Miss Eastman’s determination was firmly fixed. Dr. Redfield must understand once for all that hers was the exclusive guardianship over David, and with that unwavering idea in her mind she looked into the room. She saw him seated under the shade of the lamp in his faded green house-robe, his shoulders more stooped than formerly, his shaggy head sunk forward, and a greater weariness in his face than she had ever seen in it before.
All at once, as she stood looking at him, her grievances dwindled into pettiness. The words she had come to speak were dumb upon her lips, forgotten in a womanly impulse to go to him, to put her arms about that tired head, and to hold it as though he were nothing more than a little boy. So, presently, when he glanced up, it did not seem at all strange that she should be asking:—
“How is it down there? Very bad?”
One would have thought she had accused him of surrender. He turned upon her with fierce irritability.
“Who says we’re not getting on?” he demanded. “Who says—who says nothing can do any good?”
He grasped the sides of the chair and struggled to his feet. He stood erect like a general, his eyes suddenly lighting up with the fire of inflexible will. Then he was seized with a trembling fit, and sank back in his chair. He rubbed his hands over his gray face; he clenched his fingers, and the knuckle of his thumb went to his eye and got wet in doing it. And it was all so awkward, and so boyish, and so funny, this movement of his fist and the tear-drop on his thumb, that Miss Eastman would have laughed if she had not been crying.
“Who was it, Doctor—who was it that died to-day?”
He told her who it was, and she could not believe him.
“Jim Lehman’s child? Not Emma—surely not little Emma Lehman? How is that possible? Such a very short time ago it seems since I was lending her story-books! She couldn’t speak English at all when she first came to school.”
“You knew her, then?”
“Knew her? She was the only one who cried when I told them I would not teach school any more. She gave me a present once—a woeful, comical Christmas present, a big, clean-washed, smooth potato. That was all she had to give, and she had tied colored strips of tissue paper about it to make it good enough.”
Miss Eastman inquired about other children, one by one, as though calling the roll. At first he evaded her questioning, giving such vague and equivocal replies that presently she clearly understood the situation.
“It is epidemic,” she said, “and you have been keeping this from me. How long since it began?”
“The worst is over,” he answered, with something of the old heartiness that made the sick take courage even in their hour of darkest trial. But he was reluctant to talk much of conditions in Duck Town; and presently, during a lull in the conversation, Miss Eastman laid the pieces of the broken miniature on the table before him.