"She's so hoidenish," observed Anna, to her sister-in-law, when they came to the name of Aileen. "She thinks she knows so much, and she isn't a bit refined. Her father! Well, if I had her father I wouldn't talk so smart."
Mrs. Cowperwood, who was before her secretaire in her new boudoir, lifted her eyebrows.
"You know, Anna, I sometimes wish that Frank's business did not compel me to have anything to do with them. Mrs. Butler is such a bore. She means well enough, but she doesn't know anything. And Aileen is too rough. She's too forward, I think. She comes over here and plays upon the piano, particularly when Frank's here. I wouldn't mind so much for myself, but I know it must annoy him. All her pieces are so noisy. She never plays anything really delicate and refined."
"I don't like the way she dresses," observed Anna, sympathetically. "She gets herself up too conspicuously. Now, the other day I saw her out driving, and oh, dear! you should have seen her! She had on a crimson Zouave jacket heavily braided with black about the edges, and a turban with a huge crimson feather, and crimson ribbons reaching nearly to her waist. Imagine that kind of a hat to drive in. And her hands! You should have seen the way she held her hands-oh-just so-self-consciously. They were curved just so"-and she showed how. "She had on yellow gauntlets, and she held the reins in one hand and the whip in the other. She drives just like mad when she drives, anyhow, and William, the footman, was up behind her. You should just have seen her. Oh, dear! oh, dear! she does think she is so much!" And Anna giggled, half in reproach, half in amusement.
"I suppose we'll have to invite her; I don't see how we can get out of it. I know just how she'll do, though. She'll walk about and pose and hold her nose up."
"Really, I don't see how she can," commented Anna. "Now, I like Norah. She's much nicer. She doesn't think she's so much."
"I like Norah, too," added Mrs. Cowperwood. "She's really very sweet, and to me she's prettier."
"Oh, indeed, I think so, too."
It was curious, though, that it was Aileen who commanded nearly all their attention and fixed their minds on her so-called idiosyncrasies. All they said was in its peculiar way true; but in addition the girl was really beautiful and much above the average intelligence and force. She was running deep with ambition, and she was all the more conspicuous, and in a way irritating to some, because she reflected in her own consciousness her social defects, against which she was inwardly fighting. She resented the fact that people could justly consider her parents ineligible, and for that reason her also. She was intrinsically as worth while as any one. Cowperwood, so able, and rapidly becoming so distinguished, seemed to realize it. The days that had been passing had brought them somewhat closer together in spirit. He was nice to her and liked to talk to her. Whenever he was at her home now, or she was at his and he was present, he managed somehow to say a word. He would come over quite near and look at her in a warm friendly fashion.
"Well, Aileen"-she could see his genial eyes-"how is it with you? How are your father and mother? Been out driving? That's fine. I saw you to-day. You looked beautiful."
"Oh, Mr. Cowperwood!"
"You did. You looked stunning. A black riding-habit becomes you. I can tell your gold hair a long way off."
"Oh, now, you mustn't say that to me. You'll make me vain. My mother and father tell me I'm too vain as it is."
"Never mind your mother and father. I say you looked stunning, and you did. You always do."
She gave a little gasp of delight. The color mounted to her cheeks and temples. Mr. Cowperwood knew of course. He was so informed and intensely forceful. And already he was so much admired by so many, her own father and mother included, and by Mr. Mollenhauer and Mr. Simpson, so she heard. And his own home and office were so beautiful. Besides, his quiet intensity matched her restless force.
Aileen and her sister were accordingly invited to the reception but the Butlers mere and pere were given to understand, in as tactful a manner as possible, that the dance afterward was principally for young people.
The reception brought a throng of people. There were many, very many, introductions. There were tactful descriptions of little effects Mr. Ellsworth had achieved under rather trying circumstances; walks under the pergola; viewings of both homes in detail. Many of the guests were old friends. They gathered in the libraries and dining-rooms and talked. There was much jesting, some slappings of shoulders, some good story-telling, and so the afternoon waned into evening, and they went away.
Aileen had created an impression in a street costume of dark blue silk with velvet pelisse to match, and trimmed with elaborate pleatings and shirrings of the same materials. A toque of blue velvet, with high crown and one large dark-red imitation orchid, had given her a jaunty, dashing air. Beneath the toque her red-gold hair was arranged in an enormous chignon, with one long curl escaping over her collar. She was not exactly as daring as she seemed, but she loved to give that impression.
"You look wonderful," Cowperwood said as she passed him.
"I'll look different to-night," was her answer.
