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It was the town talk, of course--the home-coming of John McGuire. Men gathered on street corners and women clustered about back-yard fences and church doorways. Children besieged their parents with breathless questions, and repeated to each other in awe-struck whispers what they had heard. Everywhere was horror, sympathy, and interested speculation as to "how he'd take it."
Where explicit information was so lacking, imagination and surmise eagerly supplied the details; and Mrs. McGuire's news of the blinding of John McGuire was not three days old before a full account of the tragedy from beginning to end was flying from tongue to tongue--an account that would have surprised no one so greatly as it would have surprised John McGuire himself.
To Susan, Dorothy Parkman came one day with this story.
"Well, 't ain't true," disavowed Susan succinctly when the lurid details had been breathlessly repeated to her.
"You mean--he isn't blind?" demanded the young girl.
"Oh, yes, he's blind, all right, poor boy! But it's the rest I mean-- about his killin' twenty-eight Germans single-handed, an' bein' all shot to pieces hisself, an' benighted for bravery."
"But what did happen?"
"We don't know. We just know he's blind an' comin' home. Mis' McGuire had two letters yesterday from John, but--"
"Yes; but they was both writ long before the apostrophe, an' 'course they didn't say nothin' about it. He was well an' happy, he said. She had had only one letter before these for a long time. An' now to have --this!"
"Yes, I know. It's terrible. How does--Mr. Keith take it?"
Susan opened wide her eyes.
"Why, you've seen him--you see him yesterday yourself, Miss Dorothy."
"Oh, I saw him--in a way, but not the real him, Susan. He's miles away now, always."
"You mean he ain't civil an' polite?" demanded Susan.
"Oh, he's very civil--too civil, Susan. Every time I go I say I won't go again. Then, when I get to thinking of him sitting there alone all day, and of how he used to like to have me read to him and play with him, I--I just have to go and see if he won't be the same as he used to be. But he never is."
"I know." Susan shook her head mournfully. "An' he ain't the same, Miss Dorothy. He don't ever whistle nor sing now, nor play solitary, nor any of them things he used to do. Oh, when folks comes in he braces back an' talks an' laughs. You know that. But in the exclusion of his own home here he jest sits an' thinks an' thinks an' thinks. An', Miss Dorothy, I've found out now what he's thinkin' of."
"It's John McGuire an' them other soldiers what's comin' back blind from the war. An' he talks an' talks about 'em, an' mourns an' takes on something dreadful. He says he knows what it means, an' that nobody can know what hain't had it happen to 'em. An' he broods an' broods over it."
"I can--imagine it." The girl said it with a little catch in her voice.
"An'--an' there's somethin' else I want to tell you about. I've got to tell somebody. I want to know if you think I done right. An' you're the only one I can tell. I've thought it all out. Daniel Burton is too near, an' Mis' McGuire an' all them others is too far. You ain't a relation, an' yet you care. You do care, don't you?--about Mr. Keith?"
"Why, of--of course. I care a great deal, Susan." Miss Dorothy spoke very lightly, very impersonally; but there was a sudden flame of color in her face. Susan, however, was not noticing this. Furtively she was glancing one way and another over her shoulder.
"Yes. Well, the other day he--he tried to--that is, well, I--I found him with a pistol in his hand, an'--"
"Susan!" The girl had gone very white.
"Oh, he didn't do it. Well, that ain't a very sensitive statement, is it? For if he had done it, he wouldn't be alive now, would he?" broke off Susan, with a faint smile. "But what I mean is, he didn't do it, an' I don't think he's goin' to do it."
"But, oh, Susan," faltered the girl, "you didn't leave that--that awful thing with him, did you? Didn't you take it--away?"
"No." Susan's mouth set grimly. "An' that's what I wanted to ask you about--if I did right, you know."
"Oh, no, no, Susan! I'm afraid," shuddered the girl. "Can't you--get it away--now?"
"Maybe. I know where 'tis. I was up there yesterday an' see it. 'T was in the desk drawer in the attic, jest where it used to be."
"Then get it, Susan, get it. Oh, please get it," begged the girl. "I'm afraid to have it there--a single minute."
