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Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 23936

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Mrs. Redfield Pepper Burns stood in the doorway of her living-room and studied it with a critical eye. Within the room, on either side, stood her sister Martha, Mrs. James Macauley, and her friend Winifred, Mrs. Arthur Chester. In precisely these same relative positions were they also her neighbours as to their own homes. Their husbands were Red Pepper's best friends, outside those of his own profession. It was appropriate that they should have stood by her during the period of fitting and furnishing that part of the old house which her husband had termed her "quarters."

"It's the loveliest room in this town," declared Winifred Chester, "and I'm going to have all I can do not to be envious."

"I doubt if very many people in this little town will think it the loveliest," said Ellen's sister. "Its browns and blues will be too dull for them, and Ellen's old Turkey carpet too different from their polished floors and 'antique' rugs. By the way, Ellen, how old do you suppose that carpet is, anyhow?"

"It's been on Aunt Lucy's floors since before the Civil War. Isn't it beautifully faded?-it furnishes the keynote of the whole room. Isn't it fortunate that the room should be so long and low, instead of high and square? Is it a restful room, girls? That's what I'm after."

"Restful!" Mrs. Chester clasped her hands in a speaking gesture. "Red will forget every care, the minute he steps into it. When are you going to show it to him?"

"To-night, when the fire is lighted and evening office-hours are over. If he hadn't been so busy it would have been hard to keep him away, but he hasn't had an hour to spare even for guessing what I've been doing."

"I hope he'll have an hour to spare, to stay in it with you. How you both will hate the sound of the office-bell and the telephones!"

"I'm going to try hard not to, but I suppose I shall dread them, in spite of myself," Ellen owned.

"This great couch, facing the fire, with all these lovely blue silk pillows, is certainly the most comfortable looking thing I ever saw," sighed Winifred Chester, casting her plump little figure into the davenport's roomy depths and clasping her hands under her head in an attitude of repose.

"If Red doesn't send out word that he's not at home and can't be found, when a call finds him stretched out here, he's a stronger character than I think him."

"Now let's go up and look at the guest-rooms." Ellen led the way, an engaging figure in a fresh white morning dress, her cheeks glowing with colour like a girl's.

"If you didn't know, would you ever dream she had been wife and widow, and had lost her little son?" murmured Winifred in Martha's ear.

Martha Macauley shook her head. "She seems to have gone back and begun all over again. Yet there's a look-"

Winifred nodded. "Of course there is-a look she wouldn't have had if she hadn't gone through so much. It's given her such a rich sort of bloom."

The guest-rooms were airy, attractive, chintz-hung rooms, one large, one somewhat smaller, but both wearing a hospitable look of readiness.

"I like the gray-and-rose room best," announced Winifred, after a critical survey, as if she were inspecting both rooms for the first time instead of the fortieth. She had made the gray-and-rose chintz hangings herself, delighting in each exquisite yard of the fine imported material.

"I prefer the green-leaf pattern, it looks so cool and fresh." Martha eyed details admiringly. "This is your bachelor's room, you say, Ellen? Oh, you've put a desk in it! The bachelor will want to stay forever. Who do you suppose he will be?"

"The first friend of Red's who comes. He says he's always wanted to ask certain ones, and never had a place to put them, except at the hotel."

"He'd better be careful whom he asks-now. They'll all fall in love with you. By the way, do you know Red has a terribly jealous streak?" Winifred glanced quickly at Ellen as she spoke.

"No-what nonsense! How do you like my idea of a book-shelf by the bed, and a drop-light?"

"Pampering-pure pampering of your bachelors. You'll never be rid of them. But he can be jealous, Ellen."

"What makes you think so? I never saw a trace of it," cried Martha Macauley.

"It's there-you mark my words. He couldn't help it-with his hair and eyes."

Ellen laughed. "Hair and eyes! What about my black locks and eyes? Shall I not make a trustful wife, because I happen to have them? Oh!"-she ran to the window-"there comes the Imp! You'll excuse me if I run down? Red's been away all night and all morning."

