Chapter III. The Strata--When the Letter Comes
 

It was on the six o'clock delivery that William Henshaw received the letter from his namesake, Billy. To say the least, the letter was a great shock to him. He had not quite forgotten Billy's father, who had died so long ago, it is true, but he had forgotten Billy, entirely. Even as he looked at the disconcerting epistle with its round, neatly formed letters, he had great difficulty in ferreting out the particular niche in his memory which contained the fact that Walter Neilson had had a child, and had named it for him.

And this child, this "Billy," this unknown progeny of an all but forgotten boyhood friend, was asking a home, and with him! Impossible! And William Henshaw peered at the letter as if, at this second reading, its message could not be so monstrous.

"Well, old man, what's up?" It was Bertram's amazed voice from the hall doorway; and indeed, William Henshaw, red-faced and plainly trembling, seated on the lowest step of the stairway, and gazing, wild-eyed, at the letter in his hand, was somewhat of an amazing sight. "What is up?"

"What's up!" groaned William, starting to his feet, and waving the letter frantically in the air. "What's up! Young man, do you want us to take in a child to board?--a child?" he repeated in slow horror.

"Well, hardly," laughed the other. "Er, perhaps Cyril might like it, though; eh?"

"Come, come, Bertram, be sensible for once," pleaded his brother, nervously. "This is serious, really serious, I tell you!"

"What is serious?" demanded Cyril, coming down the stairway. "Can't it wait? Pete has already sounded the gong twice for dinner."

William made a despairing gesture.

"Well, come," he groaned. "I'll tell you at the table. . . . It seems I've got a namesake," he resumed in a shaking voice, a few moments later; "Walter Neilson's child."

"And who's Walter Neilson?" asked Bertram.

"A boyhood friend. You wouldn't remember him. This letter is from his child."

"Well, let's hear it. Go ahead. I fancy we can stand the--letter; eh, Cyril?"

Cyril frowned. Cyril did not know, perhaps, how often he frowned at Bertram.

The eldest brother wet his lips. His hand shook as he picked up the letter.

"It--it's so absurd," he muttered. Then he cleared his throat and read the letter aloud.

"DEAR UNCLE WILLIAM: Do you mind my calling you that? You see I want some one, and there isn't any one now. You are the nearest I've got. Maybe you've forgotten, but I'm named for you. Walter Neilson was my father, you know. My Aunt Ella has just died.

"Would you mind very much if I came to live with you? That is, between times--I'm going to college, of course, and after that I'm going to be--well, I haven't decided that part yet. I think I'll consult you. You may have some preference, you know. You can be thinking it up until I come.

"There! Maybe I ought not to have said that, for perhaps you won't want me to come. I am noisy, I'll own, but not so I think you'll mind it much unless some of you have 'nerves' or a 'heart.' You see, Miss Letty and Miss Ann--they're Mr. Harding's sisters, and Mr. Harding is our lawyer, and he will write to you. Well, where was I? Oh, I know--on Miss Letty's nerves. And, say, do you know, that is where I do get--on Miss Letty's nerves. I do, truly. You see, Mr. Harding very kindly suggested that I live with them, but, mercy! Miss Letty's nerves won't let you walk except on tiptoe, and Miss Ann's heart won't let you speak except in whispers. All the chairs and tables have worn little sockets in the carpets, and it's a crime to move them. There isn't a window-shade in the house that isn't pulled down exactly to the middle sash, except where the sun shines, and those are pulled way down. Imagine me and Spunk living there! Oh, by the way, you don't mind my bringing Spunk, do you? I hope you don't, for I couldn't live without Spunk, and he couldn't live with out me.

"Please let me hear from you very soon. I don't mind if you telegraph; and just 'come' would be all you'd have to say. Then I'd get ready right away and let you know what train to meet me on. And, oh, say--if you'll wear a pink in your buttonhole I will, too. Then we'll know each other. My address is just 'Hampden Falls.'

"Your awfully homesick namesake,

"BILLY HENSHAW NEILSON"

For one long minute there was a blank silence about the Henshaw dinner-table; then the eldest brother, looking anxiously from one man to the other, stammered:

"W-well?"

"Great Scott!" breathed Bertram.

Cyril said nothing, but his lips were white with their tense pressure against each other.

There was another pause, and again William broke it anxiously.

"Boys, this isn't helping me out any! What's to be done?"

"'Done'!" flamed Cyril. "Surely, you aren't thinking for a moment of letting that child come here, William!"

Bertram chuckled.

"He would liven things up, Cyril; wouldn't he? Such nice smooth floors you've got up-stairs to trundle little tin carts across!"

"Tin nonsense!" retorted Cyril. "Don't be silly, Bertram. That letter wasn't written by a baby. He'd be much more likely to make himself at home with your paint box, or with some of William's junk."

"Oh, I say," expostulated William, "we'll have to keep him out of those things, you know."

Cyril pushed back his chair from the table.

"'We'll have to keep him out'! William, you can't be in earnest! You aren't going to let that boy come here," he cried.

"But what can I do?" faltered the man.

"Do? Say 'no,' of course. As if we wanted a boy to bring up!"

"But I must do something. I--I'm all he's got. He says so."

"Good heavens! Well, send him to boarding-school, then, or to the penitentiary; anywhere but here!"

"Shucks! Let the kid come," laughed Bertram. "Poor little homesick devil! What's the use? I'll take him in. How old is he, anyhow?"

William frowned, and mused aloud slowly.

"Why, I don't know. He must be--er--why, boys, he's no child," broke off the man suddenly. "Walter himself died seventeen or eighteen years ago, not more than a year or two after he was married. That child must be somewhere around eighteen years old!"

"And only think how Cyril was worrying about those tin carts," laughed Bertram. "Never mind--eight or eighteen--let him come. If he's that age, he won't bother much."

"And this--er--'Spunk'; do you take him, too? But probably he doesn't bother, either," murmured Cyril, with smooth sarcasm.

"Gorry! I forgot Spunk," acknowledged Bertram. "Say, what in time is Spunk, do you suppose?"

"Dog, maybe," suggested William.

"Well, whatever he is, you will kindly keep Spunk down-stairs," said Cyril with decision. "The boy, I suppose I shall have to endure; but the dog--!"

"Hm-m; well, judging by his name," murmured Bertram, apologetically, "it may be just possible that Spunk won't be easily controlled. But maybe he isn't a dog, anyhow. He--er--sounds something like a parrot to me."

Cyril rose to his feet abruptly. He had eaten almost no dinner.

"Very well," he said coldly. "But please remember that I hold you responsible, Bertram. Whether it's a dog, or a parrot, or--or a monkey, I shall expect you to keep Spunk down-stairs. This adopting into the family an unknown boy seems to me very absurd from beginning to end. But if you and William will have it so, of course I've nothing to say. Fortunately my rooms are at the top of the house," he finished, as he turned and left the dining-room.

For a moment there was silence. The brows of the younger man were uplifted quizzically.

"I'm afraid Cyril is bothered," murmured William then, in a troubled voice.

Bertram's face changed. Stern lines came to his boyish mouth.

"He is always bothered--with anything, lately."

The elder man sighed.

"I know, but with his talent--"

"'Talent'! Great Scott!" cut in Bertram. "Half the world has talent of one sort or another; but that doesn't necessarily make them unable to live with any one else! Really, Will, it's becoming serious--about Cyril. He's getting to be, for all the world, like those finicky old maids that that young namesake of yours wrote about. He'll make us whisper and walk on tiptoe yet!"

The other smiled.

"Don't you worry. You aren't in any danger of being kept too quiet, young man."

"No thanks to Cyril, then," retorted Bertram. "Anyhow, that's one reason why I was for taking the kid--to mellow up Cyril. He needs it all right."

"But I had to take him, Bert," argued the elder brother, his face growing anxious again. "But Heaven only knows what I'm going to do with him when I get him. What shall I say to him, anyway? How shall I write? I don't know how to get up a letter of that sort!"

"Why not take him at his word and telegraph? I fancy you won't have to say 'come' but once before you see him. He doesn't seem to be a bashful youth."

"Hm-m; I might do that," acquiesced William, slowly. "But wasn't there somebody--a lawyer--going to write to me?" he finished, consulting the letter by his plate. "Yes," he added, after a moment, "a Mr. Harding. Wonder if he's any relation to Ned Harding. I used to know Ned at Harvard, and seems as if he came from Hampden Falls. We'll soon see, at all events. Maybe I'll hear to-morrow."

"I shouldn't wonder," nodded Bertram, as he rose from the table. "Anyhow, I wouldn't do anything till I did hear."