By Theodore Dreiser,
an American novelist and journalist
The Philadelphia into which Frank Algernon Cowperwood was born
was a city of two hundred and fifty thousand and more. It was set
with handsome parks, notable buildings, and crowded with historic
memories. Many of the things that we and he knew later were not
then in existence—the telegraph, telephone, express company, ocean
steamer, city delivery of mails. There were no postage-stamps or
registered letters. The street car had not arrived. In its place
were hosts of omnibuses, and for longer travel the slowly developing
railroad system still largely connected by canals.
Cowperwood's father was a bank clerk at the time of Frank's birth,
but ten years later, when the boy was already beginning to turn
a very sensible, vigorous eye on the world, Mr. Henry Worthington
Cowperwood, because of the death of the bank's president and the
consequent moving ahead of the other officers, fell heir to the
place vacated by the promoted teller, at the, to him, munificent
salary of thirty-five hundred dollars a year. At once he decided,
as he told his wife joyously, to remove his family from 21 Buttonwood
Street to 124 New Market Street, a much better neighborhood, where
there was a nice brick house of three stories in height as opposed
to their present two-storied domicile. There was the probability
that some day they would come into something even better, but for
the present this was sufficient. He was exceedingly grateful.
Henry Worthington Cowperwood was a man who believed only what he
saw and was content to be what he was—a banker, or a prospective
one. He was at this time a significant figure—tall, lean, inquisitorial,
clerkly—with nice, smooth, closely-cropped side whiskers coming
to almost the lower lobes of his ears. His upper lip was smooth
and curiously long, and he had a long, straight nose and a chin
that tended to be pointed. His eyebrows were bushy, emphasizing
vague, grayish-green eyes, and his hair was short and smooth and
nicely parted. He wore a frock-coat always—it was quite the thing
in financial circles in those days—and a high hat. And he kept his
hands and nails immaculately clean. His manner might have been called
severe, though really it was more cultivated than austere.
Being ambitious to get ahead socially and financially, he was very
careful of whom or with whom he talked. He was as much afraid of
expressing a rabid or unpopular political or social opinion as he
was of being seen with an evil character, though he had really no
opinion of great political significance to express. He was neither
anti- nor pro-slavery, though the air was stormy with abolition
sentiment and its opposition. He believed sincerely that vast fortunes
were to be made out of railroads if one only had the capital and
that curious thing, a magnetic personality—the ability to win the
confidence of others. He was sure that Andrew Jackson was all wrong
in his opposition to Nicholas Biddle and the United States Bank,
one of the great issues of the day; and he was worried, as he might
well be, by the perfect storm of wildcat money which was floating
about and which was constantly coming to his bank—discounted, of
course, and handed out again to anxious borrowers at a profit. His
bank was the Third National of Philadelphia, located in that center
of all Philadelphia and indeed, at that time, of practically all
national finance—Third Street—and its owners conducted a brokerage
business as a side line. There was a perfect plague of State banks,
great and small, in those days, issuing notes practically without
regulation upon insecure and unknown assets and failing and suspending
with astonishing rapidity; and a knowledge of all these was an important
requirement of Mr. Cowperwood's position. As a result, he had become
the soul of caution. Unfortunately, for him, he lacked in a great
measure the two things that are necessary for distinction in any
field—magnetism and vision. He was not destined to be a great financier,
though he was marked out to be a moderately successful one.
Mrs. Cowperwood was of a religious temperament—a small woman, with
light-brown hair and clear, brown eyes, who had been very attractive
in her day, but had become rather prim and matter-of-fact and inclined
to take very seriously the maternal care of her three sons and one
daughter. The former, captained by Frank, the eldest, were a source
of considerable annoyance to her, for they were forever making expeditions
to different parts of the city, getting in with bad boys, probably,
and seeing and hearing things they should neither see nor hear.
Frank Cowperwood, even at ten, was a natural-born leader. At the
day school he attended, and later at the Central High School, he
was looked upon as one whose common sense could unquestionably be
trusted in all cases. He was a sturdy youth, courageous and defiant.
From the very start of his life, he wanted to know about economics
and politics. He cared nothing for books. He was a clean, stalky,
shapely boy, with a bright, clean-cut, incisive face; large, clear,
gray eyes; a wide forehead; short, bristly, dark-brown hair. He
had an incisive, quick-motioned, self-sufficient manner, and was
forever asking questions with a keen desire for an intelligent reply.
He never had an ache or pain, ate his food with gusto, and ruled
his brothers with a rod of iron. "Come on, Joe!" "Hurry,
Ed!" These commands were issued in no rough but always a sure
way, and Joe and Ed came. They looked up to Frank from the first
as a master, and what he had to say was listened to eagerly.
