Chapter XIV. Aunt Hannah Speaks Her Mind
 

Bertram said that the Strata was not a strata any longer. He declared that between them, Billy and Spunk had caused such an upheaval that there was no telling where one stratum left off and another began. What Billy had not attended to, Spunk had, he said.

"You see, it's like this," he explained to an amused friend one day. "Billy is taking piano lessons of Cyril, and she is posing for one of my heads. Naturally, then, such feminine belongings as fancy-work, thread, thimbles, and hairpins are due to show up at any time either in Cyril's apartments or mine--to say nothing of William's; and she's in William's lots--to look for Spunk, if for no other purpose.

"You must know that Spunk likes William's floor the best of the bunch, there are so many delightful things to play with. Not that Spunk stays there--dear me, no. He's a sociable little chap, and his usual course is to pounce on a shelf, knock off some object that tickles his fancy, then lug it in his mouth to--well, anywhere that he happens to feel like going. Cyril has found him up-stairs with a small miniature, battered and chewed almost beyond recognition. And Aunt Hannah nearly had a fit one day when he appeared in her room with an enormous hard-shelled black bug--dead, of course--that he had fished from a case that Pete had left open. As for me, I can swear that the little round white stone he was playing with in my part of the house was one of William's Collection Number One.

"And that isn't all," Bertram continued. "Billy brings her music down to show to me, and lugs my heads all over the rest of the house to show to other folks. And there is always everywhere a knit shawl, for Aunt Hannah is sure to feel a draught, and Billy keeps shawls handy. So there you are! We certainly aren't a strata any longer," he finished.

Billy was, indeed, very much at home in the Beacon Street house-- too much so, Aunt Hannah thought. Aunt Hannah was, in fact, seriously disturbed. To William one evening, late in May, she spoke her mind.

"William, what are you going to do with Billy?" she asked abruptly.

"Do with her? What do you mean?" returned William with the contented smile that was so often on his lips these days. "This is Billy's home."

"That's the worst of it," sighed the woman, with a shake of her head.

"The worst of it! Aunt Hannah, what do you mean? Don't you like Billy?"

"Yes, yes, William, of course I like Billy. I love her! Who could help it? That's not what I mean. It's of Billy I'm thinking, and of the rest of you. She can't stay here like this. She must go away, to school, or--or somewhere."

"And she's going in September," replied the man. "She'll go to preparatory school first, and to college, probably."

"Yes, but now--right away. She ought to go--somewhere."

"Why, yes, for the summer, of course. But those plans aren't completed yet. Billy and I were talking of it last evening. You know the boys are always away more or less, but I seldom go until August, and we let Pete and Dong Ling off then for a month and close the house. I told Billy I'd send you and her anywhere she liked for the whole summer, but she says no. She prefers to stay here with me. But I don't quite fancy that idea--through all the hot June and July--so I don't know but I'll get a cottage somewhere near at one of the beaches, where I can run back and forth night and morning. Of course, in that case, we take Pete and Dong Ling with us and close the house right away. I fear Cyril would not fancy it much; but, after all, he and Bertram would be off more or less. They always are in the summer."

"But, William, you haven't yet got my idea at all," demurred Aunt Hannah, with a discouraged shake of her head. "It's away!--away from all this--from you--that I want to get Billy."

"Away! Away from me," cried the man, with an odd intonation of terror, as he started forward in his chair. "Why, Aunt Hannah, what are you talking about?"

"About Billy. This is no place in which to bring up a young girl-- a young girl who has not one shred of relationship to excuse it."

"But she is my namesake, and quite alone in the world, Aunt Hannah; quite alone--poor child!"

"My dear William, that is exactly it--she is a child, and yet she is not. That's where the trouble lies."

"What do you mean?"

"William, Billy has been brought up in a little country town with a spinster aunt and a whole good-natured, tolerant village for company. Well, she has accepted you and your entire household, even down to Dong Ling, on the same basis."

"Well, I'm sure I'm glad," asserted the man with genial warmth. "It's good for us to have her here. It's good for the boys. She's already livened Cyril up and toned Bertram down. I may as well confess, Aunt Hannah, that I've been more than a little disturbed about Bertram of late. I don't like that Bob Seaver that he is so fond of; and some other fellows, too, that have been coming here altogether too much during the last year. Bertram says they're only a little 'Bohemian' in their tastes. And to me that's the worst of it, for Bertram himself is quite too much inclined that way."

"Exactly, William. And that only goes to prove what I said before. Bertram is not a spinster aunt, and neither are any of the rest of you. But Billy takes you that way."

"Takes us that way--as spinster aunts!"

"Yes. She makes herself as free in this house as she was in her Aunt Ella's at Hampden Falls. She flies up to Cyril's rooms half a dozen times a day with some question about her lessons; and I don't know how long she'd sit at his feet and adoringly listen to his playing if he didn't sometimes get out of patience and tell her to go and practise herself. She makes nothing of tripping into Bertram's studio at all hours of the day; and he's sketched her head at every conceivable angle--which certainly doesn't tend to make Billy modest or retiring. As to you--you know how much she's in your rooms, spending evening after evening fussing over your collections."

"I know; but we're--we're sorting them and making a catalogue," defended the man, anxiously. "Besides, I--I like to have her there. She doesn't bother me a bit."

"No; I know she doesn't," replied Aunt Hannah, with a curious inflection. "But don't you see, William, that all this isn't going to quite do? Billy's too young--and too old."

"Come, come, Aunt Hannah, is that exactly logical?"

"It's true, at least."

"But, after all, where's the harm? Don't you think that you are just a little bit too--fastidious? Billy's nothing but a care-free child."

"It's the 'free' part that I object to, William. She has taken every one of you into intimate companionship--even Pete and Dong Ling."

"Pete and Dong Ling!"

"Yes." Mrs. Stetson's chin came up, and her nostrils dilated a little. "Billy went to Pete the other day to have him button her shirt-waist up in the back; and yesterday I found her down-stairs in the kitchen instructing Dong Ling how to make chocolate fudge!"

William fell back in his chair.

"Well, well," he muttered, "well, well! She is a child, and no mistake!" He paused, his brows drawn into a troubled frown. "But, Aunt Hannah, what can I do? Of course you could talk to her, but-- I don't seem to quite like that idea."

"My grief and conscience--no, no! That isn't what is needed at all. It would only serve to make her self-conscious; and that's her one salvation now--that she isn't self-conscious. You see, it's only the fault of her environment and training, after all. It isn't her heart that's wrong."

"Indeed it isn't!"

"It will be different when she is older--when she has seen a little more of the world outside Hampden Falls. She'll go to school, of course, and I think she ought to travel a little. Meanwhile, she mustn't live--just like this, though; certainly not for a time, at least."

"No, no, I'm afraid not," agreed William, perplexedly, rising to his feet. "But we must think--what can be done." His step was even slower than usual as he left the room, and his eyes were troubled.