The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter XXXIX

In the meanwhile the day of Cowperwood’s trial was drawing near. He was under the impression that an attempt was going to be made to convict him whether the facts warranted it or not. He did not see any way out of his dilemma, however, unless it was to abandon everything and leave Philadelphia for good, which was impossible. The only way to guard his future and retain his financial friends was to stand trial as quickly as possible, and trust them to assist him to his feet in the future in case he failed. He discussed the possibilities of an unfair trial with Steger, who did not seem to think that there was so much to that. In the first place, a jury could not easily be suborned by any one. In the next place, most judges were honest, in spite of their political cleavage, and would go no further than party bias would lead them in their rulings and opinions, which was, in the main, not so far. The particular judge who was to sit in this case, one Wilbur Payderson, of the Court of Quarter Sessions, was a strict party nominee, and as such beholden to Mollenhauer, Simpson, and Butler; but, in so far as Steger had ever heard, he was an honest man.

“What I can’t understand,” said Steger, “is why these fellows should be so anxious to punish you, unless it is for the effect on the State at large. The election’s over. I understand there’s a movement on now to get Stener out in case he is convicted, which he will be. They have to try him. He won’t go up for more than a year, or two or three, and if he does he’ll be pardoned out in half the time or less. It would be the same in your case, if you were convicted. They couldn’t keep you in and let him out. But it will never get that far—take my word for it. We’ll win before a jury, or we’ll reverse the judgment of conviction before the State Supreme Court, certain. Those five judges up there are not going to sustain any such poppycock idea as this.”

Steger actually believed what he said, and Cowperwood was pleased. Thus far the young lawyer had done excellently well in all of his cases. Still, he did not like the idea of being hunted down by Butler. It was a serious matter, and one of which Steger was totally unaware. Cowperwood could never quite forget that in listening to his lawyer’s optimistic assurances.

The actual beginning of the trial found almost all of the inhabitants of this city of six hundred thousand “keyed up.” None of the women of Cowperwood’s family were coming into court. He had insisted that there should be no family demonstration for the newspapers to comment upon. His father was coming, for he might be needed as a witness. Aileen had written him the afternoon before saying she had returned from West Chester and wishing him luck. She was so anxious to know what was to become of him that she could not stay away any longer and had returned—not to go to the courtroom, for he did not want her to do that, but to be as near as possible when his fate was decided, adversely or otherwise. She wanted to run and congratulate him if he won, or to console with him if he lost. She felt that her return would be likely to precipitate a collision with her father, but she could not help that.

The position of Mrs. Cowperwood was most anomalous. She had to go through the formality of seeming affectionate and tender, even when she knew that Frank did not want her to be. He felt instinctively now that she knew of Aileen. He was merely awaiting the proper hour in which to spread the whole matter before her. She put her arms around him at the door on the fateful morning, in the somewhat formal manner into which they had dropped these later years, and for a moment, even though she was keenly aware of his difficulties, she could not kiss him. He did not want to kiss her, but he did not show it. She did kiss him, though, and added: “Oh, I do hope things come out all right.”

“You needn’t worry about that, I think, Lillian,” he replied, buoyantly. “I’ll be all right.”

He ran down the steps and walked out on Girard Avenue to his former car line, where he boarded a car. He was thinking of Aileen and how keenly she was feeling for him, and what a mockery his married life now was, and whether he would face a sensible jury, and so on and so forth. If he didn’t—if he didn’t—this day was crucial!

He stepped off the car at Third and Market and hurried to his office. Steger was already there. “Well, Harper,” observed Cowperwood, courageously, “today’s the day.”

The Court of Quarter Sessions, Part I, where this trial was to take place, was held in famous Independence Hall, at Sixth and Chestnut Streets, which was at this time, as it had been for all of a century before, the center of local executive and judicial life. It was a low two-story building of red brick, with a white wooden central tower of old Dutch and English derivation, compounded of the square, the circle, and the octagon. The total structure consisted of a central portion and two T-shaped wings lying to the right and left, whose small, oval-topped old-fashioned windows and doors were set with those many-paned sashes so much admired by those who love what is known as Colonial architecture. Here, and in an addition known as State House Row (since torn down), which extended from the rear of the building toward Walnut Street, were located the offices of the mayor, the chief of police, the city treasurer, the chambers of council, and all the other important and executive offices of the city, together with the four branches of Quarter Sessions, which sat to hear the growing docket of criminal cases. The mammoth city hall which was subsequently completed at Broad and Market Streets was then building.

