RED PEPPER'S PATIENTS
With an Account of Anne Linton's Case in Particular
GRACE S. RICHMOND
Garden City New York Doubleday, Page & Company
I. AN INTELLIGENT PRESCRIPTION
II. LITTLE HUNGARY
III. ANNE LINTON'S TEMPERATURE
IV. TWO RED HEADS
VI. HEAVY LOCAL MAILS
VII. WHITE LILACS
VIII. EXPERT DIAGNOSIS
IX. JORDAN IS A MAN
X. THE SURGICAL FIRING LINE
XI. THE ONLY SAFE PLACE
XII. THE TRUTH ABOUT SUSQUEHANNA
XIII. RED HEADED AGAIN
XIV. A STRANGE DAY
XV. CLEARED DECKS
XVI. WHITE LILACS AGAIN
XVII. RED'S DEAREST PATIENTS
AN INTELLIGENT PRESCRIPTION
The man in the silk-lined, London-made overcoat, holding his hat firmly on his head lest the January wind send its expensive perfection into the gutter, paused to ask his way of the man with no overcoat, his hands shoved into his ragged pockets, his shapeless headgear crowded down over his eyes, red and bleary with the piercing wind.
"Burns?" repeated the second man to the question of the first. "Doc Burns? Sure! Next house beyond the corner—the brick one." He turned to point. "Tell it by the rigs hitched. It's his office hours. You'll do some waitin', tell ye that."
The questioner smiled—a slightly superior smile. "Thank you," he said, and passed on. He arrived at the corner and paused briefly, considering the row of vehicles in front of the old, low-lying brick house with its comfortable, white-pillared porches. The row was indeed a formidable one and suggested many waiting people within the house. But after an instant's hesitation he turned up the gravel path toward the wing of the house upon whose door could be seen the lettering of an inconspicuous sign. As he came near he made out that the sign read "R.P. Burns, M.D.," and that the table of office hours below set forth that the present hour was one of those designated.
"I'll get a line on your practice, Red," said the stranger to himself, and laid hand upon the doorbell. "Incidentally, perhaps, I'll get a line on why you stick to a small suburban town like this when you might be in the thick of things. A fellow whom I've twice met in Vienna, too. I can't understand it."
A fair-haired young woman in a white uniform and cap admitted the newcomer and pointed him to the one chair left unoccupied in the large and crowded waiting-room. It was a pleasant room, in a well-worn sort of way, and the blazing wood fire in a sturdy fireplace, the rows of dull-toned books cramming a solid phalanx of bookcases, and a number of interesting old prints on the walls gave it, as the stranger, lifting critical eyes, was obliged to admit to himself, a curious air of dignity in spite of the mingled atmosphere of drugs and patients which assailed his fastidious nostrils. As for the patients themselves, since they were all about him, he could hardly do less than observe them, although he helped himself to a late magazine from a well-filled table at his side and mechanically turned its pages.
The first to claim his attention was a little girl at his elbow. She could hardly fail to catch his eye, she was so conspicuous with bandages. One eye, one cheek, the whole of her neck, and both her hands were swathed in white, but the other cheek was rosy, and the uncovered eye twinkled bravely as she smiled at the stranger. "I was burned," she said proudly.
"I see," returned the stranger, speaking very low, for he was conscious that the entire roomful of people was listening. "And you are getting better?"
"Oh, yes!" exulted the child. "Doctor's making me have new skin. He gets me more new skin every day. I didn't have any at all. It was all burned off."
"That's very good of him," murmured the stranger.
"He's awful good," said the child, "when he isn't cross. He isn't ever cross to me, Doctor isn't."
There was a general murmur of amusement in the room, and another child, not far away, laughed aloud. The stranger furtively scrutinized the other patients one by one, lifting apparently casual glances from behind his magazine. Several, presumably the owners of the vehicles outside, were of the typical village type, but there were others more sophisticated, and several who were palpably persons of wealth. One late comer was admitted who left a luxuriously appointed motor across the street, and brought in with her an atmosphere of costly furs and violets and fresh air.
"Certainly a mixed crowd," said the stranger to himself behind his magazine; "but not so different, after all, from most doctors' waiting-room crowds. I might send in a card, but, if I remember Red, it wouldn't get me anything—and this is rather interesting anyhow. I'll wait."
He waited, for he wished the waiting room to be clear when he should approach that busy consulting room beyond. Meanwhile, people came and went. The door into the inner room would swing open, a patient would emerge, a curt but pleasant "Good-bye" in a deep voice following him or her out, and the fair-haired nurse, who sat at a desk near the door or came out of the consulting room with the patient, would summon the next. The lady of the furs and violets sent in her card, but, as the stranger had anticipated in his own case, it procured her no more than an assurance from the nurse that Doctor Burns would see her in due course. Since he wanted the coast clear the stranger, when at last his turn arrived, politely waived his rights, sent the furs and violets in before him, and sat alone with the nurse in the cleared waiting room.
A comparatively short period of time elapsed before the consulting-room door opened once more. But it closed again—almost—and a few words reached the outer room.
"Oh, but you're hard—hard, Doctor Burns! I simply can't do it," said a plaintive voice.
"Then don't expect me to accomplish anything. It's up to you—absolutely," replied a brusque voice, which then softened slightly as it added: "Cheer up. You can, you know. Good-bye."
The patient came out, her lips set, her eyes lowered, and left the office as if she wanted nothing so much as to get away. The nurse rose and began to say that Doctor Burns would now see his one remaining caller, but at that moment Doctor Burns himself appeared in the doorway, glanced at the stranger, who had risen, smiling—and the need for an intermediary between physician and patient vanished before the onslaught of the physician himself.
"My word! Gardner Coolidge! Well, well—if this isn't the greatest thing on earth. My dear fellow!"
The stranger, no longer a stranger, with his hand being wrung like that, with his eyes being looked into by a pair of glowing hazel eyes beneath a heavy thatch of well-remembered coppery hair, returned this demonstration of affection with equal fervour.
"I've been sitting in your stuffy waiting room, Red, till the entire population of this town should tell you its aches, just for the pleasure of seeing you with the professional manner off."
Burns threw back his head and laughed, with a gesture as of flinging something aside. "It's off then, Cooly—if I have one. I didn't know I had. How are you? Man, but it's good to see you! Come along out of this into a place that's not stuffy. Where's your bag? You didn't leave it anywhere?"
"I can't stay, Red—really I can't. Not this time. I must go to-night. And I came to consult you professionally—so let's get that over first."
"Of course. Just let me speak a word to the authorities. You'll at least be here for dinner? Step into the next room, Cooly. On your way let me present you to my assistant, Miss Mathewson, whom I couldn't do without. Mr. Coolidge, Miss Mathewson."
Gardner Coolidge bowed to the office nurse, whom he had already classified as a very attractively superior person and well worth a good salary; then went on into the consulting room, where an open window had freshened the small place beyond any possibility of its being called stuffy. As he closed the window with a shiver and looked about him, glancing into the white-tiled surgery beyond; he recognized the fact that, though he might be in the workshop of a village practitioner, it was a workshop which did not lack the tools of the workman thoroughly abreast of the times.
Burns came back, his face bright with pleasure in the unexpected appearance of his friend. He stood looking across the small room at Coolidge, as if he could get a better view of the whole man at a little distance. The two men were a decided contrast to each other. Redfield Pepper Burns, known to all his intimates, and to many more who would not have ventured to call him by that title, as "Red Pepper Burns," on account of the combination of red head, quick temper, and wit which were his most distinguishing characteristics of body and mind, was a stalwart fellow whose weight was effectually kept down by his activity. His white linen office jacket was filled by powerful shoulders, and the perfectly kept hands of the surgeon gave evidence, as such hands do, of their delicacy of touch, in the very way in which Burns closed the door behind him.
Gardner Coolidge was of a different type altogether. As tall as Burns, he looked taller because of his slender figure and the distinctive outlines of his careful dress. His face was dark and rather thin, showing sensitive lines about the eyes and mouth, and a tendency to melancholy in the eyes themselves, even when lighted by a smile, as now. He was manifestly the man of worldly experience, with fastidious tastes, and presumably one who did not accept the rest of mankind as comrades until proved and chosen.
"So it's my services you want?" questioned Burns. "If that's the case, then it's here you sit."
"Face to the light, of course," objected Coolidge with a grimace. "I wonder if you doctors know what a moral advantage as well as a physical one that gives you."
"Of course. The moral advantage is the one we need most. Anybody can see when a skin is jaundiced; but only by virtue of that moral standpoint can we detect the soul out of order. And that's the matter with you, Cooly."
"What!" Coolidge looked startled. "I knew you were a man who jumped to conclusions in the old days—"
"And acted on them, too," admitted Burns. "I should say I did. And got myself into many a scrape thereby, of course. Well, I jump to conclusions now, in just the same way, only perhaps with a bit more understanding of the ground I jump on. However, tell me your symptoms in orthodox style, please, then we'll have them out of the way."
