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Theodore Dreiser >> The Financier (page 19)


At the same time, in contemplating his wife in connection with all this, he had many qualms, some emotional, some financial. While she had yielded to his youthful enthusiasm for her after her husband's death, he had only since learned that she was a natural conservator of public morals-the cold purity of the snowdrift in so far as the world might see, combined at times with the murky mood of the wanton. And yet, as he had also learned, she was ashamed of the passion that at times swept and dominated her. This irritated Cowperwood, as it would always irritate any strong, acquisitive, direct-seeing temperament. While he had no desire to acquaint the whole world with his feelings, why should there be concealment between them, or at least mental evasion of a fact which physically she subscribed to? Why do one thing and think another? To be sure, she was devoted to him in her quiet way, not passionately (as he looked back he could not say that she had ever been that), but intellectually. Duty, as she understood it, played a great part in this. She was dutiful. And then what people thought, what the time-spirit demanded-these were the great things. Aileen, on the contrary, was probably not dutiful, and it was obvious that she had no temperamental connection with current convention. No doubt she had been as well instructed as many another girl, but look at her. She was not obeying her instructions.

In the next three months this relationship took on a more flagrant form. Aileen, knowing full well what her parents would think, how unspeakable in the mind of the current world were the thoughts she was thinking, persisted, nevertheless, in so thinking and longing. Cowperwood, now that she had gone thus far and compromised herself in intention, if not in deed, took on a peculiar charm for her. It was not his body-great passion is never that, exactly. The flavor of his spirit was what attracted and compelled, like the glow of a flame to a moth. There was a light of romance in his eyes, which, however governed and controlled-was directive and almost all-powerful to her.

When he touched her hand at parting, it was as though she had received an electric shock, and she recalled that it was very difficult for her to look directly into his eyes. Something akin to a destructive force seemed to issue from them at times. Other people, men particularly, found it difficult to face Cowperwood's glazed stare. It was as though there were another pair of eyes behind those they saw, watching through thin, obscuring curtains. You could not tell what he was thinking.

And during the next few months she found herself coming closer and closer to Cowperwood. At his home one evening, seated at the piano, no one else being present at the moment, he leaned over and kissed her. There was a cold, snowy street visible through the interstices of the hangings of the windows, and gas-lamps flickering outside. He had come in early, and hearing Aileen, he came to where she was seated at the piano. She was wearing a rough, gray wool cloth dress, ornately banded with fringed Oriental embroidery in blue and burnt-orange, and her beauty was further enhanced by a gray hat planned to match her dress, with a plume of shaded orange and blue. On her fingers were four or five rings, far too many-an opal, an emerald, a ruby, and a diamond-flashing visibly as she played.

She knew it was he, without turning. He came beside her, and she looked up smiling, the reverie evoked by Schubert partly vanishingЦ or melting into another mood. Suddenly he bent over and pressed his lips firmly to hers. His mustache thrilled her with its silky touch. She stopped playing and tried to catch her breath, for, strong as she was, it affected her breathing. Her heart was beating like a triphammer. She did not say, "Oh," or, "You mustn't," but rose and walked over to a window, where she lifted a curtain, pretending to look out. She felt as though she might faint, so intensely happy was she.

Cowperwood followed her quickly. Slipping his arms about her waist, he looked at her flushed cheeks, her clear, moist eyes and red mouth.

"You love me?" he whispered, stern and compelling because of his desire.

"Yes! Yes! You know I do."

He crushed her face to his, and she put up her hands and stroked his hair.

A thrilling sense of possession, mastery, happiness and understanding, love of her and of her body, suddenly overwhelmed him.

"I love you," he said, as though he were surprised to hear himself say it. "I didn't think I did, but I do. You're beautiful. I'm wild about you."

