Red Pepper Burns by Grace S. Richmond
Chapter VII. In Which He Continues to Saw Wood
Here you are at last, Red, you sinner, and I'm the loser. Ches and I've had a bet on since we saw the Green Imp tear off just as the first guests were coming. I vowed it was a fake call and you'd never get back till the musicians were green-flannelling their instruments."
"I knew he wouldn't do us a cut-away trick like that," declared Arthur Chester with an affectionate, white-gloved hand on Burns's black-clad arm. "Not that I'd have blamed you on a night like this. What people want to give dances for in August, with the thermometer at the top of the tree, I don't know."
"Go along in, old man, and see the ladies. Take out Pauline. Mrs. Lessing isn't dancing. Make a sitting-out engagement with the lovely widow, then bolt out here. That's my advice," urged Macauley.
"Much obliged, I will. Wouldn't have come if Winifred hadn't cornered me."
"She's doing her duty by Pauline, and she considers her duty isn't done till she's secured the men Pauline wants. But I say - when you get a look at Ellen you'll forget the rivulets coursing down your neck. It's the first time she's worn anything not suggestive of past experiences. It's only white tonight, but - " Macauley's pause was eloquent.
Burns pushed on into the house, through whose open doors and windows came sounds of revelry. A stringed orchestra was playing somewhere out of sight, and to its music the late arrival, holding his head well up that he might keep his collar intact until the latest possible moment, set his course toward his hostess.
Outside, in the bower which had been made of the porch, Chester, disgracefully shuffling off the duties of host and lounging with Macauley and two or three other of the young married men, reported through the flower-hung window the progress of the victim led to the sacrifice.
"He's shouldered his way to Win - he's shaking hands and trying not to look hot. Hi! Pauline's sighted him already. She's making for him like the arrow to the target."
"Or the bullet for the hippopotamus," suggested Macauley under his breath in Chester's ear. He, too, began to reconnoiter.
"He's asking her if she saved the first one for him, and she's telling him she did till the last minute. Her card is full now, but he shall have the last half of this next one. Doesn't he look overjoyed?" Chester chuckled wickedly.
"Where's Ellen? Why isn't she on deck now just as Red comes?" Macauley began to fume. "She's behaved nobly all the evening so far - she might have a rational being how for a partner as her reward. But I presume she's sitting out somewhere with that chump of a Wardlaw - he follows her like a shadow and she's too kindhearted to shake him. She's - "
A voice speaking softly from the lawn below the porch interrupted him. "Is Doctor Burns urns here?" it asked.
Chester went over to the rail. "He's only just come, you know, Miss Mathewson. You don't have to call him out this minute, do you?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Chester, but I'm afraid I must. The call is very urgent."
"Tell 'em to get somebody else."
"Doctor Burns wouldn't like it - they're special friends of his."
"Oh, well - I suppose he'll see the bright side of getting out of that Turkish bath in there, but I must say I wish I didn't have to pull through this whole affair without his support," grumbled Chester as he went in to find Burns, now disappeared into the inner rooms where the music came from.
Red Pepper came out looking the name more than usual, for three rounds of the floor had brought, as it seemed to him, every drop of blood to his face, and his hair clung damply to his brow. He held a brief colloquy with his office nurse.
"No way out; I'll have to go, Ches," said he with ill- concealed joy."
"But you'll hustle? You'll make one more try of it?" begged Chester. "This thing won't break up early: not with Pauline pushing it. You'll be back in time to be taken out and fed?"
"Try to," and Burns disappeared off the end of the porch.
"Lucky dog," gloomed Macauley. "The call's five miles out on the road to the city. I'd like to be in the Green Imp for the spin Red'll make of it. By George! I - "
He broke off suddenly, gave a hasty look around and bolted off the end of the porch into the semidarkness of the lawn. He ran across behind the houses to his own back porch, procured a dustcoat from within and dashed back, regardless of the bodily heat he was generating. As the Green Imp backed out of the barn Macauley swung himself into the unoccupied seat.
Burns, also in dust-coat pulled on over his evening clothes, grinned cheerfully. "Deserter?" he queried.
"You'll be back within the hour, won't you?"
"Less than that, probably. The Imp's running like a bird to-night - show you her paces when we get out. Hi, there! Who's that chasing us? Well, of all the - you, too, Ches?''
