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   Chapter 14 BEFORE THE LENS

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 30342

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Red, this is certainly the unkindest cut of all! I haven't minded your other prescriptions, but to insist on giving a well man the worst dose of his experience to take-"

"Stuff and nonsense! A bad prescription-to go across the street and let the prettiest photographer in the United States take a sun picture of you before you leave town? Besides, you owe it to us. I haven't the smallest kind of a likeness of you. I want a nice big one, to use in my advertisements. I only wish I had a picture of you 'as you were,' to put beside the 'as you are.' It would be telling. 'The great Burns's greatest cure. The celebrated Leaver of Baltimore as he was when Burns finished with him.' I'll send you a dozen copies of the paper."

"Please, Dr. Leaver." Mrs. Red Pepper Burns added her plea. "Red really wants it very much, and so do I. You admit you have no photograph to send us, and we know quite well you won't go and have one made by Mr. Brant, as you should. So please let Miss Ruston try her art. We think you owe it to us."

Leaver looked at her, and his determined lips relaxed into a smile. "I admit that argument tells, Mrs. Burns," he said. "I suppose it is ungracious of me, but, to tell the truth, I've always preferred to be able to say I had no portraits of myself."

"Oh, I see," Burns broke in. "We're not considering, Ellen, the urgent demands for a popular bachelor surgeon's photograph. It's precisely like Jack not to hand them out to the ladies, or to the newspaper men. All right, old chap. Give us what we want and we'll have the plate smashed. Now will you be good? Come, let's go over. If you really mean to leave to-night this is our last chance."

The two men crossed the street, in the mellow September sunshine. Burns preceded Leaver and knocked at the door.

"Will you take a shot at my friend before he goes?" Burns asked Charlotte. "He hates standing up to be shot at, but I have him primed for the ordeal."

"Must it be a shot, or may I make a portrait?" asked the photographer, in her professional manner.

"I want a portrait," replied Burns, promptly. "Your best indoor work-Brant and the Misses Kendall put on their mettle to rival it."

While Charlotte was absent, making ready her plates, her visitors waited in the little living-room and looked about it. Its walls were now possessed of many interesting photographs of people in the village, among them several of Burns himself, at which he gazed with a quizzical expression.

"She certainly succeeds in making a hero of me, doesn't she?" he observed. "Red hair turns dusky before the camera, luckily for me. I look as if there wasn't much of anything I couldn't do, including playing leading man in a melodrama-eh?"

"She has caught the personality, cleverly enough," Leaver commented, looking over Burns's shoulder.

"I rather think, though," mused Burns, "that I don't look so much as if there wasn't anything I couldn't do as that I thought there wasn't. There's a difference, Jack,-eh? Do I really seem as ready to bounce out of my chair and tackle somebody as that picture makes me look? If I do I need to have a tourniquet applied somewhere about my neck to stop the flow of blood to my bumptious head."

Smiling, Leaver studied the photograph in question. "It's the best I ever saw of you. It's precisely that air of being all there and ready for action which is your most endearing characteristic. It is the quality which made me willing to put myself in your hands last April."

"Much obliged. But you didn't put yourself in my hands. I laid hands on you and tied you down. I couldn't do it now, though," and Burns turned to survey his friend with satisfaction. "You are in elegant trim, if I do say it who shouldn't, and that's why I want a picture of my handiwork-and Nature's. It's just possible that Nature deserves some credit, not to mention Amy Mathewson. By the way, she's another who must have this portrait of you, my boy."

"She certainly shall, if she cares for it," admitted Leaver, gravely. "I'm very willing to remind her how much I owe her, in that and better ways."

Charlotte appeared. As she set about her work Bob came racing over the lawn and in at the open door.

"Uncle Red, somebody wants you right away quick!" he announced.

"Just my luck! I wanted to help pose the picture," grumbled Burns, but went off, the boy on his shoulder shouting with delight.

The photographer, in the plain dress of dull blue, which, artist-wise, she had chosen as her professional garb, and in which she herself made a picture to be observed with enjoyment, moved deftly about the room arranging her lights and shadows. This done, she turned to her sitter. When she came in he had been standing before a set of prints upon the wall, studying them critically, but from the moment of her entrance he had been watching her, though he held a photograph in his hand with which he might have seemed to be engaged.

