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Chapter 10

The night began to fall an hour before Cornelia's train reached New York, and it drew into the station, through the whirl and dance of parti-colored lights everywhere.

The black porter of the sleeping-ear caught up her bag and carried it out for her, as if he were going to carry it indefinitely; and outside she stood letting him hold it, while she looked about her, scared and bewildered, and the passengers hurrying by, pushed and bumped against her. When she collected her wits sufficiently to take it from him, she pressed on with the rest up toward the front of the station where the crowd frayed out in different directions. At the open doorway giving on the street she stopped, and stood holding her bag, and gazed fearfully out on a line of wild men on the curbstone; they all seemed to be stretching their hands out to her, and they rattled and clamored: "Keb? A keb, a keb, a keb? Want a keb? Keb here! Keb? A keb, a keb, a keb!" They were kept back by a policeman who prevented them from falling upon the passengers, and restored them to order when they yielded by the half-dozen to the fancy that some one had ordered a cab, and started off in the direction of their vehicles, and then rushed back so as not to lose other chances. The sight of Cornelia standing bag in hand there, seemed to drive them to a frenzy of hope; several newsboys, eager to share their prosperity, rushed up and offered her the evening papers.

Cornelia strained forward from the doorway and tried to make out, in the kaleidoscopic pattern of lights, which was the Fourth Avenue car; the street was full of cars and carts and carriages, all going every which way, with a din of bells, and wheels and hoofs that was as if crushed to one clangerous mass by the superior uproar of the railroad trains coming and going on a sort of street-roof overhead. A sickening odor came from the mud of the gutters and the horses and people, and as if a wave of repulsion had struck against every sense in her, the girl turned and fled from the sight and sound and smell of it all into the ladies' waiting-room at her right.

She knew about that room from Mrs. Burton, who had said she could go in there, and fix her hair if it had got tumbled, when she came off the train. But it had been so easy to keep everything just right in the nice dressing-room on the sleeper that she had expected to step out of the station and take a Fourth Avenue car without going into the ladies-room. She found herself the only person in it, except a comfortable, friendly-looking, middle-aged woman, who seemed to be in charge of the place, and was going about with a dust-cloth in her hand. She had such a home-like air, and it was so peaceful there, after all that uproar outside, that Cornelia could hardly keep back the tears, though she knew it was silly, and kept saying so to herself under her breath.

She put her hand-bag down, and went and stood at one of the windows, trying to make up her mind to venture out; and then she began to move back and forth from one window to the other. It must have been this effect of restlessness and anxiety that made the janitress speak to her at last: "Expecting friends to meet you?"

Cornelia turned round and took a good look at the janitress. She decided from her official as well as her personal appearance that she might be trusted, as least provisionally. It had been going through her mind there at the windows what a fool she was to refuse to let Mr. Ludlow come to meet her with that friend of his, and she had been helplessly feigning that she had not refused, and that he was really coming, but was a little late. She was in the act of accepting his apology for the delay when the janitress spoke to her, and she said: "I don't know whether I'd better wait any longer. I was looking for a Fourth Avenue car."

"Well, you couldn't hardly miss one," said the janitress. "They're going all the time. Stranger in the city?"

"Yes, I am," Cornelia admitted; she thought she had better admit it.

"Well," said the janitress, "if I was you I'd wait for my friends a while longer. It's after dark, now, and if they come here and find you gone, they'll be uneasy, won't they?"

"Well," said Cornelia, and she sank submissively into a seat.

The janitress sat down too. "Not but what it's safe enough, and you needn't be troubled, if they don't come. You can go half an hour later just as well. My! I've had people sit here all day and wait. The things I've seen here, well, if they were put into a story you couldn't hardly believe them. I had a poor woman come in here one morning last week with a baby in her arms, and three little children hanging round her, to wait for her husband; and she waited till midnight, and he didn't come. I could have told her first as well as last that he wasn't ever coming; I knew it from the kind of a letter he wrote her, and that she fished up out of her pocket to show me, so as to find whether she had come to the right place to wait, or not, but I couldn't bear to do it; and I did for her and the children as well as I could, and when it came to it, about twelve, I coaxed her to go home, and come again in the morning. She didn't come back again; I guess she began to suspect something herself."

"Why, don't you suppose he ever meant to come?" Cornelia asked, tremulously.

