MISS BILLY'S DECISION
By Eleanor H. Porter
Author of "Miss Billy," etc.
TO My Cousin Helen
CONTENTS CHAPTER I. CALDERWELL DOES SOME TALKING II. AUNT HANNAH GETS A LETTER III. BILLY AND BERTRAM IV. FOR MARY JANE V. MARIE SPEAKS HER MIND VI. AT THE SIGN OF THE PINK VII. OLD FRIENDS AND NEW VIII. M. J. OPENS THE GAME IX. A RUG, A PICTURE, AND A GIRL AFRAID X. A JOB FOR PETE—AND FOR BERTRAM XI. A CLOCK AND AUNT HANNAH XII. SISTER KATE XIII. CYRIL AND A WEDDING XIV. M. J. MAKES ANOTHER MOVE XV. "MR. BILLY" AND "MISS MARY JANE" XVI. A GIRL AND A BIT OF LOWESTOFT XVII. ONLY A LOVE SONG, BUT— XVIII. SUGARPLUMS XIX. ALICE GREGGORY XX. ARKWRIGHT TELLS A STORY XXI. A MATTER OF STRAIGHT BUSINESS XXII. PLANS AND PLOTTINGS XXIII. THE CAUSE AND BERTRAM XXIV. THE ARTIST AND HIS ART XXV. THE OPERETTA XXVI. ARKWRIGHT TELLS ANOTHER STORY XXVII. THE THING THAT WAS THE TRUTH XXVIII. BILLY TAKES HER TURN XXIX. KATE WRITES A LETTER XXX. "I'VE HINDERED HIM" XXXI. FLIGHT XXXII. PETE TO THE RESCUE XXXIII. BERTRAM TAKES THE REINS
MISS BILLY'S DECISION
CHAPTER I. CALDERWELL DOES SOME TALKING
Calderwell had met Mr. M. J. Arkwright in London through a common friend; since then they had tramped half over Europe together in a comradeship that was as delightful as it was unusual. As Calderwell put it in a letter to his sister, Belle:
"We smoke the same cigar and drink the same tea (he's just as much of an old woman on that subject as I am!), and we agree beautifully on all necessary points of living, from tipping to late sleeping in the morning; while as for politics and religion—we disagree in those just enough to lend spice to an otherwise tame existence."
Farther along in this same letter Calderwell touched upon his new friend again.
"I admit, however, I would like to know his name. To find out what that mysterious 'M. J.' stands for has got to be pretty nearly an obsession with me. I am about ready to pick his pocket or rifle his trunk in search of some lurking 'Martin' or 'John' that will set me at peace. As it is, I confess that I have ogled his incoming mail and his outgoing baggage shamelessly, only to be slapped in the face always and everlastingly by that bland 'M. J.' I've got my revenge, now, though. To myself I call him 'Mary Jane'—and his broad-shouldered, brown-bearded six feet of muscular manhood would so like to be called 'Mary Jane'! By the way, Belle, if you ever hear of murder and sudden death in my direction, better set the sleuths on the trail of Arkwright. Six to one you'll find I called him 'Mary Jane' to his face!"
Calderwell was thinking of that letter now, as he sat at a small table in a Paris cafe. Opposite him was the six feet of muscular manhood, broad shoulders, pointed brown beard, and all—and he had just addressed it, inadvertently, as "Mary Jane."
During the brief, sickening moment of silence after the name had left his lips, Calderwell was conscious of a whimsical realization of the lights, music, and laughter all about him.
"Well, I chose as safe a place as I could!" he was thinking. Then Arkwright spoke.
"How long since you've been in correspondence with members of my family?"
Arkwright laughed grimly.
"Perhaps you thought of it yourself, then—I'll admit you're capable of it," he nodded, reaching for a cigar. "But it so happens you hit upon my family's favorite name for me."
"Mary Jane! You mean they actually call you that?"
"Yes," bowed the big fellow, calmly, as he struck a light. "Appropriate!—don't you think?"
Calderwell did not answer. He thought he could not.
"Well, silence gives consent, they say," laughed the other. "Anyhow, you must have had some reason for calling me that."
"Arkwright, what does 'M. J.' stand for?" demanded Calderwell.
"Oh, is that it?" smiled the man opposite. "Well, I'll own those initials have been something of a puzzle to people. One man declares they're 'Merely Jokes'; but another, not so friendly, says they stand for 'Mostly Jealousy' of more fortunate chaps who have real names for a handle. My small brothers and sisters, discovering, with the usual perspicacity of one's family on such matters, that I never signed, or called myself anything but 'M. J.,' dubbed me 'Mary Jane.' And there you have it."
"Mary Jane! You!"
Arkwright smiled oddly.
"Oh, well, what's the difference? Would you deprive them of their innocent amusement? And they do so love that 'Mary Jane'! Besides, what's in a name, anyway?" he went on, eyeing the glowing tip of the cigar between his fingers. "'A rose by any other name—'—you've heard that, probably. Names don't always signify, my dear fellow. For instance, I know a 'Billy'—but he's a girl."
Calderwell gave a sudden start.
"You don't mean Billy—Neilson?"
The other turned sharply.
"Do you know Billy Neilson?"
Calderwell gave his friend a glance from scornful eyes.
"Do I know Billy Neilson?" he cried. "Does a fellow usually know the girl he's proposed to regularly once in three months? Oh, I know I'm telling tales out of school, of course," he went on, in response to the look that had come into the brown eyes opposite. "But what's the use? Everybody knows it—that knows us. Billy herself got so she took it as a matter of course—and refused as a matter of course, too; just as she would refuse a serving of apple pie at dinner, if she hadn't wanted it."
"Apple pie!" scouted Arkwright.
Calderwell shrugged his shoulders.
"My dear fellow, you don't seem to realize it, but for the last six months you have been assisting at the obsequies of a dead romance."
"Indeed! And is it—buried, yet?"
"Oh, no," sighed Calderwell, cheerfully. "I shall go back one of these days, I'll warrant, and begin the same old game again; though I will acknowledge that the last refusal was so very decided that it's been a year, almost, since I received it. I think I was really convinced, for a while, that—that she didn't want that apple pie," he finished with a whimsical lightness that did not quite coincide with the stern lines that had come to his mouth.
For a moment there was silence, then Calderwell spoke again.
"Where did you know—Miss Billy?"
"Oh, I don't know her at all. I know of her—through Aunt Hannah."
Calderwell sat suddenly erect.
"Aunt Hannah! Is she your aunt, too? Jove! This is a little old world, after all; isn't it?"
"She isn't my aunt. She's my mother's third cousin. None of us have seen her for years, but she writes to mother occasionally; and, of course, for some time now, her letters have been running over full of Billy. She lives with her, I believe; doesn't she?"
"She does," rejoined Calderwell, with an unexpected chuckle. "I wonder if you know how she happened to live with her, at first."
"Why, no, I reckon not. What do you mean?"
Calderwell chuckled again.
"Well, I'll tell you. You, being a 'Mary Jane,' ought to appreciate it. You see, Billy was named for one William Henshaw, her father's chum, who promptly forgot all about her. At eighteen, Billy, being left quite alone in the world, wrote to 'Uncle William' and asked to come and live with him."
"But it wasn't well. William was a forty-year-old widower who lived with two younger brothers, an old butler, and a Chinese cook in one of those funny old Beacon Street houses in Boston. 'The Strata,' Bertram called it. Bright boy—Bertram!"
"Yes. I wish you could see that house, Arkwright. It's a regular layer cake. Cyril—he's the second brother; must be thirty-four or five now—lives on the top floor in a rugless, curtainless, music-mad existence—just a plain crank. Below him comes William. William collects things—everything from tenpenny nails to teapots, I should say, and they're all there in his rooms. Farther down somewhere comes Bertram. He's the Bertram Henshaw, you understand; the artist."
"Not the 'Face-of-a-Girl' Henshaw?"
"The same; only of course four years ago he wasn't quite so well known as he is now. Well, to resume and go on. It was into this house, this masculine paradise ruled over by Pete and Dong Ling in the kitchen, that Billy's naive request for a home came."
"Great Scott!" breathed Arkwright, appreciatively.
"Yes. Well, the letter was signed 'Billy.' They took her for a boy, naturally, and after something of a struggle they agreed to let 'him' come. For his particular delectation they fixed up a room next to Bertram with guns and fishing rods, and such ladylike specialties; and William went to the station to meet the boy."
"With never a suspicion?"
"With never a suspicion."
"Well, 'he' came, and 'she' conquered. I guess things were lively for a while, though. Oh, there was a kitten, too, I believe, 'Spunk,' who added to the gayety of nations."
"But what did the Henshaws do?"
"Well, I wasn't there, of course; but Bertram says they spun around like tops gone mad for a time, but finally quieted down enough to summon a married sister for immediate propriety, and to establish Aunt Hannah for permanency the next day."
"So that's how it happened! Well, by George!" cried Arkwright.
"Yes," nodded the other. "So you see there are untold possibilities just in a name. Remember that. Just suppose you, as Mary Jane, should beg a home in a feminine household—say in Miss Billy's, for instance!"
"I'd like to," retorted Arkwright, with sudden warmth.
Calderwell stared a little.
The other laughed shamefacedly.
"Oh, it's only that I happen to have a devouring curiosity to meet that special young lady. I sing her songs (you know she's written some dandies!), I've heard a lot about her, and I've seen her picture." (He did not add that he had also purloined that same picture from his mother's bureau—the picture being a gift from Aunt Hannah.) "So you see I would, indeed, like to occupy a corner in the fair Miss Billy's household. I could write to Aunt Hannah and beg a home with her, you know; eh?"
"Of course! Why don't you—'Mary Jane'?" laughed Calderwell. "Billy'd take you all right. She's had a little Miss Hawthorn, a music teacher, there for months. She's always doing stunts of that sort. Belle writes me that she's had a dozen forlornites there all this last summer, two or three at a time-tired widows, lonesome old maids, and crippled kids—just to give them a royal good time. So you see she'd take you, without a doubt. Jove! what a pair you'd make: Miss Billy and Mr. Mary Jane! You'd drive the suffragettes into conniption fits—just by the sound of you!"
Arkwright laughed quietly; then he frowned.
