Chapter XVII. A Pink-Ribbon Trail
 

Mrs. Stetson wore an air of unmistakable relief as she stepped into William's sitting-room. Even her knock at the half-open door had sounded almost triumphant.

"William, it does seem as if Fate itself had intervened to help us out," she began delightedly. "Billy, of her own accord, came to me this morning, and said that she wanted to go away with me for a little trip. So you see that will make it easier for us."

"Good! That is fortunate, indeed," cried William; but his voice did not carry quite the joy that his words expressed. "I have been disturbed ever since your remarks the other day," he continued wearily; "and of course her extraordinary escapade the next evening did not help matters any. It is better, I know, that she shouldn't be here--for a time. Though I shall miss her terribly. But, tell me, what is it--what does she want to do?"

"She says she guesses she is homesick for Hampden Falls; that she'd like to go back there for a few weeks this summer if I'll go with her. The--the dear child seems suddenly to have taken a great fancy to me," explained Aunt Hannah, unsteadily. "I never saw her so affectionate."

"She is a dear girl--a very dear girl; and she has a warm heart." William cleared his throat sonorously, but even that did not clear his voice. "It was her heart that led her wrong the other night," he declared. "Hers was a brave and fearless act--but a very unwise one. Much as I deplore Bertram's intimacy with Seaver, I should hesitate to take the course marked out by Billy. Bertram is not a child. But tell me more of this trip of yours. How did Billy happen to suggest it?"

"I don't know. I noticed yesterday that she seemed strangely silent--unhappy, in fact. She sat alone in her room the greater part of the day, and I could not get her out of it. But this morning she came to my door as bright as the sun itself and made me the proposition I told you of. She says her aunt's house is closed, awaiting its sale; but that she would like to open it for awhile this summer, if I'd like to go. Naturally, you can understand that I'd very quickly fall in with a plan like that-- one which promised so easily to settle our difficulties."

"Yes, of course, of course," muttered William. "It is very fine, very fine indeed," he concluded. And again his voice failed quite to match his words in enthusiasm.

"Then I'll go and begin to see to my things," murmured Mrs. Stetson, rising to her feet. "Billy seems anxious to get away."

Billy did, indeed, seem anxious to get away. She announced her intended departure at once to the family. She called it a visit to her old home, and she seemed very glad in her preparations. If there was anything forced in this gayety, no one noticed it, or at least, no one spoke of it. The family saw very little of Billy, indeed, these days. She said that she was busy; that she had packing to do. She stopped taking lessons of Cyril, and visited Bertram's studio only once during the whole three days before she went away, and then merely to get some things that belonged to her. On the fourth day, almost before the family realized what was happening, she was gone; and with her had gone Mrs. Stetson and Spunk.

The family said they liked it--the quiet, the freedom. They said they liked to be alone--all but William. He said nothing.

And yet--

When Bertram went to his studio that morning he did not pick up his brushes until he had sat for long minutes before the sketch of a red-cheeked, curly-headed young girl whose eyes held a peculiarly wistful appeal; and Cyril, at his piano up-stairs, sat with idle fingers until they finally drifted into a simple little melody--the last thing Billy had been learning.

It was Pete who brought in the kitten; and Billy had been gone a whole week then.

"The poor little beast was cryin' at the alleyway door, sir," he explained. "I--I made so bold as to bring him in."

"Of course," said William. "Did you feed it?"

"Yes, sir; Ling did."

There was a pause, then Pete spoke, diffidently.

"I thought, sir, if ye didn't mind, I'd keep it. I'll try to see that it stays down-stairs, sir, out of yer way."

"That's all right, Pete; keep it, by all means, by all means," approved William.

"Thank ye, sir. Ye see, it's a stray. It hasn't got any home. And, did ye notice, sir? it looks like Spunk."

"Yes, I noticed," said William, stirring with sudden restlessness. "I noticed."

"Yes, sir," said Pete. And he turned and carried the small gray cat away.

The new kitten did not stay down-stairs. Pete tried, it is true, to keep his promise to watch it; but after he had seen the little animal carried surreptitiously up-stairs in Mr. William's arms, he relaxed his vigilance. Some days later the kitten appeared with a huge pink bow behind its ears, somewhat awkwardly tied, if it must be confessed. Where it came from, or who put it there was not known--until one day the kitten was found in the hall delightedly chewing at the end of what had been a roll of pink ribbon. Up the stairs led a trail of pink ribbon and curling white paper--and the end of the trail was in William's room.