The Titan

by Theodore Dreiser

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter LVI: The Ordeal of Berenice

At the news that Swanson had refused to sign the bill and that the legislature lacked sufficient courage to pass it over his veto both Schryhart and Hand literally rubbed their hands in comfortable satisfaction.

"Well, Hosmer," said Schryhart the next day, when they met at their favorite club—the Union League—"it looks as though we were making some little progress, after all, doesn't it? Our friend didn't succeed in turning that little trick, did he?"

He beamed almost ecstatically upon his solid companion.

"Not this time. I wonder what move he will decide to make next."

"I don't see very well what it can be. He knows now that he can't get his franchises without a compromise that will eat into his profits, and if that happens he can't sell his Union Traction stock. This legislative scheme of his must have cost him all of three hundred thousand dollars, and what has he to show for it? The new legislature, unless I'm greatly mistaken, will be afraid to touch anything in connection with him. It's hardly likely that any of the Springfield politicians will want to draw the fire of the newspapers again."

Schryhart felt very powerful, imposing—sleek, indeed—now that his theory of newspaper publicity as a cure was apparently beginning to work. Hand, more saturnine, more responsive to the uncertainty of things mundane—the shifty undercurrents that are perpetually sapping and mining below—was agreeable, but not sure. Perhaps so.

In regard to his Eastern life during this interlude, Cowperwood had been becoming more and more keenly alive to the futility of the attempt to effect a social rescue for Aileen. "What was the use?" he often asked himself, as he contemplated her movements, thoughts, plans, as contrasted with the natural efficiency, taste, grace, and subtlety of a woman like Berenice. He felt that the latter could, if she would, smooth over in an adroit way all the silly social antagonisms which were now afflicting him. It was a woman's game, he frequently told himself, and would never be adjusted till he had the woman.

Simultaneously Aileen, looking at the situation from her own point of view and nonplussed by the ineffectiveness of mere wealth when not combined with a certain social something which she did not appear to have, was, nevertheless, unwilling to surrender her dream. What was it, she asked herself over and over, that made this great difference between women and women? The question contained its own answer, but she did not know that. She was still good-looking—very—and an adept in self-ornamentation, after her manner and taste. So great had been the newspaper palaver regarding the arrival of a new multimillionaire from the West and the palace he was erecting that even tradesmen, clerks, and hall-boys knew of her. Almost invariably, when called upon to state her name in such quarters, she was greeted by a slight start of recognition, a swift glance of examination, whispers, even open comment. That was something. Yet how much more, and how different were those rarefied reaches of social supremacy to which popular repute bears scarcely any relationship at all. How different, indeed? From what Cowperwood had said in Chicago she had fancied that when they took up their formal abode in New York he would make an attempt to straighten out his life somewhat, to modify the number of his indifferent amours and to present an illusion of solidarity and unity. Yet, now that they had actually arrived, she noticed that he was more concerned with his heightened political and financial complications in Illinois and with his art-collection than he was with what might happen to be going on in the new home or what could be made to happen there. As in the days of old, she was constantly puzzled by his persistent evenings out and his sudden appearances and disappearances. Yet, determine as she might, rage secretly or openly as she would, she could not cure herself of the infection of Cowperwood, the lure that surrounded and substantiated a mind and spirit far greater than any other she had ever known. Neither honor, virtue, consistent charity, nor sympathy was there, but only a gay, foamy, unterrified sufficiency and a creative, constructive sense of beauty that, like sunlit spray, glowing with all the irradiative glories of the morning, danced and fled, spun driftwise over a heavy sea of circumstance. Life, however dark and somber, could never apparently cloud his soul. Brooding and idling in the wonder palace of his construction, Aileen could see what he was like. The silver fountain in the court of orchids, the peach-like glow of the pink marble chamber, with its birds and flowers, the serried brilliance of his amazing art-collections were all like him, were really the color of his soul. To think that after all she was not the one to bind him to subjection, to hold him by golden yet steely threads of fancy to the hem of her garment! To think that he should no longer walk, a slave of his desire, behind the chariot of her spiritual and physical superiority. Yet she could not give up.

