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Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 22743

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"But I can't stay here," John Leaver protested, a few days afterward. He was still in bed, much against his will, but not, as he was forced to admit, against his judgment, when he allowed it consideration. "I can't impose on Mrs. Burns's and your kindness like this. I shall soon be fit for travel, and then-"

"Would you mind listening to me?" R.P. Burns, M.D., sat comfortably back in a large willow chair, by the bedside, and crossed one leg over the other in a fashion indicative of an intention to settle down to it and have it out. "Just let me state the case to you, and try to look at it from the outside. Of course that's a difficult thing to do, when it happens to be your own case, but you have a judicial mind, and you can do the trick, if anybody can."

Leaver was silent. He lay staring out of the open window beside which his bed had been drawn, his thin cheek showing gaunt hollows, his eyes heavy with unrest. All the scents and sounds of June were pouring in at the three windows of the room; a tangle of rose vines looked in at him from this nearest one. Just before Amy Mathewson had left him, a few minutes ago, for her afternoon rest, she had brought him one wonderful bloom, the queen, it seemed, of all the roses of that June. It lay upon the window-sill, now, within reach of his hand.

Burns began to speak. His tone was matter-of-fact, yet it held inflections of tenderness. His friend's case appealed to him powerfully; his sympathy with Leaver's state of mind, as he was confident he understood it, was intense. "If it were I!" he had said to himself-and to Ellen-and had groaned in spirit at the thought. If it had been his own case, it seemed to him he could not have endured it.

"You were at that sanitorium," Burns began. "Sanitoriums are useful institutions, some of them get splendid results. But they have their disadvantages. It's pretty difficult to eliminate the atmosphere of illness. And, for a man whose training and instincts lead him to see behind every face he meets in such a place, it's not an ideal spot at all. What you need is a home, and that's what we're offering you, for as long as you need it."

"And I appreciate it more than any words can express," Leaver said gratefully. He turned his head now, and looked at his host. "Just to know that I have such friends does me good. And I know that you mean all you say. If I were a subject for a cure I might almost be tempted to take you at your word."

"You are a subject for a cure."

Leaver shook his head, turning it away again. "Only to a certain point," he said, quietly. "Of course I know that rest and quiet will put my heart right, because there's no organic lesion. Probably I shall build up and get the better of my depression of mind-to a certain extent. But, there's one thing I'm facing I haven't owned to you. You may as well know it. I shall never be able to operate again.... Perhaps you can guess what that means to me," he added. His voice was even, but his breathing was slightly quickened.

Burns was silent for a time, his own heart heavy with sympathy for Leaver. Guess what a conviction like that must mean to a man of Leaver's early eminence in the world of distinguished operative surgery? He surely could. It had been his almost certain knowledge that this was his friend's real trouble which had made him say to himself with a groan, "If it were I!" So he did not answer hastily to persist in assurance that all would yet be well. He knew Leaver understood that sort of professional hypnosis too thoroughly to be affected by it.

Burns got up and took a turn or two up and down the room, thinking things out. His face was graver than patients usually saw it; there was in it, however, a look of determination which grew, moment by moment, as he walked. Presently he came back to the bedside and sat down again.

"Suppose you tell me all about it, Jack," said he. "You haven't done me that honour, yet, you know. Will it be too hard on you? Just to make a clean breast of every thought and every experience which has led you to this point? I know I'm rather forcing myself upon you as your physician. If you prefer, I'll withdraw from the case, in favour of any better man you may choose, and send for him to-day."

Leaver's head turned back again. "I know no better man," he said, and their eyes met.

"There are plenty of better men," Burns went on, "but I confess I want this case, and am ready to take advantage of having it in my house, for the present, at least. Well, then,-if you can trust me, why not do as I suggest?"

Leaver shivered a little, in the warm June light, and put one hand for a moment over his eyes.

"You don't know what you ask, Red," he said, slowly.

"Don't I? Perhaps not. Yet-I have a notion that I do. It would be a trifle easier to face the rack and thumbscrew, eh? Well, let's get it over. Possibly telling will ease you a bit, after all. It works that way sometimes."

By and by, persisting, gently questioning, helping by his quick understanding of a situation almost before Leaver had unwillingly pictured it, he had the whole story. It was almost precisely the story he had guessed,-an old story, repeated by many such sufferers from overwork and heavy responsibility, but new to each in its entirety of torture, even to this man, who, still in his youthful prime, had himself heard many such a tale from the unhappy lips of his patients, yet to whom his own case seemed unique in its suffering and hopelessness.

