Chapter XXII. Plans and Plottings
 

To Billy, Alice Greggory's first visit to Hillside was in every way a delight and a satisfaction. To Alice, it was even more than that. For the first time in years she found herself welcomed into a home of wealth, culture, and refinement as an equal; and the frank cordiality and naturalness of her hostess's evident expectation of meeting a congenial companion was like balm to a sensitive soul rendered morbid by long years of superciliousness and snubbing.

No wonder that under the cheery friendliness of it all, Alice Greggory's cold reserve vanished, and that in its place came something very like her old ease and charm of manner. By the time Aunt Hannah--according to previous agreement --came into the room, the two girls were laughing and chatting over the operetta as if they had known each other for years.

Much to Billy's delight, Alice Greggory, as a musician, proved to be eminently satisfactory. She was quick at sight reading, and accurate. She played easily, and with good expression. Particularly was she a good accompanist, possessing to a marked degree that happy faculty of accompanying a singer: which means that she neither led the way nor lagged behind, being always exactly in sympathetic step--than which nothing is more soul-satisfying to the singer.

It was after the music for the operetta had been well-practised and discussed that Alice Greggory chanced to see one of Billy's own songs lying near her. With a pleased smile she picked it up.

"Oh, you know this, too!" she cried. "I played it for a lady only the other day. It's so pretty, I think--all of hers are, that I have seen. Billy Neilson is a girl, you know, they say, in spite of--"She stopped abruptly. Her eyes grew wide and questioning. "Miss Neilson--it can't be--you don't mean--is your name--it is--you!" she finished joyously, as the telltale color dyed Billy's face. The next moment her own cheeks burned scarlet. "And to think of my letting you stand in line for a twenty-five-cent admission!" she scorned.

"Nonsense!" laughed Billy. "It didn't hurt me any more than it did you. Come!"--in looking about for a quick something to take her guest's attention, Billy's eyes fell on the manuscript copy of her new song, bearing Arkwright's name. Yielding to a daring impulse, she drew it hastily forward. "Here's a new one--a brand- new one, not even printed yet. Don't you think the words are pretty?" she asked.

As she had hoped, Alice Greggory's eyes, after they had glanced half-way through the first page, sought the name at the left side below the title.

" `Words by M. J.--' "--there was a visible start, and a pause before the " `Arkwright' " was uttered in a slightly different tone.

Billy noted both the start and the pause--and gloried in them.

"Yes; the words are by M. J. Arkwright," she said with smooth unconcern, but with a covert glance at the other's face. "Ever hear of him?"

Alice Greggory gave a short little laugh.

"Probably not--this one. I used to know an M. J. Arkwright, long ago; but he wasn't--a poet, so far as I know," she finished, with a little catch in her breath that made Billy long to take her into a warm embrace.

Alice Greggory turned then to the music. She had much to say of this--very much; but she had nothing more whatever to say of Mr. M. J. Arkwright in spite of the tempting conversation bait that Billy dropped so freely. After that, Rosa brought in tea and toast, and the little frosted cakes that were always such a favorite with Billy's guests. Then Alice Greggory said good-by--her eyes full of tears that Billy pretended not to see.

"There!" breathed Billy, as soon as she had Aunt Hannah to herself again. "What did I tell you? Did you see Miss Greggory's start and blush and hear her sigh just over the name of M. J. Arkwright? Just as if--! Now I want them to meet; only it must be casual, Aunt Hannah-- casual! And I'd rather wait till Mary Jane hears from his mother, if possible, so if there is anything good to tell the poor girl, he can tell it."

"Yes, of course. Dear child!--I hope he can," murmured Aunt Hannah. (Aunt Hannah had ceased now trying to make Billy refrain from the reprehensible "Mary Jane." In fact, if the truth were known, Aunt Hannah herself in her thoughts --and sometimes in her words--called him "Mary Jane.") "But, indeed, my dear, I didn't see anything stiff, or--or repelling about Miss Greggory, as you said there was."

