The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter V

There were very few men to be found in the club at this hour. The dingy library, buzzing like a beehive at noon with young men, was empty now except for a stranger who was whiling away his time before a dinner engagement. Most of the men that the architect met at this club were, like himself, younger members of the professions, struggling upward in the crowded ranks of law, medicine, architecture. Others were employed in brokers' offices, or engaged in general business. Some of them had been his classmates in Cornell, or in the technological school, and these had welcomed him with a little dinner on his return from Paris.

After that cheerful reunion he had seen less of these old friends than he had hoped to when he had contemplated Chicago from his Paris apartment. Perhaps there had been something of envy among them for Jackson Hart. Things had seemed very pleasantly shaped for him, and Chicago is yet a community that resents special favors.

Every one was driving himself at top speed. At noon the men fell together about the same table in the grill-room,—worried, fagged, preoccupied. As soon as the day's work was over, their natural instinct was to flee from the dirt and noise of the business street, where the club was situated, to the cleaner quarters north or south, or to the semi-rural suburbs. Thus the centrifugal force of the city was irresistible.

To-night there were a number of young men in the card-room, sitting over a game of poker, which, judging from the ash-trays on the table, had been in progress since luncheon. Several other men, with hats on and coats over their arms, were standing about the table, looking on.

"Well, Jackie, my boy!" one of the players called out, "where have you been hiding yourself this week?"

Ben Harris, the man who hailed the architect, had apparently been drinking a good deal. The other men at the table called out sharply, "Shut up, Ben. Play!"

But the voluble Harris, whose drink had made him more than usually impudent, remarked further:—

"Say, Jack! ain't you learned yet that we don't pattern after the German Emperor here in Chicago? Better comb out your mustache, or they'll be taking you for some foreign guy."

Hart merely turned his back on Harris, and listened with exaggerated interest to what a large, heavy man, with a boy's smooth face, was saying:—

"He was of no special 'count in college,—a kind of second-rate hustler, you know. But, my heavens! Since he struck this town, he's got in his work. I don't believe he knows enough law to last him over night. But he knows how to make the right men think he does. He started in to work for those Selinas Mills people,—damage suits and collecting. Here in less than five years he's drawing the papers for the consolidation of all the paper-mills in the country!"

"Who's that, Billy?" Hart asked.

"Leverett, Joe Leverett. He was Yale '89, and at the law school with me."

"He must have the right stuff in him, all the same," commented one man.

"I don't know about that!" the first speaker retorted. "Some kind of stuff, of course. But I said he was no lawyer, and never will be, and I repeat it. And what's more, half the men who are earning the big money in law here in Chicago don't know enough law to try a case properly."

"That's so," assented one man.

"Same thing in medicine."

"Oh, it's the same all over."

The men about the card-table launched out into a heated discussion of the one great topic of modern life—Success. The game of poker finally closed, and the players joined in the conversation. Fresh drinks were ordered, and cigars were passed about. The theme caught the man most eager to go home, and fired the brain most fagged.

"The pity of it, too," said the large man called Billy, dominating the room with his deep voice and deliberate speech,—"the pity of it is that it ruins the professions. You can see it right here in Chicago. Who cares for fine professional work, if it don't bring in the stuff? Yes, look at our courts! look at our doctors! And look at our buildings. It's money every time. The professions have been commercialized."

"Oh, Billy!" exclaimed Ben Harris. "Is this a commencement oration you are giving us?"

A quiet voice broke in from behind the circle:—

"There's much in what you say, Mr. Blount. Time has been when it meant something of honor for a man to be a member of one of the learned professions. Men were content to take part of their pay in honor and respect from the community. There's no denying that's all changed now. We measure everything by one yardstick, and that is money. So the able lawyer and the able doctor have joined the race with the mob for the dollars. But"—his eye seemed to rest on the young architect, who was listening attentively—"that state of affairs can't go on. When we shake down in this modern world of ours, and have got used to our wealth, and have made the right adjustment between capital and labor,—the professions, the learned professions, will be elevated once more. Men are so made that they want to respect something. And in the long run they will respect learning, ideas, and devotion to the public welfare."

The speaker's eye seemed to challenge the young architect, who listened attentively, without thorough conviction. Something in the older man antagonized Jackson's mood. It was easy enough for a man like Pemberton with an assured position and comfortable means to take lofty views!

"That's all right, Pemberton," Harris retorted. "That's first-class talk. But I guess I see about as much of human nature in my business as any man, and I tell you, it's only human nature to get what you can out of the game. What men respect in this town is money,—first, last, and all the time. So it's only natural for a man, whether he is a lawyer or anything else, to do as the other Romans do."

