Chapter II “A Reconnoiter”
By Theodore Dreiser,
an American novelist and journalist
The city of Chicago, with whose development the personality of
Frank Algernon Cowperwood was soon to be definitely linked! To whom
may the laurels as laureate of this Florence of the West yet fall?
This singing flame of a city, this all America, this poet in chaps
and buckskin, this rude, raw Titan, this Burns of a city! By its
shimmering lake it lay, a king of shreds and patches, a maundering
yokel with an epic in its mouth, a tramp, a hobo among cities, with
the grip of Caesar in its mind, the dramatic force of Euripides
in its soul. A very bard of a city this, singing of high deeds and
high hopes, its heavy brogans buried deep in the mire of circumstance.
Take Athens, oh, Greece! Italy, do you keep Rome! This was the Babylon,
the Troy, the Nineveh of a younger day. Here came the gaping West
and the hopeful East to see. Here hungry men, raw from the shops
and fields, idyls and romances in their minds, builded them an empire
crying glory in the mud.
From New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine had come a strange
company, earnest, patient, determined, unschooled in even the primer
of refinement, hungry for something the significance of which, when
they had it, they could not even guess, anxious to be called great,
determined so to be without ever knowing how. Here came the dreamy
gentleman of the South, robbed of his patrimony; the hopeful student
of Yale and Harvard and Princeton; the enfranchised miner of California
and the Rockies, his bags of gold and silver in his hands. Here
was already the bewildered foreigner, an alien speech confounding
him—the Hun, the Pole, the Swede, the German, the Russian—seeking
his homely colonies, fearing his neighbor of another race.
Here was the negro, the prostitute, the blackleg, the gambler,
the romantic adventurer par excellence. A city with but a handful
of the native-born; a city packed to the doors with all the riffraff
of a thousand towns. Flaring were the lights of the bagnio; tinkling
the banjos, zithers, mandolins of the so-called gin-mill; all the
dreams and the brutality of the day seemed gathered to rejoice (and
rejoice they did) in this new-found wonder of a metropolitan life
in the West.
The first prominent Chicagoan whom Cowperwood sought out was the
president of the Lake City National Bank, the largest financial
organization in the city, with deposits of over fourteen million
dollars. It was located in Dearborn Street, at Munroe, but a block
or two from his hotel.
"Find out who that man is," ordered Mr. Judah Addison,
the president of the bank, on seeing him enter the president's private
Mr. Addison's office was so arranged with glass windows that he
could, by craning his neck, see all who entered his reception-room
before they saw him, and he had been struck by Cowperwood's face
and force. Long familiarity with the banking world and with great
affairs generally had given a rich finish to the ease and force
which the latter naturally possessed. He looked strangely replete
for a man of thirty-six—suave, steady, incisive, with eyes as fine
as those of a Newfoundland or a Collie and as innocent and winsome.
They were wonderful eyes, soft and spring-like at times, glowing
with a rich, human understanding which on the instant could harden
and flash lightning. Deceptive eyes, unreadable, but alluring alike
to men and to women in all walks and conditions of life.
The secretary addressed came back with Cowperwood's letter of introduction,
and immediately Cowperwood followed.
Mr. Addison instinctively arose—a thing he did not always do. "I'm
pleased to meet you, Mr. Cowperwood," he said, politely. "I
saw you come in just now. You see how I keep my windows here, so
as to spy out the country. Sit down. You wouldn't like an apple,
would you?" He opened a left-hand drawer, producing several
polished red winesaps, one of which he held out. "I always
eat one about this time in the morning."
"Thank you, no," replied Cowperwood, pleasantly, estimating
as he did so his host's temperament and mental caliber. "I
never eat between meals, but I appreciate your kindness. I am just
passing through Chicago, and I thought I would present this letter
now rather than later. I thought you might tell me a little about
the city from an investment point of view."
