The complications which had followed his various sentimental affairs left Cowperwood in a quandary at times as to whether there could be any peace or satisfaction outside of monogamy, after all. Although Mrs. Hand had gone to Europe at the crisis of her affairs, she had returned to seek him out. Cecily Haguenin found many opportunities of writing him letters and assuring him of her undying affection. Florence Cochrane persisted in seeing or attempting to see him even after his interest in her began to wane. For another thing Aileen, owing to the complication and general degeneracy of her affairs, had recently begun to drink. Owing to the failure of her affair with Lynde—for in spite of her yielding she had never had any real heart interest in it—and to the cavalier attitude with which Cowperwood took her disloyalty, she had reached that state of speculative doldrums where the human animal turns upon itself in bitter self-analysis; the end with the more sensitive or the less durable is dissipation or even death. Woe to him who places his faith in illusion—the only reality—and woe to him who does not. In one way lies disillusion with its pain, in the other way regret.
After Lynde's departure for Europe, whither she had refused to follow him, Aileen took up with a secondary personage by the name of Watson Skeet, a sculptor. Unlike most artists, he was the solitary heir of the president of an immense furniture-manufacturing company in which he refused to take any interest. He had studied abroad, but had returned to Chicago with a view to propagating art in the West. A large, blond, soft-fleshed man, he had a kind of archaic naturalness and simplicity which appealed to Aileen. They had met at the Rhees Griers'. Feeling herself neglected after Lynde's departure, and dreading loneliness above all things, Aileen became intimate with Skeet, but to no intense mental satisfaction. That driving standard within—that obsessing ideal which requires that all things be measured by it—was still dominant. Who has not experienced the chilling memory of the better thing? How it creeps over the spirit of one's current dreams! Like the specter at the banquet it stands, its substanceless eyes viewing with a sad philosophy the makeshift feast. The what-might-have-been of her life with Cowperwood walked side by side with her wherever she went. Once occasionally indulging in cigarettes, she now smoked almost constantly. Once barely sipping at wines, cocktails, brandy-and-soda, she now took to the latter, or, rather, to a new whisky-and-soda combination known as "highball" with a kind of vehemence which had little to do with a taste for the thing itself. True, drinking is, after all, a state of mind, and not an appetite. She had found on a number of occasions when she had been quarreling with Lynde or was mentally depressed that in partaking of these drinks a sort of warm, speculative indifference seized upon her. She was no longer so sad. She might cry, but it was in a soft, rainy, relieving way. Her sorrows were as strange, enticing figures in dreams. They moved about and around her, not as things actually identical with her, but as ills which she could view at a distance. Sometimes both she and they (for she saw herself also as in a kind of mirage or inverted vision) seemed beings of another state, troubled, but not bitterly painful. The old nepenthe of the bottle had seized upon her. After a few accidental lapses, in which she found it acted as a solace or sedative, the highball visioned itself to her as a resource. Why should she not drink if it relieved her, as it actually did, of physical and mental pain? There were apparently no bad after-effects. The whisky involved was diluted to an almost watery state. It was her custom now when at home alone to go to the butler's pantry where the liquors were stored and prepare a drink for herself, or to order a tray with a siphon and bottle placed in her room. Cowperwood, noticing the persistence of its presence there and the fact that she drank heavily at table, commented upon it.
"You're not taking too much of that, are you, Aileen?" he questioned one evening, watching her drink down a tumbler of whisky and water as she sat contemplating a pattern of needlework with which the table was ornamented.
"Certainly I'm not," she replied, irritably, a little flushed and thick of tongue. "Why do you ask?" She herself had been wondering whether in the course of time it might not have a depreciating effect on her complexion. This was the only thing that still concerned her—her beauty.
"Well, I see you have that bottle in your room all the time. I was wondering if you might not be forgetting how much you are using it."
Because she was so sensitive he was trying to be tactful.
"Well," she answered, crossly, "what if I am? It wouldn't make any particular difference if I did. I might as well drink as do some other things that are done."
It was a kind of satisfaction to her to bait him in this way. His inquiry, being a proof of continued interest on his part, was of some value. At least he was not entirely indifferent to her.
"I wish you wouldn't talk that way, Aileen," he replied. "I have no objection to your drinking some. I don't suppose it makes any difference to you now whether I object or not. But you are too good-looking, too well set up physically, to begin that. You don't need it, and it's such a short road to hell. Your state isn't so bad. Good heavens! many another woman has been in your position. I'm not going to leave you unless you want to leave me. I've told you that over and over. I'm just sorry people change—we all do. I suppose I've changed some, but that's no reason for your letting yourself go to pieces. I wish you wouldn't be desperate about this business. It may come out better than you think in the long run."
He was merely talking to console her.
"Oh! oh! oh!" Aileen suddenly began to rock and cry in a foolish drunken way, as though her heart would break, and Cowperwood got up. He was horrified after a fashion.
