The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XIX

About six miles from the centre of the city on the South Side, not far from the lake, might be seen the foundations and first two stories of a considerable building that had been abandoned for several years. It was to have been a hotel, but its promoters, who were small capitalists from a distant city, had been caught in the real estate disasters of '93. Litigation ensuing among themselves, nothing had ever been done with the property. The unfinished walls, standing at the corner of one of the boulevards and overlooking a large park, were a landmark in the neighborhood. A thick growth of weeds partially covered the loose piles of brick and stone that littered the ground and filled the hollow shell. Desolate, speedily disintegrating, the ruin stood there, four windowless walls, a figure of unsubstantial and abortive enterprise.

Hart had often passed the ruin when his business called him to that part of the city. One day this summer, as he was driving through the park with Graves on his way to inspect the last string of cheap stone houses that the contractor had built, Graves called his attention to the place.

"That pile must be pretty well covered with tax liens," the contractor observed, as they turned into the boulevard and approached the ruin. "It's a sightly piece of property, too, and the right spot for a family hotel."

"Who are the owners?" Hart asked.

"A lot of little fellers out in Omaha; they got to fightin' among themselves. It might be had cheap. Let's go over and take a look at the place."

He hitched his horse to a tree in front of the ruin, and the two men pushed their way through the weeds and rubbish into the cellar.

"Pretty solid foundations," the contractor observed, picking at a piece of mortar with the blade of his clasp knife. "There's most enough stone lying around here to trim the whole building. What do you think of the walls? Has the frost eat into 'em much?"

They scrambled in and out among the piers and first story walls, testing the mortar, scraping away the weeds here and there to get a closer view of the joints. The upper courses of the brick had been left exposed to the weather and were obviously crumbling. The architect thought that the outer walls might have to be rebuilt almost from the foundations. But the contractor observed that it would be sufficient to rip off half a dozen courses of the masonry, as the walls were needlessly thick.

"Those fellers thought they were going to build a jim-dandy Waldorf, judging from the amount of stone they were putting in," the contractor remarked, as they climbed into the buggy and resumed their way to the city. "I guess it wouldn't be much of a risk to buy up the tax rights. The land and material would be worth it."

"I should say so," the architect assented, seeing how the matter was shaping itself in his companion's mind.

"Those foundations would take a pretty big building, eight or ten stories."


They talked it over on their way back to the city. The contractor had already formed a plan for utilizing the property. He had in mind the organization of a construction company, which would pay him for building the hotel with its bonds, and give him a large bonus of stock besides. The architect was familiar with that method of finance. The hotel when finished would be rented to another company for operation, and by that time the contractor and his friends would have disposed of their stock and bonds.

"You must let me in on this," Jackson said boldly, as they neared the city. "I'm getting sick of doing your dinky instalment-plan suburban villas and getting nothing out of it. I want to make some money, and this scheme looks pretty good."

"There's no reason why you shouldn't make something, too," the contractor answered readily. "You might interest some of your rich friends in the company, and get a block of stock for yourself."

Hart had a pressing need of ready money rather than such dubious promoter's profits. Rainbow and Harris had not pushed him to pay the balance against him on their books, but their leniency would not extend beyond the first of the month. Then, if he could not get the money in some other way, he should have to go to his mother, or take the little legacy that his uncle had left Helen. That very day he had had it in his mind to ask the contractor to let him have twelve thousand dollars on his note, which would get him out of his immediate difficulties. He could pay it with the first return from the school commission, on which he was reckoning.

But when Graves described the hotel project, he resolved to wait a little longer, in the hope that somehow he might make more than enough to pay his debts. What he needed was some capital. It was to obtain this independent capital that he had ventured with the broker. Why had he not had the wit to see the chance that lay in that old ruin and use it on his own account? For the last five years many men that he knew had been making fortunes, while he was working hard for precarious wages. No matter what he might earn in his profession, he could never feel at ease, have enough for his ambitions. He saw that his fees from the practice of architecture would never satisfy him. He must have capital,—money that would breed money independently of his exertions. Latterly his mind had turned much about this one desire.

"You'll want me to draw the plans for the hotel, I suppose?" he asked the contractor.

"Yes, you might get up some sketches for a ten-story building right away—something to show the men I want to interest in the scheme," Graves answered promptly. "When you have 'em ready, come around and we'll see if we can't fix up some kind of deal."

It was evident that the contractor had gone much farther in the hotel matter than he had told Hart. Probably he had already taken measures to get control of the abandoned property and had his corporation organized.

