"Oh, do!" he entreated. "It would be such a relief."
"You know I was a teacher two winters," she said, "and have actually stood boys in corners."
That seemed to interest him afresh; he made her tell him all about her school-teaching. He stayed till the bell rang for dinner, and he suffered a decent moment to pass before he rose then.
"After all," he said at parting, "I think you'd better decide that it's merely my Manet you're coming to see."
"Yes, merely the Manet," Cornelia assented. "If I choose, the Ludlows will all be stood in the corners with their faces to the wall."
She found her own face very flushed, when she climbed up to her room for a moment before going in to dinner, and her heart seemed to be beating in her neck. She looked at Mrs. Westley's note. It stated everything so explicitly that she did not see why Mr. Ludlow need have come to explain. She remembered now that she had forgotten to tell him she was not going.
Cornelia thought Mrs. Westley would come for Charmian and herself in her carriage; but when they went down to her in the Synthesis office, they found that she had planned to walk with them to Ludlow's studio. She said it was not a great way off; and she had got into the habit of walking there, when he was painting her; she supposed they would rather walk after their work. Cornelia said "Oh, yes," and Charmian asked, at her perfervidest, Had Mr. Ludlow painted her? and Mrs. Westley answered calmly. Yes; she believed he did not think it very successful; her husband liked it, though. Charmian said, Oh, how much she should like to see it, and Mrs. Westley said she must show it her some time. Cornelia thought Mrs. Westley very pretty, but she decided that she did not care to see Ludlow's picture of her.
His studio stood a little back from the sidewalk; it was approached by a broad sloping pavement, and had two wide valves for the doorway. He opened the door himself, at their ring, and they found themselves in a large, gray room which went to the roof, with its vaulted ceiling; this was pierced with a vast window, that descended half-way down the northward wall. "My studio started in life as a gentleman's stable; then it fell into the hands of a sculptor, and then it got as low as a painter." He said to Charmian, "Mr. Plaisdell has told me how ingeniously you treated one of your rooms that you took for a studio."
Charmian answered with dark humility, "But a studio without a painter in it!" and there were some offers and refusals of compliment between them, which ended in his saying that he would like to see her studio, and her saying that Mrs. Maybough would always be glad to see him. Then he talked with Mrs. Westley, who was very pleasant to Cornelia while the banter with Charmian went on, and proposed to show his pictures; he fancied that was what he had got them there, for; but he would make a decent pretence of the Manet, first.
The Manet was one of that painter's most excessive; it was almost insolent in its defiance of the old theory and method of art. "He had to go too far, in those days, or he wouldn't have arrived anywhere," Ludlow said, dreamily, as he stood looking with them at the picture. "He fell back to the point he had really meant to reach." He put the picture away amidst the sighs and murmurs of Mrs. Westley and Charmian, and the silence of Cornelia, which he did not try to break. He began to show his own pictures, taking them at random, as it seemed, from the ranks of canvasses faced against the wall. "You know we impressionists are nothing if not prolific," he said, and he kept turning the frame on his easel, now for a long picture, and now for a tall one. The praises of the others followed him, but Cornelia could not speak. Some of the pictures she did not like; some she thought were preposterous; but there were some that she found brilliantly successful, and a few that charmed her with their delicate and tender poetry. He said something about most of them, in apology or extenuation; Cornelia believed that she knew which he liked by his not saying anything of them.
Suddenly he set a large picture on the easel that quite filled the frame. "Trotting Match at the Pymantoning County Fair," he announced, and he turned away and began to make tea in a little battered copper kettle over a spirit-lamp, on a table strewn with color-tubes in the corner.
"Ah, yes," said Mrs. Westley. "I remember this at the American Artists; three or four years ago, wasn't it? But you've done something to it, haven't you?"
"Improved with age," said Ludlow, with his back toward them, bent above his tea-kettle. "That's all."
"It seems like painting a weed, though," said Charmian. "How can you care for such subjects?"
Ludlow came up to her with the first cup of tea. "It's no use to paint lilies, you know."
"Do you call that an answer?"
"A poor one."
He brought Mrs. Westley some tea, and then he came to Cornelia with a cup in each hand, one for her, and one for himself, and frankly put himself between her and the others. "Well, what do you think of it?" he asked, as if there were no one else but they two.
She felt a warm flush of pleasure in his boldness. "I don't know. It's like it; that's the way I've always seen it; and it's beautiful. But somehow——"
"It looks as if it were somewhere else."
"You've hit it," said Ludlow. "It serves me right. You see I was so anxious to prove that an American subject was just as susceptible of impressionistic treatment as a French one, that I made this look as French as I could. I must do it again and more modestly; not be so patronizing. I should like to come out there next fall again, and see another trotting-match. I suppose they'll have one?"
"They always have them; it wouldn't be the Fair without them," said Cornelia.
"Well, I must come, and somehow do it on the spot; that's the only way." He pulled himself more directly in front of her and ignored the others, who talked about his picture with faded interest to each other, and then went about, and looked at the objects in the studio. "I don't think I made myself quite clear the other day, about what I wanted to do in this way." He plunged into the affair again, and if Cornelia did not understand it better, it was not for want of explanation. Perhaps she did not listen very closely. All the time she thought how brilliantly handsome he was, and how fine, by every worldly criterion. "Yes," he said, "that is something I have been thinking of ever since my picture failed with the public; it deserved to fail, and you've made it so clear why, that I can't refuse to know, or to keep myself in the dark about it any longer. I don't believe we can take much from the common stock of life in any way, and find the thing at all real in our hands, without intending to give something back. Do you?"
Cornelia had never thought about it before; she did not try to pretend that she had; it seemed a little fantastic to her, but it flattered her to have him talk to her about it, and she liked his seriousness. He did not keep up the kind of banter with her that he did with Charmian; he did not pay her compliments, and she hated compliments from men.
Ludlow went off to speak to Mrs. Westley of something he saw her looking at; Charmian edged nearer to Cornelia. "I would give the world to be in your place. I never saw anything like it. Keep on looking just as you are! It's magnificent. Such color, and that queenly pose of the head! It would kill those Synthesis girls if they knew how he had been talking to you. My, if I could get anybody to be serious with me! Talk! Say something! Do you think its going to rain before we get home? His eyes keep turning this way, all the time; you can't see them, but they do. I am glad I brought my umbrella. Have you got your waterproof? I'm going to make you tell me every word he said when he came to see you yesterday; it'll be mean if you don't. No, I think I shall go up by the elevated, and then take the surface-car across. It's the most romantic thing I ever heard of. No, I don't believe it will be dark. Speak! Say something! You mustn't let me do all the talking; he'll notice."
Cornelia began to laugh, and Charmian turned away and joined Mrs. Westley and Ludlow, who were tilting outward some of the canvasses faced against the wall, and talking them over. Cornelia followed her, and they all four loitered over the paintings, luxuriously giving a glance at each, and saying a word or two about it. "Yes," Ludlow said, "sometimes I used to do three or four of them a day. I work more slowly now; if you want to get any thinking in, you've got to take time to it."
It was growing dark; Ludlow proposed to see them all home one after another. Mrs. Westley said no, indeed; the Broadway car, at the end of the second block, would leave her within three minutes of her door.
"And nothing could happen in three minutes," said Ludlow. "That stands to reason."
"And my one luxury is going home alone," said Charmian. "Mamma doesn't allow it, except to and from the Synthesis. Then I'm an art student and perfectly safe. If I were a young lady my life wouldn't be worth anything."
"Yes," Ludlow assented, "the great thing is to have some sort of business to be where you are."
"I know a girl who's in some of the charities, and she goes about at all hours of the night, and nobody speaks to her," said Charmian.
"Well, then," said Ludlow, "I don't see that there's anything for me to do, unless we all go together with Mrs. Wesley to get her Broadway car, and then keep on to the Elevated with you, Miss Maybough. Miss Saunders may be frightened enough then to let me walk to her door with her. A man likes to be of some little use in the world."
They had some mild fun about the weakness of Cornelia in needing an escort. She found it best to own that she did not quite know her way home, and was afraid to ask if she got puzzled.
Ludlow put out his spirit-lamp, which had been burning blue all the time, and embittering the tea in the kettle over it, and then they carried out their plan. Cornelia went before with Mrs. Westley, who asked her to come to her on her day, whenever she could leave her work for such a reckless dissipation. At the foot of the Elevated station stairs, where Charmian inflexibly required that they should part with her, in the interest of the personal liberty which she prized above personal safety, she embraced Cornelia formally, and then added an embrace of a more specific character, and whispered to her ear, "You're glorious!" and fled up the station stairs.
