"Mrs. Lessing!" he called.
From some distance away came back a blithe answer: "Here, Doctor Burns!"
He started in the direction of the voice and presently came upon her sitting on a big granite boulder, busy with a lapful of pine cones out of which she seemed to be constructing something. She looked up, smiling.
"Why in the world did you let me sleep all the afternoon?" he reproached her.
"I should have wakened you in ten minutes more. Have I made you late for your work? I understood that you could afford a few hours for rest. You've only slept three."
"Three! Good heavens! When I might have been spending them with you!"
He looked so chagrined that her smile changed into outright laughter. "You are very flattering. But I've been taking much more satisfaction in your repose than I could possibly have done in your society, no matter how brilliant you might have been."
"That's not flattering, but I admit it has its practical side. Those three hours' sleep in the open air have put me on my feet again. Just the same, I want to eat my cake and have it, too! Promise me three consecutive hours of your company when I'm awake, or I shan't get over regretting what I've missed. Will you do this again with me some September day when I can make the time?"
"I promise with pleasure. I've had a charming afternoon all by myself and wandered all over the hillside, dreaming midsummer day-dreams. We must go, mustn't we?" She stood up, her hands full of her work.
"Tell me some of them, won't you, while we climb down to the car?" he begged.
"My happiest one," she said as they descended, "is the making of a country home for little crippled children. I think I've found the spot—the old Fairmount place—it's not more than five miles from here. If I can only buy it at a reasonable figure—"
"Mrs. Lessing!" he broke in. "So that's the sort of thing that makes your day-dreams! No wonder—well!—"
"Why should you be surprised? Isn't that a delightful dream? If I can only make it come true—"
"You can. Do you want a visiting surgeon?"
"Of course I do. Will you—"
"Why, Mrs. Lessing," said he, stopping short just below her on the steep path and looking up into her face with eyes of eager pleasure, "that's been one of my dreams so long I can't remember when I began to think about it. But I haven't been able to finance it yet, nor to find time to get anybody else to do it. If you'll provide the place I'll do everything I can to make it a success. There are no less than four children this minute I'm longing to get into such a home. We'll go into partnership if you'll take me. I why—you see, I can't even talk straight about it! And you—I thought you were a society woman!"
"I am a society woman, I suppose," she answered laughing, "though our ideas might differ as to what that term stands for. But why should that prevent my caring for this lovely plan?"
"Evidently it doesn't. How many sides have you anyhow? I've found out two new ones to-day. Girl—and patron saint—"
"Ah, don't make fun of me. I'm no girl and very far from any kind of saint. Please help me down this four-foot drop as if I were a very, very old lady, for my head is dizzy with joy that I've found somebody to care for my schemes."
He leaped down and held up his arms. "Come, grandma!" he invited, his face full of mischief and enthusiasm and happiness.
"I think I'll play girl, after all," she refused gaily and, accepting one hand only, swung herself lightly down to his side.
"And it's 'bracers' the fellows think they need to put the heart back into them!" jeered Red Pepper Burns to himself. "Let them try the open country and a comrade like this—if there is another anywhere on earth! But they can't have her!"
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!"
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 was 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!"
CHAPTER IX. IN WHICH HE SUFFERS A DEFEAT
The hands of the office clock were pointing to half after two, on a certain September night, when Burns came into his office, alone. The fire in the office fireplace, kept bright until nearly midnight, when his housekeeper had given up waiting for him and gone to bed, had burned to a few smouldering lumps of cannel-slag. A big leather easy-chair, its arms worn with much use, had been pulled into an inviting position before the fireplace, and the night-light by the desk was burning, as usual. All that could be expected had been done by the kind-hearted Cynthia, who comprehended, by signs she knew well and had been watching for several days, that affairs were going wrong with her employer.
But he needed more than could be given him by things inanimate—needed it woefully. He came in as a man comes who is not only physically' weary to the point of exhaustion, but heart sick and sore besides. He dropped his heavy surgical bags upon the floor by the desk as if he wanted never to take them up again, pulled off coat and cap and let them fall where they would, then stumbled blindly over to the big chair and sank into it with a great sigh, as if he had reached the end of all endeavour.
If it had been physical fatigue alone which had brought him to this pass he might have dropped asleep where he sat, and waked, after an hour or two, to drag himself away to bed, like one who had been drugged. For a short space, indeed, he lay motionless in the chair in the attitude of one so spent for sleep that he must needs find it in the first place his body touches. But there are times when the mind will not let the body rest. And this was one of them.
The scene he had left lately was burning before his tired eyes; the sounds he had lately heard were beating in his brain. For a week he had been putting every power he possessed into the attaining of an end for which it had more than once seemed to him that he would be willing to sacrifice his own life. He had dared everything, fought every one, had his own way in spite of every obstacle, believing to the last that he could win, as he had so often won before, by sheer contempt of danger. But this time he had failed.
That was all there was of it—he had failed, failed so absolutely, so humiliatingly, so publicly—this was the way he put it to himself—that he was in disgrace. He had operated when others advised against operation and had seemed to succeed, brilliantly and incredibly. Then the case had begun to go wrong. He had operated a second time—against all precedent, taking tremendous risks—and had lost.
But this was not the worst. He had lost cases before and had suffered keenly over them, but not as he was suffering now. In a world of death some cases must be lost, even by the most successful of all of his profession. But this was an unusual case. This was—O God how could he bear losing this one?
He had known her from a little girl of eight till now, when at sixteen, bright, beautiful, winsome sixteen, he had... what had he done? She might have had a chance for life—without operation. He had taken that chance away. And she had trusted him—how she had trusted him! Ah, there was the bitter drop in the cup the turn of the knife in the raw wound. When the others had opposed, she had looked up at him with that smile of hers—how could she smile when she was in such pain?—and whispered: "Please do whatever you want to, Doctor Burns." And he had answered confidently: "Good for you, Lucile—if only they'd all trust me like that I'd show them what I could do!"
Vain boast—wild boast! He had been a fool—twice a fool—thrice a fool! He was a fool clear through—that was the matter with him—a proud fool who had thought that with a thrust of his keen-edged tools he could turn Death himself aside.
And when he had tried his hand a second time, in the last futile effort to avert the impending disaster, she had trusted him just the same. When he had said to her, speaking close to her dull ear: "Dear little girl, I'm going to ask you to go to sleep again for me," she had turned her head upon the pillow, that tortured young head—he would not have thought she could move it at all—and had smiled at him again... for the last time... He would remember that smile while he lived.
He got up from his chair as the intolerable memory smote him again, as it had been smiting him these three hours since the end had come. He began to pace the floor, back and forth back and forth. There were those who said that R. P. Burns threw off his cases easily, did not worry about them, did not take it to heart when they went wrong. It is a thing often said of the men who must turn from one patient to another, and show to the second no hint of how the first may be faring. Those who say it do not know—can never know.
