Chapter VII. The Big Bad Quarrel
 

It was a brilliant dinner--because Billy made it so. At first William met her sallies of wit with mild surprise; but it was not long before he rose gallantly to the occasion, and gave back full measure of retort. Even Pete twice had to turn his back to hide a smile, and once his hand shook so that the tea he was carrying almost spilled. This threatened catastrophe, however, seemed to frighten him so much that his face was very grave throughout the rest of the dinner.

Still laughing and talking gayly, Billy and Uncle William, after the meal was over, ascended to the drawing-room. There, however, the man, in spite of the young woman's gay badinage, fell to dozing in the big chair before the fire, leaving Billy with only Spunkie for company--Spunkie, who, disdaining every effort to entice her into a romp, only winked and blinked stupid eyes, and finally curled herself on the rug for a nap.

Billy, left to her own devices, glanced at her watch.

Half-past seven! Time, almost, for Bertram to be coming. He had said "dinner"; and, of course, after dinner was over he would be coming home--to her. Very well; she would show him that she had at least got along without him as well as he had without her. At all events he would not find her forlornly sitting with her nose pressed against the window-pane! And forthwith Billy established herself in a big chair (with its back carefully turned toward the door by which Bertram would enter), and opened a book.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. Billy fidgeted in her chair, twisted her neck to look out into the hall--and dropped her book with a bang.

Uncle William jerked himself awake, and Spunkie opened sleepy eyes. Then both settled themselves for another nap. Billy sighed, picked up her book, and flounced back into her chair. But she did not read. Disconsolately she sat staring straight ahead--until a quick step on the sidewalk outside stirred her into instant action. Assuming a look of absorbed interest she twitched the book open and held it before her face. . . . But the step passed by the door: and Billy saw then that her book was upside down.

Five, ten, fifteen more minutes passed. Billy still sat, apparently reading, though she had not turned a page. The book now, however, was right side up. One by one other minutes passed till the great clock in the hall struck nine long strokes.

"Well, well, bless my soul!" mumbled Uncle William, resolutely forcing himself to wake up. "What time was that?"

"Nine o'clock." Billy spoke with tragic distinctness, yet very cheerfully.

"Eh? Only nine?" blinked Uncle William. "I thought it must be ten. Well, anyhow, I believe I'll go up-stairs. I seem to be unusually sleepy."

Billy said nothing. " `Only nine,' indeed!" she was thinking wrathfully.

At the door Uncle William turned.

"You're not going to sit up, my dear, of course," he remarked.

For the second time that evening a cold hand seemed to clutch Billy's heart.

Sit up! Had it come already to that? Was she even now a wife who had need to sit up for her husband?

"I really wouldn't, my dear," advised Uncle William again. "Good night."

"Oh, but I'm not sleepy at all, yet," Billy managed to declare brightly. "Good night."

Then Uncle William went up-stairs.

Billy turned to her book, which happened to be one of William's on "Fake Antiques."

" `To collect anything, these days, requires expert knowledge, and the utmost care and discrimination,' " read Billy's eyes. "So Uncle William expected Bertram was going to spend the whole evening as well as stay to dinner!" ran Billy's thoughts. " `The enormous quantity of bijouterie, Dresden and Battersea enamel ware that is now flooding the market, is made on the Continent--and made chiefly for the American trade,' " continued the book.

"Well, who cares if it is," snapped Billy, springing to her feet and tossing the volume aside. "Spunkie, come here! You've simply got to play with me. Do you hear? I want to be gay --gay--GAY! He's gay. He's down there with those men, where he wants to be. Where he'd rather be than be with me! Do you think I want him to come home and find me moping over a stupid old book? Not much! I'm going to have him find me gay, too. Now, come, Spunkie; hurry--wake up! He'll be here right away, I'm sure." And Billy shook a pair of worsted reins, hung with little soft balls, full in Spunkie's face.

But Spunkie would not wake up, and Spunkie would not play. She pretended to. She bit at the reins, and sank her sharp claws into the dangling balls. For a fleeting instant, even, something like mischief gleamed in her big yellow eyes. Then the jaws relaxed, the paws turned to velvet, and Spunkie's sleek gray head settled slowly back into lazy comfort. Spunkie was asleep.

Billy gazed at the cat with reproachful eyes.

"And you, too, Spunkie," she murmured. Then she got to her feet and went back to her chair. This time she picked up a magazine and began to turn the leaves very fast, one after another.

Half-past nine came, then ten. Pete appeared at the door to get Spunkie, and to see that everything was all right for the night.

"Mr. Bertram is not in yet?" he began doubtfully.

Billy shook her head with a bright smile.

"No, Pete. Go to bed. I expect him every minute. Good night."

"Thank you, ma'am. Good night."

The old man picked up the sleepy cat and went down-stairs. A little later Billy heard his quiet steps coming back through the hall and ascending the stairs. She listened until from away at the top of the house she heard his door close. Then she drew a long breath.

Ten o'clock--after ten o'clock, and Bertram not there yet! And was this what he called dinner? Did one eat, then, till ten o'clock, when one dined with one's friends?

Billy was angry now--very angry. She was too angry to be reasonable. This thing that her husband had done seemed monstrous to her, smarting, as she was, under the sting of hurt pride and grieved loneliness--the state of mind into which she had worked herself. No longer now did she wish to be gay when her husband came. No longer did she even pretend to assume indifference. Bertram had done wrong. He had been unkind, cruel, thoughtless, inconsiderate of her comfort and happiness. Furthermore he did not love her as well as she did him or he never, never could have done it! She would let him see, when he came, just how hurt and grieved she was --and how disappointed, too.

Billy was walking the floor now, back and forth, back and forth.

Half-past ten came, then eleven. As the eleven long strokes reverberated through the silent house Billy drew in her breath and held it suspended. A new look came to her eyes. A growing terror crept into them and culminated in a frightened stare at the clock.

Billy ran then to the great outer door and pulled it open. A cold wind stung her face, and caused her to shut the door quickly. Back and forth she began to pace the floor again; but in five minutes she had run to the door once more. This time she wore a heavy coat of Bertram's which she caught up as she passed the hall-rack.

Out on to the broad top step Billy hurried, and peered down the street. As far as she could see not a person was in sight. Across the street in the Public Garden the wind stirred the gray tree-branches and set them to casting weird shadows on the bare, frozen ground. A warning something behind her sent Billy scurrying into the house just in time to prevent the heavy door's closing and shutting her out, keyless, in the cold.

Half-past eleven came, and again Billy ran to the door. This time she put the floor-mat against the casing so that the door could not close. Once more she peered wildly up and down the street, and across into the deserted, wind-swept Garden.

There was only terror now in Billy's face. The anger was all gone. In Billy's mind there was not a shadow of doubt--something had happened to Bertram.

Bertram was ill--hurt--dead! And he was so good, so kind, so noble; such a dear, dear husband! If only she could see him once. If only she could ask his forgiveness for those wicked, unkind, accusing thoughts. If only she could tell him again that she did love him. If only--

Far down the street a step rang sharply on the frosty air. A masculine figure was hurrying toward the house. Retreating well into the shadow of the doorway, Billy watched it, her heart pounding against her side in great suffocating throbs. Nearer and nearer strode the approaching figure until Billy had almost sprung to meet it with a glad cry--almost, but not quite; for the figure neither turned nor paused, but marched straight on--and Billy saw then, under the arc light, a brown-bearded man who was not Bertram at all.

Three times during the next few minutes did the waiting little bride on the doorstep watch with palpitating yearning a shadowy form appear, approach--and pass by. At the third heart-breaking disappointment, Billy wrung her hands helplessly.

"I don't see how there can be--so many-- utterly useless people in the world!" she choked. Then, thoroughly chilled and sick at heart, she went into the house and closed the door.

Once again, back and forth, back and forth, Billy took up her weary vigil. She still wore the heavy coat. She had forgotten to take it off. Her face was pitifully white and drawn. Her eyes were wild. One of her hands was nervously caressing the rough sleeve of the coat as it hung from her shoulder.

One--two--three--

Billy gave a sharp cry and ran into the hall.

Yes, it was twelve o'clock. And now, always, all the rest of the dreary, useless hours that that clock would tick away through an endless existence, she would have to live--without Bertram. If only she could see him once more! But she could not. He was dead. He must be dead, now. Here it was twelve o'clock, and--

There came a quick step, the click of a key in the lock, then the door swung back and Bertram, big, strong, and merry-eyed, stood before her.

"Well, well, hullo," he called jovially. Why, Billy, what's the matter?" he broke off, in quite a different tone of voice.

And then a curious thing happened. Billy, who, a minute before, had been seeing only a dear, noble, adorable, lost Bertram, saw now suddenly only the man that had stayed happily till midnight with two friends, while she--she--

"Matter! Matter!" exclaimed Billy sharply, then. "Is this what you call staying to dinner, Bertram Henshaw?"

Bertram stared. A slow red stole to his forehead. It was his first experience of coming home to meet angry eyes that questioned his behavior --and he did not like it. He had been, perhaps, a little conscience-smitten when he saw how late he had stayed; and he had intended to say he was sorry, of course. But to be thus sharply called to account for a perfectly innocent good time with a couple of friends--! To come home and find Billy making a ridiculous scene like this--! He--he would not stand for it! He--

Bertram's lips snapped open. The angry retort was almost spoken when something in the piteously quivering chin and white, drawn face opposite stopped it just in time.

"Why, Billy--darling!" he murmured instead.

It was Billy's turn to change. All the anger melted away before the dismayed tenderness in those dear eyes and the grieved hurt in that dear voice.

"Well, you--you--I--" Billy began to cry.

It was all right then, of course, for the next minute she was crying on Bertram's big, broad shoulder; and in the midst of broken words, kisses, gentle pats, and inarticulate croonings, the Big, Bad Quarrel, that had been all ready to materialize, faded quite away into nothingness.

"I didn't have such an awfully good time, anyhow, avowed Bertram, when speech became rational. "I'd rather have been home with you."

"Nonsense!" blinked Billy, valiantly. "Of course you had a good time; and it was perfectly right you should have it, too! And I--I hope you'll have it again."

"I sha'n't," emphasized Bertram, promptly, "--not and leave you!"

Billy regarded him with adoring eyes.

"I'll tell you; we'll have 'em come here," she proposed gayly.

"Sure we will," agreed Bertram.

"Yes; sure we will," echoed Billy, with a contented sigh. Then, a little breathlessly, she added: "Anyhow, I'll know--where you are. I won't think you're--dead!"

"You--blessed--little-goose!" scolded Bertram, punctuating each word with a kiss.

Billy drew a long sigh.

"If this is a quarrel I'm going to have them often," she announced placidly.

"Billy!" The young husband was plainly aghast.

"Well, I am--because I like the making-up, dimpled Billy, with a mischievous twinkle as she broke from his clasp and skipped ahead up the stairway.