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Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 21213

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"A walk, Miss Mathewson? Yes, I'll take a walk-or a pill-or whatever is due. Did you ever have a more obedient patient?"

John Leaver rose slowly from the steamer-chair in a corner of the porch where he had been lying, staring idly at the vines which sheltered him from the village street, or out at the strip of lawn upon which the early evening light was falling. His tall figure straightened itself; evidently it cost him an effort to force his shoulders into their naturally erect carriage. But as he walked down the path by Miss Mathewson's side there was not much look of the invalid about him. His face, though still rather thin, showed a healthy colour, the result of constant exposure to the sun and air. His days were spent wholly out of doors.

"Which way, this time?" Amy asked, as they reached the street.

"Away from things rather than toward them, please. I shall be very glad when I can tramp off into the open country."

Amy glanced across the street. "Don't you want to approach a visit to the country by exploring the old garden, over there? I hear that it has all sorts of treasures of old-fashioned flowers in it. Do you care for old gardens?"

"Very much, though it is a long time since I've been in one."

"Have you heard that the old house over here is to have a new tenant?"

"No, I haven't heard."

Leaver opened the gate in the hedge for his companion, looking as if the least interesting thing in the world to him were the matter of tenants for the little old cottage before him. But his tone was, as always, courteously interested.

"I was so sorry, the other day, that it happened you didn't meet Mrs. Burns's friend, such an interesting young woman. She is coming here to open a photographic studio in this old house-as an experiment."

"A professional photographer?"

"I believe not-as yet. She would still call herself an amateur, but from the pictures she showed us she would seem an expert. I never saw anything like them. Dr. Burns-he had never met her-was very much taken with them, especially with one of the little old lady, her grandmother, whom she is to bring here."

They strolled along the moss-grown path, past the house, aside into the garden, its tangle of flowers and shrubbery rich with neglected bloom and sweet with all manner of scents-sweet-william, larkspur, clove-pink. Leaver, stooping, picked a spicy-smelling, fringe-bordered pink, and sniffed its sun-warmed fragrance.

"It takes me back to my boyhood," he said, "when I used to think a visit at my grandfather's old country place the greatest thing that could happen to me. There was a big bed of these flowers under my window. When the sun was hot upon them they rivalled the spices of Araby."

Miss Mathewson stood looking back at the house. From the garden, which lay at the side and behind it, it showed all of its forlornness and few of its possibilities.

"What will she make of living there, even for the year she means to stay?" she wondered, aloud. "Now, if it were I, it wouldn't seem strange; I am used to living in a little old house. But such a girl as Miss Ruston-I can hardly imagine her here. She thinks the house and the old garden will make fine backgrounds for her work. I suppose they will."

"Miss Ruston?" Dr. Leaver repeated. "Was that the name?"

"Miss Charlotte Ruston, of South Carolina, I believe. I never heard the name before, have you?"

"It is an unusual one. I have known only one person of that name." Leaver walked slowly over to a decayed and tumbling bench beneath an apple-tree, whose boughs had been so long untrimmed that they spread almost to the earth. He sat down upon it, rather heavily, and lifted the clove-pink to his nostrils again. His dark brows contracted slightly. He looked at the house. "It will have to have a good deal done to it before it is fit for any one," he observed. "You said there was an old lady to come, too?"

"A most beautiful little old lady, whom Miss Ruston seemed to be very anxious over, lest she suffer any harm. Dr. Burns, when he heard of it, insisted on coming over here to make sure the house could be made perfectly dry and comfortable for her."

"He was right. Little old ladies must be taken care of, and young women are apt to think any place that is picturesque is safe."

Miss Mathewson, seeing him apparently more interested in the subject than he was apt to be in the topics she brought up to amuse him, except as he assumed interest for her sake, went on with this one, and told him all she knew about Miss Ruston's plans, ending with a description of the photographs she had shown.

"But I should like to see one of herself," she added. "She has such a-brilliant face. I can't think of any other word to describe it! When she looks at you she looks as if she-cared so much to see what you were like!" She laughed at her own attempt to make her description clear. "Not as if she were curious, you know, but as if she were interested-attracted. Can you imagine the expression?"

Leaver leaned his head back against the apple-tree trunk, and closed his eyes. The spice-pink, still held at his nostrils, shielded his lips. He looked rather white, his nurse noticed, but she had become accustomed to seeing these moments come upon him-they passed away again, and Dr. Burns had said that no notice need be taken of them unless they were long in passing. In spite of his pallor, he spoke naturally enough.

