Chapter IX. The Dinner Billy Tried to Get
 

Notwithstanding what Billy was disposed to regard as the non-success of her first attempt to profit by the "Talk to Young Wives;" she still frantically tried to avert the waning of her honeymoon. Assiduously she cultivated the prescribed "indifference," and with at least apparent enthusiasm she sought the much-to-be-desired "outside interests." That is, she did all this when she thought of it when something reminded her of the sword of destruction hanging over her happiness. At other times, when she was just being happy without question, she was her old self impulsive, affectionate, and altogether adorable.

Naturally, under these circumstances, her conduct was somewhat erratic. For three days, perhaps, she would fly to the door at her husband's ring, and hang upon his every movement. Then, for the next three, she would be a veritable will-o'- the-wisp for elusiveness, caring, apparently, not one whit whether her husband came or went until poor Bertram, at his wit's end, scourged himself with a merciless catechism as to what he had done to vex her. Then, perhaps, just when he had nerved himself almost to the point of asking her what was the trouble, there would come another change, bringing back to him the old Billy, joyous, winsome, and devoted, plainly caring nothing for anybody or anything but himself. Scarcely, however, would he become sure that it was his Billy back again before she was off once more, quite beyond his reach, singing with Arkwright and Alice Greggory, playing with Tommy Dunn, plunging into some club or church work--anything but being with him.

That all this was puzzling and disquieting to Bertram, Billy not once suspected. Billy, so far as she was concerned, was but cultivating a comfortable indifference, brushing up against outside interests, and being an oak.

December passed, and January came, bringing Miss Marguerite Winthrop to her Boston home. Bertram's arm was "as good as ever" now, according to its owner; and the sittings for the new portrait began at once. This left Billy even more to her own devices, for Bertram entered into his new work with an enthusiasm born of a glad relief from forced idleness, and a consuming eagerness to prove that even though he had failed the first time, he could paint a portrait of Marguerite Winthrop that would be a credit to himself, a conclusive retort to his critics, and a source of pride to his once mortified friends. With his whole heart, therefore, he threw himself into the work before him, staying sometimes well into the afternoon on the days Miss Winthrop could find time between her social engagements to give him a sitting.

It was on such a day, toward the middle of the month, that Billy was called to the telephone at half-past twelve o'clock to speak to her husband.

"Billy, dear," began Bertram at once, "if you don't mind I'm staying to luncheon at Miss Winthrop's kind request. We've changed the pose-- neither of us was satisfied, you know--but we haven't quite settled on the new one. Miss Winthrop has two whole hours this afternoon that she can give me if I'll stay; and, of course, under the circumstances, I want to do it."

"Of course," echoed Billy. Billy's voice was indomitably cheerful.

"Thank you, dear. I knew you'd understand," sighed Bertram, contentedly. "You see, really, two whole hours, so--it's a chance I can't afford to lose."

"Of course you can't," echoed Billy, again.

"All right then. Good-by till to-night," called the man.

"Good-by," answered Billy, still cheerfully. As she turned away, however, she tossed her head. "A new pose, indeed!" she muttered, with some asperity. "Just as if there could be a new pose after all those she tried last year!"

Immediately after luncheon Pete and Eliza started for South Boston to pay a visit to Eliza's mother, and it was soon after they left the house that Bertram called his wife up again.

"Say, dearie, I forgot to tell you," he began, "but I met an old friend in the subway this morning, and I--well, I remembered what you said about bringing 'em home to dinner next time, so I asked him for to-night. Do you mind? It's--"

"Mind? Of course not! I'm glad you did," plunged in Billy, with feverish eagerness. (Even now, just the bare mention of anything connected with that awful "test" night was enough to set Billy's nerves to tingling.) "I want you to always bring them home, Bertram."

"All right, dear. We'll be there at six o'clock then. It's--it's Calderwell, this time. You remember Calderwell, of course."

"Not--Hugh Calderwell?" Billy's question was a little faint.

"Sure!" Bertram laughed oddly, and lowered his voice. "I suspect once I wouldn't have brought him home to you. I was too jealous. But now--well, now maybe I want him to see what he's lost."

"Bertram!"

But Bertram only laughed mischievously, and called a gay "Good-by till to-night, then!"

Billy, at her end of the wires, hung up the receiver and backed against the wall a little palpitatingly.

