"Fine night," began the young man lightly, trying again, after two silent miles, to make way against the frost in the air. "I don't know when we've had such magnificent September weather."
"I hope you don't mind my going along. You needn't talk at all, you know—and I'll be quiet, too, if you prefer."
No answer. King was not at all sure that Burns heard him. The car was running at a terrific pace, and the profile of the man at the wheel against the dusky landscape looked as if it were carved out of stone. The young man fell silent, wondering. Almost, he wished he had not been so sure of his welcome, but there was no retreating now.
Five miles into the country they ran, and King soon guessed that their destination might be Sunny Farm, a home for crippled children which was Ellen Burns's special charity, established by herself on a small scale a few years before and greatly grown since in its size and usefulness. Burns was its head surgeon and its devoted patron, and he was accustomed to do much operative work in its well-equipped surgery, bringing out cases which he found in the city slums or among the country poor, with total disregard for any considerations except those of need and suffering. King knew that the place and the work were dearer to the hearts of both Doctor and Mrs. Burns than all else outside their own home, and he began to understand that if anything had gone wrong with affairs there Red Pepper would be sure to take it seriously.
Quite as he had foreseen—since there were few homes on this road, which ran mostly through thickly wooded country—the car rushed on to the big farmhouse, lying low and long in the night, with pleasant lights twinkling from end to end. Burns brought up with a jerk beside the central porch, leaped out, and disappeared inside without a word of explanation to his companion, who sat wondering and looking in through the open door to the wide hall which ran straight through the house to more big porches on the farther side.
Everything was very quiet at this hour, according to the rules of the place, all but the oldest patients being in bed and asleep by eight o'clock. Therefore when, after an interval, voices became faintly audible, there was nothing to prevent their reaching the occupant of the car.
In a front room upstairs at one side of the hall two people were speaking, and presently through the open window Burns was heard to say with incisive sternness: "I'll give you exactly ten minutes to pack your bag and go—and I'll take you—to make sure you do go."
A woman's voice, in a sort of deep-toned wail, answered: "You aren't fair to me, Doctor Burns; you aren't fair! You—"
"Fair!" The word was a growl of suppressed thunder. "Don't talk of fairness—you! You don't know the meaning of the word. You haven't been fair to a single kid under this roof, or to a nurse—or to any one of us—you with your smiles—and your hypocrisy—you who can't be trusted. That's the name for you—She-Who-Can't-Be-Trusted. Go pack that bag, Mrs. Soule; I won't hear another word!"
"Go, I said!"
Outside, in the car, Jordan King understood that if the person to whom Burns was speaking had not been a woman that command of his might have been accompanied by physical violence, and the offending one more than likely have been ejected from the door by the thrust of two vigorous hands on his shoulders. There was that in Burns's tone—all that and more. His wrath was quite evidently no explosion of the moment, but the culmination of long irritation and distrust, brought to a head by some overt act which had settled the offender's case in the twinkling of an eye.
Burns came out soon after, followed by a woman well shrouded in a heavy veil.
King jumped out of the car. "I'm awfully sorry," he tried to say in Burns's ear. "Just leave me and I'll walk back."
"Ride on the running board," was the answer, in a tone which King knew meant that he was requested not to argue about it.
Therefore when the woman—to whom he was not introduced—was seated, he took his place at her feet. To his surprise they did not move off in the direction from which they had come, but went on over the hills for five miles farther, driving in absolute silence, at high speed, and arriving at a small station as a train was heard to whistle far off somewhere in the darkness.
Burns dashed into the station, bought a ticket, and had his passenger aboard the train before it had fairly come to a standstill at the platform. King heard him say no word of farewell beyond the statement that a trunk would be forwarded in the morning. Then the whole strange event was over; the train was only a rumble in the distance, and King was in his place again beside the man he did not know.
* * * * *
Silence again, and darkness, with only the stars for light, and the roadside rushing past as the car flew. Then suddenly, beside the deep woods, a stop, and Burns getting out of the car, with the first voluntary words he had spoken to King that night.
"Sit here, will you? I'll be back—sometime."
"Of course. Don't hurry."
It was an hour that King sat alone, wondering. Where Burns had gone, he had no notion, and no sound came back to give him hint. As far as King knew there was no habitation back there in the depths into which his companion had plunged; he could not guess what errand took him there.
At last came a distant crashing as of one making his way through heavy undergrowth, and the noise drew nearer until at length Burns burst through into the road, wide of the place where he had gone in. Then he was at the car and speaking to King, and his voice was very nearly his own again.
"Missed my trail coming back," he said. "I've kept you a blamed long time, haven't I?"
"Not a bit. Glad to wait."
"Of course that's a nice, kind lie at this time of night, and when you've no idea what you've been waiting for. Well, I'll tell you, and then maybe you'll be glad you assisted at the job."
He got in and drove off, not now at a furious pace, but at an ordinary rate of speed which made speech possible. And after a little he spoke again. "Jord," he said, "you don't know it, but I can be a fiend incarnate."
"I don't believe it," refused King stoutly.
"It's absolutely true. When I get into a red rage I could twist a neck more easily than I can get a grip on myself. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll do it. Years back when I had a rush of blood to the head of that sort I used to take it out in swearing till the atmosphere was blue; but I can't do that any more."
"Why not?" King asked, with a good deal of curiosity.
"I did it once too often—and the last time I sent a dying soul to the other world with my curses in its ears—the soul of a child, Jord. I lost my head because his mother had disobeyed my orders, and the little life was going out when it might have stayed. When I came to myself I realized what I'd done—and I made my vow. Never again, no matter what happened! And I've kept it. But sometimes, as to-night—Well, there's only one thing I can do: keep my tongue between my teeth as long as I can, and then—get away somewhere and smash things till I'm black and blue."
"That's what you've been doing back in the woods?" King ventured to ask.
"Rather. Anyhow, it's evened up my circulation and I can be decent again. I'm not going to tell you what made me rage like the bull of Bashan, for it wouldn't be safe yet to let loose on that. It's enough that I can treat a good comrade like you as I did and still have him stand by."
"I felt a good deal in the way, but I'm glad now I was with you."
"I'm glad, too, if it's only that you've discovered at last what manner of man I am when the evil one gets hold of me. None of us likes to be persistently overrated, you know."
"I don't think the less of you for being angry when you had a just cause, as I know you must have had."
"It's not the being angry; it's the losing control."
"But you didn't."
"Didn't I?" A short, grim laugh testified to Burns's opinion on this point. "Ask that woman I put on the train to-night. Jord, on her arm is a black bruise where I gripped her when she lied to me; I gripped her—a woman. You might as well know. Now—keep on respecting me if you can."
"But I do," said Jordan King.
A STRANGE DAY
"Len, will you go for a day in the woods with me?"
Ellen Burns looked up from the old mahogany secretary which had been hers in the southern-home days. She was busily writing letters, but the request, from her busy husband, was so unusual that it arrested her attention. Her glance travelled from his face to the window and back again.
"I know it's pretty frosty," he acknowledged, "but the sun is bright, and I'll build you a windbreak that'll keep you snug. I'm aching for a day off—with you."
"Artful man! You know I can't resist when you put it that way, though I ought not to leave this desk for two hours. Give me half an hour, and tell me what you want for lunch."
"Cynthia and I'll take care of that. She's putting up the stuff now, subject to your approval."
He was off to the kitchen, and Ellen finished the note she had begun, put away the writing materials and letters, and ran up to her room. By the end of the stipulated half hour she was down again, trimly clad in a suit of brown tweeds, with a big coat for extra warmth and a close hat and veil for breeze resistance.
"That's my girl! You never look prettier to my eyes than when you are dressed like this. It's the real comrade look you have then, and I feel as if we were shoulder to shoulder, ready for anything that might come."
"Just as if it weren't always that," she said in merry reproach as she took her place beside him and the car rolled off.
"It's always great fun to go off with you unexpectedly like this," she went on presently. "It seems so long since we've done it. It's been such a busy year. Is everybody getting well to-day, that you can manage a whole day?"
"All but one, and he doesn't need me just now. I could keep busy, of course, but I got a sudden hankering for a day all alone with you in the woods; and after that idea once struck me I'd have made way for it anyhow, short of actually running away from duty."
"You need it, I know. We'll just leave all care behind and remember nothing except how happy we are to be together. That never grows old, does it, Red?"
"Never!" He spoke almost with solemnity, and gave her a long look as he said it, which she met with one to match it. "You dear!" he murmured. "Len, do you know I never loved you so well as I do to-day?"