An attempt had been made to improve the reasonably large courtrooms by putting in them raised platforms of dark walnut surmounted by large, dark walnut desks, behind which the judges sat; but the attempt was not very successful. The desks, jury-boxes, and railings generally were made too large, and so the general effect was one of disproportion. A cream-colored wall had been thought the appropriate thing to go with black walnut furniture, but time and dust had made the combination dreary. There were no pictures or ornaments of any kind, save the stalky, over-elaborated gas-brackets which stood on his honor’s desk, and the single swinging chandelier suspended from the center of the ceiling. Fat bailiffs and court officers, concerned only in holding their workless jobs, did not add anything to the spirit of the scene. Two of them in the particular court in which this trial was held contended hourly as to which should hand the judge a glass of water. One preceded his honor like a fat, stuffy, dusty majordomo to and from his dressing-room. His business was to call loudly, when the latter entered, “His honor the Court, hats off. Everybody please rise,” while a second bailiff, standing at the left of his honor when he was seated, and between the jury-box and the witness-chair, recited in an absolutely unintelligible way that beautiful and dignified statement of collective society’s obligation to the constituent units, which begins, “Hear ye! hear ye! hear ye!” and ends, “All those of you having just cause for complaint draw near and ye shall be heard.” However, you would have thought it was of no import here. Custom and indifference had allowed it to sink to a mumble. A third bailiff guarded the door of the jury-room; and in addition to these there were present a court clerk—small, pale, candle-waxy, with colorless milk-and-water eyes, and thin, pork-fat-colored hair and beard, who looked for all the world like an Americanized and decidedly decrepit Chinese mandarin—and a court stenographer.

Judge Wilbur Payderson, a lean herring of a man, who had sat in this case originally as the examining judge when Cowperwood had been indicted by the grand jury, and who had bound him over for trial at this term, was a peculiarly interesting type of judge, as judges go. He was so meager and thin-blooded that he was arresting for those qualities alone. Technically, he was learned in the law; actually, so far as life was concerned, absolutely unconscious of that subtle chemistry of things that transcends all written law and makes for the spirit and, beyond that, the inutility of all law, as all wise judges know. You could have looked at his lean, pedantic body, his frizzled gray hair, his fishy, blue-gray eyes, without any depth of speculation in them, and his nicely modeled but unimportant face, and told him that he was without imagination; but he would not have believed you—would have fined you for contempt of court. By the careful garnering of all his little opportunities, the furbishing up of every meager advantage; by listening slavishly to the voice of party, and following as nearly as he could the behests of intrenched property, he had reached his present state. It was not very far along, at that. His salary was only six thousand dollars a year. His little fame did not extend beyond the meager realm of local lawyers and judges. But the sight of his name quoted daily as being about his duties, or rendering such and such a decision, was a great satisfaction to him. He thought it made him a significant figure in the world. “Behold I am not as other men,” he often thought, and this comforted him. He was very much flattered when a prominent case came to his calendar; and as he sat enthroned before the various litigants and lawyers he felt, as a rule, very significant indeed. Now and then some subtlety of life would confuse his really limited intellect; but in all such cases there was the letter of the law. He could hunt in the reports to find out what really thinking men had decided. Besides, lawyers everywhere are so subtle. They put the rules of law, favorable or unfavorable, under the judge’s thumb and nose. “Your honor, in the thirty-second volume of the Revised Reports of Massachusetts, page so and so, line so and so, in Arundel versus Bannerman, you will find, etc.” How often have you heard that in a court of law? The reasoning that is left to do in most cases is not much. And the sanctity of the law is raised like a great banner by which the pride of the incumbent is strengthened.

Payderson, as Steger had indicated, could scarcely be pointed to as an unjust judge. He was a party judge—Republican in principle, or rather belief, beholden to the dominant party councils for his personal continuance in office, and as such willing and anxious to do whatever he considered that he reasonably could do to further the party welfare and the private interests of his masters. Most people never trouble to look into the mechanics of the thing they call their conscience too closely. Where they do, too often they lack the skill to disentangle the tangled threads of ethics and morals. Whatever the opinion of the time is, whatever the weight of great interests dictates, that they conscientiously believe. Some one has since invented the phrase “a corporation-minded judge.” There are many such.

Payderson was one. He fairly revered property and power. To him Butler and Mollenhauer and Simpson were great men—reasonably sure to be right always because they were so powerful. This matter of Cowperwood’s and Stener’s defalcation he had long heard of. He knew by associating with one political light and another just what the situation was. The party, as the leaders saw it, had been put in a very bad position by Cowperwood’s subtlety. He had led Stener astray—more than an ordinary city treasurer should have been led astray—and, although Stener was primarily guilty as the original mover in the scheme, Cowperwood was more so for having led him imaginatively to such disastrous lengths. Besides, the party needed a scapegoat—that was enough for Payderson, in the first place. Of course, after the election had been won, and it appeared that the party had not suffered so much, he did not understand quite why it was that Cowperwood was still so carefully included in the Proceedings; but he had faith to believe that the leaders had some just grounds for not letting him off. From one source and another he learned that Butler had some private grudge against Cowperwood. What it was no one seemed to know exactly. The general impression was that Cowperwood had led Butler into some unwholesome financial transactions. Anyhow, it was generally understood that for the good of the party, and in order to teach a wholesome lesson to dangerous subordinates—it had been decided to allow these several indictments to take their course. Cowperwood was to be punished quite as severely as Stener for the moral effect on the community. Stener was to be sentenced the maximum sentence for his crime in order that the party and the courts should appear properly righteous. Beyond that he was to be left to the mercy of the governor, who could ease things up for him if he chose, and if the leaders wished. In the silly mind of the general public the various judges of Quarter Sessions, like girls incarcerated in boarding-schools, were supposed in their serene aloofness from life not to know what was going on in the subterranean realm of politics; but they knew well enough, and, knowing particularly well from whence came their continued position and authority, they were duly grateful.


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