During this period Jordan King underwent a disturbing experience. Looking up with his usual keen glance, one trained to observe whatever might be before it, he took in at a sweep the nature of the party in the big car. That it was a rich man's car, and that its occupants were those who naturally belonged in it, there was no question. From the owner himself, an aristocrat who looked the part, as not all aristocrats do, to those who were presumably his wife, his son, and daughters, all were of the same type. Simply dressed as if for a long journey, they yet diffused that aroma of luxury which cannot be concealed.
The presumable son, a tall, hawk-nosed young man who sat beside the chauffeur, turned to speak to those inside, and King's glance followed his. He thus caught sight of a profile next the open window and close by him. He stared at it, his heart suddenly standing still. Who was this girl with the bronze-red hair, the perfect outline of nose and mouth and chin, the sea-shell colouring? Even as he stared she turned her head, and her eyes looked straight into his.
He had seen Miss Anne Linton only twice, and on the two occasions she had seemed to him like two entirely different girls. But this girl—was she not that one who had come to visit him in his room at the hospital, full of returning health and therefore of waxing beauty and vigour?
For one instant he was sure it was she, no matter how strange it was that she should be here, in this rich man's car—unless—But he had no time to think it out before he was overwhelmed by the indubitable evidence that, whoever this girl was, she did not know him. Her eyes—apparently the same wonderful eyes which he could now never forget—looked into his without a sign of recognition, and her colour—the colour of radiantly blooming youth—did not change perceptibly under his gaze. And after that one glance, in which she seemed to survey him closely, after the manner of girls, as if he were an interesting specimen, her eyes travelled to Red Pepper Burns and rested lightly on him, as if he, too, were a person of but passing significance to the motor traveller looking for diversion after many dusty miles of more or less monotonous sights.
King continued to gaze at her with a steadiness somewhat indefensible except as one considers that all motorists, meeting on the highway, are accustomed to take note of one another as comrades of the road. He was not conscious that the other young people in the car also regarded him with eyes of interest, and if he had he would not have realized just why. His handsome, alert face, its outlines slightly sharpened by his late experiences, his well-dressed, stalwart figure, carried no hint of the odious plaster jacket which to his own thinking put him outside the pale of interest for any one.
But it could not be Anne Linton; of course it could not! What should a poor little book agent be doing here in a rich man's car—unless she were in his employ? And somehow the fact that this girl was not in any man's employ was established by the manner in which the young man on the front seat spoke to her, as he now did, plainly heard by King. Though all he said was some laughing, more or less witty thing about this being the nineteenth time, by actual count since breakfast, that a question of roads and routes had arisen, he spoke as to an equal in social status, and also—this was plainer yet—as to one on whom he had a more than ordinary claim. And King listened for her answer—surely he would know her voice if she spoke? One may distrust the evidence of one's eyes when it comes to a matter of identity, but one's ears are not to be deceived.
But King's ears, stretched though they might be, metaphorically speaking, like those of a mule, to catch the sound of that voice, caught nothing. She replied to the young man on the front seat only by a nod and a smile. Then, as the chauffeur began to fold up his road map, thanking Burns for his careful directions, and both cars were on the point of starting, the object of King's heart-arresting scrutiny looked at him once again. Her straight gaze, out of such eyes as he had never seen but on those two occasions, met his without flinching—a long, steady, level look, which lasted until, under Burns's impatient hand, the smaller car got under motion and began to move. Even then, though she had to turn her head a little, she let him hold her gaze—as, of course, he was nothing loath to do, being intensely and increasingly stirred by the encounter with its baffling hint of mystery. Indeed, she let him hold that gaze until it was not possible for her longer to maintain her share of the exchange without twisting about in the car. As for King, he did not scruple to twist, as far as his back would let him, until he had lost those eyes from his view.
JORDAN IS A MAN
When King turned back again to face the front his heart was thumping prodigiously. Almost he was certain it had been Anne Linton; yet the explanation—if there were one—was not to be imagined. And if it had been Anne Linton, why should she have refused to know him? There could have been little difficulty for her in identifying him, even though she had seen him last lying flat on his back on a hospital bed. And if there had been a chance of her not knowing him—there was Red Pepper.
It was Anne. It could not be Anne. Between these two convictions King's head was whirling. Whoever it was, she had dared to look straight into his eyes in broad daylight at a distance of not more than four feet. He had seen into the very depths of her own bewildering beauty, and the encounter, always supposing her to be the person of whom he had thought continuously for four months, was a thing to keep him thinking about her whether he would or no.
"Anything wrong?" asked Burns's voice in its coolest tones. "I suspect I was something of an idiot to give you such a big dose of this at the first trial."
"I'm all right, thank you." And King sat up very straight in the car to prove it. Nevertheless, when he was at home again he was not sorry to be peremptorily ordered to lie supine on his back for at least three hours.
It was not long after this that King was able to bring about the thing he most desired—a talk with Mrs. Burns. She came to see him one July day, at his request, at an hour when he knew his mother must be away. With her he went straight to his point; the moment the first greetings were over and he had been congratulated on his ability to spend a few hours each day at his desk, he began upon the subject uppermost in his thoughts. He told her the story of his encounter with the girl in the car, and asked her if she thought it could have been Miss Linton.
She looked at him musingly. "Do you prefer to think it was or was not?" she asked.
"Are you going to answer accordingly?"
"Not at all. I was wondering which I wanted to think myself. I wish I had been with you. I should have known."
"Would you?" King spoke eagerly. "Would you mind telling me how?"
"I can't tell you how. Of course I came to know her looks much better than you; it really isn't strange that after seeing her only twice you couldn't be sure. I don't think any change of dress or environment could have hidden her from me. The question is, of course, why—if it was she—she should have chosen not to seem to know you—unless—"
She looked straight at him. "Unless—she is not the poor girl she seemed to be. And that explanation doesn't appeal to me. I have known of poor girls pretending to be rich, but I have never, outside of a sensational novel, known a rich girl to pretend to be poor, unless for a visit to a poor quarter for charitable purposes. What possible object could there be in a girl's going about selling books unless she needed to do it? And she allowed me—" She stopped, shaking her head. "No, Jordan, that was not our little friend—or if it was, she was in that car by some curious chance, not because she belonged there."
"So you're going on trusting her?" was King's abstract of these reflections. He scanned her closely.
She nodded. "Until I have stronger proof to the contrary than your looking into a pair of beautiful eyes. Have you never observed, my friend, how many pairs of beautiful eyes there are in the world?"
He shook his head. "I haven't bothered much about them, except now and then for a bit of nonsense making."
"But this pair you, too, are going to go on trusting?"
"I am. If that girl was Miss Linton she had a reason for not speaking. If it wasn't"—he drew a deep breath—"well, I don't know exactly how to explain that!"
"I do," said Ellen Burns, smiling. "She thought she would never see you again, and she yielded to a girlish desire to look hard at—a real man."
It was this speech which, in spite of himself, lingered in King's mind after she was gone, for the balm there was in it—a balm she had perfectly understood and meant to put there. Well she guessed what his disablement meant to him—in spite of the hope of complete recovery—how little he seemed to himself like the man he was before.
Certainly it was nothing short of real manhood which prompted the talk he had with his mother one day not long after this. She brought him a letter, and she was scrutinizing it closely as she came toward him. He was fathoms deep in his work and did not observe her until she spoke.
"Whom can you possibly have as a correspondent in this town, my son?" she inquired, her eyes upon the postmark, which was that of a small city a hundred miles away. It was one in which lived an old school friend of whom she had never spoken, to her recollection, in King's hearing, for the reason that the family had since suffered deep disgrace in the eyes of the world, and she had been inexpressibly shocked thereby.
King looked up. He was always hoping for a word from Anne Linton, and now, suddenly, it had come, just a week after the encounter with the girl in the car—which had been going, as it happened, in the opposite direction from the city of the postmark. He recognized instantly the handwriting upon the plain, white business envelope—an interesting handwriting, clear and black, without a single feminine flourish. He took the letter in his hand and studied it.
"It is from Miss Linton," he said, "and I am very glad to hear from her. It is the first time she has written since she went away—over two months ago."
