HE dangled his legs over the stone coping which formed a neat quadrangle about his father’s private portion of the college grounds. Before him curved a dazzling gravel walk along which pretty girls sauntered with young men who wore the most remarkable ties, and whose hat-bands would have seemed conspicuous elsewhere. They always smiled at him with some curiosity in their regard, and after they had passed odd remarks occasionally floated back to the Prodigy. Although perfectly familiar with preparatory Greek and Latin, he did not always comprehend these fragments of conversational English. This evening, for instance, a girl in white had said, “What a shame, — a child like that!” She caught herself from looking back as she said it, so he knew at once that he was the child; but he could not imagine what the “shame” could be.
He gazed meditatively far across the Campus to the public school ball ground, where lads of his own age, or younger, danced about with ball and bat. A certain wistfulness crept into his expression. A yearning stirred in his heart. It was merely a rudimentary yearning. It did not know how to express itself in action so as to be of any use to the little boy. It only made him conscious that, while he was not really interested in the game, it would probably be a pleasant thing to feel enough like other little boys to be interested.
As he sat there, troubled with rudimentary yearnings and with preparatory Greek and Latin, he caught sight of his father escorting Miss Lizzy along the white walk in his most deferential manner. Miss Lizzy wore her loveliest raiment, and her openest air of disapproval. The Prodigy, who loved her, ran to join them, and clasped her soft hand all the way up her petunia-bordered path to her spacious porch, where woven grass chairs opened wide arms to them all. Miss Lizzy seconded the invitation; but the Professor did not feel as if she really wished him to stay, so he said, “Thank you, but it’s time for our row, hey, Win ?”
The Prodigy removed his hand from Miss Lizzy’s and placed it in his father’s; but the Professor, coloring slightly, his eyes fastened on the lady’s face, released it gently.
“Well, run along and get into your flannels,” he suggested.
When the Prodigy had trotted off, the Professor, coloring more pronouncedly, said, “ Lizzy, have you ever told me why you will not marry me ? ”
“No,” replied Miss Lizzy composedly.
“That’s unfair,” he accused her, with not a little bitterness. “I have loved you a long time. You,” he read her with his look, “you do care for me, — then why ? ”
Miss Lizzy stepped up another step. She now considered him from the vantage ground of the porch. Once she glanced across the hedge between their lawns, catching a glimpse of the Prodigy’s fair little cropped head vanishing in a side door, but she looked back immediately. She was not rosy now, but pale, and in her lovely, gentle eyes a deep, still anger revealed itself to him for the first time.
“Why?” urged the Professor.
“I, too, might have a child,” she said in a low voice. She turned, as she said it, into the house, not stopping until she gained her own big, cool room, where the long, white curtains flung cobwebbed shadows on the dark floor. For almost the first time in her life she failed to look around her with homecoming, loving eyes. Her heart beat violently. Her color came back deeper than usual. She let the anger burn openly in her face. “I am glad it is said at last,” she thought; “I am glad. I am glad. It has lain unsaid in my heart for four years.”
She sat down at her writing table, slowly removing her gloves and hat, and thinking of the little boy. Poor Alice’s poor baby he was — Alice, her cousin, her schoolmate, who had died in her married girlhood, leaving her child to the mercy of men, leaving his babyhood to be sacrificed to the Professor’s vanity. Because he was a brilliant child, an unusual child, Jim had experimented, tempted him on, made of him a thing unnatural, monstrous, set the eyes of a stooping student in the soft curves of a pallid baby face. It was a crime not named, not punished by the law, but murder seemed to her less.
The Professor took it in presently, but when he got so far as opening his lips the steps in the upper hall had died away. There was nothing left him save to follow Winston, which he did, slowly turning a deep and angry red. For it naturally put him in a temper to be told he was too big a brute to be a father,—or was it fool ?
“ Ready, Win ? ” he called up the stairs. The Prodigy shrilled back, and presently the two were to be seen, decked out in white flannels, flashing by beneath the willows of the opposite river bank. The Prodigy looked very little at that distance, but he was pulling bravely to his father’s carefully adjusted stroke. The low sun brought out a glint of gold in his closecropped fair hair, and in the Professor’s darker locks.
“Then,” thought Miss Lizzy, watching them from her window, “he’ll have a dip and a rub, and Jim will run him up the bank, and he’ll eat a shredded wheat biscuit, and go to bed, and Jim will come over here feeling perfectly virtuous, and say, ‘Well, we’ve had our exercise.’”
