Transcribed by David Price, email email@example.com
AN AMBITIOUS MAN
Preston Cheney turned as he ran down the steps of a handsome house on "The Boulevard," waving a second adieu to a young woman framed between the lace curtains of the window. Then he hurried down the street and out of view. The young woman watched him with a gleam of satisfaction in her pale blue eyes. A fine-looking young fellow, whose Roman nose and strong jaw belied the softly curved mouth with its sensitive darts at the corners; it was strange that something warmer than satisfaction did not shine upon the face of the woman whom he had just asked to be his wife.
But Mabel Lawrence was one of those women who are never swayed by any passion stronger than worldly ambition, never burned by any fires other than those of jealousy or anger. Her meagre nature was truly depicted in her meagre face. Nature is ofttimes a great lair and a cruel jester, giving to the cold and vapid woman the face and form of a sensuous siren, and concealing a heart of volcanic fires, or the soul of a Phryne, under the exterior of a spinster. But the old dame had been wholly frank in forming Miss Lawrence. The thin, flat chest and narrow shoulders, the angular elbows and prominent shoulder- blades, the sallow skin and sharp features, the deeply set, pale blue eyes, and the lustreless, ashen hair, were all truthful exponents of the unfurnished rooms in her vacant heart and soul places.
Miss Lawrence turned from the window, and trailed her long silken train across the rich carpet, seating herself before the open fireplace. It was an appropriate time and situation for a maiden's tender dreams; only a few hours had passed since the handsomest and most brilliant young man in that thriving eastern town had asked her to be his wife, and placed the kiss of betrothal upon her virgin lips. Yet it was with a sense of triumph and relief, rather than with tenderness and rapture, that the young woman meditated upon the situation—triumph over other women who had shown a decided interest in Mr Cheney, since his arrival in the place more than eighteen months ago, and relief that the dreaded role of spinster was not to be her part in life's drama.
Miss Lawrence was twenty-six—one year older than her fiance; and she had never received a proposal of marriage or listened to a word of love in her life before. Let me transpose that phrase—she had never before received a proposal of marriage, and had never in her life listened to a word of love; for Preston had not spoken of love. She knew that he did not love her. She knew that he had sought her hand wholly from ambitious motives. She was the daughter of the Hon. Sylvester Lawrence, lawyer, judge, state senator, and proposed candidate for lieutenant-governor in the coming campaign. She was the only heir to his large fortune.
Preston Cheney was a penniless young man from the West. A self-made youth, with an unusual brain and an overwhelming ambition, he had risen from chore boy on a western farm to printer's apprentice in a small town, thence to reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent, and after two or three years of travel gained in this manner he had come to Beryngford and bought out a struggling morning paper, which was making a mad effort to keep alive, changed its political tendencies, infused it with western activity and filled it with cosmopolitan news, and now, after eighteen months, the young man found himself coming abreast of his two long established rivals in the editorial field. This success was but an incentive to his overwhelming ambition for place, power and riches. He had seen just enough of life and of the world to estimate these things at double their value; and he was, beside, looking at life through the magnifying glass of youth. The Creator intended us to gaze on worldly possessions and selfish ambitions through the small end of the lorgnette, but youth invariably inverts the glass.
To the young editor, the brief years behind him seemed like a long hard pull up a steep and rocky cliff. From the point to which he had attained, the summit of his desires looked very far away, much farther than the level from which he had arisen. To rise to that summit single-handed and alone would require unremitting effort through the very best years of his manhood. His brain, his strength, his ability, his ambitions, what were they all in the strife after place and power, compared to the money of some commonplace adversary? Preston Cheney, the native-born American directly descended from a Revolutionary soldier, would be handicapped in the race with some Michael Murphy whose father had made a fortune in the saloon business, or who had himself acquired a competency as a police officer.
America was not the same country which gave men like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley a chance to rise from the lower ranks to the highest places before they reached middle life. It was no longer a land where merit strove with merit, and the prize fell to the most earnest and the most gifted. The tremendous influx of foreign population since the war of the Rebellion and the right of franchise given unreservedly to the illiterate and the vicious rendered the ambitious American youth now a toy in the hands of aliens, and position a thing to be bought at the price set by un- American masses.
Thoughts like these had more and more with each year filled the mind of Preston Cheney, until, like the falling of stones and earth into a river bed, they changed the naturally direct current of his impulses into another channel. Why not further his life purpose by an ambitious marriage? The first time the thought entered his mind he had cast it out as something unclean and unworthy of his manhood. Marriage was a holy estate, he said to himself, a sacrament to be entered into with reverence, and sanctified by love. He must love the woman who was to be the companion of his life, the mother of his children.
Then he looked about among his early friends who had married, as nearly all the young men of the middle classes in America do marry, for love, or what they believed to be love. There was Tom Somers—a splendid lad, full of life, hope and ambition when he married Carrie Towne, the prettiest girl in Vandalia. Well, what was he now, after seven years? A broken-spirited man, with a sickly, complaining wife and a brood of ill-clad children. Harry Walters, the most infatuated lover he had ever seen, was divorced after five years of discordant marriage.
Charlie St Clair was flagrantly unfaithful to the girl he had pursued three years with his ardent wooings before she yielded to his suit. Certainly none of these love marriages were examples for him to follow. And in the midst of these reveries and reflections, Preston Cheney came to Beryngford, and met Sylvester Lawrence and his daughter Mabel. He met also Berene Dumont. Had he not met the latter woman he would not have succumbed—so soon at least—to the temptation held out by the former to advance his ambitious aims.
He would have hesitated, considered, and reconsidered, and without doubt his better nature and his good taste would have prevailed. But when fate threw Berene Dumont in his way, and circumstances brought about his close associations with her for many months, there seemed but one way of escape from the Scylla of his desires, and that was to the Charybdis of a marriage with Miss Lawrence.
Miss Lawrence was not aware of the part Berene Dumont had played in her engagement, but she knew perfectly the part her father's influence and wealth had played; but she was quite content with affairs as they were, and it mattered little to her what had brought them about. To be married, rather than to be loved, had been her ambition since she left school; being incapable of loving, she was incapable of appreciating the passion in any of its phases. It had always seemed to her that a great deal of nonsense was written and talked about love. She thought demonstrative people very vulgar, and believed kissing a means of conveying germs of disease.
But to be a married woman, with an establishment of her own, and a husband to exhibit to her friends, was necessary to the maintenance of her pride.
When Miss Lawrence's mother, a nervous invalid, was informed of her daughter's engagement, she burst into tears, as over a lamb offered on the altar of sacrifice; and Judge Lawrence pressed a kiss on the lobe of Mabel's left ear which she offered him, and told her she had won a prize in the market. But as he sat alone over his cigar that night, he sighed heavily, and said to himself, "Poor fellow, I wish Mabel were not so much like her mother."
"Baroness Brown" was a distinctive figure in Beryngford. She came to the place from foreign parts some three years before the arrival of Preston Cheney, and brought servants, carriages and horses, and established herself in a very handsome house which she rented for a term of years. Her arrival in this quiet village town was of course the sensation of the hour, or rather of the year. She was known as Baroness Le Fevre—an American widow of a French baron. Large, voluptuous, blonde, and handsome according to the popular idea of beauty, distinctly amiable, affable and very charitable, she became at once the fashion.
Invitations to her house were eagerly sought after, and her entertainments were described in column articles by the press.
This state of things continued only six months, however. Then it began to be whispered about that the Baroness was in arrears for her rent. Several of her servants had gone away in a high state of temper at the titled mistress who had failed to pay them a cent of wages since they came to the country with her; and one day the neighbours saw her fine carriage horses led away by the sheriff.
A week later society was electrified by the announcement of the marriage of Baroness Le Fevre to Mr Brown, a wealthy widower who owned the best shoe store in Beryngford.
Mr Brown owned ten children also, but the youngest was a boy of sixteen, absent in college. The other nine were married and settled in comfortable homes.
Mr Brown died at the expiration of a year. This one year had taught him more of womankind than he had learned in all his sixty and nine years before; and, feeling that it is never too late to profit by learning, Mr Brown discreetly made his will, leaving all his property save the widow's "thirds" equally divided among his ten children.
