Chapter XL. William Pays a Visit
 

Before September passed all Billy's friends said that her summer's self-appointed task had been too hard for her. In no other way could they account for the sad change that had come to her.

Undeniably Billy looked really ill. Always slender, she was shadow-like now. Her eyes had found again the wistful appeal of her girlhood, only now they carried something that was almost fear, as well. The rose-flush had gone from her cheeks, and pathetic little hollows had appeared, making the round young chin below look almost pointed. Certainly Billy did seem to be ill.

Late in September William went West on business. Incidentally he called to see his sister, Kate.

"Well, and how is everybody?" asked Kate, cheerily, after the greetings were over.

William sighed.

"Well, 'everybody,' to me, Kate, is pretty badly off. We're worried about Billy."

"Billy! You don't mean she's sick? Why, she's always been the picture of health!"

"I know she has; but she isn't now."

"What's the trouble?"

"That's what we don't know."

"You've had the doctor?"

"Of course; two or three of them--though much against Billy's will. But--they didn't help us."

"What did they say?"

"They could find nothing except perhaps a little temporary stomach trouble, or something of that kind, which they all agreed was no just cause for her present condition."

"But what did they say it was?"

"Why, they said it seemed like nervousness, or as if something was troubling her. They asked if she weren't under some sort of strain."

"Well, is she? Does anything trouble her?"

"Not that I know of. Anyhow, if there is anything, none of us can find out what it is."

Kate frowned. She threw a quick look into her brother's face.

"William," she began hesitatingly, "forgive me, but--Billy is quite happy in--her engagement, I suppose."

The man flushed painfully, and sighed.

"I've thought of that, of course. In fact, it was the first thing I did think of. I even began to watch her rather closely, and once I--questioned her a little."

"What did she say?"

"She seemed so frightened and distressed that I didn't say much myself. I couldn't. I had but just begun when her eyes filled with tears, and she asked me in a frightened little voice if she had done anything to displease me, anything to make me unhappy; and she seemed so anxious and grieved and dismayed that I should even question her, that I had to stop."

"What has she done this summer? Where has she been?"

"She hasn't been anywhere. Didn't I write you? She's kept open house for a lot of her less fortunate friends--a sort of vacation home, you know; and--and I must say she's given them a world of happiness, too."

"But wasn't that hard for her?"

"It didn't seem to be. She appeared to enjoy it immensely, particularly at first. Of course she had plenty of help, and that wonderful little Miss Hawthorn has been a host in herself. They're all gone now, anyway, except Miss Hawthorn."

"But Billy must have had the care and the excitement."

"Perhaps--to a certain extent. Though not much, after all. You see Bertram, too, has given up his summer to them, and has been playing the devoted escort to the whole bunch. Indeed, for the last few weeks of it, since Billy began to seem so ill, he and Miss Hawthorn have schemed to take all the care from Billy, and they have done the whole thing together."

"But what has Billy done to make her like this?"

"I don't know. She's done lots for me, in all sorts of ways-- cataloguing my curios, you know, and going with me to hunt up things. In fact, she seems the happiest when she is doing something for me. It's come to be a sort of mania with her, I'm afraid--to do something for me. Kate, I'm really worried. What do you suppose is the matter?"

Kate shook her head. The puzzled frown had come back to her face.

"I can't imagine," she began slowly. "Of course, when I told her you loved her and--"

"When you told her wha-at?" exploded the usually low-voiced William, with sudden sharpness.

"When I told her that you loved her, William. You see, I--"

William sprang to his feet.

"Told her that I loved her!" he cried, aghast. "Good heavens, Kate, do you mean to say that you told her that."

"Why, y-yes."

"And may I ask where you got your information?"

"Why, William Henshaw, what a question! I got it from yourself, of course," defended Kate.

"From me!" William's face expressed sheer amazement.

"Certainly; on that drive when I was East in June," returned Kate, with dignity. "You evidently have forgotten it, but I have not. You told me very frankly how much you thought of her, and how you longed to have her back there with you, but that she didn't seem to be ready to come. I was sorry for you, and I wanted to do something to help, particularly as it might have been my fault, partly, that she went away, in the first place."

William lifted his head.

"What do you mean?"

"Why, nothing, only that I--I told her a little of how--how upsetting her arrival had been to everything, and of how much you had done for her, and put yourself out. I said it so she'd appreciate things, of course, but she took it quite differently from what I had intended she should take it, and seemed quite cut up about it. Then she went away in that wily, impulsive fashion."

William bit his lip, but he did not speak. Kate was plunging on feverishly, and in the face of the greater revelation he let the lesser one drop.

"And so that's why I was particularly anxious to bring things around right again," continued Kate. "And that's why I spoke. I thought I'd seen how things were, and on the drive I said so. Then is when I advised you to speak to Billy; but you declared that Billy wasn't ready, and that you couldn't make a girl marry against her will. Now don't you recollect it?"

A great light of understanding broke over William's face. He started to speak, but something evidently stayed the words on his lips. With controlled deliberation he turned and sat down. Then he said:

"Kate, will you kindly tell me just what you did do?"

"Why, I didn't do so very much. I just tried to help, that's all. After I talked with you, and advised you to ask Billy right away to marry you, I went to her. I thought she cared for you already, anyway; but I just wanted to tell her how very much it was to you, and so sort of pave the way. And now comes the part that I started to tell you a little while ago when you caught me up so sharply. I was going to say that when I told Billy this, she appeared to be surprised, and almost frightened. You see, she hadn't known you cared for her, after all, and so I had a chance to help and make it plain to her how you did love her, so that when you spoke everything would be all right. There, that's all. You see I didn't do so very much."

"'So very much'!" groaned William, starting to his feet. "Great Scott!"

"Why, William, what do you mean? Where are you going?"

"I'm going--to--Billy," retorted William with slow distinctness. "And I'm going to try to get there--before--you--can!" And with this extraordinary shot--for William--he left the house.

William went to Billy as fast as steam could carry him. He found her in her little drawing-room listlessly watching with Aunt Hannah the game of chess that Bertram and Marie were playing.

"Billy, you poor, dear child, come here," he said abruptly, as soon as the excitement of his unexpected arrival had passed. "I want to talk to you." And he led the way to the veranda which he knew would be silent and deserted.

"To talk to--me?" murmured Billy, as she wonderingly came to his side, a startled questioning in her wide dark eyes.