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- The Battle Ground - 71/71 -


"I hoped until the end--even after I knew that hope was folly and that I was a fool to cling to it. I always meant to come back to you when I got the chance, but not like this--not like this."

At the pain in his eyes the girl caught her breath with a sob that shook her from head to foot. Pity moved her with a passion stronger than mere love, and she put out her protecting arms with a gesture that would have saved him from the world--or from himself.

"No, like this, Dan," she answered, with her lips upon his coat.

He kissed her once and drew back.

"I never meant to come home this way, Betty," he said, in a voice that trembled from its new humility.

"My dear, my dear, I have grown to think that any way is a good way," she murmured, her eyes on the blackened pile that had once been Chericoke.

"It is not right," he went on; "it is not fair. You cannot marry me--you must not."

Again the humour quivered on the girl's lips.

"I don't like to seem too urgent," she returned, "but will you tell me why?"

"Why?" he repeated bitterly. "There are a hundred why's if you want them, and each one sufficient in itself. I am a beggar, a failure, a wreck, a broken-down soldier from the ranks. Do you think if it were anything less than pure madness on your part that I should stand here a moment and talk like this?--but because I am in love with you, Betty, it doesn't follow that I'm an utter ass."

"That's flattering," responded Betty, "but it doesn't explain just what I want to know. Look me straight in the eyes--no evading now--and answer what I ask. Do you mean that we are to be neighbours and nothing more? Do you mean that we are to shake hands when we meet and drop them afterward? Do you mean that we are to stand alone together as we are standing now--that you are never to take me in your arms again? Do you mean this, my dear?"

"I mean--just that," he answered between his teeth.

For a moment Betty looked at him with a laugh of disbelief. Then, biting the smile upon her lips, she held out her hand with a friendly gesture.

"I am quite content that it should be so," she said in a cordial voice. "We shall be very good neighbours, I fancy, and if you have any trouble with your crops, don't hesitate to ask for my advice. I've become an excellent farmer, the Major says, you know." She caught up her long black skirt and walked on, but when he would have followed, she motioned him back with a decisive little wave. "You really mustn't--I can't think of allowing it," she insisted. "It is putting my neighbours to unheard-of trouble to make them see me home. Why, if I once begin the custom, I shall soon have old Rainy-day Jones walking back with me when I go to buy his cows." Still smiling she passed under the battle-scarred elms and stepped over the ruined gate into the road.

Leaning against a twisted tree in the old drive, Dan watched her until her black dress fluttered beyond the crumbled wall. Then he gave a cry that checked her hastening feet.

"Betty!" he called, and at his voice she turned.

"What is it, dear friend?" she asked, and, standing amid the scattered stones, looked back at him with pleading eyes.

"Betty!" he cried again, stretching out his arms; and as she ran toward him, he went down beside the ashes of Chericoke, and lay with his face half hidden against a broken urn.

"I am coming," called Betty, softly, running over the fallen gate and along the drive. Then, as she reached him, she knelt down and drew him to her bosom, soothing him as a mother soothes a tired child.

"It shall be as you wish--I shall be as you wish," she promised as she held him close.

But his strength had come back to him at her touch, and springing to his feet, he caught her from the ground as he had done that day beside the cabin in the woods, kissing her eyelids and her faithful hands.

"I can't do it, Betty, it's no use. There's still some fight left in me--I am not utterly beaten so long as I have you on my side."

With a smile she lifted her face and he caught the strong courage of her look.

"We will begin again," she said, "and this time, my dear, we will begin together."


The Battle Ground - 71/71

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