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Chapter 38

When Ludlow found Charmian and not Cornelia waiting for him, he managed to get through the formalities of greeting decently, but he had an intensity which he had the effect of not allowing to relax. He sat down with visible self-constraint when Charmian invited him to do so.

"Miss Saunders has just gone to her room; she'll be back in a moment." She added, with wild joy in a fact which veiled the truth, "She is writing a note."

"Oh!" said Ludlow, and he was so clearly able not to say anything more that Charmian instantly soared over him in smooth self-possession. "We were so sorry not to see you last night, Mr. Ludlow. It was a perfect success, except your not coming, of course."

"Thank you," said Ludlow, "I was—I couldn't come—at the last moment."

"Yes, I understood you intended to come. I do wish you could have seen Miss Saunders! I don't believe she ever looked lovelier. I wanted her to go in costume, you know, but she wouldn't, and in fact when I saw her, I saw that she needn't. She doesn't have to eke herself out, as some people do."

Ludlow was aware of the opening for a civil speech, but he was quite helpless to use it. He stared blankly at Charmian, who went on:

"And then, Cornelia is so perfectly truthful, you know, so sincere, that any sort of disguise would have been out of character with her, and I'm glad she went simply as herself. We were up so late talking, that we slept till I don't know when, this morning. I forgot to wind my clock. I suppose it's very late."

"No," said Ludlow, "it's so very early that I ought to apologize for coming, I suppose. But I wished to see Miss Saunders——" He stopped, feeling that he had given too rude a hint.

Charmian did not take it amiss. "Oh, Cornelia is usually up at all sorts of unnatural hours of the day. I expected when she came here to spend the week with me, we should have some fun, sitting up and talking, but last night is the only time we have had a real good talk, and I suppose that was because we were so excited that even Cornelia couldn't go to sleep at once. I do wish you could have seen some of the costumes, Mr. Ludlow!"

Ludlow began to wonder whether Cornelia had got his letter, or whether, if she had got it, she had kept the matter so carefully from Charmian that she had not suspected anything was wrong. Or, what was more likely, had not Cornelia cared? Was she glad to be released, and had she joyfully hailed his letter and its enclosure as a means of escape? His brain reeled with these doubts, which were the next moment relieved with the crazy hope that if his letter had not yet been delivered, he might recover it, and present the affair in the shape he had now come to give it. He believed that Charmian must have some motive for what she was doing and saying beyond the hospitable purpose of amusing him till Cornelia should appear. We always think that other people have distinct motives, but for the most part in our intercourse with one another we are really as superficially intentioned, when we are intentioned at all, as Charmian was in wishing to get what sensation she could out of the dramatic situation by hovering darkly over it, and playing perilously about its circumference. She divined that he was not there to deepen its tragical tendency at least, and she continued without well knowing what she was going to say next: "Yes, I think that the real reason why Cornelia wouldn't go in costume was that she felt that it was a kind of subterfuge. She keeps me in a perfect twitter of self-reproach. I tell her I would rather have the conscience of the worst kind of person than hers; I could get along with it a great deal easier. Don't you think you could, Mr. Ludlow?"

"Yes, yes," said Ludlow aimlessly. He rose up, and pretended a curiosity about a sketch on the wall; he could not endure to sit still.

"Won't you have a cup of tea?" asked Charmian. "Cornelia and I had some last night, and——"

"No, thank you," said Ludlow.

"Do let me ring for some coffee, then?"

"No, I have just breakfasted—that is, I have breakfasted——"

"Why, were you up early, too?" said Charmian, with what seemed to Ludlow a supernatural shrewdness. "It's perfectly telepathic! The Psychical Research ought to have it. It would be such fun if we could get together and compare our reasons for waking so early. But Cornelia and I didn't know just when we did wake, and I suppose the Psychical Research wouldn't care for it without. She seems to be writing a pretty long note, or a pretty hard one!" Ludlow lifted his downcast eyes, and gave her a look that was ghastly. "Did you look at your watch?" she asked.

"Look at my watch?" he returned in a daze.

"When you woke, that is."

"Oh!" he groaned.

"Because——"

Charmian suddenly stopped and ran to the door, which Cornelia opened before she could reach it.

Cornelia gave her a letter. "See if this will do," she said spiritlessly, and Charmian caught it from her hand.

"Yes, yes, I'll read it," she said, as she slipped out of the door and shut Cornelia in.

