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Miss Billy’s Decision, CHAPTER XVI

by Eleanor H. Porter

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.

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