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Billy came down-stairs on the thirteenth of December to find everywhere the peculiar flatness that always follows a day which for weeks has been the focus of one's aims and thoughts and labor.
"It's just as if everything had stopped at Marie's wedding, and there wasn't anything more to do," she complained to Aunt Hannah at the breakfast table. "Everything seems so--queer!"
"It won't--long, dear," smiled Aunt Hannah, tranquilly, as she buttered her roll, "specially after Bertram comes back. How long does he stay in New York?"
"Only three days; but I'm just sure it's going to seem three weeks, now," sighed Billy. "But he simply had to go--else he wouldn't have gone."
"I've no doubt of it," observed Aunt Hannah. And at the meaning emphasis of her words, Billy laughed a little. After a minute she said aggrievedly:
"I had supposed that I could at least have a sort of `after the ball' celebration this morning picking up and straightening things around. But John and Rosa have done it all. There isn't so much as a rose leaf anywhere on the floor. Of course most of the flowers went to the hospital last night, anyway. As for Marie's room--it looks as spick-and-span as if it had never seen a scrap of ribbon or an inch of tulle."
"But--the wedding presents?"
"All carried down to the kitchen and half packed now, ready to go over to the new home. John says he'll take them over in Peggy this afternoon, after he takes Mrs. Hartwell's trunk to Uncle William's."
"Well, you can at least go over to the apartment and work," suggested Aunt Hannah, hopefully.
"Humph! Can I?" scoffed Billy. "As if I could--when Marie left strict orders that not one thing was to be touched till she got here. They arranged everything but the presents before the wedding, anyway; and Marie wants to fix those herself after she gets back. Mercy! Aunt Hannah, if I should so much as move a plate one inch in the china closet, Marie would know it-- and change it when she got home," laughed Billy, as she rose from the table. "No, I can't go to work over there."
"But there's your music, my dear. You said you were going to write some new songs after the wedding."
"I was," sighed Billy, walking to the window, and looking listlessly at the bare, brown world outside; "but I can't write songs--when there aren't any songs in my head to write."
"No, of course not; but they'll come, dear, in time. You're tired, now," soothed Aunt Hannah, as she turned to leave the room.
"It's the reaction, of course," murmured Aunt Hannah to herself, on the way up-stairs. "She's had the whole thing on her hands--dear child!"
A few minutes later, from the living-room, came a plaintive little minor melody. Billy was at the piano.
Kate and little Kate had, the night before, gone home with William. It had been a sudden decision, brought about by the realization that Bertram's trip to New York would leave William alone. Her trunk was to be carried there to-day, and she would leave for home from there, at the end of a two or three days' visit.
It began to snow at twelve o'clock. All the morning the sky had been gray and threatening; and the threats took visible shape at noon in myriads of white snow feathers that filled the air to the blinding point, and turned the brown, bare world into a thing of fairylike beauty. Billy, however, with a rare frown upon her face, looked out upon it with disapproving eyes.
"I was going in town--and I believe I'll go now," she cried.
"Don't, dear, please don't," begged Aunt Hannah. "See, the flakes are smaller now, and the wind is coming up. We're in for a blizzard-- I'm sure we are. And you know you have some cold, already."
"All right," sighed Billy. "Then it's me for the knitting work and the fire, I suppose," she finished, with a whimsicality that did not hide the wistful disappointment of her voice.
She was not knitting, however, she was sewing with Aunt Hannah when at four o'clock Rosa brought in the card.
Billy glanced at the name, then sprang to her feet with a glad little cry.
"It's Mary Jane!" she exclaimed, as Rosa disappeared. "Now wasn't he a dear to think to come to-day? You'll be down, won't you?"
Aunt Hannah smiled even while she frowned.
"Oh, Billy!" she remonstrated. "Yes, I'll come down, of course, a little later, and I'm glad Mr. Arkwright came," she said with reproving emphasis.
Billy laughed and threw a mischievous glance over her shoulder.
"All right," she nodded. "I'll go and tell Mr. Arkwright you'll be down directly."
In the living-room Billy greeted her visitor with a frankly cordial hand.
"How did you know, Mr. Arkwright, that I was feeling specially restless and lonesome to- day?" she demanded.
A glad light sprang to the man's dark eyes.
"I didn't know it," he rejoined. "I only knew that I was specially restless and lonesome myself."
Arkwright's voice was not quite steady. The unmistakable friendliness in the girl's words and manner had sent a quick throb of joy to his heart. Her evident delight in his coming had filled him with rapture. He could not know that it was only the chill of the snowstorm that had given warmth to her handclasp, the dreariness of the day that had made her greeting so cordial, the loneliness of a maiden whose lover is away that had made his presence so welcome.
