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Theodore Dreiser >> The Financier (page 60)


The day had now become cloudy, lowery, and it looked as if there might be snow. Eddie Zanders, who had been given all the papers in the case, announced that there was no need to return to the county jail. In consequence the five of them-Zanders, Steger, Cowperwood, his father, and Edward-got into a street-car which ran to within a few blocks of the prison. Within half an hour they were at the gates of the Eastern Penitentiary.

Chapter LIII
The Eastern District Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, standing at Fairmount Avenue and Twenty-first Street in Philadelphia, where Cowperwood was now to serve his sentence of four years and three months, was a large, gray-stone structure, solemn and momentous in its mien, not at all unlike the palace of Sforzas at Milan, although not so distinguished. It stretched its gray length for several blocks along four different streets, and looked as lonely and forbidding as a prison should. The wall which inclosed its great area extending over ten acres and gave it so much of its solemn dignity was thirty-five feet high and some seven feet thick. The prison proper, which was not visible from the outside, consisted of seven arms or corridors, ranged octopus-like around a central room or court, and occupying in their sprawling length about two-thirds of the yard inclosed within the walls, so that there was but little space for the charm of lawn or sward. The corridors, forty-two feet wide from outer wall to outer wall, were one hundred and eighty feet in length, and in four instances two stories high, and extended in their long reach in every direction. There were no windows in the corridors, only narrow slits of skylights, three and one-half feet long by perhaps eight inches wide, let in the roof; and the ground-floor cells were accompanied in some instances by a small yard ten by sixteen-the same size as the cells proper-which was surrounded by a high brick wall in every instance. The cells and floors and roofs were made of stone, and the corridors, which were only ten feet wide between the cells, and in the case of the single-story portion only fifteen feet high, were paved with stone. If you stood in the central room, or rotunda, and looked down the long stretches which departed from you in every direction, you had a sense of narrowness and confinement not compatible with their length. The iron doors, with their outer accompaniment of solid wooden ones, the latter used at times to shut the prisoner from all sight and sound, were grim and unpleasing to behold. The halls were light enough, being whitewashed frequently and set with the narrow skylights, which were closed with frosted glass in winter; but they were, as are all such matter-of-fact arrangements for incarceration, bare-wearisome to look upon. Life enough there was in all conscience, seeing that there were four hundred prisoners here at that time, and that nearly every cell was occupied; but it was a life of which no one individual was essentially aware as a spectacle. He was of it; but he was not. Some of the prisoners, after long service, were used as "trusties" or "runners," as they were locally called; but not many. There was a bakery, a machine-shop, a carpenter-shop, a store-room, a flour-mill, and a series of gardens, or truck patches; but the manipulation of these did not require the services of a large number.

The prison proper dated from 1822, and it had grown, wing by wing, until its present considerable size had been reached. Its population consisted of individuals of all degrees of intelligence and crime, from murderers to minor practitioners of larceny. It had what was known as the "Pennsylvania System" of regulation for its inmates, which was nothing more nor less than solitary confinement for all concerned-a life of absolute silence and separate labor in separate cells.

Barring his comparatively recent experience in the county jail, which after all was far from typical, Cowperwood had never been in a prison in his life. Once, when a boy, in one of his perambulations through several of the surrounding towns, he had passed a village "lock-up," as the town prisons were then called-a small, square, gray building with long iron-barred windows, and he had seen, at one of these rather depressing apertures on the second floor, a none too prepossessing drunkard or town ne'er-do-well who looked down on him with bleary eyes, unkempt hair, and a sodden, waxy, pallid face, and called-for it was summer and the jail window was open:

"Hey, sonny, get me a plug of tobacco, will you?"

Cowperwood, who had looked up, shocked and disturbed by the man's disheveled appearance, had called back, quite without stopping to think:

"Naw, I can't."

"Look out you don't get locked up yourself sometime, you little runt," the man had replied, savagely, only half recovered from his debauch of the day before.

He had not thought of this particular scene in years, but now suddenly it came back to him. Here he was on his way to be locked up in this dull, somber prison, and it was snowing, and he was being cut out of human affairs as much as it was possible for him to be cut out.

