Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter V
 

"Evelyn! Miss Evelyn Lee! Where are you?"

Jeff's shout rang up the stairs, and in obedience to its imperative summons Evelyn immediately appeared at the head.

"Yes, Mr. Jefferson Birch," she responded. "Is the house on fire?"

"Not a bit, but I'm anxious for your hearing. I've been roaring gently all over the house without a result, except to scare three patients in Andy's office. Won't you come down?"

She descended slowly, but she neither clung to the rail nor sat down to rest half-way, as she had done when she first came under the Churchill roof.

Her face was acquiring the soft bloom of a flower, her eyes were full of light and interest. She still looked slim and frail, but she was beginning to show signs of waxing health very pleasant to see for those who had grown as interested in her as if she were a young sister of their own.

"I've an invitation for you from Carolyn Houghton for an impromptu sleigh-ride to-night. Don't you suppose you can go? I'll take all sorts of care of you and see that you don't get too tired. You've met Carolyn; she's a jolly girl to know, and she told me to bring you if possible."

Evelyn dropped into a chair. "Oh, how I should love to go!" she said. "I never went on a sleigh-ride like that in my life. Do you go all together in a big load?"

"Yes--a regular prairie-schooner of a sleigh. Holds a dozen of us, packed like sardines, so nobody can get cold. We take hot soapstones and rugs and robes, and we go only twelve miles, to a farmhouse where we get a hot supper--oysters and hot biscuit and maple-syrup, and all sorts of good things. You must go."

"If I only could!" sighed Evelyn. "I'm so afraid they won't think I can."

"They will, if you think you can," asserted Jeff. "You're up to it, aren't you? You needn't do a thing. Six of the crowd are going to give a little play. I'll get the load started home early, and we'll come back flying. Be here by midnight at the latest. It'll do you good, I know it will."

"O Mrs. Churchill!" breathed Evelyn, as Charlotte appeared from the hall.

"O Evelyn Lee!" answered Charlotte, smiling back at the eager face. "Yes, I heard most of it, Jeff, for I was coming down-stairs, and you weren't exactly whispering. It's an enticing plan, isn't it?"

"Of course it is. And it's magnificent weather for the affair. Not cold a bit and no wind; moonlight due if no clouds come up. Evelyn can't get cold. I'll keep her done up to the tip of her nose, and be so devoted nobody else will have a chance to worry her. Say she may go. Don't you see the disappointment would be worse for her than the trip?"

"You artful pleader, I'm not sure but it would. If Doctor Churchill agrees, Evelyn, I'll let you try it. On one condition, Jeff--that you really do get back by midnight. For a girl who has been put to bed for weeks at nine that's late enough."

Evelyn went about all day with a lighter step than her friends had yet seen her assume.

"Now remember, I trust her absolutely to your care," Charlotte said to Jeff that evening, as he appeared, his arms full of accessories for making his charge comfortable.

Evelyn, in furs and heavy coat, smiled at her escort. "I'm not a bit afraid," she said. "Oh, what a beautiful night! The moon is out. Is that the sleigh coming up the street now, with all those horns? What fun!"

"I want to put Miss Lee right in the middle of everything!" Jeff called out, as the sleighload stopped. "I'm particularly requested not to let a breath of frost strike her."

"Come on, here's just the spot," answered Carolyn Houghton, holding out a welcoming hand; and then the girl from the South, who had never known the sleighing-party of the North, found herself being whirled away over the road, to an accompaniment of youthful merriment, bursts of songs and tooting of horns.

Before it seemed possible the twelve miles of fine sleighing had been covered, and the old farmhouse, its door flung hospitably open at the sound of the horns, was invaded by the gay band.

Evelyn, in a quaint up-stairs bedroom, lighted by kerosene lamps and warmed by a roaring wood fire in an old-fashioned box stove, was attended by Carolyn Houghton, who was, as Jeff had said, a "jolly girl to know." Herself a blooming maid with black locks and carnation cheeks, Carolyn admired intensely Evelyn's auburn hair and fair complexion.

"Don't you think she's the dearest thing?" she whispered to a friend, as they descended the stairs. "There's something so soft and sweet and ladylike about her, as if nobody could be slangy or loud before her, you know. Yet she isn't a bit dull; she just sparkles when you get her interested and happy. I do want her to have a good time to-night."

There could be no doubt that Evelyn was having a good time. Everything pleased her, everybody interested her. It seemed to her that she had never seen such charming young people before.

The little play made her laugh till she was as flushed and gay as a child. Those with whom Evelyn showed herself so delighted became equally delighted with her, and before the evening was over she was feeling that she had always known these young friends, had forgotten that she had ever been an invalid, and was indeed "sparkling," as Carolyn Houghton had said, in a way that drew all eyes toward her in admiration.

Jeff, indeed, stared at her as if he had never seen her before.

"I'm sure this isn't hurting you a bit," he said in her ear, as the evening slipped on. "You must be feeling pretty well, for I've never seen you so jolly. I'm going to do the prescribing after this. I know what's good for little girls."

