RED PEPPER BURNS
By Grace S. Richmond
I. IN WHICH HE VOWS A VOW
II. IN WHICH HE CREATES A CIRCUS
III. IN WHICH HE ASSUMES A RESPONSIBILITY
IV. IN WHICH HE MAKES A CONCESSION
V. IN WHICH HE IS ROUGH ON A FRIEND
VI. IN WHICH HE PRESCRIBES FOR HIMSELF
VII. IN WHICH HE CONTINUES TO SAW WOOD
VIII. IN WHICH HE IS UNREASONABLY PREOCCUPIED
IX. IN WHICH HE SUFFERS A DEFEAT
X. IN WHICH HE PROVES HIMSELF A HOST
XI. IN WHICH HE GETS EVEN WITH HIMSELF
XII. IN WHICH HE HAS HIS OWN WAY
XIII. IN WHICH HE MAKES NO EVENING CALL
XIV. IN WHICH HE DEFIES SUPERSTITION
CHAPTER I. IN WHICH HE VOWS A VOW
"There comes the Green Imp."
"How can you tell?"
"Don't you hear? Red's coming in on five cylinders for all he can get out of 'em. Anybody else would stop and fix up. He's in too much of a hurry—as usual."
The Green Imp tore past the porch where Burns's neighbours waved arms of greeting which he failed to see, for he did not turn his head. The car went round the curve of the driveway at perilous speed, and only the fact that from road to old red barn was a good twenty rods made it seem possible that the Green Imp could come to a standstill in time to prevent its banging into the rear wall of the barn.
Two minutes later Burns ran by the Chesters' porch on his way to his own. Chester hailed him.
"What's your everlasting hurry, Red? Come up and sit down and cool off."
"Not now," called back a voice curtly, out of the June twilight. The big figure ran on and disappeared into the small house, the door slamming shut behind it.
"Red's in a temper. Tell by the sound of his voice.
"Is he ever in anything except a temper?" inquired a guest of the Chesters. Arthur Chester turned on her.
"Show's you don't know him much, Pauline. He's the owner of the fiercest good disposition ever heard of. He's the pepperest proposition of an angel this earth has ever seen. He's a red-headed, sharp-tongued brute of a saint—"
"Why, Arthur Chester!"
"He's a pot of mustard that's clear balm—if you don't mind getting stung when it's applied."
"Well, of all the—"
"I'm going over to get something for this abominable headache—and, incidentally, to find out what's the row. He's probably lost a patient—it always goes to his brain like that. When he abuses his beloved engine that way it's because some other machinery has stopped somewhere."
"If he's lost a patient you'd better let him alone, dear," advised his wife, Winifred.
"No—he needs to get his mind off it, on me. I can fix up a few symptoms for him."
"He'll see through you," called Mrs. Chester softly, after him.
"No doubt of that. But it may divert him, just the same."
Chester made his way across the lawn and in at the side door which led to the dimly lighted village offices of Redfield Pepper Burns, physician and surgeon. Not that the gilt-lettered sign on the glass of the office door read that way. "R. P. Burns, M.D." was the brief inscription above the table of "office hours," and the owner of the name invariably so curtailed it. But among his friends the full name had inevitably been turned into the nickname, for the big, red-haired, quick-tempered, warm-hearted fellow was "Red Pepper Burns" as irresistibly to them as he had been, a decade earlier, to his classmates in college.
As Chester went in at the door a figure arose slowly from its position—flung full length, face downward, on a couch in the shadowy inner office and came into view.
"Toothache? Dentist down the street," said a blurred voice unsympathetically.
Chester laughed. "Oh, come, Red," said he. "Give me some of that headache dope. I'm all out."
"Glad to hear it. You don't get any more from me."
"Why not? I've got a sure-enough headache—I didn't come over to quiz you. The blamed thing whizzes like a buzz saw."
"Can't help it. Go soak it."
Chester advanced. "I'll get the powders myself, then. I know the bottle."
A substantial barrier interposed. "No, you don't. You've taken up six ounces of that stuff do seven days. You quit to-night."
"Look here, Red, what's the use of taking it out on me like that, if you are mad at something? If your head—"
"I wish it did ache—like ten thousand furies. It might take some of the pressure off somewhere else," growled R. P. Burns. He shut the door of the inner office hard behind him.
"I thought so," declared Arthur Chester, suddenly forgetting about his headache in his anxiety to know the explanation of the five cylinders. It was a small suburban town in which they lived, and if something had gone wrong it was a matter of common interest. "Can you tell me about it?" he asked—a little diffidently, for none knew better than he that things could not always be told, and that no lips were locked tighter than Red Pepper's when the secret was not his to tell.
"Engine's on the blink. Got to go out and fix it," was the unpromising reply. Burns picked up a sparkplug from the office desk as he spoke.
"Had your dinner?"
"Don't want it."
"Shall I go out with you?"
The answer was an unintelligible grunt. As Chester was about to follow his friend out—for there could be no doubt that Red Pepper Burns was his friend in spite of this somewhat surly, though by no means unusual, treatment—another door opened tentatively, and a head was cautiously inserted.
"Your dinner's ready, Doctor Burns," said a doubtful voice.
Burns turned. "Leave a pitcher of milk on the table for me, Cynthia," he said in a gentler voice than Chester had yet heard from him tonight, crisp though it was. "Nothing else."
Chester, catching a glimpse of a brightly lighted dining-room and a table lavishly spread, undertook to remonstrate. He had seen the housekeeper's disappointed face, also. But Burns cut him short.
"Come along—if you must," said he, and stalked out into the night.
For an hour, in the light from one of the Green Imp's lamps, Chester sat on an overturned box and watched Burns work. He worked savagely, as if applying surgical measures to a mood as well as to a machine. He worked like a skilled mechanic as well; every turn of a nut, every polish of a thread meaning definite means to an end. The night was hot and he had thrown off coat and collar and rolled his sleeves high, so a brawny arm gleamed in the bright lamplight, and the open shirt exposed a powerful neck. Chester, who was of slighter build and not as tall as he would have liked to be, watched enviously.
"Whatever goes wrong with your affairs, Red," he observed suddenly, breaking a long interval during which the engine had been made to throb and whirl like the "ten thousand furies" to whom its engineer had lately made allusion, "you have the tremendous asset of a magnificent body to fall back on for comfort."
With a movement of the hand Burns stopped his engine, now running quietly, and stood up straight. He threw out one bare arm, grimy and oily with his labours. "Two hours ago," said he in a voice now controlled and solemn, "if by cutting off that right arm at the shoulder I could have saved a human life I'd have done it."
"And now," retorted Chester quickly, "now, two hours after—would you cut it off now?"
Red Pepper looked at him. The arm dropped. "No," said he, "I wouldn't. Not for a dozen lives like that. I'm not heroic, after all—only hot and cold by jumps, like a thermometer. But I ache all over, just the same. She runs like a bird now. Jump in—we'll take a spin and try her out on the road. I may need her before midnight."
Nothing loth, for he knew the Green Imp and her driver and had had many a swift run on a moonlight night before in the same company, Chester took the slim roadster's other seat, watching the long green hood point the way down the driveway, past the porch where the women, in white gowns showing coolly in the light from the arc lamp at the corner of the street, called a goodbye.
"Back—some time," replied Chester's voice, rising above the low purr of the engine with a note of satisfaction in it. The figure beside him, still in open, white shirt, with bare arms and uncovered, thick thatch of red hair, did not turn its head.
"Arthur's never so happy as when he's out with Red in the Green Imp," Winifred said to her guest as the roadster shot away under the elms which drooped beneath the arc light.
"Doctor Burns is certainly the oddest man I ever saw," replied the guest, swinging idly in the hammock and watching the car out of sight down the long vista of the village street. "He hasn't given me one real good look yet. I suppose if I were a patient he would favour me with an all-seeing gaze out of those Irish-Scotch barbarian eyes of his, but as it is"—her voice was slightly petulant—"I believe I shall have to do as Arthur has: make up some symptoms and go over to his office."
"If you do you'll get precisely the same treatment I presume Arthur had." Mrs. Chester laughed as she spoke. "I doubt very much whether he comes back with any headache medicine."
"But he got a moonlight ride in that beauty of a car," the guest declared enviously. "That treatment would suit me wonderfully well, whatever was the matter."
"Would you have gone with him in his shirt-sleeves? He's plainly in a shirt-sleeve mood to-night."
"I think a drive in the moonlight with a 'brute of a saint' in shirt-sleeves, with arms like those, might be interesting," mused the guest, indicating invisible patterns on the porch with the toe of a white slipper.
"He would probably talk cars and engines every mile in the most matter-of-fact way," Winifred Chester assured her. "No woman yet has ever been able, as far as this town knows, to strike a spark of romance out of Red Pepper Burns."
"Yet he has red hair," murmured the guest to herself, and continued to look thoughtfully down the street along which the Green Imp had shot out toward the open! country beyond.
Out in that open country, miles away, the car running with that exquisite precision of rotating cylinder explosions which is music to the trained ear of the mechanic at the wheel, the two men sat silent. The pace of the Green Imp was one to cut off speech, for the road wets straight and empty, stretching like a white ribbon under the stars, with now and then a band of midnight shade crossing it where arching tree-tops met the course which invites an open throttle and the intent eye which goes with it.
Suddenly the car struck aside from the straightaway and with open cut-out roared up a steep hill by means of which a narrow road led off toward a part of the country not often selected by motorists for pleasure spins. Chester recognized that his companion had a purpose beyond that of "trying out" his engine, unless, indeed, the tough and rocky grade were a test. But Burns was still silent, and the other man applied himself to holding on. A mile up the road the car came to an abrupt standstill before a tiny house.
"Going to make a call, after all?" was on Chester's lips, but the sight of something, showing white beside the door in the lamplight which streamed out upon a small, decrepit porch, drove back the words.
Burns left a silent engine and strode up the straggling path with the light tread of the heavy man whose muscles are under his control. He walked in at the open door without knocking, and Chester caught the sharp sound of a woman's voice at a tension, saying: "Oh, Doctor!"
