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Chapter 36

The solemn man-servant, who was now also sleepy, but who saved the respect due the young ladies by putting his hand over a yawn when he let them in, brought Cornelia a letter which he seemed to have been keeping on his professional salver. "A letter for you, miss. It came about an hour after you went out. The messenger said he wasn't to wait for an answer, and Mrs. Maybough thought she needn't send it to you at the Synthesis. She wanted me to tell you, miss."

"Oh, it is all right, thank you," said Cornelia, with a tremor which she could not repress at the sight of Ludlow's handwriting.

Charmian put her arm round her. "Come into the studio, dear. You can answer it there, if you want to, at once."

"Well," said Cornelia, passively.

Charmian found her sitting with the letter in her lap, as if she had not moved from her posture while she had been away exchanging her Ptolemaic travesty for the ease of a long silken morning gown of Nile green. She came back buttoning it at her throat, when she gave a start of high tragic satisfaction at something stonily rigid in Cornelia's attitude, but she kept to herself both her satisfaction and the poignant sympathy she felt at the same time, and sank noiselessly into a chair by the fireless hearth.

After a moment Cornelia stirred and asked, "Do you want to see it, Charmian?"

"Do you want me to?" Charmian asked back, with her heart in her throat, lest the question should make Cornelia change her mind.

There were two lines from Ludlow, unsigned: "I have received the enclosed letter, which I think you should see before I see you again." His note enclosed a letter from Dickerson to Ludlow, which ran:

"Although you are a stranger to me, I feel an old friend's interest in your engagement to Miss Cornelia Saunders, of which I have just been informed. I can fully endorse your good taste. Was once engaged to the young lady myself some years since, and have been in correspondence with her up to a very recent date. Would call and offer my well wishes in person, but am unexpectedly called away on business. Presume Miss Saunders has told you of our little affair, so will not enlarge upon the facts. Please give her my best regards and congratulations.

"Yours respect'ly,

"J. B. Dickerson."

Charmian let the papers fall to her lap, and looked at Cornelia who stared blankly, helplessly back at her. "What a hateful, spiteful little cad!" she began, and she enlarged at length upon Mr. Dickerson's character and behavior. She arrested herself in this pleasure, and said, "But I don't understand why Mr. Ludlow should have staid away this evening on account of his letter, or why he should have sent it to you, if he knew about it already. It seems to me——"

"He didn't know about it," said Cornelia. "I haven't told him yet."

"Why, Cornelia!"

The reproachful superiority in Charmian's tone was bitter to Cornelia, but she did not even attempt to resent it. She said meekly, "I did try to tell him. I wanted to tell him the very first thing, but he wouldn't let me, then; and then—I couldn't."

Charmian's superiority melted into sympathy: "Of course," she said.

"And now, I never can tell him," Cornelia desperately concluded.

"Never!" Charmian assented. The gleam of common-sense which had visited her for an instant, was lost in the lime-light of romance, which her fancy cast upon the situation. "And what are you going to do?" she asked, enraptured by its hopeless gloom.

"Nothing. What can I do?"

"No. You can do nothing." She started, as with a sudden inspiration. "Why, look here, Cornelia! Why wouldn't this do?"

She stopped so long that Cornelia asked, somewhat crossly, "Well?"

"I don't know whether I'd better tell you. But I know it would be the very thing. Do you want me to tell you?"

"Oh, it makes no difference," said Cornelia, hopelessly.

Charmian went on tentatively, "Why, it's this. I've often heard of such things: Me to pretend that I wrote this horrid Dickerson letter, and there isn't any such person; but I did it just for a joke, or wanted to break off the engagement because I couldn't bear to give you up. Don't you see? It's like lots of things on the stage, and I've read of them, I'd be perfectly willing to sacrifice myself in such a cause, and I should have to, for after I said I had done such a thing as that, he would never let you speak to me again, or look at me, even. But I should die happy——" She stopped, frozen to silence, by the scornful rejection in Cornelia's look. "Oh, no, no! It wouldn't do! I see it wouldn't! Don't speak! But there's nothing else left, that I know of." She added, by another inspiration, "Or, yes! Now—now—we can live for each other, Cornelia. You will outlive this. You will be terribly changed, of course; and perhaps your health may be affected; but I shall always be with you from this on. I have loved you more truly than he ever did, if he can throw you over for a little thing like that. If I were a man I should exult to ignore such a thing. Oh, if men could only be what girls would be if they were men! But now you must begin to forget him from this instant—to put him out of your mind—your life."

