The Lame Boy

LATHAM was about to take the aisle seat; but he remembered his wife and stood aside, smiling a good-natured confession of his absent-mindedness.

When they were seated Mrs. Latham said, “ How did you come to think of me ? ” She looked up at him, her eyes shining over the joke of his abstraction.

The man smiled again, but more vaguely. A light reply occurred to him ; but his thoughts were running too strongly back to the absorbing coil of that problem which he had left, evidenced by a wide litter of papers and law books on his study table.

He was well enough aware of the scene, — the theatre-like hall, the stage in front prodigally framed in flowers, the people filling the seats about. He nodded here and there, and he was aware that other people glanced at him.

His face was easily recognized even from those variously caricaturing portraits which appeared in the newspapers from time to time. The short sandy hair, inclining from each side, ran together in a sort of snarl above the centre of his broad, sloping, aggressive brow. This odd snarl was repeated in miniature in the meeting of his heavy eyebrows. The eyes themselves looked dim behind the gold-bowed glasses. From each side of his wide, blunt nose a deep furrow ran down, and a welt of tough colorless flesh lay over the furrow. The mouth was rather small; the chin square, with a cleft in the middle. His strong, well-made hands lay one on each arm of the seat. Mrs. Latham dropped her wrist across the hand which monopolized the arm between their seats, and instantly drew it away, leaning a little to the other side so as not to disturb him. Latham was trying to recall the precise language of that decision in the 82d Illinois, — a bore to be away from one’s books. But he again supposed, in an undercurrent consciousness, that a Commencement was an affair demanding some sacrifice, if one had a son.

Music began, and banished the slight, superficial annoyance of the stirring and chattering about him. He approved of music. It made a good atmosphere to think in. Some other affairs went forward on the stage, to which he gave at moments a cursory attention.

Ah, the boy ! Latham made a strong winking with both eyes. His big frame slid further down in the seat. He softly laid the tips of his fingers together. He was ready to listen.

A slight lad, about eighteen, was coming to the front of the stage, walking with a distinct limp. Abruptly, quite unexpectedly, a dull pang touched Latham’s heart. Such a misfortune to be lame in youth !

The boy’s stiff leg had always been a sorrow, naturally ; but for years a familiar, accepted sorrow, like a death that had happened long ago. Now, as the slender young figure stood forth so conspicuously in a moment when youth should he triumphant— Oddly, Latham recalled the girl who had lately stood there singing ; even out of his mental remoteness there emanated a sense of the joy of her young, vigorous, beautiful limbs, like a perfume remembered after it has passed. His boy’s lameness became vitally of the present. There were his own huge, tireless limbs, his own bodily vigor that was equal to anything. He felt an impotent, pitying wish to give the boy a fairer endowment. Another thing struck him with new force, — it was the mother’s face up there.

The lad was speaking. His subject was The Duties of Citizenship. Latham had smiled over it vaguely when his wife told him.

At first, as he listened, there was a slight movement of his lips, like the beginning of a smile. But very soon that ceased, and slowly, step by step, a large wonder took possession of him.

This essay was callow enough in the main, sophomorical enough, romantic enough. Latham knew that he could blow the thing over with a breath; that he could riddle it with a gibe; that a movement of his finger would be enough to shatter it. But he was not thinking of that. The emotion in his mind amounted to this : Where had the boy come by those thoughts? This boy, who half an hour before had seemed so familiar, as thoroughly imbedded in the intimate environment of his life as the chair in his study, in respect of whom his indefinite and unformulated impression had been that he could draw his finger around the whole circumference of the younger existence,— by what miracle had he suddenly developed the universe of an independent mind ?

For there was thought here. The lawyer’ s mind, without conscious analysis, recognized the independent intellectual force. Much was taken at second hand, much was false, much was flimsy ; but the boy had thought. The father perceived, with extreme surprise, that the son had been standing apart in his individuality, trying, considering, pondering. Latham sympathetically translated himself to the lad’s place. He understood that this speaker had been weighing and judging his father, and his father’s world.

