There was one development in connection with all of this of which Cowperwood was as yet unaware. The same day that brought Edward Butler the anonymous communication in regard to his daughter, brought almost a duplicate of it to Mrs. Frank Algernon Cowperwood, only in this case the name of Aileen Butler had curiously been omitted.
Perhaps you don't know that your husband is running with another woman. If you don't believe it, watch the house at 931 North Tenth Street.
Mrs. Cowperwood was in the conservatory watering some plants when this letter was brought by her maid Monday morning. She was most placid in her thoughts, for she did not know what all the conferring of the night before meant. Frank was occasionally troubled by financial storms, but they did not see to harm him.
"Lay it on the table in the library, Annie. I'll get it."
She thought it was some social note.
In a little while (such was her deliberate way), she put down her sprinkling-pot and went into the library. There it was lying on the green leather sheepskin which constituted a part of the ornamentation of the large library table. She picked it up, glanced at it curiously because it was on cheap paper, and then opened it. Her face paled slightly as she read it; and then her hand trembled—not much. Hers was not a soul that ever loved passionately, hence she could not suffer passionately. She was hurt, disgusted, enraged for the moment, and frightened; but she was not broken in spirit entirely. Thirteen years of life with Frank Cowperwood had taught her a number of things. He was selfish, she knew now, self-centered, and not as much charmed by her as he had been. The fear she had originally felt as to the effect of her preponderance of years had been to some extent justified by the lapse of time. Frank did not love her as he had—he had not for some time; she had felt it. What was it?—she had asked herself at times—almost, who was it? Business was engrossing him so.
Finance was his master. Did this mean the end of her regime, she queried. Would he cast her off? Where would she go? What would she do? She was not helpless, of course, for she had money of her own which he was manipulating for her. Who was this other woman? Was she young, beautiful, of any social position? Was it—? Suddenly she stopped. Was it? Could it be, by any chance—her mouth opened—Aileen Butler?
She stood still, staring at this letter, for she could scarcely countenance her own thought. She had observed often, in spite of all their caution, how friendly Aileen had been to him and he to her. He liked her; he never lost a chance to defend her. Lillian had thought of them at times as being curiously suited to each other temperamentally. He liked young people. But, of course, he was married, and Aileen was infinitely beneath him socially, and he had two children and herself. And his social and financial position was so fixed and stable that he did not dare trifle with it. Still she paused; for forty years and two children, and some slight wrinkles, and the suspicion that we may be no longer loved as we once were, is apt to make any woman pause, even in the face of the most significant financial position. Where would she go if she left him? What would people think? What about the children? Could she prove this liaison? Could she entrap him in a compromising situation? Did she want to?
She saw now that she did not love him as some women love their husbands. She was not wild about him. In a way she had been taking him for granted all these years, had thought that he loved her enough not to be unfaithful to her; at least fancied that he was so engrossed with the more serious things of life that no petty liaison such as this letter indicated would trouble him or interrupt his great career. Apparently this was not true. What should she do? What say? How act? Her none too brilliant mind was not of much service in this crisis. She did not know very well how either to plan or to fight.
The conventional mind is at best a petty piece of machinery. It is oyster-like in its functioning, or, perhaps better, clam-like. It has its little siphon of thought-processes forced up or down into the mighty ocean of fact and circumstance; but it uses so little, pumps so faintly, that the immediate contiguity of the vast mass is not disturbed. Nothing of the subtlety of life is perceived. No least inkling of its storms or terrors is ever discovered except through accident. When some crude, suggestive fact, such as this letter proved to be, suddenly manifests itself in the placid flow of events, there is great agony or disturbance and clogging of the so-called normal processes. The siphon does not work right. It sucks in fear and distress. There is great grinding of maladjusted parts—not unlike sand in a machine—and life, as is so often the case, ceases or goes lamely ever after.
Mrs. Cowperwood was possessed of a conventional mind. She really knew nothing about life. And life could not teach her. Reaction in her from salty thought-processes was not possible. She was not alive in the sense that Aileen Butler was, and yet she thought that she was very much alive. All illusion. She wasn't. She was charming if you loved placidity. If you did not, she was not. She was not engaging, brilliant, or forceful. Frank Cowperwood might well have asked himself in the beginning why he married her. He did not do so now because he did not believe it was wise to question the past as to one's failures and errors. It was, according to him, most unwise to regret. He kept his face and thoughts to the future.
But Mrs. Cowperwood was truly distressed in her way, and she went about the house thinking, feeling wretchedly. She decided, since the letter asked her to see for herself, to wait. She must think how she would watch this house, if at all. Frank must not know. If it were Aileen Butler by any chance—but surely not—she thought she would expose her to her parents. Still, that meant exposing herself. She determined to conceal her mood as best she could at dinner-time—but Cowperwood was not able to be there. He was so rushed, so closeted with individuals, so closely in conference with his father and others, that she scarcely saw him this Monday night, nor the next day, nor for many days.
