But it occurred to her, as her dance-list was filling up, that there was not much left for Mr. Cowperwood, if he should care to dance with her.
Cowperwood was meditating, as he received the last of the guests, on the subtlety of this matter of the sex arrangement of life. Two sexes. He was not at all sure that there was any law governing them. By comparison now with Aileen Butler, his wife looked rather dull, quite too old, and when he was ten years older she would look very much older.
"Oh, yes, Ellsworth had made quite an attractive arrangement out of these two houses-better than we ever thought he could do." He was talking to Henry Hale Sanderson, a young banker. "He had the advantage of combining two into one, and I think he's done more with my little one, considering the limitations of space, than he has with this big one. Father's has the advantage of size. I tell the old gentleman he's simply built a lean-to for me."
His father and a number of his cronies were over in the dining-room of his grand home, glad to get away from the crowd. He would have to stay, and, besides, he wanted to. Had he better dance with Aileen? His wife cared little for dancing, but he would have to dance with her at least once. There was Mrs. Seneca Davis smiling at him, and Aileen. By George, how wonderful! What a girl!
"I suppose your dance-list is full to overflowing. Let me see." He was standing before her and she was holding out the little blue-bordered, gold-monogrammed booklet. An orchestra was playing in the music room. The dance would begin shortly. There were delicately constructed, gold-tinted chairs about the walls and behind palms.
He looked down into her eyes-those excited, life-loving, eager eyes.
"You're quite full up. Let me see. Nine, ten, eleven. Well, that will be enough. I don't suppose I shall want to dance very much. It's nice to be popular."
"I'm not sure about number three. I think that's a mistake. You might have that if you wish."
She was falsifying.
"It doesn't matter so much about him, does it?"
His cheeks flushed a little as he said this.
Her own flamed.
"Well, I'll see where you are when it's called. You're darling. I'm afraid of you." He shot a level, interpretive glance into her eyes, then left. Aileen's bosom heaved. It was hard to breathe sometimes in this warm air.
While he was dancing first with Mrs. Cowperwood and later with Mrs. Seneca Davis, and still later with Mrs. Martyn Walker, Cowperwood had occasion to look at Aileen often, and each time that he did so there swept over him a sense of great vigor there, of beautiful if raw, dynamic energy that to him was irresistible and especially so to-night. She was so young. She was beautiful, this girl, and in spite of his wife's repeated derogatory comments he felt that she was nearer to his clear, aggressive, unblinking attitude than any one whom he had yet seen in the form of woman. She was unsophisticated, in a way, that was plain, and yet in another way it would take so little to make her understand so much. Largeness was the sense he had of her-not physically, though she was nearly as tall as himself-but emotionally. She seemed so intensely alive. She passed close to him a number of times, her eyes wide and smiling, her lips parted, her teeth agleam, and he felt a stirring of sympathy and companionship for her which he had not previously experienced. She was lovely, all of her– delightful.
"I'm wondering if that dance is open now," he said to her as he drew near toward the beginning of the third set. She was seated with her latest admirer in a far corner of the general living-room, a clear floor now waxed to perfection. A few palms here and there made embrasured parapets of green. "I hope you'll excuse me," he added, deferentially, to her companion.
"Surely," the latter replied, rising.
"Yes, indeed," she replied. "And you'd better stay here with me. It's going to begin soon. You won't mind?" she added, giving her companion a radiant smile.
"Not at all. I've had a lovely waltz." He strolled off.
Cowperwood sat down. "That's young Ledoux, isn't it? I thought so. I saw you dancing. You like it, don't you?"
"I'm crazy about it."
"Well, I can't say that myself. It's fascinating, though. Your partner makes such a difference. Mrs. Cowperwood doesn't like it as much as I do."
His mention of Lillian made Aileen think of her in a faintly derogative way for a moment.
"I think you dance very well. I watched you, too." She questioned afterwards whether she should have said this. It sounded most forward now-almost brazen.
"Oh, did you?"
He was a little keyed up because of her-slightly cloudy in his thoughts-because she was generating a problem in his life, or would if he let her, and so his talk was a little tame. He was thinking of something to say-some words which would bring them a little nearer together. But for the moment he could not. Truth to tell, he wanted to say a great deal.
"Well, that was nice of you," he added, after a moment. "What made you do it?"
He turned with a mock air of inquiry. The music was beginning again. The dancers were rising. He arose.
He had not intended to give this particular remark a serious turn; but, now that she was so near him, he looked into her eyes steadily but with a soft appeal and said, "Yes, why?"
