Chapter XXXI. Flight
 

Billy feared if she did not mail the letter at once she would not have the courage to mail it at all. So she slipped down-stairs very quietly and went herself to the post box a little way down the street; then she came back and sobbed herself to sleep-- though not until after she had sobbed awake for long hours of wretchedness.

When she awoke in the morning, heavy-eyed and unrested, there came to her first the vague horror of some shadow hanging over her, then the sickening consciousness of what that shadow was. For one wild minute Billy felt that she must run to the telephone, summon Bertram, and beseech him to return unread the letter he would receive from her that day. Then there came to her the memory of Bertram's face as it had looked the night before when she had asked him if she were the cause of his being troubled. There came, too, the memory of Kate's scathing "Do you want to ruin his career?" Even the hated magazine article and Marie's tragic "I've hindered him!" added their mite; and Billy knew that she should not go to the telephone, nor summon Bertram.

The one fatal mistake now would be to let Bertram see her own distress. If once he should suspect how she suffered in doing this thing, there would be a scene that Billy felt she had not the courage to face. She must, therefore, manage in some way not to see Bertram--not to let him see her until she felt more sure of her self-control no matter what he said. The easiest way to do this was, of course, to go away. But where? How? She must think. Meanwhile, for these first few hours, she would not tell any one, even Aunt Hannah, what had happened. There must no one speak to her of it, yet. That she could not endure. Aunt Hannah would, of course, shiver, groan "Oh, my grief and conscience!" and call for another shawl; and Billy just now felt as if she should scream if she heard Aunt Hannah say "Oh, my grief and conscience!"--over that. Billy went down to breakfast, therefore, with a determination to act exactly as usual, so that Aunt Hannah should not know--yet.

When people try to "act exactly as usual," they generally end in acting quite the opposite; and Billy was no exception to the rule. Hence her attempted cheerfulness became flippantness, and her laughter giggles that rang too frequently to be quite sincere--though from Aunt Hannah it all elicited only an affectionate smile at "the dear child's high spirits."

A little later, when Aunt Hannah was glancing over the morning paper--now no longer barred from the door--she gave a sudden cry.

"Billy, just listen to this!" she exclaimed, reading from the paper in her hand. " `A new tenor in "The Girl of the Golden West." Appearance of Mr. M. J. Arkwright at the Boston Opera House to-night. Owing to the sudden illness of Dubassi, who was to have taken the part of Johnson tonight, an exceptional opportunity has come to a young tenor singer, one of the most promising pupils at the Conservatory school. Arkwright is said to have a fine voice, a particularly good stage presence, and a purity of tone and smoothness of execution that few of his age and experience can show. Only a short time ago he appeared as the duke at one of the popular-priced Saturday night performances of "Rigoletto"; and his extraordinary success on that occasion, coupled with his familiarity with, and fitness for the part of Johnson in "The Girl of the Golden West," led to his being chosen to take Dubassi's place to-night. His performance is awaited with the greatest of interest.' Now isn't that splendid for Mary Jane? I'm so glad!" beamed Aunt Hannah.

"Of course we're glad!" cried Billy. "And didn't it come just in time? This is the last week of opera, anyway, you know."

"But it says he sang before--on a Saturday night," declared Aunt Hannah, going back to the paper in her hand. "Now wouldn't you have thought we'd have heard of it, or read of it? And wouldn't you have thought he'd have told us?"

"Oh, well, maybe he didn't happen to see us so he could tell us," returned Billy with elaborate carelessness.

"I know it; but it's so funny he hasn't seen us," contended Aunt Hannah, frowning. "You know how much he used to be here."

Billy colored, and hurried into the fray.

"Oh, but he must have been so busy, with all this, you know. And of course we didn't see it in the paper--because we didn't have any paper at that time, probably. Oh, yes, that's my fault, I know," she laughed; "and I was silly, I'll own. But we'll make up for it now. We'll go, of course, I wish it had been on our regular season-ticket night, but I fancy we can get seats somewhere; and I'm going to ask Alice Greggory and her mother, too. I'll go down there this morning to tell them, and to get the tickets. I've got it all planned."

Billy had, indeed, "got it all planned." She had been longing for something that would take her away from the house--and if possible away from herself. This would do the one easily, and might help on the other. She rose at once.

"I'll go right away," she said.

"But, my dear," frowned Aunt Hannah, anxiously, "I don't believe I can go to-night--though I'd love to, dearly."

"But why not?"

"I'm tired and half sick with a headache this morning. I didn't sleep, and I've taken cold somewhere," sighed the lady, pulling the top shawl a little higher about her throat.

"Why, you poor dear, what a shame!"

"Won't Bertram go?" asked Aunt Hannah.

Billy shook her head--but she did not meet Aunt Hannah's eyes.

"Oh, no. I sha'n't even ask him. He said last night he had a banquet on for to-night--one of his art clubs, I believe." Billy's voice was casualness itself.

"But you'll have the Greggorys--that is, Mrs. Greggory can go, can't she?" inquired Aunt Hannah.

