Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter II. In Which He Creates a Circus
"Doctor Burns - "
"Yes, Miss Mathewson."
"The long-distance telephone, please."
Burns excused himself to the last patient of the evening series, and shut himself in with the long-distance. When he came out he was looking at his watch. From its face he turned to that of his office nurse - the one hardly less businesslike in expression than the other.
"Miss Mathewson, my aunt telephones that my father and mother are both sick, each anxious to distraction about the other, she about them both, and under the weather herself. If you and I can catch the ten-fifteen to-night we can be there by two, and by leaving there at four we can be back here in time for the morning's operations. If they need you I'll leave you there for a day or two - by your leave. We'll take the Green Imp into the city - the ten-fifteen doesn't stop here. Then it'll be at the hospital when we want it in the morning. You've twenty minutes to get ready."
"Very well, Doctor Burns."
The office bell rang. Burns fled toward the inner office. Miss Mathewson discovered the guest of the Chesters on the doorstep - all in white, with a face which usually stimulated interest wherever it was seen.
"May I see Doctor Burns just a minute - for Mr. Chester?" The caller took her cue cleverly from Miss Mathewson's face, which at the moment expressed schedules and engagements thick as blackberries in August. Burns, just closing the inner door, caught Chester's name. He pulled off his white office coat, slid into his gray tweed one, and opened the door.
"What can I do for Mr. Chester - in three minutes?" he inquired, coming forward. Miss Mathewson, aware of the shortness of time, vanished.
"Give me something for his headache, please," replied the young person in white promptly. Schedules and engagements were in R. P. Burns's eyes also; they looked at her without appearing to see her at all. To this she was not accustomed and it displeased her.
"Was it too severe for him to come himself?"
"Much too severe. He has gone to bed with it."
"Mrs. Chester closely attending him?"
"Certainly - or I shouldn't be here." The eyes of the Chesters' guest sparkled. Something about the cool tone of this question displeased her still more.
"Tell him to get up and go out and walk a mile, breathing deep all the way."
"Not a grain. He ought to know better than to ask."
"He does, I think. He suggested that possibly if I asked - But I see for myself how that wouldn't make the slightest difference."
"I'm glad your perceptions are so acute," replied Burns gravely.
"Are the three minutes up?" asked the caller.
He looked at his watch. "I think not quite. Is there anything of importance to fill the one remaining?"
"Nothing whatever - except to mention your fee." The guest receded gracefully from the door.
"If the patient will follow directions I'll ask no fee. If he doesn't I'll exact one when I see him again. Forgive my haste, Miss - Halstead?"
"Hempstead," corrected the caller crisply. "Don't mention it, Doctor - Brown. Good night."
The Chesters' guest lingered on the porch before going in to report the failure of her mission. She was still lingering there when the Green Imp, carrying no open-shirted mechanic, but a properly clothed professional gentleman and a severely dressed professional lady, whirled away down the drive.
"He really was going somewhere in a hurry, then," admitted the guest. "In which case I can't be quite so offended. I wonder if that nurse enjoys her trips with him - when his mouth doesn't happen to be shut like a steel trap."
If she could have seen the pair on the train which presently bore them flying away across the state, she would hardly have envied either of them. Between abstraction on the one side and reserve an the other, they exchanged less conversation than two strangers might have done. When Miss Mathewson's eyes drooped with weariness her companion made her as comfortable as he could and bade her rest. His own eyes were untouched by slumber: he stared straight before him or out into the night, seeing nothing but a white farmhouse far ahead, where his anxious thoughts were waiting for his body to catch up.
"Are they much sick, Zeke?."
"Wal, I dunno hardly, Red. - You goin' to drive? They're pretty lively, them blacks. Ain't used to comin' to the station at two o'clock in the mornin'. Your ma's been worryin' about your pa for a consid'able spell, and now that she's took down so severe herself he's gone to pieces some. Miss Ellen'll be glad to see you."
The blacks covered the mile from the station as they had never covered it before, and Burns was in the house five minutes before they had expected him.
"Mother, here's your big boy. - Dad, here I am - here's Red. Bless your hearts -you wanted me, didn't you?"
