Chapter XV. After the Storm
 

The young husband's apologies were profuse and abject. Bertram was heartily ashamed of himself, and was man enough to acknowledge it. Almost on his knees he begged Billy to forgive him; and in a frenzy of self-denunciation he followed her down into the kitchen that night, piteously beseeching her to speak to him, to just look at him, even, so that he might know he was not utterly despised--though he did, indeed, deserve to be more than despised, he moaned.

At first Billy did not speak, or even vouchsafe a glance in his direction. Very quietly she went about her preparations for a simple meal, paying apparently no more attention to Bertram than as if he were not there. But that her ears were only seemingly, and not really deaf, was shown very clearly a little later, when, at a particularly abject wail on the part of the babbling shadow at her heels, Billy choked into a little gasp, half laughter, half sob. It was all over then. Bertram had her in his arms in a twinkling, while to the floor clattered and rolled a knife and a half-peeled baked potato.

Naturally, after that, there could be no more dignified silences on the part of the injured wife. There were, instead, half-smiles, tears, sobs, a tremulous telling of Pete's going and his messages, followed by a tearful listening to Bertram's story of the torture he had endured at the hands of Miss Winthrop, Bessie Bailey, and an empty, dinnerless house. And thus, in one corner of the kitchen, some time later, a hungry, desperate William found them, the half-peeled, cold baked potato still at their feet.

Torn between his craving for food and his desire not to interfere with any possible peace- making, William was obviously hesitating what to do, when Billy glanced up and saw him. She saw, too, at the same time, the empty, blazing gas-stove burner, and the pile of half-prepared potatoes, to warm which the burner had long since been lighted. With a little cry she broke away from her husband's arms.

"Mercy! and here's poor Uncle William, bless his heart, with not a thing to eat yet!"

They all got dinner then, together, with many a sigh and quick-coming tear as everywhere they met some sad reminder of the gentle old hands that would never again minister to their comfort.

It was a silent meal, and little, after all, was eaten, though brave attempts at cheerfulness and naturalness were made by all three. Bertram, especially, talked, and tried to make sure that the shadow on Billy's face was at least not the one his own conduct had brought there.

"For you do--you surely do forgive me, don't you?" he begged, as he followed her into the kitchen after the sorry meal was over.

"Why, yes, dear, yes," sighed Billy, trying to smile.

"And you'll forget?"

There was no answer.

"Billy! And you'll forget?" Bertram's voice was insistent, reproachful.

Billy changed color and bit her lip. She looked plainly distressed.

"Billy!" cried the man, still more reproachfully.

"But, Bertram, I can't forget--quite yet," faltered Billy.

Bertram frowned. For a minute he looked as if he were about to take up the matter seriously and argue it with her; but the next moment he smiled and tossed his head with jaunty playfulness-- Bertram, to tell the truth, had now had quite enough of what he privately termed "scenes" and "heroics"; and, manlike, he was very ardently longing for the old easy-going friendliness, with all unpleasantness banished to oblivion.

"Oh, but you'll have to forget," he claimed, with cheery insistence, "for you've promised to forgive me--and one can't forgive without forgetting. So, there!" he finished, with a smilingly determined "now-everything-is-just-as-it-was-before" air.

Billy made no response. She turned hurriedly and began to busy herself with the dishes at the sink. In her heart she was wondering: could she ever forget what Bertram had said? Would anything ever blot out those awful words: "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--"? It seemed now that always, for evermore, they would ring in her ears; always, for evermore, they would burn deeper and deeper into her soul. And not once, in all Bertram's apologies, had he referred to them--those words he had uttered. He had not said he did not mean them. He had not said he was sorry he spoke them. He had ignored them; and he expected that now she, too, would ignore them. As if she could!" 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--" Oh, if only she could, indeed,--forget!

When Billy went up-stairs that night she ran across her "Talk to Young Wives" in her desk. With a half-stifled cry she thrust it far back out of sight.

"I hate you, I hate you--with all your old talk about `brushing up against outside interests'!" she whispered fiercely. "Well, I've `brushed'--and now see what I've got for it!"

Later, however, after Bertram was asleep, Billy crept out of bed and got the book. Under the carefully shaded lamp in the adjoining room she turned the pages softly till she came to the sentence: "Perhaps it would be hard to find a more utterly unreasonable, irritable, irresponsible creature than a hungry man." With a long sigh she began to read; and not until some minutes later did she close the book, turn off the light, and steal back to bed.

During the next three days, until after the funeral at the shabby little South Boston house, Eliza spent only about half of each day at the Strata. This, much to her distress, left many of the household tasks for her young mistress to perform. Billy, however, attacked each new duty with a feverish eagerness that seemed to make the performance of it very like some glad penance done for past misdeeds. And when--on the day after they had laid the old servant in his last resting place--a despairing message came from Eliza to the effect that now her mother was very ill, and would need her care, Billy promptly told Eliza to stay as long as was necessary; that they could get along all right without her.

"But, Billy, what are we going to do?" Bertram demanded, when he heard the news. "We must have somebody!"

"I'm going to do it."

"Nonsense! As if you could!" scoffed Bertram.

Billy lifted her chin.

"Couldn't I, indeed," she retorted. "Do you realize, young man, how much I've done the last three days? How about those muffins you had this morning for breakfast, and that cake last night? And didn't you yourself say that you never ate a better pudding than that date puff yesterday noon?"

Bertram laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

"My dear love, I'm not questioning your ability to do it," he soothed quickly. "Still," he added, with a whimsical smile, "I must remind you that Eliza has been here half the time, and that muffins and date puffs, however delicious, aren't all there is to running a big house like this. Besides, just be sensible, Billy," he went on more seriously, as he noted the rebellious gleam coming into his young wife's eyes; "you'd know you couldn't do it, if you'd just stop to think. There's the Carletons coming to dinner Monday, and my studio Tea to-morrow, to say nothing of the Symphony and the opera, and the concerts you'd lose because you were too dead tired to go to them. You know how it was with that concert yesterday afternoon which Alice Greggory wanted you to go to with her."

"I didn't--want--to go," choked Billy, under her breath.

"And there's your music. You haven't done a thing with that for days, yet only last week you told me the publishers were hurrying you for that last song to complete the group."

"I haven't felt like--writing," stammered Billy, still half under her breath.

"Of course you haven't," triumphed Bertram. "You've been too dead tired. And that's just what I say. Billy, you can't do it all yourself!"

"But I want to. I want to--to tend to things," faltered Billy, with a half-fearful glance into her husband's face.

Billy was hearing very loudly now that accusing "If you'd tend to your husband and your home a little more--" Bertram, however, was not hearing it, evidently. Indeed, he seemed never to have heard it--much less to have spoken it.

" `Tend to things,' " he laughed lightly. "Well, you'll have enough to do to tend to the maid, I fancy. Anyhow, we're going to have one. I'll just step into one of those--what do you call 'em?--intelligence offices on my way down and send one up," he finished, as he gave his wife a good-by kiss.

An hour later Billy, struggling with the broom and the drawing-room carpet, was called to the telephone. It was her husband's voice that came to her.

"Billy, for heaven's sake, take pity on me. Won't you put on your duds and come and engage your maid yourself?"

"Why, Bertram, what's the matter?"

"Matter? Holy smoke! Well, I've been to three of those intelligence offices--though why they call them that I can't imagine. If ever there was a place utterly devoid of intelligence-but never mind! I've interviewed four fat ladies, two thin ones, and one medium with a wart. I've cheerfully divulged all our family secrets, promised every other half-hour out, and taken oath that our household numbers three adult members, and no more; but I simply can't remember how many handkerchiefs we have in the wash each week. Billy, will you come? Maybe you can do something with them. I'm sure you can!"

"Why, of course I'll come," chirped Billy. "Where shall I meet you?"

Bertram gave the street and number.

"Good! I'll be there," promised Billy, as she hung up the receiver.

Quite forgetting the broom in the middle of the drawing-room floor, Billy tripped up-stairs to change her dress. On her lips was a gay little song. In her heart was joy.

"I rather guess now I'm tending to my husband and my home!" she was crowing to herself.

Just as Billy was about to leave the house the telephone bell jangled again.

It was Alice Greggory.

"Billy, dear," she called, "can't you come out? Mr. Arkwright and Mr. Calderwell are here, and they've brought some new music. We want you. Will you come?"

"I can't, dear. Bertram wants me. He's sent for me. I've got some housewifely duties to perform to-day," returned Billy, in a voice so curiously triumphant that Alice, at her end of the wires, frowned in puzzled wonder as she turned away from the telephone.