The Titan

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter XIV: Undercurrents

It was during the year that followed their social repudiation, and the next and the next, that Cowperwood achieved a keen realization of what it would mean to spend the rest of his days in social isolation, or at least confined in his sources of entertainment to a circle or element which constantly reminded him of the fact that he was not identified with the best, or, at least, not the most significant, however dull that might be. When he had first attempted to introduce Aileen into society it was his idea that, however tame they might chance to find it to begin with, they themselves, once admitted, could make it into something very interesting and even brilliant. Since the time the Cowperwoods had been repudiated, however, they had found it necessary, if they wished any social diversion at all, to fall back upon such various minor elements as they could scrape an acquaintance with—passing actors and actresses, to whom occasionally they could give a dinner; artists and singers whom they could invite to the house upon gaining an introduction; and, of course, a number of the socially unimportant, such as the Haatstaedts, Hoecksemas, Videras, Baileys, and others still friendly and willing to come in a casual way. Cowperwood found it interesting from time to time to invite a business friend, a lover of pictures, or some young artist to the house to dinner or for the evening, and on these occasions Aileen was always present. The Addisons called or invited them occasionally. But it was a dull game, the more so since their complete defeat was thus all the more plainly indicated.

This defeat, as Cowperwood kept reflecting, was really not his fault at all. He had been getting along well enough personally. If Aileen had only been a somewhat different type of woman! Nevertheless, he was in no way prepared to desert or reproach her. She had clung to him through his stormy prison days. She had encouraged him when he needed encouragement. He would stand by her and see what could be done a little later; but this ostracism was a rather dreary thing to endure. Besides, personally, he appeared to be becoming more and more interesting to men and to women. The men friends he had made he retained—Addison, Bailey, Videra, McKibben, Rambaud, and others. There were women in society, a number of them, who regretted his disappearance if not that of Aileen. Occasionally the experiment would be tried of inviting him without his wife. At first he refused invariably; later he went alone occasionally to a dinner-party without her knowledge.

It was during this interregnum that Cowperwood for the first time clearly began to get the idea that there was a marked difference between him and Aileen intellectually and spiritually; and that while he might be in accord with her in many ways—emotionally, physically, idyllicly—there were, nevertheless, many things which he could do alone which she could not do—heights to which he could rise where she could not possibly follow. Chicago society might be a negligible quantity, but he was now to contrast her sharply with the best of what the Old World had to offer in the matter of femininity, for following their social expulsion in Chicago and his financial victory, he once more decided to go abroad. In Rome, at the Japanese and Brazilian embassies (where, because of his wealth, he gained introduction), and at the newly established Italian Court, he encountered at a distance charming social figures of considerable significance—Italian countesses, English ladies of high degree, talented American women of strong artistic and social proclivities. As a rule they were quick to recognize the charm of his manner, the incisiveness and grip of his mind, and to estimate at all its worth the high individuality of his soul; but he could also always see that Aileen was not so acceptable. She was too rich in her entourage, too showy. Her glowing health and beauty was a species of affront to the paler, more sublimated souls of many who were not in themselves unattractive.

"Isn't that the typical American for you," he heard a woman remark, at one of those large, very general court receptions to which so many are freely admitted, and to which Aileen had been determined to go. He was standing aside talking to an acquaintance he had made—an English-speaking Greek banker stopping at the Grand Hotel—while Aileen promenaded with the banker's wife. The speaker was an Englishwoman. "So gaudy, so self-conscious, and so naive!"

Cowperwood turned to look. It was Aileen, and the lady speaking was undoubtedly well bred, thoughtful, good-looking. He had to admit that much that she said was true, but how were you to gage a woman like Aileen, anyhow? She was not reprehensible in any way—just a full-blooded animal glowing with a love of life. She was attractive to him. It was too bad that people of obviously more conservative tendencies were so opposed to her. Why could they not see what he saw—a kind of childish enthusiasm for luxury and show which sprang, perhaps, from the fact that in her youth she had not enjoyed the social opportunities which she needed and longed for. He felt sorry for her. At the same time he was inclined to feel that perhaps now another type of woman would be better for him socially. If he had a harder type, one with keener artistic perceptions and a penchant for just the right social touch or note, how much better he would do! He came home bringing a Perugino, brilliant examples of Luini, Previtali, and Pinturrichio (this last a portrait of Caesar Borgia), which he picked up in Italy, to say nothing of two red African vases of great size that he found in Cairo, a tall gilt Louis Fifteenth standard of carved wood that he discovered in Rome, two ornate candelabra from Venice for his walls, and a pair of Italian torcheras from Naples to decorate the corners of his library. It was thus by degrees that his art collection was growing.

