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Chapter 9

September was theoretically always a very busy month with Mrs. Saunders. She believed that she devoted it to activities which she called her fall work, and that she pressed forward in the fulfilments of these duties with a vigor inspired by the cool, clear weather. But in reality there was not much less folding of the hands with her in September than there was in July. She was apt, on the coolest and clearest September day, to drop into a chair with a deep drawn "Oh, hum!" after the fatigue of bringing in an apronful of apples, or driving the hens away from her chrysanthemums, and she spent a good deal of time wondering how, with all she had to do, she was ever going to get those flowers in before the frost caught them. At one of these times, sitting up slim, graceful and picturesque, in the feather-cushioned rocker-lounge, and fanning her comely face with her shade-hat, it occurred to her to say to Cornelia, sewing hard beside the window, "I guess you won't see them in blossom this Christmas, Nie."

"Not unless you cut them at the roots and send them to me by mail to look at," said the girl.

Her mother laughed easily. "Well, I must really take hold and help you, or you'll never get away. I've put off everybody else's work, till it's perfectly scandalous, and I'm afraid they'll bring the roof about my ears, and yet I seem to be letting you do all your sewing. Well, one thing, I presume I hate to have you go so!"

"Mother!" cried the girl, drawing out her needle to the full length of her thread before she let her hand drop nervelessly at her side, and she fell back to look fixedly at Mrs. Saunders. "If that's the way you feel!"

"I don't! I want you to go just as much as ever I did. But looking at you there, just against the window, that way, I got to thinking you wouldn't be there a great while; and——" Mrs. Saunders caught her breath, and was mute a moment before she gave way and began to whimper. From the force of habit she tried to whimper with one side of her mouth, as she smiled, to keep her missing teeth from showing; and at the sight of this characteristic effort, so familiar and so full of long association, Cornelia's heart melted within her, and she ran to her mother, and pulled her head down on her breast and covered the unwhimpering cheek with kisses.

"Don't you suppose I think of that, too, mother? And when you go round the room, or out in the yard, I just keep following you as if I was magnetized, and I can see you with my eyes shut as well as I can with them open; and I know how I shall feel when that's all I've got of you! But I'll soon be back! Why I'll be here in June again! And it's no use, now. I've got to go."

"Oh, yes," said her mother, pushing herself free, and entering upon so prolonged a search for her handkerchief that her tears had almost time to dry without it before she found it. "But that don't make it any easier, child."

They had agreed from the time Cornelia made up her mind to go, and they had vowed the Burtons to secrecy, that they were not to tell any one till just before she started; but it was not in Mrs. Saunders's nature or the nature of things, that she should keep her part of the agreement. She was so proud of Cornelia's going to study art in New York, and going on her own money, that she would have told all her customers that she was going, even if it had not proved such a good excuse for postponing and delaying the work they brought her.

It was all over town before the first week was out, and the fact had been canvassed in and out of the presence of the principals, with much the same frankness. What Cornelia had in excess of a putting-down pride her mother correspondingly lacked; what the girl forbade, Mrs. Saunders invited by her manner, and there were not many people, or at least many ladies, in Pymantoning, who could not put their hands on their hearts and truly declare that they had spoken their minds as freely to Mrs. Saunders as they had to anybody.

As the time drew near Mrs. Burton begged to be allowed to ask Mr. Ludlow about a boarding-place for Cornelia; and to this Cornelia consented on condition that he should be strictly prohibited from taking any more trouble than simply writing the address on a piece of paper. When Mrs. Burton brought it she confessed that Mr. Ludlow seemed to have so far exceeded his instructions as to have inquired the price of board in a single room.

"I'm afraid, Nelie, it's more than you expected. But everything is very dear in New York, and Mr. Ludlow thought it was cheap. There's no fire in the room, even at that, but if you leave the door open when you're out, it heats nicely from the hall. It's over the door, four flights up; it's what they call a side room."

"How much is it, Mrs. Burton?" Cornelia asked, steadily; but she held her breath till the answer came.

"It's seven dollars a week."

"Well, the land!" said Mrs. Saunders, for all comment on the extortionate figure.

For a moment Cornelia did not say anything. Then she quietly remarked, "I can be home all the sooner," and she took the paper which Ludlow had written the address on; she noticed that it smelt of tobacco smoke.

"He said you could easily find your way from the Grand Central Depot by the street cars; it's almost straight. He's written down on the back which cars you take. You give your check to the baggage expressman that comes aboard the train before you get in, and then you don't have the least trouble. He says there are several girl art-students in the same house, and you'll soon feel at home. He says if you feel the least timid about getting in alone, he'll come with a lady friend of his, to meet you, and she'll take you to your boarding-house."

Mrs. Burton escaped with rather more than her life from the transmission of this offer. Cornelia even said, "I'm very much obliged to him, I'm sure. But I shouldn't wish to trouble him, thank you. I won't feel the least timid."

But her mother followed Mrs. Burton out to the gate, as usual. "I guess," Mrs. Saunders explained, "she hated to have him make so much to-do about it. What makes him want to bring a lady friend to meet her? Somebody he's engaged to?"

"Well, that's what I wondered, at first," said Mrs. Burton. "But then when I came to think how very different the customs are in New York, I came to the conclusion that he did it on Cornelia's account. If he was to take her to the boarding-house himself, they might think he was engaged to her."

"Well!" said Mrs. Saunders.

"You may be sure it's because he's good and thoughtful about it, and wants her not to have any embarrassment."

"Oh, I guess he's all right," said Mrs. Saunders. "But who'd ever have thought of having to take such precautions? I shouldn't think life was worth having on such terms, if I was a girl."

She told Cornelia about this strange social ceremony of chaperonage, which now for the first time practically concerned them.

William Dean Howells