Chapter XIX. Alice Greggory
 

Christmas came and went; and in a flurry of snow and sleet January arrived. The holidays over, matters and things seemed to settle down to the winter routine.

Miss Winthrop had prolonged her visit in Washington until after Christmas, but she had returned to Boston now--and with her she had brought a brand-new idea for her portrait; an idea that caused her to sweep aside with superb disdain all poses and costumes and sketches to date, and announce herself with disarming winsomeness as "all ready now to really begin!"

Bertram Henshaw was vexed, but helpless. Decidedly he wished to paint Miss Marguerite Winthrop's portrait; but to attempt to paint it when all matters were not to the lady's liking were worse than useless, unless he wished to hang this portrait in the gallery of failures along with Anderson's and Fullam's--and that was not the goal he had set for it. As to the sordid money part of the affair--the great J. G. Winthrop himself had come to the artist, and in one terse sentence had doubled the original price and expressed himself as hopeful that Henshaw would put up with "the child's notions." It was the old financier's next sentence, however, that put the zest of real determination into Bertram, for because of it, the artist saw what this portrait was going to mean to the stern old man, and how dear was the original of it to a heart that was commonly reported "on the street" to be made of stone.

Obviously, then, indeed, there was nothing for Bertram Henshaw to do but to begin the new portrait. And he began it--though still, it must be confessed, with inward questionings. Before a week had passed, however, every trace of irritation had fled, and he was once again the absorbed artist who sees the vision of his desire taking palpable shape at the end of his brush.

"It's all right," he said to Billy then, one evening. "I'm glad she changed. It's going to be the best, the very best thing I've ever done--I think! by the sketches."

"I'm so glad!" exclaimed Billy. "I'm so glad!" The repetition was so vehement that it sounded almost as if she were trying to convince herself as well as Bertram of something that was not true.

But it was true--Billy told herself very indignantly that it was; indeed it was! Yet the very fact that she had to tell herself this, caused her to know how perilously near she was to being actually jealous of that portrait of Marguerite Winthrop. And it shamed her.

Very sternly these days Billy reminded herself of what Kate had said about Bertram's belonging first to his Art. She thought with mortification, too, that it did look as if she were not the proper wife for an artist if she were going to feel like this--always. Very resolutely, then, Billy turned to her music. This was all the more easily done, for, not only did she have her usual concerts and the opera to enjoy, but she had become interested in an operetta her club was about to give; also she had taken up the new song again. Christmas being over, Mr. Arkwright had been to the house several times. He had changed some of the words and she had improved the melody. The work on the accompaniment was progressing finely now, and Billy was so glad!--when she was absorbed in her music she forgot sometimes that she was ever so unfit an artist's sweetheart as to be--jealous of a portrait.

It was quite early in the month that the usually expected "January thaw" came, and it was on a comparatively mild Friday at this time that a matter of business took Billy into the neighborhood of Symphony Hall at about eleven o'clock in the morning. Dismissing John and the car upon her arrival, she said that she would later walk to the home of a friend near by, where she would remain until it was time for the Symphony Concert.

This friend was a girl whom Billy had known at school. She was studying now at the Conservatory of Music; and she had often urged Billy to come and have luncheon with her in her tiny apartment, which she shared with three other girls and a widowed aunt for housekeeper. On this particular Friday it had occurred to Billy that, owing to her business appointment at eleven and the Symphony Concert at half-past two, the intervening time would give her just the opportunity she had been seeking to enable her to accept her friend's invitation. A question asked, and enthusiastically answered in the affirmative, over the telephone that morning, therefore, had speedily completed arrangements, and she had agreed to be at her friend's door by twelve o'clock, or before.

As it happened, business did not take quite so long as she had expected, and half-past eleven found her well on her way to Miss Henderson's home.

In spite of the warm sunshine and the slushy snow in the streets, there was a cold, raw wind, and Billy was beginning to feel thankful that she had not far to go when she rounded a corner and came upon a long line of humanity that curved itself back and forth on the wide expanse of steps before Symphony Hall and then stretched itself far up the Avenue.

"Why, what--" she began under her breath; then suddenly she understood. It was Friday. A world-famous pianist was to play with the Symphony Orchestra that afternoon. This must be the line of patient waiters for the twenty-five- cent balcony seats that Mr. Arkwright had told about. With sympathetic, interested eyes, then, Billy stepped one side to watch the line, for a moment.

Almost at once two girls brushed by her, and one was saying:

"What a shame!--and after all our struggles to get here! If only we hadn't lost that other train!"

"We're too late--you no need to hurry!" the other wailed shrilly to a third girl who was hastening toward them. "The line is 'way beyond the Children's Hospital and around the corner now--and the ones there never get in!"

