The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter III

The morning after the funeral Francis Jackson Hart resumed his work on the plans of a large hotel that Walker, Post, and Wright were to build in Denver. This was in all probability the last piece of work that he should be called upon to do for that firm, and the thought was pleasant to him. He had not spent an altogether happy two years in that office. It was a large firm, with other offices in St. Paul and New York, and work under construction in a dozen different states. Wright was the only member of the firm who came often to Chicago; he dropped into the office nearly every month, arriving from somewhere south or east, and bound for somewhere north or west, with only a few days to spare. During these brief visits he was always tremendously rushed—plans under way in the office had to be looked over and criticised; the construction in the immediate neighborhood examined; new business to be discussed with the firm's clients, and much else. He was a tall, thin man, with harassed, near-sighted eyes,—a gentleman well trained in his profession and having good taste according to the standards of a generation ago. But he had fallen upon a commercial age, and had not been large enough to sway it. He made decent compromises between his own taste and that of his clients, and took pride in the honest construction of his buildings.

Wright had hurt Hart's susceptibilities almost at the start, when he remarked about a sketch that the young architect had made for a new telephone exchange:—

"All you want, my boy, is the figure of a good fat woman flopping over that door!"

For the next few months Hart had been kept busy drawing spandrels. From this he was promoted to designing stables for country houses of rich clients. He resented the implied criticism of his judgment, and he put Wright down as a mere Philistine, who had got all his training in an American office.

Now, he said to himself, as he took down his street coat and adjusted his cuffs before going over to his cousin's office to hear the will, he should leave Wright's "department store," and "show the old man" what he thought of the kind of buildings the firm was putting up for rich and common people. He, at least, would not be obliged to be mercenary. His two years' experience in Chicago had taught him something about the fierceness of the struggle to exist in one of the professions, especially in a profession where there is an element of fine art. And his appetite to succeed, to be some one of note in this hurly-burly of Chicago, had grown very fast. For he had found himself less of a person in his native city than he had thought it possible over in Paris,—even with the help of his rich uncle, with whom he had continued to live.

So, as the elevator of the Dearborn Building bore him upwards that afternoon, his heart beat exultantly: he was to hear in a few moments the full measure of that advantage which he had been given over all the toiling, sweating humanity here in the elevator, out there on the street! By the right of fortunate birth he was to be spared the common lot of man, to be placed high up on the long, long ladder of human fate....

When he entered Everett Wheeler's private office, Hollister was talking with Judge Phillips. The latter nodded pleasantly to the young man, and gave him his hand.

"How do you do, sir?" he asked, with emphatic gravity.

The judge, who had not sat in a court for more than a generation, was a vigorous, elderly man with a sweeping gray mustache. He was an old resident of Chicago, and had made much money, some of it in Powers Jackson's enterprises.

Hollister nodded briskly to the architect, and motioned him to a seat. Presently Everett came in from the safe where he had gone to get some papers, and Hollister, who seemed to be spokesman for the executors, clearing his throat, began:—

"Well, gentlemen, we all know what we are here for, I presume."

The young architect never remembered clearly how all the rest of it came about. At first he wondered why old Hollister should open the proceedings with such elaborate eulogies of the dead man. Hollister kept saying that few men had understood the real man in Powers Jackson,—the warm man's heart that beat beneath the rude and silent manner.

"I want to say," Hollister exclaimed in a burst of unwonted emotion, "that it was more than mutual interest which allied the judge and me to Mr. Jackson. It was admiration! Admiration for the man!"

The judge punctuated this opinion with a grave nod.

"Especially these latter years, when Mr. Jackson was searching for a way in which he might most benefit the world with the fortune that he had earned by his ability and hard work."

The gray-bearded man ceased talking for a moment and looked at the two younger men. Everett was paring his nails, very neatly, with the air of detachment he assumed when he was engaged in taking a deposition. The architect looked blankly mystified.

"He wanted to help men," Hollister resumed less demonstratively. "Especially workingmen, the kind of men he had come from and had known all his life. He never forgot that he worked at the forge the first five years he lived in Chicago. And no matter what the labor unions say, or the cheap newspaper writers, there wasn't a man in this city who cared for the best interests of laboring men more than Powers Jackson."

Across the judge's handsome face flitted the glimmer of a smile, as if other memories, slightly contradictory, would intrude themselves on this eulogy. Everett, having finished the cutting of his nails, was examining his shoes. He might be thinking of the price of steel billets in Liverpool, or he might be thinking that Hollister was an ass,—no one could tell.

