SLOWLY he rose out of oblivion into empty darkness. His thoughts cohered and he remembered. His hands went to his eyes. They were still masked, and the mask was held fast by sticky tape. A girl’s voice said : “Not yet. You must rest first.”
He rested for hours that stretched into days, while subdued voices, some strange, some familiar, came and went. His hopes were poignant; his fears he could master through strength given him by a scrawny kid in overalls and thick-lensed spectacles whom he hail not seen for years.
He had done his best to live up to the family’s assumption that it was bound to be all right. Such things as the dread alternative just didn’t happen to the Fearons, who were accustomed to success. The operation would restore his sight: that was their imperious conviction.
But as he waited, bored and sightless, for the doctors to remove the bandages, the thought lurked always in his mind. Suppose . . .
It was stronger now, and more persistent, than it had been while he waited at home for the doctors to pronounce him ready for surgery. Somehow, in the confident atmosphere maintained so determinedly at home, he hadn’t been able to come to grips with the prospect of sightlessness.
On his third day at home his mother had said brightly, “I’m going shopping, dear. Would you care to come for the ride?”
"Look, mom,” he’d answered, “take me down to the fish wharf, and pick me up coming back.”
To his parents’ lasting bafflement, since they provided every water-front amenity, including a 15-ton yacht at the smart Pockahatsie Club, the decrepit wharf at the bottom of the cobbled hill through shacktown had been his special boyhood haunt. Before the Navy, before Laura, and before his bloody months in the Pacific, he had spent his happiest flays there— in the water as much as out of it fishing, diving, playing at buccaneers in leaky catboats with the longshore kids. The man had started to grow out of the boy there; and there, instinctively, he now turned to face reality.
His mother said: “Surely you’ve outgrown that awful place now, Michael? What can you possibly want there now?”
“I just want to sit, mom.”
“For goodness sakes! I’ll tuck you up on the stoop. Or if you want sea air you can go to the Yacht Club, where Augustus can look after you.”
“I’d rather go to the wharf, mom, if you don’t mind.”
For once she yielded. She drove him there on her way downtown, and led him down the patched, sagging gangway to the warped old dock. For all the black mask, like an executioner’s, covering his eyes, he walked defiantly, a well-built lad, with tanned cheeks and dark, curly hair, in a lieutenant’s uniform with a row of decoration ribbons.
His mother sat him down at the end reserved for pleasure craft, beyond which were the yard and slips of Spike McCann, the best sailboat builder on the Chesapeake. When she had gone, and he had sat there in his dark a while, he turned his mind to face that other aspect of the chance under whose awful whim he lay. Suppose, just suppose, the surgeon failed. The war was done. His friends were back and settling down to familiar things, which he would never share. His lot would be always different; his life, in which he d meant to do so much, would be passed in the empty night in which he’d spent these last two months.
With the Fleet he had passed through great ordeals without cracking. Now, for a little time, his nerve deserted him.
He never remembered how it came about, but suddenly he was on his feet, with the mask ripped from his eyes, and straining desperately to see the tidewater. His eyes were all right, the doctors swore it! It was just the nerve behind them. He must see. He would see . . .
He strove till he felt his eyes would burst, but there was only darkness. At last, defeated, he sank on the seat again. He wondered, sitting there, if he looked as scared as he felt.
Then presently, through his desolation, came a voice: “Hullo, Mike.”
It sounded familiar, yet he couldn’t place it, as he had placed most of the voices that had hailed him as his mother brought him to the fish wharf.
Pulling himself together he turned toward it. Small, and with a note of awe, it said: “It’s Cheaters, Mike.”
Of course! “Cheaters” McCann, Spike’s offspring, from the boatyard, the tagger-along, by far the youngest of the gang. His mind’s eye saw her as he’d seen her last, a skinny 14-year-old, all knees and elbows, in patched, faded overalls and sneakers, her dark hair parted in two pigtails, big eyes behind the thick-lensed glasses that had earned her nickname. Half pest, half protégé, she had always been there, shirking neither work, weather nor the wildest escapade. He could recall her frantic treble as she’d panted after them. “Heyyy! Wait for me!”
