The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter VIII

"Hello, Jackie!"

Such familiarity of address on the part of Wright's head draughtsman had long annoyed Hart, but this morning, instead of nodding curtly, he replied briskly,—

"Hello, Cookie!"

The draughtsman winked at his neighbor and thrust out an elbow at a derisive angle, as he bent himself over the linen plan he was carefully inking in. The man next to him snickered, and the stenographer just outside the door smiled. An office joke was in the air.

"Mr. Hart looks as though somethin' good had happened to him," the stenographer remarked in a mincing tone. "Perhaps some more of his folks have died and remembered him in their wills."

But Cook dismissed the subject by calling out to one of the men, "Say, Ed, come over here and tell me what you were trying to do with this old hencoop."

He might take privileges with the august F. Jackson Hart, whose foreign training had rather oppressed the office force at times, but he would not allow Gracie Bellows, the stenographer, to "mix" in his joke.

Cook was a spare, black-haired little man, with beady brown eyes, like a squirrel's. He was a pure product of Wright's Chicago office, having worked his way from a boy's position to the practical headship of the force. Although he permitted himself his little fling at Hart, he was really the young architect's warmest admirer, approving even those magnificent palaces of the French Renaissance type which the Beaux Arts man put forth during the first months of his connection with the firm.

The little draughtsman, who was as sharp as one of his own India ink lines, could see that Hart had something on his mind this morning, and he was curious, in all friendliness, to find out what it was. But Jackson did not emerge from his little box of an office for several hours. Then he sauntered by Cook's table, pausing to look out of the window while he abstractedly lighted a cigarette. Presently the stenographer came up to him and said:—

"Mr. Graves is out there and wants to see you particular, Mr. Hart. Shall I show him into your office?"

"Ask him to wait," the young architect ordered.

After he had smoked and stared for a few moments longer he turned to Cook.

"What did we specify those I-beams for the Canostota? Were they forty-twos or sixties?"

Without raising his hand from the minute lines of the linen sheet, the draughtsman grunted:—

"Don't remember just what. Weren't forty-twos. Nothing less than sixties ever got out of this office, I guess. May be eighties. What's the matter?"

"Um," the architect reflected, knocking his cigarette against the table. "It makes a difference in the sizes what make they are, doesn't it?"

"It don't make any difference about the weights!" And the draughtsman turned to his linen sheet with a shrug of the shoulders that said, "You ought to know that much by this time!"

The architect continued to stare out of the murky window.

"When is Harmon coming back?"

"Ed lives out his way, and he says it's a long-term typhoid. You can't tell when he'll be back."

"Has the old man wired anything new about his plans?"

"You'll have to ask Miss Bellows. I haven't heard anything."

"He said he'd be here next Wednesday or Thursday at the latest, didn't he?"

The draughtsman stared hard at Hart, wondering what was in the man's mind. But he made no answer to the last remark, and presently the architect sauntered to the next window.

As Jackson well knew, Graves was waiting to close that arrangement which he had proposed for building an apartment house. The architect had intended to look up the Canostota specifications before he went further with Graves, but he had been distracted by other matters, and had thought nothing more about the troublesome I-beams until this morning.

Jackson Hart was not given to undue speculation over matters of conduct. He had a serviceable code of business morals, which hitherto had met all the demands of his experience. He called this code "professional etiquette." In this case he was not clear how the code should be applied. The Canostota was not his affair. It was only by the merest accident that he had been sent there that day to supervise the electricians, and had seen that drill-hole, which had led him to question the thickness of the I-beams, and he might very well have been mistaken about them. If there were anything wrong with them, at any rate, it was Wright's business to see that the contractor was properly watched when the steel work was being run through the mill. And he did not feel any special sense of obligation toward his employer, who had never displayed any great confidence in him.

He wanted the contractor's commission now more than ever, with his engagement to Helen freshly pricking him to look for bread and butter; wanted it all the more because any thought of fighting his uncle's will had gone when Helen had accepted him. It was now clearly his business to provide for his future as vigorously as he could....

When he rang for the stenographer and told her to show Graves into his office, he had made up his mind. Closing his door, he turned and looked into the contractor's heavy face with an air of alert determination. He was about to play his own game for the first time, and he felt the man's excitement of it!

