Miss Billy's Decision by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter VIII. M. J. Opens the Game
On the morning after Cyril's first concert of the season, Billy sat sewing with Aunt Hannah in the little sitting-room at the end of the hall upstairs. Aunt Hannah wore only one shawl this morning,--which meant that she was feeling unusually well.
"Marie ought to be here to mend these stockings," remarked Billy, as she critically examined a tiny break in the black silk mesh stretched across the darning-egg in her hand; "only she'd want a bigger hole. She does so love to make a beautiful black latticework bridge across a yawning white china sea--and you'd think the safety of an army depended on the way each plank was laid, too," she concluded.
Aunt Hannah smiled tranquilly, but she did not speak.
"I suppose you don't happen to know if Cyril does wear big holes in his socks," resumed Billy, after a moment's silence. "If you'll believe it, that thought popped into my head last night when Cyril was playing that concerto so superbly. It did, actually--right in the middle of the adagio movement, too. And in spite of my joy and pride in the music I had all I could do to keep from nudging Marie right there and then and asking her whether or not the dear man was hard on his hose."
"Billy!" gasped the shocked Aunt Hannah; but the gasp broke at once into what--in Aunt Hannah--passed for a chuckle. "If I remember rightly, when I was there at the house with you at first, my dear, William told me that Cyril wouldn't wear any sock after it came to mending."
"Horrors!" Billy waved her stocking in mock despair. "That will never do in the world. It would break Marie's heart. You know how she dotes on darning."
"Yes, I know," smiled Aunt Hannah. "By the way, where is she this morning?"
Billy raised her eyebrows quizzically.
"Gone to look at an apartment in Cambridge, I believe. Really, Aunt Hannah, between her home- hunting in the morning, and her furniture-and- rug hunting in the afternoon, and her poring over house-plans in the evening, I can't get her to attend to her clothes at all. Never did I see a bride so utterly indifferent to her trousseau as Marie Hawthorn--and her wedding less than a month away!"
"But she's been shopping with you once or twice, since she came back, hasn't she? And she said it was for her trousseau."
"Her trousseau! Oh, yes, it was. I'll tell you what she got for her trousseau that first day. We started out to buy two hats, some lace for her wedding gown, some crèpe de Chine and net for a little dinner frock, and some silk for a couple of waists to go with her tailored suit; and what did we get? We purchased a new-style egg-beater and a set of cake tins. Marie got into the kitchen department and I simply couldn't get her out of it. But the next day I was not to be inveigled below stairs by any plaintive prayer for a nutmeg- grater or a soda spoon. She shopped that day, and to some purpose. We accomplished lots."
Aunt Hannah looked a little concerned.
"But she must have some things started!"
"Oh, she has--'most everything now. I've seen to that. Of course her outfit is very simple, anyway. Marie hasn't much money, you know, and she simply won't let me do half what I want to. Still, she had saved up some money, and I've finally convinced her that a trousseau doesn't consist of egg-beaters and cake tins, and that Cyril would want her to look pretty. That name will fetch her every time, and I've learned to use it beautifully. I think if I told her Cyril approved of short hair and near-sightedness she'd I cut off her golden locks and don spectacles on the spot."
Aunt Hannah laughed softly.
"What a child you are, Billy! Besides, just as if Marie were the only one in the house who is ruled by a magic name!"
The color deepened in Billy's cheeks.
"Well, of course, any girl--cares something-- for the man she loves. Just as if I wouldn't do anything in the world I could for Bertram!"
"Oh, that makes me think; who was that young woman Bertram was talking with last evening-- just after he left us, I mean?"
"Miss Winthrop--Miss Marguerite Winthrop. Bertram is--is painting her portrait, you know."
"Oh, is that the one?" murmured Aunt Hannah. "Hm-m; well, she has a beautiful face."
"Yes, she has." Billy spoke very cheerfully. She even hummed a little tune as she carefully selected a needle from the cushion in her basket.
"There's a peculiar something in her face," mused Aunt Hannah, aloud.
The little tune stopped abruptly, ending in a nervous laugh.