She disappeared as the Green Imp's horn vociferated a signal of greeting from far down the road.

"They'll never get time to grow tired of each other," commented Martha, as the two friends descended the old-time winding staircase. "Isn't this old hall delightful, now? I never realized the possibilities of the house, with this part closed so long."

"One more peep at the living-room, and then we'll go. Isn't it just like Ellen? Such a charming, quiet room, without the least bit of ostentation, yet simply breathing beauty and refinement. She is the most wonderful shopper I know. She made every dollar Red furnished go twice as far as I could. I don't suppose he would let her spend a penny of her own on this house."

"He's too busy to know or care what she does-till he sees it. I'll venture she has slipped in a penny or two. That magnificent piano is hers, you know,-and two or three pieces of furniture. All he'll realize is that it's delightful and that she's in it. It's all so funny, anyhow,-this bringing home a bride and having her fall to work to furnish her own nest."

"She's enjoyed it. I'd like to be on the scene to-night, when she shows it to him."

"No chance of that. When Red does get her to himself for ten minutes he quite plainly prefers to have the rest of us depart. Have you noticed?"

"Yes, indeed. I only hope that state of things will last." And Winifred smiled and sighed at once, as if she were skeptical concerning of the permanency of married bliss.

Office-hours were full ones that evening, and it was quite nine o'clock before R.P. Burns, M.D. closed the door on the last of his patients. The moment he was free he turned to Miss Mathewson, his office nurse, with a deep breath of relief.

"Let's put out the lights and call it off," he said. "Run home and get an hour to yourself before bedtime, and never mind finishing the books. Do you know,"-he was smiling down at her, where she sat, a trim white figure at her desk, an assistant who had been his right hand for nine years, and who perhaps knew his moods and tempers better than anybody in the world, though he did not at all realize this,-"do you know, I find it harder to settle down to work again than I thought I should? Curious, isn't it?"

"Not at all curious, Doctor Burns." Miss Mathewson spoke in her usual quiet tone, smiling in return. "It is distracting, even to me, to know that a person so lovely as your wife is under the same roof."

This was much for this most reserved associate of his to say, and Burns recognized it. He regarded her with interested astonishment. "So she's got you, too!" he ejaculated. "I'm mighty glad of that, for it will tend to make you sympathetic with my wish to have an hour to myself-and her-now and then. I'm to see my home to-night, for the first time,-if-"

Steps sounded upon the office porch. Burns made a flying leap for the door into his private office, intent on getting to his room and exchanging his working garb for one suited to the evening he meant to spend with Ellen. When he had swiftly but noiselessly closed the door, Miss Mathewson answered the knock.

A tall countryman loomed in the doorway.

"Doctor in?"

"He is in," said the office nurse, who would tell lies to nobody, "but he is engaged. Office-hours are over. Please give me any message for him."

"I'd like to see him," said the countryman, doggedly.

"I don't wish to disturb him unless it is quite necessary," explained Miss Mathewson.

"I call it necessary," said the countryman, "when a fellow has a broken leg. Got him out here in the wagon. Now will you call the Doctor?"

"I surely will," and Miss Mathewson smiled sympathetically.

She called her employer, who came out, frowning, still in his white coat.

"Confound you, Jake," said he, "don't you know it's against the law to break legs or mend them after office-hours?"

Miss Mathewson, in the brief interval consumed by the men in bringing the injured man in from the street, slipped across the hall.

"It will be another hour, Mrs. Burns," said she, at the door of the living-room. "But after that I shall not be here to answer the door or the telephone, and the Doctor can ignore them, if he will."

Ellen rose, smiling, and came across the room to her. The two figures, one in the severe white of a uniform, the other in the filmy, lace-bordered white of a delicate house gown, met in the doorway.

"You dear, kind little person," said Red Pepper's wife, with her warm hand on the nurse's arm, "how good it is of you to care! But I can wait. Can't you stay in here with me, while the Doctor sees his patient?"