The hours wore on. Burns could not sleep, could not even relax and rest. To the first agony of disappointment succeeded a depression so profound that it seemed to him he could never rise above it and take up his work again. A hundred times he went painfully over the details of the case, from first to last. Why had he done as he had? Why had he not listened to Grayson, to Van Horn, to Fields? Only Butler had backed him up in his decisions—and he knew well enough that Butler had done it only because of his faith in Burns himself and his remembrance of some of his extraordinary successes, not because his own judgment approved.
Five o'clock—six o'clock—he had thrown himself into the chair again, and had, at last, dropped into an uneasy sort of half slumber, when the office door quietly opened and Miss Mathewson came in. It was two hours before she was due. Burns roused and regarded her wonderingly, with eyes heavy and blood-shot. She stood still and looked down at him, sympathy in her face. She herself was pale with fatigue and loss of sleep, for she had been with him throughout the week of struggle over the case he had lost, and she knew the situation as no one else, even his professional colleagues, knew it. But she smiled wanly down at him, like a pitying angel.
"You didn't go to bed, Doctor," she said, very gently. "I was afraid you wouldn't. Won't you go now? You know there's a day's work before you."
He shook his head. "No—I'd rather get out in the air. I'm going now. I'd like to take the Imp and—drive to—"
"No, no!"—She spoke quickly, coming closer, as if she understood and would not let him use the reckless, common phrase which sometimes means despair. "I thought you might be feeling like that—that's why I came early. Not that I can say anything to cheer you, Doctor Burns—I know you care too much for that. But there's one thing you must realize—you must say it over and over to yourself—you did your best. No human being can do more."
"A fool's best," he muttered. "Cold comfort that."
"Not a fool's best—a skilful surgeon's best."
He shook his head again, got slowly up from his chair, and stood staring down into the ashes of the long-dead fire. The usually straight shoulders were bent; the naturally well-poised head, always carried confidently erect, was sunk upon the broad chest.
Amy Mathewson watched him for a minute, her own face full of pain; then laid her hand, rather timidly, upon his arm. He looked round at her and tried to smile, but the effort only made his expression the more pitiful.
"Bless your heart," said he, brokenly, "I believe you'd stand by me to the last ditch of a failure."
Her eyes suddenly filled. "I'd let you operate—on my mother—to-day," said she, in a low voice.
He gazed into her working face for a long moment, seized her hand and wrung it hard, then strode away into the inner office and flung the door shut behind him.
A half-hour later he came out. He had himself sternly in hand again. His shoulders were squared, his head up; in his face was written a peculiar grim defiance which those who did not comprehend might easily mistake for the stoicism imputed to men of his calling under defeat. Miss Mathewson knew better, understood that it was taking all his courage to face his work again, and realized as nobody else could that the day before him would be one of the hardest he had yet had to live. But she was hopeful that little by little he would come back to the same recognition of that which she felt was really true, that, in spite of the results, he had been justified in the risk he had taken, and that he could not be blamed that conditions which only a superhuman penetration could have foreseen would arise to thwart him.
"Cynthia has your breakfast ready for you Doctor," Miss Mathewson said quietly, as he came out. She did not look up from the desk, where she was working on accounts. But as he passed her, on his way to the dining-room, he laid his hand for an instant on her shoulder, and when she looked up she met his grateful eyes. She had given him the greatest proof of confidence in her power, and it had been the one ray of light in his black hour.
"Won't you take just a taste o' the chops, Doctor?" urged his housekeeper, anxiously. She knew nothing of the situation, but she had not served him for eight years not to have learned something of his moods, and it was clear to her that he had had little sleep for many nights.
But he put aside the plate. "I know they're fine, Cynthia," said he in his gentlest way. "But the coffee's all I want, this morning. Another cup, please."
Cynthia hesitated, a motherly sort of solicitude in her homely face. "Doctor, do you know you've had four, a'ready? And it's awful strong."
"Have I! Well—perhaps that's enough. Thank you, Cynthia."
His housekeeper looked after him, as he left the room. "He's terrible blue, to be so polite as that," she reflected. "When he's happy he's in such a hurry he don't have time to thank a body. Of the two. I guess I'd rather have him hustlin' rude!"
In the middle of the day Burns met Van Horn.
"Sorry the case went wrong, Doctor," said his colleague. There was a peculiar sparkle in his eye as he offered this customary, perfunctory condolence.
"Thank you," replied Burns, shortly.
"I didn't wish to seem skeptical, and you certainly have had remarkable success in somewhat similar cases. But it seemed to me that in advising as I did I was holding the only safe ground. Personally I'm not in favour of taking chances and in this case it seemed to me they were pretty slim."
"I did my best to assure the family that you were within your rights."
"I don't blame you for feeling broken up about it," declared the other man, soothingly. "But we all have to learn by experience, and conservatism is one of the hardest lessons."
An ugly light was growing in Red Pepper's eye. He got away without further words. Only last week Van Horn had been helped out of a serious and baffling complication by Burns himself, and no credit given to the rescuer. From him this sort of high and mighty sympathy was particularly hard to bear.
Around the corner he encountered Grayson. This, as it was so little to be desired, was naturally to be expected.
"Too bad, Doctor," Grayson began, stopping to shake hands. Van Horn had not even shaken hands. "I hoped till the last that we were all wrong and you were right. But that heart seemed dangerously shaky to me, though I know you didn't think so."
"There was a queer factor in the case, one I felt from the first, though I couldn't put my finger on it. It was the thing that made me advise against operation."
"But of course there's no use crying over spilt milk; you did your best," continued Grayson cheerfully. "Pretty little girl—plucky, too. Sorry to see her go."
Burns nodded—and bolted. These Job's comforters—were they trying to make the thing seem even more unbearable than it already was? Certainly they were succeeding admirably. He went on about his work with set teeth, expecting at the next turn to run into Fields. He would undoubtedly find him at the hospital, ready to greet him with some croaking sympathy. True to his expectations Fields met him at the door. He himself was looking particularly prosperous and cheerful, as people have a way of appearing to us when our trouble is root theirs.
"Good morning, Doctor." Fields shook hands, evidently trying to modify his own demeanour of unusual good cheer over a list of patients all safely on the road to ultimate recovery. "I want to express my regret over the way things came out last night. Mighty pretty operation—if it had succeeded. Sorry it didn't. Better luck next time."
"Much obliged." Burns had a bull-dog expression now. Not the most discerning observer would have imagined he felt a twinge of regret over his failure.
"Would you mind telling me what made you so confident that the spleen had nothing to do with the complication?" Fields inquired in a deprecatory manner which made Burns long to twist his neck.