"Dear me! I wonder how it feels to have a peculiar something in your face. Bertram, too, says she has it. He's trying to `catch it,' he says. I wonder now--if he does catch it, does she lose it?" Flippant as were the words, the voice that uttered them shook a little.
Aunt Hannah smiled indulgently--Aunt Hannah had heard only the flippancy, not the shake.
"I don't know, my dear. You might ask him this afternoon."
Billy made a sudden movement. The china egg in her lap rolled to the floor.
"Oh, but I don't see him this afternoon," she said lightly, as she stooped to pick up the egg.
"Why, I'm sure he told me--" Aunt Hannah's sentence ended in a questioning pause.
"Yes, I know," nodded Billy, brightly; "but he's told me something since. He isn't going. He telephoned me this morning. Miss Winthrop wanted the sitting changed from to-morrow to this afternoon. He said he knew I'd understand."
"Why, yes; but--" Aunt Hannah did not finish her sentence. The whir of an electric bell had sounded through the house. A few moments later Rosa appeared in the open doorway.
"It,'s Mr. Arkwright, Miss. He said as how he had brought the music," she announced.
"Tell him I'll be down at once," directed the mistress of Hillside.
As the maid disappeared, Billy put aside her work and sprang lightly to her feet.
"Now wasn't that nice of him? We were talking last night about some duets he had, and he said he'd bring them over. I didn't know he'd come so soon, though."
Billy had almost reached the bottom of the stairway, when a low, familiar strain of music drifted out from the living-room. Billy caught her breath, and held her foot suspended. The next moment the familiar strain of music had become a lullaby --one of Billy's own--and sung now by a melting tenor voice that lingered caressingly and understandingly on every tender cadence.
Motionless and almost breathless, Billy waited until the last low "lul-la-by" vibrated into silence; then with shining eyes and outstretched hands she entered the living-room.
"Oh, that was--beautiful," she breathed.
Arkwright was on his feet instantly. His eyes, too, were alight.
"I could not resist singing it just once-- here," he said a little unsteadily, as their hands met.
"But to hear my little song sung like that! I couldn't believe it was mine," choked Billy, still plainly very much moved. "You sang it as I've never heard it sung before."
Arkwright shook his head slowly.
"The inspiration of the room--that is all,", he said. "It is a beautiful song. All of your songs are beautiful."
Billy blushed rosily.
"Thank you. You know--more of them, then?"
"I think I know them all--unless you have some new ones out. Have you some new ones, lately?"
Billy shook her head.
"No; I haven't written anything since last spring."
"But you're going to?"
She drew a long sigh.
"Yes, oh, yes. I know that now--" With a swift biting of her lower lip Billy caught herself up in time. As if she could tell this man, this stranger, what she had told Bertram that night by the fire--that she knew that now, now she would write beautiful songs, with his love, and his pride in her, as incentives. "Oh, yes, I think I shall write more one of these days," she finished lightly. "But come, this isn't singing duets! I want to see the music you brought."
They sang then, one after another of the duets. To Billy, the music was new and interesting. To Billy, too, it was new (and interesting) to hear her own voice blending with another's so perfectly --to feel herself a part of such exquisite harmony.
"Oh, oh!" she breathed ecstatically, after the last note of a particularly beautiful phrase. "I never knew before how lovely it was to sing duets."
"Nor I," replied Arkwright in a voice that was not quite steady.
Arkwright's eyes were on the enraptured face of the girl so near him. It was well, perhaps, that Billy did not happen to turn and catch their expression. Still, it might have been better if she had turned, after all. But Billy's eyes were on the music before her. Her fingers were busy with the fluttering pages, searching for another duet.
"Didn't you?" she murmured abstractedly. "I supposed you'd sung them before; but you see I never did--until the other night. There, let's try this one!"
"This one" was followed by another and another. Then Billy drew a long breath.
"There! that must positively be the last," she declared reluctantly. "I'm so hoarse now I can scarcely croak. You see, I don't pretend to sing, really."
"Don't you? You sing far better than some who do, anyhow,"retorted the man, warmly.