He spoke precisely as he would have spoken if it had been a letter from any friend he had. It was like him to do this, and the surer another man would have been to try to conceal his interest in the letter the surer was Jordan King to proclaim it. The very fact that this announcement was certain to rouse his mother's suspicion that the affair was of moment to him was enough to make him tell her frankly that she was quite right.
He laid the letter on the desk before him unopened, and went on with his work. Mrs. King stood still and looked at him a moment before moving quietly away, and disturbance was written upon her face. She knew her son's habit of finishing one thing before he took up another, but she understood also that he wished to be alone when he should read this letter. She left the room, but soon afterward she softly passed the open door, and she saw that the letter lay open before him and that his head was bent over it. The words before him were these:
DEAR MR. KING:
I had not meant to write to you for much longer than this, but I find myself so anxious to know how you are that I am yielding to the temptation. I may as well confess that I am just a little lonely to-night, in spite of having had a pretty good day with the little book—rather better than usual. Sometimes I almost wish I hadn't spent that fortnight with Mrs. Burns, I find myself missing her so. And yet, how can one be sorry for any happy thing that comes to one? As I look back on them now, though I am well and strong again, those days of convalescence in the hospital stand out as among the happiest in my life. The pleasant people, the flowers, the notes, all the incidents of that time, not the least among them Franz's music, stay in my memory like a series of pictures.
Do you care to tell me how you come on? If so you may write to me, care of general delivery, in this town, at any time for the next five days. I shall be so glad to hear.
King looked up as his mother approached. He folded the letter and put it into his pocket.
"Mother," he said, "I may as well tell you something. You won't approve of it, and that is why I must tell you. From the hour I first saw Miss Linton I've been unable to forget her. I know, by every sign, that she is all she seems to be. I can't let her go out of my life without an effort to keep her. I'm going to keep her, if I can."
Two hours later R.P. Burns, M.D., was summoned to the bedside of Mrs. Alexander King. He sat down beside the limp form, felt the pulse, laid his hand upon the shaking shoulder of the prostrate lady, who had gone down before her son's decision, gentle though his manner with her had been. She had argued, prayed, entreated, wept, but she had not been able to shake his purpose. Now she was reaping the consequences of her agitation.
"My son, my only boy," she moaned as Burns asked her to tell him her trouble, "after all these years of his being such a man, to change suddenly into a willful boy again! It's inconceivable; it's not possible! Doctor, you must tell him, you must argue with him. He can't marry this girl, he can't! Why, he doesn't even know the place she comes from, to say nothing of who she is—her family, her position in life. She must be a common sort of creature to follow him up so; you know she must. I can't have it; I will not have it! You must tell him so!"
Burns considered. There was a curious light in his eyes. "My dear lady," he said gently at length, "Jordan is a man; you can't control him. He is a mighty manly man, too—as his frankly telling you his intention proves. Most sons would have kept their plans to themselves, and simply have brought the mother home her new daughter some day without any warning. As for Miss Linton, I assure you she is a lady—as it seems to me you must have seen for yourself."
"She is clever; she could act the part of a lady, no doubt," moaned the one who possessed a clear title to that form of address. "But she might be anything. Why didn't she tell you something of herself? Jordan could not say that you knew the least thing about her. People with fine family records are not so mysterious. There is something wrong about her—I know it—I know it! Oh, I can't have it so; I can't! You must stop it, Doctor; you must!"
"She spent two weeks in our home," Burns said. "During that time there was no test she did not stand. Come, Mrs. King, you know that it doesn't take long to discover the flaw in any metal. She rang true at every touch. She's a girl of education, of refinement—why, Ellen came to feel plenty of real affection for her before she left us, and you know that means a good deal. As for the mystery about her, what's that? Most people talk too much about their affairs. If, as we think, she has been brought up in circumstances very different from these we find her in, it isn't strange that she doesn't want to tell us all about the change."
But his patient continued to moan, and he could give her no consolation. For a time he sat quietly beside the couch where lay the long and slender form, and he was thinking things over. The room was veiled in a half twilight, partly the effect of closing day and partly that of drawn shades. The deep and sobbing breaths continued until suddenly Burns's hand was laid firmly upon the hand which clutched a handkerchief wet with many tears. He spoke now in a new tone, one she had never before heard from him addressed to herself:
"This," he said, "isn't worthy of you, my friend."
It was as if her breath were temporarily suspended while she listened. People were not accustomed to tell Mrs. Alexander King that her course of action was unworthy of her.
"No man or woman has a right to dictate to another what he shall do, provided the thing contemplated is not an offense against another. You have no right to set your will against your son's when it is a matter of his life's happiness."
She seized on this last phrase. "But that's why I do oppose him. I want him to be happy—heaven knows I do! He can't be happy—this way."
"How do you know that? You don't know it. You are just as likely to make him bitterly unhappy by opposing him as by letting him alone. And I can tell you one thing surely, Mrs. King: Jordan will do as he wishes in spite of you, and all you will gain by opposition will be not a gain, but a sacrifice—of his love."
She shivered. "How can you think he will be so selfish?"
Burns had some ado to keep his rising temper down. "Selfish—to marry the woman he wants instead of the woman you want? That's an old, old argument of selfish mothers."
The figure on the couch stiffened. "Doctor Burns! How can you speak so, when all I ask for is my son's best good?" The words ended in a wail.
"You think you do, dear lady. What you really want is—your own way."
Suddenly she sat up, staring at him. His clear gaze met her clouded one, his sane glance confronted her wild one. She lifted her shaking hand with a gesture of dismissal. But there was a new experience in store for Jordan King's mother.
Burns leaned forward, and took the delicate hand of his hysterical patient in his own.
"No, no," he said, smiling, "you don't mean that; you are not quite yourself. I am Jordan's friend and yours. I have said harsh things to you; it was the only way. I love your boy as I would a younger brother, and I want you to keep him because I can understand what the loss of him would mean to you. But you must know that you can't tie a man's heart to you with angry commands, nor with tears and reproaches. You can tie it—tight—by showing sympathy and understanding in this crisis of his life. Believe me, I know."
His tone was very winning; his manner—now that he had said his say—though firm, was gentle, and he held her hand in a way that did much toward quieting her. Many patients in danger of losing self-control had known the strengthening, soothing touch of that strong hand. Red Pepper was not accustomed to misuse this power of his, which came very near being hypnotic, but neither did he hesitate to use it when the occasion called as loudly as did this one.
And presently Mrs. King was lying quietly on her couch again, her eyes closed, the beating of her agitated pulses slowly quieting. And Burns, bending close, was saying before he left her: "That's a brave woman. Ladies are lovely things, but I respect women more. Only a mighty fine one could be the mother of my friend Jord, and I knew she would meet this issue like the Spartan she knows how to be."
If, as he stole away downstairs—leaving his patient in the hands of a somewhat long-suffering maid—he was saying to himself things of a quite different sort, let him not be blamed for insincerity. He had at the last used the one stimulant against which most of us are powerless: the call to be that which we believe another thinks us.
THE SURGICAL FIRING LINE
"Len, I've something great to tell you," announced Red Pepper Burns, one evening in August, as he came out from his office where he had been seeing a late patient, and joined his wife, who was wandering about her garden in the twilight. "To-day I've had the compliment of my life. Whom do you think I'm to operate on day after to-morrow?"
She looked up at him as he stood, his hands in his pockets, looking down at her. In her sheer white frock, through which gleamed her neck and arms, her hands full of pink and white snapdragon, she was worth consideration. Her eyes searched his face and found there a curious exultation of a very human sort. "How could I guess? Tell me."
"Who should you say was the very last man on earth to do me the honour of trusting me in a serious emergency?"
She turned away her head, gazing down at a fragrant border of mignonette, while he watched her, a smile on his lips. She looked up again. "I can't think, Red. It seems to me everybody trusts you."
"Not by a long shot, or the rest of the profession would stand idle. But there's one man who I should have said, to use a time-honoured phrase, wouldn't let me operate on a sick cat. And he's the man who is going to put his life in my hands Wednesday morning at ten o'clock. Len, if I am ever on my mettle to do a perfect job, it'll be then!"
"Of course. But who—"
"I should think the name would leap to your lips. Who's mine ancient enemy, the man who has fought me by politely sneering at me, and circumventing me when he could, ever since I began practice, and whom I've fought back in my way? Why, Len—"
Her dark eyes grew wide. "Red! Not—Doctor Van Horn?"
