By Eleanor H. Porter
Author Of Pollyanna, Etc.
TO My Cousin Maud
CHAPTER I. SOME OPINIONS AND A WEDDING II. FOR WILLIAM—A HOME III. BILLY SPEAKS HER MIND IV. JUST LIKE BILLY V. TIGER SKINS VI. "THE PAINTING LOOK" VII. THE BIG BAD QUARREL VIII. BILLY CULTIVATES A COMFORTABLE INDIFFERENCE IX. THE DINNER BILLY TRIED TO GET X. THE DINNER BILLY GOT XI. CALDERWELL DOES SOME QUESTIONING XII. FOR BILLY—SOME ADVICE XIII. PETE XIV. WHEN BERTRAM CAME HOME XV. AFTER THE STORM XVI. INTO TRAINING FOR MARY ELLEN XVII. THE EFFICIENCY STAR—AND BILLY XVIII. BILLY TRIES HER HAND AT "MANAGING" XIX. A TOUGH NUT TO CRACK FOR CYRIL XX. ARKWRIGHT'S EYES ARE OPENED XXI. BILLY TAKES HER TURN AT QUESTIONING XXII. A DOT AND A DIMPLE XXIII. BILLY AND THE ENORMOUS RESPONSIBILITY XXIV. A NIGHT OFF XXV. "SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT" XXVI. GHOSTS THAT WALKED FOR BERTRAM XXVII. THE MOTHER—THE WIFE XXVIII. CONSPIRATORS XXIX. CHESS XXX. BY A BABY'S HAND
CHAPTER I. SOME OPINIONS AND A WEDDING
"I, Bertram, take thee, Billy," chanted the white-robed clergyman.
"'I, Bertram, take thee, Billy,'" echoed the tall young bridegroom, his eyes gravely tender.
"To my wedded wife."
"'To my wedded wife.'" The bridegroom's voice shook a little.
"To have and to hold from this day forward."
"'To have and to hold from this day forward.'" Now the young voice rang with triumph. It had grown strong and steady.
"For better for worse."
"'For better for worse.'"
"For richer for poorer," droned the clergyman, with the weariness of uncounted repetitions.
"'For richer for poorer,'" avowed the bridegroom, with the decisive emphasis of one to whom the words are new and significant.
"In sickness and in health."
"'In sickness and in health.'"
"To love and to cherish."
"'To love and to cherish.'" The younger voice carried infinite tenderness now.
"Till death us do part."
"'Till death us do part,'" repeated the bridegroom's lips; but everybody knew that what his heart said was: "Now, and through all eternity."
"According to God's holy ordinance."
"'According to God's holy ordinance.'"
"And thereto I plight thee my troth."
"'And thereto I plight thee my troth.'"
There was a faint stir in the room. In one corner a white-haired woman blinked tear-wet eyes and pulled a fleecy white shawl more closely about her shoulders. Then the minister's voice sounded again.
"I, Billy, take thee, Bertram."
"'I, Billy, take thee, Bertram.'"
This time the echoing voice was a feminine one, low and sweet, but clearly distinct, and vibrant with joyous confidence, on through one after another of the ever familiar, but ever impressive phrases of the service that gives into the hands of one man and of one woman the future happiness, each of the other.
The wedding was at noon. That evening Mrs. Kate Hartwell, sister of the bridegroom, wrote the following letter:
BOSTON, July 15th.
"MY DEAR HUSBAND:—Well, it's all over with, and they're married. I couldn't do one thing to prevent it. Much as ever as they would even listen to what I had to say—and when they knew how I had hurried East to say it, too, with only two hours' notice!
"But then, what can you expect? From time immemorial lovers never did have any sense; and when those lovers are such irresponsible flutterbudgets as Billy and Bertram—!
"And such a wedding! I couldn't do anything with that, either, though I tried hard. They had it in Billy's living-room at noon, with nothing but the sun for light. There was no maid of honor, no bridesmaids, no wedding cake, no wedding veil, no presents (except from the family, and from that ridiculous Chinese cook of brother William's, Ding Dong, or whatever his name is. He tore in just before the wedding ceremony, and insisted upon seeing Billy to give her a wretched little green stone idol, which he declared would bring her 'heap plenty velly good luckee' if she received it before she 'got married.' I wouldn't have the hideous, grinning thing around, but William says it's real jade, and very valuable, and of course Billy was crazy over it—or pretended to be). There was no trousseau, either, and no reception. There was no anything but the bridegroom; and when I tell you that Billy actually declared that was all she wanted, you will understand how absurdly in love she is—in spite of all those weeks and weeks of broken engagement when I, at least, supposed she had come to her senses, until I got that crazy note from Bertram a week ago saying they were to be married today.
"I can't say that I've got any really satisfactory explanation of the matter. Everything has been in such a hubbub, and those two ridiculous children have been so afraid they wouldn't be together every minute possible, that any really rational conversation with either of them was out of the question. When Billy broke the engagement last spring none of us knew why she had done it, as you know; and I fancy we shall be almost as much in the dark as to why she has—er—mended it now, as you might say. As near as I can make out, however, she thought he didn't want her, and he thought she didn't want him. I believe matters were still further complicated by a girl Bertram was painting, and a young fellow that used to sing with Billy—a Mr. Arkwright.
"Anyhow, things came to a head last spring, Billy broke the engagement and fled to parts unknown with Aunt Hannah, leaving Bertram here in Boston to alternate between stony despair and reckless gayety, according to William; and it was while he was in the latter mood that he had that awful automobile accident and broke his arm—and almost his neck. He was wildly delirious, and called continually for Billy.
"Well, it seems Billy didn't know all this; but a week ago she came home, and in some way found out about it, I think through Pete—William's old butler, you know. Just exactly what happened I can't say, but I do know that she dragged poor old Aunt Hannah down to Bertram's at some unearthly hour, and in the rain; and Aunt Hannah couldn't do a thing with her. All Billy would say, was, 'Bertram wants me.' And Aunt Hannah told me that if I could have seen Billy's face I'd have known that she'd have gone to Bertram then if he'd been at the top of the Himalaya Mountains, or at the bottom of the China Sea. So perhaps it's just as well—for Aunt Hannah's sake, at least—that he was in no worse place than on his own couch at home. Anyhow, she went, and in half an hour they blandly informed Aunt Hannah that they were going to be married to-day.
"Aunt Hannah said she tried to stop that, and get them to put it off till October (the original date, you know), but Bertram was obdurate. And when he declared he'd marry her the next day if it wasn't for the new license law, Aunt Hannah said she gave up for fear he'd get a special dispensation, or go to the Governor or the President, or do some other dreadful thing. (What a funny old soul Aunt Hannah is!) Bertram told me that he should never feel safe till Billy was really his; that she'd read something, or hear something, or think something, or get a letter from me (as if anything I could say would do any good-or harm!), and so break the engagement again.
"Well, she's his now, so I suppose he's satisfied; though, for my part, I haven't changed my mind at all. I still say that they are not one bit suited to each other, and that matrimony will simply ruin his career. Bertram never has loved and never will love any girl long—except to paint. But if he simply would get married, why couldn't he have taken a nice, sensible domestic girl that would have kept him fed and mended?
"Not but that I'm very fond of Billy, as you know, dear; but imagine Billy as a wife—worse yet, a mother! Billy's a dear girl, but she knows about as much of real life and its problems as—as our little Kate. A more impulsive, irresponsible, regardless-of-consequences young woman I never saw. She can play divinely, and write delightful songs, I'll acknowledge; but what is that when a man is hungry, or has lost a button?
"Billy has had her own way, and had everything she wanted for years now—a rather dangerous preparation for marriage, especially marriage to a fellow like Bertram who has had his own way and everything he's wanted for years. Pray, what's going to happen when those ways conflict, and neither one gets the thing wanted?
"And think of her ignorance of cooking—but, there! What's the use? They're married now, and it can't be helped.
"Mercy, what a letter I've written! But I, had to talk to some one; besides, I'd promised I to let you know how matters stood as soon as I could. As you see, though, my trip East has been practically useless. I saw the wedding, to be sure, but I didn't prevent it, or even postpone it—though I meant to do one or the other, else I should never have made that tiresome journey half across the continent at two hours' notice.
"However, we shall see what we shall see. As for me, I'm dead tired. Good night.
Quite naturally, Mrs. Kate Hartwell was not the only one who was thinking that evening of the wedding. In the home of Bertram's brother Cyril, Cyril himself was at the piano, but where his thoughts were was plain to be seen—or rather, heard; for from under his fingers there came the Lohengrin wedding march until all the room seemed filled with the scent of orange blossoms, the mistiness of floating veils, and the echoing peals of far-away organs heralding the "Fair Bride and Groom."
Over by the table in the glowing circle of the shaded lamp, sat Marie, Cyril's wife, a dainty sewing-basket by her side. Her hands, however, lay idly across the stocking in her lap.
As the music ceased, she drew a long sigh.
What a perfectly beautiful wedding that was! she breathed.
Cyril whirled about on the piano stool.
"It was a very sensible wedding," he said with emphasis.
"They looked so happy—both of them," went on Marie, dreamily; "so—so sort of above and beyond everything about them, as if nothing ever, ever could trouble them—now."
Cyril lifted his eyebrows.
"Humph! Well, as I said before, it was a very sensible wedding," he declared.
This time Marie noticed the emphasis. She laughed, though her eyes looked a little troubled.
"I know, dear, of course, what you mean. I thought our wedding was beautiful; but I would have made it simpler if I'd realized in time how you—you—"
"How I abhorred pink teas and purple pageants," he finished for her, with a frowning smile. "Oh, well, I stood it—for the sake of what it brought me." His face showed now only the smile; the frown had vanished. For a man known for years to his friends as a "hater of women and all other confusion," Cyril Henshaw was looking remarkably well-pleased with himself.
His wife of less than a year colored as she met his gaze. Hurriedly she picked up her needle.
The man laughed happily at her confusion.
"What are you doing? Is that my stocking?" he demanded.
A look, half pain, half reproach, crossed her face.
"Why, Cyril, of course not! You—you told me not to, long ago. You said my darns made—bunches.
