Chapter XXV. The Operetta
 

The sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth of February were, for Billy, and for all concerned in the success of the operetta, days of hurry, worry, and feverish excitement, as was to be expected, of course. Each afternoon and every evening saw rehearsals in whole, or in parts. A friend of the Club-president's sister-in-law-a woman whose husband was stage manager of a Boston theatre--had consented to come and "coach" the performers. At her appearance the performers--promptly thrown into nervous spasms by this fearsome nearness to the "real thing"--forgot half their cues, and conducted themselves generally like frightened school children on "piece day," much to their own and every one else's despair. Then, on the evening of the nineteenth, came the final dress rehearsal on the stage of the pretty little hall that had been engaged for the performance of the operetta.

The dress rehearsal, like most of its kind, was, for every one, nothing but a nightmare of discord, discouragement, and disaster. Everybody's nerves were on edge, everybody was sure the thing would be a "flat failure." The soprano sang off the key, the alto forgot to shriek "Beware, beware!" until it was so late there was nothing to beware of; the basso stepped on Billy's trailing frock and tore it; even the tenor, Arkwright himself, seemed to have lost every bit of vim from his acting. The chorus sang "Oh, be joyful!" with dirge-like solemnity, and danced as if legs and feet were made of wood. The lovers, after the fashion of amateur actors from time immemorial, "made love like sticks."

Billy, when the dismal thing had dragged its way through the final note, sat "down front," crying softly in the semi-darkness while she was waiting for Alice Greggory to "run it through just once more" with a pair of tired-faced, fluffy- skirted fairies who could not learn that a duet meant a duet--not two solos, independently hurried or retarded as one's fancy for the moment dictated.

To Billy, just then, life did not look to be even half worth the living. Her head ached, her throat was going-to-be-sore, her shoe hurt, and her dress --the trailing frock that had been under the basso's foot--could not possibly be decently repaired before to-morrow night, she was sure.

Bad as these things were, however, they were only the intimate, immediate woes. Beyond and around them lay others many others. To be sure, Bertram and happiness were supposed to be somewhere in the dim and uncertain future; but between her and them lay all these other woes, chief of which was the unutterable tragedy of to-morrow night.

It was to be a failure, of course. Billy had calmly made up her mind to that, now. But then, she was used to failures, she told herself. Was she not plainly failing every day of her life to bring about even friendship between Alice Greggory and Arkwright? Did they not emphatically and systematically refuse to be "thrown together," either naturally, or unnaturally? And yet-- whenever again could she expect such opportunities to further her Cause as had been hers the past few weeks, through the operetta and its rehearsals? Certainly, never again! It had been a failure like all the rest; like the operetta, in particular.

Billy did not mean that any one should know she was crying. She supposed that all the performers except herself and the two earth-bound fairies by the piano with Alice Greggory were gone. She knew that John with Peggy was probably waiting at the door outside, and she hoped that soon the fairies would decide to go home and go to bed, and let other people do the same. For her part, she did not see why they were struggling so hard, anyway. Why needn't they go ahead and sing their duet like two solos if they wanted to? As if a little thing like that could make a feather's weight of difference in the grand total of to-morrow night's wretchedness when the final curtain should have been rung down on their shame!

"Miss Neilson, you aren't--crying!" exclaimed a low voice; and Billy turned to find Arkwright standing by her side in the dim light.

"Oh, no--yes--well, maybe I was, a little," stammered Billy, trying to speak very unconcernedly. "How warm it is in here! Do you think it's going to rain?--that is, outdoors, of course, I mean."

Arkwright dropped into the seat behind Billy and leaned forward, his eyes striving to read the girl's half-averted face. If Billy had turned, she would have seen that Arkwright's own face showed white and a little drawn-looking in the feeble rays from the light by the piano. But Billy did not turn. She kept her eyes steadily averted; and she went on speaking--airy, inconsequential words.

"Dear me, if those girls would only pull together! But then, what's the difference? I supposed you had gone home long ago, Mr. Arkwright."

"Miss Neilson, you are crying!" Arkwright's voice was low and vibrant. "As if anything or anybody in the world could make you cry! Please --you have only to command me, and I will sally forth at once to slay the offender." His words were light, but his voice still shook with emotion.

Billy gave an hysterical little giggle. Angrily she brushed the persistent tears from her eyes.

