"Oh, I know how many of them come from father's and mother's friends, and how many from Andy's grateful patients. It's all the more overwhelming on that account."
"Look out there, Just!" The admonition came from Jeff, and consequently was delivered from some six feet in the air, where that nineteen-year-old's head was now carried. "Don't split those pieces; they'll be fine for the Emerson boys building."
"That's so." Just wielded his tools with more care. Presently he had the long parcel lying on the floor. At this moment Mr. Roderick Birch opened the outer hall door.
"As usual," was his smiling comment, as he laid aside hat and overcoat and joined the circle. "Charlotte's latest?"
Charlotte herself undid the wrappings, wondering what the gift could be. She disclosed a long piece of dingy-looking metal.
"A new shingle for Andy!" cried Jeff.
Just turned the heavy slab over, and it proved to be of copper. Words came into view, hammered and beaten into the glinting metal. An effective conventionalised border surrounded the whole.
"'Ye Ornaments of a House are ye Guests who Frequent it,'" read the assembled company, in chorus.
"Oh, isn't that beautiful!" cried Charlotte.
Jeff glanced at her suspiciously. "She says that about everything," he remarked. "Don't think much of it myself. The sentiment may be awfully true—or otherwise; but what's the thing for? If anybody wanted to hint at an invitation to visit Andy and Charlotte, he might have done it without putting himself on record on a slab of copper four feet long. Who sent it, anyway?"
Celia hunted carefully through the wrappings, and everybody finally joined in the search, but no card appeared.
"I'm so sorry!" lamented Charlotte. "I shall never know whom to thank."
"It lets you out, anyhow," Jeff said, soothingly. "You won't have to tell any lies. The thing is of about as much use as a bootjack."
"Why, but it's lovely!" protested Charlotte, with evident sincerity. "Copper things are very highly valued just now, and the work on that is artistic. Don't you see it is?"
"Can't see it," murmured Jeff. "But of course my not seeing it doesn't count. I can't see the value of that idiotic old battered-up copper pail you cherish so tenderly, but that's because I lack the true, heaven-born artist's soul. Where are you going to put this, Fiddle?"
Charlotte's eyes grew absent. She was sending them in imagination across the lawn to the little old brick house next door, which was soon to be her home, as she had done every time a new gift arrived. There were a good many puzzles of this sort in connection with her wedding gifts. Where to put some of them she knew, with a thrill of pleasure, the instant she set eyes on them; where in the world others could possibly go was undoubtedly a serious question.
"Hello, here comes Andy!" called Just, from the window. "Give him a chance at it. Perhaps he can use it somewhere in the surgery—as a delicate way of cheering the patients when they feel as if perhaps they'd better not have come."
Charlotte turned as the hall door swung open, admitting Dr. Andrew Churchill and a fresh breath of October air.
Everybody turned about also. Into everybody's face came a look of affectionate greeting. Even the eyes of the father and mother—and this, just now, was the greatest test of all—showed the welcome to which their own children were happily used.
The figure on the threshold was one to claim attention anywhere. It was a strong figure with a look of life and intense physical vigour. The face matched the body: it was fresh-coloured and finely molded; and nobody who looked at it and into the clear gray eyes of Andrew Churchill could fail to recognise the man behind.
Lanse, who was nearest, shook hands warmly. "It seems good to see you, old fellow," he said, heartily. "If this whirl of work they tell me you are in had kept up much longer, I should have turned patient myself and sent for you. Going to find time to be married in, think, Andy?"
"I rather expect to be able to manage it," responded Doctor Churchill, laughing. "How long have you been home, Lanse—two hours? Just promised to let me know when you came."
"I started, but you were whizzing up the street in the runabout," protested Just, picking up the debris of the unpacking and carrying it away. "There was a trail of steam behind you sixteen feet long. I think you were running beyond lawful speed."
"Here's your latest acquisition." Jeff pointed it out, picking up the copper slab and holding it at the stretch of his arms for inspection. Doctor Churchill turned and regarded it with interest. Then his bright glance shifted to Charlotte, and he smiled at her.
"That's great, isn't it?" he said, and she nodded, smiling.
Just, returning, shouted. "Trust 'em both to get round anything that may turn up! 'That's great!' is certainly safe and non-committal of a four-foot motto that's of no earthly use."
"Well, but I like it," Doctor Churchill asserted, and came over to Charlotte's side, where he examined the copper slab with attention. "Don't you believe that will pretty nearly fit the depression in the fireplace just above the shelf?"
Her interested look responded to his. "Why, I believe it will!" she answered.
"Who sent it?"
"We can't find out."
"No card? That's odd. But there may be something about it to show. It looks to me as if it had been made for that place. If it proves to fit, we can narrow the mystery down to the few people who have seen the new fireplace. Let's go over and try, shall we? Come on—everybody!"
Accordingly, the whole company streamed out across the lawn—Charlotte and Doctor Churchill, Celia, her pretty blond head shining in the October sunlight, Lanse and Jeff and Just, three stalwart fellows, ranging in ages from twenty-six to sixteen, Mr. and Mrs. Birch, the happy possessors of this happy clan.
They hurried up the two steps of the small front porch, into the brick house, and stampeded into the front room. They stopped opposite the fireplace, where Doctor Churchill was already triumphantly inserting the copper panel—for that is what it instantly became—in the long, horizontal depression in the fireplace.
"It fits to a hair!" he exclaimed, and a general murmur of approbation arose. Now that the odd gift was where it so clearly belonged, its peculiar beauty became evident even to the skeptical Jeff and Just.
The new fireplace was the heart of the little old house. Moreover, so cunningly had it been designed and built that it seemed to have been in its place from the beginning.
Doctor Churchill and Charlotte had made a certain distant field the object of many walks and drives, and had personally selected the "hardheads" of which the fireplace was constructed. A small bedroom, opening off the square little parlour, had had its partition removed, and in this alcove-like end of the room the fireplace had been built.
The effect was very good, and the resulting apartment, the only one on the lower floor which could be spared for general use, had become at once the place upon which Charlotte was concentrating most of her efforts, meaning to make it a room where everybody should wish to come.
The usual interruption of a summons for Doctor Churchill to the office in the wing sent the assembled company off again. Just as Charlotte was leaving the room, however—the last of all, because she could not bring herself to desert the joy of the copper panel in its setting of gray stone—Doctor Churchill hurriedly returned.
Seeing Charlotte alone and about to vanish, he ran after her and drew her back.
"I have to go right away, dear," he said. "But I want to look at the new gift alone with you a minute. It's really a fine addition, isn't it?"
"Oh, beautiful! In the firelight and the lamplight how that copper will gleam!"
"I wish we knew to whom we owe such a thought of us. I like the sentiment, too, don't you, Charlotte? I hope—do you know, it's one of my pleasantest hopes—that our home is going to be one that knows how to dispense hospitality. The real sort—not the sham."
Charlotte looked up at him and smiled.
"As if I need tell you what I wish!" he said, with gay tenderness. "You know every thought I have about it."
"We'll make people happy here," said Charlotte. "Indeed, I want to, Andy Churchill. This room—they shall find a welcome always—rich and poor. Especially—the poor ones."
"Especially the poor ones. Won't old Mrs. Wilsey think it's pleasant here? And Tom Brannigan—he'll be scared at first, but we'll show him it's a jolly place—Charlotte, I musn't get to dreaming day-dreams now, or I never can summon strength of purpose to wait another week. One week from to-day! What an age it seems!"
"Run and make your calls," advised Charlotte, laughing, as she escaped from him and hurried to the door. "The busier you keep, the shorter the time will seem."
The week went by at last. To the young man, one of a large family long since scattered—many members of it, including both father and mother, in the old Virginia churchyard—the time could not come too soon. He had lived alone with his housekeeper almost four years now, and during nearly all that time he had been waiting for Charlotte.
She was considerably younger than he, and when he had been, after two years of acquaintance, allowed to betroth himself to her, he had been asked to wait yet another two years while she should "grow up a little more," as her wise father put it.
As for Charlotte herself, she still seemed to those who loved her at home hardly grown up enough at twenty-two to go to a home of her own.
Yet father and mother, brothers and sister, were all ready to acknowledge that those two years had resulted in the early budding of very sweet and womanly qualities; and nobody, watching Charlotte with her lover, could possibly fear for either that they were not ready for the great experiment.
The autumn leaves were bright, the white fall anemones were in blossom, when Charlotte's wedding-day came; and with leaves and anemones the little stone church was decorated.
Not an invitation of the customary sort had been sent out. But, as is usual in a comfortable, un-aristocratic suburb, the news that Doctor Churchill and Miss Charlotte Birch wanted everybody who knew and cared for them to come to the church and see them married had spread until all understood.
The result was that no one of Doctor Churchill's patients—and he had won a large and growing practice among all classes of people—felt left out or forgotten, and that, as the clock struck the hour of noon, the church was crowded to the doors with those who were real friends of the young people.
"Somehow I don't feel a bit like a bride," said Charlotte, looking, however, very much like one, as she stood in the centre of her mother's room in bridal array.
Four elegant male figures, two in frock coats, two in more youthful but equally festive attire, were surveying her with satisfaction.
