Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter V. In Which He is Rough on a Friend
"Are you through with that rabble? Can you 'tend to a friend?"
Redfield Pepper Burns wheeled around in his revolving chair and glanced sharply at Arthur Chester. What he saw made him follow the moment's inspection with a direct question.
"Sit down. What have you been doing?"
Chester sat down. His face was white. He held up one shaking hand. "Red, what's the matter with me?"
Burns continued to study the man before him. He made no move to examine into his condition, just looked steadily into the other's face with a gaze before which his patient presently shifted uneasily.
"Well, of all the ways to treat a fellow!" He tried to laugh. "Is that the way you do with the rest of the bunch that come to you every day? Or are you trying to hypnotize me?"
"Look me in the eye, Ches. What have you been doing?"
"Working like a fiend in that infernal office. If there's any hotter place - "
"There'll be a hotter one for you right on this earth, if you keep on the way you're going."
He rose suddenly, and approaching Chester closely, looked intently into the uplifted eyes. He sat down again. "Own up!" he commanded bluntly.
"Red," begged Chester, "quit this sort of thing. Go at me in the usual way. I - I think I'm a bit nervous tonight. I can't stand your gun-fire."
"All right. When did you begin?"
"Five weeks ago when you were away. I didn't mean to get into it, Red, on my word I didn't, after all you've warned me. But it was so beastly hot - and there was a lot of extra work at the office. My head got to going it night and day. I - say" - he leaned suddenly forward, has head on his hands - "I can tell you better if you give me some kind of a bracer - I feel - so - deadly."
Burns got up and prepared something in a glass something not particularly palatable, but when it had taken action, which it promptly did, Chester's white face had acquired a tinge of colour and he could go on.
"I stopped in Gardner's office one day when my head was worse than usual. Had to meet a man in ten minutes - important deal on for the house - had to be at my best. Told Gardner so. He fixed me."
"He did - blame him - fixed you for a dope-fiend. I've told you a hundred times you had precisely the kind of temperament that must avoid that sort of thing like the gallows." Burns hit the desk with his fist as he spoke, with a thump of impatience.
"It seems to set me up for a while - I can do anything. Then afterward - "
"You're getting the afterward all right. How much do you take?"
Chester mentioned the amount of the drug, stating reluctantly that for the last two days he had been obliged slightly to increase it in order to get the full effect.
"Of course you have - that's the insidiousness of the devil's stuff. How soon does it get into action?"
"Oh, right away - almost instantly."
"What! Is your imagination strong enough to - See here, Ches" - Burns leaned forward "you're taking the stuff by mouth, of course?"
Chester's eyes went down. "Why - I tried it that way - but it was so slow "
Burns ejaculated something under his breath; the quick colour, always ready to flare under his clear skin, leaped out.
"Gardner gave you a hypo, I suppose?"
"So you went and bought a syringe and taught yourself the trick. Suppose you give me a look at it."
Like a shamed schoolboy Chester unwillingly drew forth the small case from his pocket. Burns received it. He opened it and took out the tiny instrument. "It looks like a very good one," he observed with a sort of deadly quietness. and with one motion of his big fingers snapped the glass barrel in two.
At this Chester took fire. "That's going a little too far!" he burst out in wrath.
"Is it? Thought it was you who had gone too far. It's up to me to bring you back - while I can. Getting this little fiend out of the way is the first step. Keep cool, Ches - and I'll try to do the same, though it makes my blood boil to think how little you've cared for my lectures to you on this very thing."
"I have cared. But I had no idea "
"Well, you have one now. It's taken you five weeks to acquire enough of a habit to give you some trouble to drop it. You're that sort and that's the way it works, anyhow. I wonder you came to me to-night. Found yourself out of the stuff and didn't like to try to get it here where folks know you?"
"If you want to put everything in the most disagreeable way you can - yes," admitted Chester testily.
