The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter LV

In the meanwhile Cowperwood had been transferred to a new overseer and a new cell in Block 3 on the ground door, which was like all the others in size, ten by sixteen, but to which was attached the small yard previously mentioned. Warden Desmas came up two days before he was transferred, and had another short conversation with him through his cell door.

“You’ll be transferred on Monday,” he said, in his reserved, slow way. “They’ll give you a yard, though it won’t be much good to you—we only allow a half-hour a day in it. I’ve told the overseer about your business arrangements. He’ll treat you right in that matter. Just be careful not to take up too much time that way, and things will work out. I’ve decided to let you learn caning chairs. That’ll be the best for you. It’s easy, and it’ll occupy your mind.”

The warden and some allied politicians made a good thing out of this prison industry. It was really not hard labor—the tasks set were simple and not oppressive, but all of the products were promptly sold, and the profits pocketed. It was good, therefore, to see all the prisoners working, and it did them good. Cowperwood was glad of the chance to do something, for he really did not care so much for books, and his connection with Wingate and his old affairs were not sufficient to employ his mind in a satisfactory way. At the same time, he could not help thinking, if he seemed strange to himself, now, how much stranger he would seem then, behind these narrow bars working at so commonplace a task as caning chairs. Nevertheless, he now thanked Desmas for this, as well as for the sheets and the toilet articles which had just been brought in.

“That’s all right,” replied the latter, pleasantly and softly, by now much intrigued by Cowperwood. “I know that there are men and men here, the same as anywhere. If a man knows how to use these things and wants to be clean, I wouldn’t be one to put anything in his way.”

The new overseer with whom Cowperwood had to deal was a very different person from Elias Chapin. His name was Walter Bonhag, and he was not more than thirty-seven years of age—a big, flabby sort of person with a crafty mind, whose principal object in life was to see that this prison situation as he found it should furnish him a better income than his normal salary provided. A close study of Bonhag would have seemed to indicate that he was a stool-pigeon of Desmas, but this was really not true except in a limited way. Because Bonhag was shrewd and sycophantic, quick to see a point in his or anybody else’s favor, Desmas instinctively realized that he was the kind of man who could be trusted to be lenient on order or suggestion. That is, if Desmas had the least interest in a prisoner he need scarcely say so much to Bonhag; he might merely suggest that this man was used to a different kind of life, or that, because of some past experience, it might go hard with him if he were handled roughly; and Bonhag would strain himself to be pleasant. The trouble was that to a shrewd man of any refinement his attentions were objectionable, being obviously offered for a purpose, and to a poor or ignorant man they were brutal and contemptuous. He had built up an extra income for himself inside the prison by selling the prisoners extra allowances of things which he secretly brought into the prison. It was strictly against the rules, in theory at least, to bring in anything which was not sold in the store-room—tobacco, writing paper, pens, ink, whisky, cigars, or delicacies of any kind. On the other hand, and excellently well for him, it was true that tobacco of an inferior grade was provided, as well as wretched pens, ink and paper, so that no self-respecting man, if he could help it, would endure them. Whisky was not allowed at all, and delicacies were abhorred as indicating rank favoritism; nevertheless, they were brought in. If a prisoner had the money and was willing to see that Bonhag secured something for his trouble, almost anything would be forthcoming. Also the privilege of being sent into the general yard as a “trusty,” or being allowed to stay in the little private yard which some cells possessed, longer than the half-hour ordinarily permitted, was sold.

One of the things curiously enough at this time, which worked in Cowperwood’s favor, was the fact that Bonhag was friendly with the overseer who had Stener in charge, and Stener, because of his political friends, was being liberally treated, and Bonhag knew of this. He was not a careful reader of newspapers, nor had he any intellectual grasp of important events; but he knew by now that both Stener and Cowperwood were, or had been, individuals of great importance in the community; also that Cowperwood had been the more important of the two. Better yet, as Bonhag now heard, Cowperwood still had money. Some prisoner, who was permitted to read the paper, told him so. And so, entirely aside from Warden Desmas’s recommendation, which was given in a very quiet, noncommittal way, Bonhag was interested to see what he could do for Cowperwood for a price.

The day Cowperwood was installed in his new cell, Bonhag lolled up to the door, which was open, and said, in a semi-patronizing way, “Got all your things over yet?” It was his business to lock the door once Cowperwood was inside it.

“Yes, sir,” replied Cowperwood, who had been shrewd enough to get the new overseer’s name from Chapin; “this is Mr. Bonhag, I presume?”

