"Willa! It is really you, at last!"
He sank down on the steps beside her and somehow forgot to relinquish her hand.
"Yes, it is really I!" she smiled. "Mrs. Bailey told me of your never-failing calls and inquiries. You have been very kind——"
"Kind? Did you think that I could help myself, that I could have stayed away?" He broke off, his voice hoarse with pent-up feeling. "Forgive me! I did not mean to annoy you again, but the sight of you after so many days, lying here so white and frail and crushed——"
"I'm not!" She laughed nervously. "But you don't annoy me! I love to hear you say that you have wanted to see me, that you could not stay away!"
"Oh, don't, please!" He turned away with a gesture of pain. "Don't play with me again, Willa, girl! I can't quite bear it!"
"Kearn!" her voice thrilled, low and surpassingly sweet in his ears. "I never played with you, never! I told you in Topaz Gulch that I had much to explain and you much to forgive. I was deliberately misled, my mind poisoned against you, but the fault was mine, in being so easily influenced against the real truth. I knew it in my heart, but I was in such a maze of difficulties and cross-purposes that I did not know which way to turn, and I shut my ears to the dictates of my own belief. Do you remember that night in the conservatory?"
"I am not likely to forget it." His tones were shaking and he had turned his head away.
"Someone was listening, someone who hated us both, and acting under the impulse of a blind infatuation, had become a tool in stronger, more ruthless hands. When I reached home that night, a letter in your handwriting was put before me; a letter which seemed to prove that you—you had known before ever Mr. North came to Limasito who I was and that you had planned to marry me.—Oh, can't you understand?"
"A letter in my handwriting?" he repeated slowly. "It could not be——"
"But it was!" Willa laughed, but there was a little running sob through her words. "You told me the truth about it yourself, out in Topaz Gulch."
"I?" Thode turned to her, amazed.
"Yes. Don't you remember the letter you wrote to Mr. Larkin, telling him you had found Tia Juana, but nobody knew who she really was—her last name, I mean—and it wouldn't matter if they did? A page of that very letter with the top torn off was put in my hands and as you didn't mention Tia Juana by name I thought it referred to me. That was the inference I was supposed to gather from it, and like a credulous little fool I believed! The bottom of the page ended with: 'She is the undoubted owner of almost boundless wealth and when I have gone after her, and won her consent——'"
"Good heavens, of course!" Thode jumped to his feet. "I remember it all now. That was one of the letters that was stolen from Larkin's desk by a clerk we found to be in the secret employ of Chase and Wiley! They'd corrupted him in an effort to keep tabs on the progress we were making down here. We didn't prosecute him because of the notoriety, but we made him leave the East when we discovered his operations. It never occurred to me that any of the stolen letters could be put to such a use!"
"Or that I could be so ready to believe the worst of you?" she asked sadly.
"You! My poor little Willa!" He dropped on his knees beside her chair and gathered her hands again in his. "I thought you were heartless, intoxicated with admiration and trying your power wilfully on everyone who came within your reach. Half the men in your set were at your feet, and it drove me a little mad, I think! And all the time you were beset by enemies, making your brave fight alone, and even our friendship turned to something low and base! Oh, my dear, I have nothing to forgive, but there is much that I must teach you to forget."
"Unworthy things are soon forgotten!" She gazed with shining eyes into his. "Only the real, true, beautiful things remain, Kearn, and they—why, they are all before us!"
He looked away, straight ahead of him into the moon-lit darkness.
"When I come back," he said. "Much has happened while you lay ill, dear. We've gone into the big fight at last, we're going to help set the world free from barbarism, and I must do my share. I ran up to New York long enough to get a commission again in my old regiment, and I'm listed to sail for France with the first army the government sends. I couldn't stay behind, Willa; I'm sure you wouldn't have me wait when the call has come."
"No," Willa responded quietly; "I wouldn't. Not for all the world must you miss your chance to help. It's a sacred privilege, Kearn. I shouldn't wonder if all of us, men and women, will have to put our shoulder to the wheel, but if we can only help to get the world out of this hideous rut of wholesale oppression and savagery it will be gloriously worth it all. No, I wouldn't keep you back if I could, but I'm glad, somehow, to feel that I couldn't, anyway."
"And you will be with my sister," he reminded her. "She's coming to-morrow, you know, to take you back with her as soon as you are able to travel. She liked you from the start, dear, and when I tell her what is going to be, some day, she will take you quite to her heart."
"I shall be so glad to see her again!" Willa sighed happily. "It is dear of her to offer to take me into her home. The Ripley Halsteads suggested, of course, that I should go back to them, but I couldn't think of it! It would recall too much that I must try to forget, and poor Angie's face would give me no peace. I know that in her heart she must blame me still for the tragic end of her romance."
"Angie is no longer there," Kearn remarked. "She is taking a nursing-course in some hospital, preparatory for work in France, and Vernon writes me that she seems earnest and sincere for the first time in her life. Verne himself is off for Plattsburg, and Winthrop North is already across the water, driving an ambulance on the western front. My sister will put you to rolling bandages as soon as you can lift your hands. Life is getting pretty serious for all of us."
"And wonderful, too," Willa amended. "It is as if we were all just finding ourselves, isn't it? As if this supreme struggle were to bring out all our hidden strength, the deepest, most-enduring, best part of us!—And isn't it strange, too, that I should be going to make my home with your sister, after all? That was what you first suggested to me—do you remember?—when you thought me just Gentleman Geoff's Billie, before ever Mr. North came."
"Yes, dear." He pressed his lips to her hand. "Everything works out all right in time. And when I come back——"
"There is every indication that I'll be over myself before then, nursing or something. I'm not the kind to sit at home when there's work to be done. But, Kearn——?"
"I don't mean to complain, for everyone has been wonderfully good to me since I was a wee bit of a thing, but do you suppose anyone was ever more buffeted about by Fate than I? Orphaned and thrown out upon the world at four, orphaned again last year, made an heiress, then an outcast, and finally reinstated again! I—I'm getting awfully tired of not really belonging to anyone!" She drew a deep breath. "Kearn, dear, do you suppose you could manage to marry me before you go to war?"
"You darling!" He hugged her close, pillows and all. "I didn't dare ask you that now, but, oh, I wanted to! If I could feel that you really did belong to me, dear, I'd go with a far-lighter heart and surer courage to meet whatever comes, and with ten times the strength, too, for I should go to fight for my own!—And then, you are such a changeling, you know! I love Willa Murdaugh, but I have always loved Gentleman Geoff's Billie since the day I met her coming from the Blue Chip, and I think that I love her best, after all! Gentleman Geoff's Billie, my Billie, will you be my wife, soon, soon?"
There was a pause, while a little breeze stirred the starry, perfume-laden branches about them, shimmering mistily in the moon's haze. Then, far away, a night bird called eagerly, tenderly to its mate, and Willa lifted tired, happy arms and placed them about the head bent above her, drawing it down.
"I thought you were never, in all the world, going to ask me!" she sighed.