The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XXIII

Then, after several years of this secret relationship, in which the ties of sympathy and understanding grew stronger instead of weaker, came the storm. It burst unexpectedly and out of a clear sky, and bore no relation to the intention or volition of any individual. It was nothing more than a fire, a distant one—the great Chicago fire, October 7th, 1871, which burned that city—its vast commercial section—to the ground, and instantly and incidentally produced a financial panic, vicious though of short duration in various other cities in America. The fire began on Saturday and continued apparently unabated until the following Wednesday. It destroyed the banks, the commercial houses, the shipping conveniences, and vast stretches of property. The heaviest loss fell naturally upon the insurance companies, which instantly, in many cases—the majority—closed their doors. This threw the loss back on the manufacturers and wholesalers in other cities who had had dealings with Chicago as well as the merchants of that city. Again, very grievous losses were borne by the host of eastern capitalists which had for years past partly owned, or held heavy mortgages on, the magnificent buildings for business purposes and residences in which Chicago was already rivaling every city on the continent. Transportation was disturbed, and the keen scent of Wall Street, and Third Street in Philadelphia, and State Street in Boston, instantly perceived in the early reports the gravity of the situation. Nothing could be done on Saturday or Sunday after the exchange closed, for the opening reports came too late. On Monday, however, the facts were pouring in thick and fast; and the owners of railroad securities, government securities, street-car securities, and, indeed, all other forms of stocks and bonds, began to throw them on the market in order to raise cash. The banks naturally were calling their loans, and the result was a stock stampede which equaled the Black Friday of Wall Street of two years before.

Cowperwood and his father were out of town at the time the fire began. They had gone with several friends—bankers—to look at a proposed route of extension of a local steam-railroad, on which a loan was desired. In buggies they had driven over a good portion of the route, and were returning to Philadelphia late Sunday evening when the cries of newsboys hawking an “extra” reached their ears.

“Ho! Extra! Extra! All about the big Chicago fire!”

“Ho! Extra! Extra! Chicago burning down! Extra! Extra!”

The cries were long-drawn-out, ominous, pathetic. In the dusk of the dreary Sunday afternoon, when the city had apparently retired to Sabbath meditation and prayer, with that tinge of the dying year in the foliage and in the air, one caught a sense of something grim and gloomy.

“Hey, boy,” called Cowperwood, listening, seeing a shabbily clothed misfit of a boy with a bundle of papers under his arm turning a corner. “What’s that? Chicago burning!”

He looked at his father and the other men in a significant way as he reached for the paper, and then, glancing at the headlines, realized the worst.



“That looks rather serious,” he said, calmly, to his companions, a cold, commanding force coming into his eyes and voice. To his father he said a little later, “It’s panic, unless the majority of the banks and brokerage firms stand together.”

He was thinking quickly, brilliantly, resourcefully of his own outstanding obligations. His father’s bank was carrying one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of his street-railway securities at sixty, and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of city loan at seventy. His father had “up with him” over forty thousand dollars in cash covering market manipulations in these stocks. The banking house of Drexel & Co. was on his books as a creditor for one hundred thousand, and that loan would be called unless they were especially merciful, which was not likely. Jay Cooke & Co. were his creditors for another one hundred and fifty thousand. They would want their money. At four smaller banks and three brokerage companies he was debtor for sums ranging from fifty thousand dollars down. The city treasurer was involved with him to the extent of nearly five hundred thousand dollars, and exposure of that would create a scandal; the State treasurer for two hundred thousand. There were small accounts, hundreds of them, ranging from one hundred dollars up to five and ten thousand. A panic would mean not only a withdrawal of deposits and a calling of loans, but a heavy depression of securities. How could he realize on his securities?—that was the question—how without selling so many points off that his fortune would be swept away and he would be ruined?

He figured briskly the while he waved adieu to his friends, who hurried away, struck with their own predicament.

“You had better go on out to the house, father, and I’ll send some telegrams.” (The telephone had not yet been invented.) “I’ll be right out and we’ll go into this thing together. It looks like black weather to me. Don’t say anything to any one until after we have had our talk; then we can decide what to do.”

Cowperwood, Sr., was already plucking at his side-whiskers in a confused and troubled way. He was cogitating as to what might happen to him in case his son failed, for he was deeply involved with him. He was a little gray in his complexion now, frightened, for he had already strained many points in his affairs to accommodate his son. If Frank should not be able promptly on the morrow to meet the call which the bank might have to make for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the onus and scandal of the situation would be on him.

