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Chapter 19

XIX.

Lemuel had found out about the art-students from Berry. He said they were no relation to each other, and had not even been acquainted before they met at the art-school; he had first met them at the St. Albans. Miss Swan was from the western part of the State, and Miss Carver from down Plymouth way. The latter took pupils, and sometimes gave lessons at their houses; she was, to Berry's thinking, not half the genius and not half the duck that Miss Swan was, though she was a duck in her way too. Miss Swan, as nearly as he could explain, was studying art for the fun of it, or the excitement, for she was well enough off; her father was a lawyer out there, and Berry believed that a rising son-in-law in his own profession would be just the thing for the old man's declining years. He said he should not be very particular about settling down to practice at once; if his wife wanted to go to Europe a while, and kind of tender foot it round for a year or two in the art-centres over there, he would let the old man run the business a little longer; sometimes it did an old man good. There was no hurry; Berry's own father was not excited about his going to work right away; he had the money to run Berry and a wife too, if it came to that; Miss Swan understood that. He had not told her so in just so many words, but he had let her know that Alonzo W. Berry, senior, was not borrowing money at two per cent. a month any more. He said he did not care to make much of a blow about that part of it till he was ready to act, and he was not going to act till he had a dead-sure thing of it; he was having a very good time as it went along, and he guessed Miss Swan was too; no use to hurry a girl, when she was on the right track.

Berry invented these axioms apparently to put himself in heart; in the abstract he was already courageous enough. He said that these Eastern girls were not used to having any sort of attention; that there was only about a tenth or fifteenth of a fellow to every girl, and that it tickled one of them to death to have a whole man around. He was not meanly exultant at their destitution. He said he just wished one of these pretty Boston girls—nice, well dressed, cultured, and brought up to be snubbed and neglected by the tenths and fifteenths of men they had at home—could be let loose in the West, and have a regular round-up of fellows. Or, no, he would like to have about five thousand fellows from out there, that never expected a woman to look at them, unloaded in Boston, and see them open their eyes. "Wouldn't one of 'em get home alive, if kindness could kill 'em. I never saw such a place! I can't get used to it! It makes me tired. Any sort of fellow could get married in Boston!"

Berry made no attempt to reconcile his uncertainty as to his own chances with this general theory, but he urged it to prove that Miss Swan and Miss Carver would like to have Lemuel call; he said they had both said they wished they could paint him. He had himself sustained various characters in costume for them, and one night he pretended that they had sent him down for Lemuel to help out with a certain group. But they received him with a sort of blankness which convinced him that Berry had exceeded his authority; there was a helplessness at first, and then an indignant determination to save him from a false position even at their own cost, which Lemuel felt rather than saw. Miss Carver was foremost in his rescue; she devoted herself to this, and left Miss Swan to punish Berry, who conveyed from time to time his sense that he was "getting it," by a wink to Lemuel.

An observer with more social light might have been more puzzled to account for Berry's toleration by these girls, who apparently associated with him on equal terms. Since he was not a servant, he was their equal in Lemuel's eyes; perhaps his acceptance might otherwise be explained by the fact that he was very amusing, chivalrously harmless, and extremely kind-hearted and useful to them. One must not leave out of the reckoning his open devotion for Miss Swan, which in itself would do much to approve him to her, and commend him to Miss Carver, if she were a generous girl, and very fond of her friend. It is certain that they did tolerate Berry, who made them laugh even that night in spite of themselves, till Miss Swan said, "Well, what's the use?" and stopped trying to discipline him. After that they had a very sociable evening, though Lemuel kept his distance, and would not let them include him, knowing what the two girls really thought of him. He would not take part in Berry's buffooneries, but talked soberly and rather austerely with Miss Carver; and to show that he did not feel himself an inferior, whatever she might think, he was very sarcastic about some of the city ways and customs they spoke of. There were a good many books about—novels mostly, but not the kind Statira used to read, and poems; Miss Carver said she liked to take them up when she was nervous from her work; and if the weather was bad, and she could not get out for a walk, a book seemed to do her almost as much good. Nearly all the pictures about in the room seemed to be Miss Swan's; in fact, when Lemuel asked about them, and tried to praise them in such a way as not to show his ignorance, Miss Carver said she did very little in colour; her lessons were all in black and white. He would not let her see that he did not know what this was, but he was ashamed, and he determined to find out; he determined to get a drawing-book, and learn something about it himself. To his thinking, the room was pretty harum-scarum. There were shawls hung upon the walls, and rugs, and pieces of cloth, which sometimes had half- finished paintings fastened to them; there were paintings standing round the room on the floor, sometimes right side out, and sometimes faced to the walls; there were two or three fleeces and fox-pelts scattered about instead of a carpet; and there were two easels, and stands with paints all twisted up in lead tubes on them. He compared the room with Statira's, and did not think much of it at first.

Afterwards it did not seem so bad: he began to feel its picturesqueness, for he went there again, and let the girls sketch him. When Miss Swan asked him that night if he would let them he wished to refuse; but she seemed so modest about it, and made it such a great favour on his part, that he consented; she said she merely wished to make a little sketch in colour, and Miss Carver a little study of his head in black and white; and he imagined it a trifling affair that could be despatched in a single night. They decided to treat his head as a Young Roman head; and at the end of a long sitting, beguiled with talk and with thoughtful voluntaries from Berry on his banjo, he found that Miss Carver had rubbed her study nearly all out with a piece of bread, and Miss Swan said she should want to try a perfectly new sketch with the shoulders draped; the coat had confused her; she would not let any one see what she had done, though Berry tried to make her let him.

Lemuel looked a little blank when she asked him for another sitting; but Berry said, "Oh, you'll have to come, Barker. Penalty of greatness, you know. Have you in Williams & Everett's window; notices in all the papers. 'The exquisite studies, by Miss Swan and Miss Carver, of the head of the gentlemanly and accommodating clerk of the St. Albans, as a Roman Youth.' Chromoed as a Christmas card by Prang, and photograph copies everywhere. You're all right, Barker."

One night Miss Swan said, in rapture with some momentary success,
"Oh, I'm perfectly in love with this head!"

Berry looked up from his banjo, which he ceased to strum. "Hello, hello, hel-lo!"

Then the two broke into a laugh, in which Lemuel helplessly joined.

"What—what is it?" asked Miss Carver, looking up absently from her work.

"Nothing; just a little outburst of passion from our young friend here," said Berry, nodding his head toward Miss Swan.

"What does it mean, Mad?" asked Miss Carver in the same dreamy way, continuing her work.

"Yes, Madeline," said Berry, "explain yourself."

"Mr. Berry!" cried Miss Swan warningly.

"That's me; Alonzo W., Jr. Go on!"

"You forget yourself," said the girl, with imperfect severity.

"Well, you forgot me first," said Berry, with affected injury. "Ain't it hard enough to sit here night after night, strumming on the old banjo, while another fellow is going down to posterity as a Roman Youth with a red shawl round his neck, without having to hear people say they're in love with that head of his?"

Miss Carver now stopped her work, and looked from her friend, with her head bowed in laughter on the back of her hand, to that of Berry bent in burlesque reproach upon her, and then at Lemuel, who was trying to control himself.

"But I can tell you what, Miss Swan; you spoke too late, as the man said when he swallowed the chicken in the fresh egg. Mr. Barker has a previous engagement. That so, Barker?"

Lemuel turned fire-red, and looked round at Miss Carver, who met his glance with her clear gaze. She turned presently to make some comment on Miss Swan's sketch, and then, after working a little while longer, she said she was tired, and was going to make some tea.

The girls both pressed Lemuel to stay for a cup, but he would not; and Berry followed him downstairs to explain and apologise.

"It's all right," said Lemuel. "What difference would it make to them whether I was engaged or not?"

"Well, I suppose as a general rule a girl would rather a fellow wasn't," philosophised Berry. He whistled ruefully, and Lemuel drawing a book toward him in continued silence, he rose from the seat he had taken on the desk in the little office, and said, "Well, I guess it'll all come out right. Come to think of it, I don't know anything about your affairs, and I can tell 'em so."

"Oh, it don't matter."

He had pulled the book toward him as if he were going to read, but he could not read; his head was in a whirl. After a first frenzy of resentment against Berry, he was now angry at himself for having been so embarrassed. He thought of a retort that would have passed it all off lightly; then he reflected again that it was of no consequence to these young ladies whether he was engaged or not, and at any rate it was nobody's business but his own. Of course he was engaged to Statira, but he had hardly thought of it in that way. 'Manda Grier had joked about the time when she supposed she should have to keep old maid's hall alone; when she first did this Lemuel thought it delightful, but afterwards he did not like it so much; it began to annoy him that 'Manda Grier should mix herself up so much with Statira and himself. He believed that Statira would be different, would be more like other ladies (he generalised it in this way, but he meant Miss Swan and Miss Carver), if she had not 'Manda Grier there all the time to keep her back. He convinced himself that if it were not for 'Manda Grier, he should have had no trouble in telling Statira that the art-students were sketching him; and that he had not done so yet because he hated to have 'Manda ask her so much about them, and call them that Swan girl and that Carver girl, as she would be sure to do, and clip away the whole evening with her questions and her guesses. It was now nearly a fortnight since the sketching began, and he had let one Sunday night pass without mentioning it. He could not let another pass, and he knew 'Manda Grier would say they were a good while about it, and would show her ignorance, and put Statira up to asking all sorts of things. He could not bear to think of it, and he let the next Sunday night pass without saying anything to Statira. The sittings continued; but before the third Sunday came Miss Swan said she did not see how she could do anything more to her sketch, and Miss Carver had already completed her study. They criticised each other's work with freedom and good humour, and agreed that the next thing was to paint it out and rub it out.

"No," said Berry; "what you want is a fresh eye on it. I've worried over it as much as you have,—suffered more, I believe,—and Barker can't tell whether he looks like a Roman Youth or not. Why don't you have up old Evans?"

Miss Swan took no apparent notice of this suggestion; and Miss
Carver, who left Berry's snubbing entirely to her, said nothing.
After a minute's study of the pictures, Miss Swan suggested, "If Mr.
Barker had any friends he would like to show them to?"

"Oh no, thank you," returned Lemuel hastily, "there isn't anybody," and again he found himself turning very red.

"Well, I don't know how we can thank you enough for your patience,
Mr. Barker," said the girl.

"Oh, don't mention it. I've—I've enjoyed it," said Lemuel.

"Game—every time," said Berry; and their evening broke up with a laugh.

The next morning Lemuel stopped Miss Swan at the door of the breakfast room, and said, "I've been thinking over what you said last night, and I should like to bring some one—a lady friend of mine—to see the pictures."

"Why, certainly, Mr. Barker. Any time. Some evening?" she suggested.

"Should you mind it if I came to-morrow night?" he asked; and he thought it right to remind her, "it's Sunday night."

"Oh, not at all! To-morrow night, by all means! We shall both be at home, and very glad to see you." She hurried after Miss Carver, loitering on her way to their table, and Lemuel saw them put their heads together, as if they were whispering. He knew they were whispering about him, but they did not laugh; probably they kept themselves from laughing. In coming out from breakfast, Miss Swan said, "I hope your friend isn't very critical, Mr. Barker?" and he answered confusedly, "Oh, not at all, thank you." But he said to himself that he did not care whether she was trying to make fun of him or not, he knew what he had made up his mind to do.

Statira did not seem to care much about going to see the pictures, when he proposed it to her the next evening. She asked why he had been keeping it such a great secret, and he could not pretend, as he had once thought he could, that he was keeping it as a surprise for her. "Should you like to see 'em, 'Manda?" she asked, with languid indifference.

"I d' know as I care much about Lem's picture, s'long's we've got him around," 'Manda Grier whipped out, "but I should like t' see those celebrated girls 't we've heard s' much about."

"Well," said Statira carelessly, and they went into the next room to put on their wraps. Lemuel, vexed to have 'Manda Grier made one of the party, and helpless to prevent her going, walked up and down, wondering what he should say when he arrived with this unexpected guest.

But Miss Swan received both of the girls very politely, and chatted with 'Manda Grier, whose conversation, in defiance of any sense of superiority that the Swan girl or the Carver girl might feel, was a succession of laconic snaps, sometimes witty, but mostly rude and contradictory.

Miss Carver made tea, and served it in some pretty cups which Lemuel hoped Statira might admire, but she took it without noticing, and in talking with Miss Carver she drawled, and said "N-y-e-e-e-s," and "I don't know as I d-o-o-o," and "Well, I should think as mu-u-ch," with a prolongation of all the final syllables in her sentences which he had not observed in her before, and which she must have borrowed for the occasion for the gentility of the effect. She tried to refer everything to him, and she and 'Manda Grier talked together as much as they could, and when the others spoke of him as Mr. Barker, they called him Lem. They did not look at anything, or do anything to betray that they found the studio, on which Lemuel had once expatiated to them, different from other rooms.

At last Miss Swan abruptly brought out the studies of Lemuel's head, and put them in a good light; 'Manda Grier and Statira got into the wrong place to see them.

'Manda blurted out, "Well, he looks 's if he'd had a fit of sickness in that one;" and perhaps, in fact, Miss Carver had refined too much upon a delicate ideal of Lemuel's looks.

"So he d-o-o-es!" drawled Statira. "And how funny he looks with that red thing o-o-o-n!"

Miss Swan explained that she had thrown that in for the colour, and that they had been fancying him in the character of a young Roman.

"You think he's got a Roman n-o-o-se?" asked Statira through her own.

"I think Lem's got a kind of a pug, m'self," said 'Manda Grier.

"Well, 'Manda Grier!" said Statira.

Lemuel could not look at Miss Carver, whom he knew to be gazing at the two girls from the little distance to which she had withdrawn; Miss Swan was biting her lip.

"So that's the celebrated St. Albans, is it?" said 'Manda Grier, when they got in the street. "Don't know 's I really ever expected to see the inside 'f it. You notice the kind of oilcloth they had on that upper entry, S'tira?"

They did not mention Lemuel's pictures, or the artists; and he scarcely spoke on the way home.

When they parted, Statira broke out crying, and would not let him kiss her.

William Dean Howells