"I wonder why?" She was smiling, and her colour, always duskily soft in her cheek, grew a shade warmer. "Is it the brown tweeds?"
"It's the brown tweeds, and the midnight-dark hair, and the beautiful black eyes, and—the lovely soul of my wife."
"Why, Red, dear—and all this so early in the morning? How will you end if you begin like this?"
"I don't know—or care." Something strange looked out of his eyes for a minute. "I know what I want to say now and I'm saying it. So much of the time I'm too busy to make love to my wife, I'm going to do it to-day—all day. I warn you now, so you can sidetrack me if you get tired of it."
"I'm very likely to," she said with a gay tenderness. "To have you make love to me without the chance of a telephone call to break in will be a wonderful treat."
"It sure will to me."
It was a significant beginning to a strange day. They drove for twenty miles, to find a certain place upon a bluff overlooking a small lake of unusual beauty, far out of the way of the ordinary motor traveller. They climbed a steep hill, coming out of the wooded hillside into the full sunlight of the late October day, where spread an extended view of the countryside, brilliant with autumn foliage. The air was crisp and invigorating, and a decided breeze was stirring upon this lofty point, so that the windbreak which Burns began at once to build was a necessary protection if they were to remain long.
An hour of hard work, at which Ellen helped as much as she was allowed, established a snug camp, its back against a great bowlder, its windward side sheltered by a thick barrier of hemlocks cleverly placed, a brisk bonfire burning in an angle where an improvised chimney carried off its smoke and left the corner clear and warm.
"There!" Burns exclaimed in a tone of satisfaction as he threw himself down upon the pine needle-strewn ground at Ellen's side. "How's this for a comfortable nest? Think we can spend six contented hours here, my honey?"
"Six days if you like. How I wish we could!"
"So do I. Jove, how I'd like it! I haven't had enough of you to satisfy me for many a moon. And there's no trying to get it, except by running away like this."
"We ought to do it oftener."
"We ought, but we can't. At least we couldn't. Perhaps now—"
He broke off, staring across the valley where the lake lay to the distant hills, smoky blue and purple in spite of the clear sunlight which lay upon them.
"Well—I might not be able to keep up my activity forever, and the time might come when I should have to take less work and more rest."
"But you said 'now.'"
"Did I? I was just looking ahead a bit. Len, are you hungry, or shall we wait a while for lunch?"
"Don't you want a little sleep before you eat? You haven't had too much of it lately."
"It would taste rather good—if I might take it with my head in your lap."
She arranged her own position so that she could maintain it comfortably, and he extended his big form at full length upon the rug he had brought up from the car and upon which she was already sitting. He smiled up into her face as he laid his head upon her knees, and drew one of her hands into his. "Now your little boy is perfectly content," he said.
* * * * *
It was an hour before he stirred, an hour in which Ellen's eyes had silently noted that which had escaped them hitherto, a curious change in his colour as he lay with closed eyes, a thinness of the flesh over the cheek bones, dark shadows beneath the eyes. Whether he slept she could not be sure. But when he sat up again these signs of wear and tear seemed to vanish at the magic of his smile, which had never been brighter. Nevertheless she watched him with a new sense of anxiety, wondering if there might really be danger of his splendid physique giving way before the rigour of his life.
She noted that he did not eat heartily at lunch, though he professed to enjoy it; and afterward he was his old boyish self for a long time. Then he grew quiet, and a silence fell between the pair while they sat looking off into the distance, the October sunlight on their heads.
And then, quite suddenly, something happened.
"Red! What is the matter?" Ellen asked, startled.
In spite of the summer warmth of the spot in which they sat her husband's big frame had begun to quiver and shake before her very eyes. Evidently he was trying hard to control the strange fit of shivering which had seized him.
"Don't be s-scared, d-dear," he managed to get out between rigid jaws. "It's just a bit of a ch-chill. I'll b-be all right in a m-minute."
"In all this sunshine? Why, Red!" Ellen caught up the big coat she had brought to the place and laid it about his shoulders—"you must have taken cold. But how could you? Come—we must go at once."
"N-not just yet. I'll g-get over this s-soon."
He drew his arms about his knees, clasping them and doing his best to master the shivering, while Ellen watched him anxiously. Never in her life with Red had she seen him cold. His rugged frame, accustomed to all weathers, hardened by years of sleeping beside wide-opened windows in the wintriest of seasons, was always healthily glowing with warmth when others were frankly freezing.
The chill was over presently, but close upon its heels followed reaction, and Red Pepper's face flushed feverishly as he said, with a gallant attempt at a smile: "Sit down again a minute, dear, while I tell you what I'm up against. I wasn't sure, but this looks like it. You've got to know now, because I'm undoubtedly in for a bit of trouble—and that means you, too."
She waited silently, but her hand slipped into his. To her surprise he drew it gently away. "Try the other one," he said. "It's in better shape for holding."
She looked down at the hand he had withdrawn and which now lay upon his knee. It was the firmly knit and sinewy hand she knew so well, the typical hand of the surgeon with its perfectly kept, finely sensitive fingertips, its broad and powerful thumb, its strong but not too thick wrist. Not a blemish marked its fair surface, yet—was it very slightly swollen? She could hardly be sure.
"Dear, tell me," she begged. "What has happened? Are you hurt—or ill—and haven't let me know?"
"I thought it might not amount to anything; it's only a scratch in the palm. But—"
"Red—did you get it—operating? On what?"
He nodded. "Operating. It's the usual way, the thing we all expect to get some day. I've been lucky so far; that's all."
"But—you didn't give yourself a scratch; you never have done that?"
"No, not up to date anyhow. I might easily enough; I just haven't happened to."
"Amy didn't?—She couldn't!"
"She didn't—and couldn't, thank heaven. She'd kill herself if she ever did that unlucky trick. No, she wasn't assisting this time. It was an emergency case, early yesterday morning—one of the other men brought in the case. It was hopeless, but the family wanted us to try."
"What sort of a case, Red?" Ellen's very lips had grown white.
"Now see here, sweetheart, I had to tell you because I knew I was in for a little trouble, but there's no need of your knowing any more than this about it. It was just an accident—nobody's fault. The blamed electric lights went off—for not over ten seconds, but it was the wrong ten seconds. I didn't even know I was scratched till the thing began to set up a row. I don't even yet understand how I got it in the palm. That's unusual."
"Who did it?"
"I'm not going to tell you. He feels badly enough now, and it wasn't his fault. He asked me at the time if he had touched me in the dark and I said no. It was as slight a thing as that. If we'd known it at the time we'd have fixed it up. We didn't, and that's all there was to it."
"You must tell me what sort of a case it was, Red."
He looked down at her. The two pairs of eyes met unflinchingly for a minute, and each saw straight into the depths of the other. Burns thought the eyes into which he gazed had never been more beautiful; stabbed though they were now with intense shock, they were yet speaking to him such utter love as it is not often in the power of man to inspire.
He managed still to talk lightly. "I expect you know. What's the use of using scientific terms? The case was rottenly septic; never mind the cause. But—I'm going to be able to throw the thing off. Just give me time."
"Let me see it, Red."
Reluctantly he turned the hand over, showing the small spot in which was quite clearly the beginning of trouble. "Doesn't look like much, does it?" he said.
"And it is not even protected."
"What was the use? The infection came at the time."
"And you did all that work in the windbreak. Oh, you ought not to have done that!"
"Nonsense, dear. I wanted to, and I did it mostly with my left hand anyhow."
"Your blood must be of the purest," she said steadily.
"It sure is. I expect I'll get my reward now for letting some things alone that many men care for, and that I might have cared for, too—if it hadn't been for my mother—and my wife."
"You are strong—strong."
"I am—a regular Titan. Yes, we'll fight this thing through somehow; only I have to warn you it'll likely be a fight. I'll go to the hospital."
"No!" It was a cry.
"No? Better think about that. Hospital's the best place for such cases."
"It can't be better than home—when it's like ours. We'll fight our fight there, Red—and nowhere else."
He put one hand to his arm suddenly with an involuntary movement and a contraction of the brow. But in the next breath he was smiling again. "Perhaps we'd better be getting back," he admitted. "My head's beginning to be a trifle unsteady. But, I'm glad a thousand times we've had this day."
"Was it wise to take it, dear?"
"I'm sure of it. What difference could it make? Now we've had it—to remember."
