Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter X. In Which He Proves Himself a Host
"Winifred," said R. P. Burns, invading Mrs. Arthur Chester's sunny living-room one crisp October morning, leather cap in hand, "I'm going to give a dinner to-night. Stag dinner for Grant, of Edinburgh - man who taught me half the most efficient surgery I know. He's over here, and I've just found it out. Only been in the city two days: goes to-morrow."
"How interesting, Red! Where do you give it? At one of the clubs or hotels in town?"
"That's the usual thing, of course. That's why I'm not going to do it. Grant's a rugged sort of commonsense chap - hates show and fuss. He gets an overpowering lot of being `entertained' in precisely the conventional style. He's a pretty big gun now, and he can't escape. When I told him I was going to have him out for a plain dinner at home he looked as relieved as if I'd offered him a reprieve for some sentence."
"Undoubtedly he'll enjoy the relaxation. Hut you'll have a caterer out from town, I suppose?"
"Not on your life. Cynthia can cook well enough for me, and I know Ronald Grant's tastes like a book. But what I want to ask is that you and Martha Macauley will come over and see that the table looks shipshape. Cynthia's a captain of the kitchen, but her ideas of table decoration are a trifle too original even for me. Miss Mathewson's away on her vacation. I'll send in some flowers. My silver and china are nothing remarkable, bur as long as the food's right that doesn't matter."
"I shall be delighted to do it for you, Red, as you know. So will Martha. We - "
"Thanks immensely. I want Ches of course, and Jim Macauley's coming. The rest are M, D.'s. I must be off."
He would have been off, without doubt, in an instant more, for he was half out of the door as he spoke, but Winifred Chester flew after him and laid an insistent hand on his coat sleeve.
"Red! You must stop long enough to tell me something about it. How can I help you unless I know your plans? What hour have yon set? How many are coming, and who? How many courses are you going to have? Have you engaged a waitress?"
Red Pepper looked bewildered. "Is there all that to it?" he inquired helplessly. "How in thunder - I beg your pardon - how do I know how many courses there'll be? Ask Cynthia that. The hour's seven-thirty; can't get around earlier, even if I wanted to be less formal. There's Van Horn and Buller and Fields and Grayson and Grant and Ches and Jim and - and myself. I may have asked somebody else, seems as if did but I can't remember. You'd better put on an extra plate in case I have."
He was starting off again, but Winifred, laughing helplessly, again detained him. "Red, you're too absurd! What about the waitress? Shall I find one for you?"
"I supposed Cynthia could serve us; she always does me."
"She can't to-night, and prepare things to send in, too."
"Oh, well, see to it if you'll be so kind; only let me go, for I've only fifteen minutes now to meet a consultant ten miles away. Good-bye, Win,"
He took time to turn and smile at her, and for the sake of the smile - she knew of none other just like it - she forgave him for involving her in the labours she already clearly foresaw were to be hers. How precisely like Red Pepper Burns it was to plan for a "stag" dinner in this inconsequent way! If it had been a coming operation, now, no detail of preparation would have been too insignificant to command his attention. But in the present instance unquestionably all he had done was to appear at the door of the kitchen and casually inform Cynthia that eight or nine men were coming to dinner to-night, and he'd trust her to see that they should have something good to eat. Poor Cynthia!
Winifred ran over to consult Martha Macauley and together they braved Burns's housekeeper in her kitchen. The result was relief, as far as the dinner itself was concerned. Cynthia was a superior cook, and long experience with exclusively masculine tastes had taught her the sort of thing which, however out of the beaten line for entertaining, was likely to prove successful in pleasing "eight or nine men," wherever they might hail from.
"Cynthia's planned a dinner that will be about as different from Lazier's concoctions as could be imagined," Winifred said to Martha, "but it will taste what Ches calls `licking good.' Now for the table. I'm afraid Red's china and linen are none too fine. We'll have to help him out there."
They helped him out. Only the finest of Martha's linen and silver, the thinnest of Winifred's plates and cups and the most precious of her glass would content them. When the table was set in the low-ceiled, casement-windowed old dining-room where Red Pepper was accustomed to bolt his meals alone when he took time for them at all, it was a to table to suggest arrogantly the hand of woman, Winifred eyed it with milled satisfaction and concern.
"It looks lovely, Martha, but not a bit bachelor-like. Do you suppose he'll mind?"
"Not as long as the food is right; and judging by the heavenly smells from the kitchen there's no fear for that. But it's five o'clock, and the flowers he promised you haven't come. Do you suppose he's forgotten?"
"Of course he has. If he remembers the dinner itself it'll be all we can expect of him. It doesn't matter. There are heaps of pink and crimson asters yet in the garden, and some fall anemones. We'll arrange them, and then if his flowers do come we'll change. But they won't."
They didn't. But the pink and crimson asters furnished a centrepiece decidedly more in keeping, somehow, with a men's dinner than roses would have been, and the decorators were content with them. Dora, Mrs. Macauley's own serving maid, who was to take the part of the waitress Red Pepper had not thought necessary, said they looked "awful tasty now."
