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Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 24439

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"I want an opinion," said Burns, one night at dinner, "that shall coincide with mine. Where do you suppose I'm going to find it?"

He had been more or less abstracted during the entire dinner. He now offered, in a matter-of-fact tone, this explanation of his abstraction much as he might have observed that he would like a partridge, if it had happened to be in season.

"What's a ''pinion,' Uncle Red?" inquired his small ward, Bob. Bob's six-year-old brain seemed to be always at work in the attempt to solve problems.

"It's what somebody else thinks about a thing when it agrees with what you think. When it doesn't agree it's a prejudice," replied Burns. He forestalled further questioning from Bob by refilling his plate with the things the boy liked best, and by continuing, himself:

"Grayson's idea about a certain case of mine is prejudice-pure prejudice. Van Horn's is bluster. Field's is non-committal. Buller would like to back me up-good old Buller-but is honestly convinced that I'm making an awful mess of it. I want an opinion-a distinguished opinion."

"Why don't you send for it?" his wife asked.

Burns frowned. "That's the trouble. The more distinguished the opinion I get the more my patient will have to pay for it, and he can't afford to pay a tin dollar. At the same time-By George! There's Leaver! I heard the other day that Leaver was at a sanitorium not a hundred miles away,-there for a rest. I'll wager he's there with a patient for a few days-at a good big price a day. Leaver never rests. He's made of steel wires. I believe I'll have him up on the long-distance and see if I can't get him to run over."

"Is it Dr. John Leaver of Baltimore you speak of?"

"It surely is. Do you happen to know him?"

"Slightly, and by reputation-a great reputation."

"Great? I should say so. Jack's been sawing wood without resting for ten years. We were great chums in college, though he was two classes ahead of me. I was with him again for a winter in Germany, when we were both studying there. If I can get him over here for a day, I'll have an opinion worth respecting, whether it happens to agree with mine or not. And if it doesn't, I'll not call it prejudice."

He left the table to put in a long-distance call. Between the salad and the dessert he was summoned to talk with his friend. Presently he returned, chuckling.

"It must be fully ten minutes since I thought of Leaver, and now I have him promised for to-morrow. I'll meet him in the city, give him the history of the case at luncheon at the Everett, take him to the hospital afterward, bring him out here to discuss things, and give him one of your dinners. Then for a fine evening at our fireside. He's agreed to stay overnight. I didn't expect that. He's usually in too much of a hurry to linger long anywhere."

"He has never seemed in a hurry, when I have seen him," Ellen observed. "He has such a quiet manner, and such a cool, calm way of looking at one, I always thought he must have a wonderful command of himself."

"I always envied him that," admitted Red Pepper, stirring his coffee with a thoughtful air. "I used to wish it were contagious, that splendid calm. He never loses his head, as I do. Takes plenty of time to consider everything, and plenty to get ready in. But when he does come to the point of operating,-he's a wonder. Talk about rapidity and brilliancy! And he never turns a hair. I've often wanted to count his pulse at a crisis, when he'd found something unexpected-one of those times that sends mine racing like a dynamo. He's as cool as a fish-outwardly, at any rate. Well, it will be jolly to see him. I could hardly get his voice to sound natural, over the 'phone. It seemed weak and thin. Poor service, I suppose,-though he had no difficulty in hearing me, apparently."

"Shall I put him in the small guest-room or the large, comfortable one? Which will appeal to him most, space or a reading-light over his bed?"

"Put him in the big room and give him all the comforts of home. I doubt if he gets many of the really homelike sort, living alone with servants, in the old family mansion, since his mother died. I've often wondered why he hasn't married."

"As you've only just married yourself I should think you would be quite able to supply a reason," suggested Ellen, with a sparkle of her dark eyes under their heavy lashes.

"He's had plenty of opportunities. Many fair ladies have made it easy for him to propose to them. But he's not the sort that kindles into flame at the sight of a match in the distance. Yet he's by no means a cold-blooded proposition. His heart is as warm as anybody's, under that reserve of his. That's why I know he'll see my patient for the love of science and humanity, and charge him nothing."

