For the first time in her life Berenice now pondered seriously what she could do. She thought of marriage, but decided that instead of sending for Braxmar or taking up some sickening chase of an individual even less satisfactory it might be advisable to announce in a simple social way to her friends that her mother had lost her money, and that she herself was now compelled to take up some form of employment—the teaching of dancing, perhaps, or the practice of it professionally. She suggested this calmly to her mother one day. Mrs. Carter, who had been long a parasite really, without any constructive monetary notions of real import, was terrified. To think that she and "Bevy," her wonderful daughter, and by reaction her son, should come to anything so humdrum and prosaic as ordinary struggling life, and after all her dreams. She sighed and cried in secret, writing Cowperwood a cautious explanation and asking him to see her privately in New York when he returned.
"Don't you think we had best go on a little while longer?" she suggested to Berenice. "It just wrings my heart to think that you, with your qualifications, should have to stoop to giving dancing-lessons. We had better do almost anything for a while yet. You can make a suitable marriage, and then everything will be all right for you. It doesn't matter about me. I can live. But you—" Mrs. Carter's strained eyes indicated the misery she felt. Berenice was moved by this affection for her, which she knew to be genuine; but what a fool her mother had been, what a weak reed, indeed, she was to lean upon! Cowperwood, when he conferred with Mrs. Carter, insisted that Berenice was quixotic, nervously awry, to wish to modify her state, to eschew society and invalidate her wondrous charm by any sort of professional life. By prearrangement with Mrs. Carter he hurried to Pocono at a time when he knew that Berenice was there alone. Ever since the Beales Chadsey incident she had been evading him.
When he arrived, as he did about one in the afternoon of a crisp January day, there was snow on the ground, and the surrounding landscape was bathed in a crystalline light that gave back to the eye endless facets of luster—jewel beams that cut space with a flash. The automobile had been introduced by now, and he rode in a touring-car of eighty horse-power that gave back from its dark-brown, varnished surface a lacquered light. In a great fur coat and cap of round, black lamb's-wool he arrived at the door.
"Well, Bevy," he exclaimed, pretending not to know of Mrs. Carter's absence, "how are you? How's your mother? Is she in?"
Berenice fixed him with her cool, steady-gazing eyes, as frank and incisive as they were daring, and smiled him an equivocal welcome. She wore a blue denim painter's apron, and a palette of many colors glistened under her thumb. She was painting and thinking—thinking being her special occupation these days, and her thoughts had been of Braxmar, Cowperwood, Kilmer Duelma, a half-dozen others, as well as of the stage, dancing, painting. Her life was in a melting-pot, as it were, before her; again it was like a disarranged puzzle, the pieces of which might be fitted together into some interesting picture if she could but endure.
"Do come in," she said. "It's cold, isn't it? Well, there's a nice fire here for you. No, mother isn't here. She went down to New York. I should think you might have found her at the apartment. Are you in New York for long?"
She was gay, cheerful, genial, but remote. Cowperwood felt the protective gap that lay between him and her. It had always been there. He felt that, even though she might understand and like him, yet there was something—convention, ambition, or some deficiency on his part—that was keeping her from him, keeping her eternally distant.
He looked about the room, at the picture she was attempting (a snow-scape, of a view down a slope), at the view itself which he contemplated from the window, at some dancing sketches she had recently executed and hung on the wall for the time being—lovely, short tunic motives. He looked at her in her interesting and becoming painter's apron. "Well, Berenice," he said, "always the artist first. It is your world. You will never escape it. These things are beautiful." He waved an ungloved hand in the direction of a choric line. "It wasn't your mother I came to see, anyhow. It is you. I had such a curious letter from her. She tells me you want to give up society and take to teaching or something of that sort. I came because I wanted to talk to you about that. Don't you think you are acting rather hastily?"
He spoke now as though there were some reason entirely disassociated from himself that was impelling him to this interest in her.
Berenice, brush in hand, standing by her picture, gave him a look that was cool, curious, defiant, equivocal.
"No, I don't think so," she replied, quietly. "You know how things have been, so I may speak quite frankly. I know that mother's intentions were always of the best."
Her mouth moved with the faintest touch of sadness. "Her heart, I am afraid, is better than her head. As for your motives, I am satisfied to believe that they have been of the best also. I know that they have been, in fact—it would be ungenerous of me to suggest anything else." (Cowperwood's fixed eyes, it seemed to her, had moved somewhere in their deepest depths.) "Yet I don't feel we can go on as we have been doing. We have no money of our own. Why shouldn't I do something? What else can I really do?"
She paused, and Cowperwood gazed at her, quite still. In her informal, bunchy painter's apron, and with her blue eyes looking out at him from beneath her loose red hair, it seemed to him she was the most perfect thing he had ever known. Such a keen, fixed, enthroned mind. She was so capable, so splendid, and, like his own, her eyes were unafraid. Her spiritual equipoise was undisturbed.
"Berenice," he said, quietly, "let me tell you something. You did me the honor just now to speak of my motives ingiving your mother money as of the best. They were—from my own point of view—the best I have ever known. I will not say what I thought they were in the beginning. I know what they were now. I am going to speak quite frankly with you, if you will let me, as long as we are here together. I don't know whether you know this or not, but when I first met your mother I only knew by chance that she had a daughter, and it was of no particular interest to me then. I went to her house as the guest of a financial friend of mine who admired her greatly. From the first I myself admired her, because I found her to be a lady to the manner born—she was interesting. One day I happened to see a photograph of you in her home, and before I could mention it she put it away. Perhaps you recall the one. It is in profile—taken when you were about sixteen."
"Yes, I remember," replied Berenice, simply—as quietly as though she were hearing a confession.
"Well, that picture interested me intensely. I inquired about you, and learned all I could. After that I saw another picture of you, enlarged, in a Louisville photographer's window. I bought it. It is in my office now—my private office—in Chicago. You are standing by a mantelpiece."
"I remember," replied Berenice, moved, but uncertain.
"Let me tell you a little something about my life, will you? It won't take long. I was born in Philadelphia. My family had always belonged there. I have been in the banking and street-railway business all my life. My first wife was a Presbyterian girl, religious, conventional. She was older than I by six or seven years. I was happy for a while—five or six years. We had two children—both still living. Then I met my present wife. She was younger than myself—at least ten years, and very good-looking. She was in some respects more intelligent than my first wife—at least less conventional, more generous, I thought. I fell in love with her, and when I eventually left Philadelphia I got a divorce and married her. I was greatly in love with her at the time. I thought she was an ideal mate for me, and I still think she has many qualities which make her attractive. But my own ideals in regard to women have all the time been slowly changing. I have come to see, through various experiments, that she is not the ideal woman for me at all. She does not understand me. I don't pretend to understand myself, but it has occurred to me that there might be a woman somewhere who would understand me better than I understand myself, who would see the things that I don't see about myself, and would like me, anyhow. I might as well tell you that I have been a lover of women always. There is just one ideal thing in this world to me, and that is the woman that I would like to have."
"I should think it would make it rather difficult for any one woman to discover just which woman you would like to have?" smiled Berenice, whimsically. Cowperwood was unabashed.
"It would, I presume, unless she should chance to be the very one woman I am talking about," he replied, impressively.
"I should think she would have her work cut out for her under any circumstances," added Berenice, lightly, but with a touch of sympathy in her voice.
"I am making a confession," replied Cowperwood, seriously and a little heavily. "I am not apologizing for myself. The women I have known would make ideal wives for some men, but not for me. Life has taught me that much. It has changed me."
"And do you think the process has stopped by any means?" she replied, quaintly, with that air of superior banter which puzzled, fascinated, defied him.
"No, I will not say that. My ideal has become fixed, though, apparently. I have had it for a number of years now. It spoils other matters for me. There is such a thing as an ideal. We do have a pole-star in physics."
As he said this Cowperwood realized that for him he was making a very remarkable confession. He had come here primarily to magnetize her and control her judgment. As a matter of fact, it was almost the other way about. She was almost dominating him. Lithe, slender, resourceful, histrionic, she was standing before him making him explain himself, only he did not see her so much in that light as in the way of a large, kindly, mothering intelligence which could see, feel, and understand. She would know how it was, he felt sure. He could make himself understood if he tried. Whatever he was or had been, she would not take a petty view. She could not. Her answers thus far guaranteed as much.
"Yes," she replied, "we do have a pole-star, but you do not seem able to find it. Do you expect to find your ideal in any living woman?"
"I have found it," he answered, wondering at the ingenuity and complexity of her mind—and of his own, for that matter—of all mind indeed. Deep below deep it lay, staggering him at times by its fathomless reaches. "I hope you will take seriously what I am going to say, for it will explain so much. When I began to be interested in your picture I was so because it coincided with the ideal I had in mind—the thing that you think changes swiftly. That was nearly seven years ago. Since then it has never changed. When I saw you at your school on Riverside Drive I was fully convinced. Although I have said nothing, I have remained so. Perhaps you think I had no right to any such feelings. Most people would agree with you. I had them and do have them just the same, and it explains my relation to your mother. When she came to me once in Louisville and told me of her difficulties I was glad to help her for your sake. That has been my reason ever since, although she does not know that. In some respects, Berenice, your mother is a little dull. All this while I have been in love with you—intensely so. As you stand there now you seem to me amazingly beautiful—the ideal I have been telling you about. Don't be disturbed; I sha'n't press any attentions on you." (Berenice had moved very slightly. She was concerned as much for him as for herself. His power was so wide, his power so great. She could not help taking him seriously when he was so serious.) "I have done whatever I have done in connection with you and your mother because I have been in love with you and because I wanted you to become the splendid thing I thought you ought to become. You have not known it, but you are the cause of my building the house on Fifth Avenue—the principal reason. I wanted to build something worthy of you. A dream? Certainly. Everything we do seems to have something of that quality. Its beauty, if there is any, is due to you. I made it beautiful thinking of you."
He paused, and Berenice gave no sign. Her first impulse had been to object, but her vanity, her love of art, her love of power—all were touched. At the same time she was curious now as to whether he had merely expected to take her as his mistress or to wait until he could honor her as his wife.
"I suppose you are wondering whether I ever expected to marry you or not," he went on, getting the thought out of her mind. "I am no different from many men in that respect, Berenice. I will be frank. I wanted you in any way that I could get you. I was living in the hope all along that you would fall in love with me—as I had with you. I hated Braxmar here, not long ago, when he appeared on the scene, but I could never have thought of interfering. I was quite prepared to give you up. I have envied every man I have ever seen with you—young and old. I have even envied your mother for being so close to you when I could not be. At the same time I have wanted you to have everything that would help you in any way. I did not want to interfere with you in case you found some one whom you could truly love if I knew that you could not love me. There is the whole story outside of anything you may know. But it is not because of this that I came to-day. Not to tell you this."
He paused, as if expecting her to say something, though she made no comment beyond a questioning "Yes?"
"The thing that I have come to say is that I want you to go on as you were before. Whatever you may think of me or of what I have just told you, I want you to believe that I am sincere and disinterested in what I am telling you now. My dream in connection with you is not quite over. Chance might make me eligible if you should happen to care. But I want you to go on and be happy, regardless of me. I have dreamed, but I dare say it has been a mistake. Hold your head high—you have a right to. Be a lady. Marry any one you really love. I will see that you have a suitable marriage portion. I love you, Berenice, but I will make it a fatherly affection from now on. When I die I will put you in my will. But go on now in the spirit you were going before. I really can't be happy unless I think you are going to be."
He paused, still looking at her, believing for the time being what he said. If he should die she would find herself in his will. If she were to go on and socialize and seek she might find some one to love, but also she might think of him more kindly before she did so. What would be the cost of her as a ward compared to his satisfaction and delight in having her at least friendly and sympathetic and being in her good graces and confidence?
Berenice, who had always been more or less interested in him, temperamentally biased, indeed, in his direction because of his efficiency, simplicity, directness, and force, was especially touched in this instance by his utter frankness and generosity. She might question his temperamental control over his own sincerity in the future, but she could scarcely question that at present he was sincere. Moreover, his long period of secret love and admiration, the thought of so powerful a man dreaming of her in this fashion, was so flattering. It soothed her troubled vanity and shame in what had gone before. His straightforward confession had a kind of nobility which was electric, moving. She looked at him as he stood there, a little gray about the temples—the most appealing ornament of some men to some women—and for the life of her she could not help being moved by a kind of tenderness, sympathy, mothering affection. Obviously he did need the woman his attitude seemed to show that he needed, some woman of culture, spirit, taste, amorousness; or, at least, he was entitled to dream of her. As he stood before her he seemed a kind of superman, and yet also a bad boy—handsome, powerful, hopeful, not so very much older than herself now, impelled by some blazing internal force which harried him on and on. How much did he really care for her? How much could he? How much could he care for any one? Yet see all he had done to interest her. What did that mean? To say all this? To do all this? Outside was his car brown and radiant in the snow. He was the great Frank Algernon Cowperwood, of Chicago, and he was pleading with her, a mere chit of a girl, to be kind to him, not to put him out of her life entirely. It touched her intellect, her pride, her fancy.
Aloud she said: "I like you better now. I really believe in you. I never did, quite, before. Not that I think I ought to let you spend your money on me or mother—I don't. But I admire you. You make me. I understand how it is, I think. I know what your ambitions are. I have always felt that I did, in part. But you mustn't talk to me any more now. I want to think. I want to think over what you have said. I don't know whether I can bring myself to it or not." (She noticed that his eyes seemed to move somehow in their deepest depths again.) "But we won't talk about it any more at present."
"But, Berenice," he added, with a real plea in his voice, "I wonder if you do understand. I have been so lonely—I am—"
"Yes, I do," she replied, holding out her hand. "We are going to be friends, whatever happens, from now on, because I really like you. You mustn't ask me to decide about the other, though, to-day. I can't do it. I don't want to. I don't care to."
"Not when I would so gladly give you everything—when I need it so little?"
"Not until I think it out for myself. I don't think so, though. No," she replied, with an air. "There, Mr. Guardian Father," she laughed, pushing his hand away.
Cowperwood's heart bounded. He would have given millions to take her close in his arms. As it was he smiled appealingly.
"Don't you want to jump in and come to New York with me? If your mother isn't at the apartment you could stop at the Netherland."
"No, not to-day. I expect to be in soon. I will let you know, or mother will."
He bustled out and into the machine after a moment of parley, waving to her over the purpling snow of the evening as his machine tore eastward, planning to make New York by dinner-time. If he could just keep her in this friendly, sympathetic attitude. If he only could!