The Titan

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter X: A Test

The opening of the house in Michigan Avenue occurred late in November in the fall of eighteen seventy-eight. When Aileen and Cowperwood had been in Chicago about two years. Altogether, between people whom they had met at the races, at various dinners and teas, and at receptions of the Union and Calumet Clubs (to which Cowperwood, through Addison's backing, had been admitted) and those whom McKibben and Lord influenced, they were able to send invitations to about three hundred, of whom some two hundred and fifty responded. Up to this time, owing to Cowperwood's quiet manipulation of his affairs, there had been no comment on his past—no particular interest in it. He had money, affable ways, a magnetic personality. The business men of the city—those whom he met socially—were inclined to consider him fascinating and very clever. Aileen being beautiful and graceful for attention, was accepted at more or less her own value, though the kingly high world knew them not.

It is amazing what a showing the socially unplaced can make on occasion where tact and discrimination are used. There was a weekly social paper published in Chicago at this time, a rather able publication as such things go, which Cowperwood, with McKibben's assistance, had pressed into service. Not much can be done under any circumstances where the cause is not essentially strong; but where, as in this case, there is a semblance of respectability, considerable wealth, and great force and magnetism, all things are possible. Kent McKibben knew Horton Biggers, the editor, who was a rather desolate and disillusioned person of forty-five, gray, and depressed-looking—a sort of human sponge or barnacle who was only galvanized into seeming interest and cheerfulness by sheer necessity. Those were the days when the society editor was accepted as a member of society—de facto—and treated more as a guest than a reporter, though even then the tendency was toward elimination. Working for Cowperwood, and liking him, McKibben said to Biggers one evening:

"You know the Cowperwoods, don't you, Biggers?"

"No," replied the latter, who devoted himself barnacle-wise to the more exclusive circles. "Who are they?"

"Why, he's a banker over here in La Salle Street. They're from Philadelphia. Mrs. Cowperwood's a beautiful woman—young and all that. They're building a house out here on Michigan Avenue. You ought to know them. They're going to get in, I think. The Addisons like them. If you were to be nice to them now I think they'd appreciate it later. He's rather liberal, and a good fellow."

Biggers pricked up his ears. This social journalism was thin picking at best, and he had very few ways of turning an honest penny. The would be's and half-in's who expected nice things said of them had to subscribe, and rather liberally, to his paper. Not long after this brief talk Cowperwood received a subscription blank from the business office of the Saturday Review, and immediately sent a check for one hundred dollars to Mr. Horton Biggers direct. Subsequently certain not very significant personages noticed that when the Cowperwoods dined at their boards the function received comment by the Saturday Review, not otherwise. It looked as though the Cowperwoods must be favored; but who were they, anyhow?

The danger of publicity, and even moderate social success, is that scandal loves a shining mark. When you begin to stand out the least way in life, as separate from the mass, the cognoscenti wish to know who, what, and why. The enthusiasm of Aileen, combined with the genius of Cowperwood, was for making their opening entertainment a very exceptional affair, which, under the circumstances, and all things considered, was a dangerous thing to do. As yet Chicago was exceedingly slow socially. Its movements were, as has been said, more or less bovine and phlegmatic. To rush in with something utterly brilliant and pyrotechnic was to take notable chances. The more cautious members of Chicago society, even if they did not attend, would hear, and then would come ultimate comment and decision.

The function began with a reception at four, which lasted until six-thirty, and this was followed by a dance at nine, with music by a famous stringed orchestra of Chicago, a musical programme by artists of considerable importance, and a gorgeous supper from eleven until one in a Chinese fairyland of lights, at small tables filling three of the ground-floor rooms. As an added fillip to the occasion Cowperwood had hung, not only the important pictures which he had purchased abroad, but a new one—a particularly brilliant Gerome, then in the heyday of his exotic popularity—a picture of nude odalisques of the harem, idling beside the highly colored stone marquetry of an oriental bath. It was more or less "loose" art for Chicago, shocking to the uninitiated, though harmless enough to the illuminati; but it gave a touch of color to the art-gallery which the latter needed. There was also, newly arrived and newly hung, a portrait of Aileen by a Dutch artist, Jan van Beers, whom they had encountered the previous summer at Brussels. He had painted Aileen in nine sittings, a rather brilliant canvas, high in key, with a summery, out-of-door world behind her—a low stone-curbed pool, the red corner of a Dutch brick palace, a tulip-bed, and a blue sky with fleecy clouds. Aileen was seated on the curved arm of a stone bench, green grass at her feet, a pink-and-white parasol with a lacy edge held idly to one side; her rounded, vigorous figure clad in the latest mode of Paris, a white and blue striped-silk walking-suit, with a blue-and-white-banded straw hat, wide-brimmed, airy, shading her lusty, animal eyes. The artist had caught her spirit quite accurately, the dash, the assumption, the bravado based on the courage of inexperience, or lack of true subtlety. A refreshing thing in its way, a little showy, as everything that related to her was, and inclined to arouse jealousy in those not so liberally endowed by life, but fine as a character piece. In the warm glow of the guttered gas-jets she looked particularly brilliant here, pampered, idle, jaunty—the well-kept, stall-fed pet of the world. Many stopped to see, and many were the comments, private and otherwise.

