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THE SECOND VIOLIN
BY GRACE S. RICHMOND
“Red Pepper Burns,” “Mrs. Red Pepper,” “The Indifference of Juliet,” “With Juliet in England,” Etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY
PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Copyright, 1905, 1906, by
Perry Mason Company.
Copyright, 1906, by
Doubleday, Page & Company
Published, September, 1906.
* * * * *
BOOK I The Second Violin
BOOK II The Churchill Latch-string
* * * * *
THE SECOND VIOLIN
* * * * *
Crash! Bang! Bang! “_The March of the Pilgrims_” came to an abrupt end. John Lansing Birch laid down his viola and bow, whirled about, and flung out his arms in despair. “Oh, this crowd is hopeless!” he groaned. “Never mind any other instrument, providing _yours_ is heard. This march is supposed to die away in the distance! You murder it in front of the house. That second violin–“
Here his wrath centered upon the red-cheeked, black-eyed young player.
The second violin returned his gaze with resentment. “What’s the use of my playing like a midsummer zephyr when Just’s sawing away like mad on the bass?” she retorted.
The first violin smiled pleasantly on the little group. “Let’s try it again,” she suggested, “and see if we can please John Lansing better.”
“You’re all right,” said Lansing, with a wave of his hand at Celia, “if the rest of the strings wouldn’t fight to drown you out. Charlotte plays as if second violin were a solo part, with the rest as accompaniment.”
Charlotte tucked her instrument under a sulky, round chin, raised her bow and waited, her eyes on the floor. Celia, smiling, softly tried her strings.
“That’s it, precisely,” began the leader, still with irritation. “Celia tunes between practice; Charlotte takes it for granted she’s all right and fires ahead. Your E string is off!”
The second violin grudgingly tightened the E string; then all her strings in turn, lengthening the process as much as possible. The ‘cello did the same–the ‘cello always stood by the second violin. Jeff gave Charlotte a glance of loyalty. His G string had been flatter than her E.
Lansing wheeled about and picked up his instrument, carefully trying its pitch. He gave the signal, and the “_March of the Pilgrims_” began–in the remote distance. The double-bass viol gripped his bow with his stubby twelve-year-old fingers, and hardly breathed as he strove to keep his notes subdued. The ‘cello murmured a gentle undertone; the first violin sang as sweetly and delicately as a bird, her _legato_ perfect. The second violin fingered her notes through, but the voice of her instrument was not heard at all.
The leader glanced at her once, with a frown between his fine eyebrows, but Charlotte played dumbly on. The Pilgrims approached–_crescendo_; drew near–_forte_; passed–_fortissimo_; marched away–_diminuendo_; were almost lost in the distance–_piano_–_pianissimo_. Uplifted bows–and silence.
“Good!” said a hearty voice behind them. Everybody looked up, smiling–even the second violin. His children always smiled when Mr. Roderick Birch came in. It would have been a sour temper which could have resisted his genial greeting.
“Mother would like the _’Lullaby’_ next,” he said. “She’s rather tired to-night. And after the _’Lullaby’_ I want a little talk with you all.”
Something in his voice or his eyes made his elder daughter take notice of him, as he dropped into a chair by the fire. “Play your best,” she warned the others, in a whisper. But they needed no warning. Everybody always played his best for father. And if mother was tired–
The notes of the second violin fell daintily, caressing those which wrought out the melody enveloping but never overwhelming them. As the music ceased, the leader, turning to the second violin, met her reluctant eyes with a softening in his own keen ones. The hint of a laugh curved the corners of her lips as his smiled broadly. It was all the truce necessary. Charlotte’s sulks never lasted longer than Lanse’s impatience.
They laid aside their instruments and gathered round their father. Graceful, brown-eyed Celia sat down beside him; Charlotte’s curly black hair mingled with his heavy iron-gray locks as she perched upon the arm of his chair, her scarlet flannel arm under his head. The youngest boy, Justin, threw himself flat on the hearth-rug, chin propped on elbow, watching the fire; sixteen-year-old Jeff helped himself to a low stool, clasping long arms about long legs as his knees approached his head in this posture; and the eldest son, pausing, drew up a chair and sat down to face the group.
“Now for it,” he said. “It looks serious–a consultation of the whole. Mayn’t we have mother to back us?”
“I’ve sent mother to bed,” Mr. Birch explained. “She wanted to come down to hear you play, but I wouldn’t let her. And indeed there are moments–” He glanced quizzically at his eldest son.
“Yes, sir,” Lansing responded, promptly. “There are moments when the furnace pipes convey up-stairs as much din as she can bear.”
Mr. Birch sat looking thoughtfully into the fire for a minute or two.
He began at last, gently, “Celia–has mother seemed quite strong to you of late?”
“Mother–strong?” asked Celia, in surprise. “Why, father, isn’t she? She–had that illness last winter, and was a long time getting about, but she has seemed well all summer.”
Their eyes were all upon his face. Even young Justin had swung about upon his elbows and was regarding his father with attention. They waited, startled.
“I took her to Doctor Forester to-day, and he–surprised me a good deal. He seemed to think that mother must not spend the coming winter in this climate. Don’t be alarmed; I don’t want to frighten you, but I want you to appreciate the necessity. He thinks that if mother were to have a year of rest and change we need have no fears for her.”
“Fears!” repeated Lansing, under his breath. Was it possible that anything was the matter with mother? Why, she was the central sun about which their little family world moved! There could not–must not–be anything wrong with mother!
“Tell us plainly, father,” urged Celia’s soft voice. She was pale, but she spoke quietly.
Charlotte, at the first word of alarm, had turned her face away. Jeff’s bright black eyes–he was Charlotte’s counterpart in colouring and looks–rested anxiously on the second violin’s curly mop of hair, tied at the neck with a big black bow of ribbon. It was always most expressive to Jeff, that bow of ribbon.
Lansing repeated Celia’s words. “Yes, tell us plainly, sir. We’d rather know.”
“I am alarming you,” Mr. Birch said, quickly. “I knew I could not say the slightest thing about her without doing that. But I need to talk it over with you all, because if we carry out the doctor’s prescription it means much sacrifice for every one. I had no doubt that you would make it, but I think it is better for you to understand its importance. Doctor Forester says New Mexico is an almost certain cure for such trouble as mother’s, if taken early. And we are taking it early.”
Justin and Jeff looked puzzled, but Celia caught her breath, and Lansing’s ruddy colour suddenly faded. Charlotte buried her head in her father’s shoulder and drew the scarlet flannel arm tighter about his neck.
The iron-gray head bent over the curly black one for a moment, as if the strong man of the household found it hard to face the anxious eyes which searched his, and would have liked, like his eighteen-year-old daughter, to run to cover. But in an instant, he looked up again and spoke in the cheery tone they knew so well.
“Now listen, and be brave,” he said. “Mother’s trouble is like a house just set on fire. A dash of Water and a blanket–and it is out. Wait till a whole room is ablaze, and it’s a serious matter to stop it. Now, in our case, we’ve only the little kindling corner to smother, and the New Mexico air is water and blanket–a whole fire department, if need be. The doctor assures me that with mother’s good constitution, and the absence of any hereditary predisposition to this sort of thing, we’ve only to give her the ten or twelve months of rest and reenforcement–the winter in New Mexico, the summer in Colorado–to nip the whole thing in the bud. I believe him, and you must believe him–and me. More than all, you must not show the slightest change of front to her. She knows it all, but she doesn’t want you to know. I think differently about that.
“Three of you are men and women now, and the other two,” he smiled into the upturned, eager faces of Jeff and Justin, “are getting to be men. Even my youngest can be depended upon to act the strong part.”
Justin scrambled to his feet at that, and gravely laid a muscular boy’s hand in his father’s.
“I’ll stand by you, sir,” he said.
Nobody laughed. Charlotte’s black bow twitched and a queer sound burst from the shoulder where her head was buried. Jeff’s thick black lashes went down for a moment; Celia shook two bright drops from brimming eyes and patted Just’s sturdy shoulder. Mr. Birch shook the hand vigorously without speaking, and only Lansing found words to express what they felt.
“He speaks for us all, I know, sir. And now if you’ll tell us our part we’ll take hold. I think I know what it means. Trips to New Mexico, from New York, are expensive.”
“They are very expensive,” Mr. Birch replied, slowly. “I must go with her. We must travel in the least fatiguing fashion, which means state-rooms on trains and many extras by the way. She has kept up bravely, but this unusual exhaustion after one day in town shows me how careful I must be of her on the long journey. Then, once away, no expense must be spared to make the absence tell for all there is in it. And most of all to be considered, while I am away there will be–no income.”
They looked at each other now, Celia at Lansing, and Lansing at Jeff, and Jeff at both of them. Charlotte sat up suddenly, her cheeks and eyes burning, and stared hard at each in turn.
The income would stop. And what would that mean? The family had within three years suffered heavy financial losses from causes outside of their control, and the father’s income, that of attorney-at-law in a large suburban town, had since become the only source of support. So far it had sufficed, although Charlotte and Celia had been sent away to school, and both Celia and Lansing were now in college.
It was the remembrance of these heavy demands upon the family purse which now caused the young people to look at one another with startled questioning. Lansing was about to begin his senior year at a great university; Celia had finished her first year at a famous women’s college. Within a fortnight both were expecting to begin work.
