The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter VI

"How did young Mr. Hart take the will?" Mrs. Phillips asked her brother-in-law the first time she saw him after the funeral.

"Why, all right, I guess," the judge answered slowly. "Why shouldn't he?"

"I hoped he would fight it," the widow replied, eying the judge calmly.

"I believe he isn't that much of a fool. Just because Powers looked after his mother, and fed him all these years, and gave him an expensive education,—why should he be obliged to leave the chap all his money, if he didn't want to?"

Mrs. Phillips avoided a direct reply, and continued to announce her opinions,—a method of conversation which she knew was highly irritating to the judge.

"Philanthropy! What's the use of such philanthropy? The city has enough schools. It's all foolishness to give your money to other people to eat up!"

"That is a matter of feeling," Judge Phillips answered dryly. "I shouldn't expect you to feel as Powers did about such things."

Harrison Phillips had few illusions concerning his sister-in-law, and she knew it. Years before they had reached the point where they dispensed with polite subterfuges and usually confined their social intercourse to the superficial surface of conversation. He had known her ever since she came to Chicago from a little Illinois town to study music. Indeed, he had first introduced his younger brother to her, he remembered unhappily. She was Louise Faunce, then,—a keen, brown-eyed country girl of eighteen. When Will Phillips wanted to marry her, the judge had already felt the pretty girl's little claws, and had been foolish enough to warn his brother of his fate. Will Phillips was a dull young man, and had poor health. The older brother knew that Will was being married for his money,—a considerable fortune for a girl from Ottumwa, Illinois.

And the marriage had not been a happy one. The last years of his life Will Phillips had taken to drinking. The judge felt that the wife had driven his brother to his sodden end, and he hated her for it, with a proper and legal hatred. Six months before his end Will Phillips had come home from Europe, leaving his two children in Paris with his wife, apparently for an indefinite separation. Why the widow had chosen to return to Chicago after her husband's death was a mystery to the judge, who never gave Louise Phillips credit for half her character. For she was shrewd enough to perceive that neither she nor her children could have any permanent position in the world outside of Chicago. And she had no mind to sacrifice the social position that her husband's family and friends had made for her.

She told her brother-in-law on her return that she had found Europe an unsuitable place in which to bring up the children, and proposed before long to build a new house, perhaps in Forest Park,—one of the older and more desirable suburbs to the north of the city.

"I must make a home for my children among their father's friends," she said to the judge with perfect propriety. "Venetia, especially, should have the right background now that she is becoming a young woman."

Venetia—so named in one of the rare accesses of sentiment which came to Mrs. Phillips, as to all mortals, because it was to Venice that she had first been taken as a young bride—was now sixteen years old. Her brother Stanwood, a year younger, had been placed in a fashionable Eastern school, where he was preparing for Yale, and ultimately for the "career of diplomacy," as his mother called it.

The judge, who was trustee for his brother's children, had called this Sunday afternoon to discuss the project of the new house with his sister-in-law. She had notified him that she should need presently a considerable sum of money, and expected to take a part of it, at least, from the children's inheritance. About this money matter they had come to a warm difference of opinion, which Mrs. Phillips had put aside momentarily to discuss the Jackson will.

"If you will wait," she remarked, having exhausted her opinion about philanthropy and Powers Jackson's will, "you might see my architect. I have asked Mr. Hart to call this afternoon."

"I don't pine to see him," the old man retorted testily. "So you have gone that far?"

"Yes! There isn't the slightest use of being disagreeable about it, you see. Nothing that you can say will change my mind. It never has. You would like to keep me from spending the money. But you can't without a row, a scandal. Besides, I know it will be a good investment for both the children."

"You were always pretty keen for a good investment!"

"You mean by that sarcasm that you think I was sharp when I married your brother, because I had nothing but my good looks. They were certainly worth as much as a husband—who—drank himself—to death."

"We won't go into that, please," the judge said, his bright blue eyes glittering. "I hope, Louise, to live to see the day when you get what you deserve,—just how I don't know."

"Thank you, Harrison," Mrs. Phillips replied unperturbed. "We all do get what we deserve, sooner or later, don't we?"

"Sometimes I give up hope!" the old man exclaimed irascibly.

"There's my young man now!" she observed, looking out of the window. "If you want to know just what extravagances I am going into, you had better wait."

"I'll know soon enough! Where's Ven? I want to see her."

"She should be out riding with John."

Mrs. Phillips rose from her deep chair to greet the architect. All at once her face and manner seemed to lose the hard, cold surface that she had presented to the judge, the surface of a middle-aged, shrewd woman. Suddenly she expanded, opened herself graciously to the young man.

