Rita was not dead by any means—only seriously bruised, scratched, and choked. Her scalp was cut in one place. Aileen had repeatedly beaten her head on the floor, and this might have resulted seriously if Cowperwood had not entered as quickly as he had. Sohlberg for the moment—for some little time, in fact—was under the impression that Aileen had truly lost her mind, had suddenly gone crazy, and that those shameless charges he had heard her making were the emanations of a disordered brain. Nevertheless the things she had said haunted him. He was in a bad state himself—almost a subject for the doctor. His lips were bluish, his cheeks blanched. Rita had been carried into an adjoining bedroom and laid upon a bed; cold water, ointments, a bottle of arnica had been procured; and when Cowperwood appeared she was conscious and somewhat better. But she was still very weak and smarting from her wounds, both mental and physical. When the doctor arrived he had been told that a lady, a guest, had fallen down-stairs; when Cowperwood came in the physician was dressing her wounds.
As soon as he had gone Cowperwood said to the maid in attendance, "Go get me some hot water." As the latter disappeared he bent over and kissed Rita's bruised lips, putting his finger to his own in warning sign.
"Rita," he asked, softly, "are you fully conscious?"
She nodded weakly.
"Listen, then," he said, bending over and speaking slowly. "Listen carefully. Pay strict attention to what I'm saying. You must understand every word, and do as I tell you. You are not seriously injured. You will be all right. This will blow over. I have sent for another doctor to call on you at your studio. Your husband has gone for some fresh clothes. He will come back in a little while. My carriage will take you home when you are a little stronger. You mustn't worry. Everything will be all right, but you must deny everything, do you hear? Everything! In so far as you know, Mrs. Cowperwood is insane. I will talk to your husband to-morrow. I will send you a trained nurse. Meantime you must be careful of what you say and how you say it. Be perfectly calm. Don't worry. You are perfectly safe here, and you will be there. Mrs. Cowperwood will not trouble you any more. I will see to that. I am so sorry; but I love you. I am near you all the while. You must not let this make any difference. You will not see her any more."
Still he knew that it would make a difference.
Reassured as to Rita's condition, he went back to Aileen's room to plead with her again—to soothe her if he could. He found her up and dressing, a new thought and determination in her mind. Since she had thrown herself on the bed sobbing and groaning, her mood had gradually changed; she began to reason that if she could not dominate him, could not make him properly sorry, she had better leave. It was evident, she thought, that he did not love her any more, seeing that his anxiety to protect Rita had been so great; his brutality in restraining her so marked; and yet she did not want to believe that this was so. He had been so wonderful to her in times past. She had not given up all hope of winning a victory over him, and these other women—she loved him too much—but only a separation would do it. That might bring him to his senses. She would get up, dress, and go down-town to a hotel. He should not see her any more unless he followed her. She was satisfied that she had broken up the liaison with Rita Sohlberg, anyway for the present, and as for Antoinette Nowak, she would attend to her later. Her brain and her heart ached. She was so full of woe and rage, alternating, that she could not cry any more now. She stood before her mirror trying with trembling fingers to do over her toilet and adjust a street-costume. Cowperwood was disturbed, nonplussed at this unexpected sight.
"Aileen," he said, finally, coming up behind her, "can't you and I talk this thing over peacefully now? You don't want to do anything that you'll be sorry for. I don't want you to. I'm sorry. You don't really believe that I've ceased to love you, do you? I haven't, you know. This thing isn't as bad as it looks. I should think you would have a little more sympathy with me after all we have been through together. You haven't any real evidence of wrong-doing on which to base any such outburst as this."
"Oh, haven't I?" she exclaimed, turning from the mirror, where, sorrowfully and bitterly, she was smoothing her red-gold hair. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes red. Just now she seemed as remarkable to him as she had seemed that first day, years ago, when in a red cape he had seen her, a girl of sixteen, running up the steps of her father's house in Philadelphia. She was so wonderful then. It mellowed his mood toward her.
