Chapter XII. Sister Kate
 

At the station Mrs. Hartwell's train was found to be gratifyingly on time; and in due course Billy was extending a cordial welcome to a tall, handsome woman who carried herself with an unmistakable air of assured competence. Accompanying her was a little girl with big blue eyes and yellow curls.

"I am very glad to see you both," smiled Billy, holding out a friendly hand to Mrs. Hartwell, and stooping to kiss the round cheek of the little girl.

"Thank you, you are very kind," murmured the lady; "but--are you alone, Billy? Where are the boys?"

"Uncle William is out of town, and Cyril is rushed to death and sent his excuses. Bertram did mean to come, but he telephoned this morning that he couldn't, after all. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you'll have to make the best of just me," condoled Billy. "They'll be out to the house this evening, of course--all but Uncle William. He doesn't return until to-morrow."

"Oh, doesn't he?" murmured the lady, reaching for her daughter's hand.

Billy looked down with a smile.

"And this is little Kate, I suppose," she said, "whom I haven't seen for such a long, long time. Let me see, you are how old now?"

"I'm eight. I've been eight six weeks."

Billy's eyes twinkled.

"And you don't remember me, I suppose."

The little girl shook her head.

"No; but I know who you are," she added, with shy eagerness. "You're going to be my Aunt Billy, and you're going to marry my Uncle William--I mean, my Uncle Bertram."

Billy's face changed color. Mrs. Hartwell gave a despairing gesture.

"Kate, my dear, I told you to be sure and remember that it was your Uncle Bertram now. You see," she added in a discouraged aside to Billy, "she can't seem to forget the first one. But then, what can you expect?" laughed Mrs. Hartwell, a little disagreeably. "Such abrupt changes from one brother to another are somewhat disconcerting, you know."

Billy bit her lip. For a moment she said nothing, then, a little constrainedly, she rejoined:

"Perhaps. Still--let us hope we have the right one, now."

Mrs. Hartwell raised her eyebrows.

"Well, my dear, I'm not so confident of that. My choice has been and always will be--William."

Billy bit her lip again. This time her brown eyes flashed a little.

"Is that so? But you see, after all, you aren't making the--the choice." Billy spoke lightly, gayly; and she ended with a bright little laugh, as if to hide any intended impertinence.

It was Mrs. Hartwell's turn to bite her lip-- and she did it.

"So it seems," she rejoined frigidly, after the briefest of pauses.

It was not until they were on their way to Corey Hill some time later that Mrs. Hartwell turned with the question:

"Cyril is to be married in church, I suppose?"

"No. They both preferred a home wedding."

"Oh, what a pity! Church weddings are so attractive!"

"To those who like them," amended Billy in spite of herself.

"To every one, I think," corrected Mrs. Hartwell, positively.

Billy laughed. She was beginning to discern that it did not do much harm--nor much good --to disagree with her guest.

"It's in the evening, then, of course?" pursued Mrs. Hartwell.

"No; at noon."

"Oh, how could you let them?"

"But they preferred it, Mrs. Hartwell."

"What if they did?" retorted the lady, sharply. "Can't you do as you please in your own home? Evening weddings are so much prettier! We can't change now, of course, with the guests all invited. That is, I suppose you do have guests!"

Mrs. Hartwell's voice was aggrievedly despairing.

"Oh, yes," smiled Billy, demurely. "We have guests invited--and I'm afraid we can't change the time."

"No, of course not; but it's too bad. I conclude there are announcements only, as I got no cards.

"Announcements only," bowed Billy.

"I wish Cyril had consulted me, a little, about this affair."

Billy did not answer. She could not trust herself to speak just then. Cyril's words of two days before were in her ears: "Yes, and it will give Big Kate time to try to make your breakfast supper, and your roses pinks--or sunflowers."

In a moment Mrs. Hartwell spoke again.

"Of course a noon wedding is quite pretty if you darken the rooms and have lights--you're going to do that, I suppose?"

Billy shook her head slowly.

"I'm afraid not, Mrs. Hartwell. That isn't the plan, now."

"Not darken the rooms!" exclaimed Mrs. Hartwell. "Why, it won't--" She stopped suddenly, and fell back in her seat. The look of annoyed disappointment gave way to one of confident relief. "But then, that can be changed," she finished serenely.

Billy opened her lips, but she shut them without speaking. After a minute she opened them again.

"You might consult--Cyril--about that," she said in a quiet voice.

"Yes, I will," nodded Mrs. Hartwell, brightly. She was looking pleased and happy again. "I love weddings. Don't you? You can do so much with them!"

"Can you?" laughed Billy, irrepressibly.

"Yes. Cyril is happy, of course. Still, I can't imagine him in love with any woman."

"I think Marie can."

"I suppose so. I don't seem to remember her much; still, I think I saw her once or twice when I was on last June. Music teacher, wasn't she?"

"Yes. She is a very sweet girl."

