Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter IV
 

Coming down-stairs from Celia's room, Dr. Andrew Churchill made his way through what had now become somewhat familiar ground to the little kitchen. As he looked in at the door he beheld a slim figure in a big Turkey-red apron, bending over a chicken which lay, in a state of semi-dissection, upon the table. As he watched for a moment without speaking, Charlotte herself spoke, without turning round.

"You horrid thing!" she said, tragically, to the chicken. "I hate you--all slippery and bloody. Ugh! Why won't your old windpipe come out? How anybody can eat you who has got you ready I don't know!"

"May I bother you for a pitcher of hot water?" asked an even voice from the doorway.

Charlotte turned with a start. Her cheeks, already flushed, took on a still ruddier hue.

"Yes, if you'll please help yourself," she answered, curtly, turning back to her work. "I am--engaged."

"I see. A congenial task?"

"Very!" Charlotte's tone was expressive.

"Did I gather that the fowl's windpipe was the special cause of your distress?" asked the even voice again.

Charlotte faced round once more.

"Doctor Churchill," she said, "I never cleaned a chicken in my life. I don't know what I'm doing at all, only that I've been doing it for almost an hour, and it isn't done. I presume it's because I take so much time washing my hands."

She smiled in spite of herself as the doctor's hearty laugh filled the little kitchen.

"I think I can appreciate your feelings," he remarked.

He walked over to the table. "Get a good hold on the offending windpipe, shut your eyes and pull."

"I'm afraid of doing something wrong."

"You won't. The trachea of the domestic fowl was especially designed for the purpose, only the necessary attachment for getting a firm grip on it was accidentally omitted."

"It certainly was." Charlotte tugged away energetically for a moment, and drew out the windpipe successfully. The doctor regarded the bird with a quizzical expression.

"I should advise you to cut up the chicken and make a fricassee of it," he observed.

"I want to roast it. I've got the stuffing all ready." She indicated a bowlful of macerated bread-crumbs mixed with milk and butter, and liberally seasoned with pepper.

"I see. But I'm a little, just a little, afraid you may have trouble in getting the stuffing to stay in while the chicken is roasting. You see--" He paused.

"I suppose I've cut it open too much."

"Rather--unless you're a very good amateur surgeon. And even then--"

"I'm no surgeon--I'm no cook--I never shall be! I--don't want to be!" Charlotte burst out, suddenly, beginning to cut up the chicken with vigorous slashes, mostly in the wrong places.

"Yes, you do. Hold on a minute! That joint isn't there: it's farther down. There. See? Once get the anatomy of this bird in your mind, and it won't bother you a bit to cut it up. Pardon me, Miss Charlotte, but I know you do want to be a good cook--because you want to be an accomplished woman."

Charlotte put down her knife, washed her hands with furious haste, got out a pitcher, poured it full of hot water, and handed it silently to Doctor Churchill without looking at him. He glanced from it to her with amusement as he received it "Thank you," he said, politely, and walked away.

When he came down-stairs fifteen minutes later, he found the slim figure in the Turkey-red apron waiting for him at the bottom. As the girl looked up at him he noted, as he had done many times already in the short two weeks he had known her, the peculiar, gipsy-like beauty of her face. It was a beauty of which she herself, he had occasion to believe, was absolutely unconscious, and in this he was right.

Charlotte disliked her dark skin, despised her black curls, and considered her vivid colouring a most undesirable inheritance. She admired intensely Celia's blonde loveliness, and lost no chance of privately comparing herself with her sister, to Celia's infinite advantage.

"Doctor Churchill," she said, as he approached her, hat in hand, "I was very rude to you just now. I am--sorry."

She held out her hand. Doctor Churchill took it. Charlotte's thick black lashes swept her cheek, and she did not see the look, half-laughing, half-sympathetic, which rested on her downcast face.

"It's all right," said Doctor Churchill's low, clear voice. "Don't think I fail to understand what it means for the cares of a household like this to descend upon a girl's shoulders. But I want you to know that I--that they are all immensely pleased with the pluck you are showing. I have seen your sister's lunch tray several times since I have been coming here; it was perfect."

"I burned her toast just this morning," said Charlotte, quickly. "And poached the egg too hard. Lanse says the coffee is better, but--oh, no matter--I'm just discouraged this morning, I--shall learn something some time, perhaps, but----" She turned away impulsively. Doctor Churchill followed her a step or two.

"See here, Miss Charlotte," he said, "how many times have you been out of the house since your sister was hurt?"

"Not at all," owned Charlotte, "except evenings, after everything is done. Then I steal out and run round and round the house in the moonlight, just running it off, you know--or maybe you don't know."

