Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter VI
 

Three times Jefferson Birch knocked on his sister Charlotte's door. Then he turned the knob. The door would not open. "Fiddle!" he called, softly, but got no reply.

"You're not asleep, I know," he said, firmly, at the keyhole. "I can see a light from outside, if you have got it all plugged up here. Let me in. I've some important news for you."

Charlotte's lock turned and she threw the door open. "Well, come in," she said. "I didn't mean anybody to know, but I'm dying to tell somebody, and I can trust you."

"Of course!" affirmed Jeff, entering with an air of curiosity. "What's doing? Painting?"

The table by the window was strewn with artist's materials, drawings, sheets of water-colour paper and tumblers of coloured water. In the midst of this confusion lay one piece of nearly finished work--the interior of an unfurnished room, showing wall decoration and nothing more. The colouring caught Jeff's eye.

"That's stunning!" he commented, catching up the board upon which the colour drawing was stretched. "What's it for? Going to put in some furniture?"

Charlotte laughed. "No, I'm not going to put in any furniture," she said. "This is just to show a scheme for decorating a den--a man's den. Do you really like it?"

"It's great!" Jeff stood the board up against the wall and backed away, studying it with interest. "Those dull reds and blues will show off his guns and pictures and things in fine shape. How did you ever think it up?"

Charlotte brought out some sheets of wall-paper, as Jeff thought, but he saw at once that they were hand-work. They represented in full-size detail the paper used upon the den walls. Jeff studied them with interest.

"So this is where you are evenings, after you slip away. You're sitting up late, too. See here, this won't do!"

"Oh, yes, it will. Don't try to stop me, Jeff. I'm not up late, really I'm not--only once in awhile."

"I thought people couldn't paint by artificial light."

"They can when they get used to the difference it makes. But I do only the drudgery, evenings--outlines and solid filling in and that sort of thing."

"Going to show this to somebody?"

"Oh, don't talk about it!" said Charlotte, breathlessly. "If I can get my courage up. You know Mr. Murdock, with that decorating house where the Deckers had their work done? Well, some day I'm going to show him. But I'm so frightened at my own audacity!"

"If he doesn't like this, he's a fool!" declared Jeff, vigorously, and although Charlotte laughed she felt the encouragement of his boyish approval. Putting away her work, she suddenly remembered the excuse her brother had given for forcing his way into her room.

"You said you had important news for me. Did you mean it, or was that only to get in?"

"Oh," said Jeff sitting down suddenly and looking up at her, his face growing grave. "You put it out of my head when I came in. I met the doctor just now. He'd been to see Annie Donohue. She's worse."

Charlotte dropped her work instantly. "Worse?" she said, all the brightness flying from her face. "Why, I was in yesterday, and she seemed much better. Jeff, I must go down there this minute."

"It's after ten--you can't. Wait till morning."

"Oh, no!" The girl was making ready as she spoke. "You'll go with me. Think of the baby. There'll be a houseful of women, all wailing, if anything goes wrong with Annie. They did it before, when they thought she wasn't doing well. The baby was so frightened. She knows me. Of course I must go. Think what mother would do for Annie--after all the years Annie was such a faithful maid."

That brought Jeff round at once. In ten minutes he and Charlotte had quietly left the house. A rapid walk through the crisp January night brought them to the poorer quarter of the town and the Donohue cottage. A woman with a shawl over her head met them just outside.

"Annie's gone," she said, at sight of Charlotte. "Took a turn for the worse an hour ago. I never thought she'd get well, she's had too hard a life with that brute of a man of hers."

Charlotte stood still on the door-step when the woman had gone on. She was thinking hard. Jeff remained quiet beside her. Charlotte had known more of Annie than he; Annie had been Charlotte's nurse.

All at once Charlotte turned and laid a hand on his arm. "Jeff," she said, very softly and close to his ear, "we must take little Ellen home with us to-night."

"What!"

"Yes, we must. She's such a shy little thing. Every time I've been here I've found her frightened half to death. It worried Annie dreadfully."

"Well--but, Charlotte--some of these women can take care of her--Annie's friends."

"They are not Annie's friends; they're just her neighbours. Not Annie's kind at all. They're good-hearted enough, but it distressed Annie all the time to have any of them take care of Ellen. They give her all sorts of things to eat. She's only a baby. She was half-sick when I was here Thursday. Oh, don't make a fuss, Jeff! Please, dear!"

"But you don't know anything about babies."

"I know enough not to give them pork and cabbage. I can put the little thing to sleep in Just's crib. It's up in the attic. You can get it down. Jeff, we must!"

But Jeff still held her firmly by the arm. "Girl, you're crazy! If you once take her, you've got her on your hands. Annie has no relations. You told me that yourself. The child'll have to go to an asylum. It's a good thing that husband of hers is dead. If he wasn't, you'd have some cause to be worried."

