Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter III. In Which He Assumes a Responsibility
"Red, the new car is here. Come and look her over."
It was Burns's neighbour on the other side, James Macauley, Junior. R. P. Burns laid down his saw, with which in the late June twilight he had been doing vigorous work at a small woodpile behind the house. He stood up straight, throwing back his shoulders to take the kink out of them.
"All right," said he. "I think I'm fit for general society again. I wasn't when I tackled this job. Nothing like fifteen minutes of woodpile for taking the temper out of the saw -and the man."
Macauley, a stout, good-humoured fellow of thirty-five, laughed. "That temper of yours, Red has it been on the rampage again?"
"It has. Don't talk about it or it'll lift to confounded red head again - it's only scotched for the present. New car's here, eh?"
"Yes, and the pretty widow's here, too - my wife's sister, Ellen Lessing. We ve a great plan for tomorrow, Red. I can't venture to drive this elephant of a car yet, but the women are wild for a trip in her. She holds seven. Martha wants you to drive us and the Chesters to-morrow a hundred and fifty miles seventy-five to F-- and back. Will you do it? You're not so horribly busy just now, and Mrs. Lessing and Pauline Hempstead together ought to make it worth while for you."
This feature of the invitation did not appear to appeal to Burns, but the sight of the touring car, brave and shining in russet and brass, plainly did.
"Not that I'd care to drive such a whale for myself, but I shouldn't mind a run for the fun of trying her out. You say she's been driven enough to warm up her engines? Suppose we take her out and let me get the feel of her mouth before to-morrow?"
"Come on." And they were off.
"For a whale she's a bird," was Burns's paradoxical verdict two hours later. The "trying out" had merged into a smooth run of forty-five miles at not anything like the full pace of which the motor was capable. "Best not to overheat her at first. Run your first three hundred miles with consideration for her vital organs - she'll have her wind by that time."
Next morning four women, long-coated, tissue-veiled, watched the brown beauty roll invitingly up to Macauley's porch steps.
As she crossed the lawn with Winifred, Pauline Hempstead, the guest of the Chesters, was studying not only the car, but the undeniably attractive gray-clad figure of the lately-arrived younger sister of Mrs. Macauley. "Will Red P. look at her any more than he does at me?" she murmured in Winifred Chester's ear.
"I doubt it, my dear. But he'll be foolish if he doesn't, won't he?"
"I don't care for widows myself."
"I presume not." Winifred laughed comprehendingly.
"How old is she?"
"Twenty-eight, I believe - though she doesn't look it."
"Doesn't look it! She looks a lot more."
Winifred laughed still, quietly. Although Pauline undoubtedly had the advantage of Ellen in years, her fair-haired, blue-eyed, somewhat sumptuous beauty was not of so youthful a type as the darker colouring and slenderer outlines of Martha's sister.
The man at the wheel of the brown car lifted his leather cap as the women came out, but he left all the bestowal of them to the other men. Miss Hempstead asked to be allowed to sit beside the driver, but Macauley vowed that on the first long run of his new machine he himself should occupy that post of honour and interest.
"Coming back, then," insisted the girl, and Macauley agreed reluctantly. Burns made no comment, but applied himself to his task - not only then, but also for every minute of the seventy-five miles to their destination.
"He might as well be a hired chauffeur," complained Miss Hempstead when, during a stop of ten minutes on account of a switching freight train, she had leaned forward and attempted in vain to carry on a conversation with Burns. "That abstracted mood of his - is there any breaking into it?"
"Fall out and break your collar-bone. He'll be all attention," advised Chester.
"Thank you. I'm almost tempted to. Why don't you drive awhile, Mr. Macauley, and give him a rest?"
"And let him sit here in the middle with you? He couldn't be pried loose from that wheel now. Besides, I haven't driven this car yet, and she's too different in her steering from my old one. I shouldn't like to try with this crowd behind me."
They reached the distant city; drew up at the steps of the most attractive hotel; went in to lunch. That is to say, all did this except R. P. Burns. He remained in the garage in the rear where he had taken the car, busying himself with some details of mechanism whose working did not quite suit him. In spite of summons and appeals he continued to work until the rest had finished; then he bolted in to wash off dust and engine grease, ate his lunch in ten minutes - Macauley sitting by and expostulating - and bolted out again.
"We're going to walk about a bit," Chester announced, invading the garage. "The girls insist that you come. Where are your eyes, man? If Pauline bores you - I admit that she's a trifle persistent, but she's jolly good company, I think - try Mrs. Lessing. She's delightful, and not the pursuing style at all - she's learned better. She hasn't shown the slightest interest in you all morning. That ought to attract you."
"I'm going to try a bit of adjustment on this timer now that Mac's out of the way. Go along, and don't bother me." Burns was in his shirt-sleeves again and spoke gruffly. His cap was off, and thick locks lay damply against his moist brow; in his eyes sparkled enthusiasm but not for women.
"You certainly are a hopeless case," and Chester went back to his party.
"We might as well not have a bachelor along," mourned Pauline. "Four women - with only two old married men to look after them - it's a shame."
"But we're both of us much handsomer than Red Pepper Burns," asserted James Macauley, Junior. "And I've hardly spoken a word to my wife since I started - that sort of thing ought to content you."
"It doesn't. And neither of you is half as good-looking as Doctor Burns. He has the most interesting profile I ever saw - and I ought to know - I seldom catch sight of his full face."
"I shouldn't suppose an interesting profile, whatever that is, would offset a shock of fire-red hair. Now, both Chester's hair and mine - "
"His hair isn't fire-red. It's a - rather strong - auburn."
Macauley shouted and the rest laughed with him.
"Rather strong! I should say it was. I've been worried about having him sit near the gasoline tank, it brings his hair so close to a high combustible. But it has one advantage: if we don't get home before dark we shan't need to light up. Red's torch of a head will do the trick; we can come in by the refulgence from that."
"I shall be sitting in its light going back, anyhow," Miss Hempstead exulted.
"Much good it will do you," prophesied Chester.
It did Pauline so much good as that she was able to obtain many looks at the profile she admired, for she saw it clean-cut against the passing landscape for the sixty miles of daylight out of the seventy-five miles home, while she sat beside its owner and tried many times to draw him into talk. His taciturnity on this particular day was a thing beyond any experience with it she had yet had. She had heard Burns talk, and talk well, on many different subjects, the while he sat upon the Chesters' porch of a summer evening, the three of them about him, and he had seemed to enjoy talking. He certainly could not be wholly occupied with the machine, for at no time did he let the engine out for what it could do, but contented himself with a steady, moderate pace very different from the sort of furious speed in which he and the Green Imp were accustomed to indulge when occasion offered. Altogether he presented to the girl a problem which she could not solve and was never further from solving than during the seventy-five miles she sat beside him on the run home.
"You're all to come in and have an ice-cool, salad-y supper with us," Mrs. Macauley declared as the car turned in at the home driveway. "Hot coffee, too, if you want it - or even beefsteak if you prefer. But I thought since it was so hot -"
"I'll take the beefsteak," announced Burns over his shoulder, "if I find nothing urgent for, me to do. If there's a call -"
"If there is, make it, and you shall have the beefsteak when you get back," Martha promised him. Mrs. Macauley was of the sort of young married woman who delights to make her friends comfortable - and none better than Red Pepper, who was her husband's most valued friend, as he was that of his neighbour on the other side, Arthur Chester.
To everybody's regret the call was waiting, and as the party went in to supper they waved their hands at the Green Imp flying away down the road. It was not till long after the "ice-cool, salad-y supper" was ended and the women, freshly clad, were sitting on the porch again, the men smoking on the steps below them, that tine Green Imp came back.
Ten minutes later a large figure crossed the lawn at a pace which suggested both reluctance and fatigue.
"If it hadn't been for that beefsteak - " Burns began.
"You wouldn't have come," finished Macauley. "Oh, we know that! Go in and get it, Red, and perhaps afterward the charms of human society will have their inning."
Whether or not the beefsteak made the difference, a change had taken place when R. P. Burns at length returned to the comforts of the porch. He threw himself upon a crimson cushion on the upper step, precisely at the feet, as it chanced, of Ellen Lessing. As he leaned comfortably back against the porch pillar he looked directly up into her face, his eyes meeting hers with an odd, searching expression as if he now saw her for the first time. Pauline, gazing enviously across, saw the black eyes meet the hazel ones in the dim light, and noted that a curiously long look was exchanged - the sort of look which denotes that two people are observing each other closely, without attempt at producing an impression, only at discovering what is there.
But when Burns began to talk he appeared to address the midsummer night air, staring off into it and speaking rather low, so that they all leaned forward to listen. For, at last, he seemed to have something other than motor cars upon his mind.
"He's a mighty taking little chap," he said musingly. "Curly black hair, eyes like coals - with a fringe around 'em like a hedge. Cheeks none too round - but milk and eggs and good red steaks will take care of that. A body like a cherubs - when it's filled out a bit."
"What in the name of gibberish are you giving as, Red?" inquired Macauley.
"Name's Bob," went on Red Pepper. "By all the odd chances! That's what decided me. `Bobby Burns' - it was the last straw!"
"Is he crazy?" asked Chester of the company. They seemed undecided. They were listening closely.
"Clothes - one pair of patched breeches -remember `Little Breeches,' Ches? - one faded flannel shirt - mended till there wasn't much left to mend. A straw hat with a fringe around it - uneven fringe. Inside - a heartache as big as a little fellow could carry and stagger under it. Think of having the heartache - at five and for your grandmother!"
