It was not until some little time after they were established in the new house that Aileen first came upon any evidence of the existence of Berenice Fleming. In a general way she assumed that there were women—possibly some of whom she had known—Stephanie, Mrs. Hand, Florence Cochrane, or later arrivals—yet so long as they were not obtruded on her she permitted herself the semi-comforting thought that things were not as bad as they might be. So long, indeed, as Cowperwood was genuinely promiscuous, so long as he trotted here and there, not snared by any particular siren, she could not despair, for, after all, she had ensnared him and held him deliciously—without variation, she believed, for all of ten years—a feat which no other woman had achieved before or after. Rita Sohlberg might have succeeded—the beast! How she hated the thought of Rita! By this time, however, Cowperwood was getting on in years. The day must come when he would be less keen for variability, or, at least, would think it no longer worth while to change. If only he did not find some one woman, some Circe, who would bind and enslave him in these Later years as she had herself done in his earlier ones all might yet be well. At the same time she lived in daily terror of a discovery which was soon to follow.
She had gone out one day to pay a call on some one to whom Rhees Grier, the Chicago sculptor, had given her an introduction. Crossing Central Park in one of the new French machines which Cowperwood had purchased for her indulgence, her glance wandered down a branch road to where another automobile similar to her own was stalled. It was early in the afternoon, at which time Cowperwood was presumably engaged in Wall Street. Yet there he was, and with him two women, neither of whom, in the speed of passing, could Aileen quite make out. She had her car halted and driven to within seeing-distance behind a clump of bushes. A chauffeur whom she did not know was tinkering at a handsome machine, while on the grass near by stood Cowperwood and a tall, slender girl with red hair somewhat like Aileen's own. Her expression was aloof, poetic, rhapsodical. Aileen could not analyze it, but it fixed her attention completely. In the tonneau sat an elderly lady, whom Aileen at once assumed to be the girl's mother. Who were they? What was Cowperwood doing here in the Park at this hour? Where were they going? With a horrible retch of envy she noted upon Cowperwood's face a smile the like and import of which she well knew. How often she had seen it years and years before! Having escaped detection, she ordered her chauffeur to follow the car, which soon started, at a safe distance. She saw Cowperwood and the two ladies put down at one of the great hotels, and followed them into the dining-room, where, from behind a screen, after the most careful manoeuvering, she had an opportunity of studying them at her leisure. She drank in every detail of Berenice's face—the delicately pointed chin, the clear, fixed blue eyes, the straight, sensitive nose and tawny hair. Calling the head waiter, she inquired the names of the two women, and in return for a liberal tip was informed at once. "Mrs. Ira Carter, I believe, and her daughter, Miss Fleming, Miss Berenice Fleming. Mrs. Carter was Mrs. Fleming once." Aileen followed them out eventually, and in her own car pursued them to their door, into which Cowperwood also disappeared. The next day, by telephoning the apartment to make inquiry, she learned that they actually lived there. After a few days of brooding she employed a detective, and learned that Cowperwood was a constant visitor at the Carters', that the machine in which they rode was his maintained at a separate garage, and that they were of society truly. Aileen would never have followed the clue so vigorously had it not been for the look she had seen Cowperwood fix on the girl in the Park and in the restaurant—an air of soul-hunger which could not be gainsaid.
Let no one ridicule the terrors of unrequited love. Its tentacles are cancerous, its grip is of icy death. Sitting in her boudoir immediately after these events, driving, walking, shopping, calling on the few with whom she had managed to scrape an acquaintance, Aileen thought morning, noon, and night of this new woman. The pale, delicate face haunted her. What were those eyes, so remote in their gaze, surveying? Love? Cowperwood? Yes! Yes! Gone in a flash, and permanently, as it seemed to Aileen, was the value of this house, her dream of a new social entrance. And she had already suffered so much; endured so much. Cowperwood being absent for a fortnight, she moped in her room, sighed, raged, and then began to drink. Finally she sent for an actor who had once paid attention to her in Chicago, and whom she had later met here in the circle of the theaters. She was not so much burning with lust as determined in her drunken gloom that she would have revenge. For days there followed an orgy, in which wine, bestiality, mutual recrimination, hatred, and despair were involved. Sobering eventually, she wondered what Cowperwood would think of her now if he knew this? Could he ever love her any more? Could he even tolerate her? But what did he care? It served him right, the dog! She would show him, she would wreck his dream, she would make her own life a scandal, and his too! She would shame him before all the world. He should never have a divorce! He should never be able to marry a girl like that and leave her alone—never, never, never! When Cowperwood returned she snarled at him without vouchsafing an explanation.
He suspected at once that she had been spying upon his manoeuvers. Moreover, he did not fail to notice her heavy eyes, superheated cheeks, and sickly breath. Obviously she had abandoned her dream of a social victory of some kind, and was entering on a career of what—debauchery? Since coming to New York she had failed utterly, he thought, to make any single intelligent move toward her social rehabilitation. The banal realms of art and the stage, with which in his absence or neglect she had trifled with here, as she had done in Chicago, were worse than useless; they were destructive. He must have a long talk with her one of these days, must confess frankly to his passion for Berenice, and appeal to her sympathy and good sense. What scenes would follow! Yet she might succumb, at that. Despair, pride, disgust might move her. Besides, he could now bestow upon her a very large fortune. She could go to Europe or remain here and live in luxury. He would always remain friendly with her—helpful, advisory—if she would permit it.
The conversation which eventually followed on this topic was of such stuff as dreams are made of. It sounded hollow and unnatural within the walls where it took place. Consider the great house in upper Fifth Avenue, its magnificent chambers aglow, of a stormy Sunday night. Cowperwood was lingering in the city at this time, busy with a group of Eastern financiers who were influencing his contest in the state legislature of Illinois. Aileen was momentarily consoled by the thought that for him perhaps love might, after all, be a thing apart—a thing no longer vital and soul-controlling. To-night he was sitting in the court of orchids, reading a book—the diary of Cellini, which some one had recommended to him—stopping to think now and then of things in Chicago or Springfield, or to make a note. Outside the rain was splashing in torrents on the electric-lighted asphalt of Fifth Avenue—the Park opposite a Corot-like shadow. Aileen was in the music-room strumming indifferently. She was thinking of times past—Lynde, from whom she had not heard in half a year; Watson Skeet, the sculptor, who was also out of her ken at present. When Cowperwood was in the city and in the house she was accustomed from habit to remain indoors or near. So great is the influence of past customs of devotion that they linger long past the hour when the act ceases to become valid.
"What an awful night!" she observed once, strolling to a window to peer out from behind a brocaded valance.
"It is bad, isn't it?" replied Cowperwood, as she returned. "Hadn't you thought of going anywhere this evening?"
"No—oh no," replied Aileen, indifferently. She rose restlessly from the piano, and strolled on into the great picture-gallery. Stopping before one of Raphael Sanzio's Holy Families, only recently hung, she paused to contemplate the serene face—medieval, Madonnaesque, Italian.
The lady seemed fragile, colorless, spineless—without life. Were there such women? Why did artists paint them? Yet the little Christ was sweet. Art bored Aileen unless others were enthusiastic. She craved only the fanfare of the living—not painted resemblances. She returned to the music-room, to the court of orchids, and was just about to go up-stairs to prepare herself a drink and read a novel when Cowperwood observed:
"You're bored, aren't you?"
"Oh no; I'm used to lonely evenings," she replied, quietly and without any attempt at sarcasm.
Relentless as he was in hewing life to his theory—hammering substance to the form of his thought—yet he was tender, too, in the manner of a rainbow dancing over an abyss. For the moment he wanted to say, "Poor girlie, you do have a hard time, don't you, with me?" but he reflected instantly how such a remark would be received. He meditated, holding his book in his hand above his knee, looking at the purling water that flowed and flowed in sprinkling showers over the sportive marble figures of mermaids, a Triton, and nymphs astride of fishes.
"You're really not happy in this state, any more, are you?" he inquired. "Would you feel any more comfortable if I stayed away entirely?"
His mind had turned of a sudden to the one problem that was fretting him and to the opportunities of this hour.
"You would," she replied, for her boredom merely concealed her unhappiness in no longer being able to command in the least his interest or his sentiment.
"Why do you say that in just that way?" he asked.