"Yes, I have seen such a face. But many women-Southern women, especially-have that look of being absorbed in what one is saying; it is a pretty trick of theirs. Won't you sit down, too, on this old bench? It is so warm yet, we may as well rest a little and walk when it is dusk and cooler."

She sat down beside him, a pleasant picture to look at in her white lawn in which, at Ellen's suggestion, she now made of herself, in the afternoons, a figure less severe than in her uniform. She had even added a touch of turquoise to the chaste whiteness of the dress, a colour which brought out the beauty of her deep blue eyes and fair cheeks and even lent warmth to the pale hues of her hair.

"If you want to sit here, Dr. Leaver, I might run across and bring the book we are reading. Would you like to hear a chapter?"

"Thank you, not to-night. It's a great book, and stirs the blood with its attempt to tell the story of a war whose real story can never be told by any one, no matter what skill the historian brings to the telling. But I'm not in the mood for it to-night. I wonder if, instead, you won't tell me a bit about yourself. You've never said a word about the work you do with my friend, Dr. Burns. Do you like it?"

She hesitated. Was this a safe subject, she wondered, for a surgeon who, she understood, had broken down from overwork? But the question had been asked.

"Very much," she answered, quietly. "One could hardly help liking work under Dr. Burns."

"Why? Do you think him a fine operator?"

"Very fine. He is considered the best in the city, now, I believe, even though his office is out here in the village. Of course it is not a great city, but his reputation extends out into the towns around."

"He is an enthusiast in his profession, I know. And you are one in yours, I see."

"Do you see it, Dr. Leaver? I thought I spoke quite moderately."

"So moderately that I recognized the restraint. You assist Dr. Burns whenever he operates?"

"Yes-if I am free."

"He can't have been doing much lately, then."

She glanced at him. He was still leaning back against the apple-tree trunk, but his eyes were open and regarding her rather closely. They were eyes whose powers of discernment, as Burns had said, one could not hope easily to elude.

"He is so interested in your recovery, Dr. Leaver, that he is willing, anxious, to spare me. There are other capable assistants, plenty of them."

"But none trained to his hand, as you are trained."

In spite of herself, the quick colour rose in a wave and bathed her face in its tell-tale glow. He smiled.

"I see. It's worth everything to an operator to have a right-hand man-or woman-like that. One doesn't often find a woman capable of taking the part, but, when one is, she is like a second brain to the operator. Well, I'll soon release you. I don't need to be coddled now, though it's very pleasant. I shall remember these walks and talks and hours with books. If one must be disabled, it's much to be looked after by one who seems a friend."

"But-Dr Leaver!-" She spoke in some alarm. "You mustn't talk of dismissing me like this-unless you are dissatisfied with me. I know Dr. Burns is taking great satisfaction in having me give my time to you. If I am helping you at all-"

"You are. But-I must help myself.... Never mind." He closed his eyes again. "Tell me about yourself-as Dr. Burns's assistant. Do you enjoy making things ready for him?"

She saw that he would have it, so she answered. "Yes, I suppose I take pride in having everything as he will want it. I know quite well what he wants, by this time."

"Yes. And he can depend on you. When the time comes for the start, you have yourself well in hand? No quick pulse-short breath?"

"Why, it would not be possible, I suppose, to be so self-controlled as that. Even Dr. Burns is not. He has told me, more than once, that his heart is pounding like an engine when he goes into an operation, or when he faces an unexpected emergency, in the course of it."

"Ah!... But it doesn't affect his work-or yours-this racing of the engine?"

"One forgets it, I think, when one is once at work. Dr. Leaver, look at that squirrel! Out on the roof of the house-at the back. Do you see him peering over at us? Inquisitive little creature!"

"Like myself. Yes, I see his small majesty. Well, tell me, please, why you like the work so much? You wouldn't give it up?"

She drew a quick breath. "Oh, no!"

"And the reason why you like it-am I too curious? Do you mind telling me?"

"Why, not at all. I can-hardly tell you, though, what it is that makes me like it. Of course, I'm happy to have a hand, even though it's only an assistant's hand, in saving life. But-the life isn't always saved. I suppose, the real secret of it is one likes to be doing the thing one can do best."

