The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XII

After a winter in the city the Harts went to live at Shoreham, taking rooms for the season in a cottage near the club. The new station which the railroad was building at Eversley Heights, and the Rainbows' cottage on the ridge just west of the club, had brought the architect considerable reputation. His acquaintance was growing rapidly among the men who rode to and fro each day on the suburban trains of the C. R. and N. It was the kind of acquaintance which he realized might be very valuable to him in his profession.

Between Chicago and Shoreham there was a long line of prosperous suburbs, which exhibited a considerable variety of American society. As the train got away from the sprawling outskirts of the city, every stop marked a pause in social progress. Each little town gathered to itself its own class, which differed subtly, but positively, from that attracted by its neighbor. Shoreham was the home of the hunting set, its society centring in the large club. At Popover Plains there was a large summer hotel, and therefore the society of Popover Plains was considered by her neighbors as more or less "mixed." Eversley Heights was still undeveloped, the home of a number of young people, who were considered very pleasant, even incipiently smart. But of all the more distant and desirable settlements Forest Park had the greatest pride in itself, being comparatively old, and having large places and old-fashioned ugly houses in which lived some people of permanent wealth. At these latter stations many fashionable traps were drawn up at the platforms to meet the incoming afternoon trains, and the coachmen, recognizing their masters, touched their hats properly with their whips. Farther down the line there were more runabouts, and they were driven by wives freshly dressed, who were expecting package-laden husbands. Still nearer the city, the men who tumbled out of the cars to the platform found no waiting carriages, and only occasionally a young woman in starched calico awaited her returning lord.

Nevertheless, all these suburban towns had one common characteristic: they were the homes of the prosperous, who had emerged from the close struggle in the city with ideals of rest and refreshment and an instinct for the society of their own kind. Except for a street of shops near the stations, to which was relegated the service element of life, the inhabitants of these suburbs got exclusively the society of their kind.

The architect went to the city by one of the earlier trains and came back very late. He had all the labor of supervising the construction of his buildings, for the work in the office did not warrant engaging a superintendent. He emerged from the city, after a day spent in running about here and there, with a kind of speechless listlessness, which the wife of a man in business soon becomes accustomed to. But the dinner in the lively dining-room of the club-house, with the chatter about sport and the gossip, the cigar afterward on the veranda overlooking the green, turfy valley golden in the afterglow of sunset, refreshed him quickly. He was always eager to accept any invitation, to go wherever they were asked, to have himself and his wife in the eyes of their little public as much as possible. His agreeable manners, his keen desire to please, his instinct for the conventional, the suitable, made him much more popular than his wife, who was considered shy, if not positively countrified. As the season progressed, Jackson was sure that they had made a wise choice of a place to settle in, and they began to look for a house for the winter.

These were the happiest months the architect had ever known. He was having the exquisite pleasure that a robust nature feels in the first successful bout with life. Then blows, even, are sweet, and the whole brutal surge of the struggle. The very step of him these days as he turned in at his club for a hurried luncheon, his air of polite haste, a quick, hearty manner of greeting the men he knew, proclaimed him as one who had taken his part in the game. The song of the great city sang in his ears all the day, with a sweeter, minor note of his love that was awaiting him.

Yet there were grave risks, anxieties, that pressed as the months passed. In spite of all the apparent prosperity which the little office enjoyed from the start, the profit for the first year was startlingly small. The commission from the Phillips house had long since been eaten; also as much of the fee from Graves as that close contractor could be induced to pay over before the building had been finished. The insatiable office was now devouring the profits from the railroad business. Such commissions as he had got in Forest Park and Shoreham were well-earned: the work was fussy, exacting, and paid very little. When Cook saw the figures, he spoke to the point: "It's just self-indulgence to build houses. We must quit it." If they were to succeed, they must do a larger business,—factories, mills, hotels,—work that could be handled on a large scale, roughly and rapidly.

The Harts were living beyond their means, not extravagantly, but with a constant deficit which from the earliest weeks of their marriage had troubled Helen. Reared in the tradition of thrift, she held it to be a crime to spend money not actually earned. But she found that her husband had another theory of domestic economy. To attract money, he said, one must spend it. He insisted on her dressing as well as the other women who used the club, although they were for the most part wives and daughters of men who had many times his income. At the close of the first ten months of their marriage Helen spoke authoritatively:—

"At this rate we shall run behind at least two thousand dollars for the year. We must go back to the city to live at once!"

