The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter IX

After the few swift months of spring and summer they were to be married, late in the fall.

Meanwhile above the lake at Forest Park, in a broad, open field, Mrs. Phillips's great house was rapidly rising. It was judged variously by those who had seen it, but it altogether pleased the widow; and the architect regarded it—the first independent work of his manhood—with complacency and pride. Helen had not seen it since the walls had passed the first storey, when, one day late in September, she made the little journey from the city with the architect, and walked over to the house from the Shoreham station, up the lake road.

It was a still, soft fall day, with all the mild charm of late summer that comes only in this region. The leaves still clung in bronzed masses to the little oaks; a stray maple leaf dipped down, now and then, from a gaudy yellow tree, and sailed like a bird along their path. There was a benediction in the country, before the dissolution of winter, and the girl's heart was filled with joy.

"If we could only live here in the country, Francis!"

"All the year?" he queried doubtfully.

"Yes, always! Even the worst days I should not feel lonely. I shall never feel lonely again, anyway."

As he drew her hand close to his breast, he said contentedly, with a large view of their future:—

"Perhaps we can manage it before long. But land is very dear in this place. Then you have to keep horses and servants, if you want to live comfortably in the country."

"Oh! I didn't think of all that."

They walked slowly, very close together, neither one anxious to reach the misty horizon, where in a bed of opalescent gray lay the beautiful lake. The sunshine and the fruity odors of the good earth, the tranquil vistas of bronze oaks, set the woman brooding on her nesting time, which was so close at hand. And the man was thinking likewise, in his way, of this coming event, anxiously, yet with confidence. The plans for the Graveland, the contractor's big apartment house, were already nearly finished,—and largely paid for. Very soon the office would be idle unless new work came in, but he counted confidently on a number of good things. There were the Rainbows, who had moved to Shoreham, having made a sudden fortune, and were talking of building. Then Mrs. Phillips, he knew, was doing what she could for him with Colonel Raymond. The railroad man had promised to look over the new house some day and meet the architect. Buoyant, convinced of his own ability, he saw the office crowded with commissions!

Suddenly the house shot up before their eyes, big and new in all the rawness of fresh brick and stone. It towered blusteringly above the little oaks, a great red-brick château, with a row of little round windows in its massive, thick-tiled red roof.

Helen involuntarily stood still and caught her breath. So this was his!

"Oh!" she murmured. "Isn't it big, Francis!"

"It's no three-room cottage," he answered, with a little asperity.

Then he led her to the front, where she could get the effect of the two wings, the southerly terrace toward the lake, the sweeping drive, and the classic entrance.

"I know I shall grow to like it, Francis," the girl said loyally. "It must be very pretty inside, with those lovely French windows; and this court is attractive, too."

She felt that she was hurting her lover in his tenderest spot, and she tried anxiously to find better words, to show him that it was only her ignorance which limited her appreciation. They strolled about among the refuse heaps of the builders, viewing the place at every angle in order to get all its effects. Just as they were about to enter the house, there came from the south road the sound of a puffing automobile, and presently Mrs. Phillips arrived in a large touring car, with some people who had been lunching with her at the Shoreham Club. They came slowly up the driveway to the house, talking and joking in a flutter of good-natured comment. The architect recognized instantly the burly form of Colonel Raymond. He was speaking when the car stopped:—

"Well, Louise, you will have to take us all in next season. I didn't know you were putting up a hotel like this."

"Hotel! It is a perfect palace!" exclaimed a short, plump woman who had some difficulty in dismounting. "I hope you are going to have a pergola. They're so nice. Every country house has a pergola nowadays."

"Why not an English garden and a yew hedge?" added a man who had on the red coat of the Hunt Club. "I hope you will have your stabling up to this, Mrs. Phillips."

Then they recognized the architect and Helen. Mrs. Phillips introduced them to her friends, and they all went inside to make a tour of the rooms. The painters, who were rubbing the woodwork, looked curiously at the invading party; then, with winks among themselves, turned indifferently to their tasks.