He said: “Hyah, Cheaters.”
“I’ve been watching out for you,” she told him eagerly. “I knew you’d be down one day.”
"Yeah. It's that kind of a place-—or was.”
“It s just the same. Zed Harker got the contract for some fresh piles under the oyster sheds. They still look yellow. I here’s some new gas pumps, red and kind of ritzy-looking. Pop built two more slipways for his Navy contracts. That’s all.’’ Then, in a changed tone, Look, shouldn't you be wearing this?”
The mask was taken from his hand and put on, gently.
As he’d snatched it off in that panic moment, he had knocked his hat back and exposed the wound scar, a seam not yet covered by new hair. “Did it hurt very much?” Cheaters asked.
“Didn’t feel a thing. I was kayoed when the ship blew up. I came to in a hospital, with my head stitched up and—this.”
“You mean your eyes?”
“But I don’t understand. I thought a letter came that they were all right. Your father told pop when he came to see the Wanderer. We’re fitting her new mainmast.”
“They are. It’s the nerve behind that connects the eyes with the brain. It’s being squeezed. They’re going to operate and relieve the pressure. It’s not much of a job and I’ll be good as new. I’m home to build up for it.”
Cheaters digested this. Then she said: “You’ll be like before? Certain?”
“We-ell, I guess so. It’s 50-50.” He tried to make it sound casual, but it didn’t come out so good.
Cheaters’ voice echoed, “Fifty-fifty!” and sounded even worse, not at all like the lead-pipe cinch the family made it. He knew she saw it as he had when it panicked him: an even break, like when you flipped a quarter. And if it went against him—
His voice was sharp and rising. “It’ll be all right. It’s got to be. I can’t be blind.”
“Of course. Mike. Of course it’ll be all right.” By and by she said: “It must be awful for your girl. We heard you were engaged.”
“I’m not. I wanted to be married, but her father said we’d better not have any strings till the war was over. She doesn’t know about this.”
Cheaters’ voice held blank amazement: “Doesn’t know!”
“Nope. She’s out in San Diego. When my people were told my eyes were okay they wrote her. Then, when they heard exactly how it was, I made ’em say I’m ordered complete mental rest like lots of guys are —no writing, books or anything. If it breaks right there’s been no harm done, and if it doesn’t—well, that’ll be that, and she’ll have been spared the worry.”
Cheaters was furious. “Can you beat that? She let her father stop you marrying! What’s it to do with him? And she ought to be right here. Why if—if I had—someone, all hell wouldn’t stop me marrying him. And if he was in trouble, whatever it was, I’d want to know, and I’d be right there with him if I had to crawl. And if he didn’t tell me, that would end it, because I’d know he didn’t trust me.”
“Hey, wait! Why be so tough? Laura’s lovely and gay and she’s never known any beastliness. She’s happy. Why spoil it when I don’t have to?”
“So she’s that sort! That means she’s got money. All the more reason why she should be here. And what sort of wife will she be if she can’t face trouble? Do you suppose there won’t be any grief after you’re married?”
Surprised, he said: “You’re talking pretty grown up, Cheaters.”
She replied shortly: “People do grow up.”
He did not answer, and there was silence for a while. Then she said: “You’re pretty scared, aren’t you, Mike?”
“God, yes! How’d you know?”
“Who wouldn’t be? And I was here just now.”
“You were?” he said, hurt to the bone.
“Don’t feel that way, Mike. Anyone would be scared.”
There was quiet then, until she asked: “How long will it be before they operate?”
“Month, maybe. Depends on how I shape up. Blood tests and weight and stuff’.”
Another, lengthier silence. Then she asked: “You doing anything today?”
