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?"
Cowperwood was referring to the system under which certain portions of city money, like the sinking-fund, were permitted to be kept in certain banks at a low rate of interest or no rate—banks in which Mollenhauer and Butler and Simpson were interested. This was their safe graft.
"Don't throw your chances away, George. Don't quit now. You'll be worth millions in a few years, and you won't have to turn a hand. All you will have to do will be to keep what you have. If you don't help me, mark my word, they'll throw you over the moment I'm out of this, and they'll let you go to the penitentiary. Who's going to put up five hundred thousand dollars for you, George? Where is Mollenhauer going to get it, or Butler, or anybody, in these times? They can't. They don't intend to. When I'm through, you're through, and you'll be exposed quicker than any one else. They can't hurt me, George. I'm an agent. I didn't ask you to come to me. You came to me in the first place of your own accord. If you don't help me, you're through, I tell you, and you're going to be sent to the penitentiary as sure as there are jails. Why don't you take a stand, George? Why don't you stand your ground? You have your wife and children to look after. You can't be any worse off loaning me three hundred thousand more than you are right now. What difference does it make—five hundred thousand or eight hundred thousand? It's all one and the same thing, if you're going to be tried for it. Besides, if you loan me this, there isn't going to be any trial. I'm not going to fail. This storm will blow over in a week or ten days, and we'll be rich again. For Heaven's sake, George, don't go to pieces this way! Be sensible! Be reasonable!"
He paused, for Stener's face had become a jelly-like mass of woe.
"I can't, Frank," he wailed. "I tell you I can't. They'll punish me worse than ever if I do that. They'll never let up on me. You don't know these people."
In Stener's crumpling weakness Cowperwood read his own fate. What could you do with a man like that? How brace him up? You couldn't! And with a gesture of infinite understanding, disgust, noble indifference, he threw up his hands and started to walk out. At the door he turned.
"George," he said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for you, not for myself. I'll come out of things all right, eventually. I'll be rich. But, George, you're making the one great mistake of your life. You'll be poor; you'll be a convict, and you'll have only yourself to blame. There isn't a thing the matter with this money situation except the fire. There isn't a thing wrong with my affairs except this slump in stocks—this panic. You sit there, a fortune in your hands, and you allow a lot of schemers, highbinders, who don't know any more of your affairs or mine than a rabbit, and who haven't any interest in you except to plan what they can get out of you, to frighten you and prevent you from doing the one thing that will save your life. Three hundred thousand paltry dollars that in three or four weeks from now I can pay back to you four and five times over, and for that you will see me go broke and yourself to the penitentiary. I can't understand it, George. You're out of your mind. You're going to rue this the longest day that you live."
He waited a few moments to see if this, by any twist of chance, would have any effect; then, noting that Stener still remained a wilted, helpless mass of nothing, he shook his head gloomily and walked out.
It was the first time in his life that Cowperwood had ever shown the least sign of weakening or despair. He had felt all along as though there were nothing to the Greek theory of being pursued by the furies. Now, however, there seemed an untoward fate which was pursuing him. It looked that way. Still, fate or no fate, he did not propose to be daunted. Even in this very beginning of a tendency to feel despondent he threw back his head, expanded his chest, and walked as briskly as ever.
In the large room outside Stener's private office he encountered Albert Stires, Stener's chief clerk and secretary. He and Albert had exchanged many friendly greetings in times past, and all the little minor transactions in regard to city loan had been discussed between them, for Albert knew more of the intricacies of finance and financial bookkeeping than Stener would ever know.
At the sight of Stires the thought in regard to the sixty thousand dollars' worth of city loan certificates, previously referred to, flashed suddenly through his mind. He had not deposited them in the sinking-fund, and did not intend to for the present—could not, unless considerable free money were to reach him shortly—for he had used them to satisfy other pressing demands, and had no free money to buy them back—or, in other words, release them. And he did not want to just at this moment. Under the law governing transactions of this kind with the city treasurer, he was supposed to deposit them at once to the credit of the city, and not to draw his pay therefor from the city treasurer until he had. To be very exact, the city treasurer, under the law, was not supposed to pay him for any transaction of this kind until he or his agents presented a voucher from the bank or other organization carrying the sinking-fund for the city showing that the certificates so purchased had actually been deposited there. As a matter of fact, under the custom which had grown up between him and Stener, the law had long been ignored in this respect. He could buy certificates of city loan for the sinking-fund up to any reasonable amount, hypothecate them where he pleased, and draw his pay from the city without presenting a voucher. At the end of the month sufficient certificates of city loan could usually be gathered from one source and another to make up the deficiency, or the deficiency could actually be ignored, as had been done on more than one occasion, for long periods of time, while he used money secured by hypothecating the shares for speculative purposes. This was actually illegal; but neither Cowperwood nor Stener saw it in that light or cared.
The trouble with this particular transaction was the note that he had received from Stener ordering him to stop both buying and selling, which put his relations with the city treasury on a very formal basis. He had bought these certificates before receiving this note, but had not deposited them. He was going now to collect his check; but perhaps the old, easy system of balancing matters at the end of the month might not be said to obtain any longer. Stires might ask him to present a voucher of deposit. If so, he could not now get this check for sixty thousand dollars, for he did not have the certificates to deposit. If not, he might get the money; but, also, it might constitute the basis of some subsequent legal action. If he did not eventually deposit the certificates before failure, some charge such as that of larceny might be brought against him. Still, he said to himself, he might not really fail even yet. If any of his banking associates should, for any reason, modify their decision in regard to calling his loans, he would not. Would Stener make a row about this if he so secured this check? Would the city officials pay any attention to him if he did? Could you get any district attorney to take cognizance of such a transaction, if Stener did complain? No, not in all likelihood; and, anyhow, nothing would come of it. No jury would punish him in the face of the understanding existing between him and Stener as agent or broker and principal. And, once he had the money, it was a hundred to one Stener would think no more about it. It would go in among the various unsatisfied liabilities, and nothing more would be thought about it. Like lightning the entire situation hashed through his mind. He would risk it. He stopped before the chief clerk's desk.
"Albert," he said, in a low voice, "I bought sixty thousand dollars' worth of city loan for the sinking-fund this morning. Will you give my boy a check for it in the morning, or, better yet, will you give it to me now? I got your note about no more purchases. I'm going back to the office. You can just credit the sinking-fund with eight hundred certificates at from seventy-five to eighty. I'll send you the itemized list later."
"Certainly, Mr. Cowperwood, certainly," replied Albert, with alacrity. "Stocks are getting an awful knock, aren't they? I hope you're not very much troubled by it?"
"Not very, Albert," replied Cowperwood, smiling, the while the chief clerk was making out his check. He was wondering if by any chance Stener would appear and attempt to interfere with this. It was a legal transaction. He had a right to the check provided he deposited the certificates, as was his custom, with the trustee of the fund. He waited tensely while Albert wrote, and finally, with the check actually in his hand, breathed a sigh of relief. Here, at least, was sixty thousand dollars, and to-night's work would enable him to cash the seventy-five thousand that had been promised him. To-morrow, once more he must see Leigh, Kitchen, Jay Cooke & Co., Edward Clark & Co.—all the long list of people to whom he owed loans and find out what could be done. If he could only get time! If he could get just a week!