Cornelia understood that she was glorious because Mr. Ludlow was walking home with her, and that Charmian was giving the fact a significance out of all reason. They talked rather soberly, as two people do when a gayer third has left them, and they had little silences. They spoke of Charmian, and Cornelia praised her beauty and her heart, and said how everybody liked her at the Synthesis.
"Do they laugh at her a little, too?" Ludlow asked.
"She's rather romantic."
"Oh, I thought all girls were romantic."
"Yes? You're not."
"What makes you think so?" asked the girl. "I'm a great deal more romantic than is good for me. Don't you like romantic people? I do!"
"I don't believe I do," said Ludlow. "They're rather apt to make trouble. I don't mean Miss Maybough. She'll probably take it out in madly impossible art. Can she draw?"
Cornelia did not like to say what she thought of Charmian's drawing, exactly. She said, "Well, I don't know."
Ludlow hastened to say, "I oughtn't to have asked that about your friend."
"We're both in the Preparatory, you know," Cornelia explained. "I think Charmian has a great deal of imagination."
"Well, that's a good thing, if it doesn't go too far. Fortunately it can't, in the Preparatory."
At her door Cornelia did not know whether to ask him in, as she would have done in Pymantoning; she ended by not even offering him her hand; but he took it all the same, as if he had expected her to offer it.
Cornelia found herself in her room without knowing how she got there, or how long she had been there, when the man-voiced Irish girl came up and said something to her. She did not understand at first; then she made out that there was a gentleman asking for her in the parlor; and with a glance at her face in the glass, she ran down stairs. She knew it was Ludlow, and that he had thought of something he wanted to say, and had come back. It must be something very important; it might be an invitation to go with him somewhere; she wondered if they would have a chaperone.
In the vague light of the long parlor, where a single burner was turned half up, because it was not yet dark outside, a figure rose from one of the sofas and came toward her with one hand extended in gay and even jocose greeting. It was the figure of a young man, with a high forehead, and with nothing to obstruct the view of the Shakespearian dome it mounted into, except a modest growth of hair above either ear. He was light upon his feet, and he advanced with a rhythmical step. Cornelia tried to make believe that she did not know who it was; she recoiled, but her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, and she could not gainsay him when he demanded joyfully, "Why, Nie! Why, Nelie! Don't you remember me? Dickerson, J. B., with Gates & Clarkson, art goods? Pymantoning? Days of yore, generally? Oh, pshaw, now!"
"Yes, I remember you," said Cornelia, in a voice as cold as the finger-tips which she inwardly raged to think she gave him, but was helpless to refuse, simply because he was holding out his hand to her.
"Well, it's good for sore eyes to see you again," said Mr. Dickerson, closing both of his hands on hers. "Let's see; it's four years ago! How the time flies! I declare, it don't hardly seem a day. Mustn't tell you how you've grown, I suppose? Well, we weren't much more than children, then, anyhow. Set down! I'm at home here. Old stamping-ground of mine, when I'm in New York; our house has its headquarters in New York, now; everything's got to come, sooner or later. Well, it's a great place."
Cornelia obeyed him for the same reason that she gave him her hand, which was no reason. "I heard your voice there at the door, when you came in a little while ago, and I was just going to rush out and speak to you. I was sure it was you; but thinks I, 'It can't be; it's too good to be true'; and I waited till I could see Mrs. Montgomery, and then I sent up for you. Didn't send my name; thought I'd like to surprise you. Well, how's the folks? Mother still doing business at the old stand? Living and well, I hope?"
"My mother is well," said Cornelia. She wondered how she should rid herself of this horrible little creature, who grew, as she looked at him in her fascination, more abominable to her every moment. She was without any definite purpose in asking, "How is Mrs. Dickerson?"
The question appeared to give Mr. Dickerson great satisfaction; he laughed, throwing back his head: "Who, Tweet? Well, I thought you'd be after me there, about the first thing! I don't blame you; don't blame you a bit. Be just so myself, if I was in your place! Perfectly natural you should! Then you ain't heard?"
"I don't know what you mean," said Cornelia, with mounting aversion. She edged away from him, for in the expression of his agreeable emotion he had pushed nearer to her on the sofa.
"Why, Tweet is Mrs. Byers, now; court let her take back her maiden name. I didn't oppose the divorce; nothing like peace in families, you know. Tweet was all right, and I hain't got anything to say against her. She's a good girl; but we couldn't seem to hit it off, and we agreed to quit, after we'd tried it a couple of years or so, and I've been a free man ever since."
It could not be honestly said that Cornelia was profoundly revolted by the facts so lightly, almost gaily, presented. Her innocence of so much that they implied, and her familiarity with divorce as a common incident of life, alike protected her from the shock. But what really struck terror to her heart was something that she realized with the look that the hideous little man now bent upon her: the mutual understanding; the rights once relinquished which might now be urged again; the memory of things past, were all suggested in this look. She thought of Ludlow, with his lofty ideals and his great gifts, and then she looked at this little grinning, leering wretch, and remembered how he had once put his arm round her and kissed her. It seemed impossible—too cruel and unjust to be. She was scarcely more than a child, then, and that foolish affair had been more her mother's folly than her own. It flashed upon her that unless she put away the shame of it, the shame would weaken her and master her. But how to assert herself she did not know till he gave her some pretext.
"Well," he sighed, rolling his head against the back of the sofa, and looking up at the chandelier, "sometimes a man has more freedom than he's got any use for. I don't know as I want to be back under Tweet's thumb, but I guess the Scripture was about right where it says it ain't good for a man to be alone. When d'you leave Pymantoning, Nelie?"
"It makes no difference when I left." Cornelia got to her feet, trembling. "And I'll thank you not to call me by my first name, Mr. Dickerson. I don't know why you should do it, and I don't like it."
"Oh, all right, all right," said Mr. Dickerson. "I don't blame you. I think you're perfectly excusable to feel the way you do. But some time, when I get a chance, I should like to tell you about it, and put it to you in the right light——"
"I don't want to hear about it," cried Cornelia fiercely. "And I won't have you thinking that it's because I ever did care for you. I didn't. And I was only too glad when you got married. And I don't hate you, for I despise you too much; and I always did. So!"
She stamped her foot for a final emphasis, but she was aware of her words all having fallen effectless, like blows dealt some detestable thing in a dream.
"Good! Just what I expected and deserved," said Mr. Dickerson, with a magnanimity that was appalling. "I did behave like a perfect scallawag to you, Nie; but I was young then, and Tweet got round me before I knew. I can explain——"
"I don't want you to explain! I won't let you. You're too disgusting for anything. Don't I tell you I never cared for you?"
"Why, of course," said Mr. Dickerson tolerantly, "you say that now; and I don't blame you. But I guess you did care, once, Nelie."
"Oh, my goodness, what shall I do?" She found herself appealing in some sort to the little wretch against himself.
"Why, let's see how you look; I hain't had a fair peep at you, yet." As if with the notion of affording a relief to the strain of the situation, he advanced, and lifted his hand toward the low-burning chandelier.
"Stop!" cried Cornelia. "Are you staying here—in this house?"
"Well, I inferred that I was, from a remark that I made."
"Then I'm going away instantly. I will tell Mrs. Montgomery, and I will go to-night."
"Hush! Don't you—don't dare to speak to me! Oh, you—you——" She could not find a word that would express all her loathing of him, and her scorn of herself in the past for having given him the hold upon her that nothing appeared to have loosed. She was putting on a bold front, and she meant to keep her word, but if she left that house, she did not know where, in the whole vast city, she should go. Of course she could go to Charmian Maybough; but besides bring afraid to venture out after dark, she knew she would have to tell Charmian all about it; or else make a mystery of it; there was nothing, probably, that Charmian would have liked better, but there was nothing that Cornelia would have liked less. She wanted to cry; it always seems hard and very unjust to us, in after life, when some error or folly of our youth rises up to perplex us; and Cornelia was all the more rebellious because the fault was not wholly hers, or not even largely, but mostly her dear, innocent, unwise mother's.
Mr. Dickerson dropped his hand without turning up the gas; perhaps he did not need a stronger light on Cornelia, after all. "Oh, well! I don't want to drive you out of the house. I'll go. I've got my grip out here in the hall. But see here! I told Mrs. Montgomery we hailed from the same place—children together, and I don't know but what cousins—and how glad I was to find you here, and now if I leave—— Better let me stay here, over night, anyhow! I'm off on the road to-morrow, anyway. I won't trouble you; I won't, indeed. Now you can depend upon it. Word's as good as my bond, if my bond ain't worth a great deal. But, honor bright!"
