Chapter X. Aunt Hannah
 

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.

Bertram grinned.

"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!"