Since the days in which Aileen had been left more or less lonely by Cowperwood, however, no two individuals had been more faithful in their attentions than Taylor Lord and Kent McKibben. Both were fond of her in a general way, finding her interesting physically and temperamentally; but, being beholden to the magnate for many favors, they were exceedingly circumspect in their attitude toward her, particularly during those early years in which they knew that Cowperwood was intensely devoted to her. Later they were not so careful.
It was during this latter period that Aileen came gradually, through the agency of these two men, to share in a form of mid-world life that was not utterly dull. In every large city there is a kind of social half world, where artists and the more adventurous of the socially unconventional and restless meet for an exchange of things which cannot be counted mere social form and civility. It is the age-old world of Bohemia. Hither resort those "accidentals" of fancy that make the stage, the drawing-room, and all the schools of artistic endeavor interesting or peculiar. In a number of studios in Chicago such as those of Lane Cross and Rhees Crier, such little circles were to be found. Rhees Crier, for instance, a purely parlor artist, with all the airs, conventions, and social adaptability of the tribe, had quite a following. Here and to several other places by turns Taylor Lord and Kent McKibben conducted Aileen, both asking and obtaining permission to be civil to her when Cowperwood was away.
Among the friends of these two at this time was a certain Polk Lynde, an interesting society figure, whose father owned an immense reaper works, and whose time was spent in idling, racing, gambling, socializing—anything, in short, that it came into his head to do. He was tall, dark, athletic, straight, muscular, with a small dark mustache, dark, black-brown eyes, kinky black hair, and a fine, almost military carriage—which he clothed always to the best advantage. A clever philanderer, it was quite his pride that he did not boast of his conquests. One look at him, however, by the initiated, and the story was told. Aileen first saw him on a visit to the studio of Rhees Grier. Being introduced to him very casually on this occasion, she was nevertheless clearly conscious that she was encountering a fascinating man, and that he was fixing her with a warm, avid eye. For the moment she recoiled from him as being a little too brazen in his stare, and yet she admired the general appearance of him. He was of that smart world that she admired so much, and from which now apparently she was hopelessly debarred. That trig, bold air of his realized for her at last the type of man, outside of Cowperwood, whom she would prefer within limits to admire her. If she were going to be "bad," as she would have phrased it to herself, she would be "bad" with a man such as he. He would be winsome and coaxing, but at the same time strong, direct, deliciously brutal, like her Frank. He had, too, what Cowperwood could not have, a certain social air or swagger which came with idleness, much loafing, a sense of social superiority and security—a devil-may-care insouciance which recks little of other people's will or whims.
When she next saw him, which was several weeks later at an affair of the Courtney Tabors, friends of Lord's, he exclaimed:
"Oh yes. By George! You're the Mrs. Cowperwood I met several weeks ago at Rhees Grier's studio. I've not forgotten you. I've seen you in my eye all over Chicago. Taylor Lord introduced me to you. Say, but you're a beautiful woman!"
He leaned ingratiatingly, whimsically, admiringly near.
Aileen realized that for so early in the afternoon, and considering the crowd, he was curiously enthusiastic. The truth was that because of some rounds he had made elsewhere he was verging toward too much liquor. His eye was alight, his color coppery, his air swagger, devil-may-care, bacchanal. This made her a little cautious; but she rather liked his brown, hard face, handsome mouth, and crisp Jovian curls. His compliment was not utterly improper; but she nevertheless attempted coyly to avoid him.
"Come, Polk, here's an old friend of yours over here—Sadie Boutwell—she wants to meet you again," some one observed, catching him by the arm.
"No, you don't," he exclaimed, genially, and yet at the same time a little resentfully—the kind of disjointed resentment a man who has had the least bit too much is apt to feel on being interrupted. "I'm not going to walk all over Chicago thinking of a woman I've seen somewhere only to be carried away the first time I do meet her. I'm going to talk to her first."
Aileen laughed. "It's charming of you, but we can meet again, perhaps. Besides, there's some one here"—Lord was tactfully directing her attention to another woman. Rhees Grier and McKibben, who were present also, came to her assistance. In the hubbub that ensued Aileen was temporarily extricated and Lynde tactfully steered out of her way. But they had met again, and it was not to be the last time. Subsequent to this second meeting, Lynde thought the matter over quite calmly, and decided that he must make a definite effort to become more intimate with Aileen. Though she was not as young as some others, she suited his present mood exactly. She was rich physically—voluptuous and sentient. She was not of his world precisely, but what of it? She was the wife of an eminent financier, who had been in society once, and she herself had a dramatic record. He was sure of that. He could win her if he wanted to. It would be easy, knowing her as he did, and knowing what he did about her.
