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Chapter 22

Cornelia found herself in her room without knowing how she got there, or how long she had been there, when the man-voiced Irish girl came up and said something to her. She did not understand at first; then she made out that there was a gentleman asking for her in the parlor; and with a glance at her face in the glass, she ran down stairs. She knew it was Ludlow, and that he had thought of something he wanted to say, and had come back. It must be something very important; it might be an invitation to go with him somewhere; she wondered if they would have a chaperone.

In the vague light of the long parlor, where a single burner was turned half up, because it was not yet dark outside, a figure rose from one of the sofas and came toward her with one hand extended in gay and even jocose greeting. It was the figure of a young man, with a high forehead, and with nothing to obstruct the view of the Shakespearian dome it mounted into, except a modest growth of hair above either ear. He was light upon his feet, and he advanced with a rhythmical step. Cornelia tried to make believe that she did not know who it was; she recoiled, but her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, and she could not gainsay him when he demanded joyfully, "Why, Nie! Why, Nelie! Don't you remember me? Dickerson, J. B., with Gates & Clarkson, art goods? Pymantoning? Days of yore, generally? Oh, pshaw, now!"

"Yes, I remember you," said Cornelia, in a voice as cold as the finger-tips which she inwardly raged to think she gave him, but was helpless to refuse, simply because he was holding out his hand to her.

"Well, it's good for sore eyes to see you again," said Mr. Dickerson, closing both of his hands on hers. "Let's see; it's four years ago! How the time flies! I declare, it don't hardly seem a day. Mustn't tell you how you've grown, I suppose? Well, we weren't much more than children, then, anyhow. Set down! I'm at home here. Old stamping-ground of mine, when I'm in New York; our house has its headquarters in New York, now; everything's got to come, sooner or later. Well, it's a great place."

Cornelia obeyed him for the same reason that she gave him her hand, which was no reason. "I heard your voice there at the door, when you came in a little while ago, and I was just going to rush out and speak to you. I was sure it was you; but thinks I, 'It can't be; it's too good to be true'; and I waited till I could see Mrs. Montgomery, and then I sent up for you. Didn't send my name; thought I'd like to surprise you. Well, how's the folks? Mother still doing business at the old stand? Living and well, I hope?"

"My mother is well," said Cornelia. She wondered how she should rid herself of this horrible little creature, who grew, as she looked at him in her fascination, more abominable to her every moment. She was without any definite purpose in asking, "How is Mrs. Dickerson?"

The question appeared to give Mr. Dickerson great satisfaction; he laughed, throwing back his head: "Who, Tweet? Well, I thought you'd be after me there, about the first thing! I don't blame you; don't blame you a bit. Be just so myself, if I was in your place! Perfectly natural you should! Then you ain't heard?"

"I don't know what you mean," said Cornelia, with mounting aversion. She edged away from him, for in the expression of his agreeable emotion he had pushed nearer to her on the sofa.

"Why, Tweet is Mrs. Byers, now; court let her take back her maiden name. I didn't oppose the divorce; nothing like peace in families, you know. Tweet was all right, and I hain't got anything to say against her. She's a good girl; but we couldn't seem to hit it off, and we agreed to quit, after we'd tried it a couple of years or so, and I've been a free man ever since."

It could not be honestly said that Cornelia was profoundly revolted by the facts so lightly, almost gaily, presented. Her innocence of so much that they implied, and her familiarity with divorce as a common incident of life, alike protected her from the shock. But what really struck terror to her heart was something that she realized with the look that the hideous little man now bent upon her: the mutual understanding; the rights once relinquished which might now be urged again; the memory of things past, were all suggested in this look. She thought of Ludlow, with his lofty ideals and his great gifts, and then she looked at this little grinning, leering wretch, and remembered how he had once put his arm round her and kissed her. It seemed impossible—too cruel and unjust to be. She was scarcely more than a child, then, and that foolish affair had been more her mother's folly than her own. It flashed upon her that unless she put away the shame of it, the shame would weaken her and master her. But how to assert herself she did not know till he gave her some pretext.

"Well," he sighed, rolling his head against the back of the sofa, and looking up at the chandelier, "sometimes a man has more freedom than he's got any use for. I don't know as I want to be back under Tweet's thumb, but I guess the Scripture was about right where it says it ain't good for a man to be alone. When d'you leave Pymantoning, Nelie?"

"It makes no difference when I left." Cornelia got to her feet, trembling. "And I'll thank you not to call me by my first name, Mr. Dickerson. I don't know why you should do it, and I don't like it."

"Oh, all right, all right," said Mr. Dickerson. "I don't blame you. I think you're perfectly excusable to feel the way you do. But some time, when I get a chance, I should like to tell you about it, and put it to you in the right light——"

"I don't want to hear about it," cried Cornelia fiercely. "And I won't have you thinking that it's because I ever did care for you. I didn't. And I was only too glad when you got married. And I don't hate you, for I despise you too much; and I always did. So!"

She stamped her foot for a final emphasis, but she was aware of her words all having fallen effectless, like blows dealt some detestable thing in a dream.

"Good! Just what I expected and deserved," said Mr. Dickerson, with a magnanimity that was appalling. "I did behave like a perfect scallawag to you, Nie; but I was young then, and Tweet got round me before I knew. I can explain——"

"I don't want you to explain! I won't let you. You're too disgusting for anything. Don't I tell you I never cared for you?"

"Why, of course," said Mr. Dickerson tolerantly, "you say that now; and I don't blame you. But I guess you did care, once, Nelie."

"Oh, my goodness, what shall I do?" She found herself appealing in some sort to the little wretch against himself.

"Why, let's see how you look; I hain't had a fair peep at you, yet." As if with the notion of affording a relief to the strain of the situation, he advanced, and lifted his hand toward the low-burning chandelier.

"Stop!" cried Cornelia. "Are you staying here—in this house?"

"Well, I inferred that I was, from a remark that I made."

"Then I'm going away instantly. I will tell Mrs. Montgomery, and I will go to-night."

"Why, Nie!"

"Hush! Don't you—don't dare to speak to me! Oh, you—you——" She could not find a word that would express all her loathing of him, and her scorn of herself in the past for having given him the hold upon her that nothing appeared to have loosed. She was putting on a bold front, and she meant to keep her word, but if she left that house, she did not know where, in the whole vast city, she should go. Of course she could go to Charmian Maybough; but besides bring afraid to venture out after dark, she knew she would have to tell Charmian all about it; or else make a mystery of it; there was nothing, probably, that Charmian would have liked better, but there was nothing that Cornelia would have liked less. She wanted to cry; it always seems hard and very unjust to us, in after life, when some error or folly of our youth rises up to perplex us; and Cornelia was all the more rebellious because the fault was not wholly hers, or not even largely, but mostly her dear, innocent, unwise mother's.

Mr. Dickerson dropped his hand without turning up the gas; perhaps he did not need a stronger light on Cornelia, after all. "Oh, well! I don't want to drive you out of the house. I'll go. I've got my grip out here in the hall. But see here! I told Mrs. Montgomery we hailed from the same place—children together, and I don't know but what cousins—and how glad I was to find you here, and now if I leave—— Better let me stay here, over night, anyhow! I'm off on the road to-morrow, anyway. I won't trouble you; I won't, indeed. Now you can depend upon it. Word's as good as my bond, if my bond ain't worth a great deal. But, honor bright!"

Cornelia's heart, which stood still at the threat she made, began to pound in her breast. She panted so that she could hardly speak.

"Will you call me by my first name?" she demanded.

"No. You shall be Miss Saunders to me till you say when."

"And will you ever speak to me, or look at me, as if we were ever anything but the most perfect strangers?"

"It'll be a good deal of a discount from what I told Mrs. Montgomery, but I guess I shall have to promise."

"And you will go in the morning?"

"Sure."

"How soon?"

"Well, I don't like a very early breakfast, but I guess I can get out of the house by about nine, or half-past eight, maybe."

"Then you may stay." Cornelia turned and marched out of the parlor with a state that failed her more and more, the higher she mounted toward her room. If it had been a flight further she would have had to crawl on her hands and knees.

At first she thought she would not go down to dinner, but after a while she found herself very hungry, and she decided she must go for appearance sake at any rate. At the bottom of her heart, too, she was curious to see whether that little wretch would keep his word.

He was the life of the table. His jokes made everybody laugh; it could be seen that he was a prime favorite with the landlady. After the coffee came he played a great many tricks with knives and forks and spoons, and coins. He dressed one of his hands, all but two fingers, with a napkin which he made like the skirts of a ballet-dancer, and then made his fingers dance a hornpipe. He tried a skirt-dance with them later, but it was comparatively a failure, for want of practice, he said.

Toward Cornelia he behaved with the most scrupulous deference, even with delicacy, as if they had indeed met in former days, but as if she were a person of such dignity and consequence that their acquaintance could only have been of the most formal character. He did it so well, and seemed to take such a pleasure in doing it that she blushed for him. Some of the things he said to the others were so droll that she had to laugh at them. But he did not presume upon her tolerance.

William Dean Howells