Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter VIII
 

Charlotte swung herself up into the runabout as Doctor Churchill paused for her at the gateway of "The Banks." She had met him here at six o'clock every day since they came, and this was the seventh day.

It was impossible for him to get through his round of work earlier, but he was enjoying his evenings and nights in the country with a zest almost sufficient to make up for the daytime hours he missed.

Charlotte, however, although she joined merrily in all that went on through the day, was never so happy as when this hour arrived, and dressed in cool white for the evening, she could slip away and walk slowly down this winding road through the orchard and the grove to the gateway. Here she waited in a shady nook for the first puff of the coming motor. The moment she heard it she sprang out into the roadway, and stood waving her handkerchief in response to a swinging cap far up the road.

Then came the nearer salutation, the quick climb into the small car, assisted by the grip of Andy's hand, and the eager greeting of two pairs of eyes.

"Do you know this outing is doing you a world of good already?" said Doctor Churchill, noting with approval the fresh colour in Charlotte's face.

"I know it is. I didn't realise that I needed it a bit until I actually found myself here, with nothing to do except rest and play. It's doing everybody good. You should have heard the plans at breakfast to-day. Although it's been so hot, nobody has been idle a minute. I've been fishing all day with Lanse and Fred and Celia. Andy, do you know what I think? I admit I didn't think it till Lanse put it into my head, but I believe he's right. Fred----"

"Is going to want Celia? Of course. That was a foregone conclusion from the start."

"Andy Churchill, you weren't so discerning as all that, when not even I thought it was serious with either of them! Celia's had so many admirers, and turned them all aside so coolly--and Mr. Frederic Forester is such an accomplished person at paying attentions--how could I think it meant anything? But Lanse insists Celia is different from what she ever was before, and I don't know but he's right."

"To be sure he's right. Next to you, I never saw a more attractive young person than Celia. What a charming colour you have, child! To be sure, you have burned the tip of that small Greek nose a very little, but I find even that adorable. Charlotte, stop pinching my arm. If you're half as glad to have me get here as I am to arrive, you're pretty happy. I laid stern commands on Mrs. Fields not to telephone, unless it were a matter of absolute necessity, so I'm pretty sure of not being disturbed."

They found supper laid on the piazza, and enjoyed it with keen appetites. Afterward they spent an hour drifting on the river, followed by a long and delightful evening on the lawn at the river bank. Celia and Lanse picked the strings of violin and viola, and the others sang. Doctor Forester, in his white clothes lay stretched on a rustic seat, and professed himself to be having "the time of his life."

"I don't think the rest of us are far behind you," declared Lanse. "If you people had been digging away at law in a hot old office you'd think this was Paradise."

Evelyn, looking out over the moonlit river, drew a little sigh which she meant nobody to hear, but Jeff divined it, and whispered, under cover of an extravaganza from Just in regard to the night, the company, and the occasion, "You're coming again next summer, you know. And all winter we'll write about it--shall we?"

"Do you think you will have time to write?" she asked.

"Have time! I should say I would make time," he murmured. "Think I'm going to stand having this sort of thing cut off short? I guess not--unless--you're the one who hasn't time. And even then I don't think I could be kept from boring you with letters."

"I shall certainly want to hear what you all are doing," she answered.

She was thinking about this plan when she went up-stairs to bed an hour later. Jeff had stopped her at the foot of the stairs to say, "I'd just like a good secure promise from you about that letter-writing. I'll enjoy the time that's left a lot better if I know it isn't coming to a regular jumping-off place at the end. Will you promise to write regularly?"

She paused on the bottom step, where she was just on a level with the straightforward dark eyes, half boy's, half man's, which met hers with the clear look of good comradeship. There was no sentimentality in the gaze, but undeniably strong liking and respect. She answered in Jeff's own spirit:

"I promise. I really shouldn't know how to do without hearing about your plans and the things that happen to you. I'm not a very good letter-writer, but I'll try to tell you things that will interest you."

"Good! I'm no flowery expert myself, but I fancy we can write as we talk, and that's enough for me. Good-night! Happy dreams."

