Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter II
 

"Where's the shawl-strap?"

"Charlotte, wait just a moment; are you perfectly sure that mother's dressing sack and knit slippers are in the case? Nobody saw them put in, and I don't--"

"Justin, run down-stairs, please, and get that unopened package of water-biscuit. You'll find it on the pantry shelf, I think."

"Lanse, if the furnace runs all night with the draught on, your fire will be burned out in the morning, and it will take an extra amount of coal to get it started again."

"Where's Jeff? He must be told about--"

"Put mother's overshoes to warm."

"I have left two hundred dollars to your credit at the bank, Lansing, and I--"

"Lanse, did you telephone for--"

"Where did Celia put the--"

"Listen, all of you. I--"

"What did Jeff do with that small white--"

"Silence!" shouted Lansing, above the din. "Can't you people get these traps together without all yelling at once? You will have mother so used up she can't start."

Mrs. Birch smiled at her tall son from the easy chair where she had been placed ten minutes before, her family protesting that they could finish the numberless small tasks yet to be done. It was nine o'clock in the evening, and it lacked but an hour of train-time.

They all looked at the slender figure in the easy chair. They had learned in these last two weeks to take note of their mother's appearance as, with easy confidence in her exhaustless strength, they had never done before. Since the night when they had learned that she was not quite well, they had discovered for themselves the delicacy of the smiling face, the thinness of the graceful body, the many small signs by which those who run may read the evidences of lessened vitality, if their eyes are once opened. They wondered that they had not seen it all before, and found the only explanation in the cheery, undaunted spirit which had covered up every sign of fatigue.

"She is too tired already," declared Celia. "Run away, and let father and me finish."

But they would not go. How could they, with only an hour left? They subdued their voices, and ran whispering about. Jeff held a long conference in an undertone with his mother. Justin perched on the arm of her chair, with his head on her shoulder, and she would not have him taken away, her own heart sick within her at thought of the long absence from them all. Altogether, when one took into account the preceding fortnight of making ready for the trip, it was not strange that in this last hour of preparation she gave out entirely.

The first they knew of it was when Mr. Birch, with a low exclamation, sprang across the room, and catching up his wife in his arms, carried her to a couch.

"Water!" he said. "And open the window!"

Startled, they obeyed him. It was only a brief unconsciousness, and the lovely brown eyes when they unclosed were as full of bravery as ever, but Mr. Birch spoke anxiously to Lansing in the hall outside.

"I don't like to start with her, as worn-out as this," he said. "Yet everything is engaged--the state-room and all--and I don't want to delay without reason. There's not time to send to the city for Doctor Forester. Suppose you telephone Doctor Ridgway to come around and tell us what to do about starting. If he is out, try Sears or Barton. Have him hurry. We've barely forty-five minutes now."

In three minutes Lansing came back and beckoned his father out of the room.

"They're all out," he said, "I tried old Doctor Hitchcock, too, but he's sick in bed. How about that new doctor that's just moved in next door? I like his looks. He certainly will know enough to advise about this."

Mr. Birch hesitated a moment. "Well, call him," he decided.

Lansing was already down the stairs. Three minutes later he returned with the young doctor. Mr. Birch met them in the hall.

"Doctor Churchill, father." Mr. Birch looked keenly into a pair of eyes whose steady glance gave him instantly the feeling that here was a man to trust.

The young people waited impatiently outside while Doctor Churchill spent fifteen quiet minutes with their father and mother. When Mr. Birch came to the door again with the physician, he was looking relieved.

Doctor Churchill paused before the little group, his eyes glancing kindly at each in turn, as he spoke to Lansing. He certainly was young but there was about him an air of quiet confidence and decision which one felt instinctively would be justified by further acquaintance.

"Don't be anxious," he said. "All this hurry of preparation has been a severe test on her, taken with her reluctance to leave her home. She is feeling stronger now, and it will be better for her to get the leave-taking over than to postpone and dread it longer. You will all make it easy for her--No breakdowns," he cautioned, with a smile. "New Mexico is a great place, and you are doing the best thing in the world in getting her off before cold weather."

He was gone, but they felt as if a reviving breeze had passed over them, and when they went back to their mother's room it was with serene faces. If Charlotte swallowed hard at a lump in her throat, and Celia lingered an instant behind the rest to pinch the colour back into her cheeks, nobody observed it. Perhaps each was too occupied with acting his own light-hearted part. Somehow the minutes slipped away, and soon the travellers were at the door.