She shivered, there in the warm October sunlight. A chill seemed suddenly to have come into the air, and to have struck her heart.
No more words passed between them until they were almost home. Then Ellen said, very quietly: "Red, would you be any safer in the hospital than at home?"
"Not safer, but where it would be easier for all concerned, in case things get rather thick."
"Easier for you, too?"
He looked at her. "Do I have to speak the truth?"
"You must. If you would rather be there—"
"I would rather be as near you as I can stay. There's no use denying that. But Van Horn wants me at the hospital."
"Is he to look after you?"
"Yes. Queer, isn't it? But he wants the job. No," at the unspoken question in her face, "it wasn't Van. But he came in just as the trouble began to show and—well, you know we're the best of friends now, and I think I'd rather have him—and Buller, good old Buller—than anybody else."
"Oh, but you won't need them both?" she cried, and then bit her lip.
"Of course not. But you know how the profession are—if one of them gets down they all fall over one another to offer their services."
"They may all offer them, but they will have to come to you. You are going to stay at home. You shall have the big guest room—made as you want it. Just tell me what to do—"
"You may as well strip it," he told her quietly. "And—Len, I'd rather be right there than anywhere else in the world. I think, when it's ready, I'll just go to bed. I'd bluff a bit longer if I could, but—perhaps—"
"I'm sure you ought," she said as quietly as he. But she was very glad when the car turned in at the driveway.
Two hours later, under her direction and with her efficient help, Cynthia and Johnny Carruthers in medical parlance had "stripped" the guest room, putting it into the cleared bare order most useful for the purpose needed. If Ellen's heart was heavy as she saw the change made she let nothing show. And when, presently, she called her husband from the couch where he had lain, feverish and beginning to be tortured by pain, and put him between the cool, fresh sheets, she had her reward in the look he gave, first at the room and then at her.
"Decks all cleared for action," he commented with persistent cheerfulness, "and the captain on deck. Well—let them begin to fire; we're ready. All I know is that I'm glad I'm on your ship. Just pray, Len, will you—that I keep my nerve?"
This was the beginning, as Burns himself had foreseen, of that which proved indeed to be a long fight. Strong of physique though he unquestionably was, pure as was the blood which flowed in his veins, the poison he had received unwittingly and therefore taken no immediate measures to combat was able to overcome his powers of resistance and take shattering hold upon his whole organism. There followed day after day and week after week of prostrating illness, during which he suffered much torturing pain in the affected hand and arm, with profound depression of mind and body, though he bore both as bravely as was to have been expected. Two nurses, Amy Mathewson and Selina Arden, alternated in attendance upon him, day and night, and Ellen herself was always at hand to act as substitute, or to share in the care of the patient when it was more than ordinarily exacting.
As she watched the powerful form of her husband grow daily weaker before the assaults of one of the most treacherous enemies modern science has to face, she felt herself in the grip of a great dread which could not be for an hour thrown off. She did not let go of her courage; but beneath all her serenity of manner—remarked often in wonder by the nurses and physicians—lay the fear which at times amounted to a conviction that for her had come the end of earthly happiness.
She was able to appreciate none the less the devoted and skillful attention given to Burns by his colleagues. Dr. Max Buller had long been his attached friend and ally, and of him such service as he now rendered was to have been counted on. But concerning Dr. James Van Horn, although Ellen well knew how deeply he felt in Burns's debt for having in all probability saved his life only a few months earlier, she had had no notion what he had to offer in return. She had not imagined how warm a heart really lay beneath that polished urbanity of manner with its suggestion of coldness in the very tone of his voice—hitherto. She grew to feel a distinct sense of relief and dependence every time he entered the door, and his visits were so many that it came to seem as if his motor were always standing at the curb.
"You know, Len, Van's a tremendous trump," Burns himself said to her suddenly, in the middle of one trying night when Doctor Van Horn had looked in unexpectedly to see if he might ease his patient and secure him a chance of rest after many hours of pain. "It seems like a queer dream, sometimes, to open my eyes and see him sitting there, looking at me as if I were a younger brother and he cared a lot."
"He does care," Ellen answered positively. "You would be even surer of it if you could hear him talk with me alone. He speaks of you as if he loved you—and what is there strange about that? Everybody loves you, Red. I'm keeping a list of the people who come to ask about you and send you things. You haven't heard of half of them. And to-day Franz telephoned to offer to come and play for you some night when you couldn't sleep with the pain. He begged to be allowed to do the one thing he could to show his sympathy."
"Bless his heart! I'd like to hear him. I often wish my ears would stretch to reach him in his orchestra." Burns moved restlessly as he spoke. A fresh invasion of trouble in his hand and arm was reaching a culmination, and no palliative measures could ease him long. "You've no idea, Len," he whispered as Ellen's hand strayed through his heavy coppery locks with the soothing touch he loved well, "what it means to me to have you stand by me like this. If I give in now it won't be for want of your supporting courage."
"It's you who have the courage, Red—wonderful courage."
He shook his head. "It's just the thought of you—and the Little-Un—and Bobby Burns—that's all. If it wasn't for you—"
He turned away his head. She knew the thing he had to fear—the thing she feared for him. Though his very life was in danger it was not that which made the threatening depths of black shadow into which he looked. If he should come out of this fight with a crippled right hand there would be no more work for him about which he could care. Neither Van Horn nor Buller would admit that there was danger of this; but Grayson, who had seen the hand yesterday; Fields, who was making blood counts for the case; Lenhart and Stevenson, who had come to make friendly calls every few days and who knew from Fields how things were going—all were shaking their heads and saying in worried tones that it looked pretty "owly" for the hand, and that Van Horn and Buller would do well if they pulled Burns through at all.
Outside of the profession Jordan King was closest in touch with Burns's case. He persistently refused to believe that all would not come out as they desired. He came daily, brought all sorts of offerings for the patient's comfort, and always ran up to see his friend, hold his left hand for a minute and smile at him, without a hint in his ruddy face of the wrench at the heart he experienced each time at sight of the steadily increasing devastation showing in the face on the pillow.
"You're a trump, Jord," Burns said weakly to him one morning. King had just finished a heart-warming report of certain messages brought from some of Burns's old chronic patients in the hospital wards, where it was evident the young man had gone on purpose to collect them. "Every time I look at you I think what an idiot I was ever to imagine you needed me to put backbone into you, last spring."
"But I did—and you did it. And if you think I showed more backbone to go through a thing that hardly took it out of me at all than you to stand this devilish slow torture and weakness—well, it just shows you've lost your usual excellent judgment. See?"
"I see that you're one of the best friends a man ever had. There's only one other who could do as much to keep my head above water—and he isn't here."
"Why isn't he? Who is he?" demanded King eagerly. "Tell me and I'll get him."
"No, no. He could do no more than is being done. I merely get to thinking of him and wishing I could see him. It's my old friend and chum of college days, John Leaver, of Baltimore."
"The big surgeon I've heard you and Mrs. Burns speak of? Great heavens, he'd come in a minute if he knew!"
"I've no doubt he would, but I happen to know he's abroad just now."
King studied his friend's face, saw that Burns was already weary with the brief visit, and soon went away. But it was to a consultation with Mrs. Burns as to the possibility of communicating with Doctor Leaver.
"I wrote his wife not long ago of Red's illness," Ellen said, "but I didn't state all the facts; somehow I couldn't bring myself to do that. They are in London; they go over every winter. I had a card only yesterday from Charlotte giving a new address and promising to write soon."
"Wasn't he the man you told me of who had a bad nervous breakdown a few years ago? The one Red had stay with you here until he got back his nerve?"
"Yes; and he has been even a more brilliant operator ever since."
"I remember the whole story; there was a lot of thrill in it as you told it. How Red made him rest and build up and then fairly forced him to operate, against his will, to prove to him that he had got his nerve back? Jove! Do you think that man wouldn't cross the ocean in a hurry if he thought he could lift his finger to help our poor boy?"
King's speech had taken on such a fatherly tone of late that Ellen was not surprised to hear him thus allude to his senior.
"Yes, Jack Leaver would do anything for Red, but I know Red would never let us summon him from so far."
"Summon him from the antipodes—I would. And we don't have to consult Red. His wish is enough. Leave it to me, Mrs. Burns; I'll take all the responsibility."
She smiled at him, feeling that she must not express the very natural and unwelcome thought that to call a friend from so far away was to admit that the situation was desperate. Burns had said many times that Doctor Van Horn was using the very latest and most acceptable methods for his relief, and that his confidence in him was absolute. None the less she knew that the very sight of John Leaver's face would be like that of a shore light to a ship groping in a heavy fog.