Cornelia's heart, which stood still at the threat she made, began to pound in her breast. She panted so that she could hardly speak.
"Will you call me by my first name?" she demanded.
"No. You shall be Miss Saunders to me till you say when."
"And will you ever speak to me, or look at me, as if we were ever anything but the most perfect strangers?"
"It'll be a good deal of a discount from what I told Mrs. Montgomery, but I guess I shall have to promise."
"And you will go in the morning?"
"Well, I don't like a very early breakfast, but I guess I can get out of the house by about nine, or half-past eight, maybe."
"Then you may stay." Cornelia turned and marched out of the parlor with a state that failed her more and more, the higher she mounted toward her room. If it had been a flight further she would have had to crawl on her hands and knees.
At first she thought she would not go down to dinner, but after a while she found herself very hungry, and she decided she must go for appearance sake at any rate. At the bottom of her heart, too, she was curious to see whether that little wretch would keep his word.
He was the life of the table. His jokes made everybody laugh; it could be seen that he was a prime favorite with the landlady. After the coffee came he played a great many tricks with knives and forks and spoons, and coins. He dressed one of his hands, all but two fingers, with a napkin which he made like the skirts of a ballet-dancer, and then made his fingers dance a hornpipe. He tried a skirt-dance with them later, but it was comparatively a failure, for want of practice, he said.
Toward Cornelia he behaved with the most scrupulous deference, even with delicacy, as if they had indeed met in former days, but as if she were a person of such dignity and consequence that their acquaintance could only have been of the most formal character. He did it so well, and seemed to take such a pleasure in doing it that she blushed for him. Some of the things he said to the others were so droll that she had to laugh at them. But he did not presume upon her tolerance.
The false courage that supported her in Dickerson's presence left Cornelia when she went back to her room, and she did not sleep that night, or she thought she did not. She came down early for a cup of coffee, and the landlady told her that Mr. Dickerson had just gone; he wished Mrs. Montgomery to give Cornelia his respects, and apologize for his going away without waiting to see her again. He had really expected to stay over till Monday, but he found he could save several days by taking the Chicago Limited that morning. Mrs. Montgomery praised his energy; she did not believe he would be on the road a great while longer; he would be in the firm in less than another year. She hinted at his past unhappiness in the married state, and she said she did hope that he would get somebody who would appreciate him, next time. There did not seem to be any doubt in her mind that there would be a next time with him.
Cornelia wanted to ask whether she expected him back soon; she could not; but she resolved that whenever he came he should not find her in that house. She thought where she should go, and what excuse she should make for going, what she should tell Charmian, or Mr. Ludlow, if she ever saw him again. It seemed to her that she had better go home, but Cornelia hated to give up; she could not bear to be driven away. She went to church, to escape herself, and a turmoil of things alien to the place and the hour whirled through her mind during the service; she came out spent with a thousand-fold dramatization of her relations to Mr. Dickerson and to Mr. Ludlow. She sat down on a bench in the little park before the church, and tried to think what she ought to do, while the children ran up and down the walks, and the people from the neighboring East Side avenues, in their poor Sunday best, swarmed in the square for the mild sun and air of the late October. The street cars dinned ceaselessly up and down, and back and forth; the trains of the Elevated hurtled by on the west and on the east; the troubled city roared all round with the anguish of the perpetual coming and going; but it was as much Sunday there as it would have been on the back street in Pymantoning where her mother's little house stood. The leaves that dripped down at her feet in the light warm breaths of wind passing over the square might have fallen from the maple before the gate at home. The awful unity of life for the first time appeared to her. Was it true that you could not get away from what you had been? Was that the meaning of that little wretch's coming back to claim her after he had forfeited every shadow of right to her that even her mother's ignorance and folly had given him? Then it meant that he would come back again and again, and never stop coming. She made believe that if she looked up, she should now see him actually coming down the path toward her; she held her eyes fixed upon the ground at her feet, and then it seemed to her every moment that he was just going to take the seat next her. The seat was already taken; a heavy German woman filled it so solidly that no phantasm could have squeezed in beside her. But the presence of Dickerson became so veritable that Cornelia started up breathless, and hurried home, sick with the fear that she should find him waiting for her there.
She was afraid to go out the next morning, lest she should meet him on the street, though she knew that by this time he was a thousand miles away.
At the Synthesis she was ashamed to let Charmian think that her absent and tremulous mood had something to do with Ludlow; but she was so much more ashamed of the shabby truth that she would have been willing to accept the romance herself. This was very dishonest; it was very wicked and foolish; Cornelia saw herself becoming a guilty accomplice in an innocent illusion. She found strength to silence Charmian's surmise, if not to undeceive her; she did her best; and as the days began to remove her farther and farther from the moment of her actual encounter with Dickerson, her reason came more and more into control of her conscience. She tried not to be the fool of a useless remorse for something she was at least not mainly to blame for. She had to make the struggle alone; there was no one she could advise with; her heart shut when she thought of telling any one her trouble; but in her perpetual reveries she argued the case before Ludlow.
It seemed to her as if he had come to render her a final judgment when his name was sent up to her room, that Saturday afternoon which ended the longest week of her life. She went down, and found him alone in the long parlor, and it was in keeping with her fantastic prepossession that he should begin, "I wonder how I shall say what I've come for?" as if he would fain have softened her sentence.
He kept her hand a moment longer than he need; but he was not one of those disgusting people who hold your hand while they talk to you, and whom Cornelia hated. She did not now resent it, though she was sensible of having to take her hand from him.
"I don't know," she answered, with hysterical flippancy. "If I did I would tell you."
He laughed, as if he liked her flippancy, and he said, "It's very simple. In fact, that's what makes it so difficult."
"Then you might practice on something hard first," she suggested wildly. "How would the weather do?"
"Yes, hasn't it been beautiful?" said Ludlow, with an involuntary lapse into earnestness. "I was in the Park to-day for a little effect I wanted to get, and it was heartbreaking to leave the woods. I was away up in those forest depths that look wild in spite of the asphalt. If you haven't been there, you must go some day while the autumn color lasts. I saw a lot of your Synthesis ladies painting there. I didn't know but I might see you."
This was all very matter of fact. Cornelia took herself in hand, and shook herself out of her hallucination. "No, I don't suppose it would be right for a person who was merely in the Preparatory to go sketching in the Park. And Charmian and I were very good to-day, and kept working away at our block hands as long as the light lasted."
"Ah, yes; Miss Maybough," said Ludlow; then he paused absently a moment. "Do you think she is going to do much in art?"
"How should I know?" returned Cornelia. She thought it rather odd he should recur to that after she had let him see she did not want to talk about Charmian's art.
"Because you know that you can do something yourself," said Ludlow. "That is the only kind of people who can really know. The other sort of people can make clever guesses; they can't know."
"And you believe that I can do something?" asked Cornelia, and a sudden revulsion of feeling sent the tears to her eyes. It was so sweet to be praised, believed in, after what she had been through. "But you haven't seen anything of mine except those things—in the Fair House."
"Oh, yes, I have. I've seen the drawings you submitted at the Synthesis. I've just seen them. I may as well confess it: I asked to see them."
"You did! And—and—well?" she fluttered back.
"It will take hard work."
"Oh, I know that!"
"And it will take time."
"Yes, that is the worst of it. I don't see how I can give the time."
"Why?" he asked.
"Oh, because—I can't very well be away from home." She colored as she said this, for she could have been away from home well enough if she had the money. "I thought I would come and try it for one winter."
He said lightly, "Perhaps you'll get so much interested that you'll find you can take more time."
"I don't know," she answered.
"Well, then, you must get in all the work you can this winter. Block hands are well enough, but they're not the whole of art nor the whole preparation for it."
"Oh, I've joined the sketch class," she said.
"Yes, that's well enough, too," he assented. "But I want you to come and paint with me," he suddenly added.
"You? Me?" she gasped.
"Yes," he returned. "I'll tell you what I mean. I've been asked to paint a lady. She'll have to come to my place, and I want you to come with her, and see what you can do, too. I hope it doesn't seem too extraordinary?" he broke off, at sight of the color in her face.