"That's it!" He drew a heavy breath. "The thing one can do best. And when that thing is the setting poor, disabled human machinery straight-making it run smoothly again! One can hardly imagine turning one's hand to-book-binding, making things in brass, dressing dolls, to take up one's time, occupy one's m

ind, keep one's hands busy, after having known the practice of a profession like that!"

He got up from the bench and strode a few paces with a quick, impatient step, such as she had never seen him take. Then, wheeling suddenly, he came back to the bench and dropped upon it, breathing short. She had instantly to his support a small bottle of strong salts which she always carried, but for a moment she feared that this might not be stimulant enough to a heart still inclined to be erratic upon small provocation. She laid anxious fingers upon his pulse, but found it already steadying.

"This will be over in a minute," she said quietly. "Soon, you will have got above such bothersome minutes. I shouldn't have let you talk about a thing which means so much to you."

"No, I can't even talk about it," he said. "I'm as much of an infernal hypochondriac as that. I beg your pardon-" and he set his lips.

They sat in silence for a little. Then, suddenly a voice hailed them-a cheerful, familiar voice.

"'Under the spreading chestnut-tree?' Or is it an apple? May I join the party?"

Redfield Pepper Burns appeared, looking like a schoolboy lately released from imprisonment. But his face sobered somewhat as his eye fell upon his friend. It was not that John Leaver had not looked up with a smile, as Burns approached, nor was it that he now showed physical distress of any significant sort. A certain hard expression of the deep-set eye told the story to one who could read signs.

"There's a caller for you at the house, Miss Mathewson," said Burns.

As she went away he dropped down upon the grass near Leaver. "It's at least five degrees cooler under this tree," said he, "than in any outdoor spot I've found yet."

"Work must have been trying to-day."

"Rather. But so much worse for my patients that I haven't thought much about it for myself. At two places I had the satisfaction of personally seeing to the moving of the invalid from a little six-by-nine inferno of a bedroom to a big and airy sitting-room. It gave me the keenest pleasure to see it hurt the tidy housewife, who didn't want her best room mussed up." He chuckled. "In one case I made her take down the stuffy lace window-curtains and open things up in great shape. She came near having a convulsion on the spot. Curious how a certain type of mind regards any little innovation like that. That woman would have let her unlucky husband smother to death in that oven before it would have occurred to her to move him out of it."

"I rather wonder at your continuing to practise in a village like this, with that sort of people, when you have so much city work, and could do a large business with a city office."

Burns stretched out an arm, thrusting his hand deep into the long grass. "That sort-narrow-minded people-aren't all found in the country, though-not by a long shot. I've sometimes thought I'd take an office in town, but, when it comes to making the move, I can't bring myself to it. You see, I happen to like it out here, and I like the village work. This way I get both sorts. I don't know why one's ambition should be all for city work. The people out here need me just as much as those where the streets are paved. There's a heap more fresh air and sunshine and liberty here than in town. And, as for being busy, there are only twenty-four hours in the day, anywhere."

"And you fill the most of those full. So you do. Yet, I should think your love for surgery would lead you to take up an exclusive surgical practice. You could make a name. You have a good-sized reputation already, with your ability you could make it a great one."

Burns looked at Leaver. The two men regarded each other with a sudden fresh interest, a sudden wonder as to the operation of each other's minds. The man on the bench, broken down by just such a life as he recommended to his friend, looked at the man on the grass, unworn and vigorous, and questioned whether, with all his virtues, Burns were really possessed of the proper ambition. The man on the grass, aware of large interests in his busy life, looked at the man on the bench, whose interests were at present wholly concerned with recovering his health, and wondered what insanity it was which bound his fellow mortal's brain that he could not see things in their right values. There was a long minute's silence. Then Burns, lying at full length upon his side in the warm grass, his head propped upon his elbow, began, in a thoughtful tone:

"Ever since a period early in our acquaintance my wife and I have had a vision before us. It was one that, curiously enough, we both had separately first, and then discovered, by accident, that it was mutual. The time has come when we are to carry it out. My wife has bought an old place, in the real country, three miles out on a road that turns off from the main road to the city. She is going to fit it up for a hospital for crippled children, curables, mostly, though her heart may lead her into keeping a few of the other sort, if there is no other home for them to go to. I'm to have the distinguished honour of being surgeon to the place."

He made this final announcement in the tone in which he might have made it if it had been that of an appointment to the greatest position the country could have given him.