She gave a little start. “No,” she said, “he won’t come to-night.”
On the river the Prodigy dropped his oar.
“Hullo!” exclaimed the Professor. He reached for it deftly.
“I’m tired,” said the Prodigy.
“ Oh, we get our second wind,” encouraged the Professor gayly.
“My head aches,” said the Prodigy after a few more strokes. “ It’s been troubling me a good deal lately,” he added with dignity.
“Eyes,” suggested the Professor.
“Perhaps it is,” assented the Prodigy politely. “It’s a round spot here, — abou t as big as a quarter. It burns.” He placed a finger to the left of his pink parting, and looked at his father interrogatively.
“We’ll see an oculist to-morrow. Glasses will set you right.”
The Prodigy’s face expressed a vague distaste. “I don’t think I’ll like glasses,” he objected unexpectedly.
“Why, you soon get used to them, Win.” He bent a smiling, dark-eyed look down into the large, shortsighted, blackfringed, blue eyes. “I would n’t be without mine.”
“Miss Lizzy thinks they’re ugly,” observed the Prodigy after a pause.
The Professor flushed with annoyance. “A mere prejudice,” he commented, carefully impersonal in tone. “One’s comfort comes first,” he concluded sensibly.
“I think they are ugly, too,” said the boy, “though, of course, that is n’t the point.” He sighed after his sensible conclusion. “I’m tired again,” he added. “Please take my oar, father.”
He sat down in the boat between his father’s knees, very much in the way, and laid his head on one of them, and went to sleep. So it happened that the dip, and the rub, and the run up the bank were omitted from the regular routine. Instead, the Professor carried the Prodigy to the house in his arms, and put him on a couch in the first bookridden room he came to, and telephoned for Miss Lizzy and a doctor.
“I think it must be the heat, Lizzy,” he said, meeting her with oblivious anxiety.
Involuntarily she gave him a look which reduced him to a mere sensation of heartsickness; then, with swiftly averted eyes, gathered the Prodigy to her heart and carried him to his spacious, hygienic bedroom with its shower bath, its miniature gymnasium, and its big low, study table. He looked very babyish lying in a peaceful stupor in the large, old-fashioned walnut bed. While she waited for the doctor she regarded the physical culture apparatus with the expression of one who finds herself in the neighborhood of a torpedo. “As if a boy could n’t get exercise enough if he were let alone!” She went on taking in all the carefully chosen, carefully adapted articles in the room, to keep from looking at the Prodigy. He was so small, so piteous, and she did not know what to do for him.
She gave an exclamation of relief at the sound of a man’s foot on the stairs.
“ What kept you so long, Frank ? ” she cried, — they were all her childhood’s friends, boys to be scolded by her if she were vexed.
He did not reply until he had made a rapid examination.
“I was three miles down the road,” he answered at length. He sat on the side of the bed looking up at her. “ It’s pretty bad. I’ll ’phone for a nurse.”
“No, I like my nurses better — reliable machines. You are too anxious. Besides, he won’t know who nurses him. If he gets better — why then ” —
“If?” she cried. “Ah!”
“Oh, he may pull through and not be an idiot. Some fools have luck.”
She turned pale. “You are very cruel,” she said to the doctor, who had once wished to marry her, — who perhaps still washed to.
“You know that you think as I do about this, Lizzy ? ”
“He never dreamed he was harming Winny,” she said, defending the Professor.
“No,” — Preston glanced around the room,—“plenty of exercise to offset the brain work, — how could it possibly hurt him ? Plenty of precedent, — Pope, De Quincey, Macaulay, ” — he stopped abruptly, and glanced toward the door. “Oh, there you are, Jim! Come here, will you.”
Miss Lizzy fled past the Professor to the dark porch and crouched in his big chair beneath the Virginia creeper. She buried her head in her arms against its back. She felt as a mother feels when her boy is being beaten. He deserves it, but how can she stand waiting for it to be over ? Through the open window Preston’s voice, low, professional, floated down to her, but indistinctly. When it ceased it was answered by a sound, a cry, she knew not what. She stopped her ears to it.
Ten minutes later a nurse from the hospital went past her into the house. A light streamed from the wdndow. She heard both men descend the steps, but only Preston came out.
“Lizzy,” he called softly.
“Here I am.”
“I will take you home.”
“No, come,” he said.
At the door he answered her look at last.
“Lizzy,” he said, “I was sorry for the beggar, too. I did n’t hurt him any more than I had to. No, I can’t come in. Goodnight.”