"I don't know," said the janitress. "I didn't tell her so. I've had all kinds of homeless folks come in here, that had lost their pocket-books, or never had any, and little tots of children, with papers pinned on to tell me who they were expecting, and I've had 'em here on my hands till I had to shut up at night."

"And what did you do then?" Cornelia began to be anxious about her own fate, in case she should not get away before the janitress had to shut up.

"Well, some I had to put into the street, them that were used to it; and then there are homes of all kinds for most of 'em; old ladies' homes, and young girls' homes, and destitute females' homes, and children's homes, where they can go for the night, and all I've got to do is to give an order. It isn't as bad as you'd think, when you first come to the city; I came here from Connecticut."

Cornelia thought she might respond so far as to say, "I'm from Ohio," and the janitress seemed to appreciate the confidence.

She said, "Not on your way to the White House, I suppose? There are so many Presidents from your State. Well, I knew you were not from near New York, anywhere. I do have so many different sorts of folks coming in here, and I have to get acquainted with so many of 'em whether or no. Lots of foreigners, for one thing, and men blundering in, as well as women. They think it's a ticket-office, and want to buy tickets of me, and I have to direct 'em where. It's surprising how bright they are, oftentimes. The Irish are the hardest to get pointed right; the Italians are quick; and the Chinese! My, they're the brightest of all. If a Chinaman comes in for a ticket up the Harlem road, all I've got to do is to set my hand so, and so!" She faced south and set her hand westward; then she faced west, and set her hand northward. "They understand in a minute, and they're off like a flash."

As if she had done now all that sympathy demanded for Cornelia, the janitress went about some work in another part of the room and left the girl to herself. But Cornelia knew that she was keeping a friendly eye on her, and in the shelter of her presence, she tried to gather courage to make that start into the street alone, which she must finally make and which she was so foolish to keep postponing. She had written to the landlady of her boarding house that she should arrive on such a day, at such an hour; and here was the day, and she was letting the hour go by, and very likely the landlady would give her room to some one else. Or, if the expressman who took her check on the train, should get there with her trunk first, the landlady might refuse to take it. Cornelia did not know how people acted about such things in New York. She ought to go, and she tried to rise; but she was morally so unable that it was as if she were physically unable.

People came and went; some of them more than once, and Cornelia began to feel that they noticed her and recognized her, but still she could not move. Suddenly a figure appeared at the door, the sight of which armed her with the power of flight. She knew that it was Ludlow, from the photograph he had lately sent Mrs. Burton, with the pointed beard and the branching moustache which he had grown since they met last, and she jumped up to rush past him where he stood peering sharply round at the different faces in the room, and finally letting his eyes rest in eager question on hers.

He came towards her, and then it was too late to escape. "Miss Saunders? Oh, I'm so glad! I've been out of town, and I've only just got Mrs. Burton's telegram. Have I kept you waiting long?"

"Not very," said Cornelia. She might have said that he had not kept her waiting at all; the time that she had waited, without being kept by him, was now like no time at all; but she could not say anything more, and she wished to cry, she felt so glad and safe in his keeping. He caught up her bag, and she followed him out, with a blush over her shoulder for the janitress, who smiled after her with mistaken knowingness. But this was at least her self-delusion, and Cornelia had an instant in the confusion when it seemed as if Ludlow's coming had somehow annulled the tacit deceit she had practised in letting the janitress suppose she expected some one.

Ludlow kept talking to her all the way in the horse-car, but she could find only the briefest and dryest answers to his friendly questions about her mother and the Burtons; and all Pymantoning; and she could not blame him for taking such a hasty leave of her at her boarding-house that he almost flew down the steps before the door closed upon her.

She knew that she had disgusted him; and she hinted at this in the letter of scolding gratitude which she wrote to Mrs. Burton before she slept, for the trick she had played her. After all, though, she reasoned, she need not be so much troubled: he had done it for Mrs. Burton, and not for her, and he had not thought it worth while to bring a chaperon. To be sure, he had no time for that; but there was something in it all which put Cornelia back to the mere child she was when they first met in the Fair House at Pymantoning; she kept seeing herself angry and ill-mannered and cross to her mother, and it was as if he saw her so, too. She resented that, for she knew that she was another person now, and she tingled with vexation that she had done nothing to make him realize it.

William Dean Howells