His father noticed his timidity and
seemed to view it with a sense of humiliation.
Once, in the presence of company, he threatened to
put him into skirts “like any other girl.”
Keith had played too little with other children to
have acquired the usual male consciousness of superiority,
but his father’s words cut him to the quick nevertheless,
because he knew them to be meant for an insult.
He resolved then and there to show his mettle in some
striking way, and promptly be began to dream of such
ways, but chance being utterly lacking for even a normal
display of boyish daring, it merely served to plunge
him more deeply into the sham life of his books.
Yet he was not without courage, and
it was not physical pain, or the fear of it, that
brought the tears so quickly into flowing. Once,
when returning home with an uncovered bowl full of
molasses from the grocery, he stumbled at the foot
of the stairs and fell so his forehead struck the
edge of the lowest step and his scalp was cut open
to the width of nearly an inch. The blood blinded
him so that he could barely make his way upstairs.
When he reached the kitchen at last, his mother was
scared almost out of her wits, and her fright was
augmented by the manner in which he sobbed as if his
heart were breaking. When at last the flow of
blood was partly stenched and his crying still continued,
his mother tried to tell him that there was no cause
to be scared.
“I am not scared,” he
sputtered to her surprise. “I didn’t
know I was hurt, but ... but ... I spilled all
That night his father gave him a shining
new silver coin without telling him why, and the boy
couldn’t guess it at the time, though later he
learned the reason from his mother.
A favourite method employed by the
father to test and to develop his courage was to send
him alone after dark on some errand into the cellar
or up into the attic, and the boy went without protest,
no matter how much he might dread the task at heart.
Even the servant girls felt reluctant about visiting
the cellar at night, and the occasional discovery
of a drunken man asleep in front of the cellar door
made the danger far from imaginary.
Going down to the cellar, Keith was
permitted to bring a candle along, but the danger
of fire made this out of the question when the attic
was his goal. One night on his way up there,
he discovered a white, fluttering shape by the square
opening in the outer wall. He stopped on the
spot, and his heart almost stopped, too but
only for a moment. Driven by some necessity he
could not explain to himself, he picked himself together
and pushed on, only to find that the intimidating
spectre consisted of some white clothing hung for drying
on the iron rod of the shutter and kept moving by
a high wind. It was a lesson that went right
home and stuck.
During that one moment of hesitation,
the idea of a ghost tried to take form in his more
or less paralysed consciousness. He had read of
ghosts, and overheard stories told by the servant
girls in apparent good faith, and that whitish, almost
luminous thing in front of him, stirring restlessly
with a faint hissing sound, looked and acted the part
of a ghost to perfection. But the idea was rejected
before it had taken clear shape and without any reasoning,
instinctively, automatically. His father always
became scornful at the mere mention of ghosts, and
that settled it.
When it was all over, and he was safe
within the kitchen door once more, he told no one
what had happened. He thought that, in spite of
his initial scare, he had acted decidedly well, and
he was eager for approval, but he was kept from telling
by an uneasy feeling that his father would laugh at
him if he did.