The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XI

Pete was a very sick dog, but as Dr. Coburn boasted, no pampered patient in a private hospital ever had better care. Ultimately he recovered from his operation and went about gayly on three legs, but not until Venetia had made a good many visits to the squalid "laboratory" and had come to feel very much at home among the animals and scientific apparatus that the eccentric young doctor had gathered about him. Mrs. Phillips, naturally, had not consented to these visits to the "dog doctor," as she persisted in calling Pete's saviour, until Venetia had enlisted the services of Helen as chaperon. Then, being very much occupied these days with furnishing the new house, she paid little attention to Venetia's long afternoons spent in the company of the architect's wife.

These visits were, perhaps, the most educational experiences that the girl had ever had. One day she and Helen had watched the doctor take apart the queer-looking pump that occupied the post of honor in the laboratory, examined the delicate valves of the machine, and learned the theory of its use. Once they got courage to witness voluntarily its application on a rabbit. Venetia winced nervously when she saw the long gold needle sink into the tender breast of the small beast, the muscles relax, the heart stop beating altogether; but she worked one of the valves of the pump steadily as the doctor directed.

"Ain't that quick work!" he shouted enthusiastically. "It didn't take the stuff thirty seconds to strike the right spot."

Venetia nodded her head gravely, as he proceeded step by step in his demonstration. When he finished she asked with a gravity that made Helen smile:—

"Aren't you a very celebrated man?"

Even her world paid some respect to notable achievements in science, and she had heard Judge Phillips speak admiringly of certain recent discoveries by a famous physiologist. The doctor, however, roared with ironic laughter.

"Not celebrated exactly! At the medical societies they call me the crazy fakir. I don't believe there's a first-class doctor in the city who would take the time to look at this machine. They'd want to know first what some feller in Vienna thought about it. I might starve for all the help I've ever had here! Doctors don't want any one to do things on his own hook: they're jealous, just as jealous as women. But I guess I'm going to show 'em a thing or two not in the books. Let me tell you on the quiet, Miss Venetia,—I'm going over to Paris with this pump of mine and show it off in one of their hospitals. Then you'll see something!"

The girl tried to look intelligent.

"If I can convince some Frenchman or German that I am on to a big idea, why the whole pack of pill-sellers over here will fall into line so quick you can't see 'em."

"Perhaps we shall go over to Paris this summer, too. How I should like to be there when you are, and see you show the pump!"

In her experience there was nothing remarkable in going to Europe: one went to hear an opera, to order a few gowns, to fill out an idle vacation.

"Well, I may have to go steerage, but I'll get there somehow."

While they had been discussing the machine, a small, white-faced man, who looked as if he might be a waiter or some kind of skilled mechanic, had come into the laboratory and nodding to the doctor took a chair at the farther end of the room with the manner of one who was quite at ease in the place. His face, which was aged by illness or care, interested Helen greatly. She watched him while the others talked, wondering what his relation to the doctor could be, whether that of patient or friend. He sat huddled up on his chair, one worn-out boot thrust forward from a ragged trouser leg, curiously scanning the young girl, who seemed in her fresh beauty and rich clothes decidedly out of harmony with the dingy room. When Venetia spoke of going abroad as casually as she might have mentioned going to the country, a sarcastic smile crept over his face. He seemed to possess the full power of patience, as if a varied experience with a buffeting world had taught him to accept rather than to resist. His business there, whatever it might be, could wait, had always waited.

"Hussey, here, is the only feller that I ever found besides myself who has any faith in the old pump," Coburn remarked presently by way of introduction, half turning toward the silent man, and smiling as if he thoroughly enjoyed the joke of having this one convert. "He's always after me to try it on him,—he says he's got something the matter with his lungs,—but I guess it's purely a scientific interest that makes him offer to be the first victim. Gee! Wouldn't I like to take him at his word!"

He worked one of the delicate valves of the machine, squirting through the needle a thin stream of water in the direction of Hussey.

"Why don't you do it then?" the man asked in an indifferent tone. "I'm ready any time you say."

"Ain't he got nerve, now?" the doctor appealed to Venetia, his eyes twinkling sardonically. "Any doctor would tell him for nothing that it was just plain murder to stick that needle into his lungs. If I am wrong, you know, he'd be a goner, bleed to death."

"I guess I ain't built very different from that guinea-pig," the man observed placidly. "And I have seen you put it into one of them often enough."

