The interesting Polk Lynde, rising one morning, decided that his affair with Aileen, sympathetic as it was, must culminate in the one fashion satisfactory to him here and now—this day, if possible, or the next. Since the luncheon some considerable time had elapsed, and although he had tried to seek her out in various ways, Aileen, owing to a certain feeling that she must think and not jeopardize her future, had evaded him. She realized well enough that she was at the turning of the balance, now that opportunity was knocking so loudly at her door, and she was exceedingly coy and distrait. In spite of herself the old grip of Cowperwood was over her—the conviction that he was such a tremendous figure in the world—and this made her strangely disturbed, nebulous, and meditative. Another type of woman, having troubled as much as she had done, would have made short work of it, particularly since the details in regard to Mrs. Hand had been added. Not so Aileen. She could not quite forget the early vows and promises exchanged between them, nor conquer the often-fractured illusions that he might still behave himself.
On the other hand, Polk Lynde, marauder, social adventurer, a bucaneer of the affections, was not so easily to be put aside, delayed, and gainsaid. Not unlike Cowperwood, he was a man of real force, and his methods, in so far as women were concerned, were even more daring. Long trifling with the sex had taught him that they were coy, uncertain, foolishly inconsistent in their moods, even with regard to what they most desired. If one contemplated victory, it had frequently to be taken with an iron hand.
From this attitude on his part had sprung his rather dark fame. Aileen felt it on the day that she took lunch with him. His solemn, dark eyes were treacherously sweet. She felt as if she might be paving the way for some situation in which she would find herself helpless before his sudden mood—and yet she had come.
But Lynde, meditating Aileen's delay, had this day decided that he should get a definite decision, and that it should be favorable. He called her up at ten in the morning and chafed her concerning her indecision and changeable moods. He wanted to know whether she would not come and see the paintings at his friend's studio—whether she could not make up her mind to come to a barn-dance which some bachelor friends of his had arranged. When she pleaded being out of sorts he urged her to pull herself together. "You're making things very difficult for your admirers," he suggested, sweetly.
Aileen fancied she had postponed the struggle diplomatically for some little time without ending it, when at two o'clock in the afternoon her door-bell was rung and the name of Lynde brought up. "He said he was sure you were in," commented the footman, on whom had been pressed a dollar, "and would you see him for just a moment? He would not keep you more than a moment."
Aileen, taken off her guard by this effrontery, uncertain as to whether there might not be something of some slight import concerning which he wished to speak to her, quarreling with herself because of her indecision, really fascinated by Lynde as a rival for her affections, and remembering his jesting, coaxing voice of the morning, decided to go down. She was lonely, and, clad in a lavender housegown with an ermine collar and sleeve cuffs, was reading a book.
"Show him into the music-room," she said to the lackey. When she entered she was breathing with some slight difficulty, for so Lynde affected her. She knew she had displayed fear by not going to him before, and previous cowardice plainly manifested does not add to one's power of resistance.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, with an assumption of bravado which she did not feel. "I didn't expect to see you so soon after your telephone message. You have never been in our house before, have you? Won't you put up your coat and hat and come into the gallery? It's brighter there, and you might be interested in some of the pictures."
Lynde, who was seeking for any pretext whereby he might prolong his stay and overcome her nervous mood, accepted, pretending, however, that he was merely passing and with a moment to spare.
"Thought I'd get just one glimpse of you again. Couldn't resist the temptation to look in. Stunning room, isn't it? Spacious—and there you are! Who did that? Oh, I see—Van Beers. And a jolly fine piece of work it is, too, charming."
He surveyed her and then turned back to the picture where, ten years younger, buoyant, hopeful, carrying her blue-and-white striped parasol, she sat on a stone bench against the Dutch background of sky and clouds. Charmed by the picture she presented in both cases, he was genially complimentary. To-day she was stouter, ruddier—the fiber of her had hardened, as it does with so many as the years come on; but she was still in full bloom—a little late in the summer, but in full bloom.
