The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter LVI

The days passed. Once the understanding with Bonhag was reached, Cowperwood’s wife, mother and sister were allowed to appear on occasions. His wife and the children were now settled in the little home for which he was paying, and his financial obligations to her were satisfied by Wingate, who paid her one hundred and twenty five dollars a month for him. He realized that he owed her more, but he was sailing rather close to the wind financially, these days. The final collapse of his old interests had come in March, when he had been legally declared a bankrupt, and all his properties forfeited to satisfy the claims against him. The city’s claim of five hundred thousand dollars would have eaten up more than could have been realized at the time, had not a pro rata payment of thirty cents on the dollar been declared. Even then the city never received its due, for by some hocus-pocus it was declared to have forfeited its rights. Its claims had not been made at the proper time in the proper way. This left larger portions of real money for the others.

Fortunately by now Cowperwood had begun to see that by a little experimenting his business relations with Wingate were likely to prove profitable. The broker had made it clear that he intended to be perfectly straight with him. He had employed Cowperwood’s two brothers, at very moderate salaries—one to take care of the books and look after the office, and the other to act on ‘change with him, for their seats in that organization had never been sold. And also, by considerable effort, he had succeeded in securing Cowperwood, Sr., a place as a clerk in a bank. For the latter, since the day of his resignation from the Third National had been in a deep, sad quandary as to what further to do with his life. His son’s disgrace! The horror of his trial and incarceration. Since the day of Frank’s indictment and more so, since his sentence and commitment to the Eastern Penitentiary, he was as one who walked in a dream. That trial! That charge against Frank! His own son, a convict in stripes—and after he and Frank had walked so proudly in the front rank of the successful and respected here. Like so many others in his hour of distress, he had taken to reading the Bible, looking into its pages for something of that mind consolation that always, from youth up, although rather casually in these latter years, he had imagined was to be found there. The Psalms, Isaiah, the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes. And for the most part, because of the fraying nature of his present ills, not finding it.

But day after day secreting himself in his room—a little hall-bedroom office in his newest home, where to his wife, he pretended that he had some commercial matters wherewith he was still concerned—and once inside, the door locked, sitting and brooding on all that had befallen him—his losses; his good name. Or, after months of this, and because of the new position secured for him by Wingate—a bookkeeping job in one of the outlying banks—slipping away early in the morning, and returning late at night, his mind a gloomy epitome of all that had been or yet might be.

To see him bustling off from his new but very much reduced home at half after seven in the morning in order to reach the small bank, which was some distance away and not accessible by street-car line, was one of those pathetic sights which the fortunes of trade so frequently offer. He carried his lunch in a small box because it was inconvenient to return home in the time allotted for this purpose, and because his new salary did not permit the extravagance of a purchased one. It was his one ambition now to eke out a respectable but unseen existence until he should die, which he hoped would not be long. He was a pathetic figure with his thin legs and body, his gray hair, and his snow-white side-whiskers. He was very lean and angular, and, when confronted by a difficult problem, a little uncertain or vague in his mind. An old habit which had grown on him in the years of his prosperity of putting his hand to his mouth and of opening his eyes in an assumption of surprise, which had no basis in fact, now grew upon him. He really degenerated, although he did not know it, into a mere automaton. Life strews its shores with such interesting and pathetic wrecks.

One of the things that caused Cowperwood no little thought at this time, and especially in view of his present extreme indifference to her, was how he would bring up this matter of his indifference to his wife and his desire to end their relationship. Yet apart from the brutality of the plain truth, he saw no way. As he could plainly see, she was now persisting in her pretense of devotion, uncolored, apparently, by any suspicion of what had happened. Yet since his trial and conviction, she had been hearing from one source and another that he was still intimate with Aileen, and it was only her thought of his concurrent woes, and the fact that he might possibly be spared to a successful financial life, that now deterred her from speaking. He was shut up in a cell, she said to herself, and she was really very sorry for him, but she did not love him as she once had. He was really too deserving of reproach for his general unseemly conduct, and no doubt this was what was intended, as well as being enforced, by the Governing Power of the world.