The Baroness made a futile effort to break the will, on the ground that he was not of sound mind when it was drawn up; but the effort cost her several hundred of her few thousand dollars and the increased enmity of the ten Brown children, and availed her nothing. An important part of the widow's third was the Brown mansion, a large, commodious house built many years before, when the village was but a country town. Everybody supposed the Baroness, as she was still called, half in derision and half from the American love of mouthing a title, would offer this house for sale, and depart for fresh fields and pastures new. But the Baroness never did what she was expected to do.
Instead of offering her house for sale, she offered "Rooms to Let," and turned the family mansion into a fashionable lodging-house.
Its central location, and its adjacence to several restaurants and boarding houses, rendered it a convenient place for business people to lodge, and the handsome widow found no trouble in filling her rooms with desirable and well-paying patrons. In a spirit of fun, people began to speak of the old Brown mansion as "The Palace," and in a short time the lodging-house was known by that name, just as its mistress was known as "Baroness Brown."
The Palace yielded the Baroness something like two hundred dollars a month, and cost her only the wages and keeping of three servants; or rather the wages of two and the keeping of three; for to Berene Dumont, her maid and personal attendant, she paid no wages.
The Baroness did not rise till noon, and she always breakfasted in bed. Sometimes she remained in her room till mid-afternoon. Berene served her breakfast and lunch, and looked after the servants to see that the lodgers' rooms were all in order. These were the services for which she was given a home. But in truth the young woman did much more than this; she acted also as seamstress and milliner for her mistress, and attended to the marketing and ran errands for her. If ever a girl paid full price for her keeping, it was Berene, and yet the Baroness spoke frequently of "giving the poor thing a home."
It had all come about in this way. Pierre Dumont kept a second-hand book store in Beryngford. He was French, and the national characteristic of frugality had assumed the shape of avarice in his nature. He was, too, a petty tyrant and a cruel husband and father when under the influence of absinthe, a state in which he was usually to be found.
Berene was an only child, and her mother, whom she worshipped, said, when dying, "Take care of your poor father, Berene. Do everything you can to make him happy. Never desert him."
Berene was fourteen at that time. She had never been at school, but she had been taught to read and write both French and English, for her mother was an American girl who had been disinherited by her grandparents, with whom she lived, for eloping with her French teacher—Pierre Dumont. Rheumatism and absinthe turned the French professor into a shopkeeper before Berene was born. The grandparents had died without forgiving their granddaughter, and, much as the unhappy woman regretted her foolish marriage, she remained a patient and devoted wife to the end of her life, and imposed the same patience and devotion when dying on her daughter.
At sixteen, Berene was asked to sacrifice herself on the altar of marriage to a man three times her age; one Jacques Letellier, who offered generously to take the young girl as payment for a debt owed by his convivial comrade, M. Dumont. Berene wept and begged piteously to be spared this horrible sacrifice of her young life, whereupon Pierre Dumont seized his razor and threatened suicide as the other alternative from the dishonour of debt, and Berene in terror yielded her word and herself the next day to the debasing mockery of marriage with a depraved old gambler and roue.
Six months later Jacques Letellier died in a fit of apoplexy and Berene was freed from her chains; but freed only to keep on in a life of martyrdom as servant and slave to the caprices of her father, until his death. When he was finally well buried under six feet of earth, Berene found herself twenty years of age, alone in the world with just one thousand dollars in money, the price brought by her father's effects.
Without education or accomplishments, she was the possessor of youth, health, charm, and a voice of wonderful beauty and power; a voice which it was her dream to cultivate, and use as a means of support. But how could she ever cultivate it? The thousand dollars in her possession was, she knew, but a drop in the ocean of expense a musical education would entail. And she must keep that money until she found some way by which to support herself.
Baroness Brown had attended the sale of old Dumont's effects. She had often noticed the young girl in the shop, and in the street, and had been struck with the peculiar elegance and refinement of her appearance. Her simple lawn or print gowns were made and worn in a manner befitting a princess. Her nails were carefully kept, despite all the household drudgery which devolved upon her.
The Baroness was a shrewd woman and a clever reasoner. She needed a thrifty, prudent person in her house to look after things, and to attend to her personal needs. Since she had opened the Palace as a lodging-house, this need had stared her in the face. Servants did very well in their places, but the person she required was of another and superior order, and only to be obtained by accident or by advertising and the paying of a large salary. Now the Baroness had been in the habit of thinking that her beauty and amiability were quite equivalent to any favours she received from humanity at large. Ever since she was a plump girl in short dresses, she had learned that smiles and compliments from her lips would purchase her friends of both sexes, who would do disagreeable duties for her. She had never made it a custom to pay out money for any service she could obtain otherwise. So now as she looked on this young woman who, though a widow, seemed still a mere child, it occurred to her that Fate had with its usual kindness thrown in her path the very person she needed.
She offered Berene "a home" at the Palace in return for a few small services. The lonely girl, whose strangely solitary life with her old father had excluded her from all social relations outside, grasped at this offer from the handsome lady whom she had long admired from a distance, and went to make her home at the Palace.
Berene had been several months in her new home when Preston Cheney came to lodge at the Palace.
He met her on the stairway the first morning after his arrival, as he was descending to the street door.
Bringing up a tray covered with a snowy napkin, she stepped to one side and paused, to make room for him to pass.
Preston was not one of those young men who find pastime in flirtations with nursery maids or kitchen girls. The very thought of it offended his good taste. Once, in listening to the boastful tales of a modern Don Juan, who was relating his gallant adventures with a handsome waiter girl at a hotel, Preston had remarked, "I would as soon think of using my dinner napkin for a necktie, as finding romance with a servant girl."
Yet he appreciated a snowy, well-laundried napkin in its place, and he was most considerate and thoughtful in his treatment of servants.
He supposed Berene to be an upper servant of the house, and yet, as he glanced at her, a strange and unaccountable feeling of interest seized upon him. The creamy pallor of her skin, colourless save for the full red lips, the dark eyes full of unutterable longing, the aristocratic poise of the head, the softly rounded figure, elegant in its simple gown and apron, all impressed him as he had never before been impressed by any woman.
It was several days before he chanced to see her again, and then only for a moment as she passed through the hall; but he heard a trill of song from her lips, which added to his interest and curiosity. "That girl is no common servant," he said to himself, and he resolved to learn more about her.
It had been the custom of the Baroness to keep herself quite hidden from her lodgers. They seldom saw her, after the first business interview. Therefore it was a matter of surprise to the young editor when he came home from his office one night, just after twelve o'clock, and found the mistress of the mansion standing in the hall by the register, in charming evening attire.
She smiled upon him radiantly. "I have just come in from a benefit concert," she said, "and I am as hungry as a bear. Now I cannot endure eating alone at night. I knew it was near your hour to return, so I waited for you. Will you go down to the dining-room with me and have a Welsh rarebit? I am going to make one in my chafing dish."
The young man hid his surprise under a gallant smile, and offering the Baroness his arm descended to the basement dining-room with her. He had heard much about the complicated life of this woman, and he felt a certain amount of natural curiosity in regard to her. He had met her but once, and that was on the day when he had called to engage his room, a little more than two weeks past.
He had thought her an excellent type of the successful American adventuress on that occasion, and her quiet and dull life in this ordinary town puzzled him. He could not imagine a woman of that order existing a whole year without an adventure; as a rule he knew that those blonde women with large hips and busts, and small waists and feet, are as unable to live without excitement as a fish without water.
Yet, since the death of Mr Brown, more than a year past, the Baroness had lived the life of a recluse. It puzzled him, as a student of human nature.
But, in fact, the Baroness was a skilled general in planning her campaigns. She seldom plunged into action unprepared.
She knew from experience that she could not live in a large city and not use an enormous amount of money.
She was tired of taking great risks, and she knew that without the aid of money and a fine wardrobe she was not able to attract men as she had done ten years before.
As long as she remained in Beryngford she would be adding to her income every month, and saving the few thousands she possessed. She would be saving her beauty, too, by keeping early hours and living a temperate life; and if she carefully avoided any new scandal, her past adventures would be dim in the minds of people when, after a year or two more of retirement and retrenchment, she sallied forth to new fields, under a new name, if need be, and with a comfortably filled purse.
