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   Chapter 13 A CRISIS

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 20021

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"Little wife?"

"Yes, Redfield Pepper-"

"I'm as nervous as a cat up a tree with a couple of dogs at the foot!"

"Why, Red, I never heard you talk of being nervous! What does it mean?"

"An operation to-morrow."

"But you never are 'nervous,' dear."

"I am now."

"Is it such a critical one?"

"The most critical I ever faced."

Ellen looked at her husband, or tried to look, for they were moving slowly along the street, at a late hour, Burns having suggested a short walk before bedtime. It was quite dark, and Ellen could judge only by her husband's voice that he spoke with entire soberness.

"Can you tell me anything about it?" she suggested, knowing that relief from tension sometimes comes with speech. Any confession of nervousness from Red Pepper Burns seemed to her most extraordinary. She knew that he often worked under tremendous tension, but he had never before admitted shakiness of nerve.

"Not much, if anything at all. It's a particularly private affair, for the present. It's a queer operation, too. I may not handle a knife, tie an artery, or stitch up a wound-may do less than I ever did in my life on such an occasion, yet-I'll be hanged if I'm not feeling as owly about it as if it were the first time I ever expected to see blood."

Ellen put her hand on his arm, slipped it into the curve, and kept it there, while he held it pressed close against him. "Red, have you been working too hard lately?" she asked.

"Not a bit. I'm fit as a fiddler. Don't worry, love. I've no business to talk riddles to you, of all people. But for a peculiar reason I'm horribly anxious about the outcome of to-morrow's experiment, and had to work it off somehow. Just promise me that when you say your prayers to-night you'll ask the good God not to let me be mistaken in forcing a situation I may not be able to control."

"I will," Ellen promised, with all her heart, for she saw that, whatever the crisis might be, it was one to which her usually daring husband was looking forward with most uncharacteristic dread.

She was conscious that Burns spent a restless night. At daybreak he was up and out of the house. Before he went, however, he bent over her and kissed her with great tenderness, murmuring, "A prayer or two more, darling, won't hurt anything, when you are awake enough. I've particular faith in your petitions."

She held him with both arms.

"Don't worry, Red. It isn't like you. You will succeed, if it is to be."

"It's got to be," he said between his teeth, as he left her.

He swallowed a cup of Cynthia's hot coffee-bespoken the night before, as on many similar occasions-and ran out to his car just as the slow September sunrise broke into the eastern sky. In two minutes more he was off in the Imp, flying out the road to Sunny Farm.

Arrived there he astonished Miss Dodge, the nurse in charge, who was not accustomed to Dr. Burns's ways. He had left the small patient, Jamie Ferguson, the night before, entirely satisfied with his condition for undergoing the operation set for nine o'clock this morning. He now went once more painstakingly over every detail of the preparation he had ordered, making sure for himself that nothing had been omitted.

Then he called for Miss Mathewson, who had spent the night at the Farm. She was to assist Leaver as she was accustomed to assist Burns. He took her off by herself and addressed her solemnly, more solemnly than he had ever done.

"Amy, if you ever had your wits on call, have them this morning. In all my life I never cared more how things went at a time like this. I care so much I'd give about all I own to know this minute that the thing would go through."

"Why, Dr. Burns," said she, in astonishment, "it should go through. It is a critical operation, of course, but the boy seems in very fair shape for it, and Dr. Leaver has done it before. Dr. Leaver is quite well now-"

"I know, I know. Feel of that!"

He touched her hand with his own, which was icy cold. She started, and looked anxiously at him.

"Doctor, you can't be well! This isn't you-to be so-nervous! Why, think of all the operations you've done, and never a sign of minding. And this isn't even your responsibility-it's Dr. Leaver's."

"That's right, scold me," said he, trying to laugh. "It's what I need. I'm showing the white feather, a hatful of them. But you're mistaken about one thing. It is my responsibility, every detail of it. Don't forget that. If the case goes wrong, it's my fault, not Dr. Leaver's."

Then he walked away, leaving Miss Mathewson utterly dumbfounded. She understood perfectly that Dr. John Leaver had suffered a severe breakdown from overwork, and that this was his first test since his recovery. But she knew nothing of the peculiar circumstances of his last appearance in an operating-room, and could therefore have no possible notion of the crisis this morning's work was to be to him. She did know enough, however, to be deeply interested in the outcome, and she watched the Green Imp flying down the road toward home with the sense that when it returned it would bear two surgeons for whom she must do the best work of support in her life.

