If You Touch

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3. Chapter III



Old Martha wondered if the Poor Boy would have a smile for her. She imagined that he would look sick and broken, and that if he smiled at all it would be the bitter smile of the wronged. She imagined that he would wear ready-made clothes supplied by the prison authorities; and that he would no longer walk erect, upon swift feet, but bowed over, with dragging steps.

When he came at last what profoundly shocked her was none of this; but that to the superficial eye he had not changed at all. His hair, perhaps, was a little shorter than she remembered; his face was not exactly pale; it was more as if he had sat up too late, and was having an off day. As for the smile for which she hoped and longed, it began when he saw her running toward him, very swiftly for a heavy old woman, and it ended on her cheek.

"My old dear!" he said.

He took her hand and swung it as children do, and walked beside her into the cottage.

The spickness and spanness of it smote him between the eyes; the imagination and the taste which had changed it from a hunting-lodge into a gentleman's house, and the tact which had done away with the photographs of friends, and all things that could remind him of old days. He passed the whole house in review from top to bottom, and gratitude to the old servant grew very warm in the tired heart.

They stepped out from the living-room to the edge of the cliff and looked down the great valley.

"There was no time," said Martha, tremulous with joy, for she had been much praised, "to put the landscape to rights."

The Poor Boy looked up into the blue vault of heaven.

"Stone walls," he said, "and that, have been my landscape."

"But now," she said, "any day you like you can view the world from here to the North Pole."

He smiled.

"That way's south, Martha," he said, "but it will do. We own all the way to the ocean that way; but north only to the lake where the river rises. But even that's a day's travel. Oh, there's room enough even for me, and there's a great deal too much for you, you poor old dear. But have you made friends in the village? You must have them up to see you, days when I'm off somewhere or other. And you must have a helper, I see that. Yes, you must. If necessary, I'll face him, or her. I won't have you breaking down with looking after me. Don't say a word. I know you. You think it would be high jinks to wear your eyes out and your hands off for me, but I won't have it. The cottage is bigger than I remember. But maybe you've added to it, you old witch."

He stepped to the very edge of the cliff and looked straight down, to where, two hundred feet below, the perpendicular was first broken by a slope of titanic bowlders, among which the trunks of dwarfed pines twisted here and there into the light, from the deep-buried soil.

"How easy," he thought, "to make an end!"

A dozen feet away old Martha fussed and fumed, like a hen over a duckling.

"Come back! Come back!" she said.

But the Poor Boy put on his teasing face, and danced a double shuffle, on the very edge of the big drop. Then, as suddenly, the fun went out of his eyes, and he came back.

"Oh, Martha," he said, his hand on her shoulder, "I am so tired."

Upon the great leather lounge in front of the living-room fire, he lay down. His ankles crossed, his hands crossed, his eyes on the ceiling, he looked like those effigies of knights which you have seen on tombs.

His eyes closed. He could hear her, dimly, putting wood on the fire.

"Yes," he said, "you must have help. I see that," the handsome mouth smiled; "'only I don't really see it, said Alice,'" he went on, "'because my eyes are closed, and I am falling so fast into a deep dark well that the white rabbit will never, never catch up with me.' Bet you a box of candy, Martha, you can't pry my eyes open with a crowbar."

For a long time the old woman dared not move, for fear her boots might creak. She continually wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and rather than snuffle, heroically endured a running nose.

He had grown up in her care. Between herself and nature it was always a close race as to which should be the first to know his needs. But even to a stranger it must now have been obvious that he had not slept well for a long time. His face, having passed from under the control of his intellect, was haggard and harassed, the muscles of expression twitched and jumped. The hands upon his breast, their fingers interlocked, strained, and twisted.

A shoe creaked, a strong, cool hand lay lightly on the Poor Boy's forehead. He became quiet, one by one his muscles went into a state of complete relaxation; he breathed now with long, slow breaths. An hour passed.

The hand was lifted from his forehead, two shoes creaked a number of times, there was a rustling of heavy curtains, four times repeated; at each rustling the room grew darker. A door closing sounded faintly. The Poor Boy slept on. But for his breathing you might have thought him dead, flat on his back, ankles crossed, hands peacefully folded.

It was the middle of the night when he waked.

"Martha."

The old woman was there, crouched between the lounge and the fire. God knew how her poor bones ached. The Poor Boy would never know.

"Yes, dearie."

"Put your arms around me like old times and tell me you know I didn't do it."

There arose in the room, like sad music, the sound of the old woman's sobbing.

"I'm so tired," said the Poor Boy, "and so glad."

This time he slept till morning.