Harris brought his bony, lined hand down on the card-table with a thump, and leaned forward, thrusting out his long, unshaven chin at the older man who had spoken. His black hair, which was thin above the temples and across the middle of his head, was rumpled, his collar bent, and his cuffs blackened about the edges. Hart had known him as a boy twelve years before at the South Side High School. Thence he had gone to a state university where four years had made little impression, at least externally, on his raw character, and then he had entered a broker's office, and had made money on the Board of Trade. Lately it had been reported that he was losing money in wheat.

"Yes, sir," he snarled on, having suppressed the others for the moment. "It don't make much difference, either, how you get your money so far as I can see. Whether you do a man in a corner in wheat, or run a pool room. All is, if you want to be in the game, you must have the price of admission about you. And the rest is talk for the ladies and the young."

Pemberton replied in a severe tone:—

"That is easy to say and easy to believe. But when I think of the magnificent gift to the public just made by one of these very men whom you would consider a mere money-grabber, I confess I am obliged to doubt your easy analysis of our modern life!"

Pemberton spoke with a kind of authority. He was one of the older men of the club, much respected in the city, and perfectly fearless. But the broker, also, feared no man's opinion.

"Gifts to education!" sneered Ben Harris. "That's what they do to show off when they're through with their goods. Anyway, there's too much education going around. It don't count. The only thing that counts, to-day, here, now, is money. Can you make it or steal it or—inherit it!"

He looked across the room at Jackson Hart and laughed. The architect disliked this vulgar reference to his own situation, but, on the whole, he was much more inclined to agree with the broker than he would have been a few days earlier.

"I am sorry that such ideas should be expressed inside this club," Pemberton answered gravely. "If there is one place in this city where the old ideals of the professions should be reverenced, where men should deny that cheap philosophy of the street, by their acts as well as by their words, it should be here in this club."

Some of the others in the group nodded their approval of this speech. They said nothing, however; for the conversation had reached a point of delicacy that made men hesitate to say what they thought. Pemberton turned on his heel and walked away. The irrepressible Harris called after him belligerently:—

"Oh, I don't know about that, now, Mr. Pemberton. It takes all kinds of men to make a club, you know."

As the little group broke up, Harris linked his arm in Hart's.

"I've got something to say to you, Jackie," he said boisterously. "We'll order dinner, if you are free, and I'll put you up to something that's better than old Pemberton's talk. It just occurred to me while we were gassing here."

The young architect did not quite like Harris's style, but he had already planned to dine at the club, and they went upstairs to the dining-room together. He was curious to hear what the broker might have to suggest to him.

Hart had agreed with Pemberton's ideas, naturally enough, in the abstract. But in the concrete, the force of circumstances, here in this roaring city where he found himself caught, was fast preparing him to accept the Harris view. Like most men of his class he was neither an idealist nor a weakling: he was merely a young man, still making up his character as he went along, and taking color more or less from the landscape he found himself in.

His aspirations for art, if not fine, were sufficiently earnest and sincere. He had always thought of himself as luckily fortuned, so that he could devote himself to getting real distinction in his profession. So he had planned his life in Paris. Now, brought back from that pleasant world into this stern city, with all its striving, apparently, centred upon the one business of making money, then deprived by what seemed to him a harsh and unfair freak of fortune of all his pleasant expectations, he was trying to read the face of Destiny. And there he seemed to find written what this gritty broker had harshly expressed. There was, to be sure, another road to fortune, which had not been mentioned, and that was to make a rich marriage. This road had been followed with signal success by a number of his acquaintances: it was one of the well-recognized methods of attaining that point of vantage which he had hoped to inherit,—to win one of the daughters of wealth! And since his return from Europe the young architect had had his opportunities in the society where he had been welcomed. But apart from his growing love for Helen Spellman, he was too sturdy a man to like this easy method of advancement. He turned from the idea with instinctive repugnance, and an honest feeling of contempt for the men who in that way had sneaked into fortune.

"Say, you've got a good friend in Mrs. Will Phillips," Harris began bluntly when they were seated opposite each other.

"Oh, Mrs. Phillips! I used to see something of her in Paris," Jackson acknowledged indifferently.

He remembered that he had not followed the widow's invitation to call upon her, all thought of her having been driven out of his mind by the happenings of the last few days.

"I rather think she would like to see more of you in Chicago!" the broker laughed back.

"How do you know?" Hart asked, wondering where Harris's path crossed that of the gay Mrs. Phillips.

"Oh, I know all right. She's a good customer of ours. I've been talking to her half the afternoon about things."

"Oh!" Jackson exclaimed, not much interested in the subject.

The broker's next remark had nothing to do with Mrs. Phillips.

"You fellows don't make much money building houses. Ain't that so? You need other jobs. Well, I am going to give you a pointer."

