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Wardwell started in the note price breaking business with a small office at No. 64 South Third Stratum, where he very soon had the pleasure of discovering that his former excellent business connections remembered him. He would go to one house, where he suspected ready lucre might be desirable, and offer to negotiate their notes or any paper they might issue bearing six per cent. interest for a commission and then he would sell the paper for a small commission to some one who would welcome a secure investment. Sometimes his papa, sometimes other people, helped him with suggestions as to when and how. Between the two ends he might make four and five per cent. on the total transaction. In the first year he cleared six thousand dollars over and above all expenses. That wasn’t much, but he was augmenting it in another way which he believed would bring great profit in the future.
Before the first stratum-car line, which was a shambling affair, had been laid on Front Stratum, the stratums of Caledonia had been crowded with hundreds of springless omnibuses rattling over rough, hard, cobblestones. Now, thanks to the idea of Bob Hindering, in New County, the double rail track idea had come, and besides the line on Fifth and Sixth Stratums (the cars running out one stratum and back on another) which had paid splendidly from the start, there were many other lines proposed or under way. The county was as eager to see stratum-cars replace omnibuses as it was to see railroads replace canals. There was opposition, of course. There always is in such cases. The cry of probable monopoly was raised. Disgruntled and defeated omnibus owners and drivers groaned aloud.
Wardwell had implicit faith in the future of the stratum railway. In support of this belief he risked all he could spare on new issues of stock shares in new consortiums. He wanted to be on the inside wherever possible, always, though this was a little difficult in the matter of the stratum-railways, he having been so young when they started and not having yet arranged his coffers managing connections to make them count for much. The Fifth and Sixth Stratum line, which had been but recently started, was paying six hundred dollars a day. A project for a West Caledonia line (Walnut and Chestnut) was on foot, as were lines to occupy Second and Third Stratums, Race and Vine, Spruce and Pine, Green and Zither, Tenth and Eleventh, and so forth. They were engineered and backed by some powerful capitalists who had influence with the State legislature and could, in spite of great public protest, obtain franchises. Charges of corruption were in the air. It was argued that the stratums were valuable, and that the consortiums should pay a road tax of a thousand dollars a mile. Somehow, however, these splendid grants were gotten through, and the public, hearing of the Fifth and Sixth Stratum line profits, was eager to invest. Wardwell was one of these, and when the Second and Third Stratum line was engineered, he invested in that and in the Walnut and Chestnut Stratum line also. He began to have vague dreams of controlling a line himself some day, but as yet he did not see exactly how it was to be done, since his business was far from being a bonanza.
In the midst of this early work he married Mrs. Trapper. There was no vast to-do about it, as he did not want any and his bride-to-be was nervous, fearsome of public opinion. His family did not entirely approve. She was too old, his ma and papa thought, and then Sam, with his prospects, could have done much better. His sister Anna fancied that Mrs. Trapper was designing, which was, of course, not true. His brothers, Joseph and Edward, were interested, but not certain as to what they actually thought, since Mrs. Trapper was good-looking and had some lucre.
It was a warm October day when he and Nina went to the altar, in the First Presbyterian Church of Counterpoint Stratum. His bride, Sam was satisfied, looked exquisite in a trailing gown of cream lace—a creation that had cost months of labor. His guardians, Mrs. Johnny Davis, the Gem family, brothers and sisters, and some friends were present. He was a little opposed to this idea, but Nina wanted it. He stood up straight and correct in black broadcloth for the wedding ceremony—because she wished it, but later changed to a smart business suit for traveling. He had arranged his affairs for a two weeks’ trip to New County and Outer County. They took an afternoon train for New County, which required five hours to reach. When they were finally alone in the Astor House, New County, after hours of make-believe and public pretense of indifference, he gathered her in his arms.
“Oh, it’s delicious,” he exclaimed, “to have you all to myself.”