She had swung herself with a slight, swaggering stride into the dining-room and disappeared. Norah and her mother stayed to chat with Mrs. Cowperwood.
"Well, it's lovely now, isn't it?" breathed Mrs. Butler. "Sure you'll be happy here. Sure you will. When Eddie fixed the house we're in now, says I: 'Eddie, it's almost too fine for us altogether– surely it is,' and he says, says 'e, 'Norah, nothin' this side o' heavin or beyond is too good for ye'-and he kissed me. Now what d'ye think of that fer a big, hulkin' gossoon?"
"It's perfectly lovely, I think, Mrs. Butler," commented Mrs. Cowperwood, a little bit nervous because of others.
"Mama does love to talk so. Come on, mama. Let's look at the dining-room." It was Norah talking.
"Well, may ye always be happy in it. I wish ye that. I've always been happy in mine. May ye always be happy." And she waddled good-naturedly along.
The Cowperwood family dined hastily alone between seven and eight. At nine the evening guests began to arrive, and now the throng was of a different complexion-girls in mauve and cream-white and salmon-pink and silver-gray, laying aside lace shawls and loose dolmans, and the men in smooth black helping them. Outside in the cold, the carriage doors were slamming, and new guests were arriving constantly. Mrs. Cowperwood stood with her husband and Anna in the main entrance to the reception room, while Joseph and Edward Cowperwood and Mr. and Mrs. Henry W. Cowperwood lingered in the background. Lillian looked charming in a train gown of old rose, with a low, square neck showing a delicate chemisette of fine lace. Her face and figure were still notable, though her face was not as smoothly sweet as it had been years before when Cowperwood had first met her. Anna Cowperwood was not pretty, though she could not be said to be homely. She was small and dark, with a turned-up nose, snapping black eyes, a pert, inquisitive, intelligent, and alas, somewhat critical, air. She had considerable tact in the matter of dressing. Black, in spite of her darkness, with shining beads of sequins on it, helped her complexion greatly, as did a red rose in her hair. She had smooth, white well-rounded arms and shoulders. Bright eyes, a pert manner, clever remarks-these assisted to create an illusion of charm, though, as she often said, it was of little use. "Men want the dolly things."
In the evening inpour of young men and women came Aileen and Norah, the former throwing off a thin net veil of black lace and a dolman of black silk, which her brother Owen took from her. Norah was with Callum, a straight, erect, smiling young Irishman, who looked as though he might carve a notable career for himself. She wore a short, girlish dress that came to a little below her shoe-tops, a pale-figured lavender and white silk, with a fluffy hoop-skirt of dainty laced-edged ruffles, against which tiny bows of lavender stood out in odd places. There was a great sash of lavender about her waist, and in her hair a rosette of the same color. She looked exceedingly winsome-eager and bright-eyed.
But behind her was her sister in ravishing black satin, scaled as a fish with glistening crimsoned-silver sequins, her round, smooth arms bare to the shoulders, her corsage cut as low in the front and back as her daring, in relation to her sense of the proprieties, permitted. She was naturally of exquisite figure, erect, full-breasted, with somewhat more than gently swelling hips, which, nevertheless, melted into lovely, harmonious lines; and this low-cut corsage, receding back and front into a deep V, above a short, gracefully draped overskirt of black tulle and silver tissue, set her off to perfection. Her full, smooth, roundly modeled neck was enhanced in its cream-pink whiteness by an inch-wide necklet of black jet cut in many faceted black squares. Her complexion, naturally high in tone because of the pink of health, was enhanced by the tiniest speck of black court-plaster laid upon her cheekbone; and her hair, heightened in its reddish-gold by her dress, was fluffed loosely and adroitly about her eyes. The main mass of this treasure was done in two loose braids caught up in a black spangled net at the back of her neck; and her eyebrows had been emphasized by a pencil into something almost as significant as her hair. She was, for the occasion, a little too emphatic, perhaps, and yet more because of her burning vitality than of her costume. Art for her should have meant subduing her physical and spiritual significance. Life for her meant emphasizing them.
"Lillian!" Anna nudged her sister-in-law. She was grieved to think that Aileen was wearing black and looked so much better than either of them.
"I see," Lillian replied, in a subdued tone.
"So you're back again." She was addressing Aileen. "It's chilly out, isn't it?"
"I don't mind. Don't the rooms look lovely?"
She was gazing at the softly lighted chambers and the throng before her.
Norah began to babble to Anna. "You know, I just thought I never would get this old thing on." She was speaking of her dress. "Aileen wouldn't help me-the mean thing!"