"Ready?" she asked, smiling. "Or, rather, as ready as you ever will be?"

"Does my reluctance show as plainly as that? But I am quite ready now to do your bidding."

"Sit down in that chair, please. But first-I really can't wait longer to ask you-how is Jamie Ferguson?"

"Doing finely." His face lighted with pleasure at the thought.

"Will he have the full use of his poor little legs?"

"It is too soon to say positively. We hope quite confidently for that result. He shows better powers of recuperation than we dared expect."

"Yesterday," said Charlotte, her hand on a certain bulb out of sight, "Miss Mathewson told me something Jamie had said. It was the most extraordinary thing-"

She related the incident, in which the lad had shyly praised both Leaver and Burns as seeming to him like big brothers. She told it with animation, her watchful eyes on her sitter's face. At a certain point, just before the climax of the story, she gave the bulb a long, slow pressure; then, ending, she remarked:

"Now, if you are ready, Dr. Leaver."

His face immediately grew grave, lost its expression of interested attention, and set in lines of resignation. She went through a number of motions and announced that the sitting was over.

"It wasn't so bad, was it?" she questioned, gayly, as she removed the plate she had used. "I'm not even going to try again. I've discovered that it's not always best to repeat an attempt, and when you are pretty sure you have what you want, it doesn't pay."

"Thank you for making the operation so nearly painless. I haven't had a photograph taken since I was a medical student, and I wasn't prepared for so short a trial. But, even so, I felt the desperateness of the situation. Doubtless that will show plainly in the final result."

"Mine is a discreet camera, and doesn't tell all it sees, so it is possible it may keep your reluctance disguised."

She took away the plate, left him for a few minutes alone among the photographs, and returned.

"It is quite all right, I think, Dr. Leaver," she said, "and the agony is over. You are leaving town to-day?"

He rose. "I go to-night. I should have come to say good-bye, in any case, but, as I go out to Sunny Farm for one more look at the boy, I must be off. So-I'll make this the good-bye."

"I hope you'll have the busiest, happiest sort of winter," she said, in the charming, friendly way which was naturally her own. "So busy and so happy you'll forget this long, trying time of waiting to be well. Surely, the rest-and Dr. Burns-have done the work. When you see the portrait I hope it will show you, better than looking at yourself in any mirror, what good has been done."

"Thank you. I know a great change has been wrought, somehow, thanks to a man who insisted on having his own way when I didn't want to let him. You expect to stay in this cottage all winter?"

"All winter, and all spring. Imagine us by a splendid fire in this good fireplace."

"I hope it won't smoke on windy days." Leaver looked doubtfully at it. "It strikes me as better photographic material than as practical defence against the cold."

"I shall demonstrate that it is entirely practical. And Granny's little feet will seldom touch the floor. I have a beautiful foot-warmer for her, which will keep her snug as comfort."

"I know you have a strong courage, and will face any discomfort bravely."

His eyes were dwelling upon her face, noting each outline, as if he meant to take the memory of it with him.

"All the courage in the world. What would life be without it? With it, one can do anything."

"I believe you." He was silent for a moment, still looking at her intently. "I wonder," he said then, "if you would be willing to give me something I very much want. I have no right to ask it, and yet, for the sake of many pleasant hours we have spent together-that's a tame phrase for me to use of them, from my standpoint-for their sake would you be willing to let me have-a picture of yourself? I promise you it shall be seen by no one but myself. It would mean a good deal to me. Yet, if you are not entirely willing, I won't ask it."

He spoke in the quietest, grave way. After a moment's hesitation she answered him as quietly.

"I don't know why I should mind, Dr. Leaver, and yet, somehow, I find I do. Will you believe it's not because I don't want to please you?"

His face showed, in spite of him, that the denial hurt him. He held out his hand.

"You are quite right to be frank. Shall we say good-bye? All kinds of success to you this winter-and always."

"Thank you, Dr. Leaver. I give you back the wish."

They shook hands, the two faces smiling at each other. Then he went quickly away. Looking after him she saw that he carried his hat in his hand until he had reached the gate in the hedge. He closed the gate without a backward glance, and in a minute more was out of sight.

