Chapter IV. In Which He Makes a Concession
 

Red Pepper Burns opened his eyes. What on earth was that? A small voice piping at him from within close range? But how could that be?

Something bumped against him. He turned his head on his pillow. A small figure at his side had raised itself upon its elbow; big black eyes in a pale little face were staring at him in affright. Burns roused himself, suddenly very wide awake indeed.

"It's all right, little man," said he, pulling the child gently into the warmth of his encircling arm. "You came home with me last night. Don't you remember? You're going to make me a visit. And this morning after breakfast we're going to drive to town and buy a train of cars - red, shiny cars and an engine with a bell on it. What do you think of that?"

It did not take long to change Bob's fright into the happiest anticipations. Red Pepper Burns was at his best with children; he had what their mothers called "a way with them."

A knock at the door and Cynthia's voice calling," Here's some things for the little boy, Doctor," put an end to a full half-hour of delightful comradeship, during which the sheets of the bed had became a tent and the two were soldiers resting after a day's march. Burns rose and took in the parcel. Martha Macauley had sent it. Her boy Harold was the nearest in size to Bob of any of the children of his neighbours, and the parcel held everything needed from undershirt to scarlet Windsor scarf to tie under the rolling collar of the blue blouse.

"A bath first, Bob," and his new guardian initiated him into the exciting experience of a splash in a big white tub, in water decidedly warmer than it would be a week hence when he should have become used to the invigorating cool plunge. Then Burns, glowing from contact with water as cold as it could be got from the tap, clad in bathrobe and slippers, attempted to solve the mysteries of Bob's toilet. Roars of laughter interspersed with high pipings of glee presently brought Cynthia to the door.

"Can't I help you, Doctor Burns?" she called anxiously.

"Not a bit of it, Cynthia: much obliged. I'm having the time of my life. Stand still, son; let's try it this way round!" came back to the housekeeper's ears.

"I ain't never wore so many fings before," Bob declared doubtfully, as a small white waist with, dangling elastic stocking-supporters was finally discovered to go best buttoned in the back.

"I know. But you'll see how fine it is to have your stockings held up for you. Hi! Here are some sandals, Bob! Barefoot sandals, only we'll wear them over stockings to-day, since we're going shopping. Now for these blue garments I wonder how they go. Shapeless-looking things, they look to me. I suppose they'll resolve into baggy knickers and the sort of long shirt with a belt to it the youngsters of your age all wear. Here we go. Does this top part button behind, Bob, like the waist? No, I think not . . . . It sure looks odd, whichever way we don it, but that may be because it's pretty big. Harold's several sizes bigger than you, though he can't be much older. Give me six months and I'll have you filling out any other five-year-olds clothes."

"My hands - they're all gone," remarked the child, holding out his arms. The blue sleeves did, indeed, cover them to the finger-tips. Laughing, Burns rolled the cloth back, making an awkward bunch at the wrist, but allowing the small hands freedom.

"When Mrs. Lessing trains her eye on you she'll want to make time getting to the shops," Burns observed, struggling with the scarlet scarf and finally tying it like a four-in-hand. "But you're clean, Bob, and hungry, I hope. Now I want a great big hug to pay me for dressing you."

He held out his arms, and his new charge sprang into them, pressing arms like sticks around the strong neck of the man who seemed to him already the best friend he had in the world - as he was.

At eleven o'clock, a round of calls made, the Green Imp carne for Bob and Mrs. Lessing. They met him, hand in hand, the little figure in its voluminous misfit clothes looking quaint, enough beside the perfect outlines of his companion's attire. But both faces were very happy.

"How many dollars do you suppose Ellen has, stowed away in that handsome purse of hers, ready to spend on the child?" Martha Macauley queried of Winifred Chester as they watched the Green Imp out of sight from the Macauley porch.

Mrs. Chester shook her head. "I've no idea. She'll want to get him everything a child could have. But Red won't let her."

"He won't know. He'll drop them at a store and go off to the hospital. The things will come home by special delivery, and the next thing he sees will be Bob in silk socks and white linen."

