The peculiar personality of Rita Sohlberg was such that by her very action she ordinarily allayed suspicion, or rather distracted it. Although a novice, she had a strange ease, courage, or balance of soul which kept her whole and self-possessed under the most trying of circumstances. She might have been overtaken in the most compromising of positions, but her manner would always have indicated ease, a sense of innocence, nothing unusual, for she had no sense of moral degradation in this matter—no troublesome emotion as to what was to flow from a relationship of this kind, no worry as to her own soul, sin, social opinion, or the like. She was really interested in art and life—a pagan, in fact. Some people are thus hardily equipped. It is the most notable attribute of the hardier type of personalities—not necessarily the most brilliant or successful. You might have said that her soul was naively unconscious of the agony of others in loss. She would have taken any loss to herself with an amazing equableness—some qualms, of course, but not many—because her vanity and sense of charm would have made her look forward to something better or as good.
She had called on Aileen quite regularly in the past, with or without Harold, and had frequently driven with the Cowperwoods or joined them at the theater or elsewhere. She had decided, after becoming intimate with Cowperwood, to study art again, which was a charming blind, for it called for attendance at afternoon or evening classes which she frequently skipped. Besides, since Harold had more money he was becoming gayer, more reckless and enthusiastic over women, and Cowperwood deliberately advised her to encourage him in some liaison which, in case exposure should subsequently come to them, would effectually tie his hands.
"Let him get in some affair," Cowperwood told Rita. "We'll put detectives on his trail and get evidence. He won't have a word to say."
"We don't really need to do that," she protested sweetly, naively. "He's been in enough scrapes as it is. He's given me some of the letters—" (she pronounced it "lettahs")—"written him."
"But we'll need actual witnesses if we ever need anything at all. Just tell me when he's in love again, and I'll do the rest."
"You know I think," she drawled, amusingly, "that he is now. I saw him on the street the other day with one of his students—rather a pretty girl, too."
Cowperwood was pleased. Under the circumstances he would almost have been willing—not quite—for Aileen to succumb to Sohlberg in order to entrap her and make his situation secure. Yet he really did not wish it in the last analysis—would have been grieved temporarily if she had deserted him. However, in the case of Sohlberg, detectives were employed, the new affair with the flighty pupil was unearthed and sworn to by witnesses, and this, combined with the "lettahs" held by Rita, constituted ample material wherewith to "hush up" the musician if ever he became unduly obstreperous. So Cowperwood and Rita's state was quite comfortable.
But Aileen, meditating over Antoinette Nowak, was beside herself with curiosity, doubt, worry. She did not want to injure Cowperwood in any way after his bitter Philadelphia experience, and yet when she thought of his deserting her in this way she fell into a great rage. Her vanity, as much as her love, was hurt. What could she do to justify or set at rest her suspicions? Watch him personally? She was too dignified and vain to lurk about street-corners or offices or hotels. Never! Start a quarrel without additional evidence—that would be silly. He was too shrewd to give her further evidence once she spoke. He would merely deny it. She brooded irritably, recalling after a time, and with an aching heart, that her father had put detectives on her track once ten years before, and had actually discovered her relations with Cowperwood and their rendezvous. Bitter as that memory was—torturing—yet now the same means seemed not too abhorrent to employ under the circumstances. No harm had come to Cowperwood in the former instance, she reasoned to herself—no especial harm—from that discovery (this was not true), and none would come to him now. (This also was not true.) But one must forgive a fiery, passionate soul, wounded to the quick, some errors of judgment. Her thought was that she would first be sure just what it was her beloved was doing, and then decide what course to take. But she knew that she was treading on dangerous ground, and mentally she recoiled from the consequences which might follow. He might leave her if she fought him too bitterly. He might treat her as he had treated his first wife, Lillian.
She studied her liege lord curiously these days, wondering if it were true that he had deserted her already, as he had deserted his first wife thirteen years before, wondering if he could really take up with a girl as common as Antoinette Nowak—wondering, wondering, wondering—half afraid and yet courageous. What could be done with him? If only he still loved her all would be well yet—but oh!
The detective agency to which she finally applied, after weeks of soul-racking suspense, was one of those disturbingly human implements which many are not opposed to using on occasion, when it is the only means of solving a troublous problem of wounded feelings or jeopardized interests. Aileen, being obviously rich, was forthwith shamefully overcharged; but the services agreed upon were well performed. To her amazement, chagrin, and distress, after a few weeks of observation Cowperwood was reported to have affairs not only with Antoinette Nowak, whom she did suspect, but also with Mrs. Sohlberg. And these two affairs at one and the same time. For the moment it left Aileen actually stunned and breathless.
The significance of Rita Sohlberg to her in this hour was greater than that of any woman before or after. Of all living things, women dread women most of all, and of all women the clever and beautiful. Rita Sohlberg had been growing on Aileen as a personage, for she had obviously been prospering during this past year, and her beauty had been amazingly enhanced thereby. Once Aileen had encountered Rita in a light trap on the Avenue, very handsome and very new, and she had commented on it to Cowperwood, whose reply had been: "Her father must be making some money. Sohlberg could never earn it for her."
Aileen sympathized with Harold because of his temperament, but she knew that what Cowperwood said was true.
Another time, at a box-party at the theater, she had noted the rich elaborateness of Mrs. Sohlberg's dainty frock, the endless pleatings of pale silk, the startling charm of the needlework and the ribbons—countless, rosetted, small—that meant hard work on the part of some one.
"How lovely this is," she had commented.
"Yes," Rita had replied, airily; "I thought, don't you know, my dressmaker would never get done working on it."
It had cost, all told, two hundred and twenty dollars, and Cowperwood had gladly paid the bill.
Aileen went home at the time thinking of Rita's taste and of how well she had harmonized her materials to her personality. She was truly charming.
Now, however, when it appeared that the same charm that had appealed to her had appealed to Cowperwood, she conceived an angry, animal opposition to it all. Rita Sohlberg! Ha! A lot of satisfaction she'd get knowing as she would soon, that Cowperwood was sharing his affection for her with Antoinette Nowak—a mere stenographer. And a lot of satisfaction Antoinette would get—the cheap upstart—when she learned, as she would, that Cowperwood loved her so lightly that he would take an apartment for Rita Sohlberg and let a cheap hotel or an assignation-house do for her.
But in spite of this savage exultation her thoughts kept coming back to herself, to her own predicament, to torture and destroy her. Cowperwood, the liar! Cowperwood, the pretender! Cowperwood, the sneak! At one moment she conceived a kind of horror of the man because of all his protestations to her; at the next a rage—bitter, swelling; at the next a pathetic realization of her own altered position. Say what one will, to take the love of a man like Cowperwood away from a woman like Aileen was to leave her high and dry on land, as a fish out of its native element, to take all the wind out of her sails—almost to kill her. Whatever position she had once thought to hold through him, was now jeopardized. Whatever joy or glory she had had in being Mrs. Frank Algernon Cowperwood, it was now tarnished. She sat in her room, this same day after the detectives had given their report, a tired look in her eyes, the first set lines her pretty mouth had ever known showing about it, her past and her future whirling painfully and nebulously in her brain. Suddenly she got up, and, seeing Cowperwood's picture on her dresser, his still impressive eyes contemplating her, she seized it and threw it on the floor, stamping on his handsome face with her pretty foot, and raging at him in her heart. The dog! The brute! Her brain was full of the thought of Rita's white arms about him, of his lips to hers. The spectacle of Rita's fluffy gowns, her enticing costumes, was in her eyes. Rita should not have him; she should not have anything connected with him, nor, for that matter, Antoinette Nowak, either—the wretched upstart, the hireling. To think he should stoop to an office stenographer! Once on that thought, she decided that he should not be allowed to have a woman as an assistant any more. He owed it to her to love her after all she had done for him, the coward, and to let other women alone. Her brain whirled with strange thoughts. She was really not sane in her present state. She was so wrought up by her prospective loss that she could only think of rash, impossible, destructive things to do. She dressed swiftly, feverishly, and, calling a closed carriage from the coach-house, ordered herself to be driven to the New Arts Building. She would show this rosy cat of a woman, this smiling piece of impertinence, this she-devil, whether she would lure Cowperwood away. She meditated as she rode. She would not sit back and be robbed as Mrs. Cowperwood had been by her. Never! He could not treat her that