Chapter V. Tiger Skins
 

September passed and October came, bringing with it cool days and clear, crisp evenings royally ruled over by a gorgeous harvest moon. According to Billy everything was just perfect--except, of course, poor Bertram's arm; and even the fact that that gained so slowly was not without its advantage (again according to Billy), for it gave Bertram more time to be with her.

"You see, dear, as long as you can't paint," she told him earnestly, one day, "why, I'm not really hindering you by keeping you with me so much."

"You certainly are not," he retorted, with a smile.

"Then I may be just as happy as I like over it," settled Billy, comfortably.

"As if you ever could hinder me," he ridiculed.

"Oh, yes, I could," nodded Billy, emphatically. "You forget, sir. That was what worried me so. Everybody, even the newspapers and magazines, said I would do it, too. They said I'd slay your Art, stifle your Ambition, destroy your Inspiration, and be a nuisance generally. And Kate said--"

"Yes. Well, never mind what Kate said," interrupted the man, savagely.

Billy laughed, and gave his ear a playful tweak.

"All right; but I'm not going to do it, you know--spoil your career, sir. You just wait," she continued dramatically. "The minute your arm gets so you can paint, I myself shall conduct you to your studio, thrust the brushes into your hand, fill your palette with all the colors of the rainbow, and order you to paint, my lord, paint! But--until then I'm going to have you all I like," she finished, with a complete change of manner, nestling into the ready curve of his good left arm.

"You witch!" laughed the man, fondly. "Why, Billy, you couldn't hinder me. You'll be my inspiration, dear, instead of slaying it. You'll see. This time Marguerite Winthrop's portrait is going to be a success."

Billy turned quickly.

"Then you are--that is, you haven't--I mean, you're going to--paint it?"

"I just am," avowed the artist. "And this time it'll be a success, too, with you to help."

Billy drew in her breath tremulously.

"I didn't know but you'd already started it," she faltered.

He shook his head.

"No. After the other one failed, and Mr. Winthrop asked me to try again, I couldn't then. I was so troubled over you. That's the time you did hinder me," he smiled. "Then came your note breaking the engagement. Of course I knew too much to attempt a thing like that portrait then. But now--now--!" The pause and the emphasis were eloquent.

"Of course, now," nodded Billy, brightly, but a little feverishly. "And when do you begin?"

"Not till January. Miss Winthrop won't be back till then. I saw J. G. last week, and I told him I'd accept his offer to try again."

"What did he say?"

"He gave my left hand a big grip and said: `Good!--and you'll win out this time.' "

"Of course you will," nodded Billy, again, though still a little feverishly. "And this time I sha'n't mind a bit if you do stay to luncheon, and break engagements with me, sir," she went on, tilting her chin archly, "for I shall know it's the portrait and not the sitter that's really keeping you. Oh, you'll see what a fine artist's wife I'll make!"

"The very best," declared Bertram so ardently that Billy blushed, and shook her head in reproof.

"Nonsense! I wasn't fishing. I didn't mean it that way," she protested. Then, as he tried to catch her, she laughed and danced teasingly out of his reach.

Because Bertram could not paint, therefore, Billy had him quite to herself these October days; nor did she hesitate to appropriate him. Neither, on his part, was Bertram loath to be appropriated. Like two lovers they read and walked and talked together, and like two children, sometimes, they romped through the stately old rooms with Spunkie, or with Tommy Dunn, who was a frequent guest. Spunkie, be it known, was renewing her kittenhood, so potent was the influence of the dangling strings and rolling balls that she encountered everywhere; and Tommy Dunn, with Billy's help, was learning that not even a pair of crutches need keep a lonely little lad from a frolic. Even William, roused from his after- dinner doze by peals of laughter, was sometimes inveigled into activities that left him breathless, but curiously aglow. While Pete, polishing silver in the dining-room down-stairs, smiled indulgently at the merry clatter above--and forgot the teasing pain in his side.

But it was not all nonsense with Billy, nor gay laughter. More often it was a tender glow in the eyes, a softness in the voice, a radiant something like an aura of joy all about her, that told how happy indeed were these days for her. There was proof by word of mouth, too--long talks with Bertram in the dancing firelight when they laid dear plans for the future, and when she tried so hard to make her husband understand what a good, good wife she intended to be, and how she meant never to let anything come between them.