"And I love you" she answered. "I can't help it. I know I shouldn't, but-oh-" Her hands closed tight over his ears and temples. She put her lips to his and dreamed into his eyes. Then she stepped away quickly, looking out into the street, and he walked back into the living-room. They were quite alone. He was debating whether he should risk anything further when Norah, having been in to see Anna next door, appeared and not long afterward Mrs. Cowperwood. Then Aileen and Norah left.Chapter XX
This definite and final understanding having been reached, it was but natural that this liaison should proceed to a closer and closer relationship. Despite her religious upbringing, Aileen was decidedly a victim of her temperament. Current religious feeling and belief could not control her. For the past nine or ten years there had been slowly forming in her mind a notion of what her lover should be like. He should be strong, handsome, direct, successful, with clear eyes, a ruddy glow of health, and a certain native understanding and sympathy-a love of life which matched her own. Many young men had approached her. Perhaps the nearest realization of her ideal was Father David, of St. Timothy's, and he was, of course, a priest and sworn to celibacy. No word had ever passed between them but he had been as conscious of her as she of him. Then came Frank Cowperwood, and by degrees, because of his presence and contact, he had been slowly built up in her mind as the ideal person. She was drawn as planets are drawn to their sun.

It is a question as to what would have happened if antagonistic forces could have been introduced just at this time. Emotions and liaisons of this character can, of course, occasionally be broken up and destroyed. The characters of the individuals can be modified or changed to a certain extent, but the force must be quite sufficient. Fear is a great deterrent-fear of material loss where there is no spiritual dread-but wealth and position so often tend to destroy this dread. It is so easy to scheme with means. Aileen had no spiritual dread whatever. Cowperwood was without spiritual or religious feeling. He looked at this girl, and his one thought was how could he so deceive the world that he could enjoy her love and leave his present state undisturbed. Love her he did surely.

Business necessitated his calling at the Butlers' quite frequently, and on each occasion he saw Aileen. She managed to slip forward and squeeze his hand the first time he came-to steal a quick, vivid kiss; and another time, as he was going out, she suddenly appeared from behind the curtains hanging at the parlor door.

"Honey!"

The voice was soft and coaxing. He turned, giving her a warning nod in the direction of her father's room upstairs.

She stood there, holding out one hand, and he stepped forward for a second. Instantly her arms were about his neck, as he slipped his about her waist.

"I long to see you so."

"I, too. I'll fix some way. I'm thinking."

He released her arms, and went out, and she ran to the window and looked out after him. He was walking west on the street, for his house was only a few blocks away, and she looked at the breadth of his shoulders, the balance of his form. He stepped so briskly, so incisively. Ah, this was a man! He was her Frank. She thought of him in that light already. Then she sat down at the piano and played pensively until dinner.

And it was so easy for the resourceful mind of Frank Cowperwood, wealthy as he was, to suggest ways and means. In his younger gallivantings about places of ill repute, and his subsequent occasional variations from the straight and narrow path, he had learned much of the curious resources of immorality. Being a city of five hundred thousand and more at this time, Philadelphia had its nondescript hotels, where one might go, cautiously and fairly protected from observation; and there were houses of a conservative, residential character, where appointments might be made, for a consideration. And as for safeguards against the production of new life-they were not mysteries to him any longer. He knew all about them. Care was the point of caution. He had to be cautious, for he was so rapidly coming to be an influential and a distinguished man. Aileen, of course, was not conscious, except in a vague way, of the drift of her passion; the ultimate destiny to which this affection might lead was not clear to her. Her craving was for love-to be fondled and caressed-and she really did not think so much further. Further thoughts along this line were like rats that showed their heads out of dark holes in shadowy corners and scuttled back at the least sound. And, anyhow, all that was to be connected with Cowperwood would be beautiful. She really did not think that he loved her yet as he should; but he would. She did not know that she wanted to interfere with the claims of his wife. She did not think she did. But it would not hurt Mrs. Cowperwood if Frank loved her-Aileen-also.

How shall we explain these subtleties of temperament and desire? Life has to deal with them at every turn. They will not down, and the large, placid movements of nature outside of man's little organisms would indicate that she is not greatly concerned. We see much punishment in the form of jails, diseases, failures, and wrecks; but we also see that the old tendency is not visibly lessened. Is there no law outside of the subtle will and power of the individual to achieve? If not, it is surely high time that we knew it-one and all. We might then agree to do as we do; but there would be no silly illusion as to divine regulation. Vox populi, vox Dei.

