Chapter I “The New City”
By Theodore Dreiser,
an American novelist and journalist
When Frank Algernon Cowperwood emerged from the Eastern District
Penitentiary in Philadelphia he realized that the old life he had
lived in that city since boyhood was ended. His youth was gone,
and with it had been lost the great business prospects of his earlier
manhood. He must begin again.
It would be useless to repeat how a second panic following upon
a tremendous failure—that of Jay Cooke & Co.—had placed a second
fortune in his hands. This restored wealth softened him in some
degree. Fate seemed to have his personal welfare in charge. He was
sick of the stock-exchange, anyhow, as a means of livelihood, and
now decided that he would leave it once and for all. He would get
in something else—street-railways, land deals, some of the boundless
opportunities of the far West. Philadelphia was no longer pleasing
to him. Though now free and rich, he was still a scandal to the
pretenders, and the financial and social world was not prepared
to accept him. He must go his way alone, unaided, or only secretly
so, while his quondam friends watched his career from afar. So,
thinking of this, he took the train one day, his charming mistress,
now only twenty-six, coming to the station to see him off. He looked
at her quite tenderly, for she was the quintessence of a certain
type of feminine beauty.
"By-by, dearie," he smiled, as the train-bell signaled
the approaching departure. "You and I will get out of this
shortly. Don't grieve. I'll be back in two or three weeks, or I'll
send for you. I'd take you now, only I don't know how that country
is out there. We'll fix on some place, and then you watch me settle
this fortune question. We'll not live under a cloud always. I'll
get a divorce, and we'll marry, and things will come right with
a bang. Money will do that."
He looked at her with his large, cool, penetrating eyes, and she
clasped his cheeks between her hands.
"Oh, Frank," she exclaimed, "I'll miss you so! You're
all I have."
"In two weeks," he smiled, as the train began to move,
"I'll wire or be back. Be good, sweet."
She followed him with adoring eyes—a fool of love, a spoiled child,
a family pet, amorous, eager, affectionate, the type so strong a
man would naturally like—she tossed her pretty red gold head and
waved him a kiss. Then she walked away with rich, sinuous, healthy
strides—the type that men turn to look after.
"That's her—that's that Butler girl," observed one railroad
clerk to another. "Gee! a man wouldn't want anything better
than that, would he?"
It was the spontaneous tribute that passion and envy invariably
pay to health and beauty. On that pivot swings the world.
Never in all his life until this trip had Cowperwood been farther
west than Pittsburg. His amazing commercial adventures, brilliant
as they were, had been almost exclusively confined to the dull,
staid world of Philadelphia, with its sweet refinement in sections,
its pretensions to American social supremacy, its cool arrogation
of traditional leadership in commercial life, its history, conservative
wealth, unctuous respectability, and all the tastes and avocations
which these imply. He had, as he recalled, almost mastered that
pretty world and made its sacred precincts his own when the crash
came. Practically he had been admitted. Now he was an Ishmael, an
ex-convict, albeit a millionaire. But wait! The race is to the swift,
he said to himself over and over. Yes, and the battle is to the
strong. He would test whether the world would trample him under
foot or no.
Chicago, when it finally dawned on him, came with a rush on the
second morning. He had spent two nights in the gaudy Pullman then
provided—a car intended to make up for some of the inconveniences
of its arrangements by an over-elaboration of plush and tortured
glass—when the first lone outposts of the prairie metropolis began
to appear. The side-tracks along the road-bed over which he was
speeding became more and more numerous, the telegraph-poles more
and more hung with arms and strung smoky-thick with wires. In the
far distance, cityward, was, here and there, a lone working-man's
cottage, the home of some adventurous soul who had planted his bare
hut thus far out in order to reap the small but certain advantage
which the growth of the city would bring.
The land was flat—as flat as a table—with a waning growth of brown
grass left over from the previous year, and stirring faintly in
the morning breeze. Underneath were signs of the new green—the New
Year's flag of its disposition. For some reason a crystalline atmosphere
enfolded the distant hazy outlines of the city, holding the latter
like a fly in amber and giving it an artistic subtlety which touched
him. Already a devotee of art, ambitious for connoisseurship, who
had had his joy, training, and sorrow out of the collection he had
made and lost in Philadelphia, he appreciated almost every suggestion
of a delightful picture in nature.
The tracks, side by side, were becoming more and more numerous.
Freight-cars were assembled here by thousands from all parts of
the country—yellow, red, blue, green, white. (Chicago, he recalled,
already had thirty railroads terminating here, as though it were
the end of the world.) The little low one and two story houses,
quite new as to wood, were frequently unpainted and already smoky—in
places grimy. At grade-crossings, where ambling street-cars and
wagons and muddy-wheeled buggies waited, he noted how flat the streets
were, how unpaved, how sidewalks went up and down rhythmically—here
a flight of steps, a veritable platform before a house, there a
long stretch of boards laid flat on the mud of the prairie itself.
What a city! Presently a branch of the filthy, arrogant, self-sufficient
little Chicago River came into view, with its mass of sputtering
tugs, its black, oily water, its tall, red, brown, and green grain-elevators,
its immense black coal-pockets and yellowish-brown lumber-yards.
Here was life; he saw it at a flash. Here was a seething city in
the making. There was something dynamic in the very air which appealed
to his fancy. How different, for some reason, from Philadelphia!
That was a stirring city, too. He had thought it wonderful at one
time, quite a world; but this thing, while obviously infinitely
worse, was better. It was more youthful, more hopeful. In a flare
of morning sunlight pouring between two coal-pockets, and because
the train had stopped to let a bridge swing and half a dozen great
grain and lumber boats go by—a half-dozen in either direction—he
saw a group of Irish stevedores idling on the bank of a lumber-yard
whose wall skirted the water. Healthy men they were, in blue or
red shirt-sleeves, stout straps about their waists, short pipes
in their mouths, fine, hardy, nutty-brown specimens of humanity.
Why were they so appealing, he asked himself. This raw, dirty town
seemed naturally to compose itself into stirring artistic pictures.
Why, it fairly sang! The world was young here. Life was doing something
new. Perhaps he had better not go on to the Northwest at all; he
would decide that question later.
In the mean time he had letters of introduction to distinguished
Chicagoans, and these he would present. He wanted to talk to some
bankers and grain and commission men. The stock-exchange of Chicago
interested him, for the intricacies of that business he knew backward
and forward, and some great grain transactions had been made here.
The train finally rolled past the shabby backs of houses into a
long, shabbily covered series of platforms—sheds having only roofs—and
amidst a clatter of trucks hauling trunks, and engines belching
steam, and passengers hurrying to and fro he made his way out into
Canal Street and hailed a waiting cab—one of a long line of vehicles
that bespoke a metropolitan spirit. He had fixed on the Grand Pacific
as the most important hotel—the one with the most social significance—and
thither he asked to be driven. On the way he studied these streets
as in the matter of art he would have studied a picture. The little
yellow, blue, green, white, and brown street-cars which he saw trundling
here and there, the tired, bony horses, jingling bells at their
throats, touched him. They were flimsy affairs, these cars, merely
highly varnished kindling-wood with bits of polished brass and glass
stuck about them, but he realized what fortunes they portended if
the city grew. Street-cars, he knew, were his natural vocation.
Even more than stock-brokerage, even more than banking, even more
than stock-organization he loved the thought of street-cars and
the vast manipulative life it suggested.
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Published - October 2010