It occurred to Latham that he must have known this would happen,—hut only " some time,” a time far off. Again he felt a kind of immense pity. He had always proposed vaguely to do what he could about forming the boy’s mind ; and behold ! while he slept the forming had taken place.

It touched his affection, and at the same time, indistinctly, it stirred a selfpity in him, as though he had irreparably lost something. He looked around at his wife, moving his hand a little to touch her arm with an unwonted softness. But at the first light contact she drew her arm away, and bent a little further to the other side, just as she had at first when her arm disturbed his hand. Instantly, in the play of new-wrought emotion, Latham saw that this was simply her habitual, long-schooled, sweet sacrifice to the inexorable demands of his preoccupation. Then he saw her face more fully, and his hand slipped back from the arm of the seat. In a queer flash he felt a fear of disturbing her.

She sat well forward. Her rapt face was fixed upon the speaking boy so intently that she seemed to have entered into his being, to be speaking with him.

It was in a way the boy’s face, with its soft dark eyes, short straight nose, and gentle mouth and chin, — still a well-preserved, pretty face, its comeliness dignified by the slight powdering of gray in the smooth brown hair. Her hands rested in her lap. Now and then they stirred with a slight unconscious nervous motion. Her lips, too, moved a little now and then. In a moment Latham perceived that she was in fact speaking with the boy. It came to him with sudden insight how the boy had often gone to her with this essay ; how she had read and listened to it ; how she had absorbed it as a part of his life. The words from the stage failed to impress him as he hung on this new wonder.

Soon he saw something else,—that it was the moment of the woman’s tenderest and completest triumph. She had heard him speak a few times. He had humored her wish with good-natured tolerance. But now he knew that nothing he could do would ever move her as this boy’s speech did. Though he should lay a new corner stone of law or compel a senate, her heart would not be suffused with this tender exultation. He felt strangely lonely.

Getting into the carriage, he wished to sit by his wife, to feel her beside him, to touch her. But she and the lad took the back seat as a matter of course. He had already patted the boy’s shoulder and mumbled something about the essay. As the carriage wheeled around, the boy said, with a kind of gentle boldness, “ Did n’t you like Rose’s singing, father ? ”

“ Yes,” replied Latham absently, engrossed in his surprises. At once the mother and son fell to talking together in low tones. It wounded the man, although he knew well enough it was his own work.

When they entered the house, Latham went at once stolidly up the ample curving stairs, while the other two loitered in the hall. On the second floor he mechanically pushed through the door to his study, turned on the electric lights, and sat down in the big leather-covered chair before the long table, covered with its professional litter, from which he had torn himself reluctantly. His wife had appeared at the door putting on her gloves, and said, “It’s time now, Edward,” and he had got up quickly, for she always gave him the last second.

Now, as he looked down at the pile of papers and the opened books, a singular repugnance filled his mind. How long he had toiled at those things ! How many days!

He had succeeded. The house was spacious. There was money enough. His name was a host. But at this moment he felt a kind of disgust, a kind of anger, toward that admirable mind of his ; that splendid, tireless, insatiable machine, which wrought ceaselessly day and night, and ground up his life. He was lonely. He got up and stepped to the small secretary in the corner. He explored a little drawer, then another, and drew out a yellow cabinet photograph of his wife, taken in the year they were married. It came to him just how she used to sit at the piano and play lightly and sing softly to herself in the evening, while he pored over his law books. There was not this spaciousness in their appointments then. He was just struggling up to his first small successes. He had not looked at this photograph for years.

Where had those years gone ? He could count them in lawsuits fought, in fees won. They were written deep in those yellow - backed books about him. But he was getting old. He was old. His son had grown up unawares. His own wife, — how had that sprinkling of gray come into her hair, when it was only yesterday that she was like this picture?

