Ludlow found his friend Burton smoking on his porch when he came back from the fair, and watching with half-shut eyes the dust that overhung the street. Some of the farmers were already beginning to drive home, and their wheels sent up the pulverous clouds which the western sun just tinged with red; Burton got the color under the lower boughs of the maple grove of his deep door-yard.
"Well," he called out, in a voice expressive of the temperament which kept him content with his modest fortune and his village circumstance, when he might have made so much more and spent so much more in the world outside, "did you get your picture?"
Ludlow was only half-way up the walk from the street when the question met him, and he waited to reach the piazza steps before he answered.
"Oh, yes, I think I've got it." By this time Mrs. Burton had appeared at the hall door-way, and stood as if to let him decide whether he would come into the house, or join her husband outside. He turned aside to take a chair near Burton's, tilted against the wall, but he addressed himself to her.
"Mrs. Burton, who is rather a long-strung, easy-going, good-looking, middle-aged lady, with a daughter about fifteen years old, extremely pretty and rather peppery, who draws?"
Mrs. Burton at once came out, and sat sidewise in the hammock, facing the two men.
"How were they dressed?"
Ludlow told as well as he could; he reserved his fancy of the girl's being like a hollyhock.
"Was the daughter pretty?"
"Yes, 'all that's best of dark and bright.'"
"Were they both very graceful?"
"Very graceful indeed."
"Why it must be Mrs. Saunders. Where did you see them?"
"In the Art Department."
"Yes. She came to ask me whether I would exhibit some of Cornelia's drawings, if I were she."
"And you told her you would?" her husband asked, taking his pipe out for the purpose.
"Of course I did. That was what she wished me to tell her."
Burton turned to Ludlow. "Had they taken many premiums?"
"No; the premiums had been bestowed on the crazy quilts and the medley pictures—what extraordinarily idiotic inventions!—and Miss Saunders was tearing down her sketches in the next section. One of them slipped through on the floor, and they came round after it to where I was."
"And so you got acquainted with Mrs. Saunders?" said Mrs. Burton.
"No. But I got intimate," said Ludlow. "I sympathized with her, and she advised with me about her daughter's art-education."
"What did you advise her to do?" asked Burton.
"Not to have her art-educated."
"Why, don't you think she has talent?" Mrs. Burton demanded, with a touch of resentment.
"Oh, yes. She has beauty, too. Nothing is commoner than the talent and beauty of American girls. But they'd better trust to their beauty."
"I don't think so," said Mrs. Burton, with spirit.
"You can see how she's advised Mrs. Saunders," said Burton, winking the eye next Ludlow.
"Well, you mustn't be vexed with me, Mrs. Burton," Ludlow replied to her. "I don't think she'll take my advice, especially as I put it in the form of warning. I told her how hard the girl would have to work: but I don't think she quite understood. I told her she had talent, too; and she did understand that; there was something uncommon in the child's work; something—different. Who are they, Mrs. Burton?"
"Isn't there!" cried Mrs. Burton. "I'm glad you told the poor thing that. I thought they'd take the premium. I was going to tell you about her daughter. Mrs. Saunders must have been awfully disappointed."
"She didn't seem to suffer much," Ludlow suggested.
"No," Mrs. Burton admitted, "she doesn't suffer much about anything. If she did she would have been dead long ago. First, her husband blown up by his saw-mill boiler, and then one son killed in a railroad accident, and another taken down with pneumonia almost the same day! And she goes on, smiling in the face of death——"
"And looking out that he doesn't see how many teeth she's lost," Burton prompted.
Ludlow laughed at the accuracy of the touch.
Mrs. Burton retorted, "Why shouldn't she? Her good looks and her good nature are about all she has left in the world, except this daughter."
"Are they very poor?" asked Ludlow, gently.
"Oh, nobody's very poor in Pymantoning," said Mrs. Burton. "And Mrs. Saunders has her business,—when she's a mind to work at it."
"I suppose she has it, even when she hasn't a mind to work at it," said Burton, making his pipe purr with a long, deep inspiration of satisfaction. "I know I have mine."
"What is her business?" asked Ludlow.
"Well, she's a dressmaker and milliner—when she is." Mrs. Burton stated the fact with the effect of admitting it. "You mustn't suppose that makes any difference. In a place like Pymantoning, she's 'as good as anybody,' and her daughter has as high social standing. You can't imagine how Arcadian we are out here."
"Oh, yes, I can; I've lived in a village," said Ludlow.
"A New England village, yes; but the lines are drawn just as hard and fast there as they are in a city. You have to live in the West to understand what equality is, and in a purely American population, like this. You've got plenty of independence, in New England, but you haven't got equality, and we have,—or used to have." Mrs. Burton added the final words with apparent conscience.
"Just saved your distance, Polly," said her husband. "We haven't got equality now, any more than we've got buffalo. I don't believe we ever had buffalo in this section; but we did have deer once; and when I was a boy here, venison was three cents a pound, and equality cheaper yet. When they cut off the woods the venison and the equality disappeared; they always do when the woods are cut off."
"There's enough of it left for all practical purposes, and Mrs. Saunders moves in the first circles of Pymantoning," said Mrs. Burton.
"When she does move," said Burton. "She doesn't like to move."
"Well, she has the greatest taste, and if you can get her to do anything for you your fortune's made. But it's a favor. She'll take a thing that you've got home from the city, and that you're frantic about, it's so bad, and smile over it a little, and touch it here and there, and it comes out a miracle of style and becomingness. It's like magic."