"But, Miss Dorothy, stop; wait jest a minute. Think. How's he goin' to get self-defiance an' make a strong man of hisself if we take things away from him like he was a little baby?"
"I know, Susan; but if he should be tempted--"
"He won't. He ain't no more. I'm sure of that. I talked with him. Besides, I hain't caught him up there once since that day last week. Oh, I'm free to confess I have watched him," admitted Susan defensively, with a faint smile.
"But what did happen that day you--you found him?"
"Oh, he had it, handlin' it, an' when he heard me, he jumped a little, an' hid it under some papers. My, Miss Dorothy, 'twas awful. I was that scared an' frightened I thought I couldn't move. But I knew I'd got to, an' I knew I'd got to move right, too, or I'd spoil everything. This wa'n't no ten-cent melodydrama down to the movies, but I had a humane soul there before me, an' I knew maybe it's whole internal salvation might depend on what I said an' did."
"But what did you say?"
"I don't know. I only know that somehow, when it was over, I had a feelin' that he wouldn't never do that thing again. That somehow the man in him was on top, an' would stay on top. An' I'm more sure than ever of it now. He ain't thinkin' of hisself these days. It's John McGuire and them others. An' ain't it better that he let that pistol alone of his own free will an' accordance, an' know he was a man an' no baby, than if I'd taken it away from him?"
"I suppose--it was, Susan; but I don't think I'd have been strong enough--to make him strong."
"Yes, you would, if you'd been there. I reckon we're all goin' to learn to do a lot of things we never did before, now that the war has come."
"Yes, I know." A quivering pain swept across the young girl's face.
"Somehow, the war never seemed real to me before. 'T was jest somethin' 'way off--a lot of Dagoes an' Dutchmen, like the men what dug up the McGuires' frozen water-pipes last spring, fightin'. Not our kind of folks what talked English. Even when I read the papers, an' the awful things they did over there--it didn't seem as if 't was folks on our earth. It was like somethin' you read about in them old histronic days, or somethin' happenin' up on the moon, or on that plantation of Mars. Oh, of course, I knew John McGuire had gone; but somehow I never thought of him as fightin'--not with guns an' bloody gore, in spite of them letters of his. Some way, in my mind's eyes I always see him marchin' with flags flyin' an' folks cheerin'; an' I thought the war'd be over, anyhow, by the time he got there.
"But, now--! Why, now they're all gone--our own Teddy Somers, an' Tom Spencer, an' little Jacky Green that I used to hold on my knee. Some of 'em in France, an' some of 'em in them army canteens down to Ayer an' Texas an' everywhere. An' poor Tom's died already of pneumonia right here in our own land. An' now poor John McGuire! I tell you, Miss Dorothy, it brings it right home now to your own heart, where it hurts."
"It certainly does, Susan."
"An' let me tell you. What do you s'pose, more 'n anything else, made me see how really big it all is?"
"I don't know, Susan,"
"Well, I'll tell you. 'Twas because I couldn't write a poem on it."
"Sure enough, Susan! I don't believe I've heard you make a rhyme to- day," smiled Miss Dorothy.
Susan sighed and shook her head.
"Yes, I know. I don't make 'em much now. Somehow they don't sing all the time in my heart, an' burst out natural-like, as they used to. I think them days when I tried so hard to sell my poems, an' couldn't, kinder took the jest out of poetizin' for me. Somehow, when you find out somethin' is invaluable to other folks, it gets so it's invaluable to you, I s'pose. Still, even now, when I set right down to it, I can 'most always write 'em right off 'most as quick as I used to. But I couldn't on this war. I tried it. But it jest wouldn't do. I begun it:
Oh, woe is me, said the bayonet, Oh, woe is me, said the sword.
Then the whole awful frightfulness of it an' the bigness of it seemed to swallow me up, an' I felt like a little pigment overtopped an' surrounded by great tall mountains of horror that were tumblin' down one after another on my head, an' bury in' me down so far an' deep that I couldn't say anything, only to moan, 'Oh, Lord, how long, oh, Lord, how long?' An' I knew then't was too big for me. I didn't try to write no more."
"I can see how you couldn't," faltered the girl, as she turned away. "I'm afraid--we're all going to find it--too big for us,"
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