The two remained shut up in the architect's cubby-hole for over an hour. When Cook had returned from the restaurant in the basement where he lunched, and the other men had taken their hats and coats from the lockers, Hart stepped out of his office and walked across the room to Cook's table. He spread before the draughtsman a fresh sepia sketch, the water scarcely dried on it. It was the front elevation for a house, such a one as is described impressively in the newspapers as "Mr. So-and-So's handsome country residence."

"Now, that's what I call a peach!" Cook whistled through his closed teeth, squinting at the sketch admiringly. "Nothing like that residence has come out of this office for a good long time. The old man don't favor houses as a rule. They're too fussy. Is this for some magnate?"

"This isn't done for the firm," Jackson answered quickly.

"Oh!" Cook received the news with evident disappointment. "Just a fancy sketch?"

"Not for a minute! This is my own business. It's for a Mrs. Phillips—her country house at Forest Park."

Cook looked again at the elevation of the large house with admiring eyes. If he had ever penetrated beyond the confines of Cook County in the state of Illinois, he might have wondered less at Hart's creation. But he was not familiar with the Loire châteaux, even in photographs, for Wright's tastes happened to be early English.

"So you're going to shake us?" Cook asked regretfully.

"Just as soon as I can have a word with Mr. Wright. This isn't the only job I have on hand."

"Is that so? Well, you're in luck, sure enough."

"Don't you want to come in?" Hart asked abruptly. "I shall want a good practical man. How would you like to run the new office?"

Cook's manner froze unexpectedly into caution.

"Oh, I don't know. It's pretty good up here looking after Wright's business."

Hart picked up his sketch and turned away.

"I thought you might like the chance. Some of the men I knew in Paris may join me a little later, and I shan't have much trouble in making up a good team."

Then he went out to his luncheon, and when he returned, he shut himself up in his box, stalking by Cook's desk without a word. When he came forth again the day's work was over, and the office force had left. Cook was still dawdling over his table.

"Say, Hart!" he called out to the architect. "I don't want you to have the wrong idea about my refusing that offer of yours. I don't mind letting you know that I ain't fixed like most of the boys. I've got a family to look after, my mother and sister and two kid brothers. It isn't easy for us to pull along on my pay, and I can't afford to take any chances."

"Who's asking you to take chances, Cookie?" Hart answered, mollified at once. "Perhaps you might do pretty well by yourself."

"You see," Cook explained further, "my sister's being educated to teach, but she's got two years more at the Normal. And Will's just begun high school. Ed's the only earner besides myself in the whole bunch, and what he gets don't count."

Thereupon the architect sat down on the edge of the draughting-table in friendly fashion and talked freely of his plans. He hinted at the work for Graves and at his hopes of a large commission from some railroad.

"I have ten thousand dollars in the bank, anyway. That will keep the office going some time. And I don't mind telling you that I have something at stake, too," he added in a burst of confidence. "I am going to be married."

Cook grinned sympathetically over the news. It pleased him vastly to be told of Hart's engagement in this confidential way. After some further talk the matter of the new office was arranged between them then and there. Cook agreed to look into a building that had just pushed its head among the skyscrapers near the Maramanoc, to see if there was anything left in the top story that would answer their purposes. As they were leaving the office, Hart stopped, exclaiming suddenly:—

"I've got to telephone! Don't wait."

"That's always the way," the draughtsman replied. "You'll be telephoning most of the time, now, I expect!"

The architect did not telephone to Helen Spellman, however. He called up his cousin's office to tell Wheeler that he had concluded not to contest the will.

"And, Everett," he said frankly, "I guess I have made rather an ass of myself, telling you I was going to kick up a row. I hope you won't say anything about it."

The lawyer accepted the information without remark, and hung up his telephone. He may have wondered what had brought about this change of heart in his cousin, but later, when the news of the engagement reached him, he understood. For he knew Helen in a way better than her lover did,—knew her as one knows the desired and unattainable.

A few days later Wright reached the office, and Hart told him of his plan to start for himself, asking for an early release because important business was waiting for his entire attention. Wright had arrived only that morning; he was seated before his broad desk, which was covered to the depth of several inches with blue prints, type-written specifications, and unopened mail. He had been wrestling with contractors and clients every minute since he had entered the office, and it was now late in the afternoon.

"So you are going to try it for yourself?" he commented, a new wrinkle gathering on his clouded brow. It occurred to him that Hart might be merely hinting politely for an advance in salary, but he dismissed the suspicion. "Have you had enough experience?" he asked bluntly.