It seemed to him an hour, though by his watch it was but nine minutes, that he sat watching the little flimsy streamer of white flutter to and fro in the lamplight, his heart beating heavily, as a father's will at sight of the sign of some other man's loss.
At the end of those interminable nine minutes Burns was back again in the car. He turned the Green Imp about as quietly as if she were a cat stealing out of the yard, and sent her down the rocky road at her slowest speed. At the bottom of the hill he broke the long silence.
"Couldn't have slept an hour if I hadn't come back," he said in a low tone. "Back and apologized for being a brute. It's eased me up a bit I think it's eased her, too, poor soul."
"Then it wasn't losing the case," Chester began doubtfully. He was never sure just when it was safe to ask Red Pepper questions, but he thought it seemed safer than usual now.
"No, it wasn't losing the case, though that was bad enough. It was losing my infernal hair-trigger of a temper that's been cutting in like a knife. I had the boy where he ought to get well if they followed my precautions a thousand times repeated. This morning his heart was a whole lot stronger; it only needed time. Tonight his mother let him sit up—in spite of all I'd threatened her with if she did. He went out like a snuffed candle. When I saw it I was so angry with her I"—he thrust up one hand and ran it through his thick locks with a gesture of savagery—"I let loose on her—poor soul with her heart already broken. He was the only boy—of course,—I ought to have been shot on the spot."
He sent the car flying down the road. Chester could think of nothing to say. He could imagine the sort of apology Red had given the boy's mother—one to make her forgive and adore him. No doubt it had "eased her." It must have been a hard thing for R. P. Burns, M.D., to do. Suddenly recalling this he said so, and added a word of admiration. Burns turned on him.
"Boy," he said, "I'm the toughest case on my list. I'm a chronic patient. Just as I think I have myself in hand I suffer a relapse. I break out in a new place. Of all men who need self-control, it's a surgeon needs it most. Sometimes, I'm in too much of a temper to operate—just because a nurse has failed to provide the right sutures. Every red hair on my head stands up like a porcupine's quills—my hand isn't steady I can't trust my own judgment till I've cooled down. There's only one hope for me—"
He broke off abruptly, and the Green Imp accelerated her pace as they came to the long, straight road home. Until they reached the turn under the elms which led to the town, he left the sentence unfinished, while Chester waited. Chester felt it would be worth waiting for—that which Red Pepper might say next. When it came it surprised him—it even gave him a strange thrill coming from Red Pepper.
"I've put my case into the only competent hands," said Burns slowly and quite simply. "I've promised my Maker I'll never insult His name again."
CHAPTER II. IN WHICH HE CREATES A CIRCUS
"Yes, Miss Mathewson."
"The long-distance telephone, please."
Burns excused himself to the last patient of the evening series, and shut himself in with the long-distance. When he came out he was looking at his watch. From its face he turned to that of his office nurse—the one hardly less businesslike in expression than the other.
"Miss Mathewson, my aunt telephones that my father and mother are both sick, each anxious to distraction about the other, she about them both, and under the weather herself. If you and I can catch the ten-fifteen to-night we can be there by two, and by leaving there at four we can be back here in time for the morning's operations. If they need you I'll leave you there for a day or two—by your leave. We'll take the Green Imp into the city—the ten-fifteen doesn't stop here. Then it'll be at the hospital when we want it in the morning. You've twenty minutes to get ready."
"Very well, Doctor Burns."
The office bell rang. Burns fled toward the inner office. Miss Mathewson discovered the guest of the Chesters on the doorstep—all in white, with a face which usually stimulated interest wherever it was seen.
"May I see Doctor Burns just a minute—for Mr. Chester?" The caller took her cue cleverly from Miss Mathewson's face, which at the moment expressed schedules and engagements thick as blackberries in August. Burns, just closing the inner door, caught Chester's name. He pulled off his white office coat, slid into his gray tweed one, and opened the door.
"What can I do for Mr. Chester—in three minutes?" he inquired, coming forward. Miss Mathewson, aware of the shortness of time, vanished.
"Give me something for his headache, please," replied the young person in white promptly. Schedules and engagements were in R. P. Burns's eyes also; they looked at her without appearing to see her at all. To this she was not accustomed and it displeased her.
"Was it too severe for him to come himself?"
"Much too severe. He has gone to bed with it."
"Mrs. Chester closely attending him?"
"Certainly—or I shouldn't be here." The eyes of the Chesters' guest sparkled. Something about the cool tone of this question displeased her still more.
"Tell him to get up and go out and walk a mile, breathing deep all the way."
"Not a grain. He ought to know better than to ask."
"He does, I think. He suggested that possibly if I asked—But I see for myself how that wouldn't make the slightest difference."
"I'm glad your perceptions are so acute," replied Burns gravely.
"Are the three minutes up?" asked the caller.
He looked at his watch. "I think not quite. Is there anything of importance to fill the one remaining?"
"Nothing whatever—except to mention your fee." The guest receded gracefully from the door.
"If the patient will follow directions I'll ask no fee. If he doesn't I'll exact one when I see him again. Forgive my haste, Miss—Halstead?"
"Hempstead," corrected the caller crisply. "Don't mention it, Doctor—Brown. Good night."
The Chesters' guest lingered on the porch before going in to report the failure of her mission. She was still lingering there when the Green Imp, carrying no open-shirted mechanic, but a properly clothed professional gentleman and a severely dressed professional lady, whirled away down the drive.
"He really was going somewhere in a hurry, then," admitted the guest. "In which case I can't be quite so offended. I wonder if that nurse enjoys her trips with him—when his mouth doesn't happen to be shut like a steel trap."
If she could have seen the pair on the train which presently bore them flying away across the state, she would hardly have envied either of them. Between abstraction on the one side and reserve an the other, they exchanged less conversation than two strangers might have done. When Miss Mathewson's eyes drooped with weariness her companion made her as comfortable as he could and bade her rest. His own eyes were untouched by slumber: he stared straight before him or out into the night, seeing nothing but a white farmhouse far ahead, where his anxious thoughts were waiting for his body to catch up.
"Are they much sick, Zeke?"
"Wal, I dunno hardly, Red.—You goin' to drive? They're pretty lively, them blacks. Ain't used to comin' to the station at two o'clock in the mornin'. Your ma's been worryin' about your pa for a consid'able spell, and now that she's took down so severe herself he's gone to pieces some. Miss Ellen'll be glad to see you."
The blacks covered the mile from the station as they had never covered it before, and Burns was in the house five minutes before they had expected him.
"Mother, here's your big boy.—Dad, here I am—here's Red. Bless your hearts—you wanted me, didn't you?"
They could hardly tell him how they had wanted him, but he saw it in their faces.
"I've got to take the four o'clock back—worse luck!—for some operations I can't postpone. But between now and then I'm going to look you over and set you straight, and I'll be back again in two days if you need me. Now for it. Mother first. Come here, Aunt Ellen, and tell me all about her."
R. P. Burns, M.D., had never been quicker nor more thorough at examination of a pair of patients than with these. He went straight at them both, each in the presence of the other, Miss Mathewson capably assisting. With his most professional air he asked his questions, applied his trained senses to the searching tests made of special organs, and gave directions for future treatment. Then he sat back and looked at them.
"Do I appear worried about her, Dad?"
"Why, you don't seem to, Red."
"Miss Mathewson, should you gather from my appearance that I am consumed with anxiety?"
"I think you seem very much relieved, Doctor Burns."
"Mother, as you look at Dad over on the couch there, does he strike you as appearing like a frightfully sick man?"
Mrs. Burns smiled faintly in the direction of the couch, but her eyes came immediately back to her son's. "He seems a good deal better since you came, Redfield."
"There's not a thing the matter with either of you except what can be fixed up in a week. You've got scared to death about each other, and that's pulled you both down. What you need more than anything else is to go to a circus—and, by George!—Since I didn't observe any tents in the darkness as we drove along, you shall have one come to you. Look here! Did you know I'd kept up my old athletic stunts these nine years since I left college?"
He pulled off his coat, waistcoat, collar, shoes, rolled his shirt-sleeves as high as they would go, and turned a series of handsprings across the wide room. Then he stood on his head; he balanced chairs on his chin; he seized his father's hickory stick and went through a set of military evolutions. Then he put on his shoes, eyeing his patients with satisfaction. His mother had lifted her head to watch him, and Miss Mathewson had tucked an extra pillow under it. His father had drawn himself up to a half-sitting posture and was regarding his son with pride.
"I never thought so well of those doings before," he was saying. "If they've kept you as supple as a willow, in spite of your weight, I should say you'd better keep 'em up."
"You bet I will!—See here, Aunt Ellen—you used to play the 'Irish Washerwoman: Mind playing it now? Miss Mathewson and I are going to do a cakewalk."
He glanced, laughing, at his office nurse. She was staring at him wide-eyed. He threw back his head, showing a splendid array of white teeth as he roared at her expression.
"Forget 'Doctor Burns,' please," said he, in answer to the expression. "He's discharged this case as not serious enough for him, and left it to Red Pepper to administer a few gentle stimulants on the quack order. Come! You can do a cake walk! Forget you're a graduate of any training school but the vaudeville show!"
He caught her hand. Flushing so that her plain face became almost pretty, she yielded—for the hand was insistent. Miss Ellen leaned bewildered against the door which led to the sitting-room where the old piano stood. Her nephew looked at her again, with the eyes which the Chesters' guest had somewhat incoherently described as "Irish-Scotch-barbarian." He said, "Please, Aunt Ellen, there's a good fellow," at which Mr. Burns, Senior, chuckled under his breath; for anything less like that of a "good fellow" was never seen than Sister Ellen's prim little personality. Miss Ellen went protestingly to the piano. Was it right, her manner said, to be performing in this idiotic manner at this unholy hour of three o'clock in the morning—in a sick-room?
It mattered little whether Miss Mathewson could or could not dance the "Irish Washerwoman," or any other antic dance improvised to that live air; she had only to yield herself to Red Pepper Burns's hands and steps, and let him disport himself around her. A most startlingly hilarious performance was immediately and effectively produced. At the height of it, a door across the sitting-room, which commanded a strip of the bedroom beyond, opened cautiously and Zeke Crandall's eye glued itself to the aperture, an eye astonished beyond belief.
