The tapping at the door began again, and she ran to open it. The inexorable housemaid was there; she said that Mrs. Maybough was frightened at her not finding either of the young ladies in their rooms, and had sent her to see if they were in the studio.
"Yes, tell her we are, please; we fell asleep on the couch, please; and, Norah! we want our breakfast here. We are very—busy, and we can't be disturbed."
She twisted her hair into a loose knot, and cowered over the hearth, where she kindled some pieces of lightwood, and then sat huddled before it, watching the murky roll of its flames, till the maid came back with the tray. Charmian wished to bring Cornelia a cup of coffee where she still lay, so crushed with the despair that had rolled back upon her with the first consciousness that she thought she never could rise again. But as the aroma of the coffee that Charmian poured out stole to her, she found strength to lift herself on her elbow, and say, "No, I will take it there with you."
The maid had put the tray on the low table where Charmian usually served tea, but in spite of all the poignant associations of this piece of furniture with happier times, the two girls ate hungrily of the omelette and the Vienna rolls; and by the time the maid had put the studio in order, and beaten up the cushions of the couch into their formal shape, they had cleared the tray, and she took it away with her quite empty. Even in the house of mourning, and perhaps there more than elsewhere, the cravings of the animal, which hungers and thirsts on, whatever happens, satisfy themselves, while the spirit faints and despairs.
Perhaps if Cornelia had thought of it she would not have chosen to starve to no visible end, but she did not think, and she ate ravenously as long as there was anything left, and when she had eaten, she felt so much stronger in heart and clearer in mind, that after the maid had gone she began, "Charmian, I am going home, at once, and you mustn't try to stop me; I mean to Mrs. Montgomery's. I want to write to Mr. Ludlow. I shall tell him it is all true."
"Yes; what else could I tell him?"
"Oh, you must! But must you write it?"
"Yes; I never can see him again, and I won't let him think that I want to, or to have him forgive me. He was to blame, but I was the most, for he might have thought it was just some little thing, and I knew what it was, and that it was something he ought to know at once. He will always believe now that it was worse than it is, if anything can be worse. I shall tell him that after I had seen Mr. Dickerson again, and knew just what a—a dreadful thing he was, I tolerated him, and lured him on——"
"You didn't lure him on, and I won't let you say such a thing, Cornelia Saunders," Charmian protested. "You always did profess to have sense, and that isn't sense."
"I never had any sense," said Cornelia, "I can see that now. I have been a perfect fool from the beginning."
"You may have been a fool," said Charmian, judicially, "but you have not been false, and I am not going to let you say so. If you don't promise not to, I will tell Mr. Ludlow myself that you were always perfectly true, and you couldn't help being true, any more than a—a broomstick, or anything else that is perpendicular. Now, will you promise?"
"I will tell him just how everything was, and he can judge. But what difference? It's all over, and I wouldn't help it if I could."
"Yes, I know that," said Charmian, "but that's all the more reason why you shouldn't go and say more than there is. He can't think, even if you're just to yourself, that you want to—wheedle."
"Wheedle!" cried Cornelia.
"Well, not wheedle, exactly, but what would be wheedling in some other girl—in me," said Charmian, offering herself up. "Will you let me see the letter before you send it? I do believe I've got more sense than you have about such things, this minute."
"You wouldn't have any to brag of, even then," said Cornelia with gloomy meekness, and unconscious sarcasm. "Yes, I will let you see the letter."
"Well, then, you needn't go home to write it; you can write in your room here. I want to see that letter, and I sha'n't let it go if there's the least thing wrong in it." She jumped up gayly, as if this were the happiest possible solution of the whole difficulty, and began to push Cornelia out of the room. "Now go, and after you've put yourself in shape, and got your hair done, you'll have some self-respect. I suppose you won't begin to write till you're all as spick and span as if you were going to receive a call from him. I'm such a slouch that I should just sit down and write, looking every which-way—but I know you can't."
She came back to the studio an hour later, and waited impatiently for Cornelia's appearance. She was so long coming that Charmian opened the door, to go and ask her some question, so as to get her to say that she would be with her in a moment, even if she didn't come, and almost ran against the man-servant, who was bringing her a card. She gave a little nervous shriek, and caught it from his salver.
"For Miss Saunders, miss," he said, in respectful deprecation of her precipitate behavior.
