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   Chapter 16 IN FEBRUARY

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 25968

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


One cold December morning Charlotte Ruston, sweeping up her hearth after making her fire for the day, preparatory to bringing little Madam Chase downstairs, heard the knock upon her door which heralded Mrs. Redfield Pepper Burns. It was a peculiar knock, reminiscent of the days at boarding-school when certain signals conveyed deep meaning. This particular triple tattoo meant "I have something to tell you."

Charlotte opened the door, smiling at sight of her friend. "You are worth looking at, in those beautiful furs, with the frost on your cheeks," she said, drawing Ellen in to the fire, and passing a caressing hand over the rich softness of her sleeve. "Furry hat and furry gloves-and furry boots, too, probably-let me see? I thought so," as she examined Ellen's footgear. "You could start on a trip to Greenland, this minute, and not freeze so much as the tip of your nose, behind that wonderful muff."

"It will be Greenland on the Atlantic liner next week," said Ellen, drawing off the enveloping coat at Charlotte's motion, and seating herself in Granny's winged chair. "The trip to Germany is on foot, at last. Red has had to put it off so many times I began to think we shouldn't get away this year at all. But he's taken our passage now, and vows that nothing shall hinder. So I'm packing in rather a hurry, for we mean to be off on Saturday, though we shall not sail until Tuesday. One can always use a day or two in New York."

"Lucky mortals. I wish I were going with you." Charlotte said it gayly, but her eyes were suddenly wistful. "How long shall you stay? I shall miss you horribly."

"I wish you were going, dear. Nothing could make me happier. We should be a great party then, for Dr. Leaver goes with us. It's a sudden decision on his part. Red wrote him of certain work he wanted to do in the clinics and urged him to go along, thinking it would be just the thing for him now, after plunging into work again with such a will. You know they spent a year there together, ten years ago, and Dr. Leaver wrote that the thought of going over the old scenes with Red tempted him beyond resistance. He's been across twice since, but only for a special purpose of study. Of course both will do more or less observing in clinics now, but I imagine they will get in a bit of merrymaking together. If I only had you to go about with me while they were busy I should ask nothing better."

"Shall you be gone all winter?"

"Oh, no; only two months in all. Neither Red nor 'Jack'-as he always calls him-feel that they can spare longer than that, this time. So by the first of March you will see us returning to our own fireside, and probably glad enough to get back to it. German fires, as I remember them, are by no means as hot as American ones. And that brings me to my plan for you and Granny. I want you to come over and live in the house in our absence. There'll be only Cynthia there, for Bob is to stay with Martha. He will be happier over there with her boys than with Cynthia. So you will have the whole house to yourselves and can be as snug as possible all through the heaviest part of the winter."

She smiled confidently at Charlotte, seeing no possible reason why her friend should object to a plan so obviously for the comfort of all concerned. But to her surprise Charlotte slowly shook her head.

"It's a beautiful, kind plan, and exactly like you, but I couldn't think of accepting it."

"My dearest girl, will you tell me why? You would be doing me all kinds of a favour."

"No favour at all. Cynthia doesn't need us to help her take care of the house. We shall be perfectly comfortable here, and-my business is here."

"Charlotte, I'm afraid you won't be perfectly comfortable. This room isn't really warm this morning, and it's not an extremely cold morning. Through midwinter we're likely to have very heavy weather, as you don't know, not having spent a winter here."

"Have you? Isn't this your first winter North? You're just as much of a Southerner as I am. You don't a bit know about Northern winters. You just imagine they must be dreadful."

"I've heard about the snowdrifts over the fences, the terrific winds, and the intense cold. The storms will beat upon this little old house, and I shall think about it away off in Germany-and be anxious. Please, Charlotte, don't be unreasonable. Why in the world shouldn't you do me a favour like this? Red wants it just as much as I do, particularly on the grandmother's account. Think how comfortable she would be in my living-room, and in my guest-room. And I should so love to have her there."

"I suppose I'm an ungrateful person, but I truly don't want to do it, Len. Of course you know I wouldn't persist in a course that I thought would do Granny harm, but I don't see how this can. She stays in bed in the morning, as warm as toast, until I bring her down here, and I don't bring her until the room is thoroughly warm. I give her her breakfast here, and keep her perfectly comfortable all day, as she can tell you. At night I take her up to a nest as cosy as a kitten's, and she has her hot milk the last thing to send her off. Not a breath of discomfort touches her beloved head."