The visitors burst into ripples of applause over the hall with its two lofty stone fireplaces, the long drawing-room that occupied the south wing of the house, the octagonal breakfast room and the dining-room in the other wing. The architect led them about, explaining the different effects he had tried to get. He showed his work modestly, touching lightly on architectural points with a well-bred assumption that the visitors knew all about such things. The plump little woman followed close at his heels, drinking in all that he said. Helen wondered who she might be, until, in an eddy of their progress, Hart found a chance to whisper to her, "It's Mrs. Rainbow; she's getting points!"

He seemed very much excited about this, and the general good luck of being able to show these people over the house he had made. After the first floor had been exhausted, the party drifted upstairs in detachments. Helen, who had loitered after the others, could hear her lover's pleasant voice as he led the way from suite to suite above. The voices finally centred in Mrs. Phillips's bathroom, where the sunken bath and the walls of colored marble caused much joking and laughter....

"Can you tell me if Mrs. Phillips is here?" a voice sounded from the door. Helen turned with a start. The young girl who asked the question was dressed in a riding habit. Outside in the court a small party of people were standing beside their horses. The girl spoke somewhat peremptorily, but before Helen had time to reply, she added more cordially:—

"Aren't you Miss Spellman? I am Venetia Phillips."

Then the two smiled at each other and shook hands in the way of women who feel that they may be friends.

"I was off with my uncle the day you dined with mamma," she continued, "so I missed seeing you. Isn't this a great—barn, I was going to say." She laughed and caught herself. "I didn't remember! Mamma likes it so much. We have just been out with the hounds,—the first run of the season. But it was no fun, so we came on here. It's too early to have a real hunt yet. Do you ride?"

They sat down on the great staircase and were at once absorbed in each other. In the meantime Mrs. Phillips's party had returned from the upper storey by the rear stairs, and were penetrating the mysteries of the service quarters. Jackson was showing them proudly all the little devices for which American architecture is famous,—the interior telephone service, the laundry chutes, the electric dumb-waiters, the latest driers. These devices aroused Colonel Raymond's admiration, and when the others came back to the hall he took the architect aside and discussed driers earnestly for several minutes. From that they got to the heating system, which necessitated a visit to the basement.

Mrs. Phillips took this occasion to compliment Helen upon her lover's success:—

"You can be proud of your young man, Miss Spellman. He's done a very successful piece of work. Every one likes it, and it's all his, too," she added generously.

Helen found nothing to say in reply. The widow was not an easy person for her to talk to. On the single other occasion when they had met, in Mrs. Phillips's city house, the two women had looked into each other's eyes, and both had remained cold. The meeting of the two women had not been all that the architect had hoped it might be; for apart from this house which he was building, there were other of his many ambitions in which Mrs. Phillips could be very helpful to them. He did not intend that Helen and he, when they were married, should sink into that dull, retired manner of living that both his mother and Mrs. Spellman seemed to prefer. It would be good business for him to enlarge his acquaintance among the rich as fast as possible.

So this time when Helen found nothing amiable on the tip of her tongue to reply, Mrs. Phillips examined the younger woman critically, saying to herself, "She's a cold piece. She won't hold him long!" ...

At last the party gathered itself together and left the house. The big touring car puffed up to the door, and the visitors climbed in, making little final comments of a flattering nature to please the architect, who had charmed them all. He was assiduous to the very end, laughing again at Mrs. Rainbow's joke about the marble tub, which she repeated for the benefit of those who had not been upstairs.

After Hart had helped her to mount the steps of the car, she leaned over and gave him her hand.

"So glad to have met you, Mr. Hart," she said with plump impressiveness. "I am sure if we build, we must come to you. It's just lovely, everything."

"I shall have to give that away to Rainbow," the colonel joked. "There's nothing so bad to eat up money as a good architect."

Then he shook hands cordially with Hart, lit a cigarette, and swung himself to the seat beside Mrs. Phillips. After the car had started, the riders mounted. Hart helped Venetia Phillips to her seat, and slipped in a word about the hunt. But the girl leaned over on the other side toward Helen, with a sudden enthusiasm.

