Chapter XXI. Billy, the Reality
 

Very early in May came the cheery letter from Billy herself announcing the news of her intended return.

"And I shall be so glad to see you all," she wrote in closing. "It seems so long since I left America." Then she signed her name with "kindest regards to all"--Billy did not send "love to all" any more.

William at once began to make plans for his namesake's comfort.

"But, Will, she didn't say she was coming here," Bertram reminded him.

"She didn't need to," smiled William, confidently. "She just took it for granted, of course. This is her home."

"But it hasn't been--for years. She's called Hampden Falls 'home.'"

"I know, but that was before," demurred William, his eyes a little anxious. "Besides, they've sold the house now, you know. There's nowhere for her to go but here, Bertram."

"All right," acquiesced the younger man, still doubtingly. "Maybe that's so; maybe! But--" he did not finish his sentence, and his eyes were troubled as he watched his brother begin to rearrange Billy's rooms. In time, however, so sure was William of Billy's return to the Beacon Street house, that Bertram ceased to question; and, with almost as much confidence as William himself displayed, he devoted his energies to the preparations for Billy's arrival.

And what preparations they were! Even Cyril helped this time to the extent of placing on Billy's piano a copy of his latest book, and a pile of new music. Nor were the melodies that floated down from the upper floor akin to funeral marches; they were perilously near to being allied to "ragtime."

At last everything was ready. There was not one more bit of dust to catch Pete's eye, nor one more adornment that demanded William's careful hand to adjust. In Billy's rooms new curtains graced the windows and new rugs the floors. In Mrs. Stetson's, too, similar changes had been made. The latest and best "Face of a Girl" smiled at one from above Billy's piano, and the very rarest of William's treasures adorned the mantelpiece. No guns nor knives nor fishing- rods met the eyes now. Instead, at every turn, there was a hint of feminine tastes: a mirror, a workbasket, a low sewing-chair, a stand with a tea tray. And everywhere were roses, up-stairs and down-stairs, until the air was heavy with their perfume. In the dining-room Pete was again "swinging back and forth like a pendulum," it is true; but it was a cheerful pendulum to-day, anxious only that no time should be lost. In the kitchen alone was there unhappiness, and there because Dong Ling had already spoiled a whole cake of chocolate in a vain attempt to make Billy's favorite fudge. Even Spunkie, grown now to be sleek, lazy, and majestically indifferent, was in holiday attire, for a brand-new pink bow of huge dimensions adorned his fat neck--for the first time in many months.

"You see," William had explained to Bertram, "I put on that ribbon again because I thought it would make Spunkie seem more homelike, and more like Spunk. You know there wasn't anything Billy missed so much as that kitten when she went abroad. Aunt Hannah said so."

"Yes, I know," Bertram had laughed; "but still, Spunkie isn't Spunk, you understand!" he had finished, with a vision in his eyes of Billy as she had looked that first night when she had triumphantly lifted from the green basket the little gray kitten with its enormous pink bow. This time there was no circuitous journeying, no secrecy in the trip to New York. Quite as a matter of course the three brother made their plans to meet Billy, and quite as a matter of course they met her. Perhaps the only cloud in the horizon of their happiness was the presence of Calderwell. He, too, had come to meet Billy--and all the Henshaw brothers were vaguely conscious of a growing feeling of dislike toward Calderwell.

Billy was unmistakably glad to see them--and to see Calderwell. It was while she was talking to Calderwell, indeed, that William and Cyril and Bertram had an opportunity really to see the girl, and to note what time had done for her. They knew then, at once, that time had been very kind.

It was a slim Billy that they saw, with a head royally poised, and a chin that was round and soft, and yet knew well its own mind. The eyes were still appealing, in a way, yet behind the appeal lay unsounded depths of--not one of the brothers could quite make up his mind just what, yet all the brothers determined to find out. The hair still curled distractingly behind the pretty ears, and fluffed into burnished bronze where the wind had loosened it. The cheeks were paler now, though the rose-flush still glowed warmly through the clear, smooth skin. The mouth--Billy's mouth had always been fascinating, Bertram suddenly decided, as he watched it now. He wanted to paint it--again. It was not too large for beauty nor too small for strength. It curved delightfully, and the lower lip had just the fullness and the color that he liked--to paint, he said to himself.

William, too, was watching Billy's mouth; in fact--though he did not know it--one never was long near Billy without noticing her mouth, if she talked. William thought it pretty, merry, and charmingly kissable; but just now he wished that it would talk to him, and not to Calderwell any longer. Cyril--indeed, Cyril was paying little attention to Billy. He had turned to Aunt Hannah. To tell the truth, it seemed to Cyril that, after all, Billy was very much like other merry, thoughtless, rather noisy young women, of whom he knew--and disliked--scores. It had occurred to him suddenly that perhaps it would not be unalloyed bliss to take this young namesake of William's home with them.

It was not until an hour later, when Billy, Aunt Hannah, and the Henshaws had reached the hotel where they were to spend the night, that the Henshaw brothers began really to get acquainted with Billy. She seemed then more like their own Billy--the Billy that they had known.

"And I'm so glad to be here," she cried; "and to see you all. America is the best place, after all!"

"And of America, Boston is the Hub, you know," Bertram reminded her.

"It is," nodded Billy.

"And it hasn't changed a mite, except to grow better. You'll see to-morrow."

"As if I hadn't been counting the days!" she exulted. "And now what have you been doing--all of you?"

"Just wait till you see," laughed Bertram. "They're all spread out for your inspection."

"A new 'Face of a Girl'?"

"Of course--yards of them!"

"And heaps of 'Old Blues' and 'black basalts'?" she questioned, turning to William.

"Well, a--few," hesitated William, modestly.

"And--the music; what of that?" Billy looked now at Cyril.

"You'll see," he shrugged. "There's very little, after all--of anything."

Billy gave a wise shake of her head.

"I know better; and I want to see it all so much. We've talked and talked of it; haven't we, Aunt Hannah?--of what we would do when we got to Boston?"

"Yes, my dear; you have."

The girl laughed.

"I accept the amendment," she retorted with mock submission. "I suppose it is always I who talk."

"It was--when I painted you," teased Bertram. "By the way, I'll let you talk if you'll pose again for me," he finished eagerly.

Billy uptilted her nose.

"Do you think, sir, you deserve it, after that speech?" she demanded.

"But how about your art--your music?" entreated William. "You have said so little of that in your letters."

Billy hesitated. For a brief moment she glanced at Cyril. He did not appear to have heard his brother's question. He was talking with Aunt Hannah.

"Oh, I play--some," murmured the girl, almost evasively. "But tell me of yourself, Uncle William, and of what you are doing." And William needed no second bidding.

It was some time later that Billy turned to him with an amazed exclamation in response to something he had said.

"Home with you! Why, Uncle William, what do you mean? You didn't really think you'd got to be troubled with me any longer!" she cried merrily.

William's face paled, then flushed.

"I did not call it 'trouble,' Billy," he said quietly. His grieved eyes looked straight into hers and drove the merriment quite away.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said gently. "And I appreciate your kindness, indeed I do; but I couldn't--really I couldn't think of such a thing!"

"And you don't have to think of it," cut in Bertram, who considered that the situation was becoming much too serious. "All you have to do is to come."

Billy shook her head.

"You are so good, all of you! But you didn't--you really didn't think I was--coming!" she protested.

"Indeed we did," asserted Bertram, promptly; "and we have done everything to get ready for you, too, even to rigging up Spunkie to masquerade as Spunk. I'll warrant that Pete's nose is already flattened against the window-pane, lest we should happen to come to-night; and there's no telling how many cakes of chocolate Dong Ling has spoiled by this time. We left him trying to make fudge, you know."

Billy laughed--but she cried, too; at least, her eyes grew suddenly moist. Bertram tried to decide afterward whether she laughed till she cried, or cried till she laughed.

"No, no," she demurred tremulously. "I couldn't. I really have never intended that."

"But why not? What are you going to do?" questioned William in a voice that was dazed and hurt.

The first question Billy ignored. The second she answered with a promptness and a gayety that was meant to turn the thoughts away from the first.

"We are going to Boston, Aunt Hannah and I. We've got rooms engaged for just now, but later we're going to take a house and live together. That's what we're going to do."