The two looked at each other, Charlotte's expression proudly sweet, Ellen's charmingly beseeching.

"I can see it's of no use," admitted Mrs. Burns, disappointedly, "but I'm very sorry. Will you promise me this? If at any time it seems to you that my plan is, after all, a better one for you than your own, you'll be good and come straight over?"

"I promise you that I'll take proper care of both of us, and love you for a devoted friend. That ought to satisfy you. Do you know that as you sit there, with that furry hat on your head and your cheeks glowing, you're the prettiest thing north of Mason-and-Dixon's line?"

"I know you're a flatterer, as you always were. If I can rival you in that blue cotton-Charlotte, do you think you ought to wear cotton in December?"

"You wear gauze and low-cut gowns in the evening in January, don't you?-and would in Labrador, if you went out to dinner. What's the difference between silver tissue in the evening and blue cotton in the morning?"

"Considerable difference, as you very well know. But you're impossible to argue with this morning, and I must run back to my packing. Red won't hear of my taking more than a certain quite inadequate amount of luggage, and I have to plan pretty closely accordingly."

"That's good for you. You don't know the first thing about curtailing your desires, and he means to teach you. Perhaps he won't limit you as to how much you bring home."

"I hope not. We shall stop for a week in Paris before we sail, and I mean to bring you the loveliest evening frock you've had in a long time. It's no use forbidding me, for I shall do it just the same."

"I'm not going to forbid you," laughed Charlotte Ruston, with her cheek against the furry hat. "I know when not to forbid people to do things I want them to do. Only make it blue, my blue, and have a touch of silver on it, and I'll wear it and think of you with adoration."

"It's a bargain," and Ellen went away smiling, with the image of Charlotte in the sort of blue-and-silver gown she meant to bring her, effacing for the moment the other image of Charlotte in a blue cotton house-dress on a freezing winter morning, in a chilly house.

A few days later the travellers were off. When Red Pepper Burns and Ellen came in to say good-bye in the early evening they found the little house as warm as even the most solicitous person could desire, and both the elder and the younger inmate looking so rosy and happy that doubts of their continued welfare seemed unreasonable. Charlotte, expecting them, was wearing a picturesque, if old and oft-rejuvenated, trailing frock of dull-rose silk, whose effect was to heighten the already splendid colour in her face. It gave her also a certain air of grand lady which seemed hers by right, whether in the dignified old drawing-room Ellen remembered in the Ruston house, or in this small apartment, illumined by fire and candle-light, and graced by a little old lady in cap and kerchief of fine lace. There were flowers on the table under the candles, and a tray with delicate glasses and a plate of little cakes. Altogether, the whole atmosphere of the room was so comfortably hospitable, and the charm of Charlotte's gay manner so convincing, that both her guests went away with the pleasant sense that they left real home happiness under the patched shingles of the roof, and contentment greater than that found beside most hearths.

"Remember that James Macauley has promised to be a brother to you in my absence, and will see you through any difficulty that may arise," declared Burns, shaking hands. "Arthur Chester claims the same privilege and both will be only too happy to be called on. The small boys will vie with each other to keep your paths shovelled, and Bob wishes to be considered guard-in-chief."

"Cynthia will be flattered to be asked to help you in any way, dear," Ellen urged. "She will be lonely with no one to cook for,-do make her happy by letting her do things for you."

"You dear people," Charlotte responded, "be assured that Granny and I will remember all these counsels. Don't have us on your minds, but come back to us with the first crocuses, and know that we shall be wild with delight at seeing you."

Burns stooped over Madam Chase's chair, and took both her small hands in his. "What shall I bring you from Germany, dear lady?" he asked.

She always heard him better than she heard most people, and laughed like a pleased child at the question. "I spent a winter in Berlin, when I was a young woman," said she. "I remember it clearly enough. There was a little shop in one of the streets-I forget just which-where they sold pictures of the emperor, in little carved frames. William the First, it was then, grandfather of the present Emperor. I should like such another little picture of the present Kaiser-and thank you!"

"You shall have it-and something else, of my own choosing, if I may. Good-bye, dear lady. May I kiss you good-bye?"