They had come out from behind the palms. He had put his hand to her waist. His right arm held her left extended arm to arm, palm to palm. Her right hand was on his shoulder, and she was close to him, looking into his eyes. As they began the gay undulations of the waltz she looked away and then down without answering. Her movements were as light and airy as those of a butterfly. He felt a sudden lightness himself, communicated as by an invisible current. He wanted to match the suppleness of her body with his own, and did. Her arms, the flash and glint of the crimson sequins against the smooth, black silk of her closely fitting dress, her neck, her glowing, radiant hair, all combined to provoke a slight intellectual intoxication. She was so vigorously young, so, to him, truly beautiful.
"But you didn't answer," he continued.
"Isn't this lovely music?"
He pressed her fingers.
She lifted shy eyes to him now, for, in spite of her gay, aggressive force, she was afraid of him. His personality was obviously so dominating. Now that he was so close to her, dancing, she conceived of him as something quite wonderful, and yet she experienced a nervous reaction-a momentary desire to run away.
"Very well, if you won't tell me," he smiled, mockingly.
He thought she wanted him to talk to her so, to tease her with suggestions of this concealed feeling of his-this strong liking. He wondered what could come of any such understanding as this, anyhow?
"Oh, I just wanted to see how you danced," she said, tamely, the force of her original feeling having been weakened by a thought of what she was doing. He noted the change and smiled. It was lovely to be dancing with her. He had not thought mere dancing could hold such charm.
"You like me?" he said, suddenly, as the music drew to its close.
She thrilled from head to toe at the question. A piece of ice dropped down her back could not have startled her more. It was apparently tactless, and yet it was anything but tactless. She looked up quickly, directly, but his strong eyes were too much for her.
"Why, yes," she answered, as the music stopped, trying to keep an even tone to her voice. She was glad they were walking toward a chair.
"I like you so much," he said, "that I have been wondering if you really like me." There was an appeal in his voice, soft and gentle. His manner was almost sad.
"Why, yes," she replied, instantly, returning to her earlier mood toward him. "You know I do."
"I need some one like you to like me," he continued, in the same vein. "I need some one like you to talk to. I didn't think so before-but now I do. You are beautiful-wonderful."
"We mustn't," she said. "I mustn't. I don't know what I'm doing." She looked at a young man strolling toward her, and asked: "I have to explain to him. He's the one I had this dance with."
Cowperwood understood. He walked away. He was quite warm and tense now-almost nervous. It was quite clear to him that he had done or was contemplating perhaps a very treacherous thing. Under the current code of society he had no right to do it. It was against the rules, as they were understood by everybody. Her father, for instance-his father-every one in this particular walk of life. However, much breaking of the rules under the surface of things there might be, the rules were still there. As he had heard one young man remark once at school, when some story had been told of a boy leading a girl astray and to a disastrous end, "That isn't the way at all."
Still, now that he had said this, strong thoughts of her were in his mind. And despite his involved social and financial position, which he now recalled, it was interesting to him to see how deliberately and even calculatingly-and worse, enthusiastically– he was pumping the bellows that tended only to heighten the flames of his desire for this girl; to feed a fire that might ultimately consume him-and how deliberately and resourcefully!
Aileen toyed aimlessly with her fan as a black-haired, thin-faced young law student talked to her, and seeing Norah in the distance she asked to be allowed to run over to her.
"Oh, Aileen," called Norah, "I've been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been?"
"Dancing, of course. Where do you suppose I've been? Didn't you see me on the floor?"
"No, I didn't," complained Norah, as though it were most essential that she should. "How late are you going to stay?"
"Until it's over, I suppose. I don't know."
"Owen says he's going at twelve."
"Well, that doesn't matter. Some one will take me home. Are you having a good time?"
"Fine. Oh, let me tell you. I stepped on a lady's dress over there, last dance. She was terribly angry. She gave me such a look."
"Well, never mind, honey. She won't hurt you. Where are you going now?"
Aileen always maintained a most guardian-like attitude toward her sister.
"I want to find Callum. He has to dance with me next time. I know what he's trying to do. He's trying to get away from me. But he won't."
Aileen smiled. Norah looked very sweet. And she was so bright. What would she think of her if she knew? She turned back, and her fourth partner sought her. She began talking gayly, for she felt that she had to make a show of composure; but all the while there was ringing in her ears that definite question of his, "You like me, don't you?" and her later uncertain but not less truthful answer, "Yes, of course I do."
