Chapter IX. A Rug, a Picture, and a Girl Afraid
 

Thanksgiving came. Once again the Henshaw brothers invited Billy and Aunt Hannah to spend the day with them. This time, however, there was to be an additional guest present in the person of Marie Hawthorn.

And what a day it was, for everything and everybody concerned! First the Strata itself: from Dong Ling's kitchen in the basement to Cyril's domain on the top floor, the house was as spick- and-span as Pete's eager old hands could make it. In the drawing-room and in Bertram's den and studio, great clusters of pink roses perfumed the air, and brightened the sombre richness of the old-time furnishings. Before the open fire in the den a sleek gray cat--adorned with a huge ribbon bow the exact shade of the roses (Bertram had seen to that!)--winked and blinked sleepy yellow eyes. In Bertram's studio the latest "Face of a Girl" had made way for a group of canvases and plaques, every one of which showed Billy Neilson in one pose or another. Up-stairs, where William's chaos of treasures filled shelves and cabinets, the place of honor was given to a small black velvet square on which rested a pair of quaint Battersea enamel mirror knobs. In Cyril's rooms--usually so austerely bare--a handsome Oriental rug and several curtain-draped chairs hinted at purchases made at the instigation of a taste other than his own.

When the doorbell rang Pete admitted the ladies with a promptness that was suggestive of surreptitious watching at some window. On Pete's face the dignity of his high office and the delight of the moment were fighting for mastery. The dignity held firmly through Mrs. Stetson's friendly greeting; but it fled in defeat when Billy Neilson stepped over the threshold with a cheery "Good morning, Pete."

"Laws! But it's good to be seein' you here again," stammered the man,--delight now in sole possession.

"She'll be coming to stay, one of these days, Pete," smiled the eldest Henshaw, hurrying forward.

"I wish she had now," whispered Bertram, who, in spite of William's quick stride, had reached Billy's side first.

From the stairway came the patter of a man's slippered feet.

"The rug has come, and the curtains, too," called a "householder" sort of voice that few would have recognized as belonging to Cyril Henshaw. "You must all come up-stairs and see them after dinner." The voice, apparently, spoke to everybody; but the eyes of the owner of the voice plainly saw only the fair-haired young woman who stood a little in the shadow behind Billy, and who was looking about her now as at something a little fearsome, but very dear.

"You know--I've never been--where you live--before," explained Marie Hawthorn in a low, vibrant tone, when Cyril bent over her to take the furs from her shoulders.

In Bertram's den a little later, as hosts and guests advanced toward the fire, the sleek gray cat rose, stretched lazily, and turned her head with majestic condescension.

"Well, Spunkie, come here," commanded Billy, snapping her fingers at the slow-moving creature on the hearthrug. "Spunkie, when I am your mistress, you'll have to change either your name or your nature. As if I were going to have such a bunch of independent moderation as you masquerading as an understudy to my frisky little Spunk!"

Everybody laughed. William regarded his namesake with fond eyes as he said:

"Spunkie doesn't seem to be worrying." The cat had jumped into Billy's lap with a matter- of-course air that was unmistakable--and to Bertram, adorable. Bertram's eyes, as they rested on Billy, were even fonder than were his brother's.

"I don't think any one is--worrying," he said with quiet emphasis.

Billy smiled.

"I should think they might be," she answered. "Only think how dreadfully upsetting I was in the first place!"

William's beaming face grew a little stern.

"Nobody knew it but Kate--and she didn't know it; she only imagined it," he said tersely.

Billy shook her head.

"I'm not so sure," she demurred. "As I look back at it now, I think I can discern a few evidences myself--that I was upsetting. I was a bother to Bertram in his painting, I am sure."

"You were an inspiration," corrected Bertram. "Think of the posing you did for me."

A swift something like a shadow crossed Billy's face; but before her lover could question its meaning, it was gone.

"And I know I was a torment to Cyril." Billy had turned to the musician now.

