Chapter VI. At the Sign of the Pink
 

After a week of beautiful autumn weather, Thursday dawned raw and cold. By noon an east wind had made the temperature still more uncomfortable.

At two o'clock Aunt Hannah tapped at Billy's chamber door. She showed a troubled face to the girl who answered her knock.

"Billy, would you mind very much if I asked you to go alone to the Carletons' and to meet Mary Jane?" she inquired anxiously.

"Why, no--that is, of course I should mind, dear, because I always like to have you go to places with me. But it isn't necessary. You aren't sick; are you?"

"N-no, not exactly; but I have been sneezing all the morning, and taking camphor and sugar to break it up--if it is a cold. But it is so raw and Novemberish out, that--"

"Why, of course you sha'n't go, you poor dear! Mercy! don't get one of those dreadful colds on to you before the wedding! Have you felt a draft? Where's another shawl?" Billy turned and cast searching eyes about the room--Billy always kept shawls everywhere for Aunt Hannah's shoulders and feet. Bertram had been known to say, indeed, that a room, according to Aunt Hannah, was not fully furnished unless it contained from one to four shawls, assorted as to size and warmth. Shawls, certainly, did seem to be a necessity with Aunt Hannah, as she usually wore from one to three at the same time--which again caused Bertram to declare that he always counted Aunt Hannah's shawls when he wished to know what the thermometer was.

"No, I'm not cold, and I haven't felt a draft," said Aunt Hannah now. "I put on my thickest gray shawl this morning with the little pink one for down-stairs, and the blue one for breakfast; so you see I've been very careful. But I have sneezed six times, so I think 'twould be safer not to go out in this east wind. You were going to stop for Mrs. Granger, anyway, weren't you? So you'll have her with you for the tea."

"Yes, dear, don't worry. I'll take your cards and explain to Mrs. Carleton and her daughters."

"And, of course, as far as Mary Jane is concerned, I don't know her any more than you do; so I couldn't be any help there," sighed Aunt Hannah.

"Not a bit," smiled Billy, cheerily. "Don't give it another thought, my dear. I sha'n't have a bit of trouble. All I'll have to do is to look for a girl alone with a pink. Of course I'll have mine on, too, and she'll be watching for me. So just run along and take your nap, dear, and be all rested and ready to welcome her when she comes," finished Billy, stooping to give the soft, faintly pink cheek a warm kiss.

"Well, thank you, my dear; perhaps I will," sighed Aunt Hannah, drawing the gray shawl about her as she turned away contentedly.

Mrs. Carleton's tea that afternoon was, for Billy, not an occasion of unalloyed joy. It was the first time she had appeared at a gathering of any size since the announcement of her engagement; and, as she dolefully told Bertram afterwards, she had very much the feeling of the picture hung on the wall.

"And they did put up their lorgnettes and say, `Is that the one?' " she declared; "and I know some of them finished with `Did you ever?' too," she sighed.

But Billy did not stay long in Mrs. Carleton's softly-lighted, flower-perfumed rooms. At ten minutes past four she was saying good-by to a group of friends who were vainly urging her to remain longer.

"I can't--I really can't," she declared. "I'm due at the South Station at half past four to meet a Miss Arkwright, a young cousin of Aunt Hannah's, whom I've never seen before. We're to meet at the sign of the pink," she explained smilingly, just touching the single flower she wore.

Her hostess gave a sudden laugh.

"Let me see, my dear; if I remember rightly, you've had experience before, meeting at this sign of the pink. At least, I have a very vivid recollection of Mr. William Henshaw's going once to meet a boy with a pink, who turned out to be a girl. Now, to even things up, your girl should turn out to be a boy!"

Billy smiled and reddened.

"Perhaps--but I don't think to-day will strike the balance," she retorted, backing toward the door. "This young lady's name is `Mary Jane'; and I'll leave it to you to find anything very masculine in that!"

It was a short drive from Mrs. Carleton's Commonwealth Avenue home to the South Station, and Peggy made as quick work of it as the narrow, congested cross streets would allow. In ample time Billy found herself in the great waiting-room, with John saying respectfully in her ear:

"The man says the train comes in on Track Fourteen, Miss, an' it's on time."

At twenty-nine minutes past four Billy left her seat and walked down the train-shed platform to Track Number Fourteen. She had pinned the pink now to the outside of her long coat, and it made an attractive dash of white against the dark-blue velvet. Billy was looking particularly lovely to-day. Framing her face was the big dark-blue velvet picture hat with its becoming white plumes.