This day began with a flurry of uncertainty and worried anticipation on the part of Aileen. At Cowperwood's suggestion she had employed a social secretary, a poor hack of a girl, who had sent out all the letters, tabulated the replies, run errands, and advised on one detail and another. Fadette, her French maid, was in the throes of preparing for two toilets which would have to be made this day, one by two o'clock at least, another between six and eight. Her "mon dieus" and "par bleus" could be heard continuously as she hunted for some article of dress or polished an ornament, buckle, or pin. The struggle of Aileen to be perfect was, as usual, severe. Her meditations, as to the most becoming gown to wear were trying. Her portrait was on the east wall in the art-gallery, a spur to emulation; she felt as though all society were about to judge her. Theresa Donovan, the local dressmaker, had given some advice; but Aileen decided on a heavy brown velvet constructed by Worth, of Paris—a thing of varying aspects, showing her neck and arms to perfection, and composing charmingly with her flesh and hair. She tried amethyst ear-rings and changed to topaz; she stockinged her legs in brown silk, and her feet were shod in brown slippers with red enamel buttons.

The trouble with Aileen was that she never did these things with that ease which is a sure sign of the socially efficient. She never quite so much dominated a situation as she permitted it to dominate her. Only the superior ease and graciousness of Cowperwood carried her through at times; but that always did. When he was near she felt quite the great lady, suited to any realm. When she was alone her courage, great as it was, often trembled in the balance. Her dangerous past was never quite out of her mind.

At four Kent McKibben, smug in his afternoon frock, his quick, receptive eyes approving only partially of all this show and effort, took his place in the general reception-room, talking to Taylor Lord, who had completed his last observation and was leaving to return later in the evening. If these two had been closer friends, quite intimate, they would have discussed the Cowperwoods' social prospects; but as it was, they confined themselves to dull conventionalities. At this moment Aileen came down-stairs for a moment, radiant. Kent McKibben thought he had never seen her look more beautiful. After all, contrasted with some of the stuffy creatures who moved about in society, shrewd, hard, bony, calculating, trading on their assured position, she was admirable. It was a pity she did not have more poise; she ought to be a little harder—not quite so genial. Still, with Cowperwood at her side, she might go far.

"Really, Mrs. Cowperwood," he said, "it is all most charming. I was just telling Mr. Lord here that I consider the house a triumph."

From McKibben, who was in society, and with Lord, another "in" standing by, this was like wine to Aileen. She beamed joyously.

Among the first arrivals were Mrs. Webster Israels, Mrs. Bradford Canda, and Mrs. Walter Rysam Cotton, who were to assist in receiving. These ladies did not know that they were taking their future reputations for sagacity and discrimination in their hands; they had been carried away by the show of luxury of Aileen, the growing financial repute of Cowperwood, and the artistic qualities of the new house. Mrs. Webster Israels's mouth was of such a peculiar shape that Aileen was always reminded of a fish; but she was not utterly homely, and to-day she looked brisk and attractive. Mrs. Bradford Canda, whose old rose and silver-gray dress made up in part for an amazing angularity, but who was charming withal, was the soul of interest, for she believed this to be a very significant affair. Mrs. Walter Rysam Cotton, a younger woman than either of the others, had the polish of Vassar life about her, and was "above" many things. Somehow she half suspected the Cowperwoods might not do, but they were making strides, and might possibly surpass all other aspirants. It behooved her to be pleasant.

Life passes from individuality and separateness at times to a sort of Monticelliesque mood of color, where individuality is nothing, the glittering totality all. The new house, with its charming French windows on the ground floor, its heavy bands of stone flowers and deep-sunk florated door, was soon crowded with a moving, colorful flow of people.

Many whom Aileen and Cowperwood did not know at all had been invited by McKibben and Lord; they came, and were now introduced. The adjacent side streets and the open space in front of the house were crowded with champing horses and smartly veneered carriages. All with whom the Cowperwoods had been the least intimate came early, and, finding the scene colorful and interesting, they remained for some time. The caterer, Kinsley, had supplied a small army of trained servants who were posted like soldiers, and carefully supervised by the Cowperwood butler. The new dining-room, rich with a Pompeian scheme of color, was aglow with a wealth of glass and an artistic arrangement of delicacies. The afternoon costumes of the women, ranging through autumnal grays, purples, browns, and greens, blended effectively with the brown-tinted walls of the entry-hall, the deep gray and gold of the general living-room, the old-Roman red of the dining-room, the white-and-gold of the music-room, and the neutral sepia of the art-gallery.

Aileen, backed by the courageous presence of Cowperwood, who, in the dining-room, the library, and the art-gallery, was holding a private levee of men, stood up in her vain beauty, a thing to see—almost to weep over, embodying the vanity of all seeming things, the mockery of having and yet not having. This parading throng that was more curious than interested, more jealous than sympathetic, more critical than kind, was coming almost solely to observe.

"Do you know, Mrs. Cowperwood," Mrs. Simms remarked, lightly, "your house reminds me of an art exhibit to-day. I hardly know why."

Aileen, who caught the implied slur, had no clever words wherewith to reply. She was not gifted in that way, but she flared with resentment.

"Do you think so?" she replied, caustically.

Mrs. Simms, not all dissatisfied with the effect she had produced, passed on with a gay air, attended by a young artist who followed amorously in her train.

Aileen saw from this and other things like it how little she was really "in." The exclusive set did not take either her or Cowperwood seriously as yet. She almost hated the comparatively dull Mrs. Israels, who had been standing beside her at the time, and who had heard the remark; and yet Mrs. Israels was much better than nothing. Mrs. Simms had condescended a mild "how'd do" to the latter.

It was in vain that the Addisons, Sledds, Kingslands, Hoecksemas, and others made their appearance; Aileen was not reassured. However, after dinner the younger set, influenced by McKibben, came to dance, and Aileen was at her best in spite of her doubts. She was gay, bold, attractive. Kent McKibben, a past master in the mazes and mysteries of the grand march, had the pleasure of leading her in that airy, fairy procession, followed by Cowperwood, who gave his arm to Mrs. Simms. Aileen, in white satin with a touch of silver here and there and necklet, bracelet, ear-rings, and hair-ornament of diamonds, glittered in almost an exotic way. She was positively radiant. McKibben, almost smitten, was most attentive.

"This is such a pleasure," he whispered, intimately. "You are very beautiful—a dream!"

"You would find me a very substantial one," returned Aileen. "Would that I might find," he laughed, gaily; and Aileen, gathering the hidden significance, showed her teeth teasingly. Mrs. Simms, engrossed by Cowperwood, could not hear as she would have liked.

After the march Aileen, surrounded by a half-dozen of gay, rudely thoughtless young bloods, escorted them all to see her portrait. The conservative commented on the flow of wine, the intensely nude Gerome at one end of the gallery, and the sparkling portrait of Aileen at the other, the enthusiasm of some of the young men for her company. Mrs. Rambaud, pleasant and kindly, remarked to her husband that Aileen was "very eager for life," she thought. Mrs. Addison, astonished at the material flare of the Cowperwoods, quite transcending in glitter if not in size and solidity anything she and Addison had ever achieved, remarked to her husband that "he must be making money very fast."

"The man's a born financier, Ella," Addison explained, sententiously. "He's a manipulator, and he's sure to make money. Whether they can get into society I don't know. He could if he were alone, that's sure. She's beautiful, but he needs another kind of woman, I'm afraid. She's almost too good-looking."

"That's what I think, too. I like her, but I'm afraid she's not going to play her cards right. It's too bad, too."

Just then Aileen came by, a smiling youth on either side, her own face glowing with a warmth of joy engendered by much flattery. The ball-room, which was composed of the music and drawing rooms thrown into one, was now the objective. It glittered before her with a moving throng; the air was full of the odor of flowers, and the sound of music and voices.

"Mrs. Cowperwood," observed Bradford Canda to Horton Biggers, the society editor, "is one of the prettiest women I have seen in a long time. She's almost too pretty."

"How do you think she's taking?" queried the cautious Biggers. "Charming, but she's hardly cold enough, I'm afraid; hardly clever enough. It takes a more serious type. She's a little too high-spirited. These old women would never want to get near her; she makes them look too old. She'd do better if she were not so young and so pretty."

"That's what I think exactly," said Biggers. As a matter of fact, he did not think so at all; he had no power of drawing any such accurate conclusions. But he believed it now, because Bradford Canda had said it.

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