Chapter XXXIII. Bertram Takes the Reins
 

With stiffly pompous dignity Pete opened the door. The next moment he fell back in amazement before the impetuous rush of a starry-eyed, flushed-cheeked young woman who demanded:

"Where is he, Pete?"

"Miss Billy!" gasped the old man. Then he saw Aunt Hannah--Aunt Hannah with her bonnet askew, her neck-bow awry, one hand bare, and the other half covered with a glove wrong side out. Aunt Hannah's cheeks, too, were flushed, and her eyes starry, but with dismay and anger-- the last because she did not like the way Pete had said Miss Billy's name. It was one matter for her to object to this thing Billy was doing--but quite another for Pete to do it.

"Of course it's she!" retorted Aunt Hannah, testily. "As if you yourself didn't bring her here with your crazy messages at this time of night!"

"Pete, where is he?" interposed Billy. "Tell Mr. Bertram I am here--or, wait! I'll go right in and surprise him."

"Billy!" This time it was Aunt Hannah who gasped her name.

Pete had recovered himself by now, but he did not even glance toward Aunt Hannah. His face was beaming, and his old eyes were shining.

"Miss Billy, Miss Billy, you're an angel straight from heaven, you are--you are! Oh, I'm so glad you came! It'll be all right now--all right! He's in the den, Miss Billy."

Billy turned eagerly, but before she could take so much as one step toward the door at the end of the hall, Aunt Hannah's indignant voice arrested her.

"Billy-stop! You're not an angel; you're a young woman--and a crazy one, at that! Whatever angels do, young women don't go unannounced and unchaperoned into young men's rooms! Pete, go tell your master that we are here, and ask if he will receive us."

Pete's lips twitched. The emphatic "we" and "us" were not lost on him. But his face was preternaturally grave when he spoke.

"Mr. Bertram is up and dressed, ma'am. He's in the den. I'll speak to him."

Pete, once again the punctilious butler, stalked to the door of Bertram's den and threw it wide open.

Opposite the door, on a low couch, lay Bertram, his head bandaged, and his right arm in a sling. His face was turned toward the door, but his eyes were closed. He looked very white, and his features were pitifully drawn with suffering.

"Mr. Bertram," began Pete--but he got no further. A flying figure brushed by him and fell on its knees by the couch, with a low cry.

Bertram's eyes flew open. Across his face swept such a radiant look of unearthly joy that Pete sobbed audibly and fled to the kitchen. Dong Ling found him there a minute later polishing a silver teaspoon with a fringed napkin that had been spread over Bertram's tray. In the hall above Aunt Hannah was crying into William's gray linen duster that hung on the hall-rack--Aunt Hannah's handkerchief was on the floor back at Hillside.

In the den neither Billy nor Bertram knew or cared what had become of Aunt Hannah and Pete. There were just two people in their world--two people, and unutterable, incredible, overwhelming rapture and peace. Then, very gradually it dawned over them that there was, after all, something strange and unexplained in it all.

"But, dearest, what does it mean--you here like this?" asked Bertram then. As if to make sure that she was "here, like this," he drew her even closer--Bertram was so thankful that he did have one arm that was usable.

Billy, on her knees by the couch, snuggled into the curve of the one arm with a contented little sigh.

"Well, you see, just as soon as I found out to- night that you wanted me, I came," she said.

"You darling! That was--" Bertram stopped suddenly. A puzzled frown showed below the fantastic bandage about his head. " `As soon as,' " he quoted then scornfully. "Were you ever by any possible chance thinking I didn't want you?"

Billy's eyes widened a little.

"Why, Bertram, dear, don't you see? When you were so troubled that the picture didn't go well, and I found out it was about me you were troubled--I--"

"Well?" Bertram's voice was a little strained.

"Why, of--of course," stammered Billy, "I couldn't help thinking that maybe you had found out you didn't want me."

"Didn't want you!" groaned Bertram, his tense muscles relaxing. "May I ask why?"

Billy blushed.

"I wasn't quite sure why," she faltered; "only, of course, I thought of--of Miss Winthrop, you know, or that maybe it was because you didn't care for any girl, only to paint--oh, oh, Bertram! Pete told us," she broke off wildly, beginning to sob.

"Pete told you that I didn't care for any girl, only to paint?" demanded Bertram, angry and mystified.

"No, no," sobbed Billy, "not that. It was all the others that told me that! Pete told Aunt Hannah about the accident, you know, and he said-- he said-- Oh, Bertram, I can't say it! But that's one of the things that made me know I could come now, you see, because I--I wouldn't hinder you, nor slay your Art, nor any other of those dreadful things if--if you couldn't ever--p-paint again," finished Billy in an uncontrollable burst of grief.

"There, there, dear," comforted Bertram, patting the bronze-gold head on his breast. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about --except the last; but I know there can't be anything that ought to make you cry like that. As for my not painting again--you didn't understand Pete, dearie. That was what they were afraid of at first--that I'd lose my arm; but that danger is all past now. I'm loads better. Of course I'm going to paint again--and better than ever before--now!"

Billy lifted her head. A look that was almost terror came to her eyes. She pulled herself half away from Bertram's encircling arm.

"Why, Billy," cried the man, in pained surprise. "You don't mean to say you're sorry I'm going to paint again!"

"No, no! Oh, no, Bertram--never that!" she faltered, still regarding him with fearful eyes. "It's only--for me, you know. I can't go back now, and not have you--after this!--even if I do hinder you, and--"

"Hinder me! What are you talking about, Billy?"

Billy drew a quivering sigh.

