Chapter XXI. Billy Takes Her Turn at Questioning
 

Arkwright did not call to see Alice Greggory for some days. He did not want to see Alice now. He told himself wearily that she could not help him fight this tiger skin that lay across his path, The very fact of her presence by his side would, indeed, incapacitate himself for fighting. So he deliberately stayed away from the Annex until the day before he sailed for Germany. Then he went out to say good-by.

Chagrined as he was at what he termed his imbecile stupidity in not knowing his own heart all these past months, and convinced, as he also was, that Alice and Calderwell cared for each other, he could see no way for him but to play the part of a man of kindliness and honor, leaving a clear field for his preferred rival, and bringing no shadow of regret to mar the happiness of the girl he loved.

As for being his old easy, frank self on this last call, however, that was impossible; so Alice found plenty of fuel for her still burning fires of suspicion--fires which had, indeed, blazed up anew at this second long period of absence on the part of Arkwright. Naturally, therefore, the call was anything but a joy and comfort to either one. Arkwright was nervous, gloomy, and abnormally gay by turns. Alice was nervous and abnormally gay all the time. Then they said good-by and Arkwright went away. He sailed the next day, and Alice settled down to the summer of study and hard work she had laid out for herself.

On the tenth of September Billy came home. She was brown, plump-cheeked, and smiling. She declared that she had had a perfectly beautiful time, and that there couldn't be anything in the world nicer than the trip she and Bertram had taken--just they two together. In answer to Aunt Hannah's solicitous inquiries, she asserted that she was all well and rested now. But there was a vaguely troubled questioning in her eyes that Aunt Hannah did not quite like. Aunt Hannah, however, said nothing even to Billy herself about this.

One of the first friends Billy saw after her return was Hugh Calderwell. As it happened Bertram was out when he came, so Billy had the first half- hour of the call to herself. She was not sorry for this, as it gave her a chance to question Calderwell a little concerning Alice Greggory--something she had long ago determined to do at the first opportunity.

"Now tell me everything--everything about everybody," she began diplomatically, settling herself comfortably for a good visit.

"Thank you, I'm well, and have had a passably agreeable summer, barring the heat, sundry persistent mosquitoes, several grievous disappointments, and a felon on my thumb," he began, with shameless imperturbability. "I have been to Revere once, to the circus once, to Nantasket three times, and to Keith's and the `movies' ten times, perhaps--to be accurate. I have also-- But perhaps there was some one else you desired to inquire for," he broke off, turning upon his hostess a bland but unsmiling countenance.

"Oh, no, how could there be?" twinkled Billy. "Really, Hugh, I always knew you had a pretty good opinion of yourself, but I didn't credit you with thinking you were everybody. Go on. I'm so interested!"

Hugh chuckled softly; but there was a plaintive tone in his voice as he answered.

"Thanks, no. I've rather lost my interest now. Lack of appreciation always did discourage me. We'll talk of something else, please. You enjoyed your trip?"

"Very much. It just couldn't have been nicer!"

"You were lucky. The heat here has been something fierce!"

"What made you stay?"

"Reasons too numerous, and one too heart- breaking, to mention. Besides, you forget," with dignity. "There is my profession. I have joined the workers of the world now, you know."

"Oh, fudge, Hugh!" laughed Billy. "You know very well you're as likely as not to start for the ends of the earth to-morrow morning!"

Hugh drew himself up.

"I don't seem to succeed in making people understand that I'm serious," he began aggrievedly. "I--" With an expressive flourish of his hands he relaxed suddenly, and fell back in his chair. A slow smile came to his lips. "Well, Billy, I'll give up. You've hit it," he confessed. "I have thought seriously of starting to- morrow morning for half-way to the ends of the earth--Panama."

"Hugh!"

"Well, I have. Even this call was to be a good-by--if I went."

"Oh, Hugh! But I really thought--in spite of my teasing--that you had settled down, this time."

"Yes, so did I," sighed the man, a little soberly. "But I guess it's no use, Billy. Oh, I'm coming back, of course, and link arms again with their worthy Highnesses, John Doe and Richard Roe; but just now I've got a restless fit on me. I want to see the wheels go 'round. Of course, if I had my bread and butter and cigars to earn, 'twould be different. But I haven't, and I know I haven't; and I suspect that's where the trouble lies. If it wasn't for those natal silver spoons of mine that Bertram is always talking about, things might be different. But the spoons are there, and always have been; and I know they're all ready to dish out mountains to climb and lakes to paddle in, any time I've a mind to say the word. So--I just say the word. That's all."

"And you've said it now?"

"Yes, I think so; for a while."

"And--those reasons that have kept you here all summer," ventured Billy, "they aren't in-- er--commission any longer?"

