Chapter XXVIII. Billy Takes Her Turn
 

If for Billy those first twenty days of March did not carry quite the tragedy they contained for Bertram, they were, nevertheless, not really happy ones. She was vaguely troubled by a curious something in Bertram's behavior that she could not name; she was grieved over Arkwright's sorrow, and she was constantly probing her own past conduct to see if anywhere she could find that she was to blame for that sorrow. She missed, too, undeniably, Arkwright's cheery presence, and the charm and inspiration of his music. Nor was she finding it easy to give satisfactory answers to the questions Aunt Hannah, William, and Bertram so often asked her as to where Mary Jane was.

Even her music was little comfort to her these days. She was not writing anything. There was no song in her heart to tempt her to write. Arkwright's new words that he had brought her were out of the question, of course. They had been put away with the manuscript of the completed song, which had not, fortunately, gone to the publishers. Billy had waited, intending to send them together. She was so glad, now, that she had waited. Just once, since Arkwright's last call, she had tried to sing that song. But she had stopped at the end of the first two lines. The full meaning of those words, as coming from Arkwright, had swept over her then, and she had snatched up the manuscript and hidden it under the bottom pile of music in her cabinet . . . And she had presumed to sing that love song to Bertram!

Arkwright had written Billy once--a kind, courteous, manly note that had made her cry. He had begged her again not to blame herself, and he had said that he hoped he should be strong enough sometime to wish to call occasionally-- if she were willing--and renew their pleasant hours with their music; but, for the present, he knew there was nothing for him to do but to stay away. He had signed himself "Michael Jeremiah Arkwright"; and to Billy that was the most pathetic thing in the letter--it sounded so hopeless and dreary to one who knew the jaunty "M. J."

Alice Greggory, Billy saw frequently. Billy and Aunt Hannah were great friends with the Greggorys now, and had been ever since the Greggorys' ten-days' visit at Hillside. The cheery little cripple, with the gentle tap, tap, tap of her crutches, had won everybody's heart the very first day; and Alice was scarcely less of a favorite, after the sunny friendliness of Hillside had thawed her stiff reserve into naturalness.

Billy had little to say to Alice Greggory of Arkwright. Billy was no longer trying to play Cupid's assistant. The Cause, for which she had so valiantly worked, had been felled by Arkwright's own hand--but that there were still some faint stirrings of life in it was evidenced by Billy's secret delight when one day Alice Greggory chanced to mention that Arkwright had called the night before upon her and her mother.

"He brought us news of our old home," she explained a little hurriedly, to Billy. "He had heard from his mother, and he thought some things she said would be interesting to us."

"Of course," murmured Billy, carefully excluding from her voice any hint of the delight she felt, but hoping, all the while, that Alice would continue the subject.

Alice, however, had nothing more to say; and Billy was left in entire ignorance of what the news was that Arkwright had brought. She suspected, though, that it had something to do with Alice's father--certainly she hoped that it had; for if Arkwright had called to tell it, it must be good.

Billy had found a new home for the Greggorys; although at first they had drawn sensitively back, and had said that they preferred to remain where they were, they had later gratefully accepted it. A little couple from South Boston, to whom Billy had given a two weeks' outing the summer before, had moved into town and taken a flat in the South End. They had two extra rooms which they had told Billy they would like to let for light house- keeping, if only they knew just the right people to take into such close quarters with themselves. Billy at once thought of the Greggorys, and spoke of them. The little couple were delighted, and the Greggorys were scarcely less so when they at last became convinced that only a very little more money than they were already paying would give themselves a much pleasanter home, and would at the same time be a real boon to two young people who were trying to meet expenses. So the change was made, and general happiness all round had resulted--so much so, that Bertram had said to Billy, when he heard of it:

"It looks as if this was a case where your cake is frosted on both sides."

"Nonsense! This isn't frosting--it's business," Billy had laughed.

"And the new pupils you have found for Miss Alice--they're business, too, I suppose?"

"Certainly," retorted Billy, with decision. Then she had given a low laugh and said: "Mercy! If Alice Greggory thought it was anything but business, I verily believe she would refuse every one of the new pupils, and begin to-night to carry back the tables and chairs herself to those wretched rooms she left last month!"

Bertram had smiled, but the smile had been a fleeting one, and the brooding look of gloom that Billy had noticed so frequently, of late, had come back to his eyes.

Billy was not a little disturbed over Bertram these days. He did not seem to be his natural, cheery self at all. He talked little, and what he did say seldom showed a trace of his usually whimsical way of putting things. He was kindness itself to her, and seemed particularly anxious to please her in every way; but she frequently found his eyes fixed on her with a sombre questioning that almost frightened her. The more she thought of it, the more she wondered what the question was, that he did not dare to ask; and whether it was of herself or himself that he would ask it--if he did dare. Then, with benumbing force, one day, a possible solution of the mystery came to her, he had found out that it was true (what all his friends had declared of him)--he did not really love any girl, except to paint!

The minute this thought came to her, Billy thrust it indignantly away. It was disloyal to Bertram and unworthy of herself, even to think such a thing. She told herself then that it was only the portrait of Miss Winthrop that was troubling him. She knew that he was worried over that. He had confessed to her that actually sometimes he was beginning to fear his hand had lost its cunning. As if that were not enough to bring the gloom to any man's face--to any artist's!

No sooner, however, had Billy arrived at this point in her mental argument, than a new element entered--her old lurking jealousy, of which she was heartily ashamed, but which she had never yet been able quite to subdue; her jealousy of the beautiful girl with the beautiful name (not Billy), whose portrait had needed so much time and so many sittings to finish. What if Bertram had found that he loved her? What if that were why his hand had lost its cunning--because, though loving her, he realized that he was bound to another, Billy herself?

This thought, too, Billy cast from her at once as again disloyal and unworthy. But both thoughts, having once entered her brain, had made for themselves roads over which the second passing was much easier than the first--as Billy found to her sorrow. Certainly, as the days went by, and as Bertram's face and manner became more and more a tragedy of suffering, Billy found it increasingly difficult to keep those thoughts from wearing their roads of suspicion into horrid deep ruts of certainty.

Only with William and Marie, now, could Billy escape from it all. With William she sought new curios and catalogued the old. With Marie she beat eggs and whipped cream in the shining kitchen, and tried to think that nothing in the world mattered except that the cake in the oven should not fall.