by Eleanor H. Porter
I. BILLY WRITES A LETTER
II. "THE STRATA"
III. THE STRATA—WHEN THE LETTER COMES
IV. BILLY SENDS A TELEGRAM
V. GETTING READY FOR BILLY
VI. THE COMING OF BILLY
VII. INTRODUCING SPUNK
VIII. THE ROOM—AND BILLY
IX. A FAMILY CONCLAVE
X. AUNT HANNAH
XI. BERTRAM HAS VISITORS
XII. CYRIL TAKES HIS TURN
XIII. A SURPRISE ALL AROUND
XIV. AUNT HANNAH SPEAKS HER MIND
XV. WHAT BERTRAM CALLS "THE LIMIT"
XVI. KATE TAKES A HAND
XVII. A PINK-RIBBON TRAIL
XVIII. BILLY WRITES ANOTHER LETTER
XIX. SEEING BILLY OFF
XX. BILLY, THE MYTH
XXI. BILLY, THE REALITY
XXII. HUGH CALDERWELL
XXIII. BERTRAM DOES SOME QUESTIONING
XXIV. CYRIL, THE ENIGMA
XXV. THE OLD ROOM—AND BILLY
XXVI. "MUSIC HATH CHARMS"
XXVII. MARIE, WHO LONGS TO MAKE PUDDINGS
XXVIII. "I'M GOING TO WIN"
XXIX. "I'M NOT GOING TO MARRY"
XXX. MARIE FINDS A FRIEND
XXXI. THE ENGAGEMENT OF ONE
XXXII. CYRIL HAS SOMETHING TO SAY
XXXIII. WILLIAM IS WORRIED
XXXIV. CLASS DAY
XXXV. SISTER KATE AGAIN
XXXVI. WILLIAM MEETS WITH A SURPRISE
XXXVII. "WILLIAM'S BROTHER"
XXXVIII. THE ENGAGEMENT OF TWO
XXXIX. A LITTLE PIECE OF PAPER
XL. WILLIAM PAYS A VISIT
XLI. THE CROOKED MADE STRAIGHT
XLII. THE "END OF THE STORY"
BILLY WRITES A LETTER
Billy Neilson was eighteen years old when the aunt, who had brought her up from babyhood, died. Miss Benton's death left Billy quite alone in the world—alone, and peculiarly forlorn. To Mr. James Harding, of Harding & Harding, who had charge of Billy's not inconsiderable property, the girl poured out her heart in all its loneliness two days after the funeral.
"You see, Mr. Harding, there isn't any one—not any one who—cares," she choked.
"Tut, tut, my child, it's not so bad as that, surely," remonstrated the old man, gently. "Why, I—I care."
Billy smiled through tear-wet eyes.
"But I can't LIVE with you," she said.
"I'm not so sure of that, either," retorted the man. "I'm thinking that Letty and Ann would LIKE to have you with us."
The girl laughed now outright. She was thinking of Miss Letty, who had "nerves," and of Miss Ann, who had a "heart"; and she pictured her own young, breezy, healthy self attempting to conform to the hushed and shaded thing that life was, within Lawyer Harding's home.
"Thank you, but I'm sure they wouldn't," she objected. "You don't know how noisy I am."
The lawyer stirred restlessly and pondered.
"But, surely, my dear, isn't there some relative, somewhere?" he demanded. "How about your mother's people?"
Billy shook her head. Her eyes filled again with tears.
"There was only Aunt Ella, ever, that I knew anything about. She and mother were the only children there were, and mother died when I was a year old, you know."
"But your father's people?"
"It's even worse there. He was an only child and an orphan when mother married him. He died when I was but six months old. After that there was only mother and Aunt Ella, then Aunt Ella alone; and now—no one."
"And you know nothing of your father's people?"
"Nothing; that is—almost nothing."
"Then there is some one?"
Billy smiled. A deeper pink showed in her cheeks.
"Why, there's one—a man but he isn't really father's people, anyway. But I—I have been tempted to write to him."
"Who is he?"
"The one I'm named for. He was father's boyhood chum. You see that's why I'm 'Billy' instead of being a proper 'Susie,' or 'Bessie,' or 'Sally Jane.' Father had made up his mind to name his baby 'William' after his chum, and when I came, Aunt Ella said, he was quite broken-hearted until somebody hit upon the idea of naming me Billy.' Then he was content, for it seems that he always called his chum 'Billy' anyhow. And so—'Billy' I am to-day."
"Do you know this man?"
"No. You see father died, and mother and Aunt Ella knew him only very slightly. Mother knew his wife, though, Aunt Ella said, and SHE was lovely."
"Hm—; well, we might look them up, perhaps. You know his address?"
"Oh, yes unless he's moved. We've always kept that. Aunt Ella used to say sometimes that she was going to write to him some day about me, you know."
"What's his name?"
"William Henshaw. He lives in Boston."
Lawyer Harding snatched off his glasses, and leaned forward in his chair.
"William Henshaw! Not the Beacon Street Henshaws!" he cried.
It was Billy's turn to be excited. She, too, leaned forward eagerly.
"Oh, do you know him? That's lovely! And his address IS Beacon Street! I know because I saw it only to-day. You see, I HAVE been tempted to write him."
"Write him? Of course you'll write him," cried the lawyer. "And we don't need to do much 'looking up' there, child. I've known the family for years, and this William was a college mate of my boy's. Nice fellow, too. I've heard Ned speak of him. There were three sons, William, and two others much younger than he. I've forgotten their names."
"Then you do know him! I'm so glad," exclaimed Billy. "You see, he never seemed to me quite real."
"I know about him," corrected the lawyer, smilingly, "though I'll confess I've rather lost track of him lately. Ned will know. I'll ask Ned. Now go home, my dear, and dry those pretty eyes of yours. Or, better still, come home with me to tea. I—I'll telephone up to the house." And he rose stiffly and went into the inner office.
Some minutes passed before he came back, red of face, and plainly distressed.
"My dear child, I—I'm sorry, but—but I'll have to take back that invitation," he blurted out miserably. "My sisters are—are not well this afternoon. Ann has been having a turn with her heart—you know Ann's heart is—is bad; and Letty—Letty is always nervous at such times—very nervous. Er—I'm so sorry! But you'll—excuse it?"
"Indeed I will," smiled Billy, "and thank you just the same; only"—her eyes twinkled mischievously—"you don't mind if I do say that it IS lucky that we hadn't gone on planning to have me live with them, Mr. Harding!"
"Eh? Well—er, I think your plan about the Henshaws is very good," he interposed hurriedly. "I'll speak to Ned—I'll speak to Ned," he finished, as he ceremoniously bowed the girl from the office.
James Harding kept his word, and spoke to his son that night; but there was little, after all, that Ned could tell him. Yes, he remembered Billy Henshaw well, but he had not heard of him for years, since Henshaw's marriage, in fact. He must be forty years old, Ned said; but he was a fine fellow, an exceptionally fine fellow, and would be sure to deal kindly and wisely by his little orphan namesake; of that Ned was very sure.
"That's good. I'll write him," declared Mr. James Harding. "I'll write him tomorrow."
He did write—but not so soon as Billy wrote; for even as he spoke, Billy, in her lonely little room at the other end of the town, was laying bare all her homesickness in four long pages to "Dear Uncle William."
Bertram Henshaw called the Beacon Street home "The Strata." This annoyed Cyril, and even William, not a little; though they reflected that, after all, it was "only Bertram." For the whole of Bertram's twenty-four years of life it had been like this—"It's only Bertram," had been at once the curse and the salvation of his existence.
In this particular case, however, Bertram's vagary of fancy had some excuse. The Beacon Street house, the home of the three brothers, was a "Strata."
"You see, it's like this," Bertram would explain airily to some new acquaintance who expressed surprise at the name; "if I could slice off the front of the house like a loaf of cake, you'd understand it better. But just suppose that old Bunker Hill should suddenly spout fire and brimstone and bury us under tons of ashes—only fancy the condition of mind of those future archaeologists when they struck our house after their months of digging!
"What would they find? Listen. First: stratum number one, the top floor; that's Cyril's, you know. They'd note the bare floors, the sparse but heavy furniture, the piano, the violin, the flute, the book-lined walls, and the absence of every sort of curtain, cushion, or knickknack. 'Here lived a plain man,' they'd say; 'a scholar, a musician, stern, unloved and unloving; a monk.'
"And what next? They'd strike William's stratum next, the third floor. Imagine it! You know William as a State Street broker, well-off, a widower, tall, angular, slow of speech, a little bald, very much nearsighted, and the owner of the kindest heart in the world. But really to know William, you must know his rooms. William collects things. He has always collected things—and he's saved every one of them. There's a tradition that at the age of one year he crept into the house with four small round white stones. Anyhow, if he did, he's got them now. Rest assured of that—and he's forty this year. Miniatures, carved ivories, bugs, moths, porcelains, jades, stamps, postcards, spoons, baggage tags, theatre programs, playing-cards—there isn't anything that he doesn't collect. He's on teapots, now. Imagine it—William and teapots! And they're all there in his rooms—one glorious mass of confusion. Just fancy those archaeologists trying to make their 'monk' live there!
"But when they reach me, my stratum, they'll have a worse time yet. You see, I like cushions and comfort, and I have them everywhere. And I like—well, I like lots of things. My rooms don't belong to that monk, not a little bit. And so you see," Bertram would finish merrily, "that's why I call it all 'The Strata.'"
And "The Strata" it was to all the Henshaws' friends, and even to William and Cyril themselves, in spite of their objection to the term.
