The interested appearance of a man like Polk Lynde at this stage of Aileen's affairs was a bit of fortuitous or gratuitous humor on the part of fate, which is involved with that subconscious chemistry of things of which as yet we know nothing. Here was Aileen brooding over her fate, meditating over her wrongs, as it were; and here was Polk Lynde, an interesting, forceful Lothario of the city, who was perhaps as well suited to her moods and her tastes at this time as any male outside of Cowperwood could be.
In many respects Lynde was a charming man. He was comparatively young—not more than Aileen's own age—schooled, if not educated, at one of the best American colleges, of excellent taste in the matter of clothes, friends, and the details of living with which he chose to surround himself, but at heart a rake. He loved, and had from his youth up, to gamble. He was in one phase of the word a HARD and yet by no means a self-destructive drinker, for he had an iron constitution and could consume spirituous waters with the minimum of ill effect. He had what Gibbon was wont to call "the most amiable of our vices," a passion for women, and he cared no more for the cool, patient, almost penitent methods by which his father had built up the immense reaper business, of which he was supposedly the heir, than he cared for the mysteries or sacred rights of the Chaldees. He realized that the business itself was a splendid thing. He liked on occasion to think of it with all its extent of ground-space, plain red-brick buildings, tall stacks and yelling whistles; but he liked in no way to have anything to do with the rather commonplace routine of its manipulation.
The principal difficulty with Aileen under these circumstances, of course, was her intense vanity and self-consciousness. Never was there a vainer or more sex-troubled woman. Why, she asked herself, should she sit here in loneliness day after day, brooding about Cowperwood, eating her heart out, while he was flitting about gathering the sweets of life elsewhere? Why should she not offer her continued charms as a solace and a delight to other men who would appreciate them? Would not such a policy have all the essentials of justice in it? Yet even now, so precious had Cowperwood been to her hitherto, and so wonderful, that she was scarcely able to think of serious disloyalty. He was so charming when he was nice—so splendid. When Lynde sought to hold her to the proposed luncheon engagement she at first declined. And there, under slightly differing conditions, the matter might easily have stood. But it so happened that just at this time Aileen was being almost daily harassed by additional evidence and reminders of Cowperwood's infidelity.
For instance, going one day to call on the Haguenins—for she was perfectly willing to keep up the pretense of amity in so long as they had not found out the truth—she was informed that Mrs. Haguenin was "not at home." Shortly thereafter the Press, which had always been favorable to Cowperwood, and which Aileen regularly read because of its friendly comment, suddenly veered and began to attack him. There were solemn suggestions at first that his policy and intentions might not be in accord with the best interests of the city. A little later Haguenin printed editorials which referred to Cowperwood as "the wrecker," "the Philadelphia adventurer," "a conscienceless promoter," and the like. Aileen guessed instantly what the trouble was, but she was too disturbed as to her own position to make any comment. She could not resolve the threats and menaces of Cowperwood's envious world any more than she could see her way through her own grim difficulties.
One day, in scanning the columns of that faithful chronicle of Chicago social doings, the Chicago Saturday Review, she came across an item which served as a final blow. "For some time in high social circles," the paragraph ran, "speculation has been rife as to the amours and liaisons of a certain individual of great wealth and pseudo social prominence, who once made a serious attempt to enter Chicago society. It is not necessary to name the man, for all who are acquainted with recent events in Chicago will know who is meant. The latest rumor to affect his already nefarious reputation relates to two women—one the daughter, and the other the wife, of men of repute and standing in the community. In these latest instances it is more than likely that he has arrayed influences of the greatest importance socially and financially against himself, for the husband in the one case and the father in the other are men of weight and authority. The suggestion has more than once been made that Chicago should and eventually would not tolerate his bucaneering methods in finance and social matters; but thus far no definite action has been taken to cast him out. The crowning wonder of all is that the wife, who was brought here from the East, and who—so rumor has it—made a rather scandalous sacrifice of her own reputation and another woman's heart and home in order to obtain the privilege of living with him, should continue so to do."