"All right, then; I'll dub you my Sir Knight," she faltered. "But I'll warn you--you'll have your hands full. You'll have to slay my headache, and my throat-ache, and my shoe that hurts, and the man who stepped on my dress, and--and everybody in the operetta, including myself."

"Everybody--in the operetta!" Arkwright did look a little startled, at this wholesale slaughter.

"Yes. Did you ever see such an awful, awful thing as that was to-night?" moaned the girl.

Arkwright's face relaxed.

"Oh, so that's what it is!" he laughed lightly. "Then it's only a bogy of fear that I've got to slay, after all; and I'll despatch that right now with a single blow. Dress rehearsals always go like that to-night. I've been in a dozen, and I never yet saw one go half decent. Don't you worry. The worse the rehearsal, the better the performance, every time!"

Billy blinked off the tears and essayed a smile as she retorted:

"Well, if that's so, then ours to-morrow night ought to be a--a--"

"A corker," helped out Arkwright, promptly; "and it will be, too. You poor child, you're worn out; and no wonder! But don't worry another bit about the operetta. Now is there anything else I can do for you? Anything else I can slay?"

Billy laughed tremulously.

"N-no, thank you; not that you can--slay, I fancy," she sighed. "That is--not that you will," she amended wistfully, with a sudden remembrance of the Cause, for which he might do so much--if he only would.

Arkwright bent a little nearer. His breath stirred the loose, curling hair behind Billy's ear. His eyes had flashed into sudden fire.

"But you don't know what I'd do if I could," he murmured unsteadily. "If you'd let me tell you--if you only knew the wish that has lain closest to my heart for--"

"Miss Neilson, please," called the despairing voice of one of the earth-bound fairies; "Miss Neilson, you are there, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'm right here," answered Billy, wearily. Arkwright answered, too, but not aloud--which was wise.

"Oh dear! you're tired, I know," wailed the fairy, "but if you would please come and help us just a minute! Could you?"

"Why, yes, of course." Billy rose to her feet, still wearily.

Arkwright touched her arm. She turned and saw his face. It was very white--so white that her eyes widened in surprised questioning.

As if answering the unspoken words, the man shook his head.

"I can't, now, of course," he said. "But there is something I want to say--a story I want to tell you--after to-morrow, perhaps. May I?"

To Billy, the tremor of his voice, the suffering in his eyes, and the "story" he was begging to tell could have but one interpretation: Alice Greggory. Her face, therefore, was a glory of tender sympathy as she reached out her hand in farewell.

"Of course you may," she cried. "Come any time after to-morrow night, please," she smiled encouragingly, as she turned toward the stage.

Behind her, Arkwright stumbled twice as he walked up the incline toward the outer door-- stumbled, not because of the semi-darkness of the little theatre, but because of the blinding radiance of a girl's illumined face which he had, a moment before, read all unknowingly exactly wrong.

A little more than twenty-four hours later, Billy Neilson, in her own room, drew a long breath of relief. It was twelve o'clock on the night of the twentieth, and the operetta was over.

To Billy, life was eminently worth living to- night. Her head did not ache, her throat was not sore, her shoe did not hurt, her dress had been mended so successfully by Aunt Hannah, and with such comforting celerity, that long before night one would never have suspected the filmy thing had known the devastating tread of any man's foot. Better yet, the soprano had sung exactly to key, the alto had shrieked "Beware!" to thrilling purpose, Arkwright had shown all his old charm and vim, and the chorus had been prodigies of joyousness and marvels of lightness. Even the lovers had lost their stiffness, while the two earth-bound fairies of the night before had found so amiable a meeting point that their solos sounded, to the uninitiated, very like, indeed, a duet. The operetta was, in short, a glorious and gratifying success, both artistically and financially. Nor was this all that, to Billy, made life worth the living: Arkwright had begged permission that evening to come up the following afternoon to tell her his "story"; and Billy, who was so joyously confident that this story meant the final crowning of her Cause with victory, had given happy consent.

Bertram was to come up in the evening, and Billy was anticipating that, too, particularly: it had been so long since they had known a really free, comfortable evening together, with nothing to interrupt. Doubtless, too, after Arkwright's visit of the afternoon, she would be in a position to tell Bertram the story of the suspended romance between Arkwright and Miss Greggory, and perhaps something, also, of her own efforts to bring the couple together again. On the whole, life did, indeed, look decidedly worth the living as Billy, with a contented sigh, turned over to go to sleep.