“What I do every day. Just sit.”
She ignored that. “I’ve got a boat now. A converted skipjack pop gave me. There’s a grand breeze. I’ll get ma to put us up a lunch and we’ll go off for the day.”
After the way they treated him at home—vitamins, no excitement, early to bed and late to rise, long chairs with blankets, soup and elevating conversation—this startled him. “Can’t,” he said. “Mother’ll be back for me.”
“You can leave word with old Joe Cork. He’s still sitting on his stump, and still whittling. Come on. We’ll beat out and picnic on Shark Island. I’ll make pop drive you home after. Come on, Mike it’ll be like old times.”
His mother would have a catfit, but he found he didn’t care. “Okay,” he said. “If you can stand it I can. But I’ll likely drown you.”
Her voice was excited. “Great! Wait here and I’ll fix everything. Don’t you dare let your mother take you. I won’t be long.”
In 15 minutes she was back. “All set. I’ve got a dandy lunch, special from ma for you. We’ll cook it on the island. The boat’s at our slip. I’ve called her the Blackduck because she’s black with gamboge trim and has a duck for a figurehead. It looked kind of dumb at first, but I gave it a come-hither eye and hopped it up with red and green.” Her hand slid under his elbow. “Let’s go, Mike.”
He let her lead him till she said: “Easy now. Seven steps down. No rail.”
He gibbed then and held back nervously. Her hand left his arm. “Mike Fearon! Did you ever know me to let a person down?”
“Well, I won’t now. I’ll see for both of us. You just relax. So long as I don’t, say anything you can step right out, and when I say do a thing, you do it. There’s seven steps here. We’re going straight down. Find the first with your heel. Ready?”
He accepted her rebuke and braced himself. “Sure, kid. Let me hold your arm. I’m better that way.”
“All right.” She counted the steps aloud. “Dandy! Now three paces on the level to the edge. Whoa, now! You don’t want to wet those ritzy ribbons. Here’s the Duck. She’s more’n two feet down. Give me your hand.”
His hand was taken. “Stretch out. Her mast’s right before you. Lean out a bit—farther still.”
Though it was hard, he did it ; and just as his nerve wavered he found the mast and clutched it gratefully. It took all his will to do it, but he put his foot out and let his weight go down. The foot hit the flush deck, he staggered a moment, clinging to the mast, and then stood firm
“There you are,” Cheaters told him. “Now wait a minute.”
He felt her hands busy at his foot. “Hey! What you doing?”
“Taking off your shoes and socks. Lift up.”
When he was barefoot, as a boatman should be, she said: “Okay. You’re facing aft. She’s open there. Wheel’s on the cabin bulkhead. You don’t need me to show you round a boat, do you?”
Faced with that challenge, he stooped, found the boom with his hands and felt his way along it to the well, where he climbed down and found the steering wheel.
She said: “Jib’s going up. Hard aport when I cast her off.”
He put the rudder over as he heard the sail going up. She said: “Here we go.” He felt her shove off and the wind catch the jib.
A thrown rope hit him in the chest. “There’s your sheet.”
The pawl clacked as she hauled the mainsail up. He waited till she said: “All fast,” then hauled his wind and felt the sail draw. Cheaters called: “Okay now till we clear the point. Port a bit . . . Steady.”
There was a thump as she sprang down beside him. “Here’s a cushion. Lean back.” His foot was seized and set firm against a batten. Soon she said: “Here we go past the point.” The boat heeled sharply and he strained as though to right her, with the knuckles of the hand that clutched the wheel bone white.
Cheaters chided him: “Relax, Mike. What’s biting you? It’s only like at night, except, ’stead of the compass, you get the course from me. You can hold it by the wind on your face. We’re tacking east. I figure we’ll make the island in four legs. There’s five bugeyes drudging a mile to wind’ard, and a motor yacht crossing well ahead. Anything else comes close, or more wind coming, I’ll tell you. Got it?”