They could hardly tell him how they had wanted him, but he saw it in their faces.
"I've got to take the four o'clock back - worse luck! - for some operations I can't postpone. But between now and then I'm going to look you over and set you straight, and I'll be back again in two days if you need me. Now for it. Mother first. Come here, Aunt Ellen, and tell me all about her."
R. P. Burns, M.D., had never been quicker nor more thorough at examination of a pair of patients than with these. He went straight at them both, each in the presence of the other, Miss Mathewson capably assisting. With his most professional air he asked his questions, applied his trained senses to the searching tests made of special organs, and gave directions for future treatment. Then he sat back and looked at them.
"Do I appear worried about her, Dad?"
"Why, you don't seem to, Red."
"Miss Mathewson, should you gather from my appearance that I am consumed with anxiety?"
"I think you seem very much relieved, Doctor Burns."
"Mother, as you look at Dad over on the couch there, does he strike you as appearing like a frightfully sick man?"
Mrs. Burns smiled faintly in the direction of the couch, but her eyes came immediately back to her son's. "He seems a good deal better since you came, Redfield."
"There's not a thing the matter with either of you except what can be fixed up in a week. You've got scared to death about each other, and that's pulled you both down. What you need more than anything else is to go to a circus - and, by George! - Since I didn't observe any tents in the darkness as we drove along, you shall have one come to you. Look here! Did you know I'd kept up my old athletic stunts these nine years since I left college?"
He pulled off his coat, waistcoat, collar, shoes, rolled his shirt-sleeves as high as they would go, and turned a series of handsprings across the wide room. Then he stood on his head; he balanced chairs on his chin; he seized his father's hickory stick and went through a set of military evolutions. Then he put on his shoes, eyeing his patients with satisfaction. His mother had lifted her head to watch him, and Miss Mathewson had tucked an extra pillow under it. His father had drawn himself up to a half-sitting posture and was regarding his son with pride.
"I never thought so well of those doings before," he was saying. "If they've kept you as supple as a willow, in spite of your weight, I should say you'd better keep 'em up."
"You bet I will! - See here, Aunt Ellen - you used to play the `Irish Washerwoman: Mind playing it now? Miss Mathewson and I are going to do a cakewalk."
He glanced, laughing, at his office nurse. She was staring at him wide-eyed. He threw back his head, showing a splendid array of white teeth as he roared at her expression.
"Forget `Doctor Burns,' please," said he, in answer to the expression. "He's discharged this case as not serious enough for him, and left it to Red Pepper to administer a few gentle stimulants on the quack order. Come! You can do a cake walk! Forget you're a graduate of any training school but the vaudeville show!"
He caught her hand. Flushing so that her plain face became almost pretty, she yielded - for the hand was insistent. Miss Ellen leaned bewildered against the door which led to the sitting-room where the old piano stood. Her nephew looked at her again, with the eyes which the Chesters' guest had somewhat incoherently described as "Irish-Scotch-barbarian." He said, "Please, Aunt Ellen, there's a good fellow," at which Mr. Burns, Senior, chuckled under his breath; for anything less like that of a "good fellow" was never seen than Sister Ellen's prim little personality. Miss Ellen went protestingly to the piano. Was it right, her manner said, to be performing in this idiotic manner at this unholy hour of three o'clock in the morning - in a sick-room?
It mattered little whether Miss Mathewson could or could not dance the "Irish Washerwoman," or any other antic dance improvised to that live air; she had only to yield herself to Red Pepper Burns's hands and steps, and let him disport himself around her. A most startlingly hilarious performance was immediately and effectively produced. At the height of it, a door across the sitting-room, which commanded a strip of the bedroom beyond, opened cautiously and Zeke Crandall's eye glued itself to the aperture, an eye astonished beyond belief.
"If that there Red ain't a-cuttin' up jest exactly as he used to when he was a boy - and his pa and ma sick a-bed! If 'twas anybody but Red I'd say he was crazy."
