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   Chapter 12 A CHALLENGE

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 17539

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Miss Ruston!"

"Yes?" The answer came through the door of the dark-room. "I can't come out for four minutes. Can you give me the message through a closed door?"

"Certainly," responded Amy Mathewson, standing outside. She was dressed for motor travel and her eyes were full of anticipation. "Mr. Macauley is taking some of us out to meet Dr. Burns at Sunny Farm. The Doctor has telephoned from there that he would be very glad if you could come with us, bring your camera, and take some photographs of a patient for him."

"Delighted-if I can arrange for Granny," Charlotte called back.

"Mrs. Burns's Cynthia will stay with her."

"How soon must we start?"

"As soon as you can be ready."

"Give me ten minutes, and I'll be there."

The big brown car was waiting outside the hedge gate when, nearly as good as her word, Charlotte ran down the path. She had pulled a long linen coat over her blue morning dress, and a veil floated over her arm.

"Dear me, you all look so correct in your bonnets and caps! Must I tie up my head, or may I leave off the veil until my hair gets to looking wild?"

"It never looked wild yet that I can recall, so jump in and go as you please. It's too hot for caps, and I'll keep you company," responded Macauley, from the front seat. His wife, Martha, sat beside him, swathed in brown from head to foot. Martha had acquired a motoring costume which she considered matched the car and was particularly smart besides, and she seldom left off any detail, no matter how warm the day. Martha looked around as Charlotte took her place beside Miss Mathewson on the broad rear seat. The two swinging seats which equipped the car to carry seven passengers were occupied by Bobby Burns and young Tom Macauley.

"People who have hair like Miss Ruston can go bareheaded where the rest of us have to tie ourselves together to keep from blowing away," observed Martha.

Her husband laughed. "I never heard you own quite so frankly before that parts of you were detachable," said he.

"They're not!" cried Martha, indignantly. "But Miss Ruston's hair is that crisp, half curly sort that stays just where you put it, and mine is so straight and fine that it gets stringy. It makes all the difference in the world."

The car moved off. After a minute it turned a corner and came to a standstill before a house. Macauley sounded a penetrating horn, and after a minute the door opened and John Leaver came out.

"Come on, Doctor," called Macauley. "R.P. has been telephoning in, in the usual fever of haste, to have us get out there. It seems the place is in order and two patients have arrived. He wants a doctor, nurse, and photographer on the job at once. Find a place on the back seat, there?"

Leaver came quickly down the walk. He looked like a well man now, whether he felt like a well one or not. He had gained in weight, his face had lost its worn look, his eyes were no longer encompassed by shadows. The sun was in his eyes as he opened the rear door and prepared to take the one seat left in the car, that beside Charlotte Ruston, who had moved to one side as she saw what was about to happen. Her shoulder pressed close against that of Miss Mathewson, she left so large a space for the newcomer.

After the first exchange of small talk, it was a silent drive. Macauley was making haste to obey the summons he had received, and the rush of air past those in the car with him was not conducive to frequent speech. Soon after they were off Charlotte drew her big white veil over her head and face, and was lost to view beneath its protecting expanse. One of the veil's fluttering ends persisted in blowing across Leaver's breast, quite unnoticed by its owner, whose head did not often turn that way. The man did not put it aside, but after a time he took hold of it and kept it in his hand, secure from the domineering breeze.

"Here we are! Behold Sunny Farm, the dream of Doctor and Mrs. Red Pepper, given tangible shape. Not a bad-looking old rambling place, is it?"

Macauley brought his car to rest beside the long green roadster already there. Its occupants jumped out and strolled up the slope toward the white farmhouse, across whose front and wing stretched long porches, on one of which stood a steamer chair and a white iron bed, each holding a small form. Upon the step sat Ellen Burns and a nurse in a white uniform; by the bed stood Burns himself.

Miss Mathewson's observant eyes were taking veiled note of her recent charge as he went up the steps and approached the bed. The little patient upon it had not lifted his head, as had the child in the chair, to see who was at hand.

"Oh, the little pitiful face!" breathed Charlotte Ruston in Amy's ear, as she looked down into a pair of great black eyes, set in hollows so deep that they seemed the chiseling of merciless pain.

"This is Jamie Ferguson," said Burns, with his hand on the boy's head. "He is very happy to be here in the sunshine, so you are not to pity him. Come here, Bob, and tell Jamie you will play with him when he is stronger. He knows wonderful things, does Jamie. And this is Patsy Kelly, in the chair."

There was a pleasant little scene now enacted upon the porch, in which Bob and Tom were introduced to the small patients, and everybody looked on while shy advances were made by the well children, to be received with timid gravity by the sick ones. Through it all Red Pepper Burns was furtively observing the demeanour of Dr. John Leaver.

