Chapter XIV. In Which He Defies Superstition
 

Hades of Hymen! Red, are you making calls this morning?"

"Why not? I'm not to be married till noon, am I?"

"I say, take me with you, will you? I want to go along with a man who has the nerve to see patients up to the last minute before his wedding!"

"Takes less nerve than to sit around and wait for the fateful hour, I should say. Come on, if you think you'll have time to dress when you get back. It may be close work."

"Haven't you got to dress yourself?" demanded Arthur Chester, settling himself in the car beside its driver. "Or shall you go to the altar in tweeds with April mud on your boots?"

"Rather than not get there, yes. But I can dress in half the time you can - always could, and necessity has developed the art. Look here, there isn't any April mud. The roads are fine."

"Oh, I suppose if I were booked for a wedding journey in the Green Imp before the leaves were fairly out I shouldn't be able to see any mud myself. As it is, well, I don't know the colour of the bride's motoring clothes, but I presume they'll be adapted to the circumstances. I never saw her look anything but ready for whatever situation she happened to be in. That's a trick that'll serve her many a good turn as the wife of R. P. Burns, M.D., eh, Red?"

The Imp whirled about the country all the morning, having made an early start. The car was in fine fettle, like a horse that has been trained for a race. Although it was beginning its second season it had never been in better trim for business. The engine, having been cared for and seldom abused, was running more smoothly than when it had been first put upon the road. The Imp had had a fresh coat of the dark-green which gave it its name, and its brasswork was shining as only Johnny Caruthers by long and untiring labors could make metal shine. It had that morning acquired a luggage-rack attached to its rear, which was soon to receive a leather-covered motor trunk at that moment receiving its final consignments in the Macauley house; and there were several other new fittings about the machine which indicated that it was presently to be put to uses which had never been required of it before.

The Imp drew up in front of the hospital. Chester looked anxiously at his watch for the twenty-seventh time that morning. "For Heaven's sake, hurry, Red," he urged. "Women are the dickens about having a wedding late, and it's ten minutes of eleven now. Noon comes sure and soon, and at noon, allow me to remind you - "

Burns nodded. "Keep cool, boy," he recommended. "No use getting excited before a critical operation."

But he disappeared at a pace fast enough to satisfy Chester, who sat back and said to himself that R. P. had come nearer giving the crisis before him its appropriate name than he had ever heard done before.

He became anxious again, however, before Burns returned, and his watch was in his hand when the prospective bridegroom bolted out of the hospital door and ran for his car as if he had not a moment to spare.

"Glad to see you're losing your head a trifle at last," commented Chester as the Imp turned a dizzy curve and shot away. "It's the only proper thing. But we've really enough time if you don't stop anywhere else. What's the matter? Good Lord, man, you'll get nabbed if you speed up like this within limits. You - "

"Cut it and don't talk. I've got to make time," was all the answer or explanation he received; and Chester, with the wisdom of long association with Red Pepper at his pepperest, obeyed.

As they approached the house Burns spoke for the first time since they had left the city. "Go in and tell the bunch I have to do an operation at the hospital as quick as I can get my stuff and drive back there. I'll be back at - "

"Great Christopher, man! But - "

"I can be back by two. Ellen will understand."

"The deuce she will! Don't ask me to explain to her."

"I won't. I'll do it myself. You tell the rest."

The Imp shot up the driveway. Burns jumped out and ran to his office. Five minutes later, instrument bag in hand, he ran out again, Miss Mathewson following. He bolted in at the Macauleys' front door. Chester had already broken the incredible news to Martha Macauley and was standing out a storm of expostulations and reproaches, as if by any chance anybody could expect Arthur Chester to be able to stop R. P. Burns when be had started upon any course of action whatsoever. But when Burns himself appeared at the doorway the situation came to a crisis. Towering beside a group of palms which decorated the foot of the staircase Burns demanded to see Ellen.