Near by hovered Celia, the daintiest of maids of honour: Mrs. Birch, as charming as a girl herself in her pale gray silken gown: and little Ellen Donohue, a six-year-old protegee of the family, her hazel eyes wide with gazing at Charlotte, whom she hugged intermittently and adored without cessation.
"You don't feel like a bride, eh?" was Lanse's reply to Charlotte's statement. "Well, I shouldn't think you would—an infant like you. You look more suitable for a christening than for a marriage ceremony. Father's likely, when Doctor Elder asks who gives the bride away, to murmur, 'Charlotte Wendell,' thinking he's inquiring the child's name."
Charlotte threw him a glance, half-shy, half-merry. "As best man you should be saying complimentary things about your friend's choice."
"I am. The trouble is you're not old enough to enjoy being mistaken for a babe in arms."
"I don't think she looks like a child. I think she's the stunningest young woman I ever saw!" declared Just, with enthusiasm. "If her hair was done up on top of her head she'd be a regular queen."
Celia laughed. Her own beautiful blond locks were piled high, and the style became her. But Charlotte's dusky braids were prettier low on the white neck, in the girlish fashion in which they had long been worn, and Celia announced this fact with a loving touch on the graceful coiffure her own hands had arranged for her sister.
"You can't improve her," she said. "She looks like our Charlotte, and that's just the way we want her to look. That's what Andy wants, too."
"Of course he does. And I can tell you, he looks like Andy," Lanse asserted. "Did you know he'd been making calls all the morning, the same as usual? Made 'em till the last minute, too. It isn't fifteen minutes since I saw his machine roll in. Hope he wasn't rattled when he wrote his prescriptions."
It was the Birches' custom to make as little as possible of family crises. Talk and laugh as lightly as they would, however, every one of them was watching Charlotte with anxiety, for it was the first break in the dear circle, and it seemed almost as if they could have better spared any other.
Yet Charlotte was going to live no farther away than next door—this was the comfort of the situation.
"Well, I must be off to look after my duties to the groom," Lanse announced presently, with a precautionary glance into his mother's mirror to make sure that not a hair of his splendour was disturbed. "I ought to have been with him before this, only my infatuation for the bride makes my case difficult. You've heard of these fellows who hang about another chap's girl till the last minute, doing the forsaken act. I feel something like that. Good luck, little girl. Keep cool, and trust Andy and Doctor Elder to get you safely married."
He stooped to kiss her, and Charlotte held him close for an instant. But he made the brotherly embrace a short one, comprehending that much of that sort of thing would be unsafe both for Charlotte and her family, and went gaily away to the house next door.
"Nerve good?" Lanse asked Doctor Churchill, an hour later as they waited in the vestry for the summons of the organ.
Doctor Churchill smiled. "Pretty steady," he answered. "Still—I'm aware something is about to happen."
Lanse eyed him affectionately.
"Do you know it's a good deal to me to be gaining three brothers by this day's work?" the doctor added; and Lanse felt a sudden lump in his throat, which he had to swallow before he could answer:
"I assure you we're feeling pretty rich, to-day, too, old fellow."
It was all over presently—a very simple, natural sort of affair, with the warm October sunlight streaming through the richly coloured windows upon the figures at the altar, touching Celia's bright hair into a halo, and sending a ruby beam across the trailing folds of Charlotte's bridal gown.
There was no display of any sort. The whole effect was somehow that of a girl being married in the enclosing circle of her family, without thought of the hundreds of eyes upon her. A quiet wedding breakfast followed, at which Doctor Forester and his son, the latter lately returned from a long period of study abroad, were the only guests. Doctor Churchill's housekeeper, Mrs. Fields, although invited to be present as a guest insisted on remaining in the kitchen.
"Just as if," she said, when everybody in turn remonstrated with her, "when I've looked after that boy's food from the days when he ate nothing but porridge and milk, I was going to let anybody else feed him with his wedding breakfast!"
But this part of the business of getting married was also soon over. Doctor Churchill was to take his bride away for a month's stay in a little Southern resort among the mountains, dear to him by old association. It was the first vacation he had allowed himself during these four years of his practice, and his eyes had been sparkling as he planned it. They were sparkling again now, as he stood waiting for Charlotte to say good-bye and come away with him, but his face spoke his sympathetic understanding of those who were finding this the hardest moment which had yet come to them.
"Take care of her, Andy," was what, in almost the same words, they all more or less brokenly said to him at last; and to each and all he answered, in that way of his they loved and trusted, "I will."
From Andrew Churchill it was assurance enough.
* * * * *
"There! Doesn't that look like a 'Welcome Home'?"
Celia stood in the doorway and surveyed her handiwork. Mrs. Birch, from an opposite threshold, nodded, smiling.
"It does, indeed. You have given the whole house a festival air which will captivate Andy's heart the instant he sets eyes on it. As for our little Charlotte—"
She paused, as if it were not easy to put into words that which she knew Charlotte would think. But Celia went on gleefully:
"Charlotte will be so crazy with delight at getting home she will see everything through a blur at first. But when we have all gone away and left them here, then Charlotte will see. And she'll be glad to find traces of her devoted family wherever she looks."
She pointed from the little work-box on the table by the window, just equipped and placed there by her mother's hand, to the book-shelf made and put up in the corner by Jeff. She waved her hand at a great wicker armchair with deep pockets at the sides for newspapers and magazines, which had been Mr. Birch's contribution to the living-room, and at the fine calendar which Just had hung by the desk. Her own offerings were the dressing-table furnishings up-stairs.
All these were by no means wedding gifts, but afterthoughts, inspired by a careful inspection of the details of Doctor Churchill's bachelor home, and the noting of certain gaps which only love and care would be likely to fill.
In four hours now the travellers would be at home, in time, it was expected, for the late dinner being prepared by Mrs. Hepzibah Fields.
For the present, at least, Mrs. Fields was to remain. "I've had full proof of Charlotte's ability to cook and to manage a house," Doctor Churchill had said, when they talked it over, "and I want her free this first year, anyway, to work with her brush and pencil all she likes, and to go about with me all I like."
Mrs. Fields, although a product of New England, had spent nearly half her life in Virginia, in the service of the Churchills. She had drawn a slow breath of relief when this decision had been made known to her, and had said fervently to Doctor Churchill:
"I expect I know how to make myself useful without being conspicuous, and I'm sure I think enough of both of you not to put my foot into your housekeeping. That child's worked pretty hard these four years since I've known her, and a little vacation won't hurt her."
So it had been settled, and Mrs. Fields was now getting up a dinner for her "folks," as she affectionately termed them, which was to be little short of a feast.
Charlotte had written that she and Andy wanted the whole family to come to dinner with them that first night. All day Celia and her mother had been busy getting the little house, already in perfect order, into that state of decorative cheer which suggests a welcome in itself. Now, with Just's offering of ground-pine, and Celia's scarlet carnations all about the room, a fire ready laid in the fireplace, and lamps and candles waiting to be lighted on every side, there seemed nothing to be desired.
"I suppose there's really not another thing we can do," said Celia.
"Absolutely nothing more, that I can see," agreed Mrs. Birch, taking up her wraps from the chair on which they lay. "You can run over and light up at the last minute. Really, how long it seems yet to seven o'clock!"
"Doesn't it? And how good it will be to get the dear girl back! Well, the first month has gone by, mother dear. The worst is over."
Celia spoke cheerfully, but her words were not quite steady. Mrs. Birch glanced at her.
"You've been a brave daughter," she said, with the quiet composure which Celia understood did not always cover a peaceful heart. "We shall all grow used to the change in time. I think sometimes we're not half thankful enough to have Charlotte so near."
"Oh, I think we are!" Celia protested.
"The children have had a beautiful month. Haven't their letters been—What's that?"
It was nothing more startling than the front door-bell, but this was so seldom rung at the bachelor doctor's house, where everybody who wanted him at all wanted him professionally at the office, that it sent Celia hastily and anxiously to the door. It was so impossible at this hour, when the travellers were almost home, not to dread the happening of something to detain them. At the same moment Mrs. Field put her head in at the dining-room door. "Land, I do hope it ain't a telegram!" she observed, in a loud whisper.
It was not a telegram. It was a pale-faced little woman in black, with two children, a boy and a girl, beside her. Celia looked at them questioningly.
"This is Doctor Churchill's, isn't it?" asked the stranger, with a hesitating foot upon the threshold. "Is he at home?"
"He is expected home—he will be in his office to-morrow," Celia answered, thinking this a new patient, and feeling justified in keeping Doctor Churchill's first evening clear for him if she could. But the visitor drew a sigh of relief, and came over the threshold, drawing her children with her. Celia gave way, but the question in her face brought the explanation:
"I reckon it's all right, if he's coming so soon. I'm his cousin, Mrs. Peyton. These are my children. I haven't seen Andrew since he was a boy at college, but he'll remember me. Are you—" She hesitated.
Mrs. Birch came forward. "We are the mother and sister of Mrs. Churchill," she said, and offered her hand. "Doctor Churchill was expecting you?"
"Well, maybe not just at this time," admitted the newcomer, without reluctance. "I didn't know I was coming myself until just as I bought my ticket for home. I happened to think I was within sixty miles of that place in the North where I knew Andrew settled. So I thought we'd better stop and see him and his new wife."