"Ho! I meant I didn't want to wear them," retorted the man, upon whom the tragic wretchedness of that half-sobbed "bunches" had been quite lost. "I love to see you mending them," he finished, with an approving glance at the pretty little picture of domesticity before him.
A peculiar expression came to Marie's eyes.
"Why, Cyril, you mean you like to have me mend them just for—for the sake of seeing me do it, when you know you won't ever wear them?"
"Sure!" nodded the man, imperturbably. Then, with a sudden laugh, he asked: "I wonder now, does Billy love to mend socks?"
Marie smiled, but she sighed, too, and shook her head.
"I'm afraid not, Cyril."
Marie laughed outright this time. The vaguely troubled look had fled from her eyes
"Oh, Billy's helped me beat eggs and butter sometimes, but I never knew her to cook a thing or want to cook a thing, but once; then she spent nearly two weeks trying to learn to make puddings—for you."
Marie puckered her lips queerly.
"Well, I supposed they were for you at the time. At all events she was trying to make them for some one of you boys; probably it was really for Bertram, though."
"Humph!" grunted Cyril. Then, after a minute, he observed: "I judge Kate thinks Billy'll never make them—for anybody. I'm afraid Sister Kate isn't pleased."
"Oh, but Mrs. Hartwell was—was disappointed in the wedding," apologized Marie, quickly. "You know she wanted it put off anyway, and she didn't like such a simple one.
"Hm-m; as usual Sister Kate forgot it wasn't her funeral—I mean, her wedding," retorted Cyril, dryly. "Kate is never happy, you know, unless she's managing things."
"Yes, I know," nodded Marie, with a frowning smile of recollection at certain features of her own wedding.
"She doesn't approve of Billy's taste in guests, either," remarked Cyril, after a moment's silence.
"I thought her guests were lovely," spoke up Marie, in quick defense. "Of course, most of her social friends are away—in July; but Billy is never a society girl, you know, in spite of the way Society is always trying to lionize her and Bertram."
"Oh, of course Kate knows that; but she says it seems as if Billy needn't have gone out and gathered in the lame and the halt and the blind."
"Nonsense!" cried Marie, with unusual sharpness for her. "I suppose she said that just because of Mrs. Greggory's and Tommy Dunn's crutches."
"Well, they didn't make a real festive-looking wedding party, you must admit," laughed Cyril; "what with the bridegroom's own arm in a sling, too! But who were they all, anyway?"
"Why, you knew Mrs. Greggory and Alice, of course—and Pete," smiled Marie. "And wasn't Pete happy? Billy says she'd have had Pete if she had no one else; that there wouldn't have been any wedding, anyway, if it hadn't been for his telephoning Aunt Hannah that night."
"Yes; Will told me."
"As for Tommy and the others—most of them were those people that Billy had at her home last summer for a two weeks' vacation—people, you know, too poor to give themselves one, and too proud to accept one from ordinary charity. Billy's been following them up and doing little things for them ever since—sugarplums and frosting on their cake, she calls it; and they adore her, of course. I think it was lovely of her to have them, and they did have such a good time! You should have seen Tommy when you played that wedding march for Billy to enter the room. His poor little face was so transfigured with joy that I almost cried, just to look at him. Billy says he loves music—poor little fellow!"
"Well, I hope they'll be happy, in spite of Kate's doleful prophecies. Certainly they looked happy enough to-day," declared Cyril, patting a yawn as he rose to his feet. "I fancy Will and Aunt Hannah are lonesome, though, about now," he added.
"Yes," smiled Marie, mistily, as she gathered up her work. "I know what Aunt Hannah's doing. She's helping Rosa put the house to rights, and she's stopping to cry over every slipper and handkerchief of Billy's she finds. And she'll do that until that funny clock of hers strikes twelve, then she'll say 'Oh, my grief and conscience—midnight!' But the next minute she'll remember that it's only half-past eleven, after all, and she'll send Rosa to bed and sit patting Billy's slipper in her lap till it really is midnight by all the other clocks."
Cyril laughed appreciatively.
"Well, I know what Will is doing," he declared.
"Will is in Bertram's den dozing before the fireplace with Spunkie curled up in his lap."
As it happened, both these surmises were not far from right. In the Strata, the Henshaws' old Beacon Street home, William was sitting before the fireplace with the cat in his lap, but he was not dozing. He was talking.
"Spunkie," he was saying, "your master, Bertram, got married to-day—and to Miss Billy. He'll be bringing her home one of these days—your new mistress. And such a mistress! Never did cat or house have a better!
"Just think; for the first time in years this old place is to know the touch of a woman's hand—and that's what it hasn't known for almost twenty years, except for those few short months six years ago when a dark-eyed girl and a little gray kitten (that was Spunk, your predecessor, you know) blew in and blew out again before we scarcely knew they were here. That girl was Miss Billy, and she was a dear then, just as she is now, only now she's coming here to stay. She's coming home, Spunkie; and she'll make it a home for you, for me, and for all of us. Up to now, you know, it hasn't really been a home, for years—just us men, so. It'll be very different, Spunkie, as you'll soon find out. Now mind, madam! We must show that we appreciate all this: no tempers, no tantrums, no showing of claws, no leaving our coats—either yours or mine—on the drawing-room chairs, no tracking in of mud on clean rugs and floors! For we're going to have a home, Spunkie—a home!"
At Hillside, Aunt Hannah was, indeed, helping Rosa to put the house to rights, as Marie had said. She was crying, too, over a glove she had found on Billy's piano; but she was crying over something else, also. Not only had she lost Billy, but she had lost her home.
To be sure, nothing had been said during that nightmare of a week of hurry and confusion about Aunt Hannah's future; but Aunt Hannah knew very well how it must be. This dear little house on the side of Corey Hill was Billy's home, and Billy would not need it any longer. It would be sold, of course; and she, Aunt Hannah, would go back to a "second-story front" and loneliness in some Back Bay boarding-house; and a second story front and loneliness would not be easy now, after these years of home—and Billy.
No wonder, indeed, that Aunt Hannah sat crying and patting the little white glove in her hand. No wonder, too, that—being Aunt Hannah—she reached for the shawl near by and put it on, shiveringly. Even July, to-night, was cold—to Aunt Hannah.
In yet another home that evening was the wedding of Billy Neilson and Bertram Henshaw uppermost in thought and speech. In a certain little South-End flat where, in two rented rooms, lived Alice Greggory and her crippled mother, Alice was talking to Mr. M. J. Arkwright, commonly known to his friends as "Mary Jane," owing to the mystery in which he had for so long shrouded his name.
Arkwright to-night was plainly moody and ill at ease.
"You're not listening. You're not listening at all," complained Alice Greggory at last, reproachfully.
With a visible effort the man roused himself.
"Indeed I am," he maintained.
"I thought you'd be interested in the wedding. You used to be friends—you and Billy." The girl's voice still vibrated with reproach.
There was a moment's silence; then, a little harshly, the man said:
"Perhaps—because I wanted to be more than—a friend—is why you're not satisfied with my interest now."
A look that was almost terror came to Alice Greggory's eyes. She flushed painfully, then grew very white.
"Yes," he nodded dully, without looking up. "I cared too much for her. I supposed Henshaw was just a friend—till too late."
There was a breathless hush before, a little unsteadily, the girl stammered:
"Oh, I'm so sorry—so very sorry! I—I didn't know."
"No, of course you didn't. I've almost told you, though, lots of times; you've been so good to me all these weeks." He raised his head now, and looked at her, frank comradeship in his eyes.
The girl stirred restlessly. Her eyes swerved a little under his level gaze.
"Oh, but I've done nothing—n-nothing," she stammered. Then, at the light tap of crutches on a bare floor she turned in obvious relief. "Oh, here's mother. She's been in visiting with Mrs. Delano, our landlady. Mother, Mr. Arkwright is here."
Meanwhile, speeding north as fast as steam could carry them, were the bride and groom. The wondrousness of the first hour of their journey side by side had become a joyous certitude that always it was to be like this now.
"Bertram," began the bride, after a long minute of eloquent silence.
"You know our wedding was very different from most weddings."
"Of course it was!"
"Yes, but really it was. Now listen." The bride's voice grew tenderly earnest. "I think our marriage is going to be different, too."
"Yes." Billy's tone was emphatic. "There are so many common, everyday marriages where—where—Why, Bertram, as if you could ever be to me like—like Mr. Carleton is, for instance!"
"Like Mr. Carleton is—to you?" Bertram's voice was frankly puzzled.
"No, no! As Mr. Carleton is to Mrs. Carleton, I mean."
"Oh!" Bertram subsided in relief.
"And the Grahams and Whartons, and the Freddie Agnews, and—and a lot of others. Why, Bertram, I've seen the Grahams and the Whartons not even speak to each other a whole evening, when they've been at a dinner, or something; and I've seen Mrs. Carleton not even seem to know her husband came into the room. I don't mean quarrel, dear. Of course we'd never quarrel! But I mean I'm sure we shall never get used to—to you being you, and I being I."
"Indeed we sha'n't," agreed Bertram, rapturously.
"Ours is going to be such a beautiful marriage!"
"Of course it will be."
"And we'll be so happy!"
"I shall be, and I shall try to make you so."
"As if I could be anything else," sighed Billy, blissfully. "And now we can't have any misunderstandings, you see."
"Of course not. Er—what's that?"
"Why, I mean that—that we can't ever repeat hose miserable weeks of misunderstanding. Everything is all explained up. I know, now, that you don't love Miss Winthrop, or just girls—any girl—to paint. You love me. Not the tilt of my chin, nor the turn of my head; but me."
"I do—just you." Bertram's eyes gave the caress his lips would have given had it not been for the presence of the man in the seat across the aisle of the sleeping-car.
"And you—you know now that I love you—just you?"
"Not even Arkwright?"
"Not even Arkwright," smiled Billy.
There was the briefest of hesitations; then, a little constrainedly, Bertram asked:
"And you said you—you never had cared for Arkwright, didn't you?"
For the second time in her life Billy was thankful that Bertram's question had turned upon her love for Arkwright, not Arkwright's love for her. In Billy's opinion, a man's unrequited love for a girl was his secret, not hers, and was certainly one that the girl had no right to tell. Once before Bertram had asked her if she had ever cared for Arkwright, and then she had answered emphatically, as she did now:
"I thought you said so," murmured Bertram, relaxing a little.
