Book I. The Second Violin
Chapter IX
 

Lanse stood in the kitchen door, lunch-pail in hand. It lacked ten minutes of seven of a June morning; therefore he wore his working clothes. He glanced down at them now with an expression of extreme distaste, then from Celia to Charlotte, both of whom wore fresh print dresses covered with the trim pinafore aprons which were Celia's pride.

"When this siege is over," he remarked, "maybe I won't appreciate the privilege of wearing clean linen from morning till night every day in the week."

"Poor old Lanse!" said Celia, with compassion. "That's been the part that has tried your soul, hasn't it! You haven't minded the work, but the dirt----"

"I hope I'm not a Nancy, either," Lanse went on. "I'm sure I don't feel that my wonderful dignity is compromised by my occupation. Better men than I soil their hands to more purpose every day, but--well, I must be off."

He departed abruptly, leaving Celia standing in the door to wave a hand to him as he turned the corner.

"John Lansing is tired," she said to Charlotte, sisterly sympathy in her voice. "I don't think we've half appreciated what all these months in the shops have meant to him. It isn't as if he were training for one of the engineering specialties, and were interested in his work as practical education in his own line. He'll never have the least use for anything he's learning now."

"He may," Charlotte suggested. "He may marry a girl who will want him to do odd jobs about the house. A mechanic in the family is an awfully desirable thing. Mrs. Fields says there's nothing Doctor Churchill can't do in the way of repairing; and when I told that to Uncle Ray he said that all good surgeons needed to be born mechanics, and usually were. And even though Lanse makes a lawyer, like father, he may need to get out of the automobile he'll have some day, and crawl under it and make it over inside before he can go on."

Celia laughed, and went to call the rest of the family from their beds, early hours having now perforce become the habit of the Birch family.

It was some three hours later that Charlotte sat down for a moment to rest on the little vine-covered back porch. The breakfast work and the bed-making were over, the kitchen was in order, and there was time to draw breath before plunging into the next set of duties.

Celia had gone up-stairs to some summer sewing she had on hand; Captain Rayburn had taken the baby around the corner to a pretty park, where the two spent long hours now, in the perfect June weather; the boys were at school, and the house was very still.

Charlotte stretched her arms above her head, drawing a long breath.

"How long ago it seems that I was free after breakfast to do what I wanted to!" she said to herself. "And how little I realised all the cares that were always on mother! Oh, if it were only time for them to come back--this day--this hour--this minute! I wouldn't mind the work now, if they were only here."

The girl's gaze, fixed wistfully on the leafy treetops above her, suddenly dropped to earth. A man's figure was stumbling along the little path which led diagonally from the back of the Birch premises through a gateway and off toward a back street, the route by which Lanse was accustomed to take an inconspicuous short cut toward the locomotive shops, by the river.

For an instant, only the similarity of the figure to Lanse's struck her, for the wavering walk and bandaged head, with hand pressed to the forehead, did not suggest her brother. At the next instant the man lifted a white face, and Charlotte gave a startled cry as she saw that it was John Lansing himself, in a sorry plight.

She ran to him. His head was clumsily tied up in a soiled cloth, which the blood was beginning to stain. As she put her arm about him he smiled wanly down at her, murmuring, "Thought I couldn't make it--glad I have. No--not the house--Doctor's office. Don't want to scare Celia. It's nothing."

It might be nothing, but he was leaning heavily on his sister's strong young shoulder as they crossed the threshold of Doctor Churchill's little office, Charlotte having flung open the door without waiting to ring. Nobody was there.

"No, don't try to sit up in a chair. Here, lie down on the couch," she insisted, and Lanse yielded, none too soon. His face had lost all colour by the time he had stretched his tall form on the wide leather couch which stood ready for just such occupants.

Charlotte went back to the door and rang the bell; then, as nobody appeared, she explored the lower part of the house for Mrs. Fields in vain.

Returning, she caught sight for the first time of a little memorandum on the doctor's desk: "Out. Return 10:30 A.M." She glanced at the clock. It was exactly quarter past ten.

She studied her brother's face anxiously. The stain upon the cloth was rapidly growing larger. She was sure he ought not to lie there with the bleeding unchecked. She went to the door of the small private office; her eyes fell upon a package labeled "Absorbent Cotton." She opened it, pulled out a handful, and went back to her brother.

She lifted the cloth from his head, and saw a long, uneven gash, from which the blood was freely oozing. Taking two rolls of cotton, she laid one on each side of the wound, forcing the edges together. After a little experimenting she found that by holding her cotton very firmly and pressing in a certain way, the flow of the blood was almost completely checked.

