Chapter X. The Dinner Billy Got
 

At five minutes of six Bertram and Calderwell came. Bertram gave his peculiar ring and let himself in with his latchkey; but Billy did not meet him in the hall, nor in the drawing-room. Excusing himself, Bertram hurried up-stairs. Billy was not in her room, nor anywhere on that floor. She was not in William's room. Coming down-stairs to the hall again, Bertram confronted William, who had just come in.

"Where's Billy?" demanded the young husband, with just a touch of irritation, as if he suspected William of having Billy in his pocket.

William stared slightly.

"Why, I don't know. Isn't she here?"

"I'll ask Pete," frowned Bertram.

In the dining-room Bertram found no one, though the table was prettily set, and showed half a grapefruit at each place. In the kitchen --in the kitchen Bertram found a din of rattling tin, an odor of burned food--, a confusion of scattered pots and pans, a frightened cat who peered at him from under a littered stove, and a flushed, disheveled young woman in a blue dust-cap and ruffled apron, whom he finally recognized as his wife.

"Why, Billy!" he gasped.

Billy, who was struggling with something at the sink, turned sharply.

"Bertram Henshaw," she panted, "I used to think you were wonderful because you could paint a picture. I even used to think I was a little wonderful because I could write a song. Well, I don't any more! But I'll tell you who is wonderful. It's Eliza and Rosa, and all the rest of those women who can get a meal on to the table all at once, so it's fit to eat!"

"Why, Billy!" gasped Bertram again, falling back to the door he had closed behind him. "What in the world does this mean?"

"Mean? It means I'm getting dinner," choked Billy. "Can't you see?"

"But--Pete! Eliza!"

"They're sick--I mean he's sick; and I said I'd do it. I'd be an oak. But how did I know there wasn't anything in the house except stuff that took hours to cook--only potatoes? And how did I know that they cooked in no time, and then got all smushy and wet staying in the water? And how did I know that everything else would stick on and burn on till you'd used every dish there was in the house to cook 'em in?"

"Why, Billy!" gasped Bertram, for the third time. And then, because he had been married only six months instead of six years, he made the mistake of trying to argue with a woman whose nerves were already at the snapping point. "But, dear, it was so foolish of you to do all this! Why didn't you telephone? Why didn't you get somebody?"

Like an irate little tigress, Billy turned at bay.

"Bertram Henshaw," she flamed angrily, "if you don't go up-stairs and tend to that man up there, I shall scream. Now go! I'll be up when I can."

And Bertram went.

It was not so very long, after all, before Billy came in to greet her guest. She was not stately and imposing in royally sumptuous blue velvet and ermine; nor yet was she cozy and homy in bronze-gold crèpe de Chine and swan's-down. She was just herself in a pretty little morning house gown of blue gingham. She was minus the dust-cap and the ruffled apron, but she had a dab of flour on the left cheek, and a smutch of crock on her forehead. She had, too, a cut finger on her right hand, and a burned thumb on her left. But she was Billy--and being Billy, she advanced with a bright smile and held out a cordial hand-- not even wincing when the cut finger came under Calderwell's hearty clasp.

"I'm glad to see you," she welcomed him. "You'll excuse my not appearing sooner, I'm sure, for--didn't Bertram tell you?--I'm playing Bridget to-night. But dinner is ready now, and we'll go down, please," she smiled, as she laid a light hand on her guest's arm.

Behind her, Bertram, remembering the scene in the kitchen, stared in sheer amazement. Bertram, it might be mentioned again, had been married six months, not six years.

What Billy had intended to serve for a "simple dinner" that night was: grapefruit with cherries, oyster stew, boiled halibut with egg sauce, chicken pie, squash, onions, and potatoes, peach fritters, a "lettuce and stuff" salad, and some new pie or pudding. What she did serve was: grapefruit (without the cherries), cold roast lamb, potatoes (a mush of sogginess), tomatoes (canned, and slightly burned), corn (canned, and very much burned), lettuce (plain); and for dessert, preserved peaches and cake (the latter rather dry and stale). Such was Billy's dinner.

The grapefruit everybody ate. The cold lamb too, met with a hearty reception, especially after the potatoes, corn, and tomatoes were served-- and tasted. Outwardly, through it all, Billy was gayety itself. Inwardly she was burning up with anger and mortification. And because she was all this, there was, apparently, no limit to her laughter and sparkling repartee as she talked with Calderwell, her guest--the guest who, according to her original plans, was to be shown how happy she and Bertram were, what a good wife she made, and how devoted and satisfied Bertram was in his home.

William, picking at his dinner--as only a hungry man can pick at a dinner that is uneatable-- watched Billy with a puzzled, uneasy frown. Bertram, choking over the few mouthfuls he ate, marked his wife's animated face and Calderwell's absorbed attention, and settled into gloomy silence.

But it could not continue forever. The preserved peaches were eaten at last, and the stale cake left. (Billy had forgotten the coffee-- which was just as well, perhaps.) Then the four trailed up-stairs to the drawing-room.

At nine o'clock an anxious Eliza and a remorseful, apologetic Pete came home and descended to the horror the once orderly kitchen and dining- room had become. At ten, Calderwell, with very evident reluctance, tore himself away from Billy's gay badinage, and said good night. At two minutes past ten, an exhausted, nerve-racked Billy was trying to cry on the shoulders of both Uncle William and Bertram at once.

"There, there, child, don't! It went off all right," patted Uncle William.

"Billy, darling," pleaded Bertram, "please don't cry so! As if I'd ever let you step foot in that kitchen again!"

At this Billy raised a tear-wet face, aflame with indignant determination.

"As if I'd ever let you keep me from it, Bertram Henshaw, after this!" she contested. "I'm not going to do another thing in all my life but cook! When I think of the stuff we had to eat, after all the time I took to get it, I'm simply crazy! Do you think I'd run the risk of such a thing as this ever happening again?"