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Chapter 7

It was toward the end of January before Cornelia was well enough to be about in the old way, after her typhoid fever. Once she was so low that the rumor of her death went out; but when this proved false it was known for a good sign, and no woman, at least, was surprised when she began to get well. She was delirious part of the time, and then she raved constantly about Ludlow, and going to New York to study art. It was a mere superficial effect from her talk with Mrs. Burton just before she was taken down with the fever; but it was pathetic, all the same, to hear her pleading with him, quarrelling, protesting that she was strong enough, and that she was not afraid but that she should get through all right if he would only tell her how to begin. "Now you just tell me that, tell me that, tell me that! It's the place that I can't find. If I can get to the right door! But it won't open! It won't open! Oh, dear! What shall I do!"

Mrs. Burton, who heard this go on through the solemn hours of night, thought that if Ludlow could only hear it he would be careful how he ever discouraged any human being again. It was as much as her husband could do to keep her from writing to him, and making the girl's fever a matter of personal reproach to him; but she refrained, and when Cornelia got up from it she was so changed that Mrs. Burton was glad she had never tried to involve any one else in her anxieties about her.

Not only the fever had burned itself out, but Cornelia's temperament seemed for awhile to have been consumed in the fire. She came out of it more like her mother. She was gentler than she used to be, and especially gentle and good to her mother; and she had not only grown to resemble her in a greater tranquillity and easy-goingness, but to have come into her ambitions and desires. The change surprised Mrs. Saunders a good deal; up to this time it had always surprised her that Cornelia should not have been at all like her. She sometimes reflected, however, that if you came to that, Cornelia's father had never been at all like her, either.

It was only a passing phase of the girl's evolution. With the return of perfect health and her former strength, she got back her old energetic self, but of another quality and in another form. Probably she would have grown into the character she now took on in any case; but following her convalescence as it did, it had a more dramatic effect. She began to review her studies and her examination papers before the doctor knew it, and when the county examiners met in June she was ready for them, and got a certificate authorizing her to teach for a year. With this she need not meet the poor occasions of any such forlorn end-of-the-earth as Burnt Pastures. She had an offer of the school at Hartley's Mills, and she taught three terms there, and brought home a hundred and fifty dollars at the end. All through the last winter she drew, more or less, and she could see better than any one else that she had not fallen behind in her art, but after having let it drop for a time, had taken it up with fresh power and greater skill. She had come to see things better than she used, and she had learned to be faithful to what she saw, which is the great matter in all the arts.

She had never formulated this fact, even if she knew it; and Mrs. Burton was still further from guessing what it was that made Cornelia's sketches so much more attractive than they were, when the girl let her look at them, in one of her proud, shy confidences. She said, "I do wish Mr. Ludlow could see these, Nelie."

"Do you think he would be very much excited?" asked the girl, with the sarcastic humor which had risen up in her to be one of the reliefs of her earlier intensity.

"He ought to be," said Mrs. Burton. "You know he did admire your drawings, Nelie; even those you had at the fair, that time."

"Did he?" returned the girl, carelessly. "What did he say?"

"Well, he said that if you were a boy there couldn't be any doubt about you."

Cornelia laughed. "That was a pretty safe kind of praise. I'm not likely ever to be a boy." She rose up from where they were sitting together, and went to put her drawings away in her room. When she came back, she said, "It would be fun to show him, some day, that even so low down a creature as a girl could be something."

"I wish you would, Nie," said Mrs. Burton, "I just wish you would. Why don't you go to New York, this winter, and study! Why don't you make her, Mrs. Saunders?"

"Who? Me?" said Mrs. Saunders, who sat by, in an indolent abeyance. "Oh! I ain't allowed to open my mouth any more."

"Well," said Cornelia, "don't be so ungrammatical, then, when you do it without being allowed, mother."

Mrs. Saunders laughed in lazy enjoyment. "One thing I know; if I had my way she'd have been in New York studying long ago, instead of fooling away her time out here, school-teaching."

"And where would you have been, mother?"

"Me?" said Mrs. Saunders again, incorrigibly. "Oh, I guess I should have been somewhere!"

"Well, I'll tell you what," Mrs. Burton broke in, "Nie must go, and that's all about it. I know from what Mr. Ludlow said that he believes she could be an artist. She would have to work hard, but I don't call teaching school play, exactly."

"Indeed it isn't!" said Mrs. Saunders. "I'd sooner set all day at the machine myself, and dear knows that's trying enough!"

"I'm not afraid of the hard work," said Cornelia.

"What are you afraid of, then?" demanded her mother. "Afraid of failing?"

"No; of succeeding," answered Cornelia, perversely.

"I can't make the child out," said Mrs. Saunders, with apparent pleasure in the mystery.

Cornelia went on, at least partially, to explain herself. "I mean, succeeding in the way women seem to succeed. They make me sick!"

"Oh," said her mother, with sarcasm that could not sustain itself even by a smile letting Mrs. Burton into the joke, "going to be a Rosa Bonnhure?"

Cornelia scorned this poor attempt of her mother. "If I can't succeed as men succeed, and be a great painter, and not just a great woman painter, I'd rather be excused altogether. Even Rosa Bonheur: I don't believe her horses would have been considered so wonderful if a man had done them. I guess that's what Mr. Ludlow meant, and I guess he was right. I guess if a girl wants to turn out an artist she'd better start by being a boy."

"I guess," said Mrs. Burton, with admiring eyes full of her beauty, "that if Mr. Ludlow could see you now, he'd be very sorry to have you a boy!"

Cornelia blushed the splendid red of a brunette. "There it is, Mrs. Burton! That's what's always in everybody's mind about a girl when she wants to do something. It's what a magnificent match she'll make by her painting or singing or acting! And if the poor fool only knew, she needn't draw or sing or act, to do that."

"A person would think you'd been through the wars, Cornelia," said her mother.

"I don't care! It's a shame!"

"It is a shame, Nelie," said Mrs. Burton, soothingly; and she added, unguardedly, "and I told Mr. Ludlow so, when he spoke about a girl's being happily married, as if there was no other happiness for a girl."

"Oh! He thinks that, does he?"

"No, of course, he doesn't. He has a very high ideal of women; but he was just running on, in the usual way. He told afterwards how hard the girl art-students work in New York, and go ahead of the young men, some of them—where they have the strength. The only thing is that so few of them have the strength. That's what he meant."

"What do you think, mother?" asked the girl with an abrupt turn toward her. "Do you think I'd break down?"

"I guess if you didn't break down teaching school, that you hated, you won't break down studying art, when you love it so."

"Well," Cornelia said, with the air of putting an end to the audience, "I guess there's no great hurry about it."

She let her mother follow Mrs. Burton out, recognizing with a smile of scornful intelligence the ladies' wish to have the last word about her to themselves.

William Dean Howells