During the brief minutes' wait before the clanging locomotive puffed into view far down the long track, Billy's thoughts involuntarily went back to that other watcher beside a train gate not quite five years before.

"Dear Uncle William!" she murmured tenderly. Then suddenly she laughed--so nearly aloud that a man behind her gave her a covert glance from curious eyes. "My! but what a jolt I must have been to Uncle William!" Billy was thinking.

The next minute she drew nearer the gate and regarded with absorbed attention the long line of passengers already sweeping up the narrow aisle between the cars.

Hurrying men came first, with long strides, and eyes that looked straight ahead. These Billy let pass with a mere glance. The next group showed a sprinkling of women--women whose trig hats and linen collars spelled promptness as well as certainty of aim and accomplishment. To these, also, Billy paid scant attention. Couples came next--the men anxious-eyed, and usually walking two steps ahead of their companions; the women plainly flustered and hurried, and invariably buttoning gloves or gathering up trailing ends of scarfs or boas.

The crowd was thickening fast, now, and Billy's eyes were alert. Children were appearing, and young women walking alone. One of these wore a bunch of violets. Billy gave her a second glance. Then she saw a pink--but it was on the coat lapel of a tall young fellow with a brown beard; so with a slight frown she looked beyond down the line.

Old men came now, and old women; fleshy women, and women with small children and babies. Couples came, too--dawdling couples, plainly newly married: the men were not two steps ahead, and the women's gloves were buttoned and their furs in place.

Gradually the line thinned, and soon there were left only an old man with a cane, and a young woman with three children. Yet nowhere had Billy seen a girl wearing a white carnation, and walking alone.

With a deeper frown on her face Billy turned and looked about her. She thought that somewhere in the crowd she had missed Mary Jane, and that she would find her now, standing near. But there was no one standing near except the good-looking young fellow with the little pointed brown beard, who, as Billy noticed a second time, was wearing a white carnation.

As she glanced toward him, their eyes met. Then, to Billy's unbounded amazement, the man advanced with uplifted hat.

"I beg your pardon, but is not this--Miss Neilson?"

Billy drew back with just a touch of hauteur.

"Y-yes," she murmured.

"I thought so--yet I was expecting to see you with Aunt Hannah. I am M. J. Arkwright, Miss Neilson."

For a brief instant Billy stared dazedly.

"You don't mean--Mary Jane?" she gasped.

"I'm afraid I do." His lips twitched.

"But I thought--we were expecting--" She stopped helplessly. For one more brief instant she stared; then, suddenly, a swift change came to her face. Her eyes danced.

"Oh--oh!" she chuckled. "How perfectly funny! You have evened things up, after all. To think that Mary Jane should be a--" She paused and flashed almost angrily suspicious eyes into his face. "But mine was `Billy,' " she cried. "Your name isn't really--Mary Jane'?"

"I am often called that." His brown eyes twinkled, but they did not swerve from their direct gaze into her own.

"But--" Billy hesitated, and turned her eyes away. She saw then that many curious glances were already being flung in her direction. The color in her cheeks deepened. With an odd little gesture she seemed to toss something aside. "Never mind," she laughed a little hysterically. "If you'll pick up your bag, please, Mr. Mary Jane, and come with me. John and Peggy are waiting. Or--I forgot--you have a trunk, of course?"

The man raised a protesting hand.

"Thank you; but, Miss Neilson, really--I couldn't think of trespassing on your hospitality --now, you know."

"But we--we invited you," stammered Billy.

He shook his head.

"You invited Miss Mary Jane."

Billy bubbled into low laughter.

"I beg your pardon, but it is funny," she sighed. "You see I came once just the same way, and now to have the tables turned like this! What will Aunt Hannah say--what will everybody say? Come, I want them to begin--to say it," she chuckled irrepressibly.

"Thank you, but I shall go to a hotel, of course. Later, if you'll be so good as to let me call, and explain--!"

"But I'm afraid Aunt Hannah will think--" Billy stopped abruptly. Some distance away she saw John coming toward them. She turned hurriedly to the man at her side. Her eyes still danced, but her voice was mockingly serious. "Really, Mr. Mary Jane, I'm afraid you'll have to come to dinner; then you can settle the rest with Aunt Hannah. John is almost upon us-- and I don't want to make explanations. Do you?"