"That's all you know about it, you liar!" she declared. "It's little you know what I know. I haven't had detectives on your trail for weeks for nothing. You sneak! You'd like to smooth around now and find out what I know. Well, I know enough, let me tell you that. You won't fool me any longer with your Rita Sohlbergs and your Antoinette Nowaks and your apartments and your houses of assignation. I know what you are, you brute! And after all your protestations of love for me! Ugh!"
She turned fiercely to her task while Cowperwood stared at her, touched by her passion, moved by her force. It was fine to see what a dramatic animal she was—really worthy of him in many ways.
"Aileen," he said, softly, hoping still to ingratiate himself by degrees, "please don't be so bitter toward me. Haven't you any understanding of how life works—any sympathy with it? I thought you were more generous, more tender. I'm not so bad."
He eyed her thoughtfully, tenderly, hoping to move her through her love for him.
"Sympathy! Sympathy!" She turned on him blazing. "A lot you know about sympathy! I suppose I didn't give you any sympathy when you were in the penitentiary in Philadelphia, did I? A lot of good it did me—didn't it? Sympathy! Bah! To have you come out here to Chicago and take up with a lot of prostitutes—cheap stenographers and wives of musicians! You have given me a lot of sympathy, haven't you?—with that woman lying in the next room to prove it!"
She smoothed her lithe waist and shook her shoulders preparatory to putting on a hat and adjusting her wrap. She proposed to go just as she was, and send Fadette back for all her belongings.
"Aileen," he pleaded, determined to have his way, "I think you're very foolish. Really I do. There is no occasion for all this—none in the world. Here you are talking at the top of your voice, scandalizing the whole neighborhood, fighting, leaving the house. It's abominable. I don't want you to do it. You love me yet, don't you? You know you do. I know you don't mean all you say. You can't. You really don't believe that I have ceased to love you, do you, Aileen?"
"Love!" fired Aileen. "A lot you know about love! A lot you have ever loved anybody, you brute! I know how you love. I thought you loved me once. Humph! I see how you loved me—just as you've loved fifty other women, as you love that snippy little Rita Sohlberg in the next room—the cat!—the dirty little beast!—the way you love Antoinette Nowak—a cheap stenographer! Bah! You don't know what the word means." And yet her voice trailed off into a kind of sob and her eyes filled with tears, hot, angry, aching. Cowperwood saw them and came over, hoping in some way to take advantage of them. He was truly sorry now—anxious to make her feel tender toward him once more.
"Aileen," he pleaded, "please don't be so bitter. You shouldn't be so hard on me. I'm not so bad. Aren't you going to be reasonable?" He put out a smoothing hand, but she jumped away.
"Don't you touch me, you brute!" she exclaimed, angrily. "Don't you lay a hand on me. I don't want you to come near me. I'll not live with you. I'll not stay in the same house with you and your mistresses. Go and live with your dear, darling Rita on the North Side if you want to. I don't care. I suppose you've been in the next room comforting her—the beast! I wish I had killed her—Oh, God!" She tore at her throat in a violent rage, trying to adjust a button.
Cowperwood was literally astonished. Never had he seen such an outburst as this. He had not believed Aileen to be capable of it. He could not help admiring her. Nevertheless he resented the brutality of her assault on Rita and on his own promiscuous tendency, and this feeling vented itself in one last unfortunate remark.
"I wouldn't be so hard on mistresses if I were you, Aileen," he ventured, pleadingly. "I should have thought your own experience would have—"
He paused, for he saw on the instant that he was making a grave mistake. This reference to her past as a mistress was crucial. On the instant she straightened up, and her eyes filled with a great pain. "So that's the way you talk to me, is it?" she asked. "I knew it! I knew it! I knew it would come!"
