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Verbal Expression » Blog Archive » Miss Billy’s Decision, CHAPTER IX
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Miss Billy’s Decision, CHAPTER IX

by Eleanor H. Porter

A RUG, A PICTURE, AND A GIRL AFRAID
Thanksgiving came.  Once again the Henshaw
brothers invited Billy and Aunt Hannah to spend
the day with them.  This time, however, there
was to be an additional guest present in the person
of Marie Hawthorn.

And what a day it was, for everything and
everybody concerned!  First the Strata itself: from
Dong Ling’s kitchen in the basement to Cyril’s
domain on the top floor, the house was as spick-
and-span as Pete’s eager old hands could make
it.  In the drawing-room and in Bertram’s den
and studio, great clusters of pink roses perfumed
the air, and brightened the sombre richness of
the old-time furnishings.  Before the open fire
in the den a sleek gray cat–adorned with a huge
ribbon bow the exact shade of the roses (Bertram
had seen to that!)–winked and blinked sleepy
yellow eyes.  In Bertram’s studio the latest “Face
of a Girl” had made way for a group of canvases
and plaques, every one of which showed Billy
Neilson in one pose or another.  Up-stairs, where
William’s chaos of treasures filled shelves and
cabinets, the place of honor was given to a small
black velvet square on which rested a pair of
quaint Battersea enamel mirror knobs.  In Cyril’s
rooms–usually so austerely bare–a handsome
Oriental rug and several curtain-draped chairs
hinted at purchases made at the instigation of
a taste other than his own.

When the doorbell rang Pete admitted the
ladies with a promptness that was suggestive
of surreptitious watching at some window.  On
Pete’s face the dignity of his high office and the
delight of the moment were fighting for mastery.
The dignity held firmly through Mrs. Stetson’s
friendly greeting; but it fled in defeat when Billy
Neilson stepped over the threshold with a cheery
“Good morning, Pete.”

“Laws!  But it’s good to be seein’ you here
again,” stammered the man,–delight now in
sole possession.

“She’ll be coming to stay, one of these days,
Pete,” smiled the eldest Henshaw, hurrying forward.

“I wish she had now,” whispered Bertram, who,
in spite of William’s quick stride, had reached
Billy’s side first.

From the stairway came the patter of a man’s
slippered feet.

“The rug has come, and the curtains, too,”
called a “householder” sort of voice that few
would have recognized as belonging to Cyril
Henshaw.  “You must all come up-stairs and
see them after dinner.”  The voice, apparently,
spoke to everybody; but the eyes of the owner
of the voice plainly saw only the fair-haired young
woman who stood a little in the shadow behind
Billy, and who was looking about her now as at
something a little fearsome, but very dear.

“You know–I’ve never been–where you
live–before,” explained Marie Hawthorn in a
low, vibrant tone, when Cyril bent over her to
take the furs from her shoulders.

In Bertram’s den a little later, as hosts and
guests advanced toward the fire, the sleek gray
cat rose, stretched lazily, and turned her head
with majestic condescension.

“Well, Spunkie, come here,” commanded Billy,
snapping her fingers at the slow-moving creature
on the hearthrug.  “Spunkie, when I am your
mistress, you’ll have to change either your name
or your nature.  As if I were going to have such
a bunch of independent moderation as you
masquerading as an understudy to my frisky little
Spunk!”

Everybody laughed.  William regarded his
namesake with fond eyes as he said:

“Spunkie doesn’t seem to be worrying.”  The
cat had jumped into Billy’s lap with a matter-
of-course air that was unmistakable–and to Bertram,
adorable.  Bertram’s eyes, as they rested
on Billy, were even fonder than were his
brother’s.

“I don’t think any one is–_worrying_,” he
said with quiet emphasis.

Billy smiled.

“I should think they might be,” she answered.
“Only think how dreadfully upsetting I was in
the first place!”

William’s beaming face grew a little stern.

“Nobody knew it but Kate–and she didn’t
_know_ it; she only imagined it,” he said tersely.

Billy shook her head.

“I’m not so sure,” she demurred.  “As I look
back at it now, I think I can discern a few
evidences myself–that I was upsetting.  I was a
bother to Bertram in his painting, I am sure.”

“You were an inspiration,” corrected Bertram.
“Think of the posing you did for me.”

A swift something like a shadow crossed Billy’s
face; but before her lover could question its
meaning, it was gone.