She went into her dark-room and examined again the plate she had just developed. Holding it in a certain light, against darkness, she was able to obtain a faint view of the picture as it would be in the print. Unquestionably she had made a lifelike and extraordinarily attractive portrait of a man of distinguished features, caught at a moment when he had had no notion that the thing was happening. She studied it long and attentively.

"It would have been better if I hadn't made it," she said slowly to herself. "For now I shall have it to look at, and I shall have to look at it. I'm not strong enough-not strong enough-I don't want to be strong enough-to forego that!"

* * *

After nightfall, on that September evening, Leaver took his departure. Burns was to convey him in the Imp to the city station, because his train did not stop in the suburban village. For a half-hour before his going Burns's porch was full, the Macauleys and the Chesters having come over to do Dr. Leaver honour. They found less chance for talking with him than they might have done if he had not gone off with Miss Mathewson for a short walk.

"Something in it, possibly, do you think?" James Macauley asked, in an aside, of Mrs. Burns. "Miss Mathewson certainly has developed a lot of good looks this summer that I, for one, never suspected her of before. Whether she could interest a man like him I don't know and can't guess. He's no ordinary man. I didn't like him much at first, but as he's improved in health he's shown up for what he is, and I can understand Red's interest in getting him on his feet again. He's certainly on 'em now. That was a great stunt he did for the little chap, according to Red. Looks a bit suggestive of interest, his going off with Miss Amy for a walk, at the last minute, don't you think? Still, I can't imagine any man's looking in that direction when there's what there is across the street. He hasn't shown any signs of life, there, has he?"

"Jimmy, you're a sad gossip. If I knew all these people's affairs, or if I knew none of them, I shouldn't discuss them with you. But I'm quite willing to agree with you that both Amy and Charlotte are delightful, each in her way."

"Never did get any satisfaction out of you," grumbled James Macauley, good humouredly. "I didn't suppose women had such a fine sense of honour when it came to talking over other women."

"Then it's time you found it out."

"What's this? Ellen giving you hot shot?" Burns came up, watch in hand. "It's time those people were back. They've probably fallen into a discussion of surgical methods, and forgotten the time."

The missing pair presently appeared. James Macauley looked curiously at them, but could detect no sign of sentiment about them. Indeed, as they came up the walk Leaver's voice was heard saying in a most matter-of-fact way:

"I'll send you a reprint on that subject. You'll find the German notion has completely changed-completely. Nothing has happened in a long time that so marks advance in research along those lines."

"He's safe," the observer whispered to Mrs. Burns. "No fun to be had out of that. Unless-he was clever enough to change his line when he came within earshot. It has been done, you know. I've done it myself, though I never jumped to German reprints as a safety station. But, you can usually tell by the woman. She looks as if she had merely been out for a nice walk. Not a hair out of place, no high colour, no-"

Ellen moved away from him. She was conscious that she, too, had been noting signs, but she would not join him further in discussing them.

"I am not good at farewell speeches," said John Leaver, holding Ellen's hand in both his own, when he had taken leave of every one else. "I only hope I can show you, somehow, how I feel about what you and your husband have done for me. I tried to tell Miss Mathewson something of the same thing, but she wouldn't have it, which was fortunate, for the words stuck in my throat."

Burns took him away. "If they hadn't, you'd have missed your train. We've got to make time, now."

As he took his place in the Green Imp Leaver looked across the street at the cottage back among the trees. Its windows were quite dark, although the hour was barely ten o'clock. Burns looked over, too.

"By the way," he said, as they moved away, "why wasn't Miss Ruston among the crowd assembled to see you off? As an acquaintance of yours in Baltimore she ought to join in the send-off back to that town."

"She gave me her good wishes this afternoon, after taking the photograph. Red, speaking of Baltimore, when are you coming down?"

"When I get a card saying you are holding a clinic on a subject I'm anxious to see demonstrated."

"Do you expect me to go to holding clinics?"

"Surest thing in the world. You can't keep out of them."

"Do you suppose the men who saw my breakdown will be eager to welcome me back?"