Aileen understood perfectly what was meant. "The father" of the so-called "one" was probably Haguenin or Cochrane, more than likely Haguenin. "The husband of the other"—but who was the husband of the other? She had not heard of any scandal with the wife of anybody. It could not be the case of Rita Sohlberg and her husband—that was too far back. It must be some new affair of which she had not the least inkling, and so she sat and reflected. Now, she told herself, if she received another invitation from Lynde she would accept it.
It was only a few days later that Aileen and Lynde met in the gold-room of the Richelieu. Strange to relate, for one determined to be indifferent she had spent much time in making a fetching toilet. It being February and chill with glittering snow on the ground, she had chosen a dark-green broadcloth gown, quite new, with lapis-lazuli buttons that worked a "Y" pattern across her bosom, a seal turban with an emerald plume which complemented a sealskin jacket with immense wrought silver buttons, and bronze shoes. To perfect it all, Aileen had fastened lapis-lazuli ear-rings of a small flower-form in her ears, and wore a plain, heavy gold bracelet. Lynde came up with a look of keen approval written on his handsome brown face. "Will you let me tell you how nice you look?" he said, sinking into the chair opposite. "You show beautiful taste in choosing the right colors. Your ear-rings go so well with your hair."
Although Aileen feared because of his desperateness, she was caught by his sleek force—that air of iron strength under a parlor mask. His long, brown, artistic hands, hard and muscular, indicated an idle force that might be used in many ways. They harmonized with his teeth and chin.
"So you came, didn't you?" he went on, looking at her steadily, while she fronted his gaze boldly for a moment, only to look evasively down.
He still studied her carefully, looking at her chin and mouth and piquant nose. In her colorful cheeks and strong arms and shoulders, indicated by her well-tailored suit, he recognized the human vigor he most craved in a woman. By way of diversion he ordered an old-fashioned whisky cocktail, urging her to join him. Finding her obdurate, he drew from his pocket a little box.
"We agreed when we played the other night on a memento, didn't we?" he said. "A sort of souvenir? Guess?"
Aileen looked at it a little nonplussed, recognizing the contents of the box to be jewelry. "Oh, you shouldn't have done that," she protested. "The understanding was that we were to win. You lost, and that ended the bargain. I should have shared the losses. I haven't forgiven you for that yet, you know."
"How ungallant that would make me!" he said, smilingly, as he trifled with the long, thin, lacquered case. "You wouldn't want to make me ungallant, would you? Be a good fellow—a good sport, as they say. Guess, and it's yours."
Aileen pursed her lips at this ardent entreaty.
"Oh, I don't mind guessing," she commented, superiorly, "though I sha'n't take it. It might be a pin, it might be a set of ear-rings, it might be a bracelet—"
He made no comment, but opened it, revealing a necklace of gold wrought into the form of a grape-vine of the most curious workmanship, with a cluster of leaves artistically carved and arranged as a breastpiece, the center of them formed by a black opal, which shone with an enticing luster. Lynde knew well enough that Aileen was familiar with many jewels, and that only one of ornate construction and value would appeal to her sense of what was becoming to her. He watched her face closely while she studied the details of the necklace.
"Isn't it exquisite!" she commented. "What a lovely opal—what an odd design." She went over the separate leaves. "You shouldn't be so foolish. I couldn't take it. I have too many things as it is, and besides—" She was thinking of what she would say if Cowperwood chanced to ask her where she got it. He was so intuitive.
"And besides?" he queried.
"Nothing," she replied, "except that I mustn't take it, really." "Won't you take it as a souvenir even if—our agreement, you know."
"Even if what?" she queried.
"Even if nothing else comes of it. A memento, then—truly—you know."
He laid hold of her fingers with his cool, vigorous ones. A year before, even six months, Aileen would have released her hand smilingly. Now she hesitated. Why should she be so squeamish with other men when Cowperwood was so unkind to her?
"Tell me something," Lynde asked, noting the doubt and holding her fingers gently but firmly, "do you care for me at all?"
"I like you, yes. I can't say that it is anything more than that."
She flushed, though, in spite of herself.