Calderwell! To dinner--Calderwell! Did she remember Calderwell? Did she, indeed! As if one could easily forget the man that, for a year or two, had proposed marriage as regularly (and almost as lightly!) as he had torn a monthly leaf from his calendar! Besides, was it not he, too, who had said that Bertram would never love any girl, really; that it would be only the tilt of her chin or the turn of her head that he loved--to paint? And now he was coming to dinner--and with Bertram.

Very well, he should see! He should see that Bertram did love her; her--not the tilt of her chin nor the turn of her head. He should see how happy they were, what a good wife she made, and how devoted and satisfied Bertram was in his home. He should see! And forthwith Billy picked up her skirts and tripped up-stairs to select her very prettiest house-gown to do honor to the occasion. Up-stairs, however, one thing and another delayed her, so that it was four o'clock when she turned her attention to her toilet; and it was while she was hesitating whether to be stately and impressive in royally sumptuous blue velvet and ermine, or cozy and tantalizingly homy{sic} in bronze-gold crèpe de Chine and swan's-down, that the telephone bell rang again.

Eliza and Pete had not yet returned; so, as before, Billy answered it. This time Eliza's shaking voice came to her.

"Is that you, ma'am?"

"Why, yes, Eliza?"

"Yes'm, it's me, ma'am. It's about Uncle Pete. He's give us a turn that's 'most scared us out of our wits."

"Pete! You mean he's sick?"

"Yes, ma'am, he was. That is, he is, too-- only he's better, now, thank goodness," panted Eliza. "But he ain't hisself yet. He's that white and shaky! Would you--could you--that is, would you mind if we didn't come back till into the evenin', maybe?"

"Why, of course not," cried Pete's mistress, quickly. "Don't come a minute before he's able, Eliza. Don't come until to-morrow."

Eliza gave a trembling little laugh.

"Thank you, ma'am; but there wouldn't be no keepin' of Uncle Pete here till then. If he could take five steps alone he'd start now. But he can't. He says he'll be all right pretty quick, though. He's had 'em before--these spells-- but never quite so bad as this, I guess; an' he's worryin' somethin' turrible 'cause he can't start for home right away."

"Nonsense!" cut in Mrs. Bertram Henshaw.

"Yes'm. I knew you'd feel that way," stammered Eliza, gratefully. "You see, I couldn't leave him to come alone, and besides, anyhow, I'd have to stay, for mother ain't no more use than a wet dish-rag at such times, she's that scared herself. And she ain't very well, too. So if--if you could get along--"

"Of course we can! And tell Pete not to worry one bit. I'm so sorry he's sick!"

"Thank you, ma'am. Then we'll be there some time this evenin'," sighed Eliza.

From the telephone Billy turned away with a troubled face.

"Pete is ill," she was saying to herself. "I don't like the looks of it; and he's so faithful he'd come if--" With a little cry Billy stopped short. Then, tremblingly, she sank into the nearest chair. "Calderwell--and he's coming to dinner!" she moaned.

For two benumbed minutes Billy sat staring at nothing. Then she ran to the telephone and called the Annex.

Aunt Hannah answered.

"Aunt Hannah, for heaven's sake, if you love me," pleaded Billy, "send Rosa down instanter! Pete is sick over to South Boston, and Eliza is with him; and Bertram is bringing Hugh Calderwell home to dinner. Can you spare Rosa?"

"Oh, my grief and conscience, Billy! Of course I can--I mean I could--but Rosa isn't here, dear child! It's her day out, you know."

"O dear, of course it is! I might have known, if I'd thought; but Pete and Eliza have spoiled me. They never take days out at meal time-- both together, I mean--until to-night."

"But, my dear child, what will you do?"

"I don't know. I've got to think. I must do something!"

"Of course you must! I'd come over myself if it wasn't for my cold."

"As if I'd let you!"

"There isn't anybody here, only Tommy. Even Alice is gone. Oh, Billy, Billy, this only goes to prove what I've always said, that no woman ought to be a wife until she's an efficient housekeeper; and--"

"Yes, yes, Aunt Hannah, I know," moaned Billy, frenziedly. "But I am a wife, and I'm not an efficient housekeeper; and Hugh Calderwell won't wait for me to learn. He's coming to-night. To-night! And I've got to do something. Never mind. I'll fix it some way. Good-by!"