There was nothing to do but to usher her in. With a rebellious heart Celia led Mrs. Peyton into the living-room and assisted her and the children out of their wrappings. All sorts of strange ideas were occurring to her. It was within the bounds of possibility that these people were not what they claimed to be—she had heard of such things. She was unwilling to show them to Charlotte's pretty guest-room, to offer them refreshment, even to light the fire for them.
It was too bad, it was unbearable, that the home-coming for which she and her mother had made such preparation should be spoiled by the presence of these strangers. To be sure, if she was Andrew's cousin she was no stranger to him, yet Celia could not recollect that he had ever spoken of her, even in the most casual way.
But her hope that in some way this might prove to be a case of mistaken identity was soon extinguished. When she had slipped away to the kitchen, at a suggestion from her mother that the guests should be served with something to eat, she found that information concerning Mrs. Peyton was to be had from Mrs. Fields.
"Peyton? For the lands' sake! Don't tell me she's here! Know her? I guess I do! Of all the unfortunate things to happen right now, I should consider her about the worst calamity. What is she? Oh, she ain't anything—that's about the worst I can say of her. There ain't anything bad about her—oh, no. Sometimes I've been driven to wish there was, if I do say it! She's just what I should call one of them characterless sort of folks—kind of soft and silly, like a silk sofy cushion without enough stuffing in it. Always talking, she is, without saying anything in particular. I don't know about the children. They were little things when I saw 'em last. What do you say they look like?"
"The girl is about fourteen, I should think," said Celia, getting out tray and napkins. "She's rather a pretty child—doesn't look very strong. The boy is quite a handsome fellow, of nine or ten. Oh, it's all right, of course, and I've no doubt Doctor Churchill will be glad to see any relatives of his family. Only—if it needn't have happened just to-day!"
"I know how you feel," said the housekeeper. "Here, let me fix that tray, Miss Celia; you've done enough. I suppose we've got to feed 'em and give 'em a room. Ain't it too bad to put them in that nice spare room? No, I don't believe the doctor'll be powerful pleased to see 'em, though I don't suppose he'll let on he ain't. Trouble is, she's a stayer—one of the visiting kind, you know. Mis' Churchill, doctor's mother, used to have her there by the month. There was what you may call a genuine lady, Miss Celia. She'd never let a guest feel he wasn't welcome, and I guess Andy—I guess the doctor's pretty much like her. Well, well!"
Mrs. Fields sighed, and Celia echoed the sigh. Nevertheless, the little hint about Doctor Churchill's mother took hold.
Celia knew what Southern hospitality meant. If Mrs. Peyton had been accustomed to that, it must be a matter of pride not to let her feel that Northern homes were cold and comfortless places by comparison. By the time she had shown the visitors to Charlotte's guest-room, and had made up a bed for the boy on a wide couch there, Celia had worked off a little of her regret. Nevertheless, when Jeff and Just heard the news, their disgust roused her to fresh rebellion.
"I call that pretty nervy," Jeff declared, indignantly, "to walk in on people like this, without a word of warning! Nobody but an idiot would expect people just coming home from their honeymoon to want to find their house filled up with cousins."
"Oh, Andy's relatives'll turn up now," said Just, cynically. "People he never heard of. I'll bet he won't know this woman till he's introduced."
"Yes, he will. I've found her name on the list we sent announcements to," Celia said, dismally. "I didn't notice at the time, because there were ever so many friends of his, people in all parts of the world. 'Mrs. Randolph Peyton,' that's it."
"Hope Mr. Randolph Peyton'll get anxious to see her, and send for her to come home at once!" growled Jeff.
"She's in mourning. I presume she's a widow," was all the comfort Celia could give him.
"Then she'll stay all winter!" cried Just with such hopeless inflection that his sister laughed.
When she went over at half past six o'clock, to light the fire, she found the three visitors gathered in the living-room. She had hoped they might stay up-stairs at least until the first welcome had been given to Charlotte and Andrew. But it turned out that Mrs. Peyton had inquired of Mrs. Fields the exact hour of the expected arrival, and presumably had considered that since the Peytons represented Doctor Churchill's side of the house, their part in his welcome home was not to be gainsaid.
Mr. Birch, Jeff, Just, and Mrs. Birch with little Ellen, presently appeared. Lansing had gone back to his law school, but a great bunch of roses represented him. It had been Charlotte's express command that nobody should go to the station to meet the returning travellers, but that everybody should be in the little brick house to welcome them when they should drive up.
"Here they are! Here they are!" shouted Just, from behind a window curtain, where he had been keeping close watch on the circle of radiance from the nearest arc-light. There was a rush for the door. Jeff flung it open, and he and Just raced to the hansom which was driving up. The rest of the party crowded the doorway, Mrs. Peyton and Lucy and Randolph being of the group.
"How are you, everybody?" called Doctor Churchill's eager voice, as he and Charlotte ran up the walk to the door, Jeff and Just following. "Well, this is fine! Father—mother—Celia—my little Ellen—bless your hearts, but it's good to see you!"
How could anybody help loving a son-in-law like that? One would have thought they were indeed his own. While Charlotte remained wrapped in her mother's embrace, Doctor Churchill was greeting them all twice over, with apparently no eyes for the three he had not expected to see. For the moment it was plain that he had not recognized them, and supposed them to be strangers to whom he would presently be made known.
But now, as somebody moved aside and the light struck upon her, he caught the smile on Mrs. Peyton's face. He left off shaking Jeff's hand, and made a quick movement toward the little figure in black.
"Why, Cousin Lula!" he exclaimed.
Charlotte, at the moment hugging little Ellen with laughter and kisses, turned at the cry, and saw her husband greeting with great cordiality these strange people whom she, too, had supposed to be the guests of her mother.
"Charlotte," said Doctor Churchill, turning about, "this is my cousin, Mrs. Peyton, of Virginia—and her children."
Charlotte came forward, cordially greeted Mrs. Peyton and Lucy and Randolph, and led them into the living-room as if the moment were that of their arrival instead of her own.
"She has the stuff in her, hasn't she?" murmured Just to Jeff, as the two stood at one side of the fireplace.
"Could you ever doubt it?" returned Jeff, with as much emphasis as can be put into a mumbled retort. Jeff had been Charlotte's staunchest champion all his life.
"Ah, Fieldsy, but I'm glad to be back!" Doctor Churchill assured his housekeeper, in the kitchen, to which he had soon found his way. "We've had a glorious time down in the Virginia mountains, but this is home now, as it never was before, and it's great fun to be here. How are you? You're looking fine."
"And I'm feeling fine," assented Mrs. Fields, her spare face lighted into something like real comeliness by the pleasure in her heart. "Just one thing, Doctor Andy. I'm terrible sorry them relatives of yours happened along just now. If I'd gone to the door—well—I don't believe but I'd have seen my way clear to—"
Churchill shook his head, smiling. "No, Fieldsy, you know you wouldn't. Besides, Cousin Lula looks far from well, and she's had a lot of trouble. It's all right, you know. My, but this is a good dinner we have coming to us!"
He went off gaily. Mrs. Fields looked after him affectionately.
"Oh, yes, Andy Churchill, it's plain to be seen your heart's in the right place as much as ever it was, if you have got married," she thought.
"O Fieldsy,"—and this time it was Charlotte who invaded the kitchen and grasped the housekeeper's hands—"how good it seems to be back! But I can't realise a bit I'm at home over here, can you?"
"You'll soon get used to it, I guess, Mis' Churchill."
"Oh, and that sounds strange—from you!" declared Charlotte, laughing. "I'd begun to get a little bit used to it down in Virginia. If you don't say 'Miss Charlotte' once in a while to me I shall feel quite lost."
"I guess Doctor Churchill 'd have something to say about that, if I should. I don't believe but what he's terrible proud of that name."
It was certainly a name nobody seemed able to "get used to." Just called his sister by the new title once during the evening. They were at the table when he thus addressed her, and there followed a succession of comments.
"Don't you dare call her that when I'm round!" remarked Jeff.
"I actually didn't understand at first whom you meant," said Celia.
"I've not forgotten how long it took me to learn that my name was Birch," said Charlotte's mother, with a smile so bright that it covered the involuntary sigh.
"Is Aunty Charlotte my Aunty Churchill now?" piped little Ellen. Lucy and Randolph Peyton laughed.
"Of course, she is, dumpling, only you can keep on calling her Aunty Charlotte. And I'm your Uncle Andy. How do you like that?"
"Oh, I like that!" agreed Ellen, and edged her chair an inch nearer "Uncle Andy."
Dinner over, Celia bore Ellen home to bed. Charlotte suggested the same possibility for the Peyton children, but although it was nearing nine o'clock, both refused so decidedly that after a glance at their mother, who took no notice, Charlotte said no more.
Randolph grew sleepy in his chair, and Doctor Churchill presently took pity on him. He sat down beside the lad and told him a story of so intentionally monotonous a character that Randolph was soon half over the border. Then the doctor picked him up, and with the drooping head on his shoulder observed, pleasantly:
"This lad wants his bed, Cousin Lula. May I take him to it?"
Mrs. Peyton, engaged in telling Mr. Birch her opinion of certain Northern institutions she had lately observed, nodded absently. Doctor Churchill ascended the stairs, and Charlotte, slipping from the room, ran up ahead of him to get Randolph's cot in readiness.
