Nell Speed.

The Carter Girls





CHAPTER I
THE CARTERS

I dont believe a word of it!

But, Helen, the doctor ought to know.

Of course he ought to know, but does he know? If doctors agreed among themselves, Id have more use for them. A poor patient has to submit to having everything the doctors are interested in for the time being. A specialist can always find you suffering with his specialty. Didnt old Dr. Davis treat Father for malaria because he himself, forsooth, happened to be born in the Dismal Swamp, got malaria into his system when he was a baby and never got it out? All his patients must have malaria, too, because Dr. Davis has it.

Yes, Helen, that is so, but you see Fathers symptoms were like malaria in a way, and Douglas Carter could not help laughing at her sister, although she well knew that the last doctors diagnosis of her fathers case was no laughing matter.

Oh, yes, and then the next one, that bushy-whiskered one with his stomach pump and learned talk of an excess of hydrochlorics! Of course he found poor dear Daddy had a stomach, though he had never before been aware of it. All the Carters are such ostriches

So we are if we blindly bury our heads in the sand and refuse to see that this last doctor is right, and

I meant ostrich stomachs and not brains.

Shhh! Here come the children! Lets dont talk about it before them yet. Theyll have to know soon enough. And Douglas, the eldest of the five Carters, tried to smooth her troubled brow and look as though she and Helen had been discussing the weather.

Know what? Im going, too, if its a movie, declared Lucy, a long-legged, thirteen-year-old girl who reminded one of nothing so much as a thorough-bred colt a colt conscious of its legs but meaning to make use of those same legs to out-distance all competitors in the race to be run later on.

I dont believe its movies, said Nan, the fifteen-year-old sister, noting the serious expression of Douglass usually calm countenance. I believe something has happened. Is it Bobby? That was the very small brother, the joy and torment of the whole family.

The Carters formed stair steps with a decided jump off at the bottom. Douglas was eighteen; Helen, seventeen; Nan, fifteen; Lucy, thirteen; and then came a gap of seven years and Bobby, who had crowded the experiences of a lifetime into his six short years, at least the life-long experiences of any ordinary mortal. He was always having hair-breadth escapes so nearly serious that his family lived in momentary terror of each being the last.

No, its not Bobby, said Douglas gravely. Its Father!

But nothing serious! Not Daddy! exclaimed the two younger girls and both of them looked ready for tears. Cant the new doctor cure him?

Yes, he thinks he can, but it is going to be up to us to help, and Douglas drew Lucy and Nan down on the sofa beside her while Helen stopped polishing her pretty pink nails and planted herself on an ottoman at her feet.

All of you must have noticed how thin Father is getting and how depressed he is

Yes, yes! Not a bit like himself!

Well, it wasnt malaria, as Dr. Davis thought; and it wasnt stomach trouble, as Dr. Drew thought; and the surgeons X-ray could not show chronic appendicitis, as Dr. Slaughter feared,

Feared, indeed! sniffed Helen. Hoped, you mean!

But this new nerve specialist that comes here from Washington, so highly recommended

If he was doing so well in Washington, why did he come to Richmond? interrupted the scornful Helen, doubtful as usual of the whole medical fraternity.

I dont know why, honey, but if he can help Father, we should be glad he did come.

If, indeed! Another barrel of tonics and bushel of powders, I suppose!

Not at all! This new man, Dr. Wright, says no medicine at all. Now this is where we come in.

Mind, Helen, Douglas says come in, not butt in, said Lucy pertly. You interrupt so much that Nan and I dont know yet whats the matter with Daddy and how we are to help him.

Well, whos interrupting now? I havent said a word for half an hour at least, said Helen brazenly.

Oh, oh, whatll I do? which was Carter talk for saying, You are fibbing.

Youre another!

Girls, girls, this is not helping. Its just being naughty, from the eldest.

Go on, Douglas, dont mind them. Helen and Lucy would squabble over their crowns and harps in Heaven, said the peace-loving Nan. And the joke of squabbling in Heaven restored order, and Douglas was able to go on with what she had to tell.

Dr. Wright says it is a case of nervous prostration and that a complete change is what Father needs and absolute rest from business. He thinks a sea trip of two months, and a year in the country are absolutely essential.

And will that make him all the way well? asked Helen. If it does, Ill take off my yachting cap to this Dr. Wright as having some sense, after all. I mean to have a lovely new yachting suit for the trip.