"I don't believe it. He'll go shopping with them. He's wild over the boy, and he doesn't care a straw what people might think who saw the three together. He'll tyrannize over Ellen - and she'll let him, for the pleasure of being ruled by a man once more!"

It was a shrewd prophecy and goes to show that women really understand each other pretty well - women of the same sort. For Red Pepper Burns did go shopping with the pair from start to finish. It was an experience he did not see any, occasion for missing.

"You won't mind my coming, too?" was all the permission he asked, and Mrs. Lessing answered simply: "Surely not, if you care to. We shall want your judgment."

She had not conducted them to a department store, but to the small shop of a decidedly exclusive children's outfitter. Burns knew nothing about the presumably greater cost of buying a wardrobe in a place like this, but he soon scented danger. He scrutinized certain glass showcases containing wax lay figures of pink-cheeked youngsters attired as for the stage, and boomed his first caution into his companion's ear.

"That's not the sort of puppet we want to make out of Bob, eh?" he suggested.

She turned, smiling. "Not unless you intend to keep him in a glass case, Doctor Burns."

"No long-trousered imitation of a sailor-boy, either, please," said he, pointing, disfavour in his eye, at the presentment of a curly-headed infant of five in a Jack-tar outfit of white flannel topped by an expensive straw hat.

"I see you're not going to trust me," murmured Mrs. Lessing, as a slim-waisted, trailing-black-gowned saleswoman approached.

"I'll trust you, but I intend to keep my eye on you," admitted Burns frankly. He observed with interest the wonderful figure of the saleswoman. Quite possibly that lady thought he was admiring her, for nothing in his face could have told her that he was mapping out in his surgeon's mind her physical anatomy, and speculating as to where in the name of Hygeia she could have disposed of her digestive organs in a circumference the diminutive size of that!

Underwear first. Mrs. Lessing went straight at the foundations of Bob's make up, and began to look over boxes of little gossamer shirts and tiny union suits of a fabric so delicately fine that Burns handled a fold of it suspiciously.

"Silk?" he questioned.

She shook her head, the corners of her mouth curving. "Only a thread now and then. Mostly lisle - for very hot weather. These others have some wool in them, for cooler days. Those nearest you are quite warm, though very light in weight. For really cold weather - "

"You're not planning to watch the thermometer and keep him changing underwear accordingly?"

"Not at all, Doctor Burns. But four weights for the year aren't too many, are they?"

"Are you buying for a year ahead?"

"Please let me. I shall not be here when he needs to change."

Their eyes met. Something in hers made him desist from argument.

Stockings came next. Mrs. Lessing bought substantial tan ones in quantity, long and well reenforced. Then she took up socks of russet and of white. "Shall you object to his wearing these a good, deal?" she asked Burns. He took up one small sample, running his fingers into it. "I should think he might put his toes through one of those in an hour or two," he suggested. "His legs are pretty thin. Do you think pipe-stem legs in short socks, to say nothing of bruises and scratches, really attractive?"

"You want him to go barefooted a good deal of the time, don't you?"

"Sure. But legs in socks are neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring, to my thinking."

In spite of the smile on his lips, he looked obstinate and she deliberated, drawing a white sock unmistakably fine and expensive over her gray-gloved hand. Plainly she wanted to see Bob in socks and strap slippers, of the sort her boy would have worn. As she studied the sock Burns studied her profile. "Get him a pair, for your own satisfaction," he conceded.

He did not hear the order she gave, but the saleswoman was pleasantly smiling as she checked it.

The next thing that happened, Bob was being measured. Then he was trying on Russian blouse suits that fitted, practical little garments of blue galatea, of tan-coloured linen crash, even of brown holland. Burns looked on approvingly. The clothes turned Bob into a gentleman's son, no doubt of that, but it was the sort of gentleman's son who can have the very best of romping, good times.

Something diverted Bums's attention for a little, and when he turned back to Bob a bright scarlet reefer had been pulled on over his blouse, and a wide sailor hat with a scarlet ribbon crowned his black curls. The result was engagingly picturesque. But the critic frowned.

