The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XIV

Rumor had it that the Powers Jackson trust was about to be fulfilled. It had become known among the friends of the trustees that during these prosperous times the fund for the educational project had grown apace, and was now estimated to be from five to six millions of dollars. It was understood that some of the trustees were in favor of handing over this munificent bequest to a large local university, with the stipulation that a part of the money should be devoted to maintaining a school on the West Side where some form of manual training or technology should be taught.

One morning, not long after Helen's confinement, Jackson read aloud from the newspaper an item to the effect that negotiations were under way with the university.

"So that's their game!" he exclaimed to Helen gloomily, seeing in this move an unexpected check to his ambition.

"How can they even think of it!" she responded warmly, unwontedly stirred at the thought that the old man's design had already become thus blurred in the minds of his nearest friends. "That wasn't in the least what uncle meant should be done. I wish I could see Everett, or Judge Phillips, and find out the truth in all this talk."

"Yes," Jackson assented. "I should like to know what they mean to do."

Then he went to the train, trying to recall the names of the influential trustees of the university, and wondering whether after all there would be any monumental building erected with his uncle's money. Fate seemed disposed to keep from his touch the smallest morsel of the coveted millions!

It was not long before Helen had the opportunity she desired of finding out from the trustees what was the truth beneath the newspaper gossip. Judge Phillips with Mr. Pemberton took the seat behind her in the car of the Chicago train one morning, and the judge leaning forward inquired about the children. Before he settled back into his newspaper, Helen ventured to mention the current report about the Powers Jackson bequest.

"I hope it isn't true," she protested warmly. "Mr. Jackson was not interested in universities, I know,—at least especially. He didn't believe very much in theoretical education; I don't think he would have wanted his money used that way."

"What is that?" Pemberton asked with interest.

The judge, who preferred to talk babies or shrubs with a pleasant young woman, answered briefly:—

"Well, we haven't settled anything yet. Mr. Hollister seems to be against the university plan, and I don't know that I favor it. But you'll have to talk to Pemberton here. It was his idea."

"Why do you think Mr. Jackson would have objected?" Pemberton inquired gravely.

"We often used to discuss college education," Helen replied quickly, turning to the younger trustee. "And he had very positive ideas about what was needed nowadays. He thought that colleges educated the leaders, the masters, and that there would always be enough left for that kind of institution. So many people are interested in colleges. But he wanted to do something with his money for the people."

"Yes, of course, it must be a free technical school," Pemberton replied literally, "and it must be out there on the West Side."

"But planned for the people, the working people," she insisted.

"Naturally. But we are all the 'people,' aren't we, Mrs. Hart? I haven't much sympathy with this talk nowadays about the 'people' as opposed to any other class."

"That's the unions," the judge nodded sagely. "We are all the 'people.' There is no class distinction in educational matters. We want to offer the best kind of education for the poor boy or the rich boy. What was Powers himself? His school must be a place to help boys such as he was, of course."

They were both completely at sea as to the donor's real intentions, Helen felt sure, and she was eager to have them see the matter as she saw it. Suddenly ideas came to her, things she wished to say, things that seemed to her very important to say. She remembered talks that she had had with the old man, and certain remarks about college education which had dropped from him like sizzling metal.

"But a technological school like the one in Boston,"—Pemberton had instanced this famous school as an example they should follow,—"that's a place to educate boys out of their class, to make them ambitious, to push them ahead of their mates into some higher class."

"Well?" asked Pemberton. "What's the matter with that idea? Doesn't all education do just that for those who are fitted for it?"

"Uncle wanted something so different! He wanted to make boys good workmen, to give them something to be contented with when they had just labor before them, daily labor, in the factories and mills."

The judge's face puckered in puzzle over this speech. He was of an older generation, and he could see life only in the light of competition. Free competition in all the avenues of life—that was his ideal. And the constant labor disputes in Chicago had thickened his prejudices against the working people as a class. He believed, in common with his associates, that their one aim was to get somebody's money without working for it.

