Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter VI
 

"Don't they see our light?" Charlotte asked, eagerly.

"I think perhaps they have seen it," Doctor Churchill answered, "and that's why they were blowing their horns. Probably some of them will start toward us. If they're not stuck, they'll begin to drive this way. I believe the thing to do will be for Charlotte to stay here in the sleigh, keeping the headlight pointed just to the left of that big tree--I noticed that was where the flash of their fire came--and for Just and me to start across the fields. I'll turn the horses with their backs to the wind and blanket them. Then--hold on, I've a better plan. Let's make a fire of our own. That will insure Charlotte's keeping warm."

"Everything's too wet," objected Just. "That crowd must have had a time getting green wood to burn."

"We can do it." Doctor Churchill was feeling among the robes at his feet. "I thought of it before we started, and put in a kerosene-can and some newspapers. Hatchet, too."

Just got out of the sleigh and waded away toward a thick growth of underbrush along the side of the road.

In ten minutes a roaring fire was leaping into the descending snowfall. A pile of brush and some broken fence-rails were left with Charlotte, the horses made as snug as possible, and then the two others jumped the fence and plunged off into the snow.

Guided by glimpses of the apparently fitful fire of the sleighing party, Doctor Churchill and Just made their way. Sometimes the course was comparatively free from drifts; again they had to wallow nearly to their waists.

"Confounded long way!" grunted Just. "Good thing we're both tough and strong. Except for Jeff, there aren't any athletes in the Houghton party."

"Don't I see somebody coming toward us?" Doctor Churchill asked, presently.

The snowfall was lightening again, and the small flame in the distance looked nearer. He put his hands to his mouth and gave a long, clear hail. He was answered by a similar one. Then followed a peculiar musical call, which Just, recognising, answered ecstatically.

"It's Jeff!" he shouted. "Whoop! I'll bet he's glad to hear us!"

He was. He came plunging through the last big drift toward them, a snow-encrusted figure. "Well, well!" he cried, in tones of pleasure and relief. "I knew you'd come. Where are we, anyhow?"

"A mile off the road. Are you all right? I see you've got a fire. How's--"

"Evelyn's all right, I think. Since we managed the fire she's fairly warm again. Plucky as any girl in the crowd, and they're all plucky. How are we to get our load down to the road?"

"I brought ropes, and we've a strong pair back there. We'll go and get them, now that we know where you are. You go back to your party and prepare them to be rescued."

"No, Just can go to the camp, and I'll keep on with you."

Just, being entirely willing to accept the part of rescuer, plowed on through the big holes Jeff had left in his track. Doctor Churchill and Jeff made their way back to Charlotte.

"Yes, we had rather a bad time for a while," admitted Jeff, as he helped Andy make the horses ready to start. "We got pretty cold, and I thought we'd never make the fire go. Found the inside of an old stump at last, and got her started. Yes, all the girls looked after Evelyn--came pretty near smothering her. I don't believe she's taken cold. The snow's letting up. I can see our fire back there. No, we didn't see yours; we were just tooting on general principles. Evelyn insisted she caught a glimmer, and I started out to climb a tree to find out. I saw it then, for a minute, and was sure it was you. Keep this fire going, Charlotte. The storm may close down again, and we want to make straight tracks across the fields."

By the time they reached the camp in the fields both Jeff and Doctor Churchill were pretty well wearied. But they greeted the party there with an enthusiasm which matched the welcome they received.

The spirits of the whole company had risen with a jump the instant they had caught sight of Just, and now, with four horses to pull the ponderous sleigh through the drifts, the boys walking by its side and the girls tucked snugly in among the robes, the whole aspect of things was changed. The situation lost seriousness, and although each was prepared to make a thrilling tale of it for the various family circles when daylight came, nobody except Jeff really regretted the experience of the night. When they reached Charlotte and the smaller sleigh, there was a great chorus of explanations. She swiftly extracted Evelyn and took her in beside herself.

"Indeed, yes, I'm warm, Mrs. Churchill," protested the girl. Her voice showed that she was very tired, but her inflection was as cheerful as ever. With a hot soapstone at her feet, a hot-water bag in her lap and Charlotte's arm about her, she leaned back on the fur-clad shoulder beside her and rejoiced. One thing was certain. She had had a real Northern good time, with an exciting ending, and she was quite willing to be tired.

