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Chapter 25

After all, Ludlow decided that he would paint Charmian in her own studio, with the accessories of her peculiar pose in life about her; they were factitious, but they were genuine expressions of her character; he could not realize her so well away from there.

The first afternoon was given to trying her in this light and that, and studying her from different points. She wished to stand before her easel, in her Synthesis working-dress, with her palette on her thumb, and a brush in her other hand. He said finally, "Why not?" and Cornelia made a tentative sketch of her.

At the end of the afternoon he waited while the girl was putting on her hat in Charmian's room, where she smiled into the glass at Charmian's face over her shoulder, thinking of the intense fidelity her friend had shown throughout to her promise of unconsciousness.

"Didn't I do it magnificently?" Charmian demanded. "It almost killed me; but I meant to do it if it did kill me; and now his offering to see you aboard the car shows that he is determined to do it, too, if it kills him. I call it masterly."

"Well, don't go and spoil it now," said Cornelia. "And if you're going to ask me every day how you've done——"

"Oh, I'm not! Only the first day and the last day!"

"Well!"

As Ludlow walked with Cornelia toward the point where she was to take her car down town, he began, "You see, she is so dramatic, that if you tried to do her in any other way—that is, simply—you would be doing her artificially. You have to take her as she is, don't you think?"

"I don't know as I think Charmian is acting all the time, if that's what you mean," said Cornelia. "Or any of the time, even."

Ludlow wished she had said she did not know that instead of as, but he reflected that ninety Americans out of a hundred, lettered or unlettered, would have said the same. "Oh, I don't at all mean that she is, intentionally. It's because it's her nature that I want to recognize it. You think it is her nature, don't you?" he asked deferentially.

"Oh, I suppose it is," she answered; it amused her to have him take such a serious tone about Charmian.

"I shall have to depend a great deal on your judgment in that matter," he went on. "You won't mind it, I hope?"

"Not if you won't mind it's not being worth anything."

"It will be worth everything!"

"Or if you won't care for my not giving it, sometimes."

"I don't understand."

"Well, I shouldn't want to seem to talk her over."

"Oh, no! You don't think I expected you to do that? It was merely the right point of view I wanted to get."

"I don't know as I object to that," said Cornelia.

The car which she wished to take came by, and he stopped it and handed her aboard. She thought he might decide to come with her, but he bowed his good-night, and she saw him walking on down town as she passed him.

At the end of a fortnight Ludlow had failed to get his picture of Charmian; at the end of a month he began with a new pose and a fresh theory. That quality of hers which he hoped to surprise with Cornelia's help, and which was to give verity and value to his portrait, when once he expressed it there, escaped him still.

She was capable of perfect poses, but they were mere flashes of attitude. Then the antique mystery lurking in her face went out of it, and she became fin de siècle and romantic, and young ladyish, and uninteresting to Ludlow.

She made tea every afternoon when they finished, and sometimes the talk they began with before they began work prolonged itself till the time for the tea had come. On the days when Mr. Plaisdell dropped in for a cup, the talk took such a range that the early dark fell before it ended, and then Cornelia had to stay for dinner and to be sent home in Mrs. Maybough's coupé.

She had never supposed there was anything like it in all the world. Money, and, in a certain measure, the things that money could buy, were imaginable in Pymantoning; but joys so fine, so simple as these, were what she could not have forecast from any ground of experience or knowledge. She tried to give her mother a notion of what they said and did; but she told her frankly she never could understand. Mrs. Saunders, in fact, could not see why it was so exciting; she read Cornelia's letters to Mrs. Burton, who said she could see, and she told Mrs. Saunders that, she would like it as much as Cornelia did, if she were in her place; that she was a kind of Bohemian herself.