Her confidence was infectious. Fixing the picture in his mind, he said: “Sure, I’ve got it, Cheaters.”
"Swell. Now give me that sheet and hold on. We’re gonna sail.”
The kid hauled her close, and the Duck lay down and plunged. In his dark he had to fight again with panic....he contrived to hide it, concentrating upon holding the best course possible by the wind on his face and the way the Duck met the seas. Now... then Cheaters checked him; but..often.
...the boat plunged and the foam hissed along her strake, slowly he relaxed and the strain left his face. Spray stung him, fresh and salt on his lips. He pitched his cap down to let the wind blow through his hair, tilted his head back and breathed deep of the sea air. Cheaters McCann said: “Attaboy !”
As she had prophesied, they beat up to Shark Island in four tacks. In the fringe of trees that flanked the beach she built a fire, and they picnicked regally on oysters, corn on the cob, fried chicken and fresh fruit. Since all of these could be handled without tools, he could eat unhelped, which made them doubly good; and he realized that she had planned it so. Then he lay, replete and drowsy, smoking one of Spike McCann’s best cigars, filched for his benefit.
Lying between the pine roots where he had camped so often as a boy, he thrust his hand into the dry, fine sand, hot from the sun, and let it trickle through his fingers. For the first time since he’d lain trapped in the bowels of a burning ship until her death throe hurled him, stunned and sightless, into the sea, he felt alive.
Cheaters told him: “Weather’s breaking, but I guess we’ll get back dry. There’s quite a fleet drudging now. There’s a coal boat heading upbay, and some bigger steamers farther out. There’s a schooner race out of the Yacht Club. Hayler’s Daystar’s leading and Dan Kearney’s Mullet’s second. You could win with the Mullet, but Kearney’s scared to crowd her enough. Cap Morse will take it with the Sea Horse—he’s a sailin’ fool. Cloud’s packing up to wind’ard and there’s a good few whitecaps. We’ll have a grand run back.”
Listening to her, spreading his senses wide to all they could receive of sound, scent and touch, he had a clearer vision of the future he might have to face.
THAT was the thought he clung to through the grim time following the operation. It was with him now while he waited, with his eyes masked and taped, for the day which would declare his fate.
On the fourth day the doctor said: “Now we’re going to take the mask off' for the night. You won’t see anything. The room’s blacked out and the door’s light-locked, but, even so, the exposure may affect your eyes. They’ll need a while to settle down.”
“How long to wait then, doc?”
“We may put a thinner cover on the window in three days. We’ll know then.”
The nurse said: “Here’s something to make you sleep. Drink it up.”
He heard the lights click out. They pulled the tape painfully from his face, and the cool air touched his eyes. He heard the nurse and the doctor moving but, try as he would, he could see nothing.
They left and he lay staring at the dark. Three days! Three endless, waiting days, and then—
It must have been hours later when he awoke. After being covered for so long, his eyes felt strange in their new freedom. If he were cured, surely he should see something, at the very least the colored vaguenesses a sound man sees with his eyes shut. He tried and tried, but in his eyes nothing had life.
It was then that, with a conviction which permitted no doubt, he knew. Last night had been the test. That was their way of doing it without upsetting him. Doctors did things that way. If he had seen, all would have been well. As it was they had three days in which to break it to him. Last night had been the test and it had failed.
He was blind. Stone-blind for life. A man without sight, always in the dark—
In the horror and despair that filled his heart, as the drowning clutch at straws, his spirit grasped at the one firm thing in his collapsing universe, the words of Cheaters, on the day before he came to hospital, after a month in which they’d been together every day, sailing, fishing, canoeing, swimming, she reading books to him, listening to the radio.
They had been sitting on the wharf edge in the hot sun, dangling their legs above the water, with about them the familiar sounds and smells. They had been silent for a long time.
Suddenly her hand slipped into his. “Mike, don’t think I take it lightly, but, please, don’t be scared. Remember, the worst’s past. That was when you knew first what it—might be. It’ll never be as bad as that again. It’ll get —kind of—better all the time, as you get used to it. Remember, you’ve been living the new way for a month.
“And”—her voice grew pleading— “it hasn’t been quite empty, has it?”
Now he knew definitely he was blind, his one weapon against despair was the truth she’d made him see. Though there would be no Laura and no light, this was not the end of joy. There would be the good sun on his face, good feelings in his hands, sounds in his ears and smells in his nostrils. He could still sail and swim, and that meant much. There would be other things as well.
But with the thought came something deeper, more a feeling than a thought, and more compelling. It was that vital to his enjoyment of these things was Cheaters. But for her he would be in utter panic. It was to her he owed his realization that life was not over, and the strength that knowledge gave. Without Cheaters it could not be the same. She was his eyes. When he was alone it was always night; but when she came it was as though a window opened in a dark room, through which he could see into the world of light. If blindness was to be his lot, then Cheaters must be part of it.
Lying there, struggling to control his thoughts, he blinked his eyes. He blinked again. There seemed to be— something, a sort of—grey shape, a long rectangle. His heart came to his throat and almost choked him.
It was the window! He could see the window! They had lied to him last night, but not the way he’d thought. The room had been blacked out when they left. The reason why he’d been given the sleeping draught was so that, during the night, they could substitute a thinner blind without disturbing him. This, now this moment, was the test! It was daybreak and he could see!
HAVING made all enquiries as to her peoples’ standing, the family had approved of Laura. As his mother, once more vindicated in the Fearon way, drove him home on a morning two weeks later, she remarked: “I suppose you’ll be going to see Laura soon, dear. She'll be so happy.”
For now he let her think so, because to express his feelings was so difficult.
Laura was—Laura. In swimming shorts and a halter, in tailored silk, a I tweed suit or an evening gown, Laura was exquisite. She was gay, wealthy and accomplished, men desired her; he had thought he loved her and that she loved him.
But she hadn’t been prepared to go against her father’s will to marry him, and he hadn’t leaned on her sufficiently to tell her that he might be blind. And, though in his loneliness he had longed for her, when things were bad it was not to her he had turned.
His only aid came from Cheaters McCann, and now he was well the only need he felt was to see the kid and tell her so.
As soon as he had his sight he’d made them wire the news to her. She had answered: “Attaboy!” but that was all. Twice he had written her, but she had not replied.
He told his mother: “Mom, I want a lunch basket for two. The very best.”
“Michael! So soon! What on earth for?”
He told her, and for once went roughshod over her expostulations. The family had ordered him about a bit too much. “All right, mom. If you won’t see to it, I will. For the rest of the day, count me out, please.”
As soon as they reached the house he called up Spike McCann’s. Cheaters answered. He said: “Hyah, Cheaters!”
Her voice was tense and low. Its fervor thrilled him. “Mike! Oh, Mike!”
“I’m coming down right now. I want the Duck, and we’re picnicking on Shark. And the chow’s on me. Get it?”
“Oh, yes. It’s marvellous. But—” there seemed to be something odd about her, in her voice. “I’ll be a while. Make it an hour, will you?”
“Whatever you say. The party’s yours.”
The sun had never been so bright, the elms so green, the Chesapeake, as he topped the cobbled slope above the wharf, so blue. As he went down the gangway, old oystermen and crabbers hailed him joyfully, and tried to speak of Navy sons and friends. He greeted them but did not stop.
It was Saturday, and a boat for two was at the public end of the wharf. There were some youngsters fishing, just as he used to do, and a family boarding a launch.
He was early, and it gave him time to take the old place in. Tense with anticipation Mike paced the warped planking. He revelled in old feelings newly felt and multiplied by all the tribulations he had survived and all he was anticipating.
Up and down he paced impatiently. It was time the kid was out. He wished she’d come. When he was blind she’d always kept dates on the dot.
As he waited there was borne in on him a truth to which, in the stress of his emotions through these last grim months, he had given no thought. The memory of her he’d been carrying was out of date. He had pictured a breathless, skinny child in denim pants, a torn sweater and pigtails, but she must be quite grown-up. Four years he’d been away. She must be—what? Nineteen, maybe. She’d have her hair ...and be properly dressed. .. tried to see her as she must be now, with her horn-rimmed cheaters and her eager ways. Homely and angular and plainly dressed, she’d be.
The kind everyone made use of but no rushed, and whom, now that he had his sight he would not have looked at twice. He thought of that and then of Laura, like an orchid in the evening or like a panther in her swimming things, and still he had no longing for Laura. But at the thought of meeting Cheaters his heart twisted.
It came to him also why she had not written. She was conscious of her looks and was giving him the opportunity to break away, now that he didn’t need her. That made him angry. The only thing he wanted was to see her, and to tell her how he missed her and wanted to be with her, and the thought brought a queer, choky feeling.
Dwelling upon this strange phenomenon, puzzling as to what it meant, suddenly he knew, with a shock that jarred him to his vitals. It must be love! He, Michael Fearon, of the Stark Point Fearons, whom lovely girls had schemed for and who had beaten all men with the transcendent Laura Bayes, had fallen for a goop, a droop, the sort of girl the films made fun of, who sat on the side at dances and parties, trying to look as though she didn’t care.
Cheaters was a woman, and in their dark intimacy, in which the sight had had no part and only deeds had worth, he’d fallen for her.
Swift on the revelation came the thought of what it meant. When you felt like this toward a girl you married her. And though this had started in darkness it must be carried through in the light. The thought of presenting as his wife a girl with Cheaters’ looks brought him a variety of startling pictures. But homely or not, he loved her. He didn’t care what she looked like—he knew what she was. She had everything he wanted and was worth 50 Lauras, and at the first chance he was going to tell her so. But he did wish she’d come, so he could know the worst.
He was pacing the full length of the wharf now, from the oyster sheds at the far end to the steps to Spike’s boatyard at the other, up which she would come. As he swung round at the sheds once more, there was a girl on the gangway. She was in yellow, very fresh and sweet. Laura wore just that yellow, and was a knockout in it. This girl was no frost, either. In fact she was a lulu, a brunette, slim, but with exciting curves, and a walk like a ballet dancer. She might almost be Laura.
When she reached the wharf she disappeared behind a dilapidated net rack, and on the other side he met her face to face.
His jaw dropped and his eyes bugged out. It hit him with the impact of a club that the girl was Cheaters, and that she was beautiful.
In this tremendous moment he recalled that children wore glasses sometimes only for a while for eye correction, and that even skinny kids in overalls grow up.
It was after they had eaten on the beach between the gnarled pine roots on Shark. For a while he left off kissing her and lay back, feasting his eyes on the blue water and the white spouts of surf on Otter Rocks, and listening to the gulls’ cry and the long sigh of the wind-swayed pines.
By and by he realized she was crying. “Hey! What’s this?” He tried to draw her close, but she pulled away and turned her back on him.
Then, suddenly, she turned again and clung to him fiercely, with her face buried in his shoulder.
He let her have it out a while, and then he said: “What is it?”
“Nothing. Only I’m so very happy— and I—I don’t deserve it. I’m selfish and wicked. You don’t know how wicked, Mike! I knew I’d get you if you stayed b-blind, and when I heard you were cured I was miserable, because I thought you’d go to her. And I’d sooner have had you—like you were th-than not at all. But—but if I had got you that way, I’d have been m-m-miserable, too. I knew what you j thought I looked like, and how would j you have known what you’d got?”
“I’d have known,” he said. “Darling, I’d have known!”