“That’s me,” replied Bonhag, not a little flattered by the recognition, but still purely interested by the practical side of this encounter. He was anxious to study Cowperwood, to see what type of man he was.

“You’ll find it a little different down here from up there,” observed Bonhag. “It ain’t so stuffy. These doors out in the yards make a difference.”

“Oh, yes,” said Cowperwood, observantly and shrewdly, “that is the yard Mr. Desmas spoke of.”

At the mention of the magic name, if Bonhag had been a horse, his ears would have been seen to lift. For, of course, if Cowperwood was so friendly with Desmas that the latter had described to him the type of cell he was to have beforehand, it behooved Bonhag to be especially careful.

“Yes, that’s it, but it ain’t much,” he observed. “They only allow a half-hour a day in it. Still it would be all right if a person could stay out there longer.”

This was his first hint at graft, favoritism; and Cowperwood distinctly caught the sound of it in his voice.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “I don’t suppose good conduct helps a person to get more.” He waited to hear a reply, but instead Bonhag continued with: “I’d better teach you your new trade now. You’ve got to learn to cane chairs, so the warden says. If you want, we can begin right away.” But without waiting for Cowperwood to acquiesce, he went off, returning after a time with three unvarnished frames of chairs and a bundle of cane strips or withes, which he deposited on the floor. Having so done—and with a flourish—he now continued: “Now I’ll show you if you’ll watch me,” and he began showing Cowperwood how the strips were to be laced through the apertures on either side, cut, and fastened with little hickory pegs. This done, he brought a forcing awl, a small hammer, a box of pegs, and a pair of clippers. After several brief demonstrations with different strips, as to how the geometric forms were designed, he allowed Cowperwood to take the matter in hand, watching over his shoulder. The financier, quick at anything, manual or mental, went at it in his customary energetic fashion, and in five minutes demonstrated to Bonhag that, barring skill and speed, which could only come with practice, he could do it as well as another. “You’ll make out all right,” said Bonhag. “You’re supposed to do ten of those a day. We won’t count the next few days, though, until you get your hand in. After that I’ll come around and see how you’re getting along. You understand about the towel on the door, don’t you?” he inquired.

“Yes, Mr. Chapin explained that to me,” replied Cowperwood. “I think I know what most of the rules are now. I’ll try not to break any of them.”

The days which followed brought a number of modifications of his prison lot, but not sufficient by any means to make it acceptable to him. Bonhag, during the first few days in which he trained Cowperwood in the art of caning chairs, managed to make it perfectly clear that there were a number of things he would be willing to do for him. One of the things that moved him to this, was that already he had been impressed by the fact that Stener’s friends were coming to see him in larger numbers than Cowperwood’s, sending him an occasional basket of fruit, which he gave to the overseers, and that his wife and children had been already permitted to visit him outside the regular visiting-day. This was a cause for jealousy on Bonhag’s part. His fellow-overseer was lording it over him—telling him, as it were, of the high jinks in Block 4. Bonhag really wanted Cowperwood to spruce up and show what he could do, socially or otherwise.

And so now he began with: “I see you have your lawyer and your partner here every day. There ain’t anybody else you’d like to have visit you, is there? Of course, it’s against the rules to have your wife or sister or anybody like that, except on visiting days—” And here he paused and rolled a large and informing eye on Cowperwood—such an eye as was supposed to convey dark and mysterious things. “But all the rules ain’t kept around here by a long shot.”

Cowperwood was not the man to lose a chance of this kind. He smiled a little—enough to relieve himself, and to convey to Bonhag that he was gratified by the information, but vocally he observed: “I’ll tell you how it is, Mr. Bonhag. I believe you understand my position better than most men would, and that I can talk to you. There are people who would like to come here, but I have been afraid to let them come. I did not know that it could be arranged. If it could be, I would be very grateful. You and I are practical men—I know that if any favors are extended some of those who help to bring them about must be looked after. If you can do anything to make it a little more comfortable for me here I will show you that I appreciate it. I haven’t any money on my person, but I can always get it, and I will see that you are properly looked after.”

Bonhag’s short, thick ears tingled. This was the kind of talk he liked to hear. “I can fix anything like that, Mr. Cowperwood,” he replied, servilely. “You leave it to me. If there’s any one you want to see at any time, just let me know. Of course I have to be very careful, and so do you, but that’s all right, too. If you want to stay out in that yard a little longer in the mornings or get out there afternoons or evenings, from now on, why, go ahead. It’s all right. I’ll just leave the door open. If the warden or anybody else should be around, I’ll just scratch on your door with my key, and you come in and shut it. If there’s anything you want from the outside I can get it for you—jelly or eggs or butter or any little thing like that. You might like to fix up your meals a little that way.”