"Why, Red, you can't. She's - besides how can you - "

"Ask her to come where I can speak to her then. Quick, please."

"But she - "

There was no knowing how long the sparring might have lasted, or what extreme measures might have been taken, had not a figure in a floating lilac-and-white garment, with two long braids of dark hair hanging over its shoulders, appeared upon the staircase landing. Burns looked up, saw it, and was up the stairs to the landing before Chester could flick an eyelash.

"Dear, to save a life I want to delay things just two hours. There's nobody else to do it. Van Horn was taken ill just as he was getting ready. The only other man who would venture under the conditions - Grayson - is out of town."

His arms were about her as she stood a step above him. So, her eyes were level with his.

"Do it, of course," she whispered. "And take my love with you."

For one minute Burns stayed to tell her that he had known she would send him to his duty, then he was off. The door slammed behind him, and outside the Imp's horn sent back a parting salute.

From the bottom stair Martha Macauley, distressed young matron and hostess, gazed up at her sister, who, with arms leaning on the vine-wreathed rail at the landing, was smiling down at her.

"Ellen! Was ever anything so crazy! I did suppose Red would take time enough to be married in. There's everybody coming."

"So few you can easily telephone them all to wait."

"And the breakfast under way - "

"It will keep."

"Aren't you superstitious enough not to want to postpone your wedding?" demanded Martha urgently.

The dark braids of hair swung violently as the bride's head was emphatically shaken. "Martha! Take it back! Let somebody die because I was afraid to wait two hours?"

"I don't believe anybody would die," insisted Martha. "Somebody could be found. It's just Red's ridiculous craze for surgery. I always said he'd rather operate than eat. Now, it seems he'd rather operate than be - "

But at this moment a large, determined hand came over her mouth from behind, as James Macauley, junior, arriving upon the scene, asserted his authority. He was in bathrobe and slippers, having been excitedly interviewed by Chester through the bathroom door.

"Quit fussing, Marty. The thing can't be helped, and if Ellen doesn't mind I don't know why we should. If we were having a houseful it would be fierce, but with only ourselves and the Chesters and the minister's family and Red's people - I'll go telephone Mr. Harding now."

As Martha freed herself from the silencing hand the front door opened again. This time it was Mrs. Richard Warburton - Burns's young sister Anne - also in somewhat informal attire, over which she had thrown an evening coat. She surveyed the group with laughing eyes. She herself had been married within the year.

"It's absurd, isn't it?" she cried. "But it's just like Red. Ellen knows that, don't you, dear? Ellen'll not only take him for better and for worse, but for present and for absent - mostly absent! But we're rather proud of him over at the house. Father's walking up and down and saying no other fellow would have done it, and Mother's all tearful and smiling. Dick wanted to go in with him, but of course Miss Mathewson had to go: he seldom operates without her."

"It's so uncertain when he'll get back," mourned Martha, still unreconciled.

"I made Miss Mathewson promise to telephone, the moment she should know. It's lucky the wedding guests are all in the family, isn't it? Ellen, dear" - pretty Anne ran up the stairs to the landing - "I really don't see how, after he caught sight of you in that fascinating garb, with your hair down, he could ever tear himself away! You're positively the loveliest thing I ever saw in all my life, and I'm almost out of my senses with joy that you're to be my sister, even though I never saw you in the world till yesterday! I always said when Red did care for anybody for keeps, she'd be a jewel!"

Red Pepper came back at precisely twenty minutes of three. His patient had given him a bad hour of anxiety immediately after leaving the table, and he could not desert her until she had rallied. But he felt easy about her now, and he had arranged to leave her in Buller's hands - Buller, who did not do major surgery himself, but was a most competent man when it came to the care of surgical patients after operation. Burns brought Amy Mathewson back with him, though she had begged to be allowed to stay with the case.

"And not be at my wedding?" cried Red Pepper, in exuberant spirits. "Why, I couldn't be properly married without you to see me through!"