"Well, I admit you were a little--upsetting, at times," retorted that individual, with something of his old imperturbable rudeness.

"Nonsense!" cut in William, sharply. "You were never anything but a comfort in the house, Billy, my dear--and you never will be."

"Thank you," murmured Billy, demurely. "I'll remember that--when Pete and I disagree about the table decorations, and Dong Ling doesn't like the way I want my soup seasoned."

An anxious frown showed on Bertram's face.

"Billy," he said in a low voice, as the others laughed at her sally, "you needn't have Pete nor Dong Ling here if you don't want them."

"Don't want them!" echoed Billy, indignantly. "Of course I want them!"

"But--Pete is old, and--"

"Yes; and where's he grown old? For whom has he worked the last fifty years, while he's been growing old? I wonder if you think I'd let Pete leave this house as long as he wants to stay! As for Dong Ling--"

A sudden movement of Bertram's hand arrested her words. She looked up to find Pete in the doorway.

"Dinner is served, sir," announced the old butler, his eyes on his master's face.

William rose with alacrity, and gave his arm to Aunt Hannah.

"Well, I'm sure we're ready for dinner," he declared.

It was a good dinner, and it was well served. It could scarcely have been otherwise with Dong Ling in the kitchen and Pete in the dining-room doing their utmost to please. But even had the turkey been tough instead of tender, and even had the pies been filled with sawdust instead of with delicious mincemeat, it is doubtful if four at the table would have known the difference: Cyril and Marie at one end were discussing where to put their new sideboard in their dining-room, and Bertram and Billy at the other were talking of the next Thanksgiving, when, according to Bertram, the Strata would have the "dearest little mistress that ever was born." As if, under these circumstances, the tenderness of the turkey or the toothsomeness of the mince pie mattered! To Aunt Hannah and William, in the centre of the table, however, it did matter; so it was well, of course, that the dinner was a good one.

"And now," said Cyril, when dinner was over, "suppose you come up and see the rug."

In compliance with this suggestion, the six trailed up the long flights of stairs then, Billy carrying an extra shawl for Aunt Hannah-- Cyril's rooms were always cool.

"Oh, yes, I knew we should need it," she nodded to Bertram, as she picked up the shawl from the hall stand where she had left it when she came in. "That's why I brought it."

"Oh, my grief and conscience, Cyril, how can you stand it?--to climb stairs like this," panted Aunt Hannah, as she reached the top of the last flight and dropped breathlessly into the nearest chair--from which Marie had rescued a curtain just in time.

"Well, I'm not sure I could--if I were always to eat a Thanksgiving dinner just before," laughed Cyril. "Maybe I ought to have waited and let you rest an hour or two."

"But 'twould have been too dark, then, to see the rug," objected Marie. "It's a genuine Persian-- a Kirman, you know; and I'm so proud of it," she added, turning to the others. "I wanted you to see the colors by daylight. Cyril likes it better, anyhow, in the daytime."

"Fancy Cyril liking any sort of a rug at any time," chuckled Bertram, his eyes on the rich, softly blended colors of the rug before him. "Honestly, Miss Marie," he added, turning to the little bride elect, "how did you ever manage to get him to buy any rug? He won't have so much as a ravelling on the floor up here to walk on."

A startled dismay came into Marie's blue eyes.

"Why, I thought he wanted rugs," she faltered. "I'm sure he said--"

"Of course I want rugs," interrupted Cyril, irritably. "I want them everywhere except in my own especial den. You don't suppose I want to hear other people clattering over bare floors all day, do you?"

"Of course not!" Bertram's face was preternaturally grave as he turned to the little music teacher. "I hope, Miss Marie, that you wear rubber heels on your shoes," he observed solicitously.

Even Cyril laughed at this, though all he said was:

"Come, come, I got you up here to look at the rug."

Bertram, however, was not to be silenced.

"And another thing, Miss Marie," he resumed, with the air of a true and tried adviser. "Just let me give you a pointer. I've lived with your future husband a good many years, and I know what I'm talking about."

