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Chapter 3

In this process Ludlow discovered that there was more of the Fine Arts Department than he had supposed at first. He was aware of some women who had come into the next aisle or section, and presently he overheard fragments of their talk.

A girl's voice said passionately: "I don't care! I shan't leave them here for folks to make remarks about! I knew they wouldn't take the premium, and I hope you're satisfied now, mother."

"Well, you're a very silly child," came in an older voice, suggestive of patience and amiability. "Don't tear them, anyway!"

"I shall! I don't care if I tear them all to pieces."

There was a sound of quick steps, and of the angry swirl of skirts, and the crackling and rending of paper.

"There, now!" said the older voice. "You've dropped one."

"I don't care! I hope they'll trample it under their great stupid hoofs."

The paper, whatever it was, came skating out under the draped tabling in the section where Ludlow stood, arrested in his sad employment by the unseen drama, and lay at his feet. He picked it up, and he had only time to glance at it before he found himself confronted by a fiercely tearful young girl who came round the corner of his section, and suddenly stopped at sight of him. With one hand she pressed some crumpled sheets of paper against, her breast; the other she stretched toward Ludlow.

"Oh! will you——" she began, and then she faltered; and as she turned her little head aside for a backward look over her shoulder, she made him, somehow, think of a hollyhock, by the tilt of her tall, slim, young figure, and by the colors of her hat from which her face flowered; no doubt the deep-crimson silk waist she wore, with its petal-edged ruffle flying free down her breast, had something to do with his fantastic notion. She was a brunette, with the lightness and delicacy that commonly go with the beauty of a blonde. She could not have been more than fifteen; her skirts had not yet matured to the full womanly length; she was still a child.

A handsome, mild, middle-aged woman appeared beside the stormy young thing, and said in the voice which Ludlow had already heard, "Well, Cornelia!" She seemed to make more account than the girl made of the young fellow's looks. He was of the medium height for a man, but he was so slight that he seemed of lower stature, and he eked out an effect of distinction by brushing his little moustache up sharply at the corners in a fashion he had learned in France, and by wearing a little black dot of an imperial. His brow was habitually darkened by a careworn frown, which came from deep and anxious thinking about the principles and the practice of art. He was very well dressed, and he carried himself with a sort of worldly splendor which did not intimidate the lady before him. In the country women have no more apprehension of men who are young and stylish and good-looking than they have in the city; they rather like them to be so, and meet them with confidence in any casual encounter.

The lady said, "Oh, thank you," as Ludlow came up to the girl with the paper, and then she laughed with no particular intention, and said, "It's one of my daughter's drawings."

"Oh, indeed!" said Ludlow, with a quick perception of the mother's pride in it, and of all the potentialities of prompt intimacy. "It's very good."

"Well, I think so," said the lady, while the girl darkled and bridled in young helplessness. If she knew that her mother ought not to be offering a stranger her confidence like that, she did not know what to do about it. "She was just going to take them home," said the mother vaguely.

"I'm sorry," said Ludlow. "I seem to be a day after the fair, as far as they're concerned."

"Well, I don't know," said the mother, with the same amiable vagueness. She had some teeth gone, and when she smiled she tried to hide their absence on the side next Ludlow; but as she was always smiling she did not succeed perfectly. She looked doubtfully at her daughter, in the manner of mothers whom no severity of snubbing can teach that their daughters when well-grown girls can no longer be treated as infants. "I don't know as you'd think you had lost much. We didn't expect they would take the premium, a great deal."

"I should hope not," said Ludlow. "The competition was bad enough."

The mother seemed to divine a compliment in this indefinite speech. She said: "Well, I don't see myself why they didn't take it."

"There was probably no one to feel how much better they were," said Ludlow.

"Well, that's what I think," said the mother, "and it's what I tell her." She stood looking from Ludlow to her daughter and back, and now she ventured, seeing him so intent on the sketch he still held, "You an artist?"

"A student of art," said Ludlow, with the effect of uncovering himself in a presence.

The mother did not know what to make of it apparently; she said blankly, "Oh!" and then added impressively, to her daughter: "Why don't you show them to him, Cornelia?"

"I should think it a great favor," said Ludlow, intending to be profoundly respectful. But he must have overdone it. The girl majestically gave her drawings to her mother, and marched out of the aisle.

Ludlow ignored her behavior, as if it had nothing to do with the question, and began to look at the drawings, one after another, with various inarticulate notes of comment imitated from a great French master, and with various foreign phrases, such as "Bon! Bon! Pas mauvais! Joli! Chic!" He seemed to waken from them to a consciousness of the mother, and returned to English. "They are very interesting. Has she had instruction?"

"Only in the High School, here. And she didn't seem to care any for that. She seems to want to work more by herself."

"That's wrong," said Ludlow, "though she's probably right about the High School."

The mother made bold to ask, "Where are you taking lessons?"

"I?" said Ludlow, dreamily. "Oh! everywhere."

"I thought, perhaps," the mother began, and she stopped, and then resumed, "How many lessons do you expect to take?"

William Dean Howells