The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter XV

The plan Cowperwood developed after a few days’ meditation will be plain enough to any one who knows anything of commercial and financial manipulation, but a dark secret to those who do not. In the first place, the city treasurer was to use his (Cowperwood’s) office as a bank of deposit. He was to turn over to him, actually, or set over to his credit on the city’s books, subject to his order, certain amounts of city loans—two hundred thousand dollars at first, since that was the amount it was desired to raise quickly—and he would then go into the market and see what could be done to have it brought to par. The city treasurer was to ask leave of the stock exchange at once to have it listed as a security. Cowperwood would then use his influence to have this application acted upon quickly. Stener was then to dispose of all city loan certificates through him, and him only. He was to allow him to buy for the sinking-fund, supposedly, such amounts as he might have to buy in order to keep the price up to par. To do this, once a considerable number of the loan certificates had been unloaded on the public, it might be necessary to buy back a great deal. However, these would be sold again. The law concerning selling only at par would have to be abrogated to this extent—i.e., that the wash sales and preliminary sales would have to be considered no sales until par was reached.

There was a subtle advantage here, as Cowperwood pointed out to Stener. In the first place, since the certificates were going ultimately to reach par anyway, there was no objection to Stener or any one else buying low at the opening price and holding for a rise. Cowperwood would be glad to carry him on his books for any amount, and he would settle at the end of each month. He would not be asked to buy the certificates outright. He could be carried on the books for a certain reasonable margin, say ten points. The money was as good as made for Stener now. In the next place, in buying for the sinking-fund it would be possible to buy these certificates very cheap, for, having the new and reserve issue entirely in his hands, Cowperwood could throw such amounts as he wished into the market at such times as he wished to buy, and consequently depress the market. Then he could buy, and, later, up would go the price. Having the issues totally in his hands to boost or depress the market as he wished, there was no reason why the city should not ultimately get par for all its issues, and at the same time considerable money be made out of the manufactured fluctuations. He, Cowperwood, would be glad to make most of his profit that way. The city should allow him his normal percentage on all his actual sales of certificates for the city at par (he would have to have that in order to keep straight with the stock exchange); but beyond that, and for all the other necessary manipulative sales, of which there would be many, he would depend on his knowledge of the stock market to reimburse him. And if Stener wanted to speculate with him—well.

Dark as this transaction may seem to the uninitiated, it will appear quite clear to those who know. Manipulative tricks have always been worked in connection with stocks of which one man or one set of men has had complete control. It was no different from what subsequently was done with Erie, Standard Oil, Copper, Sugar, Wheat, and what not. Cowperwood was one of the first and one of the youngest to see how it could be done. When he first talked to Stener he was twenty-eight years of age. When he last did business with him he was thirty-four.

The houses and the bank-front of Cowperwood & Co. had been proceeding apace. The latter was early Florentine in its decorations with windows which grew narrower as they approached the roof, and a door of wrought iron set between delicately carved posts, and a straight lintel of brownstone. It was low in height and distinguished in appearance. In the center panel had been hammered a hand, delicately wrought, thin and artistic, holding aloft a flaming brand. Ellsworth informed him that this had formerly been a money-changer’s sign used in old Venice, the significance of which had long been forgotten.

The interior was finished in highly-polished hardwood, stained in imitation of the gray lichens which infest trees. Large sheets of clear, beveled glass were used, some oval, some oblong, some square, and some circular, following a given theory of eye movement. The fixtures for the gas-jets were modeled after the early Roman flame-brackets, and the office safe was made an ornament, raised on a marble platform at the back of the office and lacquered a silver-gray, with Cowperwood & Co. lettered on it in gold. One had a sense of reserve and taste pervading the place, and yet it was also inestimably prosperous, solid and assuring. Cowperwood, when he viewed it at its completion, complimented Ellsworth cheerily. “I like this. It is really beautiful. It will be a pleasure to work here. If those houses are going to be anything like this, they will be perfect.”

“Wait till you see them. I think you will be pleased, Mr. Cowperwood. I am taking especial pains with yours because it is smaller. It is really easier to treat your father’s. But yours—” He went off into a description of the entrance-hall, reception-room and parlor, which he was arranging and decorating in such a way as to give an effect of size and dignity not really conformable to the actual space.

And when the houses were finished, they were effective and arresting—quite different from the conventional residences of the street. They were separated by a space of twenty feet, laid out as greensward. The architect had borrowed somewhat from the Tudor school, yet not so elaborated as later became the style in many of the residences in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The most striking features were rather deep-recessed doorways under wide, low, slightly floriated arches, and three projecting windows of rich form, one on the second floor of Frank’s house, two on the facade of his father’s. There were six gables showing on the front of the two houses, two on Frank’s and four on his father’s. In the front of each house on the ground floor was a recessed window unconnected with the recessed doorways, formed by setting the inner external wall back from the outer face of the building. This window looked out through an arched opening to the street, and was protected by a dwarf parapet or balustrade. It was possible to set potted vines and flowers there, which was later done, giving a pleasant sense of greenery from the street, and to place a few chairs there, which were reached via heavily barred French casements.