Cornelia saw Ludlow, and made an instinctive movement of flight.

"For pity's sake, don't go!" he implored.

"I didn't know you were here," she said, the same dejection in her tone.

"No, they told me you were here; but let me stay long enough to tell you—— That abominable letter—you ought never to have known that it existed. I don't expect you to forgive me; I don't ask you; but I am so ashamed; and I would do anything if I could recall—undo—Cornelia! Isn't there any way of atoning for it? Come! I don't believe a word of that scoundrel's. I don't know what his motive was, and I don't care. Let it all be as if nothing of the kind had ever happened. Dearest, don't speak of it, and I never will!"

Cornelia was tempted. She could see how he had wrought himself up to this pitch, and she believed that he would keep his word; we believe such miracles of those we love, before life has taught us that love cannot make nature err against itself. In his absence the duty she had to do was hard; in his presence it seemed impossible, now when he asked her not to do it. She had not expected ever to see him again, or to be tried in this way. She had just written it all to him, but she must speak it now. She had been weak, and had brought on herself the worst she had to tell, and should she be false, even though he wished it, and not tell?

She forced the words out in a voice that hardly seemed her own at first.

"No, we made a mistake; you did, and I did, too. There was something—something—I wanted to tell you at first, but you wouldn't let me, and I was glad you wouldn't; but it was all wrong, and now I have got to tell you, when everything is over, and it can never do any good." She gave a dry sob, and cast upon him a look of keen reproach, which he knew he deserved. "I was engaged to him once. Or," she added, as if she could not bear to see him blench, "he could think so. It was the year after you were in Pymantoning."

She went on and told him everything. She did not spare herself any fact that she thought he ought to know, and as she detailed the squalid history, it seemed to her far worse than it had ever been in her own thoughts of it.

He listened patiently, and at the end he asked, "Is that all?"

"All?"

"Yes. I wanted to know just how much you have to forgive me." She looked at him stupefied. "Yes, I ought to have let you tell me all this before, when you wanted to, at first. But I have been a romantic fool, and I have made you suffer for my folly. I have left you to think, all the time, that I might care for this; that I might not know that you were yourself through it all, or that I could care for you any the less because of it, when it only makes you dearer to me."

"No!" she said for all protest, and he understood.

"Oh, I don't mean that you were always right in it, or always wise; but I can truly say it makes no difference with me except to make you dearer. If I had always had more sense than I had, you would not have to blame yourself for the only wrong or unwise thing you have done, and I am really to blame for that."

She knew that he meant her having taken refuge from his apparent indifference in Dickerson, when she fell below her ideal of herself. This was what she had thought at the time; it was the thought with which she had justified herself then, and she could not deny it now. She loved him for taking her blame away, and she said to strengthen herself for her doom, "Well, it is all over!"

"No," he said, "why is it over? Don't be worse than I was. Let us be reasonable about it! Why shouldn't we talk of it as if we were other people? Do you mean it is all over because you think I must be troubled by what you've told me, or because you can't forgive me for not letting you tell me before?"

"You know which!" she said.

"Well, then, what should you think of some other man if he could care for such a thing, when some other girl had told it him of herself? You would think him very unjust and——"

"But it isn't some other man; it isn't some other girl!"

"No, I'm glad it isn't. But can't we reason about it as if it were?"

"No, we can't. It would be—wicked."

"It would be wicked not to. Do you think you ought to break our engagement because I didn't let you tell me this at first?"

Cornelia could not say that she did; she could hardly say, "I don't know."

Ludlow assumed that she had said more. "Then if you don't think you ought to do it for that, do you think you ought to do it for nothing?"

"For nothing?" Cornelia asked herself. Was there really nothing else, then? She stood looking at him, as if she were asking him that aloud. He was not so far off as when they began to talk, just after they had risen, and now he suddenly came much nearer still.

"Are you going to drive me from you because I don't care for all this?"

"You ought to care," she persisted.

"But if I don't? If I can't? Then what is the reason you won't let it all be as if nothing had happened? Ah, I see! You can't forgive me for sending you his letter! Well, I deserve to be punished for that!"

"No; I should have despised you if you hadn't——"

"Well?"

She was silent, looking at the floor. He put his arm round her, and pushed her head down on his shoulder. "Oh, how silly!" she said, with lips muted against his own.

William Dean Howells