The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IV

The next morning Jackson Hart was once more bending over the large sheets of the plans for the Denver hotel. Now that he knew his fate, the draughting-room under the great skylights of the Maramanoc Building seemed like a prison indeed. The men in the office, he felt sure, had read all about the will, and had had their say upon his private affairs before he had come in. He could tell that from the additional nonchalance in the manner of the head draughtsman, Cook, when he nodded to him on his way to the cubby-hole where he worked. Early in the afternoon a welcome interruption came to him in the shape of an urgent call from the electricians working on the Canostota apartment house on the South Side. The head of the office asked Hart to go to the Canostota and straighten the men out, as Harmon, their engineer, was at home ill.

As Jackson crossed the street to take the elevated train he met his cousin. They walked together to the station, and as Wheeler was turning away, the architect broke out:—

"I've been thinking over uncle's will. I can't say I think it was fair,—to treat me like that after—after all these years."

The lawyer smiled coldly.

"I didn't get much, either," he remarked.

"Well, that don't make it any better; besides, you have had as good as money from him long ago. Your position and mine aren't just the same."

"No, that's so," the lawyer admitted. "But what are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know yet. I want to think it over. How long"—he hesitated before finishing his thought.

"How long have you to give notice you want to contest? About three weeks," Wheeler replied coolly. "Of course you know that if you fight you'll put your mother's legacy in danger. And I rather guess Hollister and the judge wouldn't compromise."

"And you?"

Wheeler shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh, I suppose I should stick with the others."

Then Wheeler nodded and was off down the street. He did not appear to be surprised or disturbed by what his cousin had told him. Hart, pondering the matter in perplexity, continued on his way to the Canostota. There he found the foreman for the electrical contractor, and spent a busy hour explaining to the man the intricacies of the office blue prints. Then the steam-fitter got hold of him, and it was nearly five o'clock before he had time to think of himself or his own affairs. As he emerged from the basement by a hole left in the floor for the plumbers and steam-fitters to run their pipes through, he noticed a space where a section of the fireproof partition had been accidentally knocked out. Through this hole he could see one of the steel I-beams that supported the flooring above, where it had been drilled to admit the passing of a steam pipe. Something unusual in the appearance of the metal caught his eye, and he paused where he was, halfway out of the basement, to look at it again. The I-beam seemed unaccountably thin and slight. He felt in his pocket for a small rule that he usually carried with him. He was not quite familiar, even yet, with the material side of building in America; but he knew in a general way the weights and thicknesses of steel beams that were ordinarily specified in Wright's office for buildings of this size.

"How's this, Davidson?" he asked the steam-fitter, who was close at his heels. "Isn't that a pretty light fifteen-inch I-beam?"

The workman looked absolutely blank.

"I dunno. I expect it's what's called for."

Even if the man had known that something was wrong about the steel, he would have said nothing. It was silly to ask a subcontractor to give evidence damaging to his employer. The architect stooped and asked the man to hand him his calipers. As he was trying to measure the section of steel, he saw a man's face looking down at him from the floor above. Presently a burly form appeared in the opening, and Jackson recognized Graves, who was the general contractor for the building.

"We haven't begun to patch up the tile yet," the contractor observed, nodding to the architect. "We thought we'd leave it open here and there until Mr. Harmon could get around and look into things. I'm expecting Mr. Wright will be out here the first of the week, too."

The contractor talked slowly, without taking his eyes from Hart. He was a large, full-bearded man, with a manner self-confident or assuming, as one chose to take it. Hart was always at a loss how to treat a man like Graves,—whether as a kind of upper workman to be ordered about, or as a social equal.

"Is that so?" he asked in a non-committal tone. "Mr. Harmon hasn't been out here much of late?"

"No, sir. It must be three weeks or more since Mr. Harmon was here last. He's been sick that long, ain't he?"

The steam-fitter had slipped away. Hart had it on his lips to ask the contractor to show him the specifications for the steel work, but he was not sure that this was the proper method of procedure. Graves kept his cool gray eyes fastened on the young architect, while he said:—

"That's why I've been keeping things back, so as Mr. Wright could satisfy himself that everything was all right. A terribly particular man, that Mr. Wright. If you can please him!"

He was studying the young man before him, and very ably supplying answers to the architect's doubts before he could express them. The contractor did not pause to give Hart time to think, but kept his stream of slow, confident words flowing over the architect.

"You fellows give us a lot of bother. Now take that tile. Mr. Wright specifies Caper's A1, which happens to be out of the market just now. To please him I sent to Cleveland and Buffalo for some odds and ends they had down there. But there are a dozen makes just as good!"

