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Chapter 37

The cold north-light of the studio showed that it was broad day when a tap at the door roused Cornelia from a thin drowse she had fallen into at dawn. She stirred, and Charmian threw herself from the couch to her feet. "Don't move—I'll get it—let me——" She tossed back the black mane that fell over her eyes and stared about her. "What—what is it? Have I been asleep? Oh, I never can forgive myself!"

The tapping at the door began again, and she ran to open it. The inexorable housemaid was there; she said that Mrs. Maybough was frightened at her not finding either of the young ladies in their rooms, and had sent her to see if they were in the studio.

"Yes, tell her we are, please; we fell asleep on the couch, please; and, Norah! we want our breakfast here. We are very—busy, and we can't be disturbed."

She twisted her hair into a loose knot, and cowered over the hearth, where she kindled some pieces of lightwood, and then sat huddled before it, watching the murky roll of its flames, till the maid came back with the tray. Charmian wished to bring Cornelia a cup of coffee where she still lay, so crushed with the despair that had rolled back upon her with the first consciousness that she thought she never could rise again. But as the aroma of the coffee that Charmian poured out stole to her, she found strength to lift herself on her elbow, and say, "No, I will take it there with you."

The maid had put the tray on the low table where Charmian usually served tea, but in spite of all the poignant associations of this piece of furniture with happier times, the two girls ate hungrily of the omelette and the Vienna rolls; and by the time the maid had put the studio in order, and beaten up the cushions of the couch into their formal shape, they had cleared the tray, and she took it away with her quite empty. Even in the house of mourning, and perhaps there more than elsewhere, the cravings of the animal, which hungers and thirsts on, whatever happens, satisfy themselves, while the spirit faints and despairs.

Perhaps if Cornelia had thought of it she would not have chosen to starve to no visible end, but she did not think, and she ate ravenously as long as there was anything left, and when she had eaten, she felt so much stronger in heart and clearer in mind, that after the maid had gone she began, "Charmian, I am going home, at once, and you mustn't try to stop me; I mean to Mrs. Montgomery's. I want to write to Mr. Ludlow. I shall tell him it is all true."

"Cornelia!"

"Yes; what else could I tell him?"

"Oh, you must! But must you write it?"

"Yes; I never can see him again, and I won't let him think that I want to, or to have him forgive me. He was to blame, but I was the most, for he might have thought it was just some little thing, and I knew what it was, and that it was something he ought to know at once. He will always believe now that it was worse than it is, if anything can be worse. I shall tell him that after I had seen Mr. Dickerson again, and knew just what a—a dreadful thing he was, I tolerated him, and lured him on——"

"You didn't lure him on, and I won't let you say such a thing, Cornelia Saunders," Charmian protested. "You always did profess to have sense, and that isn't sense."

"I never had any sense," said Cornelia, "I can see that now. I have been a perfect fool from the beginning."

"You may have been a fool," said Charmian, judicially, "but you have not been false, and I am not going to let you say so. If you don't promise not to, I will tell Mr. Ludlow myself that you were always perfectly true, and you couldn't help being true, any more than a—a broomstick, or anything else that is perpendicular. Now, will you promise?"

"I will tell him just how everything was, and he can judge. But what difference? It's all over, and I wouldn't help it if I could."

"Yes, I know that," said Charmian, "but that's all the more reason why you shouldn't go and say more than there is. He can't think, even if you're just to yourself, that you want to—wheedle."

"Wheedle!" cried Cornelia.

"Well, not wheedle, exactly, but what would be wheedling in some other girl—in me," said Charmian, offering herself up. "Will you let me see the letter before you send it? I do believe I've got more sense than you have about such things, this minute."

"You wouldn't have any to brag of, even then," said Cornelia with gloomy meekness, and unconscious sarcasm. "Yes, I will let you see the letter."

"Well, then, you needn't go home to write it; you can write in your room here. I want to see that letter, and I sha'n't let it go if there's the least thing wrong in it." She jumped up gayly, as if this were the happiest possible solution of the whole difficulty, and began to push Cornelia out of the room. "Now go, and after you've put yourself in shape, and got your hair done, you'll have some self-respect. I suppose you won't begin to write till you're all as spick and span as if you were going to receive a call from him. I'm such a slouch that I should just sit down and write, looking every which-way—but I know you can't."

She came back to the studio an hour later, and waited impatiently for Cornelia's appearance. She was so long coming that Charmian opened the door, to go and ask her some question, so as to get her to say that she would be with her in a moment, even if she didn't come, and almost ran against the man-servant, who was bringing her a card. She gave a little nervous shriek, and caught it from his salver.

"For Miss Saunders, miss," he said, in respectful deprecation of her precipitate behavior.

"Yes, yes; it's all right. Say that she—is in the studio." Charmian spoke in thick gasps. The card was Ludlow's; and between the man's going and Ludlow's coming, she experienced a succession of sensations which were, perhaps, the most heroically perfect of any in a career so much devoted to the emotions. She did not stop to inquire what she should do after she got Ludlow there, or to ask herself what he was coming for, a little after nine o'clock in the morning; she simply waited his approach in an abandon which exhausted the capabilities of the situation, and left her rather limp and languid when he did appear. If it had been her own affair she could not have entered into it with more zeal, more impassioned interest. So far as she reasoned her action at all, it was intended to keep Ludlow, after she got him there, till Cornelia should come, for she argued that if she should go for her Cornelia would suspect something, and she would not come at all.

William Dean Howells