It was in his thirteenth year that young Cowperwood entered into his first business venture. Walking along Front Street one day, a street of importing and wholesale establishments, he saw an auctioneer’s flag hanging out before a wholesale grocery and from the interior came the auctioneer’s voice: “What am I bid for this exceptional lot of Java coffee, twenty-two bags all told, which is now selling in the market for seven dollars and thirty-two cents a bag wholesale? What am I bid? What am I bid? The whole lot must go as one. What am I bid?”
“Eighteen dollars,” suggested a trader standing near the door, more to start the bidding than anything else. Frank paused.
“Twenty-two!” called another.
“Thirty!” a third. “Thirty-five!” a fourth, and so up to seventy-five, less than half of what it was worth.
“I’m bid seventy-five! I’m bid seventy-five!” called the auctioneer, loudly. “Any other offers? Going once at seventy-five; am I offered eighty? Going twice at seventy-five, and”—he paused, one hand raised dramatically. Then he brought it down with a slap in the palm of the other—“sold to Mr. Silas Gregory for seventy-five. Make a note of that, Jerry,” he called to his red-haired, freckle-faced clerk beside him. Then he turned to another lot of grocery staples—this time starch, eleven barrels of it.
Young Cowperwood was making a rapid calculation. If, as the auctioneer said, coffee was worth seven dollars and thirty-two cents a bag in the open market, and this buyer was getting this coffee for seventy-five dollars, he was making then and there eighty-six dollars and four cents, to say nothing of what his profit would be if he sold it at retail. As he recalled, his mother was paying twenty-eight cents a pound. He drew nearer, his books tucked under his arm, and watched these operations closely. The starch, as he soon heard, was valued at ten dollars a barrel, and it only brought six. Some kegs of vinegar were knocked down at one-third their value, and so on. He began to wish he could bid; but he had no money, just a little pocket change. The auctioneer noticed him standing almost directly under his nose, and was impressed with the stolidity—solidity—of the boy’s expression.
“I am going to offer you now a fine lot of Castile soap—seven cases, no less—which, as you know, if you know anything about soap, is now selling at fourteen cents a bar. This soap is worth anywhere at this moment eleven dollars and seventy-five cents a case. What am I bid? What am I bid? What am I bid?” He was talking fast in the usual style of auctioneers, with much unnecessary emphasis; but Cowperwood was not unduly impressed. He was already rapidly calculating for himself. Seven cases at eleven dollars and seventy-five cents would be worth just eighty-two dollars and twenty-five cents; and if it went at half—if it went at half—
“Twelve dollars,” commented one bidder.
“Fifteen,” bid another.
“Twenty,” called a third.
“Twenty-five,” a fourth.
Then it came to dollar raises, for Castile soap was not such a vital commodity. “Twenty-six.” “Twenty-seven.” “Twenty-eight.” “Twenty-nine.” There was a pause. “Thirty,” observed young Cowperwood, decisively.
The auctioneer, a short lean faced, spare man with bushy hair and an incisive eye, looked at him curiously and almost incredulously but without pausing. He had, somehow, in spite of himself, been impressed by the boy’s peculiar eye; and now he felt, without knowing why, that the offer was probably legitimate enough, and that the boy had the money. He might be the son of a grocer.
“I’m bid thirty! I’m bid thirty! I’m bid thirty for this fine lot of Castile soap. It’s a fine lot. It’s worth fourteen cents a bar. Will any one bid thirty-one? Will any one bid thirty-one? Will any one bid thirty-one?”
“Thirty-one,” said a voice.
“Thirty-two,” replied Cowperwood. The same process was repeated.
“I’m bid thirty-two! I’m bid thirty-two! I’m bid thirty-two! Will anybody bid thirty-three? It’s fine soap. Seven cases of fine Castile soap. Will anybody bid thirty-three?”
Young Cowperwood’s mind was working. He had no money with him; but his father was teller of the Third National Bank, and he could quote him as reference. He could sell all of his soap to the family grocer, surely; or, if not, to other grocers. Other people were anxious to get this soap at this price. Why not he?
The auctioneer paused.
“Thirty-two once! Am I bid thirty-three? Thirty-two twice! Am I bid thirty-three? Thirty-two three times! Seven fine cases of soap. Am I bid anything more? Once, twice! Three times! Am I bid anything more?”—his hand was up again—“and sold to Mr.—?” He leaned over and looked curiously into the face of his young bidder.
“Frank Cowperwood, son of the teller of the Third National Bank,” replied the boy, decisively.
“Oh, yes,” said the man, fixed by his glance.
“Will you wait while I run up to the bank and get the money?”
