Chapter V. Getting Ready for Billy
 

The Henshaw household was early astir on the day of Billy's expected arrival, and preparations for the guest's comfort were well under way before breakfast. The center of activity was in the little room at the end of the hall on the second floor; though, as Bertram said, the whole Strata felt the "upheaval."

By breakfast time Bertram with the avowed intention of giving "the little chap half a show," had the room cleared for action; and after that the whole house was called upon for contributions toward the room's adornment. And most generously did most of the house respond. Even Dong Ling slippered up-stairs and presented a weird Chinese banner which he said he was "velly much glad" to give. As to Pete--Pete was in his element. Pete loved boys. Had he not served them nearly all his life? Incidentally it may be mentioned that he did not care for girls.

Only Cyril held himself aloof. But that he was not oblivious of the proceedings below him was evidenced by the somber bass that floated down from his piano strings. Cyril always played according to the mood that was on him; and when Bertram heard this morning the rhythmic beats of mournfulness, he chuckled and said to William:

"That's Chopin's Funeral March. Evidently Cy thinks this is the death knell to all his hopes of future peace and happiness."

"Dear me! I wish Cyril would take some interest," grieved William.

"Oh, he takes interest all right," laughed Bertram, meaningly. "He takes interest!"

"I know, but--Bertram," broke off the elder man, anxiously, from his perch on the stepladder, "would you put the rifle over this window, or the fishing-rod?"

"Why, I don't think it makes much difference, so long as they're somewhere," answered Bertram. "And there are these Indian clubs and the swords to be disposed of, you know."

"Yes; and it's going to look fine; don't you think?" exulted William. "And you know for the wall-space between the windows I'm going to bring down that case of mine, of spiders."

Bertram raised his hands in mock surprise.

"Here--down here! You're going to trust any of those precious treasures of yours down here!"

William frowned.

"Nonsense, Bertram, don't be silly! They'll be safe enough. Besides, they're old, anyhow. I was on spiders years ago--when I was Billy's age, in fact. I thought he'd like them here. You know boys always like such things."

"Oh, 'twasn't Billy I was worrying about," retorted Bertram. "It was you--and the spiders."

"Not much you worry about me--or anything else," replied William, good-humoredly. "There! how does that look?" he finished, as he carefully picked his way down the stepladder.

"Fine!--er--only rather warlike, maybe, with the guns and that riotous confusion of knives and scimiters over the chiffonier. But then, maybe you're intending Billy for a soldier; eh?"

"Do you know? I am getting interested in that boy," beamed William, with some excitement. "What kind of things do you suppose he does like?"

"There's no telling. Maybe he's a sissy chap, and will howl at your guns and spiders. Perhaps he'll prefer autumn leaves and worsted mottoes for decoration."

"Not much he will," contested the other. "No son of Walter Neilson's could be a sissy. Neilson was the best half-back in ten years at Harvard, and he was always in for everything going that was worth while. 'Autumn leaves and worsted mottoes' indeed! Bah!"

"All right; but there's still a dark horse in the case, you know. We mustn't forget--Spunk."

The elder man stirred uneasily.

"Bert, what do you suppose that creature is? You don't think Cyril can be right, and that it's a--monkey?"

"'You never can tell,'" quoted Bertram, merrily. "Of course there are other things. If it were you, now, we'd only have to hunt up the special thing you happened to be collecting at the time, and that would be it: a snake, a lizard, a toad, or maybe a butterfly. You know you were always lugging those things home when you were his age."

"Yes, I know," sighed William. "But I can't think it's anything like that," he finished, as he turned away.

There was very little done in the Beacon Street house that day but to "get ready for Billy." In the kitchen Dong Ling cooked. Everywhere else, except in Cyril's domain, Pete dusted and swept and "puttered" to his heart's content. William did not go to the office at all that day, and Bertram did not touch his brushes. Only Cyril attended to his usual work: practising for a coming concert, and correcting the proofs of his new book, "Music in Russia."

At ten minutes before five William, anxious-eyed and nervous, found himself at the North Station. Then, and not till then, did he draw a long breath of relief.

"There! I think everything's ready," he sighed to himself. "At last!"

He wore no pink in his buttonhole. There was no need that he should accede to that silly request, he told himself. He had only to look for a youth of perhaps eighteen years, who would be alone, a little frightened, possibly, and who would have a pink in his buttonhole, and probably a dog on a leash.

As he waited, the man was conscious of a curious warmth at his heart. It was his namesake, Walter Neilson's boy, that he had come to meet; a homesick, lonely orphan who had appealed to him--to him, out of all the world. Long years ago in his own arms there had been laid a tiny bundle of flannel holding a precious little red, puckered face. But in a month's time the little face had turned cold and waxen, and the hopes that the white flannel bundle had carried had died with the baby boy;--and that baby would have been a lad grown by this time, if he had lived--a lad not far from the age of this Billy who was coming to-day, reflected the man. And the warmth in his heart deepened and glowed the more as he stood waiting at the gate for Billy to arrive.

The train from Hampden Falls was late. Not until quite fifteen minutes past five did it roll into the train-shed. Then at once its long line of passengers began to sweep toward the iron gate.

William was just inside the gate now, anxiously scanning every face and form that passed. There were many half-grown lads, but there was not one with a pink in his buttonhole until very near the end. Then William saw him--a pleasant-faced, blue-eyed boy in a neat gray suit. With a low cry William started forward; but he saw at once that the gray-clad youth was unmistakably one of a merry family party. He looked to be anything but a lad that was lonely and forlorn.

William hesitated and fell back. This debonair, self-reliant fellow could not be Billy! But as a hasty glance down the line revealed only half a dozen straggling women, and beyond them, no one, William decided that it must be Billy; and taking brave hold of his courage, he hurried after the blue-eyed youth and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Er--aren't you Billy?" he stammered.

The lad stopped and stared. He shook his head slowly.

"No, sir," he said.

"But you must be! Are you sure?"

The boy laughed this time.

"Sorry, sir, but my name is 'Frank'; isn't it, mother?" he added merrily, turning to the lady at his side, who was regarding William very unfavorably through a pair of gold-bowed spectacles.

William did not wait for more. With a stammered apology and a flustered lifting of his hat he backed away.

But where was Billy?

William looked about him in helpless dismay. All around was a wide, empty space. The long aisle to the Hampden Falls train was deserted save for the baggage-men loading the trunks and bags on to their trucks. Nowhere was there any one who seemed forlorn or ill at ease except a pretty girl with a suit-case, and with a covered basket on her arm, who stood just outside the gate, gazing a little nervously about her.

William looked twice at this girl. First, because the splash of color against her brown coat had called his attention to the fact that she was wearing a pink; and secondly because she was very pretty, and her dark eyes carried a peculiarly wistful appeal.

"Too bad Bertram isn't here," thought William. "He'd be sketching that face in no time on his cuff."

The pink had given William almost a pang. He had been so longing to see a pink--though in a different place. He wondered sympathetically if she, too, had come to meet some one who had not appeared. He noticed that she walked away from the gate once or twice, toward the waiting-room, and peered anxiously through the glass doors; but always she came back to the gate as if fearful to be long away from that place. He forgot all about her very soon, for her movements had given him a sudden idea: perhaps Billy was in the waiting-room. How stupid of him not to think of it before! Doubtless they had missed each other in the crowd, and Billy had gone straight to the waiting-room to look for him. And with this thought William hurried away at once, leaving the girl still standing by the gate alone.

He looked everywhere. Systematically he paced up and down between the long rows of seats, looking for a boy with a pink. He even went out upon the street, and gazed anxiously in all directions. It occurred to him after a time that possibly Billy, like himself, had changed his mind at the last moment, and not worn the pink. Perhaps he had forgotten it, or lost it, or even not been able to get it at all. Very bitterly William blamed himself then for disregarding his own part of the suggested plan. If only he had worn the pink himself!--but he had not; and it was useless to repine. In the meantime, where was Billy, he wondered frantically.