"Oh, no," said Cornelia. She wondered what Charmian would say if she knew this; she wondered what the Synthesis would say; the Synthesis held Mr. Ludlow in only less honor than the regular Synthesis instructors, and Mr. Ludlow had asked her to come and paint with him! She took shelter in the belief that Mrs. Burton must have put him up to it, somehow, but she ought to say something grateful, or at least something. She found herself stupidly and aimlessly asking, "Is it Mrs. Westley?" as if that had anything to do with the matter.
"No; I don't see why I didn't tell you at once," said Ludlow. "It's your friend, Miss Maybough."
Cornelia relieved her nerves with a laugh. "I wonder how she ever kept from telling it."
"Perhaps she didn't know. I've only just got a letter from her mother, asking me to paint her, and I haven't decided yet that I shall do it."
She thought that he wanted her to ask him why, and she asked, "What are you waiting for?"
"For two reasons. Do you want the real reason first?" he asked, smiling at her.
She laughed. "No, the unreal one!"
"Well, I doubt whether Mrs. Maybough wrote to me of her own inspiration, entirely. I suspect that Wetmore and Plaisdell have been working the affair, and I don't like that."
"And I'm waiting for you to say whether I could do it. That's the real reason."
"How should I know?"
"I could make a picture of her," he said, "but could I make a portrait? There is something in every one which holds the true likeness; if you don't get at that, you don't make a portrait, and you don't give people their money's worth. They haven't proposed to buy merely a picture of you; they've proposed to buy a picture of a certain person; you may give them more, but you can't honestly give them less; and if you don't think you can give them that, then you had better not try. I should like to try for Miss Maybough's likeness, and I'll do that, at least, if you'll try with me. The question is whether you would like to."
"Like to? It's the greatest opportunity! Why, I hope I know what a chance it is, and I don't know why you ask me to."
"I want to learn of you."
"If you talk that way I shall know you are making fun of me."
"Then I will talk some other way. I mean what I say. I want you to show me how to look at Miss Maybough. It sounds fantastic——"
"It sounds ridiculous. I shall not do anything of the kind."
"Very well, then, I shall not paint her."
"You don't expect me to believe that," said Cornelia, but she did believe it a little, and she was daunted. She said, "Charmian would hate it."
"I don't believe she would," said Ludlow. "I don't think she would mind being painted by half-a-dozen people at once. The more the better."
"That shows you don't understand her," Cornelia began.
"Didn't I tell you I didn't understand her? Now, you see, you must. I should have overdone that trait in her. Of course there is something better than that."
"I don't see how you could propose my painting her, too," Cornelia relented, provisionally.
Ludlow was daunted in his turn; he had not thought of that. It would be a little embarrassing, certainly, but he could not quite own this. He laughed and said, "I have a notion she will propose it herself, if you give her a chance."
"Oh," said Cornelia, "if she does that, all well and good."
"Then I may say to her mother that I will make a try at the portrait?"
"What have I to do with it?" Cornelia demanded, liking and not liking to have the decision seem left to her. "I shall have nothing to do with it if she doesn't do it of her own accord."
"You may be sure that she shall not have even a suggestion of any kind," said Ludlow, solemnly.
"I shall know it if she does," Cornelia retorted, not so solemnly, and they both laughed.
While he stayed and talked with her the affair had its reason and justification; it seemed very simple and natural; but when he went away it began to look difficult and absurd. It was something else she would have to keep secret, like that folly of the past; it cast a malign light upon Ludlow, and showed him less wise and less true than she had thought him. She must take back her consent; she must send for him, write to him, and do it; but she did not know how without seeming to blame him, and she wished to blame only herself. She let the evening go by, and she stood before the glass, putting up her hand to her back hair to extract the first dismantling hairpin, for a sleepless night, when a knock at her door was followed by the words, "He's waitun' in the parlor." The door was opened and the Irish girl put a card in her hand.
The card was Ludlow's, and the words, "Do see me, if you can, for a moment," were scribbled on it.
Cornelia ran down stairs. He was standing, hat in hand, under the leafy gas chandelier in the parlor, and he said at once, "I've come back to say it won't do. You can't come to paint Miss Maybough with me. It would be a trick. I wonder I ever thought of such a thing."
She broke out in a joyful laugh. "I knew you came for that."
He continued to accuse himself, to explain himself. He ended, "You must have been despising me!"
"I despised myself. But I had made up my mind to tell Charmian all about it. There's no need to do that, now it's all over."
"But it isn't all over for me," said Ludlow gloomily. "I went straight home from here, and wrote to Mrs. Maybough that I would paint her daughter, and now I'm in for it."
He looked so acutely miserable that Cornelia gave way to a laugh, which had the effect of raising his fallen spirits, and making him laugh, too. They sat down together and began to talk the affair all over again.
Some of the boarders who were at the theatre came in before he rose to go.
Cornelia followed him out into the hall. "Then there is nothing for me to do about it?"
"No, nothing," he said, "unless you want to take the commission off my hands, and paint the picture alone." He tried to look gloomy again, but he smiled.
Every one slept late at Mrs. Montgomery's on Sunday morning; all sects united in this observance of the day; in fact you could not get breakfast till nine. Cornelia opened her door somewhat later even than this, and started at the sight of Charmian Maybough standing there, with her hand raised in act to knock. They exchanged little shrieks of alarm.
"Did I scare you? Well, it's worth it, and you'll say so when you know what's happened. Go right back in!" Charmian pushed Cornelia back and shut the door. "You needn't try to guess, and I won't ask you to. But it's simply this: Mr. Ludlow is going to paint me. What do you think of that? Though I sha'n't expect you to say at once. But it's so. Mamma wrote to him several days ago, but she kept the whole affair from me till she knew he would do it, and he only sent his answer last night after dinner." Charmian sat down on the side of the bed with the effect of intending to take all the time that was needed for the full sensation. "And now, while you're absorbing the great central fact, I will ask if you have any idea why I have rushed down here this morning before you were up, or mamma either, to interview you?"
"No, I haven't," said Cornelia.
"You don't happen to have an olive or a cracker any where about? I don't need them for illustration, but I haven't had any breakfast, yet."
"There are some ginger-snaps in the bureau box right before you," said Cornelia from the window-sill.
"Ginger-snaps will do, in an extreme case like this," said Charmian, and she left her place long enough to search the bureau box. "What little ones!" she sighed. "But no matter; I can eat them all." She returned to her seat on Cornelia's bed with the paper bag which she had found, in her hand. "Well, I have thought it perfectly out, and all you have to do is to give your consent; and if you knew how much valuable sleep I had lost, thinking it out, you would consent at once. You know that the sittings will have to be at his studio, and that I shall have to have somebody go with me." Cornelia was silent, and Charmian urged, "You know that much, don't you?"
"Yes, I suppose so," Cornelia allowed.
"Well, then, you know I could have mamma go, but it would bore her; or I could have a maid go, but that would bore me; and so I've decided to have you go."
"Yes; and don't say you can't till you know what you're talking about. It'll take all your afternoons for a week or a fortnight, and you'll think you can't give the time. But I'll tell you how you can, and more too; how you can give the whole winter, if it takes him that long to paint me; but they say he paints very rapidly, and gets his picture at a dash, or else doesn't get it at all; and it's neither more nor less than this: I'm going to get him to let you paint me at the same time? What do you think of that?"
All our motives are mixed, and it was not pure conscience which now wrought in Cornelia. It was pride, too, and a certain resentment that Charmian should assume authority to make Mr. Ludlow do this or that. For an instant she questioned whether he had not broken faith with her, and got Charmian to propose this; then she knew that it could not have been. She said coldly, "I can't do it."
"What! Not when I've come down here before breakfast to ask you? Why can't you?" Charmian wailed.
"Because Mr. Ludlow was here last night, and asked me to do it."
"He did? Then I am the happiest girl in the world! Let me embrace you, Cornelia!"
"Don't be—disgusting!" said Cornelia, but she felt that Charmian was generously glad of the honor done her, and that she had wronged her by suspecting her of a wish to show power over Mr. Ludlow. "I told him I couldn't, and I can't, because it would have seemed to be making use of you, and—and—you wouldn't like it, and I wouldn't like it in your place, and—I wouldn't do it. And I should have to tell you that he proposed it, and that you would perfectly hate it."
"When it was the very first thing I thought of? Let me embrace you again, Cornelia Saunders, you adorable wooden image! Why his proposing it makes it perfectly divine, and relieves me of all responsibility. Oh, I would come down here every day before breakfast a whole week, for a moment like this! Then it's all settled; and we will send him word that we will begin to-morrow afternoon. Let's discuss the character you will do me in. I want you to paint me in character—both of you—something allegorical or mythical. Or perhaps you're hungry, too! And I've eaten every one of the snaps."