"If that there Red ain't a-cuttin' up jest exactly as he used to when he was a boy—and his pa and ma sick a-bed! If 'twas anybody but Red I'd say he was crazy."
Then he caught the sound of a laugh from lips he had not heard laugh like that for a year—a chuckling, delighted laugh, only slightly asthmatic and wholly unrestrained. He began to laugh himself.
"If folks round here could see Red Burns now they'd never believe the stories about his gettin' to be such a darned successful man at his business," he reflected. "Of all the goin's on! Look at him now! An' that nurse! An' Miss Ellen a-playin' for 'em! Oh, my eye!"
Songs followed—college songs, popular airs, opera bits—all delivered in' a resounding barytone and accompanied by thumping chords improvised by the performer. Out through the open windows they floated, and one astonished villages driving by to take the early train caught the exultant strains:
"Oh, see dat watermillion a-smilin' fro' de fence, How I wish dat watermillion it was mine. Oh, de white folks must be foolish, Dey need a heap of sense, Or dye'd nebber leave it dar upon de vine! Oh, de ham-bone am sweet, An' de bacon am good, An' de 'possum fat am berry, berry fine; But gib me, yes, gib me, Oh, how I wish you would, Dat watermillion growin' on de vine!"
Before they knew it the early morning light was creeping in at the small-paned windows. Burns consulted his watch.
"If you'll give us a cup of coffee, Aunt Ellen, we'll be off in fifteen minutes. Miss Mathewson"—his glance mirthfully surveyed her—"Aunt Ellen will take you upstairs and give you a chance to put that magnificent brown hair into a condition where it will not shock the natives at the station. As for mine—"
When Aunt Ellen and Miss Mathewson, each in her own way feeling as if she had passed through an extraordinary experience likely never to occur again, had hurried away, Burns applied himself to a process of reconstruction. When every rebellious red hair had been reduced to its usual order and his thick locks lay with the little wave in them as his mother had begun to brush them years ago; when collar and cravat rose sedately above the gray tweed coat, and a fresh, fine handkerchief had replaced the dingy one which had been through every manner of exercise in the "circus," Burns drew up a chair and faced his patients with the keen, professional gaze which told him whether or not his night's work had been good therapeutics.
"When I've gone you're to have breakfast, and I think you'll both eat it," he said, smiling at them, his eyes bright with affection and contentment. "Then you're to compose yourselves for sleep, and I think you'll both sleep. To-morrow Dad's to be out on the porch—all June is out there, and the roses are in full bloom. Day after to-morrow Mother'll be there, too, in the hammock. As soon as these cases I operate on this morning are out of danger I'll be down again for a whole day. I'll keep the time clear."
"I'm afraid," said his father, looking suddenly anxious for a new cause, "your being up all night won't make your hand any steadier for those operations, Red."
"On the contrary, as a matter of fact, Dad, it'll be a lot steadier just because of my being up all night, assuring myself that there's nothing serious the matter with you and Mother, except the need of a bit of jollying by your boy—which you've certainly had right off the reel, eh? Aunt Ellen thinks yet I've probably killed you. Are you the worse for it, Mother? Give it to me straight, now!"
He bent over her, his fingers on her delicate wrist. She smiled up into his eyes. "Redfield!" she murmured. "As if I could ever be the worse for having you come home!"
He dropped on his knees beside the bed, looking at her with the eyes of the boy she had borne. "Bless me, Mother," he said unsteadily, all the fun gone out of his face. "I—need it—to keep decent."
The last three words were under his breath, but she heard the others and laid her hand on the red head with a tremulous soft word or two which lie could barely catch.
In a minute he had risen, his cheek flushed high, and was gripping his father's hand. "You, too, Dad," he begged. "I'm only Red this morning—going back into the world."
His father's hand and voice shook as he administered the little ceremony, used only once before in his son's life—when at fourteen he first went away to school. Few grown men would have asked for it again, he felt that. Coming from Red he was sure the request meant more than they could know.
Then the professional gentleman whom the world knew—the world which was not acquainted with Red Pepper Burns—and the professional lady who was his assistant went decorously away into the early June morning. Zeke was grinning to himself as he saw them step aboard the train.
"Looks mighty fine in them clipper-built city clothes, Red does," he reflected. "If that there young woman chose to give him away, now but I kind of guess she won't—under the circumstances!"
CHAPTER III. IN WHICH HE ASSUMES A RESPONSIBILITY
"Red, the new car is here. Come and look her over."
It was Burns's neighbour on the other side, James Macauley, Junior. R. P. Burns laid down his saw, with which in the late June twilight he had been doing vigorous work at a small woodpile behind the house. He stood up straight, throwing back his shoulders to take the kink out of them.
"All right," said he. "I think I'm fit for general society again. I wasn't when I tackled this job. Nothing like fifteen minutes of woodpile for taking the temper out of the saw—and the man."
Macauley, a stout, good-humoured fellow of thirty-five, laughed. "That temper of yours, Red has it been on the rampage again?"
"It has. Don't talk about it or it'll lift to confounded red head again—it's only scotched for the present. New car's here, eh?"
"Yes, and the pretty widow's here, too—my wife's sister, Ellen Lessing. We've a great plan for tomorrow, Red. I can't venture to drive this elephant of a car yet, but the women are wild for a trip in her. She holds seven. Martha wants you to drive us and the Chesters to-morrow a hundred and fifty miles seventy-five to F—— and back. Will you do it? You're not so horribly busy just now, and Mrs. Lessing and Pauline Hempstead together ought to make it worth while for you."
This feature of the invitation did not appear to appeal to Burns, but the sight of the touring car, brave and shining in russet and brass, plainly did.
"Not that I'd care to drive such a whale for myself, but I shouldn't mind a run for the fun of trying her out. You say she's been driven enough to warm up her engines? Suppose we take her out and let me get the feel of her mouth before to-morrow?"
"Come on." And they were off.
"For a whale she's a bird," was Burns's paradoxical verdict two hours later. The "trying out" had merged into a smooth run of forty-five miles at not anything like the full pace of which the motor was capable. "Best not to overheat her at first. Run your first three hundred miles with consideration for her vital organs—she'll have her wind by that time."
Next morning four women, long-coated, tissue-veiled, watched the brown beauty roll invitingly up to Macauley's porch steps.
As she crossed the lawn with Winifred, Pauline Hempstead, the guest of the Chesters, was studying not only the car, but the undeniably attractive gray-clad figure of the lately-arrived younger sister of Mrs. Macauley. "Will Red P. look at her any more than he does at me?" she murmured in Winifred Chester's ear.
"I doubt it, my dear. But he'll be foolish if he doesn't, won't he?"
"I don't care for widows myself."
"I presume not." Winifred laughed comprehendingly.
"How old is she?"
"Twenty-eight, I believe—though she doesn't look it."
"Doesn't look it! She looks a lot more."
Winifred laughed still, quietly. Although Pauline undoubtedly had the advantage of Ellen in years, her fair-haired, blue-eyed, somewhat sumptuous beauty was not of so youthful a type as the darker colouring and slenderer outlines of Martha's sister.
The man at the wheel of the brown car lifted his leather cap as the women came out, but he left all the bestowal of them to the other men. Miss Hempstead asked to be allowed to sit beside the driver, but Macauley vowed that on the first long run of his new machine he himself should occupy that post of honour and interest.
"Coming back, then," insisted the girl, and Macauley agreed reluctantly. Burns made no comment, but applied himself to his task—not only then, but also for every minute of the seventy-five miles to their destination.
"He might as well be a hired chauffeur," complained Miss Hempstead when, during a stop of ten minutes on account of a switching freight train, she had leaned forward and attempted in vain to carry on a conversation with Burns. "That abstracted mood of his—is there any breaking into it?"
"Fall out and break your collar-bone. He'll be all attention," advised Chester.
"Thank you. I'm almost tempted to. Why don't you drive awhile, Mr. Macauley, and give him a rest?"
"And let him sit here in the middle with you? He couldn't be pried loose from that wheel now. Besides, I haven't driven this car yet, and she's too different in her steering from my old one. I shouldn't like to try with this crowd behind me."
They reached the distant city; drew up at the steps of the most attractive hotel; went in to lunch. That is to say, all did this except R. P. Burns. He remained in the garage in the rear where he had taken the car, busying himself with some details of mechanism whose working did not quite suit him. In spite of summons and appeals he continued to work until the rest had finished; then he bolted in to wash off dust and engine grease, ate his lunch in ten minutes—Macauley sitting by and expostulating—and bolted out again.
"We're going to walk about a bit," Chester announced, invading the garage. "The girls insist that you come. Where are your eyes, man? If Pauline bores you—I admit that she's a trifle persistent, but she's jolly good company, I think—try Mrs. Lessing. She's delightful, and not the pursuing style at all—she's learned better. She hasn't shown the slightest interest in you all morning. That ought to attract you."
"I'm going to try a bit of adjustment on this timer now that Mac's out of the way. Go along, and don't bother me." Burns was in his shirt-sleeves again and spoke gruffly. His cap was off, and thick locks lay damply against his moist brow; in his eyes sparkled enthusiasm but not for women.
"You certainly are a hopeless case," and Chester went back to his party.
"We might as well not have a bachelor along," mourned Pauline. "Four women—with only two old married men to look after them—it's a shame."
"But we're both of us much handsomer than Red Pepper Burns," asserted James Macauley, Junior. "And I've hardly spoken a word to my wife since I started—that sort of thing ought to content you."
"It doesn't. And neither of you is half as good-looking as Doctor Burns. He has the most interesting profile I ever saw—and I ought to know—I seldom catch sight of his full face."
"I shouldn't suppose an interesting profile, whatever that is, would offset a shock of fire-red hair. Now, both Chester's hair and mine—"
"His hair isn't fire-red. It's a—rather strong—auburn."
Macauley shouted and the rest laughed with him.
"Rather strong! I should say it was. I've been worried about having him sit near the gasoline tank, it brings his hair so close to a high combustible. But it has one advantage: if we don't get home before dark we shan't need to light up. Red's torch of a head will do the trick; we can come in by the refulgence from that."
"I shall be sitting in its light going back, anyhow," Miss Hempstead exulted.
