The necessity of a final conference between Butler, Mollenhauer, and Simpson was speedily reached, for this situation was hourly growing more serious. Rumors were floating about in Third Street that in addition to having failed for so large an amount as to have further unsettled the already panicky financial situation induced by the Chicago fire, Cowperwood and Stener, or Stener working with Cowperwood, or the other way round, had involved the city treasury to the extent of five hundred thousand dollars. And the question was how was the matter to be kept quiet until after election, which was still three weeks away. Bankers and brokers were communicating odd rumors to each other about a check that had been taken from the city treasury after Cowperwood knew he was to fail, and without Stener’s consent. Also that there was danger that it would come to the ears of that very uncomfortable political organization known as the Citizens’ Municipal Reform Association, of which a well-known iron-manufacturer of great probity and moral rectitude, one Skelton C. Wheat, was president. Wheat had for years been following on the trail of the dominant Republican administration in a vain attempt to bring it to a sense of some of its political iniquities. He was a serious and austere man—-one of those solemn, self-righteous souls who see life through a peculiar veil of duty, and who, undisturbed by notable animal passions of any kind, go their way of upholding the theory of the Ten Commandments over the order of things as they are.
The committee in question had originally been organized to protest against some abuses in the tax department; but since then, from election to election, it had been drifting from one subject to another, finding an occasional evidence of its worthwhileness in some newspaper comment and the frightened reformation of some minor political official who ended, usually, by taking refuge behind the skirts of some higher political power—in the last reaches, Messrs. Butler, Mollenhauer, and Simpson. Just now it was without important fuel or ammunition; and this assignment of Cowperwood, with its attendant crime, so far as the city treasury was concerned, threatened, as some politicians and bankers saw it, to give it just the club it was looking for.
However, the decisive conference took place between Cowperwood and the reigning political powers some five days after Cowperwood’s failure, at the home of Senator Simpson, which was located in Rittenhouse Square—a region central for the older order of wealth in Philadelphia. Simpson was a man of no little refinement artistically, of Quaker extraction, and of great wealth-breeding judgment which he used largely to satisfy his craving for political predominance. He was most liberal where money would bring him a powerful or necessary political adherent. He fairly showered offices—commissionerships, trusteeships, judgeships, political nominations, and executive positions generally—on those who did his bidding faithfully and without question. Compared with Butler and Mollenhauer he was more powerful than either, for he represented the State and the nation. When the political authorities who were trying to swing a national election were anxious to discover what the State of Pennsylvania would do, so far as the Republican party was concerned, it was to Senator Simpson that they appealed. In the literal sense of the word, he knew. The Senator had long since graduated from State to national politics, and was an interesting figure in the United States Senate at Washington, where his voice in all the conservative and moneyed councils of the nation was of great weight.
The house that he occupied, of Venetian design, and four stories in height, bore many architectural marks of distinction, such as the floriated window, the door with the semipointed arch, and medallions of colored marble set in the walls. The Senator was a great admirer of Venice. He had been there often, as he had to Athens and Rome, and had brought back many artistic objects representative of the civilizations and refinements of older days. He was fond, for one thing, of the stern, sculptured heads of the Roman emperors, and the fragments of gods and goddesses which are the best testimony of the artistic aspirations of Greece. In the entresol of this house was one of his finest treasures—a carved and floriated base bearing a tapering monolith some four feet high, crowned by the head of a peculiarly goatish Pan, by the side of which were the problematic remains of a lovely nude nymph—just the little feet broken off at the ankles. The base on which the feet of the nymph and the monolith stood was ornamented with carved ox-skulls intertwined with roses. In his reception hall were replicas of Caligula, Nero, and other Roman emperors; and on his stair-walls reliefs of dancing nymphs in procession, and priests bearing offerings of sheep and swine to the sacrificial altars. There was a clock in some corner of the house which chimed the quarter, the half, the three-quarters, and the hour in strange, euphonious, and pathetic notes. On the walls of the rooms were tapestries of Flemish origin, and in the reception-hall, the library, the living-room, and the drawing-room, richly carved furniture after the standards of the Italian Renaissance. The Senator’s taste in the matter of paintings was inadequate, and he mistrusted it; but such as he had were of distinguished origin and authentic. He cared more for his curio-cases filled with smaller imported bronzes, Venetian glass, and Chinese jade. He was not a collector of these in any notable sense—merely a lover of a few choice examples. Handsome tiger and leopard skin rugs, the fur of a musk-ox for his divan, and tanned and brown-stained goat and kid skins for his tables, gave a sense of elegance and reserved profusion. In addition the Senator had a dining-room done after the Jacobean idea of artistic excellence, and a wine-cellar which the best of the local vintners looked after with extreme care. He was a man who loved to entertain lavishly; and when his residence was thrown open for a dinner, a reception, or a ball, the best of local society was to be found there.
