Miss Billy's Decision by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter X. A Job for Pete--and for Bertram
The early days in December were busy ones, certainly, in the little house on Corey Hill. Marie was to be married the twelfth. It was to be a home wedding, and a very simple one--according to Billy, and according to what Marie had said it was to be. Billy still serenely spoke of it as a "simple affair," but Marie was beginning to be fearful. As the days passed, bringing with them more and more frequent evidences either tangible or intangible of orders to stationers, caterers, and florists, her fears found voice in a protest.
"But Billy, it was to be a simple wedding," she cried.
"And so it is."
"But what is this I hear about a breakfast?"
Billy's chin assumed its most stubborn squareness.
"I don't know, I'm sure, what you did hear," she retorted calmly.
Billy laughed. The chin was just as stubborn, but the smiling lips above it graced it with an air of charming concession.
"There, there, dear," coaxed the mistress of Hillside, "don't fret. Besides, I'm sure I should think you, of all people, would want your guests fed!"
"But this is so elaborate, from what I hear."
"Nonsense! Not a bit of it."
"Rosa says there'll be salads and cakes and ices--and I don't know what all."
Billy looked concerned.
"Well, of course, Marie, if you'd rather have oatmeal and doughnuts," she began with kind solicitude; but she got no farther.
"Billy!" besought the bride elect. "Won't you be serious? And there's the cake in wedding boxes, too."
"I know, but boxes are so much easier and cleaner than--just fingers," apologized an anxiously serious voice.
Marie answered with an indignant, grieved glance and hurried on.
"And the flowers--roses, dozens of them, in December! Billy, I can't let you do all this for me."
"Nonsense, dear!" laughed Billy. "Why, I love to do it. Besides, when you're gone, just think how lonesome I'll be! I shall have to adopt somebody else then--now that Mary Jane has proved to be nothing but a disappointing man instead of a nice little girl like you," she finished whimsically.
Marie did not smile. The frown still lay between her delicate brows.
"And for my trousseau--there were so many things that you simply would buy!"
"I didn't get one of the egg-beaters," Billy reminded her anxiously.
Marie smiled now, but she shook her head, too.
"Billy, I cannot have you do all this for me."
At the unexpectedly direct question, Marie fell back a little.
"Why, because I--I can't," she stammered. "I can't get them for myself, and--and--"
"Don't you love me?"
A pink flush stole to Marie's face.
"Indeed I do, dearly."
"Don't I love you?"
The flush deepened.
"I--I hope so."
"Then why won't you let me do what I want to, and be happy in it? Money, just money, isn't any good unless you can exchange it for something you want. And just now I want pink roses and ice cream and lace flounces for you. Marie," --Billy's voice trembled a little--"I never had a sister till I had you, and I have had such a good time buying things that I thought you wanted! But, of course, if you don't want them--" The words ended in a choking sob, and down went Billy's head into her folded arms on the desk before her.
Marie sprang to her feet and cuddled the bowed head in a loving embrace.
"But I do want them, dear; I want them all-- every single one," she urged. "Now promise me --promise me that you'll do them all, just as you'd planned! You will, won't you?"
There was the briefest of hesitations, then came the muffled reply:
"Yes--if you really want them."
"I do, dear--indeed I do. I love pretty weddings, and I--I always hoped that I could have one--if I ever married. So you must know, dear, how I really do want all those things," declared Marie, fervently. "And now I must go. I promised to meet Cyril at Park Street at three o'clock." And she hurried from the room--and not until she was half-way to her destination did it suddenly occur to her that she had been urging, actually urging Miss Billy Neilson to buy for her pink roses, ice cream, and lace flounces.
Her cheeks burned with shame then. But almost at once she smiled.
"Now wasn't that just like Billy?" she was saying to herself, with a tender glow in her eyes.
It was early in December that Pete came one day with a package for Marie from Cyril. Marie was not at home, and Billy herself went downstairs to take the package from the old man's hands.
"Mr. Cyril said to give it to Miss Hawthorn," stammered the old servant, his face lighting up as Billy entered the room; "but I'm sure he wouldn't mind your taking it."