At this point Jackson learned from Everett that the trustees were ready to ask him for preliminary sketches for the school, and almost at the same time he received a polite note from the brokers calling his attention to his debt. He went at once to Graves's office and asked the contractor for the loan, saying that he was to have the school and should be put to extraordinary expenses in his office for the next few months. The contractor let him have the money readily enough on his personal note. Graves did not speak of the hotel, and for the moment the school had driven all else from the architect's mind. He was kept busy these days by consultations with the trustees and the director of the school, getting their ideas about the building. One morning the newspapers had an item, saying that "F. J. Hart, the prominent young architect, nephew of the late Powers Jackson, had received the commission for building the new Jackson Institute, and was engaged in drawing plans for a magnificent structure, which in luxury and completeness would outrank any similar institution in the country." Before noon that same day Hart received a curt message from Judge Phillips to call at his office, and foreseeing trouble with the trustees about the newspaper paragraph, he went scowling into the draughting-room.

"Some of you boys must have been talking loose about what's going on in this office," he said accusingly.

"The Tribune man had the story straight enough when he came in here," Cook replied in defence. "He must have got it from some one who knew what he was talking about."

Hart went over to the judge's office and tried to explain matters to the old gentleman, who, besides having a great dislike of "newspaper talk," felt that the trustees were being deliberately coerced into giving their commission to this pushing young man. The architect was forced to swallow some peppery remarks about indelicate methods of securing business. When he left the judge, who was only half convinced of his sincerity, he went to see Graves, and vented his irritation on the contractor.

"You let things leak out of your office. You got me into hot water by giving out that story about the school."

"How so? It's straight, ain't it? You've got the building? You said so the other day when you came in here to borrow that money."

"It amounts to the same thing, though it hasn't been formally settled. They are touchy enough about their old job. They've asked me to prepare the first sketches—that's all so far."

"Oh! That's all, is it?" the contractor remarked coldly. "I thought you had the job in your inside pocket from the way you talked the other day."

Hart's face reddened and he stammered:—

"It's all right. They are sure to take me, only they are a little slow, and I don't want to seem to force them."

Graves continued to examine the man before him with his shrewd little eyes, and Hart realized that the contractor had given the news to the papers for the precise purpose of finding out where the trustees stood.

"Well, when you get ready to build the school I expect we shall be doing a good deal of business together," Graves remarked tentatively.

The architect moved back in his chair, more comfortable at the change in the conversation.

"I shall want you to bid, of course. But I don't know yet whether the trustees mean to let the contract as a whole."

"They'll do pretty much what you say, won't they? Ain't one of them your cousin?"


"Well, I want that contract. Can't you fix it so's I can get it?"

Hart knew altogether too well what the contractor meant by this blunt request. An architect has it in his power to draw his specifications in such a manner that only a few favored contractors will dare to bid. If outsiders venture to bid for the work, they cannot with safety go low enough to get the contract. In the case of a large building this is a more difficult manoeuvre to manage than with less important work. Yet even with a building of the importance of the projected school, contractors would be chary of bidding against a man who was as closely identified with the architect as Graves was with Hart.

"They say now," Hart protested, "that nobody else gets a show in my office."

"I don't believe you see what there might be in this for you, Mr. Hart," the contractor persisted, without replying directly to the architect's objection.

A stenographer interrupted them at this point, and the architect had a few moments to think while Graves was engaged. He knew better than any one else the devious methods of the contractor, and it had already occurred to him that this would be a good opportunity to sever his close connection with the Graves Construction Company. He would, of course, allow Graves to bid on the school contracts, but would show him no favors. Yet the contractor's last words made him reflect. There was the hotel with its unknown possibilities of large returns. Moreover, the Graves Construction Company was no longer the weak enterprise that it had been five years before. Graves had made a great deal of money these last prosperous years, and his "corporation" was one of the largest of its kind in the city. It would be stupid to break with the man altogether.

"Come, this ain't quiet enough here. Let's step over to Burke's and talk it out," the contractor suggested, looking up from the papers the stenographer had brought in.

So the two men went across the street to Burke's, which was a quiet sort of drinking-place, frequented by the better class of sporting men. In the rear there were a number of little rooms, where whispered conversations intended for but two pairs of ears were often held. When the negro attendant had wiped the mahogany table and brought them their whiskey, Graves began:—

"Mr. Hart, I'm going to give you the chance of your life to make a lump of money, sure and quick, and no gold-brick proposition, either."

Graves poured himself a drink, and meditatively twirled the small glass between his fat fingers before he explained himself.

"You do the right thing by me in this school job, and I'll see that you are properly fixed on the hotel scheme."

The details of the plan came cautiously and slowly from the contractor, while Hart listened in a non-committal frame of mind. The thing proposed was really very simple. The architect was to draw the school specifications so that only a few firms would bid, and of these only one or two would be genuine competitors. The contractor would see to it that there were enough bidders at approximately his own figure to prevent suspicion on the part of the trustees. In return for this favor, Graves offered a large block of stock in the hotel company, "for doing the plans of the hotel," which he was ready to guarantee would be worth a certain sum.

