Chapter XX. Billy, the Myth
 

To all appearances it came about very naturally that Billy did not return to America for some time. During the summer she wrote occasionally to William, and gave glowing accounts of their travels. Then in September came the letter telling him that they had concluded to stay through the winter in Paris. Billy wrote that she had decided not to go to college. She would take up some studies there in Paris, she said, but she would devote herself more particularly to her music.

When the next summer came there was still something other than America to claim her attention: the Calderwells had invited her to cruise with them for three months. Their yacht was a little floating palace of delight, Billy declared, not to mention the charm of the unknown lands and waters that she and Aunt Hannah would see.

Of all this Billy wrote to William--at occasional intervals--but she did not come home. Even when the next autumn came, there was still Paris to detain her for another long winter of study.

In the Henshaw house on Beacon Street, William mourned not a little as each recurring season brought no Billy.

"The idea! It's just as if one didn't have a namesake!" he fumed.

"Well, did you have one?" Bertram demanded one day. "Really, Will, I'm beginning to think she's a myth. Long years ago, from the first of April till June we did have two frolicsome sprites here that announced themselves as 'Billy' and 'Spunk,' I'll own. And a year later, by ways devious and secret, we three managed to see the one called 'Billy' off on a great steamship. Since then, what? A word--a message--a scrap of paper. Billy's a myth, I say!"

William sighed.

"Sometimes I don't know but you are right," he admitted. "Why, it'll be three years next June since Billy was here. She must be nearly twenty-one--and we know almost nothing about her."

"That's so. I wonder--" Bertram paused, and laughed a little, "I wonder if now she'd play guardian angel to me through the streets of Boston."

William threw a keen glance into his brother's face.

"I don't believe it would be quite necessary, now, Bert," he said quietly.

The other flushed a little, but his eyes softened.

"Maybe not, Will; still--one can always find some use for--a guardian angel, you know," he finished, almost under his breath.

To Cyril Bertram had occasionally spoken, during the last two years, of their first suspicions concerning Billy's absence. They speculated vaguely, too, as to why she had gone, and if she would ever come back; and they wondered if anything could have wounded her and sent her away. To William they said nothing of all this, however; though they agreed that they would have asked Kate for her opinion, had she been there. But Kate was not there. As it chanced, a good business opportunity had called Kate's husband to a Western town very soon after Billy herself had gone to Hampden Falls; and since the family's removal to the West, Mrs. Hartwell had not once returned to Boston.

It was in April, three years since Billy's first appearance in the Beacon Street house, that Bertram met his friend, Hugh Calderwell, on the street one afternoon, and brought him home to dinner.

Hugh Calderwell was a youth who, Bertram said, had been born with a whole dozen silver spoons in his mouth. And, indeed, it would seem so, if present prosperity were any indication. He was a good- looking young fellow with a frank manliness that appealed to men, and a deferential chivalry that appealed to women; a combination that brought him many friends--and some enemies. With plenty of money to indulge a passion for traveling, young Calderwell had spent the most of his time since graduation in daring trips into the heart of almost impenetrable forests, or to the top of almost inaccessible mountains, with an occasional more ordinary trip to give variety. He had now come to the point, however, where he was determined to "settle down to something that meant something," he told the Henshaws, as the four men smoked in Bertram's den after dinner.

"Yes, sir, I have," he iterated. "And, by the way, the little girl that has set me to thinking in such good earnest is a friend of yours, too,--Miss Neilson. I met her in Paris. She was on our yacht all last summer."

Three men sat suddenly erect in their chairs.

"Billy?" cried three voices. "Do you know Billy?"

"To be sure! And you do, too, she says."

"Oh, no, we don't," disputed Bertram, emphatically. "But we wish we did!"

His guest laughed.

"Well, I fancy you do know her, or you wouldn't have answered like that," he retorted. "For you just begin to know Miss Billy when you find out that you don't know her. She is a charming girl--a very charming girl."

"She is my namesake," announced William, in what Bertram called his "finest ever" voice that he used only for the choicest bits in his collections.

"Yes, she told me," smiled Calderwell. "'Billy' for 'William.' Odd idea, too, but clever. It helps to distinguish her even more-- though she doesn't need it, for that matter."

"'Doesn't need it,'" echoed William in a puzzled voice.

"No. Perhaps you don't know, Mr. Henshaw, but Miss Billy is a very popular young woman. You have reason to be proud of your namesake."

"I have always been that," declared William, with just a touch of hauteur.

"Tell us about her," begged Bertram. "You remember I said that we wished we did know her."

Calderwell smiled.

"I don't believe, after all, that you do know much about her," he began musingly. "Billy is not one who talks much of herself, I fancy, in her letters."

William frowned. This time there was more than a touch of hauteur in his voice.

"Miss Neilson is not one to show vanity anywhere," he said, with suggestive emphasis on the name.

"Indeed she isn't," agreed Calderwell, heartily. "She is a fine girl--quite one of the finest I know, in fact."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Over in the corner Cyril puffed at his cigar with an air almost of boredom. He had not spoken since his first surprised questioning with the others, "Do you know Billy?" William was still frowning. Even Bertram wore a look that was not quite satisfied.

"Miss Neilson has spent two winters in Paris now, you know," resumed Calderwell, after a moment; "and she is very popular both with the American colony, and with the other students. As for her 'Aunt Hannah'--they all make a pet of her; but that is, perhaps, because Billy herself is so devoted."

Again William frowned at the familiar "Billy"; but Calderwell talked on unheeding.

"After all, I'm not sure but some of us regard 'Aunt Hannah' with scant favor, occasionally," he laughed; "something as if she were the dragon that guarded the princess, you know. Miss Billy is popular with the men, and she has suitors enough to turn any girl's head--but her own."

"Suitors!" cried William, plainly aghast. "Why, Billy's nothing but a child!"

Calderwell gave an odd smile.

"How long is it since you've seen--Miss Neilson?" he asked.

"Two years."

"And then only for a few minutes just before she sailed," amended Bertram. "We haven't really seen much of her since three years ago."

"Hm-m; well, you'll see for yourself soon. You know she's coming home next month."

Not one of the brothers did know it--but not one of them intended that Calderwell should find out that they did not.

"Yes, she's coming home," said William, lifting his chin a little.

"Oh, yes, next month," added Bertram, nonchalantly.

Even Cyril across the room was not to be outdone.

"Yes. Miss Neilson comes home next month," he said.