Chapter XXVIII. "I'm Going to Win"
 

Nearly all of Billy's friends knew that Bertram Henshaw was in love with Billy Neilson before Billy herself knew it. Not that they regarded it as anything serious--"it's only Bertram" was still said of him on almost all occasions. But to Bertram himself it was very serious.

The world to Bertram, indeed, had come to assume a vastly different aspect from what it had displayed in times past. Heretofore it had been a plaything which like a juggler's tinsel ball might be tossed from hand to hand at will. Now it was no plaything--no glittering bauble. It was something big and serious and splendid--because Billy lived in it; something that demanded all his powers to do, and be--because Billy was watching; something that might be a Hades of torment or an Elysium of bliss--according to whether Billy said "no" or "yes."

Since Thanksgiving Bertram had known that it was love--this consuming fire within him; and since Thanksgiving he had known, too, that it was jealousy--this fierce hatred of Calderwell. He was ashamed of the hatred. He told himself that it was unmanly, unkind, and unreasonable; and he vowed that he would overcome it. At times he even fancied that he had overcome it; but always the sight of Calderwell in Billy's little drawing-room or of even the man's card on Billy's silver tray was enough to show him that he had not.

There were others, too, who annoyed Bertram not a little, foremost of these being his own brothers. Still he was not really worried about William and Cyril, he told himself. William he did not consider to be a marrying man; and Cyril--every one knew that Cyril was a woman-hater. He was doubtless attracted now only by Billy's music. There was no real rivalry to be feared from William and Cyril. But there was always Calderwell, and Calderwell was serious. Bertram decided, therefore, after some weeks of feverish unrest, that the only road to peace lay through a frank avowal of his feelings, and a direct appeal to Billy to give him the great boon of her love.

Just here, however, Bertram met with an unexpected difficulty. He could not find words with which to make his avowal or to present his appeal. He was surprised and annoyed. Never before had he been at a loss for words--mere words. And it was not that he lacked opportunity. He walked, drove, and talked with Billy, and always she was companionable, attentive to what he had to say. Never was she cold or reserved. Never did she fail to greet him with a cheery smile.

Bertram concluded, indeed, after a time, that she was too companionable, too cheery. He wished she would hesitate, stammer, blush; be a little shy. He wished that she would display surprise, annoyance, even--anything but that eternal air of comradeship. And then, one afternoon in the early twilight of a January day, he freed his mind, quite unexpectedly.

"Billy, I wish you wouldn't be so--so friendly!" he exclaimed in a voice that was almost sharp.

Billy laughed at first, but the next moment a shamed distress drove the merriment quite out of her face.

"You mean that I presume on--on our friendship?" she stammered. "That you fear that I will again--shadow your footsteps?" It was the first time since the memorable night itself that Billy had ever in Bertram's presence referred to her young guardianship of his welfare. She realized now, suddenly, that she had just been giving the man before her some very "sisterly advice," and the thought sent a confused red to her cheeks.

Bertram turned quickly.

"Billy, that was the dearest and loveliest thing a girl ever did-- only I was too great a chump to appreciate it!" finished Bertram in a voice that was not quite steady.

"Thank you," smiled the girl, with a slow shake of her head and a relieved look in her eyes; "but I'm afraid I can't quite agree to that." The next moment she had demanded mischievously: "Why, then, pray, this unflattering objection to my--friendliness now?"

"Because I don't want you for a friend, or a sister, or anything else that's related," stormed Bertram, with sudden vehemence. "I don't want you for anything but--a wife! Billy, won't you marry me?"

Again Billy laughed--laughed until she saw the pained anger leap to the gray eyes before her; then she became grave at once.

"Bertram, forgive me. I didn't think you could--you can't be-- serious!"

"But I am."

Billy shook her head.

"But you don't love me--not me, Bertram. It's only the turn of my head or--or the tilt of my chin that you love--to paint," she protested, unconsciously echoing the words Calderwell had said to her weeks before. "I'm only another 'Face of a Girl.'"

"You're the only 'Face of a girl' to me now, Billy," declared the man, with disarming tenderness.

"No, no, not that," demurred Billy, in distress. "You don't mean it. You only think you do. It couldn't be that. It can't be!"

"But it is, dear. I think I have loved you ever since that night long ago when I saw your dear, startled face appealing to me from beyond Seaver's hateful smile. And, Billy, I never went once with Seaver again--anywhere. Did you know that?"

"No; but--I'm glad--so glad!"

"And I'm glad, too. So you see, I must have loved you then, though unconsciously, perhaps; and I love you now."

"No, no, please don't say that. It can't be--it really can't be. I--I don't love you--that way, Bertram."

The man paled a little.

"Billy--forgive me for asking, but it's so much to me--is it that there is--some one else?" His voice shook.

"No, no, indeed! There is no one."

"It's not--Calderwell?"

Billy's forehead grew pink. She laughed nervous1y.

"No, no, never!"

"But there are others, so many others!"

"Nonsense, Bertram; there's no one--no one, I assure you!"

"It's not William, of course, nor Cyril. Cyril hates women."

A deeper flush came to Billy's face. Her chin rose a little; and an odd defiance flashed from her eyes. But almost instantly it was gone, and a slow smile had come to her lips.

"Yes, I know. Every one--says that Cyril hates women," she observed demurely.

"Then, Billy, I sha'n't give up!" vowed Bertram, softly. "Sometime you will love me!"

"No, no, I couldn't. That is, I'm not going to--to marry," stammered Billy.

"Not going to marry!"

"No. There's my music--you know how I love that, and how much it is to me. I don't think there'll ever be a man--that I'll love better."

Bertram lifted his head. Very slowly he rose till his splendid six feet of clean-limbed strength and manly beauty towered away above the low chair in which Billy sat. His mouth showed new lines about the corners, and his eyes looked down very tenderly at the girl beside him; but his voice, when he spoke, had a light whimsicality that deceived even Billy's ears.

"And so it's music--a cold, senseless thing of spidery marks on clean white paper--that is my only rival," he cried. "Then I'll warn you, Billy, I'll warn you. I'm going to win!" And with that he was gone.