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Chapter 23

The false courage that supported her in Dickerson's presence left Cornelia when she went back to her room, and she did not sleep that night, or she thought she did not. She came down early for a cup of coffee, and the landlady told her that Mr. Dickerson had just gone; he wished Mrs. Montgomery to give Cornelia his respects, and apologize for his going away without waiting to see her again. He had really expected to stay over till Monday, but he found he could save several days by taking the Chicago Limited that morning. Mrs. Montgomery praised his energy; she did not believe he would be on the road a great while longer; he would be in the firm in less than another year. She hinted at his past unhappiness in the married state, and she said she did hope that he would get somebody who would appreciate him, next time. There did not seem to be any doubt in her mind that there would be a next time with him.

Cornelia wanted to ask whether she expected him back soon; she could not; but she resolved that whenever he came he should not find her in that house. She thought where she should go, and what excuse she should make for going, what she should tell Charmian, or Mr. Ludlow, if she ever saw him again. It seemed to her that she had better go home, but Cornelia hated to give up; she could not bear to be driven away. She went to church, to escape herself, and a turmoil of things alien to the place and the hour whirled through her mind during the service; she came out spent with a thousand-fold dramatization of her relations to Mr. Dickerson and to Mr. Ludlow. She sat down on a bench in the little park before the church, and tried to think what she ought to do, while the children ran up and down the walks, and the people from the neighboring East Side avenues, in their poor Sunday best, swarmed in the square for the mild sun and air of the late October. The street cars dinned ceaselessly up and down, and back and forth; the trains of the Elevated hurtled by on the west and on the east; the troubled city roared all round with the anguish of the perpetual coming and going; but it was as much Sunday there as it would have been on the back street in Pymantoning where her mother's little house stood. The leaves that dripped down at her feet in the light warm breaths of wind passing over the square might have fallen from the maple before the gate at home. The awful unity of life for the first time appeared to her. Was it true that you could not get away from what you had been? Was that the meaning of that little wretch's coming back to claim her after he had forfeited every shadow of right to her that even her mother's ignorance and folly had given him? Then it meant that he would come back again and again, and never stop coming. She made believe that if she looked up, she should now see him actually coming down the path toward her; she held her eyes fixed upon the ground at her feet, and then it seemed to her every moment that he was just going to take the seat next her. The seat was already taken; a heavy German woman filled it so solidly that no phantasm could have squeezed in beside her. But the presence of Dickerson became so veritable that Cornelia started up breathless, and hurried home, sick with the fear that she should find him waiting for her there.

She was afraid to go out the next morning, lest she should meet him on the street, though she knew that by this time he was a thousand miles away.

At the Synthesis she was ashamed to let Charmian think that her absent and tremulous mood had something to do with Ludlow; but she was so much more ashamed of the shabby truth that she would have been willing to accept the romance herself. This was very dishonest; it was very wicked and foolish; Cornelia saw herself becoming a guilty accomplice in an innocent illusion. She found strength to silence Charmian's surmise, if not to undeceive her; she did her best; and as the days began to remove her farther and farther from the moment of her actual encounter with Dickerson, her reason came more and more into control of her conscience. She tried not to be the fool of a useless remorse for something she was at least not mainly to blame for. She had to make the struggle alone; there was no one she could advise with; her heart shut when she thought of telling any one her trouble; but in her perpetual reveries she argued the case before Ludlow.

It seemed to her as if he had come to render her a final judgment when his name was sent up to her room, that Saturday afternoon which ended the longest week of her life. She went down, and found him alone in the long parlor, and it was in keeping with her fantastic prepossession that he should begin, "I wonder how I shall say what I've come for?" as if he would fain have softened her sentence.

He kept her hand a moment longer than he need; but he was not one of those disgusting people who hold your hand while they talk to you, and whom Cornelia hated. She did not now resent it, though she was sensible of having to take her hand from him.

"I don't know," she answered, with hysterical flippancy. "If I did I would tell you."

He laughed, as if he liked her flippancy, and he said, "It's very simple. In fact, that's what makes it so difficult."

"Then you might practice on something hard first," she suggested wildly. "How would the weather do?"

"Yes, hasn't it been beautiful?" said Ludlow, with an involuntary lapse into earnestness. "I was in the Park to-day for a little effect I wanted to get, and it was heartbreaking to leave the woods. I was away up in those forest depths that look wild in spite of the asphalt. If you haven't been there, you must go some day while the autumn color lasts. I saw a lot of your Synthesis ladies painting there. I didn't know but I might see you."

This was all very matter of fact. Cornelia took herself in hand, and shook herself out of her hallucination. "No, I don't suppose it would be right for a person who was merely in the Preparatory to go sketching in the Park. And Charmian and I were very good to-day, and kept working away at our block hands as long as the light lasted."

"Ah, yes; Miss Maybough," said Ludlow; then he paused absently a moment. "Do you think she is going to do much in art?"

"How should I know?" returned Cornelia. She thought it rather odd he should recur to that after she had let him see she did not want to talk about Charmian's art.

"Because you know that you can do something yourself," said Ludlow. "That is the only kind of people who can really know. The other sort of people can make clever guesses; they can't know."