So not long after, Lynde ventured to invite her, with Lord, McKibben, Mr. and Mrs. Rhees Grier, and a young girl friend of Mrs. Grier who was rather attractive, a Miss Chrystobel Lanman, to a theater and supper party. The programme was to hear a reigning farce at Hooley's, then to sup at the Richelieu, and finally to visit a certain exclusive gambling-parlor which then flourished on the South Side—the resort of actors, society gamblers, and the like—where roulette, trente-et-quarante, baccarat, and the honest game of poker, to say nothing of various other games of chance, could be played amid exceedingly recherche surroundings.
The party was gay, especially after the adjournment to the Richelieu, where special dishes of chicken, lobster, and a bucket of champagne were served. Later at the Alcott Club, as the gambling resort was known, Aileen, according to Lynde, was to be taught to play baccarat, poker, and any other game that she wished. "You follow my advice, Mrs. Cowperwood," he observed, cheerfully, at dinner—being host, he had put her between himself and McKibben—"and I'll show you how to get your money back anyhow. That's more than some others can do," he added, spiritedly, recalling by a look a recent occasion when he and McKibben, being out with friends, the latter had advised liberally and had seen his advice go wrong.
"Have you been gambling, Kent?" asked Aileen, archly, turning to her long-time social mentor and friend.
"No, I can honestly say I haven't," replied McKibben, with a bland smile. "I may have thought I was gambling, but I admit I don't know how. Now Polk, here, wins all the time, don't you, Polk? Just follow him."
A wry smile spread over Lynde's face at this, for it was on record in certain circles that he had lost as much as ten and even fifteen thousand in an evening. He also had a record of winning twenty-five thousand once at baccarat at an all-night and all-day sitting, and then losing it.
Lynde all through the evening had been casting hard, meaning glances into Aileen's eyes. She could not avoid this, and she did not feel that she wanted to. He was so charming. He was talking to her half the time at the theater, without apparently addressing or even seeing her. Aileen knew well enough what was in his mind. At times, quite as in those days when she had first met Cowperwood, she felt an unwilled titillation in her blood. Her eyes brightened. It was just possible that she could come to love a man like this, although it would be hard. It would serve Cowperwood right for neglecting her. Yet even now the shadow of Cowperwood was over her, but also the desire for love and a full sex life.
In the gambling-rooms was gathered an interested and fairly smart throng—actors, actresses, clubmen, one or two very emancipated women of the high local social world, and a number of more or less gentlemanly young gamblers. Both Lord and McKibben began suggesting column numbers for first plays to their proteges, while Lynde leaned caressingly over Aileen's powdered shoulders. "Let me put this on quatre premier for you," he suggested, throwing down a twenty-dollar gold piece.
"Oh, but let it be my money," complained Aileen. "I want to play with my money. I won't feel that it's mine if I don't."
"Very well, but you can't just now. You can't play with bills." She was extracting a crisp roll from her purse. "I'll have to exchange them later for you for gold. You can pay me then. He's going to call now, anyhow. There you are. He's done it. Wait a moment. You may win." And he paused to study the little ball as it circled round and round above the receiving pockets.
"Let me see. How much do I get if I win quatre premier?" She was trying to recall her experiences abroad.
"Ten for one," replied Lynde; "but you didn't get it. Let's try it once more for luck. It comes up every so often—once in ten or twelve. I've made it often on a first play. How long has it been since the last quatre premier?" he asked of a neighbor whom he recognized.
"Seven, I think, Polk. Six or seven. How's tricks?"
"Oh, so so." He turned again to Aileen. "It ought to come up now soon. I always make it a rule to double my plays each time. It gets you back all you've lost, some time or other." He put down two twenties.
"Goodness," she exclaimed, "that will be two hundred! I had forgotten that."
Just then the call came for all placements to cease, and Aileen directed her attention to the ball. It circled and circled in its dizzy way and then suddenly dropped.
"Lost again," commented Lynde. "Well, now we'll make it eighty," and he threw down four twenties. "Just for luck we'll put something on thirty-six, and thirteen, and nine." With an easy air he laid one hundred dollars in gold on each number.
