The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XIII

Two years passed and they were still living in the Loring place, which the architect had remodelled comfortably to suit his modern taste. Occasionally he talked of building, and they looked at land here and there. But it was clearly out of the question at present, for each year the family budget went leaping upward, and the income came tagging after.

"Jack," so Everett Wheeler expressed the situation in the raw phrase of the ordinary man, "Jack's got a champagne appetite. But he's a pretty good provider."

The architect was a good provider: he enjoyed heartily the luxury that his money brought him, and he wanted his wife to enjoy it with him. He worked at high pressure and needed his bread and meat well seasoned with excitement. Once, early in their married life, Mrs. Phillips had volunteered to explain to Helen the philosophy of this masculine temperament.

"Some men need more food than others. They'd mope and grow thin if they dined at home on a chop and went to bed at ten every night. They must have something to make steam. Your young man was born to be a spender."

The second winter the Phillipses had gone to Europe, where the widow was still adding to her collection for the new house,—Forest Manor as she had dubbed it. Leaving Venetia in Paris with some friends, she had descended upon Italy, the rage for buying in her soul. There she gathered up the flotsam of the dealers,—marbles, furniture, stuffs,—a gold service in Naples, a vast bed in Milan, battered pictures in Florence. Mrs. Phillips was not a discriminating amateur; she troubled her soul little over the authenticity of her spoil. To San Giorgio, Simonetti, Richetti, and their brethren in the craft she came like a rich harvest, and they put up many a prayer for her return another season.

In March of that year, Jackson Hart, struggling with building strikes in Chicago, had a cablegram from the widow. "Am buying wonderful marbles in Florence. Can you come over?" The architect laughed as he handed the message to his wife, saying lightly, "Some one ought to head her off, or she'll be sending over a shipload of fakes." Helen, mindful of the widow's utterances about Jackson, and thinking that he needed the vacation after two years of hard work, urged him generously to accept the invitation and get a few weeks in Italy. But there was no time just then for vacation: he was in the grip of business, and another child was coming to them.

From time to time Mrs. Phillips's purchases arrived at Forest Park and were stored in the great hall of her house. Then late in the spring the widow telephoned the architect.

"Yes, I am back," came her brisk, metallic tones from the receiver. "Glad to be home, of course, with all the dirt and the rest of it. How are you getting on? I hear you are doing lots of things. Maida Rainbow told me over there in Paris that you were building the Bushfields an immense house. I am so glad for you—I hope you are coining money."

"Not quite that," he laughed back.

"I want you to see all the treasures I have bought. I've ruined myself and the children! However, you'll think it's worth it, I'm sure. You must tell me what to do with them. Come over Sunday, can't you? How is Mrs. Hart? Bring her over, too, of course."

Thus she gathered him up on her return with that dexterous turn of the wrist which exasperated her righteous brother-in-law. On the Sunday Jackson went to see the "treasures," but without Helen, who made an excuse of her mother's weekly visit. He found the widow in the stable, directing the efforts of two men servants in unpacking some cases.

"Ah, it's you! How are you?"

She extended a strong, flexible hand to Hart, and with the other motioned toward a marble that was slowly emerging from the packing straw.

"Old copy of a Venus, the Syracuse one. It will be great in the hall, won't it?"

"It's ripping!" he exclaimed warmly. "But where did you get that picture?"

"You don't like it?"

"Looks to be pure fake."

"And Simonetti swore he knew the very room where it's hung for over a hundred years."

"Oh, he probably put it there himself!"

"Come into the house and see the other things. I have some splendid chairs."

For an hour they examined the articles she had bought, and the architect was sufficiently approving to satisfy Mrs. Phillips. Neither one had a pure, reticent taste. Both were of the modern barbarian type that admires hungrily and ravishes greedily from the treasure house of the Old World what it can get, what is left to get, piling the spoil helter-skelter into an up-to-date American house. Mediæval, Renaissance, Italian, French, Flemish—it was all one! Between them they would turn Forest Manor into one of those bizarre, corrupt, baroque museums that our lavish plunderers love,—electric-lighted and telephoned, with gilded marble fireplaces, massive bronze candelabra, Persian rugs, Gothic choir stalls, French bronzes—a house of barbarian spoil!

A servant brought in a tray of liquors and cigarettes; they sat in the midst of pictures and stuffs, and sipped and smoked.

"Now," Mrs. Phillips announced briskly, "I want to hear all about you!"

"It's only the old story,—more jobs and more strikes,—the chase for the nimble dollar," he answered lightly. "You have to run faster for it all the time."

"But you are making money?" she questioned directly.

"I'm spending it."

He found it not difficult to tell her the state of his case. She nodded comprehendingly, while he let her see that his situation, after two years of hard work, was not altogether as prosperous as it appeared on the surface. Payments on buildings under construction were delayed on account of the strikes; office expenses crept upward; and personal expenses mounted too. And there was that constant pressure in business—the fear of a cessation in orders.

"We may have to move back to town after all. That Loring place is pretty large to swing, and in town you can be poor in obscurity."