Helen was by all odds the most stylish member of the family, and, some thought, the beauty; but others preferred the more serene charm of Douglas, who was a decided blonde with Titian hair and complexion to match. Helens hair was what she scornfully termed a plain American brown, neither one thing nor the other, but it was abundant and fine and you may be sure it was always coiffed in the latest twist.

Nan had soft dark curls and dreamy dark eyes and spoke with a drawl. She did not say much, but when she did speak it was usually to say something worth listening to.

Lucy was as yet too coltish to classify, but she had a way of carrying her bobbed head with its shock of chestnut hair and tilting her pretty little pointed chin which gave her sisters to understand that she intended to have her innings later on, but not so very much later on.

A new yachting suit! Just listen to Helen! Always got to be dressing up! declared Lucy, ever ready for battle with the second sister. I should think you would blush, and, indeed, Helens face was crimson.

Oh, I did not mean to forget Father, but if I have to have a new suit, I just thought I would have it appropriate for the sea trip.

Im going to learn how to climb like a sailor, from Lucy.

Im going to take a chest full of poetry to read on the voyage, from Nan.

But, girls, girls! We are not to go, just Father and Mother! The way we are to help is to stay at home and take care of ourselves and Bobby. How do you think Father could get any rest with all of us tagging on?

Not go! Douglas Carter, you are off your bean! How could we get along without Mother and Father and how under Heaven could they get along without us? What does Mother say? asked Helen.

She hasnt said anything yet. The doctor is still with Father. Dr. Wright says Father must have quiet and no discussions going on around him. He says every one must be cheerful and arrangements must be made for the trip without saying a word to Father.

Is Mother to make them? drawled Nan, and everybody laughed.

It was an excruciating joke to expect Mrs. Carter to make a move or take the initiative in anything. Her r?le was ever to follow the course of least resistance, and up to this time that course had led her only by pleasant places. Like some pretty little meadow stream she had meandered through life, gay and refreshing, if shallow withal, making glad the hearts of many just by her pleasant sweetness; but no one had expected any usefulness from her, so she had given none.

Twenty years ago, fresh from the laurels of a brilliant winter, her debutante year in New Orleans, the beautiful Miss Sevier had taken the White Sulphur by storm. Only one figure at one German had been enough to show Robert Carter that she was the only girl for him; and as he was the type that usually got what he started out to get, and also was by all odds the best looking young man at the White, besides being a very promising architect who had plenty of work waiting for him in Richmond, Annette Sevier naturally succumbed to his wooing, and in three weeks time their engagement was announced. She was an exquisite girl, a Creole beauty of a daintiness and charm that appealed to every fibre of Bob Carters being. She had been a beautiful girl and was still a beautiful woman; under forty, she looked more like the elder sister of her great girls than like their mother.

I confess to Bobby, she would say, and maybe to Lucy, although her long legs make me a little doubtful of her being really mine but you other girls, you must be changelings.

Robert Carter had worked hard to keep his dainty love in all the comforts that she needed. I will not say expected or demanded, she did neither of those disagreeable or ungraceful things. Comfort and elegance were just necessary to her environment and one could no more accuse her of selfishness than tax a queen for receiving homage.

If a dainty, elegant wife with no idea that money was more than something to spend takes hard work to keep, surely four growing girls with the extravagant ideas of the young persons of the day meant redoubled and tripled labour. Then there was Bobby! It took still more money to furnish him with all the little white linen sailor suits that his doting mother considered necessary for him. She thought nothing of having two dozen made up at one time, and those of the purest and finest linen. Bob, Sr., looking over the bill for those same two dozen suits, did have a whimsical thought that with all that equipment it would be gratifying if just once he could see Bob, Jr., clean; but the only way to see Bobby clean was to lie in wait for him on the way from the bath; then and then only was he clean.

As a rule, however, Robert Carter accepted the bills as part of the days work. If they were larger than usual, then he would just work a little harder and get more money. An inborn horror of debt kept him out of it. He had all the orders he could fill and was singularly successful in competitive designs. His health had always been perfect and his energy so great that action was his normal state.