"It's after seven and Red hasn't come yet." Winifred Chester rushed at Arthur, dressing placidly. "Jim went in for the men with his car, and said he'd surely have them here by seven-twenty. You'll have to go over and do the honours for him till he comes. He'll have to dress after he gets here."
"He won't stop to dress - not if he's late," predicted Chester, obediently hastening. "He'll rush in at the last minute, smelling horribly of antiseptics, and set everybody laughing with some story. They won't care what he wears. It's always a case of `where MacGregor sits, there's the head of the table,' you know, with Red. I certainly hope nothing will make him late. I'm not up to playing host to a lot of physicians and surgeons. I should feel as if I were about to be operated on."
"Nonsense, dear, there's no jollier company when they're off duty. But Red isn't here yet, and I'm sure I hear Jim's Gabriel down the road. Do hurry!"
Chester ran across the back lawn and in through Burns's kitchen, startling Cynthia so that she nearly dropped the salt-box into a sauce she was making for the beefsteak. He reached the little front porch just in time to welcome the batch of professional gentlemen who came talking and laughing up the path together.
"Doctor Burns has been detained, but I'm sure he'll be here soon," Chester explained, shaking hands, and discovering for himself which was the famous Scottish surgeon by the "rugged commonsense" look of the man, quite as R. P. Burns had characterized him.
Seven-thirty - no Red Pepper. Seven-forty-five - eight o'clock - still no sign of him; harder to be explained, no sign from him. Why didn't he telephone or send a telegram or a messenger? Waiting longer would not do; Cynthia, in the kitchen, was becoming unnervingly agitated.
The dinner was served. Chester, at one end of the table, Macauley at the other, both feeling a terrible responsibility upon them, did their best. There had turned out to be two extra guests instead of the one whom Burns had thought he might have asked but couldn't be sure; and Winifred had had a bad ten minutes looking out a full set of everything with which to set his place. For Red Pepper's place must certainly be left unfilled; it would be beyond the possibilities that the dinner should end without him.
"I believe he has forgotten," whispered Martha to Winifred in the office, from whose dim shadows they were surreptitiously peering into the dining room to make sure that everything was going properly.
"Oh, he couldn't, not with the Edinburgh man here. He's often told us about Doctor Grant and how much he owes him. He does look splendid and capable, doesn't he - for all he's so burly and homely? And the other men all feel honoured to be here with him; even Doctor Van Horn, who's always so impressed with himself."
"They seem to be having a good time. And they're eating as if they never saw food before. It's a success - as much as it can be without the host himself. Oh, why doesn't Red come?"
"He wouldn't desert a patient in a crisis for a dozen dinners."
"No, but he'd send word."
"Look at Arthur. He's hobnobbing with Doctor Grant as if he'd always known him."
"Jim is having a bad time with Doctor Van Horn. I can see it in his eye. Mercy! one of them looked this way. I'm afraid he saw me. Come!"
The next time they reconnoitred, the dinner was working toward its end. It was time, for it was nearly ten o'clock, and Cynthia's courses though not many, had been mighty. Presently the table had been cleared, and the men were drinking coffee and lighting the excellent cigars which had been Macauley's thought when he found that Red Pepper was not on hand to provide them himself.
Under the influence of these genial stimulants - Burns never offered any others, and one man who knew it had declined to come - the sociability grew more positive. Chester relaxed his legs under the table, feeling that at last Red's guests could take care of themselves. Grayson proved an accomplished story-teller; Buller had lately had some remarkable adventures; even Ronald Grant, who had seemed a trifle taciturn, related an extraordinary experience of another man. The Scottish surgeon had the reputation of never talking about himself.
The smoke grew thick. Macauley's cigars were of a strong brand; the air was blue with their reek. Still the guests sat about the table, and still the talk went on.
It was interrupted quite suddenly by the advent of Red Pepper Burns himself. Macauley saw him first, standing in the doorway between dining room and office, but for an instant he did not know him. Macauley's startled look caught Chester's attention; he sprang to his feet. At the same moment the Scottish surgeon, following Chester's eyes, observed the figure in the door. He was first to reach it.
"What's happened ye, lad?" he asked, and acted without waiting for an answer. He threw a powerful arm about Burns's shoulders and led him, reeling, back into the office where the air was purer.
They crowded round, doctors though they were and had many times sharply ordered other people not to crowd. They could see at a glance that Burns was very faint, that his right arm hung helpless at his side, that his forehead wore a blackening bruise, and that his clothes were torn and covered with dirt. For the rest they had to wait.
Grant took charge of his friend - the pupil whom he had never forgotten. The arm was badly broken, too badly to be set without an anaesthetic. In the inner office Van Horn, his dress coat off, gave the chloroform while the Scotchman set the arm; and the American surgeons, no longer crowding, but standing off respectfully as if at a clinic, looked on critically. It was rapid and deft work, they admitted, especially since the surgeon was using another man's splints, and the patient proved to be one of the subjects who fight the anesthetic from beginning to end.
Chester, white-faced but plucky, stuck it out, but Macauley fled to the outer air. Seeing a familiar long, dark form half on, half off the driveway, he hurried toward it. A minute later he had all the unoccupied guests around him on the lawn, and one of the Green Imp's lamps was turned upon its crippled shape.
