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Chapter 31

XXXI.

The Milrays came a month later, to seek a milder sun than they had left burning in Florence. The husband and wife had been sojourning there since their arrival from Egypt, but they had not been his sister's guests, and she did not now pretend to be of their party, though the same train, even the same carriage, had brought her to Venice with them. They went to a hotel, and Miss Milray took lodgings where she always spent her Junes, before going to the Tyrol for the summer.

"You are wonderfully improved, every way," Mrs. Milray said to Clementina when they met. "I knew you would be, if Miss Milray took you in hand; and I can see she has. What she doesn't know about the world isn't worth knowing! I hope she hasn't made you too worldly? But if she has, she's taught you how to keep from showing it; you're just as innocent-looking as ever, and that's the main thing; you oughtn't to lose that. You wouldn't dance a skirt dance now before a ship's company, but if you did, no one would suspect that you knew any better. Have you forgiven me, yet? Well, I didn't use you very well, Clementina, and I never pretended I did. I've eaten a lot of humble pie for that, my dear. Did Miss Milray tell you that I wrote to her about it? Of course you won't say how she told you; but she ought to have done me the justice to say that I tried to be a friend at court with her for you. If she didn't, she wasn't fair."

"She neva said anything against you, Mrs. Milray," Clementina answered.

"Discreet as ever, my dear! I understand! And I hope you understand about that old affair, too, by this time. It was a complication. I had to get back at Lioncourt somehow; and I don't honestly think now that his admiration for a young girl was a very wholesome thing for her. But never mind. You had that Boston goose in Florence, too, last winter, and I suppose he gobbled up what little Miss Milray had left of me. But she's charming. I could go down on my knees to her art when she really tries to finish any one."

Clementina noticed that Mrs. Milray had got a new way of talking. She had a chirpiness, and a lift in her inflections, which if it was not exactly English was no longer Western American. Clementina herself in her association with Hinkle had worn off her English rhythm, and in her long confinement to the conversation of Mrs. Lander, she had reverted to her clipped Yankee accent. Mrs. Milray professed to like it, and said it brought back so delightfully those pleasant days at Middlemount, when Clementina really was a child. "I met somebody at Cairo, who seemed very glad to hear about you, though he tried to seem not. Can you guess who it was? I see that you never could, in the world! We got quite chummy one day, when we were going out to the pyramids together, and he gave himself away, finely. He's a simple soul! But when they're in love they're all so! It was a little queer, colloguing with the ex-headwaiter on society terms; but the head-waitership was merely an episode, and the main thing is that he is very talented, and is going to be a minister. It's a pity he's so devoted to his crazy missionary scheme. Some one ought to get hold of him, and point him in the direction of a rich New York congregation. He'd find heathen enough among them, and he could do the greatest amount of good with their money; I tried to talk it into him. I suppose you saw him in Florence, this spring?" she suddenly asked.

"Yes," Clementina answered briefly.

"And you didn't make it up together. I got that much out of Miss Milray. Well, if he were here, I should find out why. But I don't suppose you would tell me." She waited a moment to see if Clementina would, and then she said, "It's a pity, for I've a notion I could help you, and I think I owe you a good turn, for the way I behaved about your dance. But if you don't want my help, you don't."

"I would say so if I did, Mrs. Milray," said Clementina. "I was hu't, at the time; but I don't care anything for it, now. I hope you won't think about it any more!"

"Thank you," said Mrs. Milray, "I'll try not to," and she laughed. "But I should like to do something to prove my repentance."

Clementina perceived that for some reason she would rather have more than less cause for regret; and that she was mocking her; but she was without the wish or the power to retaliate, and she did not try to fathom Mrs. Milray's motives. Most motives in life, even bad motives, lie nearer the surface than most people commonly pretend, and she might not have had to dig deeper into Mrs. Milray's nature for hers than that layer of her consciousness where she was aware that Clementina was a pet of her sister-in-law. For no better reason she herself made a pet of Mrs. Lander, whose dislike of Miss Milray was not hard to divine, and whose willingness to punish her through Clementina was akin to her own. The sick woman was easily flattered back into her first belief in Mrs. Milray and accepted her large civilities and small services as proof of her virtues. She began to talk them into Clementina, and to contrast them with the wicked principles and actions of Miss Milray.

