Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter XIII. In Which He Makes no Evening Call
Burns opened the white gate - it was sagging a little on its hinges -and walked up the moss-grown path between the rows of liveoaks to the tall-columned portico of the still stately, if somewhat timeworn and decayed, mansion among the shrubbery. It was just at dusk, and far away somewhere a whippoorwill was calling. It was the only sound on the quiet air.
The door was opened by an old negro servant, who hesitated over his answer to the question put by this unknown person looming up before him with his arm in a sling. Mrs. Elmore was in, but she was not well and could not see any visitors this evening.
"Is Mrs. Lessing in?"
"Yas, Sah, she is. But she done tole me she couldn't see nobody herse'f. She tekkin' cah ob Miss Lucy."
Burns produced his card and made a persuasive request. The old darky led the way to a long, nearly dark apartment, where the scent of roses mingled with the peculiar odour of old mahogany and ancient rugs and hangings. The servant lit a tall, antique lamp with crystal pendants hanging from its shade, the light from which fell upon a bowlful of crimson roses so that they glowed richly. He left Burns, departing with a shufing step and an air of grudging the strange gentleman the occupancy of the room, although it was to be for only so long as it would take to bring back word that neither of the ladies would see him to-night.
Burns sat still for the space of two minutes then, as no further sound could be heard in the quiet house, he became restless. His pulses beat rather heavily and, to quiet them or the sense of them, he got up and walked about, pausing at one of the long French windows to gaze out into the dusky labyrinth of a garden, where he could just make out paths winding about among the bushes. The night was mild, and the window stood ajar as if some one had lately come in.
Then he turned and saw her. She had almost reached him, but he had not heard her, her footfall upon the old Turkey carpet with its faded roses and lilies had been so light. She was in white, and the light from the old lamp shone on her arms end face and brought out the shadows of her hair and eyes. She put out both hands - then quickly drew back one as her glance fell upon the sling, and gave him her left, smiling. But he drew the arm that had been broken out of its support and held it out.
"Please take this hand, too," he said. "It will be its first experience and, perhaps, it will put new life into it. It's pretty limp yet."
She laid hers in it very gently, looking down at it as his fingers closed slowly over hers.
"That's doing very well, I should think," she said. "It's barely time for it to be independent yet, is it?"
"About time. I had something of a wrestle with Doctor Buller to get him to leave the splints off. How warm and soft your hand is. This one of mine has forgotten how the touch of another hand feels."
"I'm sure you ought not to use it yet. Please put it back in the sling." She drew her own hand gently away.
It occurred to him that while he had been absent from her he had not been able to recall half her charm, and that if he had he would never have been able to wait half so long before pursuing her down into this Southern haunt of hers. He drew a full, contented breath.
"At last," he said, "I am face to face with you. It's worth the journey."
In the lamplight it seemed to him the rose cast a reflection on her face which he had not observed at first.
"I'm so sorry Aunt Lucy isn't able to see you tonight," she said - "unless she would consent go see you professionally. She really ought "
He held up his hand "Not unless she is in serious straits, please," he begged. "I've fled from patients, only to find them all the way down on the train. I don't know what there can be about me to suggest to a conductor that I'm the man he's looking for to attend some emergency case, but he seems to spot me. Only at the station before this did I get released from the last of the series. Let me forget my profession for a bit if I can, just now I'm only a man who's come a long way to see you. Is it really you?"
He leaned forward, studying her intently. His head, with its coppery thatch of heavy hair, showed powerful lines in the lamplight; beneath his dark throws the hazel eyes glowed black.
"It's certainly I," she answered lightly. "And being I, with the mistress of the house prevented from showing you hospitality, I must offer it. She begged me to make you comfortable and to tell you she would see you in the morning. You've had a long journey. You must want the comfort of a room and hot water. I'll ring for Old Sam."
She crossed the room and pulled an old-fashioned bell-cord, upon which a bell was heard to jangle far away. The old darky reappeared.
"I should have gone to a hotel," Burns said, "if I could have found one in the place."
"There is none. And if there had been Aunt Lucy would have been much hurt to have you go there. Where did you leave your bag?"
"At the station. I can stay only for a night and a day, so it's a small one."
"I'll send Young Sam for it. Now let Sam take you to your room, and in a few minutes I'll give you supper,"
"Don't bother about supper at this hour. I only want - "
"You want what you are to have, - some of Sue's delicious Southern cookery." She smiled at him as he looked back at her, following the old servant. "She's been in the family for forty years and she loves to have company to appreciate her dishes. Sam, you are to help Doctor Burns. He has had a broken arm."
When Burns came down, fresh from a bath and comfortable with clean linen, he smelled odours which made him realize that, eager as he was for other things, he was human enough to be intensely hungry with a healthy man's appetite. So he surrendered himself to the fortunes that now befell him.
Old Sam conducted him to the dining-room, a quaintly attractive apartment where candle-light illumined the bare mahogany of the round table laid with a large square of linen at his place and set with delicate ancient china and silver. Ellen Lessing was already there in a high-backed chair opposite the one set for him, a figure to which his eyes were again drawn irresistibly and upon which they continued to rest as he took his seat.
Sam disappeared toward the kitchen, and Burns spoke in a low voice across the table.
