Of that greater family, one member had been in the house all through the month which had just gone by. But he had been so quiet, so carefully unobtrusive, that he had been scarcely noticed. Very early each morning, day after day, John had gone outside for his breakfast and thence to the office where he himself had handled the business as well as he could, only coming to Roger at night now and then with some matter he could not settle alone, but always stoutly declaring that he needed no other assistance.
"Don't come, Mr. Gale," he had urged. "You look worn out. You'll be sick yourself if you ain't careful. And anyhow, if you hang around you'll be here whenever she wants you."
Early in Deborah's illness, John had offered to give up his room for the use of one of the nurses.
"That's mighty thoughtful of you, Johnny," Allan had responded. "But we've got plenty of room as it is. Just you stick around. We want you here."
"All right, Doc. If there's any little thing, you know—answering the 'phone at night or anything else that I can do—"
"Thank you, so; I'll let you know. But in the meantime go to bed."
From that day on, John had taken not only his breakfast but his supper, too, outside, and no one had noticed his absence. Coming in late, he had hobbled silently up to his room, stopping to listen at Deborah's door. He had kept so completely out of the way, it was not till the baby was three weeks old, and past its second crisis, that Deborah thought to ask for John. When he came to her bed, she smiled up at him with the baby in her arms.
"I thought we'd see him together," she said. John stood on his crutches staring down. And as Deborah watched him, all at once her look grew intent. "Johnny," she said softly, "go over there, will you, and turn up the light, so we can see him better."
And when this was done, though she still talked smilingly of the child, again and again she glanced up at John's face, at the strange self-absorbed expression, stern and sad and wistful, there. When he had gone the tears came in her eyes. And Deborah sent for her husband.
The next day, at the office, John came into Roger's room. Roger had been at work several days and they had already cleared up their affairs.
"Here's something," said John gruffly, "that I wish you'd put away somewhere."
And he handed to his partner a small blue leather album, filled with the newspaper clippings dealing with Deborah's illness. On the front page was one with her picture and a long record of her service to the children of New York.
"She wouldn't want to see it now," John continued awkwardly. "But I thought maybe later on the boy would like to have it. What do you think?" he inquired. Roger gave him a kindly glance.
"I think he will. It's a fine thing to keep." And he handed it back. "But I guess you'd better put it away, and give it to her later yourself."
John shifted his weight on his crutches, so quickly that Roger looked up in alarm:
"Look here! You're not well!" He saw now that the face of the cripple was white and the sweat was glistening on his brow. John gave a harsh little nervous laugh.
"Why didn't you tell me, you young fool?"
"You had your own troubles, didn't you?" John spoke with difficulty. "But I'll be all right, I guess! All I need is a few days off!"
Roger had pressed a button, and his stenographer came in.
"Call a taxi," he said sharply. "And, John, you go right over there and lie down. I'm going to take you home at once!"
"I've got a better scheme," said John, setting his determined jaws. The sweat was pouring down his cheeks. "It may be a week—but there's just a chance it—may be a little worse than that! So I've got a room in a hospital! See? Be better all round!" He swayed forward.
"Johnny!" Roger caught him just in time, and the boy lay senseless in his arms.
At home, a few hours later, Allan came with another physician down from John's small bedroom. He saw his colleague to the door and then came in to Roger.
"I'm afraid Johnny has come to the end."
For a moment Roger stared at him.
"Has, eh," he answered huskily. "You're absolutely sure he has? There's nothing—nothing on earth we can do?"
"Nothing more than we're doing now."
"He has fooled you fellows before, you know—"
"Not this time."
"How long will it be?"
"Days or hours—I don't know."
"He mustn't suffer!"
"I'll see to that." Roger rose and walked the floor.
"It was the last month did it, of course—"
"I blame myself for that."
"I wouldn't," said Allan gently. "You've done a good deal for Johnny Geer."
"He has done a good deal for this family! Can Deborah see him?"
"I wish she could."
"Better stretch a point for her, hadn't you? She's been a kind of a mother to John."
"I know. But she can't leave her bed."
"Then you won't tell her?"
"I think she knows. She talked to me about him last night."
"That's it, a mother!" Roger cried. "She was watching! We were blind!" He came back to his chair and dropped into it.
"Does John know this himself?" he asked.
"He suspects it, I think," said Allan.
"Then go and tell him, will you, that he's going to get well. And after you've done it I'll see him myself. I've got something in mind I want to think out."
After Allan had left the room, Roger sat thinking about John. He thought of John's birth and his drunken mother, the accident and his struggle for life, through babyhood and childhood, through ignorance and filth and pain, through din and clamor and hunger, fear; of the long fierce fight which John had made not to be "put away" in some big institution, of his battle to keep up his head, to be somebody, make a career for himself. He thought of John's becoming one of Deborah's big family, only one of thousands, but it seemed now to Roger that John had stood out from them all, as the figure best embodying that great fierce hunger for a full life, and as the link connecting, the one who slowly year by year had emerged from her greater family and come into her small one. And last of all he thought of John as his own companion, his only one, in the immense adventure on which he was so soon to embark.
A few moments later he stood by John's bed.
"Pretty hard, Johnny?" he gently asked.
"Oh, not so bad as it might be, I guess—"
"You'll soon feel better, they tell me, boy." John shut his eyes.
"Yes," he muttered.
"Can you stand my talking, just a minute?"
"Sure I can," John whispered. "I'm not suffering any now. He's given me something to put me to sleep. What is it you want to talk about? Business?"
"Not exactly, partner. It's about the family. You've got so you're almost one of us. I guess you know us pretty well."
"I guess I do. It's meant a lot to me, Mr. Gale—"
"But I'll tell you what you don't know, John," Roger went on slowly. "I had a son in the family once, and he died when he was three months old. That was a long time ago—and I never had another, you see—to take his place—till you came along." There fell a breathless silence. "And I've been thinking lately," Roger added steadily. "I haven't long to live, you know. And I've been wondering whether—you'd like to come into the family—take my name. Do you understand?"
John said nothing. His eyes were still closed. But presently, groping over the bed, he found Roger's hand and clutched it tight. After this, from time to time his throat contracted sharply. Tears welled from under his eyelids. Then gradually, as the merciful drug which Allan had given did its work, his clutch relaxed and he began breathing deep and hard. But still for some time longer Roger sat quietly by his side.
The next night he was there again. Death had come to the huddled form on the bed, but there had been no relaxing. With the head thrown rigidly far back and all the features tense and hard, it was a fighting figure still, a figure of stern protest against the world's injustice. But Roger was not thinking of this, but of the discovery he had made, that in their talk of the night before John had understood him—completely. For upon a piece of paper which Allan had given the lad that day, these words had been painfully inscribed:
"This is my last will and testament. I am in my right mind—I know what I am doing—though nobody else does—nobody is here. To my partner Roger Gale I leave my share in our business. And to my teacher Deborah Baird I leave my crutches for her school."