Charlotte did not care about a college course, but she had planned for two years to go to a school of design, for she was a promising young worker in things decorative. As for Jefferson, sixteen years old, captain of the high-school football team, six feet tall, and able to give his brother Lansing a hard battle for physical supremacy, his dearest dream was a great military school. Even Justin–but Justin was only twelve–his dreams could wait. His was the only face in the group which remained placid during the moments succeeding Mr. Birch’s mention of the astonishing fact about the income.
The father’s observant eyes noted all that his children’s looks could tell him of surprise, disappointment and bewilderment; and of the succeeding effort they made to rally their forces and show no sign of dismay.
Lansing made the first effort. “I can drop back a year,” he said, thoughtfully. “Or I–no–merely working my way through this year wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t help out at home.”
“Why, Lanse!” began Celia, and stopped.
He glanced meaningly at her, and the colour flashed back into her cheeks. In the next instant she had followed his lead.
“If Lanse can stay out of college, I can, too,” she said, with decision.
“If I could get some fairly good position,” Lanse proposed, “I ought to be able to earn enough to–well, we’re rather a large family, and our appetites—-“
“I could do something,” began Charlotte, eagerly. “I could–I could do sewing—-“
At that there was a general howl, which quite broke the solemnity of the occasion. “Charlotte–sewing!” they cried.
“Why not take in washing?” urged Lanse.
“Or solicit orders for fancy cooking?”
“Or tutor stupid little boys in languages? Come! Fiddle–stick to your specialty.”
Charlotte’s face was a study as she received these hints. They represented the things she disliked most and could do least well. Yet they were hardly farther afield than her own suggestion of sewing. Charlotte’s inability with the needle was proverbial.
“What position do you consider yourself eminently fitted for, Mr. Lansing Birch?” she inquired, with uplifted chin.
“You have me there,” her brother returned, good-humouredly. “There’s only one thing I can think of–to go into the locomotive shops. Mechanics’ wages are better than most, and a little practical experience wouldn’t hurt me.”
It was his turn to be met with derision. It could hardly be wondered at, for as he stood before them, John Lansing looked the personification of fastidiousness, and his face, although it surmounted a strongly proportioned and well developed body, suggested the mental characteristics not only of his father, but of certain great-grandfathers and uncles, who had won their distinction in intellectual arenas. Even his father seemed a little daunted at this proposal.
“That’s it–laugh!” urged Lanse. “If I’d proposed to try to get on the ‘reportorial staff’ of a city newspaper you’d all smile approval, as at a thing suited to my genius. I’d have to live in town to do that, and what little I earned would go to fill my own hungry mouth. Now at the shops–you needn’t look so top-lofty! Dozens of fellows who are taking engineering courses put on the overalls, shoulder a lunch-pail and go to work every morning during vacation at seven o’clock. They come grinning home at night, their faces black as tar, their spirits up in Q, jump into a bath-tub, put on clean togs, and come down to dinner looking like gentlemen–but _not_ gentlemen any more thoroughly than they have been all day.”
Jeff looked at his brother seriously. “Lanse,” he said, “if you go into one of the locomotive shops won’t you get a place for me?”
But Celia interposed. “Whatever the rest of us do,” she said, “Jeff and Just must keep on with school.”
Jeff rebelled with a grimace. “Not much!” he shouted. “I guess one six-footer is as good as another in a boiler-shop. You don’t catch me swallowing algebra and German when I might be developing muscle. If Lanse puts on overalls I’m after him.”
Celia looked at her father. “What do you think of all this, sir?” she asked. “If I stay at home, dismiss Delia, and do the housework myself, and Lanse finds some suitable position, can’t we get on? Charlotte can put off the school of design another year. We will all be very economical about clothes—-“
“Being economical doesn’t bring in cash to pay bills,” interrupted Jeff. “Do the best he can, Lanse won’t draw any hair-raising salary the first year. He could probably get clerical work at one of the banks, but what’s that? He’d fall off so in his wind I could throw him across the room in three months.”
They all laughed. Jeff’s devotion to athletics dominated his ideals at all times, and his disgust at the thought of such a depletion of his brother’s physical forces was amusing.
Celia was still looking at her father. He spoke in the hearty tone to which they were accustomed, his face full of satisfaction.
“You please me very much, all of you,” he said. “It will be the best tonic I can offer your mother. Her greatest trial is this very necessity, which she foresaw the instant the plan was formed–so much sacrifice on the part of her children. Yet she agreed with me that the experience might not be wholly bad for you, and she said”–he paused, smiling at his elder daughter–“that with Celia at the helm she was sure the family ship wouldn’t be wrecked”
Then he told them that they might plan the division of labour and responsibility as they thought practicable. He agreed with Celia that the younger boys must remain in school, but added–since at this point it became necessary to mollify his son Jefferson–that a fellow with a will might find any number of remunerative odd jobs out of school and study hours. He commended Lansing’s idea, but advised him to look around before deciding; and he passed an affectionate hand over Charlotte’s black curls as he observed that young person sunk in gloom.
“Cheer up, little girl!” he said. “The second violin is immensely important to the music of the family orchestra. The hand that can design wall-papers can learn to relieve the mistress of the house of some of her cares. Celia, without a maid in the kitchen, will find plenty of use for such a quick brain as lies under this thatch.”
But at this moment something happened–something to which the family were not unused. Charlotte suddenly wriggled out from under the caressing hand, and in half a dozen quick movements was out of the room. They had all had a vision of brilliant wet eyes, flushing cheeks, and red, rebellious mouth.
“Poor child!” murmured Celia. “She thinks we find her of no use.”
“She is rather a scatterbrain,” Lanse observed. “The year may do her good, as you say, father–as well as the rest of us,” he added, with modesty.
“There’s a lot of things she can do, just the same,”–Jeff fired up, instantly–“things the rest of us are perfect noodles at. When she gets to earning more money in a day than the rest of us can in a month maybe we’ll let up on that second-fiddle business.”
“Good for you, you faithful Achates!” said Lanse. Then he turned to his father. “You haven’t told us yet when you go, sir.”
“If we can, two weeks from to-day,” said Mr. Birch. Then he went up-stairs to tell his wife that she might go peacefully to sleep, for her children were ready to become her devoted slaves. Justin followed Jeff out of the room, and Jeff broke away from this younger brother and hastened to rap a familiar, comforting signal of comradeship on Charlotte’s locked door.
Left alone, Lanse and Celia looked at each other.
“Well, old girl–” began Lansing, gently.
“O Lanse!” breathed Celia.
He patted her shoulder. “Bear up, dear. It’s tough to give up college for a year–“
“Oh, _that’s_ not it!” cried the girl, and buried her face in a sofa pillow.
“No, that’s not it,” he answered, under his breath. He shook his shoulders and walked away to the fire, stood staring down into it for a minute with sober eyes, then drew a long breath and came back to his sister.
“It’s a relief that there’s something we can do to help her get well,” he said, slowly. “And she will get well, Celia–she will–_she must_!”
* * * * *
“Where’s the shawl-strap?”
“Charlotte, wait just a moment; are you perfectly sure that mother’s dressing sack and knit slippers are in the case? Nobody saw them put in, and I don’t–“
“Justin, run down-stairs, please, and get that unopened package of water-biscuit. You’ll find it on the pantry shelf, I think.”
“Lanse, if the furnace runs all night with the draught on, your fire will be burned out in the morning, and it will take an extra amount of coal to get it started again.”
“Where’s Jeff? He must be told about–“
“Put mother’s overshoes to warm.”
“I have left two hundred dollars to your credit at the bank, Lansing, and I–“
“Lanse, did you telephone for–“
“Where did Celia put the–“
“Listen, all of you. I–“
“What did Jeff do with that small white–“
“_Silence!_” shouted Lansing, above the din. “Can’t you people get these traps together without all yelling at once? You will have mother so used up she can’t start.”
Mrs. Birch smiled at her tall son from the easy chair where she had been placed ten minutes before, her family protesting that they could finish the numberless small tasks yet to be done. It was nine o’clock in the evening, and it lacked but an hour of train-time.
They all looked at the slender figure in the easy chair. They had learned in these last two weeks to take note of their mother’s appearance as, with easy confidence in her exhaustless strength, they had never done before. Since the night when they had learned that she was not quite well, they had discovered for themselves the delicacy of the smiling face, the thinness of the graceful body, the many small signs by which those who run may read the evidences of lessened vitality, if their eyes are once opened. They wondered that they had not seen it all before, and found the only explanation in the cheery, undaunted spirit which had covered up every sign of fatigue.
“She is too tired already,” declared Celia. “Run away, and let father and me finish.”
But they would not go. How could they, with only an hour left? They subdued their voices, and ran whispering about. Jeff held a long conference in an undertone with his mother. Justin perched on the arm of her chair, with his head on her shoulder, and she would not have him taken away, her own heart sick within her at thought of the long absence from them all. Altogether, when one took into account the preceding fortnight of making ready for the trip, it was not strange that in this last hour of preparation she gave out entirely.
The first they knew of it was when Mr. Birch, with a low exclamation, sprang across the room, and catching up his wife in his arms, carried her to a couch.
“Water!” he said. “And open the window!”
Startled, they obeyed him. It was only a brief unconsciousness, and the lovely brown eyes when they unclosed were as full of bravery as ever, but Mr. Birch spoke anxiously to Lansing in the hall outside.