"Did you suggest that it did—beforehand?"
"I believe I did—if I remember."
"I believe you didn't—nor any other man till I got in and found it. You all observed it then—and so did I. Excuse me—I'm in too much of a hurry to stop to discuss the case now. I'm due upstairs." And once more Burns made good his escape.
"Sore," was Field's verdict, looking after the man who had been his successful rival for so long that this exception could hardly fail to afford a decided, if rather shame-faced satisfaction to a brother surgeon not above that quite human' sentiment.
But in the course of the day Burns met Buller. He had dreaded to meet him, but not for the same reason that he had dreaded the others. Meeting Buller was quite another story.
"Old boy, I'm so sorry I could cry, if it would do you any good," said Buller, his steady, honest gaze meeting his friend's miserable eyes. For the defiance had melted out of Burns's aspect and left it frankly wretched before the hearty friendship in this man's whole attitude; friendship which could be counted upon, like that of his office nurse's, to the end of all things.
Burns swallowed hard, making no reply, because he could not. But his hand returned the steady pressure of Butler's in a way that showed he was grateful.
"I knew you'd take it hard—much harder than common. And, of course, I understand why. Any man would. But I wish I could make you feel the way I do about it. There's not one particle of reason for you to blame yourself. I've thought the case over and over from start to finish, and I'm more and more convinced that she wouldn't have lived without the operation. You gave her her only chance. Take that in? I mean it. I went around there this morning and told the family so—I took that liberty. It was a comfort to them, though they believed anyway. They haven't lost a particle of faith in you."
Burns bit his lip till he had it under control, and could get out a word or two of gratitude.
"And now I want a favour of you," the other went on hurriedly. "A case I want you to see with me—possible operation within a day or two."
Burns hesitated an instant, changing colour. Then: "Are you sure you'd better have me?" he asked, a trifle huskily.
The other looked him in the eye. "Why not? I know of nobody so competent. Come, man put that Satan of unreasonable self-reproach behind you. When man becomes omniscient and omnipotent there'll be no errors in his judgment or his performance—and not before. Meanwhile we're all in the soup of fallibility together. I—I'm not much at expressing myself elegantly: but I trust I'm sufficiently forcible," smiled Buller. "Er—will you meet me at four at my office? We'll go to the Arnolds' together, and I'll give you the history of the case on the way. It's a corker, I assure you, and it's keeping me awake nights."
Proceeding on his way alone in the Imp he had not wanted even Johnny Caruthers's company to-day Burns found the heaviness of his spirit lifting slightly very slightly. Tenderness toward the little lost patient who had loved and trusted him so well began gradually to usurp the place of the black hatred of what he felt to be his own incompetency. Passing a florist's shop he suddenly felt like giving that which, as it had occurred to him before, had seemed to him would be only a mockery from his hands. He went in and selected flowers—dozens and dozens of white rosebuds, fresh and sweet—and sent them, with no card at all, to her home.
Then he drove on to his next patient, to find himself surrounded by an eager group of happy people, all rejoicing in what appeared to them to be a marvelous deliverance from a great impending danger, entirely due to his own foresight and skill. He knew well enough that it way Nature herself who had come to the rescue, and frankly told them so. But they continued to thrust the honour upon him, and he could but come away with a softened heart.
"I'll go on again," he said to himself. "I've got to go on. Last night I thought I couldn't, but, of course, that's nonsense. The best I can God knows I try... And I'll never make that mistake again... But oh!—little Lucile—little Lucille!"
CHAPTER X. IN WHICH HE PROVES HIMSELF A HOST
"Winifred," said R. P. Burns, invading Mrs. Arthur Chester's sunny living-room one crisp October morning, leather cap in hand, "I'm going to give a dinner to-night. Stag dinner for Grant, of Edinburgh—man who taught me half the most efficient surgery I know. He's over here, and I've just found it out. Only been in the city two days: goes to-morrow."
"How interesting, Red! Where do you give it? At one of the clubs or hotels in town?"
"That's the usual thing, of course. That's why I'm not going to do it. Grant's a rugged sort of commonsense chap—hates show and fuss. He gets an overpowering lot of being 'entertained' in precisely the conventional style. He's a pretty big gun now, and he can't escape. When I told him I was going to have him out for a plain dinner at home he looked as relieved as if I'd offered him a reprieve for some sentence."
"Undoubtedly he'll enjoy the relaxation. Hut you'll have a caterer out from town, I suppose?"
"Not on your life. Cynthia can cook well enough for me, and I know Ronald Grant's tastes like a book. But what I want to ask is that you and Martha Macauley will come over and see that the table looks shipshape. Cynthia's a captain of the kitchen, but her ideas of table decoration are a trifle too original even for me. Miss Mathewson's away on her vacation. I'll send in some flowers. My silver and china are nothing remarkable, bur as long as the food's right that doesn't matter."
"I shall be delighted to do it for you, Red, as you know. So will Martha. We—"
"Thanks immensely. I want Ches of course, and Jim Macauley's coming. The rest are M, D.'s. I must be off."
He would have been off, without doubt, in an instant more, for he was half out of the door as he spoke, but Winifred Chester flew after him and laid an insistent hand on his coat sleeve.
"Red! You must stop long enough to tell me something about it. How can I help you unless I know your plans? What hour have you set? How many are coming, and who? How many courses are you going to have? Have you engaged a waitress?"
Red Pepper looked bewildered. "Is there all that to it?" he inquired helplessly. "How in thunder—I beg your pardon—how do I know how many courses there'll be? Ask Cynthia that. The hour's seven-thirty; can't get around earlier, even if I wanted to be less formal. There's Van Horn and Buller and Fields and Grayson and Grant and Ches and Jim and—and myself. I may have asked somebody else, seems as if did but I can't remember. You'd better put on an extra plate in case I have."
He was starting off again, but Winifred, laughing helplessly, again detained him. "Red, you're too absurd! What about the waitress? Shall I find one for you?"
"I supposed Cynthia could serve us; she always does me."
"She can't to-night, and prepare things to send in, too."
"Oh, well, see to it if you'll be so kind; only let me go, for I've only fifteen minutes now to meet a consultant ten miles away. Good-bye, Win."
He took time to turn and smile at her, and for the sake of the smile—she knew of none other just like it—she forgave him for involving her in the labours she already clearly foresaw were to be hers. How precisely like Red Pepper Burns it was to plan for a "stag" dinner in this inconsequent way! If it had been a coming operation, now, no detail of preparation would have been too insignificant to command his attention. But in the present instance unquestionably all he had done was to appear at the door of the kitchen and casually inform Cynthia that eight or nine men were coming to dinner to-night, and he'd trust her to see that they should have something good to eat. Poor Cynthia!
