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   Chapter 7 POINTS OF VIEW

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 24634

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"A lady downstairs to see you, Mrs. Burns." Cynthia presented a card.

It was early morning. Ellen had just seen her husband off in the Green Imp, and was busy at various housewifely tasks. She took the card in some surprise, for morning calls were not much in vogue in this small town. But when she read the name-"Miss Ruston"-she gave a little cry of delight, and ran downstairs as one goes to welcome a long absent friend.

A graceful figure, radiant with health and good looks, dressed in the trimmest and simplest of travelling attire, yet with a gay and saucy air about her somewhere, quite difficult to locate, rose as Ellen came in. Dark eyes flashed, lips smiled happily, and a pair of arms opened wide. Ellen found herself caught and held in a warm embrace, which she returned with a corresponding ardour.

"Why, Charlotte, dear!" she cried. "Where did you come from? And why didn't you let me know?"

"Straight from home, Len, darling. And I didn't let you know because I didn't know myself till I was here. Oh, do let me look at you! How dear, how dear you are! I had almost forgotten anybody could be so lovely."

"That sounds like you, you enthusiastic person. How glad I am to see you-it seems so long. I hope you have come to make me a visit, now you are here."

"Just a wee one, for a day, while I make plans at express speed, and fly back again to grandmother. I left her in Baltimore."

"Really? Did you bring her 'way up from Charleston? Then she must be pretty well?"

"Very well, if, like a piece of old china, I keep her quiet on the top shelf. Baltimore is the bottom shelf, for her, even though she's with the Priedieus, who will take the kindest care of her. Hence my haste. Oh, I can't wait a minute till I tell you my plans. Let me splash my dusty face and I'll plunge in. I want your advice, your interest, and your-cooperation!"

"You shall have them all, my dearest girl. Come upstairs," and Ellen led the way, Miss Ruston following with a small travelling bag of which she would not give her hostess possession.

"What a dear house!" The guest was throwing rapid glances all about her as she mounted the stairs. "I should have known that living-room was yours if I hadn't had your Aunt Lucy's famous old desk to give me a clue. O, Len, the very back of you is enchanting!"

Ellen turned to laugh at Charlotte Ruston's characteristic fervour of expression. "I remember you are always admiring people's backs," she observed.

"Yes, they're often so much more interesting than their faces. But yours-merely gives promise of what the face fulfills! Forgive me, Len,-you know when I haven't seen you for ages I have to tell you what I think of you. In here? Oh, what an adorable room!"

It was Ellen's own. She was thinking rapidly. Dr. John Leaver occupied one of her two guest-rooms, Amy Mathewson the other. She should have to turn Bob out of the bachelor's room, and send him down to stay with Cynthia. But Miss Ruston put an end to her planning at once by adding:

"I can't even sleep under your roof, Len, for I've engaged my berth on the sleeper to-night. I'm always in such anxiety about Granny when I get her away from her quiet corner. Now let me make myself clean with all haste, that I may not lose a minute of this happy day with you."

She was as good as her word, and in five minutes was looking as fresh as the fortunate possessor of much rich and youthful bloom can be at a touch of soap and water. She gave her hostess a second embrace, laying a cheek like a June rose against Ellen's more delicately tinted cheek, and murmuring:

"I never can tell you how I have missed you since that all-conquering husband of yours brought you off up North. By the way, is that his photograph?"

She was looking over Ellen's shoulder at a picture in an ivory-and-silver frame upon the dressing-table. She answered her own question.

"Of course it is. I'd know by the look of him that he must be Red Pepper Burns." She went over and examined the pictured face closely. "I could make a better picture of him than that,-I know it without seeing him in the flesh. What a splendid pair of eyes! Do they look right down into your inmost thoughts-or do they see only as far as your liver? Fine head, good mouth, straight nose, chin like a stone wall! Goodness! do you never meet up with that chin?"

She looked around at Ellen with mischief in her bright brown eyes.

"Of course I do! Would you have a man chinless?"

"Luckily, you have a determined little round chin of your own," Miss Ruston observed. "And you're happy with him? Yes, I can see it in your face. Well, now, shall we talk about me? Because I have so little time, you know, and so much has to be settled before night."