"Well, I'm glad you came, anyway," sighed Billy, contentedly; "though I suppose I ought to be sorry that you were lonesome--but I'm afraid I'm not, for now you'll know just how I felt, so you won't mind if I'm a little wild and erratic. You see, the tension has snapped," she added laughingly, as she seated herself.
"The wedding, you know. For so many weeks we've been seeing just December twelfth, that we'd apparently forgotten all about the thirteenth that came after it; so when I got up this morning I felt just as you do when the clock has stopped ticking. But it was a lovely wedding, Mr. Arkwright. I'm sorry you could not be here."
"Thank you; so am I--though usually, I will confess, I'm not much good at attending `functions' and meeting strangers. As perhaps you've guessed, Miss Neilson, I'm not particularly a society chap."
"Of course you aren't! People who are doing things--real things--seldom are. But we aren't the society kind ourselves, you know--not the capital S kind. We like sociability, which is vastly different from liking Society. Oh, we have friends, to be sure, who dote on `pink teas and purple pageants,' as Cyril calls them; and we even go ourselves sometimes. But if you had been here yesterday, Mr. Arkwright, you'd have met lots like yourself, men and women who are doing things: singing, playing, painting, illustrating, writing. Why, we even had a poet, sir--only he didn't have long hair, so he didn't look the part a bit," she finished laughingly.
"Is long hair--necessary--for poets?" Arkwright's smile was quizzical.
"Dear me, no; not now. But it used to be, didn't it? And for painters, too. But now they look just like--folks."
"It isn't possible that you are sighing for the velvet coats and flowing ties of the past, is it, Miss Neilson?"
"I'm afraid it is," dimpled Billy. "I love velvet coats and flowing ties!"
"May singers wear them? I shall don them at once, anyhow, at a venture," declared the man, promptly.
Billy smiled and shook her head.
"I don't think you will. You all like your horrid fuzzy tweeds and worsteds too well!"
"You speak with feeling. One would almost suspect that you already had tried to bring about a reform--and failed. Perhaps Mr. Cyril, now, or Mr. Bertram--" Arkwright stopped with a whimsical smile.
Billy flushed a little. As it happened, she had, indeed, had a merry tilt with Bertram on that very subject, and he had laughingly promised that his wedding present to her would be a velvet house coat for himself. It was on the point of Billy's tongue now to say this to Arkwright; but another glance at the provoking smile on his lips drove the words back in angry confusion. For the second time, in the presence of this man, Billy found herself unable to refer to her engagement to Bertram Henshaw--though this time she did not in the least doubt that Arkwright already knew of it.
With a little gesture of playful scorn she rose and went to the piano.
"Come, let us try some duets," she suggested. "That's lots nicer than quarrelling over velvet coats; and Aunt Hannah will be down presently to hear us sing."
Before she had ceased speaking, Arkwright was at her side with an exclamation of eager acquiescence.
It was after the second duet that Arkwright asked, a little diffidently.
"Have you written any new songs lately?"
"You're going to?"
"Perhaps--if I find one to write."
"You mean--you have no words?"
"Yes--and no. I have some words, both of my own and other people's; but I haven't found in any one of them, yet--a melody."
Arkwright hesitated. His right hand went almost to his inner coat pocket--then fell back at his side. The next moment he picked up a sheet of music.
"Are you too tired to try this?" he asked.
A puzzled frown appeared on Billy's face.
"Why, no, but--"
"Well, children, I've come down to hear the music," announced Aunt Hannah, smilingly, from the doorway; "only--Billy, will you run up and get my pink shawl, too? This room is colder than I thought, and there's only the white one down here."
"Of course," cried Billy, rising at once. "You shall have a dozen shawls, if you like," she laughed, as she left the room.
What a cozy time it was--the hour that followed, after Billy returned with the pink shawl! Outside, the wind howled at the windows and flung the snow against the glass in sleety crashes. Inside, the man and the girl sang duets until they were tired; then, with Aunt Hannah, they feasted royally on the buttered toast, tea, and frosted cakes that Rosa served on a little table before the roaring fire. It was then that Arkwright talked of himself, telling them something of his studies, and of the life he was living.
"After all, you see there's just this difference between my friends and yours," he said, at last. "Your friends are doing things. They've succeeded. Mine haven't, yet--they're only trying."
"But they will succeed," cried Billy.
"Some of them," amended the man.
"Not--all of them?" Billy looked a little troubled.
Arkwright shook his head slowly.
"No. They couldn't--all of them, you know. Some haven't the talent, some haven't the perseverance, and some haven't the money."
"But all that seems such a pity-when they've tried," grieved Billy.
"It is a pity, Miss Neilson. Disappointed hopes are always a pity, aren't they?"
