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Chapter 32

It is hard for the young to understand that the world which seems to stop with their disaster is going on with smooth indifference, and that a little time will carry them so far from any fateful event that when they gather courage to face it they will find it curiously shrunken in the perspective. Nothing really stops the world but death, and that only for the dead. If we live, we must move on, we must change, we must outwear every motion, however poignant or deep. Cornelia's shame failed to kill her; she woke the next morning with a self-loathing that seemed even greater than that of the night before, but it was actually less; and it yielded to the strong will which she brought to bear upon herself. She went to her work at the Synthesis as if nothing had happened, and she kept at it with a hard, mechanical faithfulness which she found the more possible, perhaps, because Charmian was not there, for some reason, and she had not her sympathy as well as her own weakness to manage. She surprised herself with the results of her pitiless industry, and realized for the first time the mysterious duality of being, in the power of the brain and the hand to toil while the heart aches.

She was glad, she kept assuring herself, that she had put an end to all hope from Ludlow; she rejoiced bitterly that now, however she had disgraced herself in her violent behavior, she had at least disgraced no one else. No one else could suffer through any claim upon her, or kindness for her, or had any right to feel ashamed of her or injured by her. But Cornelia was at the same time puzzled and perplexed with herself, and dismayed with the slightness of her hold upon impulses of hers which she thought she had overcome and bound forever. She made the discovery, which she was yet far too young to formulate, that she had a temperament to deal with that could at any time shake to ruins the character she had so carefully built upon it, and had so wholly mistaken for herself. In the midst of this dismay she made another discovery, and this was that perhaps even her temperament was not what she had believed it, but was still largely unknown to her. She had always known that she was quick and passionate, but she certainly had not supposed that she was capable of the meanness of wondering whether Mr. Ludlow would take her note as less final than she had meant it, and would perhaps seek some explanation of it. No girl that she ever heard or read of, had ever fallen quite so low as to hope that; but was not she hoping just that? Perhaps she had even written those words with the tacit intention of calling him back! But this conjecture was the mere play of a morbid fancy, and weak as she was, Cornelia had the strength to forbid it and deny it.

At the end of the afternoon, she pretended that she ought to go and see what had happened to Charmian, and on the way, she had time to recognize her own hypocrisy, and to resolve that she would do penance for it by coming straight at the true reason of her errand. She was sent to Charmian in her studio, and she scarcely gave her a chance to explain that she had staid at home on account of a cold, and had written a note for Cornelia to come to dinner with her, which she would find when she got back.

Cornelia said, "I want to tell you something, Charmian, and I want you to tell me what you really think—whether I've done right, or not."

Charmian's eyes lightened. "Wait a moment!" She got a piece of the lightwood, and put it on the fire which she had kindled on the hearth to keep the spring chill off, and went and turned Ludlow's sketch of herself to the wall. "I know it's about him." Then she came and crouched on the tiger-skin at Cornelia's feet, and clasped her hands around her knees, and fixed her averted face on the blazing pine. "Now go on," she said, as if she had arranged the pose to her perfect satisfaction.

Cornelia went on. "It's about him, and it's about some one else, too," and she had no pity on herself in telling Charmian all about that early, shabby affair with Dickerson.

"I knew it," said Charmian, with a sigh of utter content, "I told you, the first time I saw you, that you had lived. Well: and has he—turned up?"

"He has turned up—three times," said Cornelia.

Charmian shivered with enjoyment of the romantic situation. She reached a hand behind her and tried to clutch one of Cornelia's but had to get on without it. "And well: have they met?"

"No, they haven't," said Cornelia crossly, but not so much with Charmian as with the necessity she was now in of telling her about her last meeting with Ludlow. She began, "They almost did," and when Charmian in the intensity of her interest could not keep turning around to stare at her, Cornelia took hold of her head and turned her face toward the fire again. Then she went on to tell how it had all happened. She did not spare herself at any point, and she ended the story with the expression of her belief that she had deserved it all. "It wasn't boxing that little wretch's ears that was the disgrace; it was having brought myself to where I had to box them."

"Yes, that was it," sighed Charmian, with deep conviction.

"And I had to tell him that I could never care for him, because I couldn't bear to tell him what a fool I had been."

"No, no; you never could do that!"

"And I couldn't bear to have him think I was better than I really was, or let him care for me unless I told him all about that miserable old affair."

"No, you couldn't, Cornelia," said Charmian solemnly. "Some girls might; most girls would. They would just consider it a flirtation, and not say anything about it, or not till after they were engaged, and then just laugh. But you are different from other girls—you are so true! Yes, you would have to tell it if it killed you; I can see that; and you couldn't tell it, and you had to break his heart. Yes, you had to!"

"Oh, Charmian Maybough! How cruel you are!" Cornelia flung herself forward and cried; Charmian whirled round, and kneeling before her, threw her arms around her, in a pose of which she felt the perfection, and kissed her tenderly.

"Why didn't you let me see how you were looking? How I have gone on——"

Cornelia pulled herself loose. "Charmian! Do you dare to mean that I want him to ever speak to me again—or look at me?"

"No, no——"

"Or that I'm sorry I did it?"

"No; it's this cold that's making me so stupid."

"If he were to come back again this instant, I should have to tell him just the same, or else tell him about that—that—and you know I couldn't do that if I lived a thousand years."

Now she melted, indeed, and suffered Charmian to moan over her, and fortify her with all the reasons she had urged herself in various forms of repetition. Charmain showed her again how impossible everything that she had thought impossible was, and convinced her of every conviction. She made Cornelia's tragedy her romance, and solemnly exulted in its fatality, while she lifted her in her struggle of conscience to a height from which for the present at least, Cornelia could not have descended without a ruinous loss of self-respect. In the renunciation in which the worshipper confirmed her saint, Ludlow and his rights and feelings were ignored, and Cornelia herself was offered nothing more substantial than the prospect that henceforth she and Charmian could live for each other in a union that should be all principle on one side and all adoration on the other.

William Dean Howells