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   Chapter 1 WHOLLY GIVEN OVER TO SENTIMENT

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 20771

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Green Imp, long, low and powerful, carrying besides its two passengers a motor trunk, a number of bulky parcels, and a full share of mud, drew to one side of the road. The fifth April shower of the afternoon was on, although it was barely three o'clock.

Redfield Pepper Burns, physician and surgeon, descended from the car, a brawny figure in an enveloping gray motoring coat. He wore no hat upon his heavy crop of coppery red hair-somewhere under the seat his cap was abandoned, as usual. His face was brown with tan-a strong, fine face, with dark-lashed hazel eyes alight under thick, dark eyebrows. From head to foot he was a rather striking personality.

"This time," said he, firmly, "I'm going to leave the top up. It's putting temptation in the way of something very weak to keep lowering the top. We'll leave it up. There'll be one advantage." He looked round the corner of the top into the face of his companion, as his hands adjusted the straps.

"When we get to the fifty-miles-from-the-office stone, which we're going to do in about five minutes, I can take leave of my bride without having to observe the landscape except from the front."

"So you're going to take leave of her," observed his passenger. She did not seem at all disturbed. As the car moved on she drew back her veil from its position over her face, leaving her head covered only by a close-fitting motoring bonnet of dark green, from within which her face, vivid with the colouring born of many days driving with and without veils, met without flinching the spatter of rain the fitful April wind sent drifting in under the edge of the top. Her black eyelashes caught the drops and held them.

"Yes, I'm going to say good-bye to her at that stone," repeated Burns. "She's been the joy of my life for two weeks, and I'll never forget her. But she couldn't stand for the change of conditions we're going to find the minute we strike the old place. It's only my wife who can face those."

"If the bride is to be left behind, I suppose the bridegroom will stay with her? Together, they'll not be badly off."

Burns laughed. "Ye gods! Is that what I've been-a bridegroom? I'm glad I didn't realize it; it would have made me act queerer than I have. Well, it's been a happy time-a gloriously happy time, but-"

He paused and looked down at her for an instant, rather as if he hesitated to say what was in his mind. He did not know that he had already said it.

But she knew it, and she smiled at him, understanding-and sympathizing. "But you are glad you are on your way back to your work," said she. "So am I."

He drew a relieved breath. "Bless you," said he. "I'm glad you are-if it's true. It's only that I'm so refreshed by this wonderful fortnight that I-well-I want to go to work again-work with all my might. I feel as if I could do the best work of my life. That doesn't mean that I don't dread to see the first patient, for I do. Whoever he is, I hate the sight of him! Can you understand?"

She nodded. "It will be like the first plunge into cold water. But once in-"

"That's it. Of course, if he happened to be lying on my lawn, all mangled up and calling for me to save his life, I'd welcome the sight of him, poor chap. But he won't be interesting, like that. He'll be a victim of chronic dyspepsia. Or worse-she'll be a woman who can't sleep without a dope. I have to get used to that kind by degrees, after a vacation; I don't warm up to 'em, on sight."

"Yet they're very miserable, some of those patients who are quite able to walk to your office, and very grateful to you if you relieve them, aren't they?"

Red Pepper chuckled. "I can foresee," he said, "that you're going to take the side of the unhappy patient, from the start-worse luck for me! Yes, they're grateful if I can relieve them, but the trouble is I can't relieve them-not the particular class I have in mind. They won't do as I order. And as long as I can't get them comfortably down in bed, where the nurse and I have the upper hand, they'll continue to carry out half of my directions-the half they approve, and neglect the other half-the really important half, and then come round and tell me I haven't helped them any-and why not? Oh, well-far be it from me to complain of the routine work, much as I prefer the sort which calls for all the skill and resource I happen to possess. And the dull part is going to take on a new interest, now, when I can escape from the office into my wife's quarters, between times, where no patient can follow me."

She smiled, watching a big cloud, low on the horizon before them, break into fragments and dissolve into blue sky and sunshine. "I hope," said she, "to be able to make those quarters attractive. You remember I haven't seen them yet-not even the bare rooms."

"That's bothered me a good deal, in spite of the assurance you gave me, when we discussed it by letter. If I hadn't been so horribly busy, and had had the faintest notion of what to do with them-or if you had wanted Martha and Winifred to put them in shape for you-"

"But I didn't! It's going to be such fun to work it out, you and I together."

