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   Chapter 10 A RUNAWAY ROAD

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 14516

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Camera hung by a strap over her shoulder, small tripod tucked under her arm, Charlotte Chase Ruston, photographer, turned aside from the country road along which she was walking, to follow a winding lane leading into a deep wood. The luring entrance to this lane had been beyond her power to resist, although the sun had climbed nearly to the zenith, warning her that it was time to turn her steps toward home. In her search for picturesque bits of landscape to turn to account in her work, her enthusiasm was likely at any time to lead her far afield.

Just as the lane promised to debouch into an open meadow and release its victim from any special sense of curiosity, it suddenly swerved to one side, forced its way under a pair of bars, and ran curving away into deep shadows, fringed with ferns, and overhung with the dense foliage of oak and walnut. A distant glimpse of brilliant scarlet flowers, standing like sentinels in uniform against the dark green of the undergrowth, beckoned like a hand. With a laugh Charlotte set her foot upon the bottom rail. "I'm coming," she called blithely to the scarlet flowers. "You needn't shout so loud at me."

Hurrying, because of the hour, she pulled her blue linen skirts over the fence, and dropped lightly upon the other side. She ran along the lane to the flowers, stopped to admire, but refused to pick them, telling them they were better where they were, and would droop before she could get them home. Then she went swiftly on around a bend in the cart-path, catching the faint sound of falling water, and impelled to seek its source, just as is every one at hearing that suggestive sound. And, of course, the water was farther away than it sounded.

A trifle short of breath, from her haste, she ran it down at last, and came upon it-a series of small waterfalls down which a small stream tumbled recklessly along a vagrant watercourse, seeming to care little when it reached its destination, so that it contrived to have plenty of fun and exercise by the way. And on the bank, stretched recumbent, hands clasped under head, lay a long figure in gray flannels, a straw hat and a book at its side.

Charlotte stopped short. The figure turned its head, sat up, and got rather quickly to its feet, pushing back a heavy, dark lock of hair which had fallen across a tanned forehead. Dr. John Leaver came forward.

"I'm so sorry I disturbed you," said Charlotte Ruston, finding words at last, after having been surprised out of speech by the sudden apparition, "I hope I didn't wake you from a nap."

"You haven't disturbed me, and I was not asleep. I'm only waiting for Dr. Burns, who may come now at any minute. This is a pleasant place to meet in, isn't it?"

Their hands met, each looked with swift, straight scrutiny into the face of the other, and then hands and eyes parted abruptly. When they regarded each other after that, it was as two casual acquaintances may exchange glances, in the course of conversation, when other things are of more interest than the personal relation.

"Indeed it is pleasant-charming! The path lured me on and on, I couldn't stop. I ought to be at home this minute. Did you walk so far? Mrs. Burns told me you were here, and that you had been ill. I was very sorry, and I'm now so glad to see you looking so well."

"Thank you. I am much myself again, but not yet quite equal to a walk of this distance. Dr. Burns and his car are just a few rods away, on the other side of this bit of woods. He has a patient in a little shack over there, and brought me along to see this spot. It was worth coming for."

"You must enjoy Dr. Burns very much."

"We are old friends, and being together again after a nine-years' separation, is a thing to make the most of."

"I should think so. He seems so alive, so full of interest in every living thing. He must be a fine comrade."

"The finest in the world. To me there is nobody like him, and most people who know him, I've noticed, feel in the same way. He has a beautiful wife. She is a friend of yours, she tells me."

"Also an old friend, and almost the dearest I have. I'm very happy to be near her. Dr. Leaver, will you tell me what time it is, please? I have a dreadful suspicion that I shall be very late."

As he drew out his watch a voice was heard from the other side of a clump of undergrowth, calling crisply:

"All right, Jack, we're off. One more call before luncheon, and it's blamed late, so get busy."

"In a minute," Leaver called back, smiling, as he showed Charlotte his watch's dial.

Red Pepper Burns looked over the bushes, discerning in his friend's tone an intention of delay, and inclined to be still more peremptory with him about it. Discovering now what looked like an interesting situation, he came forward, bareheaded, his frown of impatience turning to a smile of greeting.

