"This evens things up a little, doesn't it? I know a little more about it now—you must realize that, if you are keeping track of me—and I know you are—you would—even from another world. Things aren't fair—they aren't. That you should have to suffer all you did, to bring you to that pass—while I—But I know a good deal about it now—really I do. And I'm going to know more. I didn't sell a single book to-day. You had lots of such days, didn't you? Poor—pale—tired—heartsick—heartbroken girl!"
A little mirthless laugh sounded from the bed. "I wonder how many people ever let a person who is selling something at the door get into the house. And if they let her in, do they ever, ever ask her to sit down? The places where I've stood, telling them about the book, while they were telling me they didn't want it—stood and stood—and stood—with great easy chairs in sight! Oh, that chair in my doctor's office—it was the first chair I'd sat in that whole morning. I went to sleep in it, I think."
There followed a long silence, as if the thought of sleep had brought it on. But then the rambling talk began again.
"His hair is red—red, like mine. I think that's why his heart is so warm. Yet her heart is warm, too, and her hair is almost black. The other man's hair was pretty dark, too, and his heart seemed—well, not exactly cold. Did he send me some daffodils the other day? I can't seem to remember. It seems as if I had seen some—pretty things—lovely, springy things. Perhaps Mrs.—the red-headed doctor's wife—queer I can't think of their names—perhaps she sent them. It would be like her."
The nurse's glance wandered, in the faint light, to where a great jar of daffodils stood upon the farther window sill, their heads nodding faintly in the night breeze. Jordan King's card, which had come with them, was tucked away in a drawer near by with two other cards, bearing the same name, which had accompanied other flowers. Miss Arden doubted if her patient realized who had sent any of them. Afterward—if there was to be an afterward—she would show the cards to her. Miss Arden, like many other people, knew Jordan King by reputation, for the family was an old and established one in the city, and the early success of the youngest son in a line not often taken up by the sons of such families was noteworthy. Also he was good to look at, and Miss Arden, experienced nurse though she was and devoted to her profession, had not lost her appreciation of youth and health and good looks in those who were not her patients.
Unexpectedly, at this hour of the night—it was well toward one o'clock—the door suddenly opened very quietly and a familiar big figure entered. Springing up to meet Doctor Burns, Miss Arden showed no surprise. It was a common thing for this man, summoned to the hospital at unholy hours for some critical case, to take time to look in on another patient not technically in need of him.
The head on the pillow turned at the slight sound beside it. Two wide eyes stared up at Burns. "You've made a mistake, I think," said the patient's voice, politely yet firmly. "My doctor has red hair. I know him by that. Your hair is black."
"I presume it is, in this light," responded Burns, sitting down by the bed. "It's pretty red, though, by daylight. In that case will you let me stay a minute?" His fingers pressed the pulse. Then his hand closed over hers with a quieting touch. "Since you're awake," he said, "you may as well have one extra bath to send you back to sleep."
The head on the pillow signified unwillingness. "I'd take one to please my red-headed doctor, but not you."
"You'd do anything for him, eh?" questioned Burns, his eyes on the chart which the nurse had brought him and upon which she was throwing the light of a small flash. "Well, you see he wants you to have this bath; he told me so."
"Very well, then," she said with a sigh. "But I don't like them. They make me shiver."
"I know it. But they're good for you. They keep your red-headed doctor master of the situation. You want him to be that, don't you?"
"He'd be that anyway," said she confidently.
Burns smiled, but the smile faded quickly. He gave a few brief directions, then slipped away as quietly as he had come.
* * * * *
It was well into the next week when one morning he encountered Jordan King, who had been out of town for several days. King came up to him eagerly. Since this meeting occurred just outside the hospital, where Burns's car had been standing in its accustomed place for the last hour, it might not have been a wholly accidental encounter.
King made no attempt to maneuver for information. Maneuvering with Red Pepper Burns, as the young man was well aware, seldom served any purpose but to subject the artful one to a straight exposure. He asked his question abruptly.
"I want to hear how Miss Linton is doing. I'm just back from Washington—haven't heard for a week."
Burns frowned. No physician likes to be questioned about his cases, particularly if they are not progressing to suit him. But he answered, in a sort of growl: "She's not doing."
King looked startled. "You mean—not doing well?"
"She's fighting for existence—and—slipping."
"But—you haven't given her up?"
Burns exploded with instant wrath. King might have known that question would make him explode. "Given her up! Don't you know a red-headed fiend like me better than that?"
"I know you're a bulldog when you get your teeth in," admitted Jordan King, looking decidedly unhappy and anxious. "If I'm just sure you've got 'em in, that's enough."
Burns grunted. The sound was significant.
King ventured one more question, though Red Pepper's foot was on his starter, and the engine had caught the spark and turned over. "If there's anything I could do," he offered hurriedly and earnestly. "Supply a special nurse, or anything—"
Burns shook his head. "Two specials now, and half the staff interested. It's up to Anne Linton and nobody else. If she can do the trick—she and Nature—all right. If not—well—Thanks for letting go the car, Jord. This happens to be my busy day."
Jordan King looked after him, his heart uncomfortably heavy. Then he stepped into his own car and drove away, taking his course down a side street from which he could get a view of certain windows. They were wide open to the May breeze and the sunshine, but no pots of daffodils or other flowers stood on their empty sills. He knew it was useless to send them now.
"But if she does pull through," he said to himself between his teeth, "I'll bring her such an armful of roses she can't see over the top of 'em. God send I get the chance!"
Red Pepper Burns drove into the vine-covered old red barn behind his house which served as his garage, and stopped his engine with an air of finality.
"Johnny," said he, addressing the young man who was accustomed to drive with him—and for him when for any reason he preferred not to drive himself, which was seldom—and who kept the car in the most careful trim, "not for man or beast, angel or devil will I go out again to-night."
Johnny Carruthers grinned. "No, sir," he replied. "Not unless they happen to want you," he added.
"Not if they offer me a thousand dollars for the trip," growled his master.
"You would for a dead beat, though," suggested the devoted servant, who by virtue of five years of service knew whereof he spoke, "if he'd smashed his good-for-nothin' head."
"Not if he'd smashed his whole blamed body—so long as there was another surgeon in the county who could do the job."
"That's just the trouble," argued Johnny. "You'd think there wasn't."
Red Pepper looked at him. "Johnny, you're an idiot!" he informed him. Then he strode away toward the house.
As he went into his office the telephone rang. The office was empty, for it was dinner-time, and Miss Mathewson was having a day off duty on account of her mother's illness. So, unhappily for the person at the other end of the wire, the Doctor himself answered the ring. It had been a hard day, following other hard days, and he was feeling intense fatigue, devastating depression, and that unreasoning irritability which is born of physical weariness and mental unrest.
"Hello," shouted the victim of these disorders into the transmitter. "What?... No, I can't.... What?... No. Get somebody else.... What?... I can't, I say.... Yes, you can. Plenty of 'em.... What?... Absolutely no! Good-bye!"
"I ought to feel better after that," muttered Burns, slamming the receiver on the hook. "But somehow I don't."
In two minutes he was splashing in a hot bath, as always at the end of a busy day. From the tub he was summoned to the telephone, the upstairs extension, in his own dressing room. With every red hair erect upon his head after violent towelling, he answered the message which reached his unwilling ears.
"What's that? Worse? She isn't—it's all in her mind. Tell her she's all right. I saw her an hour ago. What?... Well, that's all imagination, as I've told her ten thousand times. There's absolutely nothing the matter with her heart.... No, I'm not coming—she's not to be babied like that.... No, I won't. Good-bye!"
The door of the room softly opened. A knock had preceded the entrance of Ellen, but Burns hadn't heard it. He eyed her defiantly.
"Do you feel much, much happier now?" she asked with a merry look.
"If I don't it's not the fault of the escape valve. I pulled it wide open."
"I heard the noise of the escaping steam." She came close and stood beside him, where he sat, half dressed and ruddy in his bathrobe. He put up both arms and held her, lifting his head for her kiss, which he returned with interest.
"That's the first nice thing that's happened to me to-day—since the one I had when I left you this morning," he remarked. "I'm all in to-night, and ugly as a bear, as usual. I feel better, just this minute, with you in my arms and a bath to the good, but I'm a beast just the same, and you'd best take warning.... Oh, the—"
For the telephone bell was ringing again. From the way he strode across the floor in his bathrobe and slippers it was small wonder that the walls trembled. His wife, watching him, felt a thrill of sympathy for the unfortunate who was to get the full force of that concussion. With a scowl on his brow he lifted the receiver, and his preliminary "Hello!" was his deepest-throated growl. But then the scene changed. Red Pepper listened, the scowl giving place to an expression of a very different character. He asked a quick question or two, with something like a most unaccustomed breathlessness in his voice, and then he said, in the businesslike but kind way which characterized him when his sympathies were roused:
"I'll be there as quick as I can get there. Call Doctor Buller for me, and let Doctor Grayson know I may want him."
