MoboReader > Literature > An Ambitious Man

   Chapter 5 No.5

An Ambitious Man By Ella Wheeler Wilcox Characters: 15000

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

One of the greatest factors in the preservation of the Baroness's beauty had been her ability to sleep under all conditions. The woman who can and does sleep eight or nine hours out of each twenty-four is well armed against the onslaught of time and trouble.

To say that such women do not possess heart enough or feeling enough to suffer is ofttimes most untrue.

Insomnia is a disease of the nerves or of the stomach, rather than the result of extreme emotion. Sometimes the people who sleep the most profoundly at night in times of sorrow, suffer the more intensely during their waking hours. Disguised as a friend, deceitful Slumber comes to them only to strengthen their powers of suffering, and to lend a new edge to pain.

The Baroness was not without feeling. Her temperament was far from phlegmatic. She had experienced great cyclones of grief and loss in her varied career, though many years had elapsed since she had known what the French call a "white night."

But the night following her interview with Preston Cheney she never closed her eyes in sleep. It was in vain that she tried all known recipes for producing slumber. She said the alphabet backward ten times; she counted one thousand; she conjured up visions of sheep jumping the time-honoured fence in battalions, yet the sleep god never once drew near.

"I am certainly a brilliant illustration of the saying that there is no fool like an old fool," she said to herself as the night wore on, and the strange sensation of pain and loss which Preston Cheney's unexpected announcement had caused her gnawed at her breast like a rat in a wainscot.

That she had been unusually interested in the young editor she knew from the first; that she had been mortally wounded by Cupid's shaft she only now discovered. She had passed through a divorce, two "affairs" and a legitimate widowhood, without feeling any of the keen emotions which now drove sleep from her eyes. A long time ago, longer than she cared to remember, she had experienced such emotions, but she had supposed such folly only possible in the high tide of early youth. It was absurd, nay more, it was ridiculous to lie awake at her time of life thinking about a penniless country youth whose mother she might almost have been. In this bitterly frank fashion the Baroness reasoned with herself as she lay quite still in her luxurious bed, and tried to sleep.

Yet despite her frankness, her philosophy and her reasoning, the rasping hurt at her heart remained-a hurt so cruel it seemed to her the end of all peace or pleasure in life.

It is harder to bear the suffocating heat of a late September day which the year sometimes brings, than all the burning June suns.

The Baroness heard the click of Preston's key in the street door, and she listened to his slow step as he ascended the stairs. She heard him pause, too, and waited for the sound of the opening of his room door, which was situated exactly above her own. But she listened in vain, her ears, brain and heart on the alert with surprise, curiosity, and at last suspicion. The Baroness was as full of curiosity as a cat.

It was not until just before dawn that she heard his step in the hall, and his door open and close.

An hour later a sharp ring came at the street door bell. A message for Mr Preston, the servant said, in answer to her mistress's question as she descended from the room above.

"Was Mr Preston awake when you rapped on his door?" asked the Baroness.

"Yes, madame, awake and dressed."

Mr Preston ran hurriedly through the halls and out to the street a moment later; and the Baroness, clothed in a dressing-gown and silken slippers, tiptoed lightly to his room. The bed had not been occupied the whole night. On the table lay a note which the young man had begun when interrupted by the message which he had thrown down beside it.

The Baroness glanced at the note, on which the ink was still moist, and read, "My dear Miss Lawrence, I want you to release me from the ties formed only yesterday-I am basely unworthy-" here the note ended. She now turned her attention to the message which had prevented the completion of the letter. It was signed by Judge Lawrence and ran as follows:-

"My dear Boy,-My wife was taken mortally ill this morning just before daybreak. She cannot live many hours, our physician says. Mabel is in a state of complete nervous prostration caused by the shock of this calamity. I wish you would come to us at once. I fear for my dear child's reason unless you prove able to calm and quiet her through this ordeal. Hasten then, my dear son; every moment before you arrive will seem an age of sorrow and anxiety to me.

"S. Lawrence."

A strange smile curved the corners of the Baroness's lips as she finished reading this note and tiptoed down the stairs to her own room again.