"Well, to begin with, Kate said--"

"Good heavens! Is Kate in this, too?" Bertram's voice was savage now.

"Well, she wrote a letter."

"I'll warrant she did! Great Scott, Billy! Don't you know Kate by this time?"

"Y-yes, I said so, too. But, Bertram, what she wrote was true. I found it everywhere, afterwards-- in magazines and papers, and even in Marie."

"Humph! Well, dearie, I don't know yet what you found, but I do know you wouldn't have found it at all if it hadn't been for Kate--and I wish I had her here this minute!"

Billy giggled hysterically.

"I don't--not right here," she cooed, nestling comfortably against her lover's arm. "But you see, dear, she never has approved of the marriage."

"Well, who's doing the marrying--she, or I?" "That's what I said, too--only in another way," sighed Billy. "But she called us flyaway flutterbudgets, and she said I'd ruin your career, if I did marry you."

"Well, I can tell you right now, Billy, you will ruin it if you don't!" declared Bertram. "That's what ailed me all the time I was painting that miserable portrait. I was so worried--for fear I'd lose you."

"Lose me! Why, Bertram Henshaw, what do you mean?"

A shamed red crept to the man's forehead.

"Well, I suppose I might as well own up now as any time. I was scared blue, Billy, with jealousy of--Arkwright."

Billy laughed gayly--but she shifted her position and did not meet her lover's eyes.

"Arkwright? Nonsense!" she cried. "Why, he's going to marry Alice Greggory. I know he is! I can see it as plain as day in her letters. He's there a lot."

"And you never did think for a minute, Billy, that you cared for him?" Bertram's gaze searched Billy's face a little fearfully. He had not been slow to mark that swift lowering of her eyelids. But Billy looked him now straight in the face-- it was a level, frank gaze of absolute truth.

"Never, dear," she said firmly. (Billy was so glad Bertram had turned the question on her love instead of Arkwright's!) "There has never really been any one but you."

"Thank God for that," breathed Bertram, as he drew the bright head nearer and held it close.

After a minute Billy stirred and sighed happily.

"Aren't lovers the beat'em for imagining things?" she murmured.

"They certainly are."

"You see--I wasn't in love with Mr. Arkwright."

"I see--I hope."

" And--and you didn't care specially for--for Miss Winthrop?"

"Eh? Well, no!" exploded Bertram. "Do you mean to say you really--"

Billy put a soft finger on his lips.

"Er--`people who live in glass houses,' you know," she reminded him, with roguish eyes.

Bertram kissed the finger and subsided.

"Humph!" he commented.

There was a long silence; then, a little breathlessly, Billy asked:

"And you don't--after all, love me--just to paint?"

"Well, what is that? Is that Kate, too?" demanded Bertram, grimly.

Billy laughed.

"No--oh, she said it, all right, but, you see, everybody said that to me, Bertram; and that's what made me so--so worried sometimes when you talked about the tilt of my chin, and all that."

"Well, by Jove!" breathed Bertram.

There was another silence. Then, suddenly, Bertram stirred.

"Billy, I'm going to marry you to-morrow," he announced decisively.

Billy lifted her head and sat back in palpitating dismay.

"Bertram! What an absurd idea!"

"Well, I am. I don't know as I can trust you out of my sight till then! You'll read something, or hear something, or get a letter from Kate after breakfast to-morrow morning, that will set you `saving me' again; and I don't want to be saved --that way. I'm going to marry you to-morrow. I'll get--" He stopped short, with a sudden frown. "Confound that law! I forgot. Great Scott, Billy, I'll have to trust you five days, after all! There's a new law about the license. We've got to wait five days--and maybe more, counting in the notice, and all."

Billy laughed softly.

"Five days, indeed, sir! I wonder if you think I can get ready to be married in five days."

"Don't want you to get ready," retorted Bertram, promptly. "I saw Marie get ready, and I had all I wanted of it. If you really must have all those miles of tablecloths and napkins and doilies and lace rufflings we'll do it afterwards,--not before."

"But--"

"Besides, I need you to take care of me," cut in Bertram, craftily.

"Bertram, do you--really?"

The tender glow on Billy's face told its own story, and Bertram's eager eyes were not slow to read it.

"Sweetheart, see here, dear," he cried softly, tightening his good left arm. And forthwith he began to tell her how much he did, indeed, need her.

"Billy, my dear!" It was Aunt Hannah's plaintive voice at the doorway, a little later. "We must go home; and William is here, too, and wants to see you."

Billy rose at once as Aunt Hannah entered the room.

"Yes, Aunt Hannah, I'll come; besides--" she glanced at Bertram mischievously--" I shall need all the time I've got to prepare for--my wedding.",

"Your wedding! You mean it'll be before-- October?" Aunt Hannah glanced from one to the other uncertainly. Something in their smiling faces sent a quick suspicion to her eyes.

"Yes," nodded Billy, demurely. "It's next Tuesday, you see."

"Next Tuesday! But that's only a week away," gasped Aunt Hannah.

"Yes, a week."

"But, child, your trousseau--the wedding-- the--the--a week!" Aunt Hannah could not articulate further.

"Yes, I know; that is a good while," cut in Bertram, airily. "We wanted it to-morrow, but we had to wait, on account of the new license law. Otherwise it wouldn't have been so long, and--"

But Aunt Hannah was gone. With a low- breathed "Long! Oh, my grief and conscience-- William!" she had fled through the hall door.

"Well, it is long," maintained Bertram, with tender eyes, as he reached out his hand to say good-night.