Miss Billy's Decision by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter XXIX. Kate Writes a Letter
Bertram feared that he knew, before the portrait was hung, that it was a failure. He was sure that he knew it on the evening of the twentieth when he encountered the swiftly averted eyes of some of his artist friends, and saw the perplexed frown on the faces of others. But he knew, afterwards, that he did not really know it--till he read the newspapers during the next few days.
There was praise--oh, yes; the faint praise that kills. There was some adverse criticism, too; but it was of the light, insincere variety that is given to mediocre work by unimportant artists. Then, here and there, appeared the signed critiques of the men whose opinion counted-- and Bertram knew that he had failed. Neither as a work of art, nor as a likeness, was the portrait the success that Henshaw's former work would seem to indicate that it should have been. Indeed, as one caustic pen put it, if this were to be taken as a sample of what was to follow--then the famous originator of "The Face of a Girl" had "a most distinguished future behind him."
Seldom, if ever before, had an exhibited portrait attracted so much attention. As Bertram had said, uncounted eyes were watching for it before it was hung, because it was a portrait of the noted beauty, Marguerite Winthrop, and because two other well-known artists had failed where he, Bertram Henshaw, was hoping to succeed. After it was hung, and the uncounted eyes had seen it--either literally, or through the eyes of the critics--interest seemed rather to grow than to lessen, for other uncounted eyes wanted to see what all the fuss was about, anyway. And when these eyes had seen, their owners talked. Nor did they, by any means, all talk against the portrait. Some were as loud in its praise as were others in its condemnation; all of which, of course, but helped to attract more eyes to the cause of it all.
For Bertram and his friends these days were, naturally, trying ones. William finally dreaded to open his newspaper. (It had become the fashion, when murders and divorces were scarce, occasionally to "feature" somebody's opinion of the Henshaw portrait, on the first page--something that had almost never been known to happen before.) Cyril, according to Marie, played "perfectly awful things on his piano every day, now." Aunt Hannah had said "Oh, my grief and conscience!" so many times that it melted now into a wordless groan whenever a new unfriendly criticism of the portrait met her indignant eyes.
Of all Bertram's friends, Billy, perhaps not unnaturally, was the angriest. Not only did she, after a time, refuse to read the papers, but she refused even to allow certain ones to be brought into the house, foolish and unreasonable as she knew this to be.
As to the artist himself, Bertram's face showed drawn lines and his eyes sombre shadows, but his words and manner carried a stolid indifference that to Billy was at once heartbreaking and maddening.
"But, Bertram, why don't you do something? Why don't you say something? Why don't you act something?" she burst out one day.
The artist shrugged his shoulders.
"But, my dear, what can I say, or do, or act?" he asked.
"I don't know, of course," sighed Billy. "But I know what I'd like to do. I should like to go out and--fight somebody!"
So fierce were words and manner, coupled as they were with a pair of gentle eyes ablaze and two soft little hands doubled into menacing fists, that Bertram laughed.
"What a fiery little champion it is, to be sure," he said tenderly. "But as if fighting could do any good--in this case!"
Billy's tense muscles relaxed. Her eyes filled with tears.
"No, I don't suppose it would," she choked, beginning to cry, so that Bertram had to turn comforter.
"Come, come, dear," he begged; "don't take it so to heart. It's not so bad, after all. I've still my good right hand left, and we'll hope there's something in it yet--that'll be worth while."
"But this one isn't bad," stormed Billy. "It's splendid! I'm sure, I think it's a b-beautiful portrait, and I don't see what people mean by talking so about it!"
Bertram shook his head. His eyes grew sombre again.
"Thank you, dear. But I know--and you know, really--that it isn't a splendid portrait. I've done lots better work than that."
"Then why don't they look at those, and let this alone?" wailed Billy, with indignation.
"Because I deliberately put up this for them to see," smiled the artist, wearily.
Billy sighed, and twisted in her chair.
"What does--Mr. Winthrop say?" she asked at last, in a faint voice.
Bertram lifted his head.
"Mr. Winthrop's been a trump all through, dear. He's already insisted on paying for this-- and he's ordered another."
"Yes. The old fellow never minces his words, as you may know. He came to me one day, put his hand on my shoulder, and said tersely: `Will you give me another, same terms? Go in, boy, and win. Show 'em! I lost the first ten thousand I made. I didn't the next!' That's all he said. Before I could even choke out an answer he was gone. Gorry! talk about his having a `heart of stone'! I don't believe another man in the country would have done that--and done it in the way he did--in the face of all this talk," finished Bertram, his eyes luminous with feeling.