The girl had forgiven Mrs. Milray, but she could not go back to any trust in her; and she could only passively assent to her praise. When Mrs. Lander pressed her for anything more explicit she said what she thought, and then Mrs. Lander accused her of hating Mrs. Milray, who was more her friend than some that flattered her up for everything, and tried to make a fool of her.

"I undastand now," she said one day, "what that recta meant by wantin' me to make life ba'd for you; he saw how easy you was to spoil. Miss Milray is one to praise you to your face, and disgrace you be hind your back, and so I tell you. When Mrs. Milray thought you done wrong she come and said so; and you can't forgive her."

Clementina did not answer. She had mastered the art of reticence in her relations with Mrs. Lander, and even when Miss Milray tempted her one day to give way, she still had strength to resist. But she could not deny that Mrs. Lander did things at times to worry her, though she ended compassionately with the reflection: "She's sick."

"I don't think she's very sick, now," retorted her friend.

"No; that's the reason she's so worrying. When she's really sick, she's betta."

"Because she's frightened, I suppose. And how long do you propose to stand it?

"I don't know," Clementina listlessly answered.

"She couldn't get along without me. I guess I can stand it till we go home; she says she is going home in the fall."

Miss Milray sat looking at the girl a moment.

"Shall you be glad to go home?"

"Oh yes, indeed!"

"To that place in the woods?"

"Why, yes! What makes you ask?"

"Nothing. But Clementina, sometimes I think you don't quite understand yourself. Don't you know that you are very pretty and very charming? I've told you that often enough! But shouldn't you like to be a great success in the world? Haven't you ever thought of that? Don't you care for society?"

The girl sighed. "Yes, I think that's all very nice I did ca'e, one while, there in Florence, last winter!"

"My dear, you don't know how much you were admired. I used to tell you, because I saw there was no spoiling you; but I never told you half. If you had only had the time for it you could have been the greatest sort of success; you were formed for it. It wasn't your beauty alone; lots of pretty girls don't make anything of their beauty; it was your temperament. You took things easily and naturally, and that's what the world likes. It doesn't like your being afraid of it, and you were not afraid, and you were not bold; you were just right." Miss Milray grew more and more exhaustive in her analysis, and enjoyed refining upon it. "All that you needed was a little hard-heartedness, and that would have come in time; you would have learned how to hold your own, but the chance was snatched from you by that old cat! I could weep over you when I think how you have been wasted on her, and now you're actually willing to go back and lose yourself in the woods!"

"I shouldn't call it being lost, Miss Milray."

"I don't mean that, and you must excuse me, my dear. But surely your people—your father and mother—would want to have you get on in the world—to make a brilliant match—"

Clementina smiled to think how far such a thing was from their imaginations. "I don't believe they would ca'e. You don't undastand about them, and I couldn't make you. Fatha neva liked the notion of my being with such a rich woman as Mrs. Lander, because it would look as if we wanted her money."

"I never could have imagined that of you, Clementina!"

"I didn't think you could," said the girl gratefully. "But now, if I left her when she was sick and depended on me, it would look wohse, yet—as if I did it because she was going to give her money to Mr. Landa's family. She wants to do that, and I told her to; I think that would be right; don't you?"

"It would be right for you, Clementina, if you preferred it—and—I should prefer it. But it wouldn't be right for her. She has given you hopes—she has made promises—she has talked to everybody."

"I don't ca'e for that. I shouldn't like to feel beholden to any one, and I think it really belongs to his relations; it was HIS."

Miss Milray did not say anything to this. She asked, "And if you went back, what would you do there? Labor in the fields, as poor little Belsky advised?"

Clementina laughed. "No; but I expect you'll think it's almost as crazy. You know how much I like dancing? Well, I think I could give dancing lessons at the Middlemount. There are always a good many children, and girls that have not grown up, and I guess I could get pupils enough, as long as the summa lasted; and come winter, I'm not afraid but what I could get them among the young folks at the Center. I used to teach them before I left home."

Miss Milray sat looking at her. "I don't know about such things; but it sounds sensible—like everything about you, my dear. It sounds queer, perhaps because you're talking of such a White Mountain scheme here in Venice."

"Yes, don't it?" said Clementina, sympathetically. "I was thinking of that, myself. But I know I could do it. I could go round to different hotels, different days. Yes, I should like to go home, and they would be glad to have me. You can't think how pleasantly we live; and we're company enough for each other. I presume I should miss the things I've got used to ova here, at fust; but I don't believe I should care a great while. I don't deny but what the wo'ld is nice; but you have to pay for it; I don't mean that you would make me—"

"No, no! We understand each other. Go on!"

Miss Milray leaned towards her and pressed the girl's arm reassuringly.

As often happens with people when they are told to go on, Clementina found that she had not much more to say. "I think I could get along in the wo'ld, well enough. Yes, I believe I could do it. But I wasn't bohn to it, and it would be a great deal of trouble—a great deal moa than if I had been bohn to it. I think it would be too much trouble. I would rather give it up and go home, when Mrs. Landa wants to go back."

Miss Milray did not speak for a time. "I know that you are serious, Clementina; and you're wise always, and good—"

"It isn't that, exactly," said Clementina. "But is it—I don't know how to express it very well—is it wo'th while?"

Miss Milray looked at her as if she doubted the girl's sincerity. Even when the world, in return for our making it our whole life, disappoints and defeats us with its prizes, we still question the truth of those who question the value of these prizes; we think they must be hopeless of them, or must be governed by some interest momentarily superior.

Clementina pursued, "I know that you have had all you wanted of the wo'ld—"

"Oh, no!" the woman broke out, almost in anguish. "Not what I wanted! What I tried for. It never gave me what I wanted. It—couldn't!"

"Well?"

"It isn't worth while in that sense. But if you can't have what you want,—if there's been a hollow left in your life—why the world goes a great way towards filling up the aching void." The tone of the last words was lighter than their meaning, but Clementina weighed them aright.

"Miss Milray," she said, pinching the edge of the table by which she sat, a little nervously, and banging her head a little, "I think I can have what I want."

"Then, give the whole world for it, child!"

"There is something I should like to tell you."

"Yes!"

"For you to advise me about."

"I will, my dear, gladly and truly!"

"He was here before you came. He asked me—"

Miss Milray gave a start of alarm. She said, to gain time: "How did he get here? I supposed he was in Germany with his—"

"No; he was here the whole of May."

"Mr. Gregory!"

"Mr. Gregory?" Clementina's face flushed and drooped Still lower. "I meant Mr. Hinkle. But if you think I oughtn't—"

"I don't think anything; I'm so glad! I supposed from what you said about the world, that it must be—But if it isn't, all the better. If it's Mr. Hinkle that you can have—"

"I'm not sure I can. I should like to tell you just how it is, and then you will know." It needed fewer words for this than she expected, and then Clementina took a letter from her pocket, and gave it to Miss Milray. "He wrote it on the train, going away, and it's not very plain; but I guess you can make it out."