“And I know I was a torment to Cyril.”  Billy
had turned to the musician now.

“Well, I admit you were a little–upsetting,
at times,” retorted that individual, with something
of his old imperturbable rudeness.

“Nonsense!” cut in William, sharply.  “You
were never anything but a comfort in the house,
Billy, my dear–and you never will be.”

“Thank you,” murmured Billy, demurely.
“I’ll remember that–when Pete and I disagree
about the table decorations, and Dong Ling
doesn’t like the way I want my soup seasoned.”

An anxious frown showed on Bertram’s face.

“Billy,” he said in a low voice, as the others
laughed at her sally, “you needn’t have Pete
nor Dong Ling here if you don’t want them.”

“Don’t want them!” echoed Billy, indignantly.
“Of course I want them!”

“But–Pete _is_ old, and–”

“Yes; and where’s he grown old?  For whom
has he worked the last fifty years, while he’s
been growing old?  I wonder if you think I’d
let Pete leave this house as long as he _wants_ to
stay!  As for Dong Ling–”

A sudden movement of Bertram’s hand arrested
her words.  She looked up to find Pete in
the doorway.

“Dinner is served, sir,” announced the old
butler, his eyes on his master’s face.

William rose with alacrity, and gave his arm
to Aunt Hannah.

“Well, I’m sure we’re ready for dinner,” he
declared.

It was a good dinner, and it was well served.
It could scarcely have been otherwise with Dong
Ling in the kitchen and Pete in the dining-room
doing their utmost to please.  But even had the
turkey been tough instead of tender, and even
had the pies been filled with sawdust instead of
with delicious mincemeat, it is doubtful if four
at the table would have known the difference:
Cyril and Marie at one end were discussing where
to put their new sideboard in their dining-room,
and Bertram and Billy at the other were talking
of the next Thanksgiving, when, according to
Bertram, the Strata would have the “dearest
little mistress that ever was born.”  As if, under
these circumstances, the tenderness of the turkey
or the toothsomeness of the mince pie mattered!
To Aunt Hannah and William, in the centre of
the table, however, it did matter; so it was well,
of course, that the dinner was a good one.

“And now,” said Cyril, when dinner was over,
“suppose you come up and see the rug.”

In compliance with this suggestion, the six
trailed up the long flights of stairs then, Billy
carrying an extra shawl for Aunt Hannah–
Cyril’s rooms were always cool.

“Oh, yes, I knew we should need it,” she nodded
to Bertram, as she picked up the shawl from the
hall stand where she had left it when she came
in.  “That’s why I brought it.”

“Oh, my grief and conscience, Cyril, how _can_
you stand it?–to climb stairs like this,” panted
Aunt Hannah, as she reached the top of the last
flight and dropped breathlessly into the nearest
chair–from which Marie had rescued a curtain
just in time.

“Well, I’m not sure I could–if I were always
to eat a Thanksgiving dinner just before,” laughed
Cyril.  “Maybe I ought to have waited and let
you rest an hour or two.”

“But ‘twould have been too dark, then, to see the
rug,” objected Marie.  “It’s a genuine Persian–
a Kirman, you know; and I’m so proud of it,”
she added, turning to the others.  “I wanted you
to see the colors by daylight.  Cyril likes it better,
anyhow, in the daytime.”

“Fancy Cyril _liking_ any sort of a rug at any
time,” chuckled Bertram, his eyes on the rich,
softly blended colors of the rug before him.
“Honestly, Miss Marie,” he added, turning to the
little bride elect, “how did you ever manage to
get him to buy _any_ rug?  He won’t have so much
as a ravelling on the floor up here to walk on.”

A startled dismay came into Marie’s blue
eyes.

“Why, I thought he wanted rugs,” she
faltered.  “I’m sure he said–”

“Of course I want rugs,” interrupted Cyril,
irritably.  “I want them everywhere except in
my own especial den.  You don’t suppose I want
to hear other people clattering over bare floors
all day, do you?”

“Of course not!” Bertram’s face was
preternaturally grave as he turned to the little music
teacher.  “I hope, Miss Marie, that you wear
rubber heels on your shoes,” he observed solicitously.

Even Cyril laughed at this, though all he said
was:

“Come, come, I got you up here to look at the
rug.”

Bertram, however, was not to be silenced.

