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It was toward the last of October that Billy began to notice her husband's growing restlessness. Twice, when she had been playing to him, she turned to find him testing the suppleness of his injured arm. Several times, failing to receive an answer to her questions, she had looked up to discover him gazing abstractedly at nothing in particular.
They read and walked and talked together, to be sure, and Bertram's devotion to her lightest wish was beyond question; but more and more frequently these days Billy found him hovering over his sketches in his studio; and once, when he failed to respond to the dinner-bell, search revealed him buried in a profound treatise on "The Art of Foreshortening."
Then came the day when Billy, after an hour's vain effort to imprison within notes a tantalizing melody, captured the truant and rain down to the studio to tell Bertram of her victory.
But Bertram did not seem even to hear her. True, he leaped to his feet and hurried to meet her, his face radiantly aglow; but she had not ceased to speak before he himself was talking.
"Billy, Billy, I've been sketching," he cried. "My hand is almost steady. See, some of those lines are all right! I just picked up a crayon and--" He stopped abruptly, his eyes on Billy's face. A vaguely troubled shadow crossed his own. "Did--did you--were you saying anything in--in particular, when you came in?" he stammered.
For a short half-minute Billy looked at her husband without speaking. Then, a little queerly, she laughed.
"Oh, no, nothing at all in particular," she retorted airily. The next moment, with one of her unexpected changes of manner, she darted across the room, picked up a palette, and a handful of brushes from the long box near it. Advancing toward her husband she held them out dramatically. "And now paint, my lord, paint!" she commanded him, with stern insistence, as she thrust them into his hands.
Bertram laughed shamefacedly.
"Oh, I say, Billy," he began; but Billy had gone.
Out in the hall Billy was speeding up-stairs, talking fiercely to herself.
"We'll, Billy Neilson Henshaw, it's come! Now behave yourself. That was the painting look! You know what that means. Remember, he belongs to his Art before he does to you. Kate and everybody says so. And you--you expected him to tend to you and your silly little songs. Do you want to ruin his career? As if now he could spend all his time and give all his thoughts to you! But I--I just hate that Art!"
"What did you say, Billy?" asked William, in mild surprise, coming around the turn of the balustrade in the hall above. "Were you speaking to me, my dear?"
Billy looked up. Her face cleared suddenly, and she laughed--though a little ruefully.
"No, Uncle William, I wasn't talking to you," she sighed. "I was just--just administering first aid to the injured," she finished, as she whisked into her own room.
"Well, well, bless the child! What can she mean by that?" puzzled Uncle William, turning to go down the stairway.
Bertram began to paint a very little the next day. He painted still more the next, and yet more again the day following. He was like a bird let out of a cage, so joyously alive was he. The old sparkle came back to his eye, the old gay smile to his lips. Now that they had come back Billy realized what she had not been conscious of before: that for several weeks past they had not been there; and she wondered which hurt the more--that they had not been there before, or that they were there now. Then she scolded herself roundly for asking the question at all.
They were not easy--those days for Billy, though always to Bertram she managed to show a cheerfully serene face. To Uncle William, also, and to Aunt Hannah she showed a smiling countenance; and because she could not talk to anybody else of her feelings, she talked to herself. This, however, was no new thing for Billy to do From earliest childhood she had fought things out in like manner.
"But it's so absurd of you, Billy Henshaw," she berated herself one day, when Bertram had become so absorbed in his work that he had forgotten to keep his appointment with her for a walk. "Just because you have had his constant attention almost every hour since you were married is no reason why you should have it every hour now, when his arm is better! Besides, it's exactly what you said you wouldn't do--object-- to his giving proper time to his work."
"But I'm not objecting," stormed the other half of herself. "I'm telling him to do it. It's only that he's so--so pleased to do it. He doesn't seem to mind a bit being away from me. He's actually happy!"
"Well, don't you want him to be happy in his work? Fie! For shame! A fine artist's wife you are. It seems Kate was right, then; you are going to spoil his career!"
"Ho!" quoth Billy, and tossed her head. Forthwith she crossed the room to her piano and plumped herself down hard on to the stool. Then, from under her fingers there fell a rollicking melody that seemed to fill the room with little dancing feet. Faster and faster sped Billy's fingers; swifter and swifter twinkled the little dancing feet. Then a door was jerked open, and Bertram's voice called:
The music stopped instantly. Billy sprang from her seat, her eyes eagerly seeking the direction from which had come the voice. Perhaps--perhaps Bertram wanted her. Perhaps he was not going to paint any longer that morning, after all. "Billy!" called the voice again. "Please, do you mind stopping that playing just for a little while? I'm a brute, I know, dear, but my brush will try to keep time with that crazy little tune of yours, and you know my hand is none too steady, anyhow, and when it tries to keep up with that jiggety, jig, jig, jiggety, jig, jig--! Do you mind,, darling, just--just sewing, or doing something still for a while?"
All the light fled from Billy's face, but her voice, when she spoke, was the quintessence of cheery indifference.
"Why, no, of course not, dear."
"Thank you. I knew you wouldn't," sighed Bertram. Then the door shut.
For a long minute Billy stood motionless before she glanced at her watch and sped to the telephone.
"Is Miss Greggory there, Rosa?" she called when the operator's ring was answered.
"Mis' Greggory, the lame one?"
"No; Miss Greggory--Miss Alice."
"Then won't you ask her to come to the telephone, please."
There was a moment's wait, during which Billy's small, well-shod foot beat a nervous tattoo on the floor.
"Oh, is that you, Alice?" she called then. "Are you going to be home for an hour or two?"
"Why, y-yes; yes, indeed."