“I don’t like to start with her, as worn-out as this,” he said. “Yet everything is engaged–the state-room and all–and I don’t want to delay without reason. There’s not time to send to the city for Doctor Forester. Suppose you telephone Doctor Ridgway to come around and tell us what to do about starting. If he is out, try Sears or Barton. Have him hurry. We’ve barely forty-five minutes now.”
In three minutes Lansing came back and beckoned his father out of the room.
“They’re all out,” he said, “I tried old Doctor Hitchcock, too, but he’s sick in bed. How about that new doctor that’s just moved in next door? I like his looks. He certainly will know enough to advise about this.”
Mr. Birch hesitated a moment. “Well, call him,” he decided.
Lansing was already down the stairs. Three minutes later he returned with the young doctor. Mr. Birch met them in the hall.
“Doctor Churchill, father.” Mr. Birch looked keenly into a pair of eyes whose steady glance gave him instantly the feeling that here was a man to trust.
The young people waited impatiently outside while Doctor Churchill spent fifteen quiet minutes with their father and mother. When Mr. Birch came to the door again with the physician, he was looking relieved.
Doctor Churchill paused before the little group, his eyes glancing kindly at each in turn, as he spoke to Lansing. He certainly was young but there was about him an air of quiet confidence and decision which one felt instinctively would be justified by further acquaintance.
“Don’t be anxious,” he said. “All this hurry of preparation has been a severe test on her, taken with her reluctance to leave her home. She is feeling stronger now, and it will be better for her to get the leave-taking over than to postpone and dread it longer. You will all make it easy for her–No breakdowns,” he cautioned, with a smile. “New Mexico is a great place, and you are doing the best thing in the world in getting her off before cold weather.”
He was gone, but they felt as if a reviving breeze had passed over them, and when they went back to their mother’s room it was with serene faces. If Charlotte swallowed hard at a lump in her throat, and Celia lingered an instant behind the rest to pinch the colour back into her cheeks, nobody observed it. Perhaps each was too occupied with acting his own light-hearted part. Somehow the minutes slipped away, and soon the travellers were at the door.
Into Mrs. Birch’s face, also, the colour had returned, summoned there, it may be, not only by the doctor’s stimulating draught, but by the insistence of her own will.
“Good-by! good-by! God be with you all!” murmured Mr. Birch, breaking with difficulty away from Justin’s frantic hug.
Mrs. Birch, on Lansing’s arm, had gone down the steps to the carriage. The father followed, surrounded by an eager group. Only Lansing was to go to the train. The others, as they crowded round the carriage door, were incoherently mingling parting messages. Then presently they were left behind, a suddenly quiet, sober group.
Inside the carriage Mrs. Birch, with her hand in her eldest son’s, was saying to him things he never forgot, while his father looked steadily out of the window.
“I leave them in your care, dear,” she told Lansing, in the quiet, confident tones to which he was used from her. “I could never go, I think, if I hadn’t such a strong, brave, trustworthy son to leave in care of the younger ones. Celia will do her part, and do it beautifully, I know, but it’s on you I rely.”
“I’ll do my best,” he answered, cheerfully, although he felt, even more than before, the heavy responsibility upon him.
“I know you will. Don’t let Celia overdo. She will be so ambitious to run the household economically that she will set herself tasks she’s not fit for. See that Jeff keeps steadily at his studies, and be lenient with Justin. He adores you–you can make the year do much for him if you take thought. And with my little Charlotte–be very patient, Lanse. She will miss us most–and show it least.”
“I doubt that,” thought Lanse, but aloud he said, “We’ll all hang together, mother, you may count on that. We have our differences and our, eccentricities, but we’ve a lot of family spirit, and no one of us is going to sacrifice alone while the rest fail to take notice. And you’re going to know all that goes on. We’ve planned to take turns writing so that at least every other day a letter will start for New Mexico.”
“And if anything should go wrong?”
“Nothing will,” asserted Lansing.
“That you don’t know, dear,” said the gentle voice, not quite so steadily as before. “If anything should come we must know.”
“I’ll remember,” he promised, reluctantly, his hand under pressure from hers. But inwardly he vowed, “Anything short of real trouble you’ll not know, little mother. Your children are stronger than you now, and they can bear some things for you.”
At the train it took all Lansing’s determination, sturdy fellow though he was, to keep up his cheerful front. The colour had ebbed away from Mrs. Birch’s face once more, and as she put up her arms to her tall son, in the little state-room, she seemed to him all at once so small and frail that he could not endure to see her go away from them all, facing even the remote possibility that in the new land she might fail to find again her old vigour.
It had to be done, however. Lansing received her clinging good-by, whispered in her ear something which would have been unintelligible to any but a mother’s intuition, so choky was his voice, gripped his father’s hand with both his own, turned and smiled back at the two as he pulled open the door, and swung off the train just as it began to move.
He raced away over the streets to take a trolley-car for home, having dismissed the carriage, and craving nothing so much as a long walk in the cool September night.
At home he found everybody gone to bed except Celia, who met him at the door. She smiled at him, but he could see that she had been crying. Although he had carried home a heavy heart, he braced himself to begin his task of keeping the family cheered up.
“Off all right!” he announced, in a casual tone, as if he had just sent away the guests of a week. “Splendid train, jolly state-room, porter one of the ‘_Yassir, yassir_’ kind. Judge and Mrs. Van Camp were taking the same train as far as Chicago. That will do a lot toward making things pleasant to start with.”
“I’m so glad!” Celia agreed. “How did mother get off? Did her strength keep up?”
“Pretty well–better than I’d have thought possible after all the fuss of that last hour. The new doctor braced her up in good shape. He seems all right. Didn’t you like the way he acted? Neither like an old family physician nor a new johnny-jump-up; just quiet and cool and pleasant. Glad he lives next door. I mean to know him.”
Lansing was turning out lights as he talked, looking after window fastenings, and examining things generally. Celia watched him from her place on the bottom stair. He was approaching her with the intention of putting out the hall light and joining her to proceed up-stairs, when he stopped still, wheeled, and made for the back of the hall, where the cellar stairs began.
“I’m forgetting the furnace!” he cried.
“It’s all right,” Celia assured him. “Jeff took care of it. He says that’s his work, since you’re to be away all day.”
“Think he can manage it?”
“Of course he can. The way to please Jeff is to give him responsibility. He’s old enough, and even having to look after such small matters regularly will help to develop him.”
Lansing laughed; then, extinguishing the light, he came up to her on the stair, and putting his arm about her shoulders, began to ascend slowly with her.
“Shouldering your cares already, aren’t you? Got to keep us all straight, and develop all our characters. Poor girl, you’ll have a hard tussle!”
“I’m afraid I shall. Do you go to work at the shops in the morning?”
“Yes. Breakfast at six. Did you tell Delia?”
“Yes, but I’m going to let her go afterward. I arranged with her, when father first told us, to stay just till they had gone, and then leave things to me. I can’t be too busy from now on, and I don’t want to wait a day to begin.”
“Wise girl. Sorry, though, that I have to get you up every morning so early. Couldn’t you leave things ready so I could manage for myself about breakfast, somehow?”
“No, indeed! If I’m to have a day-labourer for a brother, I shall see that he has a good hot breakfast and the heartiest kind of a lunch in his pail every-day.”
“You’re the right sort!” murmured Lansing, patting his sister’s shoulder as he paused with her in front of her door. “I must admit I shall prefer the hot breakfast. Better sleep late to-morrow morning, though.”
“I shall be up when you are,” Celia declared.
“Look here, little girl,” said Lansing, speaking soberly in the darkness. “You know you haven’t got this household on your shoulders all alone. It’s a partnership affair, and don’t you forget it. Now, good night, and take care you sleep like a top.”
Celia held him tight for a minute, and answered bravely:
“You’re a dear boy, and a great comfort.”
Lansing tiptoed away to his own room, farther down the hall, feeling a strong sense of relief that the determination of the young substitute heads of the house to begin the new regime without a preliminary hour of wailing had been successfully carried through.
“We’ve got the worst over,” he thought, as he fell asleep. “Once fairly started, it won’t be so bad. Celia’s clear grit, that’s sure.”
Alone in her room, Celia had it out with herself, and spent a wakeful night. But she brought a cheerful face to Lansing’s early breakfast, and when the younger members of the family came down later she was ready for them with the sunshine they had dreaded not to find.
Everybody spent a busy day. Jeff and Justin went off to school. Charlotte announced with meekness that she was ready for whatever work Celia might find for her, and was given various rooms up-stairs to sweep and dust, her sister being confident that vigorous manual labour would be the best tonic for a mind dispirited.
As for Celia herself, she dismissed Delia, the maid of all work, with a kindly farewell and the letters of recommendation her mother had prepared, and plunged eagerly into business. She was a born manager, and loved many of the details of housework, particularly the baking and brewing, and she was soon enthusiastically employed in putting the small kitchen to rights.
At noon Charlotte and the boys were served with a light luncheon, with the promise of greater joys to come, and by five in the afternoon the house was filled with the delightful odours of successful cookery.
At that hour Charlotte, whose labours had been enlarged by herself to cover a thorough overhauling of the entire house–such tasks being her special aversion, and therefore to be discharged without mitigation on this first day of self-sacrifice–wandered disconsolately into the kitchen with broom and dust-pan, looking sadly weary. She gazed with envious eyes at her sister, flying about in a big apron, with sleeves rolled up, her cheeks like carnations, her eyes bright with triumph.