"Because I know you would. I know why you ask. You know well enough that it isn't anything I want to do that is concerned. It's what you want to do. You'd like to turn me off like an old horse now that you are tired of me, and so you ask whether I would feel any more comfortable. What a liar you are, Frank! How really shifty you are! I don't wonder you're a multimillionaire. If you could live long enough you would eat up the whole world. Don't you think for one moment that I don't know of Berenice Fleming here in New York, and how you're dancing attendance on her—because I do. I know how you have been hanging about her for months and months—ever since we have been here, and for long before. You think she's wonderful now because she's young and in society. I've seen you in the Waldorf and in the Park hanging on her every word, looking at her with adoring eyes. What a fool you are, to be so big a man! Every little snip, if she has pink cheeks and a doll's face, can wind you right around her finger. Rita Sohlberg did it; Stephanie Platow did it; Florence Cochrane did it; Cecily Haguenin—and Heaven knows how many more that I never heard of. I suppose Mrs. Hand still lives with you in Chicago—the cheap strumpet! Now it's Berenice Fleming and her frump of a mother. From all I can learn you haven't been able to get her yet—because her mother's too shrewd, perhaps—but you probably will in the end. It isn't you so much as your money that they're after. Pah! Well, I'm unhappy enough, but it isn't anything you can remedy any more. Whatever you could do to make me unhappy you have done, and now you talk of my being happier away from you. Clever boy, you! I know you the way I know my ten fingers. You don't deceive me at any time in any way any more. I can't do anything about it. I can't stop you from making a fool of yourself with every woman you meet, and having people talk from one end of the country to the other. Why, for a woman to be seen with you is enough to fix her reputation forever. Right now all Broadway knows you're running after Berenice Fleming. Her name will soon be as sweet as those of the others you've had. She might as well give herself to you. If she ever had a decent reputation it's gone by now, you can depend upon that."
These remarks irritated Cowperwood greatly—enraged him—particularly her references to Berenice. What were you to do with such a woman? he thought. Her tongue was becoming unbearable; her speech in its persistence and force was that of a termagant. Surely, surely, he had made a great mistake in marrying her. At the same time the control of her was largely in his own hands even yet.
"Aileen," he said, coolly, at the end of her speech, "you talk too much. You rave. You're growing vulgar, I believe. Now let me tell you something." And he fixed her with a hard, quieting eye. "I have no apologies to make. Think what you please. I know why you say what you do. But here is the point. I want you to get it straight and clear. It may make some difference eventually if you're any kind of a woman at all. I don't care for you any more. If you want to put it another way—I'm tired of you. I have been for a long while. That's why I've run with other women. If I hadn't been tired of you I wouldn't have done it. What's more, I'm in love with somebody else—Berenice Fleming, and I expect to stay in love. I wish I were free so I could rearrange my life on a different basis and find a little comfort before I die. You don't really care for me any more. You can't. I'll admit I have treated you badly; but if I had really loved you I wouldn't have done it, would I? It isn't my fault that love died in me, is it? It isn't your fault. I'm not blaming you. Love isn't a bunch of coals that can be blown by an artificial bellows into a flame at any time. It's out, and that's an end of it. Since I don't love you and can't, why should you want me to stay near you? Why shouldn't you let me go and give me a divorce? You'll be just as happy or unhappy away from me as with me. Why not? I want to be free again. I'm miserable here, and have been for a long time. I'll make any arrangement that seems fair and right to you. I'll give you this house—these pictures, though I really don't see what you'd want with them." (Cowperwood had no intention of giving up the gallery if he could help it.) "I'll settle on you for life any income you desire, or I'll give you a fixed sum outright. I want to be free, and I want you to let me be. Now why won't you be sensible and let me do this?"
During this harangue Cowperwood had first sat and then stood. At the statement that his love was really dead—the first time he had ever baldly and squarely announced it—Aileen had paled a little and put her hand to her forehead over her eyes. It was then he had arisen. He was cold, determined, a little revengeful for the moment. She realized now that he meant this—that in his heart was no least feeling for all that had gone before—no sweet memories, no binding thoughts of happy hours, days, weeks, years, that were so glittering and wonderful to her in retrospect. Great Heavens, it was really true! His love was dead; he had said it! But for the nonce she could not believe it; she would not. It really couldn't be true.
"Frank," she began, coming toward him, the while he moved away to evade her. Her eyes were wide, her hands trembling, her lips moving in an emotional, wavy, rhythmic way. "You really don't mean that, do you? Love isn't wholly dead, is it? All the love you used to feel for me? Oh, Frank, I have raged, I have hated, I have said terrible, ugly things, but it has been because I have been in love with you! All the time I have. You know that. I have felt so bad—O God, how bad I have felt! Frank, you don't know it—but my pillow has been wet many and many a night. I have cried and cried. I have got up and walked the floor. I have drunk whisky—plain, raw whisky—because something hurt me and I wanted to kill the pain. I have gone with other men, one after another—you know that—but, oh! Frank, Frank, you know that I didn't want to, that I didn't mean to! I have always despised the thought of them afterward. It was only because I was lonely and because you wouldn't pay any attention to me or be nice to me. Oh, how I have longed and longed for just one loving hour with you—one night, one day! There are women who could suffer in silence, but I can't. My mind won't let me alone, Frank—my thoughts won't. I can't help thinking how I used to run to you in Philadelphia, when you would meet me on your way home, or when I used to come to you in Ninth Street or on Eleventh. Oh, Frank, I probably did wrong to your first wife. I see it now—how she must have suffered! But I was just a silly girl then, and I didn't know. Don't you remember how I used to come to you in Ninth Street and how I saw you day after day in the penitentiary in Philadelphia? You said then you would love me always and that you would never forget. Can't you love me any more—just a little? Is it really true that your love is dead? Am I so old, so changed? Oh, Frank, please don't say that—please don't—please, please please! I beg of you!"
She tried to reach him and put a hand on his arm, but he stepped aside. To him, as he looked at her now, she was the antithesis of anything he could brook, let alone desire artistically or physically. The charm was gone, the spell broken. It was another type, another point of view he required, but, above all and principally, youth, youth—the spirit, for instance, that was in Berenice Fleming. He was sorry—in his way. He felt sympathy, but it was like the tinkling of a far-off sheep-bell—the moaning of a whistling buoy heard over the thrash of night-black waves on a stormy sea.
"You don't understand how it is, Aileen," he said. "I can't help myself. My love is dead. It is gone. I can't recall it. I can't feel it. I wish I could, but I can't; you must understand that. Some things are possible and some are not."
He looked at her, but with no relenting. Aileen, for her part, saw in his eyes nothing, as she believed, save cold philosophic logic—the man of business, the thinker, the bargainer, the plotter. At the thought of the adamantine character of his soul, which could thus definitely close its gates on her for ever and ever, she became wild, angry, feverish—not quite sane.
"Oh, don't say that!" she pleaded, foolishly. "Please don't. Please don't say that. It might come back a little if—if—you would only believe in it. Don't you see how I feel? Don't you see how it is?"
She dropped to her knees and clasped him about the waist. "Oh, Frank! Oh, Frank! Oh, Frank!" she began to call, crying. "I can't stand it! I can't! I can't! I can't! I shall die."
"Don't give way like that, Aileen," he pleaded. "It doesn't do any good. I can't lie to myself. I don't want to lie to you. Life is too short. Facts are facts. If I could say and believe that I loved you I would say so now, but I can't. I don't love you. Why should I say that I do?"
In the content of Aileen's nature was a portion that was purely histrionic, a portion that was childish—petted and spoiled—a portion that was sheer unreason, and a portion that was splendid emotion—deep, dark, involved. At this statement of Cowperwood's which seemed to throw her back on herself for ever and ever to be alone, she first pleaded willingness to compromise—to share. She had not fought Stephanie Platow, she had not fought Florence Cochrane, nor Cecily Haguenin, nor Mrs. Hand, nor, indeed, anybody after Rita, and she would fight no more. She had not spied on him in connection with Berenice—she had accidentally met them. True, she had gone with other men, but? Berenice was beautiful, she admitted it, but so was she in her way still—a little, still. Couldn't he find a place for her yet in his life? Wasn't there room for both?
At this expression of humiliation and defeat Cowperwood was sad, sick, almost nauseated. How could one argue? How make her understand?
"I wish it were possible, Aileen," he concluded, finally and heavily, "but it isn't."
All at once she arose, her eyes red but dry.
"You don't love me, then, at all, do you? Not a bit?"
"No, Aileen, I don't. I don't mean by that that I dislike you. I don't mean to say that you aren't interesting in your way as a woman and that I don't sympathize with you. I do. But I don't love you any more. I can't. The thing I used to feel I can't feel any more."
She paused for a moment, uncertain how to take this, the while she whitened, grew more tense, more spiritual than she had been in many a day. Now she felt desperate, angry, sick, but like the scorpion that ringed by fire can turn only on itself. What a hell life was, she told herself. How it slipped away and left one aging, horribly alone! Love was nothing, faith nothing—nothing, nothing!
A fine light of conviction, intensity, intention lit her eye for the moment. "Very well, then," she said, coolly, tensely. "I know what I'll do. I'll not live this way. I'll not live beyond to-night. I want to die, anyhow, and I will."
It was by no means a cry, this last, but a calm statement. It should prove her love. To Cowperwood it seemed unreal, bravado, a momentary rage intended to frighten him. She turned and walked up the grand staircase, which was near—a splendid piece of marble and bronze fifteen feet wide, with marble nereids for newel-posts, and dancing figures worked into the stone. She went into her room quite calmly and took up a steel paper-cutter of dagger design—a knife with a handle of bronze and a point of great sharpness. Coming out and going along the balcony over the court of orchids, where Cowperwood still was seated, she entered the sunrise room with its pool of water, its birds, its benches, its vines. Locking the door, she sat down and then, suddenly baring an arm, jabbed a vein—ripped it for inches—and sat there to bleed. Now she would see whether she could die, whether he would let her.
Uncertain, astonished, not able to believe that she could be so rash, not believing that her feeling could be so great, Cowperwood still remained where she had left him wondering. He had not been so greatly moved—the tantrums of women were common—and yet— Could she really be contemplating death? How could she? How ridiculous! Life was so strange, so mad. But this was Aileen who had just made this threat, and she had gone up the stairs to carry it out, perhaps. Impossible! How could it be? Yet back of all his doubts there was a kind of sickening feeling, a dread. He recalled how she had assaulted Rita Sohlberg.
He hurried up the steps now and into her room. She was not there. He went quickly along the balcony, looking here and there, until he came to the sunrise room. She must be there, for the door was shut. He tried it—it was locked.
"Aileen," he called. "Aileen! Are you in there?" No answer. He listened. Still no answer. "Aileen!" he repeated. "Are you in there? What damned nonsense is this, anyhow?"
"George!" he thought to himself, stepping back; "she might do it, too—perhaps she has." He could not hear anything save the odd chattering of a toucan aroused by the light she had switched on. Perspiration stood out on his brow. He shook the knob, pushed a bell for a servant, called for keys which had been made for every door, called for a chisel and hammer.
"Aileen," he said, "if you don't open the door this instant I will see that it is opened. It can be opened quick enough."
Still no sound.
"Damn it!" he exclaimed, becoming wretched, horrified. A servant brought the keys. The right one would not enter. A second was on the other side. "There is a bigger hammer somewhere," Cowperwood said. "Get it! Get me a chair!" Meantime, with terrific energy, using a large chisel, he forced the door.
There on one of the stone benches of the lovely room sat Aileen, the level pool of water before her, the sunrise glow over every thing, tropic birds in their branches, and she, her hair disheveled, her face pale, one arm—her left—hanging down, ripped and bleeding, trickling a thick stream of rich, red blood. On the floor was a pool of blood, fierce, scarlet, like some rich cloth, already turning darker in places.
Cowperwood paused—amazed. He hurried forward, seized her arm, made a bandage of a torn handkerchief above the wound, sent for a surgeon, saying the while: "How could you, Aileen? How impossible! To try to take your life! This isn't love. It isn't even madness. It's foolish acting."
"Don't you really care?" she asked.
"How can you ask? How could you really do this?"
He was angry, hurt, glad that she was alive, shamed—many things.
"Don't you really care?" she repeated, wearily.
"Aileen, this is nonsense. I will not talk to you about it now. Have you cut yourself anywhere else?" he asked, feeling about her bosom and sides.
"Then why not let me die?" she replied, in the same manner. "I will some day. I want to."
"Well, you may, some day," he replied, "but not to-night. I scarcely think you want to now. This is too much, Aileen—really impossible."
He drew himself up and looked at her—cool, unbelieving, the light of control, even of victory, in his eyes. As he had suspected, it was not truly real. She would not have killed herself. She had expected him to come—to make the old effort. Very good. He would see her safely in bed and in a nurse's hands, and would then avoid her as much as possible in the future. If her intention was genuine she would carry it out in his absence, but he did not believe she would.