Mrs. Cowperwood came in that afternoon quite solemnly, bearing several changes of linen, a pair of sheets, some potted meat and a pie. She was not exactly doleful, but Cowperwood thought that she was tending toward it, largely because of her brooding over his relationship to Aileen, which he knew that she knew. Something in her manner decided him to speak before she left; and after asking her how the children were, and listening to her inquiries in regard to the things that he needed, he said to her, sitting on his single chair while she sat on his bed:
"Lillian, there's something I've been wanting to talk with you about for some time. I should have done it before, but it's better late than never. I know that you know that there is something between Aileen Butler and me, and we might as well have it open and aboveboard. It's true I am very fond of her and she is very devoted to me, and if ever I get out of here I want to arrange it so that I can marry her. That means that you will have to give me a divorce, if you will; and I want to talk to you about that now. This can't be so very much of a surprise to you, because you must have seen this long while that our relationship hasn't been all that it might have been, and under the circumstances this can't prove such a very great hardship to you-I am sure." He paused, waiting, for Mrs. Cowperwood at first said nothing.
Her thought, when he first broached this, was that she ought to make some demonstration of astonishment or wrath: but when she looked into his steady, examining eyes, so free from the illusion of or interest in demonstrations of any kind, she realized how useless it would be. He was so utterly matter-of-fact in what seemed to her quite private and secret affairs-very shameless. She had never been able to understand quite how he could take the subtleties of life as he did, anyhow. Certain things which she always fancied should be hushed up he spoke of with the greatest nonchalance. Her ears tingled sometimes at his frankness in disposing of a social situation; but she thought this must be characteristic of notable men, and so there was nothing to be said about it. Certain men did as they pleased; society did not seem to be able to deal with them in any way. Perhaps God would, later-she was not sure. Anyhow, bad as he was, direct as he was, forceful as he was, he was far more interesting than most of the more conservative types in whom the social virtues of polite speech and modest thoughts were seemingly predominate.
"I know," she said, rather peacefully, although with a touch of anger and resentment in her voice. "I've known all about it all this time. I expected you would say something like this to me some day. It's a nice reward for all my devotion to you; but it's just like you, Frank. When you are set on something, nothing can stop you. It wasn't enough that you were getting along so nicely and had two children whom you ought to love, but you had to take up with this Butler creature until her name and yours are a by-word throughout the city. I know that she comes to this prison. I saw her out here one day as I was coming in, and I suppose every one else knows it by now. She has no sense of decency and she does not care-the wretched, vain thing-but I would have thought that you would be ashamed, Frank, to go on the way that you have, when you still have me and the children and your father and mother and when you are certain to have such a hard fight to get yourself on your feet, as it is. If she had any sense of decency she would not have anything to do with you-the shameless thing."
Cowperwood looked at his wife with unflinching eyes. He read in her remarks just what his observation had long since confirmed– that she was sympathetically out of touch with him. She was no longer so attractive physically, and intellectually she was not Aileen's equal. Also that contact with those women who had deigned to grace his home in his greatest hour of prosperity had proved to him conclusively she was lacking in certain social graces. Aileen was by no means so vastly better, still she was young and amenable and adaptable, and could still be improved. Opportunity as he now chose to think, might make Aileen, whereas for Lillian– or at least, as he now saw it-it could do nothing.
"I'll tell you how it is, Lillian," he said; "I'm not sure that you are going to get what I mean exactly, but you and I are not at all well suited to each other any more."
"You didn't seem to think that three or four years ago," interrupted his wife, bitterly.
"I married you when I was twenty-one," went on Cowperwood, quite brutally, not paying any attention to her interruption, "and I was really too young to know what I was doing. I was a mere boy. It doesn't make so much difference about that. I am not using that as an excuse. The point that I am trying to make is this– that right or wrong, important or not important, I have changed my mind since. I don't love you any more, and I don't feel that I want to keep up a relationship, however it may look to the public, that is not satisfactory to me. You have one point of view about life, and I have another. You think your point of view is the right one, and there are thousands of people who will agree with you; but I don't think so. We have never quarreled about these things, because I didn't think it was important to quarrel about them. I don't see under the circumstances that I am doing you any great injustice when I ask you to let me go. I don't intend to desert you or the children-you will get a good living-income from me as long as I have the money to give it to you-but I want my personal freedom when I come out of here, if ever I do, and I want you to let me have it. The money that you had and a great deal more, once I am out of here, you will get back when I am on my feet again. But not if you oppose me-only if you help me. I want, and intend to help you always-but in my way."
He smoothed the leg of his prison trousers in a thoughtful way, and plucked at the sleeve of his coat. Just now he looked very much like a highly intelligent workman as he sat here, rather than like the important personage that he was. Mrs. Cowperwood was very resentful.
"That's a nice way to talk to me, and a nice way to treat me!" she exclaimed dramatically, rising and walking the short space– some two steps-that lay between the wall and the bed. "I might have known that you were too young to know your own mind when you married me. Money, of course, that's all you think of and your own gratification. I don't believe you have any sense of justice in you. I don't believe you ever had. You only think of yourself, Frank. I never saw such a man as you. You have treated me like a dog all through this affair; and all the while you have been running with that little snip of an Irish thing, and telling her all about your affairs, I suppose. You let me go on believing that you cared for me up to the last moment, and then you suddenly step up and tell me that you want a divorce. I'll not do it. I'll not give you a divorce, and you needn't think it."
Cowperwood listened in silence. His position, in so far as this marital tangle was concerned, as he saw, was very advantageous. He was a convict, constrained by the exigencies of his position to be out of personal contact with his wife for a long period of time to come, which should naturally tend to school her to do without him. When he came out, it would be very easy for her to get a divorce from a convict, particularly if she could allege misconduct with another woman, which he would not deny. At the same time, he hoped to keep Aileen's name out of it. Mrs. Cowperwood, if she would, could give any false name if he made no contest. Besides, she was not a very strong person, intellectually speaking. He could bend her to his will. There was no need of saying much more now; the ice had been broken, the situation had been put before her, and time should do the rest.
"Don't be dramatic, Lillian," he commented, indifferently. "I'm not such a loss to you if you have enough to live on. I don't think I want to live in Philadelphia if ever I come out of here. My idea now is to go west, and I think I want to go alone. I sha'n't get married right away again even if you do give me a divorce. I don't care to take anybody along. It would be better for the children if you would stay here and divorce me. The public would think better of them and you."
"I'll not do it," declared Mrs. Cowperwood, emphatically. "I'll never do it, never; so there! You can say what you choose. You owe it to me to stick by me and the children after all I've done for you, and I'll not do it. You needn't ask me any more; I'll not do it."
"Very well," replied Cowperwood, quietly, getting up. "We needn't talk about it any more now. Your time is nearly up, anyhow." (Twenty minutes was supposed to be the regular allotment for visitors.) "Perhaps you'll change your mind sometime."
She gathered up her muff and the shawl-strap in which she had carried her gifts, and turned to go. It had been her custom to kiss Cowperwood in a make-believe way up to this time, but now she was too angry to make this pretense. And yet she was sorry, too– sorry for herself and, she thought, for him.
"Frank," she declared, dramatically, at the last moment, "I never saw such a man as you. I don't believe you have any heart. You're not worthy of a good wife. You're worthy of just such a woman as you're getting. The idea!" Suddenly tears came to her eyes, and she flounced scornfully and yet sorrowfully out.
Cowperwood stood there. At least there would be no more useless kissing between them, he congratulated himself. It was hard in a way, but purely from an emotional point of view. He was not doing her any essential injustice, he reasoned-not an economic one-which was the important thing. She was angry to-day, but she would get over it, and in time might come to see his point of view. Who could tell? At any rate he had made it plain to her what he intended to do and that was something as he saw it. He reminded one of nothing so much, as he stood there, as of a young chicken picking its way out of the shell of an old estate. Although he was in a cell of a penitentiary, with nearly four years more to serve, yet obviously he felt, within himself, that the whole world was still before him. He could go west if he could not reestablish himself in Philadelphia; but he must stay here long enough to win the approval of those who had known him formerly– to obtain, as it were, a letter of credit which he could carry to other parts.