It was in this manner that the Baroness had reasoned; but from the hour she first saw Preston Cheney, her resolutions wavered. He impressed her most agreeably; and after learning about him from the daily papers, and hearing him spoken of as a valuable acquisition to Beryngford's intellectual society, the Baroness decided to come out of her retirement and enter the lists in advance of other women who would seek to attract this newcomer.
To the fading beauty in her late thirties, a man in the early twenties possesses a peculiar fascination; and to the Baroness, clothed in weeds for a husband who died on the eve of his seventieth birthday, the possibility of winning a young man like Preston Cheney overbalanced all other considerations in her mind. She had never been a vulgar coquette to whom all men were prey. She had always been more or less discriminating. A man must be either very attractive or very rich to win her regard. Mr Brown had been very rich, and Preston Cheney was very attractive.
"He is more than attractive, he is positively FASCINATING," she said to herself in the solitude of her room after the tete-a-tete over the Welsh rarebit that evening. "I don't know when I have felt such a pleasure in a man's presence. Not since—" But the Baroness did not allow herself to go back so far. "If there is any fruit I DETEST, it is DATES," she often said laughingly. "Some people delight in a good memory—I delight in a good forgettory of the past, with its telltale milestones of birthdays and anniversaries of marriages, deaths and divorces."
"Mr Cheney said I looked very young to have been twice married. Twice!" and she laughed aloud before her mirror, revealing the pink arch of her mouth, and two perfect sets of yellow-white teeth, with only one blemishing spot of gold visible. "I wonder if he meant it, though?" she mused. "And the fact that I DO wonder is the sure proof that I am really interested in this man. As a rule, I never believe a word men say, though I delight in their flattery all the same. It makes me feel comfortable even when I know they are lying. But I should really feel hurt if I thought Mr Cheney had not meant what he said. I don't believe he knows much about women, or about himself lower than his brain. He has never studied his heart. He is all ambition. If an ambitious and unsophisticated youth of twenty-five or twenty-eight does get infatuated with a woman of my age—he is a perfect toy in her hands. Ah, well, we shall see what we shall see." And the Baroness finished her massage in cold cream, and put her blonde head on the pillow and went sound asleep.
After that first tete-a-tete supper the fair widow managed to see Preston at least once or twice a week. She sent for him to ask his advice on business matters, she asked him to aid her in changing the position of the furniture in a room when the servants were all busy, and she invited him to her private parlour for lunch every Sunday afternoon. It was during one of these chats over cake and wine that the young man spoke of Berene. The Baroness had dropped some remarks about her servants, and Preston said, in a casual tone of voice which hid the real interest he felt in the subject, "By the way, one of your servants has quite an unusual voice. I have heard her singing about the halls a few times, and it seems to me she has real talent."
"Oh, that is Miss Dumont—Berene Dumont—she is not an absolute servant," the Baroness replied; "she is a most unfortunate young woman to whom my heart went out in pity, and I have given her a home. She is really a widow, though she refuses to use her dead husband's name."
"A widow?" repeated Preston with surprise and a queer sensation of annoyance at his heart; "why, from the glimpse I had of her I thought her a young girl."
"So she is, not over twenty-one at most, and woefully ignorant for that age," the Baroness said, and then she proceeded to outline Berene's history, laying a good deal of stress upon her own charitable act in giving the girl a home.
"She is so ignorant of life, despite the fact that she has been married, and she is so uneducated and helpless, I could not bear to see her cast into the path of designing people," the Baroness said. "She has a strong craving for an education, and I give her good books to read, and good advice to ponder over, and I hope in time to come she will marry some honest fellow and settle down to a quiet, happy home life. The man who brings us butter and eggs from the country is quite fascinated with her, but she does not deign him a glance." And then the Baroness talked of other things.
But the history he had heard remained in Preston Cheney's mind and he could not drive the thought of this girl away. No wonder her eyes were sad! Better blood ran in her veins than coursed under the pink flesh of the Baroness, he would wager; she was the unfortunate victim of a combination of circumstances, which had defrauded her of the advantages of youth.
He spoke with her in the hall one morning not long after that; and then it grew to be a daily occurrence that he talked with her a few moments, and before many weeks had passed the young man approached the Baroness with a request.
"I have become interested in your protegee Miss Dumont," he said. "You have done so much for her that you have stirred my better nature and made me anxious to emulate your example. In talking with her in the hall one day I learned her great desire for a better education, and her anxiety to earn money. Now it has occurred to me that I might aid her in both ways. We need two or three more girls in our office. We need one more in the type-setting department. As The Clarion is a morning paper, and you never need Miss Dumont's services after five o'clock, she could work a few hours in the office, earn a small salary, and gain something in the way of an education also, if she were ambitious enough to do so. Nearly all my early education was gained as a printer. She tells me she is faulty in the matter of spelling, and this would be excellent training for her. You have, dear madam, inspired the girl with a desire for more knowledge, and I hope you will let me carry on the good work you have begun."
Preston had approached the matter in a way that could not fail to bring success—by flattering the vanity and pride of the Baroness. So elated was she with the agreeable references to herself, that she never suspected the young man's deep personal interest in the girl. She believed in the beginning that he was showing Berene this kind attention solely to please the mistress.
Berene entered the office as type-setter, and made such astonishing progress that she was promoted to the position of proof-reader ere six months had passed. And hour by hour, day by day, week by week, the strange influence which she had exerted on her employer, from the first moment of their meeting, grew and strengthened, until he realised with a sudden terror that his whole being was becoming absorbed by an intense passion for the girl.
Meantime the Baroness was growing embarrassing in her attentions. The young man was not conceited, nor prone to regard himself as an object of worship to the fair sex. He had during the first few months believed the Baroness to be amusing herself with his society. He had not flattered himself that a woman of her age, who had seen so much of the world, and whose ambitions were so unmistakable, could regard him otherwise than as a diversion.
But of late the truth had forced itself upon him that the woman wished to entangle him in a serious affair. He could not afford to jeopardise his reputation at the very outset of his career by any such entanglement, or by the appearance of one. He cast about for some excuse to leave the Palace, yet this would separate him in a measure from his association with Berene, beside incurring the enmity of the Baroness, and possibly causing Berene to suffer from her anger as well.
He seemed to be caught like a fly in a net. And again the thought of his future and his ambitions confronted him, and he felt abashed in his own eyes, as he realised how far away these ambitions had seemed of late, since he had allowed his emotions to overrule his brain.
What was this ignorant daughter of a French professor, that she should stand between him and glory, riches and power? Desperate diseases needed desperate remedies. He had been an occasional caller at the Lawrence homestead ever since he came to Beryngford. Without being conceited on the subject, he realised that Mabel Lawrence would not reject him as a suitor.
The masculine party is very dull, or the feminine very deceptive, when a man makes a mistake in his impressions on this subject.
That afternoon the young editor left his office at five o'clock and asked Miss Lawrence to be his wife.
Preston Cheney walked briskly down the street after he left his fiancee, his steps directed toward the Palace. It was seven o'clock, and he knew the Baroness would be at home.
He had determined upon heroic treatment for his own mental disease (as he regarded his peculiar sentiments toward Berene Dumont), and he had decided upon a similar course of treatment for the Baroness.
He would confide his engagement to her at once, and thus put an end to his embarrassing position in the Palace, as well as to establish his betrothal as a fact—and to force himself to so regard it. It was strange reasoning for a young man in the very first hour of his new role of bridegroom elect, but this particular groom elect had deliberately placed himself in a peculiar position, and his reasoning was not, of course, that of an ardent and happy lover.
Already he was galled by his new fetters; already he was feeling a sense of repulsion toward the woman he had asked to be his wife: and because of these feelings he was more eager to nail himself hand and foot to the cross he had builded.
He was obliged to wait some time before the Baroness came into the reception-room; and when she came he observed that she had made an elaborate toilet in his honour. Her sumptuous shoulders billowed over the low-cut blue corsage like apple-dumplings over a china dish. Her waist was drawn in to an hourglass taper, while her ample hips spread out beneath like the heavy mason work which supports a slender column. Tiny feet encased in pretty slippers peeping from beneath her silken skirts looked oddly out of proportion with the rest of her generous personality, and reminded Preston of the grotesque cuts in the humorous weeklies, where well-known politicians were represented with large heads and small extremities. Artistic by nature, and with an eye to form, he had never admired the Baroness's type of beauty, which was the theme of admiration for nearly every other man in Beryngford. Her face, with its infantine colouring, its large, innocent azure eyes, and its short retrousse features, he conceded to be captivatingly pretty, however, and it seemed unusually so this evening. Perhaps because he had so recently looked upon the sharp, sallow face of his fiancee.