On the ground floor of each house was placed a conservatory of flowers, facing each other, and in the yard, which was jointly used, a pool of white marble eight feet in diameter, with a marble Cupid upon which jets of water played. The yard which was enclosed by a high but pierced wall of green-gray brick, especially burnt for the purpose the same color as the granite of the house, and surmounted by a white marble coping which was sown to grass and had a lovely, smooth, velvety appearance. The two houses, as originally planned, were connected by a low, green-columned pergola which could be enclosed in glass in winter.

The rooms, which were now slowly being decorated and furnished in period styles were very significant in that they enlarged and strengthened Frank Cowperwood’s idea of the world of art in general. It was an enlightening and agreeable experience—one which made for artistic and intellectual growth—to hear Ellsworth explain at length the styles and types of architecture and furniture, the nature of woods and ornaments employed, the qualities and peculiarities of hangings, draperies, furniture panels, and door coverings. Ellsworth was a student of decoration as well as of architecture, and interested in the artistic taste of the American people, which he fancied would some day have a splendid outcome. He was wearied to death of the prevalent Romanesque composite combinations of country and suburban villa. The time was ripe for something new. He scarcely knew what it would be; but this that he had designed for Cowperwood and his father was at least different, as he said, while at the same time being reserved, simple, and pleasing. It was in marked contrast to the rest of the architecture of the street. Cowperwood’s dining-room, reception-room, conservatory, and butler’s pantry he had put on the first floor, together with the general entry-hall, staircase, and coat-room under the stairs. For the second floor he had reserved the library, general living-room, parlor, and a small office for Cowperwood, together with a boudoir for Lillian, connected with a dressing-room and bath.

On the third floor, neatly divided and accommodated with baths and dressing-rooms, were the nursery, the servants’ quarters, and several guest-chambers.

Ellsworth showed Cowperwood books of designs containing furniture, hangings, etageres, cabinets, pedestals, and some exquisite piano forms. He discussed woods with him—rosewood, mahogany, walnut, English oak, bird’s-eye maple, and the manufactured effects such as ormolu, marquetry, and Boule, or buhl. He explained the latter—how difficult it was to produce, how unsuitable it was in some respects for this climate, the brass and tortoise-shell inlay coming to swell with the heat or damp, and so bulging or breaking. He told of the difficulties and disadvantages of certain finishes, but finally recommended ormolu furniture for the reception room, medallion tapestry for the parlor, French renaissance for the dining-room and library, and bird’s-eye maple (dyed blue in one instance, and left its natural color in another) and a rather lightly constructed and daintily carved walnut for the other rooms. The hangings, wall-paper, and floor coverings were to harmonize—not match—and the piano and music-cabinet for the parlor, as well as the etagere, cabinets, and pedestals for the reception-rooms, were to be of buhl or marquetry, if Frank cared to stand the expense.

Ellsworth advised a triangular piano—the square shapes were so inexpressibly wearisome to the initiated. Cowperwood listened fascinated. He foresaw a home which would be chaste, soothing, and delightful to look upon. If he hung pictures, gilt frames were to be the setting, large and deep; and if he wished a picture-gallery, the library could be converted into that, and the general living-room, which lay between the library and the parlor on the second-floor, could be turned into a combination library and living-room. This was eventually done; but not until his taste for pictures had considerably advanced.

It was now that he began to take a keen interest in objects of art, pictures, bronzes, little carvings and figurines, for his cabinets, pedestals, tables, and etageres. Philadelphia did not offer much that was distinguished in this realm—certainly not in the open market. There were many private houses which were enriched by travel; but his connection with the best families was as yet small. There were then two famous American sculptors, Powers and Hosmer, of whose work he had examples; but Ellsworth told him that they were not the last word in sculpture and that he should look into the merits of the ancients. He finally secured a head of David, by Thorwaldsen, which delighted him, and some landscapes by Hunt, Sully, and Hart, which seemed somewhat in the spirit of his new world.

The effect of a house of this character on its owner is unmistakable. We think we are individual, separate, above houses and material objects generally; but there is a subtle connection which makes them reflect us quite as much as we reflect them. They lend dignity, subtlety, force, each to the other, and what beauty, or lack of it, there is, is shot back and forth from one to the other as a shuttle in a loom, weaving, weaving. Cut the thread, separate a man from that which is rightfully his own, characteristic of him, and you have a peculiar figure, half success, half failure, much as a spider without its web, which will never be its whole self again until all its dignities and emoluments are restored.

The sight of his new house going up made Cowperwood feel of more weight in the world, and the possession of his suddenly achieved connection with the city treasurer was as though a wide door had been thrown open to the Elysian fields of opportunity. He rode about the city those days behind a team of spirited bays, whose glossy hides and metaled harness bespoke the watchful care of hostler and coachman. Ellsworth was building an attractive stable in the little side street back of the houses, for the joint use of both families. He told Mrs. Cowperwood that he intended to buy her a victoria—as the low, open, four-wheeled coach was then known—as soon as they were well settled in their new home, and that they were to go out more. There was some talk about the value of entertaining—that he would have to reach out socially for certain individuals who were not now known to him. Together with Anna, his sister, and his two brothers, Joseph and Edward, they could use the two houses jointly. There was no reason why Anna should not make a splendid match. Joe and Ed might marry well, since they were not destined to set the world on fire in commerce. At least it would not hurt them to try.

“Don’t you think you will like that?” he asked his wife, referring to his plans for entertaining.

She smiled wanly. “I suppose so,” she said.


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