Aileen had swept on to Cowperwood and his mother, who was near him. She had removed from her arm the black satin ribbon which held her train and kicked the skirts loose and free. Her eyes gleamed almost pleadingly for all her hauteur, like a spirited collie's, and her even teeth showed beautifully.
Cowperwood understood her precisely, as he did any fine, spirited animal.
"I can't tell you how nice you look," he whispered to her, familiarly, as though there was an old understanding between them. "You're like fire and song."
He did not know why he said this. He was not especially poetic. He had not formulated the phrase beforehand. Since his first glimpse of her in the hall, his feelings and ideas had been leaping and plunging like spirited horses. This girl made him set his teeth and narrow his eyes. Involuntarily he squared his jaw, looking more defiant, forceful, efficient, as she drew near,
But Aileen and her sister were almost instantly surrounded by young men seeking to be introduced and to write their names on dance-cards, and for the time being she was lost to view.Chapter XVIII
The seeds of change-subtle, metaphysical-are rooted deeply.
From the first mention of the dance by Mrs. Cowperwood and Anna,
Aileen had been conscious of a desire toward a more effective
presentation of herself than as yet, for all her father's money,
she had been able to achieve. The company which she was to
encounter, as she well knew, was to be so much more impressive,
distinguished than anything she had heretofore known socially.
Then, too, Cowperwood appeared as something more definite in her
mind than he had been before, and to save herself she could not
get him out of her consciousness.
A vision of him had come to her but an hour before as she was dressing. In a way she had dressed for him. She was never forgetful of the times he had looked at her in an interested way. He had commented on her hands once. To-day he had said that she looked "stunning," and she had thought how easy it would be to impress him to-night-to show him how truly beautiful she was.
She had stood before her mirror between eight and nine-it was nine-fifteen before she was really ready-and pondered over what she should wear. There were two tall pier-glasses in her wardrobe– an unduly large piece of furniture-and one in her closet door. She stood before the latter, looking at her bare arms and shoulders, her shapely figure, thinking of the fact that her left shoulder had a dimple, and that she had selected garnet garters decorated with heart-shaped silver buckles. The corset could not be made quite tight enough at first, and she chided her maid, Kathleen Kelly. She studied how to arrange her hair, and there was much ado about that before it was finally adjusted. She penciled her eyebrows and plucked at the hair about her forehead to make it loose and shadowy. She cut black court-plaster with her nail-shears and tried different-sized pieces in different places. Finally, she found one size and one place that suited her. She turned her head from side to side, looking at the combined effect of her hair, her penciled brows, her dimpled shoulder, and the black beauty-spot. If some one man could see her as she was now, some time! Which man? That thought scurried back like a frightened rat into its hole. She was, for all her strength, afraid of the thought of the one-the very deadly-the man.
And then she came to the matter of a train-gown. Kathleen laid out five, for Aileen had come into the joy and honor of these things recently, and she had, with the permission of her mother and father, indulged herself to the full. She studied a golden-yellow silk, with cream-lace shoulder-straps, and some gussets of garnet beads in the train that shimmered delightfully, but set it aside. She considered favorably a black-and-white striped silk of odd gray effect, and, though she was sorely tempted to wear it, finally let it go. There was a maroon dress, with basque and overskirt over white silk; a rich cream-colored satin; and then this black sequined gown, which she finally chose. She tried on the cream-colored satin first, however, being in much doubt about it; but her penciled eyes and beauty-spot did not seem to harmonize with it. Then she put on the black silk with its glistening crimsoned-silver sequins, and, lo, it touched her. She liked its coquettish drapery of tulle and silver about the hips. The "overskirt," which was at that time just coming into fashion, though avoided by the more conservative, had been adopted by Aileen with enthusiasm. She thrilled a little at the rustle of this black dress, and thrust her chin and nose forward to make it set right. Then after having Kathleen tighten her corsets a little more, she gathered the train over her arm by its train-band and looked again. Something was wanting. Oh, yes, her neck! What to wear-red coral? It did not look right. A string of pearls? That would not do either. There was a necklace made of small cameos set in silver which her mother had purchased, and another of diamonds which belonged to her mother, but they were not right. Finally, her jet necklet, which she did not value very highly, came into her mind, and, oh, how lovely it looked! How soft and smooth and glistening her chin looked above it. She caressed her neck affectionately, called for her black lace mantilla, her long, black silk dolman lined with red, and she was ready.
The ball-room, as she entered, was lovely enough. The young men and young women she saw there were interesting, and she was not wanting for admirers. The most aggressive of these youths-the most forceful-recognized in this maiden a fillip to life, a sting to existence. She was as a honey-jar surrounded by too hungry flies.