Coolidge related them somewhat reluctantly because, as he went on, he was conscious that they did not appear to be of as great importance as this visit to a physician seemed to indicate he thought them. The most impressive was the fact that he was unable to get a thoroughly good night's sleep except when physically exhausted, which in his present manner of life he seldom was. When he had finished and looked around—he had been gazing out of the window—he found himself, as he had known he should, under the intent scrutiny of the eyes he was facing.
"What did the last man give you for this insomnia?" was the abrupt question.
"How do you know I have been to a succession of men?" demanded Coolidge with a touch of evident irritation.
"Because you come to me. We don't look up old friends in the profession until the strangers fail us," was the quick reply.
"More hasty conclusions. Still, I'll have to admit that I let our family physician look me over, and that he suggested my seeing a nerve man—Allbright. He has rather a name, I believe?"
"Sure thing. What did he recommend?"
"A long sea voyage. I took it—having nothing else to do—and slept a bit better while I was away. The minute I got back it was the old story."
"Nothing on your mind, I suppose?" suggested Burns.
"I supposed you'd ask me that stock question. Why shouldn't there be something on my mind? Is there anybody whose mind is free from a weight of some sort?" demanded Gardner Coolidge. His thin face flushed a little.
"Nobody," admitted Burns promptly. "The question is whether the weight on yours is one that's got to stay there or whether you may be rid of it. Would you care to tell me anything about it? I'm a pretty old friend, you know."
Coolidge was silent for a full minute, then he spoke with evident reluctance: "It won't do a particle of good to tell, but I suppose, if I consult you, you have a right to know the facts. My wife—has gone back to her father."
"On a visit?" Burns inquired.
Coolidge stared at him. "That's like you, Red," he said, irritation in his voice again. "What's the use of being brutal?"
"Has she been gone long enough for people to think it's anything more than a visit?"
"I suppose not. She's been gone two months. Her home is in California."
"Then she can be gone three without anybody's thinking trouble. By the end of that third month you can bring her home," said Burns comfortably. He leaned back in his swivel-chair, and stared hard at the ceiling.
Coolidge made an exclamation of displeasure and got to his feet. "If you don't care to take me seriously—" he began.
"I don't take any man seriously who I know cared as much for his wife when he married her as you did for Miss Carrington—and whose wife was as much in love with him as she was with you—when he comes to me and talks about her having gone on a visit to her father. Visits are good things; they make people appreciate each other."
"You don't—or won't—understand." Coolidge evidently strove hard to keep himself quiet. "We have come to a definite understanding that we can't—get on together. She's not coming back. And I don't want her to."
Burns lowered his gaze from the ceiling to his friend's face, and the glance he now gave him was piercing. "Say that last again," he demanded.
"I have some pride," replied the other haughtily, but his eyes would not meet Burns's.
"So I see. Pride is a good thing. So is love. Tell me you don't love her and I'll—No, don't tell me that. I don't want to hear you perjure yourself. And I shouldn't believe you. You may as well own up"—his voice was gentle now—"that you're suffering—and not only with hurt pride." There was silence for a little. Then Burns began again, in a very low and quiet tone: "Have you anything against her, Cooly?"
The man before him, who was still standing, turned upon him. "How can you ask me such a question?" he said fiercely.
"It's a question that has to be asked, just to get it out of the way. Has she anything against you?"
"For heaven's sake—no! You know us both."
"I thought I did. Diagnosis, you know, is a series of eliminations. And now I can eliminate pretty nearly everything from this case except a certain phrase you used a few minutes ago. I'm inclined to think it's the cause of the trouble." Coolidge looked his inquiry. "'Having nothing else to do.'"
Coolidge shook his head. "You're mistaken there. I have plenty to do."
"But nothing you couldn't be spared from—unless things have changed since the days when we all envied you. You're still writing your name on the backs of dividend drafts, I suppose?"
"Red, you are something of a brute," said Coolidge, biting his lip. But he had taken the chair again.
"I know," admitted Red Pepper Burns. "I don't really mean to be, but the only way I can find out the things I need to know is to ask straight questions. I never could stand circumlocution. If you want that, Cooly; if you want what are called 'tactful' methods, you'll have to go to some other man. What I mean by asking you that one is to prove to you that though you may have something to do, you have no job to work at. As it happens you haven't even what most other rich men have, the trouble of looking after your income—and as long as your father lives you won't have it. I understand that; he won't let you. But there's a man with a job—your father. And he likes it so well he won't share it with you. It isn't the money he values, it's the job. And collecting books or curios or coins can never be made to take the place of good, downright hard work."
"That may be all true," acknowledged Coolidge, "but it has nothing to do with my present trouble. My leisure was not what—" He paused, as if he could not bear to discuss the subject of his marital unhappiness.
The telephone bell in the outer office rang sharply. An instant later Miss Mathewson knocked, and gave a message to Burns. He read it, nodded, said "Right away," and turned back to his friend.
"I have to leave you for a bit," he said. "Come in and meet my wife and one of the kiddies. The other's away just now. I'll be back in time for dinner. Meanwhile, we'll let the finish of this talk wait over for an hour or two. I want to think about it."
He exchanged his white linen office-jacket for a street coat, splashing about with soap and water just out of sight for a little while before he did so, and reappeared looking as if he had washed away the fatigue of his afternoon's work with the physical process. He led Gardner Coolidge out of the offices into a wide separating hall, and the moment the door closed behind him the visitor felt as if he had entered a different world.
Could this part of the house, he thought, as Burns ushered him into the living room on the other side of the hall and left him there while he went to seek his wife, possibly be contained within the old brick walls of the exterior? He had not dreamed of finding such refinement of beauty and charm in connection with the office of the village doctor. In half a dozen glances to right and left Gardner Coolidge, experienced in appraising the belongings of the rich and travelled of superior taste and breeding, admitted to himself that the genius of the place must be such a woman as he would not have imagined Redfield Pepper Burns able to marry.
He had not long to wait for the confirmation of his insight. Burns shortly returned, a two-year-old boy on his shoulder, his wife following, drawn along by the child's hand. Coolidge looked, and liked that which he saw. And he understood, with one glance into the dark eyes which met his, one look at the firm sweetness of the lovely mouth, that the heart of the husband must safely trust in this woman.
Burns went away at once, leaving Coolidge in the company of Ellen, and the guest, eager though he was for the professional advice he had come to seek, could not regret the necessity which gave him this hour with a woman who seemed to him very unusual. Charm she possessed in full measure, beauty in no less, but neither of these terms nor both together could wholly describe Ellen Burns. There was something about her which seemed to glow, so that he soon felt that her presence in the quietly rich and restful living room completed its furnishing, and that once having seen her there the place could never be quite at its best without her.
Burns came back, and the three went out to dinner. The small boy, a handsome, auburn-haired, brown-eyed composite of his parents, had been sent away, the embraces of both father and mother consoling him for his banishment to the arms of a coloured mammy. Coolidge thoroughly enjoyed the simple but appetizing dinner, of the sort he had known he should have as soon as he had met the mistress of the house. And after it he was borne away by Burns to the office.
"I have to go out again at once," the physician announced. "I'm going to take you with me. I suppose you have a distaste for the sight of illness, but that doesn't matter seriously. I want you to see this patient of mine."
"Thank you, but I don't believe that's necessary," responded Coolidge with a frown. "If Mrs. Burns is too busy to keep me company I'll sit here and read while you're out."
"No, you won't. If you consult a man you're bound to take his prescriptions. I'm telling you frankly, for you'd see through me if I pretended to take you out for a walk and then pulled you into a house. Be a sport, Cooly."
"Very well," replied the other man, suppressing his irritation. He was almost, but not quite, wishing he had not yielded to the unexplainable impulse which had brought him here to see a man who, as he should have known from past experience in college days, was as sure to be eccentric in his methods of practising his profession as he had been in the conduct of his life as a student.
The two went out into the winter night together, Coolidge remarking that the call must be a brief one, for his train would leave in a little more than an hour.
"It'll be brief," Burns promised. "It's practically a friendly call only, for there's nothing more I can do for the patient—except to see him on his way."
Coolidge looked more than ever reluctant. "I hope he's not just leaving the world?"
"What if he were—would that frighten you? Don't be worried; he'll not go to-night."
Something in Burns's tone closed his companion's lips. Coolidge resented it, and at the same time he felt constrained to let the other have his way. And after all there proved to be nothing in the sight he presently found himself witnessing to shock the most delicate sensibilities.
It was a little house to which Burns conducted his friend and latest patient; it was a low-ceiled, homely room, warm with lamplight and comfortable with the accumulations of a lifetime carefully preserved. In the worn, old, red-cushioned armchair by a glowing stove sat an aged figure of a certain dignity and attractiveness in spite of the lines and hues plainly showing serious illness. The man was a man of education and experience, as was evident from his first words in response to Burns's greeting.
"It was kind of you to come again to-night, Doctor. I suspect you know how it shortens the nights to have this visit from you in the evening."
