The result of this understanding was not so important to Cowperwood as it was to Antoinette. In a vagrant mood he had unlocked a spirit here which was fiery, passionate, but in his case hopelessly worshipful. However much she might be grieved by him, Antoinette, as he subsequently learned, would never sin against his personal welfare. Yet she was unwittingly the means of first opening the flood-gates of suspicion on Aileen, thereby establishing in the latter's mind the fact of Cowperwood's persistent unfaithfulness.
The incidents which led up to this were comparatively trivial—nothing more, indeed, at first than the sight of Miss Nowak and Cowperwood talking intimately in his office one afternoon when the others had gone and the fact that she appeared to be a little bit disturbed by Aileen's arrival. Later came the discovery—though of this Aileen could not be absolutely sure—of Cowperwood and Antoinette in a closed carriage one stormy November afternoon in State Street when he was supposed to be out of the city. She was coming out of Merrill's store at the time, and just happened to glance at the passing vehicle, which was running near the curb. Aileen, although uncertain, was greatly shocked. Could it be possible that he had not left town? She journeyed to his office on the pretext of taking old Laughlin's dog, Jennie, a pretty collar she had found; actually to find if Antoinette were away at the same time. Could it be possible, she kept asking herself, that Cowperwood had become interested in his own stenographer? The fact that the office assumed that he was out of town and that Antoinette was not there gave her pause. Laughlin quite innocently informed her that he thought Miss Nowak had gone to one of the libraries to make up certain reports. It left her in doubt.
What was Aileen to think? Her moods and aspirations were linked so closely with the love and success of Cowperwood that she could not, in spite of herself, but take fire at the least thought of losing him. He himself wondered sometimes, as he threaded the mesh-like paths of sex, what she would do once she discovered his variant conduct. Indeed, there had been little occasional squabbles, not sharp, but suggestive, when he was trifling about with Mrs. Kittridge, Mrs. Ledwell, and others. There were, as may be imagined, from time to time absences, brief and unimportant, which he explained easily, passional indifferences which were not explained so easily, and the like; but since his affections were not really involved in any of those instances, he had managed to smooth the matter over quite nicely.
"Why do you say that?" he would demand, when she suggested, apropos of a trip or a day when she had not been with him, that there might have been another. "You know there hasn't. If I am going in for that sort of thing you'll learn it fast enough. Even if I did, it wouldn't mean that I was unfaithful to you spiritually."
"Oh, wouldn't it?" exclaimed Aileen, resentfully, and with some disturbance of spirit. "Well, you can keep your spiritual faithfulness. I'm not going to be content with any sweet thoughts."
Cowperwood laughed even as she laughed, for he knew she was right and he felt sorry for her. At the same time her biting humor pleased him. He knew that she did not really suspect him of actual infidelity; he was obviously so fond of her. But she also knew that he was innately attractive to women, and that there were enough of the philandering type to want to lead him astray and make her life a burden. Also that he might prove a very willing victim.
Sex desire and its fruition being such an integral factor in the marriage and every other sex relation, the average woman is prone to study the periodic manifestations that go with it quite as one dependent on the weather—a sailor, or example—might study the barometer. In this Aileen was no exception. She was so beautiful herself, and had been so much to Cowperwood physically, that she had followed the corresponding evidences of feeling in him with the utmost interest, accepting the recurring ebullitions of his physical emotions as an evidence of her own enduring charm. As time went on, however—and that was long before Mrs. Sohlberg or any one else had appeared—the original flare of passion had undergone a form of subsidence, though not noticeable enough to be disturbing. Aileen thought and thought, but she did not investigate. Indeed, because of the precariousness of her own situation as a social failure she was afraid to do so.
With the arrival of Mrs. Sohlberg and then of Antoinette Nowak as factors in the potpourri, the situation became more difficult. Humanly fond of Aileen as Cowperwood was, and because of his lapses and her affection, desirous of being kind, yet for the time being he was alienated almost completely from her. He grew remote according as his clandestine affairs were drifting or blazing, without, however, losing his firm grip on his financial affairs, and Aileen noticed it. It worried her. She was so vain that she could scarcely believe that Cowperwood could long be indifferent, and for a while her sentimental interest in Sohlberg's future and unhappiness of soul beclouded her judgment; but she finally began to feel the drift of affairs. The pathos of all this is that it so quickly descends into the realm of the unsatisfactory, the banal, the pseudo intimate. Aileen noticed it at once. She tried protestations. "You don't kiss me the way you did once," and then a little later, "You haven't noticed me hardly for four whole days. What's the matter?"
"Oh, I don't know," replied Cowperwood, easily; "I guess I want you as much as ever. I don't see that I am any different." He took her in his arms and petted and caressed her; but Aileen was suspicious, nervous.
The psychology of the human animal, when confronted by these tangles, these ripping tides of the heart, has little to do with so-called reason or logic. It is amazing how in the face of passion and the affections and the changing face of life all plans and theories by which we guide ourselves fall to the ground. Here was Aileen talking bravely at the time she invaded Mrs. Lillian Cowperwood's domain of the necessity of "her Frank" finding a woman suitable to his needs, tastes, abilities, but now that the possibility of another woman equally or possibly better suited to him was looming in the offing—although she had no idea who it might be—she could not reason in the same way. Her ox, God wot, was the one that was being gored. What if he should find some one whom he could want more than he did her? Dear heaven, how terrible that would be! What would she do? she asked herself, thoughtfully. She lapsed into the blues one afternoon—almost cried—she could scarcely say why. Another time she thought of all the terrible things she would do, how difficult she would make it for any other woman who invaded her preserves. However, she was not sure. Would she declare war if she discovered another? She knew she would eventually; and yet she knew, too, that if she did, and Cowperwood were set in his passion, thoroughly alienated, it would do no good. It would be terrible, but what could she do to win him back? That was the issue. Once warned, however, by her suspicious questioning, Cowperwood was more mechanically attentive than ever. He did his best to conceal his altered mood—his enthusiasms for Mrs. Sohlberg, his interest in Antoinette Nowak—and this helped somewhat.
But finally there was a detectable change. Aileen noticed it first after they had been back from Europe nearly a year. At this time she was still interested in Sohlberg, but in a harmlessly flirtatious way. She thought he might be interesting physically, but would he be as delightful as Cowperwood? Never! When she felt that Cowperwood himself might be changing she pulled herself up at once, and when Antoinette appeared—the carriage incident—Sohlberg lost his, at best, unstable charm. She began to meditate on what a terrible thing it would be to lose Cowperwood, seeing that she had failed to establish herself socially. Perhaps that had something to do with his defection. No doubt it had. Yet she could not believe, after all his protestations of affection in Philadelphia, after all her devotion to him in those dark days of his degradation and punishment, that he would really turn on her. No, he might stray momentarily, but if she protested enough, made a scene, perhaps, he would not feel so free to injure her—he would remember and be loving and devoted again. After seeing him, or imagining she had seen him, in the carriage, she thought at first that she would question him, but later decided that she would wait and watch more closely. Perhaps he was beginning to run around with other women. There was safety in numbers—that she knew. Her heart, her pride, was hurt, but not broken.