Winifred ran over to consult Martha Macauley and together they braved Burns's housekeeper in her kitchen. The result was relief, as far as the dinner itself was concerned. Cynthia was a superior cook, and long experience with exclusively masculine tastes had taught her the sort of thing which, however out of the beaten line for entertaining, was likely to prove successful in pleasing "eight or nine men," wherever they might hail from.
"Cynthia's planned a dinner that will be about as different from Lazier's concoctions as could be imagined," Winifred said to Martha, "but it will taste what Ches calls 'licking good.' Now for the table. I'm afraid Red's china and linen are none too fine. We'll have to help him out there."
They helped him out. Only the finest of Martha's linen and silver, the thinnest of Winifred's plates and cups and the most precious of her glass would content them. When the table was set in the low-ceiled, casement-windowed old dining-room where Red Pepper was accustomed to bolt his meals alone when he took time for them at all, it was a to table to suggest arrogantly the hand of woman, Winifred eyed it with milled satisfaction and concern.
"It looks lovely, Martha, but not a bit bachelor-like. Do you suppose he'll mind?"
"Not as long as the food is right; and judging by the heavenly smells from the kitchen there's no fear for that. But it's five o'clock, and the flowers he promised you haven't come. Do you suppose he's forgotten?"
"Of course he has. If he remembers the dinner itself it'll be all we can expect of him. It doesn't matter. There are heaps of pink and crimson asters yet in the garden, and some fall anemones. We'll arrange them, and then if his flowers do come we'll change. But they won't."
They didn't. But the pink and crimson asters furnished a centrepiece decidedly more in keeping, somehow, with a men's dinner than roses would have been, and the decorators were content with them. Dora, Mrs. Macauley's own serving maid, who was to take the part of the waitress Red Pepper had not thought necessary, said they looked "awful tasty now."
"It's after seven and Red hasn't come yet." Winifred Chester rushed at Arthur, dressing placidly. "Jim went in for the men with his car, and said he'd surely have them here by seven-twenty. You'll have to go over and do the honours for him till he comes. He'll have to dress after he gets here."
"He won't stop to dress—not if he's late," predicted Chester, obediently hastening. "He'll rush in at the last minute, smelling horribly of antiseptics, and set everybody laughing with some story. They won't care what he wears. It's always a case of 'where MacGregor sits, there's the head of the table,' you know, with Red. I certainly hope nothing will make him late. I'm not up to playing host to a lot of physicians and surgeons. I should feel as if I were about to be operated on."
"Nonsense, dear, there's no jollier company when they're off duty. But Red isn't here yet, and I'm sure I hear Jim's Gabriel down the road. Do hurry!"
Chester ran across the back lawn and in through Burns's kitchen, startling Cynthia so that she nearly dropped the salt-box into a sauce she was making for the beefsteak. He reached the little front porch just in time to welcome the batch of professional gentlemen who came talking and laughing up the path together.
"Doctor Burns has been detained, but I'm sure he'll be here soon," Chester explained, shaking hands, and discovering for himself which was the famous Scottish surgeon by the "rugged commonsense" look of the man, quite as R. P. Burns had characterized him.
Seven-thirty—no Red Pepper. Seven-forty-five—eight o'clock—still no sign of him; harder to be explained, no sign from him. Why didn't he telephone or send a telegram or a messenger? Waiting longer would not do; Cynthia, in the kitchen, was becoming unnervingly agitated.
The dinner was served. Chester, at one end of the table, Macauley at the other, both feeling a terrible responsibility upon them, did their best. There had turned out to be two extra guests instead of the one whom Burns had thought he might have asked but couldn't be sure; and Winifred had had a bad ten minutes looking out a full set of everything with which to set his place. For Red Pepper's place must certainly be left unfilled; it would be beyond the possibilities that the dinner should end without him.
"I believe he has forgotten," whispered Martha to Winifred in the office, from whose dim shadows they were surreptitiously peering into the dining room to make sure that everything was going properly.
"Oh, he couldn't, not with the Edinburgh man here. He's often told us about Doctor Grant and how much he owes him. He does look splendid and capable, doesn't he—for all he's so burly and homely? And the other men all feel honoured to be here with him; even Doctor Van Horn, who's always so impressed with himself."
"They seem to be having a good time. And they're eating as if they never saw food before. It's a success—as much as it can be without the host himself. Oh, why doesn't Red come?"
"He wouldn't desert a patient in a crisis for a dozen dinners."
"No, but he'd send word."
"Look at Arthur. He's hobnobbing with Doctor Grant as if he'd always known him."
"Jim is having a bad time with Doctor Van Horn. I can see it in his eye. Mercy! one of them looked this way. I'm afraid he saw me. Come!"
The next time they reconnoitred, the dinner was working toward its end. It was time, for it was nearly ten o'clock, and Cynthia's courses though not many, had been mighty. Presently the table had been cleared, and the men were drinking coffee and lighting the excellent cigars which had been Macauley's thought when he found that Red Pepper was not on hand to provide them himself.
Under the influence of these genial stimulants—Burns never offered any others, and one man who knew it had declined to come—the sociability grew more positive. Chester relaxed his legs under the table, feeling that at last Red's guests could take care of themselves. Grayson proved an accomplished story-teller; Buller had lately had some remarkable adventures; even Ronald Grant, who had seemed a trifle taciturn, related an extraordinary experience of another man. The Scottish surgeon had the reputation of never talking about himself.
The smoke grew thick. Macauley's cigars were of a strong brand; the air was blue with their reek. Still the guests sat about the table, and still the talk went on.
It was interrupted quite suddenly by the advent of Red Pepper Burns himself. Macauley saw him first, standing in the doorway between dining room and office, but for an instant he did not know him. Macauley's startled look caught Chester's attention; he sprang to his feet. At the same moment the Scottish surgeon, following Chester's eyes, observed the figure in the door. He was first to reach it.
"What's happened ye, lad?" he asked, and acted without waiting for an answer. He threw a powerful arm about Burns's shoulders and led him, reeling, back into the office where the air was purer.
They crowded round, doctors though they were and had many times sharply ordered other people not to crowd. They could see at a glance that Burns was very faint, that his right arm hung helpless at his side, that his forehead wore a blackening bruise, and that his clothes were torn and covered with dirt. For the rest they had to wait.
Grant took charge of his friend—the pupil whom he had never forgotten. The arm was badly broken, too badly to be set without an anaesthetic. In the inner office Van Horn, his dress coat off, gave the chloroform while the Scotchman set the arm; and the American surgeons, no longer crowding, but standing off respectfully as if at a clinic, looked on critically. It was rapid and deft work, they admitted, especially since the surgeon was using another man's splints, and the patient proved to be one of the subjects who fight the anesthetic from beginning to end.