"I must help him. It's a broken leg, and I must go this minute," said Miss Mathewson. But she paused for an instant more, looking at Ellen. The nurse was the taller, and looked the older of the two, but the affectionate phrase "little person" had somehow touched a heart which was lonelier even than Ellen guessed-and Ellen guessed much more than Red Pepper had ever done. Red Pepper's wife leaned forward.

"You and I must be good friends," said she, and Miss Mathewson responded with a flush of pleasure. Then the nurse flew back to the office, while Ellen, after listening for a little to the sounds of footsteps in the office, turned back to the fire.

"How does it happen," said she musingly to herself, as she stood looking down into the depths of the glowing heart of it, "that one woman can be so rich and one so poor-under the same roof? She sees more of him than I,-lives her life closer to him, in a way,-and yet I am rich and she is poor. How I wish I could make her happy-as happy as she can be without the one thing that would have made her so. O Red!-and you never saw it!"

The hour went by. The broken leg was set and bandaged, the injured man was conveyed back to the wagon which had brought him; and Red Pepper Burns took a last look at his patient, in the light of the lantern carried by the countryman.

"You've been game as any fighting man, Tom," said he, cheerily. "The drive home'll be no midsummer-night's-dream, but I see that upper lip of yours is stiff for it. Good-night-and good luck! We'll take care of the luck."

As he turned back up the path the front door of his house swung open. It was a door he had never entered more than once, his offices being in the wing, and the upright portion having been totally unused since he had owned the place. With an exclamation he was up the steps in two leaps, and standing still upon the threshold.

"Come in a little farther, please, dear," said a voice from behind the door, "so I can close it."

Burns shut the door with a bang, and turned upon the figure in the corner. But his extended arm kept his wife away from him. "Let me go and refresh," he begged. "I can't bear to touch you after handling that unwashed lumberjack. Just five minutes and I'll be back."

He was as good as his word. In five minutes he was no longer a busy professional man, but a gentleman of leisure, with hands cleaner than those of any fastidious clubman, and clothes which carried no hint of past usage in other places less chaste than his wife's private living-rooms.

"Now I'm ready for you," he announced, returning. "And I'll be hanged if I'll see another interloper to-night. A man has some rights, if he is a doctor. Morgan, up the street there, is the new man in town, and

he has a display of electric lights in front of his office which fairly yells 'come here!' Let 'em go there! I stay here."

He took his wife in his arms and kissed her hungrily, then stood holding her close, his cheek against her hair, in absolute contentment. He seemed to see nothing of the new quarters, though he was now just outside the living-room door, in the hall which ran between the two parts of the house. Presently she drew him into the room.

"Look about you," said she. "Have you no curiosity?"

"Not much, while I have you. Still-by George! Well!"

He stood staring about him, his eyes wide open enough now. From one detail to another his quick, keen-eyed glance roved, lingering an instant on certain points where artful touches of colour relieved the more subdued general tone of the furnishings. The room suggested, above all things, quiet and repose, yet there was a soft and mellow cheer about it which made it anything but sombre. Its browns and blues and ivories wrought out an exquisite harmony. The furniture was simple but solid, the roomy high-backed davenport luxurious with its many pillows. The walls showed a few good pictures-how good, it might not be that Red Pepper fully understood. But he did understand, with every sense, that it was such a room as a man might look upon and be proud to call his home.

But he was silent so long that Ellen looked up at him, to make sure that there was no displeasure in his face. Instead she found there deeper feeling than she expected. He returned her look, and she discovered that he was not finding it easy to tell her what he thought of it all. She led him to the couch and drew him down beside her. He put his arm about her, and with her head upon his shoulder the pair sat for some time in a silence which Ellen would not end. But at length, looking into the fire, his head resting against hers, Burns broke the stillness.

"I suppose I'm an impressionable chap," he said, "but I wasn't prepared for just this. I knew it would be a beautiful room, if you saw to it, but I had no possible notion how beautiful it would be. There is just one thing about it that breaks me up a bit. Perhaps you won't understand, but I can't help wishing I could have done the work for you instead of you for me. It isn't the work, either, it's the-love."