"Bertram, be still," growled Cyril.

Bertram refused to be still.

"Whenever you want to know anything about Cyril, listen to his playing. For instance: if, after dinner, you hear a dreamy waltz or a sleepy nocturne, you may know that all is well. But if on your ears there falls anything like a dirge, or the wail of a lost spirit gone mad, better look to your soup and see if it hasn't been scorched, or taste of your pudding and see if you didn't put in salt instead of sugar."

"Bertram, will you be still?" cut in Cyril, testily, again.

"After all, judging from what Billy tells me," resumed Bertram, cheerfully, "what I've said won't be so important to you, for you aren't the kind that scorches soups or uses salt for sugar. So maybe I'd better put it to you this way: if you want a new sealskin coat or an extra diamond tiara, tackle him when he plays like this!" And with a swift turn Bertram dropped himself to the piano stool and dashed into a rollicking melody that half the newsboys of Boston were whistling.

What happened next was a surprise to every one. Bertram, very much as if he were a naughty little boy, was jerked by a wrathful brother's hand off the piano stool. The next moment the wrathful brother himself sat at the piano, and there burst on five pairs of astonished ears a crashing dissonance which was but the prelude to music such as few of the party often heard.

Spellbound they listened while rippling runs and sonorous harmonies filled the room to overflowing, as if under the fingers of the player there were--not the keyboard of a piano--but the violins, flutes, cornets, trombones, bass viols and kettledrums of a full orchestra.

Billy, perhaps, of them all, best understood. She knew that in those tripping melodies and crashing chords were Cyril's joy at the presence of Marie, his wrath at the flippancy of Bertram, his ecstasy at that for which the rug and curtains stood--the little woman sewing in the radiant circle of a shaded lamp. Billy knew that all this and more were finding voice at Cyril's finger tips. The others, too, understood in a way; but they, unlike Billy, were not in the habit of finding on a few score bits of wood and ivory a vent for their moods and fancies.

The music was softer now. The resounding chords and purling runs had become a bell-like melody that wound itself in and out of a maze of exquisite harmonies, now hiding, now coming out clear and unafraid, like a mountain stream emerging into a sunlit meadow from the leafy shadows of its forest home.

In a breathless hush the melody quivered into silence. It was Bertram who broke the pause with a long-drawn:

"By George!" Then, a little unsteadily: "If it's I that set you going like that, old chap, I'll come up and play ragtime every day!"

Cyril shrugged his shoulders and got to his feet.

"If you've seen all you want of the rug we'll go down-stairs," he said nonchalantly.

"But we haven't!" chorussed several indignant voices. And for the next few minutes not even the owner of the beautiful Kirman could find any fault with the quantity or the quality of the attention bestowed on his new possession. But Billy, under cover of the chatter, said reproachfully in his ear:

"Oh, Cyril, to think you can play like that-- and won't--on demand!"

"I can't--on demand," shrugged Cyril again.

On the way down-stairs they stopped at William's rooms.

"I want you to see a couple of Batterseas I got last week," cried the collector eagerly, as he led the way to the black velvet square. "They're fine--and I think she looks like you," he finished, turning to Billy, and holding out one of the knobs, on which was a beautifully executed miniature of a young girl with dark, dreamy eyes.

"Oh, how pretty!" exclaimed Marie, over Billy's shoulder. "But what are they?"

The collector turned, his face alight.

"Mirror knobs. I've got lots of them. Would you like to see them--really? They're right here."

The next minute Marie found herself looking into a cabinet where lay a score or more of round and oval discs of glass, porcelain, and metal, framed in silver, gilt, and brass, and mounted on long spikes.

"Oh, how pretty," cried Marie again; "but how--how queer! Tell me about them, please."

William drew a long breath. His eyes glistened. William loved to talk--when he had a curio and a listener.

"I will. Our great-grandmothers used them, you know, to support their mirrors, or to fasten back their curtains," he explained ardently. "Now here's another Battersea enamel, but it isn't so good as my new ones--that face is almost a caricature."

"But what a beautiful ship--on that round one!" exclaimed Marie. "And what's this one? --glass?"

"Yes; but that's not so rare as the others. Still, it's pretty enough. Did you notice this one, with the bright red and blue and green on the white background?--regular Chinese mode of decoration, that is."

"Er--any time, William," began Bertram, mischievously; but William did not seem to hear.

"Now in this corner," he went on, warming to his subject, "are the enamelled porcelains. They were probably made at the Worcester works --England, you know; and I think many of them are quite as pretty as the Batterseas. You see it was at Worcester that they invented that variation of the transfer printing process that they called bat printing, where they used oil instead of ink, and gelatine instead of paper. Now engravings for that kind of printing were usually in stipple work--dots, you know--so the prints on these knobs can easily be distinguished from those of the transfer printing. See? Now, this one is--"

"Er, of course, William, any time--" interposed Bertram again, his eyes twinkling.

William stopped with a laugh.

"Yes, I know. 'Tis time I talked of something else, Bertram," he conceded.

"But 'twas lovely, and I was interested, really," claimed Marie. "Besides, there are such a lot of things here that I'd like to see," she finished, turning slowly about.

"These are what he was collecting last year," murmured Billy, hovering over a small cabinet where were some beautiful specimens of antique jewelry brooches, necklaces, armlets, Rajah rings, and anklets, gorgeous in color and exquisite in workmanship.

"Well, here is something you will enjoy," declared Bertram, with an airy flourish. "Do you see those teapots? Well, we can have tea every day in the year, and not use one of them but five times. I've counted. There are exactly seventy-three," he concluded, as he laughingly led the way from the room.

"How about leap year?" quizzed Billy.

"Ho! Trust Will to find another `Old Blue' or a `perfect treasure of a black basalt' by that time," shrugged Bertram.

Below William's rooms was the floor once Bertram's, but afterwards given over to the use of Billy and Aunt Hannah. The rooms were open to-day, and were bright with sunshine and roses; but they were very plainly unoccupied.

"And you don't use them yet?" remonstrated Billy, as she paused at an open door.

"No. These are Mrs. Bertram Henshaw's rooms," said the youngest Henshaw brother in a voice that made Billy hurry away with a dimpling blush.

"They were Billy's--and they can never seem any one's but Billy's, now," declared William to Marie, as they went down the stairs.

"And now for the den and some good stories before the fire," proposed Bertram, as the six reached the first floor again.

"But we haven't seen your pictures, yet," objected Billy.

Bertram made a deprecatory gesture.

"There's nothing much--" he began; but he stopped at once, with an odd laugh. "Well, I sha'n't say that," he finished, flinging open the door of his studio, and pressing a button that flooded the room with light. The next moment, as they stood before those plaques and panels and canvases--on each of which was a pictured "Billy"--they understood the change in his sentence, and they laughed appreciatively.

" `Much,' indeed!" exclaimed William.

"Oh, how lovely!" breathed Marie.

"My grief and conscience, Bertram! All these --and of Billy? I knew you had a good many, but--" Aunt Hannah paused impotently, her eyes going from Bertram's face to the pictures again.

"But how--when did you do them?" queried Marie.

"Some of them from memory. More of them from life. A lot of them were just sketches that I did when she was here in the house four or five years ago," answered Bertram; "like this, for instance." And he pulled into a better light a picture of a laughing, dark-eyed girl holding against her cheek a small gray kitten, with alert, bright eyes. "The original and only Spunk," he announced.

"What a dear little cat!" cried Marie.

"You should have seen it--in the flesh," remarked Cyril, dryly. "No paint nor painter could imprison that untamed bit of Satanic mischief on any canvas that ever grew!"

Everybody laughed--everybody but Billy. Billy, indeed, of them all, had been strangely silent ever since they entered the studio. She stood now a little apart. Her eyes were wide, and a bit frightened. Her fingers were twisting the corners of her handkerchief nervously. She was looking to the right and to the left, and everywhere she saw--herself.

