The most serious difficulty confronting Cowperwood from now on was really not so much political as financial. In building up and financing his Chicago street-railway enterprises he had, in those days when Addison was president of the Lake City National, used that bank as his chief source of supply. Afterward, when Addison had been forced to retire from the Lake City to assume charge of the Chicago Trust Company, Cowperwood had succeeded in having the latter designated as a central reserve and in inducing a number of rural banks to keep their special deposits in its vaults. However, since the war on him and his interests had begun to strengthen through the efforts of Hand and Arneel—men most influential in the control of the other central-reserve banks of Chicago, and in close touch with the money barons of New York—there were signs not wanting that some of the country banks depositing with the Chicago Trust Company had been induced to withdraw because of pressure from outside inimical forces, and that more were to follow. It was some time before Cowperwood fully realized to what an extent this financial opposition might be directed against himself. In its very beginning it necessitated speedy hurryings to New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Boston—even London at times—on the chance that there would be loose and ready cash in someone's possession. It was on one of these peregrinations that he encountered a curious personality which led to various complications in his life, sentimental and otherwise, which he had not hitherto contemplated.
In various sections of the country Cowperwood had met many men of wealth, some grave, some gay, with whom he did business, and among these in Louisville, Kentucky, he encountered a certain Col. Nathaniel Gillis, very wealthy, a horseman, inventor, roue, from whom he occasionally extracted loans. The Colonel was an interesting figure in Kentucky society; and, taking a great liking to Cowperwood, he found pleasure, during the brief periods in which they were together, in piloting him about. On one occasion in Louisville he observed: "To-night, Frank, with your permission, I am going to introduce you to one of the most interesting women I know. She isn't good, but she's entertaining. She has had a troubled history. She is the ex-wife of two of my best friends, both dead, and the ex-mistress of another. I like her because I knew her father and mother, and because she was a clever little girl and still is a nice woman, even if she is getting along. She keeps a sort of house of convenience here in Louisville for a few of her old friends. You haven't anything particular to do to-night, have you? Suppose we go around there?"
Cowperwood, who was always genially sportive when among strong men—a sort of bounding collie—and who liked to humor those who could be of use to him, agreed.
"It sounds interesting to me. Certainly I'll go. Tell me more about her. Is she good-looking?"
"Rather. But better yet, she is connected with a number of women who are." The Colonel, who had a small, gray goatee and sportive dark eyes, winked the latter solemnly.
"Take me there," he said.
It was a rainy night. The business on which he was seeing the Colonel required another day to complete. There was little or nothing to do. On the way the Colonel retailed more of the life history of Nannie Hedden, as he familiarly called her, and explained that, although this was her maiden name, she had subsequently become first Mrs. John Alexander Fleming, then, after a divorce, Mrs. Ira George Carter, and now, alas! was known among the exclusive set of fast livers, to which he belonged, as plain Hattie Starr, the keeper of a more or less secret house of ill repute. Cowperwood did not take so much interest in all this until he saw her, and then only because of two children the Colonel told him about, one a girl by her first marriage, Berenice Fleming, who was away in a New York boarding-school, the other a boy, Rolfe Carter, who was in a military school for boys somewhere in the West.
"That daughter of hers," observed the Colonel, "is a chip of the old block, unless I miss my guess. I only saw her two or three times a few years ago when I was down East at her mother's summer home; but she struck me as having great charm even for a girl of ten. She's a lady born, if ever there was one. How her mother is to keep her straight, living as she does, is more than I know. How she keeps her in that school is a mystery. There's apt to be a scandal here at any time. I'm very sure the girl doesn't know anything about her mother's business. She never lets her come out here."
"Berenice Fleming," Cowperwood thought to himself. "What a pleasing name, and what a peculiar handicap in life."
"How old is the daughter now?" he inquired.
"Oh, she must be about fifteen—not more than that."
When they reached the house, which was located in a rather somber, treeless street, Cowperwood was surprised to find the interior spacious and tastefully furnished. Presently Mrs. Carter, as she was generally known in society, or Hattie Starr, as she was known to a less satisfying world, appeared. Cowperwood realized at once that he was in the presence of a woman who, whatever her present occupation, was not without marked evidences of refinement. She was exceedingly intelligent, if not highly intellectual, trig, vivacious, anything but commonplace. A certain spirited undulation in her walk, a seeming gay, frank indifference to her position in life, an obvious accustomedness to polite surroundings took his fancy. Her hair was built up in a loose Frenchy way, after the fashion of the empire, and her cheeks were slightly mottled with red veins. Her color was too high, and yet it was not utterly unbecoming. She had friendly gray-blue eyes, which went well with her light-brown hair; along with a pink flowered house-gown, which became her fulling figure, she wore pearls.
"The widow of two husbands," thought Cowperwood; "the mother of two children!" With the Colonel's easy introduction began a light conversation. Mrs. Carter gracefully persisted that she had known of Cowperwood for some time. His strenuous street-railway operations were more or less familiar to her.
"It would be nice," she suggested, "since Mr. Cowperwood is here, if we invited Grace Deming to call."
