Chapter XXVI. Arkwright Tells Another Story
 

Promptly at the suggested hour on the day after the operetta, Arkwright rang Billy Neilson's doorbell. Promptly, too, Billy herself came into the living-room to greet him.

Billy was in white to-day--a soft, creamy white wool with a touch of black velvet at her throat and in her hair. The man thought she had never looked so lovely: Arkwright was still under the spell wrought by the soft radiance of Billy's face the two times he had mentioned his "story."

Until the night before the operetta Arkwright had been more than doubtful of the way that story would be received, should he ever summon the courage to tell it. Since then his fears had been changed to rapturous hopes. It was very eagerly, therefore, that he turned now to greet Billy as she came into the room.

"Suppose we don't have any music to-day. Suppose we give the whole time up to the story," she smiled brightly, as she held out her hand.

Arkwright's heart leaped; but almost at once it throbbed with a vague uneasiness. He would have preferred to see her blush and be a little shy over that story. Still--there was a chance, of course, that she did not know what the story was. But if that were the case, what of the radiance in her face? What of-- Finding himself in a tangled labyrinth that led apparently only to disappointment and disaster, Arkwright pulled himself up with a firm hand.

"You are very kind," he murmured, as he relinquished her fingers and seated himself near her. "You are sure, then, that you wish to hear the story?"

"Very sure," smiled Billy.

Arkwright hesitated. Again he longed to see a little embarrassment in the bright face opposite. Suddenly it came to him, however, that if Billy knew what he was about to say, it would manifestly not be her part to act as if she knew! With a lighter heart, then, he began his story.

"You want it from the beginning?"

"By all means! I never dip into books, nor peek at the ending. I don't think it's fair to the author."

"Then I will, indeed, begin at the beginning," smiled Arkwright, "for I'm specially anxious that you shall be--even more than `fair' to me." His voice shook a little, but he hurried on. "There's a--girl--in it; a very dear, lovely girl."

"Of course--if it's a nice story," twinkled Billy.

"And--there's a man, too. It's a love story, you see."

"Again of course--if it's interesting." Billy laughed mischievously, but she flushed a little.

"Still, the man doesn't amount to much, after all, perhaps. I might as well own up at the beginning--I'm the man."

"That will do for you to say, as long as you're telling the story," smiled Billy. "We'll let it pass for proper modesty on your part. But I shall say--the personal touch only adds to the interest."

Arkwright drew in his breath.

"We'll hope--it'll really be so," he murmured.

There was a moment's silence. Arkwright seemed to be hesitating what to say.

"Well?" prompted Billy, with a smile. "We have the hero and the heroine; now what happens next? Do you know," she added, "I have always thought that part must bother the story- writers--to get the couple to doing interesting things, after they'd got them introduced."

Arkwright sighed.

"Perhaps--on paper; but, you see, my story has been lived, so far. So it's quite different."

"Very well, then--what did happen?" smiled Billy.

"I was trying to think--of the first thing. You see it began with a picture, a photograph of the girl. Mother had it. I saw it, and wanted it, and--" Arkwright had started to say "and took it." But he stopped with the last two words unsaid. It was not time, yet, he deemed, to tell this girl how much that picture had been to him for so many months past. He hurried on a little precipitately. "You see, I had heard about this girl a lot; and I liked--what I heard."

"You mean--you didn't know her--at the first?" Billy's eyes were surprised. Billy had supposed that Arkwright had always known Alice Greggory.

"No, I didn't know the girl--till afterwards. Before that I was always dreaming and wondering what she would be like."

"Oh!" Billy subsided into her chair, still with the puzzled questioning in her eyes.

"Then I met her."

"Yes?"

"And she was everything and more than I had pictured her."

"And you fell in love at once?" Billy's voice had grown confident again.

"Oh, I was already in love," sighed Arkwright. "I simply sank deeper."

"Oh-h!" breathed Billy, sympathetically. "And the girl?"

"She didn't care--or know--for a long time. I'm not really sure she cares--or knows--even now." Arkwright's eyes were wistfully fixed on Billy's face.

"Oh, but you can't tell, always, about girls," murmured Billy, hurriedly. A faint pink had stolen to her forehead. She was thinking of Alice Greggory, and wondering if, indeed, Alice did care; and if she, Billy, might dare to assure this man--what she believed to be true--that his sweetheart was only waiting for him to come to her and tell her that he loved her.

Arkwright saw the color sweep to Billy's forehead, and took sudden courage. He leaned forward eagerly. A tender light came to his eyes. The expression on his face was unmistakable.

"Billy, do you mean, really, that there is-- hope for me?" he begged brokenly.

Billy gave a visible start. A quick something like shocked terror came to her eyes. She drew back and would have risen to her feet had the thought not come to her that twice before she had supposed a man was making love to her, when subsequent events proved that she had been mortifyingly mistaken: once when Cyril had told her of his love for Marie; and again when William had asked her to come back as a daughter to the house she had left desolate.

Telling herself sternly now not to be for the third time a "foolish little simpleton," she summoned all her wits, forced a cheery smile to her lips, and said:

"Well, really, Mr. Arkwright, of course I can't answer for the girl, so I'm not the one to give hope; and--"

"But you are the one," interrupted the man, passionately. "You're the only one! As if from the very first I hadn't loved you, and--"

"No, no, not that--not that! I'm mistaken! I'm not understanding what you mean," pleaded a horror-stricken voice. Billy was on her feet now, holding up two protesting hands, palms outward.

"Miss Neilson, you don't mean--that you haven't known--all this time--that it was you?" The man, now, was on his feet, his eyes hurt and unbelieving, looking into hers.

