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Chapter 39

Cornelia and Ludlow were married at Pymantoning in the latter part of June, and he spent the summer there, working at a picture which he was going to exhibit in the fall. At the same time he worked at a good many other pictures, and he helped Cornelia with the things she was trying. He painted passages and incidents in her pictures, sometimes illustratively, and sometimes for the pleasure of having their lives blended in their work, and he tried to see how nearly he could lose his work in hers. He pretended that he learned more than he taught in the process, and that he felt in her efforts a determining force, a clear sense of what she wanted to do, that gave positive form and direction to what was vague and speculative in himself. He was strenuous that she should not, in the slightest degree, lapse from her ideal and purpose, or should cease to be an artist in becoming a wife. He contended that there was no real need of that, and though it had happened in most of the many cases where artists had married artists, he held that it had happened through the man's selfishness and thoughtlessness, and not through the conditions. He was resolved that Cornelia should not lose faith in herself from want of his appreciation, or from her own over-valuation of his greater skill and school; and he could prove to any one who listened that she had the rarer gift. He did not persuade her, with all his reasons, but her mother faithfully believed him. It had never seemed surprising to her that Cornelia should win a man like Ludlow; she saw no reason why Cornelia should not; and she could readily accept the notion of Cornelia's superiority when he advanced it. She was not arrogant about it; she was simply and entirely satisfied; and she was every moment so content with Cornelia's husband that Cornelia herself had to be a little critical of him in self-defence. She called him a dreamer and theorist; she ran him down to the Burtons, and said he would never come to anything, because artists who talked well never painted so well. She allowed that he talked divinely, and it would not have been safe for Mrs. Burton to agree with her otherwise; but Mrs. Burton was far too wise a woman to do so. She did not, perhaps, ride so high a horse as Mrs. Saunders in her praises of Ludlow, but it would have been as impossible to unseat her. She regarded herself as somehow the architect of Cornelia's happiness in having discovered Ludlow and believed in him long before Cornelia met him, and she could easily see that if he had not come out to visit Burton, that first time, they would never have met at all. Mrs. Saunders could joyfully admit this without in the least relinquishing her own belief, so inarticulate that it was merely part of her personal consciousness, that this happiness was of as remote an origin as the foundations of the world. She could see, now, that nothing else could have been intended from the beginning, but she did not fail at the same time to credit herself with forethought and wisdom in bracing Cornelia against the overtures of Dickerson when he reappeared in her life. Burton, of course, advanced no claim to recognition in the affair. He enjoyed every moment of Ludlow's stay in Pymantoning, and gave his work a great deal of humorous attention and gratuitous criticism, especially the picture he was chiefly engaged upon. This, when it was shown at the County Fair, where Ludlow chose to enter it, before he took it back to Now York with him in the fall, did not keep the crowd away from the trotting-matches, and it did not take either the first or the second premium. In fact, if the critics of the metropolis were right in their judgment of it when it appeared later in the Academy, it did not deserve either of them. They said that it was an offence to those who had hoped better things of the painter as time went on with him, and who would now find themselves snubbed by this return to his worst manner. Here, they said, was his palette again, with a tacit invitation to the public to make what it liked of the colors, as children did with the embers on the hearth, or the frost on the window. You paid your money and you took your choice as to what Mr. Ludlow meant by this extraordinary performance, if he really meant anything at all.

As far as it could be made out with the naked eye, it represented a clump of hollyhocks, with a slim, shadowy and uncertain young girl among them, and the painter had apparently wished to suggest a family, resemblance among them all. To this end he had emphasized some facts of the girl's dress, accessories to his purpose, the petal-edged ruffle of her crimson silk waist, the flower-like flare of her red hat, and its finials of knotted ribbon; and in the hollyhocks he had recognized a girlishness of bearing, which he evidently hoped would appeal to a fantastic sympathy in the spectator. The piece was called "Hollyhocks"; it might equally well be called "Girls," though when you had called it one or the other, it would be hard to say just what you were to do about it, especially with the impression curiously left by the picture that whether it was a group of girls, or a clump of hollyhocks, they were not in very good humor. The moment chosen, if one might judge from some suggestions of light, was that just before the breaking of a thunderstorm; the girl, if it was a girl, had flashed into sight round the corner of the house where the hollyhocks, if they were hollyhocks, were blowing outward in the first gust of the storm. It could not be denied that there was something fine in the wild toss and pull of the flowers, with the abandon of the storm in them; this was the best thing in the piece. It was probably intended to express a moment of electric passion; but there was something so forced, and at the same time so ineffectual in the execution of the feebly fantastic design, that it became the duty of impartial criticism, to advise Mr. Ludlow, if he must continue to paint at all, to paint either girls or flowers, but not both at once, or both together, or convertibly.

Ludlow did not mind these criticisms much, being pretty well used to that kind of thing, and feeling secure of his public in any event; but Cornelia was deeply vexed. She knew that it must be evident to those who knew her and knew him that she was the girl and she was the hollyhocks, and though the origin of the picture was forever hid in the memories of their first meeting, she was aware of a measure of justice in the censure that condemned it for obscurity. She had not wished him to show it, but here, as often elsewhere, she found him helpless to yield to her, even though he confessed that she was right. He did not try to justify himself, and he did not explain himself very clearly. "I don't know how it is about one's work, exactly. Up to a certain point you are master over it, and it seems to belong absolutely to you; but beyond that it is its own master and does what it pleases with itself. Of course I could have kept from showing that picture, and yet—I must."

"Well, at least, then, you can keep from selling it," said Cornelia. "I want it; give it to me."

"My dear, I will buy it for you. Mrs. Maybough became the owner of the picture, yesterday, but I will offer her an advance on the price she paid."

Cornelia now thought she was really angry with him for the first time since their marriage. She would not speak at once, but when she did speak, it was to say, "No, let her keep it. I know Charmian made her buy it and I wouldn't like to take it from her. She has so much imagination that maybe she can see some meaning in it and it will always be such a pleasure to her to explain it even if she can't."

Charmian made the Ludlows a Bohemian dinner as soon as the people whom she wanted got back to town. She said it was a Bohemian dinner, and she asked artists, mostly; but of course she had the Westleys and their friend Mrs. Rangeley. There were several of the Synthesis girls, who said the Synthesis would never be itself again without Cornelia, and there were some of the students, nice fellows, whom Charmian had liked; there were, of course, the Wetmores. Ludlow's picture was in evidence in a place of honor, especially created for it, and Wetmore said, when they sat down at dinner, "Well, Ludlow, all this company can tell where you got your hollyhocks." Cornelia turned the color of the reddest in the picture, and Wetmore recognized her consciousness with the added remark, "Oh, you'll be in all his imaginative pictures, now, Mrs. Ludlow. That's the fate of the wife of an imaginative painter. But you really must get him to keep you out of his portraits."

Charmian checked herself in a wild laugh, and sent Cornelia a look of fond and proud intelligence, which Mrs. Rangeley tapped, as it were, on its way up the length of the table. "O Mrs. Ludlow!" she entreated. "What is it? I hope it isn't professional envy! Is he afraid of Mr. Ludlow becoming too popular?"

Ludlow answered for his wife, "Mrs. Rangeley, that was worthy even of you," and he boldly kissed his hand to her.

The dinner was remembered for several weeks as one of the pleasantest people had ever been at, and it established Mrs. Maybough in such social acceptance that she was asked to the first of the Westley dinners, where swells prevailed, and where she was as null as any of them. But although Charmian was apparently radiant the whole evening, and would hardly let Cornelia go away at the end, she wanted her to stay so and talk it over, she had a girl's perverseness in not admitting the perfection of the occasion to Mrs. Maybough, when she said, "Well, my dear, I hope your dinner was Bohemian enough for you."

"Bohemian!" she retorted. "It wasn't Bohemian at all. You oughtn't to have taken the ladies away at coffee. They ought to have stayed and had cigarettes with the gentlemen."

"My dear, you know that the mere smell of tobacco makes you sick!"

"No matter, I should—if I could only have seen Cornelia Ludlow smoking—I should have been willing to die. And now—now, I'm afraid she's going to be perfectly respectable!"

THE END.

William Dean Howells