Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter VIII
 

Charlotte let little Ellen slide down from her lap, washed and brushed.

"Now, Ellen, be a good girl," she said as she set about picking up the various articles she had been using in the baby's bath and dressing. "Charlotte's in a hurry."

The door-bell rang. Celia was in the kitchen, stirring up a pudding. It was April now, and Celia's knee was so far mended that she could be about the house without her crutches, with certain restrictions as to standing, or using the knee in any way likely to strain it.

It was Charlotte who did the running about, and it was she who started for the door now, after casting one hasty look around the bath-room to make sure that the baby could do herself no harm.

Left to herself, Ellen investigated the resources of the bath-room and found them wanting. After she had thrown two towels, the soap and her own small tooth brush back into the tub from which she had lately emerged, and which Charlotte had not yet emptied, she found her means of entertainment at an end. The other toilet articles were all beyond her reach. She gazed out of the window; there was nothing moving to be seen but a row of Mrs. Fields's dish-towels waving in the wind.

She turned to the door. Charlotte had meant to latch it, but it was a door with a peculiar trick of swinging slowly open an inch after it had apparently been closed, and it had not been latched. Ellen pushed one small hand into the crack and pulled it open.

Charlotte was nowhere to be seen or heard Across the hall was the door of her room, ajar; and since doors ajar have somehow a singular charm for babies, this one crossed to it and swung it wide.

Here was richness. This was Charlotte's workshop. She slept in a smaller room adjoining, the baby in the crib by her side; and with that smaller room little Ellen was familiar, but not with this. The tiny feet travelled eagerly about, from one desirable object to another. And presently she remembered the big, porcelain-lined bath-tub, There was nothing Ellen liked so well as to throw things into that tub and see them splash.

Two books crossed the hall and made the plunge, one after the other, into the soapy water. Ellen gurgled with delight. Two more journeys deposited a shoe, a hair-brush and a small box, contents unknown, in the watery receptacle. Then Ellen made a discovery which filled her small soul with joy.

Just two days before, Charlotte had completed the set of colour drawings which delineated the wall decoration of four rooms--a "den," a dining-room and two bedrooms. They represented the work of the winter, pursued under the exceeding difficulties of managing a household, and, for the last three months, caring in part for a little child.

But Charlotte had toiled faithfully, with the ardour of one who, having only a small portion of time to give to a beloved pursuit, works at it all the more zealously. And she had gone on from one room to another, in her designing, with the hope that if in one she failed to please those upon whom her success depended, some one of the series might appeal to them, and give her the desired place in their interest.

It was her intention on this very day, after luncheon should be over and she should be free for a few hours, to make the much-dreaded, wholly-longed-for visit to the great manufacturing house where she was to show her wares.

The drawings lay in a pile upon Charlotte's table, ready to be wrapped. Baby Ellen, spying the pile of drawings, with an edge or two of brilliant colour showing, trotted gaily over to the table. She stood on tiptoe and pulled at the corner nearest her. The drawings fell from the table in a disordered heap on the floor.

The sight of them pleased Ellen immensely. She held one up and shook it in her small fists, slowly and carefully tore a corner off it, and cast the sheet down in favour of the next in order. This she tore cleanly in two in the middle. The paper was tough, to be sure, but the little fists were strong.

Then she remembered that seductive bath-tub. A patter of little feet, a laugh of pleasure--"Da!" cried Ellen, gleefully---and the first sheet was in.

Seven trips, pursued with vigour and growing hilarity, and Charlotte's work had received its initial plunge into a new state of being. Four of the drawings had been torn in two. The bath-tub was a mass of softly blending colours.

Charlotte came running back up the stairs, her mind, which had been held captive by a young caller, reverting with some anxiety to the small person whom she had left, as she thought, shut up in the safe bath-room. She expected to hear Ellen crying, as was likely to be the case when left alone without sufficient means of amusement; but the silence, as she flew up-stairs, alarmed her. Silence was almost sure to mean mischief.

The bath-room door was ajar. Charlotte pushed it open and looked in. One glance showed her he havoc which had been wrought. She stopped short, staring with wild eyes into the bath-tub; then she caught her treasures out of it, held them dripping before her for an instant, and let them drop on the floor. She turned and ran out of the room to look for Ellen.

The baby sat calmly on a rug, in the middle of Charlotte's room, engaged in pulling the leaves, one by one, out of a small sketch-book which had been on the table with the drawings. She looked up, a most engaging and innocent expression on her round face, and smiled at Charlotte. But she met no smile in return.

"You little wretch!" breathed Charlotte, between her teeth, as she seized the sketch-book and whirled the baby to her feet. "Oh! Is this the way you pay me for all I've done for you? You wicked--cruel--heartless----"

It was the explosion of a blind wrath which made the girl shake the tiny form until Baby Ellen roared lustily. Charlotte set her upon the floor again, and stood looking down at her with blazing eyes. The small head was clasped in two little fists, as the child tore at her yellow curls, her infant soul stirred to indignation and fright at this most unexpected treatment. Suddenly Charlotte seized her again and bore her swiftly away to Captain Rayburn's room.

