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Chapter 35

Cornelia was left to no better counsels than those of Charmian Maybough, and these were disabled from what they might have been at their best, by Cornelia's failure to be frank with her. If she was wronging Charmian by making her a half-confidant only, she could not be more open with her than with Ludlow, and she must let her think that she had told him everything until she had told him everything.

She did honestly try to do so, from time to time; she tried to lead him on to ask her what it was he had kept her from telling him in that first moment of their newly confessed love, when it would have been easier than it could ever be again. She reproached him in her heart for having prevented her then; it seemed as if he must know that she was longing for his help to be frank; but she never could make that cry for his help pass her lips where it trembled when she ought to have felt safest with him. She began to be afraid of him, and he began to be aware of her fear.

He went home after parting with her that first night of their engagement too glad of all that was, to feel any lack in it; but the first thought in his mind when he woke the next morning was not that perfect joy which the last before he fell asleep had been. His discomfort was a formless emotion at first, and it was a moment before it took shape in the mistake he had made, in forbidding Cornelia to tell him what she had kept from him, merely because he knew that she wished to keep it. He ought to have been strong enough for both, and he had joined his weakness to hers from a fantastic impulse of generosity. Now he perceived that the truth, slighted and postponed, must right itself at the cost of the love which it should have been part of. He began to be tormented with a curiosity to know what he could not ask, or let her suspect that he even wished to know. Whether he was with her or away from her, he always had that in his mind, and in the small nether ache, inappeasable and incessant, he paid the penalty of his romantic folly. He had to bear it and to hide it. Yet they both seemed flawlessly happy to others, and in a sort they seemed so to themselves. They waited for the chance that should make them really so.

Cornelia kept on at her work, all the more devotedly because she was now going home so soon and because she knew herself divided from it by an interest which made art seem slight and poor, when she felt secure in her happiness, and made it seem nothing when her heart misgave her. She never could devolve upon that if love failed her; art could only be a part of her love henceforward. She could go home and help her mother with her work till she died, if love failed her, but she could never draw another line.

There was going to be an exhibition of Synthesis work at the close of the Synthesis year, and there was to be a masquerade dance in the presence of the pictures. Charmian was the heart and soul of the masquerade, and she pushed its claims to the disadvantage of the exhibition. Some of the young ladies who thought that art should have the first place, went about saying that she was for the dance because she could waltz and mask better than she could draw, and would rather exhibit herself than her work, but it was a shame that she should make Miss Saunders work for her the way she did, because Miss Saunders, though she was so overrated, was really learning something, thanks to the Synthesis atmosphere; and Charmian Maybough would never learn anything. It was all very well for her to pretend that she scorned to send anything to a school exhibition, but she was at least not such a simpleton as to risk offering anything, for it would not be accepted. That, they said, was the real secret of her devotion to the masquerade and of her theory that the spirit of the Synthesis could be expressed as well in making that beautiful, as in the exhibition. Charmian had Cornelia come and stay with her the whole week before the great event, and she spent it in a tumult of joyful excitement divided between the tremendous interests of Ludlow's coming every night to see Cornelia, and of having them both advise with her about her costume. Ludlow was invited to the dance, and he was to be there so as to drive home with her and Cornelia.

In the mean time Charmian's harshest critics were not going to be outdone, if they could help it, in any way; they not only contributed to the exhibition, but four or five days beforehand they began to stay away from the Synthesis, and get up their costumes for the masquerade. Everything was to be very simple, and you could come in costume or not, as you pleased, but the consensus was that people were coming in costume, and you would not want to look odd.

The hall for the dancing was created by taking down the board partitions that separated three of the class-rooms; and hanging the walls with cheese-cloth to hide the old stains and paint-marks, and with pictures by the instructors. There was a piano for the music, and around the wall rough benches were put, with rugs over them to save the ladies' dresses. The effect was very pretty, with palettes on nails, high up, and tall flowers in vases on brackets, and a life-study in plaster by one of the girls, in a corner of the room. It all had the charm of tasteful design yielding here and there to happy caprice; this mingling of the ordered and the bizarre, expressed the spirit, at once free and submissive, of the place. There had been a great deal of trouble which at times seemed out of all keeping with the end to be gained, but when it was all over, the trouble seemed nothing. The exhibition was the best the Synthesis had ever made, and those who had been left out of it were not the least of those in the masquerade; they were by no means the worst dressed, or when they unmasked, the plainest, and Charmian's favorite maxim that art was all one, was verified in the costumes of several girls who could not draw any better than she could. If they were not on the walls in one way neither were they in another. After they had wandered heart-sick through the different rooms, and found their sketches nowhere, they had their compensation when the dancing began.

The floor was filled early, and the scene gathered gayety and brilliancy. It had the charm that the taste of the school could give in the artistic effects, and its spirit of generous comradery found play in the praises they gave each other's costumes, and each other's looks when they were not in costume. It was a question whether Cornelia who came as herself, was lovelier than Charmian, who was easily recognizable as Cleopatra, with ophidian accessories in her dress that suggested at once the serpent of old Nile, and a Moqui snake-dancer. Cornelia looked more beautiful than ever; her engagement with Ludlow had come out and she moved in the halo of poetic interest which betrothal gives a girl with all other girls; it was thought an inspiration that she should not have come in costume, but in her own character. Ludlow's fitness to carry off such a prize was disputed; he was one of the heroes of the Synthesis, and much was conceded to him because he had more than once replaced the instructor in still-life there. But there remained a misgiving with some whether Cornelia was right in giving up her art for him; whether she were not recreant to the Synthesis in doing that; the doubt, freshly raised by her beauty, was not appeased till Charmian met it with the assertion that Cornelia was not going to give up her art at all, but after her marriage was coming back to study and paint with Ludlow.

Charmian bore her honors graciously, both as the friend of the new fiancée, and as the most successful mask of the evening. In her pride and joy, she set the example of looking out for girls who were not having a good time, and helping them to have one with the men of her own too constant following, and with those who stood about, wanting the wish or the courage to attach themselves to any one. In the excitement she did not miss Cornelia, or notice whether Ludlow had come yet. When she did think of her it was to fancy that she was off somewhere with him, and did not want to be looked up. Before the high moment when one of the instructors appeared, and chose a partner fur the Virginia Reel, Charmian had fused all the faltering and reluctant temperaments in the warmth of her amiability. Nobody ever denied her good nature, in fact, whatever else they denied her, and there were none who begrudged her its reward at last. She was last on the floor, when the orchestra, having played as long as it had bargained to, refused to play any longer, and the dance came to an end. She then realized that it was after twelve, and she remembered Cornelia. She rushed down into the dressing-room, and found her sitting there alone, bonneted and wrapped for the street. There was something suddenly strange and fateful about it all to Charmian.

"Cornelia!" she entreated. "What is the matter? What has become of Mr. Ludlow? Hasn't he been here to-night?"

Cornelia shook her head, and made a hoarse murmur in her throat, as if she wished to speak and could not. There seemed to be some sort of weight upon her, so that she could not rise, but Charmian swiftly made her own changes of toilet necessary for the street, and got Cornelia out of doors and into her coupé which was waiting for them, before the others descended from the dancing-room, where the men staid to help the janitor put out the lights. As the carriage whirled them away, they could hear the gay cries and laughter of the first of the revellers who came out into the night after them.

William Dean Howells