"I feel as if I were in a dream," said he. "Forty-eight hours ago I was rushing about, hundreds of miles from here, trying to attend to the wants of a lot of people who seemed determined not to let me get away. Now I'm down here in the midst of all this quiet and peace, with you before me to look at, and nobody to demand anything of me for at least twenty-four hours. It's all too good to be true."
"It seems rather odd to me, too," she answered, letting her eyes stray from his and rest upon the bowl of japonicas of a glowing pink, which stood in the centre of the table. The candle-light made little starry points in her dark eyes as she looked at the rich-hued blooms. "The last person in the world I was expecting to see to-night was you."
"I suppose I was as far from your thoughts as your expectation," he suggested.
"How should I be thinking of a person who had not written to me for so long I thought he had forgotten me?" she asked, and then as he broke out into a delighted laugh at her expense she grew as, pink as her flowers and seemed to welcome the return of Sam bearing a trayful of Sue's good things to eat.
Fried chicken and sweet potatoes, beaten biscuit and fragrant coffee, had a flavour all their own to Burns that night. He ate as a hungry man should, yet never forgot his companion for a moment or allowed her to imagine that he forgot her. And by and by the meal was over and the two rose from the table.
"I must go and see that Auntie is comfortable for the night, if you will excuse me for half an hour," said the person he had come to see. "Will you wait in the drawing-room? I will have Sam bring you some late magazines."
"I'll wait, and no magazines, thank you. I can fill the time somehow," he answered. "But don't let it be more than the half-hour, will you?"
He watched her until she disappeared from his sight at the turn of the staircase landing, then went in to pace up and down the long room, his left arm folded over his right, after the fashion he had acquired since the right arm became useless. After what seemed an interminable interval she came back. He met her at the door.
"Are the duties all done?" he inquired.
"All done for the present. I must look in on Auntie by and by, but I think she is going to sleep."
"May she sleep the sleep of the just! And there's nothing more you feel it incumbent upon you to do for me? No more sending me to my room, no more waiting upon me by Sam, no more feeding me till my capacity is reached? Is there really no notion in your mind as to how you can put off the coming hour?"
His voice had its old, whimsical inflection, but there was a deeper note in it, too. She parried him gently, yet not quite so composedly as was her wont.
"Why should I want to put if off? Aren't we going to sit down and have a delightful talk? I want to hear all about Bob and Martha and all of them, and about your work since I saw you."
"You want to hear all about those things, do you? I had the impression that we discussed them quite thoroughly while I was at supper. Still, I can go over them all again if you insist. It may take up another five minutes, and when one is fencing for time, even five minutes counts."
It was his old way, with a vengeance. There was a saying of Arthur Chester's current among his and Burns's friends that it never was of any use to try to evade Red Pepper when once he had begun to fire upon your defenses. With his eyes searching you and his insolent tongue putting point blank questions to you, you might as well capitulate first as last.
There being no conceivable answer to this thrust about fencing for time, even for a woman experienced in replying skilfully to men under all sorts of conditions, Ellen Lessing was forced to look up or play the part of a shy girl. So she looked up, lifting her head bravely. There really was nothing else to do.
It was all in his face. He had not come all those hundreds of miles to pay her an evening call, nor did he mean to be put off longer. His eyes held hers: she could not withdraw them.
"It's odd," he said, speaking slowly, "how like a magnet drawing a steel bar you've drawn me down here. Pull-pull-pull an irresistible force. I wonder if the magnet feels the attraction, too? Could it pull so hard if it didn't?"
There was a long minute during which neither stirred - it might have been the counterpart of that minute, months back, when they had first observed each other. Recognition it was, perhaps, at the very first; there could be no question about the recognition now - it went deep.
Suddenly he slipped his right arm out of the sling. Before she could draw breath she was in the circle of his arms, but he had not touched her.
"Am I wrong?" he was saying. "Has it pulled both ways from the first?"
It must be as useless for the magnet to resist as for the bar. And when they, have come within a certain distance of each other -
If Red Pepper's left arm caught her in the stronger grasp, the right did all, and more than all, that could have been expected of it. It was his right arm which slowly drew her hands up, one after the other, and indicated to them that their place was; locked together, behind his neck.
An old garden in South Carolina is a place to lure the Northerner out-of-doors. Before breakfast next morning Burns was walking down the box-bordered paths, feasting his gaze and his sense of fragrance on the clumps of blue and white violets, the clusters of gay crocuses, the splendid spikes of Roman hyacinths. But he did not fail to keep track of all doorways in sight, and when she appeared at the open French window of the drawing-room he was there in a trice, offering her a bunch of purple violets and feasting his eyes upon her morning freshness.
"I'm still dreaming, I think," said he when he had drawn her back into the quiet room long enough to satisfy himself with the active demonstration that possession means privilege, and had himself fastened the violets in the front of her crisp white morning dress. "Dreaming that I can stay down here in this wonderful paradise with you and not go back to the slave's life I lead."
"You would never be happy away from that slave's life long, you know," she reminded him. "The rush of it is the joy of it to you."
"How will it be to you? I shall be yours, you remember, till Joe Tressler or any other ne'er-do-weel wants me, then I'm his."
"But you'll always come back to me," said she.
"And will you be content with that?"
"So long as you want to come back."
He looked steadily into her eyes, and his own took fire. "Want to come back! I've waited a long time to find the woman I could be sure I should always want to come back to. I thought there would never be such a woman: not for an erratic fellow like me . . . . But now I'm wondering how I shall ever be able to stay away."