Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter V
 

"Two cripples," declared Capt. John Rayburn--honourably discharged from active service in the United States Army on account of permanent disability from injuries received in the Philippines,--"two cripples should be able to keep a household properly stirred up. I've been here five days now, and my soul longs for some frivolity."

He leaned back in his big wicker armchair and looked quizzically across at his niece Celia, who lay upon her couch at the other side of the room. She gave him a somewhat pale-faced smile in return. Four weeks of enforced quiet were beginning to tell on her.

"Some frivolity," repeated Captain Rayburn, as Charlotte came to the door of the room. "What do you say, Charlie girl? Shall we have some fun?"

"Dear me, yes, Uncle Ray," Charlotte responded, promptly, "if you can think how!"

"I can. Is there a birthday or anything that we may celebrate? I've no compunction about getting up festivities on any pretext, but if there happened to be a birthday handy--"

"November--yes. Why, we had forgotten all about it! Lanse's birthday is the fourth. That's--"

"Day after to-morrow. Good! Can you make him a birthday-cake? If not, I--"

"Oh, yes, I can!" cried Charlotte, eagerly. "I've just learned an orange-cake."

"All right. Then we'll order a few little things from town, and have a jollification. Not a very big one, on account of the lady on the couch there, who reminds me at the moment of a water-lily whom some one has picked and then left on the stern seat in the sun. She looks very sweet, but a trifle limp."

Celia's smile was several degrees brighter than the previous one had been. Nobody could resist Uncle Ray when he began to exert himself to cheer people up.

He was a young, or an old, bachelor, according to one's point of view, being not yet forty, and looking, in spite of the past suffering which had brought into his chestnut hair two patches of gray at the temples, very much like a bright-faced boy with an irrepressible spirit of energy and interest in the life about him. It could hardly be doubted that Capt. John Rayburn, apparently invalided for life and cut off from the activity which had been his dearest delight, must have his hours of depression, but nobody had ever caught him in one of them.

"I should like some music at this festival," Captain Rayburn went on. "Is the orchestra out of practice?"

"We haven't played for six weeks," Charlotte said. "And Celia's first violin--"

"You couldn't play, bolstered up?"

Celia shook her head. "I should be tired in ten minutes."

"I'm not so sure of that, but we'll see. Anyhow, I've the old flute here--"

"Oh, fine!" cried Charlotte.

"Suppose we ask Doctor Forester out, and your young doctor here next door, and two or three of your girl friends, and a boy and girl or two for Jeff and Just."

"What a funny mixture, Uncle Ray! Doctor Forester and Norman Carter, Just's chum, and Carolyn Houghton?"

"Funny, is it?" inquired Captain Rayburn, undisturbed. "Now do you know, that's my ideal of a well-planned company, particularly when all the family are to be here. Invite somebody for each one, mix 'em all up, play some jolly games, and you'll find Doctor Forester vying with Norman Carter for the prize, and enjoying it equally well. It sharpens up the young wits to be pitted against the older ones, and it--well, it burnishes the elder rapiers and keeps them keen."

"All right, this is your party," agreed Charlotte, and she went back to her duties.

"You're not afraid it will be too much for you, little girl?" Captain Rayburn asked Celia, whose smile had faded, and who lay with her head turned away.

"Oh--no."

"Mercury a little low in the tube this morning?"

"Just a little."

"Any good reason why?"

"N-no."

"Except the best reason in the world--heavy atmospheric pressure. Knee a trifle slow to become a solid, capable, energetic knee, such as its owner demands. Owner a bit restless, physically and mentally. Plans for the winter upset--second lieutenant winning spurs while the colonel lies in the hospital tent, fighting imaginary battles and trying to keep cool under the strain."

Celia looked round and smiled again, but her head went back to its old position, and tears forced themselves out from under the eyelids which she shut tightly together.

"And a little current of anxiety for the inhabitants of New Mexico keeps flowing under the edge of the tent and makes the colonel fear it's not pitched in the right place?"

Celia nodded.