Chester, white-faced but plucky, stuck it out, but Macauley fled to the outer air. Seeing a familiar long, dark form half on, half off the driveway, he hurried toward it. A minute later he had all the unoccupied guests around him on the lawn, and one of the Green Imp's lamps was turned upon its crippled shape.
"By George, he's had a bad accident," one and another of them said as they examined the car's injuries. The hood was jammed until they wondered why the engine was not disabled; the left running-board was nearly torn off and the fender a shapeless wreck. The green paint was scraped and splintered along the left side.
"He must have come home by himself. How far, do you suppose?"
"Not far, driving with his left hand, and faint."
"He probably wasn't faint till he struck the indoor heat and the tobacco smoke."
"He's come at least five miles. Look at that red clay on her sides. There's no red clay like that around here except in one place—at the old mill on the Red Bank road." Chester demonstrated his theory excitedly. "I ought to know, I've ridden with him on every out-of-the-way by-path in the county, first any' last. There's a fright of a hill just there."
"Five miles with that arm? Gee!" This was Buller.
"Plucky," was Grayson's comment, and there was a general agreement among the men standing round.
Macauley put his shoulder to the Imp. "Let's push her in, fellows," he proposed. He had forgotten that they were medical gentlemen of position. "I don't seem to want to drive her just now," he explained.
They pushed the Imp to the red barn and shut it in with its injuries. Then they went back to the house, where presently Burns came out from under his anaesthetic and lay looking at his guests from under the bandage which swathed his head.
"I'm mighty sorry to have broken up the fun this way, gentlemen," he said with a pale sort of smile. "Grayson was telling a story when I butted in, I think. Finish it, will you, Grayson?"
"Not much. Yours is the story we want now, if you're up to telling it. What happened out there on the Red Bank road?"
Burns scanned him. "How do you know what road?"
"Your friend Mr. Chester's detective instincts. He says there's no other red clay like that that plasters your car. By the way, that's a fast machine of yours. Did you lose control on the hill?"
"That's it," acknowledged Burns simply. "I lost control."
Chester was staring at him. It was not in the nature of reason to suppose that Red Pepper had lost control of that car unless something else had happened first. The steering gear of the Imp was certainly in perfect condition; Macauley had said so. He wondered if Red meant that he had lost his temper. But what could make him lose his temper—on Red Bank hill?
They questioned him closely, all of them in turn. But that was all he would say. He had lost control of the car. One or two of the men who knew Burns least looked as if they could tell what was the probable cause of such loss of control. Chester wanted to knock them down as he fancied he recognized this attitude of mind. And at last they went away—which was certainly the best thing they could do in the circumstances.
All but Ronald Grant. The Scottish surgeon accepted without hesitation Burns's suggestion that Doctor Grant should stay and keep him company for an hour or two while he got used to his arm, and should then sleep under his roof. So they settled down, Burns on his couch, Grant in an armchair. When Chester left he was thinking that, except for the outward signs of his adventure, Burns did not look as unfit as might have been expected for a happy hour with an old friend.
Just outside the house Chester himself had an adventure. He was quite alone, and he almost ran into a slim figure on the walk. The lights from the office shone out into the October night, and Chester could see at a glance who the girl was, even if the gleam of golden hair which all the town knew had not told him. She was panting and her hand was on her side.
"Did Doctor Burns get home all right?" she cried under her breath.
"What do you know about Doctor Burns?" was Chester's quick reply. He was startled by the girl's appearance here at this hour.
"It doesn't make any difference what I know. Tell me if he got home. Was he much hurt? Why shouldn't you tell me that, Mr. Chester?"
"He is home and all right. Do you want him professionally? He can't go out to-night."
"I know he can't. But I had to know he got home. I—"
She sank down on the doorstep, shaken and sobbing. Chester stood looking down at het, wondering what on earth he was to say. What had Rose Seeley to do with Red? What had she to do with his losing control on the Red Bank hill? A quick thought crossed his mind, to be as quickly dismissed. No, whatever Red's private affairs were, they could have nothing to do with this Rose—too bruised and trampled a rose to take the fancy of a man like him even in his most evil hour.
Suddenly she lifted her head. "He saved my life and 'most lost his. They'd been making repairs on the hill and, some way, the lanterns wasn't lit. It's an awful dark night. He saw what he was comin' to and turned out sudden into the grass. He had to go into the ditch, then, not to run over me—and somebody else. He ran away!" Plainly that scornful accent did not mean Burns. "I didn't. I helped him get the car up. I got his engine goin' for him; he showed me how. His arm was broke. There ain't no house for a mile out there. I hated to see him try to come home alone. I've walked all the way—run some of it—to make sure he got here."
"He got here," murmured Chester, thinking to himself that this was the queerest story he'd over heard, but confident he would never have any better version of it and pretty sure that it was the true one.
"I suppose I'm a crazy fool to tell you, Mr. Chester," said the girl thickly. "But you're a gentleman. You won't tell. No more will he. He didn't tell you how it happened, did he?"
She did not ask the question. She made the assertion, looking to him for confirmation. Chester gave it. "No, he didn't tell," he said gravely.
When she had gone he crossed the lawn to his own home, musing. "For a 'plain, quiet dinner,'" said he, quoting a phrase of Burns's used when he gave Chester the invitation, "I think Red's has been about as spectacular as they make 'em. Bully old boys."
CHAPTER XI. IN WHICH HE GETS EVEN WITH HIMSELF
R. P. Burns sat at his desk in the inner office, laboriously inscribing a letter with his left hand. It did not get on well. The handwriting in the four lines he had succeeded in fixing upon paper bore not the slightest resemblance to his usual style; instead, it looked like the chirography of a five-year-old attempting for the first time to copy from some older person's script.
He held up the sheet and gazed at it in disgust. Then he glanced resentfully at his sling-supported right arm, especially at the fingers which protruded from the bandages in unaccustomed limp whiteness. Then he shook his left fist at it. "You'll do some work the minute you come out of those splints," he said. "You'll work your passage back to fitness quicker than an arm ever did before, you pale-faced shirk!"
Then he applied himself to his task, painfully forming a series of pothooks until one more sentence was completed. He read it over, then suddenly crumpled the sheet into a ball and dropped it into the waste basket.
"Lie there!" he whimsically commanded it. "You're not fit to go to a lady."
He got up and marched into the outer office where his office nurse sat at a typewriter, making lout bills.
"Miss Mathewson," he requested gruffly, "please take a dictation. No, not on the bill letterheads—on the regular office sheets. I'll speak slowly. In fact, I'll probably speak very slowly."
"I'm sorry I don't know shorthand," said Miss Mathewson, preparing her paper.