He merely gazed at her with his hard, burning eyes. The materiality that accompanies romance in so many temperaments awakened in her, and quite put Cowperwood out of her mind for the moment. It was an astonishing and revolutionary experience for her. She quite burned in reply, and Lynde smiled sweetly, encouragingly.
"Why won't you be friends with me, my sweetheart? I know you're not happy—I can see that. Neither am I. I have a wreckless, wretched disposition that gets me into all sorts of hell. I need some one to care for me. Why won't you? You're just my sort. I feel it. Do you love him so much"—he was referring to Cowperwood—"that you can't love any one else?"
"Oh, him!" retorted Aileen, irritably, almost disloyally. "He doesn't care for me any more. He wouldn't mind. It isn't him."
"Well, then, what is it? Why won't you? Am I not interesting enough? Don't you like me? Don't you feel that I'm really suited to you?" His hand sought hers softly.
Aileen accepted the caress.
"Oh, it isn't that," she replied, feelingly, running back in her mind over her long career with Cowperwood, his former love, his keen protestations. She had expected to make so much out of her life with him, and here she was sitting in a public restaurant flirting with and extracting sympathy from a comparative stranger. It cut her to the quick for the moment and sealed her lips. Hot, unbidden tears welled to her eyes.
Lynde saw them. He was really very sorry for her, though her beauty made him wish to take advantage of her distress. "Why should you cry, dearest?" he asked, softly, looking at her flushed cheeks and colorful eyes. "You have beauty; you are young; you're lovely. He's not the only man in the world. Why should you be faithful when he isn't faithful to you? This Hand affair is all over town. When you meet some one that really would care for you, why shouldn't you? If he doesn't want you, there are others."
At the mention of the Hand affair Aileen straightened up. "The Hand affair?" she asked, curiously. "What is that?"
"Don't you know?" he replied, a little surprised. "I thought you did, or I certainly wouldn't have mentioned it."
"Oh, I know about what it is," replied Aileen, wisely, and with a touch of sardonic humor. "There have been so many or the same kind. I suppose it must be the case the Chicago Review was referring to—the wife of the prominent financier. Has he been trifling with Mrs. Hand?"
"Something like that," replied Lynde. "I'm sorry that I spoke, though? really I am. I didn't mean to be carrying tales."
"Soldiers in a common fight, eh?" taunted Aileen, gaily.
"Oh, not that, exactly. Please don't be mean. I'm not so bad. It's just a principle with me. We all have our little foibles."
"Yes, I know," replied Aileen; but her mind was running on Mrs. Hand. So she was the latest. "Well, I admire his taste, anyway, in this case," she said, archly. "There have been so many, though. She is just one more."
Lynde smiled. He himself admired Cowperwood's taste. Then he dropped the subject.
"But let's forget that," he said. "Please don't worry about him any more. You can't change that. Pull yourself together." He squeezed her fingers. "Will you?" he asked, lifting his eyebrows in inquiry.
"Will I what?" replied Aileen, meditatively.
"Oh, you know. The necklace for one thing. Me, too." His eyes coaxed and laughed and pleaded.
Aileen smiled. "You're a bad boy," she said, evasively. This revelation in regard to Mrs. Hand had made her singularly retaliatory in spirit. "Let me think. Don't ask me to take the necklace to-day. I couldn't. I couldn't wear it, anyhow. Let me see you another time." She moved her plump hand in an uncertain way, and he smoothed her wrist.
"I wonder if you wouldn't like to go around to the studio of a friend of mine here in the tower?" he asked, quite nonchalantly. "He has such a charming collection of landscapes. You're interested in pictures, I know. Your husband has some of the finest."
Instantly Aileen understood what was meant—quite by instinct. The alleged studio must be private bachelor quarters.
"Not this afternoon," she replied, quite wrought up and disturbed. "Not to-day. Another time. And I must be going now. But I will see you."
"And this?" he asked, picking up the necklace.
"You keep it until I do come," she replied. "I may take it then."
She relaxed a little, pleased that she was getting safely away; but her mood was anything but antagonistic, and her spirits were as shredded as wind-whipped clouds. It was time she wanted—a little time—that was all.