For on Tuesday afternoon at two-thirty he issued a call for a meeting of his creditors, and at five-thirty he decided to go into the hands of a receiver. And yet, as he stood before his principal creditors—a group of thirty men—in his office, he did not feel that his life was ruined. He was temporarily embarrassed. Certainly things looked very black. The city-treasurership deal would make a great fuss. Those hypothecated city loan certificates, to the extent of sixty thousand, would make another, if Stener chose. Still, he did not feel that he was utterly destroyed.
"Gentlemen," he said, in closing his address of explanation at the meeting, quite as erect, secure, defiant, convincing as he had ever been, "you see how things are. These securities are worth just as much as they ever were. There is nothing the matter with the properties behind them. If you will give me fifteen days or twenty, I am satisfied that I can straighten the whole matter out. I am almost the only one who can, for I know all about it. The market is bound to recover. Business is going to be better than ever. It's time I want. Time is the only significant factor in this situation. I want to know if you won't give me fifteen or twenty days—a month, if you can. That is all I want."
He stepped aside and out of the general room, where the blinds were drawn, into his private office, in order to give his creditors an opportunity to confer privately in regard to his situation. He had friends in the meeting who were for him. He waited one, two, nearly three hours while they talked. Finally Walter Leigh, Judge Kitchen, Avery Stone, of Jay Cooke & Co., and several others came in. They were a committee appointed to gather further information.
"Nothing more can be done to-day, Frank," Walter Leigh informed him, quietly. "The majority want the privilege of examining the books. There is some uncertainty about this entanglement with the city treasurer which you say exists. They feel that you'd better announce a temporary suspension, anyhow; and if they want to let you resume later they can do so."
"I'm sorry for that, gentlemen," replied Cowperwood, the least bit depressed. "I would rather do anything than suspend for one hour, if I could help it, for I know just what it means. You will find assets here far exceeding the liabilities if you will take the stocks at their normal market value; but that won't help any if I close my doors. The public won't believe in me. I ought to keep open."
"Sorry, Frank, old boy," observed Leigh, pressing his hand affectionately. "If it were left to me personally, you could have all the time you want. There's a crowd of old fogies out there that won't listen to reason. They're panic-struck. I guess they're pretty hard hit themselves. You can scarcely blame them. You'll come out all right, though I wish you didn't have to shut up shop. We can't do anything with them, however. Why, damn it, man, I don't see how you can fail, really. In ten days these stocks will be all right."
Judge Kitchen commiserated with him also; but what good did that do? He was being compelled to suspend. An expert accountant would have to come in and go over his books. Butler might spread the news of this city-treasury connection. Stener might complain of this last city-loan transaction. A half-dozen of his helpful friends stayed with him until four o'clock in the morning; but he had to suspend just the same. And when he did that, he knew he was seriously crippled if not ultimately defeated in his race for wealth and fame.
When he was really and finally quite alone in his private bedroom he stared at himself in the mirror. His face was pale and tired, he thought, but strong and effective. "Pshaw!" he said to himself, "I'm not whipped. I'm still young. I'll get out of this in some way yet. Certainly I will. I'll find some way out."
And so, cogitating heavily, wearily, he began to undress. Finally he sank upon his bed, and in a little while, strange as it may seem, with all the tangle of trouble around him, slept. He could do that—sleep and gurgle most peacefully, the while his father paced the floor in his room, refusing to be comforted. All was dark before the older man—the future hopeless. Before the younger man was still hope.
And in her room Lillian Cowperwood turned and tossed in the face of this new calamity. For it had suddenly appeared from news from her father and Frank and Anna and her mother-in-law that Frank was about to fail, or would, or had—it was almost impossible to say just how it was. Frank was too busy to explain. The Chicago fire was to blame. There was no mention as yet of the city treasurership. Frank was caught in a trap, and was fighting for his life.
In this crisis, for the moment, she forgot about the note as to his infidelity, or rather ignored it. She was astonished, frightened, dumbfounded, confused. Her little, placid, beautiful world was going around in a dizzy ring. The charming, ornate ship of their fortune was being blown most ruthlessly here and there. She felt it a sort of duty to stay in bed and try to sleep; but her eyes were quite wide, and her brain hurt her. Hours before Frank had insisted that she should not bother about him, that she could do nothing; and she had left him, wondering more than ever what and where was the line of her duty. To stick by her husband, convention told her; and so she decided. Yes, religion dictated that, also custom. There were the children. They must not be injured. Frank must be reclaimed, if possible. He would get over this. But what a blow!