Book II. The Churchill Latch-String
Chapter X
 

"Well, I consider myself pretty lucky to have secured four sections all together on this train," said Doctor Forester, with satisfaction, as he and Andrew Churchill and Frederic retired to the smoking-room while their berths were being made up.

"Why, what are we slowing down for out here?" Frederic glanced out of the window. "This is West Weston, isn't it? Yes--we're off again. Some official, probably."

A door slammed and a tall figure hurried through the passage, looked in at the smoking-room, and turned back. "Hullo!" said a familiar voice, and Jeff's laughing face beamed in upon them.

"Well, well, did you hold up the train?" they cried.

"Thought you'd come along, too, did you?" asked Doctor Forester. "Good! Glad to have you. I thought it was odd you weren't round to see us off. Go and surprise the girls. They're just back there, waiting for their berths."

Jeff hurried eagerly away. A moment later Evelyn, standing in the aisle beside Charlotte, felt a touch on her arm. She looked up, and met Jeff's eyes smiling down at her.

"Did you think I'd let you go like that?" he said in her ear.

"I'm afraid I thought you had," she admitted, grown happy in an instant.

"You see, I had an appointment with a man in West Weston on some work I've been doing for him. After I heard this plan of Doctor Forester's I had only just time to catch a train and get out there. He kept me so long I missed the train that would have brought me back in time to see you off, so I telephoned Chester Agnew to get the flowers for me and write a card. That was when I was afraid I might not make connections at all. But when this man I went to see--he's a railroad man--heard what train I'd wanted to make, he offered to stop it for me. Then it just came into my mind that I'd join the party, even without an invitation. Tell me you're not sorry--won't you?"

"Of course I'm not." She allowed him one of her frank looks, and he smiled back at her.

"We'll have a great day to-morrow," he prophesied. "They'll put on a Pullman with an observation rear in the morning, and if the weather holds we'll camp out there for the day. We don't get into Washington till three in the afternoon, and the scenery all the way down will be fine. I suppose I'll have to go off now and let you be tucked up. Please get up bright and early in the morning, will you?"

It was a merry party which entered the dining-car the next morning the moment the first summons came. The day had risen bright and clear as a June day could be, and everybody was in a hurry to get out on the observation platform.

Doctor Forester, sitting opposite Charlotte and Andy at one table, glanced across at the rest of the party, on the opposite side of the car, and said in a low voice:

"This is literally a case of speeding the parting guest, isn't it? Captain John Rayburn got you into something of a scrape when he sent you that copper inscription over your fireplace, didn't he? He didn't realise that the 'ornaments' it brought you in November would have to be conveyed away by force in June. It was the only way to give you an interval when you should, for the first time in the history of your married life, have no guests at all."

Charlotte and Andrew were staring at him in amazement.

"Uncle Ray?" cried Charlotte, under her breath. "Was he the one? Did you know it all the time, Doctor Forester?"

"Yes, I knew it all the time" he owned. "In fact, Captain Rayburn wrote to me after he had heard of the fireplace. You sent him a photograph of it, didn't you?"

"So we did," Doctor Churchill answered. "We took it the day the fireplace was finished, I'd forgotten it completely, but I remember now. We thought he'd be interested, because something he once said about the ideal fireplace had put the idea into our heads of collecting the stones ourselves. So he wrote all the way from Denmark to have that made?"

"He had it made there, and wrote me for the measurements. He expressed it to me, and I repacked it and sent it to you," chuckled Doctor Forester. "He was determined to puzzle you completely."

"He certainly succeeded. Did he give you leave to tell at this particular date?"

"It was left to my discretion after the first six months, provided you had had any guests. I thought the time was ripe, and you'd earned your diploma. All that worries me is that you may find a fresh instalment of ornaments when you get back. The motto strikes me as a sort of uncanny provider of them." The others laughed. Charlotte glanced across at Evelyn.

"It has paid," she said softly. Andy nodded. "It certainly has. All the thanks we shall need will be in Thorne Lee's letter, after he has seen his little sister."