"I did; besides, didn't I tell you?" she went on airily, "I think he'll marry Alice Greggory. Alice wrote me all the time I was away, and—oh, she didn't say anything definite, I'll admit," confessed Billy, with an arch smile; "but she spoke of his being there lots, and they used to know each other years ago, you see. There was almost a romance there, I think, before the Greggorys lost their money and moved away from all their friends."
"Well, he may have her. She's a nice girl—a mighty nice girl," answered Bertram, with the unmistakably satisfied air of the man who knows he himself possesses the nicest girl of them all.
Billy, reading unerringly the triumph in his voice, grew suddenly grave. She regarded her husband with a thoughtful frown; then she drew a profound sigh.
"Whew!" laughed Bertram, whimsically. "So soon as this?"
"Bertram!" Billy's voice was tragic.
"Yes, my love." The bridegroom pulled his face into sobriety; then Billy spoke, with solemn impressiveness.
"Bertram, I don't know a thing about—cooking—except what I've been learning in Rosa's cook-book this last week."
Bertram laughed so loud that the man across the aisle glanced over the top of his paper surreptitiously.
"Rosa's cook-book! Is that what you were doing all this week?"
"Yes; that is—I tried so hard to learn something," stammered Billy. "But I'm afraid I didn't—much; there were so many things for me to think of, you know, with only a week. I believe I could make peach fritters, though. They were the last thing I studied."
Bertram laughed again, uproariously; but, at Billy's unchangingly tragic face, he grew suddenly very grave and tender.
"Billy, dear, I didn't marry you to—to get a cook," he said gently.
Billy shook her head.
"I know; but Aunt Hannah said that even if I never expected to cook, myself, I ought to know how it was done, so to properly oversee it. She said that—that no woman, who didn't know how to cook and keep house properly, had any business to be a wife. And, Bertram, I did try, honestly, all this week. I tried so hard to remember when you sponged bread and when you kneaded it."
"I don't ever need—yours," cut in Bertram, shamelessly; but he got only a deservedly stern glance in return.
"And I repeated over and over again how many cupfuls of flour and pinches of salt and spoonfuls of baking-powder went into things; but, Bertram, I simply could not keep my mind on it. Everything, everywhere was singing to me. And how do you suppose I could remember how many pinches of flour and spoonfuls of salt and cupfuls of baking-powder went into a loaf of cake when all the while the very teakettle on the stove was singing: 'It's all right—Bertram loves me—I'm going to marry Bertram!'?"
"You darling!" (In spite of the man across the aisle Bertram did almost kiss her this time.) "As if anybody cared how many cupfuls of baking-powder went anywhere—with that in your heart!"
"Aunt Hannah says you will—when you're hungry. And Kate said—"
Bertram uttered a sharp word behind his teeth.
"Billy, for heaven's sake don't tell me what Kate said, if you want me to stay sane, and not attempt to fight somebody—broken arm, and all. Kate thinks she's kind, and I suppose she means well; but—well, she's made trouble enough between us already. I've got you now, sweetheart. You're mine—all mine—" his voice shook, and dropped to a tender whisper—"'till death us do part.'"
"Yes; 'till death us do part,'" breathed Billy.
And then, for a time, they fell silent.
"'I, Bertram, take thee, Billy,'" sang the whirring wheels beneath them, to one.
"'I, Billy, take thee, Bertram,'" sang the whirring wheels beneath them, to the other. While straight ahead before them both, stretched fair and beautiful in their eyes, the wondrous path of life which they were to tread together.
CHAPTER II. FOR WILLIAM—A HOME
On the first Sunday after the wedding Pete came up-stairs to tell his master, William, that Mrs. Stetson wanted to see him in the drawing-room.
William went down at once.
"Well, Aunt Hannah," he began, reaching out a cordial hand. "Why, what's the matter?" he broke off concernedly, as he caught a clearer view of the little old lady's drawn face and troubled eyes.
"William, it's silly, of course," cried Aunt Hannah, tremulously, "but I simply had to go to some one. I—I feel so nervous and unsettled! Did—did Billy say anything to you—what she was going to do?"
"What she was going to do? About what? What do you mean?"
"About the house—selling it," faltered Aunt Hannah, sinking wearily back into her chair.
William frowned thoughtfully.
"Why, no," he answered. "It was all so hurried at the last, you know. There was really very little chance to make plans for anything—except the wedding," he finished, with a smile.
"Yes, I know," sighed Aunt Hannah. "Everything was in such confusion! Still, I didn't know but she might have said something—to you."
"No, she didn't. But I imagine it won't be hard to guess what she'll do. When they get back from their trip I fancy she won't lose much time in having what things she wants brought down here. Then she'll sell the rest and put the house on the market."
"Yes, of—of course," stammered Aunt Hannah, pulling herself hastily to a more erect position. "That's what I thought, too. Then don't you think we'd better dismiss Rosa and close the house at once?"
"Why—yes, perhaps so. Why not? Then you'd be all settled here when she comes home. I'm sure, the sooner you come, the better I'll be pleased," he smiled.
Aunt Hannah turned sharply.
"Here!" she ejaculated. "William Henshaw, you didn't suppose I was coming here to live, did you?"
It was William's turn to look amazed.
"Why, of course you're coming here! Where else should you go, pray?"
"Where I was before—before Billy came—to you," returned Aunt Hannah a little tremulously, but with a certain dignity. "I shall take a room in some quiet boarding-house, of course."
"Nonsense, Aunt Hannah! As if Billy would listen to that! You came before; why not come now?"
Aunt Hannah lifted her chin the fraction of an inch.
"You forget. I was needed before. Billy is a married woman now. She needs no chaperon."
"Nonsense!" scowled William, again. "Billy will always need you."
Aunt Hannah shook her head mournfully.
"I like to think—she wants me, William, but I know, in my heart, it isn't best."
There was a moment's pause; then, decisively came the answer.
"Because I think young married folks should not have outsiders in the home."
William laughed relievedly.
"Oh, so that's it! Well, Aunt Hannah, you're no outsider. Come, run right along home and pack your trunk."
Aunt Hannah was plainly almost crying; but she held her ground.
"William, I can't," she reiterated.
"But—Billy is such a child, and—"
For once in her circumspect life Aunt Hannah was guilty of an interruption.
"Pardon me, William, she is not a child. She is a woman now, and she has a woman's problems to meet."
"Well, then, why don't you help her meet them?" retorted William, still with a whimsical smile.
But Aunt Hannah did not smile. For a minute she did not speak; then, with her eyes studiously averted, she said:
"William, the first four years of my married life were—were spoiled by an outsider in our home. I don't mean to spoil Billy's."
William relaxed visibly. The smile fled from his face.
"Why—Aunt—Hannah!" he exclaimed.
The little old lady turned with a weary sigh.
"Yes, I know. You are shocked, of course. I shouldn't have told you. Still, it is all past long ago, and—I wanted to make you understand why I can't come. He was my husband's eldest brother—a bachelor. He was good and kind, and meant well, I suppose; but—he interfered with everything. I was young, and probably headstrong. At all events, there was constant friction. He went away once and stayed two whole months. I shall never forget the utter freedom and happiness of those months for us, with the whole house to ourselves. No, William, I can't come." She rose abruptly and turned toward the door. Her eyes were wistful, and her face was still drawn with suffering; but her whole frail little self quivered plainly with high resolve. "John has Peggy outside. I must go."
"But—but, Aunt Hannah," began William, helplessly.
She lifted a protesting hand.
"No, don't urge me, please. I can't come here. But—I believe I won't close the house till Billy gets home, after all," she declared. The next moment she was gone, and William, dazedly, from the doorway, was watching John help her into Billy's automobile, called by Billy and half her friends, "Peggy," short for "Pegasus."
Still dazedly William turned back into the house and dropped himself into the nearest chair.
What a curious call it had been! Aunt Hannah had not acted like herself at all. Not once had she said "Oh, my grief and conscience!" while the things she had said—! Someway, he had never thought of Aunt Hannah as being young, and a bride. Still, of course she must have been—once. And the reason she gave for not coming there to live—the pitiful story of that outsider in her home! But she was no outsider! She was no interfering brother of Billy's—
William caught his breath suddenly, and held it suspended. Then he gave a low ejaculation and half sprang from his chair.
Spunkie, disturbed from her doze by the fire, uttered a purring "me-o-ow," and looked up inquiringly.
For a long minute William gazed dumbly into the cat's yellow, sleepily contented eyes; then he said with tragic distinctness:
"Spunkie, it's true: Aunt Hannah isn't Billy's husband's brother, but—I am! Do you hear? I am!"
"Pur-r-me-ow!" commented Spunkie; and curled herself for another nap.
There was no peace for William after that. In vain he told himself that he was no "interfering" brother, and that this was his home and had been all his life; in vain did he declare emphatically that he could not go, he would not go; that Billy would not wish him to go: always before his eyes was the vision of that little bride of years long gone; always in his ears was the echo of Aunt Hannah's "I shall never forget the utter freedom and happiness of those months for us, with the whole house to ourselves." Nor, turn which way he would, could he find anything to comfort him. Simply because he was so fearfully looking for it, he found it—the thing that had for its theme the wretchedness that might be expected from the presence of a third person in the new home.
Poor William! Everywhere he met it—the hint, the word, the story, the song, even; and always it added its mite to the woeful whole. Even the hoariest of mother-in-law jokes had its sting for him; and, to make his cup quite full, he chanced to remember one day what Marie had said when he had suggested that she and Cyril come to the Strata to live: "No; I think young folks should begin by themselves."
Unhappy, indeed, were these days for William. Like a lost spirit he wandered from room to room, touching this, fingering that. For long minutes he would stand before some picture, or some treasured bit of old mahogany, as if to stamp indelibly upon his mind a thing that was soon to be no more. At other times, like a man without a home, he would go out into the Common or the Public Garden and sit for hours on some bench—thinking.
All this could have but one ending, of course. Before the middle of August William summoned Pete to his rooms.