"Perhaps--his daughter--influenced him--some."
"Perhaps," nodded Bertram. "She, too, has been very kind, all the way through."
Billy hesitated again.
"But I thought--it was going so splendidly," she faltered, in a half-stifled voice.
"So it was--at the first."
"Then what--ailed it, at the last, do you suppose?" Billy was holding her breath till he should answer.
The man got to his feet.
"Billy, don't--don't ask me," he begged. "Please don't let's talk of it any more. It can't do any good! I just flunked--that's all. My hand failed me. Maybe I tried too hard. Maybe I was tired. Maybe something--troubled me. Never mind, dear, what it was. It can do no good even to think of that--now. So just let's --drop it, please, dear," he finished, his face working with emotion.
And Billy dropped it--so far as words were concerned; but she could not drop it from her thoughts--specially after Kate's letter came.
Kate's letter was addressed to Billy, and it said, after speaking of various other matters:
"And now about poor Bertram's failure." (Billy frowned. In Billy's presence no one was allowed to say "Bertram's failure"; but a letter has a most annoying privilege of saying what it pleases without let or hindrance, unless one tears it up--and a letter destroyed unread remains always such a tantalizing mystery of possibilities! So Billy let the letter talk.) "Of course we have heard of it away out here. I do wish if Bertram must paint such famous people, he would manage to flatter them up--in the painting, I mean, of course--enough so that it might pass for a success!
"The technical part of all this criticism I don't pretend to understand in the least; but from what I hear and read, he must, indeed, have made a terrible mess of it, and of course I'm very sorry --and some surprised, too, for usually he paints such pretty pictures!
"Still, on the other hand, Billy, I'm not surprised. William says that Bertram has been completely out of fix over something, and as gloomy as an owl, for weeks past; and of course, under those circumstances, the poor boy could not be expected to do good work. Now William, being a man, is not supposed to understand what the trouble is. But I, being a woman, can see through a pane of glass when it's held right up before me; and I can guess, of course, that a woman is at the bottom of it--she always is!--and that you, being his special fancy at the moment" (Billy almost did tear the letter now--but not quite), "are that woman.
"Now, Billy, you don't like such frank talk, of course; but, on the other hand, I know you do not want to ruin the dear boy's career. So, for heaven's sake, if you two have been having one of those quarrels that lovers so delight in--do, please, for the good of the cause, make up quick, or else quarrel harder and break it off entirely--which, honestly, would be the better way, I think, all around.
"There, there, my dear child, don't bristle up! I am very fond of you, and would dearly love to have you for a sister--if you'd only take William, as you should! But, as you very well know, I never did approve of this last match at all, for either of your sakes.
"He can't make you happy, my dear, and you can't make him happy. Bertram never was-- and never will be--a marrying man. He's too temperamental--too thoroughly wrapped up in his Art. Girls have never meant anything to him but a beautiful picture to paint. And they never will. They can't. He's made that way. Listen! I can prove it to you. Up to this winter he's always been a care-free, happy, jolly fellow, and you know what beautiful work he has done. Never before has he tied himself to any one girl till last fall. Then you two entered into this absurd engagement.
"Now what has it been since? William wrote me himself not a fortnight ago that he'd been worried to death over Bertram for weeks past, he's been so moody, so irritable, so fretted over his work, so unlike himself. And his picture has failed dismally. Of course William doesn't understand; but I do. I know you've probably quarrelled, or something. You know how flighty and unreliable you can be sometimes, Billy, and I don't say that to mean anything against you, either-- that's your way. You're just as temperamental in your art, music, as Bertram is in his. You're utterly unsuited to him. If Bertram is to marry anybody, it should be some quiet, staid, sensible girl who would be a help to him. But when I think of you two flyaway flutterbudgets marrying--!
"Now, for heaven's sake, Billy, do make up or something--and do it now. Don't, for pity's sake, let Bertram ever put out another such a piece of work to shame us all like this. Do you want to ruin his career?
"P. S. I think William's the one for you. He's devoted to you, and his quiet, sensible affection is just what your temperament needs. I always thought William was the one for you. Think it over.
"P. S. No. 2. You can see by the above that it isn't you I'm objecting to, my dear. It's just you- and-Bertram.