He stopped mysteriously, and then began again:—

"I happen to know that the C. R. and N. Road is going to put a lot of money into improvements this summer. Among other things they're getting ready to build new stations all along the north shore line,—you know, up through the suburbs,—Forest Park, Shoreham, and so on. They've got a lot of swell patronage out that way, and they are making ready for more."

Hart listened to the broker with renewed interest. He wondered how Harris should happen to know this news ahead of the general public, and he began to see the connection it might have with his own fortune.

"That's where they are going to put a lot of their surplus earnings. Now, those stations must be the top of the style,—real buildings, not sheds. And I don't think they have any architect yet."

"Well!" the architect remarked cynically. "The president or one of the vice-presidents will have a son, or nephew, or some one to work in. Or, perhaps, they may have a competitive trial for the plans."

"Perhaps they will, and perhaps they won't," Harris answered knowingly. "The man who will decide all that is their first vice-president,—Raymond, Colonel Stevens P. Raymond,—know him?"

Hart shook his head.

"Well, Mrs. Phillips does. He lives out in Forest Park, where she's thinking of building a big house."

"Is Mrs. Phillips thinking of building in Forest Park?" the architect asked quickly.

Harris looked at him in a bored manner.

"Why, I thought you were going to draw the plans!"

"She asked me to come to see her," Hart admitted. "But that was all. I thought it was just a social matter."

"Well, if a rich and good-looking woman asked me to call on her, I shouldn't take all year about making up my mind!"

Jackson could not help thinking that it would be more embarrassing to call on the widow now than if he had not had this talk with the broker. His relations with Mrs. Phillips in Paris had been pleasant, unalloyed with business. He remembered how he had rather patronized the ambitious young woman, who had desired to meet artists, to go to their studios, and to give little dinners where every one talked French but her stupid husband.

"The widow Phillips thinks a lot of your ability, Jackie, and old S.P.R. thinks a lot of the widow. Now do you see?"

The architect laughed nervously. He could see plainly enough what was meant, but he did not like it altogether.

"She can do what she likes with the old man. The job is as good as yours, if you work it properly. I've given you the tip straight ahead of the whole field. Not a soul knows that the C. R. and N. is going in for this kind of thing."

"It would be a big chance," the architect replied. "It was good of you to think of me, Ben."

"That's all right. It popped into my head when that ass Pemberton began his talk about your uncle's gift to the public. I must say, Jack, it seemed to me a dirty trick of the old man to cut you out the way he did. Are you going to fight the will, or is it so fixed that you can't?"

"I don't know, yet, what I shall do about it."

"To bring a fellow up as he did you, and then knock on him at the end,—it's just low down!"

That was the view Jackson Hart was more and more inclined to take of his uncle's will, and he warmed to the coarse, outspoken broker, who had shown him real friendliness when he was no longer in a position to be of importance to any one. Harris seemed to him to be warm-blooded and human. The young architect was beginning to feel that this was not a world for delicacy of motive and refinement. When he suggested diffidently that some large firm of architects would probably be chosen by the C. R. and N. people, Harris said:—

"Rats! Raymond won't hunt round for references, beyond what Mrs. Phillips will give him. You see her as quick as you can and tell her you want the chance."

The Opportunity which Harris had suggested would be given to him by a woman. Yet, however much he might dislike to go to a woman for such help, the chance began to loom large in his imagination. Here was something that even Wright would be glad to have. He saw himself in his own office, having two large commissions to start with, and possibly a third,—Mrs. Phillips's new house in Forest Park!

Perhaps Wright did know, after all, about the C. R. and N. matter. Hart's fighting blood rose: he would do his best to snatch this good thing from him, or from any other architect! And to do it he would take the readiest means at hand. He forgot his contempt for that American habit of pull which he had much deplored in studio discussions. All that had been theory; this was personal and practical. When Harris had to leave, after coffee, the architect shook him warmly by the hand and thanked him again for his friendliness.

Within the day Fortune had smiled upon him twice. Neither time, to be sure, was the way to her favor quite what he would have chosen if he could have chosen. But one must not discriminate too nicely, the young man was beginning to feel, when one picks up the cards to play....

Below, from the busy street, rose the piercing note of the city,—rattle, roar, and clang,—scarcely less shrill at eight of an evening than at noon. From the bulk-heads on the roof of the next building soared a drab-colored cloud of steam, eddying upwards even to the open windows of the club dining-room. The noise, the smell, the reek of the city touched the man, folded him in, swayed him like a subtle opiate. The thirst of the terrible game of living, the desire of things, the brute love of triumph, filled his veins. Old Powers Jackson, contemptuously putting him to one side, had unconsciously worked this state of mind in him. He, Jackson Hart, would show the world that he could fight for himself, could snatch the prize that every one was fighting for, the supreme prize of man's life to-day—a little pot of gold!


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