From babyhood the Henshaw boys had lived in the handsome, roomy house, facing the Public Garden. It had been their father's boyhood home, as well, and he and his wife had died there, soon after Kate, the only daughter, had married. At the age of twenty-two, William Henshaw, the eldest son, had brought his bride to the house, and together they had striven to make a home for the two younger orphan boys, Cyril, twelve, and Bertram, six. But Mrs. William, after a short five years of married life, had died; and since then, the house had known almost nothing of a woman's touch or care.
Little by little as the years passed, the house and its inmates had fallen into what had given Bertram his excuse for the name. Cyril, thirty years old now, dignified, reserved, averse to cats, dogs, women, and confusion, had early taken himself and his music to the peace and exclusiveness of the fourth floor. Below him, William had long discouraged any meddling with his precious chaos of possessions, and had finally come to spend nearly all his spare time among them. This left Bertram to undisputed ownership of the second floor, and right royally did he hold sway there with his paints and brushes and easels, his old armor, rich hangings, rugs, and cushions, and everywhere his specialty—his "Face of a Girl." From canvas, plaque, and panel they looked out—those girlish faces: winsome, wilful, pert, demure, merry, sad, beautiful, even almost ugly—they were all there; and they were growing famous, too. The world of art was beginning to take notice, and to adjust its spectacles for a more critical glance. This "Face of a Girl" by Henshaw bade fair to be worth while.
Below Bertram's cheery second floor were the dim old library and drawing-rooms, silent, stately, and almost never used; and below them were the dining-room and the kitchen. Here ruled Dong Ling, the Chinese cook, and Pete.
Pete was—indeed, it is hard telling what Pete was. He said he was the butler; and he looked the part when he answered the bell at the great front door. But at other times, when he swept a room, or dusted Master William's curios, he looked—like nothing so much as what he was: a fussy, faithful old man, who expected to die in the service he had entered fifty years before as a lad.
Thus in all the Beacon Street house, there had not for years been the touch of a woman's hand. Even Kate, the married sister, had long since given up trying to instruct Dong Ling or to chide Pete, though she still walked across the Garden from her Commonwealth Avenue home and tripped up the stairs to call in turn upon her brothers, Bertram, William, and Cyril.
THE STRATA—WHEN THE LETTER COMES
It was on the six o'clock delivery that William Henshaw received the letter from his namesake, Billy. To say the least, the letter was a great shock to him. He had not quite forgotten Billy's father, who had died so long ago, it is true, but he had forgotten Billy, entirely. Even as he looked at the disconcerting epistle with its round, neatly formed letters, he had great difficulty in ferreting out the particular niche in his memory which contained the fact that Walter Neilson had had a child, and had named it for him.
And this child, this "Billy," this unknown progeny of an all but forgotten boyhood friend, was asking a home, and with him! Impossible! And William Henshaw peered at the letter as if, at this second reading, its message could not be so monstrous.
"Well, old man, what's up?" It was Bertram's amazed voice from the hall doorway; and indeed, William Henshaw, red-faced and plainly trembling, seated on the lowest step of the stairway, and gazing, wild-eyed, at the letter in his hand, was somewhat of an amazing sight. "What IS up?"
"What's up!" groaned William, starting to his feet, and waving the letter frantically in the air. "What's up! Young man, do you want us to take in a child to board?—a CHILD?" he repeated in slow horror.
"Well, hardly," laughed the other. "Er, perhaps Cyril might like it, though; eh?"
"Come, come, Bertram, be sensible for once," pleaded his brother, nervously. "This is serious, really serious, I tell you!"
"What is serious?" demanded Cyril, coming down the stairway. "Can't it wait? Pete has already sounded the gong twice for dinner."
William made a despairing gesture.
"Well, come," he groaned. "I'll tell you at the table.... It seems I've got a namesake," he resumed in a shaking voice, a few moments later; "Walter Neilson's child."
"And who's Walter Neilson?" asked Bertram.
"A boyhood friend. You wouldn't remember him. This letter is from his child."
"Well, let's hear it. Go ahead. I fancy we can stand the—LETTER; eh, Cyril?"
Cyril frowned. Cyril did not know, perhaps, how often he frowned at Bertram.
The eldest brother wet his lips. His hand shook as he picked up the letter.
"It—it's so absurd," he muttered. Then he cleared his throat and read the letter aloud.
"DEAR UNCLE WILLIAM: Do you mind my calling you that? You see I want SOME one, and there isn't any one now. You are the nearest I've got. Maybe you've forgotten, but I'm named for you. Walter Neilson was my father, you know. My Aunt Ella has just died.
"Would you mind very much if I came to live with you? That is, between times—I'm going to college, of course, and after that I'm going to be—well, I haven't decided that part yet. I think I'll consult you. You may have some preference, you know. You can be thinking it up until I come.
"There! Maybe I ought not to have said that, for perhaps you won't want me to come. I AM noisy, I'll own, but not so I think you'll mind it much unless some of you have 'nerves' or a 'heart.' You see, Miss Letty and Miss Ann—they're Mr. Harding's sisters, and Mr. Harding is our lawyer, and he will write to you. Well, where was I? Oh, I know—on Miss Letty's nerves. And, say, do you know, that is where I do get—on Miss Letty's nerves. I do, truly. You see, Mr. Harding very kindly suggested that I live with them, but, mercy! Miss Letty's nerves won't let you walk except on tiptoe, and Miss Ann's heart won't let you speak except in whispers. All the chairs and tables have worn little sockets in the carpets, and it's a crime to move them. There isn't a window-shade in the house that isn't pulled down EXACTLY to the middle sash, except where the sun shines, and those are pulled way down. Imagine me and Spunk living there! Oh, by the way, you don't mind my bringing Spunk, do you? I hope you don't, for I couldn't live without Spunk, and he couldn't live with out me.
"Please let me hear from you very soon. I don't mind if you telegraph; and just 'come' would be all you'd have to say. Then I'd get ready right away and let you know what train to meet me on. And, oh, say—if you'll wear a pink in your buttonhole I will, too. Then we'll know each other. My address is just 'Hampden Falls.'
"Your awfully homesick namesake,
"BILLY HENSHAW NEILSON"
For one long minute there was a blank silence about the Henshaw dinner-table; then the eldest brother, looking anxiously from one man to the other, stammered:
"Great Scott!" breathed Bertram.
Cyril said nothing, but his lips were white with their tense pressure against each other.
There was another pause, and again William broke it anxiously.
"Boys, this isn't helping me out any! What's to be done?"
"'Done'!" flamed Cyril. "Surely, you aren't thinking for a moment of LETTING that child come here, William!"
"He WOULD liven things up, Cyril; wouldn't he? Such nice smooth floors you've got up-stairs to trundle little tin carts across!"
"Tin nonsense!" retorted Cyril. "Don't be silly, Bertram. That letter wasn't written by a baby. He'd be much more likely to make himself at home with your paint box, or with some of William's junk."
"Oh, I say," expostulated William, "we'll HAVE to keep him out of those things, you know."
Cyril pushed back his chair from the table.
"'We'll have to keep him out'! William, you can't be in earnest! You aren't going to let that boy come here," he cried.
"But what can I do?" faltered the man.
"Do? Say 'no,' of course. As if we wanted a boy to bring up!"
"But I must do something. I—I'm all he's got. He says so."
"Good heavens! Well, send him to boarding-school, then, or to the penitentiary; anywhere but here!"
"Shucks! Let the kid come," laughed Bertram. "Poor little homesick devil! What's the use? I'll take him in. How old is he, anyhow?"
William frowned, and mused aloud slowly.
"Why, I don't know. He must be—er—why, boys, he's no child," broke off the man suddenly. "Walter himself died seventeen or eighteen years ago, not more than a year or two after he was married. That child must be somewhere around eighteen years old!"
"And only think how Cyril WAS worrying about those tin carts," laughed Bertram. "Never mind—eight or eighteen—let him come. If he's that age, he won't bother much."
"And this—er—'Spunk'; do you take him, too? But probably he doesn't bother, either," murmured Cyril, with smooth sarcasm.
"Gorry! I forgot Spunk," acknowledged Bertram. "Say, what in time is Spunk, do you suppose?"
"Dog, maybe," suggested William.
"Well, whatever he is, you will kindly keep Spunk down-stairs," said Cyril with decision. "The boy, I suppose I shall have to endure; but the dog—!"
"Hm-m; well, judging by his name," murmured Bertram, apologetically, "it may be just possible that Spunk won't be easily controlled. But maybe he isn't a dog, anyhow. He—er—sounds something like a parrot to me."
Cyril rose to his feet abruptly. He had eaten almost no dinner.
"Very well," he said coldly. "But please remember that I hold you responsible, Bertram. Whether it's a dog, or a parrot, or—or a monkey, I shall expect you to keep Spunk down-stairs. This adopting into the family an unknown boy seems to me very absurd from beginning to end. But if you and William will have it so, of course I've nothing to say. Fortunately my rooms are at the TOP of the house," he finished, as he turned and left the dining-room.
For a moment there was silence. The brows of the younger man were uplifted quizzically.
"I'm afraid Cyril is bothered," murmured William then, in a troubled voice.
Bertram's face changed. Stern lines came to his boyish mouth.
"He is always bothered—with anything, lately."
The elder man sighed.
"I know, but with his talent—"
"'Talent'! Great Scott!" cut in Bertram. "Half the world has talent of one sort or another; but that doesn't necessarily make them unable to live with any one else! Really, Will, it's becoming serious—about Cyril. He's getting to be, for all the world, like those finicky old maids that that young namesake of yours wrote about. He'll make us whisper and walk on tiptoe yet!"
The other smiled.
"Don't you worry. You aren't in any danger of being kept too quiet, young man."
"No thanks to Cyril, then," retorted Bertram. "Anyhow, that's one reason why I was for taking the kid—to mellow up Cyril. He needs it all right."