“Well, you do start in with vim,” the younger sister observed, dropping into a chair with a long sigh.
“Yes; and the work has gone better than I had hoped,” declared Celia, whisking a tinful of plump rolls into the oven. “It’s really fun.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
“Poor child,” said Celia, pausing to glance at the dejected figure in the chair, its dark curls a riot of disorder, a smudge of black upon its forehead, and its pinafore disreputable with frequent use as a duster, “I gave you too much to do! Didn’t I hear you in Delia’s room? You needn’t have touched that to-day.”
“Wanted to get through with it. Delia may be a good cook, but she left a mess of a closet up-stairs. Please give me one of those warm cookies. I’m so used up and hungry I can’t wait for supper.”
“Justin came in half an hour ago so famished there wouldn’t have been a cookie left if I hadn’t filled him up with a banana. By the way, I sent him down cellar after some peach pickles, and I haven’t seen him since. I’ll run down and get some. I’ve hot rolls and honey for supper, and Lanse always wants peach pickles with that combination.”
Celia took a bowl from the cupboard, opened the cellar door and started down, turning on the second step to say:
“Go and take a bath and put on a fresh frock; you won’t feel half so tired. Wear the scarlet waist, will you? I want things particularly bright and cheery to-night, for I know Lanse will come home fagged with the new work. Mrs. Laurier sent over some red carnations. I’ve put them in the middle of the table; they look ever so pretty. I’m going to—-“
What she intended to do Celia never told, if she ever afterward remembered. What she did do was to slip upon the third step of the steep stairway, and, with no outcry whatever, go plunging heavily to the bottom.
* * * * *
“Celia–Celia–are you hurt?” cried Charlotte, and dashed down the stairs.
There was no answer. With trembling hands she felt for her sister’s head. It lay close against the cellar wall, and she instantly understood that Celia must be unconscious. But whether there might be more to be feared than unconsciousness she could not tell in the dark. Her first thought was to get a light, the next that she must have help at once.
She rushed up the stairs, calling Jeff and Justin, but neither boy was to be found. Then she ran to the telephone, with the idea of summoning one of the suburban physicians, but turned aside from this purpose with the further realisation that first of all Celia must be brought up from the cold, dark place in which she lay, and restored to consciousness.
She ran to the front door to summon the nearest neighbour, and she remembered then, with relief, that the nearest neighbour was Doctor Churchill, the young physician who had been called in to see her mother the evening before.
She flew across the narrow lawn between her own house and that where the new doctor had set up his office, and rang imperatively. The door opened, and Doctor Churchill, hat and case in hand, evidently on his way to a patient, stood before her.
What he thought of the figure before him, with its riotous curly black hair, brilliant eyes, pale dark cheeks, dusty pinafore, a singular smudge upon the forehead, and sleeves rolled up to the elbows, nobody would have known from his manner, which instantly expressed a friendly concern.
Charlotte could only gasp, “Oh, come–quick!”
He followed her, stopping to ask no questions. At the open cellar door Charlotte stood aside to let him pass.
“Down there–my sister!” she breathed.
“Bring a light, please,” said the doctor, and he disappeared down the stairs. Charlotte lighted a little kitchen lamp and came after him. He bade her stand by while he made his first brief examination.
“I think the blow on her head isn’t serious,” he said, presently, “but I can’t tell where else she may be hurt till I get her up-stairs.”
He was strong, and he lifted Celia as if she had been a child, and carried her easily up the steep stairs.
Charlotte led the way to a wide couch in the living-room. As Celia was laid gently upon it she opened her eyes.
Half an hour later, John Lansing Birch, in his oldest clothes and wearing a rather disreputable soft hat pulled down over his forehead, with his hands and face excessively dirty and a lunch-pail on his arm, pushed open the kitchen door. “_Phew-w!_ Something’s burning!” he shouted. “Celia–Charlotte–where are you all? Great Scott, what a smudge!”
He strode across the room and lifted from the stove a kettle of potatoes, from which the water had boiled away some minutes before.
“First returns from the amateur cooking district!” he muttered, glancing critically about the kitchen.
Something else in the way of overcooked viands seemed to assail his nostrils, and he jerked open the oven door. A tin of blackened rolls puffed out at him their pungent smoke.
“Well, what–” he was beginning with the natural irritation of the hungry man, who has been anticipating his supper all the way home, and sees it in ruin before his eyes, when Charlotte appeared in the doorway.
“O Lanse!” she cried, and ran to him.
“Well, what is it? Celia got a headache and left you in charge? Everything’s burnt up–I can tell you that—-“
“Celia is–she’s broken her knee!”
“She fell down the cellar stairs and—-“
“Where is she?” Lunch-pail and hat went down on the floor as Lanse got rid of them and seized Charlotte’s arm.
“Up in her room. Doctor Churchill’s there. He’s sent for Doctor Forester.”
“Churchill–Forester,” repeated Lanse, as if dazed. “Poor old girl–is she much hurt?”
“She’s broken her knee, I tell you,” Charlotte repeated. “Of course she’s much hurt. She’s suffering dreadfully. She hit her head, too. She was unconscious at first. I was all alone with her.”
Lanse started for the door, then hesitated. “Shall I go up?”
“The doctor wants to see you as soon as you are home. He’s waiting for Doctor Forester. He’s made Celia as comfortable as he can, but wants our regular doctor here, he says, before he does up her knee. I don’t see why. I wanted him to fix it himself.”
“That’s all right,” said Lanse. “Doctors always do that kind of thing–the honourable ones do. It’s better to have Doctor Forester see it, too. Did you get him? Will he be here right off?”
“The doctor got him. He’ll be here soon.”
“Go tell Doctor Churchill I’m here, will you? Maybe I’d better not see Celia till I’m cleaned up a bit. She’s not used to me like this. Poor little girl! poor little girl!” he groaned, as he made his rapid way to the bath-room. “The cellar stairs–they’re dark and steep enough, but how could a light-footed girl like Celia get a fall like that? And father and mother–how are we going to fix it with them?”
In the midst of his splashing and scrubbing he heard Jeff and Justin come shouting in for supper and Charlotte hushing them and telling them the news. The next instant Jeff was upon him.
“Say, but this is awful, Lanse! She was getting up a rattling good dinner, too–been at it all day. Her one idea was to please you, your first day at the shops. Been up to see her? Charlotte says I’d better not go yet–nor Just. Just’s all broken up, poor youngster! Says Celia told him to go after the pickles, and he forgot it. If he’d gone she wouldn’t have got her tumble. What’ll father and mother say? What are we going to do, anyhow? Second Fiddle’s no good on earth in the kitchen; she couldn’t boil an egg. Say, breaking your knee-pan’s no joke. Price Williston did it a year ago August, and he hasn’t got good use of it yet,–‘fraid he never will—-“
“Oh, let up on that,”–Lanse cut him short,–“and don’t mention it again to anybody. Doctor Forester and Churchill will fix her up all right, only it’s an awful shame it should have happened. I’m going up to see Doctor Churchill.”
At the foot of the stairs he met that person coming down, shook hands with him eagerly, and listened to a brief and concise account of his sister’s injury. As it ended, Doctor Forester’s automobile rolled up to the door.
“Did the five and a half miles in precisely twenty minutes,” said Doctor Forester, as he came up the steps, watch in hand; “slow speed within limits and all. Lanse, my boy, this is too bad. Doctor Churchill–very glad to see you again. Decided to settle out here, eh? Well, on some accounts I think you’re wise. Charlotte, little girl, cheer up! There are worse things than a fractured patella–I believe that’s what you called the injury, Doctor Churchill.”
In such genial fashion the surgeon and old friend of the family made his entry, bringing with him that atmosphere which men of his profession carry about with them, making the people who have been anxiously awaiting them feel that here is somebody who knows how to take things coolly, and is not upset at the notion of a broken bone.
He moved deliberately up-stairs toward Celia’s room, listening to the younger physician’s statement of the conditions under which he had been called, turning at the door to smile and nod back at Charlotte, who watched him from the top of the staircase with serious eyes.
At the end of what seemed like a long period of time the two physicians came down-stairs together, meeting Lanse at the foot.
“Well, sir,” said Doctor Forester, “so far, so good. Celia is as comfortable as such cases usually are an hour or two afterward, which is not saying much from her point of view, though a good deal from ours. She has a long siege of inactivity before her to put that knee into a strong condition, but it will not be a great while before she can be about on crutches, I hope. Doctor Churchill, at my insistence, has put up the knee in the best possible shape, and I am going to leave it in his care. I’ll drop in now and then, but the doctor is right beside you, and I’ve full confidence in him. I knew his father, and I know enough about him to be sure that you’re all right in his hands.”
Lanse drew a long breath of relief. “I’m very thankful it’s no worse,” he said. “But, Doctor Forester, what are we to do about father and mother? We can’t tell them—-“
“Tell them! No!” said Doctor Forester, with decision. “I wouldn’t have your mother told under any consideration, so long as the girl does well. She would be back here on the next train and then we’d have something worse than a broken patella on our hands. If there is any way by which you can let your father know I should do that.”
“I can, I think,” said Lanse, thoughtfully. “We’re to send them general-delivery letters until they’re settled, and father will get those at the post-office and read them first.”
“As to your other problems–housekeeping and all that, over which Celia is several times more worried than over her own condition–can you figure those out?”
