Chapter XVIII. Sugarplums
 

Those short December days after Bertram's return from New York were busy ones for everybody. Miss Winthrop was not in town to give sittings for her portrait, it is true; but her absence only afforded Bertram time and opportunity to attend to other work that had been more or less delayed and neglected. He was often at Hillside, however, and the lovers managed to snatch many an hour of quiet happiness from the rush and confusion of the Christmas preparations.

Bertram was assuring himself now that his jealous fears of Arkwright were groundless. Billy seldom mentioned the man, and, as the days passed, she spoke only once of his being at the house. The song, too, she said little of; and Bertram--though he was ashamed to own it to himself--breathed more freely.

The real facts of the case were that Billy had told Arkwright that she should have no time to give attention to the song until after Christmas; and her manner had so plainly shown him that she considered himself synonymous with the song, that he had reluctantly taken the hint and kept away.

"I'll make her care for me sometime--for something besides a song," he told himself with fierce consolation--but Billy did not know this.

Aside from Bertram, Christmas filled all of Billy's thoughts these days. There were such a lot of things she wished to do.

"But, after all, they're only sugarplums, you know, that I'm giving, dear," she declared to Bertram one day, when he had remonstrated with with her for so taxing her time and strength. "I can't really do much."

"Much!" scoffed Bertram.

"But it isn't much,, honestly--compared to what there is to do," argued Billy. "You see, dear, it's just this," she went on, her bright face sobering a little. "There are such a lot of people in the world who aren't really poor. That is, they have bread, and probably meat, to eat, and enough clothes to keep them warm. But when you've said that, you've said it all. Books, music, fun, and frosting on their cake they know nothing about--except to long for them."

"But there are the churches and the charities, and all those long-named Societies--I thought that was what they were for," declared Bertram, still a little aggrievedly, his worried eyes on Billy's tired face.

"Oh, but the churches and charities don't frost cakes nor give sugarplums," smiled Billy. "And it's right that they shouldn't, too," she added quickly. "They have more than they can do now with the roast beef and coal and flannel petticoats that are really necessary."

"And so it's just frosting and sugarplums, is it--these books and magazines and concert tickets and lace collars for the crippled boy, the spinster lady, the little widow, and all the rest of those people who were here last summer?"

Billy turned in confused surprise.

"Why, Bertram, however in the world did you find out about all--that?"

"I didn't. I just guessed it--and it seems `the boy guessed right the very first time,' " laughed Bertram, teasingly, but with a tender light in his eyes. "Oh, and I suppose you'll be sending a frosted cake to the Lowestoft lady, too, eh?"

Billy's chin rose to a defiant stubbornness.

"I'm going to try to--if I can find out what kind of frosting she likes."

"How about the Alice lady--or perhaps I should say, the Lady Alice?" smiled the man.

Billy relaxed visibly.

"Yes, I know," she sighed. "There is--the Lady Alice. But, anyhow, she can't call a Christmas present `charity'--not if it's only a little bit of frosting!" Billy's chin came up again.

"And you're going to, really, dare to send her something?"

"Yes," avowed Billy. "I'm going down there one of these days, in the morning--"

"You're going down there! Billy--not alone?"

"Yes. Why not?"

"But, dearie, you mustn't. It was a horrid place, Will says."

"So it was horrid--to live in. It was everything that was cheap and mean and forlorn. But it was quiet and respectable. 'Tisn't as if I didn't know the way, Bertram; and I'm sure that where that poor crippled woman and daughter are safe, I shall be. Mrs. Greggory is a lady, Bertram, well- born and well-bred, I'm sure--and that's the pity of it, to have to live in a place like that! They have seen better days, I know. Those pitiful little worn crutches of hers were mahogany, I'm sure, Bertram, and they were silver mounted."

Bertram made a restless movement.

"I know, dear; but if you had some one with you! It wouldn't do for Will, of course, nor me-- under the circumstances. But there's Aunt Hannah--" He paused hopefully.

Billy chuckled.

