Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter III
 

"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.'"