Panting, Chester flung himself upon the running-board just as the car turned out of the yard. "Had a hunt for my coat - nearly lost you!" he gasped.
Burns stopped the car. "See here, sonny," he expostulated. "You happen to be host, you know. I might be detained out there, though I don't expect it."
"I'll take the trolley back if you are," replied Chester, settling himself. "I can't stand it to see you fellows cut away out of the pow-wow and not go, too. I'll take my chances."
"So be it!" and, laughing, with a glance back at the gaily lighted house, Burns sent the car on her course. "You two are always bragging up the married life," he remarked as the Green Imp gathered speed, "but it strikes me you're pretty eager to get away from the glories of your wives' entertaining."
"It's one curious thing," admitted Macauley thoughtfully, "that no matter how harmonious a couple may be they're bound to differ on what does and does not constitute entertainment."
"Of course, a girl like Pauline always wants to dance, no matter how torrid the night," explained Chester. "Win and I have to consider our guest's wish. But you can bet Pauline isn't getting her wish - not with R. P. Burns running around the country all the evening and only making five-minute stops at her side."
By the speed with which the Green Imp swallowed the ground it looked as if Burns might make several such trips and still interpolate a number of "five-minute stops" before the affair at the Chester house should be over. Before his passengers were well aware of the distance they had covered he pulled up in front of a small cottage. They settled themselves comfortably to await a fifteen-minute stay, but in five he was out again. Both dust coat and clawhammer were off - his sleeves were rolled to the elbow.
"I'm in for it, boys," he said. "Can't get away under two hours at the shortest. Sorry. But they didn't let me know what they wanted me for, and I'm caught. You'll have to drive home. Call up Johnny Caruthers and let him bring back the Imp and Miss Mathewson. I can't be spared long enough to go myself, so take her this note to tell her what to bring. Get busy, now.
He handed Macauley a hasty scrawl on a prescription blank, and smiled at the discomfited faces of his two friends showing plainly in the lights which streamed from the house.
"You look blamed pleased over your job," growled Macauley.
"I like the job all right," admitted Burns; "particularly when contrasted with - "
"You wouldn't say it if you'd caught one glimpse of Mrs. L." called back Chester, as the Imp responded somewhat erratically to Macauley's unaccustomed touch. But all the answer they got was, an emphatic "Don't change gears as if you were running a thrashing machine, Mac."
It was two hours and a half later that Burns came out of the small cottage again, wiping a damp face, his white shirt-front a pathetic ruin, his hastily reassumed white waistcoat and tie decidedly the worse for having been carelessly handled. But his face, when he turned it toward the stars as he crossed the tiny patch of a flower-bordered yard, was a contented one.
"It pays up all the arrears when you can leave a chunk of happiness behind you as big as that one," he said to himself. Johnny Caruthers had gone home by trolley long ago, and Miss Mathewson was to remain for the night and return with the doctor when he came for his morning after-visit. Burns sent the Green Imp off at a moderate pace, musing as he drove through the now moderated and refreshing air of two o'clock in the morning.
"Party must be about over by now; think it'll adjourn without seeing any more of Red Pepper and his misused dress clothes," he reflected. "I suppose those dancing puppets think they've had a good time, but it isn't in it with mine. Bless the little woman: she's happy over her first boy! He's a winner, too. As for Tom, I could have tipped him over with a nod of the head when he was thanking me for leaving the merry-go-round to stand by. It must feel pretty good to be the father of a promising specimen like that. Must beat the adopting business several leagues. And that's not saying that Bobby Burns isn't the best thing that ever happened to R. P."
Philosophizing thus, he presently sent the Green Imp at her quietest pace in at the home driveway. The Chester house was still brilliantly illumined; his own dark except for the dim light in the office and - he discovered it as he rounded the turn - a sort of half-radiance coming from the windows of his own room, where Bob slept in the small bed beside his own. Burns gazed anxiously at this, for it showed that somebody had turned on the hooded electric. He was accustomed to leave the door open into his private office; in which a light was always burning, and with this Bob had hitherto been satisfied.
"He must have waked up and called for Cynthia," he decided. Housing the Imp, he quietly crossed the lawn to the window, avoiding any sound of footsteps on the gravelled paths. Both windows, screened by wire and awnings, were wide open; he could see with ease into the room, for the house was an old one and stood low. Climbing wistaria vines wreathed the windows, and sheltered by these he found himself secure from observation.
