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   Chapter 3 No.3

An Ambitious Man By Ella Wheeler Wilcox Characters: 13065

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Berene had been several months in her new home when Preston Cheney came to lodge at the Palace.

He met her on the stairway the first morning after his arrival, as he was descending to the street door.

Bringing up a tray covered with a snowy napkin, she stepped to one side and paused, to make room for him to pass.

Preston was not one of those young men who find pastime in flirtations with nursery maids or kitchen girls. The very thought of it offended his good taste. Once, in listening to the boastful tales of a modern Don Juan, who was relating his gallant adventures with a handsome waiter girl at a hotel, Preston had remarked, "I would as soon think of using my dinner napkin for a necktie, as finding romance with a servant girl."

Yet he appreciated a snowy, well-laundried napkin in its place, and he was most considerate and thoughtful in his treatment of servants.

He supposed Berene to be an upper servant of the house, and yet, as he glanced at her, a strange and unaccountable feeling of interest seized upon him. The creamy pallor of her skin, colourless save for the full red lips, the dark eyes full of unutterable longing, the aristocratic poise of the head, the softly rounded figure, elegant in its simple gown and apron, all impressed him as he had never before been impressed by any woman.

It was several days before he chanced to see her again, and then only for a moment as she passed through the hall; but he heard a trill of song from her lips, which added to his interest and curiosity. "That girl is no common servant," he said to himself, and he resolved to learn more about her.

It had been the custom of the Baroness to keep herself quite hidden from her lodgers. They seldom saw her, after the first business interview. Therefore it was a matter of surprise to the young editor when he came home from his office one night, just after twelve o'clock, and found the mistress of the mansion standing in the hall by the register, in charming evening attire.

She smiled upon him radiantly. "I have just come in from a benefit concert," she said, "and I am as hungry as a bear. Now I cannot endure eating alone at night. I knew it was near your hour to return, so I waited for you. Will you go down to the dining-room with me and have a Welsh rarebit? I am going to make one in my chafing dish."

The young man hid his surprise under a gallant smile, and offering the Baroness his arm descended to the basement dining-room with her. He had heard much about the complicated life of this woman, and he felt a certain amount of natural curiosity in regard to her. He had met her but once, and that was on the day when he had called to engage his room, a little more than two weeks past.

He had thought her an excellent type of the successful American adventuress on that occasion, and her quiet and dull life in this ordinary town puzzled him. He could not imagine a woman of that order existing a whole year without an adventure; as a rule he knew that those blonde women with large hips and busts, and small waists and feet, are as unable to live without excitement as a fish without water.

Yet, since the death of Mr Brown, more than a year past, the Baroness had lived the life of a recluse. It puzzled him, as a student of human nature.

But, in fact, the Baroness was a skilled general in planning her campaigns. She seldom plunged into action unprepared.

She knew from experience that she could not live in a large city and not use an enormous amount of money.

She was tired of taking great risks, and she knew that without the aid of money and a fine wardrobe she was not able to attract men as she had done ten years before.

As long as she remained in Beryngford she would be adding to her income every month, and saving the few thousands she possessed. She would be saving her beauty, too, by keeping early hours and living a temperate life; and if she carefully avoided any new scandal, her past adventures would be dim in the minds of people when, after a year or two more of retirement and retrenchment, she sallied forth to new fields, under a new name, if need be, and with a comfortably filled purse.

It was in this manner that the Baroness had reasoned; but from the hour she first saw Preston Cheney, her resolutions wavered. He impressed her most agreeably; and after learning about him from the daily papers, and hearing him spoken of as a valuable acquisition to Beryngford's intellectual society, the Baroness decided to come out of her retirement and enter the lists in advance of other women who would seek to attract this newcomer.

To the fading beauty in her late thirties, a man in the early twenties possesses a peculiar fascination; and to the Baroness, clothed in weeds for a husband who died on the eve of his seventieth birthday, the possibility of winning a young man like Preston Cheney overbalanced all other considerations in her mind. She had never been a vulgar coquette to whom all men were prey. She had always been more or less discriminating. A man must be either very attractive or very rich to win her regard. Mr Brown had been very rich, and Preston Cheney was very attractive.

"He is more than attractive, he is positively fascinating," she said to herself in the solitude of her room after the tête-à-tête over the Welsh rarebit that evening. "I don't know when I have felt such a pleasure in a man's presence. Not since-" But the Baroness did not allow herself to go back so far. "If there is any fruit I detest, it is dates," she often said laughingly. "Some people delight in a good memory-I delight in a good forgettory of the past, with its telltale milestones of birthdays and anniversaries of marriages, deaths and divorces."

"Mr Cheney said I looked very young to have been twice married. Twice!" and she laughed aloud before her mirror, revealing the pink arch of her mouth, and two perfect sets of yellow-white teeth, with only one blemishing spot of gold visible. "I wonder if he meant it, though?" she mused. "And the fact that I do wonder is the sure proof that I am really interested in this man. As a rule, I never believe a word men say, though I delight in their flattery all the same. It makes me feel comfortable even when I know they are lying. But I should really feel hurt if I thought Mr Cheney had not meant what he said. I don't believe he knows much about women, or about himself lower than his brain. He has never studied his heart. He is all ambition. If an ambitious and unsop

histicated youth of twenty-five or twenty-eight does get infatuated with a woman of my age-he is a perfect toy in her hands. Ah, well, we shall see what we shall see." And the Baroness finished her massage in cold cream, and put her blonde head on the pillow and went sound asleep.

After that first tête-à-tête supper the fair widow managed to see Preston at least once or twice a week. She sent for him to ask his advice on business matters, she asked him to aid her in changing the position of the furniture in a room when the servants were all busy, and she invited him to her private parlour for lunch every Sunday afternoon. It was during one of these chats over cake and wine that the young man spoke of Berene. The Baroness had dropped some remarks about her servants, and Preston said, in a casual tone of voice which hid the real interest he felt in the subject, "By the way, one of your servants has quite an unusual voice. I have heard her singing about the halls a few times, and it seems to me she has real talent."

"Oh, that is Miss Dumont-Berene Dumont-she is not an absolute servant," the Baroness replied; "she is a most unfortunate young woman to whom my heart went out in pity, and I have given her a home. She is really a widow, though she refuses to use her dead husband's name."

"A widow?" repeated Preston with surprise and a queer sensation of annoyance at his heart; "why, from the glimpse I had of her I thought her a young girl."

"So she is, not over twenty-one at most, and woefully ignorant for that age," the Baroness said, and then she proceeded to outline Berene's history, laying a good deal of stress upon her own charitable act in giving the girl a home.

"She is so ignorant of life, despite the fact that she has been married, and she is so uneducated and helpless, I could not bear to see her cast into the path of designing people," the Baroness said. "She has a strong craving for an education, and I give her good books to read, and good advice to ponder over, and I hope in time to come she will marry some honest fellow and settle down to a quiet, happy home life. The man who brings us butter and eggs from the country is quite fascinated with her, but she does not deign him a glance." And then the Baroness talked of other things.

But the history he had heard remained in Preston Cheney's mind and he could not drive the thought of this girl away. No wonder her eyes were sad! Better blood ran in her veins than coursed under the pink flesh of the Baroness, he would wager; she was the unfortunate victim of a combination of circumstances, which had defrauded her of the advantages of youth.

He spoke with her in the hall one morning not long after that; and then it grew to be a daily occurrence that he talked with her a few moments, and before many weeks had passed the young man approached the Baroness with a request.

"I have become interested in your protégée Miss Dumont," he said. "You have done so much for her that you have stirred my better nature and made me anxious to emulate your example. In talking with her in the hall one day I learned her great desire for a better education, and her anxiety to earn money. Now it has occurred to me that I might aid her in both ways. We need two or three more girls in our office. We need one more in the type-setting department. As The Clarion is a morning paper, and you never need Miss Dumont's services after five o'clock, she could work a few hours in the office, earn a small salary, and gain something in the way of an education also, if she were ambitious enough to do so. Nearly all my early education was gained as a printer. She tells me she is faulty in the matter of spelling, and this would be excellent training for her. You have, dear madam, inspired the girl with a desire for more knowledge, and I hope you will let me carry on the good work you have begun."

Preston had approached the matter in a way that could not fail to bring success-by flattering the vanity and pride of the Baroness. So elated was she with the agreeable references to herself, that she never suspected the young man's deep personal interest in the girl. She believed in the beginning that he was showing Berene this kind attention solely to please the mistress.

Berene entered the office as type-setter, and made such astonishing progress that she was promoted to the position of proof-reader ere six months had passed. And hour by hour, day by day, week by week, the strange influence which she had exerted on her employer, from the first moment of their meeting, grew and strengthened, until he realised with a sudden terror that his whole being was becoming absorbed by an intense passion for the girl.

Meantime the Baroness was growing embarrassing in her attentions. The young man was not conceited, nor prone to regard himself as an object of worship to the fair sex. He had during the first few months believed the Baroness to be amusing herself with his society. He had not flattered himself that a woman of her age, who had seen so much of the world, and whose ambitions were so unmistakable, could regard him otherwise than as a diversion.

But of late the truth had forced itself upon him that the woman wished to entangle him in a serious affair. He could not afford to jeopardise his reputation at the very outset of his career by any such entanglement, or by the appearance of one. He cast about for some excuse to leave the Palace, yet this would separate him in a measure from his association with Berene, beside incurring the enmity of the Baroness, and possibly causing Berene to suffer from her anger as well.

He seemed to be caught like a fly in a net. And again the thought of his future and his ambitions confronted him, and he felt abashed in his own eyes, as he realised how far away these ambitions had seemed of late, since he had allowed his emotions to overrule his brain.

What was this ignorant daughter of a French professor, that she should stand between him and glory, riches and power? Desperate diseases needed desperate remedies. He had been an occasional caller at the Lawrence homestead ever since he came to Beryngford. Without being conceited on the subject, he realised that Mabel Lawrence would not reject him as a suitor.

The masculine party is very dull, or the feminine very deceptive, when a man makes a mistake in his impressions on this subject.

That afternoon the young editor left his office at five o'clock and asked Miss Lawrence to be his wife.

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