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Chapter 24

The card was Ludlow's, and the words, "Do see me, if you can, for a moment," were scribbled on it.

Cornelia ran down stairs. He was standing, hat in hand, under the leafy gas chandelier in the parlor, and he said at once, "I've come back to say it won't do. You can't come to paint Miss Maybough with me. It would be a trick. I wonder I ever thought of such a thing."

She broke out in a joyful laugh. "I knew you came for that."

He continued to accuse himself, to explain himself. He ended, "You must have been despising me!"

"I despised myself. But I had made up my mind to tell Charmian all about it. There's no need to do that, now it's all over."

"But it isn't all over for me," said Ludlow gloomily. "I went straight home from here, and wrote to Mrs. Maybough that I would paint her daughter, and now I'm in for it."

He looked so acutely miserable that Cornelia gave way to a laugh, which had the effect of raising his fallen spirits, and making him laugh, too. They sat down together and began to talk the affair all over again.

Some of the boarders who were at the theatre came in before he rose to go.

Cornelia followed him out into the hall. "Then there is nothing for me to do about it?"

"No, nothing," he said, "unless you want to take the commission off my hands, and paint the picture alone." He tried to look gloomy again, but he smiled.

Every one slept late at Mrs. Montgomery's on Sunday morning; all sects united in this observance of the day; in fact you could not get breakfast till nine. Cornelia opened her door somewhat later even than this, and started at the sight of Charmian Maybough standing there, with her hand raised in act to knock. They exchanged little shrieks of alarm.

"Did I scare you? Well, it's worth it, and you'll say so when you know what's happened. Go right back in!" Charmian pushed Cornelia back and shut the door. "You needn't try to guess, and I won't ask you to. But it's simply this: Mr. Ludlow is going to paint me. What do you think of that? Though I sha'n't expect you to say at once. But it's so. Mamma wrote to him several days ago, but she kept the whole affair from me till she knew he would do it, and he only sent his answer last night after dinner." Charmian sat down on the side of the bed with the effect of intending to take all the time that was needed for the full sensation. "And now, while you're absorbing the great central fact, I will ask if you have any idea why I have rushed down here this morning before you were up, or mamma either, to interview you?"

"No, I haven't," said Cornelia.

"You don't happen to have an olive or a cracker any where about? I don't need them for illustration, but I haven't had any breakfast, yet."

"There are some ginger-snaps in the bureau box right before you," said Cornelia from the window-sill.

"Ginger-snaps will do, in an extreme case like this," said Charmian, and she left her place long enough to search the bureau box. "What little ones!" she sighed. "But no matter; I can eat them all." She returned to her seat on Cornelia's bed with the paper bag which she had found, in her hand. "Well, I have thought it perfectly out, and all you have to do is to give your consent; and if you knew how much valuable sleep I had lost, thinking it out, you would consent at once. You know that the sittings will have to be at his studio, and that I shall have to have somebody go with me." Cornelia was silent, and Charmian urged, "You know that much, don't you?"

"Yes, I suppose so," Cornelia allowed.

"Well, then, you know I could have mamma go, but it would bore her; or I could have a maid go, but that would bore me; and so I've decided to have you go."

"Me?"

"Yes; and don't say you can't till you know what you're talking about. It'll take all your afternoons for a week or a fortnight, and you'll think you can't give the time. But I'll tell you how you can, and more too; how you can give the whole winter, if it takes him that long to paint me; but they say he paints very rapidly, and gets his picture at a dash, or else doesn't get it at all; and it's neither more nor less than this: I'm going to get him to let you paint me at the same time? What do you think of that?"

All our motives are mixed, and it was not pure conscience which now wrought in Cornelia. It was pride, too, and a certain resentment that Charmian should assume authority to make Mr. Ludlow do this or that. For an instant she questioned whether he had not broken faith with her, and got Charmian to propose this; then she knew that it could not have been. She said coldly, "I can't do it."

"What! Not when I've come down here before breakfast to ask you? Why can't you?" Charmian wailed.

"Because Mr. Ludlow was here last night, and asked me to do it."

"He did? Then I am the happiest girl in the world! Let me embrace you, Cornelia!"

"Don't be—disgusting!" said Cornelia, but she felt that Charmian was generously glad of the honor done her, and that she had wronged her by suspecting her of a wish to show power over Mr. Ludlow. "I told him I couldn't, and I can't, because it would have seemed to be making use of you, and—and—you wouldn't like it, and I wouldn't like it in your place, and—I wouldn't do it. And I should have to tell you that he proposed it, and that you would perfectly hate it."

"When it was the very first thing I thought of? Let me embrace you again, Cornelia Saunders, you adorable wooden image! Why his proposing it makes it perfectly divine, and relieves me of all responsibility. Oh, I would come down here every day before breakfast a whole week, for a moment like this! Then it's all settled; and we will send him word that we will begin to-morrow afternoon. Let's discuss the character you will do me in. I want you to paint me in character—both of you—something allegorical or mythical. Or perhaps you're hungry, too! And I've eaten every one of the snaps."

"No, I can't do it," Cornelia still protested; but the reasons why she could not, seemed to have escaped her, or to have turned into mere excuses. In fact, since Charmian had proposed it, and seemed to wish it, they were really no longer reasons. Cornelia alleged them again with a sense of their fatuity. She did not finally assent; she did not finally refuse; but she felt that she was very weak.

"I see what you're thinking about," said Charmian, "but you needn't be afraid. I shall not show anything out. I shall be a perfect—tomb."

"What do you mean?" demanded Cornelia, with a vexation heightened by the sense of her own insincerity.

"Oh, you know what. But from this time forth I don't. It will be glorious not to let myself realize it. I shall just sit and think up conundrums, and not hear, or see, or dream anything. Yes, I can do it, and it will be splendid practice. This is the way I shall look." She took a pose in Cornelia's one chair, and put on an air of impenetrable mystery, which she relinquished a moment to explain, "Of course this back is rather too stiff and straight; I shall be more crouching." She pushed a ginger-snap between her lips, and chewed enigmatically upon it. "See?" she said.

"Now, look here, Charmian Maybough," said Cornelia sternly, "if you ever mention that again, or allude to it the least in the world——"

"Don't I say I won't?" demanded Charmian, jumping up. "That will be the whole fun of it. From the very first moment, till I'm framed and hung in a good light, I'm going to be mum, through and through, and if you don't speak of him, I sha'n't, except as a fellow-artist."

"What a simpleton!" said Cornelia. She laughed in spite of her vexation. "I'm not obliged to let what you think trouble me."

"Of course not."

"Your thinking it doesn't make it so."

"No——"

"But if you let him see——"

"The whole idea is not to let him see! That's what I shall do it all for. Good-by!"

She put the paper bag down on the bureau for the greater convenience of embracing Cornelia.

"Why don't you stay and have breakfast with me?" Cornelia asked. "You'll be sick."

"Breakfast? And ruin everything! I would rather never have any breakfast!" She took up the paper bag again, and explored it with an eager hand, while she stared absently at Cornelia. "Ah! I thought there was one left! What mites of things." She put the last ginger-snap into her mouth, and with a flying kiss to Cornelia as she passed, she flashed out of the door, and down the stairs.

William Dean Howells