"Oh yes; and this Rembrandt—I'm surprised! I did not know your husband's collection was so representative. Israels, I see, and Gerome, and Meissonier! Gad! It is a representative collection, isn't it?"
"Some of the things are excellent," she commented, with an air, aping Cowperwood and others, "but a number will be weeded out eventually—that Paul Potter and this Goy—as better examples come into the market."
She had heard Cowperwood say as much, over and over.
Finding that conversation was possible between them in this easy, impersonal way, Aileen became quite natural and interested, pleased and entertained by his discreet and charming presence. Evidently he did not intend to pay much more than a passing social call. On the other hand, Lynde was studying her, wondering what effect his light, distant air was having. As he finished a very casual survey of the gallery he remarked:
"I have always wondered about this house. I knew Lord did it, of course, and I always heard it was well done. That is the dining-room, I suppose?"
Aileen, who had always been inordinately vain of the house in spite of the fact that it had proved of small use socially, was delighted to show him the remainder of the rooms. Lynde, who was used, of course, to houses of all degrees of material splendor—that of his own family being one of the best—pretended an interest he did not feel. He commented as he went on the taste of the decorations and wood-carving, the charm of the arrangement that permitted neat brief vistas, and the like.
"Just wait a moment," said Aileen, as they neared the door of her own boudoir. "I've forgotten whether mine is in order. I want you to see that."
She opened it and stepped in.
"Yes, you may come," she called.
He followed. "Oh yes, indeed. Very charming. Very graceful—those little lacy dancing figures—aren't they? A delightful color scheme. It harmonizes with you exactly. It is quite like you."
He paused, looking at the spacious rug, which was of warm blues and creams, and at the gilt ormolu bed. "Well done," he said, and then, suddenly changing his mood and dropping his talk of decoration (Aileen was to his right, and he was between her and the door), he added: "Tell me now why won't you come to the barn-dance to-night? It would be charming. You will enjoy it."
Aileen saw the sudden change in his mood. She recognized that by showing him the rooms she had led herself into an easily made disturbing position. His dark engaging eyes told their own story.
"Oh, I don't feel in the mood to. I haven't for a number of things for some time. I—"
She began to move unconcernedly about him toward the door, but he detained her with his hand. "Don't go just yet," he said. "Let me talk to you. You always evade me in such a nervous way. Don't you like me at all?"
"Oh yes, I like you; but can't we talk just as well down in the music-room as here? Can't I tell you why I evade you down there just as well as I can here?" She smiled a winning and now fearless smile.
Lynde showed his even white teeth in two gleaming rows. His eyes filled with a gay maliciousness. "Surely, surely," he replied; "but you're so nice in your own room here. I hate to leave it."
"Just the same," replied Aileen, still gay, but now slightly disturbed also, "I think we might as well. You will find me just as entertaining downstairs."
She moved, but his strength, quite as Cowperwood's, was much too great for her. He was a strong man.
"Really, you know," she said, "you mustn't act this way here. Some one might come in. What cause have I given you to make you think you could do like this with me?"
"What cause?" he asked, bending over her and smoothing her plump arms with his brown hands. "Oh, no definite cause, perhaps. You are a cause in yourself. I told you how sweet I thought you were, the night we were at the Alcott. Didn't you understand then? I thought you did."
"Oh, I understood that you liked me, and all that, perhaps. Any one might do that. But as for anything like—well—taking such liberties with me—I never dreamed of it. But listen. I think I hear some one coming." Aileen, making a sudden vigorous effort to free herself and failing, added: "Please let me go, Mr. Lynde. It isn't very gallant of you, I must say, restraining a woman against her will. If I had given you any real cause—I shall be angry in a moment."
Again the even smiling teeth and dark, wrinkling, malicious eyes.
