The days that had been passing brought Frank Cowperwood and Aileen Butler somewhat closer together in spirit. Because of the pressure of his growing affairs he had not paid so much attention to her as he might have, but he had seen her often this past year. She was now nineteen and had grown into some subtle thoughts of her own. For one thing, she was beginning to see the difference between good taste and bad taste in houses and furnishings.
“Papa, why do we stay in this old barn?” she asked her father one evening at dinner, when the usual family group was seated at the table.
“What’s the matter with this house, I’d like to know?” demanded Butler, who was drawn up close to the table, his napkin tucked comfortably under his chin, for he insisted on this when company was not present. “I don’t see anything the matter with this house. Your mother and I manage to live in it well enough.”
“Oh, it’s terrible, papa. You know it,” supplemented Norah, who was seventeen and quite as bright as her sister, though a little less experienced. “Everybody says so. Look at all the nice houses that are being built everywhere about here.”
“Everybody! Everybody! Who is ‘everybody,’ I’d like to know?” demanded Butler, with the faintest touch of choler and much humor. “I’m somebody, and I like it. Those that don’t like it don’t have to live in it. Who are they? What’s the matter with it, I’d like to know?”
The question in just this form had been up a number of times before, and had been handled in just this manner, or passed over entirely with a healthy Irish grin. To-night, however, it was destined for a little more extended thought.
“You know it’s bad, papa,” corrected Aileen, firmly. “Now what’s the use getting mad about it? It’s old and cheap and dingy. The furniture is all worn out. That old piano in there ought to be given away. I won’t play on it any more. The Cowperwoods—”
“Old is it!” exclaimed Butler, his accent sharpening somewhat with his self-induced rage. He almost pronounced it “owled.” “Dingy, hi! Where do you get that? At your convent, I suppose. And where is it worn? Show me where it’s worn.”
He was coming to her reference to Cowperwood, but he hadn’t reached that when Mrs. Butler interfered. She was a stout, broad-faced woman, smiling-mouthed most of the time, with blurry, gray Irish eyes, and a touch of red in her hair, now modified by grayness. Her cheek, below the mouth, on the left side, was sharply accented by a large wen.
“Children! children!” (Mr. Butler, for all his commercial and political responsibility, was as much a child to her as any.) “Youse mustn’t quarrel now. Come now. Give your father the tomatoes.”
There was an Irish maid serving at table; but plates were passed from one to the other just the same. A heavily ornamented chandelier, holding sixteen imitation candles in white porcelain, hung low over the table and was brightly lighted, another offense to Aileen.
“Mama, how often have I told you not to say ‘youse’?” pleaded Norah, very much disheartened by her mother’s grammatical errors. “You know you said you wouldn’t.”
“And who’s to tell your mother what she should say?” called Butler, more incensed than ever at this sudden and unwarranted rebellion and assault. “Your mother talked before ever you was born, I’d have you know. If it weren’t for her workin’ and slavin’ you wouldn’t have any fine manners to be paradin’ before her. I’d have you know that. She’s a better woman nor any you’ll be runnin’ with this day, you little baggage, you!”
“Mama, do you hear what he’s calling me?” complained Norah, hugging close to her mother’s arm and pretending fear and dissatisfaction.
“Eddie! Eddie!” cautioned Mrs. Butler, pleading with her husband. “You know he don’t mean that, Norah, dear. Don’t you know he don’t?”
She was stroking her baby’s head. The reference to her grammar had not touched her at all.
Butler was sorry that he had called his youngest a baggage; but these children—God bless his soul—were a great annoyance. Why, in the name of all the saints, wasn’t this house good enough for them?
“Why don’t you people quit fussing at the table?” observed Callum, a likely youth, with black hair laid smoothly over his forehead in a long, distinguished layer reaching from his left to close to his right ear, and his upper lip carrying a short, crisp mustache. His nose was short and retrousse, and his ears were rather prominent; but he was bright and attractive. He and Owen both realized that the house was old and poorly arranged; but their father and mother liked it, and business sense and family peace dictated silence on this score.