"Tell me all about it at once, dear." And Ellen established her guest in a high-backed, cushioned wicker chair by the window, and sat down close by. The two looked at each other, smiling.

"Well, Len, I never could lead up to a thing; I have to tell it in one burst, and trust to Providence to sustain the hearer. What would you say-to-my coming to this place for a year, renting a cottage, putting in a skylight, and-practising my profession of photography in your midst?"

"Charlotte Ruston!"

"My middle name is Chase," observed Miss Ruston, laying her head back against the chair, and smiling out at Mrs. Burns through half-closed lids. "Charlotte Chase Ruston forms a quite imposing signature to imprint upon the distinguished portraits she is to make. Portraits of the aristocracy who can afford to pay ever so many dollars a dozen for likenesses of themselves in exquisite, informal poses, with wonderful shadows just where they will hide the most defects, and splendid high lights where they will bring out all the charm the subjects didn't know they possessed."

"Charlotte! Have you been studying in secret? I know you do delightful amateur work, but-a studio! Do you dare?"

"I've worked a year in the developing room of the Misses Kendall, and have been allowed to make trial studies of subjects, when they were busy. I have their friendship, also that of Brant-Eugene Brant-who does the cleverest professionally amateur studio work in the world, according to my humble opinion. And the Kendalls do the finest garden and outdoor studies, as you know. Could I have better training? Mr. Brant thinks me fit to start a city studio-a modest one-but the Misses Kendall advise a year in a small town, just working for experience and perfection. Then when I do begin in a bigger place I'll be ready to do work of real distinction. Come, tell me, isn't it a beautiful plan?"

"Any plan, which brings you to live near me, is a beautiful plan. And you've really chosen this little town? How did you come to do it?"

"Tales of the beauty of the region, and the reflection that, since one small town in it was probably as good as another, there was no reason why I shouldn't be near one of my dearest friends, and have, frankly, the help of her patronage. Shall you mind giving it to me?"

"I'll bring you a dozen subjects the first day. I suppose you haven't looked about at all as yet for the place?"

"I shall not need to, if you won't object to having me close by, even so near as across the road. As I stood on your doorstep I saw my future studio spring, full-fledged, into view, with a 'To rent' notice already up. Could I have a plainer sign that my good fairy is attending my footsteps?"

Miss Ruston leaned forward to the window as she spoke, drew aside the thin curtain which swayed there in the summer breeze, and pointed across the street. "Isn't there a little old cottage, back in there somewhere, in a tangle of old-fashioned flowers? It doesn't show from here, I see, but from below I caught just a glimpse of its unimposing dimensions. The sign is on the gate, in the hedge. It's simply perfect that the place should have a hedge!"

"Evidently you didn't inspect it very closely, Charlotte dear. It's a most forlorn little old place, and much run down. Two old ladies have lived there all their lives, and have died there within the year. They would never sell, although, as you see, the neighbourhood all about is built up with modern houses-all except our own. This house is quite old, I believe, too."

"Two old ladies lived and died there, did they?" mused Charlotte Ruston. "Their gentle ghosts won't trouble us, and Granny will delight in that garden. What a background for an outdoor studio! Do let's go over and explore the place, will you?"

As they crossed the street the newcomer was using her eyes with eager observation. "It's a fine old street," she said, "with all these beautiful trees. What a pity it is mostly so modern in the matter of architecture! I wonder if the people in those houses will think me out of my head, to begin with, because I choose this quaint little dwelling-place. I shall choose it, Len, if I can get it, I warn you."

With some difficulty they opened the gate in the hedge, and proceeded up the path of moss-grown stones to the house, set so far back from the street that it was nearly concealed by the growth of untrimmed shrubbery, old rose-bushes heavy with pink and white roses, lilac trees, and barberry-bushes.

"Of all the dear, queer, little front porches!" Miss Ruston cried, setting her exploring foot on a porch floor which promptly sagged beneath her weight. She threw a quizzical glance at her companion. "Even though the roof falls in on my head, and the walls sway as I pass by, I must have this house-if it is dry! Of course I can't bring Granny to a damp house. Putting in my skylight and shingling the rest of the roof will take care of dampness from above, but I must look after the floors and foundations. Who owns it, and how can we get in?"