"But how about it?" he asked. "I thought she was keeping house with Aunt Hannah. Didn't she stay at all with the Henshaws?"
"Oh, yes, a few months. I never knew just why she did leave, but I fancied, from something Billy herself said once, that she discovered she was creating rather too much of an upheaval in the Strata. So she took herself off. She went to school, and travelled considerably. She was over here when I met her first. After that she was with us all one summer on the yacht. A couple of years ago, or so, she went back to Boston, bought a house and settled down with Aunt Hannah."
"And she's not married—or even engaged?"
"Wasn't the last I heard. I haven't seen her since December, and I've heard from her only indirectly. She corresponds with my sister, and so do I—intermittently. I heard a month ago from Belle, and she had a letter from Billy in August. But I heard nothing of any engagement."
"How about the Henshaws? I should think there might be a chance there for a romance—a charming girl, and three unattached men."
Calderwell gave a slow shake of the head.
"I don't think so. William is—let me see—nearly forty-five, I guess, by this time; and he isn't a marrying man. He buried his heart with his wife and baby years ago. Cyril, according to Bertram, 'hates women and all other confusion,' so that ought to let him out. As for Bertram himself—Bertram is 'only Bertram.' He's always been that. Bertram loves girls—to paint; but I can't imagine him making serious love to any one. It would always be the tilt of a chin or the turn of a cheek that he was admiring—to paint. No, there's no chance for a romance there, I'll warrant."
Calderwell's eyebrows rose the fraction of an inch.
"Oh, of course. I presume January or February will find me back there," he admitted with a sigh and a shrug. Then, a little bitterly, he added: "No, Arkwright. I shall keep away if I can. I know there's no chance for me—now."
"Then you'll leave me a clear field?" bantered the other.
"Of course—'Mary Jane,'" retorted Calderwell, with equal lightness.
"Oh, you needn't," laughed Calderwell. "My giving you the right of way doesn't insure you a thoroughfare for yourself—there are others, you know. Billy Neilson has had sighing swains about I her, I imagine, since she could walk and talk. She is a wonderfully fascinating little bit of femininity, and she has a heart of pure gold. All is, I envy the man who wins it—for the man who wins that, wins her."
There was no answer. Arkwright sat with his eyes on the moving throng outside the window near them. Perhaps he had not heard. At all events, when he spoke some time later, it was of a matter far removed from Miss Billy Neilson, or the way to her heart. Nor was the young lady mentioned between them again that day.
Long hours later, just before parting for the night, Arkwright said:
"Calderwell, I'm sorry, but I believe, after all, I can't take that trip to the lakes with you. I—I'm going home next week."
"Home! Hang it, Arkwright! I'd counted on you. Isn't this rather sudden?"
"Yes, and no. I'll own I've been drifting about with you contentedly enough for the last six months to make you think mountain-climbing and boat-paddling were the end and aim of my existence. But they aren't, you know, really."
"Nonsense! At heart you're as much of a vagabond as I am; and you know it."
"Perhaps. But unfortunately I don't happen to carry your pocketbook."
"You may, if you like. I'll hand it over any time," grinned Calderwell.
"Thanks. You know well enough what I mean," shrugged the other.
There was a moment's silence; then Calderwell queried:
"Arkwright, how old are you?"
"Good! Then you're merely travelling to supplement your education, see?"
"Oh, yes, I see. But something besides my education has got to be supplemented now, I reckon."
"What are you going to do?"
There was an almost imperceptible hesitation; then, a little shortly, came the answer:
"Hit the trail for Grand Opera, and bring up, probably—in vaudeville."
Calderwell smiled appreciatively.
"You can sing like the devil," he admitted.
"Thanks," returned his friend, with uplifted eyebrows. "Do you mind calling it 'an angel'—just for this occasion?"
"Oh, the matinee-girls will do that fast enough. But, I say, Arkwright, what are you going to do with those initials then?"
"Let 'em alone."
"Oh, no, you won't. And you won't be 'Mary Jane,' either. Imagine a Mary Jane in Grand Opera! I know what you'll be. You'll be 'Senor Martini Johnini Arkwrightino'! By the way, you didn't say what that 'M. J.' really did stand for," hinted Calderwell, shamelessly.
"'Merely Jokes'—in your estimation, evidently," shrugged the other. "But my going isn't a joke, Calderwell. I'm really going. And I'm going to work."
"But—how shall you manage?"
"Time will tell."
Calderwell frowned and stirred restlessly in his chair.
"But, honestly, now, to—to follow that trail of yours will take money. And—er—" a faint red stole to his forehead—"don't they have—er—patrons for these young and budding geniuses? Why can't I have a hand in this trail, too—or maybe you'd call it a foot, eh? I'd be no end glad to, Arkwright."
"Thanks, old man." The red was duplicated this time above the brown silky beard. "That was mighty kind of you, and I appreciate it; but it won't be necessary. A generous, but perhaps misguided bachelor uncle left me a few thousands a year or so ago; and I'm going to put them all down my throat—or rather, into it—before I give up."
"Where you going to study? New York?"
Again there was an almost imperceptible hesitation before the answer came.
"I'm not quite prepared to say."
"Why not try it here?"
Arkwright shook his head.
"I did plan to, when I came over but I've changed my mind. I believe I'd rather work while longer in America."
"Hm-m," murmured Calderwell.
There was a brief silence, followed by other questions and other answers; after which the friends said good night.
In his own room, as he was dropping off to sleep, Calderwell muttered drowsily:
"By George! I haven't found out yet what that blamed 'M. J.' stands for!"
CHAPTER II. AUNT HANNAH GETS A LETTER
In the cozy living-room at Hillside, Billy Neilson's pretty home on Corey Hill, Billy herself sat writing at the desk. Her pen had just traced the date, "October twenty-fifth," when Mrs. Stetson entered with a letter in her hand.
"Writing, my dear? Then don't let me disturb you." She turned as if to go.
Billy dropped her pen, sprang to her feet, flew to the little woman's side and whirled her half across the room.
"There!" she exclaimed, as she plumped the breathless and scandalized Aunt Hannah into the biggest easy chair. "I feel better. I just had to let off steam some way. It's so lovely you came in just when you did!"
"Indeed! I—I'm not so sure of that," stammered the lady, dropping the letter into her lap, and patting with agitated fingers her cap, her curls, the two shawls about her shoulders, and the lace at her throat. "My grief and conscience, Billy! Wors't you ever grow up?"
"Hope not," purred Billy cheerfully, dropping herself on to a low hassock at Aunt Hannah's feet.
"But, my dear, you—you're engaged!"
Billy bubbled into a chuckling laugh.
"As if I didn't know that, when I've just written a dozen notes to announce it! And, oh, Aunt Hannah, such a time as I've had, telling what a dear Bertram is, and how I love, love, love him, and what beautiful eyes he has, and such a nose, and—"
"Billy!" Aunt Hannah was sitting erect in pale horror.
"Eh?" Billy's eyes were roguish.
"You didn't write that in those notes!"
"Write it? Oh, no! That's only what I wanted to write," chuckled Billy. "What I really did write was as staid and proper as—here, let me show you," she broke off, springing to her feet and running over to her desk. "There! this is about what I wrote to them all," she finished, whipping a note out of one of the unsealed envelopes on the desk and spreading it open before Aunt Hannah's suspicious eyes.
"Hm-m; that is very good—for you," admitted the lady.
"Well, I like that!—after all my stern self-control and self-sacrifice to keep out all those things I wanted to write," bridled Billy. "Besides, they'd have been ever so much more interesting reading than these will be," she pouted, as she took the note from her companion's hand.
"I don't doubt it," observed Aunt Hannah, dryly.
Billy laughed, and tossed the note back on the desk.
"I'm writing to Belle Calderwell, now," she announced musingly, dropping herself again on the hassock. "I suppose she'll tell Hugh."
"Poor boy! He'll be disappointed."
Billy sighed, but she uptilted her chin a little.
"He ought not to be. I told him long, long ago, the very first time, that—that I couldn't."
"I know, dear; but—they don't always understand." Aunt Hannah sighed in sympathy with the far-away Hugh Calderwell, as she looked down at the bright young face near her.
There was a moment's silence; then Billy gave a little laugh.
"He will be surprised," she said. "He told me once that Bertram wouldn't ever care for any girl except to paint. To paint, indeed! As if Bertram didn't love me—just me!—if he never saw another tube of paint!"
"I think he does, my dear."
Again there was silence; then, from Billy's lips there came softly:
"Just think; we've been engaged almost four weeks—and to-morrow it'll be announced. I'm so glad I didn't ever announce the other two!"
"The other two!" cried Aunt Hannah.
"Oh, I forgot. You didn't know about Cyril."
"Oh, there didn't anybody know it, either not even Cyril himself," dimpled Billy, mischievously. "I just engaged myself to him in imagination, you know, to see how I'd like it. I didn't like it. But it didn't last, anyhow, very long—just three weeks, I believe. Then I broke it off," she finished, with unsmiling mouth, but dancing eyes.
"Billy!" protested Aunt Hannah, feebly.
"But I am glad only the family knew about my engagement to Uncle William—oh, Aunt Hannah, you don't know how good it does seem to call him 'Uncle' again. It was always slipping out, anyhow, all the time we were engaged; and of course it was awful then."
"That only goes to prove, my dear, how entirely unsuitable it was, from the start."
A bright color flooded Billy's face.
"I know; but if a girl will think a man is asking for a wife when all he wants is a daughter, and if she blandly says 'Yes, thank you, I'll marry you,' I don't know what you can expect!"
"You can expect just what you got—misery, and almost a tragedy," retorted Aunt Hannah, severely.
A tender light came into Billy's eyes.
"Dear Uncle William! What a jewel he was, all the way through! And he'd have marched straight to the altar, too, with never a flicker of an eyelid, I know—self-sacrificing martyr that he was!"
"Martyr!" bristled Aunt Hannah, with extraordinary violence for her. "I'm thinking that term belonged somewhere else. A month ago, Billy Neilson, you did not look as if you'd live out half your days. But I suppose you'd have gone to the altar, too, with never a flicker of an eyelid!"