"I'll be likely to get some more before long!" Hart replied, irritated by the remark.

"I mean of the actual conditions under which we have to build out here,—the contractors, the labor market, and so on? Of course you can leave at once if you wish to. I shouldn't want to stand in your light in any way. It is rather a bad time with Harmon home sick. But we can manage somehow, draw on the St. Paul office if necessary."

Jackson murmured his regret for the inconvenience of his departure at this juncture, and Wright said nothing more for a few minutes. He remembered now that some one had told him that Hart was drawing plans for Mrs. Phillips. This job had probably made the young architect ambitious to start for himself. He felt that Hart should have asked his consent before undertaking this outside work: at least it would have been more delicate to do so. But Wright was a kindly man, and bore no malice. In what he said next to the young architect he was moved by pure good will.

"I don't want to discourage you, Hart, but I know what sort of luck young fellows, the best of them, have these days when they start a new office. It's fierce work getting business, here especially."

"I suppose so," Hart admitted conventionally.

"The fine art side of the profession don't count much with client or contractor. It's just a tussle all the time!" he sighed, reflecting how he had spent two hours of his morning in trying to convince a wealthy client of the folly of cutting down construction cost from fifty to thirty cents a cubic foot.

"You young fellows just over from the other side don't always realize what it means to run an office. If you succeed, you have no time to think of your sketches, except after dinner or on the train, maybe. And if you don't succeed, you have to grab at every little job to earn enough to pay office expenses."

Hart's blank face did not commit him to this piece of wisdom.

"The only time I ever had any real fun was when I was working for the old firm, in New York. God! I did some pretty good things then. Old man Post used to trim me down when I got out of sight of the clients, but he let me have all the rope he could. And now,—why it's you fellows who have the fun!"

"And you who trim us down!" Hart retorted, with a grim little smile.

"Well, perhaps. I have to keep an eye on all you Paris men. You come over here well trained, damned well trained,—we can't do anything like it in this country,—but it takes a few years for you to forget that you aren't in la belle France. And some never get over their habit of making everything French Renaissance. You aren't flexible. Some of you aren't creative—I mean," he hastened to explain, getting warm on a favorite topic, "you don't feel the situation here. You copy. You try to express everything just as you were taught. But, if you want to do big work, you have got to feel things for yourself, by thunder!"

Jackson kept his immobile face. It did not interest him to know what Wright thought of the Beaux Arts men. Yet he had no intention of falling out with Wright, who was one of the leading architects of the country, and whose connection might be valuable to him.

"I see you don't care to have me preach," the older man concluded humorously. "And you know your own business best."

He remembered that the Powers Jackson gift for a school would call sooner or later for a large public building. Probably the family interests had arranged to put this important piece of work into Hart's hands. Wright hoped for the sake of his art that the trustees would put off building until the young architect had developed more independence and firmness of standard than he had yet shown.

"I think I understand a little better than I did two years ago what it takes to succeed here in Chicago," Jackson remarked at last.

Wright shot a piercing glance at him out of his tired eyes.

"It means a good many different kinds of things," the older man said slowly. "Just as many in architecture as elsewhere. It isn't the firm that is putting up the most expensive buildings that is always making the biggest success, by a long shot."

"I suppose not," Hart admitted.

And there the conversation lapsed. The older man felt the real impossibility of piercing the young architect's manner, his imperturbability. "He doesn't like me," he said to himself reproachfully.

For he wanted to say something to the younger man out of his twenty years of experience, something concerning the eternal conflict there is in all the professions between a man's ideals of his work and the practical possibilities in the world we have about us; something, too, concerning the necessity of yielding to the brute facts of life and yet not yielding everything. But he had learned from years of contact with men the great truth that talk never saves a man from his fate, especially that kind of talk. A man lives up to what there is in him, and Jackson Hart would follow the rule.

So he dug his hands into the letters on his desk, and said by way of conclusion:—

"Perhaps we can throw some things your way. There's a little job, now." He held up a letter he had just glanced at. "They want me to recommend some one to build a club-house at Oak Hills. There isn't much in it. They can't spend more than seven thousand dollars. But I had rather take that than do some other things."

"Thank you!" Hart replied with considerable animation. "Of course I want every chance I can get."

He took the letter from Wright's outstretched hand.


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