"Of course I know," Burns responded, his hand resting gently on the frail shoulder, his voice as tender as that of a son's to a father whom he knows he is not long to see.
There was a woman in the room, an old woman with a pathetic face and eyes like a mourning dog's as they rested on her husband. But her voice was cheerful and full of quiet courage as she answered Burns's questions. The pair received Gardner Coolidge as simply as if they were accustomed to meet strangers every day, spoke with him a little, and showed him the courtesy of genuine interest when he tried to entertain them with a brief account of an incident which had happened on his train that day. Altogether, there was nothing about the visit which he could have characterized as painful from the point of view of the layman who accompanies the physician to a room where it is clear that the great transition is soon to take place. And yet there was everything about it to make it painful—acutely painful—to any man whose discernment was naturally as keen as Coolidge's.
That the parting so near at hand was to be one between lovers of long standing could be read in every word and glance the two gave each other. That they were making the most of these last days was equally apparent, though not a word was said to suggest it. And that the man who was conducting them through the fast-diminishing time was dear to them as a son could have been read by the very blind.
"It's so good of you—so good of you, Doctor," they said again as Burns rose to go, and when he responded: "It's good to myself I am, my dears, when I come to look at you," the smiles they gave him and each other were very eloquent.
Outside there was silence between the two men for a little as they walked briskly along, then Coolidge said reluctantly: "Of course I should have a heart of stone if I were not touched by that scene—as you knew I would be."
"Yes, I knew," said Burns simply; and Coolidge saw him lift his hand and dash away a tear. "It gets me, twice a day regularly, just as if I hadn't seen it before. And when I go back and look at the woman I love I say to myself that I'll never let anything but the last enemy come between us if I have to crawl on my knees before her."
Suddenly Coolidge's throat contracted. His resentment against his friend was gone. Surely it was a wise physician who had given him that heartbreaking little scene to remember when he should be tempted to harden his heart against the woman he had chosen.
"Red," he said bye and bye, when the two were alone together for a few minutes again in the consulting room before he should leave for his train, "is that all the prescription you're going to give me—a trip to California? Suppose I'm not successful?"
Red Pepper Burns smiled, a curious little smile. "You've forgotten what I told you about the way my old man and woman made a home together,' and worked at their market gardening together, and read and studied together—did everything from first to last together. That's the whole force of the illustration, to my mind, Cooly. It's the standing shoulder to shoulder to face life that does the thing. Whatever plan you make for your after life, when you bring Alicia back with you—as you will; I know it—make it a plan which means partnership—if you have to build a cottage down on the edge of your estate and live alone there together. Alone till the children come to keep you company," he added with a sudden flashing smile.
Coolidge looked at him and shook his head. His face dropped back into melancholy. He opened his lips and closed them again. Red Pepper Burns opened his own lips—and closed them again. When he did speak it was to say, more gently than he had yet spoken:
"Old fellow, life isn't in ruins before you. Make up your mind to that. You'll sleep again, and laugh again—and cry again, too,—because life is like that, and you wouldn't want it any other way."
It was time for Coolidge to go, and the two men went in to permit the guest to take leave of Mrs. Burns. When they left the house Coolidge told his friend briefly what he thought of his friend's wife, and Burns smiled in the darkness as he heard.
"She affects most people that way," he answered with a proud little ring in his voice. But he did not go on to talk about her; that would have been brutal indeed in Coolidge's unhappy circumstances.
At the train Coolidge turned suddenly to his physician. "You haven't given me anything for my sleeplessness," he said.
"Think you must have a prescription?" Burns inquired, getting out his blank and pen.
"It will take some time for your advice to work out, if it ever does," Coolidge said. "Meanwhile, the more good sleep I get the fitter I shall be for the effort."
"True enough. All right, you shall have the prescription."
Burns wrote rapidly, resting the small leather-bound book on his knee, his foot on an iron rail of the fence which kept passengers from crowding. He read over what he had written, his face sober, his eyes intent. He scrawled a nearly indecipherable "Burns" at the bottom, folded the slip and handed it to his friend. "Put it away till you're ready to get it filled," he advised.
The two shook hands, gripping tightly and looking straight into each other's eyes.
"Thank you, Red, for it all," said Gardner Coolidge. "There have been minutes when I felt differently, but I understand you better now. And I see why your waiting room is full of patients even on a stormy day."
"No, you don't," denied Red Pepper Burns stoutly. "If you saw me take their heads off you'd wonder that they ever came again. Plenty of them don't—and I don't blame them—when I've cooled off."
Coolidge smiled. "You never lie awake thinking over what you've said or done, do you, Red? Bygones are bygones with a man like you. You couldn't do your work if they weren't!"
A peculiar look leaped into Burns's eyes. "That's what the outsiders always think," he answered briefly.
"Isn't it true?"
"You may as well go on thinking it is—and so may the rest. What's the use of explaining oneself, or trying to? Better to go on looking unsympathetic—and suffering, sometimes, more than all one's patients put together!"
Coolidge stared at the other man. His face showed suddenly certain grim lines which Coolidge had not noticed there before—lines written by endurance, nothing less. But even as the patient looked the physician's expression changed again. His sternly set lips relaxed into a smile, he pointed to a motioning porter.
"Time to be off, Cooly," he said. "Mind you let me know how—you are. Good luck—the best of it!"
* * * * *
In the train Coolidge had no sooner settled himself than he read Burns's prescription. He had a feeling that it would be different from other prescriptions, and so it proved:
Walk five miles every evening.
Drink no sort of stimulant, except one cup of coffee at breakfast.
Begin to make plans for the cottage. Don't let it turn out a palace.
Ask the good Lord every night to keep you from being a proud fool.
"Not hungry, Red? After all that cold drive to-day? Would you like to have Cynthia make you something special, dear?"
R.P. Burns, M.D., shook his head. "No, thanks." He straightened in his chair, where he sat at the dinner table opposite his wife. He took up his knife and fork again and ate valiantly a mouthful or two of the tempting food upon his plate, then he laid the implements down decisively. He put his elbow on the table and leaned his head upon his hand. "I'm just too blamed tired to eat, that's all," he said.
"Then don't try. I'm quite through, too. Come in the living room and lie down a little. It's such a stormy night there may be nobody in."
Ellen slipped her hand through his arm and led the way to the big blue couch facing the fireplace. He dropped upon it with a sigh of fatigue. His wife sat down beside him and began to pass her fingers lightly through his heavy hair, with the touch which usually soothed him into slumber if no interruptions came to summon him. But to-night her ministrations seemed to have little effect, for he lay staring at a certain picture on the wall with eyes which evidently saw beyond it into some trying memory.
"Is the whole world lying heavy on your shoulders to-night, Red?" Ellen asked presently, knowing that sometimes speech proved a relief from thought.
He nodded. "The whole world—millions of tons of it. It's just because I'm tired. There's no real reason why I should take this day's work harder than usual—except that I lost the Anderson case this morning. Poor start for the day, eh?"
"But you knew you must lose it. Nobody could have saved that poor creature."
"I suppose not. But I wanted to save him just the same. You see, he particularly wanted to live, and he had pinned his whole faith to me. He wouldn't give it up that I could do the miracle. It hurts to disappoint a faith like that."
"Of course it does," she said gently. "But you must try to forget now, Red, because of to-morrow. There will be people to-morrow who need you as much as he did."
"That's just what I'd like to forget," he murmured. "Everything's gone wrong to-day—it'll go worse to-morrow."
She knew it was small use to try to combat this mood, so unlike his usual optimism, but frequent enough of occurrence to make her understand that there is no depression like that of the habitually buoyant, once it takes firm hold. She left him presently and went to sit by the reading lamp, looking through current magazines in hope of finding some article sufficiently attractive to capture his interest, and divert his heavy thoughts. His eyes rested absently on her as she sat there, a charming, comradely figure in her simple home dinner attire, with the light on her dark hair and the exquisite curve of her cheek.
It was a fireside scene of alluring comfort, the two central figures of such opposite characteristics, yet so congenial. The night outside was very cold, the wind blowing stormily in great gusts which now and then howled down the chimney, making the warmth and cheer within all the more appealing.
Suddenly Ellen, hunting vainly for the page she sought, lifted her head, to see her husband lift his at the same instant.
"Music?" she questioned. "Where can it come from? Not outside on such a night as this?"
"Did you hear it, too? I've been thinking it my imagination."
"It must be the wind, but—no, it is music!"
She rose and went to the window, pushing aside draperies and setting her face to the frosty pane. The next instant she called in a startled way:
"Oh, Red—come here!"
He came slowly, but the moment he caught sight of the figure in the storm outside his langour vanished.
"Good heavens! The poor beggar! We must have him in."
He ran to the hall and the outer door, and Ellen heard his shout above the howling of the wind.
"Come in—come in!"
She reached the door into the hall as the slender young figure stumbled up the steps, a violin clutched tight in fingers purple with cold. She saw the stiff lips break into a frozen smile as her husband laid his hand upon the thinly clad shoulder and drew the youth where he could close the door.
