Miss Billy by Eleanor H. Porter
Chapter II. "The Strata"
Bertram Henshaw called the Beacon Street home "The Strata." This annoyed Cyril, and even William, not a little; though they reflected that, after all, it was "only Bertram." For the whole of Bertram's twenty-four years of life it had been like this--"It's only Bertram," had been at once the curse and the salvation of his existence.
In this particular case, however, Bertram's vagary of fancy had some excuse. The Beacon Street house, the home of the three brothers, was a "Strata."
"You see, it's like this," Bertram would explain airily to some new acquaintance who expressed surprise at the name; "if I could slice off the front of the house like a loaf of cake, you'd understand it better. But just suppose that old Bunker Hill should suddenly spout fire and brimstone and bury us under tons of ashes--only fancy the condition of mind of those future archaeologists when they struck our house after their months of digging!
"What would they find? Listen. First: stratum number one, the top floor; that's Cyril's, you know. They'd note the bare floors, the sparse but heavy furniture, the piano, the violin, the flute, the book-lined walls, and the absence of every sort of curtain, cushion, or knickknack. 'Here lived a plain man,' they'd say; 'a scholar, a musician, stern, unloved and unloving; a monk.'
"And what next? They'd strike William's stratum next, the third floor. Imagine it! You know William as a State Street broker, well-off, a widower, tall, angular, slow of speech, a little bald, very much nearsighted, and the owner of the kindest heart in the world. But really to know William, you must know his rooms. William collects things. He has always collected things--and he's saved every one of them. There's a tradition that at the age of one year he crept into the house with four small round white stones. Anyhow, if he did, he's got them now. Rest assured of that--and he's forty this year. Miniatures, carved ivories, bugs, moths, porcelains, jades, stamps, postcards, spoons, baggage tags, theatre programs, playing-cards--there isn't anything that he doesn't collect. He's on teapots, now. Imagine it--William and teapots! And they're all there in his rooms--one glorious mass of confusion. Just fancy those archaeologists trying to make their 'monk' live there!
"But when they reach me, my stratum, they'll have a worse time yet. You see, I like cushions and comfort, and I have them everywhere. And I like--well, I like lots of things. My rooms don't belong to that monk, not a little bit. And so you see," Bertram would finish merrily, "that's why I call it all 'The Strata.'"
And "The Strata" it was to all the Henshaws' friends, and even to William and Cyril themselves, in spite of their objection to the term.
From babyhood the Henshaw boys had lived in the handsome, roomy house, facing the Public Garden. It had been their father's boyhood home, as well, and he and his wife had died there, soon after Kate, the only daughter, had married. At the age of twenty- two, William Henshaw, the eldest son, had brought his bride to the house, and together they had striven to make a home for the two younger orphan boys, Cyril, twelve, and Bertram, six. But Mrs. William, after a short five years of married life, had died; and since then, the house had known almost nothing of a woman's touch or care.
Little by little as the years passed, the house and its inmates had fallen into what had given Bertram his excuse for the name. Cyril, thirty years old now, dignified, reserved, averse to cats, dogs, women, and confusion, had early taken himself and his music to the peace and exclusiveness of the fourth floor. Below him, William had long discouraged any meddling with his precious chaos of possessions, and had finally come to spend nearly all his spare time among them. This left Bertram to undisputed ownership of the second floor, and right royally did he hold sway there with his paints and brushes and easels, his old armor, rich hangings, rugs, and cushions, and everywhere his specialty--his "Face of a Girl." From canvas, plaque, and panel they looked out--those girlish faces: winsome, wilful, pert, demure, merry, sad, beautiful, even almost ugly--they were all there; and they were growing famous, too. The world of art was beginning to take notice, and to adjust its spectacles for a more critical glance. This "Face of a Girl" by Henshaw bade fair to be worth while.
Below Bertram's cheery second floor were the dim old library and drawing-rooms, silent, stately, and almost never used; and below them were the dining-room and the kitchen. Here ruled Dong Ling, the Chinese cook, and Pete.
Pete was--indeed, it is hard telling what Pete was. He said he was the butler; and he looked the part when he answered the bell at the great front door. But at other times, when he swept a room, or dusted Master William's curios, he looked--like nothing so much as what he was: a fussy, faithful old man, who expected to die in the service he had entered fifty years before as a lad.
Thus in all the Beacon Street house, there had not for years been the touch of a woman's hand. Even Kate, the married sister, had long since given up trying to instruct Dong Ling or to chide Pete, though she still walked across the Garden from her Commonwealth Avenue home and tripped up the stairs to call in turn upon her brothers, Bertram, William, and Cyril.