They had been talking of renting the Loring place in Forest Park for the coming year. But she knew that in the city she could control the expenditure, the manner of living. The architect laughed at her scruples, however.

"I'll see Bushfield to-day and find out when they are to get at the Popover station."

She still looked grave, having in mind a precept that young married people, barring sickness, should save a fifth of their income.

"And if that isn't enough," her husband added, "why, we must pull out something else. There's lots doing."

He laughed again and kissed her before going downstairs to take the club 'bus. His light-hearted philosophy did not reassure her. If one's income was not enough for one's wants, he said—why, expand the income! This hopeful, gambling American spirit was natural to him. He was too young to realize that the point of expansion for professional men is definitely limited. A lawyer, a doctor, an architect, has but his one brain, his one pair of hands, his own eyes—and the scope of these organs is fixed by nature.

"And we give to others so little!" she protested in her heart that morning. Her mother had given to their church and to certain charities always a tenth of their small income. That might be a mechanical, old-fashioned method of estimating one's dues to mankind, but it was better than the careless way of giving when it occurred to one, or when some friend who could not be denied demanded help....

The architect, as he rode to the early morning train in the club 'bus, was talking to Stephen Lane, a rich bachelor, who had a large house and was the chief promoter of the Hunt Club. Lane grumbled rather ostentatiously because he was obliged to take the early train, having had news that a mill he was interested in had burned down overnight.

"You are going to rebuild?" the architect asked.

"Begin as soon as we can get the plans done," Lane replied laconically.

It shot into the architect's mind that here was the opportunity which would go far to wipe out the deficit he and Helen had been talking about. With this idea in view he got into the smoking car with Lane, and the two men talked all the way to town. Hart did not like Stephen Lane; few at the club cared for the rich bachelor, whose manners carried a self-consciousness of wealth. But this morning the architect looked at him from a different angle, and condoned his tone of patronage. Yet the mill would mean only a few hundred dollars, a mere pot-boiling job, that in his student days he would have scorned, something that Cook or a new draughtsman might bite his teeth on! As the train neared the tangled network of the city terminal, he ventured to say, "What architects do your work, Lane?"

He hated the sound of his voice as he said it, though he tried to make it impersonal and indifferent. Lane's voice seemed to change its tone, something of suspicion creeping in, as he replied:—

"I have always had the Stearns brothers. They do that sort of thing pretty well."

As they mounted the station stairs, Lane asked casually: "Do you ever do that kind of work? It isn't much in your line."

"I've never tried it, but of course I should like the chance."

Then Lane, one hand on the door of a waiting cab, remarked slowly: "Well, we'll talk it over perhaps. Where do you lunch?" and gave the architect two fingers of his gloved hand.

He was thinking that Mrs. Hart was a pleasant woman, who always listened to him with a certain deference, and that these Harts must be hard put to it, without old Jackson's pile.

Hart went his way on foot, a taste of something little agreeable in his mouth. That same morning he had to stop at the railroad offices to see the purchasing agent. The railroad did its own contracting, naturally, and it was through this man Bushfield that the specifications for the buildings had to pass. The architect had had many dealings with the purchasing agent, and had found him always friendly. This morning Bushfield was already in his office, perspiring from the August heat, his coat off, a stenographer at his elbow. When Hart came in he looked up slowly, and nodded. After he had finished with the stenographer, he asked:—

"Why do you specify Star cement at Eversley, Hart?"

"Oh, it's about the best. We always specify Star for outside work."

"How's it any better than the Climax?" the purchasing agent asked insistently.

"I don't know anything about the Climax. What's the matter with Star?"

Bushfield scratched his chin thoughtfully for a moment.

"I haven't got anything against Star. What I want to know is what you have got against Climax?"

The smooth, guttural tones of the purchasing agent gave the architect no cause for suspicion, and he was dull enough not to see what was in the air.

"It would take time to try a new cement properly," he answered.