"Then I'm coming over. We'll play duets, sing--anything. I want some music."
"Do! And--Mr. Arkwright is here. He'll help."
"Mr. Arkwright? You say he's there? Then I won't-- Yes, I will, too." Billy spoke with renewed firmness. "I'll be there right away. Good-by." And she hung up the receiver, and went to tell Pete to order John and Peggy at once.
"I suppose I ought to have left Alice and Mr. Arkwright alone together," muttered the young wife feverishly, as she hurriedly prepared for departure. "But I'll make it up to them later. I'm going to give them lots of chances. But to- day--to-day I just had to go--somewhere!"
At the Annex, with Alice Greggory and Arkwright, Billy sang duets and trios, and reveled in a sonorous wilderness of new music to her heart's content. Then, rested, refreshed, and at peace with all the world, she hurried home to dinner and to Bertram.
"There! I feel better," she sighed, as she took off her hat in her own room; "and now I'll go find Bertram. Bless his heart--of course he didn't want me to play when he was so busy!"
Billy went straight to the studio, but Bertram was not there. Neither was he in William's room, nor anywhere in the house. Down-stairs in the dining-room Pete was found looking rather white, leaning back in a chair. He struggled at once to his feet, however, as his mistress entered the room.
Billy hurried forward with a startled exclamation.
"Why, Pete, what is it? Are you sick?" she cried, her glance encompassing the half-set table.
"No, ma'am; oh, no, ma'am!" The old man stumbled forward and began to arrange the knives and forks. "It's just a pesky pain--beggin' yer pardon--in my side. But I ain't sick. No, Miss--ma'am."
Billy frowned and shook her head. Her eyes were on Pete's palpably trembling hands.
"But, Pete, you are sick," she protested. "Let Eliza do that."
Pete drew himself stiffly erect. The color had begun to come back to his face.
"There hain't no one set this table much but me for more'n fifty years, an' I've got a sort of notion that nobody can do it just ter suit me. Besides, I'm better now. It's gone--that pain."
"But, Pete, what is it? How long have you had it?"
"I hain't had it any time, steady. It's the comin' an' goin' kind. It seems silly ter mind it at all; only, when it does come, it sort o' takes the backbone right out o' my knees, and they double up so's I have ter set down. There, ye see? I'm pert as a sparrer, now!" And, with stiff celerity, Pete resumed his task.
His mistress still frowned.
"That isn't right, Pete," she demurred, with a slow shake of her head. "You should see a doctor."
The old man paled a little. He had seen a doctor, and he had not liked what the doctor had told him. In fact, he stubbornly refused to believe what the doctor had said. He straightened himself now a little aggressively.
"Humph! Beggin' yer pardon, Miss--ma'am, but I don't think much o' them doctor chaps."
Billy shook her head again as she smiled and turned away. Then, as if casually, she asked:
"Oh, did Mr. Bertram go out, Pete?"
"Yes, Miss; about five o'clock. He said he'd be back to dinner."
"Oh! All right."
From the hall the telephone jangled sharply.
"I'll go," said Pete's mistress, as she turned and hurried up-stairs.
It was Bertram's voice that answered her opening "Hullo."
"Oh, Billy, is that you, dear? Well, you're just the one I wanted. I wanted to say--that is, I wanted to ask you--" The speaker cleared his throat a little nervously, and began all over again. "The fact is, Billy, I've run across a couple of old classmates on from New York, and they are very anxious I should stay down to dinner with them. Would you mind--very much if I did?"
A cold hand seemed to clutch Billy's heart. She caught her breath with a little gasp and tried to speak; but she had to try twice before the words came.
"Why, no--no, of course not!" Billy's voice was very high-pitched and a little shaky, but it was surpassingly cheerful.
"You sure you won't be--lonesome?" Bertram's voice was vaguely troubled.
"Of course not!"
"You've only to say the word, little girl," came Bertram's anxious tones again, "and I won't stay."
Billy swallowed convulsively. If only, only he would stop and leave her to herself! As if she were going to own up that she was lonesome for him-- if he was not lonesome for her!
"Nonsense! of course you'll stay," called Billy, still in that high-pitched, shaky treble. Then, before Bertram could answer, she uttered a gay "Good-by!" and hung up the receiver.
Billy had ten whole minutes in which to cry before Pete's gong sounded for dinner; but she had only one minute in which to try to efface the woefully visible effects of those ten minutes before William tapped at her door, and called:
"Gone to sleep, my dear? Dinner's ready. Didn't you hear the gong?"
"Yes, I'm coming, Uncle William." Billy spoke with breezy gayety, and threw open the door; but she did not meet Uncle William's eyes. Her head was turned away. Her hands were fussing with the hang of her skirt.
"Bertram's dining out, Pete tells me," observed William, with cheerful nonchalance, as they went down-stairs together.
Billy bit her lip and looked up sharply. She had been bracing herself to meet with disdainful indifference this man's pity--the pity due a poor neglected wife whose husband preferred to dine with old classmates rather than with herself. Now she found in William's face, not pity, but a calm, even jovial, acceptance of the situation as a matter of course. She had known she was going to hate that pity; but now, curiously enough, she was conscious only of anger that the pity was not there--that she might hate it.
She tossed her head a little. So even William --Uncle William--regarded this monstrous thing as an insignificant matter of everyday experience. Maybe he expected it to occur frequently--every night, or so. Doubtless he did expect it to occur every night, or so. Indeed! Very well. As if she were going to show now that she cared whether Bertram were there or not! They should see.
So with head held high and eyes asparkle, Billy marched into the dining-room and took her accustomed place.
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