The Financier, by Theodore Dreiser

Chapter VI

The Cowperwood family was by this time established in its new and larger and more tastefully furnished house on North Front Street, facing the river. The house was four stories tall and stood twenty-five feet on the street front, without a yard.

Here the family began to entertain in a small way, and there came to see them, now and then, representatives of the various interests that Henry Cowperwood had encountered in his upward climb to the position of cashier. It was not a very distinguished company, but it included a number of people who were about as successful as himself — heads of small businesses who traded at his bank, dealers in dry-goods, leather, groceries (wholesale), and grain. The children had come to have intimacies of their own. Now and then, because of church connections, Mrs. Cowperwood ventured to have an afternoon tea or reception, at which even Cowperwood attempted the gallant in so far as to stand about in a genially foolish way and greet those whom his wife had invited. And so long as he could maintain his gravity very solemnly and greet people without being required to say much, it was not too painful for him. Singing was indulged in at times, a little dancing on occasion, and there was considerably more “company to dinner,” informally, than there had been previously.

And here it was, during the first year of the new life in this house, that Frank met a certain Mrs. Semple, who interested him greatly. Her husband had a pretentious shoe store on Chestnut Street, near Third, and was planning to open a second one farther out on the same street.

The occasion of the meeting was an evening call on the part of the Semples, Mr. Semple being desirous of talking with Henry Cowperwood concerning a new transportation feature which was then entering the world — namely, street-cars. A tentative line, incorporated by the North Pennsylvania Railway Company, had been put into operation on a mile and a half of tracks extending from Willow Street along Front to Germantown Road, and thence by various streets to what was then known as the Cohocksink Depot; and it was thought that in time this mode of locomotion might drive out the hundreds of omnibuses which now crowded and made impassable the downtown streets. Young Cowperwood had been greatly interested from the start. Railway transportation, as a whole, interested him, anyway, but this particular phase was most fascinating. It was already creating widespread discussion, and he, with others, had gone to see it. A strange but interesting new type of car, fourteen feet long, seven feet wide, and nearly the same height, running on small iron car-wheels, was giving great satisfaction as being quieter and easier-riding than omnibuses; and Alfred Semple was privately considering investing in another proposed line which, if it could secure a franchise from the legislature, was to run on Fifth and Sixth streets.

Cowperwood, Senior, saw a great future for this thing; but he did not see as yet how the capital was to be raised for it. Frank believed that Tighe & Co. should attempt to become the selling agents of this new stock of the Fifth and Sixth Street Company in the event it succeeded in getting a franchise. He understood that a company was already formed, that a large amount of stock was to be issued against the prospective franchise, and that these shares were to be sold at five dollars, as against an ultimate par value of one hundred. He wished he had sufficient money to take a large block of them.

Meanwhile, Lillian Semple caught and held his interest. Just what it was about her that attracted him at this age it would be hard to say, for she was really not suited to him emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. He was not without experience with women or girls, and still held a tentative relationship with Marjorie Stafford; but Lillian Semple, in spite of the fact that she was married and that he could have legitimate interest in her, seemed not wiser and saner, but more worth while. She was twenty-four as opposed to Frank’s nineteen, but still young enough in her thoughts and looks to appear of his own age. She was slightly taller than he — though he was now his full height (five feet ten and one-half inches)— and, despite her height, shapely, artistic in form and feature, and with a certain unconscious placidity of soul, which came more from lack of understanding than from force of character. Her hair was the color of a dried English walnut, rich and plentiful, and her complexion waxen — cream wax —-with lips of faint pink, and eyes that varied from gray to blue and from gray to brown, according to the light in which you saw them. Her hands were thin and shapely, her nose straight, her face artistically narrow. She was not brilliant, not active, but rather peaceful and statuesque without knowing it. Cowperwood was carried away by her appearance. Her beauty measured up to his present sense of the artistic. She was lovely, he thought — gracious, dignified. If he could have his choice of a wife, this was the kind of a girl he would like to have.

As yet, Cowperwood’s judgment of women was temperamental rather than intellectual. Engrossed as he was by his desire for wealth, prestige, dominance, he was confused, if not chastened by considerations relating to position, presentability and the like. None the less, the homely woman meant nothing to him. And the passionate woman meant much. He heard family discussions of this and that sacrificial soul among women, as well as among men — women who toiled and slaved for their husbands or children, or both, who gave way to relatives or friends in crises or crucial moments, because it was right and kind to do so — but somehow these stories did not appeal to him. He preferred to think of people — even women — as honestly, frankly self-interested. He could not have told you why. People seemed foolish, or at the best very unfortunate not to know what to do in all circumstances and how to protect themselves. There was great talk concerning morality, much praise of virtue and decency, and much lifting of hands in righteous horror at people who broke or were even rumored to have broken the Seventh Commandment. He did not take this talk seriously. Already he had broken it secretly many times. Other young men did. Yet again, he was a little sick of the women of the streets and the bagnio. There were too many coarse, evil features in connection with such contacts. For a little while, the false tinsel-glitter of the house of ill repute appealed to him, for there was a certain force to its luxury — rich, as a rule, with red-plush furniture, showy red hangings, some coarse but showily-framed pictures, and, above all, the strong-bodied or sensuously lymphatic women who dwelt there, to (as his mother phrased it) prey on men. The strength of their bodies, the lust of their souls, the fact that they could, with a show of affection or good-nature, receive man after man, astonished and later disgusted him. After all, they were not smart. There was no vivacity of thought there. All that they could do, in the main, he fancied, was this one thing. He pictured to himself the dreariness of the mornings after, the stale dregs of things when only sleep and thought of gain could aid in the least; and more than once, even at his age, he shook his head. He wanted contact which was more intimate, subtle, individual, personal.