It was so earnest and serious a Billy by this time that Bertram would turn startled, dismayed eyes on his young wife; whereupon, with a very Billy-like change of mood, she would give him one of her rare caresses, and perhaps sigh:

"Goosey--it's only because I'm so happy, happy, happy! Why, Bertram, if it weren't for that Overflow Annex I believe I--I just couldn't live!

It was Bertram who sighed then, and who prayed fervently in his heart that never might he see a real shadow cloud that dear face.

Thus far, certainly, the cares of matrimony had rested anything but heavily upon the shapely young shoulders of the new wife. Domestic affairs at the Strata moved like a piece of well-oiled machinery. Dong Ling, to be sure, was not there; but in his place reigned Pete's grandniece, a fresh- faced, capable young woman who (Bertram declared) cooked like an angel and minded her own business like a man. Pete, as of yore, had full charge of the house; and a casual eye would see few changes. Even the brothers themselves saw few, for that matter.

True, at the very first, Billy had donned a ruffled apron and a bewitching dust-cap, and had traversed the house from cellar to garret with a prettily important air of "managing things," as she suggested changes right and left. She had summoned Pete, too, for three mornings in succession, and with great dignity had ordered the meals for the day. But when Bertram was discovered one evening tugging back his favorite chair, and when William had asked if Billy were through using his pipe-tray, the young wife had concluded to let things remain about as they were. And when William ate no breakfast one morning, and Bertram aggrievedly refused dessert that night at dinner, Billy--learning through an apologetic Pete that Master William always had to have eggs for breakfast no matter what else there was, and that Master Bertram never ate boiled rice--gave up planning the meals. True, for three more mornings she summoned Pete for "orders," but the orders were nothing more nor less than a blithe "Well, Pete, what are we going to have for dinner to-day?" By the end of a week even this ceremony was given up, and before a month had passed, Billy was little more than a guest in her own home, so far as responsibility was concerned.

Billy was not idle, however; far from it. First, there were the delightful hours with Bertram. Then there was her music: Billy was writing a new song--the best she had ever written, Billy declared.

"Why, Bertram, it can't help being that," she said to her husband, one day. "The words just sang themselves to me right out of my heart; and the melody just dropped down from the sky. And now, everywhere, I'm hearing the most wonderful harmonies. The whole universe is singing to me. If only now I can put it on paper what I hear! Then I can make the whole universe sing to some one else!"

Even music, however, had to step one side for the wedding calls which were beginning to be received, and which must be returned, in spite of the occasional rebellion of the young husband. There were the more intimate friends to be seen, also, and Cyril and Marie to be visited. And always there was the Annex.

The Annex was in fine running order now, and was a source of infinite satisfaction to its founder and great happiness to its beneficiaries. Tommy Dunn was there, learning wonderful things from books and still more wonderful things from the piano in the living-room. Alice Greggory and her mother were there, too--the result of much persuasion. Indeed, according to Bertram, Billy had been able to fill the Annex only by telling each prospective resident that he or she was absolutely necessary to the welfare and happiness of every other resident. Not that the house was full, either. There were still two unoccupied rooms.

"But then, I'm glad there are," Billy had declared, "for there's sure to be some one that I'll want to send there."

"Some one, did you say?" Bertram had retorted, meaningly; but his wife had disdained to answer this.

Billy herself was frequently at the Annex. She told Aunt Hannah that she had to come often to bring the happiness--it accumulated so fast. Certainly she always found plenty to do there, whenever she came. There was Aunt Hannah to be read to, Mrs. Greggory to be sung to, and Tommy Dunn to be listened to; for Tommy Dunn was always quivering with eagerness to play her his latest "piece."

Billy knew that some day at the Annex she would meet Mr. M. J. Arkwright; and she told herself that she hoped she should.

Billy had not seen Arkwright (except on the stage of the Boston Opera House) since the day he had left her presence in white-faced, stony- eyed misery after declaring his love for her, and learning of her engagement to Bertram. Since then, she knew, he had been much with his old friend, Alice Greggory. She did not believe, should she see him now, that he would be either white-faced, or stony-eyed. His heart, she was sure, had gone where it ought to have gone in the first place--to Alice. Such being, in her opinion, the case, she longed to get the embarrassment of a first meeting between themselves over with, for, after that, she was sure, their old friendship could be renewed, and she would be in a position to further this pretty love affair between him and Alice. Very decidedly, therefore, Billy wished to meet Arkwright. Very pleased, consequently, was she when, one day, coming into the living-room at the Annex, she found the man sitting by the fire.

