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Chapter 18

They still had some time with Mrs. Maybough, when they went back to her before any one else came; Cornelia could see that her features were rather small and regular, and that her hair was that sort of elderly blond in color which makes people look younger than they are after they have passed a certain age. She was really well on in the thirties when she went out to Leadville to take charge of Charmian Maybough's education from the New England town where she had always lived, and ended by marrying Charmian's father. At that time Andrew Maybough had already made and lost several fortunes without great depravation from the immoralities of the process; he remained, as he had always been, a large, loosely good-natured, casual kind of creature, of whom it was a question whether he would not be buried by public subscription, in the end; but he died so opportunely that he left the widow of his second marriage with the income from a million dollars, which she was to share during her lifetime with the child of his first. Mrs. Maybough went abroad with her step-daughter, and most of the girl's life had been spent in Europe.

There was a good deal of Dresden in their sojourn, something of Florence, necessarily a little of Paris; it was not altogether wanting in London, where Mrs. Maybough was presented at court. But so far as definitively materialized society was concerned, Europe could not be said to have availed. When she came back to her own country, it was without more than the hope that some society people, whom she had met abroad, might remember her.

"You'll see the greatest lot of frumps, if they ever do come," Charmian said to Cornelia, after her stepmother had made her excuses to Cornelia for her friends being rather late, "and I don't think they're half as uncertain to come as mamma does. Anyway, they're certain to stay, after they get here, till you want to rise up and howl."

"My dear!" said Mrs. Maybough.

"Oh, I don't suppose I ever shall howl. I'm too thoroughly subdued; and with Cornelia here to-day I shall be able to hold in. You're the first Synthesis girl," she frankly explained to Cornelia, "that mamma's ever let me have. She thinks they spend all their time drawing the nude."

Mrs. Maybough looked at Cornelia for the effect of this boldness upon her, and the girl frowned to keep herself from laughing, and then gave way. Mrs. Maybough smiled with a ladylike decorum which redeemed the excess from impropriety. Charmian seemed to know the bounds of her license, and as if Mrs. Maybough's smile had marked them, she went no farther, and her mother began softly to question Cornelia about herself. The girl perceived that Charmian had not told her anything quite right concerning her, but had got everything dramatically and picturesquely awry. She tried to keep Cornelia from setting the facts straight, because it took all the romance out of them, and she said she should always believe them as she had reported them. Cornelia knew from novels that they were very humble facts, but she was prepared to abide by them whatever a great society woman like Mrs. Maybough should think of them. Mrs. Maybough seemed to think none the worse of them in the simple angularity which Cornelia gave them.

Her friends began to come in at last, and Cornelia found herself, for the first time, in a company of those modern nomads whom prosperity and the various forms of indigestion have multiplied among us. They were mostly people whom Mrs. Maybough had met in Europe, drinking different waters and sampling divers climates, and they had lately arrived home, or were just going abroad, or to Florida, or Colorado, or California. The men were not so sick as the women, but they were prosperous, and that was as good or as bad a reason for their homelessness. They gradually withdrew from the ladies, and stirred their tea in groups of their own sex, and talked investments; sometimes they spoke of their diseases, or their hotels and steamers; and they took advice of each other about places to go to if they went in this direction or that, but said that, when it came to it they supposed they should go where their wives decided. The ladies spoke of where they had met last, and of some who had died since, or had got their daughters married; they professed a generous envy of Mrs. Maybough for being so nicely settled, and said that now they supposed she would always live in New York, unless, one of them archly suggested, her daughter should be carried off somewhere; if one had such a lovely daughter it was what one might expect to happen, any day.

William Dean Howells