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As Miss Dorothy herself had said, it could not, of course, continue. She came once, and once again to see Keith; and in spite of her efforts to make her position clear to him, her secret still remained her own. Then, on the third visit, the dreaded disclosure came, naturally, and in the simplest, most unexpected way; yet in a way that would most certainly have been the last choice of Miss Dorothy herself could she have had aught to say about it.
The two, Keith and Dorothy, had had a wonderful hour over a book that Dorothy had brought to read. They had been sitting on the porch, and Dorothy had risen to go when there came a light tread on the front walk and Mazie Sanborn tripped up the porch steps.
"Well, Dorothy Parkman, is this where you were?" she cried gayly. "I was hunting all over the house for you half an hour ago."
"Dorothy Parkman!" Keith was on his feet. His face had grown very white.
Dorothy, too, her eyes on Keith's face, had grown very white; yet she managed to give a light laugh, and her voice matched Mazie's own for gayety.
"Were you? Well, I was right here. But I'm going now."
"You! but--Miss Stewart!" Keith's colorless lips spoke the words just above his breath.
"Why, Keith Burton, what's the matter?" laughed Mazie. "You look as if you'd seen a ghost. I mean--oh, forgive that word, Keith," she broke off in light apology. "I'm always forgetting, and talking as if you could really see. But you looked so funny, and you brought out that 'Dorothy Parkman' with such a surprised air. Just as if you didn't ever call her that in the old school days, Keith Burton! Oh, Dorothy told me you called her 'Miss Stewart' a lot now; but--"
"Yes, I have called her 'Miss Stewart' quite a lot lately," interposed Keith, in a voice so quietly self-controlled that even Dorothy herself was almost deceived. But not quite. Dorothy saw the clenched muscles and white knuckles of his hands as he gripped the chair-back before him; and she knew too much to expect him to offer his hand in good- bye. So she backed away, and she still spoke lightly, inconsequently, though she knew her voice was shaking, as she made her adieus.
"Well, good-bye, I must be going now, sure. I'll be over to-morrow, though, to finish the book. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," said Keith.
And Dorothy wondered if Mazie noticed that he quite omitted a polite "Come again," and if Mazie saw that as he said the terse "Good-bye" he put both hands suddenly and resolutely behind his back. Dorothy saw it, and at home, long hours later she was still crying over it.
She went early to the Burtons' the next forenoon.
"I came to finish the book I was reading to Mr. Keith," she told Susan brightly, as her ring was answered. "I thought I'd come early before anybody else got here."
She would have stepped in, but Susan's ample figure still barred the way.
"Well, now, that's too bad!" Susan's voice expressed genuine concern and personal disappointment. "Ain't it a shame? Keith said he wa'n't feelin' nohow well this mornin', an' that he didn't want to see no one. An' under no circumstances not to let no one in to see him. But maybe if I told him't was you--"
"No, no, don't--don't do that!" cried the girl hurriedly. "I--I'll come again some other time."
On the street a minute later she whispered tremulously: "He did it on purpose, of course. He knew I would come this morning! But he can't keep it up forever! He'll have to see me some time. And when he does-- Oh, if only Mazie Sanborn hadn't blurted it out like that! Why didn't I tell him? Why didn't I tell him? But I will tell him. He can't keep this up forever."
When on a second and a third and a fourth morning, however, Dorothy had found Susan's figure barring the way, and had received the same distressed "He says he won't see no one, Miss Dorothy," from Susan's plainly troubled lips, Dorothy began to think Keith did mean to keep it up forever.
"But what is it, Susan?" she faltered. "Is he sick, really sick?"
"I don't know, Miss Dorothy," frowned Susan. "But I don't like the looks of it, anyhow. He says he ain't sick--not physicianly sick; but he jest don't want to talk an' see folks. An' he's been like that 'most a week now. An' I'm free to confess I don't like it."
"But what does he do--all day?" asked the girl.
"Nothin', that I can see," sighed Susan profoundly. "Oh, he plays that solitary some, an' putters a little with some of his raised books; but mostly he jest sits still an' thinks. An' I don't like it. If only his father was here. But with him gone peddlin' molasses, an' no one 'lowed into the house, there ain't anything for him to do but to think. An' 'tain't right nor good for him. I've watched him an' I know."