"Take care of her for an hour? Surely. But what's the matter?"

It was small wonder he asked, for Charlotte's face was white, her eyes brilliant, and her lips quivering as she spoke:

"It's nothing--only baby has spoiled something of mine, and I'm so angry I don't dare trust myself with her."

She dropped little Ellen in his arms and fled, leaving her uncle to think what he might. He looked grave as he soothed the baby, whose small breast still heaved convulsively.

"Are you conscientiously trying to do your full share in developing our little second fiddle's capacity to play first?" he asked the baby, with his face against hers. "Never mind, little one, never mind. Baby doesn't know--but John Rayburn does--that this being a means of education to other people is a thankless task sometimes. Don't cry. Aunty Charlotte will kiss her hard and fast by and by, to make up for losing her temper with the little maid. I suspect you were very, very trying, to make Aunty Charlotte look like that."

Charlotte came down-stairs after a time and attended to the luncheon, her lips pressed tight together, her eyes heavy--although not with tears. She would not let herself cry.

Celia had a headache and did not notice, being herself disinclined to talk, and Captain Rayburn forbore to look at Charlotte. But Jeff, when he came in, observed at once that something was amiss. As soon as the meal was over he drew Charlotte into a corner.

"You haven't been to Murdock with the pictures and been--turned down?" he asked.

"No."

"Going this afternoon, aren't you?"

"No."

"Why not? Thought that was the plan."

Charlotte turned away, fighting hard for self-control. Jeff caught her arm.

"See here, Fiddle, you've got to tell me. You look like a ghost. No bad news--from New Mexico?"

"Oh, no--no! Please go away."

"I won't till you tell me what's up. You're not sick?"

Charlotte ran off up-stairs, Jeff following. "Charlotte," he cried, as he pursued her into her room before she could turn and close the door, "what's the use of acting like this? Something's happened, and I'm going to know what it is."

Charlotte sat down in a despairing heap on the floor and hid her face in her hands. Jeff glanced helplessly from her to the table in the corner. Then he observed that it was bare of the pile of drawings.

"Nothing's happened to the wall-paper?" he asked, eagerly.

Charlotte nodded.

"What?"

"Go look up in the attic, if you must know."

Jeff dashed up-stairs, and surveyed the havoc. He came back breathless with dismay.

"How did it happen?"

"Baby--bath-tub."

"The little--imp! Are they spoiled?"

"You saw."

"Yes; colours run together a bit on some, others torn in two. Yet they show what they were, Fiddle--I vow they do. I'd take them just as they are, explain the whole thing, and see what comes of it."

Charlotte raised her head to shake it vigorously. "Offer work in such shape as that? I'm not such a goose."

"Got to do them all over?"

Her head sank again. "If I can get the courage."

"Of course you can," declared Jeff, more cheerfully. "You never lack pluck. Poor girl, I'm mighty sorry, though. It's simply tough to have it happen at the last minute. You're all tired out, too--I know you are; you ought never to have to do it all over again."

"If I could just have shown them to Mr. Murdock," said Charlotte, heavily, "and have found out that it was the sort of thing they would like, it wouldn't seem so hard to do them all over again. But to work for weeks more--and then perhaps have it a failure, after all----"

"I know. Well, I've got to be off, or I'll be late. Mid-term exams this week. Cheer up, Fiddle, maybe you can fix 'em up easier than you think."

Late in the afternoon Charlotte came to her uncle for the baby. He had cared for her all day.

"She's safe with you now?" he asked, with a keen look up into her quiet face.

"I hope so." Charlotte's cheek was against the little head; she held the baby tenderly.

"When she is in bed to-night will you come and tell me what she did?"

Charlotte shook her head, with a faint smile. "She wasn't to blame. I left her alone for ten minutes."

"But I should like to know about it," he said, coaxingly. "I have had rather a busy day with Ellen-baby--why not reward me with your confidence?"

But she would not promise; neither did she come. This was exceedingly characteristic of the girl, but Captain Rayburn, his sharp eyes observing in her aspect the signs of misery in spite of a brave attempt to seem cheerful, made up his mind to find out for himself. Twice he encountered her coming down from the attic, and each time she avoided speaking to him.

That night, after everybody was in bed, Captain Rayburn, his canes held under his arm, crept slowly up-stairs, a little electric candle of his own in his pocket. By means of this he soon discovered Charlotte's ruined work, which she had not yet found heart to remove from the place where she had first laid it, trusting to the privacy of a place which was seldom invaded by anybody.

He sat down on a convenient box and studied the coloured plates and sketches. As he looked, his lips drew into a whistle of surprise and admiration, followed by a long breath of pity for what he was sure he understood.

Jeff, having just dropped off into the sound sleep of the healthy boy, found himself gently punched into wakefulness.

"Come to, Jeff, and tell me what I want to know," said Captain Rayburn, smiling at his nephew in the dim white light from the candle. Jeff raised himself on his pillow.

"Wh-what's up?" he grunted, blinking like an owl.

"Nothing serious. What was Charlotte going to do with her colour drawings? Show them to some wall-paper manufacturers?"

