Chapter IV. "Just Like Billy"
 

Billy did not leave the Strata this time. Before twenty-four hours had passed, the last cherished fragment of Mr. William Henshaw's possessions had been carefully carried down the imposing steps of the Beacon Hill boarding-house under the disapproving eyes of its bugle-adorned mistress, who found herself now with a month's advance rent and two vacant "parlors" on her hands. Before another twenty-four hours had passed her quondam boarder, with a tired sigh, sank into his favorite morris chair in his old familiar rooms, and looked about him with contented eyes. Every treasure was in place, from the traditional four small stones of his babyhood days to the Batterseas Billy had just brought him. Pete, as of yore, was hovering near with a dust- cloth. Bertram's gay whistle sounded from the floor below. William Henshaw was at home again.

This much accomplished, Billy went to see Aunt Hannah.

Aunt Hannah greeted her affectionately, though with tearfully troubled eyes. She was wearing a gray shawl to-day topped with a black one-- sure sign of unrest, either physical or mental, as all her friends knew.

"I'd begun to think you'd forgotten--me," she faltered, with a poor attempt at gayety.

"You've been home three whole days."

"I know, dearie," smiled Billy; "and 'twas a shame. But I have been so busy! My trunks came at last, and I've been helping Uncle William get settled, too."

Aunt Hannah looked puzzled.

"Uncle William get settled? You mean-- he's changed his room?"

Billy laughed oddly, and threw a swift glance into Aunt Hannah's face.

"Well, yes, he did change," she murmured; "but he's moved back now into the old quarters. Er--you haven't heard from Uncle William then, lately, I take it."

"No." Aunt Hannah shook her head abstractedly. "I did see him once, several weeks ago; but I haven't, since. We had quite a talk, then; and, Billy, I've been wanting to speak to you," she hurried on, a little feverishly. "I didn't like to leave, of course, till you did come home, as long as you'd said nothing about your plans; but--"

"Leave!" interposed Billy, dazedly. "Leave where? What do you mean?"

"Why, leave here, of course, dear. I mean. I didn't like to get my room while you were away; but I shall now, of course, at once."

"Nonsense, Aunt Hannah! As if I'd let you do that," laughed Billy.

Aunt Hannah stiffened perceptibly. Her lips looked suddenly thin and determined. Even the soft little curls above her ears seemed actually to bristle with resolution.

"Billy," she began firmly, "we might as well understand each other at once. I know your good heart, and I appreciate your kindness. But I can not come to live with you. I shall not. It wouldn't be best. I should be like an interfering elder brother in your home. I should spoil your young married life; and if I went away for two months you'd never forget the utter joy and freedom of those two months with the whole house ali to yourselves."

At the beginning of this speech Billy's eyes had still carried their dancing smile, but as the peroration progressed on to the end, a dawning surprise, which soon became a puzzled questioning, drove the smile away. Then Billy sat suddenly erect.

"Why, Aunt Hannah, that's exactly what Uncle William--" Billy stopped, and regarded Aunt Hannah with quick suspicion. The next moment she burst into gleeful laughter.

Aunt Hannah looked grieved, and not a little surprised; but Billy did not seem to notice this.

"Oh, oh, Aunt Hannah--you, too! How perfectly funny!" she gurgled. "To think you two old blesseds should get your heads together like this!"

Aunt Hannah stirred restively, and pulled the black shawl more closely about her.

"Indeed, Billy, I don't know what you mean by that," she sighed, with a visible effort at self- control; "but I do know that I can not go to live with you."

"Bless your heart, dear, I don't want you to," soothed Billy, with gay promptness.

"Oh! O-h-h," stammered Aunt Hannah, surprise, mortification, dismay, and a grieved hurt bringing a flood of color to her face. It is one thing to refuse a home, and quite another to have a home refused you.

"Oh! O-h-h, Aunt Hannah," cried Billy, turning very red in her turn. "Please, please don't look like that. I didn't mean it that way. I do want you, dear, only--I want you somewhere else more. I want you--here."

"Here!" Aunt Hannah looked relieved, but unconvinced.

"Yes. Don't you like it here?"

"Like it! Why, I love it, dear. You know I do. But you don't need this house now, Billy."

"Oh, yes, I do," retorted Billy, airily. "I'm going to keep it up, and I want you here.

"Fiddlededee, Billy! As if I'd let you keep up this house just for me," scorned Aunt Hannah.

" 'Tisn't just for you. It's for--for lots of folks."

"My grief and conscience, Billy! What are you talking about?"

Billy laughed, and settled herself more comfortably on the hassock at Aunt Hannah's feet.

"Well, I'll tell you. Just now I want it for Tommy Dunn, and the Greggorys if I can get them, and maybe one or two others. There'll always be somebody. You see, I had thought I'd have them at the Strata."

"Tommy Dunn--at the Strata!"

Billy laughed again ruefully.

"O dear! You sound just like Bertram," she pouted. "He didn't want Tommy, either, nor any of the rest of them."

"The rest of them!"

"Well, I could have had a lot more, you know, the Strata is so big, especially now that Cyril has gone, and left all those empty rooms. I got real enthusiastic, but Bertram didn't. He just laughed and said `nonsense!' until he found I was really in earnest; then he--well, he said `nonsense,' then, too--only he didn't laugh," finished Billy, with a sigh.

Aunt Hannah regarded her with fond, though slightly exasperated eyes.

"Billy, you are, indeed, a most extraordinary young woman--at times. Surely, with you, a body never knows what to expect--except the unexpected."

"Why, Aunt Hannah!--and from you, too!" reproached Billy, mischievously; but Aunt Hannah had yet more to say.

"Of course Bertram thought it was nonsense. The idea of you, a bride, filling up your house with--with people like that! Tommy Dunn, indeed!"

"Oh, Bertram said he liked Tommy all right," sighed Billy; "but he said that that didn't mean he wanted him for three meals a day. One would think poor Tommy was a breakfast food! So that is when I thought of keeping up this house, you see, and that's why I want you here--to take charge of it. And you'll do that--for me, won't you?"

Aunt Hannah fell back in her chair.

Why, y-yes, Billy, of course, if--if you want it. But what an extraordinary idea, child!"

Billy shook her head. A deeper color came to her cheeks, and a softer glow to her eyes.

"I don't think so, Aunt Hannah. It's only that I'm so happy that some of it has just got to overflow somewhere, and this is going to be the overflow house--a sort of safety valve for me, you see. I'm going to call it the Annex--it will be an annex to our home. And I want to keep it full, always, of people who--who can make the best use of all that extra happiness that I can't possibly use myself," she finished a little tremulously. "Don't you see?"

"Oh, yes, I see," replied Aunt Hannah, with a fond shake of the head.

"But, really, listen--it's sensible," urged Billy. "First, there's Tommy. His mother died last month. He's at a neighbor's now, but they're going to send him to a Home for Crippled Children; and he's grieving his heart out over it. I'm going to bring him here to a real home-- the kind that doesn't begin with a capital letter. He adores music, and he's got real talent, I think. Then there's the Greggorys."

Aunt Hannah looked dubious.

"You can't get the Greggorys to--to use any of that happiness, Billy. They're too proud."

Billy smiled radiantly.

"I know I can't get them to use it, Aunt Hannah, but I believe I can get them to give it," she declared triumphantly. "I shall ask Alice Greggory to teach Tommy music, and I shall ask Mrs. Greggory to teach him books; and I shall tell them both that I positively need them to keep you company."

"Oh, but Billy," bridled Aunt Hannah, with prompt objection.

"Tut, tut!--I know you'll be willing to be thrown as a little bit of a sop to the Greggorys' pride," coaxed Billy. "You just wait till I get the Overflow Annex in running order. Why, Aunt Hannah, you don't know how busy you're going to be handing out all that extra happiness that I can't use!"

"You dear child!" Aunt Hannah smiled mistily. The black shawl had fallen unheeded to the floor now. "As if anybody ever had any more happiness than one's self could use!"

"I have," avowed Billy, promptly, "and it's going to keep growing and growing, I know."

"Oh, my grief and conscience, Billy, don't!" exclaimed Aunt Hannah, lifting shocked hands of remonstrance. "Rap on wood--do! How can you boast like that?"

Billy dimpled roguishly and sprang to her feet{.??}

"Why, Aunt Hannah, I'm ashamed of you! To be superstitious like that--you, a good Presbyterian!"

Aunt Hannah subsided shamefacedly.

"Yes, I know, Billy, it is silly; but I just can't help it."

"Oh, but it's worse than silly, Aunt Hannah," teased Billy, with a remorseless chuckle. "It's really heathen! Bertram told me once that it dates 'way back to the time of the Druids-- appealing to the god of trees, or something like that --when you rap on wood, you know."

"Ugh!" shuddered Aunt Hannah. "As if I would, Billy! How is Bertram, by the by?"

A swift shadow crossed Billy's bright face.

"He's lovely--only his arm."

"His arm! But I thought that was better."

"Oh, it is," drooped Billy, "but it gets along so slowly, and it frets him dreadfully. You know he never can do anything with his left hand, he says, and he just hates to have things done for him--though Pete and Dong Ling are quarreling with each other all the time to do things for him, and I'm quarreling with both of them to do them for him myself! By the way, Dong Ling is going to leave us next week. Did you know it?"

"Dong Ling--leave!"

"Yes. Oh, he told Bertram long ago he should go when we were married; that he had plenty much money, and was going back to China, and not be Melican man any longer. But I don't think Bertram thought he'd do it. William says Dong Ling went to Pete, however, after we left, and told him he wanted to go; that he liked the little Missee plenty well, but that there'd be too much hen-talk when she got back, and--"

"Why, the impudent creature!"

Billy laughed merrily.

"Yes; Pete was furious, William says, but Dong Ling didn't mean any disrespect, I'm sure. He just wasn't used to having petticoats around, and didn't want to take orders from them; that's all."

"But, Billy, what will you do?"

"Oh, Pete's fixed all that lovely," returned Billy, nonchalantly. "You know his niece lives over in South Boston, and it seems she's got a daughter who's a fine cook and will be glad to come. Mercy! Look at the time," she broke off, glancing at the clock. "I shall be late to dinner, and Dong Ling loathes anybody who's late to his meals--as I found out to my sorrow the night we got home. Good-by, dear. I'll be out soon again and fix it all up--about the Annex, you know." And with a bright smile she was gone.

"Dear me," sighed Aunt Hannah, stooping to pick up the black shawl; "dear me! Of course everything will be all right--there's a girl coming, even if Dong Ling is going. But--but-- Oh, my grief and conscience, what an extraordinary child Billy is, to be sure--but what a dear one!" she added, wiping a quick tear from her eye. "An Overflow Annex, indeed, for her `extra happiness'! Now isn't that just like Billy?"