He took a few steps away from her and then came back. “Don’t fret until you have to. Sometimes these cases turn out all right. The little chap has a good constitution. As for Jim, it won’t harm his soul to find out that he’s fallible, but it’s tough on him to-night. Still, who can help? Not even you, Lizzy. The nearest one can get is a universe away, and you can hardly bear that, — a man can’t, anyway, not when he’s been to blame.”
She flashed a rebellious look at him.
“Mere vanity in you to think so,” — and he was gone.
Long after his steps died away she stood watching the light from the Prodigy’s window. None came from the library, where the Professor had thrown himself down in the darkness.
For days, weeks, the Prodigy explored the borderlands of Life. Sometimes he went very far; but his father’s hand always drew him groping back to the big white room. Every day Miss Lizzy came in and sat in the low wicker chair near the bed, sharing the Professor’s silence for a strange half hour. Often he did not notice her, and she loved him the better for it.
It was not self-absorption, but a selfignoring, — a loss of his own identity in an agonizing realization of the child’s. The Prodigy did not know when his father was there, — he only knew when he was not there; so he stayed nearly all the time. One day the fever did not return. The doctor, the nurse, and the father stood by the bed waiting to know if the Prodigy would live, and if he might not better have died.
Over in the town a clock was striking six as he opened his eyes.
“Father,” he said vaguely.
The Professor dropped to his knees by the bed, answering with touch and smile.
“Hold my hand,” said the Prodigy, going to sleep again peacefully.
The Professor looked up, asking his first question since the night it happened, — not that he spoke now.
“ Luck’s your way this time, Jim,” said Preston, in the tone of a lenient judge.
Into the Professor’s heavy eyes leaped the marveling of the miracle-beholder. He put his head on the Prodigy’s pillow, and Preston went out, signing the nurse to follow.
In the hall stood Miss Lizzy.
“ Eavesdropping ? ” queried the doctor light-heartedly.
“Oh, Frank, I was afraid to go in.”
“Go on. He will need you now — that he does n’t need you. The little chap knew him,” he added softly.
She too offered that tribute of wonderment. But from her it irritated him. He turned quickly. “ Let me speak to you in the library, Miss Wood,” he said to the nurse, who had been effacing herself in a magical way, much as if she carried Siegfried’s cloak handily over her arm.
Smiling happily and absent-mindedly after them, Miss Lizzy opened the door and went in. Not till she gained the bedside did she see that the Professor had fallen asleep, his hand clasping the Prodigy’s, his dark head close to the child’s white cheek. All the lovableness of his face, seen so, impressed itself on her heart. The pallor of long sleeplessness, the defacement of long pain, had given it the appeal to win her at last. She had not thought before that they resembled each other greatly; but looking down now she saw that the boy was but a fair little image of his father. “My poor little boys,” she said beneath her breath. She felt as if she were a guardian angel hovering over them with outspread plumage. She smiled at herself. “I have been as perfectly useless as one, anyway,” she candidly admitted as she slipped away.
Slowly the Prodigy journeyed back to his tiny place in the world of men. Instead of being older than his years, his eyes were now younger. The pondering intelligence was gone. In its place flowered a soft wonder, a babyish questioning, an insatiable demanding of affection from surrounding slaves.
One afternoon the Professor carried him to a big chair on an upper porch. Preston followed. The Prodigy lay back among some blue-ruffled couch pillows. A little blue dressing-gown wrapped him. A gay, blue-striped steamer rug covered his knees. All this blue deepened in his eyes to an azure, heavenly and intense. Preston, who had halted by a table strewn with illustrated weeklies, offered the Prodigy one.
“ I ’ll let you look at some pictures today,” he said carelessly.
The Prodigy, having been long debarred such things, turned the pages with childish interest. Presently he looked up, keeping a page open with one thin little claw.
“What ships are these, father?”
“Are n’t the names there, Win?” said Preston. His eyes caught the Professor’s.
“I don’t know,” said the Prodigy. A puzzlement troubled the pure blue of his eyes. His little head with its newly grown toss of loose, light curls turned from one to the other. “I — I can’t read them,” he stammered gropingly.
“Of course not,”said the doctor easily; “I forgot.”
Taking the paper, he explained the battleships with that vivid wealth of detail dear to a boy’s heart. The Prodigy listened, the faint trouble vanishing. At last Preston laid the paper aside. “I’d better be off,” he cried, “if I’m to be seven miles out in the country by five.”