"What--er--yes--no. What do you know about it?" Jeff was up on his elbow now, staring at his uncle.

"All about it--except that."

"Charlotte tell you? I didn't think she----"

"She didn't. I guessed--and found out. You may as well tell me the rest."

"Isn't it a shame? Poor girl's worked months on those things; just got 'em done. You ought to have seen them; they were great. I told her she could take them as they were, but she wouldn't hear of it."

"But where were they going?"

"To Mr. Murdock, at Chrystler & Company's office. He saw something of Charlotte's once by chance, through a niece of his who's Charlotte's friend, and he sent word to Fiddle that she ought to cultivate that colour sense, or whatever it was, I forget what he called it--for she had it to an unusual degree. Charlotte has cultivated it for two years since then, and now--oh, confound that baby! That's what you get for trying to be a missionary. I wish we'd sent her to an orphanage right off. What's the use?"

"You don't feel that 'sweet are the uses of adversity'? Sometimes they are, though, son. The little second violin hasn't given in and wailed about it; I saw no traces of tears."

"No, you're right you haven't," agreed Jeff, proudly. "She's not that sort. She's all broken up, though, inside, and I don't blame her."

"No. Jeff, to-morrow--it's Saturday, isn't it? You must get those drawings early in the morning, while Charlotte is busy with her Saturday baking. We'll have a livery outfit, and you shall drive me down to Chrystler's."

"Uncle Ray! You're a trump! It's just what I said should be done. The work shows perfectly well what she intended, and if a chap like you explains it----"

Captain Rayburn limped away, laughing, his hand red with the tremendous grip his nephew had just given it. It gave him great pleasure to see the way the boy invariably stood by his sister. It was a characteristic of the Birch family, as a whole, which, it may be said, was worth more both to themselves and to the world at large than the possession of almost any other trait.

It was not until dinner was over that Captain Rayburn and his nephew returned, begging pardon for their tardiness, and explaining that they had taken luncheon in the city.

"Fiddle," Jeff said, with a face of preternatural gravity, "come up to Uncle Ray's room when the dishes are done, will you?"

He vanished before his sister could ask why, and before she could see the grin which overspread his ruddy countenance as he turned away. But something he could not keep out of his voice roused her curiosity, and she made quick work of the dishes.

"Come in, come in!" invited Captain Rayburn, and Jeff rose from the couch, where his nose had been buried among some of his uncle's periodicals.

There were always books and magazines by the Score wherever Captain Rayburn settled himself for any length of time.

The ex-soldier and the schoolboy eyed each other doubtfully for an instant as Charlotte dropped into a chair. Her usually bright face was still very sober, and her eyelashes swept her cheek as she waited.

Captain Rayburn nodded at Jeff. The boy stood on one foot, then on the other, pushed his hands deep into his pockets, pulled them out again, cleared his throat, laughed nervously, and strode suddenly across the room to his sister. He thrust out his hand as he came to a halt before her. "Congratulations to the distinguished decorator!" he cried, and came to the end, temporarily, of his eloquence.

Charlotte looked up in amazement. Jeff seized her hand and pumped it up and down. She glanced in bewilderment at her uncle, and met his smile of encouragement.

"Mine, too," he said.

"What--" she began, and her voice stuck in her throat. Her heart began to thump wildly. Then Jeff told it all in one burst:

"Uncle Ray found your stuff in the attic--thought it great--woke me up and ground it out of me what you meant to do with it. He was sure, as I was, it was fit to show, and you ought not to do it all over first. Got a horse, drove into Chrystler's, saw Murdock. He would look at anything, listened to the story about the baby, looked at the stuff. Face changed--didn't it, Uncle Ray?--from politeness to interest, and all the rest of it. Said the work had faults, of course--you expected that, Fiddle--but it showed promise--'great promise,' that's just what he said. He wants to see everything you do. He wants you to come and see him. He thinks he can use at least two of your rooms, after you've made them over. Oh, he was great! You've done it, Fiddle, you've done it!"

But he was not prepared for the way his sister took the good news. She sat looking solemnly at him for a minute; then she jumped up, turned toward Captain Rayburn with a face on fire with conflicting and uncontrollable emotions, then whirled about and was out of the room like a flash.

"Well, if I ever!" declared Jeff, in intense displeasure, staring at his uncle. But Captain Rayburn's face was the picture of satisfaction.

"It's all right, Jeff," said his uncle. "You never can tell what a woman will do, but you can count on one thing--it won't be what you expect."

"You don't suppose she was angry, do you?"

The captain smiled. "No, I don't think she was angry," he said confidently.

The door flew open again. Two impetuous arms were around Jeff's neck from behind, nearly strangling him. A breezy swirl of skirts, and Captain Rayburn feared for the integrity of his head upon his shoulders. And then the two were alone again.

"Christopher Columbus!--discovered America in 1492!" ejaculated Jefferson, an expression of great delight irradiating his countenance. Then he looked at his uncle with an air of superior wisdom. "Now she'll cry," he said.

"I shouldn't wonder if she did," agreed the captain, nodding.