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Chapter 16

When she got home from the Synthesis the first Saturday afternoon, Cornelia climbed up the four flights of stairs that led to her little room, and lay down to rest, as she promised Mrs. Burton she would do every day; some days she did not. She had to lie on her bed, which filled two-thirds of the room. There was a bureau with a glass, which she could not see the bottom of her skirt in without jumping up; and a wash-stand with a shut-down lid, where she wrote her letters and drew; a chair stood between that and her trunk, which was next the door, and let the door open part way.

It seemed very cramped at first, but she soon got used to it, and then she did not think about it; but accepted it as she did everything else in the life that was all so strange to her. She had never been in a boarding-house before, and she did not know whether it was New York usage or not, that her trunk, which the expressman had managed to leave in the lower hall, should be left standing there for twenty-four hours after his escape, and that then she should be asked to take some things out of it so that it should not be too heavy for the serving-maids to carry up to her room. There was no man-servant in the place; but the landlady said that they expected to have a furnace-man as soon as it came cold weather.

The landlady was such an indistinct quality, that it could seldom be known whether she was at home or not, and when she was identifiably present, whether she had promised or had not promised to do this or that. People were always trying to see her for some reason or no reason, and it was said that the best time to find her was at table. This was not so easy; the meals had a certain range in time, and the landlady was nominally at the head of the table; but those who came early to find her made the mistake of not having come late, and if you came late you just missed her. Yet she was sometimes actually to be encountered at the head of the stairs from the kitchen, or evanescing from the parlor; and somehow the house was operated; the meals came and went, and the smell of their coming and going filled the hall-way from the ground floor to the attic. Some people complained of the meals, but Cornelia's traditions were so simple that she thought them a constant succession of prodigies, with never less than steak, fish and hash for breakfast, and always turkey and cranberry sauce for dinner, and often ice-cream; sometimes the things were rather burnt, but she did not see that there was much to find fault with. She celebrated the luxury in her letters home, and she said that she liked the landlady, too, and that they had got to be great friends; in fact the landlady reminded the girl of her own mother in the sort of springless effectiveness with which she brought things to pass, when you would never have expected any result whatever; and she was gentle like her mother, and simple-hearted, with all her elusiveness. But she was not neat, like Mrs. Saunders; the house went at loose ends. Cornelia found fluff under her bed that must have been there a long time. The parlor and the dining-room were kept darkened, and no one could have told what mysteries their corners and set pieces of furniture harbored. The carpets, where the subdued light struck them, betrayed places worn down to the warp. Mrs. Montgomery herself had a like effect of unsparing use; her personal upholstery showed frayed edges and broken woofs, which did not seriously discord with her nerveless gentility.

The parlor was very long and rather narrow, and it was crossed at the rear by the dining-room which showed the table in stages of preparation or dismantling through sliding-doors never quite shut. At intervals along the parlor walls were set sofas in linen brocade and yellow jute; and various easy and uneasy chairs in green plush stood about in no definite relation to the black-walnut, marble-topped centre-table. A scarf, knotted and held by a spelter vase to one of the marble mantles, for there were two, recorded a moment of the æsthetic craze which had ceased before it got farther amidst the earlier and honester ugliness of the room. The gas-fixtures were of the vine-leaf and grape-cluster bronze-age; some of the garlands which ought to have been attached to the burners, hung loose from the parent stem, without the effort on the part of any witness to complete the artistic intention. In the evening, the lady-boarders received their gentlemen-callers in the parlor; their lady-callers were liable at all times to be asked if they would not like to go to the boarders' rooms, and whether they expressed this preference or not, they were directed where to find them by the maid, who then rapidly disappeared down the kitchen stairs.

In fact, the door-service at Mrs. Montgomery's was something she would probably have deprecated if any one had asked her to do so. It was the charge of a large, raw-boned Irish girl, who made up by her athletic physique and her bass voice for the want of a man-servant on the premises. She brow-beat visitors into acceptance of the theory that the persons they came to see were not at home, especially if they showed signs of intending to wait in the parlor while she went upstairs to find out. Those who suffered from her were of the sex least fitted to combat her. The gentlemen boarders seldom had callers; when they had, their callers did not ask whether their friends were in or not; they went and saw for themselves.