By this time Cowperwood had managed through infinite tact and a stoic disregard of his own aches and pains to re-establish at least a temporary working arrangement with the Carter household. To Mrs. Carter he was still a Heaven-sent son of light. Actually in a mournful way she pleaded for Cowperwood, vouching for his disinterestedness and long-standing generosity. Berenice, on the other hand, was swept between her craving for a great state for herself—luxury, power—and her desire to conform to the current ethics and morals of life. Cowperwood was married, and because of his attitude of affection for her his money was tainted. She had long speculated on his relation to Aileen, the basis of their differences, had often wondered why neither she nor her mother had ever been introduced. What type of woman was the second Mrs. Cowperwood? Beyond generalities Cowperwood had never mentioned her. Berenice actually thought to seek her out in some inconspicuous way, but, as it chanced, one night her curiosity was rewarded without effort. She was at the opera with friends, and her escort nudged her arm.

"Have you noticed Box 9—the lady in white satin with the green lace shawl?"

"Yes." Berenice raised her glasses.

"Mrs. Frank Algernon Cowperwood, the wife of the Chicago millionaire. They have just built that house at 68th Street. He has part lease of number 9, I believe."

Berenice almost started, but retained her composure, giving merely an indifferent glance. A little while after, she adjusted her glasses carefully and studied Mrs. Cowperwood. She noted curiously that Aileen's hair was somewhat the color of her own—more carroty red. She studied her eyes, which were slightly ringed, her smooth cheeks and full mouth, thickened somewhat by drinking and dissipation. Aileen was good-looking, she thought—handsome in a material way, though so much older than herself. Was it merely age that was alienating Cowperwood, or was it some deep-seated intellectual difference? Obviously Mrs. Cowperwood was well over forty—a fact which did not give Berenice any sense of satisfaction or of advantage. She really did not care enough. It did occur to her, however, that this woman whom she was observing had probably given the best years of her life to Cowperwood—the brilliant years of her girlhood. And now he was tired of her! There were small carefully powdered lines at the tails of Aileen's eyes and at the corners of her mouth. At the same time she seemed preternaturally gay, kittenish, spoiled. With her were two men—one a well-known actor, sinisterly handsome, a man with a brutal, unclean reputation, the other a young social pretender—both unknown to Berenice. Her knowledge was to come from her escort, a loquacious youth, more or less versed, as it happened, in the gay life of the city.

"I hear that she is creating quite a stir in Bohemia," he observed. "If she expects to enter society it's a poor way to begin, don't you think?"

"Do you know that she expects to?"

"All the usual signs are out—a box here, a house on Fifth Avenue."

This study of Aileen puzzled and disturbed Berenice a little. Nevertheless, she felt immensely superior. Her soul seemed to soar over the plain Aileen inhabited. The type of the latter's escorts suggested error—a lack of social discrimination. Because of the high position he had succeeded in achieving Cowperwood was entitled, no doubt, to be dissatisfied. His wife had not kept pace with him, or, rather, had not eluded him in his onward flight—had not run swiftly before, like a winged victory. Berenice reflected that if she were dealing with such a man he should never know her truly—he should be made to wonder and to doubt. Lines of care and disappointment should never mar her face. She would scheme and dream and conceal and evade. He should dance attendance, whoever he was.

Nevertheless, here she herself was, at twenty-two, unmarried, her background insecure, the very ground on which she walked treacherous. Braxmar knew, and Beales Chadsey, and Cowperwood. At least three or four of her acquaintances must have been at the Waldorf on that fatal night. How long would it be before others became aware? She tried eluding her mother, Cowperwood, and the situation generally by freely accepting more extended invitations and by trying to see whether there was not some opening for her in the field of art. She thought of painting and essayed several canvases which she took to dealers. The work was subtle, remote, fanciful—a snow scene with purple edges; a thinking satyr, iron-like in his heaviness, brooding over a cloudy valley; a lurking devil peering at a praying Marguerite; a Dutch interior inspired by Mrs. Batjer, and various dancing figures. Phlegmatic dealers of somber mien admitted some promise, but pointed out the difficulty of sales. Beginners were numerous. Art was long. If she went on, of course.... Let them see other things. She turned her thoughts to dancing.

This art in its interpretative sense was just being introduced into America, a certain Althea Baker having created a good deal of stir in society by this means. With the idea of duplicating or surpassing the success of this woman Berenice conceived a dance series of her own. One was to be "The Terror"—a nymph dancing in the spring woods, but eventually pursued and terrorized by a faun; another, "The Peacock," a fantasy illustrative of proud self-adulation; another, "The Vestal," a study from Roman choric worship. After spending considerable time at Pocono evolving costumes, poses, and the like, Berenice finally hinted at the plan to Mrs. Batjer, declaring that she would enjoy the artistic outlet it would afford, and indicating at the same time that it might provide the necessary solution of a problem of ways and means.

"Why, Bevy, how you talk!" commented Mrs. Batjer. "And with your possibilities. Why don't you marry first, and do your dancing afterward? You might compel a certain amount of attention that way."

"Because of hubby? How droll! Whom would you suggest that I marry at once?"

"Oh, when it comes to that—" replied Mrs. Batjer, with a slight reproachful lift in her voice, and thinking of Kilmer Duelma. "But surely your need isn't so pressing. If you were to take up professional dancing I might have to cut you afterward—particularly if any one else did."

She smiled the sweetest, most sensible smile. Mrs. Batjer accompanied her suggestions nearly always with a slight sniff and cough. Berenice could see that the mere fact of this conversation made a slight difference. In Mrs. Batjer's world poverty was a dangerous topic. The mere odor of it suggested a kind of horror—perhaps the equivalent of error or sin. Others, Berenice now suspected, would take affright even more swiftly.

Subsequent to this, however, she made one slight investigation of those realms that govern professional theatrical engagements. It was a most disturbing experience. The mere color and odor of the stuffy offices, the gauche, material attendants, the impossible aspirants and participants in this make-believe world! The crudeness! The effrontery! The materiality! The sensuality! It came to her as a sickening breath and for the moment frightened her. What would become of refinement there? What of delicacy? How could one rise and sustain an individual dignity and control in such a world as this?

Cowperwood was now suggesting as a binding link that he should buy a home for them in Park Avenue, where such social functions as would be of advantage to Berenice and in some measure to himself as an occasional guest might be indulged in. Mrs. Carter, a fool of comfort, was pleased to welcome this idea. It promised to give her absolute financial security for the future.

"I know how it is with you, Frank," she declared. "I know you need some place that you can call a home. The whole difficulty will be with Bevy. Ever since that miserable puppy made those charges against me I haven't been able to talk to her at all. She doesn't seem to want to do anything I suggest. You have much more influence with her than I have. If you explain, it may be all right."

Instantly Cowperwood saw an opportunity. Intensely pleased with this confession of weakness on the part of the mother, he went to Berenice, but by his usual method of indirect direction.

"You know, Bevy," he said, one afternoon when he found her alone, "I have been wondering if it wouldn't be better if I bought a large house for you and your mother here in New York, where you and she could do entertaining on a large scale. Since I can't spend my money on myself, I might as well spend it on some one who would make an interesting use of it. You might include me as an uncle or father's cousin or something of that sort," he added, lightly.

Berenice, who saw quite clearly the trap he was setting for her, was nonplussed. At the same time she could not help seeing that a house, if it were beautifully furnished, would be an interesting asset. People in society loved fixed, notable dwellings; she had observed that. What functions could not be held if only her mother's past were not charged against her! That was the great difficulty. It was almost an Arabian situation, heightened by the glitter of gold. And Cowperwood was always so diplomatic. He came forward with such a bland, engaging smile. His hands were so shapely and seeking.

"A house such as you speak of would enlarge the debt beyond payment, I presume," she remarked, sardonically and with a sad, almost contemptuous gesture. Cowperwood realized how her piercing intellect was following his shifty trail, and winced. She must see that her fate was in his hands, but oh! if she would only surrender, how swiftly every dollar of his vast fortune should be piled humbly at her feet. She should have her heart's desire, if money would buy it. She could say to him go, and he would go; come, and he would come.

"Berenice," he said, getting up, "I know what you think. You fancy I am trying to further my own interests in this way, but I'm not. I wouldn't compromise you ultimately for all the wealth of India. I have told you where I stand. Every dollar that I have is yours to do with as you choose on any basis that you may care to name. I have no future outside of you, none except art. I do not expect you to marry me. Take all that I have. Wipe society under your feet. Don't think that I will ever charge it up as a debt. I won't. I want you to hold your own. Just answer me one question; I won't ever ask another."


"If I were single now, and you were not in love or married, would you consider me at all?"

His eyes pleaded as never had they pleaded before.

She started, looked concerned, severe, then relaxed as suddenly. "Let me see," she said, with a slight brightening of the eyes and a toss of her head. "That is a second cousin to a proposal, isn't it? You have no right to make it. You aren't single, and aren't likely to be. Why should I try to read the future?"

She walked indifferently out of the room, and Cowperwood stayed a moment to think. Obviously he had triumphed in a way. She had not taken great offense. She must like him and would marry him if only...

Only Aileen.

And now he wished more definitely and forcefully than ever that he were really and truly free. He felt that if ever he wished to attain Berenice he must persuade Aileen to divorce him.

Return to the The Titan Summary Return to the Theodore Dreiser Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson