Chapter XXVII. The Thing That Was the Truth
 

Bertram called that evening. Billy had no story now to tell--nothing of the interrupted romance between Alice Greggory and Arkwright. Billy carefully, indeed, avoided mentioning Arkwright's name.

Ever since the man's departure that afternoon, Billy had been frantically trying to assure herself that she was not to blame; that she would not be supposed to know he cared for her; that it had all been as he said it was--his foolish blindness. But even when she had partially comforted herself by these assertions, she could not by any means escape the haunting vision of the man's stern-set, suffering face as she had seen it that afternoon; nor could she keep from weeping at the memory of the words he had said, and at the thought that never again could their pleasant friendship be quite the same--if, indeed, there could be any friendship at all between them.

But if Billy expected that her red eyes, pale cheeks, and generally troubled appearance and unquiet manner were to be passed unnoticed by her lover's keen eyes that evening, she found herself much mistaken.

"Sweetheart, what is the matter?" demanded Bertram resolutely, at last, when his more indirect questions had been evasively turned aside. "You can't make me think there isn't something the trouble, because I know there is!"

"Well, then, there is, dear," smiled Billy, tearfully; "but please just don't let us talk of it. I--I want to forget it. Truly I do."

"But I want to know so I can forget it," persisted Bertram. "What is it? Maybe I could help."

She shook her head with a little frightened cry.

"No, no--you can't help--really."

"But, sweetheart, you don't know. Perhaps I could. Won't you tell me about it?"

Billy looked distressed.

"I can't, dear--truly. You see, it isn't quite mine--to tell."

"Not yours!"

"Not--entirely."

"But it makes you feel bad?"

"Yes--very."

"Then can't I know that part?"

"Oh, no--no, indeed, no! You see--it wouldn't be fair--to the other."

Bertram stared a little. Then his mouth set into stern lines.

"Billy, what are you talking about? Seems to me I have a right to know."

Billy hesitated. To her mind, a girl who would tell of the unrequited love of a man for herself, was unspeakably base. To tell Bertram Arkwright's love story was therefore impossible. Yet, in some way, she must set Bertram's mind at rest.

"Dearest," she began slowly, her eyes wistfully pleading, "just what it is, I can't tell you. In a way it's another's secret, and I don't feel that I have the right to tell it. It's just something that I learned this afternoon."

"But it has made you cry!"

"Yes. It made me feel very unhappy."

"Then--it was something you couldn't help?"

To Bertram's surprise, the face he was watching so intently flushed scarlet.

"No, I couldn't help it--now; though I might have--once." Billy spoke this last just above her breath. Then she went on, beseechingly: "Bertram, please, please don't talk of it any more. It--it's just spoiling our happy evening together!"

Bertram bit his lip, and drew a long sigh.

"All right, dear; you know best, of course-- since I don't know anything about it," he finished a little stiffly.

Billy began to talk then very brightly of Aunt Hannah and her shawls, and of a visit she had made to Cyril and Marie that morning.

"And, do you know? Aunt Hannah's clock has done a good turn, at last, and justified its existence. Listen," she cried gayly. "Marie had a letter from her mother's Cousin Jane. Cousin Jane couldn't sleep nights, because she was always lying awake to find out just what time it was; so Marie had written her about Aunt Hannah's clock. And now this Cousin Jane has fixed her clock, and she sleeps like a top, just because she knows there'll never be but half an hour that she doesn't know what time it is!"

Bertram smiled, and murmured a polite "Well, I'm sure that's fine!"; but the words were plainly abstracted, and the frown had not left his brow. Nor did it quite leave till some time later, when Billy, in answer to a question of his about another operetta, cried, with a shudder:

"Mercy, I hope not, dear! I don't want to hear the word `operetta' again for a year!"

Bertram smiled, then, broadly. He, too, would be quite satisfied not to hear the word "operetta" for a year. Operetta, to Bertram, meant interruptions, interferences, and the constant presence of Arkwright, the Greggorys, and innumerable creatures who wished to rehearse or to change wigs--all of which Bertram abhorred. No wonder, therefore, that he smiled, and that the frown disappeared from his brow. He thought he saw, ahead, serene, blissful days for Billy and himself.

As the days, however, began to pass, one by one, Bertram Henshaw found them to be anything but serene and blissful. The operetta, with its rehearsals and its interruptions, was gone, certainly; but he was becoming seriously troubled about Billy.

Billy did not act natural. Sometimes she seemed like her old self; and he breathed more freely, telling himself that his fears were groundless. Then would come the haunting shadow to her eyes, the droop to her mouth, and the nervousness to her manner that he so dreaded. Worse yet, all this seemed to be connected in some strange way with Arkwright. He found this out by accident one day. She had been talking and laughing brightly about something, when he chanced to introduce Arkwright's name.

"By the way, where is Mary Jane these days?" he asked then.

"I don't know, I'm sure. He hasn't been here lately," murmured Billy, reaching for a book on the table.

At a peculiar something in her voice, he had looked up quickly, only to find, to his great surprise, that her face showed a painful flush as she bent over the book in her hand.

