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Chapter 29

There was only one thing for Cornelia to do now, and she did it as well as she knew how, or could hope to know without the help that she could not seek anywhere. She wrote to Ludlow and thanked him, and told him that she did not think she should go on with the picture of Charmian, for the present. She said, in the first five or six drafts of her letter, that it had been her uncertainty as to this which made her hesitate when he spoke to her, but in every form she gave this she found it false; and at last she left it out altogether, and merely assured him that she had nothing whatever to forgive him. She wished to forbid his coming to see her; she did not know quite how to do that; but either the tone of her letter was forbidding enough, or else he felt that he had done his whole duty, now, for he did not come.

With moments of utter self-abasement, she had to leave Charmian to the belief that she was distraught and captious, solely for the reason they shared the secret of, and Charmian respected this with a devotion so obvious as to be almost spectacular. Cornelia found herself turning into a romantic heroine, and had to make such struggle against the transformation as she could in bursts of hysterical gayety. These had rather the effect of deepening Charmian's compassionate gloom, till she exhausted her possibilities in that direction and began to crave some new expression. There was no change in her affection for Cornelia; and there were times when Cornelia longed to trust her fully; she knew that it would be safe, and she did not believe that it would lower her in Charmian's eyes; but to keep the fact of her weakness altogether her own seemed the only terms on which she could bear it.

One day there came a letter from her mother out of her usual order of writing; she wrote on Sunday, and her letters reached Cornelia the next evening; but this letter came on a Wednesday morning, and the sight of it filled Cornelia with alarm, first for her mother, and then for herself; which deepened as she read:

"Dear Nie: That good-for-nothing little scrub has been here, talken aboute you, and acting as if you was hand-and-glove with him. Now Nelie, I don't want to interfere with you anyway and I won't if you say the word. But I never felt just righte about that fellow, and what I done long ago to make you tollerate him, and now I want to make it up to you if I can. He is a common low-down person, and he isn't fit to speake to you, and I hope you wont speake to him. The divorce, the way I look at it, don't make any difference; hese just as much married as what he ever was, and if he had never been married atoll, it wouldn't of made any difference as far as I feel about it. Now Nelie, you are old enough to take care of yourself, but I hope if that fellow ever comes around you again, you'll box his ears and be done with him. I know hes got a smooth tongue, and he can make you laugh in spite of yourselfe, but don't you have anything to do with him.

"Mother.

"P. S. I have been talken it over with Mrs. Burton, and she thinks just the way I do aboute it. She thinks you are good enough for the best, and you no need to throw yourself away on such a perfect little scamp. In haste. How is that cellebrated picture that you are painting with Mr. Ludlow getting along?"

Cornelia got this letter from the postman at Mrs. Montgomery's door, when she opened it to go out in the morning, and she read it on her way to the Synthesis. It seemed to make the air reel around her, and step by step she felt as if she should fall. A wild anger swelled her heart, and left no room there for shame even. She wondered what abominable lies that little wretch had told; but they must have been impudent indeed to overcome her mother's life-long reluctance from writing and her well-grounded fears of spelling, so far as to make her send a letter out of the usual course. But when her first fury passed, and she began to grow weak in the revulsion, she felt only her helplessness in the presence of such audacity, and a fear that nothing could save her from him. If he could make her so far forget herself as to tolerate him, to listen to his stories, to laugh at his jokes, and show him that she enjoyed his company, after all she knew of him, then he could make her marry him, if he tried.

The logic was perfect, and it seemed but another link in the infrangible chain of events, when she found another letter waiting for her at the office of the Synthesis. It bore the postmark of Lakeland, of the same date as her mother's, and in the corner of the envelope the business card of Gates & Clarkson, Dealers in Art Goods; J. B. Dickerson, in a line of fine print at the top was modestly "with" them.

The address, "Dear friend," was written over something else which had been rubbed out, but beyond this the letter ran fluently and uninterruptedly along in a hand which had a business-like directness and distinctness. "I don't know," the writer said, "as you expected to hear from me, and I don't know as I expected to let you, but circumstances alter cases, and I just wanted to drop you a line and tell you that I have been in Pymantoning and seen your mother. She is looking prime, and younger than ever. We had a long talk about old times, and I told her what a mistake I made. Confession is good for the soul, they say, and I took a big dose of it; I guess I confessed pretty much everything; regular Topsey style. Well, your mother didn't spare me any, and I don't know but what she was about right. The fact is, a man on the road don't think as much about his p's and q's as he ought as long as he is young, and if I made a bad break in that little matrimonial venture of mine, I guess it was no more than I deserved to. I told your mother just how I happened to meet you again, and how the sight of you was enough to make another man of me. I was always a little too much afraid of you, or it might have turned out different; but I can appreciate a character like yours, and I want you to know it. I guess your mother sized it up about right when I said all I asked was to worship you at a distance, and she said she guessed you would look out for the distance. I told her you had, up to date. I want you to understand that I don't presume on anything, and if we seemed to have a pretty good time after the theatre, the other night, it was because you didn't want to spoil Mrs. Montgomery's fun, and treated me well just because I was a friend of hers. Well, it's pretty hard to realize that my life is ruined, and that I have got nobody but myself to thank for it, but I guess that's what I've got to come to, sooner or later. It's what your mother said, and I guess she was right; she didn't spare me a bit, and I didn't want her to. I knew she would write to you, as soon as I was gone, and tell you not to have anything to do with me; and if she has, all I have got to say is, all right. I have been a bad lot, and I don't deny it, and all I can ask now, from this time forward, is to be kept from doing any more mischief. I don't know as I shall ever see you again; I had a kind of presentiment I shouldn't, and I told your mother so. I don't know but I told a little more about how kind you were to me the other evening than what the facts would justify exactly, but as sure as you live I didn't mean to lie about it. If I exaggerated any, it was because it seemed the greatest thing in the world to me, just to talk to you, and be where I could see you smile, and hear you laugh; you've got a laugh that is like a child's, or an angel's, if angels laugh. I've heard of their weeping, and if you knew my whole life, I think you would shed a tear or two over me. But that is not what I am trying to get at; I want to explain that if I appeared to brag of being tolerated by you, and made it seem any thing more than toleration, it was because it was like heaven to me not to have you give me the grand bounce again. And what I want to ask you now, is just to let me write to you, every now and then, and when I am tempted to go wrong, anyways—and a business life is full of temptations—let me put the case before you, and have you set me right. I won't want but a word from you, and most part of the time, I shall just want to free my mind to you on life in general, and won't expect any answer. I feel as if you had got my soul in your hands, and you could save it, or throw it away. That is all. I am writing on the train, and I have to use pencil. I hope you'll excuse the stationery; it's all the porter could get me, and I'm anxious to have a letter go back to you at once. I know your mother has written to you, and I want to corroborate everything she says against me."