"I'm afraid I'll have to take it, Pete, unless you want to carry it back with you," she smiled. "I'll see that Miss Hawthorn has it the very first moment she comes in."
"Thank you, Miss. It does my old eyes good to see your bright face." He hesitated, then turned slowly. "Good day, Miss Billy."
Billy laid the package on the table. Her eyes were thoughtful as she looked after the old man, who was now almost to the door. Something in his bowed form appealed to her strangely. She took a quick step toward him.
"You'll miss Mr. Cyril, Pete," she said pleasantly.
The old man stopped at once and turned. He lifted his head a little proudly.
"Yes, Miss. I--I was there when he was born. Mr. Cyril's a fine man."
"Indeed he is. Perhaps it's your good care that's helped, some--to make him so," smiled the girl, vaguely wishing that she could say something that would drive the wistful look from the dim old eyes before her.
For a moment Billy thought she had succeeded. The old servant drew himself stiffly erect. In his eyes shone the loyal pride of more than fifty years' honest service. Almost at once, however, the pride died away, and the wistfulness returned.
"Thank ye, Miss; but I don't lay no claim to that, of course," he said. "Mr. Cyril's a fine man, and we shall miss him; but--I cal'late changes must come--to all of us."
Billy's brown eyes grew a little misty.
"I suppose they must," she admitted.
The old man hesitated; then, as if impelled by some hidden force, he plunged on:
"Yes; and they'll be comin' to you one of these days, Miss, and that's what I was wantin' to speak to ye about. I understand, of course, that when you get there you'll be wantin' younger blood to serve ye. My feet ain't so spry as they once was, and my old hands blunder sometimes, in spite of what my head bids 'em do. So I wanted to tell ye--that of course I shouldn't expect to stay. I'd go."
As he said the words, Pete stood with head and shoulders erect, his eyes looking straight forward but not at Billy.
"Don't you want to stay?" The girlish voice was a little reproachful.
Pete's head drooped.
"Not if--I'm not wanted," came the husky reply.
With an impulsive movement Billy came straight to the old man's side and held out her hand.
Amazement, incredulity, and a look that was almost terror crossed the old man's face; then a flood of dull red blotted them all out and left only worshipful rapture. With a choking cry he took the slim little hand in both his rough and twisted ones much as if he were possessing himself of a treasured bit of eggshell china.
"Pete, there aren't a pair of feet in Boston, nor a pair of hands, either, that I'd rather have serve me than yours, no matter if they stumble and blunder all day! I shall love stumbles and blunders--if you make them. Now run home, and don't ever let me hear another syllable about your leaving!"
They were not the words Billy had intended to say. She had meant to speak of his long, faithful service, and of how much they appreciated it; but, to her surprise, Billy found her own eyes wet and her own voice trembling, and the words that she would have said she found fast shut in her throat. So there was nothing to do but to stammer out something--anything, that would help to keep her from yielding to that absurd and awful desire to fall on the old servant's neck and cry.
"Not another syllable!" she repeated sternly.
"Miss Billy!" choked Pete again. Then he turned and fled with anything but his usual dignity.
Bertram called that evening. When Billy came to him in the living-room, her slender self was almost hidden behind the swirls of damask linen in her arms.
Bertram's eyes grew mutinous.
"Do you expect me to hug all that?" he demanded.
Billy flashed him a mischievous glance.
"Of course not! You don't have to hug anything, you know."
For answer he impetuously swept the offending linen into the nearest chair and drew the girl into his arms.
"Oh! And see how you've crushed poor Marie's table-cloth!" she cried, with reproachful eyes.
Bertram sniffed imperturbably.
"I'm not sure but I'd like to crush Marie," he alleged.
"I can't help it. See here, Billy." He loosened his clasp and held the girl off at arm's length, regarding her with stormy eyes. "It's Marie, Marie, Marie--always. If I telephone in the morning, you've gone shopping with Marie. If I want you in the afternoon for something, you're at the dressmaker's with Marie. If I call in the evening--"
"I'm here," interrupted Billy, with decision.
"Oh, yes, you're here," admitted Bertram, aggrievedly, "and so are dozens of napkins, miles of table-cloths, and yards upon yards of lace and flummydiddles you call `doilies.' They all belong to Marie, and they fill your arms and your thoughts full, until there isn't an inch of room for me. Billy, when is this thing going to end?"
Billy laughed softly. Her eyes danced.
"The twelfth;--that is, there'll be a--pause, then."
"Well, I'm thankful if--eh?" broke off the man, with a sudden change of manner. "What do you mean by `a pause'?"
Billy cast down her eyes demurely.
"Well, of course this ends the twelfth with Marie's wedding; but I've sort of regarded it as an--understudy for one that's coming next October, you see."
"Billy, you darling!" breathed a supremely happy voice in a shell-like ear--Billy was not at arm's length now.
Billy smiled, but she drew away with gentle firmness.
"And now I must go back to my sewing," she said.
Bertram's arms did not loosen. His eyes had grown mutinous again.
"That is," she amended, "I must be practising my part of--the understudy, you know."
"You darling!" breathed Bertram again; this time, however, he let her go.
"But, honestly, is it all necessary?" he sighed despairingly, as she seated herself and gathered the table-cloth into her lap. "Do you have to do so much of it all?"
"I do," smiled Billy, "unless you want your brother to run the risk of leading his bride to the altar and finding her robed in a kitchen apron with an egg-beater in her hand for a bouquet."
"Is it so bad as that?"
"No, of course not--quite. But never have I seen a bride so utterly oblivious to clothes as Marie was till one day in despair I told her that Cyril never could bear a dowdy woman."
"As if Cyril, in the old days, ever could bear any sort of woman!" scoffed Bertram, merrily.
"I know; but I didn't mention that part," smiled Billy. "I just singled out the dowdy one."
"Did it work?"
Billy made a gesture of despair.
"Did it work! It worked too well. Marie gave me one horrified look, then at once and immediately she became possessed with the idea that she was a dowdy woman. And from that day to this she has pursued every lurking wrinkle and every fold awry, until her dressmaker's life isn't worth the living; and I'm beginning to think mine isn't, either, for I have to assure her at least four times every day now that she is not a dowdy woman."
"You poor dear," laughed Bertram. "No wonder you don't have time to give to me!"
A peculiar expression crossed Billy's face.
"Oh, but I'm not the only one who, at times, is otherwise engaged, sir," she reminded him.
"What do you mean?"
"There was yesterday, and last Monday, and last week Wednesday, and--"
"Oh, but you let me off, then," argued Bertram, anxiously. "And you said--"
"That I didn't wish to interfere with your work--which was quite true," interrupted Billy in her turn, smoothly. "By the way,"--Billy was examining her stitches very closely now --"how is Miss Winthrop's portrait coming on?"
"Splendidly!--that is, it was, until she began to put off the sittings for her pink teas and folderols. She's going to Washington next week, too, to be gone nearly a fortnight," finished Bertram, gloomily.
"Aren't you putting more work than usual into this one--and more sittings?"
"Well, yes," laughed Bertram, a little shortly. "You see, she's changed the pose twice already."
"Yes. Wasn't satisfied. Fancied she wanted it different."
"But can't you--don't you have something to say about it?"
"Oh, yes, of course; and she claims she'll yield to my judgment, anyhow. But what's the use? She's been a spoiled darling all her life, and in the habit of having her own way about everything. Naturally, under those circumstances, I can't expect to get a satisfactory portrait, if she's out of tune with the pose. Besides, I will own, so far her suggestions have made for improvement--probably because she's been happy in making them, so her expression has been good."
Billy wet her lips.
"I saw her the other night," she said lightly. (If the lightness was a little artificial Bertram did not seem to notice it.) "She is certainly--very beautiful."
"Yes." Bertram got to his feet and began to walk up and down the little room. His eyes were alight. On his face the "painting look" was king. "It's going to mean a lot to me--this picture, Billy. In the first place I'm just at the point in my career where a big success would mean a lot --and where a big failure would mean more. And this portrait is bound to be one or the other from the very nature of the thing."
"I-is it?" Billy's voice was a little faint.
"Yes. First, because of who the sitter is, and secondly because of what she is. She is, of course, the most famous subject I've had, and half the artistic world knows by this time that Marguerite Winthrop is being done by Henshaw. You can see what it'll be--if I fail."
