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- Red Pepper Burns - 20/29 -
"Doctor Burns has been detained, but I'm sure he'll be here soon," Chester explained, shaking hands, and discovering for himself which was the famous Scottish surgeon by the "rugged commonsense" look of the man, quite as R. P. Burns had characterized him.
Seven-thirty - no Red Pepper. Seven-forty-five - eight o'clock - still no sign of him; harder to be explained, no sign from him. Why didn't he telephone or send a telegram or a messenger? Waiting longer would not do; Cynthia, in the kitchen, was becoming unnervingly agitated.
The dinner was served. Chester, at one end of the table, Macauley at the other, both feeling a terrible responsibility upon them, did their best. There had turned out to be two extra guests instead of the one whom Burns had thought he might have asked but couldn't be sure; and Winifred had had a bad ten minutes looking out a full set of everything with which to set his place. For Red Pepper's place must certainly be left unfilled; it would be beyond the possibilities that the dinner should end without him.
"I believe he has forgotten," whispered Martha to Winifred in the office, from whose dim shadows they were surreptitiously peering into the dining room to make sure that everything was going properly.
"Oh, he couldn't, not with the Edinburgh man here. He's often told us about Doctor Grant and how much he owes him. He does look splendid and capable, doesn't he - for all he's so burly and homely? And the other men all feel honoured to be here with him; even Doctor Van Horn, who's always so impressed with himself."
"They seem to be having a good time. And they're eating as if they never saw food before. It's a success - as much as it can be without the host himself. Oh, why doesn't Red come?"
"He wouldn't desert a patient in a crisis for a dozen dinners."
"No, but he'd send word."
"Look at Arthur. He's hobnobbing with Doctor Grant as if he'd always known him."
"Jim is having a bad time with Doctor Van Horn. I can see it in his eye. Mercy! one of them looked this way. I'm afraid he saw me. Come!"
The next time they reconnoitred, the dinner was working toward its end. It was time, for it was nearly ten o'clock, and Cynthia's courses though not many, had been mighty. Presently the table had been cleared, and the men were drinking coffee and lighting the excellent cigars which had been Macauley's thought when he found that Red Pepper was not on hand to provide them himself.
Under the influence of these genial stimulants - Burns never offered any others, and one man who knew it had declined to come - the sociability grew more positive. Chester relaxed his legs under the table, feeling that at last Red's guests could take care of themselves. Grayson proved an accomplished story-teller; Buller had lately had some remarkable adventures; even Ronald Grant, who had seemed a trifle taciturn, related an extraordinary experience of another man. The Scottish surgeon had the reputation of never talking about himself.
The smoke grew thick. Macauley's cigars were of a strong brand; the air was blue with their reek. Still the guests sat about the table, and still the talk went on.
It was interrupted quite suddenly by the advent of Red Pepper Burns himself. Macauley saw him first, standing in the doorway between dining room and office, but for an instant he did not know him. Macauley's startled look caught Chester's attention; he sprang to his feet. At the same moment the Scottish surgeon, following Chester's eyes, observed the figure in the door. He was first to reach it.
"What's happened ye, lad?" he asked, and acted without waiting for an answer. He threw a powerful arm about Burns's shoulders and led him, reeling, back into the office where the air was purer.
They crowded round, doctors though they were and had many times sharply ordered other people not to crowd. They could see at a glance that Burns was very faint, that his right arm hung helpless at his side, that his forehead wore a blackening bruise, and that his clothes were torn and covered with dirt. For the rest they had to wait.
Grant took charge of his friend - the pupil whom he had never forgotten. The arm was badly broken, too badly to be set without an anaesthetic. In the inner office Van Horn, his dress coat off, gave the chloroform while the Scotchman set the arm; and the American surgeons, no longer crowding, but standing off respectfully as if at a clinic, looked on critically. It was rapid and deft work, they admitted, especially since the surgeon was using another man's splints, and the patient proved to be one of the subjects who fight the anesthetic from beginning to end.
Chester, white-faced but plucky, stuck it out, but Macauley fled to the outer air. Seeing a familiar long, dark form half on, half off the driveway, he hurried toward it. A minute later he had all the unoccupied guests around him on the lawn, and one of the Green Imp's lamps was turned upon its crippled shape.
"By George, he's had a bad accident," one and another of them said as they examined the car's injuries. The hood was jammed until they wondered why the engine was not disabled; the left running-board was nearly torn off and the fender a shapeless wreck. The green paint was scraped and splintered along the left side.
"He must have come home by himself. How far, do you suppose?"
"Not far, driving with his left hand, and faint."
"He probably wasn't faint till he struck the indoor heat and the tobacco smoke."
"He's come at least five miles. Look at that red clay on her sides. There's no red clay like that around here except in one place - at the old mill on the Red Bank road." Chester demonstrated his theory excitedly. "I ought to know, I've ridden with him on every out-of-the-way by-path in the county, first any' last. There's a fright of a hill just there."
"Five miles with that arm? Gee!" This was Buller.
"Plucky," was Grayson's comment, and there was a general agreement among the men standing round.
Macauley put his shoulder to the Imp. "Let's push her in, fellows," he proposed. He had forgotten that they were medical gentlemen of position. "I don't seem to want to drive her just now," he explained.
They pushed the Imp to the red barn and shut it in with its injuries. Then they went back to the house, where presently Burns came out from under his anaesthetic and lay looking at his guests from under the bandage which swathed his head.
"I'm mighty sorry to have broken up the fun this way, gentlemen," he said with a pale sort of smile. "Grayson was telling a story when I butted in, I think. Finish it, will you, Grayson?"
"Not much. Yours is the story we want now, if you're up to telling it. What happened out there on the Red Bank road?"
Burns scanned him. "How do you know what road?"
"Your friend Mr. Chester's detective instincts. He says there's no other red clay like that that plasters your car. By the way, that's a fast machine of yours. Did you lose control on the hill?"
"That's it," acknowledged Burns simply. "I lost control."
Chester was staring at him. It was not in the nature of reason to suppose that Red Pepper had lost control of that car unless something else had happened first. The steering gear of the Imp was certainly in perfect condition; Macauley had said so. He wondered if Red meant that he had lost his temper. But what could make him lose his temper - on Red Bank hill?
They questioned him closely, all of them in turn. But that was all he would say. He had lost control of the car. One or two of the men who knew Burns least looked as if they could tell what was the probable cause of such loss of control. Chester wanted to knock them down as he fancied he recognized this attitude of mind. And at last they went away - which was certainly the best thing they could do in the circumstances.
All but Ronald Grant. The Scottish surgeon accepted without hesitation Burns's suggestion that Doctor Grant should stay and keep him company for an hour or two while he got used to his arm, and should then sleep under his roof. So they settled down, Burns on his couch, Grant in an armchair. When Chester left he was thinking that, except for the outward signs of his adventure, Burns did not look as unfit as might have been expected for a happy hour with an old friend.
Just outside the house Chester himself had an adventure. He was quite alone, and he almost ran into a slim figure on the walk. The lights from the office shone out into the October night, and Chester could see at a glance who the girl was, even if the gleam of golden hair which all the town knew had not told him. She was panting and her hand was on her side.
"Did Doctor Burns get home all right?" she cried under her breath.
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