"No question of it. Good Lord, man, you're not the first nor the ten-thousandth man who has broken down from overwork. Because my axe becomes dull I'm not going to refuse to use it when it comes back from the grindstone with a brighter edge than ever on it, am I? Wait till you see your reception. Some of those fellows have been making a lot of mistakes in your

absence-have been trying to do things too big for them. They'll be only too glad to turn some of their stunts over to you. And the big ones, who are your friends, will rejoice at sight of you. Of course you have rivals; you don't expect them to welcome you with open arms. They'll be sorry to see you back. Let them be sorry, and be hanged to them! Go in and show them that they're the ones who need a rest now, and that you'll take care of their work in their absence."

Leaver laughed. "Red, there's nobody just like you," he said.

"That's lucky. Too many explosives aren't safe to have around. I know, and have known all along, Jack, that it's been like a cat lecturing a king, my advice to you. A better simile would be the old one of the mouse gnawing the lion out of the net. If I've done anything for you, that's what I've done."

Leaver turned in his seat. "Red," said he-and his voice had a deep ring in it as he spoke-"you're about the biggest sized mouse I ever saw. I want to tell you this: Since I've been watching your work up here I've conceived a tremendous admiration for your standards. There are none finer, anywhere. I've come to feel that you couldn't do anything bigger or better in the largest place you could find. Indeed, this, for you, is the largest place, for you fill it as another man couldn't."

"The frog, in the marsh, where he lived, was king," Burns quoted, in an effort at lightness, for he was deeply touched.

"That's not the sort of king you are. You would be king anywhere. But you're willing to rule over a kingdom that may look small to some, but looks big as an empire to me, now that I understand. I've reached this point: I am almost-and sometime I expect to be entirely-glad that the thing happened to me which brought me here to you. You have done more for me than any man ever did. And there's one thing I think I owe to you to tell you. The greatest thing I've learned from you, though you haven't said much about it, is faith in the God above us. I'd about let go of that when I came here. Thanks to you, I've got hold of it again, and I mean never to let go. No man can afford to let go of that-permanently."

Burns was silent for a moment, in answer to this most unexpected tribute, silent because he could find no words. When he did speak there was a trace of huskiness in his voice. "I'm mighty glad to know that, Jack," he said simply.

Then, presently, for they had flown fast over the smooth road, they were entering the city limits, traversing a crowded thoroughfare, and approaching the great station on whose tower the illuminated face of the clock warned them there was little time to spare. Arrived there, every moment was consumed in a rush for tickets and in checking baggage. Leaver secured his sleeper reservation with some difficulty, owing to a misunderstanding in the telegram engaging it, and at the last the two men had to run for the train. At the gate there was only space for a hasty grip of two warm hands, a smile of understanding and affection, and an exchange of arm-wavings at a distance as Leaver reached his car, already on the verge of moving out.

As Burns drove away he was feeling a sense of loneliness as unpleasant as it was unexpected, and found himself longing to get back to a certain pair of arms whose hold was a panacea for every ache.

"He thinks he owes it all to me," he was saying by and by, when this desirable condition had been fulfilled. "But maybe I don't owe something to him. If the sight of a plucky fight for self-control is a bracing tonic to any man I've had one in watching him. I never saw a finer display of will against heavy odds. Another man in the shape he was in last spring would have gone under."

"It would be pretty difficult, I think, dear," said his wife, softly touching his thick locks, as his head lay on her lap, "for any man to go under with you pulling him out."

"I didn't pull him out. No man in creation can pull another out, no matter how strong his effort. The chap that's in the current has got to do every last ounce of the pulling himself. I don't say God can't help, for I'm positive He can, but I don't think a man can do much. And it's my belief that even God helps chiefly through making the man realize that he can help himself."

"For which office he sometimes appoints a man as his human instrument, doesn't he?"

Burns turned his head and touched his lips to the hand which had laid itself against his cheek.

"Perhaps, when he can't find a woman. As a power conductor she is the only, original, copper wire!"

* * *

The curiosity which James Macauley had freely expressed as to the probable degree of friendship between Leaver and Amy Mathewson, developed by months of close association, was, with him and with others, not unnatural. But, in Ellen's case, the desire to know just how much the situation had meant to Amy herself, was a result of her increasingly warm affection for a young woman of character and personal attractiveness, mingled with a sense of her own and her husband's responsibility in bringing together two people who might be expected to emerge from the encounter not a little affected by it.