At the look of tragic disappointment that crossed the third girl's face, Billy's heart ached. Her first impulse, of course, was to pull her own symphony ticket from her muff and hurry forward with a "Here, take mine!" But that would hardly do, she knew--though she would like to see Aunt Hannah's aghast face if this girl in the red sweater and white tam-o'-shanter should suddenly emerge from among the sumptuous satins and furs and plumes that afternoon and claim the adjacent orchestra chair. But it was out of the question, of course. There was only one seat, and there were three girls, besides all those others. With a sigh, then, Billy turned her eyes back to those others--those many others that made up the long line stretching its weary length up the Avenue.

There were more women than men, yet the men were there: jolly young men who were plainly students; older men whose refined faces and threadbare overcoats hinted at cultured minds and starved bodies; other men who showed no hollows in their cheeks nor near-holes in their garments. It seemed to Billy that women of almost all sorts were there, young, old, and middle-aged; students in tailored suits, widows in crape and veil; girls that were members of a merry party, women that were plainly forlorn and alone.

Some in the line shuffled restlessly; some stood rigidly quiet. One had brought a camp stool; many were seated on the steps. Beyond, where the line passed an open lot, a wooden fence afforded a convenient prop. One read a book, another a paper. Three were studying what was probably the score of the symphony or of the concerto they expected to hear that afternoon.

A few did not appear to mind the biting wind, but most of them, by turned-up coat-collars or bent heads, testified to the contrary. Not far from Billy a woman nibbled a sandwich furtively, while beyond her a group of girls were hilariously merry over four triangles of pie which they held up where all might see.

Many of the faces were youthful, happy, and alert with anticipation; but others carried a wistfulness and a weariness that made Billy's heart ache. Her eyes, indeed, filled with quick tears. Later she turned to go, and it was then that she saw in the line a face that she knew--a face that drooped with such a white misery of spent strength that she hurried straight toward it with a low cry.

"Miss Greggory!" she exclaimed, when she reached the girl. "You look actually ill. Are you ill?"

For a brief second only dazed questioning stared from the girl's blue-gray eyes. Billy knew when the recognition came, for she saw the painful color stain the white face red.

"Thank you, no. I am not ill, Miss Neilson," said the girl, coldly.

"But you look so tired out!"

"I have been standing here some time; that is all."

Billy threw a hurried glance down the far- reaching line that she knew had formed since the girl's two tired feet had taken their first position.

"But you must have come--so early! It isn't twelve o'clock yet," she faltered.

A slight smile curved Alice Greggory's lips.

"Yes, it was early," she rejoined a little bitterly; "but it had to be, you know. I wanted to hear the music; and with this soloist, and this weather, I knew that many others--would want to hear the music, too."

"But you look so white! How much longer-- when will they let you in?" demanded Billy, raising indignant eyes to the huge, gray-pillared building before her, much as if she would pull down the walls if she could, and make way for this tired girl at her side.

Miss Greggory's thin shoulders rose and fell in an expressive shrug.

"Half-past one."

Billy gave a dismayed cry.

"Half-past one--almost two hours more! But, Miss Greggory, you can't--how can you stand it till then? You've shivered three times since I came, and you look as if you were going to faint away."

Miss Greggory shook her head.

"It is nothing, really," she insisted. "I am quite well. It is only--I didn't happen to feel like eating much breakfast this morning; and that, with no luncheon--" She let a gesture finish her sentence.

"No luncheon! Why--oh, you couldn't leave your place, of course," frowned Billy.

"No, and"--Alice Greggory lifted her head a little proudly--"I do not care to eat --here." Her scornful eyes were on one of the pieces of pie down the line--no longer a triangle.

"Of course not," agreed Billy, promptly. She paused, frowned, and bit her lip. Suddenly her face cleared. "There! the very thing," she exulted. "You shall have my ticket this afternoon, Miss Greggory, then you won't have to stay here another minute. Meanwhile, there is an excellent restaurant--"

"Thank you--no. I couldn't do that," cut in the other, sharply, but in a low voice.

"But you'll take my ticket," begged Billy.

Miss Greggory shook her head.

"Certainly not."

"But I want you to, please. I shall be very unhappy if you don't," grieved Billy.

The other made a peremptory gesture.

"I should be very unhappy if I did," she said with cold emphasis. "Really, Miss Neilson," she went on in a low voice, throwing an apprehensive glance at the man ahead, who was apparently absorbed in his newspaper, "I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to let me go on in my own way. You are very kind, but there is nothing you can do; nothing. You were very kind, too, of course, to send the book and the flowers to mother at Christmas; but--"

"Never mind that, please," interrupted Billy, hurriedly. Billy's head was lifted now. Her eyes were no longer pleading. Her round little chin looked square and determined. "If you simply will not take my ticket this afternoon, you must do this. Go to some restaurant near here and get a good luncheon--something that will sustain you. I will take your place here."