"Why don't you try it, if he's willing?" Venetia asked the doctor breathlessly.

Helen and Coburn laughed, and even the silent Hussey smiled grimly.

"Maybe, young lady, you wouldn't mind if I tried it on you! Can't you get up a real good heart trouble now?" the doctor quizzed.

"Would it make any particular difference if I hadn't anything the matter with me?" Venetia asked quickly. "You can put it into me and see what it does, anyway."

"Good nerve!" Coburn laughed admiringly. "See, Mrs. Hart, I've got two converts now. Don't you want to make a third?"

Then bursting into his loud laugh, which seemed to be directed at himself, Coburn walked to the rear of the room, raised a trap-door, and whistled for Pete. He thrust his hand down, caught the dog by the neck, and placed him on the laboratory table for exhibition.

"Nothing worse than a good aristocratic limp, Peter," the doctor pronounced with complacency. "Just come here and look at that ear, Venetia! What do you think of that? It isn't quite the right shade, but I couldn't lay my hands on a terrier that was as dark as Pete."

"What have you done to his ear?" the girl demanded.

"He hadn't much of an ear left, when I came to look him over. So I grafted a new piece on. And I cropped it, too, so it would look like its mate. Pretty neat job?"

"That's why you wouldn't let me see his head when you were changing the bandages!"

"Sure! This ear was to be a real Christmas surprise for a good little girl."

"Poor old Pete!"

"What's the matter with Pete? Don't drop your tears that way. He's forgotten by this time he ever had another leg. Say!" he added abruptly, "what do you think the job's worth?"

"I don't know," Venetia replied a little haughtily. "Please send your bill to mamma."

"And suppose I make it half what Dr. Cutem would charge for doing the same job on you, what would mamma say? Pete's worth half, ain't he, Mrs. Hart?"

"Not to me," Helen answered lightly.

"Well, you'd have thought he was the way she went on about him that afternoon I found them out in the street. But that's the luck of a poor doctor. You do your best, and, the patient cured, the bill seems large!"

The doctor's joke evidently distressed Venetia, who had been taught that it was low to discuss bills. The silent man still smiling to himself over the girl, rose and spoke to the doctor in a low tone. Coburn nodded.

"The same thing? Yes, I'll be over pretty soon."

Then Hussey left the laboratory with a slight nod of his head in the direction of the women. When he had gone and the outer door had banged behind him, the doctor remarked thoughtfully:—

"I guess it isn't just pure interest in science that makes him ready to try the pump."

"Tell me about him," Helen asked quickly.

"He lost his little girl two months ago,—malnutrition, that is to say slow starvation, and I guess his wife's not got long to live. That's why he came in this afternoon. But I can't do anything for her now, nor anybody else. She's just beat out. They came from somewhere in Pennsylvania, a little country place. He's a bookbinder by trade,—does fancy work,—and work gave out in the country, so he tried New York. He had some kind of trouble there with the union and came on here. But he might as well have stayed where he was,—there ain't anything in this town for him, and the union is after him again. He's been up against it pretty much ever since he started. That's his story."

"Poor woman!" Helen exclaimed, with a quick sense of her own new happiness. "Do you suppose she would like to have me call on her?"

"I don't know. Perhaps she might. But he's rather sour on folks in general," the doctor answered indifferently.

"Where do they live?"

"Out west here a ways on Arizona Avenue."

"I know that district. The River settlement is over there on Arizona Avenue. But I didn't know any Americans lived there. They are mostly Poles or Germans, I thought," Helen added.

"I guess people like the Husseys live most anywhere they can find a hole to crawl into," Coburn answered brusquely. "So you are one of those settlement cranks?"

"I had classes there for a time before I was married," Helen admitted.

"Got sick of it? Found you couldn't scrub up the world in a few weeks, or even a small piece of it? I took you for a woman of too much sense to mix in that foolishness. It might do Venetia here some good, teach her a thing or two. She never rode in a street car till I showed her how."

"I only gave it up when I was going to marry, and my husband thought I was not strong enough," Helen protested stoutly. "But it's the most interesting—"

"See here! Look at this floor. Would it clean it any to pour a spoonful of water here and there? Well, that's what your social settlements with all their statistics and their investigations are doing. I tell you I know because I have been one of them, one of the 'masses.' I have been dirt poor all my life. I lived once for six months in a tenement room with five other men. 'Understanding and sympathy'? Rot! You can't really know anything about folks until you earn your bread as they do, because you have to or starve; and live and eat and marry as they do because you have to. Do you suppose those English know anything about their Hindoos? Well, these settlement folks know just about as much of what the people around them really are as the English know about those darkies they boss."

