Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter X
 

"The gentle art of cooking in a chafing-dish," discoursed Captain John Rayburn, lightly stirring in a silver basin the ingredients of the cream sauce he was making for the chopped chicken which stood at hand in a bowl, "is one particularly adapted to the really intelligent masculine mind. No noise, no fuss, no worry, no smoke, everything systematic,"--with a practised hand he added the cream little by little to the melted butter and flour--"business-like and practical. It is a pleasure to contemplate the delicate growth of such a dish as this which I am preparing. It is----"

"You may have thickening enough for all that cream," Celia interrupted, doubtfully, watching her uncle's cookery with an anxious eye.

"And you may have sufficient mental poise to be able to lecture on cookery and do the trick at the same time," supplemented Doctor Churchill, his eyes also on the chafing-dish. In fact, everybody's eyes were on the chafing-dish.

The entire Birch family, Doctor Churchill, Lanse's friend, Mary Atkinson; Jeff's comrade, Carolyn Houghton; and Just's inseparable, Norman Carter--Just scorned girls, and when asked to choose whom he would have as a guest for Captain Rayburn's picnic, mentioned Norman with an air of finality--sat about a large rustic table upon a charming spot of greensward among the trees of a little island four miles down the river.

A great bowl of pond-lilies decorated the centre of the table; and bunches of the same flowers, tied with long yellow ribbons, lay at each plate.

When Captain Rayburn entertained he always did it in style. And since this picnic had been especially designed to celebrate the home-coming of the travellers, a week after their arrival, no pains had been spared to make the festival one to be remembered.

Mrs. Birch was in the seat of honour, a position which she graced. In a summer gown of white, her face round and glowing as it had not been in years, she seemed the central flower of a most attractive bouquet. Mr. Birch looked about him with appreciative eyes.

"I don't think I could attend to the chafing-dish with any certainty of result," he remarked. "I am too much occupied in observing the guests. It strikes me that nowhere, either in New Mexico or Colorado, did I see any people approaching those before me in interest and attractiveness. Except one," he amended, as a general laugh greeted this extraordinary statement, "and even she never seemed to me quite so----" He hesitated.

"Say it, sir!" cried Lanse. "We're with you whatever it is. I think 'beautiful' is the word you want."

Mr. Birch's face lighted with a smile. "Thank you, that is the word," he said.

The captain stirred his chopped chicken into his cream sauce with the air of a chef. "Now here you are," he said.

The captain would not allow everything upon the table at once, picnic fashion, but kept the viands behind a screen a few feet away, and with Jeff's and Just's assistance, served them according to his ideas of the fitness of things.

Toward the end of the feast a particularly fine strawberry shortcake appeared, which was followed by ice-cream. Altogether, the captain's guests declared no picnic had ever been so satisfactory.

"Isn't the captain great?" said Doctor Churchill, enthusiastically, to Celia, when they had all left the table and were beginning to stroll about. "Cut off from the sort of thing he would like best to do--that he aches to do--he occupies himself with what comes in his way. He would deceive any one into thinking him completely satisfied."

"I'm so glad you understand him," Celia answered. "Everybody doesn't. Just the other day a caller said to me, 'Isn't it lovely that Captain Rayburn is so contented with his quiet life? Whenever I see him sitting in the park with the baby and a book, I think what a mercy it is that he isn't like some men, or he never could take it so calmly.' Calmly! Uncle Ray would give his life to-morrow night if he could have a day at the head of his company over there in the Philippines."

"I don't doubt it for an instant. Since I've known him I've learned more admiration for the way he keeps himself in hand than I ever had for any single quality in any human being. I'm mighty sorry he's going away. It's for a year in France and Italy, he tells me."

"Yes. He's very fond of travel, and I imagine he's a little restless after the winter here. Do you know what I suspect? That he came just so that mother might feel somebody was keeping an eye on us."

"That would be like him. He's immensely fond of you all."