With the wind at their backs and the fall of snow nearly ceased, the party was not a great while in getting back to town. The clocks were striking five when Charlotte, having put her charge to bed, and fed her with hot food and spicy, steaming drinks, administered the last pat and tuck. "Now you're not to open your eyes and stir until four o'clock this afternoon," she admonished her, with decisive tenderness. "Then if you're very good, you may get up and dress in time for dinner."

"I'll be good, Mrs. Churchill," promised Evelyn, smiling rather faintly. She fell asleep almost before the door closed.

"You must feel a load off your shoulders," Just observed to Jeff, as the two made ready for slumber for the brief time remaining before breakfast and the school and college work which would then claim them both.

"I do. But if Evelyn comes out all right I shall be glad I took her. I tell you that girl's a mighty good sort."

"I wish Lucy was like her. What do you think I'm in for? Our class reception is for Friday night, at the head-master's house. Doctor Agnew's daughters have met Lucy, and I'm sure she gave 'em a hint to invite her to come with me. Anyhow, they've done it, and of course I've got to take her."

"Oh, well, a fellow has to be civil to a lot of girls he doesn't particularly admire. Lucy's not so bad. She's rather pretty--when she's feeling amiable--and she certainly dresses well."

Jeff's assertion in the matter of Lucy's appearance was proved true. When Just, on Friday evening, marched across to the other house, inwardly raging at his fate, he had an agreeable surprise. As he stood by the fireplace with Charlotte, Lucy came down-stairs and floated in at the door. Just stopped in the middle of a sentence and stared.

Being really a very pretty girl, and feeling, at the present moment, the height of fluttering expectation, her face was illumined into an attractiveness that was quite a revelation to her friends. For the first time Lucy felt herself to be in the centre of things, and it made another girl of her. In addition, the evening frock she wore was so charming in style and colouring that it contributed not a little to the general effect.

Altogether, Just experienced quite a revulsion of feeling in regard to the painful duty before him, and came forward to assist Lucy into her long coat with considerable alacrity and cheerfulness.

"Oh, I do love parties so," she declared, as they hurried along the streets. "I'm not used to being so dull as I've been here. It seems to me that you have mighty few doings for young people. I don't call candy-pulls and fudge parties real parties."

"Probably you won't call this to-night a real party, then. There's never much that's exciting at Doctor Agnew's. He always has an orchestra playing, and we walk round and talk, and usually somebody does something to entertain us--a reading or songs. Maybe you won't think it's as festive as you expect."

"Oh, well, I reckon it will be a nice change," said she, with quite unexpected good humour.

In the dressing-room Chester Agnew, the son of the head-master, came up to Just with an expression of mingled pleasure and chagrin.

"Awfully glad to see you, Birch," he said, "I suppose you noticed that we have no music going to-night. It's a shame, isn't it? Lindmann's men have been delayed by a freight wreck on the P. & Q. They were coming home from a wedding down the line somewhere, and telephoned us they couldn't get out here before midnight. We've tried to get some other music, but everything's engaged somewhere."

"Too bad, but it's no great matter," Just replied, comfortably. "We can worry along without the orchestra."

"No, you can't. Mother's plans for to-night were for a series of national dances, in costume, by sixteen of the juniors, and that's all up without the music."

"Why won't the piano do?"

"We haven't a piano in the house. Yes, I know, but it was Helena's, and when she was married in November she took it with her. Father hasn't bought a new one yet, because the other girls don't play. Now do you see? You're in for the stupidest evening you've had this winter, for it's too late to get anybody here to do any sort of entertaining."

"That is too bad," admitted Just, thinking of Lucy, and finding himself caring a good deal that she should not think the affair dull. He walked along the hall with Chester to the point where he should meet Lucy, thinking about the situation. Then an idea popped into his head.

"Isn't your telephone in that little closet off the dining-room?" he asked.

"Yes. Want to use it?"

"Yes. Take Lucy down, will you? You know her. I've just thought of something."

Just slipped down to the dining-room. He carefully closed the door of the closet and called up Doctor Churchill. To him he rapidly explained the situation and the remedy which had occurred to him. Doctor Churchill's voice came back to him in a tone of amused surprise.