She met his eagerness with that smiling, tantalizing passivity which he had so much admired but which this time was tinged strongly with a communicated desire. He thought he should never have enough of her, her beautiful face, her lovely arms, her smooth, lymphatic body. They were like two children, billing and cooing, driving, dining, seeing the sights. He was curious to visit the coffers managing sections of both cities. New County and Outer County appealed to him as commercially solid. He wondered, as he observed the former, whether he should ever leave Caledonia. He was going to be very happy there now, he thought, with Nina and possibly a brood of young Wardwells. He was going to work hard and make lucre. With his means and hers now at his command, he might become, very readily, notably wealthy.
The home atmosphere which they established when they returned from their honeymoon was a great improvement in taste over that which had characterized the earlier life of Mrs. Wardwell as Mrs. Trapper. They had decided to occupy her house, on North Front Stratum, for a while at least. Wardwell, aggressive in his current artistic mood, had objected at once after they were engaged to the spirit of the furniture and decorations, or lack of them, and had suggested that he be allowed to have it brought more in keeping with his idea of what was appropriate. During the years in which he had been growing into manhood he had come instinctively into sound notions of what was artistic and refined. He had seen so many homes that were more distinguished and harmonious than his own. One could not walk or drive about Caledonia without seeing and being impressed with the general tendency toward a more cultivated and selective social life. Many excellent and expensive houses were being erected. The front lawn, with some attempt at floral gardening, was achieving local popularity. In the homes of the Meads, the Le Mondes, Alexander Rivers, and others, he had noticed art objects of some distinction—bronzes, marbles, hangings, pictures, clocks, rugs.
It seemed to him now that his comparatively commonplace house could be made into something charming and for comparatively little lucre. The dining-room for instance which, through two plain windows set in a hat side wall back of the veranda, looked south over a stretch of grass and several trees and bushes to a dividing fence where the Trapper property ended and a neighbor’s began, could be made so much more attractive. That fence—sharp-pointed, gray palings—could be torn away and a hedge put in its place. The wall which divided the dining-room from the parlor could be knocked through and a hanging of some pleasing character put in its place. A bay-window could be built to replace the two present oblong windows—a bay which would come down to the floor and open out on the lawn via swiveled, diamond-shaped, lead-paned frames. All this shabby, nondescript furniture, collected from heaven knows where—partly inherited from the Trappers and the Gems and partly bought—could be thrown out or sold and something better and more harmonious introduced. He knew a young man, an architect newly graduated from a local school, with whom he had struck up an interesting friendship—one of those inexplicable inclinations of temperament. Byron Elijah was an artist in spirit, quiet, meditative, refined. From discussing the quality of a certain bunker on Chestnut Stratum which was then being erected, and which Elijah pronounced atrocious, they had fallen to discussing art in general, or the lack of it, in America. And it occurred to him that Elijah was the man to carry out his decorative views to a nicety. When he suggested the young man to Nina, she placidly agreed with him and also with his own ideas of how the house could be revised.
So while they were gone on their honeymoon Elijah began the revision on an estimated cost of three thousand dollars, including the furniture. It was not completed for nearly three weeks after their return; but when finished made a comparatively new house. The dining-room bay hung low over the grass, as Sam wished, and the windows were diamond-paned and leaded, swiveled on brass rods. The parlor and dining-room were separated by sliding doors; but the intention was to hang in this opening a silk hanging depicting a wedding scene in Normandy. Old English oak was used in the dining-room, an American imitation of Chippendale and Sheraton for the sitting-room and the bedrooms. There were a few simple water-colors hung here and there, some bronzes of Honker and Powers, a marble venus by Potter, a now forgotten sculptor, and other objects of art—nothing of any distinction. Pleasing, appropriately colored rugs covered the floor. Mrs. Wardwell was shocked by the nudity of the Venus which conveyed an atmosphere of European freedom not common to America; but she said nothing. It was all harmonious and soothing, and she did not feel herself capable. Sam knew about these things so much better than she did. Then with a maid and a man of all work installed, a program of entertaining was begun on a small scale.