On the other hand, his son was meditating on the tangled relation in which he now found himself in connection with the city treasurer and the fact that it was not possible for him to support the market alone. Those who should have been in a position to help him were now as bad off as himself. There were many unfavorable points in the whole situation. Drexel & Co. had been booming railway stocks—loaning heavily on them. Jay Cooke & Co. had been backing Northern Pacific—were practically doing their best to build that immense transcontinental system alone. Naturally, they were long on that and hence in a ticklish position. At the first word they would throw over their surest securities—government bonds, and the like—in order to protect their more speculative holdings. The bears would see the point. They would hammer and hammer, selling short all along the line. But he did not dare to do that. He would be breaking his own back quickly, and what he needed was time. If he could only get time—three days, a week, ten days—this storm would surely blow over.

The thing that was troubling him most was the matter of the half-million invested with him by Stener. A fall election was drawing near. Stener, although he had served two terms, was slated for reelection. A scandal in connection with the city treasury would be a very bad thing. It would end Stener’s career as an official—would very likely send him to the penitentiary. It might wreck the Republican party’s chances to win. It would certainly involve himself as having much to do with it. If that happened, he would have the politicians to reckon with. For, if he were hard pressed, as he would be, and failed, the fact that he had been trying to invade the city street-railway preserves which they held sacred to themselves, with borrowed city money, and that this borrowing was liable to cost them the city election, would all come out. They would not view all that with a kindly eye. It would be useless to say, as he could, that he had borrowed the money at two per cent. (most of it, to save himself, had been covered by a protective clause of that kind), or that he had merely acted as an agent for Stener. That might go down with the unsophisticated of the outer world, but it would never be swallowed by the politicians. They knew better than that.

There was another phase to this situation, however, that encouraged him, and that was his knowledge of how city politics were going in general. It was useless for any politician, however loftly, to take a high and mighty tone in a crisis like this. All of them, great and small, were profiting in one way and another through city privileges. Butler, Mollenhauer, and Simpson, he knew, made money out of contracts—legal enough, though they might be looked upon as rank favoritism—and also out of vast sums of money collected in the shape of taxes—land taxes, water taxes, etc.—which were deposited in the various banks designated by these men and others as legal depositories for city money. The banks supposedly carried the city’s money in their vaults as a favor, without paying interest of any kind, and then reinvested it—for whom? Cowperwood had no complaint to make, for he was being well treated, but these men could scarcely expect to monopolize all the city’s benefits. He did not know either Mollenhauer or Simpson personally—but he knew they as well as Butler had made money out of his own manipulation of city loan. Also, Butler was most friendly to him. It was not unreasonable for him to think, in a crisis like this, that if worst came to worst, he could make a clean breast of it to Butler and receive aid. In case he could not get through secretly with Stener’s help, Cowperwood made up his mind that he would do this.

His first move, he decided, would be to go at once to Stener’s house and demand the loan of an additional three or four hundred thousand dollars. Stener had always been very tractable, and in this instance would see how important it was that his shortage of half a million should not be made public. Then he must get as much more as possible. But where to get it? Presidents of banks and trust companies, large stock jobbers, and the like, would have to be seen. Then there was a loan of one hundred thousand dollars he was carrying for Butler. The old contractor might be induced to leave that. He hurried to his home, secured his runabout, and drove rapidly to Stener’s.

As it turned out, however, much to his distress and confusion, Stener was out of town—down on the Chesapeake with several friends shooting ducks and fishing, and was not expected back for several days. He was in the marshes back of some small town. Cowperwood sent an urgent wire to the nearest point and then, to make assurance doubly sure, to several other points in the same neighborhood, asking him to return immediately. He was not at all sure, however, that Stener would return in time and was greatly nonplussed and uncertain for the moment as to what his next step would be. Aid must be forthcoming from somewhere and at once.

Suddenly a helpful thought occurred to him. Butler and Mollenhauer and Simpson were long on local street-railways. They must combine to support the situation and protect their interests. They could see the big bankers, Drexel & Co. and Cooke & Co., and others and urge them to sustain the market. They could strengthen things generally by organizing a buying ring, and under cover of their support, if they would, he might sell enough to let him out, and even permit him to go short and make something—a whole lot. It was a brilliant thought, worthy of a greater situation, and its only weakness was that it was not absolutely certain of fulfillment.

He decided to go to Butler at once, the only disturbing thought being that he would now be compelled to reveal his own and Stener’s affairs. So reentering his runabout he drove swiftly to the Butler home.

When he arrived there the famous contractor was at dinner. He had not heard the calling of the extras, and of course, did not understand as yet the significance of the fire. The servant’s announcement of Cowperwood brought him smiling to the door.