The gentlemen at Mrs. Montgomery's were fewer than the ladies, and they were for several reasons in greater favor. For one thing they gave less trouble: they had a less lively fear of mice, and they were not so apt to be out of health and to want their meals sent up; they ate more, but they did not waste so much, and they never did any sort of washing in their rooms. Cornelia did not know who or what some of them were; but she made sure of a theatrical manager; two or three gentlemen in different branches of commerce; a newspaper writer of some sort, and an oldish gentleman who had been with Mrs. Montgomery a great while, and did not seem to be anything but a gentleman boarder, pure and simple. They were all very civil and quiet, and they bore with the amiable American fortitude the hardships of the common lot at Mrs. Montgomery's, which Cornelia underwent ignorantly as necessary incidents of life in New York.

She now fell asleep where she lay, and she was startled from her nap, but hardly surprised, to hear her name spoken in the hall far below, as if it were a theme of contention between the bass-voiced Irish girl and some one at the street door, who supported the other side of the question in low, indistinct, lady-like murmurs.

"No, she don't be in," said the Irish girl bluntly. The polite murmur insisted, and the Irish girl said, with finality, "Well, then, yous can go up yourselves and see; the room is right over the dure, four flights up."

Cornelia jumped up and tried to pull her hair into a knot before the glass. There came a tap at her door and the voice of Charmian Maybough asked, "May I come in, Miss Saunders,—Cornelia?"

"Yes," said Cornelia, and she opened the door as far as her trunk would let her.

Charmian pushed impetuously in. She took Cornelia in her arms and kissed her, as if they had not met for a long time.

"Oh," she said, whirling about, so as to sweep the whole room with her glance, before sinking down on Cornelia's trunk, "why can't I have something like this? Well, I shall have, I hope, before I die, yet. What made her say you weren't in? I knew you were." She rose and flew about the room, and examined it in detail. She was very beautifully dressed, in a street costume of immediate fashion, without a suggestion of the æstheticism of the picturesque gown she wore at the Synthesis; that had originality, but Cornelia perceived with the eye trained to see such differences, that this had authority. Charmian could not help holding and carrying herself differently in it, too. She was exquisitely gloved, and Cornelia instinctively felt that her hat was from Paris, though till then she had never seen a Paris hat to know it. She might have been a little overawed by it, if the wearer had not abruptly asked her what she thought of it.

"Well," said Cornelia, with her country directness, which was so different from the other's abruptness, "I think it's about the most perfect thing I ever saw."

Charmian sighed. "I saw you looking at it. Yes, it is a dream. But it's a badge of slavery. So's the whole costume. Look how I'm laced!" She flung open the jacket and revealed a waist certainly much smaller than she had earlier in the day. "That's the way it goes through my whole life. Mamma is dead set against the artistic, and I'm dead set against the fashionable. As long as I'm at the Synthesis, I do as the Synthetics do. I dress like the Synthesis, and I think like it, and I act like it. As soon as I get home in the afternoon, I have to be of the world worldly. I put on a Worth frock, and mamma would make me put on a Worth spirit, if she could. I do my best to conform, because it's the bargain, and I'll keep my word if it kills me. Now you see what a double life I lead! If I could only be steeped in hopeless poverty to the lips! If I could have a room like this, even! Sometimes I'm so bewildered by the twofold existence I'm leading, I don't really know what I'm saying. Those your things, of course?" She sprang from Cornelia's trunk, which she had sank down upon again, and swiftly traversed the sketches Cornelia had pinned about the wall. "What touch! Yes, you merely have to live on, to be anything you like. It'll do itself for you. Well, I suppose you'll have to see her." She turned about to Cornelia with an air of deprecation. "Mamma, you know. She's down stairs waiting for us. She thinks it right to come with me always. I dare say it is. She isn't so very bad, you know. Only she insists upon knowing all the girls I take a fancy to, herself. You needn't be afraid of her."