“And another thing, Miss Marie,” he resumed,
with the air of a true and tried adviser.  “Just
let me give you a pointer.  I’ve lived with your
future husband a good many years, and I know
what I’m talking about.”

“Bertram, be still,” growled Cyril.

Bertram refused to be still.

“Whenever you want to know anything about
Cyril, listen to his playing.  For instance: if,
after dinner, you hear a dreamy waltz or a sleepy
nocturne, you may know that all is well.  But if
on your ears there falls anything like a dirge, or
the wail of a lost spirit gone mad, better look to
your soup and see if it hasn’t been scorched, or
taste of your pudding and see if you didn’t put
in salt instead of sugar.”

“Bertram, will you be still?” cut in Cyril,
testily, again.

“After all, judging from what Billy tells me,”
resumed Bertram, cheerfully, “what I’ve said
won’t be so important to you, for you aren’t the
kind that scorches soups or uses salt for sugar.
So maybe I’d better put it to you this way: if you
want a new sealskin coat or an extra diamond
tiara, tackle him when he plays like this!”  And
with a swift turn Bertram dropped himself to the
piano stool and dashed into a rollicking melody
that half the newsboys of Boston were whistling.

What happened next was a surprise to every one.
Bertram, very much as if he were a naughty
little boy, was jerked by a wrathful brother’s
hand off the piano stool.  The next moment the
wrathful brother himself sat at the piano, and
there burst on five pairs of astonished ears a
crashing dissonance which was but the prelude
to music such as few of the party often heard.

Spellbound they listened while rippling runs
and sonorous harmonies filled the room to overflowing,
as if under the fingers of the player there
were–not the keyboard of a piano–but the
violins, flutes, cornets, trombones, bass viols
and kettledrums of a full orchestra.

Billy, perhaps, of them all, best understood.
She knew that in those tripping melodies and
crashing chords were Cyril’s joy at the presence
of Marie, his wrath at the flippancy of Bertram,
his ecstasy at that for which the rug and curtains
stood–the little woman sewing in the radiant
circle of a shaded lamp.  Billy knew that all this
and more were finding voice at Cyril’s finger tips.
The others, too, understood in a way; but they,
unlike Billy, were not in the habit of finding on
a few score bits of wood and ivory a vent for their
moods and fancies.

The music was softer now.  The resounding
chords and purling runs had become a bell-like
melody that wound itself in and out of a maze of
exquisite harmonies, now hiding, now coming out
clear and unafraid, like a mountain stream emerging
into a sunlit meadow from the leafy shadows
of its forest home.

In a breathless hush the melody quivered into
silence.  It was Bertram who broke the pause
with a long-drawn:

“By George!”  Then, a little unsteadily:
“If it’s I that set you going like that, old chap,
I’ll come up and play ragtime every day!”

Cyril shrugged his shoulders and got to his
feet.

“If you’ve seen all you want of the rug we’ll
go down-stairs,” he said nonchalantly.

“But we haven’t!” chorussed several indignant
voices.  And for the next few minutes not even
the owner of the beautiful Kirman could find
any fault with the quantity or the quality of the
attention bestowed on his new possession.  But
Billy, under cover of the chatter, said reproachfully
in his ear:

“Oh, Cyril, to think you can play like that–
and won’t–on demand!”

“I can’t–on demand,” shrugged Cyril again.

On the way down-stairs they stopped at
William’s rooms.

“I want you to see a couple of Batterseas I
got last week,” cried the collector eagerly, as he
led the way to the black velvet square.  “They’re
fine–and I think she looks like you,” he finished,
turning to Billy, and holding out one of the knobs,
on which was a beautifully executed miniature of
a young girl with dark, dreamy eyes.

“Oh, how pretty!” exclaimed Marie, over
Billy’s shoulder.  “But what are they?”

The collector turned, his face alight.

“Mirror knobs.  I’ve got lots of them.  Would
you like to see them–really?  They’re right here.”

The next minute Marie found herself looking
into a cabinet where lay a score or more of round
and oval discs of glass, porcelain, and metal,
framed in silver, gilt, and brass, and mounted on
long spikes.

“Oh, how pretty,” cried Marie again; “but
how–how queer!  Tell me about them, please.”

William drew a long breath.  His eyes glistened.
William loved to talk–when he had a curio
and a listener.