She tried to explain what Bohemian meant, and what Bohemia was; but this is what no one can quite do. Charmian herself, who aimed to be a perfect Bohemian, was uncertain of the ways and means of operating the Bohemian life, when she had apparently thrown off all the restrictions, for the afternoon, at least, that prevented its realization. She had a faultless setting for it. There never was a girl's studio that was more like a man's studio, an actual studio. Mr. Ludlow himself praised it; he said he felt at home in it, and he liked it because it was not carried a bit too far. Charmian's mother had left her free to do what she wished, and there was not a convention of Philistine housekeeping in the arrangement of the place. Everything was in the admired disorder of an artist's environment; but Mrs. Maybough insisted upon neatness. Even here Charmian had to submit to a compromise. She might and did keep things strewn all about in her studio, but every morning the housemaid was sent in to sweep it and dust it. She was a housemaid of great intelligence, and an imperfect sense of humor, and she obeyed with unsmiling scrupulosity the instructions she had to leave everything in Miss Charmian's studio exactly as she found it, but to leave it clean. In consequence, this home of art had an effect of indescribable coldness and bareness, and there were at first some tempestuous scenes which Cornelia witnessed between Charmian and her mother, when the girl vainly protested:

"But don't you see, mamma, that if you have it regularly dusted, it never can have any sentiment, any atmosphere?"

"I don't see how you can call dust atmosphere, my dear," said her stepmother. "If I left your studio looking as you want it, and there should be a fire, what would people think?"

"Well, if there should happen to be anybody from Wilbraham, Mass.," Charmian retorted, "they might criticise, but I don't think the New York Fire Department would notice whether the place had been dusted or not. But, go on, mamma! Some day I shall have a studio out of the house—Cornelia and I are going to have one—and then I guess you won't have it dusted!"

"I'm sure Miss Saunders wouldn't let it get dusty," said Mrs. Maybough, and then, in self-defence, Charmian gave Cornelia the worst character for housekeeping that she could invent from her knowledge of Cornelia's room.

She begged her pardon afterwards, but she said she had to do it, and she took what comfort she could in slamming everything round, as she called it, in her studio, when she went with Cornelia to have her coffee there. The maid restored it to its conscious picturesqueness the next day.

Charmian was troubled to decide what was truly Bohemian to eat, when they became hungry over their work. She provided candy and chocolate in all their forms and phases, but all girls ate candy and chocolate, and they were so missish, and so indistinctive, and they both went so badly with tea, which she must have because of the weird effect of the spirit-lamp under the kettle, that she disused them after the first week. There remained always crackers, which went with anything, but the question was what to have with them. Their natural association with cheese was rejected because Charmian said she should be ashamed to offer Mr. Ludlow those insipid little Neufchatel things, which were made in New Jersey, anyway, and the Gruyère smelt so, and so did Camembert; and pine-apple cheese was Philistine. There was nothing for it but olives, and though olives had no savor of originality, the little crescent ones were picturesque, and if you picked them out of the bottle with the end of a brush-handle, sharpened to a point, and the other person received them with their thumb and finger, the whole act was indisputably Bohemian.

There was one day when they all got on particularly well, and Charmian boldly ordered some champagne for a burst. The man brought back Apollinaris water, and she was afraid to ask why, for fear he should say Mrs. Maybough sent it. Ludlow said he never took champagne, and was awfully glad of the Apollinaris, and so the change was a great success, for neither Charmian nor Cornelia counted, in any case; they both hated every kind of wine.

Another time, Cornelia, when she came, found Charmian lighting one of the cigars kept for show on her mantel. She laughed wildly at Cornelia's dismay, and the smoke, which had been going up her nose, went down her throat in a volume, and Cornelia had to run and catch her; she was reaching out in every direction for help.

Cornelia led her to the couch, which was still waiting its rugs to become a bed, and she lay down there, very pale and still, and was silent a long time, till Cornelia said, "Now, if I could find a moose somewhere to run over you," and they both burst into a shriek of laughter.

"But I'm going to learn" Charmian declared. "Where did that cigar go?" She sprang up to look for it, but they never could find it, and they decided it must have gone into the fire, and been burnt up; that particular cigar seemed essential to the experiment, or at least Charmian did not try another.

They were both very grave after Ludlow came. When he went away, he said, with an absent look at Charmian, "You have a magnificent pallor to-day, Miss Maybough, and I must compliment you on keeping much quieter than usual."

"Oh, thank you," said Charmian, gravely, and as soon as the door closed upon him she flung herself into Cornelia's arms, and they stifled their laughter in each other's necks. It seemed to them that nothing so wildly funny had ever happened before; they remained a long while quaking over the question whether there was smell of smoke enough in the room to have made him suspect anything, and whether his congratulations were not ironical. Charmian said that her mistake was in not beginning with a cigarette instead of a cigar; she said she was ready to begin with a cigarette then, and she dared Cornelia to try one, too. Cornelia refused the challenge, and then she said, well, she would do it herself, some day.