"That's it, old fellow! Wake up enough to let me get your clothes off," Churchill bade the sleep-heavy child. "Can you find his nightclothes, Charlotte? Cousin Lula seems to have unpacked. That's it. Thank you! Now, Ran, you'll be glad to be in bed, won't you? Can you wake up enough to say your prayers, son? No? Well that's not altogether your fault," he said, softly, and smiled at Charlotte. "I think we'd better invite Lucy up, too, don't you?"
"Won't she—Mrs. Peyton—think we're rather cool?" Charlotte suggested, as they tucked the boy in.
"Not a bit. She'll be glad to have the job off her hands. The youngsters are tired, and ought to have been in bed an hour ago. Stay here, and I'll run down after Lucy."
On the stairs, as they descended, after Charlotte had seen Lucy to her quarters, they met Jeff.
"Been putting the kids to bed?" he questioned curiously, under his breath. "Well, you're great. Their mother doesn't seem much worried about it. She's quite a talker. Guess she didn't notice what happened. Say, I'm going. It's ten o'clock. You two ought to have a chance to look 'round without any more company to-night. Justin slipped off while you were up-stairs. Told me to say good-night. Father and mother are only waiting for a pause in your cousin's conversation long enough to throw in a word of their own before they get up." He made an expressive gesture.
"You know mother's invariable rule," he chuckled, "never to get up to go at the end of one of your guest's conversational sprints, but always to wait until you can interrupt yourself, so to speak. Well—I don't mean any disrespect to the lady from Virginia, Andy, but I'm afraid mother'll have to make an exception to that rule, or else remain for the night."
The three laughed softly, Charlotte's hand on her brother's shoulder, as she stood on the step above him.
"You mustn't say any saucy things, Jeffy," said she, with a soft touch on his thick locks.
"I won't. I'm too tickled to have you back—both of you. We missed Fiddle pretty badly," he said to Doctor Churchill, "but we found time to miss you almost as much. There have been several times while you've been gone that I'd have welcomed the chug of your runabout under my window, waking me up in the middle of the night."
"Thank you, old fellow!" said Doctor Churchill with a hand on Jeff's other shoulder. "That's mighty pleasant to hear."
In spite of Jeff's prediction, Mrs. Birch soon managed, in her own tactful way, to follow her sons home. Mrs. Peyton went up to her room at last, a cordial good night, following her from the foot of the stairs. Then Doctor Churchill drew his wife back into the living-room and closed the doors. He stood looking at Charlotte with eyes in which were mingled merriment and tenderness.
"It wasn't just as we planned it, was it, little girl?" he said. "But there's always this to fall back upon. People we want, and people we don't want so much, may be around us, to the right of us, and the left of us, but even so, nobody can ever—come between."
The door-bell rang.
"Oh, I hoped nobody would know you were home to-night!' cried Charlotte, the smile fading from her lips. Doctor Churchill went quickly to the door. A messenger boy with a telegram stood outside. The doctor read the dispatch and dismissed the boy. Then he turned to Charlotte.
"No, it's no bad news," he said, and came close. "It's just—can you bear up?—another impending guest! Charlotte, I've done a lot of talking about hospitality, and I meant it all. I certainly want our latch-string always out, but—don't you think we rushed that copper motto into place just a bit too soon?"
* * * * *
"Charlotte, what are we going to do? It turns out Lee has his sister with him!"
Mrs. Andrew Churchill, engaged in making up a fresh bed with linen smelling faintly of lavender, dropped her sheets and blankets and stood up straight. She gazed across the room at Andy, whose face expressed both amusement and dismay.
"Andy," said she, "haven't I somewhere heard a proverb to the effect that it never rains but it pours?"
"There's an impression on my mind that you have," said her husband. "You are now about to have a practical demonstration of that same proverb. I wrote Lee, as you suggested after his second telegram, and this is his answer. He was detained by the illness of his sister Evelyn, who is with him. It seems she was at school up here in our state, but overworked and finally broke down, and he has come to take her home. But you see home for them means a boarding-house. The family is broken up, mother dead, father at the ends of the earth; and Lee has Evelyn on his hands. The worst of it is, he wants me to see her professionally, so I can't very well suggest that we're too full to entertain her."
"Of course you can't," agreed Charlotte, promptly. "But it means that we must find another room somewhere in the house. Of course mother would—but I don't want to begin right away to send extra guests over there."
"Neither do I," said Doctor Churchill. "Do you suppose we could put a cot into my private office for Lee? Then the sister could have this."
"How old is she?"
"Sixteen, he says."
"Oh, then this will do. And we can put a cot in your private office—after office hours. If Mr. Lee is an old friend he won't object to anything."
"You're a dear girl! And they won't stay long, of course—especially when they see how crowded we are. You'll like Thorne Lee, Charlotte; he's one of the best fellows alive. I haven't seen the sister since she was a small child, but if she's anything like her brother you'll have no trouble entertaining her, sick or well. All right! I'll answer Lee's letter, and say nothing about our being full-up."
"Of course not; that wouldn't be hospitality. When will they come?"
"In a day or two—as soon as she feels like travelling again."
"I'll be ready for her," and Charlotte gave him her brightest smile as he hurried off.
She finished her bed-making, put the little room set apart for her own private den into guest-room condition as nearly as it was possible to do with articles of furniture borrowed from next door, and went down to break the news to Mrs. Fields. She found that person explaining with grim patience to the Peyton children why they could not make candy in her kitchen at the inopportune hour of ten in the morning.
"But we always do at home!" complained Lucy, with a frown.
"Like as not you don't clear up the muss afterward, either," suggested Mrs. Fields, with a sharp look.
"Course we don't," Randolph asserted, with a curl of his handsome upper lip. "What's servants for, I'd like to know?"
"To make friends with, not to treat impolitely," said a clear voice behind the boy.
Randolph and Lucy turned quickly, and Mrs. Fields's face, which had grown grim, softened perceptibly. Both children looked ready to make some tart reply to Charlotte's interpolation, but as their eyes fell upon her they discovered that to be impossible. How could one speak rudely when one met that kind but authoritative glance?
"This is Mrs. Fields's busiest time, you know," Charlotte said, "and it wouldn't do to bother her now with making candy. In the afternoon I'll help you make it. Come, suppose we go for a walk. I've some marketing to do."
"Ran can go with you," said Lucy, as Charlotte proceeded to make ready for the trip. "It's too cold for me. I'd rather stay here by the fire and read."
Charlotte looked at her. Lucy's delicate face was paler than usual this morning; she had a languid air.
"The walk in this fresh November breeze will be sure to make you feel ever so much better," said Charlotte. "Don't you think so, Cousin Lula?"
Mrs. Peyton looked up reluctantly from her embroidery.
"Why, I wouldn't urge her, Charlotte, if she doesn't want to go," she said, with a glance at Lucy, who was leaning back in a big chair with a discontented expression. "You mustn't expect people from the South to enjoy your freezing weather as you seem to. Lucy feels the cold very much."
Charlotte and Randolph marched away down the street together, the boy as full of spirits as his companion.
She had found it easy from the first to make friends with him, and was beginning, in spite of certain rather unpleasant qualities of his, to like him very much. His mother had done her best to spoil him, yet the child showed plainly that there was in him the material for a sturdy, strong character.
When Charlotte had made several small purchases at the market, she did not offer to give Randolph the little wicker basket she carried, but the boy took it from her with a smile and a proud air.
"Ran," said Charlotte, "just round this corner there's a jolly hill. I don't believe anybody will mind if we have a race down it, do you?"
It was a back street, and the hill was an inviting one. The two had their race, and Randolph won by a yard. Just as the pair, laughing and panting, slowed down into their ordinary pace, a runabout, driven by a smiling young man in a heavy ulster and cap, turned the corner with a rush. Amid a cloud of steam the motor came to a standstill.
"Aha! Caught you at it!" cried Doctor Churchill. "Came down that hill faster than the law allows. Get in here, both of you, and take the run out to the hospital with me. I shall not be there long. I've been out once this morning. This is just to make sure of a case I operated on two hours ago."
"Shall we, Ran?" asked Charlotte.
"Oh, let's!" said the boy, with enthusiasm. So away they went. The result of the expedition came out later in the day. Before dinner the entire household was grouped about the fire, Doctor Churchill having just come in, after one of his busiest days.
"Been out to the hospital again, Cousin Andy?" Ran asked.
"Yes; twice since the noon visit."
"How was the little boy with the broken waist?
"Fractured hip? Just about as you saw him. He's got to be patient a good while before he can walk again, and these first few days are hard. He asked me when you would come again."
"Oh, I'll go to-morrow!" cried Randolph, sitting up very straight on his cushion. "And I'll take him a book I've got, with splendid pictures."
"Good!" Doctor Churchill laid a hand on the boy's thick locks. "That will please him immensely."
Mrs. Peyton was looking at him with dismay. "Do I understand you have taken him to a hospital?" she asked.
Doctor Churchill nodded. "To the boys' surgical ward. Nothing contagious admitted to the hospital. It's a wonderful pleasure to the little chaps to see a boy from outside, and Ran enjoyed it, too, didn't you?"
"Oh, it was jolly!" said the boy.
"I shouldn't think that was exactly the word to describe such a spot," said Mrs. Peyton, and she looked displeased. "I think there are quite enough sad sights in the world for his young eyes without taking him into the midst of suffering. I should not have permitted it if you had consulted me."
It was true that Doctor Churchill possessed a frank and boyish face, wearing ordinarily an exceedingly genial expression; but the friendly gray eyes were capable of turning steely upon provocation, and they turned that way now. He returned his cousin's look with one which concealed with some difficulty both surprise and disgust.
"I took Ran nowhere that he would see any extreme suffering," he explained. "This ward contains only convalescents from various injuries and operations. The graver cases are elsewhere, and he saw nothing of those. A visit to this ward is likely to excite sympathy, it is true, but not sympathy of a painful sort. The boys have very good times among themselves, after a limited fashion, and I think Ran had a good time with them. How about it, Ran?"
"Oh, I did! I taught two of 'em to play waggle-finger. Their legs were hurt, but their hands were all right, and they could play waggle-finger as well as anybody. They liked it."
"Nevertheless, Randolph is of a very sensitive and delicate make-up," pursued his mother, "and I don't think such associations good for him. He moaned in his sleep last night, and I couldn't think what it could be."
"It couldn't have been the candy we made this afternoon, could it, Cousin Lula?" Charlotte asked, in her gentlest way. A comprehending smile touched the corners of Doctor Churchill's lips.
"Why, of course not!" said Mrs. Peyton, quickly. "Candy made this afternoon—how absurd, Charlotte! It was last night his sleep was disturbed."
"But the hospital visit was this morning," Charlotte said. "I should think the one might as easily be responsible as the other."
Mrs. Peyton looked confused. "I understood you to say the visit to the hospital occurred yesterday," she said, with dignity, and Doctor Churchill smothered his amusement. "I certainly do not approve of taking children to such places," she repeated.
Charlotte adroitly turned the conversation into other channels, and nothing more was said about hospitals just then. Only the boy, when he had a chance, whispered in Doctor Churchill's ear:
"You just wait. I'll tease her into it."
His cousin smiled back at him and shook his head. "Teasing's a mighty poor way of getting things, Ran," he said. "Leave it to me."
Toward the end of the following day Jeff, crossing the lawn at his usual rapid pace, was hailed from Doctor Churchill's office door by Mrs. Fields. The housekeeper waved a telegram as he approached.
"Here, Mr. Jeff," said she. "Would you mind opening this? There ain't a soul in the house, and I don't want to take such a liberty, but it ought to be read. I make no manner of doubt it's from those extry visitors that are coming."
"Where are they all?" Jeff fingered the envelope reluctantly. "I don't like opening other people's messages."
"I don't know where they are, that's it. Doctor took Miss Charlotte and Ranny off after lunch in his machine, and Mis' Peyton and Lucy have gone to town with your mother. Doctor Andy wouldn't like it if his friends came without anybody to meet 'em."
Jeff tore open the dispatch. "The first two words will tell me, I suppose," he said. "Hello—yes, you're right! They'll be here on the five-ten. That's"—he pulled out his watch—"why, there's barely time to get to the station now! This must have been delayed. You say you don't know where anybody is?"
"Not a soul. Doctor usually leaves word, but he didn't this time."
"I'll telephone the hospital," and Jeff hurried to Doctor Churchill's desk. In a minute he had learned that the doctor had come and gone for the last time that day. He looked at Mrs. Fields.
"You'll have to go, Mr. Jeff," said she. "I know Doctor Andy's ways. He'd as soon let company go without their dinners as not be on hand when their train came in. He wasn't expecting the Lees till to-morrow."
"Of course," said Jeff, "I'll go, since there's nobody else. How am I to know 'em? Young man and sick girl? All right, that's easy," and he was off to catch a car at the corner.
As he rode into town, however, he was rebelling against the situation. "This guest business is being overdone," he observed to himself. "These people are probably some more off the Peyton piece of cloth. An invalid girl lying round on couches for Fiddle to wait on—another Lucy, probably, only worse, because she's ill. Well, I'm not going to be any more cordial than the law calls for. I'll have to bring 'em out in a carriage, I suppose. She'll be too limp for the trolley."
He reached the station barely in time to engage a carriage before the train came in. He took up his position inside the gates through which all passengers must pass from the train-shed into the great station.
"Looking for somebody?" asked a voice at his elbow.
He glanced quickly down at one of his old schoolmates, Carolyn Houghton. "Yes, guests of the Churchills," he answered, his gaze instantly returning to the throng pouring toward him from the train. "Help me, will you? I don't know them from Adam. It's a man and his invalid sister, old friends of Andy's."
"There they are," said Carolyn, promptly, indicating an approaching pair.
Jeff laughed. "The sister isn't quite so antique as that," he objected, as a little woman of fifty wavered past on the arm of a stout gentleman.
"You said 'old' friends," retorted Carolyn. "Look, Jeff, isn't that she? The sister's being wheeled in a chair by a porter, the brother's walking beside her. They look like Doctor Churchill's friends, Jeff."
"Think you can tell Andy's friends by their uniform?"
"You can tell anybody's intimate friends in a crowd—I mean the same kind of people look alike," asserted Carolyn, with emphasis. "These are the ones, I'm sure. I'll just watch while you greet them and then I'll slip off. I'm taking this next train. What a sweet face that girl has, but how delicate—like a little flower. She's a dear, I'm sure. The brother looks nice, too. They're the ones, I know. See, the brother's looking hard at us all inside the gates."
"Here goes, then. Good-by!" Jeff turned away to the task of making himself known to the strangers. But he was forced to admit that if Charlotte must meet another onslaught of visitors, these certainly did look attractive.
"Yes, I'm Thorne Lee," the young man answered, with a straight look into Jeff's eyes and a grasp of the outstretched hand as Jeff introduced himself. He motioned the porter to wheel the chair out of the pressing crowd.
Jeff explained about the delayed telegram. Mr. Lee presented him to the young girl in the chair, and Jeff looked down into a pair of hazel eyes which instantly claimed his sympathy, the shadows of fatigue lay on them so heavily. But Miss Evelyn Lee's smile was bright if fleeting, and she answered Jeff's announcement that he had a carriage waiting with so appreciative a word of gratitude that he found his preconceived antipathy to Doctor Churchill's guests slipping away.
So presently he had them in a carriage and bowling through the streets which led toward the suburbs. Thorne Lee sat beside his sister, supporting her, and talked with Jeff. By the time they had covered the long drive to the house Jeff was hoping Lee would stay a month.
The hazel eyes of Lee's young sister had closed and the lashes lay wearily sweeping the pale cheeks as the carriage drove up.
"Are we there?" Lee asked, bending over the slight figure. "Open your eyes, dear."
Jeff jumped out and ran to the house. He burst in upon Charlotte and Andy. "Your friends are here!" he shouted. "I had to meet 'em myself."
Doctor Churchill and Charlotte were at the door before the words were out of Jeff's mouth, and in a moment more Andy was lifting Evelyn Lee's light figure in his arms, thanking heaven inwardly as he did so for his young wife's wholesome weight. At the same moment words of of eager, cheery welcome for his old friend were on his lips:
"Thorne Lee, I'm gladder to see you than anybody in the world! Miss Evelyn, here's Mrs. Churchill. She's not an old married woman at all—she's the dearest girl in the world. She's going to seem to you like one of your schoolfellows. Charlotte, here she is; take good care of her."
Thorne Lee stood looking on, a relieved smile on his lips as his old friend's wife took his sick little sister into her charge. It was not two minutes before he saw Evelyn, lying pale and mute on the couch, yet smiling up at Charlotte's bright young face.
Charlotte administered a cup of hot bouillon talking so engagingly meanwhile that Evelyn was beguiled into taking without protest the whole of the much-needed nourishment. Then he saw the young invalid carried off to bed, relieved of the necessity of meeting any more members of the household. He learned, as Charlotte slipped into the room after an hour's absence, that Evelyn had already dropped off to sleep. He leaned back in his chair with a long breath.
"What kind of a girl is this you've married, Andy?" he asked, with a smile and a look from one to the other. The three were alone, Mrs. Peyton and her children having gone out to some sort of entertainment.
"Just what she seems to be," replied Doctor Churchill, smiling back, "and a thousand times more."
"I might have known you would care for no other," Lee said. "And you two 'live in your house at the side of the road, to be good friends to man,'—if I may adapt those homely words."
"We haven't been at it very long, but we hope to realize an ambition of the sort. It doesn't take much philanthropy to welcome you."
"You can't think what a relief it is to me to get that little sister of mine under your wing, even for a few hours."
"Tell us all about her."
Lee had not meant to begin at once upon his troubles, but his friend drew him on, and before the evening ended the doctor and Charlotte had the whole long, hard story of Lee's guardianship of several young brothers and sisters, his struggle to get established in his profession and make money for their support, his many anxieties in the process, and this culminating trouble in the breakdown of the younger sister, just as he thought he had her safely established in a school where she might have a happy home for several years.
Lee stopped suddenly, as if he had hardly known how long he had been talking. "I'm a pleasant guest!" he said, regret in his tone. "I meant to tell you briefly the history of Evelyn's illness, and here I've gone on unloading all my burdens of years. What do you sit there looking so benevolent and sympathetic for, beguiling a fellow into making a weak-kneed fool of himself? My worries are no greater than those of millions of other people, and here I've been laying it on with a trowel. Forget the whole dismal story, and just give me a bit of professional advice about my little sister."
"Look here, old boy," said his friend, "don't go talking that way. You've done just what I was anxious you should do—given me your confidence. I can go at your sister's case with a better chance of understanding it if I know this whole story. And now I'm going to thank you and send you off to bed for a good night's sleep. To-morrow we'll take Evelyn in hand."
"Bless you, Andy! You're the same old tried and true," murmured Thorne Lee, shaking hands warmly.
Then Charlotte led him away up-stairs to see his sister, who had waked and wanted him. Stooping over her bed, he felt a pair of slender arms round his neck and heard her voice whispering in his ear:
"Thorny, I just wanted you to know that I think Mrs. Churchill is the dearest person I ever saw, and I'm going to sleep better to-night than I have for weeks."
"Thank God for that!" thought Lee, and kissed the thin cheek of the girl with brotherly fervor.
Down-stairs in the hall a few minutes later Andrew Churchill advanced to meet his wife, as she returned to him after ministering to Evelyn Lee's wants.
"Do you know," said he, looking straight down into her eyes as she came up to him, "those words of Stevenson's—though they always fit you—seem particularly applicable to you to-night?
"Steel-true and blade-straight The great artificer Made my mate.'"
* * * * *
"I think," said Doctor Churchill, leaning back in his office chair, with a mingling of the professional and the friendly in his air, "that we can get at the bottom of Evelyn's troubles without very much difficulty." He had just sent Evelyn back to Charlotte, after an hour in the office, during which he had subjected her to a minute and painstaking examination into the cause of her ill health. And now to her brother, anxiously awaiting his verdict, he spoke his mind.
"If you'll let me be very frank with you, Thorne," he said, "I'll tell you just what I think about Evelyn, and just what it seems to me is the proper course for us to take with her."
"Go ahead; it's exactly that I want," Lee declared. "I know well enough that my care of her has been seriously at fault."
"Never in intention," said Doctor Churchill, "only in the excess of your tenderness. Evelyn has lived in overheated rooms, with hot baths, insufficient exercise, and improper food. In the kindness of your heart you have been nourishing a little hot-house plant, and there's no occasion for surprise that it wilts at the first blast of ordinary air."
Lee looked dismayed.
"I'm mighty sorry, Andy," he said, remorsefully.
"Don't feel too badly," was his friend's reply. "After a winter with us Evelyn will be another girl."
"What?" Lee started in his chair. "Andy, what are you thinking about?"
"Just what I say. Charlotte and I have talked it all over. We've both taken an immense liking to Evelyn and we'd honestly enjoy having her here for the winter. It only remains for you to convince Evelyn herself that we are to be trusted, and to secure her promise that we may have our way with her from first to last, and the thing is done."
"You are sure that's really all there is to it? You're not keeping anything from me?"
"Not a thing. And I'm as sure as a man can well be. That's why I don't prescribe a sanatorium for her, or anything of that sort. All she needs is a rational, every-day life of the health-making kind, such as Charlotte and I can teach her—Charlotte even more effectively than I. Evelyn needs simply to build up a strong physical body; then these troublesome nerves will take care of themselves. Believe me, Thorne, it's refreshingly simple. I've not even a drug to suggest for your sister. She doesn't need any."
"But, Andy, it doesn't seem to me I can let Evelyn stay here with you all winter—the first winter of your married life. You two ought to be alone together."
"No. Charlotte and I haven't set out to go through life—even this first year of it—alone together. We are together, no matter how many we have about us. It will be only in the day's work if we keep Evelyn with us, and it's a sort of work that will pay pretty well, I fancy."
"It certainly will—in more than one kind of coin," and Lee gripped his friend's hand.
So it was settled. Evelyn agreed so joyously to the plan that her brother's last doubt of its feasibility was removed, and he went away a day later with a heart so much lighter than the one he had brought with him that it showed in his whole bearing.
"God bless you and your sweet wife, Andy Churchill," he wrote back from his first stopping-place, and when Churchill showed the letter to Charlotte she said, happily:
"We'll make the copper motto come true with this guest, won't we? Evelyn will be a very pretty girl when she loses that fragile look. Her eyes and expression are beautiful. Do you know, she accepts everything I say as if I were the Goddess of Wisdom herself."
"Charlotte," said Mrs. Peyton, a few days later, coming hurriedly into Charlotte's own room, where that young woman was busy with various housewifely offices, "I've had a telegram. I'm so upset I don't know what to do. My sister is sick and her husband is away, and she's sent for me. I'm not able to do nursing—I'm not strong enough—but I don't see but that I must go."
"I'm very sorry your sister is ill," said Charlotte. "Tell me about her."
Mrs. Peyton told at length. "And what I'm to do with the children," she said, mournfully, "I don't know. Sister doesn't want them to come. But here I'm away up North and sister's out West, and the children couldn't go home alone. Besides, there's nowhere for them to go. I am their only home. Dear, dear, what shall I do?"
The front door-bell, ringing sharply, sent Charlotte down-stairs. At this moment she saw her husband coming up the street in his runabout. When Doctor Churchill ran into his office after a case of instruments he had forgotten, his wife cast herself into his arms, in such a state of emotion that he held her close, bewildered.
"What on earth is it, dear?" he asked. "Are you laughing or crying? Here, let me see your face."
"O Andy"—Charlotte would not let her face be seen—"it's Cousin Lula! She's—she's—oh, she's—going away!"
Churchill burst into smothered laughter. "It can't be you're crying," he murmured. "Charlotte, I don't blame you. Look up and smile. I know how you must be feeling. You've been a regular heroine all these weeks."
"I'm awfully ashamed," choked Charlotte, on his shoulder, "but, O Andy, what it will seem not to have to—oh, I mustn't say it, but—"
"I know, I know!" He patted her shoulder.
"Her sister is ill, in the West somewhere. She has to go to her at once. She wants the children to stay with us."
"Her sister doesn't want them there, and she can't send them home. Andy, I wouldn't mind that so awfully. I'd almost like the chance to see what we could do with them."
"Well, don't answer definitely till I have time to talk it over with you and with her. I must go now."
They talked it over, together, and with Mrs. Peyton. The result of these conferences was that two days later that lady took her departure, leaving her children in the care of the Churchills.
"On one condition, Cousin Lula," Doctor Churchill had said to her with decision. "That you put them absolutely in our care and trust our judgment in the management of them."
Mrs. Peyton tried to make a few reservations. Her cousin would have none of them. At last she submitted, understanding well enough in her heart that Andrew Churchill would be the safest sort of a guardian for her children, and admitting to herself, if she did not to anybody else, that Charlotte would give them care of the sort which money cannot buy.
"That woman gone?" asked Jeff, coming into his sister Celia's room. "Well, I'm delighted to hear it. But I must say I think Charlotte's taken a good deal of a contract. I didn't mind so much about their agreeing to keep Evelyn Lee, for she's a mighty nice sort of a girl, and will make a still nicer one when she gets strong. But these Peyton youngsters—I certainly don't think taking care of them ought to have been on the bill. That idiot Lucy—" His expressive face finished the sentence for him.
Celia smiled. "I know. I feel as you do, and I think father and mother are a little anxious lest Charlotte has taken too much care on her shoulders. But Charlotte and Andy have set out to make everybody happy, and they're seizing every chance that offers. They're so enthusiastic about it one can't bear to dampen their ardour. The least we can do is to help them whenever we can."
Jeff made a wry face. "I don't mind assisting in the boy's education, but I draw the line at the girl. She's a silly. Why, she—" His face coloured with resentment. "It sounds crazy to say, but she does, for a fact, make eyes at every man or boy she sees."
Celia laughed. "I hadn't noticed. But she can't mean to, Jeff. She's only fifteen."
"That's the idiocy of it. She's only fifteen, but you watch her the next time any of us fellows come into the room. Just can tell you; he's in a chronic state of laugh over it. She thinks she's a beauty, and she thinks we're all impressed with the fact."
"She is pretty."
"I don't think so. I don't call any girl pretty who's so struck with herself that she can't get by a mirror without a glance and a pat of that big fluff of front hair. You don't catch Eveyln looking into a glass or acting as if she thought everybody was about to fall in love with her. I'm going to take her skating when she gets strong enough."
"That won't be for some time, I'm afraid. But she certainly is looking better already."
So she was. Charlotte had begun very gently with Evelyn, reducing the temperature of the daily bath only by a degree at a time, lessening the heat in the sleeping room, opening the windows for outside air an inch more each night, coaxing her out for a short walk of gradually increasing length each day, and generally luring her toward more healthful ways of living than those to which she had been accustomed.
Bedtime found Evelyn exceedingly weary, but it was healthful weariness, and she was beginning to be able to sleep.
A tinge of colour was growing in the pale cheeks, a brighter expression in the large eyes, and altogether the young guest was showing a gratifying response to the new methods.
"I think," said Charlotte to Evelyn one morning, when three weeks had gone by, "we shall have to celebrate your improvement by a little concert this evening. Would you like to hear the Birch-Churchill orchestra?"
"Orchestra? How lovely! Indeed I should!" cried Evelyn, with a display of enthusiasm quite unusual. "What do you play?"
"Strings. We're badly out of practice, but there are always a few old things we can get up fairly well at a minute's notice. The truth is, we haven't played together since long before my wedding-day, and I resolved the minute we were married we'd begin again. We will begin, this very night. I know they'll all be glad."
The performers did, indeed, show their pleasure by arriving early, flannel-shrouded instruments under their arms. Doctor Churchill came in just as they were tuning. Since Lanse had been away, Andy, who was something of a violinist had taken up Lanse's viola, and was now able to occupy his brother-in-law's place. Celia, however, had been chosen to fill the vacant role of leadership.
"The rest of us are only imitators," Jeff declared to Evelyn, as he stood near her, softly trying his strings. "Charlotte's the best, and Andy's very good indeed; but it's only Celia who goes to hear big music and sits with the tears rolling down her cheeks, while the rest of us are wondering what on earth it all means."
Evelyn, leaning back among the pillows of the wide couch, called Lucy softly, motioning her to a seat by her side.
Lucy came quickly, pleased by Evelyn's notice. She in her turn had been regarding Evelyn as a monopolist of everybody's attention and had made up her mind not to like her. But now she sank into the place by Evelyn's side, and accepted the delicate touch of Evelyn's hand on hers as recognition at last that here was another girl fit to make friends with.
"Don't they play well?" whispered Evelyn, as the music came to a sudden stop that Celia might criticise the playing of a difficult passage.
"She doesn't think so," called Just, softly, having caught the whisper. He indicated his elder sister. "She won't let me boom things with my viol the way I'd like to. What's the use of playing the biggest instrument if you can't make the biggest noise?"
"Solo, by the double-bass!" cried Andy; and the whole orchestra, except the first violin of the leader, burst into a boisterous rendering of a popular street song, in which Just sawed forth the leading part, while the others kept up a rattling staccato accompaniment. Evelyn and Lucy became breathless with laughter, and Mr. and Mrs. Birch, who had just slipped into the room, joined in the merriment.
"There you are," chuckled Jeff. "That's what you get when you give the donkey the solo part among the farmyard performers."
"He can sing as well as the peacock," retorted Just, with spirit.
"We were right in the middle of the 'Hungarian Intermezzo,'" explained Celia to the newcomers. "I stopped them to tell them why they needed to look more carefully to their phrasing, and the children burst into this sort of thing. What shall I do with them?"
"It's a great relief to feel that they're not altogether grown up, after all," said Mr. Birch, helping himself to his favourite easy chair near the fireplace. "There are times when we feel a strong suspicion that we haven't any children any more. Moments like these assure us that we are mistaken. Go on with your 'Intermezzo,' but give us another nursery song before you are through."
"Nursery song! That's pretty good," said Jeff, in Just's ear, and that sixteen-year-old mumbled in reply, "I can throw you over my shoulder just the same."
"Boys, come! We're ready!" called Celia, and the music began again.
"Are you getting tired, dear?" asked Mrs. Birch of Evelyn, when the "Intermezzo" was finished, noting the flush on the delicate cheek. Evelyn looked up brightly.
"Not enough to hurt me. I'm enjoying it so! Aren't large families lovely? I was so much younger than my brothers and sisters that by the time I was old enough to care about having good times like this on winter evenings they were all away at school or married. We never had anything so nice as a family orchestra, either. I wish I could play something."
"How about the piano?" asked Charlotte, who sat near. Evelyn's flush grew pinker.
"I can play a little," she said. "But you don't need the piano."
"Yes, we do. A piano would add ever so much. Next time we'll have our practice at home, and give you a part."
Then she glanced at Lucy, and saw what might have been expected, a look of envy and discontent. "Is there anything you can play, Lucy?" she asked. "It would be very nice to have everybody in. Perhaps Ran could have a triangle."
"I play the piano," said Lucy.
"Oh, give Lucy the piano," Evelyn said, quickly,—also as might have been expected.
"We'll try you both," put in Doctor Churchill, "as they always do aspirants for such positions."
"I've had lessons from the best master in our state," said Lucy to Just.
"That so? Then you may win out," was his opinion. "But you can't be sure. Evelyn's not much of a bragger, but she seems to be a pretty well-educated girl."
"Just, be careful!" warned Charlotte, in his ear, as she drew him gently to one side. "I know you don't like her, but you must be considerate of her."
"I don't feel much like it."
"You know I want your help about Lucy." Charlotte had drawn him still farther away, so that she could speak with safety. "But you know, too, that snubbing isn't a way to get hold of anybody."
"It's the only way with conceited softies," began Just.
But Charlotte caught his hand and squeezed it. "No, it isn't. I'm sure she's worth being friends with, and if she can learn certain things you can teach her in the way of athletics, and reading, and all that, you can do her lots of good."
"Don't feel a bit like being a missionary!" growled Just. "Suppose I've got to try it, to please you. Evelyn's all right, isn't she?"
"Yes, she's a dear. I'm so glad we kept her. That makes me realise she's had quite enough excitement for to-night. I must carry her off to bed. Perhaps you'd all better—"
"No, you don't!" said Just, with a rebellious laugh. "Just because you've set up a sanatorium and a kindergarten you can't send your brothers off to bed at nine o'clock. I want a good visit with you after the infants and invalids are in bed."
"All right, big boy," promised Charlotte, rejoicing in the affectionate look he gave her.
She had been anxious that her marriage should in no way interfere with the old brotherly and sisterly relations, and it was a long time since she had had a confidential talk with her youngest brother. Jeff was always coming to her precisely as in the old days, with demands for interest and advice; but Just had seemed a little farther away.
So when she had seen the "infants and invalids" happily gone to rest, and after a quiet hour of family talk about the fireside had said good-night to all the others, Charlotte turned to Just with a look of welcome as fresh and inviting as if the evening had but now begun. Doctor Churchill had gone to make a bedtime call upon a patient critically ill, and the two were quite alone.
"This is jolly," said Just, settling himself on a couch pillow at her feet, his long legs stretched out to the fire, his head resting against his sister's knee. "Now I'm going to tell you everything that's happened to me since you were married. Not that there's anything wonderful to tell, or that I'm in any scrape, you know, but I'd like to feel I've got my sister and that she cares—just as much as ever." He twisted his head about till he could look up into the warm, sweet face above him. "Does she care as much as ever?"
It was an unusual demonstration from the big boy, now at the age when sisterly companionship is often despised, and Charlotte appreciated it. More than Justin Birch could understand was in her voice as her fingers rested upon his hair, but what she said gave him great satisfaction, although it was only a blithe:
"Just as much—and a little more, dear. Tell me the whole story. There's nothing I'd like so much to hear."
* * * * *
"Evelyn! Miss Evelyn Lee! Where are you?"
Jeff's shout rang up the stairs, and in obedience to its imperative summons Evelyn immediately appeared at the head.
"Yes, Mr. Jefferson Birch," she responded. "Is the house on fire?"
"Not a bit, but I'm anxious for your hearing. I've been roaring gently all over the house without a result, except to scare three patients in Andy's office. Won't you come down?"
She descended slowly, but she neither clung to the rail nor sat down to rest half-way, as she had done when she first came under the Churchill roof.
Her face was acquiring the soft bloom of a flower, her eyes were full of light and interest. She still looked slim and frail, but she was beginning to show signs of waxing health very pleasant to see for those who had grown as interested in her as if she were a young sister of their own.
"I've an invitation for you from Carolyn Houghton for an impromptu sleigh-ride to-night. Don't you suppose you can go? I'll take all sorts of care of you and see that you don't get too tired. You've met Carolyn; she's a jolly girl to know, and she told me to bring you if possible."
Evelyn dropped into a chair. "Oh, how I should love to go!" she said. "I never went on a sleigh-ride like that in my life. Do you go all together in a big load?"
"Yes—a regular prairie-schooner of a sleigh. Holds a dozen of us, packed like sardines, so nobody can get cold. We take hot soapstones and rugs and robes, and we go only twelve miles, to a farmhouse where we get a hot supper—oysters and hot biscuit and maple-syrup, and all sorts of good things. You must go."
"If I only could!" sighed Evelyn. "I'm so afraid they won't think I can."
"They will, if you think you can," asserted Jeff. "You're up to it, aren't you? You needn't do a thing. Six of the crowd are going to give a little play. I'll get the load started home early, and we'll come back flying. Be here by midnight at the latest. It'll do you good, I know it will."
"O Mrs. Churchill!" breathed Evelyn, as Charlotte appeared from the hall.
"O Evelyn Lee!" answered Charlotte, smiling back at the eager face. "Yes, I heard most of it, Jeff, for I was coming down-stairs, and you weren't exactly whispering. It's an enticing plan, isn't it?"
"Of course it is. And it's magnificent weather for the affair. Not cold a bit and no wind; moonlight due if no clouds come up. Evelyn can't get cold. I'll keep her done up to the tip of her nose, and be so devoted nobody else will have a chance to worry her. Say she may go. Don't you see the disappointment would be worse for her than the trip?"
"You artful pleader, I'm not sure but it would. If Doctor Churchill agrees, Evelyn, I'll let you try it. On one condition, Jeff—that you really do get back by midnight. For a girl who has been put to bed for weeks at nine that's late enough."
