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Chapter 15

Cornelia thought that perhaps Mr. Ludlow would feel it due to Mrs. Burton to come and ask how she was getting on; but if she did not wish him to come she had reason to be glad, for the whole week passed, and she did not see him, or hear anything from him. She did not blame him, for she had been very uncouth, and no doubt he had done his whole duty in meeting her at the depot, and seeing her safely housed the first night. She wished to appreciate his kindness, and when she found herself wondering a little at his not caring to know anything more about her, she made much of it. If it was not all that she could have imagined from his offer to be of use to her in any way he could, she reminded herself that he had made that offer a very long time ago, and that she never meant to use him. Beside, she was proud of having made her start alone, and she knew which way she wished to go, though the way seemed so hard and long at times. She was not sure that all the students at the Synthesis were so clear as to their direction, but they all had the same faith in the Synthesis and its methods. They hardly ever talked to her of anything else, and first and last they talked a good deal to her. It was against the rules to loiter and talk in the corridors, as much against the rules as smoking; but every now and then you came upon a young man with a cigarette, and he was nearly always talking with a group of girls. At lunch-time the steps and window-seats were full, and the passages were no longer thoroughfares. After the first day Cornelia came out with the rest; Charmian Maybough said that one could not get into the spirit of the Synthesis unless one did; and in fact those who wished to work and those who would rather have played, as it seemed to her, met there in the same æsthetic equality. She found herself acquainted with a great many girls whose names she did not know, in the fervor of the common interest, the perpetual glow of enthusiasm which crowned the severest ordeals of the Synthesis with the halo of happy martyrdom if not the wreath of victory.

They talked about the different instructors, how awful they were, and how they made you cry sometimes, they were so hard on your work; but if you amounted to anything, you did not mind it when you got to feel what they meant; then you wanted them to be harsh. They said of one, "My! You ought to see him! He can spoil your drawing for you! He just takes your charcoal, and puts thick black lines all over everything. It don't do to finish much for him." They celebrated another for sitting down in front of your work, and drooping in silent despair before it for awhile, and then looking up at you in cold disgust, and asking, "What made you draw it that way?" as if it were inconceivable anybody should have been willing to do it so. There were other instructors who were known to have the idea of getting at the best in you by a sympathetic interest in what you had tried for, and looking for some good in it. The girls dramatized their manner of doing this; they did not hold them in greater regard than the harder masters, but they did not hold them in less, and some of them seemed to value an instructor as much for the way he squinted his eyes at your drawing as for what he said of it.

The young men did not talk so much of the instructors; they were more reticent about everything. But some had formed themselves upon them, and you could tell which each of these was studying under; or this was what Charmian Maybough said.

She led Cornelia all about through the quaint old rookery, with its wandering corridors, and its clusters of rooms distributed at random in the upper stories of several buildings which the Synthesis had gathered to itself as if by a sort of affinity, and she lectured upon every one and everything.

It was against usage for students in the lower grades to visit the upper classes when they were at work; but Charmian contrived stolen glimpses of the still-life rooms and the rooms where they were working from the draped models. For the first time Cornelia saw the irregular hemicycle of students silently intent upon the silent forms and faces of those strange creatures who sat tranced in a lifeless immobility, as if the long practice of their trade had resolved them into something as impersonal as the innumerable pictures studied from them. She even penetrated with Charmian to the women's life-room, where you really could not go while the model was posing, and where they had to time their visit at the moment when the girls had left off for lunch, and were chattering over their chocolate. They had set it out on the vacant model-stand, and they invited their visitors to break bread with them: the bread they had brought to rub out their drawings with. They made Cornelia feel as much at home with them on the summit they had reached, as she felt with the timidest beginners in the Preparatory. Charmian had reported everywhere that she had genius, and in the absence of proofs to the contrary the life-class accepted her as if she had. Their talk was not very different from the talk of the students in the lower grades. They spoke of the Synthesis, and asked her how she liked it, but they did not wait for her to say. They began to descant upon their instructors, and the pictures their instructors had last exhibited at the Academy or the American Artists; and the things that the old Synthesis pupils had there. Cornelia learned here that even actual Synthetics had things in the exhibitions, and that in the last Academy a Preparatory girl had sold a picture; she determined that before the winter was over she would at least give the Academy a chance to refuse the picture of another Preparatory girl.

She got Charmian to point out the girl who had sold the picture; she was a little, quiet-looking thing; Cornelia saw some of her work in round hands and she did not think it was better than she could do herself. She took courage and dreamed of trying not to disappoint the hopes of immediate performance, which she knew her mother would be having in spite of her pretending the contrary. Her mother had written that she must not work herself down, trying to learn too fast, but must take the whole winter for it. Cornelia wondered what she would think if she knew how little a person could be expected to do in one winter, in the regular Synthesis way.

She was happier at the end of the first week than she had been at the end of the first day, though she was very tired, and was glad to stop at the earlier hour when most of the students left their work on Saturday afternoon. She had begun to feel the charm of the Synthesis, which every one said she would feel. She was already a citizen of the little republic where the heaviest drudgery was sweet with a vague, high faith and hope. It was all a strange happiness to her, and yet not strange. It was like a heritage of her own that she had come into; something she was born to, a right, a natural condition.

She did not formulate this, or anything; she did not ask herself why the frivolities and affectations which disgusted her in the beginning no longer offended her so much; she only saw that some of the most frivolous and affected of her fellow-citizens were the cleverest; and that the worst of them were better than they might have been where the ideal was less generous. She did not know then or afterwards just why some of them were there, and they did not seem to know themselves. There were some who could reasonably expect to live by their art; there were more who could hope to live by teaching it. But there were others who had no definite aim or purpose, and seemed to think their study would shape them to some design. They were trying it, they did not know clearly why, or at least were not able to say clearly why. There were several rich girls, and they worked from the love of it, as hard as the poorest. There were some through whom she realized what Ludlow meant when he spoke to her mother of the want that often went hand in hand with art; there were others even more pitiful, who struggled with the bare sufficiency of gift to keep within the Synthesis. But even among the girls who were so poor that they had to stint themselves of food and fire, for art's sake, there were the bravest and gayest spirits; and some of these who could never have learned to draw well if they had spent their lives in the Synthesis, and were only waiting till their instructor should find the heart to forbid them further endeavor, were so sweet and good that Cornelia's heart ached for them.

At first she was overawed by all the students, simply because they were all older students at the Synthesis than she was. Then she included them without distinction in the slight that she felt for the chatter and the airs of some. After that she made her exceptions among them; she begun to see how every one honored and admired the hard workers. She could not revert to her awe of them, even of the hardest workers; but she became more tolerant of the idlest and vaguest. She compared herself with the clever ones, and owned herself less clever, not without bitterness, but certainly with sincerity, and with a final humility that enabled her to tolerate those who were least clever.

William Dean Howells