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Chapter 40

XL.

On her way home Clementina met a man walking swiftly forward. A sort of impassioned abstraction expressed itself in his gait and bearing. They had both entered the shadow of the deep pine woods that flanked the way on either side, and the fallen needles helped with the velvety summer dust of the roadway to hush their steps from each other. She saw him far off, but he was not aware of her till she was quite near him.

"Oh!" he said, with a start. "You filled my mind so full that I couldn't have believed you were anywhere outside of it. I was coming to get you—I was coming to get my answer."

Gregory had grown distinctly older. Sickness and hardship had left traces in his wasted face, but the full beard he wore helped to give him an undue look of age.

"I don't know," said Clementina, slowly, "as I've got an answa fo' you, Mr. Gregory—yet."

"No answer is better that the one I am afraid of!"

"Oh, I'm not so sure of that," she said, with gentle perplexity, as she stood, holding the hand of her little girl, who stared shyly at the intense face of the man before her.

"I am," he retorted. "I have been thinking it all ever, Clementina. I've tried not to think selfishly about it, but I can't pretend that my wish isn't selfish. It is! I want you for myself, and because I've always wanted you, and not for any other reason. I never cared for any one but you in the way I cared for you, and—"

"Oh!" she grieved. "I never ca'ed at all for you after I saw him."

"I know it must be shocking to you; I haven't told you with any wretched hope that it would commend me to you!"

"I don't say it was so very bad," said Clementina, reflectively, "if it was something you couldn't help."

"It was something I couldn't help. Perhaps I didn't try."

"Did-she know it?"

"She knew it from the first; I told her before we were married."

Clementina drew back a little, insensibly pulling her child with her. "I don't believe I exactly like it."

"I knew you wouldn't! If I could have thought you would, I hope I shouldn't have wished—and feared—so much to tell you."

"Oh, I know you always wanted to do what you believed was right, Mr. Gregory," she answered. "But I haven't quite thought it out yet. You mustn't hurry me."

"No, no! Heaven forbid." He stood aside to let her pass.

"I was just going home," she added.

"May I go with you?"

"Yes, if you want to. I don't know but you betta; we might as well; I want to talk with you. Don't you think it's something we ought to talk about-sensibly?"

"Why, of course! And I shall try to be guided by you; I should always submit to be ruled by you, if—"

"That's not what I mean, exactly. I don't want to do the ruling. You don't undastand me."

"I'm afraid I don't," he assented, humbly.

"If you did, you wouldn't say that—so." He did not venture to make any answer, and they walked on without speaking, till she asked, "Did you know that Miss Milray was at the Middlemount?"

"Miss Milray! Of Florence?"

"With her brother. I didn't see him; Mrs. Milray is not he'a; they ah' divo'ced. Miss Milray used to be very nice to me in Florence. She isn't going back there any moa. She says you can't go back to anything. Do you think we can?"

She had left moments between her incoherent sentences where he might interrupt her if he would, but he waited for her question. "I hoped we might; but perhaps—"

"No, no. We couldn't. We couldn't go back to that night when you threw the slippas into the riva, no' to that time in Florence when we gave up, no' to that day in Venice when I had to tell you that I ca'ed moa fo' some one else. Don't you see?"

"Yes, I see," he said, in quick revulsion from the hope he had expressed. "The past is full of the pain and shame of my errors!"

"I don't want to go back to what's past, eitha," she reasoned, without gainsaying him.

She stopped again, as if that were all, and he asked, "Then is that my answer?"

"I don't believe that even in the otha wo'ld we shall want to go back to the past, much, do you?" she pursued, thoughtfully.

Once Gregory would have answered confidently; he even now checked an impulse to do so. "I don't know," he owned, meekly.

"I do like you, Mr. Gregory!" she relented, as if touched by his meekness, to the confession. "You know I do—moa than I ever expected to like anybody again. But it's not because I used to like you, or because I think you always acted nicely. I think it was cruel of you, if you ca'ed for me, to let me believe you didn't, afta that fust time. I can't eva think it wasn't, no matta why you did it."

"It was atrocious. I can see that now."

"I say it, because I shouldn't eva wish to say it again. I know that all the time you we'e betta than what you did, and I blame myself a good deal moa fo' not knowing when you came to Florence that I had begun to ca'e fo'some one else. But I did wait till I could see you again, so as to be su'a which I ca'ed for the most. I tried to be fai'a, before I told you that I wanted to be free. That is all," she said, gently, and Gregory perceived that the word was left definitely to him.

He could not take it till he had disciplined himself to accept unmurmuringly his sentence as he understood it. "At any rate," he began, "I can thank you for rating my motive above my conduct."

"Oh," she said. "I don't think either of us acted very well. I didn't know till aftawa'ds that I was glad to have you give up, the way you did in Florence. I was—bewild'ed. But I ought to have known, and I want you to undastand everything, now. I don't ca'e for you because I used to when I was almost a child, and I shouldn't want you to ca'e for me eitha, because you did then. That's why I wish you had neva felt that you had always ca'ed fo' me."

"Yes," said Gregory. He let fall his head in despair.

"That is what I mean," said Clementina. "If we ah' going to begin togetha, now, it's got to be as if we had neva begun before. And you mustn't think, or say, or look as if the'e had been anything in oua lives but ouaselves. Will you? Do you promise?" She stopped, and put her hand on his breast, and pushed against it with a nervous vehemence.

"No!" he said. "I don't promise, for I couldn't keep my promise. What you ask is impossible. The past is part of us; it can't be ignored any more than it can be destroyed. If we take each other, it must be for all that we have been as well as all that we are. If we haven't the courage for that we must part."

He dropped the little one's hand which he had been holding, and moved a few steps aside. "Don't!" she said. "They'll think I've made you," and he took the child's hand again.

They had emerged from the shadow of the woods, and come in sight of her father's house. Claxon was standing coatless before the door in full enjoyment of the late afternoon air; his wife beside him, at sight of Gregory, quelled a natural impulse to run round the corner of the house from the presence of strangers.

"I wonda what they'a sayin'," she fretted.

"It looks some as if she was sayin' yes," said Claxon, with an impersonal enjoyment of his conjecture. "I guess she saw he was bound not to take no for an answa."

"I don't know as I should like it very much," his wife relucted. "Clem's doin' very well, as it is. She no need to marry again."

"Oh, I guess it a'n't that altogetha. He's a good man." Claxon mused a moment upon the figures which had begun to advance again, with the little one between them, and then gave way in a burst of paternal pride, "And I don't know as I should blame him so very much for wantin' Clem. She always did want to be of moa use—But I guess she likes him too."

William Dean Howells