If You Touch


5. Chapter V

The power of imagining returned to him slowly. There were whole days when his inner eyes and ears remained obstinately blind and deaf. When a

"Primrose by the river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more"

(only there were no primroses at this season); when the southing birds in the ivy outside his window only made noises and were a nuisance; and when the burden of his thoughts was one long "done for--done for--done for." It was the affection of many people that he missed most, and the faith that so many people had had in him--shattered forever. But he missed their voices, too, and their faces; the cheerful sounds of "talking at once"; the massing of fresh, lovely gowns, the scintillation of jewels, the smell of gardenias, the music of violins, hidden by screens of palms and bay-trees.

What had he done to deserve exile and ostracism? He asked himself that question thousands of times. He knew, of course, what he was believed to have done, but he was in search of some committed sin, to account for his having been punished for one that had only been circumstantially alleged. And in the whole memory that he had of his life and acts he could not find an answer. Every life is full of little sins, but of major ones the Poor Boy had no recollection.

On the days when his imagination was "no good" he had the face of one who is worried over something important that has been lost and that can not be found. And, indeed, the gift was of tremendous importance to him, and he knew it. It was the weapon with which he must fight off insanity; the tongs with which he must snatch from the fires of experience whatever bright fragments of life were not yet consumed.

Now this imagination of the Poor Boy's was not a servant that came and went at command, but a master. He could not say to himself, "now I will lie back upon the wings of my imagination and fly a pleasant hour"--or rather he could say just that if he liked, but nothing would happen. It was he who served; he was an abode in which his imagination might lodge whenever it so pleased, and whence it might also fare forth. In the old days it had found lodgment in the Poor Boy's head decidedly comfortable, and had made long stays; but since society had wreaked its vengeance upon him, it seemed as if his head, as a dwelling-place, had lost its comforts and advantages.

His imagination was not of the kind which makes for literature or music. It could not, in other words, shake itself clear of experience, and journey into the unknown and the untried. It was not creative, but it was of a quality so intense and vivid as to wage, sometimes, successful disputes with the tangible and the real. Its action was a kind of dreaming of dreams, whose direction and outcome lay within the option of the dreamer.

Old Martha found him one day sitting on the kitchen steps with his feet in the first snow of the winter. But the Poor Boy was really at Palm Beach with a car-load of his friends, and he was not at all cold, he thanked her, but hot--positively hot.

Notwithstanding, she ordered a change of shoes and socks, and listened at his door half a dozen times that night for sounds of incipient cold.

The old woman's mirror told her that she was getting thin, that the work she had undertaken was too hard for her, and sometimes when the men drove in from the village with supplies (and the Poor Boy hid himself) she blarneyed them into lending a hand here and there. For a good joke sweetened with a little base flattery she got coals carried now and then, or heavy pieces of furniture moved when she was house-cleaning; but to the Poor Boy's constant appeals that she bring into the house a permanent helper she turned a deaf ear. As a matter of fact, having lived the best part of her life for the Poor Boy, she proposed, if possible, to die for him.

But when ("on top of the thinness," as he put it) she caught a heavy cold, he took the matter in dispute wholly out of her jurisdiction.

The cold having run its course and gone its way, he appeared to her one morning dressed for the winter woods. He had on moccasins and many thicknesses of woolens; he carried a knapsack and a light axe. He laid these on the kitchen table, and went into the cellar, where his long skis had passed the summer. He brought them, turning the corner of the cellar stairs with difficulty, back to the kitchen, and began to examine the straps with which they are adjusted to the feet. He asked for a little oil with which to dress the leather. She brought him oil in a saucer.

He dressed the straps of his skis and talked, more to himself than to her.

"Killing is bad, but in case I do actually run out of food I'd better take a rifle. I suppose the sleeping-bag will keep me warm, still I'd take along an extra blanket if it weren't so heavy. I'm not as fit as I used to be. Seems to me this compass acted queerly the last time I used it. Didn't I tell you once, Martha, about getting lost up here because a compass played me tricks? There were people to find me that time--but what's the odds? I can't get lost twice on my own acres. And what's the odds if I do?--"

Old Martha couldn't stand it any longer.

"Is it for fun you're scaring me out of my wits, young man?"

"Scaring you, Martha?" His face was innocent of any guile.

"Where do you think you're going, and when do you think you're comin' back--and me all alone in the house?"

Now his eyes gleamed way down in their brown depths with a spark apiece of malice.

"I don't know where I'm going," he said, "but I know that I'm not coming back until a little bird tells me that you have hired some one to help you with the housework."

She was furious.

"Faith, then," she said, "you'll not come back till Doom's Day."

He concluded his preparations in silence, and carried his skis outdoors to put them on.

"I say, Martha," he called, "hand me my pack and things, will you?"

"I will not."

He laughed, and managed, with more laughter and some peril, to come up the steps and into the kitchen on his skis.

He adjusted the pack to his shoulder, put on his mittens, and took up his rifle and his axe. Malice still gleamed in his eyes.

He went out as he had entered, but with more difficulty and peril. He crossed the kitchen-yard with long, easy strides.

But Martha was running after him, bareheaded. She lost a carpet slipper in the deep snow.

"Only come back, darlint"--she fought against tears--"and I'll fill the house with helpers from attic to cellar."

"One," said the Poor Boy judicially, "will do. The nearest employment bureau will be in Quebec. Isn't there somebody in the village?"

"In the village! In Quebec!"

"Only come back, darlint"--she fought against tears--"and I'll fill the house with helpers from attic to cellar."

Her indignation was tremendous.

"This side of New York there's not a gentleman's servant to be had," said she, "and but few there. I'll have to go meself."

"Couldn't you write?"

"Full well you know that I can only make me mark, and never the twicet alike."

"Well," said the Poor Boy, "the change will do you good, and I'll camp out in the house instead of in the woods till you come back. It will be easier, and ever so much safer."

The next day, looking very grand in her furs and feathers, old Martha started for New York. As the man from the village drove her through the woods to the little railroad station the tears froze on her veil.