"Oh, Red! That is a compliment—and more than a compliment. But I should never have thought of him somehow because, I suppose—"
"Because nobody ever thinks of a doctor's being sick or needing an operation. But doctors do—sometimes—and usually pretty badly, too, before they will submit to it. Van Horn's in dreadful shape, and has been keeping it dark—until it's got the upper hand of him completely. Mighty plucky the way he's been going on with his work, with trouble gnawing at his vitals."
"How did he come to call you?"
"That's what I'm wondering. But call me he did, yesterday, and I've seen him twice since. And when I told him what had to be done he took it like a soldier without wincing. But when he said he wanted me to do the trick you could have knocked me down with a lead pencil. My word, Len, I have been doing Van an injustice all these years! The real stuff is in him, after all, and plenty of it, too."
"It is he who has done you the injustice," Ellen said with a little lift of the head.
"I know I have given you reason to think so—the times I've come home raving mad at some cut of his. But, Len, that's all past and he wipes it out by trusting me now. The biggest thing I've had against him was not his knifing me but his apparent toadying to the rich and influential. But there's another side to that and I see it now. Some people have to be coddled, and though it goes against my grain to do it, I don't know why a man who can be diplomatic and winning, like Van Horn, hasn't his place just as much as a rough rider like me. Anyhow, the thing now is to pull him through his operation, and if I can do it—well, Van and I will be on a new basis, and a mighty comfortable one it will be."
His voice was eager and his wife understood just how his pulses were thrilling, as do those of the born surgeon, at the approach of a great opportunity.
"I'm very, very glad, dear," Ellen said warmly. "It's a real triumph of faith over jealousy, and I don't wonder you are proud of such a commission. I know you will bring him through."
"If I don't—but that's not to be thought of. It's a case that calls for extremely delicate surgery and a sure hand, but the ground is plainly mapped out and only some absolutely unforeseen complication is to be dreaded. And when it comes to those complications—well, Len, sometimes I think it must be the good Lord who works a man's brain for him at such crises, and makes it pretty nearly superhuman. It's hard to account any other way, sometimes, for the success of the quick decisions you make under necessity that would take a lot of time to work out if you had the time. Oh, it's a great game, Len, no doubt of that—when you win. And when you lose"—he stopped short, staring into the shadows where a row of dark-leaved laurel bushes shut away the garden in a soft seclusion—"well, that's another story, a heartbreaking story."
He was silent for a minute, then, in another tone, he spoke confidently: "But—this isn't going to be a story of that kind. Van Horn has a big place in the city and he's going to keep it. And I'm going to spend the rest of this evening making a bit of a tool I've had in mind for some time—that there's a remote chance I shall need in this case. But if that remote chance should come—well, there's nothing like a state of preparedness, as the military men say."
"That's why you succeed, Red; you always are prepared."
"Not always. And it's in the emergency you can't foresee that heaven comes to the rescue. You can't expect it to come to the rescue when you might have foreseen. 'Trust the Lord and keep your powder dry' is a pretty good maxim for the surgical firing line, too—eh?"
With his arm through his wife's he paced several times up and down the flowery borders, then went away into the small laboratory and machine shop where he was accustomed to do much of the work which showed only in its final results. Through the rest of the hot August evening, his attire stripped to the lowest terms compatible with possible unexpected visitors, he laboured with all the enthusiasm characteristic of him at tasks which to another mind would have been drudgery indeed.
To him, at about ten o'clock, came his neighbour and friend, Arthur Chester. Standing with arms on the sill outside of the lighted window, clad in summer vestments of white and looking as cool and fresh as the man inside looked hot and dirty, Chester attempted to lure the worker forth.
"Win's serving a lot of cold, wet stuff on our porch," he announced. "Ellen's there, and the Macauleys, and Jord King has just driven up and stopped for a minute. He's got Aleck with him and he's pleased as Punch because he's rigged a contrivance so that Aleck can drive himself with one hand. What do you think of that?"
"Good work," replied Burns absently after a minute, during which he tested a steel edge with an experimental finger and shook his head at it.
"Did you expect Jord to keep Aleck, when he's got to have another man besides for the things Aleck can't do now?"
Burns nodded. "Expect anything—of him."
"Put down that murderous-looking thing and come along over. Ellen said you were here, and Win sent word to you not to bother to change your clothes."
"Won't bother—or won't come?"
Chester sighed. "Do you know what you remind me of when you get in this hole of a workshop? A bull pup with his teeth in something, and only growls issuing."
"Better keep away then."
"I suppose that's a hint—a bull-pup hint."
Silence from inside, while the worker stirred something boiling over a flame, poured a dark fluid from one retort into another, dropped in a drop or two of something from a small vial inflammatorily labelled, and started an electric motor in a corner. Chester could see the shine of perspiration on the smooth brow below the coppery hair, and drops standing like dew on the broad white chest from which the open shirt was turned widely back.
"It must be about a hundred and fifty Fahrenheit in there," he commented. Burns grunted an assent. "It's only eighty-four on our porch, and growing cooler every minute. The things we have to drink are just above thirty-two, right off the ice." Chester's words were carefully chosen.
"Dangerous extremes. But I wouldn't mind having a pint or two of something cold. Go, bring it to me."
"Well, I like that."
"So'll I, I hope."
Chester laughed and strolled away. When he returned he carried a big crystal pitcher filled with a pleasantly frothing home-made amber brew in which ice tinkled. With him came Jordan King. Chester shoved aside the screen and pushed the pitcher inside, accompanied by a glass which Winifred had insisted on sending.
Burns caught up the pitcher, drank thirstily, drew his arm across his mouth and grinned through the window, meeting Jordan King's smiling gaze in return.
"Company manners don't go when your hands are black, eh?" remarked the man inside.
"Mechanics and surgeons seem a good deal alike at times," was the laughing reply.
"Can't tell 'em apart. Your lily-handed surgeon is an anomaly. I hear Aleck came out under his own steam to-night. How does it go?"
"First rate. It was great fun. He's like a boiling kettle full of steam, with the lid off just in time."
"Good. Be on your guard when he's driving, though, for a while. Don't let him stay at the wheel down Devil's Hill just yet."
"Why not? He has absolute control the way I've fixed it. You see the spark and gas are right where—"
"I don't want you to take one chance in a million on that back of yours yet. See? Or do I have to drive that order in and spike it down?"
"He seems to have a lot of conversation in him—for you," observed Chester to King as the two outside laughed at this explosion from within.
"Such as it is," replied King with an audacious wink. "I thought I'd got about through taking orders."
"I'll give you both two minutes to clear out," came from inside the window as Burns caught up a piece of steel and began narrowly to examine it. Over it he looked at Jordan King, and the two exchanged a glance which spoke of complete understanding.
"Come again, boy," Burns said with a sudden flashing smile at his friend.
"I will—day after to-morrow in the afternoon," King returned, and his eyes held Burns's.
"What? Do you know?"
King nodded, with a look of pride. "You bet I do."
"Who told you?"
"Didn't know you knew him well enough for that."
"Oh, yes, through mother; they're old friends. She sent me to see him for her."
"I see. Well, wish me luck!"
"I wish you—your own skill at its highest power," said Jordan King fervently.
"Thanks, youngster," was Burns's answer, and this time there was no smile on the face which he lifted again for an instant from above the tiny piece of steel which held in it such potentialities—in his hands.
"You seem to have got farther in under his skin than the rest of us," observed Chester to King as they walked slowly away. There was a touch of unconscious jealousy in his tone. He had known R.P. Burns a long while before Jordan King had reached man's estate. "I never knew him to say a word about a coming operation before."
"He didn't say it now; I happened to know. Come out and see the rigging we've put on the car so Aleck can work everything with one hand and two feet."
"And a few brains, I should say," Chester supplemented.
* * * * *
Though Burns had plenty of other work to keep him busy during the interval before he should lay hands upon Doctor Van Horn, his mind was seldom off his coming task. In spite of all that Ellen knew of the past antagonism between the two men she was in possession of but comparatively few of the facts. Except where his fiery temper had entirely overcome him Burns had been silent concerning the many causes he had had to dislike and distrust the older man.
