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Chapter 28

Cornelia knew that Ludlow was offended. She had not meant to hurt or offend him; though she thought he had behaved very queerly ever since he gave up painting Charmian. She had really not had time to think of his offer before he went off to speak with Charmian, as she supposed. The moment he was gone she saw that it would not do; that she could not have him coming to look at her work; she did not feel that she could ever touch it again. She wondered at him, and now if he had spoken to Mrs. Maybough instead of Charmian, it was not her fault, certainly. She did not wish to revenge herself, but she remembered how much she had been left to account for as she could, or painfully to ignore. If he was mystified and puzzled now, it was no more than she had been before.

There was nothing that Cornelia hated so much as to be made a fool of, and this was the grievance which she was willing fate should retaliate upon him, though she had not meant it at all. She ought to have been satisfied, and she ought to have been happy, but she was not.

She wished to escape from herself, and she eagerly accepted an invitation to go with Mrs. Montgomery to the theatre that night. The manager had got two places and given them to the landlady.

Cornelia had a passion for the theatre, and in the excitement of the play, which worked strongly in her ingenuous fancy, she forgot herself for the time, or dimly remembered the real world and her lot in it, as if it were a subordinate action of the piece. At the end of the fourth act she heard a voice which she knew, saying, "Well, well! Is this the way the folks at Pymantoning expect you to spend your evenings?" She looked up and around, and saw Mr. Dickerson in the seat behind her. He put forward two hands over her shoulder—one for her to shake, and one for Mrs. Montgomery.

"Why, Mr. Dickerson!" said the landlady, "where did you spring from? You been sitting here behind us all the time?"

"I wish I had," said Dickerson. "But this seat is 'another's,' as they say on the stage; he's gone out 'to see a man,' and I'm keeping it for him. Just caught sight of you before the curtain fell. Couldn't hardly believe my eyes."

"But where are you? Why haven't you been round to the house?"

"Well, I'm only here for a day," said Dickerson, with a note of self-denial in his voice that Cornelia knew was meant for her, "and I thought I wouldn't disturb you. No use making so many bites of a cherry. I got in so late last night I had to go to a hotel anyway."

Mrs. Montgomery began some hospitable expostulations, but be waived them with, "Yes; that's all right. I'll remember it next time, Mrs. Montgomery," and then he began to speak of the play, and he was so funny about some things in it that he made Cornelia laugh. He took leave of them when the owner of the seat came back. He told Mrs. Montgomery he should not see her again this time; but at the end of the play they found him waiting for them at the outer door of the theatre. He skipped lightly into step with them. "Thought I might as well see you home, as they say in Pymantoning. Do' know as I shall be back for quite a while, this next trip, and we don't see much ladies' society on the road; at least, I don't. I'm not so easy to make acquaintance as I used to be. I suppose it was being married so long. I can't manage to help a pretty girl raise a car-window, or put her grip into the rack, the way I could once. Fact is, there don't seem to be so many pretty girls as there were, or else I'm gettin' old-sighted, and can't see 'em."

He spoke to Mrs. Montgomery, but Cornelia knew he was talking at her. Now he leaned forward and addressed her across Mrs. Montgomery: "Do' know as I told you that I saw your mother in Lakeland day before yesterday, Miss Saunders."

"Oh, did you?" Cornelia eagerly besought him. The apparition of her mother rose before her; it was almost like having her actually there, to meet some one who had seen her so lately. "Was she looking well? The last letter she wrote she hadn't been very——"

"Well, I guess she's all right, now. You know I think your mother is about the finest woman in this world, Miss Nelie, and the prettiest-looking. I've never told you about Mrs. Saunders, have I, Mrs. Montgomery? Well, you wouldn't know but her and Miss Nelie were sisters. She looks like a girl, a little way off; and she is a girl, in her feelings. She's got the kindest heart, and she's the best person I ever saw. I tell you, it would be a different sort of a world if everybody was like Mrs. Saunders, and I should ha' been a different sort of a man if I'd always appreciated her goodness. Well, so it goes," he said, with a sigh of indefinite regret, which availed with Cornelia because it was mixed with praise of her mother; it made her feel safer with him and more tolerant. He leaned forward again, and said across Mrs. Montgomery, as before: "She was gettin' off the train from Pymantoning, and I was just takin' my train West, but I knew it was her as soon as I saw her walk. I was half a mind to stop and speak to her, and let my train go."