"But he used to see people, Susan."
"I know it. He saw everybody."
"Do you know why he won't--now?" asked the girl a little faintly.
"I hain't the faintest inception of an idea. It came as sudden as that," declared Susan, snapping her finger.
"Then he hasn't said anything special about not wanting to see--me?"
"Why, no. He--Do you mean--has he found out?" demanded Susan, interrupting herself excitedly.
"Yes. He found out last Monday afternoon. Mazie ran up on to the porch and called me by name right out. Oh, Susan, it was awful. I shall never forget the look on that boy's face as long as I live."
"Lan' sakes! Monday!" breathed Susan. "An' Tuesday he began refusin' to see folks. Then 'course that was it. But why won't he see other folks? They hain't anything to do with you."
"I don't know--unless he didn't want to tell you specially not to let me in, and so he said not to let anybody in."
"Was he awful mad?"
"It wasn't so much anger as it was grief and hurt and--oh, I can't express what it was. But I saw it; and I never shall forget it. You see, to have it blurted out to him like that without any warning--and of course he couldn't understand."
"But didn't you explain things--how 'twas, in the first place?"
She shook her head. "I couldn't--not with Mazie there. I said I'd come the next morning to--to finish the book. I thought he'd understand I was going to explain then. He probably did--and that's why he won't let me in. He doesn't want any explanations," sighed the girl tremulously.
"Well, he ought to want 'em," asserted Susan with vigor. "'Tain't fair nor right nor sensible for him to act like this, makin' a mountain out of an ant-hill. I declare, Miss Dorothy, he ought to be made to see you."
The girl flushed and drew back.
"Most certainly not, Susan! I--I am not in the habit of making people see me, when they don't wish to. Do you suppose I'm going to beg and tease: 'Please won't you let me see you?' Hardly! He need not worry. I shall not come again."
"Oh, Miss Dorothy!" remonstrated Susan.
"Why, of course I won't, Susan!" cried the girl. "Do you suppose I'm going to keep him from seeing other people just because he's afraid he'll have to let me in, too? Nonsense, Susan! Even you must admit I cannot allow that. You may tell Mr. Keith, please, that he may feel no further uneasiness. I shall not trouble him again."
"Oh, Miss Dorothy!" begged Susan agitatedly, once more.
But Miss Dorothy, with all the hurt dignity of her eighteen years, turned haughtily away, leaving Susan impotent and distressed, looking after her.
Two minutes later Susan sought Keith in the living-room. Her whole self spelt irate determination--but Keith could not see that. Keith, listless and idle-handed, sat in his favorite chair by the window.
"Dorothy Parkman jest rang the bell," began Susan, "an'-"
"But I said I'd see no one," interrupted Keith, instantly alert.
"That's what I told her, an' she's gone."
"Oh, all right." Keith relaxed into his old listlessness.
"An' she said to please tell you she'd trouble you no further, so you might let in the others now as soon as you please."
Keith sat erect in his chair with a jerk.
"What did she mean by that?"
"I guess you don't need me to tell you," observed Susan grimly.
With a shrug and an irritable gesture Keith settled back in his chair.
"I don't care to discuss it, Susan. I don't wish to see any one. We'll let it go at that, if you please," he said.
"But I don't please!" Susan was in the room now, close to Keith's chair. Her face was quivering with emotion. "Keith, won't you listen to reason? It ain't like you a mite to sit back like this an' refuse to see a nice little body like Dorothy Parkman, what's been so kind--"
"Susan!" Keith was sitting erect again. His face was white, and carried a stern anguish that Susan had never seen before. "I don't care to discuss Miss Parkman with you or with anybody else. Neither do I care to discuss the fact that I thoroughly understand, of course, that you, or she, or anybody else, can fool me into believing anything you please; and I can't--help myself."
"No, no, Keith, don't take it like that--please don't!"
"Is there any other way I can take it? Do you think 'Miss Stewart' could have made such a fool of me if I'd had eyes to see Dorothy Parkman?"
"But she was only tryin' to help you, an'--"
"I don't want to be 'helped'!" stormed the boy hotly. "Did it ever occur to you, Susan, that I might sometimes like to help somebody myself, instead of this everlastingly having somebody help me?"
