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Theodore Dreiser >> The Financier (page 36)


"Albert," he had said, smilingly, "I tell you positively, there's nothing in it. You're not responsible for delivering that check to me. I'll tell you what you do, now. Go and consult my lawyer Steger. It won't cost you a cent, and he'll tell you exactly what to do. Now go on back and don't worry any more about it. I am sorry this move of mine has caused you so much trouble, but it's a hundred to one you couldn't have kept your place with a new city treasurer, anyhow, and if I see any place where you can possibly fit in later, I'll let you know."

Another thing that made Cowperwood pause and consider at this time was a letter from Aileen, detailing a conversation which had taken place at the Butler dinner table one evening when Butler, the elder, was not at home. She related how her brother Owen in effect had stated that they-the politicians-her father, Mollenhauer, and Simpson, were going to "get him yet" (meaning Cowperwood), for some criminal financial manipulation of something-she could not explain what-a check or something. Aileen was frantic with worry. Could they mean the penitentiary, she asked in her letter? Her dear lover! Her beloved Frank! Could anything like this really happen to him?

His brow clouded, and he set his teeth with rage when he read her letter. He would have to do something about this-see Mollenhauer or Simpson, or both, and make some offer to the city. He could not promise them money for the present-only notes-but they might take them. Surely they could not be intending to make a scapegoat of him over such a trivial and uncertain matter as this check transaction! When there was the five hundred thousand advanced by Stener, to say nothing of all the past shady transactions of former city treasurers! How rotten! How political, but how real and dangerous.

But Simpson was out of the city for a period of ten days, and Mollenhauer, having in mind the suggestion made by Butler in regard to utilizing Cowperwood's misdeed for the benefit of the party, had already moved as they had planned. The letters were ready and waiting. Indeed, since the conference, the smaller politicians, taking their cue from the overlords, had been industriously spreading the story of the sixty-thousand-dollar check, and insisting that the burden of guilt for the treasury defalcation, if any, lay on the banker. The moment Mollenhauer laid eyes on Cowperwood he realized, however, that he had a powerful personality to deal with. Cowperwood gave no evidence of fright. He merely stated, in his bland way, that he had been in the habit of borrowing money from the city treasury at a low rate of interest, and that this panic had involved him so that he could not possibly return it at present.

"I have heard rumors, Mr. Mollenhauer," he said, "to the effect that some charge is to be brought against me as a partner with Mr. Stener in this matter; but I am hoping that the city will not do that, and I thought I might enlist your influence to prevent it. My affairs are not in a bad way at all, if I had a little time to arrange matters. I am making all of my creditors an offer of fifty cents on the dollar now, and giving notes at one, two, and three years; but in this matter of the city treasury loans, if I could come to terms, I would be glad to make it a hundred cents-only I would want a little more time. Stocks are bound to recover, as you know, and, barring my losses at this time, I will be all right. I realize that the matter has gone pretty far already. The newspapers are likely to start talking at any time, unless they are stopped by those who can control them." (He looked at Mollenhauer in a complimentary way.) "But if I could be kept out of the general proceedings as much as possible, my standing would not be injured, and I would have a better chance of getting on my feet. It would be better for the city, for then I could certainly pay it what I owe it." He smiled his most winsome and engaging smile. And Mollenhauer seeing him for the first time, was not unimpressed. Indeed he looked at this young financial David with an interested eye. If he could have seen a way to accept this proposition of Cowperwood's, so that the money offered would have been eventually payable to him, and if Cowperwood had had any reasonable prospect of getting on his feet soon, he would have considered carefully what he had to say. For then Cowperwood could have assigned his recovered property to him. As it was, there was small likelihood of this situation ever being straightened out. The Citizens' Municipal Reform Association, from all he could hear, was already on the move-investigating, or about to, and once they had set their hands to this, would unquestionably follow it closely to the end.

"The trouble with this situation, Mr. Cowperwood," he said, affably, "is that it has gone so far that it is practically out of my hands. I really have very little to do with it. I don't suppose, though, really, it is this matter of the five-hundred-thousand-dollar loan that is worrying you so much, as it is this other matter of the sixty-thousand-dollar check you received the other day. Mr. Stener insists that you secured that illegally, and he is very much wrought up about it. The mayor and the other city officials know of it now, and they may force some action. I don't know."