"But, Billy, Billy! Oh, my grief and conscience," fluttered Aunt Hannah's voice across the wires as Billy snapped the receiver into place.

For the second time that day Billy backed palpitatingly against the wall. Her eyes sought the clock fearfully.

Fifteen minutes past four. She had an hour and three quarters. She could, of course, telephone Bertram to dine Calderwell at a club or some hotel. But to do this now, the very first time, when it had been her own suggestion that he "bring them home"--no, no, she could not do that! Anything but that! Besides, very likely she could not reach Bertram, anyway. Doubtless he had left the Winthrops' by this time.

There was Marie. She could telephone Marie. But Marie could not very well come just now, she knew; and then, too, there was Cyril to be taken into consideration. How Cyril would gibe at the wife who had to call in all the neighbors just because her husband was bringing home a friend to dinner! How he would-- Well, he shouldn't! He should not have the chance. So, there!

With a jerk Mrs. Bertram Henshaw pulled herself away from the wall and stood erect. Her eyes snapped, and the very poise of her chin spelled determination.

Very well, she would show them. Was not Bertram bringing this man home because he was proud of her? Mighty proud he would be if she had to call in half of Boston to get his dinner for him! Nonsense! She would get it herself. Was not this the time, if ever, to be an oak? A vine, doubtless, would lean and cling and telephone, and whine "I can't!" But not an oak. An oak would hold up its head and say "I can!" An oak would go ahead and get that dinner. She would be an oak. She would get that dinner.

What if she didn't know how to cook bread and cake and pies and things? One did not have to cook bread and cake and pies just to get a dinner --meat and potatoes and vegetables! Besides, she could make peach fritters. She knew she could. She would show them!

And with actually a bit of song on her lips, Billy skipped up-stairs for her ruffled apron and dust- cap--two necessary accompaniments to this dinner-getting, in her opinion.

Billy found the apron and dust-cap with no difficulty; but it took fully ten of her precious minutes to unearth from its obscure hiding-place the blue-and-gold "Bride's Helper" cookbook, one of Aunt Hannah's wedding gifts.

On the way to the kitchen, Billy planned her dinner. As was natural, perhaps, she chose the things she herself would like to eat.

"I won't attempt anything very elaborate," she said to herself. "It would be wiser to have something simple, like chicken pie, perhaps. I love chicken pie! And I'll have oyster stew first --that is, after the grapefruit. Just oysters boiled in milk must be easier than soup to make. I'll begin with grapefruit with a cherry in it, like Pete fixes it. Those don't have to be cooked, anyhow. I'll have fish--Bertram loves the fish course. Let me see, halibut, I guess, with egg sauce. I won't have any roast; nothing but the chicken pie. And I'll have squash and onions. I can have a salad, easy--just lettuce and stuff. That doesn't have to be cooked. Oh, and the peach fritters, if I get time to make them. For dessert--well, maybe I can find a new pie or pudding in the cookbook. I want to use that cookbook for something, after hunting all this time for it!"

In the kitchen Billy found exquisite neatness, and silence. The first brought an approving light to her eyes; but the second, for some unapparent reason, filled her heart with vague misgiving. This feeling, however, Billy resolutely cast from her as she crossed the room, dropped her book on to the table, and turned toward the shining black stove.

There was an excellent fire. Glowing points of light showed that only a good draft was needed to make the whole mass of coal red-hot. Billy, however, did not know this. Her experience of fires was confined to burning wood in open grates --and wood in open grates had to be poked to make it red and glowing. With confident alacrity now, therefore, Billy caught up the poker, thrust it into the mass of coals and gave them a fine stirring up. Then she set back the lid of the stove and went to hunt up the ingredients for her dinner.

By the time Billy had searched five minutes and found no chicken, no oysters, and no halibut, it occurred to her that her larder was not, after all, an open market, and that one's provisions must be especially ordered to fit one's needs. As to ordering them now--Billy glanced at the clock and shook her head.

"It's almost five, already, and they'd never get here in time," she sighed regretfully. "I'll have to have something else."

Billy looked now, not for what she wanted, but for what she could find. And she found: some cold roast lamb, at which she turned up her nose; an uncooked beefsteak, which she appropriated doubtfully; a raw turnip and a head of lettuce, which she hailed with glee; and some beets, potatoes, onions, and grapefruit, from all of which she took a generous supply. Thus laden she went back to the kitchen.