The purchasing agent picked up his morning cigar, rolled it around in his mouth, and puffed before he replied:—

"I don't mind telling you that it means something to me to have Climax used at Eversley. It's just as good as any cement on the market. I give you my word for that. I take it you're a good friend of mine. I wish you would see if you can't use the Climax."

Then they talked of other matters. When Hart got back to the office he looked up the Climax cement in a trade catalogue. There were hundreds of brands on the market, and the Climax was one of the newest. Horace Bushfield, he reflected, was Colonel Raymond's son-in-law. If he wished to do the Popover station, he should remain on good terms with the purchasing agent of the road. Some time that day he got out the type-written specifications for the railroad work, and in the section on the cement work he inserted neatly in ink the words, "Or a cement of equal quality approved by the architect."

He had scarcely time to digest this when not many days later the purchasing agent telephoned to him:—

"Say, Hart, the Buckeye Hardware people have just had a man in here seeing me about the hardware for that building. I see you have specified the Forrest makes. Aren't the Buckeye people first-class?"

The architect, who knew what was coming this time, waited a moment before replying. Then he answered coolly, "I think they are, Bushfield."

"Well, the Buckeye people have always done our business, and they couldn't understand why they were shut out by your specifying the Forrest makes. You'll make that all right? So long."

As Hart hung up his receiver, he would have liked to write Raymond, the general manager, that he wanted nothing more to do with the railroad business. Some weeks later when he happened to glance over the Buckeye Company's memoranda of sales for the Eversley station, and saw what the railroad had paid for its hardware, he knew that Horace Bushfield was a thief. But the purchasing agent was Colonel Raymond's son-in-law, and the railroad was about to start the Popover station!

Something similar had been his experience with the contractor Graves.

"Put me up a good, showy building," the contractor had said, when they first discussed the design. "That's the kind that will take in that park neighborhood. People nowadays want a stylish home with elevator boys in uniform.... That court you've got there between the wings, and the little fountain, and the grand entrance,—all just right. But they don't want to pay nothin' for their style. Flats don't rent for anything near what they do in New York. Out here they want the earth for fifty, sixty dollars a month; and we've got to give 'em the nearest thing to it for their money."

So when it came to the structure of the building, the contractor ordered the architect to save expense in every line of the details. The woodwork was cut to the thinnest veneer; partitions, even bearing-walls, were made of the cheapest studding the market offered; the large floors were hung from thin outside walls, without the brick bearing-walls advised by the architect. When Hart murmured, Graves said frankly:—

"This ain't any investment proposition, my boy. I calculate to fill the Graveland in two months, and then I'll trade it off to some countryman who is looking for an investment. Put all the style you want into the finish. Have some of the flats Flemish, and others Colonial, and so on. Make 'em smart."

The architect tried to swallow his disgust at being hired to put together such a flimsy shell of plaster and lath. But Cook, who had been trained in Wright's office, where work of this grade was never accepted, was in open revolt.

"If it gets known around that this is the style of work we do in this office, it'll put us in a class, and it ain't a pleasant one, either.... Say, Jack, how's this office to be run—first-class or the other class?"

"You know, man," the architect replied, wincing at the frank speech, "how I am fixed with Graves. I don't like this business any better than you do, but we'll be through with it before long; and I shan't get into it again, I can tell you."

He growled in his turn to the contractor, who received his protest with contemptuous good humor.

"You'd better take a look at what other men are doing, if you think I am making the Graveland such an awful cheap building. I tell you, there ain't money in the other kind. Why, I worked for a man once who put up a first-class flat building, slow-burning construction, heavy woodwork, and all that. It's old-fashioned by this—and its rents are way down. And I saw by the paper the other day that it was sold at the sheriff's sale for not more than what my bill came to! What have you got to say to that?"

Therefore the architect dismissed the Graveland from his mind as much as he could, and saw little of it while it was under construction, for the contractor did his own superintending. One day, however, he had occasion to go to the building, and took his wife with him. They drove down the vast waste of Grand Boulevard; after passing through that wilderness of painful fancies, the lines of the Graveland made a very pleasant impression.

