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Chapter 30

Ludlow did not come to see Cornelia, but they met, from time to time, at Mrs. Westley's, where he was aware of her being rather taken up; at Mrs. Maybough's, where he found it his duty to show himself after his failure with Charmian's picture, so as to help Mrs. Maybough let people know there was nothing but the best feeling about it; and, more to his surprise, at Wetmore's. At the painter's, Charmian, who came with her, realized more than anywhere else, her dream of Bohemia, and Wetmore threw a little excess into the social ease of his life that he might fulfil her ideal. He proposed that Mrs. Wetmore should set the example of hilarities that her domestic spirit abhorred; he accused her of cutting off his beer, and invented conditions of insolvency and privation that surpassed Charmian's wildest hopes. He borrowed money of Ludlow in her presence, and said that he did not know that he should ever be able to pay it back. He planned roystering escapades which were never put in effect, and once he really went out with the two girls to the shop of an old German, on the Avenue, who dealt in delicatessen, and bought some Nuremberg gingerbread and a bottle of lime-juice, after rejecting all the ranker meats and drinks as unworthy the palates of true Bohemians. He invited Charmian to take part in various bats, for the purpose of shocking the Pymantoning propriety of Cornelia, and they got such fun out of it as children do when the make-believe of their elders has been thinned to the most transparent pretence; but Charmian, who knew he was making fun of her, remained as passionately attached to the ideal he mocked as ever; and Cornelia had the guilty pang of wondering what he would think of her if he knew all about Mr. Dickerson, whose nature she now perceived to be that of the vulgarest batting.

She did not answer the letter she first got, nor any of those which immediately followed, and this had the effect of checking Mr. Dickerson's ardor for so long a time that she began to think he would not trouble her again.

There was no real offence between her and Ludlow, or any but such as could wear itself away with time and the custom of friendly meeting. He had the magnanimity to ignore it when he first saw her after that Thursday of Mrs. Westley's, and she had too keen a sense of having been a fool not to wish to act more wisely as soon as she could forget. There came so long a lapse between the letters of Mr. Dickerson that he ceased, at least perpetually, to haunt her thoughts. She had moments when it seemed as if she might justly consent to be happy again, or at least allow herself to enjoy the passing pleasure of the time without blame. She even suffered herself to fancy taking up the picture of Charmian, and carrying it farther under Ludlow's criticism. She was very ambitious to try her fate with the Academy, and when he offered so generously to help her again, as if she had not refused him once so rudely, she could not deny him. She found herself once more in Charmian's studio, and it all began to go on the same as if it had never stopped. It seemed like a dream, sometimes, when she thought about it, and it did not seem like a very wise dream. Cornelia now wished, above all things, to have a little bit of sense, as she phrased it in her thoughts; and she was aware that the present position of affairs might look rather crazy to some people. The best excuse for it was that it would have looked crazier yet if she had refused such an opportunity simply because of the circumstances. She began to be a little vague about the circumstances, and whether they were queer because she had fancied a likeness of herself in Mr. Ludlow's picture of Charmian, or because she had afterwards made a fool of herself so irreparably as to be unworthy Mr. Ludlow's kindness.

If it was merely kindness, and she was the object of charity, it was all right; she could accept it on those terms. She even tempted him to patronize her, but when he ventured upon something elderly and paternal in his monitions, she resented it so fiercely that she was astonished and ashamed. There was an inconsistency in it all that was perplexing, but not so perplexing as to spoil the pleasure of it.

There were not sittings every day, now; Ludlow came once or twice a week, and criticised her work; sometimes he struck off a sketch himself, in illustration of a point, and these sketches were now so unlike Cornelia, and so wholly like Charmian, that when he left them for her guidance, she studied them with a remote ache in her heart. "Never mind," Charmian consoled her once, "he just does it on purpose."

"Does what?" Cornelia demanded awfully.

"Oh, nothing!"

One of the sketches he fancied so much that he began to carry it forward. He worked at it whenever he came, and under his hand it grew an idealized Charmian, in which her fantastic quality expressed itself as high imagination, and her formless generosity as a wise and noble magnanimity.

She made fun of it when they were alone, but Cornelia could see that she was secretly proud of having inspired it, and that she did not really care for the constant portrait which Cornelia had been faithfully finishing up, while Ludlow changed and experimented, though Charmian praised her to his disadvantage.

One day he said he had carried his picture as far as he could, and he should let it go at that. It seemed an end of their pleasant days together; the two girls agreed that now there could be no further excuse for their keeping on, and Cornelia wondered how she could let him know that she understood. That evening he came to call on her at Mrs. Montgomery's, and before he sat down he began to say: "I want to ask your advice, Miss Saunders, about what I shall do with my sketch of Miss Maybough."

Cornelia blenched, for no reason that she could think of; she could not gasp out the "Yes" that she tried to utter.