Spread upon the table they made a brave show.

"Oh, well, I'll have quite a dinner, after all," she triumphed, cocking her head happily. "And now for the dessert," she finished, pouncing on the cookbook.

It was while she was turning the leaves to find the pies and puddings that she ran across the vegetables and found the word "beets" staring her in the face. Mechanically she read the line below.

"Winter beets will require three hours to cook. Use hot water."

Billy's startled eyes sought the clock.

Three hours--and it was five, now!

Frenziedly, then, she ran her finger down the page.

"Onions, one and one-half hours. Use hot water. Turnips require a long time, but if cut thin they will cook in an hour and a quarter."

"An hour and a quarter, indeed!" she moaned.

"Isn't there anything anywhere that doesn't take forever to cook?"

"Early peas-- . . . green corn-- . . . summer squash-- . . ." mumbled Billy's dry lips. "But what do folks eat in January--January?"

It was the apparently inoffensive sentence, "New potatoes will boil in thirty minutes," that brought fresh terror to Billy's soul, and set her to fluttering the cookbook leaves with renewed haste. If it took new potatoes thirty minutes to cook, how long did it take old ones? In vain she searched for the answer. There were plenty of potatoes. They were mashed, whipped, scalloped, creamed, fried, and broiled; they were made into puffs, croquettes, potato border, and potato snow. For many of these they were boiled first--"until tender," one rule said.

"But that doesn't tell me how long it takes to get 'em tender," fumed Billy, despairingly. "I suppose they think anybody ought to know that --but I don't!" Suddenly her eyes fell once more on the instructions for boiling turnips, and her face cleared. "If it helps to cut turnips thin, why not potatoes?" she cried. "I can do that, anyhow; and I will," she finished, with a sigh of relief, as she caught up half a dozen potatoes and hurried into the pantry for a knife. A few minutes later, the potatoes, peeled, and cut almost to wafer thinness, were dumped into a basin of cold water.

"There! now I guess you'll cook," nodded Billy to the dish in her hand as she hurried to the stove.

Chilled by an ominous unresponsiveness, Billy lifted the stove lid and peered inside. Only a mass of black and graying coals greeted her. The fire was out.

"To think that even you had to go back on me like this!" upbraided Billy, eyeing the dismal mass with reproachful gaze.

This disaster, however, as Billy knew, was not so great as it seemed, for there was still the gas stove. In the old days, under Dong Ling's rule, there had been no gas stove. Dong Ling disapproved of "devil stoves" that had "no coalee, no woodee, but burned like hellee." Eliza, however, did approve of them; and not long after her arrival, a fine one had been put in for her use. So now Billy soon had her potatoes with a brisk blaze under them.

In frantic earnest, then, Billy went to work. Brushing the discarded onions, turnip, and beets into a pail under the table, she was still confronted with the beefsteak, lettuce, and grapefruit. All but the beefsteak she pushed to one side with gentle pats.

"You're all right," she nodded to them. "I can use you. You don't have to be cooked, bless your hearts! But you--!" Billy scowled at the beefsteak and ran her finger down the index of the "Bride's Helper"--Billy knew how to handle that book now.

"No, you don't--not for me!" she muttered, after a minute, shaking her finger at the tenderloin on the table. "I haven't got any `hot coals,' and I thought a `gridiron' was where they played football; though it seems it's some sort of a dish to cook you in, here--but I shouldn't know it from a teaspoon, probably, if I should see it. No, sir! It's back to the refrigerator for you, and a nice cold sensible roast leg of lamb for me, that doesn't have to be cooked. Understand? Cooked," she finished, as she carried the beefsteak away and took possession of the hitherto despised cold lamb.

Once more Billy made a mad search through cupboards and shelves. This time she bore back in triumph a can of corn, another of tomatoes, and a glass jar of preserved peaches. In the kitchen a cheery bubbling from the potatoes on the stove greeted her. Billy's spirits rose with the steam.

"There, Spunkie," she said gayly to the cat, who had just uncurled from a nap behind the stove. "Tell me I can't get up a dinner! And maybe we'll have the peach fritters, too, "she chirped. "I've got the peach-part, anyway."

But Billy did not have the peach fritters, after all. She got out the sugar and the flour, to be sure, and she made a great ado looking up the rule; but a hurried glance at the clock sent her into the dining-room to set the table, and all thought of the peach fritters was given up.