On the morning after John Leaver's departure, Ellen, standing at a window, found herself watching with more than ordinary intentness the face of Amy as she came up the walk to the house. Lest Leaver should realize to what an extent his presence had disturbed the regular routine of Burns's office, Amy had not been allowed to resume her position according to the old régime, but had spent only a portion of her time there, more as a guest of the house might assume certain duties than as a regularly hired assistant would attend to them. This was, therefore, the first time, since Leaver had left the confinement in his room, that Amy Mathewson had appeared in the office in her old r?le, announced by the donning of her uniform.

"I certainly don't see any unhappiness there," said Ellen to herself, watching Amy as she stooped to pick up an early fallen scarlet leaf upon the lawn. She fastened it upon the severe whiteness of her attire, then came on to the house with an alert step, as if she approached work she looked forward to with zest. Her colour was more vivid than it had been last June, when first she began to live the outdoor life with her patient, her eyes were brighter, her whole personality seemed somehow more significant. Ellen had noted in her these signs of enriched life many times before during these weeks; but the fact that Amy's aspect, on the day after the departure of her comrade of the summer, seemed to have suffered no change, but that her whole air, as she came to her old task, was that of one who hastens to a congenial appointment, gave to Ellen a distinct sense of relief from an anxiety she had suffered from time to time throughout the whole experience.

Burns had gone away early, summoned by an insistent call, and the office was empty. Knowing this, Ellen went in to greet her friend. There could be no other term, now, for the whole-hearted bond between the two.

"Isn't it glorious, this touch of frost in the air?" Amy came in smiling, her cheeks bright with the sting of the early October morning. "And to-day-to-day, at last, I am free to go to work as I like. I don't believe Dr. Burns has sent out a bill for three months. He would go bankrupt before he would tell a man what he owed him."

"Do you like sending out bills so well as that?" Ellen asked, incredulous.

"I like anything that means being at work again, without having to play that I'm a lady of leisure at any moment that anybody wants my company. I like to have things methodical and systematic. I don't even mind sending out bills, when I know they should be sent."

She stirred about the office, getting out her typewriter and oiling it, while the two talked of various things. Her whole manner was consistent with her words: she seemed to be full of the very joy of living. It occurred to Ellen once to wonder if, by any possibility, this could be the result of expectation of future continuance of her friendship with Leaver. But something happened presently which, though but a simple incident enough, and all in the day's routine, made any such supposition seem most unlikely.

The telephone bell rang. Ellen saw Amy's face change at the first sound of her questioner's voice, with that subtle change which sometimes tells more than the person engaged in this form of communication realizes.

"Yes, Dr. Burns," she said. "Yes ... Yes ... Yes ... Yes, I can have everything ready in an hour ... I will ... I won't forget one thing.... Yes ... Good-bye!"

Not an illuminating set of replies, given at long intervals which evidently spelled instructions from the other end of the wire. But Amy's voice was eager, her concise replies by no means veiled that fact, and Ellen could read, as plainly as if Amy had said it, that the voice which spoke to her was the one of all voices, as it had been for so long, which could give the commands she loved to obey.

She turned from the desk and looked at Ellen with the same animated expression of face. But even as she explained, she was taking instruments from their cases, setting out certain hand-bags, and preparing to fill them.

"It is an emergency case-operation-out in the country. Impossible to take the patient to the hospital; everything must be made ready on the spot. Dr. Burns is to come for me in an hour. He will let me stay with the case. It's work, Mrs. Burns; real work again, at last!"

"You extraordinary girl! A débutante, going to a party again, after enforced confinement at home, couldn't be gayer about it. I knew you loved your work, but I didn't know you loved it like that!"

"Didn't you?" Her hands moving swiftly, she seemed not to stop and think what was going to be wanted, she went from one preparation to another with swift, sure knowledge. "I'm not sure I did, myself, until I had to stop and take what was really just a long vacation, with hardly a thing to do. Vacations are very pleasant-for a while-but they may last too long."