"There wasn't--to-day," smiled Billy. "Honestly, Aunt Hannah, I should never have known her for the same girl--who showed me the door that first morning," she finished merrily, as she turned to go up-stairs.

It was the next day that Cyril and Marie came home from their honeymoon. They went directly to their pretty little apartment on Beacon Street, Brookline, within easy walking distance of Billy's own cozy home.

Cyril intended to build in a year or two. Meanwhile they had a very pretty, convenient home which was, according to Bertram, "electrified to within an inch of its life, and equipped with everything that was fireless, smokeless, dustless, and laborless." In it Marie had a spotlessly white kitchen where she might make puddings to her heart's content.

Marie had--again according to Bertram-- "a visiting acquaintance with a maid." In other words, a stout woman was engaged to come two days in the week to wash, iron, and scrub; also to come in each night to wash the dinner dishes, thus leaving Marie's evenings free--"for the shaded lamp," Billy said.

Marie had not arrived at this--to her, delightful-- arrangement of a "visiting acquaintance" without some opposition from her friends. Even Billy had stood somewhat aghast.

"But, my dear, won't it be hard for you, to do so much?" she argued one day. "You know you aren't very strong."

"I know; but it won't be hard, as I've planned it," replied Marie, "specially when I've been longing for years to do this very thing. Why, Billy, if I had to stand by and watch a maid do all these things I want to do myself, I should feel just like --like a hungry man who sees another man eating up his dinner! Oh, of course," she added plaintively, after Billy's laughter had subsided, "I sha'n't do it always. I don't expect to. Of course, when we have a house--I'm not sure, then, though, that I sha'n't dress up the maid and order her to receive the calls and go to the pink teas, while I make her puddings," she finished saucily, as Billy began to laugh again.

The bride and groom, as was proper, were, soon after their arrival, invited to dine at both William's and Billy's. Then, until Marie's "At Homes" should begin, the devoted couple settled down to quiet days by themselves, with only occasional visits from the family to interrupt--"interrupt" was Bertram's word, not Marie's. Though it is safe to say it was not far different from the one Cyril used--in his thoughts.

Bertram himself, these days, was more than busy. Besides working on Miss Winthrop's portrait, and on two or three other commissions, he was putting the finishing touches to four pictures which he was to show in the exhibition soon to be held by a prominent Art Club of which he was the acknowledged "star" member. Naturally, therefore, his time was well occupied. Naturally, too, Billy, knowing this, lashed herself more sternly than ever into a daily reminder of Kate's assertion that he belonged first to his Art.

In pursuance of this idea, Billy was careful to see that no engagement with herself should in any way interfere with the artist's work, and that no word of hers should attempt to keep him at her side when ART called. (Billy always spelled that word now in her mind with tall, black letters --the way it had sounded when it fell from Kate's lips.) That these tactics on her part were beginning to fill her lover with vague alarm and a very definite unrest, she did not once suspect. Eagerly, therefore,--even with conscientious delight-- she welcomed the new song-words that Arkwright brought--they would give her something else to take up her time and attention. She welcomed them, also, for another reason: they would bring Arkwright more often to the house, and this would, of course, lead to that "casual meeting" between him and Alice Greggory when the rehearsals for the operetta should commence-- which would be very soon now. And Billy did so long to bring about that meeting!

To Billy, all this was but "occupying her mind," and playing Cupid's assistant to a worthy young couple torn cruelly apart by an unfeeling fate. To Bertram--to Bertram it was terror, and woe, and all manner of torture; for in it Bertram saw only a growing fondness on the part of Billy for Arkwright, Arkwright's music, Arkwright's words, and Arkwright's friends.