"Nonsense! You must not go back. People will know then that you haven't money. You are going to get bigger things to do when the strikes are over. And you are so young. My! not thirty-five."

Her sharp eyes examined the man frankly, sympathetically, approving him swiftly. His clay was like hers; he would succeed, she judged—in the end.

"Come! I have an idea. Why shouldn't you build here, on my land? Something pretty and artistic; it would help you, of course, to have your own house. I know the very spot, just the other side of the ravine—in the hickories. Do you remember it?"

In her enthusiasm she proposed to go at once to examine the site. Pinning a big hat on her head, she gathered up her long skirt, and they set forth, following a neat wood-path that led from the north terrace into the ravine, across a little brook, and up the other bank.

"Now, here!" She pointed to a patch of hazel bushes. "See the lake over there. And my house is almost hidden. You would be quite by yourselves."

He hinted that to build even on this charming spot a certain amount of capital would be needed. She frowned and settled herself on the stump of a tree.

"Why don't you try that Harris man? You know him. He made a heap of money for me once,—corn, I think. He knew just what was going to happen. He's awfully smart, and he's gone in with Rainbow, you know. I am sure he could make some money for you."

"Or lose it?"

She laughed scornfully at the idea of losing.

"Of course you have got to risk something. I wouldn't give a penny for a man who wouldn't trust his luck. You take my advice and see Harris. Tell him I sent you."

She laughed again, with the conviction of a successful gambler; it became her to laugh, for it softened the lines of her mouth.

She was now forty-one years old, and she appeared to Jackson to be younger than when he had first gone to see her after his uncle's death. She had come back from Europe thinner than she had been for several years. Her hair was perfectly black, still undulled by age, and her features had not begun to sharpen noticeably. She had another ten years of active, selfish woman's life before her, and she knew it. Meantime he had grown older rapidly, so that they were much nearer together. She treated him quite as her equal in experience, and that flattered him.

"Yes," she continued, in love with her project, "there isn't a nicer spot all along the shore. And you would be next door, so to say. You could pay for the land when you got ready, of course."

She gave him her arm to help her in descending the steep bank of the ravine, and she leaned heavily on him. Beneath the bluff the lake lapped at the sandy shore in a summer drowse, and the June sun lay warmly about the big house as they returned to it. The shrubbery had grown rankly around the terrace, doing its best in its summer verdancy to soften the naked walls. The architect looked at the house he had built with renewed pride. It was pretentious and ambitious, mixed in motive like this woman, like himself. He would have fitted into the place like a glove, if his uncle had done the right thing. Somewhat the same thought was in the widow's mind.

"It was a shame that old Powers treated you so shabbily! They haven't done anything yet about that school, have they?"

"No; I thought I should be drawing the plans before this. Rather counted on it."

They stood for a moment on the terrace, looking at the house. Yes, it was like them both! They loved equally the comforts and the luxuries and the powers of this our little life. And they were bold to snatch what they wanted from the general feast.

"You must make Harris do something for you," she mused. "You can't bury yourself in a stuffy flat." Then in a few moments she added: "How's that handsome wife of yours? I hear she's going to have another child." She continued with maternal, or, perhaps, Parisian, directness: "Two babies, and not on your feet yet! You mustn't have any more. These days children are no unmixed blessing, I can tell you.... Venetia? I left her in the East with some friends she made over there. She's too much for me already. She needs a husband who can use the curb." ...

When Jackson reported to his wife the widow's offer, Helen said very quickly, "I had rather go back to the city to live, Francis, than do that."

"Why?" he asked with some irritation.

"Because, because—"

She put her arms about his neck in her desire to make him feel what she could not say. But he was thinking of Mrs. Phillips's advice to see the broker, and merely kissed her in reply to her caress. The widow had spoken wisely; it would be foolish to retreat now, to hide himself in the city. Instead, he would venture on with the others. It was the year of the great bull market, when it seemed as if wealth hung low on every bough, and all that a bold man had to do to win a fortune was to pick his stock and make his stake.

Forest Park was very gay that summer. There were perpetual dinners and house parties and much polo at the Shoreham Club. The architect, who was very popular, went about more than ever, sometimes with his wife, and often alone, as her health did not permit much effort. Occasionally he played polo, taking the place of one of the regular team, and usually when there was a match he stopped at the club on his way from the city.

One of these polo Wednesdays, late in August, Helen strolled along the shore-path in the direction of the Phillipses' place, with an idea of calling on Venetia Phillips, if her strength held out. The path followed the curves of the bluff in full view of the lake, from which rose a pleasant coolness like a strong odor. Back from the edge of the bluff, in the quiet of well-spaced trees, stood the houses. They seemed deserted on this midsummer afternoon, for those people who had the energy to stir had gone to the polo grounds. The Phillips house, also, was apparently asleep in the windless heat, as Helen crossed the lawn that stretched from the edge of the bluff to the terrace; but when she reached the stone steps she caught a glimpse of Mrs. Phillips seated in the farther corner of the terrace, where luxuriant vines curtained a sheltered nook. Beyond was the outline of a man's form, and little rings of blue cigar smoke curled upward. The widow was leaning forward, her elbows resting comfortably on her knees, and in the animation of her talk she had put one hand on her companion's arm to emphasize her words. It lay there, while she looked into the man's face with her eager, flashing eyes.