"Jeff," said Charlotte, pleadingly, "you must let me do what I think is right. I couldn't sleep, thinking of little Ellen to-night. Besides, when Annie was worrying about her Thursday, I as much as promised we'd see that no harm came to the baby."

Jeff relaxed his hold. "I never saw such a girl!" he grumbled. "As if you hadn't things enough on your shoulders already, without adopting other people's kids!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Dr. Andrew Churchill opened the door which led from the room of one of his patients into the small, slenderly furnished living-room of the tiny house which had been her home. It was her home no longer. Doctor Churchill had just lost his first patient in private practice.

In the room were several women, gathered about a baby not yet two years old. Over the child a subdued but excited discussion was being held, as to who should take home and, for the present, care for poor Annie Donohue's orphan baby.

Doctor Churchill closed the door behind him and stood for a moment, looking down at the baby, a pretty little girl with a pair of big frightened blue eyes.

"Well, I guess I'll have to be the one," said the youngest woman of the company, with a sigh. "You're all worse fixed than I am, and I guess we can make room for her somehow, till it's decided what to do with her. Poor Mis' Donohue's child has got to stay somewhere to-night besides here, that I do say."

"Well, that's kind of you, Mary, and we'll all lend a hand to help you out. I'll bring over some extra milk I can spare and----"

A sudden draft of January air made everybody turn. A girlish figure, in a big dark cape with a scarlet lining which seemed to reflect the colour from a face brilliant with frost-bloom, stood in the outer door. The next instant Charlotte Birch, closing the door softly behind her, had crossed the room and was addressing the women, in low quick tones. The doctor she did not seem to notice.

"I've come for the baby," she said, with a gentle imperiousness. "I've just heard about poor Annie. Of course we are the ones to see to little Ellen. If mother were here she would insist upon it. Where are her wraps, please? And has one of you an extra shawl she can lend me? It's a sharp night."

As she spoke, Charlotte knelt before the child and held out her arms. Baby Ellen stared at her for an instant, then seemed to recognise a friend and lifted two little arms, her tiny lips quivering. Charlotte drew her gently up, and rising, walked away across the room with her, the small golden head nestling in her neck. The women looked after her rather resentfully.

"I suppose the child wouldn't be sufferin' with such as us," said one, "if we ain't got no silk quilts to put over her."

"Neither have I," said Charlotte, with a smile, as she caught the words. "But I'm so fond of her. Annie was my nurse, you know."

"May I carry her home for you?" asked the doctor, at her elbow.

"Jeff is here," she answered.

But it was the doctor who carried the baby, after all, for she cried at sight of Jeff. She was ready to cry at sight of any strange face, poor little frightened child! But Doctor Churchill held her so tenderly and spoke so soothingly that she grew quiet at once.

It was a silent walk, and it was only as they reached the house that the doctor said softly to Charlotte, "If you need advice or help, don't hesitate to call on Mrs. Fields. She's a wise woman, and her heart is warm, you know."

"Yes, I know, thank you! And thank you, doctor, for--not scolding me about this!"

"Scold you?" he said, as Charlotte took the baby from him at the door. "Why should I do that?"

"Jeff did, and I didn't dare tell Lanse."

"If you hadn't brought the baby home," whispered the doctor, "I should have." And Charlotte, looking quickly up at him as Jeff opened the door and the light streamed out upon them, surprised upon his face, as his eyes rested upon the baby's pink cheek, an expression which could hardly have been more tender if he had been Ellen's father.

"Now, Jeffy, get the crib down, please, as softly as you can," begged Charlotte, when she had laid the baby on her own white bed and noiselessly closed the door. Jeff tried hard to do her bidding, but the crib did not get down-stairs without a few scrapings and bumpings, which made Charlotte hold her breath lest they rouse a sleeping household.

"Now go down and warm some milk for her in the blue basin. Don't get it hot--just lukewarm. Put the tiniest pinch of sugar in it."

"You seem to know a lot about babies," Jeff murmured, pausing an instant to watch his sister gently pulling off the baby's clothes.

"I do. Didn't I have the care of you?" answered Charlotte, with a mischievous smile.

"Two years younger than yourself? Oh, of course, I forgot that," and Jeff crept away down-stairs after the milk. It took him some time, and when he came tiptoeing back he found the baby in her little coarse flannel nightgown, her round blue eyes wide-awake again.

"She seems to accept you for a mother all right," he commented, as Charlotte held the cup to the baby's lips, cuddling her in a blanket meanwhile. But the girl's eyes filled at this, remembering poor Annie, and Jeff added hastily, "What'll happen if she wakes up and cries in the night? Babies usually do, don't they?"