Sometimes it was her full face, sometimes her profile; sometimes there were only her eyes peeping from above a fan, or peering from out brown shadows of nothingness. Once it was merely the back of her head showing the mass of waving hair with its high lights of burnished bronze. Again it was still the back of her head with below it the bare, slender neck and the scarf- draped shoulders. In this picture the curve of a half-turned cheek showed plainly, and in the background was visible a hand holding four playing cards, at which the pictured girl was evidently looking. Sometimes it was a merry Billy with dancing eyes; sometimes a demure Billy with long lashes caressing a flushed cheek. Sometimes it was a wistful Billy with eyes that looked straight into yours with peculiar appeal. But always it was--Billy.

"There, I think the tilt of this chin is perfect." It was Bertram speaking.

Billy gave a sudden cry. Her face whitened. She stumbled forward.

"No, no, Bertram, you--you didn't mean the--the tilt of the chin," she faltered wildly.

The man turned in amazement.

"Why--Billy!" he stammered. "Billy, what is it?"

The girl fell back at once. She tried to laugh lightly. She had seen the dismayed questioning in her lover's eyes, and in the eyes of William and the others.

"N-nothing," she gesticulated hurriedly. "It was nothing at all, truly."

"But, Billy, it was something." Bertram's eyes were still troubled. "Was it the picture? I thought you liked this picture."

Billy laughed again--this time more naturally.

"Bertram, I'm ashamed of you--expecting me to say I `like' any of this," she scolded, with a wave of her hands toward the omnipresent Billy. "Why, I feel as if I were in a room with a thousand mirrors, and that I'd been discovered putting rouge on my cheeks and lampblack on my eyebrows!"

William laughed fondly. Aunt Hannah and Marie gave an indulgent smile. Cyril actually chuckled. Bertram only still wore a puzzled expression as he laid aside the canvas in his hands.

Billy examined intently a sketch she had found with its back to the wall. It was not a pretty sketch; it was not even a finished one, and Billy did not in the least care what it was. But her lips cried interestedly:

"Oh, Bertram, what is this?"

There was no answer. Bertram was still engaged, apparently, in putting away some sketches. Over by the doorway leading to the den Marie and Aunt Hannah, followed by William and Cyril, were just disappearing behind a huge easel. In another minute the merry chatter of their voices came from the room beyond. Bertram hurried then straight across the studio to the girl still bending over the sketch in the corner.

"Bertram!" gasped Billy, as a kiss brushed her cheek.

"Pooh! They're gone. Besides, what if they did see? Billy, what was the matter with the tilt of that chin?"

Billy gave an hysterical little laugh--at least, Bertram tried to assure himself that it was a laugh, though it had sounded almost like a sob.

"Bertram, if you say another word about-- about the tilt of that chin, I shall scream!" she panted.

"Why, Billy!"

With a nervous little movement Billy turned and began to reverse the canvases nearest her.

"Come, sir," she commanded gayly. "Billy has been on exhibition quite long enough. It is high time she was turned face to the wall to meditate, and grow more modest."

Bertram did not answer. Neither did he make a move to assist her. His ardent gray eyes were following her slim, graceful figure admiringly.

"Billy, it doesn't seem true, yet, that you're really mine," he said at last, in a low voice shaken with emotion.

Billy turned abruptly. A peculiar radiance shone in her eyes and glorified her face. As she stood, she was close to a picture on an easel and full in the soft glow of the shaded lights above it.

"Then you do want me," she began, "--just me!--not to--" she stopped short. The man opposite had taken an eager step toward her. On his face was the look she knew so well, the look she had come almost to dread--the "painting look."

"Billy, stand just as you are," he was saying. "Don't move. Jove! But that effect is perfect with those dark shadows beyond, and just your hair and face and throat showing. I declare, I've half a mind to sketch--" But Billy, with a little cry, was gone.