For the first time in his life Cowperwood felt conscious of having been in the presence of that interesting social phenomenon—the outraged sentiment of a parent. While he had no absolute knowledge as to why Butler had been so enraged, he felt that Aileen was the contributing cause. He himself was a father. His boy, Frank, Jr., was to him not so remarkable. But little Lillian, with her dainty little slip of a body and bright-aureoled head, had always appealed to him. She was going to be a charming woman one day, he thought, and he was going to do much to establish her safely. He used to tell her that she had “eyes like buttons,” “feet like a pussy-cat,” and hands that were “just five cents’ worth,” they were so little. The child admired her father and would often stand by his chair in the library or the sitting-room, or his desk in his private office, or by his seat at the table, asking him questions.
This attitude toward his own daughter made him see clearly how Butler might feel toward Aileen. He wondered how he would feel if it were his own little Lillian, and still he did not believe he would make much fuss over the matter, either with himself or with her, if she were as old as Aileen. Children and their lives were more or less above the willing of parents, anyhow, and it would be a difficult thing for any parent to control any child, unless the child were naturally docile-minded and willing to be controlled.
It also made him smile, in a grim way, to see how fate was raining difficulties on him. The Chicago fire, Stener’s early absence, Butler, Mollenhauer, and Simpson’s indifference to Stener’s fate and his. And now this probable revelation in connection with Aileen. He could not be sure as yet, but his intuitive instincts told him that it must be something like this.
Now he was distressed as to what Aileen would do, say if suddenly she were confronted by her father. If he could only get to her! But if he was to meet Butler’s call for his loan, and the others which would come yet to-day or on the morrow, there was not a moment to lose. If he did not pay he must assign at once. Butler’s rage, Aileen, his own danger, were brushed aside for the moment. His mind concentrated wholly on how to save himself financially.
He hurried to visit George Waterman; David Wiggin, his wife’s brother, who was now fairly well to do; Joseph Zimmerman, the wealthy dry-goods dealer who had dealt with him in the past; Judge Kitchen, a private manipulator of considerable wealth; Frederick Van Nostrand, the State treasurer, who was interested in local street-railway stocks, and others. Of all those to whom he appealed one was actually not in a position to do anything for him; another was afraid; a third was calculating eagerly to drive a hard bargain; a fourth was too deliberate, anxious to have much time. All scented the true value of his situation, all wanted time to consider, and he had no time to consider. Judge Kitchen did agree to lend him thirty thousand dollars—a paltry sum. Joseph Zimmerman would only risk twenty-five thousand dollars. He could see where, all told, he might raise seventy-five thousand dollars by hypothecating double the amount in shares; but this was ridiculously insufficient. He had figured again, to a dollar, and he must have at least two hundred and fifty thousand dollars above all his present holdings, or he must close his doors. To-morrow at two o’clock he would know. If he didn’t he would be written down as “failed” on a score of ledgers in Philadelphia.
What a pretty pass for one to come to whose hopes had so recently run so high! There was a loan of one hundred thousand dollars from the Girard National Bank which he was particularly anxious to clear off. This bank was the most important in the city, and if he retained its good will by meeting this loan promptly he might hope for favors in the future whatever happened. Yet, at the moment, he did not see how he could do it. He decided, however, after some reflection, that he would deliver the stocks which Judge Kitchen, Zimmerman, and others had agreed to take and get their checks or cash yet this night. Then he would persuade Stener to let him have a check for the sixty thousand dollars’ worth of city loan he had purchased this morning on ‘change. Out of it he could take twenty-five thousand dollars to make up the balance due the bank, and still have thirty-five thousand for himself.
The one unfortunate thing about such an arrangement was that by doing it he was building up a rather complicated situation in regard to these same certificates. Since their purchase in the morning, he had not deposited them in the sinking-fund, where they belonged (they had been delivered to his office by half past one in the afternoon), but, on the contrary, had immediately hypothecated them to cover another loan. It was a risky thing to have done, considering that he was in danger of failing and that he was not absolutely sure of being able to take them up in time.
But, he reasoned, he had a working agreement with the city treasurer (illegal of course), which would make such a transaction rather plausible, and almost all right, even if he failed, and that was that none of his accounts were supposed necessarily to be put straight until the end of the month. If he failed, and the certificates were not in the sinking-fund, he could say, as was the truth, that he was in the habit of taking his time, and had forgotten. This collecting of a check, therefore, for these as yet undeposited certificates would be technically, if not legally and morally, plausible. The city would be out only an additional sixty thousand dollars—making five hundred and sixty thousand dollars all told, which in view of its probable loss of five hundred thousand did not make so much difference. But his caution clashed with his need on this occasion, and he decided that he would not call for the check unless Stener finally refused to aid him with three hundred thousand more, in which case he would claim it as his right. In all likelihood Stener would not think to ask whether the certificates were in the sinking-fund or not. If he did, he would have to lie—that was all.
He drove rapidly back to his office, and, finding Butler’s note, as he expected, wrote a check on his father’s bank for the one hundred thousand dollars which had been placed to his credit by his loving parent, and sent it around to Butler’s office. There was another note, from Albert Stires, Stener’s secretary, advising him not to buy or sell any more city loan—that until further notice such transactions would not be honored. Cowperwood immediately sensed the source of this warning. Stener had been in conference with Butler or Mollenhauer, and had been warned and frightened. Nevertheless, he got in his buggy again and drove directly to the city treasurer’s office.
Since Cowperwood’s visit Stener had talked still more with Sengstack, Strobik, and others, all sent to see that a proper fear of things financial had been put in his heart. The result was decidedly one which spelled opposition to Cowperwood.
Strobik was considerably disturbed himself. He and Wycroft and Harmon had also been using money out of the treasury—much smaller sums, of course, for they had not Cowperwood’s financial imagination—and were disturbed as to how they would return what they owed before the storm broke. If Cowperwood failed, and Stener was short in his accounts, the whole budget might be investigated, and then their loans would be brought to light. The thing to do was to return what they owed, and then, at least, no charge of malfeasance would lie against them.
“Go to Mollenhauer,” Strobik had advised Stener, shortly after Cowperwood had left the latter’s office, “and tell him the whole story. He put you here. He was strong for your nomination. Tell him just where you stand and ask him what to do. He’ll probably be able to tell you. Offer him your holdings to help you out. You have to. You can’t help yourself. Don’t loan Cowperwood another damned dollar, whatever you do. He’s got you in so deep now you can hardly hope to get out. Ask Mollenhauer if he won’t help you to get Cowperwood to put that money back. He may be able to influence him.”
There was more in this conversation to the same effect, and then Stener hurried as fast as his legs could carry him to Mollenhauer’s office. He was so frightened that he could scarcely breathe, and he was quite ready to throw himself on his knees before the big German-American financier and leader. Oh, if Mr. Mollenhauer would only help him! If he could just get out of this without going to jail!
“Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” he repeated, over and over to himself, as he walked. “What shall I do?”
The attitude of Henry A. Mollenhauer, grim, political boss that he was—trained in a hard school—was precisely the attitude of every such man in all such trying circumstances.
He was wondering, in view of what Butler had told him, just how much he could advantage himself in this situation. If he could, he wanted to get control of whatever street-railway stock Stener now had, without in any way compromising himself. Stener’s shares could easily be transferred on ‘change through Mollenhauer’s brokers to a dummy, who would eventually transfer them to himself (Mollenhauer). Stener must be squeezed thoroughly, though, this afternoon, and as for his five hundred thousand dollars’ indebtedness to the treasury, Mollenhauer did not see what could be done about that. If Cowperwood could not pay it, the city would have to lose it; but the scandal must be hushed up until after election. Stener, unless the various party leaders had more generosity than Mollenhauer imagined, would have to suffer exposure, arrest, trial, confiscation of his property, and possibly sentence to the penitentiary, though this might easily be commuted by the governor, once public excitement died down. He did not trouble to think whether Cowperwood was criminally involved or not. A hundred to one he was not. Trust a shrewd man like that to take care of himself. But if there was any way to shoulder the blame on to Cowperwood, and so clear the treasurer and the skirts of the party, he would not object to that. He wanted to hear the full story of Stener’s relations with the broker first. Meanwhile, the thing to do was to seize what Stener had to yield.
The troubled city treasurer, on being shown in Mr. Mollenhauer’s presence, at once sank feebly in a chair and collapsed. He was entirely done for mentally. His nerve was gone, his courage exhausted like a breath.
“Well, Mr. Stener?” queried Mr. Mollenhauer, impressively, pretending not to know what brought him.
“I came about this matter of my loans to Mr. Cowperwood.”
“Well, what about them?”
“Well, he owes me, or the city treasury rather, five hundred thousand dollars, and I understand that he is going to fail and that he can’t pay it back.”
“Who told you that?”
“Mr. Sengstack, and since then Mr. Cowperwood has been to see me. He tells me he must have more money or he will fail and he wants to borrow three hundred thousand dollars more. He says he must have it.”
“So!” said Mr. Mollenhauer, impressively, and with an air of astonishment which he did not feel. “You would not think of doing that, of course. You’re too badly involved as it is. If he wants to know why, refer him to me. Don’t advance him another dollar. If you do, and this case comes to trial, no court would have any mercy on you. It’s going to be difficult enough to do anything for you as it is. However, if you don’t advance him any more—we will see. It may be possible, I can’t say, but at any rate, no more money must leave the treasury to bolster up this bad business. It’s much too difficult as it now is.” He stared at Stener warningly. And he, shaken and sick, yet because of the faint suggestion of mercy involved somewhere in Mollenhauer’s remarks, now slipped from his chair to his knees and folded his hands in the uplifted attitude of a devotee before a sacred image.
“Oh, Mr. Mollenhauer,” he choked, beginning to cry, “I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. Strobik and Wycroft told me it was all right. You sent me to Cowperwood in the first place. I only did what I thought the others had been doing. Mr. Bode did it, just like I have been doing. He dealt with Tighe and Company. I have a wife and four children, Mr. Mollenhauer. My youngest boy is only seven years old. Think of them, Mr. Mollenhauer! Think of what my arrest will mean to them! I don’t want to go to jail. I didn’t think I was doing anything very wrong—honestly I didn’t. I’ll give up all I’ve got. You can have all my stocks and houses and lots—anything—if you’ll only get me out of this. You won’t let ‘em send me to jail, will you?”
His fat, white lips were trembling—wabbling nervously—and big hot tears were coursing down his previously pale but now flushed cheeks. He presented one of those almost unbelievable pictures which are yet so intensely human and so true. If only the great financial and political giants would for once accurately reveal the details of their lives!
Mollenhauer looked at him calmly, meditatively. How often had he seen weaklings no more dishonest than himself, but without his courage and subtlety, pleading to him in this fashion, not on their knees exactly, but intellectually so! Life to him, as to every other man of large practical knowledge and insight, was an inexplicable tangle. What were you going to do about the so-called morals and precepts of the world? This man Stener fancied that he was dishonest, and that he, Mollenhauer, was honest. He was here, self-convicted of sin, pleading to him, Mollenhauer, as he would to a righteous, unstained saint. As a matter of fact, Mollenhauer knew that he was simply shrewder, more far-seeing, more calculating, not less dishonest. Stener was lacking in force and brains—not morals. This lack was his principal crime. There were people who believed in some esoteric standard of right—some ideal of conduct absolutely and very far removed from practical life; but he had never seen them practice it save to their own financial (not moral—he would not say that) destruction. They were never significant, practical men who clung to these fatuous ideals. They were always poor, nondescript, negligible dreamers. He could not have made Stener understand all this if he had wanted to, and he certainly did not want to. It was too bad about Mrs. Stener and the little Steners. No doubt she had worked hard, as had Stener, to get up in the world and be something—just a little more than miserably poor; and now this unfortunate complication had to arise to undo them—this Chicago fire. What a curious thing that was! If any one thing more than another made him doubt the existence of a kindly, overruling Providence, it was the unheralded storms out of clear skies—financial, social, anything you choose—that so often brought ruin and disaster to so many.
“Get Up, Stener,” he said, calmly, after a few moments. “You mustn’t give way to your feelings like this. You must not cry. These troubles are never unraveled by tears. You must do a little thinking for yourself. Perhaps your situation isn’t so bad.”
As he was saying this Stener was putting himself back in his chair, getting out his handkerchief, and sobbing hopelessly in it.
“I’ll do what I can, Stener. I won’t promise anything. I can’t tell you what the result will be. There are many peculiar political forces in this city. I may not be able to save you, but I am perfectly willing to try. You must put yourself absolutely under my direction. You must not say or do anything without first consulting with me. I will send my secretary to you from time to time. He will tell you what to do. You must not come to me unless I send for you. Do you understand that thoroughly?”
“Yes, Mr. Mollenhauer.”
“Well, now, dry your eyes. I don’t want you to go out of this office crying. Go back to your office, and I will send Sengstack to see you. He will tell you what to do. Follow him exactly. And whenever I send for you come at once.”
He got up, large, self-confident, reserved. Stener, buoyed up by the subtle reassurance of his remarks, recovered to a degree his equanimity. Mr. Mollenhauer, the great, powerful Mr. Mollenhauer was going to help him out of his scrape. He might not have to go to jail after all. He left after a few moments, his face a little red from weeping, but otherwise free of telltale marks, and returned to his office.
Three-quarters of an hour later, Sengstack called on him for the second time that day—Abner Sengstack, small, dark-faced, club-footed, a great sole of leather three inches thick under his short, withered right leg, his slightly Slavic, highly intelligent countenance burning with a pair of keen, piercing, inscrutable black eyes. Sengstack was a fit secretary for Mollenhauer. You could see at one glance that he would make Stener do exactly what Mollenhauer suggested. His business was to induce Stener to part with his street-railway holdings at once through Tighe & Co., Butler’s brokers, to the political sub-agent who would eventually transfer them to Mollenhauer. What little Stener received for them might well go into the treasury. Tighe & Co. would manage the “‘change” subtleties of this without giving any one else a chance to bid, while at the same time making it appear an open-market transaction. At the same time Sengstack went carefully into the state of the treasurer’s office for his master’s benefit—finding out what it was that Strobik, Wycroft, and Harmon had been doing with their loans. Via another source they were ordered to disgorge at once or face prosecution. They were a part of Mollenhauer’s political machine. Then, having cautioned Stener not to set over the remainder of his property to any one, and not to listen to any one, most of all to the Machiavellian counsel of Cowperwood, Sengstack left.
Needless to say, Mollenhauer was greatly gratified by this turn of affairs. Cowperwood was now most likely in a position where he would have to come and see him, or if not, a good share of the properties he controlled were already in Mollenhauer’s possession. If by some hook or crook he could secure the remainder, Simpson and Butler might well talk to him about this street-railway business. His holdings were now as large as any, if not quite the largest.