Mollenhauer was obviously not frank in his attitude-a little bit evasive in his sly reference to his official tool, the mayor; and Cowperwood saw it. It irritated him greatly, but he was tactful enough to be quite suave and respectful.

"I did get a check for sixty thousand dollars, that's true," he replied, with apparent frankness, "the day before I assigned. It was for certificates I had purchased, however, on Mr. Stener's order, and was due me. I needed the money, and asked for it. I don't see that there is anything illegal in that."

"Not if the transaction was completed in all its details," replied Mollenhauer, blandly. "As I understand it, the certificates were bought for the sinking-fund, and they are not there. How do you explain that?"

"An oversight, merely," replied Cowperwood, innocently, and quite as blandly as Mollenhauer. "They would have been there if I had not been compelled to assign so unexpectedly. It was not possible for me to attend to everything in person. It has not been our custom to deposit them at once. Mr. Stener will tell you that, if you ask him."

"You don't say," replied Mollenhauer. "He did not give me that impression. However, they are not there, and I believe that that makes some difference legally. I have no interest in the matter one way or the other, more than that of any other good Republican. I don't see exactly what I can do for you. What did you think I could do?"

"I don't believe you can do anything for me, Mr. Mollenhauer," replied Cowperwood, a little tartly, "unless you are willing to deal quite frankly with me. I am not a beginner in politics in Philadelphia. I know something about the powers in command. I thought that you could stop any plan to prosecute me in this matter, and give me time to get on my feet again. I am not any more criminally responsible for that sixty thousand dollars than I am for the five hundred thousand dollars that I had as loan before it-not as much so. I did not create this panic. I did not set Chicago on fire. Mr. Stener and his friends have been reaping some profit out of dealing with me. I certainly was entitled to make some effort to save myself after all these years of service, and I can't understand why I should not receive some courtesy at the hands of the present city administration, after I have been so useful to it. I certainly have kept city loan at par; and as for Mr. Stener's money, he has never wanted for his interest on that, and more than his interest."

"Quite so," replied Mollenhauer, looking Cowperwood in the eye steadily and estimating the force and accuracy of the man at their real value. "I understand exactly how it has all come about, Mr. Cowperwood. No doubt Mr. Stener owes you a debt of gratitude, as does the remainder of the city administration. I'm not saying what the city administration ought or ought not do. All I know is that you find yourself wittingly or unwittingly in a dangerous situation, and that public sentiment in some quarters is already very strong against you. I personally have no feeling one way or the other, and if it were not for the situation itself, which looks to be out of hand, would not be opposed to assisting you in any reasonable way. But how? The Republican party is in a very bad position, so far as this election is concerned. In a way, however innocently, you have helped to put it there, Mr, Cowperwood. Mr. Butler, for some reason to which I am not a party, seems deeply and personally incensed. And Mr. Butler is a great power here-" (Cowperwood began to wonder whether by any chance Butler had indicated the nature of his social offense against himself, but he could not bring himself to believe that. It was not probable.) "I sympathize with you greatly, Mr. Cowperwood, but what I suggest is that you first See Mr. Butler and Mr. Simpson. If they agree to any program of aid, I will not be opposed to joining. But apart from that I do not know exactly what I can do. I am only one of those who have a slight say in the affairs of Philadelphia."

At this point, Mollenhauer rather expected Cowperwood to make an offer of his own holdings, but he did not. Instead he said, "I'm very much obliged to you, Mr. Mollenhauer, for the courtesy of this interview. I believe you would help me if you could. I shall just have to fight it out the best way I can. Good day."

And he bowed himself out. He saw clearly how hopeless was his quest.

In the meanwhile, finding that the rumors were growing in volume and that no one appeared to be willing to take steps to straighten the matter out, Mr. Skelton C. Wheat, President of the Citizens' Municipal Reform Association, was, at last and that by no means against his will, compelled to call together the committee of ten estimable Philadelphians of which he was chairman, in a local committee-hall on Market Street, and lay the matter of the Cowperwood failure before it.