An hour later the key had been obtained from the astonished owner, an inhabitant of one of the modern houses near by and a nephew of the former occupants, and the place had been thoroughly gone over. It was examined by a future tenant who made light of all the real drawbacks to the place-as the owner secretly considered them-but who demanded absolutely water-tight conditions as the price of her rent. As she was willing to pay what seemed to the landlord an extraordinary rent-though he carefully concealed his feelings on this point-he somewhat grudgingly agreed to put in the skylight and shingle the roof.

"But when it comes to paint and paper and plumbing, the house isn't worth it, and I can't agree to do it," he declared positively. "Not for any one year rental."

"I don't want paint, paper, or plumbing," she replied, and he set her down as eccentric indeed. "But I do want that fireplace unsealed, and if you will put that and the chimney in order, so I can have fires there, I won't ask for any modern conveniences. When can you have it ready for me? By the middle of July?"

He did not think this possible, but his new tenant convinced him that it was, and went away smiling, her hands full of June roses, and her spirits high. It was with her vivid personality at its best that she presently took her place at the luncheon table, meeting there, however, at first, only Miss Mathewson.

"My patient has fallen asleep after his walk," Amy explained to Mrs. Burns, as she came in. "I thought he had better not be wakened."

"You were quite right, I am sure," Ellen agreed. Then she made the two young women known to each other, and the three sat down. R.P. Burns, M.D., rushing in the midst of the meal, found them laughing merrily together over a tale the guest had been telling.

As Burns came forward Miss Ruston rose to meet him. The two regarded each other with undisguised interest as they shook hands.

"Yes, I can make a much better photograph of you than the one on your wife's dressing-table," said she, judicially, and laughed at his astonished expression.

"Can you, indeed?" he inquired. "Have you a snapshot camera concealed anywhere about you? If so, I'll consider going back to town for my luncheon."

"You are safe for to-day," Ellen assured him, and he sat down.

He was told the tale of the morning, the subject introduced by his wife, and amplified by their guest. He expressed his interest.

"You have a good courage, Miss Ruston," said he. "And we'l

l agree to stand by you. Any time, in the middle of the night, that we hear the crash and fall of decayed old timbers, we'll come to the rescue and pull you out. We don't have much excitement here. The wreck will have the advantage of advertising you thoroughly. Then you can build a tight little bungalow on the spot and settle down to real business."

Miss Ruston shook her shapely head. "No tight little bungalows for me," she averred. "Those vine-clad old walls will make wonderful backgrounds for my outdoor subjects-they and the garden. Then, indoors-the fireplace, the queer old doors-"

Red Pepper looked at his wife. "Has the village a passion for quaintness?" he asked her. "Will our leading citizens want to be photographed in their old hoopskirts, with roses behind their ears?"

"Oh, you don't understand!" cried Miss Ruston. "Ellen-will you excuse me while I run up and bring down an example or two of my work?"

She was back in a minute, several prints in her hand. She came around behind Burns's chair and laid one before him, another before Amy Mathewson. Ellen, who had already seen the prints, watched her husband's face as he examined the photograph.

"You don't intend me to understand," said he, after a minute's steady scrutiny, "that this is a photograph of actual children?"

Miss Ruston nodded. Her face glowed with enthusiasm over her work. "Indeed it is. Flesh and blood children-Rupert and Rodney Trumbull. And it's really the night before Christmas, too. They were not acting the part-it was the real thing."

Burns continued to study the picture-of two small boys in their night-clothes, standing before a chimney-piece, looking up at their stockings, at that last wondering, enchanted moment before they should lay hands upon the mysteries before them. The glow of the firelight was upon them, the shadows behind held the small sturdy figures in an exquisitely soft embrace. It was such a photograph as combines the workings of the most delicate art with the unconscious posing of absolute realism.

Burns looked from the picture to his wife's face. "We must have one of Bobby like that," said he.

Ellen agreed, her eyes meeting her friend's over his head. The guest laid another print before him. "Since you like fireplace effects," she explained. Then she gave the Christmas-eve picture to Miss Mathewson, smiling as Amy, returning the print she had been studying, said softly, "It is wonderful work, Miss Ruston. I shall want one of my mother like this."

