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Bertram made up his mind at once that, for the present, at least, he would tell no one what the surgeon had said to him. He had placed himself under the man's care, and there was nothing to do but to take the prescribed treatment and await results as patiently as he could. Meanwhile there was no need to worry Billy, or William, or anybody else with the matter.
Billy was so busy with her holiday plans that she was only vaguely aware of what seemed to be an increase of restlessness on the part of her husband during those days just before Christmas.
"Poor dear, is the arm feeling horrid to-day?" she asked one morning, when the gloom on her husband's face was deeper than usual.
Bertram frowned and did not answer directly.
"Lots of good I am these days!" he exclaimed, his moody eyes on the armful of many-shaped, many-sized packages she carried. "What are those for-the tree?"
"Yes; and it's going to be so pretty, Bertram," exulted Billy. "And, do you know, Baby positively acts as if he suspected things--little as he is," she went on eagerly. "He's as nervous as a witch. I can't keep him still a minute!"
"How about his mother?" hinted Bertram, with a faint smile.
"Well, I'm afraid she isn't exactly calm herself," she confessed, as she hurried out of the room with her parcels.
Bertram looked after her longingly, despondently.
"I wonder what she'd say if she--knew," he muttered. "But she sha'n't know--till she just has to," he vowed suddenly, under his breath, striding into the hall for his hat and coat.
Never had the Strata known such a Christmas as this was planned to be. Cyril, Marie, and the twins were to be there, also Kate, her husband and three children, Paul, Egbert, and little Kate, from the West. On Christmas Day there was to be a big family dinner, with Aunt Hannah down from the Annex. Then, in concession to the extreme youth of the young host and his twin cousins, there was to be an afternoon tree. The shades were to be drawn and the candles lighted, however, so that there might be no loss of effect. In the evening the tree was to be once more loaded with fascinating packages and candy-bags, and this time the Greggorys, Tommy Dunn, and all the rest from the Annex were to have the fun all over again.
From garret to basement the Strata was aflame with holly, and aglitter with tinsel. Nowhere did there seem to be a spot that did not have its bit of tissue paper or its trail of red ribbon. And everything--holly, ribbon, tissue, and tinsel-- led to the mysteriously closed doors of the great front drawing-room, past which none but Billy and her accredited messengers might venture. No wonder, indeed, that even Baby scented excitement, and that Baby's mother was not exactly calm. No wonder, too, that Bertram, with his helpless right arm, and his heavy heart, felt peculiarly forlorn and "out of it." No wonder, also, that he took himself literally out of it with growing frequency.
Mr. and Mrs. Hartwell and little Kate were to stay at the Strata. The boys, Paul and Egbert, were to go to Cyril's. Promptly at the appointed time, two days before Christmas, they arrived. And from that hour until two days after Christmas, when the last bit of holly, ribbon, tissue, and tinsel disappeared from the floor, Billy moved in a whirl of anxious responsibility that was yet filled with fun, frolic, and laughter.
It was a great success, the whole affair. Everybody seemed pleased and happy--that is, everybody but Bertram; and he very plainly tried to seem pleased and happy. Even Cyril unbent to the extent of not appearing to mind the noise one bit; and Sister Kate (Bertram said) found only the extraordinarily small number of four details to change in the arrangements. Baby obligingly let his teeth-getting go, for the occasion, and he and the twins, Franz and Felix, were the admiration and delight of all. Little Kate, to be sure, was a trifle disconcerting once or twice, but everybody was too absorbed to pay much attention to her. Billy did, however, remember her opening remarks.
"Well, little Kate, do you remember me?" Billy had greeted her pleasantly.
"Oh, yes," little Kate had answered, with a winning smile. "You're my Aunt Billy what married my Uncle Bertram instead of Uncle William as you said you would first."
Everybody laughed, and Billy colored, of course; but little Kate went on eagerly:
"And I've been wanting just awfully to see you," she announced.
"Have you? I'm glad, I'm sure. I feel highly flattered," smiled Billy.
"Well, I have. You see, I wanted to ask you something. Have you ever wished that you had married Uncle William instead of Uncle Bertram, or that you'd tried for Uncle Cyril before Aunty Marie got him?"
"Kate!" gasped her horrified mother. "I told you-- You see," she broke off, turning to Billy despairingly. "She's been pestering me with questions like that ever since she knew she was coming. She never has forgotten the way you changed from one uncle to the other. You may remember; it made a great impression on her at the time."
"Yes, I--I remember," stammered Billy, trying to laugh off her embarrassment.
"But you haven't told me yet whether you did wish you'd married Uncle William, or Uncle Cyril," interposed little Kate, persistently.