Meantime the hour for her hot water arrived, and Berene did not appear. The Baroness drank a quart of hot water every morning as a tonic for her system, and another quart after breakfast to reduce her flesh. Her excellent digestive powers and the clear condition of her blood she attributed largely to this habit.

After a few moments she rang the bell vigorously. Maggie, the chambermaid, came in answer to the call.

"Please ask Miss Dumont" (Berene was always known to the other servants as Miss Dumont) "to hurry with the hot water," the Baroness said.

"Miss Dumont has not yet come downstairs, madame."

"Not come down? Then will you please call her, Maggie?"

The Baroness was always polite to her servants. She had observed that a graciousness of speech toward her servants often made up for a deficiency in wages. Maggie ascended to Miss Dumont's room, and returned with the information that Miss Dumont had a severe headache, and begged the indulgence of madame this morning.

Again that strange smile curved the corners of the Baroness's lips.

Maggie was requested to bring up hot water and coffee, and great was her surprise to find the Baroness moving about the room when she appeared with the tray.

Half-an-hour later Berene Dumont, standing by an open window with her hands clasped behind her head, heard a light tap on her door. In answer to a mechanical "Come," the Baroness appeared.

The rustle of her silken morning gown caused Berene to turn suddenly and face her; and as she met the eyes of her visitor the young woman's pallor gave place to a wave of deep crimson, which dyed her face and neck like the shadow of a red flag falling on a camellia blossom.

"Maggie tells me you are ill this morning," the Baroness remarked after a moment's silence. "I am surprised to find you up and dressed. I came to see if I could do anything for you."

"You are very kind," Berene answered, while in her heart she thought how cruel was the expression in the face of the woman before her, and how faded she appeared in the morning light. "But I think I shall be quite well in a little while, I only need to keep quiet for a few hours."

"I fear you passed a sleepless night," the Baroness remarked with a solicitous tone, but with the same cruel smile upon her lips. "I see you never opened your bed. Something must have been in the air to keep us all awake. I did not sleep an hour, and Mr Cheney never entered his room till near morning. Yet I can understand his wakefulness-he announced his engagement to Miss Mabel Lawrence to me last evening, and a young man is not expected to woo sleep easily after tak

ing such an important step as that. Judge Lawrence sent for him a few hours ago to come and support Miss Mabel during the trial that the day is to bring them in the death of Mrs Lawrence. The physician has predicted the poor invalid's near end. Sorrow follows close on joy in this life."

There was a moment's silence; then Miss Dumont said: "I think I will try to get a little sleep now, madame. I thank you for your kind interest in me."

The Baroness descended to her room humming an air from an old opera, and settled to the task of removing as much as possible all evidences of fatigue and sleeplessness from her countenance.

It has been said very prettily of the spruce-tree, that it keeps the secret of its greenness well; so well that we hardly know when it sheds its leaves. There are women who resemble the spruce in their perennial youth, and the vigilance with which they guard the secret of it. The Baroness was one of these. Only her mirror shared this secret.

She was an adept at the art of preservation, and greatly as she disliked physical exertion, she toiled laboriously over her own person an hour at least every day, and never employed a maid to assist her. One's rival might buy one's maid, she reasoned, and it was well to have no confidant in these matters.

She slipped off her dressing-gown and corset and set herself to the task of pinching and mauling her throat, arms and shoulders, to remove superfluous flesh, and strengthen muscles and fibres to resist the flabby tendencies which time produces. Then she used the dumb-bells vigorously for fifteen minutes, and that was followed by five minutes of relaxation. Next she lay on the floor flat upon her face, her arms across her back, and lifted her head and chest twenty-five times. This exercise was to replace flesh with muscle across the abdomen. Then she rose to her feet, set her small heels together, turned her toes out squarely, and, keeping her body upright bent her knees out in a line with her hips, sinking and rising rapidly fifteen times. This produced pliancy of the body, and induced a healthy condition of the loins and adjacent organs.

To further fight against the deadly enemy of obesity, she lifted her arms above her head slowly until she touched her finger tips, at the same time rising upon her tiptoes, while she inhaled a long breath, and as slowly dropped to her heels, and lowered her arms while she exhaled her breath. While these exercises had been taking place, a tin cup of water had been coming to the boiling point over an alcohol lamp. This was now poured into a china bowl containing a small quantity of sweet milk, which was always brought on her breakfast tray.

The Baroness seated herself before her mirror, in a glare of cruel light which revealed every blemish in her complexion, every line about the mouth and eyes.

"You are really hideously passée, mon amie," she observed as she peered at herself searchingly; "but we will remedy all that."

Dipping a soft linen handkerchief in the bowl of steaming milk and water, she applied it to her face, holding it closely over the brow and eyes and about the mouth, until every pore was saturated and every weary drawn tissue fed and strengthened by the tonic. After this she dashed ice-cold water over her face. Still there were little folds at the corners of the eyelids, and an ugly line across the brow, and these were manipulated with painstaking care, and treated with mysterious oils and fragrant astringents and finally washed in cool toilet water and lightly brushed with powder, until at the end of an hour's labour, the face of the Baroness had resumed its roseleaf bloom and transparent smoothness for which she was so famous. And when by the closest inspection at the mirror, in the broadest light, she saw no flaw in skin, hair, or teeth, the Baroness proceeded to dress for a drive. Even the most jealous rival would have been obliged to concede that she looked like a woman of twenty-eight, that most fascinating of all ages, as she took her seat in the carriage.

In the early days of her life in Beryngford, when as the Baroness Le Fevre she had led society in the little town, Mrs Lawrence had been one of her most devoted friends; Judge Lawrence one of her most earnest, if silent admirers. As "Baroness Brown" and as the landlady of "The Palace" she had still maintained her position as friend of the family, and the Lawrences, secure in their wealth and power, had allowed her to do so, where some of the lower social lights had dropped her from their visiting lists.

The Baroness seemed to exercise a sort of hypnotic power over the fretful, nervous invalid who shared Judge Lawrence's name, and this influence was not wholly lost upon the Judge himself, who never looked upon the Baroness's abundant charms, glowing with health, without giving vent to a profound sigh like some hungry child standing before a confectioner's window.

The news of Mrs Lawrence's dangerous illness was voiced about the town by noon, and therefore the Baroness felt safe in calling at the door to make inquiries, and to offer any assistance which she might be able to render. Knowing her intimate relations with the mistress of the house, the servant admitted her to the parlour and announced her presence to Judge Lawrence, who left the bedside of the invalid to tell the caller in person that Mrs Lawrence had fallen into a peaceful slumber, and that slight hopes were entertained of her possible recovery. Scarcely had the words passed his lips, however, when the nurse in attendance hurriedly called him. "Mrs Lawrence is dead!" she cried. "She breathed only twice after you left the room."

The Baroness, shocked and startled, rose to go, feeling that her presence longer would be an intrusion.

"Do not go," cried the Judge in tones of distress. "Mabel is nearly distracted, and this news will excite her still further. We thought this morning that she was on the verge of serious mental disorder. I sent for her fiancé, Mr Cheney, and he has calmed her somewhat. You always exerted a soothing and restful influence over my wife, and you may have the same power with Mabel. Stay with us, I beg of you, through the afternoon at least."

The Baroness sent her carriage home and remained in the Lawrence mansion until the following morning. The condition of Miss Lawrence was indeed serious. She passed from one attack of hysteria to another, and it required the constant attention of her fiancé and her mother's friend to keep her from acts of violence.

It was after midnight when she at last fell asleep, and Preston Cheney in a state of complete exhaustion was shown to a room, while the Baroness remained at the bedside of Miss Lawrence.

When the Baroness and Mr Cheney returned to the Palace they were struck with consternation to learn that Miss Dumont had packed her trunk and departed from Beryngford on the three o'clock train the previous day.

A brief note thanking the Baroness for her kindness, and stating that she had imposed upon that kindness quite too long, was her only farewell. There was no allusion to her plans or her destination, and all inquiry and secret search failed to find one trace of her. She seemed to vanish like a phantom from the face of the earth.

No one had seen her leave the Palace, save the laundress, Mrs Connor; and little this humble personage dreamed that Fate was reserving for her an important r?le in the drama of a life as yet unborn.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top