"Why didn't you come to the door and ring, instead of fiddling out there in the cold!" demanded Burns. "Do you think we're heathen, to shut anybody out on a night like this?"
The boy shook his head. He was a boy in size, though the maturity of his thin face suggested that he was at least nineteen or twenty years old. His dark eyes gleamed out of hollow sockets, and his black hair, curling thickly, was rough with neglect. But he had snatched off his ragged soft hat even before he was inside the door, and for all the stiffness of his chilled limbs his attitude, as he stood before his hosts, had the unconscious grace of the foreigner.
"Where do you come from?" Burns asked.
Again the stranger shook his head.
"He can't speak English," said Ellen.
"Probably not—though he may be bluffing. We must warm and feed him, anyhow. Will you have him in here, or shall I take him in the office?"
Ellen glanced again at the shivering youth, noted that the purple hands were clean, even to the nails, and led the way unhesitatingly into the living room with all its beckoning warmth and beauty.
"Good little sport—I knew you would," murmured Burns, as he beckoned the boy after him.
Ellen left the two alone together by the fire, while she went to prepare a tray with Cynthia in the kitchen, filling it with the hearty food Burns himself had left untouched. Big slices of juicy roast beef, two hurriedly warmed sweet potatoes which had been browned in syrup in the Southern style, crisp buttered rolls, and a pot of steaming coffee were on the large tray which Cynthia insisted on carrying to the living-room door for her mistress. Burns, jumping up at sight of her, took the tray, while Ellen cleared a small table, drew up a chair, and summoned the young stranger.
The low bow he made her before he took the chair proclaimed his breeding, as well as the smile of joy which showed the flash of his even white teeth in the firelight. He made a little gesture of gratitude toward both Burns and Ellen, pressing his hands over his heart and then extending them, the expression on his face touching in its starved restraint. Then he fell upon the food, and even though he was plainly ravenous he ate as manneredly as any gentleman. Only by the way he finished each tiniest crumb could they know his extremity.
"By Jove, that beats eating it myself, if I were hungry as a faster on the third day!" Burns exclaimed, as he sat turned away from the beneficiary, his eyes apparently upon the fire. Ellen, from behind the boy, smiled at her husband, noting how completely his air of fatigue had fallen from him. Often before she had observed how any call upon R.P. Burns's sympathies rode down his own need of commiseration.
"Hungarian, I think, don't you?" Burns remarked, as the meal was finished, and the youth rose to bow his thanks once more. This time there was a response. He nodded violently, smiling and throwing out his hands.
"Ungahree!" he said, and smiled and nodded again, and said again, "Ungahree!"
"He knows that word all right," said Burns, smiling back. "It's a land of musicians. The fiddle's a good one, I'll wager."
He glanced at it as he spoke, and the boy leaped for it, pressing it to his breast. He began to tune it.
"He thinks we want to be paid for his supper," Ellen exclaimed. "Can't you make him understand we should like him to rest first?"
"I'd only convey to him the idea that we didn't want to hear him play, which would be a pity, for we do. If he's the musician he looks, by those eyes and that mouth, we'll be more than paid. Go ahead, Hungary—it'll make you happier than anything we could do for you."
Clearly it would. Burns carried out the tray, and when he returned his guest was standing upon the hearth rug facing Ellen, his bow uplifted. He waited till Burns had thrown himself down on the couch again in a sitting posture, both arms stretched along the back. Then he made his graceful obeisance again, and drew the bow very slowly and softly over the first string. And, at the very first note, the two who were watching him knew what was to come. It was in every line of him, that promise.
It might have been his gratitude that he was voicing, so touching were the strains that followed that first note. The air was unfamiliar, but it sounded like a folk song of his own country, and he put into it all the poignant, peculiar melody of such a song. His tones were exquisite, with the sure touch of the trained violinist inspired and supported by the emotional understanding of the genuine musician.
When he had finished he stood looking downward for a moment, then as Burns said "Bravo!" he smiled as if he understood the word, and lifted his instrument again to his shoulder. This time his bow descended upon the strings with a full note of triumph, and he burst into the brilliant performance of a great masterpiece, playing with a spirit and dash which seemed to transform him. Often his lips parted to show his white teeth, often he swung his whole body into the rhythm of his music, until he seemed a very part of the splendid harmonies he made. His thin cheeks flushed, his hollow eyes grew bright, he smiled, he frowned, he shook his slender shoulders, he even took a stride to right or left as he played on, as if the passion of his performance would not let him rest.
His listeners watched him with sympathetic and comprehending interest. Warmed and fed, his Latin nature leaping up from its deep depression to the exaltation of the hour, the appeal he made to them was intensely pathetic. Burns, even more ardently than his wife, responded to the appeal. He no longer lounged among the pillows of the broad couch; he sat erect, his eyes intent, his lips relaxed, his cares forgot. He was a lover of music, as are many men of his profession, and he was more than ordinarily susceptible to its influences. He drank in the tones of the master, voiced by this devoted interpreter, like wine, and like wine they brought the colour to his face also, and the light to his eyes.
"Jove!" he murmured, as the last note died away, "he's a wonder. He must be older than he looks. How he loves it! He's forgotten that he doesn't know where he's to sleep to-night—but, by all that's fair, we know, eh?"
Ellen smiled, with a look of assent. Her own heart was warmly touched. There was a small bedroom upstairs, plainly but comfortably furnished, which was often used for impecunious patients who needed to remain under observation for a day or two. It was at the service of any chance guest, and the chance guest was surely with them to-night. There was no place in the village to which such a vagrant as this might be sent, except the jail, and the jail, for a musician of such quality, was unthinkable. And in the night and storm one would not turn a dog outdoors to hunt for shelter—at least not Red Pepper Burns nor Ellen Burns, his wife.
As if he could not stop, now that he had found ears to listen, the young Hungarian played on. More and more profoundly did his music move him, until it seemed as if he had become the very spirit of the instrument which sung and vibrated under his thin fingers.
"My word, Len, this is too good to keep all to ourselves. Let's have the Macauleys and Chesters over. Then we'll have an excuse for paying the chap a good sum for his work—and somehow I feel that we need an excuse for such a gentleman as he is."
"That's just the thing. I'll ask them."
She was on her way to the telephone when her husband suddenly called after her, "Wait a minute, Len." She turned back, to see the musician, his bow faltering, suddenly lower his violin and lean against his patron, who had leaped to his support. A minute later Burns had him stretched upon the blue couch, and had laid his fingers on the bony wrist.
"Hang me for a simpleton, to feed him like that he's probably not tasted solid food for days. The reaction is too much, of course. He's been playing on his nerve for the last ten minutes, and I, like an idiot, thought it was his emotional temperament."
He ran out of the room and returned with a wine glass filled with liquid, which he administered, his arm under the ragged shoulders. Then he patted the wasted cheek, gone suddenly white except where the excited colour still showed in faint patches.
"You'll be all right, son," he said, smiling down into the frightened eyes, and his tone if not his words seemed to carry reassurance, for the eyes closed with a weary flutter and the gripping fingers relaxed.
"He's completely done," Burns said pityingly. He took one hand in his own and held it in his warm grasp, at which the white lids unclosed again, and the sensitive lips tried to smile.
"I'd no business to let him play so long—I might have known. Poor boy, he's starved for other things than food. Do you suppose anybody's held his hand like this since he left the old country? He thought he'd find wealth and fame in the new one—and this is what he found!"
Ellen stood looking at the pair—her brawny husband, himself "completely done" an hour before, now sitting on the edge of the couch with his new patient's hand in his, his face wearing an expression of keen interest, not a sign of fatigue in his manner; the exhausted young foreigner in his ragged clothing lying on the luxurious couch, his pale face standing out like a fine cameo against the blue velvet of the pillow under his dark head. If a thought of possible contamination for her home's belongings entered her mind it found no lodgment there, so pitiful was her heart.
"Is the room ready upstairs?" Burns asked presently, when he had again noted the feeble action of the pulse under his fingers. "What he needs is rest and sleep, and plenty of both. Like the most of us he's kept up while he had to, and now he's gone to pieces absolutely. To-morrow we can send him to the hospital, perhaps, but for to-night—"
"The room is ready. I sent Cynthia up at once."
"Bless you, you never fail me, do you? Well—we may as well be on our way. He's nearly asleep now."
Burns stood up, throwing off his coat. But Ellen remonstrated.
"Dear, you are so tired to-night. Let me call Jim over to help you carry him up."
A derisive laugh answered her. "Great Caesar, Len! The chap's a mere bag of bones—and if he were twice as heavy he'd be no weight for me. Jim Macauley would howl at the idea, and no wonder. Go ahead and open the doors, please, and I'll have him up in a jiffy."
He stooped over the couch, swung the slender figure up into his powerful arms, speaking reassuringly to the eyes which slowly opened in half-stupefied alarm. "It's all right, little Hungary. We're going to put you to bed, like the small lost boy you are. Bring his fiddle, Len—he won't want that out of his sight."