"And you couldn't have spared enough of that to furnish a room with?"

He laughed, drawing her even closer then he had held her before. "I'll trust you to corner me, every time," he said. "Yes, I could have spared love enough-no doubt of that. But it seems as if it were the man who should put the house in order for the woman he brings home."

"You have excellent taste," said she demurely, "but I never should credit you with the discriminations and fastidiousnesses of a decorator. And why should you want to take away from me the happiness of making my own nest? Don't you know it's the home-maker who finds most joy in the home? Yet-it's the home-comer I want to have find the joy. Do you think you can rest in this room, Red?"

He drew a deep, contented breath. "Every minute I am in it. And from the time I first begin to think about it, coming toward it. Home! It's Paradise! This great, deep, all-embracing blue thing we're sitting in-is it made of down and velvet?"

"Precisely that. Velvet to cover it, down in the pillows. I hope you'll have many a splendid nap here."

"You'll spoil me," he declared, "if you let me sleep here. I'm used to catching forty winks in my old leather chair in the office, while I wait for a summons."

Her face grew very tender. "I know. James Macauley has told me more than one tale of hours spent there, when you needed sounder sleep. It's a hard life, and it's going to be my delight to try to make it easier."

Red Pepper sat up. "It's not a hard life, dear,-it's one of many compensations. And now that I have one permanent compensation I'm never going to think I'm being badly used, no matter what goes wrong. Come, let's stroll about. I want to look at every separate thing. This piano-surely the sum I gave you didn't cover that? It looks like one of the sort that are not bought two-for-a-quarter."

"No, Red, that was mine. It came from my old home with Aunt Lucy-that and the desk-bookcase, and two of the chairs. And Aunt Lucy gave me this big rug, made from the old drawing-room carpet. I built the whole room on the rug colourings. You don't mind, do you, dear?-my using these few things that belonged to me in my girlhood, in South Carolina?"

"In your girlhood? Not-in your Washington life?"

"No, Red."

She looked straight up into his eyes, reading in the sudden glowing of them under their heavy brows the feeling he could not conceal that he could bear to have about his house no remote suggestion of her former marriage.

"All right, dearest," he answered quickly. "I'm a brute, I know, but-you're mine now. Will you play for me? I believe I'm fond of music."

"Of course you are. But first, let's go upstairs. I'm almost as proud of our guest-rooms as of this."

"Guest-rooms?" repeated Burns, a few minutes later, when he had examined everything in the living-room and pronounced all things excellent. "We're to have guests, are we? But not right away?"

"I thought you'd be eager to entertain those bachelor friends you mentioned, so I lost no time in getting a second room ready for them."

"Well, I don't know." Burns was mounting the stairs, his arm about his wife's shoulders. "By the way, Ellen, I don't believe I ever went up these stairs before. Comfortable, aren't they? I'm glad there's covering on them. I never like to hear people racketing up and down bare stairs, be they never so polished and fine. That comes of my instincts for quiet on my patients' account, I suppose. About the guests-we don't need to have any for a year or two, do we?"

"Why, Red!" Ellen began to laugh. "I thought you were the most hospitable man in the world."

"All in good time," agreed her husband, comfortably. He looked in at the door of the gray-and-rose room, as he spoke. "Well, well!" he ejaculated. "Well, well!"

And again he was silent, staring. When he spoke:

"Would you mind going over there and sitting down in that willow chair with the high back?" he requested.

His wife acceded, and crossing the room smiled back at him from the depths of the white willow chair, her dark head against its cushioning of soft, mingled tints of pale gray and glowing rose. Red Pepper nodded at her.

"I thought so," said he. "This is no guest-room. This is your room."

"Oh, no, dear. My place is downstairs, with you-unless-you don't want me there."

He crossed the room also and stood before her, his hands thrust into his pockets. "This is your room," he repeated. "It's easy enough to recognize it. It looks just like you. I've been uncomfortable about you downstairs, whenever I had to leave you. You'll be safe here, with every window wide open."

She looked up at him, mutely smiling, but something in her eyes told him that all was not yet said. Red Pepper leaned still lower and kissed her.

