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Theodore Dreiser >> The Financier (page 29)


The Irish are a philosophic as well as a practical race. Their first and strongest impulse is to make the best of a bad situation to put a better face on evil than it normally wears. On first reading these lines the intelligence they conveyed sent a peculiar chill over Butler's sturdy frame. His jaw instinctively closed, and his gray eyes narrowed. Could this be true? If it were not, would the author of the letter say so practically, "If you don't believe it, watch the house at 931 North Tenth Street"? Wasn't that in itself proof positive-the hard, matter-of-fact realism of it? And this was the man who had come to him the night before seeking aid-whom he had done so much to assist. There forced itself into his naturally slow-moving but rather accurate mind a sense of the distinction and charm of his daughter-a considerably sharper picture than he had ever had before, and at the same time a keener understanding of the personality of Frank Algernon Cowperwood. How was it he had failed to detect the real subtlety of this man? How was it he had never seen any sign of it, if there had been anything between Cowperwood and Aileen?

Parents are frequently inclined, because of a time-flattered sense of security, to take their children for granted. Nothing ever has happened, so nothing ever will happen. They see their children every day, and through the eyes of affection; and despite their natural charm and their own strong parental love, the children are apt to become not only commonplaces, but ineffably secure against evil. Mary is naturally a good girl-a little wild, but what harm can befall her? John is a straight-forward, steady-going boy-how could he get into trouble? The astonishment of most parents at the sudden accidental revelation of evil in connection with any of their children is almost invariably pathetic. "My John! My Mary! Impossible!" But it is possible. Very possible. Decidedly likely. Some, through lack of experience or understanding, or both, grow hard and bitter on the instant. They feel themselves astonishingly abased in the face of notable tenderness and sacrifice. Others collapse before the grave manifestation of the insecurity and uncertainty of life-the mystic chemistry of our being. Still others, taught roughly by life, or endowed with understanding or intuition, or both, see in this the latest manifestation of that incomprehensible chemistry which we call life and personality, and, knowing that it is quite vain to hope to gainsay it, save by greater subtlety, put the best face they can upon the matter and call a truce until they can think. We all know that life is unsolvable we who think. The remainder imagine a vain thing, and are full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

So Edward Butler, being a man of much wit and hard, grim experience, stood there on his doorstep holding in his big, rough hand his thin slip of cheap paper which contained such a terrific indictment of his daughter. There came to him now a picture of her as she was when she was a very little girl-she was his first baby girl-and how keenly he had felt about her all these years. She had been a beautiful child-her red-gold hair had been pillowed on his breast many a time, and his hard, rough fingers had stroked her soft cheeks, lo, these thousands of times. Aileen, his lovely, dashing daughter of twenty-three! He was lost in dark, strange, unhappy speculations, without any present ability to think or say or do the right thing. He did not know what the right thing was, he finally confessed to himself. Aileen! Aileen! His Aileen! If her mother knew this it would break her heart. She mustn't! She mustn't! And yet mustn't she?

The heart of a father! The world wanders into many strange by-paths of affection. The love of a mother for her children is dominant, leonine, selfish, and unselfish. It is concentric. The love of a husband for his wife, or of a lover for his sweetheart, is a sweet bond of agreement and exchange trade in a lovely contest. The love of a father for his son or daughter, where it is love at all, is a broad, generous, sad, contemplative giving without thought of return, a hail and farewell to a troubled traveler whom he would do much to guard, a balanced judgment of weakness and strength, with pity for failure and pride in achievement. It is a lovely, generous, philosophic blossom which rarely asks too much, and seeks only to give wisely and plentifully. "That my boy may succeed! That my daughter may be happy!" Who has not heard and dwelt upon these twin fervors of fatherly wisdom and tenderness?