Within twenty-four hours Jordan King came dashing in to wave a cable message before her. "Read that, and thank heaven that you have such friends in the world."
At a glance her eyes took in the pregnant line, and the first tears she had shed leaped to her eyes and misted them, so that she had to wipe them away to read the welcome words again.
We sail Saturday. Love to Doctor and Mrs. Burns.
A week later, Burns, waking from an uneasy slumber, opened his eyes upon a new figure at his bedside. For a moment he stared uncomprehending into the dark, distinguished face of his old friend, then put out his uninjured hand with a weak clutch.
"Are you real, Jack?" he demanded in a whisper.
"As real as that bedpost. And mighty glad to see you, my dear boy. They tell me the worst is over, and that you're improving. That's worth the journey to see."
"You didn't come from—England?"
"Of course I did. I'd come from the end of the world, and you know it! Why in the name of friendship didn't somebody send me word before?"
"Who sent it now?"
"That's a secret. I hoped to be able to do something for you, Red, just to even up the score a little, but the thing that's really been done has been by yourself. You put your own clean blood into this tussle and it's brought you through."
"I don't feel so very far through yet, but I suppose I'm not quite so much of a dead fish as I was a week ago. There's only one thing that bothers me."
"I can guess. Well, Red, I saw Doctor Van Horn on my way upstairs, and he tells me you're going to get a good hand out of this. He'll be up shortly to dress it, and then I may see for myself."
"That will be a comfort. I've wished a thousand times you might, though nobody could have given me better care than these bully fellows have. But I've a sort of superstition that one look at trouble from Jack Leaver is enough to make it cut and run."
By and by Dr. John Leaver came downstairs and joined his wife and Ellen. His face was grave with its habitual expression, but it lighted as the two looked up. "He's had about as rough a time as a man can and weather it," he said; "but I think the trouble is cornered at last, and there'll be no further outbreak. And the hand will come out better than could have been expected. He will be able to use it perfectly in time. But it will take him a good while to build up. He must have a sea voyage—a long one. That will do you all kinds of good, too," he added, his keen eyes on the face of his friend's wife.
"She looks etherealized," Charlotte Leaver said, studying Ellen affectionately. "You've had a long, anxious time, haven't you, Len, darling?" Mrs. Leaver went on. "And we knew nothing—we who care more than anybody in the world. You can't imagine how glad we are to be here now, even though we can't help a bit."
"You can help, you do. And I know what it means to Red to have his beloved friend come to him."
"Then I hope you know what it means to me to come," said John Leaver.
The Leavers stayed for several days, while Burns continued to improve, and before they left they had the pleasure of seeing him up and partially dressed, the bandages on his injured hand reduced in extent, and his eyes showing his release from torture. His face and figure gave touching evidence of what he had endured, but he promised them that before they saw him again he would be looking like himself.
"I wonder," Burns said, on the March day when he first came downstairs and dropped into his old favourite place in a corner of the big blue couch, "whether any other fellow was ever so pampered as I. I look like thirty cents, but I feel, in spite of this abominable limpness, as if my stock were worth a hundred cents on the dollar. And when we get back from the ocean trip I expect to be a regular fighting Fijian."
"You look better every day, dear," Ellen assured him. "And when it's all over, and you have done your first operation, you'll come home and say you were never so happy in your life."
Burns laughed. He looked over at Jordan King, who had come in on purpose to help celebrate the event of the appearance downstairs. "She promises me an operation as she would promise the Little-Un a sweetie, eh? Well, I can't say she isn't right. I was a bit tired when this thing began, but when I get my strength back I know how my little old 'lab' and machine shop will call to me. Just to-day I got an idea in my head that I believe will work out some day. My word, I know it will!"
The other two looked at each other, smiling joyously.
"He's getting well," said Ellen Burns.
"No doubt of it in the world," agreed Jordan King.
"Sit down here where I can look at you both," commanded the convalescent. "Jord, isn't my wife something to look at in that blue frock she's wearing? I like these things she melts into evenings, like that smoky blue she has on now. It seems to satisfy my eyes."
"Not much wonder in that. She would satisfy anybody's eyes."
"That's quite enough about me," Ellen declared. "The thing that's really interesting is that your eyes are brighter to-night, Red, than they have been for two long months. I believe it's getting downstairs."
"Of course it is. Downstairs has been a mythical sort of place for a good while. I couldn't quite believe in it. I've thought a thousand times of this blue couch and these pillows. I've thought of that old grand piano of yours, and of how it would seem to hear you play it again. Play for me now, will you, Len?"
She sat down in her old place, and his eyes watched her hungrily, as King could plainly see. To the younger man the love between these two was something to study and believe in, something to hope for as a wonderful possibility in his own case.
When Ellen stopped playing Burns spoke musingly. Speech seemed a necessity for him to-night—happiness overflowed and must find expression.
"I've had a lot of stock advice for my patients that'll mean something I understand for myself now," he said. He sat almost upright among the blue pillows, his arm outstretched along the back of the couch, his long legs comfortably extended. It was no longer the attitude of the invalid but of the well man enjoying earned repose. "I wonder how often I've said to some tired mother or too-busy housewife who longed for rest: 'If you were to become crippled or even forbidden to work any more and made to rest for good, how happy these past years would seem to you when you were tired because you had accomplished something.' I can say that now with personal conviction of its truth. It looks to me as if to come in dog-tired and drop into this corner with the memory of a good job done would be the best fun I've ever had."
"I know," King nodded. "I learned that, too, last spring."
"Of course you did. And now, instead of going to work, I've got to take this blamed sea voyage of a month. Van and Leaver are pretty hard on me, don't you think? The consolation in that, though, is that my wife needs it quite as much as I do. I want to tan those cheeks of hers. Len, will you wear the brown tweeds on shipboard?"
"Of course I will. How your mind seems to run to clothes to-night. What will Your Highness wear himself?"
"The worst old clothes I can find. Then when I get back I'll go to the tailor's and start life all over again, with the neatest lot of stuff he can make me—a regular honeymoon effect." Burns laughed, lifting his chin with the old look of purpose and power touching his thin face.
"I'm happy to-night," he went on; "there's no use denying it. I'm not sorry, now it's over, I've had this experience, for I've learned some things I've never known before and wouldn't have found out any other way. I know now what it means to be down where life doesn't seem worth much, and how it feels to have the other fellow trying to pull you out. I know how the whisper of a voice you love sounds to you in the middle of a black night, when you think you can't bear another minute of pain. Oh, I know a lot of things I can't talk about, but they'll make a difference in the future. If I don't have more patience with my patients it'll be because memory is a treacherous thing, and I've forgotten what I have no business to forget—because the good Lord means me to remember!"
WHITE LILACS AGAIN
It was the first day of May. Burns and Ellen had not been at home two days after their return from the long, slow sea voyage which had done wonders for them both, when Burns received a long-distance message which sent him to his wife with his eyes sparkling in the old way.
"Great luck, Len!" he announced. "I'm to get my first try-out in operating, after the late unpleasantness, on an out-of-town case. Off in an hour with Amy for a place two hundred miles away in a spot I never heard of—promises to be interesting. Anyhow, I feel like a small boy with his first kite, likely to go straight off the ground hitched to the tail of it."
"I'm glad for you, Red. And I wish"—she bit her lip and turned away—"it may be a wonderful case."
"That's not what you started to say." He came close, laid a hand on either side of her face, and turned it up so that he could look into it, his lips smiling. "Tell me. I'll wager I know what you wish."
"No, you can't."
"That you could go with me—to take Amy's place and assist."
A flood of colour poured over her face, such a telltale, significant colour as he had rarely seen there before. She would have concealed it from him, but he was merciless. A strange, happy look came into his own face. "Len, don't hide that from me. It's the one thing I've always wished you'd show, and you never have. I'm such a jealous beggar myself I've wanted you to care—that way, and I've never been able to discover a trace of it."
"But I'm not really jealous in the way you think. How could I be?—with not the slightest cause. It's only—envy of Amy because she is—so necessary to you. O Red, I never, never meant to say it!"
"I'd rather hear you say it than anything else on earth. I'd like to hear you own that you were mad with jealousy, because I've been eaten up with it myself ever since I first laid eyes on you. Not that you've ever given me a reason for it, but because it's my red-headed nature. Now I must go; but I'll take your face with me, my Len, and if I do a good piece of work it'll be for love of you."