“I will.  Our great-grandmothers used them,
you know, to support their mirrors, or to fasten
back their curtains,” he explained ardently.
“Now here’s another Battersea enamel, but it
isn’t so good as my new ones–that face is almost
a caricature.”

“But what a beautiful ship–on that round
one!” exclaimed Marie.  “And what’s this one?
–glass?”

“Yes; but that’s not so rare as the others.
Still, it’s pretty enough.  Did you notice this
one, with the bright red and blue and green on
the white background?–regular Chinese mode
of decoration, that is.”

“Er–any time, William,” began Bertram,
mischievously; but William did not seem to
hear.

“Now in this corner,” he went on, warming
to his subject, “are the enamelled porcelains.
They were probably made at the Worcester works
–England, you know; and I think many of them
are quite as pretty as the Batterseas.  You see
it was at Worcester that they invented that
variation of the transfer printing process that
they called bat printing, where they used oil
instead of ink, and gelatine instead of paper.  Now
engravings for that kind of printing were usually
in stipple work–dots, you know–so the prints
on these knobs can easily be distinguished from
those of the transfer printing.  See?  Now, this
one is–”

“Er, of course, William, any time–”
interposed Bertram again, his eyes twinkling.

William stopped with a laugh.

“Yes, I know.  ‘Tis time I talked of something
else, Bertram,” he conceded.

“But ’twas lovely, and I _was_ interested,
really,” claimed Marie.  “Besides, there are such
a lot of things here that I’d like to see,” she
finished, turning slowly about.

“These are what he was collecting last year,”
murmured Billy, hovering over a small cabinet
where were some beautiful specimens of antique
jewelry brooches, necklaces, armlets, Rajah
rings, and anklets, gorgeous in color and exquisite
in workmanship.

“Well, here is something you _will_ enjoy,”
declared Bertram, with an airy flourish.  “Do
you see those teapots?  Well, we can have tea
every day in the year, and not use one of them
but five times.  I’ve counted.  There are exactly
seventy-three,” he concluded, as he laughingly
led the way from the room.

“How about leap year?” quizzed Billy.

“Ho!  Trust Will to find another `Old Blue’
or a `perfect treasure of a black basalt’ by that
time,” shrugged Bertram.

Below William’s rooms was the floor once
Bertram’s, but afterwards given over to the use
of Billy and Aunt Hannah.  The rooms were open
to-day, and were bright with sunshine and roses;
but they were very plainly unoccupied.

“And you don’t use them yet?” remonstrated
Billy, as she paused at an open door.

“No.  These are Mrs. Bertram Henshaw’s
rooms,” said the youngest Henshaw brother in a
voice that made Billy hurry away with a dimpling
blush.

“They were Billy’s–and they can never seem
any one’s but Billy’s, now,” declared William to
Marie, as they went down the stairs.

“And now for the den and some good stories
before the fire,” proposed Bertram, as the six
reached the first floor again.

“But we haven’t seen your pictures, yet,”
objected Billy.

Bertram made a deprecatory gesture.

“There’s nothing much–” he began; but
he stopped at once, with an odd laugh.  “Well,
I sha’n't say _that_,” he finished, flinging open the
door of his studio, and pressing a button that
flooded the room with light.  The next moment,
as they stood before those plaques and panels
and canvases–on each of which was a pictured
“Billy”–they understood the change in his
sentence, and they laughed appreciatively.

“ `Much,’ indeed!” exclaimed William.

“Oh, how lovely!” breathed Marie.

“My grief and conscience, Bertram!  All these
–and of Billy?  I knew you had a good many,
but–”  Aunt Hannah paused impotently, her
eyes going from Bertram’s face to the pictures
again.

“But how–when did you do them?” queried
Marie.

“Some of them from memory.  More of them
from life.  A lot of them were just sketches that
I did when she was here in the house four or five
years ago,” answered Bertram; “like this,
for instance.”  And he pulled into a better light
a picture of a laughing, dark-eyed girl holding
against her cheek a small gray kitten, with alert,
bright eyes.  “The original and only Spunk,”
he announced.

“What a dear little cat!” cried Marie.

“You should have seen it–in the flesh,”
remarked Cyril, dryly.  “No paint nor painter
could imprison that untamed bit of Satanic mischief
on any canvas that ever grew!”

Everybody laughed–everybody but Billy.
Billy, indeed, of them all, had been strangely
silent ever since they entered the studio.  She
stood now a little apart.  Her eyes were wide, and
a bit frightened.  Her fingers were twisting the
corners of her handkerchief nervously.  She was
looking to the right and to the left, and everywhere
she saw–herself.

