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Chapter 27

Ludlow sent word again to Charmian that he should not be able to keep his appointment for the afternoon, and as soon as he could hope to find Cornelia at home from the Synthesis, he went to see her.

He began abruptly, "I came to tell you, Miss Saunders, when I first thought of painting Miss Maybough, and now I've come to tell you that I've given it up."

"Given it up?" she repeated.

"You've seen the failures I've made. I took my last one home yesterday, and painted it out." He looked at Cornelia, but if he expected her to give him any sort of leading, he was disappointed. He had to conclude unaided, "I'm not going to try any more."

She did not answer, and he went on, after a moment: "Of course, it's humiliating to make a failure, but it's better to own it, and leave it behind you; if you don't own it, you have to carry it with you, and it remains a burden."

She kept her eyes away from him, but she said, "Oh, yes; certainly."

"The worst of it was the disappointment I had to inflict upon Mrs. Maybough," he went on uneasily. "She was really hurt, and I don't believe I convinced her after all that I simply and honestly couldn't get the picture. I went to tell her this afternoon, and she seemed to feel some sort of disparagement—I can't express it—in my giving it up."

He stopped, and Cornelia asked, as if forced to say something, "Does Charmian know?"

"I suppose she does, by this time," said Ludlow. He roused himself from a moment of revery, and added, "But I didn't intend to oppress you with this. I want to tell you something—else."

He drew a deep breath. She started forward where she sat, and looked past him at the door, as if to see whether the way of escape was clear. He went on: "I took Wetmore there with me yesterday, and I showed him your sketches, and he thinks you might get one of them into the Academy exhibition in the spring, after you've carried it a little farther."

She sank back in her chair. "Does he?" she asked listlessly, and she thought, as of another person, how her heart would once have thrilled at the hope of this.

"Yes. But I don't feel sure that it would be well," said Ludlow. "I wanted to say, though, that I shall be glad to come and be of any little use I can if you're going on with it."

"Oh, thank you," said Cornelia. She thought she was going to say something more, but she stopped stiffly at that, and they both stood in an embarrassment which neither could hide from the other. He repeated his offer, in other terms, and she was able finally to thank him a little more fitly, and to say that she should not forget his kind offer; she should not forget all he had done for her, all the trouble he had taken, and they parted with a vague alienation.

As we grow older, we are impatient of misunderstandings, of disagreements; we make haste to have them explained; but while we are young, life seems so spacious and so full of chances that we fetch a large compass round about such things, and wait for favoring fortuities, and hope for occasions precisely fit; we linger in dangerous delays, and take risks that may be ruinous.

Cornelia went hack to her work at the Synthesis as before, but she worked listlessly and aimlessly; the zest was gone, and the meaning. She knew that for the past month she had drudged through the morning at the Synthesis that she might free herself to the glad endeavor of the afternoon at Charmian's studio with a good conscience. Ludlow's criticism, even when it was harshest, was incentive and inspiration; and her life was blank and dull on the old terms.

The arts have a logic of their own, which seems no logic at all to the interests. Ludlow's world found it altogether fit and intelligible that he should give up trying to paint Charmian if he had failed to get his picture of her, and thought he could not get it. Mrs. Maybough's world regarded it as a breach of contract for him not to do what he had undertaken. She had more trouble to reconcile her friends to his behavior than she had in justifying it to herself. Through Charmian she had at least a second-hand appreciation of motives and principles that were instantly satisfactory to the girl and to all her comrades at the Synthesis; they accepted it as another proof of Ludlow's greatness that he should frankly own he had missed his picture of her, and they exalted Charmian as a partner in his merit, for being so impossible. The arguments of Wetmore went for something with Mrs. Maybough, though they were mainly admissions to the effect that Ludlow was more of a crank than he had supposed, and would have to be humored in a case of the kind; but it was chiefly the courage and friendship of Mrs. Westley that availed. She enforced what she had to say in his behalf with the invitation to her January Thursdays which she had brought. She had brought it in person because she wished to beg Mrs. Maybough to let her daughter come with her friend, Miss Saunders, and pour tea at the first of the Thursdays.

"I got you off," she said to Ludlow, when they met, "but it was not easy. She still thinks you ought to have let her see your last attempt, and left her to decide whether it was good or not."

