The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter XIII

During all the time that Cowperwood had been building himself up thus steadily the great war of the rebellion had been fought almost to its close. It was now October, 1864. The capture of Mobile and the Battle of the Wilderness were fresh memories. Grant was now before Petersburg, and the great general of the South, Lee, was making that last brilliant and hopeless display of his ability as a strategist and a soldier. There had been times—as, for instance, during the long, dreary period in which the country was waiting for Vicksburg to fall, for the Army of the Potomac to prove victorious, when Pennsylvania was invaded by Lee—when stocks fell and commercial conditions were very bad generally. In times like these Cowperwood’s own manipulative ability was taxed to the utmost, and he had to watch every hour to see that his fortune was not destroyed by some unexpected and destructive piece of news.

His personal attitude toward the war, however, and aside from his patriotic feeling that the Union ought to be maintained, was that it was destructive and wasteful. He was by no means so wanting in patriotic emotion and sentiment but that he could feel that the Union, as it had now come to be, spreading its great length from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the snows of Canada to the Gulf, was worth while. Since his birth in 1837 he had seen the nation reach that physical growth—barring Alaska—which it now possesses. Not so much earlier than his youth Florida had been added to the Union by purchase from Spain; Mexico, after the unjust war of 1848, had ceded Texas and the territory to the West. The boundary disputes between England and the United States in the far Northwest had been finally adjusted. To a man with great social and financial imagination, these facts could not help but be significant; and if they did nothing more, they gave him a sense of the boundless commercial possibilities which existed potentially in so vast a realm. His was not the order of speculative financial enthusiasm which, in the type known as the “promoter,” sees endless possibilities for gain in every unexplored rivulet and prairie reach; but the very vastness of the country suggested possibilities which he hoped might remain undisturbed. A territory covering the length of a whole zone and between two seas, seemed to him to possess potentialities which it could not retain if the States of the South were lost.

At the same time, the freedom of the negro was not a significant point with him. He had observed that race from his boyhood with considerable interest, and had been struck with virtues and defects which seemed inherent and which plainly, to him, conditioned their experiences.

He was not at all sure, for instance, that the negroes could be made into anything much more significant than they were. At any rate, it was a long uphill struggle for them, of which many future generations would not witness the conclusion. He had no particular quarrel with the theory that they should be free; he saw no particular reason why the South should not protest vigorously against the destruction of their property and their system. It was too bad that the negroes as slaves should be abused in some instances. He felt sure that that ought to be adjusted in some way; but beyond that he could not see that there was any great ethical basis for the contentions of their sponsors. The vast majority of men and women, as he could see, were not essentially above slavery, even when they had all the guarantees of a constitution formulated to prevent it. There was mental slavery, the slavery of the weak mind and the weak body. He followed the contentions of such men as Sumner, Garrison, Phillips, and Beecher, with considerable interest; but at no time could he see that the problem was a vital one for him. He did not care to be a soldier or an officer of soldiers; he had no gift for polemics; his mind was not of the disputatious order—not even in the realm of finance. He was concerned only to see what was of vast advantage to him, and to devote all his attention to that. This fratricidal war in the nation could not help him. It really delayed, he thought, the true commercial and financial adjustment of the country, and he hoped that it would soon end. He was not of those who complained bitterly of the excessive war taxes, though he knew them to be trying to many. Some of the stories of death and disaster moved him greatly; but, alas, they were among the unaccountable fortunes of life, and could not be remedied by him. So he had gone his way day by day, watching the coming in and the departing of troops, seeing the bands of dirty, disheveled, gaunt, sickly men returning from the fields and hospitals; and all he could do was to feel sorry. This war was not for him. He had taken no part in it, and he felt sure that he could only rejoice in its conclusion—not as a patriot, but as a financier. It was wasteful, pathetic, unfortunate.

The months proceeded apace. A local election intervened and there was a new city treasurer, a new assessor of taxes, and a new mayor; but Edward Malia Butler continued to have apparently the same influence as before. The Butlers and the Cowperwoods had become quite friendly. Mrs. Butler rather liked Lillian, though they were of different religious beliefs; and they went driving or shopping together, the younger woman a little critical and ashamed of the elder because of her poor grammar, her Irish accent, her plebeian tastes—as though the Wiggins had not been as plebeian as any. On the other hand the old lady, as she was compelled to admit, was good-natured and good-hearted. She loved to give, since she had plenty, and sent presents here and there to Lillian, the children, and others. “Now youse must come over and take dinner with us”—the Butlers had arrived at the evening-dinner period—or “Youse must come drive with me to-morrow.”

“Aileen, God bless her, is such a foine girl,” or “Norah, the darlin’, is sick the day.”