"I believe you do," Evelyn answered. "No, I'm not a bit tired. Why, is it almost eleven?"

"Yes, and time to go, if we live up to our promises. Seems a pity, doesn't it? But it doesn't pay to break your word, so as soon as you girls can get into your toggery we'll be off."

"Of course, we must keep our promise," agreed Evelyn, with decision, and straightway she went up-stairs for her wraps. The other girls followed more reluctantly.

"'Goodness, girls, look out!" cried somebody from the window. "Did you ever see it so thick? The barns are just down there, where that glimmer is, but you can't see them at all."

"All the more fun," said another girl.

"We're pretty far out in the country, and the road's awfully winding. I hope we get home all right."

"Oh, nonsense!" said some one else, with great positiveness. "I should know the way with my eyes shut. Besides, it was as clear as a bell when we came. It can't have been snowing long enough to block things in the least."

They found it had done so however, when they descended to the sleigh. That vehicle had been brought close to the porch, that the girls might not have to walk through the deep snow. The air was so full of the whirling white particles that from the farther end of the sleigh one could barely see the horses.

"I declare, I don't feel just easy about you folks starting out," said the farmer whose guests they had been. "Better watch the road some careful, you driver. I suppose you know it pretty well."

"He doesn't, but I do!" called a tall youth from the driver's seat. "I'll keep him straight. We'll be all right. We're due home at midnight, and we'll be there, unless the roads are too heavy to keep the pace we came in."

"No, sir, we can't ever keep the pace we come in," presently averred the man from the livery-stable, who was driving. "The road's pretty heavy. I declare, I don't know as I ever see snow so thick. Do I turn a little to the right here or do I keep straight ahead?"

"Straight ahead," answered the boy beside him, confidently. "I've been over this road a thousand times, and it doesn't bend to the right for half a mile yet."

"It's lucky you know," said the driver. "I'm all at sea already. Can't see the fences only now and then. I'd ha' swung off there, sure, if you hadn't said not."

As the rising wind began to whirl snowily about their ears and necks, the party turned up their coat-collars and tucked in their fur robes. The horses were plowing with increasing difficulty through the heavily drifted roads, and more than once their driver found himself obliged to make a long detour around a drift which had not been in the road when they first came over it. Moreover, in spite of the snow, the air seemed to have grown colder and to be acquiring a penetrating, icy quality which at last made Jeff declare to Evelyn:

"You may say you're not cold, but I'm going to insist on your letting me wrap this steamer rug found your shoulders, with the corner over your head, so. Now doesn't that keep off a lot of wind?"

"Indeed it does, thank you," admitted Evelyn, with a little shiver she could not quite conceal.

"You are cold!" Jeff said, anxiously.

"No colder than anybody else. Please don't worry about me."

But he did worry, and with reason. Indeed, although nobody was willing yet to admit it, the situation was becoming a little unpleasant. In spite of the stout confidence of the boy on the seat with the driver, others who were somewhat familiar with the road were beginning to question his leading.

"That clump of trees doesn't look natural just there," said one, standing up in the sleigh and trying to peer through the wall of snowflakes. "It's too near. It ought to be a hundred feet away."

"No. You're thinking we're farther back than We are," declared Neil Ward, from the front seat. "We're almost at the turn by the railroad."

"Why, we can't be! We haven't passed the Winters farm. I tell you, you're off the road."

"I think we are," agreed the driver, uneasily, pulling his cap farther over his snow-hung eyebrows. "I've been thinking so for quite a spell."

"We're all right. You people just keep cool!" cried Neil.

"No trouble about keeping cool in this blizzard!" growled somebody, and there was a general laugh.

One of the girls started a song, and they all joined cheerily in. A proposition to toot the horns, forgotten in the bottom of the sleigh, with a hope of attracting attention from some one, was adopted, and a hideous din followed, and was kept up till every one was weary--with no result.

All at once, without warning, the horses plunged heavily and solidly to their steaming shoulders into an undreamed-of ditch, and the sleigh stopped, well into the same hole.

"Will you admit now that we're off the road, Neil Ward?" cried some one, fiercely; and Neil, without contention but with evident chagrin, admitted it. There was no ditch that he was aware of within a mile of the highway.

Jeff drew the rugs tighter about Evelyn, then lifted a corner to peer in. "Don't be frightened, little girl. We'll get out of this all right," he said, as cheerfully as he could, although he was alarmed for her safety more than he would have dared to admit, even to himself.

The other girls were all strong, healthy specimens of young womanhood, presumably able to endure a good deal of cold and exposure without danger of serious harm. But this little sensitive plant! Jeff waited in suspense for her answer.

It came in a clear, sweet voice, without a particle of fright in it: "Of course we shall. And won't it be fun to tell about it afterward?"

"You're right, it will!" he responded, with enthusiasm. Inwardly he said, "You're a plucky one, all right." Then, with the other fellows, he leaped out of the sleigh, and went to trampling down the snow around the imprisoned horses.

       *       *       *       *       *

Alone together, after Randolph and Lucy had gone to bed, Andrew and Charlotte passed the long evening. Charlotte was not willing to let Evelyn come home to a closed and silent house, so the two awaited her arrival.

"Why, Andy, it's snowing furiously!" said Charlotte, from the window, whither she had gone at the stroke of twelve. Doctor Churchill put down the book from which he had been reading aloud, and came to her side.

"So it is. Blowing, too. But it can't have been at it long or we should have noticed."

"I've been noticing the wind now and then for the last hour. I hope it's not grown cold. I wouldn't have anything happen to upset Evelyn's improvement for the world."

"Nothing will. They'll be home before the half-hour. Come back and listen to the rest of this chapter."

Charlotte came back, but as the quarter-hours went slowly by she became restless, and vibrated so continually between fireplace and window that Andy finally put away the book and kept her company.

"It's growing worse every minute." Charlotte's face was pressed close against the frosty pane. "If they don't come by one it will look as if something had happened."

"Oh, they're at the irresponsible age. When they come they'll say, 'Why, we didn't dream it was so late!'"

"Jeff's not irresponsible when he gives a promise. He never breaks one," Charlotte answered, confidently.

"This storm would make the roads heavy. Even if they started on time, they would have to travel twice as slowly as when they went. Stop worrying, dear; it's not in character for you."

Charlotte closed her lips, but when the clock struck one her eyes spoke for her. "Evelyn is so delicate," they said, mutely, and Andy answered as if she had spoken.

"Evelyn is wrapped too heavily to be cold. Besides, they'll all take care of her. She won't come to any harm, I'm sure of it. They'll be here before half-past-one, I'm confident, and then we can antidote any chill she may have got."

But at half-past-one there was still no sign of the sleighing party. Moreover, the storm was steadily increasing; it had become what is known as a "blizzard." Even in the protected suburban street the drifts were beginning to show size, and the arc-light at the corner was almost lost to view through the downfall.

Charlotte turned to her husband with something like imperiousness in her manner, and met the same decision in his look. Before she could speak he said:

"Yes, I'll go to meet them. It does look as if they might be stalled somewhere. It's rather a lonely road till they reach the railroad, and it's possible they've missed the way."

He went to the telephone.

"Andy," cried Charlotte, following him, "order a double sleigh, please! I must go with you."

He turned and looked at her, hesitating. "It isn't necessary, dear. I'll go over and wake up Just, I think. We two will be--"

"I must go," she interrupted. "I couldn't endure to wait here any longer. And if Evelyn should be very much chilled she'll need me to look after her. Besides--"

He smiled at her. "You won't let me get lost in a snow-drift myself without you."

She nodded, and ran away to make ready. By the time the livery-stable had been awakened from its early morning apathy, and had sent round the double sleigh with the best pair of horses in its stalls, the party was ready.

Just, awakened by snowballs thrown in at his open window, had joyfully dressed himself. At the last moment Charlotte had thought of the automobile headlight, and this, hurriedly filled and lighted, streamed out over the snow as the three jumped into the sleigh. All were warmly dressed, and Charlotte had brought many extra wraps, as well as a supply of medicines for a possible emergency of which she did not like to think.

"Julius Caesar, but this is a night!" came from between Just's teeth, as the sleigh reached the end of the suburban streets and made the turn upon the open country road. He clutched at his cap, pulling it still farther down over his ears. "What a change in six hours!"

"This is a straight nor'easter," answered Doctor Churchill, slapping hands already chilled, in spite of his heavy driving gloves. Then he turned his head. "Can't you keep well down behind us, Charlotte?" he called over his shoulder.

"I'm all right!" she called back. One had to shout to be heard in the roar of the wind.

After that nobody talked, except as Just from time to time offered to drive, to give Andrew's hands a chance to warm. That young man, however, would not give over the reins to anybody. It was not for nothing that he had been driving over this country, under all possible conditions of weather, for nearly five years.

When they had crossed the railroad which marked the end of the main highway between two towns and the beginning of the narrow side road which led off across country to the farmhouse of the sleighing party, conviction that the young people had been stalled somewhere on the great plain they were crossing became settled.

It was with the utmost difficulty that Doctor Churchill kept the road. Only the fact that the storm was showing signs of decreasing, and that now and then came moments when he could see more clearly the outlying indications of fence and tree and infrequent habitation assured him that he had not lost the way.

"Hark!" cried Charlotte, suddenly, as they plowed along.

For the instant the wind had lulled. Doctor Churchill stopped his horses, and the three held their breath to listen. After a brief interval came the faint, far toot of a horn. Then, away to the left, a light suddenly flashed, vanished, and flashed again.

"There they are!" cried three exultant voices.

"But how shall we get to them?" shouted Just, instantly alive with excitement. "Why, they're a mile away! There's no road over there, nor any houses. They're right out in the fields."

Then the sifting snow shut down again. The three looked at one another in the yellow glare from the automobile headlight.