"But you won't fail, Bertram!"
The artist lifted his chin and threw back his shoulders.
"No, of course not; but--" He hesitated, frowned, and dropped himself into a chair. His eyes studied the fire moodily. "You see," he resumed, after a moment, "there's a peculiar, elusive something about her expression--" (Billy stirred restlessly and gave her thread so savage a jerk that it broke)"--a something that isn't easily caught by the brush. Anderson and Fullam--big fellows, both of them--didn't catch it. At least, I've understood that neither her family nor her friends are satisfied with their portraits. And to succeed where Anderson and Fullam failed--Jove! Billy, a chance like that doesn't come to a fellow twice in a lifetime!" Bertram was out of his chair, again, tramping up and down the little room.
Billy tossed her work aside and sprang to her feet. Her eyes, too, were alight, now.
"But you aren't going to fail, dear," she cried, holding out both her hands. "You're going to succeed!"
Bertram caught the hands and kissed first one then the other of their soft little palms.
"Of course I am," he agreed passionately, leading her to the sofa, and seating himself at her side.
"Yes, but you must really feel it," she urged; "feel the `sure' in yourself. You have to!--to doing things. That's what I told Mary Jane yesterday, when he was running on about what he wanted to do--in his singing, you know."
Bertram stiffened a little. A quick frown came to his face.
"Mary Jane, indeed! Of all the absurd names to give a full-grown, six-foot man! Billy, do, for pity's sake, call him by his name--if he's got one."
Billy broke into a rippling laugh.
"I wish I could, dear," she sighed ingenuously.
"Honestly, it bothers me because I can't think of him as anything but `Mary Jane.' It seems so silly!"
"It certainly does--when one remembers his beard."
"Oh, he's shaved that off now. He looks rather better, too."
Bertram turned a little sharply.
"Do you see the fellow--often?"
Billy laughed merrily.
"No. He's about as disgruntled as you are over the way the wedding monopolizes everything. He's been up once or twice to see Aunt Hannah and to get acquainted, as he expresses it, and once he brought up some music and we sang; but he declares the wedding hasn't given him half a show."
"Indeed! Well, that's a pity, I'm sure," rejoined Bertram, icily.
Billy turned in slight surprise.
"Why, Bertram, don't you like Mary Jane?"
"Billy, for heaven's sake! Hasn't he got any name but that?"
Billy clapped her hands together suddenly.
"There, that makes me think. He told Aunt Hannah and me to guess what his name was, and we never hit it once. What do you think it is? The initials are M. J."
"I couldn't say, I'm sure. What is it?"
"Oh, he didn't tell us. You see he left us to guess it."
"Yes," mused Billy, abstractedly, her eyes on the dancing fire. The next minute she stirred and settled herself more comfortably in the curve of her lover's arm. "But there! who cares what his name is? I'm sure I don't."
"Nor I," echoed Bertram in a voice that he tried to make not too fervent. He had not forgotten Billy's surprised: "Why, Bertram, don't you like Mary Jane?" and he did not like to call forth a repetition of it. Abruptly, therefore, he changed the subject. "By the way, what did you do to Pete to-day?" he asked laughingly. "He came home in a seventh heaven of happiness babbling of what an angel straight from the sky Miss Billy was. Naturally I agreed with him on that point. But what did you do to him?"
"Nothing--only engaged him for our butler --for life."
"Oh, I see. That was dear of you, Billy."
"As if I'd do anything else! And now for Dong Ling, I suppose, some day."
"Well, maybe I can help you there," he hinted. "You see, his Celestial Majesty came to me himself the other day, and said, after sundry and various preliminaries, that he should be `velly much glad' when the `Little Missee' came to live with me, for then he could go back to China with a heart at rest, as he had money `velly much plenty' and didn't wish to be `Melican man' any longer."
"Dear me," smiled Billy, "what a happy state of affairs--for him. But for you--do you realize, young man, what that means for you? A new wife and a new cook all at once? And you know I'm not Marie!"
"Ho! I'm not worrying," retorted Bertram with a contented smile; "besides, as perhaps you noticed, it wasn't Marie that I asked--to marry me!"