The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter II

"Get all ready before you start," Powers Jackson had said, when his nephew, after four years at Cornell and three years at a famous technical school in the East, had suggested the propriety of finishing his professional training in architecture by additional study in Paris. "Get all ready,—then let us have results."

He had taken his time to get ready. He had chosen to go to Cornell in the first place rather than to a larger university, because some of the boys of his high school class were going there. With us in America such matters are often settled in this childish way. The reason why he chose the profession of architecture was, apparently, scarcely less frivolous. A "fraternity brother" at Cornell, just home from Paris, fired the college boy's imagination for "the Quarter." But, once started in the course of architecture at the technical school, he found that he had stumbled into something which really interested him. For the first time in his life he worked seriously.

At the Beaux Arts he worked, also, though he did not forget the amenities of life. The two years first talked of expanded into two and a half, then rounded to a full three. Meanwhile the generous checks from the office of the Bridge Works came with pleasant regularity. His mother wrote, "Powers hopes that you are deriving benefit from your studies in Paris." What the old man had said was, "How's Jackie doing these days, Amelia?" And young Hart was "doing" well. There were many benefits, not always orthodox, which the young American, established cosily on the Rue de l'Université, was deriving from Paris.

The day of preparation came to an end, however. During those last weeks of his stay in Europe he was joined by his mother and Helen Spellman. Powers Jackson had taken this occasion to send them both abroad; Mrs. Spellman being too much of an invalid to take the journey, Mrs. Amelia Hart had been very glad to have the girl's companionship. Jackson met them in Naples. After he had kissed his mother and taken her handbag, to which she was clinging in miserable suspicion of the entire foreign world, he turned to the girl, whose presence he had been conscious of all the time. Helen was not noticeably pretty or well dressed; but she had an air of race, a fineness of feature, a certain personal delicacy, to which the young man had long been unaccustomed. Perhaps three years of student life in Paris had prepared him to think very well of a young American woman.

They had spent most of their time in Rome, where Mrs. Hart could be made happy with many American comforts. She was much given to writing letters to her friends; they formed a kind of journal wherein she recorded her impressions of the places she visited and the facts she culled from the guide-books and the valets de place whom they employed. She wrote a round, firm hand, and this was her style of entry:—

"This morning with Helen and Jackson to the Palatine Hill. The Palatine was one of the Seven Hills of Rome. It was anciently the home of the Cæsars. That is, they had their palaces there, some remains of which exist to this day.... It is a pretty sort of place now, where there are stone benches, from which may be obtained a good view of the Forum and the best ruins of Ancient Rome."

Jackson liked to tease his mother about her literal method of sight-seeing. In her way, also, Helen was laborious and conscientious, trying to solve the complex impressions of the foreign world. The young architect was content to wave his hand toward a mass of picturesque ruins as they flitted past in a cab. "Somebody or other Metellus put up that arch," he would remark gayly. "Good color, isn't it?" The women would insist upon stopping the cab, and would get out. Then, guide-book in hand, they would peer up at the gray remnant of an ancient order of things. So with the Palatine,—Helen insisted upon studying out on the plan the House of Livia, and puzzled much over the exact situation of the Golden House of Nero, although Jackson assured her that no remains of the huge palace could be identified. She had a conscience about seeing as much as she could, and seeing it honestly, justifying to herself the careless architect's flippancy on the ground that he had been so long in Europe he knew what to avoid.

While Mrs. Hart was laboriously filling her letters with incontestable facts, the two young people went about alone, in that perfectly normal and healthy manner which remains an everlasting puzzle to the European eye. The architect took keen pleasure in teaching the girl to recognize the beauty in a Palladian façade and the majestic grandiosity of a Santa Maria degli Angeli. In matters of color and line the girl was as sensitive as he, but he found that she lacked the masculine sense of construction, the builder's instinct for proportion and plan.

Their friendship was quite simple, untouched by any hectic excitement, or even sentiment. The architect was twenty-seven years old, and he had seen enough of Parisian manners to remove any superficial virtue which might have survived his four years at Cornell. But this American girl, the old friend of his family, his mother's companion—she seemed to him merely the pleasantest being he had seen in months.

So their six weeks in Italy had been very happy ones for all three,—six golden weeks of May and early June, when the beautiful land smiled at them from every field and wall. Each fresh scene in the panorama of their little journeys was another joy, a new excitement that brought a flush of heightened color to the girl's face. One of their last days they spent at the little village of Ravello, on the hilltop above Amalfi, and there in the clear twilight of a warm June day, with gold-tipped clouds brooding over the Bay of Salerno, they came for the first time upon the personal note. They were leaning over the railing of the terrace in the Palumbo, listening to the bells in the churches of Vetri below them.

"Wouldn't this be good for always!" he murmured.