"Really! How you go on! You would think I was a perfect stranger. Don't you remember what you said to me at lunch? You didn't keep your promise. You practically gave me to understand that you would come. Why didn't you? Are you afraid of me, or don't you like me, or both? I think you're delicious, splendid, and I want to know."
He shifted his position, putting one arm about her waist, pulling her close to him, looking into her eyes. With the other he held her free arm. Suddenly he covered her mouth with his and then kissed her cheeks. "You care for me, don't you? What did you mean by saying you might come, if you didn't?"
He held her quite firm, while Aileen struggled. It was a new sensation this—that of the other man, and this was Polk Lynde, the first individual outside of Cowperwood to whom she had ever felt drawn. But now, here, in her own room—and it was within the range of possibilities that Cowperwood might return or the servants enter.
"Oh, but think what you are doing," she protested, not really disturbed as yet as to the outcome of the contest with him, and feeling as though he were merely trying to make her be sweet to him without intending anything more at present—"here in my own room! Really, you're not the man I thought you were at all, if you don't instantly let me go. Mr. Lynde! Mr. Lynde!" (He had bent over and was kissing her). "Oh, you shouldn't do this! Really! I—I said I might come, but that was far from doing it. And to have you come here and take advantage of me in this way! I think you're horrid. If I ever had any interest in you, it is quite dead now, I can assure you. Unless you let me go at once, I give you my word I will never see you any more. I won't! Really, I won't! I mean it! Oh, please let me go! I'll scream, I tell you! I'll never see you again after this day! Oh—" It was an intense but useless struggle.
Coming home one evening about a week later, Cowperwood found Aileen humming cheerfully, and yet also in a seemingly deep and reflective mood. She was just completing an evening toilet, and looked young and colorful—quite her avid, seeking self of earlier days.
"Well," he asked, cheerfully, "how have things gone to-day?" Aileen, feeling somehow, as one will on occasions, that if she had done wrong she was justified and that sometime because of this she might even win Cowperwood back, felt somewhat kindlier toward him. "Oh, very well," she replied. "I stopped in at the Hoecksemas' this afternoon for a little while. They're going to Mexico in November. She has the darlingest new basket-carriage—if she only looked like anything when she rode in it. Etta is getting ready to enter Bryn Mawr. She is all fussed up about leaving her dog and cat. Then I went down to one of Lane Cross's receptions, and over to Merrill's"—she was referring to the great store—"and home. I saw Taylor Lord and Polk Lynde together in Wabash Avenue."
"Polk Lynde?" commented Cowperwood. "Is he interesting?"
"Yes, he is," replied Aileen. "I never met a man with such perfect manners. He's so fascinating. He's just like a boy, and yet, Heaven knows, he seems to have had enough worldly experience."
"So I've heard," commented Cowperwood. "Wasn't he the one that was mixed up in that Carmen Torriba case here a few years ago?" Cowperwood was referring to the matter of a Spanish dancer traveling in America with whom Lynde had been apparently desperately in love.
"Oh yes," replied Aileen, maliciously; "but that oughtn't to make any difference to you. He's charming, anyhow. I like him."
"I didn't say it did, did I? You don't object to my mentioning a mere incident?"
"Oh, I know about the incident," replied Aileen, jestingly. "I know you."
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, studying her face.
"Oh, I know you," she replied, sweetly and yet defensively. "You think I'll stay here and be content while you run about with other women—play the sweet and loving wife? Well, I won't. I know why you say this about Lynde. It's to keep me from being interested in him, possibly. Well, I will be if I want to. I told you I would be, and I will. You can do what you please about that. You don't want me, so why should you be disturbed as to whether other men are interested in me or not?"
The truth was that Cowperwood was not clearly thinking of any probable relation between Lynde and Aileen any more than he was in connection with her and any other man, and yet in a remote way he was sensing some one. It was this that Aileen felt in him, and that brought forth her seemingly uncalled-for comment. Cowperwood, under the circumstances, attempted to be as suave as possible, having caught the implication clearly.