“Won’t you come in and join us? We’re just havin’ a light supper. Have a cup of coffee or tea, now—do.”

“I can’t,” replied Cowperwood. “Not to-night, I’m in too much of a hurry. I want to see you for just a few moments, and then I’ll be off again. I won’t keep you very long.”

“Why, if that’s the case, I’ll come right out.” And Butler returned to the dining-room to put down his napkin. Aileen, who was also dining, had heard Cowperwood’s voice, and was on the qui vive to see him. She wondered what it was that brought him at this time of night to see her father. She could not leave the table at once, but hoped to before he went. Cowperwood was thinking of her, even in the face of this impending storm, as he was of his wife, and many other things. If his affairs came down in a heap it would go hard with those attached to him. In this first clouding of disaster, he could not tell how things would eventuate. He meditated on this desperately, but he was not panic-stricken. His naturally even-molded face was set in fine, classic lines; his eyes were as hard as chilled steel.

“Well, now,” exclaimed Butler, returning, his countenance manifesting a decidedly comfortable relationship with the world as at present constituted. “What’s up with you to-night? Nawthin’ wrong, I hope. It’s been too fine a day.”

“Nothing very serious, I hope myself,” replied Cowperwood, “But I want to talk with you a few minutes, anyhow. Don’t you think we had better go up to your room?”

“I was just going to say that,” replied Butler—“the cigars are up there.”

They started from the reception-room to the stairs, Butler preceding and as the contractor mounted, Aileen came out from the dining-room in a frou-frou of silk. Her splendid hair was drawn up from the base of the neck and the line of the forehead into some quaint convolutions which constituted a reddish-gold crown. Her complexion was glowing, and her bare arms and shoulders shone white against the dark red of her evening gown. She realized there was something wrong.

“Oh, Mr. Cowperwood, how do you do?” she exclaimed, coming forward and holding out her hand as her father went on upstairs. She was delaying him deliberately in order to have a word with him and this bold acting was for the benefit of the others.

“What’s the trouble, honey?” she whispered, as soon as her father was out of hearing. “You look worried.”

“Nothing much, I hope, sweet,” he said. “Chicago is burning up and there’s going to be trouble to-morrow. I have to talk to your father.”

She had time only for a sympathetic, distressed “Oh,” before he withdrew his hand and followed Butler upstairs. She squeezed his arm, and went through the reception-room to the parlor. She sat down, thinking, for never before had she seen Cowperwood’s face wearing such an expression of stern, disturbed calculation. It was placid, like fine, white wax, and quite as cold; and those deep, vague, inscrutable eyes! So Chicago was burning. What would happen to him? Was he very much involved? He had never told her in detail of his affairs. She would not have understood fully any more than would have Mrs. Cowperwood. But she was worried, nevertheless, because it was her Frank, and because she was bound to him by what to her seemed indissoluble ties.

Literature, outside of the masters, has given us but one idea of the mistress, the subtle, calculating siren who delights to prey on the souls of men. The journalism and the moral pamphleteering of the time seem to foster it with almost partisan zeal. It would seem that a censorship of life had been established by divinity, and the care of its execution given into the hands of the utterly conservative. Yet there is that other form of liaison which has nothing to do with conscious calculation. In the vast majority of cases it is without design or guile. The average woman, controlled by her affections and deeply in love, is no more capable than a child of anything save sacrificial thought—the desire to give; and so long as this state endures, she can only do this. She may change—Hell hath no fury, etc.—but the sacrificial, yielding, solicitous attitude is more often the outstanding characteristic of the mistress; and it is this very attitude in contradistinction to the grasping legality of established matrimony that has caused so many wounds in the defenses of the latter. The temperament of man, either male or female, cannot help falling down before and worshiping this nonseeking, sacrificial note. It approaches vast distinction in life. It appears to be related to that last word in art, that largeness of spirit which is the first characteristic of the great picture, the great building, the great sculpture, the great decoration—namely, a giving, freely and without stint, of itself, of beauty. Hence the significance of this particular mood in Aileen.

All the subtleties of the present combination were troubling Cowperwood as he followed Butler into the room upstairs.

“Sit down, sit down. You won’t take a little somethin’? You never do. I remember now. Well, have a cigar, anyhow. Now, what’s this that’s troublin’ you to-night?”

Voices could be heard faintly in the distance, far off toward the thicker residential sections.

“Extra! Extra! All about the big Chicago fire! Chicago burning down!”