And now what was this thing that had come upon him? A strange lassitude that made it almost impossible for him to get up in the morning, a heaviness of limbs and an irascibility that was as foreign to him as weakness. It had been going on for several weeks and he had run the gamut of doctors, impatient of their failures. They agreed on only one thing and that was that he must rest. How could he rest? Werent there five pairs of legs demanding silk stockings (even Lucy insisted that her lean shanks be clothed in the best)? Suits and hats must be bought with each change of season for the whole family, shirtwaists and shoes, lingerie of the finest. It took four servants besides the chauffeur to run their establishment. Their butchers bills were only equalled by the dairy bills, their grocery bills by their gasoline. Rest, indeed! They might as well tell Uncle Sam to rest, said the sick man to himself. Who is going to pay for the silk stockings if I rest?

The doctor had come, the last one on his list of doctors, a young man from Washington, a nerve specialist. He had asked him quite seriously if he had had any hallucinations, seen things he could not quite account for, and Carter had answered somewhat grimly: Silk stockings and French chops! And the doctor, being a very knowing young man, had understood.

You see, Mr. Carter, any one in your run-down nervous condition is apt to brood over fancied troubles until it is not uncommon for him to be in a measure delirious. Now I am going to be quite frank with you, which is a course not usually pursued by nerve specialists but one I feel to be wisest. You have presumed on your strength and endurance for many years. Physically you have stood the test, but your nerves, which are in a way the mind or soul of the muscles and organs, have at last rebelled, and now you are going to have to submit to inactivity for at least a year

A year! My God, man, you are crazy!

Yes, a year. Would not that be better than going to pieces completely and living on, a useless hulk? There, I thought that would make you sit up. Why should you not rest? What is eating you?

Dr. Wright had a very brusque manner which was, indeed, in keeping with his appearance. He was a stalwart, broad-shouldered man, considerably under thirty. His face, rough-hewn but not heavy, was redeemed from plainness by the bluest blue eyes that were ever seen, with exceedingly long black lashes. His teeth were good but his rather long upper lip did not disclose the fact except on the rare occasions when he laughed. He had more control over his mouth than his eyes, as his eyes laughed continually whether he would or no. His brows were heavy and shaggy and he had a trick of pulling them down over his eyes as though he wanted to have his little laugh to himself, since those eyes would laugh. There was no laugh in his eyes now, but rather a stern kindness as he slangily invited the confidence of the older man, his patient.

Eating me? Why, money, of course. I have absolutely nothing but what I earn, and look at my family! They have always had everything I could give them and

And now they must wake up and pay for their beds of ease, said the physician grimly. Have you no property?

Well, I own the house we live in; at least I almost own it. If a shoemakers children do go barefoot, an architect does build and own the house he lives in, and the sick man managed to smile.

Thats good! Any other property?

Ive a side of a mountain in Albemarle County. I took it for a bad debt from a country store-keeper a kind of miser but I believe Id rather have the debt, as at least I had no taxes to pay on the debt.

Mr. Carter and Dr. Wright were alone during this conversation as Mrs. Carter had left the room to endeavor to compose herself. The little meadow brook had struck a rocky bed at last and its shallow waters were troubled. What was to become of her? Her Bob ill! Too ill to be worried about anything! And this beetle browed young doctor scared her with his intent gaze; there was no admiration or homage in it, only a scarcely veiled disapproval. She felt like a poor little canary with a great Tom-cat peering at her, scorning her as too insignificant even for a mouth-full. And how was it her fault that she was so useless? Was it the canarys fault that he had been born in a cage and some one took care of him and he had never had to do like other birds and grub for his living? She was just about as capable of doing what this Dr. Wright expected of her as the canary would have been had he told the bird to come out of his cage and begin not only to grub worms for himself but for the kind person who had always fed him and maybe for the family as well.

Mrs. Carter, said Dr. Wright, trying evidently not to be too stern as the little woman fluttered back into the room, a redness about her eye-lids and a fresh sprinkling of powder on her pretty nose, I want your husband to give you power of attorney so you can transact any business for him that is necessary

Me? Oh, Dr. Wright, not me! I cant write a check and dont know how to do sums at all. Couldnt you do it?

Douglas will do, feebly muttered the invalid.

Is Douglas your son?

Oh, no! She is our eldest daughter.

It is strange how you Virginians, with the most womanly women I know of anywhere, are constantly giving them masculine names. Shall I ask Miss Douglas to come to you? Dr. Wright was evidently for early action and meant to push his point without more ado.

Oh, Doctor, couldnt you see her first and tell her what it is you want? I dont quite understand.

Yes, Mrs. Carter, if you wish it. And now I must ask you to keep your husband very quiet, no talking, no discussions, sleep, if he can get it, and very nourishing food. I will write out what I want him to eat and will ask you to see that he gets it and gets it on schedule time.

Poor little canary! The time has come for you to begin to grub!

CHAPTER II
POWER OF ATTORNEY

When Dr. Wright entered the library where the four girls were holding their consultation, he thought that without doubt they made a very charming group. But his soul was wroth within him at womenkind who could let a man like the one he had just left upstairs slave himself almost into insensibility that they might be gorgeously clothed and delicately fed. Silk stockings and lamb chops! Both very expensive luxuries! Well, they would learn their lesson young, which was a blessing. Rump steaks and bare feet or maybe cotton stockings and sandals would not be so hard on them as on the poor little weakling upstairs with her pretty eyes already reddened at the first breath of disaster.

The library at the Carters home was a beautiful room with not one jarring note. Low bookshelves built into the walls were filled with books in rich bindings. Costly rugs covered the floors. The walls were hung with signed etchings and rare prints. Ordinarily George Wright would have taken great pleasure in such a room, but now he only looked upon it as just so much more evidence of the selfishness of the females of the Carter family and the unremitting toil of the male.

He had not yet met any of the girls, but without hesitation he came forward, his step singularly light for one of his build. He spoke before Helen, whose back was towards the door, had even become aware of his presence. She gave a little gasp, sprang from the low ottoman, and faced the young physician, a spirit of antagonism showing from the first in her flashing eyes and sensitive nostrils. Helen had what Nan called a speaking nose, and every emotion was shown as clearly by her nose as by some persons eyes and others mouths.

I want to speak to Miss Douglas Carter; but since all of you are here, perhaps it might be just as well for me to speak to all of you. The last part of his speech was made to Helen, whose attitude of defiance was unmistakable.

I am Douglas, said the elder girl, rising and giving her hand graciously to the young man whose blue eyes showed no gleam of humour now and whose long upper lip was pulled down so far and so grimly that his perfect teeth could not do their part towards taking from the rugged homeliness of his face. This is Helen, this Nan, and this Lucy.

The girls shook hands with him, all but Helen. She bowed, but as she bowed backwards, as it were, that is, jerked her chin up rather than down, it did not pass for courtesy.

Wont you sit down? asked Douglas.

Well, yes, Ive got to talk to you girls like a Dutch uncle and I might just as well get down to it.

I have an engagement, said Helen icily, consulting her tiny wrist watch, so I will be excused.

What time is your engagement?

Whenever I choose to keep it.

Well, then I think you will choose to keep it a little later. I have one, too, but am going to spare a few minutes to talk about your father, and I think it best for all of you to be present.

Douglas drew Helen down beside her. The girl was trembling just like a young horse who has felt the first spur. Robert Carter had always said that Helen was the best child in the world just so long as she had her own way. Fortunately her own way was not a very wrong way as a rule, but if there were a clash of wills, good-by to the will that was not hers.

Who was this bushy-eyebrowed young Caliban who came there ordering her about? She would show him! But in the meantime Douglas had an arm around her and Caliban was talking.

Your father is a very ill man and as his physician I feel compelled to have a very serious conversation with the family.

Will he die? whispered Lucy, all pertness gone from her young face.

No, my dear, he will not die; but he may do worse than die unless he can be allowed to take the rest that he should have been taking for years.

What could be worse than death? sobbed Nan.

Uselessness! Chronic nervous prostration! His nerves have lost their elasticity and nothing will cure him but a long rest, absolutely free from care. Worries of all kinds, business, financial, family, every kind, must be kept from him. As I told your mother yesterday, a sea voyage would be the best thing for him, a long, lazy trip. When one gets on the water out of sight of land he kind of loses his identity in the immensity of Creation. That is what I want your father to do lose his identity. Your mother must go with him to nurse him he wont need much nursing, fortunately. And now you girls have got to decide among yourselves what is best to do. I know your financial affairs are none of my business

Ahem from Helen.

But I have to make your business my business for the time being on account of my patient. Your father tells me he has absolutely no income except what he gets from his profession. You know that, I suppose?

Why no that is we hesitated Douglas. Father never talked business with us.

Um hum! I see! Just gave you ample allowances and let you spend em?





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