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    Chapter 3

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    Chapter 3
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    SOPHIE AND CORNELIA ENTER INTO A COVENANT.

    When Cornelia left her father on the balcony, she danced up-stairs, and
    chasséed on tiptoe up to the door of Sophie's room. There she stopped
    and knocked.

    Somehow or other, nobody ever went into that room without knocking. It
    never entered any one's head to burst in unannounced. The door was an
    unimposing-looking piece of deal, grained by some village artist into
    the portraiture of an as yet undiscovered kind of wood, and considerably
    impaired in various ways by time. It could not have been the door,
    therefore. Nor was the bolt ever drawn, save at certain hours of the
    morning and night. Sophie was not an ogre, either. Cornelia, who was
    very trying at times, would have found it hard to recall an occasion
    when Sophie had answered or addressed her sharply or crossly. If she
    exerted any influence, or wielded any power, it was not of the kind
    which attends a violent or morose temper. But no vixen or shrew, how
    terrible soever she may be, can hope at all times or from all people to
    meet with respect or consideration; while to Sophie Valeyon the world
    always put on its best face and manner, secretly wondering at itself the
    while for being so well-behaved.

    As to the affair of knocking, Sophie herself had never said a word about
    it, one way or another. She always took it as a matter of course;
    indeed, had she been loquacious on the subject, or insisted upon the
    observance, Cornelia for one would have been very likely to laugh to
    scorn and disregard her, therein acting upon a principle of her own,
    which prompted her to measure her strength against any thing which
    seemed to challenge her, and never to give up if she could help it. But
    she had never had a trial of strength with Sophie, and possibly was
    quite contented that it should be so. She would have shrunk from
    thwarting or crossing her sister as she would from committing a secret
    sin: there might be no material or visible ill-consequence, but the
    stings of conscience would be all the sharper.

    So Cornelia knocked and entered, and the quiet, cool room in which her
    sister lay seemed to glow and become enlivened by the joyous reflection
    of her presence. Yet the effect of the room upon Cornelia was at least
    as marked. She hushed herself, as it were, and tried, half
    unconsciously, to adapt herself to the tone of her surroundings; for,
    although her physical nature was sound and healthy, almost to
    boisterousness, her perceptions remained very keen and delicate, and
    occasionally rallied her upon the redundancy of her animal well-being
    with something like reproof.

    It was singular, with how few and how simple means was created the
    impression of purity and repose that this chamber produced! It brought
    to mind the pearly interior of a shell, and a fanciful person might have
    listened for the sea-music whispering through. The walls were papered
    with pale gray, relieved by a light pink tracery, and the white-muslin
    curtains were set off by a pink lining. A bunch of wild-flowers and
    grasses, which Cornelia had gathered that morning, and Sophie had
    arranged, stood on the mantel-piece. There were four or five
    pictures--one, a bass-relief of Endymion, deep asleep, yet conscious in
    his dream that the moon is peeping shyly over his polished shoulder, had
    been copied from a famous original by Sophie herself. She had painted it
    in a pale-brown mezzotint, which was like nothing in nature, but seemed
    suitable of all others for the embodiment of the classic fable. This
    picture hung over the mantel-piece. Opposite Sophie's bed was an
    illumination of the Lord's Prayer, with clear gold lettering, and
    capitals and border of celestial colors. The dressing-table was covered
    with a white cloth, on which reposed a comb and brush and a pink
    pin-cushion with a muslin cover, and over which hung a crayon of the
    cherub of the Sistine Madonna, who leans his chin upon his hand.

    Within reach of Sophie's hand as she lay, were suspended a couple of
    hanging shelves, which held her books. There were not a great many of
    them, but they all bore signs of having been well read, and there was at
    the same time a certain neatness and spotlessness in their appearance
    which no merely new books could ever possess, but which was communicated
    solely by Sophie's pure finger-touches. On the opposite side of the bed
    stood a small table, on which ticked a watch; and beside the watch was a
    work-basket, full of those multifarious little articles that only a
    woman knows how to get together.

    Looking around the room, and noting the delicate nicety and precision of
    its condition and arrangement, one would have supposed that Sophie's own
    hands must have been very lately at work upon it. But it was many weeks
    since she had even sat in the easy-chair that stood in the
    rosy-curtained window; and, although now far advanced in convalescence,
    she had taken no part in the care of her room since her illness. Why it
    had still continued to retain its immaculateness was one of many similar
    mysteries which must always surround a character like Sophie's. Every
    thing she accomplished seemed not so much to be done, as to take place,
    in accordance with her idea or resolve; and there were always, in her
    manifestations of whatever kind, more spiritual than material elements.