Mrs. Westley showed her amusement at this, but Ludlow answered gravely that there was a certain reason in the position. "If she's disappointed in not having any portrait, though," he added, "she had better take Miss Saunders's."

"Do you really mean that?" Mrs. Westley asked, with more or less of that incredulity concerning the performance of a woman which all the sex feel, in spite of their boasting about one another. "Has she so much talent?"

"Why not? Somebody has to have the talent."

This was like Wetmore's tone, and it made Mrs. Westley think of him. "And do you believe she could get her picture into the exhibition?"

"Has Wetmore been talking to you about it?"

"Yes."

"I don't know," said Ludlow. "That was Wetmore's notion."

"And does she know about it?"

"I mentioned it to her."

"It would be a great thing for her if she could get her picture in—and sell it."

"Yes," Ludlow dryly admitted. He wished he had never told Mrs. Westley how Cornelia had earned the money for her studies at the Synthesis; he resented the implication of her need, and Mrs. Westley vaguely felt that she had somehow gone wrong. She made haste to retrieve her error by suggesting, "Perhaps Miss Maybough would object, though."

"That's hardly thinkable." said Ludlow lightly. He would have gone away without making Mrs. Westley due return for the trouble she had taken for him with Mrs. Maybough, and she was so far vexed that she would have let him go without telling him that she was going to have his protégée pour tea for her; she had fancied that this would have pleased him.

But by one of those sudden flashes that seem to come from somewhere without, he saw himself in the odious light in which she must see him, and he turned in time. "Mrs. Westley, I think you have taken a great deal more pains for me than I'm worth. It's difficult to care what such a poor little Philistine as Mrs. Maybough—the mere figment of somebody else's misgotten money—thinks of me. But she is to be regarded, and I know that you have looked after her in my interest; and it's very kind of you, and very good—it's like you. If you've done it, though, with the notion of my keeping on in portraits, or getting more portraits to paint, I'm sorry, for I shall not try to do any. I'm not fit for that kind of work. I don't say it because I despise the work, but because I despise myself. I should always let some wretched preoccupation of my own—some fancy, some whim—come between me and what I see my sitter to be, and paint that."

"That is, you have some imagination," she began, in defence of him against himself.

"No, no! There's scope for the greatest imagination, the most intense feeling, in portraits. But I can't do that kind of thing, and I must stick to my little sophistical fantasies, or my bald reports of nature. But Miss Saunders, if she were not a woman—excuse me!——"

"Oh, I understand!"

"She could do it, and she will, if she keeps on. She could have a career; she could be a painter of women's portraits. A man's idea of a woman, it's interesting, of course, but it's never quite just; it's never quite true; it can't be. Every woman knows that, but you go on accepting men's notions of women, in literature and in art, as if they were essentially, or anything but superficially, like women. I couldn't get a picture of Miss Maybough because I was always making more or less than there really was of her. You were speaking the other night at Wetmore's, of the uncertain quality of her beauty, and the danger of getting something else in," said Ludlow, suddenly grappling with the fact, "and I was always doing that, or else leaving everything out. Her beauty has no fixed impression. It ranges from something exquisite to something grotesque; just as she ranges in character from the noblest generosity to the most inconceivable absurdity. You never can know how she will look or how she will behave. At least, I couldn't. I was always guessing at her; but Miss Saunders seemed to understand her. All her studies of her are alike; the last might be taken for the first, except that the handling is better. It's invariably the very person, without being in the least photographic, as people call it, because it is one woman's unclouded perception of another. The only question is whether Miss Saunders can keep that saving simplicity. It may be trained out of her, or she may be taught to put other things before it. Wetmore felt the danger of that, when we looked at her sketches. I'm not saying they're not full of faults; the technique is bad enough; sometimes it's almost childish; but the root of the matter is there. She knows what she sees, and she tells."

"Really?" said Mrs. Westley. "It is hard for a woman to believe much in women; we don't expect anything of each other yet. Should you like her to paint me?"

"I?"

"I mean, do you think she could do it?"

"Not yet. She doesn't know enough of life, even if she knew enough of art. She merely painted another girl."

"That is true," said Mrs. Westley with a sigh. She added impersonally; "But if people only kept to what they knew, and didn't do what they divined, there would be very little art or literature left, it seems to me."

"Well, perhaps the less the better." said Ludlow, with a smile for the absurdity he was reduced to. "What was left would certainty be the best."