"And of your work, Red. I'm not jealous of that; I'm too proud of it."
"I know you are, bless you."
Then he was off, all his old vigour showing in his preparations for the hurried trip, and as he went away Ellen felt as might those on shore watching a lusty life-saver put off in a boat to pull for a sinking ship.
* * * * *
Burns and Amy Mathewson were away three days, during which Red kept Ellen even more closely in touch with himself than usual, by means of the long wire. When he returned it was with the bearing of a conqueror, for the case had tried his regained mettle and he had triumphed more surely than he could have hoped.
"The hand's as good as new, Len, and the touch not a particle affected. Van's a trump, and I stopped on the way out to tell him so. He was pleased as a boy; think of it, Len—my ancient enemy and my new good friend! And the case is fine as silk. They've a good local man to look after it till I come again, which will be Thursday. And I'm going to drive there—and take you—and Jord King and Jord's mother. How's that for a plan?"
"It sounds very jolly, Red, but will the Kings go? And why Mrs. King? Will she care to?"
"Because I've found some old friends of hers in the place, though I'll not tell her whom. Besides, I want to keep on her right side, for reasons. And Jord's back has been bothering him lately and I've prescribed a rest. We'll take the Kings' limousine and go in state. It'll be arranged in five minutes, see if it won't. By the way, Jord says Aleck's new arm is really going to do him some service besides improving his looks."
He pulled her away to the telephone and held her on his knee while he talked to Jordan King, giving her a laughing hug, when, to judge by the things he was saying into the transmitter, he had brought about his effect.
"Yes, I know I sound crazy," he admitted to King, "but you must give something to a man who has been buried alive and dug up again. I've taken this notion and I'm going to carry it through. Mrs. King will enjoy every foot of the way, and you and I will jump out and pick apple blossoms for the ladies whenever they ask. It's a peach of a plan, and the whole idea is to minister to my pride. I want to arrive in a great prince of a car like yours and impress the natives down there. See? Yes, go and put it up to your mother, and then call me up. Don't you dare say no!"
"No wonder he's astonished," Ellen commented while they waited. "For you, who are never content except when you're at the steering wheel, to ask Jordan, who is another just like you, to elect to travel in a limousine with a liveried chauffeur—well, I admit I am puzzled myself."
"Why, it's simple enough. I want to take you and Mrs. Alexander King. She wouldn't go a step in Jord's roadster at his pace. And if she would, and we went in pairs, Jord would be always wanting to change off and take you with him—and as you very well know I'm not made that way. Stop guessing, Len, and prepare yourself to break down Mrs. King's opposition, if she makes any—which I don't expect."
Mrs. King made no opposition, or none which her son thought best to convey to the Burnses, and the trip was arranged.
"Is there a good hotel in the place?" Ellen asked.
"No hotel within miles—nor anything else. We're to stay overnight with the family. You won't mind. They can put us up pretty comfortably, even if not just as we're accustomed to be." Burns's eyes were twinkling, and he refused to say more on the subject.
It did not matter. It was early May, and the world was a wilderness of budding life, and to go motoring seemed the finest way possible to get into sympathy with spring at her loveliest. And although Ellen would have much preferred to drive alone with her husband in his own car, she found herself anticipating the affair, as it was now arranged, with not a little curiosity to stimulate her interest. Mrs. Alexander King, for her son's sake, was sure to be a complaisant and agreeable companion, and Ellen was glad to feel that such a pleasure might come her way.
"This is great stuff!" exulted Jordan King early on Thursday morning as the big, shining car, standing before Burns's door, received its full complement of passengers. "Mother and I are tremendously honoured, aren't we, mother?"
"Even though we had the audacity to invite ourselves and ask for this magnificent car?" Burns inquired, grasping Mrs. Alexander King's gloved hand, and smiling at her as her delicate face was lifted to him with a look of really charming greeting. He knew well enough that she liked him in spite of certain pretty plain words he had said to her in the past, and he had prepared himself to make her like him still better on this journey together. "I'm the one who is responsible, you know. I've merely broken out in a new place."
"We appreciate your caring to include us in your party," Mrs. King said cordially. "The car is all too little used, for Jordan prefers his own, and I go about mostly in the small coupe. I have never taken so long a drive as you plan, and it will doubtless be a pleasant experience. I see so little of my son I am happy to be with him on such a trip."
"Altogether we're mightily pleased with the whole arrangement," declared Jordan King, regarding Mrs. Burns with high approval. "Mother, did you ever see a more distinguished-looking pair?"
"In spite of our brown faces?" Ellen challenged him gayly.
"My wife's face simply turns peachy when she tans. I look like an Indian," observed Burns, bestowing certain professional luggage where it would be most out of the way.
"That's it; you've said it. Great Indian Chief go make big medicine for sick squaw; take along whole wigwam; wigwam tickled to death to go!" And King settled himself with an air of complete satisfaction.
He had had no word from Anne Linton for nearly two months, and was as restless as a young man may well be when his affairs do not go to please him. She had kept her promise and had written from time to time, but though her letters were the most interesting human documents King had ever dreamed a woman could write, they were, from the point of view of the suitor, extremely unsatisfying. As she had agreed, she had given him with each letter an address to which he might send an immediate reply, and he had made the most of each such opportunity; but, since it takes two to seal a bargain, he had not been able to feel his cause much advanced by all his efforts. He had welcomed this chance to accompany Burns as a diversion from his restless thoughts, for a few days' interval in his engineering plans, caused by a delay in the arrival of certain necessary material, was making him wild with eagerness for something—anything—to happen.
Two hundred miles in a high-powered car over finely macadamized roads are more quickly and comfortably covered in these days than a thirty-mile drive behind horses over such country highways as existed a decade ago. Aleck, at the wheel, his master's orders in his willing ears from time to time, gradually accelerated his rate of speed until by the end of the first two hours he was carrying his party along at a pace which Mrs. King had frequently condemned as one which would be to her unbearable. Burns and King exchanged glances more than once as the car flew past other travellers, and the good lady, talking happily with Ellen or absorbed in some far-reaching view, took no note of the fact that she was annihilating space with a smooth swiftness comparable only to the flight of some big, strong-winged bird.
"Over halfway there, and plenty of time for lunch," Burns announced. "And here's the best roadside inn in the country. If it hadn't been for our coming this way I should have suggested bringing our own hampers, but I wanted you to have some of this little Englishman's brook trout and hot scones."
Mrs. King enjoyed that hot and delicious meal as she had seldom enjoyed a luncheon anywhere. As she sat at the faultlessly served table, her eyes travelling from the wide view at the window to the faces of her companions, she grew more and more cheerful in manner, and was even heard to laugh softly aloud now and then at one of Burns's gay quips, turning to Ellen in appreciation of her husband's wit, or to Jordan himself as he came back at his friend with a rejoinder worth hearing.
"This is doing my mother a world of good," King said in Ellen's ear as the party came out on a wide porch to rest for a half hour before taking to the car again. "I don't know when I've seen her expand like this and seem really to be forgetting her cares and sorrows."
"It's a pleasure to watch her," Ellen agreed. "Red vowed this morning that he meant to bring about that very thing, and he's succeeding much better than I had dared to hope."
"Who wouldn't be jolly in a party where Red was one? Did you ever see the dear fellow so absolutely irresistible? Sometimes I think there's a bit of hypnotism about Red, he gets us all so completely."
"What are you two whispering about?" said a voice behind them, and they turned to look into the brilliant hazel eyes both were thinking of at the moment.
"You," King answered promptly.
"Rebelling against the autocracy of the Indian Chief?"
"No. Prostrating ourselves before his bulky form. He's some Indian to-day."
"He will be before the day is over, I promise you. He'll call a council around the campfire to-night, and plenty pipes will be smoked. Everybody do as Big Chief says, eh?"
"Sure thing, Geronimo; that's what we came for."
"You don't know what you came for. Absolutely preposterous this thing is—surgeon going to visit his case and bringing along a lot of people who don't know a mononuclear leucocyte from an eosinophile cell."
"Do you know a vortex filament from a diametral plane?" demanded King.
Burns laughed. "Come, let's be off! I must spare half an hour to show Mrs. King a certain view somewhat off the main line."
The afternoon was gone before they could have believed it, detours though there were several, as there usually are in a road-mending season. As the car emerged from a long run through wooded country and passed a certain landmark carefully watched for by Red Pepper, he spoke to Aleck.
