Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter XI. In Which He Gets Even with Himself
R. P. Burns sat at his desk in the inner office, laboriously inscribing a letter with his left hand. It did not get on well. The handwriting in the four lines he had succeeded in fixing upon paper bore not the slightest resemblance to his usual style; instead, it looked like the chirography of a five-year-old attempting for the first time to copy from some older person's script.
He held up the sheet and gazed at it in disgust. Then he glanced resentfully at his sling-supported right arm, especially at the fingers which protruded from the bandages in unaccustomed limp whiteness. Then he shook his left fist at it. "You'll do some work the minute you come out of those splints," he said. "You'll work your passage back to fitness quicker than an arm ever did before, you pale-faced shirk!"
Then he applied himself to his task, painfully forming a series of pothooks until one more sentence was completed. He read it over, then suddenly crumpled the sheet into a ball and dropped it into the waste basket.
"Lie there!" he whimsically commanded it. "You're not fit to go to a lady."
He got up and marched into the outer office where his office nurse sat at a typewriter, making lout bills.
"Miss Mathewson," he requested gruffly, "please take a dictation. No, not on the bill letterheads - on the regular office sheets. I'll speak slowly. In fact, I'll probably speak very slowly."
"I'm sorry I don't know shorthand," said Miss Mathewson, preparing her paper.
"I'm not. Instead, I'd rather you'd be as slow as you can, to give me time to think. I'm not used to transmitting mediums - the battery may be weak - in fact, I'm pretty sure it is. All ready? My dear Mrs. Lessing"
His cheek reddened suddenly as he saw the nurse's waiting hands poised over the keys when she had written this address. He cleared his throat and plunged in.
"This has been a typical November day, dull and cold. We had fine October weather clear into the second week of this month, but all at once it turned cold and dull. The leaves are all off the trees - Hold on don't say that. She knows the leaves are all off the trees the middle of November."
"I have it partly written."
"Oh! Well, go on, then; I'll fix it: a fact it may be necessary to remind you of down there in South Carolina, where - Miss Mathewson, do you suppose the leaves are on in South Carolina?"
"I really don't know, Doctor Burns. I have always lived in the North."
"So have I - bother it! Well, leave that out."
"But I've written `a fact it may be necessary - "
"Well, finish it: a fact at may be necessary to remind you of, you have been gone so long. Oh, hang it -that sounds flat! How can I tell how a sentence is coming out, this way? Let that paragraph stand by itself - we'll hasten on to something that will take the reader's mind off our unfortunate beginning:
"You will be glad to know that Bobby Burns is well, and not only well, but fat and hearty. He had a wrestling bout with Harold Macauley the other day and downed him. He got a black eye, but that didn't count, though you may not like to hear of it. He is heavier than when you saw him - Oh, I've said that! Miss Mathewson, when you see I'm repeating myself, hold me up."
"I can't always tell when you're going to repeat yourself," Miss Mathewson objected.
"That's enough about Bob, anyhow. Mrs. Macauley writes her all about him every week, only she probably didn't mention the black eye. Well, let's start a new paragraph. When in doubt, always start a new paragraph. It may turn out a gold mine.
"I found my work much crippled by the loss of my arm. Good Heavens, that sounds as if I'd had it amputated! And I suppose she naturally would infer that a man can't do as much with his arm in a sling as he can when it's in commission. Well, let it stand. I didn't realize how much surgery I was doing till I had to cut it all out. `Cut it out,' that certainly has a surgical ring. It sounds rather bragging, too, I'm afraid. Never mind. The worst of it is to feel the muscles ,atrophying from disuse and the tissues wasting, so that when it comes out of the splints it will still have to be cured of the degeneration the splints have - Oh, hold on, Miss Mathewson - this sounds like a paper for a surgical journal!"
Burns, who had been walking up and down the room, cast himself into an armchair and stared despairingly at his amanuensis. But she reassured him by saying quietly that it was always difficult to dictate when one was not used to it, and that the letter sounded quite right.
"Well, if you think so, we'll try another paragraph - that's certainly enough about me. Let me see - " He ran his left hand through his hair.
Footsteps sounded upon the porch. Arthur Chester opened the door.
"Oh, excuse me, Red. It's nothing. I was going for a tramp, and I thought "
"I'm with you." Burns sprang to his feet looking immensely relieved. "Thank you, Miss Mathewson, we'll finish another time. Or perhaps I can scrawl a finish with my left hand. I'll take the letter. I'll look in at Bob and get my hat in a jiffy, Ches."