"Good-night!" she responded, and went on up-stairs, turning to wave at Jeff from the landing, as he stood in the doorway, preparing to go out to the tents where he and Just, Doctor Forester, Frederic and Lanse were spending these dry June nights.

Evelyn went on to the odd old bedroom under the gable, where she and Lucy were quartered together. She found Lucy lying so still that she thought her asleep, and so made ready for bed with speed and quiet, remembering that Lucy had been first to come in, and imagining her tired with the day's sports.

Evelyn herself did not go at once to sleep. There were too many pleasant things to think of for that; and although her eyes began to close at last, she was yet, at the end of half an hour, awake, when Lucy stirred softly beside her and sat up in bed. After a moment the younger girl slipped out to the floor, using such care that Evelyn thought her making unusual and kindly effort not to disturb her bedfellow.

After a little, as Lucy did not return, Evelyn opened her eyes and looked out into the moonlight. Lucy was dressing, so rapidly and noiselessly that Evelyn watched her, amazed.

She was on the point of asking if the girl were ill when she observed that Lucy was putting on the delicate dress and gay ribbons she had worn during the evening, and was even arranging her hair. Something prompted Evelyn to lie still, for in all the winter's association she had never grown quite to trust Lucy or to like her ways.

More than any one else, however, she herself had won the other girl's liking, and had come to feel a certain responsibility for her. So when Lucy, after making wholly ready, had stolen to the door, let herself out, and closed it silently behind her, Evelyn sprang out of bed.

Perhaps Lucy simply could not sleep, she said to herself, and had gone down to sit on the lower porch, or lie in one of the hammocks swinging under the trees. The night was exceedingly warm, even the usual cooling breath from the river being absent.

"That's all there is of it," said Evelyn, reassuringly, to herself, although at the same time she felt uneasiness enough to send her out into the hall to a gable window over the porch, which commanded a view of the camp. Nothing stirring was to be seen, except the dwindling flame of the evening camp-fire, burned every night for cheer, not for warmth. Evelyn crept to a side window. As she reached it a white figure could be seen hurrying away through the orchard.

Back in her room, Evelyn dressed with as much haste as Lucy had done, if with less care. Instead of the white frock of the evening, however, she put on a dark blue linen, for she was sure that she must follow Lucy and discover what this strange departure, stealthily made at midnight, could mean.

She went down to the front door. The moment she opened it a tall figure started up from one of the long lounging chairs there, and Jeff's voice said softly, "Charlotte?"

"No, it's Evelyn," she whispered back. "Don't be surprised. I thought everybody in the camp was asleep."

"I wasn't sleepy, and thought I'd lounge here till I was. What's the matter? Anybody sick?"

"No. I'm just going for a little walk."

"Walk? At this hour? Can't you sleep? But you mustn't go and walk alone, you know. I'll go with you."

She did not want to tell him, but she saw no other way.

"It's Lucy," she explained hurriedly. "She's dressed and gone out somewhere, and I can't think why. It frightened me, and I'm going to follow her."

"No, you stay here and I'll follow. Which way did she go? What can she be up to? That girl's a queer one, and I've thought so from the first."

"No, no! There's some explanation. It may be she walks in her sleep, you know--though I'm sure she's never done it this winter. Let me go, Jeff; she'll get too far. She took the path toward the river. Oh, if it should be sleep-walking----"

"I guess it's not sleep-walking." Jeff's tone was skeptical.

But Evelyn had started away at a run, and Jeff was after her. The two hastened along with light, noiseless steps. At the bottom of the path, on the very brink of the river, was an old summer-house, looking out over the water. It was a favourite retreat, for the boat-house and the landing were but a rod away, and after a row on the river the shaded summer-house was a pleasant place in which to linger.

"Hush!" breathed Evelyn, stopping short as they neared the summer-house.

They advanced with caution, and presently, as they drew within speaking distance of the little structure, they saw a white-clad figure emerge from it and stand just outside. Jeff drew Evelyn quickly and silently into the shelter of a cluster of hemlocks.

After a space the dip of oars lightly broke the stillness of the night, and soon a row-boat pulled quietly into view, with one dark figure outlined against the gleam of the moonlit water. Evelyn caught a smothered sound from Jeff, whether of recognition or of displeasure she could not tell. She felt her own pulses throbbing with excitement and anxiety.