No friends were permitted to accompany him beyond the outer gate– not even Steger for the time being, though he might visit him later in the day. This was an inviolable rule. Zanders being known to the gate-keeper, and bearing his commitment paper, was admitted at once. The others turned solemnly away. They bade a gloomy if affectionate farewell to Cowperwood, who, on his part, attempted to give it all an air of inconsequence-as, in part and even here, it had for him.

"Well, good-by for the present," he said, shaking hands. "I'll be all right and I'll get out soon. Wait and see. Tell Lillian not to worry."

He stepped inside, and the gate clanked solemnly behind him. Zanders led the way through a dark, somber hall, wide and high-ceiled, to a farther gate, where a second gateman, trifling with a large key, unlocked a barred door at his bidding. Once inside the prison yard, Zanders turned to the left into a small office, presenting his prisoner before a small, chest-high desk, where stood a prison officer in uniform of blue. The latter, the receiving overseer of the prison-a thin, practical, executive-looking person with narrow gray eyes and light hair, took the paper which the sheriff's deputy handed him and read it. This was his authority for receiving Cowperwood. In his turn he handed Zanders a slip, showing that he had so received the prisoner; and then Zanders left, receiving gratefully the tip which Cowperwood pressed in his hand.

"Well, good-by, Mr. Cowperwood," he said, with a peculiar twist of his detective-like head. "I'm sorry. I hope you won't find it so bad here."

He wanted to impress the receiving overseer with his familiarity with this distinguished prisoner, and Cowperwood, true to his policy of make-believe, shook hands with him cordially.

"I'm much obliged to you for your courtesy, Mr. Zanders," he said, then turned to his new master with the air of a man who is determined to make a good impression. He was now in the hands of petty officials, he knew, who could modify or increase his comfort at will. He wanted to impress this man with his utter willingness to comply and obey-his sense of respect for his authority-without in any way demeaning himself. He was depressed but efficient, even here in the clutch of that eventual machine of the law, the State penitentiary, which he had been struggling so hard to evade.

The receiving overseer, Roger Kendall, though thin and clerical, was a rather capable man, as prison officials go-shrewd, not particularly well educated, not over-intelligent naturally, not over-industrious, but sufficiently energetic to hold his position. He knew something about convicts-considerable-for he had been dealing with them for nearly twenty-six years. His attitude toward them was cold, cynical, critical.

He did not permit any of them to come into personal contact with him, but he saw to it that underlings in his presence carried out the requirements of the law.

When Cowperwood entered, dressed in his very good clothing-a dark gray-blue twill suit of pure wool, a light, well-made gray overcoat, a black derby hat of the latest shape, his shoes new and of good leather, his tie of the best silk, heavy and conservatively colored, his hair and mustache showing the attention of an intelligent barber, and his hands well manicured-the receiving overseer saw at once that he was in the presence of some one of superior intelligence and force, such a man as the fortune of his trade rarely brought into his net.

Cowperwood stood in the middle of the room without apparently looking at any one or anything, though he saw all. "Convict number 3633," Kendall called to a clerk, handing him at the same time a yellow slip of paper on which was written Cowperwood's full name and his record number, counting from the beginning of the penitentiary itself.

The underling, a convict, took it and entered it in a book, reserving the slip at the same time for the penitentiary "runner" or "trusty," who would eventually take Cowperwood to the "manners" gallery.

"You will have to take off your clothes and take a bath," said Kendall to Cowperwood, eyeing him curiously. "I don't suppose you need one, but it's the rule."

"Thank you," replied Cowperwood, pleased that his personality was counting for something even here. "Whatever the rules are, I want to obey."

When he started to take off his coat, however, Kendall put up his hand delayingly and tapped a bell. There now issued from an adjoining room an assistant, a prison servitor, a weird-looking specimen of the genus "trusty." He was a small, dark, lopsided individual, one leg being slightly shorter, and therefore one shoulder lower, than the other. He was hollow-chested, squint-eyed, and rather shambling, but spry enough withal. He was dressed in a thin, poorly made, baggy suit of striped jeans, the prison stripes of the place, showing a soft roll-collar shirt underneath, and wearing a large, wide-striped cap, peculiarly offensive in its size and shape to Cowperwood. He could not help thinking how uncanny the man's squint eyes looked under its straight outstanding visor. The trusty had a silly, sycophantic manner of raising one hand in salute. He was a professional "second-story man," "up" for ten years, but by dint of good behavior he had attained to the honor of working about this office without the degrading hood customary for prisoners to wear over the cap. For this he was properly grateful. He now considered his superior with nervous dog-like eyes, and looked at Cowperwood with a certain cunning appreciation of his lot and a show of initial mistrust.