Preston frequently came to his room about this hour, after having dined and before going to the office for his final duties; but he seldom saw the Baroness on these occasions, unless through her own design.
"You were surprised to receive my message, no doubt, saying I wished to see you," he began. "But I have something I feel I ought to tell you, as it may make some changes in my habits, and will of course eventually take me away from these pleasant associations." He paused for a second, and the Baroness, who had seated herself on the divan at his side, leaned forward and looked inquiringly in his face.
"You are going away?" she asked, with a tremor in her voice. "Is it not very sudden?"
"No, I am not going away," he replied, "not from Beryngford—but I shall doubtless leave your house ere many months. I am engaged to be married to Miss Mabel Lawrence. You are the first person to whom I have imparted the news, but you have been so kind, and I feel that you ought to know it in time to secure a desirable tenant for my room."
Again there was a pause. The rosy face of the Baroness had grown quite pale, and an unpleasant expression had settled about the corners of her small mouth. She waved a feather fan to and fro languidly. Then she gave a slight laugh and said:
"Well, I must confess that I am surprised. Miss Lawrence is the last woman in the world whom I would have imagined you to select as a wife. Yet I congratulate you on your good sense. You are very ambitious, and you can rise to great distinction if you have the right influence to aid you. Judge Lawrence, with his wealth and position, is of all men the one who can advance your interests, and what more natural than that he should advance the interests of his son-in-law? You are a very wise youth and I again congratulate you. No romantic folly will ever ruin your life."
There was irony and ridicule in her voice and face, and the young man felt his cheek tingle with anger and humiliation. The Baroness had read him like an open book—as everyone else doubtless would do. It was bitterly galling to his pride, but there was nothing to do, save to keep a bold front, and carry out his role with as much dignity as possible.
He rose, spoke a few formal words of thanks to the Baroness for her kindness to him, and bowed himself from her presence, carrying with him down the street the memory of her mocking eyes.
As he entered his private office, he was amazed to see Berene Dumont sitting in his chair fast asleep, her head framed by her folded arms, which rested on his desk. Against the dark maroon of her sleeve, her classic face was outlined like a marble statuette. Her long lashes swept her cheek, and in the attitude in which she sat, her graceful, perfectly-proportioned figure displayed each beautiful curve to the best advantage.
To a noble nature, the sight of even an enemy asleep, awakes softening emotions, while the sight of a loved being in the unconsciousness of slumber stirs the fountain of affection to its very depths.
As the young editor looked upon the girl before him, a passion of yearning love took possession of him. A wild desire to seize her in his arms and cover her pale face with kisses, made his heart throb to suffocation and brought cold beads to his brow; and just as these feelings gained an almost uncontrollable dominion over his reason, will and judgment, the girl awoke and started to her feet in confusion.
"Oh, Mr Cheney, pray forgive me!" she cried, looking more beautiful than ever with the flush which overspread her face. "I came in to ask about a word in your editorial which I could not decipher. I waited for you, as I felt sure you would be in shortly—and I was so TIRED I sat down for just a second to rest—and that is all I knew about it. You must forgive me, sir!—I did not mean to intrude."
Her confusion, her appealing eyes, her magnetic voice were all fuel to the fire raging in the young man's heart. Now that she was for ever lost to him through his own deliberate action, she seemed tenfold more dear and to be desired. Brain, soul, and body all seemed to crave her; he took a step forward, and drew in a quick breath as if to speak; and then a sudden sense of his own danger, and an overwhelming disgust for his weakness swept over him, and the intense passion the girl had aroused in his heart changed to unreasonable anger.
"Miss Dumont," he said coldly, "I think we will have to dispense with your services after to-night. Your duties are evidently too hard for you. You can leave the office at any time you wish. Good-night."
The girl shrank as if he had struck her, looked up at him with wide, wondering eyes, waited for a moment as if expecting to be recalled, then, as Mr Cheney wheeled his chair about and turned his back upon her, she suddenly sped away without a word.
She left the office a few moments later; but it was not until after eleven o'clock that she dragged herself up two flights of stairs toward her room on the attic floor at the Palace. She had been walking the streets like a mad creature all that intervening time, trying to still the agonising pain in her heart. Preston Cheney had long been her ideal of all that was noble, grand and good, she worshipped him as devout pagans worshipped their sacred idols; and, without knowing it, she gave him the absorbing passion which an intense woman gives to her lover.
It was only now that he had treated her with such rough brutality, and discharged her from his employ for so slight a cause, that the knowledge burst upon her tortured heart of all he was to her.
She paused at the foot of the third and last flight of stairs with a strange dizziness in her head and a sinking sensation at her heart.
A little less than half-an-hour afterwards Preston Cheney unlocked the street door and came in for the night. He had done double his usual amount of work and had finished his duties earlier than usual. To avoid thinking after he sent Berene away, he had turned to his desk and plunged into his labour with feverish intensity. He wrote a particularly savage editorial on the matter of over-immigration, and his leaders on political questions of the day were all tinctured with a bitterness and sarcasm quite new to his pen. At midnight that pen dropped from his nerveless hand, and he made his way toward the Palace in a most unenviable state of mind and body.
Yet he believed he had done the right thing both in engaging himself to Miss Lawrence and in discharging Berene. Her constant presence about the office was of all things the most undesirable in his new position.
"But I might have done it in a decent manner if I had not lost all control of myself," he said as he walked home. "It was brutal the way I spoke to her; poor child, she looked as if I had beat her with a bludgeon. Well, it is just as well perhaps that I gave her good reason to despise me."
Since Berene had gone into the young man's office as an employe her good taste and another reason had caused her to avoid him as much as possible in the house. He seldom saw more than a passing glimpse of her in the halls, and frequently whole days elapsed that he met her only in the office. The young man never suspected that this fact was due in great part to the suggestion of jealousy in the manner of the Baroness toward the young girl ever after he had shown so much interest in her welfare. Sensitive to the mental atmosphere about her, as a wind harp to the lightest breeze, Berene felt this unexpressed sentiment in the breast of her "benefactress" and strove to avoid anything which could aggravate it.
With a lagging step and a listless air, Preston made his way up the first of two flights of stairs which intervened between the street door and his room. The first floor was in darkness; but in the upper hall a dim light was always left burning until his return. As he reached the landing, he was startled to see a woman's form lying at the foot of the attic stairs, but a few feet from the door of his room. Stooping down, he uttered a sudden exclamation of pained surprise, for it was upon the pallid, unconscious face of Berene Dumont that his eyes fell. He lifted the lithe figure in his sinewy arms, and with light, rapid steps bore her up the stairs and in through the open door of her room.
"If she is dead, I am her murderer," he thought. But at that moment she opened her eyes and looked full into his, with a gaze which made his impetuous, uncontrolled heart forget that any one or anything existed on earth but this girl and his love for her.
One of the greatest factors in the preservation of the Baroness's beauty had been her ability to sleep under all conditions. The woman who can and does sleep eight or nine hours out of each twenty-four is well armed against the onslaught of time and trouble.
To say that such women do not possess heart enough or feeling enough to suffer is ofttimes most untrue.
Insomnia is a disease of the nerves or of the stomach, rather than the result of extreme emotion. Sometimes the people who sleep the most profoundly at night in times of sorrow, suffer the more intensely during their waking hours. Disguised as a friend, deceitful Slumber comes to them only to strengthen their powers of suffering, and to lend a new edge to pain.
The Baroness was not without feeling. Her temperament was far from phlegmatic. She had experienced great cyclones of grief and loss in her varied career, though many years had elapsed since she had known what the French call a "white night."
But the night following her interview with Preston Cheney she never closed her eyes in sleep. It was in vain that she tried all known recipes for producing slumber. She said the alphabet backward ten times; she counted one thousand; she conjured up visions of sheep jumping the time-honoured fence in battalions, yet the sleep god never once drew near.
"I am certainly a brilliant illustration of the saying that there is no fool like an old fool," she said to herself as the night wore on, and the strange sensation of pain and loss which Preston Cheney's unexpected announcement had caused her gnawed at her breast like a rat in a wainscot.