To further this end Charmian talked of Ludlow for a long time, and entered upon a close examination of his good and bad qualities; his probable motives for now behaving as he was doing, and the influence of the present tragedy upon his future as a painter. It would either destroy him or it would be the fire out of which he would rise a master; he would degenerate into a heartless worldling, which he might very well do, for he was fond of society, or he might become a gloomy recluse, and produce pictures which the multitude would never know were painted with tears and blood. "Of course, I don't mean literally; the idea is rather disgusting; but you know what I mean, Cornelia. He may commit suicide, like that French painter, Robert; but he doesn't seem one of that kind, exactly; he's much more likely to abandon art and become an art-critic. Yes, it may make an art-critic of him."

Cornelia sat in a heavy muse, hearing and not hearing what she said. Charmian bustled about, and made a fire of lightwood, and then kindled her spirit lamp, and made tea, which she brought to Cornelia. "We may as well take it," she said. "We shall not sleep to-night anyway. What a strange ending to our happy evening. It's perfectly Hawthornesque. Don't you think it's like the Marble Faun, somehow? I believe you will rise to a higher life through this trouble, Cornelia, just as Donatello did through his crime. I can arrange it with mamma to be with you; and if I can't I shall just simply abandon her, and we will take a little flat like two newspaper girls that I heard of, and live together. We will get one down-town, on the East Side."

Cornelia look the tea and drank it, but she could not speak. It would have been easier to bear if she had only had herself alone to blame, but mixed with her shame, and with her pity for him, was a sense of his want of wisdom in refusing to let her speak at once, when she wanted to tell him all about Dickerson. That was her instinct; she had been right, and he wrong; she might be to blame for everything since, but he was to blame then and for that. Now it was all wrong, and past undoing. She tried, in the reveries running along with what she was hearing of Charmian's talk, every way of undoing it that she could imagine: she wrote to Ludlow; she sent for him; she went to him; but it was all impossible. She did not wish to undo the wrong that she might have back her dream of happiness again; she had been willing to be less than true, and she could wish him to know that she hated herself for that.

It went on and on, in her brain; there was no end to it; no way to undo the snarl that life had tangled itself up into. She looked at the clock on the mantel, and saw that it was three o'clock. "Why don't you go to bed?" she asked Charmian.

"I shall not go to bed, I shall never go to bed," said Charmian darkly. She added, "If you'll come with me, I will."

"I can't," said Cornelia, with a sort of dry anguish. She rose from where she had been sitting motionless so long. "Let me lie down on that couch of yours, there. I'm tired to death."

She went toward the alcove curtained off from the studio, and Charmian put her arm round her to stay her and help.

"Don't. I can get along perfectly well."

"I will lie down here with you," said Charmian. "You won't mind?"

"No, I shall like to have you."

Cornelia shivered as she sat down on the edge of this divan, and Charmian ran back to put another stick of lightwood on the fire, and turn the gas down to a blue flame. She pulled down rugs and draperies, and dragged them toward the alcove for covering. "Oh, how different it is from the way I always supposed it would be when I expected to sleep here!" She sank her voice to a ghostly whisper, and yawned. "Now you go to sleep, Cornelia; but if you want anything I shall be watching here beside you, and you must ask me. Would you like anything now? An olive, or a—cracker?"

"Nothing," said Cornelia, tumbling wearily upon the couch.

Charmian surveyed her white, drawn face with profound appreciation. Then she stretched herself at her side, and in a little while Cornelia knew by her long, regular breathing that she had found relief from the stress of sympathy in sleep.

William Dean Howells