But the other man, who was younger and less prejudiced, was more responsive. He felt that this woman had an idea, that she knew perhaps what the benefactor really wanted, and so they talked of the school until the train reached Chicago. As they rose to leave the cars, Pemberton said warmly:—

"I am glad we have had this talk, Mrs. Hart. I think I see what you mean, although I am not at all clear how to attain the objects that you describe as the donor's intention. But you have modified my ideas very materially. May I call on you some day and continue this discussion?"

"If you would!" Helen exclaimed, glowing with an enthusiasm unfelt for a long time.

"Well," the judge concluded, "I hope we can get the thing settled pretty soon and start on the building. I want to see something done before I die."

"Yes," Helen assented, "I should think you would want to see the school go up. And I hope Jackson will have the building of it."

She expressed this wish very simply, without considering how it might strike the trustees. It was merely a bit of sentiment with her that her husband, who had got his education from Powers Jackson, might, as a pure labor of love, in gratitude, build this monument to the old man. It did not then enter her mind that there would be a very large profit in the undertaking. She assumed that the architect would do the work without pay!

It was not until Pemberton's thin lips closed coldly and the judge stared at her in surprise that she realized what she had said. Then her face turned crimson with the thought of her indelicacy, as Judge Phillips replied shortly:—

"We haven't got that far yet, Mrs. Hart. It's probable that if we build we shall have a competition of designs."

The two men raised their hats and disappeared into the black flood pouring across the bridge, while she got into an omnibus. That remark of hers, she felt, might have undone all the good of the talk they had had about the old man's plan. Her cheeks burned again as she thought of hinting for business favors to her husband. It seemed a mean, personal seeking, when she had been thinking solely of something noble and pure.

This idea distressed her more and more until she was ingulfed in that mammoth caravansary where one-half of Chicago shops and, incidentally, meets its acquaintances and gossips. She hurried hither and thither about this place in the nervous perturbation of buying. Finally, she had to mount to the third floor to have a correction made in her account. There, in the centre of the building, nearly an acre of floor space was railed off for the office force,—the bookkeepers and tally clerks and cashiers. Near the main aisle thirty or forty girls were engaged in stamping little yellow slips. Each had a computation machine before her and a pile of slips. Now and then some girl would glance up listlessly from her work, let her eyes wander vacantly over the vast floor, and perhaps settle her gaze for a moment on the face of the lady who was waiting before the cashier's window. This store boasted of the excellent character of its employees. They were of a neater, more intelligent, more American class than those employed in other large retail stores. Even here, however, they had the characteristic marks of dull, wholesale labor.

Helen was hypnotized by the constant punch, click, and clatter of the computation machines, the repeated movements of the girls' arms as they stretched out for fresh slips, inserted them in the machines, laid them aside. This was the labor of the great industrial world,—constant, rhythmic as a machine is rhythmic, deadening to soul and body. Standing there beside the railing, she could hear the vast clatter of our complex life, which is carried on by just such automata as these girls. What was the best education to offer them, and their brothers and fathers and lovers? What would give their lives a little more sanity, more joy and human interest?—that was the one great question of education. Not what would make them and their fellows into department managers or proprietors.

The receipted bill came presently, with a polite bow. She stuffed the change into her purse and hurried away, conscious that the girl nearest the railing was looking languidly at the back of her gown.

On her way to the Auditorium to meet some women who were to lunch with her there, and afterward go to the afternoon concert, she stopped at her husband's office. The architect had moved lately to the top story of a large new building on Michigan Avenue, where his office had expanded. He had taken a partner, a pleasant, smooth-faced young man, Fred Stewart, who had excellent connections in the city, which were expected to bring business to the firm. Cook was still the head draughtsman, but there were three men and a stenographer under him now. His faith in Hart had been justified, and yet at times he shook his head doubtfully over some of the work which passed through the office.

