Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter III
 

"Celia--Celia--are you hurt?" cried Charlotte, and dashed down the stairs.

There was no answer. With trembling hands she felt for her sister's head. It lay close against the cellar wall, and she instantly understood that Celia must be unconscious. But whether there might be more to be feared than unconsciousness she could not tell in the dark. Her first thought was to get a light, the next that she must have help at once.

She rushed up the stairs, calling Jeff and Justin, but neither boy was to be found. Then she ran to the telephone, with the idea of summoning one of the suburban physicians, but turned aside from this purpose with the further realisation that first of all Celia must be brought up from the cold, dark place in which she lay, and restored to consciousness.

She ran to the front door to summon the nearest neighbour, and she remembered then, with relief, that the nearest neighbour was Doctor Churchill, the young physician who had been called in to see her mother the evening before.

She flew across the narrow lawn between her own house and that where the new doctor had set up his office, and rang imperatively. The door opened, and Doctor Churchill, hat and case in hand, evidently on his way to a patient, stood before her.

What he thought of the figure before him, with its riotous curly black hair, brilliant eyes, pale dark cheeks, dusty pinafore, a singular smudge upon the forehead, and sleeves rolled up to the elbows, nobody would have known from his manner, which instantly expressed a friendly concern.

Charlotte could only gasp, "Oh, come--quick!"

He followed her, stopping to ask no questions. At the open cellar door Charlotte stood aside to let him pass.

"Down there--my sister!" she breathed.

"Bring a light, please," said the doctor, and he disappeared down the stairs. Charlotte lighted a little kitchen lamp and came after him. He bade her stand by while he made his first brief examination.

"I think the blow on her head isn't serious," he said, presently, "but I can't tell where else she may be hurt till I get her up-stairs."

He was strong, and he lifted Celia as if she had been a child, and carried her easily up the steep stairs.

Charlotte led the way to a wide couch in the living-room. As Celia was laid gently upon it she opened her eyes.

Half an hour later, John Lansing Birch, in his oldest clothes and wearing a rather disreputable soft hat pulled down over his forehead, with his hands and face excessively dirty and a lunch-pail on his arm, pushed open the kitchen door. "Phew-w! Something's burning!" he shouted. "Celia--Charlotte--where are you all? Great Scott, what a smudge!"

He strode across the room and lifted from the stove a kettle of potatoes, from which the water had boiled away some minutes before.

"First returns from the amateur cooking district!" he muttered, glancing critically about the kitchen.

Something else in the way of overcooked viands seemed to assail his nostrils, and he jerked open the oven door. A tin of blackened rolls puffed out at him their pungent smoke.

"Well, what--" he was beginning with the natural irritation of the hungry man, who has been anticipating his supper all the way home, and sees it in ruin before his eyes, when Charlotte appeared in the doorway.

"O Lanse!" she cried, and ran to him.

"Well, what is it? Celia got a headache and left you in charge? Everything's burnt up--I can tell you that----"

"Celia is--she's broken her knee!"

"What?"

"She fell down the cellar stairs and----"

"Where is she?" Lunch-pail and hat went down on the floor as Lanse got rid of them and seized Charlotte's arm.

"Up in her room. Doctor Churchill's there. He's sent for Doctor Forester."

"Churchill--Forester," repeated Lanse, as if dazed. "Poor old girl--is she much hurt?"

"She's broken her knee, I tell you," Charlotte repeated. "Of course she's much hurt. She's suffering dreadfully. She hit her head, too. She was unconscious at first. I was all alone with her."

Lanse started for the door, then hesitated. "Shall I go up?"

"The doctor wants to see you as soon as you are home. He's waiting for Doctor Forester. He's made Celia as comfortable as he can, but wants our regular doctor here, he says, before he does up her knee. I don't see why. I wanted him to fix it himself."

"That's all right," said Lanse. "Doctors always do that kind of thing--the honourable ones do. It's better to have Doctor Forester see it, too. Did you get him? Will he be here right off?"

"The doctor got him. He'll be here soon."

"Go tell Doctor Churchill I'm here, will you? Maybe I'd better not see Celia till I'm cleaned up a bit. She's not used to me like this. Poor little girl! poor little girl!" he groaned, as he made his rapid way to the bath-room. "The cellar stairs--they're dark and steep enough, but how could a light-footed girl like Celia get a fall like that? And father and mother--how are we going to fix it with them?"

