The growth of a relationship between Cowperwood and Rita Sohlberg was fostered quite accidentally by Aileen, who took a foolishly sentimental interest in Harold which yet was not based on anything of real meaning. She liked him because he was a superlatively gracious, flattering, emotional man where women—pretty women—were concerned. She had some idea she could send him pupils, and, anyhow, it was nice to call at the Sohlberg studio. Her social life was dull enough as it was. So she went, and Cowperwood, mindful of Mrs. Sohlberg, came also. Shrewd to the point of destruction, he encouraged Aileen in her interest in them. He suggested that she invite them to dinner, that they give a musical at which Sohlberg could play and be paid. There were boxes at the theaters, tickets for concerts sent, invitations to drive Sundays or other days.
The very chemistry of life seems to play into the hands of a situation of this kind. Once Cowperwood was thinking vividly, forcefully, of her, Rita began to think in like manner of him. Hourly he grew more attractive, a strange, gripping man. Beset by his mood, she was having the devil's own time with her conscience. Not that anything had been said as yet, but he was investing her, gradually beleaguering her, sealing up, apparently, one avenue after another of escape. One Thursday afternoon, when neither Aileen nor he could attend the Sohlberg tea, Mrs. Sohlberg received a magnificent bunch of Jacqueminot roses. "For your nooks and corners," said a card. She knew well enough from whom it came and what it was worth. There were all of fifty dollars worth of roses. It gave her breath of a world of money that she had never known. Daily she saw the name of his banking and brokerage firm advertised in the papers. Once she met him in Merrill's store at noon, and he invited her to lunch; but she felt obliged to decline. Always he looked at her with such straight, vigorous eyes. To think that her beauty had done or was doing this! Her mind, quite beyond herself, ran forward to an hour when perhaps this eager, magnetic man would take charge of her in a way never dreamed of by Harold. But she went on practising, shopping, calling, reading, brooding over Harold's inefficiency, and stopping oddly sometimes to think—the etherealized grip of Cowperwood upon her. Those strong hands of his—how fine they were—and those large, soft-hard, incisive eyes. The puritanism of Wichita (modified sometime since by the art life of Chicago, such as it was) was having a severe struggle with the manipulative subtlety of the ages—represented in this man.
"You know you are very elusive," he said to her one evening at the theater when he sat behind her during the entr'acte, and Harold and Aileen had gone to walk in the foyer. The hubbub of conversation drowned the sound of anything that might be said. Mrs. Sohlberg was particularly pleasing in a lacy evening gown.
"No," she replied, amusedly, flattered by his attention and acutely conscious of his physical nearness. By degrees she had been yielding herself to his mood, thrilling at his every word. "It seems to me I am very stable," she went on. "I'm certainly substantial enough."
She looked at her full, smooth arm lying on her lap.
Cowperwood, who was feeling all the drag of her substantiality, but in addition the wonder of her temperament, which was so much richer than Aileen's, was deeply moved. Those little blood moods that no words ever (or rarely) indicate were coming to him from her—faint zephyr-like emanations of emotions, moods, and fancies in her mind which allured him. She was like Aileen in animality, but better, still sweeter, more delicate, much richer spiritually. Or was he just tired of Aileen for the present, he asked himself at times. No, no, he told himself that could not be. Rita Sohlberg was by far the most pleasing woman he had ever known.
"Yes, but elusive, just the same," he went on, leaning toward her. "You remind me of something that I can find no word for—a bit of color or a perfume or tone—a flash of something. I follow you in my thoughts all the time now. Your knowledge of art interests me. I like your playing—it is like you. You make me think of delightful things that have nothing to do with the ordinary run of my life. Do you understand?"
"It is very nice," she said, "if I do." She took a breath, softly, dramatically. "You make me think vain things, you know." (Her mouth was a delicious O.) "You paint a pretty picture." She was warm, flushed, suffused with a burst of her own temperament.
"You are like that," he went on, insistently. "You make me feel like that all the time. You know," he added, leaning over her chair, "I sometimes think you have never lived. There is so much that would complete your perfectness. I should like to send you abroad or take you—anyhow, you should go. You are very wonderful to me. Do you find me at all interesting to you?"
"Yes, but"—she paused—"you know I am afraid of all this and of you." Her mouth had that same delicious formation which had first attracted him. "I don't think we had better talk like this, do you? Harold is very jealous, or would be. What do you suppose Mrs. Cowperwood would think?"
"I know very well, but we needn't stop to consider that now, need we? It will do her no harm to let me talk to you. Life is between individuals, Rita. You and I have very much in common. Don't you see that? You are infinitely the most interesting woman I have ever known. You are bringing me something I have never known. Don't you see that? I want you to tell me something truly. Look at me. You are not happy as you are, are you? Not perfectly happy?"
"No." She smoothed her fan with her fingers.
"Are you happy at all?"
"I thought I was once. I'm not any more, I think."
"It is so plain why," he commented. "You are so much more wonderful than your place gives you scope for. You are an individual, not an acolyte to swing a censer for another. Mr. Sohlberg is very interesting, but you can't be happy that way. It surprises me you haven't seen it."
"Oh," she exclaimed, with a touch of weariness, "but perhaps I have."
He looked at her keenly, and she thrilled. "I don't think we'd better talk so here," she replied. "You'd better be—"
He laid his hand on the back of her chair, almost touching her shoulder.
"Rita," he said, using her given name again, "you wonderful woman!"
"Oh!" she breathed.
Cowperwood did not see Mrs. Sohlberg again for over a week—ten days exactly—when one afternoon Aileen came for him in a new kind of trap, having stopped first to pick up the Sohlbergs. Harold was up in front with her and she had left a place behind for Cowperwood with Rita. She did not in the vaguest way suspect how interested he was—his manner was so deceptive. Aileen imagined that she was the superior woman of the two, the better-looking, the better-dressed, hence the more ensnaring. She could not guess what a lure this woman's temperament had for Cowperwood, who was so brisk, dynamic, seemingly unromantic, but who, just the same, in his nature concealed (under a very forceful exterior) a deep underlying element of romance and fire.
"This is charming," he said, sinking down beside Rita. "What a fine evening! And the nice straw hat with the roses, and the nice linen dress. My, my!" The roses were red; the dress white, with thin, green ribbon run through it here and there. She was keenly aware of the reason for his enthusiasm. He was so different from Harold, so healthy and out-of-doorish, so able. To-day Harold had been in tantrums over fate, life, his lack of success.
"Oh, I shouldn't complain so much if I were you," she had said to him, bitterly. "You might work harder and storm less."
This had produced a scene which she had escaped by going for a walk. Almost at the very moment when she had returned Aileen had appeared. It was a way out.
She had cheered up, and accepted, dressed. So had Sohlberg. Apparently smiling and happy, they had set out on the drive. Now, as Cowperwood spoke, she glanced about her contentedly. "I'm lovely," she thought, "and he loves me. How wonderful it would be if we dared." But she said aloud: "I'm not so very nice. It's just the day—don't you think so? It's a simple dress. I'm not very happy, though, to-night, either."
"What's the matter?" he asked, cheeringly, the rumble of the traffic destroying the carrying-power of their voices. He leaned toward her, very anxious to solve any difficulty which might confront her, perfectly willing to ensnare her by kindness. "Isn't there something I can do? We're going now for a long ride to the pavilion in Jackson Park, and then, after dinner, we'll come back by moonlight. Won't that be nice? You must be smiling now and like yourself—happy. You have no reason to be otherwise that I know of. I will do anything for you that you want done—that can be done. You can have anything you want that I can give you. What is it? You know how much I think of you. If you leave your affairs to me you would never have any troubles of any kind."
"Oh, it isn't anything you can do—not now, anyhow. My affairs! Oh yes. What are they? Very simple, all."
She had that delicious atmosphere of remoteness even from herself. He was enchanted.
"But you are not simple to me, Rita," he said, softly, "nor are your affairs. They concern me very much. You are so important to me. I have told you that. Don't you see how true it is? You are a strange complexity to me—wonderful. I'm mad over you. Ever since I saw you last I have been thinking, thinking. If you have troubles let me share them. You are so much to me—my only trouble. I can fix your life. Join it with mine. I need you, and you need me."
"Yes," she said, "I know." Then she paused. "It's nothing much," she went on—"just a quarrel."
"Over me, really." The mouth was delicious. "I can't swing the censer always, as you say." That thought of his had stuck. "It's all right now, though. Isn't the day lovely, be-yoot-i-ful!"
Cowperwood looked at her and shook his head. She was such a treasure—so inconsequential. Aileen, busy driving and talking, could not see or hear. She was interested in Sohlberg, and the southward crush of vehicles on Michigan Avenue was distracting her attention. As they drove swiftly past budding trees, kempt lawns, fresh-made flower-beds, open windows—the whole seductive world of spring—Cowperwood felt as though life had once more taken a fresh start. His magnetism, if it had been visible, would have enveloped him like a glittering aura. Mrs. Sohlberg felt that this was going to be a wonderful evening.
The dinner was at the Park—an open-air chicken a la Maryland affair, with waffles and champagne to help out. Aileen, flattered by Sohlberg's gaiety under her spell, was having a delightful time, jesting, toasting, laughing, walking on the grass. Sohlberg was making love to her in a foolish, inconsequential way, as many men were inclined to do; but she was putting him off gaily with "silly boy" and "hush." She was so sure of herself that she was free to tell Cowperwood afterward how emotional he was and how she had to laugh at him. Cowperwood, quite certain that she was faithful, took it all in good part. Sohlberg was such a dunce and such a happy convenience ready to his hand. "He's not a bad sort," he commented. "I rather like him, though I don't think he's so much of a violinist."
After dinner they drove along the lake-shore and out through an open bit of tree-blocked prairie land, the moon shining in a clear sky, filling the fields and topping the lake with a silvery effulgence. Mrs. Sohlberg was being inoculated with the virus Cowperwood, and it was taking deadly effect. The tendency of her own disposition, however lethargic it might seem, once it was stirred emotionally, was to act. She was essentially dynamic and passionate. Cowperwood was beginning to stand out in her mind as the force that he was. It would be wonderful to be loved by such a man. There would be an eager, vivid life between them. It frightened and drew her like a blazing lamp in the dark. To get control of herself she talked of art, people, of Paris, Italy, and he responded in like strain, but all the while he smoothed her hand, and once, under the shadow of some trees, he put his hand to her hair, turned her face, and put his mouth softly to her cheek. She flushed, trembled, turned pale, in the grip of this strange storm, but drew herself together. It was wonderful—heaven. Her old life was obviously going to pieces.
"Listen," he said, guardedly. "Will you meet me to-morrow at three just beyond the Rush Street bridge? I will pick you up promptly. You won't have to wait a moment."
She paused, meditating, dreaming, almost hypnotized by his strange world of fancy.
"Will you?" he asked, eagerly.
"Wait," she said, softly. "Let me think. Can I?"
"Yes," she said, after a time, drawing in a deep breath. "Yes"—as if she had arranged something in her mind.
"My sweet," he whispered, pressing her arm, while he looked at her profile in the moonlight.
"But I'm doing a great deal," she replied, softly, a little breathless and a little pale.