So came Lillian Semple, who was nothing more to him than the shadow of an ideal. Yet she cleared up certain of his ideas in regard to women. She was not physically as vigorous or brutal as those other women whom he had encountered in the lupanars, thus far — raw, unashamed contraveners of accepted theories and notions — and for that very reason he liked her. And his thoughts continued to dwell on her, notwithstanding the hectic days which now passed like flashes of light in his new business venture. For this stock exchange world in which he now found himself, primitive as it would seem to-day, was most fascinating to Cowperwood. The room that he went to in Third Street, at Dock, where the brokers or their agents and clerks gathered one hundred and fifty strong, was nothing to speak of artistically — a square chamber sixty by sixty, reaching from the second floor to the roof of a four-story building; but it was striking to him. The windows were high and narrow; a large-faced clock faced the west entrance of the room where you came in from the stairs; a collection of telegraph instruments, with their accompanying desks and chairs, occupied the northeast corner. On the floor, in the early days of the exchange, were rows of chairs where the brokers sat while various lots of stocks were offered to them. Later in the history of the exchange the chairs were removed and at different points posts or floor-signs indicating where certain stocks were traded in were introduced. Around these the men who were interested gathered to do their trading. From a hall on the third floor a door gave entrance to a visitor’s gallery, small and poorly furnished; and on the west wall a large blackboard carried current quotations in stocks as telegraphed from New York and Boston. A wicket-like fence in the center of the room surrounded the desk and chair of the official recorder; and a very small gallery opening from the third floor on the west gave place for the secretary of the board, when he had any special announcement to make. There was a room off the southwest corner, where reports and annual compendiums of chairs were removed and at different signs indicating where certain stocks of various kinds were kept and were available for the use of members.

Young Cowperwood would not have been admitted at all, as either a broker or broker’s agent or assistant, except that Tighe, feeling that he needed him and believing that he would be very useful, bought him a seat on ‘change — charging the two thousand dollars it cost as a debt and then ostensibly taking him into partnership. It was against the rules of the exchange to sham a partnership in this way in order to put a man on the floor, but brokers did it. These men who were known to be minor partners and floor assistants were derisively called “eighth chasers” and “two-dollar brokers,” because they were always seeking small orders and were willing to buy or sell for anybody on their commission, accounting, of course, to their firms for their work. Cowperwood, regardless of his intrinsic merits, was originally counted one of their number, and he was put under the direction of Mr. Arthur Rivers, the regular floor man of Tighe & Company.

Rivers was an exceedingly forceful man of thirty-five, well-dressed, well-formed, with a hard, smooth, evenly chiseled face, which was ornamented by a short, black mustache and fine, black, clearly penciled eyebrows. His hair came to an odd point at the middle of his forehead, where he divided it, and his chin was faintly and attractively cleft. He had a soft voice, a quiet, conservative manner, and both in and out of this brokerage and trading world was controlled by good form. Cowperwood wondered at first why Rivers should work for Tighe — he appeared almost as able — but afterward learned that he was in the company. Tighe was the organizer and general hand-shaker, Rivers the floor and outside man.

It was useless, as Frank soon found, to try to figure out exactly why stocks rose and fell. Some general reasons there were, of course, as he was told by Tighe, but they could not always be depended on.

“Sure, anything can make or break a market”— Tighe explained in his delicate brogue —“from the failure of a bank to the rumor that your second cousin’s grandmother has a cold. It’s a most unusual world, Cowperwood. No man can explain it. I’ve seen breaks in stocks that you could never explain at all — no one could. It wouldn’t be possible to find out why they broke. I’ve seen rises the same way. My God, the rumors of the stock exchange! They beat the devil. If they’re going down in ordinary times some one is unloading, or they’re rigging the market. If they’re going up — God knows times must be good or somebody must be buying — that’s sure. Beyond that — well, ask Rivers to show you the ropes. Don’t you ever lose for me, though. That’s the cardinal sin in this office.” He grinned maliciously, even if kindly, at that.

Cowperwood understood — none better. This subtle world appealed to him. It answered to his temperament.

There were rumors, rumors, rumors — of great railway and street-car undertakings, land developments, government revision of the tariff, war between France and Turkey, famine in Russia or Ireland, and so on. The first Atlantic cable had not been laid as yet, and news of any kind from abroad was slow and meager. Still there were great financial figures in the held, men who, like Cyrus Field, or William H. Vanderbilt, or F. X. Drexel, were doing marvelous things, and their activities and the rumors concerning them counted for much.

