If You Touch


11. Chapter XI

"You can get away from people, but you can't get away from moths."

It was Martha herself, carrying a great paper bag of camphor-balls and a great roll of tarred paper, who announced this truth.

Rain was falling in torrents. Even the Poor Boy did not feel like going out. He looked with a certain longing at the bag of camphor balls.

"Going to put the furs away?"

Martha said that she was.

Time was hanging heavily that morning. There was neither music in the Poor Boy nor desire to read.

"I think--" he began, and was ashamed.

"You think?"


"Out with it."

"Just that--well, you see, I've never done it--always had you. But I'm thinking it must be rather fun to fold things carefully, and put them in cedar chests, and sprinkle moth-balls over them, and tuck them in with tar-paper."

"And you think wrong," said Martha. "It is no fun at all."

"Oh!" said the Poor Boy. "You're used to it. You've always done it. But I haven't."

"No more," said Martha, "have you ever knit a comforter."

"I think that would be fun too," twinkled the Poor Boy; "a very little comforter. I should use very thick worsted and make very big, loopy, spready stitches. I think, if you don't mind, I'll put my own things away for the summer."

Martha clutched the bag and the roll of paper tighter. Her jaws set.

"Don't be selfish, Martha."

Her jaws relaxed.

"What do I do first, Martha?"

"First you get all your things in one place. Then you brush them and fold them. Then you lay them away in the chests."

The Poor Boy, in shirt-sleeves, was soon busily employed, making in the centre of the living-room an enormous pile of winter furs and woolens--coonskin coats, Shetland socks, stockings, oily Norfolk coats and mackintoshes, sweaters, mittens, fur gloves, fur robes, steamer rugs, toques, and mackinaws.

The great pile finished, he sorted his things into smaller piles: a pile to be thrown away, a pile to be given away, a pile to be kept.

A doubtful garment was a mackinaw of dark gray splashed with blood-color and black. It had seen better days, on the one hand; on the other, it was sound, and he had always liked the coloring. He carried it to the light and looked it over carefully.

What was there about an old lumberman's coat to bring a look of bewildered wonder into the Poor Boy's eyes? And what particular memories did he associate with the last time of wearing it?

He closed his eyes, frowned, thought, remembered.

"I wore this," he said to himself, "the time I went down to the sea, and nearly died getting back. Then it was mislaid, when I wanted to wear it again. Then spring came.... When I got back from the sea I thought I saw Joy. I thought she ran, and that I ran after her. Then that she turned and caught me as I fell.... I was wearing this coat. I haven't worn it since."

With fingers that shook he unwound from the top button of the coat a long, entangled hair, the color of old Domingo mahogany, which is either more brown than red, or more red than brown. Nobody can swear which.

When Martha came to see how the Poor Boy was getting on with his packing she was amused to find that he had tired of it. That his things were all in a mess, nothing packed or protected from moths, and that he himself was standing at a window looking out into the dark torrents of rain. At his feet was an old mackinaw. Martha picked it up and folded it.

"Shall I resoom where you've left off?" she asked.

"Please! But be careful of that coat."

She began to bring order swiftly out of chaos.


"Don't be stopping me now."

"What would you do if you knew that something that couldn't possibly be true absolutely was true?"

"For that," said Martha bluntly, "I'd take two tablespoonfuls of castor-oil."

"It is true," said the Poor Boy, "and it can't be."

He passed one hand in front of his face as if brushing a cobweb or--a hair.

"A hot-water bag at the feet," Martha continued impetuously, "and another on the pit of the stomick is a favored remedy with some."


"What else?"

"Has your helper got reddish-brownish, brownish-reddish hair--the color of the sideboards in the dining-room?"

"Well," said Martha, "she has and she hasn't. The first of every month 'tis that color or thereabouts; but be the twenty-ninth or thirtieth 'tis back to a good workin' gray."

"The day I got back from the sea," said the Poor Boy to himself, "was about the twenty-ninth or the thirtieth. But still if I'm going to believe what can't be true--I say, Martha, lend me a saucer of alcohol, will you?"

Old Martha bustled off and returned with what he required. The Poor Boy carried his chemical into the book-room and closed the door firmly, and much to Martha's disappointment, she being anxious to know what was toward in her darling's mind.

The Poor Boy placed the saucer of alcohol in the light, and dropped into it the mahogany-colored hair; nothing happened. The hair itself appeared brighter perhaps, but the crystal liquid was not discolored. The Poor Boy devoted half an hour to the experiment. There was no development.

"Not Ed Pinaud," he then said reverently, "dyed this hair, but the Lord God."

He put it away in a safe place, just over his heart.

"Not," he said, "because it is hers, but because it is the same color. And because there are stranger things in heaven and earth than ever any man wotted of in his philosophy."

Martha knocked on the door.

"Come in, Martha."

"Just to tell you that it's stopped raining, and if ye'll not take oil nor hot-water bags, the next best remedy for cobwebs in the brain is exercise."

The Poor Boy was glad to get out.

He went straight to Lord Harrow's house and walked with Joy for hours--up and down between the glorious roses on the terrace. The path was wide. They could walk side by side without danger of touching each other.

She was very grave that afternoon. So was he. It was hard that they should love each other so much and not be allowed to talk about it or hold hands. But the Poor Boy knew mighty well that if he touched her she would vanish.

"There's comfort," thought the Poor Boy, "in loving a spirit--even if it can never be quite the real thing. She will always be just as I see her now, no older, untroubled, gentle, and dear."

"She will always be just as I see her now, no older, untroubled, gentle and dear."

He said poetry to her, and hummed songs. She dropped a rose that she was carrying. He stooped to pick it up, remembered, and let it lie. They looked into each other's eyes, very sadly.

He saw her mistily through tears. She vanished. Vanished the rose garden, vanished Lord Harrow's house. And remained only a wild lake, an open space in which he stood, and wild-woods, and beyond more woods and hills and mountains.

To the west the forest was intolerably bright, as if it was burning. The sun was going down.