The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter LIII

The Eastern District Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, standing at Fairmount Avenue and Twenty-first Street in Philadelphia, where Cowperwood was now to serve his sentence of four years and three months, was a large, gray-stone structure, solemn and momentous in its mien, not at all unlike the palace of Sforzas at Milan, although not so distinguished. It stretched its gray length for several blocks along four different streets, and looked as lonely and forbidding as a prison should. The wall which inclosed its great area extending over ten acres and gave it so much of its solemn dignity was thirty-five feet high and some seven feet thick. The prison proper, which was not visible from the outside, consisted of seven arms or corridors, ranged octopus-like around a central room or court, and occupying in their sprawling length about two-thirds of the yard inclosed within the walls, so that there was but little space for the charm of lawn or sward. The corridors, forty-two feet wide from outer wall to outer wall, were one hundred and eighty feet in length, and in four instances two stories high, and extended in their long reach in every direction. There were no windows in the corridors, only narrow slits of skylights, three and one-half feet long by perhaps eight inches wide, let in the roof; and the ground-floor cells were accompanied in some instances by a small yard ten by sixteen—the same size as the cells proper—which was surrounded by a high brick wall in every instance. The cells and floors and roofs were made of stone, and the corridors, which were only ten feet wide between the cells, and in the case of the single-story portion only fifteen feet high, were paved with stone. If you stood in the central room, or rotunda, and looked down the long stretches which departed from you in every direction, you had a sense of narrowness and confinement not compatible with their length. The iron doors, with their outer accompaniment of solid wooden ones, the latter used at times to shut the prisoner from all sight and sound, were grim and unpleasing to behold. The halls were light enough, being whitewashed frequently and set with the narrow skylights, which were closed with frosted glass in winter; but they were, as are all such matter-of-fact arrangements for incarceration, bare—wearisome to look upon. Life enough there was in all conscience, seeing that there were four hundred prisoners here at that time, and that nearly every cell was occupied; but it was a life of which no one individual was essentially aware as a spectacle. He was of it; but he was not. Some of the prisoners, after long service, were used as “trusties” or “runners,” as they were locally called; but not many. There was a bakery, a machine-shop, a carpenter-shop, a store-room, a flour-mill, and a series of gardens, or truck patches; but the manipulation of these did not require the services of a large number.

The prison proper dated from 1822, and it had grown, wing by wing, until its present considerable size had been reached. Its population consisted of individuals of all degrees of intelligence and crime, from murderers to minor practitioners of larceny. It had what was known as the “Pennsylvania System” of regulation for its inmates, which was nothing more nor less than solitary confinement for all concerned—a life of absolute silence and separate labor in separate cells.

Barring his comparatively recent experience in the county jail, which after all was far from typical, Cowperwood had never been in a prison in his life. Once, when a boy, in one of his perambulations through several of the surrounding towns, he had passed a village “lock-up,” as the town prisons were then called—a small, square, gray building with long iron-barred windows, and he had seen, at one of these rather depressing apertures on the second floor, a none too prepossessing drunkard or town ne’er-do-well who looked down on him with bleary eyes, unkempt hair, and a sodden, waxy, pallid face, and called—for it was summer and the jail window was open:

“Hey, sonny, get me a plug of tobacco, will you?”

Cowperwood, who had looked up, shocked and disturbed by the man’s disheveled appearance, had called back, quite without stopping to think:

“Naw, I can’t.”

“Look out you don’t get locked up yourself sometime, you little runt,” the man had replied, savagely, only half recovered from his debauch of the day before.

He had not thought of this particular scene in years, but now suddenly it came back to him. Here he was on his way to be locked up in this dull, somber prison, and it was snowing, and he was being cut out of human affairs as much as it was possible for him to be cut out.

No friends were permitted to accompany him beyond the outer gate—not even Steger for the time being, though he might visit him later in the day. This was an inviolable rule. Zanders being known to the gate-keeper, and bearing his commitment paper, was admitted at once. The others turned solemnly away. They bade a gloomy if affectionate farewell to Cowperwood, who, on his part, attempted to give it all an air of inconsequence—as, in part and even here, it had for him.

“Well, good-by for the present,” he said, shaking hands. “I’ll be all right and I’ll get out soon. Wait and see. Tell Lillian not to worry.”