Cook recognized Helen when she entered the outer office, and opened the little wicket gate for her to step inside.

"Your husband's busy just now, been shut up with a contractor most all the morning. Something big is on probably. Shall I call him?"

"No," she answered. "I'll wait awhile. Is this the new work?" She pointed in surprise to the water-color sketches and photographs on the walls. "It's so long since I have been in the office. I had no idea you had done so much."

"More'n that, too. There's some we don't hang out here," the draughtsman answered with suppressed sarcasm. "We've kept pretty busy."

He liked his boss's wife. She had a perfectly simple, kindly manner with all the world, and a face that men love. The year before she had had Cook and his younger brother in the country over Sunday, and treated them "like distinguished strangers," as Cook expressed it.

"That's the Bushfields' house—you know it, perhaps? This is Arnold Starr's residence at Marathon Point—colonial style. That's an Odd Fellows hall in Peoria. I did that myself."

Helen said something pleasant about the blunt elevation of the Odd Fellows hall.

"That's the Graveland," he continued, pointing to a dingy photograph that Helen recognized. "It was called after the contractor's name. We did that the first year."

"Yes, I think I remember it," she murmured, passing on quickly. That was the building her husband had done for the disreputable contractor, who had made it a mere lath-and-plaster shell.

She kept on around the room, glancing at the photographs and sketches. Among the newer ones there were several rows of semi-detached houses that, in spite of the architect's efforts, looked very much as if they had been carved out of the same piece of cake. Some of these were so brazen in their commonplaceness that she thought they must be the work of the Cooks. Probably Jackson had reached that point of professional success where he merely "criticised" a good many of the less important sketches, leaving the men in the office to work them out.

She sat down to wait, her interest in the office sketches easily dulled. They were much like the products of the great emporium that she had just left,—of all marketable kinds to suit all demands. The architect worked in all the "styles,"—Gothic, early English, French château, etc. There was little that was sincere, honest, done because the man could do it that way and no other. It was all clever contrivance.

Men came and went in the offices, the little doors fanning back and forth in an excitement of their own. The place hummed with business; messengers and clerks came in from the elevators; contractors exchanged words with the busy Cook; and through all sounded the incessant call of the telephone, the bang of the typewriter. A hive of industry! It would have pleased the energetic soul of the manager of Steele's emporium.

Meantime the wife was thinking, "What does it mean to him?" When they began their married life in a flat on the North Side, Jackson had brought his sketches home; and she had kept for his use a little closet-like room off the hall where he worked evenings. But from the time they had moved into the Loring house he had rarely brought home his work; he was too tired at night and felt the need for distraction when he left the office. Had he lost his interest in the art side of his profession? Was he turning it into a money-making business, like Steele's? She reproached herself as the mere spender and enjoyer, with the children, of the money, which came out of these ephemeral and careless buildings, whose pictures dotted the walls.

She was roused by the sound of her husband's voice. He was coming through the inner door, and he spoke loudly, cheerily, to his companion.

"Well, then, it's settled. Shall I have Nelson draw the papers?" A thick, cautious voice replied in words that were unintelligible, which caused the architect to laugh. Then they emerged into the outer office. The stranger's square, heavy face, his grizzled beard, and thick eyebrows were not unknown to Helen.

"So long, Hart," the contractor murmured, as he disappeared into the hall.

"Why, Helen! You here!" the architect exclaimed when he caught sight of his wife. "Why didn't you let me know? Always tell Miss Fair to call me."

He took her hand, and putting his other hand under her chin he gave her a little caress, like a busy, indulgent husband.

"Who was that man, Francis?" she asked.

"The one who came out with me? That was a contractor, a fellow named Graves."

She had it on her lips to say, "And you promised me once that you would never have any more business with him." But she was wise, and said simply, "I came away this morning without enough money, and I have those women at luncheon, you know."