She turned to a tall chest of drawers as high as her breasts, laden with silverware, jewel-boxes, brushes and combs, and, putting her arms down, she laid her head upon them and began to cry. This was the last straw. He was throwing up her lawless girlhood love to her as an offense.
"Oh!" she sobbed, and shook in a hopeless, wretched paroxysm. Cowperwood came over quickly. He was distressed, pained. "I didn't mean that, Aileen," he explained. "I didn't mean it in that way—not at all. You rather drew that out of me; but I didn't mean it as a reproach. You were my mistress, but good Lord, I never loved you any the less for that—rather more. You know I did. I want you to believe that; it's true. These other matters haven't been so important to me—they really haven't—"
He looked at her helplessly as she moved away to avoid him; he was distressed, nonplussed, immensely sorry. As he walked to the center of the room again she suddenly suffered a great revulsion of feeling, but only in the direction of more wrath. This was too much.
"So this is the way you talk to me," she exclaimed, "after all I have done for you! You say that to me after I waited for you and cried over you when you were in prison for nearly two years? Your mistress! That's my reward, is it? Oh!"
Suddenly she observed her jewel-case, and, resenting all the gifts he had given her in Philadelphia, in Paris, in Rome, here in Chicago, she suddenly threw open the lid and, grabbing the contents by handfuls, began to toss them toward him—to actually throw them in his face. Out they came, handfuls of gauds that he had given her in real affection: a jade necklace and bracelet of pale apple-green set in spun gold, with clasps of white ivory; a necklace of pearls, assorted as to size and matched in color, that shone with a tinted, pearly flame in the evening light; a handful of rings and brooches, diamonds, rubies, opals, amethysts; a dog-collar of emeralds, and a diamond hair-ornament. She flung them at him excitedly, strewing the floor, striking him on the neck, the face, the hands. "Take that! and that! and that! There they are! I don't want anything more of yours. I don't want anything more to do with you. I don't want anything that belongs to you. Thank God, I have money enough of my own to live on! I hate you—I despise you—I never want to see you any more. Oh—" And, trying to think of something more, but failing, she dashed swiftly down the hall and down the stairs, while he stood for just one moment overwhelmed. Then he hurried after.
"Aileen!" he called. "Aileen, come back here! Don't go, Aileen!" But she only hurried faster; she opened and closed the door, and actually ran out in the dark, her eyes wet, her heart bursting. So this was the end of that youthful dream that had begun so beautifully. She was no better than the others—just one of his mistresses. To have her past thrown up to her as a defense for the others! To be told that she was no better than they! This was the last straw. She choked and sobbed as she walked, vowing never to return, never to see him any more. But as she did so Cowperwood came running after, determined for once, as lawless as he was, that this should not be the end of it all. She had loved him, he reflected. She had laid every gift of passion and affection on the altar of her love. It wasn't fair, really. She must be made to stay. He caught up at last, reaching her under the dark of the November trees.
"Aileen," he said, laying hold of her and putting his arms around her waist. "Aileen, dearest, this is plain madness. It is insanity. You're not in your right mind. Don't go! Don't leave me! I love you! Don't you know I do? Can't you really see that? Don't run away like this, and don't cry. I do love you, and you know it. I always shall. Come back now. Kiss me. I'll do better. Really I will. Give me another chance. Wait and see. Come now—won't you? That's my girl, my Aileen. Do come. Please!"
She pulled on, but he held her, smoothing her arms, her neck, her face.
"Aileen!" he entreated.
She tugged so that he was finally compelled to work her about into his arms; then, sobbing, she stood there agonized but happy once more, in a way.
"But I don't want to," she protested. "You don't love me any more. Let me go."
But he kept hold of her, urging, and finally she said, her head upon his shoulder as of old, "Don't make me come back to-night. I don't want to. I can't. Let me go down-town. I'll come back later, maybe."
"Then I'll go with you," he said, endearingly. "It isn't right. There are a lot of things I should be doing to stop this scandal, but I'll go."
And together they sought a street-car.