"I'm afraid that won't do, Mrs. Lessing," he objected decidedly.

"You don't like the colour? Not with his hair and eyes?"

"It won't hurt his hair, but it will his eyes. The sun on that red will torture him."

"Will it? I shouldn't have thought of it. So many children wear them."

"And shortly come to spectacles. Try it yourself for half an hour."

She drew off the reefer. Bob objected. "I like the red jacky, Dotter Burns," he said. It was his first comment. Hitherto he had been in a dazed state, submitting wonderingly to this strange experience.

Another small coat of tan-coloured cloth with a gorgeous red-and-brown emblem on the sleeve consoled him:

"I think we are through," said Mrs. Lessing Burns looked at her.

"No white clothes?" he asked.

"Did you want him to have some?"

"No. But I thought you would."

"I have ordered three suits to be made for him," she admitted, flushing a little. "They will be very plain and will launder beautifully. He will wear them only on special occasions. Do you mind?"

"Well, not on those conditions," he agreed reluctantly.

They went to a shoe shop, and Bob became the richer for leather sandals, canvas shoes, and various other footwear, some of it undeniably fine. Burns took one little black slipper into his hand.

"I wonder what Bob's grandmother would say to that," he observed in a whisper.

Ellen Lessing regarded its mate. Her lashes hid her eyes, but her lip quivered and he saw it. The salesman was busy with Bob. Burns laid his hand for an instant on hers. She looked up, and a smile struggled with the tears.

A toy shop came last. Here Bob was in an ecstasy. His companions walked up and down the aisles, following his eager steps. Mrs. Lessing would have filled his arms, but she found the way obstructed.

"He may have the train of cars," Burns consented. "But they must be cars he'll have to pull about for himself. No, not the trotting horse, nor the trolley on the track, nor any other of the mechanical stuff. I'll get him that dandy little tool-chest and that box of building blocks, but that's enough."

"The mechanical toys are of the best, sir," suggested the salesman. "They won't break except with pretty rough handling."

"That's bad," Burns asserted. "The quicker they broke, the less objection I'd have to 'em. It's a wonder the modern child has a trace of resource or inventiveness left in him. Teach him to construct, not to destroy, then you've done something for him."

"Isn't he rather young for tools?" Mrs. Lessing was turning over a small saw in her hands, feeling its sharp teeth with a premonitory finger.

"There are gauze and bandages in the office." He laughed at her expression as she laid down the saw.

"You won't object to that box of tin soldiers?" she asked.

"Decidedly. You don't want to spoil him at the start. For a boy who never had a toy in his life he's acquired enough now to turn his head. Come away, Mrs. Lessing - flee temptation. Come, Bobby boy." And Burns led the way.

Bob, astride of a marvellous rocking-horse taller than himself, was like to weep. Mrs. Lessing went to him. He whispered something in her ear. She came back to Burns.

"Doctor Burns," said she, "every boy has a rocking-horse. He's just the age to enjoy it. Surely it won't hazard his inventiveness: it will develop it. He'll ride all over the country, as you do in the Green Imp."

"What's the price?"

"It's not costly and it's a very good one."

Burns inquired the price again; this time he asked the salesman. Then he spoke low:

"Fifteen dollars seems `not costly' to you, I suppose. Think of Bob yesterday, with not a toy to his name."

"That's why I want to give him one to-day."

"He'll be just as happy riding a stick - as soon as he forgets this."

"He won't forget it. Look at his eyes."

"You're looking at his eyes all the time. That's what undoes you."

He had to look away from her eyes then himself, or he felt quite suddenly that he, too, would have been undone. He had resisted the entreaty in women's eyes many times, but not always, despite the reputation he held for indifference.

"Doctor Burns, won't you give me this one pleasure? You've really been quite firm all the morning."

She was smiling, but he had himself in hand again and he was blunt with her. "Bob's bachelor's child now," he said. "He must be trained according to bachelors' ideas. Come, you know it's out of reason to give the youngster any more to-day. Be sensible."

