Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter VII
 

"I've got a sewing-machine that I know the kinks of," said Mrs. Fields to Celia and Charlotte and the baby, who regarded her with interest from the couch, where they were grouped. "The doctor's going to be away all day to-morrow, and if you'll all come over, we can get through a lot of little clothes for the baby. Land knows she ain't anyway fixed for going outdoors in all kinds of weather, the way the doctor wants her to."

This was so true that it carried weight in spite of the difficulties in the way. So before he went off to school on a certain February morning, Jeff had carried Celia across to Mrs. Field's sitting-room, and by ten o'clock three busy people were at work. Captain Rayburn had begged to be of the party, and although Mrs. Fields received with skepticism his declaration that he could do various sorts of sewing with a sufficient degree of skill, she allowed him to come, on condition that he look after the baby.

"Well, for the land's sake!" cried the forewoman of the sewing brigade, as she opened the big bundle Captain Rayburn had brought with him. "I should say you haven't left much for us to do!"

The captain regarded with complacency the finished garments she was holding up.

"Yes," said he, "I telephoned the big children's supply shop to send me what Miss Ellen would need for out-of-doors. It seemed a pity to have her stay in another day, waiting to be sewed up. Aren't they right? I thought the making of her indoor clothes would be enough."

Celia and Charlotte were exclaiming with delight over the pretty, wadded white coat which Mrs. Fields held aloft. There was a little furry hood to match, mittens, and a pair of leggings of the sort desirable for small travellers.

"If he hasn't remembered everything!" cried Mrs. Fields, when this last article of apparel came to view. "Well, sir, I won't say you haven't saved us quite a chore. I've got the little flannel petticoats all cut out. Doctor Churchill bought flannel enough to keep her covered from now till she's five years old. Talk about economy--when a man goes shopping!"

Mrs. Fields plunged into business with a will. The sewing-machine hummed ceaselessly. Celia, with rapid, skillful fingers, kept pace with her in basting and putting together, and Charlotte--well, Charlotte did her best. Meanwhile Captain Rayburn and the baby explored together mysterious realms of pockets and picture-books.

"For the land's sake, Miss Charlotte!" cried Mrs. Fields, suddenly, in the middle of the morning. "If you ain't made five left sleeves and only one right!"

Charlotte looked up, crimsoning. "How could I have done it?"

"Easy enough." Mrs. Field's expression softened instantly at sight of the girl's dismay. "I've done it a good many times. Something about it--sleeves act bewitched. They seem bound to hang together and be all one kind or all the other, anything but pairs."

"Why don't you rest a little, and take baby outdoors in her new coat?" Celia suggested. "Sewing is such wearisome work, if one isn't used to it."

So Charlotte and her charge gladly went out. A neighbour had lent an old baby sled, and in it Miss Ellen Donohue, snuggled to the chin in the warmest of garments and wrappings, took her first airing since the night, a week before, when she had been brought home in Doctor Churchill's arms.

She was a shy but happy baby, and had already won all hearts. Nobody was willing to begin the steps necessary to place her in any of the institutions designed for cases like hers. Charlotte, indeed, would not hear of it; and even the practical John Lansing, who had learned to figure the family finances pretty closely since he himself had become the wage-earner, succumbed to the touch of baby fingers on his face and the glance of a pair of eyes like forget-me-nots.

As for Captain Rayburn, he was the baby's devoted slave at all times, his most jealous rival being Dr. Andrew Churchill, who was constantly inventing excuses for coming in for a frolic with Baby Ellen.

"If the doctor could look in on us now," observed Mrs. Fields, suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, when Charlotte was again bravely trying to distinguish herself at tasks in which she was by no means an adept, "he'd be put out with me for having this party a day when he was away. He sets great store by anything that looks like a lot of people at home."

"Is he one of a large family?" Celia asked.

"He was two years ago. Since then he's lost a brother and a sister and his mother. His father died five years ago. He has a married brother in Japan, and an unmarried one in South Africa. There ain't anybody in the old home now. It broke up when his mother died, two years ago. He hasn't got over that--not a bit. She was going to come and live with him here. It was a town where she used to visit a good deal, and since he couldn't settle near the old home, because it wasn't a good field for young doctors, she was willing to come here with him. That's why he's here now, though I suppose it don't begin to be as advantageous a place for him as it would be in the city itself. He thought a terrible lot of his mother, Andy did. Seems as if he wanted to please her now as much as ever. And he has some pretty homesick times, now and then, though he doesn't show it much."

It was the first time the doctor's housekeeper had been so communicative, and her three hearers listened with deep interest, although they asked few questions, made only one or two kindly comments, and did not express half the sympathy they felt. Only Captain Rayburn, thoughtfully staring out of the window, gave voice to a sentiment for which both his nieces, although they said nothing in reply, inwardly thanked him.

"Doctor Churchill is a rare sort of fellow," he said. "Doctor Forester considers him most promising, I know. But better than that, he is one whose personality alone will always be the strongest part of his influence over his patients, winning them from despair to courage--how, they can't tell. And the man who can add to the sum total of the courage of the human race has done for it what it very much needs."