He shook his head. "Don't count on me, dear. I probably shan't have time to do more than take you in to town and drop you in the shopping district. You'll have to do it all. You've married a doctor, Ellen-that's the whole story. And it's the knowledge of that fact that makes me realize that I may as well leave my bride at the fifty-mile-stone. It'll take my wife that fifty miles to prepare herself for the thing that's going to strike her the minute we are home. And, by the fates, I believe that's the stone, ahead there, at the curve of the road!"

He brought the Green Imp's pace down until it was moving very slowly toward the mile-stone. Then he turned and looked steadily down into the face beside him. "Shall you be sorry to get there?" he asked.

"No."

"Why?"

"Because I don't want to be a bride. They are useless persons. And I don't care much for bridegrooms, either. I prefer a busy husband. And I shall enjoy getting those rooms in order, quite by myself. To tell the truth I'm not at all sure I don't prefer to do them alone. I've had one enlightening experience, shopping with you, you know."

"So you have." He laughed at the remembrance. "Yet I thought I was pretty meek, that day. Well, so you don't mind getting to the mile-stone?"

"Not a bit."

They were beside it now. Burns stopped the car. It was a country road, although it was the main highway between two large cities, and on this April afternoon it was deserted by motorists. Only in the distance could be discerned anything in the nature of a vehicle, and that was headed the other way.

"I suppose I'm a sentimental chap," he observed. "But in one way I've been rather dreading getting home, for your sake. It's come over me, since we turned our faces this way, that not a thing has been done to make my shabby old place fit for you-except to clean it thoroughly. Cynthia's seen to that. Does it seem as if I hadn't cared to give you a fit welcome home?"

His eyes were a little troubled, as they searched hers. But they grew light again as they read in her serene glance that she did not misunderstand him.

"Red," said she-and her hand slipped into his-"I like best to come into your house, just as it is. Take me in-that's all I ask-and trust me to make my own home there-and in your heart. That's all I want."

"You're in my heart," said her husband, "so close and warm there's not much room for anything else."

"Then don't worry about the house. It will be a dear delight to fill the empty rooms; I've a genius for that sort of thing. Wait and see. And meanwhile"-she smiled up into his nearing face-"say good-bye to your bride. She's quite ready to go-and give place to your wife."

So Redfield Pepper Burns kissed his bride, with the ardour of farewell. But the next minute, safe in the shelter of the deep-hooded top, he had welcomed his wife with his heart of hearts upon his lips, and a few low-spoken words in her ear which would make the fiftieth-from-the-office mile-stone a place to remember for them both.

Then he drove on, silently, for a while, as if the little roadside ceremony had left behind it thoughts too deep for expression. And, quite unconsciously, his hand upon the throttle was giving the Imp more and more power, so that the car flew past the succeeding mile-stones at such short intervals that before the pair knew it they were within sight of the city on the farther side of which lay the suburban village which was their home.

"I might stop at the hospital and see how things are," said Burns as they entered the city's outskirts. "But it would be precisely my luck to find something to detain me, and I think I owe it to you to take you home before I begin on anything else."

"Stop, if you want to, Red," said Ellen. "I expected you would."

"But I don't want to. I might have to send some one else to drive you out to the house, and that would break me up. I want to see you walk in at the door, and know that you belong there. Then, if you like, and not till then, I'll be content to go on duty at the old job."

So he took her home. As they approached the village the ninth April shower of the afternoon came blustering up, accompanied by a burst of wind and considerable thunder and lightning, so that when they caught sight of the low-lying old brick house, well back from the street, which was Red Pepper Burns's combined home and office, after the fashion of the village doctor, it was through a wall of rain.

But the house was not the only thing they saw. In the street before the house stood a row of vehicles. One electric runabout, hooded and luxurious; two "buggies," of the village type, drawn by single horses standing dejectedly with drooping ears and tails; one farmer's wagon, filled with boxes and barrels, its horses hitched to Burns's post by a rope: this was the assemblage.

Red Pepper drew one long, low whistle of dismay, then he burst into a laugh. "Confound that blundering angel, Cynthia," he ejaculated. "She's let it out that we're coming. And Amy Mathewson-my office nurse-not due till to-morrow, to protect us! I was prepared, in a way, to pitch into work, but, by George, I didn't expect to see that familiar sight to-day! Hang it all

!"