He seized the letter, ran into the inner office, looked in at the dimly-lighted room where the boy was sleeping, took up a soft hat and, out of sight of Miss Mathewson, crammed the typewritten sheet into his pocket in a crumpled condition. Pulling the soft hat well down over his eyes he followed Chester out into the fresh November night, drawing a long breath of satisfaction as the chill wind struck him.
"You were just in time to save me from an awful scrape I'd got myself into," he remarked as they tramped away.
"I thought you looked hot and unhappy. Were you proposing to Miss Mathewson by letter? It's always best to say those things right out: letters are liable to misinterpretation," jeered Chester.
"You're right there. I was riding for a fall fast enough when you reined up alongside. But what's a fellow to do when he can't write himself, except in flytracks?"
"I presume the lady would prefer the fly-track to a typewritten document executed by another woman."
"How do you know the thing was to a lady?" Burns demanded.
"That's easy. No man looks as upset as you did over a communication to another man. What do you write to her for, anyhow, when she's as near as Washington?"
"Doesn't she keep you informed? Winifred says Martha says Ellen came back up to Washington yesterday for the wedding of a friend - hastily arranged - to an army officer suddenly ordered somewhere - old friend of Ellen's - former bridesmaid of hers, I believe. She - "
Burns had stopped short in the middle of the hubbly, half-frozen street they were crossing. "How long does she stay in Washington?"
"I don't know. Ask Win. Probably not long, since she only came for this wedding. It's tonight, I think she said. Aren't you coming?"
Burns walked on at a rapid stride with which Chester, shorter-legged and narrower-chested, found it difficult to keep up. They had their tramp, a four-mile course which they were accustomed to cover frequently together at varying paces. Chester thought they had never covered it quite so quickly nor so silently before. For Burns, from the moment of receiving Chester's news, appeared to fall into a reverie from which it was impossible to draw him, and the subject of which his companion found it not difficult to guess. After the first half mile, Chester, than whom few men were more adaptable to a friend's mood, accepted the situation and paced along as silently as Burns, until the round was made and the two were at Burns's door.
"Good night. Afraid I've been dumb as an oyster," was Burns's curt farewell, and Chester chuckled as he walked away.
"Something'll come of the dumbness," he prophesied to himself.
Something did. It was a telegram, telephoned to the office by a sender who rejoiced that having one's left arm in a sling did not obstruct one's capacity to send pregnant messages by wire. He had obtained the address from Martha Macauley, also over the telephone:
"Mrs. E. F. Lessing, Washington, D. C.
"I suppose that's a fool telegram," he admitted to himself as he hung up the receiver, "but after that typing mess I had to express myself somehow except by signs. Now to get off. Luckily, this suit'll do. No time to change, anyhow."
He telephoned for a sleeper berth; he called up a village physician and the house surgeon at the city hospital, and made arrangements with each for seeing his patients during the two nights and a day of his absence. He had no serious case on hand and, of course, no surgical work, so that it was easier to get away than it might be again for a year after his arm should be once more to be counted on. Then he interviewed Cynthia on the subject of Bob; after which he packed a small bag, speculating with some amusement, as he did so, on the succession of porters, bell-boys, waiters and hotel valets he should have to fee during the next thirty-six hours to secure their necessary assistance, from the fastening of his shoes to the tying of his scarfs, the cutting up of his food, and the rest of the hundred little services which must be rendered the man with his right arm in a sling.
"I may not look a subject for travel, Miss Mathewson," he announced with a brilliant smile, appearing once more in the outer office, where the bill-copying was just coming to a finish, "but I'm off, nevertheless. Thank you for your struggle with my schoolboy composition. We won't need to finish it. I'm - Oh, thunder!"
It was the office bell. Miss Mathewson answered it. Burns, prepared to deny himself to all ordinary petitioners, saw the man's face and stopped to listen. It was a rough-looking fellow who told him his brief story, but the hearer listened with attention and his face became grave. He turned to Miss Mathewson.
"Call Johnny Caruthers and the Imp, please," he directed. "Telephone the Pullman ticket office and change my berth reservation from the ten-thirty to the one o'clock train."
He went out with the man, and Miss Mathewson heard him say: "You walked in, Joe? You can ride back with us on the running-board."
Ten minutes after he had gone Chester came again. He found Miss Mathewson reading by the office droplight. On the desk stood a travelling bag; beside it lay a light overcoat, not the sort that Red Pepper was accustomed to wear in the car, a dress overcoat with a silk lining. On it reposed a that and a pair of gloves rolled into a ball, man fashion. Chester regarded with interest these unmistakable signs of intended travel.
"Doctor Burns going out of town?" he inquired casually. It must be admitted that he had scented action of some sort on the wind which had taken his friend from his company at the conclusion of the walk. Ordinarily, Burns would have gone into Chester's den and settled down for an hour of talk before bedtime.