At the same time it should be said, in the matter of women and the sex question, his judgment and views had begun to change tremendously. When he had first met Aileen he had many keen intuitions regarding life and sex, and above all clear faith that he had a right to do as he pleased. Since he had been out of prison and once more on his upward way there had been many a stray glance cast in his direction; he had so often had it clearly forced upon him that he was fascinating to women. Although he had only so recently acquired Aileen legally, yet she was years old to him as a mistress, and the first engrossing—it had been almost all-engrossing—enthusiasm was over. He loved her not only for her beauty, but for her faithful enthusiasm; but the power of others to provoke in him a momentary interest, and passion even, was something which he did not pretend to understand, explain, or moralize about. So it was and so he was. He did not want to hurt Aileen's feelings by letting her know that his impulses thus wantonly strayed to others, but so it was.

Not long after he had returned from the European trip he stopped one afternoon in the one exclusive drygoods store in State Street to purchase a tie. As he was entering a woman crossed the aisle before him, from one counter to another—a type of woman which he was coming to admire, but only from a rather distant point of view, seeing them going here and there in the world. She was a dashing type, essentially smart and trig, with a neat figure, dark hair and eyes, an olive skin, small mouth, quaint nose—all in all quite a figure for Chicago at the time. She had, furthermore, a curious look of current wisdom in her eyes, an air of saucy insolence which aroused Cowperwood's sense of mastery, his desire to dominate. To the look of provocation and defiance which she flung him for the fraction of a second he returned a curiously leonine glare which went over her like a dash of cold water. It was not a hard look, however, merely urgent and full of meaning. She was the vagrom-minded wife of a prosperous lawyer who was absorbed in his business and in himself. She pretended indifference for a moment after the first glance, but paused a little way off as if to examine some laces. Cowperwood looked after her to catch a second fleeting, attracted look. He was on his way to several engagements which he did not wish to break, but he took out a note-book, wrote on a slip of paper the name of a hotel, and underneath: "Parlor, second floor, Tuesday, 1 P.M." Passing by where she stood, he put it into her gloved hand, which was hanging by her side. The fingers closed over it automatically. She had noted his action. On the day and hour suggested she was there, although he had given no name. That liaison, while delightful to him, was of no great duration. The lady was interesting, but too fanciful.

Similarly, at the Henry Huddlestones', one of their neighbors at the first Michigan Avenue house they occupied, he encountered one evening at a small dinner-party a girl of twenty-three who interested him greatly—for the moment. Her name was not very attractive—Ella F. Hubby, as he eventually learned—but she was not unpleasing. Her principal charm was a laughing, hoydenish countenance and roguish eyes. She was the daughter of a well-to-do commission merchant in South Water Street. That her interest should have been aroused by that of Cowperwood in her was natural enough. She was young, foolish, impressionable, easily struck by the glitter of a reputation, and Mrs. Huddlestone had spoken highly of Cowperwood and his wife and the great things he was doing or was going to do. When Ella saw him, and saw that he was still young-looking, with the love of beauty in his eyes and a force of presence which was not at all hard where she was concerned, she was charmed; and when Aileen was not looking her glance kept constantly wandering to his with a laughing signification of friendship and admiration. It was the most natural thing in the world for him to say to her, when they had adjourned to the drawing-room, that if she were in the neighborhood of his office some day she might care to look in on him. The look he gave her was one of keen understanding, and brought a look of its own kind, warm and flushing, in return. She came, and there began a rather short liaison. It was interesting but not brilliant. The girl did not have sufficient temperament to bind him beyond a period of rather idle investigation.

There was still, for a little while, another woman, whom he had known—a Mrs. Josephine Ledwell, a smart widow, who came primarily to gamble on the Board of Trade, but who began to see at once, on introduction, the charm of a flirtation with Cowperwood. She was a woman not unlike Aileen in type, a little older, not so good-looking, and of a harder, more subtle commercial type of mind. She rather interested Cowperwood because she was so trig, self-sufficient, and careful. She did her best to lure him on to a liaison with her, which finally resulted, her apartment on the North Side being the center of this relationship. It lasted perhaps six weeks. Through it all he was quite satisfied that he did not like her so very well. Any one who associated with him had Aileen's present attractiveness to contend with, as well as the original charm of his first wife. It was no easy matter.