"No, no, of course not!" exclaimed Billy, with a vivid blush, casting her eyes about for a door of escape, and rejoicing greatly when she spied Delia with the baby coming toward them. "There, look, my dear, here's your new cousin, little Bertram!" she exclaimed. "Don't you want to see him?"
Little Kate turned dutifully.
"Yes'm, Aunt Billy, but I'd rather see the twins. Mother says they're real pretty and cunning."
"Er--y-yes, they are," murmured Billy, on whom the emphasis of the "they're" had not been lost.
Naturally, as may be supposed, therefore, Billy had not forgotten little Kate's opening remarks.
Immediately after Christmas Mr. Hartwell and the boys went back to their Western home, leaving Mrs. Hartwell and her daughter to make a round of visits to friends in the East. For almost a week after Christmas they remained at the Strata; and it was on the last day of their stay that little Kate asked the question that proved so momentous in results.
Billy, almost unconsciously, had avoided tète- a-tètes with her small guest. But to-day they were alone together.
"Aunt Billy," began the little girl, after a meditative gaze into the other's face, "you are married to Uncle Bertram, aren't you?"
"I certainly am, my dear," smiled Billy, trying to speak unconcernedly.
"Well, then, what makes you forget it?"
"What makes me forget-- Why, child, what a question! What do you mean? I don't forget it!" exclaimed Billy, indignantly.
"Then what did mother mean? I heard her tell Uncle William myself--she didn't know I heard, though--that she did wish you'd remember you were Uncle Bertram's wife as well as Cousin Bertram's mother."
Billy flushed scarlet, then grew very white. At that moment Mrs. Hartwell came into the room. Little Kate turned triumphantly.
"There, she hasn't forgotten, and I knew she hadn't, mother! I asked her just now, and she said she hadn't."
"Hadn't what?" questioned Mrs. Hartwell, looking a little apprehensively at her sister-in- law's white face and angry eyes.
"Hadn't forgotten that she was Uncle Bertram's wife."
"Kate," interposed Billy, steadily meeting her sister-in-law's gaze, "will you be good enough to tell me what this child is talking about?"
Mrs. Hartwell sighed, and gave an impatient gesture.
"Kate, I've a mind to take you home on the next train," she said to her daughter. "Run away, now, down-stairs. Your Aunt Billy and I want to talk. Come, come, hurry! I mean what I say," she added warningly, as she saw unmistakable signs of rebellion on the small young face.
"I wish," pouted little Kate, rising reluctantly, and moving toward the door, "that you didn't always send me away just when I wanted most to stay!"
"Well, Kate?" prompted Billy, as the door closed behind the little girl.
"Yes, I suppose I'll have to say it now, as long as that child has put her finger in the pie. But I hadn't intended to speak, no matter what I saw. I promised myself I wouldn't, before I came. I know, of course, how Bertram and Cyril, and William, too, say that I'm always interfering in affairs that don't concern me--though, for that matter, if my own brother's affairs don't concern me, I don't know whose should!
"But, as I said, I wasn't going to speak this time, no matter what I saw. And I haven't-- except to William, and Cyril, and Aunt Hannah; but I suppose somewhere little Kate got hold of it. It's simply this, Billy. It seems to me it's high time you began to realize that you're Bertram's wife as well as the baby's mother."
"That, I am-- I don't think I quite understand," said Billy, unsteadily.
"No, I suppose you don't," sighed Kate, "though where your eyes are, I don't see--or, rather, I do see: they're on the baby, always. It's all very well and lovely, Billy, to be a devoted mother, and you certainly are that. I'll say that much for you, and I'll admit I never thought you would be. But can't you see what you're doing to Bertram?"
"Doing to Bertram!--by being a devoted mother to his son!"
"Yes, doing to Bertram. Can't you see what a change there is in the boy? He doesn't act like himself at all. He's restless and gloomy and entirely out of sorts."
"Yes, I know; but that's his arm," pleaded Billy. "Poor boy--he's so tired of it!"
Kate shook her head decisively.
"It's more than his arm, Billy. You'd see it yourself if you weren't blinded by your absorption in that baby. Where is Bertram every evening? Where is he daytimes? Do you realize that he's been at home scarcely one evening since I came? And as for the days--he's almost never here."
"But, Kate, he can't paint now, you know, so of course he doesn't need to stay so closely at home," defended Billy. "He goes out to find distraction from himself."
"Yes, `distraction,' indeed," sniffed Kate. "And where do you suppose he finds it? Do you know where he finds it? I tell you, Billy, Bertram Henshaw is not the sort of man that should find too much `distraction' outside his home. His tastes and his temperament are altogether too Bohemian, and--"
Billy interrupted with a peremptorily upraised hand.