"Why for his grandmother?" asked Winifred Chester.
"Because there wasn't anybody else to have it for. Rest all gone, grandmother the one who attended the breeches and patched the shirt, and went without food herself lest the boy's cheeks get thinner yet. That was what fixed her at last - she hadn't enough vitality to pull her through."
"So that was the matter with you to-day," hazarded Chester. "Worried about your patient all day and found you'd lost her when you got back?"
Burns turned upon him with a characteristic flash. "You go join the ranks of the snap-shots. They sometimes miss fire. No, I didn't. I'd lost her before I went or I wouldn't have gone, not for you or any other box-party. It was the kiddie that was on my mind - as I'd seen him last."
"Where is he now?" asked Martha Macauley urgently. She was the mother of two small sons, and Burns's sketch had interested her.
He looked up at her. "Want to see him?"
"Of course I do. Did you take him to somebody in town? Are you going to send him to the asylum in the city?"
"Do you want to see him?". Burns inquired of Winifred Chester. He rose.
"Red! What do you mean? Have you got a child here?"
"Come along, all of you, if you like. He won't wake up. He's sleeping like a top - can't help it, with all that bread and milk inside of him. Part cream it was, too. I saw Cynthia chucking it in. He'd got her, good and plenty, in the first five minutes. Bless her susceptible heart! Come on."
"Talk of susceptible hearts," jeered Macauley as he followed. "There's the softest one in the county."
"Nobody would ever guess it," murmured Pauline Hempstead.
They tiptoed into the house, across the offices into the big, square room which was Burns's own. He switched on a hooded reading-light beside the bed and turned it so that its rays fell on the small occupant.
He lay in spread-eagle, small-child fashion, arms and legs thrown wide, the black, curly head disdaining the pillow, one fist clutching a man's riding-crop. In sleep the little face was an exquisite one; the onlookers might guess what it would be awake.
Burns pointed at the crop, smiling. "That was the nearest approach to a plaything I could muster to-night. To-morrow the shops will help me out."
"I'll send over plenty in the morning, Red," whispered Martha Macauley. Her eyes were suspiciously shiny.
"Did you bring him home just now?" questioned Winifred.
Burns nodded. "I hadn't meant to get him to-night, if I did at all. My call took me within half a mile. I went over and saw him again. That settled it."
The small sleeper stirred, sighed. Burns turned off the light in a twinkling. "He's not used to electricity point blank," he chuckled.
Going down the steps a hand touched his arm. He looked into Ellen Lessing's upturned face and discovered anew that it was a face to hold the attention of a man. But there was no coquetry in it. Instead, he saw a stirred look in eyes which struck him suddenly as singularly like those of the child he had just shown her, "black, with a fringe around 'em."
"Doctor Burns," she said, "will you give me the very great pleasure of dressing the boy? I know how to do it."
"Of course, if you want to," he responded gladly. "I hoped you ladies would look after that."
"Let me do it alone," she urged. "They have their children: it would only be a task to them. To me - I can't tell you what a delight it would be."
"I'll take you and Bob to the city in the morning if you'll go."
"It will be a happy morning for Bob and me, then," she answered, and he saw it in her face that it would be. But he felt that it was because of the boy; not for any other reason. It occurred to him that it might possibly be a happy morning for the driver of the Green Imp, also.
"So Ellen's going to dress the brat." Macauley was strolling over the lawn with Chester and Burns, as, having out-sat the women on the Macauley porch, the men were turning bedward, reluctant to leave the cool star-shine of the July night. "It's easy to see why she wants to do that. Her three-year-old boy would have been just about this Bob's age by now. Tough luck, wasn't it? - when he was all she had left since Jack got out of the game?"
Burns stared at him. "Oh, that's why? I didn't know about her boy, or I'd forgotten it if I was ever told. She will enjoy fitting Bob out, if I can keep her from putting him into white clothes to make him resemble an angel instead of a small boy with an eye for dirt."
"You'll find Ellen's no fool," Macauley assured him warmly. "But if she takes an interest in the boy it'll be the best thing that could happen to him. She has a lot of money. She may get a notion to adopt him."
But upon this Red Pepper Burns spoke with decision. "Confound you, the kiddie belongs to me. Didn't I tell you his name is now Robert Burns? She may dress him if she likes. She can't have him, not by a long shot. He's mine!"
"Oh, well, it might be arranged," murmured Macauley, but not quite low enough. In a flash he was laid flat on his back on the lawn, a menacing figure standing over him.
"None of that!" growled the man with the temper. "Not now or any other time." Then he laughed and let his victim up. "Alcohol will take out grass stains, Jim," he advised. "Tell Martha that."