"Of course. Here! I'll get it for you in a minute." He rang a bell, and pulling out a little check-book from a mass of papers, letters, memoranda, that he carried in his pocket, wrote a check quickly with a fountain pen as he stood.

"There, Miss Fair!" He handed the check to the waiting stenographer. "Get that cashed at the bank downstairs and give the money to Mrs. Hart."

When the young woman, with an impersonal glance at the husband and wife, had disappeared, the architect turned to Helen and pulled out his watch.

"I may have to go to St. Louis to-night. If you don't see me on the five two, you'll know I have gone. I'll be back to-morrow night, anyway. That's when we dine with the Crawfords, isn't it?"

His mind gave her only a superficial attention, and yet he seemed happy in spite of the pressure of his affairs. The intoxication of mere activity, the excitement of "doing," so potent in our country, had got its grip on him. In his brown eyes there burned a fire of restless thoughts, schemes, combinations, which he was testing in his brain all his waking moments. Yet he chatted courteously while they waited for the stenographer to return.

"By the way," he remarked, "I telephoned Everett this morning, and he says there's nothing in that story about their giving the university the money. He says Hollister knows uncle wouldn't have wanted it, and Hollister is dead set against it."

"Judge Phillips and Mr. Pemberton were on the train with me this morning, and they talked about it. They don't seem altogether clear what the trustees will do with the money. I hope they won't do that. It would be too bad."

"I should say so," Jackson assented warmly.

He accompanied his wife downstairs and bought her some violets from the florist in the vestibule. They parted at the street corner, for he was already late in meeting an appointment. She watched him until he was swallowed up by the swift-flowing stream on the walk, her heart a little sad. He was admirable toward her in every way. And yet—and yet—she hated the bustle of the city that had caught up her husband and set him turning in its titanic, heartless embrace. There rose before her the memory of those precious days on the sea when they had begun to love, and in some inexplicable manner it seemed to her that after these years of closest intimacy they were essentially farther apart than then.

Being a sensible woman, however, she dismissed her transient disagreement with life and presented to her guests a smiling, cordial face.

Mrs. Horace Bushfield was already waiting for her in the foyer of the hotel, where a number of suburban luncheon parties were assembling. Presently the others came: Mrs. Rainbow, who was still toiling to better heights of social prestige and regarded her acceptance of this invitation as a concession to the fine arts; Mrs. Ollie Buchanan, a young married woman, who was already a power on the St. Isidore hospital board; the younger Mrs. Crawford and a guest of hers from out of town; and Mrs. Freddie Stewart, the wife of Jackson's partner,—six in all. They were soon seated about a table, eating their oysters and spying over the large dining-room for familiar faces.

"There's Betty Stuart over there," Mrs. Rainbow remarked, proud of the ease with which she handled the nickname. "My, how ill she looks! You know she had typhoid pneumonia in New York. She looks as if she were going to walk into her grave."

"Perhaps it wasn't just typhoid," Mrs. Bushfield added; "they tell strange stories. Her husband didn't go on once while she was ill."

"Couldn't get away, poor man!"

The two laughed, while Mrs. Buchanan looked at them coldly.

"Yes, this is the best restaurant we have," Mrs. Bushfield explained apologetically to the guest from out of town. "Chicago has miserable hotels. Wretched food, too. You can't help it, my dear,"—she turned good-humoredly to Helen, and then concluded with the comfortable superiority of abuse,—"but Chicago is still a village."

Men and women were moving noiselessly to and fro over the thickly carpeted floor that seemed to give off an odor of stale food. The dull red walls were already streaked here and there by soot, and the coarse lace curtains at the windows had been washed to a dirty gray in fruitless effort to make them clean. Behind their folds on the window-ledges there had gathered a thick sediment of ashes and coal dust, and beneath this the white paint was smutched with soot. Nevertheless, the ladies accustomed to the unconquerable dirt of the city ate their luncheon undisturbed.