"But I had to take him, Bert," argued the elder brother, his face growing anxious again. "But Heaven only knows what I'm going to do with him when I get him. What shall I say to him, anyway? How shall I write? I don't know how to get up a letter of that sort!"
"Why not take him at his word and telegraph? I fancy you won't have to say 'come' but once before you see him. He doesn't seem to be a bashful youth."
"Hm-m; I might do that," acquiesced William, slowly. "But wasn't there somebody—a lawyer—going to write to me?" he finished, consulting the letter by his plate. "Yes," he added, after a moment, "a Mr. Harding. Wonder if he's any relation to Ned Harding. I used to know Ned at Harvard, and seems as if he came from Hampden Falls. We'll soon see, at all events. Maybe I'll hear to-morrow."
"I shouldn't wonder," nodded Bertram, as he rose from the table. "Anyhow, I wouldn't do anything till I did hear."
BILLY SENDS A TELEGRAM
James Harding's letter very promptly followed Billy's, though it was not like Billy's at all. It told something of Billy's property, and mentioned that, according to Mrs. Neilson's will, Billy would not come into control of her fortune until the age of twenty-one years was reached. It dwelt at some length upon the fact of Billy's loneliness in the world, and expressed the hope that her father's friend could find it in his heart to welcome the orphan into his home. It mentioned Ned, and the old college friendship, and it closed by saying that the writer, James Harding, was glad to renew his acquaintance with the good old Henshaw family that he had known long years ago; and that he hoped soon to hear from William Henshaw himself.
It was a good letter—but it was not well written. James Harding's handwriting was not distinguished for its legibility, and his correspondents rejoiced that the most of his letters were dictated to his stenographer. In this case, however, he had elected to use the more personal pen; and it was because of this that William Henshaw, even after reading the letter, was still unaware of his mistake in supposing his namesake, Billy, to be a boy.
In the main the lawyer had referred to Billy by name, or as "the orphan," or as that "poor, lonely child." And whenever the more distinctive feminine "her" or "herself" had occurred, the carelessly formed letters had made them so much like "his" and "himself" that they carried no hint of the truth to a man who had not the slightest reason for thinking himself in the wrong. It was therefore still for the "boy," Billy, that William Henshaw at once set about making a place in the home.
First he telegraphed the single word "Come" to Billy.
"I'll set the poor lad's heart at rest," he said to Bertram. "I shall answer Harding's letter more at length, of course. Naturally he wants to know something about me now before he sends Billy along; but there is no need for the boy to wait before he knows that I'll take him. Of course he won't come yet, till Harding hears from me."
It was just here, however, that William Henshaw met with a surprise, for within twenty-four hours came Billy's answer, and by telegraph.
"I'm coming to-morrow. Train due at five P. M.
William Henshaw did not know that in Hampden Falls Billy's trunk had been packed for days. Billy was desperate. The house, even with the maid, and with the obliging neighbor and his wife who stayed there nights, was to Billy nothing but a dismal tomb. Lawyer Harding had fallen suddenly ill; she could not even tell him that the blessed telegram "Come" had arrived. Hence Billy, lonely, impulsive, and always used to pleasing herself, had taken matters in hand with a confident grasp, and had determined to wait no longer.
That it was a fearsomely unknown future to which she was so jauntily pledging herself did not trouble the girl in the least. Billy was romantic. To sally gaily forth with a pink in the buttonhole of her coat to find her father's friend who was a "Billy" too, seemed to Billy Neilson not only delightful, but eminently sensible, and an excellent way out of her present homesick loneliness. So she bought the pink and her ticket, and impatiently awaited the time to start.
To the Beacon Street house, Billy's cheerful telegram brought the direst consternation. Even Kate was hastily summoned to the family conclave that immediately resulted.
"There's nothing—simply nothing that I can do," she declared irritably, when she had heard the story. "Surely, you don't expect ME to take the boy!"
"No, no, of course not," sighed William. "But you see, I supposed I'd have time to—to get used to things, and to make arrangements; and this is so—so sudden! I hadn't even answered Harding's letter until to-day; and he hasn't got that—much less replied to it."
"But what could you expect after sending that idiotic telegram?" demanded the lady. "'Come,' indeed!"
"But that's what Billy told me to do."
"What if it was? Just because a foolish eighteen-year-old boy tells you to do something, must you, a supposedly sensible forty-year-old man obey?"
"I think it tickled Will's romantic streak," laughed Bertram. "It seemed so sort of alluring to send that one word 'Come' out into space, and watch what happened."
"Well, he's found out, certainly," observed Cyril, with grim satisfaction.
"Oh, no; it hasn't happened yet," corrected Bertram, cheerfully. "It's just going to happen. William's got to put on the pink first, you know. That's the talisman."
"Bertram, don't be foolish. I sha'n't wear any pink. You must know that."
"How'll you find him, then?"
"Why, he'll have one on; that's enough," settled William.
"Hm-m; maybe. Then he'll have Spunk, too," murmured Bertram, mischievously.
"Spunk!" cried Kate.
"Yes. He wrote that he hoped we wouldn't mind his bringing Spunk with him."
"We don't know." Bertram's lips twitched.
"You don't know! What do you mean?"
"Well, Will thinks it's a dog, and I believe Cyril is anticipating a monkey. I myself am backing it for a parrot."
"Boys, what have you done!" groaned Kate, falling back in her chair. "What have you done!"
To William her words were like an electric shock stirring him to instant action. He sprang abruptly to his feet.
"Well, whatever we've done, we've done it," he declared sternly; "and now we must do the rest—and do it well, too. He's the son of my boyhood's dearest friend, and he shall be made welcome. Now to business! Bertram, you said you'd take him in. Did you mean it?"
Bertram sobered instantly, and came erect in his chair. William did not often speak like this; but when he did—
"Yes, Will. He shall have the little bedroom at the end of the hall. I never used the room much, anyhow, and what few duds I have there shall be cleared out to-morrow."
"Good! Now there are some other little details to arrange, then I'll go down-stairs and tell Pete and Dong Ling. And, please to understand, we're going to make this lad welcome—welcome, I say!"
"Yes, sir," said Bertram. Neither Kate nor Cyril spoke.
GETTING READY FOR BILLY
The Henshaw household was early astir on the day of Billy's expected arrival, and preparations for the guest's comfort were well under way before breakfast. The center of activity was in the little room at the end of the hall on the second floor; though, as Bertram said, the whole Strata felt the "upheaval."
By breakfast time Bertram with the avowed intention of giving "the little chap half a show," had the room cleared for action; and after that the whole house was called upon for contributions toward the room's adornment. And most generously did most of the house respond. Even Dong Ling slippered up-stairs and presented a weird Chinese banner which he said he was "velly much glad" to give. As to Pete—Pete was in his element. Pete loved boys. Had he not served them nearly all his life? Incidentally it may be mentioned that he did not care for girls.
Only Cyril held himself aloof. But that he was not oblivious of the proceedings below him was evidenced by the somber bass that floated down from his piano strings. Cyril always played according to the mood that was on him; and when Bertram heard this morning the rhythmic beats of mournfulness, he chuckled and said to William:
"That's Chopin's Funeral March. Evidently Cy thinks this is the death knell to all his hopes of future peace and happiness."
"Dear me! I wish Cyril would take some interest," grieved William.
"Oh, he takes interest all right," laughed Bertram, meaningly. "He takes INTEREST!"
"I know, but—Bertram," broke off the elder man, anxiously, from his perch on the stepladder, "would you put the rifle over this window, or the fishing-rod?"
"Why, I don't think it makes much difference, so long as they're somewhere," answered Bertram. "And there are these Indian clubs and the swords to be disposed of, you know."
"Yes; and it's going to look fine; don't you think?" exulted William. "And you know for the wall-space between the windows I'm going to bring down that case of mine, of spiders."
Bertram raised his hands in mock surprise.
"Here—down here! You're going to trust any of those precious treasures of yours down here!"
"Nonsense, Bertram, don't be silly! They'll be safe enough. Besides, they're old, anyhow. I was on spiders years ago—when I was Billy's age, in fact. I thought he'd like them here. You know boys always like such things."
"Oh, 'twasn't Billy I was worrying about," retorted Bertram. "It was you—and the spiders."
"Not much you worry about me—or anything else," replied William, good-humoredly. "There! how does that look?" he finished, as he carefully picked his way down the stepladder.
"Fine!—er—only rather warlike, maybe, with the guns and that riotous confusion of knives and scimitars over the chiffonier. But then, maybe you're intending Billy for a soldier; eh?"
"Do you know? I AM getting interested in that boy," beamed William, with some excitement. "What kind of things do you suppose he does like?"
"There's no telling. Maybe he's a sissy chap, and will howl at your guns and spiders. Perhaps he'll prefer autumn leaves and worsted mottoes for decoration."
"Not much he will," contested the other. "No son of Walter Neilson's could be a sissy. Neilson was the best half-back in ten years at Harvard, and he was always in for everything going that was worth while. 'Autumn leaves and worsted mottoes' indeed! Bah!"
"All right; but there's still a dark horse in the case, you know. We mustn't forget—Spunk."
The elder man stirred uneasily.
"Bert, what do you suppose that creature is? You don't think Cyril can be right, and that it's a—monkey?"
"'You never can tell,'" quoted Bertram, merrily. "Of course there ARE other things. If it were you, now, we'd only have to hunt up the special thing you happened to be collecting at the time, and that would be it: a snake, a lizard, a toad, or maybe a butterfly. You know you were always lugging those things home when you were his age."
"Yes, I know," sighed William. "But I can't think it's anything like that," he finished, as he turned away.