"Miss Neilson!"

Billy smiled radiantly. It was the first time she had ever seen Alice Greggory's haughtily cold reserve break into anything like naturalness --the astonished incredulity of that "Miss Neilson!" was plainly straight from the heart; so, too, were the amazed words that followed.

"You--will stand here?"

"Certainly; I will keep your place. Don't worry. You sha'n't lose it." Billy spoke with a smiling indifference that was meant to convey the impression that standing in line for a twenty- five-cent seat was a daily habit of hers. "There's a restaurant only a little way--right down there," she finished. And before the dazed Alice Greggory knew quite what was happening she found herself outside the line, and the other in her place.

"But, Miss Neilson, I can't--you mustn't--" she stammered; then, because of something in the unyieldingness of the square young chin above the sealskin coat, and because she could not (she knew) use actual force to drag the owner of that chin out of the line, she bowed her head in acquiescence.

"Well, then--I will, long enough for some coffee and maybe a sandwich. And--thank you," she choked, as she turned and hurried away.

Billy drew the deep breath of one who has triumphed after long struggles--but the breath broke off short in a gasp of dismay: coming straight up the Avenue toward her was the one person in the world Billy wished least to see at that moment--Bertram Henshaw. Billy remembered then that she had twice lately heard her lover speak of calling at the Boston Opera House concerning a commission to paint an ideal head to represent "Music" for some decorative purpose. The Opera House was only a short distance up the Avenue. Doubtless he was on his way there now.

He was very near by this time, and Billy held her breath suspended. There was a chance, of course, that he might not notice her; and Billy was counting on that chance--until a gust of wind whirled a loose half-sheet of newspaper from the hands of the man in front of her, and naturally attracted Bertram's eyes to its vicinity--and to hers. The next moment he was at her side and his dumfounded but softly-breathed "Billy!" was in her ears.

Billy bubbled into low laughter--there were such a lot of funny situations in the world, and of them all this one was about the drollest, she thought.

"Yes, I know," she gurgled. "You don't have to say it-your face is saying even more than your tongue could! This is just for a girl I know. I'm keeping her place."

Bertram frowned. He looked as if he were meditating picking Billy up and walking off with her.

"But, Billy," he protested just above his breath, "this isn't sugarplums nor frosting; it's plain suicide--standing out in this wind like this! Besides--" He stopped with an angrily despairing glance at her surroundings.

"Yes, I know," she nodded, a little soberly, understanding the look and answering that first; "it isn't pleasant nor comfortable, in lots of ways--but she's had it all the morning. As for the cold--I'm as warm as toast. It won't be long, anyway; she's just gone to get something to eat. Then I'm going to May Henderson's for luncheon."

Bertram sighed impatiently and opened his lips--only to close them with the words unsaid. There was nothing he could do, and he had already said too much, he thought, with a savage glance at the man ahead who still had enough of his paper left to serve for a pretence at reading. As Bertram could see, however, the man was not reading a word --he was too acutely conscious of the handsome young woman in the long sealskin coat behind him. Billy was already the cynosure of dozens of eyes, and Bertram knew that his own arrival on the scene had not lessened the interest of the owners of those eyes. He only hoped devoutly that no one in the line knew him ar Billy, and that no one quite knew what had happened. He did not wish to see himself and his fiancée the subject of inch-high headlines in some evening paper figuring as:

"Talented young composer and her famous artist lover take poor girl's place in a twenty-five- cent ticket line."

He shivered at the thought.

"Are you cold?" worried Billy. "If you are, don't stand here, please!"

He shook his head silently. His eyes were searching the street for the only one whose coming could bring him relief.

It must have been but a coffee-and-sandwich luncheon for the girl, for soon she came. The man surmised that it was she, as soon as he saw her, and stepped back at once. He had no wish for introductions. A moment later the girl was in Billy's place, and Billy herself was at his side.

"That was Alice Greggory, Bertram," she told him, as they walked on swiftly; "and Bertram, she was actually almost crying when she took my place."

"Humph! Well, I should think she'd better be," growled Bertram, perversely.

"Pooh! It didn't hurt me any, dearie," laughed Billy with a conciliatory pat on his arm as they turned down the street upon which her friend lived. "And now can you come in and see May a minute?"

"I'm afraid not," regretted Bertram. "I wish I could, but I'm busier than busy to-day-- and I was supposed to be already late when I saw you. Jove, Billy, I just couldn't believe my eyes!"

"You looked it," twinkled Billy. "It was worth a farm just to see your face!"

"I'd want the farm--if I was going through that again," retorted the man, grimly--Bertram was still seeing that newspaper heading.

But Billy only laughed again.