"That's hardly thinkable." said Ludlow lightly. He would have gone away without making Mrs. Westley due return for the trouble she had taken for him with Mrs. Maybough, and she was so far vexed that she would have let him go without telling him that she was going to have his protegee pour tea for her; she had fancied that this would have pleased him.
But by one of those sudden flashes that seem to come from somewhere without, he saw himself in the odious light in which she must see him, and he turned in time. "Mrs. Westley, I think you have taken a great deal more pains for me than I'm worth. It's difficult to care what such a poor little Philistine as Mrs. Maybough—the mere figment of somebody else's misgotten money—thinks of me. But she is to be regarded, and I know that you have looked after her in my interest; and it's very kind of you, and very good—it's like you. If you've done it, though, with the notion of my keeping on in portraits, or getting more portraits to paint, I'm sorry, for I shall not try to do any. I'm not fit for that kind of work. I don't say it because I despise the work, but because I despise myself. I should always let some wretched preoccupation of my own—some fancy, some whim—come between me and what I see my sitter to be, and paint that."
"That is, you have some imagination," she began, in defence of him against himself.
"No, no! There's scope for the greatest imagination, the most intense feeling, in portraits. But I can't do that kind of thing, and I must stick to my little sophistical fantasies, or my bald reports of nature. But Miss Saunders, if she were not a woman—excuse me!——"
"Oh, I understand!"
"She could do it, and she will, if she keeps on. She could have a career; she could be a painter of women's portraits. A man's idea of a woman, it's interesting, of course, but it's never quite just; it's never quite true; it can't be. Every woman knows that, but you go on accepting men's notions of women, in literature and in art, as if they were essentially, or anything but superficially, like women. I couldn't get a picture of Miss Maybough because I was always making more or less than there really was of her. You were speaking the other night at Wetmore's, of the uncertain quality of her beauty, and the danger of getting something else in," said Ludlow, suddenly grappling with the fact, "and I was always doing that, or else leaving everything out. Her beauty has no fixed impression. It ranges from something exquisite to something grotesque; just as she ranges in character from the noblest generosity to the most inconceivable absurdity. You never can know how she will look or how she will behave. At least, I couldn't. I was always guessing at her; but Miss Saunders seemed to understand her. All her studies of her are alike; the last might be taken for the first, except that the handling is better. It's invariably the very person, without being in the least photographic, as people call it, because it is one woman's unclouded perception of another. The only question is whether Miss Saunders can keep that saving simplicity. It may be trained out of her, or she may be taught to put other things before it. Wetmore felt the danger of that, when we looked at her sketches. I'm not saying they're not full of faults; the technique is bad enough; sometimes it's almost childish; but the root of the matter is there. She knows what she sees, and she tells."
"Really?" said Mrs. Westley. "It is hard for a woman to believe much in women; we don't expect anything of each other yet. Should you like her to paint me?"
"I mean, do you think she could do it?"
"Not yet. She doesn't know enough of life, even if she knew enough of art. She merely painted another girl."
"That is true," said Mrs. Westley with a sigh. She added impersonally; "But if people only kept to what they knew, and didn't do what they divined, there would be very little art or literature left, it seems to me."
"Well, perhaps the less the better." said Ludlow, with a smile for the absurdity he was reduced to. "What was left would certainty be the best."
He felt as if his praise of Cornelia were somehow retrieval; as if it would avail where he seemed otherwise so helpless, and would bring them together on the old terms again. There was, indeed, nothing explicit in their alienation, and when he saw Cornelia at Mrs. Westley's first Thursday, he made his way to her at once, and asked her if she would give him some tea, with the effect of having had a cup from her the day before. He did not know whether to be pleased or not that she treated their meeting as something uneventful, too, and made a little joke about remembering that he liked his tea without sugar.
"I wasn't aware that you knew that," he said.
"Oh, yes; that is the way Charmian always made it for you; and sometimes I made it."
"To be sure. It seems a great while ago. How are you getting on with your picture?"
"I'm not getting on," said Cornelia, and she turned aside to make a cup of tea for an old gentleman, who confessed that he liked a spoonful of rum in his. General Westley had brought him up and presented him, and he remained chatting with Cornelia, apparently in the fatuity that if he talked trivially to her he would be the same as a young man. Ludlow stayed, too, and when the old gentleman got away, he said, the same as if there had been no interruption, "Why aren't you getting on?"
"Because I'm not doing anything to it."
"You ought to. I told you what Wetmore said of it."
"Yes; but I don't know how," said Cornelia, with a laugh that he liked; it seemed an effect of pleasure in his presence at her elbow; though from time to time she ignored him, and talked with other people who came for tea. He noticed that she had begun to have a little society manner of her own; he did not know whether he liked it or not. She wore a very pretty dress, too; one he had not seen before.
"Will you let me show you how—as well as I can?"
"After I've asked you? Thank you!"
"I offered, once, before you asked."
"Oh!" said Cornelia, with her face aslant from him over her tea-cups. "I thought you had forgotten that."
He winced, but he knew that he deserved the little scratch. He did not try to exculpate himself, but he asked, "May I talk with Miss Maybough about it?"
Cornelia returned gayly, "It's a free country."
He rose from the chair which he had been keeping at her elbow, and looked about over the room. It was very full, and the first of Mrs. Westley's Thursdays was successful beyond question. With the roving eye, which he would not suffer to be intercepted, he saw the distinguished people whom she had hitherto affected in their usual number, and in rather unusual number the society people who had probably come to satisfy an amiable curiosity; he made his reflection that Mrs. Westley's evolution was proceeding in the inevitable direction, and that in another winter the swells would come so increasingly that there would be no celebrities for them to see. His glance rested upon Mrs. Maybough, who stood in a little desolation of her own, trying to look as if she were not there, and he had the inspiration to go and speak to her instead of her daughter; there were people enough speaking to Charmian, or seeming to speak to her, which serves much the same purpose on such occasions. She was looking her most mysterious, and he praised her peculiar charm to Mrs. Maybough.
"It's no wonder I failed with that portrait."
Mrs. Maybough said, "You must try again, Mr. Ludlow."
"No, I won't abuse your patience again, but I will tell you: I should like to come and look now and then at the picture Miss Saunders has begun of her, and that I want her to keep on with."
"Why not?" asked Mrs. Maybough in the softest assent. She would not listen to the injuries which Ludlow heaped upon himself in proof of his unworthiness to cross her threshold.
He went back to Cornelia, and said, "Well, it's arranged. I've spoken with Mrs. Maybough, and we can begin again whenever you like."
"With Mrs. Maybough? You said you were going to speak to Charmian!"
"It doesn't matter, does it?"
"Yes. I—I don't know yet as I want to go on with the picture. I hadn't thought——"
"Oh!" said Ludlow, with marked politeness. "Then I misunderstood. But don't let it annoy you. It doesn't matter, of course. There's no sort of appointment."
He found Mrs. Westley in a moment of disoccupation before he went, and used a friend's right to recognize the brilliancy of her Thursday. She refused all merit for it and asked him if he had ever seen any thing like the contrast of Charmian at the chocolate with Cornelia at the tea. "Did you notice the gown Miss Saunders had on? It's one that her mother has just sent her from home. She says her mother made it, and she came to ask me, the other day, if it would do to pour tea in. Wasn't it delightful? I'm going to have her spend a week with me in Lent. The general has taken a great fancy to her. I think I begin to appreciate her fascination; it's her courage and her candor together. Most girls are so uncertain and capricious. It's delightful to meet such a straightforward and downright creature."
"Oh, yes," said Ludlow.
Cornelia knew that Ludlow was offended. She had not meant to hurt or offend him; though she thought he had behaved very queerly ever since he gave up painting Charmian. She had really not had time to think of his offer before he went off to speak with Charmian, as she supposed. The moment he was gone she saw that it would not do; that she could not have him coming to look at her work; she did not feel that she could ever touch it again. She wondered at him, and now if he had spoken to Mrs. Maybough instead of Charmian, it was not her fault, certainly. She did not wish to revenge herself, but she remembered how much she had been left to account for as she could, or painfully to ignore. If he was mystified and puzzled now, it was no more than she had been before.
There was nothing that Cornelia hated so much as to be made a fool of, and this was the grievance which she was willing fate should retaliate upon him, though she had not meant it at all. She ought to have been satisfied, and she ought to have been happy, but she was not.
She wished to escape from herself, and she eagerly accepted an invitation to go with Mrs. Montgomery to the theatre that night. The manager had got two places and given them to the landlady.
Cornelia had a passion for the theatre, and in the excitement of the play, which worked strongly in her ingenuous fancy, she forgot herself for the time, or dimly remembered the real world and her lot in it, as if it were a subordinate action of the piece. At the end of the fourth act she heard a voice which she knew, saying, "Well, well! Is this the way the folks at Pymantoning expect you to spend your evenings?" She looked up and around, and saw Mr. Dickerson in the seat behind her. He put forward two hands over her shoulder—one for her to shake, and one for Mrs. Montgomery.
"Why, Mr. Dickerson!" said the landlady, "where did you spring from? You been sitting here behind us all the time?"
"I wish I had," said Dickerson. "But this seat is 'another's,' as they say on the stage; he's gone out 'to see a man,' and I'm keeping it for him. Just caught sight of you before the curtain fell. Couldn't hardly believe my eyes."
"But where are you? Why haven't you been round to the house?"
"Well, I'm only here for a day," said Dickerson, with a note of self-denial in his voice that Cornelia knew was meant for her, "and I thought I wouldn't disturb you. No use making so many bites of a cherry. I got in so late last night I had to go to a hotel anyway."
Mrs. Montgomery began some hospitable expostulations, but be waived them with, "Yes; that's all right. I'll remember it next time, Mrs. Montgomery," and then he began to speak of the play, and he was so funny about some things in it that he made Cornelia laugh. He took leave of them when the owner of the seat came back. He told Mrs. Montgomery he should not see her again this time; but at the end of the play they found him waiting for them at the outer door of the theatre. He skipped lightly into step with them. "Thought I might as well see you home, as they say in Pymantoning. Do' know as I shall be back for quite a while, this next trip, and we don't see much ladies' society on the road; at least, I don't. I'm not so easy to make acquaintance as I used to be. I suppose it was being married so long. I can't manage to help a pretty girl raise a car-window, or put her grip into the rack, the way I could once. Fact is, there don't seem to be so many pretty girls as there were, or else I'm gettin' old-sighted, and can't see 'em."
He spoke to Mrs. Montgomery, but Cornelia knew he was talking at her. Now he leaned forward and addressed her across Mrs. Montgomery: "Do' know as I told you that I saw your mother in Lakeland day before yesterday, Miss Saunders."
"Oh, did you?" Cornelia eagerly besought him. The apparition of her mother rose before her; it was almost like having her actually there, to meet some one who had seen her so lately. "Was she looking well? The last letter she wrote she hadn't been very——"
"Well, I guess she's all right, now. You know I think your mother is about the finest woman in this world, Miss Nelie, and the prettiest-looking. I've never told you about Mrs. Saunders, have I, Mrs. Montgomery? Well, you wouldn't know but her and Miss Nelie were sisters. She looks like a girl, a little way off; and she is a girl, in her feelings. She's got the kindest heart, and she's the best person I ever saw. I tell you, it would be a different sort of a world if everybody was like Mrs. Saunders, and I should ha' been a different sort of a man if I'd always appreciated her goodness. Well, so it goes," he said, with a sigh of indefinite regret, which availed with Cornelia because it was mixed with praise of her mother; it made her feel safer with him and more tolerant. He leaned forward again, and said across Mrs. Montgomery, as before: "She was gettin' off the train from Pymantoning, and I was just takin' my train West, but I knew it was her as soon as I saw her walk. I was half a mind to stop and speak to her, and let my train go."
Cornelia could see her mother, just how she would look, wandering sweetly and vaguely away from her train, and the vision was so delightful to her, that it made her laugh. "I guess you're mother's girl," Mrs. Montgomery interpreted, and Mr. Dickerson said:
"Well, I guess she's got a good right to be. I wasn't certain whether it was her or Miss Saunders first when I saw her, the other day."
At her door Mrs. Montgomery invited him to come in, and he said he did not know but he would for a minute, and Cornelia's gratitude for his praise of her mother kept her from leaving them at once. In the dining-room, where Mrs. Montgomery set out a lunch for him, he began to tell stories.
Cornelia had no grudge against him for the past. She was only too glad that it had all fallen out as it did; and though she still knew that he was a shameless little wretch, she did not feel so personally disgraced by him, as she had at first, when she was not sure she could make him keep his distance. He was a respite from her own thoughts, and she lingered and lingered, and listened and listened, remotely aware that it was wrong, but somehow bewildered and constrained.
Mrs. Montgomery went down to the kitchen a moment, for something more to add to the lunch, and he seized the chance to say, "I know how you feel about me, Miss Saunders, and I don't blame you. You needn't be afraid; I ain't going to trouble you. I might, if you was a different kind of girl; but I've thought it all over since I saw you, and I respect you. I hope you won't give me away to Mrs. Montgomery, but if you do, I shall respect you all the same, and I sha'n't blame you, even then." The landlady returned, and he went on, "I was just tellin' Miss Saunders about my friend Bob Whiteley's railroad accident. But you've heard it so often."
"Oh, well, do go on!" said Mrs. Montgomery, setting down the plate of cold chicken she had brought back with her.
It was midnight before he rose. "I declare I could listen all night," said Mrs. Montgomery.
Cornelia could have done so, too, but she did not say it. While the talk lasted, she had a pleasure in the apt slang, and sinister wit and low wisdom, which made everything higher and nobler seem ridiculous. She tried helplessly to rise above the delight she found in it, and while she listened, she was miserably aware that she was unworthy even of the cheap respect which this amusing little wretch made a show of paying her before Mrs. Montgomery.
She loathed him, and yet she hated to have him go; for then she would be left to herself and her own thoughts. As she crept up the long stairs to her room, she asked herself if she could be the same girl who had poured tea at Mrs. Westley's, and talked to all those refined people, who seemed to admire her and make much of her, as if she were one of them. Before, she had escaped from the toils of that folly of the past by disowning it; but now, she had voluntarily made it hers. She had wilfully entangled herself in its toils; they seemed to trip her steps, and make her stumble on the stairs as if they were tangible things. She had knowingly suffered such a man as that, whose commonness of soul she had always instinctively felt, to come back into her life, and she could never banish him again. She could never even tell any one; she was the captive of her shabby secret till he should come again and openly claim her. He would come again; there could be no doubt of that.
On the bureau before her glass lay a letter. It was from Ludlow, and it delicately expressed the hope that there had been nothing in his manner of offering to help her with her picture which made it impossible for her to accept. "I need not tell you that I think you have talent, for I have told you that before. I have flattered myself that I had a personal interest in it, because I saw it long ago, and I have been rather proud of thinking that you were making use of me. I wish you would think the matter over, and decide to go on with your picture of Miss Maybough. I promise to reduce my criticism to a minimum, for I think it is more important that you should keep on in your own way, even if you go a little wrong in it, now and then, than that you should go perfectly right in some one's else. Do let me hear from you, and say that I may come Saturday to Miss Maybough's studio, and silently see what you are doing."
In a postscript he wrote: "I am afraid that I have offended you by something in my words or ways. If I have, won't you at least let me come and be forgiven?"
She dropped her face on the letter where it lay open before her, and stretched out her arms, and moaned in a despair that no tears even came to soften. She realized how much worse it was to have made a fool of herself than to be made a fool of.
There was only one thing for Cornelia to do now, and she did it as well as she knew how, or could hope to know without the help that she could not seek anywhere. She wrote to Ludlow and thanked him, and told him that she did not think she should go on with the picture of Charmian, for the present. She said, in the first five or six drafts of her letter, that it had been her uncertainty as to this which made her hesitate when he spoke to her, but in every form she gave this she found it false; and at last she left it out altogether, and merely assured him that she had nothing whatever to forgive him. She wished to forbid his coming to see her; she did not know quite how to do that; but either the tone of her letter was forbidding enough, or else he felt that he had done his whole duty, now, for he did not come.
With moments of utter self-abasement, she had to leave Charmian to the belief that she was distraught and captious, solely for the reason they shared the secret of, and Charmian respected this with a devotion so obvious as to be almost spectacular. Cornelia found herself turning into a romantic heroine, and had to make such struggle against the transformation as she could in bursts of hysterical gayety. These had rather the effect of deepening Charmian's compassionate gloom, till she exhausted her possibilities in that direction and began to crave some new expression. There was no change in her affection for Cornelia; and there were times when Cornelia longed to trust her fully; she knew that it would be safe, and she did not believe that it would lower her in Charmian's eyes; but to keep the fact of her weakness altogether her own seemed the only terms on which she could bear it.
One day there came a letter from her mother out of her usual order of writing; she wrote on Sunday, and her letters reached Cornelia the next evening; but this letter came on a Wednesday morning, and the sight of it filled Cornelia with alarm, first for her mother, and then for herself; which deepened as she read:
"DEAR NIE: That good-for-nothing little scrub has been here, talken aboute you, and acting as if you was hand-and-glove with him. Now Nelie, I don't want to interfere with you anyway and I won't if you say the word. But I never felt just righte about that fellow, and what I done long ago to make you tollerate him, and now I want to make it up to you if I can. He is a common low-down person, and he isn't fit to speake to you, and I hope you wont speake to him. The divorce, the way I look at it, don't make any difference; hese just as much married as what he ever was, and if he had never been married atoll, it wouldn't of made any difference as far as I feel about it. Now Nelie, you are old enough to take care of yourself, but I hope if that fellow ever comes around you again, you'll box his ears and be done with him. I know hes got a smooth tongue, and he can make you laugh in spite of yourselfe, but don't you have anything to do with him.
"P. S. I have been talken it over with Mrs. Burton, and she thinks just the way I do aboute it. She thinks you are good enough for the best, and you no need to throw yourself away on such a perfect little scamp. In haste. How is that cellebrated picture that you are painting with Mr. Ludlow getting along?"
* * * * *
Cornelia got this letter from the postman at Mrs. Montgomery's door, when she opened it to go out in the morning, and she read it on her way to the Synthesis. It seemed to make the air reel around her, and step by step she felt as if she should fall. A wild anger swelled her heart, and left no room there for shame even. She wondered what abominable lies that little wretch had told; but they must have been impudent indeed to overcome her mother's life-long reluctance from writing and her well-grounded fears of spelling, so far as to make her send a letter out of the usual course. But when her first fury passed, and she began to grow weak in the revulsion, she felt only her helplessness in the presence of such audacity, and a fear that nothing could save her from him. If he could make her so far forget herself as to tolerate him, to listen to his stories, to laugh at his jokes, and show him that she enjoyed his company, after all she knew of him, then he could make her marry him, if he tried.
