Chapter XVI. A Girl and a Bit of Lowestoft
 

Immediately after breakfast the next morning, Billy was summoned to the telephone.

"Oh, good morning, Uncle William," she called, in answer to the masculine voice that replied to her "Hullo."

"Billy, are you very busy this morning?"

"No, indeed--not if you want me."

"Well, I do, my dear." Uncle William's voice was troubled. "I want you to go with me, if you can, to see a Mrs. Greggory. She's got a teapot I want. It's a genuine Lowestoft, Harlow says. Will you go?"

"Of course I will! What time?"

"Eleven if you can, at Park Street. She's at the West End. I don't dare to put it off for fear I'll lose it. Harlow says others will have to know of it, of course. You see, she's just made up her mind to sell it, and asked him to find a customer. I wouldn't trouble you, but he says they're peculiar--the daughter, especially--and may need some careful handling. That's why I wanted you--though I wanted you to see the tea-pot, too,--it'll be yours some day, you know."

Billy, all alone at her end of the line, blushed. That she was one day to be mistress of the Strata and all it contained was still anything but "common" to her.

"I'd love to see it, and I'll come gladly; but I'm afraid I won't be much help, Uncle William," she worried.

"I'll take the risk of that. You see, Harlow says that about half the time she isn't sure she wants to sell it, after all."

"Why, how funny! Well, I'll come. At eleven, you say, at Park Street?"

"Yes; and thank you, my dear. I tried to get Kate to go, too; but she wouldn't. By the way, I'm going to bring you home to luncheon. Kate leaves this afternoon, you know, and it's been so snowy she hasn't thought best to try to get over to the house. Maybe Aunt Hannah would come, too, for luncheon. Would she?"

"I'm afraid not," returned Billy, with a rueful laugh. "She's got three shawls on this morning, and you know that always means that she's felt a draft somewhere--poor dear. I'll tell her, though, and I'll see you at eleven," finished Billy, as she hung up the receiver.

Promptly at the appointed time Billy met Uncle William at Park Street, and together they set out for the West End street named on the paper in his pocket. But when the shabby house on the narrow little street was reached, the man looked about him with a troubled frown.

"I declare, Billy, I'm not sure but we'd better turn back," he fretted. "I didn't mean to take you to such a place as this."

Billy shivered a little; but after one glance at the man's disappointed face she lifted a determined chin.

"Nonsense, Uncle William! Of course you won't turn back. I don't mind--for myself; but only think of the people whose homes are here," she finished, just above her breath.

Mrs. Greggory was found to be living in two back rooms at the top of four flights of stairs, up which William Henshaw toiled with increasing weariness and dismay, punctuating each flight with a despairing: "Billy, really, I think we should turn back!"

But Billy would not turn back, and at last they found themselves in the presence of a white- haired, sweet-faced woman who said yes, she was Mrs. Greggory; yes, she was. Even as she uttered the words, however, she looked fearfully over her shoulders as if expecting to hear from the hall behind them a voice denying her assertion.

Mrs. Greggory was a cripple. Her slender little body was poised on two once-costly crutches. Both the worn places on the crutches, and the skill with which the little woman swung herself about the room testified that the crippled condition was not a new one.

Billy's eyes were brimming with pity and dismay. Mechanically she had taken the chair toward which Mrs. Greggory had motioned her. She had tried not to seem to look about her; but there was not one detail of the bare little room, from its faded rug to the patched but spotless tablecloth, that was not stamped on her brain.

Mrs. Greggory had seated herself now, and William Henshaw had cleared his throat nervously. Billy did not know whether she herself were the more distressed or the more relieved to hear him stammer:

"We--er--I came from Harlow, Mrs. Greggory. He gave me to understand you had an-- er--teapot that--er--" With his eyes on the cracked white crockery pitcher on the table, William Henshaw came to a helpless pause.

A curious expression, or rather, series of expressions crossed Mrs. Greggory's face. Terror, joy, dismay, and relief seemed, one after the other to fight for supremacy. Relief in the end conquered, though even yet there was a second hurriedly apprehensive glance toward the door before she spoke.

"The Lowestoft! Yes, I'm so glad!--that is, of course I must be glad. I'll get it." Her voice broke as she pulled herself from her chair. There was only despairing sorrow on her face now.

The man rose at once.

"But, madam, perhaps--don't let me--" I he began stammeringly. "Of course--Billy!" he broke off in an entirely different voice. "Jove! What a beauty!"

Mrs. Greggory had thrown open the door of a small cupboard near the collector's chair, disclosing on one of the shelves a beautifully shaped teapot, creamy in tint, and exquisitely decorated in a rose design. Near it set a tray-like plate of the same ware and decoration.

"If you'll lift it down, please, yourself," motioned Mrs. Greggory. "I don't like to--with these," she explained, tapping the crutches at her side.

With fingers that were almost reverent in their appreciation, the collector reached for the teapot. His eyes sparkled.

"Billy, look, what a beauty! And it's a Lowestoft, too, the real thing--the genuine, true soft paste! And there's the tray--did you notice?" he exulted, turning back to the shelf. "You don't see that every day! They get separated, most generally, you know."

"These pieces have been in our family for generations," said Mrs. Greggory with an accent of pride. "You'll find them quite perfect, I think."

"Perfect! I should say they were," cried the man.

"They are, then--valuable?" Mrs. Greggory's voice shook.

"Indeed they are! But you must know that."

"I have been told so. Yet to me their chief value, of course, lies in their association. My mother and my grandmother owned that teapot, sir." Again her voice broke.

William Henshaw cleared his throat.

"But, madam, if you do not wish to sell--" He stopped abruptly. His longing eyes had gone back to the enticing bit of china.

Mrs. Greggory gave a low cry.

"But I do--that is, I must. Mr. Harlow says that it is valuable, and that it will bring in money; and we need--money." She threw a quick glance toward the hall door, though she did not pause in her remarks. "I can't do much at work that pays. I sew--" she nodded toward the machine by the window--" but with only one foot to make it go-- You see, the other is--is inclined to shirk a little," she finished with a wistful whimsicality.

Billy turned away sharply. There was a lump in her throat and a smart in her eyes. She was conscious suddenly of a fierce anger against-- she did not know what, exactly; but she fancied it was against the teapot, or against Uncle William for wanting the teapot, or for not wanting it--if he did not buy it.

"And so you see, I do very much wish to sell,"

Mrs. Greggory said then. "Perhaps you will tell me what it would be worth to you," she concluded tremulously.

The collector's eyes glowed. He picked up the teapot with careful rapture and examined it. Then he turned to the tray. After a moment he spoke.

"I have only one other in my collection as rare," he said. "I paid a hundred dollars for that. I shall be glad to give you the same for this, madam."

Mrs. Greggory started visibly.

"A hundred dollars? So much as that?" she cried almost joyously. "Why, nothing else that we've had has brought-- Of course, if it's worth that to you--" She paused suddenly. A quick step had sounded in the hall outside. The next moment the door flew open and a young woman, who looked to be about twenty-three or twenty- four years old, burst into the room.

"Mother, only think, I've--" She stopped, and drew back a little. Her startled eyes went from one face to another, then dropped to the Lowestoft teapot in the man's hands. Her expression changed at once. She shut the door quickly and hurried forward.

"Mother, what is it? Who are these people?" she asked sharply.

Billy lifted her chin the least bit. She was conscious of a feeling which she could not name: Billy was not used to being called "these people" in precisely that tone of voice. William Henshaw, too, raised his chin. He, also, was not in the habit of being referred to as "these people."

"My name is Henshaw, Miss--Greggory, I presume," he said quietly. "I was sent here by Mr. Harlow."

"About the teapot, my dear, you know," stammered Mrs. Greggory, wetting her lips with an air of hurried apology and conciliation. "This gentleman says he will be glad to buy it. Er-- my daughter, Alice, Mr. Henshaw," she hastened on, in embarrassed introduction; "and Miss--"

"Neilson," supplied the man, as she looked at Billy, and hesitated.

A swift red stained Alice Greggory's face. With barely an acknowledgment of the introductions she turned to her mother.

"Yes, dear, but that won't be necessary now. As I started to tell you when I came in, I have two new pupils; and so"--turning to the man again "I thank you for your offer, but we have decided not to sell the teapot at present." As she finished her sentence she stepped one side as if to make room for the strangers to reach the door.

William Henshaw frowned angrily--that was the man; but his eyes--the collector's eyes-- sought the teapot longingly. Before either the man or the collector could speak, however; Mrs. Greggory interposed quick words of remonstrance.

"But, Alice, my dear," she almost sobbed. "You didn't wait to let me tell you. Mr. Henshaw says it is worth a hundred dollars to him. He will give us--a hundred dollars."

"A hundred dollars!" echoed the girl, faintly.

It was plain to be seen that she was wavering. Billy, watching the little scene, with mingled emotions, saw the glance with which the girl swept the bare little room; and she knew that there was not a patch or darn or poverty spot in sight, or out of sight, which that glance did not encompass.

Billy was wondering which she herself desired more--that Uncle William should buy the Lowestoft, or that he should not. She knew she wished Mrs. Greggory to have the hundred dollars. There was no doubt on that point. Then Uncle William spoke. His words carried the righteous indignation of the man who thinks he has been unjustly treated, and the final plea of the collector who sees a coveted treasure slipping from his grasp.

"I am very sorry, of course, if my offer has annoyed you," he said stiffly. "I certainly should not have made it had I not had Mrs. Greggory's assurance that she wished to sell the teapot."

Alice Greggory turned as if stung.

"Wished to sell!" She repeated the words with superb disdain. She was plainly very angry. Her blue-gray eyes gleamed with scorn, and her whole face was suffused with a red that had swept to the roots of her soft hair. "Do you think a woman wishes to sell a thing that she's treasured all her life, a thing that is perhaps the last visible reminder of the days when she was living--not merely existing?"

"Alice, Alice, my love!" protested the sweet- faced cripple, agitatedly.

"I can't help it," stormed the girl, hotly. "I know how much you think of that teapot that was grandmother's. I know what it cost you to make up your mind to sell it at all. And then to hear these people talk about your wishing to sell it! Perhaps they think, too, we wish to live in a place like this; that we wish to have rugs that are darned, and chairs that are broken, and garments that are patches instead of clothes!"

"Alice!" gasped Mrs. Greggory in dismayed horror.

With a little outward fling of her two hands Alice Greggory stepped back. Her face had grown white again.

"I beg your pardon, of course," she said in a voice that was bitterly quiet. "I should not have spoken so. You are very kind, Mr. Henshaw, but I do not think we care to sell the Lowestoft to-day."

Both words and manner were obviously a dismissal; and with a puzzled sigh William Henshaw picked up his hat. His face showed very clearly that he did not know what to do, or what to say; but it showed, too, as clearly, that he longed to do something, or say something. During the brief minute that he hesitated, however, Billy sprang forward.

"Mrs. Greggory, please, won't you let me buy the teapot? And then--won't you keep it for me--here? I haven't the hundred dollars with me, but I'll send it right away. You will let me do it, won't you?"

It was an impulsive speech, and a foolish one, of course, from the standpoint of sense and logic and reasonableness; but it was one that might be expected, perhaps, from Billy.

Mrs. Greggory must have divined, in a way, the spirit that prompted it, for her eyes grew wet, and with a choking "Dear child!" she reached out and caught Billy's hand in both her own-- even while she shook her head in denial.

Not so her daughter. Alice Greggory flushed scarlet. She drew herself proudly erect.

"Thank you," she said with crisp coldness; "but, distasteful as darns and patches are to us, we prefer them, infinitely, to--charity!"

"Oh, but, please, I didn't mean--you didn't understand," faltered Billy.

For answer Alice Greggory walked deliberately to the door and held it open.

"Oh, Alice, my dear," pleaded Mrs. Greggory again, feebly.

"Come, Billy! We'll bid you good morning, ladies," said William Henshaw then, decisively. And Billy, with a little wistful pat on Mrs. Greggory's clasped hands, went.

Once down the long four flights of stairs and out on the sidewalk, William Henshaw drew a long breath.

"Well, by Jove! Billy, the next time I take you curio hunting, it won't be to this place," he fumed.

"Wasn't it awful!" choked Billy.

"Awful! The girl was the most stubborn, unreasonable, vixenish little puss I ever saw. I didn't want her old Lowestoft if she didn't want to sell it! But to practically invite me there, and then treat me like that!" scolded the collector, his face growing red with anger. "Still, I was sorry for the poor little old lady. I wish, somehow, she could have that hundred dollars!" It was the man who said this, not the collector.

"So do I," rejoined Billy, dolefully. "But that girl was so--so queer!" she sighed, with a frown. Billy was puzzled. For the first time, perhaps, in her life, she knew what it was to have her proffered "ice cream" disdainfully refused.