Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter I
 

"Here's another, Charlotte!"

Young Justin Birch's lusty shout rang through the house from hall to kitchen, vibrating even as far as the second-story room in the rear, where Charlotte herself happened at that moment to be. In response people appeared from everywhere. The bride-elect was the last to put in an appearance, and when she came, there was a certain reluctance in her aspect.

"Hurry up, there!" admonished Just, already busy with chisel and hammer at the slender, flat box which lay upon the hall floor, in the centre of an interested group. He paused to glance up at his sister, where she had stopped upon the landing. "You act as if you didn't want to see what's in it," he remonstrated, whacking away vigorously.

"Indeed I do," Charlotte declared, coming on down the staircase, smiling at the faces upturned toward her, which were smiling back, every one. "But I'm beginning to feel as if I--as if they--as if--"

"It must seem odd to feel like that," John Lansing agreed, quizzically. Lanse had but just arrived, having come on especially for the wedding, from the law-school at which he had been for two years.

Celia slipped her arm about her younger sister's shoulders. "I know what she means," she said, in her gentle way. "It's so unexpected to her, after sending out no invitations at all, that gifts should keep pouring in like this. But it's not unexpected to us."

"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.