"No, I can't do it," Cornelia still protested; but the reasons why she could not, seemed to have escaped her, or to have turned into mere excuses. In fact, since Charmian had proposed it, and seemed to wish it, they were really no longer reasons. Cornelia alleged them again with a sense of their fatuity. She did not finally assent; she did not finally refuse; but she felt that she was very weak.
"I see what you're thinking about," said Charmian, "but you needn't be afraid. I shall not show anything out. I shall be a perfect—tomb."
"What do you mean?" demanded Cornelia, with a vexation heightened by the sense of her own insincerity.
"Oh, you know what. But from this time forth I don't. It will be glorious not to let myself realize it. I shall just sit and think up conundrums, and not hear, or see, or dream anything. Yes, I can do it, and it will be splendid practice. This is the way I shall look." She took a pose in Cornelia's one chair, and put on an air of impenetrable mystery, which she relinquished a moment to explain, "Of course this back is rather too stiff and straight; I shall be more crouching." She pushed a ginger-snap between her lips, and chewed enigmatically upon it. "See?" she said.
"Now, look here, Charmian Maybough," said Cornelia sternly, "if you ever mention that again, or allude to it the least in the world——"
"Don't I say I won't?" demanded Charmian, jumping up. "That will be the whole fun of it. From the very first moment, till I'm framed and hung in a good light, I'm going to be mum, through and through, and if you don't speak of him, I sha'n't, except as a fellow-artist."
"What a simpleton!" said Cornelia. She laughed in spite of her vexation. "I'm not obliged to let what you think trouble me."
"Of course not."
"Your thinking it doesn't make it so."
"But if you let him see——"
"The whole idea is not to let him see! That's what I shall do it all for. Good-by!"
She put the paper bag down on the bureau for the greater convenience of embracing Cornelia.
"Why don't you stay and have breakfast with me?" Cornelia asked. "You'll be sick."
"Breakfast? And ruin everything! I would rather never have any breakfast!" She took up the paper bag again, and explored it with an eager hand, while she stared absently at Cornelia. "Ah! I thought there was one left! What mites of things." She put the last ginger-snap into her mouth, and with a flying kiss to Cornelia as she passed, she flashed out of the door, and down the stairs.
After all, Ludlow decided that he would paint Charmian in her own studio, with the accessories of her peculiar pose in life about her; they were factitious, but they were genuine expressions of her character; he could not realize her so well away from there.
The first afternoon was given to trying her in this light and that, and studying her from different points. She wished to stand before her easel, in her Synthesis working-dress, with her palette on her thumb, and a brush in her other hand. He said finally, "Why not?" and Cornelia made a tentative sketch of her.
At the end of the afternoon he waited while the girl was putting on her hat in Charmian's room, where she smiled into the glass at Charmian's face over her shoulder, thinking of the intense fidelity her friend had shown throughout to her promise of unconsciousness.
"Didn't I do it magnificently?" Charmian demanded. "It almost killed me; but I meant to do it if it did kill me; and now his offering to see you aboard the car shows that he is determined to do it, too, if it kills him. I call it masterly."
"Well, don't go and spoil it now," said Cornelia. "And if you're going to ask me every day how you've done——"
"Oh, I'm not! Only the first day and the last day!"
As Ludlow walked with Cornelia toward the point where she was to take her car down town, he began, "You see, she is so dramatic, that if you tried to do her in any other way—that is, simply—you would be doing her artificially. You have to take her as she is, don't you think?"
"I don't know as I think Charmian is acting all the time, if that's what you mean," said Cornelia. "Or any of the time, even."
Ludlow wished she had said she did not know that instead of as, but he reflected that ninety Americans out of a hundred, lettered or unlettered, would have said the same. "Oh, I don't at all mean that she is, intentionally. It's because it's her nature that I want to recognize it. You think it is her nature, don't you?" he asked deferentially.
"Oh, I suppose it is," she answered; it amused her to have him take such a serious tone about Charmian.
"I shall have to depend a great deal on your judgment in that matter," he went on. "You won't mind it, I hope?"
"Not if you won't mind it's not being worth anything."
"It will be worth everything!"
"Or if you won't care for my not giving it, sometimes."
"I don't understand."
"Well, I shouldn't want to seem to talk her over."
"Oh, no! You don't think I expected you to do that? It was merely the right point of view I wanted to get."
"I don't know as I object to that," said Cornelia.
The car which she wished to take came by, and he stopped it and handed her aboard. She thought he might decide to come with her, but he bowed his good-night, and she saw him walking on down town as she passed him.
At the end of a fortnight Ludlow had failed to get his picture of Charmian; at the end of a month he began with a new pose and a fresh theory. That quality of hers which he hoped to surprise with Cornelia's help, and which was to give verity and value to his portrait, when once he expressed it there, escaped him still.
She was capable of perfect poses, but they were mere flashes of attitude. Then the antique mystery lurking in her face went out of it, and she became fin de siecle and romantic, and young ladyish, and uninteresting to Ludlow.
She made tea every afternoon when they finished, and sometimes the talk they began with before they began work prolonged itself till the time for the tea had come. On the days when Mr. Plaisdell dropped in for a cup, the talk took such a range that the early dark fell before it ended, and then Cornelia had to stay for dinner and to be sent home in Mrs. Maybough's coupe.
She had never supposed there was anything like it in all the world. Money, and, in a certain measure, the things that money could buy, were imaginable in Pymantoning; but joys so fine, so simple as these, were what she could not have forecast from any ground of experience or knowledge. She tried to give her mother a notion of what they said and did; but she told her frankly she never could understand. Mrs. Saunders, in fact, could not see why it was so exciting; she read Cornelia's letters to Mrs. Burton, who said she could see, and she told Mrs. Saunders that, she would like it as much as Cornelia did, if she were in her place; that she was a kind of Bohemian herself.
She tried to explain what Bohemian meant, and what Bohemia was; but this is what no one can quite do. Charmian herself, who aimed to be a perfect Bohemian, was uncertain of the ways and means of operating the Bohemian life, when she had apparently thrown off all the restrictions, for the afternoon, at least, that prevented its realization. She had a faultless setting for it. There never was a girl's studio that was more like a man's studio, an actual studio. Mr. Ludlow himself praised it; he said he felt at home in it, and he liked it because it was not carried a bit too far. Charmian's mother had left her free to do what she wished, and there was not a convention of Philistine housekeeping in the arrangement of the place. Everything was in the admired disorder of an artist's environment; but Mrs. Maybough insisted upon neatness. Even here Charmian had to submit to a compromise. She might and did keep things strewn all about in her studio, but every morning the housemaid was sent in to sweep it and dust it. She was a housemaid of great intelligence, and an imperfect sense of humor, and she obeyed with unsmiling scrupulosity the instructions she had to leave everything in Miss Charmian's studio exactly as she found it, but to leave it clean. In consequence, this home of art had an effect of indescribable coldness and bareness, and there were at first some tempestuous scenes which Cornelia witnessed between Charmian and her mother, when the girl vainly protested:
"But don't you see, mamma, that if you have it regularly dusted, it never can have any sentiment, any atmosphere?"
"I don't see how you can call dust atmosphere, my dear," said her stepmother. "If I left your studio looking as you want it, and there should be a fire, what would people think?"
"Well, if there should happen to be anybody from Wilbraham, Mass.," Charmian retorted, "they might criticise, but I don't think the New York Fire Department would notice whether the place had been dusted or not. But, go on, mamma! Some day I shall have a studio out of the house—Cornelia and I are going to have one—and then I guess you won't have it dusted!"
"I'm sure Miss Saunders wouldn't let it get dusty," said Mrs. Maybough, and then, in self-defence, Charmian gave Cornelia the worst character for housekeeping that she could invent from her knowledge of Cornelia's room.
She begged her pardon afterwards, but she said she had to do it, and she took what comfort she could in slamming everything round, as she called it, in her studio, when she went with Cornelia to have her coffee there. The maid restored it to its conscious picturesqueness the next day.