Before Helen could take another step Mrs. Phillips turned her head, as if disturbed unconsciously by the presence of an intruder.

"Oh, is that you, Mrs. Hart?" the older woman asked after a moment of scrutiny. "Did you walk in all this heat? Come over here."

"Helen!" Jackson exclaimed, rising, a trace of annoyance in his tone, as though he had been interrupted in some important business matter.

"Don't get up, Mrs. Phillips," Helen said quickly, and the coldness of her voice surprised her. "I am looking for Venetia."

And without further words she opened the terrace door and stepped into the hall.

"You'll find her about somewhere. Ask John!" Mrs. Phillips called after her coolly.

While the servant departed in search of Venetia, Helen moved restlessly about the long drawing-room, which oppressed her with its close array of dominating furniture, thinking of the two outside upon the terrace. She had no suspicion of wrong between them, or, indeed, any jealousy of this woman, who she well knew liked men—all men. Yet an unfamiliar pain gripped her heart. Slowly, for many months, she had felt some mysterious and hostile force entering her field, and now she seemed to see it pictured, dramatized here before her in this little scene,—a man and a woman with chairs pulled close together, their faces aglow with eager thoughts. The other part of her husband, that grosser side of him which she dimly felt and put forth from her mind with dread, was on intimate terms with this woman, who fed his ambitions. And the wife, suddenly, instinctively, hated her for it.

There was nothing evil, however, between those two on the terrace. The architect had come from town by an early train to see the polo, and there Mrs. Phillips had found him, and had brought him home in her automobile. She had just learned a piece of news that concerned the architect closely, and they were discussing it in the shade and quiet of the north terrace.

"I know they're going to start soon. The judge let it out at dinner last night. He's no friend of yours, of course, because I like you. But he won't take the trouble to fight you. You must get hold of your cousin and the other trustees."

It was here that Mrs. Phillips, in her eagerness for his success, laid her hand on the young man's arm. Jackson murmured his thanks, thinking less of the widow than of the trustees of the Powers Jackson bequest.

"It'll be the biggest thing of its kind we have had in this city for years. It's only right that you should have it, too. Can't your wife win over the judge? He's always talking about her," she resumed after Helen's departure.

It was not strange that in the end the man should take the woman's hand, and hold it while he expressed his gratitude for all her good offices to him. It was a pleasant hand to hold, and the woman was an agreeable woman to have in one's confidence. Naturally, he could not know that she considered all men base,—emotionally treacherous and false-hearted, and would take her amusement wherever she could get it.

Venetia found Helen in the drawing-room, very white, her lips trembling, and beads of perspiration on her forehead.

"What's the matter?" Venetia demanded quickly. "Have you seen a ghost anywhere?"

"It's nothing," the older woman protested. "I shouldn't have walked so far. And now I must go back at once,—yes, really I must. I'm so sorry."

"Let me call Mr. Hart," Venetia said, troubled by the woman's white face. "I saw him come in with mamma a little while ago."

"No, no, I prefer not, please. It would worry him."

Then Venetia insisted on driving her home, and left her calmer, more herself, but still cold. She kissed her, with a girl's demonstrativeness, and the older woman burst into tears.

"I am so weak and so silly. I see things queerly," she explained, endeavoring to smile.

After the girl had gone, Helen tried to recover her ordinary calm. She played with the little Francis, who was beginning to venture about the walls and chairs of his nursery, testing the power in his sturdy legs. This naïve manifestation of his masculine quality touched the mother strangely. She saw in this mark of manhood the future of the boy. What other of man's instincts would he have? Would he, too, hunger and fight for his share in the spoil of the world?

The terrible hour of her woman's agony was fast approaching, when she should put forth another being into the struggle with its mates. She did not shrink from the pain before her, although she began to wonder if it might not end her own life, having that dark foreboding common to sensitive women at this crisis. If death came now, what had she done with her life? She would leave it like a meal scarce tasted, a task merely played with—something seen but not comprehended. What had she done for the man she loved? This afternoon when she saw her husband, so remote from her, travelling another road, a bitter sense of the fruitlessness of all living had entered her heart. This husband whom she had so passionately loved!

An hour later, as the architect was taking his leave of Mrs. Phillips, a servant brought him a telephone message from his house. His wife was suddenly taken ill. He raced home through the leafy avenues in the big touring car, which fortunately stood ready before the door. He found Helen white and exhausted, her eyes searching the vacant horizon of her bedroom.

"Why, Nell! Poor girl!" he exclaimed, leaning over her, trying to kiss her. "The walk was too much for you in all this heat. Why didn't you let me know?"

Her lips were cold and scarcely closed to his caress. She pushed him gently from her, wishing to be alone in her trial. But shortly afterward, purging her heart of any suspicion or jealousy,—still haunted by that fear of death,—she drew him to her and whispered:—

"You were talking with Mrs. Phillips. I didn't want to—it's all right, Francis. I love you, dear! Oh! I love you!"


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