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Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 27081

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"Excuse me for coming in on you at breakfast," Martha Macauley, Ellen's sister and next-door neighbour, apologized, one morning in late May. "But I wanted to catch Red before he got away, and I saw, for a wonder, that there was no vehicle before the door."

"Come in, come in," urged Burns, while Ellen smiled a greeting at her sister, a round-faced, fair-haired, energetic young woman, as different as possible from Ellen's own type. "Have a chair." He rose to get it for her, napkin in hand. "Will you sit down and try one of Cynthia's magnificent muffins?"

"No, thank you. And I'll plunge into my errand, for I know at any minute you may jump up and run away. You may, anyway, when you hear what I want! Promise me, Red, that you won't go until you've heard me out."

"What a reputation I have for speed at escape!" But Burns glanced at his watch as he spoke. "Fire away, Martha. Five minutes you shall have-and I'm afraid no more. I'm due at the hospital in half an hour."

"Well, I want to give a reception for you." Martha took the plunge. "I know you hate them, but Ellen doesn't,-at least, she knows such things are necessary, no matter how much you may wish they weren't. I don't mean a formal reception, of course. I know how you both feel about trying to ape city society customs, in a little suburban village like this. But I do think, since you had such a quiet wedding, you ought to give people a chance to come in and greet you, as a newly married pair."

Burns's eyes met his wife's across the table. There was a comical look of dismay in his face. "I thought," said he, "you and I agreed to cut out all that sort of thing. As for being a newly married pair-we aren't. We've been married since the beginning of time. I can't conceive of existence apart from Mrs. Redfield Pepper Burns, nor recall any period of my life when she wasn't a part of it."

"You've been married just seven weeks and three days, however," retorted his sister-in-law, with a touch of impatience, though she smiled, "and not a quarter of the people in town have ever met Ellen. You'll find that it's not the same, now that you're married. They won't flock to your office, just out of admiration for you, unless you show them some attention."

Burns chuckled. "Won't they? By George, I wish they wouldn't! Then I could find time to spend an uninterrupted hour with my wife, at least once a day."

"Do be reasonable, Red. Ellen, will you make him see it's a very simple thing I'm asking of him? Just to stand by you and shake hands for a couple of hours. Then he can go out and stand on his head on the lawn, if he wants to."

"To relieve the tension?" her victim suggested. "That's an excellent idea-real compensation. But as the blood will be all at the top, anyway, after two hours' effort at being agreeable, saying the same idiotic things over and over, and grinning steadily all the time, I think I'd prefer soaking my head under a pump."

"Do what pleases you, if you'll only let me have my way."

Burns looked at Ellen again. "What do you say, dear? Must these things be? Do you want to be 'received'?"

"Martha has set her heart on it," said she, gently, "and it's very dear of her to want to take the trouble. She promises really to make it very informal."

"Informal! I wish I knew what that word meant. Don't I have to wear my spike-tail?"

"I'm afraid you do-since Martha wants it in the evening. The men in a place like this are not available for afternoon affairs."

"If I must dress, then I don't see what there is informal about it," argued her husband, with another glance at his watch. "My idea of informality is not a white necktie and pumps. But I suppose I'll have to submit."

He came around the table, and Ellen rose to receive his parting kiss. With his arm about her shoulder, and his chin-that particularly resolute chin-touching her hair, he looked at Martha. "Go on with your abominable society stunt," said he. "I'll agree to be there-if I can."

His eyes sparkled with mischief, as Martha jumped up, crying anxiously:

"Oh, that's just it, Red! You must be there! We can't have any excuses of operations or desperately sick patients. We never yet had you at so much as a family dinner that you didn't get up and go away, or else weren't even there at all. Even your wedding had to be postponed three hours. That won't do at this kind of an affair. Ellen can't be a bridal pair, all by herself!"

"Can't she?" His arm tightened about his wife's shoulders. "Well, I'll tell you what I'll do. If I have to leave suddenly I'll take her with me. That'll make it all right and comfortable. If you and Jim will retire too, the company can have a glorious time talking us over."

He stooped, whispered something in Ellen's ear, laughing as he did so, then kissed her, nodded at Martha, and departed. From the other side of the closed door came back to them a gay, whistled strain from a popular Irish song.

"He's just as hopeless as ever," Martha complained. "I thought you would have begun to have some effect on him, by this time. The trouble is, he's been a bachelor so long and has got into such careless notions of having his own way about everything, you're going to have a bad time getting him just to behave like an ordinary human being."

