Chapter XXIX. Chess
 

Promptly at three o'clock Tuesday afternoon Arkwright appeared at the Strata, and for the next hour Billy did her best to learn the names and the moves of the pretty little ivory men. But at the end of the hour she was almost ready to give up in despair.

"If there weren't so many kinds, and if they didn't all insist on doing something different, it wouldn't be so bad," she sighed. "But how can you be expected to remember which goes diagonal, and which crisscross, and which can't go but one square, and which can skip 'way across the board, 'specially when that little pawn-thing can go straight ahead two squares sometimes, and the next minute only one (except when it takes things, and then it goes crooked one square) and when that tiresome little horse tries to go all ways at once, and can jump 'round and hurdle over anybody's head, even the king's--how can you expect folks to remember? But, then, Bertram remembers," she added, resolutely, "so I guess I can."

Whenever possible, after that, Arkwright came on Tuesdays and Fridays, and, in spite of her doubts, Billy did very soon begin to "remember." Spurred by her great desire to play with Bertram and surprise him, Billy spared no pains to learn well her lessons. Even among the baby's books and playthings these days might be found a "Manual of Chess," for Billy pursued her study at all hours; and some nights even her dreams were of ruined, castles where kings and queens and bishops disported themselves, with pawns for servants, and where a weird knight on horseback used the castle's highest tower for a hurdle, landing always a hundred yards to one side of where he would be expected to come down.

It was not long, of course, before Billy could play a game of chess, after a fashion, but she knew just enough to realize that she actually knew nothing; and she knew, too, that until she could play a really good game, her moves would not hold Bertram's attention for one minute. Not at present, therefore, was she willing Bertram should know what she was attempting to do.

Billy had not yet learned what the great surgeon had said to Bertram. She knew only that his arm was no better, and that he never voluntarily spoke of his painting. Over her now seemed to be hanging a vague horror. Something was the matter. She knew that. But what it was she could not fathom. She realized that Arkwright was trying to help, and her gratitude, though silent, knew no bounds. Not even to Aunt Hannah or Uncle William could she speak of this thing that was troubling her. That they, too, understood, in a measure, she realized. But still she said no word. Billy was wearing a proud little air of aloofness these days that was heart- breaking to those who saw it and read it aright for what it was: loyalty to Bertram, no matter what happened. And so Billy pored over her chessboard feverishly, tirelessly, having ever before her longing eyes the dear time when Bertram, across the table from her, should sit happily staring for half an hour at a move she had made.

Whatever Billy's chess-playing was to signify, however, in her own life, it was destined to play a part in the lives of two friends of hers that was most unexpected.

During Billy's very first lesson, as it chanced, Alice Greggory called and found Billy and Arkwright so absorbed in their game that they did not at first hear Eliza speak her name.

The quick color that flew to Arkwright's face at sight of herself was construed at once by Alice as embarrassment on his part at being found tète-a-tète with Bertram Henshaw's wife. And she did not like it. She was not pleased that he was there. She was less pleased that he blushed for being there.

It so happened that Alice found him there again several times. Alice gave a piano lesson at two o'clock every Tuesday and Friday afternoon to a little Beacon Street neighbor of Billy's, and she had fallen into the habit of stepping in to see Billy for a few minutes afterward, which brought her there at a little past three, just after the chess lesson was well started.

If, the first time that Alice Greggory found Arkwright opposite Billy at the chess-table, she was surprised and displeased, the second and third times she was much more so. When it finally came to her one day with sickening illumination, that always the tète-a-tètes were during Bertram's hour at the doctor's, she was appalled.

What could it mean? Had Arkwright given up his fight? Was he playing false to himself and to Bertram by trying thus, on the sly, to win the love of his friend's wife? Was this man, whom she had so admired for his brave stand, and to whom all unasked she had given her heart's best love (more the pity of it!)--was this idol of hers to show feet of clay, after all? She could not believe it. And yet--

Sick at heart, but imbued with the determination of a righteous cause, Alice Greggory resolved, for Billy's sake, to watch and wait. If necessary she should speak to some one--though to whom she did not know. Billy's happiness should not be put in jeopardy if she could help it. Indeed, no!