One prisoner is as good as another to the average convict; as a matter of fact, it is their only consolation in their degradation that all who come here are no better than they. The world may have misused them; but they misuse their confreres in their thoughts. The "holier than thou" attitude, intentional or otherwise, is quite the last and most deadly offense within prison walls. This particular "trusty" could no more understand Cowperwood than could a fly the motions of a fly-wheel; but with the cocky superiority of the underling of the world he did not hesitate to think that he could. A crook was a crook to him-Cowperwood no less than the shabbiest pickpocket. His one feeling was that he would like to demean him, to pull him down to his own level.

"You will have to take everything you have out of your pockets," Kendall now informed Cowperwood. Ordinarily he would have said, "Search the prisoner."

Cowperwood stepped forward and laid out a purse with twenty-five dollars in it, a pen-knife, a lead-pencil, a small note-book, and a little ivory elephant which Aileen had given him once, "for luck," and which he treasured solely because she gave it to him. Kendall looked at the latter curiously. "Now you can go on," he said to the "trusty," referring to the undressing and bathing process which was to follow.

"This way," said the latter, addressing Cowperwood, and preceding him into an adjoining room, where three closets held three old-fashioned, iron-bodied, wooden-top bath-tubs, with their attendant shelves for rough crash towels, yellow soap, and the like, and hooks for clothes.

"Get in there," said the trusty, whose name was Thomas Kuby, pointing to one of the tubs.

Cowperwood realized that this was the beginning of petty official supervision; but he deemed it wise to appear friendly even here.

"I see," he said. "I will."

"That's right," replied the attendant, somewhat placated. "What did you bring?"

Cowperwood looked at him quizzically. He did not understand. The prison attendant realized that this man did not know the lingo of the place. "What did you bring?" he repeated. "How many years did you get?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Cowperwood, comprehendingly. "I understand. Four and three months."

He decided to humor the man. It would probably be better so.

"What for?" inquired Kuby, familiarly.

Cowperwood's blood chilled slightly. "Larceny," he said.

"Yuh got off easy," commented Kuby. "I'm up for ten. A rube judge did that to me."

Kuby had never heard of Cowperwood's crime. He would not have understood its subtleties if he had. Cowperwood did not want to talk to this man; he did not know how. He wished he would go away; but that was not likely. He wanted to be put in his cell and let alone.

"That's too bad," he answered; and the convict realized clearly that this man was really not one of them, or he would not have said anything like that. Kuby went to the two hydrants opening into the bath-tub and turned them on. Cowperwood had been undressing the while, and now stood naked, but not ashamed, in front of this eighth-rate intelligence.

"Don't forget to wash your head, too," said Kuby, and went away.

Cowperwood stood there while the water ran, meditating on his fate. It was strange how life had dealt with him of late-so severely. Unlike most men in his position, he was not suffering from a consciousness of evil. He did not think he was evil. As he saw it, he was merely unfortunate. To think that he should be actually in this great, silent penitentiary, a convict, waiting here beside this cheap iron bathtub, not very sweet or hygienic to contemplate, with this crackbrained criminal to watch over him!

He stepped into the tub and washed himself briskly with the biting yellow soap, drying himself on one of the rough, only partially bleached towels. He looked for his underwear, but there was none. At this point the attendant looked in again. "Out here," he said, inconsiderately.

Cowperwood followed, naked. He was led through the receiving overseer's office into a room, where were scales, implements of measurement, a record-book, etc. The attendant who stood guard at the door now came over, and the clerk who sat in a corner automatically took down a record-blank. Kendall surveyed Cowperwood's decidedly graceful figure, already inclining to a slight thickening around the waist, and approved of it as superior to that of most who came here. His skin, as he particularly noted, was especially white.

"Step on the scale," said the attendant, brusquely.

Title: The Financier
Author: Theodore Dreiser
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