There was very little done in the Beacon Street house that day but to "get ready for Billy." In the kitchen Dong Ling cooked. Everywhere else, except in Cyril's domain, Pete dusted and swept and "puttered" to his heart's content. William did not go to the office at all that day, and Bertram did not touch his brushes. Only Cyril attended to his usual work: practising for a coming concert, and correcting the proofs of his new book, "Music in Russia."
At ten minutes before five William, anxious-eyed and nervous, found himself at the North Station. Then, and not till then, did he draw a long breath of relief.
"There! I think everything's ready," he sighed to himself. "At last!"
He wore no pink in his buttonhole. There was no need that he should accede to that silly request, he told himself. He had only to look for a youth of perhaps eighteen years, who would be alone, a little frightened, possibly, and who would have a pink in his buttonhole, and probably a dog on a leash.
As he waited, the man was conscious of a curious warmth at his heart. It was his namesake, Walter Neilson's boy, that he had come to meet; a homesick, lonely orphan who had appealed to him—to him, out of all the world. Long years ago in his own arms there had been laid a tiny bundle of flannel holding a precious little red, puckered face. But in a month's time the little face had turned cold and waxen, and the hopes that the white flannel bundle had carried had died with the baby boy;—and that baby would have been a lad grown by this time, if he had lived—a lad not far from the age of this Billy who was coming to-day, reflected the man. And the warmth in his heart deepened and glowed the more as he stood waiting at the gate for Billy to arrive.
The train from Hampden Falls was late. Not until quite fifteen minutes past five did it roll into the train-shed. Then at once its long line of passengers began to sweep toward the iron gate.
William was just inside the gate now, anxiously scanning every face and form that passed. There were many half-grown lads, but there was not one with a pink in his buttonhole until very near the end. Then William saw him—a pleasant-faced, blue-eyed boy in a neat gray suit. With a low cry William started forward; but he saw at once that the gray-clad youth was unmistakably one of a merry family party. He looked to be anything but a lad that was lonely and forlorn.
William hesitated and fell back. This debonair, self-reliant fellow could not be Billy! But as a hasty glance down the line revealed only half a dozen straggling women, and beyond them, no one, William decided that it must be Billy; and taking brave hold of his courage, he hurried after the blue-eyed youth and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Er—aren't you Billy?" he stammered.
The lad stopped and stared. He shook his head slowly.
"No, sir," he said.
"But you must be! Are you sure?"
The boy laughed this time.
"Sorry, sir, but my name is 'Frank'; isn't it, mother?" he added merrily, turning to the lady at his side, who was regarding William very unfavorably through a pair of gold-bowed spectacles.
William did not wait for more. With a stammered apology and a flustered lifting of his hat he backed away.
But where was Billy?
William looked about him in helpless dismay. All around was a wide, empty space. The long aisle to the Hampden Falls train was deserted save for the baggage-men loading the trunks and bags on to their trucks. Nowhere was there any one who seemed forlorn or ill at ease except a pretty girl with a suit-case, and with a covered basket on her arm, who stood just outside the gate, gazing a little nervously about her.
William looked twice at this girl. First, because the splash of color against her brown coat had called his attention to the fact that she was wearing a pink; and secondly because she was very pretty, and her dark eyes carried a peculiarly wistful appeal.
"Too bad Bertram isn't here," thought William. "He'd be sketching that face in no time on his cuff."
The pink had given William almost a pang. He had been so longing to see a pink—though in a different place. He wondered sympathetically if she, too, had come to meet some one who had not appeared. He noticed that she walked away from the gate once or twice, toward the waiting-room, and peered anxiously through the glass doors; but always she came back to the gate as if fearful to be long away from that place. He forgot all about her very soon, for her movements had given him a sudden idea: perhaps Billy was in the waiting-room. How stupid of him not to think of it before! Doubtless they had missed each other in the crowd, and Billy had gone straight to the waiting-room to look for him. And with this thought William hurried away at once, leaving the girl still standing by the gate alone.
He looked everywhere. Systematically he paced up and down between the long rows of seats, looking for a boy with a pink. He even went out upon the street, and gazed anxiously in all directions. It occurred to him after a time that possibly Billy, like himself, had changed his mind at the last moment, and not worn the pink. Perhaps he had forgotten it, or lost it, or even not been able to get it at all. Very bitterly William blamed himself then for disregarding his own part of the suggested plan. If only he had worn the pink himself!—but he had not; and it was useless to repine. In the meantime, where was Billy, he wondered frantically.
THE COMING OF BILLY
After another long search William came back to the train-shed, vaguely hoping that Billy might even then be there. The girl was still standing alone by the gate. There was another train on the track now, and the rush of many feet had swept her a little to one side. She looked frightened now, and almost ready to cry. Still, William noticed that her chin was lifted bravely, and that she was making a stern effort at self-control. He hesitated a moment, then went straight toward her.
"I beg your pardon," he said kindly, lifting his hat, "but I notice that you have been waiting here some time. Perhaps there is something I can do for you."
A rosy color swept to the girl's face. Her eyes lost their frightened appeal, and smiled frankly into his.
"Oh, thank you, sir! There IS something you can do for me, if you will be so kind. You see, I can't leave this place, I'm so afraid he'll come and I'll miss him. But—I think there's some mistake. Could you telephone for me?" Billy Neilson was country-bred, and in Hampden Falls all men served all other men and women, whether they were strangers or not; so to Billy this was not an extraordinary request to make, in the least.
William Henshaw smiled.
"Certainly; I shall be very glad to telephone for you. Just tell me whom you want, and what you want to say."
"Thank you. If you'll call up Mr. William Henshaw, then, of Beacon Street, please, and tell him Billy's come. I'll wait here."
"Oh, then Billy did come!" cried the man in glad surprise, his face alight. "But where is he? Do YOU know Billy?"
"I should say I did," laughed Billy, with the lightness of a long-lost child who has found a friend. "Why, I am Billy, myself!"
To William Henshaw the world swam dizzily, and went suddenly mad. The floor rose, and the roof fell, while cars and people performed impossible acrobatic feats above, below, and around him. Then, from afar off, he heard his own voice stammer:
"Yes; and I'll wait here, if you'll just tell him, please. He's expecting me, you know, so it's all right, only perhaps he made a mistake in the time. Maybe you know him, anyhow."
With one mighty effort William Henshaw pulled himself sharply together. He even laughed, and tossed his head in a valiant imitation of Billy herself; but his voice shook.
"Know him!—I should say I did!" he cried. "Why, I am William Henshaw, myself."
"You!—Uncle William! Why, where's your pink?"
The man's face was already so red it could not get any redder—but it tried to do so.
"Why, er—I—it—er—if you'll just come into the waiting-room a minute, my dear," he stuttered miserably, "I—I'll explain—about that. I shall have to leave you—for a minute," he plunged on frenziedly, as he led the way to a seat; "A—matter of business that I must attend to. I'll be—right back. Wait here, please!" And he almost pushed the girl into a seat and hurried away.
At a safe distance William Henshaw turned and looked back. His knees were shaking, and his fingers had grown cold at their tips. He could see her plainly, as she bent over the basket in her lap. He could see even the pretty curve of her cheek, and of her slender throat when she lifted her head.
And that was Billy—a GIRL!
People near him at that moment saw a flushed-faced, nervous-appearing man throw up his hands with a despairing gesture, roll his eyes heavenward, and then plunge into the nearest telephone booth.
In due time William Henshaw had his brother Bertram at the other end of the wire.
"Bertram!" he called shakily.
"Hullo, Will; that you? What's the matter? You're late! Didn't he come?"
"Come!" groaned William. "Good Lord! Bertram—Billy's a GIRL!"
"Yes, yes! Don't stand there repeating what I say in that idiotic fashion, Bertram. Do something—do something!"
"'Do something'!" gasped Bertram. "Great Scott, Will! If you want me to do something, don't knock me silly with a blow like that. Now what did you say?"
"I said that Billy is—a—girl. Can't you get that?" demanded William, despairingly.
"Well, by Jove!" breathed Bertram.
"Come, come, think! What shall we do?"
"Why, bring her home, of course."
"Home—home!" chattered William. "Do you think we five men can bring up a distractingly pretty eighteen-year-old girl with curly cheeks and pink hair?"
"No, no. I mean curly hair and pink cheeks. Bertram, do be sensible," begged the man. "This is serious!"
"Serious! I should say it was! Only fancy what Cy will say! A girl! Holy smoke! Tote her along—I want to see her!"
"But I say we can't keep her there with us, Bertram. Don't you see we can't?"
"Then take her to Kate's, or to—to one of those Young Women's Christian Union things."
"No, no, I can't do that. That's impossible. Don't you understand? She's expecting to go home with me—HOME! I'm her Uncle William."
"Lucky Uncle William!"
"Be still, Bertram!"
"Well, doesn't she know your—mistake?—that you thought she was a boy?"
"Heaven forbid!—I hope not," cried the man, fervently. "I 'most let it out once, but I think she didn't notice it. You see, we—we were both surprised."
"Well, I should say!"
"And, Bertram, I can't turn her out—I can't, I tell you. Only fancy my going to her now and saying: 'If you please, Billy, you can't live at my house, after all. I thought you were a boy, you know!' Great Scott! Bert, if she'd once turned those big brown eyes of hers on you as she has on me, you'd see!"
"I'd be delighted, I'm sure," sung a merry voice across the wires. "Sounds real interesting!"
"Bertram, can't you be serious and help me out?"
"But what CAN we do?"
"I don't know. We'll have to think; but for now, get Kate. Telephone her. Tell her to come right straight over, and that she's got to stay all night."
"Of course! Billy's got to have a chaperon; hasn't she? Now hurry. We shall be up right away."
"Kate's got company."
