It chanced that shortly before this liaison was broken off, some troubling information was quite innocently conveyed to Aileen by Stephanie Platow's own mother. One day Mrs. Platow, in calling on Mrs. Cowperwood, commented on the fact that Stephanie was gradually improving in her art, that the Garrick Players had experienced a great deal of trouble, and that Stephanie was shortly to appear in a new role—something Chinese.
"That was such a charming set of jade you gave her," she volunteered, genially. "I only saw it the other day for the first time. She never told me about it before. She prizes it so very highly, that I feel as though I ought to thank you myself."
Aileen opened her eyes. "Jade!" she observed, curiously. "Why, I don't remember." Recalling Cowperwood's proclivities on the instant, she was suspicious, distraught. Her face showed her perplexity.
"Why, yes," replied Mrs. Platow, Aileen's show of surprise troubling her. "The ear-rings and necklet, you know. She said you gave them to her."
"To be sure," answered Aileen, catching herself as by a hair. "I do recall it now. But it was Frank who really gave them. I hope she likes them."
She smiled sweetly.
"She thinks they're beautiful, and they do become her," continued Mrs. Platow, pleasantly, understanding it all, as she fancied. The truth was that Stephanie, having forgotten, had left her make-up box open one day at home, and her mother, rummaging in her room for something, had discovered them and genially confronted her with them, for she knew the value of jade. Nonplussed for the moment, Stephanie had lost her mental, though not her outward, composure and referred them back casually to an evening at the Cowperwood home when Aileen had been present and the gauds had been genially forced upon her.
Unfortunately for Aileen, the matter was not to be allowed to rest just so, for going one afternoon to a reception given by Rhees Crier, a young sculptor of social proclivities, who had been introduced to her by Taylor Lord, she was given a taste of what it means to be a neglected wife from a public point of view. As she entered on this occasion she happened to overhear two women talking in a corner behind a screen erected to conceal wraps. "Oh, here comes Mrs. Cowperwood," said one. "She's the street-railway magnate's wife. Last winter and spring he was running with that Platow girl—of the Garrick Players, you know."
The other nodded, studying Aileen's splendiferous green—velvet gown with envy.
"I wonder if she's faithful to him?" she queried, while Aileen strained to hear. "She looks daring enough."
Aileen managed to catch a glimpse of her observers later, when they were not looking, and her face showed her mingled resentment and feeling; but it did no good. The wretched gossipers had wounded her in the keenest way. She was hurt, angry, nonplussed. To think that Cowperwood by his variability should expose her to such gossip as this!
One day not so long after her conversation with Mrs. Platow, Aileen happened to be standing outside the door of her own boudoir, the landing of which commanded the lower hall, and there overheard two of her servants discussing the Cowperwood menage in particular and Chicago life in general. One was a tall, angular girl of perhaps twenty-seven or eight, a chambermaid, the other a short, stout woman of forty who held the position of assistant housekeeper. They were pretending to dust, though gossip conducted in a whisper was the matter for which they were foregathered. The tall girl had recently been employed in the family of Aymar Cochrane, the former president of the Chicago West Division Railway, and now a director of the new West Chicago Street Railway Company.
"And I was that surprised," Aileen heard this girl saying, "to think I should be coming here. I cud scarcely believe me ears when they told me. Why, Miss Florence was runnin' out to meet him two and three times in the week. The wonder to me was that her mother never guessed."
"Och," replied the other, "he's the very divil and all when it comes to the wimmin." (Aileen did not see the upward lift of the hand that accompanied this). "There was a little girl that used to come here. Her father lives up the street here. Haguenin is his name. He owns that morning paper, the Press, and has a fine house up the street here a little way. Well, I haven't seen her very often of late, but more than once I saw him kissing her in this very room. Sure his wife knows all about it. Depend on it. She had an awful fight with some woman here onct, so I hear, some woman that he was runnin' with and bringin' here to the house. I hear it's somethin' terrible the way she beat her up—screamin' and carryin' on. Oh, they're the divil, these men, when it comes to the wimmin."
