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Chapter 20

The next day Cornelia found herself the object of rumors that filled the Synthesis. She knew that they all came from Charmian, and that she could not hope to overtake them with denial. The ridiculous romances multiplied themselves, and those who did not understand that Cornelia and Ludlow had grown up together in the same place, or were first cousins, had been encouraged to believe that they were old lovers, who had quarrelled, and never spoken till they happened to meet at Mrs. Maybough's. Ludlow was noted for a certain reticence and austerity with women, which might well have come from an unhappy love-affair; once when he took one of the instructor's classes at the Synthesis temporarily, his forbidding urbanity was so glacial, that the girls scarcely dared to breathe in his presence, and left it half-frozen. The severest of the masters, with all his sarcasm, was simply nothing to him.

Cornelia liked to hear that. She should have despised Ludlow if she had heard he was silly with girls, and she did not wish to despise him, though she knew that he despised her; she could bear that. The Synthesis praises made her the more determined, however, to judge his recent work when she came to see it, just as she would judge any one's work. But first of all she meant not to see it.

She seemed to have more trouble in bringing herself back to this point than in keeping Charmian to it. Charmian came to believe her at last, after declaring it the rudest thing she ever heard of, and asking Cornelia what she expected to say to Mrs. Westley when she came for her. Cornelia could never quite believe it herself, though she strengthened her purpose with repeated affirmation, tacit and explicit, and said it would be very easy to tell Mrs. Westley she was not going, if she ever did come for her. She could not keep Charmian from referring the case to every one on the steps and window-sills in the Synthesis, and at the sketch-class, where Charmian published it the first time Cornelia came, and wove a romance from it which involved herself as the close friend and witness of so strange a being.

Cornelia tried not to let all this interfere with her work, but it did, and at the sketch-class where she might have shown some rebound from the servile work of the Preparatory, and some originality, she disappointed those whom Charmian had taught to expect anything of her. They took her rustic hauteur and her professed indifference to the distinction of Ludlow's invitation, as her pose. She went home from the class vexed to tears by her failure, and puzzled to know what she really should say to that Mrs. Westley when she came; it wouldn't be so easy to tell her she was not going, after all. Cornelia hated her, and wished she would not come; she had let the whole week go by, now, till Thursday, and perhaps she really would not come. The girl knew so little of the rigidity of city dates that she thought very likely Mrs. Westley had decided to put it off till another week.

She let herself into her boarding-house with her latch-key and stood confronted in the hall with Ludlow, who was giving some charge to the maid. "Oh, Miss Saunders," he said, and he put the card he held into his pocket, "I'm so glad not to miss you; I was just leaving a written message, but now I can tell you."

He hesitated, and Cornelia did not know what to do. But she said, "Won't you come in?" with a vague movement toward the parlor.

"Why, yes, thank you, for a moment," he said; and he went back with her.

"I hope I haven't kept you waiting," she said, with a severity which was for her own awkwardness.

He did not take it for himself. "Oh, no! I've just come from Mrs. Westley's, and she's charged me with a message for you." He handed Cornelia a note. "She will call for you and Miss Maybough at the Synthesis rather earlier than you usually leave work, I believe, but I want you to have some daylight on my Manet. I hope half-past two won't be too early?"

"Oh, no," said Cornelia, and while she wondered how she could make this opening of assent turn to refusal in the end, Ludlow went on:

"There's something of my own, that I'd like to have you look at. Of course, you won't get away with the Manet, alone; I don't suppose you expected that. I've an idea you can tell me where I've gone wrong, if I have; it's all a great while ago. Have you ever been at the County Fair at Pymantoning since——"

He stopped, and Cornelia perceived that it was with doubt whether it might not still be a tender point with her.

"Oh, yes, I've forgiven the Fair long ago." She laughed, and he laughed with her.

"It's best not to keep a grudge against a defeat, I suppose. If we do, it won't help us. I've had my quarrel with the Pymantoning County Fair, too; but it wasn't with the Fine Arts Committee."

"No, I didn't suppose you wanted to exhibit anything there," said Cornelia.

"Why, I don't know. It might be a very good thing for me. Why not? I'd like to exhibit this very picture there. It's an impression—not just what I'd do, now—of the trotting-match I saw there that day."

