Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter VII
 

"Nobody at home, eh? Well, I'm sorry. I wanted to see somebody very much. And there's no one at the other house, either. I'm away so much I see altogether too little of these people, Mrs. Fields." Thus spoke Doctor Forester of the city--the old friend and family counselor of both Birches and Churchills.

His son Frederic--who had managed since his return from study abroad to see much more of the Birch household than his father--was watching the conversation on the door-step from his position in the driver's place on Doctor Forester's big automobile, which stood at the curb. It was a cool day in May, and a light breeze was blowing.

"I don't know but Miss Evelyn's in the house somewhere," admitted Mrs. Fields. "But I don't suppose you'd care to see her?"

"Miss Evelyn? Why, certainly I should! Please ask her to come down."

So presently Evelyn was at the door, her slender hand in the big one of the distinguished gentleman of whom she stood a little in awe.

"All alone, Miss Evelyn?" said Doctor Forester. "Then suppose you get your hat and a warm jacket and come with us. Fred and I expected to pick up whomever we found and take them for a little run down to a certain place on the river."

Such an invitation was not to be resisted. Doctor Churchill and Charlotte were at the hospital; Randolph was with them, visiting his friends and proteges among the convalescent boys. Lucy had gone to town with the Birches, and nobody knew where Jeff and Just might be.

"Suppose you sit back in the tonneau with me," Doctor Forester suggested. "Fred likes to be the whole thing on the front seat there."

He put Evelyn in and tucked her up. "Wearing a cap? That's good sense. It spoils my fun to take in a passenger with all sails spread. Hello, son, what are you stopping for? Oh, I see!"

It was Celia Birch beside whom the motor was bringing up with such a sudden check to its speed. She had appeared at the corner of the street and had instantly presented to the quick vision of Mr. Frederic Forester a good and sufficient reason for coming to a stop.

"Please come with us!" urged that young man, jumping out. "We've been to the house for you."

Celia put her hand to her head, "Just as I am?" she asked.

"Just as you are. That little chapeau will stay on all right. If it doesn't I'll lend you my cap. Will you keep me company in front? Father has appropriated Miss Evelyn behind there."

Celia mounted to the seat, and they were off through the wide streets, and presently away in the country, spinning along at a rate much faster than either passenger realised. The machine was a fine one, operating with so little fuss and fret that the speed it was capable of attaining was not always appreciated.

"Oh, this is glorious, isn't it, Evelyn?" cried Celia, over her shoulder.

Doctor Forester glanced from her to the young girl on the seat beside him, smiling at both. "I'm glad you put your trust in the chauffeur so implicitly. It took me some time to get used to him, but he proves worthy of confidence. I wouldn't drive my own machine a block--never have. Yes, it's delightful to go whirling along over the country in this way. I suppose you don't know where I'm taking you?"

"I don't think we much care," Celia answered, and Evelyn nodded. Both were pink-cheeked and bright-eyed with the delight of the motion.

The doctor did not explain where they were going until they had nearly reached their destination. They had passed many fine country places all along the way, and had reached a fork in the river. The broad road leading on up the river was left behind as they turned to the left, following the windings of the smaller stream.

The character of the houses along the way had changed at once. They had become comfortable farmhouses, with now and then a place of more modern aspect.

"This is the sort of thing I prefer," Doctor Forester announced, with satisfaction. "I wouldn't give a picayune to own one of those castles, back there. But down here I'm going to show you my ideal of comfort."

Fred turned in at a gateway and drove on through orchards and grove to a house behind the trees on the river bank.

"Doesn't that look like home?" exclaimed the doctor, as they alighted. "Well, it is home! I bought it yesterday, just as it stands. Nothing fine about it, outside or in. I wanted it to run away to when I'm tired. I'm not going to tell anybody about it except---"

"Except every one he meets," Fred said, gaily, to Celia, leading her toward the wide porch overlooking the river, about which the May vines were beginning to cluster profusely. "He can't keep it a secret. I may as well warn you he's going to invite you and the whole family out here for a fortnight in June. So if you don't want to come you have a chance to be thinking up a reasonable excuse."

"As if we could want one! What a charming plan for us! Does he really mean to include all of us?"