He had said nothing more at the time, but he had not forgotten. Several times, after that, he had introduced the man's name, and never had it failed to bring a rush of color, a biting of the lip, or a quick change of position followed always by the troubled eyes and nervous manner that he had learned to dread. He noticed then that never, of her own free will, did she herself mention the man; never did she speak of him with the old frank lightness as "Mary Jane."

By casual questions asked from time to time, Bertram had learned that Arkwright never came there now, and that the song-writing together had been given up. Curiously enough, this discovery, which would once have filled Bertram with joy, served now only to deepen his distress. That there was anything inconsistent in the fact that he was more frightened now at the man's absence than he had been before at his presence, did not occur to him. He knew only that he was frightened, and badly frightened.

Bertram had not forgotten the evening after the operetta, and Billy's tear-stained face on that occasion. He dated the whole thing, in fact, from that evening. He fell to wondering one day if that, too, had anything to do with Arkwright. He determined then to find out. Shamelessly-- for the good of the cause--he set a trap for Billy's unwary feet.

Very adroitly one day he led the talk straight to Arkwright; then he asked abruptly:

"Where is the chap, I wonder! Why, he hasn't shown up once since the operetta, has he?"

Billy, always truthful,--and just now always embarrassed when Arkwright's name was mentioned,-- walked straight into the trap.

"Oh, yes; well, he was here once--the day after the operetta. I haven't seen him since."

Bertram answered a light something, but his face grew a little white. Now that the trap had been sprung and the victim caught, he almost wished that he had not set any trap at all.

He knew now it was true. Arkwright had been with Billy the day after the operetta, and her tears and her distress that evening had been caused by something Arkwright had said. It was Arkwright's secret that she could not tell. It was Arkwright to whom she must be fair. It was Arkwright's sorrow that she "could not help--now."

Naturally, with these tools in his hands, and aided by days of brooding and nights of sleeplessness, it did not take Bertram long to fashion The Thing that finally loomed before him as The Truth.

He understood it all now. Music had conquered. Billy and Arkwright had found that they loved each other. On the day after the operetta, they had met, and had had some sort of scene together --doubtless Arkwright had declared his love. That was the "secret" that Billy could not tell and be "fair." Billy, of course,--loyal little soul that she was,--had sent him away at once. Was her hand not already pledged? That was why she could not "help it-now." (Bertram writhed in agony at the thought.) Since that meeting Arkwright had not been near the house. Billy had found, however, that her heart had gone with Arkwright; hence the shadow in her eyes, the nervousness in her manner, and the embarrassment that she always showed at the mention of his name.

That Billy was still outwardly loyal to himself, and that she still kept to her engagement, did not surprise Bertram in the least. That was like Billy. Bertram had not forgotten how, less than a year before, this same Billy had held herself loyal and true to an engagement with William, because a wretched mistake all around had caused her to give her promise to be William's wife under the impression that she was carrying out William's dearest wish. Bertram remembered her face as it had looked all those long summer days while her heart was being slowly broken; and he thought he could see that same look in her eyes now. All of which only goes to prove with what woeful skill Bertram had fashioned this Thing that was looming before him as The Truth.

The exhibition of "The Bohemian Ten" was to open with a private view on the evening of the twentieth of March. Bertram Henshaw's one contribution was to be his portrait of Miss Marguerite Winthrop--the piece of work that had come to mean so much to him; the piece of work upon which already he felt the focus of multitudes of eyes.

Miss Winthrop was in Boston now, and it was during these early March days that Bertram was supposed to be putting in his best work on the portrait; but, unfortunately, it was during these same early March days that he was engaged, also, in fashioning The Thing--and the two did not harmonize.

The Thing, indeed, was a jealous creature, and would brook no rival. She filled his eyes with horrid visions, and his brain with sickening thoughts. Between him and his model she flung a veil of fear; and she set his hand to trembling, and his brush to making blunders with the paints on his palette.

Bertram saw The Thing, and saw, too, the grievous result of her presence. Despairingly he fought against her and her work; but The Thing had become full grown now, and was The Truth. Hence she was not to be banished. She even, in a taunting way, seemed sometimes to be justifying her presence, for she reminded him:

"After all, what's the difference? What do you care for this, or anything again if Billy is lost to you?"

But the artist told himself fiercely that he did care--that he must care--for his work; and he struggled--how he struggled!--to ignore the horrid visions and the sickening thoughts, and to pierce the veil of fear so that his hand might be steady and his brush regain its skill.

And so he worked. Sometimes he let his work remain. Sometimes one hour saw only the erasing of what the hour before had wrought. Sometimes the elusive something in Marguerite Winthrop's face seemed right at the tip of his brush--on the canvas, even. He saw success then so plainly that for a moment it almost--but not quite-- blotted out The Thing. At other times that elusive something on the high-bred face of his model was a veritable will-o'-the-wisp, refusing to be caught and held, even in his eye. The artist knew then that his picture would be hung with Anderson's and Fullam's.

But the portrait was, irrefutably, nearing completion, and it was to be exhibited the twentieth of the month. Bertram knew these for facts.