Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter IX
 

"What do you mean, Jefferson Birch, by saying such a thing?" Lucy's tone was one of mingled anger and fright.

"I mean," said Jeff, coolly, "that if coming down here to meet George Jarvis were what you were proud of doing, you wouldn't try to cover it up. Do you know, Lu, I'm tremendously sorry you find any fun in a thing like that."

"Dear me,"--Lucy tried hard to assume her usual self-confident manner--"Who appointed you guardian of young ladies?"

"The trouble is--well--you're not a young lady yet. You're only a girl. If you were a real grown-up young lady there'd be nothing I could do about your stealing out at this late hour to meet a young man except to laugh and think my own thoughts. But since you're only a girl--"

"You can insult me!" Lucy was very near tears now--angry, mortified tears.

"I don't mean to insult you, and I think you know that. If anybody has insulted you it's the boy who asked you to meet him here. He must have been the one to propose it, of course, and you thought it would be fun. Lu, when I found this out I should have gone straight to my sister Charlotte and told her to come and meet you here instead of myself, if I hadn't known how it would disappoint her. She would have taken it to heart much more seriously than you can realise. She's entertained you all winter and spring, and the responsibilities of looking after you and Ran have been heavy on her shoulders. She's tried hard to give you a good time, too."

Lucy turned and walked deliberately away down the path toward the boat-landing.

"I'm bungling it," thought Jeff, uncomfortably, and stood still, waiting. "Perhaps I ought to have let Evelyn tackle the business, after all."

Lucy walked out upon the landing, where the Butterfly swung lazily in the wash of the current. Suddenly, quite without warning, she ran the length of the little pier and leaped for the boat. It had looked an easy distance, but as she made the jump she realised too late that the interval of water between pier and boat was wider than it had looked in the moonlight. With a scream and a splash she went down, and an instant later Jeff, dashing down the pier, saw only a widening circle gleaming faintly on the water.

He flung off his coat, tore off his low shoes, and waited. The river-bottom shelved suddenly just where the pier ended, and the depth was fully twenty feet. Moment after moment went by while he watched breathlessly for the appearance of the girl at the surface. The current was strong a few feet out, and his gaze swept the water for some distance. When he caught sight of the break in the surface which told him what he wanted, it was even farther down-stream than he had calculated.

"I mustn't risk this alone," he thought, quickly, and gave several ringing shouts for Just, whom he knew to be only two or three hundred yards up-shore. Then he made his plunge, swimming furiously to get below the place where the girl's white-clad form had risen, that he might be at hand when his chance came again.

The current helped him, and so did the moonlight on the water. It was in the very centre of a glinting spot of light that Lucy came to the surface the second time. Before she had sunk out of sight Jeff had her by the skirts, and was working desperately to get her head above water. She was struggling with all her fierce young strength, crazed with fright and suffocation, and she continually dragged him under in her blind attempts to pull herself up by him.

When he could get breath he shouted again, and after what seemed to him an age, there came a response from two directions. Just running along the river bank, and Doctor Churchill, plunging down the hill, saw, and were coming to the rescue.

"Hold on! Hold on! I'm coming!" both shouted as they ran.

Doctor Churchill, having the easier course, reached the bank first. Being clad only in his pajamas, he was unburdened by superfluous clothing. With a long leap he was in the water, and with a half-dozen vigorous strokes he had reached Jeff's elbow.

"Let go! I've got her!" he cried, and Jeff, spluttering and breathing hard, attempted to let go.

But Lucy still fought so desperately that it was no easy matter to get her clutch away from Jeff's clothing. By this time, however, Just was also in the water, and the three soon had the girl under control.

"Keep quiet! You're all right! Let us take you in!" called Doctor Churchill to the struggling, strangling little figure. So in a minute more they had her on the bank.

"Why, it's Lucy!" Doctor Churchill cried in astonishment, as he dropped upon his knees beside her and fell to work.

"Yes, it's Lucy!" panted Jeff.

But there was no chance just then for explanations. For the next ten minutes he and Just were kept busy obeying peremptory orders. As under Andy's directions they silently and anxiously worked over the young form upon the grass, they were feeling intensely grateful that the necessary skill had been so close at hand. But until the doctor's satisfied "She's coming out all right!" gave them leave, neither dared draw a good breath for himself.

Just was wondering what he and Jeff were to say, but his brother was heaping reproaches upon himself, and sternly holding Jeff Birch responsible for the whole unfortunate affair.