"What luck, to find a dryad in the woods!" he cried. "Did this gentleman invade your domain?"

"Not at all. I invaded his most unexpectedly. I was following a lane, intending to turn back at any moment, when it ran away under a fence and treacherously led me into trouble."

"Call it trouble, do you, meeting your friends in the woods? That's always the way! Call a woman luck, and she calls you trouble! Let me tell you, Miss Charlotte, it's luck for you, meeting us, for we can give you a lift of a mile down the road. We have to turn off there, but you'll be less late for a luncheon that's probably already cold than you would be after walking the whole distance. You won't refuse? You mustn't, for I expect it's my only chance to get John Stone Leaver of Baltimore started. Otherwise he'll stand here till mid-afternoon, showing you his watch and pointing out to you the beauties of this noisy brook."

"Thank you, Dr. Burns, but you can't very well take me in a car built for two."

"Can't I? The car has frequently carried half a dozen, judiciously distributed over the running-boards, to the imminent peril of the tires and springs. We'll put Dr. Leaver on the running-board. It will hurt neither his clothes nor his dignity, and if it does he can get off and walk."

He led the way. If she could have done so Charlotte would gladly have turned and run away. But there are people from whom one cannot easily run away, and Red Pepper Burns was one of them. With all his powers of discernment, he had no possible notion that the two who followed him were not eager to accept this arrangement. They looked well together, too, he had observed as he neared them-exceedingly well. He was sure he was doing them a favour in keeping them together as long as possible.

In point of actual distance he certainly succeeded literally in keeping them extremely near together, during the few minutes it took to get out of a winding wood-road to the main highway, and to drive at a stimulating pace a mile down that road. When Leaver took his place upon the running-board he was unavoidably close to Charlotte's knee, and his head was within reach of her hand. His hand, grasping the only available hold with which to keep himself in place, as Burns let the car go at high speed, was close under her eyes.

Keeping his eyes upon the road, Burns, in a gay mood now, kept up a running

fire of talk, to which Charlotte, as became necessary, responded. Leaver, straw hat in hand, also stared straight ahead, and Charlotte, unobserved by either companion, looked at the head below her, its heavy, dark-brown hair ruffled by the wind of their progress, noted-not for the first time-the fine line of the partial profile, the shoulder in its gray flannel, the well-knit hand, tanned, like its owner's face, with much exposure. And, as she made these furtive observations, something within her breast, which she had thought well under control, became suddenly unmanageable.

"I'm sorry to desert you here, so ungallantly," Burns declared, bringing the car to a standstill at a cross-road. "If my friend here were quite fit I'd put him down, too, and give him the pleasure of walking in with you. In a week or two more I'll turn him loose. Looks pretty healthy, doesn't he?"

"I'm entirely able to walk in with Miss Ruston now," said Leaver, standing, hat in hand, in the road, as Charlotte adjusted her belongings and prepared to walk rapidly away.

"That's my affair, for a bit longer," and Burns put out a peremptory hand. "Be good and jump in. The lady will excuse you, and I won't, so there you are. Forgive me, Miss Ruston, and don't bring on heart failure by walking too fast in this August sun."

"I won't. Good-bye, and thank you both," and Charlotte set briskly off toward home, while the car swept round the turn and disappeared into a hollow of the road.

"That's what I call a particularly worth-while girl," commented Burns, as the Imp carried them away. "Beauty, and sense, and spirit, not to mention originality and a few other attributes. You don't often get them all combined. Good old family, according to my wife, but all gone now, and this girl left to make her way on her own resources. But perhaps you know all this already, since you've met her before?"

"I know the main facts?-yes," Leaver responded. His lips had taken on a curiously tight set, since the car had left the corner. His eyes, under their strongly marked brows, narrowed a little, as he looked out across a field of corn yellowing in the sunlight. "She has visited more or less in Baltimore, where she has been very much admired."