The Professor followed him into the hall, catching his arm in a grip that pinched. “ Well,” said Preston, in a low voice, “you’ve read of such things, have n’t you, Jim ?”
“But it’s happened to my boy,” said the Professor, “to my boy!” He repeated it like a fool.
“Good thing, too,” said Preston. “Now he knows as little as he ought to know. Buy him a primer, Jim.”
He went away, looking back at the Professor, who still stared foolishly at the blankness of this inconceivable thing. He felt like a brute; but consider. It was plain enough to all their world these days that Miss Lizzy meant to marry the Professor.
The Professor went back and took the Prodigy up in his arms. “Father’s baby,” he crooned, folding him against his breast. His mind grew clearer. So it had been that near, — not death, though death had been breathlessly near, but that dreadfuller than death, that horror he balked at naming. The last shred of his selfish, vain, little ambition was torn painfully away. A healing peace descended on him. The Prodigy could have entered college that fall, so far as being prepared went. Now the father’s heart thrilled with the thought that the child would soon be well enough to learn to read.
It was an Indian summer afternoon, — a golden, mellow caress in its coolness, a dim, sweet sounding of earth’s music in its stillness. Suddenly the Prodigy lifted himself, and looked eagerly across the campus to where the public school boys were spreading over their ball ground. An upflung bat glinted in the sun. Distant shouts disturbed the silence. The Prodigy’s eyes darkened, brightened.
“Like it, old fellow?” asked the Professor.
The Prodigy ignored this. “Father,” he said, “I remember now. I remember that I have forgotten — things I used to know.”
“Yes,” replied the Professor, matterof-fact in manner, “you would, you know. You were pretty sick, Win.”
“And I don’t know any more than other boys now ? ”
His tone was hopeful — yet fearful, too.
“Not as much, Win,” said the Professor. He was able to say it without a pang.
The Prodigy straightened up, sparkled. New tides of life pulsed through his thin little body. “When I get well,” he said, “I’m going over there to school.” His words unfurled like a gay banner in the golden October air.
“Sure,” said the Professor, with creditable promptness for a man whose breath had been taken away.
The Prodigy sank back. His soft curls cuddled in the crook of his father’s arm. The sudden sleepiness of weakness mastered him. “Sing something,” he ordered; “sing ‘The minstrel boy to the war has gone.’” He listened with infinite satisfaction, gazing up into the pale zenith, falling asleep at last to the mingling strains of distant boyish shouts, and the song of an ancient, beautiful, boyish bravado: —
For he tore its chords asunder.”
There sounded a quiet step in the hall, a faint stir in the doorway.
“Who can write them now?” said a vision in white, with a tea rose tucked in her low, falling dark hair, so straight, so soft, so clearly parted on her pretty brow. She echoed the gallant refrain. “But I suppose we are very archaic to sing Moore to-day.”
“As long as the boys like him,” said the Professor, “his songs will be newfashioned enough for us. But look at my boy. What do you think of him to-day ? ” He added slowly, “Do you know?”
“ That he is n’t a Prodigy any longer ? ”
“I have known for a week. I am so happy that — I am sorry for you.”
“So you think I regret it?”
She looked at him.
He shook his head; “I am glad, too,” he said.
She dropped her eyes to the boy. “Bless his heart,” she murmured, leaning over to see. “He looks like a precious baby, asleep that way. I had n’t an idea his hair was so pretty.”
It tempted her fingers. She could not help brushing it with a butterfly wing of a touch.
“Oh, Lizzy!” exclaimed the Professor just above his breath. She met his eyes, bewildered. Did he not know ? He alone of all her world ?
“How right you were,” he cried, at the end of that long look. “I have never deserved you, Lizzy, — unless it’s now — when I know what a fool I ’ve been, and how dare I ask you to marry a fool?” He brooded a moment. “You’d better take Preston,” he broke out bitterly, jealously.
“Jim,” said Miss Lizzy, beautiful, crimson, longing to laugh, “I’ve managed my own affairs for thirty-two years. I need no advice from you. Frank Preston, indeed!”
Their eyes met in mutual, ungrateful disdain.
“I can’t move,” whispered the Professor.
He glanced down tenderly at the small, clinging hands. The boy stirred, clung closer.
Miss Lizzy’s blush increased. She no longer felt like laughing. She leaned over a little more. Just then the child half roused, half opened his sleepy eyes, put up a drowsy arm about her neck. “Kiss me,” he said.