"What an outlook!" Ellen laughed, coming over to her sister, and stopping on the way to help little Bob insert a refractory napkin in its silver ring. "Perhaps I'd better not waste much time trying to make him over. He really suits me pretty well, as he is,-and it doesn't strike me he's so different from the average man, when it comes to receptions. Is Jim enthusiastic over this one?"

"Oh, Jim isn't making any fuss about it," evaded Martha. "He'll be good and amiable, when the time comes. Of course, any man likes better just having a group of men smoking round the fire, or sitting down to a stag dinner, but Jim understands the necessity of doing some things just because they're expected. I really think that having a perfectly informal affair of this sort is letting them off easily. They might have had to stand a series of 'At Homes.'"

"Not in this little place. Everybody would have come to the first one, and there would have been nobody left for the rest. As it is, you will have a houseful, won't you? It's lovely of you to do it, Martha dear, and Red and I will be good, and stand in line as long as you want us."

"And you won't let him get away?"

"He won't try,-though if an urgent call comes, it's not I who can keep him. But don't worry about that. It doesn't always happen, I suppose."

"Pretty nearly always. But I'll hope for the best."

Mrs. Macauley went away with her head full of plans for the success of the affair she was so sure ought to take place. It was difficult for her to understand how Ellen, who had known so much of the best social life in a city where there is no end to the round of formal entertaining, could be now as indifferent as Martha understood she really was to all experience of the sort. It was association with Redfield Pepper Burns which had done it, Martha supposed. But was he to do all the influencing, and Ellen to do none? It looked like it-to Martha.

Left alone with Bob, Ellen made him ready for the little village kindergarten which he had lately begun to attend. Before he went he put up both arms, and she bent to him.

"I'm going to be a pretty good boy to-day, Aunt Ellen," said he. "I promised Uncle Red I would. But I don't like to skip in the circle with girls. Why need I?"

"Would you rather skip with boys, dear?"

"Lots rather. But the girls keep asking me. Why do they, when I don't ask them?"

Ellen smiled down into the questioning little face, its dark eyes looking seriously up into hers through long and curly lashes. Bob was undoubtedly a handsome little lad, and the reason why the girls-discerning small creatures, true to their femininity-should be persistent in inviting him to be their partner was obvious enough.

"Because that's part of the skipping game, Bobby. I'd ask the girls sometimes-and, do you know, I think it would be fine to ask some of the little girls whom the other boys don't ask. Do you know any?"

Bob considered. "I guess I do. But why do I have to ask them?"

"Because they're not having as much fun as the others. You wouldn't like never to be asked by anybody, would you?"

"I don't care 'bout any girls ever asking me," Bob insisted stoutly. "I like boy games better-'circus' and 'grandfather's barn.' Only they let the girls play those too," he added, disgustedly.

He started away. But he came back again to say, soberly, "I'll ask Jennie Hobson, if you want me to, Aunt Ellen. She's some like a boy, anyway. Her hair's cut tight to her head-and her eyes are funny. They don't look at you the same."

"Do ask her, Bob. And tell me how she liked it." And Ellen looked affectionately after the small, straight little figure trudging away down the street.

Martha's plans for her reception went on merrily. On the day set she came hurrying over before breakfast, to administer to her brother-in-law a final admonition concerning the coming evening.

"I hope this isn't going to be the busiest day of your life?" she urged Burns.

"It's bound to be,-getting things clear for to-night," he assured her, good-humouredly.

"Promise me you won't let anything short of a case of life or death keep you away?"

"It's as serious as that, is it? All right, I'll be on hand, unless the heavens fall."

He was good as his word, and at the appointed hour his hostess, keeping an agitated watch on her neighbour's house, saw him arrive, in plenty of time to dress. She drew a relieved breath.

"I didn't expect it," she said to James Macauley, her husband.

"Oh, Red's game. He won't run away from this, much as he hates it. Like the rest of us married men, he knows when dodging positively won't do," and Macauley sighed as he settled his tie before the reception-room mirror, obtaining a view of himself with some difficulty, on account of the towering masses of flowers and foliage which obscured the glass.

When Burns and Ellen came across the lawn, Martha flew to meet them.

"You splendid people! Who wouldn't want to have a reception for such a pair?"

"We flatter ourselves we do look pretty fine," Burns admitted, eying his wife with satisfaction. "That gauzy gray thing Ellen has on strikes me as the bulliest yet. If I could just get her to wear a pink rose in her hair I'd be satisfied."

"A rose in her hair! Aren't you satisfied with that exquisite coral necklace? That gives the touch of colour she needs. The rose would overdo it-and wouldn't match, besides." Martha spoke with scorn.