"Never mind—leave 'em. Tell her she's got to leave 'em. And tell Cyril, of course, what to expect. And, look a-here, you two behave, now. None of your nonsense! Now mind. I'm not going to have this child tormented."
"I won't bat an eyelid—on my word, I won't," chuckled Bertram. "But, oh, I say,—Will!"
"Eh?—oh—Great Scott! I forgot Spunk. I don't know. She's got a basket. He's in that, I suppose. Anyhow, he can't be any more of a bombshell than his mistress was. Now be quick, and none of your fooling, Bertram. Tell them all—Pete and Dong Ling. Don't forget. I wouldn't have Billy find out for the world! Fix it up with Kate. You'll have to fix it up with her; that's all!" And there came the sharp click of the receiver against the hook.
In the soft April twilight Cyril was playing a dreamy waltz when Bertram knocked, and pushed open the door.
"Say, old chap, you'll have to quit your mooning this time and sit up and take notice."
"What do you mean?" Cyril stopped playing and turned abruptly.
"I mean that Will has gone crazy, and I think the rest of us are going to follow suit."
Cyril shrugged his shoulders and whirled about on the piano stool. In a moment his fingers had slid once more into the dreamy waltz.
"When you get ready to talk sense, I'll listen," he said coldly.
"Oh, very well; if you really want it broken gently, it's this: Will has met Billy, and Billy is a girl. They're due here now 'most any time."
The music stopped with a crash.
"Yes, a girl. Oh, I've been all through that, and I know how you feel. But as near as I can make out, it's really so. I've had instructions to tell everybody, and I've told. I got Kate on the telephone, and she's coming over. You KNOW what SHE'LL be. Dong Ling is having what I suppose are Chinese hysterics in the kitchen; and Pete is swinging back and forth like a pendulum in the dining-room, moaning 'Good Lord, deliver us!' at every breath. I would suggest that you follow me down-stairs so that we may be decently ready for—whatever comes." And he turned about and stalked out of the room, followed by Cyril, who was too stunned to open his lips.
Kate came first. She was not stunned. She had a great deal to say.
"Really, this is a little the most absurd thing I ever heard of," she fumed. "What in the world does your brother mean?"
That she quite ignored her own relationship to the culprit was not lost on Bertram. He made instant response.
"As near as I can make out," he replied smoothly, "YOUR brother has fallen under the sway of a pair of great dark eyes, two pink cheeks, and an unknown quantity of curly hair, all of which in its entirety is his namesake, is lonesome, and is in need of a home."
"But she can't live—here!"
"Will says she shall."
"But that is utter nonsense," cut in Cyril.
"For once I agree with you, Cyril," laughed Bertram; "but William doesn't."
"But how can she do it?" demanded Kate.
"Don't know," answered Bertram. "He's established a petticoat propriety in you for a few hours, at least. Meanwhile, he's going to think. At least, he says he is, and that we've got to help him."
"Humph!" snapped Kate. "Well, I can prophesy we sha'n't think alike—so you'd notice it!"
"I know that," nodded Bertram; "and I'm with you and Cyril on this. The whole thing is absurd. The idea of thrusting a silly, eighteen-year-old girl here into our lives in this fashion! But you know what Will is when he's really roused. You might as well try to move a nice good-natured mountain by saying 'please,' as to try to stir him under certain circumstances. Most of the time, I'll own, we can twist him around our little fingers. But not now. You'll see. In the first place, she's the daughter of his dead friend, and she DID write a pathetic little letter. It got to the inside of me, anyhow, when I thought she was a boy."
"A boy! Who wouldn't think she was a boy?" interposed Cyril. "'Billy,' indeed! Can you tell me what for any sane man should have named a girl 'Billy'?"
"For William, your brother, evidently," retorted Bertram, dryly. "Anyhow, he did it, and of course our mistake was a very natural one. The dickens of it is now that we've got to keep it from her, so Will says; and how—hush! here they are," he broke off, as there came the sound of wheels stopping before the house.
There followed the click of a key in the lock and the opening of a heavy door; then, full in the glare of the electric lights stood a plainly nervous man, and a girl with startled, appealing eyes.
"My dear," stammered William, "this is my sister, Kate, Mrs. Hartwell; and here are Cyril and Bertram, whom I've told you of. And of course I don't need to say to them that you are Billy."
It was over. William drew a long breath, and gave an agonized look into his brothers' eyes. Then Billy turned from Mrs. Hartwell and held out a cordial hand to each of the men in turn.
"Oh, you don't know how lovely this is—to me," she cried softly. "And to think that you were willing I should come!" The two younger men caught their breath sharply, and tried not to see each other's eyes. "You look so good—all of you; and I don't believe there's one of you that's got nerves or a heart," she laughed.
Bertram rallied his wits to respond to the challenge.
"No heart, Miss Billy? Now isn't that just a bit hard on us—right at first?"
"Not a mite, if you take it the way I mean it," dimpled Billy. "Hearts that are all right just keep on pumping, and you never know they are there. They aren't worth mentioning. It's the other kind—the kind that flutters at the least noise and jumps at the least bang! And I don't believe any of you mind noises and bangs," she finished merrily, as she handed her hat and coat to Mrs. Hartwell, who was waiting to receive them.
Bertram laughed. Cyril scowled, and occupied himself in finding a chair. William had already dropped himself wearily on to the sofa near his sister. Billy still continued to talk.
"Now when Spunk and I get to training—oh, and you haven't seen Spunk!" she interrupted herself suddenly. "Why, the introductions aren't half over. Where is he, Uncle William—the basket?"
"I—I put it in—in the hall," mumbled William, starting to rise.
"No, no; I'll get him," cried Billy, hurrying from the room. She returned in a moment, the green covered basket in her hand. "He's been asleep, I guess. He's slept 'most all the way down, anyhow. He's so used to being toted 'round in this basket that he doesn't mind it a bit. I take him everywhere in it at the Falls."
There was an electric pause. Four pairs of startled, questioning, fearful eyes were on the basket while Billy fumbled at the knot of the string. The next moment, with a triumphant flourish, Billy lifted from the basket and placed on the floor a very small gray kitten with a very large pink bow.
"There, ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, Spunk."
The tiny creature winked and blinked, and balanced for a moment on sleepy legs; then at the uncontrollable shout that burst from Bertram's throat, he faced the man, humped his tiny back, bristled his diminutive tail to almost unbelievable fluffiness, and spit wrathfully.
"And so that is Spunk!" choked Bertram.
"Yes," said Billy. "This is Spunk."
THE ROOM—AND BILLY
For the first fifteen minutes after Billy's arrival conversation was a fitful thing made up mostly of a merry monologue on the part of Billy herself, interspersed with somewhat dazed replies from one after another of her auditors as she talked to them in turn. No one thought to ask if she cared to go up to her room, and during the entire fifteen minutes Billy sat on the floor with Spunk in her lap. She was still there when the funereal face of Pete appeared in the doorway. Pete's jaw dropped. It was plain that only the sternest self-control enabled him to announce dinner, with anything like dignity. But he managed to stammer out the words, and then turn loftily away. Bertram, who sat near the door, however, saw him raise his hands in horror as he plunged through the hall and down the stairway.
With a motion to Bertram to lead the way with Billy, William frenziedly gripped his sister's arm, and hissed in her ear for all the world like a villain in melodrama:
"Listen! You'll sleep in Bert's room to-night, and Bert will come up-stairs with me. Get Billy to bed as soon as you can after dinner, and then come back down to us. We've got to plan what's got to be done. Sh-h!" And he dragged his sister downstairs.
In the dining-room there was a slight commotion. Billy stood at her chair with Spunk in her arms. Before her Pete was standing, dumbly staring into her eyes. At last he stammered:
"A chair, please, I said, for Spunk, you know. Spunk always sits at the table right next to me."
It was too much for Bertram. He fled chokingly to the hall. William dropped weakly into his own place. Cyril stared as had Pete; but Mrs. Hartwell spoke.
"You don't mean—that that cat—has a chair—at the table!" she gasped.
"Yes; and isn't it cute of him?" beamed Billy, entirely misconstruing the surprise in the lady's voice. "His mother always sat at table with us, and behaved beautifully, too. Of course Spunk is little, and makes mistakes sometimes. But he'll learn. Oh, there's a chair right here," she added, as she spied Bertram's childhood's high-chair, which for long years had stood unused in the corner. "I'll just squeeze it right in here," she finished gleefully, making room for the chair at her side.
When Bertram, a little red of face, but very grave, entered, the dining-room a moment later, he found the family seated with Spunk snugly placed between Billy and a plainly disgusted and dismayed brother, Cyril. The kitten was alert and interested; but he had settled back in his chair, and was looking as absurdly dignified as the flaring pink bow would let him.
"Isn't he a dear?" Billy was saying. But Bertram noticed that there was no reply to this question.
It was a peculiar dinner-party. Only Billy did not feel the strain. Even Spunk was not entirely happy—his efforts to investigate the table and its contents were too frequently curbed by his mistress for his unalloyed satisfaction. William, it is true, made a valiant attempt to cause the conversation to be general; but he failed dismally. Kate was sternly silent, while Cyril was openly repellent. Bertram talked, indeed—but Bertram always talked; and very soon he and Billy had things pretty much to themselves—that is, with occasional interruptions caused by Spunk. Spunk had an inquisitive nose or paw for each new dish placed before his mistress; and Billy spent much time admonishing him. Billy said she was training him; that it was wonderful what training would do, and, of course, Spunk WAS little, now.
Dinner was half over when there was a slight diversion created by Spunk's conclusion to get acquainted with the silent man at his left. Cyril, however, did not respond to Spunk's advances. So very evident, indeed, was the man's aversion that Billy turned in amazement.