In the midst of his splashing and scrubbing he heard Jeff and Justin come shouting in for supper and Charlotte hushing them and telling them the news. The next instant Jeff was upon him.

"Say, but this is awful, Lanse! She was getting up a rattling good dinner, too--been at it all day. Her one idea was to please you, your first day at the shops. Been up to see her? Charlotte says I'd better not go yet--nor Just. Just's all broken up, poor youngster! Says Celia told him to go after the pickles, and he forgot it. If he'd gone she wouldn't have got her tumble. What'll father and mother say? What are we going to do, anyhow? Second Fiddle's no good on earth in the kitchen; she couldn't boil an egg. Say, breaking your knee-pan's no joke. Price Williston did it a year ago August, and he hasn't got good use of it yet,--'fraid he never will----"

"Oh, let up on that,"--Lanse cut him short,--"and don't mention it again to anybody. Doctor Forester and Churchill will fix her up all right, only it's an awful shame it should have happened. I'm going up to see Doctor Churchill."

At the foot of the stairs he met that person coming down, shook hands with him eagerly, and listened to a brief and concise account of his sister's injury. As it ended, Doctor Forester's automobile rolled up to the door.

"Did the five and a half miles in precisely twenty minutes," said Doctor Forester, as he came up the steps, watch in hand; "slow speed within limits and all. Lanse, my boy, this is too bad. Doctor Churchill--very glad to see you again. Decided to settle out here, eh? Well, on some accounts I think you're wise. Charlotte, little girl, cheer up! There are worse things than a fractured patella--I believe that's what you called the injury, Doctor Churchill."

In such genial fashion the surgeon and old friend of the family made his entry, bringing with him that atmosphere which men of his profession carry about with them, making the people who have been anxiously awaiting them feel that here is somebody who knows how to take things coolly, and is not upset at the notion of a broken bone.

He moved deliberately up-stairs toward Celia's room, listening to the younger physician's statement of the conditions under which he had been called, turning at the door to smile and nod back at Charlotte, who watched him from the top of the staircase with serious eyes.

At the end of what seemed like a long period of time the two physicians came down-stairs together, meeting Lanse at the foot.

"Well, sir," said Doctor Forester, "so far, so good. Celia is as comfortable as such cases usually are an hour or two afterward, which is not saying much from her point of view, though a good deal from ours. She has a long siege of inactivity before her to put that knee into a strong condition, but it will not be a great while before she can be about on crutches, I hope. Doctor Churchill, at my insistence, has put up the knee in the best possible shape, and I am going to leave it in his care. I'll drop in now and then, but the doctor is right beside you, and I've full confidence in him. I knew his father, and I know enough about him to be sure that you're all right in his hands."

Lanse drew a long breath of relief. "I'm very thankful it's no worse," he said. "But, Doctor Forester, what are we to do about father and mother? We can't tell them----"

"Tell them! No!" said Doctor Forester, with decision. "I wouldn't have your mother told under any consideration, so long as the girl does well. She would be back here on the next train and then we'd have something worse than a broken patella on our hands. If there is any way by which you can let your father know I should do that."

"I can, I think," said Lanse, thoughtfully. "We're to send them general-delivery letters until they're settled, and father will get those at the post-office and read them first."

"As to your other problems--housekeeping and all that, over which Celia is several times more worried than over her own condition--can you figure those out?"

"Yes, somehow."

"Good! Go up and tell her so. She thinks the house is going to destruction without her. Good chance for the second violin. Too bad that clever little orchestra will have to drop its practice for a few weeks. I meant to run in some evening soon and hear you play. Well, I'm overdue at the hospital. Good-by, Lanse--Doctor Churchill. Keep me posted concerning the knee."

Then the busy surgeon, who had put off several engagements to come out to the suburban town and look after the family of his old friend, whom he had known and loved since their college days, was off in his runabout, his chauffeur getting promptly under as much headway as the law allows, and rushing him out of sight in a hurry.

Lanse turned to Doctor Churchill, who stood upon the porch beside him, hat and case in hand.

"I'm mighty thankful you were so near," he said.

"Doctor Forester hasn't given you much choice," said the other man, smiling. "I did my best to give you the chance of having some one of the physicians you know here in town take charge of the case, but he insisted on my keeping it. I should like, however, to be sure that you are satisfied. You don't know me at all, you know."

The steady eyes were looking keenly at Lanse, and he felt the sincerity in the words. He returned the scrutiny without speaking for an instant; then he put out his hand.