The recital culminated in an incident so painful to the subject of it that he could recount it only in the barest outlines. His listener, however, by the power of his experience and his sympathy, could fill in every detail. A day had come, some six weeks before, when Leaver, though thoroughly worn out by severe and long continued strain, had attempted to operate. The case was an important one, the issue doubtful. Friends of the patient had insisted that no one else should take the eminent young surgeon's place, and, although he had had more than one inner warning, in recent operations, that his nerve was not what it had been, his pride had bid him see the thing through. He had given himself an energizing hypodermic,-he had never done that before,-and had gone into it. There had come a terrible moment.... Leaver's lips grew white as he tried to tell it.

He felt his friend's warm, firm hand upon his own as he faltered. "Steady, old fellow," said Burns's quiet voice. "We've got this nearly over. You'll be better afterward."

After a little Leaver went on.

He had come upon an unexpected complication-one undreamed of by himself or the consulting surgeons. "You know-" said Leaver. Burns nodded, emphatically. "You bet I know," said he, and his hand came again upon Leaver's, and stayed there. Leaver went on again, slowly.

Instant decision had been necessary, instant action. It was such a moment as he had faced hundreds of times before, and his quick wit, his surgeon's power of resource, his iron nerve, had always come to the support of his skill, and together these attributes had won the day for him. Fear, at such crises, had never possessed him, however much, afterward, reviewing the experience, he had wondered that it had not. But this time, fear-fear-a throttling, life-destroying fear had sprung upon him and gripped him by the throat. Standing there, entirely himself, except for that horrible consciousness that he could not proceed, he had had to beckon to the most experienced of the surgeons present who surrounded him as onlookers, and say to him: "Get ready-and take this case. I can't go on."

There had been no apparent physical collapse on his part, no fainting nor attack of vertigo, nothing to help him out in the eyes of that wondering, startled company of observers. He had been able to direct his assistants how to hold the operation in suspension until the astonished, unwilling colleague could make ready to step into the breach, cursing under his breath that such an undesired honour should have been thrust upon him. Then Leaver had walked out of the room, quite without assistance, only replying wanly to those who questioned, "There's nothing to say. I couldn't go on with it. Yes, I am perfectly well."

It had not got into the papers. They had been kind enough to see to that, those pitying professional colleagues who had witnessed his dispossession. The patient had lived. If he had died the thing must have come out. But he had lived. The situation could not have been as desperate a one as it had seemed. The other man had handled it,-and he was by no means a man eminent in his profession. There had been no excuse, then, for such a seizure,-no excuse. It meant-the end.

Well, it was certainly the end of recounting it, for when he had reached this point Leaver's power to endure the thought of it all failed him, and he lay back upon his pillows, his brow damp and his breath short.

Burns silently ministered to him, pain in his eyes, his lips drawn tight together. His sympathy for his friend was intense.

It seemed to him incredible that this shaken spirit before him could be John Leaver-Leaver, whom, as he had told his wife, he had often envied his perfect self-command, his supposed steadiness of pulse, his whole strong, cool personality, unaffected by issues such as always keyed Burns himself up to a tremendous tension, making him pale with the strain. "Leaver's made of steel wires," had been his description of his friend to Ellen. Well, the steel wires were stretched and broken, now, no doubt of that. The question was whether they could ever be mended and restrung.

When Leaver was comfortable again,-comfortable as far as an evenly beating heart and a return of blood to the parts which needed it could make him,-Burns spoke to him once more.

"We won't talk about this any more to-day, Jack," he said. "You've had enough for now, and I have what I needed,-the facts to work upon. Just let me say this much. I'm not discouraged by anything I've heard to-day. I'll not try any bluffs or jollyings with you, because I know they wouldn't work, but I do say this, honestly: I'm not discouraged. And I'm interested-interested to the bottom of my heart. I'm going to put the best there is in me into this problem. I never tackled anything in my life that appealed to me more powerfully. If that's any comfort just now, I offer it. If you were my brother I couldn't be more anxious to pull you out of this ditch. Now, trust me, and try to go to sleep."

Leaver did not look up at the kind, almost boyishly tender face above him, but he pressed the hand which grasped his own, and Burns saw a tear creep out from under the closed lids of the eyes under which the black shadows lay so deeply. The well man took himself away from the sick one as quickly as he could after that,-he couldn't bear the sight of that tear! It was more eloquent of Leaver's weakness than all his difficult words.

When he met Miss Mathewson, an hour afterward, in the hall, on her way back to her patient, he delayed her.

