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Preston Cheney turned as he ran down the steps of a handsome house on
"The Boulevard," waving a second adieu to a young woman framed
between the lace curtains of the window. Then he hurried down the
street and out of view. The young woman watched him with a gleam of
satisfaction in her pale blue eyes. A fine-looking young fellow,
whose Roman nose and strong jaw belied the softly curved mouth with
its sensitive darts at the corners; it was strange that something
warmer than satisfaction did not shine upon the face of the woman
whom he had just asked to be his wife.

But Mabel Lawrence was one of those women who are never swayed by any
passion stronger than worldly ambition, never burned by any fires
other than those of jealousy or anger. Her meagre nature was truly
depicted in her meagre face. Nature is ofttimes a great lair and a
cruel jester, giving to the cold and vapid woman the face and form of
a sensuous siren, and concealing a heart of volcanic fires, or the
soul of a Phryne, under the exterior of a spinster. But the old dame
had been wholly frank in forming Miss Lawrence. The thin, flat chest
and narrow shoulders, the angular elbows and prominent shoulder-
blades, the sallow skin and sharp features, the deeply set, pale blue
eyes, and the lustreless, ashen hair, were all truthful exponents of
the unfurnished rooms in her vacant heart and soul places.

Miss Lawrence turned from the window, and trailed her long silken
train across the rich carpet, seating herself before the open
fireplace. It was an appropriate time and situation for a maiden's
tender dreams; only a few hours had passed since the handsomest and
most brilliant young man in that thriving eastern town had asked her
to be his wife, and placed the kiss of betrothal upon her virgin
lips. Yet it was with a sense of triumph and relief, rather than
with tenderness and rapture, that the young woman meditated upon the
situation - triumph over other women who had shown a decided interest
in Mr Cheney, since his arrival in the place more than eighteen
months ago, and relief that the dreaded role of spinster was not to
be her part in life's drama.

Miss Lawrence was twenty-six - one year older than her fiance; and she
had never received a proposal of marriage or listened to a word of
love in her life before. Let me transpose that phrase - she had never
before received a proposal of marriage, and had never in her life
listened to a word of love; for Preston had not spoken of love. She
knew that he did not love her. She knew that he had sought her hand
wholly from ambitious motives. She was the daughter of the Hon.
Sylvester Lawrence, lawyer, judge, state senator, and proposed
candidate for lieutenant-governor in the coming campaign. She was
the only heir to his large fortune.

Preston Cheney was a penniless young man from the West. A self-made
youth, with an unusual brain and an overwhelming ambition, he had
risen from chore boy on a western farm to printer's apprentice in a
small town, thence to reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent,
and after two or three years of travel gained in this manner he had
come to Beryngford and bought out a struggling morning paper, which
was making a mad effort to keep alive, changed its political
tendencies, infused it with western activity and filled it with
cosmopolitan news, and now, after eighteen months, the young man
found himself coming abreast of his two long established rivals in
the editorial field. This success was but an incentive to his
overwhelming ambition for place, power and riches. He had seen just
enough of life and of the world to estimate these things at double
their value; and he was, beside, looking at life through the
magnifying glass of youth. The Creator intended us to gaze on
worldly possessions and selfish ambitions through the small end of
the lorgnette, but youth invariably inverts the glass.

To the young editor, the brief years behind him seemed like a long
hard pull up a steep and rocky cliff. From the point to which he had
attained, the summit of his desires looked very far away, much
farther than the level from which he had arisen. To rise to that
summit single-handed and alone would require unremitting effort
through the very best years of his manhood. His brain, his strength,
his ability, his ambitions, what were they all in the strife after
place and power, compared to the money of some commonplace adversary?
Preston Cheney, the native-born American directly descended from a
Revolutionary soldier, would be handicapped in the race with some
Michael Murphy whose father had made a fortune in the saloon
business, or who had himself acquired a competency as a police

America was not the same country which gave men like Benjamin
Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley a chance to rise from
the lower ranks to the highest places before they reached middle
life. It was no longer a land where merit strove with merit, and the
prize fell to the most earnest and the most gifted. The tremendous
influx of foreign population since the war of the Rebellion and the
right of franchise given unreservedly to the illiterate and the
vicious rendered the ambitious American youth now a toy in the hands
of aliens, and position a thing to be bought at the price set by un-
American masses.

Thoughts like these had more and more with each year filled the mind
of Preston Cheney, until, like the falling of stones and earth into a
river bed, they changed the naturally direct current of his impulses
into another channel. Why not further his life purpose by an
ambitious marriage? The first time the thought entered his mind he
had cast it out as something unclean and unworthy of his manhood.
Marriage was a holy estate, he said to himself, a sacrament to be
entered into with reverence, and sanctified by love. He must love
the woman who was to be the companion of his life, the mother of his

Then he looked about among his early friends who had married, as
nearly all the young men of the middle classes in America do marry,
for love, or what they believed to be love. There was Tom Somers - a
splendid lad, full of life, hope and ambition when he married Carrie
Towne, the prettiest girl in Vandalia. Well, what was he now, after
seven years? A broken-spirited man, with a sickly, complaining wife
and a brood of ill-clad children. Harry Walters, the most infatuated
lover he had ever seen, was divorced after five years of discordant

Charlie St Clair was flagrantly unfaithful to the girl he had pursued
three years with his ardent wooings before she yielded to his suit.
Certainly none of these love marriages were examples for him to
follow. And in the midst of these reveries and reflections, Preston
Cheney came to Beryngford, and met Sylvester Lawrence and his
daughter Mabel. He met also Berene Dumont. Had he not met the
latter woman he would not have succumbed - so soon at least - to the
temptation held out by the former to advance his ambitious aims.

He would have hesitated, considered, and reconsidered, and without
doubt his better nature and his good taste would have prevailed. But
when fate threw Berene Dumont in his way, and circumstances brought
about his close associations with her for many months, there seemed
but one way of escape from the Scylla of his desires, and that was to
the Charybdis of a marriage with Miss Lawrence.

Miss Lawrence was not aware of the part Berene Dumont had played in
her engagement, but she knew perfectly the part her father's
influence and wealth had played; but she was quite content with
affairs as they were, and it mattered little to her what had brought
them about. To be married, rather than to be loved, had been her
ambition since she left school; being incapable of loving, she was
incapable of appreciating the passion in any of its phases. It had
always seemed to her that a great deal of nonsense was written and
talked about love. She thought demonstrative people very vulgar, and
believed kissing a means of conveying germs of disease.

But to be a married woman, with an establishment of her own, and a
husband to exhibit to her friends, was necessary to the maintenance
of her pride.

When Miss Lawrence's mother, a nervous invalid, was informed of her
daughter's engagement, she burst into tears, as over a lamb offered
on the altar of sacrifice; and Judge Lawrence pressed a kiss on the
lobe of Mabel's left ear which she offered him, and told her she had
won a prize in the market. But as he sat alone over his cigar that
night, he sighed heavily, and said to himself, "Poor fellow, I wish
Mabel were not so much like her mother."


"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 roue.

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.


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

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 tete-a-tete 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

"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 unsophisticated 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 tete-a-tete 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

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Online LibraryElla Wheeler WilcoxAn Ambitious Man → online text (page 1 of 10)