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Chapter 25

XXV.

Gregory did not sleep, and he did not find peace in the prayers he put up for guidance. He tried to think of some one with whom he might take counsel; but he knew no one in Florence except the parents of his pupil, and they were impossible. He felt himself abandoned to the impulse which he dreaded, in going to Clementina, and he went without hope, willing to suffer whatever penalty she should visit upon him, after he had disavowed Belsky's action, and claimed the responsibility for it.

He was prepared for her refusal to see him; he had imagined her wounded and pathetic; he had fancied her insulted and indignant; but she met him eagerly and with a mystifying appeal in her welcome. He began at once, without attempting to bridge the time since they had met with any formalities.

"I have come to speak to you about—that—Russian, about Baron Belsky—"

"Yes, yes!" she returned, anxiously. "Then you have hea'd"

"He came to me last night, and—I want to say that I feel myself to blame for what he has done."

"You?"

"Yes; I. I never spoke of you by name to him; I didn't dream of his ever seeing you, or that he would dare to speak to you of what I told him. But I believe he meant no wrong; and it was I who did the harm, whether I authorized it or not."

"Yes, yes!" she returned, with the effect of putting his words aside as something of no moment. "Have they head anything more?"

"How, anything more?" he returned, in a daze.

"Then, don't you know? About his falling into the river? I know he didn't drown himself."

Gregory shook his head. "When—what makes them think"—He stopped and stared at her.

"Why, they know that he went down to the Ponte Trinity last night; somebody saw him going: And then that peasant found his hat with his name in it in the drift-wood below the Cascine—"

"Yes," said Gregory, lifelessly. He let his arms drop forward, and his helpless hands hang over his knees; his gaze fell from her face to the floor.

Neither spoke for a time that seemed long, and then it was Clementina who spoke. "But it isn't true!"

"Oh, yes, it is," said Gregory, as before.

"Mr. Hinkle doesn't believe it is," she urged.

"Mr. Hinkle?"

"He's an American who's staying in Florence. He came this mo'ning to tell me about it. Even if he's drowned Mr. Hinkle believes he didn't mean to; he must have just fallen in."

"What does it matter?" demanded Gregory, lifting his heavy eyes. "Whether he meant it or not, I caused it. I drove him to it."

"You drove him?"

"Yes. He told me what he had said to you, and I—said that he had spoiled my life—I don't know!"

"Well, he had no right to do it; but I didn't blame you," Clementina began, compassionately.

"It's too late. It can't be helped now." Gregory turned from the mercy that could no longer save him. He rose dizzily, and tried to get himself away.

"You mustn't go!" she interposed. "I don't believe you made him do it. Mr. Hinkle will be back soon, and he will—"

"If he should bring word that it was true?" Gregory asked.

"Well," said Clementina, "then we should have to bear it."

A sense of something finer than the surface meaning of her words pierced his morbid egotism. "I'm ashamed," he said. "Will you let me stay?"

"Why, yes, you must," she said, and if there was any censure of him at the bottom of her heart, she kept it there, and tried to talk him away from his remorse, which was in his temperament, perhaps, rather than his conscience; she made the time pass till there came a knock at the door, and she opened it to Hinkle.

"I didn't send up my name; I thought I wouldn't stand upon ceremony just now," he said.

"Oh, no!" she returned. "Mr. Hinkle, this is Mr. Gregory. Mr. Gregory knew Mr. Belsky, and he thinks—"

She turned to Gregory for prompting, and he managed to say, "I don't believe he was quite the sort of person to—And yet he might—he was in trouble—"

"Money trouble?" asked Hinkle. "They say these Russians have a perfect genius for debt. I had a little inspiration, since I saw you, but there doesn't seems to be anything in it, so far." He addressed himself to Clementina, but he included Gregory in what he said. "It struck me that he might have been running his board, and had used this drowning episode as a blind. But I've been around to his hotel, and he's settled up, all fair and square enough. The landlord tried to think of something he hadn't paid, but he couldn't; and I never saw a man try harder, either." Clementina smiled; she put her hand to her mouth to keep from laughing; but Gregory frowned his distress in the untimely droning.

"I don't give up my theory that it's a fake of some kind, though. He could leave behind a good many creditors besides his landlord. The authorities have sealed up his effects, and they've done everything but call out the fire department; that's on duty looking after the freshet, and it couldn't be spared. I'll go out now and slop round a little more in the cause," Hinkle looked down at his shoes and his drabbled trousers, and wiped the perspiration from his face, "but I thought I'd drop in, and tell you not to worry about it, Miss Clementina. I would stake anything you pleased on Mr. Belsky's safety. Mr. Gregory, here, looks like he would be willing to take odds," he suggested.

Gregory commanded himself from his misery to say, "I wish I could believe—I mean—"

"Of course, we don't want to think that the man's a fraud, any more than that he's dead. Perhaps we might hit upon some middle course. At any rate, it's worth trying."

"May I—do you object to my joining you?" Gregory asked.

"Why, come!" Hinkle hospitably assented. "Glad to have you. I'll be back again, Miss Clementina!"

