“I don’t know,” said he. “That’s where I’m stuck. Is the whole show a skin game or is it worth while? But, parson, whatever it is, you pay a hell of a price when you buy yourself on the instalment plan, believe me!” his voice broke, as if on a suppressed groan. “If I could get it over and done with, pay for my damned little soul in one big gob, I wouldn’t mind. But to have to buy what I’m buying, to have to pay what I’m paying—”
“You are ill,” said I, deeply concerned. “I was afraid of this.”
He laughed, more like a croak.
“Sure I’m sick. I’m sick to the core of me, but you and Westmoreland can’t dose me. Nobody can do anything for me, I have to do it myself or go under. That’s part of paying on the instalment plan, too, parson.”
“I don’t think I exactly understand—”
“No, you wouldn’t. You paid in a lump sum, you see. And you got what you got. Whatever it was that got you, parson, got the best of the bargain.” His voice softened.
“You are talking in parables,” said I, severely.
“But I’m not paying in parables, parson. I’m paying in me,” said he, grimly. And he laughed again, a laugh of sheer stark misery that raised a chill echo in my heart. His hand crept back to my sleeve.
“I—can’t always can the squeal,” he whispered.
“If only I could help you!” I grieved.
“You do,” said he, quickly. “You do, by being you. I hang on to you, parson. And say, look here! Don’t you think I’m such a hog I can’t find time to be glad other folks are happy even if I’m not. If there’s one thing that could make me feel any sort of way good, it’s to know those two who were made for each other have found it out. It sort of makes it look as if some things do come right, even if others are rotten wrong. I’m glad till it hurts me. I’d like you to believe that.”
“I do believe it. And, my son! if you can find time to be glad of others’ happiness, without envy, why, you’re bound to come right, because you’re sound at the core.”
“You reckon I’m worth my price, then, parson?”
“I reckon you’re worth your price, whatever it is. I don’t worry about you, John Flint.”
And somehow, I did not. I left him with Kerry’s head on his knee. His hand was humanly warm again, and the voice in which he told me goodnight was bravely steady. He sat erect in his doorway, fronting the night like a soldier on guard. If he were buying his soul on the instalment plan I was sure he would be able to meet the payments, whatever they were, as they fell due.
THE WISHING CURL
With February the cold that the Butterfly Man had wished for came with a vengeance. The sky lost its bright blue friendliness and changed into a menacing gray, the gray of stormy water. Overnight the flowers vanished, leaving our gardens stripped and bare, and our birds that had been so gay were now but sorry shivering balls of ruffled feathers, with no song left in them. When rain came the water froze in the wagon-ruts, and ice-covered puddles made street-corners dangerous.