Chapter XXIV. A Night Off
 

The Henshaw family did not return to the Strata until late in September. Billy said that the sea air seemed to agree so well with the baby it would be a pity to change until the weather became really too cool at the shore to be comfortable.

William came back from his fishing trip in August, and resumed his old habit of sleeping at the house and taking his meals at the club. To be sure, for a week he went back and forth between the city and the beach house; but it happened to be a time when Bertram, Jr., was cutting a tooth, and this so wore upon William's sympathy-- William still could not help insisting it might be a pin--that he concluded peace lay only in flight. So he went back to the Strata.

Bertram had stayed at the cottage all summer, painting industriously. Heretofore he had taken more of a vacation through the summer months, but this year there seemed to be nothing for him to do but to paint. He did not like to go away on a trip and leave Billy, and she declared she could not take the baby nor leave him, and that she did not need any trip, anyway.

"All right, then, we'll just stay at the beach, and have a fine vacation together," he had answered her.

As Bertram saw it, however, he could detect very little "vacation" to it. Billy had no time for anything but the baby. When she was not actually engaged in caring for it, she was studying how to care for it. Never had she been sweeter or dearer, and never had Bertram loved her half so well. He was proud, too, of her devotion, and of her triumphant success as a mother; but he did wish that sometimes, just once in a while, she would remember she was a wife, and pay a little attention to him, her husband.

Bertram was ashamed to own it, even to himself, but he was feeling just a little abused that summer; and he knew that, in his heart, he was actually getting jealous of his own son, in spite of his adoration of the little fellow. He told himself defensively that it was not to be expected that he should not want the love of his wife, the attentions of his wife, and the companionship of his wife--a part of the time. It was nothing more than natural that occasionally he should like to see her show some interest in subjects not mentioned in Mothers' Guides and Scientific Trainings of Infants; and he did not believe he could be blamed for wanting his residence to be a home for himself as well as a nursery for his offspring.

Even while he thus discontentedly argued with himself, however, Bertram called himself a selfish brute just to think such things when he had so dear and loving a wife as Billy, and so fine and splendid a baby as Bertram, Jr. He told himself, too, that very likely when they were back in their own house again, and when motherhood was not so new to her, Billy would not be so absorbed in the baby. She would return to her old interest in her husband, her music, her friends, and her own personal appearance. Meanwhile there was always, of course, for him, his painting. So he would paint, accepting gladly what crumbs of attention fell from the baby's table, and trust to the future to make Billy none the less a mother, perhaps, but a little more the wife.

Just how confidently he was counting on this coming change, Bertram hardly realized himself; but certainly the family was scarcely settled at the Strata before the husband gayly proposed one evening that he and Billy should go to the theater to see "Romeo and Juliet."

Billy was clearly both surprised and shocked.

"Why, Bertram, I can't--you know I can't!" she exclaimed reprovingly.

Bertram's heart sank; but he kept a brave front.

"Why not?"

"What a question! As if I'd leave Baby!"

"But, Billy, dear, you'd be gone less than three hours, and you say Delia's the most careful of nurses."

Billy's forehead puckered into an anxious frown.

"I can't help it. Something might happen to him, Bertram. I couldn't be happy a minute."

"But, dearest, aren't you ever going to leave him?" demanded the young husband, forlornly.

"Why, yes, of course, when it's reasonable and necessary. I went out to the Annex yesterday afternoon. I was gone almost two whole hours."

"Well, did anything happen?"

"N-no; but then I telephoned, you see, several times, so I knew everything was all right."

"Oh, well, if that's all you want, I could telephone, you know, between every act," suggested Bertram, with a sarcasm that was quite lost on the earnest young mother.

"Y-yes, you could do that, couldn't you?" conceded Billy; "and, of course, I haven't been anywhere much, lately."

"Indeed I could," agreed Bertram, with a promptness that carefully hid his surprise at her literal acceptance of what he had proposed as a huge joke. "Come, is it a go? Shall I telephone to see if I can get seats?"

"You think Baby'll surely be all right?"

"I certainly do."

"And you'll telephone home between every act?"

"I will." Bertram's voice sounded almost as if he were repeating the marriage service.

"And we'll come straight home afterwards as fast as John and Peggy can bring us?"

"Certainly."

"Then I think--I'll--go," breathed Billy, tremulously, plainly showing what a momentous concession she thought she was making. "I do love `Romeo and Juliet,' and I haven't seen it for ages!"

"Good! Then I'll find out about the tickets," cried Bertram, so elated at the prospect of having an old-time evening out with his wife that even the half-hourly telephones did not seem too great a price to pay.

When the time came, they were a little late in starting. Baby was fretful, and though Billy usually laid him in his crib and unhesitatingly left the room, insisting that he should go to sleep by himself in accordance with the most approved rules in her Scientific Training; yet to-night she could not bring herself to the point of leaving the house until he was quiet. Hurried as they were when they did start, Billy was conscious of Bertram's frowning disapproval of her frock.

"You don't like it, of course, dear, and I don't blame you," she smiled remorsefully.

"Oh, I like it--that is, I did, when it was new," rejoined her husband, with apologetic frankness. "But, dear, didn't you have anything else? This looks almost--well, mussy, you know."

"No--well, yes, maybe there were others," admitted Billy; "but this was the quickest and easiest to get into, and it all came just as I was getting Baby ready for bed, you know. I am a fright, though, I'll acknowledge, so far as clothes go. I haven't had time to get a thing since Baby came. I must get something right away, I suppose."

"Yes, indeed," declared Bertram, with emphasis, hurrying his wife into the waiting automobile.

Billy had to apologize again at the theater, for the curtain had already risen on the ancient quarrel between the houses of Capulet and Montague, and Billy knew her husband's special abhorrence of tardy arrivals. Later, though, when well established in their seats, Billy's mind was plainly not with the players on the stage.

"Do you suppose Baby is all right?" she whispered, after a time.

"Sh-h! Of course he is, dear!"

There was a brief silence, during which Billy peered at her program in the semi-darkness. Then she nudged her husband's arm ecstatically.

"Bertram, I couldn't have chosen a better play if I'd tried. There are five acts! I'd forgotten there were so many. That means you can telephone four times!"

"Yes, dear." Bertram's voice was sternly cheerful.

"You must be sure they tell you exactly how Baby is."

"All right, dear. Sh-h! Here's Romeo."

Billy subsided. She even clapped a little in spasmodic enthusiasm. Presently she peered at her program again.

"There wouldn't be time, I suppose, to telephone between the scenes," she hazarded wistfully. "There are sixteen of those!"

"Well, hardly! Billy, you aren't paying one bit of attention to the play!"

"Why, of course I am," whispered Billy, indignantly. "I think it's perfectly lovely, and I'm perfectly contented, too--since I found out about those five acts, and as long as I can't have the sixteen scenes," she added, settling back in her seat.

As if to prove that she was interested in the play, her next whisper, some time later, had to do with one of the characters on the stage.

"Who's that--the nurse? Mercy! We wouldn't want her for Baby, would we?"

In spite of himself Bertram chuckled this time. Billy, too, laughed at herself. Then, resolutely, she settled into her seat again.

The curtain was not fairly down on the first act before Billy had laid an urgent hand on her husband's arm.

"Now, remember; ask if he's waked up, or anything," she directed. "And be sure to say I'll come right home if they need me. Now hurry."

"Yes, dear." Bertram rose with alacrity. "I'll be back right away."

"Oh, but I don't want you to hurry too much," she called after him, softly. "I want you to take plenty of time to ask questions."

"All right," nodded Bertram, with a quizzical smile, as he turned away.

Obediently Bertram asked all the question she could think of, then came back to his wife. There was nothing in his report that even Billy could disapprove of, or worry about; and with almost a contented look on her face she turned toward the stage as the curtain went up on the second act.

"I love this balcony scene," she sighed happily.

Romeo, however, had not half finished his impassioned love-making when Billy clutched her husband's arm almost fiercely.

"Bertram," she fairly hissed in a tragic whisper, "I've just happened to think! Won't it be awful when Baby falls in love? I know I shall just hate that girl for taking him away from me!"

"Sh-h! Billy!" expostulated her husband, choking with half-stifled laughter. "That woman in front heard you, I know she did!"

"Well, I shall," sighed Billy, mournfully, turning back to the stage.

     " `Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
         That I shall say good night, till it be morrow,"'

sighed Juliet passionately to her Romeo.

"Mercy! I hope not," whispered Billy flippantly in Bertram's ear. "I'm sure I don't want to stay here till to-morrow! I want to go home and see Baby."

"Billy!" pleaded Bertram so despairingly, that Billy, really conscience-smitten, sat back in her seat and remained, for the rest of the act, very quiet indeed.

Deceived by her apparent tranquillity, Bertram turned as the curtain went down.

"Now, Billy, surely you don't think it'll be necessary to telephone so soon as this again," he ventured.

Billy's countenance fell.

"But, Bertram, you said you would! Of course if you aren't willing to--but I've been counting on hearing all through this horrid long act, and--"

"Goodness me, Billy, I'll telephone every minute for you, of course, if you want me to," cried Bertram, springing to his feet, and trying not to show his impatience.

He was back more promptly this time.

"Everything 0. K.," he smiled reassuringly into Billy's anxious eyes. "Delia said she'd just been up, and the little chap was sound asleep."

To the man's unbounded surprise, his wife grew actually white.

"Up! Up!" she exclaimed. "Do you mean that Delia went down-stairs to stay, and left my baby up there alone?"

"But, Billy, she said he was all right," murmured Bertram, softly, casting uneasy sidelong glances at his too interested neighbors.

" `All right'! Perhaps he was, then--but he may not be, later. Delia should stay in the next room all the time, where she could hear the least thing."

"Yes, dear, she will, I'm sure, if you tell her to," soothed Bertram, quickly. "It'll be all right next time."

Billy shook her head. She was obviously near to crying.

"But, Bertram, I can't stand it to sit here enjoying myself all safe and comfortable, and know that Baby is alone up there in that great big room! Please, please won't you go and telephone Delia to go up now and stay there?"

Bertram, weary, sorely tried, and increasingly aware of those annoyingly interested neighbors, was on the point of saying a very decided no; but a glance into Billy's pleading eyes settled it. Without a word he went back to the telephone.

The curtain was up when he slipped into his seat, very red of face. In answer to Billy's hurried whisper he shook his head; but in the short pause between the first and second scenes he said, in a low voice:

"I'm sorry, Billy, but I couldn't get the house at all."

"Couldn't get them! But you'd just been talking with them!"

"That's exactly it, probably. I had just telephoned, so they weren't watching for the bell. Anyhow, I couldn't get them."

"Then you didn't get Delia at all!"

"Of course not."

"And Baby is still--all alone!"

"But he's all right, dear. Delia's keeping watch of him."

For a moment there was silence; then, with clear decisiveness carne Billy's voice.

"Bertram, I am going home."

"Billy!"

"I am."

"Billy, for heaven's sake don't be a silly goose! The play's half over already. We'll soon be going, anyway."

Billy's lips came together in a thin little determined line.

"Bertram, I am going home now, please," she said. "You needn't come with me; I can go alone."

Bertram said two words under his breath which it was just as well, perhaps, that Billy--and the neighbors--did not hear; then he gathered up their wraps and, with Billy, stalked out of the theater.

At home everything was found to be absolutely as it should be. Bertram, Jr., was peacefully sleeping, and Delia, who had come up from downstairs, was sewing in the next room.

"There, you see," observed Bertram, a little sourly.

Billy drew a long, contented sigh.

"Yes, I see; everything is all right. But that's exactly what I wanted to do, Bertram, you know --to see for myself," she finished happily.

And Bertram, looking at her rapt face as she hovered over the baby's crib, called himself a brute and a beast to mind anything that could make Billy look like that.