"Ready, Jack?"


John Leaver took the seat beside Burns, giving the outstretched hand a strong grip. He carried no hand-bag, there was no sign of his profession about him. He had sent to Baltimore for his own instruments, but they were waiting for him in the little operating-room at Sunny Farm, having been through every rite practised by modern surgery.

The car set off.

"It's a magnificent morning," said Red Pepper Burns.


"September's the best month in the year, to my fancy."

"A crisp October rivals it, to my notion."

"Not bad. There's a touch of frost in the air this morning."

"Quite a touch."

The car sped on. The men were silent. His one glance at his friend's face had showed Burns that Leaver had, apparently, his old quiet command of himself. But this, though reassuring, he knew could not be trusted as an absolute indication of control within. For himself, he had never been so profoundly excited in his life. He found himself wondering how he was going to stand and look on, unemployed, yet ready, at a sign, to take the helm. He felt as if that moment, if it should come, would find him as unnerved as the man he must help. Yet, with all his heart and will, he was silently assuring himself that all would go well-must go well. He must not even fear failure, think failure, imagine failure. Strong confidence on his own part, he fully believed, would be definite, if intangible, assistance to his friend....

Rounding a curve in the road, the white outlines of Sunny Farm house stood out clearly against the background of near green fields, and distant purple hills.

"House gets the sun in great shape mornings," observed Burns.

"The location couldn't be better," responded Leaver's quiet voice.

The car swung into the yard. The two men got out, crossed the sward, and stood upon the porch. Miss Mathewson met them at the door, her face bright, her eyes clear, only a little flush on either cheek betraying to Burns that she shared his tension.

"Jamie seems in the best of condition," said she.

"That's good-that's good," Burns answered, as if he had not made sure of the fact for himself within the hour.

"I will go in and see him a minute," Leaver said, and disappeared into Jamie Ferguson's room.

Outside Burns walked up and down the corridor, waiting, in a restlessness upon which he suddenly laid a stern decree. He stopped short and forced himself to stand still.

"You idiot," he savagely addressed himself, "you act like a fool medical student detailed to give an anesthetic at a noted surgeon's clinic for the first time. Cut it, and behave yourself."

After which he was guilty of no more outward perturbation, and, naturally, of somewhat less inner turmoil.

"Satisfied?" he asked of Leaver, as the other came out of Jamie's room.

Leaver nodded. "Rather better than I had hoped. He's a plucky little chap."

"You're right, he is."

The two went up to the dressing-room. Half an hour later, clad in white from head to foot, arms bare and gleaming, hands gloved, allowing assistants to open and close doors for them lest the slightest contamination affect their rigid cleanliness, they came into the operating-room. For the moment they were left alone there, while the nurses went to summon the bearer of the little patient. It was the moment Burns had dreaded, the stillness before action which most tries the spirit at any crisis.

He could not help giving one quick glance at his friend before he turned away to look out of the window with eyes which saw nothing outside it. In that instant's glance he thought the old Leaver stood before him, cool, collected, armed to the teeth, as it were, for the fight, and looking forward to it with eagerness. There had been possibly a slight pallor upon his face, as Miss Dodge had adjusted his mask of gauze, but, as Burns recalled it, this was a common matter with many surgeons, and it might easily have been characteristic of Leaver himself, even though Burns had not remembered it. His own heart was thumping heavily in his breast, as it had never thumped when he had been the chief actor in the coming scene.

"Lord, make him go through all right," he was praying, almost unconsciously, while he eyed the September landscape unseeingly, and listened for the sound of the stretcher bearers....

As they came in at the door Burns turned, and saw, or thought he saw, Leaver draw one deep, long breath. Then, in a minute or so, the fight was on. He remembered, of old, that there was never much delay after the distinguished surgeon saw his patient before him, had assured himself that all was well with the working of the anesthetic, and had taken up his first instrument....

