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An Ambitious Man By Ella Wheeler Wilcox Characters: 8386

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Baroness Brown" was a distinctive figure in Beryngford. She came to the place from foreign parts some three years before the arrival of Preston Cheney, and brought servants, carriages and horses, and established herself in a very handsome house which she rented for a term of years. Her arrival in this quiet village town was of course the sensation of the hour, or rather of the year. She was known as Baroness Le Fevre-an American widow of a French baron. Large, voluptuous, blonde, and handsome according to the popular idea of beauty, distinctly amiable, affable and very charitable, she became at once the fashion.

Invitations to her house were eagerly sought after, and her entertainments were described in column articles by the press.

This state of things continued only six months, however. Then it began to be whispered about that the Baroness was in arrears for her rent. Several of her servants had gone away in a high state of temper at the titled mistress who had failed to pay them a cent of wages since they came to the country with her; and one day the neighbours saw her fine carriage horses led away by the sheriff.

A week later society was electrified by the announcement of the marriage of Baroness Le Fevre to Mr Brown, a wealthy widower who owned the best shoe store in Beryngford.

Mr Brown owned ten children also, but the youngest was a boy of sixteen, absent in college. The other nine were married and settled in comfortable homes.

Mr Brown died at the expiration of a year. This one year had taught him more of womankind than he had learned in all his sixty and nine years before; and, feeling that it is never too late to profit by learning, Mr Brown discreetly made his will, leaving all his property save the widow's "thirds" equally divided among his ten children.

The Baroness made a futile effort to break the will, on the ground that he was not of sound mind when it was drawn up; but the effort cost her several hundred of her few thousand dollars and the increased enmity of the ten Brown children, and availed her nothing. An important part of the widow's third was the Brown mansion, a large, commodious house built many years before, when the village was but a country town. Everybody supposed the Baroness, as she was still called, half in derision and half from the American love of mouthing a title, would offer this house for sale, and depart for fresh fields and pastures new. But the Baroness never did what she was expected to do.

Instead of offering her house for sale, she offered "Rooms to Let," and turned the family mansion into a fashionable lodging-house.

Its central location, and its adjacence to several restaurants and boarding houses, rendered it a convenient place for business people to lodge, and the handsome widow found no trouble in filling her rooms with desirable and well-paying patrons. In a spirit of fun, people began to speak of the old Brown mansion as "The Palace," and in a short time the lodging-house was known by that name, just as its mistress was known as "Baroness Brown."

The Palace yielded the Baroness something like two hundred dollars a month, and cost her only the wages and keeping of three servants; or rather the wages of two and the keeping of three; for to Berene Dumont, her maid and personal attendant, she paid no wages.

The Baroness did not rise till noon, and she always breakfasted in bed. Sometimes she remained in her room till mid-afternoon. Berene served her breakfast and lunch, and looked after the servants to see that the lodgers' rooms were all in order. These were the services for which she was given a home. But in truth the young woman did much more than this; she acted also as seamstress and milliner for her mistress, and attended to the marketing and ran errands for her. If ever a girl paid full price for her keeping, it was Berene, and yet the Baroness spoke frequently of "giving the poor thing a home."

It had all come about in this way. Pierre Dumont kept a second-hand book store in Beryngford. He was French, and the national characteristic of frugality had assumed the shape of avarice in his nature. He was, too, a petty tyrant and a

cruel husband and father when under the influence of absinthe, a state in which he was usually to be found.

Berene was an only child, and her mother, whom she worshipped, said, when dying, "Take care of your poor father, Berene. Do everything you can to make him happy. Never desert him."

Berene was fourteen at that time. She had never been at school, but she had been taught to read and write both French and English, for her mother was an American girl who had been disinherited by her grandparents, with whom she lived, for eloping with her French teacher-Pierre Dumont. Rheumatism and absinthe turned the French professor into a shopkeeper before Berene was born. The grandparents had died without forgiving their granddaughter, and, much as the unhappy woman regretted her foolish marriage, she remained a patient and devoted wife to the end of her life, and imposed the same patience and devotion when dying on her daughter.

At sixteen, Berene was asked to sacrifice herself on the altar of marriage to a man three times her age; one Jacques Letellier, who offered generously to take the young girl as payment for a debt owed by his convivial comrade, M. Dumont. Berene wept and begged piteously to be spared this horrible sacrifice of her young life, whereupon Pierre Dumont seized his razor and threatened suicide as the other alternative from the dishonour of debt, and Berene in terror yielded her word and herself the next day to the debasing mockery of marriage with a depraved old gambler and roué.

Six months later Jacques Letellier died in a fit of apoplexy and Berene was freed from her chains; but freed only to keep on in a life of martyrdom as servant and slave to the caprices of her father, until his death. When he was finally well buried under six feet of earth, Berene found herself twenty years of age, alone in the world with just one thousand dollars in money, the price brought by her father's effects.

Without education or accomplishments, she was the possessor of youth, health, charm, and a voice of wonderful beauty and power; a voice which it was her dream to cultivate, and use as a means of support. But how could she ever cultivate it? The thousand dollars in her possession was, she knew, but a drop in the ocean of expense a musical education would entail. And she must keep that money until she found some way by which to support herself.

Baroness Brown had attended the sale of old Dumont's effects. She had often noticed the young girl in the shop, and in the street, and had been struck with the peculiar elegance and refinement of her appearance. Her simple lawn or print gowns were made and worn in a manner befitting a princess. Her nails were carefully kept, despite all the household drudgery which devolved upon her.

The Baroness was a shrewd woman and a clever reasoner. She needed a thrifty, prudent person in her house to look after things, and to attend to her personal needs. Since she had opened the Palace as a lodging-house, this need had stared her in the face. Servants did very well in their places, but the person she required was of another and superior order, and only to be obtained by accident or by advertising and the paying of a large salary. Now the Baroness had been in the habit of thinking that her beauty and amiability were quite equivalent to any favours she received from humanity at large. Ever since she was a plump girl in short dresses, she had learned that smiles and compliments from her lips would purchase her friends of both sexes, who would do disagreeable duties for her. She had never made it a custom to pay out money for any service she could obtain otherwise. So now as she looked on this young woman who, though a widow, seemed still a mere child, it occurred to her that Fate had with its usual kindness thrown in her path the very person she needed.

She offered Berene "a home" at the Palace in return for a few small services. The lonely girl, whose strangely solitary life with her old father had excluded her from all social relations outside, grasped at this offer from the handsome lady whom she had long admired from a distance, and went to make her home at the Palace.

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