The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter VII

The Spellmans lived on the other side of the city from Mrs. Phillips, on Maple Street, very near the lake. Their little stone-front, Gothic-faced house was pretty nearly all the tangible property that Mr. Spellman had to leave to his widow and child when he died, sixteen years before. There had been also his small interest in Jackson's Bridge Works, an interest which at the time was largely speculative, but which had enabled Powers Jackson to pay the widow a liberal income without hurting her pride.

The house had remained very much what it had been during Mr. Spellman's lifetime, its bright Brussels carpets and black-walnut furniture having taken on the respectability of age and use. Here, in this homely eddy of the great city, mother and daughter were seated reading after their early dinner, as was their custom. Helen, having shown no aptitude for society, after one or two seasons of playing the wall-flower at the modest parties of their acquaintance, had resolutely sought her own interests in life. One of these was a very earnest attempt to get that vague thing called an education. Just at present, this consisted of much reading of a sociological character suggested by a course of university lectures which she had followed during the winter.

Mrs. Spellman, who had been turning the leaves of a magazine, finally looked up from its pages and asked, "Have you seen Jackson since the funeral?"

Helen dropped her book into her lap and looked at her mother with startled eyes.

"No, mother. I suppose he is very busy just now."

She spoke as if she had already asked herself this question a number of times, and answered it in the same way without satisfaction.

"I wonder what he means to do about the will," Mrs. Spellman continued. "It must have been a great disappointment to him. I wonder if he had any idea how it would be?"

"What makes you think he is disappointed?" the girl asked literally.

"Why, I saw Everett this morning, and he told me he thought his cousin might contest the will. He said Jackson was feeling very sore. It would be such a pity if there were any trouble over Powers's will!"

Helen shut the book in her lap and laid it on the table very firmly.

"How can Everett say such things! You know, mother, Jackson would never think of doing anything so—mean—so ungrateful!"

"Some people might consider that he was justified. And it is a very large sum of money. If he had expectations of—"

"Just because uncle Powers was always so kind to him!" the girl interrupted hotly. "Was that any reason why he should leave him a lot of his money?"

"My dear, most people would think it was a sufficient reason for leaving him more than he did."

"Then most people are very self-interested! Everett Wheeler might expect it. But Jackson has something better in life to do than worry over not getting his uncle's money."

Mrs. Spellman, who had known Jackson since he was a child, smiled wisely, but made no reply.

"What good would the money be to him? Why should he want more than he has,—the chance to do splendid things, to work for something better than money? That's the worst about men like Everett,—they think of nothing but money, money, from morning to night. He doesn't believe that a man can care for any other thing."

"Poor Everett!" her mother remarked with quiet irony. "He isn't thinking of contesting the will, however."

"Nor is Jackson, I am sure!" the girl answered positively.

She rose from her chair by the lamp, and walked to and fro in the room. When she stood she was a tall woman, almost large, showing the growth that the New England stock can develop in a favorable environment. While she read, her features had been quite dull, but they were fired now with feeling, and the deep eyes burned.

Mrs. Spellman, whose thoughts had travelled rapidly, asked suddenly with apparent irrelevancy:—

"How would you like to spend a year in Europe?"

"Why should we?" the girl demanded quickly, pausing opposite her mother. "What makes you say that?"

"There isn't much to keep us here," Mrs. Spellman explained. "You enjoyed your trip so much, and I am stronger now. We needn't travel, you know."

The girl turned away her face, as she answered evasively, "But why should we go away? I don't want to leave Chicago."

She divined that her mother was thinking of what had occurred to her many times, as these last days had gone by without their seeing the young architect. Possibly, now that he knew himself to be without fortune, he wished to show her plainly that there could be no question of marriage between them. She rejected the idea haughtily, and resented her mother's acceptance of it which was implied in her suggestion. And even if it were so, she was not the one to admit to herself the wound. It would be no pleasure for her to go away.

Could it be true that he was thinking of fighting the will? Her heart scorned the suggestion, for there was in her one immense capacity, one fiery power, and that was the instinct to transform all that she knew and felt into something finer than it actually was. Her eyes were blind to the sordid lines in the picture; her ears deaf to the discordant notes. In that long passage home through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic her soul had given itself unknown to herself to this man, and she could not admit the slightest disloyalty to her conception of him!

She returned to her chair, resolutely picked up her book, and turned the pages with a methodical, unseeing regularity. As the clock tinkled off nine strokes, Mrs. Spellman rose, kissed the girl, silently pressing her fingers on the light folds of her hair, and went upstairs. Another half hour went by; then, as the clock neared ten, the doorbell rang. Helen, recollecting that the servants had probably left the kitchen, put down her book and stepped into the hall. She waited a moment there, but when the bell rang a second time she went resolutely to the door and opened it.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Jackson! I thought it might be a tramp."

"Well, perhaps you aren't so far wrong," the architect answered with a laugh. "I've been walking miles. Is it too late to come in?"

For answer she held the door wide open.

"I have been dining with Mrs. Phillips; she has asked me to draw some plans for her," Jackson explained. "As I came by the house, I thought I would tell you and your mother about it."