"But they're trying to understand, to help."

"What's the good of their help? What men need is a chance to help themselves at the pot. And the only way they'll ever get that is to fight for it. Fight the hoggish ones who want the whole loaf. Let 'em get out and fight, same as the people always have had to when they weren't content to starve. Then you'd see what this settlement 'sympathy and understanding' amounts to."

"Fighting never helps."

"Don't it now? What does your science or history tell you? Men have fought in one way or another for pretty nearly everything they've got!"

"Perhaps that is the trouble."

"Not much," he retorted, as if he were trying to convince himself as much as her. "The real fact is, most of the world isn't worth the bother of saving it from its fate. They are refuse junk. Just junk, so many tons of flesh and bone, with not wit enough to hold their appetites. That's why the worst robbers get on top and ride, every time. They always will because they are the best fighters. No, young woman, the ruck of people aren't worth bothering about. Life is the cheapest thing on this planet; pious folks with all their blart can't alter that fact. It's cheap, and mean, and can't fight."

"What's the good of that machine, if it's only fit to mend such bad flesh?"

"You think you've got me," he laughed back. "Now I'll tell you why. I want to show every stupid doctor in this town that I've got a trick worth two of his. All the high-toned doctors have turned me down, every one I ever got at. But I can fight. See? That's why I starve myself and live in this chicken-coop. I could make money enough gassing patients and selling them a lot of wind. Don't you think I could eat well and dress well and be as sleek and fine as the young men Venetia thinks are the right thing? I guess I could. Do you know Dr. Parks on the North Side? Two years ago he offered to take me into his office if I would quit fooling with these experiments and devote myself to private practice. Parks is earning a good twenty thousand a year. The pickings in that office would be considerable, I guess."

"But you wanted something better than money!"

"Better? I don't know about that. I want Parks and all the other big-mouths in the profession just salaming there before me for one thing."

"No,—that isn't much better than wanting money. You don't want to help. To want to help, to care about helping, that's the best thing in men and women,—caring to help others whether what they do succeeds in the end or fails. Nobody can know that."

The doctor's face lost its ironical grin; he looked at Helen very gravely.

"That feeling you talk about must be a kind of extra sense which I haven't got. It's like the color nerve or the sound nerve. I've always been color-blind. In the same way I haven't that other feeling you talk about. And I guess most folks in this world are like me. If they felt like you, why it wouldn't be the same old world we know."

"It must be a cruel world of murder and hate, if you haven't that."

"Well, I guess it's pretty much the same world that old Michael Angelo saw when he got up in the morning, or Julius Cæsar, or any of the rest of them. It's a mighty lively sort of place, too, if you know how to forage for yourself."

Venetia, who had been listening to the discussion wide-eyed, burst out explosively:—

"What are you two scrapping about, anyway? Aren't you going to see that sick woman?"

"Right you are," Dr. Coburn laughed. "I'll have to trot over there pretty soon."

"And I am going to see her, too, if you'll give me the address," Helen added. "By the way, Dr. Coburn, you know my husband, don't you?"

A peculiar look passed over the doctor's face as he replied: "Yes, in a way. I used to be chore-boy in the chemical lab when he was in college. But I wasn't his sort."

Helen recollected Jackson's exclamation when she had told him of her first visit with Venetia to the doctor's office. "That scrub!" Jackson had commented, simply and finally.

There was an awkward pause, which Venetia broke by saying, "I can take Pete, can't I?"

"I suppose he's well enough," Coburn answered reluctantly. It was plain that he would like to have some excuse to put off Pete's departure. The bit of friendship with the two women, which fate had tossed him, was too precious to part with easily. He picked the dog up brusquely, saying: "Pete, you are getting skinny. I guess it's time for you to go back to the good living you're used to. Don't you be getting into another mix-up, though, or there won't be enough dog left to patch."

Pete licked his hand in a puppyish way, as Coburn carried him to the carriage and placed him carefully on the seat between Venetia and Helen.

"Won't you come to see us?" Helen asked, as they shook hands. The queer look came back to the doctor's face.