Ellen found herself particularly interested, next day, in making preparations for the reception of her husband's friend, the first bachelor who should spend a night in the house. It was a fortnight since Red Pepper had insisted upon having the telephones extended to the upstairs rooms, and during that period two more rooms had been furnished and put in readiness for the guests whom it was a part of Mrs. Burns's hospitable creed to expect. The larger of these was a charming apartment, in blue and white, and possessed a small fireplace, in front of which stood a low couch, luxurious with many pillows.

"It's rather a feminine looking room for so manly a man as Dr. Leaver," Ellen reflected, as she looked in at it, an hour before his arrival, "but perhaps he's not above enjoying little softnesses of comfort. I believe I'll have a small fire for him, June though it is. It's a cold June, and it looks like rain. It is raining." She crossed to the window and looked out. "Why, it's pouring! What a pity! We shall have to stay indoors."

As she stood contemplating the downpour, it quite suddenly increased, and in the course of a minute or two became a deluge. In the midst of it she discovered a white-clad figure running across the lawn, and recognized Miss Mathewson, evidently caught in the shower as she was returning to Burns's office.

"She must be soaked through and through," thought Ellen, and ran downstairs to meet her, herself clad in dinner dress of the pale lilac which suited her so well, and for which her husband had conceived a special fondness.

"Oh, don't come near me, please, Mrs. Burns," expostulated Miss Mathewson, as she stood, dripping, on the porch outside the office, while Ellen, in the open door, motioned her within. "I'll just stay here until the worst is over, and then run home and change."

"Indeed you'll come in. Nothing can hurt this floor, and it's turned ever so cold, as I can feel. It may rain for an hour. I'll give you everything you need, and be delighted."

There was no resisting Red Pepper's wife; she was accustomed to have her way. Miss Mathewson, reluctant but shivering, came inside, and when her clothing had ceased to drip moisture, followed Ellen upstairs. Presently, dry-clad, she was taken into Ellen's own room and confronted with an invitation which was rather a command.

"You're to stay and have dinner with us. I've laid out a frock which I'm confident will fit you. Please don't say no. It's a special providence, for I've been wishing all the afternoon I had asked somebody to make a fourth at our table, to meet Dr. Leaver. And now I shall have the pleasure of dressing you for the occasion, since you can't possibly go home through this, and wouldn't have time to dress and come back, if you could."

"But, Mrs. Burns,-" Amy Mathewson began, flushing after a fashion she had which made her for the moment almost pretty and certainly attractive, "there's no real reason why you need me, and I-"

"I do need you. Three is such a stupid number. You will enjoy Dr. Leaver and he will enjoy you. Come, my dear girl, don't spend any more time remonstrating, but do your hair and put on this simple frock, which I'm confident will just suit you. You're a bit taller, I know, but the dress is long for me, and will be quite the right length for you. Sit down here at my dressing-table, and let me help you dry that beautiful hair. I've often longed to see it all unconfined, and now I'm going to have the chance."

As she spoke she slipped on a loose protecting garment above her lilac daintiness, and waved an inviting hand to her guest, smiling so coaxingly that Miss Mathewson yielded without another word of protest. When the hairpins came out, and the mass of fair hair fell upon the shoulders, Ellen exclaimed with hearty admiration:

"I knew it was wonderful hair, but I didn't dream there was such a wealth. My dear, why do you wear it in such a tight fashion, as if you wanted everybody to think there wasn't much of it? Do let me try dressing it for you in a way I know, which it seems to me would just suit your face. Have you always worn it coiled on top of your head, and shall you feel very strange and uncomfortable if I arrange it lower?"

"Do it as you like, Mrs. Burns, since you will be so kind. But don't expect me not to feel strange, wearing your clothes and staying to dinner. Do you realize how far from society I've lived, all these years that I've been nursing for Dr. Burns?"

"I know you are a lady, and that is quite enough. And our simple dinner isn't 'society,' it's home. Now, please keep quite still, and don't distract my mind, while I lay these smooth strands in place. I want every one to lie in just this shining order."

