Theodore Dreiser >> The Financier (page 65)

When Aileen arrived she asked for Mr. Bonhag, and was permitted to go to the central rotunda, where he was sent for. When he came she murmured: "I wish to see Mr. Cowperwood, if you please"; and he exclaimed, "Oh, yes, just come with me." As he came across the rotunda floor from his corridor he was struck by the evident youth of Aileen, even though he could not see her face. This now was something in accordance with what he had expected of Cowperwood. A man who could steal five hundred thousand dollars and set a whole city by the ears must have wonderful adventures of all kinds, and Aileen looked like a true adventure. He led her to the little room where he kept his desk and detained visitors, and then bustled down to Cowperwood's cell, where the financier was working on one of his chairs and scratching on the door with his key, called: "There's a young lady here to see you. Do you want to let her come inside?"

"Thank you, yes," replied Cowperwood; and Bonhag hurried away, unintentionally forgetting, in his boorish incivility, to unlock the cell door, so that he had to open it in Aileen's presence. The long corridor, with its thick doors, mathematically spaced gratings and gray-stone pavement, caused Aileen to feel faint at heart. A prison, iron cells! And he was in one of them. It chilled her usually courageous spirit. What a terrible place for her Frank to be! What a horrible thing to have put him here! Judges, juries, courts, laws, jails seemed like so many foaming ogres ranged about the world, glaring down upon her and her love-affair. The clank of the key in the lock, and the heavy outward swinging of the door, completed her sense of the untoward. And then she saw Cowperwood.

Because of the price he was to receive, Bonhag, after admitting her, strolled discreetly away. Aileen looked at Cowperwood from behind her veil, afraid to speak until she was sure Bonhag had gone. And Cowperwood, who was retaining his self-possession by an effort, signaled her but with difficulty after a moment or two. "It's all right," he said. "He's gone away." She lifted her veil, removed her cloak, and took in, without seeming to, the stuffy, narrow thickness of the room, his wretched shoes, the cheap, misshapen suit, the iron door behind him leading out into the little yard attached to his cell. Against such a background, with his partially caned chairs visible at the end of the bed, he seemed unnatural, weird even. Her Frank! And in this condition. She trembled and it was useless for her to try to speak. She could only put her arms around him and stroke his head, murmuring: "My poor boy-my darling. Is this what they have done to you? Oh, my poor darling." She held his head while Cowperwood, anxious to retain his composure, winced and trembled, too. Her love was so full-so genuine. It was so soothing at the same time that it was unmanning, as now he could see, making of him a child again. And for the first time in his life, some inexplicable trick of chemistry that chemistry of the body, of blind forces which so readily supersedes reason at times-he lost his self-control. The depth of Aileen's feelings, the cooing sound of her voice, the velvety tenderness of her hands, that beauty that had drawn him all the time-more radiant here perhaps within these hard walls, and in the face of his physical misery, than it had ever been before completely unmanned him. He did not understand how it could; he tried to defy the moods, but he could not. When she held his head close and caressed it, of a sudden, in spite of himself, his breast felt thick and stuffy, and his throat hurt him. He felt, for him, an astonishingly strange feeling, a desire to cry, which he did his best to overcome; it shocked him so. There then combined and conspired to defeat him a strange, rich picture of the great world he had so recently lost, of the lovely, magnificent world which he hoped some day to regain. He felt more poignantly at this moment than ever he had before the degradation of the clog shoes, the cotton shirt, the striped suit, the reputation of a convict, permanent and not to be laid aside. He drew himself quickly away from her, turned his back, clinched his hands, drew his muscles taut; but it was too late. He was crying, and he could not stop.

"Oh, damn it!" he exclaimed, half angrily, half self-commiseratingly, in combined rage and shame. "Why should I cry? What the devil's the matter with me, anyhow?"

Aileen saw it. She fairly flung herself in front of him, seized his head with one hand, his shabby waist with the other, and held him tight in a grip that he could not have readily released.

"Oh, honey, honey, honey!" she exclaimed, pityingly feverishly. "I love you, I adore you. They could cut my body into bits if it would do you any good. To think that they should make you cry! Oh, my sweet, my sweet, my darling boy!"

She pulled his still shaking body tighter, and with her free hand caressed his head. She kissed his eyes, his hair, his cheeks. He pulled himself loose again after a moment, exclaiming, "What the devil's got into me?" but she drew him back.

