Chapter XXIII. The Cause and Bertram
 

February came The operetta, for which Billy was working so hard, was to be given the twentieth. The Art Exhibition, for which Bertram was preparing his four pictures, was to open the sixteenth, with a private view for specially invited friends the evening before.

On the eleventh day of February Mrs. Greggory and her daughter arrived at Hillside for a ten- days' visit. Not until after a great deal of pleading and argument, however, had Billy been able to bring this about.

"But, my dears, both of you," Billy had at last said to them; "just listen. We shall have numberless rehearsals during those last ten days before the thing comes off. They will be at all hours, and of all lengths. You, Miss Greggory, will have to be on hand for them all, of course, and will have to stay all night several times, probably. You, Mrs. Greggory, ought not to be alone down here. There is no sensible, valid reason why you should not both come out to the house for those ten days; and I shall feel seriously hurt and offended if you do not consent to do it."

"But--my pupils," Alice Greggory had demurred.

"You can go in town from my home at any time to give your lessons, and a little shifting about and arranging for those ten days will enable you to set the hours conveniently one after another, I am sure, so you can attend to several on one trip. Meanwhile your mother will be having a lovely time teaching Aunt Hannah how to knit a new shawl; so you won't have to be worrying about her."

After all, it had been the great good and pleasure which the visit would bring to Mrs. Greggory that had been the final straw to tip the scales. On the eleventh of February, therefore, in the company of the once scorned "Peggy and Mary Jane," Alice Greggory and her mother had arrived at Hillside.

Ever since the first meeting of Alice Greggory and Arkwright, Billy had been sorely troubled by the conduct of the two young people. She had, as she mournfully told herself, been able to make nothing of it. The two were civility itself to each other, but very plainly they were not at ease in each other's company; and Billy, much to her surprise, had to admit that Arkwright did not appear to appreciate the "circumstances" now that he had them. The pair called each other, ceremoniously, "Mr. Arkwright," and "Miss Greggory"--but then, that, of course, did not "signify," Billy declared to herself.

"I suppose you don't ever call him `Mary Jane,' " she said to the girl, a little mischievously, one day.

" `Mary Jane'? Mr. Arkwright? No, I don't," rejoined Miss Greggory, with an odd smile. Then, after a moment, she added: "I believe his brothers and sisters used to, however."

"Yes, I know," laughed Billy. "We thought he was a real Mary Jane, once." And she told the story of his arrival. "So you see," she finished, when Alice Greggory had done laughing over the tale, "he always will be `Mary Jane' to us. By the way, what is his name?"

Miss Greggory looked up in surprise.

"Why, it's--" She stopped short, her eyes questioning. "Why, hasn't he ever told you?" she queried.

Billy lifted her chin.

"No. He told us to guess it, and we have guessed everything we can think of, even up to `Methuselah John'; but he says we haven't hit it yet."

" `Methuselah John,' indeed!" laughed the other, merrily.

"Well, I'm sure that's a nice, solid name," defended Billy, her chin still at a challenging tilt. "If it isn't `Methuselah John,' what is it, then?"

But Alice Greggory shook her head. She, too, it seemed, could be firm, on occasion. And though she smiled brightly, all she would say, was:

"If he hasn't told you, I sha'n't. You'll have to go to him."

"Oh, well, I can still call him `Mary Jane,' " retorted Billy, with airy disdain.

All this, however, so far as Billy could see, was not in the least helping along the cause that had become so dear to her--the reuniting of a pair of lovers. It occurred to her then, one day, that perhaps, after all, they were not lovers, and did not wish to be reunited. At this disquieting thought Billy decided, suddenly, to go almost to headquarters. She would speak to Mrs. Greggory if ever the opportunity offered. Great was her joy, therefore, when, a day or two after the Greggorys arrived at the house, Mrs. Greggory's chance reference to Arkwright and her daughter gave Billy the opportunity she sought.

"They used to know each other long ago, Mr. Arkwright tells me," Billy began warily.

"Yes."

The quietly polite monosyllable was not very encouraging, to be sure; but Billy, secure in her conviction that her cause was a righteous one, refused to be daunted.

"I think it was so romantic--their running across each other like this, Mrs. Greggory," she murmured. "And there was a romance, wasn't there? I have just felt in my bones that there was--a romance!"

Billy held her breath. It was what she had meant to say, but now that she had said it, the words seemed very fearsome indeed--to say to Mrs. Greggory. Then Billy remembered her Cause, and took heart--Billy was spelling it now with a capital C.

For a long minute Mrs. Greggory did not answer--for so long a minute that Billy's breath dropped into a fluttering sigh, and her Cause became suddenly "IMPERTINENCE" spelled in black capitals. Then Mrs. Greggory spoke slowly, a little sadly.