“Just that,” replied Cowperwood, hearkening to them. “Have you heard the news?”

“No. What’s that they’re calling?”

“It’s a big fire out in Chicago.”

“Oh,” replied Butler, still not gathering the significance of it.

“It’s burning down the business section there, Mr. Butler,” went on Cowperwood ominously, “and I fancy it’s going to disturb financial conditions here to-morrow. That is what I have come to see you about. How are your investments? Pretty well drawn in?”

Butler suddenly gathered from Cowperwood’s expression that there was something very wrong. He put up his large hand as he leaned back in his big leather chair, and covered his mouth and chin with it. Over those big knuckles, and bigger nose, thick and cartilaginous, his large, shaggy-eyebrowed eyes gleamed. His gray, bristly hair stood up stiffly in a short, even growth all over his head.

“So that’s it,” he said. “You’re expectin’ trouble to-morrow. How are your own affairs?”

“I’m in pretty good shape, I think, all told, if the money element of this town doesn’t lose its head and go wild. There has to be a lot of common sense exercised to-morrow, or to-night, even. You know we are facing a real panic. Mr. Butler, you may as well know that. It may not last long, but while it does it will be bad. Stocks are going to drop to-morrow ten or fifteen points on the opening. The banks are going to call their loans unless some arrangement can be made to prevent them. No one man can do that. It will have to be a combination of men. You and Mr. Simpson and Mr. Mollenhauer might do it—that is, you could if you could persuade the big banking people to combine to back the market. There is going to be a raid on local street-railways—all of them. Unless they are sustained the bottom is going to drop out. I have always known that you were long on those. I thought you and Mr. Mollenhauer and some of the others might want to act. If you don’t I might as well confess that it is going to go rather hard with me. I am not strong enough to face this thing alone.”

He was meditating on how he should tell the whole truth in regard to Stener.

“Well, now, that’s pretty bad,” said Butler, calmly and meditatively. He was thinking of his own affairs. A panic was not good for him either, but he was not in a desperate state. He could not fail. He might lose some money, but not a vast amount—before he could adjust things. Still he did not care to lose any money.

“How is it you’re so bad off?” he asked, curiously. He was wondering how the fact that the bottom was going to drop out of local street-railways would affect Cowperwood so seriously. “You’re not carryin’ any of them things, are you?” he added.

It was now a question of lying or telling the truth, and Cowperwood was literally afraid to risk lying in this dilemma. If he did not gain Butler’s comprehending support he might fail, and if he failed the truth would come out, anyhow.

“I might as well make a clean breast of this, Mr. Butler,” he said, throwing himself on the old man’s sympathies and looking at him with that brisk assurance which Butler so greatly admired. He felt as proud of Cowperwood at times as he did of his own sons. He felt that he had helped to put him where he was.

“The fact is that I have been buying street-railway stocks, but not for myself exactly. I am going to do something now which I think I ought not to do, but I cannot help myself. If I don’t do it, it will injure you and a lot of people whom I do not wish to injure. I know you are naturally interested in the outcome of the fall election. The truth is I have been carrying a lot of stocks for Mr. Stener and some of his friends. I do not know that all the money has come from the city treasury, but I think that most of it has. I know what that means to Mr. Stener and the Republican party and your interests in case I fail. I don’t think Mr. Stener started this of his own accord in the first place—I think I am as much to blame as anybody—but it grew out of other things. As you know, I handled that matter of city loan for him and then some of his friends wanted me to invest in street-railways for them. I have been doing that ever since. Personally I have borrowed considerable money from Mr. Stener at two per cent. In fact, originally the transactions were covered in that way. Now I don’t want to shift the blame on any one. It comes back to me and I am willing to let it stay there, except that if I fail Mr. Stener will be blamed and that will reflect on the administration. Naturally, I don’t want to fail. There is no excuse for my doing so. Aside from this panic I have never been in a better position in my life. But I cannot weather this storm without assistance, and I want to know if you won’t help me. If I pull through I will give you my word that I will see that the money which has been taken from the treasury is put back there. Mr. Stener is out of town or I would have brought him here with me.”

Cowperwood was lying out of the whole cloth in regard to bringing Stener with him, and he had no intention of putting the money back in the city treasury except by degrees and in such manner as suited his convenience; but what he had said sounded well and created a great seeming of fairness.

“How much money is it Stener has invested with you?” asked Butler. He was a little confused by this curious development. It put Cowperwood and Stener in an odd light.

“About five hundred thousand dollars,” replied Cowperwood.

The old man straightened up. “Is it as much as that?” he said.