He stepped inside, and the gate clanked solemnly behind him. Zanders led the way through a dark, somber hall, wide and high-ceiled, to a farther gate, where a second gateman, trifling with a large key, unlocked a barred door at his bidding. Once inside the prison yard, Zanders turned to the left into a small office, presenting his prisoner before a small, chest-high desk, where stood a prison officer in uniform of blue. The latter, the receiving overseer of the prison—a thin, practical, executive-looking person with narrow gray eyes and light hair, took the paper which the sheriff’s deputy handed him and read it. This was his authority for receiving Cowperwood. In his turn he handed Zanders a slip, showing that he had so received the prisoner; and then Zanders left, receiving gratefully the tip which Cowperwood pressed in his hand.

“Well, good-by, Mr. Cowperwood,” he said, with a peculiar twist of his detective-like head. “I’m sorry. I hope you won’t find it so bad here.”

He wanted to impress the receiving overseer with his familiarity with this distinguished prisoner, and Cowperwood, true to his policy of make-believe, shook hands with him cordially.

“I’m much obliged to you for your courtesy, Mr. Zanders,” he said, then turned to his new master with the air of a man who is determined to make a good impression. He was now in the hands of petty officials, he knew, who could modify or increase his comfort at will. He wanted to impress this man with his utter willingness to comply and obey—his sense of respect for his authority—without in any way demeaning himself. He was depressed but efficient, even here in the clutch of that eventual machine of the law, the State penitentiary, which he had been struggling so hard to evade.

The receiving overseer, Roger Kendall, though thin and clerical, was a rather capable man, as prison officials go—shrewd, not particularly well educated, not over-intelligent naturally, not over-industrious, but sufficiently energetic to hold his position. He knew something about convicts—considerable—for he had been dealing with them for nearly twenty-six years. His attitude toward them was cold, cynical, critical.

He did not permit any of them to come into personal contact with him, but he saw to it that underlings in his presence carried out the requirements of the law.

When Cowperwood entered, dressed in his very good clothing—a dark gray-blue twill suit of pure wool, a light, well-made gray overcoat, a black derby hat of the latest shape, his shoes new and of good leather, his tie of the best silk, heavy and conservatively colored, his hair and mustache showing the attention of an intelligent barber, and his hands well manicured—the receiving overseer saw at once that he was in the presence of some one of superior intelligence and force, such a man as the fortune of his trade rarely brought into his net.

Cowperwood stood in the middle of the room without apparently looking at any one or anything, though he saw all. “Convict number 3633,” Kendall called to a clerk, handing him at the same time a yellow slip of paper on which was written Cowperwood’s full name and his record number, counting from the beginning of the penitentiary itself.

The underling, a convict, took it and entered it in a book, reserving the slip at the same time for the penitentiary “runner” or “trusty,” who would eventually take Cowperwood to the “manners” gallery.

“You will have to take off your clothes and take a bath,” said Kendall to Cowperwood, eyeing him curiously. “I don’t suppose you need one, but it’s the rule.”

“Thank you,” replied Cowperwood, pleased that his personality was counting for something even here. “Whatever the rules are, I want to obey.”

When he started to take off his coat, however, Kendall put up his hand delayingly and tapped a bell. There now issued from an adjoining room an assistant, a prison servitor, a weird-looking specimen of the genus “trusty.” He was a small, dark, lopsided individual, one leg being slightly shorter, and therefore one shoulder lower, than the other. He was hollow-chested, squint-eyed, and rather shambling, but spry enough withal. He was dressed in a thin, poorly made, baggy suit of striped jeans, the prison stripes of the place, showing a soft roll-collar shirt underneath, and wearing a large, wide-striped cap, peculiarly offensive in its size and shape to Cowperwood. He could not help thinking how uncanny the man’s squint eyes looked under its straight outstanding visor. The trusty had a silly, sycophantic manner of raising one hand in salute. He was a professional “second-story man,” “up” for ten years, but by dint of good behavior he had attained to the honor of working about this office without the degrading hood customary for prisoners to wear over the cap. For this he was properly grateful. He now considered his superior with nervous dog-like eyes, and looked at Cowperwood with a certain cunning appreciation of his lot and a show of initial mistrust.

