The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter LIV

Those who by any pleasing courtesy of fortune, accident of birth, inheritance, or the wisdom of parents or friends, have succeeded in avoiding making that anathema of the prosperous and comfortable, “a mess of their lives,” will scarcely understand the mood of Cowperwood, sitting rather gloomily in his cell these first days, wondering what, in spite of his great ingenuity, was to become of him. The strongest have their hours of depression. There are times when life to those endowed with the greatest intelligence—perhaps mostly to those—takes on a somber hue. They see so many phases of its dreary subtleties. It is only when the soul of man has been built up into some strange self-confidence, some curious faith in its own powers, based, no doubt, on the actual presence of these same powers subtly involved in the body, that it fronts life unflinchingly. It would be too much to say that Cowperwood’s mind was of the first order. It was subtle enough in all conscience—and involved, as is common with the executively great, with a strong sense of personal advancement. It was a powerful mind, turning, like a vast searchlight, a glittering ray into many a dark corner; but it was not sufficiently disinterested to search the ultimate dark. He realized, in a way, what the great astronomers, sociologists, philosophers, chemists, physicists, and physiologists were meditating; but he could not be sure in his own mind that, whatever it was, it was important for him. No doubt life held many strange secrets. Perhaps it was essential that somebody should investigate them. However that might be, the call of his own soul was in another direction. His business was to make money—to organize something which would make him much money, or, better yet, save the organization he had begun.

But this, as he now looked upon it, was almost impossible. It had been too disarranged and complicated by unfortunate circumstances. He might, as Steger pointed out to him, string out these bankruptcy proceedings for years, tiring out one creditor and another, but in the meantime the properties involved were being seriously damaged. Interest charges on his unsatisfied loans were making heavy inroads; court costs were mounting up; and, to cap it all, he had discovered with Steger that there were a number of creditors—those who had sold out to Butler, and incidentally to Mollenhauer—who would never accept anything except the full value of their claims. His one hope now was to save what he could by compromise a little later, and to build up some sort of profitable business through Stephen Wingate. The latter was coming in a day or two, as soon as Steger had made some working arrangement for him with Warden Michael Desmas who came the second day to have a look at the new prisoner.

Desmas was a large man physically—Irish by birth, a politician by training—who had been one thing and another in Philadelphia from a policeman in his early days and a corporal in the Civil War to a ward captain under Mollenhauer. He was a canny man, tall, raw-boned, singularly muscular-looking, who for all his fifty-seven years looked as though he could give a splendid account of himself in a physical contest. His hands were large and bony, his face more square than either round or long, and his forehead high. He had a vigorous growth of short-clipped, iron-gray hair, and a bristly iron-gray mustache, very short, keen, intelligent blue-gray eyes; a florid complexion; and even-edged, savage-looking teeth, which showed the least bit in a slightly wolfish way when he smiled. However, he was not as cruel a person as he looked to be; temperamental, to a certain extent hard, and on occasions savage, but with kindly hours also. His greatest weakness was that he was not quite mentally able to recognize that there were mental and social differences between prisoners, and that now and then one was apt to appear here who, with or without political influences, was eminently worthy of special consideration. What he could recognize was the differences pointed out to him by the politicians in special cases, such as that of Stener—not Cowperwood. However, seeing that the prison was a public institution apt to be visited at any time by lawyers, detectives, doctors, preachers, propagandists, and the public generally, and that certain rules and regulations had to be enforced (if for no other reason than to keep a moral and administrative control over his own help), it was necessary to maintain—and that even in the face of the politician—a certain amount of discipline, system, and order, and it was not possible to be too liberal with any one. There were, however, exceptional cases—men of wealth and refinement, victims of those occasional uprisings which so shocked the political leaders generally—who had to be looked after in a friendly way.

Desmas was quite aware, of course, of the history of Cowperwood and Stener. The politicians had already given him warning that Stener, because of his past services to the community, was to be treated with special consideration. Not so much was said about Cowperwood, although they did admit that his lot was rather hard. Perhaps he might do a little something for him but at his own risk.

“Butler is down on him,” Strobik said to Desmas, on one occasion. “It’s that girl of his that’s at the bottom of it all. If you listened to Butler you’d feed him on bread and water, but he isn’t a bad fellow. As a matter of fact, if George had had any sense Cowperwood wouldn’t be where he is to-day. But the big fellows wouldn’t let Stener alone. They wouldn’t let him give Cowperwood any money.”