"Aileen," he cooed, "how you talk! Why do you say that? You know I care for you. I can't prevent anything you want to do, and I'm sure you know I don't want to. It's you that I want to see satisfied. You know that I care."
"Yes, I know how you care," replied Aileen, her mood changing for the moment. "Don't start that old stuff, please. I'm sick of it. I know how you're running around. I know about Mrs. Hand. Even the newspapers make that plain. You've been home just one evening in the last eight days, long enough for me to get more than a glimpse of you. Don't talk to me. Don't try to bill and coo. I've always known. Don't think I don't know who your latest flame is. But don't begin to whine, and don't quarrel with me if I go about and get interested in other men, as I certainly will. It will be all your fault if I do, and you know it. Don't begin and complain. It won't do you any good. I'm not going to sit here and be made a fool of. I've told you that over and over. You don't believe it, but I'm not. I told you that I'd find some one one of these days, and I will. As a matter of fact, I have already."
At this remark Cowperwood surveyed her coolly, critically, and yet not unsympathetically; but she swung out of the room with a defiant air before anything could be said, and went down to the music-room, from whence a few moments later there rolled up to him from the hall below the strains of the second Hungarian Rhapsodie, feelingly and for once movingly played. Into it Aileen put some of her own wild woe and misery. Cowperwood hated the thought for the moment that some one as smug as Lynde—so good-looking, so suave a society rake—should interest Aileen; but if it must be, it must be. He could have no honest reason for complaint. At the same time a breath of real sorrow for the days that had gone swept over him. He remembered her in Philadelphia in her red cape as a school-girl—in his father's house—out horseback-riding, driving. What a splendid, loving girl she had been—such a sweet fool of love. Could she really have decided not to worry about him any more? Could it be possible that she might find some one else who would be interested in her, and in whom she would take a keen interest? It was an odd thought for him.
He watched her as she came into the dining-room later, arrayed in green silk of the shade of copper patina, her hair done in a high coil—and in spite of himself he could not help admiring her. She looked very young in her soul, and yet moody—loving (for some one), eager, and defiant. He reflected for a moment what terrible things passion and love are—how they make fools of us all. "All of us are in the grip of a great creative impulse," he said to himself. He talked of other things for a while—the approaching election, a poster-wagon he had seen bearing the question, "Shall Cowperwood own the city?" "Pretty cheap politics, I call that," he commented. And then he told of stopping in a so-called Republican wigwam at State and Sixteenth streets—a great, cheaply erected, unpainted wooden shack with seats, and of hearing himself bitterly denounced by the reigning orator. "I was tempted once to ask that donkey a few questions," he added, "but I decided I wouldn't."
Aileen had to smile. In spite of all his faults he was such a wonderful man—to set a city thus by the ears. "Yet, what care I how fair he be, if he be not fair to me."
"Did you meet any one else besides Lynde you liked?" he finally asked, archly, seeking to gather further data without stirring up too much feeling.
Aileen, who had been studying him, feeling sure the subject would come up again, replied: "No, I haven't; but I don't need to. One is enough."
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, gently.
"Oh, just what I say. One will do."
"You mean you are in love with Lynde?"
"I mean—oh!" She stopped and surveyed him defiantly. "What difference does it make to you what I mean? Yes, I am. But what do you care? Why do you sit there and question me? It doesn't make any difference to you what I do. You don't want me. Why should you sit there and try to find out, or watch? It hasn't been any consideration for you that has restrained me so far. Suppose I am in love? What difference would it make to you?"
"Oh, I care. You know I care. Why do you say that?"
"Yes, you care," she flared. "I know how you care. Well, I'll just tell you one thing"—rage at his indifference was driving her on—"I am in love with Lynde, and what's more, I'm his mistress. And I'll continue to be. But what do you care? Pshaw!"
