Chapter II. For William--A Home
 

On the first Sunday after the wedding Pete came up-stairs to tell his master, William, that Mrs. Stetson wanted to see him in the drawing- room.

William went down at once.

"Well, Aunt Hannah," he began, reaching out a cordial hand. "Why, what's the matter?" he broke off concernedly, as he caught a clearer view of the little old lady's drawn face and troubled eyes.

"William, it's silly, of course," cried Aunt Hannah, tremulously, "but I simply had to go to some one. I--I feel so nervous and unsettled! Did--did Billy say anything to you-- what she was going to do?"

"What she was going to do? About what? What do you mean?"

"About the house--selling it," faltered Aunt Hannah, sinking wearily back into her chair.

William frowned thoughtfully.

"Why, no," he answered. "It was all so hurried at the last, you know. There was really very little chance to make plans for anything-- except the wedding," he finished, with a smile.

"Yes, I know," sighed Aunt Hannah. "Everything was in such confusion! Still, I didn't know but she might have said something--to you."

"No, she didn't. But I imagine it won't be hard to guess what she'll do. When they get back from their trip I fancy she won't lose much time in having what things she wants brought down here. Then she'll sell the rest and put the house on the market."

"Yes, of--of course," stammered Aunt Hannah, pulling herself hastily to a more erect position. "That's what I thought, too. Then don't you think we'd better dismiss Rosa and close the house at once?"

"Why--yes, perhaps so. Why not? Then you'd be all settled here when she comes home. I'm sure, the sooner you come, the better I'll be pleased," he smiled.

Aunt Hannah turned sharply.

"Here!" she ejaculated. "William Henshaw, you didn't suppose I was coming here to live, did you?"

It was William's turn to look amazed.

"Why, of course you're coming here! Where else should you go, pray?"

"Where I was before--before Billy came--to you," returned Aunt Hannah a little tremulously, but with a certain dignity. "I shall take a room in some quiet boarding-house, of course."

"Nonsense, Aunt Hannah! As if Billy would listen to that! You came before; why not come now?"

Aunt Hannah lifted her chin the fraction of an inch.

"You forget. I was needed before. Billy is a married woman now. She needs no chaperon."

"Nonsense!" scowled William, again. "Billy will always need you."

Aunt Hannah shook her head mournfully.

"I like to think--she wants me, William, but I know, in my heart, it isn't best."

"Why not?"

There was a moment's pause; then, decisively came the answer.

"Because I think young married folks should not have outsiders in the home."

William laughed relievedly.

"Oh, so that's it! Well, Aunt Hannah, you're no outsider. Come, run right along home and pack your trunk."

Aunt Hannah was plainly almost crying; but she held her ground.

"William, I can't," she reiterated.

"But--Billy is such a child, and--"

For once in her circumspect life Aunt Hannah was guilty of an interruption.

"Pardon me, William, she is not a child. She is a woman now, and she has a woman's problems to meet."

"Well, then, why don't you help her meet them?" retorted William, still with a whimsical smile.

But Aunt Hannah did not smile. For a minute she did not speak; then, with her eyes studiously averted, she said:

"William, the first four years of my married life were--were spoiled by an outsider in our home. I don't mean to spoil Billy's."

William relaxed visibly. The smile fled from his face.

"Why--Aunt--Hannah!" he exclaimed.

The little old lady turned with a weary sigh.

"Yes, I know. You are shocked, of course. I shouldn't have told you. Still, it is all past long ago, and--I wanted to make you understand why I can't come. He was my husband's eldest brother--a bachelor. He was good and kind, and meant well, I suppose; but--he interfered with everything. I was young, and probably headstrong. At all events, there was constant friction. He went away once and stayed two whole months. I shall never forget the utter freedom and happiness of those months for us, with the whole house to ourselves. No, William, I can't come." She rose abruptly and turned toward the door. Her eyes were wistful, and her face was still drawn with suffering; but her whole frail little self quivered plainly with high resolve. "John has Peggy outside. I must go."

"But--but, Aunt Hannah," began William, helplessly.

She lifted a protesting hand.

"No, don't urge me, please. I can't come here. But--I believe I won't close the house till Billy gets home, after all," she declared. The next moment she was gone, and William, dazedly, from the doorway, was watching John help her into Billy's automobile, called by Billy and half her friends, "Peggy," short for "Pegasus."

Still dazedly William turned back into the house and dropped himself into the nearest chair.

What a curious call it had been! Aunt Hannah had not acted like herself at all. Not once had she said "Oh, my grief and conscience!" while the things she had said--! Someway, he had never thought of Aunt Hannah as being young, and a bride. Still, of course she must have been --once. And the reason she gave for not coming there to live--the pitiful story of that outsider in her home! But she was no outsider! She was no interfering brother of Billy's--

William caught his breath suddenly, and held it suspended. Then he gave a low ejaculation and half sprang from his chair.

Spunkie, disturbed from her doze by the fire, uttered a purring "me-o-ow," and looked up inquiringly.

For a long minute William gazed dumbly into the cat's yellow, sleepily contented eyes; then he said with tragic distinctness:

"Spunkie, it's true: Aunt Hannah isn't Billy's husband's brother, but--I am! Do you hear? I am!"

"Pur-r-me-ow!" commented Spunkie; and curled herself for another nap.

There was no peace for William after that. In vain he told himself that he was no "interfering" brother, and that this was his home and had been all his life; in vain did he declare emphatically that he could not go, he would not go; that Billy would not wish him to go: always before his eyes was the vision of that little bride of years long gone; always in his ears was the echo of Aunt Hannah's "I shall never forget the utter freedom and happiness of those months for us, with the whole house to ourselves." Nor, turn which way he would, could he find anything to comfort him. Simply because he was so fearfully looking for it, he found it--the thing that had for its theme the wretchedness that might be expected from the presence of a third person in the new home.

Poor William! Everywhere he met it--the hint, the word, the story, the song, even; and always it added its mite to the woeful whole. Even the hoariest of mother-in-law jokes had its sting for him; and, to make his cup quite full, he chanced to remember one day what Marie had said when he had suggested that she and Cyril come to the Strata to live: "No; I think young folks should begin by themselves."

Unhappy, indeed, were these days for William. Like a lost spirit he wandered from room to room, touching this, fingering that. For long minutes he would stand before some picture, or some treasured bit of old mahogany, as if to stamp indelibly upon his mind a thing that was soon to be no more. At other times, like a man without a home, he would go out into the Common or the Public Garden and sit for hours on some bench--thinking.

All this could have but one ending, of course. Before the middle of August William summoned Pete to his rooms.

"Oh, Pete, I'm going to move next week," he began nonchalantly. His voice sounded as if moving were a pleasurable circumstance that occurred in his life regularly once a month. "I'd like you to begin to pack up these things, please, to-morrow."

The old servant's mouth fell open.

"You're goin' to--to what, sir?" he stammered.

"Move--move, I said." William spoke with unusual harshness.

Pete wet his lips.

"You mean you've sold the old place, sir?-- that we--we ain't goin' to live here no longer?"

"Sold? Of course not! I'm going to move away; not you."

If Pete could have known what caused the sharpness in his master's voice, he would not have been so grieved--or, rather, he would have been grieved for a different reason. As it was he could only falter miserably:

"You are goin' to move away from here!"

"Yes, yes, man! Why, Pete, what ails you? One would think a body never moved before."

"They didn't--not you, sir."

William turned abruptly, so that his face could not be seen. With stern deliberation he picked up an elaborately decorated teapot; but the valuable bit of Lowestoft shook so in his hand that he set it down at once. It clicked sharply against its neighbor, betraying his nervous hand.

Pete stirred.

"But, Mr. William," he stammered thickly; "how are you--what'll you do without-- There doesn't nobody but me know so well about your tea, and the two lumps in your coffee; and there's your flannels that you never put on till I get 'em out, and the woolen socks that you'd wear all summer if I didn't hide 'em. And-- and who's goin' to take care of these?" he finished, with a glance that encompassed the overflowing cabinets and shelves of curios all about him.

His master smiled sadly. An affection that had its inception in his boyhood days shone in his eyes. The hand in which the Lowestoft had shaken rested now heavily on an old man's bent shoulder--a shoulder that straightened itself in unconscious loyalty under the touch.

"Pete, you have spoiled me, and no mistake. I don't expect to find another like you. But maybe if I wear the woolen socks too late you'll come and hunt up the others for me. Eh?" And, with a smile that was meant to be quizzical, William turned and began to shift the teapots about again.

"But, Mr. William, why--that is, what will Mr. Bertram and Miss Billy do--without you?" ventured the old man.

There was a sudden tinkling crash. On the floor lay the fragments of a silver-luster teapot.

The servant exclaimed aloud in dismay, but his master did not even glance toward his once treasured possession on the floor.

"Nonsense, Pete!" he was saying in a particularly cheery voice. "Have you lived all these years and not found out that newly-married folks don't need any one else around? Come, do you suppose we could begin to pack these teapots to-night?" he added, a little feverishly. "Aren't there some boxes down cellar?"

"I'll see, sir," said Pete, respectfully; but the expression on his face as he turned away showed that he was not thinking of teapots--nor of boxes in which to pack them.