Billy paled. She began slowly to back away. Her eyes, still fixed on his, carried the shrinking terror of one who sees a horrid vision.

"But you know--you must know that I am not yours to win!" she reproached him sharply. "I'm to be Bertram Henshaw's--wife." From Billy's shocked young lips the word dropped with a ringing force that was at once accusatory and prohibitive. It was as if, by the mere utterance of the word, wife, she had drawn a sacred circle about her and placed herself in sanctuary.

From the blazing accusation in her eyes Arkwright fell back.

"Wife! You are to be Bertram Henshaw's wife!" he exclaimed. There was no mistaking the amazed incredulity on his face.

Billy caught her breath. The righteous indignation in her eyes fled, and a terrified appeal took its place.

"You don't mean that you didn't--know?" she faltered.

There was a moment's silence. A power quite outside herself kept Billy's eyes on Arkwright's face, and forced her to watch the change there from unbelief to belief, and from belief to set misery.

"No, I did not know," said the man then, dully, as he turned, rested his arm on the mantel behind him, and half shielded his face with his hand.

Billy sank into a low chair. Her fingers fluttered nervously to her throat. Her piteous, beseeching eyes were on the broad back and bent head of the man before her.

"But I--I don't see how you could have helped--knowing," she stammered at last. "I don't see how such a thing could have happened that you shouldn't know!"

"I've been trying to think, myself," returned the man, still in a dull, emotionless voice.

"It's been so--so much a matter of course. I supposed everybody knew it," maintained Billy.

"Perhaps that's just it--that it was--so much a matter of course," rejoined the man. "You see, I know very few of your friends, anyway-- who would be apt to mention it to me."

"But the announcements--oh, you weren't here then," moaned Billy. "But you must have known that--that he came here a good deal-- that we were together so much!"

"To a certain extent, yes," sighed Arkwright. "But I took your friendship with him and his brothers as--as a matter of course. That was my `matter of course,' you see," he went on bitterly. "I knew you were Mr. William Henshaw's namesake, and Calderwell had told me the story of your coming to them when you were left alone in the world. Calderwell had said, too, that--" Arkwright paused, then hurried on a little constrainedly--"well, he said something that led me to think Mr. Bertram Henshaw was not a marrying man, anyway."

Billy winced and changed color. She had noticed the pause, and she knew very well what it was that Calderwell had said to occasion that pause. Must always she be reminded that no one expected Bertram Henshaw to love any girl-- except to paint?

"But--but Mr. Calderwell must know about the engagement--now," she stammered.

"Very likely, but I have not happened to hear from him since my arrival in Boston. We do not correspond."

There was a long silence, then Arkwright spoke again.

"I think I understand now--many things. I wonder I did not see them before; but I never thought of Bertram Henshaw's being-- If Calderwell hadn't said--" Again Arkwright stopped with his sentence half complete, and again Billy winced. "I've been a blind fool. I was so intent on my own-- I've been a blind fool; that's all," repeated Arkwright, with a break in his voice.

Billy tried to speak, but instead of words, there came only a choking sob.

Arkwright turned sharply.

"Miss Neilson, don't--please," he begged. "There is no need that you should suffer--too."

"But I am so ashamed that such a thing could happen," she faltered. "I'm sure, some way, I must be to blame. But I never thought. I was blind, too. I was wrapped up in my own affairs. I never suspected. I never even thought to suspect! I thought of course you knew. It was just the music that brought us together, I supposed; and you were just like one of the family, anyway. I always thought of you as Aunt Hannah's--" She stopped with a vivid blush.

"As Aunt Hannah's niece, Mary Jane, of course," supplied Arkwright, bitterly, turning back to his old position. "And that was my own fault, too. My name, Miss Neilson, is Michael Jeremiah," he went on wearily, after a moment's hesitation, his voice showing his utter abandonment to despair. "When a boy at school I got heartily sick of the `Mike' and the `Jerry' and the even worse `Tom and Jerry' that my young friends delighted in; so as soon as possible I sought obscurity and peace in `M. J.' Much to my surprise and annoyance the initials proved to be little better, for they became at once the biggest sort of whet to people's curiosity. Naturally, the more determined persistent inquirers were to know the name, the more determined I became that they shouldn't. All very silly and very foolish, of course. Certainly it seems so now," he finished.

Billy was silent. She was trying to find something, anything, to say, when Arkwright began speaking again, still in that dull, hopeless voice that Billy thought would break her heart.

"As for the `Mary Jane'--that was another foolishness, of course. My small brothers and sisters originated it; others followed, on occasion, even Calderwell. Perhaps you did not know, but he was the friend who, by his laughing question, `Why don't you, Mary Jane?' put into my head the crazy scheme of writing to Aunt Hannah and letting her think I was a real Mary Jane. You see what I stooped to do, Miss Neilson, for the chance of meeting and knowing you."

Billy gave a low cry. She had suddenly remembered the beginning of Arkwright's story. For the first time she realized that he had been talking then about herself, not Alice Greggory.

"But you don't mean that you--cared-- that I was the--" She could not finish.

Arkwright turned from the mantel with a gesture of utter despair.

"Yes, I cared then. I had heard of you. I had sung your songs. I was determined to meet you. So I came--and met you. After that I was more determined than ever to win you. Perhaps you see, now, why I was so blind to--to any other possibility. But it doesn't do any good--to talk like this. I understand now. Only, please, don't blame yourself," he begged as he saw her eyes fill with tears. The next moment he was gone.

Billy had turned away and was crying softly, so she did not see him go.