She permitted the privilege, beaming with pleasure under the reverent touch of her fair cheek. Then she gave Burns a parting admonition.

"Take good care of that wife of yours; she is well worth it," she said.

"I realize that more every day, Madam Chase. I'll take care of her-with my life," he said, soberly, close to her ear. Then he bore Ellen away, both looking back with friendly eyes at the pair they left in the cottage, and wishing them well with all their warm hearts.

They had barely sailed when the first heavy snowfall of the season covered the world with a blanket of white, and this was the forerunner of almost continuous genuine winter weather. No severe storms such as Ellen had prophesied assailed the region until the first of February, but then came such a one as deserved no other name than the modern term of blizzard, a happening of which Madam Ruston and Charlotte had heard, but had never genuinely experienced.

"We're going to show you the real article this time," declared James Macauley, stamping his way in out of the snow one evening, when the storm had been in progress for twenty-four hours without intermission. "I came over to assure you that if in the morning your roof has disappeared under a drift you may rest easy in the knowledge that you will surely be shovelled out before noon. My wife sent me over to find out if you had plenty of supplies on hand."

"We weren't provided for quite so long a siege, but I was coming over to telephone from your house this morning. It's a great storm, isn't it? I think it's fun, for it's my first experience. Do tell your boys to come over and make a snow fort or something in my front yard."

"They'll be delighted, when the storm stops. There's no use making forts now, you know."

"No, I didn't know. I was prepared to go out this morning and play with them."

Macauley looked at her. "Not in that dress, I hope," he observed, bluntly. "It beats me, the way women wear their thinnest clothes in the coldest weather. I wonder how I'd feel with the kind of rig you're wearing. And it's none too warm here, it strikes me, if you don't mind my saying it, in spite of that good-looking fire."

"The room warms rather slowly in this extreme weather," Charlotte admitted. She was standing close to the fire, in the unquestionably summerlike dress of the blue cotton she chose for all her working frocks. With its low rolling collar and short sleeves it certainly did not suggest comfort. If Macauley had suspected that beneath it was no compensating protection, he would have been considerably more concerned than he was. His wife was accustomed to explain to him, when he criticised the inadequacy of her attire, that she fully made up for it by some extra, hidden warmth of clothing. And when he co

mplained that anyhow she didn't look warm she invariably replied that nothing could be more deceiving than looks.

He walked over to the windows. They were rattling stormily with each gust of the tempest raging outside, and as he held his hand at their edges he could feel all the winds of heaven raging in.

"Jupiter!" he exclaimed. "No wonder you're cold. That stage fire of yours can't warm all outdoors. I'll send for some window strips and nail you up."

"Please don't bother, Mr. Macauley. I am going to stuff them with cotton myself, and that will do quite well. If you will be so kind as to telephone this order to the grocery for me I shall be grateful, though I hardly see how the delivery wagons can get about."

He took the paper she handed him, and absently, after the manner of the householder, his eyes scanned it.

"Why, you want to order in larger lots than these!" he exclaimed. Then, as he looked up and saw her smiling without reply, he reddened and stammered hastily: "I beg your pardon; I looked without thinking. But, if you don't mind my advising you, I'd say double each of these items, at least; it's economy in the end. And-where's the meat order? Have you forgotten?"

"There are eggs on the grocery list," said Charlotte, a little flame of colour rising in her own cheek. "Granny prefers those. But you may double each item, if you wish. Probably you don't realize that I'm not ordering for a family like yours, and things spoil quickly when kept in the kitchen, as we keep ours."

"Of course you know your own affairs," mumbled Macauley, in some embarrassment. "But, if you'd heard R.P. Burns charging me to look after you as if you belonged to me, you'd pardon my impertinence."

"I appreciate your interest," Charlotte assured him, lightly. "But I'm really enjoying the new experience of this storm and don't mind a bit how long it lasts. Granny is warm as can be upstairs with her little stove, and as she can't hear the wind howl her spirits aren't in the least depressed. I admit I don't just love to hear the wind howl. If it would be still about it I should like to see the snow bury my whole front lawn three feet deep."

"I'm glad you take it that way. Martha insists that such storms are very depressing,-principally, I believe, because they keep her from running in to see her neighbours. Well, I must be off. I'll send the youngsters over to shovel a path to your front door; I had to wallow through myself."