But Aileen, her airs, her aggressive disposition, her love of attention, her vanity, irritated and at times disgusted Mrs. Cowperwood. She was eighteen now, with a figure which was subtly provocative. Her manner was boyish, hoydenish at times, and although convent-trained, she was inclined to balk at restraint in any form. But there was a softness lurking in her blue eyes that was most sympathetic and human.

St. Timothy’s and the convent school in Germantown had been the choice of her parents for her education—what they called a good Catholic education. She had learned a great deal about the theory and forms of the Catholic ritual, but she could not understand them. The church, with its tall, dimly radiant windows, its high, white altar, its figure of St. Joseph on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other, clothed in golden-starred robes of blue, wearing haloes and carrying scepters, had impressed her greatly. The church as a whole—any Catholic church—was beautiful to look at—soothing. The altar, during high mass, lit with a half-hundred or more candles, and dignified and made impressive by the rich, lacy vestments of the priests and the acolytes, the impressive needlework and gorgeous colorings of the amice, chasuble, cope, stole, and maniple, took her fancy and held her eye. Let us say there was always lurking in her a sense of grandeur coupled with a love of color and a love of love. From the first she was somewhat sex-conscious. She had no desire for accuracy, no desire for precise information. Innate sensuousness rarely has. It basks in sunshine, bathes in color, dwells in a sense of the impressive and the gorgeous, and rests there. Accuracy is not necessary except in the case of aggressive, acquisitive natures, when it manifests itself in a desire to seize. True controlling sensuousness cannot be manifested in the most active dispositions, nor again in the most accurate.

There is need of defining these statements in so far as they apply to Aileen. It would scarcely be fair to describe her nature as being definitely sensual at this time. It was too rudimentary. Any harvest is of long growth. The confessional, dim on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the church was lighted by but a few lamps, and the priest’s warnings, penances, and ecclesiastical forgiveness whispered through the narrow lattice, moved her as something subtly pleasing. She was not afraid of her sins. Hell, so definitely set forth, did not frighten her. Really, it had not laid hold on her conscience. The old women and old men hobbling into church, bowed in prayer, murmuring over their beads, were objects of curious interest like the wood-carvings in the peculiar array of wood-reliefs emphasizing the Stations of the Cross. She herself had liked to confess, particularly when she was fourteen and fifteen, and to listen to the priest’s voice as he admonished her with, “Now, my dear child.” A particularly old priest, a French father, who came to hear their confessions at school, interested her as being kind and sweet. His forgiveness and blessing seemed sincere—better than her prayers, which she went through perfunctorily. And then there was a young priest at St. Timothy’s, Father David, hale and rosy, with a curl of black hair over his forehead, and an almost jaunty way of wearing his priestly hat, who came down the aisle Sundays sprinkling holy water with a definite, distinguished sweep of the hand, who took her fancy. He heard confessions and now and then she liked to whisper her strange thoughts to him while she actually speculated on what he might privately be thinking. She could not, if she tried, associate him with any divine authority. He was too young, too human. There was something a little malicious, teasing, in the way she delighted to tell him about herself, and then walk demurely, repentantly out. At St. Agatha’s she had been rather a difficult person to deal with. She was, as the good sisters of the school had readily perceived, too full of life, too active, to be easily controlled. “That Miss Butler,” once observed Sister Constantia, the Mother Superior, to Sister Sempronia, Aileen’s immediate mentor, “is a very spirited girl, you may have a great deal of trouble with her unless you use a good deal of tact. You may have to coax her with little gifts. You will get on better.” So Sister Sempronia had sought to find what Aileen was most interested in, and bribe her therewith. Being intensely conscious of her father’s competence, and vain of her personal superiority, it was not so easy to do. She had wanted to go home occasionally, though; she had wanted to be allowed to wear the sister’s rosary of large beads with its pendent cross of ebony and its silver Christ, and this was held up as a great privilege. For keeping quiet in class, walking softly, and speaking softly—as much as it was in her to do—for not stealing into other girl’s rooms after lights were out, and for abandoning crushes on this and that sympathetic sister, these awards and others, such as walking out in the grounds on Saturday afternoons, being allowed to have all the flowers she wanted, some extra dresses, jewels, etc., were offered. She liked music and the idea of painting, though she had no talent in that direction; and books, novels, interested her, but she could not get them. The rest—grammar, spelling, sewing, church and general history—she loathed. Deportment—well, there was something in that. She had liked the rather exaggerated curtsies they taught her, and she had often reflected on how she would use them when she reached home.

When she came out into life the little social distinctions which have been indicated began to impress themselves on her, and she wished sincerely that her father would build a better home—a mansion—such as those she saw elsewhere, and launch her properly in society. Failing in that, she could think of nothing save clothes, jewels, riding-horses, carriages, and the appropriate changes of costume which were allowed her for these. Her family could not entertain in any distinguished way where they were, and so already, at eighteen, she was beginning to feel the sting of a blighted ambition. She was eager for life. How was she to get it?