Then he caught the sound of a laugh from lips he had not heard laugh like that for a year - a chuckling, delighted laugh, only slightly asthmatic and wholly unrestrained. He began to laugh himself.
"If folks round here could see Red Burns now they'd never believe the stories about his gettin' to be such a darned successful man at his business," he reflected. "Of all the goin's on! Look at him now! An' that nurse! An' Miss Ellen a-playin' for 'em! Oh, my eye!"
Songs followed - college songs, popular airs, opera bits - all delivered in' a resounding barytone and accompanied by thumping chords improvised by the performer. Out through the open windows they floated, and one astonished villages driving by to take the early train caught the exultant strains:
"Oh, see dat watermillion a-smilin' fro' de fence, How I wish dat watermillion it was mine. Oh, de white folks must be foolish, Dey need a heap of sense, Or dye'd nebber leave it dar upon de vine! Oh, de ham-bone am sweet, An' de bacon am good, An' de 'possum fat am berry, berry fine; But gib me, yes, gib me, Oh, how I wish you would, Dat watermillion growin' on de vine!"
Before they knew it the early morning light was creeping in at the small-paned windows. Burns consulted his watch.
"If you'll give us a cup of coffee, Aunt Ellen, we'll be off in fifteen minutes. Miss Mathewson - his glance mirthfully surveyed her - "Aunt Ellen will take you upstairs and give you a chance to put that magnificent brown hair into a condition where it will not shock the natives at the station. As for mine - "
When Aunt Ellen and Miss Mathewson, each in her own way feeling as if she had passed through an extraordinary experience likely never to occur again, had hurried away, Burns applied himself to a process of reconstruction. When every rebellious red hair had been reduced to its usual order and his thick locks lay with the little wave in them as his mother had begun to brush them years ago; when collar and cravat rose sedately above the gray tweed coat, and a fresh, fine handkerchief had replaced the dingy one which had been through every manner of exercise in the "circus," Burns drew up a chair and faced his patients with the keen, professional gaze which told him whether or not his night's work had been good therapeutics.
"When I've gone you're to have breakfast, and I think you'll both eat it," he said, smiling at them, his eyes bright with affection and contentment. "Then you're to compose yourselves for sleep, and I think you'll both sleep. To-morrow Dad's to be out on the porch - all June is out there, and the roses are in full bloom. Day after to-morrow Mother'll be there, too, in the hammock. As soon as these cases I operate on this morning are out of danger I'll be down again for a whole day. I'll keep the time clear."
"I'm afraid," said his father, looking suddenly anxious for a new cause, "your being up all night won't make your hand any steadier for those operations, Red."
"On the contrary, as a matter of fact, Dad, it'll be a lot steadier just because of my being up all night, assuring myself that there's nothing serious the matter with you and Mother, except the need of a bit of jollying by your boy - which you've certainly had right off the reel, eh? Aunt Ellen thinks yet I've probably killed you. Are you the worse for it, Mother? Give it to me straight, now!"
He bent over her, his fingers on her delicate wrist. She smiled up into his eyes. "Redfield!" she murmured. "As if I could ever be the worse for having you come home!"
He dropped on his knees beside the bed, looking at her with the eyes of the boy she had borne. "Bless me, Mother," he said unsteadily, all the fun gone out of his face. "I - need it - to keep decent."
The last three words were under his breath, but she heard the others and laid her hand on the red head with a tremulous soft word or two which lie could barely catch.
In a minute he had risen, his cheek flushed high, and was gripping his father's hand. "You, too, Dad," he begged. "I'm only Red this morning - going back into the world."
His father's hand and voice shook as he administered the little ceremony, used only once before in his son's life - when at fourteen he first went away to school. Few grown men would have asked for it again, he felt that. Coming from Red he was sure the request meant more than they could know.
Then the professional gentleman whom the world knew - the world which was not acquainted with Red Pepper Burns - and the professional lady who was his assistant went decorously away into the early June morning. Zeke was grinning to himself as he saw them step aboard the train.
"Looks mighty fine in them clipper-built city clothes, Red does," he reflected. "If that there young woman chose to give him away, now but I kind of guess she won't - under the circumstances!"