It is a sad commentary on all save the most chemic unions—those dark red flowers of romance that bloom most often only for a tragic end—that they cannot endure the storms of disaster that are wont to overtake them. A woman like Rita Sohlberg, with a seemingly urgent feeling for Cowperwood, was yet not so charmed by him but that this shock to her pride was a marked sedative. The crushing weight of such an exposure as this, the Homeric laughter inherent, if not indicated in the faulty planning, the failure to take into account beforehand all the possibilities which might lead to such a disaster, was too much for her to endure. She was stung almost to desperation, maddened, at the thought of the gay, idle way in which she had walked into Mrs. Cowperwood's clutches and been made into a spectacle and a laughing-stock by her. What a brute she was—what a demon! Her own physical weakness under the circumstances was no grief to her—rather a salve to her superior disposition; but just the same she had been badly beaten, her beauty turned into a ragamuffin show, and that was enough. This evening, in the Lake Shore Sanitarium, where she had been taken, she had but one thought—to get away when it should all be over and rest her wearied brain. She did not want to see Sohlberg any more; she did not want to see Cowperwood any more. Already Harold, suspicious and determined to get at the truth, was beginning to question her as to the strangeness of Aileen's attack—her probable reason. When Cowperwood was announced, Sohlberg's manner modified somewhat, for whatever his suspicions were, he was not prepared to quarrel with this singular man as yet.
"I am so sorry about this unfortunate business," said Cowperwood, coming in with brisk assurance. "I never knew my wife to become so strangely unbalanced before. It was most fortunate that I arrived when I did. I certainly owe you both every amend that can be made. I sincerely hope, Mrs. Sohlberg, that you are not seriously injured. If there is anything I can possibly do—anything either of you can suggest"—he looked around solicitously at Sohlberg—"I shall only be too glad to do it. How would it do for you to take Mrs. Sohlberg away for a little while for a rest? I shall so gladly pay all expenses in connection with her recovery."
Sohlberg, brooding and heavy, remained unresponsive, smoldering; Rita, cheered by Cowperwood's presence, but not wholly relieved by any means, was questioning and disturbed. She was afraid there was to be a terrific scene between them. She declared she was better and would be all right—that she did not need to go away, but that she preferred to be alone.
"It's very strange," said Sohlberg, sullenly, after a little while. "I daunt onderstand it! I daunt onderstand it at all. Why should she do soach a thing? Why should she say soach things? Here we have been the best of friends opp to now. Then suddenly she attacks my wife and sais all these strange things."
"But I have assured you, my dear Mr. Sohlberg, that my wife was not in her right mind. She has been subject to spells of this kind in the past, though never to anything so violent as this to-night. Already she has recovered her normal state, and she does not remember. But, perhaps, if we are going to discuss things now we had better go out in the hall. Your wife will need all the rest she can get."
Once outside, Cowperwood continued with brilliant assurance: "Now, my dear Sohlberg, what is it I can say? What is it you wish me to do? My wife has made a lot of groundless charges, to say nothing of injuring your wife most seriously and shamefully. I cannot tell you, as I have said, how sorry I am. I assure you Mrs. Cowperwood is suffering from a gross illusion. There is absolutely nothing to do, nothing to say, so far as I can see, but to let the whole matter drop. Don't you agree with me?"
Harold was twisting mentally in the coils of a trying situation. His own position, as he knew, was not formidable. Rita had reproached him over and over for infidelity. He began to swell and bluster at once.
"That is all very well for you to say, Mr. Cowperwood," he commented, defiantly, "but how about me? Where do I come in? I daunt know what to theenk yet. It ees very strange. Supposing what your wife sais was true? Supposing my wife has been going around weeth some one? That ees what I want to find out. Eef she has! Eef eet is what I theenk it ees I shall—I shall—I daunt know what I shall do. I am a very violent man."
Cowperwood almost smiled, concerned as he was over avoiding publicity; he had no fear of Sohlberg physically.
"See here," he exclaimed, suddenly, looking sharply at the musician and deciding to take the bull by the horns, "you are in quite as delicate a situation as I am, if you only stop to think. This affair, if it gets out, will involve not only me and Mrs. Cowperwood, but yourself and your wife, and if I am not mistaken, I think your own affairs are not in any too good shape. You cannot blacken your wife without blackening yourself—that is inevitable. None of us is exactly perfect. For myself I shall be compelled to prove insanity, and I can do this easily. If there is anything in your past which is not precisely what it should be it could not long be kept a secret. If you are willing to let the matter drop I will make handsome provision for you both; if, instead, you choose to make trouble, to force this matter into the daylight, I shall leave no stone unturned to protect myself, to put as good a face on this matter as I can."
"What!" exclaimed Sohlberg. "You threaten me? You try to frighten me after your wife charges that you have been running around weeth my wife? You talk about my past! I like that. Haw! We shall see about dis! What is it you knaw about me?"
"Well, Mr. Sohlberg," rejoined Cowperwood, calmly, "I know, for instance, that for a long while your wife has not loved you, that you have been living on her as any pensioner might, that you have been running around with as many as six or seven women in as many years or less. For months I have been acting as your wife's financial adviser, and in that time, with the aid of detectives, I have learned of Anna Stelmak, Jessie Laska, Bertha Reese, Georgia Du Coin—do I need to say any more? As a matter of fact, I have a number of your letters in my possession."
"Saw that ees it!" exclaimed Sohlberg, while Cowperwood eyed him fixedly. "You have been running around weeth my wife? Eet ees true, then. A fine situation! And you come here now weeth these threats, these lies to booldoze me. Haw! We weel see about them. We weel see what I can do. Wait teel I can consult a lawyer first. Then we weel see!"
Cowperwood surveyed him coldly, angrily. "What an ass!" he thought.
"See here," he said, urging Sohlberg, for privacy's sake, to come down into the lower hall, and then into the street before the sanitarium, where two gas-lamps were fluttering fitfully in the dark and wind, "I see very plainly that you are bent on making trouble. It is not enough that I have assured you that there is nothing in this—that I have given you my word. You insist on going further. Very well, then. Supposing for argument's sake that Mrs. Cowperwood was not insane; that every word she said was true; that I had been misconducting myself with your wife? What of it? What will you do?"
He looked at Sohlberg smoothly, ironically, while the latter flared up.
"Haw!" he shouted, melodramatically. "Why, I would keel you, that's what I would do. I would keel her. I weel make a terrible scene. Just let me knaw that this is so, and then see!"
"Exactly," replied Cowperwood, grimly. "I thought so. I believe you. For that reason I have come prepared to serve you in just the way you wish." He reached in his coat and took out two small revolvers, which he had taken from a drawer at home for this very purpose. They gleamed in the dark. "Do you see these?" he continued. "I am going to save you the trouble of further investigation, Mr. Sohlberg. Every word that Mrs. Cowperwood said to-night—and I am saying this with a full understanding of what this means to you and to me—is true. She is no more insane than I am. Your wife has been living in an apartment with me on the North Side for months, though you cannot prove that. She does not love you, but me. Now if you want to kill me here is a gun." He extended his hand. "Take your choice. If I am to die you might as well die with me."
He said it so coolly, so firmly, that Sohlberg, who was an innate coward, and who had no more desire to die than any other healthy animal, paled. The look of cold steel was too much. The hand that pressed them on him was hard and firm. He took hold of one, but his fingers trembled. The steely, metallic voice in his ear was undermining the little courage that he had. Cowperwood by now had taken on the proportions of a dangerous man—the lineaments of a demon. He turned away mortally terrified.
"My God!" he exclaimed, shaking like a leaf. "You want to keel me, do you? I weel not have anything to do with you! I weel not talk to you! I weel see my lawyer. I weel talk to my wife first."
"Oh, no you won't," replied Cowperwood, intercepting him as he turned to go and seizing him firmly by the arm. "I am not going to have you do anything of the sort. I am not going to kill you if you are not going to kill me; but I am going to make you listen to reason for once. Now here is what else I have to say, and then I am through. I am not unfriendly to you. I want to do you a good turn, little as I care for you. To begin with, there is nothing in those charges my wife made, not a thing. I merely said what I did just now to see if you were in earnest. You do not love your wife any more. She doesn't love you. You are no good to her. Now, I have a very friendly proposition to make to you. If you want to leave Chicago and stay away three years or more, I will see that you are paid five thousand dollars every year on January first—on the nail—five thousand dollars! Do you hear? Or you can stay here in Chicago and hold your tongue and I will make it three thousand—monthly or yearly, just as you please. But—and this is what I want you to remember—if you don't get out of town or hold your tongue, if you make one single rash move against me, I will kill you, and I will kill you on sight. Now, I want you to go away from here and behave yourself. Leave your wife alone. Come and see me in a day or two—the money is ready for you any time." He paused while Sohlberg stared—his eyes round and glassy. This was the most astonishing experience of his life. This man was either devil or prince, or both. "Good God!" he thought. "He will do that, too. He will really kill me." Then the astounding alternative—five thousand dollars a year—came to his mind. Well, why not? His silence gave consent.
"If I were you I wouldn't go up-stairs again to-night," continued Cowperwood, sternly. "Don't disturb her. She needs rest. Go on down-town and come and see me to-morrow—or if you want to go back I will go with you. I want to say to Mrs. Sohlberg what I have said to you. But remember what I've told you."
"Nau, thank you," replied Sohlberg, feebly. "I will go down-town. Good night." And he hurried away.
"I'm sorry," said Cowperwood to himself, defensively. "It is too bad, but it was the only way."