"Much good it will do you," prophesied Chester.
It did Pauline so much good as that she was able to obtain many looks at the profile she admired, for she saw it clean-cut against the passing landscape for the sixty miles of daylight out of the seventy-five miles home, while she sat beside its owner and tried many times to draw him into talk. His taciturnity on this particular day was a thing beyond any experience with it she had yet had. She had heard Burns talk, and talk well, on many different subjects, the while he sat upon the Chesters' porch of a summer evening, the three of them about him, and he had seemed to enjoy talking. He certainly could not be wholly occupied with the machine, for at no time did he let the engine out for what it could do, but contented himself with a steady, moderate pace very different from the sort of furious speed in which he and the Green Imp were accustomed to indulge when occasion offered. Altogether he presented to the girl a problem which she could not solve and was never further from solving than during the seventy-five miles she sat beside him on the run home.
"You're all to come in and have an ice-cool, salad-y supper with us," Mrs. Macauley declared as the car turned in at the home driveway. "Hot coffee, too, if you want it—or even beefsteak if you prefer. But I thought since it was so hot—"
"I'll take the beefsteak," announced Burns over his shoulder, "if I find nothing urgent for, me to do. If there's a call—"
"If there is, make it, and you shall have the beefsteak when you get back," Martha promised him. Mrs. Macauley was of the sort of young married woman who delights to make her friends comfortable—and none better than Red Pepper, who was her husband's most valued friend, as he was that of his neighbour on the other side, Arthur Chester.
To everybody's regret the call was waiting, and as the party went in to supper they waved their hands at the Green Imp flying away down the road. It was not till long after the "ice-cool, salad-y supper" was ended and the women, freshly clad, were sitting on the porch again, the men smoking on the steps below them, that tine Green Imp came back.
Ten minutes later a large figure crossed the lawn at a pace which suggested both reluctance and fatigue.
"If it hadn't been for that beefsteak—" Burns began.
"You wouldn't have come," finished Macauley. "Oh, we know that! Go in and get it, Red, and perhaps afterward the charms of human society will have their inning."
Whether or not the beefsteak made the difference, a change had taken place when R. P. Burns at length returned to the comforts of the porch. He threw himself upon a crimson cushion on the upper step, precisely at the feet, as it chanced, of Ellen Lessing. As he leaned comfortably back against the porch pillar he looked directly up into her face, his eyes meeting hers with an odd, searching expression as if he now saw her for the first time. Pauline, gazing enviously across, saw the black eyes meet the hazel ones in the dim light, and noted that a curiously long look was exchanged—the sort of look which denotes that two people are observing each other closely, without attempt at producing an impression, only at discovering what is there.
But when Burns began to talk he appeared to address the midsummer night air, staring off into it and speaking rather low, so that they all leaned forward to listen. For, at last, he seemed to have something other than motor cars upon his mind.
"He's a mighty taking little chap," he said musingly. "Curly black hair, eyes like coals—with a fringe around 'em like a hedge. Cheeks none too round—but milk and eggs and good red steaks will take care of that. A body like a cherubs—when it's filled out a bit."
"What in the name of gibberish are you giving as, Red?" inquired Macauley.
"Name's Bob," went on Red Pepper. "By all the odd chances! That's what decided me. 'Bobby Burns'—it was the last straw!"
"Is he crazy?" asked Chester of the company. They seemed undecided. They were listening closely.
"Clothes—one pair of patched breeches—remember 'Little Breeches,' Ches?—one faded flannel shirt—mended till there wasn't much left to mend. A straw hat with a fringe around it—uneven fringe. Inside—a heartache as big as a little fellow could carry and stagger under it. Think of having the heartache—at five and for your grandmother!"
"Why for his grandmother?" asked Winifred Chester.
"Because there wasn't anybody else to have it for. Rest all gone, grandmother the one who attended the breeches and patched the shirt, and went without food herself lest the boy's cheeks get thinner yet. That was what fixed her at last—she hadn't enough vitality to pull her through."
"So that was the matter with you to-day," hazarded Chester. "Worried about your patient all day and found you'd lost her when you got back?"
Burns turned upon him with a characteristic flash. "You go join the ranks of the snap-shots. They sometimes miss fire. No, I didn't. I'd lost her before I went or I wouldn't have gone, not for you or any other box-party. It was the kiddie that was on my mind—as I'd seen him last."
"Where is he now?" asked Martha Macauley urgently. She was the mother of two small sons, and Burns's sketch had interested her.
He looked up at her. "Want to see him?"
"Of course I do. Did you take him to somebody in town? Are you going to send him to the asylum in the city?"
"Do you want to see him?". Burns inquired of Winifred Chester. He rose.
"Red! What do you mean? Have you got a child here?"
"Come along, all of you, if you like. He won't wake up. He's sleeping like a top—can't help it, with all that bread and milk inside of him. Part cream it was, too. I saw Cynthia chucking it in. He'd got her, good and plenty, in the first five minutes. Bless her susceptible heart! Come on."
"Talk of susceptible hearts," jeered Macauley as he followed. "There's the softest one in the county."
"Nobody would ever guess it," murmured Pauline Hempstead.
They tiptoed into the house, across the offices into the big, square room which was Burns's own. He switched on a hooded reading-light beside the bed and turned it so that its rays fell on the small occupant.
He lay in spread-eagle, small-child fashion, arms and legs thrown wide, the black, curly head disdaining the pillow, one fist clutching a man's riding-crop. In sleep the little face was an exquisite one; the onlookers might guess what it would be awake.
Burns pointed at the crop, smiling. "That was the nearest approach to a plaything I could muster to-night. To-morrow the shops will help me out."
"I'll send over plenty in the morning, Red," whispered Martha Macauley. Her eyes were suspiciously shiny.
"Did you bring him home just now?" questioned Winifred.
Burns nodded. "I hadn't meant to get him to-night, if I did at all. My call took me within half a mile. I went over and saw him again. That settled it."
The small sleeper stirred, sighed. Burns turned off the light in a twinkling. "He's not used to electricity point blank," he chuckled.
Going down the steps a hand touched his arm. He looked into Ellen Lessing's upturned face and discovered anew that it was a face to hold the attention of a man. But there was no coquetry in it. Instead, he saw a stirred look in eyes which struck him suddenly as singularly like those of the child he had just shown her, "black, with a fringe around 'em."
"Doctor Burns," she said, "will you give me the very great pleasure of dressing the boy? I know how to do it."
"Of course, if you want to," he responded gladly. "I hoped you ladies would look after that."
"Let me do it alone," she urged. "They have their children: it would only be a task to them. To me—I can't tell you what a delight it would be."
"I'll take you and Bob to the city in the morning if you'll go."
"It will be a happy morning for Bob and me, then," she answered, and he saw it in her face that it would be. But he felt that it was because of the boy; not for any other reason. It occurred to him that it might possibly be a happy morning for the driver of the Green Imp, also.
"So Ellen's going to dress the brat." Macauley was strolling over the lawn with Chester and Burns, as, having out-sat the women on the Macauley porch, the men were turning bedward, reluctant to leave the cool star-shine of the July night. "It's easy to see why she wants to do that. Her three-year-old boy would have been just about this Bob's age by now. Tough luck, wasn't it?—when he was all she had left since Jack got out of the game?"
Burns stared at him. "Oh, that's why? I didn't know about her boy, or I'd forgotten it if I was ever told. She will enjoy fitting Bob out, if I can keep her from putting him into white clothes to make him resemble an angel instead of a small boy with an eye for dirt."
"You'll find Ellen's no fool," Macauley assured him warmly. "But if she takes an interest in the boy it'll be the best thing that could happen to him. She has a lot of money. She may get a notion to adopt him."
But upon this Red Pepper Burns spoke with decision. "Confound you, the kiddie belongs to me. Didn't I tell you his name is now Robert Burns? She may dress him if she likes. She can't have him, not by a long shot. He's mine!"
"Oh, well, it might be arranged," murmured Macauley, but not quite low enough. In a flash he was laid flat on his back on the lawn, a menacing figure standing over him.
"None of that!" growled the man with the temper. "Not now or any other time." Then he laughed and let his victim up. "Alcohol will take out grass stains, Jim," he advised. "Tell Martha that."
CHAPTER IV. IN WHICH HE MAKES A CONCESSION
Red Pepper Burns opened his eyes. What on earth was that? A small voice piping at him from within close range? But how could that be?
Something bumped against him. He turned his head on his pillow. A small figure at his side had raised itself upon its elbow; big black eyes in a pale little face were staring at him in affright. Burns roused himself, suddenly very wide awake indeed.
"It's all right, little man," said he, pulling the child gently into the warmth of his encircling arm. "You came home with me last night. Don't you remember? You're going to make me a visit. And this morning after breakfast we're going to drive to town and buy a train of cars—red, shiny cars and an engine with a bell on it. What do you think of that?"
It did not take long to change Bob's fright into the happiest anticipations. Red Pepper Burns was at his best with children; he had what their mothers called "a way with them."
A knock at the door and Cynthia's voice calling, "Here's some things for the little boy, Doctor," put an end to a full half-hour of delightful comradeship, during which the sheets of the bed had became a tent and the two were soldiers resting after a day's march. Burns rose and took in the parcel. Martha Macauley had sent it. Her boy Harold was the nearest in size to Bob of any of the children of his neighbours, and the parcel held everything needed from undershirt to scarlet Windsor scarf to tie under the rolling collar of the blue blouse.
"A bath first, Bob," and his new guardian initiated him into the exciting experience of a splash in a big white tub, in water decidedly warmer than it would be a week hence when he should have become used to the invigorating cool plunge. Then Burns, glowing from contact with water as cold as it could be got from the tap, clad in bathrobe and slippers, attempted to solve the mysteries of Bob's toilet. Roars of laughter interspersed with high pipings of glee presently brought Cynthia to the door.
"Can't I help you, Doctor Burns?" she called anxiously.
"Not a bit of it, Cynthia: much obliged. I'm having the time of my life. Stand still, son; let's try it this way round!" came back to the housekeeper's ears.
"I ain't never wore so many things before," Bob declared doubtfully, as a small white waist with, dangling elastic stocking-supporters was finally discovered to go best buttoned in the back.