"It will be easy enough to have an extension of the telephone brought up here," he added-and found her arms about his neck. But she shook her head. "Don't settle it so quickly," she urged.

"You said there was another guest-room," he reminded her presently. "The bachelor's room. Is it next door?"

They went together to look at the bachelor's room. Burns surveyed it with satisfaction.

"The jolliest room for the purpose I ever saw," he confessed. "And I know the bachelor who will sleep in it. He's downstairs now, in the small room out of ours."

"Bob? Why, Red-"

"We'll have a door cut through. The telephones shall be in there, then they won't disturb you. They won't bother Bob a minute. And when I come in at 2 a.m. I can slip in here, shove the boy over against the wall, and be asleep in two minutes."

"Red! All my preparations for the bachelor! The desk,-the reading-light by the bed-"

"They suit me admirably. I never saw a better arrangement. The two rooms together make a perfect suite-when the door is cut through."

"And where will you put our guests? There's only one more room on this floor, of any size."

"Let's go and see."

Catching up a brass candlestick from the bachelor's desk, Burns lit it and proceeded to explore, Ellen following. There were dancing lights in her eyes as she watched him.

"Here's your fourth room," said he, throwing open a door at the back of the hall.

"This box? It can't be made a really comfortable room, even if I do my best with it. Your bachelor will not stay long."

"Best not make him too comfortable. Nobody wants him to stay long." And Red Pepper closed the door again, with an air of having settled the matter to his entire satisfaction. "Besides," he added, "if he's really a desirable chap, and we want him around more than a day or two, he can bunk in my old room downstairs. When he's not there I'll use it for an annex to my offices. Somebody's always needing to be put to bed for an hour or two. Amy Mathewson will revel in that extra space. Her long suit is making people comfortable, and smoothing the upper sheet under their chins."

"Redfield Pepper, please consider this carefully," said his wife, as they returned to the gray-and-rose room. "Remember how long you have had that downstairs room,-you are attached to it, perhaps, more than you think. You have been a bachelor yourself a good while-"

"And am supposed to be old and set in my ways," interpolated her listener. He stood before her with folded arms, a judicial expression on his brow. Beneath his coppery hair his black eyebrows drew together a little above a pair of hazel eyes which sparkled with a whimsical light which somewhat impaired the gravity of the expression.

"You are wonted to your ways-naturally," Ellen pursued. "It will not be so convenient for you, having your rooms up here. I am quite contented there, with you, and not in the least afraid with Cynthia sleeping down there too-and the little bachelor. Think twice, Red, before you decide on this arrangement."

He glanced at the wall between the two rooms. "Where would be a good place to have the door cut through? What's behind that curtain? A clothes-press?"

He advanced to the curtain and swept it aside. It hung in a doorway, and was of a heavy gray material, with an applied border of the gray-and-rose chintz. As he moved it light burst through from the other side of the wall, and Burns found himself looking into the "bachelor's room" next door.

He turned, with a shout of laughter. "You witch!" he cried, and returning to his wife laid a hand on either richly colouring cheek, gently forcing her face upward, so that he could look directly into it. "You meant it, all the while!"

"Don't be too sure of that. If this room looks like me, the one downstairs certainly looks like you. I don't want to take you out of your proper environment."

"My environment!" he repeated, and laughed. "What is it, now, do you think? Not bachelor apartments, still?"

But she persisted, gently. "Keep the downstairs room, dear, just as it is. Don't make it a public room, except for necessity. Sometimes you'll be glad to take refuge there, just as you're used to doing. Leave those three pictures on your walls, and look at them often, as you've always done. And be sure of this, Red: I shall never be hurt when you show me that you want to fight something out alone, there. It must be your own and private place, just as if I hadn't come."

Sober now, he stood looking straight down into her eyes, which gave him back his look as straightly. After a minute he spoke with feeling:

"Thank you, dearest. And bless you for understanding so well. At the same time I'm confident you understand one thing more: That by leaving a man his liberty you surely hold him tightest!"

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