Hart had induced Graves to sacrifice part of his precious land to an interior court, around which he had thrown his building like a miniature château, thus shutting out the sandy lots, the ragged street, which looked like a jaw with teeth knocked out at irregular intervals. A heavy wall joined the two wings on the street side, and through the iron gates the Park could be seen, just across the street.

"Lovely!" Helen exclaimed. "I'm so glad you did it! I like it so—so much more than the Phillips house."

They studied it carefully from the carriage, and Hart pointed out all the little triumphs of design. It was, as Helen felt, much more genuine than the Phillips house. It was no bungling copy, but an honest answer to a modern problem—an answer, to be sure, in the only language that the architect knew.

Helen wanted to see the interior, although Jackson displayed no enthusiasm over that part of the structure. And in the inside came the disaster! The evidences of the contractor's false, flimsy building darkened the architect's brow.

"The scamp!" he muttered, emerging from the basement. "He's propped the whole business on a dozen or so 'two-by-fours.' And I guess he's put in the rottenest plumbing underground that I ever saw. I don't believe it ever had an inspection."

"Show me what you mean," Helen demanded.

He pointed out to her some of the devices used to skimp the building.

"Even the men at work here know it. You can see it by the way they look at me. Why, the thing is a paper box!"

In some of the apartments the rough work was scarcely completed, in others the plasterers were at work; but the story was the same everywhere.

"I can't see how he escaped the Building Department. He's violated the ordinances again and again. But I suppose he knows how to keep the inspectors quiet."

He remembered the Canostota: he had no manner of doubt, now, about those I-beams in the Canostota.

"Francis!" Helen exclaimed with sudden passion; "you won't stand it? You won't let him do this kind of thing?"

The architect shrugged his shoulders.

"It's his building. He bought the plans and paid for them."

She was silent, troubled in her mind by this business distinction, but convinced that wrong was being done. A thing like this, a fraud upon the public, should be prevented in some way.

"Can't you tell him that you will report him to the Building Department?" she asked finally.

Hart smiled at her impetuous unpractically.

"That would hardly do, would it, to go back on a client like that? It's none of my business, really. Only one hates to feel that his ideas are wasted on such stuff as this is made of. The city should look after it. And it's no worse than most of these flat buildings. Look at that one across the street. It's the same cheap thing. I was in there the other day.... No, it's the condition of things in this city,—the worst place for good building in the country. Every one says so. But God help the poor devils who come to live here, if a fire once gets started in this plaster-and-lath shell!"

He turned to the entrance and kicked open the door in disgust. Helen's face was pale and set, as if she could not dismiss the matter thus lightly.

"I never thought of fire!" she murmured. "Francis, if anything like that should happen! To think that you had drawn the plans!"

"Oh! it may last out its time," he replied reassuringly. "And it doesn't affect the appearance of the building at present. It's real smart, as Mrs. Rainbow would say. Don't you think so, Nell?"

She was standing with her back to the pleasant façade of the Graveland, and was staring into the Park across the street. Turning around at his words she cast a swift, scrutinizing glance over the building.

"It isn't right! I see fraud looking out of every window. It's just a skeleton covered with cloth."

The architect laughed at her solemnity. He was disgusted with it himself; it offended his workman's conscience. But he was too modern, too practical, to allow merely ideal considerations to upset him. And, after all, in his art, as in most arts, the effect of the work was two-thirds the game. With her it was altogether different. Through all outward aspect, or cover, of things pierced their inner being, from which one could not escape by illusion.

As they were leaving the place the contractor drove up to the building for his daily inspection. He came over to the architect, a most affable smile on his bearded face.

"Mrs. Hart, I presume," he said, raising his hat. "Looking over your husband's work? It's fine, fine, I tell you! Between ourselves, it beats Wright all out."

Helen's stiffness of manner did not encourage cordiality, and Graves, thinking her merely snobbish, bowed to them and went into the building.

"You'll never do anything for him again, will you, Francis? Promise me."

And he promised lightly enough, for he thought it highly improbable that the contractor ever would return to him, or that he should feel obliged to take his work if he offered it.

Nevertheless, the contractor did return to the office, and not long afterward. It was toward the end of the summer, when the architect and his wife were still debating the question of taking a house in the country for the winter. One afternoon Jackson came back from his luncheon to find Graves waiting for him in the outer office. The stenographer and Cook were hard at work in the room beyond, with an air of having nothing to say to the contractor. As Graves followed Hart into his private office, Cook looked up with a curl on his thin lips that expressed the fulness of his heart.

"Say," Graves called out as soon as Hart had closed the door to the outer room, "I sold that Graveland three weeks ago, almost before the plaster was dry. A man from Detroit came in to see me one morning, and we made the deal that day."

"Is that so?" Hart remarked coolly.

"It was a pretty building. I knew I shouldn't have any trouble with it. Now I have something new in mind."

The architect listened in a non-committal manner.

"Part of that trade with the Detroit feller was for a big block of land out west here a couple of miles. I am thinking of putting up some tidy little houses to sell on the instalment plan."

"What do you mean to put into them?" Jackson asked bluntly.

"Well, they'd ought to sell for not more than eight thousand dollars."

"And cost as much less as you can make them hold together for? I don't believe I can do anything for you, Mr. Graves," Jackson replied firmly.

"Is that so? Well, you are the first man I ever saw who was too busy to take on a paying piece of business."

He settled himself more comfortably in the chair opposite Hart's desk, and began to describe his scheme. There was to be a double row of houses, three stories and basement, each one different in style, in a different kind of brick or terra cotta, with a distinguishing "feature" worked in somewhere in the design. They were to be bait for the thrifty clerk, who wanted to buy a permanent home on the instalment plan rather than pay rent. There were many similar building schemes in different parts of the city, the advertisements of which one might read in the street cars.

"Why do you want me to do the job for you?" Hart asked at last. "Any boy just out of school could do what you are after."

"No, he couldn't! He hasn't the knack of giving a fresh face to each house. But it won't be hard work for you!"

This, the architect knew, was true. It would be very easy to have Cook hunt up photographs from French and English architectural journals, which with a little arrangement would serve for the different houses. With a few hours' work he could turn out that individual façade which Graves prized commercially. Here was the large job that could be done easily and roughly, opportunely offering itself.

"I don't like to have such work go through the office. That's all there is about it!" he exclaimed at last.

"Is that so? Too tony already. Well, we won't fight over that. Suppose you make the sketches and let another feller prepare the details?"

There were many objections to this mode of operation, but the contractor met every one. Hart himself thought of Meyer, a clever, dissipated German, to whom he had given work now and then when the office was busy. Meyer would do what he was told and say nothing about it.

It was late when Graves left the office. Cook and the stenographer had already gone. Hart went down into the street with the contractor, and they nodded to each other when they parted, in the manner of men who have reached an understanding. On the way to the train, Jackson dropped into his club for a drink. He stood staring into the street while he sipped his gin and bitters. The roar of the city as it came through the murky windows seemed to him more than commonly harsh and grating. The gray light of the summer evening filtered mournfully into the dingy room.... He was not a weak man; he had no qualms of conscience for what he had made up his mind that afternoon to do. It was disagreeable, but he had weighed it against other disagreeable alternatives which might happen if he could not get the money he needed. His child would be born in a few months, and his wife must have the necessary comforts during her illness. He had too much pride to accept Helen's plan of going to her mother's house for her confinement. By the time he had reached Shoreham he had entirely adjusted his mind to Graves, and he met his wife, who had walked over to the station, with his usual buoyant smile. And that evening he remarked:—

"I guess we had better take the Loring place. It's the only fit one for rent. We'll have to keep a horse—that's all."

They had been debating this matter of the Loring place for several weeks. It was a pleasant old house, near the lake, not far from Mrs. Phillips's in Forest Park. It was Mrs. Phillips who had first called the architect's attention to it. But, unfortunately, it was too far from either station of the railroad to be within walking distance. And it was a large establishment for two young persons to maintain, who were contemplating the advent of a baby and a nurse.

All this Helen had pointed out to her husband, and lately they had felt too poor to consider the Loring place.

"What has happened, Francis?" she asked.

"A lot more business has come in,—a block of houses. They will be very profitable," he answered vaguely, remembering Helen's antipathy to the contractor. "Did you lunch with Venetia? I saw her this morning at the station. She is growing up fast, isn't she?"


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