"I'm not. Instead, I'd rather you'd be as slow as you can, to give me time to think. I'm not used to transmitting mediums—the battery may be weak—in fact, I'm pretty sure it is. All ready? My dear Mrs. Lessing":
His cheek reddened suddenly as he saw the nurse's waiting hands poised over the keys when she had written this address. He cleared his throat and plunged in.
"This has been a typical November day, dull and cold. We had fine October weather clear into the second week of this month, but all at once it turned cold and dull. The leaves are all off the trees—Hold on—don't say that. She knows the leaves are all off the trees the middle of November."
"I have it partly written."
"Oh! Well, go on, then; I'll fix it: a fact it may be necessary to remind you of down there in South Carolina, where—Miss Mathewson, do you suppose the leaves are on in South Carolina?"
"I really don't know, Doctor Burns. I have always lived in the North."
"So have I—bother it! Well, leave that out."
"But I've written 'a fact it may be necessary—"
"Well, finish it: a fact at may be necessary to remind you of, you have been gone so long. Oh, hang it—that sounds flat! How can I tell how a sentence is coming out, this way? Let that paragraph stand by itself—we'll hasten on to something that will take the reader's mind off our unfortunate beginning:
"You will be glad to know that Bobby Burns is well, and not only well, but fat and hearty. He had a wrestling bout with Harold Macauley the other day and downed him. He got a black eye, but that didn't count, though you may not like to hear of it. He is heavier than when you saw him—Oh, I've said that! Miss Mathewson, when you see I'm repeating myself, hold me up."
"I can't always tell when you're going to repeat yourself," Miss Mathewson objected.
"That's enough about Bob, anyhow. Mrs. Macauley writes her all about him every week, only she probably didn't mention the black eye. Well, let's start a new paragraph. When in doubt, always start a new paragraph. It may turn out a gold mine.
"I found my work much crippled by the loss of my arm. Good Heavens, that sounds as if I'd had it amputated! And I suppose she naturally would infer that a man can't do as much with his arm in a sling as he can when it's in commission. Well, let it stand. I didn't realize how much surgery I was doing till I had to cut it all out. 'Cut it out,' that certainly has a surgical ring. It sounds rather bragging, too, I'm afraid. Never mind. The worst of it is to feel the muscles atrophying from disuse and the tissues wasting, so that when it comes out of the splints it will still have to be cured of the degeneration the splints have—Oh, hold on, Miss Mathewson—this sounds like a paper for a surgical journal!"
Burns, who had been walking up and down the room, cast himself into an armchair and stared despairingly at his amanuensis. But she reassured him by saying quietly that it was always difficult to dictate when one was not used to it, and that the letter sounded quite right.
"Well, if you think so, we'll try another paragraph—that's certainly enough about me. Let me see—" He ran his left hand through his hair.
Footsteps sounded upon the porch. Arthur Chester opened the door.
"Oh, excuse me, Red. It's nothing. I was going for a tramp, and I thought—"
"I'm with you." Burns sprang to his feet looking immensely relieved. "Thank you, Miss Mathewson, we'll finish another time. Or perhaps I can scrawl a finish with my left hand. I'll take the letter. I'll look in at Bob and get my hat in a jiffy, Ches."
He seized the letter, ran into the inner office, looked in at the dimly-lighted room where the boy was sleeping, took up a soft hat and, out of sight of Miss Mathewson, crammed the typewritten sheet into his pocket in a crumpled condition. Pulling the soft hat well down over his eyes he followed Chester out into the fresh November night, drawing a long breath of satisfaction as the chill wind struck him.
"You were just in time to save me from an awful scrape I'd got myself into," he remarked as they tramped away.
"I thought you looked hot and unhappy. Were you proposing to Miss Mathewson by letter? It's always best to say those things right out: letters are liable to misinterpretation," jeered Chester.
"You're right there. I was riding for a fall fast enough when you reined up alongside. But what's a fellow to do when he can't write himself, except in flytracks?"
"I presume the lady would prefer the fly-track to a typewritten document executed by another woman."
"How do you know the thing was to a lady?" Burns demanded.
"That's easy. No man looks as upset as you did over a communication to another man. What do you write to her for, anyhow, when she's as near as Washington?"
"Doesn't she keep you informed? Winifred says Martha says Ellen came back up to Washington yesterday for the wedding of a friend—hastily arranged—to an army officer suddenly ordered somewhere—old friend of Ellen's—former bridesmaid of hers, I believe. She—"
Burns had stopped short in the middle of the hubbly, half-frozen street they were crossing. "How long does she stay in Washington?"
"I don't know. Ask Win. Probably not long, since she only came for this wedding. It's tonight, I think she said. Aren't you coming?"
Burns walked on at a rapid stride with which Chester, shorter-legged and narrower-chested, found it difficult to keep up. They had their tramp, a four-mile course which they were accustomed to cover frequently together at varying paces. Chester thought they had never covered it quite so quickly nor so silently before. For Burns, from the moment of receiving Chester's news, appeared to fall into a reverie from which it was impossible to draw him, and the subject of which his companion found it not difficult to guess. After the first half mile, Chester, than whom few men were more adaptable to a friend's mood, accepted the situation and paced along as silently as Burns, until the round was made and the two were at Burns's door.
"Good night. Afraid I've been dumb as an oyster," was Burns's curt farewell, and Chester chuckled as he walked away.
"Something'll come of the dumbness," he prophesied to himself.
Something did. It was a telegram, telephoned to the office by a sender who rejoiced that having one's left arm in a sling did not obstruct one's capacity to send pregnant messages by wire. He had obtained the address from Martha Macauley, also over the telephone:
"Mrs. E. F. Lessing, Washington, D. C. Am leaving Washington to-night. Hope to have drive with you to-morrow morning in place of letters impossible to write. R. P. BURNS."
"I suppose that's a fool telegram," he admitted to himself as he hung up the receiver, "but after that typing mess I had to express myself somehow except by signs. Now to get off. Luckily, this suit'll do. No time to change, anyhow."
He telephoned for a sleeper berth; he called up a village physician and the house surgeon at the city hospital, and made arrangements with each for seeing his patients during the two nights and a day of his absence. He had no serious case on hand and, of course, no surgical work, so that it was easier to get away than it might be again for a year after his arm should be once more to be counted on. Then he interviewed Cynthia on the subject of Bob; after which he packed a small bag, speculating with some amusement, as he did so, on the succession of porters, bell-boys, waiters and hotel valets he should have to fee during the next thirty-six hours to secure their necessary assistance, from the fastening of his shoes to the tying of his scarfs, the cutting up of his food, and the rest of the hundred little services which must be rendered the man with his right arm in a sling.
"I may not look a subject for travel, Miss Mathewson," he announced with a brilliant smile, appearing once more in the outer office, where the bill-copying was just coming to a finish, "but I'm off, nevertheless. Thank you for your struggle with my schoolboy composition. We won't need to finish it. I'm—Oh, thunder!"