"Yes," said Cornelia, letting her eyes fall, "Mrs. Burton said you had painted it, or you were going to."

"Well, I did," said Ludlow, "and nobody seemed to know what I was after. I wonder if they would in Pymantoning! But what I wanted to ask was that you would try to look at it from the Pymantoning point of view. I hope you haven't lost that yet?"

"Well, I haven't been away such a great while," said Cornelia, smiling.

"No; but still, one sophisticates in New York very soon. I'll tell you what I've got a notion of! Well, it's all very much in the air, yet, but so far as I've thought it out, it's the relation of our art to our life. It sounds rather boring, I know, and I suppose I'm a bit of a theorist; I always was. It's easy enough to prove to the few that our life is full of poetry and picturesqueness; but can I prove it to the many? Can the people themselves be made to see it and feel it? That's the question. Can they be interested in a picture—a real work of art that asserts itself in a good way? Can they be taught to care for my impression of the trotting-match at the Pymantoning County Fair, as much as they would for a chromo of the same thing, and be made to feel that there was something more in it perhaps?"

He sat fronting her, with his head down over the hat he held between his hands; now he lifted his face and looked into hers. She smiled at his earnestness, and for a little instant felt herself older and wiser in her practicality.

"You might send it out to the next County Fair, and see."

"Why, that's just what I thought of!" he said, and he laughed. "Do you suppose they would let me exhibit it in the Fine Arts Department?"

"I don't believe they would give you the first premium," said Cornelia.

"Well, well, then I should have to put up with the second! I should like to get the first, I confess," Ludlow went on seriously. "The premium would mean something to me—not so much, of course, as a popular recognition. What do you think the chance of that would be?"

"Well, I haven't seen the picture yet," Cornelia suggested.

"Ah, that's true! I forgot that," he said, and they both laughed. "But what do you think of my theory? It seems to me," and now he leaned back in his chair, and smiled upon her with that bright earnestness which women always found charming in him, "it seems to me that the worst effect of an artist's life is to wrap him up in himself, and separate him from his kind. Even if he goes in for what they call popular subjects, he takes from the many and gives to the few; he ought to give something back to the crowd—he ought to give everything back. But the terrible question is whether they'll have it; and he has no means of finding out."

"And you've come to one of the crowd to inquire?" Cornelia asked. Up to that moment she had been flattered, too, by his serious appeal to her, and generously pleased. But the chance offered, and she perversely seized it.

He protested with a simple "Ah!" and she was ashamed.

"I don't know," she hurried on to say. "I never thought about it in that way."

"Well, it isn't so simple any more, after you once begin. I don't suppose I shall be at peace quite till I try what I can do; and seeing you Sunday brought Pymantoning all so freshly back, that I've been wondering, from time to time, ever since, whether you could possibly help me."

"I will try, as the good little boy said," Cornelia assented.

"It makes me feel like a good little boy to have asked it." Ludlow did not profit by the chance which the conclusion of their agreement offered him, to go. He stayed and talked on, and from time to time he recurred to what he had asked, and said he was afraid she would think he was using her, and tried to explain that he really was not, but was approaching her most humbly for her opinion. He could not make it out, but they got better and better acquainted in the fun they had with his failures. It went on till Cornelia said, "Now, really, if you keep it up, I shall have to stand you in the corner, with your face to the wall."

"Oh, do!" he entreated. "It would be such a relief."

"You know I was a teacher two winters," she said, "and have actually stood boys in corners."

That seemed to interest him afresh; he made her tell him all about her school-teaching. He stayed till the bell rang for dinner, and he suffered a decent moment to pass before he rose then.

"After all," he said at parting, "I think you'd better decide that it's merely my Manet you're coming to see."

"Yes, merely the Manet," Cornelia assented. "If I choose, the Ludlows will all be stood in the corners with their faces to the wall."

She found her own face very flushed, when she climbed up to her room for a moment before going in to dinner, and her heart seemed to be beating in her neck. She looked at Mrs. Westley's note. It stated everything so explicitly that she did not see why Mr. Ludlow need have come to explain. She remembered now that she had forgotten to tell him she was not going.

William Dean Howells