"But I thought I had to," protested Billy. "I couldn't grieve Uncle William so, after Mrs. Hartwell had said how he—he wanted me."
Aunt Hannah's lips grew stern at the corners.
"There are times when—when I think it would be wiser if Mrs. Kate Hartwell would attend to her own affairs!" Aunt Hannah's voice fairly shook with wrath.
"Why-Aunt Hannah!" reproved Billy in mischievous horror. "I'm shocked at you!"
Aunt Hannah flushed miserably.
"There, there, child, forget I said it. I ought not to have said it, of course," she murmured agitatedly.
"You should have heard what Uncle William said! But never mind. We all found out the mistake before it was too late, and everything is lovely now, even to Cyril and Marie. Did you ever see anything so beatifically happy as that couple are? Bertram says he hasn't heard a dirge from Cyril's rooms for three weeks; and that if anybody else played the kind of music he's been playing, it would be just common garden ragtime!"
"Music! Oh, my grief and conscience! That makes me think, Billy. If I'm not actually forgetting what I came in here for," cried Aunt Hannah, fumbling in the folds of her dress for the letter that had slipped from her lap. "I've had word from a young niece. She's going to study music in Boston."
"Well, not really, you know. She calls me 'Aunt,' just as you and the Henshaw boys do. But I really am related to her, for her mother and I are third cousins, while it was my husband who was distantly related to the Henshaw family."
"What's her name?"
"'Mary Jane Arkwright.' Where is that letter?"
"Here it is, on the floor," reported Billy. "Were you going to read it to me?" she asked, as she picked it up.
"Yes—if you don't mind."
"I'd love to hear it."
"Then I'll read it. It—it rather annoys me in some ways. I thought the whole family understood that I wasn't living by myself any longer—that I was living with you. I'm sure I thought I wrote them that, long ago. But this sounds almost as if they didn't understand it—at least, as if this girl didn't."
"How old is she?"
"I don't know; but she must be some old, to be coming here to Boston to study music, alone—singing, I think she said."
"You don't remember her, then?"
Aunt Hannah frowned and paused, the letter half withdrawn from its envelope.
"No—but that isn't strange. They live West. I haven't seen any of them for years. I know there are several children—and I suppose I've been told their names. I know there's a boy—the eldest, I think—who is quite a singer, and there's a girl who paints, I believe; but I don't seem to remember a 'Mary Jane.'"
"Never mind! Suppose we let Mary Jane speak for herself," suggested Billy, dropping her chin into the small pink cup of her hand, and settling herself to listen.
"Very well," sighed Aunt Hannah; and she opened the letter and began to read.
"DEAR AUNT HANNAH:—This is to tell you that I'm coming to Boston to study singing in the school for Grand Opera, and I'm planning to look you up. Do you object? I said to a friend the other day that I'd half a mind to write to Aunt Hannah and beg a home with her; and my friend retorted: 'Why don't you, Mary Jane?' But that, of course, I should not think of doing.
"But I know I shall be lonesome, Aunt Hannah, and I hope you'll let me see you once in a while, anyway. I plan now to come next week —I've already got as far as New York, as you see by the address—and I shall hope to see you soon.
"All the family would send love, I know. "M. J. ARKWRIGHT."
"Grand Opera! Oh, how perfectly lovely," cried Billy.
"Yes, but Billy, do you think she is expecting me to invite her to make her home with me? I shall have to write and explain that I can't—if she does, of course."
Billy frowned and hesitated.
"Why, it sounded—a little—that way; but—" Suddenly her face cleared. "Aunt Hannah, I've thought of the very thing. We will take her!"
"Oh, Billy, I couldn't think of letting you do that," demurred Aunt Hannah. "You're very kind—but, oh, no; not that!"
"Why not? I think it would be lovely; and we can just as well as not. After Marie is married in December, she can have that room. Until then she can have the little blue room next to me."
"But—but—we don't know anything about her."
"We know she's your niece, and she's lonesome; and we know she's musical. I shall love her for every one of those things. Of course we'll take her!"
"But—I don't know anything about her age."
"All the more reason why she should be looked out for, then," retorted Billy, promptly. "Why, Aunt Hannah, just as if you didn't want to give this lonesome, unprotected young girl a home!"
"Oh, I do, of course; but—"
"Then it's all settled," interposed Billy, springing to her feet.
"But what if we—we shouldn't like her?"
"Nonsense! What if she shouldn't like us?" laughed Billy. "However, if you'd feel better, just ask her to come and stay with us a month. We shall keep her all right, afterwards. See if we don't!"
Slowly Aunt Hannah got to her feet.
"Very well, dear. I'll write, of course, as you tell me to; and it's lovely of you to do it. Now I'll leave you to your letters. I've hindered you far too long, as it is."
"You've rested me," declared Billy, flinging wide her arms.
Aunt Hannah, fearing a second dizzying whirl impelled by those same young arms, drew her shawls about her shoulders and backed hastily toward the hall door.
"Oh, I won't again—to-day," she promised merrily. Then, as the lady reached the arched doorway: "Tell Mary Jane to let us know the day and train and we'll meet her. Oh, and Aunt Hannah, tell her to wear a pink—a white pink; and tell her we will, too," she finished gayly.
CHAPTER III. BILLY AND BERTRAM
Bertram called that evening. Before the open fire in the living-room he found a pensive Billy awaiting him—a Billy who let herself be kissed, it is true, and who even kissed back, shyly, adorably; but a Billy who looked at him with wide, almost frightened eyes.
"Why, darling, what's the matter?" he demanded, his own eyes growing wide and frightened.
"What's done? What do you mean?"
"Our engagement. It's—announced. I wrote stacks of notes to-day, and even now there are some left for to-morrow. And then there's—the newspapers. Bertram, right away, now, everybody will know it." Her voice was tragic.
Bertram relaxed visibly. A tender light came to his eyes.
"Well, didn't you expect everybody would know it, my dear?"
At her hesitation, the tender light changed to a quick fear.
"Billy, you aren't—sorry?"
The pink glory that suffused her face answered him before her words did.
"Sorry! Oh, never, Bertram! It's only that it won't be ours any longer—that is, it won't belong to just our two selves. Everybody will know it. And they'll bow and smile and say 'How lovely!' to our faces, and 'Did you ever?' to our backs. Oh, no, I'm not sorry, Bertram; but I am—afraid."
Billy sighed, and gazed with pensive eyes into the fire.
Across Bertram's face swept surprise, consternation, and dismay. Bertram had thought he knew Billy in all her moods and fancies; but he did not know her in this one.
"Why, Billy!" he breathed.
Billy drew another sigh. It seemed to come from the very bottoms of her small, satin-slippered feet.
"Well, I am. You're the Bertram Henshaw. You know lots and lots of people that I never even saw. And they'll come and stand around and stare and lift their lorgnettes and say: 'Is that the one? Dear me!'"
Bertram gave a relieved laugh.
"Nonsense, sweetheart! I should think you were a picture I'd painted and hung on a wall."
"I shall feel as if I were—with all those friends of yours. Bertram, what if they don't like it?" Her voice had grown tragic again.
"Yes. The picture—me, I mean."
"They can't help liking it," he retorted, with the prompt certainty of an adoring lover.
Billy shook her head. Her eyes had gone back to the fire.
"Oh, yes, they can. I can hear them. 'What, she—Bertram Henshaw's wife?—a frivolous, inconsequential "Billy" like that?' Bertram!"—Billy turned fiercely despairing eyes on her lover—"Bertram, sometimes I wish my name were 'Clarissa Cordelia,' or 'Arabella Maud,' or 'Hannah Jane'—anything that's feminine and proper!"
Bertram's ringing laugh brought a faint smile to Billy's lips. But the words that followed the laugh, and the caressing touch of the man's hands sent a flood of shy color to her face.
"'Hannah Jane,' indeed! As if I'd exchange my Billy for her or any Clarissa or Arabella that ever grew! I adore Billy—flame, nature, and—"
"And naughtiness?" put in Billy herself.
"Yes—if there be any," laughed Bertram, fondly. "But, see," he added, taking a tiny box from his pocket, "see what I've brought for this same Billy to wear. She'd have had it long ago if she hadn't insisted on waiting for this announcement business."
"Oh, Bertram, what a beauty!" dimpled Billy, as the flawless diamond in Bertram's fingers caught the light and sent it back in a flash of flame and crimson.
"Now you are mine—really mine, sweetheart!" The man's voice and hand shook as he slipped the ring on Billy's outstretched finger.
Billy caught her breath with almost a sob.
"And I'm so glad to be—yours, dear," she murmured brokenly. "And—and I'll make you proud that I am yours, even if I am just 'Billy,'" she choked. "Oh, I know I'll write such beautiful, beautiful songs now."
The man drew her into a close embrace.
"As if I cared for that," he scoffed lovingly.
Billy looked up in quick horror.
"Why, Bertram, you don't mean you don't—care?"
He laughed lightly, and took the dismayed little face between his two hands.
"Care, darling? of course I care! You know how I love your music. I care about everything that concerns you. I meant that I'm proud of you now—just you. I love you, you know."
There was a moment's pause. Billy's eyes, as they looked at him, carried a curious intentness in their dark depths.
"You mean, you like—the turn of my head and the tilt of my chin?" she asked a little breathlessly.
"I adore them!" came the prompt answer.
To Bertram's utter amazement, Billy drew back with a sharp cry.
"No, no—not that!"
Billy laughed unexpectedly; then she sighed.
"Oh, it's all right, of course," she assured him hastily. "It's only—" Billy stopped and blushed. Billy was thinking of what Hugh Calderwell had once said to her: that Bertram Henshaw would never love any girl seriously; that it would always be the turn of her head or the tilt of her chin that he loved—to paint.
"Well; only what?" demanded Bertram.
Billy blushed the more deeply, but she gave a light laugh.
"Nothing, only something Hugh Calderwell said to me once. You see, Bertram, I don't think Hugh ever thought you would—marry."
"Oh, didn't he?" bridled Bertram. "Well, that only goes to show how much he knows about it. Er—did you announce it—to him?" Bertram's voice was almost savage now.
