Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter II
 

"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?"