That she had been unusually interested in the young editor she knew from the first; that she had been mortally wounded by Cupid's shaft she only now discovered. She had passed through a divorce, two "affairs" and a legitimate widowhood, without feeling any of the keen emotions which now drove sleep from her eyes. A long time ago, longer than she cared to remember, she had experienced such emotions, but she had supposed such folly only possible in the high tide of early youth. It was absurd, nay more, it was ridiculous to lie awake at her time of life thinking about a penniless country youth whose mother she might almost have been. In this bitterly frank fashion the Baroness reasoned with herself as she lay quite still in her luxurious bed, and tried to sleep.
Yet despite her frankness, her philosophy and her reasoning, the rasping hurt at her heart remained—a hurt so cruel it seemed to her the end of all peace or pleasure in life.
It is harder to bear the suffocating heat of a late September day which the year sometimes brings, than all the burning June suns.
The Baroness heard the click of Preston's key in the street door, and she listened to his slow step as he ascended the stairs. She heard him pause, too, and waited for the sound of the opening of his room door, which was situated exactly above her own. But she listened in vain, her ears, brain and heart on the alert with surprise, curiosity, and at last suspicion. The Baroness was as full of curiosity as a cat.
It was not until just before dawn that she heard his step in the hall, and his door open and close.
An hour later a sharp ring came at the street door bell. A message for Mr Preston, the servant said, in answer to her mistress's question as she descended from the room above.
"Was Mr Preston awake when you rapped on his door?" asked the Baroness.
"Yes, madame, awake and dressed."
Mr Preston ran hurriedly through the halls and out to the street a moment later; and the Baroness, clothed in a dressing-gown and silken slippers, tiptoed lightly to his room. The bed had not been occupied the whole night. On the table lay a note which the young man had begun when interrupted by the message which he had thrown down beside it.
The Baroness glanced at the note, on which the ink was still moist, and read, "My dear Miss Lawrence, I want you to release me from the ties formed only yesterday—I am basely unworthy—" here the note ended. She now turned her attention to the message which had prevented the completion of the letter. It was signed by Judge Lawrence and ran as follows:-
"My Dear Boy,—My wife was taken mortally ill this morning just before daybreak. She cannot live many hours, our physician says. Mabel is in a state of complete nervous prostration caused by the shock of this calamity. I wish you would come to us at once. I fear for my dear child's reason unless you prove able to calm and quiet her through this ordeal. Hasten then, my dear son; every moment before you arrive will seem an age of sorrow and anxiety to me. "S. LAWRENCE."
A strange smile curved the corners of the Baroness's lips as she finished reading this note and tiptoed down the stairs to her own room again.
Meantime the hour for her hot water arrived, and Berene did not appear. The Baroness drank a quart of hot water every morning as a tonic for her system, and another quart after breakfast to reduce her flesh. Her excellent digestive powers and the clear condition of her blood she attributed largely to this habit.
After a few moments she rang the bell vigorously. Maggie, the chambermaid, came in answer to the call.
"Please ask Miss Dumont" (Berene was always known to the other servants as Miss Dumont) "to hurry with the hot water," the Baroness said.
"Miss Dumont has not yet come downstairs, madame."
"Not come down? Then will you please call her, Maggie?"
The Baroness was always polite to her servants. She had observed that a graciousness of speech toward her servants often made up for a deficiency in wages. Maggie ascended to Miss Dumont's room, and returned with the information that Miss Dumont had a severe headache, and begged the indulgence of madame this morning.
Again that strange smile curved the corners of the Baroness's lips.
Maggie was requested to bring up hot water and coffee, and great was her surprise to find the Baroness moving about the room when she appeared with the tray.
Half-an-hour later Berene Dumont, standing by an open window with her hands clasped behind her head, heard a light tap on her door. In answer to a mechanical "Come," the Baroness appeared.
The rustle of her silken morning gown caused Berene to turn suddenly and face her; and as she met the eyes of her visitor the young woman's pallor gave place to a wave of deep crimson, which dyed her face and neck like the shadow of a red flag falling on a camellia blossom.
"Maggie tells me you are ill this morning," the Baroness remarked after a moment's silence. "I am surprised to find you up and dressed. I came to see if I could do anything for you."
"You are very kind," Berene answered, while in her heart she thought how cruel was the expression in the face of the woman before her, and how faded she appeared in the morning light. "But I think I shall be quite well in a little while, I only need to keep quiet for a few hours."
"I fear you passed a sleepless night," the Baroness remarked with a solicitous tone, but with the same cruel smile upon her lips. "I see you never opened your bed. Something must have been in the air to keep us all awake. I did not sleep an hour, and Mr Cheney never entered his room till near morning. Yet I can understand his wakefulness—he announced his engagement to Miss Mabel Lawrence to me last evening, and a young man is not expected to woo sleep easily after taking such an important step as that. Judge Lawrence sent for him a few hours ago to come and support Miss Mabel during the trial that the day is to bring them in the death of Mrs Lawrence. The physician has predicted the poor invalid's near end. Sorrow follows close on joy in this life."
There was a moment's silence; then Miss Dumont said: "I think I will try to get a little sleep now, madame. I thank you for your kind interest in me."
The Baroness descended to her room humming an air from an old opera, and settled to the task of removing as much as possible all evidences of fatigue and sleeplessness from her countenance.
It has been said very prettily of the spruce-tree, that it keeps the secret of its greenness well; so well that we hardly know when it sheds its leaves. There are women who resemble the spruce in their perennial youth, and the vigilance with which they guard the secret of it. The Baroness was one of these. Only her mirror shared this secret.
She was an adept at the art of preservation, and greatly as she disliked physical exertion, she toiled laboriously over her own person an hour at least every day, and never employed a maid to assist her. One's rival might buy one's maid, she reasoned, and it was well to have no confidant in these matters.
She slipped off her dressing-gown and corset and set herself to the task of pinching and mauling her throat, arms and shoulders, to remove superfluous flesh, and strengthen muscles and fibres to resist the flabby tendencies which time produces. Then she used the dumb- bells vigorously for fifteen minutes, and that was followed by five minutes of relaxation. Next she lay on the floor flat upon her face, her arms across her back, and lifted her head and chest twenty-five times. This exercise was to replace flesh with muscle across the abdomen. Then she rose to her feet, set her small heels together, turned her toes out squarely, and, keeping her body upright bent her knees out in a line with her hips, sinking and rising rapidly fifteen times. This produced pliancy of the body, and induced a healthy condition of the loins and adjacent organs.
To further fight against the deadly enemy of obesity, she lifted her arms above her head slowly until she touched her finger tips, at the same time rising upon her tiptoes, while she inhaled a long breath, and as slowly dropped to her heels, and lowered her arms while she exhaled her breath. While these exercises had been taking place, a tin cup of water had been coming to the boiling point over an alcohol lamp. This was now poured into a china bowl containing a small quantity of sweet milk, which was always brought on her breakfast tray.
The Baroness seated herself before her mirror, in a glare of cruel light which revealed every blemish in her complexion, every line about the mouth and eyes.
"You are really hideously passee, mon amie," she observed as she peered at herself searchingly; "but we will remedy all that."
Dipping a soft linen handkerchief in the bowl of steaming milk and water, she applied it to her face, holding it closely over the brow and eyes and about the mouth, until every pore was saturated and every weary drawn tissue fed and strengthened by the tonic. After this she dashed ice-cold water over her face. Still there were little folds at the corners of the eyelids, and an ugly line across the brow, and these were manipulated with painstaking care, and treated with mysterious oils and fragrant astringents and finally washed in cool toilet water and lightly brushed with powder, until at the end of an hour's labour, the face of the Baroness had resumed its roseleaf bloom and transparent smoothness for which she was so famous. And when by the closest inspection at the mirror, in the broadest light, she saw no flaw in skin, hair, or teeth, the Baroness proceeded to dress for a drive. Even the most jealous rival would have been obliged to concede that she looked like a woman of twenty- eight, that most fascinating of all ages, as she took her seat in the carriage.
In the early days of her life in Beryngford, when as the Baroness Le Fevre she had led society in the little town, Mrs Lawrence had been one of her most devoted friends; Judge Lawrence one of her most earnest, if silent admirers. As "Baroness Brown" and as the landlady of "The Palace" she had still maintained her position as friend of the family, and the Lawrences, secure in their wealth and power, had allowed her to do so, where some of the lower social lights had dropped her from their visiting lists.
The Baroness seemed to exercise a sort of hypnotic power over the fretful, nervous invalid who shared Judge Lawrence's name, and this influence was not wholly lost upon the Judge himself, who never looked upon the Baroness's abundant charms, glowing with health, without giving vent to a profound sigh like some hungry child standing before a confectioner's window.
The news of Mrs Lawrence's dangerous illness was voiced about the town by noon, and therefore the Baroness felt safe in calling at the door to make inquiries, and to offer any assistance which she might be able to render. Knowing her intimate relations with the mistress of the house, the servant admitted her to the parlour and announced her presence to Judge Lawrence, who left the bedside of the invalid to tell the caller in person that Mrs Lawrence had fallen into a peaceful slumber, and that slight hopes were entertained of her possible recovery. Scarcely had the words passed his lips, however, when the nurse in attendance hurriedly called him. "Mrs Lawrence is dead!" she cried. "She breathed only twice after you left the room."
The Baroness, shocked and startled, rose to go, feeling that her presence longer would be an intrusion.
"Do not go," cried the Judge in tones of distress. "Mabel is nearly distracted, and this news will excite her still further. We thought this morning that she was on the verge of serious mental disorder. I sent for her fiance, Mr Cheney, and he has calmed her somewhat. You always exerted a soothing and restful influence over my wife, and you may have the same power with Mabel. Stay with us, I beg of you, through the afternoon at least."
The Baroness sent her carriage home and remained in the Lawrence mansion until the following morning. The condition of Miss Lawrence was indeed serious. She passed from one attack of hysteria to another, and it required the constant attention of her fiance and her mother's friend to keep her from acts of violence.
It was after midnight when she at last fell asleep, and Preston Cheney in a state of complete exhaustion was shown to a room, while the Baroness remained at the bedside of Miss Lawrence.
When the Baroness and Mr Cheney returned to the Palace they were struck with consternation to learn that Miss Dumont had packed her trunk and departed from Beryngford on the three o'clock train the previous day.
A brief note thanking the Baroness for her kindness, and stating that she had imposed upon that kindness quite too long, was her only farewell. There was no allusion to her plans or her destination, and all inquiry and secret search failed to find one trace of her. She seemed to vanish like a phantom from the face of the earth.
No one had seen her leave the Palace, save the laundress, Mrs Connor; and little this humble personage dreamed that Fate was reserving for her an important role in the drama of a life as yet unborn.
Whatever hope of escape from his self-imposed bondage Preston Cheney had entertained when he began the note to his fiancee which the Baroness had read, completely vanished during the weeks which followed the death of Mrs Lawrence.
Mabel's nervous condition was alarming, and her father seemed to rely wholly upon his future son-in-law for courage and moral support during the trying ordeal. Like most large men of strong physique, Judge Lawrence was as helpless as an infant in the presence of an ailing woman; and his experience as the husband of a wife whose nerves were the only notable thing about her, had given him an absolute terror of feminine invalids.
Mabel had never been very fond of her mother; she had not been a loving or a dutiful daughter. A petulant child and an irritable, fault-finding young woman, who had often been devoid of sympathy for her parents, she now exhibited such an excess of grief over the death of her mother that her reason seemed to be threatened.
It was, in fact, quite as much anger as grief which caused her nervous paroxysms. Mabel Lawrence had never since her infancy known what it was to be thwarted in a wish. Both parents had been slaves to her slightest caprice and she had ruled the household with a look or a word. Death had suddenly deprived her of a mother who was necessary to her comfort and to whose presence she was accustomed, and her heart was full of angry resentment at the fate which had dared to take away a member of her household. It had never entered her thoughts that death could devastate HER home.
Other people lost fathers and mothers, of course; but that Mabel Lawrence could be deprived of a parent seemed incredible. Anger is a strong ingredient in the excessive grief of every selfish nature.
Preston Cheney became more and more disheartened with the prospect of his future, as he studied the character and temperament of his fiancee during her first weeks of loss.
But the net which he had woven was closing closer and closer about him, and every day he became more hopelessly entangled in its meshes.
At the end of one month, the family physician decided that travel and change of air and scene was an imperative necessity for Miss Lawrence. Judge Lawrence was engaged in some important legal matters which rendered an extended journey impossible for him. To trust Mabel in the hands of hired nurses alone, was not advisable. It was her father who suggested an early marriage and a European trip for bride and groom, as the wisest expedient under the circumstances.
Like the prisoner in the iron room, who saw the walls slowly but surely closing in to crush out his life, Preston Cheney saw his wedding day approaching, and knew that his doom was sealed.
There were many desperate hours, when, had he possessed the slightest clue to the hiding-place of Berene Dumont, he would have flown to her, even knowing that he left disgrace and death behind him. He realised that he now owed a duty to the girl he loved, higher and more imperative by far than any he owed to his fiancee. But he had not the means to employ a detective to find Berene; and he was not sure that, if found, she might not spurn him. He had heard and read of cases where a woman's love had turned to bitter loathing and hatred for the man who had not protected her in a moment of weakness. He could think of no other cause which would lead Berene to disappear in such a mysterious manner at such a time, and so the days passed and he married Mabel Lawrence two months after the death of her mother, and the young couple set forth immediately on extended foreign travels. Fifteen months later they returned to Beryngford with their infant daughter Alice. Mrs Cheney was much improved in health, though still a great sufferer from nervous disorders, a misfortune which the child seemed to inherit. She would lie and scream for hours at a time, clenching her small fists and growing purple in the face, and all efforts of parents, nurses or physicians to soothe her, served only to further increase her frenzy. She screamed and beat the air with her thin arms and legs until nature exhausted itself, then she fell into a heavy slumber and awoke in good spirits.
These attacks came on frequently in the night, and as they rendered Mrs Cheney very "nervous," and caused a panic among the nurses, it devolved upon the unhappy father to endeavour to soothe the violent child. And while he walked the floor with her or leaned over her crib, using all his strong mental powers to control these unfortunate paroxysms, no vision came to him of another child lying cuddled in her mother's arms in a distant town, a child of wonderful beauty and angelic nature, born of love, and inheriting love's divine qualities.
A few months before the young couple returned to their native soil, they received a letter which caused Preston the greatest astonishment, and Mabel some hours of hysterical weeping. This letter was written by Judge Lawrence, and announced his marriage to Baroness Brown. Judge Lawrence had been a widower more than a year when the Baroness took the book of his heart, in which he supposed the hand of romance had long ago written "finis," and turning it to his astonished eyes revealed a whole volume of love's love.
It is in the second reading of their hearts that the majority of men find the most interesting literature.
Before the Baroness had been three months his wife, the long years of martyrdom he had endured as the husband of Mabel's mother seemed like a nightmare dream to Judge Lawrence; and all of life, hope and happiness was embodied in the woman who ruled his destiny with a hypnotic sway no one could dispute, yet a woman whose heart still throbbed with a stubborn and lawless passion for the man who called her husband father.
More than two decades had passed since Preston Cheney followed the dictates of his ambition and married Mabel Lawrence.
Many of his early hopes and desires had been realised during these years. He had attained to high political positions; and honour and wealth were his to enjoy. Yet Senator Cheney, as he was now known, was far from a happy man. Disappointment was written in every lineament of his face, restlessness and discontent spoke in his every movement, and at times the spirit of despair seemed to look from the depths of his eyes.
To a man of any nobility of nature, there can be small satisfaction in honours which he knows are bought with money and bribes; and to the proud young American there was the additional sting of knowing that even the money by which his honours were purchased was not his own.
It was the second Mrs Lawrence (still designated as the "Baroness" by her stepdaughter and by old acquaintances) to whom Preston owed the constant reminder of his dependence upon the purse of his father-in- law. In those subtle, occult ways known only to a jealous and designing nature, the Baroness found it possible to make Preston's life a torture, without revealing her weapons of warfare to her husband; indeed, without allowing him to even smell the powder, while she still kept up a constant small fire upon the helpless enemy.
Owing to the fact that Mabel had come as completely under the hypnotic influence of the Baroness as the first Mrs Lawrence had been during her lifetime, Preston was subjected to a great deal more of her persecutions than would otherwise have been possible. Mabel was never happier than when enjoying the companionship of her new mother; a condition of things which pleased the Judge as much as it made his son-in-law miserable.
With a malicious adroitness possible only to such a woman as the second Mrs Lawrence, she endeared herself to Mrs Cheney, by a thousand flattering and caressing ways, and by a constant exhibition of sympathy, which to a weak and selfish nature is as pleasing as it is distasteful to the proud and strong. And by this inexhaustible flow of sympathetic feeling, she caused the wife to drift farther and farther away from her husband's influence, and to accuse him of all manner of shortcomings and faults which had not suggested themselves to her own mind.
Mabel had not given or demanded a devoted love when she married Preston Cheney. She was quite satisfied to bear his name, and do the honours of his house, and to be let alone as much as possible. It was the name, not the estate, of wifehood she desired; and motherhood she had accepted with reluctance and distaste.
Never was a more undesired or unwelcome child born than her daughter Alice, and the helpless infant shared with its father the resentful anger which dominated her unwilling mother the wretched months before its advent into earth life.
To be let alone and allowed to follow her own whims and desires, and never to be crossed in any wish, was all Mrs Cheney asked of her husband.
This role was one he had very willingly permitted her to pursue, since with every passing week and month he found less and less to win or bind him to his wife. Wretched as this condition of life was, it might at least have settled into a monotonous calm, undisturbed by strife, but for the molesting "sympathy" of the Baroness.
"Poor thing, here you are alone again," she would say on entering the house where Mabel lounged or lolled, quite content with her situation until the tone and words of her stepmother aroused a resentful consciousness of being neglected. Again the Baroness would say:
"I do think you are such a brave little darling to carry so smiling a face about with all you have to endure." Or, "Very few wives would bear what you bear and hide every vestige of unhappiness from the world. You are a wonderful and admirable character in my eyes." Or, "It seems so strange that your husband does not adore you—but men are blind to the best qualities in women like you. I never hear Mr Cheney praising other women without a sad and almost resentful feeling in my heart, realising how superior you are to all of his favourites." It was the insidious effect of poisoned flattery like this, which made the Baroness a ruling power in the Cheney household, and at the same time turned an already cold and unloving wife into a jealous and nagging tyrant who rendered the young statesman's home the most dreaded place on earth to him, and caused him to live away from it as much as possible.
His only child, Alice, a frail, hysterical girl, devoid of beauty or grace, gave him but little comfort or satisfaction. Indeed she was but an added disappointment and pain in his life. Indulged in every selfish thought by her mother and the Baroness, peevish and petulant, always ailing, complaining and discontented, and still a victim to the nervous disorders inherited from her mother, it was small wonder that Senator Cheney took no more delight in the role of father than he had found in the role of husband.
Alice was given every advantage which money could purchase. But her delicate health had rendered systematic study of any kind impossible, and her twentieth birthday found her with no education, with no use of her reasoning or will powers, but with a complete and beautiful wardrobe in which to masquerade and air her poor little attempts at music, art, or conversation.
Judge Lawrence died when Alice was fifteen years of age, leaving both his widow and his daughter handsomely provided for.
The Baroness not only possessed the Beryngford homestead, but a house in Washington as well; and both of these were occupied by tenants, for Mabel insisted upon having her stepmother dwell under her own roof. Senator Cheney had purchased a house in New York to gratify his wife and daughter, and it was here the family resided, when not in Washington or at the seaside resorts. Both women wished to forget, and to make others forget, that they had ever lived in Beryngford. They never visited the place and never referred to it. They desired to be considered "New Yorkers" and always spoke of themselves as such.
The Baroness was now hopelessly passee. Yet it was the revealing of the inner woman, rather than the withering of the exterior, which betrayed her years. The woman who understands the art of bodily preservation can, with constant toil and care, retain an appearance of youth and charm into middle life; but she who would pass that dreaded meridian, and still remain a goodly sight for the eyes of men, must possess, in addition to all the secrets of the toilet, those divine elixirs, unselfishness and love for humanity. Faith in divine powers, too, and resignation to earthly ills, must do their part to lend the fading eye lustre and to give a softening glow to the paling cheek. Before middle life, it is the outer woman who is seen; after middle life, skilled as she may be by art and however endowed my nature, yet the inner woman becomes visible to the least discerning eye, and the thoughts and feelings which have dominated her during all the past, are shown upon her face and form like printed words upon the open leaves of a book. That is why so many young beauties become ugly old ladies, and why plain faces sometimes are beautiful in age.
The Baroness had been unremitting in the care of her person, and she had by this toil saved her figure from becoming gross, retaining the upright carriage and the tapering waist of youth, though she was upon the verge of her sixtieth birthday. Her complexion, too, owing to her careful diet, her hours of repose, and her knowledge of skin foods and lotions, remained smooth, fair and unfurrowed. But the long-guarded expression in her blue eyes of childlike innocence had given place to the hard look of a selfish and unhappy nature, and the lines about the small mouth accented the expression of the eyes.
It was, despite its preservation of Nature's gifts, and despite its forced smiles, the face of a selfish, cruel pessimist, disappointed in her past and with no uplifting faith to brighten the future.
The Baroness had been the wife of Judge Lawrence a number of years, before she relinquished her hopes of one day making Preston Cheney respond to the passion which burned unquenched in her breast. It had been with the idea of augmenting the interests of the man whom she believed to be her future lover, that she aided and urged on her husband in his efforts to procure place and honour for his son-in- law.
It was this idea which caused her to widen the breach between wife and husband by every subtle means in her power; and it was when this idea began to lose colour and substance and drop away among the wreckage of past hopes, that the Baroness ceased to compliment and began to taunt Preston Cheney with his dependence upon his father-in- law, and to otherwise goad and torment the unhappy man. And Preston Cheney grew into the habit of staying anywhere longer than at home.
During the last ten years the Baroness had seemed to abandon all thoughts of gallant adventure. When the woman who has found life and pleasures only in coquetry and conquest is forced to relinquish these delights, she becomes either very devout or very malicious.
The Baroness was devoid of religious feelings, and she became, therefore, the most bitter and caustic of cynical critics at heart, though she guarded her expression of these sentiments from policy.
Yet to Mabel she expressed herself freely, knowing that her listener enjoyed no conversation so much as that of gossip and criticism. A beautiful or attractive woman was the target for her most cruel shafts of sarcasm, and indeed no woman was safe from her secret malice save Mabel and Alice, over whom she found it a greater pleasure to exercise her hypnotic control. For Alice, indeed, the Baroness entertained a peculiar affection. The fact that she was the child of the man to whom she had given the strongest passion of her life, and the girl's lack of personal beauty, and her unfortunate physical condition, awoke a medley of love, pity and protection in the heart of this strange woman.
The Baroness had always been a churchgoing woman, yet she had never united with any church, or subscribed to any creed.
Religious observance was only an implement of social warfare with her. Wherever her lot was cast, she made it her business to discover which church the fashionable people of the town frequented, and to become a familiar and liberal-handed personage in that edifice.
Judge Lawrence and his family were High Church Episcopalians, and the second Mrs Lawrence slipped gracefully into the pew vacated by the first, and became a much more important feature in the congregation, owing to her good health and extreme desire for popularity. Mabel and Alice were devout believers in the orthodox dogmas which have taken the place of the simple teachings of Christ in so many of our churches to-day. They believed that people who did not go to church would stand a very poor chance of heaven; and that a strict observance of a Sunday religion would ensure them a passport into God's favour. When they returned from divine service and mangled the character and attire of their neighbours over the Sunday dinner- table, no idea entered their heads or hearts that they had sinned against the Holy Ghost. The pastor of their church knew them to be selfish, worldly-minded women; yet he administered the holy sacrament to them without compunction of conscience, and never by question or remark implied a doubt of their true sincerity in things religious. They believed in the creed of his church, and they paid liberally for the support of that church. What more could he ask?
This had been true of the pastor in Beryngford, and it proved equally true of their spiritual adviser in Washington and in New York.
Just across the aisle from the Lawrences sat a rich financier, in his sumptuously cushioned pew. During six days of each week he was engaged in crushing life and hope out of the hearts of the poor, under his juggernaut wheels of monopoly. His name was known far and near, as that of a powerful and cruel speculator, who did not hesitate to pauperise his nearest friends if they placed themselves in his reach. That he was a thief and a robber, no one ever denied; yet so colossal were his thefts, so bold and successful his robberies, the public gazed upon him with a sort of stupefied awe, and allowed him to proceed, while miserable tramps, who stole overcoats or robbed money drawers, were incarcerated for a term of years, and then sternly refused assistance afterward by good people, who place no confidence in jail birds.
But each Sunday this successful robber occupied his high-priced church pew, devoutly listening to the divine word.
He never failed to partake of the holy communion, nor was his right to do so ever questioned.
The rector of the church knew his record perfectly; knew that his gains were ill-gotten blood money, ground from the suffering poor by the power of monopoly, and from confiding fools by smart lures and scheming tricks. But this young clergyman, having recently been called to preside over the fashionable church, had no idea of being so impolite as to refuse to administer the bread and wine to one of its most liberal supporters!
There were constant demands upon the treasury of the church; it required a vast outlay of money to maintain the splendour and elegance of the temple which held its head so high above many others; and there were large charities to be sustained, not to mention its rector's princely salary. The millionaire pewholder was a liberal giver. It rarely occurs to the fashionable dispensers of spiritual knowledge to ask whether the devil's money should be used to gild the Lord's temple; nor to question if it be a wise religion which allows a man to rob his neighbours on weekdays, to give to the cause of charity on Sundays.
And yet if every clergyman and priest in the land were to make and maintain these standards for their followers, there might be an astonishing decrease in the needs of the poor and unfortunate.
Were every church member obliged to open his month's ledgers to a competent jury of inspectors, before he was allowed to take the holy sacrament and avow himself a humble follower of Christ, what a revolution might ensue! How church spires would crumble for lack of support, and poorhouses lessen in number for lack of inmates!
But the leniency of clergymen toward the shortcomings of their wealthy parishioners is often a touching lesson in charity to the thoughtful observer who stands outside the fold.
For how could they obtain money to convert the heathen, unless this sweet cloak of charity were cast over the sins of the liberal rich? Christ is crucified by the fashionable clergymen to-day more cruelly than he was by the Jews of old.
Senator Cheney was not a church member, and he seldom attended service. This was a matter of great solicitude to his wife and daughter. The Baroness felt it to be a mistake on the part of Senator Cheney, and even Judge Lawrence, who adored his son-in-law, regretted the young man's indifference to things spiritual. But with all Preston Cheney's worldly ambitions and weaknesses, there was a vein of sincerity in his nature which forbade his feigning a faith he did not feel; and the daily lives of the three feminine members of his family were so in disaccord with his views of religion that he felt no incentive to follow in their footsteps. Judge Lawrence he knew to be an honest, loyal-hearted, God and humanity loving man. "A true Christian by nature and education," he said of his father-in- law, "but I am not born with his tendency to religious observance, and I see less and less in the churches to lead me into the fold. It seems to me that these religious institutions are getting to be vast monopolistic corporations like the railroads and oil trusts, and the like. I see very little of the spirit of Christ in orthodox people to-day."
Meanwhile Senator Cheney's purse was always open to any demand the church made; he believed in churches as benevolent if not soul-saving institutions, and cheerfully aided their charitable work.
The rector of St Blank's, the fashionable edifice where the ladies of the Cheney household obtained spiritual manna in New York, died when Alice was sixteen years old. He was a good old man, and a sincere Episcopalian, and whatever originality of thought or expression he may have lacked, his strict observance of the High Church code of ethics maintained the tone of his church and rendered him an object of reverence to his congregation. His successor was Reverend Arthur Emerson Stuart, a young man barely thirty years of age, heir to a comfortable fortune, gifted with strong intellectual powers and dowered with physical attractions.
It was not a case of natural selection which caused Arthur Stuart to adopt the church as a profession. It was the result of his middle name. Mrs Stuart had been an Emerson—in some remote way her family claimed relationship with Ralph Waldo. Her father and grandfather and several uncles had been clergymen. She married a broker, who left her a rich widow with one child, a son. From the hour this son was born his mother designed him for the clergy, and brought him up with the idea firmly while gently fixed in his mind.
Whatever seed a mother plants in a young child's mind, carefully watches over, prunes and waters, and exposes to sun and shade, is quite certain to grow, if the soil is not wholly stony ground.
Arthur Stuart adored his mother, and stifling some commercial instincts inherited from the parental side, he turned his attention to the ministry and entered upon his chosen work when only twenty- five years of age. Eloquent, dramatic in speech, handsome, and magnetic in person, independent in fortune, and of excellent lineage on the mother's side, it was not surprising that he was called to take charge of the spiritual welfare of fashionable St Blank's Church on the death of the old pastor; or that, having taken the charge, he became immensely popular, especially with the ladies of his congregation. And from the first Sabbath day when they looked up from their expensive pew into the handsome face of their new rector, there was but one man in the world for Mabel Cheney and her daughter Alice, and that was the Reverend Arthur Emerson Stuart.
It has been said by a great and wise teacher, that we may worship the god in the human being, but never the human being as God. This distinction is rarely drawn by women, I fear, when their spiritual teacher is a young and handsome man. The ladies of the Rev. Arthur Stuart's congregation went home to dream, not of the Creator and Maker of all things, nor of the divine Man, but of the handsome face, stalwart form and magnetic voice of the young rector. They feasted their eyes upon his agreeable person, rather than their souls upon his words of salvation. Disappointed wives, lonely spinsters and romantic girls believed they were coming nearer to spiritual truths in their increased desire to attend service, while in fact they were merely drawn nearer to a very attractive male personality.
There was not the holy flame in the young clergyman's own heart to ignite other souls; but his strong magnetism was perceptible to all, and they did not realise the difference. And meantime the church grew and prospered amazingly.
It was observed by the congregation of St Blank's Church, shortly after the advent of the new rector, that a new organist also occupied the organ loft; and inquiry elicited the fact that the old man who had officiated in that capacity during many years, had been retired on a pension, while a young lady who needed the position and the salary had been chosen to fill the vacancy.
That the change was for the better could not be questioned. Never before had such music pealed forth under the tall spires of St Blank's. The new organist seemed inspired; and many people in the fashionable congregation, hearing that this wonderful musician was a young woman, lingered near the church door after service to catch a glimpse of her as she descended from the loft.
A goodly sight she was, indeed, for human eyes to gaze upon. Young, of medium height and perfectly symmetry of shape, her blonde hair and satin skin and eyes of velvet darkness were but her lesser charms. That which riveted the gaze of every beholder, and drew all eyes to her whereever she passed, was her air of radiant health and happiness, which emanated from her like the perfume from a flower.
A sad countenance may render a heroine of romance attractive in a book, but in real life there is no charm at once so rare and so fascinating as happiness. Did you ever think how few faces of the grown up, however young, are really happy in expression? Discontent, restlessness, longing, unsatisfied ambition or ill health mar ninety and nine of every hundred faces we meet in the daily walks of life. When we look upon a countenance which sparkles with health and absolute joy in life, we turn and look again and yet again, charmed and fascinated, though we do not know why.
It was such a face that Joy Irving, the new organist of St Blank's Church, flashed upon the people who had lingered near the door to see her pass out. Among those who lingered was the Baroness; and all day she carried about with her the memory of that sparkling countenance; and strive as she would, she could not drive away a vague, strange uneasiness which the sight of that face had caused her.
Yet a vision of youth and beauty always made the Baroness unhappy, now that both blessings were irrevocably lost to her.
This particular young face, however, stirred her with those half- painful, half-pleasurable emotions which certain perfumes awake in us—vague reminders of joys lost or unattained, of dreams broken or unrealised. Added to this, it reminded her of someone she had known, yet she could not place the resemblance.
"Oh, to be young and beautiful like that!" she sighed as she buried her face in her pillow that night. "And since I cannot be, if only Alice had that girl's face."
And because Alice did not have it, the Baroness went to sleep with a feeling of bitter resentment against its possessor, the beautiful young organist of St Blank's.
Up in the loft of St Blank's Church the young organist had been practising the whole morning. People paused on the street to listen to the glorious sounds, and were thrilled by them, as one is only thrilled when the strong personality of the player enters into the execution.