Celia caught sight of her uncle beckoning to her, and went to him. Doctor Churchill saw Mrs. Birch, lying among the gay striped pillows in a hammock which had been brought along for her special use, and went over to her. His eyes noted the direction in which Charlotte was vanishing, but he sat down on a log by the hammock as if he had no other thought than for the gracious lady who looked up at him with a smile.

And indeed he had thought for her. It was impossible to be with her and not give oneself up to her charm.

"I have been wanting to see you alone for a minute, Doctor Churchill," she said. "It has been such a busy week I haven't had half a chance to express to you how I appreciate your care for my little family. And especially I am grateful to you for the perfect recovery of Celia's knee. Doctor Forester has assured me that the knee might easily have been a bad case."

"I am very thankful that the results were good, Mrs. Birch," Doctor Churchill answered.

Nobody interrupted the two for a long half-hour. At the end of it Doctor Churchill rose, his eyes kindling.

"Thank you!" he said fervently. "Thank you! More than that I won't ask--yet. But if you will trust me--I promise you may trust me, little as you know me--you may be sure I shall keep my word, not only to you, but to my mother I know her ideals, and if I can be fit to be the friend of one who fills them----"

Mrs. Birch held out her hand.

"I do trust you, Doctor Churchill," she said. "Not only from what Doctor Forester has told me of your family, but from what I have seen and heard for myself."

With a light heart the doctor went away over the hill to the path which descended to the river. Far down the bank, near the pond-lilies, he had caught a glimpse of a blue linen gown.

Captain Rayburn and Celia came over to establish themselves upon rugs and cushions by the side of the hammock. Mr. Birch, who had been out with Just and Norman in a boat, appeared, sunburned and warm, and joined the party.

"I've been wanting to get just this quartet together," remarked the captain, when his brother-in-law had cooled off and was lying comfortably stretched along a mossy knoll.

"Go ahead, Jack, we are ready to listen. Your plans are always interesting," Mr. Birch replied. "What now?"

"In the first place," began the captain, "I want you people to understand that the person who has had least fun out of this absence of yours is the young woman before you."

"O Uncle Ray!" protested Celia, instantly. "Haven't I had as much fun as you?"

"Hardly. Between Mrs. Fields and Miss Ellen Donohue I don't know when I've been so enlivened. I hardly know which of the two has afforded me more downright amusement, each in her way. But Celia, I tell you, Roderick and Helen, has been one brave girl, and that's all there is of it."

"You'll find no dissenting voice here," Celia's father declared, and her mother added:

"Nobody who knows her could expect her to be anything else."

Celia looked away, her cheeks flushing.

"So now I want her to have her reward," said Captain Rayburn. "Let me take her with me for the year abroad."

Celia started, glancing quickly from her father to her mother, neither of whom looked so surprised as she would have expected. Both returned her gaze thoughtfully.

"How about the going to college?" Mr. Birch questioned. "I thought that was the great ambition."

"She shall have a four year's course in one if she comes with me. I shall spend much time in the libraries and art collections. My friends in several cities are people it is worth a long journey to meet. Undoubtedly such a year would be valuable at the end of a college course, and it may appear to you that the studies within the scholastic walls in this country had better come first. The point is that I am going now. I may not be, at the moment Celia takes her diploma. And the question of her health seems to me also one to be considered. Months of enforced quiet haven't been any too good for her."

"There's not much need to ask Celia what she would like," Mr. Birch observed.

The girl studied his face anxiously. "But could you spare me?" she asked. "If it means that mother would have to take my place again----"

"It won't mean that," said Captain Rayburn, stoutly. "My plans cover two maids in the Birch household, the most capable to be obtained."

"See here Jack," said Mr. Roderick Birch, quickly, "you can't play good fairy for the whole family--and it's not necessary. As soon as I am at work in the office again this close figuring will be over."

"I want my niece Charlotte to go to her school of design," the captain went on, imperturbably.

"We mean that she shall."

