The Titan

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter VIII: Now This Is Fighting

When Cowperwood, after failing in his overtures to the three city gas companies, confided to Addison his plan of organizing rival companies in the suburbs, the banker glared at him appreciatively. "You're a smart one!" he finally exclaimed. "You'll do! I back you to win!" He went on to advise Cowperwood that he would need the assistance of some of the strong men on the various village councils. "They're all as crooked as eels' teeth," he went on. "But there are one or two that are more crooked than others and safer—bell-wethers. Have you got your lawyer?"

"I haven't picked one yet, but I will. I'm looking around for the right man now.

"Well, of course, I needn't tell you how important that is. There is one man, old General Van Sickle, who has had considerable training in these matters. He's fairly reliable."

The entrance of Gen. Judson P. Van Sickle threw at the very outset a suggestive light on the whole situation. The old soldier, over fifty, had been a general of division during the Civil War, and had got his real start in life by filing false titles to property in southern Illinois, and then bringing suits to substantiate his fraudulent claims before friendly associates. He was now a prosperous go-between, requiring heavy retainers, and yet not over-prosperous. There was only one kind of business that came to the General—this kind; and one instinctively compared him to that decoy sheep at the stock-yards that had been trained to go forth into nervous, frightened flocks of its fellow-sheep, balking at being driven into the slaughtering-pens, and lead them peacefully into the shambles, knowing enough always to make his own way quietly to the rear during the onward progress and thus escape. A dusty old lawyer, this, with Heaven knows what welter of altered wills, broken promises, suborned juries, influenced judges, bribed councilmen and legislators, double-intentioned agreements and contracts, and a whole world of shifty legal calculations and false pretenses floating around in his brain. Among the politicians, judges, and lawyers generally, by reason of past useful services, he was supposed to have some powerful connections. He liked to be called into any case largely because it meant something to do and kept him from being bored. When compelled to keep an appointment in winter, he would slip on an old greatcoat of gray twill that he had worn until it was shabby, then, taking down a soft felt hat, twisted and pulled out of shape by use, he would pull it low over his dull gray eyes and amble forth. In summer his clothes looked as crinkled as though he had slept in them for weeks. He smoked. In cast of countenance he was not wholly unlike General Grant, with a short gray beard and mustache which always seemed more or less unkempt and hair that hung down over his forehead in a gray mass. The poor General! He was neither very happy nor very unhappy—a doubting Thomas without faith or hope in humanity and without any particular affection for anybody.

"I'll tell you how it is with these small councils, Mr. Cowperwood," observed Van Sickle, sagely, after the preliminaries of the first interview had been dispensed with.

"They're worse than the city council almost, and that's about as bad as it can be. You can't do anything without money where these little fellows are concerned. I don't like to be too hard on men, but these fellows—" He shook his head.

"I understand," commented Cowperwood. "They're not very pleasing, even after you make all allowances."

"Most of them," went on the General, "won't stay put when you think you have them. They sell out. They're just as apt as not to run to this North Side Gas Company and tell them all about the whole thing before you get well under way. Then you have to pay them more money, rival bills will be introduced, and all that." The old General pulled a long face. "Still, there are one or two of them that are all right," he added, "if you can once get them interested—Mr. Duniway and Mr. Gerecht."

"I'm not so much concerned with how it has to be done, General," suggested Cowperwood, amiably, "but I want to be sure that it will be done quickly and quietly. I don't want to be bothered with details. Can it be done without too much publicity, and about what do you think it is going to cost?"

"Well, that's pretty hard to say until I look into the matter," said the General, thoughtfully. "It might cost only four and it might cost all of forty thousand dollars—even more. I can't tell. I'd like to take a little time and look into it." The old gentleman was wondering how much Cowperwood was prepared to spend.

"Well, we won't bother about that now. I'm willing to be as liberal as necessary. I've sent for Mr. Sippens, the president of the Lake View Gas and Fuel Company, and he'll be here in a little while. You will want to work with him as closely as you can." The energetic Sippens came after a few moments, and he and Van Sickle, after being instructed to be mutually helpful and to keep Cowperwood's name out of all matters relating to this work, departed together. They were an odd pair—the dusty old General phlegmatic, disillusioned, useful, but not inclined to feel so; and the smart, chipper Sippens, determined to wreak a kind of poetic vengeance on his old-time enemy, the South Side Gas Company, via this seemingly remote Northside conspiracy. In ten minutes they were hand in glove, the General describing to Sippens the penurious and unscrupulous brand of Councilman Duniway's politics and the friendly but expensive character of Jacob Gerecht. Such is life.

In the organization of the Hyde Park company Cowperwood, because he never cared to put all his eggs in one basket, decided to secure a second lawyer and a second dummy president, although he proposed to keep De Soto Sippens as general practical adviser for all three or four companies. He was thinking this matter over when there appeared on the scene a very much younger man than the old General, one Kent Barrows McKibben, the only son of ex-Judge Marshall Scammon McKibben, of the State Supreme Court. Kent McKibben was thirty-three years old, tall, athletic, and, after a fashion, handsome. He was not at all vague intellectually—that is, in the matter of the conduct of his business—but dandified and at times remote. He had an office in one of the best blocks in Dearborn Street, which he reached in a reserved, speculative mood every morning at nine, unless something important called him down-town earlier. It so happened that he had drawn up the deeds and agreements for the real-estate company that sold Cowperwood his lots at Thirty-seventh Street and Michigan Avenue, and when they were ready he journeyed to the latter's office to ask if there were any additional details which Cowperwood might want to have taken into consideration. When he was ushered in, Cowperwood turned to him his keen, analytical eyes and saw at once a personality he liked. McKibben was just remote and artistic enough to suit him. He liked his clothes, his agnostic unreadableness, his social air. McKibben, on his part, caught the significance of the superior financial atmosphere at once. He noted Cowperwood's light-brown suit picked out with strands of red, his maroon tie, and small cameo cuff-links. His desk, glass-covered, looked clean and official. The woodwork of the rooms was all cherry, hand-rubbed and oiled, the pictures interesting steel-engravings of American life, appropriately framed. The typewriter—at that time just introduced—was in evidence, and the stock-ticker—also new—was ticking volubly the prices current. The secretary who waited on Cowperwood was a young Polish girl named Antoinette Nowak, reserved, seemingly astute, dark, and very attractive.