"Please remember, Kate, you are speaking of my husband to his wife; and his wife has perfect confidence in him, and is just a little particular as to what you say."
"Yes; well, I'm speaking of my brother, too, whom I know very well," shrugged Kate. "All is, you may remember sometime that I warned you--that's all. This trusting business is all very pretty; but I think 'twould be a lot prettier, and a vast deal more sensible, if you'd give him a little attention as well as trust, and see if you can't keep him at home a bit more. At least you'll know whom he's with, then. Cyril says he saw him last week with Bob Seaver."
"With--Bob--Seaver?" faltered Billy, changing color.
"Yes. I see you remember him," smiled Kate, not quite agreeably. "Perhaps now you'll take some stock in what I've said, and remember it."
"I'll remember it, certainly," returned Billy, a little proudly. "You've said a good many things to me, in the past, Mrs. Hartwell, and I've remembered them all--every one."
It was Kate's turn to flush, and she did it.
"Yes, I know. And I presume very likely sometimes there hasn't been much foundation for what I've said. I think this time, however, you'll find there is," she finished, with an air of hurt dignity.
Billy made no reply, perhaps because Delia, at that moment, brought in the baby.
Mrs. Hartwell and little Kate left the Strata the next morning. Until then Billy contrived to keep, before them, a countenance serene, and a manner free from unrest. Even when, after dinner that evening, Bertram put on his hat and coat and went out, Billy refused to meet her sister- in-law's meaning gaze. But in the morning, after they had left the house, Billy did not attempt to deceive herself. Determinedly, then, she set herself to going over in her mind the past months since the baby came; and she was appalled at what she found. Ever in her ears, too, was that feared name, "Bob Seaver"; and ever before her eyes was that night years ago when, as an eighteen-year-old girl, she had followed Bertram and Bob Seaver into a glittering café at eleven o'clock at night, because Bertram had been drinking and was not himself. She remembered Bertram's face when he had seen her, and what he had said when she begged him to come home. She remembered, too, what the family had said afterward. But she remembered, also, that years later Bertram had told her what that escapade of hers had really done for him, and that he believed he had actually loved her from that moment. After that night, at all events, he had had little to do with Bob Seaver.
And now Seaver was back again, it seemed-- and with Bertram. They had been seen together. But if they had, what could she do? Surely she could hardly now follow them into a public café and demand that Seaver let her husband come home! But she could keep him at home, perhaps. (Billy quite brightened at this thought.) Kate had said that she was so absorbed in Baby that her husband received no attention at all. Billy did not believe this was true; but if it were true, she could at least rectify that mistake. If it were attention that he wanted--he should want no more. Poor Bertram! No wonder that he had sought distraction outside! When one had a horrid broken arm that would not let one do anything, what else could one do?
Just here Billy suddenly remembered the book, "A Talk to Young Wives." If she recollected rightly, there was a chapter that covered the very claim Kate had been making. Billy had not thought of the book for months, but she went at once to get it now. There might be, after all, something in it that would help her.
"The Coming of the First Baby." Billy found the chapter without difficulty and settled herself to read, her countenance alight with interest. In a surprisingly short time, however, a new expression came to her face; and at last a little gasp of dismay fell from her lips. She looked up then, with a startled gaze.
Had her walls possessed eyes and ears all these past months, only to give instructions to an unseen hand that it might write what the eyes and ears had learned? For it was such sentences as these that the conscience-smitten Billy read:
"Maternity is apt to work a miracle in a woman's life, but sometimes it spells disaster so far as domestic bliss is concerned. The young mother, wrapped up in the delights and duties of motherhood, utterly forgets that she has a husband. She lives and moves and has her being in the nursery. She thinks baby, talks baby, knows only baby. She refuses to dress up, because it is easier to take care of baby in a frowzy wrapper. She will not go out with her husband for fear something might happen to the baby. She gives up her music because baby won't let her practice. In vain her husband tries to interest her in his own affairs. She has neither eyes nor ears for him, only for baby.
"Now no man enjoys having his nose put out of joint, even by his own child. He loves his child devotedly, and is proud of him, of course; but that does not keep him from wanting the society of his wife occasionally, nor from longing for her old-time love and sympathetic interest. It is an admirable thing, certainly, for a woman to be a devoted mother; but maternal affection can be carried too far. Husbands have some rights as well as offspring; and the wife who neglects her husband for her babies does so at her peril. Home, with the wife eternally in the nursery, is apt to be a dull and lonely thing to the average husband, so he starts out to find amusement for himself--and he finds it. Then is the time when the new little life that is so precious, and that should have bound the two more closely together, becomes the wedge that drives them apart."