"John," she said airily to the somewhat dazed chauffeur (who had been told he was to meet a young woman), "take Mr. Arkwright's bag, please, and show him where Peggy is waiting. It will be five minutes, perhaps, before I can come --if you'll kindly excuse me," she added to Arkwright, with a flashing glance from merry eyes. "I have some--telephoning to do."

All the way to the telephone booth Billy was trying to bring order out of the chaos of her mind; but all the way, too, she was chuckling.

"To think that this thing should have happened to me!" she said, almost aloud. "And here I am telephoning just like Uncle William--Bertram said Uncle William did telephone about me!"

In due course Billy had Aunt Hannah at the other end of the wire.

"Aunt Hannah, listen. I'd never have believed it, but it's happened. Mary Jane is--a man."

Billy heard a dismayed gasp and a muttered "Oh, my grief and conscience!" then a shaking "Wha-at?"

"I say, Mary Jane is a man." Billy was enjoying herself hugely.

"A ma-an!"

"Yes; a great big man with a brown beard. He's waiting now with John and I must go."

"But, Billy, I don't understand," chattered an agitated voice over the line. "He--he called himself `Mary Jane.' He hasn't any business to be a big man with a brown beard! What shall we do? We don't want a big man with a brown beard--here!"

Billy laughed roguishly.

"I don't know. You asked him! How he will like that little blue room--Aunt Hannah!" Billy's voice turned suddenly tragic. "For pity's sake take out those curling tongs and hairpins, and the work-basket. I'd never hear the last of it if he saw those, I know. He's just that kind!"

A half stifled groan came over the wire.

"Billy, he can't stay here."

Billy laughed again.

"No, no, dear; he won't, I know. He says he's going to a hotel. But I had to bring him home to dinner; there was no other way, under the circumstances. He won't stay. Don't you worry. But good-by. I must go. Remember those curling tongs!" And the receiver clicked sharply against the hook.

In the automobile some minutes later, Billy and Mr. M. J. Arkwright were speeding toward Corey Hill. It was during a slight pause in the conversation that Billy turned to her companion with a demure:

"I telephoned Aunt Hannah, Mr. Arkwright. I thought she ought to be--warned."

"You are very kind. What did she say?--if I may ask."

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Billy answered.

"She said you called yourself `Mary Jane,' and that you hadn't any business to be a big man with a brown beard."

Arkwright laughed.

"I'm afraid I owe Aunt Hannah an apology," he said. He hesitated, glanced admiringly at the glowing, half-averted face near him, then went on decisively. He wore the air of a man who has set the match to his bridges. "I signed both letters `M. J. Arkwright,' but in the first one I quoted a remark of a friend, and in that remark I was addressed as `Mary Jane.' I did not know but Aunt Hannah knew of the nickname." (Arkwright was speaking a little slowly now, as if weighing his words.) "But when she answered, I saw that she did not; for, from something she said, I realized that she thought I was a real Mary Jane. For the joke of the thing I let it pass. But--if she noticed my letter carefully, she saw that I did not accept your kind invitation to give

`Mary Jane' a home."

"Yes, we noticed that," nodded Billy, merrily. "But we didn't think you meant it. You see we pictured you as a shy young thing. But, really," she went on with a low laugh, "you see your coming as a masculine `Mary Jane' was particularly funny--for me; for, though perhaps you didn't know it, I came once to this very same city, wearing a pink, and was expected to be Billy, a boy. And only to-day a lady warned me that your coming might even things up. But I didn't believe it would--a Mary Jane!"

Arkwright laughed. Again he hesitated, and seemed to be weighing his words.

"Yes, I heard about that coming of yours. I might almost say--that's why I--let the mistake pass in Aunt Hannah's letter," he said.

Billy turned with reproachful eyes.

"Oh, how could--you? But then--it was a temptation!" She laughed suddenly. "What sinful joy you must have had watching me hunt for `Mary Jane.' "

"I didn't," acknowledged the other, with unexpected candor. "I felt--ashamed. And when I saw you were there alone without Aunt Hannah, I came very near not speaking at all--until I realized that that would be even worse, under the circumstances."

"Of course it would," smiled Billy, brightly; "so I don't see but I shall have to forgive you, after all. And here we are at home, Mr. Mary Jane. By the way, what did you say that `M. J.' did stand for?" she asked, as the car came to a stop.

The man did not seem to hear; at least he did not answer. He was helping his hostess to alight. A moment later a plainly agitated Aunt Hannah --her gray shawl topped with a huge black one --opened the door of the house.