He felt as if his praise of Cornelia were somehow retrieval; as if it would avail where he seemed otherwise so helpless, and would bring them together on the old terms again. There was, indeed, nothing explicit in their alienation, and when he saw Cornelia at Mrs. Westley's first Thursday, he made his way to her at once, and asked her if she would give him some tea, with the effect of having had a cup from her the day before. He did not know whether to be pleased or not that she treated their meeting as something uneventful, too, and made a little joke about remembering that he liked his tea without sugar.

"I wasn't aware that you knew that," he said.

"Oh, yes; that is the way Charmian always made it for you; and sometimes I made it."

"To be sure. It seems a great while ago. How are you getting on with your picture?"

"I'm not getting on," said Cornelia, and she turned aside to make a cup of tea for an old gentleman, who confessed that he liked a spoonful of rum in his. General Westley had brought him up and presented him, and he remained chatting with Cornelia, apparently in the fatuity that if he talked trivially to her he would be the same as a young man. Ludlow stayed, too, and when the old gentleman got away, he said, the same as if there had been no interruption, "Why aren't you getting on?"

"Because I'm not doing anything to it."

"You ought to. I told you what Wetmore said of it."

"Yes; but I don't know how," said Cornelia, with a laugh that he liked; it seemed an effect of pleasure in his presence at her elbow; though from time to time she ignored him, and talked with other people who came for tea. He noticed that she had begun to have a little society manner of her own; he did not know whether he liked it or not. She wore a very pretty dress, too; one he had not seen before.

"Will you let me show you how—as well as I can?"

"After I've asked you? Thank you!"

"I offered, once, before you asked."

"Oh!" said Cornelia, with her face aslant from him over her tea-cups. "I thought you had forgotten that."

He winced, but he knew that he deserved the little scratch. He did not try to exculpate himself, but he asked, "May I talk with Miss Maybough about it?"

Cornelia returned gayly, "It's a free country."

He rose from the chair which he had been keeping at her elbow, and looked about over the room. It was very full, and the first of Mrs. Westley's Thursdays was successful beyond question. With the roving eye, which he would not suffer to be intercepted, he saw the distinguished people whom she had hitherto affected in their usual number, and in rather unusual number the society people who had probably come to satisfy an amiable curiosity; he made his reflection that Mrs. Westley's evolution was proceeding in the inevitable direction, and that in another winter the swells would come so increasingly that there would be no celebrities for them to see. His glance rested upon Mrs. Maybough, who stood in a little desolation of her own, trying to look as if she were not there, and he had the inspiration to go and speak to her instead of her daughter; there were people enough speaking to Charmian, or seeming to speak to her, which serves much the same purpose on such occasions. She was looking her most mysterious, and he praised her peculiar charm to Mrs. Maybough.

"It's no wonder I failed with that portrait."

Mrs. Maybough said, "You must try again, Mr. Ludlow."

"No, I won't abuse your patience again, but I will tell you: I should like to come and look now and then at the picture Miss Saunders has begun of her, and that I want her to keep on with."

"Why not?" asked Mrs. Maybough in the softest assent. She would not listen to the injuries which Ludlow heaped upon himself in proof of his unworthiness to cross her threshold.

He went back to Cornelia, and said, "Well, it's arranged. I've spoken with Mrs. Maybough, and we can begin again whenever you like."

"With Mrs. Maybough? You said you were going to speak to Charmian!"

"It doesn't matter, does it?"

"Yes. I—I don't know yet as I want to go on with the picture. I hadn't thought——"

"Oh!" said Ludlow, with marked politeness. "Then I misunderstood. But don't let it annoy you. It doesn't matter, of course. There's no sort of appointment."

He found Mrs. Westley in a moment of disoccupation before he went, and used a friend's right to recognize the brilliancy of her Thursday. She refused all merit for it and asked him if he had ever seen any thing like the contrast of Charmian at the chocolate with Cornelia at the tea. "Did you notice the gown Miss Saunders had on? It's one that her mother has just sent her from home. She says her mother made it, and she came to ask me, the other day, if it would do to pour tea in. Wasn't it delightful? I'm going to have her spend a week with me in Lent. The general has taken a great fancy to her. I think I begin to appreciate her fascination; it's her courage and her candor together. Most girls are so uncertain and capricious. It's delightful to meet such a straightforward and downright creature."

"Oh, yes," said Ludlow.

William Dean Howells