He was touched with sentimental self-pity at the thought of leaving all this,—the beauty, the wonder, the joy of Europe! In another short month instead of these golden hours of full sensation there would be Chicago, whose harsh picture a three years' absence had not softened.

"I don't know," the girl replied, with a long sigh for remembered joy. "One could not be as happy as this for months and years."

"I'd like to try!" he said lightly.

"No! Not you!" she retorted with sudden warmth. "What could a man do here?"

"There are a lot of fellows in Europe who manage to answer that question somehow. Most of the men I knew in Paris don't expect to go back yet, and not to Chicago anyway."

Her lips compressed quickly. Evidently they were not the kind of men she thought well of.

"Why!" she stammered, words crowding tempestuously to her tongue. "How could you stay, and not work out your own life, not make your own place in the world like uncle Powers? How it would trouble him to hear you say that!"

She made him a trifle ashamed of his desire to keep out of the fight any longer. Hers, he judged, was a militant, ambitious nature, and he was quick to feel what she expected of him.

After they had sat there a long time without speaking, she said gently, as if she wished to be just to him:—

"It might be different, if one were an artist; but even then I should think a man would want to carry back what he had received here to the place he was born in,—shouldn't you?"

"Well, perhaps," he admitted, "if the place weren't just—Chicago! It wouldn't seem much use to carry this back there. The best thing for a man would be to forget it," he concluded rather bitterly.

They never came back to this topic. Nevertheless those simple words which the girl had spoken in that garden of Ravello became a tonic for him at other moments of shrinking or regret. He felt what was in her eyes a man's part.

They made the long voyage homewards through the Mediterranean, touching at Gibraltar for a last, faint glimpse of romance. It was a placid journey in a slow steamer, with a small company of dull, middle-aged Americans, and the two young people were left much to themselves. In the isolation of the sunny, windless sea, their acquaintance took on imperceptibly a personal character. After the fashion of the egotistic male, he told her, bit by bit, all that he knew about himself,—his college days, his friends, and his work at the Beaux Arts. From the past,—his past,—they slid to the future that lay before him on the other shore of the Atlantic. He sketched for her in colored words the ideals of his majestic art. Tucked up on deck those long, cloudless nights, they reached the higher themes,—what a man could do, as Richardson and Atwood had shown the glorious way, toward expressing the character and spirit of a fresh race in brick and stone and steel!

Such thoughts as these touched the girl's imagination, just as the sweet fragments of a civilization finer than ours had stirred her heart in Italy. All these ideas which the young man poured forth, she took to be the architect's original possessions, not being familiar with the froth of Paris studios, the wisdom of long déjeuners. And she was doubly eager whenever he mentioned his plans for the future. For something earnest and large was the first craving of her soul, something that had in it service and beauty in life.

At the time of the great exposition in Chicago she had had such matters first brought to her attention. Powers Jackson, as one of the directors of the enterprise, had entertained many of the artists and distinguished men who came to the city, and at his dinner-table she had heard men talk whose vital ideals were being worked into the beautiful buildings beside the lake. Their words she had hoarded in her schoolgirl's memory, and now in her sympathy for the young architect she began to see what could be done with an awakened feeling for art, for social life, to make our strong young cities memorable. This, she imagined shyly, would be the work of the man beside her!

He was handsome and strong, vigorously built, though inclined to heaviness of body. His brown hair waved under his straw hat, and a thick mustache turned stiffly upwards in the style of the German Emperor, which was then just coming into fashion. This method of wearing the mustache, and also a habit of dressing rather too well, troubled the girl; for she knew that uncle Powers would at once note such trivial aspects of his nephew. The keen old man might say nothing, but he would think contemptuous thoughts. The young architect's complexion was ruddy, healthily bronzed; his features were regular and large, as a man's should be. Altogether he was a handsome, alert, modern American. Too handsome, perhaps! She thought apprehensively of the rough-looking, rude old man at home, his face tanned and beaten, knobby and hard, like the gnarled stump of an oak!

She was very anxious that the architect should make a good impression on his uncle, not simply for his own sake, but for the lonely old man's comfort. She felt that she knew Powers Jackson better than his nephew did; knew what he liked and what he despised. She wanted him to love this nephew, and several times she talked to Jackson about his uncle. The young man listened with an amused smile, as if he had already a good formula for the old man.

"Mother can't get him out of that brick Mansard roost on Ohio Street, where he has lived since the fire. All his friends have moved away from the neighborhood. But he thinks the black-walnut rooms, the stamped leather on the walls, and the rest of it, is the best going yet. That buffet, as he calls it! It's early Victorian, a regular chef-d'oeuvre of ugliness. That house!"

"It's always been his home," she protested, finding something trivial in this comic emphasis on sideboards and bookcases. "He cares about good things too. Lately he's taken to buying engravings. Mr. Pemberton interested him in them. And I think he would like to buy pictures, if he wasn't afraid of being cheated, of making a fool of himself."