"Y-yes," sighed the girl. "But--if there were only something one could do to--help!"
Arkwright's eyes grew deep with feeling, but his voice, when he spoke, was purposely light.
"I'm afraid that would be quite too big a contract for even your generosity, Miss Neilson-- to mend all the broken hopes in the world," he prophesied.
"I have known great good to come from great disappointments, "remarked Aunt Hannah, a bit didactically.
"So have I," laughed Arkwright, still determined to drive the troubled shadow from the face he was watching so intently. "For instance: a fellow I know was feeling all cut up last Friday because he was just too late to get into Symphony Hall on the twenty-five-cent admission. Half an hour afterwards his disappointment was turned to joy--a friend who had an orchestra chair couldn't use his ticket that day, and so handed it over to him."
Billy turned interestedly.
"What are those twenty-five-cent tickets to the Symphony?"
"Then--you don't know?"
"Not exactly. I've heard of them, in a vague fashion."
"Then you've missed one of the sights of Boston if you haven't ever seen that long line of patient waiters at the door of Symphony Hall of a Friday morning."
"Morning! But the concert isn't till afternoon!"
"No, but the waiting is," retorted Arkwright. "You see, those admissions are limited--five hundred and five, I believe--and they're rush seats, at that. First come, first served; and if you're too late you aren't served at all. So the first arrival comes bright and early. I've heard that he has been known to come at peep of day when there's a Paderewski or a Melba for a drawing card. But I've got my doubts of that. Anyhow, I never saw them there much before half-past eight. But many's the cold, stormy day I've seen those steps in front of the Hall packed for hours, and a long line reaching away up the avenue."
Billy's eyes widened.
"And they'll stand all that time and wait?"
"To be sure they will. You see, each pays twenty-five cents at the door, until the limit is reached, then the rest are turned away. Naturally they don't want to be turned away, so they try to get there early enough to be among the fortunate five hundred and five. Besides, the earlier you are, the better seat you are likely to get."
"But only think of standing all that time!"
"Oh, they bring camp chairs, sometimes, I've heard, and then there are the steps. You don't know what a really fine seat a stone step is--if you have a big enough bundle of newspapers to cushion it with! They bring their luncheons, too, with books, papers, and knitting work for fine days, I've been told--some of them. All the comforts of home, you see," smiled Arkwright.
"Why, how--how dreadful!" stammered Billy.
"Oh, but they don't think it's dreadful at all," corrected Arkwright, quickly. "For twenty- five cents they can hear all that you hear down in your orchestra chair, for which you've paid so high a premium."
"But who--who are they? Where do they come from? Who would go and stand hours like that to get a twenty-five-cent seat?" questioned Billy.
"Who are they? Anybody, everybody, from anywhere? everywhere; people who have the music hunger but not the money to satisfy it," he rejoined. "Students, teachers, a little milliner from South Boston, a little dressmaker from Chelsea, a housewife from Cambridge, a stranger from the uttermost parts of the earth; maybe a widow who used to sit down-stairs, or a professor who has seen better days. Really to know that line, you should see it for yourself, Miss Neilson," smiled Arkwright, as he reluctantly rose to go. "Some Friday, however, before you take your seat, just glance up at that packed top balcony and judge by the faces you see there whether their owners think they're getting their twenty-five-cents' worth, or not."
"I will," nodded Billy, with a smile; but the smile came from her lips only, not her eyes: Billy was wishing, at that moment, that she owned the whole of Symphony Hall--to give away. But that was like Billy. When she was seven years old she had proposed to her Aunt Ella that they take all the thirty-five orphans from the Hampden Falls Orphan Asylum to live with them, so that little Sallie Cook and the other orphans might have ice cream every day, if they wanted it. Since then Billy had always been trying--in a way--to give ice cream to some one who wanted it.
Arkwright was almost at the door when he turned abruptly. His face was an abashed red. From his pocket he had taken a small folded paper.
"Do you suppose--in this--you might find --that melody?" he stammered in a low voice. The next moment he was gone, having left in Billy's fingers a paper upon which was written in a clear-cut, masculine hand six four-line stanzas.
Billy read them at once, hurriedly, then more carefully.
"Why, they're beautiful," she breathed, "just beautiful! Where did he get them, I wonder? It's a love song--and such a pretty one! I believe there is a melody in it," she exulted, pausing to hum a line or two. "There is--I know there is; and I'll write it--for Bertram," she finished, crossing joyously to the piano.
Half-way down Corey Hill at that moment, Arkwright was buffeting the wind and snow. He, too, was thinking joyously of those stanzas-- joyously, yet at the same time fearfully. Arkwright himself had written those lines--though not for Bertram.
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