Frank soon picked up all of the technicalities of the situation. A “bull,” he learned, was one who bought in anticipation of a higher price to come; and if he was “loaded up” with a “line” of stocks he was said to be “long.” He sold to “realize” his profit, or if his margins were exhausted he was “wiped out.” A “bear” was one who sold stocks which most frequently he did not have, in anticipation of a lower price, at which he could buy and satisfy his previous sales. He was “short” when he had sold what he did not own, and he “covered” when he bought to satisfy his sales and to realize his profits or to protect himself against further loss in case prices advanced instead of declining. He was in a “corner” when he found that he could not buy in order to make good the stock he had borrowed for delivery and the return of which had been demanded. He was then obliged to settle practically at a price fixed by those to whom he and other “shorts” had sold.

He smiled at first at the air of great secrecy and wisdom on the part of the younger men. They were so heartily and foolishly suspicious. The older men, as a rule, were inscrutable. They pretended indifference, uncertainty. They were like certain fish after a certain kind of bait, however. Snap! and the opportunity was gone. Somebody else had picked up what you wanted. All had their little note-books. All had their peculiar squint of eye or position or motion which meant “Done! I take you!” Sometimes they seemed scarcely to confirm their sales or purchases — they knew each other so well — but they did. If the market was for any reason active, the brokers and their agents were apt to be more numerous than if it were dull and the trading indifferent. A gong sounded the call to trading at ten o’clock, and if there was a noticeable rise or decline in a stock or a group of stocks, you were apt to witness quite a spirited scene. Fifty to a hundred men would shout, gesticulate, shove here and there in an apparently aimless marmer; endeavoring to take advantage of the stock offered or called for.

“Five-eighths for five hundred P. and W.,” some one would call — Rivers or Cowperwood, or any other broker.

Five hundred at three-fourths,” would come the reply from some one else, who either had an order to sell the stock at that price or who was willing to sell it short, hoping to pick up enough of the stock at a lower figure later to fill his order and make a little something besides. If the supply of stock at that figure was large Rivers would probably continue to bid five-eighths. If, on the other hand, he noticed an increasing demand, he would probably pay three-fourths for it. If the professional traders believed Rivers had a large buying order, they would probably try to buy the stock before he could at three-fourths, believing they could sell it out to him at a slightly higher price. The professional traders were, of course, keen students of psychology; and their success depended on their ability to guess whether or not a broker representing a big manipulator, like Tighe, had an order large enough to affect the market sufficiently to give them an opportunity to “get in and out,” as they termed it, at a profit before he had completed the execution of his order. They were like hawks watching for an opportunity to snatch their prey from under the very claws of their opponents.

Four, five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, and sometimes the whole company would attempt to take advantage of the given rise of a given stock by either selling or offering to buy, in which case the activity and the noise would become deafening. Given groups might be trading in different things; but the large majority of them would abandon what they were doing in order to take advantage of a speciality. The eagerness of certain young brokers or clerks to discover all that was going on, and to take advantage of any given rise or fall, made for quick physical action, darting to and fro, the excited elevation of explanatory fingers. Distorted faces were shoved over shoulders or under arms. The most ridiculous grimaces were purposely or unconsciously indulged in. At times there were situations in which some individual was fairly smothered with arms, faces, shoulders, crowded toward him when he manifested any intention of either buying or selling at a profitable rate. At first it seemed quite a wonderful thing to young Cowperwood — the very physical face of it — for he liked human presence and activity; but a little later the sense of the thing as a picture or a dramatic situation, of which he was a part faded, and he came down to a clearer sense of the intricacies of the problem before him. Buying and selling stocks, as he soon learned, was an art, a subtlety, almost a psychic emotion. Suspicion, intuition, feeling — these were the things to be “long” on.

Yet in time he also asked himself, who was it who made the real money — the stock-brokers? Not at all. Some of them were making money, but they were, as he quickly saw, like a lot of gulls or stormy petrels, hanging on the lee of the wind, hungry and anxious to snap up any unwary fish. Back of them were other men, men with shrewd ideas, subtle resources. Men of immense means whose enterprise and holdings these stocks represented, the men who schemed out and built the railroads, opened the mines, organized trading enterprises, and built up immense manufactories. They might use brokers or other agents to buy and sell on ‘change; but this buying and selling must be, and always was, incidental to the actual fact — the mine, the railroad, the wheat crop, the flour mill, and so on. Anything less than straight-out sales to realize quickly on assets, or buying to hold as an investment, was gambling pure and simple, and these men were gamblers. He was nothing more than a gambler’s agent. It was not troubling him any just at this moment, but it was not at all a mystery now, what he was. As in the case of Waterman & Company, he sized up these men shrewdly, judging some to be weak, some foolish, some clever, some slow, but in the main all small-minded or deficient because they were agents, tools, or gamblers. A man, a real man, must never be an agent, a tool, or a gambler — acting for himself or for others — he must employ such. A real man — a financier — was never a tool. He used tools. He created. He led.

Clearly, very clearly, at nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one years of age, he saw all this, but he was not quite ready yet to do anything about it. He was certain, however, that his day would come.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37