Chapter XXXVI. William Meets With a Surprise
 

In spite of his sister's confident assurance that the time was ripe for him to speak to Billy, William delayed some days before broaching the matter to her. His courage was not so good as it had been when he was talking with Kate. It seemed now, as it always had, a fearsome thing to try to hasten on this love affair between Billy and Bertram. He could not see, in spite of Kate's words, that Billy showed unmistakable evidence at all of being in love with his brother. The more he thought of it, in fact, the more he dreaded the carrying out of his promise to speak to his namesake.

What should he say, he asked himself. How could he word it? He could not very well accost her with: "Oh, Billy, I wish you'd please hurry up and marry Bertram, because then you'd come and live with me." Neither could he plead Bertram's cause directly. Quite probably Bertram would prefer to plead his own. Then, too, if Billy really was not in love with Bertram--what then? Might not his own untimely haste in the matter forever put an end to the chance of her caring for him?

It was, indeed, a delicate matter, and as William pondered it he wished himself well out of it, and that Kate had not spoken. But even as he formed the wish, William remembered with a thrill Kate's positive assertion that a word from him would do wonders, and that now was the time to utter it. He decided then that he would speak; that he must speak; but that at the same time he would proceed with a caution that would permit a hasty retreat if he saw that his words were not having the desired effect. He would begin with a frank confession of his grief at her leaving him, and of his longing for her return; then very gradually, if wisdom counseled it, he would go on to speak of Bertram's love for her, and of his own hope that she would make Bertram and all the Strata glad by loving him in return.

Mrs. Hartwell had returned to her Western home before William found just the opportunity for his talk with Billy. True to his belief that only hushed voices and twilight were fitting for such a subject, he waited until he found the girl early one evening alone on her vine-shaded veranda. He noticed that as he seated himself at her side she flushed a little and half started to rise, with a nervous fluttering of her hands, and a murmured "I'll call Aunt Hannah." It was then that with sudden courage, he resolved to speak.

"Billy, don't go," he said gently, with a touch of his hand on her arm. "There is something I want to say to you. I--I have wanted to say it for some time."

"Why, of--of course," stammered the girl, falling back in her seat. And again William noticed that odd fluttering of the slim little hands.

For a time no one spoke, then William began softly, his eyes on the distant sky-line still faintly aglow with the sunset's reflection.

"Billy, I want to tell you a story. Long years ago there was a man who had a happy home with a young wife and a tiny baby boy in it. I could not begin to tell you all the plans that man made for that baby boy. Such a great and good and wonderful being that tiny baby was one day to become. But the baby--went away, after a time, and carried with him all the plans--and he never came back. Behind him he left empty hearts that ached, and great bare rooms that seemed always to be echoing sighs and sobs. And then, one day, such a few years after, the young wife went to find her baby, and left the man all alone with the heart that ached and the great bare rooms that echoed sighs and sobs.

"Perhaps it was this--the bareness of the rooms--that made the man turn to his boyish passion for collecting things. He wanted to fill those rooms full, full!--so that the sighs and sobs could not be heard; and he wanted to fill his heart, too, with something that would still the ache. And he tried. Already he had his boyish treasures, and these he lined up in brave array, but his rooms still echoed, and his heart still ached; so he built more shelves and bought more cabinets, and set himself to filling them, hoping at the same time that he might fill all that dreary waste of hours outside of business--hours which once had been all too short to devote to the young wife and the baby boy.

"One by one the years passed, and one by one the shelves and the cabinets were filled. The man fancied, sometimes, that he had succeeded; but in his heart of hearts he knew that the ache was merely dulled, and that darkness had only to come to set the rooms once more to echoing the sighs and sobs. And then--but perhaps you are tired of the story, Billy." William turned with questioning eyes.

"No, oh, no," faltered Billy. "It is beautiful, but so--sad!"

"But the saddest part is done--I hope," said William, softly. "Let me tell you. A wonderful thing happened then. Suddenly, right out of a dull gray sky of hopelessness, dropped a little brown-eyed girl and a little gray cat. All over the house they frolicked, filling every nook and cranny with laughter and light and happiness. And then, like magic, the man lost the ache in his heart, and the rooms lost their echoing sighs and sobs. The man knew, then, that never again could he hope to fill his heart and life with senseless things of clay and metal. He knew that the one thing he wanted always near him was the little brown-eyed girl; and he hoped that he could keep her. But just as he was beginning to bask in this new light--it went out. As suddenly as they had come, the little brown-eyed girl and the gray cat went away. Why, the man did not know. He knew only that the ache had come back, doubly intense, and that the rooms were more gloomy than ever. And now, Billy,"--William's voice shook a little--"it is for you to finish the story. It is for you to say whether that man's heart shall ache on and on down to a lonely old age, and whether those rooms shall always echo the sighs and sobs of the past."

"And I will finish it," choked Billy, holding out both her hands. "It sha'n't ache--they sha'n't echo!"

The man leaned forward eagerly, unbelievingly, and caught the hands in his own.

"Billy, do you mean it? Then you will--come?"

"Yes, yes! I didn't know--I didn't think. I never supposed it was like that! Of course I'll come!" And in a moment she was sobbing in his arms.

"Billy!" breathed William rapturously, as he touched his lips to her forehead. "My own little Billy!"

It was a few minutes later, when Billy was more calm, that William started to speak of Bertram. For a moment he had been tempted not to mention his brother, now that his own point had been won so surprisingly quick; but the new softness in Billy's face had encouraged him, and he did not like to let the occasion pass when a word from him might do so much for Bertram. His lips parted, but no words came--Billy herself had begun to speak.

"I'm sure I don't know why I'm crying," she stammered, dabbing her eyes with her round moist ball of a handerchief. "I hope when I'm your wife I'll learn to be more self-controlled. But you know I am young, and you'll have to be patient."

As once before at something Billy said, the world to William went suddenly mad. His head swam dizzily, and his throat tightened so that he could scarcely breathe. By sheer force of will he kept his arm about Billy's shoulder, and he prayed that she might not know how numb and cold it had grown. Even then he thought he could not have heard aright.

"Er--you said--" he questioned faintly.

"I say when I'm your wife I hope I'll learn to be more self- controlled," laughed Billy, nervously. "You see I just thought I ought to remind you that I am young, and that you'll have to be patient."

William stammered something--a hurried something; he wondered afterward what it was. That it must have been satisfactory to Billy was evident, for she began laughingly to talk again. What she said, William scarcely knew, though he was conscious of making an occasional vague reply. He was still floundering in a hopeless sea of confusion and dismay. His own desire was to get up and say good night at once. He wanted to be alone to think. He realized, however, with sickening force, that men do not propose and run away--if they are accepted. And he was accepted; he realized that, too, overwhelmingly. Then he tried to think how it had happened, what he had said; how she could so have misunderstood his meaning. This line of thought he abandoned quickly, however; it could do no good. But what could do good, he asked himself. What could he do?

With blinding force came the answer: he could do nothing. Billy cared for him. Billy had said "yes." Billy expected to be his wife. As if he could say to her now: "I beg your pardon, but 'twas all a mistake. I did not ask you to marry me."

Very valiantly then William summoned his wits and tried to act his part. He told himself, too, that it would not be a hard one; that he loved Billy dearly, and that he would try to make her happy. He winced a little at this thought, for he remembered suddenly how old he was--as if he, at his age, were a fit match for a girl of twenty-one!

And then he looked at Billy. The girl was plainly nervous. There was a deep flush on her cheeks and a brilliant sparkle in her eyes. She was talking rapidly--almost incoherently at times--and her voice was tremulous. Frequent little embarrassed laughs punctuated her sentences, and her fingers toyed with everything that came within reach. Some time before she had sprung to her feet and had turned on the electric lights; and when she came back she had not taken her old position at William's side, but had seated herself in a chair near by. All of which, according to William's eyes, meant the maidenly shyness of a girl who has just said "yes" to the man she loves.

William went home that night in a daze. To himself he said that he had gone out in search of a daughter, and had come back with a wife.