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Chapter 18

 

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.

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.

"No."

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?"

"Yes."

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."