By the time Lucy was herself again and able to breathe without distress, Evelyn had come flying down the path---the only other person roused by the distant shouts. It had been a day full of active sports, and everybody was sleeping the sleep of the weary. Even Charlotte had not been roused by Andy's departure.

Just ran to the house for blankets; Evelyn, at Doctor Churchill's direction, followed him to prepare a steaming hot drink for Lucy; and presently they had her in her bed, warm and dry, although much exhausted by her experience in the waters of the river, which were cold even on a June night. Doctor Churchill had insisted on calling Charlotte, but Evelyn had begged him to arouse nobody else, and after one look into her face he had agreed.

At last, Lucy having dropped off to sleep under the soothing influence of the hot beverage, the others gathered quietly in a lower room. The three wet ones had acquired dry if informal garments, and a council had been asked for by Evelyn.

"It's entirely my fault," began Jeff, promptly, and he plunged into a brief but graphic account of the accident.

"It's not in the least your fault," Evelyn interrupted, at last, as Jeff came to a pause with a repetition of his self-condemnation. "It's mine, if anybody's. I should have taken the whole thing to Mrs. Churchill at once, instead of trying to keep it quiet."

"My meeting her down there alone was entirely my plan," began Jeff again; but this time it was his sister Charlotte who interrupted.

"Neither of you is in the least to blame, my dears," she said, smiling on them both. "You had the best of motives, and the plan might have worked out well but for the child's sudden mad idea of jumping into that boat. I suppose she meant to row away."

"She didn't stop to cast off--she couldn't have got away before I should have been in the boat, too," objected Jeff.

"That simply shows how out of her head with excitement she was. But that's all over. She mercifully wasn't drowned"--a little involuntary shiver passed over the speaker--"and we'll hope for no serious consequences. The thing now is to think how to act when she wakes in the morning."

"I should say treat the whole thing for what it is, a childish escapade. Show her the silliness of it, and then let it drop," said Doctor Churchill.

Charlotte looked at him appealingly.

"Lucy and Ran go home next week," she said, slowly. "I hoped--I wanted so much to send Lucy away with--I can't express it--a little bit higher ideals than any she has known before. I thought we were succeeding; she has seemed more considerate and less fault-finding."

"She certainly has," Evelyn agreed quickly, and the two looked at each other. There was an instant's silence; then Just spoke:

"How do you know but you'll find her quite a different proposition when she wakes up? A plunge like that is a sobering sort of experience, I should say, for a girl who can't swim. She may be the meekest thing on earth after this. If it does her as much good as a lively dressing down did George Jarvis, she's likely to be a changed girl."

They could not help smiling at the satisfaction in the boy's voice. "He may be right," admitted Doctor Churchill.

"At any rate, if Lucy isn't ill to-morrow let's tell nobody what has happened. The poor child certainly doesn't need any more humiliation just at present, and I'd like to spare her all I can." Charlotte spoke decidedly.

They agreed to this. Evelyn went to her place beside Lucy, planning an affectionate greeting when the younger girl should wake; and Charlotte, when she fell asleep, dreamed of Lucy until morning.

It was quite a different Lucy who met them all in the morning. She showed no ill effects except a slight languor, and when Charlotte had established her in a hammock on the porch, she lay there with a quiet, sober face, which showed that she had been doing some thinking.

When Jeff approached with his most deferential manner to inquire after her welfare, she astonished him by saying more simply and sweetly than he had dreamed possible:

"I want to tell you I won't forget what you did for me last night. I was foolish, I suppose. I--I didn't think what I was doing was any harm, but I--"

She choked a little and felt for her handkerchief. Jeff grasped her hand. He had a warm heart, and he had not got over the thought of how he should have felt if he had not been able to rescue the girl he had attempted to lecture. His answer to Lucy was very gentle:

"We'll never think of it again. I'm awfully thankful it all ended well. If you'll forgive me for frightening you, I'll say that I'm sure you're really a sensible little girl, and I shan't lie awake nights worrying over your taking midnight strolls."

His tone was not priggish, and his smile was so bright that Lucy took heart of grace, and said, earnestly, "You needn't. I don't want any more," and buried her face in her pillow.

But it was not to cry, for Evelyn came by. Jeff called to her, and between them they soon had Lucy smiling. Before the day was over she had had a little talk with Charlotte, in which the young married woman came nearer to the heart of the girl that she had ever succeeded in doing before, and Lucy had learned one or two simple lessons she never forgot.

"But it's the first and last time I ever attempt the education of the young girl," declared Jeff, solemnly, to Evelyn, that afternoon, as they gathered armfuls of old-fashioned June roses for the decoration of the porch.

"Don't feel too badly. Lucy is going to value your respect very much after this, and I think you'll be able to give it to her. A girl who has no older brother misses a great deal, I think. I don't know what I should have done without mine," answered Evelyn, reaching up to pull at a pink cluster far above her head.

"Let me get that for you," and Jeff's long arm easily grasped the spray and drew it down to her. "Well, I owe a lot to my sisters, that's sure."

With quite a knightly air he cut the fairest bud at hand, and gave it to her, saying quietly, "You wouldn't like it if I said anything soft and sentimental, but you won't mind if I tell you that you seem to me a lot like that bud there--that's going to blossom some day."

He knew it pleased her, for the ready colour told him so. But she answered lightly:

"As yet I'm quite content to be only a bud. Your sister Celia is the opening rose. Isn't she lovely? Here's one just like her. Take it to her and tell her I said so, will you?"

She plucked the rose and motioned to where Celia was coming alone along the orchard road, Frederic Forester having just left her for a hasty trip to town. Jeff laughed, took the rose and the message, and brought back Celia's thanks. Evelyn met him with her full basket, and the rose-picking was over.

"She says to tell you you're a flatterer, but being a woman, she likes it--and you," said Jeff, taking her basket away.

Doctor Forester's party had lasted eight days now, and his guests were planning how to make the most of the time remaining, when Doctor Churchill came spinning out in the middle of a Thursday morning with a letter. Mrs. Peyton had sent word that Randolph and Lucy were to meet her in a distant city, thirty-six hours' ride away. From there the trio were to proceed to their home.

"They will have to leave this evening in order to make it," Doctor Churchill announced. "This letter has barely allowed time--a little characteristic of Cousin Lula which I remember of old. She has an idea that time and tide--if they wait for no man--can sometimes be prevailed upon to change their schedule on account of a woman."

Upon hearing the news Lucy burst into tears. She did not want to go, she did not want to go so soon--more than all, she was afraid to go alone.

"Undoubtedly some one can be found who is going the same way," the letter read, easily, "and in any case, you can put them in charge of the railroad officials, who will see that they make no mistakes. I cannot possibly afford to come so far for them."

"Why can't Evelyn go now, too?" pleaded Lucy, as she and Evelyn, Charlotte and Celia were being conveyed on a rapid run home by Frederic Forester. It had been decided necessary for all feminine hands to fall to work, to accomplish the packing in time to get the young people off at nine that evening.

"Evelyn doesn't go until next Tuesday, and this is only Thursday," Charlotte answered, promptly.

"Five days isn't much difference," urged Lucy mournfully. "And when Evelyn's going right over the same road almost to our home, I should think she'd like to go when we do, if it did cut off a little. She's been here all winter."

"So have you, Lu, and you don't want to go," Charlotte reminded her.

She did not say that nobody could bear to think of Evelyn's departure any sooner than was absolutely necessary, for it was not possible honestly to say the same about Lucy. But when they reached the house, and Charlotte had run up to her room to exchange her dress for a working frock, Evelyn came to her and softly closed the door. Evelyn had persuaded herself that she ought to accompany the others.

"It isn't as if Lucy were a different sort of girl," she argued--against her own wishes, for she longed to stay more than she dared to own. "But nobody knows how she might behave--if anybody tried to get to know her--somebody she oughtn't to know. And besides, she's afraid. It really doesn't matter. I can use the extra time getting things ready for Thorne. Please don't urge me, Mrs. Churchill. It won't be a bit easier next week."

Gentle as she was, Charlotte had learned that when Evelyn made up her mind that she ought to do a thing, it was as good as done. So presently Evelyn, too, was packing, her smiles at the remonstrances of Charlotte and Celia very sweet, her heart very heavy.

"Well, dear, I've telephoned the others at 'The Banks,'" said Charlotte, coming into Evelyn's room, having just left Lucy in an ecstatic condition over the decision. "You should have heard the dismay. Jeff and Just have already started home on their wheels, to prevent your going by main force."

This was literally true. From Doctor Forester down to his youngest guest had come regret and remonstrance. Finally, however, Doctor Forester, having called up Evelyn herself, and been persuaded that she was sure she was right, had fallen to planning what could be done to make the girl's leave-taking a pleasant one for her to remember.