He strode away with his burden, and marched up the stairs as if he were carrying his own two-year-old son. Arrived in the small, comfortable little room at the back of the house he laid his charge on the bed, and stood looking down at him.
"Len, I'll have to go the whole figure," he said—and said it not as if the task he was about to impose upon himself were one that irked him. "Get me hot water and soap and towels, will you? And an old pair of pajamas. I can't put him to bed in his rags."
"Shall I send for Amy?" questioned his wife, quite as if she understood the uselessness of remonstrance.
"Not much. Amy's making out bills for me to-night, we'll not interrupt the good work. Put some bath-ammonia in the water, please—and have it hot."
Half an hour later he called her in to see the work of his hands. She had brought him one of his surgical aprons with the bath equipment. With his sleeves rolled up, his apron well splashed, his coppery hair more or less in disarray from the occasional thrustings of a soapy hand, and his face flushed and eager like a healthy boy's, Red Pepper Burns stood grinning down at his patient. Little Hungary lay in the clean white bed, his pale face shining with soap and happiness, his arms upon the coverlet encased in the blue and white sleeves of Burns's pajamas, the sleeves neatly turned back to accommodate the shortness of his arms. The workman turned to Ellen as she came in.
"Comfy, eh?" he observed briefly.
"Absolutely, I should say, poor dear."
"Ah, you wouldn't have called him that before the bath. But he is rather a dear now, isn't he? And I think he's younger than I did downstairs. Not over eighteen, at the most, but fully forty in the experiences and hardships that have brought him here. Well, we'll go away and let him rest. Wish I knew the Hungarian for 'good-night,' don't you? Anyway, if he knows any prayers he'll say 'em, I'll venture."
The dark eyes were watching him intently as he spoke, as if their owner longed to know what this kind angel in the form of a big American stranger was saying to him. And when, in leaving him, Burns once more laid an exploring touch upon his wrist, the two thin hands suddenly clutched the strong one and bore it weakly to lips which kissed it fervently.
"Well, that's rather an eloquent thank-you, eh?" murmured Burns, as he patted the hands in reply. "No doubt but he's grateful. Put the fiddle where he can see it in the morning, will you, honey? Open the window pretty well: I've covered him thoroughly, and he has a touch of fever to keep him warm. Good-night, little Hungary. Luck's with you to-night, to get into this lady's house."
Downstairs by the fireside once more, the signs of his late occupation removed, Burns stretched out an arm for his wife.
"Come sit beside me in the Retreat," he invited, using the name he had long ago given to the luxurious blue couch where he was accustomed, since his marriage, to rest and often to catch a needed nap. He drew the winsome figure close within his arm, resting his red head against the dark one below it. "I don't seem to feel particularly tired, now," he observed. "Curious, isn't it? Fatigue, as I've often noticed, is more mental than physical—with most of us. Your ditch-digger is tired in his back and arms, but the ordinary person is merely tired because his mind tells him he is."
"You are never too tired to rouse yourself for one patient more," was Ellen's answer to this. "The last one seems to cure you of the one before."
Burns's hearty laugh shook them both. "You can't make me out such an enthusiast in my profession as that. I turned away two country calls to-night—too lazy to make 'em."
"But you would have gone if they couldn't have found anybody else."
"That goes without saying—no merit in that. The ethics of the profession have to be lived up to, curse 'em as we may, at times. Len, how are we to get to know something about little Hungary upstairs? Those eyes of his are going to follow me into my dreams to-night."
"I suppose there are Hungarians in town?"
"Not a one that I ever heard of. Plenty in the city, though. The waiter at the Arcadia, where I get lunch when I'm at the hospital, is a Magyar. By Jove, there's an idea! I'll bring Louis out, if Hungary can't get into the hospital to-morrow—and I warn you he probably can't. I shouldn't want him to take a twelve-mile ambulance ride in this weather. That touch of fever may mean simple exhaustion, and it may mean look out for pneumonia, after all the exposure he's had. I'd give something to know how it came into his crazy head to stand and fiddle outside a private house in a January storm. Why didn't he try a cigar shop or some other warm spot where he could pass the hat? That's what Louis must find out for me, eh? Len, that was great music of his, wasn't it? The fellow ought to have a job in a hotel orchestra. Louis and I between us might get him one."
Burns went to bed still working on this problem, and Ellen rejoiced that it had superseded the anxieties of the past day. Next morning he was early at the little foreigner's bedside, to find him resting quietly, the fever gone, and only the intense fatigue remaining, the cure for which was simply rest and food.
"Shall we let him stay till he's fit?" Burns asked his wife.
"Of course. Both Cynthia and Amy are much interested, and between them he will have all he needs."
"And I'll bring Louis out, if I have to pay for a waiter to take his place," promised Burns.
He was as good as his word. When he returned that afternoon from the daily visit to the city hospital, where he had always many patients, he brought with him in the powerful roadster which he drove himself a dark-faced, pointed moustached countryman of little Hungary, who spoke tolerable English, and was much pleased and flattered to be of service to the big doctor whom he was accustomed to serve in his best manner.
Taken to the bedside, Louis gazed down at its occupant with condescending but comprehending eyes, and spoke a few words which caused the thin face on the pillow to break into smiles of delight, as the eager lips answered in the same tongue. Question and answer followed in quick succession and Louis was soon able to put Burns in possession of a few significant facts.
"He say he come to dis countree October. Try find work New York—no good. He start to valk to countree, find vork farm. Bad time. Seeck, cold, hungree. Fear he spoil hands for veolinn—dat's vhy he not take vork on road, vat he could get. He museecian—good one."
"Does he say that?" Burns asked, amused.
Louis nodded. "Many museecians in Hungary. Franz come from Budapest. No poor museecians dere. Budapest great ceety—better Vienna, Berlin, Leipsic—oh, yes! See, I ask heem."
He spoke to the boy again, evidently putting a meaning question, for again the other responded with ardour, using his hands to emphasize his assertion—for assertion it plainly was.
Louis laughed. "He say ze countree of Franz Liszt know no poor museeck. He named for Franz Liszt. He play beeg museeck for you and ze ladee last night. So?"
"He did—and took us off our feet. Tell him, will you?"
"He no un'erstand," laughed Louis, "eef I tell him 'off de feet.'"
"That's so—no American idioms yet for him, eh? Well, say he made us very happy with his wonderful music. I'll wager that will get over to him."
Plainly it did, to judge by the eloquence of Franz's eyes and his joyous smile. With quick speech he responded.
"He say," reported Louis, "he vant to vork for you. No wagees till he plees you. He do anyting. You van' heem?"
"Well, I'll have to think about that," Burns temporized. "But tell him not to worry. We'll find a job before we let him go. He ought to play in a restaurant or theatre, oughtn't he, Louis?"
Louis shook his head. "More men nor places," he said. "But ve see—ve see."
"All right. Now ask him how he came to stand in front of my house in the storm and fiddle."
To this Louis obtained a long reply, at which he first shook his head, then nodded and laughed, with a rejoinder which brought a sudden rush of tears to the black eyes below. Louis turned to Burns.
"He say man lead heem here, make heem stand by window, make sign to heem to play. I tell heem man knew soft heart eenside."
To the edge of his coppery hair the blood rushed into the face of Red Pepper Burns. Whether he would be angry or amused was for the moment an even chance, as Ellen, watching him, understood. Then he shook his fist with a laugh.
"Just wait till I catch that fellow!" he threatened. "A nice way out of his own obligations to a starving fellow man."
He sent Louis back to town on the electric car line, with a round fee in his pocket, and the instruction to leave no stone unturned to find Franz work for his violin, himself promising to aid him in any plan he might formulate.
In three days the young Hungarian was so far himself that Burns had him downstairs to sit by the office fire, and a day more put him quite on his feet. Careful search had discovered a temporary place for him in a small hotel orchestra, whose second violin was ill, and Burns agreed to take him into the city. The evening before he was to go, Ellen invited a number of her friends and neighbours in to hear Franz play.
Dressed in a well-fitting suit of blue serge Franz looked a new being. The suit had been contributed by Arthur Chester, Burns's neighbour and good friend next door upon the right, and various other accessories had been supplied by James Macauley, also Burns's neighbour and good friend next door upon the left and the husband of Martha Macauley, Ellen's sister. Even so soon the rest and good food had filled out the deepest hollows in the emaciated cheeks, and happiness had lighted the sombre eyes. Those eyes followed Burns about with the adoring gaze of a faithful dog.
"It's evident you've attached one more devoted follower to your train, Red," whispered Winifred Chester, in an interval of the violin playing.
"Well, he's a devotee worth having," answered Burns, watching his protege as Franz looked over a pile of music with Ellen, signifying his pleasure every time they came upon familiar sheets. The two had found common ground in their love of the most emotional of all the arts, and Ellen had discovered rare delight in accompanying that ardent violin in some of the scores both knew and loved.
"He's as handsome as a picture to-night, isn't he?" Winifred pursued. "How Arthur's old blue suit transforms him. And wasn't it clever of Ellen to have him wear that soft white shirt with the rolling collar and flowing black tie? It gives him the real musician's look."
