The Titan

by Theodore Dreiser

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XLV: Changing Horizons

The effect of all this was to arouse in Cowperwood the keenest feelings of superiority he had ever yet enjoyed. Hitherto he had fancied that his enemies might worst him, but at last his path seemed clear. He was now worth, all in all, the round sum of twenty million dollars. His art-collection had become the most important in the West—perhaps in the nation, public collections excluded. He began to envision himself as a national figure, possibly even an international one. And yet he was coming to feel that, no matter how complete his financial victory might ultimately be, the chances were that he and Aileen would never be socially accepted here in Chicago. He had done too many boisterous things—alienated too many people. He was as determined as ever to retain a firm grip on the Chicago street-railway situation. But he was disturbed for a second time in his life by the thought that, owing to the complexities of his own temperament, he had married unhappily and would find the situation difficult of adjustment. Aileen, whatever might be said of her deficiencies, was by no means as tractable or acquiescent as his first wife. And, besides, he felt that he owed her a better turn. By no means did he actually dislike her as yet; though she was no longer soothing, stimulating, or suggestive to him as she had formerly been. Her woes, because of him, were too many; her attitude toward him too censorious. He was perfectly willing to sympathize with her, to regret his own change of feeling, but what would you? He could not control his own temperament any more than Aileen could control hers.

The worst of this situation was that it was now becoming complicated on Cowperwood's part with the most disturbing thoughts concerning Berenice Fleming. Ever since the days when he had first met her mother he had been coming more and more to feel for the young girl a soul-stirring passion—and that without a single look exchanged or a single word spoken. There is a static something which is beauty, and this may be clothed in the habiliments of a ragged philosopher or in the silks and satins of pampered coquetry. It was a suggestion of this beauty which is above sex and above age and above wealth that shone in the blowing hair and night-blue eyes of Berenice Fleming. His visit to the Carter family at Pocono had been a disappointment to him, because of the apparent hopelessness of arousing Berenice's interest, and since that time, and during their casual encounters, she had remained politely indifferent. Nevertheless, he remained true to his persistence in the pursuit of any game he had fixed upon.

Mrs. Carter, whose relations with Cowperwood had in the past been not wholly platonic, nevertheless attributed much of his interest in her to her children and their vital chance. Berenice and Rolfe themselves knew nothing concerning the nature of their mother's arrangements with Cowperwood. True to his promise of protectorship and assistance, he had established her in a New York apartment adjacent to her daughter's school, and where he fancied that he himself might spend many happy hours were Berenice but near. Proximity to Berenice! The desire to arouse her interest and command her favor! Cowperwood would scarcely have cared to admit to himself how great a part this played in a thought which had recently been creeping into his mind. It was that of erecting a splendid house in New York.

By degrees this idea of building a New York house had grown upon him. His Chicago mansion was a costly sepulcher in which Aileen sat brooding over the woes which had befallen her. Moreover, aside from the social defeat which it represented, it was becoming merely as a structure, but poorly typical of the splendor and ability of his imaginations. This second dwelling, if he ever achieved it, should be resplendent, a monument to himself. In his speculative wanderings abroad he had seen many such great palaces, designed with the utmost care, which had housed the taste and culture of generations of men. His art-collection, in which he took an immense pride, had been growing, until it was the basis if not the completed substance for a very splendid memorial. Already in it were gathered paintings of all the important schools; to say nothing of collections of jade, illumined missals, porcelains, rugs, draperies, mirror frames, and a beginning at rare originals of sculpture. The beauty of these strange things, the patient laborings of inspired souls of various times and places, moved him, on occasion, to a gentle awe. Of all individuals he respected, indeed revered, the sincere artist. Existence was a mystery, but these souls who set themselves to quiet tasks of beauty had caught something of which he was dimly conscious. Life had touched them with a vision, their hearts and souls were attuned to sweet harmonies of which the common world knew nothing. Sometimes, when he was weary after a strenuous day, he would enter—late in the night—his now silent gallery, and turning on the lights so that the whole sweet room stood revealed, he would seat himself before some treasure, reflecting on the nature, the mood, the time, and the man that had produced it. Sometimes it would be one of Rembrandt's melancholy heads—the sad "Portrait of a Rabbi"—or the sweet introspection of a Rousseau stream. A solemn Dutch housewife, rendered with the bold fidelity and resonant enameled surfaces of a Hals or the cold elegance of an Ingres, commanded his utmost enthusiasm. So he would sit and wonder at the vision and skill of the original dreamer, exclaiming at times: "A marvel! A marvel!"