"By George, he's had a bad accident," one and another of them said as they examined the car's injuries. The hood was jammed until they wondered why the engine was not disabled; the left running-board was nearly torn off and the fender a shapeless wreck. The green paint was scraped and splintered along the left side.
"He must have come home by himself. How far, do you suppose?"
"Not far, driving with his left hand, and faint."
"He probably wasn't faint till he struck the indoor heat and the tobacco smoke."
"He's come at least five miles. Look at that red clay on her sides. There's no red clay like that around here except in one place - at the old mill on the Red Bank road." Chester demonstrated his theory excitedly. "I ought to know, I've ridden with him on every out-of-the-way by-path in the county, first any' last. There's a fright of a hill just there."
"Five miles with that arm? Gee!" This was Buller.
"Plucky," was Grayson's comment, and there was a general agreement among the men standing round.
Macauley put his shoulder to the Imp. "Let's push her in, fellows," he proposed. He had forgotten that they were medical gentlemen of position. "I don't seem to want to drive her just now," he explained.
They pushed the Imp to the red barn and shut it in with its injuries. Then they went back to the house, where presently Burns came out from under his anaesthetic and lay looking at his guests from under the bandage which swathed his head.
"I'm mighty sorry to have broken up the fun this way, gentlemen," he said with a pale sort of smile. "Grayson was telling a story when I butted in, I think. Finish it, will you, Grayson?"
"Not much. Yours is the story we want now, if you're up to telling it. What happened out there on the Red Bank road?"
Burns scanned him. "How do you know what road?"
"Your friend Mr. Chester's detective instincts. He says there's no other red clay like that that plasters your car. By the way, that's a fast machine of yours. Did you lose control on the hill?"
"That's it," acknowledged Burns simply. "I lost control."
Chester was staring at him. It was not in the nature of reason to suppose that Red Pepper had lost control of that car unless something else had happened first. The steering gear of the Imp was certainly in perfect condition; Macauley had said so. He wondered if Red meant that he had lost his temper. But what could make him lose his temper - on Red Bank hill?
They questioned him closely, all of them in turn. But that was all he would say. He had lost control of the car. One or two of the men who knew Burns least looked as if they could tell what was the probable cause of such loss of control. Chester wanted to knock them down as he fancied he recognized this attitude of mind. And at last they went away - which was certainly the best thing they could do in the circumstances.
All but Ronald Grant. The Scottish surgeon accepted without hesitation Burns's suggestion that Doctor Grant should stay and keep him company for an hour or two while he got used to his arm, and should then sleep under his roof. So they settled down, Burns on his couch, Grant in an armchair. When Chester left he was thinking that, except for the outward signs of his adventure, Burns did not look as unfit as might have been expected for a happy hour with an old friend.
Just outside the house Chester himself had an adventure. He was quite alone, and he almost ran into a slim figure on the walk. The lights from the office shone out into the October night, and Chester could see at a glance who the girl was, even if the gleam of golden hair which all the town knew had not told him. She was panting and her hand was on her side.
"Did Doctor Burns get home all right?" she cried under her breath.
"What do you know about Doctor Burns?" was Chester's quick reply. He was startled by the girl's appearance here at this hour.
"It doesn't make any difference what I know. Tell me if he got home. Was he much hurt? Why shouldn't you tell me that, Mr. Chester?"
"He is home and all right. Do you want him professionally? He can't go out to-night."
"I know he can't. But I had to know he got home. I - "
She sank down on the doorstep, shaken and sobbing. Chester stood looking down at het, wondering what on earth he was to say. What had Rose Seeley to do with Red? What had she to do with his losing control on the Red Bank hill? A quick thought crossed his mind, to be as quickly dismissed. No, whatever Red's private affairs were, they could have nothing to do with this Rose - too bruised and trampled a rose to take the fancy of a man like him even in his most evil hour.
Suddenly she lifted her head. "He saved my life and 'most lost his. They'd been making repairs on the hill and, some way, the lanterns wasn't lit. It's an awful dark night. He saw what he was comin' to and turned out sudden into the grass. He had to go into the ditch, then, not to run over me - and somebody else. He ran away!" Plainly that scornful accent did not mean Burns. "I didn't. I helped him get the car up. I got his engine goin' for him; he showed me how. His arm was broke. There ain't no house for a mile out there. I hated to see him try to come home alone. I've walked all the way - run some of it - to make sure he got here."
"He got here," murmured Chester, thinking to himself that this was the queerest story he'd over heard, but confident he would never have any better version of it and pretty sure that it was the true one.
"I suppose I'm a crazy fool to tell you, Mr. Chester," said the girl thickly. "But you're a gentleman. You won't tell. No more will he. He didn't tell you how it happened, did he?"
She did not ask the question. She made the assertion, looking to him for confirmation. Chester gave it. "No, he didn't tell," he said gravely,
When she had gone he crossed the lawn to his own home, musing. "For a `plain, quiet dinner,'" said he, quoting a phrase of Burns's used when he gave Chester the invitation, "I think Red's has been about as spectacular as they make 'em. Bully old boys"