The appearance of Frank Cowperwood at this time was, to say the least, prepossessing and satisfactory. Nature had destined him to be about five feet ten inches tall. His head was large, shapely, notably commercial in aspect, thickly covered with crisp, dark-brown hair and fixed on a pair of square shoulders and a stocky body. Already his eyes had the look that subtle years of thought bring. They were inscrutable. You could tell nothing by his eyes. He walked with a light, confident, springy step. Life had given him no severe shocks nor rude awakenings. He had not been compelled to suffer illness or pain or deprivation of any kind. He saw people richer than himself, but he hoped to be rich. His family was respected, his father well placed. He owed no man anything. Once he had let a small note of his become overdue at the bank, but his father raised such a row that he never forgot it. “I would rather crawl on my hands and knees than let my paper go to protest,” the old gentleman observed; and this fixed in his mind what scarcely needed to be so sharply emphasized—the significance of credit. No paper of his ever went to protest or became overdue after that through any negligence of his.
He turned out to be the most efficient clerk that the house of Waterman & Co. had ever known. They put him on the books at first as assistant bookkeeper, vice Mr. Thomas Trixler, dismissed, and in two weeks George said: “Why don’t we make Cowperwood head bookkeeper? He knows more in a minute than that fellow Sampson will ever know.”
“All right, make the transfer, George, but don’t fuss so. He won’t be a bookkeeper long, though. I want to see if he can’t handle some of these transfers for me after a bit.”
The books of Messrs. Waterman & Co., though fairly complicated, were child’s play to Frank. He went through them with an ease and rapidity which surprised his erstwhile superior, Mr. Sampson.
“Why, that fellow,” Sampson told another clerk on the first day he had seen Cowperwood work, “he’s too brisk. He’s going to make a bad break. I know that kind. Wait a little bit until we get one of those rush credit and transfer days.” But the bad break Mr. Sampson anticipated did not materialize. In less than a week Cowperwood knew the financial condition of the Messrs. Waterman as well as they did—better—to a dollar. He knew how their accounts were distributed; from what section they drew the most business; who sent poor produce and good—the varying prices for a year told that. To satisfy himself he ran back over certain accounts in the ledger, verifying his suspicions. Bookkeeping did not interest him except as a record, a demonstration of a firm’s life. He knew he would not do this long. Something else would happen; but he saw instantly what the grain and commission business was—every detail of it. He saw where, for want of greater activity in offering the goods consigned—quicker communication with shippers and buyers, a better working agreement with surrounding commission men—this house, or, rather, its customers, for it had nothing, endured severe losses. A man would ship a tow-boat or a car-load of fruit or vegetables against a supposedly rising or stable market; but if ten other men did the same thing at the same time, or other commission men were flooded with fruit or vegetables, and there was no way of disposing of them within a reasonable time, the price had to fall. Every day was bringing its special consignments. It instantly occurred to him that he would be of much more use to the house as an outside man disposing of heavy shipments, but he hesitated to say anything so soon. More than likely, things would adjust themselves shortly.
The Watermans, Henry and George, were greatly pleased with the way he handled their accounts. There was a sense of security in his very presence. He soon began to call Brother George’s attention to the condition of certain accounts, making suggestions as to their possible liquidation or discontinuance, which pleased that individual greatly. He saw a way of lightening his own labors through the intelligence of this youth; while at the same time developing a sense of pleasant companionship with him.
Brother Henry was for trying him on the outside. It was not always possible to fill the orders with the stock on hand, and somebody had to go into the street or the Exchange to buy and usually he did this. One morning, when way-bills indicated a probable glut of flour and a shortage of grain—Frank saw it first—the elder Waterman called him into his office and said:
“Frank, I wish you would see what you can do with this condition that confronts us on the street. By to-morrow we’re going to be overcrowded with flour. We can’t be paying storage charges, and our orders won’t eat it up. We’re short on grain. Maybe you could trade out the flour to some of those brokers and get me enough grain to fill these orders.”
“I’d like to try,” said his employee.
He knew from his books where the various commission-houses were. He knew what the local merchants’ exchange, and the various commission-merchants who dealt in these things, had to offer. This was the thing he liked to do—adjust a trade difficulty of this nature. It was pleasant to be out in the air again, to be going from door to door. He objected to desk work and pen work and poring over books. As he said in later years, his brain was his office. He hurried to the principal commission-merchants, learning what the state of the flour market was, and offering his surplus at the very rate he would have expected to get for it if there had been no prospective glut. Did they want to buy for immediate delivery (forty-eight hours being immediate) six hundred barrels of prime flour? He would offer it at nine dollars straight, in the barrel. They did not. He offered it in fractions, and some agreed to take one portion, and some another. In about an hour he was all secure on this save one lot of two hundred barrels, which he decided to offer in one lump to a famous operator named Genderman with whom his firm did no business. The latter, a big man with curly gray hair, a gnarled and yet pudgy face, and little eyes that peeked out shrewdly through fat eyelids, looked at Cowperwood curiously when he came in.
“What’s your name, young man?” he asked, leaning back in his wooden chair.
