Chapter II. Aunt Hannah Gets a Letter
 

In the cozy living-room at Hillside, Billy Neilson's pretty home on Corey Hill, Billy herself sat writing at the desk. Her pen had just traced the date, "October twenty-fifth," when Mrs. Stetson entered with a letter in her hand.

"Writing, my dear? Then don't let me disturb you." She turned as if to go.

Billy dropped her pen, sprang to her feet, flew to the little woman's side and whirled her half across the room.

"There!" she exclaimed, as she plumped the breathless and scandalized Aunt Hannah into the biggest easy chair. "I feel better. I just had to let off steam some way. It's so lovely you came in just when you did!"

"Indeed! I--I'm not so sure of that," stammered the lady, dropping the letter into her lap, and patting with agitated fingers her cap, her curls, the two shawls about her shoulders, and the lace at her throat. "My grief and conscience, Billy! Wors't you ever grow up?"

"Hope not," purred Billy cheerfully, dropping herself on to a low hassock at Aunt Hannah's feet.

"But, my dear, you--you're engaged!"

Billy bubbled into a chuckling laugh.

"As if I didn't know that, when I've just written a dozen notes to announce it! And, oh, Aunt Hannah, such a time as I've had, telling what a dear Bertram is, and how I love, love, love him, and what beautiful eyes he has, and such a nose, and--"

"Billy!" Aunt Hannah was sitting erect in pale horror.

"Eh?" Billy's eyes were roguish.

"You didn't write that in those notes!"

"Write it? Oh, no! That's only what I wanted to write," chuckled Billy. "What I really did write was as staid and proper as--here, let me show you," she broke off, springing to her feet and running over to her desk. "There! this is about what I wrote to them all," she finished, whipping a note out of one of the unsealed envelopes on the desk and spreading it open before Aunt Hannah's suspicious eyes.

"Hm-m; that is very good--for you," admitted the lady.

"Well, I like that!--after all my stern self- control and self-sacrifice to keep out all those things I wanted to write," bridled Billy. "Besides, they'd have been ever so much more interesting reading than these will be," she pouted, as she took the note from her companion's hand.

"I don't doubt it," observed Aunt Hannah, dryly.

Billy laughed, and tossed the note back on the desk.

"I'm writing to Belle Calderwell, now," she announced musingly, dropping herself again on the hassock. "I suppose she'll tell Hugh."

"Poor boy! He'll be disappointed."

Billy sighed, but she uptilted her chin a little.

"He ought not to be. I told him long, long ago, the very first time, that--that I couldn't."

"I know, dear; but--they don't always understand." Aunt Hannah sighed in sympathy with the far-away Hugh Calderwell, as she looked down at the bright young face near her.

There was a moment's silence; then Billy gave a little laugh.

"He will be surprised," she said. "He told me once that Bertram wouldn't ever care for any girl except to paint. To paint, indeed! As if Bertram didn't love me--just me!--if he never saw another tube of paint!"

"I think he does, my dear."

Again there was silence; then, from Billy's lips there came softly:

"Just think; we've been engaged almost four weeks--and to-morrow it'll be announced. I'm so glad I didn't ever announce the other two!"

"The other two!" cried Aunt Hannah.

Billy laughed.

"Oh, I forgot. You didn't know about Cyril."

"Cyril!"

"Oh, there didn't anybody know it, either not even Cyril himself," dimpled Billy, mischievously. "I just engaged myself to him in imagination, you know, to see how I'd like it. I didn't like it. But it didn't last, anyhow, very long-- just three weeks, I believe. Then I broke it off," she finished, with unsmiling mouth, but dancing eyes.

"Billy!" protested Aunt Hannah, feebly.

"But I am glad only the family knew about my engagement to Uncle William--oh, Aunt Hannah, you don't know how good it does seem to call him `Uncle' again. It was always slipping out, anyhow, all the time we were engaged; and of course it was awful then."

"That only goes to prove, my dear, how entirely unsuitable it was, from the start."

A bright color flooded Billy's face.

"I know; but if a girl will think a man is asking for a wife when all he wants is a daughter, and if she blandly says `Yes, thank you, I'll marry you,' I don't know what you can expect!"

"You can expect just what you got--misery, and almost a tragedy," retorted Aunt Hannah, severely.

A tender light came into Billy's eyes.

"Dear Uncle William! What a jewel he was, all the way through! And he'd have marched straight to the altar, too, with never a flicker of an eyelid, I know--self-sacrificing martyr that he was!"

"Martyr!" bristled Aunt Hannah, with extraordinary violence for her. "I'm thinking that term belonged somewhere else. A month ago, Billy Neilson, you did not look as if you'd live out half your days. But I suppose you'd have gone to the altar, too, with never a flicker of an eyelid!"

"But I thought I had to," protested Billy. "I couldn't grieve Uncle William so, after Mrs. Hartwell had said how he--he wanted me."

Aunt Hannah's lips grew stern at the corners.

"There are times when--when I think it would be wiser if Mrs. Kate Hartwell would attend to her own affairs!" Aunt Hannah's voice fairly shook with wrath.

"Why-Aunt Hannah!" reproved Billy in mischievous horror. "I'm shocked at you!"

Aunt Hannah flushed miserably.

"There, there, child, forget I said it. I ought not to have said it, of course," she murmured agitatedly.

Billy laughed.

"You should have heard what Uncle William said! But never mind. We all found out the mistake before it was too late, and everything is lovely now, even to Cyril and Marie. Did you ever see anything so beatifically happy as that couple are? Bertram says he hasn't heard a dirge from Cyril's rooms for three weeks; and that if anybody else played the kind of music he's been playing, it would be just common garden ragtime!"

"Music! Oh, my grief and conscience! That makes me think, Billy. If I'm not actually forgetting what I came in here for," cried Aunt Hannah, fumbling in the folds of her dress for the letter that had slipped from her lap. "I've had word from a young niece. She's going to study music in Boston."

"A niece?"

"Well, not really, you know. She calls me `Aunt,' just as you and the Henshaw boys do. But I really am related to her, for her mother and I are third cousins, while it was my husband who was distantly related to the Henshaw family."

"What's her name?"

" `Mary Jane Arkwright.' Where is that letter?"

"Here it is, on the floor," reported Billy. "Were you going to read it to me?" she asked, as she picked it up.

"Yes--if you don't mind."

"I'd love to hear it."

"Then I'll read it. It--it rather annoys me in some ways. I thought the whole family understood that I wasn't living by myself any longer --that I was living with you. I'm sure I thought I wrote them that, long ago. But this sounds almost as if they didn't understand it--at least, as if this girl didn't."

"How old is she?"

"I don't know; but she must be some old, to be coming here to Boston to study music, alone --singing, I think she said."

"You don't remember her, then?"

Aunt Hannah frowned and paused, the letter half withdrawn from its envelope.

"No--but that isn't strange. They live West. I haven't seen any of them for years. I know there are several children--and I suppose I've been told their names. I know there's a boy--the eldest, I think--who is quite a singer, and there's a girl who paints, I believe; but I don't seem to remember a `Mary Jane.' "

"Never mind! Suppose we let Mary Jane speak for herself," suggested Billy, dropping her chin into the small pink cup of her hand, and settling herself to listen.

"Very well," sighed Aunt Hannah; and she opened the letter and began to read.

"DEAR AUNT HANNAH:--This is to tell you that I'm coming to Boston to study singing in the school for Grand Opera, and I'm planning to look you up. Do you object? I said to a friend the other day that I'd half a mind to write to Aunt Hannah and beg a home with her; and my friend retorted: `Why don't you, Mary Jane?' But that, of course, I should not think of doing.

"But I know I shall be lonesome, Aunt Hannah, and I hope you'll let me see you once in a while, anyway. I plan now to come next week --I've already got as far as New York, as you see by the address--and I shall hope to see you soon.

"All the family would send love, I know.

"M. J. ARKWRIGHT."

"Grand Opera! Oh, how perfectly lovely," cried Billy.

"Yes, but Billy, do you think she is expecting me to invite her to make her home with me? I shall have to write and explain that I can't-- if she does, of course."

Billy frowned and hesitated.

"Why, it sounded--a little--that way; but--" Suddenly her face cleared. "Aunt Hannah, I've thought of the very thing. We will take her!"

"Oh, Billy, I couldn't think of letting you do that," demurred Aunt Hannah. "You're very kind--but, oh, no; not that!"

"Why not? I think it would be lovely; and we can just as well as not. After Marie is married in December, she can have that room. Until then she can have the little blue room next to me."

"But--but--we don't know anything about her."

"We know she's your niece, and she's lonesome; and we know she's musical. I shall love her for every one of those things. Of course we'll take her!"

"But--I don't know anything about her age."

"All the more reason why she should be looked out for, then," retorted Billy, promptly. "Why, Aunt Hannah, just as if you didn't want to give this lonesome, unprotected young girl a home!"

"Oh, I do, of course; but--"

"Then it's all settled," interposed Billy, springing to her feet.

"But what if we--we shouldn't like her?"

"Nonsense! What if she shouldn't like us?" laughed Billy. "However, if you'd feel better, just ask her to come and stay with us a month. We shall keep her all right, afterwards. See if we don't!"

Slowly Aunt Hannah got to her feet.

"Very well, dear. I'll write, of course, as you tell me to; and it's lovely of you to do it. Now I'll leave you to your letters. I've hindered you far too long, as it is."

"You've rested me," declared Billy, flinging wide her arms.

Aunt Hannah, fearing a second dizzying whirl impelled by those same young arms, drew her shawls about her shoulders and backed hastily toward the hall door.

Billy laughed.

"Oh, I won't again--to-day," she promised merrily. Then, as the lady reached the arched doorway: "Tell Mary Jane to let us know the day and train and we'll meet her. Oh, and Aunt Hannah, tell her to wear a pink--a white pink; and tell her we will, too," she finished gayly.