"I rather think it's paid with the others, too," Doctor Forester added. "Anyhow, you've certainly done your part."

Out on the back of the train Charlotte found Lucy at her elbow. She looked into the girl's face, and discovered the blue eyes to be full of tears. "Why, Lu, dear!" she said, softly.

"Mrs. Churchill"--Lucy was almost crying--"I just can't bear to think it's the last day! I wish--oh, I wish--I lived with you!"

"Do you, dear? That's very pleasant," and Charlotte drew her close, feeling more warmth toward Lucy than the girl had yet inspired. "But don't be blue."

"I can't help it. It's almost ten o'clock now, and at three we shall be going away from you all."

"No, you won't," Charlotte whispered in her ear. "It was to have been a surprise, but I think you'll enjoy it more to know. Only don't tell Evelyn. Doctor Forester has telegraphed your mother and received her answer. You're not to go till to-morrow night at six, and we're to have twenty-eight hours together in Washington."

"Oh! Oh!" Lucy almost screamed, so that the others looked around at her and smiled. "Oh, I do think Doctor Forester and you are just the nicest people I ever knew!"

Doctor Forester's secret was not very well kept, after all. Lucy whispered the good news to Jeff, and he could not forbear telling it to Evelyn just as the train was drawing out of Baltimore. His own spirits had been drooping as time went on, but the reprieve of a day sent them up with a bound.

"The question is what we shall do with our time," said Doctor Forester, looking round at his party in the hotel parlour, where he had taken them. "Speak up, everybody. We can divide our forces if necessary. Is there anybody here who hasn't been here before?"

Lucy and Randolph seemed to be the only ones not more or less familiar with the capital. On hearing this, Doctor Forester declared that he should himself take them to as many of the most interesting places as possible.

"Whatever we do to-night, I vote for the trip down the Potomac to Mount Vernon in the morning," said Doctor Churchill, promptly. "We'll get back in plenty of time for Evelyn's train, and there certainly isn't a better way to put in the time than that."

This was heartily agreed upon, and the remainder of the day was used in various ways, not more than two of which, it may be remarked, were alike. Charlotte smiled meaningly at her husband as she watched Celia and Fred Forester, having proceeded half-way across Lafayette Park with Jeff and Evelyn, leave the two at a cross-path, and walk briskly off by themselves.

"That's certainly a sure thing, isn't it?" said he.

"No question of it, I think."

"Are you satisfied?"

"Perfectly. I haven't seen very much of Fred since he--and we--grew up, but if he's his father's son----"

"He is, I think," said Doctor Churchill, confidently. "And the doctor likes it, I'm sure. There's satisfaction in his face whenever he looks at them. In fact, I can't help thinking he planned both the house party and this trip with a view of bringing them together all he could."

"Dear Celia--if she's just half as happy as she deserves to be----"

"She will be. She loves to travel, hasn't had half enough of it, and he'll take her round the world. I haven't had a chance to tell you that he's going to India in the fall, in some important capacity. He received the appointment just yesterday."

"Really?" Charlotte looked thoughtful. "Celia--in India! Andy----"

"Does that startle you? I don't imagine it's for any long stay, but as a matter of some scientific investigations. Here, don't go to looking sober. I shall be sorry I told you."

Charlotte smiled and answered brightly that it was not a thing to look sober over. Nevertheless, her thoughts were much with her sister. The next morning, as the party found their places on the little steamer which was to take them down the river to Mount Vernon, she found herself watching Celia more closely than she had meant to do, in the anxiety to discover if the trip to India was really imminent.

"Isn't Mount Vernon a fascinating spot?" asked Evelyn, as she and Jeff walked up the long, ascending road from pier to house together. "I've never forgotten my first visit. I lived in Washington's times in my dreams for weeks afterward. I never saw it at this season of the year. The garden must be in its prime now."

"Let's go and see it first," responded Jeff, quickly. "I don't remember much about it. My two visits here have all been spent in the house."