"Yes, a rose would be maudlin, Red; can't you see it?" James Macauley gave his opinion with a wink at his friend. "With the necklace your wife is a dream. With a rose added she'd be a-waking up! Trust 'em, that's my advice. When they get to talking about a 'touch of' anything, that's the time to leave 'em alone. A touch of colour is not a daub."

"Who's lecturing on art?" queried Arthur Chester, from the doorway.

His wife, Winifred, entering before him, cried out at sight of the pale gray gauze gown.

"O Ellen! I thought I looked pretty well, till I caught sight of you. Now I feel crude!"

"Absurd," said Ellen, laughing. "You are charming in that blue."

"There they go again," groaned Macauley to Burns. "Winifred feels crude, when she looks at Ellen. Why? I don't feel crude when I look at you or Art Chester. Neither of you has so late a cut on your dress-coat as I, I flatter myself. I feel anything but crude. And I don't want a rose in my hair, either."

"You're a self-satisfied prig," retorted Burns. "Hullo! Somebody's coming. Tell me what to do, Martha. Do I run to meet them and rush them up to Ellen, or do I display a studied indifference? I never 'received' at a reception in my life."

"Get in line there," instructed Macauley. "Martha and I'll greet them first and pass them on to you. Don't look as if you were noting symptoms and don't absent-mindedly feel their pulses. It's not done, outside of consulting rooms."

"I'll try to remember." R.P. Burns, M.D. resignedly took his place, murmuring in Ellen's ear, as the first comers appeared at the door, "Promise you'll make this up to me, when it's over. I shall have to blow off steam, somehow. Will you help?"

She nodded, laughing. He chuckled, as an idea popped into his head; then drew his face into lines of propriety, and stood, a big, dignified figure-for Red Pepper could be dignified when the necessity was upon him-beside the other graceful figure at his side, suggesting an unfailing support of her grace by his strength to all who looked at them that night. He had declared himself ignorant of all conventions, but neither jocose James Macauley nor fastidious Arthur Chester, observing him, could find any fault with their friend in this new r?le. As the stream of their townspeople passed by, each with a carefully prepared word of greeting, Burns was ready with a quick-wittedly amiable rejoinder. And whenever it became his duty to present to his wife those who did not know her, he made of the act a little ceremony which seemed to set her apart as his own in a way which roused no little envy of her, if he had but known it, in the breasts of certain of the feminine portion of the company.

"You're doing nobly. Keep it up an hour longer and you shall be l

et off," said Macauley to Burns, at a moment when both were free.

"Oh, I'm having the time of my life," Burns assured him grimly, mopping a warm brow and thrusting his chin forward with that peculiar masculine movement which suggests momentary relief from an encompassing collar. "Why should anybody want to be released from such a soul-refreshing diversion as this? I've lost all track of time or sense,-I just go on grinning and assenting to everything anybody says to me. I couldn't discuss the simplest subject with any intelligence whatever-I've none left."

"You don't need any. Decent manners and the grin will do. Had anything to eat yet?"

"What's got to be eaten?" Burns demanded, unhappily.

"Punch, and ices-and little cakes, I believe. Cheer up, man, you don't have to eat 'em, if you don't want to."

"Thanks for that. I'll remember it of you when greater favours have been forgotten. Martha has her eye on me-I must go. I'll get even with Martha for this, some time." And the guest of honour, stuffing his handkerchief out of sight and thrusting his coppery, thick locks back from his martyred brow, obeyed the summons.

The next time Macauley caught sight of him, he was assiduously supplying a row of elderly ladies with ices and little cakes, and smiling at them most engagingly. They were looking up at him with that grateful expression which many elderly ladies unconsciously assume when a handsome and robust young man devotes himself to them. Burns found this task least trying of all his duties during that long evening, for one of the row reminded him of his own mother, to whom he was a devoted son, and for her sake he would give all aging women of his best. Something about this little group of unattended guests, all living more or less lonely lives, as he well knew them in their homes, touched his warm heart, and he lingered with them to the neglect of younger and fairer faces, until his host, again at his elbow, in a strenuous whisper admonished him:

"For heaven's sake, Red, don't waste any more of that rare sweetness on the desert air. Go and lavish your Beau Brummel gallantry on the wives of our leading citizens. Those new Winterbournes have sackfuls of money-and a chronic invalid or two always in the family, I'm told. A little attention there-"

"Clear out," Burns retorted shortly, and deliberately sat down beside the little, white-haired old lady who reminded him of his mother. As he had been standing before, this small act was significant, and Macauley, with a comprehending chuckle, moved away again.