Cornelia could see her mother, just how she would look, wandering sweetly and vaguely away from her train, and the vision was so delightful to her, that it made her laugh. "I guess you're mother's girl," Mrs. Montgomery interpreted, and Mr. Dickerson said:

"Well, I guess she's got a good right to be. I wasn't certain whether it was her or Miss Saunders first when I saw her, the other day."

At her door Mrs. Montgomery invited him to come in, and he said he did not know but he would for a minute, and Cornelia's gratitude for his praise of her mother kept her from leaving them at once. In the dining-room, where Mrs. Montgomery set out a lunch for him, he began to tell stories.

Cornelia had no grudge against him for the past. She was only too glad that it had all fallen out as it did; and though she still knew that he was a shameless little wretch, she did not feel so personally disgraced by him, as she had at first, when she was not sure she could make him keep his distance. He was a respite from her own thoughts, and she lingered and lingered, and listened and listened, remotely aware that it was wrong, but somehow bewildered and constrained.

Mrs. Montgomery went down to the kitchen a moment, for something more to add to the lunch, and he seized the chance to say, "I know how you feel about me, Miss Saunders, and I don't blame you. You needn't be afraid; I ain't going to trouble you. I might, if you was a different kind of girl; but I've thought it all over since I saw you, and I respect you. I hope you won't give me away to Mrs. Montgomery, but if you do, I shall respect you all the same, and I sha'n't blame you, even then." The landlady returned, and he went on, "I was just tellin' Miss Saunders about my friend Bob Whiteley's railroad accident. But you've heard it so often."

"Oh, well, do go on!" said Mrs. Montgomery, setting down the plate of cold chicken she had brought back with her.

It was midnight before he rose. "I declare I could listen all night," said Mrs. Montgomery.

Cornelia could have done so, too, but she did not say it. While the talk lasted, she had a pleasure in the apt slang, and sinister wit and low wisdom, which made everything higher and nobler seem ridiculous. She tried helplessly to rise above the delight she found in it, and while she listened, she was miserably aware that she was unworthy even of the cheap respect which this amusing little wretch made a show of paying her before Mrs. Montgomery.

She loathed him, and yet she hated to have him go; for then she would be left to herself and her own thoughts. As she crept up the long stairs to her room, she asked herself if she could be the same girl who had poured tea at Mrs. Westley's, and talked to all those refined people, who seemed to admire her and make much of her, as if she were one of them. Before, she had escaped from the toils of that folly of the past by disowning it; but now, she had voluntarily made it hers. She had wilfully entangled herself in its toils; they seemed to trip her steps, and make her stumble on the stairs as if they were tangible things. She had knowingly suffered such a man as that, whose commonness of soul she had always instinctively felt, to come back into her life, and she could never banish him again. She could never even tell any one; she was the captive of her shabby secret till he should come again and openly claim her. He would come again; there could be no doubt of that.

On the bureau before her glass lay a letter. It was from Ludlow, and it delicately expressed the hope that there had been nothing in his manner of offering to help her with her picture which made it impossible for her to accept. "I need not tell you that I think you have talent, for I have told you that before. I have flattered myself that I had a personal interest in it, because I saw it long ago, and I have been rather proud of thinking that you were making use of me. I wish you would think the matter over, and decide to go on with your picture of Miss Maybough. I promise to reduce my criticism to a minimum, for I think it is more important that you should keep on in your own way, even if you go a little wrong in it, now and then, than that you should go perfectly right in some one's else. Do let me hear from you, and say that I may come Saturday to Miss Maybough's studio, and silently see what you are doing."

In a postscript he wrote: "I am afraid that I have offended you by something in my words or ways. If I have, won't you at least let me come and be forgiven?"

She dropped her face on the letter where it lay open before her, and stretched out her arms, and moaned in a despair that no tears even came to soften. She realized how much worse it was to have made a fool of herself than to be made a fool of.

William Dean Howells