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Chapter 12

In spite of his theory as to what was best for her, in some ways Ludlow rather expected that Cornelia would apply to him for advice as to how and where she should begin work. He forgot how fully he had already given it; but she had not. She remembered what she had overheard him say to her mother, that day in the Fair House, about the superiority of the Synthesis of Studies, and she had since confirmed her faith in his judgment by much silent inquiry of the newspapers. They had the Sunday edition of the Lakeland Light at Pymantoning, and Cornelia had kept herself informed of the "Gossip of the Ateliers," and concerning "Women and Artists," "Artists' Summer Homes," "Phases of Studio Life," "The Ladies who are Organizing Ceramic Clubs," "Women Art Students," "Glimpses of the Dens of New York Women Artists," and other æsthetic interests which the Sunday edition of the Light purveyed with the newspaper syndicate's generous and indiscriminate abundance. She did not believe it all; much of it seemed to her very silly; but she nourished her ambition upon it all the same.

The lady writers who celebrated the lady artists, and who mostly preferred to swim in seas of personal float, did now and then offer their readers a basis of solid fact; and they all agreed that the Synthesis of Art Studies was the place for a girl if she was in earnest and wished to work.

As these ladies described them the conditions were of the exacting sort which Cornelia's nature craved, and she had her sex-pride in the Synthesis, too, because she had read that women had borne an important part in founding it; the strictest technical training and the freest spirit of artistic endeavor prevailed in a school that owed its existence so largely to them. That was a great point, even if every one of the instructors was a man. She supposed that Mr. Ludlow would have sheltered himself behind this fact if she had used the other to justify herself in going on with art after he had urged that as a woman, she had better not do so. But the last thing Cornelia intended was to justify herself to Mr. Ludlow, and she vehemently wished he would not try to do anything more for her, now. After sleeping upon the facts of their meeting she felt sure that he would not try. She approved of herself for not having asked him to call in parting. She was almost glad that he hardly had given her a chance to do so.

It was Saturday night when Cornelia arrived, and she spent Sunday writing home a full account of her adventures to her mother, whom she asked to give Mrs. Barton the note she enclosed, and in looking over her drawings, and trying to decide which she should take to the Synthesis with her. She had a good deal of tacit argument about them with Mr. Ludlow, who persisted in her thoughts after several definitive dismissals; and Monday morning she presented herself with some drawings she had chosen as less ridiculous than some of the others, and hovered with a haughty humility at the door of the little office till the janitor asked her if she would not come in and sit down. He had apparently had official experience of cases like hers; he refused without surprise the drawings which she offered him as her credentials, and said the secretary would be in directly. He did not go so far as to declare his own quality, but he hospitably did what he could to make her feel at home.

Numbers of young people began to appear, singly and in twos and threes, and then go out again, and go on up the stairs which led crookedly to and from the corner the office was cramped into. Some of them went up stairs after merely glancing into the office, others found letters there, and staid chatting awhile. They looked at Cornelia with merely an identifying eye, at first, as if they perceived that she was a new girl, but as if new girls were such an old story that they could not linger long over one girl of the kind. Certain of the young ladies after they went up stairs came down in long, dismal calico aprons that covered them to the throat, and with an air of being so much absorbed in their work that they did not know what they had on. They looked at Cornelia again, those who had seen her before, and those who had not, made up for it by looking at her twice, and Cornelia began to wonder if there was anything peculiar about her, as she sat upright, stiffening with resentment and faintly flushing under their scrutiny. She wore her best dress, which was a street dress, as the best dress of a village girl usually is; her mother had fitted it, and they had made it themselves, and agreed that it was very becoming; Mrs. Burton had said so, too. The fashion of her hat she was not so sure about, but it was a pretty hat, and unless she had got it on skewy, and she did not believe she had, there was nothing about it to make people stare so. There was one of these girls, whom Cornelia felt to be as tall as herself, and of much her figure; she was as dark as Cornelia, but of a different darkness. Instead of the red that always lurked under the dusk in Cornelia's cheeks, and that now burned richly through it, her face was of one olive pallor, except her crimson lips; her long eyes were black, with level brows, and with a heavy fringe of lucent black hair cut straight above them; her nose was straight, at first glance, but showed a slight arch in profile; her mouth was a little too full, and her chin slightly retreated. She came in late, and stopped at the door of the office, and bent upon Cornelia a look at once prehistoric and fin de siècle, which lighted up with astonishment, interest and sympathy, successively; then she went trailing herself on up stairs with her strange Sphinx-face over her shoulder, and turned upon Cornelia as long as she could see her.

At last a gentleman came in and sat down behind the table in the corner, and Cornelia found a hoarse voice to ask him if he was the secretary. He answered in the friendly way that she afterwards found went all through the Synthesis, that he was, and she said, with her country bluntness, that she wished to study at the Synthesis, and she had brought some of her drawings with her, if he wanted to look at them. He took them, but either he did not want to look at them, or else it was not his affair to do so. He said she would have to fill out a form, and he gave her a blank which asked her in print a number of questions she had not thought of asking herself till then. It obliged her to confess that she had never studied under any one before, and to say which master in the Synthesis she would like to study under, now. She had to choose between life, and still-life, and the antique, and she chose the antique. She was not governed by any knowledge or desire in her choice more definite than such as come from her having read somewhere that the instructor in the antique was the severest of all the Synthesis instructors, and the most dreaded in his criticisms by the students. She did not forget, even in the presence of the secretary, and with that bewildering blank before her, that she wished to be treated with severity, and that the criticism she needed was the criticism that every one dreaded.

When the secretary fastened her application to her drawings, she asked if she should wait to learn whether it was accepted or not; but he said that he would send her application to the Members' Room, and the instructor would see it there in the morning. She would have liked to ask him if she should come back there to find out, but she was afraid to do it; he might say no, and then she should not know what to do. She determined to come without his leave, and the next morning she found that the master whom they had been submitted to had so far approved her drawings as to have scrawled upon her application, "Recommended to the Preparatory." The secretary said the instructor in the Preparatory would tell her which grade to enter there.

Cornelia's heart danced, but she governed herself outwardly, and asked through her set teeth, "Can I begin at once?" She had lost one day already, and she was not going to lose another if she could help it.

The secretary smiled. "If the instructor in the Preparatory will place you."

Before noon she had passed the criticism needed for this, and was in the lowest grade of the Preparatory. But she was a student at the Synthesis, and she was there to work in the way that those who knew best bade her. She wished to endure hardness, and the more hardness the better.

William Dean Howells