The letter covered half-a-dozen telegraph blanks, and filled them full, so that the diffident suggestion, "My permanent address is with Gates & Clarkson," had to be written along the side of the first page.

The low cunning, the impudent hypocrisy, the leering pretence of reverence, the affectation of penitence, the whole fraudulent design, so flimsy that the writer himself seemed to be mocking at it, was open to Cornelia, and she read the letter through with distinct relief. Whatever the fascinations of Mr. Dickerson were when he was personally at hand, he had none at a distance, and when she ran over the pages a second time, it was with a laugh, which she felt sure he would have joined her in, if he had been there. It turned her tragedy into farce so completely, for the time, that she went through her morning's work with a pleasure and a peace of mind which she had not felt for many days. It really seemed such a joke, that she almost yielded to the temptation of showing passages of the letter to Charmian; and she forebore only because she would have had to tell more than she cared to have any one know of Mr. Dickerson, if she did. She had a right to keep all that from those who had no right to know it, but she had no right, or if she had the right, she had not the power to act as if the past had never been. She set herself to bear what was laid upon her, and if she was ever to have strength for her burden she must begin by owning her weakness. There was no one to whom she could own it but her mother, and she did this fully as soon as she got back to her room, and could sit down to answer her letter. She enclosed Dickerson's, and while she did not spare him, she took the whole blame upon herself, for she said she might have known that if she suffered him to see that he amused her or pleased her at all, he was impudent enough to think that he could make her like him again. "And mother," she wrote, "you know I never really liked him, and was only too glad to get rid of him; you know that much. But I suppose you will wonder, then, why I ever let him speak to me if I really despised him as much as ever; and that is not easy to explain. For one thing he was with Mrs. Montgomery, and she likes him, and she has always been so good to me that I hated to treat him badly before her; but that is not the real reason, and I am not going to pretend it was. You know yourself how funny he is, and can make you laugh in spite of yourself, but it was not that, either. It was because I was angry with myself for having been angry with some one else, without a cause, as I can see it now, and I had made a fool of myself, and I wanted to get away from myself. I cannot tell you just how it was, yet, and I do not know as I ever can, but that was truly it, and nothing else, though the other things had something to do with it. I suppose it was just like men when they take a drink of whiskey to make them forget. The worst of it all is, and the discouraging part is, that it shows me I have not changed a particle. My temper is just us bad as ever, and I might as well be back at sixteen, for all the sense I've got. Sometimes it seems to me that the past is all there is of us, anyway. It seems to come up in me, all the time, and I am so ashamed I don't know what to do. I make all kinds of good resolutions, and I want to be good, and then comes something and it is all over with me. Then, it appears as if it was not me, altogether, that is to blame. I know I was to blame, this last time, laughing at that little 'scrub's' jokes as you call him, and behaving like a fool; but I don't see how I was to blame for his coming back into my life, when I never really wanted him at all, and certainly never wished to set eyes on him again.

"I don't suppose it would be the least use to ask you not to show this letter to Mrs. Burton, and I won't, but if you do, I wish you would ask her what she thinks it means, and whether it's fate, or foreordination, or what."

Mrs. Saunders carried Cornelia's letter to Mrs. Burton, as Cornelia had foreseen, but the question she put to her was not the abstraction the girl had suggested. "Mrs. Burton," she asked, "who was it do you suppose Nie was so mad with that she had to go off and play the fool, that way?"

Mrs. Burton passed the point of casuistry too. "Well, of course I don't know, Mrs. Saunders. Has she said anything about Mr. Ludlow lately?"

"No, she hain't said a word, and that seems suspicious. She said a week or two ago that he had give up trying to paint that Maybough girl, and that she guessed she had got the last of her lessons from him; but she didn't seem much troubled about it. But I guess by her not wantin' to tell, it's him. What do you suppose he did to provoke her?"

"Oh, just some young people's nonsense, probably. It'll come all right. You needn't worry about it, because if it won't come right of itself, he'll make it come."

"Oh, I'm not worrying about that," said Mrs. Saunders, "I'm worrying about this." She gave her the letter Cornelia had enclosed, and as Mrs. Burton began to read it she said, "If that fellow keeps on writing to her, I don't know what I will do."

William Dean Howells