"Does that hurt?" she asked Lanse. He nodded without speaking, but she did not lighten her pressure. She saw that he was very faint.

"I'm sorry it hurts you, dear," she said, "but it stops the blood when I press this way, and I'm sure that's better for you. The doctor will be here soon, and I think I'd better hold it till he comes."

Lanse nodded again, his brows contracting with pain, not only from the pressure upon the wound, but from the reaction from the blow which had caused it.

Charlotte's eyes watched the clock, her hands never relinquishing their task.

"What next?" she was thinking. "Will the time ever be up and father and mother come back to find us all safe? Three more months--three more months----"

Dr. Andrew Churchill came whistling softly across the lawn, glancing at his watch, and noting that he was fifteen minutes later than he had expected to be. In the doorway of his office he came to a surprised halt.

"Miss Charlotte! What's happened?"

Lanse spoke faintly for himself: "Got hit at the shop--wrench slipped out of man's hands above me--nothing much----"

"No--I see," the doctor answered, surveying the situation.

He lifted Charlotte's cotton rolls, noted the character and extent of the injury, and lost no time in getting at work.

"Keep up that pressure just as you were doing, please, Miss Charlotte, while I make things ready. We'll have you all right in a jiffy, Birch."

Two minutes later the doctor had Lanse stretched on a narrow white table in an inner office. "I've got to hurt you quite a bit," he said to his patient. "I don't want to give you an anesthetic, but somebody must hold your head. Shall I call Mrs. Fields?"

He glanced at Charlotte, and met what he had counted on--her help. "No, I can manage," she said quietly.

The doctor was soon ready, with arms, surgically clean, bared to the elbows.

It was rather a bad ten minutes for Lanse that followed, although he bore it bravely, without a sound. The strong, steady support of his sister's hands on the sides of his head never varied, and her eyes watched the doctor's rapid movements with absorbed attention. Doctor Churchill glanced at her two or three times, but met only quiet resolve in her face, which, although pale, showed no sign of weakness.

The injury was a severe one, being no clean cut, but a jagged gash several inches in length, caused by a heavy blow with a rough tool. Charlotte observed that the worker seemed never at a loss what to do, that his touch was as light as it was practised, and that his eyes were full of keen interest in his work. At length Doctor Churchill finished his manipulations and put on the smooth bandages, which, he remarked with a laugh, were to turn Lanse into the image of the Terrible Turk.

"You show all the Spartan attributes of the real martyr," declared the doctor, as he helped his patient back to a couch. "It took pluck to get home here alone. How was it they sent no man with you?"

"Everybody busy. A man was coming with me if I'd let him, but I didn't care for his company so I slipped out. It was farther home than I thought," Lanse explained. "How long will this lay me up? I can go back to-morrow, can't I?"

"Suppose we say the day after. That hammock on your front porch behind the vines strikes me as a restful place for you. A bit of vacation won't hurt you."

By afternoon the ache in John Lansing's head had reached a point where he gladly lay quietly in the hammock and submitted to be waited on by two devoted feminine slaves. The doctor came over to see him after supper, and found him in a high state of restlessness. He got him to bed, stayed with him until he fell into an uneasy slumber, then left him in charge of Celia, and came so quietly down to the front porch again that he startled Charlotte, who lay in the hammock Lanse had lately quitted.

"Do you need me?" she asked eagerly. "I thought Lanse would rather have Celia with him, and I was sure she wanted to take care of him, so I stayed. But I'm ready, if I'm wanted."

"You're wanted," returned Doctor Churchill, gently, "but not up-stairs just now. Lie still in that hammock; let me fix the pillows a bit. Yes, do, please. Do you know it's positively the first time I've seen you appearing to rest since I've known you?"

"Why, Doctor Churchill!"

"It's absolutely so. You're growing thin under the cares you've assumed. And I suspect, besides the cares, you keep yourself busy when you ought to be resting. Am I right?"

Charlotte coloured in the twilight of the porch, which the thick vines of the wisteria screened from the electric light on the corner, except for a few feet at the end nearest the door. She had been working harder than ever all the spring over her designs for Chrystler & Company, and her cheeks were of a truth somewhat less round and her colour less vivid of hue. She was tired, although she had not owned it, even to herself.

"You see, Doctor Churchill," she said, slowly, "until father and mother went away I had been the lazy one of the family, the good-for-nothing--the drone--and I've not yet learned to work in the quiet way my sister does, which accomplishes so much without any fuss. Now that she can get about again she does twice as much as I do, but she doesn't make such a clatter of tools, and doesn't get the credit for being as busy as I."

"I see. Of course I had a feeling all along that this dish-washing and dinner-getting and baby-tending were mere pretense, and I'm relieved to have you own up to it!"