Arkwright was on his feet at once.

"Miss--Mrs. H--Henshaw," he stammered

"Oh, Mr. Arkwright," she cried, with just a shade of nervousness in her voice as she advanced, her hand outstretched. "I'm glad to see you."

"Thank you. I wanted to see Miss Greggory," he murmured. Then, as the unconscious rudeness of his reply dawned on him, he made matters infinitely worse by an attempted apology. "That is, I mean--I didn't mean--" he began to stammer miserably.

Some girls might have tossed the floundering man a straw in the shape of a light laugh intended to turn aside all embarrassment--but not Billy. Billy held out a frankly helping hand that was meant to set the man squarely on his feet at her side.

"Mr. Arkwright, don't, please," she begged earnestly. "You and I don't need to beat about the bush. I am glad to see you, and I hope you're glad to see me. We're going to be the best of friends from now on, I'm sure; and some day, soon, you're going to bring Alice to see me, and we'll have some music. I left her up-stairs. She'll be down at once, I dare say--I met Rosa going up with your card. Good-by," she finished with a bright smile, as she turned and walked rapidly from the room.

Outside, on the steps, Billy drew a long breath.

"There," she whispered; "that's over--and well over!" The next minute she frowned vexedly. She had missed her glove. "Never mind! I sha'n't go back in there for it now, anyway," she decided.

In the living-room, five minutes later, Alice Greggory found only a hastily scrawled note waiting for her.

"If you'll forgive the unforgivable," she read "you'll forgive me for not being here when you come down. `Circumstances over which I have no control have called me away.' May we let it go at that?

M. J. ARKWRIGHT.

As Alice Greggory's amazed, questioning eyes left the note they fell upon the long white glove on the floor by the door. Half mechanically she crossed the room and picked it up; but almost at once she dropped it with a low cry.

"Billy! He--saw--Billy!" Then a flood of understanding dyed her face scarlet as she turned and fled to the blessedly unseeing walls of her own room.

Not ten minutes later Rosa tapped at her door with a note.

"It's from Mr. Arkwright, Miss. He's downstairs." Rosa's eyes were puzzled, and a bit startled.

"Mr. Arkwright!"

"Yes, Miss. He's come again. That is, I didn't know he'd went--but he must have, for he's come again now. He wrote something in a little book; then he tore it out and gave it to me. He said he'd wait, please, for an answer."

"Oh, very well, Rosa."

Miss Greggory took the note and spoke with an elaborate air of indifference that was meant to express a calm ignoring of the puzzled questioning in the other's eyes. The next moment she read this in Arkwright's peculiar scrawl:

"If you've already forgiven the unforgivable, you'll do it again, I know, and come down-stairs. Won't you, please? I want to see you."

Miss Greggory lifted her head with a jerk. Her face was a painful red.

"Tell Mr. Arkwright I can't possibly--" She came to an abrupt pause. Her eyes had encountered Rosa's, and in Rosa's eyes the puzzled questioning was plainly fast becoming a shrewd suspicion.

There was the briefest of hesitations; then, lightly, Miss Greggory tossed the note aside.

"Tell Mr. Arkwright I'll be down at once, please," she directed carelessly, as she turned back into the room.

But she was not down at once. She was not down until she had taken time to bathe her red eyes, powder her telltale nose, smoothe her ruffled hair, and whip herself into the calm, steady-eyed, self-controlled young woman that Arkwright finally rose to meet when she came into the room.

"I thought it was only women who were privileged to change their mind," she began brightly; but Arkwright ignored her attempt to conventionalize the situation.

"Thank you for coming down," he said, with a weariness that instantly drove the forced smile from the girl's lips. "I--I wanted to--to talk to you."

"Yes?" She seated herself and motioned him to a chair near her. He took the seat, and then fell silent, his eyes out the window.

"I thought you said you--you wanted to talk, she reminded him nervously, after a minute.

"I did." He turned with disconcerting abruptness. "Alice, I'm going to tell you a story."

I shall be glad to listen. People always like stories, don't they?"