The conference was in the Senator’s library, and he received his colleagues with the genial air of one who has much to gain and little to lose. There were whiskies, wines, cigars on the table, and while Mollenhauer and Simpson exchanged the commonplaces of the day awaiting the arrival of Butler, they lighted cigars and kept their inmost thoughts to themselves.
It so happened that upon the previous afternoon Butler had learned from Mr. David Pettie, the district attorney, of the sixty-thousand-dollar-check transaction. At the same time the matter had been brought to Mollenhauer’s attention by Stener himself. It was Mollenhauer, not Butler who saw that by taking advantage of Cowperwood’s situation, he might save the local party from blame, and at the same time most likely fleece Cowperwood out of his street-railway shares without letting Butler or Simpson know anything about it. The thing to do was to terrorize him with a private threat of prosecution.
Butler was not long in arriving, and apologized for the delay. Concealing his recent grief behind as jaunty an air as possible, he began with:
“It’s a lively life I’m leadin’, what with every bank in the city wantin’ to know how their loans are goin’ to be taken care of.” He took a cigar and struck a match.
“It does look a little threatening,” said Senator Simpson, smiling. “Sit down. I have just been talking with Avery Stone, of Jay Cooke & Company, and he tells me that the talk in Third Street about Stener’s connection with this Cowperwood failure is growing very strong, and that the newspapers are bound to take up the matter shortly, unless something is done about it. I am sure that the news will also reach Mr. Wheat, of the Citizens’ Reform Association, very shortly. We ought to decide now, gentlemen, what we propose to do. One thing, I am sure, is to eliminate Stener from the ticket as quietly as possible. This really looks to me as if it might become a very serious issue, and we ought to be doing what we can now to offset its effect later.”
Mollenhauer pulled a long breath through his cigar, and blew it out in a rolling steel-blue cloud. He studied the tapestry on the opposite wall but said nothing.
“There is one thing sure,” continued Senator Simpson, after a time, seeing that no one else spoke, “and that is, if we do not begin a prosecution on our own account within a reasonable time, some one else is apt to; and that would put rather a bad face on the matter. My own opinion would be that we wait until it is very plain that prosecution is going to be undertaken by some one else—possibly the Municipal Reform Association—but that we stand ready to step in and act in such a way as to make it look as though we had been planning to do it all the time. The thing to do is to gain time; and so I would suggest that it be made as difficult as possible to get at the treasurer’s books. An investigation there, if it begins at all—as I think is very likely—should be very slow in producing the facts.”
The Senator was not at all for mincing words with his important confreres, when it came to vital issues. He preferred, in his grandiloquent way, to call a spade a spade.
“Now that sounds like very good sense to me,” said Butler, sinking a little lower in his chair for comfort’s sake, and concealing his true mood in regard to all this. “The boys could easily make that investigation last three weeks, I should think. They’re slow enough with everything else, if me memory doesn’t fail me.” At the same time he was cogitating as to how to inject the personality of Cowperwood and his speedy prosecution without appearing to be neglecting the general welfare of the local party too much.
“Yes, that isn’t a bad idea,” said Mollenhauer, solemnly, blowing a ring of smoke, and thinking how to keep Cowperwood’s especial offense from coming up at this conference and until after he had seen him.
“We ought to map out our program very carefully,” continued Senator Simpson, “so that if we are compelled to act we can do so very quickly. I believe myself that this thing is certain to come to an issue within a week, if not sooner, and we have no time to lose. If my advice were followed now, I should have the mayor write the treasurer a letter asking for information, and the treasurer write the mayor his answer, and also have the mayor, with the authority of the common council, suspend the treasurer for the time being—I think we have the authority to do that—or, at least, take over his principal duties but without for the time being, anyhow, making any of these transactions public—until we have to, of course. We ought to be ready with these letters to show to the newspapers at once, in case this action is forced upon us.”
“I could have those letters prepared, if you gentlemen have no objection,” put in Mollenhauer, quietly, but quickly.
“Well, that strikes me as sinsible,” said Butler, easily. “It’s about the only thing we can do under the circumstances, unless we could find some one else to blame it on, and I have a suggestion to make in that direction. Maybe we’re not as helpless as we might be, all things considered.”
There was a slight gleam of triumph in his eye as he said this, at the same time that there was a slight shadow of disappointment in Mollenhauer’s. So Butler knew, and probably Simpson, too.
“Just what do you mean?” asked the Senator, looking at Butler interestedly. He knew nothing of the sixty-thousand-dollar check transaction. He had not followed the local treasury dealings very closely, nor had he talked to either of his confreres since the original conference between them. “There haven’t been any outside parties mixed up with this, have there?” His own shrewd, political mind was working.
“No-o. I wouldn’t call him an outside party, exactly, Senator,” went on Butler suavely. “It’s Cowperwood himself I’m thinkin’ of. There’s somethin’ that has come up since I saw you gentlemen last that makes me think that perhaps that young man isn’t as innocent as he might be. It looks to me as though he was the ringleader in this business, as though he had been leadin’ Stener on against his will. I’ve been lookin’ into the matter on me own account, and as far as I can make out this man Stener isn’t as much to blame as I thought. From all I can learn, Cowperwood’s been threatenin’ Stener with one thing and another if he didn’t give him more money, and only the other day he got a big sum on false pretinses, which might make him equally guilty with Stener. There’s sixty-thousand dollars of city loan certificates that has been paid for that aren’t in the sinking-fund. And since the reputation of the party’s in danger this fall, I don’t see that we need to have any particular consideration for him.” He paused, strong in the conviction that he had sent a most dangerous arrow flying in the direction of Cowperwood, as indeed he had. Yet at this moment, both the Senator and Mollenhauer were not a little surprised, seeing at their last meeting he had appeared rather friendly to the young banker, and this recent discovery seemed scarcely any occasion for a vicious attitude on his part. Mollenhauer in particular was surprised, for he had been looking on Butler’s friendship for Cowperwood as a possible stumbling block.
“Um-m, you don’t tell me,” observed Senator Simpson, thoughtfully, stroking his mouth with his pale hand.
“Yes, I can confirm that,” said Mollenhauer, quietly, seeing his own little private plan of browbeating Cowperwood out of his street-railway shares going glimmering. “I had a talk with Stener the other day about this very matter, and he told me that Cowperwood had been trying to force him to give him three hundred thousand dollars more, and that when he refused Cowperwood managed to get sixty thousand dollars further without his knowledge or consent.”
“How could he do that?” asked Senator Simpson, incredulously. Mollenhauer explained the transaction.
“Oh,” said the Senator, when Mollenhauer had finished, “that indicates a rather sharp person, doesn’t it? And the certificates are not in the sinking-fund, eh?”
“They’re not,” chimed in Butler, with considerable enthusiasm.
“Well, I must say,” said Simpson, rather relieved in his manner, “this looks like a rather good thing than not to me. A scapegoat possibly. We need something like this. I see no reason under the circumstances for trying to protect Mr. Cowperwood. We might as well try to make a point of that, if we have to. The newspapers might just as well talk loud about that as anything else. They are bound to talk; and if we give them the right angle, I think that the election might well come and go before the matter could be reasonably cleared up, even though Mr. Wheat does interfere. I will be glad to undertake to see what can be done with the papers.”
“Well, that bein’ the case,” said Butler, “I don’t see that there’s so much more we can do now; but I do think it will be a mistake if Cowperwood isn’t punished with the other one. He’s equally guilty with Stener, if not more so, and I for one want to see him get what he deserves. He belongs in the penitentiary, and that’s where he’ll go if I have my say.” Both Mollenhauer and Simpson turned a reserved and inquiring eye on their usually genial associate. What could be the reason for his sudden determination to have Cowperwood punished? Cowperwood, as Mollenhauer and Simpson saw it, and as Butler would ordinarily have seen it, was well within his human, if not his strictly legal rights. They did not blame him half as much for trying to do what he had done as they blamed Stener for letting him do it. But, since Butler felt as he did, and there was an actual technical crime here, they were perfectly willing that the party should have the advantage of it, even if Cowperwood went to the penitentiary.
“You may be right,” said Senator Simpson, cautiously. “You might have those letters prepared, Henry; and if we have to bring any action at all against anybody before election, it would, perhaps, be advisable to bring it against Cowperwood. Include Stener if you have to but not unless you have to. I leave it to you two, as I am compelled to start for Pittsburg next Friday; but I know you will not overlook any point.”
The Senator arose. His time was always valuable. Butler was highly gratified by what he had accomplished. He had succeeded in putting the triumvirate on record against Cowperwood as the first victim, in case of any public disturbance or demonstration against the party. All that was now necessary was for that disturbance to manifest itself; and, from what he could see of local conditions, it was not far off. There was now the matter of Cowperwood’s disgruntled creditors to look into; and if by buying in these he should succeed in preventing the financier from resuming business, he would have him in a very precarious condition indeed. It was a sad day for Cowperwood, Butler thought—the day he had first tried to lead Aileen astray—and the time was not far off when he could prove it to him.