Evelyn went about all day with a lighter step than her friends had yet seen her assume.
"Now remember, I trust her absolutely to your care," Charlotte said to Jeff that evening, as he appeared, his arms full of accessories for making his charge comfortable.
Evelyn, in furs and heavy coat, smiled at her escort. "I'm not a bit afraid," she said. "Oh, what a beautiful night! The moon is out. Is that the sleigh coming up the street now, with all those horns? What fun!"
"I want to put Miss Lee right in the middle of everything!" Jeff called out, as the sleighload stopped. "I'm particularly requested not to let a breath of frost strike her."
"Come on, here's just the spot," answered Carolyn Houghton, holding out a welcoming hand; and then the girl from the South, who had never known the sleighing-party of the North, found herself being whirled away over the road, to an accompaniment of youthful merriment, bursts of songs and tooting of horns.
Before it seemed possible the twelve miles of fine sleighing had been covered, and the old farmhouse, its door flung hospitably open at the sound of the horns, was invaded by the gay band.
Evelyn, in a quaint up-stairs bedroom, lighted by kerosene lamps and warmed by a roaring wood fire in an old-fashioned box stove, was attended by Carolyn Houghton, who was, as Jeff had said, a "jolly girl to know." Herself a blooming maid with black locks and carnation cheeks, Carolyn admired intensely Evelyn's auburn hair and fair complexion.
"Don't you think she's the dearest thing?" she whispered to a friend, as they descended the stairs. "There's something so soft and sweet and ladylike about her, as if nobody could be slangy or loud before her, you know. Yet she isn't a bit dull; she just sparkles when you get her interested and happy. I do want her to have a good time to-night."
There could be no doubt that Evelyn was having a good time. Everything pleased her, everybody interested her. It seemed to her that she had never seen such charming young people before.
The little play made her laugh till she was as flushed and gay as a child. Those with whom Evelyn showed herself so delighted became equally delighted with her, and before the evening was over she was feeling that she had always known these young friends, had forgotten that she had ever been an invalid, and was indeed "sparkling," as Carolyn Houghton had said, in a way that drew all eyes toward her in admiration.
Jeff, indeed, stared at her as if he had never seen her before.
"I'm sure this isn't hurting you a bit," he said in her ear, as the evening slipped on. "You must be feeling pretty well, for I've never seen you so jolly. I'm going to do the prescribing after this. I know what's good for little girls."
"I believe you do," Evelyn answered. "No, I'm not a bit tired. Why, is it almost eleven?"
"Yes, and time to go, if we live up to our promises. Seems a pity, doesn't it? But it doesn't pay to break your word, so as soon as you girls can get into your toggery we'll be off."
"Of course, we must keep our promise," agreed Evelyn, with decision, and straightway she went up-stairs for her wraps. The other girls followed more reluctantly.
"'Goodness, girls, look out!" cried somebody from the window. "Did you ever see it so thick? The barns are just down there, where that glimmer is, but you can't see them at all."
"All the more fun," said another girl.
"We're pretty far out in the country, and the road's awfully winding. I hope we get home all right."
"Oh, nonsense!" said some one else, with great positiveness. "I should know the way with my eyes shut. Besides, it was as clear as a bell when we came. It can't have been snowing long enough to block things in the least."
They found it had done so however, when they descended to the sleigh. That vehicle had been brought close to the porch, that the girls might not have to walk through the deep snow. The air was so full of the whirling white particles that from the farther end of the sleigh one could barely see the horses.
"I declare, I don't feel just easy about you folks starting out," said the farmer whose guests they had been. "Better watch the road some careful, you driver. I suppose you know it pretty well."
"He doesn't, but I do!" called a tall youth from the driver's seat. "I'll keep him straight. We'll be all right. We're due home at midnight, and we'll be there, unless the roads are too heavy to keep the pace we came in."
"No, sir, we can't ever keep the pace we come in," presently averred the man from the livery-stable, who was driving. "The road's pretty heavy. I declare, I don't know as I ever see snow so thick. Do I turn a little to the right here or do I keep straight ahead?"
"Straight ahead," answered the boy beside him, confidently. "I've been over this road a thousand times, and it doesn't bend to the right for half a mile yet."
"It's lucky you know," said the driver. "I'm all at sea already. Can't see the fences only now and then. I'd ha' swung off there, sure, if you hadn't said not."
As the rising wind began to whirl snowily about their ears and necks, the party turned up their coat-collars and tucked in their fur robes. The horses were plowing with increasing difficulty through the heavily drifted roads, and more than once their driver found himself obliged to make a long detour around a drift which had not been in the road when they first came over it. Moreover, in spite of the snow, the air seemed to have grown colder and to be acquiring a penetrating, icy quality which at last made Jeff declare to Evelyn:
"You may say you're not cold, but I'm going to insist on your letting me wrap this steamer rug found your shoulders, with the corner over your head, so. Now doesn't that keep off a lot of wind?"
"Indeed it does, thank you," admitted Evelyn, with a little shiver she could not quite conceal.
"You are cold!" Jeff said, anxiously.
"No colder than anybody else. Please don't worry about me."
But he did worry, and with reason. Indeed, although nobody was willing yet to admit it, the situation was becoming a little unpleasant. In spite of the stout confidence of the boy on the seat with the driver, others who were somewhat familiar with the road were beginning to question his leading.
"That clump of trees doesn't look natural just there," said one, standing up in the sleigh and trying to peer through the wall of snowflakes. "It's too near. It ought to be a hundred feet away."
"No. You're thinking we're farther back than We are," declared Neil Ward, from the front seat. "We're almost at the turn by the railroad."
"Why, we can't be! We haven't passed the Winters farm. I tell you, you're off the road."
"I think we are," agreed the driver, uneasily, pulling his cap farther over his snow-hung eyebrows. "I've been thinking so for quite a spell."
"We're all right. You people just keep cool!" cried Neil.
"No trouble about keeping cool in this blizzard!" growled somebody, and there was a general laugh.
One of the girls started a song, and they all joined cheerily in. A proposition to toot the horns, forgotten in the bottom of the sleigh, with a hope of attracting attention from some one, was adopted, and a hideous din followed, and was kept up till every one was weary—with no result.
All at once, without warning, the horses plunged heavily and solidly to their steaming shoulders into an undreamed-of ditch, and the sleigh stopped, well into the same hole.
"Will you admit now that we're off the road, Neil Ward?" cried some one, fiercely; and Neil, without contention but with evident chagrin, admitted it. There was no ditch that he was aware of within a mile of the highway.
Jeff drew the rugs tighter about Evelyn, then lifted a corner to peer in. "Don't be frightened, little girl. We'll get out of this all right," he said, as cheerfully as he could, although he was alarmed for her safety more than he would have dared to admit, even to himself.
The other girls were all strong, healthy specimens of young womanhood, presumably able to endure a good deal of cold and exposure without danger of serious harm. But this little sensitive plant! Jeff waited in suspense for her answer.
It came in a clear, sweet voice, without a particle of fright in it: "Of course we shall. And won't it be fun to tell about it afterward?"
"You're right, it will!" he responded, with enthusiasm. Inwardly he said, "You're a plucky one, all right." Then, with the other fellows, he leaped out of the sleigh, and went to trampling down the snow around the imprisoned horses.
* * * * *
Alone together, after Randolph and Lucy had gone to bed, Andrew and Charlotte passed the long evening. Charlotte was not willing to let Evelyn come home to a closed and silent house, so the two awaited her arrival.
"Why, Andy, it's snowing furiously!" said Charlotte, from the window, whither she had gone at the stroke of twelve. Doctor Churchill put down the book from which he had been reading aloud, and came to her side.
"So it is. Blowing, too. But it can't have been at it long or we should have noticed."
"I've been noticing the wind now and then for the last hour. I hope it's not grown cold. I wouldn't have anything happen to upset Evelyn's improvement for the world."
"Nothing will. They'll be home before the half-hour. Come back and listen to the rest of this chapter."
Charlotte came back, but as the quarter-hours went slowly by she became restless, and vibrated so continually between fireplace and window that Andy finally put away the book and kept her company.
"It's growing worse every minute." Charlotte's face was pressed close against the frosty pane. "If they don't come by one it will look as if something had happened."
"Oh, they're at the irresponsible age. When they come they'll say, 'Why, we didn't dream it was so late!'"
"Jeff's not irresponsible when he gives a promise. He never breaks one," Charlotte answered, confidently.
"This storm would make the roads heavy. Even if they started on time, they would have to travel twice as slowly as when they went. Stop worrying, dear; it's not in character for you."
Charlotte closed her lips, but when the clock struck one her eyes spoke for her. "Evelyn is so delicate," they said, mutely, and Andy answered as if she had spoken.
"Evelyn is wrapped too heavily to be cold. Besides, they'll all take care of her. She won't come to any harm, I'm sure of it. They'll be here before half-past-one, I'm confident, and then we can antidote any chill she may have got."
But at half-past-one there was still no sign of the sleighing party. Moreover, the storm was steadily increasing; it had become what is known as a "blizzard." Even in the protected suburban street the drifts were beginning to show size, and the arc-light at the corner was almost lost to view through the downfall.
Charlotte turned to her husband with something like imperiousness in her manner, and met the same decision in his look. Before she could speak he said: