Miss Billy Married by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter XX. Arkwright's Eyes are Opened
William came back from his business trip the eighth of July, and on the ninth Billy and Bertram went to New York. Eliza's mother was so well now that Eliza had taken up her old quarters in the Strata, and the household affairs were once more running like clockwork. Later in the season William would go away for a month's fishing trip, and the house would be closed.
Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Henshaw were not expected to return until the first of October; but with Eliza to look after the comfort of William, the mistress of the house did no worrying. Ever since Pete's going, Eliza had said that she preferred to be the only maid, with a charwoman to come in for the heavier work; and to this arrangement her mistress had willingly consented, for the present.
Marie and the babies were doing finely, and Aunt Hannah's health, and affairs at the Annex, were all that could be desired. As Billy, indeed, saw it, there was only one flaw to mar her perfect content on this holiday trip with Bertram, and that was her disappointment over the very evident disaster that had come to her cherished matrimonial plans for Arkwright and Alice Greggory. She could not forget Arkwright's face that day at the Annex, when she had so foolishly called his attention to Calderwell's devotion; and she could not forget, either, Alice Greggory's very obvious perturbation a little later, and her suspiciously emphatic assertion that she had no intention of marrying any one, certainly not Arkwright. As Billy thought of all this now, she could not but admit that it did look dark for Arkwright--poor Arkwright, whom she, more than any one else in the world, perhaps, had a special reason for wishing to see happily married.
There was, then, this one cloud on Billy's horizon as the big boat that was to bear her across the water steamed down the harbor that beautiful July day.
As it chanced, naturally, perhaps, not only was Billy thinking of Arkwright that morning, but Arkwright was thinking of Billy.
Arkwright had thought frequently of Billy during the last few days, particularly since that afternoon meeting at the Annex when the four had renewed their old good times together. Up to that day Arkwright had been trying not to think of Billy. He had been "fighting his tiger skin." Sternly he had been forcing himself to meet her, to see her, to talk with her, to sing with her, or to pass her by--all with the indifference properly expected to be shown in association with Mrs. Bertram Henshaw, another man's wife. He had known, of course, that deep down in his heart he loved her, always had loved her, and always would love her. Hopelessly and drearily he accepted this as a fact even while with all his might fighting that tiger skin. So sure was he, indeed, of this, so implicitly had he accepted it as an unalterable certainty, that in time even his efforts to fight it became almost mechanical and unconscious in their stern round of forced indifference.
Then came that day at the Annex--and the discovery: the discovery which he had made when Billy called his attention to Calderwell and Alice Greggory across the room in the corner; the discovery which had come with so blinding a force, and which even now he was tempted to question as to its reality; the discovery that not Billy Neilson, nor Mrs. Bertram Henshaw, nor even the tender ghost of a lost love held the center of his heart--but Alice Greggory.
The first intimation of all this had come with his curious feeling of unreasoning hatred and blind indignation toward Calderwell as, through Billy's eyes, he had seen the two together. Then had come the overwhelming longing to pick up Alice Greggory and run off with her--somewhere, anywhere, so that Calderwell could not follow.
At once, however, he had pulled himself up short with the mental cry of "Absurd!" What was it to him if Calderwell did care for Alice Greggory? Surely he himself was not in love with the girl. He was in love with Billy; that is--
It was all confusion then, in his mind, and he was glad indeed when he could leave the house. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to think. He must, in some way, thrash out this astounding thing that had come to him.
Arkwright did not visit the Annex again for some days. Until he was more nearly sure of himself and of his feelings, he did not wish to see Alice Greggory. It was then that he began to think of Billy, deliberately, purposefully, for it must be, of course, that he had made a mistake, he told himself. It must be that he did, really, still care for Billy--though of course he ought not to.
Arkwright made another discovery then. He learned that, however deliberately he started in to think of Billy, he ended every time in thinking of Alice. He thought of how good she had been to him, and of how faithful she had been in helping him to fight his love for Billy. Just here he decided, for a moment, that probably, after all, his feeling of anger against Calderwell was merely the fear of losing this helpful comradeship that he so needed. Even with himself, however, Arkwright could not keep up this farce long, and very soon he admitted miserably that it was not the comradeship of Alice Greggory that he wanted or needed, but the love.
He knew it now. No longer was there any use in beating about the bush. He did love Alice Greggory; but so curiously and unbelievably stupid had he been that he had not found it out until now. And now it was too late. Had not even Billy called his attention to the fact of Calderwell's devotion? Besides, had not he himself, at the very first, told Calderwell that he might have a clear field?
Fool that he had been to let another thus lightly step in and win from under his very nose what might have been his if he had but known his own mind before it was too late!
But was it, after all, quite too late? He and Alice were old friends. Away back in their young days in their native town they had been, indeed, almost sweethearts, in a boy-and-girl fashion. It would not have taken much in those days, he believed, to have made the relationship more interesting. But changes had come. Alice had left town, and for years they had drifted apart. Then had come Billy, and Billy had found Alice, thus bringing about the odd circumstance of their renewing of acquaintanceship. Perhaps, at that time, if he had not already thought he cared for Billy, there would have been something more than acquaintanceship.
But he had thought he cared for Billy all these years; and now, at this late day, to wake up and find that he cared for Alice! A pretty mess he had made of things! Was he so inconstant then, so fickle? Did he not know his own mind five minutes at a time? What would Alice Greggory think, even if he found the courage to tell her? What could she think? What could anybody think?
Arkwright fairly ground his teeth in impotent wrath--and he did not know whether he were the most angry that he did not love Billy, or that he had loved Billy, or that he loved somebody else now.
It was while he was in this unenviable frame of mind that he went to see Alice. Not that he had planned definitely to speak to her of his discovery, nor yet that he had planned not to. He had, indeed, planned nothing. For a man usually so decided as to purpose and energetic as to action, he was in a most unhappy state of uncertainty and changeableness. One thing only was unmistakably clear to him, and that was that he must see Alice.
For months, now, he had taken to Alice all his hopes and griefs, perplexities and problems; and never had he failed to find comfort in the shape of sympathetic understanding and wise counsel. To Alice, therefore, now he turned as a matter of course, telling himself vaguely that, perhaps, after he had seen Alice, he would feel better.
Just how intimately this particular problem of his concerned Alice herself, he did not stop to realize. He did not, indeed, think of it at all from Alice's standpoint--until he came face to face with the girl in the living-room at the Annex. Then, suddenly, he did. His manner became at once, consequently, full of embarrassment and quite devoid of its usual frank friendliness.
As it happened, this was perhaps the most unfortunate thing that could have occurred, so far as it concerned the attitude of Alice Greggory, for thereby innumerable tiny sparks of suspicion that had been tormenting the girl for days were instantly fanned into consuming flames of conviction.
Alice had not been slow to note Arkwright's prolonged absence from the Annex. Coming as it did so soon after her most disconcerting talk with Billy in regard to her own relations with him, it had filled her with frightened questionings.
If Billy had seen things to make her think of linking their names together, perhaps Arkwright himself had heard some such idea put forth somewhere, and that was why he was staying away--to show the world that there was no foundation for such rumors. Perhaps he was even doing it to show her that--
Even in her thoughts Alice could scarcely bring herself to finish the sentence. That Arkwright should ever suspect for a moment that she cared for him was intolerable. Painfully conscious as she was that she did care for him, it was easy to fear that others must be conscious of it, too. Had she not already proof that Billy suspected it? Why, then, might not it be quite possible, even probable, that Arkwright suspected it, also; and, because he did suspect it, had decided that it would be just as well, perhaps, if he did not call so often.
In spite of Alice's angry insistence to herself that, after all, this could not be the case-- that the man knew she understood he still loved Billy--she could not help fearing, in the face of Arkwright's unusual absence, that it might yet be true. When, therefore, he finally did appear, only to become at once obviously embarrassed in her presence, her fears instantly became convictions. It was true, then. The man did believe she cared for him, and he had been trying to teach her--to save her.
To teach her! To save her, indeed! Very well, he should see! And forthwith, from that moment, Alice Greggory's chief reason for living became to prove to Mr. M. J. Arkwright that he needed not to teach her, to save her, nor yet to sympathize with her.
"How do you do?" she greeted him, with a particularly bright smile. "I'm sure I hope you are well, such a beautiful day as this."
"Oh, yes, I'm well, I suppose. Still, I have felt better in my life," smiled Arkwright, with some constraint.
"Oh, I'm sorry," murmured the girl, striving so hard to speak with impersonal unconcern that she did not notice the inaptness of her reply.
"Eh? Sorry I've felt better, are you?" retorted Arkwright, with nervous humor. Then, because he was embarrassed, he said the one thing he had meant not to say: "Don't you think I'm quite a stranger? It's been some time since I've been here."
Alice, smarting under the sting of what she judged to be the only possible cause for his embarrassment, leaped to this new opportunity to show her lack of interest.
"Oh, has it?" she murmured carelessly. "Well, I don't know but it has, now that I come to think of it."
Arkwright frowned gloomily. A week ago he would have tossed back a laughingly aggrieved remark as to her unflattering indifference to his presence. Now he was in no mood for such joking. It was too serious a matter with him.
"You've been busy, no doubt, with--other matters," he presumed forlornly, thinking of Calderwell.
"Yes, I have been busy," assented the girl. "One is always happier, I think, to be busy. Not that I meant that I needed the work to be happy," she added hastily, in a panic lest he think she had a consuming sorrow to kill.
"No, of course not," he murmured abstractedly, rising to his feet and crossing the room to the piano. Then, with an elaborate air of trying to appear very natural, he asked jovially: "Anything new to play to me?"
Alice arose at once.
"Yes. I have a little nocturne that I was playing to Mr. Calderwell last night."
"Oh, to Calderwell!" Arkwright had stiffened perceptibly.
"Yes. He didn't like it. I'll play it to you and see what you say," she smiled, seating herself at the piano.
"Well, if he had liked it, it's safe to say I shouldn't," shrugged Arkwright.
"Nonsense!" laughed the girl, beginning to appear more like her natural self. "I should think you were Mr. Cyril Henshaw! Mr. Calderwell is partial to ragtime, I'll admit. But there are some good things he likes."
"There are, indeed, some good things he likes," returned Arkwright, with grim emphasis, his somber eyes fixed on what he believed to be the one especial object of Calderwell's affections at the moment.
Alice, unaware both of the melancholy gaze bent upon herself and of the cause thereof, laughed again merrily.
"Poor Mr. Calderwell," she cried, as she let her fingers slide into soft, introductory chords. "He isn't to blame for not liking what he calls our lost spirits that wail. It's just the way he's made."
Arkwright vouchsafed no reply. With an abrupt gesture he turned and began to pace the room moodily. At the piano Alice slipped from the chords into the nocturne. She played it straight through, then, with a charm and skill that brought Arkwright's feet to a pause before it was half finished.
"By George, that's great!" he breathed, when the last tone had quivered into silence.
"Yes, isn't it--beautiful?" she murmured.
The room was very quiet, and in semi-darkness. The last rays of a late June sunset had been filling the room with golden light, but it was gone now. Even at the piano by the window, Alice had barely been able to see clearly enough to read the notes of her nocturne.
To Arkwright the air still trembled with the exquisite melody that had but just left her fingers. A quick fire came to his eyes. He forgot everything but that it was Alice there in the half-light by the window--Alice, whom he loved. With a low cry he took a swift step toward her.
Instantly the girl was on her feet. But it was not toward him that she turned. It was away-- resolutely, and with a haste that was strangely like terror.
Alice, too, had forgotten, for just a moment. She had let herself drift into a dream world where there was nothing but the music she was playing and the man she loved. Then the music had stopped, and the man had spoken her name.
Alice remembered then. She remembered Billy, whom this man loved. She remembered the long days just passed when this man had stayed away, presumably to teach her--to save her. And now, at the sound of his voice speaking her name, she had almost bared her heart to him.
No wonder that Alice, with a haste that looked like terror, crossed the floor and flooded the room with light.
"Dear me!" she shivered, carefully avoiding Arkwright's eyes. "If Mr. Calderwell were here now he'd have some excuse to talk about our lost spirits that wail. That is a creepy piece of music when you play it in the dark!" And, for fear that he should suspect how her heart was aching, she gave a particularly brilliant and joyous smile.
Once again at the mention of Calderwell's name Arkwright stiffened perceptibly. The fire left his eyes. For a moment he did not speak; then, gravely, he said:
"Calderwell? Yes, perhaps he would; and-- you ought to be a judge, I should think. You see him quite frequently, don't you?"
"Why, yes, of course. He often comes out here, you know."
"Yes; I had heard that he did--since you came."
His meaning was unmistakable. Alice looked up quickly. A prompt denial of his implication was on her lips when the thought came to her that perhaps just here lay a sure way to prove to this man before her that there was, indeed, no need for him to teach her, to save her, or yet to sympathize with her. She could not affirm, of course; but she need not deny--yet.
"Nonsense!" she laughed lightly, pleased that she could feel what she hoped would pass for a telltale color burning her cheeks. "Come, let us try some duets," she proposed, leading the way to the piano. And Arkwright, interpreting the apparently embarrassed change of subject exactly as she had hoped that he would interpret it, followed her, sick at heart.
" `O wert thou in the cauld blast,' " sang Arkwright's lips a few moments later.
"I can't tell her now--when I know she cares for Calderwell," gloomily ran his thoughts, the while. "It would do no possible good, and would only make her unhappy to grieve me."
" `O wert thou in the cauld blast,' " chimed in Alice's alto, low and sweet.
"I reckon now he won't be staying away from here any more just to save me!" ran Alice's thoughts, palpitatingly triumphant.