"I know. But you'll see how fine it is to have your stockings held up for you. Hi! Here are some sandals, Bob! Barefoot sandals, only we'll wear them over stockings to-day, since we're going shopping. Now for these blue garments I wonder how they go. Shapeless-looking things, they look to me. I suppose they'll resolve into baggy knickers and the sort of long shirt with a belt to it the youngsters of your age all wear. Here we go. Does this top part button behind, Bob, like the waist? No, I think not.... It sure looks odd, whichever way we don it, but that may be because it's pretty big. Harold's several sizes bigger than you, though he can't be much older. Give me six months and I'll have you filling out any other five-year-olds clothes."
"My hands—they're all gone," remarked the child, holding out his arms. The blue sleeves did, indeed, cover them to the finger-tips. Laughing, Burns rolled the cloth back, making an awkward bunch at the wrist, but allowing the small hands freedom.
"When Mrs. Lessing trains her eye on you she'll want to make time getting to the shops," Burns observed, struggling with the scarlet scarf and finally tying it like a four-in-hand. "But you're clean, Bob, and hungry, I hope. Now I want a great big hug to pay me for dressing you."
He held out his arms, and his new charge sprang into them, pressing arms like sticks around the strong neck of the man who seemed to him already the best friend he had in the world—as he was.
At eleven o'clock, a round of calls made, the Green Imp came for Bob and Mrs. Lessing. They met him, hand in hand, the little figure in its voluminous misfit clothes looking quaint, enough beside the perfect outlines of his companion's attire. But both faces were very happy.
"How many dollars do you suppose Ellen has, stowed away in that handsome purse of hers, ready to spend on the child?" Martha Macauley queried of Winifred Chester as they watched the Green Imp out of sight from the Macauley porch.
Mrs. Chester shook her head. "I've no idea. She'll want to get him everything a child could have. But Red won't let her."
"He won't know. He'll drop them at a store and go off to the hospital. The things will come home by special delivery, and the next thing he sees will be Bob in silk socks and white linen."
"I don't believe it. He'll go shopping with them. He's wild over the boy, and he doesn't care a straw what people might think who saw the three together. He'll tyrannize over Ellen—and she'll let him, for the pleasure of being ruled by a man once more!"
It was a shrewd prophecy and goes to show that women really understand each other pretty well—women of the same sort. For Red Pepper Burns did go shopping with the pair from start to finish. It was an experience he did not see any, occasion for missing.
"You won't mind my coming, too?" was all the permission he asked, and Mrs. Lessing answered simply: "Surely not, if you care to. We shall want your judgment."
She had not conducted them to a department store, but to the small shop of a decidedly exclusive children's outfitter. Burns knew nothing about the presumably greater cost of buying a wardrobe in a place like this, but he soon scented danger. He scrutinized certain glass showcases containing wax lay figures of pink-cheeked youngsters attired as for the stage, and boomed his first caution into his companion's ear.
"That's not the sort of puppet we want to make out of Bob, eh?" he suggested.
She turned, smiling. "Not unless you intend to keep him in a glass case, Doctor Burns."
"No long-trousered imitation of a sailor-boy, either, please," said he, pointing, disfavour in his eye, at the presentment of a curly-headed infant of five in a Jack-tar outfit of white flannel topped by an expensive straw hat.
"I see you're not going to trust me," murmured Mrs. Lessing, as a slim-waisted, trailing-black-gowned saleswoman approached.
"I'll trust you, but I intend to keep my eye on you," admitted Burns frankly. He observed with interest the wonderful figure of the saleswoman. Quite possibly that lady thought he was admiring her, for nothing in his face could have told her that he was mapping out in his surgeon's mind her physical anatomy, and speculating as to where in the name of Hygeia she could have disposed of her digestive organs in a circumference the diminutive size of that!
Underwear first. Mrs. Lessing went straight at the foundations of Bob's make up, and began to look over boxes of little gossamer shirts and tiny union suits of a fabric so delicately fine that Burns handled a fold of it suspiciously.
"Silk?" he questioned.
She shook her head, the corners of her mouth curving. "Only a thread now and then. Mostly lisle—for very hot weather. These others have some wool in them, for cooler days. Those nearest you are quite warm, though very light in weight. For really cold weather—"
"You're not planning to watch the thermometer and keep him changing underwear accordingly?"
"Not at all, Doctor Burns. But four weights for the year aren't too many, are they?"
"Are you buying for a year ahead?"
"Please let me. I shall not be here when he needs to change."
Their eyes met. Something in hers made him desist from argument.
Stockings came next. Mrs. Lessing bought substantial tan ones in quantity, long and well reenforced. Then she took up socks of russet and of white. "Shall you object to his wearing these a good, deal?" she asked Burns. He took up one small sample, running his fingers into it. "I should think he might put his toes through one of those in an hour or two," he suggested. "His legs are pretty thin. Do you think pipe-stem legs in short socks, to say nothing of bruises and scratches, really attractive?"
"You want him to go barefooted a good deal of the time, don't you?"
"Sure. But legs in socks are neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring, to my thinking."
In spite of the smile on his lips, he looked obstinate and she deliberated, drawing a white sock unmistakably fine and expensive over her gray-gloved hand. Plainly she wanted to see Bob in socks and strap slippers, of the sort her boy would have worn. As she studied the sock Burns studied her profile. "Get him a pair, for your own satisfaction," he conceded.
He did not hear the order she gave, but the saleswoman was pleasantly smiling as she checked it.
The next thing that happened, Bob was being measured. Then he was trying on Russian blouse suits that fitted, practical little garments of blue galatea, of tan-coloured linen crash, even of brown holland. Burns looked on approvingly. The clothes turned Bob into a gentleman's son, no doubt of that, but it was the sort of gentleman's son who can have the very best of romping, good times.
Something diverted Bums's attention for a little, and when he turned back to Bob a bright scarlet reefer had been pulled on over his blouse, and a wide sailor hat with a scarlet ribbon crowned his black curls. The result was engagingly picturesque. But the critic frowned.
"I'm afraid that won't do, Mrs. Lessing," he objected decidedly.
"You don't like the colour? Not with his hair and eyes?"
"It won't hurt his hair, but it will his eyes. The sun on that red will torture him."
"Will it? I shouldn't have thought of it. So many children wear them."
"And shortly come to spectacles. Try it yourself for half an hour."
She drew off the reefer. Bob objected. "I like the red jacky, Dotter Burns," he said. It was his first comment. Hitherto he had been in a dazed state, submitting wonderingly to this strange experience.
Another small coat of tan-coloured cloth with a gorgeous red-and-brown emblem on the sleeve consoled him:
"I think we are through," said Mrs. Lessing Burns looked at her.
"No white clothes?" he asked.
"Did you want him to have some?"
"No. But I thought you would."
"I have ordered three suits to be made for him," she admitted, flushing a little. "They will be very plain and will launder beautifully. He will wear them only on special occasions. Do you mind?"
"Well, not on those conditions," he agreed reluctantly.
They went to a shoe shop, and Bob became the richer for leather sandals, canvas shoes, and various other footwear, some of it undeniably fine. Burns took one little black slipper into his hand.
"I wonder what Bob's grandmother would say to that," he observed in a whisper.
Ellen Lessing regarded its mate. Her lashes hid her eyes, but her lip quivered and he saw it. The salesman was busy with Bob. Burns laid his hand for an instant on hers. She looked up, and a smile struggled with the tears.
A toy shop came last. Here Bob was in an ecstasy. His companions walked up and down the aisles, following his eager steps. Mrs. Lessing would have filled his arms, but she found the way obstructed.
"He may have the train of cars," Burns consented. "But they must be cars he'll have to pull about for himself. No, not the trotting horse, nor the trolley on the track, nor any other of the mechanical stuff. I'll get him that dandy little tool-chest and that box of building blocks, but that's enough."
"The mechanical toys are of the best, sir," suggested the salesman. "They won't break except with pretty rough handling."
"That's bad," Burns asserted. "The quicker they broke, the less objection I'd have to 'em. It's a wonder the modern child has a trace of resource or inventiveness left in him. Teach him to construct, not to destroy, then you've done something for him."
"Isn't he rather young for tools?" Mrs. Lessing was turning over a small saw in her hands, feeling its sharp teeth with a premonitory finger.
"There are gauze and bandages in the office." He laughed at her expression as she laid down the saw.
"You won't object to that box of tin soldiers?" she asked.
"Decidedly. You don't want to spoil him at the start. For a boy who never had a toy in his life he's acquired enough now to turn his head. Come away, Mrs. Lessing—flee temptation. Come, Bobby boy." And Burns led the way.
Bob, astride of a marvellous rocking-horse taller than himself, was like to weep. Mrs. Lessing went to him. He whispered something in her ear. She came back to Burns.
"Doctor Burns," said she, "every boy has a rocking-horse. He's just the age to enjoy it. Surely it won't hazard his inventiveness: it will develop it. He'll ride all over the country, as you do in the Green Imp."
"What's the price?"
"It's not costly and it's a very good one."
Burns inquired the price again; this time he asked the salesman. Then he spoke low:
"Fifteen dollars seems 'not costly' to you, I suppose. Think of Bob yesterday, with not a toy to his name."
"That's why I want to give him one to-day."
"He'll be just as happy riding a stick—as soon as he forgets this."
"He won't forget it. Look at his eyes."
"You're looking at his eyes all the time. That's what undoes you."
He had to look away from her eyes then himself, or he felt quite suddenly that he, too, would have been undone. He had resisted the entreaty in women's eyes many times, but not always, despite the reputation he held for indifference.
"Doctor Burns, won't you give me this one pleasure? You've really been quite firm all the morning."
She was smiling, but he had himself in hand again and he was blunt with her. "Bob's bachelor's child now," he said. "He must be trained according to bachelors' ideas. Come, you know it's out of reason to give the youngster any more to-day. Be sensible."
They followed him out of the store, Bob's hand held fast in hers. Somehow, they both looked very young as they stood outside the shop window, gazing back at the marvellous display within. He felt as if he were being rather cruel to them both. This was absurd, of course, when one considered the box of blocks, the train of cars and the toolkit. The child had enough playthings already to send him out of his head. Burns drove away rapidly to get out of range of other windows which seemed filled with rocking-horses to-day.
