Chapter XVI. Kate Takes a Hand
 

Undeniably Billy was in disgrace, and none knew it better than Billy herself. The whole family had contributed to this knowledge. Aunt Hannah was inexpressibly shocked; she had not breath even to ejaculate "My grief and conscience!" Kate was disgusted; Cyril was coldly reserved; Bertram was frankly angry; even William was vexed, and showed it. Spunk, too, as if in league with the rest, took this opportunity to display one of his occasional fits of independence; and when Billy, longing for some sort of comfort, called him to her, he settled back on his tiny haunches and imperturbably winked and blinked his indifference.

Nearly all the family had had something to say to Billy on the matter, with not entirely satisfactory results, when Kate determined to see what she could do. She chose a time when she could have the girl quite to herself with small likelihood of interruption.

"But, Billy, how could you do such an absurd thing?" she demanded. "The idea of leaving my house alone, at half-past ten at night, to follow a couple of men through the streets of Boston, and then with my brothers' butler make a scene like that in a--a public dining- room!"

Billy sighed in a discouraged way.

"Aunt Kate, can't I make you and the rest of them understand that I didn't start out to do all that? I meant just to speak to Mr. Bertram, and get him away from that man."

"But, my dear child, even that was bad enough!"

Billy lifted her chin.

"You don't seem to think, Aunt Kate; Mr. Bertram was--was not sober."

"All the more reason then why you should not have done what you did!"

"Why, Aunt Kate, you wouldn't leave him alone in that condition with that man!"

It was Mrs. Hartwell's turn to sigh.

"But, Billy," she contested, wearily, "can't you understand that it wasn't your place to interfere--you, a young girl?"

"I'm sure I don't see what difference that makes. I was the only one that could do it! Besides, afterward, I did try to get some one else, Uncle William and Mr. Cyril. But when I found I couldn't get them, I just had to do it alone--that is, with Pete."

"Pete!" scoffed Mrs. Hartwell. "Pete, indeed!"

Billy's head came up with a jerk. Billy was very angry now.

"Aunt Kate, it seems I've done a very terrible thing, but I'm sure I don't see it that way. I wasn't afraid, and I wasn't in the least bit of danger anywhere. I knew my way perfectly, and I did not make any 'scene' in that restaurant. I just asked Mr. Bertram to come home with me. One would think you wanted Mr. Bertram to go off with that man and--and drink too much. But Uncle William hasn't liked him before, not one bit! I've heard him talk about him--that Mr. Seaver."

Mrs. Hartwell raised both her hands, palms outward.

"Billy, it is useless to talk with you. You are quite impossible. It is even worse than I expected!" she cried, with wrathful impatience.

"Worse than you--expected? What do you mean, please?"

"Worse than I thought it would be--before you came. The idea of those five men taking a girl to bring up!"

Billy sat very still. She was even holding her breath, though Mrs. Hartwell did not know that.

"You mean--that they did not--want me?" she asked quietly, so quietly that Mrs. Hartwell did not realize the sudden tension behind the words. For that matter, Mrs. Hartwell was too angry now to realize anything outside of herself.

"Want you! Billy, it is high time that you understand just how things are, and have been, at the house; then perhaps you will conduct yourself with an eye a little more to other people's comfort. Can you imagine three young men like my brothers wanting to take a strange young woman into their home to upset everything?"

"To--upset--everything!" echoed Billy, faintly. "And have I done-- that?"

"Of course you have! How could you help it? To begin with, they thought you were a boy, and that was bad enough; but William was so anxious to do right by his dead friend that he insisted upon taking you, much against the will of all the rest of us. Oh, I know this isn't pleasant for you to hear," admitted Mrs. Hartwell, in response to the dismayed expression in Billy's eyes; "but I think it's high time you realize something of what those men have sacrificed for you. Now, to resume. When they found you were a girl, what did they do? Did they turn you over to some school or such place, as they should have done? Certainly not! William would not hear of it. He turned Bertram out of his rooms, put you into them, and established Aunt Hannah as chaperon and me as substitute until she arrived. But because, through it all, he smiled blandly, you have been blind to the whole thing.

"And what is the result? His entire household routine is shattered to atoms. You have accepted the whole house as if it were your own. You take Cyril's time to teach you music, and Bertram's to teach you painting, without a thought of what it means to them. There! I suppose I ought not to have said all this, but I couldn't help it, Billy. And surely now, now you appreciate a little more what your coming to this house has meant, and what my brothers have done for you."

"I do, certainly," said Billy, still in that voice that was so oddly smooth and emotionless.

"And you'll try to be more tractable, less headstrong, less assertive of your presence?"

The girl sprang to her feet now.

"More tractable! Less assertive of my presence!" she cried. "Mrs. Hartwell, do you mean to say you think I'd stay after what you've told me?"

"Stay? Why, of course you'll stay! Don't be silly, child. I didn't tell you this to make you go. I only wanted you to understand how things were--and are."

"And I do understand--and I'm going."

Mrs. Hartwell frowned. Her face changed color.

"Come, come, Billy, this is nonsense. William wants you here. He would never forgive me if anything I said should send you away. You must not be angry with, him."

Billy turned now like an enraged little tigress.

"Angry with him! Why, I love him--I love them all! They are the dearest men ever, and they've been so good to me!" The girl's voice broke a little, then went on with a more determined ring. "Do you think I'd have them know why I'm going?--that I'd hurt them like that? Never!"

"But, Billy, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know. I've got to plan it out. I only know now that I'm going, sure!" And with a choking little cry Billy ran from the room.

In her own chamber a minute later the tears fell unrestrained.

"It's home--all the home there is--anywhere!" she sobbed. "But it's got to go--it's got to go!"