One prisoner is as good as another to the average convict; as a matter of fact, it is their only consolation in their degradation that all who come here are no better than they. The world may have misused them; but they misuse their confreres in their thoughts. The “holier than thou” attitude, intentional or otherwise, is quite the last and most deadly offense within prison walls. This particular “trusty” could no more understand Cowperwood than could a fly the motions of a fly-wheel; but with the cocky superiority of the underling of the world he did not hesitate to think that he could. A crook was a crook to him—Cowperwood no less than the shabbiest pickpocket. His one feeling was that he would like to demean him, to pull him down to his own level.

“You will have to take everything you have out of your pockets,” Kendall now informed Cowperwood. Ordinarily he would have said, “Search the prisoner.”

Cowperwood stepped forward and laid out a purse with twenty-five dollars in it, a pen-knife, a lead-pencil, a small note-book, and a little ivory elephant which Aileen had given him once, “for luck,” and which he treasured solely because she gave it to him. Kendall looked at the latter curiously. “Now you can go on,” he said to the “trusty,” referring to the undressing and bathing process which was to follow.

“This way,” said the latter, addressing Cowperwood, and preceding him into an adjoining room, where three closets held three old-fashioned, iron-bodied, wooden-top bath-tubs, with their attendant shelves for rough crash towels, yellow soap, and the like, and hooks for clothes.

“Get in there,” said the trusty, whose name was Thomas Kuby, pointing to one of the tubs.

Cowperwood realized that this was the beginning of petty official supervision; but he deemed it wise to appear friendly even here.

“I see,” he said. “I will.”

“That’s right,” replied the attendant, somewhat placated. “What did you bring?”

Cowperwood looked at him quizzically. He did not understand. The prison attendant realized that this man did not know the lingo of the place. “What did you bring?” he repeated. “How many years did you get?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Cowperwood, comprehendingly. “I understand. Four and three months.”

He decided to humor the man. It would probably be better so.

“What for?” inquired Kuby, familiarly.

Cowperwood’s blood chilled slightly. “Larceny,” he said.

“Yuh got off easy,” commented Kuby. “I’m up for ten. A rube judge did that to me.”

Kuby had never heard of Cowperwood’s crime. He would not have understood its subtleties if he had. Cowperwood did not want to talk to this man; he did not know how. He wished he would go away; but that was not likely. He wanted to be put in his cell and let alone.

“That’s too bad,” he answered; and the convict realized clearly that this man was really not one of them, or he would not have said anything like that. Kuby went to the two hydrants opening into the bath-tub and turned them on. Cowperwood had been undressing the while, and now stood naked, but not ashamed, in front of this eighth-rate intelligence.

“Don’t forget to wash your head, too,” said Kuby, and went away.

Cowperwood stood there while the water ran, meditating on his fate. It was strange how life had dealt with him of late—so severely. Unlike most men in his position, he was not suffering from a consciousness of evil. He did not think he was evil. As he saw it, he was merely unfortunate. To think that he should be actually in this great, silent penitentiary, a convict, waiting here beside this cheap iron bathtub, not very sweet or hygienic to contemplate, with this crackbrained criminal to watch over him!

He stepped into the tub and washed himself briskly with the biting yellow soap, drying himself on one of the rough, only partially bleached towels. He looked for his underwear, but there was none. At this point the attendant looked in again. “Out here,” he said, inconsiderately.

Cowperwood followed, naked. He was led through the receiving overseer’s office into a room, where were scales, implements of measurement, a record-book, etc. The attendant who stood guard at the door now came over, and the clerk who sat in a corner automatically took down a record-blank. Kendall surveyed Cowperwood’s decidedly graceful figure, already inclining to a slight thickening around the waist, and approved of it as superior to that of most who came here. His skin, as he particularly noted, was especially white.

“Step on the scale,” said the attendant, brusquely.

Cowperwood did so, The former adjusted the weights and scanned the record carefully.

“Weight, one hundred and seventy-five,” he called. “Now step over here.”

He indicated a spot in the side wall where was fastened in a thin slat—which ran from the floor to about seven and one half feet above, perpendicularly—a small movable wooden indicator, which, when a man was standing under it, could be pressed down on his head. At the side of the slat were the total inches of height, laid off in halves, quarters, eighths, and so on, and to the right a length measurement for the arm. Cowperwood understood what was wanted and stepped under the indicator, standing quite straight.

“Feet level, back to the wall,” urged the attendant. “So. Height, five feet nine and ten-sixteenths,” he called. The clerk in the corner noted it. He now produced a tape-measure and began measuring Cowperwood’s arms, legs, chest, waist, hips, etc. He called out the color of his eyes, his hair, his mustache, and, looking into his mouth, exclaimed, “Teeth, all sound.”

After Cowperwood had once more given his address, age, profession, whether he knew any trade, etc.—which he did not—he was allowed to return to the bathroom, and put on the clothing which the prison provided for him—first the rough, prickly underwear, then the cheap soft roll-collar, white-cotton shirt, then the thick bluish-gray cotton socks of a quality such as he had never worn in his life, and over these a pair of indescribable rough-leather clogs, which felt to his feet as though they were made of wood or iron—oily and heavy. He then drew on the shapeless, baggy trousers with their telltale stripes, and over his arms and chest the loose-cut shapeless coat and waistcoat. He felt and knew of course that he looked very strange, wretched. And as he stepped out into the overseer’s room again he experienced a peculiar sense of depression, a gone feeling which before this had not assailed him and which now he did his best to conceal. This, then, was what society did to the criminal, he thought to himself. It took him and tore away from his body and his life the habiliments of his proper state and left him these. He felt sad and grim, and, try as he would—he could not help showing it for a moment. It was always his business and his intention to conceal his real feelings, but now it was not quite possible. He felt degraded, impossible, in these clothes, and he knew that he looked it. Nevertheless, he did his best to pull himself together and look unconcerned, willing, obedient, considerate of those above him. After all, he said to himself, it was all a play of sorts, a dream even, if one chose to view it so, a miasma even, from which, in the course of time and with a little luck one might emerge safely enough. He hoped so. It could not last. He was only acting a strange, unfamiliar part on the stage, this stage of life that he knew so well.

Kendall did not waste any time looking at him, however. He merely said to his assistant, “See if you can find a cap for him,” and the latter, going to a closet containing numbered shelves, took down a cap—a high-crowned, straight-visored, shabby, striped affair which Cowperwood was asked to try on. It fitted well enough, slipping down close over his ears, and he thought that now his indignities must be about complete. What could be added? There could be no more of these disconcerting accoutrements. But he was mistaken. “Now, Kuby, you take him to Mr. Chapin,” said Kendall.

Kuby understood. He went back into the wash-room and produced what Cowperwood had heard of but never before seen—a blue-and-white-striped cotton bag about half the length of an ordinary pillow-case and half again as wide, which Kuby now unfolded and shook out as he came toward him. It was a custom. The use of this hood, dating from the earliest days of the prison, was intended to prevent a sense of location and direction and thereby obviate any attempt to escape. Thereafter during all his stay he was not supposed to walk with or talk to or see another prisoner—not even to converse with his superiors, unless addressed. It was a grim theory, and yet one definitely enforced here, although as he was to learn later even this could be modified here.

“You’ll have to put this on,” Kuby said, and opened it in such a way that it could be put over Cowperwood’s head.

Cowperwood understood. He had heard of it in some way, in times past. He was a little shocked—looked at it first with a touch of real surprise, but a moment after lifted his hands and helped pull it down.

“Never mind,” cautioned the guard, “put your hands down. I’ll get it over.”

Cowperwood dropped his arms. When it was fully on, it came to about his chest, giving him little means of seeing anything. He felt very strange, very humiliated, very downcast. This simple thing of a blue-and-white striped bag over his head almost cost him his sense of self-possession. Why could not they have spared him this last indignity, he thought?

“This way,” said his attendant, and he was led out to where he could not say.

“If you hold it out in front you can see to walk,” said his guide; and Cowperwood pulled it out, thus being able to discern his feet and a portion of the floor below. He was thus conducted—seeing nothing in his transit—down a short walk, then through a long corridor, then through a room of uniformed guards, and finally up a narrow flight of iron steps, leading to the overseer’s office on the second floor of one of the two-tier blocks. There, he heard the voice of Kuby saying: “Mr. Chapin, here’s another prisoner for you from Mr. Kendall.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” came a peculiarly pleasant voice from the distance. Presently a big, heavy hand closed about his arm, and he was conducted still further.