"Never mind, honey darling, don't you be ashamed to cry. Cry here on my shoulder. Cry here with me. My baby-my honey pet!"

He quieted down after a few moments, cautioning her against Bonhag, and regaining his former composure, which he was so ashamed to have lost.

"You're a great girl, pet," he said, with a tender and yet apologetic smile. "You're all right-all that I need-a great help to me; but don't worry any longer about me, dear. I'm all right. It isn't as bad as you think. How are you?"

Aileen on her part was not to be soothed so easily. His many woes, including his wretched position here, outraged her sense of justice and decency. To think her fine, wonderful Frank should be compelled to come to this-to cry. She stroked his head, tenderly, while wild, deadly, unreasoning opposition to life and chance and untoward opposition surged in her brain. Her father-damn him! Her family pooh! What did she care? Her Frank-her Frank. How little all else mattered where he was concerned. Never, never, never would she desert him-never-come what might. And now she clung to him in silence while she fought in her brain an awful battle with life and law and fate and circumstance. Law-nonsense! People they were brutes, devils, enemies, hounds! She was delighted, eager, crazy to make a sacrifice of herself. She would go anywhere for or with her Frank now. She would do anything for him. Her family was nothing-life nothing, nothing, nothing. She would do anything he wished, nothing more, nothing less; anything she could do to save him, to make his life happier, but nothing for any one else.

Chapter LVI
The days passed. Once the understanding with Bonhag was reached, Cowperwood's wife, mother and sister were allowed to appear on occasions. His wife and the children were now settled in the little home for which he was paying, and his financial obligations to her were satisfied by Wingate, who paid her one hundred and twenty five dollars a month for him. He realized that he owed her more, but he was sailing rather close to the wind financially, these days. The final collapse of his old interests had come in March, when he had been legally declared a bankrupt, and all his properties forfeited to satisfy the claims against him. The city's claim of five hundred thousand dollars would have eaten up more than could have been realized at the time, had not a pro rata payment of thirty cents on the dollar been declared. Even then the city never received its due, for by some hocus-pocus it was declared to have forfeited its rights. Its claims had not been made at the proper time in the proper way. This left larger portions of real money for the others.

Fortunately by now Cowperwood had begun to see that by a little experimenting his business relations with Wingate were likely to prove profitable. The broker had made it clear that he intended to be perfectly straight with him. He had employed Cowperwood's two brothers, at very moderate salaries-one to take care of the books and look after the office, and the other to act on 'change with him, for their seats in that organization had never been sold. And also, by considerable effort, he had succeeded in securing Cowperwood, Sr., a place as a clerk in a bank. For the latter, since the day of his resignation from the Third National had been in a deep, sad quandary as to what further to do with his life. His son's disgrace! The horror of his trial and incarceration. Since the day of Frank's indictment and more so, since his sentence and commitment to the Eastern Penitentiary, he was as one who walked in a dream. That trial! That charge against Frank! His own son, a convict in stripes-and after he and Frank had walked so proudly in the front rank of the successful and respected here. Like so many others in his hour of distress, he had taken to reading the Bible, looking into its pages for something of that mind consolation that always, from youth up, although rather casually in these latter years, he had imagined was to be found there. The Psalms, Isaiah, the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes. And for the most part, because of the fraying nature of his present ills, not finding it.

But day after day secreting himself in his room-a little hall-bedroom office in his newest home, where to his wife, he pretended that he had some commercial matters wherewith he was still concerned and once inside, the door locked, sitting and brooding on all that had befallen him-his losses; his good name. Or, after months of this, and because of the new position secured for him by Wingate a bookkeeping job in one of the outlying banks-slipping away early in the morning, and returning late at night, his mind a gloomy epitome of all that had been or yet might be.

To see him bustling off from his new but very much reduced home at half after seven in the morning in order to reach the small bank, which was some distance away and not accessible by street-car line, was one of those pathetic sights which the fortunes of trade so frequently offer. He carried his lunch in a small box because it was inconvenient to return home in the time allotted for this purpose, and because his new salary did not permit the extravagance of a purchased one. It was his one ambition now to eke out a respectable but unseen existence until he should die, which he hoped would not be long. He was a pathetic figure with his thin legs and body, his gray hair, and his snow-white side-whiskers. He was very lean and angular, and, when confronted by a difficult problem, a little uncertain or vague in his mind. An old habit which had grown on him in the years of his prosperity of putting his hand to his mouth and of opening his eyes in an assumption of surprise, which had no basis in fact, now grew upon him. He really degenerated, although he did not know it, into a mere automaton. Life strews its shores with such interesting and pathetic wrecks.