So while the others rambled through the quaint and interesting rooms, Jeff and Evelyn made their way to the box-bordered paths of Lady Washington's garden, and wandered about there in the warm June sunshine. It grew so hot after a while that they betook themselves to the lawn and banks overlooking the river, and sat there talking, as they watched the waters of the Potomac.

"What are you going to do when you get home?" asked Jeff, somewhat suddenly.

"Put our rooms in order," Evelyn responded, promptly.

"All by yourself?"

"We live in the same house with a lovely little woman, the wife of a former Confederate general. I shall be with her until Thorne comes."

"I suppose you've lots of friends of your own age?" Jeff observed.

"Not as many as I ought to have. You see, I've lived very quietly with my brother for six years now, except for the time I spent at a girls' school in Baltimore. Since I came home from there I've not been very strong, and Thorne has kept me very quiet, until he sent me North to school last fall."

"You're so well now you'll be going about a lot. Any young people in the house with you? It's a boarding-house, isn't it?"

"Yes, a small one. There are no young people in it except Mrs. Livingstone's son."

"How old a fellow?"

"Twenty-one, I believe."

"I suppose you're great friends with him?" said Jeff suspiciously.

Evelyn looked at him quickly and laughed, flushing a little. "Why, we're naturally very good friends," she said.

"Evelyn," said Jeff, sitting up straight again, "I'm absolutely bursting to tell you some news, and I can't seem to lead up to it. I've got to bring it out flat. The only thing I'm anxious about is whether it's going to be as good news to you as it is to me."

She looked at him with a quickening of her pulses, his expression had become so very eager. "Please don't keep me in suspense," she begged.

"Well"--Jeff did his best to speak coolly, as if the matter were really of no great importance, after all--"you know it's been a question with me all along as to just what I was going to do when I got out of college. I wanted tremendously to get to work, and a lot of the usual things didn't seem to appeal to me at all. I haven't enough of a scientific turn to go into any of the engineering courses. I didn't care for a mercantile berth. In fact, while my brother Lanse has had his future cut out for him since he was fourteen, and Just, at sixteen, is body and soul in for electrical engineering, I've been the family problem. Father's had the sense not to assert his wishes for a moment. He saw from the start, I suppose, that the family traditions were not for me--I could never begin by studying law and end by wearing the ermine, as a lot of my grandfathers and uncles have done. So--"

Jeff paused and drew a long breath. He had been looking off down the river as he talked, but now he brought his eyes back to Evelyn's face, and his spirits leaped exultantly as he saw with what eager attention she was listening.

"You really care to hear all this, don't you?" he asked, happily, and went on before she could do more than nod. "Well, the short of it is that through Doctor Forester I got to know a friend of his who is a railroad magnate--the real thing--and to please the doctor he seemed to take an interest in me. He's offered me a position in one of his offices, provided I take a year to study practical railroading first. Of course I'm only too glad to do that. And now I'm coming to the point of the whole thing. When my year is up, that office where I'm to begin to work up in the railroad business is"--he paused dramatically, watching his hearer's face, as his own, in spite of himself, broke into a smile--"in your own city, Evelyn Lee!"

If he had had any lingering doubt that this might not be as good news to Evelyn as he wanted it to be, his fears were put to rout.

"O Jeff!" she said, quite breathlessly, and the happy colour surged into her face. "Why, that's almost too good to be true!"

"Is it? You're a trump for saying so. Jupiter! I feel like standing up and shouting. The thing has been sure since that afternoon I went to Weston, but I didn't mean to tell you of it in this crazy boy fashion, but write it to you quite calmly after you got home. But--it wouldn't keep."

"I shouldn't think it would. Besides, it's so much nicer to hear it now, when it makes it----"

She stopped abruptly, and jumped up. Jeff leaped to his feet also.

"Makes it--what?" he asked, eagerly.

"Why--it's such a pleasant place to hear good news in."

"That wasn't what you were going to say."

"We ought to go back to the house." She began to move slowly away. Jeff followed.