"Why, Just, do you think we could carry it through decently? We don't know the music at all. Oh, play our own and make it fit? What sort will do--ordinary waltzes and two-steps? I shouldn't mind helping them out, of course, if I thought we could manage it. Better than nothing? Well--possibly. Better consult Mrs. Agnew before we do anything rash."

Just ran up the rear staircase and down the front one. He found Chester and whispered his plan. Interrupting Chester's eager gratitude, he asked for somebody who could tell him what music would be needed.

"Mother's receiving, and so are the girls. Carolyn Houghton will know, I think. She's been at the rehearsals. I'll get her."

"Well, are you going to leave me to myself much longer?" Lucy inquired, reproachfully, as Just waited silently beside her for Carolyn.

"Why, I'm awfully sorry," he said, remembering his duties, which in the excitement of the moment he realised he was forgetting. "I hope you'll excuse me, but I've got to help the Agnews out if I can." And he hurriedly told her his plan. She stared at him in astonishment.

"You don't mean you would come and take the place of a hired orchestra for a reception?" she cried, under her breath.

It was Just's turn to stare. Then he straightened shoulders which were already pretty square. "Would you mind telling me why not? That is, provided we can do it well enough."

"I think it's a mighty queer thing to do," insisted Lucy, with disapproval.

Carolyn Houghton appeared and beckoned Just and Chester out into the hall. Lucy followed, not liking to be left alone. Everybody seemed to be forgetting her, although Chester had turned, and said cordially, "That's right, Miss Lucy! Come and help us plan."

Carolyn lost no time. "It's fine of you," she said eagerly. "Yes, I'm sure you can do it. Not one person in fifty will know whether the tunes you play are national or not. Something quaint and queer for the Hungarian, and jigsy and gay for the Irish. Castanets in the Spanish dance--have you them?"

"Young Randolph Peyton can work those," began Just, looking at Lucy.

She frowned. "Really, I don't believe you'd better have him in it," she said, with such an air that Carolyn glanced at her in amazement, and Chester coughed and turned away.

"Oh, very well!" Just answered, instantly. "You can do 'em yourself, then, Ches."

"All right," said Chester. "There is a big screen of palms and ferns for the orchestra," he explained, with satisfaction, to Lucy. "Nobody'll know who's performing, anyhow."

"Oh!" said Lucy.

Carolyn had soon convinced Just that the little home orchestra could undertake the music without much fear of failure.

"Of course there's a chance that the change may put the dancers out, yet I don't think so. I noticed it was rather simple music, and they're so well drilled they're not very dependent on the music. Anyhow, people will be too interested in the costumes and the steps to notice whether the music is strictly appropriate. As long as you give them something in precisely the right time, I don't believe the change will bother them. I can coach you on that."

"All right," and Just hurried back to the telephone.

Within three-quarters of an hour he had them all there, a laughing crew, ready for what struck them as a frolic for themselves. Chester Agnew carried the instruments behind the screen, and managed to slip the members of the new orchestra one by one from the dining-room doorway to the shelter of the palms without anybody's being the wiser. In ten minutes more soft music began to steal through the crowded rooms.

"The orchestra has come, after all," said Mrs. Agnew to her husband, in the front room. Her voice breathed relief.

He nodded satisfaction. "So I hear. I don't know how they managed it, but I accept the fact without question."

"Do you think it's always safe to do that?" queried his son Chester, coming up in time to hear.

"Accept facts without question? What else can you do with facts?"

"But if they should turn out not to be facts?"

"In this case I have the evidence of my ears," returned the learned man, comfortably, and Chester walked away again, his eyes dancing.

"Nobody can tell you from Lindmann," he whispered, behind the screen, during an interval.

"That's good. Hope the delusion keeps up. We don't feel much like Lindmann," returned Churchill, hastily turning over a pile of music. "Get your crowd to talking as loud as it can--then we're comparatively safe. Where's the second violin part of 'King Manfred'? Look out, Just--you hit my elbow twice with your bow-arm last time. These quarters are a bit--There you are, Charlotte. Now take this thing slow, and look to your phrasing. All ready!"