He looked down at Bob.
"Happy, little chap?" he asked.
Bob nodded. His arms clasped the red train but he was not looking at it.
"Like the cars?"
Bob nodded. His wide sailor hat obscured his face. Burns could see only the tip of the small nose.
"You'll have a splendid time with those blocks, won't you?"
Again the nod, but no reply.
"The hammer's pretty nice, too, isn't it?"
Once more the dumb answer. But the silence seemed odd, for Bob had long since lost his fear 'of these companions.
"Look up here, Bob."
Reluctantly the child obeyed. Burns caught one fleeting glimpse of wet black lashes. One big tear was slowly stealing down the pale little cheek.
"What's the matter, old man?"
Burns looked at Ellen Lessing behind Bob's back. She did not meet his glance. She was looking at the boy. It struck him that her profile made the most enchanting outline he had ever seen. He tried to steel his heart against them both. He knew his theory was right; he now had the chance to put it into practice.
The Green Imp turned a corner to the right. They were not yet out of the city, and at the next block the car turned another corner, also to the right. At the end of another block the Imp, swerved once more—to the right. This brought them back to the wide street which led to the shopping district they had lately left. With silent passengers the Imp threaded its way to the toy shop. In front of it Burns stopped the car. He got out and went in and came out, the big rocking-horse in the arms of the salesman who followed him.
He looked up at their faces. Bob's was one wide-eyed countenance of incredulous joy. The other's—if he had seen there satisfaction at having brought a man to terms he felt he should have despised her; but that was not what he saw.
There was, by planning carefully, just room to wedge the rocking-horse in at Mrs. Lessing's feet without encroaching on the steering-gear. As they drove off, Bob was bending over and gently, stroking the animal's splendid black mane, with little chuckles and gurgles of joy. Once more Burns looked at Ellen Lessing behind Bob's back.
"You're happy now, aren't you?" he asked in tone of assurance. "Then, confound it, I must own I'm paid for letting my wise bachelor notions go hang, just for this time!"
"Thank you," she answered very gently. "And I'm paid for trying to be reasonable."
He laughed, suddenly content. Between them, the little lad who had never owned a toy in his life, stowing the red train carefully away between has feet, gave himself wholly to the rocking-horse.
"Well, Ellen," was Martha Macauley's greeting to her sister, "did you have as interesting a time dressing the child as you expected?"
"I had a charming time," replied Mrs. Lessing. She shook the dust out of her long gray veils smiling at her memory of the morning.
"Did R. P. prove docile?"
"'Docile' doesn't seem to me just the word."
"I used it in an attempt at fine irony," explained! Mrs. Macauley.
"Well, was he tractable, then?"
"He was very polite and kind and jolly—until the real business of shopping began. Then he became suspicious—and a trifle autocratic." She recalled his look as he told her that he would trust her, but that he meant to keep an eye upon her.
"Didn't you get your own way about anything?" demanded her sister, with eager curiosity.
Ellen looked at her. Martha noted that the soft black eyes were glowing, and that she had not seen Ellen appear more alive and interested since the days before trouble came to her. "Do you imagine we fought a battle over our shopping?" she asked, her lips curving with merriment.
"But you don't tell me. I'm anxious to know whether we shall see the boy dressed according to Red's ideas or yours."
"We agreed beautifully on nearly all points of his dressing. Where we differed, we—compromised."
"Red never compromises with anybody, so I suppose it was done by your giving in?"
"He never compromises? You do him injustice. He can compromise royally—by the same method of 'giving in.'"
"I simply can't believe it," murmured Martha, shaking her head.
CHAPTER V. IN WHICH HE IS ROUGH ON A FRIEND
"Are you through with that rabble? Can you 'tend to a friend?"
Redfield Pepper Burns wheeled around in his revolving chair and glanced sharply at Arthur Chester. What he saw made him follow the moment's inspection with a direct question.
"Sit down. What have you been doing?"
Chester sat down. His face was white. He held up one shaking hand. "Red, what's the matter with me?"
Burns continued to study the man before him. He made no move to examine into his condition, just looked steadily into the other's face with a gaze before which his patient presently shifted uneasily.
"Well, of all the ways to treat a fellow!" He tried to laugh. "Is that the way you do with the rest of the bunch that come to you every day? Or are you trying to hypnotize me?"
"Look me in the eye, Ches. What have you been doing?"
"Working like a fiend in that infernal office. If there's any hotter place—"
"There'll be a hotter one for you right on this earth, if you keep on the way you're going."
He rose suddenly, and approaching Chester closely, looked intently into the uplifted eyes. He sat down again. "Own up!" he commanded bluntly.
"Red," begged Chester, "quit this sort of thing. Go at me in the usual way. I—I think I'm a bit nervous tonight. I can't stand your gun-fire."
"All right. When did you begin?"
"Five weeks ago when you were away. I didn't mean to get into it, Red, on my word I didn't, after all you've warned me. But it was so beastly hot—and there was a lot of extra work at the office. My head got to going it night and day. I—say"—he leaned suddenly forward, has head on his hands—"I can tell you better if you give me some kind of a bracer—I feel—so—deadly."
Burns got up and prepared something in a glass something not particularly palatable, but when it had taken action, which it promptly did, Chester's white face had acquired a tinge of colour and he could go on.
"I stopped in Gardner's office one day when my head was worse than usual. Had to meet a man in ten minutes—important deal on for the house—had to be at my best. Told Gardner so. He fixed me."
"He did—blame him—fixed you for a dope-fiend. I've told you a hundred times you had precisely the kind of temperament that must avoid that sort of thing like the gallows." Burns hit the desk with his fist as he spoke, with a thump of impatience.
"It seems to set me up for a while—I can do anything. Then afterward—"
"You're getting the afterward all right. How much do you take?"
Chester mentioned the amount of the drug, stating reluctantly that for the last two days he had been obliged slightly to increase it in order to get the full effect.
"Of course you have—that's the insidiousness of the devil's stuff. How soon does it get into action?"
"Oh, right away—almost instantly."
"What! Is your imagination strong enough to—See here, Ches"—Burns leaned forward "you're taking the stuff by mouth, of course?"
Chester's eyes went down. "Why—I tried it that way—but it was so slow."
Burns ejaculated something under his breath; the quick colour, always ready to flare under his clear skin, leaped out.
"Gardner gave you a hypo, I suppose?"
"So you went and bought a syringe and taught yourself the trick. Suppose you give me a look at it."
Like a shamed schoolboy Chester unwillingly drew forth the small case from his pocket. Burns received it. He opened it and took out the tiny instrument. "It looks like a very good one," he observed with a sort of deadly quietness, and with one motion of his big fingers snapped the glass barrel in two.
At this Chester took fire. "That's going a little too far!" he burst out in wrath.
"Is it? Thought it was you who had gone too far. It's up to me to bring you back—while I can. Getting this little fiend out of the way is the first step. Keep cool, Ches—and I'll try to do the same, though it makes my blood boil to think how little you've cared for my lectures to you on this very thing."
"I have cared. But I had no idea."
"Well, you have one now. It's taken you five weeks to acquire enough of a habit to give you some trouble to drop it. You're that sort and that's the way it works, anyhow. I wonder you came to me to-night. Found yourself out of the stuff and didn't like to try to get it here where folks know you?"
"If you want to put everything in the most disagreeable way you can—yes," admitted Chester testily.
"That's precisely what I want to do. Put it in such a disagreeable way that your backbone'll stiffen up a bit and give us something to start with. If I make you mad all the better—so long as you don't go back to fools like Gardner, who never hesitate to give a fellow like you a sample of what that drug'll do for 'em:"
"What are you going to do? I shan't sleep to-night, and I've got to be in the office to-morrow morning."
"When's your vacation due?"
"Not till week after next."
"Arrange to take it now."
"I can't. Stillinger's off on his, Monday morning."
"Could you have yours now if he waited?"
"Yes, but I wouldn't ask him."
"I would." Burns took down the receiver of his desk telephone.
"Red, stop—I don't want—"
Burns paid no attention to him. In five minutes he had the city connection and his man. He stated the case: Chester was in urgent need of taking his vacation without delay, but was not willing to ask the favour of his office associate. He, Burns, his friend's physician, did not scruple to ask it if it would not interfere too seriously with Mr. Stillinger's plans. No diplomat could re quest a favour more courteously than R. P. Burns, M.D. The reply was the one to be expected of Stillinger, bachelor and amiable fellow, who was fond of Chester and hoped it was nothing serious. Tell him to go ahead with his vacation, Stillinger said, and not to worry over office affairs.
"Now!" Burns wheeled round from the telephone. "Will you put yourself in my hands?"
"Do you honestly think I'm such an abandoned case—already," began Chester unhappily, "that you have to—"
"Listen to me, Ches. I don't think you're an abandoned case—that's nonsense—after five weeks. But I do think you're well started on a road that it's ruin to travel. You began it way back last winter by taking that headache stuff in double the dose I gave you, without consulting me, every time you felt a trifle below par. That's why I took it away from you. You felt the loss of it, and you were an easy mark for Gardner's dope. You've grown so dependent on that already that you're going to have a fight to get along without it. You can't fight and do office work, so I'm going to make the most of my chance during this fortnight's vacation—if you'll give me leave. If you won't—I think I'll knock you down and get you where I want you that way."
He smiled—a smile with so much spirit and affection in it that Chester's eyes filled, to his own astonishment, for up to this point he had been both hurt and angry. After a moment he said, with his eyes on the floor, but in a different tone from any he had yet used: "Go ahead, Red. I'll try to prove I have some stuff in me yet."
"Of course you have." Burns's hand was on his friend's shoulder. "That's what I'm counting on. Prove it by following directions to the letter. And begin by coming with me for a trip into the country. I have to see a case before I go to bed, and the air will do your head good."