"That's precisely what I want to do. Put it in such a disagreeable way that your backbone'll stiffen up a bit and give us something to start with. If I make you mad all the better - so long as you don't go back to fools like Gardner, who never hesitate to give a fellow like you a sample of what that drug'll do for 'em:"
"What are you going to do? I shan't sleep to-night, and I've got to be in the office to-morrow morning."
"When's your vacation due?"
"Not till week after next."
"Arrange to take it now."
"I can't. Stillinger's off on his, Monday morning."
"Could you have yours now if he waited?"
"Yes, but I wouldn't ask him."
"I would." Burns took down the receiver of his desk telephone.
"Red, stop - I don't want - "
Burns paid no attention to him. In five minutes he had the city connection and his man. He stated the case: Chester was in urgent need of taking his vacation without delay, but was not willing to ask the favour of his office associate. He, Burns, his friend's physician, did not scruple to ask it if it would not interfere too seriously with Mr. Stillinger's plans. No diplomat could re quest a favour more courteously than R. P. Burns, M.D. The reply was the one to be expected of Stillinger, bachelor and amiable fellow, who was fond of Chester and hoped it was nothing serious. Tell him to go ahead with his vacation, Stillinger said, and not to worry over office affairs.
"Now!" Burns wheeled round from the telephone. "Will you put yourself in my hands?"
"Do you honestly think I'm such an abandoned case - already," began Chester unhappily, "that you have to - "
"Listen to me, Ches. I don't think you're an abandoned case - that's nonsense - after five weeks. But I do think you're well started on a road that it's ruin to travel. You began it way back last winter by taking that headache stuff in double the dose I gave you, without consulting me, every time you felt a trifle below par. That's why I took it away from you. You felt the loss of it, and you were an easy mark for Gardner's dope. You've grown so dependent on that already that you're going to have a fight to get along without it. You can't fight and do office work, so I'm going to make the most of my chance during this fortnight's vacation - if you'll give me leave. If you won't - I think I'll knock you down and get you where I want you that way."
He smiled - a smile with so much spirit and affection in it that Chester's eyes filled, to his own astonishment, for up to this point he had been both hurt and angry. After a moment he said, with his eyes on the floor, but in a different tone from any he had yet used: "Go ahead, Red. I'll try to prove I have some stuff in me yet."
"Of course you have." Burns's hand was on his friend's shoulder. "That's what I'm counting on. Prove it by following directions to the letter. And begin by coming with me for a trip into the country. I have to see a case before I go to bed, and the air will do your head good."
It was the first of many similar trips. Arthur Chester may fairly have been said to spend the succeeding fortnight in the company of the Green Imp and its driver. From morning till night, and often in the night itself when he found it impossible to sleep, he was living in the open air by means of this device. Of walking, also, he did an increasing amount as his strength grew under the regimen Burns insisted upon. But for the first week, in spite of all the help his physician could give him, he found himself indeed involved in a fierce struggle - a struggle with shaken and unmanageable nerves; with a desperate craving for the soothing, uplifting effect of the drug to which he was forced to admit he had become perilously accustomed; with a black depression of spirit which was worse than anything else he had to combat.
It was at the worst of one of these periods of darkness that, alone with his patient upon a hilltop where the two had climbed, leaving the Green Imp at a point where the road had become impossible, Burns said suddenly:
"Ches, I believe, with all my care to give you the treatment I thought you needed, I've failed to point out the most potent remedy of all."
Chester shook his head. "You've done everything, Red. All the trouble's with me. I'm so pitiably weak - so much weaker than I ever dreamed I could be. I can't seem to care whether I get out of this or not. All I want is to lie down and go to sleep - and never wake up."
The last words came under his breath, but Burns heard them. He showed no sign of being startled, though this mood was a gloomier one than he had yet seen his patient succumb to. Instead, he went on talking in a tone of confidence:
"I ought to have known enough to apply this remedy, because it's one I've tried myself. If you could know, since the night you heard me make a certain vow, what a time I've had with myself to keep it, you'd understand that I know what it means to try to break up a habit. Mine's the habit of years. With my temper and some of my associations, intemperate profanity's been the easiest thing in the world to fall into. When things went wrong, out would come the oaths like water out of a spring - though that's a false comparison: like the filth out of a sewer, I'd better say."