As the weeks passed, Alice came to be more and more uneasy, distressed, and grieved. Of Billy she could believe no evil; but of Arkwright she was beginning to think she could believe everything that was dishonorable and despicable. And to believe that of the man she still loved-- no wonder that Alice did not look nor act like herself these days.

Incensed at herself because she did love him, angry at him because he seemed to be proving himself so unworthy of that love, and genuinely frightened at what she thought was the fast- approaching wreck of all happiness for her dear friend, Billy, Alice did not know which way to turn. At the first she had told herself confidently that she would "speak to somebody." But, as time passed, she saw the impracticability of that idea. Speak to somebody, indeed! To whom? When? Where? What should she say? Where was her right to say anything? She was not dealing with a parcel of naughty children who had pilfered the cake jar! She was dealing with grown men and women, who, presumedly, knew their own affairs, and who, certainly, would resent any interference from her. On the other hand, could she stand calmly by and see Bertram lose his wife, Arkwright his honor, Billy her happiness, and herself her faith in human nature, all because to do otherwise would be to meddle in other people's business? Apparently she could, and should. At least that seemed to be the role which she was expected to play.

It was when Alice had reached this unhappy frame of mind that Arkwright himself unexpectedly opened the door for her.

The two were alone together in Bertram Henshaw's den. It was Tuesday afternoon. Alice had called to find Billy and Arkwright deep in their usual game of chess. Then a matter of domestic affairs had taken Billy from the room.

"I'm afraid I'll have to be gone ten minutes, or more," she had said, as she rose from the table reluctantly. "But you might be showing Alice the moves, Mr. Arkwright," she had added, with a laugh, as she disappeared.

"Shall I teach you the moves?" he had smiled, when they were alone together.

Alice's reply had been so indignantly short and sharp that Arkwright, after a moment's pause, had said, with a whimsical smile that yet carried a touch of sadness:

"I am forced to surmise from your answer that you think it is you who should be teaching me moves. At all events, I seem to have been making some moves lately that have not suited you, judging by your actions. Have I offended you in any way, Alice?"

The girl turned with a quick lifting of her head. Alice knew that if ever she were to speak, it must be now. Never again could she hope for such an opportunity as this. Suddenly throwing circumspect caution quite aside, she determined that she would speak. Springing to her feet she crossed the room and seated herself in Billy's chair at the chess-table.

"Me! Offend me!" she exclaimed, in a low voice. "As if I were the one you were offending!"

"Why, Alice!" murmured the man, in obvious stupefaction.

Alice raised her hand, palm outward.

"Now don't, please don't pretend you don't know," she begged, almost piteously. "Please don't add that to all the rest. Oh, I understand, of course, it's none of my affairs, and I wasn't going to speak," she choked; "but, to-day, when you gave me this chance, I had to. At first I couldn't believe it," she plunged on, plainly hurrying against Billy's return. "After all you'd told me of how you meant to fight it--your tiger skin. And I thought it merely happened that you were here alone with her those days I came. Then, when I found out they were always the days Mr. Henshaw was away at the doctor's, I had to believe."

She stopped for breath. Arkwright, who, up to this moment had shown that he was completely mystified as to what she was talking about, suddenly flushed a painful red. He was obviously about to speak, but she prevented him with a quick gesture.

"There's a little more I've got to say, please. As if it weren't bad enough to do what you're doing at all, but you must needs take it at such a time as this when--when her husband isn't doing just what he ought to do, and we all know it--it's so unfair to take her now, and try to-- to win-- And you aren't even fair with him," she protested tremulously. "You pretend to be his friend. You go with him everywhere. It's just as if you were helping to--to pull him down. You're one with the whole bunch." (The blood suddenly receded from Arkwright's face, leaving it very white; but if Alice saw it, she paid no heed.) "Everybody says you are. Then to come here like this, on the sly, when you know he can't be here, I-- Oh, can't you see what you're doing?"

There was a moment's pause, then Arkwright spoke. A deep pain looked from his eyes. He was still very pale, and his mouth had settled into sad lines.

"I think, perhaps, it may be just as well if I tell you what I am doing--or, rather, trying to do," he said quietly.

