The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter LIX

The banking house of Jay Cooke & Co., in spite of its tremendous significance as a banking and promoting concern, was a most unpretentious affair, four stories and a half in height of gray stone and red brick. It had never been deemed a handsome or comfortable banking house. Cowperwood had been there often. Wharf-rats as long as the forearm of a man crept up the culverted channels of Dock Street to run through the apartments at will. Scores of clerks worked under gas-jets, where light and air were not any too abundant, keeping track of the firm’s vast accounts. It was next door to the Girard National Bank, where Cowperwood’s friend Davison still flourished, and where the principal financial business of the street converged. As Cowperwood ran he met his brother Edward, who was coming to the stock exchange with some word for him from Wingate.

“Run and get Wingate and Joe,” he said. “There’s something big on this afternoon. Jay Cooke has failed.”

Edward waited for no other word, but hurried off as directed.

Cowperwood reached Cooke & Co. among the earliest. To his utter astonishment, the solid brown-oak doors, with which he was familiar, were shut, and a notice posted on them, which he quickly read, ran:

     September 18, 1873.

     To the Public—

     We regret to be obliged to announce that, owing to
     unexpected demands on us, our firm has been obliged to
     suspend payment.  In a few days we will be able to present a
     statement to our creditors. Until which time we must ask
     their patient consideration. We believe our assets to be
     largely in excess of our liabilities.

     Jay Cooke & Co.

A magnificent gleam of triumph sprang into Cowperwood’s eye. In company with many others he turned and ran back toward the exchange, while a reporter, who had come for information knocked at the massive doors of the banking house, and was told by a porter, who peered out of a diamond-shaped aperture, that Jay Cooke had gone home for the day and was not to be seen.

“Now,” thought Cowperwood, to whom this panic spelled opportunity, not ruin, “I’ll get my innings. I’ll go short of this—of everything.”

Before, when the panic following the Chicago fire had occurred, he had been long—had been compelled to stay long of many things in order to protect himself. To-day he had nothing to speak of—perhaps a paltry seventy-five thousand dollars which he had managed to scrape together. Thank God! he had only the reputation of Wingate’s old house to lose, if he lost, which was nothing. With it as a trading agency behind him—with it as an excuse for his presence, his right to buy and sell—he had everything to gain. Where many men were thinking of ruin, he was thinking of success. He would have Wingate and his two brothers under him to execute his orders exactly. He could pick up a fourth and a fifth man if necessary. He would give them orders to sell—everything—ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty points off, if necessary, in order to trap the unwary, depress the market, frighten the fearsome who would think he was too daring; and then he would buy, buy, buy, below these figures as much as possible, in order to cover his sales and reap a profit.

His instinct told him how widespread and enduring this panic would be. The Northern Pacific was a hundred-million-dollar venture. It involved the savings of hundreds of thousands of people—small bankers, tradesmen, preachers, lawyers, doctors, widows, institutions all over the land, and all resting on the faith and security of Jay Cooke. Once, not unlike the Chicago fire map, Cowperwood had seen a grand prospectus and map of the location of the Northern Pacific land-grant which Cooke had controlled, showing a vast stretch or belt of territory extending from Duluth—“The Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas,” as Proctor Knott, speaking in the House of Representatives, had sarcastically called it—through the Rockies and the headwaters of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. He had seen how Cooke had ostensibly managed to get control of this government grant, containing millions upon millions of acres and extending fourteen hundred miles in length; but it was only a vision of empire. There might be silver and gold and copper mines there. The land was usable—would some day be usable. But what of it now? It would do to fire the imaginations of fools with—nothing more. It was inaccessible, and would remain so for years to come. No doubt thousands had subscribed to build this road; but, too, thousands would now fail if it had failed. Now the crash had come. The grief and the rage of the public would be intense. For days and days and weeks and months, normal confidence and courage would be gone. This was his hour. This was his great moment. Like a wolf prowling under glittering, bitter stars in the night, he was looking down into the humble folds of simple men and seeing what their ignorance and their unsophistication would cost them.

He hurried back to the exchange, the very same room in which only two years before he had fought his losing fight, and, finding that his partner and his brother had not yet come, began to sell everything in sight. Pandemonium had broken loose. Boys and men were fairly tearing in from all sections with orders from panic-struck brokers to sell, sell, sell, and later with orders to buy; the various trading-posts were reeling, swirling masses of brokers and their agents. Outside in the street in front of Jay Cooke & Co., Clark & Co., the Girard National Bank, and other institutions, immense crowds were beginning to form. They were hurrying here to learn the trouble, to withdraw their deposits, to protect their interests generally. A policeman arrested a boy for calling out the failure of Jay Cooke & Co., but nevertheless the news of the great disaster was spreading like wild-fire.

Among these panic-struck men Cowperwood was perfectly calm, deadly cold, the same Cowperwood who had pegged solemnly at his ten chairs each day in prison, who had baited his traps for rats, and worked in the little garden allotted him in utter silence and loneliness. Now he was vigorous and energetic. He had been just sufficiently about this exchange floor once more to have made his personality impressive and distinguished. He forced his way into the center of swirling crowds of men already shouting themselves hoarse, offering whatever was being offered in quantities which were astonishing, and at prices which allured the few who were anxious to make money out of the tumbling prices to buy. New York Central had been standing at 104 7/8 when the failure was announced; Rhode Island at 108 7/8; Western Union at 92 1/2; Wabash at 70 1/4; Panama at 117 3/8; Central Pacific at 99 5/8; St. Paul at 51; Hannibal & St. Joseph at 48; Northwestern at 63; Union Pacific at 26 3/4; Ohio and Mississippi at 38 3/4. Cowperwood’s house had scarcely any of the stocks on hand. They were not carrying them for any customers, and yet he sold, sold, sold, to whoever would take, at prices which he felt sure would inspire them.

“Five thousand of New York Central at ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-six, ninety-five, ninety-four, ninety-three, ninety-two, ninety-one, ninety, eighty-nine,” you might have heard him call; and when his sales were not sufficiently brisk he would turn to something else—Rock Island, Panama, Central Pacific, Western Union, Northwestern, Union Pacific. He saw his brother and Wingate hurrying in, and stopped in his work long enough to instruct them. “Sell everything you can,” he cautioned them quietly, “at fifteen points off if you have to—no lower than that now—and buy all you can below it. Ed, you see if you cannot buy up some local street-railways at fifteen off. Joe, you stay near me and buy when I tell you.”

The secretary of the board appeared on his little platform.

“E. W. Clark & Company,” he announced, at one-thirty, “have just closed their doors.”

“Tighe & Company,” he called at one-forty-five, “announce that they are compelled to suspend.”

“The First National Bank of Philadelphia,” he called, at two o’clock, “begs to state that it cannot at present meet its obligations.”

After each announcement, always, as in the past, when the gong had compelled silence, the crowd broke into an ominous “Aw, aw, aw.”

“Tighe & Company,” thought Cowperwood, for a single second, when he heard it. “There’s an end of him.” And then he returned to his task.

When the time for closing came, his coat torn, his collar twisted loose, his necktie ripped, his hat lost, he emerged sane, quiet, steady-mannered.

“Well, Ed,” he inquired, meeting his brother, “how’d you make out?” The latter was equally torn, scratched, exhausted.

“Christ,” he replied, tugging at his sleeves, “I never saw such a place as this. They almost tore my clothes off.”

“Buy any local street-railways?”

“About five thousand shares.”

“We’d better go down to Green’s,” Frank observed, referring to the lobby of the principal hotel. “We’re not through yet. There’ll be more trading there.”

He led the way to find Wingate and his brother Joe, and together they were off, figuring up some of the larger phases of their purchases and sales as they went.

And, as he predicted, the excitement did not end with the coming of the night. The crowd lingered in front of Jay Cooke & Co.‘s on Third Street and in front of other institutions, waiting apparently for some development which would be favorable to them. For the initiated the center of debate and agitation was Green’s Hotel, where on the evening of the eighteenth the lobby and corridors were crowded with bankers, brokers, and speculators. The stock exchange had practically adjourned to that hotel en masse. What of the morrow? Who would be the next to fail? From whence would money be forthcoming? These were the topics from each mind and upon each tongue. From New York was coming momentarily more news of disaster. Over there banks and trust companies were falling like trees in a hurricane. Cowperwood in his perambulations, seeing what he could see and hearing what he could hear, reaching understandings which were against the rules of the exchange, but which were nevertheless in accord with what every other person was doing, saw about him men known to him as agents of Mollenhauer and Simpson, and congratulated himself that he would have something to collect from them before the week was over. He might not own a street-railway, but he would have the means to. He learned from hearsay, and information which had been received from New York and elsewhere, that things were as bad as they could be, and that there was no hope for those who expected a speedy return of normal conditions. No thought of retiring for the night entered until the last man was gone. It was then practically morning.

The next day was Friday, and suggested many ominous things. Would it be another Black Friday? Cowperwood was at his office before the street was fairly awake. He figured out his program for the day to a nicety, feeling strangely different from the way he had felt two years before when the conditions were not dissimilar. Yesterday, in spite of the sudden onslaught, he had made one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and he expected to make as much, if not more, to-day. There was no telling what he could make, he thought, if he could only keep his small organization in perfect trim and get his assistants to follow his orders exactly. Ruin for others began early with the suspension of Fisk & Hatch, Jay Cooke’s faithful lieutenants during the Civil War. They had calls upon them for one million five hundred thousand dollars in the first fifteen minutes after opening the doors, and at once closed them again, the failure being ascribed to Collis P. Huntington’s Central Pacific Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio. There was a long-continued run on the Fidelity Trust Company. News of these facts, and of failures in New York posted on ‘change, strengthened the cause Cowperwood was so much interested in; for he was selling as high as he could and buying as low as he could on a constantly sinking scale. By twelve o’clock he figured with his assistants that he had cleared one hundred thousand dollars; and by three o’clock he had two hundred thousand dollars more. That afternoon between three and seven he spent adjusting his trades, and between seven and one in the morning, without anything to eat, in gathering as much additional information as he could and laying his plans for the future. Saturday morning came, and he repeated his performance of the day before, following it up with adjustments on Sunday and heavy trading on Monday. By Monday afternoon at three o’clock he figured that, all losses and uncertainties to one side, he was once more a millionaire, and that now his future lay clear and straight before him.

As he sat at his desk late that afternoon in his office looking out into Third Street, where a hurrying of brokers, messengers, and anxious depositors still maintained, he had the feeling that so far as Philadelphia and the life here was concerned, his day and its day with him was over. He did not care anything about the brokerage business here any more or anywhere. Failures such as this, and disasters such as the Chicago fire, that had overtaken him two years before, had cured him of all love of the stock exchange and all feeling for Philadelphia. He had been very unhappy here in spite of all his previous happiness; and his experience as a convict had made, him, he could see quite plainly, unacceptable to the element with whom he had once hoped to associate. There was nothing else to do, now that he had reestablished himself as a Philadelphia business man and been pardoned for an offense which he hoped to make people believe he had never committed, but to leave Philadelphia to seek a new world.

“If I get out of this safely,” he said to himself, “this is the end. I am going West, and going into some other line of business.” He thought of street-railways, land speculation, some great manufacturing project of some kind, even mining, on a legitimate basis.

“I have had my lesson,” he said to himself, finally getting up and preparing to leave. “I am as rich as I was, and only a little older. They caught me once, but they will not catch me again.” He talked to Wingate about following up the campaign on the lines in which he had started, and he himself intended to follow it up with great energy; but all the while his mind was running with this one rich thought: “I am a millionaire. I am a free man. I am only thirty-six, and my future is all before me.”

It was with this thought that he went to visit Aileen, and to plan for the future.

It was only three months later that a train, speeding through the mountains of Pennsylvania and over the plains of Ohio and Indiana, bore to Chicago and the West the young financial aspirant who, in spite of youth and wealth and a notable vigor of body, was a solemn, conservative speculator as to what his future might be. The West, as he had carefully calculated before leaving, held much. He had studied the receipts of the New York Clearing House recently and the disposition of bank-balances and the shipment of gold, and had seen that vast quantities of the latter metal were going to Chicago. He understood finance accurately. The meaning of gold shipments was clear. Where money was going trade was—a thriving, developing life. He wished to see clearly for himself what this world had to offer.

Two years later, following the meteoric appearance of a young speculator in Duluth, and after Chicago had seen the tentative opening of a grain and commission company labeled Frank A. Cowperwood & Co., which ostensibly dealt in the great wheat crops of the West, a quiet divorce was granted Mrs. Frank A. Cowperwood in Philadelphia, because apparently she wished it. Time had not seemingly dealt badly with her. Her financial affairs, once so bad, were now apparently all straightened out, and she occupied in West Philadelphia, near one of her sisters, a new and interesting home which was fitted with all the comforts of an excellent middle-class residence. She was now quite religious once more. The two children, Frank and Lillian, were in private schools, returning evenings to their mother. “Wash” Sims was once more the negro general factotum. Frequent visitors on Sundays were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Worthington Cowperwood, no longer distressed financially, but subdued and wearied, the wind completely gone from their once much-favored sails. Cowperwood, senior, had sufficient money wherewith to sustain himself, and that without slaving as a petty clerk, but his social joy in life was gone. He was old, disappointed, sad. He could feel that with his quondam honor and financial glory, he was the same—and he was not. His courage and his dreams were gone, and he awaited death.

Here, too, came Anna Adelaide Cowperwood on occasion, a clerk in the city water office, who speculated much as to the strange vicissitudes of life. She had great interest in her brother, who seemed destined by fate to play a conspicuous part in the world; but she could not understand him. Seeing that all those who were near to him in any way seemed to rise or fall with his prosperity, she did not understand how justice and morals were arranged in this world. There seemed to be certain general principles—or people assumed there were—but apparently there were exceptions. Assuredly her brother abided by no known rule, and yet he seemed to be doing fairly well once more. What did this mean? Mrs. Cowperwood, his former wife, condemned his actions, and yet accepted of his prosperity as her due. What were the ethics of that?

Cowperwood’s every action was known to Aileen Butler, his present whereabouts and prospects. Not long after his wife’s divorce, and after many trips to and from this new world in which he was now living, these two left Philadelphia together one afternoon in the winter. Aileen explained to her mother, who was willing to go and live with Norah, that she had fallen in love with the former banker and wished to marry him. The old lady, gathering only a garbled version of it at first, consented.

Thus ended forever for Aileen this long-continued relationship with this older world. Chicago was before her—a much more distinguished career, Frank told her, than ever they could have had in Philadelphia.

“Isn’t it nice to be finally going?” she commented.

“It is advantageous, anyhow,” he said.


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