The old gentleman stalked out of the drawing-room, with a curt nod and a grunt for Hart. The architect looked to the widow for an explanation of the stormy atmosphere, but, ignoring the judge, she smiled all the warmer welcome to her visitor.

"So good of you to answer my note promptly," she murmured. "For I know how busy you are!"

"I had already promised myself the pleasure for to-day," Jackson replied quickly, using a phrase he had thought up on his way into the room.

And as he looked at her resting in her deep chair, he realized that it was a distinct pleasure to be there. He felt that here in Chicago even in the ugly drawing-room of the old-fashioned house Mrs. Will Phillips was much more of a person than she had been in Paris. Still, here as there, the woman in her was the first and last fact. She was thirty-seven, and in the very best of health. To one who did not lay exclusive emphasis on mere youth, the first bloom of the fruit, she was much more beautiful than when, as a raw girl from Ottumwa, she had married Willie Phillips. Sensitive, nervous, in the full tide of her physical life, she had what is euphemistically called to-day temperament. To this instinctive side of the woman, the handsome, strong young man had always appealed.

It is also true that she was clever, and had learned with great rapidity how to cover up the holes of a wretched education. At first, however, a man could think of but one thing in the presence of Mrs. Phillips: "You are a woman, and a very inviting one!"

Doubtless she meant that men should think that, and nothing more, at first. Those who had come through the fire, to whom she was cold and hard, like an inferior gem, might say later with the judge:—

"Louise flings her sex at you from the first smile. If you feel that sort of thing, the only thing to do is to run."

Jackson Hart had not yet reached this point of human experience. Nevertheless, he was but dimly aware that the woman opposite him troubled his mind, preoccupied as it happened to be with business, like a too pronounced perfume. Here, in the hard atmosphere of an American city, he was not inclined to remember the sentimentalities of his Paris days and was more interested in the widow's prospective house than in her personal charms. Accordingly, Mrs. Phillips, with quick perception, soon dropped the reminiscential tone that she had been inclined to take at first. She came promptly to business:—

"Could you consider a small commission, Mr. Hart?" she asked with apparent hesitation.

The architect would have undertaken to build a doll's house. Nevertheless, his heart sank at the word "small."

"I so much want your advice, at any rate. I value your taste so highly. You taught me how to look at things over there. And we should agree, I am sure!"

Then she unfolded more plainly her purpose of building in Forest Park. She had thought of something Tudor. (She had been visiting at a Tudor house in the East.) But the architect, without debating the point, sketched on the back of an envelope the outline of an old French château,—a toy study in part of the famous château at Chenonceaux.

"What a lovely roof!" Mrs. Phillips exclaimed responsively. "And how the thing grows under your hand! It seems as though you must have had just what I wanted in mind." She leaned over the little piece of paper, fascinated by the architect's facility.

As he drew in the façade, he noticed that the widow had very lovely hair, of a tone rarely found in America, between brown and black,—dusky. Then he remembered that he had made the same observation before in Paris. The arch of her neck, which was strong and full, was also excellent. And her skin was of a perfect pallor.

By the time he had made these observations and finished his rough little sketch, the Tudor period had been forgotten, and the question of the commission had been really decided. There remained to be debated the matter of cost. After one or two tactful feints the architect was forced to ask bluntly what the widow expected to spend on the house. At the mention of money Mrs. Phillips's brows contracted slightly. A trace of hardness, like fine enamel, settled on her features.

"What could you build it for?" she demanded brusquely.

"Why, on a thing like this you can spend what you like," he stammered. "Of course a house in Forest Park ought to be of a certain kind,—to be a good investment," he added politely.

"Of course. Would twenty-five thousand dollars be enough?"

The architect felt relieved on hearing the size of the figure, but he had had time to realize that this agreeable client might be close in money matters. It would be well to have her mind keyed to a liberal figure at the start, and he said boldly:—

"You could do a good deal for that. But not a place like this,—such a one as you ought to have, Mrs. Phillips," he added, appealing to her vanity.

Once he had called her Louise, and they both were conscious of the fact. Nevertheless, she eyed him keenly. She was quite well aware that he wanted to get all the freedom to develop his sketch that a good sum of money would give, and also had in mind the size of his fee, which would be a percentage of the cost. But this consideration did not offend her. In this struggle, mental and polite, over the common topic of money, she expected him to assert himself.