"I do so want to see you again, Miss Spellman! But I suppose you are very busy now."

"Oh, no," Helen protested, blushing at the girl's frank enthusiasm.

"But when you are married, can't I see a lot of you?"

Helen laughed. "Come and see me whenever you will!" she said, and the two held hands for a moment, while the man in the red coat talked with the architect.

When they had all gone, Jackson turned to Helen, a happy smile of triumph on his face.

"It seemed to take!"

There had not been one word of comment on the house itself, on the building as a home for generations of people. But Hart did not seem to notice that. He was flushed with the exhilaration of approval.

"Yes," Helen answered, throwing all the animation she could into the words; "I think they all liked it."

She was silent, her thoughts full of vague impressions gathered from the little incident of the afternoon. There had been revealed to her an unknown side of her lover, a worldly side, which accorded with his alert air, his well-trimmed mustache, and careful attention to dress. He had been very much at home with all these people, while she had felt more or less out of her element. He knew how to talk to them, how to please them, just as he knew how to build a house after their taste for luxury and display. Although he was a poor, hardworking young architect, he could talk hunters or motor cars or bridge whist, as the occasion demanded. Whether it was due to his previous experience or to an instinct for luxury, he was, in fact, very much one of them!

She cast a timid look at the great façade above them, over which the cold shadows of the autumn evening were fast stealing, leaving the building in its nudity still more hard and new and raw. She was glad it was not to be her fate to live there in all its grandeur and stiff luxury.

The architect had to speak to the superintendent of the building, and Helen sat down on the stone balustrade of the terrace to wait for him. The painters were leaving their job, putting on their coats as they hurried from the house. They scarcely cast a glance her way as they passed out, disappearing into the road, fleeing from the luxurious abode and the silent woods, which were not theirs, to the village and the city. The girl mused idly about them and their lives, and about the other people who had come there this afternoon to look over the house, and about the house itself. She reflected how much more she liked the sketch Jackson had made of a little club-house for the Oak Hills Country Club. It was a rough little affair, the suggestion of which the architect had got from a kodak of a Sicilian farm-house he had once taken. But this great American château was so different from what she had supposed her lover would build, this caravansary for the rich, this toy where they could hide themselves in aristocratic seclusion and take their pleasures. And the thought stole into her mind that he liked it, this existence of the rich and prosperous, their sports and their luxuries,—and would want to earn with the work of his life just their pleasures, their housing, their automobiles and hunters. It was all strange to her experience, to her dreams!

From the second floor there came to her the sound of voices:—

"I tells you, Muster Hart, you got to rip the whoal damn piping out from roof to basement if you wants to have a good yob of it. I tole you that way back six weeks ago. It waren't specified right from the beginning."

"I'll speak to Rollings about it to-morrow and see what can be done."

"That's what you say every time, and he don't do nutting," the Swede growled.

"See here, Anderson! Who's running this job?" ...

The girl strolled away from the voices toward the bluff, where she could see the gray bosom of the lake. The twilight trees, the waveless lake soothed her: they were real, her world,—she felt them in her soul! The house back there, the men and women of it, were shadows on the marge.

"Nell!" her lover called.

"Coming, Francis."

When he came up to her she rested her head on his shoulder, looking at him with vague longing, desiring to keep him from something not clearly defined in her own mind. Her lover drew her to him and kissed her, once, twice, while her eyes searched his wistfully. She seemed passive and cold in his arms. But suddenly she closed her longing eyes, and her lips met his, hungrily, tensely, in the desire to adore, to love abundantly, which was her whole life.

"We must hurry to get that train,—dear. When we live out here we'll have to sport a motor car, won't we?" he said buoyantly.

She answered slowly, "I don't know that I should want to live just here, after all."

"Why, I thought you were crazy about the country! And I've been thinking it might be the very thing for us to do. There's such a lot of building in these places now since business has looked up. Mrs. Phillips has asked me several times why I didn't move out here on the shore. Just before she left to-day she said in a joking way that if I wanted to build a lodge for her, I might take it for a year or so. Of course that's a joke. But I know she's bought lately a lot more property on the ravine, and she might be willing to let me have a small bit on reasonable terms. She's been so friendly all along!"