Charmian was troubled to decide what was truly Bohemian to eat, when they became hungry over their work. She provided candy and chocolate in all their forms and phases, but all girls ate candy and chocolate, and they were so missish, and so indistinctive, and they both went so badly with tea, which she must have because of the weird effect of the spirit-lamp under the kettle, that she disused them after the first week. There remained always crackers, which went with anything, but the question was what to have with them. Their natural association with cheese was rejected because Charmian said she should be ashamed to offer Mr. Ludlow those insipid little Neufchatel things, which were made in New Jersey, anyway, and the Gruyere smelt so, and so did Camembert; and pine-apple cheese was Philistine. There was nothing for it but olives, and though olives had no savor of originality, the little crescent ones were picturesque, and if you picked them out of the bottle with the end of a brush-handle, sharpened to a point, and the other person received them with their thumb and finger, the whole act was indisputably Bohemian.
There was one day when they all got on particularly well, and Charmian boldly ordered some champagne for a burst. The man brought back Apollinaris water, and she was afraid to ask why, for fear he should say Mrs. Maybough sent it. Ludlow said he never took champagne, and was awfully glad of the Apollinaris, and so the change was a great success, for neither Charmian nor Cornelia counted, in any case; they both hated every kind of wine.
Another time, Cornelia, when she came, found Charmian lighting one of the cigars kept for show on her mantel. She laughed wildly at Cornelia's dismay, and the smoke, which had been going up her nose, went down her throat in a volume, and Cornelia had to run and catch her; she was reaching out in every direction for help.
Cornelia led her to the couch, which was still waiting its rugs to become a bed, and she lay down there, very pale and still, and was silent a long time, till Cornelia said, "Now, if I could find a moose somewhere to run over you," and they both burst into a shriek of laughter.
"But I'm going to learn" Charmian declared. "Where did that cigar go?" She sprang up to look for it, but they never could find it, and they decided it must have gone into the fire, and been burnt up; that particular cigar seemed essential to the experiment, or at least Charmian did not try another.
They were both very grave after Ludlow came. When he went away, he said, with an absent look at Charmian, "You have a magnificent pallor to-day, Miss Maybough, and I must compliment you on keeping much quieter than usual."
"Oh, thank you," said Charmian, gravely, and as soon as the door closed upon him she flung herself into Cornelia's arms, and they stifled their laughter in each other's necks. It seemed to them that nothing so wildly funny had ever happened before; they remained a long while quaking over the question whether there was smell of smoke enough in the room to have made him suspect anything, and whether his congratulations were not ironical. Charmian said that her mistake was in not beginning with a cigarette instead of a cigar; she said she was ready to begin with a cigarette then, and she dared Cornelia to try one, too. Cornelia refused the challenge, and then she said, well, she would do it herself, some day.
There was a moment when it seemed to her that the Bohemian ideal could be realized to a wild excess in pop-corn. She bought a popper and three ears of corn, and brought them home tied up in paper, and fastened to some canvases she got for Cornelia. She insisted that it was part of the bargain that she should supply Cornelia's canvases. But the process of popping made them all very red in the face; they had to take it by turns, for she would not let Ludlow hold the popper the whole time. They had a snowy heap of corn at last, which she put on the hearth before them in the hollow of a Japanese shield, detached from a suit of armor, for that use. They sat on the hearth to eat it, and they told ghost-stories and talked of the most psychological things they could think of. In all this Charmian put Cornelia forward as much as she dared, and kept herself in a sort of impassioned abeyance. If Cornelia had been the most jealous and exacting of principals she could not have received from her second a more single and devoted allegiance. Charmian's joy in her fortunately mounted in proportion to the devotion she paid her, rather than Cornelia's gratitude for it. She did not like to talk of herself, and these seances were nothing if not strictly personal; but Charmian talked for her, and represented her in phases of interest which Cornelia repudiated with a laugh, or denied outright, without scruple, when the invention was too bold. Charmian contrived that she should acquire the greater merit, from her refusals of it, and went on to fresh self-sacrifices in her behalf.
Sometimes she started the things they talked of; not because she ever seemed to have been thinking of them, or of anything, definitely, but because she was always apparently letting her mind wander about in space, and chanced upon them there. Mostly, however, the suggestions came from Ludlow. He talked of art, its methods, its principles, its duties to the age, the people, the civilization; the large moral uses, which kindled Charmian's fancy, and made Cornelia laugh when Charmian proposed a scheme for the relief and refinement of the poor on the East Side, by frescoing the outsides of the tenement houses in Mott Street and Mulberry Bend, with subjects recalling the home life of the dwellers there: rice-fields and tea-plantations for the Chinese, and views of Etna and Vesuvius and their native shores for the Sicilians and Neapolitans, with perhaps religious histories.
Ludlow had to explain that he had not meant the employment of any such direct and obvious means, but the gradual growth of a conscience in art. Cornelia thought him vague, but it seemed clear to Charmian. She said, "Oh, yes; that," and she made tea, and had him set fire to some pieces of Southern lightwood on her hearth, for the sake of the murky fumes and the wreaths of dusky crimson flame, which she said it was so weird to sit by.
In all matters of artistic theory and practice she set Cornelia the example of grovelling at the master's feet, as if there could be no question of anything else; but in other things Cornelia sometimes asserted herself against this slavish submission with a kind of violence little short of impertinence. After these moral paroxysms, in which she disputed the most obviously right and reasonable things, she was always humiliated and cast down before his sincerity in trying to find a meaning in her difference from him, as if he could not imagine the nervous impulse that carried her beyond the bounds of truth, and must accuse himself of error. When this happened she would not let Charmian take her to task for her behavior; she would not own that she was wrong; she put the blame on him, and found him arrogant and patronizing. She had always known he was that kind of person, and she did not mean to be treated like a child in everything, even if he was a genius.
By this time they were far away from that point in Charmian's romance where the faithful friend of the heroine remains forever constant to her vow not to speak to the heroine of the hero's passion for her, and in fact rather finds it a duty to break her vow, and enjoys being snubbed for it. As the transaction of the whole affair took place in Charmian's fancy, Cornelia had been obliged to indulge her in it, with the understanding that she should not let it interfere with their work, or try to involve her visibly or palpably in it.
With all their idling they had days when they worked intensely, and Ludlow was as severe with Cornelia's work as he was with his own. He made her rub out and paint out, and he drew ruthless modifications of her work all over it, like the crudest of the Synthesis masters. He made her paint out every day the work of the day before, as they did in the Synthesis; though sometimes he paused over it in a sort of puzzle. Once he said, holding her sketch into the light he wanted, at the close of the afternoon, "If I didn't know you had done that to-day, I should say it was the one you had done yesterday."
Toward the end of the month he recurred to this notion again. "Suppose," he said, "we keep this, and you do another to-morrow."
The next day he said, in the same perplexity, "Well, keep this, and do another."
After a week he took all her canvases, and set them one back of another, but so that he could see each in nearly the same light. He stood looking at them silently, with the two girls behind him, one at either shoulder.
"It's as lovely as standing between two mirrors," Charmian suggested dreamily.
"Pretty much of a sameness," Cornelia remarked.
"Mm," Ludlow made in his throat. He glanced over the shoulder next her, and asked, as if Charmian were not there, "What makes you do her always alike?"
"Because she is always alike."
"Then I've seen her wrong," said Ludlow, and he stared at Charmian as if she were a lay-figure. She bore his scrutiny as impassively as a lay-figure could.
He turned again to Cornelia's sketches, and said gloomily, "I should like to have Wetmore see these."
"Oh!" said Cornelia.
Charmian came to life with another "Oh!" and then she demanded. "When? We must have something besides tea for Mr. Wetmore."
"I think I'll ask him to step round in the morning," said Ludlow, with authority.
Charmian said "Oh!" again, but submitted with the eagerness of a disciple; all phases of the art-life were equally precious, and even a snub from such a master must be willingly accepted.
He went away and would not have any tea; he had an air of trouble—almost of offence. "Isn't he grand, gloomy and peculiar?" Charmian said. "I wonder what's the matter?"
She turned to Ludlow's picture which he had left standing on the chair where he painted at it in disdain of an easel, and silently compared it with Cornelia's sketches. Then she looked at Cornelia and gave a dramatic start.
"What is the matter?" asked Cornelia. She came up and began to look at the picture, too.
Charmian demanded, "Don't you see?"
"No, I don't see anything," said Cornelia, but as she looked something became apparent which she could not deny. She blushed violently and turned upon Charmian. "You ought to be ashamed," she began, and she tried to take hold of her; she did not know why.
