Miss Billy's Decision by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter XX. Arkwright Tells a Story
Arkwright called Monday afternoon by appointment; and together he and Billy put the finishing touches to the new song.
It was when, with Aunt Hannah, they were having tea before the fire a little later, that Billy told of her adventure the preceding Friday afternoon in front of Symphony Hall.
"You knew the girl, of course--I think you said you knew the girl," ventured Arkwright.
"Oh, yes. She was Alice Greggory. I met her with Uncle William first, over a Lowestoft teapot. Maybe you'd like to know how I met her," smiled Billy.
"Alice Greggory?" Arkwright's eyes showed a sudden interest. "I used to know an Alice Greggory, but it isn't the same one, probably. Her mother was a cripple."
Billy gave a little cry.
"Why, it is--it must be! My Alice Greggory's mother is a cripple. Oh, do you know them, really?"
"Well, it does look like it," rejoined Arkwright, showing even deeper interest. "I haven't seen them for four or five years. They used to live in our town. The mother was a little sweet- faced woman with young eyes and prematurely white hair."
"That describes my Mrs. Greggory exactly," cried Billy's eager voice. "And the daughter?"
"Alice? Why--as I said, it's been four years since I've seen her." A touch of constraint had come into Arkwright's voice which Billy's keen ear was quick to detect. "She was nineteen then and very pretty."
"About my height, and with light-brown hair and big blue-gray eyes that look steely cold when she's angry?" questioned Billy.
"I reckon that's about it," acknowledged the man, with a faint smile.
"Then they are the ones," declared the girl, plainly excited. "Isn't that splendid? Now we can know them, and perhaps do something for them. I love that dear little mother already, and I think I should the daughter--if she didn't put out so many prickers that I couldn't get near her! But tell us about them. How did they come here? Why didn't you know they were here?"
"Are you good at answering a dozen questions at once?" asked Aunt Hannah, turning smiling eyes from Billy to the man at her side.
"Well, I can try," he offered. "To begin with, they are Judge Greggory's widow and daughter. They belong to fine families on both sides, and they used to be well off--really wealthy, for a small town. But the judge was better at money-making than he was at money-keeping, and when he came to die his income stopped, of course, and his estate was found to be in bad shape through reckless loans and worthless investments. That was eight years ago. Things went from bad to worse then, until there was almost nothing left."
"I knew there was some such story as that back of them," declared Billy. "But how do you suppose they came here?"
"To get away from--everybody, I suspect," replied Arkwright. "That would be like them. They were very proud; and it isn't easy, you know, to be nobody where you've been somebody. It doesn't hurt quite so hard--to be nobody where you've never been anything but nobody."
"I suppose so," sighed Billy. "Still--they must have had friends."
"They did, of course; but when the love of one's friends becomes too highly seasoned with pity, it doesn't make a pleasant morsel to swallow, specially if you don't like the taste of the pity-- and there are people who don't, you know. The Greggorys were that kind. They were morbidly so. From their cheap little cottage, where they did their own work, they stepped out in their shabby garments and old-fashioned hats with heads even more proudly erect than in the old days when their home and their gowns and their doings were the admiration and envy of the town. You see, they didn't want--that pity."
"I do see," cried Billy, her face aglow with sudden understanding; "and I don't believe pity would be--nice!" Her own chin was held high as she spoke.
"It must have been hard, indeed," murmured Aunt Hannah with a sigh, as she set down her teacup.
"It was," nodded Arkwright. "Of course Mrs. Greggory, with her crippled foot, could do nothing to bring in any money except to sew a little. It all depended on Alice; and when matters got to their worst she began to teach. She was fond of music, and could play the piano well; and of course she had had the best instruction she could get from city teachers only twenty miles away from our home town. Young as she was-- about seventeen when she began to teach, I think --she got a few beginners right away, and in two years she had worked up quite a class, meanwhile keeping on with her own studies, herself.
"They might have carried the thing through, maybe," continued Arkwright, "and never apparently known that the `pity' existed, if it hadn't been for some ugly rumors that suddenly arose attacking the Judge's honesty in an old matter that somebody raked up. That was too much. Under this last straw their courage broke utterly. Alice dismissed every pupil, sold almost all their remaining goods--they had lots of quite valuable heirlooms; I suspect that's where your Lowestoft teapot came in--and with the money thus gained they left town. Until they could go, they scarcely showed themselves once on the street, they were never at home to callers, and they left without telling one soul where they were going, so far as we could ever learn."
"Why, the poor dears!" cried Billy. "How they must have suffered! But things will be different now. You'll go to see them, of course, and--" At the look that came into Arkwright's face, she stopped in surprise.
"You forget; they wouldn't wish to see me," demurred the man. And again Billy noticed the odd constraint in his voice.
"But they wouldn't mind you--here," argued Billy.
"I'm afraid they would. In fact, I'm sure they'd refuse entirely to see me."
Billy's eyes grew determined.
"But they can't refuse--if I bring about a meeting just casually, you know," she challenged.
"Well, I won't pretend to say as to the consequences of that," he rejoined, rising to his feet; "but they might be disastrous. Wasn't it you yourself who were telling me a few minutes ago how steely cold Miss Alice's eyes got when she was angry?"
Billy knew by the way the man spoke that, for some reason, he did not wish to prolong the subject of his meeting the Greggorys. She made a quick shift, therefore, to another phase of the matter.
"But tell me, please, before you go, how did those rumors come out--about Judge Greggory's honesty, I mean?"
"Why, I never knew, exactly," frowned Arkwright, musingly. "Yet it seems, too, that mother did say in one letter, while I was in Paris, that some of the accusations had been found to be false, and that there was a prospect that the Judge's good name might be saved, after all."
"Oh, I wish it might," sighed Billy. "Think what it would mean to those women!"
"'Twould mean everything," cried Arkwright, warmly; "and I'll write to mother to-night, I will, and find out just what there is to it-if anything. Then you can tell them," he finished a little stiffly.
"Yes--or you," nodded Billy, lightly. And because she began at once to speak of something else, the first part of her sentence passed without comment.
The door had scarcely closed behind Arkwright when Billy turned to Aunt Hannah a beaming face.
"Aunt Hannah, did you notice?" she cried, "how Mary Jane looked and acted whenever Alice Greggory was spoken of? There was something between them--I'm sure there was; and they quarrelled, probably."
"Why, no, dear; I didn't see anything unusual," murmured the elder lady.
"Well, I did. And I'm going to be the fairy godmother that straightens everything all out, too. See if I'm not! They'd make a splendid couple, Aunt Hannah. I'm going right down there to-morrow."
"Billy, my dear!" exclaimed the more conservative old lady, "aren't you taking things a little too much for granted? Maybe they don't wish for--for a fairy godmother!"
"Oh, they won't know I'm a fairy godmother --not one of them; and of course I wouldn't mention even a hint to anybody," laughed Billy. "I'm just going down to get acquainted with the Greggorys; that's all. Only think, Aunt Hannah, what they must have suffered! And look at the place they're living in now--gentlewomen like them!"
"Yes, yes, poor things, poor things!" sighed Aunt Hannah.
"I hope I'll find out that she's really good--at teaching, I mean--the daughter," resumed Billy, after a moment's pause. "If she is, there's one thing I can do to help, anyhow. I can get some of Marie's old pupils for her. I know some of them haven't begun with a new teacher, yet; and Mrs. Carleton told me last Friday that neither she nor her sister was at all satisfied with the one their girls have taken. They'd change, I know, in a minute, at my recommendation--that is, of course, if I can give the recommendation," continued Billy, with a troubled frown. "Anyhow, I'm going down to begin operations to-morrow."