“Good! Go up and tell her so. She thinks the house is going to destruction without her. Good chance for the second violin. Too bad that clever little orchestra will have to drop its practice for a few weeks. I meant to run in some evening soon and hear you play. Well, I’m overdue at the hospital. Good-by, Lanse–Doctor Churchill. Keep me posted concerning the knee.”
Then the busy surgeon, who had put off several engagements to come out to the suburban town and look after the family of his old friend, whom he had known and loved since their college days, was off in his runabout, his chauffeur getting promptly under as much headway as the law allows, and rushing him out of sight in a hurry.
Lanse turned to Doctor Churchill, who stood upon the porch beside him, hat and case in hand.
“I’m mighty thankful you were so near,” he said.
“Doctor Forester hasn’t given you much choice,” said the other man, smiling. “I did my best to give you the chance of having some one of the physicians you know here in town take charge of the case, but he insisted on my keeping it. I should like, however, to be sure that you are satisfied. You don’t know me at all, you know.”
The steady eyes were looking keenly at Lanse, and he felt the sincerity in the words. He returned the scrutiny without speaking for an instant; then he put out his hand.
“Somehow I feel as if I do,” he said, slowly. “Anyhow, I’m going to know you, and I’m glad of the chance.”
“Thank you.” Doctor Churchill shook hands warmly and went down the steps. “I will come over for a minute about ten o’clock,” he added, “to make sure that Miss Birch is resting as quietly as we can hope for to-night.”
Lanse watched the broad-shouldered, erect figure cross the lawn and disappear in the office door of the old house near by; then he turned.
“Well, we’re in a sweet scrape now, that’s certain,” he said gloomily to himself, as he marched up-stairs.
At the top he encountered his young brother Justin. That twelve-year-old stood awaiting him, his face so disconsolate that in spite of himself Lanse smiled.
“Cheer up, youngster,” he said. “It’s pretty tough, but as Doctor Forester says, it might be worse. Want to go in with me and see sister a minute?”
But Justin got hold of his arm and held him back. “Lanse, I’ve got to tell you something,” he begged. “Please come here, in your room a minute.”
Lanse followed, wondering. Justin, although a healthy and happy boy enough, was apt to take things seriously, and sometimes needed to be joked out of singular notions. In Lanse’s room Justin carefully locked the door.
“It’s all my fault, Celia’s knee,” he said, going straight to the point, as was his way. His voice shook a little, but he went steadily on. “She sent me down cellar after pickles, and I sat on the top of the stairs finishing up a banana before I went. I’ve been down there to look, and–and the banana skin was there–all mashed. It was what did it.”
He choked, and turned away to the window.
“You left a banana skin on those stairs?” Lanse half-shouted.
“Right there, at the top–when Delia almost broke her neck more than once going down those stairs only last winter, just because they’re so steep and narrow?”
“And you fell on a banana skin once yourself, and wanted to thrash the fellow who left it!”
Just’s chin sank lower and lower.
Lanse eyed him a moment, struggling with a desire to seize the boy and punish him tremendously. But as his quick wrath cooled a trifle in his effort to control himself and act wisely, something about Just’s brave acknowledgment, where silence would have covered the whole thing, appealed to him. The thought of the way the absent father and mother had met every confession of his own that he could remember in a life of prank-playing softened the words which came next to his lips.
“Well, it’s pretty bad,” he said, in a deep voice of regret. “I don’t wonder it breaks you up. Such a little thing to do so much mischief–and so easy to have avoided it all. I reckon you’ll take care of your banana skins after this. But I like the way you own up, Just, and so will Celia. That’s something. You haven’t been a sneak in addition to being thoughtless. It would have been hard to forgive you if I had found it out while you kept still. It’s pretty hard as it is,” he could not help adding, as his imagination pictured Celia spending her winter as a cripple.
Just said not a word, but the outline of his profile against the fading light at the window was so suggestive of boyish despair that the elder brother walked over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“It gives you a chance to make it up to her in every way you can,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can do for her, and I shall expect you to try to square the account a little.”
“I will! Oh, I will!” cried poor Just, who had longed for his mother in this crisis, and had found facing the elder brother, whom he both admired and feared, harder than anything he had ever had to do. “I’ll do anything in the world for her, if she’ll only forgive me.”
“She’ll forgive you, for she’s made that way. It’s forgiving yourself that can’t be done.”
“I never shall.”
“Don’t. If I thought you would, I’d thrash you on the spot,” said Lanse, grimly, sure that a wholesome remorse was to be encouraged. Then he relented sufficiently to say in a tone considerably less severe:
“Go and wash up, and begin your good resolutions by getting down and seeing to the kitchen fire. It’s undoubtedly burnt itself out by this time. There’s probably no dinner for anybody, but we can’t mind little things like that to-night.”
He went to Celia’s room at last, feeling many cares upon him, a sensation which an empty, stomach did not tend to relieve. He found his sister able to give him a very pale-faced but courageous smile, and to receive his earnest sympathy with a faint:
“Never mind, dear. Don’t worry. It might have been worse.”
“That seems to be everybody’s motto, so I’ll accept it. We’ll take courage, and you shall have us all on our knees, since yours are laid up for repairs.”
“You haven’t had your dinner, Lanse,” murmured Celia. She was suffering severely, but she could not relax anything of her anxiety for the family welfare.
“Oh, I forgot there was such a thing as dinner in the world!” cried Charlotte, and was hurrying to the door when Celia called her back. “_Please_ wash that smudge off your face,” she whispered, and covered her eyes.
* * * * *
Coming down-stairs from Celia’s room, Dr. Andrew Churchill made his way through what had now become somewhat familiar ground to the little kitchen. As he looked in at the door he beheld a slim figure in a big Turkey-red apron, bending over a chicken which lay, in a state of semi-dissection, upon the table. As he watched for a moment without speaking, Charlotte herself spoke, without turning round.
“You horrid thing!” she said, tragically, to the chicken. “I hate you–all slippery and bloody. Ugh! Why won’t your old windpipe come out? How anybody can eat you who has got you ready I don’t know!”
“May I bother you for a pitcher of hot water?” asked an even voice from the doorway.
Charlotte turned with a start. Her cheeks, already flushed, took on a still ruddier hue.
“Yes, if you’ll please help yourself,” she answered, curtly, turning back to her work. “I am–engaged.”
“I see. A congenial task?”
“Very!” Charlotte’s tone was expressive.
“Did I gather that the fowl’s windpipe was the special cause of your distress?” asked the even voice again.
Charlotte faced round once more.
“Doctor Churchill,” she said, “I never cleaned a chicken in my life. I don’t know what I’m doing at all, only that I’ve been doing it for almost an hour, and it isn’t done. I presume it’s because I take so much time washing my hands.”
She smiled in spite of herself as the doctor’s hearty laugh filled the little kitchen.
“I think I can appreciate your feelings,” he remarked.
He walked over to the table. “Get a good hold on the offending windpipe, shut your eyes and pull.”
“I’m afraid of doing something wrong.”
“You won’t. The trachea of the domestic fowl was especially designed for the purpose, only the necessary attachment for getting a firm grip on it was accidentally omitted.”
“It certainly was.” Charlotte tugged away energetically for a moment, and drew out the windpipe successfully. The doctor regarded the bird with a quizzical expression.
“I should advise you to cut up the chicken and make a fricassee of it,” he observed.
“I want to roast it. I’ve got the stuffing all ready.” She indicated a bowlful of macerated bread-crumbs mixed with milk and butter, and liberally seasoned with pepper.
“I see. But I’m a little, just a little, afraid you may have trouble in getting the stuffing to stay in while the chicken is roasting. You see–” He paused.
“I suppose I’ve cut it open too much.”
“Rather–unless you’re a very good amateur surgeon. And even then–“
“I’m no surgeon–I’m no cook–I never shall be! I–don’t want to be!” Charlotte burst out, suddenly, beginning to cut up the chicken with vigorous slashes, mostly in the wrong places.
“Yes, you do. Hold on a minute! That joint isn’t there: it’s farther down. There. See? Once get the anatomy of this bird in your mind, and it won’t bother you a bit to cut it up. Pardon me, Miss Charlotte, but I know you do want to be a good cook–because you want to be an accomplished woman.”
Charlotte put down her knife, washed her hands with furious haste, got out a pitcher, poured it full of hot water, and handed it silently to Doctor Churchill without looking at him. He glanced from it to her with amusement as he received it “Thank you,” he said, politely, and walked away.
When he came down-stairs fifteen minutes later, he found the slim figure in the Turkey-red apron waiting for him at the bottom. As the girl looked up at him he noted, as he had done many times already in the short two weeks he had known her, the peculiar, gipsy-like beauty of her face. It was a beauty of which she herself, he had occasion to believe, was absolutely unconscious, and in this he was right.
Charlotte disliked her dark skin, despised her black curls, and considered her vivid colouring a most undesirable inheritance. She admired intensely Celia’s blonde loveliness, and lost no chance of privately comparing herself with her sister, to Celia’s infinite advantage.
“Doctor Churchill,” she said, as he approached her, hat in hand, “I was very rude to you just now. I am–sorry.”
She held out her hand. Doctor Churchill took it. Charlotte’s thick black lashes swept her cheek, and she did not see the look, half-laughing, half-sympathetic, which rested on her downcast face.