"Annie has always said Ellen didn't, much, and she's getting to sleep so late I hope she won't to-night. I don't feel equal to telling the others what I've done till morning," and Charlotte smiled rather faintly. Now that she had the baby at home she was beginning to wonder what Lanse and Celia would say.

"Never mind. I'll stand by you. You're all right, whatever you do--if I did think you were rather off your head at first," promised Jeff, sturdily. He was never known to fail Charlotte in an emergency.

Whether it was the strange surroundings or something wrong about the last meal of the day cannot be stated, but Baby Ellen did wake up. It was at three o'clock in the morning that Charlotte, who, excited by the strangeness of the situation, had but just fallen asleep, was roused by a small wail.

The baby seemed not to know her in the trailing blue kimono, with her two long curly braids swinging over her shoulders, and in spite of all that Charlotte could do, the infantile anguish of spirit soon filled the house.

Charlotte walked the floor with her, alternately murmuring consolation and singing the lullabies of her own childhood; but the uproar continued. It is astonishing what an amount of disturbance one small pair of lungs can produce. It was not long before the anxious nurse, listening with both ears for evidences that the family were aroused, heard the tap of Celia's crutches, which the invalid had just learned to use. And almost at the same moment Lanse's door opened and shut with a bang.

"Here they come!" murmured Charlotte, trying distractedly to hush the baby by means which were never known to have that effect upon a startled infant in a strange house.

Her door swung open. Celia stood on the threshold, her eyes wide with alarm. Lanse, lightly costumed in pink-and-white pajamas, gazed over her shoulder.

"Charlotte Birch!" cried Celia, and words failed her. But Lanse was ready of speech.

"What the dickens does this mean?" he inquired, wrathfully. "Have we become an orphanage? I thought I heard singular sounds just after I got to bed. Is there any good reason why the family shouldn't be informed of what strange intentions you may have in your brain before you carry them out? Whose youngster is it, and what are you doing with it here?"

Charlotte's lips were seen to move, but the baby's fright had received such an accession from the appearance of two more unknown beings in the room that nothing could be distinguished. What Charlotte said was, "Please go away! I'll tell you in the morning." But the visitors, failing to catch the appeal, not only did not go away, but moved nearer.

"Why, it's Annie Donohue's baby!" cried Celia, and shrieked the information into Lanse's ear. His expression of disfavour relaxed a degree, but he still looked preternaturally severe. Celia hobbled over to the baby, and sitting down in a rocking-chair, held out her arms. But Charlotte shook her head and motioned imperatively toward the door.

At this instant Jeff, in a red bathrobe, appeared in the doorway, grasped the situation, nodded assurance to Charlotte, and hauled his elder brother across the hall into his own room, where he closed the door and explained in a few terse sentences:

"Annie died last night--to-night. We heard of it late, and Charlotte thought she wouldn't disturb anybody. The doctor was there. He carried the baby home. We couldn't leave her there. She was scared to death. She knows Fiddle, and she'll grow quiet now if you people don't stand round and insist on explanations being roared at you."

"But we can't keep a baby here," began Lanse, who had come home late, unusually tired, and was feeling the customary masculine displeasure at having his hard-earned rest broken--a sensation which at the moment took precedence over any more humanitarian emotions.

"We don't have to settle that to-night, do we?" demanded Jeff, with scorn. "Hasn't the poor girl got enough on her hands without having you scowl at her for trying to do the good Samaritan act--at three o'clock in the morning?"

Jeff next turned his attention to Celia. He went into Charlotte's room, picked up his elder sister without saying "by your leave," and carried her off to her own bed.

"But, Jeff, I could help Charlotte," Celia remonstrated. "The poor baby may be sick."

"Don't believe it. She's simply scared stiff at kimonos and pajamas and bathrobes stalking round her in a strange house. Charlotte can cool her down if anybody can. If she can't, I'll call the doctor. Now go to sleep. Charlotte and I will man the ship to-night, and in the morning you can go to work making duds for the baby. It didn't have anything to wear round it but a summer cape and Mrs. O'Neill's plaid shawl."

This artful allusion touched Celia's tender heart and set her mind at work, as Jeff had meant it should; so putting out her light, he slipped away to Charlotte, exulting in having so promptly fixed things for her.

But Charlotte met him with anxious eyes. The baby was still screaming.

"See how she stiffens every now and then, and holds her breath till I think she'll never breathe again!" she called in his ear. "I do really think you'd better call Mrs. Fields. You can wake her with a knock on her window. She sleeps in the little wing down-stairs."

As he hurried down the hall, the door of Captain Rayburn's room opened, and Jeff met the quiet question, "What's up, lad?"

He stopped an instant to explain, encountered prompt sympathy, and laid a hasty injunction upon his uncle not to attempt to assist Charlotte in her dilemma. That gentleman hobbled back to bed, smiling tenderly to himself in the dark--why, if he had seen him, Jeff never would have been able to guess.