Berenice Fleming, at the time Cowperwood first encountered her mother, was an inmate of the Misses Brewster's School for Girls, then on Riverside Drive, New York, and one of the most exclusive establishments of its kind in America. The social prestige and connections of the Heddens, Flemings, and Carters were sufficient to gain her this introduction, though the social fortunes of her mother were already at this time on the down grade. A tall girl, delicately haggard, as he had imagined her, with reddish-bronze hair of a tinge but distantly allied to that of Aileen's, she was unlike any woman Cowperwood had ever known. Even at seventeen she stood up and out with an inexplicable superiority which brought her the feverish and exotic attention of lesser personalities whose emotional animality found an outlet in swinging a censer at her shrine.
A strange maiden, decidedly! Even at this age, when she was, as one might suppose, a mere slip of a girl, she was deeply conscious of herself, her sex, her significance, her possible social import. Armed with a fair skin, a few freckles, an almost too high color at times, strange, deep, night-blue, cat-like eyes, a long nose, a rather pleasant mouth, perfect teeth, and a really good chin, she moved always with a feline grace that was careless, superior, sinuous, and yet the acme of harmony and a rhythmic flow of lines. One of her mess-hall tricks, when unobserved by her instructors, was to walk with six plates and a water-pitcher all gracefully poised on the top of her head after the fashion of the Asiatic and the African, her hips moving, her shoulders, neck, and head still. Girls begged weeks on end to have her repeat this "stunt," as they called it. Another was to put her arms behind her and with a rush imitate the Winged Victory, a copy of which graced the library hall.
"You know," one little rosy-cheeked satellite used to urge on her, adoringly, "she must have been like you. Her head must have been like yours. You are lovely when you do it."
For answer Berenice's deep, almost black-blue eyes turned on her admirer with solemn unflattered consideration. She awed always by the something that she did not say.
The school, for all the noble dames who presided over it—solemn, inexperienced owl-like conventionalists who insisted on the last tittle and jot of order and procedure—was a joke to Berenice. She recognized the value of its social import, but even at fifteen and sixteen she was superior to it. She was superior to her superiors and to the specimens of maidenhood—supposed to be perfect socially—who gathered about to hear her talk, to hear her sing, declaim, or imitate. She was deeply, dramatically, urgently conscious of the value of her personality in itself, not as connected with any inherited social standing, but of its innate worth, and of the artistry and wonder of her body. One of her chief delights was to walk alone in her room—sometimes at night, the lamp out, the moon perhaps faintly illuminating her chamber—and to pose and survey her body, and dance in some naive, graceful, airy Greek way a dance that was singularly free from sex consciousness—and yet was it? She was conscious of her body—of every inch of it—under the ivory-white clothes which she frequently wore. Once she wrote in a secret diary which she maintained—another art impulse or an affectation, as you will: "My skin is so wonderful. It tingles so with rich life. I love it and my strong muscles underneath. I love my hands and my hair and my eyes. My hands are long and thin and delicate; my eyes are a dark, deep blue; my hair is a brown, rusty red, thick and sleepy. My long, firm, untired limbs can dance all night. Oh, I love life! I love life!"
You would not have called Berenice Fleming sensuous—though she was—because she was self-controlled. Her eyes lied to you. They lied to all the world. They looked you through and through with a calm savoir faire, a mocking defiance, which said with a faint curl of the lips, barely suggested to help them out, "You cannot read me, you cannot read me." She put her head to one side, smiled, lied (by implication), assumed that there was nothing. And there was nothing, as yet. Yet there was something, too—her inmost convictions, and these she took good care to conceal. The world—how little it should ever, ever know! How little it ever could know truly!
The first time Cowperwood encountered this Circe daughter of so unfortunate a mother was on the occasion of a trip to New York, the second spring following his introduction to Mrs. Carter in Louisville. Berenice was taking some part in the closing exercises of the Brewster School, and Mrs. Carter, with Cowperwood for an escort, decided to go East. Cowperwood having located himself at the Netherlands, and Mrs. Carter at the much humbler Grenoble, they journeyed together to visit this paragon whose picture he had had hanging in his rooms in Chicago for months past. When they were introduced into the somewhat somber reception parlor of the Brewster School, Berenice came slipping in after a few moments, a noiseless figure of a girl, tall and slim, and deliciously sinuous. Cowperwood saw at first glance that she fulfilled all the promise of her picture, and was delighted. She had, he thought, a strange, shrewd, intelligent smile, which, however, was girlish and friendly. Without so much as a glance in his direction she came forward, extending her arms and hands in an inimitable histrionic manner, and exclaimed, with a practised and yet natural inflection: "Mother, dear! So here you are really! You know, I've been thinking of you all morning. I wasn't sure whether you would come to-day, you change about so. I think I even dreamed of you last night."
Her skirts, still worn just below the shoe-tops, had the richness of scraping silk then fashionable. She was also guilty of using a faint perfume of some kind.
Cowperwood could see that Mrs. Carter, despite a certain nervousness due to the girl's superior individuality and his presence, was very proud of her. Berenice, he also saw quickly, was measuring him out of the tail of her eye—a single sweeping glance which she vouchsafed from beneath her long lashes sufficing; but she gathered quite accurately the totality of Cowperwood's age, force, grace, wealth, and worldly ability. Without hesitation she classed him as a man of power in some field, possibly finance, one of the numerous able men whom her mother seemed to know. She always wondered about her mother. His large gray eyes, that searched her with lightning accuracy, appealed to her as pleasant, able eyes. She knew on the instant, young as she was, that he liked women, and that probably he would think her charming; but as for giving him additional attention it was outside her code. She preferred to be interested in her dear mother exclusively.
"Berenice," observed Mrs. Carter, airily, "let me introduce Mr. Cowperwood."
Berenice turned, and for the fraction of a second leveled a frank and yet condescending glance from wells of what Cowperwood considered to be indigo blue.
"Your mother has spoken of you from time to time," he said, pleasantly.
She withdrew a cool, thin hand as limp and soft as wax, and turned to her mother again without comment, and yet without the least embarrassment. Cowperwood seemed in no way important to her.
"What would you say, dear," pursued Mrs. Carter, after a brief exchange of commonplaces, "if I were to spend next winter in New York?"
"It would be charming if I could live at home. I'm sick of this silly boarding-school."
"Why, Berenice! I thought you liked it."
"I hate it, but only because it's so dull. The girls here are so silly."
Mrs. Carter lifted her eyebrows as much as to say to her escort, "Now what do you think?" Cowperwood stood solemnly by. It was not for him to make a suggestion at present. He could see that for some reason—probably because of her disordered life—Mrs. Carter was playing a game of manners with her daughter; she maintained always a lofty, romantic air. With Berenice it was natural—the expression of a vain, self-conscious, superior disposition.
"A rather charming garden here," he observed, lifting a curtain and looking out into a blooming plot.
"Yes, the flowers are nice," commented Berenice.
"Wait; I'll get some for you. It's against the rules, but they can't do more than send me away, and that's what I want."
"Berenice! Come back here!"
It was Mrs. Carter calling.
The daughter was gone in a fling of graceful lines and flounces. "Now what do you make of her?" asked Mrs. Carter, turning to her friend.
"Youth, individuality, energy—a hundred things. I see nothing wrong with her."
"If I could only see to it that she had her opportunities unspoiled."
Already Berenice was returning, a subject for an artist in almost studied lines. Her arms were full of sweet-peas and roses which she had ruthlessly gathered.
"You wilful girl!" scolded her mother, indulgently. "I shall have to go and explain to your superiors. Whatever shall I do with her, Mr. Cowperwood?"
"Load her with daisy chains and transport her to Cytherea," commented Cowperwood, who had once visited this romantic isle, and therefore knew its significance.
Berenice paused. "What a pretty speech that is!" she exclaimed. "I have a notion to give you a special flower for that. I will, too." She presented him with a rose.
For a girl who had slipped in shy and still, Cowperwood commented, her mood had certainly changed. Still, this was the privilege of the born actress, to change. And as he viewed Berenice Fleming now he felt her to be such—a born actress, lissome, subtle, wise, indifferent, superior, taking the world as she found it and expecting it to obey—to sit up like a pet dog and be told to beg. What a charming character! What a pity it should not be allowed to bloom undisturbed in its make-believe garden! What a pity, indeed!