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Chapter 31

Ludlow stood aside and Cornelia escaped. When she reached her own room, she had a sense of her failure to take formal leave of him, and she mechanically blamed herself for that before she blamed herself for anything else. At first he was altogether to blame, and she heaped the thought of him with wild reproach and injury; if she had behaved like a fool, it was because she was trapped into it, and could not help it; she had to do so. She recalled distinctly, amidst the turmoil, how she had always kept in mind that a girl who had once let a man, like that dreadful little wretch, whose name she could not take into her consciousness, suppose that she could care for him, could not let a man like Ludlow care for her. If she did, she was wicked, and she knew she had not done it for she had been on her guard against it. The reasoning was perfect, and if he had spoiled everything now, he had himself to thank for it; and she did not pity him. Still she wished she had not run out of the room; she wished she had behaved with more dignity, and not been rude; he could laugh at her for that; it was like her behavior with him from the very beginning; there was something in him that always made her behave badly with him, like a petulant child. He would be glad to forget her; he would believe, now, that she was not good enough for him; and he might laugh; but at least he could not say that she had ever done or said the least thing to let him suppose that she cared for him. If she had, she should not forgive herself, and she should pity him as much as she blamed him now. There was nothing in her whole conduct that would have warranted her in supposing such a thing, if she were a man. Cornelia had this comfort, and she clung to it, till it flashed through her that not being a man, she could not imagine what the things were that could let a man suppose it. She had never thought of that before, and it dazed her. Perhaps he had seen all along that she did care for him, that he had known it in some way unknown and forever unknowable to her; the way a man knows; and all her disguises had availed nothing against him. Then, if he had known, he had acted very deceitfully and very wrongfully, and nothing could excuse him unless there had been other signs that a girl would recognize, too. That would excuse him, it would justify him, and she tried to see the affair with another woman's eyes. She tried to see it with Charmian's eves, but she knew they were filled with a romantic iridescence that danced before them and wrapt it in a rainbow mist. Then she tried Mrs. Westley's eyes, which she knew were friendly to both Ludlow and herself, and she told her everything in her impassioned revery: all about that little wretch; all about the first portrait of Charmian and the likeness they had seen in it; all about what had happened since Ludlow began to criticise her work again. In the mere preparation for this review she found another's agency insufferable; she abandoned herself wildly to a vision which burned itself upon her in mass and detail, under a light that searched motive and conduct alike, and left her no refuge from the truth. Then she perceived, how at every moment since they began those last lessons at Charmain's he must have believed she cared for him and wished him to care for her. If she had not seen it too, it was because she was stupid, and she was to blame all the same. She was blind to what he saw in her, and she had thought because she was hidden from herself that she was hidden from him.

It was not a question now of whether she cared for him, or not; that was past all question; but whether she had not led him on to think she did, and she owned that down to the last moment before he had spoken, wittingly or unwittingly she had coaxed him to praise her, to console her, lo make love to her. She was rightly punished, and she was ready to suffer, but she could not let him suffer the shame of thinking himself wrong. That was mean, that was cowardly, and whatever she was, Cornelia was not base, and not afraid. She would have been willing to follow him into the night, to go to his door, and knock at it, and when he came, flash out at him, "I did love you, I do love you," and then run, she did not know where, but somewhere out of the world. But he might not be there, or some one else might come to the door; the crude, material difficulties denied her the fierce joy of this exploit, but she could not rest (she should never really rest again) till she had done the nearest thing to it that she could. She looked at the little busy-bee clock ticking away on her bureau and saw that it was half-past eleven o'clock, and that there was no time to lose, and she sat down and wrote: "I did care for you. But I can never see you again. I cannot tell you the reason."

She drew a deep breath when the thing was done, and hurried the scrap unsigned into an envelope and addressed it to Ludlow. She was in a frenzy till she could get it out of her hands and into the postal-box beyond recall. She pulled a shawl over her head and flew down stairs and out of the door into the street toward the postal-box on the corner. But before she reached it she thought of a special-delivery stamp, which should carry the letter to Ludlow the first thing in the morning, and she pushed on to the druggist's at the corner beyond to get it. She was aware of the man staring at her, as if she had asked for arsenic; and she supposed she must have looked strange. This did not come into her mind till she found herself again at Mrs. Montgomery's door, where she stood in a panic ecstasy at having got rid of the letter, which the special stamp seemed to make still more irrevocable, and tried to fit her night-latch into the lock. The cat, which had been shut out, crept up from the area, and rubbed with a soft insinuation against her skirt. She gave a little shriek of terror, and the door was suddenly pulled open from within.

She threw back her shawl from her head, and under the low-burning gas-light held aloft by the spelter statuette in the newel post, she confronted Mr. Dickerson. He had his hat on, and had the air of just having let himself in; his gripsack stood at his feet.

"Why, Nelie! Miss Saunders! Is that you? Why, where in the world—— Well, this is something like 'Willy, we have missed you'; I've just come. What was the matter out there? Somebody trying to scare you? Well, there's nothing to be afraid of now, anyway. How you do pant! But it becomes you. Yes, it does! You look now just like I've seen you all the time I've been gone! You didn't answer any of my letters; I don't know as I could have expected any different. But I did hope—— Nelie, it's no use! I've got to speak out, and it's now or never; maybe there won't be another chance. Look here, my girl! I want you—I love you, Nie! and I always d——"

He had got her hand, and he was drawing her toward him. She struggled to free herself, but he pulled her closer.

Her heart swelled with a fury of grief for all she had suffered and lost through him. She thought of what her mother had said she ought to do if he ever spoke to her again; there came without her agency, almost, three swift, sharp, electrical blows from the hand she had freed; she saw him reeling backward with his hand at his face, and then she was standing in her own room, looking at her ghost in the glass.

Now, if Mr. Ludlow knew, he would surely despise her, and she wished she were dead indeed: not so much because she had boxed Dickerson's ears as because she had done what obliged her to do it.

William Dean Howells