Charmian escaped, and fled to the other end of the room with a wild laugh, and stood there. Cornelia dropped into the chair before the picture, with her head fallen on her elbow. She seemed to be laughing, too, and Charmian went on:
"What is there to be ashamed of? I think it's glorious. It's one of the most romantic things I ever heard of. He simply couldn't help it, and it proves everything I've said. Of course that was the reason he couldn't see me all along. Why, if such a thing had happened to me, I should go round shouting it from the house-tops. I don't suppose he knew what he was doing, or else he didn't care; perfectly desperate. What fun!"
Cornelia kept laughing, but Charmian stopped and waited a moment and listened. "Why, Cornelia!" she said remorsefully, entreatingly, but she remained the length of the room away. Then she approached tentatively, and when Cornelia suddenly ceased to laugh she put her hand on her head, and tenderly lifted her face. It was dabbled with tears. "Cornelia!" she said again.
Cornelia sprang to her feet with a fierceness that sent her flying some yards away. "Charmian Maybough! Will you ever speak of this to any living soul?"
"No, no! Indeed I won't——" Charmian began.
"Will you ever think of it!"
"Because I don't choose to have you think I am such a fool as to—to——"
"No, indeed, I don't."
"Because there isn't anything of it, and it wouldn't mean anything, if there were."
"No," said Charmian. "The only thing is to tear him out of your heart; and I will help you!" She made as if she were ready to begin then, and Cornelia broke into a genuine laugh.
"Don't be ridiculous. I guess there isn't much to tear."
"Then what are you going to do?"
"Nothing! What can I! There isn't anything to do anything about. If it's there, he knows it, and he's left it there because he didn't care what we thought. He was just trying something. He's always treated me like a perfect—child. That's all there is of it, and you know it."
"Yes," Charmian meekly assented. Then she plucked up a spirit in Cornelia's behalf. "The only thing is to keep going on the same as ever, and show him we haven't seen anything, and don't care if we have."
"No," said Cornelia sadly, "I shall not come any more. Or, if I do, it will just be to—— I'm not certain yet what I shall do." She provisionally dried her eyes and repaired her looks at the little mirror which hung at one side of the mantel, and then came back to Charmian who stood looking at Cornelia's sketches, still in the order Ludlow had left them in. She stole her arm round Cornelia's waist. "Well, anyway, he can't say you've returned the compliment. They're perfectly magnificent, every one; and they're all me. Now we can both live for art."
Wetmore came the next morning with Ludlow, and looked at Cornelia's studies. "Well, there's no doubt about her talent. I wonder why it was wasted on one of her sex! These gifted girls, poor things, there don't seem to be any real call for them." He turned from the sketches a moment to the arrangement of Charmian's studio. "I suppose this is the other girl's expression." He looked more closely at the keeping of the room, and said, with a smile of mixed compassion and amusement, "Why, this girl seems to be trying to do the Bohemian act!"
"That is her pose," Ludlow admitted.
"And does she get a great deal of satisfaction out of it?"
"The usual amount I fancy." Ludlow began to tell of some of Charmian's attempts to realize her ideal.
Wetmore listened with a pitying smile. "Poor thing! It isn't much like the genuine thing, as we used to see it in Paris, is it? We Americans are too innocent in our traditions and experiences; our Bohemia is a non-alcoholic, unfermented condition. When it is diluted down to the apprehension of an American girl it's no better, or no worse, than a kind of Arcadia. Miss Maybough ought to go round with a shepherdess's crook and a straw hat with daisies in it. That's what she wants to do, if she knew it. Is that a practicable pipe? I suppose those cigarettes are chocolates in disguise. Well!" He reverted to Cornelia's canvases. "Why, of course they're good. She's doomed. She will have to exhibit. You couldn't do less, Ludlow, than have her carry this one a little farther"—he picked out one of the canvases and set it apart—"and offer it to the Academy."
"Do you really think so?" asked Ludlow, looking at it gravely.
"I don't know. With the friends you've got on the Committee—— But you don't suppose I came up here to see these things alone, did you? Where's your picture?"
"I haven't any," said Ludlow.
"Ob, rubbish! Where's your theory of a picture, then? I don't care what you call it. My only anxiety, when you got a plain, simple, every-day conundrum like Miss Maybough to paint, was that you would try to paint the answer instead of the conundrum, and I dare say that's the trouble. You've been trying to give something more of her character than you found in her face; is that it? Well, you deserved to fail, then. You've been trying to interpret her; to come the prophet! I don't condemn the poetry in your nature, Ludlow," Wetmore went on, "and if I could manage it for you, I think I could keep it from doing mischief. That is why I am so plain-spoken with you."
"Do you call it plain-speaking?" Ludlow said, putting his picture where it could be seen best. "I was going to accuse you of flattery."
"Well, you had better ponder the weighty truths I have let fall. I don't go round dropping them on everybody's toes."
"Probably there are not enough of them," Ludlow suggested.
"Oh, yes, there are." Wetmore waited till Ludlow should say he was ready to have him look at his picture. "The fact is, I've been giving a good deal of attention to your case, lately. You're not simple enough, and you've had the wrong training. You would naturally like to paint the literature of a thing, and let it go at that. But you've studied in France, where they know better, and you can't bring yourself to do it. Your nature and your school are at odds. You ought to have studied in England. They don't know how to paint there, but they've brought fiction in color to the highest point, and they're not ashamed of it."
"Perhaps you've boon theorizing, too," said Ludlow, stepping aside from his picture.
"Not on canvas," Wetmore returned. He put himself in the place Ludlow had just left. "Hello!" he began, but after a glance at Ludlow he went on, with the effect of having checked himself, to speak carefully and guardedly of the work in detail. His specific criticism was as gentle and diffident as his general censure of Ludlow was blunt and outright. It was given mostly in questions, and in recognitions of intention.
"Well, the sum of it is," said Ludlow at last, "you see it's a failure."
Wetmore shrugged, as if this were something Ludlow ought not to have asked. He went back to Cornelia's sketches, and looked at them one after another. "That girl knows what she's about, or what she wants to do, and she goes for it every time. She has got talent. Whether she's got enough to stand the training! That's the great difference, after all. Lots of people have talent; that's the gift. The question is whether one has it in paying quantity, or enough of it to amount to anything after the digging and refining. I should say that girl had, but very likely I might be mistaken."
Ludlow joined in the examination of the sketches. He put his hand on the weak points as well as on the strong ones; he enjoyed with Wetmore the places where her artlessness had frankly offered itself instead of her art. There was something ingenuous and honest in it all that made it all charming.
"Yes, I think she can do it," said Wetmore, "if she wants to bad enough, or if she doesn't want to get married worse."
Ludlow winced. "Isn't there something a little vulgar in that notion of ours that a woman always wishes first and most of all to get married?"
"My dear boy," said Wetmore, with an affectionate hand on Ludlow's shoulder, "I never denied being vulgar."
"Oh, I dare say. But I was thinking of myself."
Ludlow sent word to Charmian at the Synthesis that he should not ask her to sit to him that afternoon, and in the evening he went to see Wetmore. It was eleven o'clock, and he would have been welcome at Wetmore's any time between that hour of the night and two of the morning. He found a number of people. Mrs. Westley was there with Mrs. Rangeley; they had been at a concert together. Mrs. Wetmore had just made a Welsh rabbit, and they were all talking of the real meaning of the word "beautiful."
"I think," Mrs. Rangeley was saying, "that the beautiful is whatever pleases or fascinates. There are lots of good-looking people who are not beautiful at all, because they have no atmosphere: and you see other people, who are irregular, and quite plain even, and yet you come away feeling that they are perfectly beautiful." Mrs. Rangeley's own beauty was a little irregular. She looked anxiously round, and caught Wetmore in a smile. "What are you laughing at?" she demanded in rueful deprecation.
"Oh, nothing, nothing!" he said. "I was thinking how convincing you were!"
"Nothing of the kind!" said one of the men, who had been listening patiently till she fully committed herself. "There couldn't be a more fallacious notion of the meaning of beauty. The thing exists in itself, independently of our pleasure or displeasure; they have almost nothing to do with it. If you mix it with them you are lost, as far as a true conception of it goes. Beauty is something as absolute as truth, and whatever varies from it, as it was ascertained, we'll say, by the Greek sculptors and the Italian painters, is unbeautiful, just as anything that varies from the truth is untrue. Charm, fascination, atmosphere, are purely subjective; one feels them and another doesn't. But beauty is objective, and nobody can deny it who sees it, whether he likes it or not. You can't get away from it, any more than you can get away from the truth. There it is!"