"Thank you," smiled Billy; "that was nice of you to say so--for my sake--and the others aren't here to care. But tell me of yourself. I haven't had a chance to ask you yet; and--I think you said Mary Jane was going to study for Grand Opera."
Arkwright laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"She is; but, as I told Calderwell, she's quite likely to bring up in vaudeville."
"Calderwell! Do you mean--Hugh Calderwell?" Billy's cheeks showed a deeper color.
The man gave an embarrassed little laugh. He had not meant to let that name slip out just yet.
"Yes." He hesitated, then plunged on recklessly. "We tramped half over Europe together last summer."
"Did you?" Billy left her seat at the piano for one nearer the fire. "But this isn't telling me about your own plans," she hurried on a little precipitately. "You've studied before, of course. Your voice shows that."
"Oh, yes; I've studied singing several years, and I've had a year or two of church work, besides a little concert practice of a mild sort."
"Have you begun here, yet?"
"Y-yes, I've had my voice tried."
Billy sat erect with eager interest.
"They liked it, of course?"
"I'm not saying that."
"No, but I am," declared Billy, with conviction. "They couldn't help liking it."
Arkwright laughed again. Just how well they had "liked it" he did not intend to say. Their remarks had been quite too flattering to repeat even to this very plainly interested young woman --delightful and heart-warming as was this same show of interest, to himself.
"Thank you," was all he said.
Billy gave an excited little bounce in her chair.
"And you'll begin to learn roles right away?"
"I already have, some--after a fashion--before I came here."
"Really? How splendid! Why, then you'll be acting them next right on the Boston Opera House stage, and we'll all go to hear you. How perfectly lovely! I can hardly wait."
Arkwright laughed--but his eyes glowed with pleasure.
"Aren't you hurrying things a little?" he ventured.
"But they do let the students appear," argued Billy. "I knew a girl last year who went on
in `Aida,' and she was a pupil at the School. She sang first in a Sunday concert, then they put her in the bill for a Saturday night. She did splendidly--so well that they gave her a chance later at a subscription performance. Oh, you'll be there--and soon, too!"
"Thank you! I only wish the powers that could put me there had your flattering enthusiasm on the matter," he smiled.
"I don't worry any," nodded Billy, "only please don't `arrive' too soon--not before the wedding, you know," she added jokingly. "We shall be too busy to give you proper attention until after that."
A peculiar look crossed Arkwright's face.
"The--wedding?" he asked, a little faintly.
"Yes. Didn't you know? My friend, Miss Hawthorn, is to marry Mr. Cyril Henshaw next month."
The man opposite relaxed visibly.
"Oh, Miss Hawthorn! No, I didn't know," he murmured; then, with sudden astonishment he added: "And to Mr. Cyril, the musician, did you say?"
"Yes. You seem surprised."
"I am." Arkwright paused, then went on almost defiantly. "You see, Calderwell was telling me only last September how very unmarriageable all the Henshaw brothers were. So I am surprised--naturally," finished Arkwright, as he rose to take his leave.
A swift crimson stained Billy's face.
"But surely you must know that--that--"
"That he has a right to change his mind, of course," supplemented Arkwright smilingly, coming to her rescue in the evident confusion that would not let her finish her sentence. "But Calderwell made it so emphatic, you see, about all the brothers. He said that William had lost his heart long ago; that Cyril hadn't any to lose; and that Bertram--"
"But, Mr. Arkwright, Bertram is--is--" Billy had moistened her lips, and plunged hurriedly in to prevent Arkwright's next words. But again was she unable to finish her sentence, and again was she forced to listen to a very different completion from the smiling lips of the man at her side.
"Is an artist, of course," said Arkwright. "That's what Calderwell declared--that it would always be the tilt of a chin or the curve of a cheek that the artist loved--to paint."
Billy drew back suddenly. Her face paled. As if now she could tell this man that Bertram Henshaw was engaged to her! He would find it out soon, of course, for himself; and perhaps he, like Hugh Calderwell, would think it was the curve of her cheek, or the tilt of her chin--
Billy lifted her chin very defiantly now as she held out her hand in good-by.