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Chapter 38

XXXVIII.

It was possibly through some sense finer than any cognition that Clementina felt in meeting her lover that she had taken up a new burden rather than laid down an old one. Afterwards, when they once recurred to that meeting, and she tried to explain for him the hesitation which she had not been able to hide, she could only say, "I presume I didn't want to begin unless I was sure I could carry out. It would have been silly."

Her confession, if it was a confession, was made when one of his returns to health, or rather one of the arrests of his unhealth, flushed them with hope and courage; but before that first meeting was ended she knew that he had overtasked his strength, in coming to New York, and he must not try it further. "Fatha," she said to Claxon, with the authority of a woman doing her duty, "I'm not going to let Geo'ge go up to Middlemount, with all the excitement. It will be as much as he can do to get home. You can tell mother about it; and the rest. I did suppose it would be Mr. Richling that would marry us, and I always wanted him to, but I guess somebody else can do it as well."

"Just as you say, Clem," her father assented. "Why not Brother Osson, he'a?" he suggested with a pleasure in the joke, whatever it was, that the minister's relation to Clementina involved. "I guess he can put off his visit to Boston long enough."

"Well, I was thinking of him," said Clementina. "Will you ask him?"

"Yes. I'll get round to it, in the mohning."

"No-now; right away. I've been talking with Geo'ge about it; and the'e's no sense in putting it off. I ought to begin taking care of him at once."

"Well, I guess when I tell your motha how you're layin' hold, she won't think it's the same pusson," said her father, proudly.

"But it is; I haven't changed a bit."

"You ha'n't changed for the wohse, anyway."

"Didn't I always try to do what I had to?"

"I guess you did, Clem."

"Well, then!"

Mr. Orson, after a decent hesitation, consented to perform the ceremony. It took place in a parlor of the hotel, according to the law of New York, which facilitates marriage so greatly in all respects that it is strange any one in the State should remain single. He had then a luxury of choice between attaching himself to the bridal couple as far as Ohio on his journey home to Michigan, or to Claxon who was going to take the boat for Boston the next day on his way to Middlemount. He decided for Claxon, since he could then see Mrs. Lander's lawyer at once, and arrange with him for getting out of the vice-consul's hands the money which he was holding for an authoritative demand. He accepted without open reproach the handsome fee which the elder Hinkle gave him for his services, and even went so far as to say, "If your son should ever be blest with a return to health, he has got a helpmeet such as there are very few of." He then admonished the young couple, in whatever trials life should have in store for them, to be resigned, and always to be prepared for the worst. When he came later to take leave of them, he was apparently not equal to the task of fitly acknowledging the return which Hinkle made him of all the money remaining to Clementina out of the sum last given her by Mrs. Lander, but he hid any disappointment he might have suffered, and with a brief, "Thank you," put it in his pocket.

Hinkle told Clementina of the apathetic behavior of Mr. Orson; he added with a laugh like his old self, "It's the best that he doesn't seem prepared for."

"Yes," she assented. "He wasn't very chee'ful. But I presume that he meant well. It must be a trial for him to find out that Mrs. Landa wasn't rich, after all."

It was apparently never a trial to her. She went to Ohio with her husband and took up her life on the farm, where it was wisely judged that he had the best chance of working out of the wreck of his health and strength. There was often the promise and always the hope of this, and their love knew no doubt of the future. Her sisters-in-law delighted in all her strangeness and difference, while they petted her as something not to be separated from him in their petting of their brother; to his mother she was the darling which her youngest had never ceased to be; Clementina once went so far as to say to him that if she was ever anything she would like to be a Moravian.

The question of religion was always related in their minds to the question of Gregory, to whom they did justice in their trust of each other. It was Hinkle himself who reasoned out that if Gregory was narrow, his narrowness was of his conscience and not of his heart or his mind. She respected the memory of her first lover; but it was as if he were dead, now, as well as her young dream of him, and she read with a curious sense of remoteness, a paragraph which her husband found in the religious intelligence of his Sunday paper, announcing the marriage of the Rev. Frank Gregory to a lady described as having been a frequent and bountiful contributor to the foreign missions. She was apparently a widow, and they conjectured that she was older than he. His departure for his chosen field of missionary labor in China formed part of the news communicated by the rather exulting paragraph.

"Well, that is all right," said Clementina's husband. "He is a good man, and he is where he can do nothing but good. I am glad I needn't feel sorry for him, any more."

Clementina's father must have given such a report of Hinkle and his family, that they felt easy at home in leaving her to the lot she had chosen. When Claxon parted from her, he talked of coming out with her mother to see her that fall; but it was more than a year before they got round to it. They did not come till after the birth of her little girl, and her father then humorously allowed that perhaps they would not have got round to it at all if something of the kind had not happened. The Hinkles and her father and mother liked one another, so much that in the first glow of his enthusiasm Claxon talked of settling down in Ohio, and the older Hinkle drove him about to look at some places that were for sale. But it ended in his saying one day that he missed the hills, and he did not believe that he would know enough to come in when it rained if he did not see old Middlemount with his nightcap on first. His wife and he started home with the impatience of their years, rather earlier than they had meant to go, and they were silent for a little while after they left the flag-station where Hinkle and Clementina had put them aboard their train.

"Well?" said Claxon, at last.

"Well?" echoed his wife, and then she did not speak for a little while longer. At last she asked,

"D'he look that way when you fust see him in New Yo'k?"