"Oh, Pete, I'm going to move next week," he began nonchalantly. His voice sounded as if moving were a pleasurable circumstance that occurred in his life regularly once a month. "I'd like you to begin to pack up these things, please, to-morrow."
The old servant's mouth fell open.
"You're goin' to—to what, sir?" he stammered.
"Move—move, I said." William spoke with unusual harshness.
Pete wet his lips.
"You mean you've sold the old place, sir?—that we—we ain't goin' to live here no longer?"
"Sold? Of course not! I'm going to move away; not you."
If Pete could have known what caused the sharpness in his master's voice, he would not have been so grieved—or, rather, he would have been grieved for a different reason. As it was he could only falter miserably:
"You are goin' to move away from here!"
"Yes, yes, man! Why, Pete, what ails you? One would think a body never moved before."
"They didn't—not you, sir."
William turned abruptly, so that his face could not be seen. With stern deliberation he picked up an elaborately decorated teapot; but the valuable bit of Lowestoft shook so in his hand that he set it down at once. It clicked sharply against its neighbor, betraying his nervous hand.
"But, Mr. William," he stammered thickly; "how are you—what'll you do without—There doesn't nobody but me know so well about your tea, and the two lumps in your coffee; and there's your flannels that you never put on till I get 'em out, and the woolen socks that you'd wear all summer if I didn't hide 'em. And—and who's goin' to take care of these?" he finished, with a glance that encompassed the overflowing cabinets and shelves of curios all about him.
His master smiled sadly. An affection that had its inception in his boyhood days shone in his eyes. The hand in which the Lowestoft had shaken rested now heavily on an old man's bent shoulder—a shoulder that straightened itself in unconscious loyalty under the touch.
"Pete, you have spoiled me, and no mistake. I don't expect to find another like you. But maybe if I wear the woolen socks too late you'll come and hunt up the others for me. Eh?" And, with a smile that was meant to be quizzical, William turned and began to shift the teapots about again.
"But, Mr. William, why—that is, what will Mr. Bertram and Miss Billy do—without you?" ventured the old man.
There was a sudden tinkling crash. On the floor lay the fragments of a silver-luster teapot.
The servant exclaimed aloud in dismay, but his master did not even glance toward his once treasured possession on the floor.
"Nonsense, Pete!" he was saying in a particularly cheery voice. "Have you lived all these years and not found out that newly-married folks don't need any one else around? Come, do you suppose we could begin to pack these teapots to-night?" he added, a little feverishly. "Aren't there some boxes down cellar?"
"I'll see, sir," said Pete, respectfully; but the expression on his face as he turned away showed that he was not thinking of teapots—nor of boxes in which to pack them.
CHAPTER III. BILLY SPEAKS HER MIND
Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Henshaw were expected home the first of September. By the thirty-first of August the old Beacon Street homestead facing the Public Garden was in spick-and-span order, with Dong Ling in the basement hovering over a well-stocked larder, and Pete searching the rest of the house for a chair awry, or a bit of dust undiscovered.
Twice before had the Strata—as Bertram long ago dubbed the home of his boyhood—been prepared for the coming of Billy, William's namesake: once, when it had been decorated with guns and fishing-rods to welcome the "boy" who turned out to be a girl; and again when with pink roses and sewing-baskets the three brothers got joyously ready for a feminine Billy who did not even come at all.
The house had been very different then. It had been, indeed, a "strata," with its distinctive layers of fads and pursuits as represented by Bertram and his painting on one floor, William and his curios on another, and Cyril with his music on a third. Cyril was gone now. Only Pete and his humble belongings occupied the top floor. The floor below, too, was silent now, and almost empty save for a rug or two, and a few pieces of heavy furniture that William had not cared to take with him to his new quarters on top of Beacon Hill. Below this, however, came Billy's old rooms, and on these Pete had lavished all his skill and devotion.
Freshly laundered curtains were at the windows, dustless rugs were on the floor. The old work-basket had been brought down from the top-floor storeroom, and the long-closed piano stood invitingly open. In a conspicuous place, also, sat the little green god, upon whose exquisitely carved shoulders was supposed to rest the "heap plenty velly good luckee" of Dong Ling's prophecy.
On the first floor Bertram's old rooms and the drawing-room came in for their share of the general overhauling. Even Spunkie did not escape, but had to submit to the ignominy of a bath. And then dawned fair and clear the first day of September, bringing at five o'clock the bride and groom.
Respectfully lined up in the hall to meet them were Pete and Dong Ling: Pete with his wrinkled old face alight with joy and excitement; Dong Ling grinning and kotowing, and chanting in a high-pitched treble:
"Miss Billee, Miss Billee—plenty much welcome, Miss Billee!"
"Yes, welcome home, Mrs. Henshaw!" bowed Bertram, turning at the door, with an elaborate flourish that did not in the least hide his tender pride in his new wife.
Billy laughed and colored a pretty pink.
"Thank you—all of you," she cried a little unsteadily. "And how good, good everything does look to me! Why, where's Uncle William?" she broke off, casting hurriedly anxious eyes about her.
"Well, I should say so," echoed Bertram. "Where is he, Pete? He isn't sick, is he?"
A quick change crossed the old servant's face. He shook his head dumbly.
Billy gave a gleeful laugh.
"I know—he's asleep!" she caroled, skipping to the bottom of the stairway and looking up.
"Ho, Uncle William! Better wake up, sir. The folks have come!"
Pete cleared his throat.
"Mr. William isn't here, Miss—ma'am," he corrected miserably.
Billy smiled, but she frowned, too.
"Not here! Well, I like that," she pouted; "—and when I've brought him the most beautiful pair of mirror knobs he ever saw, and all the way in my bag, too, so I could give them to him the very first thing," she added, darting over to the small bag she had brought in with her. "I'm glad I did, too, for our trunks didn't come," she continued laughingly. "Still, if he isn't here to receive them—There, Pete, aren't they beautiful?" she cried, carefully taking from their wrappings two exquisitely decorated porcelain discs mounted on two long spikes. "They're Batterseas—the real article. I know enough for that; and they're finer than anything he's got. Won't he be pleased?"
"Yes, Miss—ma'am, I mean," stammered the old man.
"These new titles come hard, don't they, Pete?" laughed Bertram.
Pete smiled faintly.
"Never mind, Pete," soothed his new mistress. "You shall call me 'Miss Billy' all your life if you want to. Bertram," she added, turning to her husband, "I'm going to just run up-stairs and put these in Uncle William's rooms so they'll be there when he comes in. We'll see how soon he discovers them!"
Before Pete could stop her she was half-way up the first flight of stairs. Even then he tried to speak to his young master, to explain that Mr. William was not living there; but the words refused to come. He could only stand dumbly waiting.
In a minute it came—Billy's sharp, startled cry.
Bertram sprang for the stairway, but he had not reached the top when he met his wife coming down. She was white-faced and trembling.
"Bertram—those rooms—there's not so much as a teapot there! Uncle William's—gone!"
"Gone!" Bertram wheeled sharply. "Pete, what is the meaning of this? Where is my brother?" To hear him, one would think he suspected the old servant of having hidden his master.
Pete lifted a shaking hand and fumbled with his collar.
"He's moved, sir."
"Moved! Oh, you mean to other rooms—to Cyril's." Bertram relaxed visibly. "He's upstairs, maybe."
Pete shook his head.
"No, sir. He's moved away—out of the house, sir."
For a brief moment Bertram stared as if he could not believe what his ears had heard. Then, step by step, he began to descend the stairs.
"Do you mean—to say—that my brother—has moved-gone away—left—his home?" he demanded.
Billy gave a low cry.
"But why—why?" she choked, almost stumbling headlong down the stairway in her effort to reach the two men at the bottom. "Pete, why did he go?"
There was no answer.
"Pete,"—Bertram's voice was very sharp—"what is the meaning of this? Do you know why my brother left his home?"
The old man wet his lips and swallowed chokingly, but he did not speak.
"I'm waiting, Pete."
Billy laid one hand on the old servant's arm—in the other hand she still tightly clutched the mirror knobs.
"Pete, if you do know, won't you tell us, please?" she begged.
Pete looked down at the hand, then up at the troubled young face with the beseeching eyes. His own features worked convulsively. With a visible effort he cleared his throat.
"I know—what he said," he stammered, his eyes averted.
"What was it?"
There was no answer.
"Look here, Pete, you'll have to tell us, you know," cut in Bertram, decisively, "so you might as well do it now as ever."
Once more Pete cleared his throat. This time the words came in a burst of desperation.
"Yes, sir. I understand, sir. It was only that he said—he said as how young folks didn't need any one else around. So he was goin'."
"Didn't need any one else!" exclaimed Bertram, plainly not comprehending.
"Yes, sir. You two bein' married so, now." Pete's eyes were still averted.
Billy gave a low cry.
"You mean—because I came?" she demanded.
"Why, yes, Miss—no—that is—" Pete stopped with an appealing glance at Bertram.
"Then it was—it was—on account of me," choked Billy.
Pete looked still more distressed
"No, no!" he faltered. "It was only that he thought you wouldn't want him here now."
"Want him here!" ejaculated Bertram.
"Want him here!" echoed Billy, with a sob.
"Pete, where is he?" As she asked the question she dropped the mirror knobs into her open bag, and reached for her coat and gloves—she had not removed her hat.
Pete gave the address.
"It's just down the street a bit and up the hill," he added excitedly, divining her purpose. "It's a sort of a boarding-house, I reckon."
"A boarding-house—for Uncle William!" scorned Billy, her eyes ablaze. "Come, Bertram, we'll see about that."
Bertram reached out a detaining hand.
"But, dearest, you're so tired," he demurred. "Hadn't we better wait till after dinner, or till to-morrow?"
"After dinner! To-morrow!" Billy's eyes blazed anew. "Why, Bertram Henshaw, do you think I'd leave that dear man even one minute longer, if I could help it, with a notion in his blessed old head that we didn't want him?"
"But you said a little while ago you had a headache, dear," still objected Bertram. "If you'd just eat your dinner!"
"Dinner!" choked Billy. "I wonder if you think I could eat any dinner with Uncle William turned out of his home! I'm going to find Uncle William." And she stumbled blindly toward the door.
Bertram reached for his hat. He threw a despairing glance into Pete's eyes.
"We'll be back—when we can," he said, with a frown.
"Yes, sir," answered Pete, respectfully. Then, as if impelled by some hidden force, he touched his master's arm. "It was that way she looked, sir, when she came to you—that night last July—with her eyes all shining," he whispered.
A tender smile curved Bertram's lips. The frown vanished from his face.
"Bless you, Pete—and bless her, too!" he whispered back. The next moment he had hurried after his wife.
The house that bore the number Pete had given proved to have a pretentious doorway, and a landlady who, in response to the summons of the neat maid, appeared with a most impressive rustle of black silk and jet bugles.
No, Mr. William Henshaw was not in his rooms. In fact, he was very seldom there. His business, she believed, called him to State Street through the day. Outside of that, she had been told, he spent much time sitting on a bench in the Common. Doubtless, if they cared to search, they could find him there now.
"A bench in the Common, indeed!" stormed Billy, as she and Bertram hurried down the wide stone steps. "Uncle William—on a bench!"
"But surely now, dear," ventured her husband, "you'll come home and get your dinner!"
Billy turned indignantly.
"And leave Uncle William on a bench in the Common? Indeed, no! Why, Bertram, you wouldn't, either," she cried, as she turned resolutely toward one of the entrances to the Common.
And Bertram, with the "eyes all shining" still before him, could only murmur: "No, of course not, dear!" and follow obediently where she led.
Under ordinary circumstances it would have been a delightful hour for a walk. The sun had almost set, and the shadows lay long across the grass. The air was cool and unusually bracing for a day so early in September. But all this was lost on Bertram. Bertram did not wish to take a walk. He was hungry. He wanted his dinner; and he wanted, too, his old home with his new wife flitting about the rooms as he had pictured this first evening together. He wanted William, of course. Certainly he wanted William; but if William would insist on running away and sitting on park benches in this ridiculous fashion, he ought to take the consequences—until to-morrow.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. Up one path and down another trudged the anxious-eyed Billy and her increasingly impatient husband. Then when the fifteen weary minutes had become a still more weary half-hour, the bonds Bertram had set on his temper snapped.
"Billy," he remonstrated despairingly, "do, please, come home! Don't you see how highly improbable it is that we should happen on William if we walked like this all night? He might move—change his seat—go home, even. He probably has gone home. And surely never before did a bride insist on spending the first evening after her return tramping up and down a public park for hour after hour like this, looking for any man. Won't you come home?"
But Billy had not even heard. With a glad little cry she had darted to the side of the humped-up figure of a man alone on a park bench just ahead of them.
"Uncle William! Oh, Uncle William, how could you?" she cried, dropping herself on to one end of the seat and catching the man's arm in both her hands.
"Yes, how could you?" demanded Bertram, with just a touch of irritation, dropping himself on to the other end of the seat, and catching the man's other arm in his one usable hand.
The bent shoulders and bowed head straightened up with a jerk.
"Well, well, bless my soul! If it isn't our little bride," cried Uncle William, fondly. "And the happy bridegroom, too. When did you get home?"
"We haven't got home," retorted Bertram, promptly, before his wife could speak. "Oh, we looked in at the door an hour or so back; but we didn't stay. We've been hunting for you ever since."
"Nonsense, children!" Uncle William spoke with gay cheeriness; but he refused to meet either Billy's or Bertram's eyes.
"Uncle William, how could you do it?" reproached Billy, again.
"Do what?" Uncle William was plainly fencing for time.
"Leave the house like that?"
"Ho! I wanted a change."
"As if we'd believe that!" scoffed Billy.
"All right; let's call it you've had the change, then," laughed Bertram, "and we'll send over for your things to-morrow. Come—now let's go home to dinner."
William shook his head. He essayed a gay smile.
"Why, I've only just begun. I'm going to stay—oh, I don't know how long I'm going to stay," he finished blithely.
Billy lifted her chin a little.
"Uncle William, you aren't playing square. Pete told us what you said when you left."
"Eh? What?" William looked up with startled eyes.
"About—about our not needing you. So we know, now, why you left; and we sha'n't stand it."
"Pete? That? Oh, that—that's nonsense I—I'll settle with Pete."
Billy laughed softly.
"Poor Pete! Don't. We simply dragged it out of him. And now we're here to tell you that we do want you, and that you must come back."
Again William shook his head. A swift shadow crossed his face.
"Thank you, no, children," he said dully.
"You're very kind, but you don't need me. I should be just an interfering elder brother. I should spoil your young married life." (William's voice now sounded as if he were reciting a well-learned lesson.) "If I went away and stayed two months, you'd never forget the utter freedom and joy of those two whole months with the house all to yourselves."
"Uncle William," gasped Billy, "what are you talking about?"
"About—about my not going back, of course."
"But you are coming back," cut in Bertram, almost angrily. "Oh, come, Will, this is utter nonsense, and you know it! Come, let's go home to dinner."
A stern look came to the corners of William's mouth—a look that Bertram understood well.
"All right, I'll go to dinner, of course; but I sha'n't stay," said William, firmly. "I've thought it all out. I know I'm right. Come, we'll go to dinner now, and say no more about it," he finished with a cheery smile, as he rose to his feet. Then, to the bride, he added: "Did you have a nice trip, little girl?"
Billy, too, had risen, now, but she did not seem to have heard his question. In the fast falling twilight her face looked a little white.
"Uncle William," she began very quietly, "do you think for a minute that just because I married your brother I am going to live in that house and turn you out of the home you've lived in all your life?"
"Nonsense, dear! I'm not turned out. I just go," corrected Uncle William, gayly.
With superb disdain Billy brushed this aside.
"Oh, no, you won't," she declared; "but—I shall."
"Billy!" gasped Bertram.
"My—my dear!" expostulated William, faintly.
"Uncle William! Bertram! Listen," panted Billy. "I never told you much before, but I'm going to, now. Long ago, when I went away with Aunt Hannah, your sister Kate showed me how dear the old home was to you—how much you thought of it. And she said—she said that I had upset everything." (Bertram interjected a sharp word, but Billy paid no attention.) "That's why I went; and I shall go again—if you don't come home to-morrow to stay, Uncle William. Come, now let's go to dinner, please. Bertram's hungry," she finished, with a bright smile.
There was a tense moment of silence. William glanced at Bertram; Bertram returned the glance—with interest.
"Er—ah—yes; well, we might go to dinner," stammered William, after a minute.
"Er—yes," agreed Bertram. And the three fell into step together.
CHAPTER IV. "JUST LIKE BILLY"
Billy did not leave the Strata this time. Before twenty-four hours had passed, the last cherished fragment of Mr. William Henshaw's possessions had been carefully carried down the imposing steps of the Beacon Hill boarding-house under the disapproving eyes of its bugle-adorned mistress, who found herself now with a month's advance rent and two vacant "parlors" on her hands. Before another twenty-four hours had passed her quondam boarder, with a tired sigh, sank into his favorite morris chair in his old familiar rooms, and looked about him with contented eyes. Every treasure was in place, from the traditional four small stones of his babyhood days to the Batterseas Billy had just brought him. Pete, as of yore, was hovering near with a dust-cloth. Bertram's gay whistle sounded from the floor below. William Henshaw was at home again.
This much accomplished, Billy went to see Aunt Hannah.
Aunt Hannah greeted her affectionately, though with tearfully troubled eyes. She was wearing a gray shawl to-day topped with a black one—sure sign of unrest, either physical or mental, as all her friends knew.
"I'd begun to think you'd forgotten—me," she faltered, with a poor attempt at gayety.
"You've been home three whole days."
"I know, dearie," smiled Billy; "and 'twas a shame. But I have been so busy! My trunks came at last, and I've been helping Uncle William get settled, too."
Aunt Hannah looked puzzled.
"Uncle William get settled? You mean—he's changed his room?"
Billy laughed oddly, and threw a swift glance into Aunt Hannah's face.
"Well, yes, he did change," she murmured; "but he's moved back now into the old quarters. Er—you haven't heard from Uncle William then, lately, I take it."
"No." Aunt Hannah shook her head abstractedly. "I did see him once, several weeks ago; but I haven't, since. We had quite a talk, then; and, Billy, I've been wanting to speak to you," she hurried on, a little feverishly. "I didn't like to leave, of course, till you did come home, as long as you'd said nothing about your plans; but—"
"Leave!" interposed Billy, dazedly. "Leave where? What do you mean?"
"Why, leave here, of course, dear. I mean. I didn't like to get my room while you were away; but I shall now, of course, at once."
"Nonsense, Aunt Hannah! As if I'd let you do that," laughed Billy.
Aunt Hannah stiffened perceptibly. Her lips looked suddenly thin and determined. Even the soft little curls above her ears seemed actually to bristle with resolution.
"Billy," she began firmly, "we might as well understand each other at once. I know your good heart, and I appreciate your kindness. But I can not come to live with you. I shall not. It wouldn't be best. I should be like an interfering elder brother in your home. I should spoil your young married life; and if I went away for two months you'd never forget the utter joy and freedom of those two months with the whole house ali to yourselves."
At the beginning of this speech Billy's eyes had still carried their dancing smile, but as the peroration progressed on to the end, a dawning surprise, which soon became a puzzled questioning, drove the smile away. Then Billy sat suddenly erect.
"Why, Aunt Hannah, that's exactly what Uncle William—" Billy stopped, and regarded Aunt Hannah with quick suspicion. The next moment she burst into gleeful laughter.
Aunt Hannah looked grieved, and not a little surprised; but Billy did not seem to notice this.
"Oh, oh, Aunt Hannah—you, too! How perfectly funny!" she gurgled. "To think you two old blesseds should get your heads together like this!"
Aunt Hannah stirred restively, and pulled the black shawl more closely about her.
"Indeed, Billy, I don't know what you mean by that," she sighed, with a visible effort at self-control; "but I do know that I can not go to live with you."
"Bless your heart, dear, I don't want you to," soothed Billy, with gay promptness.
"Oh! O-h-h," stammered Aunt Hannah, surprise, mortification, dismay, and a grieved hurt bringing a flood of color to her face. It is one thing to refuse a home, and quite another to have a home refused you.
"Oh! O-h-h, Aunt Hannah," cried Billy, turning very red in her turn. "Please, please don't look like that. I didn't mean it that way. I do want you, dear, only—I want you somewhere else more. I want you—here."
"Here!" Aunt Hannah looked relieved, but unconvinced.
"Yes. Don't you like it here?"
"Like it! Why, I love it, dear. You know I do. But you don't need this house now, Billy."
"Oh, yes, I do," retorted Billy, airily. "I'm going to keep it up, and I want you here.
"Fiddlededee, Billy! As if I'd let you keep up this house just for me," scorned Aunt Hannah.
"'Tisn't just for you. It's for—for lots of folks."
"My grief and conscience, Billy! What are you talking about?"
Billy laughed, and settled herself more comfortably on the hassock at Aunt Hannah's feet.
"Well, I'll tell you. Just now I want it for Tommy Dunn, and the Greggorys if I can get them, and maybe one or two others. There'll always be somebody. You see, I had thought I'd have them at the Strata."
"Tommy Dunn—at the Strata!"
Billy laughed again ruefully.
"O dear! You sound just like Bertram," she pouted. "He didn't want Tommy, either, nor any of the rest of them."
"The rest of them!"
"Well, I could have had a lot more, you know, the Strata is so big, especially now that Cyril has gone, and left all those empty rooms. I got real enthusiastic, but Bertram didn't. He just laughed and said 'nonsense!' until he found I was really in earnest; then he—well, he said 'nonsense,' then, too—only he didn't laugh," finished Billy, with a sigh.
Aunt Hannah regarded her with fond, though slightly exasperated eyes.
"Billy, you are, indeed, a most extraordinary young woman—at times. Surely, with you, a body never knows what to expect—except the unexpected."
"Why, Aunt Hannah!—and from you, too!" reproached Billy, mischievously; but Aunt Hannah had yet more to say.
"Of course Bertram thought it was nonsense. The idea of you, a bride, filling up your house with—with people like that! Tommy Dunn, indeed!"
"Oh, Bertram said he liked Tommy all right," sighed Billy; "but he said that that didn't mean he wanted him for three meals a day. One would think poor Tommy was a breakfast food! So that is when I thought of keeping up this house, you see, and that's why I want you here—to take charge of it. And you'll do that—for me, won't you?"
Aunt Hannah fell back in her chair.
"Why, y-yes, Billy, of course, if—if you want it. But what an extraordinary idea, child!"
Billy shook her head. A deeper color came to her cheeks, and a softer glow to her eyes.
"I don't think so, Aunt Hannah. It's only that I'm so happy that some of it has just got to overflow somewhere, and this is going to be the overflow house—a sort of safety valve for me, you see. I'm going to call it the Annex—it will be an annex to our home. And I want to keep it full, always, of people who—who can make the best use of all that extra happiness that I can't possibly use myself," she finished a little tremulously. "Don't you see?"
"Oh, yes, I see," replied Aunt Hannah, with a fond shake of the head.
"But, really, listen—it's sensible," urged Billy. "First, there's Tommy. His mother died last month. He's at a neighbor's now, but they're going to send him to a Home for Crippled Children; and he's grieving his heart out over it. I'm going to bring him here to a real home—the kind that doesn't begin with a capital letter. He adores music, and he's got real talent, I think. Then there's the Greggorys."
Aunt Hannah looked dubious.
"You can't get the Greggorys to—to use any of that happiness, Billy. They're too proud."
Billy smiled radiantly.
"I know I can't get them to use it, Aunt Hannah, but I believe I can get them to give it," she declared triumphantly. "I shall ask Alice Greggory to teach Tommy music, and I shall ask Mrs. Greggory to teach him books; and I shall tell them both that I positively need them to keep you company."
"Oh, but Billy," bridled Aunt Hannah, with prompt objection.
"Tut, tut!—I know you'll be willing to be thrown as a little bit of a sop to the Greggorys' pride," coaxed Billy. "You just wait till I get the Overflow Annex in running order. Why, Aunt Hannah, you don't know how busy you're going to be handing out all that extra happiness that I can't use!"
"You dear child!" Aunt Hannah smiled mistily. The black shawl had fallen unheeded to the floor now. "As if anybody ever had any more happiness than one's self could use!"
"I have," avowed Billy, promptly, "and it's going to keep growing and growing, I know."
"Oh, my grief and conscience, Billy, don't!" exclaimed Aunt Hannah, lifting shocked hands of remonstrance. "Rap on wood—do! How can you boast like that?"
Billy dimpled roguishly and sprang to her feet.
"Why, Aunt Hannah, I'm ashamed of you! To be superstitious like that—you, a good Presbyterian!"
Aunt Hannah subsided shamefacedly.
"Yes, I know, Billy, it is silly; but I just can't help it."
"Oh, but it's worse than silly, Aunt Hannah," teased Billy, with a remorseless chuckle. "It's really heathen! Bertram told me once that it dates 'way back to the time of the Druids—appealing to the god of trees, or something like that—when you rap on wood, you know."
"Ugh!" shuddered Aunt Hannah. "As if I would, Billy! How is Bertram, by the by?"
A swift shadow crossed Billy's bright face.
"He's lovely—only his arm."
"His arm! But I thought that was better."
"Oh, it is," drooped Billy, "but it gets along so slowly, and it frets him dreadfully. You know he never can do anything with his left hand, he says, and he just hates to have things done for him—though Pete and Dong Ling are quarreling with each other all the time to do things for him, and I'm quarreling with both of them to do them for him myself! By the way, Dong Ling is going to leave us next week. Did you know it?"
"Yes. Oh, he told Bertram long ago he should go when we were married; that he had plenty much money, and was going back to China, and not be Melican man any longer. But I don't think Bertram thought he'd do it. William says Dong Ling went to Pete, however, after we left, and told him he wanted to go; that he liked the little Missee plenty well, but that there'd be too much hen-talk when she got back, and—"
"Why, the impudent creature!"
Billy laughed merrily.
"Yes; Pete was furious, William says, but Dong Ling didn't mean any disrespect, I'm sure. He just wasn't used to having petticoats around, and didn't want to take orders from them; that's all."
"But, Billy, what will you do?"
"Oh, Pete's fixed all that lovely," returned Billy, nonchalantly. "You know his niece lives over in South Boston, and it seems she's got a daughter who's a fine cook and will be glad to come. Mercy! Look at the time," she broke off, glancing at the clock. "I shall be late to dinner, and Dong Ling loathes anybody who's late to his meals—as I found out to my sorrow the night we got home. Good-by, dear. I'll be out soon again and fix it all up—about the Annex, you know." And with a bright smile she was gone.
"Dear me," sighed Aunt Hannah, stooping to pick up the black shawl; "dear me! Of course everything will be all right—there's a girl coming, even if Dong Ling is going. But—but—Oh, my grief and conscience, what an extraordinary child Billy is, to be sure—but what a dear one!" she added, wiping a quick tear from her eye. "An Overflow Annex, indeed, for her 'extra happiness'! Now isn't that just like Billy?"
CHAPTER V. TIGER SKINS
September passed and October came, bringing with it cool days and clear, crisp evenings royally ruled over by a gorgeous harvest moon. According to Billy everything was just perfect—except, of course, poor Bertram's arm; and even the fact that that gained so slowly was not without its advantage (again according to Billy), for it gave Bertram more time to be with her.
"You see, dear, as long as you can't paint," she told him earnestly, one day, "why, I'm not really hindering you by keeping you with me so much."
"You certainly are not," he retorted, with a smile.
"Then I may be just as happy as I like over it," settled Billy, comfortably.
"As if you ever could hinder me," he ridiculed.
"Oh, yes, I could," nodded Billy, emphatically. "You forget, sir. That was what worried me so. Everybody, even the newspapers and magazines, said I would do it, too. They said I'd slay your Art, stifle your Ambition, destroy your Inspiration, and be a nuisance generally. And Kate said—"
"Yes. Well, never mind what Kate said," interrupted the man, savagely.
Billy laughed, and gave his ear a playful tweak.
"All right; but I'm not going to do it, you know—spoil your career, sir. You just wait," she continued dramatically. "The minute your arm gets so you can paint, I myself shall conduct you to your studio, thrust the brushes into your hand, fill your palette with all the colors of the rainbow, and order you to paint, my lord, paint! But—until then I'm going to have you all I like," she finished, with a complete change of manner, nestling into the ready curve of his good left arm.
"You witch!" laughed the man, fondly. "Why, Billy, you couldn't hinder me. You'll be my inspiration, dear, instead of slaying it. You'll see. This time Marguerite Winthrop's portrait is going to be a success."
Billy turned quickly.
"Then you are—that is, you haven't—I mean, you're going to—paint it?"
"I just am," avowed the artist. "And this time it'll be a success, too, with you to help."
Billy drew in her breath tremulously.
"I didn't know but you'd already started it," she faltered.
He shook his head.
"No. After the other one failed, and Mr. Winthrop asked me to try again, I couldn't then. I was so troubled over you. That's the time you did hinder me," he smiled. "Then came your note breaking the engagement. Of course I knew too much to attempt a thing like that portrait then. But now—now—!" The pause and the emphasis were eloquent.
"Of course, now," nodded Billy, brightly, but a little feverishly. "And when do you begin?"
"Not till January. Miss Winthrop won't be back till then. I saw J. G. last week, and I told him I'd accept his offer to try again."
"What did he say?"
"He gave my left hand a big grip and said: 'Good!—and you'll win out this time.'"
"Of course you will," nodded Billy, again, though still a little feverishly. "And this time I sha'n't mind a bit if you do stay to luncheon, and break engagements with me, sir," she went on, tilting her chin archly, "for I shall know it's the portrait and not the sitter that's really keeping you. Oh, you'll see what a fine artist's wife I'll make!"
"The very best," declared Bertram so ardently that Billy blushed, and shook her head in reproof.
"Nonsense! I wasn't fishing. I didn't mean it that way," she protested. Then, as he tried to catch her, she laughed and danced teasingly out of his reach.