"Well, that's not warranted in the face of the facts. Latest advices from New Mexico report improvement, even sooner than we could have expected. Then at home--Lanse is conquering the situation in the locomotive shops very satisfactorily. Doctor Churchill told me yesterday that he's won the liking of nearly all the men in his shop--which means more than a girl like you can guess. Jeff and Just are prospering in school, according to Charlotte, who is herself working up in her new profession, and whose last beefsteak was broiled to a turn, as her critical soldier guest appreciates. As for Celia--"

He got to his feet slowly, grasped his two stout hickory canes and limped across the room to the couch, showing as he went a pitiful weakness in the tall figure, whose lines still suggested the martial bearing which it had not long ago presented, and which it might never present again. Captain Rayburn sat down close beside Celia and took her hand.

"In one thing I made a misstatement," he said, softly. "They're not imaginary battles that the colonel lies fighting in the hospital tent. They're real enough."

There was a short silence; then Celia spoke unsteadily from the depths of her pillow:

"Uncle Ray, were you ever mean enough to be jealous?"

The captain looked quickly at the fair head on the pillow. "Jealous?" said he, without a hint of surprise in his voice. "Why, yes--jealous of my colonel, my lieutenants, my orderlies, my privates, my doctors, my nurses--jealous of the very Filipino prisoners themselves--because they all had legs and could walk."

"Oh, I know--I don't mean that!" cried Celia, "Of course you envied everybody who could walk. Poor Uncle Ray! But you weren't small enough to mind because the officers under you had got your chance?"

"Wasn't I, though? Well, maybe I wasn't," said the captain, speaking low. "Perhaps I didn't lie and grind my teeth when they told me about the gallant work Lieutenant Garretson had done with my men at Balangiga. A mere boy, Garretson! The whole world applauded it. If I'd not been knocked out so soon it would have been my name that would have gone into history. Yes, I chewed that to shreds many a sleepless night, and hated the fellow for getting my chance."

Captain Rayburn drew a long breath, while his fingers relaxed for an instant; and it was Celia's hand which tightened over his.

"But I got past that," he said, quietly. "It came to me all at once that Garretson and the other fellows in active service weren't the only ones with chances before them. I had mine--a different commission from the one I had coveted, to be sure, but a broader one, with infinite possibilities, and no fear of missing further promotion if I earned it."

There was a little stillness after that. When the captain looked down at Celia again he found her eyes full of pity, but this time it was not pity for herself. He comprehended instantly.

"No, I don't need it, dear," he said, very gently. "I've learned some things already in the hospital tent I wouldn't have missed for a year's pay. And you, who are to be only temporarily on the sick-leave list, you don't need to mind that the little second lieutenant--"

But the second lieutenant was rushing into the room, bearing on a plate a great puffy, round loaf, brown and spicy.

"Look," she cried, "at my steamed brown bread! I've tried it four times and slumped it every time. Now Fieldsy has shown me what was the matter--I hadn't flour enough. Fieldsy is a dear--and so are you!"

She plunged at Celia, brown bread and all, and kissed the top of her head, tweaked a lock of Captain Rayburn's thick hair, and was flying away when Celia spoke. "You're the biggest dear of anybody," she said, with a smile.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was getting up a party in a hurry, but somehow the thing was accomplished. Whether Lanse remembered his own birthday at all was a question. When he came home at six o'clock on that day, Charlotte told him that she had special reasons for seeing him in his best.

"Why, you're all dressed up yourself," he observed. "What's up?"

"Doctor Forester's coming out to hear us play," was all she would tell him, and Lanse groaned over the fact that the little orchestra was so out of practice.

When the guests arrived, they found the man with the birthday anxiously looking over scores. He greeted them with enthusiasm.

"Doctor Forester, this is good of you, if we can't play worth a copper cent. Miss Atkinson! Well this is a surprise--a delightful one! Miss Carolyn, how goes school? How are you, Norman? You'll find Just in a minute. Miss Houghton, now you and I can settle that little question we were discussing. Charlotte, you rogue, you and Uncle Ray are at the bottom of this! Ah, Doctor Churchill! This wouldn't have been complete without our neighbour. Miss Atkinson, allow me to present Doctor Churchill."

Thus John Lansing Birch accepted at once and with his accustomed ease the role of host, and enjoyed himself immensely. Celia, watching him from her couch, said suddenly to Captain Rayburn, who sat beside her:

"This is just what the family needed. If you hadn't come we should probably have gone drudging on all winter without realising what was the matter with us. No wonder poor Lanse appreciates it. He's had a month of hard labour without an enlivening hour. And Charlotte--doesn't she look like a fresh carnation to-night?"

"Very much," agreed the captain, with approving eyes on his younger niece, who wore her best frock of French gray, a tint which set off her warm colouring to advantage. Celia had thrust several of Captain Rayburn's scarlet carnations into her sister's belt, with a result gratifying to more than one pair of eyes.

"Still," remarked the captain, his glance returning to Celia, "I'm not sure that I can say whether a fresh carnation is to be preferred to a newly picked rose. That pale pink gown you are wearing is certainly a joy to the eye."

Celia blushed under his admiring glance. There could be no question that she was very lovely, if a trifle frail in appearance from her month's quiet, and it was comforting to be assured that she was not looking like a "limp water-lily" to-night.

"When are we to hear the orchestra?" cried Doctor Forester, after an hour of lively talk, a game or two, and some remarkable puzzles contributed by Just. The distinguished gentleman from the city was enjoying himself immensely, for he was accustomed to social functions of a far more elaborate and formal sort, and liked nothing better than to join in a frolic with the younger people when such rare opportunities presented.

"Of course we're horribly out of practice and all that," explained Lanse, distributing scores, and helping to prop up Celia so that she might try to play, "but since you insist we'll give you all you'll want in a very few minutes. Here's your flute, Uncle Ray. If you'll play along with Celia it will help out."

It was not so bad, after all. Lanse had chosen the most familiar of the old music, everybody did his and her best, and Captain Rayburn's flute, exquisitely played, did indeed "help out."

Celia, her cheeks very pink, worked away until Doctor Churchill gently took her violin from her, but after that the music still went very well.

"Good! good!" applauded Doctor Forester. "Churchill, you're in luck to live next door to this sort of thing."

"Now that I know what I live next door to," remarked the younger physician, "I shall know what to prescribe for the entire family on winter evenings."

There could be no question that Doctor Churchill also was enjoying the evening. Helping Charlotte and the boys serve the sandwiches and chocolate, which appeared presently--the chocolate being made by Mrs. Fields in the kitchen--he said to the girl:

"I haven't had such a good time since I came away from my old home."

"It was so nice of Fieldsy to make the chocolate," Charlotte replied, somewhat irrelevantly. Then as the doctor looked quickly at her and laughed, she flushed. "Oh, I don't call her that to her face!" she said, hurriedly.

"I don't think she would mind. That's what Andy Churchill called her, and calls her yet, when he forgets her newly acquired dignity as a doctor's housekeeper. I'm mighty glad Fieldsy can be of service to you. You've won her heart completely and I assure you that's a bigger triumph than you realise."

"She's the nicest neighbour we ever had," said Charlotte, gaily. The doctor paused, delayed them both a moment while he rearranged a pile of spoons and forks upon his tray, and said:

"If you talk of neighbours, Miss Charlotte, there's a certain homesick young doctor who appreciates having neighbours, too."

Charlotte answered as lightly as he had spoken: "With Mrs. Fields in the kitchen and you in here with a tray full of hospitality, I'm sure you seem very much like one of our oldest neighbours."

"Thank you!" he answered, with such a glad little ring in his voice that Charlotte could not be sorry for the impulsive speech. But she found herself wondering more than once during the evening what he had meant by calling himself "homesick."

"See here, Mrs. Fields," called Jeff, hurrying out for fresh supplies, "this is the best chocolate ever brewed! Doctor Forester wants another cup, and all the fellows looked sort of wistful when they heard him ask for it. May everybody have another cup?"