"You shall have it," Miss Ruston promised.

Burns exclaimed with pleasure over the presentment of a little old lady, knitting before a fire, a faint smile on her face, as if she were thinking of lovely things as she worked. As in the other picture the shadows were soft and hazy, only the surfaces touched by the fireglow showing with distinctness, the whole effect almost illusive, yet giving more of the human touch than any clear and distinct details could possibly have done.

"That is Granny," said Miss Ruston, a gentle note in her eager voice. "My little piece of priceless porcelain which I guard with all the defences at my command. Tell me, Dr. Burns, I shall not be bringing her into any danger if I put her in the little old house, when it is made right?"

"If you are thinking of bringing this old lady here," said he, emphatically, his eyes on the picture again, "you must let me look the place over thoroughly for you first."

"But I've engaged it!" cried his wife's friend, in dismay.

"That doesn't matter. You will call it all off again, if I don't find the place can be made fit," said he. "Old ladies like this shall not be risked in doubtful places, no matter how quaint and artistic the background, not while I am on hand to prevent."

Miss Ruston looked at Mrs. Burns. "Is this what he is like?" said she, in dismay. "I didn't reckon with him!"

"You will have to reckon with me now," said Red Pepper Burns, with coolness.

"But the owner says it can be made perfectly tight. And I have to go back to-night!"

"The owner of a sieve would say it could be made perfectly tight-if it was wanted for a dishpan. And you are at liberty to go back to-night-much as we shall dislike to lose you. I will take time to go over, right now, and make sure of this thing for you."

He rose as he spoke.

"Well, of all the positive gentlemen! Will you stay to look at one more? It may soften that austere mood."

Miss Ruston gave him a third print. It was of a very beautiful woman standing beside a window, the attitude apparently unstudied, the lighting unusual and picturesque, the whole effect challenging all conventional laws of photography.

"It's very nice-very nice," said Burns, indifferently. "But it's not in it with the old lady by the fire. I'll run across and make sure of her quarters, if you please."

"That will be wonderfully good of you," and the guest looked after her host, dubiously, as he went out.

"Does one have to do everything he says, in these parts?" she inquired, glancing from Mrs. Burns to Miss Mathewson, both of whom were smiling. Her own expression was an odd mixture of interest and rebellion.

Miss Mathewson spoke first. "I have been his surgical assistant for more than nine years," said she. "When I have ventured to depart from the line he laid out for me I have-been very sorry, afterward."

"Did you ever venture to depart very far?"

"Do I look so meek?"

"You don't look meek at all, but you do look-conscientious." Miss Ruston gave her a daring look.

Amy spoke with more spirit than the others had expected. "If I were not conscientious I couldn't work for Dr. Burns."

"He doesn't look conscientious, to me," declared Miss Ruston. "He looks adventurous, audacious, unexpected."

"Perhaps he is. But he doesn't expect his assistant nurse to be adventurous, audacious, or unexpected!"

"Good for you!" Miss Ruston was laughing, and looking with newly roused interest at this young woman, whom she had perhaps taken to be of a more commonplace type than her words now indicated. "As for my friend, Mrs. Burns-he is her husband, and she must have known what he was like, since I, in one short hour, have already discovered two or three of his characteristics! Well, here's hoping he's on my side, when he comes back. If he's not-"

But when he came back he was on her side, reluctantly convinced by a painstaking examination of the possibilities in the old cottage, and by a man-to-man talk with its owner as to his good faith in promising to carry out the lessee's requirements.

"Though what in the name of time possesses a stunning girl like that to come here and shut herself up in Aunt Selina's old rookery, I can't make out," the landlord, Burns's neighbour, had confessed.

"Possibly she won't shut herself up," Burns had suggested, though he himself had been unable to discover the mysterious attraction of the little old house. The garden promised better, he thought. He could understand her being caught by the forsaken though powerful charm of that. Doubtless it would furnish backgrounds for her outdoor photography, which would put to blush any painted screens such as the village photographers were accustomed to use.

He returned to give Miss Ruston his sanction of her project, and to receive her half-mocking, wholly grateful acknowledgment.