Although Strobik had been one of those who, under pressure from Mollenhauer, had advised Stener not to let Cowperwood have any more money, yet here he was pointing out the folly of the victim’s course. The thought of the inconsistency involved did not trouble him in the least.

Desmas decided, therefore, that if Cowperwood were persona non grata to the “Big Three,” it might be necessary to be indifferent to him, or at least slow in extending him any special favors. For Stener a good chair, clean linen, special cutlery and dishes, the daily papers, privileges in the matter of mail, the visits of friends, and the like. For Cowperwood—well, he would have to look at Cowperwood and see what he thought. At the same time, Steger’s intercessions were not without their effect on Desmas. So the morning after Cowperwood’s entrance the warden received a letter from Terrence Relihan, the Harrisburg potentate, indicating that any kindness shown to Mr. Cowperwood would be duly appreciated by him. Upon the receipt of this letter Desmas went up and looked through Cowperwood’s iron door. On the way he had a brief talk with Chapin, who told him what a nice man he thought Cowperwood was.

Desmas had never seen Cowperwood before, but in spite of the shabby uniform, the clog shoes, the cheap shirt, and the wretched cell, he was impressed. Instead of the weak, anaemic body and the shifty eyes of the average prisoner, he saw a man whose face and form blazed energy and power, and whose vigorous erectness no wretched clothes or conditions could demean. He lifted his head when Desmas appeared, glad that any form should have appeared at his door, and looked at him with large, clear, examining eyes—those eyes that in the past had inspired so much confidence and surety in all those who had known him. Desmas was stirred. Compared with Stener, whom he knew in the past and whom he had met on his entry, this man was a force. Say what you will, one vigorous man inherently respects another. And Desmas was vigorous physically. He eyed Cowperwood and Cowperwood eyed him. Instinctively Desmas liked him. He was like one tiger looking at another.

Instinctively Cowperwood knew that he was the warden. “This is Mr. Desmas, isn’t it?” he asked, courteously and pleasantly.

“Yes, sir, I’m the man,” replied Desmas interestedly. “These rooms are not as comfortable as they might be, are they?” The warden’s even teeth showed in a friendly, yet wolfish, way.

“They certainly are not, Mr. Desmas,” replied Cowperwood, standing very erect and soldier-like. “I didn’t imagine I was coming to a hotel, however.” He smiled.

“There isn’t anything special I can do for you, is there, Mr. Cowperwood?” began Desmas curiously, for he was moved by a thought that at some time or other a man such as this might be of service to him. “I’ve been talking to your lawyer.” Cowperwood was intensely gratified by the Mr. So that was the way the wind was blowing. Well, then, within reason, things might not prove so bad here. He would see. He would sound this man out.

“I don’t want to be asking anything, Warden, which you cannot reasonably give,” he now returned politely. “But there are a few things, of course, that I would change if I could. I wish I might have sheets for my bed, and I could afford better underwear if you would let me wear it. This that I have on annoys me a great deal.”

“They’re not the best wool, that’s true enough,” replied Desmas, solemnly. “They’re made for the State out here in Pennsylvania somewhere. I suppose there’s no objection to your wearing your own underwear if you want to. I’ll see about that. And the sheets, too. We might let you use them if you have them. We’ll have to go a little slow about this. There are a lot of people that take a special interest in showing the warden how to tend to his business.”

“I can readily understand that, Warden,” went on Cowperwood briskly, “and I’m certainly very much obliged to you. You may be sure that anything you do for me here will be appreciated, and not misused, and that I have friends on the outside who can reciprocate for me in the course of time.” He talked slowly and emphatically, looking Desmas directly in the eye all of the time. Desmas was very much impressed.