Upon which she had smiled and obeyed him, and taken a tighter grip upon herself as he put her into the Green Imp for the last ride together. That was what it was to her, though she might yet go with him a thousand times to help him in his work. To him it was a quick and joyful journey back to his marriage.

"All right, Mother and Dad!" he exulted, coming in upon them in their festal array. He shook hands with his father and his brother-in-law; he kissed his mother. Then he ran for his own room where Bobby Burns, just being finished off by Anne, herself superbly dressed, shrieked with rapture at the sight of him.

"Red! At last! I've laid everything ready; you've only to jump into your bath; I turned on the water when Dick saw the Imp down the road. Don't you dare have a vestige of a surgical odour about you when you come out!"

In precisely seventeen minutes and. three-quarters the bridegroom was ready to the last coppery affair on his head.

"Have I a `surgical odour,' Anne?" he asked as he came up to her.

She buried her face on his shoulder, both arms about him, regardless of her finery. "You're the dearest, sweetest old trump of a brother that ever lived, and you smell like sunshine and fresh air!" she cried. Whereat he shook with laughter and patted her back as she clung to him,

"Promise me, Red," she begged, lifting her head, "that you won't let anything - anything - keep you from going off with Ellen in the Imp. She's been so lovely about this horrid delay, but I'm always suspicious of you. Promise!"

"I promise you this," agreed her brother: "Wherever the Imp and I go, after the minister has said the words, for this two weeks Ellen shall go with me."

"Chester," said Dick Warburton as he stood in that gentleman's company, looking over a stupendous assortment of wedding gifts, which, in spite of the fact that nobody outside the family had been asked to see Redfield Pepper Burns married, overflowed two large rooms into the upper hall and almost over the railing, "will you tell me who in the name of time sent that rat-trap? This is the most extraordinary display of gold, silver, and tinware that I ever saw, and I'm at the end of my astonishment. But that rat-trap, is it a joke?"

"No joke whatever -," declared Chester. "It comes from one of R, Red's - devoted friends - his own invention. And the point of the thing is that the making of that rat-trap is going to be the making of the worst dead-beat of a patient Red ever stood by. I really believe Joe Tressler's going to get a patent on it, which also will be Red's doing. But this is a special, particular rat-trap made of extra fine materials, suitable for a wedding gift!"

"Well, well," mused Burns's brother-in-law. "And what millionaire sent the diamond pendant? By Jove, I haven't seen finer jewels than those this side of the water."

"That came from the Walworths, I believe. Take it all together, it's a great collection, isn't it? It shows up the odder because Ellen wouldn't have the freak grateful-patient gifts put to one side - or even thrown into a sort of refining shadow. Fix your eye on that rainbow quilt, will you, Dicky, alongside of the Florentine tapestry? That quilt would put out your eye if you gazed upon it steadily, so let up on it by regarding this match-safe. Wouldn't that - "

"That came from Johnny Caruthers," said a richly modulated low voice behind him. "Please set it down carefully, Mr. Arthur Chester."

The two men wheeled to see the bride come to the defense of her wedding gifts. Behind her loomed her husband, laughing over her head, his eyes none the less tender, like hers, for the queer presents which meant no less of love and gratitude than the costlier gifts, of which there was no mean array.

"I see you've married him, patients and all, Ellen Burns," declared Richard Warburton. "On the whole, it's your wisest course. The less he knows you mind their devotion to him - "

"Mind it!" She gave him the flash of which the soft black eyes were brilliantly capable. "Dick, I have no gift I like so well as that rat-trap. You don't know the story, but I do, and it means to me - fidelity to duty. And if there's one great big thing in the world I think it's that!"

Over her head, Dick Warburton nodded at his brother-in-law. "I'm glad we've got her into the family, Red," said he. "It's a mighty rare thing to find a beautiful woman who knows how to dress like a picture, with that ideal at the back of her head! 'Cherish her, Red. If you don't I'll come around and knock you down!"