"Oh, yes; I'm sure she can," nodded Billy. "You know she went to the operetta, and this is just the same--only bigger."

"Yes, yes, I know," murmured Aunt Hannah.

"Dear me! How can she get about so on those two wretched little sticks? She's a perfect marvel to me."

"She is to me, too," sighed Billy, as she hurried from the room.

Billy was, indeed, in a hurry. To herself she said she wanted to get away--away! And she got away as soon as she could.

She had her plans all made. She would go first to the Greggorys' and invite them to attend the opera with her that evening. Then she would get the tickets. Just what she would do with the rest of the day she did not know. She knew only that she would not go home until time to dress for dinner and the opera. She did not tell Aunt Hannah this, however, when she left the house. She planned to telephone it from somewhere down town, later. She told herself that she could not stay all day under the sharp eyes of Aunt Hannah --but she managed, nevertheless, to bid that lady a particularly blithe and bright-faced good-by.

Billy had not been long gone when the telephone bell rang. Aunt Hannah answered it.

"Why, Bertram, is that you?" she called, in answer to the words that came to her across the wire. "Why, I hardly knew your voice!"

"Didn't you? Well, is--is Billy there?"

"No, she isn't. She's gone down to see Alice Greggory."

"Oh!" So evident was the disappointment in the voice that Aunt Hannah added hastily:

"I'm so sorry! She hasn't been gone ten minutes. But--is there any message?"

"No, thank you. There's no--message." The voice hesitated, then went on a little constrainedly. "How--how is Billy this morning? She--she's all right, isn't she?"

Aunt Hannah laughed in obvious amusement.

"Bless your dear heart, yes, my boy! Has it been such a long time since last evening--when you saw her yourself? Yes, she's all right. In fact, I was thinking at the breakfast table how pretty she looked with her pink cheeks and her bright eyes. She seemed to be in such high spirits."

An inarticulate something that Aunt Hannah could not quite catch came across the line; then a somewhat hurried "All right. Thank you. Good-by."

The next time Aunt Hannah was called to the telephone, Billy spoke to her.

"Aunt Hannah, don't wait luncheon for me, please. I shall get it in town. And don't expect me till five o'clock. I have some shopping to do."

"All right, dear," replied Aunt Hannah. "Did you get the tickets?"

"Yes, and the Greggorys will go. Oh, and Aunt Hannah!"

"Yes, dear."

"Please tell John to bring Peggy around early enough to-night so we can go down and get the Greggorys. I told them we'd call for them."

"Very well, dear. I'll tell him."

"Thank you. How's the poor head?"

"Better, a little, I think."

"That's good. Won't you repent and go, too?"

"No--oh, no, indeed!"

"All right, then; good-by. I'm sorry!"

"So'm I. Good-by," sighed Aunt Hannah, as she hung up the receiver and turned away.

It was after five o'clock when Billy got home, and so hurried were the dressing and the dinner that Aunt Hannah forgot to mention Bertram's telephone call till just as Billy was ready to start for the Greggorys'.

"There! and I forgot," she confessed. "Bertram called you up just after you left this morning, my dear."

"Did he?" Billy's face was turned away, but Aunt Hannah did not notice that.

"Yes. Oh, he didn't want anything special," smiled the lady, "only--well, he did ask if you were all right this morning," she finished with quiet mischief.

"Did he?" murmured Billy again. This time there was a little sound after the words, which Aunt Hannah would have taken for a sob if she had not known that it must have been a laugh.

Then Billy was gone.

At eight o'clock the doorbell rang, and a minute later Rosa came up to say that Mr. Bertram Henshaw was down-stairs and wished to see Mrs. Stetson.

Mrs. Stetson went down at once.

"Why, my dear boy," she exclaimed, as she entered the room; "Billy said you had a banquet on for to-night!"

"Yes, I know; but--I didn't go." Bertram's face was pale and drawn. His voice did not sound natural.

"Why, Bertram, you look ill! Are you ill?" The man made an impatient gesture.

"No, no, I'm not ill--I'm not ill at all. Rosa says--Billy's not here."

"No; she's gone to the opera with the Greggorys."

"The opera!" There was a grieved hurt in Bertram's voice that Aunt Hannah quite misunderstood. She hastened to give an apologetic explanation.

"Yes. She would have told you--she would have asked you to join them, I'm sure, but she said you were going to a banquet. I'm sure she said so."

"Yes, I did tell her so--last night," nodded Bertram, dully.

Aunt Hannah frowned a little. Still more anxiously she endeavored to explain to this disappointed lover why his sweetheart was not at home to greet him.

"Well, then, of course, my boy, she'd never think of your coming here to-night; and when she found Mr. Arkwright was going to sing--"

"Arkwright!" There was no listlessness in Bertram's voice or manner now.

"Yes. Didn't you see it in the paper? Such a splendid chance for him! His picture was there, too."

"No. I didn't see it."