“You hain’t got far to go now,” the voice said, “and then I’ll take that bag off,” and Cowperwood felt for some reason a sense of sympathy, perhaps—as though he would choke. The further steps were not many.

A cell door was reached and unlocked by the inserting of a great iron key. It was swung open, and the same big hand guided him through. A moment later the bag was pulled easily from his head, and he saw that he was in a narrow, whitewashed cell, rather dim, windowless, but lighted from the top by a small skylight of frosted glass three and one half feet long by four inches wide. For a night light there was a tin-bodied lamp swinging from a hook near the middle of one of the side walls. A rough iron cot, furnished with a straw mattress and two pairs of dark blue, probably unwashed blankets, stood in one corner. There was a hydrant and small sink in another. A small shelf occupied the wall opposite the bed. A plain wooden chair with a homely round back stood at the foot of the bed, and a fairly serviceable broom was standing in one corner. There was an iron stool or pot for excreta, giving, as he could see, into a large drain-pipe which ran along the inside wall, and which was obviously flushed by buckets of water being poured into it. Rats and other vermin infested this, and it gave off an unpleasant odor which filled the cell. The floor was of stone. Cowperwood’s clear-seeing eyes took it all in at a glance. He noted the hard cell door, which was barred and cross-barred with great round rods of steel, and fastened with a thick, highly polished lock. He saw also that beyond this was a heavy wooden door, which could shut him in even more completely than the iron one. There was no chance for any clear, purifying sunlight here. Cleanliness depended entirely on whitewash, soap and water and sweeping, which in turn depended on the prisoners themselves.

He also took in Chapin, the homely, good-natured, cell overseer whom he now saw for the first time—a large, heavy, lumbering man, rather dusty and misshapen-looking, whose uniform did not fit him well, and whose manner of standing made him look as though he would much prefer to sit down. He was obviously bulky, but not strong, and his kindly face was covered with a short growth of grayish-brown whiskers. His hair was cut badly and stuck out in odd strings or wisps from underneath his big cap. Nevertheless, Cowperwood was not at all unfavorably impressed—quite the contrary—and he felt at once that this man might be more considerate of him than the others had been. He hoped so, anyhow. He did not know that he was in the presence of the overseer of the “manners squad,” who would have him in charge for two weeks only, instructing him in the rules of the prison, and that he was only one of twenty-six, all told, who were in Chapin’s care.

That worthy, by way of easy introduction, now went over to the bed and seated himself on it. He pointed to the hard wooden chair, which Cowperwood drew out and sat on.

“Well, now you’re here, hain’t yuh?” he asked, and answered himself quite genially, for he was an unlettered man, generously disposed, of long experience with criminals, and inclined to deal kindly with kindly temperament and a form of religious belief—Quakerism—had inclined him to be merciful, and yet his official duties, as Cowperwood later found out, seemed to have led him to the conclusion that most criminals were innately bad. Like Kendall, he regarded them as weaklings and ne’er-do-wells with evil streaks in them, and in the main he was not mistaken. Yet he could not help being what he was, a fatherly, kindly old man, having faith in those shibboleths of the weak and inexperienced mentally—human justice and human decency.

“Yes, I’m here, Mr. Chapin,” Cowperwood replied, simply, remembering his name from the attendant, and flattering the keeper by the use of it.

To old Chapin the situation was more or less puzzling. This was the famous Frank A. Cowperwood whom he had read about, the noted banker and treasury-looter. He and his co-partner in crime, Stener, were destined to serve, as he had read, comparatively long terms here. Five hundred thousand dollars was a large sum of money in those days, much more than five million would have been forty years later. He was awed by the thought of what had become of it—how Cowperwood managed to do all the things the papers had said he had done. He had a little formula of questions which he usually went through with each new prisoner—asking him if he was sorry now for the crime he had committed, if he meant to do better with a new chance, if his father and mother were alive, etc.; and by the manner in which they answered these questions—simply, regretfully, defiantly, or otherwise—he judged whether they were being adequately punished or not. Yet he could not talk to Cowperwood as he now saw or as he would to the average second-story burglar, store-looter, pickpocket, and plain cheap thief and swindler. And yet he scarcely knew how else to talk.

“Well, now,” he went on, “I don’t suppose you ever thought you’d get to a place like this, did you, Mr. Cowperwood?”

