Berenice, perusing the apology from Beales Chadsey, which her mother—very much fagged and weary—handed her the next morning, thought that it read like the overnight gallantry of some one who was seeking to make amends without changing his point of view. Mrs. Carter was too obviously self-conscious. She protested too much. Berenice knew that she could find out for herself if she chose, but would she choose? The thought sickened her, and yet who was she to judge too severely?
Cowperwood came in bright and early to put as good a face on the matter as he could. He explained how he and Braxmar had gone to the police station to make a charge; how Chadsey, sobered by arrest, had abandoned his bravado and humbly apologized. When viewing the letter handed him by Mrs. Carter he exclaimed:
"Oh yes. He was very glad to promise to write that if we would let him off. Braxmar seemed to think it was necessary that he should. I wanted the judge to impose a fine and let it go at that. He was drunk, and that's all there was to it."
He assumed a very unknowing air when in the presence of Berenice and her mother, but when alone with the latter his manner changed completely.
"Brazen it out," he commanded. "It doesn't amount to anything. Braxmar doesn't believe that this man really knows anything. This letter is enough to convince Berenice. Put a good face on it; more depends on your manner than on anything else. You're much too upset. That won't do at all; you'll tell the whole story that way."
At the same time he privately regarded this incident as a fine windfall of chance—in all likelihood the one thing which would serve to scare the Lieutenant away. Outwardly, however, he demanded effrontery, assumption; and Mrs. Carter was somewhat cheered, but when she was alone she cried. Berenice, coming upon her accidentally and finding her eyes wet, exclaimed:
"Oh, mother, please don't be foolish. How can you act this way? We had better go up in the country and rest a little while if you are so unstrung."
Mrs. Carter protested that it was merely nervous reaction, but to Berenice it seemed that where there was so much smoke there must be some fire.
Her manner in the aftermath toward Braxmar was gracious, but remote. He called the next day to say how sorry he was, and to ask her to a new diversion. She was sweet, but distant. In so far as she was concerned it was plain that the Beales Chadsey incident was closed, but she did not accept his invitation.
"Mother and I are planning to go to the country for a few days," she observed, genially. "I can't say just when we shall return, but if you are still here we shall meet, no doubt. You must be sure and come to see us." She turned to an east court-window, where the morning sun was gleaming on some flowers in a window-box, and began to pinch off a dead leaf here and there.
Braxmar, full of the tradition of American romance, captivated by her vibrant charm, her poise and superiority under the circumstances, her obvious readiness to dismiss him, was overcome, as the human mind frequently is, by a riddle of the spirit, a chemical reaction as mysterious to its victim as to one who is its witness. Stepping forward with a motion that was at once gallant, reverent, eager, unconscious, he exclaimed:
"Berenice! Miss Fleming! Please don't send me away like this. Don't leave me. It isn't anything I have done, is it? I am mad about you. I can't bear to think that anything that has happened could make any difference between you and me. I haven't had the courage to tell you before, but I want to tell you now. I have been in love with you from the very first night I saw you. You are such a wonderful girl! I don't feel that I deserve you, but I love you. I love you with all the honor and force in me. I admire and respect you. Whatever may or may not be true, it is all one and the same to me. Be my wife, will you? Marry me, please! Oh, I'm not fit to be the lacer of your shoes, but I have position and I'll make a name for myself, I hope. Oh, Berenice!" He extended his arms in a dramatic fashion, not outward, but downward, stiff and straight, and declared: "I don't know what I shall do without you. Is there no hope for me at all?"
An artist in all the graces of sex—histrionic, plastic, many-faceted—Berenice debated for the fraction of a minute what she should do and say. She did not love the Lieutenant as he loved her by any means, and somehow this discovery concerning her mother shamed her pride, suggesting an obligation to save herself in one form or another, which she resented bitterly. She was sorry for his tactless proposal at this time, although she knew well enough the innocence and virtue of the emotion from which it sprung.
"Really, Mr. Braxmar," she replied, turning on him with solemn eyes, "you mustn't ask me to decide that now. I know how you feel. I'm afraid, though, that I may have been a little misleading in my manner. I didn't mean to be. I'm quite sure you'd better forget your interest in me for the present anyhow. I could only make up my mind in one way if you should insist. I should have to ask you to forget me entirely. I wonder if you can see how I feel—how it hurts me to say this?"
She paused, perfectly poised, yet quite moved really, as charming a figure as one would have wished to see—part Greek, part Oriental—contemplative, calculating.
In that moment, for the first time, Braxmar realized that he was talking to some one whom he could not comprehend really. She was strangely self-contained, enigmatic, more beautiful perhaps because more remote than he had ever seen her before. In a strange flash this young American saw the isles of Greece, Cytherea, the lost Atlantis, Cyprus, and its Paphian shrine. His eyes burned with a strange, comprehending luster; his color, at first high, went pale.
"I can't believe you don't care for me at all, Miss Berenice," he went on, quite strainedly. "I felt you did care about me. But here," he added, all at once, with a real, if summoned, military force, "I won't bother you. You do understand me. You know how I feel. I won't change. Can't we be friends, anyhow?"
He held out his hand, and she took it, feeling now that she was putting an end to what might have been an idyllic romance.
"Of course we can," she said. "I hope I shall see you again soon."
After he was gone she walked into the adjoining room and sat down in a wicker chair, putting her elbows on her knees and resting her chin in her hands. What a denouement to a thing so innocent, so charming! And now he was gone. She would not see him any more, would not want to see him—not much, anyhow. Life had sad, even ugly facts. Oh yes, yes, and she was beginning to perceive them clearly.
Some two days later, when Berenice had brooded and brooded until she could endure it no longer, she finally went to Mrs. Carter and said: "Mother, why don't you tell me all about this Louisville matter so that I may really know? I can see something is worrying you. Can't you trust me? I am no longer a child by any means, and I am your daughter. It may help me to straighten things out, to know what to do."
Mrs. Carter, who had always played a game of lofty though loving motherhood, was greatly taken aback by this courageous attitude. She flushed and chilled a little; then decided to lie.
"I tell you there was nothing at all," she declared, nervously and pettishly. "It is all an awful mistake. I wish that dreadful man could be punished severely for what he said to me. To be outraged and insulted this way before my own child!"
"Mother," questioned Berenice, fixing her with those cool, blue eyes, "why don't you tell me all about Louisville? You and I shouldn't have things between us. Maybe I can help you."
All at once Mrs. Carter, realizing that her daughter was no longer a child nor a mere social butterfly, but a woman superior, cool, sympathetic, with intuitions much deeper than her own, sank into a heavily flowered wing-chair behind her, and, seeking a small pocket-handkerchief with one hand, placed the other over her eyes and began to cry.
"I was so driven, Bevy, I didn't know which way to turn. Colonel Gillis suggested it. I wanted to keep you and Rolfe in school and give you a chance. It isn't true—anything that horrible man said. It wasn't anything like what he suggested. Colonel Gillis and several others wanted me to rent them bachelor quarters, and that's the way it all came about. It wasn't my fault; I couldn't help myself, Bevy."
"And what about Mr. Cowperwood?" inquired Berenice curiously. She had begun of late to think a great deal about Cowperwood. He was so cool, deep, dynamic, in a way resourceful, like herself.
"There's nothing about him," replied Mrs. Carter, looking up defensively. Of all her men friends she best liked Cowperwood. He had never advised her to evil ways or used her house as a convenience to himself alone. "He never did anything but help me out. He advised me to give up my house in Louisville and come East and devote myself to looking after you and Rolfe. He offered to help me until you two should be able to help yourselves, and so I came. Oh, if I had only not been so foolish—so afraid of life! But your father and Mr. Carter just ran through everything."
She heaved a deep, heartfelt sigh.
"Then we really haven't anything at all, have we, mother—property or anything else?"
Mrs. Carter shook her head, meaning no.
"And the money we have been spending is Mr. Cowperwood's?"
Berenice paused and looked out the window over the wide stretch of park which it commanded. Framed in it like a picture were a small lake, a hill of trees, with a Japanese pagoda effect in the foreground. Over the hill were the yellow towering walls of a great hotel in Central Park West. In the street below could be heard the jingle of street-cars. On a road in the park could be seen a moving line of pleasure vehicles—society taking an airing in the chill November afternoon.
"Poverty, ostracism," she thought. And should she marry rich? Of course, if she could. And whom should she marry? The Lieutenant? Never. He was really not masterful enough mentally, and he had witnessed her discomfiture. And who, then? Oh, the long line of sillies, light-weights, rakes, ne'er-do-wells, who, combined with sober, prosperous, conventional, muddle-headed oofs, constituted society. Here and there, at far jumps, was a real man, but would he be interested in her if he knew the whole truth about her?
"Have you broken with Mr. Braxmar?" asked her mother, curiously, nervously, hopefully, hopelessly.
"I haven't seen him since," replied Berenice, lying conservatively. "I don't know whether I shall or not. I want to think." She arose. "But don't you mind, mother. Only I wish we had some other way of living besides being dependent on Mr. Cowperwood."
She walked into her boudoir, and before her mirror began to dress for a dinner to which she had been invited. So it was Cowperwood's money that had been sustaining them all during the last few years; and she had been so liberal with his means—so proud, vain, boastful, superior. And he had only fixed her with those inquiring, examining eyes. Why? But she did not need to ask herself why. She knew now. What a game he had been playing, and what a silly she had been not to see it. Did her mother in any way suspect? She doubted it. This queer, paradoxical, impossible world! The eyes of Cowperwood burned at her as she thought.