Chapter XXI. A Matter of Straight Business
 

True to her assertion, Billy went down to the Greggorys' the next day. This time she did not take Rosa with her. Even Aunt Hannah conceded that it would not be necessary. She had not been gone ten minutes, however, when the telephone bell rang, and Rosa came to say that Mr. Bertram Henshaw wanted to speak with Mrs. Stetson.

"Rosa says that Billy's not there," called Bertram's aggrieved voice, when Aunt Hannah had said, "Good morning, my boy."

"Dear me, no, Bertram. She's in a fever of excitement this morning. She'll probably tell you all about it when you come out here to-night. You are coming out to-night, aren't you?"

"Yes; oh, yes! But what is it? Where's she gone?"

Aunt Hannah laughed softly.

"Well, she's gone down to the Greggorys'."

"The Greggorys'! What--again?"

"Oh, you might as well get used to it, Bertram," bantered Aunt Hannah, "for there'll be a good many `agains,' I fancy."

"Why, Aunt Hannah, what do you mean?" Bertram's voice was not quite pleased.

"Oh, she'll tell you. It's only that the Greggorys have turned out to be old friends of Mr. Arkwright's."

"Friends of Arkwright's!" Bertram's voice was decidedly displeased now.

"Yes; and there's quite a story to it all, as well. Billy is wildly excited, as you'd know she would be. You'll hear all about it to-night, of course."

"Yes, of course," echoed Bertram. But there was no ring of enthusiasm in his voice, neither then, nor when he said good-by a moment later.

Billy, meanwhile, on her way to the Greggory home, was, as Aunt Hannah had said, "wildly excited." It seemed so strange and wonderful and delightful--the whole affair: that she should have found them because of a Lowestoft teapot, that Arkwright should know them, and that there should be the chance now that she might help them--in some way; though this last, she knew, could be accomplished only through the exercise of the greatest tact and delicacy. She had not forgotten that Arkwright had told her of their hatred of pity.

In the sober second thought of the morning, Billy was not sure now of a possible romance in connection with Arkwright and the daughter, Alice; but she had by no means abandoned the idea, and she meant to keep her eyes open--and if there should be a chance to bring such a thing about--! Meanwhile, of course, she should not mention the matter, even to Bertram.

Just what would be her method of procedure this first morning, Billy had not determined. The pretty potted azalea in her hand would be excuse for her entrance into the room. After that, circumstances must decide for themselves.

Mrs. Greggory was found to be alone at home as before, and Billy was glad. She would rather begin with one than two, she thought. The little woman greeted her cordially, gave misty-eyed thanks for the beautiful plant, and also for Billy's kind thoughtfulness Friday afternoon. From that she was very skilfully led to talk more of the daughter; and soon Billy was getting just the information she wanted--information concerning the character, aims, and daily life of Alice Greggory.

"You see, we have some money--a very little," explained Mrs. Greggory, after a time; "though to get it we have had to sell all our treasures-- but the Lowestoft, "with a quick glance into Billy's eyes. "We need not, perhaps, live in quite so poor a place; but we prefer--just now --to spend the little money we have for something other than imitation comfort--lessons, for instance, and an occasional concert. My daughter is studying even while she is teaching. She hopes to train herself for an accompanist, and for a teacher. She does not aspire to concert solo work. She understands her limitations."

"But she is probably--very good--at teaching." Billy hesitated a little.

"She is; very good. She has the best of recommendations." A little proudly Mrs. Greggory gave the names of two Boston pianists--names that would carry weight anywhere.

Unconsciously Billy relaxed. She did not know until that moment how she had worried for fear she could not, conscientiously, recommend this Alice Greggory.

"Of course," resumed the mother, "Alice's pupils are few, and they pay low prices; but she is gaining. She goes to the houses, of course. She herself practises two hours a day at a house up on Pinckney Street. She gives lessons to a little girl in return."

"I see," nodded Billy, brightly; "and I've been thinking, Mrs. Greggory--maybe I know of some pupils she could get. I have a friend who has just given hers up, owing to her marriage. Sometime, soon, I'm going to talk to your daughter, if I may, and--"

"And here she is right now," interposed Mrs. Greggory, as the door opened under a hurried hand.

Billy flushed and bit her lip. She was disturbed and disappointed. She did not particularly wish to see Alice Greggory just then. She wished even less to see her when she noted the swift change that came to the girl's face at sight of herself.

"Oh! Why-good morning, Miss Neilson," murmured Miss Greggory with a smile so forced that her mother hurriedly looked to the azalea in search of a possible peacemaker.

"My dear, see," she stammered, "what Miss Neilson has brought me. And it's so full of blossoms, too! And she says it'll remain so for a long, long time--if we'll only keep it wet."

Alice Greggory murmured a low something-- a something that she tried, evidently, very hard to make politely appropriate and appreciative. Yet her manner, as she took off her hat and coat and sat down, so plainly said: "You are very kind, of course, but I wish you would keep yourself and your plants at home!" that Mrs. Greggory began a hurried apology, much as if the words had indeed been spoken.

"My daughter is really ill this morning. You mustn't mind--that is, I'm afraid you'll think --you see, she took cold last week; a bad cold-- and she isn't over it, yet," finished the little woman in painful embarrassment.

"Of course she took cold--standing all those hours in that horrid wind, Friday!" cried Billy, indignantly.

A quick red flew to Alice Greggory's face. Billy saw it at once and fervently wished she had spoken of anything but that Friday afternoon. It looked almost as if she were reminding them of what she had done that day. In her confusion, and in her anxiety to say something--anything that would get their minds off that idea--she uttered now the first words that came into her head. As it happened, they were the last words that sober second thought would have told her to say.

"Never mind, Mrs. Greggory. We'll have her all well and strong soon; never fear! Just wait till I send Peggy and Mary Jane to take her out for a drive one of these mild, sunny days. You have no idea how much good it will do her!"

Alice Greggory got suddenly to her feet. Her face was very white now. Her eyes had the steely coldness that Billy knew so well. Her voice, when she spoke, was low and sternly controlled.

"Miss Neilson, you will think me rude, of course, especially after your great kindness to me the other day; but I can't help it. It seems to me best to speak now before it goes any further."

"Alice, dear," remonstrated Mrs. Greggory, extending a frightened hand.

The girl did not turn her head nor hesitate; but she caught the extended hand and held it warmly in both her own, with gentle little pats, while she went on speaking.

"I'm sure mother agrees with me that it is best, for the present, that we keep quite to ourselves. I cannot question your kindness, of course, after your somewhat unusual favor the other day; but I am very sure that your friends, Miss Peggy, and Miss Mary Jane, have no real desire to make my acquaintance, nor--if you'll pardon me--have I, under the circumstances, any wish to make theirs."

"Oh, Alice, Alice," began the little mother, in dismay; but a rippling laugh from their visitor brought an angry flush even to her gentle face.

Billy understood the flush, and struggled for self-control.

"Please--please, forgive me!" she choked. "But you see--you couldn't, of course, know that Mary Jane and Peggy aren't girls. They're just a man and an automobile!"

An unwilling smile trembled on Alice Greggory's lips; but she still stood her ground.

"After all, girls, or men and automobiles, Miss Neilson--it makes little difference. They're --charity. And it's not so long that we've been objects of charity that we quite really enjoy it-- yet."

There was a moment's hush. Billy's eyes had filled with tears.

"I never even thought--charity," said Billy, so gently that a faint red stole into the white cheeks opposite.

For a tense minute Alice Greggory held herself erect; then, with a complete change of manner and voice, she released her mother's hand, dropped into her own chair again, and said wearily:

"I know you didn't, Miss Neilson. It's all my foolish pride, of course. It's only that I was thinking how dearly I would love to meet girls again--just as girls! But--I no longer have any business with pride, of course. I shall be pleased, I'm sure," she went on dully, "to accept anything you may do for us, from automobile rides to--to red flannel petticoats."

Billy almost--but not quite--laughed. Still, the laugh would have been near to a sob, had it been given. Surprising as was the quick transition in the girl's manner, and absurd as was the juxtaposition of automobiles and red flannel petticoats, the white misery of Alice Greggory's face and the weary despair of her attitude were tragic --specially to one who knew her story as did Billy Neilson. And it was because Billy did know her story that she did not make the mistake now of offering pity. Instead, she said with a bright smile, and a casual manner that gave no hint of studied labor:

"Well, as it happens, Miss Greggory, what I want to-day has nothing whatever to do with automobiles or red flannel petticoats. It's a matter of straight business." (How Billy blessed the thought that had so suddenly come to her!) "Your mother tells me you play accompaniments. Now a girls' club, of which I am a member, is getting up an operetta for charity, and we need an accompanist. There is no one in the club who is able, and at the same time willing, to spend the amount of time necessary for practice and rehearsals. So we had decided to hire one outside, and I have been given the task of finding one. It has occurred to me that perhaps you would be willing to undertake it for us. Would you?"

Billy knew, at once, from the quick change in the other's face and manner, that she had taken exactly the right course to relieve the strain of the situation. Despair and lassitude fell away from Alice Greggory almost like a garment. Her countenance became alert and interested.

"Indeed I would! I should be glad to do it."

"Good! Then can you come out to my home sometime to-morrow, and go over the music with me? Rehearsals will not begin until next week; but I can give you the music, and tell you something of what we are planning to do."

"Yes. I could come at ten in the morning for an hour, or at three in the afternoon for two hours or more," replied Miss Greggory, after a moment's hesitation.

"Suppose we call it in the afternoon, then," smiled Billy, as she rose to her feet. "And now I must go--and here's my address," she finished, taking out her card and laying it on the table near her.

For reasons of her own Billy went away that morning without saying anything more about the proposed new pupils. New pupils were not automobile rides nor petticoats, to be sure--but she did not care to risk disturbing the present interested happiness of Alice Greggory's face by mentioning anything that might be construed as too officious an assistance.

On the whole, Billy felt well pleased with her morning's work. To Aunt Hannah, upon her return, she expressed herself thus:

"It's splendid--even better than I hoped. I shall have a chance to-morrow, of course, to see for myself just how well she plays, and all that. I'm pretty sure, though, from what I hear, that that part will be all right. Then the operetta will give us a chance to see a good deal of her, and to bring about a natural meeting between her and Mary Jane. Oh, Aunt Hannah, I couldn't have planned it better--and there the whole thing just tumbled into my hands! I knew it had the minute I remembered about the operetta. You know I'm chairman, and they left me to get the accompanist; and like a flash it came to me, when I was wondering what to say or do to get her out of that awful state she was in--`Ask her to be your accompanist.' And I did. And I'm so glad I did! Oh, Aunt Hannah, it's coming out lovely!--I know it is."