It was the office bell. Miss Mathewson answered it. Burns, prepared to deny himself to all ordinary petitioners, saw the man's face and stopped to listen. It was a rough-looking fellow who told him his brief story, but the hearer listened with attention and his face became grave. He turned to Miss Mathewson.
"Call Johnny Caruthers and the Imp, please," he directed. "Telephone the Pullman ticket office and change my berth reservation from the ten-thirty to the one o'clock train."
He went out with the man, and Miss Mathewson heard him say: "You walked in, Joe? You can ride back with us on the running-board."
Ten minutes after he had gone Chester came again. He found Miss Mathewson reading by the office droplight. On the desk stood a travelling bag; beside it lay a light overcoat, not the sort that Red Pepper was accustomed to wear in the car, a dress overcoat with a silk lining. On it reposed a that and a pair of gloves rolled into a ball, man fashion. Chester regarded with interest these unmistakable signs of intended travel.
"Doctor Burns going out of town?" he inquired casually. It must be admitted that he had scented action of some sort on the wind which had taken his friend from his company at the conclusion of the walk. Ordinarily, Burns would have gone into Chester's den and settled down for an hour of talk before bedtime.
"I believe so," Miss Mathewson replied in the noncommittal manner of the professional man's confidential assistant. "But he has gone out for a call now."
"I don't know, Mr. Chester."
"Did he go in the Imp?"
"Country call, probably—they're the ones that bother a man at night as long as he does country work. I've often told Doctor Burns it was time he gave up this no-'count rural practice. Well, do you know what time his train goes?"
"After midnight, some time." Miss Mathewson knew that Mr. Chester was Doctor Burns's close friend, but she was too accustomed to keep, her lips closed over her employers affairs to give information, even to Chester, except under protest.
"Hm! Well, I believe I'll sit up for him and help him off. A one-armed man needs an attendant. Don't stay up, Miss Mathewson. I'll take any message he may leave for you."
"I'm afraid I ought to wait," replied the faithful nurse doubtfully.
"I don't believe it. Go home and go to bed, like a tired girl, as you no doubt are, and trust me. If he wants you I promise to telephone you. I'll see him off and like to do it. Come!"
There being no real reason for doing otherwise than follow this most sensible advice, Miss Mathewson went away. Chester, settling himself by the drop-light in the chair she had vacated, fancied she looked a trifle disappointed and wondered why. Surely, he reasoned, the girl must get enough of erratic night work without sitting up merely to hand Burns his overcoat and wish him a pleasant journey.
It was a long wait. Chester enlivened it by telephoning Winifred that he wouldn't be home till morning—or sooner, and elicited a flurry of questioning which he evaded rather clumsily.
It was all right for him to be curious concerning Red's affairs, he considered, but there was no need for the women to get started on inquisitive questions.
He read himself asleep at last over the office magazines, and was awakened by a hurried step on the porch and a gust of November night air on his warm face.
"What are you doing here?" was the question which assaulted him.
"Sitting up for you," was Chester's sleepy reply. He rubbed his eyes. "Thought you might like to have me see you off:"
"I'm not going anywhere except back to the case I've just left. Go home and go to bed."
Chester sat up. He looked at Burns with awakening interest. He had never seen his friend's face look grimmer than it did now under the gray slouch hat, which he had worn for the tramp, pulled well down over his brows, and which, during all his preparations and his hasty departure in the car, it had not occurred to him to remove or to exchange for the leather cap he usually wore on such trips.
"Back to a country case instead of to Washington?" Incredulity was written large on Chester's face.
Burns nodded, growing grimmer than before, if that were possible. He sat down on the arm of a chair, glancing over at the desk where his belongings lay. "How did you know I was going to Washington?"
"You're mighty quick at inference. Maybe I wasn't. But I was. Now I'm not. That's all there is to it."
"But why not? Can't you turn the case over? I'll bet my hat it's a dead-beat case at that!"
Burns nodded again. "It is."
"You're an ass, then."
"You don't expect—her—to stay in Washington waiting for you, do you, when she only came up for that wedding and is going straight back to keep some other engagements? That's what Win says she's to do."
"No, I don't expect her to wait." Burns pulled the slouch hat lower yet. Chester could barely see his eyes. He could only hear the tone of his denial of any such absurd expectation.
Chester rose and stood looking down at his friend, who had folded his left arm over his right in its sling, as he sat on the chair arm, and looked the picture of dogged resignation.
"I suppose there's some reason at the bottom of what strikes me as pure foolishness," he admitted. "You won't do me the honour of mentioning it?"
"Case of infected wound in the foot. Threatened tetanus. Five-year-old child."
"Nobody competent to treat the case but you?"
Burns looked up. Chester saw his eyes now, gloomy but resolute. "No. It's up to me alone. I owe it to the woman. It's the only child she has left: a girl. It was her boy I sent to a better world with maledictions on his mother's head."
Comprehension dawned at last on Chester's face. He saw that, taking into consideration Burns's feeling in that matter, there was really nothing to be said. "I hope you win out," he evolved at length from the confusion of ideas in his mind.
"I hope I do." Burns rose. "I must send a telegram," he said, and went to the telephone in the inner office.
While he was there Chester heard the honk of the Imp's horn outside. When Burns came back he opened the outer door and called to Johnny Caruthers, to know if he had obtained the serum for which he had been sent to the druggist. Johnny shouted back that he had. Burns turned to Chester.
"Good night," he said. "Much obliged for waiting up for me."
Then, with a certain fighting expression on his lips which Chester had learned to know meant that his whole purpose was set on the attainment of an end for which no price could be too great to pay, Burns went out to Johnny Caruthers and the Green Imp.
CHAPTER XII. IN WHICH HE HAS HIS OWN WAY
"Doc"—Joe Tressler followed Burns down the path, leaving his wife standing in the doorway, her eyes fixed, on the retreating figure of the man who had saved to her her one remaining child—"Doc, we ain't a-goin' to forget this!"
"Neither am I, Joe, for various reasons," replied Burns, watching Johnny Caruthers try the Green Imp's spark. He jumped in beside Johnny and looked back at Joe. "Remember, now, keep things going just as I leave them, and I shall expect to find Letty nearly as well as ever when I see her again. I shall be back in five days. Good-bye."
"I'll be around when you get back, with some money."
Burns looked the man in the eye. "Oh, come, Joe, don't say anything you don't mean."
"I mean it this time, Doe—I sure do. Me and the old woman—we—Letty—" The fellow choked.
"All right, Joe. I'm as glad as you are Letty's safe. Take care of her. Take care of your wife. Do a stroke of good, back-breaking work once in a while. It'll help that tired feeling of yours that's getting to be dangerously chronic. You've no idea, Joe, what a satisfaction it is, now and then, to feel that you've accomplished something. Try it. Good-bye."