"He took much advice; he consulted many men, among them the president of a great Eastern university. And here in this document"—Hollister took up the will—"he embodied the results,—his purpose!"

At this point in the architect's confused memory of the fateful scene there was a red spot of consciousness. The man of affairs, looking straight at him, seemingly, announced:—

"Powers Jackson left the bulk of his large fortune in trust with the purpose of founding a great school for the children of workingmen!"

There ensued a brief pause. Hart did not comprehend at once the full significance of what had been said. But as the others made no remark, he did not venture to ask questions, and so Hollister asked the lawyer to read the will, clause by clause.

It was a brief document, considering the importance of its contents. There was an item, Jackson recalled afterward, leaving the old family farm at Vernon Falls in Vermont to "my dear young friend, Helen Powers Spellman, because she will love it for my sake as well as for itself." And to this bequest was added a few thousand dollars as a maintenance fund.

He might have treated her more generously, it occurred to the architect vaguely, valuing in his own mind the old place as naught.

"To my nephew, Francis Jackson Hart, ten thousand dollars in the following securities...."

This he grasped immediately. So, that was his figure! He scarcely noted the next clause, which gave to his mother the Ohio Street house with a liberal income from the estate for her life. He waited for the larger bequests which must come, and for the disposition of the residue. Suddenly Hollister remarked with a little upward inflection of satisfaction:—

"Now we are coming to the core of the apple!"

Slowly, deliberately, the lawyer read on:—

"Being desirous that the larger part of whatever wealth I may die possessed of may be made of immediate and wide benefit to mankind, I do give and bequeath the residue of my estate to Judge Harrison Phillips, Everett Wheeler, and Mark Kingsford Hollister, and such others as they may associate with them, in trust, nevertheless, for the following described purposes.... Said fund and its accumulations to be devoted to the founding and maintenance of a school or institution for the purpose of providing an education, industrial and technical, as said trustees may deem best, for the children of workingmen, of the city of Chicago."

"That," exclaimed Hollister triumphantly, "is Powers Jackson's gift to mankind!"

There were a few more sentences to the will, elaborating slightly the donor's design, providing for liberal payments to the executors for their services, and reserving certain portions of the estate for endowment purposes only. Yet, as a whole, the document was singularly simple, almost bare in its disposition of a very large amount of money. It reposed a great trust in the men selected to carry out the design, in their will and intelligence. Doubtless the old man had taken Hollister, at least, into his confidence, and had contented himself with giving him verbal and general directions, knowing full well the fate of elaborately conceived and legally specified bequests. The wise old man seemed to have contented himself with outlining broadly, though plainly enough, his large intention.

"That's a pretty shaky piece of work, that instrument," Everett observed, narrowing his eyes to a thin slit. "He didn't get me to draw it up, let me tell you. It's queer the old man was willing to trust his pile to such a loosely worded document."

"Fortunately," Judge Phillips hastened to add, "in this case we may hope that will make no difference."

There was an awkward pause, and then the lawyer replied drawlingly:—

"No, I don't suppose there'll be any trouble. I don't see why there should be any, unless Hart objects."

Jackson felt dimly that here was his chance to protest, to object to Everett's calm acceptance of the will. But a certain shame, or diffidence, restrained him at the moment from showing these men that he felt injured by his uncle's will. He said nothing, and Hollister began to talk of the projected school. It was to be something new, the architect gathered, not exactly like any other attempt in education in our country, and it would take time to perfect the details of the plan. There was no need for haste.

"We must build for generations when we do start," Hollister said. "And the other trustees agree with me that this is not the most opportune time for converting the estate into ready money."

"It will pretty nearly double the next five years," the judge observed authoritatively.

"At the present, as closely as we can estimate it, there is available for the purposes of the trust a little over three millions of dollars," Hollister stated.

Over three millions! Jackson Hart started in his chair. He had had no idea that his uncle was worth anything like that amount. And these shrewd men thought it would probably double during the next five years! Well, so far as he was concerned it might be three cents. Possibly Everett would get a few dollars out of it as trustee. He had already shared in some of the old man's plums, Hart reflected bitterly. When the trustees began to discuss among themselves some detail of the management of the real estate involved, the young architect made an excuse of a business engagement and slipped away. Just as he reached the door, Everett called out:—

"We'll send the will over for probate to-morrow. If there's no hitch, the legacies will be paid at once. I'll be over to see your mother very soon and arrange for the payment of her annuity."

Jackson nodded. He did not like to trust his voice. He knew that it was very dry. Somehow he found himself in the elevator herded in a cage of office boys and clerks on their way home, sweating and dirty from a long day's work. At the street level he bought a newspaper, and the first thing that caught his eye in its damp folds were the headlines:—



Hart crumpled up the sheet and threw it into the gutter. The first intelligible feeling that he had over his situation was a sort of shame that his uncle should have held him so cheap. For so he interpreted the gift of ten thousand dollars! And he began, unconsciously, to try in his mind the case between himself and his uncle. He had always been led to believe that he was the most favored of all the old man's dependents. Surely he had been treated like a son, and he was not aware that he had ever been ungrateful or unworthy. Now, without having committed any piece of public folly, he was made a thing of pity and contempt before his friends!

He resented the old man's kindness, now that he knew where it ended. Very swiftly he began to realize what it would mean to him to be without this fortune on which he had so confidently calculated. He had made up his mind to move to New York, where some of his friends had started prosperously and had invited him to join them. And there was Helen, whom he had come to love in the past year. Marriage was now, apparently, out of the question for him, unless he could earn more money than Wright thought he was worth. For Helen no more than he had been favored by his uncle. Even Helen, whom the old man had made so much of, had been left with little more than a stony farm! ...

Thus he ploughed his way down the murky street in the direction of the north side bridge. The gloom of a foggy spring evening was added to the smoke and grime of the careless city. The architect felt dirty and uncomfortable, and he knew now that he was condemned to struggle on in this unlovely metropolis, where even the baked meats of life were flung at one ungarnished.

Two solid streams of black-dressed humanity were pressing northward over the narrow footpaths of the State Street bridge. Some unit in the throng nudged the architect's elbow.

"Hello, Jack Hart!" a man yelped at him, scowling from under his black pot hat. "Going my way?"

Jackson grumbled a short assent. He did not care to meet Sayre Coburn at this juncture in his life. Coburn had been a half-starved medical student at Cornell, working his way as a janitor in the chemical laboratory. He had been obliged to drop out before the struggle was quite over, and had gone somewhere else to finish his medical work. Lately he had landed in Chicago and opened an office without knowing a soul in the city beyond the architect and a few other Cornell men, whom he had not sought out.

Hart knew that the doctor walked to save car fare, and subsisted on meal tickets at indifferent restaurants. When he had met the man before he had been inclined to patronize him. Now he looked at the dirty collar, the frayed and baggy trousers, the wolfish hunch to the shoulders, and he knew instinctively that these marks came from the fight in its elementary form,—from that beast-tussle to snatch a dollar that some other man wants to get from you!

That same hard game, to which his uncle had just condemned him, gave Coburn his bad manners, his hit-you-in-the-face style of address, his vulgar, yelping speech. He suspected that Coburn had gone without clothes and tobacco to feed a lot of guinea-pigs and rabbits on which he was making experiments. But Dr. Coburn told you all that in his harsh, boring voice, just as he told you that your right shoulder was dragging, or your left leg was short, or any other disagreeable fact.

"So the old man's money goes to start a school?" Coburn asked, his firm lips wreathing into a slight grin. "That rather cuts you out, don't it? Or, maybe, you and he had some kind of a deal so that all the money don't have to be assessed for inheritance taxes? That's the usual way nowadays."

"There's no arrangement," Hart answered shortly. "I had no claim on my uncle's money."

The smiling doctor looked at him sideways for a moment, examining the man drolly, without malice.

"Well, you wouldn't have turned it down, if it had been passed up to you on a silver dish? Hey? God, I'd like to get a show at some loose cash. Then I could build a first-class laboratory and keep all the animals I want, instead of slopping around here selling pills and guff to old women! But these philanthropic millionnaires don't seem to favor medicine much."

He thrust out his heavy under lip at the world in a brutal, defiant manner, and swung his little black bag as though he would like to brain some rich passer-by. His was a handsome face, with firm, straight lines, a thick black mustache, and clear eyes, deep set. But it was a face torn and macerated by the hunger of unappeased desires,—unselfish and honorable desires, however; a face that thinly covered a fuming crater beneath. When life treated this man rudely, he would fight back, and he would win against odds. But as the architect saw him, he was a tough, unlovely specimen.

"I suppose any one would like to have money," Hart answered vaguely. Then feeling that the doctor's company was intolerable, he turned down a side street, calling out, "So long, Coburn."

The doctor's face betrayed a not wholly sympathetic amusement when his companion left him in this abrupt manner.