Miss Milray received the penciled leaves, which seemed to be pages torn out of a note-book. They were dated the day Hinkle left Venice, and the envelope bore the postmark of Verona. They were not addressed, but began abruptly: "I believe I have made a mistake; I ought not to have given you up till I knew something that no one but you can tell me. You are not bound to any body unless you wish to be so. That is what I see now, and I will not give you up if I can help it. Even if you had made a promise, and then changed your mind, you would not be bound in such a thing as this. I say this, and I know you will not believe I say it because I want you. I do want you, but I would not urge you to break your faith. I only ask you to realize that if you kept your word when your heart had gone out of it, you would be breaking your faith; and if you broke your word you would be keeping your faith. But if your heart is still in your word, I have no more to say. Nobody knows but you. I would get out and take the first train back to Venice if it were not for two things. I know it would be hard on me; and I am afraid it might be hard on you. But if you will write me a line at Milan, when you get this, or if you will write to me at London before July; or at New York at any time—for I expect to wait as long as I live—"

The letter ended here in the local addresses which the writer gave.

Miss Milray handed the leaves back to Clementina, who put them into her pocket, and apparently waited for her questions.

"And have you written?"

"No," said the girl, slowly and thoughtfully, "I haven't. I wanted to, at fust; and then, I thought that if he truly meant what he said he would be willing to wait."

"And why did you want to wait?"

Clementina replied with a question of her own. "Miss Milray, what do you think about Mr. Gregory?"

"Oh, you mustn't ask me that, my dear! I was afraid I had told you too plainly, the last time."

"I don't mean about his letting me think he didn't ca'e for me, so long. But don't you think he wants to do what is right! Mr. Gregory, I mean."

"Well, if you put me on my honor, I'm afraid I do."

"You see," Clementina resumed. "He was the fust one, and I did ca'e for him a great deal; and I might have gone on caring for him, if—When I found out that I didn't care any longer, or so much, it seemed to me as if it must be wrong. Do you think it was?"

"No-no."

"When I got to thinking about some one else at fust it was only not thinking about him—I was ashamed. Then I tried to make out that I was too young in the fust place, to know whether I really ca'ed for any one in the right way; but after I made out that I was, I couldn't feel exactly easy—and I've been wanting to ask you, Miss Milray—"

"Ask me anything you like, my dear!"

"Why, it's only whether a person ought eva to change."

"We change whether we ought, or not. It isn't a matter of duty, one way or another."

"Yes, but ought we to stop caring for somebody, when perhaps we shouldn't if somebody else hadn't come between? That is the question."

"No," Miss Milray retorted, "that isn't at all the question. The question is which you want and whether you could get him. Whichever you want most it is right for you to have."

"Do you truly think so?"

"I do, indeed. This is the one thing in life where one may choose safest what one likes best; I mean if there is nothing bad in the man himself."

"I was afraid it would be wrong! That was what I meant by wanting to be fai'a with Mr. Gregory when I told you about him there in Florence. I don't believe but what it had begun then."

"What had begun?"

"About Mr. Hinkle."

Miss Milray burst into a laugh. "Clementina, you're delicious!" The girl looked hurt, and Miss Milray asked seriously, "Why do you like Mr. Hinkle best—if you do?"

Clementina sighed. "Oh, I don't know. He's so resting."

"Then that settles it. From first to last, what we poor women want is rest. It would be a wicked thing for you to throw your life away on some one who would worry you out of it. I don't wish to say any thing against Mr. Gregory. I dare say he is good—and conscientious; but life is a struggle, at the best, and it's your duty to take the best chance for resting."

Clementina did not look altogether convinced, whether it was Miss Milray's logic or her morality that failed to convince her. She said, after a moment, "I should like to see Mr. Gregory again."

"What good would that do?"

"Why, then I should know."

"Know what?"

"Whether I didn't really ca'e for him any more—or so much."

"Clementina," said Miss Milray, "you mustn't make me lose patience with you—"

"No. But I thought you said that it was my duty to do what I wished."

"Well, yes. That is what I said," Miss Milray consented. "But I supposed that you knew already."

"No," said Clementina, candidly, "I don't believe I do."

"And what if you don't see him?"

"I guess I shall have to wait till I do. The'e will be time enough."

Miss Milray sighed, and then she laughed. "You ARE young!"

William Dean Howells