Chapter XXIII. Billy and the Enormous Responsibility
 

When the doctor heard from the nurse of Mrs. Hartwell's visit and what had come of it, he only gave a discreet smile, as befitted himself and the occasion; but to his wife privately, that night, the doctor said, when he had finished telling the story:

"And I couldn't have prescribed a better pill if I'd tried!"

"Pill--Mrs. Hartwell! Oh, Harold," reproved the doctor's wife, mildly.

But the doctor only chuckled the more, and said:

"You wait and see."

If Billy's friends were worried before because of her lassitude and lack of ambition, they were almost as worried now over her amazing alertness and insistent activity. Day by day, almost hour by hour, she seemed to gain in strength; and every bit she acquired she promptly tested almost to the breaking point, so plainly eager was she to be well and strong. And always, from morning until night, and again from night until morning, the pivot of her existence, around which swung all thoughts, words, actions, and plans, was the sturdy little plump-cheeked, firm-fleshed atom of humanity known as Bertram, Jr. Even Aunt Hannah remonstrated with her at last.

"But, Billy, dear," she exclaimed, "one would almost get the idea that you thought there wasn't a thing in the world but that baby!"

Billy laughed.

"Well, do you know, sometimes I 'most think there isn't," she retorted unblushingly.

"Billy!" protested Aunt Hannah; then, a little severely, she demanded: "And who was it that just last September was calling this same only-object-in-the-world a third person in your home?"

"Third person, indeed! Aunt Hannah, did I? Did I really say such a dreadful thing as that? But I didn't know, then, of course. I couldn't know how perfectly wonderful a baby is, especially such a baby as Bertram, Jr., is. Why, Aunt Hannah, that little thing knows a whole lot already. He's known me for weeks; I know he has. And ages and ages ago he began to give me little smiles when he saw me. They were smiles--real smiles! Oh, yes, I know nurse said they weren't smiles at the first," admitted Billy, in answer to Aunt Hannah's doubting expression. "I know nurse said it was only wind on his stomach. Think of it-- wind on his stomach! Just as if I didn't know the difference between my own baby's smile and wind on his stomach! And you don't know how soon he began to follow my moving finger with his eyes!"

"Yes, I tried that one day, I remember," observed Aunt Hannah demurely. "I moved my finger. He looked at the ceiling--fixedly."

"Well, probably he wanted to look at the ceiling, then," defended the young mother, promptly. "I'm sure I wouldn't give a snap for a baby if he didn't sometimes have a mind of his own, and exercise it!"

"Oh, Billy, Billy," laughed Aunt Hannah, with a shake of her head as Billy turned away, chin uptilted.

By the time Bertram, Jr., was three months old, Billy was unmistakably her old happy, merry self, strong and well. Affairs at the Strata once more were moving as by clockwork--only this time it was a baby's hand that set the clock, and that wound it, too.

Billy told her husband very earnestly that now they had entered upon a period of Enormous Responsibility. The Life, Character, and Destiny of a Human Soul was intrusted to their care, and they must be Wise, Faithful, and Efficient. They must be at once Proud and Humble at this their Great Opportunity. They must Observe, Learn, and Practice. First and foremost in their eyes must always be this wonderful Important Trust.

Bertram laughed at first very heartily at Billy's instructions, which, he declared, were so bristling with capitals that he could fairly see them drop from her lips. Then, when he found how really very much in earnest she was, and how hurt she was at his levity, he managed to pull his face into something like sobriety while she talked to him, though he did persist in dropping kisses on her cheeks, her chin, her finger-tips, her hair, and the little pink lobes of her ears--"just by way of punctuation" to her sentences, he said. And he told her that he wasn't really slighting her lips, only that they moved so fast he could not catch them. Whereat Billy pouted, and told him severely that he was a bad, naughty boy, and that he did not deserve to be the father of the dearest, most wonderful baby in the world.

"No, I know I don't," beamed Bertram, with cheerful unrepentance; "but I am, just the same," he finished triumphantly. And this time he contrived to find his wife's lips.

"Oh, Bertram," sighed Billy, despairingly.

"You're an old dear, of course, and one just can't be cross with you; but you don't, you just don't realize your Immense Responsibility."

"Oh, yes, I do," maintained Bertram so seriously that even Billy herself almost believed him.

In spite of his assertions, however, it must be confessed that Bertram was much more inclined to regard the new member of his family as just his son rather than as an Important Trust; and there is little doubt that he liked to toss him in the air and hear his gleeful crows of delight, without any bother of Observing him at all. As to the Life and Character and Destiny intrusted to his care, it is to be feared that Bertram just plain gloried in his son, poked him in the ribs, and chuckled him under the chin whenever he pleased, and gave never so much as a thought to Character and Destiny. It is to be feared, too, that he was Proud without being Humble, and that the only Opportunity he really appreciated was the chance to show off his wife and baby to some less fortunate fellow-man.

But not so Billy. Billy joined a Mothers' Club and entered a class in Child Training with an elaborate system of Charts, Rules, and Tests. She subscribed to each new "Mothers' Helper," and the like, that she came across, devouring each and every one with an eagerness that was tempered only by a vague uneasiness at finding so many differences of opinion among Those Who Knew.

Undeniably Billy, if not Bertram, was indeed realizing the Enormous Responsibility, and was keeping ever before her the Important Trust.

In June Bertram took a cottage at the South Shore, and by the time the really hot weather arrived the family were well settled. It was only an hour away from Boston, and easy of access, but William said he guessed he would not go; he would stay in Boston, sleeping at the house, and getting his meals at the club, until the middle of July, when he was going down in Maine for his usual fishing trip, which he had planned to take a little earlier than usual this year.

"But you'll be so lonesome, Uncle William," Billy demurred, "in this great house all alone!"

"Oh, no, I sha'n't," rejoined Uncle William. "I shall only be sleeping here, you know," he finished. with a slightly peculiar smile.

It was well, perhaps, that Billy did not exactly realize the significance of that smile, nor the unconscious emphasis on the word "sleeping," for it would have troubled her not a little.

William, to tell the truth, was quite anticipating that sleeping. William's nights had not been exactly restful since the baby came. His evenings, too, had not been the peaceful things they were wont to be.

Some of Billy's Rules and Tests were strenuously objected to on the part of her small son, and the young man did not hesitate to show it. Billy said that it was good for the baby to cry, that it developed his lungs; but William was very sure that it was not good for him. Certainly, when the baby did cry, William never could help hovering near the center of disturbance, and he always had to remind Billy that it might be a pin, you know, or some cruel thing that was hurting. As if he, William, a great strong man, could sit calmly by and smoke a pipe, or lie in his comfortable bed and sleep, while that blessed little baby was crying his heart out like that! Of course, if one did not know he was crying-- Hence William's anticipation of those quiet, restful nights when he could not know it.

Very soon after Billy's arrival at the cottage, Aunt Hannah and Alice Greggory came down for a day's visit. Aunt Hannah had been away from Boston for several weeks, so it was some time since she had seen the baby.

"My, but hasn't he grown!" she exclaimed, picking the baby up and stooping to give him a snuggling kiss. The next instant she almost dropped the little fellow, so startling had been Billy's cry.

"No, no, wait, Aunt Hannah, please," Billy was entreating, hurrying to the little corner cupboard. In a moment she was back with a small bottle and a bit of antiseptic cotton. "We always sterilize our lips now before we kiss him-- it's so much safer, you know."

Aunt Hannah sat down limply, the baby still in her arms.

"Fiddlededee, Billy! What an absurd idea! What have you got in that bottle?"

"Why, Aunt Hannah, it's just a little simple listerine," bridled Billy, "and it isn't absurd at all. It's very sensible. My `Hygienic Guide for Mothers' says--"

"Well, I suppose I may kiss his hand," interposed Aunt Hannah, just a little curtly, "without subjecting myself to a City Hospital treatment!"

Billy laughed shamefacedly, but she still held her ground.

"No, you can't--nor even his foot. He might get them in his mouth. Aunt Hannah, why does a baby think that everything, from his own toes to his father's watch fob and the plush balls on a caller's wrist-bag, is made to eat? As if I could sterilize everything, and keep him from getting hold of germs somewhere!"

"You'll have to have a germ-proof room for him," laughed Alice Greggory, playfully snapping her fingers at the baby in Aunt Hannah's lap.

Billy turned eagerly.

"Oh, did you read about that, too?" she cried. "I thought it was so interesting, and I wondered if I could do it."

Alice stared frankly.

"You don't mean to say they actually have such things," she challenged.

"Well, I read about them in a magazine," asserted Billy, "--how you could have a germ- proof room. They said it was very simple, too. Just pasteurize the air, you know, by heating it to one hundred and ten and one-half degrees Fahrenheit for seventeen and one-half minutes. I remember just the figures."

"Simple, indeed! It sounds so," scoffed Aunt Hannah, with uplifted eyebrows.

"Oh, well, I couldn't do it, of course," admitted Billy, regretfully. "Bertram never'd stand for that in the world. He's always rushing in to show the baby off to every Tom, Dick and Harry and his wife that comes; and of course if you opened the nursery door, that would let in those germ things, and you couldn't very well pasteurize your callers by heating them to one hundred and ten and one-half degrees for seventeen and one-half minutes! I don't see how you could manage such a room, anyway, unless you had a system of-- of rooms like locks, same as they do for water in canals."

"Oh, my grief and conscience--locks, indeed!" almost groaned Aunt Hannah. "Here, Alice, will you please take this child--that is, if you have a germ-proof certificate about you to show to his mother. I want to take off my bonnet and gloves."

"Take him? Of course I'll take him," laughed Alice; "and right under his mother's nose, too," she added, with a playful grimace at Billy. "And we'll make pat-a-cakes, and send the little pigs to market, and have such a beautiful time that we'll forget there ever was such a thing in the world as an old germ. Eh, babykins?"

"Babykins" cooed his unqualified approval of this plan; but his mother looked troubled.

"That's all right, Alice. You may play with him," she frowned doubtfully; "but you mustn't do it long, you know--not over five minutes."

"Five minutes! Well, I like that, when I've come all the way from Boston purposely to see him," pouted Alice. "What's the matter now? Time for his nap?"

"Oh, no, not for--thirteen minutes," replied Billy, consulting the watch at her belt. "But we never play with Baby more than five minutes at a time. My `Scientific Care of Infants' says it isn't wise; that with some babies it's positively dangerous, until after they're six months old. It makes them nervous, and forces their mind, you know," she explained anxiously. "So of course we'd want to be careful. Bertram, Jr., isn't quite four, yet."

"Why, yes, of course," murmured Alice, politely, stopping a pat-a-cake before it was half baked.

The infant, as if suspecting that he was being deprived of his lawful baby rights, began to fret and whimper.

"Poor itty sing," crooned Aunt Hannah, who, having divested herself of bonnet and gloves, came hurriedly forward with outstretched hands. "Do they just 'buse 'em? Come here to your old auntie, sweetems, and we'll go walkee. I saw a bow-wow--such a tunnin' ickey wickey bow- wow on the steps when I came in. Come, we go see ickey wickey bow-wow?"

"Aunt Hannah, please!" protested Billy, both hands upraised in horror. "Won't you say `dog,' and leave out that dreadful `ickey wickey'? Of course he can't understand things now, really, but we never know when he'll begin to, and we aren't ever going to let him hear baby-talk at all, if we can help it. And truly, when you come to think of it, it is absurd to expect a child to talk sensibly and rationally on the mental diet of `moo-moos' and `choo-choos' served out to them. Our Professor of Metaphysics and Ideology in our Child Study Course says that nothing is so receptive and plastic as the Mind of a Little Child, and that it is perfectly appalling how we fill it with trivial absurdities that haven't even the virtue of being accurate. So that's why we're trying to be so careful with Baby. You didn't mind my speaking, I know, Aunt Hannah."

"Oh, no, of course not, Billy," retorted Aunt Hannah, a little tartly, and with a touch of sarcasm most unlike her gentle self. "I'm sure I shouldn't wish to fill this infant's plastic mind with anything so appalling as trivial inaccuracies. May I be pardoned for suggesting, however," she went on as the baby's whimper threatened to become a lusty wail, "that this young gentleman cries as if he were sleepy and hungry?"

"Yes, he is," admitted Billy.

"Well, doesn't your system of scientific training allow him to be given such trivial absurdities as food and naps?" inquired the lady, mildly.

"Of course it does, Aunt Hannah," retorted Billy, laughing in spite of herself. "And it's almost time now. There are only a few more minutes to wait."

"Few more minutes to wait, indeed!" scorned Aunt Hannah. "I suppose the poor little fellow might cry and cry, and you wouldn't set that clock ahead by a teeny weeny minute!"

"Certainly not," said the young mother, decisively. "My `Daily Guide for Mothers' says that a time for everything and everything in its time, is the very A B C and whole alphabet of Right Training. He does everything by the clock, and to the minute," declared Billy, proudly.

Aunt Hannah sniffed, obviously skeptical and rebellious. Alice Greggory laughed.

"Aunt Hannah looks as if she'd like to bring down her clock that strikes half an hour ahead," she said mischievously; but Aunt Hannah did not deign to answer this.

"How long do you rock him?" she demanded of Billy. "I suppose I may do that, mayn't I?"

"Mercy, I don't rock him at all, Aunt Hannah," exclaimed Billy.

"Nor sing to him?"

"Certainly not."

"But you did--before I went away. I remember that you did."

"Yes, I know I did," admitted Billy, "and I had an awful time, too. Some evenings, every single one of us, even to Uncle William, had to try before we could get him off to sleep. But that was before I got my `Efficiency of Mother and Child,' or my `Scientific Training,' and, oh, lots of others. You see, I didn't know a thing then, and I loved to rock him, so I did it--though the nurse said it wasn't good for him; but I didn't believe her. I've had an awful time changing; but I've done it. I just put him in his little crib, or his carriage, and after a while he goes to sleep. Sometimes, now, he doesn't cry hardly any. I'm afraid, to-day, though, he will," she worried.

"Yes, I'm afraid he will," almost screamed Aunt Hannah, in order to make herself heard above Bertram, Jr., who, by this time, was voicing his opinion of matters and things in no uncertain manner.

It was not, after all, so very long before peace and order reigned; and, in due course, Bertram, Jr., in his carriage, lay fast asleep. Then, while Aunt Hannah went to Billy's room for a short rest, Billy and Alice went out on to the wide veranda which faced the wonderful expanse of sky and sea.

"Now tell me of yourself," commanded Billy, almost at once. "It's been ages since I've heard or seen a thing of you."

"There's nothing to tell."

"Nonsense! But there must be," insisted Billy. "You know it's months since I've seen anything of you, hardly."

"I know. We feel quite neglected at the Annex," said Alice.

"But I don't go anywhere," defended Billy. "I can't. There isn't time."

"Even to bring us the extra happiness?" smiled Alice.

A quick change came to Billy's face. Her eyes glowed deeply.

"No; though I've had so much that ought to have gone--such loads and loads of extra happiness, which I couldn't possibly use myself! Sometimes I'm so happy, Alice, that--that I'm just frightened. It doesn't seem as if anybody ought to be so happy."

"Oh, Billy, dear," demurred Alice, her eyes filling suddenly with tears.

"Well, I've got the Annex. I'm glad I've got that for the overflow, anyway," resumed Billy, trying to steady her voice. "I've sent a whole lot of happiness up there mentally, if I haven't actually carried it; so I'm sure you must have got it. Now tell me of yourself."

"There's nothing to tell," insisted Alice, as before.

"You're working as hard as ever?"

"Yes--harder."

"New pupils?"

"Yes, and some concert engagements--good ones, for next season. Accompaniments, you know."

Billy nodded.

"Yes; I've heard of you already twice, lately, in that line, and very flatteringly, too."

"Have you? Well, that's good."

"Hm-m." There was a moment's silence, then, abruptly, Billy changed the subject. "I had a letter from Belle Calderwell, yesterday." She paused expectantly, but there was no comment.

"You don't seem interested," she frowned, after a minute.

Alice laughed.

"Pardon me, but--I don't know the Lady, you see. Was it a good letter?"

"You know her brother."

"Very true." Alice's cheeks showed a deeper color. "Did she say anything of him?"

"Yes. She said he was coming back to Boston next winter."

"Indeed!"

"Yes. She says that this time he declares he really is going to settle down to work," murmured Billy, demurely, with a sidelong glance at her companion. "She says he's engaged to be married --one of her friends over there."

There was no reply. Alice appeared to be absorbed in watching a tiny white sail far out at sea.

Again Billy was silent. Then, with studied carelessness, she said:

"Yes, and you know Mr. Arkwright, too. She told of him."

"Yes? Well, what of him?" Alice's voice was studiedly indifferent.

"Oh, there was quite a lot of him. Belle had just been to hear him sing, and then her brother had introduced him to her. She thinks he's perfectly wonderful, in every way, I should judge. In fact, she simply raved over him. It seems that while we've been hearing nothing from him all winter, he's been winning no end of laurels for himself in Paris and Berlin. He's been studying, too, of course, as well as singing; and now he's got a chance to sing somewhere--create a role, or something--Belle said she wasn't quite clear on the matter herself, but it was a perfectly splendid chance, and one that was a fine feather in his cap."

"Then he won't be coming home--that is, to Boston--at all this winter, probably," said Alice, with a cheerfulness that sounded just a little forced.

"Not until February. But he is coming then. He's been engaged for six performances with the Boston Opera Company--as a star tenor, mind you! Isn't that splendid?"

"Indeed it is," murmured Alice.

"Belle writes that Hugh says he's improved wonderfully, and that even he can see that his singing is marvelous. He says Paris is wild over him; but--for my part, I wish he'd come home and stay here where he belongs," finished Billy, a bit petulantly.

"Why, why, Billy!" murmured her friend, a curiously startled look coming into her eyes.

"Well, I do," maintained Billy; then, recklessly, she added: "I had such beautiful plans for him, once, Alice. Oh, if you only could have cared for him, you'd have made such a splendid couple!"

A vivid scarlet flew to Alice's face.

"Nonsense!" she cried, getting quickly to her feet and bending over one of the flower boxes along the veranda railing. "Mr. Arkwright never thought of marrying me--and I'm not going to marry anybody but my music."

Billy sighed despairingly.

"I know that's what you say now; but if--" She stopped abruptly. Around the turn of the veranda had appeared Aunt Hannah, wheeling Bertram, Jr., still asleep in his carriage.

"I came out the other door," she explained softly. "And it was so lovely I just had to go in and get the baby. I thought it would be so nice for him to finish his nap out here."

Billy arose with a troubled frown.

"But, Aunt Hannah, he mustn't--he can't stay out here. I'm sorry, but we'll have to take him back."

Aunt Hannah's eyes grew mutinous.

"But I thought the outdoor air was just the thing for him. I'm sure your scientific hygienic nonsense says that!"

"They do--they did--that is, some of them do," acknowledged Billy, worriedly; "but they differ, so! And the one I'm going by now says that Baby should always sleep in an even temperature--seventy degrees, if possible; and that's exactly what the room in there was, when I left him. It's not the same out here, I'm sure. In fact I looked at the thermometer to see, just before I came out myself. So, Aunt Hannah, I'm afraid I'll have to take him back."

"But you used to have him sleep out of doors all the time, on that little balcony out of your room," argued Aunt Hannah, still plainly unconvinced.

"Yes, I know I did. I was following the other man's rules, then. As I said, if only they wouldn't differ so! Of course I want the best; but it's so hard to always know the best, and--"

At this very inopportune moment Master Bertram took occasion to wake up, which brought even a deeper wrinkle of worry to his fond mother's forehead; for she said that, according to the clock, he should have been sleeping exactly ten and one-half more minutes, and that of course he couldn't commence the next thing until those ten and one-half minutes were up, or else his entire schedule for the day would be shattered. So what she should do with him for those should-have- been-sleeping ten minutes and a half, she did not know. All of which drew from Aunt Hannah the astounding exclamation of:

"Oh, my grief and conscience, Billy, if you aren't the--the limit!" Which, indeed, she must have been, to have brought circumspect Aunt Hannah to the point of actually using slang.