“I’m certainly most grateful, Mr. Bonhag,” returned Cowperwood in his grandest manner, and with a desire to smile, but he kept a straight face.

“In regard to that other matter,” went on Bonhag, referring to the matter of extra visitors, “I can fix that any time you want to. I know the men out at the gate. If you want anybody to come here, just write ‘em a note and give it to me, and tell ‘em to ask for me when they come. That’ll get ‘em in all right. When they get here you can talk to ‘em in your cell. See! Only when I tap they have to come out. You want to remember that. So just you let me know.”

Cowperwood was exceedingly grateful. He said so in direct, choice language. It occurred to him at once that this was Aileen’s opportunity, and that he could now notify her to come. If she veiled herself sufficiently she would probably be safe enough. He decided to write her, and when Wingate came he gave him a letter to mail.

Two days later, at three o’clock in the afternoon—the time appointed by him—Aileen came to see him. She was dressed in gray broadcloth with white-velvet trimmings and cut-steel buttons which glistened like silver, and wore, as additional ornaments, as well as a protection against the cold, a cap, stole, and muff of snow-white ermine. Over this rather striking costume she had slipped a long dark circular cloak, which she meant to lay off immediately upon her arrival. She had made a very careful toilet as to her shoes, gloves, hair, and the gold ornaments which she wore. Her face was concealed by a thick green veil, as Cowperwood had suggested; and she arrived at an hour when, as near as he had been able to prearrange, he would be alone. Wingate usually came at four, after business, and Steger in the morning, when he came at all. She was very nervous over this strange adventure, leaving the street-car in which she had chosen to travel some distance away and walking up a side street. The cold weather and the gray walls under a gray sky gave her a sense of defeat, but she had worked very hard to look nice in order to cheer her lover up. She knew how readily he responded to the influence of her beauty when properly displayed.

Cowperwood, in view of her coming, had made his cell as acceptable as possible. It was clean, because he had swept it himself and made his own bed; and besides he had shaved and combed his hair, and otherwise put himself to rights. The caned chairs on which he was working had been put in the corner at the end of the bed. His few dishes were washed and hung up, and his clogs brushed with a brush which he now kept for the purpose. Never before, he thought to himself, with a peculiar feeling of artistic degradation, had Aileen seen him like this. She had always admired his good taste in clothes, and the way he carried himself in them; and now she was to see him in garments which no dignity of body could make presentable. Only a stoic sense of his own soul-dignity aided him here. After all, as he now thought, he was Frank A. Cowperwood, and that was something, whatever he wore. And Aileen knew it. Again, he might be free and rich some day, and he knew that she believed that. Best of all, his looks under these or any other circumstances, as he knew, would make no difference to Aileen. She would only love him the more. It was her ardent sympathy that he was afraid of. He was so glad that Bonhag had suggested that she might enter the cell, for it would be a grim procedure talking to her through a barred door.

When Aileen arrived she asked for Mr. Bonhag, and was permitted to go to the central rotunda, where he was sent for. When he came she murmured: “I wish to see Mr. Cowperwood, if you please”; and he exclaimed, “Oh, yes, just come with me.” As he came across the rotunda floor from his corridor he was struck by the evident youth of Aileen, even though he could not see her face. This now was something in accordance with what he had expected of Cowperwood. A man who could steal five hundred thousand dollars and set a whole city by the ears must have wonderful adventures of all kinds, and Aileen looked like a true adventure. He led her to the little room where he kept his desk and detained visitors, and then bustled down to Cowperwood’s cell, where the financier was working on one of his chairs and scratching on the door with his key, called: “There’s a young lady here to see you. Do you want to let her come inside?”

“Thank you, yes,” replied Cowperwood; and Bonhag hurried away, unintentionally forgetting, in his boorish incivility, to unlock the cell door, so that he had to open it in Aileen’s presence. The long corridor, with its thick doors, mathematically spaced gratings and gray-stone pavement, caused Aileen to feel faint at heart. A prison, iron cells! And he was in one of them. It chilled her usually courageous spirit. What a terrible place for her Frank to be! What a horrible thing to have put him here! Judges, juries, courts, laws, jails seemed like so many foaming ogres ranged about the world, glaring down upon her and her love-affair. The clank of the key in the lock, and the heavy outward swinging of the door, completed her sense of the untoward. And then she saw Cowperwood.