"It's no use being small in such matters," she conceded at length, having reflected on the profits of certain dealings with Ben Harris's firm. "Let us say fifty thousand!"

"That's much more possible!" the architect replied buoyantly, with a vague idea already forming that his sketches might call for a house that would cost seventy or seventy-five thousand dollars to complete.

The money matter out of the way, the widow relapsed into her friendly manner.

"I hope you can begin right away! I am so anxious to get out of this old barn, and I want to unpack all the treasures I bought in Europe the last time."

Judge Phillips would have shuddered to hear his brother's large brick house, encircled in Chicago fashion by a neat strip of grass, referred to as a "barn." And the architect, on his side, knowing something of Louise Phillips's indiscriminate taste in antiquities, was resolved to cull the "treasures" before they found a place in his edifice.

"Why, I'll begin on some sketches right away. If they please you, I could do the plans at once—just as soon as I get my own office," he added honestly. "You know I have been working for Walker, Post, and Wright. But I am going to leave them very soon."

"I am glad to hear that," Mrs. Phillips replied sympathetically. "It ought to have been so different. I think that will was disgraceful! I hope you can break it."

"I don't know that I shall try," he answered hastily, startled at the widow's cool comment on his uncle's purposes.

"Well, you know best, I suppose. But I should think a long time before I let them build that school."

"At any rate, it looks now as if I should want all the work I can get," he answered, looking into her eyes, and thinking of what Harris had told him of the G. R. and N. job. He had it on his lips to add, "Can't you say a word for me to your friend Colonel Raymond?" But he could not bring himself easily to the point of asking outright for business favors at a woman's hand. While he hesitated, not finding a phrase sufficiently delicate to express the idea, she happily saved him from the crudity of open speech.

"Perhaps I can help you in certain ways. There's something— Well, we won't begin on that to-day. But you can rest assured that I am your friend, can't you?"

They understood each other thus easily. He knew that she was well aware of what was in his mind, and was disposed to help him to the full extent of her woman's power. In his struggle for money and place,—things that she appreciated,—she would be an able friend.

Having come to a complete agreement on a number of matters, in the manner of a man and a woman, they began to talk of Paris and of other days. Outside in the hall there was the sound of steps, and a laughing, vigorous girl's voice. The architect could see a thin, tall girl, as she threw her arms about Judge Phillips's plump neck and pulled his head to a level with her mouth. He noticed that Mrs. Phillips was also watching this scene with stealthy eyes. When the door had closed upon the judge, she called:—

"Venetia, will you come here, dear! I want you to meet Mr. Hart. You remember Mr. Hart?"

The girl crossed the drawing-room slowly, the fire in her strangely extinguished at the sound of her mother's voice. She gave a bony little hand to the architect, and nodded her head, like a rebellious trick dog. Then she drew away from the two and stood beside the window, waiting for the next order.

She was dark like her mother, but her features lacked the widow's pleasant curves. They were firm and square, and a pair of dark eyes looked out moodily from under heavy eyebrows. The short red lips were full and curved, while the mother's lips were dangerously thin and straight. As the architect looked at the girl, standing tall and erect in the light from the western window, he felt that she was destined to be of some importance. It was also plain enough that she and her mother were not sympathetic. When the widow spoke, the daughter seemed to listen with the terrible criticism of youth lurking in her eyes.

A close observer would have seen, also, that the girl had in her a capacity for passion that the mother altogether lacked. The woman was mildly sensuous and physical in mood, but totally without the strong emotions of the girl that might sweep her to any act, mindless of fate. When the clash came between the two, as it was likely to come before long, the mother would be the one to retreat.

"Have you had your ride, dear?" Mrs. Phillips asked in soothing tones, carefully prepared for the public.

"No, mamma. Uncle Harry was here, you know."

"I am sorry not to have you take your ride every day, no matter what happens," the mother continued, as if she had not heard the girl's excuse.

"I had rather see uncle Harry. Besides, Frolic went lame yesterday."

"You can always take my horse," Mrs. Phillips persisted, her eyebrows contracting as they had over the money question.

A look of what some day might become contempt shadowed the girl's face. She bowed to the architect in her stiff way which made him understand that it was no recommendation to her favor to be her mother's friend, and walked across the room with a dignity beyond the older woman's power.

"She is at the difficult age," the mother murmured.

"She is growing beautiful!" Jackson exclaimed.

"I hope so," Mrs. Phillips answered composedly. "When can you let me see the sketches?"

"In two or three days."

"Won't you dine with us next Wednesday, then?"

She seemed to have arranged every detail of the transaction with accuracy and care.


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