Engrossed in the pleasures and entertainments which Cowperwood's money was providing, Berenice had until recently given very little thought to her future. Cowperwood had been most liberal. "She is young," he once said to Mrs. Carter, with an air of disinterested liberality, when they were talking about Berenice and her future. "She is an exquisite. Let her have her day. If she marries well she can pay you back, or me. But give her all she needs now." And he signed checks with the air of a gardener who is growing a wondrous orchid.
The truth was that Mrs. Carter had become so fond of Berenice as an object of beauty, a prospective grande dame, that she would have sold her soul to see her well placed; and as the money to provide the dresses, setting, equipage had to come from somewhere, she had placed her spirit in subjection to Cowperwood and pretended not to see the compromising position in which she was placing all that was near and dear to her.
"Oh, you're so good," she more than once said to him a mist of gratitude commingled with joy in her eyes. "I would never have believed it of any one. But Bevy—"
"An esthete is an esthete," Cowperwood replied. "They are rare enough. I like to see a spirit as fine as hers move untroubled. She will make her way."
Seeing Lieutenant Braxmar in the foreground of Berenice's affairs, Mrs. Carter was foolish enough to harp on the matter in a friendly, ingratiating way. Braxmar was really interesting after his fashion. He was young, tall, muscular, and handsome, a graceful dancer; but, better yet, he represented in his moods lineage, social position, a number of the things which engaged Berenice most. He was intelligent, serious, with a kind of social grace which was gay, courteous, wistful. Berenice met him first at a local dance, where a new step was being practised—"dancing in the barn," as it was called—and so airily did he tread it with her in his handsome uniform that she was half smitten for the moment.
"You dance delightfully," she said. "Is this a part of your life on the ocean wave?"
"Deep-sea-going dancing," he replied, with a heavenly smile. "All battles are accompanied by balls, don't you know?"
"Oh, what a wretched jest!" she replied. "It's unbelievably bad."
"Not for me. I can make much worse ones."
"Not for me," she replied, "I can't stand them." And they went prancing on. Afterward he came and sat by her; they walked in the moonlight, he told her of naval life, his Southern home and connections.
Mrs. Carter, seeing him with Berenice, and having been introduced, observed the next morning, "I like your Lieutenant, Bevy. I know some of his relatives well. They come from the Carolinas. He's sure to come into money. The whole family is wealthy. Do you think he might be interested in you?"
"Oh, possibly—yes, I presume so," replied Berenice, airily, for she did not take too kindly to this evidence of parental interest. She preferred to see life drift on in some nebulous way at present, and this was bringing matters too close to home. "Still, he has so much machinery on his mind I doubt whether he could take any serious interest in a woman. He is almost more of a battle-ship than he is a man."
She made a mouth, and Mrs. Carter commented gaily: "You rogue! All the men take an interest in you. You don't think you could care for him, then, at all?"
"Why, mother, what a question! Why do you ask? Is it so essential that I should?"
"Oh, not that exactly," replied Mrs. Carter, sweetly, bracing herself for a word which she felt incumbent upon her; "but think of his position. He comes of such a good family, and he must be heir to a considerable fortune in his own right. Oh, Bevy, I don't want to hurry or spoil your life in any way, but do keep in mind the future. With your tastes and instincts money is so essential, and unless you marry it I don't know where you are to get it. Your father was so thoughtless, and Rolfe's was even worse."
Berenice, for almost the first time in her life, took solemn heed of this thought. She pondered whether she could endure Braxmar as a life partner, follow him around the world, perhaps retransferring her abode to the South; but she could not make up her mind. This suggestion on the part of her mother rather poisoned the cup for her. To tell the truth, in this hour of doubt her thoughts turned vaguely to Cowperwood as one who represented in his avid way more of the things she truly desired. She remembered his wealth, his plaint that his new house could be only a museum, the manner in which he approached her with looks and voiceless suggestions. But he was old and married—out of the question, therefore—and Braxmar was young and charming. To think her mother should have been so tactless as to suggest the necessity for consideration in his case! It almost spoiled him for her. And was their financial state, then, as uncertain as her mother indicated?
In this crisis some of her previous social experiences became significant. For instance, only a few weeks previous to her meeting with Braxmar she had been visiting at the country estate of the Corscaden Batjers, at Redding Hills, Long Island, and had been sitting with her hostess in the morning room of Hillcrest, which commanded a lovely though distant view of Long Island Sound.
Mrs. Fredericka Batjer was a chestnut blonde, fair, cool, quiescent—a type out of Dutch art. Clad in a morning gown of gray and silver, her hair piled in a Psyche knot, she had in her lap on this occasion a Java basket filled with some attempt at Norwegian needlework.
"Bevy," she said, "you remember Kilmer Duelma, don't you? Wasn't he at the Haggertys' last summer when you were there?"
Berenice, who was seated at a small Chippendale writing-desk penning letters, glanced up, her mind visioning for the moment the youth in question. Kilmer Duelma—tall, stocky, swaggering, his clothes the loose, nonchalant perfection of the season, his walk ambling, studied, lackadaisical, aimless, his color high, his cheeks full, his eyes a little vacuous, his mind acquiescing in a sort of genial, inconsequential way to every query and thought that was put to him. The younger of the two sons of Auguste Duelma, banker, promoter, multimillionaire, he would come into a fortune estimated roughly at between six and eight millions. At the Haggertys' the year before he had hung about her in an aimless fashion.
Mrs. Batjer studied Berenice curiously for a moment, then returned to her needlework. "I've asked him down over this week-end," she suggested.
"Yes?" queried Berenice, sweetly. "Are there others?"
"Of course," assented Mrs. Batjer, remotely. "Kilmer doesn't interest you, I presume."
Berenice smiled enigmatically.
"You remember Clarissa Faulkner, don't you, Bevy?" pursued Mrs. Batjer. "She married Romulus Garrison."
"Perfectly. Where is she now?"
"They have leased the Chateau Brieul at Ars for the winter. Romulus is a fool, but Clarissa is so clever. You know she writes that she is holding a veritable court there this season. Half the smart set of Paris and London are dropping in. It is so charming for her to be able to do those things now. Poor dear! At one time I was quite troubled over her."
Without giving any outward sign Berenice did not fail to gather the full import of the analogy. It was all true. One must begin early to take thought of one's life. She suffered a disturbing sense of duty. Kilmer Duelma arrived at noon Friday with six types of bags, a special valet, and a preposterous enthusiasm for polo and hunting (diseases lately acquired from a hunting set in the Berkshires). A cleverly contrived compliment supposed to have emanated from Miss Fleming and conveyed to him with tact by Mrs. Batjer brought him ambling into Berenice's presence suggesting a Sunday drive to Saddle Rock.
"Haw! haw! You know, I'm delighted to see you again. Haw! haw! It's been an age since I've seen the Haggertys. We missed you after you left. Haw! haw! I did, you know. Since I saw you I have taken up polo—three ponies with me all the time now—haw! haw!—a regular stable nearly."
Berenice strove valiantly to retain a serene interest. Duty was in her mind, the Chateau Brieul, the winter court of Clarissa Garrison, some first premonitions of the flight of time. Yet the drive was a bore, conversation a burden, the struggle to respond titanic, impossible. When Monday came she fled, leaving three days between that and a week-end at Morristown. Mrs. Batjer—who read straws most capably—sighed. Her own Corscaden was not much beyond his money, but life must be lived and the ambitious must inherit wealth or gather it wisely. Some impossible scheming silly would soon collect Duelma, and then— She considered Berenice a little difficult.
Berenice could not help piecing together the memory of this incident with her mother's recent appeal in behalf of Lieutenant Braxmar. A great, cloying, disturbing, disintegrating factor in her life was revealed by the dawning discovery that she and her mother were without much money, that aside from her lineage she was in a certain sense an interloper in society. There were never rumors of great wealth in connection with her—no flattering whispers or public notices regarding her station as an heiress. All the smug minor manikins of the social world were on the qui vive for some cotton-headed doll of a girl with an endless bank-account. By nature sybaritic, an intense lover of art fabrics, of stately functions, of power and success in every form, she had been dreaming all this while of a great soul-freedom and art-freedom under some such circumstances as the greatest individual wealth of the day, and only that, could provide. Simultaneously she had vaguely cherished the idea that if she ever found some one who was truly fond of her, and whom she could love or even admire intensely—some one who needed her in a deep, sincere way—she would give herself freely and gladly. Yet who could it be? She had been charmed by Braxmar, but her keen, analytic intelligence required some one harder, more vivid, more ruthless, some one who would appeal to her as an immense force. Yet she must be conservative, she must play what cards she had to win.