Because of the price he was to receive, Bonhag, after admitting her, strolled discreetly away. Aileen looked at Cowperwood from behind her veil, afraid to speak until she was sure Bonhag had gone. And Cowperwood, who was retaining his self-possession by an effort, signaled her but with difficulty after a moment or two. “It’s all right,” he said. “He’s gone away.” She lifted her veil, removed her cloak, and took in, without seeming to, the stuffy, narrow thickness of the room, his wretched shoes, the cheap, misshapen suit, the iron door behind him leading out into the little yard attached to his cell. Against such a background, with his partially caned chairs visible at the end of the bed, he seemed unnatural, weird even. Her Frank! And in this condition. She trembled and it was useless for her to try to speak. She could only put her arms around him and stroke his head, murmuring: “My poor boy—my darling. Is this what they have done to you? Oh, my poor darling.” She held his head while Cowperwood, anxious to retain his composure, winced and trembled, too. Her love was so full—so genuine. It was so soothing at the same time that it was unmanning, as now he could see, making of him a child again. And for the first time in his life, some inexplicable trick of chemistry—that chemistry of the body, of blind forces which so readily supersedes reason at times—he lost his self-control. The depth of Aileen’s feelings, the cooing sound of her voice, the velvety tenderness of her hands, that beauty that had drawn him all the time—more radiant here perhaps within these hard walls, and in the face of his physical misery, than it had ever been before—completely unmanned him. He did not understand how it could; he tried to defy the moods, but he could not. When she held his head close and caressed it, of a sudden, in spite of himself, his breast felt thick and stuffy, and his throat hurt him. He felt, for him, an astonishingly strange feeling, a desire to cry, which he did his best to overcome; it shocked him so. There then combined and conspired to defeat him a strange, rich picture of the great world he had so recently lost, of the lovely, magnificent world which he hoped some day to regain. He felt more poignantly at this moment than ever he had before the degradation of the clog shoes, the cotton shirt, the striped suit, the reputation of a convict, permanent and not to be laid aside. He drew himself quickly away from her, turned his back, clinched his hands, drew his muscles taut; but it was too late. He was crying, and he could not stop.

“Oh, damn it!” he exclaimed, half angrily, half self-commiseratingly, in combined rage and shame. “Why should I cry? What the devil’s the matter with me, anyhow?”

Aileen saw it. She fairly flung herself in front of him, seized his head with one hand, his shabby waist with the other, and held him tight in a grip that he could not have readily released.

“Oh, honey, honey, honey!” she exclaimed, pityingly feverishly. “I love you, I adore you. They could cut my body into bits if it would do you any good. To think that they should make you cry! Oh, my sweet, my sweet, my darling boy!”

She pulled his still shaking body tighter, and with her free hand caressed his head. She kissed his eyes, his hair, his cheeks. He pulled himself loose again after a moment, exclaiming, “What the devil’s got into me?” but she drew him back.

“Never mind, honey darling, don’t you be ashamed to cry. Cry here on my shoulder. Cry here with me. My baby—my honey pet!”

He quieted down after a few moments, cautioning her against Bonhag, and regaining his former composure, which he was so ashamed to have lost.

“You’re a great girl, pet,” he said, with a tender and yet apologetic smile. “You’re all right—all that I need—a great help to me; but don’t worry any longer about me, dear. I’m all right. It isn’t as bad as you think. How are you?”

Aileen on her part was not to be soothed so easily. His many woes, including his wretched position here, outraged her sense of justice and decency. To think her fine, wonderful Frank should be compelled to come to this—to cry. She stroked his head, tenderly, while wild, deadly, unreasoning opposition to life and chance and untoward opposition surged in her brain. Her father—damn him! Her family—pooh! What did she care? Her Frank—her Frank. How little all else mattered where he was concerned. Never, never, never would she desert him—never—come what might. And now she clung to him in silence while she fought in her brain an awful battle with life and law and fate and circumstance. Law—nonsense! People—they were brutes, devils, enemies, hounds! She was delighted, eager, crazy to make a sacrifice of herself. She would go anywhere for or with her Frank now. She would do anything for him. Her family was nothing—life nothing, nothing, nothing. She would do anything he wished, nothing more, nothing less; anything she could do to save him, to make his life happier, but nothing for any one else.


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