It was the first of many similar trips. Arthur Chester may fairly have been said to spend the succeeding fortnight in the company of the Green Imp and its driver. From morning till night, and often in the night itself when he found it impossible to sleep, he was living in the open air by means of this device. Of walking, also, he did an increasing amount as his strength grew under the regimen Burns insisted upon. But for the first week, in spite of all the help his physician could give him, he found himself indeed involved in a fierce struggle—a struggle with shaken and unmanageable nerves; with a desperate craving for the soothing, uplifting effect of the drug to which he was forced to admit he had become perilously accustomed; with a black depression of spirit which was worse than anything else he had to combat.
It was at the worst of one of these periods of darkness that, alone with his patient upon a hilltop where the two had climbed, leaving the Green Imp at a point where the road had become impossible, Burns said suddenly:
"Ches, I believe, with all my care to give you the treatment I thought you needed, I've failed to point out the most potent remedy of all."
Chester shook his head. "You've done everything, Red. All the trouble's with me. I'm so pitiably weak—so much weaker than I ever dreamed I could be. I can't seem to care whether I get out of this or not. All I want is to lie down and go to sleep—and never wake up."
The last words came under his breath, but Burns heard them. He showed no sign of being startled, though this mood was a gloomier one than he had yet seen his patient succumb to. Instead, he went on talking in a tone of confidence:
"I ought to have known enough to apply this remedy, because it's one I've tried myself. If you could know, since the night you heard me make a certain vow, what a time I've had with myself to keep it, you'd understand that I know what it means to try to break up a habit. Mine's the habit of years. With my temper and some of my associations, intemperate profanity's been the easiest thing in the world to fall into. When things went wrong, out would come the oaths like water out of a spring—though that's a false comparison: like the filth out of a sewer, I'd better say."
"We all swear more or less," acknowledged Chester, his head in his hands.
"Not as I did—and you know it. I've been responsible for many a boy's taking it up, though I didn't realize it. Because I was athletic and in for sports with them, they thought I was the whole thing. They laughed when I got mad and ripped out a lot of language: they copied it. But I never heard myself as others hear me till that night I let go at the mother who'd ignorantly murdered her boy by disobeying orders. On the way home that night I woke up—came to myself—I don't know how. The stars were unusually bright, and I looked up at them and thought of that child's soul going back to its Maker.... and then thought of my curses following it and coming to His ear."
A silence fell. When Burns broke it, it was in a voice deep with feeling.
"The next words I sent up to that ear were in a different shape. I think it was the first real prayer I'd ever said since the little parrot prayers my mother taught me. That was the first: it hasn't been the last. I don't suppose I say much that would sound like the preacher's language, but Ches, what I do believe is that—I get what I ask for. That's—help to fight my temptations. And profanity isn't the only one nor the toughest one to down."
Chester looked up. For a moment he forgot himself and his wretchedness. "It's hard to believe it's you, Red—talking like this."
"I know it must be hard, but it ought to be the more convincing on that account. I belong to a profession of materialists, and all at once it's grown to seem to me the strangest thing in life that a man who studies the anatomy of this body of ours should be a materialist. To watch its workings and then doubt the God who made it is sheet wilful blindness. But, Ches—I've got my eyes open at last. The God who made me is up there, and He knows and cares how I go on with the job. As for answering my appeals for help when I get hard pressed—the biggest sign I have of that is a human one. Since Bobby Burns came to sleep in that little bed next mine, it's been a whole lot easier to get on."
A deep sigh was Chester's reply to this. He had a small boy and girl of his own. For their sakes and Winifred's he knew he must fight this fight out and win. But as for getting tangible help from the Creator of a body handicapped by nerves like his! He began to say this, but Burns broke in upon him with the answer he would least have expected at a moment like this a great, ringing laugh, the sound of which brought the slow blood to Chester's white face.
"If you consider wrecked nerves like mine a laughing matter—" he broke out.
But Burns, his laugh over, was sober again and his voice was earnest. "Arthur Chester, don't make Him responsible for your 'wrecked nerves.' They weren't wrecked when you were furnished with them. You've done the wrecking yourself by breaking pretty nearly every law that governs the workings of the human machine. You're paying the penalty. But you're going to get the upper hand. From now on, in spite of your office life, you're going to get good red blood in your veins—and your brains. The worst is over now—the second week will be easier. But what I'm trying to tell you is that you'll get that upper hand a lot quicker if"—his cheek grew hot with this strange, unaccustomed effort at putting things he had never spoken of before into words—"if you'll just reach up and take hold of that 'Upper Hand' that, according to my new belief and experience, is ready to reach down to you. It's stronger than yours: you'll feel the upward pull."
He broke off and got to his feet. The two had been sitting on a fallen log, looking off over the hills toward a distant river winding its blue length through fields of living green.
"I wasn't exactly cut out for a preacher, Ches," he added after a minute. "I hope my talk doesn't sound to you like 'cant.' I'm a pretty poor specimen of a chap to be setting up my own example for anybody to follow."
"I don't think you've been setting up your own example," Chester replied. He pulled himself up limply from the log, yet out of his face had gone the black look which had been there when he came up the hill. "And what you've said doesn't sound like 'cant' to me, Red. It sounds more like 'can.'"
Red Pepper Burns held out his hand. His big; warm fingers closed hard over the thin; cold ones which met them. Then the two men, without more words, went away down the hill. From this hour Arthur Chester afterward dated the beginning of the end of the fight.
CHAPTER VI. IN WHICH HE PRESCRIBES FOR HIMSELF
"Red," observed James Macauley, junior, "this place of yours looks like a drunkard's home."
He glanced around him as he spoke. The criticism certainly found justification in every corner. No more neglected office could have been discovered belonging to any practitioner within an area of many miles.
"I suppose it does," rejoined Burns from the depths of a big, dusty leather chair where he sat stretched in an attitude expressing extreme fatigue. "But I don't care a hang."
Macauley looked at him. His eyes were closed. His arms lay upon the chair arms, relaxed and limp. For the first time his friend observed what might have been noted by a critical eye on any day during the last fortnight. The lines on the ordinarily strong, health-tinted face were deeper than he had ever seen them; the cheeks were thinner; there were even shadows under the thick eyelashes which outlined the lids of the closed eyes.
"Look here, old man," Macauley cried, sudden conviction seizing him, "you're working altogether too hard. This miserable city epidemic has done you out. I've thought all the time you were trying to cover too much ground."
"Ground's had to be covered," replied the other briefly, without opening his eyes.
"Have the other fellows worked as hard as you?"
"I don't believe it. They're all city men. You've done all this city work and looked after your own patients here, too, to say nothing of living in both places at once. With your housekeeper gone home to her sick folks, and Miss Mathewson off on one of your cases—no wonder this place looks the way it does."
"It doesn't matter. Cut it out about the place. I'm going back in ten minutes."
"You are! Not going to get to bed?"
"Don't know. I might snatch a nap now if you'd quit talking."
Macauley closed his mouth. Presently he got up and stole out of the room. He was back again in a trice, a flask in one hand, a soda siphon in the other, and a small glass balanced on his thumb. When Burns, at the sound of a clock ticking somewhere, rubbed his eyes with his fists striking in and reluctantly opened them, Macauley spoke briskly:
"See here—I'm going to give you a bracer. I know your confounded notions, but they don't cut any figure when you need something to pull you together the way you do to-night."
He started to measure out the amber liquid into the glass, but Burns put up a hand.
"Much obliged, but I don't want any."
"You idiot—don't you know when to make an exception to your rule? I admit you've won out over the other fellows just by keeping a steady hand, but you're dead as a dog for rest to-night and you need a stiff one, if I'm any judge."
"You're not—for me." Burns sat up. "O Heavens, man, if I were going to break my rule at all it wouldn't be for a drink of anything. It would be for a stab in the arm with something that beats your stuff all out for stimulating the fatigue out of a fellow and making him feel like working till he drops."
"Why don't you have it then?" asked Macauley curiously. "I should think if ever a used-up chap were justified in—"
"Don't give me that talk if you're my friend. It's hard enough to hold out without resorting to that game. I don't need you to advise it. I've seen enough of that sort of suicide. Buller and Fields are both down and out, and they began to brace early in the epidemic. Van Horn's a wreck, though he keeps going; and I tell you, I've more respect for that man than I ever had before. He's a poseur and a toadier, no doubt of that, and I've always despised him for it, but he has real ability and he's worked like a fiend through this muss, and not all for his rich patients, either. But he's weakening fast, and it's drug stimulation that's done it. No, sir: not for mine. But I'll make myself a cup of coffee, for I've got to keep awake, and I shall sleep in my tracks if I don't."
He got up and stumbled out into his deserted kitchen. Macauley followed, helping as best he knew how, and watched his friend gulp down two cupfulls of a muddy liquid with feeling of admiration such as a small act of large significance may sometimes stir in one who apprehends.
Two days later Burns, starting toward home in the Imp at a late hour in the morning, passed a figure on a corner of a city street waiting for the outward-bound trolley. He slowed down beside it.
"May I take you home?" he asked, cap in hand, and interest showing in eyes which a moment before had been heavy with fatigue.
Ellen Lessing looked up. "I shall be very glad," she answered, as she met his outstretched hand and let it draw her upward to the vacant seat. "The car is always so full at this hour, and I was longing for the feeling of the wind against my face."
"It's cool for late August, and you'll get a breeze on the road home that will refresh you. You haven't touched water or milk in this plague-stricken district, I hope?"
"No, indeed. Martha warned me a dozen times before I left. How are things? Any better?"
"No new cases in twenty-four hours, and the old ones well in hand. I'm getting home earlier to-day than I've done for a month, and hope to have a few hours off duty. I was planning what to do with them as I came upon you."
"I should think you could do nothing better with them than to go home and sleep," she advised, looking up at his face with a critical, friendly survey of the signs of weariness written plainly there. "You are worn out, and that means something when one says it of so strong a man as you."
"I could sleep a week, but I'm not sure that a few hours would more than aggravate my need. Besides, I shouldn't be at home an hour before I should be called out again. No, my plans were forming themselves differently, and now that I've met you they're taking definite shape. I want—well—suppose I don't tell you! Would you trust me to take you off on a rest-seeking expedition without explaining what I mean to do?"
"On a 'rest-seeking expedition'?" she repeated. "Doctor Burns, are you sure you hadn't better go on that alone? Suppose I chatter all the way?"
