The Titan

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter XXIV: The Coming of Stephanie Platow

During this period of what might have been called financial and commercial progress, the affairs of Aileen and Cowperwood had been to a certain extent smoothed over. Each summer now, partly to take Aileen's mind off herself and partly to satisfy his own desire to see the world and collect objects of art, in which he was becoming more and more interested, it was Cowperwood's custom to make with his wife a short trip abroad or to foreign American lands, visiting in these two years Russia, Scandinavia, Argentine, Chili, and Mexico. Their plan was to leave in May or June with the outward rush of traffic, and return in September or early October. His idea was to soothe Aileen as much as possible, to fill her mind with pleasing anticipations as to her eventual social triumph somewhere—in New York or London, if not Chicago—to make her feel that in spite of his physical desertion he was still spiritually loyal.

By now also Cowperwood was so shrewd that he had the ability to simulate an affection and practise a gallantry which he did not feel, or, rather, that was not backed by real passion. He was the soul of attention; he would buy her flowers, jewels, knickknacks, and ornaments; he would see that her comfort was looked after to the last detail; and yet, at the very same moment, perhaps, he would be looking cautiously about to see what life might offer in the way of illicit entertainment. Aileen knew this, although she could not prove it to be true. At the same time she had an affection and an admiration for the man which gripped her in spite of herself.

You have, perhaps, pictured to yourself the mood of some general who has perhaps suffered a great defeat; the employee who after years of faithful service finds himself discharged. What shall life say to the loving when their love is no longer of any value, when all that has been placed upon the altar of affection has been found to be a vain sacrifice? Philosophy? Give that to dolls to play with. Religion? Seek first the metaphysical-minded. Aileen was no longer the lithe, forceful, dynamic girl of 1865, when Cowperwood first met her. She was still beautiful, it is true, a fair, full-blown, matronly creature not more than thirty-five, looking perhaps thirty, feeling, alas, that she was a girl and still as attractive as ever. It is a grim thing to a woman, however fortunately placed, to realize that age is creeping on, and that love, that singing will-o'-the-wisp, is fading into the ultimate dark. Aileen, within the hour of her greatest triumph, had seen love die. It was useless to tell herself, as she did sometimes, that it might come back, revive. Her ultimately realistic temperament told her this could never be. Though she had routed Rita Sohlberg, she was fully aware that Cowperwood's original constancy was gone. She was no longer happy. Love was dead. That sweet illusion, with its pearly pink for heart and borders, that laughing cherub that lures with Cupid's mouth and misty eye, that young tendril of the vine of life that whispers of eternal spring-time, that calls and calls where aching, wearied feet by legion follow, was no longer in existence.

In vain the tears, the storms, the self-tortures; in vain the looks in the mirror, the studied examination of plump, sweet features still fresh and inviting. One day, at the sight of tired circles under her eyes, she ripped from her neck a lovely ruche that she was adjusting and, throwing herself on her bed, cried as though her heart would break. Why primp? Why ornament? Her Frank did not love her. What to her now was a handsome residence in Michigan Avenue, the refinements of a French boudoir, or clothing that ran the gamut of the dressmaker's art, hats that were like orchids blooming in serried rows? In vain, in vain! Like the raven that perched above the lintel of the door, sad memory was here, grave in her widow weeds, crying "never more." Aileen knew that the sweet illusion which had bound Cowperwood to her for a time had gone and would never come again. He was here. His step was in the room mornings and evenings; at night for long prosaic, uninterrupted periods she could hear him breathing by her side, his hand on her body. There were other nights when he was not there—when he was "out of the city"—and she resigned herself to accept his excuses at their face value. Why quarrel? she asked herself. What could she do? She was waiting, waiting, but for what?

And Cowperwood, noting the strange, unalterable changes which time works in us all, the inward lap of the marks of age, the fluted recession of that splendor and radiance which is youth, sighed at times perhaps, but turned his face to that dawn which is forever breaking where youth is. Not for him that poetic loyalty which substitutes for the perfection of young love its memories, or takes for the glitter of passion and desire that once was the happy thoughts of companionship—the crystal memories that like early dews congealed remain beaded recollections to comfort or torture for the end of former joys. On the contrary, after the vanishing of Rita Sohlberg, with all that she meant in the way of a delicate insouciance which Aileen had never known, his temperament ached, for he must have something like that. Truth to say, he must always have youth, the illusion of beauty, vanity in womanhood, the novelty of a new, untested temperament, quite as he must have pictures, old porcelain, music, a mansion, illuminated missals, power, the applause of the great, unthinking world.

As has been said, this promiscuous attitude on Cowperwood's part was the natural flowering out of a temperament that was chronically promiscuous, intellectually uncertain, and philosophically anarchistic. From one point of view it might have been said of him that he was seeking the realization of an ideal, yet to one's amazement our very ideals change at times and leave us floundering in the dark. What is an ideal, anyhow? A wraith, a mist, a perfume in the wind, a dream of fair water. The soul-yearning of a girl like Antoinette Nowak was a little too strained for him. It was too ardent, too clinging, and he had gradually extricated himself, not without difficulty, from that particular entanglement. Since then he had been intimate with other women for brief periods, but to no great satisfaction—Dorothy Ormsby, Jessie Belle Hinsdale, Toma Lewis, Hilda Jewell; but they shall be names merely. One was an actress, one a stenographer, one the daughter of one of his stock patrons, one a church-worker, a solicitor for charity coming to him to seek help for an orphan's home. It was a pathetic mess at times, but so are all defiant variations from the accustomed drift of things. In the hardy language of Napoleon, one cannot make an omelette without cracking a number of eggs.

The coming of Stephanie Platow, Russian Jewess on one side of her family, Southwestern American on the other, was an event in Cowperwood's life. She was tall, graceful, brilliant, young, with much of the optimism of Rita Sohlberg, and yet endowed with a strange fatalism which, once he knew her better, touched and moved him. He met her on shipboard on the way to Goteborg. Her father, Isadore Platow, was a wealthy furrier of Chicago. He was a large, meaty, oily type of man—a kind of ambling, gelatinous formula of the male, with the usual sound commercial instincts of the Jew, but with an errant philosophy which led him to believe first one thing and then another so long as neither interfered definitely with his business. He was an admirer of Henry George and of so altruistic a programme as that of Robert Owen, and, also, in his way, a social snob. And yet he had married Susetta Osborn, a Texas girl who was once his bookkeeper. Mrs. Platow was lithe, amiable, subtle, with an eye always to the main social chance—in other words, a climber. She was shrewd enough to realize that a knowledge of books and art and current events was essential, and so she "went in" for these things.

It is curious how the temperaments of parents blend and revivify in their children. As Stephanie grew up she had repeated in her very differing body some of her father's and mother's characteristics—an interesting variability of soul. She was tall, dark, sallow, lithe, with a strange moodiness of heart and a recessive, fulgurous gleam in her chestnut-brown, almost brownish-black eyes. She had a full, sensuous, Cupid's mouth, a dreamy and even languishing expression, a graceful neck, and a heavy, dark, and yet pleasingly modeled face. From both her father and mother she had inherited a penchant for art, literature, philosophy, and music. Already at eighteen she was dreaming of painting, singing, writing poetry, writing books, acting—anything and everything. Serene in her own judgment of what was worth while, she was like to lay stress on any silly mood or fad, thinking it exquisite—the last word. Finally, she was a rank voluptuary, dreaming dreams of passionate union with first one and then another type of artist, poet, musician—the whole gamut of the artistic and emotional world.

Cowperwood first saw her on board the Centurion one June morning, as the ship lay at dock in New York. He and Aileen were en route for Norway, she and her father and mother for Denmark and Switzerland. She was hanging over the starboard rail looking at a flock of wide-winged gulls which were besieging the port of the cook's galley. She was musing soulfully—conscious (fully) that she was musing soulfully. He paid very little attention to her, except to note that she was tall, rhythmic, and that a dark-gray plaid dress, and an immense veil of gray silk wound about her shoulders and waist and over one arm, after the manner of a Hindu shawl, appeared to become her much. Her face seemed very sallow, and her eyes ringed as if indicating dyspepsia. Her black hair under a chic hat did not escape his critical eye. Later she and her father appeared at the captain's table, to which the Cowperwoods had also been invited.

Cowperwood and Aileen did not know how to take this girl, though she interested them both. They little suspected the chameleon character of her soul. She was an artist, and as formless and unstable as water. It was a mere passing gloom that possessed her. Cowperwood liked the semi-Jewish cast of her face, a certain fullness of the neck, her dark, sleepy eyes. But she was much too young and nebulous, he thought, and he let her pass. On this trip, which endured for ten days, he saw much of her, in different moods, walking with a young Jew in whom she seemed greatly interested, playing at shuffleboard, reading solemnly in a corner out of the reach of the wind or spray, and usually looking naive, preternaturally innocent, remote, dreamy. At other times she seemed possessed of a wild animation, her eyes alight, her expression vigorous, an intense glow in her soul. Once he saw her bent over a small wood block, cutting a book-plate with a thin steel graving tool.

Because of Stephanie's youth and seeming unimportance, her lack of what might be called compelling rosy charm, Aileen had become reasonably friendly with the girl. Far subtler, even at her years, than Aileen, Stephanie gathered a very good impression of the former, of her mental girth, and how to take her. She made friends with her, made a book-plate for her, made a sketch of her. She confided to Aileen that in her own mind she was destined for the stage, if her parents would permit; and Aileen invited her to see her husband's pictures on their return. She little knew how much of a part Stephanie would play in Cowperwood's life.

The Cowperwoods, having been put down at Goteborg, saw no more of the Platows until late October. Then Aileen, being lonely, called to see Stephanie, and occasionally thereafter Stephanie came over to the South Side to see the Cowperwoods. She liked to roam about their house, to dream meditatively in some nook of the rich interior, with a book for company. She liked Cowperwood's pictures, his jades, his missals, his ancient radiant glass. From talking with Aileen she realized that the latter had no real love for these things, that her expressions of interest and pleasure were pure make-believe, based on their value as possessions. For Stephanie herself certain of the illuminated books and bits of glass had a heavy, sensuous appeal, which only the truly artistic can understand. They unlocked dark dream moods and pageants for her. She responded to them, lingered over them, experienced strange moods from them as from the orchestrated richness of music.

And in doing so she thought of Cowperwood often. Did he really like these things, or was he just buying them to be buying them? She had heard much of the pseudo artistic—the people who made a show of art. She recalled Cowperwood as he walked the deck of the Centurion. She remembered his large, comprehensive, embracing blue-gray eyes that seemed to blaze with intelligence. He seemed to her quite obviously a more forceful and significant man than her father, and yet she could not have said why. He always seemed so trigly dressed, so well put together. There was a friendly warmth about all that he said or did, though he said or did little. She felt that his eyes were mocking, that back in his soul there was some kind of humor over something which she did not understand quite.

After Stephanie had been back in Chicago six months, during which time she saw very little of Cowperwood, who was busy with his street-railway programme, she was swept into the net of another interest which carried her away from him and Aileen for the time being. On the West Side, among a circle of her mother's friends, had been organized an Amateur Dramatic League, with no less object than to elevate the stage. That world-old problem never fails to interest the new and the inexperienced. It all began in the home of one of the new rich of the West Side—the Timberlakes. They, in their large house on Ashland Avenue, had a stage, and Georgia Timberlake, a romantic-minded girl of twenty with flaxen hair, imagined she could act. Mrs. Timberlake, a fat, indulgent mother, rather agreed with her. The whole idea, after a few discursive performances of Milton's "The Masque of Comus," "Pyramus and Thisbe," and an improved Harlequin and Columbine, written by one of the members, was transferred to the realm of the studios, then quartered in the New Arts Building. An artist by the name of Lane Cross, a portrait-painter, who was much less of an artist than he was a stage director, and not much of either, but who made his living by hornswaggling society into the belief that he could paint, was induced to take charge of these stage performances.

By degrees the "Garrick Players," as they chose to call themselves, developed no little skill and craftsmanship in presenting one form and another of classic and semi-classic play. "Romeo and Juliet," with few properties of any kind, "The Learned Ladies" of Moliere, Sheridan's "The Rivals," and the "Elektra" of Sophocles were all given. Considerable ability of one kind and another was developed, the group including two actresses of subsequent repute on the American stage, one of whom was Stephanie Platow. There were some ten girls and women among the active members, and almost as many men—a variety of characters much too extended to discuss here. There was a dramatic critic by the name of Gardner Knowles, a young man, very smug and handsome, who was connected with the Chicago Press. Whipping his neatly trousered legs with his bright little cane, he used to appear at the rooms of the players at the Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday teas which they inaugurated, and discuss the merits of the venture. Thus the Garrick Players were gradually introduced into the newspapers. Lane Cross, the smooth-faced, pasty-souled artist who had charge, was a rake at heart, a subtle seducer of women, who, however, escaped detection by a smooth, conventional bearing. He was interested in such girls as Georgia Timberlake, Irma Ottley, a rosy, aggressive maiden who essayed comic roles, and Stephanie Platow. These, with another girl, Ethel Tuckerman, very emotional and romantic, who could dance charmingly and sing, made up a group of friends which became very close. Presently intimacies sprang up, only in this realm, instead of ending in marriage, they merely resulted in sex liberty. Thus Ethel Tuckerman became the mistress of Lane Cross; an illicit attachment grew up between Irma Ottley and a young society idler by the name of Bliss Bridge; and Gardner Knowles, ardently admiring Stephanie Platow literally seized upon her one afternoon in her own home, when he went ostensibly to interview her, and overpersuaded her. She was only reasonably fond of him, not in love; but, being generous, nebulous, passionate, emotional, inexperienced, voiceless, and vainly curious, without any sense of the meums and teums that govern society in such matters, she allowed this rather brutal thing to happen. She was not a coward—was too nebulous and yet forceful to be such. Her parents never knew. And once so launched, another world—that of sex satisfaction—began to dawn on her.

Were these young people evil? Let the social philosopher answer. One thing is certain: They did not establish homes and raise children. On the contrary, they led a gay, butterfly existence for nearly two years; then came a gift in the lute. Quarrels developed over parts, respective degrees of ability, and leadership. Ethel Tuckerman fell out with Lane Cross, because she discovered him making love to Irma Ottley. Irma and Bliss Bridge released each other, the latter transferring his affections to Georgia Timberlake. Stephanie Platow, by far the most individual of them all, developed a strange inconsequence as to her deeds. It was when she was drawing near the age of twenty that the affair with Gardner Knowles began. After a time Lane Cross, with his somewhat earnest attempt at artistic interpretation and his superiority in the matter of years—he was forty, and young Knowles only twenty-four—seemed more interesting to Stephanie, and he was quick to respond. There followed an idle, passionate union with this man, which seemed important, but was not so at all. And then it was that Stephanie began dimly to perceive that it was on and on that the blessings lie, that somewhere there might be some man much more remarkable than either of these; but this was only a dream. She thought of Cowperwood at times; but he seemed to her to be too wrapped up in grim tremendous things, far apart from this romantic world of amateur dramatics in which she was involved.

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