He had hardly taken his eyes from Jamie Ferguson. Into his face had come a look his friend had not seen there since he had been with him, the look of the expert professional man who sees before him a case which interests him. He stood and studied the child without speaking while Bob and Tom remained, and when the small boys, too full of activity to stay contentedly with other boys who could not play, were off to explore the place, Leaver drew up a chair and sat down beside the bed.

Burns glanced at his wife, and gave a significant nod of his head toward the interior of the house. Ellen rose.

"Come Martha, and Charlotte," said she, "and let me show you over the rooms. I'm so proud of the progress we have made in the fortnight since the house was vacated for us."

She led them inside. Amy Mathewson went over to the chair and Patsy Kelly, turning her back upon the pair by the bed.

"When did you come, Patsy?" she asked.

"We come the morn," said Patsy, a pale little fellow of nine, with a shock of hair so red that beside it that of Red Pepper Burns would have looked a subdued chestnut. "In the ambilunce we come. I liked the ride, but Jamie didn't. He was scared of bein' moved."

"Jamie is not so well as you. How fine it is that you can lie in this chair and have your head up. You can see all about. Isn't it beautiful here?"

"It is. I'm glad I come. He said I'd be glad, but I didn't believe him. I didn't know," said Patsy Kelly, with a sigh of satisfaction. "I had mate and pitaty for breakfast the morn," he added, and rapture shone out of his eyes.

By the side of Jamie Ferguson Dr. John Leaver was telling a story. He was apparently telling it to Dr. Burns, who listened with great interest, but at the same time shy Jamie Ferguson was listening too. There were curious points in the story when the narrator turned to the boy in the bed and inquired, smiling: "Could you do that, Jamie?" to which questions Jamie usually replied in the negative. They were mostly questions concerning backs and legs and hips, and the boy in the story seemed to find difficulty in using his, too, which made Jamie feel a strong interest in him. Altogether it was a fascinating tale. When it was over the two men walked away together down the slope, and between them passed other questions and answers, of a sort which Jamie could not have understood.

Down by the gate Leaver came to a pause, nodding his head in a thoughtful way. "You are quite right, I believe, both in your conclusions and in your plan for operation. I should go ahead without further delay than is necessary to get him into a bit better condition."

"I thought you would agree with me," Burns replied. "I'm gratified that you do. But I'm not going to operate. I've got a better man: Leaver, of Baltimore."

The other turned quickly. A strange look swept over his face.

"I told you my decision about that," he said.

"I know you did. But I told you some time ago about this case, and warned you that it was your case. I haven't changed my mind."

Leaver shook his head. "I haven't changed mine, either. But I didn't know this was the case you meant. If I had I shouldn't have gone to examining it without an invitation."

"You had an invitation. That was w

hat I got you out here this morning for. I didn't bring you myself because I didn't want you steeling yourself against looking into it, as you would if I had told you about it on the way out. My plan worked all right. The minute you saw the child your instincts and training got the better of your caution. That's what they'll continue to do if you give them a chance. See here, you don't mean to quit your profession and take to carpentry, do you?"

"I expect to practise medicine," Leaver said, and there was a queer setting of his lips as he said it.

"Medicine! You? Jack, you couldn't do it."

"Couldn't I? I don't know that I could." He drew a half shuddering breath. "But I can try, somewhere, if not in Baltimore."

"I'd like to thrash you!" cried Red Pepper Burns, and he looked it. "Standing there the picture of a healthy man and telling me you're going to take to doling out pills and writing prescriptions.... See here. We've put in a little surgery up there in the north wing, it's a peach of a place. Come and see it."

He led the way rapidly back up to the house, in at the door and up the stairs. At the end of a long corridor he threw open the door of a small room, whose whole northern side was of glass. Its equipment was as complete as could be asked by the most exacting of operating surgeons.

"Good!" Leaver cried, quite forgetting himself for the moment. "I had no idea you meant to carry things so far as this. Fine!"

"Isn't it? Could you have a better place to try your hand again? Nobody looking on but Amy Mathewson, Miss Dodge-whom you met downstairs-and Dr. Buller-for the anesthetic. Buller's the best anesthetizer in the state and a splendid fellow besides. Also my humble self, ready to be your right-hand man. I promise you this,-if the least thing goes wrong-and you ask it-I'll take your place without a word. Jack, the case is one that needs you. I've never done this operation: you have. You've written a monograph on it. It's up to you, John Leaver. I don't dare you to do it, I dare you not to do it!"

For the first time, in response to his arguments on this subject, Burns got no answer but silence. But his friend's face was slowly flushing a deep, angry red. At this sight Burns rejoiced. His theory had been that if he could wake something in Leaver besides deep depression and sad negation he had a chance to influence him. He believed thoroughly that if he could force the distinguished young surgeon through one successful operation confidence would return like an incoming tide. He had hoped that the pathetic sight of the little malformed body of Jamie Ferguson would arouse the passion for salvage which lies in the breast of every man who practises the great profession; he saw that thus far his plan had succeeded. Now to accomplish the rest.