"Trust you women to work for dramatic effects," murmured Burns. "Here we go—and I'll wager it'll be something particularly telling, judging by the way they both look keyed up to it. Ellen plays like a virtuoso herself to-night, doesn't she?"
"It's enough to inspire any one to have that fiddle at her shoulder," remarked James Macauley, who, hanging over the couch, had been listening to this bit of talk.
The performance which followed captured them all, even practical and energetic Martha Macauley, who had often avowed that she considered the study of music a waste of time in a busy world.
"Though I think, after all," she observed to Arthur Chester, who lounged by her side, revelling in the entertainment with the zest of the man who would give his whole time to affairs like these if it were not necessary for him to make a living at the practice of some more prosaic profession, "it's quite as much the interest of having such a stagey character performing for us as it is his music. Did you ever see any human being throw his whole soul into anything like that? One couldn't help but watch him if he weren't making a sound."
"It's certainly refreshing, in a world where we all try to cover up our real feelings, to see anybody give himself away so naively as that," Chester replied. "But there's no doubt about the quality of his music. He was born, not made. And, by George, Len certainly plays up to him. I didn't know she had it in her, for all I've been admiring her accomplishments for four years."
"Ellen's all temperament, anyway," said Ellen's sister.
Chester looked at her curiously. Martha was a fine-looking young woman, in a very wholesome and clean-cut fashion. There was no feminine artfulness in the way she bound her hair smoothly upon her head, none in the plain cut of her simple evening attire, absolutely none in her manner. Glancing from Martha to her sister, as he had often done before in wonderment at the contrast between them, he noted as usual how exquisitely Ellen was dressed, though quite as simply, in a way, as her practical sister. But in every line of her smoke-blue silken frock was the most subtle art, as Chester, who had a keen eye for such matters and a fastidious taste, could readily recognize. From the crown of her dark head to the toe of the blue slipper with which she pressed the pedal of the great piano which she had brought from her old home in the South, she was a picture to feast one's eyes upon.
"Give me temperament, then—and let some other fellow take the common sense," mused Arthur Chester to himself. "Ellen has both, and Red's in luck. It was a great day for him when the lovely young widow came his way—and he knows it. What a home she makes him—what a home!"
His eyes roved about the beautiful living room, as they had often done before. His own home, next door, was comfortable and more than ordinarily attractive, but he knew of no spot in the town which possessed the subtle charm of this in which he sat. His wife, Winifred, was always trying to reproduce within their walls the indefinable quality which belonged to everything Ellen touched, and always saying in despair, "It's no use—Ellen is Ellen, and other people can't be like her."
"Better let it go at that," her husband sometimes responded. "You're good enough for me." Which was quite true, for Winifred Chester was a peculiarly lovable young woman. He noted afresh to-night that beside Martha Macauley's somewhat heavy good looks Winifred seemed a creature of infinite and delightful variety.
Perhaps the music had made them all more or less analytic, for in an interval James Macauley, comfortably ensconced in a great winged chair for which he was accustomed to steer upon entering this room, where he was nearly as much at home as within his own walls, remarked, "What is there about music like that that sets you to thinking everybody in sight is about the best ever?"
"Does it have that effect on you?" queried Burns, lazily, from the blue couch. "That's a good thing for a fellow of a naturally critical disposition."
"Critical, am I? Why, within a week I paid you the greatest compliment in my power."
"If it hadn't been for me this company would never have been gathered, to listen to these wondrous strains."
"How's that?" Burns turned on him a suddenly interested eye.
"Oh, I'm not telling. It's enough that the thing came about." Macauley looked around for general approbation.
Red Pepper sat up. "It was you stood the poor beggar up under my window, on that howling night, was it, Jim? I've been looking for the man that did it."
"Why," said Macauley comfortably, "the chap asked me to point him to a doctor's office—said he had a bit of a cold. I said you were the one and only great and original M.D. upon earth, and as luck would have it he was almost at your door. I said that if he didn't find you in he should come over to my house and we would fix him up with cough drops. He thanked me and passed on. As luck would have it you were in."
Red Pepper glared at him. A chuckle from Arthur Chester caused him to turn his eyes that way. He scrutinized his guests in turn, and detected signs of mirth. Winifred Chester's pretty shoulders were shaking. Martha Macauley's lips were pressed close together. The others were all smiling.
Burns turned upon Winifred, who sat nearest. "Tell me the truth about this thing," he commanded.
She shook her head, but she got no peace until at length she gave him the tale.
"Arthur and I were over at Jim's. He came in and said a wager was up among some men outside as to whether if that poor boy came and fiddled under your window you'd take him in and keep him over night. Somebody'd been saying things against you, down street somewhere—" she hesitated, glancing at her husband, who nodded, and said, "Go on—he'll have it out of us now, anyhow."
"They said," she continued, "that you were the most brutal surgeon in the State, and that you hadn't any heart. Some of them made this wager, and they all sneaked up here behind the one that steered Franz to your window."
Burns's quick colour had leaped to his face at this recital, as they were all accustomed to see it, but for an instant he made no reply. Winifred looked at him steadily, as one who was not afraid.
"We were all in a dark window watching. If you hadn't taken him in we would. But—O Red! We knew—we knew that heart of yours."
"And who started that wager business?" Burns inquired, in a muffled voice.
"Why, Jim, of course. Who else would take such a chance?"
"Was it a serious wager?"
"Of course it was."
"No, it was Jim against the crowd. And for a ridiculously high stake."
Red Pepper glared at James Macauley once more. "You old pirate!" he growled. "How dared you take such a chance on me? And when you know I'm death on that gambling propensity of yours?"
"I know you are," replied Macauley, with a satisfied grin. "And you know perfectly well I haven't staked a red copper for a year. But that sort of talk I overheard was too much for me. Besides, I ran no possible risk for my money. I was betting on a sure thing."
Burns got up, amidst the affectionate laughter which followed this explanation, and walked over to where Franz stood, his eager eyes fixed upon his new and adored friend, who, he somehow divined, was the target for some sort of badinage.
"Little Hungary," he said, smiling into the uplifted, boyish face, with his hand on the slender shoulder, "it came out all right that time, but don't you ever play under my window again in a January blizzard. If you do, I'll kick you out into the storm!"
ANNE LINTON'S TEMPERATURE
"Is Doctor Burns in?"
"He's not in. He will be here from two till five this afternoon. Could you come then?" Miss Mathewson regarded the young stranger at the door with more than ordinary interest. The face which was lifted to her was one of quite unusual beauty, with astonishing eyes under resolute dark brows, though the hair which showed from under the small and close-fitting hat of black was of a wonderful and contradictory colour. It was almost the shade, it occurred to Amy Mathewson, of that which thatched the head of Red Pepper Burns himself, but it was more picturesque hair than his, finer of texture, with a hint of curl. The mass of it which showed at the back as the stranger turned her head away for a moment, evidently hesitating over her next course of action, had in it tints of bronze which were more beautiful than Burns's coppery hues.
"Would you care to wait?" inquired Miss Mathewson, entirely against her own principles.
It was not quite one o'clock, and Burns always lunched in the city, after his morning at the hospital, and reached home barely in time for those afternoon village office hours which began at two. His assistant did not as a rule encourage the arrival of patients in the office as early as this, knowing that they were apt to become impatient and aggrieved by their long wait. But something about the slightly drooping figure of the girl before her, in her black clothes, with a small handbag on her arm, and a look of appeal on her face, suggested to the experienced nurse that here was a patient who must not be turned away.
The girl looked up eagerly. "If I might," she said in a tone of relief. "I really have nowhere to go until I have seen the Doctor."
Miss Mathewson led her in and gave her the most comfortable chair in the room, a big, half shabby leather armchair, near the fireplace and close beside a broad table whereon the latest current magazines were arranged in orderly piles. The girl sank into the chair as if its wide arms were welcome after a weary morning. She looked up at Miss Mathewson with a faint little smile.
"I haven't been sitting much to-day," she said.
"This first spring weather makes every one feel rather tired," replied Amy, noting how heavy were the shadows under the brown eyes with their almost black lashes—an unusual combination with the undeniably russet hair.
From her seat at the desk, where she was posting Burns's day book, the nurse observed without seeming to do so that the slim figure in the old armchair sat absolutely without moving, except once when the head resting against the worn leather turned so that the cheek lay next it. And after a very short time Miss Mathewson realized that the waiting patient had fallen asleep. She studied her then, for something about the young stranger had aroused her interest.
The girl was obviously poor, for the black suit, though carefully pressed, was of cheap material, the velvet on the small black hat had been caught in more than one shower, and the black gloves had been many times painstakingly mended. The small feet alone showed that their owner had allowed herself one luxury, that of good shoes—and the daintiness of those feet made a strong appeal to the observer.
As for the face resting against the chair back, it was flushed after a fashion which suggested illness rather than health, and Miss Mathewson realized presently that the respiration of the sleeper was not quite what it should be. Whether this were due to fatigue or coming illness she could not tell.