"We all swear more or less," acknowledged Chester, his head in his hands.
"Not as I did - and you know it. I've been responsible for many a boy's taking it up, though I didn't realize it. Because I was athletic and in for sports with them, they thought I was the whole thing. They laughed when I got mad and ripped out a lot of language: they copied it. But I never heard myself as others hear me till that night I let go at the mother who'd ignorantly murdered her boy by disobeying orders. On the way home that night I woke up - came to myself - I don't know how. The stars were unusually bright, and I looked up at them and thought of that child's soul going back to its Maker . . . . and then thought of my curses following it and coming to His ear."
A silence fell. When Burns broke it, it was in a voice deep with feeling.
"The next words I sent up to that ear were in a different shape. I think it was the first real prayer I'd ever said since the little parrot prayers my mother taught me. That was the first: it hasn't been the last. I don't suppose I say much that would sound like the preacher's language, but Ches, what I do believe is that - I get what I ask for. That's - help to fight my temptations. And profanity isn't the only one nor the toughest one to down."
Chester looked up. For a moment he forgot himself and his wretchedness. "It's hard to believe it's you, Red - talking like this."
"I know it must be hard, but it ought to be the more convincing on that account. I belong to a profession of materialists, and all at once it's grown to seem to me the strangest thing in life that a man who studies the anatomy of this body of ours should be a materialist. To watch its workings and then doubt the God who made it is sheet wilful blindness. But, Ches - I've got my eyes open at last. The God who made me is up there, and He knows and cares how I go on with the job. As for answering my appeals for help when I get hard pressed - the, biggest sign I have of that is a human one. Since Bobby Burns came to sleep in that little bed next mine, it's been a whole lot easier to get on."
A deep sigh was Chester's reply to this. He had a small boy and girl of his own. For their sakes and Winifred's he knew he must fight this fight out and win. But as for getting tangible help from the Creator of a body handicapped by nerves like his! He began to say this, but Burns broke in upon him with the answer he would least have expected at a moment like this a great, ringing laugh, the sound of which brought the slow blood to Chester's white face.
"If you consider wrecked nerves like mine a laughing matter -" he broke out.
But Burns, his laugh over, was sober again and his voice was earnest. "Arthur Chester, don't make Him responsible for your `wrecked nerves.' They weren't wrecked when you were furnished with them. You've done the wrecking yourself by breaking pretty nearly every law that governs the workings of the human machine. You're paying the penalty. But you're going to get the upper hand. From now on, in spite of your office life, you're going to get good red blood in your veins - and your brains. The worst is over now - the second week will be easier. But what I'm trying to tell you is that you'll get that upper hand a lot quicker if" - his cheek grew hot with this strange, unaccustomed effort at putting things he had never spoken of before into words - "if you'll just reach up and take hold of that `Upper Hand' that, according to my new belief and experience, is ready to reach down to you. It's stronger than yours: you'll feel the upward pull."
He broke off and got to his feet. The two had been sitting on a fallen log, looking off over the hills toward a distant river winding its blue length through fields of living green.
"I wasn't exactly cut out for a preacher, Ches," he added after a minute. "I hope my talk doesn't sound to you like `cant.' I'm a pretty poor specimen of a chap to be setting up my own example for anybody to follow."
"I don't think you've been setting up your own example," Chester replied. He pulled himself up limply from the log, yet out of his face had gone the black look which had been there when he carne up the hill. "And what you've said doesn't sound like `cant' to me, Red. It sounds more like 'can.'"
Red Pepper Burns held out his hand. His big; warm fingers closed hard over the thin; cold ones which met them. Then the two men, without more words, went away down the hill. From this hour Arthur Chester afterward dated the beginning of the end of the fight.