"Hard words break no bones," he said to himself, as his wife went out. "A man's never done till he's done. I'll show some of these people yet." Of Bonhag, who came to close the cell door, he asked whether it was going to rain, it looked so dark in the hall.
"It's sure to before night," replied Bonhag, who was always wondering over Cowperwood's tangled affairs as he heard them retailed here and there.
The time that Cowperwood spent in the Eastern Penitentiary of
Pennsylvania was exactly thirteen months from the day of his entry
to his discharge. The influences which brought about this result
were partly of his willing, and partly not. For one thing, some
six months after his incarceration, Edward Malia Butler died,
expired sitting in his chair in his private office at his home.
The conduct of Aileen had been a great strain on him. From the
time Cowperwood had been sentenced, and more particularly after
the time he had cried on Aileen's shoulder in prison, she had
turned on her father in an almost brutal way. Her attitude,
unnatural for a child, was quite explicable as that of a tortured
sweetheart. Cowperwood had told her that he thought Butler was
using his influence to withhold a pardon for him, even though one
were granted to Stener, whose life in prison he had been following
with considerable interest; and this had enraged her beyond measure.
She lost no chance of being practically insulting to her father,
ignoring him on every occasion, refusing as often as possible to
eat at the same table, and when she did, sitting next her mother
in the place of Norah, with whom she managed to exchange. She
refused to sing or play any more when he was present, and persistently
ignored the large number of young political aspirants who came to
the house, and whose presence in a way had been encouraged for her
benefit. Old Butler realized, of course, what it was all about.
He said nothing. He could not placate her.
Her mother and brothers did not understand it at all at first. (Mrs. Butler never understood.) But not long after Cowperwood's incarceration Callum and Owen became aware of what the trouble was. Once, when Owen was coming away from a reception at one of the houses where his growing financial importance made him welcome, he heard one of two men whom he knew casually, say to the other, as they stood at the door adjusting their coats, "You saw where this fellow Cowperwood got four years, didn't you?"
"Yes," replied the other. "A clever devil that-wasn't he? I knew that girl he was in with, too-you know who I mean. Miss Butler-wasn't that her name?"
Owen was not sure that he had heard right. He did not get the connection until the other guest, opening the door and stepping out, remarked: "Well, old Butler got even, apparently. They say he sent him up."
Owen's brow clouded. A hard, contentious look came into his eyes. He had much of his father's force. What in the devil were they talking about? What Miss Butler did they have in mind? Could this be Aileen or Norah, and how could Cowperwood come to be in with either of them? It could not possibly be Norah, he reflected; she was very much infatuated with a young man whom he knew, and was going to marry him. Aileen had been most friendly with the Cowperwoods, and had often spoken well of the financier. Could it be she? He could not believe it. He thought once of overtaking the two acquaintances and demanding to know what they meant, but when he came out on the step they were already some distance down the street and in the opposite direction from that in which he wished to go. He decided to ask his father about this.
On demand, old Butler confessed at once, but insisted that his son keep silent about it.
"I wish I'd have known," said Owen, grimly. "I'd have shot the dirty dog."
"Aisy, aisy," said Butler. "Yer own life's worth more than his, and ye'd only be draggin' the rest of yer family in the dirt with him. He's had somethin' to pay him for his dirty trick, and he'll have more. Just ye say nothin' to no one. Wait. He'll be wantin' to get out in a year or two. Say nothin' to her aither. Talkin' won't help there. She'll come to her sinses when he's been away long enough, I'm thinkin'." Owen had tried to be civil to his sister after that, but since he was a stickler for social perfection and advancement, and so eager to get up in the world himself, he could not understand how she could possibly have done any such thing. He resented bitterly the stumbling-block she had put in his path. Now, among other things, his enemies would have this to throw in his face if they wanted to-and they would want to, trust life for that.
Callum reached his knowledge of the matter in quite another manner, but at about the same time. He was a member of an athletic club which had an attractive building in the city, and a fine country club, where he went occasionally to enjoy the swimming-pool and the Turkish bath connected with it. One of his friends approached him there in the billiard-room one evening and said, "Say, Butler, you know I'm a good friend of yours, don't you?"