Chapter XXXV. Sister Kate Again
 

It was on the Sunday following Class Day that Mrs. Hartwell carried out her determination to "speak to William." The West had not taken from Kate her love of managing, and she thought she saw now a matter that sorely needed her guiding hand.

William's thin face, anxious looks, and nervous manner had troubled her ever since she came. Then one day, very suddenly, had come enlightenment: William was in love--and with Billy.

Mrs. Hartwell watched William very closely after that. She saw his eyes follow Billy fondly, yet anxiously. She saw his open joy at being with her, and at any little attention, word, or look that the girl gave him. She remembered, too, something that Bertram had said about William's grief because Billy would not live at the Strata. She thought she saw something else, also: that Billy was fond of William, but that William did not know it; hence his frequent troubled scrutiny of her face. Why these two should play at cross purposes Sister Kate could not understand. She smiled, however, confidently: they should not play at cross purposes much longer, she declared.

On Sunday afternoon Kate asked her eldest brother to take her driving.

"Not a motor car; I want a horse--that will let me talk," she said.

"Certainly," agreed William, with a smile; but Bertram, who chanced to hear her, put in the sly comment: "As if any horse could prevent--that!"

On the drive Kate began to talk at once, but she did not plunge into the subject nearest her heart until she had adroitly led William into a glowing enumeration of Billy's many charming characteristics; then she said:

"William, why don't you take Billy home with you?"

William stirred uneasily as he always did when anything annoyed him.

"My dear Kate, there is nothing I should like better to do," he replied.

"Then why don't you do it?"

"I--hope to, sometime."

"But why not now?"

"I'm afraid Billy is not quite--ready."

"Nonsense! A young girl like that does not know her own mind lots of times. Just press the matter a little. Love will work wonders-- sometimes."

William blushed like a girl. To him her words had but one meaning-- Bertram's love for Billy. William had never spoken of this suspected love affair to any one. He had even thought that he was the only one that had discovered it. To hear his sister refer thus lightly to it came therefore in the nature of a shock to him.

"Then you have--seen it--too?" he stammered

"'Seen it, too,'" laughed Kate, with her confident eyes on William's flushed face, "I should say I had seen it! Any one could see it."

William blushed again. Love to him had always been something sacred; something that called for hushed voices and twilight. This merry discussion in the sunlight of even another's love was disconcerting.

"Now come, William," resumed Kate, after a moment; "speak to Billy, and have the matter settled once for all. It's worrying you. I can see it is."

Again William stirred uneasily.

"But, Kate, I can't do anything. I told you before; I don't believe Billy is--ready."

"Nonsense! Ask her."

"But Kate, a girl won't marry against her will!"

"I don't believe it is against her will."

"Kate! Honestly?"

"Honestly! I've watched her."

"Then I will speak," cried the man, his face alight, "if--if you think anything I can say would--help. There is nothing--nothing in all this world that I so desire, Kate, as to have that little girl back home. And of course that would do it. She'd live there, you know."

"Why, of--course," murmured Kate, with a puzzled frown. There was something in this last remark of William's that she did not quite understand. Surely he could not suppose that she had any idea that after he had married Billy they would go to live anywhere else;-- she thought. For a moment she considered the matter vaguely; then she turned her attention to something else. She was the more ready to do this because she believed that she had said enough for the present: it was well to sow seeds, but it was also well to let them have a chance to grow, she told herself.

Mrs. Hartwell's next move was to speak to Billy, and she was careful to do this at once, so that she might pave the way for William.

She began her conversation with an ingratiating smile and the words:

"Well, Billy, I've been doing a little detective work on my own account."

"Detective work?"

"Yes; about William. You know I told you the other day how troubled and anxious he looked to me. Well, I've found out what's the matter."

"What is it?"

"Yourself."

"Myself! Why, Mrs. Hartwell, what can you mean?"

The elder lady smiled significantly.

"Oh, it's merely another case, my dear, of 'faint heart never won fair lady.' I've been helping on the faint heart; that's all."

"But I don't understand."

"No? I can't believe you quite mean that, my dear. Surely you must know how earnestly my brother William is longing for you to go back and live with him."

Like William, Billy flushed scarlet.

"Mrs. Hartwell, certainly no one could know better than yourself why that is quite impossible," she frowned.

The other colored confusedly.

"I understand, of course, what you mean. And, Billy, I'll confess that I've been sorry lots of times, since, that I spoke as I did to you, particularly when I saw how it grieved my brother William to have you go away. If I blundered then, I'm sorry; and perhaps I did blunder. At all events, that is only the more reason now why I am so anxious to do what I can to rectify that old mistake, and plead William's suit."

To Mrs. Hartwell's blank amazement, Billy laughed outright.

"'William's suit'!" she quoted merrily. "Why, Mrs. Hartwell, there isn't any 'suit' to it. Uncle William doesn't want me to marry him!"

"Indeed he does."

Billy stopped laughing, and sat suddenly erect.

"Mrs. Hartwell!"

"Billy, is it possible that you did not know this?"

"Indeed I don't know it, and--excuse me, but I don't think you do, either."

"But I do. I've talked with him, and he's very much in earnest," urged Mrs. Hartwell, speaking very rapidly. "He says there's nothing in all the world that he so desires. And, Billy, you do care for him--I know you do!"

"Why, of course I care for him--but not--that way."

"But, Billy, think!" Mrs. Hartwell was very earnest now, and a little frightened. She felt that she must bring Billy to terms in some way now that William had been encouraged to put his fate to the test. "Just remember how good William has always been to you, and think what you have been, and may be--if you only will--in his lonely life. Think of his great sorrow years ago. Think of this dreary waste of years between. Think how now his heart has turned to you for love and comfort and rest. Billy, you can't turn away!-- you can't find it in your heart to turn away from that dear, good man who loves you so!" Mrs. Hartwell's voice shook effectively, and even her eyes looked through tears. Mentally she was congratulating herself: she had not supposed she could make so touching an appeal.

In the chair opposite the girl sat very still. She was pale, and her eyes showed a frightened questioning in their depths. For a long minute she said nothing, then she rose dazedly to her feet.

"Mrs. Hartwell, please do not speak of this to any one," she begged in a low voice. "I--I am taken quite by surprise. I shall have to think it out--alone."

Billy did not sleep well that night. Always before her eyes was the vision of William's face; and always in her ears was the echo of Mrs. Hartwell's words: "Remember how good William has always been to you. Think of his great sorrow years ago. Think of this dreary waste of years between. Think how now his heart has turned to you for love and comfort and rest."

For a time Billy tossed about on her bed trying to close her eyes to the vision and her ears to the echo. Then, finding that neither was possible, she set herself earnestly to thinking the matter out.

William loved her. Extraordinary as it seemed, such was the fact; Mrs. Hartwell said so. And now--what must she do; what could she do? She loved no one--of that she was very sure. She was even beginning to think that she would never love any one. There were Calderwell, Cyril, Bertram, to say nothing of sundry others, who had loved her, apparently, but whom she could not love. Such being the case, if she were, indeed, incapable of love herself, why should she not make the sacrifice of giving up her career, her independence, and in that way bring this great joy to Uncle William's heart? . . . Even as she said the "Uncle William" to herself, Billy bit her lip and realized that she must no longer say "Uncle" William--if she married him.

"If she married him." The words startled her. "If she married him." . . . Well, what of it? She would go to live at the Strata, of course; and there would be Cyril and Bertram. It might be awkward, and yet--she did not believe Cyril was in love with anything but his music; and as to Bertram--it was the same with Bertram and his painting, and he would soon forget that he had ever fancied he loved her. After that he would be simply a congenial friend and companion--a good comrade. As Billy thought of it, indeed, one of the pleasantest features of this marriage with William would be the delightful comradeship of her "brother," Bertram.

Billy dwelt then at some length on William's love for her, his longing for her presence, and his dreary years of loneliness. . . . And he was so good to her, she recollected; he had always been good to her. He was older, to be sure--much older than she; but, after all, it would not be so difficult, so very difficult, to learn to love him. At all events, whatever happened, she would have the supreme satisfaction of knowing that at least she had brought into dear Uncle--that is, into William's life the great peace and joy that only she could give.

It was almost dawn when Billy arrived at this not uncheerful state of prospective martyrdom. She turned over then with a sigh, and settled herself to sleep. She was relieved that she had decided the question. She was glad that she knew just what to say when William should speak. He was a dear, dear man, and she would not make it hard for him, she promised herself. She would be William's wife.