"Run slowly now, please. And be ready to turn to the left at a point that doesn't show much beforehand."
They were proceeding through somewhat sparsely settled country, though marked here and there by comfortable farmhouses of a more than ordinarily attractive type—apparently homes of prosperous people with an eye to appearances. Then quite suddenly the car, rounding a turn, came into a different region, one of cultivated wildness, of studied effects so cleverly disguised that they would seem to the unobservant only the efforts of nature at her best. A long, heavily shaded avenue of oaks, with high, untrimmed hedges of shrubbery on each side, curved enticingly before them, and all at once, Burns, looking sharply ahead, called, "There, by that big pine, Aleck—to the left." In a minute more the car turned in at a point where a rough stone gateway marked the entrance to nothing more extraordinary than a pleasant wood.
"Patient lives in a hut in the forest?" King inquired with interest. "Or a rich man's hunting lodge?"
"You'll soon see." Burns's eyes were ahead; a slight smile touched his lips.
The car swept around curve after curve of the wood, came out upon the shore of a small lake and, skirting it halfway round, plunged into a grove of pines. Then, quite without warning, there showed beyond the pines a long, white-plumed row of small trees of a sort unmistakable—in May. Beside the row lay a garden, gay with all manner of spring flowers, and farther, through the trees, began to gleam the long, low outlines of a great house.
"Stop just here, Aleck, for a minute," Burns requested, and the car came to a standstill. Burns looked at Jordan King.
"Ever see that row of white lilacs before, Jord?" he asked with interest.
King was staring at it, a strange expression of mingled perplexity and astonishment upon his fine, dark face. After a minute he turned to Burns.
"What—when—where—" he stammered, and stopped, gazing again at the lilac hedge and the box-bordered beds with their splashes of bright colour.
"Well, I don't know what, when, or where, if you don't," Burns returned.
But evidently King did know, or it came to him at that instant, for he set his lips in a certain peculiar way which his friend understood meant an attempt at quick disguise of strong feeling. He gave his mother one glance and sat back in his seat. Then he looked again at Burns. "What is this, anyway?" he asked rather sternly. "The home of your patient, or a show place you've stopped to let us look at?"
"My patient's in the house up there. Drive on, Aleck, please. They'll be expecting us at the back of the house, where the long porches are, and where they're probably having afternoon tea at this minute." He glanced at his watch. "Happy time to arrive, isn't it?"
Ellen found herself experiencing a most extraordinary sensation of excitement as the car rounded the drive and approached the porch, where she could see a number of people gathered. The place was not more imposing than many with which she was familiar, and if it had been the home of one of the world's greatest there would have been nothing disconcerting to her in the prospect. But something in her husband's manner assured her that he had been preparing a surprise for them all, and she had no means of guessing what it might be. The little hasty sketch of lilac trees against a spring sky, though she had seen it, had naturally made no such impression upon her as upon King, and she did not even recall it now.
The car rolled quietly up to the porch steps, and immediately a tall figure sprang down them. "It's Gardner Coolidge, my old college friend, Len," Burns said in his wife's ear. "Remember him?" The afternoon sunlight shone upon the smooth, dark hair and thin, aristocratic face of a man who spoke eagerly, his quick glance sweeping the occupants of the car.
"Mrs. King! This is a great pleasure, I assure you—a great pleasure. Mrs. Burns—we are delighted. And this is your son, Mrs. King—welcome to you, my dear sir! Red, no need to say we're glad to see you back. Let me help you, Mrs. King. Don't tell me you wouldn't have known me; that would be a blow. Alicia"—he turned to the graceful figure approaching across the porch to meet the elder lady of the party as she came up the steps upon the arm of the man who had taken her from the car—"Mrs. King, this is my wife."
Red Pepper Burns, laughing and shaking hands warmly with Alicia Coolidge, was watching Mrs. Alexander King as, after the first look of bewilderment, she cried out softly with pleasure at recognizing the son of an old friend.
"But it has all been kept secret from me," she was saying. "I had no possible idea of where we were coming, and I am sure my son had not." She turned to that son, but she could not get his attention, for the reason that his astonished gaze was fastened upon a person who had at that moment appeared in the doorway and paused there.
RED'S DEAREST PATIENTS
Jordan King looked, and looked again, and it was a wonder he did not rub his eyes to make sure he was fully awake. As he looked the figure in the doorway came forward. It was that of a girl in a white serge coat and skirt, with a smart little white hat upon her richly ruddy hair, and the look, from head to foot, of one who had just returned to a place where she belonged. And the next instant Anne Linton was greeting Ellen Burns and coming up to be presented to Mrs. Alexander King.
"This is my little sister, Mrs. King," said Gardner Coolidge, smiling, and putting his arm about the white-serge-clad shoulders. "She is your hostess, you know. Alicia and I are only making her a visit."
"I am so glad you are here, Mrs. King," said a voice Jordan King well remembered, and Anne Linton's eyes looked straight into those of her oldest guest, whose own were puzzled.
"I think," said Mrs. King, holding the firm young hand which she had taken, "I have seen you before, my dear, though my memory—"
"Yes, Mrs. King," the girl replied—and there was not the smallest shadow of triumph discernible in her tone or look—"you have. I came to see your son in the hospital, with Mrs. Burns, just before I left. It's not strange you have forgotten me, for we went away almost at once. We are so delighted to have you come to see us. Isn't it delightful that you knew our mother so well at school?"
Well, it came Jordan King's turn in the end, although Anne Linton, so extraordinarily labelled "hostess" by her brother, discharged every duty of greeting her other guests before she turned to him. Meanwhile he had stood, frankly staring, hat in hand and growing colour on his cheek, while his eyes seemed to grow darker and darker under his heavily marked brows. When Anne turned to him he had no words for her, and hardly a smile, though his good breeding came to his rescue and put him through the customary forms of action, dazed though he yet was. He found himself presented to other people on the porch, whom he recognized as undoubtedly those whom he had met in the passing car at the time when he was in doubt as to Anne's identity. Her aunt, uncle, and cousins they proved to be, though the young man whom he remembered as being present on that occasion was now happily absent. Jordan King found himself completely reconciled to this at once.
"How is our patient?" Burns said to Anne at the first opportunity. "Shall I go up at once?"
"Oh, please wait a minute, Doctor Burns; I want to go with you, and I must see my guests having some tea first."
There followed, for King, what seemed an interminable interval of time, during which he was forced to sit beside one of Anne's girl cousins—and a very pretty girl she was, too, only he didn't seem able to appreciate it—drinking tea, and handing sugar, and doing all the proper things. In the midst of this Anne vanished with Red Pepper at her heels, leaving the tea table to Mrs. Coolidge. At this point, however, King found himself glad to listen to Miss Stockton.
"I don't suppose anybody in the world but Anne Linton Coolidge would have thought of sending two hundred miles for a surgeon to operate on her housekeeper," she was saying when his attention was arrested by her words. "But she thinks such a lot of Timmy—Mrs. Timmins—she would pay any sum to keep her in the world. She was Anne's nurse, you see, and of course Anne is fond of her. And I'm sure we're glad she did send for him, for it gave us the pleasure of meeting Doctor Burns, and of course we understand now why she thought nobody else in the world could pull Timmy through. He's such an interesting personality, don't you think so? We're all crazy about him."
"Oh, yes, everybody's crazy about him," King admitted readily. "And certainly two hundred miles isn't far to send for a surgeon these days."
"Of course not—only I don't suppose it's done every day for one's housekeeper, do you? But nobody ever knows what Anne's going to do—least of all now, when she's just back, after the most extraordinary performance." She stopped, looking at him curiously. "I suppose you know all about it—much more than we, in fact, since you met her when she was in that hospital. Did you ever hear of a rich girl's doing such a thing anyway? Going off to sell books for a whole year just because"—she stopped again, and bit her lip, then went on quickly: "Everybody knows about it, and you would be sure to hear it sooner or later. Doctor Burns knows, anyhow, and—"
"Please don't tell me anything I oughtn't to hear," Jordan's sense of honour impelled him to say. He recognized the feminine type before him, and though he longed to know all about everything he did not want to know it in any way Anne would not like.
But there was no stopping the fluffy-haired young person. "Really, everybody knows; the countryside fairly rang with it a year ago. You might even have read it in the papers, only you wouldn't remember. A girl book agent killed herself in Anne's house here because Anne wouldn't buy her book. Did you ever hear of anything so absurd as Anne's thinking it was her fault? Of course the girl was insane, and Anne had absolutely nothing to do with it. And then Anne took the girl's book and went off to sell it herself—and find out, she said, how such things could happen. I don't know whether she found out." Miss Stockton laughed very charmingly. "All I know is we're tremendously thankful to have her back. Nothing's the same with her away. We don't know if she'll stay, though. Nobody can tell about Anne, ever."
"Is this your home, too?" King managed to ask. His brain was whirling with the shock of this astonishing revelation. He wanted to get off by himself and think about it.
"Oh, no, indeed, no such luck. We live across the lake in a much less beautiful place, only of course we're here a great deal when Anne's home. My mother would be a mother to Anne if Anne would let her, but she's the most independent creature—prefers to live here with just Timmy and old Campbell, the butler who's been with the family since time began. Timmy's more than a housekeeper, of course. Anne's made almost a real chaperon out of her, and she is very dignified and nice."
King would have had the entire family history, he was sure, if a diversion had not occurred in the nature of a general move to show the guests to their rooms, with the appearance of servants, and the removal of luggage. In his room presently, therefore, King had a chance to get his thoughts together. One thing was becoming momentarily clear to him: his being here was with Anne's permission—and she was willing to see him; she had kept her promise. As for all the rest, he didn't care much. And when he thought of the moment during which his mother had looked so kindly into Anne's eyes, not recognizing her, he laughed aloud. Let Mrs. King retreat from that position now if she wanted to. As for himself, he was not at all sure that he cared a straw to have it thus so clearly proved that Anne was what she had seemed to be. Had he not known it all along? His heart sang with the thought that he had been ready to marry her, no matter what her position in the world.
And now he wondered how many hours it would be before he should have his chance to see her alone, if for but five minutes. Well, at least he could look at her. And that, as he descended the stairs with the others, he found well worth doing. Anne and Gardner Coolidge were meeting them at the foot, and the young hostess had changed her white outing garb for a most enchanting other white, which showed her round arms through soft net and lace and made her yet a new type of girl in King's thought of her.
She had a perfectly straightforward way of meeting his eyes, though her own were bewildering even so, without any coquetry in her use of them. She was not blushing and shy, she was self-possessed and radiant. King could understand, as he looked at her now, how she had felt over that affair of the tragedy suddenly precipitated into her life, and what strength of character it must have taken to send her out from this secluded and perfect home into a rough world, that she might find out for herself "how such things could happen." And as he watched her, playing hostess in this home of hers, looking after everybody's comfort with that ease and charm which proclaims a lifetime of previous training and custom, his heart grew fuller and fuller of pride and love and longing.
The dinner hour passed, a merry hour at a dignified table, served by the old butler who made a rite of his service, his face never relaxing though the laughter rang never so contagiously. Burns and Coolidge were the life of the company, the latter seeming a different man from the one who had come to consult his old chum as to the trouble in his life. Mrs. Coolidge, quiet and very attractive in her reserved, fair beauty, made an interesting foil to Ellen Burns, and the two, beside the rather fussy aunt and cousins, seemed to belong together.
"Anne, we must show Doctor Burns our plans for the cottage," Coolidge said to his sister as they left the table. He turned to Ellen, walking beside her. "She's almost persuaded us to build on a corner of her own estate—at least a summer place, for a starter. You know Red prescribed for us a cottage, and we haven't yet carried out his prescription But this sister of mine, since she met him, has acquired the idea that any prescription of his simply has to be filled, and she won't let Alicia and me alone till we've done this thing. Shall we all walk along down there? There'll be just about time before dark for you to see the site, and the plans shall come later."
The whole party trooped down the steps into the garden. King was a clever engineer, but he could not do any engineering which seemed to count in this affair. Never seeming to avoid him, Anne was never where he could get three words alone with her. She devoted herself to his mother, to Ellen, or to Burns himself, and none of these people gave him any help. Not that he wanted them to. He bided his time, and meanwhile he took some pleasure in showing his lady that he, too, could play his part until it should suit her to give him his chance.
But when, as the evening wore on, it began to look as if she were deliberately trying to prevent any interview whatever, he grew unhappy. And at last, the party having returned to the house and gathered in a delightful old drawing-room, he took his fate in his hands. At a moment when Anne stood beside Red Pepper looking over some photographs lying on the grand piano, he came up behind them.
"Miss Coolidge," he said, "I wonder if you would show me that lilac hedge by moonlight."
"I'm afraid there isn't any moon," she answered with a merry, straightforward look. "It will be as dark as a pocket down by that hedge, Mr. King. But I'll gladly show it to you to-morrow morning—as early as you like. I'm a very early riser."
"As early as six o'clock?" he asked eagerly.
She nodded. "As early as that. It is a perfect time on a May morning."
"And you won't go anywhere now?"
"How can I?" she parried, smiling. "These are my guests."
Burns glanced at his friend, his hazel eyes full of suppressed laughter. "Better be contented with that, old fellow. That row of lilacs will be very nice at six o'clock to-morrow morning. Mayn't I come, too, Miss Coolidge?"
"Of course you may." Her sparkling glance met his. Evidently they were very good friends, and understood each other.
"If he does," said King, in a sort of growl, "he'll have something to settle with me."
He went to bed in a peculiar frame of mind. Why had she wanted to waste all these hours when at nine in the morning the party was to leave for its return trip? Well, he supposed morning would come sometime, though it seemed, at midnight, a long way off.
"Want me to call you at five-thirty, Jord?" Burns had inquired of him at parting.
"No, thanks," he had replied. "I'll not miss it."
"A fellow might lie awake so long thinking about it that he'd go off into a sound sleep just before daylight, and sleep right through his early morning appointment," urged his loyal friend. "Better let me—"
"Oh, you go on to bed!" requested King irritably.
"No gratitude to one who has brought all this to pass, eh?"
"Heaps of it. But this evening has been rather a facer."
"Not at all. There were a dozen times when you might have rushed in and got a little quiet place all to yourself, with only the stars looking on. Plenty of openings."
"I didn't see 'em. You were always in the way."
"I was! Well, I like that. Had to be ordinarily attentive to my hostess, hadn't I? It wasn't for me to take shy little boys by the hand and lead them up to the little girls they fancied."
"I don't want to be led up by the hand, thank you. Good-night!"
* * * * *
King was up at daybreak, which in May comes reasonably early. Stealing down through the quiet house, the windows of which seemed to be all wide open to the morning air, he came out upon the porch and took the path to the lilac hedge. Arrived there at only twenty minutes before the appointed hour, he had so long a wait that he began to grow both impatient and chagrined. At quarter-past six he was feeling very much like stalking back to the house and retiring to his room, when the low sound of a motor arrested him, and he wheeled, to discover a long, low, gray car, of a type with which he was not familiar, sailing gracefully around the long curve of the driveway toward him. A trim figure in gray, with a small gray velvet hat pulled close over auburn hair, was at the wheel, and a vivid face was smiling at him. But the air of the driver as she drew up beside him was not at all sentimental, rather it was businesslike.
"I'm awfully sorry to be late," she said, "but I couldn't possibly help it. I got up at four, to make a call I had to make and be back, but I was detained. And even now I must be off again, without any lingering by lilac hedges. What shall we do about it?"
"I'll go with you." And King stepped into the car.
"With or without an invitation?" Her eyes were laughing, though her lips had sobered.
"With or without. And you know you came back for me."
"I came back for a basket of things I must get from the house. Also, of course, to explain my detention."
"Out selling books, I suppose?" he questioned, not caring much what he said, now that he had her to himself. "You must make a great impression as a book agent. If only you had tried that way in our town. And I—I took you in my car under the pleasant impression that I was giving you a treat—on that first trip, you know. By the second trip I had acquired a sneaking suspicion that motoring wasn't such a novelty to you as I had at first supposed."
They had flown around the remaining curves and were at a rear door of the house. Anne jumped out, was gone for ten minutes or so, and emerged with a servant following with a great hamper. This was bestowed at King's feet, and the car was off again, Anne driving with the ease of a veteran.
"You see," she explained, "late last evening I had news of the serious illness of a girl friend of mine. I went to see her, but after I came back I couldn't be easy about her, and so I got up quite early this morning and went again. She was much better, precisely as Doctor Burns had assured me she would be. By and by perhaps I shall learn to trust him as absolutely as all the rest of you do."