“Yes. Don’t be gone long. If you’re not here in an hour I’ll sell it again.”
Young Cowperwood made no reply. He hurried out and ran fast; first, to his mother’s grocer, whose store was within a block of his home.
Thirty feet from the door he slowed up, put on a nonchalant air, and strolling in, looked about for Castile soap. There it was, the same kind, displayed in a box and looking just as his soap looked.
“How much is this a bar, Mr. Dalrymple?” he inquired.
“Sixteen cents,” replied that worthy.
“If I could sell you seven boxes for sixty-two dollars just like this, would you take them?”
“The same soap?”
Mr. Dalrymple calculated a moment.
“Yes, I think I would,” he replied, cautiously.
“Would you pay me to-day?”
“I’d give you my note for it. Where is the soap?”
He was perplexed and somewhat astonished by this unexpected proposition on the part of his neighbor’s son. He knew Mr. Cowperwood well—and Frank also.
“Will you take it if I bring it to you to-day?”
“Yes, I will,” he replied. “Are you going into the soap business?”
“No. But I know where I can get some of that soap cheap.”
He hurried out again and ran to his father’s bank. It was after banking hours; but he knew how to get in, and he knew that his father would be glad to see him make thirty dollars. He only wanted to borrow the money for a day.
“What’s the trouble, Frank?” asked his father, looking up from his desk when he appeared, breathless and red faced.
“I want you to loan me thirty-two dollars! Will you?”
“Why, yes, I might. What do you want to do with it?”
“I want to buy some soap—seven boxes of Castile soap. I know where I can get it and sell it. Mr. Dalrymple will take it. He’s already offered me sixty-two for it. I can get it for thirty-two. Will you let me have the money? I’ve got to run back and pay the auctioneer.”
His father smiled. This was the most business-like attitude he had seen his son manifest. He was so keen, so alert for a boy of thirteen.
“Why, Frank,” he said, going over to a drawer where some bills were, “are you going to become a financier already? You’re sure you’re not going to lose on this? You know what you’re doing, do you?”
“You let me have the money, father, will you?” he pleaded. “I’ll show you in a little bit. Just let me have it. You can trust me.”
He was like a young hound on the scent of game. His father could not resist his appeal.
“Why, certainly, Frank,” he replied. “I’ll trust you.” And he counted out six five-dollar certificates of the Third National’s own issue and two ones. “There you are.”
Frank ran out of the building with a briefly spoken thanks and returned to the auction room as fast as his legs would carry him. When he came in, sugar was being auctioned. He made his way to the auctioneer’s clerk.
“I want to pay for that soap,” he suggested.
“Yes. Will you give me a receipt?”
“Do you deliver this?”
“No. No delivery. You have to take it away in twenty-four hours.”
That difficulty did not trouble him.
“All right,” he said, and pocketed his paper testimony of purchase.
The auctioneer watched him as he went out. In half an hour he was back with a drayman—an idle levee-wharf hanger-on who was waiting for a job.
Frank had bargained with him to deliver the soap for sixty cents. In still another half-hour he was before the door of the astonished Mr. Dalrymple whom he had come out and look at the boxes before attempting to remove them. His plan was to have them carried on to his own home if the operation for any reason failed to go through. Though it was his first great venture, he was cool as glass.
“Yes,” said Mr. Dalrymple, scratching his gray head reflectively. “Yes, that’s the same soap. I’ll take it. I’ll be as good as my word. Where’d you get it, Frank?”
“At Bixom’s auction up here,” he replied, frankly and blandly.
Mr. Dalrymple had the drayman bring in the soap; and after some formality—because the agent in this case was a boy—made out his note at thirty days and gave it to him.
Frank thanked him and pocketed the note. He decided to go back to his father’s bank and discount it, as he had seen others doing, thereby paying his father back and getting his own profit in ready money. It couldn’t be done ordinarily on any day after business hours; but his father would make an exception in his case.
He hurried back, whistling; and his father glanced up smiling when he came in.
“Well, Frank, how’d you make out?” he asked.
“Here’s a note at thirty days,” he said, producing the paper Dalrymple had given him. “Do you want to discount that for me? You can take your thirty-two out of that.”
His father examined it closely. “Sixty-two dollars!” he observed. “Mr. Dalrymple! That’s good paper! Yes, I can. It will cost you ten per cent.,” he added, jestingly. “Why don’t you just hold it, though? I’ll let you have the thirty-two dollars until the end of the month.”
“Oh, no,” said his son, “you discount it and take your money. I may want mine.”
His father smiled at his business-like air. “All right,” he said. “I’ll fix it to-morrow. Tell me just how you did this.” And his son told him.
At seven o’clock that evening Frank’s mother heard about it, and in due time Uncle Seneca.
“What’d I tell you, Cowperwood?” he asked. “He has stuff in him, that youngster. Look out for him.”
Mrs. Cowperwood looked at her boy curiously at dinner. Was this the son she had nursed at her bosom not so very long before? Surely he was developing rapidly.
“Well, Frank, I hope you can do that often,” she said.
“I hope so, too, ma,” was his rather noncommittal reply.
Auction sales were not to be discovered every day, however, and his home grocer was only open to one such transaction in a reasonable period of time, but from the very first young Cowperwood knew how to make money. He took subscriptions for a boys’ paper; handled the agency for the sale of a new kind of ice-skate, and once organized a band of neighborhood youths into a union for the purpose of purchasing their summer straw hats at wholesale. It was not his idea that he could get rich by saving. From the first he had the notion that liberal spending was better, and that somehow he would get along.
It was in this year, or a little earlier, that he began to take an interest in girls. He had from the first a keen eye for the beautiful among them; and, being good-looking and magnetic himself, it was not difficult for him to attract the sympathetic interest of those in whom he was interested. A twelve-year old girl, Patience Barlow, who lived further up the street, was the first to attract his attention or be attracted by him. Black hair and snapping black eyes were her portion, with pretty pigtails down her back, and dainty feet and ankles to match a dainty figure. She was a Quakeress, the daughter of Quaker parents, wearing a demure little bonnet. Her disposition, however, was vivacious, and she liked this self-reliant, self-sufficient, straight-spoken boy. One day, after an exchange of glances from time to time, he said, with a smile and the courage that was innate in him: “You live up my way, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she replied, a little flustered—this last manifested in a nervous swinging of her school-bag—“I live at number one-forty-one.”
“I know the house,” he said. “I’ve seen you go in there. You go to the same school my sister does, don’t you? Aren’t you Patience Barlow?” He had heard some of the boys speak her name. “Yes. How do you know?”
“Oh, I’ve heard,” he smiled. “I’ve seen you. Do you like licorice?”
He fished in his coat and pulled out some fresh sticks that were sold at the time.
“Thank you,” she said, sweetly, taking one.
“It isn’t very good. I’ve been carrying it a long time. I had some taffy the other day.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” she replied, chewing the end of hers.
“Don’t you know my sister, Anna Cowperwood?” he recurred, by way of self-introduction. “She’s in a lower grade than you are, but I thought maybe you might have seen her.”
“I think I know who she is. I’ve seen her coming home from school.”
“I live right over there,” he confided, pointing to his own home as he drew near to it, as if she didn’t know. “I’ll see you around here now, I guess.”
“Do you know Ruth Merriam?” she asked, when he was about ready to turn off into the cobblestone road to reach his own door.
“She’s giving a party next Tuesday,” she volunteered, seemingly pointlessly, but only seemingly.
“Where does she live?”
“There in twenty-eight.”
“I’d like to go,” he affirmed, warmly, as he swung away from her.
“Maybe she’ll ask you,” she called back, growing more courageous as the distance between them widened. “I’ll ask her.”
“Thanks,” he smiled.
And she began to run gayly onward.
He looked after her with a smiling face. She was very pretty. He felt a keen desire to kiss her, and what might transpire at Ruth Merriam’s party rose vividly before his eyes.
This was just one of the early love affairs, or puppy loves, that held his mind from time to time in the mixture of after events. Patience Barlow was kissed by him in secret ways many times before he found another girl. She and others of the street ran out to play in the snow of a winter’s night, or lingered after dusk before her own door when the days grew dark early. It was so easy to catch and kiss her then, and to talk to her foolishly at parties. Then came Dora Fitler, when he was sixteen years old and she was fourteen; and Marjorie Stafford, when he was seventeen and she was fifteen. Dora Fitter was a brunette, and Marjorie Stafford was as fair as the morning, with bright-red cheeks, bluish-gray eyes, and flaxen hair, and as plump as a partridge.
It was at seventeen that he decided to leave school. He had not graduated. He had only finished the third year in high school; but he had had enough. Ever since his thirteenth year his mind had been on finance; that is, in the form in which he saw it manifested in Third Street. There had been odd things which he had been able to do to earn a little money now and then. His Uncle Seneca had allowed him to act as assistant weigher at the sugar-docks in Southwark, where three-hundred-pound bags were weighed into the government bonded warehouses under the eyes of United States inspectors. In certain emergencies he was called to assist his father, and was paid for it. He even made an arrangement with Mr. Dalrymple to assist him on Saturdays; but when his father became cashier of his bank, receiving an income of four thousand dollars a year, shortly after Frank had reached his fifteenth year, it was self-evident that Frank could no longer continue in such lowly employment.