"She was charming," said Ludlow, in dreamy reminiscence.
"Isn't she?" Mrs. Burton demanded. "And her daughter gets all her artistic talent from her. Mrs. Saunders is an artist, though I don't suppose you like to admit it of a dressmaker."
"Oh, yes, I do," said Ludlow. "I don't see why a man or woman who drapes the human figure in stuffs, isn't an artist as well as the man or woman who drapes it in paint or clay."
"Well, that's sense," Mrs. Burton began.
"She didn't know you had any, Ludlow," her husband explained.
Mrs. Burton did not regard him. "If she had any ambition she would be anything—just like some other lazy-boots," and now she gave the large, dangling congress gaiter of her husband a little push with the point of her slipper, for purposes of identification, as the newspapers say. "But the only ambition she's got is for her daughter, and she is proud of her, and she would spoil her if she could get up the energy. She dotes on her, and Nie is fond of her mother, too. Do you think she can ever do anything in art?"
"If she were a boy, I should say yes; as she's a girl, I don't know," said Ludlow. "The chances are against her."
"Nature's against her, too," said Burton.
"Human nature ought to be for her, then," said Mrs. Burton. "If she were your sister what should you wish her to be?" she asked Ludlow.
"I should wish her to be"—Ludlow thought a moment and then concluded—"happily married."
"Well, that's a shame!" cried Mrs. Burton.
Her husband laughed, while he knocked the ashes out of his pipe against the edge of his chair-seat. "Rough on the holy estate of matrimony, Polly."
"Oh, pshaw! I believe as much in the holy estate of matrimony as anybody, but I don't believe it's the begin-all or the end-all for a woman, any more than it is for a man. What, Katy?" she spoke to a girl who appeared and disappeared in the doorway. "Oh! Well, come in to supper, now. I hope you have an appetite, Mr. Ludlow. Mr. Burton's such a delicate eater, and I like to have somebody keep me in countenance." She suddenly put her hand on the back of her husband's chair, and sprung it forward from its incline against the wall, with a violence that bounced him fearfully, and extorted a roar of protest from him.
They were much older than Ludlow, and they permitted themselves the little rowdy freedoms that good-natured married people sometimes use, as fearlessly in his presence as if he were a grown-up nephew. They prized him as a discovery of their own, for they had stumbled on him one day before any one else had found him out, when he was sketching at Fontainebleau. They liked the look of his picture, as they viewed it at a decent remove over his shoulder, and after they got by Burton proposed to go back and kill the fellow on account of the solemn coxcombery of his personal appearance. His wife said: "Well, ask him what he'll take for his picture, first," and Burton returned and said with brutal directness, while he pointed at the canvas with his stick, "Combien?" When Ludlow looked round up at him and answered with a pleasant light in his eye, "Well, I don't know exactly. What'll you give?" Burton spared his life, and became his friend. He called his wife to him, and they bought the picture, and afterwards they went to Ludlow's lodging, for he had no studio, and conscientiously painted in the open air, and bought others. They got the pictures dog cheap, as Burton said, for Ludlow was just beginning then, and his reputation which has never since become cloud-capt, was a tender and lowly plant. They made themselves like a youngish aunt and uncle to him, and had him with them all they could while they stayed in Paris. When they came home they brought the first impressionistic pictures ever seen in the West; at Pymantoning, the village cynic asked which was right side up, and whether he was to stand on his head or not to get them in range. Ludlow remained in France, which he maintained had the only sun for impressionism; and then he changed his mind all at once, and under an impulse of sudden patriotism, declared for the American sky, and the thin, crystalline, American air. His faith included American subjects, and when, after his arrival in New York, Burton wrote to claim a visit from him and ironically proposed the trotting-match at the County Fair as an attraction for his pencil, Ludlow remembered the trotting-matches he had seen in his boyhood, and came out to Pymantoning with a seriousness of expectation that alarmed and then amused his friends.
He was very glad that he had come, and that night, after the supper which lasted well into the early autumn lamp-light, he went out and walked the village streets under the September moon, seeing his picture everywhere before him, and thinking his young, exultant thoughts. The maples were set so thick along the main street that they stood like a high, dark wall on either side, and he looked up at the sky as from the bottom of a chasm. The village houses lurked behind their door-yard trees, with breadths of autumnal bloom in the gardens beside them. Within their shadowy porches, or beside their gates, was
"The delight of happy laughter,
The delight of low replies,"
hushing itself at his approach, and breaking out again at his retreat. The air seemed full of love, and in the midst of his proud, gay hopes, he felt smitten with sudden isolation, such as youth knows in the presence of others' passion. He walked back to Burton's rather pensively, and got up to his room and went to bed after as little stay for talk with his hosts as he could make decent; he did not like to break with his melancholy.
He was roused from his first sleep by the sound of singing, which seemed to stop with his waking. There came a confused murmur of girls' and young men's voices, and Ludlow could see from his open window the dim shapes of the serenaders in the dark of the trees below. Then they were still, and all at once the silence was filled with a rich contralto note, carrying the song, till the whole choir of voices took up the burden. Nothing prettier could have happened anywhere in the world. Ludlow hung rapt upon the music till Burton flung up his window, as if to thank the singers. They stopped at the sound, and with gay shouts and shrieks, and a medley of wild laughter, skurried away into the farther darkness, where Ludlow heard them begin their serenade again under distant windows as little localized as any space of the sky.
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