If any one fancies for a moment that this commercial move on the part of Cowperwood was either hasty or ill-considered they but little appreciate the incisive, apprehensive psychology of the man. His thoughts as to life and control (tempered and hardened by thirteen months of reflection in the Eastern District Penitentiary) had given him a fixed policy. He could, should, and would rule alone. No man must ever again have the least claim on him save that of a suppliant. He wanted no more dangerous combinations such as he had had with Stener, the man through whom he had lost so much in Philadelphia, and others. By right of financial intellect and courage he was first, and would so prove it. Men must swing around him as planets around the sun.
Moreover, since his fall from grace in Philadelphia he had come to think that never again, perhaps, could he hope to become socially acceptable in the sense in which the so-called best society of a city interprets the phrase; and pondering over this at odd moments, he realized that his future allies in all probability would not be among the rich and socially important—the clannish, snobbish elements of society—but among the beginners and financially strong men who had come or were coming up from the bottom, and who had no social hopes whatsoever. There were many such. If through luck and effort he became sufficiently powerful financially he might then hope to dictate to society. Individualistic and even anarchistic in character, and without a shred of true democracy, yet temperamentally he was in sympathy with the mass more than he was with the class, and he understood the mass better. Perhaps this, in a way, will explain his desire to connect himself with a personality so naive and strange as Peter Laughlin. He had annexed him as a surgeon selects a special knife or instrument for an operation, and, shrewd as old Laughlin was, he was destined to be no more than a tool in Cowperwood's strong hands, a mere hustling messenger, content to take orders from this swiftest of moving brains. For the present Cowperwood was satisfied to do business under the firm name of Peter Laughlin & Co.—as a matter of fact, he preferred it; for he could thus keep himself sufficiently inconspicuous to avoid undue attention, and gradually work out one or two coups by which he hoped to firmly fix himself in the financial future of Chicago.
As the most essential preliminary to the social as well as the financial establishment of himself and Aileen in Chicago, Harper Steger, Cowperwood's lawyer, was doing his best all this while to ingratiate himself in the confidence of Mrs. Cowperwood, who had no faith in lawyers any more than she had in her recalcitrant husband. She was now a tall, severe, and rather plain woman, but still bearing the marks of the former passive charm that had once interested Cowperwood. Notable crows'-feet had come about the corners of her nose, mouth, and eyes. She had a remote, censorious, subdued, self-righteous, and even injured air.
The cat-like Steger, who had all the graceful contemplative air of a prowling Tom, was just the person to deal with her. A more suavely cunning and opportunistic soul never was. His motto might well have been, speak softly and step lightly.
"My dear Mrs. Cowperwood," he argued, seated in her modest West Philadelphia parlor one spring afternoon, "I need not tell you what a remarkable man your husband is, nor how useless it is to combat him. Admitting all his faults—and we can agree, if you please, that they are many"—Mrs. Cowperwood stirred with irritation—"still it is not worth while to attempt to hold him to a strict account. You know"—and Mr. Steger opened his thin, artistic hands in a deprecatory way—"what sort of a man Mr. Cowperwood is, and whether he can be coerced or not. He is not an ordinary man, Mrs. Cowperwood. No man could have gone through what he has and be where he is to-day, and be an average man. If you take my advice you will let him go his way. Grant him a divorce. He is willing, even anxious to make a definite provision for you and your children. He will, I am sure, look liberally after their future. But he is becoming very irritable over your unwillingness to give him a legal separation, and unless you do I am very much afraid that the whole matter will be thrown into the courts. If, before it comes to that, I could effect an arrangement agreeable to you, I would be much pleased. As you know, I have been greatly grieved by the whole course of your recent affairs. I am intensely sorry that things are as they are."
Mr. Steger lifted his eyes in a very pained, deprecatory way. He regretted deeply the shifty currents of this troubled world.
Mrs. Cowperwood for perhaps the fifteenth or twentieth time heard him to the end in patience. Cowperwood would not return. Steger was as much her friend as any other lawyer would be. Besides, he was socially agreeable to her. Despite his Machiavellian profession, she half believed him. He went over, tactfully, a score of additional points. Finally, on the twenty-first visit, and with seemingly great distress, he told her that her husband had decided to break with her financially, to pay no more bills, and do nothing until his responsibility had been fixed by the courts, and that he, Steger, was about to retire from the case. Mrs. Cowperwood felt that she must yield; she named her ultimatum. If he would fix two hundred thousand dollars on her and the children (this was Cowperwood's own suggestion) and later on do something commercially for their only son, Frank, junior, she would let him go. She disliked to do it. She knew that it meant the triumph of Aileen Butler, such as it was. But, after all, that wretched creature had been properly disgraced in Philadelphia. It was not likely she could ever raise her head socially anywhere any more. She agreed to file a plea which Steger would draw up for her, and by that oily gentleman's machinations it was finally wormed through the local court in the most secret manner imaginable. The merest item in three of the Philadelphia papers some six weeks later reported that a divorce had been granted. When Mrs. Cowperwood read it she wondered greatly that so little attention had been attracted by it. She had feared a much more extended comment. She little knew the cat-like prowlings, legal and journalistic, of her husband's interesting counsel. When Cowperwood read it on one of his visits to Chicago he heaved a sigh of relief. At last it was really true. Now he could make Aileen his wife. He telegraphed her an enigmatic message of congratulation. When Aileen read it she thrilled from head to foot. Now, shortly, she would become the legal bride of Frank Algernon Cowperwood, the newly enfranchised Chicago financier, and then—
"Oh," she said, in her Philadelphia home, when she read it, "isn't that splendid! Now I'll be Mrs. Cowperwood. Oh, dear!"
Mrs. Frank Algernon Cowperwood number one, thinking over her husband's liaison, failure, imprisonment, pyrotechnic operations at the time of the Jay Cooke failure, and his present financial ascendancy, wondered at the mystery of life. There must be a God. The Bible said so. Her husband, evil though he was, could not be utterly bad, for he had made ample provision for her, and the children liked him. Certainly, at the time of the criminal prosecution he was no worse than some others who had gone free. Yet he had been convicted, and she was sorry for that and had always been. He was an able and ruthless man. She hardly knew what to think. The one person she really did blame was the wretched, vain, empty-headed, ungodly Aileen Butler, who had been his seductress and was probably now to be his wife. God would punish her, no doubt. He must. So she went to church on Sundays and tried to believe, come what might, that all was for the best.