Billy did not read any more. With a little sobbing cry she flung the book back into her desk, and began to pull off her wrapper. Her fingers shook. Already she saw herself a Monster, a Wicked Destroyer of Domestic Bliss with her thoughtless absorption in Baby, until he had become that Awful Thing--a Wedge. And Bertram-- poor Bertram, with his broken arm! She had not played to him, nor sung to him, nor gone out with him. And when had they had one of their good long talks about Bertram's work and plans?
But it should all be changed now. She would play, and sing, and go out with him. She would dress up, too. He should see no more wrappers. She would ask about his work, and seem interested. She was interested. She remembered now, that just before he was hurt, he had told her of a new portrait, and of a new "Face of a Girl" that he had planned to do. Lately he had said nothing about these. He had seemed discouraged--and no wonder, with his broken arm! But she would change all that. He should see! And forthwith Billy hurried to her closet to pick out her prettiest house frock.
Long before dinner Billy was ready, waiting in the drawing-room. She had on a pretty little blue silk gown that she knew Bertram liked, and she watched very anxiously for Bertram to come up the steps. She remembered now, with a pang, that he had long since given up his peculiar ring; but she meant to meet him at the door just the same.
Bertram, however, did not come. At a quarter before six he telephoned that he had met some friends, and would dine at the club.
"My, my, how pretty we are!" exclaimed Uncle William, when they went down to dinner together. "New frock?"
"Why, no, Uncle William," laughed Billy, a little tremulously. "You've seen it dozens of times!"
"Have I?" murmured the man. "I don't seem to remember it. Too bad Bertram isn't here to see you. Somehow, you look unusually pretty to-night."
And Billy's heart ached anew.
Billy spent the evening practicing--softly, to be sure, so as not to wake Baby--but practicing.
As the days passed Billy discovered that it was much easier to say she would "change things" than it was really to change them. She changed herself, it is true--her clothes, her habits, her words, and her thoughts; but it was more difficult to change Bertram. In the first place, he was there so little. She was dismayed when she saw how very little, indeed, he was at home--and she did not like to ask him outright to stay. That was not in accordance with her plans. Besides, the "Talk to Young Wives" said that indirect influence was much to be preferred, always, to direct persuasion--which last, indeed, usually failed to produce results.
So Billy "dressed up," and practiced, and talked (of anything but the baby), and even hinted shamelessly once or twice that she would like to go to the theater; but all to little avail. True, Bertram brightened up, for a minute, when he came home and found her in a new or a favorite dress, and he told her how pretty she looked. He appeared to like to have her play to him, too, even declaring once or twice that it was quite like old times, yes, it was. But he never noticed her hints about the theater, and he did not seem to like to talk about his work, even a little bit.
Billy laid this last fact to his injured arm. She decided that he had become blue and discouraged, and that he needed cheering up, especially about his work; so she determinedly and systematically set herself to doing it.
She talked of the fine work he had done, and of the still finer work he would yet do, when his arm was well. She told him how proud she was of him, and she let him see how dear his Art was to her, and how badly she would feel if she thought he had really lost all his interest in his work and would never paint again. She questioned him about the new portrait he was to begin as soon as his arm would let him; and she tried to arouse his enthusiasm in the picture he had planned to show in the March Exhibition of the Bohemian Ten, telling him that she was sure his arm would allow him to complete at least one canvas to hang.
In none of this, however, did Bertram appear in the least interested. The one thing, indeed, which he seemed not to want to talk about, was his work; and he responded to her overtures on the subject with only moody silence, or else with almost irritable monosyllables; all of which not only grieved but surprised Billy very much. For, according to the "Talk to Young Wives," she was doing exactly what the ideal, sympathetic, interested-in-her-husband's-work wife should do.
When February came, bringing with it no change for the better, Billy was thoroughly frightened. Bertram's arm plainly was not improving. He was more gloomy and restless than ever. He seemed not to want to stay at home at all; and Billy knew now for a certainty that he was spending more and more time with Bob Seaver and "the boys."
Poor Billy! Nowhere could she look these days and see happiness. Even the adored baby seemed, at times, almost to give an added pang. Had he not become, according to the "Talk to Young Wives" that awful thing, a Wedge? The Annex, too, carried its sting; for where was the need of an overflow house for happiness now, when there was no happiness to overflow? Even the little jade idol on Billy's mantel Billy could not bear to see these days, for its once bland smile had become a hideous grin, demanding, "Where, now, is your heap plenty velly good luckee?"
But, before Bertram, Billy still carried a bravely smiling face, and to him still she talked earnestly and enthusiastically of his work--which last, as it happened, was the worst course she could have pursued; for the one thing poor Bertram wished to forget, just now, was--his work.
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