"What sort of business is it you handle, Mr. McKibben?" asked Cowperwood, quite casually, in the course of the conversation. And after listening to McKibben's explanation he added, idly: "You might come and see me some time next week. It is just possible that I may have something in your line."

In another man McKibben would have resented this remote suggestion of future aid. Now, instead, he was intensely pleased. The man before him gripped his imagination. His remote intellectuality relaxed. When he came again and Cowperwood indicated the nature of the work he might wish to have done McKibben rose to the bait like a fish to a fly.

"I wish you would let me undertake that, Mr. Cowperwood," he said, quite eagerly. "It's something I've never done, but I'm satisfied I can do it. I live out in Hyde Park and know most of the councilmen. I can bring considerable influence to bear for you."

Cowperwood smiled pleasantly.

So a second company, officered by dummies of McKibben's selection, was organized. De Soto Sippens, without old General Van Sickle's knowledge, was taken in as practical adviser. An application for a franchise was drawn up, and Kent Barrows McKibben began silent, polite work on the South Side, coming into the confidence, by degrees, of the various councilmen.

There was still a third lawyer, Burton Stimson, the youngest but assuredly not the least able of the three, a pale, dark-haired Romeoish youth with burning eyes, whom Cowperwood had encountered doing some little work for Laughlin, and who was engaged to work on the West Side with old Laughlin as ostensible organizer and the sprightly De Soto Sippens as practical adviser. Stimson was no mooning Romeo, however, but an eager, incisive soul, born very poor, eager to advance himself. Cowperwood detected that pliability of intellect which, while it might spell disaster to some, spelled success for him. He wanted the intellectual servants. He was willing to pay them handsomely, to keep them busy, to treat them with almost princely courtesy, but he must have the utmost loyalty. Stimson, while maintaining his calm and reserve, could have kissed the arch-episcopal hand. Such is the subtlety of contact.

Behold then at once on the North Side, the South Side, the West Side—dark goings to and fro and walkings up and down in the earth. In Lake View old General Van Sickle and De Soto Sippens, conferring with shrewd Councilman Duniway, druggist, and with Jacob Gerecht, ward boss and wholesale butcher, both of whom were agreeable but exacting, holding pleasant back-room and drug-store confabs with almost tabulated details of rewards and benefits. In Hyde Park, Mr. Kent Barrows McKibben, smug and well dressed, a Chesterfield among lawyers, and with him one J. J. Bergdoll, a noble hireling, long-haired and dusty, ostensibly president of the Hyde Park Gas and Fuel Company, conferring with Councilman Alfred B. Davis, manufacturer of willow and rattan ware, and Mr. Patrick Gilgan, saloon-keeper, arranging a prospective distribution of shares, offering certain cash consideration, lots, favors, and the like. Observe also in the village of Douglas and West Park on the West Side, just over the city line, the angular, humorous Peter Laughlin and Burton Stimson arranging a similar deal or deals.

The enemy, the city gas companies, being divided into three factions, were in no way prepared for what was now coming. When the news finally leaked out that applications for franchises had been made to the several corporate village bodies each old company suspected the other of invasion, treachery, robbery. Pettifogging lawyers were sent, one by each company, to the village council in each particular territory involved, but no one of the companies had as yet the slightest idea who was back of it all or of the general plan of operations. Before any one of them could reasonably protest, before it could decide that it was willing to pay a very great deal to have the suburb adjacent to its particular territory left free, before it could organize a legal fight, councilmanic ordinances were introduced giving the applying company what it sought; and after a single reading in each case and one open hearing, as the law compelled, they were almost unanimously passed. There were loud cries of dismay from minor suburban papers which had almost been forgotten in the arrangement of rewards. The large city newspapers cared little at first, seeing these were outlying districts; they merely made the comment that the villages were beginning well, following in the steps of the city council in its distinguished career of crime.

Cowperwood smiled as he saw in the morning papers the announcement of the passage of each ordinance granting him a franchise. He listened with comfort thereafter on many a day to accounts by Laughlin, Sippens, McKibben, and Van Sickle of overtures made to buy them out, or to take over their franchises. He worked on plans with Sippens looking to the actual introduction of gas-plants. There were bond issues now to float, stock to be marketed, contracts for supplies to be awarded, actual reservoirs and tanks to be built, and pipes to be laid. A pumped-up public opposition had to be smoothed over. In all this De Soto Sippens proved a trump. With Van Sickle, McKibben, and Stimson as his advisers in different sections of the city he would present tabloid propositions to Cowperwood, to which the latter had merely to bow his head in assent or say no. Then De Soto would buy, build, and excavate. Cowperwood was so pleased that he was determined to keep De Soto with him permanently. De Soto was pleased to think that he was being given a chance to pay up old scores and to do large things; he was really grateful.

"We're not through with those sharpers," he declared to Cowperwood, triumphantly, one day. "They'll fight us with suits. They may join hands later. They blew up my gas-plant. They may blow up ours."

"Let them blow," said Cowperwood. "We can blow, too, and sue also. I like lawsuits. We'll tie them up so that they'll beg for quarter." His eyes twinkled cheerfully.

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