Cowperwood was enchanted. He kept the proposed tryst with eagerness and found her all that he had hoped. She was sweeter, more colorful, more elusive than anybody he had ever known. In their charming apartment on the North Side which he at once engaged, and where he sometimes spent mornings, evenings, afternoons, as opportunity afforded, he studied her with the most critical eye and found her almost flawless. She had that boundless value which youth and a certain insouciance of manner contribute. There was, delicious to relate, no melancholy in her nature, but a kind of innate sufficiency which neither looked forward to nor back upon troublesome ills. She loved beautiful things, but was not extravagant; and what interested him and commanded his respect was that no urgings of his toward prodigality, however subtly advanced, could affect her. She knew what she wanted, spent carefully, bought tastefully, arrayed herself in ways which appealed to him as the flowers did. His feeling for her became at times so great that he wished, one might almost have said, to destroy it—to appease the urge and allay the pull in himself, but it was useless. The charm of her endured. His transports would leave her refreshed apparently, prettier, more graceful than ever, it seemed to him, putting back her ruffled hair with her hand, mouthing at herself prettily in the glass, thinking of many remote delicious things at once.
"Do you remember that picture we saw in the art store the other day, Algernon?" she would drawl, calling him by his second name, which she had adopted for herself as being more suited to his moods when with her and more pleasing to her. Cowperwood had protested, but she held to it. "Do you remember that lovely blue of the old man's coat?" (It was an "Adoration of the Magi.") "Wasn't that be-yoot-i-ful?"
She drawled so sweetly and fixed her mouth in such an odd way that he was impelled to kiss her. "You clover blossom," he would say to her, coming over and taking her by the arms. "You sprig of cherry bloom. You Dresden china dream."
"Now, are you going to muss my hair, when I've just managed to fix it?"
The voice was the voice of careless, genial innocence—and the eyes.
"Yes, I am, minx."
"Yes, but you mustn't smother me, you know. Really, you know you almost hurt me with your mouth. Aren't you going to be nice to me?"
"Yes, sweet. But I want to hurt you, too."
"Well, then, if you must."
But for all his transports the lure was still there. She was like a butterfly, he thought, yellow and white or blue and gold, fluttering over a hedge of wild rose.
In these intimacies it was that he came quickly to understand how much she knew of social movements and tendencies, though she was just an individual of the outer fringe. She caught at once a clear understanding of his social point of view, his art ambition, his dreams of something better for himself in every way. She seemed to see clearly that he had not as yet realized himself, that Aileen was not just the woman for him, though she might be one. She talked of her own husband after a time in a tolerant way—his foibles, defects, weaknesses. She was not unsympathetic, he thought, just weary of a state that was not properly balanced either in love, ability, or insight. Cowperwood had suggested that she could take a larger studio for herself and Harold—do away with the petty economies that had hampered her and him—and explain it all on the grounds of a larger generosity on the part of her family. At first she objected; but Cowperwood was tactful and finally brought it about. He again suggested a little while later that she should persuade Harold to go to Europe. There would be the same ostensible reason—additional means from her relatives. Mrs. Sohlberg, thus urged, petted, made over, assured, came finally to accept his liberal rule—to bow to him; she became as contented as a cat. With caution she accepted of his largess, and made the cleverest use of it she could. For something over a year neither Sohlberg nor Aileen was aware of the intimacy which had sprung up. Sohlberg, easily bamboozled, went back to Denmark for a visit, then to study in Germany. Mrs. Sohlberg followed Cowperwood to Europe the following year. At Aix-les-Bains, Biarritz, Paris, even London, Aileen never knew that there was an additional figure in the background. Cowperwood was trained by Rita into a really finer point of view. He came to know better music, books, even the facts. She encouraged him in his idea of a representative collection of the old masters, and begged him to be cautious in his selection of moderns. He felt himself to be delightfully situated indeed.