With the coming of the sweetbreads Mrs. Buchanan was saying confidentially to Mrs. Rainbow:—

"She's quite done for herself, you know. Mrs. Antony Crawford says that she will not have her again at her house. I should think that her mother would take her away. They say that Stanwood Phillips, too, has disgraced himself at Yale—awfully fast. But Venetia must be a perfect little fool. She might have had Stephen Lane."

"So might any girl who had money these ten years," Mrs. Freddie Stewart remarked positively.

"Beast of a temper, that man. I pity the girl he gets." ...

"I must tell you,—they were at the Ritz last summer when we were, and positively they didn't know enough French to order their food. Their chauffeur used to take them about, and he would go anywhere he had a mind to, you know. Positively helpless. So we took pity on them, you know, and showed them things for a time."

On the other side of the table Mrs. Crawford's voice was raised in protest to Helen.

"You can't shop in this place. Steele's has got as bad as the rest. I go to New York for everything." ...

"Isn't Sembrich getting too fat to sing?" ...

"Who is that new tenor? I heard him in London last spring. He was fine." ...

At last Helen ventured to say, "We should be starting, if we are to hear the Leonore overture."

"Oh! bother the overture. Let's stay here and talk until it's time for Sembrich. The rest of it is such a bore," Mrs. Rainbow protested, nursing covetously her ice.

Finally the company got under way and proceeded to the concert hall, much to Helen's relief. She had no complaint to make of her guests, who had been got together for Mrs. Stewart's pleasure. They were quite as intelligent women as she was, and all of them more important than she in the sphere where they lived. They were good wives, and two of them good mothers. Their talk, however, had seemed to her intolerably petty and egotistical, reflecting a barren life of suburban gossip and city sprees. Their husbands, working furiously here in the resounding city, maintained them in luxury for their relaxation and amusement, and provided they kept on the broad avenues of married life cared little how they spent their days. In Steele's great store, and in a thousand other stores and factories of the vast city, girls and women were mechanically pounding their machines hour after hour. The fine flower of all their dead labor in life was the luxury of these women, who ate and dressed, loved, married, and had children in idleness and ease....

The waiter came with the bill,—eighteen dollars and thirty cents, and two dollars to the waiter who stood eying the tray. Helen had been rather ashamed, too, of the simplicity of the food. She had not offered them wine, which she knew Mrs. Crawford was used to having at luncheon. Jackson would have laughed at her economy or been irritated by it. They often entertained friends in this same restaurant after the theatre, and she had seen the waiter carry off two twenty-dollar bills and return with very little change. It seemed to her plain nature simply wicked to pay so much money—the blood of human beings—merely to eat. They paid, she knew, for the tarnished ceilings, the heavy carpets, the service—all the infinite tawdry luxe of modern life.

"And why not?" Jackson demanded impatiently when she protested. "Don't I make it? If I want to spend it on champagne and crab-meat, why shouldn't I? I hustle hard enough to get it."

The argument was positive, but she felt that it was imperfect. Yet all their friends lived as they did, or even better: the bill for pleasure with them all was a large one....

By the time they had reached Mrs. Phillips's box, which they were to occupy, the concert was well advanced. The massive chords of the Tschaikowscy's symphony broke through the low chatter of the boxes.

"One of those bangy Russian things," Mrs. Rainbow whispered ruefully, as she tugged at her wrap in fat helplessness.

Helen helped her to disengage her lace and then arranged the chairs for her guests. While the women opened their opera-glasses and took a preliminary survey of the hall, she sank into the rear seat, pulled the chenille portière half over her face, and closed her eyes.

That "bangy Russian thing" whipped her blood and sent strange pictures flying through her head. For the moment it loosed the cords that seemed to bind her to a stake. The heat and smell and twaddling voices of the hotel dining-room faded away. And in its place the divine music filled her soul, transforming her from a weak and doubting woman, who floated helplessly in her petty world of comforts, into some more active, striving creature,—a maker and moulder of life!


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