Chapter XVII. Only a Love Song, But--

Kate and little Kate left for the West on the afternoon of the fifteenth, and Bertram arrived from New York that evening. Notwithstanding the confusion of all this, Billy still had time to give some thought to her experience of the morning with Uncle William. The forlorn little room with its poverty-stricken furnishings and its crippled mistress was very vivid in Billy's memory. Equally vivid were the flashing eyes of Alice Greggory as she had opened the door at the last.

"For," as Billy explained to Bertram that evening, after she had told him the story of the morning's adventure, "you see, dear, I had never been really turned out of a house before!"

"I should think not," scowled her lover, indignantly; "and it's safe to say you never will again. The impertinence of it! But then, you won't see them any more, sweetheart, so we'll just forget it."

"Forget it! Why, Bertram, I couldn't! You couldn't, if you'd been there. Besides, of course I shall see them again!"

Bertram's jaw dropped.

"Why, Billy, you don't mean that Will, or you either, would try again for that trumpery teapot!"

"Of course not," flashed Billy, heatedly. "It isn't the teapot--it's that dear little Mrs. Greggory. Why, dearie, you don't know how poor they are! Everything in sight is so old and thin and worn it's enough to break your heart. The rug isn't anything but darns, nor the tablecloth, either--except patches. It's awful, Bertram!"

"I know, darling; but you don't expect to buy them new rugs and new tablecloths, do you?"

Billy gave one of her unexpected laughs.

"Mercy!" she chuckled. "Only picture Miss Alice's face if I should try to buy them rugs and tablecloths! No, dear," she went on more seriously, "I sha'n't do that, of course--though I'd like to; but I shall try to see Mrs. Greggory again, if it's nothing more than a rose or a book or a new magazine that I can take to her."

"Or a smile--which I fancy will be the best gift of the lot," amended Bertram, fondly.

Billy dimpled and shook her head.

"Smiles--my smiles--are not so valuable, I'm afraid--except to you, perhaps," she laughed.

"Self-evident facts need no proving," retorted Bertram. "Well, and what else has happened in all these ages I've been away?"

Billy brought her hands together with a sudden cry.

"Oh, and I haven't told you!" she exclaimed. "I'm writing a new song--a love song. Mary Jane wrote the words. They're beautiful."

Bertram stiffened.

"Indeed! And is--Mary Jane a poet, with all the rest?" he asked, with affected lightness.

"Oh, no, of course not," smiled Billy; "but these words are pretty. And they just sang themselves into the dearest little melody right away. So I'm writing the music for them."

"Lucky Mary Jane!" murmured Bertram, still with a lightness that he hoped would pass for indifference. (Bertram was ashamed of himself, but deep within him was a growing consciousness that he knew the meaning of the vague irritation that he always felt at the mere mention of Arkwright's name.) "And will the title-page say, `Words by Mary Jane Arkwright'?" he finished.

"That's what I asked him," laughed Billy.

"I even suggested `Methuselah John' for a change. Oh, but, dearie," she broke off with shy eagerness, "I just want you to hear a little of what I've done with it. You see, really, all the time, I suspect, I've been singing it--to you," she confessed with an endearing blush, as she sprang lightly to her feet and hurried to the piano.

It was a bad ten minutes that Bertram Henshaw spent then. How he could love a song and hate it at the same time he did not understand; but he knew that he was doing exactly that. To hear Billy carol "Sweetheart, my sweetheart!" with that joyous tenderness was bliss unspeakable-- until he remembered that Arkwright wrote the "Sweetheart, my sweetheart!" then it was-- (Even in his thoughts Bertram bit the word off short. He was not a swearing man.) When he looked at Billy now at the piano, and thought of her singing--as she said she had sung--that song to him all through the last three days, his heart glowed. But when he looked at her and thought of Arkwright, who had made possible that singing, his heart froze with terror.

From the very first it had been music that Bertram had feared. He could not forget that Billy herself had once told him that never would she love any man better than she loved her music; that she was not going to marry. All this had been at the first--the very first. He had boldly scorned the idea then, and had said:

"So it's music--a cold, senseless thing of spidery marks on clean white paper--that is my only rival!"

He had said, too, that he was going to win. And he had won--but not until after long weeks of fearing, hoping, striving, and despairing--this last when Kate's blundering had nearly made her William's wife. Then, on that memorable day in September, Billy had walked straight into his arms; and he knew that he had, indeed, won. That is, he had supposed that he knew--until Arkwright came.

Very sharply now, as he listened to Billy's singing, Bertram told himself to be reasonable, to be sensible; that Billy did, indeed, love him. Was she not, according to her own dear assertion, singing that song to him? But it was Arkwright's song. He remembered that, too--and grew faint at the thought. True, he had won when his rival, music, had been a "cold, senseless thing of spidery marks" on paper; but would that winning stand when "music" had become a thing of flesh and blood--a man of undeniable charm, good looks, and winsomeness; a man whose thoughts, aims, and words were the personification of the thing Billy, in the long ago, had declared she loved best of all--music?

Bertram shivered as with a sudden chill; then Billy rose from the piano.

"There!" she breathed, her face shyly radiant with the glory of the song. "Did you--like it?"

Bertram did his best; but, in his state of mind, the very radiance of her face was only an added torture, and his tongue stumbled over the words of praise and appreciation that he tried to say. He saw, then, the happy light in Billy's eyes change to troubled questioning and grieved disappointment; and he hated himself for a jealous brute. More earnestly than ever, now, he tried to force the ring of sincerity into his voice; but he knew that he had miserably failed when he heard her falter:

"Of course, dear, I--I haven't got it nearly perfected yet. It'll be much better, later."

"But it s{sic} fine, now, sweetheart--indeed it is," protested Bertram, hurriedly.

"Well, of course I'm glad--if you like it," murmured Billy; but the glow did not come back to her face.