Just at this time his Uncle Seneca, again back in Philadelphia and stouter and more domineering than ever, said to him one day:
“Now, Frank, if you’re ready for it, I think I know where there’s a good opening for you. There won’t be any salary in it for the first year, but if you mind your p’s and q’s, they’ll probably give you something as a gift at the end of that time. Do you know of Henry Waterman & Company down in Second Street?”
“I’ve seen their place.”
“Well, they tell me they might make a place for you as a bookkeeper. They’re brokers in a way—grain and commission men. You say you want to get in that line. When school’s out, you go down and see Mr. Waterman—tell him I sent you, and he’ll make a place for you, I think. Let me know how you come out.”
Uncle Seneca was married now, having, because of his wealth, attracted the attention of a poor but ambitious Philadelphia society matron; and because of this the general connections of the Cowperwoods were considered vastly improved. Henry Cowperwood was planning to move with his family rather far out on North Front Street, which commanded at that time a beautiful view of the river and was witnessing the construction of some charming dwellings. His four thousand dollars a year in these pre-Civil-War times was considerable. He was making what he considered judicious and conservative investments and because of his cautious, conservative, clock-like conduct it was thought he might reasonably expect some day to be vice-president and possibly president, of his bank.
This offer of Uncle Seneca to get him in with Waterman & Company seemed to Frank just the thing to start him off right. So he reported to that organization at 74 South Second Street one day in June, and was cordially received by Mr. Henry Waterman, Sr. There was, he soon learned, a Henry Waterman, Jr., a young man of twenty-five, and a George Waterman, a brother, aged fifty, who was the confidential inside man. Henry Waterman, Sr., a man of fifty-five years of age, was the general head of the organization, inside and out—traveling about the nearby territory to see customers when that was necessary, coming into final counsel in cases where his brother could not adjust matters, suggesting and advising new ventures which his associates and hirelings carried out. He was, to look at, a phlegmatic type of man—short, stout, wrinkled about the eyes, rather protuberant as to stomach, red-necked, red-faced, the least bit popeyed, but shrewd, kindly, good-natured, and witty. He had, because of his naturally common-sense ideas and rather pleasing disposition built up a sound and successful business here. He was getting strong in years and would gladly have welcomed the hearty cooperation of his son, if the latter had been entirely suited to the business.
He was not, however. Not as democratic, as quick-witted, or as pleased with the work in hand as was his father, the business actually offended him. And if the trade had been left to his care, it would have rapidly disappeared. His father foresaw this, was grieved, and was hoping some young man would eventually appear who would be interested in the business, handle it in the same spirit in which it had been handled, and who would not crowd his son out.
Then came young Cowperwood, spoken of to him by Seneca Davis. He looked him over critically. Yes, this boy might do, he thought. There was something easy and sufficient about him. He did not appear to be in the least flustered or disturbed. He knew how to keep books, he said, though he knew nothing of the details of the grain and commission business. It was interesting to him. He would like to try it.
“I like that fellow,” Henry Waterman confided to his brother the moment Frank had gone with instructions to report the following morning. “There’s something to him. He’s the cleanest, briskest, most alive thing that’s walked in here in many a day.”
“Yes,” said George, a much leaner and slightly taller man, with dark, blurry, reflective eyes and a thin, largely vanished growth of brownish-black hair which contrasted strangely with the egg-shaped whiteness of his bald head. “Yes, he’s a nice young man. It’s a wonder his father don’t take him in his bank.”
“Well, he may not be able to,” said his brother. “He’s only the cashier there.”
“Well, we’ll give him a trial. I bet anything he makes good. He’s a likely-looking youth.”
Henry got up and walked out into the main entrance looking into Second Street. The cool cobble pavements, shaded from the eastern sun by the wall of buildings on the east—of which his was a part—the noisy trucks and drays, the busy crowds hurrying to and fro, pleased him. He looked at the buildings over the way—all three and four stories, and largely of gray stone and crowded with life—and thanked his stars that he had originally located in so prosperous a neighborhood. If he had only brought more property at the time he bought this!
“I wish that Cowperwood boy would turn out to be the kind of man I want,” he observed to himself, meditatively. “He could save me a lot of running these days.”
Curiously, after only three or four minutes of conversation with the boy, he sensed this marked quality of efficiency. Something told him he would do well.
Return to the The Financier Summary Return to the Theodore Dreiser Library