"Oh, don't come near me!" Aileen suddenly exclaimed, sobering in an equally strange way. "I know why you come. I know how much you care about me or my looks. Don't you worry whether I drink or not. I'll drink if I please, or do anything else if I choose. If it helps me over my difficulties, that's my business, not yours," and in defiance she prepared another glass and drank it.
Cowperwood shook his head, looking at her steadily and sorrowfully. "It's too bad, Aileen," he said. "I don't know what to do about you exactly. You oughtn't to go on this way. Whisky won't get you anywhere. It will simply ruin your looks and make you miserable in the bargain."
"Oh, to hell with my looks!" she snapped. "A lot of good they've done me." And, feeling contentious and sad, she got up and left the table. Cowperwood followed her after a time, only to see her dabbing at her eyes and nose with powder. A half-filled glass of whisky and water was on the dressing-table beside her. It gave him a strange feeling of responsibility and helplessness.
Mingled with his anxiety as to Aileen were thoughts of the alternate rise and fall of his hopes in connection with Berenice. She was such a superior girl, developing so definitely as an individual. To his satisfaction she had, on a few recent occasions when he had seen her, unbent sufficiently to talk to him in a friendly and even intimate way, for she was by no means hoity-toity, but a thinking, reasoning being of the profoundest intellectual, or, rather, the highest artistic tendencies. She was so care-free, living in a high and solitary world, at times apparently enwrapt in thoughts serene, at other times sharing vividly in the current interests of the social world of which she was a part, and which she dignified as much as it dignified her.
One Sunday morning at Pocono, in late June weather, when he had come East to rest for a few days, and all was still and airy on the high ground which the Carter cottage occupied, Berenice came out on the veranda where Cowperwood was sitting, reading a fiscal report of one of his companies and meditating on his affairs. By now they had become somewhat more sympatica than formerly, and Berenice had an easy, genial way in his presence. She liked him, rather. With an indescribable smile which wrinkled her nose and eyes, and played about the corners of her mouth, she said: "Now I am going to catch a bird."
"A what?" asked Cowperwood, looking up and pretending he had not heard, though he had. He was all eyes for any movement of hers. She was dressed in a flouncy morning gown eminently suitable for the world in which she was moving.
"A bird," she replied, with an airy toss of her head. "This is June-time, and the sparrows are teaching their young to fly."
Cowperwood, previously engrossed in financial speculations, was translated, as by the wave of a fairy wand, into another realm where birds and fledglings and grass and the light winds of heaven were more important than brick and stone and stocks and bonds. He got up and followed her flowing steps across the grass to where, near a clump of alder bushes, she had seen a mother sparrow enticing a fledgling to take wing. From her room upstairs, she had been watching this bit of outdoor sociology. It suddenly came to Cowperwood, with great force, how comparatively unimportant in the great drift of life were his own affairs when about him was operative all this splendid will to existence, as sensed by her. He saw her stretch out her hands downward, and run in an airy, graceful way, stooping here and there, while before her fluttered a baby sparrow, until suddenly she dived quickly and then, turning, her face agleam, cried: "See, I have him! He wants to fight, too! Oh, you little dear!"
She was holding "him," as she chose to characterize it, in the hollow of her hand, the head between her thumb and forefinger, with the forefinger of her free hand petting it the while she laughed and kissed it. It was not so much bird-love as the artistry of life and of herself that was moving her. Hearing the parent bird chirping distractedly from a nearby limb, she turned and called: "Don't make such a row! I sha'n't keep him long."
Cowperwood laughed—trig in the morning sun. "You can scarcely blame her," he commented.
"Oh, she knows well enough I wouldn't hurt him," Berenice replied, spiritedly, as though it were literally true.
"Does she, indeed?" inquired Cowperwood. "Why do you say that?"
"Because it's true. Don't you think they know when their children are really in danger?"
"But why should they?" persisted Cowperwood, charmed and interested by the involute character of her logic. She was quite deceptive to him. He could not be sure what she thought.
She merely fixed him a moment with her cool, slate-blue eyes. "Do you think the senses of the world are only five?" she asked, in the most charming and non-reproachful way. "Indeed, they know well enough. She knows." She turned and waved a graceful hand in the direction of the tree, where peace now reigned. The chirping had ceased. "She knows I am not a cat."
Again that enticing, mocking smile that wrinkled her nose, her eye-corners, her mouth. The word "cat" had a sharp, sweet sound in her mouth. It seemed to be bitten off closely with force and airy spirit. Cowperwood surveyed her as he would have surveyed the ablest person he knew. Here was a woman, he saw, who could and would command the utmost reaches of his soul in every direction. If he interested her at all, he would need them all. The eyes of her were at once so elusive, so direct, so friendly, so cool and keen. "You will have to be interesting, indeed, to interest me," they seemed to say; and yet they were by no means averse, apparently, to a hearty camaraderie. That nose-wrinkling smile said as much. Here was by no means a Stephanie Platow, nor yet a Rita Sohlberg. He could not assume her as he had Ella Hubby, or Florence Cochrane, or Cecily Haguenin. Here was an iron individuality with a soul for romance and art and philosophy and life. He could not take her as he had those others. And yet Berenice was really beginning to think more than a little about Cowperwood. He must be an extraordinary man; her mother said so, and the newspapers were always mentioning his name and noting his movements.
A little later, at Southampton, whither she and her mother had gone, they met again. Together with a young man by the name of Greanelle, Cowperwood and Berenice had gone into the sea to bathe. It was a wonderful afternoon.
To the east and south and west spread the sea, a crinkling floor of blue, and to their left, as they faced it, was a lovely outward-curving shore of tawny sand. Studying Berenice in blue-silk bathing costume and shoes, Cowperwood had been stung by the wonder of passing life—how youth comes in, ever fresh and fresh, and age goes out. Here he was, long crowded years of conflict and experience behind him, and yet this twenty-year-old girl, with her incisive mind and keen tastes, was apparently as wise in matters of general import as himself. He could find no flaw in her armor in those matters which they could discuss. Her knowledge and comments were so ripe and sane, despite a tendency to pose a little, which was quite within her rights. Because Greanelle had bored her a little she had shunted him off and was amusing herself talking to Cowperwood, who fascinated her by his compact individuality.
"Do you know," she confided to him, on this occasion, "I get so very tired of young men sometimes. They can be so inane. I do declare, they are nothing more than shoes and ties and socks and canes strung together in some unimaginable way. Vaughn Greanelle is for all the world like a perambulating manikin to-day. He is just an English suit with a cane attached walking about."
"Well, bless my soul," commented Cowperwood, "what an indictment!"
"It's true," she replied. "He knows nothing at all except polo, and the latest swimming-stroke, and where everybody is, and who is going to marry who. Isn't it dull?"
She tossed her head back and breathed as though to exhale the fumes of the dull and the inane from her inmost being.
"Did you tell him that?" inquired Cowperwood, curiously.
"Certainly I did."
"I don't wonder he looks so solemn," he said, turning and looking back at Greanelle and Mrs. Carter; they were sitting side by side in sand-chairs, the former beating the sand with his toes. "You're a curious girl, Berenice," he went on, familiarly. "You are so direct and vital at times.
"Not any more than you are, from all I can hear," she replied, fixing him with those steady eyes. "Anyhow, why should I be bored? He is so dull. He follows me around out here all the time, and I don't want him."
She tossed her head and began to run up the beach to where bathers were fewer and fewer, looking back at Cowperwood as if to say, "Why don't you follow?" He developed a burst of enthusiasm and ran quite briskly, overtaking her near some shallows where, because of a sandbar offshore, the waters were thin and bright.
"Oh, look!" exclaimed Berenice, when he came up. "See, the fish! O-oh!"
She dashed in to where a few feet offshore a small school of minnows as large as sardines were playing, silvery in the sun. She ran as she had for the bird, doing her best to frighten them into a neighboring pocket or pool farther up on the shore. Cowperwood, as gay as a boy of ten, joined in the chase. He raced after them briskly, losing one school, but pocketing another a little farther on and calling to her to come.
"Oh!" exclaimed Berenice at one point. "Here they are now. Come quick! Drive them in here!"
Her hair was blowy, her face a keen pink, her eyes an electric blue by contrast. She was bending low over the water—Cowperwood also—their hands outstretched, the fish, some five in all, nervously dancing before them in their efforts to escape. All at once, having forced them into a corner, they dived; Berenice actually caught one. Cowperwood missed by a fraction, but drove the fish she did catch into her hands.
"Oh," she exclaimed, jumping up, "how wonderful! It's alive. I caught it."
She danced up and down, and Cowperwood, standing before her, was sobered by her charm. He felt an impulse to speak to her of his affection, to tell her how delicious she was to him.
"You," he said, pausing over the word and giving it special emphasis—"you are the only thing here that is wonderful to me."
She looked at him a moment, the live fish in her extended hands, her eyes keying to the situation. For the least fraction of a moment she was uncertain, as he could see, how to take this. Many men had been approximative before. It was common to have compliments paid to her. But this was different. She said nothing, but fixed him with a look which said quite plainly, "You had better not say anything more just now, I think." Then, seeing that he understood, that his manner softened, and that he was troubled, she crinkled her nose gaily and added: "It's like fairyland. I feel as though I had caught it out of another world." Cowperwood understood. The direct approach was not for use in her case; and yet there was something, a camaraderie, a sympathy which he felt and which she felt. A girls' school, conventions, the need of socially placing herself, her conservative friends, and their viewpoint—all were working here. If he were only single now, she told herself, she would be willing to listen to him in a very different spirit, for he was charming. But this way— And he, for his part, concluded that here was one woman whom he would gladly marry if she would have him.