"Yes, I do. Will you do something now if I ask you to very humbly?"

Charlotte looked at him doubtfully. "If you mean go for a walk--which is what doctors always mean, I believe--I haven't time."

Doctor Churchill looked at his watch. "It is half past ten. Is that chicken for luncheon?"

"No, for supper--or dinner--I don't know just what it is we have at night now. I simply began to get it ready this morning because I hadn't the least idea in the world how long it takes to cook a chicken." She was smiling a little at the absurdity of her own words.

"And you didn't want to ask your sister?"

"I meant to surprise her."

"Well, of one thing I am fairly confident," said Doctor Churchill, with gravity. "If you take a run down as far as the old bridge and back, there will still be time to see to the chicken. What is more, by the time you get back, all big obstacles will look like little ones to you. Go, please. I am to be in the office for the next hour, and if the house catches fire I will run over and put it out. I could even undertake to steal in the back door and put coal on the kitchen fire, if it is necessary."

"It won't be."

"Then will you go?"

"Perhaps--to humour you," promised Charlotte.

"Thank you! And remember, please, Miss Charlotte, if you are to do justice to yourself and to your family, you must not plod all the time. Plan to get away every day for an hour or two. Go to see your friends--anything--but don't cultivate 'house nerves' at eighteen."

"I'm older than that," said Charlotte, as she watched him go down the steps. He turned, surprised. "But I shall not tell you how much," said she, and closed the door.

Doctor Churchill went straight through his small bachelor house to the kitchen. Here a tall, thin woman, with sharp eyes and kindly mouth, was energetically kneading bread.

"Mrs. Fields," said he, "I wish you would find it necessary to-morrow morning to run in at that door over there"--he indicated the little back porch of the Birch house--"and borrow something."

Mrs. Fields eyed him as if she thought he had taken leave of his senses. "Me--borrow?" she said. "Doctor Andrew--are you----"

"No, I'm not crazy," the doctor assured her, smiling. "I know it's tremendously against your principles, but never mind the principles, for once--since by ignoring them you can do a kindness. Run in and borrow a cup of sugar or something, and get acquainted."

"Who with? That curly-haired girl with the red cheeks? She don't want my acquaintance."

"She would be immensely grateful for it if it came about naturally. Take over some of your jelly for Miss Birch, if that way suits you better, but get to know Miss Charlotte, and show her a few things about cookery. She's trying to do all the work for the whole family, and she knows very little about it."

"I suspected as much. You haven't told me about 'em, and of course, being a doctor's housekeeper, I'm too well trained to ask."

The doctor smiled, for Mrs. Fields had been housekeeper in his mother's family in the days of his boyhood, and she felt it her right to tell him, now and then, what she thought. She was immensely proud of her own ability to hold her tongue and her curiosity in check.

"So I know only what I've seen. You told me the oldest girl had broke her knee, and that's all you've said. But I see this girl a-hanging dish-towels, and opening the kitchen door to let out the smoke each time she's burned up a batch of something, and I guessed she wasn't what you might call a graduate of one of those cooking-schools."

"You must be a bit tactful," warned the doctor. "The young lady is a trifle sensitive, as is natural, over her inefficiency, but she's very anxious to learn, and there's nobody to teach her. She is too independent to go to the other neighbours, but I've an idea you could be a friend to her."

"She looks pretty notional," Mrs. Fields said, doubtfully. "Shakes out her dust-cloth with her chin in the air----"

"To avoid the dust."

"And pulls down the shades the minute the lamp is lighted----"

"So do you."

"I saw her lock the kitchen door in the face of that Mis' Carter the other day, when she caught sight of her coming up the walk."

"See here, Fieldsy, you've been spying on your neighbours," said Doctor Churchill severely. "You despise that sort of thing yourself, so you mustn't yield to it. Go over and be neighbourly, as nobody knows how better than yourself, but don't judge people by their chins or their curls."

He gave her angular shoulder an affectionate pat, looked straight into her sharp eyes for a moment, until they softened perceptibly, said, "You're all right, you know,"--and went whistling away.

"That's just like your impudence, Andy Churchill," said Mrs. Hepsibah Fields to herself, as she laid her smooth loaves of bread-dough into their tins and proceeded energetically to scrape the board. "You always did have a way with you, wheedling folks into doing what they didn't want to just to please you. Now I've got to go meddling in other people's business and getting snubbed, most likely, just because you're trying to combine friendship and doctoring."

But Mrs. Fields, when her work was done, went to look up her best jelly, as Doctor Churchill had known she would do. And twenty-four hours had not gone by before she had made friends with Charlotte Birch.

It was not hard to make friends with the girl if one went at it aright. Mrs. Fields came in as Charlotte was stirring up gingerbread.