"Why, Mr. Cyril, don't you see? Spunk is trying to say 'How do you do'?"
"Very likely; but I'm not fond of cats, Miss Billy."
"You're not fond—of—cats!" repeated the girl, as if she could not have heard aright. "Why not?"
Cyril changed his position.
"Why, just because I—I'm not," he retorted lamely. "Isn't there anything that—that you don't like?"
"Why, not that I know of," she began, after a moment, "only rainy days and—tripe. And Spunk isn't a bit like those."
Bertram chuckled, and even Cyril smiled—though unwillingly.
"All the same," he reiterated, "I don't like cats."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," lamented Billy; and at the grieved hurt in her dark eyes Bertram came promptly to the rescue.
"Never mind, Miss Billy. Cyril is only ONE of us, and there is all the rest of the Strata besides."
"The Strata. You don't know, of course, but listen, and I'll tell you." And he launched gaily forth into his favorite story.
Billy was duly amused and interested. She laughed and clapped her hands, and when the story was done she clapped them again.
"Oh, what a funny house! And how perfectly lovely that I'm going to live in it," she cried. Then straight at Mrs. Hartwell she hurled a bombshell. "But where is your stratum?" she demanded. "Mr. Bertram didn't mention a thing about you!"
Cyril said a sharp word under his breath. Bertram choked over a cough. Kate threw into William's eyes a look that was at once angry, accusing, and despairing. Then William spoke.
"Er—she—it isn't anywhere, my dear," he stammered; "or rather, it isn't here. Kate lives up on the Avenue, you see, and is only here for—for a day or two—just now."
"Oh!" murmured Billy. And there was not one in the room at that moment who did not bless Spunk—for Spunk suddenly leaped to the table before him; and in the ensuing confusion his mistress quite forgot to question further concerning Mrs. Hartwell's stratum.
Dinner over, the three men, with their sister and Billy, trailed up-stairs to the drawing-rooms. Billy told them, then, of her life at Hampden Falls. She cried a little at the mention of Aunt Ella; and she portrayed very vividly the lonely life from which she herself had so gladly escaped. She soon had every one laughing, even Cyril, over her stories of the lawyer's home that might have been hers, with its gloom and its hush and its socketed chairs.
As soon as possible, however, Mrs. Hartwell, with a murmured "I know you must be tired, Billy," suggested that the girl go up-stairs to her room. "Come," she added, "I will show you the way."
There was some delay, even then, for Spunk had to be provided with sleeping quarters; and it was not without some hesitation that Billy finally placed the kitten in the reluctant hands of Pete, who had been hastily summoned. Then she turned and followed Mrs. Hartwell up-stairs.
It seemed to the three men in the drawing-room that almost immediately came the piercing shriek, and the excited voice of their sister in expostulation. Without waiting for more they leaped to the stairway and hurried up, two steps at a time.
"For heaven's sake, Kate, what is it?" panted William, who had been outdistanced by his more agile brothers.
Kate was on her feet, her face the picture of distressed amazement. In the low chair by the window Billy sat where she had flung herself, her hands over her face. Her shoulders were shaking, and from her throat came choking little cries.
"I don't know," quavered Kate. "I haven't the least idea. She was all right till she got up-stairs here, and I turned on the lights. Then she gave one shriek and—you know all I know."
William advanced hurriedly.
"Billy, what is the matter? What are you crying for?" he demanded.
Billy dropped her hands then, and they saw her face. She was not crying. She was laughing. She was laughing so she could scarcely speak.
"Oh, you did, you did!" she gurgled. "I thought you did, and now I know!"
"Did what? What do you mean?" William's usually gentle voice was sharp. Even William's nerves were beginning to feel the strain of the last few hours.
"Thought I was a—b-boy!" choked Billy. "You called me 'he' once in the station—I thought you did; but I wasn't sure—not till I saw this room. But now I know—I know!" And off she went into another hysterical gale of laughter—Billy's nerves, too, were beginning to respond to the excitement of the last few hours.
As to the three men and the woman, they stood silent, helpless, looking into each other's faces with despairing eyes.
In a moment Billy was on her feet, fluttering about the room, touching this thing, looking at that. Nothing escaped her.
"I'm to fish—and shoot—and fence!" she crowed. "And, oh!—look at those knives! U-ugh!... And, my! what are these?" she cried, pouncing on the Indian clubs. "And look at the spiders! Dear, dear, I AM glad they're dead, anyhow," she shuddered with a nervous laugh that was almost a sob.
Something in Billy's voice stirred Mrs. Hartwell to sudden action.
"Come, come, this will never do," she protested authoritatively, motioning her brothers to leave the room. "Billy is quite tired out, and needs rest. She mustn't talk another bit to-night."
"Of c-course not," stammered William. And only too glad of an excuse to withdraw from a very embarrassing situation, the three men called back a faltering good-night, and precipitately fled down-stairs.
A FAMILY CONCLAVE
"Well, William," greeted Kate, grimly, when she came into the drawing-room, after putting her charge to bed, "have you had enough, now?"
"'Enough'! What do you mean?"
Kate raised her eyebrows.
"Why, surely, you're not thinking NOW that you can keep this girl here; are you?"
"I don't know why not."
"Well, where shall she go? Will you take her?"
"I? Certainly not," declared Kate, with decision. "I'm sure I see no reason why I should."
"No more do I see why William should, either," cut in Cyril.
"Oh, come, what's the use," interposed Bertram. "Let her stay. She's a nice little thing, I'm sure."
Cyril and Kate turned sharply.
"Bertram!" The cry was a duet of angry amazement. Then Kate added: "It seems that you, too, have come under the sway of dark eyes, pink cheeks, and an unknown quantity of curly hair!"
"Oh, well, she would be nice to—er—paint," he murmured.
"See here, children," demurred William, a little sternly, "all this is wasting time. There is no way out of it. I wouldn't be seen turning that homeless child away now. We must keep her; that's settled. The question is, how shall it be done? We must have some woman friend here to be her companion, of course; but whom shall we get?"
Kate sighed, and looked her dismay. Bertram threw a glance into Cyril's eyes, and made an expressive gesture.
"You see," it seemed to say. "I told you how it would be!"
"Now whom shall we get?" questioned William again. "We must think."
Unattached gentlewomen of suitable age and desirable temper did not prove to be so numerous among the Henshaws' acquaintances, however, as to make the selection of a chaperon very easy. Several were thought of and suggested; but in each case the candidate was found to possess one or more characteristics that made the idea of her presence utterly abhorrent to some one of the brothers. At last William expostulated:
"See here, boys, we aren't any nearer a settlement than we were in the first place. There isn't any woman, of course, who would exactly suit all of us; and so we shall just have to be willing to take some one who doesn't."
"The trouble is," explained Bertram, airily, "we want some one who will be invisible to every one except the world and Billy, and who will be inaudible always."
"I don't know but you are right," sighed William. "But suppose we settle on Aunt Hannah. She seems to be the least objectionable of the lot, and I think she'd come. She's alone in the world, and I believe the comfortable roominess of this house would be very grateful to her after the inconvenience of her stuffy little room over at the Back Bay."
"You bet it would!" murmured Bertram, feelingly; but William did not appear to hear him.
"She's amiable, fairly sensible, and always a lady," he went on; "and to-morrow morning I believe I'll run over and see if she can't come right away."
"And may I ask which—er—stratum she—they—will occupy?" smiled Bertram.
"You may ask, but I'm afraid you won't find out very soon," retorted William, dryly, "if we take as long to decide that matter as we have the rest of it."
"Er—Cyril has the most—UNOCCUPIED space," volunteered Bertram, cheerfully.
"Indeed!" retaliated Cyril. "Suppose you let me speak for myself! Of course, so far as truck is concerned, I'm not in it with you and Will. But as for the USE I put my rooms to—! Besides, I already have Pete there, and would have Dong Ling probably, if he slept here. However, if you want any of my rooms, don't let my petty wants and wishes interfere—"
"No, no," interrupted William, in quick conciliation. "We don't want your rooms, Cyril. Aunt Hannah abhors stairs. Of course I might move, I suppose. My rooms are one flight less; but if I only didn't have so many things!"
"Oh, you men!" shrugged Kate, wearily. "Why don't you ask my opinion sometimes? It seems to me that in this case a woman's wit might be of some help!"
"All right, go ahead!" nodded William.
Kate leaned forward eagerly—Kate loved to "manage."
"Go easy, now," cautioned Bertram, warily. "You know a strata, even one as solid as ours, won't stand too much of an earthquake!"
"It isn't an earthquake at all," sniffed Kate. "It's a very sensible move all around. Here are these two great drawing-rooms, the library, and the little reception-room across the hall, and not one of them is ever used but this. Of course the women wouldn't like to sleep down here, but why don't you, Bertram, take the back drawing-room, the library, and the little reception-room for yours, and leave the whole of the second floor for Billy and Aunt Hannah?"
"Good for you, Kate," cried Bertram, appreciatively. "You've hit it square on the head, and we'll do it. I'll move to-morrow. The light down here is just as good as it is up-stairs—if you let it in!"
"Thank you, Bertram, and you, too, Kate," breathed William, fervently. "Now, if you don't mind, I believe I'll go to bed. I am tired!"
As soon as possible after breakfast William went to see Aunt Hannah.
Hannah Stetson was not really William's aunt, though she had been called Aunt Hannah for years. She was the widow of a distant cousin, and she lived in a snug little room in a Back Bay boarding-house. She was a slender, white-haired woman with kind blue eyes, and a lovable smile. Her cheeks were still faintly pink, and her fine silver-white hair broke into little kinks and curls about her ears. According to Bertram she always made one think of "lavender and old lace."
She welcomed William cordially this morning, though with faint surprise in her eyes.
"Yes, I know I'm an early caller, and an unexpected one," began William, hurriedly. "And I shall have to plunge straight into the matter, too, for there isn't time to preamble. I've taken an eighteen-year-old girl to bring up, Aunt Hannah, and I want you to come down and live with us to chaperon her."
"My grief and conscience, WILLIAM!" gasped the little woman, agitatedly.
"Yes, yes, I know, Aunt Hannah, everything you would say if you could. But please skip the hysterics. We've all had them, and Kate has already used every possible adjective that you could think up. Now it's just this." And he hurriedly gave Mrs. Stetson a full account of the case, and told her plainly what he hoped and expected that she would do for him.
"Why, yes, of course—I'll come," acquiesced the lady, a little breathlessly, "if—if you are sure you're going to—keep her."
"Good! And remember I said 'now,' please—that I wanted you to come right away, to-day. Of course Kate can't stay. Just get in half a dozen women to help you pack, and come."
"Half a dozen women in that little room, William—impossible!"
"Well, I only meant to get enough so you could come right off this morning."
"But I don't need them, William. There are only my clothes and books, and such things. You know it is a FURNISHED room."
"All right, all right, Aunt Hannah. I wanted to make sure you hurried, that's all. You see, I don't want Billy to suspect just how much she's upsetting us. I've asked Kate to take her over to her house for the day, while Bertram is moving down-stairs, and while we're getting you settled. I—I think you'll like it there, Aunt Hannah," added William, anxiously. "Of course Billy's got Spunk, but—" he hesitated, and smiled a little.
"Got what?" faltered the other.
"Spunk. Oh, I don't mean THAT kind," laughed William, in answer to the dismayed expression on his aunt's face. "Spunk is a cat."
"A cat!—but such a name, William! I—I think we'll change that."
"Eh? Oh, you do," murmured William, with a curious smile. "Very well; be that as it may. Anyhow, you're coming, and we shall want you all settled by dinner time," he finished, as he picked up his hat to go.
With Kate, Billy spent the long day very contentedly in Kate's beautiful Commonwealth Avenue home. The two boys, Paul, twelve years old, and Egbert, eight, were a little shy, it is true, and not really of much use as companions; but there was a little Kate, four years old, who proved to be wonderfully entertaining.
Billy was not much used to children, and she found this four-year-old atom of humanity to be a great source of interest and amusement. She even told Mrs. Hartwell at parting that little Kate was almost as nice as Spunk—which remark, oddly enough, did not appear to please Mrs. Hartwell to the extent that Billy thought that it would.
At the Beacon Street house Billy was presented at once to Mrs. Stetson.
"And you are to call me 'Aunt Hannah,' my dear," said the little woman, graciously, "just as the boys do."
"Thank you," dimpled Billy, "and you don't know, Aunt Hannah, how good it seems to me to come into so many relatives, all at once!"
Upon going up-stairs Billy found her room somewhat changed. It was far less warlike, and the case of spiders had been taken away.
"And this will be your stratum, you know," announced Bertram from the stairway, "yours and Aunt Hannah's. You're to have this whole floor. Will and Cyril are above, and I'm down-stairs."
"You are? Why, I thought you—were—here." Billy's face was puzzled.
"Here? Oh, well, I did have—some things here," he retorted airily; "but I took them all away to-day. You see, my stratum is down-stairs, and it doesn't do to mix the layers. By the way, you haven't been up-stairs yet; have you? Come on, and I'll show you—and you, too, Aunt Hannah."
Billy clapped her hands; but Aunt Hannah shook her head.
"I'll leave that for younger feet than mine," she said; adding whimsically: "It's best sometimes that one doesn't try to step too far off one's own level, you know."
"All right," laughed the man. "Come on, Miss Billy."
On the door at the head of the stairs he tapped twice, lightly.
"Well, Pete," called Cyril's voice, none too cordially.
"Pete, indeed!" scoffed Bertram. "You've got company, young man. Open the door. Miss Billy is viewing the Strata."
The bare floor echoed to a quick tread, then the door opened and Cyril faced them with a forced smile on his lips.
"Come in—though I fear there will be little—to see," he said.
Bertram assumed a pompous attitude.
"Ladies and gentlemen; you behold here the lion in his lair."
"Be still, Bertram," ordered Cyril.
"He is a lion, really," confided Bertram, in a lower voice; "but as he prefers it, we'll just call him 'the Musical Man.'"
"I should think I was some sort of music-box that turned with a crank," bristled Cyril.
"A—CRANK, did you say? Well, even I wouldn't have quite dared to say that, you know!"
With an impatient gesture Cyril turned on his heel. Bertram fell once more into his pompous attitude.
"Before you is the Man's workshop," he orated. "At your right you see his instruments of tor—I mean, his instruments: a piano, flute, etc. At your left is the desk with its pens, paper, erasers, ink and postage stamps. I mention these because there are—er—so few things to mention here. Beyond, through the open door, one may catch glimpses of still other rooms; but they hold even less than this one holds. Tradition doth assert, however, that in one is a couch-bed, and in another, two chairs."
Billy listened silently. Her eyes were questioning. She was not quite sure how to take Bertram's words; and the bare rooms and their stern-faced master filled her with a vague pity. But the pause that followed Bertram's nonsense seemed to be waiting for her to fill it.
"Oh, I should like to hear you—play, Mr. Cyril," she stammered. Then, gathering courage. "CAN you play 'The Maiden's Prayer'?"
Bertram gave a cough, a spasmodic cough that sent him, red-faced, out into the hall. From there he called:
"Can't stop for the animals to perform, Miss Billy. It's 'most dinner time, and we've got lots to see yet."
"All right; but—sometime," nodded Billy over her shoulder to Cyril as she turned away. "I just love that 'Maiden's Prayer'!"
"Now this is William's stratum," announced Bertram at the foot of the stairs. "You will perceive that there is no knocking here; William's doors are always open."
"By all means! Come in—come in," called William's cheery voice.
"Oh, my, what a lot of things!" exclaimed Billy. "My—my—what a lot of things! How Spunk will like this room!"
Bertram chuckled; then he made a great display of drawing a long breath.
"In the short time at our disposal," he began loftily, "it will be impossible to point out each particular article and give its history from the beginning; but somewhere you will find four round white stones, which—"
"Er—yes, we know all about those white stones," interrupted William, "and you'll please let me talk about my own things myself!" And he beamed benevolently on the wondering-eyed girl at Bertram's side.
"But there are so many!" breathed Billy.
"All the more chance then," smiled William, "that somewhere among them you'll find something to interest you. Now these Chinese ceramics, and these bronzes—maybe you'd like those," he suggested. And with a resigned sigh and an exaggerated air of submission, Bertram stepped back and gave way to his brother.
"And there are these miniatures, and these Japanese porcelains. Or perhaps you'd like stamps, or theatre programs better," William finished anxiously.
Billy did not reply. She was turning round and round, her eyes wide and amazed. Suddenly she pounced on a beautifully decorated teapot, and held it up in admiring hands.
"Oh, what a pretty teapot! And what a cute little plate it sets in!" she cried.
The collector fairly bubbled over with joy.
"That's a Lowestoft—a real Lowestoft!" he crowed. "Not that hard-paste stuff from the Orient that's CALLED Lowestoft, but the real thing—English, you know. And that's the tray that goes with it, too. Wonderful—how I got them both! You know they 'most always get separated. I paid a cool hundred for them, anyhow."
"A hundred dollars for a teapot!" gasped Billy.
"Yes; and here's a nice little piece of lustre-ware. Pretty—isn't it? And there's a fine bit of black basalt. And—"
"Er—Will," interposed Bertram, meekly.
"Oh, and here's a Castleford," cried William, paying no attention to the interruption. "Marked, too; see? 'D. D. & Co., Castleford.' You know there isn't much of that ware marked. This is a beauty, too, I think. You see this pitted surface—they made that with tiny little points set into the inner side of the mold. The design stands out fine on this. It's one of the best I ever saw. And, oh—"
"Er—William," interposed Bertram again, a little louder this time. "May I just say—"
"And did you notice this 'Old Blue'?" hurried on William, eagerly. "Lid sets down in, you see—that's older than the kind where it sets over the top. Now here's one—"
"William," almost shouted Bertram, "DINNER IS READY! Pete has sounded the gong twice already!"
"Eh? Oh, sure enough—sure enough," acknowledged William, with a regretful glance at his treasures. "Well, we must go, we must go."
"But I haven't seen your stratum at all," demurred Billy to her guide, as they went down the stairway.
"Then there's something left for to-morrow," promised Bertram; "but you must remember, I haven't got any beautiful 'Old Blues' and 'black basalts,' to say nothing of stamps and baggage tags. But I'll make you some tea—some real tea—and that's more than William has done, with all his hundred and one teapots!"
BERTRAM HAS VISITORS
Spunk did not change his name; but that was perhaps the only thing that did not meet with some sort of change during the weeks that immediately followed Billy's arrival. Given a house, five men, and an ironbound routine of life, and it is scarcely necessary to say that the advent of a somewhat fussy elderly woman, an impulsive young girl, and a very-much-alive small cat will make some difference. As to Spunk's name—it was not Mrs. Stetson's fault that even that was left undisturbed.
Mrs. Stetson early became acquainted with Spunk. She was introduced to him, indeed, on the night of her arrival—though fortunately not at table: William had seen to it that Spunk did not appear at dinner, though to accomplish this the man had been obliged to face the amazed and grieved indignation of the kitten's mistress.
"But I don't see how any one CAN object to a nice clean little cat at the table," Billy had remonstrated tearfully.
"I know; but—er—they do, sometimes," William had stammered; "and this is one of the times. Aunt Hannah would never stand for it—never!"