He spoke like a man who did always a little more than his duty. Although the architect was conscious of the skilful manner in which his attention was being switched from the steel beams, he felt inclined to trust the man and judged his suspicions to be ill-timed.

Graves was not one of the larger contractors employed on the firm's buildings. He had worked up from small beginnings as a master mason, and Wright, having used him on several little commissions, had always found him eager to do his best. This was the first job of any considerable size that Graves had done for the firm, and he had got this by under-bidding considerably all the other general contractors who had been invited to bid on the work. These facts Hart did not happen to know.

"Are you going north, Mr. Hart?" Graves asked, as they turned to the street entrance. "My team is just outside. Shall be pleased to give you a lift."

Speaking thus he ushered the architect from the Canostota where the dusk was already falling. The building rose sheer and massive, six stories above their heads, with rows of unglassed windows like sightless eyes. Jackson looked up at it critically, admitting to himself frankly Wright's ability and restrained taste. This apartment building stood out from its vulgar neighbors with a kind of aristocratic distinction that called the passer-by to admire its frugal plainness.

The contractor's horse was a nervous, fast little beast. The light runabout whirled into the broad avenue of Grand Boulevard, and there Graves let the animal out for a couple of blocks. A thin smile of satisfaction wrinkled the contractor's bearded lips. Then he pulled on the reins, and turned in his seat to face the architect.

"I'm glad of this chance to get acquainted with you, Mr. Hart," he began pleasantly. "I have been thinking lately that we might be of some use to each other."

He paused to let his words sink into his companion's mind. Then he resumed in a reflective manner:—

"I ain't content to build just for other folks. I want to put up something on my own account. Oh, nothing like as fine as that Canostota, but something pretty and attractive, and a building that will pay good. I've just the lot for it, out south alongside Washington Park. It's a peach! A corner and two hundred feet. Say! Why won't you come out right now and have a look at it? Can you spare the time? Good."

The little runabout whisked around, and they went speeding south over the hard boulevard.

"Now's about the time to build. I've owned the property ever since the slump in real estate right after the fair. Well, I want an architect on my own account! I suppose I could go to one of those Jews who sell their dinky little blue prints by the yard. Most of the flat buildings hereabouts come that way. But I want something swell. That's going to be a fine section of the city soon, and looks count in a building, as elsewhere."

Hart laughed at this cordial testimony to his art.

"There's your boss, Wright. But he's too high-toned for me,—wouldn't look at anything that toted up less than the six figures. And I guess he don't do much designing himself. He leaves that to you young fellows, don't he?"

Hart could see, now, the idea that was in the contractor's mind, and his interest grew. They pulled up near the south corner of the Park, beside some vacant land. It was, as Graves said, a very favorable spot for a showy apartment building.

"I want something real handsome," the contractor continued. "It'll be a high-priced building. And I think you are the man to do it."

Graves brought this out like a shot.

"Why, I should like to think of it," the architect began conventionally, not sure what he ought to say.

"Yes, you're the man. I saw the plans for that Aurora church one day while I was waiting to talk with Mr. Wright, and I said to myself then, 'There's the man to draw my plans when I get ready to build. The feller that designed that church has got something out of the ordinary in him! He's got style!'"

Praise, even from the mob, is honey to the artist. Jackson instinctively thought better of the self-confident contractor, and decided that he was a bluff, honest man,—common, but well meaning.

"Well, what do you say, Mr. Hart?"

It ended with Hart's practically agreeing to prepare a preliminary sketch. When it came to the matter of business, the young architect found that, notwithstanding the contractor's high consideration of his talent, he was willing to offer only the very lowest terms for his work. He told the contractor, however, that he would consider his offer, remarking that he should have to leave Wright's office before undertaking the commission.

"But," he said with a sudden rush of will, "I was considering starting for myself very soon, anyway."

It was not until after the contractor had dropped him at his club in the down-town district that he remembered the steel beams in the Canostota. Then it occurred to him that possibly, had it not been for the accident which had brought Graves to that part of the building just as he was on his knees trying to measure the thickness of the metal, the contractor might not have discovered his great talent. As he entered the club washroom, the disagreeable thought came to him that, if the I-beams were not right, Graves had rather cleverly closed his mouth about the Canostota. In agreeing to do a piece of work for Wright's contractor, he had placed himself where he could not easily get that contractor into trouble with his present employer.

As he washed his hands, scrubbing them as if they had been pieces of wood in order to remove the afternoon's dirt, he felt that there was more than one kind of grime in the city.


Return to the The Common Lot Summary Return to the Robert Welch Herrick Library

© 2022