"Never mind." Ellen was laughing, too. "Remember you've left the bride behind. Your wife will soon be used to it."

"We'll run in by the Chesters' driveway, and sneak in at the back door," and Burns suited the action to the word by turning in at the gateway of his next door neighbour. "I rather wonder Win or Martha didn't go over and drive away my too-eager clientele."

"Possibly they thought it would look more like home to you with an office full of patients."

"It certainly will, though I could dispense with them to-night without much sorrow. But-where am I going to put you? You can get to my room, but you won't want to stay there. The part of the house that will be the living part for you is either empty or cluttered up with wedding presents. By all that's crazy, Ellen, I'm just waking up to the fact that there isn't any place to put you, when there are patients in the house-which there ever-lastingly are-except the dining-room and kitchen! Lord Harry! what am I going to do? And what will you think of me? Dolt that I am!"

He had heard her laugh before. A low and melodious laugh she had, and he had often listened to it and joined in with it, and rejoiced at the ability she possessed to laugh where many women would cry. But he had never heard her laugh as she was laughing now. Her understanding of the situation which had only just struck him was complete. She knew precisely how busy he had been in the weeks preceding the wedding, and how thankfully he had accepted her suggestion that she come to his home just as it was, and plan for herself what disposal she would make of the empty rooms in a house of which he had used only the wing. Until he had seen that row of vehicles before the gate he had not comprehended the fact that almost the entire furnished portion of the house was the public property of his patients whenever they chose to come. And they were there now!

The car stopped behind the house, close by the French window opening upon a small rear porch. The window led to the large, low-ceiled room which was Burns's own, leading in turn to his offices, and having only these two means of entrance. Burns looked down at his wife, her expressive face rosy with her laughter.

"I'm glad you see it that way," said he. "That sense of humour is going to help you through a lot, tied up to R.P. Burns, M.D. Will you go into my room, by this window? Or will you accept Cynthia's hospitality in the dining-room? Or-maybe that's the best plan-will you just run over to Martha's? I remember she begged us to come there, and now I see why. Want to stay there a couple of weeks, till we can get your living-rooms straightened out?"

She shook her head. "I've come to your home, Red," said she. "I'm not going to be sent away! Go in and see your patients, and don't bother about me. Cynthia and I will discover a place for me."

His face very red with chagrin, Burns took her in. The downpour of rain had covered all sounds of the car's approach, so that neither the Macauleys on the one side, the Chesters on the other, nor the housekeeper herself, were aware of the arrival of the pair.

"For mercy's sake, Doctor!" cried Cynthia, and hurried across the neat and pleasant kitchen to meet them. "I wasn't expecting you yet for an hour. Mrs. Macauley and Mrs. Chester wasn't either. They was over here ten minutes ago, planning how to get rid o' the folks in there that's insisting on setting and waiting for you to come."

"Never mind them, Cynthia," said her new mistress, shaking hands. "The Doctor will see them and I will stay with you. I've so much to plan with you. What a pleasant kitchen! And how delicious something smells! Cynthia, I believe I'm hungry!"

"Well, now, you just come and set right down in the dining-room and I'll give you something," cried the housekeeper, delighted.

"That's right, Cynthia," approved Burns, much relieved. "Look after her till I'm free." And he vanished.

"I reckon that'll be a pretty steady job," Cynthia declared, "if I'm to do it 'till he's free.' He won't be free, Mrs.-Burns, till the next time you get him out of town."

She led the way into the dining-room.

"Mrs. Macauley wanted to have you come to dinner there, to-night, and Mrs. Chester wanted you, too. But Mr. Macauley said this was the place for you to have your first dinner in-your own home, and he made the women folks give in. So the table's all set, and I can hurry up dinner so's to have it as soon as the Doctor gets those folks fixed up-if there ain't a lot more by that time. Since Miss Mathewson went I've been answering the telephone, and it seems 'sif the town wouldn't let him have his honeymoon out, they're so crazy to get him back. Now-will you set down and let me give you a bit o' lunch? It's only five o'clock, and I've planned dinner for half-past six."

"It would be a pity to spoil this glorious appetite, Cynthia, though I'm sorely tempted. I think I'll use the time getting freshened up from my long drive-we've come a hundred and sixty miles to-day, through the mud. Then I'll find Bob and be ready to have dinner with the Doctor."

