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   Chapter 4 No.4

An Ambitious Man By Ella Wheeler Wilcox Characters: 10878

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Preston Cheney walked briskly down the street after he left his fiancée, his steps directed toward the Palace. It was seven o'clock, and he knew the Baroness would be at home.

He had determined upon heroic treatment for his own mental disease (as he regarded his peculiar sentiments toward Berene Dumont), and he had decided upon a similar course of treatment for the Baroness.

He would confide his engagement to her at once, and thus put an end to his embarrassing position in the Palace, as well as to establish his betrothal as a fact-and to force himself to so regard it. It was strange reasoning for a young man in the very first hour of his new r?le of bridegroom elect, but this particular groom elect had deliberately placed himself in a peculiar position, and his reasoning was not, of course, that of an ardent and happy lover.

Already he was galled by his new fetters; already he was feeling a sense of repulsion toward the woman he had asked to be his wife: and because of these feelings he was more eager to nail himself hand and foot to the cross he had builded.

He was obliged to wait some time before the Baroness came into the reception-room; and when she came he observed that she had made an elaborate toilet in his honour. Her sumptuous shoulders billowed over the low-cut blue corsage like apple-dumplings over a china dish. Her waist was drawn in to an hourglass taper, while her ample hips spread out beneath like the heavy mason work which supports a slender column. Tiny feet encased in pretty slippers peeping from beneath her silken skirts looked oddly out of proportion with the rest of her generous personality, and reminded Preston of the grotesque cuts in the humorous weeklies, where well-known politicians were represented with large heads and small extremities. Artistic by nature, and with an eye to form, he had never admired the Baroness's type of beauty, which was the theme of admiration for nearly every other man in Beryngford. Her face, with its infantine colouring, its large, innocent azure eyes, and its short retroussé features, he conceded to be captivatingly pretty, however, and it seemed unusually so this evening. Perhaps because he had so recently looked upon the sharp, sallow face of his fiancée.

Preston frequently came to his room about this hour, after having dined and before going to the office for his final duties; but he seldom saw the Baroness on these occasions, unless through her own design.

"You were surprised to receive my message, no doubt, saying I wished to see you," he began. "But I have something I feel I ought to tell you, as it may make some changes in my habits, and will of course eventually take me away from these pleasant associations." He paused for a second, and the Baroness, who had seated herself on the divan at his side, leaned forward and looked inquiringly in his face.

"You are going away?" she asked, with a tremor in her voice. "Is it not very sudden?"

"No, I am not going away," he replied, "not from Beryngford-but I shall doubtless leave your house ere many months. I am engaged to be married to Miss Mabel Lawrence. You are the first person to whom I have imparted the news, but you have been so kind, and I feel that you ought to know it in time to secure a desirable tenant for my room."

Again there was a pause. The rosy face of the Baroness had grown quite pale, and an unpleasant expression had settled about the corners of her small mouth. She waved a feather fan to and fro languidly. Then she gave a slight laugh and said:

"Well, I must confess that I am surprised. Miss Lawrence is the last woman in the world whom I would have imagined you to select as a wife. Yet I congratulate you on your good sense. You are very ambitious, and you can rise to great distinction if you have the right influence to aid you. Judge Lawrence, with his wealth and position, is of all men the one who can advance your interests, and what more natural than that he should advance the interests of his son-in-law? You are a very wise youth and I again congratulate you. No romantic folly will ever ruin your life."

There was irony and ridicule in her voice and face, and the young man felt his cheek tingle with anger and humiliation. The Baroness had read him like an open book-as everyone else doubtless would do. It was bitterly galling to his pride, but there was nothing to do, save to keep a bold front, and carry out his r?le with as much dignity as possible.

He rose, spoke a few formal words of thanks to the Baroness for her kindness to him, and bowed himself from her presence, carrying with him down the street the memory of her mocking eyes.

As he entered his private office, he was amazed to see Berene Dumont sitting in his chair fast asleep, her head framed by her folded arms, which rested on his desk. Against the dark maroon of her sleeve, her classic face was outlined like a marble statuette. Her long lashes swept her cheek, and in the attitude in which she sat, her graceful, perfectly-proportioned figure displayed each beautiful curve to the best advantage.

To a noble nature, the sight of even an enemy asleep, awakes softening emotions, while the sight of a loved being in the unconsciousness of slumber stirs the fountain of affection to its very depths.

As the young editor looked upon the girl before him, a passion of yearning love took possession of him. A wild desire to se

ize her in his arms and cover her pale face with kisses, made his heart throb to suffocation and brought cold beads to his brow; and just as these feelings gained an almost uncontrollable dominion over his reason, will and judgment, the girl awoke and started to her feet in confusion.

"Oh, Mr Cheney, pray forgive me!" she cried, looking more beautiful than ever with the flush which overspread her face. "I came in to ask about a word in your editorial which I could not decipher. I waited for you, as I felt sure you would be in shortly-and I was so tired I sat down for just a second to rest-and that is all I knew about it. You must forgive me, sir!-I did not mean to intrude."

Her confusion, her appealing eyes, her magnetic voice were all fuel to the fire raging in the young man's heart. Now that she was for ever lost to him through his own deliberate action, she seemed tenfold more dear and to be desired. Brain, soul, and body all seemed to crave her; he took a step forward, and drew in a quick breath as if to speak; and then a sudden sense of his own danger, and an overwhelming disgust for his weakness swept over him, and the intense passion the girl had aroused in his heart changed to unreasonable anger.

"Miss Dumont," he said coldly, "I think we will have to dispense with your services after to-night. Your duties are evidently too hard for you. You can leave the office at any time you wish. Good-night."

The girl shrank as if he had struck her, looked up at him with wide, wondering eyes, waited for a moment as if expecting to be recalled, then, as Mr Cheney wheeled his chair about and turned his back upon her, she suddenly sped away without a word.

She left the office a few moments later; but it was not until after eleven o'clock that she dragged herself up two flights of stairs toward her room on the attic floor at the Palace. She had been walking the streets like a mad creature all that intervening time, trying to still the agonising pain in her heart. Preston Cheney had long been her ideal of all that was noble, grand and good, she worshipped him as devout pagans worshipped their sacred idols; and, without knowing it, she gave him the absorbing passion which an intense woman gives to her lover.

It was only now that he had treated her with such rough brutality, and discharged her from his employ for so slight a cause, that the knowledge burst upon her tortured heart of all he was to her.

She paused at the foot of the third and last flight of stairs with a strange dizziness in her head and a sinking sensation at her heart.

A little less than half-an-hour afterwards Preston Cheney unlocked the street door and came in for the night. He had done double his usual amount of work and had finished his duties earlier than usual. To avoid thinking after he sent Berene away, he had turned to his desk and plunged into his labour with feverish intensity. He wrote a particularly savage editorial on the matter of over-immigration, and his leaders on political questions of the day were all tinctured with a bitterness and sarcasm quite new to his pen. At midnight that pen dropped from his nerveless hand, and he made his way toward the Palace in a most unenviable state of mind and body.

Yet he believed he had done the right thing both in engaging himself to Miss Lawrence and in discharging Berene. Her constant presence about the office was of all things the most undesirable in his new position.

"But I might have done it in a decent manner if I had not lost all control of myself," he said as he walked home. "It was brutal the way I spoke to her; poor child, she looked as if I had beat her with a bludgeon. Well, it is just as well perhaps that I gave her good reason to despise me."

Since Berene had gone into the young man's office as an employé her good taste and another reason had caused her to avoid him as much as possible in the house. He seldom saw more than a passing glimpse of her in the halls, and frequently whole days elapsed that he met her only in the office. The young man never suspected that this fact was due in great part to the suggestion of jealousy in the manner of the Baroness toward the young girl ever after he had shown so much interest in her welfare. Sensitive to the mental atmosphere about her, as a wind harp to the lightest breeze, Berene felt this unexpressed sentiment in the breast of her "benefactress" and strove to avoid anything which could aggravate it.

With a lagging step and a listless air, Preston made his way up the first of two flights of stairs which intervened between the street door and his room. The first floor was in darkness; but in the upper hall a dim light was always left burning until his return. As he reached the landing, he was startled to see a woman's form lying at the foot of the attic stairs, but a few feet from the door of his room. Stooping down, he uttered a sudden exclamation of pained surprise, for it was upon the pallid, unconscious face of Berene Dumont that his eyes fell. He lifted the lithe figure in his sinewy arms, and with light, rapid steps bore her up the stairs and in through the open door of her room.

"If she is dead, I am her murderer," he thought. But at that moment she opened her eyes and looked full into his, with a gaze which made his impetuous, uncontrolled heart forget that any one or anything existed on earth but this girl and his love for her.

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