Chapter XXXIX. A Little Piece of Paper
 

Of all Billy's guests, Marie was very plainly the happiest. She was a permanent guest, it is true, while the others came for only a week or two at a time; but it was not this, Billy decided, that had brought so brilliant a sparkle to Marie's eyes, so joyous a laugh to her lips. The joyousness was all the more noticeable, because heretofore Marie, while very sweet, had been also sad. Her big blue eyes had always carried a haunting shadow, and her step had lacked the spring belonging to youth and happiness. Certainly, Billy had never seen her like this before.

"Verily, Marie," she teased one day, "have you found an exhaustless supply of stockings to mend, or a never-done pudding to make-- which?"

"Why? What do you mean?"

"Oh, nothing. I was only wondering just what had brought that new light to your eyes."

"Is there a new light?"

"There certainly is."

"It must be because I'm so happy, then," sighed Marie; "because you're so good to me."

"Is that all?"

"Isn't that enough?" Marie's tone was evasive.

"No." Billy shook her head mischievously. "Marie, what is it?"

"It's nothing--really, it's nothing," protested Marie, hurrying out of the room with a nervous laugh.

Billy frowned. She was suspicious before; she was sure now. In less than twelve hours' time came her opportunity. She was alone again with Marie.

"Marie, who is he?" she asked abruptly.

"He? Who?"

"The man who is to wear the stockings and eat the pudding."

The little music teacher flushed very red, but she managed to display something that might pass for surprise.

"Billy!"

"Come, dear," coaxed Billy, winningly. "Tell me about it. I'm so interested!"

"But there isn't anything to tell--really there isn't."

"Who is he?"

"He isn't anybody--that is, he doesn't know he's anybody," amended Marie.

Billy laughed softly.

"Oh, doesn't he! Hasn't he ever shown--that he cared?"

"No; that is--perhaps he has, only I thought then--that it was-- another girl."

"Another girl! So there's another girl in the case?"

"Yes. I mean, no," corrected Marie, suddenly beginning to realize what she was saying. "Really, it wasn't anything--it isn't anything!" she protested.

"Hm-m," murmured Billy, archly. "Oh, I'm getting on some! He did show, once, that he cared; but you thought it was another girl, and you coldly looked the other way. Now, there isn't any other girl, you find, and--Marie, tell me the rest!"

Marie shook her head emphatically, and pulled herself gently away from Billy's grasp.

"No, no, please!" she begged. "It really isn't anything. I'm sure I'm imagining it all!" she cried, as she ran away.

During the days that followed, Billy speculated not a little on Marie's half-told story, and wondered interestedly who the man might be. She questioned Marie once again, but the girl would tell nothing more; and, indeed, Billy was so occupied with her own perplexities that she had little time for those of other people.

To herself Billy was forced to own that she was not "getting used to things." She was still self-conscious with William; she could not forget that she was one day to be his wife. She could not bring back the dear old freedom of comradeship with him.

Billy was alarmed now. She had begun to ask herself searching questions. What should she do if never, never should she get used to the idea of marrying William? How could she marry him if he was still "Uncle William," and never her dear lover in her eyes? Why had she not been wise enough and brave enough to tell him in the first place that she was not at all sure that she loved him, but that she would try to do so? Then when she had tried--as she had now--and failed, she could have told him honestly the truth, and it would not have been so great a shock to him as it must be now, if she should tell him.

Billy had remorsefully come to the conclusion that she could never love any man well enough to marry him, when one day so small a thing as a piece of paper fluttered into her vision, and showed her the fallacy of that idea.

It was a half-sheet of note paper, and it blew from Marie's balcony to the lawn below. Billy found it there later, and as she picked it up her eyes fell on a single name in Marie's handwriting inscribed half a dozen times as if the writer had musingly accompanied her thoughts with her pen; and the name was, "Marie Henshaw."

For a moment Billy stared at the name perplexedly--then in a flash came the remembrance of Marie's words; and Billy breathed: "Henshaw!--the man--Bertram!"

Billy dropped the paper then and fled. In her own room, behind locked doors, she sat down to think.

Bertram! It was he for whom Marie cared--her Bertram! And then it came to Billy with staggering force that he was not her Bertram at all. He never could be her Bertram now. He was--Marie's.

Billy was frightened then, so fierce was this strange new something that rose within her--this overpowering something that seemed to blot out all the world, and leave only--Bertram. She knew then, that it had always been Bertram to whom she had turned, though she had been blind to the cause of that turning. Always her plans had included him. Always she had been the happiest in his presence; never had she pictured him anywhere else but at her side. Certainly never had she pictured him as the devoted lover of another woman! . . . And she had not known what it all meant-- poor blind child that she was!

Very resolutely now Billy set herself to looking matters squarely in the face. She understood it quite well. All summer Marie and Bertram had been thrown together. No wonder Marie had fallen in love with Bertram, and that he--Billy thought she comprehended now why Bertram had found it so easy for the last few weeks to be William's brother. She, of course, had been the "other girl" whom Marie had once feared that the man loved. It was all so clear--so woefully clear!

With an aching heart Billy asked herself what now was to be done. For herself, turn whichever way she could, she could see nothing but unhappiness. She determined, therefore, with Spartan fortitude, that to no one else would she bring equal unhappiness. She would be silent. Bertram and Marie loved each other. That matter was settled. As to William--Billy thought of the story William had told her of his lonely life,--of the plea he had made to her; and her heart ached. Whatever happened, William must be made happy. William must not be told. Her promise to William must be kept.