Because Bertram could not paint, therefore, Billy had him quite to herself these October days; nor did she hesitate to appropriate him. Neither, on his part, was Bertram loath to be appropriated. Like two lovers they read and walked and talked together, and like two children, sometimes, they romped through the stately old rooms with Spunkie, or with Tommy Dunn, who was a frequent guest. Spunkie, be it known, was renewing her kittenhood, so potent was the influence of the dangling strings and rolling balls that she encountered everywhere; and Tommy Dunn, with Billy's help, was learning that not even a pair of crutches need keep a lonely little lad from a frolic. Even William, roused from his after-dinner doze by peals of laughter, was sometimes inveigled into activities that left him breathless, but curiously aglow. While Pete, polishing silver in the dining-room down-stairs, smiled indulgently at the merry clatter above—and forgot the teasing pain in his side.
But it was not all nonsense with Billy, nor gay laughter. More often it was a tender glow in the eyes, a softness in the voice, a radiant something like an aura of joy all about her, that told how happy indeed were these days for her. There was proof by word of mouth, too—long talks with Bertram in the dancing firelight when they laid dear plans for the future, and when she tried so hard to make her husband understand what a good, good wife she intended to be, and how she meant never to let anything come between them.
It was so earnest and serious a Billy by this time that Bertram would turn startled, dismayed eyes on his young wife; whereupon, with a very Billy-like change of mood, she would give him one of her rare caresses, and perhaps sigh:
"Goosey—it's only because I'm so happy, happy, happy! Why, Bertram, if it weren't for that Overflow Annex I believe I—I just couldn't live!"
It was Bertram who sighed then, and who prayed fervently in his heart that never might he see a real shadow cloud that dear face.
Thus far, certainly, the cares of matrimony had rested anything but heavily upon the shapely young shoulders of the new wife. Domestic affairs at the Strata moved like a piece of well-oiled machinery. Dong Ling, to be sure, was not there; but in his place reigned Pete's grandniece, a fresh-faced, capable young woman who (Bertram declared) cooked like an angel and minded her own business like a man. Pete, as of yore, had full charge of the house; and a casual eye would see few changes. Even the brothers themselves saw few, for that matter.
True, at the very first, Billy had donned a ruffled apron and a bewitching dust-cap, and had traversed the house from cellar to garret with a prettily important air of "managing things," as she suggested changes right and left. She had summoned Pete, too, for three mornings in succession, and with great dignity had ordered the meals for the day. But when Bertram was discovered one evening tugging back his favorite chair, and when William had asked if Billy were through using his pipe-tray, the young wife had concluded to let things remain about as they were. And when William ate no breakfast one morning, and Bertram aggrievedly refused dessert that night at dinner, Billy—learning through an apologetic Pete that Master William always had to have eggs for breakfast no matter what else there was, and that Master Bertram never ate boiled rice—gave up planning the meals. True, for three more mornings she summoned Pete for "orders," but the orders were nothing more nor less than a blithe "Well, Pete, what are we going to have for dinner to-day?" By the end of a week even this ceremony was given up, and before a month had passed, Billy was little more than a guest in her own home, so far as responsibility was concerned.
Billy was not idle, however; far from it. First, there were the delightful hours with Bertram. Then there was her music: Billy was writing a new song—the best she had ever written, Billy declared.
"Why, Bertram, it can't help being that," she said to her husband, one day. "The words just sang themselves to me right out of my heart; and the melody just dropped down from the sky. And now, everywhere, I'm hearing the most wonderful harmonies. The whole universe is singing to me. If only now I can put it on paper what I hear! Then I can make the whole universe sing to some one else!"
Even music, however, had to step one side for the wedding calls which were beginning to be received, and which must be returned, in spite of the occasional rebellion of the young husband. There were the more intimate friends to be seen, also, and Cyril and Marie to be visited. And always there was the Annex.
The Annex was in fine running order now, and was a source of infinite satisfaction to its founder and great happiness to its beneficiaries. Tommy Dunn was there, learning wonderful things from books and still more wonderful things from the piano in the living-room. Alice Greggory and her mother were there, too—the result of much persuasion. Indeed, according to Bertram, Billy had been able to fill the Annex only by telling each prospective resident that he or she was absolutely necessary to the welfare and happiness of every other resident. Not that the house was full, either. There were still two unoccupied rooms.
"But then, I'm glad there are," Billy had declared, "for there's sure to be some one that I'll want to send there."
"Some one, did you say?" Bertram had retorted, meaningly; but his wife had disdained to answer this.
Billy herself was frequently at the Annex. She told Aunt Hannah that she had to come often to bring the happiness—it accumulated so fast. Certainly she always found plenty to do there, whenever she came. There was Aunt Hannah to be read to, Mrs. Greggory to be sung to, and Tommy Dunn to be listened to; for Tommy Dunn was always quivering with eagerness to play her his latest "piece."
Billy knew that some day at the Annex she would meet Mr. M. J. Arkwright; and she told herself that she hoped she should.
Billy had not seen Arkwright (except on the stage of the Boston Opera House) since the day he had left her presence in white-faced, stony-eyed misery after declaring his love for her, and learning of her engagement to Bertram. Since then, she knew, he had been much with his old friend, Alice Greggory. She did not believe, should she see him now, that he would be either white-faced, or stony-eyed. His heart, she was sure, had gone where it ought to have gone in the first place—to Alice. Such being, in her opinion, the case, she longed to get the embarrassment of a first meeting between themselves over with, for, after that, she was sure, their old friendship could be renewed, and she would be in a position to further this pretty love affair between him and Alice. Very decidedly, therefore, Billy wished to meet Arkwright. Very pleased, consequently, was she when, one day, coming into the living-room at the Annex, she found the man sitting by the fire.
Arkwright was on his feet at once.
"Miss—Mrs. H—Henshaw," he stammered
"Oh, Mr. Arkwright," she cried, with just a shade of nervousness in her voice as she advanced, her hand outstretched. "I'm glad to see you."
"Thank you. I wanted to see Miss Greggory," he murmured. Then, as the unconscious rudeness of his reply dawned on him, he made matters infinitely worse by an attempted apology. "That is, I mean—I didn't mean—" he began to stammer miserably.
Some girls might have tossed the floundering man a straw in the shape of a light laugh intended to turn aside all embarrassment—but not Billy. Billy held out a frankly helping hand that was meant to set the man squarely on his feet at her side.
"Mr. Arkwright, don't, please," she begged earnestly. "You and I don't need to beat about the bush. I am glad to see you, and I hope you're glad to see me. We're going to be the best of friends from now on, I'm sure; and some day, soon, you're going to bring Alice to see me, and we'll have some music. I left her up-stairs. She'll be down at once, I dare say—I met Rosa going up with your card. Good-by," she finished with a bright smile, as she turned and walked rapidly from the room.
Outside, on the steps, Billy drew a long breath.
"There," she whispered; "that's over—and well over!" The next minute she frowned vexedly. She had missed her glove. "Never mind! I sha'n't go back in there for it now, anyway," she decided.
In the living-room, five minutes later, Alice Greggory found only a hastily scrawled note waiting for her.
"If you'll forgive the unforgivable," she read "you'll forgive me for not being here when you come down. 'Circumstances over which I have no control have called me away.' May we let it go at that?
"M. J. ARKWRIGHT."
As Alice Greggory's amazed, questioning eyes left the note they fell upon the long white glove on the floor by the door. Half mechanically she crossed the room and picked it up; but almost at once she dropped it with a low cry.
"Billy! He—saw—Billy!" Then a flood of understanding dyed her face scarlet as she turned and fled to the blessedly unseeing walls of her own room.
Not ten minutes later Rosa tapped at her door with a note.
"It's from Mr. Arkwright, Miss. He's downstairs." Rosa's eyes were puzzled, and a bit startled.
"Yes, Miss. He's come again. That is, I didn't know he'd went—but he must have, for he's come again now. He wrote something in a little book; then he tore it out and gave it to me. He said he'd wait, please, for an answer."
"Oh, very well, Rosa."
Miss Greggory took the note and spoke with an elaborate air of indifference that was meant to express a calm ignoring of the puzzled questioning in the other's eyes. The next moment she read this in Arkwright's peculiar scrawl:
"If you've already forgiven the unforgivable, you'll do it again, I know, and come down-stairs. Won't you, please? I want to see you."
Miss Greggory lifted her head with a jerk. Her face was a painful red.
"Tell Mr. Arkwright I can't possibly—" She came to an abrupt pause. Her eyes had encountered Rosa's, and in Rosa's eyes the puzzled questioning was plainly fast becoming a shrewd suspicion.
There was the briefest of hesitations; then, lightly, Miss Greggory tossed the note aside.
"Tell Mr. Arkwright I'll be down at once, please," she directed carelessly, as she turned back into the room.
But she was not down at once. She was not down until she had taken time to bathe her red eyes, powder her telltale nose, smoothe her ruffled hair, and whip herself into the calm, steady-eyed, self-controlled young woman that Arkwright finally rose to meet when she came into the room.
"I thought it was only women who were privileged to change their mind," she began brightly; but Arkwright ignored her attempt to conventionalize the situation.
"Thank you for coming down," he said, with a weariness that instantly drove the forced smile from the girl's lips. "I—I wanted to—to talk to you."
"Yes?" She seated herself and motioned him to a chair near her. He took the seat, and then fell silent, his eyes out the window.
"I thought you said you—you wanted to talk, she reminded him nervously, after a minute.
"I did." He turned with disconcerting abruptness. "Alice, I'm going to tell you a story."
"I shall be glad to listen. People always like stories, don't they?"
"Do they?" The somber pain in Arkwright's eyes deepened. Alice Greggory did not know it, but he was thinking of another story he had once told in that same room. Billy was his listener then, while now—A little precipitately he began to speak.
"When I was a very small boy I went to visit my uncle, who, in his young days, had been quite a hunter. Before the fireplace in his library was a huge tiger skin with a particularly lifelike head. The first time I saw it I screamed, and ran and hid. I refused then even to go into the room again. My cousins urged, scolded, pleaded, and laughed at me by turns, but I was obdurate. I would not go where I could see the fearsome thing again, even though it was, as they said, 'nothing but a dead old rug!'