One can imagine how much such an attitude as this would appeal to Cowperwood, once he had detected it. By a dozen little signs, in spite of the fact that she brought him delicacies, and commiserated on his fate, he could see that she felt not only sad, but reproachful, and if there was one thing that Cowperwood objected to at all times it was the moral as well as the funereal air. Contrasted with the cheerful combative hopefulness and enthusiasm of Aileen, the wearied uncertainty of Mrs. Cowperwood was, to say the least, a little tame. Aileen, after her first burst of rage over his fate, which really did not develop any tears on her part, was apparently convinced that he would get out and be very successful again. She talked success and his future all the time because she believed in it. Instinctively she seemed to realize that prison walls could not make a prison for him. Indeed, on the first day she left she handed Bonhag ten dollars, and after thanking him in her attractive voice—without showing her face, however—for his obvious kindness to her, bespoke his further favor for Cowperwood—“a very great man,” as she described him, which sealed that ambitious materialist’s fate completely. There was nothing the overseer would not do for the young lady in the dark cloak. She might have stayed in Cowperwood’s cell for a week if the visiting-hours of the penitentiary had not made it impossible.

The day that Cowperwood decided to discuss with his wife the weariness of his present married state and his desire to be free of it was some four months after he had entered the prison. By that time he had become inured to his convict life. The silence of his cell and the menial tasks he was compelled to perform, which had at first been so distressing, banal, maddening, in their pointless iteration, had now become merely commonplace—dull, but not painful. Furthermore he had learned many of the little resources of the solitary convict, such as that of using his lamp to warm up some delicacy which he had saved from a previous meal or from some basket which had been sent him by his wife or Aileen. He had partially gotten rid of the sickening odor of his cell by persuading Bonhag to bring him small packages of lime; which he used with great freedom. Also he succeeded in defeating some of the more venturesome rats with traps; and with Bonhag’s permission, after his cell door had been properly locked at night, and sealed with the outer wooden door, he would take his chair, if it were not too cold, out into the little back yard of his cell and look at the sky, where, when the nights were clear, the stars were to be seen. He had never taken any interest in astronomy as a scientific study, but now the Pleiades, the belt of Orion, the Big Dipper and the North Star, to which one of its lines pointed, caught his attention, almost his fancy. He wondered why the stars of the belt of Orion came to assume the peculiar mathematical relation to each other which they held, as far as distance and arrangement were concerned, and whether that could possibly have any intellectual significance. The nebulous conglomeration of the suns in Pleiades suggested a soundless depth of space, and he thought of the earth floating like a little ball in immeasurable reaches of ether. His own life appeared very trivial in view of these things, and he found himself asking whether it was all really of any significance or importance. He shook these moods off with ease, however, for the man was possessed of a sense of grandeur, largely in relation to himself and his affairs; and his temperament was essentially material and vital. Something kept telling him that whatever his present state he must yet grow to be a significant personage, one whose fame would be heralded the world over—who must try, try, try. It was not given all men to see far or to do brilliantly; but to him it was given, and he must be what he was cut out to be. There was no more escaping the greatness that was inherent in him than there was for so many others the littleness that was in them.

Mrs. Cowperwood came in that afternoon quite solemnly, bearing several changes of linen, a pair of sheets, some potted meat and a pie. She was not exactly doleful, but Cowperwood thought that she was tending toward it, largely because of her brooding over his relationship to Aileen, which he knew that she knew. Something in her manner decided him to speak before she left; and after asking her how the children were, and listening to her inquiries in regard to the things that he needed, he said to her, sitting on his single chair while she sat on his bed:

“Lillian, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk with you about for some time. I should have done it before, but it’s better late than never. I know that you know that there is something between Aileen Butler and me, and we might as well have it open and aboveboard. It’s true I am very fond of her and she is very devoted to me, and if ever I get out of here I want to arrange it so that I can marry her. That means that you will have to give me a divorce, if you will; and I want to talk to you about that now. This can’t be so very much of a surprise to you, because you must have seen this long while that our relationship hasn’t been all that it might have been, and under the circumstances this can’t prove such a very great hardship to you—I am sure.” He paused, waiting, for Mrs. Cowperwood at first said nothing.