At the same time, so far as Aileen was concerned things were obviously shaping up for additional changes. She was in that peculiar state which has befallen many a woman—trying to substitute a lesser ideal for a greater, and finding that the effort is useless or nearly so. In regard to her affair with Lynde, aside from the temporary relief and diversion it had afforded her, she was beginning to feel that she had made a serious mistake. Lynde was delightful, after his fashion. He could amuse her with a different type of experience from any that Cowperwood had to relate. Once they were intimate he had, with an easy, genial air, confessed to all sorts of liaisons in Europe and America. He was utterly pagan—a faun—and at the same time he was truly of the smart world. His open contempt of all but one or two of the people in Chicago whom Aileen had secretly admired and wished to associate with, and his easy references to figures of importance in the East and in Paris and London, raised him amazingly in her estimation; it made her feel, sad to relate, that she had by no means lowered herself in succumbing so readily to his forceful charms.

Nevertheless, because he was what he was—genial, complimentary, affectionate, but a playboy, merely, and a soldier of fortune, with no desire to make over her life for her on any new basis—she was now grieving over the futility of this romance which had got her nowhere, and which, in all probability, had alienated Cowperwood for good. He was still outwardly genial and friendly, but their relationship was now colored by a sense of mistake and uncertainty which existed on both sides, but which, in Aileen's case, amounted to a subtle species of soul-torture. Hitherto she had been the aggrieved one, the one whose loyalty had never been in question, and whose persistent affection and faith had been greatly sinned against. Now all this was changed. The manner in which he had sinned against her was plain enough, but the way in which, out of pique, she had forsaken him was in the other balance. Say what one will, the loyalty of woman, whether a condition in nature or an evolved accident of sociology, persists as a dominating thought in at least a section of the race; and women themselves, be it said, are the ones who most loudly and openly subscribe to it. Cowperwood himself was fully aware that Aileen had deserted him, not because she loved him less or Lynde more, but because she was hurt—and deeply so. Aileen knew that he knew this. From one point of view it enraged her and made her defiant; from another it grieved her to think she had uselessly sinned against his faith in her. Now he had ample excuse to do anything he chose. Her best claim on him—her wounds—she had thrown away as one throws away a weapon. Her pride would not let her talk to him about this, and at the same time she could not endure the easy, tolerant manner with which he took it. His smiles, his forgiveness, his sometimes pleasant jesting were all a horrible offense.

To complete her mental quandary, she was already beginning to quarrel with Lynde over this matter of her unbreakable regard for Cowperwood. With the sufficiency of a man of the world Lynde intended that she should succumb to him completely and forget her wonderful husband. When with him she was apparently charmed and interested, yielding herself freely, but this was more out of pique at Cowperwood's neglect than from any genuine passion for Lynde. In spite of her pretensions of anger, her sneers, and criticisms whenever Cowperwood's name came up, she was, nevertheless, hopelessly fond of him and identified with him spiritually, and it was not long before Lynde began to suspect this. Such a discovery is a sad one for any master of women to make. It jolted his pride severely.

"You care for him still, don't you?" he asked, with a wry smile, upon one occasion. They were sitting at dinner in a private room at Kinsley's, and Aileen, whose color was high, and who was becomingly garbed in metallic-green silk, was looking especially handsome. Lynde had been proposing that she should make special arrangements to depart with him for a three-months' stay in Europe, but she would have nothing to do with the project. She did not dare. Such a move would make Cowperwood feel that she was alienating herself forever; it would give him an excellent excuse to leave her.

"Oh, it isn't that," she had declared, in reply to Lynde's query. "I just don't want to go. I can't. I'm not prepared. It's nothing but a notion of yours, anyhow. You're tired of Chicago because it's getting near spring. You go and I'll be here when you come back, or I may decide to come over later." She smiled.

Lynde pulled a dark face.

"Hell!" he said. "I know how it is with you. You still stick to him, even when he treats you like a dog. You pretend not to love him when as a matter of fact you're mad about him. I've seen it all along. You don't really care anything about me. You can't. You're too crazy about him."

"Oh, shut up!" replied Aileen, irritated greatly for the moment by this onslaught. "You talk like a fool. I'm not anything of the sort. I admire him. How could any one help it?" (At this time, of course, Cowperwood's name was filling the city.) "He's a very wonderful man. He was never brutal to me. He's a full-sized man—I'll say that for him."

By now Aileen had become sufficiently familiar with Lynde to criticize him in her own mind, and even outwardly by innuendo, for being a loafer and idler who had never created in any way the money he was so freely spending. She had little power to psychologize concerning social conditions, but the stalwart constructive persistence of Cowperwood along commercial lines coupled with the current American contempt of leisure reflected somewhat unfavorably upon Lynde, she thought.

Lynde's face clouded still more at this outburst. "You go to the devil," he retorted. "I don't get you at all. Sometimes you talk as though you were fond of me. At other times you're all wrapped up in him. Now you either care for me or you don't. Which is it? If you're so crazy about him that you can't leave home for a month or so you certainly can't care much about me."

Aileen, however, because of her long experience with Cowperwood, was more than a match for Lynde. At the same time she was afraid to let go of him for fear that she should have no one to care for her. She liked him. He was a happy resource in her misery, at least for the moment. Yet the knowledge that Cowperwood looked upon this affair as a heavy blemish on her pristine solidarity cooled her. At the thought of him and of her whole tarnished and troubled career she was very unhappy.

"Hell!" Lynde had repeated, irritably, "stay if you want to. I'll not be trying to over-persuade you—depend on that."

They quarreled still further over this matter, and, though they eventually made up, both sensed the drift toward an ultimately unsatisfactory conclusion.

It was one morning not long after this that Cowperwood, feeling in a genial mood over his affairs, came into Aileen's room, as he still did on occasions, to finish dressing and pass the time of day.

"Well," he observed, gaily, as he stood before the mirror adjusting his collar and tie, "how are you and Lynde getting along these days—nicely?"

"Oh, you go to the devil!" replied Aileen, flaring up and struggling with her divided feelings, which pained her constantly. "If it hadn't been for you there wouldn't be any chance for your smarty 'how-am-I-getting-alongs.' I am getting along all right—fine—regardless of anything you may think. He's as good a man as you are any day, and better. I like him. At least he's fond of me, and that's more than you are. Why should you care what I do? You don't, so why talk about it? I want you to let me alone."

"Aileen, Aileen, how you carry on! Don't flare up so. I meant nothing by it. I'm sorry as much for myself as for you. I've told you I'm not jealous. You think I'm critical. I'm not anything of the kind. I know how you feel. That's all very good."

"Oh yes, yes," she replied. "Well, you can keep your feelings to yourself. Go to the devil! Go to the devil, I tell you!" Her eyes blazed.

He stood now, fully dressed, in the center of the rug before her, and Aileen looked at him, keen, valiant, handsome—her old Frank. Once again she regretted her nominal faithlessness, and raged at him in her heart for his indifference. "You dog," she was about to add, "you have no heart!" but she changed her mind. Her throat tightened and her eyes filled. She wanted to run to him and say: "Oh, Frank, don't you understand how it all is, how it all came about? Won't you love me again—can't you?" But she restrained herself. It seemed to her that he might understand—that he would, in fact—but that he would never again be faithful, anyhow. And she would so gladly have discarded Lynde and any and all men if he would only have said the word, would only have really and sincerely wished her to do so.

It was one day not long after their morning quarrel in her bedroom that Cowperwood broached the matter of living in New York to Aileen, pointing out that thereby his art-collection, which was growing constantly, might be more suitably housed, and that it would give her a second opportunity to enter social life.

"So that you can get rid of me out here," commented Aileen, little knowing of Berenice Fleming.

"Not at all," replied Cowperwood, sweetly. "You see how things are. There's no chance of our getting into Chicago society. There's too much financial opposition against me here. If we had a big house in New York, such as I would build, it would be an introduction in itself. After all, these Chicagoans aren't even a snapper on the real society whip. It's the Easterners who set the pace, and the New-Yorkers most of all. If you want to say the word, I can sell this place and we can live down there, part of the time, anyhow. I could spend as much of my time with you there as I have been doing here—perhaps more."

Because of her soul of vanity Aileen's mind ran forward in spite of herself to the wider opportunities which his words suggested. This house had become a nightmare to her—a place of neglect and bad memories. Here she had fought with Rita Sohlberg; here she had seen society come for a very little while only to disappear; here she had waited this long time for the renewal of Cowperwood's love, which was now obviously never to be restored in its original glamour. As he spoke she looked at him quizzically, almost sadly in her great doubt. At the same time she could not help reflecting that in New York where money counted for so much, and with Cowperwood's great and growing wealth and prestige behind her, she might hope to find herself socially at last. "Nothing venture, nothing have" had always been her motto, nailed to her mast, though her equipment for the life she now craved had never been more than the veriest make-believe—painted wood and tinsel. Vain, radiant, hopeful Aileen! Yet how was she to know?

"Very well," she observed, finally. "Do as you like. I can live down there as well as I can here, I presume—alone."

Cowperwood knew the nature of her longings. He knew what was running in her mind, and how futile were her dreams. Life had taught him how fortuitous must be the circumstances which could enable a woman of Aileen's handicaps and defects to enter that cold upper world. Yet for all the courage of him, for the very life of him, he could not tell her. He could not forget that once, behind the grim bars in the penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, he had cried on her shoulder. He could not be an ingrate and wound her with his inmost thoughts any more than he could deceive himself. A New York mansion and the dreams of social supremacy which she might there entertain would soothe her ruffled vanity and assuage her disappointed heart; and at the same time he would be nearer Berenice Fleming. Say what one will of these ferret windings of the human mind, they are, nevertheless, true and characteristic of the average human being, and Cowperwood was no exception. He saw it all, he calculated on it—he calculated on the simple humanity of Aileen.

Return to the The Titan Summary Return to the Theodore Dreiser Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson