Chapter III. Billy Speaks Her Mind
 

Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Henshaw were expected home the first of September. By the thirty-first of August the old Beacon Street homestead facing the Public Garden was in spick-and-span order, with Dong Ling in the basement hovering over a well-stocked larder, and Pete searching the rest of the house for a chair awry, or a bit of dust undiscovered.

Twice before had the Strata--as Bertram long ago dubbed the home of his boyhood-- been prepared for the coming of Billy, William's namesake: once, when it had been decorated with guns and fishing-rods to welcome the "boy" who turned out to be a girl; and again when with pink roses and sewing-baskets the three brothers got joyously ready for a feminine Billy who did not even come at all.

The house had been very different then. It had been, indeed, a "strata," with its distinctive layers of fads and pursuits as represented by Bertram and his painting on one floor, William and his curios on another, and Cyril with his music on a third. Cyril was gone now. Only Pete and his humble belongings occupied the top floor. The floor below, too, was silent now, and almost empty save for a rug or two, and a few pieces of heavy furniture that William had not cared to take with him to his new quarters on top of Beacon Hill. Below this, however, came Billy's old rooms, and on these Pete had lavished all his skill and devotion.

Freshly laundered curtains were at the windows, dustless rugs were on the floor. The old work-basket had been brought down from the top-floor storeroom, and the long-closed piano stood invitingly open. In a conspicuous place, also, sat the little green god, upon whose exquisitely carved shoulders was supposed to rest the "heap plenty velly good luckee" of Dong Ling's prophecy.

On the first floor Bertram's old rooms and the drawing-room came in for their share of the general overhauling. Even Spunkie did not escape, but had to submit to the ignominy of a bath. And then dawned fair and clear the first day of September, bringing at five o'clock the bride and groom.

Respectfully lined up in the hall to meet them were Pete and Dong Ling: Pete with his wrinkled old face alight with joy and excitement; Dong Ling grinning and kotowing, and chanting in a high-pitched treble:

"Miss Billee, Miss Billee--plenty much welcome, Miss Billee!"

"Yes, welcome home, Mrs. Henshaw!" bowed Bertram, turning at the door, with an elaborate flourish that did not in the least hide his tender pride in his new wife.

Billy laughed and colored a pretty pink.

"Thank you--all of you," she cried a little unsteadily. "And how good, good everything does look to me! Why, where's Uncle William?" she broke off, casting hurriedly anxious eyes about her.

"Well, I should say so," echoed Bertram. "Where is he, Pete? He isn't sick, is he?"

A quick change crossed the old servant's face. He shook his head dumbly.

Billy gave a gleeful laugh.

"I know--he's asleep!" she caroled, skipping to the bottom of the stairway and looking up

"Ho, Uncle William! Better wake up, sir. The folks have come!"

Pete cleared his throat.

"Mr. William isn't here, Miss--ma'am," he corrected miserably.

Billy smiled, but she frowned, too.

"Not here! Well, I like that," she pouted; "--and when I've brought him the most beautiful pair of mirror knobs he ever saw, and all the way in my bag, too, so I could give them to him the very first thing," she added, darting over to the small bag she had brought in with her. "I'm glad I did, too, for our trunks didn't come," she continued laughingly. "Still, if he isn't here to receive them-- There, Pete, aren't they beautiful?" she cried, carefully taking from their wrappings two exquisitely decorated porcelain discs mounted on two long spikes. "They're Batterseas-- the real article. I know enough for that; and they're finer than anything he's got. Won't he be pleased?"

"Yes, Miss--ma'am, I mean," stammered the old man.

"These new titles come hard, don't they, Pete?" laughed Bertram.

Pete smiled faintly.

"Never mind, Pete," soothed his new mistress. "You shall call me `Miss Billy' all your life if you want to. Bertram," she added, turning to her husband, "I'm going to just run up-stairs and put these in Uncle William's rooms so they'll be there when he comes in. We'll see how soon he discovers them!"

Before Pete could stop her she was half-way up the first flight of stairs. Even then he tried to speak to his young master, to explain that Mr. William was not living there; but the words refused to come. He could only stand dumbly waiting.

In a minute it came--Billy's sharp, startled cry.

"Bertram! Bertram!"

Bertram sprang for the stairway, but he had not reached the top when he met his wife coming down. She was white-faced and trembling.

"Bertram--those rooms--there's not so much as a teapot there! Uncle William's-- gone!"

"Gone!" Bertram wheeled sharply. "Pete, what is the meaning of this? Where is my brother?" To hear him, one would think he suspected the old servant of having hidden his master.

Pete lifted a shaking hand and fumbled with his collar.

"He's moved, sir."

"Moved! Oh, you mean to other rooms--to Cyril's." Bertram relaxed visibly. "He's upstairs, maybe."

Pete shook his head.