"You'll make him out a patron of the fine arts!"

Jackson laughed merrily at the picture of Powers Jackson as a connoisseur in art.

"Perhaps he will be yet!" she retorted stoutly. "At any rate, he is a very dear old man."

He would not have described his uncle Powers in the same simple words. Still he had the kindest feelings toward him, mixed with a latent anxiety as to what the old man might do about his allowance, now that his school days had come definitely to a close....

Thus in the long hours of that voyage, with the sound of the gurgling, dripping water all about them, soothed by the rhythm of pounding engines, the man and the woman came to a sort of knowledge of each other. At least there was created in the heart of each a vision of the other. The girl's vision was glorified by the warmth of her imagination, which transformed all her simple experiences. In her heart, if she had looked there, she would have seen an image of youth and power, very handsome, with great masculine hopes, and aspirations after unwrought deeds. Unconsciously she had given to that image something which she could never take back all the years of her life, let her marry whom she might!

And he could remember her, if hereafter he should come to love her, as she was these last days. The shadow of the end of the romance was upon her, and it left her subdued, pensive, but more lovely than ever before. To the artist's eye in the architect her head was too large, the brow not smooth enough, the hair two shades too dark, the full face too broad. The blue eyes and the trembling, small mouth gave a certain childishness to her expression that the young man could not understand. It was only when she spoke that he was much moved; for her voice was very sweet, uncertain in its accents, tremulous. She seemed to breathe into commonplace words some revelation of herself....

On the morning of their arrival the lofty buildings of the great city loomed through the mist. The architect said:—

"There are the hills of the New World! Here endeth the first chapter."

"I cannot believe it has ended," she replied slowly. "Nothing ends!"

Powers Jackson and Mrs. Spellman met the travellers in New York. It was just at the time that Jackson was negotiating with the promoters of a large trust for the sale of his Bridge Works. This fact his nephew did not learn until some months later, for the old man never talked about his deeds and intentions. At any rate, he did sell the Works one morning in the lobby of his hotel and for his own price, which was an outrageous one, as the stockholders of the new trust came to know in time to their chagrin.

He shook hands with his sister, kissed Helen on the forehead, and nodded to his nephew.

"How's the Pope, Amelia?" he asked gravely.

"You needn't ask me! Did you think, Powers, I'd be one to go over to the Vatican and kiss that old man's hand? I hope I'm too good a Christian to do that!"

"Oh, don't be too hard on the poor feller," Jackson said, continuing his joke. "I hoped you'd pay your respects to the Pope. Why, he's the smartest one in the whole bunch over there, I guess!"

He looked to Helen for sympathy. It should be said that Powers Jackson regarded his sister Amelia as a fool, but that he never allowed himself to take advantage of the fact except in such trifling ways as this.

When the two men were alone in the private parlor at the hotel, the uncle said:—

"So you've finished up now? You're all through over there?"

"Yes, sir," Hart answered, not feeling quite at his ease with this calm old man. "I guess I am ready to begin building, as soon as any one will have me!"

"I see there's plenty doing in your line, all over."

"I am glad to hear that."

The architect fidgeted before he could think what to say next. Then he managed to express his sense of gratitude for the great opportunities his uncle had given him in Paris. Jackson listened, but said nothing. The architect was conscious that the old man had taken in with one sweep of those sharp little eyes his complete appearance. He suspected that the part in the middle of his brown hair, the pert lift to the ends of his mustache, the soft stock about his neck, the lavender colored silk shirt in which he had prepared to meet the pitiless glare of the June sun in the city,—that all these items had been noted and disapproved. He reflected somewhat resentfully that he was not obliged to make a guy of himself to please his uncle. He found his uncle's clothes very bad. Powers Jackson was a large man, and his clothes, though made by one of the best tailors in Chicago, usually had a draggled appearance, as if he had forgotten to take them off when he went to bed. However, when the old man next spoke, he made no reference to his nephew's attire.

"I was talking to Wright about you the other day. Ever heard of him?"

"Of Walker, Post, and Wright?" Hart asked, naming one of the best-known firms of architects in the country.

"Yes. They've been doing something for me lately. If you haven't made any plans, you might start in their Chicago office. That'll teach you the ropes over here."

Nothing was said about an allowance or a continuation of those generous and gratefully acknowledged checks which had made life at Cornell and at Paris so joyous. And nothing more was ever said about them! Jackson Hart had taken the position that his uncle had secured for him in Wright's Chicago office, and within a fortnight of the day he landed at New York he was making his daily pilgrimage to the twelfth floor of the Maramanoc Building, where under the bulkheads worked a company of young gentlemen in their shirt-sleeves.

That was two years ago, and by this time he was eager for almost any kind of change.


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