For after the first look he became exceedingly anxious not to be discovered. He had come home in the stirred and gentle mood often brought upon him by his part in such a scene as the one he had lately left behind him. In the first wave of joy swept by a birth into a home, whether humble or exalted, the man who has been of service in the hour of trial is often caught and lifted into a sympathetic pleasure which lasts for some time after he has gone on to less satisfying work. Burns had often jeered gently at himself for being, as he considered, more than ordinarily susceptible to a sort of odd tenderness of feeling under such conditions, and as he stared in at the scene before him he was uneasily conscious that he could not have come upon it at a more vulnerable moment.
Bobby Burns was sitting straight up in bed, his cheeks flushed, his eyelids reddened as if with prolonged crying, but his small face radiant with happiness as he regarded his companion, his plump little fist thrust tight into the hand which held his. In a chair close beside him sat a figure in silvery white; bare, beautifully-moulded arms, from which the gloves had been pulled and flung aside upon the bed, gleaming in the glow from the hooded light.
Black head was close to black head, her black lashes and his disclosed dark eyes curiously alike in the distracting glance of them; even the colouring of the faces was similar, for both showed the warm and peachy hues laid there by the summer sun.
"They might easily be mother and son," was the thought forced upon the spectator. His own cheek suddenly burned, in the shadow of the wistaria vines.
He listened abstractedly to the conclusion of the story: it must have been a charming tale, for the boy's cry of regret when it ended was eloquent. But the eavesdropper heard with full appreciation the richness of the low voice and could not wonder at Bob's delight in it. He watched with absorbed eyes the embrace exchanged between the two and, forgetting to be cautious, allowed his shifted foot to crunch the gravel under the window.
Quicker than thought the light went out. Burns made for the office door, consumed with eagerness to catch her before she could get away. But when he set foot upon the threshold of his room only the little figure, pulling itself again erect in the bed, met his eyes in the dim light issuing from the office, and otherwise the room was empty.
"Nobody heard me cryin' but her," explained Bob to his questioning guardian. "Cynthia was all goned away and I heard the fiddles and they made me cry. She comed in and told me stories. I love her. But she wented awful quick out that way." He pointed toward a French window opening like a door upon the lawn. "I wish she didn't go so quick. She looked awful pretty, all white and shiny. She loves me, I think, don't you?"
"Of course, old man. That's your particular good luck - eh? Now lie down and go to sleep and tell me all about it in the morning."
"Aren't you going back to the party?" queried Bob anxiously.
"Hardly." Burns glanced humorously down at his attire. "But I'm not going to bed just yet, so shut your eyes. I'll not be far away."
The child obeyed. Exchanging the claw-hammer for his office coat, Burns went out by way of the French window to the rear of the house.
An hour afterward Arthur Chester, putting out lights, discovered from a back window a familiar figure at a familiar occupation. But at this hour of the night the sight struck him as so extraordinary that, curiosity afire, he hurriedly let himself out of the side door he had just locked, and crossed the lawn.
"In the name of all lunatics, Red, why sawing wood? It can't be ill temper at missing the show?"
In the August moonlight the figure straightened itself and laid down the saw. "Go to bed, and don't bother your addle pate about your neighbours. Can't a man cut up a few sticks without your coming to investigate?"
"Saw a few more. You haven't got the full dose necessary yet," advised Chester, his hands in his pockets. "Want me to sit up with you till you work it all off?"
"It's beginning to look as if it wouldn't work off," muttered R. P. Burns.
"Must be a worse attack than usual. How long have you been at it?"
"Sawed that whole heap at the side there?"
"Lost a patient?"
"Blow out a tire?"
"Bad news of any sort?"
"No. Go to bed."
"I feel I oughtn't to leave you," persisted Chester. "Don't you think it might ease your mind to tell me about it?"
Burns came at him with the saw, and Chester fled. Burns went back to his woodpile, marshalled the sawed sticks into orderly ranks, then stood still once more and once more looked up at the stars.
"If an hour of that on a night like this won't take the nonsense out of me," he solemnly explained to a bright particular planet now low in the heavens, "I must be past help. But I'll be - drawn and quartered if I'll give in. Haven't I had knockouts enough to be able to keep my head this time? Red Pepper Burns, `Remember the Maine' Now, go to bed yourself!"