The latter was a favorite of the Colonel's.
"I would be very glad if I could talk to Mrs. Carter," gallantly volunteered Cowperwood—he scarcely knew why. He was curious to learn more of her history. On subsequent occasions, and in more extended conversation with the Colonel, it was retailed to him in full.
Nannie Hedden, or Mrs. John Alexander Fleming, or Mrs. Ira George Carter, or Hattie Starr, was by birth a descendant of a long line of Virginia and Kentucky Heddens and Colters, related in a definite or vague way to half the aristocracy of four or five of the surrounding states. Now, although still a woman of brilliant parts, she was the keeper of a select house of assignation in this meager city of perhaps two hundred thousand population. How had it happened? How could it possibly have come about? She had been in her day a reigning beauty. She had been born to money and had married money. Her first husband, John Alexander Fleming, who had inherited wealth, tastes, privileges, and vices from a long line of slave-holding, tobacco-growing Flemings, was a charming man of the Kentucky-Virginia society type. He had been trained in the law with a view to entering the diplomatic service, but, being an idler by nature, had never done so. Instead, horse-raising, horse-racing, philandering, dancing, hunting, and the like, had taken up his time. When their wedding took place the Kentucky-Virginia society world considered it a great match. There was wealth on both sides. Then came much more of that idle social whirl which had produced the marriage. Even philanderings of a very vital character were not barred, though deception, in some degree at least, would be necessary. As a natural result there followed the appearance in the mountains of North Carolina during a charming autumn outing of a gay young spark by the name of Tucker Tanner, and the bestowal on him by the beautiful Nannie Fleming—as she was then called—of her temporary affections. Kind friends were quick to report what Fleming himself did not see, and Fleming, roue that he was, encountering young Mr. Tanner on a high mountain road one evening, said to him, "You get out of this party by night, or I will let daylight through you in the morning." Tucker Tanner, realizing that however senseless and unfair the exaggerated chivalry of the South might be, the end would be bullets just the same, departed. Mrs. Fleming, disturbed but unrepentant, considered herself greatly abused. There was much scandal. Then came quarrels, drinking on both sides, finally a divorce. Mr. Tucker Tanner did not appear to claim his damaged love, but the aforementioned Ira George Carter, a penniless never-do-well of the same generation and social standing, offered himself and was accepted. By the first marriage there had been one child, a girl. By the second there was another child, a boy. Ira George Carter, before the children were old enough to impress Mrs. Carter with the importance of their needs or her own affection for them, had squandered, in one ridiculous venture after another, the bulk of the property willed to her by her father, Major Wickham Hedden. Ultimately, after drunkenness and dissipation on the husband's side, and finally his death, came the approach of poverty. Mrs. Carter was not practical, and still passionate and inclined to dissipation. However, the aimless, fatuous going to pieces of Ira George Carter, the looming pathos of the future of the children, and a growing sense of affection and responsibility had finally sobered her. The lure of love and life had not entirely disappeared, but her chance of sipping at those crystal founts had grown sadly slender. A woman of thirty-eight and still possessing some beauty, she was not content to eat the husks provided for the unworthy. Her gorge rose at the thought of that neglected state into which the pariahs of society fall and on which the inexperienced so cheerfully comment. Neglected by her own set, shunned by the respectable, her fortune quite gone, she was nevertheless determined that she would not be a back-street seamstress or a pensioner upon the bounty of quondam friends. By insensible degrees came first unhallowed relationships through friendship and passing passion, then a curious intermediate state between the high world of fashion and the half world of harlotry, until, finally, in Louisville, she had become, not openly, but actually, the mistress of a house of ill repute. Men who knew how these things were done, and who were consulting their own convenience far more than her welfare, suggested the advisability of it. Three or four friends like Colonel Gillis wished rooms—convenient place in which to loaf, gamble, and bring their women. Hattie Starr was her name now, and as such she had even become known in a vague way to the police—but only vaguely—as a woman whose home was suspiciously gay on occasions.
Cowperwood, with his appetite for the wonders of life, his appreciation of the dramas which produce either failure or success, could not help being interested in this spoiled woman who was sailing so vaguely the seas of chance. Colonel Gillis once said that with some strong man to back her, Nannie Fleming could be put back into society. She had a pleasant appeal—she and her two children, of whom she never spoke. After a few visits to her home Cowperwood spent hours talking with Mrs. Carter whenever he was in Louisville. On one occasion, as they were entering her boudoir, she picked up a photograph of her daughter from the dresser and dropped it into a drawer. Cowperwood had never seen this picture before. It was that of a girl of fifteen or sixteen, of whom he obtained but the most fleeting glance. Yet, with that instinct for the essential and vital which invariably possessed him, he gained a keen impression of it. It was of a delicately haggard child with a marvelously agreeable smile, a fine, high-poised head upon a thin neck, and an air of bored superiority. Combined with this was a touch of weariness about the eyelids which drooped in a lofty way. Cowperwood was fascinated. Because of the daughter he professed an interest in the mother, which he really did not feel.
A little later Cowperwood was moved to definite action by the discovery in a photographer's window in Louisville of a second picture of Berenice—a rather large affair which Mrs. Carter had had enlarged from a print sent her by her daughter some time before. Berenice was standing rather indifferently posed at the corner of a colonial mantel, a soft straw outing-hat held negligently in one hand, one hip sunk lower than the other, a faint, elusive smile playing dimly around her mouth. The smile was really not a smile, but only the wraith of one, and the eyes were wide, disingenuous, mock-simple. The picture because of its simplicity, appealed to him. He did not know that Mrs. Carter had never sanctioned its display. "A personage," was Cowperwood's comment to himself, and he walked into the photographer's office to see what could be done about its removal and the destruction of the plates. A half-hundred dollars, he found, would arrange it all—plates, prints, everything. Since by this ruse he secured a picture for himself, he promptly had it framed and hung in his Chicago rooms, where sometimes of an afternoon when he was hurrying to change his clothes he stopped to look at it. With each succeeding examination his admiration and curiosity grew. Here was perhaps, he thought, the true society woman, the high-born lady, the realization of that ideal which Mrs. Merrill and many another grande dame had suggested.
It was not so long after this again that, chancing to be in Louisville, he discovered Mrs. Carter in a very troubled social condition. Her affairs had received a severe setback. A certain Major Hagenback, a citizen of considerable prominence, had died in her home under peculiar circumstances. He was a man of wealth, married, and nominally living with his wife in Lexington. As a matter of fact, he spent very little time there, and at the time of his death of heart failure was leading a pleasurable existence with a Miss Trent, an actress, whom he had introduced to Mrs. Carter as his friend. The police, through a talkative deputy coroner, were made aware of all the facts. Pictures of Miss Trent, Mrs. Carter, Major Hagenback, his wife, and many curious details concerning Mrs. Carter's home were about to appear in the papers when Colonel Gillis and others who were powerful socially and politically interfered; the affair was hushed up, but Mrs. Carter was in distress. This was more than she had bargained for.
Her quondam friends were frightened away for the nonce. She herself had lost courage. When Cowperwood saw her she had been in the very human act of crying, and her eyes were red.
"Well, well," he commented, on seeing her—she was in moody gray in the bargain—"you don't mean to tell me you're worrying about anything, are you?"
"Oh, Mr. Cowperwood," she explained, pathetically, "I have had so much trouble since I saw you. You heard of Major Hagenback's death, didn't you?" Cowperwood, who had heard something of the story from Colonel Gillis, nodded. "Well, I have just been notified by the police that I will have to move, and the landlord has given me notice, too. If it just weren't for my two children—"
She dabbed at her eyes pathetically.
Cowperwood meditated interestedly.
"Haven't you any place you can go?" he asked.
"I have a summer place in Pennsylvania," she confessed; "but I can't go there very well in February. Besides, it's my living I'm worrying about. I have only this to depend on."
She waved her hand inclusively toward the various rooms. "Don't you own that place in Pennsylvania?" he inquired.
"Yes, but it isn't worth much, and I couldn't sell it. I've been trying to do that anyhow for some time, because Berenice is getting tired of it."
"And haven't you any money laid away?"
"It's taken all I have to run this place and keep the children in school. I've been trying to give Berenice and Rolfe a chance to do something for themselves."
At the repetition of Berenice's name Cowperwood consulted his own interest or mood in the matter. A little assistance for her would not bother him much. Besides, it would probably eventually bring about a meeting with the daughter.
"Why don't you clear out of this?" he observed, finally. "It's no business to be in, anyhow, if you have any regard for your children. They can't survive anything like this. You want to put your daughter back in society, don't you?"
"Oh yes," almost pleaded Mrs. Carter.
"Precisely," commented Cowperwood, who, when he was thinking, almost invariably dropped into a short, cold, curt, business manner. Yet he was humanely inclined in this instance.
"Well, then, why not live in your Pennsylvania place for the present, or, if not that, go to New York? You can't stay here. Ship or sell these things." He waved a hand toward the rooms.
"I would only too gladly," replied Mrs. Carter, "if I knew what to do."
"Take my advice and go to New York for the present. You will get rid of your expenses here, and I will help you with the rest—for the present, anyhow. You can get a start again. It is too bad about these children of yours. I will take care of the boy as soon as he is old enough. As for Berenice"—he used her name softly—"if she can stay in her school until she is nineteen or twenty the chances are that she will make social connections which will save her nicely. The thing for you to do is to avoid meeting any of this old crowd out here in the future if you can. It might be advisable to take her abroad for a time after she leaves school."
"Yes, if I just could," sighed Mrs. Carter, rather lamely.
"Well, do what I suggest now, and we will see," observed Cowperwood. "It would be a pity if your two children were to have their lives ruined by such an accident as this."
Mrs. Carter, realizing that here, in the shape of Cowperwood, if he chose to be generous, was the open way out of a lowering dungeon of misery, was inclined to give vent to a bit of grateful emotion, but, finding him subtly remote, restrained herself. His manner, while warmly generous at times, was also easily distant, except when he wished it to be otherwise. Just now he was thinking of the high soul of Berenice Fleming and of its possible value to him.