Gregory was going away without any form of leavetaking; but he turned back to ask, "Will you let me come back, too?"

"Why, suttainly, Mr. Gregory," said Clementina, and she went to find Mrs. Lander, whom she found in bed.

"I thought I'd lay down," she explained. "I don't believe I'm goin' to be sick, but it's one of my pooa days, and I might just as well be in bed as not." Clementina agreed with her, and Mrs. Lander asked: "You hea'd anything moa?"

"No. Mr. Hinkle has just been he'a, but he hadn't any news."

Mrs. Lander turned her face toward the wall. "Next thing, he'll be drownin' himself. I neva wanted you should have anything to do with the fellas that go to that woman's. There ain't any of 'em to be depended on."

It was the first time that her growing jealousy of Miss Milray had openly declared itself; but Clementina had felt it before, without knowing how to meet it. As an escape from it now she was almost willing to say, "Mrs. Lander, I want to tell you that Mr. Gregory has just been he'a, too."

"Mr. Gregory?"

"Yes. Don't you remember? At the Middlemount? The first summa? He was the headwaita—that student."

Mrs. Lander jerked her head round on the pillow. "Well, of all the—What does he want, over he'a?"

"Nothing. That is—he's travelling with a pupil that he's preparing for college, and—he came to see us—"

"D'you tell him I couldn't see him?"

"Yes"

"I guess he'd think I was a pretty changed pusson! Now, I want you should stay with me, Clementina, and if anybody else comes—"

Maddalena entered the room with a card which she gave to the girl.

"Who is it?" Mrs. Lander demanded.

"Miss Milray."

"Of cou'se! Well, you may just send wo'd that you can't—Or, no; you must! She'd have it all ova the place, by night, that I wouldn't let you see her. But don't you make any excuse for me! If she asks after me, don't you say I'm sick! You say I'm not at home."

"I've come about that little wretch," Miss Milray began, after kissing Clementina. "I didn't know but you had heard something I hadn't, or I had heard something you hadn't. You know I belong to the Hinkle persuasion: I think Belsky's run his board—as Mr. Hinkle calls it."

Clementina explained how this part of the Hinkle theory had failed, and then Miss Milray devolved upon the belief that he had run his tailor's bill or his shoemaker's. "They are delightful, those Russians, but they're born insolvent. I don't believe he's drowned himself. How," she broke off to ask, in a burlesque whisper, "is-the-old-tabby?" She laughed, for answer to her own question, and then with another sudden diversion she demanded of a look in Clementina's face which would not be laughed away, "Well, my dear, what is it?"

"Miss Milray," said the girl, "should you think me very silly, if I told you something—silly?"

"Not in the least!" cried Miss Milray, joyously. "It's the final proof of your wisdom that I've been waiting for?"

"It's because Mr. Belsky is all mixed up in it," said Clementina, as if some excuse were necessary, and then she told the story of her love affair with Gregory. Miss Milray punctuated the several facts with vivid nods, but at the end she did not ask her anything, and the girl somehow felt the freer to add: "I believe I will tell you his name. It is Mr. Gregory—Frank Gregory—"

"And he's been in Egypt?"

"Yes, the whole winta."

"Then he's the one that my sister-in-law has been writing me about!"

"Oh, did he meet her the'a?"

"I should think so! And he'll meet her there, very soon. She's coming, with my poor brother. I meant to tell you, but this ridiculous Belsky business drove it out of my head."

"And do you think," Clementina entreated, "that he was to blame?"

"Why, I don't believe he's done it, you know."

"Oh, I didn't mean Mr. Belsky. I meant—Mr. Gregory. For telling Mr. Belsky?"

"Certainly not. Men always tell those things to some one, I suppose. Nobody was to blame but Belsky, for his meddling."

Miss Milray rose and shook out her plumes for flight, as if she were rather eager for flight, but at the little sigh with which Clementina said, "Yes, that is what I thought," she faltered.

"I was going to run away, for I shouldn't like to mix myself up in your affair—it's certainly a very strange one—unless I was sure I could help you. But if you think I can—"

Clementina shook her head. "I don't believe you can," she said, with a candor so wistful that Miss Milray stopped quite short. "How does Mr. Gregory take this Belsky business?" she asked.

"I guess he feels it moa than I do," said the girl.

"He shows his feeling more?"

"Yes—no—He believes he drove him to it."

Miss Milray took her hand, for parting, but did not kiss her. "I won't advise you, my dear. In fact, you haven't asked me to. You'll know what to do, if you haven't done it already; girls usually have, when they want advice. Was there something you were going to say?"

"Oh, no. Nothing. Do you think," she hesitated, appealingly, "do you think we are-engaged?"

"If he's anything of a man at all, he must think he is."

"Yes," said Clementina, wistfully, "I guess he does."

Miss Milray looked sharply at her. "And does he think you are?"

"I don't know—he didn't say."

"Well," said Miss Milray, rather dryly, "then it's something for you to think over pretty carefully."

William Dean Howells