Ellen worked at her self-appointed task with all the interest of the born artist, who has an ever-present dream of things as they ought to look. When the last confining pin was in place she viewed the fair head before her from every point, then clapped her hands delightedly, and presented Miss Mathewson with a hand-mirror.

"You must get the side view, then you'll recognize how these new lines bring out that distinguished profile that's been obscured all this time. Do you see? Do you know yourself, my dear? Won't you always wear it this way, to please me?"

"But I never could do it myself, in the world," pleaded Amy Mathewson, her cheeks again flooding with colour at the strange sight of herself.

"It's perfectly simple, and I'll teach you with pleasure,-only not now, for we must hurry. I'll slip the frock over your head without disturbing a hair, and then we'll go down, for I want a bit of a blaze on the hearth in the living-room, to offset this dull-gray sky."

On went the frock in question, a "simple" one, undoubtedly, but of the sort of simplicity which tells its own story to the initiated. Whether its new wearer recognized or not its perfection of detail, she could but see that it suited her to a nicety, both in hue-a soft apricot shade-and in its absence of elaboration. Its effect was to soften every line of the face above it, and to set off its wearer's delicate colouring as the white uniforms could never do.

"Don't you quite dare to look at her?" questioned the self-appointed lady's maid, merrily, as she led her charge to stand in front of a long mirror, set in a door.

"Hardly." Miss Mathewson raised eyes grown suddenly shy to view her own image in the glass, gave her back a picture such as she had never dreamed could be made by herself, under any conditions whatever. Over her shoulder her employer's wife smiled at her.

"She looks very charming, to me, however she looks to you. But I won't force her to stare long at such a stranger. It might make it difficult for her to forget the stranger afterward, which is what I want her to do."

Ellen ran away to make herself ready once more, and returning put her arm about her guest's waist, in the friendly way of her own which came still more naturally now that the uniform was gone. Together the two descended the stairs to the living-room, there to await the arrival of Burns and his friend.

This took place about three quarters of an hour after it was to be expected, as Red Pepper's arrivals usually did, whether accompanied or not by invited guests. The two came in laughing together over some reminiscence, and Ellen recognized the tall, distinguished figure she well

remembered, with the clean-cut features, the fine eyes rather deep set under heavy brows, the firm yet sensitive mouth. Yet, after a moment, as Dr. John Leaver stood talking with her, she observed a careworn look, a dimming of the fresh, clear colour she had noted on former meetings; altogether in his whole aspect she found more than a suggestion of undue fatigue, and when the smile ceased to light his face, even of sadness quite unwonted.

While he was in his room before dinner, she held a hasty consultation with her husband, as he dressed with the speed of which he was master through long practice.

"Dr. Leaver can't be quite well, Red,-to look like that?"

"I should say not. I haven't asked him a question and he hasn't said a word, but it shows all over him. He's not my old friend Jack Leaver, at all, and it upsets me. I'm hoping he'll unload, and tell me what's wrong, though I can guess fairly well for myself. I could see, all through our consultation, that he held himself in hand with an effort. The old keenness was there, but not the old command. He's worn out, for one thing,-though there may be more than that. But, see here,-do you mean to tell me that's Amy Mathewson you've got downstairs? Never! It might be her younger sister-six years younger-but not my staid nurse. Not even you could bring about such a miracle."

"Isn't it wonderful? Yet-it isn't, at all. She's always worn her hair strained back from her face and put up into that tight coil on the top of her head. Dressing it properly has made two thirds of the difference and the apricot frock makes the other third. Isn't it delightful?"

"No doubt of that. She's a mighty good girl, and if she can make shift to be a good-looking one as well, there may be a bit of fun left in life for her yet. She's by no means old, and you've made her young,-bless your generous heart! I don't know how you ever managed to get her consent, though. She thinks that uniform is her shell, and can't be doffed. But I don't think she's likely to get much fun out of Leaver to-night. He's just about fit for bed, or I'm no diagnostician."

"Then let's put him there," said Ellen, promptly.

"Oh, I don't mean that literally. One of your dinners ought to set him up, and Amy Mathewson won't make any exacting demands on his brilliancy."