"I don't think much of back-door neighbours," Mrs. Fields said, "but I didn't want to come to the front door with my jelly. I thought maybe your sister would relish my black raspberry."

"That's very kind of you," said Charlotte. "You are--I think I've seen you across the way. Won't you come in?"

"No, thank you. You're busy, and so am I. Yes, I'm Doctor Churchill's housekeeper, and his mother's before that."

The sharp eyes noted with approval, in one swift glance as Charlotte turned away with the jelly, the fact that the little kitchen was in careful order. To be sure, it was four o'clock in the afternoon, an hour when kitchens are supposed to be in order, if ever, yet it was a relief to Mrs. Fields to find this one in that condition. Brass faucets gleamed in the afternoon sunlight, the teakettle steamed from a shining spout, the linoleum-covered floor was spotless, and the table at which Charlotte was stirring her gingerbread had been scrubbed until it was as nearly white as pine boards can be made.

"Gingerbread?" said the housekeeper, lingering in the doorway. "I always like to make that. It seems the biggest result for the smallest labour of anything you can make, and it smells so spicy when it comes out of the oven."

"Yes, when it isn't burned," agreed Charlotte, with a laugh. Things had gone fairly well with her that day, and her spirits had risen accordingly.

"Burning's a thing that will happen to the best cooks once in a while. 'Twas just day before yesterday I blacked a pumpkin pie so the doctor poked his fun at me all the time he was eating it," said the housekeeper, with a tactful disregard for the full truth, which was that a refractory small patient in the office had driven the doctor to require her assistance for a longer period than was consistent with attention to her oven.

"Oh, did you?" asked Charlotte, eagerly. "That encourages me. Doctor Churchill told me he had the finest cook in the state, and I've been envying you ever since."

"Doctor Churchill had better be careful how he brags," Mrs. Fields declared, much gratified. "Well, now, I'll tell you what you do. It ain't but a step across the two back yards. When you get in a quandary how to cook anything--how long to give it or whether to bake or boil--you just run across and ask me. I ain't one o' the prying kind--the doctor'll tell you that--and you needn't be afraid it'll go any further. I know how hard it must be for a young girl like you to take the care of a house on yourself, and I'll be pleased to show you anything I can."

"That's very good of you," said Charlotte, gratefully, as Mrs. Fields went briskly down the steps; and she really felt that it was. She would have resented the appearance of almost any of her neighbours at her back door with an offer of help, suspecting that they had come to use their eyes, and afterward their tongues, in criticism. But something about Mrs. Hepsibah Fields disarmed her at once. She could not tell why.

"This gingerbread is perfect," said Celia, an hour later, when Charlotte had brought up her supper. "You are improving every day. But it frets me not to have you come to me for help. I could plan things for you, and teach you all the little I know. I'm doing so well now, the doctor says I may get down-stairs on the couch by next week. Then you certainly must let me do my part."

But Charlotte shook her head obstinately. "I'm going to fight it through myself. I'd rather. You've enough to do--writing letters."

When Lanse came into Celia's room that evening, his first words were merry.

"What I'm anxious to know," he said, "is what you did with your rice pudding. Charlotte says you ate it--and the inference was that it was good to eat. So I ate mine--manfully, I assure you. But it was a bitter dose."

"Poor little girl! She tries so hard, Lanse. And the gingerbread was very good."

"So it was. It helped take out the taste of the pudding. Did you honestly eat that pudding?"

"See here." Celia beckoned him close. She reached a cautious hand under her pillow and drew out her soap-dish. "Please get rid of it for me," she whispered, "and wash the dish. I couldn't bear not to seem to eat it, so I slipped it in there."

Striving to smother his mirth, Lanse bore the soap-dish away. Returning with it, he carefully replaced the soap and set the dish on the stand, where it had been within Celia's reach. "I wish I had had a soap-dish at the table," he remarked, "but the cook's eye was upon me, and I had to stand up to it. But see here. I've a letter for you--from Uncle Rayburn."

Celia stretched an eager hand, for a letter from Uncle John Rayburn--middle-aged, a bachelor, and an ex-army officer, retired by an incurable injury which did not make him the less the best uncle in the world--could not fail to be welcome. But she had not read a page before she dropped the sheet and stared helplessly and anxiously at Lanse.

"What's up?" he asked.

"Why, Uncle Rayburn writes that he would like to come to spend the winter with us," answered Celia.

"What luck!"

"Luck--with Charlotte in the kitchen?"

"Uncle Ray is a crack-a-jack of a cook himself. His board bill will help out like oil on a dry axle, and if we don't have a lot of fun, then Uncle Ray has changed as--I know he hasn't."