Cowperwood gained his first real impression of Stephanie at the Garrick Players, where he went with Aileen once to witness a performance of "Elektra." He liked Stephanie particularly in this part, and thought her beautiful. One evening not long afterward he noticed her in his own home looking at his jades, particularly a row of bracelets and ear-rings. He liked the rhythmic outline of her body, which reminded him of a letter S in motion. Quite suddenly it came over him that she was a remarkable girl—very—destined, perhaps, to some significant future. At the same time Stephanie was thinking of him.
"Do you find them interesting?" he asked, stopping beside her.
"I think they're wonderful. Those dark-greens, and that pale, fatty white! I can see how beautiful they would be in a Chinese setting. I have always wished we could find a Chinese or Japanese play to produce sometime."
"Yes, with your black hair those ear-rings would look well," said Cowperwood.
He had never deigned to comment on a feature of hers before. She turned her dark, brown-black eyes on him—velvety eyes with a kind of black glow in them—and now he noticed how truly fine they were, and how nice were her hands—brown almost as a Malay's.
He said nothing more; but the next day an unlabeled box was delivered to Stephanie at her home containing a pair of jade ear-rings, a bracelet, and a brooch with Chinese characters intagliated. Stephanie was beside herself with delight. She gathered them up in her hands and kissed them, fastening the ear-rings in her ears and adjusting the bracelet and ring. Despite her experience with her friends and relatives, her stage associates, and her paramours, she was still a little unschooled in the world. Her heart was essentially poetic and innocent. No one had ever given her much of anything—not even her parents. Her allowance thus far in life had been a pitiful six dollars a week outside of her clothing. As she surveyed these pretty things in the privacy of her room she wondered oddly whether Cowperwood was growing to like her. Would such a strong, hard business man be interested in her? She had heard her father say he was becoming very rich. Was she a great actress, as some said she was, and would strong, able types of men like Cowperwood take to her—eventually? She had heard of Rachel, of Nell Gwynne, of the divine Sarah and her loves. She took the precious gifts and locked them in a black-iron box which was sacred to her trinkets and her secrets.
The mere acceptance of these things in silence was sufficient indication to Cowperwood that she was of a friendly turn of mind. He waited patiently until one day a letter came to his office—not his house—addressed, "Frank Algernon Cowperwood, Personal." It was written in a small, neat, careful hand, almost printed.
I don't know how to thank you for your wonderful present. I didn't mean you should give them to me, and I know you sent them. I shall keep them with pleasure and wear them with delight. It was so nice of you to do this.
Cowperwood studied the handwriting, the paper, the phraseology. For a girl of only a little over twenty this was wise and reserved and tactful. She might have written to him at his residence. He gave her the benefit of a week's time, and then found her in his own home one Sunday afternoon. Aileen had gone calling, and Stephanie was pretending to await her return.
"It's nice to see you there in that window," he said. "You fit your background perfectly."
"Do I?" The black-brown eyes burned soulfully. The panneling back of her was of dark oak, burnished by the rays of an afternoon winter sun.
Stephanie Platow had dressed for this opportunity. Her full, rich, short black hair was caught by a childish band of blood-red ribbon, holding it low over her temples and ears. Her lithe body, so harmonious in its graven roundness, was clad in an apple-green bodice, and a black skirt with gussets of red about the hem; her smooth arms, from the elbows down, were bare. On one wrist was the jade bracelet he had given her. Her stockings were apple-green silk, and, despite the chill of the day, her feet were shod in enticingly low slippers with brass buckles.
Cowperwood retired to the hall to hang up his overcoat and came back smiling.
"Isn't Mrs. Cowperwood about?"
"The butler says she's out calling, but I thought I'd wait a little while, anyhow. She may come back."
She turned up a dark, smiling face to him, with languishing, inscrutable eyes, and he recognized the artist at last, full and clear.
"I see you like my bracelet, don't you?"
"It's beautiful," she replied, looking down and surveying it dreamily. "I don't always wear it. I carry it in my muff. I've just put it on for a little while. I carry them all with me always. I love them so. I like to feel them."
She opened a small chamois bag beside her—lying with her handkerchief and a sketch-book which she always carried—and took out the ear-rings and brooch.
Cowperwood glowed with a strange feeling of approval and enthusiasm at this manifestation of real interest. He liked jade himself very much, but more than that the feeling that prompted this expression in another. Roughly speaking, it might have been said of him that youth and hope in women—particularly youth when combined with beauty and ambition in a girl—touched him. He responded keenly to her impulse to do or be something in this world, whatever it might be, and he looked on the smart, egoistic vanity of so many with a kindly, tolerant, almost parental eye. Poor little organisms growing on the tree of life—they would burn out and fade soon enough. He did not know the ballad of the roses of yesteryear, but if he had it would have appealed to him. He did not care to rifle them, willy-nilly; but should their temperaments or tastes incline them in his direction, they would not suffer vastly in their lives because of him. The fact was, the man was essentially generous where women were concerned.
"How nice of you!" he commented, smiling. "I like that." And then, seeing a note-book and pencil beside her, he asked, "What are you doing?"
"Let me see?"
"It's nothing much," she replied, deprecatingly. "I don't draw very well."
"Gifted girl!" he replied, picking it up. "Paints, draws, carves on wood, plays, sings, acts."
"All rather badly," she sighed, turning her head languidly and looking away. In her sketch-book she had put all of her best drawings; there were sketches of nude women, dancers, torsos, bits of running figures, sad, heavy, sensuous heads and necks of sleeping girls, chins up, eyelids down, studies of her brothers and sister, and of her father and mother.
"Delightful!" exclaimed Cowperwood, keenly alive to a new treasure. Good heavens, where had been his eyes all this while? Here was a jewel lying at his doorstep—innocent, untarnished—a real jewel. These drawings suggested a fire of perception, smoldering and somber, which thrilled him.
"These are beautiful to me, Stephanie," he said, simply, a strange, uncertain feeling of real affection creeping over him. The man's greatest love was for art. It was hypnotic to him. "Did you ever study art?" he asked.
"And you never studied acting?"
She shook her head in a slow, sad, enticing way. The black hair concealing her ears moved him strangely.
"I know the art of your stage work is real, and you have a natural art which I just seem to see. What has been the matter with me, anyhow?"
"Oh no," she sighed. "It seems to me that I merely play at everything. I could cry sometimes when I think how I go on."
"That is old enough," she smiled, archly.
"Stephanie," he asked, cautiously, "how old are you, exactly?"
"I will be twenty-one in April," she answered.
"Have your parents been very strict with you?"
She shook her head dreamily. "No; what makes you ask? They haven't paid very much attention to me. They've always liked Lucille and Gilbert and Ormond best." Her voice had a plaintive, neglected ring. It was the voice she used in her best scenes on the stage.
"Don't they realize that you are very talented?"
"I think perhaps my mother feels that I may have some ability. My father doesn't, I'm sure. Why?"
She lifted those languorous, plaintive eyes.
"Why, Stephanie, if you want to know, I think you're wonderful. I thought so the other night when you were looking at those jades. It all came over me. You are an artist, truly, and I have been so busy I have scarcely seen it. Tell me one thing."
She drew in a soft breath, filling her chest and expanding her bosom, while she looked at him from under her black hair. Her hands were crossed idly in her lap. Then she looked demurely down.
"Look, Stephanie! Look up! I want to ask you something. You have known something of me for over a year. Do you like me?"
"I think you're very wonderful," she murmured.
"Is that all?"
"Isn't that much?" she smiled, shooting a dull, black-opal look in his direction.
"You wore my bracelet to-day. Were you very glad to get it?"
"Oh yes," she sighed, with aspirated breath, pretending a kind of suffocation.
"How beautiful you really are!" he said, rising and looking down at her.
She shook her head.
"Come, Stephanie! Stand by me and look at me. You are so tall and slender and graceful. You are like something out of Asia."
She sighed, turning in a sinuous way, as he slipped his arm her. "I don't think we should, should we?" she asked, naively, after a moment, pulling away from him.
"I think I'd better go, now, please."