Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter IV
 

"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."

"She does!"

"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."