"Won't she? You can't tell what pretty clothes may do for her. She will surprise you some time, in spite of the fact that you know her so well."

"Wise woman. She will, if you have a hand in the game. You can be trusted to bring out every one's best. Bother this tie-it acts like original sin."

"I won't offer to tie it for you. I can't imagine Redfield Pepper Burns allowing his wife to tie his cravat for him."

"Can't you? That is to say, won't you?" He came close.

She shook her head, and moved away, smiling. "It would destroy a certain ideal. Stop laughing! One of your most powerful charms for me is your independence."

He groaned and continued to struggle with the bow of black silk which eluded his efforts to fasten it securely. "I thought all women delighted in getting their husband's neckwear adjusted according to their own notions. Another dream shattered!-Well, here goes for the last time. If I can't get it right now I'll go in and implore Jack to do it for me. It will open his eyes as to how far hopes may be slain by realities. There! That's a pretty good result, at last. I'll go across now, and see if he wants any of my assistance."

Ten minutes later both men appeared in the living-room. In his evening attire Dr. Leaver looked a tall and sombre figure, and the contrast between him and his friend, as Red Pepper stood beside him on the hearth-rug, the picture of ruddy health, was startling.

"You must be pretty heavy, Red," Leaver said considering his host. "Not a particle of superfluous fat, but good, solid structure, I should say. One wouldn't want to try to pass you against your will, in a narrow alley, on a dark night."

"It strikes me you could glide by me in the shadow and never attract my attention," Burns replied, his keen eyes on his friend's face. "The difference between us is that every inch of you represents concentrated energy, while my plant spreads all over the landscape without producing half as much power."

Leaver smiled. There was both strength and sweetness in his smile, but there was depression in it also. "That sounds like you," he said. "I suppose many men envy other men the possession of some supposed source of efficiency. Just now I find myself envying you your home-and its occupants. What a delightful room."

He turned to his hostess and her friend. While they talked together Burns regarded Amy Mathewson, his long-time associate, with renewed wonder, and presently found himself addressing her from an entirely new point of view. This fair girl with the graceful head and the glowing blue eyes could not possibly be the sedate young woman who was accustomed to hand him instruments and sutures, ligate arteries, and attend to various minor matters from the other side of his operating-table. He wondered why he had never before noticed how much real individuality she possessed, nor how really attractive she was of face and person. He decided afresh that his wife was the most wonderful woman in the world, to be able to see at a glance that which had escaped his attention for so long, and he congratulated Miss Mathewson, in his mind, on the possibilities he for the first time saw ahead of her. Clearly after all she was a woman, not a machine!

The party went out to dinner, and Burns looked to see his friend enjoy, as he thought he must, the cleverly planned and deliciously cooked meal which came, perfectly served, upon the table. It was such a dinner as he himself delighted in, unostentatious but satisfying, with certain touches, here and there, calculated to tempt the most capricious palate,-such as he shrewdly judged Leaver, in his presumably lowered state of vitality, to possess.

But to his surprise and dismay the guest barely touched most of the dishes, and ate so sparingly of others that Burns felt himself, with his hearty, normal appetite, a gormandizer. Nobody made any comment whatever upon Dr. Leaver's lack of appetite, but all three noted, with growing concern, that there were moments when he seemed to keep up with an effort. Instinctively the others made short work of the later courses, and felt a decided relief when it became possible to leave the table and return to the living-room.

By a bit of clever management Ellen was able to put the guest's tall form into a corner of the big davenport, among the blue pillows, where he could receive more support than was possible in any other place. After a little he seemed less fatigued, and charmed them all with his pleasant discourse. Burns himself was soon summoned to the office. He would not allow Miss Mathewson to take up her duties there, though she followed him to offer eagerly to run home and change her attire.

"Not a bit of it," Burns assured her, in the hall. He regarded her with mischief in his eyes. "Cinderella isn't due at home till the clock strikes twelve," he whispered. "Besides,-the Prince isn't in his usual form to-night. He may need her services as nurse at any minute, judging by his appearance."