"I believe so," Miss Mathewson replied in the noncommittal manner of the professional man's confidential assistant. "But he has gone out for a call now."
"I don't know, Mr. Chester."
"Did he go in the Imp?"
"Country call, probably - they're the ones that bother a man at night as long as he does country work. I've often told Doctor Burns it was time he gave up this no-'count rural practice. Well, do you know what time his train goes?"
"After midnight, some time." Miss Mathewson knew that Mr. Chester was Doctor Burns's close friend, but she was too accustomed to keep, her lips closed over her employers affairs to give information, even to Chester, except under protest.
"Hm! Well, I believe I'll sit up for him and help him off. A one-armed man needs an attendant. Don't stay up, Miss Mathewson. I'll take any message he may leave for you."
"I'm afraid I ought to wait," replied the faithful nurse doubtfully.
"I don't believe it. Go home and go to bed, like a tired girl, as you no doubt are, and trust me. If he wants you I promise to telephone you. I'll see him off and like to do it. Come!"
There being no real reason for doing otherwise than follow this most sensible advice, Miss Mathewson went away. Chester, settling himself by the drop-light in the chair she had vacated, fancied she looked a trifle disappointed and wondered why. Surely, he reasoned, the girl must get enough of erratic night work without sitting up merely to hand Burns his overcoat and wish him a pleasant journey.
It was a long wait. Chester enlivened it by telephoning Winifred that he wouldn't be home till morning - or sooner, and elicited a flurry of questioning which he evaded rather clumsily.
It was all right for him to be curious concerning Red's affairs, he considered, but there was no need for the women to get started on inquisitive questions.
He read himself asleep at last over the office magazines, and was awakened by a hurried step on the porch and a gust of November night air on his warm face.
"What are you doing here?" was the question which assaulted him.
"Sitting up for you," was Chester's sleepy reply. He rubbed his eyes. "Thought you might like to have me see you off:"
"I'm not going anywhere except back to the case I've just left. Go home and go to bed."
Chester sat up. He looked at Burns with awakening interest. He had never seen his friend's face look grimmer than it did now under the gray slouch hat, which he had worn for the tramp, pulled well down over his brows, and which, during all his preparations and his hasty departure in the car, it had not occurred to him to remove or to exchange for the leather cap he usually wore on such trips.
" Back to a country case instead of to Washington?" Incredulity was written large on Chester's face.
Burns nodded, growing grimmer than before, if that were possible. He sat down on the arm of a chair, glancing over at the desk where his belongings lay. "How did you know I was going to Washington?"
"You're mighty quick at inference. Maybe I wasn't. But I was. Now I'm not. That's all there is to it."
"But why not? Can't you turn the case over? I'll bet my hat it's a dead-beat case at that!"
Burns nodded again. "It is."
"You're an ass, then."
"You don't expect - her - to stay in Washington waiting for you, do you, when she only came up for that wedding and is going straight back to keep some other engagements? That's what Win says she's to do."
"No, I don't expect her to wait." Burns pulled the slouch hat lower yet. Chester could barely see his eyes. He could only hear the tone of his denial of any such absurd expectation.
Chester rose and stood looking down at his friend, who had folded his left arm over his right in its sling, as he sat on the chair arm, and looked the picture of dogged resignation.
"I suppose there's some reason at the bottom of what strikes me as pure foolishness," he admitted. "You won't do me the honour of mentioning it?"
"Case of infected wound in the foot. Threatened tetanus. Five-year-old child."
"Nobody competent to treat the case but you?"
Burns looked up. Chester saw his eyes now, gloomy but resolute. "No. It's up to me alone. I owe it to the woman. It's the only child she has left: a girl. It was her boy I sent to a better world with maledictions on his mother's head."
Comprehension dawned at last on Chester's face. He saw that, taking into consideration Burns's feeling in that matter, there was really nothing to be said. "I hope you win out," he evolved at length from the confusion of ideas in his mind.
"I hope I do." Burns rose. "I must send a telegram," he said, and went to the telephone in the inner office.
While he was there Chester heard the honk of the Imp's horn outside. When Burns came back he opened the outer door and called to Johnny Caruthers, to know if he had obtained the serum for which he had been sent to the druggist. Johnny shouted back that he had. Burns turned to Chester.
"Good night," he said. "Much obliged for waiting up for me."
Then, with a certain fighting expression on his lips which Chester had learned to know meant that his whole purpose was set on the attainment of an end for which no price could be too great to pay, Burns went out to Johnny Caruthers and the Green Imp.