Chapter XXXII. Cyril Has Something to Say
 

Long before spring Billy was forced to own to herself that her fancied security from lovemaking on the part of Cyril no longer existed. She began to suspect that there was reason for her fears. Cyril certainly was "different." He was more approachable, less reserved, even with Marie and Aunt Hannah. He was not nearly so taciturn, either, and he was much more gracious about his playing. Even Marie dared to ask him frequently for music, and he never refused her request. Three times he had taken Billy to some play that she wanted to see, and he had invited Marie, too, besides Aunt Hannah, which had pleased Billy very much. He had been at the same time so genial and so gallant that Billy had declared to Marie afterward that he did not seem like himself at all, but like some one else.

Marie had disagreed with her, it is true, and had said stiffly:

"I'm sure I thought he seemed very much like himself." But that had not changed Billy's opinion at all.

To Billy's mind, nothing but love could so have softened the stern Cyril she had known. She was, therefore, all the more careful these days to avoid a tete-a-tete with him, though she was not always successful, particularly owing to Marie's unaccountable perverseness in so often having letters to write or work to do, just when Billy most wanted her to make a safe third with herself and Cyril. It was upon such an occasion, after Marie had abruptly left them alone together, that Cyril had observed, a little sharply:

"Billy, I wish you wouldn't say again what you said ten minutes ago when Miss Marie was here."

"What was that?"

A very silly reference to that old notion that you and every one else seem to have that I am a 'woman-hater.'"

Billy's heart skipped a beat. One thought, pounded through her brain and dinned itself into her ears--at all costs Cyril must not be allowed to say that which she so feared; he must be saved from himself.

"Woman-hater? Why, of course you're a woman-hater," she cried merrily. "I'm sure, I--I think it's lovely to be a woman-hater."

The man opened wide his eyes; then he frowned angrily.

"Nonsense, Billy, I know better. Besides, I'm in earnest, and I'm not a woman-hater."

"Oh, but every one says you are," chattered Billy. "And, after all, you know it is distinguishing!"

With a disdainful exclamation the man sprang to his feet. For a time he paced the room in silence, watched by Billy's fearful eyes; then he came back and dropped into the low chair at Billy's side. His whole manner had undergone a complete change. He was almost shamefaced as he said:

"Billy, I suppose I might as well own up. I don't think I did think much of women until I saw--you."

Billy swallowed and wet her lips. She tried to speak; but before she could form the words the man went on with his remarks; and Billy did not know whether to be the more relieved or frightened thereat.

"But you see now it's different. That's why I don't like to sail any longer under false colors. There's been a change--a great and wonderful change that I hardly understand myself."

"That's it! You don't understand it, I'm sure," interposed Billy, feverishly. "It may not be such a change, after all. You may be deceiving yourself," she finished hopefully.

The man sighed.

"I can't wonder you think so, of course," he almost groaned. "I was afraid it would be like that. When one's been painted black all one's life, it's not easy to change one's color, of course."

"Oh, but I didn't say that black wasn't a very nice color," stammered Billy, a little wildly.

"Thank you." Cyril's heavy brows rose and fell the fraction of an inch. "Still, I must confess that just now I should prefer another shade."

He paused, and Billy cast distractedly about in her mind for a simple, natural change of subject. She had just decided to ask him what he thought of the condition of the Brittany peasants, when he questioned abruptly, and in a voice that was not quite steady:

"Billy, what should you say if I should tell you that the avowed woman-hater had strayed so far from the prescribed path as to--to like one woman well enough as to want to--marry her?"

The word was like a match to the gunpowder of Billy's fears. Her self-control was shattered instantly into bits.

"Marry? No, no, you wouldn't--you couldn't really be thinking of that," she babbled, growing red and white by turns. "Only think how a wife would--would b-bother you!"

"Bother me? When I loved her?"

"But just think--remember! She'd want cushions and rugs and curtains, and you don't like them; and she'd always be talking and laughing when you wanted quiet; and she--she'd want to drag you out to plays and parties and--and everywhere. Indeed, Cyril, I'm sure you'd never like a wife--long!" Billy stopped only because she had no breath with which to continue.

Cyril laughed a little grimly.

"You don't draw a very attractive picture, Billy. Still, I'm not afraid. I don't think this particular--wife would do any of those things--to trouble me."

"Oh, but you don't know, you can't tell," argued the girl. "Besides, you have had so little experience with women that you'd just be sure to make a mistake at first. You want to look around very carefully--very carefully, before you decide."

"I have looked around, and very carefully, Billy. I know that in all the world there is just one woman for me."

Billy struggled to her feet. Mingled pain and terror looked from her eyes. She began to speak wildly, incoherently. She wondered afterward just what she would have said if Aunt Hannah had not come into the room at that moment and announced that Bertram was at the door to take her for a sleigh-ride if she cared to go.

"Of course she'll go," declared Cyril, promptly, answering for her. "It is time I was off anyhow." To Billy, he said in a low voice: "You haven't been very encouraging, little girl--in fact, you've been mighty discouraging. But some day--some other day, I'll try to make clear to you--many things."

Billy greeted Bertram very cordially. It was such a relief--his cheery, genial companionship! The air, too, was bracing, and all the world lay under a snow-white blanket of sparkling purity. Everything was so beautiful, so restful!

It was not surprising, perhaps, that the very frankness of Billy's joy misled Bertram a little. His blood tingled at her nearness, and his eyes grew deep and tender as he looked down at her happy face. But of all the eager words that were so near his lips, not one reached the girl's ears until the good-byes were said; then wistfully Bertram hazarded:

"Billy, don't you think, sometimes, that I'm gaining--just a little on that rival of mine--that music?"

Billy's face clouded. She shook her head gently.

"Bertram, please don't--when we've had such a beautiful hour together," she begged. "It troubles me. If you do, I can't go-- again."

"But you shall go again," cried Bertram, bravely smiling straight into her eyes. "And there sha'n't ever anything in the world trouble you, either--that I can help!"