"I'll let you do it," agreed Burns soberly. All his marriage vows were in his face.

It was quite dusk when the Green Imp got away. Johnny Caruthers had the satisfaction of lighting up the car's lamps - always a joy to him, and particularly so to-night, for even the oil taillight bore witness to his trimming and polishing till its red eye could gleam no brighter. As for the front lamps and the searchlight the Imp's progress would be as down an avenue of brilliance if its driver allowed them all full play upon the road.

"She's in great trim, Johnny," said Burns's voice in his ear. "I like her looks immensely. I shall hate to get a speck of mud on her."

"Meaning the lady, Doc?" asked Johnny anxiously. "There's a wet bit there under the elms, Doc, remember. It would be a pity to splash any mud on her!"

He glanced toward the porch, his freckled face eloquent of his admiration for the figure which was the centre of the group gathered there.

Burns's eyes followed his. Bob, a picturesque, small person in his wedding attire of white linen, was attempting to tie Ellen's motor-veil for her, as she stooped, smiling, to the level of his eager little arms. It occurred to both master and man, as they watched the child's efforts to adjust the floating chiffon, that veils, however useful, were to be regretted when they were allowed even partially to obscure faces like those of Red Pepper's wife.

"I meant the car, lad," explained Burns, laughing. "You've done a great piece of work an her since I brought her home this afternoon. I'm afraid you've done some last polishing with your wedding clothes on, Johnny. Here's some, thing to take the spots out."

"Oh, Doc!" breathed the boy. "Not to-night, Let me do it - for you - and her."

The money went back into Burns's pocket, and his hand met Johnny's in a hearty grasp. "That's better yet," said he, "and thank you, John. If anybody but you were sending me off I'd ask if everything was surely in the car But I'll not even ask you."

"You don't need to," vowed the boy proudly. "And there's some things in you don't need to know about, just extrys in case of breakdown."

"Now, that," said his employer, "is what call proving one's self a friend."

The Imp went cautiously through the "wet bit," for it lay under the corner arc-light, and Johnny Caruthers would be watching. But, once on the open road outside the village, the pace quickened. For late April the roads were not bad, and if they had been sloughs the Imp Could have pulled through them. She had a great power hidden away in those six cylinders of hers, had the Imp.

"You'll not mind if I stop at the hospital as we go through?" questioned Burns. "Then we'll be off, out the old west road, out of reach of telephones and summonses of any sort. But I shall be just that much easier "

"Do stop, please. I'm sure you'll be more satisfied and so shall I"

She sat quietly in the cat while he was gone looking up at the lighted windows and thinking all sorts of sympathetic thoughts concerning those inside -yet with a tiny fear in her heart that he would find some new and unavoidable duty to detain him. If he should

But he was back, and as the Imp's searchlight fell upon his face, returning, she read there that he was free.

"Doing well, everything satisfactory, and I've not a care in the world," he exulted as he leaped in. "Now we're off, and never a stop till we've put a wide space between us and the rest of them."

The Green Imp ran at its quietest along the city streets. then through the thinning suburbs, and finally, with the lights all behind them, the open country ahead, the long, low car came out upon the straight highway which leads a hundred miles before it comes again to any but insignificant hamlets and small, rustic inns.

Burns had said little thus far, but as he glanced over his shoulder at the now distant lights of the city he suddenly spoke low, out of the quiet:

"We're out of reach of everything and everybody; nobody even knows the road we're taking. We're all alone in the world together. You can't think what that means to me. I've lived nine years at the call of every soul that wanted me: hardly a vacation except for study. A fortnight seems pretty short allowance for a honeymoon; we'll take a longer one when we go to Germany in the fall. But - for two weeks "

He looked down at her in the April starlight. He bent to finish the statement, whatever it might have been, upon her lips, for speech failed him. Then, with a happy laugh, he gave the Green Imp her head.