"Might have known that wouldn't work," he assured himself. He strolled over to Ellen, and when, after some time, he succeeded in getting her for a moment to himself, he put an interested question.

"What do you think of your husband as a society man? A howling success, eh? He's been sitting for one quarter of an hour by the side of old Mrs. Gillis. And a whole roomful of devoted patients, past and future, looking daggers at him because he ignores them. How's that for business policy, eh? Can't you bring him to his senses?"

"Are you sure they're looking daggers? I passed Mrs. Gillis and Red just now, and thought they made a delightful pair. As for business policy, Jim,-a man who would be good to an old lady would be good to a young one. Isn't that the natural inference,-if you must think about business at all at such an affair. I prefer not to think about it at all."

"You may not be thinking about it, but you're capturing friends, right and left. I've been watching you, and knew by the expression on the faces of those you were talking to that you were gathering them in and nailing them fast. How does a woman like you do it?-that's what I'd like to know!"

"Go and do your duty like a man, Jimmy. Flattering the members of your own family is not a part of it." Dismissing him with a smile which made him more than ever eager for her company, she turned away, to devote herself, as her husband was doing, to the least attractive of the guests.

The evening wore away at last, and at a reasonably early hour the hosts were free. The last fellow citizen had barely delivered his parting speech and taken himself off when Red Pepper Burns turned a handspring in the middle of the deserted room, and came up grinning like a fiend.

"Good-bye-good-bye-'tis a word I love to speak," he warbled, and seizing his wife kissed her ardently on either cheek.

"Hear-hear!" applauded James Macauley, returning from the hall in time to see this expression of joy. "May we all follow your excellent example?"

"You may not." Red Pepper frowned fiercely at Mr. Macauley, approaching with mischievous intent. "Keep off!"

"She's my sister-in-law," defended Macauley, continuing to draw near, and smiling broadly.

"All the more reason for you to treat her with respect." Burns's arm barred the way.

Macauley stopped short with an unbelieving chuckle. Arthur Chester, Winifred, his wife, and Martha Macauley, coming in from the dining-room together, gazed with interest at the scene before them. Ellen, herself smiling, looked at her husband rather as if she saw something in him she had never seen before. For it was impossible not to perceive that he was not joking as he prevented Macauley from reaching his wife.

"Great snakes! he's in earnest!" howled Macauley, stopping short. "He won't let me kiss his wife, when I'm the husband of her sister. Go 'way, man, and cool that red head of yours. Anybody'd think I was going to elope with her!"

"Think what you like," Burns retorted, coolly, "so long as you keep your distance with your foolery. You or any other man."

"Red, you're not serious!" This was Martha. "Can't you trust Ellen to preserve her own-"

"Dead line? Yes-in my absence. When I'm on the spot I prefer to play picket-duty myself. I may be eccentric. But that's one of my notions, and I've an idea it's one of hers, too."

"Better get her a veil, you Turk."

Macauley walked away with a very red face, at which Burns unexpectedly burst into a laugh, and his good humour came back with a rush.

"Look here, you people. Forget my heroics and come over to our house. I'll give you something to take the taste of those idiotic little cakes out of your hungry mouths. No refusals! I'm your best friend, Jim Macauley, and you know it, so come along and don't act like a small boy who's had his candy taken away from him. You've plenty of candy of your own, you know."

He was his gay self again, and bore them away with him on the wave of his boyish spirits. Across the lawn and into the house they went, the six, and were conducted into the living-room and bidden settle down around the fireplace.

"Start a fire, Jim, and get a bed of cannel going with a roar. You'll find the stuff in that willow basket. Open all the windows, Ches. Then all make yourselves comfortable and await my operations. I promise you a treat-from my point of view."

And he rushed away.

"It's my private opinion," growled Macauley, beginning sulkily to lay the fire, "that that fellow is off his head. He always did seem a trifle cracked, and to-night he's certainly dippy. What's he going to do with a fire, at 11 p.m., on a May evening, I'd like to know?"

"Whatever it is, it will be refreshing." Winifred Chester, reckless of her delicate blue evening gown, curled herself up in a corner of the big davenport and laid her head luxuriously down among the pillows. "Oh, I'm so tired," she sighed. "Seems to me I never heard so many stupid things said, in one evening, in my life."

Arthur Chester, having thrown every window wide-though he discreetly drew the curtains over those which faced the street-sat down in a great winged chair of comfortable cushioning, and stretched his legs in front of him as far as they would go, his arms clasped behind his head. He also drew a deep sigh of content.

"I don't recall," said he, wearily, "that I have sat down once during the entire evening."