"Why 'has been'?" queried Burns. "She doesn't look like a 'has-been' to me. More like very much of a 'now-and-here'-eh?"

"I mean only that since she has been thrown upon her own resources she has applied herself closely to the study of photography, and has been little seen in society."

"I imagine when she was seen she kept a few fellows guessing. She looks to me as if she might have refused her full share of men."

"I have no doubt of it."

That which Burns would have enjoyed saying next he refrained from. But to himself he made the observation: "By the signs I haven't much doubt you were one of them, old man." Aloud he questioned innocently:

"You know her rather well?"

"Quite well."

"Your manner says 'Drop it,'" observed Burns, with a keen glance at a side-face clean-cut against the landscape. "I've encountered that manner before, and I'll take warning accordingly. This is a fine day, and it's rather an interesting case I'm going to see, up this road. If you care to come in I'll be glad of your opinion, but I won't insist on it."

"Unless you really wish it, I'll stay out, thank you."

Burns left his companion in the car, open book in hand. It was a book Red Pepper had strongly recommended, with the motive of stirring up his friend to interested resentment,-a particularly unfair and prejudiced discussion of a subject just then being torn to pieces by all manner of disputants, with the issue still very much in doubt. He knew precisely the place Leaver had reached in his reading, and noted, as he got out of the car, the page at which he was about to begin. The page was one easily recognizable, for it was one upon whose margin he himself had drawn, in a moment of intense irritation with the argument advanced thereon, a rough outline of a donkey's head with impossibly long and obstinate ears.

He left Leaver with eyes bent upon the page, not the semblance of a smile touching his grave mouth at sight of the really striking and effective cartoon which so ably expressed a former reader's sentiments. Burns went into the house making with himself a wager as to how far Leaver's perusal of the chapter would have progressed in the ten minutes which would suffice for the visit, and was divided whether to stake a page against a half-chapter, or to risk his friend's being aware of his observation and leaping through the chapter to its end.

When he came out the book was closed and lying upon Leaver's knee. Burns took his place and drove off, malice sparkling in his eye.

"What did you think of that chapter?" he inquired.

"Interesting argument, but weak in spots."

"Hm-m. Which spots?"

Leaver indicated them. There could be no doubt that he had read the chapter carefully to the end. Burns put him through a severe cross-examination, but he stood the test, much to his examiner's disgust. In detective work it is usually irritating to have one's theories disproved. But he still doubted the evidence of his ears. Either John Leaver was a colder blooded deceiver than he thought him, or his powers of concentration were more than ordinarily great, that he could turn from the contemplation of a subject like the one left at the cross-roads corner, a subject which Burns was pretty sure vitally concerned him, to a mere abstract discussion of a modern sociological problem, bare of practical illustration, and dealing purely with one man's notions not yet worked out to any constructive conclusion.

"Well," said Leaver, turning suddenly to look at Burns with a smile, "are you satisfied that I have read the chapter?"

Burns also turned, met his companion's eye, and broke into a laugh. "I shall have to admit you have," said he.

"Why should you have doubted it?"

"I haven't been gone long enough for you to have read and digested it."

Leaver looked at his watch. "You were gone seventeen minutes. That's long enough to take in the argument pretty thoroughly. As to digesting it-it's indigestible. Why try?"

"No use at all. But having given my mental machinery a lot of friction I enjoyed trying to stir yours up also to irritation and discontent. But I haven't done it. You've remained calm where I grew hot. Also you've proved your ability to change the subject of your thinking as you would switch off one electric current and switch on another. It shows you're a well man."

"I must warn you, as I have done at various times in our association: 'Don't jump to conclusions.' Your first one, that I hadn't read the chapter, was wrong. I had read it. Your second one, that, after all, I had read the chapter while you were in the house, was also wrong. I had read it by the side of the brook, an hour ago."

Burns's laughter spoke his enjoyment as heartily as if he were not the one cornered. But his amusement ended in triumph, after all, though to this he discreetly did not give voice. Since he had met Miss Charlotte Ruston in the woods Dr. John Leaver had not given himself to the study of any other man's ideas.

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