Suddenly that solid world of affairs in which he had lived seemed phantasmagorial, hollow, a dream in which somehow he had lost his life. For the better part of it was lost. Soon he would be bent, decrepit, joy would be forever behind him.

He slipped the photograph into his inner coat pocket. He turned to the door with a kind of anxious despair, as though he felt the strength going out of his rugged limbs, as though he felt age overwhelming him. He wished most of all to take his wife’s hand, to sit beside her, to feel himself again loving and beloved, to warm away the frost that touched his heart.

He crossed the hall, pushed open the door of his wife’s room, and hesitated on the threshold. The boy sat beside his mother. They were talking together.

The son’s presence was a shock. Somehow, to Latham’s perception, that presence made his own simple, ardent outflowing of tenderness half grotesque, half silly, as though the lad had caught him in something unseemly. He felt embarrassed, almost sheepish.

The mother and son had stopped talking the moment he appeared. The woman looked up at him, serene, gentle, loyal, half ready to rise, expecting that he would ask for something.

Latham pulled a chair over, and sat down before them. He wished to say: “ I am very lonely ; go on talking; let me hear what it is that you always have to say to each other.” But what he did say was : “I thought I’d come in and see how the young orator felt after his effort.” He spoke smilingly; but the words struck him as patronizing, as possibly suggesting a sarcasm.

The boy glanced down. The mother looked at him fondly. “ He feels very well, I guess,” she said. Her hand brushed the hair back from his forehead.

The boy turned with a shy eagerness. “ Did you think I was right, father ? ”

Latham smiled tolerantly, and replied at once : “ Oh, bless you, no. You were quite wrong. But you spoke very well, and it was fairly original. That is the main thing at your age.”

The lad’s eyes fell quickly. He put his hand, as by an unconscious motion, to the arm of his mother’s chair. She put her hand over it caressingly.

Then Latham saw that he had hurt the boy; that the youth’s thought was as precious to him as the man’s to him. This perception wounded him. “ Why can they not understand me ? ” he asked himself bitterly, half resentfully.

“ I thought it was very good, Edward,” said the mother, more to the lad than to him ; and comfortingly, not contentiously.

Latham saw again how close they were to each other. It came to him that if she no longer played and sung to herself softly, it was because the boy had filled up her life. Long ago she had been lonely many a time, just as he was tonight. But the human nature in her had taken its perfect revenge. The boy was all she required. The husband was left to the preoccupations on which he had insisted.

“Very likely it was altogether good. I am apt to be mistaken — about many things,” said Latham. He felt, that he spoke dryly, even that it sounded somewhat bitter. His wife looked at him with a faint surprise. There was a brief, awkward pause. Something else came to his lips ; but, it was not the right thing. He sat a moment, embarrassed, helpless.

“ Have you finished your work so early ? ” Mrs. Latham asked.

He felt it to be simply a politeness, — the sort of speech that one makes when nothing else comes to one.

“ No, I have more to do,” he answered, and he rose from his chair.

For an instant the woman glanced up at him. The momentary sense of a loss, of an affectionate desire, stirred in her. But he had taken one look at her, and was turning away. It was the law of their lives. She said nothing.

It had come to Latham that, after all, he had nothing to say to these dear strangers in his house. His thought and their thought were a world apart, and he had lost the trick of interpretation, — lost it somehow in those years of intense application that had worn his mind in grooves, so that, however well it went along its own path, a distraction had come to be painful to him.

He took his loneliness back to his den. His will was set now, and he bent grimly over his task.

Two hours later be stood up, wiping his glasses. He was tired, but content. The brief lay outlined before him. He knew the men were few who could have done it so well and so quickly. The old mill ground !

He touched something in his pocket, and drew out his wife’s picture. He smiled over it a little mournfully, but without any bitterness. His manner of life was fixed. He was Latham. A sense of his capacity, of his power, stirred in him. He felt the solid structure of his success. Thank God, at any rate, he had made an enduring rock, in the shadow of which their lives were secure. Let him be the rock. There were not too many of them.

Will Payne.