"I want you to do more than nurse this case, Amy," he said, fixing her with a certain steady look of his with which he always gave commands. "I want you to put all your powers, as a woman, into it. Forget that you are nursing Dr. Leaver, try to think of him as a

friend. You can make one of him, if you try, for you have in you qualities which will appeal to him-if you will let him see them. You have hardly let even me see them,"-he smiled as he said it,-"but my eyes have been opened at last. I'm inclined to believe that you can do more for our patient than even my wife or I,-if you will. Suppose,"-he spoke with a touch of the dangerously persuasive manner he could assume when he willed, and which most people found it hard to resist,-"you just let yourself go, and try-deliberately try-to make Dr. Leaver like you!"

She coloured furiously under the suggestion. "Dr. Burns! Do you realize what you're saying?"

"Quite thoroughly. I'm asking you not to hesitate to make of yourself a woman of interest and charm for him, for the sake of taking him out of himself. Isn't that a perfectly legitimate part for a nurse to play when that happens to be the medicine needed? You have those powers,-how better could you use them? Suppose you are able, through your effect of sweetness and light, to minister to a mind diseased;-isn't that quite as worthy an occupation as counting out drops of aconite, or applying mustard plasters?"

Amy Mathewson shook her head. "Do you realize, Dr. Burns, that a man like-your guest-is so far beyond me in mind and-tastes-in every way, that I could never-interest him in the way you speak of-even if I were willing to try?"

She spoke with difficulty. As Burns studied her downbent face, the profile his wife had brought out by her skill at hair-dressing showing like a fine cameo against the dark background of the wall, he was thinking that unless Leaver were blind he must find her rather satisfying to the eye, at least. He answered her with confidence.

"He's a man of education, it's true. But what are you? Come,-haven't I found all sorts of evidences, about my office, that you are a woman of education? It doesn't matter whether you got that education in a college or from the books I know you have read,-you have it. I'll trust your ability to discuss six out of a dozen subjects Leaver may bring up-or, if you can't discuss them all, you can do what is better-let him instruct you. Don't tell me you can't handle those cards every fascinating woman understands so well. If there's anything a man likes to do it's to teach an interested woman the things she cleverly professes she wants to know-and the best of it is that no matter how often you play that game on us we're always caught by it. Leaver will be caught by it, just as if he hadn't had it tried on him a thousand times. And while he's playing it with you, he'll forget himself, which is the first step on the road I want him to travel."

She looked up. "Do you mean that I am to keep on attending him after he is able to leave his room? Is he going to stay with you after that? He told me only to-day that he intends to go as soon as he is able to travel."

"We shall keep him as long as we can possibly persuade him to stay. Meanwhile, my plan is to have you settle down and stay with us, as a member of the family. We'll have someone else attend to the office. You can go with me, as usual, when I operate, but I shall put you on no case but Dr. Leaver's, and the greater part of your time will be his."

"But what will he think? Doesn't he know that I'm your office nurse?"

"How should he know it-unless you have taken pains to tell him?"

She shook her head. "He only knows that I am your assistant at operations. The other point hasn't come up."

"Good. Then he will accept whatever situation he finds, and never think of questioning it. The way is clear enough. And it's the only way I know of to insure his having what he needs-the close companionship of a sympathetic-yet not too sympathetic-woman-with a face like yours," he added, slyly.

The quick colour answered this, as he knew it would. "Dr. Burns! You know I'm not even good looking! Please don't say such things."

"I only said 'a face like yours.' That may imply a face as plain as you think Amy Mathewson's is-and as my wife and I know it is not. It's time you waked up, girl, to your own attractions. You ought to have faith in them when I'm asking the use of them for this patient of mine. I'd give about all I own to put him on his feet again."

"I hope you can-indeed I do. And of course-anything I can do-"

He nodded. "I'll leave that to you. Consult-not your head alone, but-your heart!"

And he let her go, smiling at her evident confusion of mind. But when left alone he sighed again.

"He needs a woman like my Ellen,-that would be a drug of a higher potency. But-he can't have that-he can't have that! I must do the next best thing."

And he went on his way, studying it out.

That evening he took his wife into his confidence. He did not tell her the whole story,-it was not his to tell. But he made her acquainted with the fact that Leaver had had a severe nervous shock and that the thing to be overcome was his own distrust of himself, the thing to be recovered was his entire self-command.

"I have insisted on his staying as long as he can be content," Burns explained. "I had your consent to that, I know?"

"Of course, Red. You knew that."

"In my enthusiasm I went a step further, without realizing that I had not consulted you. I asked Amy Mathewson to stay with us too, as a member of the family. I asked her cooperation as a woman, as well as a nurse, and to have that it seemed to me necessary to have her here, even after he is up and able to look after his own wants. How will you feel about that?"