A few minutes after this little speech the subject of it quite unexpectedly came dashing in, bringing with him a great breath of February air. He stopped in astonishment upon the threshold.

"If this isn't the unkindest trick I ever heard of!" he cried, his brilliant eyes flashing from one to another. "I suppose that arch-traitor of a Fieldsy planned to have you all safely away before I came home. I'm thankful I got here two hours before she expected me. See here, you've got to make this up to me somehow."

"Sit down!" invited Captain Rayburn. "You may hem steadily for two hours on flannel petticoats. If that won't make it up to you I don't know what will."

"No, it won't," retorted the doctor. "Sewing's all right in its way, but I've just put up my needle-case, thank you, and no more stitching for me to-day. I want--a lark! I want to go skating. Who'll go with me?"

"By the process of elimination I should say you would soon get at the answer to that," remarked the captain. "There seems to be just one candidate for active service in this company--unless Mrs. Fields--I've no doubt now that Mrs. Fields----"

"Will you go?" Doctor Churchill turned to Mrs. Fields. She glanced up into his laughing eyes.

"Run along and don't bother me," she said to him. "Take that child there. She's about got her stent done, I guess."

Doctor Churchill looked at the curly black head bent closely over the last of the little sleeves.

"You don't deceive me, Miss Charlotte," said he. "You're not as wedded to that task as you look. Please come with me. There's time for a magnificent hour before you have to put the kettle on. Miss Birch, I wish we could take you, too. Next winter--well, that knee is doing so well I dare to promise you all the skating you want."

Celia looked up at him, smiling, but her eyes were wistful.

"Doctor," cried Captain Rayburn, "telephone to the stables for a comfortable old horse and sleigh, will you? Celia, girl, we'll go, too."

"And I'll look after Ellen," said Mrs. Fields, before anybody could mention the baby. "Go on, all of you."

"May we all come back to supper with you?" asked Doctor Churchill, giving her a glance with which she was familiar of old.

"If you'll send for some oysters I'll give you all hot stew," she said, and received such a chorus of applause that she mentally added several items to the treat.

"Now I can enjoy my fun," whispered Charlotte to Celia, as she brought her sister's wraps, and pulled on her own rough brown coat. "Such a jolly uncle, isn't he?"

"The best in the world. Wear your white tam, dear, and the white mittens. They look so well with your brown suit. Tie the white silk scarf about your neck--that's it. Now run. I'm so afraid somebody will call the doctor out and spoil it all."

Charlotte ran, and found the doctor waiting impatiently, two pairs of skates on his arm. He hurried her away down the street.

"We must get all there is of this," he said. "I feel as if I could skate fifty miles and back again. Do you?"

"Indeed I do. I've wanted to get up and run round the block between every two stitches all day."

"They say the river is good for three miles up. That will give us just what we want--a sensation of running away from the earth and all its cares. And when we get back we'll be ready for Fieldsy's stew."

They found everybody on the river; Charlotte was busy nodding to her friends while the doctor put on her skates. In a few moments the two were flying up the course.

"Oh, this is great!" exulted Doctor Churchill. "And this is the first time you've been on the ice this winter--in February!"

"This is fine enough to make up. I do love it. It takes out all the puckers."

"Doesn't it? I thought you'd been cultivating puckers to-day the minute I saw you--or else I interpreted your mood by my own. Talk about puckers--and nerves! Miss Charlotte, I've done my first big operation in a certain line to-day. I mean, in a new line--an experiment. It was--a success."

She looked up at him, her face full of sympathy. "Oh, I'm so glad!" she said.

"Are you? Thank you! I wanted somebody to be glad--and I hadn't anybody. I had to tell you. It's too soon to be absolutely sure, but it promises so well I'm daring to be happy. It's the sort of operation in which the worst danger is practically over if the patient gets through the operation itself. She's rallied beautifully. And whatever happens, I've proved my point--that the experiment is feasible. Some of the men doubted that--all thought it a big risk. But I had to take it, and now--Ah, come on, Miss Charlotte! Let's fly!"

Away they went, faster and faster--long, swinging strokes in perfect unison; two accomplished skaters with one object in view; working off healthy young spirits at a tension. They did not talk; they saved their breath; they went like the wind itself.

At the farthest extremity of the smooth ice, which ended at a little frost-bound waterfall, they came to a stop. Churchill looked down at a face like a rose, black eyes that were all alight, and lips that smiled with the fresh happiness of the fine sport.

"I've skated at Copenhagen and at St. Petersburg," he said gaily, "to say nothing of Fresh Pond and Lake Superior and other such home grounds. But it's safe to say I never enjoyed a mile of them like that last one. You--you were really glad, weren't you, that it went so well with me to-day?"

"How could I help it, Doctor Churchill?" she answered, earnestly. Ever since coming out she had been remembering the little revelation his housekeeper had made of his life, and it had touched her deeply to know why he had come to settle in the suburban town instead of in the much more promising city field--a question which had occurred to her many times since she had known him.