"I wish you people would let me alone!" he cried. "Here I am, your only brother, without a chick or a child of my own. Am I to be denied what is the greatest delight I can have? By a lucky accident my money was safe in the panic that swept away yours. Pure luck or providence, or whatever you choose to call it--certainly not because my business sagacity was any greater than yours. You wouldn't take a cent from me at the time, but you've got to let me have my way now. Celia goes with me--if you agree. Charlotte goes to her art school, and if you refuse me the fun of assuming both expenses, I'll be tremendously offended--no joke, I shall."

He looked so fierce that everybody laughed--somewhat tremulously. There could be no doubt that he meant all he said. Celia's cheeks were pink with excitement; Mrs. Birch's were of a similar hue, in sympathy with her daughter's joy.

"I tell you, that girl Charlotte," began the captain again, "deserves all anybody can do for her. She has developed three years in one. Fond as I've always been of her, I hadn't the least idea what was in the child. She's going to make a woman of a rare sort. Look here!" A new idea flashed into his mind.

He considered it for the space of a half-minute, then brought it forth:

"Let me take her, too. Not for the year--don't look as if I'd hit you, Helen--just till October. I mean to sail in ten days, you know. I've engaged plenty of room. There'll be no trouble about a berth----"

"O Uncle Ray!" Celia interrupted him. There could be no question about her unselfish soul. If she had been happy before, she was rapturous now.

"Three months will give her quite a journey," the captain hurried on, leaving nobody any time for objections. "I'll see that she gets art enough out of it to fill her to the brim with inspiration. And there will surely be somebody she can come back with. May I have her?"

"What shall we do with you?" his sister said, softly. "I can't deny you--or her. If her father agrees----"

"If I didn't know your big heart so well, Jack," said Roderick Birch, slowly, "I should be too proud to accept so much, even from my wife's brother. But I believe it would be unworthy of me--or of you--to let false pride stand in my girls' way."

From the distance two figures were approaching, one in blue linen, the other in white flannel--Charlotte and Doctor Churchill.

They were talking gaily, laughing like a pair of very happy children, and carrying between them a great bunch of daisies and buttercups that would have hid a church pulpit from view.

"Let's tell her now," proposed Celia. "I can't wait to have her know."

"Go ahead," agreed her uncle. "And let the doctor hear it, too. If he isn't a brother of the family, it's because the family doesn't know one of the finest fellows on the face of the earth when it sees him."

"You're a most discerning chap, Jack Rayburn," said his brother-in-law, heartily, "but there are other people with discernment. I have liked young Churchill from the moment I saw him first. All that Forester says of him confirms my opinion."

"How excited you people all look!" called Charlotte, merrily, as she drew near. "Tell us why."

Captain Rayburn nodded to Celia. She shook her head vigorously in return. He glanced at Mr. and Mrs. Birch, both of whom smilingly refused to speak. So he looked up at Charlotte, and put his question as he might have fired a shot.

"Will you sail for Europe with Celia and me week after next, to stay till October? Celia will stay the year with me; you I shall ship home as useless baggage in the fall."

Charlotte stood still, her arms tightening about the daisies and buttercups, as if they represented a baby whom she must not let fall. A rich wave of colour swept over her face. She looked from one to another of the group as if she could not believe her good fortune. Then suddenly she dropped her flowers in an abandoned heap, clasped her hands tightly together, and drew one long breath of delight.

"Can you spare me?" she murmured, her eyes upon her mother.

Mrs. Birch nodded, smiling. "I surely can," she said.

"Turn about is fair play," said Mr. Birch, "and your uncle seems to consider himself a person of authority."

"I want," declared Captain Rayburn, his bright eyes studying each niece's winsome young face in turn, "in the interest of the family orchestra, to tune the violins."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Speaking of violins," said the captain, half an hour later, quite as if no interval of busy talk and plan-making had occurred, "suppose we see about how far off the key they are at present. Jeff--Just----"

Everybody stared, then laughed, for Jeff and Just instantly produced, from behind that same screen, five green-flanneled, familiar shapes. The entire company had reassembled under the oak-trees, drawn together by a secret summons from the captain.

"Now see here, Uncle Ray," remonstrated his eldest nephew, "this is stealing a march on us with a vengeance."