There was a moment when it seemed to her that the Bohemian ideal could be realized to a wild excess in pop-corn. She bought a popper and three ears of corn, and brought them home tied up in paper, and fastened to some canvases she got for Cornelia. She insisted that it was part of the bargain that she should supply Cornelia's canvases. But the process of popping made them all very red in the face; they had to take it by turns, for she would not let Ludlow hold the popper the whole time. They had a snowy heap of corn at last, which she put on the hearth before them in the hollow of a Japanese shield, detached from a suit of armor, for that use. They sat on the hearth to eat it, and they told ghost-stories and talked of the most psychological things they could think of. In all this Charmian put Cornelia forward as much as she dared, and kept herself in a sort of impassioned abeyance. If Cornelia had been the most jealous and exacting of principals she could not have received from her second a more single and devoted allegiance. Charmian's joy in her fortunately mounted in proportion to the devotion she paid her, rather than Cornelia's gratitude for it. She did not like to talk of herself, and these séances were nothing if not strictly personal; but Charmian talked for her, and represented her in phases of interest which Cornelia repudiated with a laugh, or denied outright, without scruple, when the invention was too bold. Charmian contrived that she should acquire the greater merit, from her refusals of it, and went on to fresh self-sacrifices in her behalf.

Sometimes she started the things they talked of; not because she ever seemed to have been thinking of them, or of anything, definitely, but because she was always apparently letting her mind wander about in space, and chanced upon them there. Mostly, however, the suggestions came from Ludlow. He talked of art, its methods, its principles, its duties to the age, the people, the civilization; the large moral uses, which kindled Charmian's fancy, and made Cornelia laugh when Charmian proposed a scheme for the relief and refinement of the poor on the East Side, by frescoing the outsides of the tenement houses in Mott Street and Mulberry Bend, with subjects recalling the home life of the dwellers there: rice-fields and tea-plantations for the Chinese, and views of Etna and Vesuvius and their native shores for the Sicilians and Neapolitans, with perhaps religious histories.

Ludlow had to explain that he had not meant the employment of any such direct and obvious means, but the gradual growth of a conscience in art. Cornelia thought him vague, but it seemed clear to Charmian. She said, "Oh, yes; that," and she made tea, and had him set fire to some pieces of Southern lightwood on her hearth, for the sake of the murky fumes and the wreaths of dusky crimson flame, which she said it was so weird to sit by.

In all matters of artistic theory and practice she set Cornelia the example of grovelling at the master's feet, as if there could be no question of anything else; but in other things Cornelia sometimes asserted herself against this slavish submission with a kind of violence little short of impertinence. After these moral paroxysms, in which she disputed the most obviously right and reasonable things, she was always humiliated and cast down before his sincerity in trying to find a meaning in her difference from him, as if he could not imagine the nervous impulse that carried her beyond the bounds of truth, and must accuse himself of error. When this happened she would not let Charmian take her to task for her behavior; she would not own that she was wrong; she put the blame on him, and found him arrogant and patronizing. She had always known he was that kind of person, and she did not mean to be treated like a child in everything, even if he was a genius.

By this time they were far away from that point in Charmian's romance where the faithful friend of the heroine remains forever constant to her vow not to speak to the heroine of the hero's passion for her, and in fact rather finds it a duty to break her vow, and enjoys being snubbed for it. As the transaction of the whole affair took place in Charmian's fancy, Cornelia had been obliged to indulge her in it, with the understanding that she should not let it interfere with their work, or try to involve her visibly or palpably in it.

With all their idling they had days when they worked intensely, and Ludlow was as severe with Cornelia's work as he was with his own. He made her rub out and paint out, and he drew ruthless modifications of her work all over it, like the crudest of the Synthesis masters. He made her paint out every day the work of the day before, as they did in the Synthesis; though sometimes he paused over it in a sort of puzzle. Once he said, holding her sketch into the light he wanted, at the close of the afternoon, "If I didn't know you had done that to-day, I should say it was the one you had done yesterday."

Toward the end of the month he recurred to this notion again. "Suppose," he said, "we keep this, and you do another to-morrow."

The next day he said, in the same perplexity, "Well, keep this, and do another."

After a week he took all her canvases, and set them one back of another, but so that he could see each in nearly the same light. He stood looking at them silently, with the two girls behind him, one at either shoulder.

"It's as lovely as standing between two mirrors," Charmian suggested dreamily.

"Pretty much of a sameness," Cornelia remarked.

"Mm," Ludlow made in his throat. He glanced over the shoulder next her, and asked, as if Charmian were not there, "What makes you do her always alike?"

"Because she is always alike."

"Then I've seen her wrong," said Ludlow, and he stared at Charmian as if she were a lay-figure. She bore his scrutiny as impassively as a lay-figure could.

He turned again to Cornelia's sketches, and said gloomily, "I should like to have Wetmore see these."

"Oh!" said Cornelia.

Charmian came to life with another "Oh!" and then she demanded. "When? We must have something besides tea for Mr. Wetmore."

"I think I'll ask him to step round in the morning," said Ludlow, with authority.

Charmian said "Oh!" again, but submitted with the eagerness of a disciple; all phases of the art-life were equally precious, and even a snub from such a master must be willingly accepted.

He went away and would not have any tea; he had an air of trouble—almost of offence. "Isn't he grand, gloomy and peculiar?" Charmian said. "I wonder what's the matter?"

She turned to Ludlow's picture which he had left standing on the chair where he painted at it in disdain of an easel, and silently compared it with Cornelia's sketches. Then she looked at Cornelia and gave a dramatic start.

"What is the matter?" asked Cornelia. She came up and began to look at the picture, too.

Charmian demanded, "Don't you see?"

"No, I don't see anything," said Cornelia, but as she looked something became apparent which she could not deny. She blushed violently and turned upon Charmian. "You ought to be ashamed," she began, and she tried to take hold of her; she did not know why.

Charmian escaped, and fled to the other end of the room with a wild laugh, and stood there. Cornelia dropped into the chair before the picture, with her head fallen on her elbow. She seemed to be laughing, too, and Charmian went on:

"What is there to be ashamed of? I think it's glorious. It's one of the most romantic things I ever heard of. He simply couldn't help it, and it proves everything I've said. Of course that was the reason he couldn't see me all along. Why, if such a thing had happened to me, I should go round shouting it from the house-tops. I don't suppose he knew what he was doing, or else he didn't care; perfectly desperate. What fun!"

Cornelia kept laughing, but Charmian stopped and waited a moment and listened. "Why, Cornelia!" she said remorsefully, entreatingly, but she remained the length of the room away. Then she approached tentatively, and when Cornelia suddenly ceased to laugh she put her hand on her head, and tenderly lifted her face. It was dabbled with tears. "Cornelia!" she said again.

Cornelia sprang to her feet with a fierceness that sent her flying some yards away. "Charmian Maybough! Will you ever speak of this to any living soul?"

"No, no! Indeed I won't——" Charmian began.

"Will you ever think of it!"

"No——"

"Because I don't choose to have you think I am such a fool as to—to——"

"No, indeed, I don't."

"Because there isn't anything of it, and it wouldn't mean anything, if there were."

"No," said Charmian. "The only thing is to tear him out of your heart; and I will help you!" She made as if she were ready to begin then, and Cornelia broke into a genuine laugh.

"Don't be ridiculous. I guess there isn't much to tear."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"Nothing! What can I! There isn't anything to do anything about. If it's there, he knows it, and he's left it there because he didn't care what we thought. He was just trying something. He's always treated me like a perfect—child. That's all there is of it, and you know it."

"Yes," Charmian meekly assented. Then she plucked up a spirit in Cornelia's behalf. "The only thing is to keep going on the same as ever, and show him we haven't seen anything, and don't care if we have."

"No," said Cornelia sadly, "I shall not come any more. Or, if I do, it will just be to—— I'm not certain yet what I shall do." She provisionally dried her eyes and repaired her looks at the little mirror which hung at one side of the mantel, and then came back to Charmian who stood looking at Cornelia's sketches, still in the order Ludlow had left them in. She stole her arm round Cornelia's waist. "Well, anyway, he can't say you've returned the compliment. They're perfectly magnificent, every one; and they're all me. Now we can both live for art."

William Dean Howells