"I always expected," he went on, in a more quiet way, "to be able to come home and tell my mother about my first triumphs. She would have been so proud and happy over the smallest thing. Her father was a distinguished surgeon--Marchmont of Baltimore. He died only four years ago--his books are an authority on certain subjects. My other grandfather was Dr. Andrew Churchill of Glasgow--an old-school physician and a good one. So you see I come honestly by my love for it all. And mother--how we used to talk it all over--"

He stopped abruptly, with a tightening of the lips, and stood staring off over the frozen fields, his eyes growing sombre. Charlotte's own eyes fell; her heart beat fast with sympathy. She laid the lightest of touches on his arm.

"I know," she said, softly. "Fieldsy told me--a little bit. I'm so sorry."

He drew a long breath and looked down at her, his eyes searching her face. "You are a little comrade," he said, and his voice was low and moved. Then with a quick motion he seized her hands again and they were off, back down the river. Not so fast as before, and silently, the two skaters covered the miles, and only as they came within sight of the crowd of people at the beginning of the course did Doctor Churchill speak.

"This has been a fine hour, hasn't it?" he said. "Your face looks as if you had lost all the puckers. Have you?"

"Indeed I have! Haven't you?"

"It has done me a world of good. I was wrought up to a high pitch--now I'm cool again. I have to go back to the hospital as soon as supper is over. I shall stay all night."

"When you get back," said Charlotte, "will you telephone me how the case is doing?"

"May I?" he answered, eagerly.

"Of course you may. I shall be anxious till I know."

"I have no business to add one smallest item of anxiety to your list of worries," he admitted. "But it seems so good to me to have somebody care, just now. Fieldsy's a dear soul--I couldn't get on without her, but--Never mind, that's enough of Andrew Churchill for one afternoon. Shall we make a big spurt to the finish? Let's show them what skating is--no little cutting of geometrical spider-webs in a forty-foot square!"

They drew in with swift, graceful strokes, threaded their course through the crowd of skaters, and were soon on their way home. Captain Rayburn and Celia passed them, called back that it was a great day for invalids and children, and reached home just in time for the doctor to carry Celia into the little brick house. Charlotte ran to summon her three brothers, for it was after six o'clock.

Never had an oyster stew such enthusiastic praise. Not an appetite was lacking, not a spoon flagged. Mrs. Fields, moved to lavish hospitality, in which she was upheld by the doctor, produced a chicken pie, which had been originally intended for his dinner alone, and which she had at first designed, when she proposed the oysters, to keep over until the morrow. This was flanked by various dishes, impromptu but delectable, and followed by a round of winter fruit and spongecake--the latter the pride of the housekeeper's heart, and dear to her master from old association.

"If you live like this all the time, Doctor Churchill," said John Lansing Birch, leaning back in his chair at last with the air of a man who asks no more of the gods, "I advise you to keep up a bachelor establishment to the end of your days."

"How would that suit you, Mrs. Fields?" asked the doctor, laughing.

Mrs. Fields, from her place at the end of the table--they had insisted on having her sit down with them--answered deliberately:

"As long as a man's a man I suppose nothing on earth ever will make him feel so satisfied with himself and all creation as being set down in front of a lot of eatables. Now what gives me most peace of mind to-night is knowing that that little Ellen Donohue, asleep on my bed, has got enough new clothes, by this day's work, to make a very good beginning of an outfit."

"Now, how do you old bachelors feel?" cried Celia, amidst laughter, and the party broke up.

At ten o'clock that evening, when Charlotte had seen her sister comfortably in bed--for Celia still needed help in undressing--had tucked in Just and warned Jeff that it was bedtime, the telephone-bell rang.

Lanse and Captain Rayburn sat reading in the living-room, where the telephone stood upon a desk, and Lanse, who was near it, moved lazily to answer it. But before he could lift the receiver to his ear Charlotte had run into the room and was taking it from him, murmuring, "It's for me--I'm sure it is."

"Well, I could have called you," said Lanse, looking curiously at her as, with cheeks like poppies, she sat down at the desk and answered. With ears wide open, although he had again taken up the magazine he had laid down, he listened to Charlotte's side of the conversation. It was brief, and no more remarkable than such performances are apt to be, but Lanse easily appreciated the fact that it was giving his sister immense satisfaction.

"Hullo--yes--yes!" she called. "Yes--oh, is she? Yes--yes, I'm so glad! Yes--of course you are. I'm so glad! Thank you. Yes--Good night!" Charlotte hung up the receiver and swung round from the desk, her face radiant, her eyes like stars.

"Is she, indeed?" interrogated Lanse, lifting brotherly, penetrating eyes to her face. "Engagement just announced? When is she to be married? I'm glad you're glad--you might so easily have been jealous."

Charlotte laughed--a ripple of merriment which was contagious, for Captain Rayburn smiled over the evening paper, and Lanse himself grinned cheerfully.

"Mind telling us the occasion of such heartfelt joy?" he inquired. But Charlotte came up behind him, laid a warm velvet cheek against his for a moment, patted her uncle on the shoulder, cried, "Good night to you, gentlemen dear!" and ran away to bed.