"But you do help. You help me," asserted Susan feverishly, working her nervous fingers together. "An' you'd help me more if you'd only let folks in to see you, an'--"
"All right, all right," interrupted Keith testily. "Let them in. Let everybody in. I don't care. What's the difference? But, please, please, Susan, stop talking any more about it all now."
And Susan stopped. There were times when Susan knew enough to stop, and this was one of them.
But she took him at his word, and when Mrs. McGuire came the next day with a letter from her John, Susan ushered her into the living-room where Keith was sitting alone. And Keith welcomed her with at least a good imitation of his old heartiness.
Mrs. McGuire said she had such a funny letter to read to-day. She knew he'd enjoy it, and Susan would, too, particularly the part that John had quoted from something that had been printed by the British soldiers in France and circulated among their comrades in the trenches and hospitals, and everywhere. John had written it off on a separate piece of paper, and this was it:
Don't worry: there's nothing to worry about.
You have two alternatives: either you are mobilized or you are not. If not, you have nothing to worry about.
If you are mobilized, you have two alternatives: you are in camp or at the front. If you are in camp, you have nothing to worry about.
If you are at the front, you have two alternatives: either you are on the fighting line or in reserve. If in reserve, you have nothing to worry about.
If you are on the fighting line, you have two alternatives: either you fight or you don't. If you don't, you have nothing to worry about.
If you do, you have two alternatives: either you get hurt or you don't. If you don't, you have nothing to worry about.
If you are hurt, you have two alternatives: either you are slightly hurt or badly. If slightly, you have nothing to worry about.
If badly, you have two alternatives: either you recover or you don't. If you recover, you have nothing to worry about. If you don't, and have followed my advice clear through, you have done with worry forever.
Mrs. McGuire was in a gale of laughter by the time she had finished reading this; so, too, was Susan. Keith also was laughing, but his laughter did not have the really genuine ring to it--which fact did not escape Susan.
"Well, anyhow, he let Mis' McGuire in--an' that's somethin'," she muttered to herself, as Mrs. McGuire took her departure. "Besides, he talked to her real pleasant--an' that's more."
As the days passed, others came, also, and Keith talked with them. He even allowed Dorothy Parkman to be admitted one day.
Dorothy had not come until after long urging on the part of Susan and the assurance that Keith had said he would see her. Even then nothing would have persuaded her, she told Susan, except the great hope that she could say something, in some way, that would set her right in Keith's eyes.
So with fear and trembling and with a painful embarrassment on her face, but with a great hope in her heart, she entered the room and came straight to Keith's side.
For a moment the exultation of a fancied success sent a warm glow all through her, for Keith had greeted her pleasantly and even extended his hand. But almost at once the glow faded and the great hope died in her heart, for she saw that even while she touched his hand, he was yet miles away from her.
He laughed and talked with her--oh, yes; but he laughed too much and talked too much. He gave her almost no chance to say anything herself. And what he said was so inconsequential and so far removed from anything intimately concerning themselves, that the girl found it utterly impossible to make the impassioned explanation which she had been saying over and over again all night to herself, and from which she had hoped so much.
Yet at the last, just before she bade him good-bye, she did manage to say something. But in her disappointment and excitement and embarrassment, her words were blurted out haltingly and ineffectually, and they were not at all the ones she had practiced over and over to herself in the long night watches; nor were they received as she had palpitatingly pictured that they would be, with Keith first stern and hurt, and then just dear and forgiving and understanding.
Keith was neither stern nor hurt. He still laughed pleasantly, and he tossed her whole labored explanation aside with a light: "Certainly-- of course--to be sure--not at all! You did quite right, I assure you!" And then he remarked that it was a warm day, wasn't it? And Dorothy found herself hurrying down the Burton front walk with burning cheeks and a chagrined helplessness that left her furious and with an ineffably cheap feeling--yet not able to put her finger on any discourteous flaw in Keith's punctilious politeness.
"I wish I'd never said a word--not a word," she muttered hotly to herself as she hurried down the street. "I wonder if he thinks--I'll ever open my head to him about it again. Well, he needn't--worry! But --oh, Keith, Keith, how could you?" she choked brokenly. Then abruptly she turned down a side street, lest Mazie Sanborn, coming toward her, should see the big tears that were rolling down her cheeks.
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