"Every one, under both roofs. I assure you it's a jolly plan for us, and I'm holding my breath till I know you'll come."

"What a lovely rest it will be for Charlotte!" murmured Celia, thinking at once, as usual, of somebody else. "She won't own it, but she's really had a pretty hard winter."

"So I should imagine, for the first year of one's married life. I'm afraid I couldn't be as hospitable as she and her husband--not all at once, you know. Do you think it's paid?"

"What? Having the three through the winter?" Celia glanced at Evelyn, who at the other end of the long porch with Doctor Forester was gazing with happy eyes out over the sunlit river. "Oh, I'm sure Charlotte and Andy would both say so. In Evelyn's case I think there's no doubt about it. From being a delicate little invalid she's come to be the healthy girl you see there. Not very vigorous yet, of course, but in a fair way to become so, Andy thinks."

"Yes, I can see," admitted Forester, thoughtfully. "But those other youngsters--"

Celia laughed. It was easy to think well of everybody out here in this delicious air and in the company of people she thoroughly liked. Even Lucy Peyton seemed less of an infliction.

"Little Ran has certainly improved very much," she said, warmly. "And even Lucy--"

"Has Lucy improved?" Forester looked at her with a quizzical smile. "The last time I saw her I thought she was rather going backward. I met her by accident in town one day. Charlotte was shopping, and Lucy was waiting. She rushed up to me as to a long lost friend. She practically invited me to invite herself and Charlotte to lunch with me--she somewhat grudgingly included Charlotte. I was rather taken off my feet for an instant. Charlotte heard, and came up. I wish you could have seen the expression on the face of Mrs. Andrew Churchill! I don't know which felt the more crushed, Lucy or I. I assure you I was anxious to take them both to lunch after that, Mrs. Andrew had made it so clearly impossible."

"The perversity of human desires," laughed Celia. "Poor Lucy! Charlotte won't stand the child's absurd affectations."

"Come here, and listen to my plan!" called Doctor Forester, unable to wait longer to unfold it. So for the next half-hour the plan was discussed in all its bearings.

Celia proposed at once that they keep it a secret from Charlotte until the last possible moment, and this was agreed upon. Then Evelyn suggested, a little shyly, that it also remain unknown to Jeff. He was to be graduated from college about the middle of June, was very busy and hurried, and might appreciate the whole thing better when Commencement was out of the way. It was finally decided that the party should come down to "The Banks" upon the evening of Jeff's Commencement Day, and that to him and Charlotte the whole arrangement should be a complete surprise.

The date was only three weeks ahead, and Celia and Evelyn, Mrs. Birch and the others, found plenty to do in getting ready for the outing, to say nothing of seeing that neither Charlotte nor Jeff made other engagements for the period.

"No, no, let's not get in our camping so early in the season. It'll be all over too soon, then," argued Just with his brother. Upon Just devolved the task of heading Jeff off for those prospective two weeks. "Besides, I've an idea Lanse may prefer July or August."

"If you'd been boning for examinations the way I have," retorted Jeff, "your one idea would be to get off into the wilderness just as soon as your sheepskin was fairly in your hands. I don't see why you argue against going in June. You were eager enough for it a week ago."

"Oh, not so awfully eager. I----"

"You were in a frenzy to go. And I haven't cooled off, if you have."

"He's hopeless," Just confided to Evelyn. "His granite mind is set on going camping in June, and I can't get him off it. If you've any little tricks of persuasiveness all your own now's your time to try 'em on him. He'll spoil the whole thing."

"Write your brother Lansing to tell Jeff to put it off on his account," suggested Evelyn.

"That won't do, unfortunately, for Lanse has been uncertain about going all the time."

"I'll try to think of something," promised Evelyn.

She had a chance before the day was over. Jeff appeared, late in the afternoon, and invited her to take a walk with him.

"I'll tell you what I want," he said, as they went along. "Let's go down by the old bridge at the pond, and if there's nobody about I'd like to have you do me the favour of listening while I spout my class-day oration. Would you mind?"

"I shall be delighted," answered Evelyn, and this program was carried out accordingly. Down behind the willows Jeff mounted a prostrate log and gave vent to a vigorous and sincere discourse.

"Splendid!" cried his audience, as he finished. "If you do it half as well as that it will be a great success."

"Glad you think so." Jeff descended from the log with a flushed brow and an air of relief. "I'm not the fellow for class orator, I know, but I'm it, and I don't want to disgrace the crowd. Pretty down here, isn't it?"

"Beautiful. It makes me very blue to think of leaving it--as if I oughtn't to be simply thankful I could be here so long. It was lovely of your sister and brother to insist on my staying when my brother Thorne had to go to Japan so suddenly."

"You're not going soon?" Jeff looked dismayed.

"Two weeks after your Commencement," said Evelyn. "My brother's ship should be in port by the last of June, and I want to surprise him by being at home when he reaches there. I shall leave here the minute he gets into San Francisco."

"Oh, that's too bad. I'd forgotten there was any such thing as your going away. You seem--why, you seem one of us, you know!" declared Jeff, as if there could be no stronger bond of union.

"Oh, thank you--it's good of you to say so. You've all been so kind I can't half tell you how I appreciate it. We'll have to make the most of June, I think," said Evelyn, smiling rather wistfully, and looking away across the little pond.

"I should say so. We'll have every sort of lark we can think of the minute Commencement's--Oh, I was going camping after that--but I'll put it off. Just was arguing that way only this morning, but I saw no good reason for waiting, then. Now, I do."

"I'm sorry to have you put it off," protested Evelyn, with art. "Hadn't you better go on with your plans, if they're all made? Of course I should be sorry, but--"

"Oh, I'll put it off!" said Jeff, decidedly, with the very human wish to do the thing he need not do.

So it was settled. Commencement came rapidly on, bringing with it the round of festivals peculiar to that season. Jeff insisted on the presence of his entire family at every event, and for a week, as Charlotte said, it seemed as if they all lived in flowered organdies and white gloves.

"I'm really thankful this is the last," sighed Celia, coming over with her mother and Just to join the party assembling for the final great occasion on the Churchill's porch. "Evelyn, how dear you look in that forget-me-not frock! And that hat is a dream."

"Well, people, we must be off. When it's all over, let's come out here on the porch in the dark and luxuriate." Charlotte drew a long breath as she spoke.

"That will be a rest," agreed Celia, with a private pinch of Evelyn's arm, and Lucy and Randolph giggled.

The younger two had been let into the secret only within the last twenty-four hours, fears being entertained that they might not be safe repositories of mystery. Celia gave them a warning look as she passed them, and kept them away from Charlotte during the car ride into the city.

"How well the dear boy looks!" whispered his family, one to another, as the class filed into the University chapel in cap and gown. They were in a front row, where Jeff could look down at them when he should come upon the stage for his diploma.

There was not the slightest possibility of his looking either there or anywhere else. His oration had been delivered on class day, and his remaining part in the exercises of graduation was to listen respectfully to the distinguished gentlemen who took part, and to watch with interested eyes the conferring of many higher degrees before it was time for himself and his class to receive the sonorous Latin address which ended by bestowing upon them the title of Bachelor of Arts.

It was a proud moment, nevertheless, and many hearts beat high when it came. Down in that row near the front father and mother, brothers and sisters and friends, watched a certain erect figure as if there were no others worth looking at--as all over the hall other affectionate eyes watched other youthful, manly forms.

Jeff had worked hard for his degree, being not by nature a student, like his elder brother Lansing, but fonder of active, outdoor life than of books. He had been incited to deeds of valour in the classroom only by the grim determination not to disgrace the family traditions or the scholarly ancestors to whom he had often been pointed back.

"Thank heaven it's over!" exulted Jeff, with his classmates, when, after the last triumphant speech of the evening, the audience was dismissed to the strains of a rejoicing orchestra.

"Say, fellows, I'm going to bolt. Hullo, Just! Ask Evelyn for me if she won't go home flying with me in the Houghton auto--Carolyn's just sent me word."

"That will be just the thing," whispered Celia to Evelyn, when the message came. "Go with him, but don't let him stop at the Houghtons'. Whisper it to Carolyn, and see that he's safely on the porch with you when we get there."