“That’s all right,” he said, now that he had gone so far as to be friendly. “I can’t promise much. Prison rules are prison rules. But there are some things that can be done, because it’s the rule to do them for other men when they behave themselves. You can have a better chair than that, if you want it, and something to read too. If you’re in business yet, I wouldn’t want to do anything to stop that. We can’t have people running in and out of here every fifteen minutes, and you can’t turn a cell into a business office—that’s not possible. It would break up the order of the place. Still, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t see some of your friends now and then. As for your mail—well, that will have to be opened in the ordinary way for the time being, anyhow. I’ll have to see about that. I can’t promise too much. You’ll have to wait until you come out of this block and down-stairs. Some of the cells have a yard there; if there are any empty—” The warden cocked his eye wisely, and Cowperwood saw that his tot was not to be as bad as he had anticipated—though bad enough. The warden spoke to him about the different trades he might follow, and asked him to think about the one he would prefer. “You want to have something to keep your hands busy, whatever else you want. You’ll find you’ll need that. Everybody here wants to work after a time. I notice that.”

Cowperwood understood and thanked Desmas profusely. The horror of idleness in silence and in a cell scarcely large enough to turn around in comfortably had already begun to creep over him, and the thought of being able to see Wingate and Steger frequently, and to have his mail reach him, after a time, untampered with, was a great relief. He was to have his own underwear, silk and wool—thank God!—and perhaps they would let him take off these shoes after a while. With these modifications and a trade, and perhaps the little yard which Desmas had referred to, his life would be, if not ideal, at least tolerable. The prison was still a prison, but it looked as though it might not be so much of a terror to him as obviously it must be to many.

During the two weeks in which Cowperwood was in the “manners squad,” in care of Chapin, he learned nearly as much as he ever learned of the general nature of prison life; for this was not an ordinary penitentiary in the sense that the prison yard, the prison squad, the prison lock-step, the prison dining-room, and prison associated labor make the ordinary penitentiary. There was, for him and for most of those confined there, no general prison life whatsoever. The large majority were supposed to work silently in their cells at the particular tasks assigned them, and not to know anything of the remainder of the life which went on around them, the rule of this prison being solitary confinement, and few being permitted to work at the limited number of outside menial tasks provided. Indeed, as he sensed and as old Chapin soon informed him, not more than seventy-five of the four hundred prisoners confined here were so employed, and not all of these regularly—cooking, gardening in season, milling, and general cleaning being the only avenues of escape from solitude. Even those who so worked were strictly forbidden to talk, and although they did not have to wear the objectionable hood when actually employed, they were supposed to wear it in going to and from their work. Cowperwood saw them occasionally tramping by his cell door, and it struck him as strange, uncanny, grim. He wished sincerely at times since old Chapin was so genial and talkative that he were to be under him permanently; but it was not to be.

His two weeks soon passed—drearily enough in all conscience but they passed, interlaced with his few commonplace tasks of bed-making, floor-sweeping, dressing, eating, undressing, rising at five-thirty, and retiring at nine, washing his several dishes after each meal, etc. He thought he would never get used to the food. Breakfast, as has been said, was at six-thirty, and consisted of coarse black bread made of bran and some white flour, and served with black coffee. Dinner was at eleven-thirty, and consisted of bean or vegetable soup, with some coarse meat in it, and the same bread. Supper was at six, of tea and bread, very strong tea and the same bread—no butter, no milk, no sugar. Cowperwood did not smoke, so the small allowance of tobacco which was permitted was without value to him. Steger called in every day for two or three weeks, and after the second day, Stephen Wingate, as his new business associate, was permitted to see him also—once every day, if he wished, Desmas stated, though the latter felt he was stretching a point in permitting this so soon. Both of these visits rarely occupied more than an hour, or an hour and a half, and after that the day was long. He was taken out on several days on a court order, between nine and five, to testify in the bankruptcy proceedings against him, which caused the time in the beginning to pass quickly.

It was curious, once he was in prison, safely shut from the world for a period of years apparently, how quickly all thought of assisting him departed from the minds of those who had been most friendly. He was done, so most of them thought. The only thing they could do now would be to use their influence to get him out some time; how soon, they could not guess. Beyond that there was nothing. He would really never be of any great importance to any one any more, or so they thought. It was very sad, very tragic, but he was gone—his place knew him not.

“A bright young man, that,” observed President Davison of the Girard National, on reading of Cowperwood’s sentence and incarceration. “Too bad! Too bad! He made a great mistake.”

Only his parents, Aileen, and his wife—the latter with mingled feelings of resentment and sorrow—really missed him. Aileen, because of her great passion for him, was suffering most of all. Four years and three months; she thought. If he did not get out before then she would be nearing twenty-nine and he would be nearing forty. Would he want her then? Would she be so attractive? And would nearly five years change his point of view? He would have to wear a convict suit all that time, and be known as a convict forever after. It was hard to think about, but only made her more than ever determined to cling to him, whatever happened, and to help him all she could.