Swift and sure moved Leaver's hands, obeying the swift, sure working of his brain

. There was not a moment's indecision. More than one moment of deliberation there was, but Burns, watching, knew as well as if his friend had been a part of himself that the brief pauses in his work were a part of the work itself, and meant that as his task unfolded before him he stopped to weigh feasible courses, choosing with unerring judgment the better of two possible alternatives, and proceeding with the confidence essential to the unfaltering touch. As Burns beheld the process pass the point of greatest danger and approach conclusion, he felt somewhat as a man may who, unable to help, watches a swimmer breasting tremendous seas, and sees him win past the last smother of breakers and make his way into calmer waters. He was conscious that he himself had been breathing shallowly as he watched, and now drew several deep inspirations of relief.

"By George, that was the gamest thing I ever saw," thought Burns, exultingly. "He hasn't shown the slightest sign of flinching. And Amy Mathewson-she's played up to every move like a little second brain of his."

He looked at the small clock on a shelf of the surgery, and his head swam. "He's outdone himself," he nearly cried aloud. "This will stand beside anything he's ever done. If he'd been slower than usual it would have been only natural, after this interval, but he's been faster. Oh, but I'm glad-glad!"

The event was over. Both Leaver and Burns, no longer under the necessity of avoiding contact with things unsterilized, felt the small patient's pulse and nodded at each other. The assistants bore Jamie Ferguson's little inert body away, Miss Dodge attending.

Dr. Leaver turned to Miss Mathewson. He drew off the masking gauze from his head, showing a flushed, moist face and eyes a little bloodshot. But his voice was as quiet as ever as he said:

"I've never had finer assistance from any one, Miss Mathewson. If you had been trained to work opposite me you couldn't have done better."

"You work much like Dr. Burns," she said, modestly. "That made it easy."

Burns burst into a smothered laugh. "That's the biggest compliment I've had for a good while," said he.

As they dressed, neither man said much. But when coats were on, and the two were ready to go to Jamie's room, they turned each to the other.

"Well, old man?" Burns was smiling like the sunshine itself into his friend's eyes. "I think I never was so happy in my life."

"I know you're happy," said the other man. "I don't believe I'll trust myself yet to tell you what I am."

"Don't try. We won't talk it over just yet. But I've got to say this, Jack: You never did a more masterly job in your life."

Leaver smiled-and shivered. "I'm glad it's over," said he.

They went down to Jamie's room, and there, on either side of the high hospital cot, watched consciousness returning. With consciousness presently came pain.

"I'm going to stay with him," Leaver announced, by and by. Jamie's little, wasted hand was fast in his, Jamie's eyes, when they rested anywhere with intelligence, rested on his face-a face tender and pitiful.

"Good for you. I shall feel easier about him if you do," and Burns went away with the feeling that this course would be as good for the surgeon as for the patient.

He stopped in the lower hall to telephone Ellen.

"All safely over, dear," he said. "The patient doing well so far, and no reason why he shouldn't continue, as far as we can see."

"Oh, I'm so glad, Red," came back the joyous reply, and Burns responded:

"That goes without saying, partner. I'll tell you a lot more about it, now, when I get back."

The Green Imp went back at a furious pace. Half-way home, however, as it neared a figure walking by the roadside, it suddenly slowed down.

"Will you ride home, Miss Photographer?" Burns called. "Or do you prefer trudging all the way back with that camera and tripod?"

"I'm delighted to ride, Dr. Burns," replied Charlotte Ruston. "Captivating roadside views enticed me much farther than I intended, and the camera weighs twice what it did when I started."

"Jump in, then, and let me give you a piece of good news I'm bursting with," and Burns held out his hand for the camera. "You're getting a beautiful sunburn on that right cheek," he commented.

"I'll burn the left to match it, if you won't drive too fast. You'll have to go a little slower while you talk. I've noticed you're always silent when you're scorching along the road."

"So I am, I believe. Well, I'm not going to be silent now. I've just come from seeing Jamie Ferguson put on the road to future health and happiness, the good Lord willing-and I've a notion He is."

"Jamie-the little cripple who lies on his back?"

"The same. He'll lie on his back some time longer and then, I think, he'll get up."

"You operated on him to-day? How glad I am!"

"No, I didn't operate. It took a better man than I. I've never done this particular stunt, and Jamie was not a patient for experiment. Jack Leaver did the trick, and a finished trick it was, too. I'm so full of enthusiasm over his performance that I'm bursting with it, as I warned you."

Charlotte Ruston had turned suddenly to face him. As he looked at her, with this announcement, he had a view of lovely, startled eyes.

"What's the matter?" he asked, wondering. He had to look ahead at the road, but he cut down on the Imp's speed, so that he could spare a glance at his companion again. "You look as if I'd given you bad news instead of good."

"Oh, no!-oh, no!" she said, in odd, short breaths. "It's great-wonderful! Poor little fellow! I'm very glad. You said-Dr. Leaver did it? I was simply-surprised."

"Did it brilliantly. But there's no occasion for surprise about that. Having been in Baltimore as much as you have, you must know his position there. There's nobody with a bigger reputation."

"But I thought he had been-ill?"

"Tired out. Small wonder, at the pace he was going-the working pace, I mean. He never let up on himself. I got him here to rest up. He would have been off long ago if I would have given him leave, but I had his promise to keep away from work till he was thoroughly fit for it, so I've made the most of my chance. I shall never get another. If I know him he'll be back in his office before the week ends. Once give a chap like him a taste of work after idleness, and there's no use trying to hold him."

"You think him fully fit, now?"

"Never so fit in his life, if I'm any judge. I've seen him at work many a time, and I never saw finer methods than his to-day, his own or any man's-and I've watched some pretty smooth things. By the way, I understand you had met Dr. Leaver before you met him here?"

"Yes, I had met him."

Burns was not possessed of more than the ordinary amount of curiosity concerning other people's affairs, but he was accustomed to observe human nature and note its signs, and it struck him now rather suddenly that both John Leaver and Charlotte Ruston had seemed rather more than necessarily non-committal concerning an acquaintance which both admitted. He saw no reason why he should not ask a question or two. Asking questions was a part of his profession.

"I hope you've managed to coax him before your camera. He's looking so well now, I'd like a picture of him before he goes back and works himself down again."

"You might suggest it to him," said Miss Ruston. She was looking straight ahead. She wore a hat of white linen, of a picturesque shape, such as are in vogue in the country in warm weather, and it drooped more or less about her face. Burns could not see her eyes when she looked forward, but he could see her mouth. It was an expressive mouth, and it looked particularly expressive just now. The trouble was that he could not tell just what it expressed.

"I'll do it, this afternoon, and keep it as a reminder of a patient of whom I think a heap. No, I can't do it this afternoon, either, for he won't leave Jamie till he can leave him comfortably over the first stage. But by to-morrow afternoon, perhaps. We'll have to catch him on the fly, for I'm confident he'll be off the minute the youngster is out of danger. Well, I hope you know my friend well enough to appreciate that he's about the finest there is anywhere?"

"I'm beginning to know you well enough, Dr. Burns, to see that you care more to have your friends appreciated than to win praise yourself."

"No, no-oh, Cesar, no! I've not reached such a sublime height of altruism as that. To tell you the honest truth-which is supposed to be good for the soul-I'm horribly envious of Jack Leaver for having done that stunt this morning."

"Envious? Of course you are. At the same time would you have taken it away from him and have done it yourself, if you had had the chance?"

"Trust a woman to confront a man with the unthinkable, and then expect him to take credit for not having been guilty of it! Would I have snatched a juicy bone away from a starving lion? That's what Leaver has been all these months. It's what any man gets to be when his job is taken away from him and he doesn't know when he will get another. No-at the same time that I'm envious I'm genuinely happy that the lion got his bone. He needed it. It's going to make a well lion of him; he is one now. You're glad, too, aren't you?"

He gave her one of his quick, discerning glances.

"Of course I am." She spoke quite heartily enough to satisfy him.

"Good! Then, if I can wheedle him before the camera, you'll be interested in making a picture of him that Ellen and I shall want to frame and look at every day?"

"I will give you my amateur's best, certainly, Dr. Burns."

"Prunes and prisms!" he exclaimed, and broke into a laugh. "I didn't expect that, from a girl like you. I should have expected you to-well, never mind. I was on the verge of being impertinent, I'm afraid. Forgive me, will you, for what I might have said? I'll bring him over at the first opportunity."

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