Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter I. In Which He Vows a Vow
"There comes the Green Imp "
"How can you tell?"
"Don't you hear? Red's coming in on five cylinders for all he can get out of 'em. Anybody else would stop and fix up. He's in too much of a hurry - as usual."
The Green Imp tore past the porch where Burns's neighbours waved arms of greeting which he failed to see, for he did not turn his head. The car went round the curve of the driveway at perilous speed, and only the fact that from road to old red barn was a good twenty rods made it seem possible that the Green Imp could come to a standstill in time to prevent its banging into the rear wall of the barn.
Two minutes later Burns ran by the Chesters' porch on his way to his own. Chester hailed him.
"What's your everlasting hurry, Red? Come up and sit down and cool off."
"Not now," called back a voice curtly, out of the June twilight. The big figure ran on and disappeared into the small house, the door slamming shut behind it.
"Red's in a temper. Tell by the sound of his voice.
"Is he ever in anything except a temper?" inquired a guest of the Chesters. Arthur Chester turned on her.
"Show's you don't know him much, Pauline. He's the owner of the fiercest good disposition ever heard of. He's the pepperest proposition of an angel this earth has ever seen. He's a red-headed, sharp-tongued brute of a saint - "
"Why, Arthur Chester!"
"He's a pot of mustard that's clear balm - if you don't mind getting stung when it's applied."
"Well, of all the - "
"I'm going over to get something for this abominable headache - and, incidentally, to find out what's the row. He's probably lost a patient - it always goes to his brain like that. When he abuses his beloved engine that way it's because some other machinery has stopped somewhere."
"If he's lost a patient you'd better let him alone, dear," advised his wife, Winifred.
"No - he needs to get his mind off it, on me. I can fix up a few symptoms for him."
"He'll see through you," called Mrs. Chester softly, after him.
"No doubt of that. But it may divert him, just the same."
Chester made his way across the lawn and in at the side door which led to the dimly lighted village offices of Redfield Pepper Burns, physician and surgeon. Not that the gilt-lettered sign on the glass of the office door read that way. "R. F. Burns, M.D." was the brief inscription above the table of "office hours," and the owner of the name invariably so curtailed it. But among his friends the full name had inevitably been turned into the nickname, for the big, red-haired, quick-tempered, warm-hearted fellow was "Red Pepper Burns" as irresistibly to them as he had been, a decade earlier, to his classmates in college.
As Chester went in at the door a figure arose slowly from its position - flung full length, face downward, on a couch in the shadowy inner office and came into view.
"Toothache? Dentist down the street," said a blurred voice unsympathetically.
Chester laughed. "Oh, come, Red," said he. "Give me some of that headache dope. I'm all out."
"Glad to hear it. You don't get any more from me."
"Why not? I've got a sure-enough headache - I didn't come over to quiz you. The blamed thing whizzes like a buzz saw."
"Can't help it. Go soak it."
Chester advanced. "I'll get the powders myself, then. I know the bottle."
A substantial barrier interposed. "No, you don't. You've taken up six ounces of that stuff do seven days. You quit to-night."
"Look here, Red, what's the use of taking it out on me like that, if you are mad at something? If your head - "
"I wish it did ache - like ten thousand furies. It might take some of the pressure off somewhere else," growled R. P. Burns. He shut the door of the inner office hard behind him.
"I thought so," declared Arthur Chester, suddenly forgetting about his headache in his anxiety to know the explanation of the five cylinders. It was a small suburban town in which they lived, and if something had gone wrong it was a matter of common interest. "Can you tell me about it ?" he asked - a little diffidently, for none knew better than he that things could not always be told, and that no lips were locked tighter than Red Pepper's when the secret was not his to tell.
"Engine's on the blink. Got to go out and fix it," was the unpromising reply. Burns picked up a sparkplug from the office desk as he spoke.
"Had your dinner?"
"Don't want it."
"Shall I go out with you?"
