Miss Billy's Decision by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter VII. Old Friends and New
At ten minutes before six on the afternoon of Arkwright's arrival, Billy came into the living- room to welcome the three Henshaw brothers, who, as was frequently the case, were dining at Hillside.
Bertram thought Billy had never looked prettier than she did this afternoon with the bronze sheen of her pretty house gown bringing out the bronze lights in her dark eyes and in the soft waves of her beautiful hair. Her countenance, too, carried a peculiar something that the artist's eye was quick to detect, and that the artist's fingers tingled to put on canvas.
"Jove! Billy," he said low in her ear, as he greeted her, "I wish I had a brush in my hand this minute. I'd have a `Face of a Girl' that would be worth while!"
Billy laughed and dimpled her appreciation; but down in her heart she was conscious of a vague unrest. Billy wished, sometimes, that she did not so often seem to Bertram--a picture.
She turned to Cyril with outstretched hand.
"Oh, yes, Marie's coming," she smiled in answer to the quick shifting of Cyril's eyes to the hall doorway. "And Aunt Hannah, too. They're up-stairs."
"And Mary Jane?" demanded William, a little anxiously
"Will's getting nervous," volunteered Bertram, airily. "He wants to see Mary Jane. You see we've told him that we shall expect him to see that she doesn't bother us four too much, you know. He's expected always to remove her quietly but effectually, whenever he sees that she is likely to interrupt a tète-a-tète. Naturally, then, Will wants to see Mary Jane."
Billy began to laugh hysterically. She dropped into a chair and raised both her hands, palms outward.
"Don't, don't--please don't!" she choked, "or I shall die. I've had all I can stand, already."
"All you can stand?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is she so--impossible?" This last was from Bertram, spoken softly, and with a hurried glance toward the hall.
Billy dropped her hands and lifted her head. By heroic effort she pulled her face into sobriety --all but her eyes--and announced:
"Mary Jane is--a man."
Three masculine forms sat suddenly erect.
"Yes. Oh, Uncle William, I know now just how you felt--I know, I know," gurgled Billy, incoherently. "There he stood with his pink just as I did--only he had a brown beard, and he didn't have Spunk--and I had to telephone to prepare folks, just as you did. And the room --the room! I fixed the room, too," she babbled breathlessly, "only I had curling tongs and hair pins in it instead of guns and spiders!"
"Child, child! what are you talking about?" William's face was red.
"A man!--Mary Jane!" Cyril was merely cross.
"Billy, what does this mean?" Bertram had grown a little white.
Billy began to laugh again, yet she was plainly trying to control herself.
"I'll tell you. I must tell you. Aunt Hannah is keeping him up-stairs so I can tell you," she panted. "But it was so funny, when I expected a girl, you know, to see him with his brown beard, and he was so tall and big! And, of course, it made me think how I came, and was a girl when you expected a boy; and Mrs. Carleton had just said to-day that maybe this girl would even things up. Oh, it was so funny!"
"Billy, my-my dear," remonstrated Uncle William, mildly.
"But what is his name?" demanded Cyril.
"Did the creature sign himself `Mary Jane'?" exploded Bertram.
"I don't know his name, except that it's `M. J.'--and that's how he signed the letters. But he is called `Mary Jane' sometimes, and in the letter he quoted somebody's speech--I've forgotten just how--but in it he was called `Mary Jane,' and, of course, Aunt Hannah took him for a girl," explained Billy, grown a little more coherent now.
"Didn't he write again?" asked William.
"Well, why didn't he correct the mistake, then?" demanded Bertram.
"He didn't want to, I guess. He thought it was too good a joke."
"Joke!" scoffed Cyril.
"But, see here, Billy, he isn't going to live here --now?" Bertram's voice was almost savage.
"Oh, no, he isn't going to live here--now," interposed smooth tones from the doorway.
"Mr.--Arkwright!" breathed Billy, confusedly.
Three crimson-faced men sprang to their feet. The situation, for a moment, threatened embarrassed misery for all concerned; but Arkwright, with a cheery smile, advanced straight toward Bertram, and held out a friendly hand.
"The proverbial fate of listeners," he said easily; "but I don't blame you at all. No, `he' isn't going to live here," he went on, grasping each brother's hand in turn, as Billy murmured faint introductions; "and what is more, he hereby asks everybody's pardon for the annoyance his little joke has caused. He might add that he's heartily-ashamed of himself, as well; but if any of you--" Arkwright turned to the three tall men still standing by their chairs-- "if any of you had suffered what he has at the hands of a swarm of youngsters for that name's sake, you wouldn't blame him for being tempted to get what fun he could out of Mary Jane--if there ever came a chance!"
