Chapter XII. For Billy--Some Advice
 

February brought busy days. The public opening of the Bohemian Ten Club Exhibition was to take place the sixth of March, with a private view for invited guests the night before; and it was at this exhibition that Bertram planned to show his portrait of Marguerite Winthrop. He also, if possible, wished to enter two or three other canvases, upon which he was spending all the time he could get.

Bertram felt that he was doing very good work now. The portrait of Marguerite Winthrop was coming on finely. The spoiled idol of society had at last found a pose and a costume that suited her, and she was graciously pleased to give the artist almost as many sittings as he wanted. The "elusive something" in her face, which had previously been so baffling, was now already caught and held bewitchingly on his canvas. He was confident that the portrait would be a success. He was also much interested in another piece of work which he intended to show called "The Rose." The model for this was a beautiful young girl he had found selling flowers with her father in a street booth at the North End.

On the whole, Bertram was very happy these days. He could not, to be sure, spend quite so much time with Billy as he wished; but she understood, of course, as did he, that his work must come first. He knew that she tried to show him that she understood it. At the same time, he could not help thinking, occasionally, that Billy did sometimes mind his necessary absorption in his painting.

To himself Bertram owned that Billy was, in some ways, a puzzle to him. Her conduct was still erratic at times. One day he would seem to be everything to her; the next--almost nothing, judging by the ease with which she relinquished his society and substituted that of some one else: Arkwright, or Calderwell, for instance.

And that was another thing. Bertram was ashamed to hint even to himself that he was jealous of either of those men. Surely, after what had happened, after Billy's emphatic assertion that she had never loved any one but himself, it would seem not only absurd, but disloyal, that he should doubt for an instant Billy's entire devotion to him, and yet--there were times when he wished he could come home and not always find Alice Greggory, Calderwell, Arkwright, or all three of them strumming the piano in the drawing-room! At such times, always, though, if he did feel impatient, he immediately demanded of himself: "Are you, then, the kind of husband that begrudges your wife young companions of her own age and tastes to help her while away the hours that you cannot possibly spend with her yourself?"

This question, and the answer that his better self always gave to it, were usually sufficient to send him into some florists for a bunch of violets for Billy, or into a candy shop on a like atoning errand.

As to Billy--Billy, too, was busy these days chief of her concerns being, perhaps, attention to that honeymoon of hers, to see that it did not wane. At least, the most of her thoughts, and many of her actions, centered about that object.

Billy had the book, now--the "Talk to Young Wives." For a time she had worked with only the newspaper criticism to guide her; but, coming at last to the conclusion that if a little was good, more must be better, she had shyly gone into a bookstore one day and, with a pink blush, had asked for the book. Since bringing it home she had studied assiduously (though never if Bertram was near), keeping it well-hidden, when not in use, in a remote corner of her desk.

There was a good deal in the book that Billy did not like, and there were some statements that worried her; but yet there was much that she tried earnestly to follow. She was still striving to be the oak, and she was still eagerly endeavoring to brush up against those necessary outside interests. She was so thankful, in this connection, for Alice Greggory, and for Arkwright and Hugh Calderwell. It was such a help that she had them! They were not only very pleasant and entertaining outside interests, but one or another of them was almost always conveniently within reach.

Then, too, it pleased her to think that she was furthering the pretty love story between Alice and Mr. Arkwright. And she was furthering it. She was sure of that. Already she could see how dependent the man was on Alice, how he looked to her for approbation, and appealed to her on all occasions, exactly as if there was not a move that he wanted to make without her presence near him. Billy was very sure, now, of Arkwright. She only wished she were as much so of Alice. But Alice troubled her. Not but that Alice was kindness itself to the man, either. It was only a peculiar something almost like fear, or constraint, that Billy thought she saw in Alice's eyes, sometimes, when Arkwright made a particularly intimate appeal. There was Calderwell, too. He, also, worried Billy. She feared he was going to complicate matters still more by falling in love with Alice, himself; and this, certainly, Billy did not want at all. As this phase of the matter presented itself, indeed, Billy determined to appropriate Calderwell a little more exclusively to herself, when the four were together, thus leaving Alice for Arkwright. After all, it was rather entertaining--this playing at Cupid's assistant. If she could not have Bertram all the time, it was fortunate that these outside interests were so pleasurable.

Most of the mornings Billy spent in the kitchen, despite the remonstrances of both Pete and Eliza. Almost every meal, now, was graced with a palatable cake, pudding, or muffin that Billy would proudly claim as her handiwork. Pete still served at table, and made strenuous efforts to keep up all his old duties; but he was obviously growing weaker, and really serious blunders were beginning to be noticeable. Bertram even hinted once or twice that perhaps it would be just as well to insist on his going; but to this Billy would not give her consent. Even when one night his poor old trembling hands spilled half the contents of a soup plate over a new and costly evening gown of Billy's own, she still refused to have him dismissed.

"Why, Bertram, I wouldn't do it," she declared hotly; "and you wouldn't, either. He's been here more than fifty years. It would break his heart. He's really too ill to work, and I wish he would go of his own accord, of course; but I sha'n't ever tell him to go--not if he spills soup on every dress I've got. I'll buy more--and more, if it's necessary. Bless his dear old heart! He thinks he's really serving us--and he is, too."

"Oh, yes, you're right, he is!" sighed Bertram, with meaning emphasis, as he abandoned the argument.

In addition to her "Talk to Young Wives," Billy found herself encountering advice and comment on the marriage question from still other quarters--from her acquaintances (mostly the feminine ones) right and left. Continually she was hearing such words as these:

"Oh, well, what can you expect, Billy? You're an old married woman, now."

"Never mind, you'll find he's like all the rest of the husbands. You just wait and see!"

"Better begin with a high hand, Billy. Don't let him fool you!"

"Mercy! If I had a husband whose business it was to look at women's beautiful eyes, peachy cheeks, and luxurious tresses, I should go crazy! It's hard enough to keep a man's eyes on yourself when his daily interests are supposed to be just lumps of coal and chunks of ice, without flinging him into the very jaws of temptation like asking him to paint a pretty girl's picture!"

In response to all this, of course, Billy could but laugh, and blush, and toss back some gay reply, with a careless unconcern. But in her heart she did not like it. Sometimes she told herself that if there were not any advice or comment from anybody--either book or woman--if there were not anybody but just Bertram and herself, life would be just one long honeymoon forever and forever.

Once or twice Billy was tempted to go to Marie with this honeymoon question; but Marie was very busy these days, and very preoccupied. The new house that Cyril was building on Corey Hill, not far from the Annex, was almost finished, and Marie was immersed in the subject of house- furnishings and interior decoration. She was, too, still more deeply engrossed in the fashioning of tiny garments of the softest linen, lace, and woolen; and there was on her face such a look of beatific wonder and joy that Billy did not like to so much as hint that there was in the world such a book as "When the Honeymoon Wanes: A Talk to Young Wives."

Billy tried valiantly these days not to mind that Bertram's work was so absorbing. She tried not to mind that his business dealt, not with lumps of coal and chunks of ice, but with beautiful women like Marguerite Winthrop who asked him to luncheon, and lovely girls like his model for "The Rose" who came freely to his studio and spent hours in the beloved presence, being studied for what Bertram declared was absolutely the most wonderful poise of head and shoulders that he had ever seen.

Billy tried, also, these days, to so conduct herself that not by any chance could Calderwell suspect that sometimes she was jealous of Bertram's art. Not for worlds would she have had Calderwell begin to get the notion into his head that his old-time prophecy concerning Bertram's caring only for the turn of a girl's head or the tilt of her chin--to paint, was being fulfilled. Hence, particularly gay and cheerful was Billy when Calderwell was near. Nor could it be said that Billy was really unhappy at any time. It was only that, on occasion, the very depth of her happiness in Bertram's love frightened her, lest it bring disaster to herself or Bertram.

Billy still went frequently to the Annex. There were yet two unfilled rooms in the house. Billy was hesitating which two of six new friends of hers to choose as occupants; and it was one day early in March, after she had been talking the matter over with Aunt Hannah, that Aunt Hannah said:

"Dear me, Billy, if you had your way I believe you'd open another whole house!"

"Do you know?--that's just what I'm thinking of," retorted Billy, gravely. Then she laughed at Aunt Hannah's shocked gesture of protest. "Oh, well, I don't expect to," she added. "I haven't lived very long, but I've lived long enough to know that you can't always do what you want to."

"Just as if there were anything you wanted to do that you don't do, my dear," reproved Aunt Hannah, mildly.

"Yes, I know." Billy drew in her breath with a little catch. "I have so much that is lovely; and that's why I need this house, you know, for the overflow," she nodded brightly. Then, with a characteristic change of subject, she added: "My, but you should have tasted of the popovers I made for breakfast this morning!"

"I should like to," smiled Aunt Hannah. "William says you're getting to be quite a cook."

"Well, maybe," conceded Billy, doubtfully. "Oh, I can do some things all right; but just wait till Pete and Eliza go away again, and Bertram brings home a friend to dinner. That'll tell the tale. I think now I could have something besides potato-mush and burned corn--but maybe I wouldn't, when the time came. If only I could buy everything I needed to cook with, I'd be all right. But I can't, I find."

"Can't buy what you need! What do you mean?"

Billy laughed ruefully.

"Well, every other question I ask Eliza, she says: `Why, I don't know; you have to use your judgment.' Just as if I had any judgment about how much salt to use, or what dish to take! Dear me, Aunt Hannah, the man that will grow judgment and can it as you would a mess of peas, has got his fortune made!"

"What an absurd child you are, Billy," laughed Aunt Hannah. "I used to tell Marie-- By the way, how is Marie? Have you seen her lately?"

"Oh, yes, I saw her yesterday," twinkled Billy. "She had a book of wall-paper samples spread over the back of a chair, two bunches of samples of different colored damasks on the table before her, a `Young Mother's Guide' propped open in another chair, and a pair of baby's socks in her lap with a roll each of pink, and white, and blue ribbon. She spent most of the time, after I had helped her choose the ribbon, in asking me if I thought she ought to let the baby cry and bother Cyril, or stop its crying and hurt the baby, because her `Mother's Guide' says a certain amount of crying is needed to develop a baby's lungs."

Aunt Hannah laughed, but she frowned, too.

"The idea! I guess Cyril can stand proper crying--and laughing, too--from his own child!" she said then, crisply.

"Oh, but Marie is afraid he can't," smiled Billy. "And that's the trouble. She says that's the only thing that worries her--Cyril."

"Nonsense!" ejaculated Aunt Hannah.

"Oh, but it isn't nonsense to Marie," retorted Billy. "You should see the preparations she's made and the precautions she's taken. Actually, when I saw those baby's socks in her lap, I didn't know but she was going to put rubber heels on them! They've built the new house with deadening felt in all the walls, and Marie's planned the nursery and Cyril's den at opposite ends of the house; and she says she shall keep the baby there all the time--the nursery, I mean, not the den. She says she's going to teach it to be a quiet baby and hate noise. She says she thinks she can do it, too."

"Humph!" sniffed Aunt Hannah, scornfully.

"You should have seen Marie's disgust the other day," went on Billy, a bit mischievously. "Her Cousin Jane sent on a rattle she'd made herself, all soft worsted, with bells inside. It was a dear; but Marie was horror-stricken. `My baby have a rattle?' she cried. `Why, what would Cyril say? As if he could stand a rattle in the house!' And if she didn't give that rattle to the janitor's wife that very day, while I was there!"

"Humph!" sniffed Aunt Hannah again, as Billy rose to go. "Well, I'm thinking Marie has still some things to learn in this world--and Cyril, too, for that matter."

"I wouldn't wonder," laughed Billy, giving Aunt Hannah a good-by kiss.