"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 moralЦ 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.Chapter XXVIII
It was in the face of this very altered situation that Cowperwood
arrived at Stener's office late this Monday afternoon.
Stener was quite alone, worried and distraught. He was anxious to see Cowperwood, and at the same time afraid.
"George," began Cowperwood, briskly, on seeing him, "I haven't much time to spare now, but I've come, finally, to tell you that you'll have to let me have three hundred thousand more if you don't want me to fail. Things are looking very bad today. They've caught me in a corner on my loans; but this storm isn't going to last. You can see by the very character of it that it can't."
He was looking at Stener's face, and seeing fear and a pained and yet very definite necessity for opposition written there. "Chicago is burning, but it will be built up again. Business will be all the better for it later on. Now, I want you to be reasonable and help me. Don't get frightened."
Stener stirred uneasily. "Don't let these politicians scare you to death. It will all blow over in a few days, and then we'll be better off than ever. Did you see Mollenhauer?"
"Well, what did he have to say?"
"He said just what I thought he'd say. He won't let me do this. I can't, Frank, I tell you!" exclaimed Stener, jumping up. He was so nervous that he had had a hard time keeping his seat during this short, direct conversation. "I can't! They've got me in a corner! They're after me! They all know what we've been doing. Oh, say, Frank"-he threw up his arms wildly-"you've got to get me out of this. You've got to let me have that five hundred thousand back and get me out of this. If you don't, and you should fail, they'll send me to the penitentiary. I've got a wife and four children, Frank. I can't go on in this. It's too big for me. I never should have gone in on it in the first place. I never would have if you hadn't persuaded me, in a way. I never thought when I began that I would ever get in as bad as all this. I can't go on, Frank. I can't! I'm willing you should have all my stock. Only give me back that five hundred thousand, and we'll call it even." His voice rose nervously as he talked, and he wiped his wet forehead with his hand and stared at Cowperwood pleadingly, foolishly.
Cowperwood stared at him in return for a few moments with a cold, fishy eye. He knew a great deal about human nature, and he was ready for and expectant of any queer shift in an individual's attitude, particularly in time of panic; but this shift of Stener's was quite too much. "Whom else have you been talking to, George, since I saw you? Whom have you seen? What did Sengstack have to say?"
"He says just what Mollenhauer does, that I mustn't loan any more money under any circumstances, and he says I ought to get that five hundred thousand back as quickly as possible."
"And you think Mollenhauer wants to help you, do you?" inquired Cowperwood, finding it hard to efface the contempt which kept forcing itself into his voice.
"I think he does, yes. I don't know who else will, Frank, if he don't. He's one of the big political forces in this town."
"Listen to me," began Cowperwood, eyeing him fixedly. Then he paused. "What did he say you should do about your holdings?"
"Sell them through Tighe & Company and put the money back in the treasury, if you won't take them."
"Sell them to whom?" asked Cowperwood, thinking of Stener's last words.
"To any one on 'change who'll take them, I suppose. I don't know."
"I thought so," said Cowperwood, comprehendingly. "I might have known as much. They're working you, George. They're simply trying to get your stocks away from you. Mollenhauer is leading you on. He knows I can't do what you want-give you back the five hundred thousand dollars. He wants you to throw your stocks on the market so that he can pick them up. Depend on it, that's all arranged for already. When you do, he's got me in his clutches, or he thinks he has-he and Butler and Simpson. They want to get together on this local street-railway situation, and I know it, I feel it. I've felt it coming all along. Mollenhauer hasn't any more intention of helping you than he has of flying. Once you've sold your stocks he's through with you-mark my word. Do you think he'll turn a hand to keep you out of the penitentiary once you're out of this street-railway situation? He will not. And if you think so, you're a bigger fool than I take you to be, George. Don't go crazy. Don't lose your head. Be sensible. Look the situation in the face. Let me explain it to you. If you don't help me now-if you don't let me have three hundred thousand dollars by to-morrow noon, at the very latest, I'm through, and so are you. There is not a thing the matter with our situation. Those stocks of ours are as good to-day as they ever were. Why, great heavens, man, the railways are there behind them. They're paying. The Seventeenth and Nineteenth Street line is earning one thousand dollars a day right now. What better evidence do you want than that? Green & Coates is earning five hundred dollars. You're frightened, George. These damned political schemers have scared you. Why, you've as good a right to loan that money as Bode and Murtagh had before you. They did it. You've been doing it for Mollenhauer and the others, only so long as you do it for them it's all right. What's a designated city depository but a loan?"