It was interesting to note how, able though he was, and bound up with this vast street-railway enterprise which was beginning to affect several thousand men, his mind could find intense relief and satisfaction in the presence and actions of Stephanie Platow. It is not too much to say that in her, perhaps, he found revivified the spirit and personality of Rita Sohlberg. Rita, however, had not contemplated disloyalty—it had never occurred to her to be faithless to Cowperwood so long as he was fond of her any more than for a long time it had been possible for her, even after all his philanderings, to be faithless to Sohlberg. Stephanie, on the other hand, had the strange feeling that affection was not necessarily identified with physical loyalty, and that she could be fond of Cowperwood and still deceive him—a fact which was based on her lack as yet of a true enthusiasm for him. She loved him and she didn't. Her attitude was not necessarily identified with her heavy, lizardish animality, though that had something to do with it; but rather with a vague, kindly generosity which permitted her to feel that it was hard to break with Gardner Knowles and Lane Cross after they had been so nice to her. Gardner Knowles had sung her praises here, there, and everywhere, and was attempting to spread her fame among the legitimate theatrical enterprises which came to the city in order that she might be taken up and made into a significant figure. Lane Cross was wildly fond of her in an inadequate way which made it hard to break with him, and yet certain that she would eventually. There was still another man—a young playwright and poet by the name of Forbes Gurney—tall, fair, passionate—who had newly arrived on the scene and was courting her, or, rather, being courted by her at odd moments, for her time was her own. In her artistically errant way she had refused to go to school like her sister, and was idling about, developing, as she phrased it, her artistic possibilities.
Cowperwood, as was natural, heard much of her stage life. At first he took all this palaver with a grain of salt, the babbling of an ardent nature interested in the flighty romance of the studio world. By degrees, however, he became curious as to the freedom of her actions, the ease with which she drifted from place to place—Lane Cross's studio; Bliss Bridge's bachelor rooms, where he appeared always to be receiving his theatrical friends of the Garrick Players; Mr. Gardner Knowles's home on the near North Side, where he was frequently entertaining a party after the theater. It seemed to Cowperwood, to say the least, that Stephanie was leading a rather free and inconsequential existence, and yet it reflected her exactly—the color of her soul. But he began to doubt and wonder.
"Where were you, Stephanie, yesterday?" he would ask, when they met for lunch, or in the evenings early, or when she called at his new offices on the North Side, as she sometimes did to walk or drive with him.
"Oh, yesterday morning I was at Lane Cross's studio trying on some of his Indian shawls and veils. He has such a lot of those things—some of the loveliest oranges and blues. You just ought to see me in them. I wish you might."
"For a while. I thought Ethel Tuckerman and Bliss Bridge would be there, but they didn't come until later. Lane Cross is such a dear. He's sort of silly at times, but I like him. His portraits are so bizarre."
She went off into a description of his pretentious but insignificant art.
Cowperwood marveled, not at Lane Cross's art nor his shawls, but at this world in which Stephanie moved. He could not quite make her out. He had never been able to make her explain satisfactorily that first single relationship with Gardner Knowles, which she declared had ended so abruptly. Since then he had doubted, as was his nature; but this girl was so sweet, childish, irreconcilable with herself, like a wandering breath of air, or a pale-colored flower, that he scarcely knew what to think. The artistically inclined are not prone to quarrel with an enticing sheaf of flowers. She was heavenly to him, coming in, as she did at times when he was alone, with bland eyes and yielding herself in a kind of summery ecstasy. She had always something artistic to tell of storms, winds, dust, clouds, smoke forms, the outline of buildings, the lake, the stage. She would cuddle in his arms and quote long sections from "Romeo and Juliet," "Paolo and Francesca," "The Ring and the Book," Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes." He hated to quarrel with her, because she was like a wild rose or some art form in nature. Her sketch-book was always full of new things. Her muff, or the light silk shawl she wore in summer, sometimes concealed a modeled figure of some kind which she would produce with a look like that of a doubting child, and if he wanted it, if he liked it, he could have it. Cowperwood meditated deeply. He scarcely knew what to think.
The constant atmosphere of suspicion and doubt in which he was compelled to remain, came by degrees to distress and anger him. While she was with him she was clinging enough, but when she was away she was ardently cheerful and happy. Unlike the station he had occupied in so many previous affairs, he found himself, after the first little while, asking her whether she loved him instead of submitting to the same question from her.
He thought that with his means, his position, his future possibilities he had the power to bind almost any woman once drawn to his personality; but Stephanie was too young and too poetic to be greatly impaired by wealth and fame, and she was not yet sufficiently gripped by the lure of him. She loved him in her strange way; but she was interested also by the latest arrival, Forbes Gurney. This tall, melancholy youth, with brown eyes and pale-brown hair, was very poor. He hailed from southern Minnesota, and what between a penchant for journalism, verse-writing, and some dramatic work, was somewhat undecided as to his future. His present occupation was that of an instalment collector for a furniture company, which set him free, as a rule, at three o'clock in the afternoon. He was trying, in a mooning way, to identify himself with the Chicago newspaper world, and was a discovery of Gardner Knowles.
Stephanie had seen him about the rooms of the Garrick Players. She had looked at his longish face with its aureole of soft, crinkly hair, his fine wide mouth, deep-set eyes, and good nose, and had been touched by an atmosphere of wistfulness, or, let us say, life-hunger. Gardner Knowles brought a poem of his once, which he had borrowed from him, and read it to the company, Stephanie, Ethel Tuckerman, Lane Cross, and Irma Ottley assembled.
"Listen to this," Knowles had suddenly exclaimed, taking it out of his pocket.
It concerned a garden of the moon with the fragrance of pale blossoms, a mystic pool, some ancient figures of joy, a quavered Lucidian tune.
"With eerie flute and rhythmic thrum Of muted strings and beaten drum."
Stephanie Platow had sat silent, caught by a quality that was akin to her own. She asked to see it, and read it in silence.
"I think it's charming," she said.
Thereafter she hovered in the vicinity of Forbes Gurney. Why, she could scarcely say. It was not coquetry. She just drew near, talked to him of stage work and her plays and her ambitions. She sketched him as she had Cowperwood and others, and one day Cowperwood found three studies of Forbes Gurney in her note-book idyllicly done, a note of romantic feeling about them.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"Oh, he's a young poet who comes up to the Players—Forbes Gurney. He's so charming; he's so pale and dreamy."
Cowperwood contemplated the sketches curiously. His eyes clouded.
"Another one of Stephanie's adherents," he commented, teasingly. "It's a long procession I've joined. Gardner Knowles, Lane Cross, Bliss Bridge, Forbes Gurney."
Stephanie merely pouted moodily.
"How you talk! Bliss Bridge, Gardner Knowles! I admit I like them all, but that's all I do do. They're just sweet and dear. You'd like Lane Cross yourself; he's such a foolish old Polly. As for Forbes Gurney, he just drifts up there once in a while as one of the crowd. I scarcely know him."
"Exactly," said Cowperwood, dolefully; "but you sketch him." For some reason Cowperwood did not believe this. Back in his brain he did not believe Stephanie at all, he did not trust her. Yet he was intensely fond of her—the more so, perhaps, because of this.
"Tell me truly, Stephanie," he said to her one day, urgently, and yet very diplomatically. "I don't care at all, so far as your past is concerned. You and I are close enough to reach a perfect understanding. But you didn't tell me the whole truth about you and Knowles, did you? Tell me truly now. I sha'n't mind. I can understand well enough how it could have happened. It doesn't make the least bit of difference to me, really."
Stephanie was off her guard for once, in no truly fencing mood. She was troubled at times about her various relations, anxious to put herself straight with Cowperwood or with any one whom she truly liked. Compared to Cowperwood and his affairs, Cross and Knowles were trivial, and yet Knowles was interesting to her. Compared to Cowperwood, Forbes Gurney was a stripling beggar, and yet Gurney had what Cowperwood did not have—a sad, poetic lure. He awakened her sympathies. He was such a lonely boy. Cowperwood was so strong, brilliant, magnetic.
Perhaps it was with some idea of clearing up her moral status generally that she finally said: "Well, I didn't tell you the exact truth about it, either. I was a little ashamed to."
At the close of her confession, which involved only Knowles, and was incomplete at that, Cowperwood burned with a kind of angry resentment. Why trifle with a lying prostitute? That she was an inconsequential free lover at twenty-one was quite plain. And yet there was something so strangely large about the girl, so magnetic, and she was so beautiful after her kind, that he could not think of giving her up. She reminded him of himself.
"Well, Stephanie," he said, trampling under foot an impulse to insult or rebuke and dismiss her, "you are strange. Why didn't you tell me this before? I have asked and asked. Do you really mean to say that you care for me at all?"
"How can you ask that?" she demanded, reproachfully, feeling that she had been rather foolish in confessing. Perhaps she would lose him now, and she did not want to do that. Because his eyes blazed with a jealous hardness she burst into tears. "Oh, I wish I had never told you! There is nothing to tell, anyhow. I never wanted to."
Cowperwood was nonplussed. He knew human nature pretty well, and woman nature; his common sense told him that this girl was not to be trusted, and yet he was drawn to her. Perhaps she was not lying, and these tears were real.
"And you positively assure me that this was all—that there wasn't any one else before, and no one since?"
Stephanie dried her eyes. They were in his private rooms in Randolph Street, the bachelor rooms he had fitted for himself as a changing place for various affairs.
"I don't believe you care for me at all," she observed, dolefully, reproachfully. "I don't believe you understand me. I don't think you believe me. When I tell you how things are you don't understand. I don't lie. I can't. If you are so doubting now, perhaps you had better not see me any more. I want to be frank with you, but if you won't let me—"
She paused heavily, gloomily, very sorrowfully, and Cowperwood surveyed her with a kind of yearning. What an unreasoning pull she had for him! He did not believe her, and yet he could not let her go.
"Oh, I don't know what to think," he commented, morosely. "I certainly don't want to quarrel with you, Stephanie, for telling me the truth. Please don't deceive me. You are a remarkable girl. I can do so much for you if you will let me. You ought to see that."
"But I'm not deceiving you," she repeated, wearily. "I should think you could see."
"I believe you," he went on, trying to deceive himself against his better judgment. "But you lead such a free, unconventional life."
"Ah," thought Stephanie, "perhaps I talk too much."
"I am very fond of you. You appeal to me so much. I love you, really. Don't deceive me. Don't run with all these silly simpletons. They are really not worthy of you. I shall be able to get a divorce one of these days, and then I would be glad to marry you."
"But I'm not running with them in the sense that you think. They're not anything to me beyond mere entertainment. Oh, I like them, of course. Lane Cross is a dear in his way, and so is Gardner Knowles. They have all been nice to me."
Cowperwood's gorge rose at her calling Lane Cross dear. It incensed him, and yet he held his peace.
"Do give me your word that there will never be anything between you and any of these men so long as you are friendly with me?" he almost pleaded—a strange role for him. "I don't care to share you with any one else. I won't. I don't mind what you have done in the past, but I don't want you to be unfaithful in the future."
"What a question! Of course I won't. But if you don't believe me—oh, dear—"
Stephanie sighed painfully, and Cowperwood's face clouded with angry though well-concealed suspicion and jealousy.
"Well, I'll tell you, Stephanie, I believe you now. I'm going to take your word. But if you do deceive me, and I should find it out, I will quit you the same day. I do not care to share you with any one else. What I can't understand, if you care for me, is how you can take so much interest in all these affairs? It certainly isn't devotion to your art that's impelling you, is it?"
"Oh, are you going to go on quarreling with me?" asked Stephanie, naively. "Won't you believe me when I say that I love you? Perhaps—" But here her histrionic ability came to her aid, and she sobbed violently.
Cowperwood took her in his arms. "Never mind," he soothed. "I do believe you. I do think you care for me. Only I wish you weren't such a butterfly temperament, Stephanie."
So this particular lesion for the time being was healed.