Aileen liked his manner. This was like Frank. Lynde had the cool spirit of a plunger. His father, recognizing his temperament, had set over a large fixed sum to be paid to him annually. She recognized, as in Cowperwood, the spirit of adventure, only working out in another way. Lynde was perhaps destined to come to some startlingly reckless end, but what of it? He was a gentleman. His position in life was secure. That had always been Aileen's sad, secret thought. Hers had not been and might never be now.
"Oh, I'm getting foozled already," she exclaimed, gaily reverting to a girlhood habit of clapping her hands. "How much will I win if I win?" The gesture attracted attention even as the ball fell.
"By George, you have it!" exclaimed Lynde, who was watching the croupier. "Eight hundred, two hundred, two hundred"—he was counting to himself—"but we lose thirteen. Very good, that makes us nearly one thousand ahead, counting out what we put down. Rather nice for a beginning, don't you think? Now, if you'll take my advice you'll not play quatre premier any more for a while. Suppose you double a thirteen—you lost on that—and play Bates's formula. I'll show you what that is."
Already, because he was known to be a plunger, Lynde was gathering a few spectators behind him, and Aileen, fascinated, and not knowing these mysteries of chance, was content to watch him. At one stage of the playing Lynde leaned over and, seeing her smile, whispered:
"What adorable hair and eyes you have! You glow like a great rose. You have a radiance that is wonderful."
"Oh, Mr. Lynde! How you talk! Does gambling always affect you this way?"
"No, you do. Always, apparently!" And he stared hard into her upturned eyes. Still playing ostensibly for Aileen's benefit, he now doubled the cash deposit on his system, laying down a thousand in gold. Aileen urged him to play for himself and let her watch. "I'll just put a little money on these odd numbers here and there, and you play any system you want. How will that do?"
"No, not at all," he replied, feelingly. "You're my luck. I play with you. You keep the gold for me. I'll make you a fine present if I win. The losses are mine."
"Just as you like. I don't know really enough about it to play. But I surely get the nice present if you win?"
"You do, win or lose," he murmured. "And now you put the money on the numbers I call. Twenty on seven. Eighty on thirteen. Eighty on thirty. Twenty on nine. Fifty on twenty-four." He was following a system of his own, and in obedience Aileen's white, plump arm reached here and there while the spectators paused, realizing that heavier playing was being done by this pair than by any one else. Lynde was plunging for effect. He lost a thousand and fifty dollars at one clip.
"Oh, all that good money!" exclaimed Aileen, mock-pathetically, as the croupier raked it in.
"Never mind, we'll get it back," exclaimed Lynde, throwing two one-thousand-dollar bills to the cashier. "Give me gold for those."
The man gave him a double handful, which he put down between Aileen's white arms.
"One hundred on two. One hundred on four. One hundred on six. One hundred on eight."
The pieces were five-dollar gold pieces, and Aileen quickly built up the little yellow stacks and shoved them in place. Again the other players stopped and began to watch the odd pair. Aileen's red-gold head, and pink cheeks, and swimming eyes, her body swathed in silks and rich laces; and Lynde, erect, his shirt bosom snowy white, his face dark, almost coppery, his eyes and hair black—they were indeed a strikingly assorted pair.
"What's this? What's this?" asked Grier, coming up. "Who's plunging? You, Mrs. Cowperwood?"
"Not plunging," replied Lynde, indifferently. "We're merely working out a formula—Mrs. Cowperwood and I. We're doing it together."
Aileen smiled. She was in her element at last. She was beginning to shine. She was attracting attention.
"One hundred on twelve. One hundred on eighteen. One hundred on twenty-six."
"Good heavens, what are you up to, Lynde?" exclaimed Lord, leaving Mrs. Rhees and coming over. She followed. Strangers also were gathering. The business of the place was at its topmost toss—it being two o'clock in the morning—and the rooms were full.
"How interesting!" observed Miss Lanman, at the other end of the table, pausing in her playing and staring. McKibben, who was beside her, also paused. "They're plunging. Do look at all the money! Goodness, isn't she daring-looking—and he?" Aileen's shining arm was moving deftly, showily about.
"Look at the bills he's breaking!" Lynde was taking out a thick layer of fresh, yellow bills which he was exchanging for gold. "They make a striking pair, don't they?"