During his summer visit at Narragansett Cowperwood had not been long disturbed by the presence of Braxmar, for, having received special orders, the latter was compelled to hurry away to Hampton Roads. But the following November, forsaking temporarily his difficult affairs in Chicago for New York and the Carter apartment in Central Park South, Cowperwood again encountered the Lieutenant, who arrived one evening brilliantly arrayed in full official regalia in order to escort Berenice to a ball. A high military cap surmounting his handsome face, his epaulets gleaming in gold, the lapels of his cape thrown back to reveal a handsome red silken lining, his sword clanking by his side, he seemed a veritable singing flame of youth. Cowperwood, caught in the drift of circumstance—age, unsuitableness, the flaring counter-attractions of romance and vigor—fairly writhed in pain.
Berenice was so beautiful in a storm of diaphanous clinging garments. He stared at them from an adjacent room, where he pretended to be reading, and sighed. Alas, how was his cunning and foresight—even his—to overcome the drift of life itself? How was he to make himself appealing to youth? Braxmar had the years, the color, the bearing. Berenice seemed to-night, as she prepared to leave, to be fairly seething with youth, hope, gaiety. He arose after a few moments and, giving business as an excuse, hurried away. But it was only to sit in his own rooms in a neighboring hotel and meditate. The logic of the ordinary man under such circumstances, compounded of the age-old notions of chivalry, self-sacrifice, duty to higher impulses, and the like, would have been to step aside in favor of youth, to give convention its day, and retire in favor of morality and virtue. Cowperwood saw things in no such moralistic or altruistic light. "I satisfy myself," had ever been his motto, and under that, however much he might sympathize with Berenice in love or with love itself, he was not content to withdraw until he was sure that the end of hope for him had really come. There had been moments between him and Berenice—little approximations toward intimacy—which had led him to believe that by no means was she seriously opposed to him. At the same time this business of the Lieutenant, so Mrs. Carter confided to him a little later, was not to be regarded lightly. While Berenice might not care so much, obviously Braxmar did.
"Ever since he has been away he has been storming her with letters," she remarked to Cowperwood, one afternoon. "I don't think he is the kind that can be made to take no for an answer.
"A very successful kind," commented Cowperwood, dryly. Mrs. Carter was eager for advice in the matter. Braxmar was a man of parts. She knew his connections. He would inherit at least six hundred thousand dollars at his father's death, if not more. What about her Louisville record? Supposing that should come out later? Would it not be wise for Berenice to marry, and have the danger over with?
"It is a problem, isn't it?" observed Cowperwood, calmly. "Are you sure she's in love?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, but such things so easily turn into love. I have never believed that Berenice could be swept off her feet by any one—she is so thoughtful—but she knows she has her own way to make in the world, and Mr. Braxmar is certainly eligible. I know his cousins, the Clifford Porters, very well."
Cowperwood knitted his brows. He was sick to his soul with this worry over Berenice. He felt that he must have her, even at the cost of inflicting upon her a serious social injury. Better that she should surmount it with him than escape it with another. It so happened, however, that the final grim necessity of acting on any such idea was spared him.
Imagine a dining-room in one of the principal hotels of New York, the hour midnight, after an evening at the opera, to which Cowperwood, as host, had invited Berenice, Lieutenant Braxmar, and Mrs. Carter. He was now playing the role of disinterested host and avuncular mentor.
His attitude toward Berenice, meditating, as he was, a course which should be destructive to Braxmar, was gentle, courteous, serenely thoughtful. Like a true Mephistopheles he was waiting, surveying Mrs. Carter and Berenice, who were seated in front chairs clad in such exotic draperies as opera-goers affect—Mrs. Carter in pale-lemon silk and diamonds; Berenice in purple and old-rose, with a jeweled comb in her hair. The Lieutenant in his dazzling uniform smiled and talked blandly, complimented the singers, whispered pleasant nothings to Berenice, descanted at odd moments to Cowperwood on naval personages who happened to be present. Coming out of the opera and driving through blowy, windy streets to the Waldorf, they took the table reserved for them, and Cowperwood, after consulting with regard to the dishes and ordering the wine, went back reminiscently to the music, which had been "La Boheme." The death of Mimi and the grief of Rodolph, as voiced by the splendid melodies of Puccini, interested him.
"That makeshift studio world may have no connection with the genuine professional artist, but it's very representative of life," he remarked.
"I don't know, I'm sure," said Braxmar, seriously.
"All I know of Bohemia is what I have read in books—Trilby, for instance, and—" He could think of no other, and stopped. "I suppose it is that way in Paris."
He looked at Berenice for confirmation and to win a smile. Owing to her mobile and sympathetic disposition, she had during the opera been swept from period to period by surges of beauty too gay or pathetic for words, but clearly comprehended of the spirit. Once when she had been lost in dreamy contemplation, her hands folded on her knees, her eyes fixed on the stage, both Braxmar and Cowperwood had studied her parted lips and fine profile with common impulses of emotion and enthusiasm. Realizing after the mood was gone that they had been watching her, Berenice had continued the pose for a moment, then had waked as from a dream with a sigh. This incident now came back to her as well as her feeling in regard to the opera generally.
"It is very beautiful," she said; "I do not know what to say. People are like that, of course. It is so much better than just dull comfort. Life is really finest when it's tragic, anyhow."
She looked at Cowperwood, who was studying her; then at Braxmar, who saw himself for the moment on the captain's bridge of a battle-ship commanding in time of action. To Cowperwood came back many of his principal moments of difficulty. Surely his life had been sufficiently dramatic to satisfy her.
"I don't think I care so much for it," interposed Mrs. Carter. "One gets tired of sad happenings. We have enough drama in real life."
Cowperwood and Braxmar smiled faintly. Berenice looked contemplatively away. The crush of diners, the clink of china and glass, the bustling to and fro of waiters, and the strumming of the orchestra diverted her somewhat, as did the nods and smiles of some entering guests who recognized Braxmar and herself, but not Cowperwood.
Suddenly from a neighboring door, opening from the men's cafe and grill, there appeared the semi-intoxicated figure of an ostensibly swagger society man, his clothing somewhat awry, an opera-coat hanging loosely from one shoulder, a crush-opera-hat dangling in one hand, his eyes a little bloodshot, his under lip protruding slightly and defiantly, and his whole visage proclaiming that devil-may-care, superior, and malicious aspect which the drunken rake does not so much assume as achieve. He looked sullenly, uncertainly about; then, perceiving Cowperwood and his party, made his way thither in the half-determined, half-inconsequential fashion of one not quite sound after his cups. When he was directly opposite Cowperwood's table—the cynosure of a number of eyes—he suddenly paused as if in recognition, and, coming over, laid a genial and yet condescending hand on Mrs. Carter's bare shoulder.
"Why, hello, Hattie!" he called, leeringly and jeeringly. "What are you doing down here in New York? You haven't given up your business in Louisville, have you, eh, old sport? Say, lemme tell you something. I haven't had a single decent girl since you left—not one. If you open a house down here, let me know, will you?"
He bent over her smirkingly and patronizingly the while he made as if to rummage in his white waistcoat pocket for a card. At the same moment Cowperwood and Braxmar, realizing quite clearly the import of his words, were on their feet. While Mrs. Carter was pulling and struggling back from the stranger, Braxmar's hand (he being the nearest) was on him, and the head waiter and two assistants had appeared.
"What is the trouble here? What has he done?" they demanded.
Meanwhile the intruder, leering contentiously at them all, was exclaiming in very audible tones: "Take your hands off. Who are you? What the devil have you got to do with this? Don't you think I know what I'm about? She knows me—don't you, Hattie? That's Hattie Starr, of Louisville—ask her! She kept one of the swellest ever run in Louisville. What do you people want to be so upset about? I know what I'm doing. She knows me."
He not only protested, but contested, and with some vehemence. Cowperwood, Braxmar, and the waiters forming a cordon, he was shoved and hustled out into the lobby and the outer entranceway, and an officer was called.
"This man should be arrested," Cowperwood protested, vigorously, when the latter appeared. "He has grossly insulted lady guests of mine. He is drunk and disorderly, and I wish to make that charge. Here is my card. Will you let me know where to come?" He handed it over, while Braxmar, scrutinizing the stranger with military care, added: "I should like to thrash you within an inch of your life. If you weren't drunk I would. If you are a gentleman and have a card I want you to give it to me. I want to talk to you later." He leaned over and presented a cold, hard face to that of Mr. Beales Chadsey, of Louisville, Kentucky.
"Tha's all right, Captain," leered Chadsey, mockingly. "I got a card. No harm done. Here you are. You c'n see me any time you want—Hotel Buckingham, Fifth Avenue and Fiftieth Street. I got a right to speak to anybody I please, where I please, when I please. See?"
He fumbled and protested while the officer stood by read to take him in charge. Not finding a card, he added: "Tha's all right. Write it down. Beales Chadsey, Hotel Buckingham, or Louisville, Kentucky. See me any time you want to. Tha's Hattie Starr. She knows me. I couldn't make a mistake about her—not once in a million. Many's the night I spent in her house."
Braxmar was quite ready to lunge at him had not the officer intervened.
Back in the dining-room Berenice and her mother were sitting, the latter quite flustered, pale, distrait, horribly taken aback—by far too much distressed for any convincing measure of deception.
"Why, the very idea!" she was saying. "That dreadful man! How terrible! I never saw him before in my life."
Berenice, disturbed and nonplussed, was thinking of the familiar and lecherous leer with which the stranger had addressed her mother—the horror, the shame of it. Could even a drunken man, if utterly mistaken, be so defiant, so persistent, so willing to explain? What shameful things had she been hearing?
"Come, mother," she said, gently, and with dignity; "never mind, it is all right. We can go home at once. You will feel better when you are out of here."
She called a waiter and asked him to say to the gentlemen that they had gone to the women's dressing-room. She pushed an intervening chair out of the way and gave her mother her arm.
"To think I should be so insulted," Mrs. Carter mumbled on, "here in a great hotel, in the presence of Lieutenant Braxmar and Mr. Cowperwood! This is too dreadful. Well, I never."
She half whimpered as she walked; and Berenice, surveying the room with dignity, a lofty superiority in her face, led solemnly forth, a strange, lacerating pain about her heart. What was at the bottom of these shameful statements? Why should this drunken roisterer have selected her mother, of all other women in the dining-room, for the object of these outrageous remarks? Why should her mother be stricken, so utterly collapsed, if there were not some truth in what he had said? It was very strange, very sad, very grim, very horrible. What would that gossiping, scandal-loving world of which she knew so much say to a scene like this? For the first time in her life the import and horror of social ostracism flashed upon her.
The following morning, owing to a visit paid to the Jefferson Market Police Court by Lieutenant Braxmar, where he proposed, if satisfaction were not immediately guaranteed, to empty cold lead into Mr. Beales Chadsey's stomach, the following letter on Buckingham stationery was written and sent to Mrs. Ira George Carter—36 Central Park South:
Last evening, owing to a drunken debauch, for which I have no satisfactory or suitable explanation to make, I was the unfortunate occasion of an outrage upon your feelings and those of your daughter and friends, for which I wish most humbly to apologize. I cannot tell you how sincerely I regret whatever I said or did, which I cannot now clearly recall. My mental attitude when drinking is both contentious and malicious, and while in this mood and state I was the author of statements which I know to be wholly unfounded. In my drunken stupor I mistook you for a certain notorious woman of Louisville—why, I have not the slightest idea. For this wholly shameful and outrageous conduct I sincerely ask your pardon—beg your forgiveness. I do not know what amends I can make, but anything you may wish to suggest I shall gladly do. In the mean while I hope you will accept this letter in the spirit in which it is written and as a slight attempt at recompense which I know can never fully be made.
Very sincerely, BEALES CHADSEY.
At the same time Lieutenant Braxmar was fully aware before this letter was written or sent that the charges implied against Mrs. Carter were only too well founded. Beales Chadsey had said drunk what twenty men in all sobriety and even the police at Louisville would corroborate. Chadsey had insisted on making this clear to Braxmar before writing the letter.