Evelyn nodded and disappeared with Just, who took her to his brother.

"Now we're off," murmured Jeff, as he and Evelyn followed Carolyn and her brother out through a side entrance. "What a night! What a moon! My, but it feels good to be out in the open air after that pow-wow in there!"

They had half an hour to themselves in the quiet of the moonlit porch before the others, coming by electric car, could reach home.

They filled the time by sitting quietly on the top step, Jeff in the subdued mood of the young graduate who sees, after all, much to regret in the coming to an end of the years of getting ready for his life-work. He was, besides, not a little wearied by the final examinations, preparation for his part in Commencement, and the closing round of exercises. Evelyn, herself somewhat fatigued, leaned back against the porch pillar and gladly kept silence.

Before the others came Jeff spoke abruptly. "It isn't everybody who knows when to let a fellow be an oyster," he said, gratefully. "But I'm getting over the oyster mood now, and feel like talking. Do you know, you're going to leave an awful vacancy behind you when you go?"

"Oh, no," Evelyn answered. "There are so many of you, and you have such good times together, you can't mind much when a stranger goes away."

"Call yourself that?" Jeff laughed. "Well I assure you we don't. You're too thoroughly one of us--in the way of liking the things we like and despising the things we despise. Hullo, here come the people! It was rather stealing a march on them to race home in an auto and let them follow by car, wasn't it?' Let's go make 'em some lemonade to cheer their souls."

"All right." Evelyn was wondering if this would give her the necessary chance to change her dress, when the big Forester automobile rounded the corner and rolled up to the curb, just as the party from the car reached the steps. Behind it followed a second car of still more ample dimensions.

"I've come to take the whole party for a moonlight drive down the river!" called Frederic Forester. "Go take off those cobweb frocks and put on something substantial. I'll give you ten minutes. I've the prettiest sight to show you you've seen this year."

"I believe I'm too tired and sleepy to go," said Charlotte to Andy, as he followed her up-stairs. "This week of commencing has about finished me. Can't you excuse me to Fred? You go with them, if you like."

"I don't like, without you." Doctor Churchill was divesting himself of white cravat and collar. "I know you're worn out, dear, but I think the ride will brace you up. It's hot in the house to-night; it will be blissfully cool out on the river road. Besides, Forester would be disappointed. It isn't every night he comes for us with a pair of autos.

"If I were going all alone with you in the runabout--" sighed Charlotte, with a languor unusual to her.

"I know, I'd like that better myself. But you needn't talk on this trip--there are enough to keep things lively without you. You shall sit next your big boy, and he'll hold your hand in the dark," urged Doctor Churchill, artfully.

"On that condition, then," and Charlotte rose from among the pillows, where she had sunk.

There was certainly something very refreshing about the swift motion in the June air. Leaning against her husband's shoulder, Charlotte began to rest.

It had been a busy week, the heat had been of that first unbearable high temperature of mid-June with which some seasons assault us, and young Mrs. Churchill had felt her responsibilities more heavily than ever before. As the car flew down the river road she shut her eyes.

"Why, where are we turning in?" Charlotte opened her eyes. She had been almost asleep, soothed by the cool and quiet.

"Look ahead through the trees," Doctor Churchill said in her ear, and Charlotte sat up.

She saw on the river bank, far ahead, a low house with long porches, hung thickly with Chinese lanterns. Each window glowed with one of the swinging globes, and long lines of them stretched off among the trees. At one side gleamed two white tents, and in front of these burned bonfires.

"What is it? It must be a lawn party. But we're not dressed for it!" murmured Charlotte, her eyes wide open now.

Just then a tremendous shout from the automobile in front rang through the grove. Their own car ran up to the steps, where stood Doctor Forester and John Lansing Birch under the lanterns, both dressed from head to foot in white.

"Welcome to 'The Banks!'" the doctor cried. "Charlotte, my dear, why this expression of amazement? You've only come to my house party, my woods party, my river party--for a fortnight--all of you. Will you stay, or are you going to sit staring down at us with those big black eyes forever?"

"I think I'll stay," said Charlotte, happily, slipping down from the car into her brother's outstretched arms. "O Lanse! O Lanse! It's good to see you. What a surprise!"