Then he told her.

"And so you see," he added, when he had finished the tale, "I haven't really accomplished much, after all, and it seems the little I have accomplished has only led to my being misjudged by you, my best friend."

Alice gave a sobbing cry. Her face was scarlet. Horror, shame, and relief struggled for mastery in her countenance.

"Oh, but I didn't know, I didn't know," she moaned, twisting her hands nervously. "And now, when you've been so brave, so true--for me to accuse you of-- Oh, can you ever forgive me? But you see, knowing that you did care for her, it did look--" She choked into silence, and turned away her head.

He glanced at her tenderly, mournfully.

"Yes," he said, after a minute, in a low voice. "I can see how it did look; and so I'm going to tell you now something I had meant never to tell you. There really couldn't have been anything in that, you see, for I found out long ago that it was gone--whatever love there had been for-- Billy."

"But your--tiger skin!"

"Oh, yes, I thought it was alive," smiled Arkwright, sadly, "when I asked you to help me fight it. But one day, very suddenly, I discovered that it was nothing but a dead skin of dreams and memories. But I made another discovery, too. I found that just beyond lay another one, and that was very much alive."

"Another one?" Alice turned to him in wonder. "But you never asked me to help you fight --that one!"

He shook his head.

"No; I couldn't, you see. You couldn't have helped me. You'd only have hindered me."

"Hindered you?"

"Yes. You see, it was my love for--you, that I was fighting--then."

Alice gave a low cry and flushed vividly; but Arkwright hurried on, his eyes turned away.

"Oh, I understand. I know. I'm not asking for--anything. I heard some time ago of your engagement to Calderwell. I've tried many times to say the proper, expected pretty speeches, but--I couldn't. I will now, though. I do. You have all my tenderest best wishes for your happiness--dear. If long ago I hadn't been such a blind fool as not to know my own heart--"

"But--but there's some mistake," interposed Alice, palpitatingly, with hanging head. "I--I'm not engaged to Mr. Calderwell."

Arkwright turned and sent a keen glance into her face.

"You're--not?"

"No."

"But I heard that Calderwell--" He stopped helplessly.

"You heard that Mr. Calderwell was engaged, very likely. But--it so happens he isn't engaged-- to me," murmured Alice, faintly.

"But, long ago you said--" Arkwright paused, his eyes still keenly searching her face.

"Never mind what I said--long ago," laughed Alice, trying unsuccessfully to meet his gaze. "One says lots of things, at times, you know."

Into Arkwright's eyes came a new light, a light that plainly needed but a breath to fan it into quick fire.

"Alice," he said softly, "do you mean that maybe now--I needn't try to fight--that other tiger skin?"

There was no answer.

Arkwright reached out a pleading hand.

"Alice, dear, I've loved you so long," he begged unsteadily. "Don't you think that sometime, if I was very, very patient, you could just begin --to care a little for me?"

Still there was no answer. Then, slowly, Alice shook her head. Her face was turned quite away --which was a pity, for if Arkwright could have seen the sudden tender mischief in her eyes, his own would not have become so somber.

"Not even a little bit?"

"I couldn't ever--begin," answered a half- smothered voice.

"Alice!" cried the man, heart-brokenly.

Alice turned now, and for a fleeting instant let him see her eyes, glowing with the love so long kept in relentless exile.

"I couldn't, because, you see-I began-- long ago," she whispered.

"Alice!" It was the same single word, but spoken with a world of difference, for into it now was crowded all the glory and the wonder of a great love. "Alice!" breathed the man again; and this time the word was, oh, so tenderly whispered into the little pink and white ear of the girl in his arms.

"I got delayed," began Billy, in the doorway.

"Oh-h!" she broke off, beating a hushed, but precipitate, retreat.

Fully thirty minutes later, Billy came to the door again. This time her approach was heralded by a snatch of song.

"I hope you'll excuse my being gone so long," she smiled, as she entered the room where her two guests sat decorously face to face at the chess- table.

"Well, you know you said you'd be gone ten minutes," Arkwright reminded her, politely.

"Yes, I know I did." And Billy, to her credit, did not even smile at the man who did not know ten minutes from fifty.