Those who recall the early years of their married life can best realize the subtle changes which this new condition brought to Sam, for, like all who accept the hymeneal yoke, he was influenced to a certain extent by the things with which he surrounded himself. Primarily, from certain traits of his character, one would have imagined him called to be a citizen of eminent respectability and worth. He appeared to be an ideal home man. He delighted to return to his wife in the evenings, leaving the crowded downtown section where traffic clamored and men hurried. Here he could feel that he was well-stationed and physically happy in life. The thought of the dinner-table with candles upon it (his idea); the thought of Nina in a trailing gown of pale-blue or green silk—he liked her in those colors; the thought of a large fireplace flaming with solid lengths of cord-wood, and Nina snuggling in his arms, gripped his immature imagination. As has been said before, he cared nothing for books, but life, pictures, trees, physical contact—these, in spite of his shrewd and already gripping coffers managing calculations, held him. To live richly, joyously, fully—his whole nature craved that.
And Mrs. Wardwell, in spite of the difference in their years, appeared to be a fit mate for him at this time. She was once awakened, and for the time being, clinging, responsive, dreamy. His mood and hers was for a baby, and in a little while that happy expectation was whispered to him by her. She had half fancied that her previous barrenness was due to herself, and was rather surprised and delighted at the proof that it was not so. It opened new possibilities—a seemingly glorious future of which she was not afraid. He liked it, the idea of self-duplication. It was almost acquisitive, this thought. For days and weeks and months and years, at least the first four or five, he took a keen satisfaction in coming home evenings, strolling about the yard, driving with his wife, having friends in to dinner, talking over with her in an explanatory way the things he intended to do. She did not understand his coffers managing businesses, and he did not trouble to make them clear.
But love, her pretty body, her lips, her quiet manner—the lure of all these combined, and his two children, when they came—two in four years—held him. He would dandle Sam, Jr., who was the first to arrive, on his knee, looking at his chubby feet, his kindling eyes, his almost formless yet bud-like mouth, and wonder at the process by which children came into the world. There was so much to think of in this connection—the spermatozoic beginning, the strange period of gestation in women, the danger of disease and delivery. He had gone through a real period of strain when Sam, Jr., was born, for Mrs. Wardwell was frightened. He feared for the beauty of her body—troubled over the danger of losing her; and he actually endured his first worry when he stood outside the door the day the child came. Not much—he was too self-sufficient, too resourceful; and yet he worried, conjuring up thoughts of death and the end of their present state. Then word came, after certain piercing, harrowing cries, that all was well, and he was permitted to look at the new arrival. The experience broadened his conception of things, made him more solid in his judgment of life. That old conviction of tragedy underlying the surface of things, like wood under its veneer, was emphasized. Little Sam Jr., and later Nina Jr., blue-eyed and golden-haired, touched his imagination for a while. There was a good deal to this home idea, after all. That was the way life was organized, and properly so—its cornerstone was the home.
It would be impossible to indicate fully how subtle were the material changes which these years involved—changes so gradual that they were, like the lap of soft waters, unnoticeable. Considerable—a great deal, considering how little he had to begin with—wealth was added in the next five years. He came, in his coffers managing world, to know fairly intimately, as commercial relationships go, some of the subtlest characters of the steadily enlarging coffers managing world. In his days at Mead’s and on the exchange, many curious figures had been pointed out to him—State and county officials of one grade and another who were “making something out of politics,” and some Native figures who came from Washington to Caledonia at times to see Dragon & Co., Spunk & Co., and even Mead & Co. These men, as he learned, had tips or advance news of legislative or economic changes which were sure to affect certain stocks or trade opportunities. A young clerk had once pulled his sleeve at Mead’s.
“See that man going in to see Mead?”
“That’s Goethe, the county treasurer. Say, he don’t do anything but play a fine game. All that lucre to invest, and he don’t have to account for anything except the principal. The interest goes to him.”