Into Mrs. Birch's face, also, the colour had returned, summoned there, it may be, not only by the doctor's stimulating draught, but by the insistence of her own will.

"Good-by! good-by! God be with you all!" murmured Mr. Birch, breaking with difficulty away from Justin's frantic hug.

Mrs. Birch, on Lansing's arm, had gone down the steps to the carriage. The father followed, surrounded by an eager group. Only Lansing was to go to the train. The others, as they crowded round the carriage door, were incoherently mingling parting messages. Then presently they were left behind, a suddenly quiet, sober group.

Inside the carriage Mrs. Birch, with her hand in her eldest son's, was saying to him things he never forgot, while his father looked steadily out of the window.

"I leave them in your care, dear," she told Lansing, in the quiet, confident tones to which he was used from her. "I could never go, I think, if I hadn't such a strong, brave, trustworthy son to leave in care of the younger ones. Celia will do her part, and do it beautifully, I know, but it's on you I rely."

"I'll do my best," he answered, cheerfully, although he felt, even more than before, the heavy responsibility upon him.

"I know you will. Don't let Celia overdo. She will be so ambitious to run the household economically that she will set herself tasks she's not fit for. See that Jeff keeps steadily at his studies, and be lenient with Justin. He adores you--you can make the year do much for him if you take thought. And with my little Charlotte--be very patient, Lanse. She will miss us most--and show it least."

"I doubt that," thought Lanse, but aloud he said, "We'll all hang together, mother, you may count on that. We have our differences and our, eccentricities, but we've a lot of family spirit, and no one of us is going to sacrifice alone while the rest fail to take notice. And you're going to know all that goes on. We've planned to take turns writing so that at least every other day a letter will start for New Mexico."

"And if anything should go wrong?"

"Nothing will," asserted Lansing.

"That you don't know, dear," said the gentle voice, not quite so steadily as before. "If anything should come we must know."

"I'll remember," he promised, reluctantly, his hand under pressure from hers. But inwardly he vowed, "Anything short of real trouble you'll not know, little mother. Your children are stronger than you now, and they can bear some things for you."

At the train it took all Lansing's determination, sturdy fellow though he was, to keep up his cheerful front. The colour had ebbed away from Mrs. Birch's face once more, and as she put up her arms to her tall son, in the little state-room, she seemed to him all at once so small and frail that he could not endure to see her go away from them all, facing even the remote possibility that in the new land she might fail to find again her old vigour.

It had to be done, however. Lansing received her clinging good-by, whispered in her ear something which would have been unintelligible to any but a mother's intuition, so choky was his voice, gripped his father's hand with both his own, turned and smiled back at the two as he pulled open the door, and swung off the train just as it began to move.

He raced away over the streets to take a trolley-car for home, having dismissed the carriage, and craving nothing so much as a long walk in the cool September night.

At home he found everybody gone to bed except Celia, who met him at the door. She smiled at him, but he could see that she had been crying. Although he had carried home a heavy heart, he braced himself to begin his task of keeping the family cheered up.

"Off all right!" he announced, in a casual tone, as if he had just sent away the guests of a week. "Splendid train, jolly state-room, porter one of the 'Yassir, yassir' kind. Judge and Mrs. Van Camp were taking the same train as far as Chicago. That will do a lot toward making things pleasant to start with."

"I'm so glad!" Celia agreed. "How did mother get off? Did her strength keep up?"

"Pretty well--better than I'd have thought possible after all the fuss of that last hour. The new doctor braced her up in good shape. He seems all right. Didn't you like the way he acted? Neither like an old family physician nor a new johnny-jump-up; just quiet and cool and pleasant. Glad he lives next door. I mean to know him."

Lansing was turning out lights as he talked, looking after window fastenings, and examining things generally. Celia watched him from her place on the bottom stair. He was approaching her with the intention of putting out the hall light and joining her to proceed up-stairs, when he stopped still, wheeled, and made for the back of the hall, where the cellar stairs began.

"I'm forgetting the furnace!" he cried.

"It's all right," Celia assured him. "Jeff took care of it. He says that's his work, since you're to be away all day."

"Think he can manage it?"

"Of course he can. The way to please Jeff is to give him responsibility. He's old enough, and even having to look after such small matters regularly will help to develop him."

Lansing laughed; then, extinguishing the light, he came up to her on the stair, and putting his arm about her shoulders, began to ascend slowly with her.

