This definite and final understanding having been reached, it was but natural that this liaison should proceed to a closer and closer relationship. Despite her religious upbringing, Aileen was decidedly a victim of her temperament. Current religious feeling and belief could not control her. For the past nine or ten years there had been slowly forming in her mind a notion of what her lover should be like. He should be strong, handsome, direct, successful, with clear eyes, a ruddy glow of health, and a certain native understanding and sympathy—a love of life which matched her own. Many young men had approached her. Perhaps the nearest realization of her ideal was Father David, of St. Timothy’s, and he was, of course, a priest and sworn to celibacy. No word had ever passed between them but he had been as conscious of her as she of him. Then came Frank Cowperwood, and by degrees, because of his presence and contact, he had been slowly built up in her mind as the ideal person. She was drawn as planets are drawn to their sun.
It is a question as to what would have happened if antagonistic forces could have been introduced just at this time. Emotions and liaisons of this character can, of course, occasionally be broken up and destroyed. The characters of the individuals can be modified or changed to a certain extent, but the force must be quite sufficient. Fear is a great deterrent—fear of material loss where there is no spiritual dread—but wealth and position so often tend to destroy this dread. It is so easy to scheme with means. Aileen had no spiritual dread whatever. Cowperwood was without spiritual or religious feeling. He looked at this girl, and his one thought was how could he so deceive the world that he could enjoy her love and leave his present state undisturbed. Love her he did surely.
Business necessitated his calling at the Butlers’ quite frequently, and on each occasion he saw Aileen. She managed to slip forward and squeeze his hand the first time he came—to steal a quick, vivid kiss; and another time, as he was going out, she suddenly appeared from behind the curtains hanging at the parlor door.
The voice was soft and coaxing. He turned, giving her a warning nod in the direction of her father’s room upstairs.
She stood there, holding out one hand, and he stepped forward for a second. Instantly her arms were about his neck, as he slipped his about her waist.
“I long to see you so.”
“I, too. I’ll fix some way. I’m thinking.”
He released her arms, and went out, and she ran to the window and looked out after him. He was walking west on the street, for his house was only a few blocks away, and she looked at the breadth of his shoulders, the balance of his form. He stepped so briskly, so incisively. Ah, this was a man! He was her Frank. She thought of him in that light already. Then she sat down at the piano and played pensively until dinner.
And it was so easy for the resourceful mind of Frank Cowperwood, wealthy as he was, to suggest ways and means. In his younger gallivantings about places of ill repute, and his subsequent occasional variations from the straight and narrow path, he had learned much of the curious resources of immorality. Being a city of five hundred thousand and more at this time, Philadelphia had its nondescript hotels, where one might go, cautiously and fairly protected from observation; and there were houses of a conservative, residential character, where appointments might be made, for a consideration. And as for safeguards against the production of new life—they were not mysteries to him any longer. He knew all about them. Care was the point of caution. He had to be cautious, for he was so rapidly coming to be an influential and a distinguished man. Aileen, of course, was not conscious, except in a vague way, of the drift of her passion; the ultimate destiny to which this affection might lead was not clear to her. Her craving was for love—to be fondled and caressed—and she really did not think so much further. Further thoughts along this line were like rats that showed their heads out of dark holes in shadowy corners and scuttled back at the least sound. And, anyhow, all that was to be connected with Cowperwood would be beautiful. She really did not think that he loved her yet as he should; but he would. She did not know that she wanted to interfere with the claims of his wife. She did not think she did. But it would not hurt Mrs. Cowperwood if Frank loved her—Aileen—also.
How shall we explain these subtleties of temperament and desire? Life has to deal with them at every turn. They will not down, and the large, placid movements of nature outside of man’s little organisms would indicate that she is not greatly concerned. We see much punishment in the form of jails, diseases, failures, and wrecks; but we also see that the old tendency is not visibly lessened. Is there no law outside of the subtle will and power of the individual to achieve? If not, it is surely high time that we knew it—one and all. We might then agree to do as we do; but there would be no silly illusion as to divine regulation. Vox populi, vox Dei.
So there were other meetings, lovely hours which they soon began to spend the moment her passion waxed warm enough to assure compliance, without great fear and without thought of the deadly risk involved. From odd moments in his own home, stolen when there was no one about to see, they advanced to clandestine meetings beyond the confines of the city. Cowperwood was not one who was temperamentally inclined to lose his head and neglect his business. As a matter of fact, the more he thought of this rather unexpected affectional development, the more certain he was that he must not let it interfere with his business time and judgment. His office required his full attention from nine until three, anyhow. He could give it until five-thirty with profit; but he could take several afternoons off, from three-thirty until five-thirty or six, and no one would be the wiser. It was customary for Aileen to drive alone almost every afternoon a spirited pair of bays, or to ride a mount, bought by her father for her from a noted horse-dealer in Baltimore. Since Cowperwood also drove and rode, it was not difficult to arrange meeting-places far out on the Wissahickon or the Schuylkill road. There were many spots in the newly laid-out park, which were as free from interruption as the depths of a forest. It was always possible that they might encounter some one; but it was also always possible to make a rather plausible explanation, or none at all, since even in case of such an encounter nothing, ordinarily, would be suspected.
So, for the time being there was love-making, the usual billing and cooing of lovers in a simple and much less than final fashion; and the lovely horseback rides together under the green trees of the approaching spring were idyllic. Cowperwood awakened to a sense of joy in life such as he fancied, in the blush of this new desire, he had never experienced before. Lillian had been lovely in those early days in which he had first called on her in North Front Street, and he had fancied himself unspeakably happy at that time; but that was nearly ten years since, and he had forgotten. Since then he had had no great passion, no notable liaison; and then, all at once, in the midst of his new, great business prosperity, Aileen. Her young body and soul, her passionate illusions. He could see always, for all her daring, that she knew so little of the calculating, brutal world with which he was connected. Her father had given her all the toys she wanted without stint; her mother and brothers had coddled her, particularly her mother. Her young sister thought she was adorable. No one imagined for one moment that Aileen would ever do anything wrong. She was too sensible, after all, too eager to get up in the world. Why should she, when her life lay open and happy before her—a delightful love-match, some day soon, with some very eligible and satisfactory lover?
“When you marry, Aileen,” her mother used to say to her, “we’ll have a grand time here. Sure we’ll do the house over then, if we don’t do it before. Eddie will have to fix it up, or I’ll do it meself. Never fear.”
“Yes—well, I’d rather you’d fix it now,” was her reply.
Butler himself used to strike her jovially on the shoulder in a rough, loving way, and ask, “Well, have you found him yet?” or “Is he hanging around the outside watchin’ for ye?”
If she said, “No,” he would reply: “Well, he will be, never fear—worse luck. I’ll hate to see ye go, girlie! You can stay here as long as ye want to, and ye want to remember that you can always come back.”
Aileen paid very little attention to this bantering. She loved her father, but it was all such a matter of course. It was the commonplace of her existence, and not so very significant, though delightful enough.
But how eagerly she yielded herself to Cowperwood under the spring trees these days! She had no sense of that ultimate yielding that was coming, for now he merely caressed and talked to her. He was a little doubtful about himself. His growing liberties for himself seemed natural enough, but in a sense of fairness to her he began to talk to her about what their love might involve. Would she? Did she understand? This phase of it puzzled and frightened Aileen a little at first. She stood before him one afternoon in her black riding-habit and high silk riding-hat perched jauntily on her red-gold hair; and striking her riding-skirt with her short whip, pondering doubtfully as she listened. He had asked her whether she knew what she was doing? Whither they were drifting? If she loved him truly enough? The two horses were tethered in a thicket a score of yards away from the main road and from the bank of a tumbling stream, which they had approached. She was trying to discover if she could see them. It was pretense. There was no interest in her glance. She was thinking of him and the smartness of his habit, and the exquisiteness of this moment. He had such a charming calico pony. The leaves were just enough developed to make a diaphanous lacework of green. It was like looking through a green-spangled arras to peer into the woods beyond or behind. The gray stones were already faintly messy where the water rippled and sparkled, and early birds were calling—robins and blackbirds and wrens.
“Baby mine,” he said, “do you understand all about this? Do you know exactly what you’re doing when you come with me this way?”
“I think I do.”
She struck her boot and looked at the ground, and then up through the trees at the blue sky.
“Look at me, honey.”
“I don’t want to.”
“But look at me, sweet. I want to ask you something.”
“Don’t make me, Frank, please. I can’t.”
“Oh yes, you can look at me.”
She backed away as he took her hands, but came forward again, easily enough.
“Now look in my eyes.”
“I can’t. Don’t ask me. I’ll answer you, but don’t make me look at you.”
His hand stole to her cheek and fondled it. He petted her shoulder, and she leaned her head against him.
“Sweet, you’re so beautiful,” he said finally, “I can’t give you up. I know what I ought to do. You know, too, I suppose; but I can’t. I must have you. If this should end in exposure, it would be quite bad for you and me. Do you understand?”
“I don’t know your brothers very well; but from looking at them I judge they’re pretty determined people. They think a great deal of you.”
“Indeed, they do.” Her vanity prinked slightly at this.
“They would probably want to kill me, and very promptly, for just this much. What do you think they would want to do if—well, if anything should happen, some time?”
He waited, watching her pretty face.
“But nothing need happen. We needn’t go any further.”
“I won’t look at you. You needn’t ask. I can’t.”
“Aileen! Do you mean that?”
“I don’t know. Don’t ask me, Frank.”
“You know it can’t stop this way, don’t you? You know it. This isn’t the end. Now, if—” He explained the whole theory of illicit meetings, calmly, dispassionately. “You are perfectly safe, except for one thing, chance exposure. It might just so happen; and then, of course, there would be a great deal to settle for. Mrs. Cowperwood would never give me a divorce; she has no reason to. If I should clean up in the way I hope to—if I should make a million—I wouldn’t mind knocking off now. I don’t expect to work all my days. I have always planned to knock off at thirty-five. I’ll have enough by that time. Then I want to travel. It will only be a few more years now. If you were free—if your father and mother were dead”—curiously she did not wince at this practical reference—“it would be a different matter.”
He paused. She still gazed thoughtfully at the water below, her mind running out to a yacht on the sea with him, a palace somewhere—just they two. Her eyes, half closed, saw this happy world; and, listening to him, she was fascinated.
“Hanged if I see the way out of this, exactly. But I love you!” He caught her to him. “I love you—love you!”
“Oh, yes,” she replied intensely, “I want you to. I’m not afraid.”
“I’ve taken a house in North Tenth Street,” he said finally, as they walked over to the horses and mounted them. “It isn’t furnished yet; but it will be soon. I know a woman who will take charge.”
“Who is she?”
“An interesting widow of nearly fifty. Very intelligent—she is attractive, and knows a good deal of life. I found her through an advertisement. You might call on her some afternoon when things are arranged, and look the place over. You needn’t meet her except in a casual way. Will you?”
She rode on, thinking, making no reply. He was so direct and practical in his calculations.
“Will you? It will be all right. You might know her. She isn’t objectionable in any way. Will you?”
“Let me know when it is ready,” was all she said finally.