"No."

Billy hesitated, regarding her companion meditatively. Then, with the feeling that she had followed a blind alley to its termination, she retreated and made a fresh start.

"Well, you haven't yet told me everything about everybody, you know," she hinted smilingly. "You might begin that--I mean the less important everybodies, of course, now that I've heard about you."

"Meaning--"

"Oh, Aunt Hannah, and the Greggorys, and Cyril and Marie, and the twins, and Mr. Arkwright, and all the rest."

"But you've had letters, surely."

"Yes, I've had letters from some of them, and I've seen most of them since I came back. It's just that I wanted to know your viewpoint of what's happened through the summer."

"Very well. Aunt Hannah is as dear as ever, wears just as many shawls, and still keeps her clock striking twelve when it's half-past eleven. Mrs. Greggory is just as sweet as ever--and a little more frail, I fear,--bless her heart! Mr. Arkwright is still abroad, as I presume you know. I hear he is doing great stunts over there, and will sing in Berlin and Paris this winter. I'm thinking of going across from Panama later. If I do I shall look him up. Mr. and Mrs. Cyril are as well as could be expected when you realize that they haven't yet settled on a pair of names for the twins."

"I know it--and the poor little things three months old, too! I think it's a shame. You've heard the reason, I suppose. Cyril declares that naming babies is one of the most serious and delicate operations in the world, and that, for his part, he thinks people ought to select their own names when they've arrived at years of discretion. He wants to wait till the twins are eighteen, and then make each of them a birthday present of the name of their own choosing."

"Well, if that isn't the limit!" laughed Calderwell. "I'd heard some such thing before, but I hadn't supposed it was really so."

"Well, it is. He says he knows more tomboys and enormous fat women named `Grace' and `Lily,' and sweet little mouse-like ladies staggering along under a sonorous `Jerusha Theodosia' or `Zenobia Jane'; and that if he should name the boys `Franz' and `Felix' after Schubert and Mendelssohn as Marie wants to, they'd as likely as not turn out to be men who hated the sound of music and doted on stocks and dry goods."

"Humph!" grunted Calderwell. "I saw Cyril last week, and he said he hadn't named the twins yet, but he didn't tell me why. I offered him two perfectly good names myself, but he didn't seem interested."

"What were they?"

"Eldad and Bildad."

"Hugh!" protested Billy.

"Well, why not?" bridled the man. "I'm sure those are new and unique, and really musical, too--'way ahead of your Franz and Felix."

"But those aren't really names!"

"Indeed they are."

"Where did you get them?"

"Off our family tree, though they're Bible names, Belle says. Perhaps you didn't know, but Sister Belle has been making the dirt fly quite lively of late around that family tree of ours, and she wrote me some of her discoveries. It seems two of the roots, or branches--say, are ancestors roots, or branches?--were called Eldad and Bildad. Now I thought those names were good enough to pass along, but, as I said before, Cyril wasn't interested."

"I should say not," laughed Billy. "But, honestly, Hugh, it's really serious. Marie wants them named something, but she doesn't say much to Cyril. Marie wouldn't really breathe, you know, if she thought Cyril disapproved of breathing. And in this case Cyril does not hesitate to declare that the boys shall name themselves."

"What a situation!" laughed Calderwell.

"Isn't it? But, do you know, I can sympathize with it, in a way, for I've always mourned so over my name. `Billy' was always such a trial to me! Poor Uncle William wasn't the only one that prepared guns and fishing rods to entertain the expected boy. I don't know, though, I'm afraid if I'd been allowed to select my name I should have been a `Helen Clarabella' all my days, for that was the name I gave all my dolls, with `first,' `second,' `third,' and so on, added to them for distinction. Evidently I thought that `Helen Clarabella' was the most feminine appellation possible, and the most foreign to the despised `Billy.' So you see I can sympathize with Cyril to a certain extent."

"But they must call the little chaps something, now," argued Hugh.

Billy gave a sudden merry laugh.

"They do," she gurgled, "and that's the funniest part of it. Oh, Cyril doesn't. He always calls them impersonally `they' or `it.' He doesn't see much of them anyway, now, I understand. Marie was horrified when she realized how the nurses had been using his den as a nursery annex and she changed all that instanter, when she took charge of things again. The twins stay in the nursery now, I'm told. But about the names-- the nurses, it seems, have got into the way of calling them `Dot' and `Dimple.' One has a dimple in his cheek, and the other is a little smaller of the two. Marie is no end distressed, particularly as she finds that she herself calls them that; and she says the idea of boys being `Dot' and `Dimple'!"

"I should say so," laughed Calderwell. "Not I regard that as worse than my `Eldad' and `Bildad.' "

"I know it, and Alice says-- By the way, you haven't mentioned Alice, but I suppose you see her occasionally."

Billy paused in evident expectation of a reply. Billy was, in fact, quite pluming herself on the adroit casualness with which she had introduced the subject nearest her heart.

Calderwell raised his eyebrows.

"Oh, yes, I see her."

"But you hadn't mentioned her."

There was the briefest of pauses; then with a half-quizzical dejection, there came the remark:

"You seem to forget. I told you that I stayed here this summer for reasons too numerous, and one too heart-breaking, to mention. She was the one."

"You mean--"

"Yes. The usual thing. She turned me down. Oh, I haven't asked her yet as many times as I did you, but--"

"Hugh!"

Hugh tossed her a grim smile and went on imperturbably.

"I'm older now, of course, and know more, perhaps. Besides, the finality of her remarks was not to be mistaken."

Billy, in spite of her sympathy for Calderwell, was conscious of a throb of relief that at least one stumbling-block was removed from Arkwright's possible pathway to Alice's heart.

"Did she give any special reason?" hazarded Billy, a shade too anxiously.

"Oh, yes. She said she wasn't going to marry anybody--only her music."

"Nonsense!" ejaculated Billy, falling back in her chair a little.

"Yes, I said that, too," gloomed the man; "but it didn't do any good. You see, I had known another girl who'd said the same thing once." (He did not look up, but a vivid red flamed suddenly into Billy's cheeks.) "And she --when the right one came--forgot all about the music, and married the man. So I naturally suspected that Alice would do the same thing. In fact, I said so to her. I was bold enough to even call the man by name--I hadn't been jealous of Arkwright for nothing, you see--but she denied it, and flew into such an indignant allegation that there wasn't a word of truth in it, that I had to sue for pardon before I got anything like peace."

"Oh-h!" said Billy, in a disappointed voice, falling quite back in her chair this time.

"And so that's why I'm wanting especially just now to see the wheels go 'round," smiled Calderwell, a little wistfully. "Oh, I shall get over it, I suppose. It isn't the first time, I'll own--but some day I take it there will be a last time. Enough of this, however! You haven't told me a thing about yourself. How about it? When I come back, are you going to give me a dinner cooked by your own fair hands? Going to still play Bridget?"

Billy laughed and shook her head.

"No; far from it. Eliza has come back, and her cousin from Vermont is coming as second girl to help her. But I could cook a dinner for you if I had to now, sir, and it wouldn't be potato-mush and cold lamb," she bragged shamelessly, as there sounded Bertram's peculiar ring, and the click of his key in the lock.

It was the next afternoon that Billy called on Marie. From Marie's, Billy went to the Annex, which was very near Cyril's new house; and there, in Aunt Hannah's room, she had what she told Bertram afterwards was a perfectly lovely visit.

Aunt Hannah, too, enjoyed the visit very much, though yet there was one thing that disturbed her--the vaguely troubled look in Billy's eyes, which to-day was more apparent than ever. Not until just before Billy went home did something occur to give Aunt Hannah a possible clue as to what was the meaning of it. That something was a question from Billy.

"Aunt Hannah, why don't I feel like Marie did? why don't I feel like everybody does in books and stories? Marie went around with such a detached, heavenly, absorbed look in her eyes, before the twins came to her home. But I don't. I don't find anything like that in my face, when I look in the glass. And I don't feel detached and absorbed and heavenly. I'm happy, of course; but I can't help thinking of the dear, dear times Bertram and I have together, just we two, and I can't seem to imagine it at all with a third person around."

"Billy! Third person, indeed!"

"There! I knew 'twould shock you," mourned Billy. It shocks me. I want to feel detached and heavenly and absorbed."

"But Billy, dear, think of it--calling your own baby a third person!"

Billy sighed despairingly.

"Yes, I know. And I suppose I might as well own up to the rest of it too. I--I'm actually afraid of babies, Aunt Hannah! Well, I am," she reiterated, in answer to Aunt Hannah's gasp of disapproval. "I'm not used to them at all. I never had any little brothers and sisters, and I don't know how to treat babies. I--I'm always afraid they'll break, or something. I'm just as afraid of the twins as I can be. How Marie can handle them, and toss them about as she does, I don't see."

"Toss them about, indeed!"

"Well, it looks that way to me," sighed Billy. "Anyhow, I know I can never get to handle them like that--and that's no way to feel! And I'm ashamed of myself because I can't be detached and heavenly and absorbed," she added, rising to go. "Everybody always is, it seems, but just me."

"Fiddlededee, my dear!" scoffed Aunt Hannah, patting Billy's downcast face. "Wait till a year from now, and we'll see about that third- person bugaboo you're worrying about. I'm not worrying now; so you'd better not!"