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Chapter 27

XXVII.

After Gregory was gone a misgiving began in Clementina's mind, which grew more distinct, through all the difficulties of accounting to Mrs. Lander for his long stay, The girl could see that it was with an obscure jealousy that she pushed her questions, and said at last, "That Mr. Hinkle is about the best of the lot. He's the only one that's eva had the mannas to ask after me, except that lo'd. He did."

Clementina could not pretend that Gregory had asked, but she could not blame him for a forgetfulness of Mrs. Lander which she had shared with him. This helped somehow to deepen the misgiving which followed her from Mrs. Lander's bed to her own, and haunted her far into the night. She could escape from it only by promising herself to deal with it the first thing in the morning. She did this in terms much briefer than she thought she could have commanded. She supposed she would have to write a very long letter, but she came to the end of all she need say, in a very few lines.

   DEAR MR. GREGORY:

   "I have been thinking about what you said yesterday, and I have to
   tell you something. Then you can do what is right for both of us;
   you will know better than I can. But I want you to understand that
   if I go with you in your missionary life, I shall do it for you, and
   not for anything else. I would go anywhere and live anyhow for you,
   but it would be for you; I do not believe that I am religious, and I
   know that I should not do it for religion.

   "That is all; but I could not get any peace till I let you know just
   how I felt.

                       "CLEMENTINA CLAXON."

The letter went early in the morning, though not so early but it was put in Gregory's hand as he was leaving his hotel to go to Mrs. Lander's. He tore it open, and read it on the way, and for the first moment it seemed as if it were Providence leading him that he might lighten Clementina's heart of its doubts with the least delay. He had reasoned that if she would share for his sake the life that he should live for righteousness' sake they would be equally blest in it, and it would be equally consecrated in both. But this luminous conclusion faded in his thought as he hurried on, and he found himself in her presence with something like a hope that she would be inspired to help him.

His soul lifted at the sound of the gay voice in which she asked, "Did you get my letta?" and it seemed for the instant as if there could be no trouble that their love could not overcome.

"Yes," he said, and he put his arms around her, but with a provisionality in his embrace which she subtly perceived.

"And what did you think of it?" she asked. "Did you think I was silly?"

He was aware that she had trusted him to do away her misgiving. "No, no," he answered, guiltily. "Wiser than I am, always. I—I want to talk with you about it, Clementina. I want you to advise me."

He felt her shrink from him, and with a pang he opened his arms to free her. But it was right; he must. She had been expecting him to say that there was nothing in her misgiving, and he could not say it.

"Clementina," he entreated, "why do you think you are not religious?"

"Why, I have never belonged to chu'ch," she answered simply. He looked so daunted, that she tried to soften the blow after she had dealt it. "Of course, I always went to chu'ch, though father and motha didn't. I went to the Episcopal—to Mr. Richling's. But I neva was confirmed."

"But-you believe in God?"

"Why, certainly!"

"And in the Bible?"

"Why, of cou'se!"

"And that it is our duty to bear the truth to those who have never heard of it?"

"I know that is the way you feel about it; but I am not certain that I should feel so myself if you didn't want me to. That's what I got to thinking about last night." She added hopefully, "But perhaps it isn't so great a thing as I—"

"It's a very great thing," he said, and from standing in front of her, he now sat down beyond a little table before her sofa. "How can I ask you to share my life if you don't share my faith?"

"Why, I should try to believe everything that you do, of cou'se."

"Because I do?"

"Well-yes."

"You wring my heart! Are you willing to study—to look into these questions—to—to"—It all seemed very hopeless, very absurd, but she answered seriously:

"Yes, but I believe it would all come back to just where it is, now."

"What you say, Clementina, makes me so happy; but it ought to make me—miserable! And you would do all this, be all this for me, a wretched and erring creature of the dust, and yet not do it for—God?"

Clementina could only say, "Perhaps if He meant me to do it for Him, He would have made me want to. He made you."

"Yes," said Gregory, and for a long time he could not say any more. He sat with his elbow on the table, and his head against his lifted hand.

"You see," she began, gently, "I got to thinking that even if I eva came to believe what you wanted me to, I should be doing it after all, because you wanted me to—"

"Yes, yes," he answered, desolately. "There is no way out of it. If you only hated me, Clementina, despised me—I don't mean that. But if you were not so good, I could have a more hope for you—for myself. It's because you are so good that I can't make myself wish to change you, and yet I know—I am afraid that if you told me my life and objects were wrong, I should turn from them, and be whatever you said. Do you tell me that?"

"No, indeed!" cried Clementina, with abhorrence. "Then I should despise you."

He seemed not to heed her. He moved his lips as if he were talking to himself, and he pleaded, "What shall we do?"

"We must try to think it out, and if we can't—if you can't let me give up to you unless I do it for the same reason that you do; and if I can't let you give up for me, and I know I could neva do that; then—we mustn't!"

"Do you mean, we must part? Not see each other again?"

"What use would it be?"

"None," he owned. She had risen, and he stood up perforce. "May I—may I come back to tell you?"

"Tell me what?" she asked.

"You are right! If I can't make it right, I won't come. But I won't say good bye. I—can't."

She let him go, and Maddalena came in at the door. "Signorina," she said, "the signora is not well. Shall I send for the doctor?"

"Yes, yes, Maddalena. Run!" cried Clementina, distractedly. She hurried to Mrs. Lander's room, where she found her too sick for reproaches, for anything but appeals for help and pity. The girl had not to wait for Doctor Welwright's coming to understand that the attack was severer than any before.