He smiled. "You're not a chatterer. And I don't want to go alone. I haven't had a chance for an hour with you for a month, I think. This is the only way I can get it. Will you go?"
"You provoke my curiosity. Yes, I think I'll go. I've been shopping all the morning and I deserve a reward of rest, if you're sure you know where to find it."
He turned the Imp abruptly aside from the boulevard leading out of town down which they had been speeding. He made a detour of certain side streets which brought him up before a small side establishment bearing a sign which set forth an alluring invitation to motoring parties in need of food. He disappeared therein, and was absent for the space of a full twenty minutes. When he returned he was followed by a waiter with a hamper to whose bestowal in the back of the car he looked carefully.
As they sped away again, Burns turned to his companion, a smile of anticipation on his face, to meet a glance of some apprehension.
"You're not repenting your rash trust of me already, are you?" he demanded.
"I'm remembering that Martha has four guests at luncheon to-day, and expects me to be there!"
"Is that all? Don't let that worry you. We'll simply have a breakdown somewhere on the road conveniently near to a spot I know, where I can broil the beefsteak I have in that hamper, and make the coffee. 'Unavoidable detention' will be your apology."
"'Irresistible temptation' will be my confession," she admitted. "I'm not good at subterfuge and I'm so hungry that the mere mention of beefsteak out-of-doors—"
"If it weighs against the plates and salads of a woman's luncheon I shall have a great respect for you. Come on, let's run away! You from social duties, I from professional ones. I'll agree to stand out Martha in your defense. Unless, of course, the opportunity to wear a pretty frock and throw all the other women in the shade—"
She laughed. "That's precisely what Martha wants me to do!"
"Then fail her and let the other women win. It's too late to repent, anyhow, for here's where we turn off."
The Imp itself seemed to be running away, so swiftly and silently it covered the new road leading off into the hills. Presently it was climbing them.
"I want to get where no call-boy monotonously repeating 'Doc-tor Bur-rns, Doc-tor Bur-rns', can get hold of me," the Imp's driver explained. "I suppose you're not dressed—nor shod—for a rough walk of a quarter of a mile where the car can't go?"
"I'll sacrifice skirts and soles," she promised. "Isn't the air out here glorious? I thought I was tired when I left the city: now I could climb that hill and enjoy it."
"That's precisely what we'll do, then. There's a view from the top worth the scramble, but I wasn't sure you'd be game for it. Perhaps I'll know you better at the end of this afternoon than I do now. Is there a jolly, athletic girl hidden away under that demure manner of yours I've seen so far, I wonder?"
"Lead the way up that hill and you'll find out," she answered with a challenging flash of her dark eyes.
He lodged the Imp among a clump of pines, got out the hamper and turned to his companion. She had pulled off her gloves, removed hat and veil and folded her long, gray coat away in the car. This left her dressed in the trim gray skirt of walking length and the gray silk blouse she had worn for shopping. Burns looked at her with approval.
"Transformed by magic from a fashionable lady in street attire to a girl ready for the woods," was his comment. "I'm glad you leave off the hat—I'll match you by doffing the cap. Now aren't we a pair? Are you in for a rush up that first slope? Jove, I'm not half so tired as I was an hour ago, already!"
He caught her hand in his, his other arm through the hamper handle, and ran with her up the slope. At the edge of the steeper climb to come they stopped, breathing fast. "This isn't the way to begin, of course," he admitted as they both regained their breath, laughing at their own enthusiasm, "but I couldn't resist that dash—a sort of dash for freedom. Now we'll take it more easily."
They worked their way up and up among the rocks, he always in advance, reaching down a muscular right arm to help her at the steeper places, and once giving her a knee to step on when progress could be made only up the straight face of a big boulder. It was undoubtedly a stiff climb for a woman, but she showed no signs of flinching, and though her cheeks glowed richly and her wavy black locks were a trifle loosened from their usual order when at last she set foot upon the plateau at the top, she showed only the temporary fatigue to be expected after such unusual exertion.
"That makes the blood course through one's arteries in a way worth while," was his comment as he regarded with satisfaction the splendid colour in her checks and the sparkle in her eyes. "Talk about rest! That's the way to get it! Burn up the products of fatigue, replace them with fresh cells full of oxygen, and you get rejuvenation. Look at that stretch of country before us! Isn't that worth the climb?"
"It's glorious! I've often looked at this height as our car drove by on the road over there, and wanted to climb it. But Martha and Jim are always for reeling off miles, and so, I thought, were you. I imagined there was nobody but myself to care for this."
"And I thought you liked the porch and the pretty clothes you wear there better than anything I could show you in the open," he owned with a laugh. "Not that I haven't enjoyed that porch and the sight of the clothes—they don't seem to be just like Martha's and Winifred's somehow, though I can't tell why! I've wanted to ask you off for a trip like this, but never was sure you'd enjoy it. I'm glad I've found out. I feel as if I'd wasted the summer."
He fell to gathering wood for his fire, and when she had regained her breath she helped him in spite of his remonstrance. "Let me have all the fun, too," she begged. "I haven't had a chance like this for four years. I used to camp in flannels all summer long, in the roughest sort of style, and loved it dearly. I could stand the tension of a long social winter twice as well as the other women on account of it."
He understood, knowing that her husband had occupied a prominent official position which called upon him to maintain a corresponding place in the society of the city in which they had lived. Although he knew her to be still under thirty, he realized that on account of her early marriage she had had much experience in the world of affairs. It was this aspect of her he had always borne in mind as he had seen her before. Now he was beginning to recognize another side of her character and tastes, a side which interested him even more than the other had done.
Like a pair of children they collected their firewood, racing together to the base of operations with armfuls of dry sticks. When there was a big pile she surprised him by asking to be allowed to make the fire herself.
"I'll prove to you I'm a woodsman," she asserted, and when she had performed her task after the most approved fashion of the skilled camper, he acknowledged that she had made good her boast. As the smoke cleared away in the direction which left the view unobscured and the spot he had selected for the lunching-place free from smoke, he grinned approvingly.
"I've no doubt you could grill the steak and brew the coffee with equal skill," he admitted, "but I'm not going to let you. That's my job. I want to prove my prowess. Sit down on that log, please, and oversee me."
She watched with hungry interest while he also gave evidence of his craft. It could hardly be the first time that a hamper had been packed for him at the place in the city, for nothing he needed had been left out, even to a big bottle of spring water with which to make the coffee. When his work was nearly complete she spread a square of white linen upon a flat rock and set forth the other contents of the hamper—olives and bread and butter, crisp celery-hearts, and cream cheese and a tin of biscuits. She heated the plates and cups before the fire, and as he withdrew his steak from the coals she set a smoking hot platter before him and offered him the materials for seasoning.
"You're a crack camper for sure," he declared. "Ah-h—does that steak look fit for the gods, or not? How's the coffee? Clear?"
"Perfect. And the steak looks as if it would melt in one's mouth. Oh, isn't this fun? How glad I am I'm here and not at that luncheon!" She consulted a tiny watch. "It's two o'clock—they're sitting down," she exulted. "Martha has waited half an hour for me and given me up, and she's perfectly furious. I'm wicked enough to feel that that fact is going to make this meal taste all the better!"
"Stolen steak and bread and butter eaten in secret have an extra relish—no doubt of that. Here—this juicy bit is for you to begin on. Set your teeth into it, partner! How's that for food, I ask of you?"
Sitting on the ground opposite each other with the flat rock between, they consumed this Arcadian banquet, eating with the zest born of exertion and the open air, the sunshine and the comradeship.
"Nothing has tasted quite so good to me in a year," said she when the steak had vanished, dipping a white celery-heart in salt and biting the end off with teeth still whiter.
"Nothing ever tasted so good to me," said he, leaning on his elbow and spreading a crisp biscuit with a layer of cheese. "I always think that of each meal I eat in a place like this, but this one seems to have a special flavour. I wonder if it can be the company?"
He smiled across at her, the sunshine among the pine needles of the tree above him throwing flecks of bright copper among the thick locks of his hair.
"I think the company is usually an important part of all such outings," she admitted frankly. "I never took one before in the society of a wornout doctor who began to look like a boy again before he had finished his coffee. I really shouldn't know you were the same person who invited me to go on this expedition."
"There's nothing like it for renewing one, body and mind. Actual physical repose isn't often the best cure for weariness: it's change of thought and occupation, particularly if the open air is a part of the cure. I've forgotten I have a care in the world: all I can think of is—may I say it?—yourself! I can't get over the wonder of seeing you turn from what Bob calls his 'pretty lady' into the girl I see before me—a girl who looks about nineteen, with a capacity for good sport in the open air I never dreamed of."
"The open air would renew everybody's youth, I think, if everybody would go to living out-of-doors. We're through, aren't we? There isn't a crumb left! Now please go off and let me clear up and pack away. That's always the woman's part. Couldn't you lie down on that inviting carpet of needles over there under the big pine and get a bit of sleep?"
"Sleep—when I can talk to you?"
She nodded. "Yes, indeed. I'm not going to talk just now, anyhow, so you might as well make the best of it. Throw yourself down with your hands under your head, and look up at those beautiful boughs. Please!"
Rather reluctantly he obeyed, and she could see that, weary as he undoubtedly still was in spite of the refreshing meal, he really did not want to lose any of her society. Lying at full length on his side, his head propped on his hand, talking in the lazy tone of after-dinner content which had descended upon him, he continued to watch her as she repacked the hamper. It was not until she deliberately forsook him that he gave up to her wishes. But when, having been out of his sight for ten minutes, she peered cautiously through the bushes behind which she had screened herself, she saw what she had hoped for. His whole weary frame was stretched upon the pine-needle carpet, the lines of his face were relaxed, and his eyes fast shut.
The sun was far down the hills when he awoke. He lay blinking at the low-sweeping boughs above him for a little without realizing where he was; then, as the midsummer stillness which surrounded him took hold of his senses, he turned his head to recall to himself the conditions under which he had been sleeping. Only the hamper under a tree close by gave evidence that he was here by his own volition. He stared about, remembering that he had had a companion. He got somewhat stiffly to his feet, discovering as he did so that he had lain for a long time without stirring from the position in which slumber had overtaken him.