way. She would die first! She would kill Rita Sohlberg and Antoinette Nowak and Cowperwood and herself first. She would prefer to die that way rather than lose his love. Oh yes, a thousand times! Fortunately, Rita Sohlberg was not at the New Arts Building, or Sohlberg, either. They had gone to a reception. Nor was she at the apartment on the North Side, where, under the name of Jacobs, as Aileen had been informed by the detectives, she and Cowperwood kept occasional tryst. Aileen hesitated for a moment, feeling it useless to wait, then she ordered the coachman to drive to her husband's office. It was now nearly five o'clock. Antoinette and Cowperwood had both gone, but she did not know it. She changed her mind, however, before she reached the office—for it was Rita Sohlberg she wished to reach first—and ordered her coachman to drive back to the Sohlberg studio. But still they had not returned. In a kind of aimless rage she went home, wondering how she should reach Rita Sohlberg first and alone. Then, to her savage delight, the game walked into her bag. The Sohlbergs, returning home at six o'clock from some reception farther out Michigan Avenue, had stopped, at the wish of Harold, merely to pass the time of day with Mrs. Cowperwood. Rita was exquisite in a pale-blue and lavender concoction, with silver braid worked in here and there. Her gloves and shoes were pungent bits of romance, her hat a dream of graceful lines. At the sight of her, Aileen, who was still in the hall and had opened the door herself, fairly burned to seize her by the throat and strike her; but she restrained herself sufficiently to say, "Come in." She still had sense enough and self-possession enough to conceal her wrath and to close the door. Beside his wife Harold was standing, offensively smug and inefficient in the fashionable frock-coat and silk hat of the time, a restraining influence as yet. He was bowing and smiling:
"Oh." This sound was neither an "oh" nor an "ah," but a kind of Danish inflected "awe," which was usually not unpleasing to hear. "How are you, once more, Meeses Cowperwood? It eez sudge a pleasure to see you again—awe."
"Won't you two just go in the reception-room a moment," said Aileen, almost hoarsely. "I'll be right in. I want to get something." Then, as an afterthought, she called very sweetly: "Oh, Mrs. Sohlberg, won't you come up to my room for a moment? I have something I want to show you."
Rita responded promptly. She always felt it incumbent upon her to be very nice to Aileen.
"We have only a moment to stay," she replied, archly and sweetly, and coming out in the hall, "but I'll come up."
Aileen stayed to see her go first, then followed up-stairs swiftly, surely, entered after Rita, and closed the door. With a courage and rage born of a purely animal despair, she turned and locked it; then she wheeled swiftly, her eyes lit with a savage fire, her cheeks pale, but later aflame, her hands, her fingers working in a strange, unconscious way.
"So," she said, looking at Rita, and coming toward her quickly and angrily, "you'll steal my husband, will you? You'll live in a secret apartment, will you? You'll come here smiling and lying to me, will you? You beast! You cat! You prostitute! I'll show you now! You tow-headed beast! I know you now for what you are! I'll teach you once for all! Take that, and that, and that!"
Suiting action to word, Aileen had descended upon her whirlwind, animal fashion, striking, scratching, choking, tearing her visitor's hat from her head, ripping the laces from her neck, beating her in the face, and clutching violently at her hair and throat to choke and mar her beauty if she could. For the moment she was really crazy with rage.
By the suddenness of this onslaught Rita Sohlberg was taken back completely. It all came so swiftly, so terribly, she scarcely realized what was happening before the storm was upon her. There was no time for arguments, pleas, anything. Terrified, shamed, nonplussed, she went down quite limply under this almost lightning attack. When Aileen began to strike her she attempted in vain to defend herself, uttering at the same time piercing screams which could be heard throughout the house. She screamed shrilly, strangely, like a wild dying animal. On the instant all her fine, civilized poise had deserted her. From the sweetness and delicacy of the reception atmosphere—the polite cooings, posturings, and mouthings so charming to contemplate, so alluring in her—she had dropped on the instant to that native animal condition that shows itself in fear. Her eyes had a look of hunted horror, her lips and cheeks were pale and drawn. She retreated in a staggering, ungraceful way; she writhed and squirmed, screaming in the strong clutch of the irate and vigorous Aileen.
Cowperwood entered the hall below just before the screams began. He had followed the Sohlbergs almost immediately from his office, and, chancing to glance in the reception-room, he had observed Sohlberg smiling, radiant, an intangible air of self-ingratiating, social, and artistic sycophancy about him, his long black frock-coat buttoned smoothly around his body, his silk hat still in his hands.
"Awe, how do you do, Meezter Cowperwood," he was beginning to say, his curly head shaking in a friendly manner, "I'm soa glad to see you again" when—but who can imitate a scream of terror? We have no words, no symbols even, for those essential sounds of fright and agony. They filled the hall, the library, the reception-room, the distant kitchen even, and basement with a kind of vibrant terror.
Cowperwood, always the man of action as opposed to nervous cogitation, braced up on the instant like taut wire. What, for heaven's sake, could that be? What a terrible cry! Sohlberg the artist, responding like a chameleon to the various emotional complexions of life, began to breathe stertorously, to blanch, to lose control of himself.
"My God!" he exclaimed, throwing up his hands, "that's Rita! She's up-stairs in your wife's room! Something must have happened. Oh—" On the instant he was quite beside himself, terrified, shaking, almost useless. Cowperwood, on the contrary, without a moment's hesitation had thrown his coat to the floor, dashed up the stairs, followed by Sohlberg. What could it be? Where was Aileen? As he bounded upward a clear sense of something untoward came over him; it was sickening, terrifying. Scream! Scream! Scream! came the sounds. "Oh, my God! don't kill me! Help! Help!" SCREAM—this last a long, terrified, ear-piercing wail.
Sohlberg was about to drop from heart failure, he was so frightened. His face was an ashen gray. Cowperwood seized the door-knob vigorously and, finding the door locked, shook, rattled, and banged at it.
"Aileen!" he called, sharply. "Aileen! What's the matter in there? Open this door, Aileen!"
"Oh, my God! Oh, help! help! Oh, mercy—o-o-o-o-oh!" It was the moaning voice of Rita.
"I'll show you, you she-devil!" he heard Aileen calling. "I'll teach you, you beast! You cat, you prostitute! There! there! there!"
"Aileen!" he called, hoarsely. "Aileen!" Then, getting no response, and the screams continuing, he turned angrily.
"Stand back!" he exclaimed to Sohlberg, who was moaning helplessly. "Get me a chair, get me a table—anything." The butler ran to obey, but before he could return Cowperwood had found an implement. "Here!" he said, seizing a long, thin, heavily carved and heavily wrought oak chair which stood at the head of the stairs on the landing. He whirled it vigorously over his head. Smash! The sound rose louder than the screams inside.
Smash! The chair creaked and almost broke, but the door did not give.
Smash! The chair broke and the door flew open. He had knocked the lock loose and had leaped in to where Aileen, kneeling over Rita on the floor, was choking and beating her into insensibility. Like an animal he was upon her.
"Aileen," he shouted, fiercely, in a hoarse, ugly, guttural voice, "you fool! You idiot—let go! What the devil's the matter with you? What are you trying to do? Have you lost your mind?—you crazy idiot!"
He seized her strong hands and ripped them apart. He fairly dragged her back, half twisting and half throwing her over his knee, loosing her clutching hold. She was so insanely furious that she still struggled and cried, saying: "Let me at her! Let me at her! I'll teach her! Don't you try to hold me, you dog! I'll show you, too, you brute—oh—"
"Pick up that woman," called Cowperwood, firmly, to Sohlberg and the butler, who had entered. "Get her out of here quick! My wife has gone crazy. Get her out of here, I tell you! This woman doesn't know what she's doing. Take her out and get a doctor. What sort of a hell's melee is this, anyway?"
"Oh," moaned Rita, who was torn and fainting, almost unconscious from sheer terror.
"I'll kill her!" screamed Aileen. "I'll murder her! I'll murder you too, you dog! Oh"—she began striking at him—"I'll teach you how to run around with other women, you dog, you brute!"
Cowperwood merely gripped her hands and shook her vigorously, forcefully.
"What the devil has got into you, anyway, you fool?" he said to her, bitterly, as they carried Rita out. "What are you trying to do, anyway—murder her? Do you want the police to come in here? Stop your screaming and behave yourself, or I'll shove a handkerchief in your mouth! Stop, I tell you! Stop! Do you hear me? This is enough, you fool!" He clapped his hand over her mouth, pressing it tight and forcing her back against him. He shook her brutally, angrily. He was very strong. "Now will you stop," he insisted, "or do you want me to choke you quiet? I will, if you don't. You're out of your mind. Stop, I tell you! So this is the way you carry on when things don't go to suit you?" She was sobbing, struggling, moaning, half screaming, quite beside herself.
"Oh, you crazy fool!" he said, swinging her round, and with an effort getting out a handkerchief, which he forced over her face and in her mouth. "There," he said, relievedly, "now will you shut up?" holding her tight in an iron grip, he let her struggle and turn, quite ready to put an end to her breathing if necessary.
Now that he had conquered her, he continued to hold her tightly, stooping beside her on one knee, listening and meditating. Hers was surely a terrible passion. From some points of view he could not blame her. Great was her provocation, great her love. He knew her disposition well enough to have anticipated something of this sort. Yet the wretchedness, shame, scandal of the terrible affair upset his customary equilibrium. To think any one should give way to such a storm as this! To think that Aileen should do it! To think that Rita should have been so mistreated! It was not at all unlikely that she was seriously injured, marred for life—possibly even killed. The horror of that! The ensuing storm of public rage! A trial! His whole career gone up in one terrific explosion of woe, anger, death! Great God!
He called the butler to him by a nod of his head, when the latter, who had gone out with Rita, hurried back.
"How is she?" he asked, desperately. "Seriously hurt?"
"No, sir; I think not. I believe she's just fainted. She'll be all right in a little while, sir. Can I be of any service, sir?"
Ordinarily Cowperwood would have smiled at such a scene. Now he was cold, sober.
"Not now," he replied, with a sigh of relief, still holding Aileen firmly. "Go out and close the door. Call a doctor. Wait in the hall. When he comes, call me."
Aileen, conscious of things being done for Rita, of sympathy being extended to her, tried to get up, to scream again; but she couldn't; her lord and master held her in an ugly hold. When the door was closed he said again: "Now, Aileen, will you hush? Will you let me get up and talk to you, or must we stay here all night? Do you want me to drop you forever after to-night? I understand all about this, but I am in control now, and I am going to stay so. You will come to your senses and be reasonable, or I will leave you to-morrow as sure as I am here." His voice rang convincingly. "Now, shall we talk sensibly, or will you go on making a fool of yourself—disgracing me, disgracing the house, making yourself and myself the laughing-stock of the servants, the neighborhood, the city? This is a fine showing you've made to-day. Good God! A fine showing, indeed! A brawl in this house, a fight! I thought you had better sense—more self-respect—really I did. You have seriously jeopardized my chances here in Chicago. You have seriously injured and possibly killed a woman. You could even be hanged for that. Do you hear me?"
"Oh, let them hang me," groaned Aileen. "I want to die."
He took away his hand from her mouth, loosened his grip upon her arms, and let her get to her feet. She was still torrential, impetuous, ready to upbraid him, but once standing she was confronted by him, cold, commanding, fixing her with a fishy eye. He wore a look now she had never seen on his face before—a hard, wintry, dynamic flare, which no one but his commercial enemies, and only those occasionally, had seen.
"Now stop!" he exclaimed. "Not one more word! Not one! Do you hear me?"
She wavered, quailed, gave way. All the fury of her tempestuous soul fell, as the sea falls under a lapse of wind. She had had it in heart, on her lips, to cry again, "You dog! you brute!" and a hundred other terrible, useless things, but somehow, under the pressure of his gaze, the hardness of his heart, the words on her lips died away. She looked at him uncertainly for a moment, then, turning, she threw herself on the bed near by, clutched her cheeks and mouth and eyes, and, rocking back and forth in an agony of woe, she began to sob:
"Oh, my God! my God! My heart! My life! I want to die! I want to die!"
Standing there watching her, there suddenly came to Cowperwood a keen sense of her soul hurt, her heart hurt, and he was moved.
"Aileen," he said, after a moment or two, coming over and touching her quite gently, "Aileen! Don't cry so. I haven't left you yet. Your life isn't utterly ruined. Don't cry. This is bad business, but perhaps it is not without remedy. Come now, pull yourself together, Aileen!"
For answer she merely rocked and moaned, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
Being anxious about conditions elsewhere, he turned and stepped out into the hall. He must make some show for the benefit of the doctor and the servants; he must look after Rita, and offer some sort of passing explanation to Sohlherg.
"Here," he called to a passing servant, "shut that door and watch it. If Mrs. Cowperwood comes out call me instantly."