The first rehearsal for the operetta came on Wednesday evening. There would be another on Thursday afternoon. Billy had told Alice Greggory to arrange her pupils so that she could stay Wednesday night at Hillside, if the crippled mother could get along alone--and she could, Alice had said. Thursday forenoon, therefore, Alice Greggory would, in all probability, be at Hillside, specially as there would doubtless be an appointment or two for private rehearsal with some nervous soloist whose part was not progressing well. Such being the case, Billy had a plan she meant to carry out. She was highly pleased, therefore, when Thursday morning came, and everything, apparently, was working exactly to her mind.

Alice was there. She had an appointment at quarter of eleven with the leading tenor, and another later with the alto. After breakfast, therefore, Billy said decisively:

"Now, if you please, Miss Greggory, I'm going to put you up-stairs on the couch in the sewing- room for a nap."

"But I've just got up," remonstrated Miss Greggory.

"I know you have," smiled Billy; "but you were very late to bed last night, and you've got a hard day before you. I insist upon your resting. You will be absolutely undisturbed there, and you must shut the door and not come down-stairs till I send for you. Mr. Johnson isn't due till quarter of eleven, is he?"

"N-no."

"Then come with me," directed Billy, leading the way up-stairs. "There, now, don't come down till I call you," she went on, when they had reached the little room at the end of the hall. "I'm going to leave Aunt Hannah's door open, so you'll have good air--she isn't in there. She's writing letters in my room, Now here's a book, and you may read, but I should prefer you to sleep," she nodded brightly as she went out and shut the door quietly. Then, like the guilty conspirator she was, she went down-stairs to wait for Arkwright.

It was a fine plan. Arkwright was due at ten o'clock--Billy had specially asked him to come at that hour. He would not know, of course, that Alice Greggory was in the house; but soon after his arrival Billy meant to excuse herself for a moment, slip up-stairs and send Alice Greggory down for a book, a pair of scissors, a shawl for Aunt Hannah--anything would do for a pretext, anything so that the girl might walk into the living-room and find Arkwright waiting for her alone. And then-- What happened next was, in Billy's mind, very vague, but very attractive as a nucleus for one's thoughts, nevertheless.

All this was, indeed, a fine plan; but-- (If only fine plans would not so often have a "but"!) In Billy's case the "but" had to do with things so apparently unrelated as were Aunt Hannah's clock and a negro's coal wagon. The clock struck eleven at half-past ten, and the wagon dumped itself to destruction directly in front of a trolley car in which sat Mr. M. J. Arkwright, hurrying to keep his appointment with Miss Billy Neilson. It was almost half-past ten when Arkwright finally rang the bell at Hillside. Billy greeted him so eagerly, and at the same time with such evident disappointment at his late arrival, that Arkwright's heart sang with joy.

"But there's a rehearsal at quarter of eleven," exclaimed Billy, in answer to his hurried explanation of the delay; "and this gives so little time for--for--so little time, you know," she finished in confusion, casting frantically about in her mind for an excuse to hurry up-stairs and send Alice Greggory down before it should be quite too late.

No wonder that Arkwright, noting the sparkle in her eye, the agitation in her manner, and the embarrassed red in her cheek, took new courage. For so long had this girl held him at the end of a major third or a diminished seventh; for so long had she blithely accepted his every word and act as devotion to music, not herself--for so long had she done all this that he had come to fear that never would she do anything else. No wonder then, that now, in the soft radiance of the strange, new light on her face, his own face glowed ardently, and that he leaned forward with an impetuous rush of eager words.

"But there is time, Miss Billy--if you'd give me leave--to say--"

"I'm afraid I kept you waiting," interrupted the hurried voice of Alice Greggory from the hall doorway. "I was asleep, I think, when a clock somewhere, striking eleven-- Why, Mr.--Arkwright!"

Not until Alice Greggory had nearly crossed the room did she see that the man standing by her hostess was--not the tenor she had expected to find--but an old acquaintance. Then it was that the tremulous "Mr.-Arkwright!" fell from her lips.

Billy and Arkwright had turned at her first words. At her last, Arkwright, with a half- despairing, half-reproachful glance at Billy, stepped forward.

"Miss Greggory!--you are Miss Alice Greggory, I am sure," he said pleasantly.

At the first opportunity Billy murmured a hasty excuse and left the room. To Aunt Hannah she flew with a woebegone face.

"Oh, Aunt Hannah, Aunt Hannah," she wailed, half laughing, half crying; "that wretched little fib-teller of a clock of yours spoiled it all!"

"Spoiled it! Spoiled what, child?"

"My first meeting between Mary Jane and Miss Greggory. I had it all arranged that they were to have it alone; but that miserable little fibber up-stairs struck eleven at half-past ten, and Miss Greggory heard it and thought she was fifteen minutes late. So down she hurried, half awake, and spoiled all my plans. Now she's sitting in there with him, in chairs the length of the room apart, discussing the snowstorm last night or the moonrise this morning--or some other such silly thing. And I had it so beautifully planned!"

"Well, well, dear, I'm sorry, I'm sure," smiled Aunt Hannah; "but I can't think any real harm is done. Did Mary Jane have anything to tell her--about her father, I mean?"

Only the faintest flicker of Billy's eyelid testified that the everyday accustomedness of that "Mary Jane" on Aunt Hannah's lips had not escaped her.

"No, nothing definite. Yet there was a little. Friends are still trying to clear his name, and I believe are meeting with increasing success. I don't know, of course, whether he'll say anything about it to-day--now. To think I had to be right round under foot like that when they met!" went on Billy, indignantly. "I shouldn't have been, in a minute more, though. I was just trying to think up an excuse to come up and send down Miss Greggory, when Mary Jane began to tell me something--I haven't the faintest idea what --then she appeared, and it was all over. And there's the doorbell, and the tenor, I suppose; so of course it's all over now," she sighed, rising to go down-stairs.

As it chanced, however, it was not the tenor, but a message from him--a message that brought dire consternation to the Chairman of the Committee of Arrangements. The tenor had thrown up his part. He could not take it; it was too difficult. He felt that this should be told--at once rather than to worry along for another week or two, and then give up. So he had told it.

"But what shall we do, Miss Greggory?" appealed Billy. "It is a hard part, you know; but if Mr. Tobey can't take it, I don't know who can. We don't want to hire a singer for it, if we can help it. The profits are to go to the Home for Crippled Children, you know," she explained, turning to Arkwright, "and we decided to hire only the accompanist."

An odd expression flitted across Miss Greggory's face.

"Mr. Arkwright used to sing--tenor," she observed quietly.

"As if he didn't now--a perfectly glorious tenor," retorted Billy. "But as if he would take this!"

For only a brief moment did Arkwright hesitate; then blandly he suggested:

"Suppose you try him, and see."

Billy sat suddenly erect.

"Would you, really? Could you--take the time, and all?" she cried.

"Yes, I think I would--under the circumstances," he smiled. "I think I could, too, though I might not be able to attend all the rehearsals. Still, if I find I have to ask permission, I'll endeavor to convince the powers-that-be that singing in this operetta will be just the stepping- stone I need to success in Grand Opera."

"Oh, if you only would take it," breathed Billy, "we'd be so glad!"

"Well," said Arkwright, his eyes on Billy's frankly delighted face, "as I said before--under the circumstances I think I would."

"Thank you! Then it's all beautifully settled," rejoiced Billy, with a happy sigh; and unconsciously she gave Alice Greggory's hand near her a little pat.

In Billy's mind the "circumstances" of Arkwright's acceptance of the part were Alice Greggory and her position as accompanist, of course. Billy would have been surprised indeed--and dismayed--had she known that in Arkwright's mind the "circumstances" were herself, and the fact that she, too, had a part in the operetta, necessitating her presence at rehearsals, and hinting at a delightful comradeship impossible, perhaps, otherwise.