The stranger pulled in to the landing, noiselessly shipped his oars, jumped out and made fast. Lucy came cautiously down to the wharf, and against the radiance of the moonlight on the river the two behind the trees could see the greeting.

The slight, boyish figure which met Lucy had a familiar look to Jeff, but he could not tell with any certainty whose it might be. That it was youthful there could be no question. Even in the dim light the diffidence of both boy and girl could be plainly observed.

"Young idiots!" exploded Jeff, between his teeth, as the two they were watching sat down side by side on the steps of the boat-landing, where only their heads were visible to the watchers--heads decidedly close together. Then he bent close to Evelyn's ear and whispered, "Come farther back with me, and we'll decide what to do."

With the utmost caution the two made their retreat. At a safe distance Jeff halted, and said rapidly, "I think the best thing will be for you to go back to bed and to sleep--if you can. At any rate, don't let her know that you hear her come in. I'll come back here and mount guard. I won't let them see me. I'll take care that Lucy gets safely back to the house, and I won't interfere unless she attempts to go off in the boat with him or do some fool thing like that. You needn't worry. They aren't going to run away and get married. She's just full of sentimental nonsense, and thinks it romantic and grown-up to steal out in the night to meet some idiot of a boy--you can see that's all he is by his build. Probably somebody we know, don't you think that's the best plan?"

"Yes, for to-night," agreed Evelyn, in a troubled whisper. "I feel as if I ought to talk to her when she comes in, though."

"If you do you'll just make her angry. The thing is to let her go uncaught until we can think what to do. Little simpleton!"

"I'll do as you say, but--don't be hard on her, Jeff. She's just silly; she hasn't been brought up like your sisters."

"Or like you," thought Jeff, as he watched the figure before him flit away toward the house. He followed at a distance, till he saw the door close on Evelyn; then he went back to his post.

The next morning, as he and Evelyn walked down the road through the apple-orchard toward the gateway, to open the rural-delivery mail-box, which stood just outside the gate, Jeff told Evelyn what he had found out.

"Nothing more serious than a simple case of spoon," he said, with an expression at which Evelyn might have laughed if she had not felt so disturbed. "The boy turned out to be our next neighbour here. They've made another appointment for to-night. He thinks it a great lark--probably will brag about it to all the boys. He's got to eat his little dish of humble pie, too. Evelyn, I've a plan. Will you trust me to carry it out to-night?"

She looked at him. In her face was written a concern for Lucy so tender that Jeff adored her for it. At the same time he hastened to assure her that it was needless.

"If you merely talk with her I don't think that will do it," he said, decidedly. "She's been with you all winter, has seen just how a girl should behave,"--he did not know what a thrill of happiness this bluntly sincere compliment gave his hearer--"and she hasn't taken it in a bit. She needs something to bring her to her senses. I'd rather not tell you my plan, for if you can assure her afterward that you weren't in it, you can do her more good than if she's as provoked at you as she's sure to be at me. But I give you my word of honour I'll not do a thing to frighten her, or play any fool practical jokes. I'll have to let Just into the secret, I think, but nobody else. Will you trust me?"

"Of course, I will," said the girl, quickly. "On just one condition, Jeff. Think of her as if she were your own sister, and don't--don't----"

"Be 'as funny as I can'? No, I won't."

Evelyn observed Lucy all that day with understanding, and found herself longing to warn the girl that her foolishness was about to meet with its punishment. She noted with sorrow the strangely excited look in the young eyes, the light, half-hysterical laugh, the changing colour in the pretty face. Lucy's promise of beauty had never seemed to her so characterless, or her words so empty of sense.

She found her in a corner of their room, reading a worn novel by a certain author whose very name she had been taught to regard as a synonym for vapidity and sentimentalism of the most highly flavoured sort, and she could not keep back a quick exclamation at sight of it. Lucy looked up with a frown and a flush.

"I suppose you think it's terrible to read novels," she said, pettishly flirting the leaves. "Well, I don't."