As what is called "a fashionable physician," having for his patients few outside of the wealthy class, Dr. James Van Horn had occupied a field of practice entirely different from that of R.P. Burns. Though Burns numbered on his list many of the city's best known and most prosperous citizens, he held them by virtue of a manner of address and a system of treatment differing in no wise from that which he employed upon the poorest and humblest who came to him. If people liked him it was for no blandishments of his, only for his sturdy manliness, his absolute honesty, and a certain not unattractive bluntness of speech whose humour often atoned for its thrust.
As for his skill, there was no question that it ranked higher than that of his special rival. As for his success, it had steadily increased. And, as all who knew him could testify, when it came to that "last ditch" in which lay a human being fighting for his life, Burns's reputation for standing by, sleeves rolled up and body stiff with resistance of the threatening evil, was such that there was no man to compete with him.
It was inevitable that in a city of the moderate size of that in which these two men practised there should arise situations which sometimes brought about a clash between them. The patient of one, having arrived at serious straits, often called for a consultation with the other. The very professional bearing and methods of the two were so different, strive though they might to adapt themselves to each other at least in the presence of the patient, that trouble usually began at once, veiled though it might be under the stringencies of professional etiquette. Later, when it came to matters of life and death, these men were sure to disagree radically. Van Horn, dignified of presence, polished of speech, was apt to impress the patient's family with his wisdom, his restraint, his modestly assured sense of the fitness of his own methods to the needs of the case; while Burns, burning with indignation over some breach of faith occasioned by his senior's orders in his absence, or other indignity, flaming still more hotly over being forced into a course which he believed to be against the patient's interest, was likely to blurt out some rough speech at a moment when silence, as far as his own interests were concerned, would have been more discreet—and then would come rupture.
Usually those most concerned never guessed at the hidden fires, because even Burns, under bonds to his wife to restrain himself at moments of danger, was nearly always able to get away from such scenes without open outbreak. But more than once a situation had developed which could be handled only by the withdrawal of one or the other physician from the case—and then, whether he went or stayed, Burns could seldom win through without showing what he felt.
Now, however, he was feeling as he had never dreamed he could feel toward James Van Horn. The way in which the man was facing the present crisis in his life called for Burns's honest and ungrudging admiration. With that same cool and unflurried bearing with which Van Horn was accustomed to hold his own in a consultation was he now awaiting the uncertain issue of his determination to end, in one way or the other, the disability under which he was suffering.
THE ONLY SAFE PLACE
When Red Pepper Burns visited James Van Horn, at the hospital, on the evening before the operation, he found him lying quietly in bed, ready for the night—and the morning. He looked up and smiled the same slightly frosty smile Burns knew so well, but which he now interpreted differently. As he sat down by the bedside the younger man's heart was unbelievably warm.
He looked straight, with his powerful hazel eyes slightly veiled by a contraction of the eyelids, into the steady gray eyes of his patient—his patient—he could not believe it yet. He laid exploring fingers upon the pulse of the hand he had just grasped.
"If they were all like you," he said gently, "we should have better chances for doing our best. How do you manage it, Doctor?"
"Temperament, I suppose," returned the other lightly. "Or"—and now he spoke less lightly—"belief—or lack of it. If we get through—very well; I shall go on with my work. If we don't get through—that ends it. I have no belief in any hereafter, as you may know. A few years more or less—what does it matter?"
Burns studied the finely chiselled face in silence for a minute, then he spoke slowly: "It matters this much—to me. If by a chance, a slip, a lack of skill, I should put an end to a life which would never live again, I could not bear it."
Van Horn smiled—and somehow the smile was not frosty at all. "I am trusting you. Your hand won't slip; there will be no lack of skill. If you don't pull me through, it will be because destiny is too much for us. To be honest, I don't care how it comes out. And yet, that's not quite true either. I do care; only I want to be entirely well again. I can't go on as I have gone."
"You shall not. We're going to win; I'm confident of it. Only—Doctor, if the unforeseen should happen I don't want you to go out of this life believing there's no other. Listen." He pulled out a notebook and searching, found a small newspaper clipping. "A big New York paper the other day printed this headline: 'Fell Eight Stories to Death.' A smaller city paper copied it with this ironical comment: 'Headlines cannot be too complete. But what a great story it would have been if he had fallen eight stories to life!' And then one of the biggest and most influential and respected newspapers in the world copied both headlines and comment and gave the whole thing a fresh title: 'Falls to Life—Immortal.' Doctor—you can't afford to lie to-night where you do—and take chances on that last thing's not being true. The greatest minds the world knows believe it is true."
A silence fell. Then Van Horn spoke: "Burns, do you think it's wise to turn a patient's thoughts into this channel on the eve of a crisis?"
Burns regarded him closely. "Can you tell me, Doctor," he asked, "that your thoughts weren't already in that channel?"
"Suppose they were. And suppose I even admitted the possibility that you were right—which, mind you, I don't—what use is it to argue the question at this late hour?"
"Because the hour is not too late. If you want to sleep quietly to-night and wake fit for what's coming, put yourself in the hands of the Maker of heaven and earth before you sleep. Then, whether there's a hereafter or not won't matter for you; you'll leave that to Him. But you'll be in His hands—and that's the only place it's safe to be."
"Suppose I told you I didn't believe in any such Being."
"I should tell you you knew better—and knew it with every fibre of you."
The two pairs of eyes steadily regarded each other. In Burns's flamed sincerity and conviction. In Van Horn's grew a curious sort of suffering. He moved restlessly on his pillow.
"If I had known you were a fanatic as well as a fighter I might have hesitated to call you, even though I believe in you as a surgeon," he said somewhat huskily.
"It's surgery you're getting from me to-night, but I cut to cure. A mind at rest will help you through to-morrow."
"Why should you think my mind isn't at rest? You commended me for my quiet mind when you came in."
"For your cool control. But your unhappy spirit looked out of your eyes at me, and I've spoken to that. I couldn't keep silence. Forgive me, Doctor; I'm a blunt fellow, as you have reason to know. I haven't liked you, and you haven't liked me. We've fought each other all along the line. But your calling me now has touched me very much, and I find myself caring tremendously to give you the best I have. And not only the best my hands have to give you, but the best of my brain and heart. And that belief in the Almighty and His power to rule this world and other worlds is the best I have. I'd like to give it to you."
He rose, his big figure towering like a mountain of strength above the slender form in the bed.
Van Horn stretched up his hand to say good-night. "I know you thought it right to say this to me, Burns," he said, "and I have reason to know that when you think a thing is right you don't hesitate to do it. I like your frankness—better than I seem to. I trust you none the less for this talk; perhaps more. Do your best by me in the morning, and whatever happens, your conscience will be free."
Burns's two sinewy hands clasped the thin but still firm one of Van Horn. "As I said just now, I've never wanted more to do my best than for you," came very gently from his lips. "And I can tell you for your comfort that the more anxious I am to do good work the surer I am to do it. I don't know why it should be so; I've heard plenty of men say it worked just the other way with them. Yes, I do know why. I think I'll tell you the explanation. The more anxious I am the harder I pray to my God to make me fit. And when I go from my knees to the operating-room I feel armed to the teeth."
He smiled, a brilliant, heart-warming smile, and suddenly he looked, to the man on the bed who gazed at him, more like a conqueror than any one he had ever seen. And all at once James Van Horn understood why, with all his faults of temper and speech, his patients loved and clung to Red Pepper Burns; and why he, Van Horn himself, had not been able to defeat Burns as a rival. There was something about the man which spoke of power, and at this moment it seemed clear, even to the skeptic, that it was not wholly human power.
Burns bent over the bed. "Good-night, Doctor," he said softly, almost as he might have spoken to a child. Then, quite as he might have spoken to a child, he added: "Say a bit of a prayer before you go to sleep. It won't hurt you, and—who knows?—even unbelieving, you may get an answer."
Van Horn smiled up at him wanly. "Good-night, Doctor," he replied. "Thank you for coming in—whether I sleep the better or the worse for it."
* * * * *
If there were anything of the fanatic about Redfield Pepper Burns—and the term was one which no human being but Van Horn had ever applied to him—it was the fighting, not the fasting, side of his character which showed uppermost at ten next morning. He came out of his hospital dressing-room with that look of dogged determination written upon brow and mouth which his associates knew well, and they had never seen it written larger. From Doctor Buller, who usually gave the anesthetics in Burns's cases, and from Miss Mathewson, who almost invariably worked upon the opposite side of the operating table, to the newest nurse whose only mission was to be at hand for observation, the staff more or less acutely sensed the situation. Not one of those who had been for any length of time in the service but understood that it was an unusual situation.
That James Van Horn and R.P. Burns had long been conscious or unconscious rivals was known to everybody. Van Horn was not popular with the hospital staff, while Burns might have ordered them all to almost any deed of valour and have been loyally obeyed. But Van Horn's standing in the city was well understood; he was admired and respected as the most imposing and influential figure in the medical profession there represented. He held many posts of distinction, not only in the city, but in the state, and his name at the head of an article in any professional magazine carried weight and authority. And that he should have chosen Burns, rather than have sent abroad for any more famous surgeon, was to be considered an extraordinary honour indicative of a confidence not to have been expected.
Altogether, there was more than ordinary tension observable in the operating-room just before the appointed hour. A number of the city's surgeons were present—Grayson, Fields, Lenhart, Stevenson—men accustomed to see Burns at work and to recognize his ability as uncommon. Not that they often admitted this to themselves or to one another, but the fact remains that they understood precisely why Van Horn, if he chose a local man at all—which of itself had surprised them very much—had selected Burns. Not one of them, no matter how personally he felt antagonistic to this most constantly employed member of the profession, but would have felt safer in his hands in such a crisis than in those of any of his associates.
Burns held a brief conference with Miss Mathewson, who having been with him in his office and his operative work for the entire twelve years of his practice, was herself all but a surgeon and suited him better than any man, with her deft fingers and sure response to his slightest indication of intention. The others found themselves watching the two as they came forward, cool, steady, ready for the perfect team work they had so long played. If both hearts were beating a degree faster than usual there was nothing to show it. Nobody knew what had passed between the two. If they had known they might have understood why they worked so perfectly together.
"You're going to give me your best to-day, Amy, eh?"
"You know that, Doctor Burns."
"Of course I know it. But I want a little better than your best. This is one of the cases where every second is going to count. We have to make all the speed that's in us without a slip. I can trust you. I didn't tell you before because I didn't want you thinking about it. But I tell you now because I've got to have the speed. All right; that's all."
He gave her one quick smile, then his face was set and stern again, as always at this moment, for it was the moment when he caught sight of his patient, quietly asleep, being brought to him. And it was the moment when one swift echo of the prayer he had already made upon his knees leaped through his mind—to be gone again as lightning flashes through a midnight sky. After that there was to be no more prayer, only action.
* * * * *
The watching surgeons unconsciously held their breath as the operation began. For the patient on the table was James Van Horn, and the man who had taken Van Horn's life into his hands was not a great surgeon from New York or Boston, as was to have been anticipated, but their everyday colleague Burns. And at that moment not one of them envied him his chance.
Ellen had seldom waited more anxiously for the word her husband always sent her at such times. He fully recognized that the silent partner in crises like these suffered a very real and trying suspense, the greater that there was nothing she could do for him except to send him to his work heartened by the thought of her and of her belief in him.
It was longer than usual, on this more than ordinarily fateful morning, before Ellen received the first word from the hospital. When it came it was from an attendant and it was not reassuring:
"Doctor Burns wishes me to tell you that the patient has come through the operation, but is in a critical condition. He will not leave him at present."
This meant more hours of waiting, during which Ellen could set her mind and hand to nothing which was not purely mechanical. She was realizing to the full that it was the unknown factor of which Burns had often spoken, the unforeseen contingency, which might upset all the calculations and efforts of science and skill. Well she knew that, though her husband's reputation was an assured one, it might suffer somewhat from the loss of this prominent case. Ellen felt certain that this last consideration was one to weigh little with Burns himself compared with his personal and bitter regret over an unsuccessful effort to save a life. But it seemed to her that she cared from every point of view, and to her the time of waiting was especially hard to bear.
There was one relief in the situation—never had she had her vigils shared as Jordan King was sharing this one. As the hours went by, both by messages over the telephone and by more than one hurried drive out to see Ellen in person, did he let her know that his concern for Burns's victory was only second to her own.
"He's got to save him!" was his declaration, standing in her doorway, late in the evening, hat in hand, bright dark eyes on Ellen's. "And the way he's sticking by, I'm confident he will. That bull-dog grip of his we know so well would pull a ton of lead out of a quicksand. He won't give up while there's a breath stirring, and even if it stops he'll start it again—with his will!"
"You are a loyal friend." Ellen's smile rewarded him for this blindly assured speech, well as she knew how shaky was the foundation on which he might be standing. "But the last message he sent was only that no ground had been lost."
"Well, that's a good deal after ten hours." He looked at his watch. "Keep a brave heart, Mrs. Burns. I'm going to the hospital now to see if I can get just a glimpse of our man before we settle down for the night. And I want to arrange with Miss Dwight—she was my nurse—to let me know any news at any hour in the night."
It was at three in the morning that King called her to say with a ring of joy in his voice: "There's a bit of a gain, Mrs. Burns. It looks brighter."
It was at eight, five hours later, that Burns himself spoke to her. His voice betrayed tension in spite of its steadiness. "We're holding hard, Len; that's about all I can say."
"Dear—are you getting any rest?"
"Don't want any; I'm all right. I'll not be home till we're out of this, you know. Good-bye, my girl." And he was gone, back to the bedside. She knew, without being told, that he had hardly left it.
Thirty-six hours had gone by, and Ellen and Jordan King had had many messages from the hospital before the one came which eased their anxious minds: "Out of immediate danger." It was almost another thirty-six before Burns came home.
She had never seen him look more radiantly happy, though the shadows under his eyes were heavy, and there were lines of fatigue about his mouth. Although she had been watching for him he took her by surprise at last, coming upon her in the early morning just as she was descending the stairs. With both arms around her, as she stood on the bottom stair, he looked into her eyes.
"The game's worth the candle, Len," he said.
"Even though you've been burning the candle at both ends, dear? Yes, I know it is. I'm so glad—so glad!"
"We're sworn friends, Van and I. Can you believe it? Len, he's simply the finest ever."
She smiled at him. "I'm sure you think so; it's just what you would think, my generous boy."
"I'll prove it to you by and by, when I've had a wink of sleep. A bath, breakfast, and two hours of rest—then I'll be in service again. Van's resting comfortably, practically out of danger, and—Len, his eyes remind me of a sick child's who has waked out of a delirium to find his mother by his side."
"Is that the way his eyes look when they meet yours?"
He nodded. "Of course. That's how I know."
"O Red," she said softly—"to think of the eyes that look at you like that!"
"They don't all," he answered as the two went up the stairs side by side. "But Van—well, he's been through the deep waters, and he's found—a footing on rock where he expected shifting sands. Ah, there's my boy! Give him to me quick!"
The Little-Un, surging plumply out of the nursery, tumbled into his father's arms, and submitted, shouting with glee, to the sort of huggings, kissings, and general inspection to which he was happily accustomed when Burns came home after a longer absence than usual.
Just before he went back to the hospital, refreshed by an hour's longer sleep than he had meant to take, because Ellen would not wake him sooner, Burns opened the pile of mail which had accumulated during his absence. He sat on the arm of the blue couch, tossing the letters one by one upon the table behind it, in two piles, one for his personal consideration, the other for Miss Mathewson's answering. Ellen, happily relaxing in a corner of the couch, her eyes watching the letter opening, saw her husband's eyes widen as he stooped to pick up a small blue paper which had fallen from the missive he had just slitted. As he unfolded the blue slip and glanced at it, an astonished whistle leaped to his lips.
"Well, by the powers—what's this?" he murmured. "A New York draft for a thousand dollars, inclosed in a letter which says nothing except a typewritten 'From One of the most grateful of all grateful patients.' Len, what do you think of that? Who on earth sent it? I haven't had a rich patient who hasn't paid his bill, or who won't pay it in due form when he gets around to it. And the poor ones don't send checks of this size."
"I can't imagine," she said, studying the few words on the otherwise blank sheet, and the postmark on the typewritten envelope, which showed the letter also to have come from New York. "You haven't had a patient lately who was travelling—a hotel case, or anything of that sort?"
He shook his head. "None that didn't pay before he left—and none that seemed particularly grateful anyhow. Well, I must be off. The thousand's all right, wherever it came from, eh? And I want to get back to Van. I'd put that draft in the fire rather than go back to find the slightest slip in his case. I think, if I should, I'd lose my nerve at last."
THE TRUTH ABOUT SUSQUEHANNA
Jordan King, directing his car with necessary caution through the traffic of a small but crowded city, two hundred miles from home, suddenly threw out his clutch and jammed his brakes into urgent use. Beside him Aleck, flinging out a hasty arm to warn drivers pressing closely behind, gazed at his employer in wonder. There was absolutely nothing to stop them, and an autocratic crossing policeman just ahead was impatiently waving them forward.
But King, his eyes apparently following something or some one in the throng, which had just negotiated the crossing of the street at right angles to his own direction, spoke hurriedly: "Turn to the right here, Aleck, and wait for me at the first spot down that street where they'll let you stop."
He was out of the car and off at a dangerous slant through the procession of moving vehicles, dodging past great trucks and slipping by the noses of touring cars and coupes with apparent recklessness of consequences.
Aleck, sliding into the driver's seat and forced to lose sight of King's tall figure because of the urgency of the crowding mass behind, was moved to curious speculation. As he turned the designated corner, he was saying to himself with a chuckle: "He always was quick on the trigger, but I'll be darned if that wasn't about the hastiest move I ever saw him make. What's he after, anyhow, in this town where he just told me he didn't know a soul? Well, it's some wait for me, I'll bet."
If he could have seen his master as that young man plunged along through the crowd Aleck would have found plenty to interest him. King was doing his best to pursue and catch up with a figure which he now and again lost sight of in the throng, so that he slowed his pace lest he go by it unawares. The fear that he might thus miss and lose it sharpened his gaze and gave to his face an intent look, so that many people stared at him as he passed them, wondering what the comely, dark-eyed young man was after that he was rushing at such a pace.
There came a moment when King paused, uncertain, his heart standing still with the certainty that he was off the track and that his quarry had unconsciously doubled and eluded him. An instant later he drew a quick breath of relief, his gaze following a slender black figure as it mounted the steps of an old church which stood, dingy but still dignified, close by the highway, its open doors indicating that it had remained in this downtown district for a purpose. King sprang up the steps, then paused in the great doorway, beyond which the darkness and quiet of an empty interior silently invited passers-by to rest and reflect. At that moment a deep organ note sounded far away upon the stillness, and King took a step inside, looking cautiously about him. The figure he pursued had vanished, and after a moment more he crossed the vestibule and stood, hat in hand, gazing into the dim depths beyond.
For a little, coming as he had from the strong light of the September afternoon, he could see absolutely nothing; but as his vision cleared he was able to make out a small group of people far toward the front of the spacious interior, and the form of the organist himself before his manuals low at the right of the choir. But he had to look for some time before he could descry at the farthermost side of the church a solitary head bent upon the rail before it. Toward this point the young man slowly made his way, his heart hammering a most unwonted tattoo within his broad breast.
Several pews behind and to one side of the kneeling figure he took his place, his gaze fastened upon it. He looked his fill, secure in his own position, which was in the shadow of a great stone pillar, where the dim light from the sombre-toned windows did not touch him. And, as he looked, the conviction he had had since his first meeting with this girl deepened and strengthened into resolution. He would not lose her again, no matter what it might cost to hold her. He would not believe a man could be mistaken in that face, in that exquisite and arresting personality. There was not such another in the whole wide world.
Suddenly she turned, and evidently she saw that some one was near her, though he knew it was not possible that she had recognized him. She sat quite still for another five minutes, then rose very quietly, gathering up the remembered black handbag, and moved like a young nun into the aisle, head downbent. King slipped out of his pew, made a quick circuit around the pillar, and met her squarely as she came toward him.
He stood still in her path, and she, looking partially up to pass him with that complete ignoring of his presence which young women of breeding employ when strangers threaten to take notice, heard his low voice: "Please don't run away—from your friend!"
"Oh—Mr. King!" Her eyes, startled, met his indeed, and into her face, as she spoke his name, poured a flood of beautiful colour, at sight of which King all but lost his head.
He managed, however, to retain sufficient sanity to grasp her hand after the fashion approved as the proper sign of cordiality in meeting a valued acquaintance, and to say, in an outwardly restrained manner: "Won't you sit down again here? We can talk so much better than outside—and I must talk with you. You have no idea how hard I have tried to find you."
She seemed to hesitate for an instant, but ended by slipping into the pew by the pillar where King had been sitting, and to which he pointed her, as the most sheltered spot at hand, where the group of people at the front of the church were hidden from view, and only the now low and throbbing notes of the organ could remind the pair that they were not absolutely alone.
"This is wonderful—for me," King began, in the hushed tone befitting such a place—and the tone which suited his feelings as well. "I have thought of you a million times in these months and longed to know just how you were looking. Now that I see for myself my mind is a bit easier—and yet—I'm somehow more anxious about you than ever."
"There's no reason why you should be anxious about me, Mr. King," she answered, her eyes releasing themselves from his in spite of his effort to hold them. "I'm doing very well, and—quite enjoying my work. How about yourself? I hardly need to ask."
"Oh, I'm coming on finely, thank you. I've plunged into my work with all the zest I ever had. Only one thing has bothered me: I seemed unable to get out of the habit of watching the mails. And they have been mighty disappointing."
"You surely couldn't expect," she said, smiling a little, "that once you were well again you should be pampered with frequent letters."
"I certainly haven't been pampered. One letter in all this time—"
"Book agents haven't much time for writing letters. And surely engineers must be busy people."
He was silent for a minute, studying her. She seemed, in spite of her youth and beauty, wonderfully self-reliant. Again, as in the room at the hospital, her quiet poise of manner struck him. And though she was once more dressed in the plainest and least costly of attire—as well as he could judge—he knew that he should be entirely willing to take her anywhere where he was known, with no mental apologies for her appearance. This thought immediately put another into his mind, on which he lost no time in acting.
"This is a great piece of luck," said he, and went on hurriedly, trying to use diplomacy, which always came hard with him: "I don't want it to slip away too soon. Why couldn't we spend the rest of the day together? I'm just on my way back home from a piece of work I've been superintending outside this city. I've plenty of time ahead of me, and I'm sure the book business can't be so pressing that you couldn't take a few hours off. If you'll venture to trust yourself to me we'll go off into the country somewhere, and have dinner at some pleasant place. Then we can talk things over—all sorts of things," he added quickly, lest this seem too pointed. "Won't you—please?"
She considered an instant, then said frankly: "Of course that would be delightful, and I can't think of a real reason why I shouldn't do it. What time is it, please?"
"Only three o'clock. We'll have time for a splendid drive and I'll promise to get you back at any hour you say—after dinner."
"It must be early."
"It shall be. Well, then—will you wait in the vestibule out here two minutes, please? I'll have the car at the door."
Thus it happened that Aleck, four blocks away, having just comfortably settled to the reading of a popular magazine on mechanics, found himself summarily ejected from his seat, and sent off upon his own resources for a number of hours.
"Take care of yourself, Al, and have a good time out of it if you can," urged his master, and Aleck observed that King's eyes were very bright and his manner indicative of some fresh mental stimulus received during the brief time of his absence. "Have the best sort of a dinner wherever you like."
"All right, Mr. King," Aleck responded. "I hope you're going to have a good time yourself," he added, "after all the work you've done to-day. I was some anxious for fear you'd do too much."
"No chance, Aleck, with Doctor Burns's orders what they are. And I didn't do a thing but stand around and talk with the men. I'm feeling fit as a fiddle now." And King drove off in haste.
Back at the church he watched with intense satisfaction Miss Anne Linton's descent of the dusty steps. The September sunshine was hazily bright, the air was warmly caressing, and there were several hours ahead containing such an opportunity as he had not yet had to try at finding out the things he had wanted to know. Not this girl's circumstances—though he should be interested in that topic—not any affairs of hers which she should not choose to tell him; but the future relationship between herself and him—this was what he must establish upon some sort of a definite basis, if it were possible.
Out through the crowded streets into the suburbs, on beyond these to the open country, the car took its way with as much haste as was compatible with necessary caution. Once on the open road, however, and well away, King paid small attention to covering distance. Indeed, when they had reached a certain wooded district, picturesque after the fashion of the semi-mountainous country of that part of the state, he let his car idle after a fashion most unaccustomed with him, who was usually principally concerned with getting from one place to another with the least possible waste of time.
And now he and Anne Linton were talking as they never had had the chance to talk before, and they were exploring each other's minds with the zest of those who have many tastes in common. King was confirming that of which he had been convinced by her letters, that she was thoroughly educated, and that she had read and thought along lines which had intensely interested him ever since he had reached the thinking age. To his delight he found that she could hold her own in an argument with as close reasoning, as logical deduction, as keen interpretation, as any young man he knew. And with it all she showed a certain quality of appreciation of his own side of the question which especially pleased him, because it proved that she possessed that most desirable power, rare among those of her sex as he knew them—the ability to hold herself free from undue bias.
Yet she proved herself a very girl none the less by suddenly crying out at sight of certain tall masses of shell-pink flowers growing by the roadside in a shady nook, and by insisting on getting out to pick them for herself.
"It's so much more fun," she asserted, "to choose one's own than to watch a man picking all the poorest blossoms and leaving the very best."
"Is that what we do?" King asked, his eyes feasting upon the sight of her as she filled her arms with the gay masses, her face eager with her pleasure in them.
"Yes, indeed. Or else you get out a jackknife and hack off great handfuls of them at once, and bring them back all bleeding from your ruthless attack."
"I see. And you gather them delicately, so they don't mind, I suppose. Yet—I was given to understand that 'Susquehanna' died first. I've always wondered what you did to her. I'd banked on her as the huskiest of the lot."
She flashed a quick look at him, compounded of surprise, mirth, and something else whose nature he could not guess. "'Susquehanna' was certainly a wonderful rose," she admitted.
"Yet only next morning she was sadly drooping. I know, because I received a report of her. And I lost my wager."
"You should have known better," she said demurely, her head bent over her armful of flowers, "than to make a wager on the life of a rose sent to a girl who was just coming back to life herself."
"You weren't so gentle with 'Susquehanna,' then, I take it, as you are with those wild things you have there."
"I was not gentle with her at all." Anne lifted her head with a mischievously merry look. "If you must know—I kissed her—hard!"
"Ah!" Jordan King sat back, laughing, with suddenly rising colour. "I thought as much. But I suppose I'm to take it that you did it solely because she was 'Susquehanna'—not because—"
"Certainly because she was her lovely self, cool and sweet and a glorious colour, and she reminded me—of other roses I had known. Flowers to a convalescent are only just a little less reviving than food. 'Susquehanna' cheered me on toward victory."
"Then she died happy, I'm sure."
He would have enjoyed keeping it up with nonsense of this pleasurable sort, but as soon as Anne was back in the car she somehow turned him aside upon quite different ground, just how he could not tell. He found himself led on to talk about his work, and he could not discover in her questioning a trace of anything but genuine interest. No man, however modest about himself, finds it altogether distressing to have to tell a charming girl some of his more exciting experiences. In the days of his early apprenticeship King had spent many months with a contracting engineer of reputation, who was executing a notable piece of work in a wild and even dangerous country, and the young man's memory was full of adventures connected with that period. In contrast with his present work, which was of a much more prosaic sort, it formed a chapter in his history to which it stirred him even yet to turn back, and at Anne's request he was soon launched upon it.
So the afternoon passed amidst the sights and sounds of the September country. And now and again they stopped to look at some fine view from a commanding height, or flew gayly down some inviting stretch of smooth road. By and by they were at an old inn, well up on the top of the world, which King had had in mind from the start, and to which he had taken time, an hour before, to telephone and order things he had hoped she would like. When the two sat down at a table in a quiet corner there were flowers and shining silver upon a snowy cloth, and the food which soon arrived was deliciously cooked, sustaining the reputation the place had among motorists. And in the very way in which Anne Linton filled her position opposite Jordan King was further proof that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, she belonged to his class.
Their table was lighted with shaded candles, and in the soft glow Anne's face had become startlingly lovely. She had tucked a handful of the shell-pink wild flowers into the girdle of her black dress, and their hue was reflected in her cheeks, glowing from the afternoon's drive in the sun. As King talked and laughed, his eyes seldom off her face, he felt the enchantment of her presence grow upon him with every minute that went by.
Suddenly he blurted out a question which had been in his mind all day. "I had a curious experience a while back," he said, "when I first got out into the world. I was in Doctor Burns's car, and we met some people in a limousine, touring. They stopped to ask about the road, and there was a girl in the car who looked like you. But—she didn't recognize me by the slightest sign, so I knew of course it couldn't be you."
He looked straight at Anne as he spoke, and saw her lower her eyes for a moment with an odd little smile on her lips. She did not long evade his gaze, however, but gave him back his look unflinchingly.
"It was I," she said. "But I'm not going to tell you how I came to be there, nor why I didn't bow to you. All I want to say is that there was a reason for it all, and if I could tell you, you would understand."
Well, he could not look into her face and not trust her in whatever she might elect to do, and he said something to that effect. Whereupon she smiled and thanked him, and said she was sorry to be so mysterious. He recalled with a fresh thrill how she had looked at him at that strange meeting, for now that he knew that it was surely she, the great fact which stayed by him was that she had given him that look to remember, given it to him with intent, beyond a doubt.
They came out presently upon a long porch overhanging the shore of a small lake. The September sun was already low, and the light upon the blue hills in the distance was turning slowly to a dusky purple. The place was very quiet, for it was growing late in the tourist season, and the inn was remote from main highways of travel.
"Can't we stay here just a bit?" King asked pleadingly. "It won't take us more than an hour to get back if we go along at a fair pace. We came by a roundabout way."
With each hour that passed he was realizing more fully how he dreaded the end of this unexpected and absorbing adventure. So far none of his attempts to pave the way for other meetings, in other towns to which she might be going in the course of her book selling, had resulted in anything satisfactory. And even now Anne Linton was shaking her head.
"I think I must ask you to take me back now," she said. "I want to come into the house where I am staying not later than I usually do."
So he had to leave the pleasant, vine-clad porch and take his place beside her in the car again. It did not seem to him that he was having a fair chance. But he thought of a plan and proceeded to put it into execution. He drove steadily and in silence until the lights of the nearing city were beginning to show faintly in the twilight, with the sky still rich with colour in the west. Then, at a certain curve in the road far above the rest of the countryside, he brought the car to a standstill.
"I can't bear to go on and end this day," he said in a low voice of regret. "How can I tell when I shall see you again? Do you realize that every time I have said a word about our meeting in the future you've somehow turned me aside? Do you want me to understand that you would rather never see me again?"
Her face was toward the distant lights, and she did not answer for a minute. Then she said slowly: "I should like very much to see you again, Mr. King. But you surely understand that I couldn't make appointments with you to meet me in other towns. This has happened and it has been very pleasant, but it wouldn't do to make it keep happening. Even though I travel about with a book to sell, I—shall never lose the sense of—being under the protection of a home such as other girls have."
"I wouldn't have you lose it—good heavens, no! I only—well—" And now he stopped, set his teeth for an instant, and then plunged ahead. "But there's something I can't lose either, and it's—you!"
She looked at him then, evidently startled. "Mr. King, will you drive on, please?" she said very quietly, but he felt something in her tone which for an instant he did not understand. In the next instant he thought he did understand it.
He spoke hurriedly: "You don't know me very well yet, do you? But I thought you knew me well enough to know that I wouldn't say a thing like that unless I meant all that goes with it—and follows it. You see—I love you. If—if you are not afraid of a man in a plaster jacket—it'll come off some day, you know—I ask you to marry me."
There was a long silence then, in which King felt his heart pumping away for dear life. He had taken the bit between his teeth now, certainly, and offered this girl, of whom he knew less than of any human being in whom he had the slightest interest, all that he had to give. Yet—he was so sure he knew her that, the words once out, he realized that he was glad he had spoken them.
At last she turned toward him. "You are a very brave man," she said, "and a very chivalrous man."
He laughed rather huskily. "It doesn't take much of either bravery or chivalry for a man to offer himself to you."
"It must take plenty of both. You are—what you are, in the big world you live in. And you dare to trust an absolute stranger, whom you have no means of knowing better, with that name of yours. Think, Mr. Jordan King, what that name means to you—and to your mother."
"I have thought. And I offer it to you. And I do know what you are. You can't disguise yourself—any more than the Princess in the fairy tale. Do you think all those notes I had from you at the hospital didn't tell the story? I don't know why you are selling books from door to door—and I don't want to know. What I do understand is—that you are the first of your family to do it!"
"Mr. King," she said gravely, "women are very clever at one thing—cleverer than men. With a little study, a little training, a little education, they can make a brave showing. I have known a shopgirl who, after six months of living with a very charming society woman, could play that woman's part without mistake. And when it came to talking with men of brains, she could even use a few clever phrases and leave the rest of the conversation to them, and they were convinced of her brilliant mind."
"You have not been a shopgirl," he said steadily. "You belong in a home like mine. If you have lost it by some accident, that is only the fortune of life. But you can't disguise yourself as a commonplace person, for you're not. And—I can't let you go out of my life—I can't."
Again silence, while the sunset skies slowly faded into the dusky blue of night, and the lights over the distant city grew brighter and brighter. A light wind, warmly smoky with the pleasant fragrance of burning bonfires, touched the faces of the two in the car and blew small curly strands of hair about Anne Linton's ears.
Presently she spoke. "I am going to promise to write to you now and then," she said, "and give you each time an address where you may answer, if you will promise not to come to me. I am going to tell you frankly that I want your letters."
"You want my letters—but not me?"
"You put more of yourself into your letters than any one else I know. So in admitting that I want your letters I admit that I want yourself—as a good friend."
"No more than that?"
"That's quite enough, isn't it, for people who know each other only as we do?"
"It's not enough for me. If it's enough for you, then—well, it's as I thought."
"What did you think?"
He hesitated, then spoke boldly: "No woman really wants—a mangled human being for her own."
Impulsively she laid her hand on his. Instantly he grasped it. "Please," she said, "will you never say—or think—that, again?"
He gazed eagerly into her face, still duskily visible to his scrutiny. "I won't," he answered, "if you'll tell me you care for me. Oh, don't you?—don't you?—not one bit? Just give me a show of a chance and I'll make you care. I've got to make you care. Why, I've thought of nothing but you for months—dreamed of you, sleeping and waking. I can't stop; it's too late. Don't ask me to stop—Anne—dear!"
No woman in her senses could have doubted the sincerity of this young man. That he was no adept at love making was apparent in the way he stumbled over his phrases; in the way his voice caught in his throat; in the way it grew husky toward the last of this impassioned pleading of his.
He still held her hand close. "Tell me you care—a little," he begged of her silence.
"No girl can be alone as I am now and not be touched by such words," she said very gently after a moment's hesitation. "But—promising to marry you is a different matter. I can't let you rashly offer me so much when I know what it would mean to you to bring home a—book agent to your mother!"
He uttered a low exclamation. "My life is my own, to do with as I please. If I'm satisfied, that's enough. You are what I want—all I want. As for my mother—when she knows you—But we'll not talk of that just yet. What I must know is—do you—can you—care for me—enough to marry me?" His hand tightened on hers, his voice whispered in her ear: "Anne, darling—can't you love me? I want you so—oh—I want you so! Let me kiss you—just once, dear. That will tell you—"
But she drew her hand gently but efficiently away; she spoke firmly, though very low: "No—no! Listen—Jordan King. Sometime—by next spring perhaps, I shall be in the place I call home. When that time comes I will let you know. If you still care to, you may come and see me there. Now—won't you drive on, please?"
"Yes, if you'll let me—just once—once to live on all those months! Anne—"
But, when he would have made action and follow close upon the heels of pleading he found himself gently but firmly prevented by an uplifted small hand which did not quite touch his nearing face. "Ah, don't spoil that chivalry of yours," said her mellow, low voice. "Let me go on thinking you are what I have believed you are all along. Be patient, and prove whether this is real, instead of snatching at what might dull your judgment!"
"It wouldn't dull it—only confirm it. And—I want to make you remember me."
"You have provided that already," she admitted, at which he gave an ejaculation as of relief—and of longing—and possibly of recognition of her handling of the whole—from her point of view—rather difficult situation. At the back of his mind, in spite of his disappointment at being kept at arm's length when he wanted something much more definite, was the recognition that here was precisely the show of spirit and dignity which his judgment approved and admired.
"I'll let you go, if I must; but I'll come to you—if you live in a hovel—if you live in a cave—if you live—Oh, I know how you live!"
"How do I live?" she asked, laughing a little unsteadily, and as if there were tears in her eyes, though of this he could not be sure.
"You live in a plain little house, with just a few of the things you used to have about you; rows of books, a picture or two, and some old china. Things may be a bit shabby, but everything is beautifully neat, and there are garden flowers on the table, perhaps white lilacs!"
"Oh, what a romanticist!" she said, through her soft laughter. "One would think you wrote novels instead of specifications for concrete walls. What if you come and find me living with my older sister, who sews for a living, plain sewing, at a dollar a day? And we have a long credit account at the grocery, which we can't pay? And at night our little upstairs room is full of neighbours, untidy, loud-talking, commonplace women? And the lamp smokes—"
"It wouldn't smoke; you would have trimmed it," he answered, quickly and with conviction. "But, even if it were all like that, you would still be the perfect thing you are. And I would take you away—"
"If you don't drive on, Mr. King," she interposed gently, "you will soon be mentally unfit to drive at all. And I must be back before the darkness has quite fallen. And—don't you think we have talked enough about ourselves?"
"I like that word," he declared as he obediently set the car in motion. "Ourselves—that sounds good to me. As long as you keep me with you that way I'll try to be satisfied. One thing I'm sure of: I've something to work for now that I didn't have this morning. Oh, I know; you haven't given me a thing. But you're going to let me come to see you next spring, and that's worth everything to me. Meanwhile, I'll do my level best—for you."
* * * * *
When he drew up before the door of the church, where, in spite of his entreaties that he be allowed to take her to her lodging place, Anne insisted on being left, he felt, in spite of all he had gained that day, a sinking of the heart. Though the hour was early and the neighbourhood at this time of day a quiet one, and though she assured him that she had not far to go, he was unhappy to leave her thus unaccompanied.
"I wish I could possibly imagine why it must be this way," he said to himself as he stood hat in hand beside his car, watching Anne Linton's quickly departing figure grow more and more shadowy as the twilight enveloped it. "Well, one thing is certain: whatever she does there's a good and sufficient reason; and I trust her."
RED HEADED AGAIN
Crowding his hat upon his head with a vigorous jerk after his reluctant parting with Anne Linton at the church door, Jordan King jumped into his car and made his way slowly through the streets to the hotel where Aleck awaited him. For the first few miles out of the city he continued to drive at a pace so moderate that Aleck more than once glanced surreptitiously at him, wondering if he were actually going to sleep at the wheel. It was not until they were beyond the last environs and far out in the open country that, quite suddenly, the car was released from its unusual restraint and began to fly down the road toward home at the old wild speed.
Somehow or other, after this encounter, King could not settle down to his work till he had seen Red Pepper Burns. He could not have explained why this should be so, for he certainly did not intend to tell his friend of the meeting with Anne Linton, or of the basis upon which his affairs now stood. But he wanted to see Burns with a sort of hunger which would not be satisfied, and he went to look him up one evening when he himself had returned early from his latest trip to the concrete dam.
He found Burns just setting forth on a drive to see a patient in the country, and King invited himself to go with him, running his own car off at one side of the driveway and leaping into Burns's machine with only a gay by-your-leave apology. But he had not more than slid into his seat before he found that he was beside a man whom he did not know.
King had long understood that Red Pepper's significant cognomen stood for the hasty temper which accompanied the coppery hair and hazel eyes of the man with the big heart. But such exhibitions of that temper as King had witnessed had been limited to quick explosions from which the smoke had cleared away almost as soon as the sound of warfare had died upon the air. He was in no way prepared, therefore, to find himself in the company of a man who was so angry that he could not—or would not—speak to one of his best friends.