"Evidently Dr. Leaver thought so, too. He seemed ready enough for work again."

"Of course he was. And work-and only work-will put him quite back where he was before the breakdown. I fully believe, Mrs. Burns, that labour is a condition of healthy life. And of the two evils, too much labour or too much idleness, the latter is the greater."

"You make me feel a drone," Ellen declared.

Amy gave her a quick, understanding glance.

"You? Oh, no, Mrs. Burns. You do the prettiest work in the world, and the most necessary."

"But yours is fine-wonderful."

"Not fine, nor wonderful. Dr. Burns's work is that. Mine is just-supplementary."

"But absolutely essential. How many times has he told me what he has owed you all these years for perfection of detail. He says he doubts if he himself could secure such perfection if it all depended upon his care."

Amy Mathewson bent suddenly over a strange looking instrument, whose parts she had been examining before putting them into the bag. Her fair cheek flushed richly. "I am glad to give him the best I can do," she said, quietly, yet Ellen could detect an odd little thrill in her voice.

Within herself Ellen understood the truth, which she had long ago guessed. And with it came a fresh revelation. This was the reason why Amy Mathewson could see, unmoved, the departure of Leaver, who had been so closely thrown with her all that strange summer. With the deep loyalty of a few rare natures, having once given her love, even though she received nothing but friendship in return, she could care for no future which did not include that friendship, dearer than the love of other men.

Ellen was still in the office, held there by a curious fascination of interest in Amy's rapid, skillful preparations. It meant so much, this operating at a country house, she explained to Ellen. It meant the working out of all manner of difficult details, that the final conditions might as closely as possible resemble those which were to be had, ready to hand, in the operating-room of any hospital.

"It's a serious handicap to a surgeon's best work," she asserted, "when he has to do it at a home. With all my precautions, I can never feel so sure of giving him perfect cleanliness of surroundings."

"You can, if any one can," Ellen said, feeling for the first time as she spoke, a curious little twinge of envy of the one whom her husband had long called, with affectionate familiarity, his "right-hand man."

Often as she had seen the two drive away together it seemed to her to-day that she looked at them with new eyes. Just as Amy set out the closed hand-bags, with a box and a bundle beside them, and donned hat and driving-coat, the Green Imp came rushing up the road and stopped in front of the house. Burns ran in, fired half a dozen rapid questions at Amy, nodding his head with approval at her answers, said, "All right, we're off," and picked up the hand-bags. Then he dropped them, snatched off his cap and strode over to his wife.

"We're in a mess of a hurry," he apologized, and kissed her as if he were thinking of something else, as he undoubtedly was. Then he seized the bags, Amy the box and bundle, and the two hurried out. A moment later Ellen saw the car start, getting under headway in twice its own length, and disappearing down the road in a cloud of dust.

"She would rather stay where she can help him than go away to a home of her own with any other man," Ellen said to herself; and the little twinge of envy became almost a pang. She stood staring out of the window, her dark eyes heavy with her thoughts, her lips taking on a little twist of pain. Then, presently, she lifted her head. "She will never, never let him know. He will never discover it for himself. But if she can find happiness in being of use to him, and he can reward her by being her good friend, why should I mind? Can't I be generous enough for that, when I know I have his heart? Her love for him won't hurt him. She can't take it back, but she will never let it show so that he can feel more of it than is good for him. It is so little for me to spare her-so much for her to have. I will be glad, I will be glad!"

She smiled at Bobby Burns, running up the walk, but, being a woman, she smiled through tears.

The little lad ran in. "Oh, Auntie Ellen," he cried, "do you care 'cause I gave my new ball away? It was a new boy came to school, all patched. He'd never had a ball in his life. Uncle Red said I had to be good to other boys, 'cause I've got so much more'n some of them. I sort o' wanted to keep the ball, too," he added, regretfully. "It was a dandy ball."

"But it was nice to give it away, too, wasn't it, Bob?"

He nodded, looking curiously up at her. "You're cryin', Auntie Ellen," he said, anxiously. "Does sumpin' hurt you?"

"Nothing that ought to hurt, dear. It's too bad that being generous does hurt sometimes. But it ought not to hurt, when we have so much more than some of the others, ought it, Bob?"

* * *

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