The costume dances did not come until after supper. By that time the Churchills and Birches, behind the screen, had settled down to steady work. During supper a violin, with the 'cello and bass, carried on the music, while Doctor Churchill, Celia and Carolyn Houghton planned a substitute programme for the dances.

In two cases they found the original music familiar; in most of the others it proved not very difficult to adapt other music. The leaders of the dances were told that whatever happened they were to carry through their parts without showing signs of distress.

"It's a pretty big bluff," murmured Jeff, leaning back in his chair and mopping a perspiring brow. "Phew-w. but it's hot in here! I expect to see several of those crazy dances go all to pieces on our account. That Highland Fling! Mind you keep up a ripping time on that. It ought to be piped, not stringed."

Nevertheless, in spite of a good deal of perturbation on the part of both dancers and orchestra, the entertainment went off well enough to be applauded heartily. Certain numbers, notably the South Carolina breakdown, the Irish jig, and the minuet of Washington's time, "brought down the house," presumably because the music fitted best and bothered the dancers least.

When it was over, the musicians expected to escape before they were found out, thinking the fun Would be the greater if the Agnews did not learn to whom they were indebted until later. But young Chester Agnew defeated this. He instructed half-a-dozen of his friends, and as the final strains were coming to a close, these boys laid hold of the wall of palms and pulled it to pieces. The musicians, laughing and protesting, were shown to the entire company.

A great murmur of surprise was followed by a burst of applause and laughter, in the midst of which Doctor and Mrs. Agnew hurried to the front, followed by their daughters, who had already discovered the truth, but had been warned by their brother to keep quiet about it.

"My dear friends!" exclaimed the head-master. "Is it possible that it is you who have filled the gap so successfully? Well, really, what shall we say to such kindness?"

"Mrs. Churchill--Doctor Churchill--Miss Birch--all of you," Mrs Agnew was saying, in her surprise, "what a very lovely thing to do! It has been too kind of you. We appreciate it more than we can tell you. You must come out at once and have some supper."

"The evening would have been spoiled without you!" cried Jessica Agnew, and Isabel said the same thing. Chester was loud in his praises, and indeed, the orchestra received an ovation which quite overwhelmed it. It went out to supper presently, escorted by at least twenty young people.

"Here, come and sit by me, Lucy," invited Just, in good humour at the success of his plan. "You can keep handing me food as I consume it. I never was so starved in my life. Well, have you had a good time? Sorry I had to desert you, but I've no doubt the others introduced you round and saw that you weren't neglected."

"I think Chester Agnew is one of the handsomest boys I ever met," whispered Lucy. "Hasn't he the loveliest eyes? He was just devoted to me."

Just turned, his mouth full of chicken pate, and regarded her with interest. "Yes, his eyes are wonders," he agreed, his own twinkling. "Full of soul, and all that, you mean? Yes, they are, though I never noticed it till you pointed it out."

Lucy looked at him suspiciously.

"He liked my dress," she went on.

"Did, eh? Ches must be coming on. Never knew him to notice a girl's dress before."

"I saw him looking at it,"--Lucy's tone was impressive--"and asked if he liked pink. He said it was his favourite colour."

"H'm! I must take lessons of Ches."

"He looked at me so much I was awfully embarrassed," said Lucy, under her breath, with drooping eyes.

Just favoured her with another curious glance. "Maybe he's never seen just your kind before," he suggested. "Lucy, by the time you're twenty you'll be quite an old hand at this society business, won't you?"

"What makes you think so?" she asked, not sure whether to be gratified or not.

"Oh, your small talk is so--well, so--er--interesting. A fellow always likes to hear about another fellow--about his eyes, and so on."

"Oh, you mustn't be jealous," said Lucy, with a glance which finished Just. He choked in his napkin, and turned his attention to Carolyn Houghton, on his other side.

But when he went to bed that night he once more gave vent to his feelings on the subject of his sister's guest.

"Jeff," said he, "if a girl has absolutely no brains in her head, what do you suppose occupies the cavity?"

"Give it up," returned Jeff, sleepily.

"I think it must be a substance of about the consistency of a marshmallow," mused Just, thoughtfully. "I detest marshmallows," he added, with some resentment.

"Oh, go to bed!" murmured Jeff.