So there were other meetings, lovely hours which they soon began to spend the moment her passion waxed warm enough to assure compliance, without great fear and without thought of the deadly risk involved. From odd moments in his own home, stolen when there was no one about to see, they advanced to clandestine meetings beyond the confines of the city. Cowperwood was not one who was temperamentally inclined to lose his head and neglect his business. As a matter of fact, the more he thought of this rather unexpected affectional development, the more certain he was that he must not let it interfere with his business time and judgment. His office required his full attention from nine until three, anyhow. He could give it until five-thirty with profit; but he could take several afternoons off, from three-thirty until five-thirty or six, and no one would be the wiser. It was customary for Aileen to drive alone almost every afternoon a spirited pair of bays, or to ride a mount, bought by her father for her from a noted horse-dealer in Baltimore. Since Cowperwood also drove and rode, it was not difficult to arrange meeting-places far out on the Wissahickon or the Schuylkill road. There were many spots in the newly laid-out park, which were as free from interruption as the depths of a forest. It was always possible that they might encounter some one; but it was also always possible to make a rather plausible explanation, or none at all, since even in case of such an encounter nothing, ordinarily, would be suspected.

So, for the time being there was love-making, the usual billing and cooing of lovers in a simple and much less than final fashion; and the lovely horseback rides together under the green trees of the approaching spring were idyllic. Cowperwood awakened to a sense of joy in life such as he fancied, in the blush of this new desire, he had never experienced before. Lillian had been lovely in those early days in which he had first called on her in North Front Street, and he had fancied himself unspeakably happy at that time; but that was nearly ten years since, and he had forgotten. Since then he had had no great passion, no notable liaison; and then, all at once, in the midst of his new, great business prosperity, Aileen. Her young body and soul, her passionate illusions. He could see always, for all her daring, that she knew so little of the calculating, brutal world with which he was connected. Her father had given her all the toys she wanted without stint; her mother and brothers had coddled her, particularly her mother. Her young sister thought she was adorable. No one imagined for one moment that Aileen would ever do anything wrong. She was too sensible, after all, too eager to get up in the world. Why should she, when her life lay open and happy before her-a delightful love-match, some day soon, with some very eligible and satisfactory lover?

"When you marry, Aileen," her mother used to say to her, "we'll have a grand time here. Sure we'll do the house over then, if we don't do it before. Eddie will have to fix it up, or I'll do it meself. Never fear."

"Yes-well, I'd rather you'd fix it now," was her reply.

Butler himself used to strike her jovially on the shoulder in a rough, loving way, and ask, "Well, have you found him yet?" or "Is he hanging around the outside watchin' for ye?"

If she said, "No," he would reply: "Well, he will be, never fear-worse luck. I'll hate to see ye go, girlie! You can stay here as long as ye want to, and ye want to remember that you can always come back."

Aileen paid very little attention to this bantering. She loved her father, but it was all such a matter of course. It was the commonplace of her existence, and not so very significant, though delightful enough.

But how eagerly she yielded herself to Cowperwood under the spring trees these days! She had no sense of that ultimate yielding that was coming, for now he merely caressed and talked to her. He was a little doubtful about himself. His growing liberties for himself seemed natural enough, but in a sense of fairness to her he began to talk to her about what their love might involve. Would she? Did she understand? This phase of it puzzled and frightened Aileen a little at first. She stood before him one afternoon in her black riding-habit and high silk riding-hat perched jauntily on her red-gold hair; and striking her riding-skirt with her short whip, pondering doubtfully as she listened. He had asked her whether she knew what she was doing? Whither they were drifting? If she loved him truly enough? The two horses were tethered in a thicket a score of yards away from the main road and from the bank of a tumbling stream, which they had approached. She was trying to discover if she could see them. It was pretense. There was no interest in her glance. She was thinking of him and the smartness of his habit, and the exquisiteness of this moment. He had such a charming calico pony. The leaves were just enough developed to make a diaphanous lacework of green. It was like looking through a green-spangled arras to peer into the woods beyond or behind. The gray stones were already faintly messy where the water rippled and sparkled, and early birds were calling-robins and blackbirds and wrens.

Title: The Financier
Author: Theodore Dreiser
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