“So you work for Waterman & Company? You want to make a record, no doubt. That’s why you came to me?”
Cowperwood merely smiled.
“Well, I’ll take your flour. I need it. Bill it to me.”
Cowperwood hurried out. He went direct to a firm of brokers in Walnut Street, with whom his firm dealt, and had them bid in the grain he needed at prevailing rates. Then he returned to the office.
“Well,” said Henry Waterman, when he reported, “you did that quick. Sold old Genderman two hundred barrels direct, did you? That’s doing pretty well. He isn’t on our books, is he?”
“I thought not. Well, if you can do that sort of work on the street you won’t be on the books long.”
Thereafter, in the course of time, Frank became a familiar figure in the commission district and on ‘change (the Produce Exchange), striking balances for his employer, picking up odd lots of things they needed, soliciting new customers, breaking gluts by disposing of odd lots in unexpected quarters. Indeed the Watermans were astonished at his facility in this respect. He had an uncanny faculty for getting appreciative hearings, making friends, being introduced into new realms. New life began to flow through the old channels of the Waterman company. Their customers were better satisfied. George was for sending him out into the rural districts to drum up trade, and this was eventually done.
Near Christmas-time Henry said to George: “We’ll have to make Cowperwood a liberal present. He hasn’t any salary. How would five hundred dollars do?”
“That’s pretty much, seeing the way times are, but I guess he’s worth it. He’s certainly done everything we’ve expected, and more. He’s cut out for this business.”
“What does he say about it? Do you ever hear him say whether he’s satisfied?”
“Oh, he likes it pretty much, I guess. You see him as much as I do.”
“Well, we’ll make it five hundred. That fellow wouldn’t make a bad partner in this business some day. He has the real knack for it. You see that he gets the five hundred dollars with a word from both of us.”
So the night before Christmas, as Cowperwood was looking over some way-bills and certificates of consignment preparatory to leaving all in order for the intervening holiday, George Waterman came to his desk.
“Hard at it,” he said, standing under the flaring gaslight and looking at his brisk employee with great satisfaction.
It was early evening, and the snow was making a speckled pattern through the windows in front.
“Just a few points before I wind up,” smiled Cowperwood.
“My brother and I have been especially pleased with the way you have handled the work here during the past six months. We wanted to make some acknowledgment, and we thought about five hundred dollars would be right. Beginning January first we’ll give you a regular salary of thirty dollars a week.”
“I’m certainly much obliged to you,” said Frank. “I didn’t expect that much. It’s a good deal. I’ve learned considerable here that I’m glad to know.”
“Oh, don’t mention it. We know you’ve earned it. You can stay with us as long as you like. We’re glad to have you with us.”
Cowperwood smiled his hearty, genial smile. He was feeling very comfortable under this evidence of approval. He looked bright and cheery in his well-made clothes of English tweed.
On the way home that evening he speculated as to the nature of this business. He knew he wasn’t going to stay there long, even in spite of this gift and promise of salary. They were grateful, of course; but why shouldn’t they be? He was efficient, he knew that; under him things moved smoothly. It never occurred to him that he belonged in the realm of clerkdom. Those people were the kind of beings who ought to work for him, and who would. There was nothing savage in his attitude, no rage against fate, no dark fear of failure. These two men he worked for were already nothing more than characters in his eyes—their business significated itself. He could see their weaknesses and their shortcomings as a much older man might have viewed a boy’s.
After dinner that evening, before leaving to call on his girl, Marjorie Stafford, he told his father of the gift of five hundred dollars and the promised salary.
“That’s splendid,” said the older man. “You’re doing better than I thought. I suppose you’ll stay there.”
“No, I won’t. I think I’ll quit sometime next year.”
“Well, it isn’t exactly what I want to do. It’s all right, but I’d rather try my hand at brokerage, I think. That appeals to me.”
“Don’t you think you are doing them an injustice not to tell them?”
“Not at all. They need me.” All the while surveying himself in a mirror, straightening his tie and adjusting his coat.
“Have you told your mother?”
“No. I’m going to do it now.”
He went out into the dining-room, where his mother was, and slipping his arms around her little body, said: “What do you think, Mammy?”
“Well, what?” she asked, looking affectionately into his eyes.
“I got five hundred dollars to-night, and I get thirty a week next year. What do you want for Christmas?”
“You don’t say! Isn’t that nice! Isn’t that fine! They must like you. You’re getting to be quite a man, aren’t you?”
“What do you want for Christmas?”
“Nothing. I don’t want anything. I have my children.”
He smiled. “All right. Then nothing it is.”
But she knew he would buy her something.
He went out, pausing at the door to grab playfully at his sister’s waist, and saying that he’d be back about midnight, hurried to Marjorie’s house, because he had promised to take her to a show.
“Anything you want for Christmas this year, Margy?” he asked, after kissing her in the dimly-lighted hall. “I got five hundred to-night.”
She was an innocent little thing, only fifteen, no guile, no shrewdness.
“Oh, you needn’t get me anything.”
“Needn’t I?” he asked, squeezing her waist and kissing her mouth again.
It was fine to be getting on this way in the world and having such a good time.