Her eyes blazed hotly, her color rose high and strong. She breathed heavily.
At this announcement, made in the heat of spite and rage generated by long indifference, Cowperwood sat up for a moment, and his eyes hardened with quite that implacable glare with which he sometimes confronted an enemy. He felt at once there were many things he could do to make her life miserable, and to take revenge on Lynde, but he decided after a moment he would not. It was not weakness, but a sense of superior power that was moving him. Why should he be jealous? Had he not been unkind enough? In a moment his mood changed to one of sorrow for Aileen, for himself, for life, indeed—its tangles of desire and necessity. He could not blame Aileen. Lynde was surely attractive. He had no desire to part with her or to quarrel with him—merely to temporarily cease all intimate relations with her and allow her mood to clear itself up. Perhaps she would want to leave him of her own accord. Perhaps, if he ever found the right woman, this might prove good grounds for his leaving her. The right woman—where was she? He had never found her yet.
"Aileen," he said, quite softly, "I wish you wouldn't feel so bitterly about this. Why should you? When did you do this? Will you tell me that?"
"No, I'll not tell you that," she replied, bitterly. "It's none of your affair, and I'll not tell you. Why should you ask? You don't care."
"But I do care, I tell you," he returned, irritably, almost roughly. "When did you? You can tell me that, at least." His eyes had a hard, cold look for the moment, dying away, though, into kindly inquiry.
"Oh, not long ago. About a week," Aileen answered, as though she were compelled.
"How long have you known him?" he asked, curiously.
"Oh, four or five months, now. I met him last winter."
"And did you do this deliberately—because you were in love with him, or because you wanted to hurt me?"
He could not believe from past scenes between them that she had ceased to love him.
Aileen stirred irritably. "I like that," she flared. "I did it because I wanted to, and not because of any love for you—I can tell you that. I like your nerve sitting here presuming to question me after the way you have neglected me." She pushed back her plate, and made as if to get up.
"Wait a minute, Aileen," he said, simply, putting down his knife and fork and looking across the handsome table where Sevres, silver, fruit, and dainty dishes were spread, and where under silk-shaded lights they sat opposite each other. "I wish you wouldn't talk that way to me. You know that I am not a petty, fourth-rate fool. You know that, whatever you do, I am not going to quarrel with you. I know what the trouble is with you. I know why you are acting this way, and how you will feel afterward if you go on. It isn't anything I will do—" He paused, caught by a wave of feeling.
"Oh, isn't it?" she blazed, trying to overcome the emotion that was rising in herself. The calmness of him stirred up memories of the past. "Well, you keep your sympathy for yourself. I don't need it. I will get along. I wish you wouldn't talk to me."
She shoved her plate away with such force that she upset a glass in which was champagne, the wine making a frayed, yellowish splotch on the white linen, and, rising, hurried toward the door. She was choking with anger, pain, shame, regret.
"Aileen! Aileen!" he called, hurrying after her, regardless of the butler, who, hearing the sound of stirring chairs, had entered. These family woes were an old story to him. "It's love you want—not revenge. I know—I can tell. You want to be loved by some one completely. I'm sorry. You mustn't be too hard on me. I sha'n't be on you." He seized her by the arm and detained her as they entered the next room. By this time Aileen was too ablaze with emotion to talk sensibly or understand what he was doing.
"Let me go!" she exclaimed, angrily, hot tears in her eyes. "Let me go! I tell you I don't love you any more. I tell you I hate you!" She flung herself loose and stood erect before him. "I don't want you to talk to me! I don't want you to speak to me! You're the cause of all my troubles. You're the cause of whatever I do, when I do it, and don't you dare to deny it! You'll see! You'll see! I'll show you what I'll do!"
She twisted and turned, but he held her firmly until, in his strong grasp, as usual, she collapsed and began to cry. "Oh, I cry," she declared, even in her tears, "but it will be just the same. It's too late! too late!"