The storm which burst in connection with Cowperwood's machinations at Springfield early in 1897, and continued without abating until the following fall, attracted such general attention that it was largely reported in the Eastern papers. F. A. Cowperwood versus the state of Illinois—thus one New York daily phrased the situation. The magnetizing power of fame is great. Who can resist utterly the luster that surrounds the individualities of some men, causing them to glow with a separate and special effulgence? Even in the case of Berenice this was not without its value. In a Chicago paper which she found lying one day on a desk which Cowperwood had occupied was an extended editorial which interested her greatly. After reciting his various misdeeds, particularly in connection with the present state legislature, it went on to say: "He has an innate, chronic, unconquerable contempt for the rank and file. Men are but slaves and thralls to draw for him the chariot of his greatness. Never in all his history has he seen fit to go to the people direct for anything. In Philadelphia, when he wanted public-franchise control, he sought privily and by chicane to arrange his affairs with a venal city treasurer. In Chicago he has uniformly sought to buy and convert to his own use the splendid privileges of the city, which should really redound to the benefit of all. Frank Algernon Cowperwood does not believe in the people; he does not trust them. To him they constitute no more than a field upon which corn is to be sown, and from which it is to be reaped. They present but a mass of bent backs, their knees and faces in the mire, over which as over a floor he strides to superiority. His private and inmost faith is in himself alone. Upon the majority he shuts the gates of his glory in order that the sight of their misery and their needs may not disturb nor alloy his selfish bliss. Frank Algernon Cowperwood does not believe in the people."
This editorial battle-cry, flung aloft during the latter days of the contest at Springfield and taken up by the Chicago papers generally and by those elsewhere, interested Berenice greatly. As she thought of him—waging his terrific contests, hurrying to and fro between New York and Chicago, building his splendid mansion, collecting his pictures, quarreling with Aileen—he came by degrees to take on the outlines of a superman, a half-god or demi-gorgon. How could the ordinary rules of life or the accustomed paths of men be expected to control him? They could not and did not. And here he was pursuing her, seeking her out with his eyes, grateful for a smile, waiting as much as he dared on her every wish and whim.
Say what one will, the wish buried deep in every woman's heart is that her lover should be a hero. Some, out of the veriest stick or stone, fashion the idol before which they kneel, others demand the hard reality of greatness; but in either case the illusion of paragon-worship is maintained.
Berenice, by no means ready to look upon Cowperwood as an accepted lover, was nevertheless gratified that his erring devotion was the tribute of one able apparently to command thought from the whole world. Moreover, because the New York papers had taken fire from his great struggle in the Middle West and were charging him with bribery, perjury, and intent to thwart the will of the people, Cowperwood now came forward with an attempt to explain his exact position to Berenice and to justify himself in her eyes. During visits to the Carter house or in entr'actes at the opera or the theater, he recounted to her bit by bit his entire history. He described the characters of Hand, Schryhart, Arneel, and the motives of jealousy and revenge which had led to their attack upon him in Chicago. "No human being could get anything through the Chicago City Council without paying for it," he declared. "It's simply a question of who's putting up the money." He told how Truman Leslie MacDonald had once tried to "shake him down" for fifty thousand dollars, and how the newspapers had since found it possible to make money, to increase their circulation, by attacking him. He frankly admitted the fact of his social ostracism, attributing it partially to Aileen's deficiencies and partially to his own attitude of Promethean defiance, which had never yet brooked defeat.
"And I will defeat them now," he said, solemnly, to Berenice one day over a luncheon-table at the Plaza when the room was nearly empty. His gray eyes were a study in colossal enigmatic spirit. "The governor hasn't signed my fifty-year franchise bill" (this was before the closing events at Springfield), "but he will sign it. Then I have one more fight ahead of me. I'm going to combine all the traffic lines out there under one general system. I am the logical person to provide it. Later on, if public ownership ever arrives, the city can buy it."
"And then—" asked Berenice sweetly, flattered by his confidences.
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose I'll live abroad. You don't seem to be very much interested in me. I'll finish my picture collection—"
"But supposing you should lose?"
"I don't contemplate losing," he remarked, coolly. "Whatever happens, I'll have enough to live on. I'm a little tired of contest."
He smiled, but Berenice saw that the thought of defeat was a gray one. With victory was his heart, and only there. Owing to the national publicity being given to Cowperwood's affairs at this time the effect upon Berenice of these conversations with him was considerable. At the same time another and somewhat sinister influence was working in his favor. By slow degrees she and her mother were coming to learn that the ultra-conservatives of society were no longer willing to accept them. Berenice had become at last too individual a figure to be overlooked. At an important luncheon given by the Harris Haggertys, some five months after the Beales Chadsey affair, she had been pointed out to Mrs. Haggerty by a visiting guest from Cincinnati as some one with whom rumor was concerning itself. Mrs. Haggerty wrote to friends in Louisville for information, and received it. Shortly after, at the coming-out party of a certain Geraldine Borga, Berenice, who had been her sister's schoolmate, was curiously omitted. She took sharp note of that. Subsequently the Haggertys failed to include her, as they had always done before, in their generous summer invitations. This was true also of the Lanman Zeiglers and the Lucas Demmigs. No direct affront was offered; she was simply no longer invited. Also one morning she read in the Tribune that Mrs. Corscaden Batjer had sailed for Italy. No word of this had been sent to Berenice. Yet Mrs. Batjer was supposedly one of her best friends. A hint to some is of more avail than an open statement to others. Berenice knew quite well in which direction the tide was setting.
True, there were a number—the ultra-smart of the smart world—who protested. Mrs. Patrick Gilbennin, for instance: "No! You don't tell me? What a shame! Well, I like Bevy and shall always like her. She's clever, and she can come here just as long as she chooses. It isn't her fault. She's a lady at heart and always will be. Life is so cruel." Mrs. Augustus Tabreez: "Is that really true? I can't believe it. Just the same, she's too charming to be dropped. I for one propose to ignore these rumors just as long as I dare. She can come here if she can't go anywhere else." Mrs. Pennington Drury: "That of Bevy Fleming! Who says so? I don't believe it. I like her anyhow. The idea of the Haggertys cutting her—dull fools! Well, she can be my guest, the dear thing, as long as she pleases. As though her mother's career really affected her!"
Nevertheless, in the world of the dull rich—those who hold their own by might of possession, conformity, owl-eyed sobriety, and ignorance—Bevy Fleming had become persona non grata. How did she take all this? With that air of superior consciousness which knows that no shift of outer material ill-fortune can detract one jot from an inward mental superiority. The truly individual know themselves from the beginning and rarely, if ever, doubt. Life may play fast and loose about them, running like a racing, destructive tide in and out, but they themselves are like a rock, still, serene, unmoved. Bevy Fleming felt herself to be so immensely superior to anything of which she was a part that she could afford to hold her head high even now Just the same, in order to remedy the situation she now looked about her with an eye single to a possible satisfactory marriage. Braxmar had gone for good. He was somewhere in the East—in China, she heard—his infatuation for her apparently dead. Kilmer Duelma was gone also—snapped up—an acquisition on the part of one of those families who did not now receive her. However, in the drawing-rooms where she still appeared—and what were they but marriage markets?—one or two affairs did spring up—tentative approachments on the part of scions of wealth. They were destined to prove abortive. One of these youths, Pedro Ricer Marcado, a Brazilian, educated at Oxford, promised much for sincerity and feeling until he learned that Berenice was poor in her own right—and what else? Some one had whispered something in his ear. Again there was a certain William Drake Bowdoin, the son of a famous old family, who lived on the north side of Washington Square. After a ball, a morning musicale, and one other affair at which they met Bowdoin took Berenice to see his mother and sister, who were charmed. "Oh, you serene divinity!" he said to her, ecstatically, one day. "Won't you marry me?" Bevy looked at him and wondered. "Let us wait just a little longer, my dear," she counseled. "I want you to be sure that you really love me. Shortly thereafter, meeting an old classmate at a club, Bowdoin was greeted as follows:
"Look here, Bowdoin. You're a friend of mine. I see you with that Miss Fleming. Now, I don't know how far things have gone, and I don't want to intrude, but are you sure you are aware of all the aspects of the case?"
"What do you mean?" demanded Bowdoin. "I want you to speak out."
"Oh, pardon, old man. No offense, really. You know me. I couldn't. College—and all that. Just this, though, before you go any further. Inquire about. You may hear things. If they're true you ought to know. If not, the talking ought to stop. If I'm wrong call on me for amends. I hear talk, I tell you. Best intentions in the world, old man. I do assure you."
More inquiries. The tongues of jealousy and envy. Mr. Bowdoin was sure to inherit three million dollars. Then a very necessary trip to somewhere, and Berenice stared at herself in the glass. What was it? What were people saying, if anything? This was strange. Well, she was young and beautiful. There were others. Still, she might have come to love Bowdoin. He was so airy, artistic in an unconscious way. Really, she had thought better of him.
The effect of all this was not wholly depressing. Enigmatic, disdainful, with a touch of melancholy and a world of gaiety and courage, Berenice heard at times behind joy the hollow echo of unreality. Here was a ticklish business, this living. For want of light and air the finest flowers might die. Her mother's error was not so inexplicable now. By it had she not, after all, preserved herself and her family to a certain phase of social superiority? Beauty was of such substance as dreams are made of, and as fleeting. Not one's self alone—one's inmost worth, the splendor of one's dreams—but other things—name, wealth, the presence or absence of rumor, and of accident—were important. Berenice's lip curled. But life could be lived. One could lie to the world. Youth is optimistic, and Berenice, in spite of her splendid mind, was so young. She saw life as a game, a good chance, that could be played in many ways. Cowperwood's theory of things began to appeal to her. One must create one's own career, carve it out, or remain horribly dull or bored, dragged along at the chariot wheels of others. If society was so finicky, if men were so dull—well, there was one thing she could do. She must have life, life—and money would help some to that end.
Besides, Cowperwood by degrees was becoming attractive to her; he really was. He was so much better than most of the others, so very powerful. She was preternaturally gay, as one who says, "Victory shall be mine anyhow."