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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.
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