"I don't know why I should be afraid of anybody," said Cornelia.

The darker corner of the long parlor was occupied by a young couple in the earnest inquiry into each other's psychological peculiarities which marks a stage of the passion of love. It obliged them to get very close together, where they sat, she on a lounge and he in the chair, which he kept pulling nearer and nearer; they fulfilled these conditions and exchanged their observations with a freedom that ignored the presence of the lady sitting somewhat severely upright between the two long, front windows, exactly midway of the dingy lace curtains, trained fan-wise on the carpet. They were not disturbed when Cornelia and Charmian appeared; the young lady continued to dangle the tassel of a cushion through her fingers, and the young man leaned toward her with his face in his hand, and his elbow sunk in the arm of the lounge; but the other lady rose at once and came quickly forward, as if escaping from them. Beside the tall girls she looked rather little, and she was decidedly blonde against their brunette color. She wore a veil that came just between her upper and her lower lip, and that stirred lightly when she spoke. She was dressed with the same authoritative fashion as Charmian, but not so simply.

She did not wait for her daughter to speak, but took Cornelia's hand, and said in a soft voice, "Miss Saunders? I am very glad we found you at home. My daughter has been speaking to me about you, and we hoped to have come sooner, but we couldn't manage together before."

"Won't you sit down?" asked Cornelia.

"No, I thank you," Mrs. Maybough returned, with a velvety tenderness of tone that seemed to convey assent. "We shall be rather late, as it is. I hope you're comfortably situated here."

"Oh, very," said Cornelia. "I've never been away from home before, and of course it isn't like home."

"Yes," said Mrs. Maybough, "one misses the refinements of home in such places." She turned and swept the appointments of the room, including the students of psychology, with a critical eye.

"I wish I could come here," sighed the daughter. "If I could have a room like Cornelia's, mamma! I wish you could see it."

"I'm glad you're pleasantly placed, Miss Saunders. I hope you're not working too hard at the Synthesis. I understand the young ladies there are so enthusiastic."

"Oh, no," Cornelia protested.

"Of course she is!" said Charmian. "Everybody works too hard at the Synthesis. It's the ideal of the place. We woke her out of a nap, and I know she was tired to death."

Cornelia could not deny it, and so she said nothing.

"Oh!" said Mrs. Maybough, non-committally; "that won't do." She paused, without intermitting the scrutiny which Cornelia felt she had been subjecting her to from the first moment through her veil. "You mustn't wear yourself out." She paused again, and then while Charmian turned away with an effect of impatience, she asked, "Do you ever go out on Sundays?"

"Why, I don't know," Cornelia began, not certain whether Mrs. Maybough meant walking out or driving out; young people did both in Pymantoning.

Mrs. Maybough pursued: "We receive on Thursdays, but we have a few friends coming in to-morrow afternoon, and we should be very glad to see you, if you have nothing better."

The invitation was so tentatively, so gingerly offered in manner, if not in words, that Cornelia was not quite sure it had been given. She involuntarily searched her memory for something better before she spoke; for the first time in her life she was about to invent a previous engagement, when Charmian suddenly turned and laid her arms about her neck.

"You'll come, of course!"

"Charmian!" said Mrs. Maybough. It would have been hard to tell whether she was reproving the action or the urgence. "Then we shall hope to see you?"

"Yes, thank you," said Cornelia.

"Do come!" said Charmian, as if she had not yet accepted. "I can't let it be a whole day and two nights before I see you again!" She put her arm round Cornelia's waist, as the girl went with them to the outer door, to open it for them, in her village fashion. In the hall, Charmian whispered passionately, "Don't you envy them? Oh, if I could live in such a house with you, and with people like that just to look at!"

"My dear!" said Mrs. Maybough.

"They seem to be engaged," said Cornelia placidly, without sense of anything wrong in the appearance of the fact.

"Evidently," said Mrs. Maybough.

"I shouldn't care for the engagement," said Charmian. "That would be rather horrid. But if you were in love, to feel that you needn't hide it or pretend not to be! That is life! I'm coming here, mamma!"

William Dean Howells