The board was now practically covered with Lynde's gold in quaint little stacks. He had followed a system called Mazarin, which should give him five for one, and possibly break the bank. Quite a crowd swarmed about the table, their faces glowing in the artificial light. The exclamation "plunging!" "plunging!" was to be heard whispered here and there. Lynde was delightfully cool and straight. His lithe body was quite erect, his eyes reflective, his teeth set over an unlighted cigarette. Aileen was excited as a child, delighted to be once more the center of comment. Lord looked at her with sympathetic eyes. He liked her. Well, let her he amused. It was good for her now and then; but Lynde was a fool to make a show of himself and risk so much money.
"Table closed!" called the croupier, and instantly the little ball began to spin. All eyes followed it. Round and round it went—Aileen as keen an observer as any. Her face was flushed, her eyes bright.
"If we lose this," said Lynde, "we will make one more bet double, and then if we don't win that we'll quit." He was already out nearly three thousand dollars.
"Oh yes, indeed! Only I think we ought to quit now. Here goes two thousand if we don't win. Don't you think that's quite enough? I haven't brought you much luck, have I?"
"You are luck," he whispered. "All the luck I want. One more. Stand by me for one more try, will you? If we win I'll quit."
The little ball clicked even as she nodded, and the croupier, paying out on a few small stacks here and there, raked all the rest solemnly into the receiving orifice, while murmurs of sympathetic dissatisfaction went up here and there.
"How much did they have on the board?" asked Miss Lanman of McKibben, in surprise. "It must have been a great deal, wasn't it?"
"Oh, two thousand dollars, perhaps. That isn't so high here, though. People do plunge for as much as eight or ten thousand. It all depends." McKibben was in a belittling, depreciating mood.
"Oh yes, but not often, surely."
"For the love of heavens, Polk!" exclaimed Rhees Grier, coming up and plucking at his sleeve; "if you want to give your money away give it to me. I can gather it in just as well as that croupier, and I'll go get a truck and haul it home, where it will do some good. It's perfectly terrible the way you are carrying on."
Lynde took his loss with equanimity. "Now to double it," he observed, "and get all our losses back, or go downstairs and have a rarebit and some champagne. What form of a present would please you best?—but never mind. I know a souvenir for this occasion."
He smiled and bought more gold. Aileen stacked it up showily, if a little repentantly. She did not quite approve of this—his plunging—and yet she did; she could not help sympathizing with the plunging spirit. In a few moments it was on the board—the same combination, the same stacks, only doubled—four thousand all told. The croupier called, the ball rolled and fell. Barring three hundred dollars returned, the bank took it all.
"Well, now for a rarebit," exclaimed Lynde, easily, turning to Lord, who stood behind him smiling. "You haven't a match, have you? We've had a run of bad luck, that's sure."
Lynde was secretly the least bit disgruntled, for if he had won he had intended to take a portion of the winnings and put it in a necklace or some other gewgaw for Aileen. Now he must pay for it. Yet there was some satisfaction in having made an impression as a calm and indifferent, though heavy loser. He gave Aileen his arm.
"Well, my lady," he observed, "we didn't win; but we had a little fun out of it, I hope? That combination, if it had come out, would have set us up handsomely. Better luck next time, eh?"
He smiled genially.
"Yes, but I was to have been your luck, and I wasn't," replied Aileen.
"You are all the luck I want, if you're willing to be. Come to the Richelieu to-morrow with me for lunch—will you?"
"Let me see," replied Aileen, who, observing his ready and somewhat iron fervor, was doubtful. "I can't do that," she said, finally, "I have another engagement."
"How about Tuesday, then?"
Aileen, realizing of a sudden that she was making much of a situation that ought to be handled with a light hand, answered readily: "Very well—Tuesday! Only call me up before. I may have to change my mind or the time." And she smiled good-naturedly.
After this Lynde had no opportunity to talk to Aileen privately; but in saying good night he ventured to press her arm suggestively. She suffered a peculiar nervous thrill from this, but decided curiously that she had brought it upon herself by her eagerness for life and revenge, and must make up her mind. Did she or did she not wish to go on with this? This was the question uppermost, and she felt that she must decide. However, as in most such cases, circumstances were to help decide for her, and, unquestionably, a portion of this truth was in her mind as she was shown gallantly to her door by Taylor Lord.