“I never did,” replied Frank, simply. “I wouldn’t have believed it a few months ago, Mr. Chapin. I don’t think I deserve to be here now, though of course there is no use of my telling you that.”

He saw that old Chapin wanted to moralize a little, and he was only too glad to fall in with his mood. He would soon be alone with no one to talk to perhaps, and if a sympathetic understanding could be reached with this man now, so much the better. Any port in a storm; any straw to a drowning man.

“Well, no doubt all of us makes mistakes,” continued Mr. Chapin, superiorly, with an amusing faith in his own value as a moral guide and reformer. “We can’t just always tell how the plans we think so fine are coming out, can we? You’re here now, an’ I suppose you’re sorry certain things didn’t come out just as you thought; but if you had a chance I don’t suppose you’d try to do just as you did before, now would yuh?”

“No, Mr. Chapin, I wouldn’t, exactly,” said Cowperwood, truly enough, “though I believed I was right in everything I did. I don’t think legal justice has really been done me.”

“Well, that’s the way,” continued Chapin, meditatively, scratching his grizzled head and looking genially about. “Sometimes, as I allers says to some of these here young fellers that comes in here, we don’t know as much as we thinks we does. We forget that others are just as smart as we are, and that there are allers people that are watchin’ us all the time. These here courts and jails and detectives—they’re here all the time, and they get us. I gad”—Chapin’s moral version of “by God”—“they do, if we don’t behave.”

“Yes,” Cowperwood replied, “that’s true enough, Mr. Chapin.”

“Well,” continued the old man after a time, after he had made a few more solemn, owl-like, and yet well-intentioned remarks, “now here’s your bed, and there’s your chair, and there’s your wash-stand, and there’s your water-closet. Now keep ‘em all clean and use ‘em right.” (You would have thought he was making Cowperwood a present of a fortune.) “You’re the one’s got to make up your bed every mornin’ and keep your floor swept and your toilet flushed and your cell clean. There hain’t anybody here’ll do that for yuh. You want to do all them things the first thing in the mornin’ when you get up, and afterward you’ll get sumpin’ to eat, about six-thirty. You’re supposed to get up at five-thirty.”

“Yes, Mr. Chapin,” Cowperwood said, politely. “You can depend on me to do all those things promptly.”

“There hain’t so much more,” added Chapin. “You’re supposed to wash yourself all over once a week an’ I’ll give you a clean towel for that. Next you gotta wash this floor up every Friday mornin’.” Cowperwood winced at that. “You kin have hot water for that if you want it. I’ll have one of the runners bring it to you. An’ as for your friends and relations”—he got up and shook himself like a big Newfoundland dog. “You gotta wife, hain’t you?”

“Yes,” replied Cowperwood.

“Well, the rules here are that your wife or your friends kin come to see you once in three months, and your lawyer—you gotta lawyer hain’t yuh?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Cowperwood, amused.

“Well, he kin come every week or so if he likes—every day, I guess—there hain’t no rules about lawyers. But you kin only write one letter once in three months yourself, an’ if you want anything like tobaccer or the like o’ that, from the store-room, you gotta sign an order for it, if you got any money with the warden, an’ then I can git it for you.”

The old man was really above taking small tips in the shape of money. He was a hold-over from a much more severe and honest regime, but subsequent presents or constant flattery were not amiss in making him kindly and generous. Cowperwood read him accurately.

“Very well, Mr. Chapin; I understand,” he said, getting up as the old man did.

“Then when you have been here two weeks,” added Chapin, rather ruminatively (he had forgot to state this to Cowperwood before), “the warden ‘ll come and git yuh and give yuh yer regular cell summers down-stairs. Yuh kin make up yer mind by that time what y’u’d like tuh do, what y’u’d like to work at. If you behave yourself proper, more’n like they’ll give yuh a cell with a yard. Yuh never can tell.”

He went out, locking the door with a solemn click; and Cowperwood stood there, a little more depressed than he had been, because of this latest intelligence. Only two weeks, and then he would be transferred from this kindly old man’s care to another’s, whom he did not know and with whom he might not fare so well.

“If ever you want me for anything—if ye’re sick or sumpin’ like that,” Chapin now returned to say, after he had walked a few paces away, “we have a signal here of our own. Just hang your towel out through these here bars. I’ll see it, and I’ll stop and find out what yuh want, when I’m passin’.”