"Yes, yes; it's all right. Say that she—is in the studio." Charmian spoke in thick gasps. The card was Ludlow's; and between the man's going and Ludlow's coming, she experienced a succession of sensations which were, perhaps, the most heroically perfect of any in a career so much devoted to the emotions. She did not stop to inquire what she should do after she got Ludlow there, or to ask herself what he was coming for, a little after nine o'clock in the morning; she simply waited his approach in an abandon which exhausted the capabilities of the situation, and left her rather limp and languid when he did appear. If it had been her own affair she could not have entered into it with more zeal, more impassioned interest. So far as she reasoned her action at all, it was intended to keep Ludlow, after she got him there, till Cornelia should come, for she argued that if she should go for her Cornelia would suspect something, and she would not come at all.
When Ludlow found Charmian and not Cornelia waiting for him, he managed to get through the formalities of greeting decently, but he had an intensity which he had the effect of not allowing to relax. He sat down with visible self-constraint when Charmian invited him to do so.
"Miss Saunders has just gone to her room; she'll be back in a moment." She added, with wild joy in a fact which veiled the truth, "She is writing a note."
"Oh!" said Ludlow, and he was so clearly able not to say anything more that Charmian instantly soared over him in smooth self-possession. "We were so sorry not to see you last night, Mr. Ludlow. It was a perfect success, except your not coming, of course."
"Thank you," said Ludlow, "I was—I couldn't come—at the last moment."
"Yes, I understood you intended to come. I do wish you could have seen Miss Saunders! I don't believe she ever looked lovelier. I wanted her to go in costume, you know, but she wouldn't, and in fact when I saw her, I saw that she needn't. She doesn't have to eke herself out, as some people do."
Ludlow was aware of the opening for a civil speech, but he was quite helpless to use it. He stared blankly at Charmian, who went on:
"And then, Cornelia is so perfectly truthful, you know, so sincere, that any sort of disguise would have been out of character with her, and I'm glad she went simply as herself. We were up so late talking, that we slept till I don't know when, this morning. I forgot to wind my clock. I suppose it's very late."
"No," said Ludlow, "it's so very early that I ought to apologize for coming, I suppose. But I wished to see Miss Saunders——" He stopped, feeling that he had given too rude a hint.
Charmian did not take it amiss. "Oh, Cornelia is usually up at all sorts of unnatural hours of the day. I expected when she came here to spend the week with me, we should have some fun, sitting up and talking, but last night is the only time we have had a real good talk, and I suppose that was because we were so excited that even Cornelia couldn't go to sleep at once. I do wish you could have seen some of the costumes, Mr. Ludlow!"
Ludlow began to wonder whether Cornelia had got his letter, or whether, if she had got it, she had kept the matter so carefully from Charmian that she had not suspected anything was wrong. Or, what was more likely, had not Cornelia cared? Was she glad to be released, and had she joyfully hailed his letter and its enclosure as a means of escape? His brain reeled with these doubts, which were the next moment relieved with the crazy hope that if his letter had not yet been delivered, he might recover it, and present the affair in the shape he had now come to give it. He believed that Charmian must have some motive for what she was doing and saying beyond the hospitable purpose of amusing him till Cornelia should appear. We always think that other people have distinct motives, but for the most part in our intercourse with one another we are really as superficially intentioned, when we are intentioned at all, as Charmian was in wishing to get what sensation she could out of the dramatic situation by hovering darkly over it, and playing perilously about its circumference. She divined that he was not there to deepen its tragical tendency at least, and she continued without well knowing what she was going to say next: "Yes, I think that the real reason why Cornelia wouldn't go in costume was that she felt that it was a kind of subterfuge. She keeps me in a perfect twitter of self-reproach. I tell her I would rather have the conscience of the worst kind of person than hers; I could get along with it a great deal easier. Don't you think you could, Mr. Ludlow?"
"Yes, yes," said Ludlow aimlessly. He rose up, and pretended a curiosity about a sketch on the wall; he could not endure to sit still.
"Won't you have a cup of tea?" asked Charmian. "Cornelia and I had some last night, and——"
"No, thank you," said Ludlow.
"Do let me ring for some coffee, then?"
"No, I have just breakfasted—that is, I have breakfasted——"
"Why, were you up early, too?" said Charmian, with what seemed to Ludlow a supernatural shrewdness. "It's perfectly telepathic! The Psychical Research ought to have it. It would be such fun if we could get together and compare our reasons for waking so early. But Cornelia and I didn't know just when we did wake, and I suppose the Psychical Research wouldn't care for it without. She seems to be writing a pretty long note, or a pretty hard one!" Ludlow lifted his downcast eyes, and gave her a look that was ghastly. "Did you look at your watch?" she asked.