As Butler drove downtown his huge, slow-moving, in some respects chaotic mind turned over as rapidly as he could all of the possibilities in connection with this unexpected, sad, and disturbing revelation. Why had Cowperwood not been satisfied with his wife? Why should he enter into his (Butler's) home, of all places, to establish a clandestine relationship of this character? Was Aileen in any way to blame? She was not without mental resources of her own. She must have known what she was doing. She was a good Catholic, or, at least, had been raised so. All these years she had been going regularly to confession and communion. True, of late Butler had noticed that she did not care so much about going to church, would sometimes make excuses and stay at home on Sundays; but she had gone, as a rule. And now, now-his thoughts would come to the end of a blind alley, and then he would start back, as it were, mentally, to the center of things, and begin all over again.

He went up the stairs to his own office slowly. He went in and sat down, and thought and thought. Ten o'clock came, and eleven. His son bothered him with an occasional matter of interest, but, finding him moody, finally abandoned him to his own speculations. It was twelve, and then one, and he was still sitting there thinking, when the presence of Cowperwood was announced.

Cowperwood, on finding Butler not at home, and not encountering Aileen, had hurried up to the office of the Edward Butler Contracting Company, which was also the center of some of Butler's street-railway interests. The floor space controlled by the company was divided into the usual official compartments, with sections for the bookkeepers, the road-managers, the treasurer, and so on. Owen Butler, and his father had small but attractively furnished offices in the rear, where they transacted all the important business of the company.

During this drive, curiously, by reason of one of those strange psychologic intuitions which so often precede a human difficulty of one sort or another, he had been thinking of Aileen. He was thinking of the peculiarity of his relationship with her, and of the fact that now he was running to her father for assistance. As he mounted the stairs he had a peculiar sense of the untoward; but he could not, in his view of life, give it countenance. One glance at Butler showed him that something had gone amiss. He was not so friendly; his glance was dark, and there was a certain sternness to his countenance which had never previously been manifested there in Cowperwood's memory. He perceived at once that here was something different from a mere intention to refuse him aid and call his loan. What was it? Aileen? It must be that. Somebody had suggested something. They had been seen together. Well, even so, nothing could be proved. Butler would obtain no sign from him. But his loan-that was to be called, surely. And as for an additional loan, he could see now, before a word had been said, that that thought was useless.

"I came to see you about that loan of yours, Mr. Butler," he observed, briskly, with an old-time, jaunty air. You could not have told from his manner or his face that he had observed anything out of the ordinary.

Butler, who was alone in the room-Owen having gone into an adjoining room-merely stared at him from under his shaggy brows.

"I'll have to have that money," he said, brusquely, darkly.

An old-time Irish rage suddenly welled up in his bosom as he contemplated this jaunty, sophisticated undoer of his daughter's virtue. He fairly glared at him as he thought of him and her.

"I judged from the way things were going this morning that you might want it," Cowperwood replied, quietly, without sign of tremor. "The bottom's out, I see."

"The bottom's out, and it'll not be put back soon, I'm thinkin'. I'll have to have what's belongin' to me to-day. I haven't any time to spare."

"Very well," replied Cowperwood, who saw clearly how treacherous the situation was. The old man was in a dour mood. His presence was an irritation to him, for some reason-a deadly provocation. Cowperwood felt clearly that it must be Aileen, that he must know or suspect something.

He must pretend business hurry and end this. "I'm sorry. I thought I might get an extension; but that's all right. I can get the money, though. I'll send it right over."

He turned and walked quickly to the door.

Butler got up. He had thought to manage this differently.

He had thought to denounce or even assault this man. He was about to make some insinuating remark which would compel an answer, some direct charge; but Cowperwood was out and away as jaunty as ever.

The old man was flustered, enraged, disappointed. He opened the small office door which led into the adjoining room, and called, "Owen!"

"Yes, father."

"Send over to Cowperwood's office and get that money."

"You decided to call it, eh?"

"I have."

Owen was puzzled by the old man's angry mood. He wondered what it all meant, but thought he and Cowperwood might have had a few words. He went out to his desk to write a note and call a clerk. Butler went to the window and stared out. He was angry, bitter, brutal in his vein.

"The dirty dog!" he suddenly exclaimed to himself, in a low voice. "I'll take every dollar he's got before I'm through with him. I'll send him to jail, I will. I'll break him, I will. Wait!"

He clinched his big fists and his teeth.