The answer was an unintelligible grunt. As Chester was about to follow his friend out - for there could be no doubt that Red Pepper Burns was his friend in spite of this somewhat surly, though by no means unusual, treatment - another door opened tentatively, and a head was cautiously inserted.
"Your dinner's ready, Doctor Burns," said a doubtful voice.
Burns turned. "Leave a pitcher of milk on the table for me, Cynthia," he said in a gentler voice than Chester had yet heard from him tonight, crisp though it was. "Nothing else."
Chester, catching a glimpse of a brightly lighted dining-room and a table lavishly spread, undertook to remonstrate. He had seen the housekeeper's disappointed face, also. But Burns cut him short.
"Come along - if you must," said he, and stalked out into the night.
For an hour, in the light from one of the Green Imp's lamps, Chester sat on an overturned box and watched Burns work. He worked savagely, as if applying surgical measures to a mood as well as to a machine. He worked like a skilled mechanic as well; every turn of a nut, every polish of a thread meaning definite means to an end. The night was hot and he had thrown off coat and collar and rolled his sleeves high, so a brawny arm gleamed in the bright lamplight, and the open shirt exposed a powerful neck. Chester, who was of slighter build and not as tall as he would have liked to be, watched enviously.
"Whatever goes wrong with your affairs, Red," he observed suddenly, breaking a long interval during which the engine had been made to throb and whirl like the "ten thousand furies" to whom its engineer had lately made allusion, "you have the tremendous asset of a magnificent body to fall back on for comfort."
With a movement of the hand Burns stopped his engine, now running quietly, and stood up straight. He threw out one bare arm, grimy and oily with his labours. "Two hours ago," said he in a voice now controlled and solemn, "if by cutting off that right arm at the shoulder I could have saved a human life I'd have done it."
"And now," retorted Chester quickly, "now, two hours after - would you cut it off now?"
Red Pepper looked at him. The arm dropped. "No," said he, "I wouldn't. Not for a dozen lives like that. I'm not heroic, after all - only hot and cold by jumps, like a thermometer. But I ache all over, just the same. She runs like a bird now. Jump in - we'll take a spin and try her out on the road. I may need her before midnight."
Nothing loth, for he knew the Green Imp and her driver and had had many a swift run on a moonlight night before in the same company, Chester took the slim roadster's other seat, watching the long green hood point the way down the driveway, past the porch where the women, in white gowns showing coolly in the light from the arc lamp at the corner of the street, called a goodbye.
"Back - some time," replied Chester's voice, rising above the low purr of the engine with a note of satisfaction in it. The figure beside him, still in open, white shirt, with bare arms and uncovered, thick thatch of red hair, did not turn its head.
"Arthur's never so happy as when he's out with Red in the Green Imp," Winifred said to her guest as the roadster shot away under the elms which drooped beneath the arc light.
"Doctor Burns is certainly the oddest man I ever saw," replied the guest, swinging idly in the hammock and watching the car out of sight down the long vista of the village street. "He hasn't given me one real good look yet. I suppose if I were a patient he would favour me with an all-seeing gaze out of those Irish-Scotch barbarian eyes of his, but as it is" - her voice was slightly petulant - "I believe I shall have to do as Arthur has: make up some symptoms and go over to his office."
"If you do you'll get precisely the same treatment I presume Arthur had." Mrs. Chester laughed as she spoke. "I doubt very much whether he comes back with any headache medicine."
"But he got a moonlight ride in that beauty of a car," the guest declared enviously. "That treatment would suit me wonderfully well, whatever was the matter."
"Would you have gone with him in his shirt-sleeves? He's plainly in a shirt-sleeve mood to-night."
"I think a drive in the moonlight with a `brute of a saint' in shirt-sleeves, with arms like those, might be interesting," mused the guest, indicating invisible patterns on the porch with the toe of a white slipper.
"He would probably talk cars and engines every mile in the most matter-of-fact way," Winifred Chester assured her. "No woman yet has ever been able, as far as this town knows, to strike a spark of romance out of Red Pepper Burns."