"Finally, one day, my uncle took a hand in the matter. By sheer will-power he forced me to go with him straight up to the dreaded creature, and stand by its side. He laid one of my shrinking hands on the beast's smooth head, and thrust the other one quite into the open red mouth with its gleaming teeth.
"'You see,' he said, 'there's absolutely nothing to fear. He can't possibly hurt you. Just as if you weren't bigger and finer and stronger in every way than that dead thing on the floor!'
"Then, when he had got me to the point where of my own free will I would walk up and touch the thing, he drew a lesson for me.
"'Now remember,' he charged me. 'Never run and hide again. Only cowards do that. Walk straight up and face the thing. Ten to one you'll find it's nothing but a dead skin masquerading as the real thing. Even if it isn't if it's alive—face it. Find a weapon and fight it. Know that you are going to conquer it and you'll conquer. Never run. Be a man. Men don't run, my boy!'"
Arkwright paused, and drew a long breath. He did not look at the girl in the opposite chair. If he had looked he would have seen a face transfigured.
"Well," he resumed, "I never forgot that tiger skin, nor what it stood for, after that day when Uncle Ben thrust my hand into its hideous, but harmless, red mouth. Even as a kid I began, then, to try—not to run. I've tried ever since But to-day—I did run."
Arkwright's voice had been getting lower and lower. The last three words would have been almost inaudible to ears less sensitively alert than were Alice Greggory's. For a moment after the words were uttered, only the clock's ticking broke the silence; then, with an obvious effort, the man roused himself, as if breaking away from some benumbing force that held him.
"Alice, I don't need to tell you, after what I said the other night, that I loved Billy Neilson. That was bad enough, for I found she was pledged to another man. But to-day I discovered something worse: I discovered that I loved Billy Henshaw—another man's wife. And—I ran. But I've come back. I'm going to face the thing. Oh, I'm not deceiving myself! This love of mine is no dead tiger skin. It's a beast, alive and alert—God pity me!—to destroy my very soul. But I'm going to fight it; and—I want you to help me."
The girl gave a half-smothered cry. The man turned, but he could not see her face distinctly. Twilight had come, and the room was full of shadows. He hesitated, then went on, a little more quietly.
"That's why I've told you all this—so you would help me. And you will, won't you?"
There was no answer. Once again he tried to see her face, but it was turned now quite away from him.
"You've been a big help already, little girl. Your friendship, your comradeship—they've been everything to me. You're not going to make me do without them—now?"
"No—oh, no!" The answer was low and a little breathless; but he heard it.
"Thank you. I knew you wouldn't." He paused, then rose to his feet. When he spoke again his voice carried a note of whimsical lightness that was a little forced. "But I must go—else you will take them from me, and with good reason. And please don't let your kind heart grieve too much—over me. I'm no deep-dyed villain in a melodrama, nor wicked lover in a ten-penny novel, you know. I'm just an everyday man in real life; and we're going to fight this thing out in everyday living. That's where your help is coming in. We'll go together to see Mrs. Bertram Henshaw. She's asked us to, and you'll do it, I know. We'll have music and everyday talk. We'll see Mrs. Bertram Henshaw in her own home with her husband, where she belongs; and—I'm not going to run again. But—I'm counting on your help, you know," he smiled a little wistfully, as he held out his hand in good-by.
One minute later Alice Greggory, alone, was hurrying up-stairs.
"I can't—I can't—I know I can't," she was whispering wildly. Then, in her own room, she faced herself in the mirror. "Yes—you—can, Alice Greggory," she asserted, with swift change of voice and manner. "This is your tiger skin, and you're going to fight it. Do you understand?—fight it! And you're going to win, too. Do you want that man to know you—care?"
CHAPTER VI. "THE PAINTING LOOK"
It was toward the last of October that Billy began to notice her husband's growing restlessness. Twice, when she had been playing to him, she turned to find him testing the suppleness of his injured arm. Several times, failing to receive an answer to her questions, she had looked up to discover him gazing abstractedly at nothing in particular.
They read and walked and talked together, to be sure, and Bertram's devotion to her lightest wish was beyond question; but more and more frequently these days Billy found him hovering over his sketches in his studio; and once, when he failed to respond to the dinner-bell, search revealed him buried in a profound treatise on "The Art of Foreshortening."
Then came the day when Billy, after an hour's vain effort to imprison within notes a tantalizing melody, captured the truant and rain down to the studio to tell Bertram of her victory.
But Bertram did not seem even to hear her. True, he leaped to his feet and hurried to meet her, his face radiantly aglow; but she had not ceased to speak before he himself was talking.
"Billy, Billy, I've been sketching," he cried. "My hand is almost steady. See, some of those lines are all right! I just picked up a crayon and—" He stopped abruptly, his eyes on Billy's face. A vaguely troubled shadow crossed his own. "Did—did you—were you saying anything in—in particular, when you came in?" he stammered.
For a short half-minute Billy looked at her husband without speaking. Then, a little queerly, she laughed.
"Oh, no, nothing at all in particular," she retorted airily. The next moment, with one of her unexpected changes of manner, she darted across the room, picked up a palette, and a handful of brushes from the long box near it. Advancing toward her husband she held them out dramatically. "And now paint, my lord, paint!" she commanded him, with stern insistence, as she thrust them into his hands.
Bertram laughed shamefacedly.
"Oh, I say, Billy," he began; but Billy had gone.
Out in the hall Billy was speeding up-stairs, talking fiercely to herself.
"We'll, Billy Neilson Henshaw, it's come! Now behave yourself. That was the painting look! You know what that means. Remember, he belongs to his Art before he does to you. Kate and everybody says so. And you—you expected him to tend to you and your silly little songs. Do you want to ruin his career? As if now he could spend all his time and give all his thoughts to you! But I—I just hate that Art!"
"What did you say, Billy?" asked William, in mild surprise, coming around the turn of the balustrade in the hall above. "Were you speaking to me, my dear?"
Billy looked up. Her face cleared suddenly, and she laughed—though a little ruefully.
"No, Uncle William, I wasn't talking to you," she sighed. "I was just—just administering first aid to the injured," she finished, as she whisked into her own room.
"Well, well, bless the child! What can she mean by that?" puzzled Uncle William, turning to go down the stairway.
Bertram began to paint a very little the next day. He painted still more the next, and yet more again the day following. He was like a bird let out of a cage, so joyously alive was he. The old sparkle came back to his eye, the old gay smile to his lips. Now that they had come back Billy realized what she had not been conscious of before: that for several weeks past they had not been there; and she wondered which hurt the more—that they had not been there before, or that they were there now. Then she scolded herself roundly for asking the question at all.
They were not easy—those days for Billy, though always to Bertram she managed to show a cheerfully serene face. To Uncle William, also, and to Aunt Hannah she showed a smiling countenance; and because she could not talk to anybody else of her feelings, she talked to herself. This, however, was no new thing for Billy to do From earliest childhood she had fought things out in like manner.
"But it's so absurd of you, Billy Henshaw," she berated herself one day, when Bertram had become so absorbed in his work that he had forgotten to keep his appointment with her for a walk. "Just because you have had his constant attention almost every hour since you were married is no reason why you should have it every hour now, when his arm is better! Besides, it's exactly what you said you wouldn't do—object—to his giving proper time to his work."
"But I'm not objecting," stormed the other half of herself. "I'm telling him to do it. It's only that he's so—so pleased to do it. He doesn't seem to mind a bit being away from me. He's actually happy!"
"Well, don't you want him to be happy in his work? Fie! For shame! A fine artist's wife you are. It seems Kate was right, then; you are going to spoil his career!"
"Ho!" quoth Billy, and tossed her head. Forthwith she crossed the room to her piano and plumped herself down hard on to the stool. Then, from under her fingers there fell a rollicking melody that seemed to fill the room with little dancing feet. Faster and faster sped Billy's fingers; swifter and swifter twinkled the little dancing feet. Then a door was jerked open, and Bertram's voice called:
The music stopped instantly. Billy sprang from her seat, her eyes eagerly seeking the direction from which had come the voice. Perhaps—perhaps Bertram wanted her. Perhaps he was not going to paint any longer that morning, after all. "Billy!" called the voice again. "Please, do you mind stopping that playing just for a little while? I'm a brute, I know, dear, but my brush will try to keep time with that crazy little tune of yours, and you know my hand is none too steady, anyhow, and when it tries to keep up with that jiggety, jig, jig, jiggety, jig, jig—! Do you mind, darling, just—just sewing, or doing something still for a while?"
All the light fled from Billy's face, but her voice, when she spoke, was the quintessence of cheery indifference.
"Why, no, of course not, dear."
"Thank you. I knew you wouldn't," sighed Bertram. Then the door shut.
For a long minute Billy stood motionless before she glanced at her watch and sped to the telephone.
"Is Miss Greggory there, Rosa?" she called when the operator's ring was answered.
"Mis' Greggory, the lame one?"
"No; Miss Greggory—Miss Alice."
"Then won't you ask her to come to the telephone, please."
There was a moment's wait, during which Billy's small, well-shod foot beat a nervous tattoo on the floor.
"Oh, is that you, Alice?" she called then. "Are you going to be home for an hour or two?"
"Why, y-yes; yes, indeed."
"Then I'm coming over. We'll play duets, sing—anything. I want some music."
"Do! And—Mr. Arkwright is here. He'll help."
"Mr. Arkwright? You say he's there? Then I won't—Yes, I will, too." Billy spoke with renewed firmness. "I'll be there right away. Good-by." And she hung up the receiver, and went to tell Pete to order John and Peggy at once.
"I suppose I ought to have left Alice and Mr. Arkwright alone together," muttered the young wife feverishly, as she hurriedly prepared for departure. "But I'll make it up to them later. I'm going to give them lots of chances. But to-day—to-day I just had to go—somewhere!"
At the Annex, with Alice Greggory and Arkwright, Billy sang duets and trios, and reveled in a sonorous wilderness of new music to her heart's content. Then, rested, refreshed, and at peace with all the world, she hurried home to dinner and to Bertram.
"There! I feel better," she sighed, as she took off her hat in her own room; "and now I'll go find Bertram. Bless his heart—of course he didn't want me to play when he was so busy!"