He went away, and the storm raged on. The boys did not come over; their labours would have been of small avail if they had worked never so valiantly, for the drifts formed faster than they could have been shovelled away. Night fell with Nature still unappeased, and the wind, contrary to the prediction of the grocer's boy, when in the late afternoon he fought his way in with his basket of supplies, did not go down with the sun.

In the middle of the night, Charlotte, waking from an uneasy sleep, felt the house rocking so violently with the tempest that she became alarmed. She wondered if the shaky frame could withstand the continued shocks. The air of the room felt very cold to her cheek, although she had, out of consideration for the unusual conditions, refrained from opening wide her window. The rush of cold seemed to be coming from the door which opened into her grandmother's room, and with a sudden fear she flew out of bed and ran to investigate. With the first step inside Madam Chase's door her bare foot encountered the icy touch of snow, and she realized that a window was undoubtedly open to the full force of the storm.

Without a thought of herself she rushed across the room, understanding what must have happened: the shaky little old window frame had blown in, for the tempest came straight from that direction. Yes, she stumbled upon it, lying on the floor. She picked it up and tried to replace it, but an instant's struggle convinced her that this was impossible. With a cry she ran to the bed, herself chilled through, her heart beating fast with fear. How long had Granny been lying there in the onslaught of wind and cold?

She seized upon the small figure huddled under the blankets, lifted it, blankets and all, and bore it into her own room. She laid it on her own cot, covered it with a mountain of clothing, and crushed into place the door between the two rooms. Then, shaking with chill, her teeth chattering, she dressed, answering the old lady's one shivering complaint:

"I thought I was very cold, in my dreams, Charlotte. What has happened?"

"It's all right, Granny,-you are safe in my room. I'll get you warm in a minute."

She ran down to the kitchen, heated water over a spirit-lamp, and made a stiff little hot drink, which she carried upstairs, with a hot-water bottle. The bag at Granny's feet, the stimulating posset drunk, Charlotte felt easier about her charge and went next at the task of making her comfortable for the remainder of the night. She ran down again and made up the fire in the fireplace, convinced that she must get the old lady downstairs, now that with each blast the terrible wind was filling one room with the storm and battling at the little old door to make an entrance into the other. Then she put on a coat, and went up to wrestle with Granny's bed, while the wind swept round her, and the snow flew across the room and stung her cheeks. It was a hard task, getting the bed apart and down the stairs, but she accomplished it, and set it up in the living-room, far from the windows and with one side to the fire. Then she brought down springs and mattress, warmed the latter thoroughly at the blaze, and put it in place.

"Now, dear," she said presently, bending over the cot, "I'm going to take you down by the fire. It's too cold for you up here, and you'll be perfectly comfortable there."

Granny, wrapped in many blankets, was not quite so light a load as usual, but Charlotte staggered down with her, and soon had her at ease in her bed, freshly made up and warm with surrounding blankets. The room itself could not be so quickly warmed, but Granny knew no discomfort nor realized that her niece, with all her exertions, was still shaking now and then with chill and excitement. She had small notion of the anxiety Charlotte was suffering concerning her frail self.

"You must get the window replaced at once, my dear," she remarked, sleepily, from among her pillows. "It must be really quite a storm. I could feel the bed shake. Down here it seems quieter."

"Yes, Granny, much quieter. Go to sleep now, and make up for lost time."

Her charge forgot to ask her what she meant to do herself, and presently dropped comfortably off into a deep slumber. Charlotte piled on wood, making a rousing fire, and sat beside it for the rest of the night, wrapped in a blanket in the winged chair. She shivered away the hours, unable to become warm no matter how close to the fire she crouched, and in the morning was conscious that she had taken a severe cold, quite as might have been expected. But, as her chief anxiety was relieved by finding that Madam Chase awoke apparently in as good condition as ever and not in the least the worse for her exposure, Charlotte made light to herself of her own ill feelings.

She struggled across the street in the morning to telephone a carpenter, and as it was the dull season for workmen of his craft obtained one immediately. He proved a conscientious person, who shook his head over the ancient window frame and advised putting in a new one with a tightly fitting sash. By night the room was secure from the weather, and Madam Chase insisted on returning to it, in spite of Charlotte's entreaties that she remain downstairs until the storm should be over.

