Chapter XLI. The Crooked Made Straight
 

William did not re-enter the house after his talk with Billy on the veranda.

"I will go down the steps and around by the rose garden to the street, dear," he said. "I'd rather not go in now. Just make my adieus, please, and say that I couldn't stay any longer. And now-- good-by." His eyes as they looked down at her, were moist and very tender. His lips trembled a little, but they smiled, and there was a look of new-born peace and joy on his face.

Billy, too, was smiling, though wistfully. The frightened questioning had gone from her eyes, leaving only infinite tenderness.

"You are sure it--it is all right--now?" she stammered.

"Very sure, little girl; and it's the first time it has been right for weeks. Billy, that was very dear of you, and I love you for it; but think how near--how perilously near you came to lifelong misery!"

"But I thought--you wanted me--so much," she smiled shyly.

"And I did, and I do--for a daughter. You don't doubt that now?"

"No, oh, no," laughed Billy, softly; and to her face came a happy look of relief as she finished: "And I'll be so glad to be--the daughter!"

For some minutes after the man had gone, Billy stood by the steps where he had left her. She was still there when Bertram came to the veranda door and spoke to her.

"Billy, I saw William go by the window, so I knew you were alone. May I speak to you?"

The girl turned with a start.

"Why, of course! What is it?--but I thought you were playing. Where is Marie?"

"The game is finished; besides--Billy, why are you always asking me lately where Marie is, as if I were her keeper, or she mine?" he demanded, with a touch of nervous irritation.

"Why, nothing, Bertram," smiled Billy, a little wearily; "only that you were playing together a few minutes ago, and I wondered where she had gone."

"'A few minutes ago'!" echoed Bertram with sudden bitterness. "Evidently the time passed swiftly with you, Billy. William was out here more than an hour."

"Why--Bertram!"

"Yes, I know. I've no business to say that, of course," sighed the man; "but, Billy, that's why I came out--because I must speak to you this once. Won't you come and sit down, please?" he implored despairingly.

"Why, Bertram," murmured Billy again, faintly, as she turned toward the vine-shaded corner and sat down. Her eyes were startled. A swift color had come to her cheeks.

"Billy," began the man, in a sternly controlled voice, "please let me speak this once, and don't try to stop me. You may think, for a moment, that it's disloyal to William if you listen; but it isn't. There's this much due to me--that you let me speak now. Billy, I can't stand it. I've tried, but it's no use. I've got to go away, and it's right that I should. I'm not the only one that thinks so, either. Marie does, too."

"Marie!"

"Yes. I talked it all over with her. She's known for a long time how it's been with me; how I cared--for you."

"Marie! You've told Marie that?" gasped Billy.

"Yes. Surely you don't mind Marie's knowing," went on Bertram, dejectedly. "And she's been so good to me, and tried to--help me."

Bertram was not looking at Billy now. If he had been he would have seen the incredulous joy come into her face. His eyes were moodily fixed on the floor.

"And so, Billy, I've come to tell you. I'm going away," he continued, after a moment. "I've got to go. I thought once, when I first talked with you of William, that you didn't know your own heart; that you didn't really care for him. I was even fool enough to think that--that it would be I to whom you'd turn--some day. And so I stayed. But I stayed honorably, Billy! You know that! You know that I haven't once forgotten--not once, that I was only William's brother. I promised you I'd be that--and I have been; haven't I?"

Billy nodded silently. Her face was turned away.

"But, Billy, I can't do it any longer. I've got to ask for my promise back, and then, of course, I can't stay."

"But you--you don't have to go--away," murmured the girl, faintly.

Bertram sprang to his feet. His face was white.

"Billy," he cried, standing tall and straight before her, "Billy, I love every touch of your hand, every glance of your eye, every word that falls from your lips. Do you think I can stay--now? I want my promise back! When I'm no longer William's brother--then I'll go!"

"But you don't have to have it back--that is, you don't have to have it at all," stammered Billy, flushing adorably. She, too, was on her feet now.

"Billy, what do you mean?"

"Don't you see? I--I have turned," she faltered breathlessly, holding out both her hands.

Even then, in spite of the great light that leaped to his eyes, Bertram advanced only a single step.

"But--William?" he questioned, unbelievingly.

"It was a mistake, just as you thought. We know now--both of us. We don't either of us care for the other--that way. And--Bertram, I think it has been you--all the time, only I didn't know!"

"Billy, Billy!" choked Bertram in a voice shaken with emotion. He opened his arms then, wide--and Billy walked straight into them.