When Jackson entered the house, his uncle's old home, his mother was sitting by the library table reading, just as she had sat and read at this hour for the past twenty years. Powers Jackson had carefully made such provision for her as would enable her to continue this habit as long as she might live. She called to her son:—

"You're late, son. Supper's on the table."

"Don't wait for me," he answered dully, going upstairs to his room.

When he joined his mother at the supper-table, his mustache was brushed upwards in a confident wave, and his face, though serious, was not blackened by soot and care.

"Did you see Everett?" Mrs. Hart asked suggestively.

Jackson told her in a few words the event of the afternoon, recounting the chief provisions of the will as he remembered them. For some moments she said nothing. Then she remarked, with a note of annoyance in her voice:—

"Powers was always bound I sh'd never leave this house except to follow him to Rose Hill. And he's fixed it so now I can't! I could never make him see how sooty it was here. We have to wash the curtains and things once a fortnight, and then they ain't fit to be seen half the time."

Her son, who thought that he had his own grievances against his uncle, made no reply to this complaint. Before they had finished their meal, Mrs. Hart added:—

"He might have done more for you, too, seeing what a sight of money he left."

"Yes, he might have done it! But you see he didn't choose to. And I guess the best thing we can do under the circumstances is to say as little as possible about the will. That is, unless we decide to fight it."

He threw this out tentatively. It had not occurred to him to contest the will until that moment. Then he thought suddenly, "Why should I stand it?"

But Mrs. Hart, who had never opposed her brother in all her life, exclaimed:—

"You couldn't do that, Jackson! I am sure Powers wouldn't like it."

"Probably not," the young man replied ironically. "But it isn't his money any longer!"

It occurred to him soon, however, that by this act he would endanger his mother's comfortable inheritance, besides estranging his cousin Everett and all the old man's friends. To contest the will would be a risk and, moreover, would be ungrateful, petty. It was a matter at any rate upon which he should have to take the best of advice. When he spoke again at the end of their supper, he said impartially:—

"I am glad you are comfortably looked out for, though I hope I should always be able to give you a home, anyway. And we must remember that uncle gave me my education and my three years in Paris, and I suppose that after that he thought ten thousand dollars was all that I was worth,—or could take care of."

He said this, standing in front of the heavy black-walnut sideboard which he abhorred, while he lit a cigarette. As he spoke he felt that he was taking his injury in a manly way, although he still reserved to himself the right to seek relief from the courts.

And in the deeper reaches of his being there lay a bitter sense of resentment, a desire to make the world pay him in some manner for his disappointment. If he had to, he would show people that he could make his own way; that he was more than the weakling his uncle had contemptuously overlooked in the disposal of his property. He should rise in his profession, make money, and prove to the world that he could swim without Powers Jackson's millions.

Oddly enough, as he stood there smoking, his eyes narrowed, his handsome face hardened into something like the stocky doctor's bull-dog expression. The rough, brute man in him thrust itself to the surface!

"What kind of a school are they going to start with all that money?" Mrs. Hart asked, as she seated herself for the evening.

"Oh, something technical. For sons of mechanics, a kind of mechanics' institute, I should say."

He thought of some of the old man's caustic remarks about charities, and added:—

"Wanted to make good before he quit, I suppose?"

"Will you have to stay on with that firm?" Mrs. Hart asked, taking up Lanciani's "Pagan and Christian Rome."

"I suppose I'll have to for a time," answered Jackson, gloomily....

Thus these two accepted the dead man's will. Powers Jackson had come to his decision after long deliberation, judging that toward all who might have claims of any kind upon him he had acted justly and generously. He had studied these people about him for a long time. With Everett, who was only distantly related to him, he had acquitted himself years before, when he had put it in the young man's way to make money in his profession, to kill his prey for himself. Jackson, he deemed, would get most out of the fight of life by making the struggle, as he had made it himself, unaided. As for Helen, he had given the girl what was most intimately his, and what would do her the least harm by attracting to her the attention of the unscrupulous world. There remained what might be called his general account with the world, and at the end he had sought to settle this, the largest of all.

Powers Jackson had not been a good man, as has been hinted, but that he took his responsibilities to heart and struggled to meet them there can be no doubt. Whether or not he had chosen the best way to settle this account with the world, by trying to help those to live who were unfavored by birth, cannot be easily answered. Conceiving it to be his inalienable right to do with his money what he would, after death as in life, he had tried to do something large and wise with it. Thus far, he had succeeded in embittering his nephew.


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