"Dear, it's not 'novels' that I've been taught to despise, but the sort of novel that writer writes. I don't know anything about them myself, but I saw my brother Thorne once put that one you're reading in the stove and jam on the cover, as if he were afraid it would get out. Do you wonder I don't like to see Lucy Peyton reading it?" asked Evelyn gently, with her cheek against the other girl's.

"He must be a terrible Miss Nancy, then," said Lucy, defiantly. "There's not a thing in it that couldn't be in a Sunday-school book. The heroine is the sweetest thing."

"If she is she won't mind your putting her down and coming out for a walk with me," answered Evelyn, with a smile which might have captivated Lucy if she had seen it. But the younger girl got up and flung away out of the room, murmuring that she did not feel like walking, and would take herself and her book where they would not bother people.

Evelyn looked after her with a little sigh, and owned that Jeff might be right in thinking that mere gentle argument with Lucy would have scant effect on a head full of nonsense or a heart whose love for the sweet and true had had far too little development.

Half an hour before the time set for the rendezvous at the summer-house that night Jeff and Just walked down the path, shoulder to shoulder, talking under their breath. Just, being younger, was even more deeply interested than his brother in the prospective encounter, and received his final instructions with ill-concealed glee.

"All right!" he gurgled. "I'm to give him a good scare, in the shape of a lecture--with a thrashing promised if he cuts up any more. He's to give his word, on pain of a lot of things, not to give any of this little performance of his away to a soul. Then he's to be forbidden the premises while Miss Peyton is on them. I understand."

"Well, now, look here," warned Jeff. "I give you leave, but, mind you, I trust your discretion, too. You never can tell what these Willie-boys will do. Dignity's your cue. Be stern as an avenging fate, but don't get to cuffing him round and batting him with language just because you're bigger. You----"

"Look here," expostulated Just, aggrieved, "you picked me out for this job; now leave it to me. I'll have the boy saying 'sir' to me before I get through."

Just ran down to the boat-house, got out a slim craft, launched it, and was about rowing away when he bethought himself of something. He pulled in to the landing, made fast his painter, and ran like a deer up to the house. He was back in five minutes.

"Don't believe I'll go by boat, after all," he whispered to Jeff, standing in the summer-house door. "It might be simpler not to have a boat to bother with. I'll just leave the Butterfly tied there, and put her up when I get back."

He was off before Jeff could reply. Jeff started toward the boat to put it up, but stopped, considering.

Lucy would think it that of her admirer, and would be all the more sure to keep her appointment. He left it as it was, swinging lightly on the water, six feet out. It was a habit of Just's to moor a boat at the length of her painter, to prevent her bumping against the rough old landing.

Lucy, coming swiftly down the path fifteen minutes later, saw the boat and hastened her steps. She did not observe that this was a slimmer, longer craft than the boat George Jarvis was using. She reached the landing and looked about. Of course he was in the summer-house. She went to it, her skirts, which she had of late been surreptitiously lengthening, held daintily in her hand.

As she came close, a figure appeared in the doorway. Before she could be frightened by the realisation that it was not Jarvis's slender young frame which confronted her, Jeff accosted her in the mildest tones imaginable:

"It's only Jefferson Birch. Don't be scared. Fine night, isn't it?"

"Y-yes," stammered Lucy, in dismay. She stood still, her skirts gathered close, as if she were about to run.

"Don't go. Out for a stroll? So am I," said Jeff, pleasantly, as if midnight promenades were the accustomed thing at "The Banks." "Won't you sit down?"

There were seats outside the summer-house as well as within, and he motioned toward one of them.

"No, thank you. I think I'll go back," said Lucy, and her voice trembled.

"Why, you've only just come! Why not stay a while and have a visit with me? You must have been intending to stay."

"Oh, no!" said Lucy, eagerly, and stopped short, listening. What if George Jarvis should come round the corner at any moment? She must get Jeff away with her. "Won't you walk along up to the house with me? I only came down to see if I'd left something in the summer-house."

Jeff had planned what he would say to her, but at this his disgust got the better of him. "Lucy," said he--and his voice had changed from lightness to gravity--"don't you mind a bit saying what isn't true?"