"No; but I did to his sister, and she'll tell him. Oh, Bertram, such a time as I had over those notes," went on Billy, with a chuckle. Her eyes were dancing, and she was seeming more like her usual self, Bertram thought. "You see there were such a lot of things I wanted to say, about what a dear you were, and how much I—I liked you, and that you had such lovely eyes, and a nose—"
"Billy!" This time it was Bertram who was sitting erect in pale horror.
Billy threw him a roguish glance.
"Goosey! You are as bad as Aunt Hannah! I said that was what I wanted to say. What I really said was—quite another matter," she finished with a saucy uptilting of her chin.
Bertram relaxed with a laugh.
"You witch!" His admiring eyes still lingered on her face. "Billy, I'm going to paint you sometime in just that pose. You're adorable!"
"Pooh! Just another face of a girl," teased the adorable one.
Bertram gave a sudden exclamation.
"There! And I haven't told you, yet. Guess what my next commission is."
"To paint a portrait?"
"Can't. Who is it?"
"J. G. Winthrop's daughter."
"Not the J. G. Winthrop?"
"Oh, Bertram, how splendid!"
"Isn't it? And then the girl herself! Have you seen her? But you haven't, I know, unless you met her abroad. She hasn't been in Boston for years until now."
"No, I haven't seen her. Is she so very beautiful?" Billy spoke a little soberly.
"Yes—and no." The artist lifted his head alertly. What Billy called his "painting look" came to his face. "It isn't that her features are so regular—though her mouth and chin are perfect. But her face has so much character, and there's an elusive something about her eyes—Jove! If I can only catch it, it'll be the best thing yet that I've ever done, Billy."
"Will it? I'm so glad—and you'll get it, I know you will," claimed Billy, clearing her throat a little nervously.
"I wish I felt so sure," sighed Bertram. "But it'll be a great thing if I do get it—J. G. Winthrop's daughter, you know, besides the merit of the likeness itself."
"Yes; yes, indeed!" Billy cleared her throat again. "You've seen her, of course, lately?"
"Oh, yes. I was there half the morning discussing the details—sittings and costume, and deciding on the pose."
"Did you find one—to suit?"
"Find one!" The artist made a despairing gesture. "I found a dozen that I wanted. The trouble was to tell which I wanted the most."
Billy gave a nervous little laugh.
"Isn't that—unusual?" she asked.
Bertram lifted his eyebrows with a quizzical smile.
"Well, they aren't all Marguerite Winthrops," he reminded her.
"Marguerite!" cried Billy. "Oh, is her name Marguerite? I do think Marguerite is the dearest name!" Billy's eyes and voice were wistful.
"I don't—not the dearest. Oh, it's all well enough, of course, but it can't be compared for a moment to—well, say, 'Billy'!"
Billy smiled, but she shook her head.
"I'm afraid you're not a good judge of names," she objected.
"Yes, I am; though, for that matter, I should love your name, no matter what it was."
"Even if 'twas 'Mary Jane,' eh?" bantered Billy. "Well, you'll have a chance to find out how you like that name pretty quick, sir. We're going to have one here."
"You're going to have a Mary Jane here? Do you mean that Rosa's going away?"
"Mercy! I hope not," shuddered Billy. "You don't find a Rosa in every kitchen—and never in employment agencies! My Mary Jane is a niece of Aunt Hannah's,—or rather, a cousin. She's coming to Boston to study music, and I've invited her here. We've asked her for a month, though I presume we shall keep her right along."
"Well, of course, that's very nice for—Mary Jane," he sighed with meaning emphasis.
"Don't worry, dear. She won't bother us any."
"Oh, yes, she will," sighed Bertram. "She'll be 'round—lots; you see if she isn't. Billy, I think sometimes you're almost too kind—to other folks."
"Never!" laughed Billy. "Besides, what would you have me do when a lonesome young girl was coming to Boston? Anyhow, you're not the one to talk, young man. I've known you to take in a lonesome girl and give her a home," she flashed merrily.
"Jove! What a time that was!" he exclaimed, regarding his companion with fond eyes. "And Spunk, too! Is she going to bring a Spunk?"
"Not that I've heard," smiled Billy; "but she is going to wear a pink."
"Not really, Billy?"
"Of course she is! I told her to. How do you suppose we could know her when we saw her, if she didn't?" demanded the girl, indignantly. "And what is more, sir, there will be two pinks worn this time. I sha'n't do as Uncle William did, and leave off my pink. Only think what long minutes—that seemed hours of misery—I spent waiting there in that train-shed, just because I didn't know which man was my Uncle William!"
Bertram laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, your Mary Jane won't probably turn out to be quite such a bombshell as our Billy did—unless she should prove to be a boy," he added whimsically. "Oh, but Billy, she can't turn out to be such a dear treasure," finished the man. And at the adoring look in his eyes Billy blushed deeply—and promptly forgot all about Mary Jane and her pink.
CHAPTER IV. FOR MARY JANE
"I have a letter here from Mary Jane, my dear," announced Aunt Hannah at the luncheon table one day.
"Have you?" Billy raised interested eyes from her own letters. "What does she say?"
"She will be here Thursday. Her train is due at the South Station at four-thirty. She seems to be very grateful to you for your offer to let her come right here for a month; but she says she's afraid you don't realize, perhaps, just what you are doing—to take her in like that, with her singing, and all."
"Nonsense! She doesn't refuse, does she?"
"Oh, no; she doesn't refuse—but she doesn't accept either, exactly, as I can see. I've read the letter over twice, too. I'll let you judge for yourself by and by, when you have time to read it."
"Never mind. I don't want to read it. She's just a little shy about coming, that's all. She'll stay all right, when we come to meet her. What time did you say it was, Thursday?"
"Half past four, South Station."
"Thursday, at half past four. Let me see—that's the day of the Carletons' 'At Home,' isn't it?"
"Oh, my grief and conscience, yes! But I had forgotten it. What shall we do?"
"Oh, that will be easy. We'll just go to the Carletons' early and have John wait, then take us from there to the South Station. Meanwhile we'll make sure that the little blue room is all ready for her. I put in my white enamel work-basket yesterday, and that pretty little blue case for hairpins and curling tongs that I bought at the fair. I want the room to look homey to her, you know."
"As if it could look any other way, if you had anything to do with it," sighed Aunt Hannah, admiringly.
"If we get stranded we might ask the Henshaw boys to help us out, Aunt Hannah. They'd probably suggest guns and swords. That's the way they fixed up my room."
Aunt Hannah raised shocked hands of protest.
"As if we would! Mercy, what a time that was!"
Billy laughed again.
"I never shall forget, never, my first glimpse of that room when Mrs. Hartwell switched on the lights. Oh, Aunt Hannah, I wish you could have seen it before they took out those guns and spiders!"
"As if I didn't see quite enough when I saw William's face that morning he came for me!" retorted Aunt Hannah, spiritedly.
"Dear Uncle William! What an old saint he has been all the way through," mused Billy aloud. "And Cyril—who would ever have believed that the day would come when Cyril would say to me, as he did last night, that he felt as if Marie had been gone a month. It's been just seven days, you know."
"I know. She comes to-morrow, doesn't she?"
"Yes, and I'm glad. I shall tell Marie she needn't leave Cyril on my hands again. Bertram says that at home Cyril hasn't played a dirge since his engagement; but I notice that up here—where Marie might be, but isn't—his tunes would never be mistaken for ragtime. By the way," she added, as she rose from the table, "that's another surprise in store for Hugh Calderwell. He always declared that Cyril wasn't a marrying man, either, any more than Bertram. You know he said Bertram only cared for girls to paint; but—" She stopped and looked inquiringly at Rosa, who had appeared at that moment in the hall doorway.
"It's the telephone, Miss Neilson. Mr. Bertram Henshaw wants you."
A few minutes later Aunt Hannah heard Billy at the piano. For fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes the brilliant scales and arpeggios rippled through the rooms and up the stairs to Aunt Hannah, who knew, by the very sound of them, that some unusual nervousness was being worked off at the finger tips that played them. At the end of forty-five minutes Aunt Hannah went down-stairs.
"Billy, my dear, excuse me, but have you forgotten what time it is? Weren't you going out with Bertram?"
Billy stopped playing at once, but she did not turn her head. Her fingers busied themselves with some music on the piano.
"We aren't going, Aunt Hannah," she said.
"Well, he didn't want to—so of course I said not to. He's been painting this morning on a new portrait, and she said he might stay to luncheon and keep right on for a while this afternoon, if he liked. And—he did like, so he stayed."
"Why, how—how—" Aunt Hannah stopped helplessly.
"Oh, no, not at all," interposed Billy, lightly. "He told me all about it the other night. It's going to be a very wonderful portrait; and, of course, I wouldn't want to interfere with—his work!" And again a brilliant scale rippled from Billy's fingers after a crashing chord in the bass.
Slowly Aunt Hannah turned and went up-stairs. Her eyes were troubled. Not since Billy's engagement had she heard Billy play like that.
Bertram did not find a pensive Billy awaiting him that evening. He found a bright-eyed, flushed-cheeked Billy, who let herself be kissed—once—but who did not kiss back; a blithe, elusive Billy, who played tripping little melodies, and sang jolly little songs, instead of sitting before the fire and talking; a Billy who at last turned, and asked tranquilly:
"Well, how did the picture go?"
Bertram rose then, crossed the room, and took Billy very gently into his arms.
"Sweetheart, you were a dear this noon to let me off like that," he began in a voice shaken with emotion. "You don't know, perhaps, exactly what you did. You see, I was nearly wild between wanting to be with you, and wanting to go on with my work. And I was just at that point where one little word from you, one hint that you wanted me to come anyway—and I should have come. But you didn't say it, nor hint it. Like the brave little bit of inspiration that you are, you bade me stay and go on with my work."
The "inspiration's" head drooped a little lower, but this only brought a wealth of soft bronze hair to just where Bertram could lay his cheek against it—and Bertram promptly took advantage of his opportunity. "And so I stayed, Billy, and I did good work; I know I did good work. Why, Billy,"—Bertram stepped back now, and held Billy by the shoulders at arms' length—"Billy, that's going to be the best work I've ever done. I can see it coming even now, under my fingers."
Billy lifted her head and looked into her lover's face. His eyes were glowing. His cheeks were flushed. His whole countenance was aflame with the soul of the artist who sees his vision taking shape before him. And Billy, looking at him, felt suddenly—ashamed.
"Oh, Bertram, I'm proud, proud, proud of you!" she breathed. "Come, let's go over to the fire-and talk!"
CHAPTER V. MARIE SPEAKS HER MIND
Billy with John and Peggy met Marie Hawthorn at the station. "Peggy" was short for "Pegasus," and was what Billy always called her luxurious, seven-seated touring car.
"I simply won't call it 'automobile,'" she had declared when she bought it. "In the first place, it takes too long to say it, and in the second place, I don't want to add one more to the nineteen different ways to pronounce it that I hear all around me every day now. As for calling it my 'car,' or my 'motor car'—I should expect to see a Pullman or one of those huge black trucks before my door, if I ordered it by either of those names. Neither will I insult the beautiful thing by calling it a 'machine.' Its name is Pegasus. I shall call it 'Peggy.'"
And "Peggy" she called it. John sniffed his disdain, and Billy's friends made no secret of their amused tolerance; but, in an astonishingly short time, half the automobile owners of her acquaintance were calling their own cars "Peggy"; and even the dignified John himself was heard to order "some gasoline for Peggy," quite as a matter of course.
When Marie Hawthorn stepped from the train at the North Station she greeted Billy with affectionate warmth, though at once her blue eyes swept the space beyond expectantly and eagerly.
Billy's lips curved in a mischievous smile.
"No, he didn't come," she said. "He didn't want to—a little bit."
Marie grew actually pale.
"Didn't want to!" she stammered.
Billy gave her a spasmodic hug.
"Goosey! No, he didn't—a little bit; but he did a great big bit. As if you didn't know he was dying to come, Marie! But he simply couldn't—something about his concert Monday night. He told me over the telephone; but between his joy that you were coming, and his rage that he couldn't see you the first minute you did come, I couldn't quite make out what was the trouble. But he's coming to dinner to-night, so he'll doubtless tell you all about it."
Marie sighed her relief.
"Oh, that's all right then. I was afraid he was sick—when I didn't see him."
Billy laughed softly.
"No, he isn't sick, Marie; but you needn't go away again before the wedding—not to leave him on my hands. I wouldn't have believed Cyril Henshaw, confirmed old bachelor and avowed woman-hater, could have acted the part of a love-sick boy as he has the last week or two."
The rose-flush on Marie's cheek spread to the roots of her fine yellow hair.
"Billy, dear, he—he didn't!"
"Marie, dear—he—he did!"
Marie laughed. She did not say anything, but the rose-flush deepened as she occupied herself very busily in getting her trunk-check from the little hand bag she carried.
Cyril was not mentioned again until the two girls, veils tied and coats buttoned, were snugly ensconced in the tonneau, and Peggy's nose was turned toward home. Then Billy asked:
"Have you settled on where you're going to live?"
"Not quite. We're going to talk of that to-night; but we do know that we aren't going to live at the Strata."
Marie stirred uneasily at the obvious disappointment and reproach in her friend's voice.
"But, dear, it wouldn't be wise, I'm sure," she argued hastily. "There will be you and Bertram—"
"We sha'n't be there for a year, nearly," cut in Billy, with swift promptness. "Besides, I think it would be lovely—all together."
Marie smiled, but she shook her head.
"Lovely—but not practical, dear."
Billy laughed ruefully.
"I know; you're worrying about those puddings of yours. You're afraid somebody is going to interfere with your making quite so many as you want to; and Cyril is worrying for fear there'll be somebody else in the circle of his shaded lamp besides his little Marie with the light on her hair, and the mending basket by her side."
"Billy, what are you talking about?"
Billy threw a roguish glance into her friend's amazed blue eyes.
"Oh, just a little picture Cyril drew once for me of what home meant for him: a room with a table and a shaded lamp, and a little woman beside it with the light on her hair and a great basket of sewing by her side."
Marie's eyes softened.
"Did he say—that?"
"Yes. Oh, he declared he shouldn't want her to sit under that lamp all the time, of course; but he hoped she'd like that sort of thing."
Marie threw a quick glance at the stolid back of John beyond the two empty seats in front of them. Although she knew he could not hear her words, instinctively she lowered her voice.
"Did you know—then—about—me?" she asked, with heightened color.
"No, only that there was a girl somewhere who, he hoped, would sit under the lamp some day. And when I asked him if the girl did like that sort of thing, he said yes, he thought so; for she had told him once that the things she liked best of all to do were to mend stockings and make puddings. Then I knew, of course, 'twas you, for I'd heard you say the same thing. So I sent him right along out to you in the summer-house."
The pink flush on Marie's face grew to a red one. Her blue eyes turned again to John's broad back, then drifted to the long, imposing line of windowed walls and doorways on the right. The automobile was passing smoothly along Beacon Street now with the Public Garden just behind them on the left. After a moment Marie turned to Billy again.
"I'm so glad he wants—just puddings and stockings," she began a little breathlessly. "You see, for so long I supposed he wouldn't want anything but a very brilliant, talented wife who could play and sing beautifully; a wife he'd be proud of—like you."
"Me? Nonsense!" laughed Billy. "Cyril never wanted me, and I never wanted him—only once for a few minutes, so to speak, when I thought, I did. In spite of our music, we aren't a mite congenial. I like people around; he doesn't. I like to go to plays; he doesn't. He likes rainy days, and I abhor them. Mercy! Life with me for him would be one long jangling discord, my love, while with you it'll be one long sweet song!"
Marie drew a deep breath. Her eyes were fixed on a point far ahead up the curveless street.
"I hope it will, indeed!" she breathed.
Not until they were almost home did Billy say suddenly:
"Oh, did Cyril write you? A young relative of Aunt Hannah's is coming to-morrow to stay a while at the house."
"Er—yes, Cyril told me," admitted Marie.
"Didn't like it, I suppose; eh?" she queried shrewdly.
"N-no, I'm afraid he didn't—very well. He said she'd be—one more to be around."
"There, what did I tell you?" dimpled Billy. "You can see what you're coming to when you do get that shaded lamp and the mending basket!"
A moment later, coming in sight of the house, Billy saw a tall, smooth-shaven man standing on the porch. The man lifted his hat and waved it gayly, baring a slightly bald head to the sun.
"It's Uncle William—bless his heart!" cried Billy. "They're all coming to dinner, then he and Aunt Hannah and Bertram and I are going down to the Hollis Street Theatre and let you and Cyril have a taste of what that shaded lamp is going to be. I hope you won't be lonesome," she finished mischievously, as the car drew up before the door.
CHAPTER VI. AT THE SIGN OF THE PINK
After a week of beautiful autumn weather, Thursday dawned raw and cold. By noon an east wind had made the temperature still more uncomfortable.
At two o'clock Aunt Hannah tapped at Billy's chamber door. She showed a troubled face to the girl who answered her knock.
"Billy, would you mind very much if I asked you to go alone to the Carletons' and to meet Mary Jane?" she inquired anxiously.
"Why, no—that is, of course I should mind, dear, because I always like to have you go to places with me. But it isn't necessary. You aren't sick; are you?"
"N-no, not exactly; but I have been sneezing all the morning, and taking camphor and sugar to break it up—if it is a cold. But it is so raw and Novemberish out, that—"
"Why, of course you sha'n't go, you poor dear! Mercy! don't get one of those dreadful colds on to you before the wedding! Have you felt a draft? Where's another shawl?" Billy turned and cast searching eyes about the room—Billy always kept shawls everywhere for Aunt Hannah's shoulders and feet. Bertram had been known to say, indeed, that a room, according to Aunt Hannah, was not fully furnished unless it contained from one to four shawls, assorted as to size and warmth. Shawls, certainly, did seem to be a necessity with Aunt Hannah, as she usually wore from one to three at the same time—which again caused Bertram to declare that he always counted Aunt Hannah's shawls when he wished to know what the thermometer was.
"No, I'm not cold, and I haven't felt a draft," said Aunt Hannah now. "I put on my thickest gray shawl this morning with the little pink one for down-stairs, and the blue one for breakfast; so you see I've been very careful. But I have sneezed six times, so I think 'twould be safer not to go out in this east wind. You were going to stop for Mrs. Granger, anyway, weren't you? So you'll have her with you for the tea."
"Yes, dear, don't worry. I'll take your cards and explain to Mrs. Carleton and her daughters."
"And, of course, as far as Mary Jane is concerned, I don't know her any more than you do; so I couldn't be any help there," sighed Aunt Hannah.
"Not a bit," smiled Billy, cheerily. "Don't give it another thought, my dear. I sha'n't have a bit of trouble. All I'll have to do is to look for a girl alone with a pink. Of course I'll have mine on, too, and she'll be watching for me. So just run along and take your nap, dear, and be all rested and ready to welcome her when she comes," finished Billy, stooping to give the soft, faintly pink cheek a warm kiss.
"Well, thank you, my dear; perhaps I will," sighed Aunt Hannah, drawing the gray shawl about her as she turned away contentedly.
Mrs. Carleton's tea that afternoon was, for Billy, not an occasion of unalloyed joy. It was the first time she had appeared at a gathering of any size since the announcement of her engagement; and, as she dolefully told Bertram afterwards, she had very much the feeling of the picture hung on the wall.
"And they did put up their lorgnettes and say, 'Is that the one?'" she declared; "and I know some of them finished with 'Did you ever?' too," she sighed.
But Billy did not stay long in Mrs. Carleton's softly-lighted, flower-perfumed rooms. At ten minutes past four she was saying good-by to a group of friends who were vainly urging her to remain longer.
"I can't—I really can't," she declared. "I'm due at the South Station at half past four to meet a Miss Arkwright, a young cousin of Aunt Hannah's, whom I've never seen before. We're to meet at the sign of the pink," she explained smilingly, just touching the single flower she wore.
Her hostess gave a sudden laugh.
"Let me see, my dear; if I remember rightly, you've had experience before, meeting at this sign of the pink. At least, I have a very vivid recollection of Mr. William Henshaw's going once to meet a boy with a pink, who turned out to be a girl. Now, to even things up, your girl should turn out to be a boy!"
Billy smiled and reddened.
"Perhaps—but I don't think to-day will strike the balance," she retorted, backing toward the door. "This young lady's name is 'Mary Jane'; and I'll leave it to you to find anything very masculine in that!"
It was a short drive from Mrs. Carleton's Commonwealth Avenue home to the South Station, and Peggy made as quick work of it as the narrow, congested cross streets would allow. In ample time Billy found herself in the great waiting-room, with John saying respectfully in her ear:
"The man says the train comes in on Track Fourteen, Miss, an' it's on time."
At twenty-nine minutes past four Billy left her seat and walked down the train-shed platform to Track Number Fourteen. She had pinned the pink now to the outside of her long coat, and it made an attractive dash of white against the dark-blue velvet. Billy was looking particularly lovely to-day. Framing her face was the big dark-blue velvet picture hat with its becoming white plumes.
During the brief minutes' wait before the clanging locomotive puffed into view far down the long track, Billy's thoughts involuntarily went back to that other watcher beside a train gate not quite five years before.
"Dear Uncle William!" she murmured tenderly. Then suddenly she laughed—so nearly aloud that a man behind her gave her a covert glance from curious eyes. "My! but what a jolt I must have been to Uncle William!" Billy was thinking.
The next minute she drew nearer the gate and regarded with absorbed attention the long line of passengers already sweeping up the narrow aisle between the cars.
Hurrying men came first, with long strides, and eyes that looked straight ahead. These Billy let pass with a mere glance. The next group showed a sprinkling of women—women whose trig hats and linen collars spelled promptness as well as certainty of aim and accomplishment. To these, also, Billy paid scant attention. Couples came next—the men anxious-eyed, and usually walking two steps ahead of their companions; the women plainly flustered and hurried, and invariably buttoning gloves or gathering up trailing ends of scarfs or boas.
The crowd was thickening fast, now, and Billy's eyes were alert. Children were appearing, and young women walking alone. One of these wore a bunch of violets. Billy gave her a second glance. Then she saw a pink—but it was on the coat lapel of a tall young fellow with a brown beard; so with a slight frown she looked beyond down the line.
Old men came now, and old women; fleshy women, and women with small children and babies. Couples came, too—dawdling couples, plainly newly married: the men were not two steps ahead, and the women's gloves were buttoned and their furs in place.
Gradually the line thinned, and soon there were left only an old man with a cane, and a young woman with three children. Yet nowhere had Billy seen a girl wearing a white carnation, and walking alone.
With a deeper frown on her face Billy turned and looked about her. She thought that somewhere in the crowd she had missed Mary Jane, and that she would find her now, standing near. But there was no one standing near except the good-looking young fellow with the little pointed brown beard, who, as Billy noticed a second time, was wearing a white carnation.
As she glanced toward him, their eyes met. Then, to Billy's unbounded amazement, the man advanced with uplifted hat.
"I beg your pardon, but is not this—Miss Neilson?"
Billy drew back with just a touch of hauteur.
"Y-yes," she murmured.
"I thought so—yet I was expecting to see you with Aunt Hannah. I am M. J. Arkwright, Miss Neilson."
For a brief instant Billy stared dazedly.
"You don't mean—Mary Jane?" she gasped.
"I'm afraid I do." His lips twitched.
"But I thought—we were expecting—" She stopped helplessly. For one more brief instant she stared; then, suddenly, a swift change came to her face. Her eyes danced.
"Oh—oh!" she chuckled. "How perfectly funny! You have evened things up, after all. To think that Mary Jane should be a—" She paused and flashed almost angrily suspicious eyes into his face. "But mine was 'Billy,'" she cried. "Your name isn't really—Mary Jane'?"
"I am often called that." His brown eyes twinkled, but they did not swerve from their direct gaze into her own.
"But—" Billy hesitated, and turned her eyes away. She saw then that many curious glances were already being flung in her direction. The color in her cheeks deepened. With an odd little gesture she seemed to toss something aside. "Never mind," she laughed a little hysterically. "If you'll pick up your bag, please, Mr. Mary Jane, and come with me. John and Peggy are waiting. Or—I forgot—you have a trunk, of course?"
The man raised a protesting hand.
"Thank you; but, Miss Neilson, really—I couldn't think of trespassing on your hospitality—now, you know."
"But we—we invited you," stammered Billy.
He shook his head.
"You invited Miss Mary Jane."
Billy bubbled into low laughter.
"I beg your pardon, but it is funny," she sighed. "You see I came once just the same way, and now to have the tables turned like this! What will Aunt Hannah say—what will everybody say? Come, I want them to begin—to say it," she chuckled irrepressibly.
"Thank you, but I shall go to a hotel, of course. Later, if you'll be so good as to let me call, and explain—!"
"But I'm afraid Aunt Hannah will think—" Billy stopped abruptly. Some distance away she saw John coming toward them. She turned hurriedly to the man at her side. Her eyes still danced, but her voice was mockingly serious. "Really, Mr. Mary Jane, I'm afraid you'll have to come to dinner; then you can settle the rest with Aunt Hannah. John is almost upon us—and I don't want to make explanations. Do you?"
"John," she said airily to the somewhat dazed chauffeur (who had been told he was to meet a young woman), "take Mr. Arkwright's bag, please, and show him where Peggy is waiting. It will be five minutes, perhaps, before I can come—if you'll kindly excuse me," she added to Arkwright, with a flashing glance from merry eyes. "I have some—telephoning to do."
All the way to the telephone booth Billy was trying to bring order out of the chaos of her mind; but all the way, too, she was chuckling.
"To think that this thing should have happened to me!" she said, almost aloud. "And here I am telephoning just like Uncle William—Bertram said Uncle William did telephone about me!"
In due course Billy had Aunt Hannah at the other end of the wire.
"Aunt Hannah, listen. I'd never have believed it, but it's happened. Mary Jane is—a man."
Billy heard a dismayed gasp and a muttered "Oh, my grief and conscience!" then a shaking "Wha-at?"
"I say, Mary Jane is a man." Billy was enjoying herself hugely.
"Yes; a great big man with a brown beard. He's waiting now with John and I must go."
"But, Billy, I don't understand," chattered an agitated voice over the line. "He—he called himself 'Mary Jane.' He hasn't any business to be a big man with a brown beard! What shall we do? We don't want a big man with a brown beard—here!"
Billy laughed roguishly.
"I don't know. You asked him! How he will like that little blue room—Aunt Hannah!" Billy's voice turned suddenly tragic. "For pity's sake take out those curling tongs and hairpins, and the work-basket. I'd never hear the last of it if he saw those, I know. He's just that kind!"
A half stifled groan came over the wire.
"Billy, he can't stay here."
Billy laughed again.
"No, no, dear; he won't, I know. He says he's going to a hotel. But I had to bring him home to dinner; there was no other way, under the circumstances. He won't stay. Don't you worry. But good-by. I must go. Remember those curling tongs!" And the receiver clicked sharply against the hook.
In the automobile some minutes later, Billy and Mr. M. J. Arkwright were speeding toward Corey Hill. It was during a slight pause in the conversation that Billy turned to her companion with a demure:
"I telephoned Aunt Hannah, Mr. Arkwright. I thought she ought to be—warned."
"You are very kind. What did she say?—if I may ask."
There was a brief moment of hesitation before Billy answered.
"She said you called yourself 'Mary Jane,' and that you hadn't any business to be a big man with a brown beard."
"I'm afraid I owe Aunt Hannah an apology," he said. He hesitated, glanced admiringly at the glowing, half-averted face near him, then went on decisively. He wore the air of a man who has set the match to his bridges. "I signed both letters 'M. J. Arkwright,' but in the first one I quoted a remark of a friend, and in that remark I was addressed as 'Mary Jane.' I did not know but Aunt Hannah knew of the nickname." (Arkwright was speaking a little slowly now, as if weighing his words.) "But when she answered, I saw that she did not; for, from something she said, I realized that she thought I was a real Mary Jane. For the joke of the thing I let it pass. But—if she noticed my letter carefully, she saw that I did not accept your kind invitation to give 'Mary Jane' a home."
"Yes, we noticed that," nodded Billy, merrily. "But we didn't think you meant it. You see we pictured you as a shy young thing. But, really," she went on with a low laugh, "you see your coming as a masculine 'Mary Jane' was particularly funny—for me; for, though perhaps you didn't know it, I came once to this very same city, wearing a pink, and was expected to be Billy, a boy. And only to-day a lady warned me that your coming might even things up. But I didn't believe it would—a Mary Jane!"
Arkwright laughed. Again he hesitated, and seemed to be weighing his words.
"Yes, I heard about that coming of yours. I might almost say—that's why I—let the mistake pass in Aunt Hannah's letter," he said.
Billy turned with reproachful eyes.
"Oh, how could—you? But then—it was a temptation!" She laughed suddenly. "What sinful joy you must have had watching me hunt for 'Mary Jane.'"
"I didn't," acknowledged the other, with unexpected candor. "I felt—ashamed. And when I saw you were there alone without Aunt Hannah, I came very near not speaking at all—until I realized that that would be even worse, under the circumstances."
"Of course it would," smiled Billy, brightly; "so I don't see but I shall have to forgive you, after all. And here we are at home, Mr. Mary Jane. By the way, what did you say that 'M. J.' did stand for?" she asked, as the car came to a stop.
The man did not seem to hear; at least he did not answer. He was helping his hostess to alight. A moment later a plainly agitated Aunt Hannah—her gray shawl topped with a huge black one—opened the door of the house.
CHAPTER VII. OLD FRIENDS AND NEW
At ten minutes before six on the afternoon of Arkwright's arrival, Billy came into the living-room to welcome the three Henshaw brothers, who, as was frequently the case, were dining at Hillside.
Bertram thought Billy had never looked prettier than she did this afternoon with the bronze sheen of her pretty house gown bringing out the bronze lights in her dark eyes and in the soft waves of her beautiful hair. Her countenance, too, carried a peculiar something that the artist's eye was quick to detect, and that the artist's fingers tingled to put on canvas.
"Jove! Billy," he said low in her ear, as he greeted her, "I wish I had a brush in my hand this minute. I'd have a 'Face of a Girl' that would be worth while!"
Billy laughed and dimpled her appreciation; but down in her heart she was conscious of a vague unrest. Billy wished, sometimes, that she did not so often seem to Bertram—a picture.
She turned to Cyril with outstretched hand.
"Oh, yes, Marie's coming," she smiled in answer to the quick shifting of Cyril's eyes to the hall doorway. "And Aunt Hannah, too. They're up-stairs."
"And Mary Jane?" demanded William, a little anxiously
"Will's getting nervous," volunteered Bertram, airily. "He wants to see Mary Jane. You see we've told him that we shall expect him to see that she doesn't bother us four too much, you know. He's expected always to remove her quietly but effectually, whenever he sees that she is likely to interrupt a tete-a-tete. Naturally, then, Will wants to see Mary Jane."
Billy began to laugh hysterically. She dropped into a chair and raised both her hands, palms outward.
"Don't, don't—please don't!" she choked, "or I shall die. I've had all I can stand, already."
"All you can stand?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is she so—impossible?" This last was from Bertram, spoken softly, and with a hurried glance toward the hall.
Billy dropped her hands and lifted her head. By heroic effort she pulled her face into sobriety—all but her eyes—and announced:
"Mary Jane is—a man."
Three masculine forms sat suddenly erect.
"Yes. Oh, Uncle William, I know now just how you felt—I know, I know," gurgled Billy, incoherently. "There he stood with his pink just as I did—only he had a brown beard, and he didn't have Spunk—and I had to telephone to prepare folks, just as you did. And the room—the room! I fixed the room, too," she babbled breathlessly, "only I had curling tongs and hair pins in it instead of guns and spiders!"
"Child, child! what are you talking about?" William's face was red.
"A man!—Mary Jane!" Cyril was merely cross.
"Billy, what does this mean?" Bertram had grown a little white.
Billy began to laugh again, yet she was plainly trying to control herself.
"I'll tell you. I must tell you. Aunt Hannah is keeping him up-stairs so I can tell you," she panted. "But it was so funny, when I expected a girl, you know, to see him with his brown beard, and he was so tall and big! And, of course, it made me think how I came, and was a girl when you expected a boy; and Mrs. Carleton had just said to-day that maybe this girl would even things up. Oh, it was so funny!"
"Billy, my-my dear," remonstrated Uncle William, mildly.
"But what is his name?" demanded Cyril.
"Did the creature sign himself 'Mary Jane'?" exploded Bertram.
"I don't know his name, except that it's 'M. J.'—and that's how he signed the letters. But he is called 'Mary Jane' sometimes, and in the letter he quoted somebody's speech—I've forgotten just how—but in it he was called 'Mary Jane,' and, of course, Aunt Hannah took him for a girl," explained Billy, grown a little more coherent now.
"Didn't he write again?" asked William.
"Well, why didn't he correct the mistake, then?" demanded Bertram.
"He didn't want to, I guess. He thought it was too good a joke."
"Joke!" scoffed Cyril.
"But, see here, Billy, he isn't going to live here—now?" Bertram's voice was almost savage.
"Oh, no, he isn't going to live here—now," interposed smooth tones from the doorway.
"Mr.—Arkwright!" breathed Billy, confusedly.
Three crimson-faced men sprang to their feet. The situation, for a moment, threatened embarrassed misery for all concerned; but Arkwright, with a cheery smile, advanced straight toward Bertram, and held out a friendly hand.
"The proverbial fate of listeners," he said easily; "but I don't blame you at all. No, 'he' isn't going to live here," he went on, grasping each brother's hand in turn, as Billy murmured faint introductions; "and what is more, he hereby asks everybody's pardon for the annoyance his little joke has caused. He might add that he's heartily-ashamed of himself, as well; but if any of you—" Arkwright turned to the three tall men still standing by their chairs—"if any of you had suffered what he has at the hands of a swarm of youngsters for that name's sake, you wouldn't blame him for being tempted to get what fun he could out of Mary Jane—if there ever came a chance!"
Naturally, after this, there could be nothing stiff or embarrassing. Billy laughed in relief, and motioned Mr. Arkwright to a seat near her. William said "Of course, of course!" and shook hands again. Bertram and Cyril laughed shamefacedly and sat down. Somebody said: "But what does the 'M. J.' stand for, anyhow?" Nobody answered this, however; perhaps because Aunt Hannah and Marie appeared just then in the doorway.
Dinner proved to be a lively meal. In the newcomer, Bertram met his match for wit and satire; and "Mr. Mary Jane," as he was promptly called by every one but Aunt Hannah, was found to be a most entertaining guest.
After dinner somebody suggested music.
Cyril frowned, and got up abruptly. Still frowning, he turned to a bookcase near him and began to take down and examine some of the books.
Bertram twinkled and glanced at Billy.
"Which is it, Cyril?" he called with cheerful impertinence; "stool, piano, or audience that is the matter to-night?"
Only a shrug from Cyril answered.
"You see," explained Bertram, jauntily, to Arkwright, whose eyes were slightly puzzled, "Cyril never plays unless the piano and the pedals and the weather and your ears and my watch and his fingers are just right!"
"Nonsense!" scorned Cyril, dropping his book and walking back to his chair. "I don't feel like playing to-night; that's all."
"You see," nodded Bertram again.
"I see," bowed Arkwright with quiet amusement.
"I believe—Mr. Mary Jane—sings," observed Billy, at this point, demurely.
"Why, yes, of course," chimed in Aunt Hannah with some nervousness. "That's what she—I mean he—was coming to Boston for—to study music."
"Won't you sing, please?" asked Billy. "Can you—without your notes? I have lots of songs if you want them."
For a moment—but only a moment—Arkwright hesitated; then he rose and went to the piano.
With the easy sureness of the trained musician his fingers dropped to the keys and slid into preliminary chords and arpeggios to test the touch of the piano; then, with a sweetness and purity that made every listener turn in amazed delight, a well-trained tenor began the "Thro' the leaves the night winds moving," of Schubert's Serenade.
Cyril's chin had lifted at the first tone. He was listening now with very obvious pleasure. Bertram, too, was showing by his attitude the keenest appreciation. William and Aunt Hannah, resting back in their chairs, were contentedly nodding their approval to each other. Marie in her corner was motionless with rapture. As to Billy—Billy was plainly oblivious of everything but the song and the singer. She seemed scarcely to move or to breathe till the song's completion; then there came a low "Oh, how beautiful!" through her parted lips.
Bertram, looking at her, was conscious of a vague irritation.
"Arkwright, you're a lucky dog," he declared almost crossly. "I wish I could sing like that!"
"I wish I could paint a 'Face of a Girl,'" smiled the tenor as he turned from the piano.
"Oh, but, Mr. Arkwright, don't stop," objected Billy, springing to her feet and going to her music cabinet by the piano. "There's a little song of Nevin's I want you to sing. There, here it is. Just let me play it for you." And she slipped into the place the singer had just left.
It was the beginning of the end. After Nevin came De Koven, and after De Koven, Gounod. Then came Nevin again, Billy still playing the accompaniment. Next followed a duet. Billy did not consider herself much of a singer, but her voice was sweet and true, and not without training. It blended very prettily with the clear, pure tenor.
William and Aunt Hannah still smiled contentedly in their chairs, though Aunt Hannah had reached for the pink shawl near her—the music had sent little shivers down her spine. Cyril, with Marie, had slipped into the little reception-room across the hall, ostensibly to look at some plans for a house, although—as everybody knew—they were not intending to build for a year.
Bertram, still sitting stiffly erect in his chair, was not conscious of a vague irritation now. He was conscious of a very real, and a very decided one—an irritation that was directed against himself, against Billy, and against this man, Arkwright; but chiefly against music, per se. He hated music. He wished he could sing. He wondered how long it took to teach a man to sing, anyhow; and he wondered if a man could sing—who never had sung.
At this point the duet came to an end, and Billy and her guest left the piano. Almost at once, after this, Arkwright made his very graceful adieus, and went off with his suit-case to the hotel where, as he had informed Aunt Hannah, his room was already engaged.
William went home then, and Aunt Hannah went up-stairs. Cyril and Marie withdrew into a still more secluded corner to look at their plans, and Bertram found himself at last alone with Billy. He forgot, then, in the blissful hour he spent with her before the open fire, how he hated music; though he did say, just before he went home that night:
"Billy, how long does it take—to learn to sing?"
"Why, I don't know, I'm sure," replied Billy, abstractedly; then, with sudden fervor: "Oh, Bertram, hasn't Mr. Mary Jane a beautiful voice?"
Bertram wished then he had not asked the question; but all he said was:
"'Mr. Mary Jane,' indeed! What an absurd name!"
"But doesn't he sing beautifully?"
"Eh? Oh, yes, he sings all right," said Bertram's tongue. Bertram's manner said: "Oh, yes, anybody can sing."
CHAPTER VIII. M. J. OPENS THE GAME
On the morning after Cyril's first concert of the season, Billy sat sewing with Aunt Hannah in the little sitting-room at the end of the hall upstairs. Aunt Hannah wore only one shawl this morning,—which meant that she was feeling unusually well.
"Marie ought to be here to mend these stockings," remarked Billy, as she critically examined a tiny break in the black silk mesh stretched across the darning-egg in her hand; "only she'd want a bigger hole. She does so love to make a beautiful black latticework bridge across a yawning white china sea—and you'd think the safety of an army depended on the way each plank was laid, too," she concluded.
Aunt Hannah smiled tranquilly, but she did not speak.
"I suppose you don't happen to know if Cyril does wear big holes in his socks," resumed Billy, after a moment's silence. "If you'll believe it, that thought popped into my head last night when Cyril was playing that concerto so superbly. It did, actually—right in the middle of the adagio movement, too. And in spite of my joy and pride in the music I had all I could do to keep from nudging Marie right there and then and asking her whether or not the dear man was hard on his hose."
"Billy!" gasped the shocked Aunt Hannah; but the gasp broke at once into what—in Aunt Hannah—passed for a chuckle. "If I remember rightly, when I was there at the house with you at first, my dear, William told me that Cyril wouldn't wear any sock after it came to mending."
"Horrors!" Billy waved her stocking in mock despair. "That will never do in the world. It would break Marie's heart. You know how she dotes on darning."
"Yes, I know," smiled Aunt Hannah. "By the way, where is she this morning?"
Billy raised her eyebrows quizzically.
"Gone to look at an apartment in Cambridge, I believe. Really, Aunt Hannah, between her home-hunting in the morning, and her furniture-and-rug hunting in the afternoon, and her poring over house-plans in the evening, I can't get her to attend to her clothes at all. Never did I see a bride so utterly indifferent to her trousseau as Marie Hawthorn—and her wedding less than a month away!"
"But she's been shopping with you once or twice, since she came back, hasn't she? And she said it was for her trousseau."
"Her trousseau! Oh, yes, it was. I'll tell you what she got for her trousseau that first day. We started out to buy two hats, some lace for her wedding gown, some crepe de Chine and net for a little dinner frock, and some silk for a couple of waists to go with her tailored suit; and what did we get? We purchased a new-style egg-beater and a set of cake tins. Marie got into the kitchen department and I simply couldn't get her out of it. But the next day I was not to be inveigled below stairs by any plaintive prayer for a nutmeg-grater or a soda spoon. She shopped that day, and to some purpose. We accomplished lots."
Aunt Hannah looked a little concerned.
"But she must have some things started!"
"Oh, she has—'most everything now. I've seen to that. Of course her outfit is very simple, anyway. Marie hasn't much money, you know, and she simply won't let me do half what I want to. Still, she had saved up some money, and I've finally convinced her that a trousseau doesn't consist of egg-beaters and cake tins, and that Cyril would want her to look pretty. That name will fetch her every time, and I've learned to use it beautifully. I think if I told her Cyril approved of short hair and near-sightedness she'd I cut off her golden locks and don spectacles on the spot."
Aunt Hannah laughed softly.
"What a child you are, Billy! Besides, just as if Marie were the only one in the house who is ruled by a magic name!"
The color deepened in Billy's cheeks.
"Well, of course, any girl—cares something—for the man she loves. Just as if I wouldn't do anything in the world I could for Bertram!"
"Oh, that makes me think; who was that young woman Bertram was talking with last evening—just after he left us, I mean?"
"Miss Winthrop—Miss Marguerite Winthrop. Bertram is—is painting her portrait, you know."
"Oh, is that the one?" murmured Aunt Hannah. "Hm-m; well, she has a beautiful face."
"Yes, she has." Billy spoke very cheerfully. She even hummed a little tune as she carefully selected a needle from the cushion in her basket.
"There's a peculiar something in her face," mused Aunt Hannah, aloud.
The little tune stopped abruptly, ending in a nervous laugh.
"Dear me! I wonder how it feels to have a peculiar something in your face. Bertram, too, says she has it. He's trying to 'catch it,' he says. I wonder now—if he does catch it, does she lose it?" Flippant as were the words, the voice that uttered them shook a little.
Aunt Hannah smiled indulgently—Aunt Hannah had heard only the flippancy, not the shake.
"I don't know, my dear. You might ask him this afternoon."
Billy made a sudden movement. The china egg in her lap rolled to the floor.
"Oh, but I don't see him this afternoon," she said lightly, as she stooped to pick up the egg.
"Why, I'm sure he told me—" Aunt Hannah's sentence ended in a questioning pause.
"Yes, I know," nodded Billy, brightly; "but he's told me something since. He isn't going. He telephoned me this morning. Miss Winthrop wanted the sitting changed from to-morrow to this afternoon. He said he knew I'd understand."
"Why, yes; but—" Aunt Hannah did not finish her sentence. The whir of an electric bell had sounded through the house. A few moments later Rosa appeared in the open doorway.
"It,'s Mr. Arkwright, Miss. He said as how he had brought the music," she announced.
"Tell him I'll be down at once," directed the mistress of Hillside.
As the maid disappeared, Billy put aside her work and sprang lightly to her feet.
"Now wasn't that nice of him? We were talking last night about some duets he had, and he said he'd bring them over. I didn't know he'd come so soon, though."
Billy had almost reached the bottom of the stairway, when a low, familiar strain of music drifted out from the living-room. Billy caught her breath, and held her foot suspended. The next moment the familiar strain of music had become a lullaby—one of Billy's own—and sung now by a melting tenor voice that lingered caressingly and understandingly on every tender cadence.
Motionless and almost breathless, Billy waited until the last low "lul-la-by" vibrated into silence; then with shining eyes and outstretched hands she entered the living-room.
"Oh, that was—beautiful," she breathed.
Arkwright was on his feet instantly. His eyes, too, were alight.
"I could not resist singing it just once—here," he said a little unsteadily, as their hands met.
"But to hear my little song sung like that! I couldn't believe it was mine," choked Billy, still plainly very much moved. "You sang it as I've never heard it sung before."
Arkwright shook his head slowly.
"The inspiration of the room—that is all,", he said. "It is a beautiful song. All of your songs are beautiful."
Billy blushed rosily.
"Thank you. You know—more of them, then?"
"I think I know them all—unless you have some new ones out. Have you some new ones, lately?"
Billy shook her head.
"No; I haven't written anything since last spring."
"But you're going to?"
She drew a long sigh.
"Yes, oh, yes. I know that now—" With a swift biting of her lower lip Billy caught herself up in time. As if she could tell this man, this stranger, what she had told Bertram that night by the fire—that she knew that now, now she would write beautiful songs, with his love, and his pride in her, as incentives. "Oh, yes, I think I shall write more one of these days," she finished lightly. "But come, this isn't singing duets! I want to see the music you brought."
They sang then, one after another of the duets. To Billy, the music was new and interesting. To Billy, too, it was new (and interesting) to hear her own voice blending with another's so perfectly—to feel herself a part of such exquisite harmony.
"Oh, oh!" she breathed ecstatically, after the last note of a particularly beautiful phrase. "I never knew before how lovely it was to sing duets."
"Nor I," replied Arkwright in a voice that was not quite steady.
Arkwright's eyes were on the enraptured face of the girl so near him. It was well, perhaps, that Billy did not happen to turn and catch their expression. Still, it might have been better if she had turned, after all. But Billy's eyes were on the music before her. Her fingers were busy with the fluttering pages, searching for another duet.
"Didn't you?" she murmured abstractedly. "I supposed you'd sung them before; but you see I never did—until the other night. There, let's try this one!"
"This one" was followed by another and another. Then Billy drew a long breath.
"There! that must positively be the last," she declared reluctantly. "I'm so hoarse now I can scarcely croak. You see, I don't pretend to sing, really."
"Don't you? You sing far better than some who do, anyhow," retorted the man, warmly.
"Thank you," smiled Billy; "that was nice of you to say so—for my sake—and the others aren't here to care. But tell me of yourself. I haven't had a chance to ask you yet; and—I think you said Mary Jane was going to study for Grand Opera."
Arkwright laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"She is; but, as I told Calderwell, she's quite likely to bring up in vaudeville."
"Calderwell! Do you mean—Hugh Calderwell?" Billy's cheeks showed a deeper color.
The man gave an embarrassed little laugh. He had not meant to let that name slip out just yet.
"Yes." He hesitated, then plunged on recklessly. "We tramped half over Europe together last summer."
"Did you?" Billy left her seat at the piano for one nearer the fire. "But this isn't telling me about your own plans," she hurried on a little precipitately. "You've studied before, of course. Your voice shows that."
"Oh, yes; I've studied singing several years, and I've had a year or two of church work, besides a little concert practice of a mild sort."
"Have you begun here, yet?"
"Y-yes, I've had my voice tried."
Billy sat erect with eager interest.
"They liked it, of course?"
"I'm not saying that."
"No, but I am," declared Billy, with conviction. "They couldn't help liking it."
Arkwright laughed again. Just how well they had "liked it" he did not intend to say. Their remarks had been quite too flattering to repeat even to this very plainly interested young woman—delightful and heart-warming as was this same show of interest, to himself.
"Thank you," was all he said.
Billy gave an excited little bounce in her chair.
"And you'll begin to learn roles right away?"
"I already have, some—after a fashion—before I came here."
"Really? How splendid! Why, then you'll be acting them next right on the Boston Opera House stage, and we'll all go to hear you. How perfectly lovely! I can hardly wait."
Arkwright laughed—but his eyes glowed with pleasure.
"Aren't you hurrying things a little?" he ventured.
"But they do let the students appear," argued Billy. "I knew a girl last year who went on in 'Aida,' and she was a pupil at the School. She sang first in a Sunday concert, then they put her in the bill for a Saturday night. She did splendidly—so well that they gave her a chance later at a subscription performance. Oh, you'll be there—and soon, too!"
"Thank you! I only wish the powers that could put me there had your flattering enthusiasm on the matter," he smiled.
"I don't worry any," nodded Billy, "only please don't 'arrive' too soon—not before the wedding, you know," she added jokingly. "We shall be too busy to give you proper attention until after that."
A peculiar look crossed Arkwright's face.
"The—wedding?" he asked, a little faintly.
"Yes. Didn't you know? My friend, Miss Hawthorn, is to marry Mr. Cyril Henshaw next month."
The man opposite relaxed visibly.
"Oh, Miss Hawthorn! No, I didn't know," he murmured; then, with sudden astonishment he added: "And to Mr. Cyril, the musician, did you say?"
"Yes. You seem surprised."
"I am." Arkwright paused, then went on almost defiantly. "You see, Calderwell was telling me only last September how very unmarriageable all the Henshaw brothers were. So I am surprised—naturally," finished Arkwright, as he rose to take his leave.
A swift crimson stained Billy's face.
"But surely you must know that—that—"
"That he has a right to change his mind, of course," supplemented Arkwright smilingly, coming to her rescue in the evident confusion that would not let her finish her sentence. "But Calderwell made it so emphatic, you see, about all the brothers. He said that William had lost his heart long ago; that Cyril hadn't any to lose; and that Bertram—"
"But, Mr. Arkwright, Bertram is—is—" Billy had moistened her lips, and plunged hurriedly in to prevent Arkwright's next words. But again was she unable to finish her sentence, and again was she forced to listen to a very different completion from the smiling lips of the man at her side.
"Is an artist, of course," said Arkwright. "That's what Calderwell declared—that it would always be the tilt of a chin or the curve of a cheek that the artist loved—to paint."