“It’s all right,” said Doctor Churchill’s low, clear voice. “Don’t think I fail to understand what it means for the cares of a household like this to descend upon a girl’s shoulders. But I want you to know that I–that they are all immensely pleased with the pluck you are showing. I have seen your sister’s lunch tray several times since I have been coming here; it was perfect.”
“I burned her toast just this morning,” said Charlotte, quickly. “And poached the egg too hard. Lanse says the coffee is better, but–oh, no matter–I’m just discouraged this morning, I–shall learn something some time, perhaps, but—-” She turned away impulsively. Doctor Churchill followed her a step or two.
“See here, Miss Charlotte,” he said, “how many times have you been out of the house since your sister was hurt?”
“Not at all,” owned Charlotte, “except evenings, after everything is done. Then I steal out and run round and round the house in the moonlight, just running it off, you know–or maybe you don’t know.”
“Yes, I do. Will you do something now if I ask you to very humbly?”
Charlotte looked at him doubtfully. “If you mean go for a walk–which is what doctors always mean, I believe–I haven’t time.”
Doctor Churchill looked at his watch. “It is half past ten. Is that chicken for luncheon?”
“No, for supper–or dinner–I don’t know just what it is we have at night now. I simply began to get it ready this morning because I hadn’t the least idea in the world how long it takes to cook a chicken.” She was smiling a little at the absurdity of her own words.
“And you didn’t want to ask your sister?”
“I meant to surprise her.”
“Well, of one thing I am fairly confident,” said Doctor Churchill, with gravity. “If you take a run down as far as the old bridge and back, there will still be time to see to the chicken. What is more, by the time you get back, all big obstacles will look like little ones to you. Go, please. I am to be in the office for the next hour, and if the house catches fire I will run over and put it out. I could even undertake to steal in the back door and put coal on the kitchen fire, if it is necessary.”
“It won’t be.”
“Then will you go?”
“Perhaps–to humour you,” promised Charlotte.
“Thank you! And remember, please, Miss Charlotte, if you are to do justice to yourself and to your family, you must not plod all the time. Plan to get away every day for an hour or two. Go to see your friends–anything–but don’t cultivate ‘house nerves’ at eighteen.”
“I’m older than that,” said Charlotte, as she watched him go down the steps. He turned, surprised. “But I shall not tell you how much,” said she, and closed the door.
Doctor Churchill went straight through his small bachelor house to the kitchen. Here a tall, thin woman, with sharp eyes and kindly mouth, was energetically kneading bread.
“Mrs. Fields,” said he, “I wish you would find it necessary to-morrow morning to run in at that door over there”–he indicated the little back porch of the Birch house–“and borrow something.”
Mrs. Fields eyed him as if she thought he had taken leave of his senses. “Me–borrow?” she said. “Doctor Andrew–are you—-“
“No, I’m not crazy,” the doctor assured her, smiling. “I know it’s tremendously against your principles, but never mind the principles, for once–since by ignoring them you can do a kindness. Run in and borrow a cup of sugar or something, and get acquainted.”
“Who with? That curly-haired girl with the red cheeks? She don’t want my acquaintance.”
“She would be immensely grateful for it if it came about naturally. Take over some of your jelly for Miss Birch, if that way suits you better, but get to know Miss Charlotte, and show her a few things about cookery. She’s trying to do all the work for the whole family, and she knows very little about it.”
“I suspected as much. You haven’t told me about ’em, and of course, being a doctor’s housekeeper, I’m too well trained to ask.”
The doctor smiled, for Mrs. Fields had been housekeeper in his mother’s family in the days of his boyhood, and she felt it her right to tell him, now and then, what she thought. She was immensely proud of her own ability to hold her tongue and her curiosity in check.
“So I know only what I’ve seen. You told me the oldest girl had broke her knee, and that’s all you’ve said. But I see this girl a-hanging dish-towels, and opening the kitchen door to let out the smoke each time she’s burned up a batch of something, and I guessed she wasn’t what you might call a graduate of one of those cooking-schools.”
“You must be a bit tactful,” warned the doctor. “The young lady is a trifle sensitive, as is natural, over her inefficiency, but she’s very anxious to learn, and there’s nobody to teach her. She is too independent to go to the other neighbours, but I’ve an idea you could be a friend to her.”
“She looks pretty notional,” Mrs. Fields said, doubtfully. “Shakes out her dust-cloth with her chin in the air—-“
“To avoid the dust.”
“And pulls down the shades the minute the lamp is lighted—-“
“So do you.”
“I saw her lock the kitchen door in the face of that Mis’ Carter the other day, when she caught sight of her coming up the walk.”
“See here, Fieldsy, you’ve been spying on your neighbours,” said Doctor Churchill severely. “You despise that sort of thing yourself, so you mustn’t yield to it. Go over and be neighbourly, as nobody knows how better than yourself, but don’t judge people by their chins or their curls.”
He gave her angular shoulder an affectionate pat, looked straight into her sharp eyes for a moment, until they softened perceptibly, said, “You’re all right, you know,”–and went whistling away.
“That’s just like your impudence, Andy Churchill,” said Mrs. Hepsibah Fields to herself, as she laid her smooth loaves of bread-dough into their tins and proceeded energetically to scrape the board. “You always did have a way with you, wheedling folks into doing what they didn’t want to just to please you. Now I’ve got to go meddling in other people’s business and getting snubbed, most likely, just because you’re trying to combine friendship and doctoring.”
But Mrs. Fields, when her work was done, went to look up her best jelly, as Doctor Churchill had known she would do. And twenty-four hours had not gone by before she had made friends with Charlotte Birch.
It was not hard to make friends with the girl if one went at it aright. Mrs. Fields came in as Charlotte was stirring up gingerbread.
“I don’t think much of back-door neighbours,” Mrs. Fields said, “but I didn’t want to come to the front door with my jelly. I thought maybe your sister would relish my black raspberry.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Charlotte. “You are–I think I’ve seen you across the way. Won’t you come in?”
“No, thank you. You’re busy, and so am I. Yes, I’m Doctor Churchill’s housekeeper, and his mother’s before that.”
The sharp eyes noted with approval, in one swift glance as Charlotte turned away with the jelly, the fact that the little kitchen was in careful order. To be sure, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, an hour when kitchens are supposed to be in order, if ever, yet it was a relief to Mrs. Fields to find this one in that condition. Brass faucets gleamed in the afternoon sunlight, the teakettle steamed from a shining spout, the linoleum-covered floor was spotless, and the table at which Charlotte was stirring her gingerbread had been scrubbed until it was as nearly white as pine boards can be made.
“Gingerbread?” said the housekeeper, lingering in the doorway. “I always like to make that. It seems the biggest result for the smallest labour of anything you can make, and it smells so spicy when it comes out of the oven.”
“Yes, when it isn’t burned,” agreed Charlotte, with a laugh. Things had gone fairly well with her that day, and her spirits had risen accordingly.
“Burning’s a thing that will happen to the best cooks once in a while. ‘Twas just day before yesterday I blacked a pumpkin pie so the doctor poked his fun at me all the time he was eating it,” said the housekeeper, with a tactful disregard for the full truth, which was that a refractory small patient in the office had driven the doctor to require her assistance for a longer period than was consistent with attention to her oven.
“Oh, did you?” asked Charlotte, eagerly. “That encourages me. Doctor Churchill told me he had the finest cook in the state, and I’ve been envying you ever since.”
“Doctor Churchill had better be careful how he brags,” Mrs. Fields declared, much gratified. “Well, now, I’ll tell you what you do. It ain’t but a step across the two back yards. When you get in a quandary how to cook anything–how long to give it or whether to bake or boil–you just run across and ask me. I ain’t one o’ the prying kind–the doctor’ll tell you that–and you needn’t be afraid it’ll go any further. I know how hard it must be for a young girl like you to take the care of a house on yourself, and I’ll be pleased to show you anything I can.”
“That’s very good of you,” said Charlotte, gratefully, as Mrs. Fields went briskly down the steps; and she really felt that it was. She would have resented the appearance of almost any of her neighbours at her back door with an offer of help, suspecting that they had come to use their eyes, and afterward their tongues, in criticism. But something about Mrs. Hepsibah Fields disarmed her at once. She could not tell why.
“This gingerbread is perfect,” said Celia, an hour later, when Charlotte had brought up her supper. “You are improving every day. But it frets me not to have you come to me for help. I could plan things for you, and teach you all the little I know. I’m doing so well now, the doctor says I may get down-stairs on the couch by next week. Then you certainly must let me do my part.”
But Charlotte shook her head obstinately. “I’m going to fight it through myself. I’d rather. You’ve enough to do–writing letters.”
When Lanse came into Celia’s room that evening, his first words were merry.
“What I’m anxious to know,” he said, “is what you did with your rice pudding. Charlotte says you ate it–and the inference was that it was good to eat. So I ate mine–manfully, I assure you. But it was a bitter dose.”
“Poor little girl! She tries so hard, Lanse. And the gingerbread was very good.”
“So it was. It helped take out the taste of the pudding. Did you honestly eat that pudding?”
“See here.” Celia beckoned him close. She reached a cautious hand under her pillow and drew out her soap-dish. “Please get rid of it for me,” she whispered, “and wash the dish. I couldn’t bear not to seem to eat it, so I slipped it in there.”
Striving to smother his mirth, Lanse bore the soap-dish away. Returning with it, he carefully replaced the soap and set the dish on the stand, where it had been within Celia’s reach. “I wish I had had a soap-dish at the table,” he remarked, “but the cook’s eye was upon me, and I had to stand up to it. But see here. I’ve a letter for you–from Uncle Rayburn.”
