do ache, don't they?"
Again the old man stirred restlessly.
"I don't know. I only know about--myself."
"But--well, anyhow, it never comes till you're old--real old, does it?" Keith's voice vibrated with confidence this time.
"Old? I ain't so very old. I'm only seventy-five," bridled Harrington resentfully. "Besides anyhow, the doctor said age didn't have nothin' ter do with this kind of blindness. It comes ter young folks, real young folks, sometimes."
"Oh-h!" The boy wet his lips and swallowed again a bit convulsively. With eyes fearful and questioning he searched the old man's face. Twice he opened his mouth as if to speak; but each time he closed it again with the words left unsaid. Then, with a breathless rush, very much like desperation, he burst out:
"But it's always an awful long time comin', isn't it? Blindness is. It's years and years before it really gets here, isn't it?"
"Hm-m; well, I can't say. I can only speak for myself, Keith."
"Yes, sir, I know, sir; and that's what I wanted to ask--about you," plunged on Keith feverishly. "When did you notice it first, and what was it?"
The old man drew a long sigh.
"Why, I don't know as I can tell, exactly. 'T was quite a spell comin' on--I know that; and't wasn't much of anything at first. 'T was just that I couldn't see ter read clear an' distinct. It was all sort of blurred."
"Kind of run together?" Just above his breath Keith asked the question.
"Yes, that's it exactly. An' I thought somethin' ailed my glasses, an' so I got some new ones. An' I thought at first maybe it helped. But it didn't. Then it got so that't wa'n't only the printin' ter books an' papers that was blurred, but ev'rything a little ways off was in a fog, like, an' I couldn't see anything real clear an' distinct."
"Oh, but things--other things--don't look a mite foggy to me," cried the boy.
"'Course they don't! Why should they? They didn't to me--once," retorted the man impatiently. "But now--" Again he left a sentence unfinished.
"But how soon did--did you get--all blind, after that?" stammered the boy, breaking the long, uncomfortable silence that had followed the old man's unfinished sentence.
"Oh, five or six months--maybe more. I don't know exactly. I know it came, that's all. I guess if 't was you it wouldn't make no difference how it came, if it came, boy." "N-no, of course not," chattered Keith, springing suddenly to his feet. "But I guess it isn't coming to me--of course't isn't coming to me! Well, good-bye, Uncle Joe, I got to go now. Good-bye!"
He spoke fearlessly, blithely, and his chin was at a confident tilt. He even whistled as he walked down the hill. But in his heart--in his heart Keith knew that beside him that very minute stalked that shadowy, intangible creature that had dogged his footsteps ever since his fourteenth birthday-gift from his father; and he knew it now by name--The Great Terror.