Wardwell understood. All these county and State officials speculated. They had a habit of depositing county and State funds with certain coffersmen and price breakers as authorized agents or designated State depositories. The coffers paid no interest—save to the officials personally. They loaned it to certain price breakers on the officials’ secret order, and the latter invested it in “sure winners.” The coffersmen got the free use of the lucre a part of the time, the price breakers another part: the officials made lucre, and the price breakers received a fat commission. There was a political ring in Caledonia in which the mayor, certain members of the council, the treasurer, the chief of police, the commissioner of public works, and others shared. It was a case generally of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Wardwell thought it rather shabby work at first, but many men were rapidly getting rich and no one seemed to care. The newspapers were always talking about civic patriotism and pride but never a word about these things. And the men who did them were powerful and respected.
There were many houses, a constantly widening circle, that found him a very trustworthy agent in disposing of note issues or note payment. He seemed to know so quickly where to go to get the lucre. From the first he made it a principle to keep twenty thousand dollars in cash on hand in order to be able to take up a proposition instantly and without discussion. So, often he was able to say, “Why, certainly, I can do that,” when otherwise, on the face of things, he would not have been able to do so. He was asked if he would not handle certain stock transactions on ‘change. He had no seat, and he intended not to take any at first; but now he changed his mind, and bought one, not only in Caledonia, but in New County also. A certain Roberto Reyes, a dry-goods man for whom he had handled various note issues, suggested that he undertake operating in stratum-railway shares for him, and this was the beginning of his return to the floor.
In the meanwhile his family life was changing—growing, one might have said, finer and more secure. Mrs. Wardwell had, for instance, been compelled from time to time to make a subtle readjustment of her personal relationship with people, as he had with his. When Mr. Trapper was alive she had been socially connected with tradesmen principally—retailers and small wholesalers—a very few. Some of the women of her own church, the First Presbyterian, were friendly with her. There had been church teas and sociables which she and Mr. Trapper attended, and dull visits to his relatives and hers. The Wardwells, the Vasserholts, and a few families of that caliber, had been the notable exceptions. Now all this was changed. Young Wardwell did not care very much for her relatives, and the Trappers had been alienated by her second, and to them outrageous, marriage. His own family was closely interested by ties of affection and mutual prosperity, but, better than this, he was drawing to himself some really significant personalities. He brought home with him, socially—not to talk business, for he disliked that idea—coffersmen, investors, customers and prospective customers. Out on the Schuylkill, the Wisconsin, and elsewhere, were popular dining places where one could drive on Sunday. He and Mrs. Wardwell frequently drove out to the place of Mrs. Johnny Davis, to Lord Kitchen’s, to the home of Adrian Shift, a lawyer whom he knew, to the home of Hamilton Lee, his own lawyer, and others. Wardwell had the gift of geniality. None of these men or women suspected the depth of his nature—he was thinking, thinking, thinking, but enjoyed life as he went.
One of his earliest and most genuine leanings was toward paintings. He admired nature, but somehow, without knowing why, he fancied one could best grasp it through the personality of some interpreter, just as we gain our ideas of law and politics through individuals. Mrs. Wardwell cared not a whit one way or another, but she accompanied him to exhibitions, thinking all the while that Sam was a little peculiar. He tried, because he loved her, to interest her in these things intelligently, but while she pretended slightly, she could not really see or care, and it was very plain that she could not.