"I'm entirely willing you should let a march steal on me," retorted the captain, disposing himself comfortably among his rugs and cushions, "or a waltz, or a lullaby, or anything else you choose. But music of some sort I must have."

Laughing, they tuned their instruments, and the rest of the company settled down to listen. Lanse, his eyes mischievous, passed a whispered word among the musicians, and presently, at the signal, the well-known notes of "Hail to the Chief" were sounding through the woods, played with great spirit and zest. And as they played, the five Birches marched to position in front of the captain, then stood still and saluted.

"Off with you, you strolling players!" cried the captain. "The spectacle of a 'cello player attempting to carry his instrument and perform upon it at the same time is enough to upset me for a week. Sit down comfortably, and give us 'The Sweetest Flower That Blows.'"

So they played, softly now, and with full appreciation of the fact that the melodious song was one of their mother's favourites.

But suddenly they had a fresh surprise, for as they played, a voice from the little audience joined them, under his breath at first, then--as the captain turned and made vigorous signs to the singer to let his voice be heard--with tunefully swelling notes, which fell upon all their ears like music of a rare sort:

    "The sweetest flower that blows
      I give you as we part.
    To you it is a rose,
      To me it is my heart."

The captain knew, as the voice went on, that those barytone notes were very fine ones--knew better than the rest, as having a wider acquaintance with voices in general. But they all understood that it was to no ordinary singer they were listening.

When the song ended the captain reached over and laid a brotherly arm on Doctor Churchill's shoulder. "Welcome, friend," he said, with feeling in his voice. "You've given the countersign."

But the doctor, although he received modestly the words of praise which fell upon him from all about, would sing no more that day. It had been the first time for almost three years. And "The Sweetest Flower That Blows" was not only Mrs. Birch's favourite song; it had been Mrs. Churchill's also.

"See here, Churchill," said Lanse, as the orchestra rested for a moment, "do you play any instrument?"

"Only as a novice," admitted the doctor, with some reluctance.

"Which one?"

"The fiddle."

"And never owned up!" chided Lanse. "You didn't want to belong to such an amateurish company?"

"I did--very much," said Churchill, with emphasis. "But you needed no more violins."

"If I'm to be away all next year," said Celia, quickly, "they will need you. Will you take my place?"

"No, indeed, Miss Celia," the doctor answered, decidedly. "But if you would let me play--second."

He looked at Charlotte, smiling. She returned his smile, but shook her head. "I'm Second Fiddle," she said. "I'll never take Celia's place."

The eyes of the two sisters met, affectionately, comprehendingly.

"I should like to have you, dear," said Celia, softly.

But Charlotte only shook her head again, colouring beneath the glances which fell on her from all sides. "I'd rather play my old part," she answered.

Jeff caught up and lifted high in the air an imaginary glass.

"Here's to the orchestra!" he called out. "May Doctor Churchill read the score of the first violin. Here's to the First Violin! May she hear plenty of fine music in the old country, and come back ready to coach us all. And here's--"

He paused and looked impressively round upon the company, who regarded him in turn with interested, sympathetic eyes. "I say we've called her 'Second Fiddle' long enough," he said, and hesitated, beginning to get stranded in his own eloquence. "Anyhow, if she hasn't proved this year that she's fit to play anything--dishes or wall-paper or babies--" He stopped, laughing. "I don't know how to say it, but as sure as my name's Jefferson Birch she--er--"

"Hear! hear!" the captain encouraged him softly.

"Here's,"--shouted the boy, "here's to the Second Violin!"

Through the friendly laughter and murmurs of appreciation, Charlotte, dropping shy, happy eyes, read the real love and respect of everybody, and felt that the year's experiences had brought her a rich reward. But all she said, as Jeff, exhausted by his effort at oratory, dropped upon the grass beside her, was in his ear:

"If anybody deserves a toast, Jeffy boy, I think it's you. You've eaten so many slices of mine--burnt to a cinder--and never winced! If that isn't heroism, what is?"