The growth of a passion is a very peculiar thing. In highly
organized intellectual and artistic types it is so often apt to
begin with keen appreciation of certain qualities, modified by
many, many mental reservations. The egoist, the intellectual,
gives but little of himself and asks much. Nevertheless, the
lover of life, male or female, finding himself or herself in
sympathetic accord with such a nature, is apt to gain much.
Cowperwood was innately and primarily an egoist and intellectual, though blended strongly therewith, was a humane and democratic spirit. We think of egoism and intellectualism as closely confined to the arts. Finance is an art. And it presents the operations of the subtlest of the intellectuals and of the egoists. Cowperwood was a financier. Instead of dwelling on the works of nature, its beauty and subtlety, to his material disadvantage, he found a happy mean, owing to the swiftness of his intellectual operations, whereby he could, intellectually and emotionally, rejoice in the beauty of life without interfering with his perpetual material and financial calculations. And when it came to women and morals, which involved so much relating to beauty, happiness, a sense of distinction and variety in living, he was but now beginning to suspect for himself at least that apart from maintaining organized society in its present form there was no basis for this one-life, one-love idea. How had it come about that so many people agreed on this single point, that it was good and necessary to marry one woman and cleave to her until death? He did not know. It was not for him to bother about the subtleties of evolution, which even then was being noised abroad, or to ferret out the curiosities of history in connection with this matter. He had no time. Suffice it that the vagaries of temperament and conditions with which he came into immediate contact proved to him that there was great dissatisfaction with that idea. People did not cleave to each other until death; and in thousands of cases where they did, they did not want to. Quickness of mind, subtlety of idea, fortuitousness of opportunity, made it possible for some people to right their matrimonial and social infelicities; whereas for others, because of dullness of wit, thickness of comprehension, poverty, and lack of charm, there was no escape from the slough of their despond. They were compelled by some devilish accident of birth or lack of force or resourcefulness to stew in their own juice of wretchedness, or to shuffle off this mortal coil-which under other circumstances had such glittering possibilities-via the rope, the knife, the bullet, or the cup of poison.
"I would die, too," he thought to himself, one day, reading of a man who, confined by disease and poverty, had lived for twelve years alone in a back bedroom attended by an old and probably decrepit housekeeper. A darning-needle forced into his heart had ended his earthly woes. "To the devil with such a life! Why twelve years? Why not at the end of the second or third?"
Again, it was so very evident, in so many ways, that force was the answer-great mental and physical force. Why, these giants of commerce and money could do as they pleased in this life, and did. He had already had ample local evidence of it in more than one direction. Worse-the little guardians of so-called law and morality, the newspapers, the preachers, the police, and the public moralists generally, so loud in their denunciation of evil in humble places, were cowards all when it came to corruption in high ones. They did not dare to utter a feeble squeak until some giant had accidentally fallen and they could do so without danger to themselves. Then, O Heavens, the palaver! What beatings of tom-toms! What mouthings of pharisaical moralities-platitudes! Run now, good people, for you may see clearly how evil is dealt with in high places! It made him smile. Such hypocrisy! Such cant! Still, so the world was organized, and it was not for him to set it right. Let it wag as it would. The thing for him to do was to get rich and hold his own-to build up a seeming of virtue and dignity which would pass muster for the genuine thing. Force would do that. Quickness of wit. And he had these. "I satisfy myself," was his motto; and it might well have been emblazoned upon any coat of arms which he could have contrived to set forth his claim to intellectual and social nobility.
But this matter of Aileen was up for consideration and solution at this present moment, and because of his forceful, determined character he was presently not at all disturbed by the problem it presented. It was a problem, like some of those knotty financial complications which presented themselves daily; but it was not insoluble. What did he want to do? He couldn't leave his wife and fly with Aileen, that was certain. He had too many connections. He had too many social, and thinking of his children and parents, emotional as well as financial ties to bind him. Besides, he was not at all sure that he wanted to. He did not intend to leave his growing interests, and at the same time he did not intend to give up Aileen immediately. The unheralded manifestation of interest on her part was too attractive. Mrs. Cowperwood was no longer what she should be physically and mentally, and that in itself to him was sufficient to justify his present interest in this girl. Why fear anything, if only he could figure out a way to achieve it without harm to himself? At the same time he thought it might never be possible for him to figure out any practical or protective program for either himself or Aileen, and that made him silent and reflective. For by now he was intensely drawn to her, as he could feel-something chemic and hence dynamic was uppermost in him now and clamoring for expression.