"Hm-m; I suppose so. Still, I think 'twould have been better if Cyril could have selected some one that wasn't musical--say a more domestic wife. He's so terribly unpractical himself about household matters."

Billy gave a ringing laugh and stood up. The car had come to a stop before her own door.

"Do you? Just you wait till you see Marie's trousseau of--egg-beaters and cake tins," she chuckled.

Mrs. Hartwell looked blank.

"Whatever in the world do you mean, Billy?" she demanded fretfully, as she followed her hostess from the car. "I declare! aren't you ever going to grow beyond making those absurd remarks of yours?"

"Maybe--sometime," laughed Billy, as she took little Kate's hand and led the way up the steps.

Luncheon in the cozy dining-room at Hillside that day was not entirely a success. At least there were not present exactly the harmony and tranquillity that are conceded to be the best sauce for one's food. The wedding, of course, was the all-absorbing topic of conversation; and Billy, between Aunt Hannah's attempts to be polite, Marie's to be sweet-tempered, Mrs. Hartwell's to be dictatorial, and her own to be pacifying as well as firm, had a hard time of it. If it had not been for two or three diversions created by little Kate, the meal would have been, indeed, a dismal failure.

But little Kate--most of the time the personification of proper little-girlhood--had a disconcerting faculty of occasionally dropping a word here, or a question there, with startling effect. As, for instance, when she asked Billy "Who's going to boss your wedding?" and again when she calmly informed her mother that when she was married she was not going to have any wedding at all to bother with, anyhow. She was going to elope, and she should choose somebody's chauffeur, because he'd know how to go the farthest and fastest so her mother couldn't catch up with her and tell her how she ought to have done it.

After luncheon Aunt Hannah went up-stairs for rest and recuperation. Marie took little Kate and went for a brisk walk--for the same purpose. This left Billy alone with her guest.

"Perhaps you would like a nap, too, Mrs. Hartwell," suggested Billy, as they passed into the living-room. There was a curious note of almost hopefulness in her voice.

Mrs. Hartwell scorned naps, and she said so very emphatically. She said something else, too.

"Billy, why do you always call me `Mrs. Hartwell' in that stiff, formal fashion? You used to call me `Aunt Kate.' "

"But I was very young then." Billy's voice was troubled. Billy had been trying so hard for the last two hours to be the graciously cordial hostess to this woman--Bertram's sister.

"Very true. Then why not `Kate' now?"

Billy hesitated. She was wondering why it seemed so hard to call Mrs. Hartwell "Kate."

"Of course," resumed the lady, "when you're Bertram's wife and my sister--"

"Why, of course," cried Billy, in a sudden flood of understanding. Curiously enough, she had never before thought of Mrs. Hartwell as her sister. "I shall be glad to call you `Kate'--if you like."

"Thank you. I shall like it very much, Billy," nodded the other cordially. "Indeed, my dear, I'm very fond of you, and I was delighted to hear you were to be my sister. If only--it could have stayed William instead of Bertram."

"But it couldn't," smiled Billy. "It wasn't William--that I loved."

"But Bertram!--it's so absurd."

"Absurd!" The smile was gone now.

"Yes. Forgive me, Billy, but I was about as much surprised to hear of Bertram's engagement as I was of Cyril's."

Billy grew a little white.

"But Bertram was never an avowed--woman- hater, like Cyril, was he?"

" `Woman-hater'--dear me, no! He was a woman-lover, always. As if his eternal `Face of a Girl' didn't prove that! Bertram has always loved women--to paint. But as for his ever taking them seriously--why, Billy, what's the matter?"

Billy had risen suddenly.

"If you'll excuse me, please, just a few minutes," Billy said very quietly. "I want to speak to Rosa in the kitchen. I'll be back--soon."

In the kitchen Billy spoke to Rosa--she wondered afterwards what she said. Certainly she did not stay in the kitchen long enough to say much. In her own room a minute later, with the door fast closed, she took from her table the photograph of Bertram and held it in her two hands, talking to it softly, but a little wildly.

"I didn't listen! I didn't stay! Do you hear? I came to you. She shall not say anything that will make trouble between you and me. I've suffered enough through her already! And she doesn't know--she didn't know before, and she doesn't now. She's only imagining. I will not not--not believe that you love me--just to paint. No matter what they say--all of them! I will not!"

Billy put the photograph back on the table then, and went down-stairs to her guest. She smiled brightly, though her face was a little pale.

"I wondered if perhaps you wouldn't like some music," she said pleasantly, going straight to the piano.

"Indeed I would!" agreed Mrs. Hartwell.

Billy sat down then and played--played as Mrs. Hartwell had never heard her play before.

"Why, Billy, you amaze me," she cried, when the pianist stopped and whirled about. "I had no idea you could play like that!"

Billy smiled enigmatically. Billy was thinking that Mrs. Hartwell would, indeed, have been surprised if she had known that in that playing were herself, the ride home, the luncheon, Bertram, and the girl--whom Bertram did not love only to paint!