"No," he said brusquely, "I guess not. I hope to see you again, though."

"Why do you suppose he said that?" Venetia inquired quickly when they had started.

Helen blushed, as she answered slowly, "Perhaps he doesn't like my husband."

"Don't you think he's the most interesting man you ever saw?" the girl exclaimed breathlessly. "At first he frightened me; he said such queer things—things people don't say, just think them. But I like it now. I mean to see a lot more of him somehow."

"Will you get your mother to ask him to Forest Park?" Helen asked mischievously.

"Just imagine it! Wouldn't Mrs. Phillips be nice to him? They'd have a fight the first thing, if she even looked at him. But I am sure he's the most interesting man I ever met. He's lots nicer than Stanwood's friends. They are always trying to hold your hand and wanting to kiss you. It makes up for conversation."

"Venetia!" the older woman protested.

"Well, they do! And when I told mamma once, she said that a girl could always manage men if she wanted to."

As-the carriage stopped at the apartment house where the Harts lived, the girl impulsively kissed the older woman.

"I'm so glad I know you—and the doctor, too!"

That evening when Helen sat down to dinner with her husband in their little apartment, she recounted the events of her day, among them the visit to Dr. Coburn's office. Jackson, who had brought home with him a roll of plans to work at in the evening, remarked casually: "Isn't Venetia going there a good deal? Her mother won't like that sort of intimacy."

"I don't think there is any harm in it. Dr. Coburn interests her, opens her eyes to things she never realized before. I think he must have a good deal of ability, though he is boastful and rough."

"That kind usually are conceited," the architect replied indifferently. "He had better show a little of his ability in getting some paying patients. He can't be doing much, judging by the boots and hat he had on the last time I saw him."

"No, he is very poor," Helen admitted. She disliked to have her husband judge any man by his "boots and hat." These necessary articles of clothing seemed to her rather accidental aspects of humanity in the confusing fortunes of life.

"Would you mind very much," she ventured after a time, "calling on him? I want to ask him to dine with us some Sunday. I want to have Venetia, and Pete, too."

Jackson looked at his wife in surprise.

"If you wish it, of course. I don't see much point to it. Why do you want him? He isn't our kind."

She was becoming gradually conscious that her husband liked only the society of his kind—those people who had the same tastes and habits, whose views and pleasures he shared. When she thought of it, she realized that they had rapidly severed themselves from any other kind during the first few months of their married life. She had given up going to the River settlement before her marriage, partly because Jackson disapproved of settlements. They were "socialistic" and "cranky," and business men told him that they helped to stir up that discontent among the laboring classes which was so rife in Chicago. They encouraged the unions, and with people of his class trade-unionism was considered to be the next worst thing to anarchy. So in the desire to have no shadow of difference between them, Helen had given up her classes in the settlement and rarely returned to the friends she had made in that part of the city.

There was growing in her, however, something almost of revolt against this attitude on the part of her husband. There came back to her these days with singular insistence some earnest words which once had thrilled her: "We are bound to one another inseparably in this life of ours; we make a society that is a composite. Whatever we may do to weaken the sense of that common bond disintegrates society. Whatever we can do to deepen the sense of that bond makes life stronger, better for all!" This idea fed an inner hunger of spirit which her husband had not appeased. For she had in large measure that rare instinct for democracy, the love of being like others in joy and sorrow.

Jackson believed in charitable effort, and had urged her to accept an invitation to join the committee of women who managed St. Isidore's hospital. It was almost a fashionable club, this committee, and it was a flattering thing for a young married woman to be made a member of it. The hospital was under the special patronage of the Crawfords and the Fosters and other well-known people in the city. And when after a visit to the bookbinder's sickly wife, she wished to do something for Hussey, Jackson interested himself in her effort to get together a class of young married women to learn the art of bookbinding, which happened to be a part of the current enthusiasm over craftsmanship. This class met at various houses once a week and spent a morning trying to bind paper-covered literature under Hussey's direction. Jackson, who was a bit of a dilettante by nature, was much interested in the work of the class. He would like to have Helen try her hand in metal-work or design jewellery or wall-paper or model. Once he talked to the class on the minor arts, talked with great enthusiasm and charm, exhorting these young women of the leisure class to cultivate intensively some one artistic interest in life.

But Helen, who hoped soon to have a child, found these things more or less trivial.


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