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Chapter 28

XXVIII.

Dr. Welwright got his patient a lodging on the Grand Canal in Venice, and decided to stay long enough to note the first effect of the air and the baths, and to look up a doctor to leave her with.

This took something more than a week, which could not all be spent in Mrs. Lander's company, much as she wished it. There were hours which he gave to going about in a gondola with Clementina, whom he forbade to be always at the invalid's side. He tried to reassure her as to Mrs. Lander's health, when he found her rather mute and absent, while they drifted in the silvery sun of the late April weather, just beginning to be warm, but not warm enough yet for the tent of the open gondola. He asked her about Mrs. Lander's family, and Clementina could only tell him that she had always said she had none. She told him the story of her own relation to her, and he said, "Yes, I heard something of that from Miss Milray." After a moment of silence, during which he looked curiously into the girl's eyes, "Do you think you can bear a little more care, Miss Claxon?"

"I think I can," said Clementina, not very courageously, but patiently.

"It's only this, and I wouldn't tell you if I hadn't thought you equal to it. Mrs. Lander's case puzzles me: But I shall leave Dr. Tradonico watching it, and if it takes the turn that there's a chance it may take, he will tell you, and you'd better find out about her friends, and—let them know. That's all."

"Yes," said Clementina, as if it were not quite enough. Perhaps she did not fully realize all that the doctor had intended; life alone is credible to the young; life and the expectation of it.

The night before he was to return to Florence there was a full moon; and when he had got Mrs. Lander to sleep he asked Clementina if she would not go out on the lagoon with him. He assigned no peculiar virtue to the moonlight, and he had no new charge to give her concerning his patient when they were embarked. He seemed to wish her to talk about herself, and when she strayed from the topic, he prompted her return. Then he wished to know how she liked Florence, as compared with Venice, and all the other cities she had seen, and when she said she had not seen any but Boston and New York, and London for one night, he wished to know whether she liked Florence as well. She said she liked it best of all, and he told her he was very glad, for he liked it himself better than any place he had ever seen. He spoke of his family in America, which was formed of grownup brothers and sisters, so that he had none of the closest and tenderest ties obliging him to return; there was no reason why he should not spend all his days in Florence, except for some brief visits home. It would be another thing with such a place as Venice; he could never have the same settled feeling there: it was beautiful, but it was unreal; it would be like spending one's life at the opera. Did not she think so?

She thought so, oh, yes; she never could have the home-feeling at Venice that she had at Florence.

"Exactly; that's what I meant—a home-feeling; I'm glad you had it." He let the gondola dip and slide forward almost a minute before he added, with an effect of pulling a voice up out of his throat somewhere, "How would you like to live there—with me—as my wife?"

"Why, what do you mean, Dr. Welwright?" asked Clementina, with a vague laugh.

Dr. Welwright laughed, too; but not vaguely; there was a mounting cheerfulness in his laugh. "What I say. I hope it isn't very surprising."

"No; but I never thought of such a thing."

"Perhaps you will think of it now."

"But you're not in ea'nest!"

"I'm thoroughly in earnest," said the doctor, and he seemed very much amused at her incredulity.

"Then; I'm sorry," she answered. "I couldn't."

"No?" he said, still with amusement, or with a courage that took that form. "Why not?"

"Because I am—not free."

For an interval they were so silent that they could hear each other breathe: Then, after he had quietly bidden the gondolier go back to their hotel, he asked, "If you had been free you might have answered me differently?"

"I don't know," said Clementina, candidly. "I never thought of it."

"It isn't because you disliked me?"

"Oh, no!"

"Then I must get what comfort I can out of that. I hope, with all my heart, that you may be happy."

"Why, Dr. Welwright!" said Clementina. "Don't you suppose that I should be glad to do it, if I could? Any one would!"

"It doesn't seem very probable, just now," he answered, humbly. "But I'll believe it if you say so."

"I do say so, and I always shall."

"Thank you."

Dr. Welwright professed himself ready for his departure, at breakfast next morning and he must have made his preparations very late or very early. He was explicit in his charges to Clementina concerning Mrs. Lander, and at the end of them, he said, "She will not know when she is asking too much of you, but you will, and you must act upon your knowledge. And remember, if you are in need of help, of any kind, you're to let me know. Will you?"

"Yes, I will, Dr. Welwright."

"People will be going away soon, and I shall not be so busy. I can come back if Dr. Tradonico thinks it necessary."

He left Mrs. Lander full of resolutions to look after her own welfare in every way, and she went out in her gondola the same morning. She was not only to take the air as much as possible, but she was to amuse herself, and she decided that she would have her second breakfast at the Caffe Florian. Venice was beginning to fill up with arrivals from the south, and it need not have been so surprising to find Mr. Hinkle there over a cup of coffee. He said he had just that moment been thinking of her, and meaning to look her up at the hotel. He said that he had stopped at Venice because it was such a splendid place to introduce his gleaner; he invited Mrs. Lander to become a partner in the enterprise; he promised her a return of fifty per cent. on her investment. If he could once introduce his gleaner in Venice, he should be a made man. He asked Mrs. Lander, with real feeling, how she was; as for Miss Clementina, he need not ask.

"Oh, indeed, the docta thinks she wants a little lookin' after, too," said Mrs. Lander.

"Well, about as much as you do, Mrs. Lander," Hinkle allowed, tolerantly. "I don't know how it affects you, ma'am, such a meeting of friends in these strange waters, but it's building me right up. It's made another man of me, already, and I've got the other man's appetite, too. Mind my letting him have his breakfast here with me at your table?" He bade the waiter just fetch his plate. He attached himself to them; he spent the day with them. Mrs. Lander asked him to dinner at her lodgings, and left him to Clementina over the coffee.

"She's looking fine, doesn't the doctor think? This air will do everything for her."

"Oh, yes; she's a great deal betta than she was befo'e we came."

"That's right. Well, now, you've got me here, you must let me make myself useful any way I can. I've got a spare month that I can put in here in Venice, just as well as not; I sha'n't want to push north till the frost's out of the ground. They wouldn't have a chance to try my gleaner, on the other side of the Alps much before September, anyway. Now, in Ohio, the part I come from, we cut our wheat in June. When is your wheat harvest at Middlemount?"

Clementina laughed. "I don't believe we've got any. I guess it's all grass."

"I wish you could see our country out there, once."

"Is it nice?"

"Nice? We're right in the centre of the state, measuring from north to south, on the old National Road." Clementina had never heard of this road, but she did not say so. "About five miles back from the Ohio River, where the coal comes up out of the ground, because there's so much of it there's no room for it below. Our farm's in a valley, along a creek bottom, what you Yankees call an intervals; we've got three hundred acres. My grandfather took up the land, and then he went back to Pennsylvania to get the girl he'd left there—we were Pennsylvania Dutch; that's where I got my romantic name—they drove all the way out to Ohio again in his buggy, and when he came in sight of our valley with his bride, he stood up in his buggy and pointed with his whip. 'There! As far as the sky is blue, it's all ours!'"

Clementina owned the charm of his story as he seemed to expect, but when he said, "Yes, I want you to see that country, some day," she answered cautiously.

"It must be lovely. But I don't expect to go West, eva."

"I like your Eastern way of saying everr," said Hinkle, and he said it in his Western way. "I like New England folks."

Clementina smiled discreetly. "They have their faults like everybody else, I presume."

"Ah, that's a regular Yankee word: presume," said Hinkle. "Our teacher, my first one, always said presume. She was from your State, too."

William Dean Howells