"How ridiculous!" cried Martha Macauley, bristling. "If you didn't, it was your own fault. I took away hardly any chairs, and I arranged several splendid corners just on purpose for those who wished to sit."

"As there were a couple of hundred people, and not over a couple of dozen chairs-" began Chester, dryly.

But Martha interrupted him. "I never saw such a set. Just as if you hadn't been going to affairs like this one all your lives,-and Ellen, especially, must have been at hundreds of them in Washington,-and now you're all disgusted with having to bear up under just one little informal-"

"Cheer up, my children," called Burns, reentering. He was garbed in white, which his guests saw after a moment to be a freshly laundered surgical gown, covering him from head to foot, the sleeves reaching only to his elbows, beneath which his bare arms gleamed sturdily. He bore a wire broiler in one hand, and a platter of something in the other, and his face wore an expression of content.

"Beefsteak, by all that's crazy!" shouted James Macauley, eying the generous expanse of raw meat upon the platter with undisguised delight. He forgot his sulkiness in an instant, and slapped his friend upon the back with a resounding blow. "Bully for Red!" he cried.

"Well, well! Of all the wild ideas!" murmured Arthur Chester. But he sat up in his chair, and his expression grew definitely more cheerful.

Winifred laughed out with anticipation. "Oh, how good that will taste!" she exclaimed, hugging herself in her own pretty arms. "It is just what we want, after wearing ourselves out being agreeable. Who but Red would ever think of such a thing, at this time of night?"

"I believe it will taste good," and Martha Macauley laid her head back at last against the encompassing comfort of the chair she sat in, and for the first time relaxed from the duties of hostess and the succeeding defence of her hospitality.

"Don't you want my help, Red?" his wife asked him, at his elbow.

He turned and looked at the gray gauze gown. "I should say not," said he. "Lie back, all of you, and take your ease, which you have richly earned, while I play chef. Nothing will suit me better. I'm boiling over with restrained emotion, and this will work it off. Lie back, while I imagine that it's one of the male guests who bored me whom I'm grilling now. I'll do him to a turn!"

He proceeded with his operations, working the quick fire of cannel which Macauley had started into a glowing bed of hot coals. He improvised from the andirons a rack for his broiler, and set the steak to cooking. While he heated plates, sliced bread, and brought knives, forks, and napkins, he kept an experienced eye upon his broiler, and saw that it was continually turned and shifted, in order to get the best results. And presently he was laying his finished product upon the hot platter, seasoning it, applying a rich dressing of butter, and, at last, preparing with a flourish of the knife to carve it.

It was at this to-be-expected moment that the office-bell rang. Miss Mathewson summoned her employer, and Burns stayed only to serve his guests, before he left them hungrily consuming his offering and bewailing his departure.

"Only," Martha Macauley said, "we ought to be thankful that for once he got through an evening without being called out."

Ellen had placed her husband's portion where it would keep hot for him, and the others had nearly finished consuming their own, when Burns came in. He made for the fire, amid the greetings and praises of his guests, and served his own plate with the portion remaining on the platter, covering it liberally with the rich gravy. Then he cut and buttered two thick slices of bread and laid them on the plate.

"Sit down, sit down, man!" urged Macauley, as his host rose to his feet. "We're waiting to see you enjoy this magnificent result of your cookery. It's the best steak I've had in a blue moon."

"If you'll excuse me, I'm going to take mine in the office," Burns explained. "Can't leave my patient just yet." And he went away again, carrying his plate, napkin over his arm.

Five minutes later Macauley, putting down his empty plate, got up and strolled out into the hall. A moment afterward he was heard abruptly closing the office door, saying, "Oh, I beg pardon!" Then he returned to the company. He was whistling softly as he came, his hands in his pockets and his eyebrows lifted.

"He is dippy," he said, solemnly. "No man in his senses would act like that."

"You eavesdropper, what did you see?" Winifred Chester looked at him expectantly.

"I saw the worst-looking specimen of tramp humanity who has come under my observation for a year, with a bandage over one eye. He is sitting in that big chair with a plate and napkin in his lap, and his ugly mouth is full of beefsteak."

"And isn't Red having any?" cried Martha, with a glance at the empty platter.

"Not a smell. He's standing up by the chimney-piece, looking the picture of contentment-the idiot. But he modified his benevolent expression long enough to give me a glare, when he saw me looking in. That's the second glare I've had from him to-night, and I'm going home. I can't stand incurring his displeasure a third time in one day. Come, Martha, let's get back to our happy home-what there is left of it after the fray. We'll send over a plate of little cakes for the master of the house. A couple of dozen of them may fill up that yawning cavity of his. Of all the foolishness!"

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