Chapter XIV. When Bertram Came Home
 

It was a little after half-past three o'clock that afternoon when Bertram Henshaw hurried up Beacon Street toward his home. He had been delayed, and he feared that Miss Winthrop would already have reached the house. Mindful of what Billy had said that morning, he knew how his wife would fret if he were not there when the guest arrived. The sight of what he surmised to be Miss Winthrop's limousine before his door hastened his steps still more. But as he reached the house, he was surprised to find Miss Winthrop herself turning away from the door.

"Why, Miss Winthrop," he cried, "you're not going now! You can't have been here any--yet!"

"Well, no, I--I haven't," retorted the lady, with heightened color and a somewhat peculiar emphasis. "My ring wasn't answered."

"Wasn't answered!" Bertram reddened angrily. "Why, what can that mean? Where's the maid? Where's my wife? Mrs. Henshaw must be here! She was expecting you."

Bertram, in his annoyed amazement, spoke loudly, vehemently. Hence he was quite plainly heard by the group of small boys and girls who had been improving the mild weather for a frolic on the sidewalk, and who had been attracted to his door a moment before by the shining magnet of the Winthrop limousine with its resplendently liveried chauffeur. As Bertram spoke, one of the small girls, Bessie Bailey, stepped forward and piped up a shrill reply.

"She ain't, Mr. Henshaw! She ain't here. I saw her go away just a little while ago."

Bertram turned sharply.

"You saw her go away! What do you mean?"

Small Bessie swelled with importance. Bessie was thirteen, in spite of her diminutive height. Bessie's mother was dead, and Bessie's caretakers were gossiping nurses and servants, who frequently left in her way books that were much too old for Bessie to read--but she read them.

"I mean she ain't here--your wife, Mr. Henshaw. She went away. I saw her. I guess likely she's eloped, sir."

"Eloped!"

Bessie swelled still more importantly. To her experienced eyes the situation contained all the necessary elements for the customary flight of the heroine in her story-books, as here, now, was the irate, deserted husband.

"Sure! And 'twas just before you came-- quite a while before. A big shiny black automobile like this drove up--only it wasn't quite such a nice one--an' Mrs. Henshaw an' a man came out of your house an' got in, an' drove right away quick! They just ran to get into it, too--didn't they?" She appealed to her young mates grouped about her.

A chorus of shrill exclamations brought Mr. Bertram Henshaw suddenly to his senses. By a desperate effort he hid his angry annoyance as he turned to the manifestly embarrassed young woman who was already descending the steps.

"My dear Miss Winthrop," he apologized contritely, "I'm sure you'll forgive this seeming great rudeness on the part of my wife. Notwithstanding the lurid tales of our young friends here, I suspect nothing more serious has happened than that my wife has been hastily summoned to Aunt Hannah, perhaps. Or, of course, she may not have understood that you were coming to-day at half-past three--though I thought she did. But I'm so sorry--when you were so kind as to come--" Miss Winthrop interrupted with a quick gesture.

"Say no more, I beg of you," she entreated. "Mrs. Henshaw is quite excusable, I'm sure. Please don't give it another thought," she finished, as with a hurried direction to the man who was holding open the door of her car, she stepped inside and bowed her good-byes.

Bertram, with stern self-control, forced himself to walk nonchalantly up his steps, leisurely take out his key, and open his door, under the interested eyes of Bessie Bailey and her friends; but once beyond their hateful stare, his demeanor underwent a complete change. Throwing aside his hat and coat, he strode to the telephone.

"Oh, is that you, Aunt Hannah?" he called crisply, a moment later. "Well, if Billy's there will you tell her I want to speak to her, please?"

"Billy?" answered Aunt Hannah's slow, gentle tones. "Why, my dear boy, Billy isn't here!"

"She isn't? Well, when did she leave? She's been there, hasn't she?"

"Why, I don't think so, but I'll see, if you like. Mrs. Greggory and I have just this minute come in from an automobile ride. We would have stayed longer, but it began to get chilly, and I forgot to take one of the shawls that I'd laid out."

"Yes; well, if you will see, please, if Billy has been there, and when she left," said Bertram, with grim self-control.

"All right. I'll see," murmured Aunt Hannah. In a few moments her voice again sounded across the wires. "Why, no, Bertram, Rosa says she hasn't been here since yesterday. Isn't she there somewhere about the house? Didn't you know where she was going?"

"Well, no, I didn't--else I shouldn't have been asking you," snapped the irate Bertram and hung up the receiver with most rude haste, thereby cutting off an astounded "Oh, my grief and conscience!" in the middle of it.

The next ten minutes Bertram spent in going through the whole house, from garret to basement. Needless to say, he found nothing to enlighten him, or to soothe his temper. Four o'clock came, then half-past, and five. At five Bertram began to look for Eliza, but in vain. At half-past five he watched for William; but William, too, did not come.

Bertram was pacing the floor now, nervously. He was a little frightened, but more mortified and angry. That Billy should have allowed Miss Winthrop to call by appointment only to find no hostess, no message, no maid, even, to answer her ring--it was inexcusable! Impulsiveness, unconventionality, and girlish irresponsibility were all very delightful, of course--at times; but not now, certainly. Billy was not a girl any longer. She was a married woman. Something was due to him, her husband! A pretty picture he must have made on those steps, trying to apologize for a truant wife, and to laugh off that absurd Bessie Bailey's preposterous assertion at the same time! What would Miss Winthrop think? What could she think? Bertram fairly ground his teeth with chagrin, at the situation in which he found himself.

Nor were matters helped any by the fact that Bertram was hungry. Bertram's luncheon had been meager and unsatisfying. That the kitchen down-stairs still remained in silent, spotless order instead of being astir with the sounds and smells of a good dinner (as it should have been) did not improve his temper. Where Billy was he could not imagine. He thought, once or twice, of calling up some of her friends; but something held him back from that--though he did try to get Marie, knowing very well that she was probably over to the new house and would not answer. He was not surprised, therefore, when he received no reply to his ring.

That there was the slightest truth in Bessie Bailey's absurd "elopement" idea, Bertram did not, of course, for an instant believe. The only thing that rankled about that was the fact that she had suggested such a thing, and that Miss Winthrop and those silly children had heard her. He recognized half of Bessie's friends as neighborhood youngsters, and he knew very well that there would be many a quiet laugh at his expense around various Beacon Street dinner- tables that night. At the thought of those dinner-tables, he scowled again. He had no dinner-table--at least, he had no dinner on it!

Who the man might be Bertram thought he could easily guess. It was either Arkwright or Calderwell, of course; and probably that tiresome Alice Greggory was mixed up in it somehow. He did wish Billy--

Six o'clock came, then half-past. Bertram was indeed frightened now, but he was more angry, and still more hungry. He had, in fact, reached that state of blind unreasonableness said to be peculiar to hungry males from time immemorial.

At ten minutes of seven a key clicked in the lock of the outer door, and William and Billy entered the hall.

It was almost dark. Bertram could not see their faces. He had not lighted the hall at all.

"Well," he began sharply, "is this the way you receive your callers, Billy? I came home and found Miss Winthrop just leaving--no one here to receive her! Where've you been? Where's Eliza? Where's my dinner? Of course I don't mean to scold, Billy, but there is a limit to even my patience--and it's reached now. I can't help suggesting that if you would tend to your husband and your home a little more, and go gallivanting off with Calderwell and Arkwright and Alice Greggory a little less, that-- Where is Eliza, anyway?" he finished irritably, switching on the lights with a snap.

There was a moment of dead silence. At Bertram's first words Billy and William had stopped short. Neither had moved since. Now William turned and began to speak, but Billy interrupted. She met her husband's gaze steadily.

"I will be down at once to get your dinner," she said quietly. "Eliza will not come to-night. Pete is dead."

Bertram started forward with a quick cry.

"Dead! Oh, Billy! Then you were--there! Billy!"

But his wife did not apparently hear him. She passed him without turning her head, and went on up the stairs, leaving him to meet the sorrowful, accusing eyes of William.