"Where?" asked Wetmore. He looked at the ladies as if he thought one of them had been indicated.
"How delightful to have one's ideas jumped on just as if they were a man's!" sighed Mrs. Rangeley. Her opponent laughed a generous delight, as if he liked nothing better than having his reasoning brought to naught. He entered joyously into the tumult which the utterance of the different opinions, prejudices and prepossessions of the company became.
Ludlow escaped from it, and made his way to Mrs. Westley, in that remoter and quieter corner, which she seemed to find everywhere when you saw her out of her own house; there she was necessarily prominent.
"I think Mr. Agnew is right, and Mrs. Rangeley is altogether wrong," she said. "There couldn't be a better illustration of it than in those two young art-student friends of yours. Miss Saunders is beautiful in just that absolute way Mr. Agnew speaks of; you simply can't refuse to see it; and Miss Maybough is fascinating, if you feel her so. I should think you'd find her very difficult to paint, and with Miss Saunders there, all the time, I should be afraid of getting her decided qualities into my picture."
Ludlow said, "Ah, that's very interesting."
He meant to outstay the rest, for he wished to speak with Wetmore alone, and it seemed as though those people would never go. They went at last. Mrs. Wetmore herself went off to the domestic quarter of the apartment, and left the two men together.
"'Baccy?" asked Wetmore, with a hospitable gesture toward the pipes on his mantel.
"No, thank you," said Ludlow.
"Wetmore, what was it you saw in my picture today, when you began with that 'Hello' of yours, and then broke off to say something else?"
"Did I do that? Well, if you really wish to know——"
"I'll tell you. I was going to ask you which of those two girls you had painted it from. The topography was the topography of Miss Maybough, but the landscape was the landscape of Miss Saunders." He waited, as if for Ludlow to speak; then he went on: "I supposed you had been working from some new theory of yours, and I thought I had said about as much on your theories as you would stand for the time."
"Was that all?" Ludlow asked.
"All? It seems to me that's a good deal to be compressed into one small 'hello.'"
Wetmore lighted a pipe, and began to smoke in great comfort. "We were talking, just before you dropped in, of what you may call the psychical chemistry of our kind of shop: the way a fellow transmutes himself into everything he does. I can trace the man himself in every figure he draws or models. You can't get away from yourself, simply because you are always thinking yourself, or through yourself; you can't see or know any one else in any other way."
"It's a very curious thing," said Ludlow, uneasily. "I've noticed that, too; I suppose every one has. But—good-night."
Wetmore followed him out of the studio to the head of the public stairs with a lamp, and Ludlow stopped there again. "Should you think there was anything any one but you would notice?"
"You mean the two girls themselves? Well, I should say, on general principles, that what two such girls didn't see in your work——"
"Of course! Then—what would you do? Would you speak to her about it?"
"You know: Miss Saunders."
"Ah! It seems rather difficult, doesn't it?"
"Why, if you mean to say it was unconscious, perhaps I was mistaken. The thing may have been altogether in my own mind. I'd like to take another look at it——"
"You can't. I've painted it out." Ludlow ran down one flight of the stairs, and then came stumbling quickly back. "I say, Wetmore. Do you tell your wife everything?"
"My dear boy, I don't tell her anything. She finds it out. But, then, she never tells anybody."
Ludlow sent word again to Charmian that he should not be able to keep his appointment for the afternoon, and as soon as he could hope to find Cornelia at home from the Synthesis, he went to see her.
He began abruptly, "I came to tell you, Miss Saunders, when I first thought of painting Miss Maybough, and now I've come to tell you that I've given it up."
"Given it up?" she repeated.
"You've seen the failures I've made. I took my last one home yesterday, and painted it out." He looked at Cornelia, but if he expected her to give him any sort of leading, he was disappointed. He had to conclude unaided, "I'm not going to try any more."
She did not answer, and he went on, after a moment: "Of course, it's humiliating to make a failure, but it's better to own it, and leave it behind you; if you don't own it, you have to carry it with you, and it remains a burden."
She kept her eyes away from him, but she said, "Oh, yes; certainly."
"The worst of it was the disappointment I had to inflict upon Mrs. Maybough," he went on uneasily. "She was really hurt, and I don't believe I convinced her after all that I simply and honestly couldn't get the picture. I went to tell her this afternoon, and she seemed to feel some sort of disparagement—I can't express it—in my giving it up."
He stopped, and Cornelia asked, as if forced to say something, "Does Charmian know?"
"I suppose she does, by this time," said Ludlow. He roused himself from a moment of revery, and added, "But I didn't intend to oppress you with this. I want to tell you something—else."
He drew a deep breath. She started forward where she sat, and looked past him at the door, as if to see whether the way of escape was clear. He went on: "I took Wetmore there with me yesterday, and I showed him your sketches, and he thinks you might get one of them into the Academy exhibition in the spring, after you've carried it a little farther."
She sank back in her chair. "Does he?" she asked listlessly, and she thought, as of another person, how her heart would once have thrilled at the hope of this.
"Yes. But I don't feel sure that it would be well," said Ludlow. "I wanted to say, though, that I shall be glad to come and be of any little use I can if you're going on with it."
"Oh, thank you," said Cornelia. She thought she was going to say something more, but she stopped stiffly at that, and they both stood in an embarrassment which neither could hide from the other. He repeated his offer, in other terms, and she was able finally to thank him a little more fitly, and to say that she should not forget his kind offer; she should not forget all he had done for her, all the trouble he had taken, and they parted with a vague alienation.
As we grow older, we are impatient of misunderstandings, of disagreements; we make haste to have them explained; but while we are young, life seems so spacious and so full of chances that we fetch a large compass round about such things, and wait for favoring fortuities, and hope for occasions precisely fit; we linger in dangerous delays, and take risks that may be ruinous.
Cornelia went hack to her work at the Synthesis as before, but she worked listlessly and aimlessly; the zest was gone, and the meaning. She knew that for the past month she had drudged through the morning at the Synthesis that she might free herself to the glad endeavor of the afternoon at Charmian's studio with a good conscience. Ludlow's criticism, even when it was harshest, was incentive and inspiration; and her life was blank and dull on the old terms.
The arts have a logic of their own, which seems no logic at all to the interests. Ludlow's world found it altogether fit and intelligible that he should give up trying to paint Charmian if he had failed to get his picture of her, and thought he could not get it. Mrs. Maybough's world regarded it as a breach of contract for him not to do what he had undertaken. She had more trouble to reconcile her friends to his behavior than she had in justifying it to herself. Through Charmian she had at least a second-hand appreciation of motives and principles that were instantly satisfactory to the girl and to all her comrades at the Synthesis; they accepted it as another proof of Ludlow's greatness that he should frankly own he had missed his picture of her, and they exalted Charmian as a partner in his merit, for being so impossible. The arguments of Wetmore went for something with Mrs. Maybough, though they were mainly admissions to the effect that Ludlow was more of a crank than he had supposed, and would have to be humored in a case of the kind; but it was chiefly the courage and friendship of Mrs. Westley that availed. She enforced what she had to say in his behalf with the invitation to her January Thursdays which she had brought. She had brought it in person because she wished to beg Mrs. Maybough to let her daughter come with her friend, Miss Saunders, and pour tea at the first of the Thursdays.
"I got you off," she said to Ludlow, when they met, "but it was not easy. She still thinks you ought to have let her see your last attempt, and left her to decide whether it was good or not."
Mrs. Westley showed her amusement at this, but Ludlow answered gravely that there was a certain reason in the position. "If she's disappointed in not having any portrait, though," he added, "she had better take Miss Saunders's."
"Do you really mean that?" Mrs. Westley asked, with more or less of that incredulity concerning the performance of a woman which all the sex feel, in spite of their boasting about one another. "Has she so much talent?"
"Why not? Somebody has to have the talent."
This was like Wetmore's tone, and it made Mrs. Westley think of him. "And do you believe she could get her picture into the exhibition?"
"Has Wetmore been talking to you about it?"
"I don't know," said Ludlow. "That was Wetmore's notion."
"And does she know about it?"
"I mentioned it to her."
"It would be a great thing for her if she could get her picture in—and sell it."
"Yes," Ludlow dryly admitted. He wished he had never told Mrs. Westley how Cornelia had earned the money for her studies at the Synthesis; he resented the implication of her need, and Mrs. Westley vaguely felt that she had somehow gone wrong. She made haste to retrieve her error by suggesting, "Perhaps Miss Maybough would object, though."