"Nonsense, child," she said firmly, "this is no place for me and my bed. Any of our friends are likely to come in at any time, and it is impossible to keep the room looking properly under such conditions. Besides, I much prefer my own room."

So at her bedtime Charlotte moved her back to her quarters, having heated them to a summer temperature with the small oil-stove.

"Poof!" said the little old lady, as she was brought into the room. "How unnecessarily warm it is here! Just because a storm rages outside, dear, why should it be necessary to heat this room so stuffily? The stove consumes the air. When I'm in bed you must open the window and give me something to breathe."

"I was so frightened last night," Charlotte explained hoarsely in Madam Chase's ear, "I feel like doing you up in cotton wool, lest such another icy wind blow on you."

"Why, what a cold you have, child!" cried her grandmother, recognizing this undoubted fact more fully than she had yet done. "You must make yourself some hot ginger tea, or some hot lemonade, and get to bed at once. Promise me you will do it, my dear."

Charlotte nodded, smiling in the candle-light. Then she tucked her charge in with more than ordinary care, and spent some time in arranging the ventilation of the room to her satisfaction. The storm outside was still heavy, but the wind was less violent, and it had changed its quarter.

She went downstairs again, finding it too early for her own bedtime, weary though she was. Martha Macauley presently sent over a maid who was commissioned to send Charlotte across for an evening with the family, the maid herself to remain with Madam Chase. "If you have the courage to come out in the storm," the note read.

"I'm afraid I haven't, thank you," Charlotte wrote back, and dismissed the maid with a word of sympathy for her necessary breasting of the drift-blown passage across the street.

"Oh, it's awful out," the girl said. "I don't think Mrs. Macauley knows how bad it is, not being out herself to-day, and Mr. Macauley away."

Charlotte made up her fire afresh, and pulling the winged chair close sat down before it. She was cold and weary, and her head felt very heavy. She had put on a loose gown of a thin Japanese silk-dull red in hue, a relic of other days. Her hair was loosely braided and hung down her back in a long, dark plait. Upon her feet were slippers, about her shoulders a white shawl of Granny's.

All the gay and gallant aspect of her, as her friends knew her, was gone from her to-night, as she sat there staring into the fire. She still shivered, now and then, in the too-thin red silk robe, and drew the shawl closer. Her heart was as heavy as her head, her mind busy with retrospect and forecast, neither enlivening. The courage which had sustained her through almost four years of endeavour was at a singularly low ebb to-night. It had ebbed low at other times, but usually she had been able to summon it again by a mere act of the will, by a determination to be resolute, not to be downcast, never to allow herself so much as to imagine ultimate failure. To-night, although she told herself that her depression was the result of physical fatigue, and fought with all her strength to conquer the hopelessness of the mood, she found herself in the end prostrate under the weight of thoughts heavier than the spirit could bear.

She sat there for an hour; then, still shivering, prepared to rake the ashes over the remains of the fire and go to bed. It occurred to her suddenly that before closing things up below she would see if Madam Chase were asleep, or if she might need something hot to drink again, as sometimes happened. She went wearily upstairs, her candle flickering in the narrow passageway. It seemed, somehow, as if the whole house were full of small conflicting winds pressing into it through every loose window-frame and under each sunken threshold.

She stooped over the bed, the candle-light falling on the small, white face. White-how white! With all its delicate fairness, had it ever looked like this before? With a sudden fear clutching at her heart she held the little flame lower....

She groped her way half-blindly down the stairs, the candle left behind. As she reached the foot a stamping sounded upon the porch outside the living-room door. She ran toward it,-never had sound of human approach been so madly welcome. Before she could reach the door a knock fell upon it.

She wrenched at the latch, finding the door frozen into place, as it had been all through this weather. She tugged in vain for a moment, then a voice called from the other side:

"Look out! I'm going to push!"

With a catch in her throat, her heart pounding even more wildly than it had done before, she stood aside. What voice was that? It couldn't be possible, of course, but it had sounded like one she knew in its every inflection, one which did not belong to any of her nearby friends. It could not be possible-it could not-but-

The door crashed open, and a mound of snow fell in with it. Striding in over the snow came a tall figure in an enveloping great coat, covered with white from head to foot, the face ruddy and smiling.

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