"Do they?" The somber pain in Arkwright's eyes deepened. Alice Greggory did not know it, but he was thinking of another story he had once told in that same room. Billy was his listener then, while now-- A little precipitately he began to speak.

"When I was a very small boy I went to visit my uncle, who, in his young days, had been quite a hunter. Before the fireplace in his library was a huge tiger skin with a particularly lifelike head. The first time I saw it I screamed, and ran and hid. I refused then even to go into the room again. My cousins urged, scolded, pleaded, and laughed at me by turns, but I was obdurate. I would not go where I could see the fearsome thing again, even though it was, as they said, `nothing but a dead old rug!'

"Finally, one day, my uncle took a hand in the matter. By sheer will-power he forced me to go with him straight up to the dreaded creature, and stand by its side. He laid one of my shrinking hands on the beast's smooth head, and thrust the other one quite into the open red mouth with its gleaming teeth.

" `You see,' he said, `there's absolutely nothing to fear. He can't possibly hurt you. Just as if you weren't bigger and finer and stronger in every way than that dead thing on the floor!'

"Then, when he had got me to the point where of my own free will I would walk up and touch the thing, he drew a lesson for me.

" `Now remember,' he charged me. `Never run and hide again. Only cowards do that. Walk straight up and face the thing. Ten to one you'll find it's nothing but a dead skin masquerading as the real thing. Even if it isn't if it's alive--face it. Find a weapon and fight it. Know that you are going to conquer it and you'll conquer. Never run. Be a man. Men don't run, my boy!' "

Arkwright paused, and drew a long breath. He did not look at the girl in the opposite chair. If he had looked he would have seen a face transfigured.

"Well," he resumed, "I never forgot that tiger skin, nor what it stood for, after that day when Uncle Ben thrust my hand into its hideous, but harmless, red mouth. Even as a kid I began, then, to try--not to run. I've tried ever since But to-day--I did run."

Arkwright's voice had been getting lower and lower. The last three words would have been almost inaudible to ears less sensitively alert than were Alice Greggory's. For a moment after the words were uttered, only the clock's ticking broke the silence; then, with an obvious effort, the man roused himself, as if breaking away from some benumbing force that held him.

"Alice, I don't need to tell you, after what I said the other night, that I loved Billy Neilson. That was bad enough, for I found she was pledged to another man. But to-day I discovered something worse: I discovered that I loved Billy Henshaw-- another man's wife. And--I ran. But I've come back. I'm going to face the thing. Oh, I'm not deceiving myself! This love of mine is no dead tiger skin. It's a beast, alive and alert --God pity me!--to destroy my very soul. But I'm going to fight it; and--I want you to help me."

The girl gave a half-smothered cry. The man turned, but he could not see her face distinctly. Twilight had come, and the room was full of shadows. He hesitated, then went on, a little more quietly.

"That's why I've told you all this--so you would help me. And you will, won't you?"

There was no answer. Once again he tried to see her face, but it was turned now quite away from him.

"You've been a big help already, little girl. Your friendship, your comradeship--they've been everything to me. You're not going to make me do without them--now?"

"No--oh, no!" The answer was low and a little breathless; but he heard it.

"Thank you. I knew you wouldn't." He paused, then rose to his feet. When he spoke again his voice carried a note of whimsical lightness that was a little forced. "But I must go-- else you will take them from me, and with good reason. And please don't let your kind heart grieve too much--over me. I'm no deep-dyed villain in a melodrama, nor wicked lover in a ten- penny novel, you know. I'm just an everyday man in real life; and we're going to fight this thing out in everyday living. That's where your help is coming in. We'll go together to see Mrs. Bertram Henshaw. She's asked us to, and you'll do it, I know. We'll have music and everyday talk. We'll see Mrs. Bertram Henshaw in her own home with her husband, where she belongs; and--I'm not going to run again. But--I'm counting on your help, you know," he smiled a little wistfully, as he held out his hand in good-by.

One minute later Alice Greggory, alone, was hurrying up-stairs.

"I can't--I can't--I know I can't," she was whispering wildly. Then, in her own room, she faced herself in the mirror. "Yes--you--can, Alice Greggory," she asserted, with swift change of voice and manner. "This is your tiger skin, and you're going to fight it. Do you understand? --fight it! And you're going to win, too. Do you want that man to know you--care?"