It lasted through the day, and she could see that he was troubled. It had not followed upon any imprudeuce, as Mrs. Lander pathetically called Clementina to witness when her pain had been so far quelled that she could talk of her seizure.

He found her greatly weakened by it the next day, and he sat looking thoughtfully at her before he said that she needed toning up. She caught at the notion. "Yes, yes! That's what I need, docta! Toning up! That's what I need."

He suggested, "How would you like to try the sea air, and the baths—at Venice?"

"Oh, anything, anywhere, to get out of this dreadful hole! I ha'n't had a well minute since I came. And Clementina," the sick woman whimpered, "is so taken up all the time, he'a, that I can't get the right attention."

The doctor looked compassionately away from the girl, and said, "Well, we must arrange about getting you off, then."

"But I want you should go with me, doctor, and see me settled all right. You can, can't you? I sha'n't ca'e how much it costs?"

The doctor said gravely he thought he could manage it and he ignored the long unconscious sigh of relief that Clementina drew.

In all her confusing anxieties for Mrs. Lander, Gregory remained at the bottom of her heart a dumb ache. When the pressure of her fears was taken from her she began to suffer for him consciously; then a letter came from him:

   "I cannot make it right. It is where it was, and I feel that I must
   not see you again. I am trying to do right, but with the fear that
   I am wrong. Send some word to help me before I go away to-morrow.
   F. G."

It was what she had expected, she knew now, but it was none the less to be borne because of her expectation. She wrote back:

   "I believe you are doing the best you can, and I shall always
   believe that."

Her note brought back a long letter from him. He said that whatever he did, or wherever he went, he should try to be true to her ideal of him. If they renounced their love now for the sake of what seemed higher than their love, they might suffer, but they could not choose but do as they were doing.

Clementina was trying to make what she could of this when Miss Milray's name came up, and Miss Milray followed it.

"I wanted to ask after Mrs. Lander, and I want you to tell her I did. Will you? Dr. Welwright says he's going to take her to Venice. Well, I'm sorry—sorry for your going, Clementina, and I'm truly sorry for the cause of it. I shall miss you, my dear, I shall indeed. You know I always wanted to steal you, but you'll do me the justice to say I never did, and I won't try, now."

"Perhaps I wasn't worth stealing," Clementina suggested, with a ruefulness in her smile that went to Miss Milray's heart.

She put her arms round her and kissed her. "I wasn't very kind to you, the other day, Clementina, was I?"

"I don't know," Clementina faltered, with half-averted face.

"Yes, you do! I was trying to make-believe that I didn't want to meddle with your affairs; but I was really vexed that you hadn't told me your story before. It hasn't taken me all this time to reflect that you couldn't, but it has to make myself come and confess that I had been dry and cold with you." She hesitated. "It's come out all right, hasn't it, Clementina?" she asked, tenderly. "You see I want to meddle, now."

"We ah' trying to think so," sighed the girl.

"Tell me about it!" Miss Milray pulled her down on the sofa with her, and modified her embrace to a clasp of Clementina's bands.

"Why, there isn't much to tell," she began, but she told what there was, and Miss Milray kept her countenance concerning the scruple that had parted Clementina and her lover. "Perhaps he wouldn't have thought of it," she said, in a final self-reproach, "if I hadn't put it into his head."

"Well, then, I'm not sorry you put it into his head," cried Miss Milray. "Clementina, may I say what I think of Mr. Gregory's performance?"

"Why, certainly, Miss Milray!"

I think he's not merely a gloomy little bigot, but a very hard-hearted little wretch, and I'm glad you're rid of him. No, stop! Let me go on! You said I might! she persisted, at a protest which imparted itself from Clementina's restive hands. "It was selfish and cruel of him to let you believe that he had forgotten you. It doesn't make it right now, when an accident has forced him to tell you that he cared for you all along."

"Why, do you look at it that way, Miss Milray? If he was doing it on my account?"

"He may think he was doing it on your account, but I think he was doing it on his own. In such a thing as that, a man is bound by his mistakes, if he has made any. He can't go back of them by simply ignoring them. It didn't make it the same for you when he decided for your sake that he would act as if he had never spoken to you."

"I presume he thought that it would come right, sometime," Clementina urged. "I did."

"Yes, that was very well for you, but it wasn't at all well for him. He behaved cruelly; there's no other word for it."

"I don't believe he meant to be cruel, Miss Milray," said Clementina.

"You're not sorry you've broken with him?" demanded Miss Milray, severely, and she let go of Clementina's hands.

"I shouldn't want him to think I hadn't been fai'a."

"I don't understand what you mean by not being fair," said Miss Milray, after a study of the girl's eyes.

"I mean," Clementina explained, "that if I let him think the religion was all the'e was, it wouldn't have been fai'a."

"Why, weren't you sincere about that?"

"Of cou'se I was!" returned the girl, almost indignantly. "But if the'e was anything else, I ought to have told him that, too; and I couldn't."

"Then you can't tell me, of course?" Miss Milray rose in a little pique.

"Perhaps some day I will," the girl entreated. "And perhaps that was all."

Miss Milray laughed. "Well, if that was enough to end it, I'm satisfied, and I'll let you keep your mystery—if it is one—till we meet in Venice; I shall be there early in June. Good bye, dear, and say good bye to Mrs. Lander for me."

William Dean Howells