"Suppose," said Leaver, turning slowly toward the other man, "I agree to stand beside you and direct the operation?"

It was Burns's turn to colour angrily, his quick temper leaping to fire in an instant.

"Not much! Let every tub stand on its own bottom! Either I do the job or I don't do it; but I don't take the part of an apprentice. I'll agree to play second fiddle to you, with you playing first. But I'll be-condemned-if I'll play first, with a coach at my elbow. Take that and be hanged to you!"

He walked over to the open window, threw back the screen and put his head out, as if he needed air to breathe. Leaver was at his side in an instant.

"I beg your pardon, my dear fellow, I do sincerely. It was an unworthy suggestion, and I don't blame you for resenting it. Nobody needs help less than you. You could do the operation brilliantly. That's why there's no need in the world to force me into the situation-no need-"

Burns wheeled. "There is need! There's need for you-to save your soul alive. You've been no coward so far-your overworked nerves played you a trick and you've had to recover. But you have recovered, you are fit to work again. If you don't do this thing you'll be a coward forever!"

It bit deep, as he had known it would. If he had struck a knife into his friend's heart he could not have caused so sharp a hurt. Leaver turned white under this surgery of speech, and for an instant he looked as if he would have sprung at Burns's throat. There followed sixty silent seconds while both men stood like statues. But the merciless judgment had turned the scale. With a control of himself which struck Burns, as he recalled it afterward, as marvellous, Leaver answered evenly: "You shall not have the chance to say that again. I will operate when you think best."

"Thank God!" said Red Pepper Burns, under his breath.

The two walked out of the little white room, with its austere and absolute cleanliness, without another word concerning that which was to come. Burns took his friend over the house, and Leaver looked into room after room, approving, commending, even suggesting, quite as if nothing had happened. And yet, after all, not quite as if nothing had happened. He was not the same man who had come out to Sunny Farm an hour before. Burns knew, as well as if he could have seen into Leaver's mind, the conflict that was going on there. The thing was settled, he would not retreat, yet there was still a fight to be fought-the biggest fight of his life. On its issue was to depend the success or failure of the coming test. Burns's warm heart would have led him to speak sympathetically and encouragingly of the issue to be met; his understanding of the crisis it precipitated kept him mute. Whatever help he was now to give his friend must be given, not through speech but through silence, and by that subtler means of communication between spirit and spirit which cannot be analyzed or understood, but which may be more real than anything in life.

They went downstairs, presently, and rejoined the party. Miss Ruston and Miss Mathewson, Mr. James Macauley and his son Tom, with Bobby Burns, were engaged in a spirited game of "puss in a corner," for the benefit of Patsy Kelly, who lay looking on from his chair with sparkling, excited eyes. Beside Jamie Ferguson, who could not see, Mrs. Burns sat, describing to him the game and interpreting the shouts of laughter which reached his ears as he lay, too flat upon his back to see what was happening twenty feet away.

Ellen looked up, as her husband approached, and something in his face made her regard him intently. He smiled at her, his hazel eyes dark as they often were when something had stirred him deeply, and she guessed enough of the meaning of this aspect to keep her from looking at Dr. Leaver until he had been for some time upon the porch.

When she did observe him, he was standing, leaning against a pillar and looking at the wan little face below her, from a point at which Jamie could not know of his scrutiny. His back was turned upon the game upon the grass, though the others were watching it. When it ended Burns called Charlotte Ruston to the taking of the photographs he wanted-snapshots of the two little patients carried into the full sunlight. This being quickly accomplished, he announced his own immediate departure.

"Will you go back with me in the Imp, or at your leisure with the crowd in the car?" Burns asked Leaver, in an undertone. "My wife will be glad to go in either car; she suggested your taking your choice."

"If the Macauleys will not misunderstand, I should prefer to go with you," Leaver replied.

"They won't. Two medicine-men are supposed always to wish for a chance to hobnob, and we'll put it on that score. I really want to consult you about Patsy's case."

"Not going with us? Willing to forsake three fair ladies for one red-headed fiend, just because you know he's going to give us his dust? I like that!" cried Macauley, who could be trusted never to make things easy for his friends.

"Abuse him as you like. He's off with me at my request," called Burns, pulling out into the road and turning with a sweep.

Martha Macauley looked after the Green Imp's rapidly lessening shape through the dust-cloud which it left behind. "I never thought till to-day that Dr. Leaver seemed the least bit like a noted surgeon," said she, as they waited for Macauley to get his car underway. "I could never imagine his acting like Red, and rushing enthusiastically from bedside to operating-room, pushing everything out of his way to make time to cut somebody to pieces and sew him up again, for his ultimate good. But to-day somehow, he seemed more-what would you call it-professional?"

"That's the word," her husband agreed. "It's the word they juggle with. If a thing's 'professional,' it's all right. If it's not, it may as well be condemned to outer darkness at once."

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