"Well," said Leaver, after a moment, his weary eyes still studying Burns's face, "that is a fine thing for you two to do. I can see that such an interest might well hold a man away from an ordinary city practice. There is no children's hospital near here, then?"

"None at all. Children's wards, of course, but nothing like what ought to be. Of course we can't take care of the surplus. It will be only special cases, here and there, that we shall try to handle. But I'm meeting with those every day-cases where the country air and the country fare are almost as much a part of the cure as the surgical interference. My word! but it will be a satisfaction to bundle the poor little chaps off to our farm!"

His eyes were very bright. He lay smiling to himself for a minute, then he sat up.

"In a month," said he, "we shall be ready for business. I have four little patients waiting now for the place. On three of them I'm going to operate at once. On the fourth-you are."

Again the two pairs of eyes met-hazel eyes confident and determined, brown eyes startled, stabbed with sudden pain. Burns held up his hand.

"Don't say a word," he commanded. "I'm merely making an assertion. I'm willing to back it up by argument, if you like, though I'd rather not. In fact, I'd much rather not. I prefer simply to make the assertion, and let it sink in."

But Leaver would speak. "You forget," he said, bitterly, "that I've put all that behind me. I told you I should never operate again. I meant it."

"Yes, you meant it," said Burns comfortably. "A man means it when he swears he'll never do again something that has become second nature to him to do. He'll do it-he's made that way. You will do this thing, and do it with all your old grip and skill. But I'm not going to discuss it with you. Some day, if you are good, I'll describe the case to you. It's one you can handle better than I, and it's going to be up to you."

He got to his feet, ignoring the slow shaking of Leaver's downbent head. "By the way," he said, with a glance at the cottage, now a mere blur in the oncoming twilight, "have you heard of the young photographer who is to sweep down upon us and make wonderful, dream-like images of us all, for good hard cash and fame? A friend of my wife's: a girl who looks twenty-five, but is a bit more, I am told. A remarkably good-looking, not to say fascinating, person with a grandmother still more fascinating-at least to me. They are to come as soon as this rookery can be made habitable."

"Miss Mathewson spoke of it. It will be an interesting event to the village, I should suppose. But I shall not be among the victims of the lady's art. I may as well tell you, Red-I must get away next week."

Burns wheeled upon him. "What's that you say?"

The other proceeded with evident effort, laying his head back against the tree-trunk again. "I am as grateful to you and Mrs. Burns as a man can possibly be, so grateful that I can't put it into words-"

"Don't try. Go on to something more important."

"I have trespassed on your hospitality-"

"Don't use hackneyed phrases like that. Say something original."

-"as long as I can be willing to do it. I am as much improved as I can expect to be-for a long time. I can't hang on, a useless invalid on your hands-"

"Cut it, old man! You're not an invalid, and you're not useless. You're giving me one of the most interesting studies I've engaged in in a long time. I'm liable to write a book on you, when I get sufficient data."

Leaver smiled faintly. "Nevertheless, I can't do it, Red. You wouldn't do it in my place. Be honest-would you?"

"Probably not. I'd be just pig-headed fool enough to argue the case to myself precisely as you are doing. Well, Jack, I've expected this hour. It's a pity there isn't more faith and trust in friendship in the world. We're all deadly afraid of trying our friends too far, so after just about so long we strike out for ourselves. But since it is as it is, and you're growing restless, I'll agree that you leave us, if you'll stay for a while where you'll be under my observation. I've set my heart on making a complete cure in this case-or, rather, you understand, assisting Nature to do so. If you go off somewhere I shall lose track of you. Suppose you stay in the village here for a while longer. I know a splendid place for you, just round the corner. Quiet, pleasant home, middle-aged widow and her young son-a lady, and a sensible, cheerful one-she'll never bore you by talk unless you feel like it-and then the talk will be worth while. What do you say? You know perfectly well that you're not yet quite fit to shift for yourself. Be rational, and let me manage things for you a while longer."

Leaver stood up; in the dim light Burns could not see his face. But he heard his voice-one which showed tension.

"You don't know what you're asking, old friend. There are reasons why I feel like getting away, entirely apart from any conditions under your control. Yet since you ask it of me, and I owe you so much, and since-I suppose it doesn't really make much difference where I am-I'll stay for the present."

"Good! I'm much obliged, Jack."

Burns got up, also, and the two strolled away together, in the pleasant summer dusk.

* * *

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