“Well, I think it’s mean to have to live in this old place when people not one-fourth as good as we are are living in better ones. The Cowperwoods—why, even the Cowperwoods—”
“Yes, the Cowperwoods! What about the Cowperwoods?” demanded Butler, turning squarely to Aileen—she was sitting beside him—-his big, red face glowing.
“Why, even they have a better house than we have, and he’s merely an agent of yours.”
“The Cowperwoods! The Cowperwoods! I’ll not have any talk about the Cowperwoods. I’m not takin’ my rules from the Cowperwoods. Suppose they have a fine house, what of it? My house is my house. I want to live here. I’ve lived here too long to be pickin’ up and movin’ away. If you don’t like it you know what else you can do. Move if you want to. I’ll not move.”
It was Butler’s habit when he became involved in these family quarrels, which were as shallow as puddles, to wave his hands rather antagonistically under his wife’s or his children’s noses.
“Oh, well, I will get out one of these days,” Aileen replied. “Thank heaven I won’t have to live here forever.”
There flashed across her mind the beautiful reception-room, library, parlor, and boudoirs of the Cowperwoods, which were now being arranged and about which Anna Cowperwood talked to her so much—their dainty, lovely triangular grand piano in gold and painted pink and blue. Why couldn’t they have things like that? Her father was unquestionably a dozen times as wealthy. But no, her father, whom she loved dearly, was of the old school. He was just what people charged him with being, a rough Irish contractor. He might be rich. She flared up at the injustice of things—why couldn’t he have been rich and refined, too? Then they could have—but, oh, what was the use of complaining? They would never get anywhere with her father and mother in charge. She would just have to wait. Marriage was the answer—the right marriage. But whom was she to marry?
“You surely are not going to go on fighting about that now,” pleaded Mrs. Butler, as strong and patient as fate itself. She knew where Aileen’s trouble lay.
“But we might have a decent house,” insisted Aileen. “Or this one done over,” whispered Norah to her mother.
“Hush now! In good time,” replied Mrs. Butler to Norah. “Wait. We’ll fix it all up some day, sure. You run to your lessons now. You’ve had enough.”
Norah arose and left. Aileen subsided. Her father was simply stubborn and impossible. And yet he was sweet, too. She pouted in order to compel him to apologize.
“Come now,” he said, after they had left the table, and conscious of the fact that his daughter was dissatisfied with him. He must do something to placate her. “Play me somethin’ on the piano, somethin’ nice.” He preferred showy, clattery things which exhibited her skill and muscular ability and left him wondering how she did it. That was what education was for—to enable her to play these very difficult things quickly and forcefully. “And you can have a new piano any time you like. Go and see about it. This looks pretty good to me, but if you don’t want it, all right.” Aileen squeezed his arm. What was the use of arguing with her father? What good would a lone piano do, when the whole house and the whole family atmosphere were at fault? But she played Schumann, Schubert, Offenbach, Chopin, and the old gentleman strolled to and fro and mused, smiling. There was real feeling and a thoughtful interpretation given to some of these things, for Aileen was not without sentiment, though she was so strong, vigorous, and withal so defiant; but it was all lost on him. He looked on her, his bright, healthy, enticingly beautiful daughter, and wondered what was going to become of her. Some rich man was going to many her—some fine, rich young man with good business instincts—and he, her father, would leave her a lot of money.
There was a reception and a dance to be given to celebrate the opening of the two Cowperwood homes—the reception to be held in Frank Cowperwood’s residence, and the dance later at his father’s. The Henry Cowperwood domicile was much more pretentious, the reception-room, parlor, music-room, and conservatory being in this case all on the ground floor and much larger. Ellsworth had arranged it so that those rooms, on occasion, could be thrown into one, leaving excellent space for promenade, auditorium, dancing—anything, in fact, that a large company might require. It had been the intention all along of the two men to use these houses jointly. There was, to begin with, a combination use of the various servants, the butler, gardener, laundress, and maids. Frank Cowperwood employed a governess for his children. The butler was really not a butler in the best sense. He was Henry Cowperwood’s private servitor. But he could carve and preside, and he could be used in either house as occasion warranted. There was also a hostler and a coachman for the joint stable. When two carriages were required at once, both drove. It made a very agreeable and satisfactory working arrangement.
The preparation of this reception had been quite a matter of importance, for it was necessary for financial reasons to make it as extensive as possible, and for social reasons as exclusive. It was therefore decided that the afternoon reception at Frank’s house, with its natural overflow into Henry W.‘s, was to be for all—the Tighes, Steners, Butlers, Mollenhauers, as well as the more select groups to which, for instance, belonged Arthur Rivers, Mrs. Seneca Davis, Mr. and Mrs. Trenor Drake, and some of the younger Drexels and Clarks, whom Frank had met. It was not likely that the latter would condescend, but cards had to be sent. Later in the evening a less democratic group if possible was to be entertained, albeit it would have to be extended to include the friends of Anna, Mrs. Cowperwood, Edward, and Joseph, and any list which Frank might personally have in mind. This was to be the list. The best that could be persuaded, commanded, or influenced of the young and socially elect were to be invited here.
It was not possible, however, not to invite the Butlers, parents and children, particularly the children, for both afternoon and evening, since Cowperwood was personally attracted to Aileen and despite the fact that the presence of the parents would be most unsatisfactory. Even Aileen as he knew was a little unsatisfactory to Anna and Mrs. Frank Cowperwood; and these two, when they were together supervising the list of invitations, often talked about it.
“She’s so hoidenish,” observed Anna, to her sister-in-law, when they came to the name of Aileen. “She thinks she knows so much, and she isn’t a bit refined. Her father! Well, if I had her father I wouldn’t talk so smart.”
Mrs. Cowperwood, who was before her secretaire in her new boudoir, lifted her eyebrows.
“You know, Anna, I sometimes wish that Frank’s business did not compel me to have anything to do with them. Mrs. Butler is such a bore. She means well enough, but she doesn’t know anything. And Aileen is too rough. She’s too forward, I think. She comes over here and plays upon the piano, particularly when Frank’s here. I wouldn’t mind so much for myself, but I know it must annoy him. All her pieces are so noisy. She never plays anything really delicate and refined.”
“I don’t like the way she dresses,” observed Anna, sympathetically. “She gets herself up too conspicuously. Now, the other day I saw her out driving, and oh, dear! you should have seen her! She had on a crimson Zouave jacket heavily braided with black about the edges, and a turban with a huge crimson feather, and crimson ribbons reaching nearly to her waist. Imagine that kind of a hat to drive in. And her hands! You should have seen the way she held her hands—oh—just so—self-consciously. They were curved just so”—and she showed how. “She had on yellow gauntlets, and she held the reins in one hand and the whip in the other. She drives just like mad when she drives, anyhow, and William, the footman, was up behind her. You should just have seen her. Oh, dear! oh, dear! she does think she is so much!” And Anna giggled, half in reproach, half in amusement.
“I suppose we’ll have to invite her; I don’t see how we can get out of it. I know just how she’ll do, though. She’ll walk about and pose and hold her nose up.”
“Really, I don’t see how she can,” commented Anna. “Now, I like Norah. She’s much nicer. She doesn’t think she’s so much.”
“I like Norah, too,” added Mrs. Cowperwood. “She’s really very sweet, and to me she’s prettier.”
“Oh, indeed, I think so, too.”
It was curious, though, that it was Aileen who commanded nearly all their attention and fixed their minds on her so-called idiosyncrasies. All they said was in its peculiar way true; but in addition the girl was really beautiful and much above the average intelligence and force. She was running deep with ambition, and she was all the more conspicuous, and in a way irritating to some, because she reflected in her own consciousness her social defects, against which she was inwardly fighting. She resented the fact that people could justly consider her parents ineligible, and for that reason her also. She was intrinsically as worth while as any one. Cowperwood, so able, and rapidly becoming so distinguished, seemed to realize it. The days that had been passing had brought them somewhat closer together in spirit. He was nice to her and liked to talk to her. Whenever he was at her home now, or she was at his and he was present, he managed somehow to say a word. He would come over quite near and look at her in a warm friendly fashion.
“Well, Aileen”—she could see his genial eyes—“how is it with you? How are your father and mother? Been out driving? That’s fine. I saw you to-day. You looked beautiful.”
“Oh, Mr. Cowperwood!”
“You did. You looked stunning. A black riding-habit becomes you. I can tell your gold hair a long way off.”
“Oh, now, you mustn’t say that to me. You’ll make me vain. My mother and father tell me I’m too vain as it is.”
“Never mind your mother and father. I say you looked stunning, and you did. You always do.”
She gave a little gasp of delight. The color mounted to her cheeks and temples. Mr. Cowperwood knew of course. He was so informed and intensely forceful. And already he was so much admired by so many, her own father and mother included, and by Mr. Mollenhauer and Mr. Simpson, so she heard. And his own home and office were so beautiful. Besides, his quiet intensity matched her restless force.
Aileen and her sister were accordingly invited to the reception but the Butlers mere and pere were given to understand, in as tactful a manner as possible, that the dance afterward was principally for young people.
The reception brought a throng of people. There were many, very many, introductions. There were tactful descriptions of little effects Mr. Ellsworth had achieved under rather trying circumstances; walks under the pergola; viewings of both homes in detail. Many of the guests were old friends. They gathered in the libraries and dining-rooms and talked. There was much jesting, some slappings of shoulders, some good story-telling, and so the afternoon waned into evening, and they went away.
Aileen had created an impression in a street costume of dark blue silk with velvet pelisse to match, and trimmed with elaborate pleatings and shirrings of the same materials. A toque of blue velvet, with high crown and one large dark-red imitation orchid, had given her a jaunty, dashing air. Beneath the toque her red-gold hair was arranged in an enormous chignon, with one long curl escaping over her collar. She was not exactly as daring as she seemed, but she loved to give that impression.
“You look wonderful,” Cowperwood said as she passed him.
“I’ll look different to-night,” was her answer.
She had swung herself with a slight, swaggering stride into the dining-room and disappeared. Norah and her mother stayed to chat with Mrs. Cowperwood.
“Well, it’s lovely now, isn’t it?” breathed Mrs. Butler. “Sure you’ll be happy here. Sure you will. When Eddie fixed the house we’re in now, says I: ‘Eddie, it’s almost too fine for us altogether—surely it is,’ and he says, says ‘e, ‘Norah, nothin’ this side o’ heavin or beyond is too good for ye’—and he kissed me. Now what d’ye think of that fer a big, hulkin’ gossoon?”
“It’s perfectly lovely, I think, Mrs. Butler,” commented Mrs. Cowperwood, a little bit nervous because of others.
“Mama does love to talk so. Come on, mama. Let’s look at the dining-room.” It was Norah talking.
“Well, may ye always be happy in it. I wish ye that. I’ve always been happy in mine. May ye always be happy.” And she waddled good-naturedly along.
The Cowperwood family dined hastily alone between seven and eight. At nine the evening guests began to arrive, and now the throng was of a different complexion—girls in mauve and cream-white and salmon-pink and silver-gray, laying aside lace shawls and loose dolmans, and the men in smooth black helping them. Outside in the cold, the carriage doors were slamming, and new guests were arriving constantly. Mrs. Cowperwood stood with her husband and Anna in the main entrance to the reception room, while Joseph and Edward Cowperwood and Mr. and Mrs. Henry W. Cowperwood lingered in the background. Lillian looked charming in a train gown of old rose, with a low, square neck showing a delicate chemisette of fine lace. Her face and figure were still notable, though her face was not as smoothly sweet as it had been years before when Cowperwood had first met her. Anna Cowperwood was not pretty, though she could not be said to be homely. She was small and dark, with a turned-up nose, snapping black eyes, a pert, inquisitive, intelligent, and alas, somewhat critical, air. She had considerable tact in the matter of dressing. Black, in spite of her darkness, with shining beads of sequins on it, helped her complexion greatly, as did a red rose in her hair. She had smooth, white well-rounded arms and shoulders. Bright eyes, a pert manner, clever remarks—these assisted to create an illusion of charm, though, as she often said, it was of little use. “Men want the dolly things.”
In the evening inpour of young men and women came Aileen and Norah, the former throwing off a thin net veil of black lace and a dolman of black silk, which her brother Owen took from her. Norah was with Callum, a straight, erect, smiling young Irishman, who looked as though he might carve a notable career for himself. She wore a short, girlish dress that came to a little below her shoe-tops, a pale-figured lavender and white silk, with a fluffy hoop-skirt of dainty laced-edged ruffles, against which tiny bows of lavender stood out in odd places. There was a great sash of lavender about her waist, and in her hair a rosette of the same color. She looked exceedingly winsome—eager and bright-eyed.
But behind her was her sister in ravishing black satin, scaled as a fish with glistening crimsoned-silver sequins, her round, smooth arms bare to the shoulders, her corsage cut as low in the front and back as her daring, in relation to her sense of the proprieties, permitted. She was naturally of exquisite figure, erect, full-breasted, with somewhat more than gently swelling hips, which, nevertheless, melted into lovely, harmonious lines; and this low-cut corsage, receding back and front into a deep V, above a short, gracefully draped overskirt of black tulle and silver tissue, set her off to perfection. Her full, smooth, roundly modeled neck was enhanced in its cream-pink whiteness by an inch-wide necklet of black jet cut in many faceted black squares. Her complexion, naturally high in tone because of the pink of health, was enhanced by the tiniest speck of black court-plaster laid upon her cheekbone; and her hair, heightened in its reddish-gold by her dress, was fluffed loosely and adroitly about her eyes. The main mass of this treasure was done in two loose braids caught up in a black spangled net at the back of her neck; and her eyebrows had been emphasized by a pencil into something almost as significant as her hair. She was, for the occasion, a little too emphatic, perhaps, and yet more because of her burning vitality than of her costume. Art for her should have meant subduing her physical and spiritual significance. Life for her meant emphasizing them.
“Lillian!” Anna nudged her sister-in-law. She was grieved to think that Aileen was wearing black and looked so much better than either of them.
“I see,” Lillian replied, in a subdued tone.
“So you’re back again.” She was addressing Aileen. “It’s chilly out, isn’t it?”
“I don’t mind. Don’t the rooms look lovely?”
She was gazing at the softly lighted chambers and the throng before her.
Norah began to babble to Anna. “You know, I just thought I never would get this old thing on.” She was speaking of her dress. “Aileen wouldn’t help me—the mean thing!”
Aileen had swept on to Cowperwood and his mother, who was near him. She had removed from her arm the black satin ribbon which held her train and kicked the skirts loose and free. Her eyes gleamed almost pleadingly for all her hauteur, like a spirited collie’s, and her even teeth showed beautifully.
Cowperwood understood her precisely, as he did any fine, spirited animal.
“I can’t tell you how nice you look,” he whispered to her, familiarly, as though there was an old understanding between them. “You’re like fire and song.”
He did not know why he said this. He was not especially poetic. He had not formulated the phrase beforehand. Since his first glimpse of her in the hall, his feelings and ideas had been leaping and plunging like spirited horses. This girl made him set his teeth and narrow his eyes. Involuntarily he squared his jaw, looking more defiant, forceful, efficient, as she drew near.
But Aileen and her sister were almost instantly surrounded by young men seeking to be introduced and to write their names on dance-cards, and for the time being she was lost to view.