"You see," he went on, "I know that I've disappointed Mrs. Maybough, and I'd like to make her some sort of reparation, but I can't offer her the sketch instead of the portrait; if she liked it she would want to pay for it, and I can't take money for it. So I've thought of giving the sketch to Miss Maybough."

He looked at Cornelia, now, for the advice he had asked, but she did not speak, and he had to say: "But I don't know whether she likes it or not. Do you know whether she does? Has she ever spoken of it to you? Of course she's said civil things to me about it. I beg your pardon! I suppose you don't care to tell, and I had no right to inquire."

"Oh, yes; yes."

"Well?"

"I know she likes it; she must."

"But she hasn't said so?"

"Not—exactly."

"Then what makes you think she does?"

"I don't know. Any one would. It's very beautiful." Cornelia spoke very dryly, very coldly.

"But is it a likeness? Is it she? Her character? What do you think of it yourself?"

"I don't know as I can say——"

"Ah, I see you don't like it!" said Ludlow, with an air of disappointment. "And yet I aimed at pleasing you in it."

"At pleasing me?" she murmured thickly back.

"Yes, you. I tried to see her as you do; to do her justice, and if it is overdone, or flattered, or idealized, it is because I've been working toward your notion——"

"Oh!" said Cornelia, and then, to the great amazement of herself as well as Ludlow, she began to laugh, and she laughed on, with her face in her handkerchief. When she took her handkerchief down, her eyes looked strange, but she asked, with a sort of radiance, "And did you think I thought Charmian was really like that?"

"Why, I didn't know—— You've been very severe with me when I've suggested she wasn't. At first, when I wanted to do her as Humbug, you wouldn't stand it, and now, when I've done her as Mystery, you laugh."

Cornelia pressed her handkerchief to her shining eyes, and laughed a little more. "That is because she isn't either. Can't you understand?"

"I could understand her being both, I think. Don't you think she's a little of both?"

"I told you," said Cornelia gravely, "that I didn't like to talk Charmian over."

"That was a good while ago. I didn't know but you might, by this time."

"Why?" she asked. "Am I so changeable?"

"No; you're the one constant and steadfast creature in a world of variableness. I didn't really expect that. I know that I can always find you where I left you. You are the same as when I first saw you."

It seemed to Cornelia that she had been asking him to praise her, and she was not going to have that. "Do you mean that I behave as badly as I did in the Fair House? No wonder you treat me like a child." This was not at all what she meant to say, however, and was worse than what she had said before.

"No," he answered seriously. "I meant that you are not capricious, and I hate caprice. But do I treat you like a child?"

"Sometimes," said Cornelia, looking down and feeling silly.

"I am very sorry. I wish you would tell me how."

She had not expected this pursuit, and she flashed back, "You are doing it now! You wouldn't say that to—to—any one else."

Ludlow paused thoughtfully. Then he said, "I seem to treat myself like a child when I am with you. Perhaps that's what displeases you. Well, I can't help that. It is because you are so true that I can't keep up the conventions with you." They were both silent; Cornelia was trying to think what she should say, and he added, irrelevantly, "If you don't like that sketch of her, I won't give it to her."

"I? What have I to do with it?" She did not know what they were talking about, or to what end. "Yes, you must give it to her. I know she wants it. And I know how kind you are, and good. I didn't mean—I didn't wish to blame you—I don't know why I'm making such a perfect fool of myself."

She had let him have her hand somehow, and he was keeping it; but they had both risen.

"May I stay a moment?" he entreated.

No one thing now seemed more inconsequent than another, and Cornelia answered, with a catching of her breath, but as if it quite followed, "Why, certainly," and they both sat down again.

"There is something I wish to tell—to speak of," he began. "I think it's what you mean. In my picture of Miss Maybough——"

"I didn't mean that at all. That doesn't make any difference to me," she broke incoherently in upon him. "I didn't care for it. You can do what you please with it."

He looked at her in a daze while she spoke. "Oh," he said, "I am very stupid. I didn't mean this sketch of mine; I don't care for that, now. I meant that other picture of her—the last one—the one I painted out before I gave up painting her—— Did you see that it was like you?"

Cornelia felt that he was taking an advantage of her, and she lifted her eyes indignantly. "Mr. Ludlow!"

"Ah! Don't think that," he pleaded, and she knew that he meant her unexpressed sense of unfairness in him. "I know you saw it; and the likeness was there because—I wanted to tell you long ago, but I couldn't, because when we met afterwards I was afraid that I was mistaken, in what I thought—hoped. I had no right to know anything till I was sure of myself; but—the picture was like you because you were all the time in my thoughts, and nothing and no one but you. Cornelia——" She rose up crazily, and looked toward the door, as if she were going to run out of the room. "What is it?" he implored. "You know I love you."

"Let me go!" she panted.

"If you tell me you don't care for me——"

"I don't! I don't care for you, and—let me go!"

He stood flushed and scared before her. "I—I am sorry. I didn't mean—I hoped—— But it is all right—— I mean you are right, and I am wrong. I am very wrong."

William Dean Howells