The logic was perfect, and it seemed but another link in the infrangible chain of events, when she found another letter waiting for her at the office of the Synthesis. It bore the postmark of Lakeland, of the same date as her mother's, and in the corner of the envelope the business card of Gates & Clarkson, Dealers in Art Goods; J. B. Dickerson, in a line of fine print at the top was modestly "with" them.
The address, "Dear friend," was written over something else which had been rubbed out, but beyond this the letter ran fluently and uninterruptedly along in a hand which had a business-like directness and distinctness. "I don't know," the writer said, "as you expected to hear from me, and I don't know as I expected to let you, but circumstances alter cases, and I just wanted to drop you a line and tell you that I have been in Pymantoning and seen your mother. She is looking prime, and younger than ever. We had a long talk about old times, and I told her what a mistake I made. Confession is good for the soul, they say, and I took a big dose of it; I guess I confessed pretty much everything; regular Topsey style. Well, your mother didn't spare me any, and I don't know but what she was about right. The fact is, a man on the road don't think as much about his p's and q's as he ought as long as he is young, and if I made a bad break in that little matrimonial venture of mine, I guess it was no more than I deserved to. I told your mother just how I happened to meet you again, and how the sight of you was enough to make another man of me. I was always a little too much afraid of you, or it might have turned out different; but I can appreciate a character like yours, and I want you to know it. I guess your mother sized it up about right when I said all I asked was to worship you at a distance, and she said she guessed you would look out for the distance. I told her you had, up to date. I want you to understand that I don't presume on anything, and if we seemed to have a pretty good time after the theatre, the other night, it was because you didn't want to spoil Mrs. Montgomery's fun, and treated me well just because I was a friend of hers. Well, it's pretty hard to realize that my life is ruined, and that I have got nobody but myself to thank for it, but I guess that's what I've got to come to, sooner or later. It's what your mother said, and I guess she was right; she didn't spare me a bit, and I didn't want her to. I knew she would write to you, as soon as I was gone, and tell you not to have anything to do with me; and if she has, all I have got to say is, all right. I have been a bad lot, and I don't deny it, and all I can ask now, from this time forward, is to be kept from doing any more mischief. I don't know as I shall ever see you again; I had a kind of presentiment I shouldn't, and I told your mother so. I don't know but I told a little more about how kind you were to me the other evening than what the facts would justify exactly, but as sure as you live I didn't mean to lie about it. If I exaggerated any, it was because it seemed the greatest thing in the world to me, just to talk to you, and be where I could see you smile, and hear you laugh; you've got a laugh that is like a child's, or an angel's, if angels laugh. I've heard of their weeping, and if you knew my whole life, I think you would shed a tear or two over me. But that is not what I am trying to get at; I want to explain that if I appeared to brag of being tolerated by you, and made it seem any thing more than toleration, it was because it was like heaven to me not to have you give me the grand bounce again. And what I want to ask you now, is just to let me write to you, every now and then, and when I am tempted to go wrong, anyways—and a business life is full of temptations—let me put the case before you, and have you set me right. I won't want but a word from you, and most part of the time, I shall just want to free my mind to you on life in general, and won't expect any answer. I feel as if you had got my soul in your hands, and you could save it, or throw it away. That is all. I am writing on the train, and I have to use pencil. I hope you'll excuse the stationery; it's all the porter could get me, and I'm anxious to have a letter go back to you at once. I know your mother has written to you, and I want to corroborate everything she says against me."
The letter covered half-a-dozen telegraph blanks, and filled them full, so that the diffident suggestion, "My permanent address is with Gates & Clarkson," had to be written along the side of the first page.
The low cunning, the impudent hypocrisy, the leering pretence of reverence, the affectation of penitence, the whole fraudulent design, so flimsy that the writer himself seemed to be mocking at it, was open to Cornelia, and she read the letter through with distinct relief. Whatever the fascinations of Mr. Dickerson were when he was personally at hand, he had none at a distance, and when she ran over the pages a second time, it was with a laugh, which she felt sure he would have joined her in, if he had been there. It turned her tragedy into farce so completely, for the time, that she went through her morning's work with a pleasure and a peace of mind which she had not felt for many days. It really seemed such a joke, that she almost yielded to the temptation of showing passages of the letter to Charmian; and she forebore only because she would have had to tell more than she cared to have any one know of Mr. Dickerson, if she did. She had a right to keep all that from those who had no right to know it, but she had no right, or if she had the right, she had not the power to act as if the past had never been. She set herself to bear what was laid upon her, and if she was ever to have strength for her burden she must begin by owning her weakness. There was no one to whom she could own it but her mother, and she did this fully as soon as she got back to her room, and could sit down to answer her letter. She enclosed Dickerson's, and while she did not spare him, she took the whole blame upon herself, for she said she might have known that if she suffered him to see that he amused her or pleased her at all, he was impudent enough to think that he could make her like him again. "And mother," she wrote, "you know I never really liked him, and was only too glad to get rid of him; you know that much. But I suppose you will wonder, then, why I ever let him speak to me if I really despised him as much as ever; and that is not easy to explain. For one thing he was with Mrs. Montgomery, and she likes him, and she has always been so good to me that I hated to treat him badly before her; but that is not the real reason, and I am not going to pretend it was. You know yourself how funny he is, and can make you laugh in spite of yourself, but it was not that, either. It was because I was angry with myself for having been angry with some one else, without a cause, as I can see it now, and I had made a fool of myself, and I wanted to get away from myself. I cannot tell you just how it was, yet, and I do not know as I ever can, but that was truly it, and nothing else, though the other things had something to do with it. I suppose it was just like men when they take a drink of whiskey to make them forget. The worst of it all is, and the discouraging part is, that it shows me I have not changed a particle. My temper is just us bad as ever, and I might as well be back at sixteen, for all the sense I've got. Sometimes it seems to me that the past is all there is of us, anyway. It seems to come up in me, all the time, and I am so ashamed I don't know what to do. I make all kinds of good resolutions, and I want to be good, and then comes something and it is all over with me. Then, it appears as if it was not me, altogether, that is to blame. I know I was to blame, this last time, laughing at that little 'scrub's' jokes as you call him, and behaving like a fool; but I don't see how I was to blame for his coming back into my life, when I never really wanted him at all, and certainly never wished to set eyes on him again.
"I don't suppose it would be the least use to ask you not to show this letter to Mrs. Burton, and I won't, but if you do, I wish you would ask her what she thinks it means, and whether it's fate, or foreordination, or what."
Mrs. Saunders carried Cornelia's letter to Mrs. Burton, as Cornelia had foreseen, but the question she put to her was not the abstraction the girl had suggested. "Mrs. Burton," she asked, "who was it do you suppose Nie was so mad with that she had to go off and play the fool, that way?"
Mrs. Burton passed the point of casuistry too. "Well, of course I don't know, Mrs. Saunders. Has she said anything about Mr. Ludlow lately?"
"No, she hain't said a word, and that seems suspicious. She said a week or two ago that he had give up trying to paint that Maybough girl, and that she guessed she had got the last of her lessons from him; but she didn't seem much troubled about it. But I guess by her not wantin' to tell, it's him. What do you suppose he did to provoke her?"
"Oh, just some young people's nonsense, probably. It'll come all right. You needn't worry about it, because if it won't come right of itself, he'll make it come."
"Oh, I'm not worrying about that," said Mrs. Saunders, "I'm worrying about this." She gave her the letter Cornelia had enclosed, and as Mrs. Burton began to read it she said, "If that fellow keeps on writing to her, I don't know what I will do."
Ludlow did not come to see Cornelia, but they met, from time to time, at Mrs. Westley's, where he was aware of her being rather taken up; at Mrs. Maybough's, where he found it his duty to show himself after his failure with Charmian's picture, so as to help Mrs. Maybough let people know there was nothing but the best feeling about it; and, more to his surprise, at Wetmore's. At the painter's, Charmian, who came with her, realized more than anywhere else, her dream of Bohemia, and Wetmore threw a little excess into the social ease of his life that he might fulfil her ideal. He proposed that Mrs. Wetmore should set the example of hilarities that her domestic spirit abhorred; he accused her of cutting off his beer, and invented conditions of insolvency and privation that surpassed Charmian's wildest hopes. He borrowed money of Ludlow in her presence, and said that he did not know that he should ever be able to pay it back. He planned roystering escapades which were never put in effect, and once he really went out with the two girls to the shop of an old German, on the Avenue, who dealt in delicatessen, and bought some Nuremberg gingerbread and a bottle of lime-juice, after rejecting all the ranker meats and drinks as unworthy the palates of true Bohemians. He invited Charmian to take part in various bats, for the purpose of shocking the Pymantoning propriety of Cornelia, and they got such fun out of it as children do when the make-believe of their elders has been thinned to the most transparent pretence; but Charmian, who knew he was making fun of her, remained as passionately attached to the ideal he mocked as ever; and Cornelia had the guilty pang of wondering what he would think of her if he knew all about Mr. Dickerson, whose nature she now perceived to be that of the vulgarest batting.
She did not answer the letter she first got, nor any of those which immediately followed, and this had the effect of checking Mr. Dickerson's ardor for so long a time that she began to think he would not trouble her again.
