Chapter VIII. In Which He is Unreasonably Preoccupied
 

"Red Pepper Burns, put down that stuff and come over. It's nine o'clock, and Pauline goes tomorrow, as you very well know. And not only Paul, but Mrs. Lessing. Paul's persuaded her to start when she does, though she wasn't expecting to go for three days longer."

R. P. Burns looked up abstractedly. "Can't come now. I'm busy," he replied, and immediately became reabsorbed in the big book he was studying.

Chester gazed at him amazedly. He sat at the desk in the inner office, surrounded by books, medical magazines, foreign reviews in both French and German, as Chester discovered on approaching more closely, by loose anatomical plates, by sheets of paper covered with rough sketches of something it looked more like a snake in convulsions than anything else. Evidently Burns was deep in some sort of professional research.

It was not that the sight was an unaccustomed one. There could be no question that R. P. Burns, M.D., was a close student; this was not the first nor the fortieth time that his friend had thus discovered him. The view to be had from the point where Chester stood, of the small laboratory opening from this office, was also a familiar one. He could see steam arising from the sterilizer: he knew surgical instruments were boiling merrily away there. A table was littered with objects suggesting careful examination: a fine microscope in position; a centrifuge, Bunsen burners, test-tubes; elsewhere other apparatus of a description to make the uninitiated actively sympathetic with the presumable coming victim.

The point of the situation to Chester was that astonishing fact that Burns could hear unmoved of the immediate departure of Ellen Lessing. He made up his mind that this scientific enthusiast could not have assimilated the dreadful news; he would try again.

"Red! Do you hear? She's going to-morrow - tomorrow!"

"Let her go. Don't bother me."

"I don't mean Pauline. Ellen's going, too."

Burns put up one sinewy hand and thrust it through his hair, which already stood on end. His collar was off and he wore a laboratory apron: his appearance was not prepossessing. He pulled a piece of paper toward him and began to make rapid lines. It was the snake again, in worse convulsions than before. Evidently he had not heard. Chester approached the desk.

"Red!" he shouted. "The patient isn't on the table yet: he won't die if you listen to me one minute. I want you to take this thing in. Mrs. Lessing - "

Knocking the sketch to one side and precipitating three books and a mass of papers to the floor, Red stood up. He towered above his shrinking fiend, wrath in his eye. His lips moved. If it had been three months earlier Chester would have expected to hear language of a lurid description. As it was, the first syllable or two did slip out, but no more followed. Only speech - good, vigorous Saxon, not to be misunderstood.

"Will you try to get it into your brain that I don't care a hang who goes or where, so long as I figure out a way to do this trick? The other fellows all say it can't be done. Not one of 'em'll do it, not even Van Horn. I say it can, and I'm going to do it to-morrow morning at nine o'clock, if I can work out a tool to do it with and make it. And I can do that if idiots like you will get out and keep out."

He sat down and was instantly lost again in his effort at invention. Chester looked at him in silence for a minute more, then he walked quietly out. Offended? Not he. He had not listened to invective from that Celtic tongue for eight years not to know that high tension over a coming critical operation almost invariably meant brilliant success. But even he had never seen Red Pepper keyed up quite so taut as this. It must be a tremendous risk he meant to take. Success to him - the queer, fine old boy!

"He may be over later when he gets that confounded snake of an instrument figured out." Chester offered this to the group upon his porch as consolation.

"And if he doesn't get it figured out before we break up, he won't be over," prophesied Macauley. "Ten to one he forgets to come and say good-bye before he starts for the hospital in the morning."

"I'm going to be standing beside the driveway when he goes," vowed Pauline. "And if he doesn't notice me I'll climb on the car."

"Ellen, don't go to-morrow," whispered Martha Macauley to her sister. "Don't let it end this way. When he comes to, you'll be gone, and that's such a pity just now."

"But I think I would rather be gone, dear." Ellen Lessing whispered back.

"Oh, why? When Red's excited over a big success he's simply off his head - there's no knowing what he won't do."

"I prefer him when he has his head. Don't urge, Martha. I've promised to go in the morning with Pauline, and nothing could make me change."

"It's a shame for him to be so absorbed. Who wants a man who can forget the existence of a woman like that?"

"Who wants one who can't? A sorry surgeon he'd be - his hand would shake. Don't talk about it any more, dear. I'm going to enjoy this evening with you all. And I hope - oh, how I hope - that operation will be a success!"

If it were not to be a success it would not be the fault of the man who worked till one o'clock - two o'clock - three o'clock it the morning to perfect the strangely convoluted tool which was to help "do the trick" if it could be done. Part of the work was done in the laboratory, part in the machine shop which occupied a corner of the old red barn, where the Green Imp lent her lamps as aids to the task in hand. At four, the instrument finished, sterilized, and put away as if it were worth its weight in gold - which it might easily have been if it were to prove fitted to the peculiar need - Burns went to bed. At six he was up again, had a cold plunge and a hearty breakfast, and at seven was sending the Imp out of the gateway, his office nurse beside him. If Mrs. Lessing hoped the operation would be a success, Miss Mathewson hoped and feared and longed with all her soul. Beneath the uniform and behind the quiet, plain face of the young woman who had been R. P. Burns's professional assistant for eight years, lived a person than whom none cared more how things went with him. But nobody knew that least of all Burns himself. He only knew that he could not get on without her; that never a suture that she had prepared made trouble for him after an operation: and that none other of the hundred nice details upon which the astounding results of modern surgery depend was likely to go wrong if it were she who was responsible.

