Chapter XVIII. Billy Writes Another Letter
 

By the middle of June only William and the gray kitten were left with Pete and Dong Ling in the Beacon Street house. Cyril had sailed for England, and Bertram had gone on a sketching trip with a friend.

To William the house this summer was unusually lonely; indeed, he found the silent, deserted rooms almost unbearable. Even the presence of the little gray cat served only to accentuate the loneliness--it reminded him of Billy.

William missed Billy. He owned that now even to Pete. He said that he would be glad when she came back. To himself he said that he wished he had not fallen in quite so readily with Aunt Hannah's notion of getting the child away. It was all nonsense, he declared. All she needed was a little curbing and directing, both of which could just as well have been done there at home. But she had gone, and it could not be helped now. The only thing left for him to do was to see that it did not occur again. When Billy came back she should stay, except for necessary absences for school, of course. All this William settled in his own mind quite to his own satisfaction, entirely forgetting, strange to say, that it had been Billy's own suggestion that she go away.

Very promptly William wrote to Billy. He told her how he missed her, and said that he had stopped trying to sort and catalogue his collections until she should be there to help him. He told her, too, after a time, of the gray kitten, "Spunkie," that looked so much like Spunk.

In reply he received plump white envelopes directed in the round, schoolboy hand that he remembered so well. In the envelopes were letters, cheery and entertaining, like Billy herself. They thanked him for all his many kindnesses, and they told him something of what Billy was doing. They showed unbounded interest in the new kitten, and in all else that William wrote about; but they hinted very plainly that he had better not wait for her to help him out on the catalogue, for it would soon be autumn, and she would be in school.

William frowned at this, and shook his head; yet he knew that it was true.

In August William closed the Beacon street house and went to the Rangeley Lakes on a camping trip. He told himself that he would not go had it not been for a promise given to an old college friend months before. True, he had been anticipating this trip all winter; but it occurred to him now that it would be much more interesting to go to Hampden Falls and see Billy. He had been to the Rangeley Lakes, and he had not been to Hampden Falls; besides, there would be Ned Harding and those queer old maids with their shaded house and socketed chairs to see. In short, to William, at the moment, there seemed no place quite so absorbingly interesting as was Hampden Falls. But he went to the Rangeley Lakes.

In September Cyril came back from Europe, and Bertram from the Adirondacks where he had been spending the month of August. William already had arrived, and with Pete and Dong Ling had opened the house.

"Where's Billy? Isn't Billy here?" demanded Bertram.

"No. She isn't back yet," replied William.

"You don't mean to say she's stayed up there all summer!" exclaimed Cyril.

"Why, yes, I--I suppose so," hesitated William. "You see, I haven't heard but once for a month. I've been down in Maine, you know."

William wrote to Billy that night.

"My dear:--" he said in part. "I hope you'll come home right away. We want to see something of you before you go away again, and you know the schools will be opening soon.

"By the way, it has just occurred to me as I write that perhaps, after all, you won't have to go quite away. There are plenty of good schools for young ladies right in and near Boston, which I am sure you could attend, and still live at home. Suppose you come back then as soon as you can, and we'll talk it up. And that reminds me, I wonder how Spunk will get along with Spunkie. Spunkie has been boarding out all August at a cat home, but he seems glad to get back to us. I am anxious to see the two little chaps together, just to find out how much alike they really do look."

Very promptly came Billy's answer; but William's face, after he had read the letter, was almost as blank as it had been on that April day when Billy's first letter came--though this time for a far different reason.

"Why, boys, she--isn't--coming," he announced in dismay.

"Isn't coming!" ejaculated two astonished Voices.

"No."

"Not--at--all?"

"Why, of course, later," retorted William, with unwonted sharpness. "But not now. This is what she says." And he read aloud:

"DEAR UNCLE WILLIAM:--You poor dear man! Did you think I'd really let you spend your time and your thought over hunting up a school for me, after all the rest you have done for me? Not a bit of it! Why, Aunt Hannah and I have been buried under school catalogues all summer, and I have studied them all until I know just which has turkey dinners on Sundays, and which ice cream at least twice a week. And it's all settled, too, long ago. I'm going to a girls' school up the Hudson a little way--a lovely place, I'm sure, from the pictures of it.

"Oh, and another thing; I shall go right from here. Two girls at Hampden Falls are going, and I shall go with them. Isn't that a fine chance for me? You see it would never do, anyway, for me to go alone--me, a 'Billy'--unless I sent a special courier ahead to announce that 'Billy' was a girl.

"Aunt Hannah has decided to stay here this winter in the old house. She likes it ever so much, and I don't think I shall sell the place just yet, anyway. She will go back, of course, to Boston (after I've gone) to get some things at the house that she'll want, and also to do some shopping. But she'll let you know when she'll be there.

"I'll write more later, but just now I'm in a terrible rush. I only write this note to set your poor heart at rest about having to hunt up a school for me.

"With love to all,

"BILLY."

As had happened once before after a letter from Billy had been read, there was a long pause.

"Well, by Jove!" breathed Bertram.

"It's very sensible, I'm sure," declared Cyril. "Still, I must confess, I would have liked to pick out her piano teacher for her."

William said nothing--perhaps because he was reading Billy's letter again.

At eight o'clock that night Bertram tapped on Cyril's door.

"What's the trouble?" demanded Cyril in answer to the look on the other's face.

Bertram lifted his eyebrows oddly.

"I'm not sure whether you'll call it 'trouble' or not," he replied; "but I think it's safe to say that Billy is gone--for good."

"For good! What do you mean?--that she's not coming back--ever?"

"Exactly that."

"Nonsense! What's put that notion into your head?"

"Billy's letter first; after that, Pete."

"Pete!"

"Yes. He came to me a few minutes ago, looking as if he had seen a ghost. It seems he swept Billy's rooms this morning and put them in order against her coming; and tonight William told him that she wouldn't be here at present. Pete came straight to me. He said he didn't dare tell Mr. William, but he'd got to tell some one: there wasn't one single thing of Miss Billy's left in her rooms nor anywhere else in the house--not so much as a handkerchief or a hairpin."

"Hm-m; that does look--suspicious," murmured Cyril. "What's up, do you think?"

"Don't know; but something, sure. Still, of course we may be wrong. We won't say anything to Will about it, anyhow. Poor old chap, 'twould worry him, specially if he thought Billy's feelings had been hurt."

"Hurt?--nonsense! Why, we did everything for her--everything!"

"Yes, I know--and she tried to do everything for us, too," retorted Bertram, quizzically, as he turned away.