Naturally, after this, there could be nothing stiff or embarrassing. Billy laughed in relief, and motioned Mr. Arkwright to a seat near her. William said "Of course, of course!" and shook hands again. Bertram and Cyril laughed shamefacedly and sat down. Somebody said: "But what does the `M. J.' stand for, anyhow?" Nobody answered this, however; perhaps because Aunt Hannah and Marie appeared just then in the doorway.
Dinner proved to be a lively meal. In the newcomer, Bertram met his match for wit and satire; and "Mr. Mary Jane," as he was promptly called by every one but Aunt Hannah, was found to be a most entertaining guest.
After dinner somebody suggested music.
Cyril frowned, and got up abruptly. Still frowning, he turned to a bookcase near him and began to take down and examine some of the books.
Bertram twinkled and glanced at Billy.
"Which is it, Cyril?" he called with cheerful impertinence; "stool, piano, or audience that is the matter to-night?"
Only a shrug from Cyril answered.
"You see," explained Bertram, jauntily, to Arkwright, whose eyes were slightly puzzled, "Cyril never plays unless the piano and the pedals and the weather and your ears and my watch and his fingers are just right!"
"Nonsense!" scorned Cyril, dropping his book and walking back to his chair. "I don't feel like playing to-night; that's all."
"You see," nodded Bertram again.
"I see," bowed Arkwright with quiet amusement.
"I believe--Mr. Mary Jane--sings," observed Billy, at this point, demurely.
"Why, yes, of course, ' chimed in Aunt Hannah with some nervousness. "That's what she--I mean he--was coming to Boston for--to study music."
"Won't you sing, please?" asked Billy. "Can you--without your notes? I have lots of songs if you want them."
For a moment--but only a moment--Arkwright hesitated; then he rose and went to the piano.
With the easy sureness of the trained musician his fingers dropped to the keys and slid into preliminary chords and arpeggios to test the touch of the piano; then, with a sweetness and purity that made every listener turn in amazed delight, a well-trained tenor began the "Thro' the leaves the night winds moving," of Schubert's Serenade.
Cyril's chin had lifted at the first tone. He was listening now with very obvious pleasure. Bertram, too, was showing by his attitude the keenest appreciation. William and Aunt Hannah, resting back in their chairs, were contentedly nodding their approval to each other. Marie in her corner was motionless with rapture. As to Billy--Billy was plainly oblivious of everything but the song and the singer. She seemed scarcely to move or to breathe till the song's completion; then there came a low "Oh, how beautiful!" through her parted lips.
Bertram, looking at her, was conscious of a vague irritation.
"Arkwright, you're a lucky dog," he declared almost crossly. "I wish I could sing like that!"
"I wish I could paint a `Face of a Girl,' " smiled the tenor as he turned from the piano.
"Oh, but, Mr. Arkwright, don't stop," objected Billy, springing to her feet and going to her music cabinet by the piano. "There's a little song of Nevin's I want you to sing. There, here it is. Just let me play it for you." And she slipped into the place the singer had just left.
It was the beginning of the end. After Nevin came De Koven, and after De Koven, Gounod. Then came Nevin again, Billy still playing the accompaniment. Next followed a duet. Billy did not consider herself much of a singer, but her voice was sweet and true, and not without training. It blended very prettily with the clear, pure tenor.
William and Aunt Hannah still smiled contentedly in their chairs, though Aunt Hannah had reached for the pink shawl near her--the music had sent little shivers down her spine. Cyril, with Marie, had slipped into the little reception- room across the hall, ostensibly to look at some plans for a house, although--as everybody knew--they were not intending to build for a year.
Bertram, still sitting stiffly erect in his chair, was not conscious of a vague irritation now. He was conscious of a very real, and a very decided one--an irritation that was directed against himself, against Billy, and against this man, Arkwright; but chiefly against music, #per se. He hated music. He wished he could sing. He wondered how long it took to teach a man to sing, anyhow; and he wondered if a man could sing-- who never had sung.
At this point the duet came to an end, and Billy and her guest left the piano. Almost at once, after this, Arkwright made his very graceful adieus, and went off with his suit-case to the hotel where, as he had informed Aunt Hannah, his room was already engaged.
William went home then, and Aunt Hannah went up-stairs. Cyril and Marie withdrew into a still more secluded corner to look at their plans, and Bertram found himself at last alone with Billy. He forgot, then, in the blissful hour he spent with her before the open fire, how he hated music; though he did say, just before he went home that night:
"Billy, how long does it take--to learn to sing?"
"Why, I don't know, I'm sure," replied Billy, abstractedly; then, with sudden fervor: "Oh, Bertram, hasn't Mr. Mary Jane a beautiful voice?"
Bertram wished then he had not asked the question; but all he said was:
" `Mr. Mary Jane,' indeed! What an absurd name!"
"But doesn't he sing beautifully?"
"Eh? Oh, yes, he sings all right," said Bertram's tongue. Bertram's manner said: "Oh, yes, anybody can sing."