Chapter XXVIII. Conspirators
 

Early in February came Arkwright's appearance at the Boston Opera House--the first since he had sung there as a student a few years before. He was an immediate and an unquestioned success. His portrait adorned the front page of almost every Boston newspaper the next morning, and captious critics vied with each other to do him honor. His full history, from boyhood up, was featured, with special emphasis on his recent triumphs in New York and foreign capitals. He was interviewed as to his opinion on everything from vegetarianism to woman's suffrage; and his preferences as to pies and pastimes were given headline prominence. There was no doubt of it. Mr. M. J. Arkwright was a star.

All Arkwright's old friends, including Billy, Bertram, Cyril, Marie, Calderwell, Alice Greggory, Aunt Hannah, and Tommy Dunn, went to hear him sing; and after the performance he held a miniature reception, with enough adulation to turn his head completely around, he declared deprecatingly. Not until the next evening, however, did he have an opportunity for what he called a real talk with any of his friends; then, in Calderwell's room, he settled back in his chair with a sigh of content.

For a time his own and Calderwell's affairs occupied their attention; then, after a short pause, the tenor asked abruptly:

"Is there anything--wrong with the Henshaws, Calderwell?"

Calderwell came suddenly erect in his chair.

"Thank you! I hoped you'd introduce that subject; though, for that matter, if you hadn't, I should. Yes, there is--and I'm looking to you, old man, to get them out of it."

"I?" Arkwright sat erect now.

"Yes."

"What do you mean?"

"In a way, the expected has happened-- though I know now that I didn't really expect it to happen, in spite of my prophecies. You may remember I was always skeptical on the subject of Bertram's settling down to a domestic hearthstone. I insisted 'twould be the turn of a girl's head and the curve of her cheek that he wanted to paint."

Arkwright looked up with a quick frown.

"You don't mean that Henshaw has been cad enough to find another--"

Calderwell threw up his hand.

"No, no, not that! We haven't that to deal with--yet, thank goodness! There's no woman in it. And, really, when you come right down to it, if ever a fellow had an excuse to seek diversion, Bertram Henshaw has--poor chap! It's just this. Bertram broke his arm again last October."

"Yes, so I hear, and I thought he was looking badly."

"He is. It's a bad business. 'Twas improperly set in the first place, and it's not doing well now. In fact, I'm told on pretty good authority that the doctor says he probably will never use it again."

"Oh, by George! Calderwell!"

"Yes. Tough, isn't it? 'Specially when you think of his work, and know--as I happen to-- that he's particularly dependent on his right hand for everything. He doesn't tell this generally, and I understand Billy and the family know nothing of it--how hopeless the case is, I mean. Well, naturally, the poor fellow has been pretty thoroughly discouraged, and to get away from himself he's gone back to his old Bohemian habits, spending much of his time with some of his old cronies that are none too good for him--Seaver, for instance."

"Bob Seaver? Yes, I know him." Arkwright's lips snapped together crisply.

"Yes. He said he knew you. That's why I'm counting on your help."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I want you to get Henshaw away from him, and keep him away."

Arkwright's face darkened with an angry flush.

"Great Scott, Calderwell! What are you talking about? Henshaw is no kid to be toted home, and I'm no nursery governess to do the toting!"

Calderwell laughed quietly.

"No; I don't think any one would take you for a nursery governess, Arkwright, in spite of the fact that you are still known to some of your friends as `Mary Jane.' But you can sing a song, man, which will promptly give you a through ticket to their innermost sacred circle. In fact, to my certain knowledge, Seaver is already planning a jamboree with you at the right hand of the toastmaster. There's your chance. Once in, stay in--long enough to get Henshaw out."

"But, good heavens, Calderwell, it's impossible! What can I do?" demanded Arkwright, savagely. "I can't walk up to the man, take him by the ear, and say: `Here, you, sir--march home!' Neither can I come the `I-am-holier- than-thou' act, and hold up to him the mirror of his transgressions."

"No, but you can get him out of it some way. You can find a way--for Billy's sake."

There was no answer, and, after a moment, Calderwell went on more quietly.

"I haven't seen Billy but two or three times since I came back to Boston--but I don't need to, to know that she's breaking her heart over something. And of course that something is-- Bertram."

There was still no answer. Arkwright got up suddenly, and walked to the window.

"You see, I'm helpless," resumed Calderwell. "I don't paint pictures, nor sing songs, nor write stories, nor dance jigs for a living--and you have to do one or another to be in with that set. And it's got to be a Johnny-on-the-spot with Bertram. All is, something will have to be done to get him out of the state of mind and body he's in now, or--"

Arkwright wheeled sharply.

"When did you say this jamboree was going to be?" he demanded.

"Next week, some time. The date is not settled. They were going to consult you."

"Hm-m," commented Arkwright. And, though his next remark was a complete change of subject, Calderwell gave a contented sigh.

If, when the proposition was first made to him, Arkwright was doubtful of his ability to be a successful "Johnny-on-the-spot," he was even more doubtful of it as the days passed, and he was attempting to carry out the suggestion.

He had known that he was undertaking a most difficult and delicate task, and he soon began to fear that it was an impossible one, as well. With a dogged persistence, however, he adhered to his purpose, ever on the alert to be more watchful, more tactful, more efficient in emergencies.

Disagreeable as was the task, in a way, in another way it was a great pleasure to him. He was glad of the opportunity to do anything for Billy; and then, too, he was glad of something absorbing enough to take his mind off his own affairs. He told himself, sometimes, that this helping another man to fight his tiger skin was assisting himself to fight his own.

Arkwright was trying very hard not to think of Alice Greggory these days. He had come back hoping that he was in a measure "cured" of his "folly," as he termed it; but the first look into Alice Greggory's blue-gray eyes had taught him the fallacy of that idea. In that very first meeting with Alice, he feared that he had revealed his secret, for she was plainly so nervously distant and ill at ease with him that he could but construe her embarrassment and chilly dignity as pity for him and a desire to show him that she had nothing but friendship for him. Since then he had seen but little of her, partly because he did not wish to see her, and partly because his time was so fully occupied. Then, too, in a round- about way he had heard a rumor that Calderwell was engaged to be married; and, though no feminine name had been mentioned in connection with the story, Arkwright had not hesitated to supply in his own mind that of Alice Greggory.

Beginning with the "jamboree," which came off quite in accordance with Calderwell's prophecies, Arkwright spent the most of such time as was not given to his professional duties in deliberately cultivating the society of Bertram and his friends. To this extent he met with no difficulty, for he found that M. J. Arkwright, the new star in the operatic firmament, was obviously a welcome comrade. Beyond this it was not so easy. Arkwright wondered, indeed, sometimes, if he were making any progress at all. But still he persevered.

He walked with Bertram, he talked with Bertram, unobtrusively he contrived to be near Bertram almost always, when they were together with "the boys." Gradually he won from him the story of what the surgeon had said to him, and of how black the future looked in consequence. This established a new bond between them, so potent that Arkwright ventured to test it one day by telling Bertram the story of the tiger skin--the first tiger skin in his uncle's library years ago, and of how, since then, any difficulty he had encountered he had tried to treat as a tiger skin. In telling the story he was careful to draw no moral for his listener, and to preach no sermon. He told the tale, too, with all possible whimsical lightness of touch, and immediately at its conclusion he changed the subject. But that he had not failed utterly in his design was evidenced a few days later when Bertram grimly declared that he guessed his tiger skin was a lively beast, all right.

The first time Arkwright went home with Bertram, his presence was almost a necessity. Bertram was not quite himself that night. Billy admitted them. She had plainly been watching and waiting. Arkwright never forgot the look on her face as her eyes met his. There was a curious mixture of terror, hurt pride, relief, and shame, overtopped by a fierce loyalty which almost seemed to say aloud the words: "Don't you dare to blame him!"

Arkwright's heart ached with sympathy and admiration at the proudly courageous way in which Billy carried off the next few painful minutes. Even when he bade her good night a little later, only her eyes said "thank you." Her lips were dumb.

Arkwright often went home with Bertram after that. Not that it was always necessary-- far from it. Some time, indeed, elapsed before he had quite the same excuse again for his presence. But he had found that occasionally he could get Bertram home earlier by adroit suggestions of one kind or another; and more and more frequently he was succeeding in getting him home for a game of chess.

Bertram liked chess, and was a fine player. Since breaking his arm he had turned to games with the feverish eagerness of one who looks for something absorbing to fill an unrestful mind. It was Seaver's skill in chess that had at first attracted Bertram to the man long ago; but Bertram could beat him easily--too easily for much pleasure in it now. So they did not play chess often these days. Bertram had found that, in spite of his injury, he could still take part in other games, and some of them, if not so intricate as chess, were at least more apt to take his mind off himself, especially if there were a bit of money up to add zest and interest.

As it happened, however, Bertram learned one day that Arkwright could play chess--and play well, too, as he discovered after their first game together. This fact contributed not a little to such success as Arkwright was having in his efforts to wean Bertram from his undesirable companions; for Bertram soon found out that Arkwright was more than a match for himself, and the occasional games he did succeed in winning only whetted his appetite for more. Many an evening now, therefore, was spent by the two men in Bertram's den, with Billy anxiously hovering near, her eyes longingly watching either her husband's absorbed face or the pretty little red and white ivory figures, which seemed to possess so wonderful a power to hold his attention. In spite of her joy at the chessmen's efficacy in keeping Bertram at home, however, she was almost jealous of them.

"Mr. Arkwright, couldn't you show me how to play, sometime?" she said wistfully, one evening, when the momentary absence of Bertram had left the two alone together. "I used to watch Bertram and Marie play years ago; but I never knew how to play myself. Not that I can see where the fun is in just sitting staring at a chessboard for half an hour at a time, though! But Bertram likes it, and so I--I want to learn to stare with him. Will you teach me?"

"I should be glad to," smiled Arkwright.

"Then will you come, maybe, sometimes when Bertram is at the doctor's? He goes every Tuesday and Friday at three o'clock for treatment. I'd rather you came then for two reasons: first, because I don't want Bertram to know I'm learning, till I can play some; and, secondly, because--because I don't want to take you away--from him."

The last words were spoken very low, and were accompanied by a painful blush. It was the first time Billy had ever hinted to Arkwright, in words, that she understood what he was trying to do.

"I'll come next Tuesday," promised Arkwright, with a cheerfully unobservant air. Then Bertram came in, bringing the book of Chess Problems, for which he had gone up-stairs.