It was during this period of social dullness, however, which somewhat resembled, though it did not exactly parallel his first years with his first wife, that Cowperwood finally met a woman who was destined to leave a marked impression on his life. He could not soon forget her. Her name was Rita Sohlberg. She was the wife of Harold Sohlberg, a Danish violinist who was then living in Chicago, a very young man; but she was not a Dane, and he was by no means a remarkable violinist, though he had unquestionably the musical temperament.

You have perhaps seen the would-be's, the nearly's, the pretenders in every field—interesting people all—devoted with a kind of mad enthusiasm to the thing they wish to do. They manifest in some ways all the externals or earmarks of their professional traditions, and yet are as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. You would have had to know Harold Sohlberg only a little while to appreciate that he belonged to this order of artists. He had a wild, stormy, November eye, a wealth of loose, brownish-black hair combed upward from the temples, with one lock straggling Napoleonically down toward the eyes; cheeks that had almost a babyish tint to them; lips much too rich, red, and sensuous; a nose that was fine and large and full, but only faintly aquiline; and eyebrows and mustache that somehow seemed to flare quite like his errant and foolish soul. He had been sent away from Denmark (Copenhagen) because he had been a never-do-well up to twenty-five and because he was constantly falling in love with women who would not have anything to do with him. Here in Chicago as a teacher, with his small pension of forty dollars a month sent him by his mother, he had gained a few pupils, and by practising a kind of erratic economy, which kept him well dressed or hungry by turns, he had managed to make an interesting showing and pull himself through. He was only twenty-eight at the time he met Rita Greenough, of Wichita, Kansas, and at the time they met Cowperwood Harold was thirty-four and she twenty-seven.

She had been a student at the Chicago Fine Arts School, and at various student affairs had encountered Harold when he seemed to play divinely, and when life was all romance and art. Given the spring, the sunshine on the lake, white sails of ships, a few walks and talks on pensive afternoons when the city swam in a golden haze, and the thing was done. There was a sudden Saturday afternoon marriage, a runaway day to Milwaukee, a return to the studio now to be fitted out for two, and then kisses, kisses, kisses until love was satisfied or eased.

But life cannot exist on that diet alone, and so by degrees the difficulties had begun to manifest themselves. Fortunately, the latter were not allied with sharp financial want. Rita was not poor. Her father conducted a small but profitable grain elevator at Wichita, and, after her sudden marriage, decided to continue her allowance, though this whole idea of art and music in its upper reaches was to him a strange, far-off, uncertain thing. A thin, meticulous, genial person interested in small trade opportunities, and exactly suited to the rather sparse social life of Wichita, he found Harold as curious as a bomb, and preferred to handle him gingerly. Gradually, however, being a very human if simple person, he came to be very proud of it—boasted in Wichita of Rita and her artist husband, invited them home to astound the neighbors during the summer-time, and the fall brought his almost farmer-like wife on to see them and to enjoy trips, sight-seeing, studio teas. It was amusing, typically American, naive, almost impossible from many points of view.

Rita Sohlberg was of the semi-phlegmatic type, soft, full-blooded, with a body that was going to be fat at forty, but which at present was deliciously alluring. Having soft, silky, light-brown hair, the color of light dust, and moist gray-blue eyes, with a fair skin and even, white teeth, she was flatteringly self-conscious of her charms. She pretended in a gay, childlike way to be unconscious of the thrill she sent through many susceptible males, and yet she knew well enough all the while what she was doing and how she was doing it; it pleased her so to do. She was conscious of the wonder of her smooth, soft arms and neck, the fullness and seductiveness of her body, the grace and perfection of her clothing, or, at least, the individuality and taste which she made them indicate. She could take an old straw-hat form, a ribbon, a feather, or a rose, and with an innate artistry of feeling turn it into a bit of millinery which somehow was just the effective thing for her. She chose naive combinations of white and blues, pinks and white, browns and pale yellows, which somehow suggested her own soul, and topped them with great sashes of silky brown (or even red) ribbon tied about her waist, and large, soft-brimmed, face-haloing hats. She was a graceful dancer, could sing a little, could play feelingly—sometimes brilliantly—and could draw. Her art was a makeshift, however; she was no artist. The most significant thing about her was her moods and her thoughts, which were uncertain, casual, anarchic. Rita Sohlberg, from the conventional point of view, was a dangerous person, and yet from her own point of view at this time she was not so at all—just dreamy and sweet.

A part of the peculiarity of her state was that Sohlberg had begun to disappoint Rita—sorely. Truth to tell, he was suffering from that most terrible of all maladies, uncertainty of soul and inability to truly find himself. At times he was not sure whether he was cut out to be a great violinist or a great composer, or merely a great teacher, which last he was never willing really to admit. "I am an arteest," he was fond of saying. "Ho, how I suffer from my temperament!" And again: "These dogs! These cows! These pigs!" This of other people. The quality of his playing was exceedingly erratic, even though at times it attained to a kind of subtlety, tenderness, awareness, and charm which brought him some attention. As a rule, however, it reflected the chaotic state of his own brain. He would play violently, feverishly, with a wild passionateness of gesture which robbed him of all ability to control his own technic.

"Oh, Harold!" Rita used to exclaim at first, ecstatically. Later she was not so sure.

Life and character must really get somewhere to be admirable, and Harold, really and truly, did not seem to be getting anywhere. He taught, stormed, dreamed, wept; but he ate his three meals a day, Rita noticed, and he took an excited interest at times in other women. To be the be-all and end-all of some one man's life was the least that Rita could conceive or concede as the worth of her personality, and so, as the years went on and Harold began to be unfaithful, first in moods, transports, then in deeds, her mood became dangerous. She counted them up—a girl music pupil, then an art student, then the wife of a banker at whose house Harold played socially. There followed strange, sullen moods on the part of Rita, visits home, groveling repentances on the part of Harold, tears, violent, passionate reunions, and then the same thing over again. What would you?

Rita was not jealous of Harold any more; she had lost faith in his ability as a musician. But she was disappointed that her charms were not sufficient to blind him to all others. That was the fly in the ointment. It was an affront to her beauty, and she was still beautiful. She was unctuously full-bodied, not quite so tall as Aileen, not really as large, but rounder and plumper, softer and more seductive. Physically she was not well set up, so vigorous; but her eyes and mouth and the roving character of her mind held a strange lure. Mentally she was much more aware than Aileen, much more precise in her knowledge of art, music, literature, and current events; and in the field of romance she was much more vague and alluring. She knew many things about flowers, precious stones, insects, birds, characters in fiction, and poetic prose and verse generally.

At the time the Cowperwoods first met the Sohlbergs the latter still had their studio in the New Arts Building, and all was seemingly as serene as a May morning, only Harold was not getting along very well. He was drifting. The meeting was at a tea given by the Haatstaedts, with whom the Cowperwoods were still friendly, and Harold played. Aileen, who was there alone, seeing a chance to brighten her own life a little, invited the Sohlbergs, who seemed rather above the average, to her house to a musical evening. They came.

On this occasion Cowperwood took one look at Sohlberg and placed him exactly. "An erratic, emotional temperament," he thought. "Probably not able to place himself for want of consistency and application." But he liked him after a fashion. Sohlberg was interesting as an artistic type or figure—quite like a character in a Japanese print might be. He greeted him pleasantly.

"And Mrs. Sohlberg, I suppose," he remarked, feelingly, catching a quick suggestion of the rhythm and sufficiency and naive taste that went with her. She was in simple white and blue—small blue ribbons threaded above lacy flounces in the skin. Her arms and throat were deliciously soft and bare. Her eyes were quick, and yet soft and babyish—petted eyes.

"You know," she said to him, with a peculiar rounded formation of the mouth, which was a characteristic of her when she talked—a pretty, pouty mouth, "I thought we would never get heah at all. There was a fire"—she pronounced it fy-yah—"at Twelfth Street" (the Twelfth was Twalfth in her mouth) "and the engines were all about there. Oh, such sparks and smoke! And the flames coming out of the windows! The flames were a very dark red—almost orange and black. They're pretty when they're that way—don't you think so?"

Cowperwood was charmed. "Indeed, I do," he said, genially, using a kind of superior and yet sympathetic air which he could easily assume on occasion. He felt as though Mrs. Sohlberg might be a charming daughter to him—she was so cuddling and shy—and yet he could see that she was definite and individual. Her arms and face, he told himself, were lovely. Mrs. Sohlberg only saw before her a smart, cold, exact man—capable, very, she presumed—with brilliant, incisive eyes. How different from Harold, she thought, who would never be anything much—not even famous.

"I'm so glad you brought your violin," Aileen was saying to Harold, who was in another corner. "I've been looking forward to your coming to play for us."

"Very nize ov you, I'm sure," Sohlberg replied, with his sweety drawl. "Such a nize plaze you have here—all these loafly books, and jade, and glass."

He had an unctuous, yielding way which was charming, Aileen thought. He should have a strong, rich woman to take care of him. He was like a stormy, erratic boy.

After refreshments were served Sohlberg played. Cowperwood was interested by his standing figure—his eyes, his hair—but he was much more interested in Mrs. Sohlberg, to whom his look constantly strayed. He watched her hands on the keys, her fingers, the dimples at her elbows. What an adorable mouth, he thought, and what light, fluffy hair! But, more than that, there was a mood that invested it all—a bit of tinted color of the mind that reached him and made him sympathetic and even passionate toward her. She was the kind of woman he would like. She was somewhat like Aileen when she was six years younger (Aileen was now thirty-three, and Mrs. Sohlberg twenty-seven), only Aileen had always been more robust, more vigorous, less nebulous. Mrs. Sohlberg (he finally thought it out for himself) was like the rich tinted interior of a South Sea oyster-shell—warm, colorful, delicate. But there was something firm there, too. Nowhere in society had he seen any one like her. She was rapt, sensuous, beautiful. He kept his eyes on her until finally she became aware that he was gazing at her, and then she looked back at him in an arch, smiling way, fixing her mouth in a potent line. Cowperwood was captivated. Was she vulnerable? was his one thought. Did that faint smile mean anything more than mere social complaisance? Probably not, but could not a temperament so rich and full be awakened to feeling by his own? When she was through playing he took occasion to say: "Wouldn't you like to stroll into the gallery? Are you fond of pictures?" He gave her his arm.

"Now, you know," said Mrs. Sohlberg, quaintly—very captivatingly, he thought, because she was so pretty—"at one time I thought I was going to be a great artist. Isn't that funny! I sent my father one of my drawings inscribed 'to whom I owe it all.' You would have to see the drawing to see how funny that is."

She laughed softly.

Cowperwood responded with a refreshed interest in life. Her laugh was as grateful to him as a summer wind. "See," he said, gently, as they entered the room aglow with the soft light produced by guttered jets, "here is a Luini bought last winter." It was "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine." He paused while she surveyed the rapt expression of the attenuated saint. "And here," he went on, "is my greatest find so far." They were before the crafty countenance of Caesar Borgia painted by Pinturrichio.

"What a strange face!" commented Mrs. Sohlberg, naively. "I didn't know any one had ever painted him. He looks somewhat like an artist himself, doesn't he?" She had never read the involved and quite Satanic history of this man, and only knew the rumor of his crimes and machinations.

"He was, in his way," smiled Cowperwood, who had had an outline of his life, and that of his father, Pope Alexander VI., furnished him at the time of the purchase. Only so recently had his interest in Caesar Borgia begun. Mrs. Sohlberg scarcely gathered the sly humor of it.

"Oh yes, and here is Mrs. Cowperwood," she commented, turning to the painting by Van Beers. "It's high in key, isn't it?" she said, loftily, but with an innocent loftiness that appealed to him. He liked spirit and some presumption in a woman. "What brilliant colors! I like the idea of the garden and the clouds."

She stepped back, and Cowperwood, interested only in her, surveyed the line of her back and the profile of her face. Such co-ordinated perfection of line and color!

"Where every motion weaves and sings," he might have commented. Instead he said: "That was in Brussels. The clouds were an afterthought, and that vase on the wall, too."

"It's very good, I think," commented Mrs. Sohlberg, and moved away.

"How do you like this Israels?" he asked. It was the painting called "The Frugal Meal."

"I like it," she said, "and also your Bastien Le-Page," referring to "The Forge." "But I think your old masters are much more interesting. If you get many more you ought to put them together in a room. Don't you think so? I don't care for your Gerome very much." She had a cute drawl which he considered infinitely alluring.

"Why not?" asked Cowperwood.

"Oh, it's rather artificial; don't you think so? I like the color, but the women's bodies are too perfect, I should say. It's very pretty, though."

He had little faith in the ability of women aside from their value as objects of art; and yet now and then, as in this instance, they revealed a sweet insight which sharpened his own. Aileen, he reflected, would not be capable of making a remark such as this. She was not as beautiful now as this woman—not as alluringly simple, naive, delicious, nor yet as wise. Mrs. Sohlberg, he reflected shrewdly, had a kind of fool for a husband. Would she take an interest in him, Frank Cowperwood? Would a woman like this surrender on any basis outside of divorce and marriage? He wondered. On her part, Mrs. Sohlberg was thinking what a forceful man Cowperwood was, and how close he had stayed by her. She felt his interest, for she had often seen these symptoms in other men and knew what they meant. She knew the pull of her own beauty, and, while she heightened it as artfully as she dared, yet she kept aloof, too, feeling that she had never met any one as yet for whom it was worth while to be different. But Cowperwood—he needed someone more soulful than Aileen, she thought.

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