A slight rustling sound from somewhere sent the two gossipers on their several ways, but Aileen had heard enough to understand. What was she to do? How was she to learn more of these new women, of whom she had never heard at all? She at once suspected Florence Cochrane, for she knew that this servant had worked in the Cochrane family. And then Cecily Haguenin, the daughter of the editor with whom they were on the friendliest terms! Cowperwood kissing her! Was there no end to his liaisons—his infidelity?
She returned, fretting and grieving, to her room, where she meditated and meditated, wondering whether she should leave him, wondering whether she should reproach him openly, wondering whether she should employ more detectives. What good would it do? She had employed detectives once. Had it prevented the Stephanie Platow incident? Not at all. Would it prevent other liaisons in the future? Very likely not. Obviously her home life with Cowperwood was coming to a complete and disastrous end. Things could not go on in this way. She had done wrong, possibly, in taking him away from Mrs. Cowperwood number one, though she could scarcely believe that, for Mrs. Lillian Cowperwood was so unsuited to him—but this repayment! If she had been at all superstitious or religious, and had known her Bible, which she didn't, she might have quoted to herself that very fatalistic statement of the New Testament, "With what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you again."
The truth was that Cowperwood's continued propensity to rove at liberty among the fair sex could not in the long run fail of some results of an unsatisfactory character. Coincident with the disappearance of Stephanie Platow, he launched upon a variety of episodes, the charming daughter of so worthy a man as Editor Haguenin, his sincerest and most sympathetic journalistic supporter; and the daughter of Aymar Cochrane, falling victims, among others, to what many would have called his wiles. As a matter of fact, in most cases he was as much sinned against as sinning, since the provocation was as much offered as given.
The manner in which he came to get in with Cecily Haguenin was simple enough. Being an old friend of the family, and a frequent visitor at her father's house, he found this particular daughter of desire an easy victim. She was a vigorous blonde creature of twenty at this time, very full and plump, with large, violet eyes, and with considerable alertness of mind—a sort of doll girl with whom Cowperwood found it pleasant to amuse himself. A playful gamboling relationship had existed between them when she was a mere child attending school, and had continued through her college years whenever she happened to be at home on a vacation. In these very latest days when Cowperwood on occasion sat in the Haguenin library consulting with the journalist-publisher concerning certain moves which he wished to have put right before the public he saw considerably more of Cecily. One night, when her father had gone out to look up the previous action of the city council in connection with some matter of franchises, a series of more or less sympathetic and understanding glances suddenly culminated in Cecily's playfully waving a new novel, which she happened to have in her hand, in Cowperwood's face; and he, in reply, laid hold caressingly of her arms.
"You can't stop me so easily," she observed, banteringly.
"Oh yes, I can," he replied.
A slight struggle ensued, in which he, with her semiwilful connivance, managed to manoeuver her into his arms, her head backward against his shoulder.
"Well," she said, looking up at him with a semi-nervous, semi-provocative glance, "now what? You'll just have to let me go."
"Not very soon, though."
"Oh yes, you will. My father will be here in a moment."
"Well, not until then, anyhow. You're getting to be the sweetest girl."
She did not resist, but remained gazing half nervously, half dreamily at him, whereupon he smoothed her cheek, and then kissed her. Her father's returning step put an end to this; but from this point on ascent or descent to a perfect understanding was easily made.
In the matter of Florence Cochrane, the daughter of Aymar Cochrane, the president of the Chicago West Division Company—a second affair of the period—the approach was only slightly different, the result the same. This girl, to furnish only a brief impression, was a blonde of a different type from Cecily—delicate, picturesque, dreamy. She was mildly intellectual at this time, engaged in reading Marlowe and Jonson; and Cowperwood, busy in the matter of the West Chicago Street Railway, and conferring with her father, was conceived by her as a great personage of the Elizabethan order. In a tentative way she was in revolt against an apple-pie order of existence which was being forced upon her. Cowperwood recognized the mood, trifled with her spiritedly, looked into her eyes, and found the response he wanted. Neither old Aymar Cochrane nor his impeccably respectable wife ever discovered.
Subsequently Aileen, reflecting upon these latest developments, was from one point of view actually pleased or eased. There is always safety in numbers, and she felt that if Cowperwood were going to go on like this it would not be possible for him in the long run to take a definite interest in any one; and so, all things considered, and other things being equal, he would probably just as leave remain married to her as not.
But what a comment, she could not help reflecting, on her own charms! What an end to an ideal union that had seemed destined to last all their days! She, Aileen Butler, who in her youth had deemed herself the peer of any girl in charm, force, beauty, to be shoved aside thus early in her life—she was only forty—by the younger generation. And such silly snips as they were—Stephanie Platow! and Cecily Haguenin! and Florence Cochrane, in all likelihood another pasty-faced beginner! And here she was—vigorous, resplendent, smooth of face and body, her forehead, chin, neck, eyes without a wrinkle, her hair a rich golden reddish glow, her step springing, her weight no more than one hundred and fifty pounds for her very normal height, with all the advantages of a complete toilet cabinet, jewels, clothing, taste, and skill in material selection—being elbowed out by these upstarts. It was almost unbelievable. It was so unfair. Life was so cruel, Cowperwood so temperamentally unbalanced. Dear God! to think that this should be true! Why should he not love her? She studied her beauty in the mirror from time to time, and raged and raged. Why was her body not sufficient for him? Why should he deem any one more beautiful? Why should he not be true to his reiterated protestations that he cared for her? Other men were true to other women. Her father had been faithful to her mother. At the thought of her own father and his opinion of her conduct she winced, but it did not change her point of view as to her present rights. See her hair! See her eyes! See her smooth, resplendent arms! Why should Cowperwood not love her? Why, indeed?
One night, shortly afterward, she was sitting in her boudoir reading, waiting for him to come home, when the telephone-bell sounded and he informed her that he was compelled to remain at the office late. Afterward he said he might be obliged to run on to Pittsburg for thirty-six hours or thereabouts; but he would surely be back on the third day, counting the present as one. Aileen was chagrined. Her voice showed it. They had been scheduled to go to dinner with the Hoecksemas, and afterward to the theater. Cowperwood suggested that she should go alone, but Aileen declined rather sharply; she hung up the receiver without even the pretense of a good-by. And then at ten o'clock he telephoned again, saying that he had changed his mind, and that if she were interested to go anywhere—a later supper, or the like—she should dress, otherwise he would come home expecting to remain.
Aileen immediately concluded that some scheme he had had to amuse himself had fallen through. Having spoiled her evening, he was coming home to make as much hay as possible out of this bit of sunshine. This infuriated her. The whole business of uncertainty in the matter of his affections was telling on her nerves. A storm was in order, and it had come. He came bustling in a little later, slipped his arms around her as she came forward and kissed her on the mouth. He smoothed her arms in a make-believe and yet tender way, and patted her shoulders. Seeing her frown, he inquired, "What's troubling Babykins?"
"Oh, nothing more than usual," replied Aileen, irritably. "Let's not talk about that. Have you had your dinner?"
"Yes, we had it brought in." He was referring to McKenty, Addison, and himself, and the statement was true. Being in an honest position for once, he felt called upon to justify himself a little. "It couldn't be avoided to-night. I'm sorry that this business takes up so much of my time, but I'll get out of it some day soon. Things are bound to ease up."
Aileen withdrew from his embrace and went to her dressing-table. A glance showed her that her hair was slightly awry, and she smoothed it into place. She looked at her chin, and then went back to her book—rather sulkily, he thought.
"Now, Aileen, what's the trouble?" he inquired. "Aren't you glad to have me up here? I know you have had a pretty rough road of it of late, but aren't you willing to let bygones be bygones and trust to the future a little?"
"The future! The future! Don't talk to me about the future. It's little enough it holds in store for me," she replied.
Cowperwood saw that she was verging on an emotional storm, but he trusted to his powers of persuasion, and her basic affection for him, to soothe and quell her.
"I wish you wouldn't act this way, pet," he went on. "You know I have always cared for you. You know I always shall. I'll admit that there are a lot of little things which interfere with my being at home as much as I would like at present; but that doesn't alter the fact that my feeling is the same. I should think you could see that."
"Feeling! Feeling!" taunted Aileen, suddenly. "Yes, I know how much feeling you have. You have feeling enough to give other women sets of jade and jewels, and to run around with every silly little snip you meet. You needn't come home here at ten o'clock, when you can't go anywhere else, and talk about feeling for me. I know how much feeling you have. Pshaw!"
She flung herself irritably back in her chair and opened her book. Cowperwood gazed at her solemnly, for this thrust in regard to Stephanie was a revelation. This woman business could grow peculiarly exasperating at times.
"What do you mean, anyhow?" he observed, cautiously and with much seeming candor. "I haven't given any jade or jewels to any one, nor have I been running around with any 'little snips,' as you call them. I don't know what you are talking about, Aileen."
"Oh, Frank," commented Aileen, wearily and incredulously, "you lie so! Why do you stand there and lie? I'm so tired of it; I'm so sick of it all. How should the servants know of so many things to talk of here if they weren't true? I didn't invite Mrs. Platow to come and ask me why you had given her daughter a set of jade. I know why you lie; you want to hush me up and keep quiet. You're afraid I'll go to Mr. Haguenin or Mr. Cochrane or Mr. Platow, or to all three. Well, you can rest your soul on that score. I won't. I'm sick of you and your lies. Stephanie Platow—the thin stick! Cecily Haguenin—the little piece of gum! And Florence Cochrane—she looks like a dead fish!" (Aileen had a genius for characterization at times.) "If it just weren't for the way I acted toward my family in Philadelphia, and the talk it would create, and the injury it would do you financially, I'd act to-morrow. I'd leave you—that's what I'd do. And to think that I should ever have believed that you really loved me, or could care for any woman permanently. Bosh! But I don't care. Go on! Only I'll tell you one thing. You needn't think I'm going to go on enduring all this as I have in the past. I'm not. You're not going to deceive me always. I'm not going to stand it. I'm not so old yet. There are plenty of men who will be glad to pay me attention if you won't. I told you once that I wouldn't be faithful to you if you weren't to me, and I won't be. I'll show you. I'll go with other men. I will! I will! I swear it."
"Aileen," he asked, softly, pleadingly, realizing the futility of additional lies under such circumstances, "won't you forgive me this time? Bear with me for the present. I scarcely understand myself at times. I am not like other men. You and I have run together a long time now. Why not wait awhile? Give me a chance! See if I do not change. I may."
"Oh yes, wait! Change. You may change. Haven't I waited? Haven't I walked the floor night after night! when you haven't been here? Bear with you—yes, yes! Who's to bear with me when my heart is breaking? Oh, God!" she suddenly added, with passionate vigor, "I'm miserable! I'm miserable! My heart aches! It aches!"
She clutched her breast and swung from the room, moving with that vigorous stride that had once appealed to him so, and still did. Alas, alas! it touched him now, but only as a part of a very shifty and cruel world. He hurried out of the room after her, and (as at the time of the Rita Sohlberg incident) slipped his arm about her waist; but she pulled away irritably. "No, no!" she exclaimed. "Let me alone. I'm tired of that."
"You're really not fair to me, Aileen," with a great show of feeling and sincerity. "You're letting one affair that came between us blind your whole point of view. I give you my word I haven't been unfaithful to you with Stephanie Platow or any other woman. I may have flirted with them a little, but that is really nothing. Why not be sensible? I'm not as black as you paint me. I'm moving in big matters that are as much for your concern and future as for mine. Be sensible, be liberal."
There was much argument—the usual charges and countercharges—but, finally, because of her weariness of heart, his petting, the unsolvability of it all, she permitted him for the time being to persuade her that there were still some crumbs of affection left. She was soul-sick, heartsick. Even he, as he attempted to soothe her, realized clearly that to establish the reality of his love in her belief he would have to make some much greater effort to entertain and comfort her, and that this, in his present mood, and with his leaning toward promiscuity, was practically impossible. For the time being a peace might be patched up, but in view of what she expected of him—her passion and selfish individuality—it could not be. He would have to go on, and she would have to leave him, if needs be; but he could not cease or go back. He was too passionate, too radiant, too individual and complex to belong to any one single individual alone.