Chapter XXX. Marie Finds a Friend
 

It was on a very cold January afternoon, and Cyril was hurrying up the hill toward Billy's house, when he was startled to see a slender young woman sitting on a curbstone with her head against an electric-light post. He stopped abruptly.

"I beg your pardon, but--why, Miss Hawthorn! It is Miss Hawthorn; isn't it?"

Under his questioning eyes the girl's pale face became so painfully scarlet that in sheer pity the man turned his eyes away. He thought he had seen women blush before, but he decided now that he had not.

"I'm sure--haven't I met you at Miss Neilson's? Are you ill? Can't I do something for you?" he begged.

"Yes--no--that is, I am Miss Hawthorn, and I've met you at Miss Neilson's," stammered the girl, faintly. "But there isn't anything, thank you, that you can do--Mr. Henshaw. I stopped to-- rest."

The man frowned.

"But, surely--pardon me, Miss Hawthorn, but I can't think it your usual custom to choose an icy curbstone for a resting place, with the thermometer down to zero. You must be ill. Let me take you to Miss Neilson's."

"No, no, thank you," cried the girl, struggling to her feet, the vivid red again flooding her face. "I have a lesson--to give."

"Nonsense! You're not fit to give a lesson. Besides, they are all folderol, anyway, half of them. A dozen lessons, more or less, won't make any difference; they'll play just as well--and just as atrociously. Come, I insist upon taking you to Miss Neilson's."

"No, no, thank you! I really mustn't. I--" She could say no more. A strong, yet very gentle hand had taken firm hold of her arm in such a way as half to support her. A force quite outside of herself was carrying her forward step by step--and Miss Hawthorn was not used to strong, gentle hands, nor yet to a force quite outside of herself. Neither was she accustomed to walk arm in arm with Mr. Cyril Henshaw to Miss Billy's door. When she reached there her cheeks were like red roses for color, and her eyes were like the stars for brightness. Yet a minute later, confronted by Miss Billy's astonished eyes, the stars and the roses fled, and a very white-faced girl fell over in a deathlike faint in Cyril Henshaw's arms.

Marie was put to bed in the little room next to Billy's, and was peremptorily hushed when faint remonstrance was made. The next morning, white-faced and wide-eyed, she resolutely pulled herself half upright, and announced that she was all well and must go home-- home to Marie was a six-by-nine hall bed-room in a South End lodging house.

Very gently Billy pushed her back on the pillow and laid a detaining hand on her arm.

"No, dear. Now, please be sensible and listen to reason. You are my guest. You did not know it, perhaps, for I'm afraid the invitation got a little delayed. But you're to stay--oh, lots of weeks."

"I--stay here? Why, I can't--indeed, I can't," protested Marie.

"But that isn't a bit of a nice way to accept an invitation," disapproved Billy. "You should say, 'Thank you, I'd be delighted, I'm sure, and I'll stay.'"

In spite of herself the little music teacher laughed, and in the laugh her tense muscles relaxed.

"Miss Billy, Miss Billy, what is one to do with you? Surely you know--you must know that I can't do what you ask!"

"I'm sure I don't see why not," argued Billy. "I'm merely giving you an invitation and all you have to do is to accept it."

"But the invitation is only the kind way your heart has of covering another of your many charities," objected Marie; "besides, I have to teach. I have my living to earn."

"But you can't," demurred the other. "That's just the trouble. Don't you see? The doctor said last night that you must not teach again this winter."

"Not teach--again--this winter! No, no, he could not be so cruel as that!"

"It wasn't cruel, dear; it was kind. You would be ill if you attempted it. Now you'll get better. He says all you need is rest and care--and that's exactly what I mean my guest shall have."

Quick tears came to the sick girl's eyes.

"There couldn't be a kinder heart than yours, Miss Billy," she murmured, "but I couldn't--I really couldn't be a burden to you like this. I shall go to some hospital."

"But you aren't going to be a burden. You are going to be my friend and companion."

"A companion--and in bed like this?"

"Well, that wouldn't be impossible," smiled Billy; "but, as it happens you won't have to put that to the test, for you'll soon be up and dressed. The doctor says so. Now surely you will stay."

There was a long pause. The little music teacher's eyes had left Billy's face and were circling the room, wistfully lingering on the hangings of filmy lace, the dainty wall covering, and the exquisite water colors in their white-and-gold frames. At last she drew a deep sigh.

"Yes, I'll stay," she breathed rapturously; "but--you must let me help."

"Help? Help what?"

"Help you; your letters, your music-copying, your accounts-- anything, everything. And if you don't let me help,"--the music teacher's voice was very stern now--"if you don't let me help, I shall go home just--as--soon--as--I--can--walk!"

"Dear me!" dimpled Billy. "And is that all? Well, you shall help, and to your heart's content, too. In fact, I'm not at all sure that I sha'n't keep you darning stockings and making puddings all the time," she added mischievously, as she left the room.

Miss Hawthorn sat up the next day. The day following, in one of Billy's "fluttery wrappers," as she called them, she walked all about the room. Very soon she was able to go down-stairs, and in an astonishingly short time she fitted into the daily life as if she had always been there. She was, moreover, of such assistance to Billy that even she herself could see the value of her work; and so she stayed, content.

The little music teacher saw a good deal of Billy's friends then, particularly of the Henshaw brothers; and very glad was Billy to see the comradeship growing between them. She had known that William would be kind to the orphan girl, but she had feared that Marie would not understand Bertram's nonsense or Cyril's reserve. But very soon Bertram had begged, and obtained, permission to try to reproduce on canvas the sheen of the fine, fair hair, and the veiled bloom of the rose-leaf skin that were Marie's greatest charms; and already Cyril had unbent from his usual stiffness enough to play to her twice. So Billy's fears on that score were at an end.