Charlotte laughed. "After all, one doesn't like to be taken at one's own estimate," she admitted. "I confess I feel a pang to have you agree with me, even in jest."

"Do you know," he said, abruptly, after an instant's silence, "you gave me great pleasure this morning?"

"I? How?"

"By the way you stood by your brother."

"Oh!" said Charlotte, astonished. "But I didn't do anything.

"Nothing at all, except keep cool and hold steady. Those are the hardest things a surgeon can set a novice at, you know."

"But you needed me; and Mrs. Fields was out. You didn't know that, but I did. And I don't think I'm one of the fainting-away kind."

"No, you can stand fire. I think sometimes--do you know what I think?"

Charlotte waited, her cheeks warm in the darkness. Praise is always sweet when one has earned it.

"I believe you would stand by a friend--to the last ditch."

Charlotte was silent for a minute; then she answered, low and honestly, "If he were a friend at all worth having I should try."

"And expect the same loyalty in return?"

"Indeed I should."

"I should like," said Doctor Churchill's steady voice, "to try a friendship like that--an acknowledged one. I always was a fellow who liked things definite. I don't like to say to myself, 'I think that man is my friend--I'm sure he is--he shows it.' No, I want him to say so--to shake hands on it. I had such a friend once--the only one. When he died I felt I had lost--I can't tell you what, Miss Charlotte. I never had another."

There was a long silence this time. The figure in the hammock lay still. But Charlotte's heart was beating hard. She knew already that Doctor Churchill was the warm friend of the family. Could he mean to single her out as the special object of his regard--her, Charlotte--when people like Lanse and Celia were within reach?

Charlotte rose to her feet, the doctor rising with her. She held out her hand, and he could see that she was looking steadily up at him. He gazed back at her, and a bright smile broke over his face.

"Do you mean it?" he said, eagerly. "Oh, thank you!"

He grasped the firm young hand as Charlotte fancied he might have grasped that of the comrade he had lost.

"Can't we take a little walk in this glorious moonlight?" he asked, happily. "Just up and down the block once or twice? Or are you too tired?"

Charlotte was not too tired; her weariness had vanished as if by magic. The two strolled slowly up and down the quiet street, talking earnestly. The doctor told his companion about several interesting cases he had among the children, and of one little crippled boy upon whom he had recently operated. The girl listened with an unaffected interest and sympathy very grateful to the man who had long missed companionship of that sort. An hour went by as if on wings.

Celia came to the door as the two young people were saying good-night at the foot of the steps. The doctor looked up at her with a smile.

"Is the patient quiet?" he asked.

"Yes, only he mutters in his sleep."

"That's not strange. He's bound to be a bit feverish after that blow; but I don't anticipate serious trouble. Let Jeff sleep on the couch in his room; that will be all that's necessary."

Celia stood looking down at the doctor as her sister came up the steps. "It's strange," she said, "for I know Lanse isn't badly hurt, but all I can think of to-night is how I wish father and mother were here."

"That's been in my head all day," said Charlotte, with her arm around Celia's shoulder.

"I can understand," Doctor Churchill answered them both, and they knew he could. "But just remember that though they were on the other side of the world to stay for years, they can still come back to you. Just to know that seems to me enough."

They understood him. Celia would have made warm-hearted answer, but at that instant the sound of heavy carriage-wheels rapidly rounding the corner and coming toward them made all three turn to look. The carriage came on at a great pace, swerved toward them, and drew in to the curb, the driver pulling in his horses at their door.

"Who can it be?" breathed Celia. "Nobody has written. It must be a mistake."

Charlotte gasped. "It couldn't be--Celia--it couldn't be----"

The driver leaped from the box and flung open the door. A tall figure stepped out, turned toward them as if trying to make sure who they were, then waved its arm. The familiar gesture brought two cries of rapture as Charlotte rushed and Celia hurried down the steps.

The doctor stood still and watched, his pulse quickening in sympathy. He saw the tall figure grasp in turn both the slender ones, heard two eager cries of "Mother!" and beheld the second occupant of the carriage fairly dragged out, to be smothered in two pairs of impetuous young arms. Then he went quietly away over the lawn to his own house, feeling that he had as yet no right to be one of the group about the home-comers.

In his room, an hour later, he stood before the portrait of a woman, no longer young, but beautiful with the beauty which never grows old. He stood looking up at it, then spoke gently to it.

"She's just your sort, dear," he said, his keen eyes soft and bright. "It's only friendship now, for she's not much more than a child, and I wouldn't ask too much too soon. But some day--give me your blessing, mother, for I've been lonely without you as long as I can bear it."