Chapter XVIII. Billy Tries Her Hand at "Managing"
 

Bertram did not engage six Mary Ellens the next morning, nor even one, as it happened; for that evening, Eliza--who had not been unaware of conditions at the Strata--telephoned to say that her mother was so much better now she believed she could be spared to come to the Strata for several hours each day, if Mrs. Henshaw would like to have her begin in that way.

Billy agreed promptly, and declared herself as more than willing to put up with such an arrangement. Bertram, it is true, when he heard of the plan, rebelled, and asserted that what Billy needed was a rest, an entire rest from care and labor. In fact, what he wanted her to do, he said, was to gallivant--to gallivant all day long.

"Nonsense!" Billy had laughed, coloring to the tips of her ears. "Besides, as for the work, Bertram, with just you and me here, and with all my vast experience now, and Eliza here for several hours every day, it'll be nothing but play for this little time before we go away. You'll see!"

"All right, I'll see, then," Bertram had nodded meaningly. "But just make sure that it is play for you!"

"I will," laughed Billy; and there the matter had ended.

Eliza began work the next day, and Billy did indeed soon find herself "playing" under Bertram's watchful insistence. She resumed her music, and brought out of exile the unfinished song. With Bertram she took drives and walks; and every two or three days she went to see Aunt Hannah and Marie. She was pleasantly busy, too, with plans for her coming trip; and it was not long before even the remorseful Bertram had to admit that Billy was looking and appearing quite like her old self.

At the Annex Billy found Calderwell and Arkwright, one day. They greeted her as if she had just returned from a far country.

"Well, if you aren't the stranger lady," began Calderwell, looking frankly pleased to see her. "We'd thought of advertising in the daily press somewhat after this fashion: `Lost, strayed, or stolen, one Billy; comrade, good friend, and kind cheerer-up of lonely hearts. Any information thankfully received by her bereft, sorrowing friends.' "

Billy joined in the laugh that greeted this sally, but Arkwright noticed that she tried to change the subject from her own affairs to a discussion of the new song on Alice Greggory's piano. Calderwell, however, was not to be silenced.

"The last I heard of this elusive Billy," he resumed, with teasing cheerfulness, "she was running down a certain lost calory that had slipped away from her husband's breakfast, and--"

Billy wheeled sharply.

"Where did you get hold of that?" she demanded.

"Oh, I didn't," returned the man, defensively. "I never got hold of it at all. I never even saw the calory--though, for that matter, I don't think I should know one if I did see it! What we feared was, that, in hunting the lost calory, you had lost yourself, and--" But Billy would hear no more. With her disdainful nose in the air she walked to the piano.

"Come, Mr. Arkwright," she said with dignity. "Let's try this song."

Arkwright rose at once and accompanied her to the piano.

They had sung the song through twice when Billy became uneasily aware that, on the other side of the room, Calderwell and Alice Greggory were softly chuckling over something they had found in a magazine. Billy frowned, and twitched the corners of a pile of music, with restless fingers.

"I wonder if Alice hasn't got some quartets here somewhere," she murmured, her disapproving eyes still bent on the absorbed couple across the room.

Arkwright was silent. Billy, throwing a hurried glance into his face, thought she detected a somber shadow in his eyes. She thought, too, she knew why it was there. So possessed had Billy been, during the early winter, of the idea that her special mission in life was to inaugurate and foster a love affair between disappointed Mr. Arkwright and lonely Alice Greggory, that now she forgot, for a moment, that Arkwright himself was quite unaware of her efforts. She thought only that the present shadow on his face must be caused by the same thing that brought worry to her own heart--the manifest devotion of Calderwell to Alice Greggory just now across the room. Instinctively, therefore, as to a coworker in a common cause, she turned a disturbed face to the man at her side.

"It is, indeed, high time that I looked after something besides lost calories," she said significantly. Then, at the evident uncomprehension in Arkwright's face, she added: "Has it been going on like this--very long?"

Arkwright still, apparently, did not understand.

"Has--what been going on?" he questioned.

"That--over there," answered Billy, impatiently, scarcely knowing whether to be more irritated at the threatened miscarriage of her cherished plans, or at Arkwright's (to her) wilfully blind insistence on her making her meaning more plain. "Has it been going on long--such utter devotion?"

As she asked the question Billy turned and looked squarely into Arkwright's face. She saw, therefore, the great change that came to it, as her meaning became clear to him. Her first feeling was one of shocked realization that Arkwright had, indeed, been really blind. Her second--she turned away her eyes hurriedly from what she thought she saw in the man's countenance.

With an assumedly gay little cry she sprang to her feet.

"Come, come, what are you two children chuckling over?" she demanded, crossing the room abruptly. "Didn't you hear me say I wanted you to come and sing a quartet?"

Billy blamed herself very much for what she called her stupidity in so baldly summoning Arkwright's attention to Calderwell's devotion to Alice Greggory. She declared that she ought to have known better, and she asked herself if this were the way she was "furthering matters" between Alice Greggory and Arkwright.

Billy was really seriously disturbed. She had never quite forgiven herself for being so blind to Arkwright's feeling for herself during those days when he had not known of her engagement to Bertram. She had never forgotten, either, the painful scene when he had hopefully told of his love, only to be met with her own shocked repudiation. For long weeks after that, his face had haunted her. She had wished, oh, so ardently, that she could do something in some way to bring him happiness. When, therefore, it had come to her knowledge afterward that he was frequently with his old friend, Alice Greggory, she had been so glad. It was very easy then to fan hope into conviction that here, in this old friend, he had found sweet balm for his wounded heart; and she determined at once to do all that she could do to help. So very glowing, indeed, was her eagerness in the matter, that it looked suspiciously as if she thought, could she but bring this thing about, that old scores against herself would be erased.

Billy told herself, virtuously, however, that not only for Arkwright did she desire this marriage to take place, but for Alice Greggory. In the very nature of things Alice would one day be left alone. She was poor, and not very strong. She sorely needed the shielding love and care of a good husband. What more natural than that her old-time friend and almost-sweetheart, M. J. Arkwright, should be that good husband?

That really it was more Arkwright and less Alice that was being considered, however, was proved when the devotion of Calderwell began to be first suspected, then known for a fact. Billy's distress at this turn of affairs indicated very plainly that it was not just a husband, but a certain one particular husband that she desired for Alice Greggory. All the more disturbed was she, therefore, when to-day, seeing her three friends together again for the first time for some weeks, she discovered increased evidence that her worst fears were to be realized. It was to be Alice and Calderwell, not Alice and Arkwright. Arkwright was again to be disappointed in his dearest hopes.

Telling herself indignantly that it could not be, it should not be, Billy determined to remain after the men had gone, and speak to Alice. Just what she would say she did not know. Even what she could say, she was not sure. But certainly there must be something, some little thing that she could say, which would open Alice's eyes to what she was doing, and what she ought to do.

It was in this frame of mind, therefore, that Billy, after Arkwright and Calderwell had gone, spoke to Alice. She began warily, with assumed nonchalance.

"I believe Mr. Arkwright sings better every time I hear him."

There was no answer. Alice was sorting music at the piano.

"Don't you think so?" Billy raised her voice a little.

Alice turned almost with a start.

"What's that? Oh, yes. Well, I don't know; maybe I do."

"You would--if you didn't hear him any oftener than I do," laughed Billy. "But then, of course you do hear him oftener."

"I? Oh, no, indeed. Not so very much oftener." Alice had turned back to her music. There was a slight embarrassment in her manner. "I wonder--where--that new song--is," she murmured.

Billy, who knew very well where the song lay, was not to be diverted.

"Nonsense! As if Mr. Arkwright wasn't always telling how Alice liked this song, and didn't like that one, and thought the other the best yet! I don't believe he sings a thing that he doesn't first sing to you. For that matter, I fancy he asks your opinion of everything, anyway."

"Why, Billy, he doesn't!" exclaimed Alice, a deep red flaming into her cheeks. "You know he doesn't."

Billy laughed gleefully. She had not been slow to note the color in her friend's face, or to ascribe to it the one meaning she wished to ascribe to it. So sure, indeed, was she now that her fears had been groundless, that she flung caution to the winds.

"Ho! My dear Alice, you can't expect us all to be blind," she teased. "Besides, we all think it's such a lovely arrangement that we're just glad to see it. He's such a fine fellow, and we like him so much! We couldn't ask for a better husband for you than Mr. Arkwright, and--" From sheer amazement at the sudden white horror in Alice Greggory's face, Billy stopped short. "Why, Alice!" she faltered then.

With a visible effort Alice forced her trembling lips to speak.

"My husband--Mr. Arkwright! Why, Billy, you couldn't have seen--you haven't seen-- there's nothing you could see! He isn't--he wasn't--he can't be! We--we're nothing but friends, Billy, just good friends!"

Billy, though dismayed, was still not quite convinced.

"Friends! Nonsense! When--"

But Alice interrupted feverishly. Alice, in an agony of fear lest the true state of affairs should be suspected, was hiding behind a bulwark of pride.

"Now, Billy, please! Say no more. You're quite wrong, entirely. You'll never, never hear of my marrying Mr. Arkwright. As I said before, we're friends--the best of friends; that is all. We couldn't be anything else, possibly!"

Billy, plainly discomfited, fell back; but she threw a sharp glance into her friend's flushed countenance.

"You mean--because of--Hugh Calderwell?" she demanded. Then, for the second time that afternoon throwing discretion to the winds, she went on plaintively: "You won't listen, of course. Girls in love never do. Hugh is all right, and I like him; but there's more real solid worth in Mr. Arkwright's little finger than there is in Hugh's whole self. And--" But a merry peal of laughter from Alice Greggory interrupted.

"And, pray, do you think I'm in love with Hugh Calderwell?" she demanded. There was a curious note of something very like relief in her voice.

"Well, I didn't know," began Billy, uncertainly.

"Then I'll tell you now," smiled Alice. "I'm not. Furthermore, perhaps it's just as well that you should know right now that I don't intend to marry--ever."

"Oh, Alice!"

"No." There was determination, and there was still that curious note of relief in the girl's voice. It was as if, somewhere, a great danger had been avoided. "I have my music. That is enough. I'm not intending to marry."

"Oh, but Alice, while I will own up I'm glad it isn't Hugh Calderwell, there is Mr. Arkwright, and I did hope--" But Alice shook her head and turned resolutely away. At that moment, too, Aunt Hannah came in from the street, so Billy could say no more.

Aunt Hannah dropped herself a little wearily into a chair.

"I've just come from Marie's," she said.

"How is she?" asked Billy.

Aunt Hannah smiled, and raised her eyebrows.

"Well, just now she's quite exercised over another rattle--from her cousin out West, this time. There were four little silver bells on it, and she hasn't got any janitor's wife now to give it to."

Billy laughed softly, but Aunt Hannah had more to say.

"You know she isn't going to allow any toys but Teddy bears and woolly lambs, of which, I believe, she has already bought quite an assortment. She says they don't rattle or squeak. I declare, when I see the woolen pads and rubber hushers that that child has put everywhere all over the house, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. And she's so worried! It seems Cyril must needs take just this time to start composing a new opera or symphony, or something; and never before has she allowed him to be interrupted by anything on such an occasion. But what he'll do when the baby comes she says she doesn't know, for she says she can't--she just can't keep it from bothering him some, she's afraid. As if any opera or symphony that ever lived was of more consequence than a man's own child!" finished Aunt Hannah, with an indignant sniff, as she reached for her shawl.