Chapter XI. A Clock and Aunt Hannah
 

Mrs. Kate Hartwell, the Henshaw brothers' sister from the West, was expected on the tenth. Her husband could not come, she had written, but she would bring with her, little Kate, the youngest child. The boys, Paul and Egbert, would stay with their father.

Billy received the news of little Kate's coming with outspoken delight.

"The very thing!" she cried. "We'll have her for a flower girl. She was a dear little creature, as I remember her."

Aunt Hannah gave a sudden low laugh.

"Yes, I remember," she observed. "Kate told me, after you spent the first day with her, that you graciously informed her that little Kate was almost as nice as Spunk. Kate did not fully appreciate the compliment, I fear."

Billy made a wry face.

"Did I say that? Dear me! I was a terror in those days, wasn't I? But then," and she laughed softly, "really, Aunt Hannah, that was the prettiest thing I knew how to say, for I considered Spunk the top-notch of desirability."

"I think I should have liked to know Spunk," smiled Marie from the other side of the sewing table.

"He was a dear," declared Billy. "I had another 'most as good when I first came to Hillside, but he got lost. For a time it seemed as if I never wanted another, but I've about come to the conclusion now that I do, and I've told Bertram to find one for me if he can. You see I shall be lonesome after you're gone, Marie, and I'll have to have something," she finished mischievously.

"Oh, I don't mind the inference--as long as I know your admiration of cats," laughed Marie.

"Let me see; Kate writes she is coming the tenth," murmured Aunt Hannah, going back to the letter in her hand.

"Good!" nodded Billy. "That will give time to put little Kate through her paces as flower girl."

"Yes, and it will give Big Kate time to try to make your breakfast a supper, and your roses pinks--or sunflowers," cut in a new voice, dryly.

"Cyril!" chorussed the three ladies in horror, adoration, and amusement--according to whether the voice belonged to Aunt Hannah, Marie, or Billy.

Cyril shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

"I beg your pardon," he apologized; "but Rosa said you were in here sewing, and I told her not to bother. I'd announce myself. Just as I got to the door I chanced to hear Billy's speech, and I couldn't resist making the amendment. Maybe you've forgotten Kate's love of managing--but I haven't," he finished, as he sauntered over to the chair nearest Marie.

"No, I haven't--forgotten," observed Billy, meaningly.

"Nor I--nor anybody else," declared a severe voice--both the words and the severity being most extraordinary as coming from the usually gentle Aunt Hannah.

"Oh, well, never mind," spoke up Billy, quickly. "Everything's all right now, so let's forget it. She always meant it for kindness, I'm sure."

"Even when she told you in the first place what a--er--torment you were to us?" quizzed Cyril.

"Yes," flashed Billy. "She was being kind to you, then."

"Humph!" vouchsafed Cyril.

For a moment no one spoke. Cyril's eyes were on Marie, who was nervously trying to smooth back a few fluffy wisps of hair that had escaped from restraining combs and pins.

"What's the matter with the hair, little girl?" asked Cyril in a voice that was caressingly irritable. "You've been fussing with that long- suffering curl for the last five minutes!"

Marie's delicate face flushed painfully.

"It's got loose--my hair," she stammered, "and it looks so dowdy that way!"

Billy dropped her thread suddenly. She sprang for it at once, before Cyril could make a move to get it. She had to dive far under a chair to capture it--which may explain why her face was so very red when she finally reached her seat again.

On the morning of the tenth, Billy, Marie, and Aunt Hannah were once more sewing together, this time in the little sitting-room at the end of the hall up-stairs.

Billy's fingers, in particular, were flying very fast.

"I told John to have Peggy at the door at eleven," she said, after a time; "but I think I can finish running in this ribbon before then. I haven't much to do to get ready to go."

"I hope Kate's train won't be late," worried Aunt Hannah.

"I hope not," replied Billy; "but I told Rosa to delay luncheon, anyway, till we get here. I--" She stopped abruptly and turned a listening ear toward the door of Aunt Hannah's room, which was open. A clock was striking. "Mercy! that can't be eleven now," she cried. "But it must be--it was ten before I came up-stairs." She got to her feet hurriedly.

Aunt Hannah put out a restraining hand.

"No, no, dear, that's half-past ten."

"But it struck eleven."

"Yes, I know. It does--at half-past ten."

"Why, the little wretch," laughed Billy, dropping back into her chair and picking up her work again. "The idea of its telling fibs like that and frightening people half out of their lives! I'll have it fixed right away. Maybe John can do it --he's always so handy about such things."

"But I don't want it fixed," demurred Aunt Hannah.

Billy stared a little.

"You don't want it fixed! Maybe you like to have it strike eleven when it's half-past ten!" Billy's voice was merrily sarcastic.

"Y-yes, I do," stammered the lady, apologetically. "You see, I--I worked very hard to fix it so it would strike that way."

"Aunt Hannah!"

"Well, I did," retorted the lady, with unexpected spirit. "I wanted to know what time it was in the night--I'm awake such a lot."

"But I don't see." Billy's eyes were perplexed. "Why must you make it tell fibs in order to--to find out the truth?" she laughed.

Aunt Hannah elevated her chin a little.

"Because that clock was always striking one."

"One!"

"Yes--half-past, you know; and I never knew which half-past it was."

"But it must strike half-past now, just the same!"

"It does." There was the triumphant ring of the conqueror in Aunt Hannah's voice. "But now it strikes half-past on the hour, and the clock in the hall tells me then what time it is, so I don't care."

For one more brief minute Billy stared, before a sudden light of understanding illumined her face. Then her laugh rang out gleefully.

"Oh, Aunt Hannah, Aunt Hannah," she gurgled. "If Bertram wouldn't call you the limit --making a clock strike eleven so you'll know it's half-past ten!"

Aunt Hannah colored a little, but she stood her ground.

"Well, there's only half an hour, anyway, now, that I don't know what time it is," she maintained, "for one or the other of those clocks strikes the hour every thirty minutes. Even during those never-ending three ones that strike one after the other in the middle of the night, I can tell now, for the hall clock has a different sound for the half-hours, you know, so I can tell whether it's one or a half-past."

"Of course," chuckled Billy.

"I'm sure I think it's a splendid idea," chimed in Marie, valiantly; "and I'm going to write it to mother's Cousin Jane right away. She's an invalid, and she's always lying awake nights wondering what time it is. The doctor says actually he believes she'd get well if he could find some way of letting her know the time at night, so she'd get some sleep; for she simply can't go to sleep till she knows. She can't bear a light in the room, and it wakes her all up to turn an electric switch, or anything of that kind."

"Why doesn't she have one of those phosphorous things?" questioned Billy.

Marie laughed quietly.

"She did. I sent her one,--and she stood it just one night."

"Stood it!"

"Yes. She declared it gave her the creeps, and that she wouldn't have the spooky thing staring at her all night like that. So it's got to be something she can hear, and I'm going to tell her Mrs. Stetson's plan right away."

"Well, I'm sure I wish you would," cried that lady, with prompt interest; "and she'll like it, I'm sure. And tell her if she can hear a town clock strike, it's just the same, and even better; for there aren't any half-hours at all to think of there."

"I will--and I think it's lovely," declared Marie.

"Of course it's lovely," smiled Billy, rising; "but I fancy I'd better go and get ready to meet Mrs. Hartwell, or the `lovely' thing will be telling me that it's half-past eleven!" And she tripped laughingly from the room.

Promptly at the appointed time John with Peggy drew up before the door, and Billy, muffled in furs, stepped into the car, which, with its protecting top and sides and glass wind-shield, was in its winter dress.

"Yes'm, 'tis a little chilly, Miss," said John, in answer to her greeting, as he tucked the heavy robes about her.

"Oh, well, I shall be very comfortable, I'm sure," smiled Billy. "Just don't drive too rapidly, specially coming home. I shall have to get a limousine, I think, when my ship comes in, John."

John's grizzled old face twitched. So evident were the words that were not spoken that Billy asked laughingly:

"Well, John, what is it?"

John reddened furiously.

"Nothing, Miss. I was only thinkin' that if you didn't 'tend ter haulin' in so many other folks's ships, yours might get in sooner."

"Why, John! Nonsense! I--I love to haul in other folks's ships," laughed the girl, embarrassedly.

"Yes, Miss; I know you do," grunted John.

Billy colored.

"No, no--that is, I mean--I don't do it-- very much," she stammered.

John did not answer apparently; but Billy was sure she caught a low-muttered, indignant "much!" as he snapped the door shut and took his place at the wheel.

To herself she laughed softly. She thought she possessed the secret now of some of John's disapproving glances toward her humble guests of the summer before.