He waved his hand at the woman in the door, who responded with a flutter of her dingy apron; which was immediately thereafter applied to her eyes. Within, by the window, a little pale-faced girl hugged a remarkable doll with yellow hair and a red silk frock.
"You'd ought to be pretty proud, Letty Tressler," said the woman, returning to the small convalescent, "to think Doc kissed you when he left. He's been awful good to you, Doc has, and him with that arm in a sling a-bothering him all the time. But I didn't think he'd do that."
"Maybe it's 'cause I'm so clean now," speculated the child weakly. "When he did it he whispered in my ear that he liked clean faces."
"Letty, you ain't goin' to have any kind o' face but a clean face after this, jest on account o' Doc Burns," vowed her mother emotionally, and the child, her doll pressed against her face, nodded.
Far down the road Burns was bidding Johnny Caruthers put on more speed. "We have to make time to-day, Johnny," he explained. "I'm going to get off on that ten-thirty to-night if I have to break my other arm to do it. I don't know that I'd be much more helpless than I am now if I did. Curious, Johnny, how many things there are a man can't do with one hand."
"I should say you could do more with that left hand of yours than most folks can with both," declared young Caruthers, honest admiration in his eye.
Burns laughed—a hearty, care-free laugh. He was in wild spirits, Johnny could see that, and wondered why the Doctor should be so happy over pulling a dead-beat family out of their troubles. Everybody knew Joe Tressler. And Johnny understood that the Doctor had given up going away on Joe's account ten days ago, when he took the case on the eve of his departure. Johnny had seen his employer in all stages of tension since that day, as he had driven him out, at first half-a-dozen times in the twenty-four hours, to this same little old wreck of a house. Johnny had driven him to other houses, also to one especially, in the city, where the lad had sat and speculated much on the extremes of experience in the life of a busy practitioner.
It was to this same house that Johnny took Burns next; a house reached by a long drive through wonderful grounds, to a palace of a home within which the man with his arm in the sling disappeared with precisely the same rather brusque and hurried bearing characteristic of him everywhere. But Johnny could not see within. If he had, his honest eyes might have opened still wider.
On his way upstairs Burns was intercepted by the master of the house.
"You've decided to go with us, Doctor Burns, I hope?" The question was put in the fashion of a person who expects but one answer. But the answer proved to be not that one expected.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do it, Mr. Walworth." Burns's left hand, in the cordial grip which expresses hearty liking, was retained while William Walworth, who was accustomed to be able to arrange all things to his pleasure by the simple expedient of paying whatever it might cost, stared into the bright hazel eyes which met his with their usual straightforward glance.
"Can't'! But you must, my dear Doctor, Pardon me, but I feel that no ordinary considerations can be allowed to stand in the way. My daughter needs your care on this journey. Her mother and I have agreed that her wish to have you with us must be fulfilled. It's an essential factor in her recovery."
"It's not essential at all, Mr. Walworth. Miss Evelyn is well started on the road to full health; she has only to keep on. My going with you would be a mere matter of pleasing her, and that's not in the least necessary."
His smile softened the words which struck upon the ear of the magnate with an unaccustomed sound. Mr. Walworth released Burns's hand, his manner stiffening slightly.
"I must differ with you, Doctor. I feel that at this stage Evelyn's pleasure is a thing to be planned for. She has taken this fancy to have you with us on the Mediterranean cruise. We'll agree to land you and send you home at the end of a couple of months if you positively feel that you can't neglect your practice longer. But let me remind you, Doctor, that your fee will be made to cover all possible income from your practice during that time, and—I shall not be contented to measure its size by that."
It was Burns's turn to stiffen within, if he did not let it show outwardly. He spoke positively and finally. Even William Walworth saw that it would be of no use to urge a man who said quite quietly:
"I've thought it over, as I promised you, and decided against it. I assure you I appreciate the honour you would do me, and I should immensely like the experience. But I know my going is not necessary to Miss Evelyn's recovery, and that's the only thing that could make me hesitate. I'll go up and see her at once, if you will forgive my haste. I have a busy day before me."
William Walworth looked after him as he ran up the stately staircase, and his thoughts were somewhat as Johnny Caruthers's had been. "He's more of a man, crippled like that, than any I know. I wonder why he won't go. I wonder. But he won't, that's settled. Now to appease Evelyn. He'll not find that so easy."
Burns did not find it easy. He sat down beside the convalescent, a patient who had everything on her side with which to win her chosen physician's consent to stay by her till she should be in the possession once more of the blooming beauty which had made her one of the envied of the earth. He told her, in the direct manner he had used with her father, that he could not fall in with their plans.
When he came away he was tingling all over. It had been so plain. She had tried to disguise it, but she was where she could not run to cover, and he had seen it all. It gave him no pleasure: he was not that sort. He was sorry for the girl, but he was not in the least anxious about her. She would get over it; it was not his fault—he was conscience-clear on that. If ever he had been coolly—however kindly—professional in his bearing it had been in this home of great wealth, where it would have gone against his inmost grain to have seemed to court liking. If anything, his orders had been more curt, his concessions fewer, his whole treatment of the case on simpler lines than it might have been in almost any less pretentious home with which he was familiar.
He ran down the stone steps in eager haste to be gone, his vision still engaged with the reproachful look Evelyn's mother had given him when she heard of his incredible refusal to accompany the Walworths on the luxuriously-equipped expedition in search of recuperation and enjoyment for the idolized only daughter. "This settles me with them to the end of time, I suppose," he said to himself. As the car ran down the drive, he straightened his shoulders with a sense of thankfulness that his practice was not often in the homes of the comparatively few people who can afford to buy even that most precious of commodities, the time of others, when that time has been consecrated to certain uses.
"Not going to stop for lunch, Doctor?" inquired young Caruthers anxiously, as the round of calls went on and one o'clock passed, with the Imp in a portion of the city remote from the hotel at which Burns was accustomed to refresh himself and Johnny when home was out of the question.
"We'll go to the hospital next, and I shall be there a couple of hours. You can go and fill up then. I must be back at the office by four—for engagements."
So the day went. The busy physician who goes out of town for even a five days' vacation must plan for it and do much arranging in various ways. In spite of the fact that it would still be many weeks before Burns could attempt surgery again, he was having plenty to do. Only the determination to get away this time without fail made it possible for him to go. But there would be never a time when he could better be spared, and he meant to let nothing hinder his purpose.
"The arm's coming on well," was Doctor Buller's verdict late that afternoon as he gave the healing member its usual manipulation and massage. "It takes patience to wait, though, doesn't it, Burns? Never tried a broken arm myself, but I should say that hand must be itching to be at work in the operating-room again."