"I don't mind saying to you that I did hope, once, that there would be a romance there. They were the best of friends, and they were well- suited to each other in tastes and temperament. I think, indeed, that the romance was well under way (though there was never an engagement) when--" Mrs. Greggory paused and wet her lips. Her voice, when she resumed, carried the stern note so familiar to Billy in her first acquaintance with this woman and her daughter. "As I presume Mr. Arkwright has told you, we have met with many changes in our life--changes which necessitated a new home and a new mode of living. Naturally, under those circumstances, old friends--and old romances--must change, too."

"But, Mrs. Greggory," stammered Billy, "I'm sure Mr. Arkwright would want--" An up- lifted hand silenced her peremptorily.

"Mr. Arkwright was very kind, and a gentleman, always," interposed the lady, coldly; "but Judge Greggory's daughter would not allow herself to be placed where apologies for her father would be necessary--ever! There, please, dear Miss Neilson, let us not talk of it any more," begged Mrs. Greggory, brokenly.

"No, indeed, of course not!" cried Billy; but her heart rejoiced.

She understood it all now. Arkwright and Alice Greggory had been almost lovers when the charges against the Judge's honor had plunged the family into despairing humiliation. Then had come the time when, according to Arkwright's own story, the two women had shut themselves indoors, refused to see their friends, and left town as soon as possible. Thus had come the breaking of whatever tie there was between Alice Greggory and Arkwright. Not to have broken it would have meant, for Alice, the placing of herself in a position where, sometime, apologies must be made for her father. This was what Mrs. Greggory had meant--and again, as Billy thought of it, Billy's heart rejoiced.

Was not her way clear now before her? Did she not have it in her power, possibly--even probably--to bring happiness where only sadness was before? As if it would not be a simple thing to rekindle the old flame--to make these two estranged hearts beat as one again!

Not now was the Cause an IMPERTINENCE in tall black letters. It was, instead, a shining beacon in letters of flame guiding straight to victory.

Billy went to sleep that night making plans for Alice Greggory and Arkwright to be thrown together naturally--"just as a matter of course, you know," she said drowsily to herself, all in the dark.

Some three or four miles away down Beacon Street at that moment Bertram Henshaw, in the Strata, was, as it happened, not falling asleep. He was lying broadly and unhappily awake Bertram very frequently lay broadly and unhappily awake these days--or rather nights. He told himself, on these occasions, that it was perfectly natural--indeed it was!--that Billy should be with Arkwright and his friends, the Greggorys, so much. There were the new songs, and the operetta with its rehearsals as a cause for it all. At the same time, deep within his fearful soul was the consciousness that Arkwright, the Greggorys, and the operetta were but Music--Music, the spectre that from the first had dogged his footsteps.

With Billy's behavior toward himself, Bertram could find no fault. She was always her sweet, loyal, lovable self, eager to hear of his work, earnestly solicitous that it should be a success. She even--as he sometimes half-irritably remembered--had once told him that she realized he belonged to Art before he did to himself; and when he had indignantly denied this, she had only laughed and thrown a kiss at him, with the remark that he ought to hear his sister Kate's opinion of that matter. As if he wanted Kate's opinion on that or anything else that concerned him and Billy!

Once, torn by jealousy, and exasperated at the frequent interruptions of their quiet hours together, he had complained openly.

"Actually, Billy, it's worse than Marie's wedding," he declared, "Then it was tablecloths and napkins that could be dumped in a chair. Now it's a girl who wants to rehearse, or a woman that wants a different wig, or a telephone message that the sopranos have quarrelled again. I loathe that operetta!"

Billy laughed, but she frowned, too.

"I know, dear; I don't like that part. I wish they would let me alone when I'm with you! But as for the operetta, it is really a good thing, dear, and you'll say so when you see it. It's going to be a great success--I can say that because my part is only a small one, you know. We shall make lots of money for the Home, too, I'm sure."

"But you're wearing yourself all out with it, dear," scowled Bertram.

"Nonsense! I like it; besides, when I'm doing this I'm not telephoning you to come and amuse me. Just think what a lot of extra time you have for your work!"

"Don't want it," avowed Bertram.

"But the work may," retorted Billy, showing all her dimples. "Never mind, though; it'll all be over after the twentieth. This isn't an understudy like Marie's wedding, you know," she finished demurely.

"Thank heaven for that!" Bertram had breathed fervently. But even as he said the words he grew sick with fear. What if, after all, this were an understudy to what was to come later when Music, his rival, had really conquered?

Bertram knew that however secure might seem Billy's affection for himself, there was still in his own mind a horrid fear lest underneath that security were an unconscious, growing fondness for something he could not give, for some one that he was not--a fondness that would one day cause Billy to awake. As Bertram, in his morbid fancy pictured it, he realized only too well what that awakening would mean to himself.