As Cowperwood talked, Addison, a short, heavy, rubicund man with
grayish-brown sideburns extending to his ear-lobes and hard, bright,
twinkling gray eyes—a proud, happy, self-sufficient man—munched
his apple and contemplated Cowperwood. As is so often the case in
life, he frequently liked or disliked people on sight, and he prided
himself on his judgment of men. Almost foolishly, for one so conservative,
he was taken with Cowperwood—a man immensely his superior—not because
of the Drexel letter, which spoke of the latter's "undoubted
financial genius" and the advantage it would be to Chicago
to have him settle there, but because of the swimming wonder of
his eyes. Cowperwood's personality, while maintaining an unbroken
outward reserve, breathed a tremendous humanness which touched his
fellow-banker. Both men were in their way walking enigmas, the Philadelphian
far the subtler of the two. Addison was ostensibly a church-member,
a model citizen; he represented a point of view to which Cowperwood
would never have stooped. Both men were ruthless after their fashion,
avid of a physical life; but Addison was the weaker in that he was
still afraid—very much afraid—of what life might do to him. The
man before him had no sense of fear. Addison contributed judiciously
to charity, subscribed outwardly to a dull social routine, pretended
to love his wife, of whom he was weary, and took his human pleasure
secretly. The man before him subscribed to nothing, refused to talk
save to intimates, whom he controlled spiritually, and did as he
"Why, I'll tell you, Mr. Cowperwood," Addison replied.
"We people out here in Chicago think so well of ourselves that
sometimes we're afraid to say all we think for fear of appearing
a little extravagant. We're like the youngest son in the family
that knows he can lick all the others, but doesn't want to do it—not
just yet. We're not as handsome as we might be—did you ever see
a growing boy that was?—but we're absolutely sure that we're going
to be. Our pants and shoes and coat and hat get too small for us
every six months, and so we don't look very fashionable, but there
are big, strong, hard muscles and bones underneath, Mr. Cowperwood,
as you'll discover when you get to looking around. Then you won't
mind the clothes so much."
Mr. Addison's round, frank eyes narrowed and hardened for a moment.
A kind of metallic hardness came into his voice. Cowperwood could
see that he was honestly enamoured of his adopted city. Chicago
was his most beloved mistress. A moment later the flesh about his
eyes crinkled, his mouth softened, and he smiled. "I'll be
glad to tell you anything I can," he went on. "There are
a lot of interesting things to tell."
Cowperwood beamed back on him encouragingly. He inquired after
the condition of one industry and another, one trade or profession
and another. This was somewhat different from the atmosphere which
prevailed in Philadelphia—more breezy and generous. The tendency
to expatiate and make much of local advantages was Western. He liked
it, however, as one aspect of life, whether he chose to share in
it or not. It was favorable to his own future. He had a prison record
to live down; a wife and two children to get rid of—in the legal
sense, at least (he had no desire to rid himself of financial obligation
toward them). It would take some such loose, enthusiastic Western
attitude to forgive in him the strength and freedom with which he
ignored and refused to accept for himself current convention. "I
satisfy myself" was his private law, but so to do he must assuage
and control the prejudices of other men. He felt that this banker,
while not putty in his hands, was inclined to a strong and useful
"My impressions of the city are entirely favorable, Mr. Addison,"
he said, after a time, though he inwardly admitted to himself that
this was not entirely true; he was not sure whether he could bring
himself ultimately to live in so excavated and scaffolded a world
as this or not. "I only saw a portion of it coming in on the
train. I like the snap of things. I believe Chicago has a future."
"You came over the Fort Wayne, I presume," replied Addison,
loftily. "You saw the worst section. You must let me show you
some of the best parts. By the way, where are you staying?"
"At the Grand Pacific."
"How long will you be here?"
"Not more than a day or two."
"Let me see," and Mr. Addison drew out his watch. "I
suppose you wouldn't mind meeting a few of our leading men—and we
have a little luncheon-room over at the Union League Club where
we drop in now and then. If you'd care to do so, I'd like to have
you come along with me at one. We're sure to find a few of them—some
of our lawyers, business men, and judges."
"That will be fine," said the Philadelphian, simply.
"You're more than generous. There are one or two other people
I want to meet in between, and"—he arose and looked at his
own watch—"I'll find the Union Club. Where is the office of
Arneel & Co.?"
At the mention of the great beef-packer, who was one of the bank's
heaviest depositors, Addison stirred slightly with approval. This
young man, at least eight years his junior, looked to him like a
future grand seigneur of finance.
At the Union Club, at this noontime luncheon, after talking with
the portly, conservative, aggressive Arneel and the shrewd director
of the stock-exchange, Cowperwood met a varied company of men ranging
in age from thirty-five to sixty-five gathered about the board in
a private dining-room of heavily carved black walnut, with pictures
of elder citizens of Chicago on the walls and an attempt at artistry
in stained glass in the windows. There were short and long men,
lean and stout, dark and blond men, with eyes and jaws which varied
from those of the tiger, lynx, and bear to those of the fox, the
tolerant mastiff, and the surly bulldog. There were no weaklings
in this selected company.