One of the things that caused Cowperwood no little thought at this time, and especially in view of his present extreme indifference to her, was how he would bring up this matter of his indifference to his wife and his desire to end their relationship. Yet apart from the brutality of the plain truth, he saw no way. As he could plainly see, she was now persisting in her pretense of devotion, uncolored, apparently, by any suspicion of what had happened. Yet since his trial and conviction, she had been hearing from one source and another that he was still intimate with Aileen, and it was only her thought of his concurrent woes, and the fact that he might possibly be spared to a successful financial life, that now deterred her from speaking. He was shut up in a cell, she said to herself, and she was really very sorry for him, but she did not love him as she once had. He was really too deserving of reproach for his general unseemly conduct, and no doubt this was what was intended, as well as being enforced, by the Governing Power of the world.

One can imagine how much such an attitude as this would appeal to Cowperwood, once he had detected it. By a dozen little signs, in spite of the fact that she brought him delicacies, and commiserated on his fate, he could see that she felt not only sad, but reproachful, and if there was one thing that Cowperwood objected to at all times it was the moral as well as the funereal air. Contrasted with the cheerful combative hopefulness and enthusiasm of Aileen, the wearied uncertainty of Mrs. Cowperwood was, to say the least, a little tame. Aileen, after her first burst of rage over his fate, which really did not develop any tears on her part, was apparently convinced that he would get out and be very successful again. She talked success and his future all the time because she believed in it. Instinctively she seemed to realize that prison walls could not make a prison for him. Indeed, on the first day she left she handed Bonhag ten dollars, and after thanking him in her attractive voice-without showing her face, however-for his obvious kindness to her, bespoke his further favor for Cowperwood-"a very great man," as she described him, which sealed that ambitious materialist's fate completely. There was nothing the overseer would not do for the young lady in the dark cloak. She might have stayed in Cowperwood's cell for a week if the visiting-hours of the penitentiary had not made it impossible.

The day that Cowperwood decided to discuss with his wife the weariness of his present married state and his desire to be free of it was some four months after he had entered the prison. By that time he had become inured to his convict life. The silence of his cell and the menial tasks he was compelled to perform, which had at first been so distressing, banal, maddening, in their pointless iteration, had now become merely commonplace-dull, but not painful. Furthermore he had learned many of the little resources of the solitary convict, such as that of using his lamp to warm up some delicacy which he had saved from a previous meal or from some basket which had been sent him by his wife or Aileen. He had partially gotten rid of the sickening odor of his cell by persuading Bonhag to bring him small packages of lime; which he used with great freedom. Also he succeeded in defeating some of the more venturesome rats with traps; and with Bonhag's permission, after his cell door had been properly locked at night, and sealed with the outer wooden door, he would take his chair, if it were not too cold, out into the little back yard of his cell and look at the sky, where, when the nights were clear, the stars were to be seen. He had never taken any interest in astronomy as a scientific study, but now the Pleiades, the belt of Orion, the Big Dipper and the North Star, to which one of its lines pointed, caught his attention, almost his fancy. He wondered why the stars of the belt of Orion came to assume the peculiar mathematical relation to each other which they held, as far as distance and arrangement were concerned, and whether that could possibly have any intellectual significance. The nebulous conglomeration of the suns in Pleiades suggested a soundless depth of space, and he thought of the earth floating like a little ball in immeasurable reaches of ether. His own life appeared very trivial in view of these things, and he found himself asking whether it was all really of any significance or importance. He shook these moods off with ease, however, for the man was possessed of a sense of grandeur, largely in relation to himself and his affairs; and his temperament was essentially material and vital. Something kept telling him that whatever his present state he must yet grow to be a significant personage, one whose fame would be heralded the world over-who must try, try, try. It was not given ail men to see far or to do brilliantly; but to him it was given, and he must be what he was cut out to be. There was no more escaping the greatness that was inherent in him than there was for so many others the littleness that was in them.

Title: The Financier
Author: Theodore Dreiser
Viewed 95076 times


Page generation 0.001 seconds