"Look at my watch?" he returned in a daze.
"When you woke, that is."
"Oh!" he groaned.
Charmian suddenly stopped and ran to the door, which Cornelia opened before she could reach it.
Cornelia gave her a letter. "See if this will do," she said spiritlessly, and Charmian caught it from her hand.
"Yes, yes, I'll read it," she said, as she slipped out of the door and shut Cornelia in.
Cornelia saw Ludlow, and made an instinctive movement of flight.
"For pity's sake, don't go!" he implored.
"I didn't know you were here," she said, the same dejection in her tone.
"No, they told me you were here; but let me stay long enough to tell you—— That abominable letter—you ought never to have known that it existed. I don't expect you to forgive me; I don't ask you; but I am so ashamed; and I would do anything if I could recall—undo—Cornelia! Isn't there any way of atoning for it? Come! I don't believe a word of that scoundrel's. I don't know what his motive was, and I don't care. Let it all be as if nothing of the kind had ever happened. Dearest, don't speak of it, and I never will!"
Cornelia was tempted. She could see how he had wrought himself up to this pitch, and she believed that he would keep his word; we believe such miracles of those we love, before life has taught us that love cannot make nature err against itself. In his absence the duty she had to do was hard; in his presence it seemed impossible, now when he asked her not to do it. She had not expected ever to see him again, or to be tried in this way. She had just written it all to him, but she must speak it now. She had been weak, and had brought on herself the worst she had to tell, and should she be false, even though he wished it, and not tell?
She forced the words out in a voice that hardly seemed her own at first.
"No, we made a mistake; you did, and I did, too. There was something—something—I wanted to tell you at first, but you wouldn't let me, and I was glad you wouldn't; but it was all wrong, and now I have got to tell you, when everything is over, and it can never do any good." She gave a dry sob, and cast upon him a look of keen reproach, which he knew he deserved. "I was engaged to him once. Or," she added, as if she could not bear to see him blench, "he could think so. It was the year after you were in Pymantoning."
She went on and told him everything. She did not spare herself any fact that she thought he ought to know, and as she detailed the squalid history, it seemed to her far worse than it had ever been in her own thoughts of it.
He listened patiently, and at the end he asked, "Is that all?"
"Yes. I wanted to know just how much you have to forgive me." She looked at him stupefied. "Yes, I ought to have let you tell me all this before, when you wanted to, at first. But I have been a romantic fool, and I have made you suffer for my folly. I have left you to think, all the time, that I might care for this; that I might not know that you were yourself through it all, or that I could care for you any the less because of it, when it only makes you dearer to me."
"No!" she said for all protest, and he understood.
"Oh, I don't mean that you were always right in it, or always wise; but I can truly say it makes no difference with me except to make you dearer. If I had always had more sense than I had, you would not have to blame yourself for the only wrong or unwise thing you have done, and I am really to blame for that."
She knew that he meant her having taken refuge from his apparent indifference in Dickerson, when she fell below her ideal of herself. This was what she had thought at the time; it was the thought with which she had justified herself then, and she could not deny it now. She loved him for taking her blame away, and she said to strengthen herself for her doom, "Well, it is all over!"
"No," he said, "why is it over? Don't be worse than I was. Let us be reasonable about it! Why shouldn't we talk of it as if we were other people? Do you mean it is all over because you think I must be troubled by what you've told me, or because you can't forgive me for not letting you tell me before?"
"You know which!" she said.
"Well, then, what should you think of some other man if he could care for such a thing, when some other girl had told it him of herself? You would think him very unjust and——"
"But it isn't some other man; it isn't some other girl!"
"No, I'm glad it isn't. But can't we reason about it as if it were?"
"No, we can't. It would be—wicked."
"It would be wicked not to. Do you think you ought to break our engagement because I didn't let you tell me this at first?"
Cornelia could not say that she did; she could hardly say, "I don't know."
Ludlow assumed that she had said more. "Then if you don't think you ought to do it for that, do you think you ought to do it for nothing?"
"For nothing?" Cornelia asked herself. Was there really nothing else, then? She stood looking at him, as if she were asking him that aloud. He was not so far off as when they began to talk, just after they had risen, and now he suddenly came much nearer still.
"Are you going to drive me from you because I don't care for all this?"
"You ought to care," she persisted.
"But if I don't? If I can't? Then what is the reason you won't let it all be as if nothing had happened? Ah, I see! You can't forgive me for sending you his letter! Well, I deserve to be punished for that!"