He was forever pondering, pondering—one fact astonishing him quite
as much as another—for he could not figure out how this thing he
had come into—this life—was organized. How did all these people
get into the world? What were they doing here? Who started things,
anyhow? His mother told him the story of Adam and Eve, but he didn't
believe it. There was a fish-market not so very far from his home,
and there, on his way to see his father at the bank, or conducting
his brothers on after-school expeditions, he liked to look at a
certain tank in front of one store where were kept odd specimens
of sea-life brought in by the Delaware Bay fishermen. He saw once
there a sea-horse—just a queer little sea-animal that looked somewhat
like a horse—and another time he saw an electric eel which Benjamin
Franklin's discovery had explained. One day he saw a squid and a
lobster put in the tank, and in connection with them was witness
to a tragedy which stayed with him all his life and cleared things
up considerably intellectually. The lobster, it appeared from the
talk of the idle bystanders, was offered no food, as the squid was
considered his rightful prey. He lay at the bottom of the clear
glass tank on the yellow sand, apparently seeing nothing—you could
not tell in which way his beady, black buttons of eyes were looking—but
apparently they were never off the body of the squid. The latter,
pale and waxy in texture, looking very much like pork fat or jade,
moved about in torpedo fashion; but his movements were apparently
never out of the eyes of his enemy, for by degrees small portions
of his body began to disappear, snapped off by the relentless claws
of his pursuer. The lobster would leap like a catapult to where
the squid was apparently idly dreaming, and the squid, very alert,
would dart away, shooting out at the same time a cloud of ink, behind
which it would disappear. It was not always completely successful,
however. Small portions of its body or its tail were frequently
left in the claws of the monster below. Fascinated by the drama,
young Cowperwood came daily to watch.
One morning he stood in front of the tank, his nose almost pressed
to the glass. Only a portion of the squid remained, and his ink-bag
was emptier than ever. In the corner of the tank sat the lobster,
poised apparently for action.
The boy stayed as long as he could, the bitter struggle fascinating
him. Now, maybe, or in an hour or a day, the squid might die, slain
by the lobster, and the lobster would eat him. He looked again at
the greenish-copperish engine of destruction in the corner and wondered
when this would be. To-night, maybe. He would come back to-night.
He returned that night, and lo! the expected had happened. There
was a little crowd around the tank. The lobster was in the corner.
Before him was the squid cut in two and partially devoured.
"He got him at last," observed one bystander. "I
was standing right here an hour ago, and up he leaped and grabbed
him. The squid was too tired. He wasn't quick enough. He did back
up, but that lobster he calculated on his doing that. He's been
figuring on his movements for a long time now. He got him to-day."
Frank only stared. Too bad he had missed this. The least touch
of sorrow for the squid came to him as he stared at it slain. Then
he gazed at the victor.
"That's the way it has to be, I guess," he commented
to himself. "That squid wasn't quick enough." He figured
"The squid couldn't kill the lobster—he had no weapon. The
lobster could kill the squid—he was heavily armed. There was nothing
for the squid to feed on; the lobster had the squid as prey. What
was the result to be? What else could it be? He didn't have a chance,"
he concluded finally, as he trotted on homeward.
The incident made a great impression on him. It answered in a rough
way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past:
"How is life organized?" Things lived on each other—that
was it. Lobsters lived on squids and other things. What lived on
lobsters? Men, of course! Sure, that was it! And what lived on men?
he asked himself. Was it other men? Wild animals lived on men. And
there were Indians and cannibals. And some men were killed by storms
and accidents. He wasn't so sure about men living on men; but men
did kill each other. How about wars and street fights and mobs?
He had seen a mob once. It attacked the Public Ledger building as
he was coming home from school. His father had explained why. It
was about the slaves. That was it! Sure, men lived on men. Look
at the slaves. They were men. That's what all this excitement was
about these days. Men killing other men—negroes.
He went on home quite pleased with himself at his solution.
"Mother!" he exclaimed, as he entered the house, "he
finally got him!"
"Got who? What got what?" she inquired in amazement.
"Go wash your hands."
"Why, that lobster got that squid I was telling you and pa
about the other day."
"Well, that's too bad. What makes you take any interest in
such things? Run, wash your hands."
"Well, you don't often see anything like that. I never did."
He went out in the back yard, where there was a hydrant and a post
with a little table on it, and on that a shining tin-pan and a bucket
of water. Here he washed his face and hands.
"Say, papa," he said to his father, later, "you
know that squid?"
"Well, he's dead. The lobster got him."
His father continued reading. "Well, that's too bad,"
he said, indifferently.
But for days and weeks Frank thought of this and of the life he
was tossed into, for he was already pondering on what he should
be in this world, and how he should get along. From seeing his father
count money, he was sure that he would like banking; and Third Street,
where his father's office was, seemed to him the cleanest, most
fascinating street in the world.
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Published - October 2010