"Then you don't know about it, of course," smiled Aunt Hannah. "But he's to take the part of Johnson in `The Girl of the Golden West.' Isn't that splendid? I'm so glad! And Billy was, too. She hurried right off this morning to get the tickets and to ask the Greggorys."

"Oh!" Bertram got to his feet a little abruptly, and held out his hand. "Well, then, I might as well say good-by then, I suppose," he suggested with a laugh that Aunt Hannah thought was a bit forced. Before she could remind him again, though, that Billy was really not to blame for not being there to welcome him, he was gone. And Aunt Hannah could only go up-stairs and meditate on the unreasonableness of lovers in general, and of Bertram in particular.

Aunt Hannah had gone to bed, but she was still awake, when Billy came home, so she heard the automobile come to a stop before the door, and she called to Billy when the girl came upstairs.

"Billy, dear, come in here. I'm awake! I want to hear about it. Was it good?"

Billy stopped in the doorway. The light from the hall struck her face. There was no brightness in her eyes now, no pink in her cheeks.

"Oh, yes, it was good--very good," she replied listlessly.

"Why, Billy, how queer you answer! What was the matter? Wasn't Mary Jane--all right?"

"Mary Jane? Oh!--oh, yes; he was very good, Aunt Hannah."

" `Very good,' indeed!" echoed the lady, indignantly. "He must have been!--when you speak as if you'd actually forgotten that he sang at all, anyway!"

Billy had forgotten--almost. Billy had found that, in spite of her getting away from the house, she had not got away from herself once, all day. She tried now, however, to summon her acting powers of the morning.

"But it was splendid, really, Aunt Hannah," she cried, with some show of animation. "And they clapped and cheered and gave him any number of curtain calls. We were so proud of him! But you see, I am tired," she broke off wearily.

"You poor child, of course you are, and you look like a ghost! I won't keep you another minute. Run along to bed. Oh--Bertram didn't go to that banquet, after all. He came here," she added, as Billy turned to go.

"Bertram!" The girl wheeled sharply.

"Yes. He wanted you, of course. I found I didn't do, at all," chuckled Aunt Hannah. "Did you suppose I would?"

There was no answer. Billy had gone.

In the long night watches Billy fought it out with herself. (Billy had always fought things out with herself.) She must go away. She knew that. Already Bertram had telephoned, and called. He evidently meant to see her--and she could not see him. She dared not. If she did--Billy knew now how pitifully little it would take to make her actually willing to slay Bertram's Art, stifle his Ambition, destroy his Inspiration, and be a nuisance generally--if only she could have Bertram while she was doing it all. Sternly then she asked herself if she had no pride; if she had forgotten that it was because of her that the Winthrop portrait had not been a success--because of her, either for the reason that he loved now Miss Winthrop, or else that he loved no girl--except to paint.

Very early in the morning a white-faced, red- eyed Billy appeared at Aunt Hannah's bedside.

"Billy!" exclaimed Aunt Hannah, plainly appalled.

Billy sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Aunt Hannah," she began in a monotonous voice as if she were reciting a lesson she had learned by heart, "please listen, and please try not to be too surprised. You were saying the other day that you would like to visit your old home town. Well, I think that's a very nice idea. If you don't mind we'll go to-day."

Aunt Hannah pulled herself half erect in bed.

"To-day--child?"

"Yes," nodded Billy, unsmilingly. "We shall have to go somewhere to-day, and I thought you would like that place best."

"But--Billy !--what does this mean?"

Billy sighed heavily.

"Yes, I understand. You'll have to know the rest, of course. I've broken my engagement. I don't want to see Bertram. That's why I'm going away."

Aunt Hannah fell nervelessly back on the pillow. Her teeth fairly chattered.

"Oh, my grief and conscience--Billy! Won't you please pull up that blanket," she moaned. "Billy, what do you mean?"

Billy shook her head and got to her feet.

"I can't tell any more now, really, Aunt Hannah. Please don't ask me; and don't--talk. You will--go with me, won't you?" And Aunt Hannah, with her terrified eyes on Billy's piteously agitated face, nodded her head and choked:

"Why, of course I'll go--anywhere--with you, Billy; but--why did you do it, why did you do it?"

A little later, Billy, in her own room, wrote this note to Bertram:

"DEAR BERTRAM:--I'm going away to-day. That'll be best all around. You'll agree to that, I'm sure. Please don't try to see me, and please don't write. It wouldn't make either one of us any happier. You must know that.

"As ever your friend,
"BILLY."

Bertram, when he read it, grew only a shade more white, a degree more sick at heart. Then he kissed the letter gently and put it away with the other.

To Bertram, the thing was very clear. Billy had come now to the conclusion that it would be wrong to give herself where she could not give her heart. And in this he agreed with her--bitter as it was for him. Certainly he did not want Billy, if Billy did not want him, he told himself. He would now, of course, accede to her request. He would not write to her--and make her suffer more. But to Bertram, at that moment, it seemed that the very sun in the heavens had gone out.