“Just about—a little more or a little less; I’m not sure which.”

The old contractor listened solemnly to all Cowperwood had to say on this score, thinking of the effect on the Republican party and his own contracting interests. He liked Cowperwood, but this was a rough thing the latter was telling him—rough, and a great deal to ask. He was a slow-thinking and a slow-moving man, but he did well enough when he did think. He had considerable money invested in Philadelphia street-railway stocks—perhaps as much as eight hundred thousand dollars. Mollenhauer had perhaps as much more. Whether Senator Simpson had much or little he could not tell. Cowperwood had told him in the past that he thought the Senator had a good deal. Most of their holdings, as in the case of Cowperwood’s, were hypothecated at the various banks for loans and these loans invested in other ways. It was not advisable or comfortable to have these loans called, though the condition of no one of the triumvirate was anything like as bad as that of Cowperwood. They could see themselves through without much trouble, though not without probable loss unless they took hurried action to protect themselves.

He would not have thought so much of it if Cowperwood had told him that Stener was involved, say, to the extent of seventy-five or a hundred thousand dollars. That might be adjusted. But five hundred thousand dollars!

“That’s a lot of money,” said Butler, thinking of the amazing audacity of Stener, but failing at the moment to identify it with the astute machinations of Cowperwood. “That’s something to think about. There’s no time to lose if there’s going to be a panic in the morning. How much good will it do ye if we do support the market?”

“A great deal,” returned Cowperwood, “although of course I have to raise money in other ways. I have that one hundred thousand dollars of yours on deposit. Is it likely that you’ll want that right away?”

“It may be,” said Butler.

“It’s just as likely that I’ll need it so badly that I can’t give it up without seriously injuring myself,” added Cowperwood. “That’s just one of a lot of things. If you and Senator Simpson and Mr. Mollenhauer were to get together—you’re the largest holders of street-railway stocks—and were to see Mr. Drexel and Mr. Cooke, you could fix things so that matters would be considerably easier. I will be all right if my loans are not called, and my loans will not be called if the market does not slump too heavily. If it does, all my securities are depreciated, and I can’t hold out.”

Old Butler got up. “This is serious business,” he said. “I wish you’d never gone in with Stener in that way. It don’t look quite right and it can’t be made to. It’s bad, bad business,” he added dourly. “Still, I’ll do what I can. I can’t promise much, but I’ve always liked ye and I’ll not be turning on ye now unless I have to. But I’m sorry—very. And I’m not the only one that has a hand in things in this town.” At the same time he was thinking it was right decent of Cowperwood to forewarn him this way in regard to his own affairs and the city election, even though he was saving his own neck by so doing. He meant to do what he could.

“I don’t suppose you could keep this matter of Stener and the city treasury quiet for a day or two until I see how I come out?” suggested Cowperwood warily.

“I can’t promise that,” replied Butler. “I’ll have to do the best I can. I won’t lave it go any further than I can help—you can depend on that.” He was thinking how the effect of Stener’s crime could be overcome if Cowperwood failed.


He stepped to the door, and, opening it, called down over the banister.

“Yes, father.”

“Have Dan hitch up the light buggy and bring it around to the door. And you get your hat and coat. I want you to go along with me.”

“Yes, father.”

He came back.

“Sure that’s a nice little storm in a teapot, now, isn’t it? Chicago begins to burn, and I have to worry here in Philadelphia. Well, well—” Cowperwood was up now and moving to the door. “And where are you going?”

“Back to the house. I have several people coming there to see me. But I’ll come back here later, if I may.”

“Yes, yes,” replied Butler. “To be sure I’ll be here by midnight, anyhow. Well, good night. I’ll see you later, then, I suppose. I’ll tell you what I find out.”

He went back in his room for something, and Cowperwood descended the stair alone. From the hangings of the reception-room entryway Aileen signaled him to draw near.

“I hope it’s nothing serious, honey?” she sympathized, looking into his solemn eyes.

It was not time for love, and he felt it.

“No,” he said, almost coldly, “I think not.”

“Frank, don’t let this thing make you forget me for long, please. You won’t, will you? I love you so.”

“No, no, I won’t!” he replied earnestly, quickly and yet absently.

“I can’t! Don’t you know I won’t?” He had started to kiss her, but a noise disturbed him. “Sh!”

He walked to the door, and she followed him with eager, sympathetic eyes.

What if anything should happen to her Frank? What if anything could? What would she do? That was what was troubling her. What would, what could she do to help him? He looked so pale—strained.


Return to the The Financier Summary Return to the Theodore Dreiser Library

© 2022