Cowperwood, whose spirits had sunk, revived for the moment.

“Yes, sir,” he replied; “thank you, Mr. Chapin.”

The old man walked away, and Cowperwood heard his steps dying down the cement-paved hall. He stood and listened, his ears being greeted occasionally by a distant cough, a faint scraping of some one’s feet, the hum or whir of a machine, or the iron scratch of a key in a lock. None of the noises was loud. Rather they were all faint and far away. He went over and looked at the bed, which was not very clean and without linen, and anything but wide or soft, and felt it curiously. So here was where he was to sleep from now on—he who so craved and appreciated luxury and refinement. If Aileen or some of his rich friends should see him here. Worse, he was sickened by the thought of possible vermin. How could he tell? How would he do? The one chair was abominable. The skylight was weak. He tried to think of himself as becoming accustomed to the situation, but he re-discovered the offal pot in one corner, and that discouraged him. It was possible that rats might come up here—it looked that way. No pictures, no books, no scene, no person, no space to walk—just the four bare walls and silence, which he would be shut into at night by the thick door. What a horrible fate!

He sat down and contemplated his situation. So here he was at last in the Eastern Penitentiary, and doomed, according to the judgment of the politicians (Butler among others), to remain here four long years and longer. Stener, it suddenly occurred to him, was probably being put through the same process he had just gone through. Poor old Stener! What a fool he had made of himself. But because of his foolishness he deserved all he was now getting. But the difference between himself and Stener was that they would let Stener out. It was possible that already they were easing his punishment in some way that he, Cowperwood, did not know. He put his hand to his chin, thinking—his business, his house, his friends, his family, Aileen. He felt for his watch, but remembered that they had taken that. There was no way of telling the time. Neither had he any notebook, pen, or pencil with which to amuse or interest himself. Besides he had had nothing to eat since morning. Still, that mattered little. What did matter was that he was shut up here away from the world, quite alone, quite lonely, without knowing what time it was, and that he could not attend to any of the things he ought to be attending to—his business affairs, his future. True, Steger would probably come to see him after a while. That would help a little. But even so—think of his position, his prospects up to the day of the fire and his state now. He sat looking at his shoes; his suit. God! He got up and walked to and fro, to and fro, but his own steps and movements sounded so loud. He walked to the cell door and looked out through the thick bars, but there was nothing to see—nothing save a portion of two cell doors opposite, something like his own. He came back and sat in his single chair, meditating, but, getting weary of that finally, stretched himself on the dirty prison bed to try it. It was not uncomfortable entirely. He got up after a while, however, and sat, then walked, then sat. What a narrow place to walk, he thought. This was horrible—something like a living tomb. And to think he should be here now, day after day and day after day, until—until what? Until the Governor pardoned him or his time was up, or his fortune eaten away—or—

So he cogitated while the hours slipped by. It was nearly five o’clock before Steger was able to return, and then only for a little while. He had been arranging for Cowperwood’s appearance on the following Thursday, Friday, and Monday in his several court proceedings. When he was gone, however, and the night fell and Cowperwood had to trim his little, shabby oil-lamp and to drink the strong tea and eat the rough, poor bread made of bran and white flour, which was shoved to him through the small aperture in the door by the trencher trusty, who was accompanied by the overseer to see that it was done properly, he really felt very badly. And after that the center wooden door of his cell was presently closed and locked by a trusty who slammed it rudely and said no word. Nine o’clock would be sounded somewhere by a great bell, he understood, when his smoky oil-lamp would have to be put out promptly and he would have to undress and go to bed. There were punishments, no doubt, for infractions of these rules—reduced rations, the strait-jacket, perhaps stripes—he scarcely knew what. He felt disconsolate, grim, weary. He had put up such a long, unsatisfactory fight. After washing his heavy stone cup and tin plate at the hydrant, he took off the sickening uniform and shoes and even the drawers of the scratching underwear, and stretched himself wearily on the bed. The place was not any too warm, and he tried to make himself comfortable between the blankets—but it was of little use. His soul was cold.

“This will never do,” he said to himself. “This will never do. I’m not sure whether I can stand much of this or not.” Still he turned his face to the wall, and after several hours sleep eventually came.


Return to the The Financier Summary Return to the Theodore Dreiser Library

© 2022