Her thought, when he first broached this, was that she ought to make some demonstration of astonishment or wrath: but when she looked into his steady, examining eyes, so free from the illusion of or interest in demonstrations of any kind, she realized how useless it would be. He was so utterly matter-of-fact in what seemed to her quite private and secret affairs—very shameless. She had never been able to understand quite how he could take the subtleties of life as he did, anyhow. Certain things which she always fancied should be hushed up he spoke of with the greatest nonchalance. Her ears tingled sometimes at his frankness in disposing of a social situation; but she thought this must be characteristic of notable men, and so there was nothing to be said about it. Certain men did as they pleased; society did not seem to be able to deal with them in any way. Perhaps God would, later—she was not sure. Anyhow, bad as he was, direct as he was, forceful as he was, he was far more interesting than most of the more conservative types in whom the social virtues of polite speech and modest thoughts were seemingly predominate.

“I know,” she said, rather peacefully, although with a touch of anger and resentment in her voice. “I’ve known all about it all this time. I expected you would say something like this to me some day. It’s a nice reward for all my devotion to you; but it’s just like you, Frank. When you are set on something, nothing can stop you. It wasn’t enough that you were getting along so nicely and had two children whom you ought to love, but you had to take up with this Butler creature until her name and yours are a by-word throughout the city. I know that she comes to this prison. I saw her out here one day as I was coming in, and I suppose every one else knows it by now. She has no sense of decency and she does not care—the wretched, vain thing—but I would have thought that you would be ashamed, Frank, to go on the way that you have, when you still have me and the children and your father and mother and when you are certain to have such a hard fight to get yourself on your feet, as it is. If she had any sense of decency she would not have anything to do with you—the shameless thing.”

Cowperwood looked at his wife with unflinching eyes. He read in her remarks just what his observation had long since confirmed—that she was sympathetically out of touch with him. She was no longer so attractive physically, and intellectually she was not Aileen’s equal. Also that contact with those women who had deigned to grace his home in his greatest hour of prosperity had proved to him conclusively she was lacking in certain social graces. Aileen was by no means so vastly better, still she was young and amenable and adaptable, and could still be improved. Opportunity as he now chose to think, might make Aileen, whereas for Lillian—or at least, as he now saw it—it could do nothing.

“I’ll tell you how it is, Lillian,” he said; “I’m not sure that you are going to get what I mean exactly, but you and I are not at all well suited to each other any more.”

“You didn’t seem to think that three or four years ago,” interrupted his wife, bitterly.

“I married you when I was twenty-one,” went on Cowperwood, quite brutally, not paying any attention to her interruption, “and I was really too young to know what I was doing. I was a mere boy. It doesn’t make so much difference about that. I am not using that as an excuse. The point that I am trying to make is this—that right or wrong, important or not important, I have changed my mind since. I don’t love you any more, and I don’t feel that I want to keep up a relationship, however it may look to the public, that is not satisfactory to me. You have one point of view about life, and I have another. You think your point of view is the right one, and there are thousands of people who will agree with you; but I don’t think so. We have never quarreled about these things, because I didn’t think it was important to quarrel about them. I don’t see under the circumstances that I am doing you any great injustice when I ask you to let me go. I don’t intend to desert you or the children—you will get a good living-income from me as long as I have the money to give it to you—but I want my personal freedom when I come out of here, if ever I do, and I want you to let me have it. The money that you had and a great deal more, once I am out of here, you will get back when I am on my feet again. But not if you oppose me—only if you help me. I want, and intend to help you always—but in my way.”

He smoothed the leg of his prison trousers in a thoughtful way, and plucked at the sleeve of his coat. Just now he looked very much like a highly intelligent workman as he sat here, rather than like the important personage that he was. Mrs. Cowperwood was very resentful.

“That’s a nice way to talk to me, and a nice way to treat me!” she exclaimed dramatically, rising and walking the short space—some two steps—that lay between the wall and the bed. “I might have known that you were too young to know your own mind when you married me. Money, of course, that’s all you think of and your own gratification. I don’t believe you have any sense of justice in you. I don’t believe you ever had. You only think of yourself, Frank. I never saw such a man as you. You have treated me like a dog all through this affair; and all the while you have been running with that little snip of an Irish thing, and telling her all about your affairs, I suppose. You let me go on believing that you cared for me up to the last moment, and then you suddenly step up and tell me that you want a divorce. I’ll not do it. I’ll not give you a divorce, and you needn’t think it.”

Cowperwood listened in silence. His position, in so far as this marital tangle was concerned, as he saw, was very advantageous. He was a convict, constrained by the exigencies of his position to be out of personal contact with his wife for a long period of time to come, which should naturally tend to school her to do without him. When he came out, it would be very easy for her to get a divorce from a convict, particularly if she could allege misconduct with another woman, which he would not deny. At the same time, he hoped to keep Aileen’s name out of it. Mrs. Cowperwood, if she would, could give any false name if he made no contest. Besides, she was not a very strong person, intellectually speaking. He could bend her to his will. There was no need of saying much more now; the ice had been broken, the situation had been put before her, and time should do the rest.

“Don’t be dramatic, Lillian,” he commented, indifferently. “I’m not such a loss to you if you have enough to live on. I don’t think I want to live in Philadelphia if ever I come out of here. My idea now is to go west, and I think I want to go alone. I sha’n’t get married right away again even if you do give me a divorce. I don’t care to take anybody along. It would be better for the children if you would stay here and divorce me. The public would think better of them and you.”

“I’ll not do it,” declared Mrs. Cowperwood, emphatically. “I’ll never do it, never; so there! You can say what you choose. You owe it to me to stick by me and the children after all I’ve done for you, and I’ll not do it. You needn’t ask me any more; I’ll not do it.”

“Very well,” replied Cowperwood, quietly, getting up. “We needn’t talk about it any more now. Your time is nearly up, anyhow.” (Twenty minutes was supposed to be the regular allotment for visitors.) “Perhaps you’ll change your mind sometime.”

She gathered up her muff and the shawl-strap in which she had carried her gifts, and turned to go. It had been her custom to kiss Cowperwood in a make-believe way up to this time, but now she was too angry to make this pretense. And yet she was sorry, too—sorry for herself and, she thought, for him.

“Frank,” she declared, dramatically, at the last moment, “I never saw such a man as you. I don’t believe you have any heart. You’re not worthy of a good wife. You’re worthy of just such a woman as you’re getting. The idea!” Suddenly tears came to her eyes, and she flounced scornfully and yet sorrowfully out.

Cowperwood stood there. At least there would be no more useless kissing between them, he congratulated himself. It was hard in a way, but purely from an emotional point of view. He was not doing her any essential injustice, he reasoned—not an economic one—which was the important thing. She was angry to-day, but she would get over it, and in time might come to see his point of view. Who could tell? At any rate he had made it plain to her what he intended to do and that was something as he saw it. He reminded one of nothing so much, as he stood there, as of a young chicken picking its way out of the shell of an old estate. Although he was in a cell of a penitentiary, with nearly four years more to serve, yet obviously he felt, within himself, that the whole world was still before him. He could go west if he could not reestablish himself in Philadelphia; but he must stay here long enough to win the approval of those who had known him formerly—to obtain, as it were, a letter of credit which he could carry to other parts.

“Hard words break no bones,” he said to himself, as his wife went out. “A man’s never done till he’s done. I’ll show some of these people yet.” Of Bonhag, who came to close the cell door, he asked whether it was going to rain, it looked so dark in the hall.

“It’s sure to before night,” replied Bonhag, who was always wondering over Cowperwood’s tangled affairs as he heard them retailed here and there.


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