"I'll fix him. I'll show him. The dog! The damned scoundrel!"

Never in his life before had he been so bitter, so cruel, so relentless in his mood.

He walked his office floor thinking what he could do. Question Aileen-that was what he would do. If her face, or her lips, told him that his suspicion was true, he would deal with Cowperwood later. This city treasurer business, now. It was not a crime in so far as Cowperwood was concerned; but it might be made to be.

So now, telling the clerk to say to Owen that he had gone down the street for a few moments, he boarded a street-car and rode out to his home, where he found his elder daughter just getting ready to go out. She wore a purple-velvet street dress edged with narrow, flat gilt braid, and a striking gold-and-purple turban. She had on dainty new boots of bronze kid and long gloves of lavender suede. In her ears was one of her latest affectations, a pair of long jet earrings. The old Irishman realized on this occasion, when he saw her, perhaps more clearly than he ever had in his life, that he had grown a bird of rare plumage.

"Where are you going, daughter?" he asked, with a rather unsuccessful attempt to conceal his fear, distress, and smoldering anger.

"To the library," she said easily, and yet with a sudden realization that all was not right with her father. His face was too heavy and gray. He looked tired and gloomy.

"Come up to my office a minute," he said. "I want to see you before you go."

Aileen heard this with a strange feeling of curiosity and wonder. It was not customary for her father to want to see her in his office just when she was going out; and his manner indicated, in this instance, that the exceptional procedure portended a strange revelation of some kind. Aileen, like every other person who offends against a rigid convention of the time, was conscious of and sensitive to the possible disastrous results which would follow exposure. She had often thought about what her family would think if they knew what she was doing; she had never been able to satisfy herself in her mind as to what they would do. Her father was a very vigorous man. But she had never known him to be cruel or cold in his attitude toward her or any other member of the family, and especially not toward her. Always he seemed too fond of her to be completely alienated by anything that might happen; yet she could not be sure.

Butler led the way, planting his big feet solemnly on the steps as he went up. Aileen followed with a single glance at herself in the tall pier-mirror which stood in the hall, realizing at once how charming she looked and how uncertain she was feeling about what was to follow. What could her father want? It made the color leave her cheeks for the moment, as she thought what he might want.

Butler strolled into his stuffy room and sat down in the big leather chair, disproportioned to everything else in the chamber, but which, nevertheless, accompanied his desk. Before him, against the light, was the visitor's chair, in which he liked to have those sit whose faces he was anxious to study. When Aileen entered he motioned her to it, which was also ominous to her, and said, "Sit down there."

She took the seat, not knowing what to make of his procedure. On the instant her promise to Cowperwood to deny everything, whatever happened, came back to her. If her father was about to attack her on that score, he would get no satisfaction, she thought. She owed it to Frank. Her pretty face strengthened and hardened on the instant. Her small, white teeth set themselves in two even rows; and her father saw quite plainly that she was consciously bracing herself for an attack of some kind. He feared by this that she was guilty, and he was all the more distressed, ashamed, outraged, made wholly unhappy. He fumbled in the left-hand pocket of his coat and drew forth from among the various papers the fatal communication so cheap in its physical texture. His big fingers fumbled almost tremulously as he fished the letter-sheet out of the small envelope and unfolded it without saying a word. Aileen watched his face and his hands, wondering what it could be that he had here. He handed the paper over, small in his big fist, and said, "Read that."

Aileen took it, and for a second was relieved to be able to lower her eyes to the paper. Her relief vanished in a second, when she realized how in a moment she would have to raise them again and look him in the face.

DEAR SIR-This is to warn you that your daughter

Aileen is running around with a man that she shouldn't,

Frank A. Cowperwood, the banker. If you don't believe

it, watch the house at 931 North Tenth Street. Then you

can see for yourself.

In spite of herself the color fled from her cheeks instantly, only to come back in a hot, defiant wave.

"Why, what a lie!" she said, lifting her eyes to her father's. "To think that any one should write such a thing of me! How dare they! I think it's a shame!"

Title: The Financier
Author: Theodore Dreiser
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