Celia stretched an eager hand, for a letter from Uncle John Rayburn–middle-aged, a bachelor, and an ex-army officer, retired by an incurable injury which did not make him the less the best uncle in the world–could not fail to be welcome. But she had not read a page before she dropped the sheet and stared helplessly and anxiously at Lanse.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Why, Uncle Rayburn writes that he would like to come to spend the winter with us,” answered Celia.
“Luck–with Charlotte in the kitchen?”
“Uncle Ray is a crack-a-jack of a cook himself. His board bill will help out like oil on a dry axle, and if we don’t have a lot of fun, then Uncle Ray has changed as–I know he hasn’t.”
* * * * *
“Two cripples,” declared Capt. John Rayburn–honourably discharged from active service in the United States Army on account of permanent disability from injuries received in the Philippines,–“two cripples should be able to keep a household properly stirred up. I’ve been here five days now, and my soul longs for some frivolity.”
He leaned back in his big wicker armchair and looked quizzically across at his niece Celia, who lay upon her couch at the other side of the room. She gave him a somewhat pale-faced smile in return. Four weeks of enforced quiet were beginning to tell on her.
“Some frivolity,” repeated Captain Rayburn, as Charlotte came to the door of the room. “What do you say, Charlie girl? Shall we have some fun?”
“Dear me, yes, Uncle Ray,” Charlotte responded, promptly, “if you can think how!”
“I can. Is there a birthday or anything that we may celebrate? I’ve no compunction about getting up festivities on any pretext, but if there happened to be a birthday handy–“
“November–yes. Why, we had forgotten all about it! Lanse’s birthday is the fourth. That’s–“
“Day after to-morrow. Good! Can you make him a birthday-cake? If not, I–“
“Oh, yes, I can!” cried Charlotte, eagerly. “I’ve just learned an orange-cake.”
“All right. Then we’ll order a few little things from town, and have a jollification. Not a very big one, on account of the lady on the couch there, who reminds me at the moment of a water-lily whom some one has picked and then left on the stern seat in the sun. She looks very sweet, but a trifle limp.”
Celia’s smile was several degrees brighter than the previous one had been. Nobody could resist Uncle Ray when he began to exert himself to cheer people up.
He was a young, or an old, bachelor, according to one’s point of view, being not yet forty, and looking, in spite of the past suffering which had brought into his chestnut hair two patches of gray at the temples, very much like a bright-faced boy with an irrepressible spirit of energy and interest in the life about him. It could hardly be doubted that Capt. John Rayburn, apparently invalided for life and cut off from the activity which had been his dearest delight, must have his hours of depression, but nobody had ever caught him in one of them.
“I should like some music at this festival,” Captain Rayburn went on. “Is the orchestra out of practice?”
“We haven’t played for six weeks,” Charlotte said. “And Celia’s first violin–“
“You couldn’t play, bolstered up?”
Celia shook her head. “I should be tired in ten minutes.”
“I’m not so sure of that, but we’ll see. Anyhow, I’ve the old flute here–“
“Oh, fine!” cried Charlotte.
“Suppose we ask Doctor Forester out, and your young doctor here next door, and two or three of your girl friends, and a boy and girl or two for Jeff and Just.”
“What a funny mixture, Uncle Ray! Doctor Forester and Norman Carter, Just’s chum, and Carolyn Houghton?”
“Funny, is it?” inquired Captain Rayburn, undisturbed. “Now do you know, that’s my ideal of a well-planned company, particularly when all the family are to be here. Invite somebody for each one, mix ’em all up, play some jolly games, and you’ll find Doctor Forester vying with Norman Carter for the prize, and enjoying it equally well. It sharpens up the young wits to be pitted against the older ones, and it–well, it burnishes the elder rapiers and keeps them keen.”
“All right, this is your party,” agreed Charlotte, and she went back to her duties.
“You’re not afraid it will be too much for you, little girl?” Captain Rayburn asked Celia, whose smile had faded, and who lay with her head turned away.
“Mercury a little low in the tube this morning?”
“Just a little.”
“Any good reason why?”
“Except the best reason in the world–heavy atmospheric pressure. Knee a trifle slow to become a solid, capable, energetic knee, such as its owner demands. Owner a bit restless, physically and mentally. Plans for the winter upset–second lieutenant winning spurs while the colonel lies in the hospital tent, fighting imaginary battles and trying to keep cool under the strain.”
Celia looked round and smiled again, but her head went back to its old position, and tears forced themselves out from under the eyelids which she shut tightly together.
“And a little current of anxiety for the inhabitants of New Mexico keeps flowing under the edge of the tent and makes the colonel fear it’s not pitched in the right place?”
“Well, that’s not warranted in the face of the facts. Latest advices from New Mexico report improvement, even sooner than we could have expected. Then at home–Lanse is conquering the situation in the locomotive shops very satisfactorily. Doctor Churchill told me yesterday that he’s won the liking of nearly all the men in his shop–which means more than a girl like you can guess. Jeff and Just are prospering in school, according to Charlotte, who is herself working up in her new profession, and whose last beefsteak was broiled to a turn, as her critical soldier guest appreciates. As for Celia–“
He got to his feet slowly, grasped his two stout hickory canes and limped across the room to the couch, showing as he went a pitiful weakness in the tall figure, whose lines still suggested the martial bearing which it had not long ago presented, and which it might never present again. Captain Rayburn sat down close beside Celia and took her hand.
“In one thing I made a misstatement,” he said, softly. “They’re not imaginary battles that the colonel lies fighting in the hospital tent. They’re real enough.”
There was a short silence; then Celia spoke unsteadily from the depths of her pillow:
“Uncle Ray, were you ever mean enough to be jealous?”
The captain looked quickly at the fair head on the pillow. “Jealous?” said he, without a hint of surprise in his voice. “Why, yes–jealous of my colonel, my lieutenants, my orderlies, my privates, my doctors, my nurses–jealous of the very Filipino prisoners themselves–because they all had legs and could walk.”
“Oh, I know–I don’t mean that!” cried Celia, “Of course you envied everybody who could walk. Poor Uncle Ray! But you weren’t small enough to mind because the officers under you had got your chance?”
“Wasn’t I, though? Well, maybe I wasn’t,” said the captain, speaking low. “Perhaps I didn’t lie and grind my teeth when they told me about the gallant work Lieutenant Garretson had done with my men at Balangiga. A mere boy, Garretson! The whole world applauded it. If I’d not been knocked out so soon it would have been my name that would have gone into history. Yes, I chewed that to shreds many a sleepless night, and hated the fellow for getting my chance.”
Captain Rayburn drew a long breath, while his fingers relaxed for an instant; and it was Celia’s hand which tightened over his.
“But I got past that,” he said, quietly. “It came to me all at once that Garretson and the other fellows in active service weren’t the only ones with chances before them. I had mine–a different commission from the one I had coveted, to be sure, but a broader one, with infinite possibilities, and no fear of missing further promotion if I earned it.”
There was a little stillness after that. When the captain looked down at Celia again he found her eyes full of pity, but this time it was not pity for herself. He comprehended instantly.
“No, I don’t need it, dear,” he said, very gently. “I’ve learned some things already in the hospital tent I wouldn’t have missed for a year’s pay. And you, who are to be only temporarily on the sick-leave list, you don’t need to mind that the little second lieutenant–“
But the second lieutenant was rushing into the room, bearing on a plate a great puffy, round loaf, brown and spicy.
“Look,” she cried, “at my steamed brown bread! I’ve tried it four times and slumped it every time. Now Fieldsy has shown me what was the matter–I hadn’t flour enough. Fieldsy is a dear–and so are you!”
She plunged at Celia, brown bread and all, and kissed the top of her head, tweaked a lock of Captain Rayburn’s thick hair, and was flying away when Celia spoke. “You’re the biggest dear of anybody,” she said, with a smile.
* * * * *
It was getting up a party in a hurry, but somehow the thing was accomplished. Whether Lanse remembered his own birthday at all was a question. When he came home at six o’clock on that day, Charlotte told him that she had special reasons for seeing him in his best.
“Why, you’re all dressed up yourself,” he observed. “What’s up?”
“Doctor Forester’s coming out to hear us play,” was all she would tell him, and Lanse groaned over the fact that the little orchestra was so out of practice.
When the guests arrived, they found the man with the birthday anxiously looking over scores. He greeted them with enthusiasm.
“Doctor Forester, this is good of you, if we can’t play worth a copper cent. Miss Atkinson! Well this is a surprise–a delightful one! Miss Carolyn, how goes school? How are you, Norman? You’ll find Just in a minute. Miss Houghton, now you and I can settle that little question we were discussing. Charlotte, you rogue, you and Uncle Ray are at the bottom of this! Ah, Doctor Churchill! This wouldn’t have been complete without our neighbour. Miss Atkinson, allow me to present Doctor Churchill.”
Thus John Lansing Birch accepted at once and with his accustomed ease the role of host, and enjoyed himself immensely. Celia, watching him from her couch, said suddenly to Captain Rayburn, who sat beside her:
“This is just what the family needed. If you hadn’t come we should probably have gone drudging on all winter without realising what was the matter with us. No wonder poor Lanse appreciates it. He’s had a month of hard labour without an enlivening hour. And Charlotte–doesn’t she look like a fresh carnation to-night?”
“Very much,” agreed the captain, with approving eyes on his younger niece, who wore her best frock of French gray, a tint which set off her warm colouring to advantage. Celia had thrust several of Captain Rayburn’s scarlet carnations into her sister’s belt, with a result gratifying to more than one pair of eyes.
“Still,” remarked the captain, his glance returning to Celia, “I’m not sure that I can say whether a fresh carnation is to be preferred to a newly picked rose. That pale pink gown you are wearing is certainly a joy to the eye.”
Celia blushed under his admiring glance. There could be no question that she was very lovely, if a trifle frail in appearance from her month’s quiet, and it was comforting to be assured that she was not looking like a “limp water-lily” to-night.
“When are we to hear the orchestra?” cried Doctor Forester, after an hour of lively talk, a game or two, and some remarkable puzzles contributed by Just. The distinguished gentleman from the city was enjoying himself immensely, for he was accustomed to social functions of a far more elaborate and formal sort, and liked nothing better than to join in a frolic with the younger people when such rare opportunities presented.
“Of course we’re horribly out of practice and all that,” explained Lanse, distributing scores, and helping to prop up Celia so that she might try to play, “but since you insist we’ll give you all you’ll want in a very few minutes. Here’s your flute, Uncle Ray. If you’ll play along with Celia it will help out.”
It was not so bad, after all. Lanse had chosen the most familiar of the old music, everybody did his and her best, and Captain Rayburn’s flute, exquisitely played, did indeed “help out.”
Celia, her cheeks very pink, worked away until Doctor Churchill gently took her violin from her, but after that the music still went very well.
“Good! good!” applauded Doctor Forester. “Churchill, you’re in luck to live next door to this sort of thing.”
“Now that I know what I live next door to,” remarked the younger physician, “I shall know what to prescribe for the entire family on winter evenings.”
There could be no question that Doctor Churchill also was enjoying the evening. Helping Charlotte and the boys serve the sandwiches and chocolate, which appeared presently–the chocolate being made by Mrs. Fields in the kitchen–he said to the girl:
“I haven’t had such a good time since I came away from my old home.”
“It was so nice of Fieldsy to make the chocolate,” Charlotte replied, somewhat irrelevantly. Then as the doctor looked quickly at her and laughed, she flushed. “Oh, I don’t call her that to her face!” she said, hurriedly.
“I don’t think she would mind. That’s what Andy Churchill called her, and calls her yet, when he forgets her newly acquired dignity as a doctor’s housekeeper. I’m mighty glad Fieldsy can be of service to you. You’ve won her heart completely and I assure you that’s a bigger triumph than you realise.”
“She’s the nicest neighbour we ever had,” said Charlotte, gaily. The doctor paused, delayed them both a moment while he rearranged a pile of spoons and forks upon his tray, and said:
“If you talk of neighbours, Miss Charlotte, there’s a certain homesick young doctor who appreciates having neighbours, too.”
Charlotte answered as lightly as he had spoken: “With Mrs. Fields in the kitchen and you in here with a tray full of hospitality, I’m sure you seem very much like one of our oldest neighbours.”
“Thank you!” he answered, with such a glad little ring in his voice that Charlotte could not be sorry for the impulsive speech. But she found herself wondering more than once during the evening what he had meant by calling himself “homesick.”
“See here, Mrs. Fields,” called Jeff, hurrying out for fresh supplies, “this is the best chocolate ever brewed! Doctor Forester wants another cup, and all the fellows looked sort of wistful when they heard him ask for it. May everybody have another cup?”
“Well, I must say, Mr. Jefferson!” said Mrs. Fields, in astonishment. “I thought Miss Charlotte was going clean crazy when she would have three double-boilers made. But it seems she knew her friends’ appetites. Don’t you know it ain’t considered proper to pass more than one cup–light refreshments like these?”
“Oh, this isn’t any of your afternoon-tea affairs, I can tell you that!” declared Jeff, watching with pleasure the filling of the tall blue-and-white chocolate pot. “People know they are going to get something good when they come here. I warned the fellows not to eat too much supper before they came. Any more of those chicken sandwiches?”
“For the land’s sake, Mr. Jeff!” cried Mrs. Fields.
“What’s the matter, Jeffy?” asked Charlotte, coming out. Doctor Churchill was behind her, bearing an empty salad bowl.
“I want more sandwiches,” demanded Jeff.
“Everybody fall to quick and make them,” commanded Charlotte. “Norman Carter and Just have had seven apiece. That makes them go fast.”
“Well, I never!” breathed the housekeeper once more. But Charlotte was slicing the bread with a rapid hand. The doctor, laughing, undertook to butter the slices, and Jeff would have spread on the chicken if Mrs. Fields had not taken the knife from his hand.
Ten minutes later Jeff was able to announce that everybody seemed to be satisfied.
“That’s a mercy,” said Mrs. Fields, handing him a tray full of pink and white ices, Captain Rayburn’s contribution to the festivities. “You’d have to give ’em sody-crackers now if they wasn’t. Carry that careful, and tell Miss Charlotte to send out for the cake. I’ll light the candles.”
Doctor Churchill came out alone for the cake. It stood ready upon the table, Charlotte’s greatest success–a big, old-fashioned orange “layer-cake,” with pale yellow icing, twenty-three pale yellow candles surrounding it in a flaming circle, and one great yellow Marechal Niel rose in the centre.
“Whew-w, that’s a beauty!” cried Doctor Churchill. “Did you make it, Fieldsy?”
“Indeed I didn’t,” denied Mrs. Fields, with great satisfaction. “Miss Charlotte made it herself, and I didn’t know but she’d go crazy over it, first for fear it wouldn’t turn out right, and then for joy because it had.”
The doctor handed it about with a face so beaming that Doctor Forester leaned back in his chair and regarded his young colleague quizzically.
“You make this cake, Churchill?” he asked.
The doctor laughed. “It was joy enough to bring it in,” he said.
“Who did make it?” demanded Forester. “It was no caterer, I know.”
Charlotte attempted to escape quietly from the room, but Lanse barred the way. “Here she is,” he said, and turned his sister about and made her face the company. A friendly round of applause greeted her, mingled with exclamations of surprise. They all knew Charlotte, or thought they did. To most of them this was a new and unlooked-for accomplishment.
“It’s not half so good as the sort Celia makes,” murmured Charlotte, and would hear no more of the cake. But Celia, in her corner, said softly to Doctor Forester:
“It’s going to be worth while, my knee, for the training Charlotte is getting. She’ll be a perfect little housekeeper before I’m about again.”
“It’s going to be worth while in another way too,” returned her friend, with an appreciative glance at the face which always reminded him of her mother’s, it was so serenely sweet and full of character.
“It is? How?” she asked, eagerly, for his tone was emphatic.
“I have few patients on my list who learn so soon to bear this sort of thing as quietly as you are bearing it,” he said. “Don’t think that doesn’t count.” Then he rose to go.
Celia hardly heard the leave-takings, her mind was so happily busy with this bit of rare praise from one whose respect was well worth earning. And half an hour afterward, as Lanse stooped to gather her up and carry her up-stairs to bed, she looked back at Captain Rayburn, who still sat beside her couch, and said, with softly shining eyes:
“The colonel _almost_ wouldn’t be the second lieutenant if he could, Uncle Ray.”
Lanse, lifting his sister in his strong arms, remarked, “I should say not. Why should he?”
Celia and Captain Rayburn, laughing, exchanged a sympathetic, comprehending glance.
* * * * *
Three times Jefferson Birch knocked on his sister Charlotte’s door. Then he turned the knob. The door would not open. “Fiddle!” he called, softly, but got no reply.
“You’re not asleep, I know,” he said, firmly, at the keyhole. “I can see a light from outside, if you have got it all plugged up here. Let me in. I’ve some important news for you.”
Charlotte’s lock turned and she threw the door open. “Well, come in,” she said. “I didn’t mean anybody to know, but I’m dying to tell somebody, and I can trust you.”
“Of course!” affirmed Jeff, entering with an air of curiosity. “What’s doing? Painting?”
The table by the window was strewn with artist’s materials, drawings, sheets of water-colour paper and tumblers of coloured water. In the midst of this confusion lay one piece of nearly finished work–the interior of an unfurnished room, showing wall decoration and nothing more. The colouring caught Jeff’s eye.
“That’s stunning!” he commented, catching up the board upon which the colour drawing was stretched. “What’s it for? Going to put in some furniture?”
Charlotte laughed. “No, I’m not going to put in any furniture,” she said. “This is just to show a scheme for decorating a den–a man’s den. Do you really like it?”
“It’s great!” Jeff stood the board up against the wall and backed away, studying it with interest. “Those dull reds and blues will show off his guns and pictures and things in fine shape. How did you ever think it up?”
Charlotte brought out some sheets of wall-paper, as Jeff thought, but he saw at once that they were hand-work. They represented in full-size detail the paper used upon the den walls. Jeff studied them with interest.
“So this is where you are evenings, after you slip away. You’re sitting up late, too. See here, this won’t do!”
“Oh, yes, it will. Don’t try to stop me, Jeff. I’m not up late, really I’m not–only once in awhile.”
“I thought people couldn’t paint by artificial light.”
“They can when they get used to the difference it makes. But I do only the drudgery, evenings–outlines and solid filling in and that sort of thing.”
“Going to show this to somebody?”