At five o'clock that afternoon the Green Inn came back. Arthur Chester had just returned from the office and had thrown himself into a hammock on the porch, for the September weather was like that of June. Catching the throbbing purr of the Imp as the car swung in at the driveway Chester jumped up. Burns flung out a triumphant arm; Miss Mathewson was smiling.

"By George, the old boy's won out!" Chester said to himself, and hurried down to meet the Imp. "All over but the shouting, Red?" he questioned eagerly.

"All over." Burns's face was aflame.

"Pull up and tell me about it."

The car came to a standstill. "Nothing to tell. The curve I got on that bit of steel did the work, around the corner and inside out. The fellows said it wouldn't; stood around and croaked for an hour beforehand. Lord! I'd have died myself before I'd have failed after that."

"Should have thought they'd have unsettled your nerve," declared Chester, looking as if he would like personally to pitch into the entire medical profession.

"Didn't. Just made me mad. I can do anything when I'm mad - if I can keep my mouth shut." Burns laughed rather shamefacedly. "That's the one advantage of a temper. I say, Ches, don't you want to go with me? There are probably half a dozen calls waiting at the office. I'll run and see."

He jumped out, seized his surgical handbags and hurried away. Miss Mathewson descended more deliberately, Chester plying her with eager questions as he assisted her. "How was it? Pretty big feather in his cap, Miss Mathewson?"

"Indeed it was, Mr. Chester. Every one of the other city surgeons said it couldn't be done without killing the patient. They all admitted that if she survived the operation she would have every chance for recovery. They were all there to see. I never knew them all there at once before."

"It would be ungenerous to imagine they wanted him to fail," chuckled Chester, "but we're, all human. How did they take it when he succeeded?"

""They remembered they were gentlemen and scientists," declared Miss Mathewson - "all but one or two who aren't worth mentioning. When they saw he had done it, they began to clap. I don't believe there was ever such a burst of applause in that surgery."

"What did the old fellow do? Tried to look modest, I suppose," laughed Chester, glowing with pride and pleasure.

"He was white all through the operation - he always is, with the strain. But he turned red all over when they cheered, and just said: `Thank you, gentlemen.' It really was a wonderful thing, Mr. Chester, even in these days. Only one man has done it, a German, and he has done it only twice. Doctor Burns will be distinguished after this."

"Good for him! No wonder he looks the way he does - as if he'd like to turn a few handsprings," Chester reflected as he watched the nurse's trim figure walk away.

Burns came back. "Jump in," he said. "Work enough to keep me busy till bedtime. If there hadn't been, I'd have proposed a beefsteak in the woods by way of a celebration and a let down. I'm beginning to get a bit of reaction, of course; should have liked an hour or two of jollity. You and Win, and Mrs. Lessing and I might have - "

"Mrs. Lessing! You old chump, don't you remember she's gone? Why, Mac started for the train with them all in his car, not ten minutes before you came. They haven't been gone fifteen. I begged off from going along because I was dusty and tired. Just got home myself,"

R. P. Burns, making the circuit of the driveway behind the houses and now turning the Imp's nose toward the street again, stared at his friend in amazement.

"Why, she wasn't going till day after to-morrow!" he exclaimed.

"I came over last night," drawled Chester in a longsuffering tone, "and explained to you and shouted at you and tried in every way to ram the idea into your head that Pauline had wheedled Mrs. Lessing to start when she did, because their routes lay together as far as Washington. You put me out, calling me names and generally insulting me. It's all right, of course. She's to spend the winter in South Carolina, but she'll be back next summer. You can say good-bye to her then. It'll do just as well."

Burns's watch was in his hand. "What time does that train go?" he demanded.

"Five-thirty. You can't make it." Chester's watch was also out. "What do you care? Send her a picture postcard explaining that you forgot all about her until it was too - "

The last word was jerked back into his throat by the jump of the Green Imp. She shot out of the driveway like a stone out of a catapult, and was off down the mile road to the station, All conveyances going to that train had passed quarter-hour before, and the course was nearly clear.

"There's the train's smoke at the tunnel. You can't do it," asserted Chester, pointing to the black hole a few rods to one side of the station whence a gray cloud was issuing. "She only makes a two minute stop. You won't more than get on board before - "

"If I get on board you drive into the city and meet me there, will you?" begged Burns.

"I can't drive the Imp, Red; you know I can't."

"Then 'phone Johnny Caruthers from the station and send him in for me. That'll give me fifteen minutes on the train."