"I'll have to take you round by the porch to get to the Doctor's room-you wouldn't want to go through the office, with such a raft of folks."

Ellen's bag in hand, Cynthia led the way. In at the long window she hurried her, out of the rain which was dashing against it.

"I expect you'll think it smells sort o' doctorish," she said, apologetically. "Opening out of the office, so, it's kind o' hard to keep it from getting that queer smell, 'specially when he's always running in to do things to his hands. But, land! his windows are always open, night and day, so it might be worse."

"I think it's beautifully fresh and pleasant here. Oh, what a bunch of daffodils on the dressing-table! Did you put them there?"

"I did-but 'twas Mrs. Macauley sent 'em over. You'll find clean towels in the bathroom. Oh, and-Mrs. Burns,"-Cynthia hesitated,-"the Doctor forgot to say anything about it, but I've fixed up this little room off his for Bobby. He used to have the little boy sleep right next him, in a crib, but I knew-of course,"-her face crimsoned,-"you wouldn't want-" She paused helplessly.

But Ellen helped her with quick assent. "I'm so glad the little room is so near. Bob won't be lonely, and I shall love to have him there. I can hardly wait to see him."

Cynthia went away, rejoicing that her arrangements were approved. She was devotedly fond of little Bob, Burns's six-year-old protégé, by him rescued, a year before, from an impending orphan asylum, and now the happy ward of a guardianship as kind as an adoption. She had been somewhat anxious over the child's future status with her employer's wife, but was now quite satisfied that he was not to be kept at arm's length.

"Some would have put him off with me," she said to herself, as she returned to her kitchen, "though I didn't really think it of her that took so much notice of him before. She's a real lady, Mrs. Burns is-and prettier than ever since she married the Doctor, as why shouldn't she be, with him to look pretty for?"

Left alone Ellen looked about her. Yes, this was the room in which he had lived the sleeping portion of his bachelor's life, so long. It gave her an odd sense of what a change it was for him, this having a woman come into his life, share his privacy,-he had so little privacy in his busy days and nights,-and occupy this room of his, this big, square, old-fashioned room with its open windows, the one spot which had been his unassailable place of retreat. She felt almost as if she ought to go and find some other room at once, ought not to take even temporary possession of this, or strew about it her feminine belongings.

The room was somewhat sparsely furnished, containing but the necessary furniture; no draperies at the open windows, few articles on the high old mahogany bureau, an inadequate number of nearly threadbare rugs on the waxed floor, and but three pictures on the walls. She studied these pictures, one after another. One was a little framed photograph of Burns's father and mother, taken sitting together on their vine-covered porch. One was a colour drawing of a scene in Edinburgh, showing a view of Princes Street and the Castle,-one which must have become familiar to him from a residence of some length during the period of his studies abroad. The third picture-it surprised and touched her not a little to find it here-was a fine copy of a famous painting, showing the Christ bending above the couch of a sick man and extending to him his healing touch. The face was one of the best modern conceptions of the Divine personality. She realized that the picture might have meant much to him.

She could hear his voice, as she set about her dressing. He was in his private office, talking with a patient whose deafness caused him to raise his own tones considerably; the closed door between could not keep out all the sound. She felt her invasion of his life more keenly than ever as she realized afresh how close to him her own life was to be lived. Marrying a village doctor, whose home contained also his place of business, was a very different matter from marrying a city physician with a downtown office and a home into which only the telephone ever brought the voice of a patient. It was to be a new and strange experience for them both.

She sat before the dressing-table, having slipped into a little lilac and white negligée. The half-curling masses of her black hair covered her shoulders as she brushed them out-slowly, because she was thinking so busily about it all, and had forgotten to make haste. Suddenly the door leading into the office flew open-and closed as quickly. Steps behind her, pausing, made her turn, to meet her husband's eyes.

He came close. An unmistakably "doctorish" odour accompanied him-an odour not disagreeable but associated with modern means for securing perfect cleanliness. He wore his white jacket, fresh from Cynthia's painstaking hands. His eyes were very bright, his lips were smiling.

His arms came about her from behind, his head against hers gently forced it back to face the mirror. In it the two pairs of eyes met again, hazel and black.

"To think that I should see that reflected from my old glass!" whispered Red Pepper Burns.

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