"Oh, but she doesn't know Spunk," Billy had observed then, hopefully. "You just wait until she knows him."
Mrs. Stetson began to "know" Spunk the next day. The immediate source of her knowledge was the discovery that Spunk had found her ball of black knitting yarn, and had delightedly captured it. Not that he was content to let it remain where it was—indeed, no. He rolled it down the stairs, batted it through the hall to the drawing-room, and then proceeded to 'chasse' with it in and out among the legs of various chairs and tables, ending in one grand whirl that wound the yarn round and round his small body, and keeled him over half upon his back. There he blissfully went to sleep.
Billy found him after a gleeful following of the slender woollen trail. Mrs. Stetson was with her—but she was not gleeful.
"Oh, Aunt Hannah, Aunt Hannah," gurgled Billy, "isn't he just too cute for anything?"
Aunt Hannah shook her head.
"I must confess I don't see it," she declared. "My dear, just look at that hopeless snarl!"
"Oh, but it isn't hopeless at all," laughed Billy. "It's like one of those strings they unwind at parties with a present at the end of it. And Spunk is the present," she added, when she had extricated the small gray cat. "And you shall hold him," she finished, graciously entrusting the sleepy kitten to Mrs. Stetson's unwilling arms.
"But, I—it—I can't—Billy! I don't like that name," blurted out the indignant little lady with as much warmth as she ever allowed herself to show. "It must be changed to—to 'Thomas.'"
"Changed? Spunk's name changed?" demanded Billy, in a horrified voice. "Why, Aunt Hannah, it can't be changed; it's HIS, you know." Then she laughed merrily. "'Thomas,' indeed! Why, you old dear!—just suppose I should ask YOU to change your name! Now I like 'Helen Clarabella' lots better than 'Hannah,' but I'm not going to ask you to change that—and I'm going to love you just as well, even if you are 'Hannah'—see if I don't! And you'll love Spunk, too, I'm sure you will. Now watch me find the end of this snarl!" And she danced over to the dumbfounded little lady in the big chair, gave her an affectionate kiss, and then attacked the tangled mass of black with skilful fingers.
"But, I—you—oh, my grief and conscience!" finished the little woman whose name was not Helen Clarabella.—"Oh, my grief and conscience," according to Bertram, was Aunt Hannah's deadliest swear-word.
In Aunt Hannah's black silk lap Spunk stretched luxuriously, and blinked sleepy eyes; then with a long purr of content he curled himself for another nap—still Spunk.
It was some time after luncheon that day that Bertram heard a knock at his studio door. Bertram was busy. His particular pet "Face of a Girl" was to be submitted soon to the judges of a forthcoming Art Exhibition, and it was not yet finished. He was trying to make up now for the many hours lost during the last few days; and even Bertram, at times, did not like interruptions. His model had gone, but he was still working rapidly when the knock came. His tone was not quite cordial when he answered.
"It's I—Spunk and I. May we come in?" called a confident voice.
Bertram said a sharp word behind his teeth—but he opened the door.
"Of course! I was—painting," he announced.
"How lovely! And I'll watch you. Oh, my—what a pretty room!"
"I'm glad you like it."
"Indeed I do; I like it ever so much. I shall stay here lots, I know."
"Oh, you—will!" For once even Bertram's ready tongue failed to find fitting response.
"Yes. Now paint. I want to see you. Aunt Hannah has gone out anyway, and I'm lonesome. I think I'll stay."
"But I can't—that is, I'm not used to spectators."
"Of course you aren't, you poor old lonesomeness! But it isn't going to be that way, any more, you know, now that I've come. I sha'n't let you be lonesome."
"I could swear to that," declared the man, with sudden fervor; and for Billy's peace of mind it was just as well, perhaps, that she did not know the exact source of that fervency.
"Now paint," commanded Billy again.
Because he did not know what else to do, Bertram picked up a brush; but he did not paint. The first stroke of his brush against the canvas was to Spunk a challenge; and Spunk never refused a challenge. With a bound he was on Bertram's knee, gleeful paw outstretched, batting at the end of the brush.
"Tut, tut—no, no—naughty Spunk! Say, but wasn't that cute?" chuckled Billy. "Do it again!"
The artist gave an exasperated sigh.
"My dear girl," he protested, "cruel as it may seem to you, this picture is not a kindergarten game for the edification of small cats. I must politely ask Spunk to desist."
"But he won't!" laughed Billy. "Never mind; we will take it some day when he's asleep. Let's not paint any more, anyhow. I've come to see your rooms." And she sprang blithely to her feet. "Dear, dear, what a lot of faces!—and all girls, too! How funny! Why don't you paint other things? Still, they are rather nice."
"Thank you," accepted Bertram; dryly.
Bertram did not paint any more that afternoon. Billy found much to interest her, and she asked numberless questions. She was greatly excited when she understood the full significance of the omnipresent "Face of a Girl"; and she graciously offered to pose herself for the artist. She spent, indeed, quite half an hour turning her head from side to side, and demanding "Now how's that?—and that?" Tiring at last of this, she suggested Spunk as a substitute, remarking that, after all, cats—pretty cats like Spunk—were even nicer to paint than girls.
She rescued Spunk then from the paint-box where he had been holding high carnival with Bertram's tubes of paint, and demanded if Bertram ever saw a more delightful, more entrancing, more altogether-to-be-desired model. She was so artless, so merry, so frankly charmed with it all that Bertram could not find it in his heart to be angry, notwithstanding his annoyance. But when at four o'clock, she took herself and her cat cheerily up-stairs, he lifted his hands in despair.
"Great Scott!" he groaned. "If this is a sample of what's coming—I'm GOING, that's all!"
CYRIL TAKES HIS TURN
Billy had been a member of the Beacon Street household a week before she repeated her visit to Cyril at the top of the house. This time Bertram was not with her. She went alone. Even Spunk was left behind—Billy remembered her prospective host's aversion to cats.
Billy did not feel that she knew Cyril very well. She had tried several times to chat with him; but she had made so little headway, that she finally came to the conclusion—privately expressed to Bertram—that Mr. Cyril was bashful. Bertram had only laughed. He had laughed the harder because at that moment he could hear Cyril pounding out his angry annoyance on the piano upstairs—Cyril had just escaped from one of Billy's most determined "attempts," and Bertram knew it. Bertram's laugh had puzzled Billy—and it had not quite pleased her. Hence to-day she did not tell him of her plan to go up-stairs and see what she could do herself, alone, to combat this "foolish bashfulness" on the part of Mr. Cyril Henshaw.
In spite of her bravery, Billy waited quite one whole minute at the top of the stairs before she had the courage to knock at Cyril's door.
The door was opened at once.
"Why—Billy!" cried the man in surprise.
"Yes, it's Billy. I—I came up to—to get acquainted," she smiled winningly.
"Why, er—you are very kind. Will you—come in?"
"Thank you; yes. You see, I didn't bring Spunk. I—remembered."
Cyril bowed gravely.
"You are very kind—again," he said.
Billy fidgeted in her chair. To her mind she was not "getting on" at all. She determined on a bold stroke.
"You see, I thought if—if I should come up here, where there wouldn't be so many around, we might get acquainted," she confided; "then I would get to like you just as well as I do the others."
At the odd look that came into the man's face, the girl realized suddenly what she had said. Her cheeks flushed a confused red.
"Oh, dear! That is, I mean—I like you, of course," she floundered miserably; then she broke off with a frank laugh. "There! you see I never could get out of anything. I might as well own right up. I DON'T like you as well as I do Uncle William and Mr. Bertram. So there!"
Cyril laughed. For the first time since he had seen Billy, something that was very like interest came into his eyes.
"Oh, you don't," he retorted. "Now that is—er—very UNkind of you."
Billy shook her head.
"You don't say that as if you meant it," she accused him, her eyes gravely studying his face. "Now I'M in earnest. I really want to like YOU!"
"Thank you. Then perhaps you won't mind telling me why you don't like me," he suggested.
Again Billy flushed.
"Why, I—I just don't; that's all," she faltered. Then she cried aggrievedly: "There, now! you've made me be impolite; and I didn't mean to be, truly."
"Of course not," assented the man; "and it wasn't impolite, because I asked you for the information, you know. I may conclude then," he went on with an odd twinkle in his eyes, "that I am merely classed with tripe and rainy days."
"Tripe and rainy days. Those are the only things, if I remember rightly, that you don't like."
The girl stared; then she chuckled.
"There! I knew I'd like you better if you'd only SAY something," she beamed. "But let's not talk any more about that. Play to me; won't you? You know you promised me 'The Maiden's Prayer.'"
"Pardon me, but you must be mistaken," he replied coldly. "I do not play 'The Maiden's Prayer.'"
"Oh, what a shame! And I do so love it! But you play other things; I've heard you a little, and Mr. Bertram says you do—in concerts and things."
"Does he?" murmured Cyril, with a slight lifting of his eyebrows.
"There! Now off you go again all silent and horrid!" chaffed Billy. "What have I said now? Mr. Cyril—do you know what I think? I believe you've got NERVES!" Billy's voice was so tragic that the man could but laugh.
"Perhaps I have, Miss Billy."
"Like Miss Letty's?"
"I'm not acquainted with the lady."
"Gee! wouldn't you two make a pair!" chuckled Billy unexpectedly. "No; but, really, I mean—do you want people to walk on tiptoe and speak in whispers?"
The girl sprang to her feet—but she sighed.
"Then I'm going. This might be one of the times, you know." She hesitated, then walked to the piano. "My, wouldn't I like to play on that!" she breathed.
Cyril shuddered. Cyril could imagine what Billy would play—and Cyril did not like "rag-time," nor "The Storm."