Half-past one! The first early caller was slowing a small motor at the curb outside when Amy Mathewson gently touched the girl's arm. "Come into the other room, please," she said.
The brown eyes opened languidly. The black-gloved hand clutched at the handbag, and the girl rose. "I'm so sorry," she murmured. "I don't know how I came to go to sleep."
"You were tired out. If I had known I should have brought you in here before," Amy said, leading her into the consulting room. "It is still half an hour before Doctor Burns will be in, and you must lie here on his couch while you wait."
"Oh, thank you, but I ought not to go to sleep. I—have you just a minute to spare? I should like to show you a little book I am selling—"
Miss Mathewson suffered a sudden revulsion of feeling. So this girl was only a book agent. First on the list of what by two o'clock would be a good-sized assemblage of waiting patients, she must not be allowed to take Doctor Burns's time to exploit her wares. Yet, even as Amy regretted having brought a book agent into this inner sanctum, the girl looked up from searching in her handbag and seemed to recognize the prejudice she had excited.
"Oh, but I'm a patient, too," she said with a little smile. "I didn't expect to take the Doctor's time telling him about the book. But you—I thought you might be interested. It's a little book of bedtime stories for children. They are very jolly little tales. Would you care to see it?"
Now Amy Mathewson was the fortunate or unfortunate—as you happen to regard such things—possessor of a particularly warm heart, and the result of this appeal was that she took the book away with her into the outer office, promising to look it over if the seller of it would lie down upon the couch and rest quietly. She was convinced that the girl was much more than weary—she was very far from well. The revealing light of that consulting room had struck upon the upturned face and had shown Miss Mathewson's trained eyes certain signs which alarmed her.
So it came about that Red Pepper Burns, coming in ruddy from his twelve-mile dash home, and feeling particularly fit for the labours of the afternoon in consequence of having found every hospital patient of his own on the road to recovery—two of them having taken a right-about-face from a condition which the day before had pointed toward trouble—discovered his first office patient lying fast asleep upon the consulting room couch.
"She seemed so worn out I put her here," explained Miss Mathewson, standing beside him. "She falls asleep the moment she is off her feet."
"Hm—m," was his reply as he thrust his arms into his white office-jacket. "Well, best wake her up, though it seems a pity. Looks as if she'd been on a hunger strike, eh?" he added under his breath.
Miss Mathewson had the girl awake again in a minute, and she sat up, an expression of contrition crossing her face as she caught sight of the big doctor at the other side of the room, his back toward her. When Burns turned, at Amy's summons, he beheld the slim figure sitting straight on the edge of the broad couch, the brown eyes fixed on him.
"Tired out?" he asked pleasantly. "Take this chair, please, so I can see all you have to tell me—and a few things you don't tell me."
It did not take him long. His eyes on the face which was too flushed, his fingers on the pulse which beat too fast, his thermometer registering a temperature too high, all told him that here was work for him. The questions he asked brought replies which confirmed his fears. Nothing in his manner indicated, however, that he was doing considerable quick thinking. His examination over, he sat back in his chair and began a second series of questions, speaking in a more than ordinarily quiet but cheerful way.
"Will you tell me just a bit about your personal affairs?" he asked. "I understand that you come from some distance. Have you a home and family?"
"No family—for the last two years, since my father died."
"And no home?"
"If I am ill, Doctor Burns, I will look after myself."
He studied her. The brown eyes met the scrutinizing hazel ones without flinching. Whether or not the spirit flinched he could not be sure. The hazel eyes were very kindly.
"You have relatives somewhere whom we might let know of this?"
She shook her head determinedly. Her head lifted ever so little.
"You are quite alone in the world?"
"For all present purposes—yes, Doctor Burns."
"I can't just believe," he said gently, "that it is not very important to somebody to know if you are ill."
"It is just my affair," she answered with equal courtesy of manner but no less finally. "Believe me, please—and tell me what to do. Shall I not be better to-morrow—or in a day or two?"
He was silent for a moment. Then, "It is not a time for you to be without friends," said Red Pepper Burns. "I will prove to you that you have them at hand. After that you will find there are others. I am going to take you to a pleasant place I know of, where you will have nothing to do but to lie still and rest and get well. The best of nurses will look after you. You will obey orders for a little—my orders, if you want to trust me—"
"Where is this place?" The question was a little breathless.
"Where do you guess?"
"In one of the best in the world."
"I am—pretty ill then?"
"It's a bit of a wonder," said Burns in his quietest tone, "how you have kept around these last four days. I wish you hadn't."
"If I hadn't," said the girl rather faintly, "I shouldn't have been in this town and I shouldn't have come to Doctor Burns. So—I'm glad I did."
"Good!" said Burns, smiling. "It's fine to start with the confidence of one's patient. I'm glad you're going to trust me. Now we'll take you to another room where you can lie down again till my office hours are over and I can run into the city with you."
He rose, beckoning. But his patient protested: "Please tell me how to get there. I can go perfectly well. My head is better, I think."
"That's lucky. But the first of my orders Miss Linton, is that you come with me now."
He summoned Miss Mathewson, gave her directions, and dismissed the two. In ten minutes the heavy eyes were again closed, while their owner lay motionless again upon a bed in an inner room which was often used for such purposes.
"I'm sorry I can't take her in now," Burns said to Amy presently in an interval between patients. "I don't want to call the ambulance out here for a walking case, and there's no need of startling her with it, anyhow. I wish I had some way to send her."
"Mr. Jordan King just came into the office. His car is outside. Couldn't he take her in?"
"Of course he could—and would, I've no doubt. He's only after his mother's prescription. Send him in here next, will you, please?"
To the tall, well-built, black-eyed young man who answered this summons in some surprise at being admitted before his turn, Burns spoke crisply:
"Here's the prescription, Jord, and you'll have to take it to Wood's to get it filled. I hope it'll do your mother a lot of good, but I'm not promising till I've tried it out pretty well. Now will you do me a favour?"
"Anything you like, Doctor."
"Thanks. I'm sending a patient to the hospital—a stranger stranded here ill. She ought not to be out of bed another hour, though she walked to the office and would walk away again if I'd let her—which I won't. I can't get off for three hours yet. Will you take her in to the Good Samaritan for me? I'll telephone ahead, and some one will meet her at the door. All right?"
He looked up. Jordan King—young civil engineer of rising reputation in spite of the family wealth which would have made him independent of his own exertions, if he could possibly have been induced by an adoring, widowed mother to remain under her wing—stood watching him with a smile on his character-betraying lips.
"You ought to have an executive position of some sort, Doctor Burns," he observed, "you're so strong on orders. I've got mine. Where's the lady? Do I have to be silent or talkative? Is she to have pillows? Am I to help her out?"
"She'll walk out—but that and the walk in will be the last she'll take for some time. Talk as much as you like; it'll help her to forget that she's alone in the world at present except for us. Go out to your car; I'll send her out with Miss Mathewson."
Burns turned to his desk, and King obediently went out. Five minutes later, as he stood waiting beside his car, a fine but hard-used roadster of impressive lines and plenty of power, the office nurse and her patient emerged. King noted in some surprise the slender young figure, the interest-compelling face with its too vivid colour in cheeks that looked as if ordinarily they were white, the apparel which indicated lack of means, though the bearing of the wearer unmistakably suggested social training.
"I thought she'd be an elderly one somehow," he said in congratulation of himself. "Jolly, what hair! Poor little girl; she does look sick—but plucky. Hope I can get her in all right."
Outwardly he was the picture of respectful attention as Miss Mathewson presented him, calling the girl "Miss Linton," and bidding him wrap her warmly against the spring wind.
"I'll take the best care of her I know," he promised with a friendly smile. He tucked a warm rug around her, taking special pains with her small feet, whose well-chosen covering he did not fail to note. "All right?" he asked as he finished.
"Very comfortable, thank you. It's ever so kind of you."
"Glad to do anything for Doctor Burns," King responded, taking his place beside her. "Now shall we go fast or slow?"
"Just as you like, please. I don't feel very ill just now, and this air is so good on my face."
TWO RED HEADS
Jordan King set his own speed in the powerful roadster, reflecting that Miss Linton, to judge from her worn black clothes, was probably not accustomed to motoring and so making the pace a moderate one. Fast or slow, it would not take long to cover the twelve miles over the macadamized road to the hospital in the city, and if it was to be her last bath in the good outdoors for some time, as the doctor had said—King drew a long breath, filling his own sturdy lungs with the balmy yet potent April air, feeling very sorry for the unknown little person by his side.
"Would you rather I didn't talk?" he inquired when a mile or two had been covered in silence.
She lifted her eyes to his, and for the first time he got a good look into them. They were very wonderful eyes, and none the less wonderful because of the fever which made them almost uncannily brilliant between their dark lashes.
"Oh, I wish you would talk, if you don't mind!" she answered—and he noted as he had at first how warmly pleasant were the tones of her voice, which was a bit deeper than one would have expected. "I've heard nobody talk for days—except to say they didn't care to buy my book."