"No. sir. He's moved away--out of the house, sir."

For a brief moment Bertram stared as if he could not believe what his ears had heard. Then, step by step, he began to descend the stairs.

"Do you mean--to say--that my brother --has moved-gone away--left--his home?" he demanded.

"Yes, sir."

Billy gave a low cry.

"But why--why?" she choked, almost stumbling headlong down the stairway in her effort to reach the two men at the bottom. "Pete, why did he go?"

There was no answer.

"Pete,"--Bertram's voice was very sharp-- "what is the meaning of this? Do you know why my brother left his home?"

The old man wet his lips and swallowed chokingly, but he did not speak.

"I'm waiting, Pete."

Billy laid one hand on the old servant's arm --in the other hand she still tightly clutched the mirror knobs.

"Pete, if you do know, won't you tell us, please?" she begged.

Pete looked down at the hand, then up at the troubled young face with the beseeching eyes. His own features worked convulsively. With a visible effort he cleared his throat.

"I know--what he said," he stammered, his eyes averted.

"What was it?"

There was no answer.

"Look here, Pete, you'll have to tell us, you know," cut in Bertram, decisively, "so you might as well do it now as ever."

Once more Pete cleared his throat. This time the words came in a burst of desperation.

"Yes, sir. I understand, sir. It was only that he said--he said as how young folks didn't need any one else around. So he was goin'."

"Didn't need any one else!" exclaimed Bertram, plainly not comprehending.

"Yes, sir. You two bein' married so, now." Pete's eyes were still averted.

Billy gave a low cry.

"You mean--because I came?" she demanded.

"Why, yes, Miss--no--that is--" Pete stopped with an appealing glance at Bertram.

"Then it was--it was--on account of me," choked Billy.

Pete looked still more distressed

"No, no!" he faltered. "It was only that he thought you wouldn't want him here now."

"Want him here!" ejaculated Bertram.

"Want him here!" echoed Billy, with a sob.

"Pete, where is he?" As she asked the question she dropped the mirror knobs into her open bag, and reached for her coat and gloves--she had not removed her hat.

Pete gave the address.

"It's just down the street a bit and up the hill," he added excitedly, divining her purpose. "It's a sort of a boarding-house, I reckon."

"A boarding-house--for Uncle William!" scorned Billy, her eyes ablaze. "Come, Bertram, we'll see about that."

Bertram reached out a detaining hand.

"But, dearest, you're so tired," he demurred. "Hadn't we better wait till after dinner, or till to-morrow?"

"After dinner! To-morrow!" Billy's eyes blazed anew. "Why, Bertram Henshaw, do you think I'd leave that dear man even one minute longer, if I could help it, with a notion in his blessed old head that we didn't want him?"

"But you said a little while ago you had a headache, dear," still objected Bertram. "If you'd just eat your dinner!"

"Dinner!" choked Billy. "I wonder if you think I could eat any dinner with Uncle William turned out of his home! I'm going to find Uncle William." And she stumbled blindly toward the door.

Bertram reached for his hat. He threw a despairing glance into Pete's eyes.

"We'll be back--when we can," he said, with a frown.

"Yes, sir," answered Pete, respectfully. Then, as if impelled by some hidden force, he touched his master's arm. "It was that way she looked, sir, when she came to you--that night last July--with her eyes all shining," he whispered.

A tender smile curved Bertram's lips. The frown vanished from his face.

"Bless you, Pete--and bless her, too!" he whispered back. The next moment he had hurried after his wife.

The house that bore the number Pete had given proved to have a pretentious doorway, and a landlady who, in response to the summons of the neat maid, appeared with a most impressive rustle of black silk and jet bugles.

No, Mr. William Henshaw was not in his rooms. In fact, he was very seldom there. His business, she believed, called him to State Street through the day. Outside of that, she had been told, he spent much time sitting on a bench in the Common. Doubtless, if they cared to search, they could find him there now.

"A bench in the Common, indeed!" stormed Billy, as she and Bertram hurried down the wide stone steps. "Uncle William--on a bench!"

"But surely now, dear," ventured her husband, "you'll come home and get your dinner!"

Billy turned indignantly.

"And leave Uncle William on a bench in the Common? Indeed, no! Why, Bertram, you wouldn't, either," she cried, as she turned resolutely toward one of the entrances to the Common.

And Bertram, with the "eyes all shining" still before him, could only murmur: "No, of course not, dear!" and follow obediently where she led.

Under ordinary circumstances it would have been a delightful hour for a walk. The sun had almost set, and the shadows lay long across the grass. The air was cool and unusually bracing for a day so early in September. But all this was lost on Bertram. Bertram did not wish to take a walk. He was hungry. He wanted his dinner; and he wanted, too, his old home with his new wife flitting about the rooms as he had pictured this first evening together. He wanted William, of course. Certainly he wanted William; but if William would insist on running away and sitting on park benches in this ridiculous fashion, he ought to take the consequences-- until to-morrow.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. Up one path and down another trudged the anxious-eyed Billy and her increasingly impatient husband. Then when the fifteen weary minutes had become a still more weary half-hour, the bonds Bertram had set on his temper snapped.

"Billy," he remonstrated despairingly, "do, please, come home! Don't you see how highly improbable it is that we should happen on William if we walked like this all night? He might move--change his seat--go home, even. He probably has gone home. And surely never before did a bride insist on spending the first evening after her return tramping up and down a public park for hour after hour like this, looking for any man. Won't you come home?"

But Billy had not even heard. With a glad little cry she had darted to the side of the humped-up figure of a man alone on a park bench just ahead of them.

"Uncle William! Oh, Uncle William, how could you?" she cried, dropping herself on to one end of the seat and catching the man's arm in both her hands.

"Yes, how could you?" demanded Bertram, with just a touch of irritation, dropping himself on to the other end of the seat, and catching the man's other arm in his one usable hand.

The bent shoulders and bowed head straightened up with a jerk.

"Well, well, bless my soul! If it isn't our little bride," cried Uncle William, fondly. "And the happy bridegroom, too. When did you get home?"

"We haven't got home," retorted Bertram, promptly, before his wife could speak. "Oh, we looked in at the door an hour or so back; but we didn't stay. We've been hunting for you ever since."

"Nonsense, children!" Uncle William spoke with gay cheeriness; but he refused to meet either Billy's or Bertram's eyes.

"Uncle William, how could you do it?" reproached Billy, again.

"Do what?" Uncle William was plainly fencing for time.

"Leave the house like that?"

"Ho! I wanted a change."

"As if we'd believe that!" scoffed Billy.

"All right; let's call it you've had the change, then," laughed Bertram, "and we'll send over for your things to-morrow. Come--now let's go home to dinner."

William shook his head. He essayed a gay smile.

"Why, I've only just begun. I'm going to stay--oh, I don't know how long I'm going to stay," he finished blithely.

Billy lifted her chin a little.

"Uncle William, you aren't playing square. Pete told us what you said when you left."

"Eh? What?" William looked up with startled eyes.

"About--about our not needing you. So we know, now, why you left; and we sha'n't stand it."

"Pete? That? Oh, that--that's nonsense I--I'll settle with Pete."

Billy laughed softly.

"Poor Pete! Don't. We simply dragged it out of him. And now we're here to tell you that we do want you, and that you must come back."

Again William shook his head. A swift shadow crossed his face.

"Thank you, no, children," he said dully.

You're very kind, but you don't need me. I should be just an interfering elder brother. I should spoil your young married life." (William's voice now sounded as if he were reciting a well- learned lesson.)" If I went away and stayed two months, you'd never forget the utter freedom and joy of those two whole months with the house all to yourselves."

"Uncle William," gasped Billy, "what are you talking about?"

"About--about my not going back, of course."

"But you are coming back," cut in Bertram, almost angrily. "Oh, come, Will, this is utter nonsense, and you know it! Come, let's go home to dinner."

A stern look came to the corners of William's mouth--a look that Bertram understood well.

"All right, I'll go to dinner, of course; but I sha'n't stay," said William, firmly. "I've thought it all out. I know I'm right. Come, we'll go to dinner now, and say no more about it," he finished with a cheery smile, as he rose to his feet. Then, to the bride, he added: "Did you have a nice trip, little girl?"

Billy, too, had risen, now, but she did not seem to have heard his question. In the fast falling twilight her face looked a little white.

"Uncle William," she began very quietly, "do you think for a minute that just because I married your brother I am going to live in that house and turn you out of the home you've lived in all your life?"

"Nonsense, dear! I'm not turned out. I just go," corrected Uncle William, gayly.

With superb disdain Billy brushed this aside.

"Oh, no, you won't," she declared; "but-- I shall."

"Billy!" gasped Bertram.

"My--my dear!" expostulated William, faintly.

"Uncle William! Bertram! Listen," panted Billy. "I never told you much before, but I'm going to, now. Long ago, when I went away with Aunt Hannah, your sister Kate showed me how dear the old home was to you--how much you thought of it. And she said--she said that I had upset everything." (Bertram interjected a sharp word, but Billy paid no attention.) "That's why I went; and I shall go again--if you don't come home to-morrow to stay, Uncle William. Come, now let's go to dinner, please. Bertram's hungry," she finished, with a bright smile.

There was a tense moment of silence. William glanced at Bertram; Bertram returned the glance --with interest.

"Er--ah--yes; well, we might go to dinner," stammered William, after a minute.

"Er--yes," agreed Bertram. And the three fell into step together.