"Burns! You don't mean to say you had him out to see a case last night—after—"
She nodded, and her profile, under the snug gray hat, was a little like that of a handsome and somewhat mischievous but strong-willed boy. "Was that so dreadful of me—as a hostess? I admit that a doctor ought to be allowed to rest when he is away from home, but I knew that he was just back from a long voyage and was feeling fit as a fiddle, as he himself said. And there is really no very competent man in the town where my friend is ill; it was such a wonderful chance for her to have great skill at her service. And such skill! Oh, how he went to work for her! It made one feel at once that something was being done, where before people had merely tried to do things."
King was making rapid calculation. At the end of it, "Would you mind telling me whether you have had any sleep at all?" he begged.
She turned her face toward him for an instant. "Do I look so haggard and wan?" she queried with a quick glance. "Yes, I had a good two hours. And I'm so happy now to know that Estelle is sleeping quietly that it's much better than to have slept myself."
"Do you do this sort of thing often?"
"Not just such spectacular night work, but I do try to see that a little is done to look after a few people who have had a terribly hard time of it. But this is all—or mostly—since I came back from my year away. I learned just a few things during that year, you know."
"Your cousin—do you mind?—gave me just a bit of an idea why you went," he ventured.
"Oh, Leila Stockton." Her lips took on an amused curl. "Of course Leila would. She—chatters. But she's a dear girl; it's just that she can't easily get a new point of view."
He pressed her with his questions, for his discernment told him that it was of no use, while they were flying along the road at this pace, with a hamper at their feet—or at his feet, crowding him rather uncomfortably and forcing him to sit with cramped legs—no use for him to talk of the subject uppermost in his anxious mind. So he got from her, as well as he could, the story of the year, and presently had her telling him eagerly of the people she had met, and the progress she had made in the study of human beings. It was really an engrossing tale, quietly as she told it, and many as were the details he saw that she kept back.
"I found out one thing very early," she said. "I knew that I could never come back and live as I had lived before, with no thought of any one but myself."
"I don't believe you had ever done that."
"I had—I had, if ever any one did. I went away to school in Paris for two years; I wouldn't go to college—how I wish I had! I was the gayest, most thoughtless girl you ever knew until—the thing happened that sent my world spinning upside down. Why, Mr. King, I was so selfish and so thoughtless that I could turn that poor girl away from my door with a careless denial, and never see that she was desperate—that it wanted only one more such turning away to make her do the thing she did."
He saw her press her lips together, her eyes fixed on the road ahead, and he saw the beautiful brows contract, as if the memory still were too keen for her to bear calmly.
"You have certainly atoned a hundred times over," he said gently, "for any carelessness in the past. How could you know how she was feeling? And she was insane, Miss Stockton said."
"No more insane than I am now—simply desperate with weariness and failure. And I should have seen; I did see. I just—didn't care. I was busy trying on a box of new frocks from a French dressmaker, frocks of silk and lace—of silk and lace, Jordan King, while she hadn't clothes enough to keep her warm! And I couldn't spare the time to look at the girl's book! Well, I learned what it was to have people turn me from their doors—I, with plenty of money at my command, no matter how I elected to dress cheaply and go to cheap boarding places, and—insist on cheap beds at hospitals." Her tone was full of scorn. "After all, did I ever really suffer anything of what she suffered? Never, for always I knew that at any minute I could turn from a poor girl into a rich one, throw my book in the faces of those who refused to buy it, and telephone my anxious family. They did come on and try to get me away—once. I went with them—for the day. It was the day you met me. And always there was the interest of the adventure. It was an adventure, you know, a big one."
"I should say it was. And when you were at the hospital—"
"Accepting expensive rooms and free medical attendance—oh, wasn't I a fraud? How I felt it I can never tell you. But I could—and did—send back Doctor Burns a draft in part payment, though I thought he would never imagine where it came from. He did, though. What do you suppose he told me last night when we were driving home?—this morning it was, of course."
"I can't guess," King admitted, suffering a distinct and poignant pang of jealousy at thought of Red Pepper Burns driving through the night with this girl, on an errand of mercy though it had been.
"He told me," she said slowly, "that he learned all about me while I was in the hospital. One night, when I was at the worst, he sent Miss Arden out for a rest and sat beside me himself. And in my foolish, delirious wanderings I gave him the whole story, or enough of it so that he pieced out the rest. And he never told a soul, not even his wife; wasn't that wonderful of him? And treated me exactly the same as if he didn't practically know I wasn't what I seemed. You see, I wasn't far enough away from that poor girl's suicide, when I was so ill last year, but that it was always in my mind. Even yet I dream of it at times."
They were entering a large manufacturing town, the streets in the early morning full of factory operatives on their way to work, dinner-pails in hands and shawls over heads. Anne drove carefully, often throwing a smile at a group of children or slowing down more than the law decreed to avoid making some weary-faced woman hurry. And when at length she drew up before a dingy brick tenement house, of a type the most unpromising, King discovered that her "friend" was one of these very people.
He carried the hamper up two flights of ramshackle stairs and set it inside the door she indicated. Then he unwillingly withdrew to the car, where he sat waiting—and wondering. It was not long he had to wait, in point of time, but his impatience was growing upon him. All this was very well, and threw interesting lights upon a girl's character, but—it would be nine o'clock all too soon. To be sure, though Red Pepper bore him away, he knew the road back—he could come back as soon as he pleased, with nobody to set hours of departure for him. But he did not mean to go away this first time without the thing he wanted, if it was to be his.
She came running downstairs, face aglow with relief and pleasure, and sent the car smoothly away. And now it was that King discovered how a girl may fence and parry, so that a man may not successfully introduce the subject he is burning to speak of, without riding roughshod over her objection. And presently he gave it up, biding his time. He sat silent while she talked, and then finally, when she too grew silent, he let the minutes slip by without another word. Thus it was that they drew up at the house, still speechless concerning the great issue between them.
It was only a little past seven; nobody was in sight except a maid servant, who slipped discreetly away. King took one look into a small room at the right of the hall, a sort of small den or office it seemed to be. Then he turned to Anne and put out his hand. "Will you come in here, please?" he requested.
She looked at him for a moment without giving him her hand, then preceded him into the room. There was a heavy curtain of dull blue silk hanging by the door frame, and King noiselessly drew this across. Then he turned and confronted the girl. She had drawn off her motoring gloves, but made no motion to remove either the rough gray coat in which she had been driving or the small gray velvet hat drawn smoothly down over her curls with a clever air of its own. Altogether she looked not in the least like a hostess, but very like a traveller who has only paused for a brief stop on a journey to be immediately continued.
He stood there watching her for a minute, himself a challenging figure with his dark, bright face, his fine young height, his air of—quite suddenly—commanding the situation. And he was between the girl and the door. The two pairs of eyes looked straight into each other.
"Well?" he said.
"Well?" said Anne Linton Coolidge in return.
"Did you expect me to wait any longer?"
"I was afraid you might come and go—and never say so much as 'Well?'" said she.
This was more than mortal man could bear—and there was no more waiting done by anybody. When Jordan King had—temporarily—done satisfying the hunger of his lips and arms, he spoke again, looking down searchingly at a face into which he had brought plenty of splendid colour.
"If I had found you in that poor place I thought I should, it would have been just the same," he said.
"I really believe it would," admitted Anne.
* * * * *
Half an hour afterward, emerging from the small room which had held such a big experience, the pair discovered Red Pepper Burns just descending the stairway. He scrutinized their faces sharply, then advanced upon them. They met him halfway. He gravely took Anne's hand and set his fingers on her pulse.
"Too rapid," he said with a shake of the head. "Altogether too rapid. You have been undergoing much excitement—and so early in the morning, too. As your physician I must caution you against such untimely hours."
He felt of King's wrist, and again he shook his head. "Worse and worse," he announced. "Not only rapid, but bounding. The heart is plainly overworked. These cases are contagious. One acts upon the other—no doubt of it—no doubt at all. I would suggest—"
He found both his arms grasped by Jordan King's strong hands, and he allowed himself to be held tightly by that happy young man. "Give us your best wishes!" demanded his captor.
"Why, you've had those from the first. I saw this coming before either of you," Burns replied.
"Not before I did," asserted King.
"Not before I did," declared Anne.
Then the two looked at each other, and Burns, smiling at them, his hazel eyes very bright, requested to be restored the use of his arms. This being conceded, he laid those arms about the shoulders before him and drew the two young people close within them.
"You two are the most satisfactory and the dearest patients I've ever had," declared Red Pepper Burns.