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Chapter 34

The blow was not softened to Cornelia by her having prophesied to Charmian as well as to herself, that she knew her picture would be refused. Now she was aware that at the bottom of her heart she had always hoped and believed it would be accepted. She had kept it all from her mother, but she had her fond, proud visions of how her mother would look when she got her letter saying that she had a picture in the Exhibition, and how she would throw on her sacque and bonnet, and run up to Mrs. Burton for an explanation and full sense of the honor. In these fancies Cornelia even had them come to New York, to see her picture in position; it was not on the line, of course, and yet it was not skyed.

Her pride was not involved, and she suffered no sting of wounded vanity from its rejection: her hurt was in a tenderer place. She would not have cared how many people knew of her failure, if her mother and Mrs. Burton need not have known; but she wrote faithfully home of it, and tried to make neither much nor little of it. She forbade Charmian the indignation which she would have liked to vent, but she let her cry over the event with her. No one else knew that it had actually happened except Wetmore and Ludlow; she was angry with them at first for encouraging her to offer the picture, but Wetmore came and was so mystified and humbled by its refusal, that she forgave him and even comforted him for his part in the affair.

"She acted like a little man about it," he reported to Ludlow. "She'll do. When a girl can take a blow like that the way she does, she makes you wish that more fellows were girls. When I had my first picture refused, it laid me up. But I'm not going to let this thing rest. I'm going to see if that picture can't be got into the American Artists'."

"Better not," said Ludlow so vaguely that Wetmore thought he must mean something.

"Why?"

"Oh—I don't believe she'd like it."

"What makes you think so? Have you seen her?"

"No——"

"You haven't? Well, Ludlow, I didn't lose any time. Perhaps you think there was no one else to blame for the mortification of that poor child."

"No, I don't. I am to blame, too. I encouraged her to try—I urged her."

"Then I should think you would go and tell her so."

"Ah, I think she knows it. If I told her anything, I should tell her no one was to blame but myself."

"Well, that wouldn't be a bad idea." Wetmore lighted his pipe. "Confound those fellows! I should like to knock their heads together. If there is anything like the self-righteousness of a committee when it's wrong—-but there isn't, fortunately."

It was not the first time that Ludlow had faltered in the notion of going to Cornelia and claiming to be wholly at fault. In thought he was always doing it, and there were times when he almost did it in reality, but he let these times pass effectless, hoping for some better time when the thing would do itself, waiting for the miracle which love expects, when it is itself the miracle that brings all its desires to fulfilment. He certainly had some excuses for preferring a passive part in what he would have been so glad to have happen. Cornelia had confessed that she had once cared for him, but at the same time she had implied that she cared for him no longer, and she had practically forbidden him to see her again. Much study of her words could make nothing else of them, and it was not until Ludlow saw his way to going impersonally in his quality of mistaken adviser, from whom explanation and atonement were due, that he went to Cornelia. Even then he did not quite believe that she would see him, and he gladly lost the bet he made himself, at the sound of a descending step on the stairs, that it was the Irish girl coming back to say that Miss Saunders was not at home.

They met very awkwardly, and Ludlow had such an official tone in claiming responsibility for having got Cornelia to offer her picture, and so have it rejected, that he hardly knew who was talking. "That is all," he said, stiffly; and he rose and stood looking into his hat. "It seemed to me that I couldn't do less than come and say this, and I hope you don't feel that I'm—I'm unwarranted in coming."

"Oh, no," cried Cornelia, "it's very kind of you, and no one's to blame but me. I don't suppose I should care; only"—she bit her lips hard, and added deep in her throat—"I hated to have my mother—— But I am rightfully punished."

She meant for the Dickerson business, but Ludlow thought she meant for her presumption, and his heart smote him in tender indignation as her head sank and her face averted itself. It touched him keenly that she should speak to him in that way of her mother, as if from an instinctive sense of his loving and faithful sympathy; and then, somehow he had her in his arms, there in Mrs. Montgomery's dim parlor; he noted, as in a dream, that his hat had fallen and was rolling half the length of it.

"Oh, wait!" cried the girl. "What are you doing—— You don't know. There is something I must tell you—that will make you hate me——" She struggled to begin somehow, but she did not know where.

"No," he said. "You needn't tell me anything. There isn't anything in the world that could change me to you—nothing that you could tell me! Sometime, if you must—if you wish; but not now. I've been too miserable, and now I'm so happy."

"But it's very foolish, it's silly! I tell you——"

"Not now, not now!" He insisted. He made her cry, he made her laugh; but he would not listen to her. She knew it was all wrong, that it was romantic and fantastic, and she was afraid of it; but she was so happy too, that she could not will it for the moment to be otherwise. She put off the time that must come, or let him put it off for her, and gladly lost herself in the bliss of the present. The fear, growing more and more vague and formless, haunted her rapture, but even this ceased before they parted, and left her at perfect peace in his love—their love.

He told her how much she could be to him, how she could supplement him in every way where he was faltering and deficient, and he poured out his heart in praises of her that made her brain reel. They talked of a thousand things, touching them, and leaving them, and coming back, but always keeping within the circle of their relation to themselves. They flattered one another with the tireless and credulous egotism of love; they tried to tell what they had thought of each other from the first moment they met, and tried to make out that they neither had ever since had a thought that was not the other's; they believed this. The commonplaces of the passion ever since it began to refine itself from the earliest savage impulse, seemed to have occurred to them for the first time in the history of the race; they accused themselves each of not being worthy of the other; they desired to be very good, and to live for the highest things.

They began this life by spending the whole afternoon together. When some other people came into the parlor, they went out to walk. They walked so long and far, that they came at last to the Park without meaning to, and sat on a bench by a rock. Other people were doing the same: nurses with baby-carriages before them; men smoking and reading; elderly husbands with their elderly wives beside them, whom they scarcely spoke to; it must have been a very common, idle thing, but to them it had the importance, the distinction of something signal, done for the first time. They staid there till it was almost dark, and then they went and had tea together in the restaurant of one of the vast hotels at the entrance of the Park. It was a very Philistine place, with rich-looking, dull-looking people, travellers and sojourners, dining about in its spacious splendor; but they got a table in a corner and were as much alone there as in the Park; their happiness seemed to push the world away from them wherever they were, and to leave them free within a wide circle of their own. She poured the tea for them both from the pot which the waiter set at her side; he looked on in joyful wonder and content. "How natural it all is," he sighed. "I should think you had always been doing that for me. But I suppose it is only from the beginning of time!"

She let him talk the most, because she was too glad to speak, and because they had both the same thoughts, and it did not need two to utter them. Now and then, he made her speak; he made her answer some question; but it was like some question that she had asked herself. From time to time they spoke of others besides themselves; of her mother and the Burtons, of Charmian, of Mrs. Westley, of Wetmore; but it was in relation to themselves; without this relation, nothing had any meaning.

When they parted after an evening prolonged till midnight in Mrs. Montgomery's parlor, that which had been quiescent in Cornelia's soul, stirred again, and she knew that she was wrong to let Ludlow go without telling him of Dickerson. It was the folly of that agreement of theirs about painting Charmian repeating itself in slightly different terms, and with vastly deeper meaning, but to a like end of passive deceit, of tacit untruth; his wish did not change it. She thought afterwards she could not have let him go without telling him, if she had not believed somehow that the parallel would complete itself, and that he would come back, as he had done before, and help her undo what was false between them; but perhaps this was not so; perhaps if she had been sure he would not come back she would not have spoken; at any rate he did not come back.

William Dean Howells