Mr. Arneel and Mr. Addison Cowperwood approved of highly as shrewd,
concentrated men. Another who interested him was Anson Merrill,
a small, polite, recherche soul, suggesting mansions and footmen
and remote luxury generally, who was pointed out by Addison as the
famous dry-goods prince of that name, quite the leading merchant,
in the retail and wholesale sense, in Chicago.
Still another was a Mr. Rambaud, pioneer railroad man, to whom
Addison, smiling jocosely, observed: "Mr. Cowperwood is on
from Philadelphia, Mr. Rambaud, trying to find out whether he wants
to lose any money out here. Can't you sell him some of that bad
land you have up in the Northwest?"
Rambaud—a spare, pale, black-bearded man of much force and exactness,
dressed, as Cowperwood observed, in much better taste than some
of the others—looked at Cowperwood shrewdly but in a gentlemanly,
retiring way, with a gracious, enigmatic smile. He caught a glance
in return which he could not possibly forget. The eyes of Cowperwood
said more than any words ever could. Instead of jesting faintly
Mr. Rambaud decided to explain some things about the Northwest.
Perhaps this Philadelphian might be interested.
To a man who has gone through a great life struggle in one metropolis
and tested all the phases of human duplicity, decency, sympathy,
and chicanery in the controlling group of men that one invariably
finds in every American city at least, the temperament and significance
of another group in another city is not so much, and yet it is.
Long since Cowperwood had parted company with the idea that humanity
at any angle or under any circumstances, climatic or otherwise,
is in any way different. To him the most noteworthy characteristic
of the human race was that it was strangely chemic, being anything
or nothing, as the hour and the condition afforded. In his leisure
moments—those free from practical calculation, which were not many—he
often speculated as to what life really was. If he had not been
a great financier and, above all, a marvelous organizer he might
have become a highly individualistic philosopher—a calling which,
if he had thought anything about it at all at this time, would have
seemed rather trivial. His business as he saw it was with the material
facts of life, or, rather, with those third and fourth degree theorems
and syllogisms which control material things and so represent wealth.
He was here to deal with the great general needs of the Middle West—to
seize upon, if he might, certain well-springs of wealth and power
and rise to recognized authority. In his morning talks he had learned
of the extent and character of the stock-yards' enterprises, of
the great railroad and ship interests, of the tremendous rising
importance of real estate, grain speculation, the hotel business,
the hardware business. He had learned of universal manufacturing
companies—one that made cars, another elevators, another binders,
another windmills, another engines. Apparently, any new industry
seemed to do well in Chicago. In his talk with the one director
of the Board of Trade to whom he had a letter he had learned that
few, if any, local stocks were dealt in on 'change. Wheat, corn,
and grains of all kinds were principally speculated in. The big
stocks of the East were gambled in by way of leased wires on the
New York Stock Exchange—not otherwise.
As he looked at these men, all pleasantly civil, all general in
their remarks, each safely keeping his vast plans under his vest,
Cowperwood wondered how he would fare in this community. There were
such difficult things ahead of him to do. No one of these men, all
of whom were in their commercial-social way agreeable, knew that
he had only recently been in the penitentiary. How much difference
would that make in their attitude? No one of them knew that, although
he was married and had two children, he was planning to divorce
his wife and marry the girl who had appropriated to herself the
role which his wife had once played.
"Are you seriously contemplating looking into the Northwest?"
asked Mr. Rambaud, interestedly, toward the close of the luncheon.
"That is my present plan after I finish here. I thought I'd
take a short run up there."
"Let me put you in touch with an interesting party that is
going as far as Fargo and Duluth. There is a private car leaving
Thursday, most of them citizens of Chicago, but some Easterners.
I would be glad to have you join us. I am going as far as Minneapolis."
Cowperwood thanked him and accepted. A long conversation followed
about the Northwest, its timber, wheat, land sales, cattle, and
possible manufacturing plants.
What Fargo, Minneapolis, and Duluth were to be civically and financially
were the chief topics of conversation. Naturally, Mr. Rambaud, having
under his direction vast railroad lines which penetrated this region,
was confident of the future of it. Cowperwood gathered it all, almost
by instinct. Gas, street-railways, land speculations, banks, wherever
located, were his chief thoughts.
Finally he left the club to keep his other appointments, but something
of his personality remained behind him. Mr. Addison and Mr. Rambaud,
among others, were sincerely convinced that he was one of the most
interesting men they had met in years. And he scarcely had said
anything at all—just listened.
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Published - October 2010