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Billy was shaking with anger and terror by the time she had finished reading Kate's letter. Anger was uppermost at the moment, and with one sweeping wrench of her trembling fingers she tore the closely written sheets straight through the middle, and flung them into the little wicker basket by her desk. Then she went down-stairs and played her noisiest, merriest Tarantella, and tried to see how fast she could make her fingers fly.
But Billy could not, of course, play tarantellas all day; and even while she did play them she could not forget that waste-basket up-stairs, and the horror it contained. The anger was still uppermost, but the terror was prodding her at every turn, and demanding to know just what it was that Kate had written in that letter, anyway. It is not strange then, perhaps, that before two hours passed, Billy went up-stairs, took the letter from the basket, matched together the torn half-sheets and forced her shrinking eyes to read every word again-just to satisfy that terror which would not be silenced.
At the end of the second reading, Billy reminded herself with stern calmness that it was only Kate, after all; that nobody ought to mind what Kate said; that certainly she, Billy, ought not--after the experience she had already had with her unpleasant interference! Kate did not know what she was talking about, anyway. This was only another case of her trying "to manage." She did so love to manage--everything!
At this point Billy got out her pen and paper and wrote to Kate.
It was a formal, cold little letter, not at all the sort that Billy's friends usually received. It thanked Kate for her advice, and for her "kind willingness" to have Billy for a sister; but it hinted that perhaps Kate did not realize that as long as Billy was the one who would have to live with the chosen man, it would be pleasanter to take the one Billy loved, which happened in this case to be Bertram--not William. As for any "quarrel" being the cause of whatever fancied trouble there was with the new picture-- the letter scouted that idea in no uncertain terms. There had been no suggestion of a quarrel even once since the engagement.
Then Billy signed her name and took the letter out to post immediately.
For the first few minutes after the letter had been dropped into the green box at the corner, Billy held her head high, and told herself that the matter was now closed. She had sent Kate a courteous, dignified, conclusive, effectual answer, and she thought with much satisfaction of the things she had said.
Very soon, however, she began to think--not so much of what she had said--but of what Kate had said. Many of Kate's sentences were unpleasantly vivid in her mind. They seemed, indeed, to stand out in letters of flame, and they began to burn, and burn, and burn. These were some of them:
"William says that Bertram has been completely out of fix over something, and as gloomy as an owl for weeks past."
"A woman is at the bottom of it--. . . you are that woman."
"You can't make him happy."
"Bertram never was--and never will be--a marrying man."
"Girls have never meant anything to him but a beautiful picture to paint. And they never will."
"Up to this winter he's always been a carefree, happy, jolly fellow, and you know what beautiful work he has done. Never before has he tied himself to any one girl until last fall."
"Now what has it been since?"
"He's been so moody, so irritable, so fretted over his work, so unlike himself; and his picture has failed, dismally."
"Do you want to ruin his career?"
Billy began to see now that she had not really answered Kate's letter at all. The matter was not closed. Her reply had been, perhaps, courteous and dignified--but it had not been conclusive nor effectual.
Billy had reached home now, and she was crying. Bertram had acted strangely, of late. Bertram had seemed troubled over something. His picture had-- With a little shudder Billy tossed aside these thoughts, and dug at her teary eyes with a determined hand. Fiercely she told herself that the matter was settled. Very scornfully she declared that it was "only Kate," after all, and that she would not let Kate make her unhappy again! Forthwith she picked up a current magazine and began to read.
As it chanced, however, even here Billy found no peace; for the first article she opened to was headed in huge black type:
"MARRIAGE AND THE ARTISTIC TEMPERAMENT."
With a little cry Billy flung the magazine far from her, and picked up another. But even "The Elusiveness of Chopin," which she found here, could not keep her thoughts nor her eyes from wandering to the discarded thing in the corner, lying ignominiously face down with crumpled, out-flung leaves.
Billy knew that in the end she should go over and pick that magazine up, and read that article from beginning to end. She was not surprised, therefore, when she did it--but she was not any the happier for having done it.
The writer of the article did not approve of marriage and the artistic temperament. He said the artist belonged to his Art, and to posterity through his Art. The essay fairly bristled with many-lettered words and high-sounding phrases, few of which Billy really understood. She did understand enough, however, to feel, guiltily, when the thing was finished, that already she had married Bertram, and by so doing had committed a Crime. She had slain Art, stifled Ambition, destroyed Inspiration, and been a nuisance generally. In consequence of which Bertram would henceforth and forevermore be doomed to Littleness.
Naturally, in this state of mind, and with this vision before her, Billy was anything but her bright, easy self when she met Bertram an hour or two later. Naturally, too, Bertram, still the tormented victim of the bugaboo his jealous fears had fashioned, was just in the mood to place the worst possible construction on his sweetheart's very evident unhappiness. With sighs, unspoken questions, and frequently averted eyes, therefore, the wretched evening passed, a pitiful misery to them both.
During the days that followed, Billy thought that the world itself must be in league with Kate, so often did she encounter Kate's letter masquerading under some thin disguise. She did not stop to realize that because she was so afraid she would find it, she did find it. In the books she read, in the plays she saw, in the chance words she heard spoken by friend or stranger-- always there was something to feed her fears in one way or another. Even in a yellowed newspaper that had covered the top shelf in her closet she found one day a symposium on whether or not an artist's wife should be an artist; and she shuddered--but she read every opinion given.
Some writers said no, and some, yes; and some said it all depended--on the artist and his wife. Billy found much food for thought, some for amusement, and a little that made for peace of mind. On the whole it opened up a new phase of the matter, perhaps. At all events, upon finishing it she almost sobbed:
"One would think that just because I write a song now and then, I was going to let Bertram starve, and go with holes in his socks and no buttons on his clothes!"
It was that afternoon that Billy went to see Marie; but even there she did not escape, for the gentle Marie all unknowingly added her mite to the woeful whole.
Billy found Marie in tears.
"Why, Marie!" she cried in dismay.
"Sh-h!" warned Marie, turning agonized eyes toward the closed door of Cyril's den.
"But, dear, what is it?" begged Billy, with no less dismay, but with greater caution.
"Sh-h!" admonished Marie again.
On tiptoe, then, she led the way to a room at the other end of the tiny apartment. Once there; she explained in a more natural tone of voice:
"Cyril's at work on a new piece for the piano."
"Well, what if he is?" demanded Billy. "That needn't make you cry, need it?"
"Oh, no--no, indeed," demurred Marie, in a shocked voice.
"Well, then, what is it?"
Marie hesitated; then, with the abandon of a hurt child that longs for sympathy, she sobbed:
"It--it's just that I'm afraid, after all, that I'm not good enough for Cyril."
Billy stared frankly.
"Not good enough, Marie Henshaw! Whatever in the world do you mean?"
"Well, not good for him, then. Listen! To-day, I know, in lots of ways I must have disappointed him. First, he put on some socks that I'd darned. They were the first since our marriage that I'd found to darn, and I'd been so proud and--and happy while I was darning them. But--but he took 'em off right after breakfast and threw 'em in a corner. Then he put on a new pair, and said that I--I needn't darn any more; that it made--bunches. Billy, my darns--bunches!" Marie's face and voice were tragic.
"Nonsense, dear! Don't let that fret you," comforted Billy, promptly, trying not to laugh too hard. "It wasn't your darns; it was just darns--anybody's darns. Cyril won't wear darned socks. Aunt Hannah told me so long ago, and I said then there'd be a tragedy when you found it out. So don't worry over that."
"Oh, but that isn't all," moaned Marie. "Listen! You know how quiet he must have everything when he's composing--and he ought to have it, too! But I forgot, this morning, and put on some old shoes that didn't have any rubber heels, and I ran the carpet sweeper, and I rattled tins in the kitchen. But I never thought a thing until he opened his door and asked me please to change my shoes and let the--the confounded dirt go, and didn't I have any dishes in the house but what were made of that abominable tin s-stuff," she finished in a wail of misery.
Billy burst into a ringing laugh, but Marie's aghast face and upraised hand speedily reduced it to a convulsive giggle.
"You dear child! Cyril's always like that when he's composing," soothed Billy. "I supposed you knew it, dear. Don't you fret! Run along and make him his favorite pudding, and by night both of you will have forgotten there ever were such things in the world as tins and shoes and carpet sweepers that clatter."
Marie shook her head. Her dismal face did not relax.
"You don't understand," she moaned. "It's myself. I've hindered him!" She brought out the word with an agony of slow horror. "And only to-day I read-here, look!" she faltered, going to the table and picking up with shaking hands a magazine.
Billy recognized it by the cover at once--another like it had been flung not so long ago by her own hand into the corner. She was not surprised, therefore, to see very soon at the end of Marie's trembling finger:
"Marriage and the Artistic Temperament."
Billy did not give a ringing laugh this time. She gave an involuntary little shudder, though she tried valiantly to turn it all off with a light word of scorn, and a cheery pat on Marie's heaving shoulders. But she went home very soon; and it was plain to be seen that her visit to Marie had not brought her peace.
Billy knew Kate's letter, by heart, now, both in the original, and in its different versions, and she knew that, despite her struggles, she was being forced straight toward Kate's own verdict: that she, Billy, was the cause, in some way, of the deplorable change in Bertram's appearance, manner, and work. Before she would quite surrender to this heart-sickening belief, however, she determined to ask Bertram himself. Falteringly, but resolutely, therefore, one day, she questioned him.
"Bertram, once you hinted that the picture did not go right because you were troubled over something; and I've been wondering--was it about-- me, in any way, that you were troubled?"
Billy had her answer before the man spoke. She had it in the quick terror that sprang to his eyes, and the dull red that swept from his neck to his forehead. His reply, so far as words went did not count, for it evaded everything and told nothing. But Billy knew without words. She knew, too, what she must do. For the time being she took Bertram's evasive answer as he so evidently wished it to be taken; but that evening, after he had gone, she wrote him a little note and broke the engagement. So heartbroken was she--and so fearful was she that he should suspect this--that her note, when completed, was a cold little thing of few words, which carried no hint that its very coldness was but the heart-break in the disguise of pride.
This was like Billy in all ways. Billy, had she lived in the days of the Christian martyrs, would have been the first to walk with head erect into the Arena of Sacrifice. The arena now was just everyday living, the lions were her own devouring misery, and the cause was Bertram's best good.
From Bertram's own self she had it now--that she had been the cause of his being troubled; so she could doubt no longer. The only part that was uncertain was the reason why he had been troubled. Whether his bond to her had become irksome because of his love for another, or because of his love for no girl--except to paint, Billy did not know. But that it was irksome she did not doubt now. Besides, as if she were going to slay his Art, stifle his Ambition, destroy his Inspiration, and be a nuisance generally just so that she might be happy! Indeed, no! Hence she broke the engagement.
This was the letter:
"DEAR BERTRAM:--You won't make the move, so I must. I knew, from the way you spoke to-day, that it was about me that you were troubled, even though you generously tried to make me think it was not. And so the picture did not go well.
"Now, dear, we have not been happy together lately. You have seen it; so have I. I fear our engagement was a mistake, so I'm going to send back your ring to-morrow, and I'm writing this letter to-night. Please don't try to see me just yet. You know what I am doing is best--all round.
"Always your friend,
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