Chapter IV. For Mary Jane
 

"I have a letter here from Mary Jane, my dear," announced Aunt Hannah at the luncheon table one day.

"Have you?" Billy raised interested eyes from her own letters. "What does she say?"

"She will be here Thursday. Her train is due at the South Station at four-thirty. She seems to be very grateful to you for your offer to let her come right here for a month; but she says she's afraid you don't realize, perhaps, just what you are doing--to take her in like that, with her singing, and all."

"Nonsense! She doesn't refuse, does she?"

"Oh, no; she doesn't refuse--but she doesn't accept either, exactly, as I can see. I've read the letter over twice, too. I'll let you judge for yourself by and by, when you have time to read it."

Billy laughed.

"Never mind. I don't want to read it. She's just a little shy about coming, that's all. She'll stay all right, when we come to meet her. What time did you say it was, Thursday?"

"Half past four, South Station."

"Thursday, at half past four. Let me see-- that's the day of the Carletons' `At Home,' isn't it?"

"Oh, my grief and conscience, yes! But I had forgotten it. What shall we do?"

"Oh, that will be easy. We'll just go to the Carletons' early and have John wait, then take us from there to the South Station. Meanwhile we'll make sure that the little blue room is all ready for her. I put in my white enamel work-basket yesterday, and that pretty little blue case for hairpins and curling tongs that I bought at the fair. I want the room to look homey to her, you know."

"As if it could look any other way, if you had anything to do with it," sighed Aunt Hannah, admiringly.

Billy laughed.

"If we get stranded we might ask the Henshaw boys to help us out, Aunt Hannah. They'd probably suggest guns and swords. That's the way they fixed up my room."

Aunt Hannah raised shocked hands of protest.

"As if we would! Mercy, what a time that was!"

Billy laughed again.

"I never shall forget, never, my first glimpse of that room when Mrs. Hartwell switched on the lights. Oh, Aunt Hannah, I wish you could have seen it before they took out those guns and spiders!"

"As if I didn't see quite enough when I saw William's face that morning he came for me!" retorted Aunt Hannah, spiritedly.

"Dear Uncle William! What an old saint he has been all the way through," mused Billy aloud. "And Cyril--who would ever have believed that the day would come when Cyril would say to me, as he did last night, that he felt as if Marie had been gone a month. It's been just seven days, you know."

"I know. She comes to-morrow, doesn't she?"

"Yes, and I'm glad. I shall tell Marie she needn't leave Cyril on my hands again. Bertram says that at home Cyril hasn't played a dirge since his engagement; but I notice that up here --where Marie might be, but isn't--his tunes would never be mistaken for ragtime. By the way," she added, as she rose from the table, "that's another surprise in store for Hugh Calderwell. He always declared that Cyril wasn't a marrying man, either, any more than Bertram. You know he said Bertram only cared for girls to paint; but--" She stopped and looked inquiringly at Rosa, who had appeared at that moment in the hall doorway.

"It's the telephone, Miss Neilson. Mr. Bertram Henshaw wants you."

A few minutes later Aunt Hannah heard Billy at the piano. For fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes the brilliant scales and arpeggios rippled through the rooms and up the stairs to Aunt Hannah, who knew, by the very sound of them, that some unusual nervousness was being worked off at the finger tips that played them. At the end of forty- five minutes Aunt Hannah went down-stairs.

"Billy, my dear, excuse me, but have you forgotten what time it is? Weren't you going out with Bertram?"

Billy stopped playing at once, but she did not turn her head. Her fingers busied themselves with some music on the piano.

"We aren't going, Aunt Hannah," she said.

"Bertram can't."

"Can't!"

"Well, he didn't want to--so of course I said not to. He's been painting this morning on a new portrait, and she said he might stay to luncheon and keep right on for a while this afternoon, if he liked. And--he did like, so he stayed."

"Why, how--how--" Aunt Hannah stopped helplessly.

"Oh, no, not at all," interposed Billy, lightly. "He told me all about it the other night. It's going to be a very wonderful portrait; and, of course, I wouldn't want to interfere with--his work!" And again a brilliant scale rippled from Billy's fingers after a crashing chord in the bass.

Slowly Aunt Hannah turned and went up-stairs. Her eyes were troubled. Not since Billy's engagement had she heard Billy play like that.

Bertram did not find a pensive Billy awaiting him that evening. He found a bright-eyed, flushed-cheeked Billy, who let herself be kissed --once--but who did not kiss back; a blithe, elusive Billy, who played tripping little melodies, and sang jolly little songs, instead of sitting before the fire and talking; a Billy who at last turned, and asked tranquilly:

"Well, how did the picture go?"

Bertram rose then, crossed the room, and took Billy very gently into his arms.

"Sweetheart, you were a dear this noon to let me off like that," he began in a voice shaken with emotion. "You don't know, perhaps, exactly what you did. You see, I was nearly wild between wanting to be with you, and wanting to go on with my work. And I was just at that point where one little word from you, one hint that you wanted me to come anyway--and I should have come. But you didn't say it, nor hint it. Like the brave little bit of inspiration that you are, you bade me stay and go on with my work."

The "inspiration's" head drooped a little lower, but this only brought a wealth of soft bronze hair to just where Bertram could lay his cheek against it--and Bertram promptly took advantage of his opportunity. "And so I stayed, Billy, and I did good work; I know I did good work. Why, Billy,"--Bertram stepped back now, and held Billy by the shoulders at arms' length--"Billy, that's going to be the best work I've ever done. I can see it coming even now, under my fingers."

Billy lifted her head and looked into her lover's face. His eyes were glowing. His cheeks were flushed. His whole countenance was aflame with the soul of the artist who sees his vision taking shape before him. And Billy, looking at him, felt suddenly--ashamed.

"Oh, Bertram, I'm proud, proud, proud of you!" she breathed. "Come, let's go over to the fire-and talk!"