    When Cornelia entered, Sophie laid down her sewing, and looked up-with a
    smile in her eyes, which were large and gray, and the only regularly
    beautiful part of her face. She had a way of confining a smile to them,
    when wishing merely to express good-will or pleasure, which was peculiar
    to herself, and very effective. Cornelia walked quite soberly up to the
    bedside, kissed her sister, and then stood silent for several moments.

    Compared with her recent exhilaration, this was very extraordinary
    behavior. She had rushed up-stairs intent upon pouring into Sophie's
    ears the whole gorgeous tale of her hopes and anticipations for the
    coming summer. Yet no sooner was she within the door than her excitement
    seemed to die out, and her enthusiasm ebb away. Extraordinary as it
    appeared, it was by no means a rare occurrence. Cornelia alone could
    have told how common; if, indeed, she ever reflected upon the matter.
    She was very quick to feel a divergence of interests between her sister
    and herself, and always inferred that Sophie could not sympathize with
    any thing for which she had no personal taste. In the present instance,
    it had all at once occurred to her that her sister would not be likely
    to care half so much about the gayeties of fashionable watering-places
    and city-life as she did, and might therefore treat with indifference
    what was to her an affair of the greatest moment; and a snub being one
    of those things which Cornelia found it most difficult, even in the
    mildest form, to endure, she had resolved, on the spur of the moment, to
    approach the topic of her proposed departure with the same coolness
    which she expected Sophie to manifest when she heard about it.

    "Have you kept at that sewing ever since I went away?" asked she, idly
    examining the work which Sophie had laid down.

    "I believe so," replied Sophie, stroking her chin to a point between her
    forefinger and thumb. "It's so pleasant to be able to sew again at all
    that I should consider it no hardship to have to sew all day."

    Cornelia's thoughts immediately reverted to the dresses which the next
    two weeks must see made.

    "You wouldn't be strong enough to do that, though, would you? I mean to
    sew on dresses, and all that sort of thing?"

    "Dresses?" said Sophie, looking up inquiringly into her sister's face.
    "Oh, you mean your dress for Abbie's Fourth-of-July party? I thought you
    were going to wear your--"

    "Oh, no, not that; I wasn't thinking of that," interrupted Miss Valeyon,
    with a gesture as if deprecating the idea of having ever entertained
    ideas so lowly. "I shall hardly be in town on the Fourth," she added,
    reflectively, as if calculating her engagements.

    Sophie looked amazed, though it would have taken a keener observer than
    Cornelia was at the moment to detect the slight contraction of the under
    eyelids, and the barely perceptible droop of the corners of the mouth.
    She saw that her sister had something of moment to tell her, and was,
    for some reason, coquettish about bringing it out. Cornelia was often
    entertaining to Sophie when she least had intention of being so; but
    Sophie was far too tender of the young lady's feelings knowingly to let
    her suspect it.

    "Not be in town?" repeated she, demurely taking up her work; "why, where
    are you going, dear?"

    "Oh!" said Cornelia, with one of those little half-yawns wherewith we
    cover our nervousness or suspense, "I didn't tell you, did I? Papa
    received a letter from a lady in New York, the one who wanted us to call
    her 'Aunt Margaret' when we were there ever so long ago--the year after
    mamma died, you know--asking me to come to her house there, and go round
    with her to Saratoga and all the fashionable watering-places. The
    invitation was for about the first of July, so--"

    Cornelia, speaking with a breathless rapidity which she intended for
    _sang froid_, had got thus far, when Sophie, who had dropped her work
    again, and had been regarding her with a beautiful expression of
    surprise, joy, and affection in her eyes, stretched forth her arms,
    cooed out a tender little cry of happy congratulation and sympathy, and
    hugged her sister around the neck for a few moments in a very eloquent
    silence.

    "Why, Sophie!" murmured Cornelia, covered with an astonishment of
    smiles and tears, "how sweet you are! I didn't think you'd care; I
    thought you'd think it foolish in me to be glad, dear Sophie!"

    "My darling!" said Sophie, with another hug. She felt rebuked and
    remorseful; for if, as Cornelia's words unconsciously implied, her
    sympathy was unexpected, it would appear she had gained a reputation for
    coldness and indifference which she was far from coveting. It often
    happens, certainly, that those whom we consider intellectually beneath
    us, and whom, supposing them too dull to comprehend the evolutions of
    our minds, we occasionally use for our amusement, possess an instinctive
    insight far keener than that of experience, enabling them to read our
    very souls with an accuracy which puts our self-knowledge to the blush,
    and might quite turn the tables upon us, could they themselves but
    appreciate their power.

    "But tell me all about it," resumed Sophie; "all the particulars. And
    then we'll discuss the dresses. Dear me! I long to get to work upon
    them."

    As a matter of fact, Cornelia had very few particulars to tell: all she
    knew was the simple fact she had already stated. But it needed only a
    small spark to enkindle her imagination; she plunged at once into a
    perfect flower-garden of bright thoughts and rainbow fancies;
    foreshadowed her whole journey from the arrival in New York to the
    latest grand ball and conquest; glowed over the horses, the houses, and
    the people; speculated profoundly in possible romances and romantic
    possibilities, and became so eloquent in a pretty, half-childish,
    half-womanish way she had, that Sophie's eyes shone, and she told
    herself that Neelie was the dearest, cunningest sister in the world.

    From these glorious imaginings they descended--or ascended, perhaps--to
    the dresses, and then Sophie's low, steady voice mingled with Cornelia's
    rich, strenuous one, like pure water with red wine. Cornelia paced the
    little room backward and forward--she could never keep still when she
    was talking about what interested her, and now paused by the window, now
    before the mantel-piece, now leaned for a moment on the foot-board of
    Sophie's bed. She was very happy; indeed, this may have been the
    happiest hour of her life, past or to come. We all have our happiest
    hour, probably; and not always shall we find that happiness to have been
    caused by higher or less selfish considerations than those which
    animated Cornelia Valeyon.

    During one of her visits to the window, she was arrested by the vision
    of an unknown young man coining up the road. She at once became silent.

    "What is it?" demanded Sophie, presently.

    "Some man--a new one--a gentleman--awfully big!" reported Cornelia, in
    detached sentences, with a look between each one.

    "As big as Bill Reynolds?" asked Sophie, with a twinkle in her face.

    "How absurd, Sophie! Bill Reynolds, indeed! He isn't up to this man's
    shoulder. Besides, this is a gentleman, and--oh!" exclaimed Cornelia,
    breaking off suddenly, and drawing back a step from the window.

    "Has the gentleman had an accident?" inquired Sophie, still twinkling.

    "He's stopped here--speaking to somebody--father, I believe; he's
    coming in--there! do you hear?" cried Cornelia, turning round with large
    eyes and her finger at her mouth, and speaking in a thrilling whisper.
    The sound of the quick, irregular tread of Mr. Bressant, following the
    professor into the study, was audible from below.

    "Who can he be?" resumed she presently, as Sophie said nothing.

    "If he's a gentleman, we don't need to know any more, do we?" replied
    her sister, from behind her sewing.

    "Well, he is one," rejoined Cornelia, uncertain whether she was being
    made fun of or not. "He was dressed like one; not _bandboxy_, you know,
    but nicely and easily; and he stands and moves well; and then his
    face--"

    "Is he handsome?" asked Sophie, as Cornelia paused.

    "Oh! he has that refined look--I can't describe it--better than
    handsome," said she, giving a little wave with her hand to carry out her
    meaning.

    "It's lucky he was so big," remarked Sophie, very innocently, "or you
    might not have been able to see so much of him in such a little time."

    "Sophie!" said Cornelia, after a silence of some moments, speaking with
    tragic deliberation, "you're making fun of me; I think you're very
    unkind. I don't see what there is to laugh at in what I said; and if
    there was any thing, I think _you_ might not laugh."

    "O Neelie--dear Neelie!" exclaimed Sophie, coloring with regret and
    shame; "I didn't think you'd mind it; it was only my foolishness. Don't
    think I meant to be unkind to you, dear. I wish the man had never come
    here, whoever he is, if he is to come between us in any way. Won't you
    forgive me, darling?" and she held out her hand to Cornelia with a
    wistful, beseeching look in her eyes that thawed her sister's resentment
    immediately, and after a very brief struggle to preserve her dignity,
    she subsided with her face upon the pillow beside her sister's.

    "We won't ever quarrel or any thing again, will we, Sophie?" said she,
    after a while.

    "Never about that gentleman, at all events!" answered Sophie; and then
    they both laughed and kissed each other to seal the bargain.

    Once, long afterward, Cornelia remembered that kiss, and the words that
    had accompanied it; and pondered over the bitter significance with which
    the simple act and playful agreement had become fraught.

    But now, the subject was soon forgotten, and they fell to talking about
    the dresses once more; nor was the topic by any means exhausted when
    they were interrupted by the professor's voice calling to them from
    below.
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