"I'd like to hear the end of that sentence," he urged, as they walked up the grassy slope to the house in the clear sunlight.

She laughed a little, but shook her head. She was looking very sweet in her brown travelling dress, her russet hair shaded by a wide brown hat with captivating curving outlines. Jeff looked at her dainty profile and realised that the hour for separation was coming fast.

"Anyhow, I know what I wish you were going to say,"--he was striding close by her side--"and I can certainly say it if you can't. Telling you that I'm coming to work near you next year makes it easier for me to say good-by now. And that's--well--that's going to be a bit tough."

Evelyn walked on a few steps in silence. Then she turned and spoke softly over her shoulder. There was not a touch of coquetry in her simple manner, yet it had an engaging quality all its own.

"That's what I wanted to say, Jeff."

"Thank you," he responded. "I'll not forget that," and his tone told that he appreciated the little concession.

It seemed but the briefest possible space of time before they had gone over the house, had been hurried back to the landing by emphatic toots from the small excursion steamer, and were off for the city again. The trip back up the river was finished also before it seemed hardly begun. All too soon for anybody the three young travellers were on their train, and Doctor Churchill and Fred Forester had taken leave of them and were out on the platform, ready to jump off. Jeff had lingered till the last.

"Good-by, Lucy! Good-by, Ran!" he said, and gave each a hearty grip and smile. Then his hand clasped Evelyn's, his eyes said things his lips would not have ventured to speak, and his hand wrung hers with a fervour which made it sting. Then he went away without a backward look, as if he must get the parting quickly over.

Outside the train, however, he turned with the others, and as the train rolled slowly out of the station, and Evelyn strained her eyes to see the group of her friends waving affectionately to her from the platform, the last face upon which her gaze rested wore the strong, loyal, eloquent look of Jefferson Birch.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Home again," said Andrew Churchill, as he set his latch-key in the door of the brick house four days later. "Fieldsy must be away, or she would have answered."

They hurried through the house. It was in absolute order, but empty. On the office desk was a note in the housekeeper's awkward hand:

"If you should come to-night, I've had to go to take care of a sick woman, will be back in the morning, you will find everything cooked up."

Doctor Churchill read it with a laugh. "Charlotte, we're actually alone in our own house. Let's run over to the other house and embrace them all round, and then come back and see how it feels over here."

So they went across the lawn.

"We shall be delighted to have you stay with us, my dears," said Mrs. Birch, after the greetings.

"Mother Birch," said her son-in-law, with air affectionate hand on her shoulder, "not even you can charm us out of our own house to-night. Do you know that we're all alone--that not even Fieldsy is over there? Charlotte's going to get dinner, and I'm to help her with the clearing up, and then we're going to sit on our porch. Of course we shall be constantly looking down the street for a messenger boy with a telegram announcing the coming of our next guest, but until he comes--"

Everybody laughed at the expressive breath he drew.

"Go, you dear children," said Mrs. Birch, and the rest joined in warmly.

"I'll sit on our doorstone with a rifle, and pick off the visitors as they come up the street!" cried Just, as the two went off.

"Don't shoot to kill!" Doctor Churchill called back, gaily. Then the door closed on the pair.

When the happy little dinner was over, the dishes put away, and Charlotte had slipped on a cool frock in which to spend the warm summer evening, she went out to find her husband lying comfortably in the hammock behind the vines, his hands clasped under his head. The twilight was just slipping into evening, and the breath of unseen roses was sweet upon the shadows.

Charlotte drew a chair close to her husband's side and sat down.

"After all, Andy," said she, as they fell to talking of the past year, "I wouldn't have had it different. One thing is certain--out of our three guests we entertained at least one angel unawares."

"Yes, and I like to think that perhaps the others are none the worse for staying with us," Andrew Churchill answered, thoughtfully. "I'm glad we did it, glad it's over, and shall be glad to have other people come to see us--by and by. But--I want a good long honeymoon first. Is that your mind?"

"Yes," she answered fervently, smiling.