That sent her back into the room, as he knew it would. It was, for her, a wonderfully interesting hour which followed, for Dr. Leaver and Mrs. Burns fell to discussing life in a certain great city, as both knew it from quite different standpoints, and she herself had only to listen and observe. She thought the pair upon the davenport made a striking picture, the woman in her rich and still youthful beauty, her smile a thing to wonder at, her voice low music to the ear; the man, though no older than Burns, worn and grave, yet with a strangely winning personality, and eyes which seemed to see far beneath the surface. In all Amy Mathewson's experience with the men of Burns's profession, she had never met just such a one as John Leaver. The sense of his personal worth and dignity was strong upon her as she watched him; his evident fatigue and weakness appealed to her sympathies; and she forgot herself more completely than she had imagined she could when first summoned to the unaccustomed part she was this evening playing.

But, quite suddenly, the scene changed. In the act of speaking Dr. Leaver suddenly stopped, put one hand to his side, and lay back against the high end of the davenport, breathing short, his face turning pallid, ashen. Ellen rose to her feet in dismay, but Amy Mathewson sprang toward him, drew him with strong arms gently down to a position more nearly recumbent, and with fingers on his pulse said in a low voice, "Call the Doctor, please."

Ellen ran, and in a minute had Burns there, striding in, in his white office jacket, his face tense with sudden anxiety. Leaver was panting for breath as Burns felt his pulse and nodded at Amy, who hurried quietly away. She was back very quickly, handing Burns a tiny instrument ready for use. In a moment more the supporting drug was on its way to lend aid, and Burns was bending over his friend again, laying a gentle hand upon the damp forehead, and saying with quiet assurance:

"All right, old boy. We'll have you comfortable in no time. You were too tired to play society man to-night, and we oughtn't to have allowed it."

It was not very long before Leaver was breathing more easily, and a trace of colour had come back to his face. He moved his head and tried to speak naturally:

"I am-rather-ashamed of myself-"

"You've no business to be. When a fellow is played out Nature takes her innings-and she takes all that's coming to her. You're going up to bed in a few minutes, and you're going to stay there till the rest has had a chance to get in some work. Miss Mathewson will stay with you for a bit. She's a famous nurse."

Leaver's head moved in surprised protest, and Miss Mathewson spoke:

"He doesn't know, Dr. Burns, that that is my profession."

Burns laughed. "Oh, I see. That was a bit startling, for a fact. But she is, Leaver, the most accomplished of her guild, and my right-hand man. She can make you more comfortable in an hour than I can in a week."

Upstairs, while she released Amy from the apricot frock, that something more in keeping with the duties of a nurse might be donned, Ellen questioned anxiously:

"The Doctor must think him really ill, to speak of keeping him in bed. Do you know what is the matter?"

"His heart action is weak. I don't know the cause, of course. He seems worn out; that showed plainly all the evening. I'm going to run home, Mrs. Burns; my wet things must be quite dry, now. There'll be time, I'm sure. The Doctor won't bring him upstairs for a little yet."

She hurried away, and was back within the half hour. Although she no longer looked the part of the fine lady, the old r?le seemed hardly hers. The new fashion of her hair had changed her appearance very completely, and the youthful look it had restored to her remained, to Ellen's no little pleasure. Her cheeks were still flushed with the evening's excitement, and her eyes were charmingly bright and happy.

When everything was in readiness, Burns, in spite of all remonstrance from his friend, lifted him in his powerful arms and carried him upstairs. The exertion made him breathe a little heavily for a moment, but that was all. Leaver was not a light burden, in spite of his thinness, for his frame was that of a man who should carry many pounds more than he now bore.

"You strong man, how I envy you," Leaver said, sadly, as Burns laid him upon the bed.

"Your envy of me can't be a circumstance to that I've felt, many a time, when I've watched you. But you've been working like a slave too long. Rest is all you need, man."

But Leaver slowly shook his head. He did not reply to this confident statement, and Burns knew better than to try to argue it out with him just then. Instead, with a warm grip of the hand, he turned his new case over to the care of his nurse, and went away, his heart heavy at sight of a strong man prone.

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