"No; I should have despised you if you hadn't——"
She was silent, looking at the floor. He put his arm round her, and pushed her head down on his shoulder. "Oh, how silly!" she said, with lips muted against his own.
Cornelia and Ludlow were married at Pymantoning in the latter part of June, and he spent the summer there, working at a picture which he was going to exhibit in the fall. At the same time he worked at a good many other pictures, and he helped Cornelia with the things she was trying. He painted passages and incidents in her pictures, sometimes illustratively, and sometimes for the pleasure of having their lives blended in their work, and he tried to see how nearly he could lose his work in hers. He pretended that he learned more than he taught in the process, and that he felt in her efforts a determining force, a clear sense of what she wanted to do, that gave positive form and direction to what was vague and speculative in himself. He was strenuous that she should not, in the slightest degree, lapse from her ideal and purpose, or should cease to be an artist in becoming a wife. He contended that there was no real need of that, and though it had happened in most of the many cases where artists had married artists, he held that it had happened through the man's selfishness and thoughtlessness, and not through the conditions. He was resolved that Cornelia should not lose faith in herself from want of his appreciation, or from her own over-valuation of his greater skill and school; and he could prove to any one who listened that she had the rarer gift. He did not persuade her, with all his reasons, but her mother faithfully believed him. It had never seemed surprising to her that Cornelia should win a man like Ludlow; she saw no reason why Cornelia should not; and she could readily accept the notion of Cornelia's superiority when he advanced it. She was not arrogant about it; she was simply and entirely satisfied; and she was every moment so content with Cornelia's husband that Cornelia herself had to be a little critical of him in self-defence. She called him a dreamer and theorist; she ran him down to the Burtons, and said he would never come to anything, because artists who talked well never painted so well. She allowed that he talked divinely, and it would not have been safe for Mrs. Burton to agree with her otherwise; but Mrs. Burton was far too wise a woman to do so. She did not, perhaps, ride so high a horse as Mrs. Saunders in her praises of Ludlow, but it would have been as impossible to unseat her. She regarded herself as somehow the architect of Cornelia's happiness in having discovered Ludlow and believed in him long before Cornelia met him, and she could easily see that if he had not come out to visit Burton, that first time, they would never have met at all. Mrs. Saunders could joyfully admit this without in the least relinquishing her own belief, so inarticulate that it was merely part of her personal consciousness, that this happiness was of as remote an origin as the foundations of the world. She could see, now, that nothing else could have been intended from the beginning, but she did not fail at the same time to credit herself with forethought and wisdom in bracing Cornelia against the overtures of Dickerson when he reappeared in her life. Burton, of course, advanced no claim to recognition in the affair. He enjoyed every moment of Ludlow's stay in Pymantoning, and gave his work a great deal of humorous attention and gratuitous criticism, especially the picture he was chiefly engaged upon. This, when it was shown at the County Fair, where Ludlow chose to enter it, before he took it back to Now York with him in the fall, did not keep the crowd away from the trotting-matches, and it did not take either the first or the second premium. In fact, if the critics of the metropolis were right in their judgment of it when it appeared later in the Academy, it did not deserve either of them. They said that it was an offence to those who had hoped better things of the painter as time went on with him, and who would now find themselves snubbed by this return to his worst manner. Here, they said, was his palette again, with a tacit invitation to the public to make what it liked of the colors, as children did with the embers on the hearth, or the frost on the window. You paid your money and you took your choice as to what Mr. Ludlow meant by this extraordinary performance, if he really meant anything at all.
As far as it could be made out with the naked eye, it represented a clump of hollyhocks, with a slim, shadowy and uncertain young girl among them, and the painter had apparently wished to suggest a family, resemblance among them all. To this end he had emphasized some facts of the girl's dress, accessories to his purpose, the petal-edged ruffle of her crimson silk waist, the flower-like flare of her red hat, and its finials of knotted ribbon; and in the hollyhocks he had recognized a girlishness of bearing, which he evidently hoped would appeal to a fantastic sympathy in the spectator. The piece was called "Hollyhocks"; it might equally well be called "Girls," though when you had called it one or the other, it would be hard to say just what you were to do about it, especially with the impression curiously left by the picture that whether it was a group of girls, or a clump of hollyhocks, they were not in very good humor. The moment chosen, if one might judge from some suggestions of light, was that just before the breaking of a thunderstorm; the girl, if it was a girl, had flashed into sight round the corner of the house where the hollyhocks, if they were hollyhocks, were blowing outward in the first gust of the storm. It could not be denied that there was something fine in the wild toss and pull of the flowers, with the abandon of the storm in them; this was the best thing in the piece. It was probably intended to express a moment of electric passion; but there was something so forced, and at the same time so ineffectual in the execution of the feebly fantastic design, that it became the duty of impartial criticism, to advise Mr. Ludlow, if he must continue to paint at all, to paint either girls or flowers, but not both at once, or both together, or convertibly.
Ludlow did not mind these criticisms much, being pretty well used to that kind of thing, and feeling secure of his public in any event; but Cornelia was deeply vexed. She knew that it must be evident to those who knew her and knew him that she was the girl and she was the hollyhocks, and though the origin of the picture was forever hid in the memories of their first meeting, she was aware of a measure of justice in the censure that condemned it for obscurity. She had not wished him to show it, but here, as often elsewhere, she found him helpless to yield to her, even though he confessed that she was right. He did not try to justify himself, and he did not explain himself very clearly. "I don't know how it is about one's work, exactly. Up to a certain point you are master over it, and it seems to belong absolutely to you; but beyond that it is its own master and does what it pleases with itself. Of course I could have kept from showing that picture, and yet—I must."
"Well, at least, then, you can keep from selling it," said Cornelia. "I want it; give it to me."
"My dear, I will buy it for you. Mrs. Maybough became the owner of the picture, yesterday, but I will offer her an advance on the price she paid."
Cornelia now thought she was really angry with him for the first time since their marriage. She would not speak at once, but when she did speak, it was to say, "No, let her keep it. I know Charmian made her buy it and I wouldn't like to take it from her. She has so much imagination that maybe she can see some meaning in it and it will always be such a pleasure to her to explain it even if she can't."
Charmian made the Ludlows a Bohemian dinner as soon as the people whom she wanted got back to town. She said it was a Bohemian dinner, and she asked artists, mostly; but of course she had the Westleys and their friend Mrs. Rangeley. There were several of the Synthesis girls, who said the Synthesis would never be itself again without Cornelia, and there were some of the students, nice fellows, whom Charmian had liked; there were, of course, the Wetmores. Ludlow's picture was in evidence in a place of honor, especially created for it, and Wetmore said, when they sat down at dinner, "Well, Ludlow, all this company can tell where you got your hollyhocks." Cornelia turned the color of the reddest in the picture, and Wetmore recognized her consciousness with the added remark, "Oh, you'll be in all his imaginative pictures, now, Mrs. Ludlow. That's the fate of the wife of an imaginative painter. But you really must get him to keep you out of his portraits."
Charmian checked herself in a wild laugh, and sent Cornelia a look of fond and proud intelligence, which Mrs. Rangeley tapped, as it were, on its way up the length of the table. "O Mrs. Ludlow!" she entreated. "What is it? I hope it isn't professional envy! Is he afraid of Mr. Ludlow becoming too popular?"
Ludlow answered for his wife, "Mrs. Rangeley, that was worthy even of you," and he boldly kissed his hand to her.
The dinner was remembered for several weeks as one of the pleasantest people had ever been at, and it established Mrs. Maybough in such social acceptance that she was asked to the first of the Westley dinners, where swells prevailed, and where she was as null as any of them. But although Charmian was apparently radiant the whole evening, and would hardly let Cornelia go away at the end, she wanted her to stay so and talk it over, she had a girl's perverseness in not admitting the perfection of the occasion to Mrs. Maybough, when she said, "Well, my dear, I hope your dinner was Bohemian enough for you."
"Bohemian!" she retorted. "It wasn't Bohemian at all. You oughtn't to have taken the ladies away at coffee. They ought to have stayed and had cigarettes with the gentlemen."
"My dear, you know that the mere smell of tobacco makes you sick!"
"No matter, I should—if I could only have seen Cornelia Ludlow smoking—I should have been willing to die. And now—now, I'm afraid she's going to be perfectly respectable!"
* * * * *
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AS WE WERE SAYING. With Portrait and Illustrations. 16mo, Cloth, Ornamental, $1.00. (In "Harper's American Essayists.")
THE WORK OF WASHINGTON IRVING. With Portraits. 32mo, Cloth, Ornamental, 50 cents. (In Black and White Series.)
Mr. Warner has such a fine fancy, such a genial humor, that one never tires of him.—Cincinnati Commercial Gazette.
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HARPER & BROTHERS, Publishers
NEW YORK AND LONDON
Any of the above works will be sent by mail, postage prepaid, to any part of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, on receipt of this price.