"It strikes me, gentlemen," he announced, "that this is an occasion when this organization can render a signal service to the city and the people of Philadelphia, and prove the significance and the merit of the title originally selected for it, by making such a thoroughgoing investigation as will bring to light all the facts in this case, and then by standing vigorously behind them insist that such nefarious practices as we are informed were indulged in in this case shall cease. I know it may prove to be a difficult task. The Republican party and its local and State interests are certain to be against us. Its leaders are unquestionably most anxious to avoid comment and to have their ticket go through undisturbed, and they will not contemplate with any equanimity our opening activity in this matter; but if we persevere, great good will surely come of it. There is too much dishonesty in public life as it is. There is a standard of right in these matters which cannot permanently be ignored, and which must eventually be fulfilled. I leave this matter to your courteous consideration."

Mr. Wheat sat down, and the body before him immediately took the matter which he proposed under advisement. It was decided to appoint a subcommittee "to investigate" (to quote the statement eventually given to the public) "the peculiar rumors now affecting one of the most important and distinguished offices of our municipal government," and to report at the next meeting, which was set for the following evening at nine o'clock. The meeting adjourned, and the following night at nine reassembled, four individuals of very shrewd financial judgment having meantime been about the task assigned them. They drew up a very elaborate statement, not wholly in accordance with the facts, but as nearly so as could be ascertained in so short a space of time.

"It appears read the report, after a preamble which explained why the committee had been appointed that it has been the custom of city treasurers for years, when loans have been authorized

by councils, to place them in the hands of some favorite broker

for sale, the broker accounting to the treasurer for the moneys

received by such sales at short periods, generally the first of

each month. In the present case Frank A. Cowperwood has been

acting as such broker for the city treasurer. But even this

vicious and unbusiness-like system appears not to have been

adhered to in the case of Mr. Cowperwood. The accident of the

Chicago fire, the consequent depression of stock values, and the

subsequent failure of Mr. Frank A. Cowperwood have so involved

matters temporarily that the committee has not been able to

ascertain with accuracy that regular accounts have been rendered;

but from the manner in which Mr. Cowperwood has had possession

of bonds (city loan) for hypothecation, etc., it would appear

that he has been held to no responsibility in these matters, and

that there have always been under his control several hundred

thousand dollars of cash or securities belonging to the city,

which he has manipulated for various purposes; but the details

of the results of these transactions are not easily available.

"Some of the operations consisted of hypothecation of large

amounts of these loans before the certificates were issued, the

lender seeing that the order for the hypothecated securities

was duly made to him on the books of the treasurer. Such

methods appear to have been occurring for a long time, and it

being incredible that the city treasurer could be unaware of

the nature of the business, there is indication of a complicity

between him and Mr. Cowperwood to benefit by the use of the city

credit, in violation of the law.

"Furthermore, at the very time these hypothecations were being

made, and the city paying interest upon such loans, the money

representing them was in the hands of the treasurer's broker

and bearing no interest to the city. The payment of municipal

warrants was postponed, and they were being purchased at a

discount in large amounts by Mr. Cowperwood with the very money

that should have been in the city treasury. The bona fide

holders of the orders for certificates of loans are now unable

to obtain them, and thus the city's credit is injured to a

greater extent than the present defalcation, which amounts to

over five hundred thousand dollars. An accountant is now at

work on the treasurer's books, and a few days should make clear

the whole modus operandi. It is hoped that the publicity thus

obtained will break up such vicious practices."

There was appended to this report a quotation from the law governing the abuse of a public trust; and the committee went on to say that, unless some taxpayer chose to initiate proceedings for the prosecution of those concerned, the committee itself would be called upon to do so, although such action hardly came within the object for which it was formed.

This report was immediately given to the papers. Though some sort of a public announcement had been anticipated by Cowperwood and the politicians, this was, nevertheless, a severe blow. Stener was beside himself with fear. He broke into a cold sweat when he saw the announcement which was conservatively headed, "Meeting of the Municipal Reform Association." All of the papers were so closely identified with the political and financial powers of the city that they did not dare to come out openly and say what they thought. The chief facts had already been in the hands of the various editors and publishers for a week and more, but word had gone around from Mollenhauer, Simpson, and Butler to use the soft pedal for the present. It was not good for Philadelphia, for local commerce, etc., to make a row. The fair name of the city would be smirched. It was the old story.

Title: The Financier
Author: Theodore Dreiser
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