Sometimes it was her full face, sometimes her
profile; sometimes there were only her eyes
peeping from above a fan, or peering from out
brown shadows of nothingness.  Once it was
merely the back of her head showing the mass of
waving hair with its high lights of burnished
bronze.  Again it was still the back of her head
with below it the bare, slender neck and the scarf-
draped shoulders.  In this picture the curve of a
half-turned cheek showed plainly, and in the
background was visible a hand holding four playing
cards, at which the pictured girl was evidently
looking.  Sometimes it was a merry Billy with
dancing eyes; sometimes a demure Billy with long
lashes caressing a flushed cheek.  Sometimes it
was a wistful Billy with eyes that looked straight
into yours with peculiar appeal.  But always it
was–Billy.

“There, I think the tilt of this chin is perfect.”
It was Bertram speaking.

Billy gave a sudden cry.  Her face whitened.
She stumbled forward.

“No, no, Bertram, you–you didn’t mean
the–the tilt of the chin,” she faltered wildly.

The man turned in amazement.

“Why–Billy!” he stammered.  “Billy,
what is it?”

The girl fell back at once.  She tried to laugh
lightly.  She had seen the dismayed questioning
in her lover’s eyes, and in the eyes of William and
the others.

“N-nothing,” she gesticulated hurriedly.  “It
was nothing at all, truly.”

“But, Billy, it _was_ something.”  Bertram’s
eyes were still troubled.  “Was it the picture?
I thought you liked this picture.”

Billy laughed again–this time more naturally.

“Bertram, I’m ashamed of you–expecting
me to say I `like’ any of this,” she scolded, with
a wave of her hands toward the omnipresent
Billy.  “Why, I feel as if I were in a room with
a thousand mirrors, and that I’d been discovered
putting rouge on my cheeks and lampblack on
my eyebrows!”

William laughed fondly.  Aunt Hannah and
Marie gave an indulgent smile.  Cyril actually
chuckled.  Bertram only still wore a puzzled
expression as he laid aside the canvas in his
hands.

Billy examined intently a sketch she had found
with its back to the wall.  It was not a pretty
sketch; it was not even a finished one, and Billy
did not in the least care what it was.  But her
lips cried interestedly:

“Oh, Bertram, what is this?”

There was no answer.  Bertram was still
engaged, apparently, in putting away some sketches.
Over by the doorway leading to the den Marie
and Aunt Hannah, followed by William and Cyril,
were just disappearing behind a huge easel.
In another minute the merry chatter of their
voices came from the room beyond.  Bertram
hurried then straight across the studio to the
girl still bending over the sketch in the corner.

“Bertram!” gasped Billy, as a kiss brushed
her cheek.

“Pooh!  They’re gone.  Besides, what if they
did see?  Billy, what was the matter with the
tilt of that chin?”

Billy gave an hysterical little laugh–at least,
Bertram tried to assure himself that it was a
laugh, though it had sounded almost like a sob.

“Bertram, if you say another word about–
about the tilt of that chin, I shall _scream!_” she
panted.

“Why, Billy!”

With a nervous little movement Billy turned
and began to reverse the canvases nearest her.

“Come, sir,” she commanded gayly.  “Billy
has been on exhibition quite long enough.  It is
high time she was turned face to the wall to
meditate, and grow more modest.”

Bertram did not answer.  Neither did he make
a move to assist her.  His ardent gray eyes were
following her slim, graceful figure admiringly.

“Billy, it doesn’t seem true, yet, that you’re
really mine,” he said at last, in a low voice shaken
with emotion.

Billy turned abruptly.  A peculiar radiance
shone in her eyes and glorified her face.  As
she stood, she was close to a picture on an easel
and full in the soft glow of the shaded lights
above it.

“Then you _do_ want me,” she began, “–just
_me!_–not to–” she stopped short.  The man
opposite had taken an eager step toward her.  On
his face was the look she knew so well, the look
she had come almost to dread–the “painting
look.”

“Billy, stand just as you are,” he was saying.
“Don’t move.  Jove!  But that effect is perfect
with those dark shadows beyond, and just your
hair and face and throat showing.  I declare,
I’ve half a mind to sketch–”  But Billy, with
a little cry, was gone.

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