"Your book? Have you written a book?"
"I'm selling one." This astonished him, but he did not let it show. It was certainly enough to make any girl ill to have to go about selling books. He wondered how it happened. She opened her handbag and took out the small book. "I don't want to sell you one," she said. "You wouldn't have any use for it. It's a little set of stories for children."
"But I do want to buy one," he protested. "I've a lot of nieces and nephews always coming at me for stories."
She shook her head. "You can't buy one. I'd like to give you one if you would take it, to show you how I appreciate this beautiful drive."
"Of course I'll take it," he said quickly, "and delighted at the chance." He slipped the book into his pocket. "As for the drive, it's much jollier not to be covering the ground alone. I wish, though—" and he stopped, feeling that he was probably going to say the wrong thing.
She seemed to know what it would have been. "You're sorry to be taking me to the hospital?" she suggested. "You needn't be. I didn't want to go, just at first, but then—I felt I could trust the Doctor. He was so kind, and his hair was so like mine, he seemed like a sort of big older brother."
"Red Pepper Burns seems like that to a lot of people, including myself. I don't look like much of a candidate for illness, but I've had an accident or two, and he's pulled me through in great shape. You're right in trusting him and you can keep right on, to the last ditch—" He stopped short again, with an inward thrust at himself for being so blundering in his suggestions to this girl, who, for all he knew, might be on her way to that "last ditch" from which not even Burns could save her.
But the girl herself seemed to have paused at his first phrase. "What did you call the Doctor?" she asked, turning her eyes upon him again.
"What did I—oh! 'Red Pepper.' Yes—I've no business to call him that, of course, and I don't to his face, though his friends who are a bit older than I usually do, and people speak of him that way. It's his hair, of course—and—well, he has rather a quick temper. People with that coloured hair—But you're wrong in saying yours is like his," he added quickly.
For the first time he saw a smile touch her lips. "So he has a quick temper," she mused. "I'm glad of that—I have one myself. It goes with the hair surely enough."
"It goes with some other things," ventured Jordan King, determined, if he made any more mistakes, to make them on the side of encouragement. "Pluck, and endurance, and keeping jolly when you don't feel so—if you don't mind my saying it."
"One has to have a few of those things to start out into the world with," said Miss Linton slowly, looking straight ahead again.
"One certainly does. Doctor Burns understands that as well as any man I know. And he likes to find those things in other people." Then with tales of some of the Doctor's experiences which young King had heard he beguiled the way; and by the time he had told Miss Linton a story or two about certain experiences of his own in the Rockies, the car was approaching the city. Presently they were drawing up before the group of wide-porched, long buildings, not unattractive in aspect, which formed the hospital known as the Good Samaritan.
"It's a pretty good place," announced King in a matter-of-fact way, though inwardly he was suffering a decided pang of sympathy for the young stranger he was to leave within its walls. "And the Doctor said he'd have some one meet us who knew all about you, so there'd be no fuss."
He leaped out and came around to her side. She began to thank him once more, but he cut her short. "I'm going in with you, if I may," he said. "Something might go wrong about their understanding, and I could save you a bit of bother."
She made no objection, and he helped her out. He kept his hand under her arm as they went up the steps, and did not let her go until they were in a small reception room, where they were asked to wait for a minute. He realized now more than he had done before her weakness and the sense of loneliness that was upon her. He stood beside her, hat in hand, wishing he had some right to let her know more definitely than he had ventured to do how sorry he was for her, and how she could count on his thinking about her as a brother might while she was within these walls.
But Burns's message evidently had taken effect, as his messages usually did, for after a very brief wait two figures in uniform appeared, one showing the commanding presence of a person in authority, the other wearing the pleasantly efficient aspect of the active nurse. Miss Linton was to be taken to her room at once, the necessary procedure for admittance being attended to later.
Miss Linton seemed to know something about hospitals, for she offered instant remonstrance. "It's a mistake, I think," she said, lifting her head as if it were very heavy, but speaking firmly. "I prefer not to have a room. Please put me in your least expensive ward."
The person in authority smiled. "Doctor Burns said room," she returned. "Nobody here is accustomed to dispute Doctor Burns's orders."
"But I must dispute them," persisted the girl. "I am not—willing—to take a room."
"Don't concern yourself about that now," said the other. "You can settle it with the Doctor when he comes by and by."
Jordan King inwardly chuckled. "I wonder if it's going to be a case of two red heads," he said to himself. "I'll bet on R.P."
The nurse put her arm through Miss Linton's. "Come," she said gently. "You ought not to be standing."
The girl turned to King, and put out her small hand in its mended glove. He grasped it and dared to give it a strong pressure, and to say in a low tone: "It'll be all right, you know. Keep a stiff upper lip. We're not going to forget you." He very nearly said "I."
"Good-bye," she said. "I shall not forget how kind you've been."
Then she was gone through the big door, the tall nurse beside her supporting steps which seemed suddenly to falter, and King was staring after her, feeling his heart contract with sympathy.
* * * * *
Four hours later Anne Linton opened her eyes, after an interval of unconsciousness which had seemed to the nurse who looked in now and then less like a sleep than a stupor, to find a pair of broad shoulders within her immediate horizon, and to feel the same lightly firm pressure on her wrist that she had felt before that afternoon. She looked up slowly into Burns's eyes.
"Not so bad, is it?" said his low and reassuring voice. "Bed more comfortable than doctor's office chairs? Won't mind if you don't ring any door bells to-morrow? Just let everything go and don't worry—and you'll be all right."
"This room—" began the weary young voice—she was really much more weary now that she had stopped trying to keep up than seemed at all reasonable—"I can't possibly—"
"It's just the place for you. Don't do any thinking on that point. You know you agreed to take my orders, and this is one of them."
"But I can't possibly—"
"I said they were my orders," repeated Burns. "But that was a misstatement. They're the orders of some one else, more powerful than I am under this roof—and that's saying something, I assure you. I think you'll have to meet my wife. She's come on purpose to see you. She was away when you were at the office."
He beckoned, and another figure moved quietly into range of the brown eyes which were smoldering with the first advances of the fever. This figure came around to the other side of the narrow high bed and sat down beside it. Miss Linton looked into the face, as it seemed to her, of one of the most attractive women she had ever seen. It was a face which looked down at her with the sweetest sympathy in its expression, and yet with that same high cheer which was in the face of the man on the other side of the bed.
"My dear little girl," said a low, rich voice, "this is my room, and I often have the pleasure of seeing my special friends use it. And I come to see them here. When you are getting well, as you will be by and by, I can have much nicer talks with you than if you were in a ward. Now that you understand, you will let me have my way?".
The burning brown eyes looked into the soft black ones for a full minute, then, with a long-drawn breath, the tense expression in the stranger's relaxed. "I see," said the weary voice. "You are used to having your way—just as he is. I'll have to let you because I haven't any strength left to fight with. You are wonderfully kind. But—I'm not a little girl."
Ellen Burns smiled. "We'll play you are, for a while," she said. "And—I want you to know that, little or big, you are my friend. So now you have both Doctor Burns and me, and you are not alone any more."
The heavy lashes closed over the brown eyes, and the lids were held tightly shut as if to keep tears back. Seeing this, Ellen rose.
"Red," she said, "are you going to let us have Miss Arden?"
"Won't anybody else do?"
"Do you need her badly somewhere else?"
"If there were ten of her I could use them all!" declared her husband emphatically.
Red Pepper Burns got up. He summoned a nurse waiting just outside the door. "Please send Miss Arden here for a minute," he requested. Then he turned back. "Are you satisfied with your power?" he asked his wife.
She nodded. "Quite. But I think you feel, as I do, that this is one of the ten places where she will be better than another."
"She's a wonder, all right."
The patient in the bed presently was bidden to look at her new nurse, one who was to take care of her much of the time. She lifted her heavy eyes unwillingly, then she drew another deep breath of relief. "I would rather have you," she murmured to the serene brow, the kind eyes, the gently smiling lips of the girl who stood beside her.
"There's a tribute," laughed Burns softly. "They all feel like that when they look at you, Selina. And what Mrs. Burns wants she usually gets. You may special this case to-night, if you are ready to begin night duty again."
"I am quite ready," said Miss Arden.
Burns turned to the bed again. "You are in the best hands we have to give you," he said. "You are to trust everything to those hands. Good-night. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good-night, dear," whispered Mrs. Burns, bending for an instant over the bed.
"Oh you angels!" murmured the girl as they left her, her eyes following them.
* * * * *
It was ten days later, in the middle of a wonderful night in early May, that Miss Arden, beginning to be sure that the case which had interested her so much was going to give her a hard time before it should be through, listened to words which roused in her deeper wonder than she had yet felt for the most unusual patient she had had in a long time. Although there was as yet nothing that could be called real delirium, a tendency to talk in a light-headed sort of way was becoming noticeable. Sitting by the window, the one light in the room deeply shaded, she heard the voice suddenly say: