Chapter XXXVII. "William's Brother"
 

It was decided that for the present, the engagement should not be known outside the family. The wedding would not take place immediately, William said, and it was just as well to keep the matter to themselves until plans were a little more definite.

The members of the family were told at once. Aunt Hannah said "Oh, my grief and conscience!" three times, and made matters scarcely better by adding apologetically: "Oh, of course it's all right, it's all right, only--" She did not finish her sentence, and William, who had told her the news, did not know whether he would have been more or less pleased if she had finished it.

Cyril received the information moodily, and lapsed at once into a fit of abstraction from which he roused himself hardly enough to offer perfunctory congratulations and best wishes.

Billy was a little puzzled at Cyril's behavior. She had been sure for some time that Cyril had ceased to care specially for her, even if he ever did fancy that he loved her. She had hoped to keep him for a friend, but of late she had been forced to question even his friendliness. He had, in fact, gone back almost to his old reserve and taciturn aloofness.

From the West, in response to William's news of the engagement, came a cordially pleased note in Kate's scrawling handwriting. Kate, indeed, seemed to be the only member of the family who was genuinely delighted with the coming marriage. As to Bertram-- Bertram appeared to have aged years in a single night, so drawn and white was his face the morning after William had told him his plans.

William had dreaded most of all to tell Bertram. He was very sure that Bertram himself cared for Billy; and it was doubly hard because in William's own mind was a strong conviction that the younger man was decidedly the one for her. Realizing, however, that Bertram must be told, William chose a time for the telling when Bertram was smoking in his den in the twilight, with his face half hidden from sight.

Bertram said little--very little, that night; but in the morning he went straight to Billy.

Billy was shocked. She had never seen the smiling, self-reliant, debonair Bertram like this.

"Billy, is this true?" he demanded. The dull misery in his voice told Billy that he knew the answer before he asked the question.

"Yes, yes; but, Bertram, please--please don't take it like this!" she implored.

"How would you have me take it?"

"Why, just--just sensibly. You know I told you that--that the other never could be--never."

"I know you said so; but I--believed otherwise."

"But I told you--I did not love you--that way."

Bertram winced. He rose to his feet abruptly.

"I know you did, Billy. I'm a fool, of course, to think that I could ever--change it. I shouldn't have come here, either, this morning. But I--had to. Good-by!" His face, as he held out his hand, was tragic with renunciation.

"Why, Bertram, you aren't going--now--like this!" cried the girl. "You've just come!"

The man turned almost impatiently.

"And do you think I can stay--like this? Billy, won't you say good-by?" he asked in a softer voice, again with outstretched hand.

Billy shook her head. She ignored the hand, and resolutely backed away.

"No, not like that. You are angry with me," she grieved. "Besides, you make it sound as if--if you were going away."

"I am going away."

"Bertram!" There was terror as well as dismay in Billy's voice.

Again the man turned sharply.

"Billy, why are you making this thing so hard for me?" he asked in despair. "Can't you see that I must go?"

"Indeed, I can't. And you mustn't go, either. There isn't any reason why you should," urged Billy, talking very fast, and working her fingers nervously. "Things are just the same as they were before--for you. I'm just going to marry William, but I wasn't ever going to marry you, so that doesn't change things any for you. Don't you see? Why, Bertram, you mustn't go away! There won't be anybody left. Cyril's going next week, you know; and if you go there won't be anybody left but William and me. Bertram, you mustn't go; don't you see? I should feel lost without--you!" Billy was almost crying now.

Bertram looked up quickly. An odd change had come to his face. For a moment he gazed silently into Billy's agitated countenance; then he asked in a low voice:

"Billy, did you think that after you and William were married I should still continue to live at--the Strata?"

"Why, of course you will!" cried the girl, indignantly. "Why, Bertram, you'll be my brother then--my real brother; and one of the very chiefest things I'm anticipating when I go there to live is the good times you and I will have together when I'm William's wife!"

Bertram drew in his breath audibly, and caught his lower lip between his teeth. With an abrupt movement he turned his back and walked to the window. For a full minute he stayed there, watched by the amazed, displeased eyes of the girl. When he came back he sat down quietly in the chair facing Billy. His countenance was grave and his eyes were a little troubled; but the haggard look of misery was quite gone.

"Billy," he began gently, "you must forgive my saying this, but-- are you quite sure you--love William?"

Billy flushed with anger.

"You have no right to ask such a question. Of course I love William."

"Of course you do--we all love William. William is, in fact, a most lovable man. But William's wife should, perhaps, love him a little differently from--all of us."

"And she will, certainly," retorted the girl, with a quick lifting of her chin. "Bertram, I don't think you have any right to--to make such insinuations."

"And I won't make them any more," replied Bertram, gravely. "I just wanted you to make sure that you--knew."

"I shall make sure, and I shall know," said Billy, firmly--so firmly that it sounded almost as if she were trying to convince herself as well as others.

There was a long pause, then the man asked diffidently:

"And so you are very sure that--that you want me to--stay?"

"Indeed I do! Besides,--don't you remember?--there are all my people to be entertained. They must be taken to places, and given motor rides and picnics. You told me last week that you'd love to help me; but, of course, if you don't want to--"

"But I do want to," cried Bertram, heartily, a gleam of the old cheerfulness springing to his eyes. "I'm dying to!"

The girl looked up with quick distrust. For a moment she eyed him with bent brows. To her mind he had gone back to his old airy, hopeful light-heartedness. He was once more "only Bertram." She hesitated, then said with stern decision:

"Bertram, you know I want you, and you must know that I'm delighted to have you drop this silly notion of going away. But if this quick change means that you are staying with any idea that--that I shall change, then--then you must go. But if you will stay as William's brother then--I'll be more than glad to have you."

"I'll stay--as William's brother," agreed Bertram; and Billy did not notice the quick indrawing of his breath nor the close shutting of his lips after the words were spoken.