Her room was a study in the foibles of an eager and ambitious mind. It was full of clothes, beautiful things for all occasions—jewelry—which she had small opportunity to wear—shoes, stockings, lingerie, laces. In a crude way she had made a study of perfumes and cosmetics, though she needed the latter not at all, and these were present in abundance. She was not very orderly, and she loved lavishness of display; and her curtains, hangings, table ornaments, and pictures inclined to gorgeousness, which did not go well with the rest of the house.

Aileen always reminded Cowperwood of a high-stepping horse without a check-rein. He met her at various times, shopping with her mother, out driving with her father, and he was always interested and amused at the affected, bored tone she assumed before him—the “Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Life is so tiresome, don’t you know,” when, as a matter of fact, every moment of it was of thrilling interest to her. Cowperwood took her mental measurement exactly. A girl with a high sense of life in her, romantic, full of the thought of love and its possibilities. As he looked at her he had the sense of seeing the best that nature can do when she attempts to produce physical perfection. The thought came to him that some lucky young dog would marry her pretty soon and carry her away; but whoever secured her would have to hold her by affection and subtle flattery and attention if he held her at all.

“The little snip”—she was not at all—“she thinks the sun rises and sets in her father’s pocket,” Lillian observed one day to her husband. “To hear her talk, you’d think they were descended from Irish kings. Her pretended interest in art and music amuses me.”

“Oh, don’t be too hard on her,” coaxed Cowperwood diplomatically. He already liked Aileen very much. “She plays very well, and she has a good voice.”

“Yes, I know; but she has no real refinement. How could she have? Look at her father and mother.”

“I don’t see anything so very much the matter with her,” insisted Cowperwood. “She’s bright and good-looking. Of course, she’s only a girl, and a little vain, but she’ll come out of that. She isn’t without sense and force, at that.”

Aileen, as he knew, was most friendly to him. She liked him. She made a point of playing the piano and singing for him in his home, and she sang only when he was there. There was something about his steady, even gait, his stocky body and handsome head, which attracted her. In spite of her vanity and egotism, she felt a little overawed before him at times—keyed up. She seemed to grow gayer and more brilliant in his presence.

The most futile thing in this world is any attempt, perhaps, at exact definition of character. All individuals are a bundle of contradictions—none more so than the most capable.

In the case of Aileen Butler it would be quite impossible to give an exact definition. Intelligence, of a raw, crude order she had certainly—also a native force, tamed somewhat by the doctrines and conventions of current society, still showed clear at times in an elemental and not entirely unattractive way. At this time she was only eighteen years of age—decidedly attractive from the point of view of a man of Frank Cowperwood’s temperament. She supplied something he had not previously known or consciously craved. Vitality and vivacity. No other woman or girl whom he had ever known had possessed so much innate force as she. Her red-gold hair—not so red as decidedly golden with a suggestion of red in it—looped itself in heavy folds about her forehead and sagged at the base of her neck. She had a beautiful nose, not sensitive, but straight-cut with small nostril openings, and eyes that were big and yet noticeably sensuous. They were, to him, a pleasing shade of blue-gray-blue, and her toilet, due to her temperament, of course, suggested almost undue luxury, the bangles, anklets, ear-rings, and breast-plates of the odalisque, and yet, of course, they were not there. She confessed to him years afterward that she would have loved to have stained her nails and painted the palms of her hands with madder-red. Healthy and vigorous, she was chronically interested in men—what they would think of her—and how she compared with other women.

The fact that she could ride in a carriage, live in a fine home on Girard Avenue, visit such homes as those of the Cowperwoods and others, was of great weight; and yet, even at this age, she realized that life was more than these things. Many did not have them and lived.

But these facts of wealth and advantage gripped her; and when she sat at the piano and played or rode in her carriage or walked or stood before her mirror, she was conscious of her figure, her charms, what they meant to men, how women envied her. Sometimes she looked at poor, hollow-chested or homely-faced girls and felt sorry for them; at other times she flared into inexplicable opposition to some handsome girl or woman who dared to brazen her socially or physically. There were such girls of the better families who, in Chestnut Street, in the expensive shops, or on the drive, on horseback or in carriages, tossed their heads and indicated as well as human motions can that they were better-bred and knew it. When this happened each stared defiantly at the other. She wanted ever so much to get up in the world, and yet namby-pamby men of better social station than herself did not attract her at all. She wanted a man. Now and then there was one “something like,” but not entirely, who appealed to her, but most of them were politicians or legislators, acquaintances of her father, and socially nothing at all—and so they wearied and disappointed her. Her father did not know the truly elite. But Mr. Cowperwood—he seemed so refined, so forceful, and so reserved. She often looked at Mrs. Cowperwood and thought how fortunate she was.


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