He was still in the flush of his triumph, and talked rapidly of all the plans that opened out before his fervent ambition. Suddenly he took note of the girl's mood and said sharply, "Nell, I believe you don't like her!"

"Why do you say that!" she exclaimed, surprised in her inner thoughts. "I don't really know."

"Why, it's plain enough. You never talk to her. You are always so cold! Louise is a chatty person; she likes to have you make an effort for her. And you treated Mrs. Rainbow in the same way."

"Oh, Francis! I didn't mean to be cold. Ought I to like them if you are to do work for them?"

Her lover laughed at her simplicity. Nevertheless, he felt somewhat disturbed at Helen's indifference to the social aspect of their marriage venture. He wished to make a proper stir in the puddle, and he was beginning to suspect that Helen had little aptitude for this distinctively woman's side of matrimony.

"Rich people always puzzle me," she continued apologetically. "They always have, except uncle Powers, and you never thought of him as rich! I don't feel as if I knew what they liked. They are so much preoccupied with their own affairs. That other time when I met Mrs. Phillips she was very much worried over the breakfast room and the underbutler's pantry! What is an underbutler's pantry, Francis?"

This raillery over the needs of the rich sounded almost anarchistic to the architect in his present mood, and they walked to the station silently in the gathering darkness. But after a time, on the train, he returned to the events of the afternoon, remarking with no relevancy:—

"She can do anything she likes with Raymond. It would be a big stroke to get that railroad business!"

As Helen made no reply to this observation, they sank again into silent thought.

The night before their marriage the architect told her exultantly that Colonel Raymond had sent for him that afternoon to talk over work for the railroad corporation.

"That's Mrs. Phillips's doing," he told Helen. "You must remember to say something to her about it to-morrow if you get the chance. It's likely to be the biggest wedding present we'll have!"

"I am glad!" Helen replied simply, without further comment.

He thought that she did not comprehend what this good fortune would mean to them. And he was quite mystified when she sent him away and refused to see him again before the ceremony of the following day. He could not realize that in some matters—a few small matters—he had bruised the woman's ideal of him; he could not understand why these last hours, before she took him to her arms forever, she wished to spend alone with her own soul in a kind of prayer....

There were only a few people present at the marriage in the little Maple Street house the next day. Many of their more fashionable friends still lingered away from the city although it was late in October. Mrs. Phillips had made a point of coming to the wedding, even putting off a projected trip to New York, and after much urging she had been made to bring Venetia, who was strangely bent on going to this wedding. Pemberton, an old friend of the Spellmans, who had recently been asked to join the Powers Jackson trustees, was there, and also little Cook, who was the backbone of the new office. Everett Wheeler was the best man. He and Hollister had put off their yearly fishing trip to do honor to Jackson Hart, who had won their approval, because the young man had swallowed his disappointment about the will and was going to marry a poor girl. Hollister and Pemberton had brought Judge Phillips with them, because he was in town and liked weddings and ought to send the pair a goodly gift. Of the presence of all these and some others the young architect was agreeably conscious that October day.

Only that morning, on the way to the house, Everett had referred to the great school building, a monumental affair, which the trustees would have to build some day. He said nothing that might commit the trustees in any way. Nevertheless, it was in the aroma of this new prospect, and of all the other good fortune which had come to him since he had taken up his burden of poverty, that Jackson Hart was married.

But Helen walked up to him to be married, in a dream, unconscious of the whole world, with a mystery of love in her heart. When the ceremony was over, she looked up into her husband's resolute face, which was slightly flushed with excitement. Venetia, standing by her uncle's side a few steps away, could see tears in the bride's eyes, and the girl wondered in her heart what it meant.

Did the woman know now that the man who stood there face to face with her, her husband, was yet a stranger to her soul? She raised her lips swiftly to him, as if to complete the sacrament, and there before all he bowed his head to kiss her.


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