Chapter VIII. The Room--and Billy
 

For the first fifteen minutes after Billy's arrival conversation was a fitful thing made up mostly of a merry monologue on the part of Billy herself, interspersed with somewhat dazed replies from one after another of her auditors as she talked to them in turn. No one thought to ask if she cared to go up to her room, and during the entire fifteen minutes Billy sat on the floor with Spunk in her lap. She was still there when the funereal face of Pete appeared in the doorway. Pete's jaw dropped. It was plain that only the sternest self-control enabled him to announce dinner, with anything like dignity. But he managed to stammer out the words, and then turn loftily away. Bertram, who sat near the door, however, saw him raise his hands in horror as he plunged through the hall and down the stairway.

With a motion to Bertram to lead the way with Billy, William frenziedly gripped his sister's arm, and hissed in her ear for all the world like a villain in melodrama:

"Listen! You'll sleep in Bert's room to-night, and Bert will come up-stairs with me. Get Billy to bed as soon as you can after dinner, and then come back down to us. We've got to plan what's got to be done. Sh-h!" And he dragged his sister downstairs.

In the dining-room there was a slight commotion. Billy stood at her chair with Spunk in her arms. Before her Pete was standing, dumbly staring into her eyes. At last he stammered:

"Ma'am?"

"A chair, please, I said, for Spunk, you know. Spunk always sits at the table right next to me."

It was too much for Bertram. He fled chokingly to the hall. William dropped weakly into his own place. Cyril stared as had Pete; but Mrs. Hartwell spoke.

"You don't mean--that that cat--has a chair--at the table!" she gasped.

"Yes; and isn't it cute of him?" beamed Billy, entirely misconstruing the surprise in the lady's voice. "His mother always sat at table with us, and behaved beautifully, too. Of course Spunk is little, and makes mistakes sometimes. But he'll learn. Oh, there's a chair right here," she added, as she spied Bertram's childhood's high-chair, which for long years had stood unused in the corner. "I'll just squeeze it right in here," she finished gleefully, making room for the chair at her side.

When Bertram, a little red of face, but very grave, entered, the dining-room a moment later, he found the family seated with Spunk snugly placed between Billy and a plainly disgusted and dismayed brother, Cyril. The kitten was alert and interested; but he had settled back in his chair, and was looking as absurdly dignified as the flaring pink bow would let him.

"Isn't he a dear?" Billy was saying. But Bertram noticed that there was no reply to this question.

It was a peculiar dinner-party. Only Billy did not feel the strain. Even Spunk was not entirely happy--his efforts to investigate the table and its contents were too frequently curbed by his mistress for his unalloyed satisfaction. William, it is true, made a valiant attempt to cause the conversation to be general; but he failed dismally. Kate was sternly silent, while Cyril was openly repellent. Bertram talked, indeed--but Bertram always talked; and very soon he and Billy had things pretty much to themselves--that is, with occasional interruptions caused by Spunk. Spunk had an inquisitive nose or paw for each new dish placed before his mistress; and Billy spent much time admonishing him. Billy said she was training him; that it was wonderful what training would do, and, of course, Spunk was little, now.

Dinner was half over when there was a slight diversion created by Spunk's conclusion to get acquainted with the silent man at his left. Cyril, however, did not respond to Spunk's advances. So very evident, indeed, was the man's aversion that Billy turned in amazement.

"Why, Mr. Cyril, don't you see? Spunk is trying to say 'How do you do'?"

"Very likely; but I'm not fond of cats, Miss Billy."

"You're not fond--of--cats!" repeated the girl, as if she could not have heard aright. "Why not?"

Cyril changed his position.

"Why, just because I--I'm not," he retorted lamely. "Isn't there anything that--that you don't like?"

Billy considered.

"Why, not that I know of," she began, after a moment, "only rainy days and--tripe. And Spunk isn't a bit like those."

Bertram chuckled, and even Cyril smiled--though unwillingly.

"All the same," he reiterated, "I don't like cats."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," lamented Billy; and at the grieved hurt in her dark eyes Bertram came promptly to the rescue.

"Never mind, Miss Billy. Cyril is only one of us, and there is all the rest of the Strata besides."

"The--what?"

"The Strata. You don't know, of course, but listen, and I'll tell you." And he launched gaily forth into his favorite story.

Billy was duly amused and interested. She laughed and clapped her hands, and when the story was done she clapped them again.

"Oh, what a funny house! And how perfectly lovely that I'm going to live in it," she cried. Then straight at Mrs. Hartwell she hurled a bombshell. "But where is your stratum?" she demanded. "Mr. Bertram didn't mention a thing about you!"

Cyril said a sharp word under his breath. Bertram choked over a cough. Kate threw into William's eyes a look that was at once angry, accusing, and despairing. Then William spoke.

"Er--she--it isn't anywhere, my dear," he stammered; "or rather, it isn't here. Kate lives up on the Avenue, you see, and is only here for--for a day or two--just now."

"Oh!" murmured Billy. And there was not one in the room at that moment who did not bless Spunk--for Spunk suddenly leaped to the table before him; and in the ensuing confusion his mistress quite forgot to question further concerning Mrs. Hartwell's stratum.

Dinner over, the three men, with their sister and Billy, trailed up-stairs to the drawing-rooms. Billy told them, then, of her life at Hampden Falls. She cried a little at the mention of Aunt Ella; and she portrayed very vividly the lonely life from which she herself had so gladly escaped. She soon had every one laughing, even Cyril, over her stories of the lawyer's home that might have been hers, with its gloom and its hush and its socketed chairs.

As soon as possible, however, Mrs. Hartwell, with a murmured "I know you must be tired, Billy," suggested that the girl go up- stairs to her room. "Come," she added, "I will show you the way."

There was some delay, even then, for Spunk had to be provided with sleeping quarters; and it was not without some hesitation that Billy finally placed the kitten in the reluctant hands of Pete, who had been hastily summoned. Then she turned and followed Mrs. Hartwell up-stairs.

It seemed to the three men in the drawing-room that almost immediately came the piercing shriek, and the excited voice of their sister in expostulation. Without waiting for more they leaped to the stairway and hurried up, two steps at a time.

"For heaven's sake, Kate, what is it?" panted William, who had been outdistanced by his more agile brothers.

Kate was on her feet, her face the picture of distressed amazement. In the low chair by the window Billy sat where she had flung herself, her hands over her face. Her shoulders were shaking, and from her throat came choking little cries.

"I don't know," quavered Kate. "I haven't the least idea. She was all right till she got up-stairs here, and I turned on the lights. Then she gave one shriek and--you know all I know."

William advanced hurriedly.

"Billy, what is the matter? What are you crying for?" he demanded.

Billy dropped her hands then, and they saw her face. She was not crying. She was laughing. She was laughing so she could scarcely speak.

"Oh, you did, you did!" she gurgled. "I thought you did, and now I know!"

"Did what? What do you mean?" William's usually gentle voice was sharp. Even William's nerves were beginning to feel the strain of the last few hours.

"Thought I was a--b-boy!" choked Billy. "You called me 'he' once in the station--I thought you did; but I wasn't sure--not till I saw this room. But now I know--I know!" And off she went into another hysterical gale of laughter--Billy's nerves, too, were beginning to respond to the excitement of the last few hours.

As to the three men and the woman, they stood silent, helpless, looking into each other's faces with despairing eyes.

In a moment Billy was on her feet, fluttering about the room, touching this thing, looking at that. Nothing escaped her.

"I'm to fish--and shoot--and fence!" she crowed. "And, oh!--look at those knives! U-ugh! . . . And, my! what are these?" she cried, pouncing on the Indian clubs. "And look at the spiders! Dear, dear, I am glad they're dead, anyhow," she shuddered with a nervous laugh that was almost a sob.

Something in Billy's voice stirred Mrs. Hartwell to sudden action.

"Come, come, this will never do," she protested authoritatively, motioning her brothers to leave the room. "Billy is quite tired out, and needs rest. She mustn't talk another bit to-night."

"Of c-course not," stammered William. And only too glad of an excuse to withdraw from a very embarrassing situation, the three men called back a faltering good-night, and precipitately fled down-stairs.