"And I hope, Dr. Burns," said she, as he took leave of her, his watch in his left hand as he shook hands with his right, "that you will let me make that photograph of you, at the very beginning of my stay here."

"With a clump of hollyhocks behind me, or a 'queer old door'?" he inquired.

"With nothing behind you except darkness and mystery," said she.

"I thought those were the things one looked toward, not out of?"

"Your patients looking toward 'the black unknown,' and seeing your face, must find their future lighted with hope!"

He turned and looked at his wife, a sparkle in his eye. "She's from the big town," said he. "Here in the country we don't know how to give fine, fascinating blarney like that, eh? Good-bye, Miss Ruston, and good luck. Bring the little grandmother carefully wrapped in jeweller's cotton-nothing is too good for her!"

When luncheon was over Mrs. Burns and her guest went off for a long drive, Miss Ruston being anxious to explore the region of which she had heard as offering a field for her camera. The drive, taken in the Macauley car, by Martha's invitation, and in the company of Martha herself, Winifred Chester, and several children, prevented much confidential talk between the two friends, and it was not until a few minutes before train time, at five o'clock, that the two were for a brief space again alone together.

"I'm so sorry you are not to be here at dinner," Ellen said, as Miss Ruston repacked her small travelling bag, while the car waited outside to take her to the station. "I should have liked you to meet our guest, Dr. Leaver. He is an old friend of my husband's, who has been ill and is here convalescing. He over-tired himself in taking a walk this morning, and has been resting in his room all the afternoon."

Charlotte Ruston, adjusting a smart little veil before Ellen's mirror, her back to her friend, asked, after a moment's pause:

"Dr. Leaver? Not Dr. John Leaver, of Baltimore?"

"Yes, indeed. Do you know him?"

"I have met him. Is he ill? I hadn't heard of that."

"He has worked very hard, and is worn out," explained Ellen, choosing her terms carefully. Her husband had warned her against allowing any definite news concerning Leaver to get back to his home city. "He is improving, and we are keeping him here because it is a place where he can be out of the world, for a time, and not be called upon to go back before he should. So please don't mention to your Baltimore friends that he is here. I am ever so sorry, if you know him, that he wasn't down to-day. It might have done him good to see the face of an acquaintance."

"It might be too stimulating for him," suggested Miss Ruston. She seemed difficult to satisfy in the matter of the veil's adjustment. Though she had had it fastened, she now took it off and began again to arrange it.

"Can't I help you?" Ellen offered, coming close.

"Thank you, I can manage it. I had it too tight. I suppose your guest will be gone before I come back?"

"I don't know. He needs a long rest, and we shall keep him just as long as he can be contented. Not that he is contented to be idle, but it is what he needs. He is going to need diversion, too, and perhaps you can help supply it, when you come back. Do you know him well enough to know what an interesting man he is?"

"I have heard people talk about him who do," said Miss Ruston. "But I hope he will be quite recovered and away before I come back-for his own sake. There, I believe this veil's on, at last. What a terrible colour it gives one to drive in the sun all afternoon! I must put on plenty of cold cream to-night, or I shall be a fright to-morrow."

"Why, you are burned! I hadn't noticed it before. And the top was up, all the time, too. But it's very becoming, Charlotte, since it seems to have confined itself to your cheeks. One's nose is usually the worst sufferer."

"That will probably show later. I must be off. Thank you, dear-dearest-for all you have done for me to-day. It's been such a happy day, I can't tell you how I feel about it."

Charlotte Chase Ruston laid her burning, rose-hued cheek against her friend's-cool and quite unburned by the drive-embraced her, and hurried down the stairs. She seemed in haste to be off, but it was like her to be eager to do whatever was to be done. Ellen looked after her as the Macauley car bore her away.

"Dear Charlotte!" she said to herself. "It's like having a warm, invigorating wind sweep over one to have her company, even for a day. How I shall enjoy her, when she comes! Of all the young women I know she seems to me the most alive. I wish Dr. Leaver had been down to-day. He would surely have liked to see her; I never knew a man who didn't. If he has ever met her, he must remember her. But perhaps he will want to run away, if he knows any one who knows him has found him out. Perhaps it will be better not to tell him-just yet."

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