"And you believe that I can do something?" asked Cornelia, and a sudden revulsion of feeling sent the tears to her eyes. It was so sweet to be praised, believed in, after what she had been through. "But you haven't seen anything of mine except those things—in the Fair House."

"Oh, yes, I have. I've seen the drawings you submitted at the Synthesis. I've just seen them. I may as well confess it: I asked to see them."

"You did! And—and—well?" she fluttered back.

"It will take hard work."

"Oh, I know that!"

"And it will take time."

"Yes, that is the worst of it. I don't see how I can give the time."

"Why?" he asked.

"Oh, because—I can't very well be away from home." She colored as she said this, for she could have been away from home well enough if she had the money. "I thought I would come and try it for one winter."

He said lightly, "Perhaps you'll get so much interested that you'll find you can take more time."

"I don't know," she answered.

"Well, then, you must get in all the work you can this winter. Block hands are well enough, but they're not the whole of art nor the whole preparation for it."

"Oh, I've joined the sketch class," she said.

"Yes, that's well enough, too," he assented. "But I want you to come and paint with me," he suddenly added.

"You? Me?" she gasped.

"Yes," he returned. "I'll tell you what I mean. I've been asked to paint a lady. She'll have to come to my place, and I want you to come with her, and see what you can do, too. I hope it doesn't seem too extraordinary?" he broke off, at sight of the color in her face.

"Oh, no," said Cornelia. She wondered what Charmian would say if she knew this; she wondered what the Synthesis would say; the Synthesis held Mr. Ludlow in only less honor than the regular Synthesis instructors, and Mr. Ludlow had asked her to come and paint with him! She took shelter in the belief that Mrs. Burton must have put him up to it, somehow, but she ought to say something grateful, or at least something. She found herself stupidly and aimlessly asking, "Is it Mrs. Westley?" as if that had anything to do with the matter.

"No; I don't see why I didn't tell you at once," said Ludlow. "It's your friend, Miss Maybough."

Cornelia relieved her nerves with a laugh. "I wonder how she ever kept from telling it."

"Perhaps she didn't know. I've only just got a letter from her mother, asking me to paint her, and I haven't decided yet that I shall do it."

She thought that he wanted her to ask him why, and she asked, "What are you waiting for?"

"For two reasons. Do you want the real reason first?" he asked, smiling at her.

She laughed. "No, the unreal one!"

"Well, I doubt whether Mrs. Maybough wrote to me of her own inspiration, entirely. I suspect that Wetmore and Plaisdell have been working the affair, and I don't like that."

"Well?"

"And I'm waiting for you to say whether I could do it. That's the real reason."

"How should I know?"

"I could make a picture of her," he said, "but could I make a portrait? There is something in every one which holds the true likeness; if you don't get at that, you don't make a portrait, and you don't give people their money's worth. They haven't proposed to buy merely a picture of you; they've proposed to buy a picture of a certain person; you may give them more, but you can't honestly give them less; and if you don't think you can give them that, then you had better not try. I should like to try for Miss Maybough's likeness, and I'll do that, at least, if you'll try with me. The question is whether you would like to."

"Like to? It's the greatest opportunity! Why, I hope I know what a chance it is, and I don't know why you ask me to."

"I want to learn of you."

"If you talk that way I shall know you are making fun of me."

"Then I will talk some other way. I mean what I say. I want you to show me how to look at Miss Maybough. It sounds fantastic——"

"It sounds ridiculous. I shall not do anything of the kind."

"Very well, then, I shall not paint her."

"You don't expect me to believe that," said Cornelia, but she did believe it a little, and she was daunted. She said, "Charmian would hate it."

"I don't believe she would," said Ludlow. "I don't think she would mind being painted by half-a-dozen people at once. The more the better."

"That shows you don't understand her," Cornelia began.

"Didn't I tell you I didn't understand her? Now, you see, you must. I should have overdone that trait in her. Of course there is something better than that."

"I don't see how you could propose my painting her, too," Cornelia relented, provisionally.

Ludlow was daunted in his turn; he had not thought of that. It would be a little embarrassing, certainly, but he could not quite own this. He laughed and said, "I have a notion she will propose it herself, if you give her a chance."

"Oh," said Cornelia, "if she does that, all well and good."

"Then I may say to her mother that I will make a try at the portrait?"

"What have I to do with it?" Cornelia demanded, liking and not liking to have the decision seem left to her. "I shall have nothing to do with it if she doesn't do it of her own accord."

"You may be sure that she shall not have even a suggestion of any kind," said Ludlow, solemnly.

"I shall know it if she does," Cornelia retorted, not so solemnly, and they both laughed.

While he stayed and talked with her the affair had its reason and justification; it seemed very simple and natural; but when he went away it began to look difficult and absurd. It was something else she would have to keep secret, like that folly of the past; it cast a malign light upon Ludlow, and showed him less wise and less true than she had thought him. She must take back her consent; she must send for him, write to him, and do it; but she did not know how without seeming to blame him, and she wished to blame only herself. She let the evening go by, and she stood before the glass, putting up her hand to her back hair to extract the first dismantling hairpin, for a sleepless night, when a knock at her door was followed by the words, "He's waitun' in the parlor." The door was opened and the Irish girl put a card in her hand.

William Dean Howells