"Mother has gone upstairs, but come in. You know I always read late. And I am so glad to hear about the plans."

The strong night wind brushed boisterously through the open door, ruffling the girl's loosely coiled hair. She put her hands to her head to tighten the hairpins here and there. If the man could have read colors in the dark hall, he would have seen that Helen's face, usually too pale, had flushed. His ears were quick enough to detect the tremulous note in her voice, the touch of surprise and sudden feeling. It answered something electric in himself, something that had driven him to her across the city straightway from Mrs. Phillips's house!

He followed her into the circle of lamplight, and sat down heavily in the chair that she had been occupying.

"What's this thing you are reading?" he asked in his usual tone of authority, picking up the bulky volume beneath the lamp. "Hobson's 'Social Problem.' Where did you get hold of that? It's pretty heavy reading, isn't it?"

His tolerantly amused tone indicated the value he put on women's efforts to struggle with abstract ideas.

"Professor Sturges recommended it in his last lecture. It isn't hard—only it makes me feel so ignorant!"

"Um," he commented, turning over the leaves critically.

"But tell me about Mrs. Phillips and the house."

There was an awkward constraint between them, not that the hour or the circumstance of their being alone made them self-conscious. There was nothing unusual in his being there late like this, after Mrs. Spellman had gone upstairs. But to-night there was in the air the consciousness that many things had happened since they had been together alone: the old man's death, the funeral, the will,—most of all the will!

He told her of the new house in Forest Park. It had been decided upon that evening, his preliminary sketches having been received enthusiastically. But he lacked all interest in it. He was thinking how the past week had changed everything in his life, and most of all his relation with this girl. Because of that he had not been to see her before, and he felt uncertain of himself in being here now.

"Mother and I have just been speaking of you. We haven't seen you since the funeral, you know," Helen remarked, saying simply what was in her mind.

Her words carried no reproach. Yet at once he felt that he was put on the defensive; it was not easy to explain why he had avoided the Maple Street house.

"A lot has happened lately," he replied vaguely. "Things have changed pretty completely for me!"

A tone of bitterness crept into his voice in spite of himself. He wanted sympathy; for that, in part, he had come to her to-night. At the same time he felt that it was a weak thing to do, that he should have gone almost anywhere but to her.

"It takes a man a few days to catch his breath," he continued, "when he finds he's been cut off with a shilling, as they say in the play."

Her eyes dropped from his face, and her hands began to move restlessly over the folds of her skirt.

"I've had a lot to think about—to look at the future in a new way. There's no hope now of my leaving this place, thanks to uncle!"

"Oh!" she exclaimed in a low voice. The coldness of her tone was not lost upon the man. He saw quickly that it would not do to admit to her that he even contemplated contesting his uncle's will. She was not sympathetic in the manner of Mrs. Phillips!

"Of course," he hastened to add magnanimously, "uncle had a perfect right to do as he liked. It was his money. But what could he have had against me?"

"Why, nothing, I am sure!" she answered quickly.

"It looks, though, as if he had!"

"Why?" she stammered, trying to adjust herself to his level of thought. "Perhaps he thought it was better so—better for you," she suggested gently. "He used to say that the men of his time had more in their lives than men have nowadays, because they had to rely on themselves to make all the fight from the beginning. Nowadays so many young men inherit capital and position. He thought there were two great gifts in life,—health and education. When a man had those, he could go out to meet the future bravely without any other help."

"Yes, I have heard him say all that," he hastened to admit. "But the world isn't running on just the same lines it was when uncle Powers was working at the forge. It's a longer road up these days."

"Is it?" the girl asked vaguely. Then they were silent once more.

There was nothing of reproof in her words, yet he felt keenly the difference in the atmosphere of this faded little Maple Street house from the world he had been living in of late. He had told himself for the last week that now he could not marry this woman, that a great and perfectly obvious barrier had been raised between them by his disinheritance. It had all been so clear to him from the first that he had not questioned the idea. This sacrifice of his love seemed to him the greatest that his uncle had forced upon him, and as the days had gone by he had thought incessantly how he might avoid it, how he might obtain some part at least of that vanishing fortune.

This very evening he had had more talk about the will with the clever Mrs. Phillips, and he had come away from her almost resolved to contest the instrument. On the morrow he would notify his cousin, consult a lawyer, and take the preliminary steps. On the very heels of that decision there had come an irresistible desire to see this other woman,—the longing for the antithesis which so often besets the uncertain human will. Nothing was more unlike Mrs. Phillips in his horizon than this direct, inexperienced girl, full of pure enthusiasms!

Now Helen had made him feel very surely that nothing would remove him farther from her than the act he was contemplating in order to obtain her. If she but knew his intention, she might scorn him forever! He had lost her somehow, either way, he kept saying to himself, as he sat there trying to think calmly, to feel less. And straightway he put another black mark against his uncle's memory!

He had never cared to be near her so much as now. Every soreness and weakness of his spirit seemed to call out for her strong, capable hand. Even the sensuous Mrs. Phillips, by some subtle crossing of the psychological wires, had driven him back to this plain girl, with the honest eyes and unimpassioned bosom. So also had the slippery contractor and the shrewd men at his club. In fact, his world had conspired to set him down here, before the one who alone knew nothing of its logic!

"You haven't said anything about the school," Helen remarked after a time. "Aren't you glad!" she exclaimed, in the need of her spirit to know him to be as generous as she thought him. "It was so big, so large-hearted of him! Especially after all the bitter things the papers had said about him,—to give pretty nearly everything he had made, the whole work of his life, to help the working people—the very ones who had so often misunderstood him and tried to hurt him. He was great enough to forget the strikes and the riots, and their shooting at him! He forgave them. He saw why they erred, and he wanted to lift them out of their hate and their ignorance. He wanted to make their lives happier and better! Weren't you glad? Wasn't it a splendid answer to his enemies!"

Thus she idealized Powers Jackson, that hoary old he-wolf of the prairies! Strength and tenderness and generosity she saw in him and nothing else, and she loved him as she might have loved her father, unquestioningly. In his somewhat loose attempt to return to the world a part of the wealth he had got from it perhaps he had justified the girl's vision of him. Fierce and harsh as he had appeared to others, was he not at the end hers rather than the world's?

The warmth of her feeling lent her quiet face glow and beauty. She had spoken fast, but in a distinct, low voice, which had a note of appeal in it, coming from her desire to rouse the man. For the moment she succeeded. He was ashamed to seem unworthy in her eyes, to harbor base thoughts.

"Why, yes," he admitted; "as you put it, it seems fine. But I don't feel sure that I admire an old man's philanthropies, altogether. He doesn't want the money any longer,—that's a sure thing! So he chucks it into some big scheme or other that's likely to bring him a lot of fame. Uncle Powers was sharp enough in gathering his dollars, and in keeping 'em too so long as he"—

"Oh! How can you say that? Don't!" the girl implored, looking at him with troubled eyes.

If she had had much experience of men and things,—if she had had the habit of mean interpretation,—she would have understood the architect's perplexity long before this. But added to her inexperience was her persistent need of soul to see those she loved large and generous.

"Well," Hart resumed, more guardedly, "I didn't mean any disrespect to the old man. It's only the oldest law of life that he lived up to. And I guess he meant to have me learn that law as fast as I can. You've got to fight for what you want in this world, and fight hard, and fight all the time. And there isn't much room for sentiment and fine ideas and philanthropy until you are old, and have earned your pile, and done your neighbor out of his in the process!"

She was silent, and he continued, willing to let her see some of the harder, baser reaches of his mind:—

"It's just the same way with art. It's only good when it succeeds. It doesn't live unless it can succeed in pleasing people, in making money. I see that now! Chicago has taught me that much in two years. I'm going to open my own shop as soon as I can and look for trade. That's what uncle wanted me to do. If I get some big commissions, and put up a lot of skyscrapers or mills, why, I shall have won out. What does any one care for the kind of work you do? It's the price it brings every time!"

"Don't say that! Please, please don't talk that way, so bitterly."

There was real pain in her voice, and her eyes were filmed with incipient tears. He leaned forward in his low chair and asked impetuously: "Why do you say that? Why do you care what I say?"

Her lips trembled; she looked at him piteously for a moment, as if to beg him not to force her to confess more openly how he had hurt her, how much she could be hurt by seeing in him the least touch of baseness. She rose, without knowing what she did, in an unconscious instinct for flight. She twisted her hands nervously, facing him, as he rose, too, with her misty, honest eyes.

"Tell me!" he whispered. "Do you care?"

"Don't," she moaned inarticulately, seeking in her whirling brain for some defence against the man.

They hung there, like this, for the space of several seconds, their hearts beating furiously, caught in a sudden wave of emotion, which drew them inexorably closer, against their reason; which mastered their natures without regard for their feeble human wills....

He drew her to him and kissed her. She murmured in the same weak, defenceless tone as before,—"Don't, not yet."

But she gave herself quite unreservedly to his strong arms. She gave herself with all the perfect self-forgetfulness of an absolutely pure woman who loves and is glad. The little thoughts of self were forgotten, the preconceptions of her training. She was glad to give, to give all, in the joy of giving to him!

The man, having thus done what his reason had counselled him for the past week not to do, what he would have said an hour before was impossible for him to do, came out of the great whelming wave of feeling, and found himself alone upon the dark street under the tranquil canopy of the city smoke. His whole being was at rest after the purification of strong passion, at rest and at peace, with that wonderful sense of poise, of rightness about one's self, which comes when passion is perfect and touches the whole soul. For the fret about his affairs and his uncle's will, in which he had lived for the past week, had vanished with the touch of the girl's lips.

He knew that he had committed himself to a very difficult future by engaging himself to a poor woman and struggling upwards in real poverty, instead of taking the decencies of a comfortable bachelorhood. But there was something inspiring in what had happened, something strangely electrifying to his nerves. He had stooped and caught the masculine burden of life, but he felt his feet a-tingle for the road before him. And, best of all, there was a new reverence in his heart for that unknown woman who had kissed him and taken him to her—for always.


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