"What's the use? Pauline'll be at your elbow every minute. She'll - "

But Burns was paying no attention. He wag taking the Imp past a lumbering farm-wagon with only two inches to spare between himself and the ditch. Then the car was at the station, Burns was out and through the building, through the gate and upon the slowly-moving train after a moment's hasty argument with a conductor to whom he could show no ticket. On the platform James Macauley, junior, and Martha Macauley, Winifred Chester, and four small children of assorted ages stared after the big figure bolting into the Pullman. Bobby Burns gave a shriek of delight followed by a wail of disappointment.

"By George, he's turned up, after all!" exulted Macauley, and the two women looked at each other with meaning, relieved glances.

In the car, the passengers observed interestedly the spectacle of a large man with a mop of fiery red hair, from which he had pulled a leather cap, striding, dust-covered, into the car and up to the two prettiest young women there. One of these very smartly clad in blue, received him with looks half gay, half pouting, and with a storm of talk. The other, in gray, with a face upon which no eye could rest once without covertly or openly returning in deference to its charm, gave him a quiet hand and turned away again to wave her farewell to the group of friends on the platform

"Take my chair and I'll perch on the arm of Ellen's," commanded Pauline," while you explain, apologize and try to make your peace with us. You'll find it hard work. I may smile for the sake of appearances, but inside I'm really awfully angry. So is Ellen, though she doesn't show it."

Thus Pauline, indefinitely prolonged and repeated, with variations, interpolations, interruptions. It didn't matter; Redfield Pepper Burns heard none of it. Even with Pauline "perching" on the arm of Ellen Lessing's chair, her face within eight inches of the other face, she was not within the field of his vision.

"I am sure the operation was successful," said Mrs. Lessing.

"One can see it in his eyes," declared Pauline. "I never knew hazel eyes could be so brilliant°'

"It went through," admitted Burns. "It had to, you know. And I had a thing to make last evening "

"Arthur told us about it," chattered Pauline. "It was like a sna - "

"You didn't miss my not coming over," said Burns. He was leaning forward, his hands on his knees, his rumpled head near enough so that very low tones could reach the person to whom he spoke. He did not once look at Pauline. One would have thought that that fact alone would have quieted her, but it did not.

"Indeed we did - awfully!" cried Pauline.

"Neither did I myself, then, Mrs. Lessing. I miss it now. I shall miss it more whenever I think about it. I don't know of but one thing that can possibly make it up to me. "

"Name it! You don't deserve it, but our hearts are rather tender, and we might grant - " Pauline looked arch. But what was the use? Nobody saw. Even the passengers were watching the one in gray. Spectators always watch the woman at whom the man is looking. And in this case it seemed well worth while, for even the most admirable reserve of manner could not control the tell-tale colour which was slowly mounting under the direct and continued gaze of the man with the red hair. The man himself, it occurred to more than one passenger, was rather well worth study.

"It's always been a theory of mine that no woman can know a man until she's exchanged letters with him for a considerable period of time - say, a winter," Burns went on. Pauline, made some sort of an exclamation, but he failed to notice it - "Neither can a man know a woman. It's a stimulating experience. Suppose we try it?"

"How often do you propose to write to us?" inquired Pauline.

Now, at last, Red Pepper Burns looked at her. If she had known him better, she would have known that all his vows to keep his tongue from certain words were at that moment very nearly as written in water. But the look he gave her stung her for an instant into silence.

"I shall want to hear about Bob," Ellen replied, "all you can tell me. I have promised to write to him. You will have to read the letters aloud to him - which will give you a very fair idea of what I am doing. But if you care for an extra sheet for yourself - now and then - "

"An extra sheet! When I am in the mood I am likely to write a dozen sheets to you. When I'm not, a page will be all you'll care to read. Will you agree to the most erratic correspondence you ever had, with the most erratic fellow?"

"It sounds very promising," she answered, smiling.

The train drew into the city station. The stop was a short one, for the Limited was late. In the rush of outgoing and incoming passengers Burns managed, for the space of sixty seconds, to get out of range of Pauline's ears.

"I shall count the hours till I get that first letter," said he.

She looked up. "You surely don't expect a letter till you have sent one?"

He laughed. "I'm going home to begin to write it now," he said.

Pauline accompanied him to the vestibule where he shook hands with her forgivingly. From the platform he secured a last glimpse of the other face, which gave him a friendly smile as he saluted with his dusty leather cap held out toward her at the length of his arm. When he could no longer see her he drew a gusty sigh and turned away.

As he stood at the street entrance of the big station, waiting for Johnny Caruthers and the Green Imp, this is what he was saying to himself:

"Red, you've made more than one woman unhappy, to say nothing of yourself, by making love to her because she was a beauty and your head swam. This time you've tried rather hard to do her the justice to wait till you know. Only time and absence can settle that. Remember you found a nest of gray hairs in your red pate this morning? That should show that you're gaining wisdom at last, the salt in the red pepper, `the seasoning of time,' eh, R. P.? But by the rate of my pulse at this present moment I'm inclined to believe - it's going to be a bit hard to write an absolutely sane letter. Perhaps it would be safer if I knew Pauline Pry would see it! I'll try to write as if I knew she would . . . . But by the spark I thought I saw in those black eyes I don't really imagine Pauline will!"