There was no real offence between her and Ludlow, or any but such as could wear itself away with time and the custom of friendly meeting. He had the magnanimity to ignore it when he first saw her after that Thursday of Mrs. Westley's, and she had too keen a sense of having been a fool not to wish to act more wisely as soon as she could forget. There came so long a lapse between the letters of Mr. Dickerson that he ceased, at least perpetually, to haunt her thoughts. She had moments when it seemed as if she might justly consent to be happy again, or at least allow herself to enjoy the passing pleasure of the time without blame. She even suffered herself to fancy taking up the picture of Charmian, and carrying it farther under Ludlow's criticism. She was very ambitious to try her fate with the Academy, and when he offered so generously to help her again, as if she had not refused him once so rudely, she could not deny him. She found herself once more in Charmian's studio, and it all began to go on the same as if it had never stopped. It seemed like a dream, sometimes, when she thought about it, and it did not seem like a very wise dream. Cornelia now wished, above all things, to have a little bit of sense, as she phrased it in her thoughts; and she was aware that the present position of affairs might look rather crazy to some people. The best excuse for it was that it would have looked crazier yet if she had refused such an opportunity simply because of the circumstances. She began to be a little vague about the circumstances, and whether they were queer because she had fancied a likeness of herself in Mr. Ludlow's picture of Charmian, or because she had afterwards made a fool of herself so irreparably as to be unworthy Mr. Ludlow's kindness.
If it was merely kindness, and she was the object of charity, it was all right; she could accept it on those terms. She even tempted him to patronize her, but when he ventured upon something elderly and paternal in his monitions, she resented it so fiercely that she was astonished and ashamed. There was an inconsistency in it all that was perplexing, but not so perplexing as to spoil the pleasure of it.
There were not sittings every day, now; Ludlow came once or twice a week, and criticised her work; sometimes he struck off a sketch himself, in illustration of a point, and these sketches were now so unlike Cornelia, and so wholly like Charmian, that when he left them for her guidance, she studied them with a remote ache in her heart. "Never mind," Charmian consoled her once, "he just does it on purpose."
"Does what?" Cornelia demanded awfully.
One of the sketches he fancied so much that he began to carry it forward. He worked at it whenever he came, and under his hand it grew an idealized Charmian, in which her fantastic quality expressed itself as high imagination, and her formless generosity as a wise and noble magnanimity.
She made fun of it when they were alone, but Cornelia could see that she was secretly proud of having inspired it, and that she did not really care for the constant portrait which Cornelia had been faithfully finishing up, while Ludlow changed and experimented, though Charmian praised her to his disadvantage.
One day he said he had carried his picture as far as he could, and he should let it go at that. It seemed an end of their pleasant days together; the two girls agreed that now there could be no further excuse for their keeping on, and Cornelia wondered how she could let him know that she understood. That evening he came to call on her at Mrs. Montgomery's, and before he sat down he began to say: "I want to ask your advice, Miss Saunders, about what I shall do with my sketch of Miss Maybough."
Cornelia blenched, for no reason that she could think of; she could not gasp out the "Yes" that she tried to utter.
"You see," he went on, "I know that I've disappointed Mrs. Maybough, and I'd like to make her some sort of reparation, but I can't offer her the sketch instead of the portrait; if she liked it she would want to pay for it, and I can't take money for it. So I've thought of giving the sketch to Miss Maybough."
He looked at Cornelia, now, for the advice he had asked, but she did not speak, and he had to say: "But I don't know whether she likes it or not. Do you know whether she does? Has she ever spoken of it to you? Of course she's said civil things to me about it. I beg your pardon! I suppose you don't care to tell, and I had no right to inquire."
"Oh, yes; yes."
"I know she likes it; she must."
"But she hasn't said so?"
"Then what makes you think she does?"
"I don't know. Any one would. It's very beautiful." Cornelia spoke very dryly, very coldly.
"But is it a likeness? Is it she? Her character? What do you think of it yourself?"
"I don't know as I can say——"
"Ah, I see you don't like it!" said Ludlow, with an air of disappointment. "And yet I aimed at pleasing you in it."
"At pleasing me?" she murmured thickly back.
"Yes, you. I tried to see her as you do; to do her justice, and if it is overdone, or flattered, or idealized, it is because I've been working toward your notion——"
"Oh!" said Cornelia, and then, to the great amazement of herself as well as Ludlow, she began to laugh, and she laughed on, with her face in her handkerchief. When she took her handkerchief down, her eyes looked strange, but she asked, with a sort of radiance, "And did you think I thought Charmian was really like that?"
"Why, I didn't know—— You've been very severe with me when I've suggested she wasn't. At first, when I wanted to do her as Humbug, you wouldn't stand it, and now, when I've done her as Mystery, you laugh."
Cornelia pressed her handkerchief to her shining eyes, and laughed a little more. "That is because she isn't either. Can't you understand?"
"I could understand her being both, I think. Don't you think she's a little of both?"
"I told you," said Cornelia gravely, "that I didn't like to talk Charmian over."
"That was a good while ago. I didn't know but you might, by this time."
"Why?" she asked. "Am I so changeable?"
"No; you're the one constant and steadfast creature in a world of variableness. I didn't really expect that. I know that I can always find you where I left you. You are the same as when I first saw you."
It seemed to Cornelia that she had been asking him to praise her, and she was not going to have that. "Do you mean that I behave as badly as I did in the Fair House? No wonder you treat me like a child." This was not at all what she meant to say, however, and was worse than what she had said before.
"No," he answered seriously. "I meant that you are not capricious, and I hate caprice. But do I treat you like a child?"
"Sometimes," said Cornelia, looking down and feeling silly.
"I am very sorry. I wish you would tell me how."
She had not expected this pursuit, and she flashed back, "You are doing it now! You wouldn't say that to—to—any one else."
Ludlow paused thoughtfully. Then he said, "I seem to treat myself like a child when I am with you. Perhaps that's what displeases you. Well, I can't help that. It is because you are so true that I can't keep up the conventions with you." They were both silent; Cornelia was trying to think what she should say, and he added, irrelevantly, "If you don't like that sketch of her, I won't give it to her."
"I? What have I to do with it?" She did not know what they were talking about, or to what end. "Yes, you must give it to her. I know she wants it. And I know how kind you are, and good. I didn't mean—I didn't wish to blame you—I don't know why I'm making such a perfect fool of myself."
She had let him have her hand somehow, and he was keeping it; but they had both risen.
"May I stay a moment?" he entreated.
No one thing now seemed more inconsequent than another, and Cornelia answered, with a catching of her breath, but as if it quite followed, "Why, certainly," and they both sat down again.
"There is something I wish to tell—to speak of," he began. "I think it's what you mean. In my picture of Miss Maybough——"
"I didn't mean that at all. That doesn't make any difference to me," she broke incoherently in upon him. "I didn't care for it. You can do what you please with it."
He looked at her in a daze while she spoke. "Oh," he said, "I am very stupid. I didn't mean this sketch of mine; I don't care for that, now. I meant that other picture of her—the last one—the one I painted out before I gave up painting her—— Did you see that it was like you?"
Cornelia felt that he was taking an advantage of her, and she lifted her eyes indignantly. "Mr. Ludlow!"
"Ah! Don't think that," he pleaded, and she knew that he meant her unexpressed sense of unfairness in him. "I know you saw it; and the likeness was there because—I wanted to tell you long ago, but I couldn't, because when we met afterwards I was afraid that I was mistaken, in what I thought—hoped. I had no right to know anything till I was sure of myself; but—the picture was like you because you were all the time in my thoughts, and nothing and no one but you. Cornelia——" She rose up crazily, and looked toward the door, as if she were going to run out of the room. "What is it?" he implored. "You know I love you."
"Let me go!" she panted.
"If you tell me you don't care for me——"
"I don't! I don't care for you, and—let me go!"
He stood flushed and scared before her. "I—I am sorry. I didn't mean—I hoped—— But it is all right—— I mean you are right, and I am wrong. I am very wrong."
Ludlow stood aside and Cornelia escaped. When she reached her own room, she had a sense of her failure to take formal leave of him, and she mechanically blamed herself for that before she blamed herself for anything else. At first he was altogether to blame, and she heaped the thought of him with wild reproach and injury; if she had behaved like a fool, it was because she was trapped into it, and could not help it; she had to do so. She recalled distinctly, amidst the turmoil, how she had always kept in mind that a girl who had once let a man, like that dreadful little wretch, whose name she could not take into her consciousness, suppose that she could care for him, could not let a man like Ludlow care for her. If she did, she was wicked, and she knew she had not done it for she had been on her guard against it. The reasoning was perfect, and if he had spoiled everything now, he had himself to thank for it; and she did not pity him. Still she wished she had not run out of the room; she wished she had behaved with more dignity, and not been rude; he could laugh at her for that; it was like her behavior with him from the very beginning; there was something in him that always made her behave badly with him, like a petulant child. He would be glad to forget her; he would believe, now, that she was not good enough for him; and he might laugh; but at least he could not say that she had ever done or said the least thing to let him suppose that she cared for him. If she had, she should not forgive herself, and she should pity him as much as she blamed him now. There was nothing in her whole conduct that would have warranted her in supposing such a thing, if she were a man. Cornelia had this comfort, and she clung to it, till it flashed through her that not being a man, she could not imagine what the things were that could let a man suppose it. She had never thought of that before, and it dazed her. Perhaps he had seen all along that she did care for him, that he had known it in some way unknown and forever unknowable to her; the way a man knows; and all her disguises had availed nothing against him. Then, if he had known, he had acted very deceitfully and very wrongfully, and nothing could excuse him unless there had been other signs that a girl would recognize, too. That would excuse him, it would justify him, and she tried to see the affair with another woman's eyes. She tried to see it with Charmian's eves, but she knew they were filled with a romantic iridescence that danced before them and wrapt it in a rainbow mist. Then she tried Mrs. Westley's eyes, which she knew were friendly to both Ludlow and herself, and she told her everything in her impassioned revery: all about that little wretch; all about the first portrait of Charmian and the likeness they had seen in it; all about what had happened since Ludlow began to criticise her work again. In the mere preparation for this review she found another's agency insufferable; she abandoned herself wildly to a vision which burned itself upon her in mass and detail, under a light that searched motive and conduct alike, and left her no refuge from the truth. Then she perceived, how at every moment since they began those last lessons at Charmain's he must have believed she cared for him and wished him to care for her. If she had not seen it too, it was because she was stupid, and she was to blame all the same. She was blind to what he saw in her, and she had thought because she was hidden from herself that she was hidden from him.
