Theodore Dreiser >> The Financier (page 43)

In spite of the fact that her mother was a dressmaker, Mamie's clothes never looked smart or attractive-she would have felt out of keeping with herself if they had. Her shoes were rather large, and ill-fitting; her skirt hung in lifeless lines from her hips to her feet, of good material but seemingly bad design. At that time the colored "jersey," so-called, was just coming into popular wear, and, being close-fitting, looked well on those of good form. Alas for Mamie Calligan! The mode of the time compelled her to wear one; but she had neither the arms nor the chest development which made this garment admirable. Her hat, by choice, was usually a pancake affair with a long, single feather, which somehow never seemed to be in exactly the right position, either to her hair or her face. At most times she looked a little weary; but she was not physically weary so much as she was bored. Her life held so little of real charm; and Aileen Butler was unquestionably the most significant element of romance in it.

Mamie's mother's very pleasant social disposition, the fact that they had a very cleanly, if poor little home, that she could entertain them by playing on their piano, and that Mrs. Calligan took an adoring interest in the work she did for her, made up the sum and substance of the attraction of the Calligan home for Aileen. She went there occasionally as a relief from other things, and because Mamie Calligan had a compatible and very understanding interest in literature. Curiously, the books Aileen liked she liked-Jane Eyre, Kenelm Chillingly, Tricotrin, and A Bow of Orange Ribbon. Mamie occasionally recommended to Aileen some latest effusion of this character; and Aileen, finding her judgment good, was constrained to admire her.

In this crisis it was to the home of the Calligans that Aileen turned in thought. If her father really was not nice to her, and she had to leave home for a time, she could go to the Calligans. They would receive her and say nothing. They were not sufficiently well known to the other members of the Butler family to have the latter suspect that she had gone there. She might readily disappear into the privacy of Cherry Street and not be seen or heard of for weeks. It is an interesting fact to contemplate that the Calligans, like the various members of the Butler family, never suspected Aileen of the least tendency toward a wayward existence. Hence her flight from her own family, if it ever came, would be laid more to the door of a temperamental pettishness than anything else.

On the other hand, in so far as the Butler family as a unit was concerned, it needed Aileen more than she needed it. It needed the light of her countenance to keep it appropriately cheerful, and if she went away there would be a distinct gulf that would not soon be overcome.

Butler, senior, for instance, had seen his little daughter grow into radiantly beautiful womanhood. He had seen her go to school and convent and learn to play the piano-to him a great accomplishment. Also he had seen her manner change and become very showy and her knowledge of life broaden, apparently, and become to him, at least, impressive. Her smart, dogmatic views about most things were, to him, at least, well worth listening to. She knew more about books and art than Owen or Callum, and her sense of social manners was perfect. When she came to the tableЦ breakfast, luncheon, or dinner-she was to him always a charming object to see. He had produced Aileen-he congratulated himself. He had furnished her the money to be so fine. He would continue to do so. No second-rate upstart of a man should be allowed to ruin her life. He proposed to take care of her always-to leave her so much money in a legally involved way that a failure of a husband could not possibly affect her. "You're the charming lady this evenin', I'm thinkin'," was one of his pet remarks; and also, "My, but we're that fine!" At table almost invariably she sat beside him and looked out for him. That was what he wanted. He had put her there beside him at his meals years before when she was a child.

Her mother, too, was inordinately fond of her, and Callum and Owen appropriately brotherly. So Aileen had thus far at least paid back with beauty and interest quite as much as she received, and all the family felt it to be so. When she was away for a day or two the house seemed glum-the meals less appetizing. When she returned, all were happy and gay again.

Aileen understood this clearly enough in a way. Now, when it came to thinking of leaving and shifting for herself, in order to avoid a trip which she did not care to be forced into, her courage was based largely on this keen sense of her own significance to the family. She thought over what her father had said, and decided she must act at once. She dressed for the street the next morning, after her father had gone, and decided to step in at the Calligans' about noon, when Mamie would be at home for luncheon. Then she would take up the matter casually. If they had no objection, she would go there. She sometimes wondered why Cowperwood did not suggest, in his great stress, that they leave for some parts unknown; but she also felt that he must know best what he could do. His increasing troubles depressed her.

Mrs. Calligan was alone when she arrived and was delighted to see her. After exchanging the gossip of the day, and not knowing quite how to proceed in connection with the errand which had brought her, she went to the piano and played a melancholy air.

"Sure, it's lovely the way you play, Aileen," observed Mrs. Calligan who was unduly sentimental herself. "I love to hear you. I wish you'd come oftener to see us. You're so rarely here nowadays."

"Oh, I've been so busy, Mrs. Calligan," replied Aileen. "I've had so much to do this fall, I just couldn't. They wanted me to go to Europe; but I didn't care to. Oh, dear!" she sighed, and in her playing swept off with a movement of sad, romantic significance. The door opened and Mamie came in. Her commonplace face brightened at the sight of Aileen.

"Well, Aileen Butler!" she exclaimed. "Where did you come from? Where have you been keeping yourself so long?"

Aileen rose to exchange kisses. "Oh, I've been very busy, Mamie. I've just been telling your mother. How are you, anyway? How are you getting along in your work?"

Mamie recounted at once some school difficulties which were puzzling her-the growing size of classes and the amount of work expected. While Mrs. Calligan was setting the table Mamie went to her room and Aileen followed her.

As she stood before her mirror arranging her hair Aileen looked at her meditatively.

"What's the matter with you, Aileen, to-day?" Mamie asked. "You look so-" She stopped to give her a second glance.

"How do I look?" asked Aileen.

"Well, as if you were uncertain or troubled about something. I never saw you look that way before. What's the matter?"

"Oh, nothing," replied Aileen. "I was just thinking." She went to one of the windows which looked into the little yard, meditating on whether she could endure living here for any length of time. The house was so small, the furnishings so very simple.

"There is something the matter with you to-day, Aileen," observed Mamie, coming over to her and looking in her face. "You're not like yourself at all."

"I've got something on my mind," replied Aileen-"something that's worrying me. I don't know just what to do-that's what's the matter."

"Well, whatever can it be?" commented Mamie. "I never saw you act this way before. Can't you tell me? What is it?"

"No, I don't think I can-not now, anyhow." Aileen paused. "Do you suppose your mother would object," she asked, suddenly, "if I came here and stayed a little while? I want to get away from home for a time for a certain reason."

"Why, Aileen Butler, how you talk!" exclaimed her friend. "Object! You know she'd be delighted, and so would I. Oh, dear-can you come? But what makes you want to leave home?"

"That's just what I can't tell you-not now, anyhow. Not you, so much, but your mother. You know, I'm afraid of what she'd think," replied Aileen. "But, you mustn't ask me yet, anyhow. I want to think. Oh, dear! But I want to come, if you'll let me. Will you speak to your mother, or shall I?"

"Why, I will," said Mamie, struck with wonder at this remarkable development; "but it's silly to do it. I know what she'll say before I tell her, and so do you. You can just bring your things and come. That's all. She'd never say anything or ask anything, either, and you know that-if you didn't want her to." Mamie was all agog and aglow at the idea. She wanted the companionship of Aileen so much.

Aileen looked at her solemnly, and understood well enough why she was so enthusiastic-both she and her mother. Both wanted her presence to brighten their world. "But neither of you must tell anybody that I'm here, do you hear? I don't want any one to knowЦ particularly no one of my family. I've a reason, and a good one, but I can't tell you what it is-not now, anyhow. You'll promise not to tell any one."

"Oh, of course," replied Mamie eagerly. "But you're not going to run away for good, are you, Aileen?" she concluded curiously and gravely.

"Oh, I don't know; I don't know what I'll do yet. I only know that I want to get away for a while, just now-that's all." She paused, while Mamie stood before her, agape.

"Well, of all things," replied her friend. "Wonders never cease, do they, Aileen? But it will be so lovely to have you here. Mama will be so pleased. Of course, we won't tell anybody if you don't want us to. Hardly any one ever comes here; and if they do, you needn't see them. You could have this big room next to me. Oh, wouldn't that be nice? I'm perfectly delighted." The young school-teacher's spirits rose to a decided height. "Come on, why not tell mama right now?"

Aileen hesitated because even now she was not positive whether she should do this, but finally they went down the stairs together, Aileen lingering behind a little as they neared the bottom. Mamie burst in upon her mother with: "Oh, mama, isn't it lovely? Aileen's coming to stay with us for a while. She doesn't want any one to know, and she's coming right away." Mrs. Calligan, who was holding a sugarbowl in her hand, turned to survey her with a surprised but smiling face. She was immediately curious as to why Aileen should want to come-why leave home. On the other hand, her feeling for Aileen was so deep that she was greatly and joyously intrigued by the idea. And why not? Was not the celebrated Edward Butler's daughter a woman grown, capable of regulating her own affairs, and welcome, of course, as the honored member of so important a family. It was very flattering to the Calligans to think that she would want to come under any circumstances.

"I don't see how your parents can let you go, Aileen; but you're certainly welcome here as long as you want to stay, and that's forever, if you want to." And Mrs. Calligan beamed on her welcomingly. The idea of Aileen Butler asking to be permitted to come here! And the hearty, comprehending manner in which she said this, and Mamie's enthusiasm, caused Aileen to breathe a sigh of relief. The matter of the expense of her presence to the Calligans came into her mind.

"I want to pay you, of course," she said to Mrs. Calligan, "if I come."

"The very idea, Aileen Butler!" exclaimed Mamie. "You'll do nothing of the sort. You'll come here and live with me as my guest."

"No, I won't! If I can't pay I won't come," replied Aileen. "You'll have to let me do that." She knew that the Calligans could not afford to keep her.

"Well, we'll not talk about that now, anyhow," replied Mrs. Calligan. "You can come when you like and stay as long as you like. Reach me some clean napkins, Mamie." Aileen remained for luncheon, and left soon afterward to keep her suggested appointment with Cowperwood, feeling satisfied that her main problem had been solved. Now her way was clear. She could come here if she wanted to. It was simply a matter of collecting a few necessary things or coming without bringing anything. Perhaps Frank would have something to suggest.

In the meantime Cowperwood made no effort to communicate with Aileen since the unfortunate discovery of their meeting place, but had awaited a letter from her, which was not long in coming. And, as usual, it was a long, optimistic, affectionate, and defiant screed in which she related all that had occurred to her and her present plan of leaving home. This last puzzled and troubled him not a little.

Aileen in the bosom of her family, smart and well-cared for, was one thing. Aileen out in the world dependent on him was another. He had never imagined that she would be compelled to leave before he was prepared to take her; and if she did now, it might stir up complications which would be anything but pleasant to contemplate. Still he was fond of her, very, and would do anything to make her happy. He could support her in a very respectable way even now, if he did not eventually go to prison, and even there he might manage to make some shift for her. It would be so much better, though, if he could persuade her to remain at home until he knew exactly what his fate was to be. He never doubted but that some day, whatever happened, within a reasonable length of time, he would be rid of all these complications and well-to-do again, in which case, if he could get a divorce, he wanted to marry Aileen. If not, he would take her with him anyhow, and from this point of view it might be just as well as if she broke away from her family now. But from the point of view of present complications-the search Butler would make-it might be dangerous. He might even publicly charge him with abduction. He therefore decided to persuade Aileen to stay at home, drop meetings and communications for the time being, and even go abroad. He would be all right until she came back and so would she-common sense ought to rule in this case.

With all this in mind he set out to keep the appointment she suggested in her letter, nevertheless feeling it a little dangerous to do so.

"Are you sure," he asked, after he had listened to her description of the Calligan homestead, "that you would like it there? It sounds rather poor to me."

"Yes, but I like them so much," replied Aileen.

"And you're sure they won't tell on you?"

"Oh, no; never, never!"

"Very well," he concluded. "You know what you're doing. I don't want to advise you against your will. If I were you, though, I'd take your father's advice and go away for a while. He'll get over this then, and I'll still be here. I can write you occasionally, and you can write me."

The moment Cowperwood said this Aileen's brow clouded. Her love for him was so great that there was something like a knife thrust in the merest hint at an extended separation. Her Frank here and in trouble-on trial maybe and she away! Never! What could he mean by suggesting such a thing? Could it be that he didn't care for her as much as she did for him? Did he really love her? she asked herself. Was he going to desert her just when she was going to do the thing which would bring them nearer together? Her eyes clouded, for she was terribly hurt.

Title: The Financier
Author: Theodore Dreiser
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