If You Touch


1. Chapter I

Old Martha wondered if the Poor Boy would have a smile for her. He had had so many in the old days, the baby days, the growing-up days, the college days, the "world so new and all" days. There were some which she would always remember. The smile he smiled one Christmas morning, when he put the grand fur coat around her shoulders, and the kiss on her cheek. The smile he smiled that day when they met in front of the photographer's, and he took her in and had their photograph taken together: she sitting and glaring with embarrassment at the camera, he standing, his hand on her shoulder, smiling--down on her.

To save her life she could not recall a harsh word in his mouth, a harsh look in his eyes. In the growing-up days he had been sick a great deal; but the trustees and the doctors had put their trust in old Martha, and she had pulled him through. When the pain was too great, her Poor Boy was always for hiding his face. It was thus that he gathered strength to turn to her once more, smiling. It was Martha who spoke stories of princesses and banshees and heroes and witch-wolves through the long nights when he could not sleep. It was old Martha who drew the tub of red-hot water that brought him to life, when the doctor said he was dead.

If he had been her own, she could not have loved him more.

How many hundred cold nights she had left her warm bed, to return, blue with cold, after seeing that he was well covered! How she had dreaded the passing of time that brought him nearer and nearer to manhood, in whose multiple interests and cares old tendernesses and understandings are so often forgotten. But wherever he went, whatever he did, he had always an eye of his mind upon Martha's feelings in the matter. She was old, Irish, unlettered, but as a royal duchess so was she deferred to in the Poor Boy's great house upon the avenue.

Old Martha had seats for the play whenever she wanted them. And very handsome she looked, with her red cheeks and her white hair, and her thick black silk. One winter, when she had a dreadful cold, the Poor Boy took her to Palm Beach in his car, and introduced all his smart friends to her. But it was as if they had always known her, for the Poor Boy, who talked a great deal, never talked for long without celebrating "my nurse."

"Oh," he might say, "I, too, have known what it is to have a mother."

Or coming home late from some gay party, the sparkle still in his eyes, he might say to the old woman herself:

"I love people, but I love you more."

Of the Poor Boy who gave her so much she had never asked but one thing. One simple kindly act in the future. She had made him promise her that; take his oath to it, indeed; cross his tender heart. She had made him promise that when at last she lay dead, he would come to her and close her eyes.

He would keep his word; not a doubt of it. But he would do more. He would see to it that in Woodlawn, where his young father and mother lay, old Martha should lie, too, and that the ablest sculptor of the time should mark her grave for the ages.

The Poor Boy had the intuition of a woman, and the tenderness; he had the imagination of a poet and the simplicity of a child. Everybody loved him--the slim, well-knit, swift body, carrying the beautiful round head; the face, so handsome, so gentle, and so daring. He was not cast in a heroic mould, but he was so vivid that in groups of taller, stronger men it was the Poor Boy whom you saw first. Half the girls did, anyway, and most of the wives, and all the old grandmothers. The most ambitious girls forgot that he was princely rich, and wanted him for himself alone. But the "world-so-new-and-all" was cram-jammed with flowers, and the Poor Boy was dazzled, and did not more than half make up his mind which was the loveliest.

Old Martha was a firm believer in love at first sight (otherwise she might never have been a wet-nurse), and often, when the Poor Boy came home from some great gathering of people, she would ask him, "Did it happen to yez?" And he knew what she meant, and teased her a little sometimes, saying that he wasn't "just quite sure." (And he wasn't--always.)

One day the world crashed about old Martha's ears. The Poor Boy stood up in the court and said, "Not guilty," in his clear, ringing voice. But they didn't believe her child, her angel, and when they sent him to prison she tore her white hair, and beat her head against the wall of her bedroom until she fell senseless. And indeed it was true that Justice, the light woman, had again been brought to bed of a miscarriage. But who was to believe that, when Justice's whole family and her doctor gave out that the child was clean-run and full time? If any believed there were not many. The Poor Boy was a poor boy, indeed, and it seemed to him (trying so very hard not to go mad) that his life was all over.

As a matter of fact, it was getting ready at last to begin.