After a little an idea seized him. He chuckled to himself, and fell to telephoning again. He had Doctor Churchill on the wire, then Charlotte, Celia and his son Frederic, who had remained at the Birches', finally the railway-station, the Pullman office, and a certain official of whom he was accustomed to ask favours and get them granted.

"Good-by, Mrs. Fields!" said Evelyn Lee, coming out upon the back porch, where the doctor's housekeeper was resting after a busy days work. "I shall never forget how good you've been to me, and I hope you won't forget me."

"Forget you!" ejaculated Mrs. Fields, her spare, strong hand grasping tight the slender one held out to her. "Well, there ain't much danger of that, nor of anybody else's forgetting you. I've been about as pleased as the doctor and Miss Charlotte to see you pick up. You don't look like the same girl that came here last fall."

"I'm sure I don't feel much like her. Ever so much of it is certainly due to your good cooking, Mrs. Fields."

"It's so hard to take leave of you all," said Evelyn, on the porch, where the others were assembled. "I'd almost like to slip away without a word--only that would look so ungrateful. And I'm the most grateful girl alive."

"You needn't say good-by to me," said Doctor Forester, "for I'm going as far as Washington with you." He smiled at the joy which flashed into her face.

"Oh, are you really?" she cried.

"You needn't say good-by to me, either," said Frederic Forester, as she turned to him, standing next to his father, "for I'm going, too,"

"I think I'll go along," said Doctor Churchill.

"Will you take me?" Charlotte was smiling at Evelyn's bewildered face.

"If Charlotte goes, I shall, too," supplemented Celia.

Evelyn looked at them. Surely enough, although in the hurry she had not noticed it before, they were all in travelling dress. She had known they had meant to go as far as the city station with her; she saw now that they were fully equipped for the journey. And Washington was nearly twenty hours away!

"You dear people!" murmured Evelyn, and rather blindly cast herself into Mrs. Birch's outstretched arms.

There was only one thing lacking to her peace of mind. Jeff had not appeared to bid her good-by. Charlotte observed that Evelyn's voice trembled a little when she said, "Where's Jeff? Will you tell him good-by for me?"

Charlotte answered, "He won't fail, dear. He'll surely be at the station."

But when they reached the station no Jeff was there. Nobody seemed to notice, for the men of the party were busy looking after various details of the trip. Celia was explaining to Evelyn and Lucy how it had all come about.

"Doctor Forester was so upset and sorry over your going," she said, "that he went to thinking up excuses to go along. He remembered an important medical convention in Washington, and persuaded Andy that he could get away for the three days' session. Then he invited Charlotte and me, and convinced Mr. Frederic that he ought to go, too. We were only too willing, so here we are."

"It's the loveliest thing that could happen," said Evelyn, and tried hard not to let her eyes wander to the doors of the station.

She had not seen Jeff since early in the afternoon, when, after hot argument, he had at last given up trying to persuade her that she need not go until the coming Tuesday. To Just only, however, as he carried her little travelling bag on board the train for her, did she say a word.

"Please tell Jeff for me," she said in his ear, as he established her in the designated section of the sleeping-car, "that I felt very badly not to say good-by to him. But give him my best remembrance, and say that I'm sure he must have been kept from coming by something he couldn't help."

"Of course he must have been," agreed Just, heartily, feeling like pitching into his delinquent brother with both fists for bringing that hurt little look into the hazel eyes below him. "He'll probably turn up just as your train gets under headway, and then he'll be the maddest fellow you ever saw. Hullo, I'll bet that messenger boy is looking for you!" as he saw Frederic Forester pointing a blue-capped carrier of a florist's box toward Evelyn. He went forward, claimed the box, and brought it back to Evelyn.

She peeped within, saw a great cluster of roses, and drew out a card. "Of course it's Jeff's?" queried Just, anxiously, and he felt immense relief when Evelyn nodded.

"Well, I'm off!" Just gripped her hand as the train began to move. "Good-by! I'm mighty sorry to have you go," and with lifted hat, and a hasty farewell to Lucy and Randolph, he was gone.

Evelyn smiled at him from the window, as he ran down the platform waving at her, but her heart was still heavy. It was very good of Jeff to send the flowers, but she would rather have had one hearty grasp of his friendly hand than all the roses in his Northern state.