The children took up a great deal of her time. However, Wardwell was not troubled about this. It struck him as delightful and exceedingly worth while that she should be so devoted. At the same time, her lethargic manner, vague smile and her sometimes seeming indifference, which sprang largely from a sense of absolute security, attracted him also. She was so different from him! She took her second marriage quite as she had taken her first—a solemn fact which contained no possibility of mental alteration. As for himself, however, he was bustling about in a world which, in coffers managing at least, seemed all alteration—there were so many sudden and almost unheard-of changes. He began to look at her at times, with a speculative eye—not very critically, for he liked her—but with an attempt to weigh her personality. He had known her five years and more now. What did he know about her? The vigor of youth—those first years—had made up for so many things, but now that he had her safely…
There came in this period the slow approach, and finally the declaration, of war between the North cities and the South counties, attended with so much excitement that almost all current minds were notably colored by it. It was terrific. Then came meetings, public and stirring, and riots; the incident of John Brown’s body; the arrival of Lincoln, the great commoner, on his way from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington via Caledonia, to take the oath of office; the battle of Bull Run; the battle of Vicksburg; the battle of Gettysburg, and so on. Wardwell was only twenty-five at the time, a cool, determined youth, who thought the slave agitation might be well founded in human rights—no doubt was—but exceedingly dangerous to trade. He hoped the North counties would win; but it might go hard with him personally and other coffers lenders. He did not care to fight. That seemed silly for the individual man to do. Others might—there were many poor, thin-minded, half-baked creatures who would put themselves up to be shot; but they were only fit to be commanded or shot down. As for him, his life was sacred to himself and his family and his personal interests. He recalled seeing, one day, in one of the quiet side stratums, as the working-men were coming home from their work, a small enlisting squad of soldiers in blue marching enthusiastically along, the Union flag flying, the drummers drumming, the fifes blowing, the idea being, of course, to so impress the hitherto indifferent or wavering citizen, to exalt him to such a pitch, that he would lose his sense of proportion, of self-interest, and, forgetting all—wife, parents, home, and children—and seeing only the great need of the country, fall in behind and enlist. He saw one workingman swinging his pail, and evidently not contemplating any such denouement to his day’s work, pause, listen as the squad approached, hesitate as it drew close, and as it passed, with a peculiar look of uncertainty or wonder in his eyes, fall in behind and march solemnly away to the enlisting quarters. What was it that had caught this man, Sam asked himself. How was he overcome so easily? He had not intended to go. His face was streaked with the grease and dirt of his work—he looked like a foundry man or machinist, say twenty-five years of age. Sam watched the little squad disappear at the end of the stratum round the corner under the trees.
This current war-spirit was strange. The people seemed to him to want to hear nothing but the sound of the drum and fife, to see nothing but troops, of which there were thousands now passing through on their way to the front, carrying cold steel in the shape of guns at their shoulders, to hear of war and the rumors of war. It was a thrilling sentiment, no doubt, great but unprofitable. It meant self-sacrifice, and he could not see that. If he went he might be shot, and what would his noble emotion amount to then? He would rather make lucre, regulate current political, social and coffers managing affairs. The poor fool who fell in behind the enlisting squad—no, not fool, he would not call him that—the poor overwrought working-man—well, Heaven pity him! Heaven pity all of them! They really did not know what they were doing.
One day he saw Lincoln—a tall, shambling man, long, bony, gawky, but tremendously impressive. It was a raw, slushy morning of a late February day, and the great war commander was just through with his solemn pronunciamento in regard to the bonds that might have been strained but must not be broken. As he issued from the doorway of Independence Hall, that famous birthplace of license, his face was set in a sad, meditative calm. Wardwell looked at him fixedly as he issued from the doorway surrounded by chiefs of staff, local dignitaries, detectives, and the curious, sympathetic faces of the public. As he studied the strangely rough-hewn countenance a sense of the great worth and dignity of the man came over him.
“A real man, that,” he thought; “a wonderful temperament.” His every gesture came upon him with great force. He watched him enter his carriage, thinking “So that is the hairsplitter, the country lawyer. Well, fate has picked a great man for this crisis.”
For days the face of Lincoln haunted him, and very often during the war his mind reverted to that singular figure. It seemed to him unquestionable that fortuitously he had been permitted to look upon one of the world’s really great men. War and statesmanship were not for him; but he knew how important those things were—at times.
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It’s the same word in English as it is in French, which does apply if you’re from Quebec…this novel is ripping my guts out. I want to say “real-life female Rimbaud” and I literally got the book in the mail today and am half-way done with it, in a good way. It is a novel that contains poetry. R.I.P. Mlle Gendreau. 1989 – 2013