They followed him out of the store, Bob's hand held fast in hers. Somehow, they both looked very young as they stood outside the shop window, gazing back at the marvellous display within. He felt as if he were being rather cruel to them both. This was absurd, of course, when one considered the box of blocks, the train of cars and the toolkit. The child had enough playthings already to send him out of his head. Burns drove away rapidly to get out of range of other windows which seemed filled with rocking-horses to-day.

He looked down at Bob.

"Happy, little chap?" he asked.

Bob nodded. His arms clasped the red train but he was not looking at it.

"Like the cars?"

Bob nodded. His wide sailor hat obscured his face. Burns could see only the tip of the small nose.

"You'll have a splendid time with those blocks, won't you?"

Again the nod, but no reply.

"The hammer's pretty nice, too, isn't it?"

Once more the dumb answer. But the silence seemed odd, for Bob had long since lost his fear 'of these companions.

"Look up here, Bob."

Reluctantly the child obeyed. Burns caught one fleeting glimpse of wet black lashes. One big tear was slowly stealing down the pale little cheek.

"What's the matter, old man?"

No reply.

Burns looked at Ellen Lessing behind Bob's back. She did not meet his glance. She was looking at the boy. It struck him that her profile made the most enchanting outline he had ever seen. He tried to steel his heart against them both. He knew his theory was right; he now had the chance to put it into practice.

The Green Imp turned a corner to the right. They were not yet out of the city, and at the next block the car turned another corner, also to the right. At the end of another block the Imp, swerved once more - to the right. This brought them back to the wide street which led to the shopping district they had lately left. With silent passengers the Imp threaded its way to the toy shop. In front of it Burns stopped the car. He got out and went in and came out, the big rocking-horse in the arms of the salesman who followed him.

He looked up at their faces. Bob's was one wide-eyed countenance of incredulous joy. The other's - if he had seen there satisfaction at having brought a man to terms he felt he should have despised her; but that was not what he saw.

There was, by planning carefully, just room to wedge the rocking-horse in at Mrs. Lessing's feet without encroaching on the steering-gear. As they drove off, Bob was bending over and gently, stroking the animal's splendid black mane, with little chuckles and gurgles of joy. Once more Burns looked at Ellen Lessing behind Bob's back.

"You're happy now, aren't you?" he asked in tone of assurance. "Then, confound it, I must own I'm paid for letting my wise bachelor notions go hang, just for this time!"

"Thank you," she answered very gently. "And I'm paid for trying to be reasonable."

He laughed, suddenly content. Between them, the little lad who had never owned a toy in his life, stowing the red train carefully away between has feet, gave himself wholly to the rocking-horse.

Well, Ellen," was Martha Macauley's greeting to her sister, "did you have as interesting a time dressing the child as you expected?"

"I had a charming tune," replied Mrs. Lessing. She shook the dust out of her long gray veils smiling at her memory of the morning.

"Did R. P. prove docile?"

Docile' doesn't seem to me just the word."

"I used it in an attempt at fine irony," explained! Mrs. Macauley.

"Well, was he tractable, then?"

"He was very polite and kind and jolly - until the real business of shopping began. Then he became suspicious - and a trifle autocratic." She recalled his look as he told her that he would trust her, but that he meant to keep an eye upon her.

Didn't you get your own way about anything?" demanded her sister, with eager curiosity.

Ellen looked at her. Martha noted that the soft black eves were glowing, and that she had not seen Ellen appear more alive and interested since the days before trouble came to her. "Do you imagine we fought a battle over our shopping?" she asked, her lips curving with merriment.

"But you don't tell me. I'm anxious to know whether we shall see the boy dressed according to Red's ideas or yours."

"We agreed beautifully on nearly all points of his dressing. Where we differed, we - compromised."

"Red never compromises with anybody, so I suppose it was done by your giving in?"

"He never compromises? You do him injustice." He can compromise royally - by the same method of `giving in.'"

"I simply can't believe it," murmured Martha,, shaking her head.