"Well, I must say, Mr. Jefferson!" said Mrs. Fields, in astonishment. "I thought Miss Charlotte was going clean crazy when she would have three double-boilers made. But it seems she knew her friends' appetites. Don't you know it ain't considered proper to pass more than one cup--light refreshments like these?"

"Oh, this isn't any of your afternoon-tea affairs, I can tell you that!" declared Jeff, watching with pleasure the filling of the tall blue-and-white chocolate pot. "People know they are going to get something good when they come here. I warned the fellows not to eat too much supper before they came. Any more of those chicken sandwiches?"

"For the land's sake, Mr. Jeff!" cried Mrs. Fields.

"What's the matter, Jeffy?" asked Charlotte, coming out. Doctor Churchill was behind her, bearing an empty salad bowl.

"I want more sandwiches," demanded Jeff.

"Everybody fall to quick and make them," commanded Charlotte. "Norman Carter and Just have had seven apiece. That makes them go fast."

"Well, I never!" breathed the housekeeper once more. But Charlotte was slicing the bread with a rapid hand. The doctor, laughing, undertook to butter the slices, and Jeff would have spread on the chicken if Mrs. Fields had not taken the knife from his hand.

Ten minutes later Jeff was able to announce that everybody seemed to be satisfied.

"That's a mercy," said Mrs. Fields, handing him a tray full of pink and white ices, Captain Rayburn's contribution to the festivities. "You'd have to give 'em sody-crackers now if they wasn't. Carry that careful, and tell Miss Charlotte to send out for the cake. I'll light the candles."

Doctor Churchill came out alone for the cake. It stood ready upon the table, Charlotte's greatest success--a big, old-fashioned orange "layer-cake," with pale yellow icing, twenty-three pale yellow candles surrounding it in a flaming circle, and one great yellow Marechal Niel rose in the centre.

"Whew-w, that's a beauty!" cried Doctor Churchill. "Did you make it, Fieldsy?"

"Indeed I didn't," denied Mrs. Fields, with great satisfaction. "Miss Charlotte made it herself, and I didn't know but she'd go crazy over it, first for fear it wouldn't turn out right, and then for joy because it had."

The doctor handed it about with a face so beaming that Doctor Forester leaned back in his chair and regarded his young colleague quizzically.

"You make this cake, Churchill?" he asked.

The doctor laughed. "It was joy enough to bring it in," he said.

"Who did make it?" demanded Forester. "It was no caterer, I know."

Charlotte attempted to escape quietly from the room, but Lanse barred the way. "Here she is," he said, and turned his sister about and made her face the company. A friendly round of applause greeted her, mingled with exclamations of surprise. They all knew Charlotte, or thought they did. To most of them this was a new and unlooked-for accomplishment.

"It's not half so good as the sort Celia makes," murmured Charlotte, and would hear no more of the cake. But Celia, in her corner, said softly to Doctor Forester:

"It's going to be worth while, my knee, for the training Charlotte is getting. She'll be a perfect little housekeeper before I'm about again."

"It's going to be worth while in another way too," returned her friend, with an appreciative glance at the face which always reminded him of her mother's, it was so serenely sweet and full of character.

"It is? How?" she asked, eagerly, for his tone was emphatic.

"I have few patients on my list who learn so soon to bear this sort of thing as quietly as you are bearing it," he said. "Don't think that doesn't count." Then he rose to go.

Celia hardly heard the leave-takings, her mind was so happily busy with this bit of rare praise from one whose respect was well worth earning. And half an hour afterward, as Lanse stooped to gather her up and carry her up-stairs to bed, she looked back at Captain Rayburn, who still sat beside her couch, and said, with softly shining eyes:

"The colonel almost wouldn't be the second lieutenant if he could, Uncle Ray."

Lanse, lifting his sister in his strong arms, remarked, "I should say not. Why should he?"

Celia and Captain Rayburn, laughing, exchanged a sympathetic, comprehending glance.