Indeed the day after his incarceration she drove out and looked at the grim, gray walls of the penitentiary. Knowing nothing absolutely of the vast and complicated processes of law and penal servitude, it seemed especially terrible to her. What might not they be doing to her Frank? Was he suffering much? Was he thinking of her as she was of him? Oh, the pity of it all! The pity! The pity of herself—her great love for him! She drove home, determined to see him; but as he had originally told her that visiting days were only once in three months, and that he would have to write her when the next one was, or when she could come, or when he could see her on the outside, she scarcely knew what to do. Secrecy was the thing.

The next day, however, she wrote him just the same, describing the drive she had taken on the stormy afternoon before—the terror of the thought that he was behind those grim gray walls—and declaring her determination to see him soon. And this letter, under the new arrangement, he received at once. He wrote her in reply, giving the letter to Wingate to mail. It ran:

My sweet girl:—I fancy you are a little downhearted to think I cannot be with you any more soon, but you mustn’t be. I suppose you read all about the sentence in the paper. I came out here the same morning—nearly noon. If I had time, dearest, I’d write you a long letter describing the situation so as to ease your mind; but I haven’t. It’s against the rules, and I am really doing this secretly. I’m here, though, safe enough, and wish I were out, of course. Sweetest, you must be careful how you try to see me at first. You can’t do me much service outside of cheering me up, and you may do yourself great harm. Besides, I think I have done you far more harm than I can ever make up to you and that you had best give me up, although I know you do not think so, and I would be sad, if you did. I am to be in the Court of Special Pleas, Sixth and Chestnut, on Friday at two o’clock; but you cannot see me there. I’ll be out in charge of my counsel. You must be careful. Perhaps you’ll think better, and not come here.

This last touch was one of pure gloom, the first Cowperwood had ever introduced into their relationship but conditions had changed him. Hitherto he had been in the position of the superior being, the one who was being sought—although Aileen was and had been well worth seeking—and he had thought that he might escape unscathed, and so grow in dignity and power until she might not possibly be worthy of him any longer. He had had that thought. But here, in stripes, it was a different matter. Aileen’s position, reduced in value as it was by her long, ardent relationship with him, was now, nevertheless, superior to his—apparently so. For after all, was she not Edward Butler’s daughter, and might she, after she had been away from him a while, wish to become a convict’s bride. She ought not to want to, and she might not want to, for all he knew; she might change her mind. She ought not to wait for him. Her life was not yet ruined. The public did not know, so he thought—not generally anyhow—that she had been his mistress. She might marry. Why not, and so pass out of his life forever. And would not that be sad for him? And yet did he not owe it to her, to a sense of fair play in himself to ask her to give him up, or at least think over the wisdom of doing so?

He did her the justice to believe that she would not want to give him up; and in his position, however harmful it might be to her, it was an advantage, a connecting link with the finest period of his past life, to have her continue to love him. He could not, however, scribbling this note in his cell in Wingate’s presence, and giving it to him to mail (Overseer Chapin was kindly keeping a respectful distance, though he was supposed to be present), refrain from adding, at the last moment, this little touch of doubt which, when she read it, struck Aileen to the heart. She read it as gloom on his part—as great depression. Perhaps, after all, the penitentiary and so soon, was really breaking his spirit, and he had held up so courageously so long. Because of this, now she was madly eager to get to him, to console him, even though it was difficult, perilous. She must, she said.

In regard to visits from the various members of his family—his mother and father, his brother, his wife, and his sister—Cowperwood made it plain to them on one of the days on which he was out attending a bankruptcy hearing, that even providing it could be arranged he did not think they should come oftener than once in three months, unless he wrote them or sent word by Steger. The truth was that he really did not care to see much of any of them at present. He was sick of the whole social scheme of things. In fact he wanted to be rid of the turmoil he had been in, seeing it had proved so useless. He had used nearly fifteen thousand dollars thus far in defending himself—court costs, family maintenance, Steger, etc.; but he did not mind that. He expected to make some little money working through Wingate. His family were not utterly without funds, sufficient to live on in a small way. He had advised them to remove into houses more in keeping with their reduced circumstances, which they had done—his mother and father and brothers and sister to a three-story brick house of about the caliber of the old Buttonwood Street house, and his wife to a smaller, less expensive two-story one on North Twenty-first Street, near the penitentiary, a portion of the money saved out of the thirty-five thousand dollars extracted from Stener under false pretenses aiding to sustain it. Of course all this was a terrible descent from the Girard Avenue mansion for the elder Cowperwood; for here was none of the furniture which characterized the other somewhat gorgeous domicile—merely store-bought, ready-made furniture, and neat but cheap hangings and fixtures generally. The assignees, to whom all Cowperwood’s personal property belonged, and to whom Cowperwood, the elder, had surrendered all his holdings, would not permit anything of importance to be removed. It had all to be sold for the benefit of creditors. A few very small things, but only a few, had been kept, as everything had been inventoried some time before. One of the things which old Cowperwood wanted was his own desk which Frank had had designed for him; but as it was valued at five hundred dollars and could not be relinquished by the sheriff except on payment of that sum, or by auction, and as Henry Cowperwood had no such sum to spare, he had to let the desk go. There were many things they all wanted, and Anna Adelaide had literally purloined a few though she did not admit the fact to her parents until long afterward.

There came a day when the two houses in Girard Avenue were the scene of a sheriffs sale, during which the general public, without let or hindrance, was permitted to tramp through the rooms and examine the pictures, statuary, and objects of art generally, which were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Considerable fame had attached to Cowperwood’s activities in this field, owing in the first place to the real merit of what he had brought together, and in the next place to the enthusiastic comment of such men as Wilton Ellsworth, Fletcher Norton, Gordon Strake—architects and art dealers whose judgment and taste were considered important in Philadelphia. All of the lovely things by which he had set great store—small bronzes, representative of the best period of the Italian Renaissance; bits of Venetian glass which he had collected with great care—a full curio case; statues by Powers, Hosmer, and Thorwaldsen—things which would be smiled at thirty years later, but which were of high value then; all of his pictures by representative American painters from Gilbert to Eastman Johnson, together with a few specimens of the current French and English schools, went for a song. Art judgment in Philadelphia at this time was not exceedingly high; and some of the pictures, for lack of appreciative understanding, were disposed of at much too low a figure. Strake, Norton, and Ellsworth were all present and bought liberally. Senator Simpson, Mollenhauer, and Strobik came to see what they could see. The small-fry politicians were there, en masse. But Simpson, calm judge of good art, secured practically the best of all that was offered. To him went the curio case of Venetian glass; one pair of tall blue-and-white Mohammedan cylindrical vases; fourteen examples of Chinese jade, including several artists’ water-dishes and a pierced window-screen of the faintest tinge of green. To Mollenhauer went the furniture and decorations of the entry-hall and reception-room of Henry Cowperwood’s house, and to Edward Strobik two of Cowperwood’s bird’s-eye maple bedroom suites for the most modest of prices. Adam Davis was present and secured the secretaire of buhl which the elder Cowperwood prized so highly. To Fletcher Norton went the four Greek vases—a kylix, a water-jar, and two amphorae—which he had sold to Cowperwood and which he valued highly. Various objects of art, including a Sevres dinner set, a Gobelin tapestry, Barye bronzes and pictures by Detaille, Fortuny, and George Inness, went to Walter Leigh, Arthur Rivers, Joseph Zimmerman, Judge Kitchen, Harper Steger, Terrence Relihan, Trenor Drake, Mr. and Mrs. Simeon Jones, W. C. Davison, Frewen Kasson, Fletcher Norton, and Judge Rafalsky.

Within four days after the sale began the two houses were bare of their contents. Even the objects in the house at 931 North Tenth Street had been withdrawn from storage where they had been placed at the time it was deemed advisable to close this institution, and placed on sale with the other objects in the two homes. It was at this time that the senior Cowperwoods first learned of something which seemed to indicate a mystery which had existed in connection with their son and his wife. No one of all the Cowperwoods was present during all this gloomy distribution; and Aileen, reading of the disposition of all the wares, and knowing their value to Cowperwood, to say nothing of their charm for her, was greatly depressed; yet she was not long despondent, for she was convinced that Cowperwood would some day regain his liberty and attain a position of even greater significance in the financial world. She could not have said why but she was sure of it.


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