The difficulty with this situation, as with all such where an individual ventures thus bucaneeringly on the sea of sex, is the possibility of those storms which result from misplaced confidence, and from our built-up system of ethics relating to property in women. To Cowperwood, however, who was a law unto himself, who knew no law except such as might be imposed upon him by his lack of ability to think, this possibility of entanglement, wrath, rage, pain, offered no particular obstacle. It was not at all certain that any such thing would follow. Where the average man might have found one such liaison difficult to manage, Cowperwood, as we have seen, had previously entered on several such affairs almost simultaneously; and now he had ventured on yet another; in the last instance with much greater feeling and enthusiasm. The previous affairs had been emotional makeshifts at best—more or less idle philanderings in which his deeper moods and feelings were not concerned. In the case of Mrs. Sohlberg all this was changed. For the present at least she was really all in all to him. But this temperamental characteristic of his relating to his love of women, his artistic if not emotional subjection to their beauty, and the mystery of their personalities led him into still a further affair, and this last was not so fortunate in its outcome.
Antoinette Nowak had come to him fresh from a West Side high school and a Chicago business college, and had been engaged as his private stenographer and secretary. This girl had blossomed forth into something exceptional, as American children of foreign parents are wont to do. You would have scarcely believed that she, with her fine, lithe body, her good taste in dress, her skill in stenography, bookkeeping, and business details, could be the daughter of a struggling Pole, who had first worked in the Southwest Chicago Steel Mills, and who had later kept a fifth-rate cigar, news, and stationery store in the Polish district, the merchandise of playing-cards and a back room for idling and casual gaming being the principal reasons for its existence. Antoinette, whose first name had not been Antoinette at all, but Minka (the Antoinette having been borrowed by her from an article in one of the Chicago Sunday papers), was a fine dark, brooding girl, ambitious and hopeful, who ten days after she had accepted her new place was admiring Cowperwood and following his every daring movement with almost excited interest. To be the wife of such a man, she thought—to even command his interest, let alone his affection—must be wonderful. After the dull world she had known—it seemed dull compared to the upper, rarefied realms which she was beginning to glimpse through him—and after the average men in the real-estate office over the way where she had first worked, Cowperwood, in his good clothes, his remote mood, his easy, commanding manner, touched the most ambitious chords of her being. One day she saw Aileen sweep in from her carriage, wearing warm brown furs, smart polished boots, a street-suit of corded brown wool, and a fur toque sharpened and emphasized by a long dark-red feather which shot upward like a dagger or a quill pen. Antoinette hated her. She conceived herself to be better, or as good at least. Why was life divided so unfairly? What sort of a man was Cowperwood, anyhow? One night after she had written out a discreet but truthful history of himself which he had dictated to her, and which she had sent to the Chicago newspapers for him soon after the opening of his brokerage office in Chicago, she went home and dreamed of what he had told her, only altered, of course, as in dreams. She thought that Cowperwood stood beside her in his handsome private office in La Salle Street and asked her:
"Antoinette, what do you think of me?" Antoinette was nonplussed, but brave. In her dream she found herself intensely interested in him.
"Oh, I don't know what to think. I'm so sorry," was her answer. Then he laid his hand on hers, on her cheek, and she awoke. She began thinking, what a pity, what a shame that such a man should ever have been in prison. He was so handsome. He had been married twice. Perhaps his first wife was very homely or very mean-spirited. She thought of this, and the next day went to work meditatively. Cowperwood, engrossed in his own plans, was not thinking of her at present. He was thinking of the next moves in his interesting gas war. And Aileen, seeing her one day, merely considered her an underling. The woman in business was such a novelty that as yet she was declasse. Aileen really thought nothing of Antoinette at all.
Somewhat over a year after Cowperwood had become intimate with Mrs. Sohlberg his rather practical business relations with Antoinette Nowak took on a more intimate color. What shall we say of this—that he had already wearied of Mrs. Sohlberg? Not in the least. He was desperately fond of her. Or that he despised Aileen, whom he was thus grossly deceiving? Not at all. She was to him at times as attractive as ever—perhaps more so for the reason that her self-imagined rights were being thus roughly infringed upon. He was sorry for her, but inclined to justify himself on the ground that these other relations—with possibly the exception of Mrs. Sohlherg—were not enduring. If it had been possible to marry Mrs. Sohlberg he might have done so, and he did speculate at times as to whether anything would ever induce Aileen to leave him; but this was more or less idle speculation. He rather fancied they would live out their days together, seeing that he was able thus easily to deceive her. But as for a girl like Antoinette Nowak, she figured in that braided symphony of mere sex attraction which somehow makes up that geometric formula of beauty which rules the world. She was charming in a dark way, beautiful, with eyes that burned with an unsatisfied fire; and Cowperwood, although at first only in the least moved by her, became by degrees interested in her, wondering at the amazing, transforming power of the American atmosphere.
"Are your parents English, Antoinette?" he asked her, one morning, with that easy familiarity which he assumed to all underlings and minor intellects—an air that could not be resented in him, and which was usually accepted as a compliment.
Antoinette, clean and fresh in a white shirtwaist, a black walking-skirt, a ribbon of black velvet about her neck, and her long, black hair laid in a heavy braid low over her forehead and held close by a white celluloid comb, looked at him with pleased and grateful eyes. She had been used to such different types of men—the earnest, fiery, excitable, sometimes drunken and swearing men of her childhood, always striking, marching, praying in the Catholic churches; and then the men of the business world, crazy over money, and with no understanding of anything save some few facts about Chicago and its momentary possibilities. In Cowperwood's office, taking his letters and hearing him talk in his quick, genial way with old Laughlin, Sippens, and others, she had learned more of life than she had ever dreamed existed. He was like a vast open window out of which she was looking upon an almost illimitable landscape.
"No, sir," she replied, dropping her slim, firm, white hand, holding a black lead-pencil restfully on her notebook. She smiled quite innocently because she was pleased.
"I thought not," he said, "and yet you're American enough."
"I don't know how it is," she said, quite solemnly. "I have a brother who is quite as American as I am. We don't either of us look like our father or mother."
"What does your brother do?" he asked, indifferently.
"He's one of the weighers at Arneel & Co. He expects to be a manager sometime." She smiled.
Cowperwood looked at her speculatively, and after a momentary return glance she dropped her eyes. Slowly, in spite of herself, a telltale flush rose and mantled her brown cheeks. It always did when he looked at her.
"Take this letter to General Van Sickle," he began, on this occasion quite helpfully, and in a few minutes she had recovered. She could not be near Cowperwood for long at a time, however, without being stirred by a feeling which was not of her own willing. He fascinated and suffused her with a dull fire. She sometimes wondered whether a man so remarkable would ever be interested in a girl like her.
The end of this essential interest, of course, was the eventual assumption of Antoinette. One might go through all the dissolving details of days in which she sat taking dictation, receiving instructions, going about her office duties in a state of apparently chill, practical, commercial single-mindedness; but it would be to no purpose. As a matter of fact, without in any way affecting the preciseness and accuracy of her labor, her thoughts were always upon the man in the inner office—the strange master who was then seeing his men, and in between, so it seemed, a whole world of individuals, solemn and commercial, who came, presented their cards, talked at times almost interminably, and went away. It was the rare individual, however, she observed, who had the long conversation with Cowperwood, and that interested her the more. His instructions to her were always of the briefest, and he depended on her native intelligence to supply much that he scarcely more than suggested.
"You understand, do you?" was his customary phrase.
"Yes," she would reply.
She felt as though she were fifty times as significant here as she had ever been in her life before.
The office was clean, hard, bright, like Cowperwood himself. The morning sun, streaming in through an almost solid glass east front shaded by pale-green roller curtains, came to have an almost romantic atmosphere for her. Cowperwood's private office, as in Philadelphia, was a solid cherry-wood box in which he could shut himself completely—sight-proof, sound-proof. When the door was closed it was sacrosanct. He made it a rule, sensibly, to keep his door open as much as possible, even when he was dictating, sometimes not. It was in these half-hours of dictation—the door open, as a rule, for he did not care for too much privacy—that he and Miss Nowak came closest. After months and months, and because he had been busy with the other woman mentioned, of whom she knew nothing, she came to enter sometimes with a sense of suffocation, sometimes of maidenly shame. It would never have occurred to her to admit frankly that she wanted Cowperwood to make love to her. It would have frightened her to have thought of herself as yielding easily, and yet there was not a detail of his personality that was not now burned in her brain. His light, thick, always smoothly parted hair, his wide, clear, inscrutable eyes, his carefully manicured hands, so full and firm, his fresh clothing of delicate, intricate patterns—how these fascinated her! He seemed always remote except just at the moment of doing something, when, curiously enough, he seemed intensely intimate and near.
One day, after many exchanges of glances in which her own always fell sharply—in the midst of a letter—he arose and closed the half-open door. She did not think so much of that, as a rule—it had happened before—but now, to-day, because of a studied glance he had given her, neither tender nor smiling, she felt as though something unusual were about to happen. Her own body was going hot and cold by turns—her neck and hands. She had a fine figure, finer than she realized, with shapely limbs and torso. Her head had some of the sharpness of the old Greek coinage, and her hair was plaited as in ancient cut stone. Cowperwood noted it. He came back and, without taking his seat, bent over her and intimately took her hand.
"Antoinette," he said, lifting her gently.
She looked up, then arose—for he slowly drew her—breathless, the color gone, much of the capable practicality that was hers completely eliminated. She felt limp, inert. She pulled at her hand faintly, and then, lifting her eyes, was fixed by that hard, insatiable gaze of his. Her head swam—her eyes were filled with a telltale confusion.
"Yes," she murmured.
"You love me, don't you?"
She tried to pull herself together, to inject some of her native rigidity of soul into her air—that rigidity which she always imagined would never desert her—but it was gone. There came instead to her a picture of the far Blue Island Avenue neighborhood from which she emanated—its low brown cottages, and then this smart, hard office and this strong man. He came out of such a marvelous world, apparently. A strange foaming seemed to be in her blood. She was deliriously, deliciously numb and happy.
"Oh, I don't know what I think," she gasped. "I— Oh yes, I do, I do."
"I like your name," he said, simply. "Antoinette." And then, pulling her to him, he slipped his arm about her waist.
She was frightened, numb, and then suddenly, not so much from shame as shock, tears rushed to her eyes. She turned and put her hand on the desk and hung her head and sobbed.
"Why, Antoinette," he asked, gently, bending over her, "are you so much unused to the world? I thought you said you loved me. Do you want me to forget all this and go on as before? I can, of course, if you can, you know."
He knew that she loved him, wanted him.
She heard him plainly enough, shaking.
"Do you?" he said, after a time, giving her moments in which to recover.
"Oh, let me cry!" she recovered herself sufficiently to say, quite wildly. "I don't know why I'm crying. It's just because I'm nervous, I suppose. Please don't mind me now."
"Antoinette," he repeated, "look at me! Will you stop?"
"Oh no, not now. My eyes are so bad."
"Antoinette! Come, look!" He put his hand under her chin. "See, I'm not so terrible."
"Oh," she said, when her eyes met his again, "I—" And then she folded her arms against his breast while he petted her hand and held her close.
"I'm not so bad, Antoinette. It's you as much as it is me. You do love me, then?"
"Yes, yes—oh yes!"
"And you don't mind?"
"No. It's all so strange." Her face was hidden.
"Kiss me, then."
She put up her lips and slipped her arms about him. He held her close.
He tried teasingly to make her say why she cried, thinking the while of what Aileen or Rita would think if they knew, but she would not at first—admitting later that it was a sense of evil. Curiously she also thought of Aileen, and how, on occasion, she had seen her sweep in and out. Now she was sharing with her (the dashing Mrs. Cowperwood, so vain and superior) the wonder of his affection. Strange as it may seem, she looked on it now as rather an honor. She had risen in her own estimation—her sense of life and power. Now, more than ever before, she knew something of life because she knew something of love and passion. The future seemed tremulous with promise. She went back to her machine after a while, thinking of this. What would it all come to? she wondered, wildly. You could not have told by her eyes that she had been crying. Instead, a rich glow in her brown cheeks heightened her beauty. No disturbing sense of Aileen was involved with all this. Antoinette was of the newer order that was beginning to privately question ethics and morals. She had a right to her life, lead where it would. And to what it would bring her. The feel of Cowperwood's lips was still fresh on hers. What would the future reveal to her now? What?