Claxon gave his honesty time to get the better of his optimism. Even then he answered evasively, "He doos look pootty slim."

"The way I cypher it out," said his wife, "he no business to let her marry him, if he wa'n't goin' to get well. It was throwin' of herself away, as you may say."

"I don't know about that," said Claxon, as if the point had occurred to him, too, and had been already argued in his mind. "I guess they must 'a' had it out, there in New York before they got married—or she had. I don't believe but what he expected to get well, right away. It's the kind of a thing that lingas along, and lingas along. As fah fo'th as Clem went, I guess there wa'n't any let about it. I guess she'd made up her mind from the staht, and she was goin' to have him if she had to hold him on his feet to do it. Look he'a! W hat would you done?"

"Oh, I presume we're all fools!" said Mrs. Claxon, impatient of a sex not always so frank with itself. "But that don't excuse him."

"I don't say it doos," her husband admitted. "But I presume he was expectin' to get well right away, then. And I don't believe," he added, energetically, "but what he will, yet. As I undastand, there ain't anything ogganic about him. It's just this he'e nuvvous prostration, resultin' from shock, his docta tells me; and he'll wo'k out of that all right."

They said no more, and Mrs. Claxon did not recur to any phase of the situation till she undid the lunch which the Hinkles had put up for them, and laid out on the napkin in her lap the portions of cold ham and cold chicken, the buttered biscuit, and the little pot of apple-butter, with the large bottle of cold coffee. Then she sighed, "They live well."

"Yes," said her husband, glad of any concession, "and they ah' good folks. And Clem's as happy as a bud with 'em, you can see that."

"Oh, she was always happy enough, if that's all you want. I presume she was happy with that hectorin' old thing that fooled her out of her money."

"I ha'n't ever regretted that money, Rebecca," said Claxon, stiffly, almost sternly, "and I guess you a'n't, eitha."

"I don't say I have," retorted Mrs. Claxon. "But I don't like to be made a fool of. I presume," she added, remotely, but not so irrelevantly, "Clem could ha' got 'most anybody, ova the'a."

"Well," said Claxon, taking refuge in the joke, "I shouldn't want her to marry a crowned head, myself."

It was Clementina who drove the clay-bank colt away from the station after the train had passed out of sight. Her husband sat beside her, and let her take the reins from his nerveless grasp; and when they got into the shelter of the piece of woods that the road passed through he put up his hands to his face, and broke into sobs. She allowed him to weep on, though she kept saying, "Geo'ge, Geo'ge," softly, and stroking his knee with the hand next him. When his sobbing stopped, she said, "I guess they've had a pleasant visit; but I'm glad we'a together again." He took up her hand and kissed the back of it, and then clutched it hard, but did not speak. "It's strange," she went on, "how I used to be home-sick for father and motha"—she had sometimes lost her Yankee accent in her association with his people, and spoke with their Western burr, but she found it in moments of deeper feeling—"when I was there in Europe, and now I'm glad to have them go. I don't want anybody to be between us; and I want to go back to just the way we we'e befo'e they came. It's been a strain on you, and now you must throw it all off and rest, and get up your strength. One thing, I could see that fatha noticed the gain you had made since he saw you in New Yo'k. He spoke about it to me the fust thing, and he feels just the way I do about it. He don't want you to hurry and get well, but take it slowly, and not excite yourself. He believes in your gleaner, and he knows all about machinery. He says the patent makes it puffectly safe, and you can take your own time about pushing it; it's su'a to go. And motha liked you. She's not one to talk a great deal—she always leaves that to father and me—but she's got deep feelings, and she just worshipped the baby! I neva saw her take a child in her ahms before; but she seemed to want to hold the baby all the time." She stopped, and then added, tenderly, "Now, I know what you ah' thinking about, Geo'ge, and I don't want you to think about it any more. If you do, I shall give up."

They had come to a bad piece of road where a Slough of thick mud forced the wagon-way over the stumps of a turnout in the woods. "You had better let me have the reins, Clementina," he said. He drove home over the yellow leaves of the hickories and the crimson leaves of the maples, that heavy with the morning dew, fell slanting through the still air; and on the way he began to sing; his singing made her heart ache. His father came out to put up the colt for him; and Hinkle would not have his help.

He unhitched the colt himself, while his father trembled by with bent knees; he clapped the colt on the haunch and started him through the pasture-bars with a gay shout, and then put his arm round Clementina's waist, and walked her into the kitchen amidst the grins of his mother and sisters, who said he ought to be ashamed.

The winter passed, and in the spring he was not so well as he had been in the fall. It was the out-door life which was best for him, and he picked up again in the summer. When another autumn came, it was thought best for him not to risk the confinement of another winter in the North. The prolongation of the summer in the South would complete his cure, and Clementina took her baby and went with him to Florida. He was very well, there, and courageous letters came to Middlemount and Ohio, boasting of the gains he had made. One day toward spring he came in languid from the damp, unnatural heat, and the next day he had a fever, which the doctor would not, in a resort absolutely free from malaria, pronounce malarial. After it had once declared itself, in compliance with this reluctance, a simple fever, Hinkle was delirious, and he never knew Clementina again for the mother of his child. They were once more at Venice in his ravings, and he was reasoning with her that Belsky was not drowned.

The mystery of his malady deepened into the mystery of his death. With that his look of health and youth came back, and as she gazed upon his gentle face, it wore to her the smile of quaint sweetness that she had seen it wear the first night it won her fancy at Miss Milray's horse in Florence.

William Dean Howells