"Somehow I feel as if I do," he said, slowly. "Anyhow, I'm going to know you, and I'm glad of the chance."

"Thank you." Doctor Churchill shook hands warmly and went down the steps. "I will come over for a minute about ten o'clock," he added, "to make sure that Miss Birch is resting as quietly as we can hope for to-night."

Lanse watched the broad-shouldered, erect figure cross the lawn and disappear in the office door of the old house near by; then he turned.

"Well, we're in a sweet scrape now, that's certain," he said gloomily to himself, as he marched up-stairs.

At the top he encountered his young brother Justin. That twelve-year-old stood awaiting him, his face so disconsolate that in spite of himself Lanse smiled.

"Cheer up, youngster," he said. "It's pretty tough, but as Doctor Forester says, it might be worse. Want to go in with me and see sister a minute?"

But Justin got hold of his arm and held him back. "Lanse, I've got to tell you something," he begged. "Please come here, in your room a minute."

Lanse followed, wondering. Justin, although a healthy and happy boy enough, was apt to take things seriously, and sometimes needed to be joked out of singular notions. In Lanse's room Justin carefully locked the door.

"It's all my fault, Celia's knee," he said, going straight to the point, as was his way. His voice shook a little, but he went steadily on. "She sent me down cellar after pickles, and I sat on the top of the stairs finishing up a banana before I went. I've been down there to look, and--and the banana skin was there--all mashed. It was what did it."

He choked, and turned away to the window.

"You left a banana skin on those stairs?" Lanse half-shouted.

"Yes."

"Right there, at the top--when Delia almost broke her neck more than once going down those stairs only last winter, just because they're so steep and narrow?"

Just nodded.

"And you fell on a banana skin once yourself, and wanted to thrash the fellow who left it!"

Just's chin sank lower and lower.

Lanse eyed him a moment, struggling with a desire to seize the boy and punish him tremendously. But as his quick wrath cooled a trifle in his effort to control himself and act wisely, something about Just's brave acknowledgment, where silence would have covered the whole thing, appealed to him. The thought of the way the absent father and mother had met every confession of his own that he could remember in a life of prank-playing softened the words which came next to his lips.

"Well, it's pretty bad," he said, in a deep voice of regret. "I don't wonder it breaks you up. Such a little thing to do so much mischief--and so easy to have avoided it all. I reckon you'll take care of your banana skins after this. But I like the way you own up, Just, and so will Celia. That's something. You haven't been a sneak in addition to being thoughtless. It would have been hard to forgive you if I had found it out while you kept still. It's pretty hard as it is," he could not help adding, as his imagination pictured Celia spending her winter as a cripple.

Just said not a word, but the outline of his profile against the fading light at the window was so suggestive of boyish despair that the elder brother walked over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"It gives you a chance to make it up to her in every way you can," he said. "There are a lot of things you can do for her, and I shall expect you to try to square the account a little."

"I will! Oh, I will!" cried poor Just, who had longed for his mother in this crisis, and had found facing the elder brother, whom he both admired and feared, harder than anything he had ever had to do. "I'll do anything in the world for her, if she'll only forgive me."

"She'll forgive you, for she's made that way. It's forgiving yourself that can't be done."

"I never shall."

"Don't. If I thought you would, I'd thrash you on the spot," said Lanse, grimly, sure that a wholesome remorse was to be encouraged. Then he relented sufficiently to say in a tone considerably less severe:

"Go and wash up, and begin your good resolutions by getting down and seeing to the kitchen fire. It's undoubtedly burnt itself out by this time. There's probably no dinner for anybody, but we can't mind little things like that to-night."

He went to Celia's room at last, feeling many cares upon him, a sensation which an empty, stomach did not tend to relieve. He found his sister able to give him a very pale-faced but courageous smile, and to receive his earnest sympathy with a faint:

"Never mind, dear. Don't worry. It might have been worse."

"That seems to be everybody's motto, so I'll accept it. We'll take courage, and you shall have us all on our knees, since yours are laid up for repairs."

"You haven't had your dinner, Lanse," murmured Celia. She was suffering severely, but she could not relax anything of her anxiety for the family welfare.

"Oh, I forgot there was such a thing as dinner in the world!" cried Charlotte, and was hurrying to the door when Celia called her back. "Please wash that smudge off your face," she whispered, and covered her eyes.