"Bless your dear heart! Aunt Hannah would call for a dozen shawls in that place--if she had breath enough to call for any after she got to the top of those four flights!"

"Yes, I suppose so," rejoined Bertram, with an unwilling smile. "Still--well, you can take Rosa," he concluded decisively.

"How Miss Alice would like that--to catch me going `slumming' with my maid!" cried Billy, righteous indignation in her voice. "Honestly, Bertram, I think even gentle Mrs. Greggory wouldn't stand for that."

"Then leave Rosa outside in the hall," planned Bertram, promptly; and after a few more arguments, Billy finally agreed to this.

It was with Rosa, therefore, that she set out the next morning for the little room up four flights on the narrow West End street.

Leaving the maid on the top stair of the fourth flight, Billy tapped at Mrs. Greggory's door. To her joy Mrs. Greggory herself answered the knock.

"Oh! Why--why, good morning," murmured the lady, in evident embarrassment. "Won't you--come m?"

"Thank you. May I?--just a minute?" smiled Billy, brightly.

As she entered the room, Billy threw a hasty look about her. There was no one but themselves present. With a sigh of satisfaction, therefore, the girl took the chair Mrs. Greggory offered, and began to speak.

"I was down this way--that is, I came this way this morning," she began a little hastily; "and I wanted just to come up and tell you how sorry I was about--about that teapot the other day. We didn't want it, of course--if you didn't want us to have it."

A swift change crossed Mrs. Greggory's perturbed face.

"Oh, then you didn't come for it again--to- day," she said. "I'm so glad! I didn't want to refuse--you."

"Indeed I didn't come for it--and we sha'n't again. Don't worry about that, please."

Mrs. Greggory sighed.

"I'm afraid you thought me very rude and--and impossible the other day," she stammered. "And please let me take this opportunity right now to apologize for my daughter. She was overwrought and excited. She didn't know what she was saying or doing, I'm sure. She was ashamed, I think after you left."

Billy raised a quick hand of protest.

"Don't, please don't, Mrs. Greggory," she begged.

"But it was our fault that you came. We asked you to come--through Mr. Harlow," rejoined the other, hurriedly. "And Mr. Henshaw --was that his name?--was so kind in every way. I'm glad of this chance to tell you how much we really did appreciate it--and your offer, too, which we could not, of course, accept," she finished, the bright color flooding her delicate face.

Again Billy raised a protesting hand; but the little woman in the opposite chair hurried on. There was still more, evidently, that she wished to say.

"I hope Mr. Henshaw did not feel too disappointed--about the Lowestoft. We didn't want to let it go if we could help it; and we hope now to keep it."

"Of course," murmured Billy, sympathetically.

"My daughter knew, you see, how much I have always thought of it, and she was determined that I should not give it up. She said I should have that much left, anyway. You see--my daughter is very unreconciled, still, to things as they are; and no wonder, perhaps. They are so different --from what they were!" Her voice broke a little.

"Of course," said Billy again, and this time the words were tinged with impatient indignation. "If only there were something one could do to help!"

"Thank you, my dear, but there isn't--indeed there isn't," rejoined the other, quickly; and Billy, looking into the proudly lifted face, realized suddenly that daughter Alice had perhaps inherited some traits from mother. "We shall get along very well, I am sure. My daughter has still another pupil. She will be home soon to tell you herself, perhaps."

Billy rose with a haste so marked it was almost impolite, as she murmured:

"Will she? I'm afraid, though, that I sha'n't see her, after all, for I must go. And may I leave these, please?" she added, hurriedly unpinning the bunch of white carnations from her coat. "It seems a pity to let them wilt, when you can put them in water right here." Her studiously casual voice gave no hint that those particular pinks had been bought less than half an hour before of a Park Street florist so that Mrs. Greggory might put them in water--right there.

"Oh, oh, how lovely!" breathed Mrs. Greggory, her face deep in the feathery bed of sweetness. Before she could half say "Thank you," however? she found herself alone.