Rushing at the completion of his dressing he gave a hurried explanation, in answer to his wife's anxious inquiry, "It isn't Anne Linton?"
"It's worse, it's Jord King. He's had a bad accident—confound his recklessness! I'm afraid he's made a mess of it this time for fair, though I can't be sure till I get there."
"Where is he?" Ellen's face had turned pale.
"At the hospital. His man Aleck is hurt, too. Call Johnny, please, and have him bring the car around and go with me."
Ellen flew, and five minutes later watched her husband gulp down a cup of the strong coffee Cynthia always made him at such crises when, in spite of fatigue, he must lose no time nor adequately reenforce his physical energy with food.
"Oh, I'm so sorry you couldn't rest to-night," she said as he set down the cup and, pulling his hat over his eyes, picked up the heavy surgical bags.
"Couldn't, anyway, with the universe on my mind, so I might as well keep going," was Burns's gruff reply, though the kiss he left on her lips was a long one and spoke his appreciation of her tender comradeship.
She did not see him again till morning, though she lay awake many hours. He came in at daylight; she heard the car go in at the driveway, and, rising hurriedly, was ready to meet him when he came into the living room downstairs.
"Up so early?" questioned Burns as he saw her. The next minute he had folded her in one of those strong-armed embraces which speak of a glad return to one whose life is a part of one's own. "I wonder," he murmured, with his cheek pressed to hers, "if a man ever came back to sweeter arms than these!"
But she knew, in spite of this greeting, that his heart was heavy. Her own heart sank. But she waited, asking no questions. He would tell her when he was ready.
He drew her down upon the couch beside him and sat with his arm around her. "No, I don't want to lie down just yet," he said. "I just want you. I'm keeping you in suspense, I know; I oughtn't to do that. Jord's life is all right, and he'll be himself again in time, but—well, I've lost my nerve for a bit—I can't talk about it."
His voice broke. By and by it steadied again; and, his weariness partially lifted by the heartening little breakfast Ellen brought him on a tray, he told her the story of the night:
"Jord was coming in from the Coldtown Waterworks, forty miles out, late for dinner and hustling to make up time. Aleck, the Kings' chauffeur, was with him. They were coming in at a good clip, even for a back street, probably twenty-five or thirty. There wasn't much on the street except ahead, by the curb, a wagon, and coming toward him a big motor truck. When he was fifty feet from the wagon a fellow stepped out from behind it to cross the street. It was right under the arc light, and Jord recognized Franz—'Little Hungary' you know—with his fiddle under his arm, crossing to go in at the stage door of the Victoria Theatre, where he plays. The boy didn't see them at all.
"Neither Jord nor Aleck can tell much about it yet, of course, but from the little I got I know as well as if I had been there what happened. He slammed on the brakes—it was the only thing he could do, with the motor truck taking up half the narrow street. The pavement was wet—a shower was just over. Of course she skidded completely around to the left, just missing the truck, and when she hit the curb over she went. She jammed Jord between the car and the ground, injuring his back pretty badly but not permanently, as nearly as I can make out. But she crushed Aleck's right arm so that—"
He drew a long breath, a difficult breath, and Ellen, listening, cried out against the thing she instantly felt it meant.
"O Red! You don't mean—"
He nodded. "I took it off, an hour afterward—at the shoulder."
Ellen turned white, and in a moment more she was crying softly within the shelter of her husband's arm. He sat with set lips, and eyes staring at the empty fireplace before him. Presently he spoke again, and his voice was very low, as if he could not trust it:
"Aleck was game. He was the gamest chap I ever saw. All he said when I told him was, 'Go ahead, Doctor.' I never did a harder thing in all my life. I suppose army surgeons get more or less used to it, but somehow—when I knew what that arm meant to Aleck, and how an hour before it had been a perfect thing, and now—"
He did not try to tell her more just then, but later, when both were steadied, he added a few more important details to the story:
"Franz went to the hospital with them—wouldn't leave them—ran the risk of losing his position. Do you know, Jord has been teaching that boy English, evenings, and naturally Franz adores him. I suppose Jord would have taken that skid for any blamed beggar who got in his way, but of course it didn't take any force off the way he jammed on those brakes when he saw it was a friend he was going to hit. And a friend he was going to maim—pretty hard choice to make, wasn't it? But of course it was sure death to Franz if he hit him, at that pace, so there was nothing else to do but take the chance for himself and Aleck. Maybe you can guess, though, how he feels about Aleck. One wouldn't think he knew he'd been cruelly hurt himself."
"Oh! I thought—"
"Jord's back will give him a lot of trouble for a while, but his spine isn't seriously injured, if I know my trade. Altogether—well—the nurses have got a couple of interesting cases on their hands for a while. No doubt Aleck will be well looked after. As for Jord—he'll be so much the more helpless of the two for a while, I'm afraid he'll prove a distraction that will demoralize the force."
He smiled faintly for the first time, but his face sobered again instantly.
"Anne Linton's pretty weak, but she took a little nourishment sanely this morning just before I came away. Miss Arden feels a trifle encouraged. I confess this thing of Jord's has knocked the girl out of my mind for the time being, though I shall get her back again fast enough, if I don't find things going right when I see her. Well"—he turned his wife's face toward him, with a hand against her cheek—"it's all out now, and I'm eased a bit by the telling. I wish I could get forty winks, just to make a break between last night and this morning."
"You shall. Lie down and I'll put you to sleep."
He did not think it possible, in spite of his exhaustion, but presently under her quieting touch he was over the brink, greatly to Ellen's relief. Her heart contracted with love and sympathy as she watched his face. It was a weary face, now in its relaxation, and there were heavy shadows under the closed eyes. Every now and then a frown crossed the broad brow, as if the sleeper were not wholly at ease, could not forget, even in his dreams, what he had had to do a few hours ago. She thought of young Aleck with his manly, smiling face, his pride in keeping Jordan King's car as fine and efficient beneath its hood—mud-splashed though it often was without—as he did the shining limousine he drove for Mrs. Alexander King, Jordan's mother. She thought of what it must be to him now to know that he was maimed for life. As for King himself, she knew him well enough to understand how his own injuries would count for little beside his distress in having had to deal the blow which had crushed that strong young arm of Aleck's. Her heart ached for them both—and even for poor Franz, weeping at having been the innocent cause of all this havoc.
Two hours' sleep did his wife secure for Burns before he woke, stoutly avowing himself fit for anything again, and setting off, immediately breakfast was over, for the place to which his thoughts had leaped with his first return to consciousness.
"Can't rest till I see old Jord. Did I tell you that he insisted on Aleck's having the room next his, precisely as big and airy as his own? There's a door between, and when it's open they can see each other. When I left Jord the door was open, and he was staring in at Aleck, who was still sleeping off the anesthetic, and a big tear was running down Jord's cheek. He can't stir himself, but that doesn't seem to bother him any. He's going to suffer a lot of pain with his back, but he'll suffer ten times more looking at that bandaged shoulder of Aleck's."
* * * * *
It was four days later that Ellen saw King. She was prepared to find him, as Burns had called him, "game," but she had not known just all that term means among men when it is applied to such a one as he. If he had been receiving her after having suffered a bad wrench of the ankle he could not have treated the occasion more simply.
"This is mighty good of you," he said, reaching up a well-developed right arm from his bed, where he lay flat on his back without so much as a pillow beneath his head. His hair was carefully brushed, his bandages were concealed, his lips were smiling, and altogether he was, except for his prostrate position, no picture of an invalid.
"I've just been waiting to come," she said, returning the firm pressure of his hand with that of both her own.
"And meanwhile you've kept me reminded of you by these wonderful flowers," he said with a nod toward the ranks on ranks of roses which crowded table and window sills.
"Oh, but not all those!" she denied. "I might have known you would be deluged with them. Daisies and buttercups out of the fields would have been better."
"No, because those you sent look like you. Doctor Burns won't grudge me the pleasure of saying now what I like to his wife—and it's the first time I've really dared tell you what I thought."
"What a charming compliment! But I'm going to send you something much more substantial now—good things to eat, and books to read, if I can just find out what you like—and even games to play, if you care for them."
"I'll be delighted, if they're something Aleck and I can play together. You see when that door is open we aren't far apart, and it won't be long, Doctor Burns says, before he'll be walking in here to keep me company—till he gets out."
"He is doing well, I hear. I'm so glad."
"Yes, that husky young constitution of his is telling finely—plus your husband's surgery. My poor boy!" He shut his lips upon the words, and kept them closely pressed together for an instant. "My word, Mrs. Burns—he's the stuff that heroes are made of! His living to earn for the rest of his life—with one arm—and you'd think he'd lost the tip of one finger. If ever I let that boy go out of my employ—why, he's worth more as a shining example of pluck than other men are worth with two good arms!"
"I must go and see him—if he'd care to have me."
"He'd take it as the honour of his life. He's crazy over the flowers you sent him."
"Would he care for books? And what sort? I'm going to bring both of you books."
"Stories of adventure will suit Aleck—the wilder the better. Odd choice—for such a peaceable-looking fellow, isn't it? As for me—something I'll have to work hard to listen to, something to keep an edge on my mind. I've counted the cracks in the ceiling till I have a map of them by heart. I've worked out a system by which I can drain that ceiling country and raise crops there. There isn't much else in this room that I can count or lay out—worse luck! So I've named all the roses, and have wagers with myself as to which will fade first. I'm betting on Susquehanna, that big red one, to outlast all the rest."
* * * * *
When Red Pepper looked in half an hour later, it was to find the door open between the two rooms, and his wife listening, smiling, to an incident of the night just past, as told by first one patient and then the other. The two young men might have been two comrades lying beside a campfire, so gay was their jesting with each other, so light their treatment of the wakeful hours both had spent.
"No, there's nothing the matter with either of them," observed Burns, looking from one bedside to the other. "Franz is the chap with the heavy heart; these two are just enjoying a summer holiday. But I'm not going to keep the communication open long at a time, as yet."
He went in to see Aleck, closing the door again. When he returned he took up a position at the foot of King's bed, regarding him in silence. Ellen looked up at her husband. There was something in his face which had not been there of late—a curiously bright look, as if a cloud were lifted. She studied him intently, and when he returned the scrutiny she raised her eyebrows in an interrogation. He nodded, smiling quizzically.
"Jord," he said, "if you want to keep your secrets to yourself, beware of letting any woman come within range. My wife has just read me as if I were an open book in large black type."
"Bound in scarlet and gold," added Ellen. "Tell us, Red. You really have good news?"
"The best. I am pretty confident Anne Linton has turned the corner. I hoped it yesterday, but wasn't sure enough to say so. Did you know that, too?"
"Of course. But you were in small type yesterday. To-day he who runs may read. You would know it yourself, wouldn't you, Jordan?"
The man in the bed studied the man who stood at its foot. The two regarded each other as under peculiar circumstances men do who have a strong bond of affection and confidence between them.
"He's such a bluffer," said King. "I hadn't supposed anybody could tell much about what he was thinking. But I do see he looks pretty jolly this morning, and I don't imagine it's all bluff. I'm certainly glad to hear Miss Linton is doing well."
"Doing well isn't exactly the phrase even now," admitted Red Pepper. "There are lots of things that can happen yet. But the wind and waves have floated her little craft off the rocks, and the leaks in the boat are stopped. If she doesn't spring any more, and the winds continue favourable, we'll make port."
Jordan King looked as happy as if he had been the brother of this patient of Burns's, whom neither of them had known a month ago, and whom one of them had seen but once.
"That's great," he said. "I haven't dared to ask since I came here myself, knowing how poor the prospects were the last time I did ask. I was afraid I should surely hear bad news. When can we begin to send her flowers again? Couldn't I send some of mine? I'd like her to have Susquehanna there, and Rappahannock—and I think Arapahoe and Apache will run them pretty close on lasting. Would you mind taking them to her when you go?" His eyes turned to Mrs. Burns.
"I'd love to, but I shall not dare to tell her you are here, just yet. She is very weak, isn't she, Red?"
"As a starved pussy cat. The flowers won't hurt her, but we don't want to rouse her sympathies as yet."
"I should say not. Don't mention me; just take her the posies," instructed King, his cheek showing a slight access of colour.
"You won't know whether Susquehanna wins your wager or not," Ellen reminded him as she obediently separated the indicated blooms, magnificent great hothouse specimens with stems like pillars. That the finest of all these roses, not excepting those she had sent herself, had come from private greenhouses, she well knew. The Kings lived in the centre of the wealthiest quarter of the city, though not themselves possessed of more than moderate riches. Their name, however, was an old and honoured one, Jordan himself was a favourite, and none in the city was too important to be glad to be admitted at his home.
"Anything more I can do for you before I go?" inquired Burns of his patient when Ellen had gone, smiling back at King from over the big roses and promising to keep track of Susquehanna for him in her daily visits.
"Nothing, thank you. You did it all an hour ago, and left me more comfortable than I expected to be just yet. I'm not sure whether it was the dressing or the visit that did me the most good."
"You're a mighty satisfactory sort of patient. That good clean blood of yours is telling already in your recovery from shock. It tells in another way, too."
King's eyelids fell. It meant much to him to stand well in the estimation of this man, himself distinguished for the cool daring of his work, his endurance of the hard drudgery of his profession as well as the brilliant performance on occasion. "I'm glad you think so—Red Pepper Burns," King answered daringly. Then, as the other laughed, he added: "Do you know what would make me the most docile patient you could ask?"
"Docile doesn't seem just the word for you—but I'd be glad to know, in case of emergency."
"Let me call you that—the name your best friends have for you. It's a bully name. I know I'm ten years younger—but—"
"Good lack! Jordan King, call me anything you like! I'll appreciate it."
"You've no idea how long I've wanted to do it—Red," vowed the younger man, with the flush again creeping into his cheek.
"Why didn't you long ago?" Burns demanded. "Surely dignity's no characteristic of mine. If Anne Linton can call me 'Red Head' on no acquaintance at all—"
"She didn't do that!" King looked a little as if he had received a blow.
"Only when she was off her head, of course. She took me for a wildcat once, poor child. No, no—when she was sane she addressed me very properly. She's back on the old decorous ground now. Made me a beautiful little speech this morning, informing me that I had to stop calling her 'little girl,' for she was twenty-four years old. As she looks about fifteen at the present, and a starved little beggar at that, I found it a bit difficult to begin on 'Miss Linton,' particularly as I have been addressing her as 'Little Anne' all the time."
"Starved?" King seemed to have paused at this significant word.
"Oh, we'll soon fill her out again. She's really not half so thin as she might be under the old-style treatment. It strikes me you have a good deal of interest in my patients, Jord. Shall I describe the rest of them for you?"
Burns looked mischievous, but King did not seem at all disturbed.
"Naturally I am interested in a girl you made me bring to the hospital myself. And at present—well—a fellow feeling, you know. I see how it is myself now. I didn't then."
"True enough. Well, I'll bring you daily bulletins from Miss Anne. And when she's strong enough I'll break the news to her of your proximity. Doubtless your respective nurses will spend their time carrying flowers back and forth from one of you to the other."
"More than likely," King admitted. "Anything to fill in the time. I'm sorry I can't take her out in my car when she's ready. I've been thinking, Doctor—Red," he went on hastily, "that there's got to be some way for Aleck to drive that car in the future. I'm going to work out a scheme while I lie here."
"Work out anything. I'll prophesy right now that as soon as you get fairly comfortable you'll think out more stuff while you're lying on your back than you ever did in a given period of time before. It won't be lost time at all; it'll be time gained. And when you do get back on your legs—no, don't ask me when that'll be, I can't tell nor any other fellow—but when you do get back you'll make things fly as they never did before—and that's going some."
"You are a great bluffer, but I admit that I like the sound of it," was King's parting speech as he watched Burns depart.
On account of this latest interview he was able to bear up the better under the immediately following visit of his mother, an aristocratic-looking, sweet-faced but sad-eyed lady, who could not yet be reconciled to that which had happened to her son, and who visited him twice daily to bring hampers of fruit, food, and flowers, in quantity sufficient to sustain half the patients in a near-by ward. She invariably shed a few quiet tears over him which she tried vainly to conceal, addressed him in a mournful tone, and in spite of his efforts to cheer her managed to leave behind her after each visit an atmosphere of depression which it took him some time and strength to overcome.
"Poor mother, she can't help it," philosophized her son. "What stumps me, though, is why one who takes life so hard should outlive a man like my father, who was all that is brave and cheerful. Perhaps it took it out of him to be always playing the game boldly against her fears. But even so—give me the bluffers, like Red Pepper—and like Mrs. Red. Jove! but she's a lovely woman. No wonder he adores her. So do I—with his leave. And so does Anne Linton, I should imagine. Poor little girl—what does she look like, I wonder?"
If he could have seen her at that moment, holding Susquehanna against her hollow young cheek, the glowing flower making the white face a pitiful contrast, he would have been even more touched than he could have imagined. Also—he would have felt that his wager concerning Susquehanna was likely to be lost. It is not conducive to the life of a rose to be loved and caressed as this one was being. But since it was the first of her flowers that Anne Linton had been able to take note of and enjoy, it might have been considered a life—and a wager—well lost.
HEAVY LOCAL MAILS
Anne Linton lifted her head ever so little from the allowed incline of her pillow in the Good Samaritan Hospital. She peered anxiously at the tray being borne toward her by Selina Arden, most scrupulously conscientious of all trained nurses, and never more rigidly exact than when the early diet of patients in convalescence was concerned.
"Is that all?" murmured Anne in a tone of anguish.
"All!" replied Miss Arden firmly. But she smiled, showing her perfect white teeth—and showing also her sympathy by the tone in which she added: "Poor child!"
"Shall I never, never, never," asked the patient, hungrily surveying the tray at close range, "have enough just to dull these pangs a little? Not enough to satisfy me, of course, but just enough to take the edge off?"
"Very soon now," replied Miss Arden cheerily, "you shall have a pretty good-sized portion of beefsteak, juicy and tender, and you shall eat it all up—"
"And leave not a wrack behind," moaned Anne Linton, closing her eyes. "But you are wrong, Miss Arden—I shall not eat it, I shall gulp it—the way a dog does. I always wondered why a dog has no manners about eating. I know now. He is so hungry his eyes eat it first, so his mouth has no chance. Well, I'm certainly thankful for the food on this tray. It's awfully good—what there is of it."
She consumed it, making the process as lingering as was consistent with the ravaging appetite which was a real torture. When the last mouthful had vanished she set her eyes upon the clock—the little travelling clock which was Miss Arden's and which had ticked busily and cheerfully through all those days of illness when Anne's eyes had never once lifted to notice the passage of time.
"I was so long about it," said the girl gleefully, "that now it's only two hours and forty minutes to the next refreshment station. I expect I can keep on living till then if I use all my will power."
"And here's something to make you forget how long two hours and forty minutes are."
Miss Arden went to the door and, returning, laid suddenly in Anne's arms a great, fragrant mass of white bloom, at the smell and touch of which she gave a half-smothered cry of rapture, and buried her face in the midst of it. "White lilacs—oh, white lilacs! The dears—the loves! Oh, where did they come from?"
"There's a note that came with them," admitted Miss Arden presently, when she had let the question go unanswered for some time, while Anne, seeming to forget that she had asked it, smelled and smelled of the cool white and green branches as if she could never have enough of them. Into her eyes had leaped a strange look, as if some memory were connected with these outdoor flowers which made them different for her from the hothouse blooms, or even from the daffodils and tulips that had alternated with the roses which had come often since her convalescence began.
Anne reached up an eager hand for the note, a look of surprise on her face. Miss Arden, looking back at her, noted how each day was helping to remove the pallor and wanness from that face. At the moment, under the caress of the lilacs and the surprise of the impending note, it was showing once more a decided touch of its former beauty. Also she was wearing a little invalid's wrap of lace and pink silk, given her by Mrs. Burns, and this helped the effect.
Anne unfolded the note. Miss Arden went away with the empty tray, and remained away some time. Miss Arden, as has been said before, was a most remarkable nurse.
The note read thus:
The Next Corridor, 10:30 A.M.
DEAR MISS LINTON:
The time has come, it seems to me, for two patients who have nothing to do but while away the hours for a bit longer, to help each other out. What do you say? I suppose you don't know that I've been lying flat on my back now for a fortnight, getting over a rather bad spill from my car. I'm pretty comfortable now, thank you, so don't waste a particle of sympathy; but the hours must certainly drag for you as they do for me, and my idea is that we ought to establish some sort of system of intercommunication. I have an awfully obliging nurse, and a young man with a fiddle here besides, and I'd like to send you a short musicale when you feel up to it. Are you fond of music? I have a notion you are. Franz will come and play for you whenever you say. But besides that I'd awfully like to have a note from you as soon as you are able to write. I'll answer it, you know—and then you'll answer that, perhaps—and so the hours will go by. I know this is a rather free-and-easy-sounding proposition from a perfect stranger, as I suppose you think me, but circumstances do alter cases, you know, and if our circumstances can't alter our cases, then it's no good being laid up!
Hearty congratulations on that raging appetite. You see Doctor Burns is good enough to keep me informed as to how you come on. You certainly seem to be coming on now. Please keep it up. I shouldn't dare ask you to write to me if the Doctor hadn't said you could—if you wouldn't do it enough to tire you. So—I'm hoping.
Yours, under the same roof,
"Good morning!" said a beloved voice from the doorway. Anne looked up eagerly from her letter.
"Oh, Mrs. Burns—good morning! And won't you please stand quite still for a minute while I look at you?"
Ellen laughed. To other people than Anne Linton she was always the embodiment of quiet charm in her freshness of attire and air of general daintiness. In the pale gray and white of her summer clothing, with a spray of purple lilac tucked into her belt, she was a vision to rest the eye upon. "You are looking ever so well yourself to-day," Ellen said as she sat down close beside Anne, facing her. "Another week and you will be showing us what you really look like."
"The little pink cover-up does me as much good as anything," declared Anne. "I never thought I could wear pink with my carroty hair. But Miss Arden says I can wear anything you say I can, and I believe her."
"Your hair is bronze, not carroty, and that apricot shade of pink tones in with it beautifully. What a glorious mass of white lilacs! I never saw any so fine."
"They're wonderful. I insisted on keeping them right here, I'm so fond of the fragrance. They came from Mr. King," said Anne frankly. "And a note from him says he's here in the hospital with an injured back. I'm so sorry. Please tell me how badly he is hurt."
"He will have to be patient for some weeks longer, I believe, but there is no permanent injury. Meanwhile, he is like any man confined, restless for want of occupation. Still, he keeps his time pretty full." And Ellen proceeded to recount the story of Franz, and of how Jordan King was continuing here in the hospital to teach him to speak English, finding him the quickest and most grateful of pupils.
"How splendid of him! He's going to send Franz to play for me. I can't think of anything—except beefsteak—I should like so much!" and Anne laughed, her face all alight with interest. But the next instant it sobered. "Mrs. Burns," she said, "there's something I want to say very much, and so far the Doctor hasn't let me. But I'm quite strong enough now to begin to make plans, and one of them is this: The minute I'm able to leave the hospital I want to go to some inexpensive place where I can stay without bothering anybody. You have all been so wonderful to me I can never express my gratitude, but I'm beginning to feel—oh, can't you guess how anxious I am to be taking care of myself again? And I want you to know that I have quite money enough to do it until I can go on with my work."
Mrs. Burns looked at her. In the excitement of talking the girl's face looked rounder and of a better colour than it had yet shown, and her eyes were glowing, eyes of such beauty as are not often seen. But for all that, she seemed like some lovely child who could no more take care of itself than could a newborn kitten. Ellen laid one hand on hers.
"You are not to think about such things yet, dear," she said. "Do you imagine we have not grown very fond of you, and would let you go off into some place alone before you are fully yourself again? Not a bit of it. As soon as you can leave here you are coming to me as my guest. And when you are playing tennis with Bob, on our lawn, you may begin to talk about plans for the future."
Anne stared back at her, a strange expression on her face. "Oh, no!" she breathed.
"Oh, yes! You can't think how I am looking forward to it. Meanwhile—you are not to tire yourself with talking. I only stopped for a minute, and the Doctor is waiting by now. Good-bye, my dear." And before Anne could protest she was gone, having learned, by experience, that the way to terminate useless argument with the one who is not strong enough to be allowed to argue is by making early escape.
That afternoon, having recovered from the two surprises of the morning, Anne asked for pencil and paper. Miss Arden, supplying them, stipulated that their use should cover but five minutes.
"It is one of the last things we let patients do," she said, "though it is the thing they all want to do first. There is nothing so tiring as letter writing."
"I'm not going to write a letter," Anne replied, "just a hail to a fellow sufferer. Only I'm no sufferer, and I'm afraid he is."
She wrote her note, and it was presently handed to Jordan King. He had wondered very much what sort of answer he should have, feeling that nothing could reveal the sort of person this girl was so surely as a letter, no matter how short. He had been sure he recognized education in her speech, breeding in her manner, high intelligence as well as beauty in her face, but—well, the letter would reveal. And so it did, though it was written in a rather shaky hand, in pencil, on one of Miss Arden's hospital record blanks—of all things!
DEAR MR. KING:
It is the most wonderful thing in the world to be sitting up far enough to be able to write and tell you how sorry I am that you are lying down. But Mrs. Burns assures me that you are fast improving and that soon you will be about again. Meanwhile you are turning your time of waiting to a glorious account in teaching poor Franz to speak English. Surely he must have been longing to speak it, so that he might tell you the things in his heart—about that dreadful night. But I know you don't want me to write of that, and I won't.
Of course I should care to have him play for me, and I hope he may do it soon—to-morrow, perhaps. I wonder if he knows the Schubert "Fruehlingstraum"—how I should love to hear it! As for your interesting plan for relieving the passing hours, I should hardly be human if I did not respond to it! Only please never write when you don't feel quite like it—and neither will I.
The white lilacs were even more beautiful than the roses and the daffodils. There was a long row of white lilac trees at one side of a garden I used to play in—I shall never, never forget what that fragrance was like after a rain! And now that my sun is shining again—after the rain—you may imagine what those white lilacs breathe of to me.
With the best of good wishes,
Jordan King read this note through three times before he folded it back into its original creases. Then he shut it away in a leather-bound writing tablet which lay by his side. "Franz," he said, addressing the youth who was at this hour of the day his sole attendant, "can you play Schubert's 'Fruehlingstraum'?"
He had to repeat this title several times, with varying accents, before he succeeded in making it intelligible. But suddenly Franz leaped to an understanding.
"Yess—yess—yess—yess—sair," he responded joyously, and made a dive for his violin case.
"Softly, Franz," warned his master. As this was a word which had thus far been often used in his education, on account of the fact that the hospital did not belong exclusively to King—strange as that might seem to Franz who worshipped him—it was immediately comprehended. Without raising the tones of his instrument, Franz was able presently to make clear to King that the music he was asked to play was of the best at his command.
"No wonder she likes that," was King's inward comment. "It's a strange, weird thing, yet beautiful in a haunting sort of way, I imagine, to a girl like her, and I don't know but it would be to me if I heard it many times—while I was smelling lilacs in the rain," he added, smiling to himself.
That hint of a garden had rather taken hold of his imagination. More than likely, he said to himself, it had been her own garden—only she would not tell him so lest she seem to try to convey an idea of former prosperity. A different sort of girl would have said "our garden."
* * * * *
Next morning, at the time of Mrs. Burns's visit to the hospital, King sent Franz to play for Miss Linton. With her breakfast tray had come his second note telling her of this intention, so she had two hours of anticipation—a great thing in the life of a convalescent. With every bronze lock in shining order, with the little wrap of apricot pink silk and lace about her shoulders, with an extra pillow at her back, Miss Anne Linton awaited the coming of the "Court Musician," as King had called him.
"It's a very good thing Jord can't see her at this minute," observed Burns to his wife as he met her in the hall outside the door. "The prettiest convalescent has less appeal for a doctor than a young woman of less good looks in strapping health—naturally, for he gets quite enough of illness and the signs thereof. But to a lusty chap like King Miss Anne's present frail appearance would undoubtedly enlist his chivalry. Those are some eyes of hers, eh?"
"I think I have never seen more beautiful eyes," Ellen agreed heartily.
Her husband laughed. "I have," he said, and went his way, having no time for morning musicales.
That afternoon Anne Linton, having had all her pillows removed and having obediently lain still and silent for two long hours, was permitted to sit up again and write a note to King to tell him of the joy of the morning:
DEAR MR. KING:
It was as if the twilight were falling, with the stars coming out one by one. By and by they were all shining, and I was on a mountain top somewhere, with the wind blowing softly against my face. It was dark and I was all alone, but I didn't mind, for I was strong, strong again, and I knew I could run down by and by and be with people. Then a storm came on, and I lifted my face to if and loved it, and when it died away the stars were shining again between the clouds. Somewhere a little bird was singing—I opened my eyes just there, and your Franz was looking at me and smiling, and I smiled back. He seemed so happy to be making me happy—for he was, of course. After a while it was dawn—the loveliest dawn, all flushed with pink and silver, and I couldn't keep my eyes shut any more for looking at the musician's face. He is a real musician, you know, and the music he makes comes out of his soul.
When it was all over and he and Mrs. Burns were gone, my tray came in. This is a frightful confession, but I am not a real musician; I merely love good music with some sort of understanding of what it means to those who really care, as Franz does. To me, after all the emotion, my tray looked like a sort of solid rock that I could cling to. And I had a piece of wonderful beefsteak—ah, now you are laughing! Never mind—I'll show you the two scenes.
Upon the second sheet was something which made Jordan King open his eyes. There were two little drawings—the simplest of pencil sketches, yet executed with a spirit and skill which astonished him. The first was of Franz himself, done in a dozen lines. There was no attempt at a portrait, yet somehow Franz was there, in the very set of the head, the angle of the lifted brow, the pose of the body, most of all in the indication of the smiling mouth, the drooping eyelids. The second picture was a funny sketch of a big-eyed girl devouring food from a tray. Two lines made the pillows behind her, six outlined the tray, a dozen more demonstrated plainly the famishing appetite with which the girl was eating. It was all there—it was astonishing how it was all there.
"My word!" he said as he laid down the sheets—and took them up again, "that's artist work, whether she knows it or not. She must know it, though, for she must have had training. I wonder where and how."
He called Miss Arden and showed her the sketches.
"Dear me, but they're clever," she said. "They look like a child's work—and yet they aren't."
"I should say not," he declared very positively. "That sort of thing is no child's work. That's what painters do when they're recording an impression, and I've often looked in more wonder at such sketchy outlines than at the finished product. To know how to get that impression on paper so that it's unmistakable—I tell you that's training and nothing else. I don't know enough about it to say it's genius, too, yet I've had an artist friend tell me it cost him more to learn to take the right sort of notes than to enlarge upon those notes afterward."
When he wrote to Anne next morning—he was not venturing to ask more of her than one exchange a day—he told her what he thought about those sketches:
I've had that sheet pinned up at the foot of my bed ever since it came, and I'm not yet tired of looking at it. You should have seen Franz's face when I showed it to him. "Ze arteeste!" he exclaimed, and laughed, and made eloquent gestures, by means of which I judged he was trying to express you. He looked as if he were trying to impress me with his own hair, his eyes, his cheeks, his hands; but I knew well enough he meant you. I gathered that he had been not ill pleased with his visit to you, for he proposes another; in fact, I think he would enjoy playing for you every day if you should care to hear him so often. He does not much like to perform in the wards, though he does it whenever I suggest it. He has discovered that though they listen respectfully while he plays his own beloved music, mostly they are happier when he gives them a bit of American ragtime, or a popular song hit. His distaste for that sort of thing is very funny. One would think he had desecrated his beloved violin when he condescends to it, for afterward he invariably gives it a special polishing with the old silk handkerchief he keeps in the case—and Miss Arden vows he washes his hands, too. Poor Franz! Your real artist has a hard time of it in this prosaic world doesn't he?
The note ended by saying boldly that King would like another sketch sometime, and he even ventured to suggest that he would enjoy seeing a picture of that row of white lilac trees at the edge of the garden where Anne used to play. It was two days before he got this, and meanwhile a box of water colours had come into requisition. When the sheet of heavy paper came to King he lay looking at it with eyes which sparkled.
At first sight it was just a blur of blues and greens, with irregular patches of white, and gay tiny dashes of strong colour, pinks and purples and yellows. But when, as Anne had bidden him, he held it at arm's length he saw it all—the garden with its box-bordered beds full of tall yellow tulips and pink and white and purple hyacinths—it was easy to see that this was what they were, even from the dots and dashes of colour; the hedge—it was a real hedge of white lilac trees, against a spring sky all scudding clouds of gray. Like the sketch of Franz, its charm lay entirely in suggestion, not in detail, but was none the less real for that.
There was one thing which, to King's observant eyes, stood out plainly from the little wash drawing. This garden was a garden of the rich, not of the poor. Just how he knew it so well he could hardly have told, after all, for there was no hint of house, or wall, or even summer-house, sundial, terrace, or other significant sign. Yet it was there, and he doubted if Anne Linton knew it was there, or meant to have it so. Perhaps it was that lilac hedge which seemed to show so plainly the hand of a gardener in the planting and tending. The question was—was it her own garden in which she had played, or the garden of her father's employer? Had her father been that gardener, perchance? King instantly rejected this possibility.
Burns, coming in to see King one day when the exchange of letters had been going on for nearly a fortnight, announced that he might soon be moved to his own home.
King stared at him. "I'm not absolutely certain that I want to go till I can get about on my own feet," he said slowly.
Burns nodded. "I know, but that will be some time yet, and your mother—well, I've put her off as long as I could, but without lying to her I can't say it would hurt you now to be taken home. And lying's not my long suit."
"Of course not. And I suppose I ought to go; it would be a comfort to my mother. But—"
He set his lips and gave no further hint of his unwillingness to go where he would be at the mercy of the maternal fondness which would overwhelm him with the attentions he did not want. Besides—there was another reason why, since he must for the present be confined somewhere, he was loath to leave the friendly walls where there was now so much of interest happening every day. Could he keep it happening at home? Not without much difficulty, as he well foresaw.
"Miss Linton's coming to us on Saturday," observed Burns carelessly, strolling to the window with his hands in his pockets.
"Is she? I didn't suppose she'd be strong enough just yet." King tried to speak with equal carelessness, but the truth was that, with his life bound, as it was at present, within the confines of this room, the incidents of each day loomed large.
"She's gaining remarkably fast. For all her apparent delicacy of constitution when she came to us, I'm beginning to suspect that she's the fortunate possessor of a good deal of vigour at the normal. She says herself she was never ill before, and that's why she didn't give up sooner—couldn't believe there was anything the matter. We can't make her agree to stay with us a day longer than I say is a necessity for safety."
"Where does she want to go? Not back to that infernal book-agenting?" There was a frown between King's well-marked brows.
"Yes, I imagine that's what she intends. She's a very decided young person, and there's not much use telling her what she must and must not do. As for the book itself, it's pretty clever, my wife and Miss Mathewson insist. They say the youngsters of the neighbourhood are crazy over it. Bob knows it by heart, and even the Little-Un studies the pictures half an hour at a time. If children were her buyers she'd have no trouble."
"Have a look at those, will you?"
King reached for a leather writing case on the table at his elbow, took out a pile of sheets, and began to hand them over one by one to Burns.
"What's this? Hullo! Do you mean to say she did this? Well, I like her impudence!"
"So do I," laughed King, looking past Burns's shoulder at a saucy sketch of the big Doctor himself evidently laying down the law about something, by every vigorous line of protest in his attitude and the thrust of his chin. Underneath was written: "Absolutely not! Haven't I said so a thousand times?"
"'Wad some power—'" murmured Burns. "Well, she seems to have the 'power.' I am rather a thunderer, I suppose. What's this next? My wife! Jolly! that's splendid. Hasn't she caught a graceful pose though? Ellen's to the life. Selina Arden? That's good—that's very good. There's your conscientious nurse for you. And this, of herself? Ha! She hasn't flattered herself any. She may have looked like that at one time, but not now—hardly."
"She's looking pretty well again, is she?"
"Both pretty and well. We don't starve our patients on an exclusively liquid diet the way we used to, and they don't come out of typhoid looking half so badly in consequence. And she's been rounding out every day for the last two weeks in fine shape. She's a great little girl, and as full of spirit as a gray squirrel. I'm beginning to believe she's a bit older than I would believe at first; that mind of hers is no schoolgirl's; it's pretty mature. She says frankly she's twenty-four, though she doesn't look over nineteen."
"Is there any reason why I can't see her for a bit of a visit if she goes Saturday?" asked King straightforwardly. It was always a characteristic of his to go straight to a point in any matter; intrigue and diplomacy were not for him in affairs which concerned a girl any more than in those which pertained to his profession. "You see we've been entertaining each other with letters and things, and it would seem a pity not to meet—especially if she'll be leaving town before I'm about."
There was a curiously wistful look in his face as he said this, which Burns understood. All along King had said almost nothing about the torture his present helplessness was to him, but his friend knew.
"Of course she'll come; we'll see to that. She's walking about a little now, and by Saturday she can come down this corridor on her two small feet."
"See here—couldn't I sit up a bit to meet her?"
"Not a sixteenth of a degree. You'll lie exactly as flat as you are now. If it's any consolation I'll tell you that you look like a prostrate man-angel seven feet long."
"Thanks. I'd fire a pillow at you if I had one. I don't want to look like an object for sympathy, that's all."
Burns nodded understandingly. "Well, Jord," he said a moment later, "will you go home on Saturday, too?"
The two looked at each other. Then, "If you say so," King agreed.
"All right. Then we'll get rid of two of our most interesting patients on that happy day. Never mind—the mails will still carry—and Franz is a faithful messenger. What's that, Miss Dwight? All right, I'll be there." And he went out, with a gay nod and wave of the hand to the man on the bed.
This was on Monday. On Tuesday King offered his petition that Anne Linton would pay him a visit before she left on Saturday. When the answer came it warmed his heart more than anything he had yet had from her:
Of course I will come—only I want you to know that I shall be dreadfully sorry to come walking, when you must still lie so long on that poor back. Doctor Burns has told me how brave you are, with all the pain you are still suffering. But I am wonderfully glad to learn that he is so confident of your complete recovery. Just to know that you can be your active self again is wonderful when one thinks what might have happened. I shall always remember you as you seemed to me the day you brought me here. I was, of course, feeling pretty limp, and the sight of you, in such splendid vigour, made me intensely envious. And even though I see you now "unhorsed," I shall not lose my first impression, because I know that by and by you will be just like that again—looking and feeling as if you were fit to conquer the world.
It was the most personal note he had had from her, and he liked it very much. He couldn't help hoping for more next day, and did his best to secure it by the words he wrote in reply. But Wednesday's missive was merely a merrily piquant description of the way she was trying her returning strength by one expedition after another about her room. On Thursday she sent him some very jolly sketches of her "packing up," and on Friday she wrote hurriedly to say that she couldn't write, because she was making little visits to other patients.
* * * * *
Jordan King had never been more exacting as to his dressing than on that Saturday. He studied his face in the glass after an orderly had shaved him, to make sure that the blue bloom it took but a few hours to acquire had been properly subdued. He insisted on a particular silk shirt to wear under the loose black-silk lounging robe which enveloped him, and in which he was to be allowed to-day to lie upon the bed instead of in it. His hair had to be brushed and parted three separate times before he was satisfied.
"I didn't know I was such a fop," he said, laughing, as Miss Dwight rallied him on his preparations for receiving the ladies. "But somehow it seems to make a difference when a man lies on his back. They have him at a disadvantage. Now if you'll just give me a perfectly good handkerchief I'll consider that the reception committee is ready. Thank you. It must be almost time for them, isn't it?"
For a young man who usually spent comparatively little of his time in attentions to members of the other sex, but who was accustomed, nevertheless, to be entirely at his ease with them, King acknowledged to himself that he felt a curious excitement mounting in his veins as the light footsteps of his guests approached.
Mrs. Burns came first into his line of vision, wearing white from head to foot, for it was early June and the weather had grown suddenly to be like that of midsummer. Behind her followed not the black figure King's memory had persistently pictured, but one also clad in white—the very simple white of a plain linen suit, with a close little white hat drawn over the bronze-red hair. Under this hat the eyes King remembered glowed warmly, and now there was health in the face, which was so much more charming than the one he recalled that for a moment he could hardly believe the two the same. Yet—the profile, as she looked at Mrs. Burns, who spoke first, was the one which had been stamped on his mind as one not to be forgotten.
She was looking at him now, and there was no pity in her bright glance—he could not have borne to see it if it had been there. She came straight up to the bed, her hand outstretched—her gloves were in the other, as if she were on her way downstairs, as he presently found she was. She spoke in a full, rich voice, very different from the weary one he had heard before.
"Do you know me?" she asked, smiling.
"Almost I don't. Have you really been ill, or did you make it all up?"
"I'm beginning to believe I did. I feel myself as if it must be all dream. How glad I am to find you able to be dressed. Doctor Burns says you will go home to-day, too."
"This evening, I believe. I thought you were not going till then either."
"This very hour." She glanced at Mrs. Burns. "My good fairy begged that I might go early, because it is her little son's birthday. I am to be at a real party; think of that!"
"The Little-Un's or Bob's?" King asked his other visitor.
Bob was an adopted child, taken by Burns before his marriage, but the little Chester's parents made no difference between them, and a birthday celebration for the older boy was sure to be quite as much of an occasion as for the two-year-old.
"Bob's," Mrs. Burns explained. "He is ten; we can't believe it. And he has set his heart on having Miss Linton at home for his party. He has read her little book almost out of its covers, and she has been doing some place-cards for his guests—the prettiest things!" Ellen opened a small package she was carrying and showed King the cards.
He gazed at them approvingly. "They're the jolliest I ever saw; the youngsters will be crazy over them. For a convalescent it strikes me Miss Linton has been the busiest known to the hospital."
"You, yourself, have kept me rather busy, Mr. King," the girl observed.
"So I have. I'm wondering what I'm to do when you are at Doctor Burns's and I at home."
She smiled. "I shall be there only a week if I keep on gaining as fast as I am now."
"A fortnight," interpolated Mrs. Burns, "is the earliest possible date of your leaving us. And not then unless we think you fit."
"Did you ever know of such kindness?" Anne Linton asked softly of King. "To a perfect stranger?"
He nodded. "Nothing you could tell me of their kindness could surprise me. About that fortnight—would it be asking a great deal of you to keep on sending me that daily note?"
"Isn't there a telephone in your own room at home?" she asked.
"Yes—how did you know?"
"I guessed it. Wouldn't a little telephone talk do quite as well—or better—than a letter?"
"It would be very nice," admitted King. "But I should hate to do without the letter. The days are each a month long at present, you know, and each hour is equal to twenty-four. Make it a letter, too, will you, please?"
Miss Linton looked at Mrs. Burns. "Do you think circumstances still alter cases?" she inquired.
Her profile, as King caught it again, struck him as a perfect outline. To think of this girl starting out again, travelling alone, selling books from door to door!
"I think you will be quite warranted in being very good to Mr. King—while his hours drag as he describes," Ellen assented cordially.
"As soon as I can sit up at any sort of decent angle I can do a lot of work on paper," King asserted. "Then I'll make the time fly. Meanwhile—it's all right."
They talked together for a little, then King sent for Franz, who came and played superbly, his eager eyes oftenest on Jordan King, like those of an adoring and highly intelligent dog. Anne watched Franz, and King watched Anne. Mrs. Burns, seeming to watch nobody, noted with affectionate and somewhat concerned interest the apparent trend of the whole situation. She could not help thinking, rather dubiously, of Mrs. Alexander King, Jordan's mother.
And, as things happen, it was just as Franz laid down his bow, after a brilliant rendering of a great concerto, that Mrs. Alexander King came in. She entered noiselessly, a slender, tall, black-veiled figure, as scrupulously attired in her conventional deep mourning as if it were not hot June weather, when some lightening of her sombre garb would have seemed not only rational but kind to those who must observe her.
"Oh, mother!" King exclaimed. "In all this heat? I didn't expect you. I'm afraid you ought not to have come."
She bent over him. "The heat has nothing to do with my feelings toward my son. I couldn't neglect you, dear."
She greeted Ellen cordially, who presented Miss Linton. King lost nothing of his mother's polite scrutiny of the girl, who bore it without the slightest sign of recognizing it beyond the lowering of her lashes after the first long look of the tall lady had continued a trifle beyond the usual limit. Book agent though she might be, Miss Linton's manner was faultless, a fact King noted with curious pride in his new friend—whom, though he himself was meeting her for but the second time, he somehow wanted to stand any social test which might be put upon her. And he well knew that his lady mother could apply such tests if anybody could.
In his heart he was saying that it seemed hard luck, he must say good-bye to Anne Linton in that mother's presence. There was small chance to make it a leave-taking of even ordinary good fellowship beneath that dignified, quietly appraising eye, to say nothing of endowing it with a quality which should in some measure compensate for the fact that it might be a parting for a long time to come. However much or little the exchange of notes during these last weeks might have come to mean to Jordan King, aside from the diversion they had offered to one sorely oppressed of mind and body, he resented being now forced to those restrained phrases of farewell which he well knew were the only ones that would commend him to his mother's approval.
Mrs. Burns and Miss Linton rose to go, summoned by Red Pepper himself, who was to take them. In the momentary surge of greeting and small talk which ensued, King surreptitiously beckoned Anne near. He looked up with the direct gaze of the man who intends to make the most of the little that Fate sends him.
"Letters are interesting things, aren't they?" he asked.
"Very. And when they are written by a man lying on his back, who doesn't know when he is down, they are stimulating things," she answered; and there was that in the low tone of her voice and the look of her eyes which was as if she had pinned a medal for gallantry on the breast of the black silk robe.
Mrs. Alexander King looked at her son—and moved nearer. She addressed Anne. "I am more than glad to see, Miss Linton," said she, "that you are fully recovered. Please let me wish you much success in your work. I suppose we shall not see you again after you leave Mrs. Burns."
"No, Mrs. King," responded Anne's voice composedly. "Thank you for that very kind wish."
She turned to the prostrate one once more. She put her hand in his, and he held it fast for an instant, and, in spite of his mother's gaze, it was an appreciable instant longer than formality called for.
"I shall hope to see you again," he said distinctly, and the usual phrase acquired a meaning it does not always possess.
Then they were gone, and he had only the remembrance of Anne's parting look, veiled and maidenly, but the comprehending look of a real friend none the less.
"My dear boy, you must be quite worn out with all this company in this exhausting weather," murmured Mrs. King, laying a cool hand on a decidedly hot brow.
The brow moved beneath her hand, on account of a contraction of the smooth forehead, as if with pain. "I really hadn't noticed the weather, mother," replied her son's voice with some constraint in it.
"You must rest now, dear. People who are perfectly well themselves are often most inconsiderate of an invalid, quite without intention, of course."
"If I never receive any less consideration than I have had here, I shall do very well for the rest of my life."
"I know; they have all been very kind. But I shall be so relieved when I can have you at home, where you will not feel obliged to have other patients on your mind. In your condition it is too much to expect."
Jordan King was a good son, and he loved his mother deeply. But there were moments when, as now, if he could have laid a kind but firm hand upon her handsome, emotional mouth, he would have been delighted to do so.
"What would you give for a drive with me this morning?" Burns surveyed his patient, now dressed and downstairs upon a pillared rear porch, wistfulness in his eyes but determination on his lips.
"Do you mean it?"
"Yes. We may as well try what that back will stand. Most of the drive will be sitting still in front of houses, anyhow, and in your plaster jacket you're pretty safe from injury."
"Thank heaven!" murmured Jordan King fervently.
Two minutes later he was beside Burns in the Doctor's car, staring eagerly ahead, lifting his hat now and then as some one gave him interested greeting from passing motor. More than once Burns was obliged to bring his car to a short standstill, so that some delighted friend might grasp King's hand and tell him how good it seemed to see him out. With one and all the young man was very blithe, though he let them do most of the talking. They all told him heartily that he was looking wonderfully well, while they ignored with the understanding of the intelligent certain signs which spoke of physical and mental strain.
"Your friends," Burns remarked as they went on after one particularly pleasant encounter, "seem to belong to the class who possess brains. I wish it were a larger class. Every day I find some patient suffering from depression caused by fool comments from some well-meaning acquaintance."
"I've had a few of those, too," King acknowledged.
"I'll wager you have. Well, among a certain class of people there seems to be an idea that you can't show real sympathy without telling the victim that he's looking very ill, and that you have known several such cases which didn't recover. I have one little woman on my list who would have been well long ago if she hadn't had so many loving friends to impress her with the idea that her case was desperate. I talk Dutch to such people now and then, when I get the chance, but it doesn't do much good. Sometimes I get so thundering mad I can't stand it, and then I rip out something that makes me a lasting enemy."
"You get some comfort out of the explosion, anyhow," King commented, with a glance at the strong profile beside him. "Besides, you may do more good than you know. Anybody who had had a good dressing down from you once wouldn't be likely to forget it in a hurry."
Burns laughed at this, as they stopped in front of a house. King had a half-hour wait while his friend was inside. The car stood in heavy shade, and he was very comfortable. He took a letter from his pocket as he sat, a letter which looked as if it had been many times unfolded, and read it once more, his face very sober as his eyes followed the familiar lines:
DEAR MR. KING:
I was very, very sorry to go away without seeing you to say good-bye after our interesting correspondence. Mrs. Burns and I had such a pleasant visit with your mother, in your absence, that we felt rewarded for our call, and it was good to know that you could be out, yet of course we were very disappointed. I do hope that all will go well with you, and that very rapidly, for I can guess how eager you are to be at work.
Of course once I am off on my travels I shall have no time for letters. No, that isn't quite frank, is it? Well, I will be truthful and say honestly that I am sure it is not best that I should keep on writing. I am glad if the letters have, as you say, helped you through the worst of the siege; they surely have helped me. But now—our ways part. Sometime I may give you a hail from somewhere—when I am lonely and longing to know how you get on. And sometime I may be back at my old home. But wherever I am I shall never forget you, Jordan King, for you have put something into my life which was not there before and I am the better for it. As for you—your life will not be one whit the less big and efficient for this trying experience; it will be bigger, I think, and finer. I am glad, glad I have known you.
For the hundredth time King felt his heart sink as he thought of that prevented last interview. His mother had prevented it. It was perfectly true that he was out, and away from home—out in a wheeled chair, which had been pushed by Franz through a gap in the hedge between the Kings' lawn and the Wentworths' next door. Just on the other side of that hedge the chair had paused, where Sally Wentworth, his friend of long standing, was serving tea to a little group of young people, all intimates and all delighted to have the invalid once more in their midst. Under the group of great copper beeches which made of that corner of the Wentworth lawn a summer drawing room, King had sat in his chair drinking tea and listening to gay chatter—and wondering why he had not been able to get Anne Linton on the telephone so far that day. And at that very time, so he now bitterly reflected, she and Mrs. Burns had made their call upon him, only to be told by Mrs. King that he was "out."
His mother was unquestionably a lady, and she had told the truth; he could not conceive of her doing otherwise. He knew that she undoubtedly, quite as Anne had said, had made the call a pleasant one. But she had known that he was within a stone's throw of the house, and that he would be bitterly disappointed not to be summoned. She had not mentioned to him the fact of the call at all until next day—when Anne Linton had been gone a full two hours upon her train. Then, when he had called up Mrs. Burns, in a fever of haste to learn what had happened and what there might yet be a chance of happening, he had discovered that Ellen herself had tried three times to get him, upon the telephone, and had at last realized—though this she did not say—that it was not intended that she should.
King understood his mother perfectly. She would scorn directly to deceive him, yet to intrigue quietly but effectively against him in such a case as this she would consider only her duty. She had seen clearly his interest in the stranger, unintroduced and unvouched for, taken in by kind people in an emergency, and though showing unquestionable marks of breeding, none the less a stranger. She had feared for him, in his present vulnerable condition; and she had done her part in preventing that final parting which might have contained elements of danger. That was all there was to it.
For the present King was helpless, and there could be no possible use in reproaching his mother for her action—or lack of action. Once let him get up on his feet, his own master once more—then it would be of use to talk. And talk he would some day. Also he would act. Meanwhile—
Red Pepper Burns came out of the house and scrutinized his friend and patient closely as he approached. "Want to go on, or shall I take you home?" he inquired.
"Take me on—anywhere—everywhere! Something inside will break loose if you don't." King spoke with a smothered note of irritation new to him in Burns's experience.
"You've about reached the limit, have you?" The question was straightforward, matter-of-fact in tone, but King knew the sympathy behind it.
"I rather have," the young man admitted. "I'm ashamed to own it."
"You needn't be. It's a wonder you haven't reached it sooner; I should have. Well, if you stand this drive pretty well to-day you ought to come on fast. With that back, you may be thankful you're getting off as easily as you are."
"I am thankful—everlastingly thankful. It's just—"
"I know. Blow off some of that steam; it won't hurt you. Here we are on the straight road. I'll open up and give you a taste of what poor Henley felt the first time his crippled body and his big, uncrippled spirit tasted the delight of 'Speed.' Remember?"
"Indeed I do. Oh, I'm not complaining. You understand that, Red?"
"Of course I understand—absolutely. And I understand that you need just what I say—to blow off a lot of steam. Hurt you or not, I'm going to let loose for a couple of miles and blow it off for you."
In silence, broken only by the low song of the motor as it voiced its joy in the widening license to show its power, the two men took the wind in their faces as the car shot down the road, at the moment a clear highway for them. King had snatched off his hat, and his dark hair blew wildly about his forehead, while his eyes watched the way as intently as if he had been driving himself, though his body hardly tensed, so complete was his confidence in the steady hands on the wheel. Faster and faster flew the car, until the speed indicator touched a mark seldom passed by King himself at his most reckless moments. His lips, set at first, broke into a smile as the pointing needle circled the dial, and his eyes, if any could have seen them, would have told the relief there was for him in escape by flight, though only temporary, from the grinding pull of monotony and disablement.
At the turn ahead appeared obstruction, and Burns was obliged to begin slowing down. When the car was again at its ordinary by no means slow pace, King spoke:
"Bless you for a mind reader! That was bully, and blew away a lot of distemper. If you'll just do it again going back I'll submit to the afternoon of a clam in a bed of mud."
"Good. We'll beat that record going back, if we break the speedometer. Racing with time isn't supposed to be the game for a convalescent, but I'm inclined to think it's the dose you need, just the same. I expect, Jord, that the first time you pull on a pair of rubber boots and go to climbing around a big concrete dam somewhere your heart will break for joy."
"My heart will stand anything, so that it's action."
"Will it? I thought it might be a bit damaged. It's had a good deal of reaction to stand lately, I'm afraid."
There was silence for a minute, then King spoke:
"Red, you're a wizard."
"Not much of a one. It doesn't take extraordinary powers of penetration to guess that a flame applied to a bundle of kindling will cause a fire. And when you keep piling on the fuel something's likely to get burned."
"Did I pile on the fuel?"
"You sure did. If there had been gunpowder under the kindling you could have expected an explosion—and a wreck."
"There's no wreck."
"No? I thought there might be—somewhere."
King spoke quickly. "Do you think I carried it too far?"
"I think you carried it some distance—for an invalid's diversion."
The young man flushed hotly. "I was genuinely interested and I saw no harm. If there's any harm done it's to myself, and I can stand that. I'm not conceited enough to imagine that a broken-backed cripple could make any lasting impression."
Burns turned and surveyed his companion with some amusement. "Do you consider that a description of yourself?"
"I certainly do." Jordan King's strong young jaw took on a grim expression.
"Know this then"—Burns spoke deliberately—"there's not a sane girl who liked you well enough before your accident to marry you who wouldn't marry you now."
"That's absurd. Women want men, not cripples."
"You're no cripple. Stop using that term."
"What else? A man condemned to wear a plaster jacket for at least a year." King evidently did his best not to speak bitterly.
"Bosh! Suppose the same thing happened to me. Would you look on me askance for the rest of my days, no matter what man's job I kept on tackling? Besides, the plaster jacket's only a precaution. You wouldn't disintegrate without it."
King looked at Red Pepper Burns and smiled in spite of himself. "I'm glad to hear that, I'm sure. As for looking at you askance—you are you, R.P. Burns."
"Apply the same logic to yourself. You are you, and will continue to be you, plus some assets you haven't had occasion to acquire before in the way of dogged endurance, control of mind, and such-like qualities, bred of need for them. You will be more to us all than you ever were, and that's saying something. And the back's going to be a perfectly good back; give it time. As for—if you don't mind my saying it—that invalid's diversion, I don't suppose it's hurt you any. What I'm concerned for is the hurt it may have done somebody else. I don't need to tell you that it wasn't possible for Ellen and me to have that little girl on our hearts all that time and not get mightily interested in her. She's the real thing, too, we're convinced, and we care a good deal what happens to her next."
Jordan King drew a deep breath. "So do I."
Burns gave him a quick look. "That's good. But you let her go away without making sure of keeping any hold on her. You don't know where she is now."
King shot him a return look. "That wasn't my fault. That was hard luck."
"I don't think much of luck. Get around it."
"I'll do my best, I promise you. But I wish you'd tell me—"
"—why you should think I had done her any harm. Heaven knows I wouldn't do that for my right arm!"
"She didn't make a sign—not one—of any injury, I assure you. She's a gallant little person, if ever there was one—and a thoroughbred, though she may be as poor as a church mouse. No, I should never have guessed it. She went away with all sails set and the flags flying. All I know is what my wife says."
"Please tell me."
"I'm not sure it will be good for you." Burns smiled as he drew up beside a house. "However—if you will have it—she says Miss Anne Linton took away with her every one of your numerous letters, notes, and even calling cards which had been sent with flowers. She also took a halftone snapshot of you out at the Coldtown dam, cut from a newspaper, published the Sunday after your accident. The sun was in your eyes and you were scowling like a fiend; it was the worst picture of you conceivable."
"Girls do those things, I suppose," murmured King with a rising colour.
"Granted. And now and then one does it for a purpose which we won't consider. But a girl of the type we feel sure Miss Linton to be carefully destroys all such things from men she doesn't care for—particularly if she has started on a trip and is travelling light. Of course she may have fooled us all and be the cleverest little adventuress ever heard of. But I'd stake a good deal on Ellen's judgment. Women don't fool women much, you know, whatever they do with men."
He disappeared into a small brown house, and King was left once more with his own thoughts. When Burns came out they drove on again with little attempt at conversation, for Burns's calls were not far apart. King presently began to find himself growing weary, and sat very quietly in his seat during the Doctor's absences, experiencing, as he had done many times of late, a sense of intense contempt for himself because of his own physical weakness. In all his sturdy life he had never known what it was to feel not up to doing whatever there might be to be done. Fatigue he had known, the healthy and not unpleasant fatigue which follows vigorous and prolonged labour, but never weakness or pain, either of body or of mind. Now he was suffering both.
"Had about enough?" Burns inquired as he returned to the car for the eighth time. "Shall I take you home?"
"I'm all right."
Burns gave him a sharp glance. "To be sure you are. But we'll go home nevertheless. The rest of my work is at the hospital anyhow."
As they were approaching the long stretch of straight road to which King had looked forward an hour ago, but which he was disgusted to find himself actually rather dreading now, a great closed car of luxurious type, and bearing upon its top considerable travelling luggage, slowed down as it neared, and a liveried chauffeur held up a detaining hand. Burns stopped to answer a series of questions as to the best route toward a neighbouring city. There were matters of road mending and detours to be made plain to the inquirers, so the detention occupied a full five minutes, during which the chauffeur got down and came to Burns's side with a road map, with which the two wrestled after the fashion usually made necessary by such aids to travel.