He looked straight into her eyes. They were sitting upon a small side porch, in the late June evening. He had come in from a visit to a nearby patient, and, finding her upon the porch, had thrown himself upon the cushion at her feet, his head against her knee. Now, he turned and looked up at her, and she could see his expression clearly in the moonlight.

"I don't believe I quite understand yet," she said. "What is it that you want Amy to do for him, 'as a woman'? Read to him, and walk with him, and be a sort of comrade?"

"Precisely that-and a bit more."

"Can you prescribe that sort of thing, and make sure that it will work out? He may not care for it."

"I want him to have a woman's companionship; it's what he needs, I firmly believe. It must be a certain sort of woman-the kind who will be good for his nerves, gently stimulating, not exacting. One of the brilliant society women he knows wouldn't do at all. The ideal kind would be-your own kind. But he can't have that." He spoke so decidedly that she smiled, though he did not see it. "It seems to me that Amy, if she puts her heart into it, can give him just what he needs. Remember he's a sick man, and will continue to be a sick man for some time after he's walking about our streets and climbing our hills."

"Yes, I'm afraid he will be. And you think he will accept Amy's companionship, after he is walking about, as a part of his medicine? Shall you insist on her being with him, or is she to wait to be invited to read to him and walk with him?"

His brows knit in a frown. "You think I'm prescribing something I can't administer? But I think that he will grow so used to having her with him, while he actually needs her as a nurse, that, when he gets about and finds her still here, he will quite naturally fall into the way of seeking her company."

"Perhaps he will. At any rate, she is very welcome to stay, as long as you want her for the experiment."

"You are an angel! I realize that I shouldn't have made such an arrangement without asking your permission. To tell the truth, I'm so used to-"

He stopped short, with a little ejaculation of dismay.

"I understand, dear," she said quickly. "You are so used to being master of the house that you forgot the new conditions. It's all right-you are still master-particularly in everything that has to do with your profession. And if you can find a cure for poor Dr. Leaver's broken spirit I shall be as happy as you."

"It's going to make you a lot of trouble,-two guests in the house, for an indefinite period. You see, I'm just waking up to what I'm asking of you. It's precisely like my impetuosity to create a situation I can't retreat from, and then wonder at my own nerve. Will it bother you very much?"

"It's what we're here for, isn't it?" She smiled at him as he turned and put both arms around her, kneeling beside her in the shadow of the vines. "It's certainly what you are here for, and I am your partner, or I'm not much of a wife."

"Bless you, you darling; you surely are. And such a partner! If Leaver had one like you-he wouldn't be where he is. But he can't have you," he repeated, and held her closer. "I couldn't see you reading to him and walking with him, and being a friend to him,-I couldn't see it, that's all, no matter how much good you might do him. Queer-I didn't know that was in me-that feeling. Macauley calls me a Turk. I guess that's what I am. It's a primitive sort of instinct, scoffed at in these days when half the married women are playing with fire in the shape of other women's husbands. But I hate that sort of thing-have always hated it. I'm a Turk, all right. Do you mind?"

"No, I don't think I mind," she answered softly. "But I want your perfect trust, Red."

"You have it, oh, you have it, love. No possible question of that. And I don't mean that I'm not willing to have Leaver get what he can of your dearness, as he's bound to feel it, in our home. But this comrade business, which I feel he's so much in need of,-that's what he can't have from you. And if he stayed on, and there was no other woman about, why, quite naturally-"

He stopped. Then, as she was silent, "You won't misunderstand me, little wife?" he begged. "I've seen so much of the other thing, you know. Can I be-enough for you?"

"Quite enough, Red."

After a minute he went back to the thing which absorbed him. "I can see you haven't much confidence in my plan for Amy's helping him?"

She hesitated. "You spoke just now of playing with fire. You don't feel that in throwing two people so closely together you are risking something?"

He considered it. "My idea is that Amy will administer her comradeship as she would her medicines. She is the most conscientious girl alive; she won't give him a drop too much."

"Not a drop too much for his good, perhaps. But what about hers, dear? When he is himself Dr. Leaver can be a wonderfully interesting and compelling man, you know. It would be a pity for her to grow to care for him, if-I don't suppose it is at all possible to expect him to care seriously for her,-do you?"

"Well, I shouldn't have said so a month ago. But I'm just beginning to realize a new side to Amy Mathewson. I don't suppose I ever saw her-to look at her-out of her uniform, before that night when you dressed her up. By George, along with the clothes she seemed to put on a new skin!"

"Uniforms are disguising things," Ellen admitted, "and Amy is a lady, born and bred, in her uniform and out of it. But it's not much use speculating on what will happen, when the arrangements are already made. We must just do our best for Dr. Leaver, and hope that no harm will come to either of them."

"None will-under your roof," her husband asserted confidently.

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