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Chapter 6

Ludlow went back to New York and took up his work with vigor and with fervor. The picture of the County Fair, which he exhibited at the American Artists', ran a gauntlet of criticism in which it was belabored at once for its unimaginative vulgarity and its fantastic unreality; then it returned to his studio and remained unsold, while the days, weeks, months and years went by and left each their fine trace on him. His purposes dropped away, mostly unfulfilled, as he grew older and wiser, but his dreams remained and he was still rich in a vast future. His impressionism was somewhat modified; he offered his palette less frequently to the public; he now and then permitted a black object to appear in his pictures; his purples and greens were less aggressive. His moustache had grown so thick that it could no longer be brushed up at the points with just the effect he desired, and he suffered it to branch straight across his cheeks; his little dot of an imperial had become lost in the beard which he wore so conscientiously trimmed to a point that it might be described as religiously pointed. He was now twenty-seven.

At sixteen Cornelia Saunders had her first love-affair. It was with a young man who sold what he called art-goods by sample—satin banners, gilt rolling-pins, brass disks and keramics; he had permitted himself to speak to her on the train coming over from the Junction, where she took the cars for Pymantoning one afternoon after a day's shopping with her mother in Lakeland. It did not last very long, and in fact it hardly survived the brief stay which the young man made in Pymantoning, where his want of success in art-goods was probably owing to the fact that he gave his whole time to Cornelia, or rather Cornelia's mother, whom he found much more conversable; he played upon the banjo for her, and he danced a little clog-dance in her parlor, which was also her shop, to the accompaniment of his own whistling, first setting aside the bonnet-trees with their scanty fruitage of summer hats, and pushing the show-table against the wall. "Won't hurt 'em a mite," he reassured her, and he struck her as a careful as well as accomplished young man. His passion for Cornelia lingered a while in letters, which he proposed in parting, and then, about six months later, Mrs. Saunders received the newspaper announcement of his marriage to Miss Tweety Byers of Lakeland. There were "No Cards," but Mrs. Saunders made out, with Mrs. Burton's help, that Tweety was the infantile for the pet name of Sweety; and the marriage seemed a fit union for one so warm and true as the young traveller in art-goods.

Mrs. Saunders was a good deal surprised, but she did not suffer keenly from the disappointment which she had innocently done her best to bring upon her daughter. Cornelia, who had been the passive instrument of her romance, did not suffer from it at all, having always objected to the thickness of the young man's hands, and to the early baldness which gave him the Shakespearian brow he had so little use for. She laughed his memory to scorn, and employed the episode as best she could in quelling her mother's simple trust of passing strangers. They worked along together, in the easy, unambitious village fashion, and kept themselves in the average comfort, while the time went by and Cornelia had grown from a long, lean child to a tall and stately young girl, who carried herself with so much native grace and pride that she had very little attention from the village youth. She had not even a girl friendship, and her chief social resource was in her intimacy at the Burtons. She borrowed books of them, and read a good deal; and when she was seventeen she rubbed up her old studies and got a teacher's certificate for six months, and taught a summer term in a district at Burnt Pastures. She came home in the fall, and when she called at the Burtons' to get a book, as usual, Mrs. Burton said, "Nelie, you're not feeling very well, are you? Somehow you looked fagged."

"Well, I do feel queer," said the girl. "I seem to be in a kind of dream. It—scares me. I'm afraid I'm going to be sick."

"Oh, I guess not," Mrs. Burton answered comfortably. "You're just tired out. How did you like your school?"

"I hated it," said the girl, with a trembling chin and wet eyes. "I don't believe I'm fit for teaching. I won't try it any more; I'll stay at home and help mother."

"You ought to keep up your drawing," said Mrs. Burton in general admonition. "Do you draw any now?"

"Nothing much," said the girl.

"I should think you would, to please your mother. Don't you care anything for it yourself?"

"Yes; but I haven't the courage I had when I thought I knew it all. I don't think I should ever amount to anything. It would be a waste of time."

"I don't think so," said Mrs. Burton. "I believe you could be a great artist."

The girl laughed. "What ever became of that painter who visited you year before last at fair time?"

"Mr. Ludlow? Oh, he's in New York. He thought your sketches were splendid, Nelie."

"He said the girls half-killed themselves there studying art."

"Did he?" demanded Mrs. Burton with a note of wrath in her voice.

"Mm. He told mother so that day."

"He had no business to say such a thing before you. Was that what discouraged you?"

"Oh, I don't know. I got discouraged. Of course, I should like to please mother. How much do you suppose it would cost a person to live in New York? I don't mean take a room and board yourself; I shouldn't like to do that; but everything included."

"I don't know, indeed, Nelie. Jim always kept the accounts when we were there, and we stayed at the Fifth Avenue Hotel."

"Do you suppose it would be twice as much as it is here? Five dollars a week?"

"Yes, I'm afraid it would," Mrs. Burton admitted.

"I've got sixty-five dollars from my school. I suppose it would keep me three months in New York, if I was careful. But I'm not going to throw it away on any such wild scheme as that. I know that much."

They talked away from the question, and then talked back to it several times, after they had both seemed to abandon it. At last Mrs. Burton said, "Why don't you let me write to Mr. Ludlow, Nelie, and ask him all about it?"

The girl jumped to her feet in a fright. "If you do, Mrs. Burton, I'll kill myself! No, I didn't mean to say that. But I'll never speak to you again. Now you won't really, will you?"

"No, I won't, Nelie, if you don't want me to; but I don't see why—— Why, bless the child!"

Mrs. Burton sprang forward and caught the girl, who was reeling as if she were going to fall. "Katy! Katy! Bring some water here, quick!"

When they had laid Cornelia on a sofa and restored her from her faint, Mrs. Burton would not let her try to rise. She sent out to Burton, who was reading a novel in the mild forenoon air under the crimson maples, and made him get the carryall and take Cornelia home in it. They thought they would pretend that they were out for a drive, and were merely dropping her at her mother's door; but no ruse was necessary. Mrs. Saunders tranquilly faced the fact; she said she thought the child hadn't been herself since she got back from her school, and she guessed she had better have the doctor now.

William Dean Howells