It was not a question now of whether she cared for him, or not; that was past all question; but whether she had not led him on to think she did, and she owned that down to the last moment before he had spoken, wittingly or unwittingly she had coaxed him to praise her, to console her, lo make love to her. She was rightly punished, and she was ready to suffer, but she could not let him suffer the shame of thinking himself wrong. That was mean, that was cowardly, and whatever she was, Cornelia was not base, and not afraid. She would have been willing to follow him into the night, to go to his door, and knock at it, and when he came, flash out at him, "I did love you, I do love you," and then run, she did not know where, but somewhere out of the world. But he might not be there, or some one else might come to the door; the crude, material difficulties denied her the fierce joy of this exploit, but she could not rest (she should never really rest again) till she had done the nearest thing to it that she could. She looked at the little busy-bee clock ticking away on her bureau and saw that it was half-past eleven o'clock, and that there was no time to lose, and she sat down and wrote: "I did care for you. But I can never see you again. I cannot tell you the reason."
She drew a deep breath when the thing was done, and hurried the scrap unsigned into an envelope and addressed it to Ludlow. She was in a frenzy till she could get it out of her hands and into the postal-box beyond recall. She pulled a shawl over her head and flew down stairs and out of the door into the street toward the postal-box on the corner. But before she reached it she thought of a special-delivery stamp, which should carry the letter to Ludlow the first thing in the morning, and she pushed on to the druggist's at the corner beyond to get it. She was aware of the man staring at her, as if she had asked for arsenic; and she supposed she must have looked strange. This did not come into her mind till she found herself again at Mrs. Montgomery's door, where she stood in a panic ecstasy at having got rid of the letter, which the special stamp seemed to make still more irrevocable, and tried to fit her night-latch into the lock. The cat, which had been shut out, crept up from the area, and rubbed with a soft insinuation against her skirt. She gave a little shriek of terror, and the door was suddenly pulled open from within.
She threw back her shawl from her head, and under the low-burning gas-light held aloft by the spelter statuette in the newel post, she confronted Mr. Dickerson. He had his hat on, and had the air of just having let himself in; his gripsack stood at his feet.
"Why, Nelie! Miss Saunders! Is that you? Why, where in the world—— Well, this is something like 'Willy, we have missed you'; I've just come. What was the matter out there? Somebody trying to scare you? Well, there's nothing to be afraid of now, anyway. How you do pant! But it becomes you. Yes, it does! You look now just like I've seen you all the time I've been gone! You didn't answer any of my letters; I don't know as I could have expected any different. But I did hope—— Nelie, it's no use! I've got to speak out, and it's now or never; maybe there won't be another chance. Look here, my girl! I want you—I love you, Nie! and I always d——"
He had got her hand, and he was drawing her toward him. She struggled to free herself, but he pulled her closer.
Her heart swelled with a fury of grief for all she had suffered and lost through him. She thought of what her mother had said she ought to do if he ever spoke to her again; there came without her agency, almost, three swift, sharp, electrical blows from the hand she had freed; she saw him reeling backward with his hand at his face, and then she was standing in her own room, looking at her ghost in the glass.
Now, if Mr. Ludlow knew, he would surely despise her, and she wished she were dead indeed: not so much because she had boxed Dickerson's ears as because she had done what obliged her to do it.
It is hard for the young to understand that the world which seems to stop with their disaster is going on with smooth indifference, and that a little time will carry them so far from any fateful event that when they gather courage to face it they will find it curiously shrunken in the perspective. Nothing really stops the world but death, and that only for the dead. If we live, we must move on, we must change, we must outwear every motion, however poignant or deep. Cornelia's shame failed to kill her; she woke the next morning with a self-loathing that seemed even greater than that of the night before, but it was actually less; and it yielded to the strong will which she brought to bear upon herself. She went to her work at the Synthesis as if nothing had happened, and she kept at it with a hard, mechanical faithfulness which she found the more possible, perhaps, because Charmian was not there, for some reason, and she had not her sympathy as well as her own weakness to manage. She surprised herself with the results of her pitiless industry, and realized for the first time the mysterious duality of being, in the power of the brain and the hand to toil while the heart aches.
She was glad, she kept assuring herself, that she had put an end to all hope from Ludlow; she rejoiced bitterly that now, however she had disgraced herself in her violent behavior, she had at least disgraced no one else. No one else could suffer through any claim upon her, or kindness for her, or had any right to feel ashamed of her or injured by her. But Cornelia was at the same time puzzled and perplexed with herself, and dismayed with the slightness of her hold upon impulses of hers which she thought she had overcome and bound forever. She made the discovery, which she was yet far too young to formulate, that she had a temperament to deal with that could at any time shake to ruins the character she had so carefully built upon it, and had so wholly mistaken for herself. In the midst of this dismay she made another discovery, and this was that perhaps even her temperament was not what she had believed it, but was still largely unknown to her. She had always known that she was quick and passionate, but she certainly had not supposed that she was capable of the meanness of wondering whether Mr. Ludlow would take her note as less final than she had meant it, and would perhaps seek some explanation of it. No girl that she ever heard or read of, had ever fallen quite so low as to hope that; but was not she hoping just that? Perhaps she had even written those words with the tacit intention of calling him back! But this conjecture was the mere play of a morbid fancy, and weak as she was, Cornelia had the strength to forbid it and deny it.
At the end of the afternoon, she pretended that she ought to go and see what had happened to Charmian, and on the way, she had time to recognize her own hypocrisy, and to resolve that she would do penance for it by coming straight at the true reason of her errand. She was sent to Charmian in her studio, and she scarcely gave her a chance to explain that she had staid at home on account of a cold, and had written a note for Cornelia to come to dinner with her, which she would find when she got back.
Cornelia said, "I want to tell you something, Charmian, and I want you to tell me what you really think—whether I've done right, or not."
Charmian's eyes lightened. "Wait a moment!" She got a piece of the lightwood, and put it on the fire which she had kindled on the hearth to keep the spring chill off, and went and turned Ludlow's sketch of herself to the wall. "I know it's about him." Then she came and crouched on the tiger-skin at Cornelia's feet, and clasped her hands around her knees, and fixed her averted face on the blazing pine. "Now go on," she said, as if she had arranged the pose to her perfect satisfaction.
Cornelia went on. "It's about him, and it's about some one else, too," and she had no pity on herself in telling Charmian all about that early, shabby affair with Dickerson.
"I knew it," said Charmian, with a sigh of utter content, "I told you, the first time I saw you, that you had lived. Well: and has he—turned up?"
"He has turned up—three times," said Cornelia.
Charmian shivered with enjoyment of the romantic situation. She reached a hand behind her and tried to clutch one of Cornelia's but had to get on without it. "And well: have they met?"
"No, they haven't," said Cornelia crossly, but not so much with Charmian as with the necessity she was now in of telling her about her last meeting with Ludlow. She began, "They almost did," and when Charmian in the intensity of her interest could not keep turning around to stare at her, Cornelia took hold of her head and turned her face toward the fire again. Then she went on to tell how it had all happened. She did not spare herself at any point, and she ended the story with the expression of her belief that she had deserved it all. "It wasn't boxing that little wretch's ears that was the disgrace; it was having brought myself to where I had to box them."
"Yes, that was it," sighed Charmian, with deep conviction.
"And I had to tell him that I could never care for him, because I couldn't bear to tell him what a fool I had been."
"No, no; you never could do that!"
"And I couldn't bear to have him think I was better than I really was, or let him care for me unless I told him all about that miserable old affair."
"No, you couldn't, Cornelia," said Charmian solemnly. "Some girls might; most girls would. They would just consider it a flirtation, and not say anything about it, or not till after they were engaged, and then just laugh. But you are different from other girls—you are so true! Yes, you would have to tell it if it killed you; I can see that; and you couldn't tell it, and you had to break his heart. Yes, you had to!"
"Oh, Charmian Maybough! How cruel you are!" Cornelia flung herself forward and cried; Charmian whirled round, and kneeling before her, threw her arms around her, in a pose of which she felt the perfection, and kissed her tenderly.
"Why didn't you let me see how you were looking? How I have gone on——"
Cornelia pulled herself loose. "Charmian! Do you dare to mean that I want him to ever speak to me again—or look at me?"
"Or that I'm sorry I did it?"
"No; it's this cold that's making me so stupid."
"If he were to come back again this instant, I should have to tell him just the same, or else tell him about that—that—and you know I couldn't do that if I lived a thousand years."
Now she melted, indeed, and suffered Charmian to moan over her, and fortify her with all the reasons she had urged herself in various forms of repetition. Charmain showed her again how impossible everything that she had thought impossible was, and convinced her of every conviction. She made Cornelia's tragedy her romance, and solemnly exulted in its fatality, while she lifted her in her struggle of conscience to a height from which for the present at least, Cornelia could not have descended without a ruinous loss of self-respect. In the renunciation in which the worshipper confirmed her saint, Ludlow and his rights and feelings were ignored, and Cornelia herself was offered nothing more substantial than the prospect that henceforth she and Charmian could live for each other in a union that should be all principle on one side and all adoration on the other.
Cornelia did not go to pass that week in Lent with Mrs. Westley. When she went, rather tardily, to withdraw her promise, she said that the time was now growing so short she must give every moment to the Synthesis. Mrs. Westley tacitly arranged to cancel some little plans she had made for her, and in the pity a certain harassed air of the girl's moved in her, she accepted her excuses as valid, and said, "But I am afraid you are overworking at the Synthesis, Miss Saunders. Are you feeling quite well?"
"Oh, perfectly," Cornelia answered with a false buoyancy from which she visibly fell. She looked down, and said, "I wish the work was twice as hard!"
"Ah, you have come to that very soon," said Mrs. Westley; and then they were both silent, till she added, "How are you getting on with your picture of Miss Maybough?"
"Oh, I'm not doing anything with that," said Cornelia, and she stood up to go.
"But you are going to exhibit it?" Mrs. Westley persisted.
"No, T don't know as I am. I should have to offer it first."
"It would be sure to be accepted; Mr. Ludlow thinks it would."
"Oh, yes; I know," said Cornelia, feeling herself get very red. "But I guess I won't offer it. Goodbye."
Mrs. Westley kept the impression of something much more personal than artistic in Cornelia's reference to her picture, and when she met Ludlow a few days after, she asked him if he knew that Miss Saunders was not going to offer her picture to the Exhibition.
He said simply that he did not know it.
"Don't you think she ought? I don't think she's looking very well, of late; do you?"
"I don't know; isn't she? I haven't seen her——" He began carelessly; he added anxiously. "When did you see her?"
"A few days ago. She came to say she could not take the time from the Synthesis to pay me that little visit. I'm afraid she's working too hard. Of course, she's very ambitious; but I can't understand her not wanting to show her picture, there, and trying to sell it."
Ludlow stooped forward and pulled the long ears of Mrs. Westley's fashionable dog which lay on the rug at his feet.
"Have you any idea why she's changed her mind?"
"Yes," said Ludlow. "I think it's because I helped her with it."
"Is she so independent? Or perhaps I am not quite discreet——"
"Why not? You say she didn't look well?"
He asked, as if it immediately followed, "Mrs. Westley, should you mind giving me a little advice about a matter—a very serious matter?"
"If you won't follow it."
"Do we ever?"
"How much use can a man be to a girl when he knows that he can't be of the greatest?"
"None, if he is sure."
"He is perfectly sure."
"He had better let her alone, then. He had better not try."
"I am going to try. But I thank you for your advice more than if I were going to take it."
They parted laughing; and Mrs. Westley was contented to be left with the mystery which she believed was no mystery to her.
Ludlow went home and wrote to Cornelia:
"DEAR MISS SAUNDERS: I hear you are not going to try to get your picture into the Exhibition. I will not pretend not to understand why, and you would not wish me to; so I feel free to say that you are making a mistake. You ought to offer your picture; I think it would be accepted, and you have no right to forego the chance it would give you, for the only reason you can have. I know that Mr. Wetmore would be glad to advise you about it; and I am sure you will believe that I have not asked him to do so.
Cornelia turned this letter in many lights, and tried to take it in many ways; but in the end she could only take it in the right way, and she wrote back:
"DEAR MR. LUDLOW: I thank you very much for your letter, and I am going to do what you say. Yours sincerely,
"P. S. I do appreciate your kindness very much."
She added this postscript after trying many times to write a reply that would seem less blunt and dry; but she could not write anything at all between a letter that she felt was gushing and this note which certainly could not be called so; she thought the postscript did not help it much, but she let it go.
As soon as she had done so, it seemed to her that she had no reason for having done so, and she did not see how she could justify it to Charmian, whom she had told that she should not offer her picture. She would have to say that she had changed her mind simply because Mr. Ludlow had bidden her, and she tried to think how she could make that appear sufficient. But Charmian was entirely satisfied. "Oh, yes," she said, "that was the least you could do, when he asked you. You certainly owed him that much. Now," she added mystically, "he never can say a thing."
They were in Charmian's studio, where Cornelia's sketch of her had been ever since she left working on it; and Charmian ran and got it, and set it where they could both see it in the light of the new event.
It's magnificent, Cornelia. There's no other word for it. Did you know he was going to give me his?"
"Yes, he told me he was going to," said Cornelia, looking at her sketch, with a dreamy suffusion of happiness in her face.
"It's glorious, but it doesn't come within a million miles of yours. Mr. Wetmore isn't on the Committee, this year, but he knows them all, and——"
Cornelia turned upon her. "Charmian Maybough, if you breathe, if you dream a word to him about it I will never speak to you. If my picture can't get into the Exhibition without the help of friends——"
"Oh, I shan't speak to him about it," Charmian hastened to assure her. In pursuance of her promise, she only spoke to Mrs. Wetmore, and at the right time Wetmore used his influence with the committee. Then, for the reason, or the no reason that governs such matters, or because Cornelia's picture was no better than too many others that were accepted, it was refused.
The blow was not softened to Cornelia by her having prophesied to Charmian as well as to herself, that she knew her picture would be refused. Now she was aware that at the bottom of her heart she had always hoped and believed it would be accepted. She had kept it all from her mother, but she had her fond, proud visions of how her mother would look when she got her letter saying that she had a picture in the Exhibition, and how she would throw on her sacque and bonnet, and run up to Mrs. Burton for an explanation and full sense of the honor. In these fancies Cornelia even had them come to New York, to see her picture in position; it was not on the line, of course, and yet it was not skyed.
Her pride was not involved, and she suffered no sting of wounded vanity from its rejection: her hurt was in a tenderer place. She would not have cared how many people knew of her failure, if her mother and Mrs. Burton need not have known; but she wrote faithfully home of it, and tried to make neither much nor little of it. She forbade Charmian the indignation which she would have liked to vent, but she let her cry over the event with her. No one else knew that it had actually happened except Wetmore and Ludlow; she was angry with them at first for encouraging her to offer the picture, but Wetmore came and was so mystified and humbled by its refusal, that she forgave him and even comforted him for his part in the affair.
"She acted like a little man about it," he reported to Ludlow. "She'll do. When a girl can take a blow like that the way she does, she makes you wish that more fellows were girls. When I had my first picture refused, it laid me up. But I'm not going to let this thing rest. I'm going to see if that picture can't be got into the American Artists'."
"Better not," said Ludlow so vaguely that Wetmore thought he must mean something.
"Oh—I don't believe she'd like it."
"What makes you think so? Have you seen her?"
"You haven't? Well, Ludlow, I didn't lose any time. Perhaps you think there was no one else to blame for the mortification of that poor child."
"No, I don't. I am to blame, too. I encouraged her to try—I urged her."
"Then I should think you would go and tell her so."
"Ah, I think she knows it. If I told her anything, I should tell her no one was to blame but myself."
"Well, that wouldn't be a bad idea." Wetmore lighted his pipe. "Confound those fellows! I should like to knock their heads together. If there is anything like the self-righteousness of a committee when it's wrong—-but there isn't, fortunately."
It was not the first time that Ludlow had faltered in the notion of going to Cornelia and claiming to be wholly at fault. In thought he was always doing it, and there were times when he almost did it in reality, but he let these times pass effectless, hoping for some better time when the thing would do itself, waiting for the miracle which love expects, when it is itself the miracle that brings all its desires to fulfilment. He certainly had some excuses for preferring a passive part in what he would have been so glad to have happen. Cornelia had confessed that she had once cared for him, but at the same time she had implied that she cared for him no longer, and she had practically forbidden him to see her again. Much study of her words could make nothing else of them, and it was not until Ludlow saw his way to going impersonally in his quality of mistaken adviser, from whom explanation and atonement were due, that he went to Cornelia. Even then he did not quite believe that she would see him, and he gladly lost the bet he made himself, at the sound of a descending step on the stairs, that it was the Irish girl coming back to say that Miss Saunders was not at home.
They met very awkwardly, and Ludlow had such an official tone in claiming responsibility for having got Cornelia to offer her picture, and so have it rejected, that he hardly knew who was talking. "That is all," he said, stiffly; and he rose and stood looking into his hat. "It seemed to me that I couldn't do less than come and say this, and I hope you don't feel that I'm—I'm unwarranted in coming."
"Oh, no," cried Cornelia, "it's very kind of you, and no one's to blame but me. I don't suppose I should care; only"—she bit her lips hard, and added deep in her throat—"I hated to have my mother—— But I am rightfully punished."
She meant for the Dickerson business, but Ludlow thought she meant for her presumption, and his heart smote him in tender indignation as her head sank and her face averted itself. It touched him keenly that she should speak to him in that way of her mother, as if from an instinctive sense of his loving and faithful sympathy; and then, somehow he had her in his arms, there in Mrs. Montgomery's dim parlor; he noted, as in a dream, that his hat had fallen and was rolling half the length of it.
"Oh, wait!" cried the girl. "What are you doing—— You don't know. There is something I must tell you—that will make you hate me——" She struggled to begin somehow, but she did not know where.
"No," he said. "You needn't tell me anything. There isn't anything in the world that could change me to you—nothing that you could tell me! Sometime, if you must—if you wish; but not now. I've been too miserable, and now I'm so happy."
"But it's very foolish, it's silly! I tell you——"
"Not now, not now!" He insisted. He made her cry, he made her laugh; but he would not listen to her. She knew it was all wrong, that it was romantic and fantastic, and she was afraid of it; but she was so happy too, that she could not will it for the moment to be otherwise. She put off the time that must come, or let him put it off for her, and gladly lost herself in the bliss of the present. The fear, growing more and more vague and formless, haunted her rapture, but even this ceased before they parted, and left her at perfect peace in his love—their love.
He told her how much she could be to him, how she could supplement him in every way where he was faltering and deficient, and he poured out his heart in praises of her that made her brain reel. They talked of a thousand things, touching them, and leaving them, and coming back, but always keeping within the circle of their relation to themselves. They flattered one another with the tireless and credulous egotism of love; they tried to tell what they had thought of each other from the first moment they met, and tried to make out that they neither had ever since had a thought that was not the other's; they believed this. The commonplaces of the passion ever since it began to refine itself from the earliest savage impulse, seemed to have occurred to them for the first time in the history of the race; they accused themselves each of not being worthy of the other; they desired to be very good, and to live for the highest things.
They began this life by spending the whole afternoon together. When some other people came into the parlor, they went out to walk. They walked so long and far, that they came at last to the Park without meaning to, and sat on a bench by a rock. Other people were doing the same: nurses with baby-carriages before them; men smoking and reading; elderly husbands with their elderly wives beside them, whom they scarcely spoke to; it must have been a very common, idle thing, but to them it had the importance, the distinction of something signal, done for the first time. They staid there till it was almost dark, and then they went and had tea together in the restaurant of one of the vast hotels at the entrance of the Park. It was a very Philistine place, with rich-looking, dull-looking people, travellers and sojourners, dining about in its spacious splendor; but they got a table in a corner and were as much alone there as in the Park; their happiness seemed to push the world away from them wherever they were, and to leave them free within a wide circle of their own. She poured the tea for them both from the pot which the waiter set at her side; he looked on in joyful wonder and content. "How natural it all is," he sighed. "I should think you had always been doing that for me. But I suppose it is only from the beginning of time!"
She let him talk the most, because she was too glad to speak, and because they had both the same thoughts, and it did not need two to utter them. Now and then, he made her speak; he made her answer some question; but it was like some question that she had asked herself. From time to time they spoke of others besides themselves; of her mother and the Burtons, of Charmian, of Mrs. Westley, of Wetmore; but it was in relation to themselves; without this relation, nothing had any meaning.
When they parted after an evening prolonged till midnight in Mrs. Montgomery's parlor, that which had been quiescent in Cornelia's soul, stirred again, and she knew that she was wrong to let Ludlow go without telling him of Dickerson. It was the folly of that agreement of theirs about painting Charmian repeating itself in slightly different terms, and with vastly deeper meaning, but to a like end of passive deceit, of tacit untruth; his wish did not change it. She thought afterwards she could not have let him go without telling him, if she had not believed somehow that the parallel would complete itself, and that he would come back, as he had done before, and help her undo what was false between them; but perhaps this was not so; perhaps if she had been sure he would not come back she would not have spoken; at any rate he did not come back.
Cornelia was left to no better counsels than those of Charmian Maybough, and these were disabled from what they might have been at their best, by Cornelia's failure to be frank with her. If she was wronging Charmian by making her a half-confidant only, she could not be more open with her than with Ludlow, and she must let her think that she had told him everything until she had told him everything.
She did honestly try to do so, from time to time; she tried to lead him on to ask her what it was he had kept her from telling him in that first moment of their newly confessed love, when it would have been easier than it could ever be again. She reproached him in her heart for having prevented her then; it seemed as if he must know that she was longing for his help to be frank; but she never could make that cry for his help pass her lips where it trembled when she ought to have felt safest with him. She began to be afraid of him, and he began to be aware of her fear.
He went home after parting with her that first night of their engagement too glad of all that was, to feel any lack in it; but the first thought in his mind when he woke the next morning was not that perfect joy which the last before he fell asleep had been. His discomfort was a formless emotion at first, and it was a moment before it took shape in the mistake he had made, in forbidding Cornelia to tell him what she had kept from him, merely because he knew that she wished to keep it. He ought to have been strong enough for both, and he had joined his weakness to hers from a fantastic impulse of generosity. Now he perceived that the truth, slighted and postponed, must right itself at the cost of the love which it should have been part of. He began to be tormented with a curiosity to know what he could not ask, or let her suspect that he even wished to know. Whether he was with her or away from her, he always had that in his mind, and in the small nether ache, inappeasable and incessant, he paid the penalty of his romantic folly. He had to bear it and to hide it. Yet they both seemed flawlessly happy to others, and in a sort they seemed so to themselves. They waited for the chance that should make them really so.
Cornelia kept on at her work, all the more devotedly because she was now going home so soon and because she knew herself divided from it by an interest which made art seem slight and poor, when she felt secure in her happiness, and made it seem nothing when her heart misgave her. She never could devolve upon that if love failed her; art could only be a part of her love henceforward. She could go home and help her mother with her work till she died, if love failed her, but she could never draw another line.
There was going to be an exhibition of Synthesis work at the close of the Synthesis year, and there was to be a masquerade dance in the presence of the pictures. Charmian was the heart and soul of the masquerade, and she pushed its claims to the disadvantage of the exhibition. Some of the young ladies who thought that art should have the first place, went about saying that she was for the dance because she could waltz and mask better than she could draw, and would rather exhibit herself than her work, but it was a shame that she should make Miss Saunders work for her the way she did, because Miss Saunders, though she was so overrated, was really learning something, thanks to the Synthesis atmosphere; and Charmian Maybough would never learn anything. It was all very well for her to pretend that she scorned to send anything to a school exhibition, but she was at least not such a simpleton as to risk offering anything, for it would not be accepted. That, they said, was the real secret of her devotion to the masquerade and of her theory that the spirit of the Synthesis could be expressed as well in making that beautiful, as in the exhibition. Charmian had Cornelia come and stay with her the whole week before the great event, and she spent it in a tumult of joyful excitement divided between the tremendous interests of Ludlow's coming every night to see Cornelia, and of having them both advise with her about her costume. Ludlow was invited to the dance, and he was to be there so as to drive home with her and Cornelia.
In the mean time Charmian's harshest critics were not going to be outdone, if they could help it, in any way; they not only contributed to the exhibition, but four or five days beforehand they began to stay away from the Synthesis, and get up their costumes for the masquerade. Everything was to be very simple, and you could come in costume or not, as you pleased, but the consensus was that people were coming in costume, and you would not want to look odd.
The hall for the dancing was created by taking down the board partitions that separated three of the class-rooms; and hanging the walls with cheese-cloth to hide the old stains and paint-marks, and with pictures by the instructors. There was a piano for the music, and around the wall rough benches were put, with rugs over them to save the ladies' dresses. The effect was very pretty, with palettes on nails, high up, and tall flowers in vases on brackets, and a life-study in plaster by one of the girls, in a corner of the room. It all had the charm of tasteful design yielding here and there to happy caprice; this mingling of the ordered and the bizarre, expressed the spirit, at once free and submissive, of the place. There had been a great deal of trouble which at times seemed out of all keeping with the end to be gained, but when it was all over, the trouble seemed nothing. The exhibition was the best the Synthesis had ever made, and those who had been left out of it were not the least of those in the masquerade; they were by no means the worst dressed, or when they unmasked, the plainest, and Charmian's favorite maxim that art was all one, was verified in the costumes of several girls who could not draw any better than she could. If they were not on the walls in one way neither were they in another. After they had wandered heart-sick through the different rooms, and found their sketches nowhere, they had their compensation when the dancing began.
The floor was filled early, and the scene gathered gayety and brilliancy. It had the charm that the taste of the school could give in the artistic effects, and its spirit of generous comradery found play in the praises they gave each other's costumes, and each other's looks when they were not in costume. It was a question whether Cornelia who came as herself, was lovelier than Charmian, who was easily recognizable as Cleopatra, with ophidian accessories in her dress that suggested at once the serpent of old Nile, and a Moqui snake-dancer. Cornelia looked more beautiful than ever; her engagement with Ludlow had come out and she moved in the halo of poetic interest which betrothal gives a girl with all other girls; it was thought an inspiration that she should not have come in costume, but in her own character. Ludlow's fitness to carry off such a prize was disputed; he was one of the heroes of the Synthesis, and much was conceded to him because he had more than once replaced the instructor in still-life there. But there remained a misgiving with some whether Cornelia was right in giving up her art for him; whether she were not recreant to the Synthesis in doing that; the doubt, freshly raised by her beauty, was not appeased till Charmian met it with the assertion that Cornelia was not going to give up her art at all, but after her marriage was coming back to study and paint with Ludlow.
Charmian bore her honors graciously, both as the friend of the new fiancee, and as the most successful mask of the evening. In her pride and joy, she set the example of looking out for girls who were not having a good time, and helping them to have one with the men of her own too constant following, and with those who stood about, wanting the wish or the courage to attach themselves to any one. In the excitement she did not miss Cornelia, or notice whether Ludlow had come yet. When she did think of her it was to fancy that she was off somewhere with him, and did not want to be looked up. Before the high moment when one of the instructors appeared, and chose a partner fur the Virginia Reel, Charmian had fused all the faltering and reluctant temperaments in the warmth of her amiability. Nobody ever denied her good nature, in fact, whatever else they denied her, and there were none who begrudged her its reward at last. She was last on the floor, when the orchestra, having played as long as it had bargained to, refused to play any longer, and the dance came to an end. She then realized that it was after twelve, and she remembered Cornelia. She rushed down into the dressing-room, and found her sitting there alone, bonneted and wrapped for the street. There was something suddenly strange and fateful about it all to Charmian.
"Cornelia!" she entreated. "What is the matter? What has become of Mr. Ludlow? Hasn't he been here to-night?"
Cornelia shook her head, and made a hoarse murmur in her throat, as if she wished to speak and could not. There seemed to be some sort of weight upon her, so that she could not rise, but Charmian swiftly made her own changes of toilet necessary for the street, and got Cornelia out of doors and into her coupe which was waiting for them, before the others descended from the dancing-room, where the men staid to help the janitor put out the lights. As the carriage whirled them away, they could hear the gay cries and laughter of the first of the revellers who came out into the night after them.
The solemn man-servant, who was now also sleepy, but who saved the respect due the young ladies by putting his hand over a yawn when he let them in, brought Cornelia a letter which he seemed to have been keeping on his professional salver. "A letter for you, miss. It came about an hour after you went out. The messenger said he wasn't to wait for an answer, and Mrs. Maybough thought she needn't send it to you at the Synthesis. She wanted me to tell you, miss."
"Oh, it is all right, thank you," said Cornelia, with a tremor which she could not repress at the sight of Ludlow's handwriting.
Charmian put her arm round her. "Come into the studio, dear. You can answer it there, if you want to, at once."
"Well," said Cornelia, passively.
Charmian found her sitting with the letter in her lap, as if she had not moved from her posture while she had been away exchanging her Ptolemaic travesty for the ease of a long silken morning gown of Nile green. She came back buttoning it at her throat, when she gave a start of high tragic satisfaction at something stonily rigid in Cornelia's attitude, but she kept to herself both her satisfaction and the poignant sympathy she felt at the same time, and sank noiselessly into a chair by the fireless hearth.
After a moment Cornelia stirred and asked, "Do you want to see it, Charmian?"
"Do you want me to?" Charmian asked back, with her heart in her throat, lest the question should make Cornelia change her mind.
There were two lines from Ludlow, unsigned: "I have received the enclosed letter, which I think you should see before I see you again." His note enclosed a letter from Dickerson to Ludlow, which ran:
"Although you are a stranger to me, I feel an old friend's interest in your engagement to Miss Cornelia Saunders, of which I have just been informed. I can fully endorse your good taste. Was once engaged to the young lady myself some years since, and have been in correspondence with her up to a very recent date. Would call and offer my well wishes in person, but am unexpectedly called away on business. Presume Miss Saunders has told you of our little affair, so will not enlarge upon the facts. Please give her my best regards and congratulations.
"J. B. DICKERSON."
Charmian let the papers fall to her lap, and looked at Cornelia who stared blankly, helplessly back at her. "What a hateful, spiteful little cad!" she began, and she enlarged at length upon Mr. Dickerson's character and behavior. She arrested herself in this pleasure, and said, "But I don't understand why Mr. Ludlow should have staid away this evening on account of his letter, or why he should have sent it to you, if he knew about it already. It seems to me——"
"He didn't know about it," said Cornelia. "I haven't told him yet."
The reproachful superiority in Charmian's tone was bitter to Cornelia, but she did not even attempt to resent it. She said meekly, "I did try to tell him. I wanted to tell him the very first thing, but he wouldn't let me, then; and then—I couldn't."
Charmian's superiority melted into sympathy: "Of course," she said.
"And now, I never can tell him," Cornelia desperately concluded.
"Never!" Charmian assented. The gleam of common-sense which had visited her for an instant, was lost in the lime-light of romance, which her fancy cast upon the situation. "And what are you going to do?" she asked, enraptured by its hopeless gloom.
"Nothing. What can I do?"
"No. You can do nothing." She started, as with a sudden inspiration. "Why, look here, Cornelia! Why wouldn't this do?"
She stopped so long that Cornelia asked, somewhat crossly, "Well?"
"I don't know whether I'd better tell you. But I know it would be the very thing. Do you want me to tell you?"
"Oh, it makes no difference," said Cornelia, hopelessly.
Charmian went on tentatively, "Why, it's this. I've often heard of such things: Me to pretend that I wrote this horrid Dickerson letter, and there isn't any such person; but I did it just for a joke, or wanted to break off the engagement because I couldn't bear to give you up. Don't you see? It's like lots of things on the stage, and I've read of them, I'd be perfectly willing to sacrifice myself in such a cause, and I should have to, for after I said I had done such a thing as that, he would never let you speak to me again, or look at me, even. But I should die happy——" She stopped, frozen to silence, by the scornful rejection in Cornelia's look. "Oh, no, no! It wouldn't do! I see it wouldn't! Don't speak! But there's nothing else left, that I know of." She added, by another inspiration, "Or, yes! Now—now—we can live for each other, Cornelia. You will outlive this. You will be terribly changed, of course; and perhaps your health may be affected; but I shall always be with you from this on. I have loved you more truly than he ever did, if he can throw you over for a little thing like that. If I were a man I should exult to ignore such a thing. Oh, if men could only be what girls would be if they were men! But now you must begin to forget him from this instant—to put him out of your mind—your life."
To further this end Charmian talked of Ludlow for a long time, and entered upon a close examination of his good and bad qualities; his probable motives for now behaving as he was doing, and the influence of the present tragedy upon his future as a painter. It would either destroy him or it would be the fire out of which he would rise a master; he would degenerate into a heartless worldling, which he might very well do, for he was fond of society, or he might become a gloomy recluse, and produce pictures which the multitude would never know were painted with tears and blood. "Of course, I don't mean literally; the idea is rather disgusting; but you know what I mean, Cornelia. He may commit suicide, like that French painter, Robert; but he doesn't seem one of that kind, exactly; he's much more likely to abandon art and become an art-critic. Yes, it may make an art-critic of him."
Cornelia sat in a heavy muse, hearing and not hearing what she said. Charmian bustled about, and made a fire of lightwood, and then kindled her spirit lamp, and made tea, which she brought to Cornelia. "We may as well take it," she said. "We shall not sleep to-night anyway. What a strange ending to our happy evening. It's perfectly Hawthornesque. Don't you think it's like the Marble Faun, somehow? I believe you will rise to a higher life through this trouble, Cornelia, just as Donatello did through his crime. I can arrange it with mamma to be with you; and if I can't I shall just simply abandon her, and we will take a little flat like two newspaper girls that I heard of, and live together. We will get one down-town, on the East Side."
Cornelia look the tea and drank it, but she could not speak. It would have been easier to bear if she had only had herself alone to blame, but mixed with her shame, and with her pity for him, was a sense of his want of wisdom in refusing to let her speak at once, when she wanted to tell him all about Dickerson. That was her instinct; she had been right, and he wrong; she might be to blame for everything since, but he was to blame then and for that. Now it was all wrong, and past undoing. She tried, in the reveries running along with what she was hearing of Charmian's talk, every way of undoing it that she could imagine: she wrote to Ludlow; she sent for him; she went to him; but it was all impossible. She did not wish to undo the wrong that she might have back her dream of happiness again; she had been willing to be less than true, and she could wish him to know that she hated herself for that.
It went on and on, in her brain; there was no end to it; no way to undo the snarl that life had tangled itself up into. She looked at the clock on the mantel, and saw that it was three o'clock. "Why don't you go to bed?" she asked Charmian.
"I shall not go to bed, I shall never go to bed," said Charmian darkly. She added, "If you'll come with me, I will."
"I can't," said Cornelia, with a sort of dry anguish. She rose from where she had been sitting motionless so long. "Let me lie down on that couch of yours, there. I'm tired to death."
She went toward the alcove curtained off from the studio, and Charmian put her arm round her to stay her and help.
"Don't. I can get along perfectly well."
"I will lie down here with you," said Charmian. "You won't mind?"
"No, I shall like to have you."
Cornelia shivered as she sat down on the edge of this divan, and Charmian ran back to put another stick of lightwood on the fire, and turn the gas down to a blue flame. She pulled down rugs and draperies, and dragged them toward the alcove for covering. "Oh, how different it is from the way I always supposed it would be when I expected to sleep here!" She sank her voice to a ghostly whisper, and yawned. "Now you go to sleep, Cornelia; but if you want anything I shall be watching here beside you, and you must ask me. Would you like anything now? An olive, or a—cracker?"
"Nothing," said Cornelia, tumbling wearily upon the couch.
Charmian surveyed her white, drawn face with profound appreciation. Then she stretched herself at her side, and in a little while Cornelia knew by her long, regular breathing that she had found relief from the stress of sympathy in sleep.
The cold north-light of the studio showed that it was broad day when a tap at the door roused Cornelia from a thin drowse she had fallen into at dawn. She stirred, and Charmian threw herself from the couch to her feet. "Don't move—I'll get it—let me——" She tossed back the black mane that fell over her eyes and stared about her. "What—what is it? Have I been asleep? Oh, I never can forgive myself!"