"Shouldering your cares already, aren't you? Got to keep us all straight, and develop all our characters. Poor girl, you'll have a hard tussle!"

"I'm afraid I shall. Do you go to work at the shops in the morning?"

"Yes. Breakfast at six. Did you tell Delia?"

"Yes, but I'm going to let her go afterward. I arranged with her, when father first told us, to stay just till they had gone, and then leave things to me. I can't be too busy from now on, and I don't want to wait a day to begin."

"Wise girl. Sorry, though, that I have to get you up every morning so early. Couldn't you leave things ready so I could manage for myself about breakfast, somehow?"

"No, indeed! If I'm to have a day-labourer for a brother, I shall see that he has a good hot breakfast and the heartiest kind of a lunch in his pail every-day."

"You're the right sort!" murmured Lansing, patting his sister's shoulder as he paused with her in front of her door. "I must admit I shall prefer the hot breakfast. Better sleep late to-morrow morning, though."

"I shall be up when you are," Celia declared.

"Look here, little girl," said Lansing, speaking soberly in the darkness. "You know you haven't got this household on your shoulders all alone. It's a partnership affair, and don't you forget it. Now, good night, and take care you sleep like a top."

Celia held him tight for a minute, and answered bravely:

"You're a dear boy, and a great comfort."

Lansing tiptoed away to his own room, farther down the hall, feeling a strong sense of relief that the determination of the young substitute heads of the house to begin the new regime without a preliminary hour of wailing had been successfully carried through.

"We've got the worst over," he thought, as he fell asleep. "Once fairly started, it won't be so bad. Celia's clear grit, that's sure."

Alone in her room, Celia had it out with herself, and spent a wakeful night. But she brought a cheerful face to Lansing's early breakfast, and when the younger members of the family came down later she was ready for them with the sunshine they had dreaded not to find.

Everybody spent a busy day. Jeff and Justin went off to school. Charlotte announced with meekness that she was ready for whatever work Celia might find for her, and was given various rooms up-stairs to sweep and dust, her sister being confident that vigorous manual labour would be the best tonic for a mind dispirited.

As for Celia herself, she dismissed Delia, the maid of all work, with a kindly farewell and the letters of recommendation her mother had prepared, and plunged eagerly into business. She was a born manager, and loved many of the details of housework, particularly the baking and brewing, and she was soon enthusiastically employed in putting the small kitchen to rights.

At noon Charlotte and the boys were served with a light luncheon, with the promise of greater joys to come, and by five in the afternoon the house was filled with the delightful odours of successful cookery.

At that hour Charlotte, whose labours had been enlarged by herself to cover a thorough overhauling of the entire house--such tasks being her special aversion, and therefore to be discharged without mitigation on this first day of self-sacrifice--wandered disconsolately into the kitchen with broom and dust-pan, looking sadly weary. She gazed with envious eyes at her sister, flying about in a big apron, with sleeves rolled up, her cheeks like carnations, her eyes bright with triumph.

"Well, you do start in with vim," the younger sister observed, dropping into a chair with a long sigh.

"Yes; and the work has gone better than I had hoped," declared Celia, whisking a tinful of plump rolls into the oven. "It's really fun."

"I'm glad you like it."

"Poor child," said Celia, pausing to glance at the dejected figure in the chair, its dark curls a riot of disorder, a smudge of black upon its forehead, and its pinafore disreputable with frequent use as a duster, "I gave you too much to do! Didn't I hear you in Delia's room? You needn't have touched that to-day."

"Wanted to get through with it. Delia may be a good cook, but she left a mess of a closet up-stairs. Please give me one of those warm cookies. I'm so used up and hungry I can't wait for supper."

"Justin came in half an hour ago so famished there wouldn't have been a cookie left if I hadn't filled him up with a banana. By the way, I sent him down cellar after some peach pickles, and I haven't seen him since. I'll run down and get some. I've hot rolls and honey for supper, and Lanse always wants peach pickles with that combination."

Celia took a bowl from the cupboard, opened the cellar door and started down, turning on the second step to say:

"Go and take a bath and put on a fresh frock; you won't feel half so tired. Wear the scarlet waist, will you? I want things particularly bright and cheery to-night, for I know Lanse will come home fagged with the new work. Mrs. Laurier sent over some red carnations. I've put them in the middle of the table; they look ever so pretty. I'm going to----"

What she intended to do Celia never told, if she ever afterward remembered. What she did do was to slip upon the third step of the steep stairway, and, with no outcry whatever, go plunging heavily to the bottom.