Chapter XIX. Seeing Billy Off
 

Early in October Mrs. Stetson arrived at the Beacon Street house, but she did not stay long.

"I've come for just a few things I want, and to do some shopping," she explained.

"But Aunt Hannah," remonstrated William, "what is the meaning of this? Why are you staying up there at Hampden Falls?"

"I like it there, William; and why shouldn't I stay? Surely there's no need for me to be here now, with Billy away!"

"But Billy's coming back!"

"Of course she's coming back," laughed Aunt Hannah, "but not this winter, certainly. Why, William, what's the matter? I'm sure, I think it's a beautiful arrangement. Why, don't you remember? It's just what we said we wanted--to keep Billy away for awhile. And the best part of it is, it's her own idea from the start."

"Yes, I know, I know," frowned William: "but I'm not sure, after all, that that idea of ours wasn't a mistake,--a mistake that she needed to get away."

"Never! We were just right about it," declared Aunt Hannah, with conviction.

"And is Billy--happy?"

"She seems to be."

"Hm-m; well, that's good," said William, as he turned to go up to his room. But as he climbed the stairs he sighed; and to hear him, one would have thought it anything but good to him--that Billy was happy.

One by one the weeks passed. Mrs. Stetson had long since gone back to Hampden Falls; and Bertram said that the Strata was beginning to look natural again. There remained now, indeed, only Spunkie, the small gray cat, to remind any one of the days that were gone-- though, to be sure, there were Billy's letters, if they might be called a reminder.

Billy did not write often. She said that she was "too busy to breathe." Such letters as did come from her were addressed to William, though they soon came to be claimed by the entire family. Bertram and Cyril frankly demanded that William read them aloud; and even Pete always contrived to have some dusting or "puttering" within earshot--a subterfuge quite well understood, but never reproved by any of the brothers.

When the Christmas vacation drew near, William wrote that he hoped Billy and Aunt Hannah would spend it with them; but Billy answered that although she appreciated their kindness and thanked them for it, yet she must decline their invitation, as she had already invited several of the girls to go home with her to Hampden Falls for a country Christmas.

For the Easter vacation William was even more insistent--but so was Billy: she had already accepted an invitation to go home with one of the girls, and she did not think it would be at all polite to change her plans now.

William fretted not a little. Even Cyril and Bertram said that it was "too bad"; that they themselves would like to see the girl--so they would!

It was in the spring, at the close of school, however, that the heaviest blow fell: Billy was not coming to Boston even then. She wrote that she and Aunt Hannah were going to "run across the water for a little trip through the British Isles"; and that their passage was already engaged.

"And so you see," she explained, "I shall not have a minute to spare. There'll be only time to skip home for Aunt Hannah, and to pack the trunks before it'll be time to start."

Bertram looked at Cyril significantly when this letter was read aloud; and afterward he muttered in Cyril's ear:

"You see! It's Hampden Falls she calls 'home' now--not the Strata."

"Yes, I see," frowned Cyril. "It does look suspicious."

Two days before the date of Billy's expected sailing, William announced at the breakfast table that he was going away on business; might be gone until the end of the week.

"You don't say," commented Bertram. "I'M going to-morrow, but I'm coming back in a couple of days."

"Hm-m;" murmured William, abstractedly. "Oh, well, I may be back before the end of the week."

Only one meal did Cyril eat alone after his brothers had gone; then he told Pete that he had decided to take the night boat for New York. There was a little matter that called him there, he said, and he believed the trip by water would be a pleasure, the night was so fine and warm.

In New York Cyril had little trouble in finding Billy, as he knew the steamship she was to take.

"I thought as long as I was in New York to-day I'd just come and say good-by to you and Aunt Hannah," he informed her, with an evident aim toward making his presence appear to be casual.

"That was good of you!" exclaimed Billy. "And how are Uncle William and Mr. Bertram?"

"Very well, I fancy, though they weren't there when I left," replied the man.

"Oh!--gone away?"

"Yes. A little matter of business they said; but--well, by Jove!" he broke off, his gaze on a familiar figure hurrying at that moment toward them. "There's William now!"

William, with no eyes but for Billy, came rapidly forward.

"Well, well, Billy! I thought as long as I happened to be in New York to-day I'd just run down to the boat and see you and Aunt Hannah off, and wish-- Cyril! Where did you come from?"

Billy laughed.

"He just happened to be in town, too, Uncle William, like you," she explained. "And I'm sure I think it's lovely of you to be so kind. Aunt Hannah'll be up right away. She went down to the stateroom to--" This time it was Billy who stopped abruptly. The two men facing her could not see what she saw, and not until their brother Bertram's merry greeting fell on their ears did they understand her sudden silence.

"And is this the way you meant to run away from us, young lady?" cried Bertram. "Not so fast! You see, I happened to be in New York this morning, and so I--" Something in Billy's face sent a pause to his words just as his eyes spied the two men at the girl's side. For a moment he stared dumbly; then he gave a merry gesture of defeat.

"It's all up! I might as well confess. I've been planning this thing for three weeks, Billy, ever since your letter came, in fact. As for my two fellow-sinners here, I'll wager they weren't two days behind me in their planning. So now, own up, boys!"

William and Cyril, however, did not have to "own up." Mrs. Stetson appeared at the moment and created, for them, a very welcome diversion.

Long minutes later, when the good-byes had become nothing but a flutter of white handkerchiefs from deck to shore, and shore to deck, William drew a long sigh.

"That's a nice little girl, boys, a nice little girl!" he exclaimed. "I declare! I didn't suppose I'd mind so much her going so far away."