"Yet he has red hair," murmured the guest to herself, and continued to look thoughtfully down the street along which the Green Imp had shot out toward the open! country beyond.
Out in that open country, miles away, the car running with that exquisite precision of rotating cylinder explosions which is music to the trained ear of the mechanic at the wheel, the two men sat silent. The pace of the Green Imp was one to cut off speech, for the road wets straight and empty, stretching like a white ribbon under the stars, with now and then a band of midnight shade crossing it where arching tree-tops met the course which invites an open throttle and the intent eye which goes with it.
Suddenly the car struck aside from the straightaway and with open cut-out roared up a steep hill by means of which a narrow road led off toward a part of the country not often selected by motorists for pleasure spins. Chester recognized that his companion had a purpose beyond that of "trying out" his engine, unless, indeed, the tough and rocky grade were a test. But Burns was still silent, and the other man applied himself to holding on. A mile up the road the car came to an abrupt standstill before a tiny house.
"Going to make a call, after all?" was on Chester's lips, but the sight of something, showing white beside the door in the lamplight which streamed out upon a small, decrepit porch, drove back the words.
Burns left a silent engine and strode up the straggling path with the light tread of the heavy man whose muscles are under his control. He walked in at the open door without knocking, and Chester caught the sharp sound of a woman's voice at a tension, saying: "Oh, Doctor!"
It seemed to him an hour, though by his watch it was but nine minutes, that he sat watching the little flimsy streamer of white flutter to and fro in the lamplight, his heart beating heavily, as a father's will at sight of the sign of some other man's loss.
At the end of those interminable nine minutes Burns was back again in the car. He turned the Green Imp about as quietly as if she were a cat stealing out of the yard, and sent her down the rocky road at her slowest speed. At the bottom of the hill he broke the long silence.
'Couldn't have slept an hour if I hadn't come back," he said in a low tone. "Back and apologized for being a brute. It's eased me up a bit I think it's eased her, too, poor soul."
"Then it wasn't losing the case " Chester began doubtfully. He was never sure just when it was safe to ask Red Pepper questions, but he thought it seemed safer than usual now.
"No, it wasn't losing the case, though that was bad enough. It was losing my infernal hair-trigger of a temper that's been cutting in like a knife. I had the boy where he ought to get well if they followed my precautions a thousand times repeated. This morning his heart was a whole lot stronger; it only needed time. Tonight his mother let him sit up - in spite of all I'd threatened her with if she did. He went out like a snuffed candle. When I saw it I was so angry with her I" - he thrust up one hand and ran it through his thick locks with a gesture of savagery - "I let loose on her - poor soul with her heart already broken. He was the only boy - of course, - I ought to have been shot on the spot."
He sent the car flying down the road. Chester could think of nothing to say. He could imagine the sort of apology Red had given the boy's mother - one to make her forgive and adore him. No doubt it had "eased her." It must have been a hard thing for R. P. Burns, M.D., to do. Suddenly recalling this he said so, and added a word of admiration. Burns turned on him.
"Boy," he said, "I'm the toughest case on my list. I'm a chronic patient. Just as I think I have myself in hand I suffer a relapse. I break out in a new place. Of all men who need self-control, it's a surgeon needs it most. Sometimes, I'm in too much of a temper to operate - just because a nurse has failed to provide the right sutures. Every red hair on my head stands up like a porcupine's quills - my hand isn't steady I can't trust my own judgment till I've cooled down. There's only one hope for me "
He broke off abruptly, and the Green Imp accelerated her pace as they came to the long, straight road home. Until they reached the turn under the elms which led to the town, he left the sentence unfinished, while Chester waited. Chester felt it would be worth waiting for - that which Red Pepper might say next. When it came it surprised him - it even gave him a strange thrill coming from Red Pepper.
"I've put my case into the only competent hands," said Burns slowly and quite simply. "I've promised my Maker I'll never insult His name again."