Of course there was an unspecified item in the transaction, which was perfectly obvious to the architect. If the contractor was ready to make these terms in order to obtain the school, there must be enough in the job above the legitimate profit on the contract to make it well worth his while. The architect saw, less sharply, that this extra profit would be made, more or less, with his professional connivance. It would be impossible to get the trustees to accept bids so high that the contractor could reap his profit and still do the work up to the specifications. It would be necessary to specify needlessly elaborate steel work, cut stone, and interior finish, with the understanding that the Graves Company would not be forced to live up to these gilt-edged specifications. It might be necessary, even, to prepare two sets of specifications for the more important parts of the contract,—one for the bidding, and one for the use of the subcontractors,—although that would be dangerous.

Hart smoked and listened, while Graves, having outlined his plan, spoke of the profit to the architect.

"If you want, I'll agree to take the hotel stock off your hands at par from time to time as the two buildings go up. You can figure out now what you'll make. It will not be far from seventy thousand dollars, what with your commissions and the stock. And I'll guarantee, Hart, that you'll have no trouble. That drunken Dutchman can work over any details that have to be fixed—my own expense. Nothing need go through your office that ain't first-class and regular."

The plan seemed perfectly simple, and the architect's imagination fastened on the big bait which the contractor held out. Graves repeated slowly in his thick tones:—

"A year, or say eighteen months, from now, you'll have about seventy-five thousand dollars in the bank."

That would be capital! The lack of capital had tripped him at every turn. With that amount of money, he could plant his feet firmly on the earth and prepare to spring still higher.

"Of course," Graves continued, "you'd stand by me—help me out with the trustees if there was any kick."

In other words, for the term of a year or eighteen months he would be this contractor's creature. But the architect was thinking of something else....

The line between what is honest and dishonest in business is a difficult one to plot. From generation to generation standards alter in the business world as elsewhere, and to-day men will do unblushingly, and with the approval of their fellows, that which in another generation will, doubtless, become a penitentiary offence. Business is warfare, and whatever men may say on Sundays, the hardy man of business will condone a thrifty sin of competition sooner than any other sin. Every one of the fighters in the battle knows how hard it is to make a dollar honestly or dishonestly, and he prefers to call certain acts "indelicate" or "unprofessional," rather than dishonest.

Of such "unprofessional" conduct Hart had been guilty a number of times, and the matter had not troubled him greatly. But this arrangement, which the contractor was urging, was of more positive stripe. Although it was not clear how close a connivance with fraud would be necessary, it might involve outright rascality, which, if it became known in the community, would ruin his professional standing for life. He would be taking a great risk to grasp that promised lump of money. While Graves talked in his thick, guttural tones, Hart was weighing this risk. The whiskey that he had been drinking had not obscured his vision in the least, although it shed a rosier glow over the desired capital. It must be admitted that the architect gave little consideration to the trustees or to his uncle's bequest. It would have pleased him, if he had thought much about it, to make a good round hole in his uncle's millions, of which the old man had deprived him. And as for the trustees, they were shrewd men of the world, quite able to take care of themselves.

But, instinctively, he recoiled from the act. He would much prefer a clean, honorable, "high-class" career. If he could have secured money enough to satisfy his ambitions, to lead the kind of life he liked, without resort to such knavery as this, it would have been much pleasanter. But in one way or another he must make money, and make it more rapidly and more abundantly than he had been doing. That was success. When he had come to this point, he had already consented with himself....

They had been sitting there nearly two hours, but latterly little had been said. The contractor was patient and diplomatic. Finally he asked, "Well, Hart, what do you say?"

Hart lighted another cigar before speaking, and then replied deliberately: "I will think over what you say. I understand that the stock is given me instead of my regular commission on the hotel, and will be worth a fixed sum?"

"That's it!"

Then they went out into the street without further words. Hart returned to his office, examined his mail, wrapped up his first sketches for the school, and set out for the train. The deal with Graves unconsciously filled his mind and made him feel strange to himself. Yet he thought less of the practical detail of the transaction than of certain specious considerations concerning the morality of what he was going to do.

Business was war, he said to himself again and again, and in this war only the little fellows had to be strictly honest. The big ones, those that governed the world, stole, lied, cheated their fellows openly in the market. The Bushfields took their rake-off; the Rainbows were the financial pimps, who fattened on the vices of the great industrial leaders. Colonel Raymond might discharge a man on his road who stole fifty cents or was seen to enter a bucket shop, but in the reorganization of the Michigan Northern ten years previously, he and his friends had pocketed several millions of dollars, and had won the lawsuits brought against them by the defrauded stockholders.

It was a world of graft, the architect judged cynically. Old Powers Jackson, it was said in Chicago, would cheat the glass eye out of his best friend in a deal. He, too, would follow in the path of the strong, and take what was within his reach. He would climb hardily to the top, and then who cared? That gospel of strenuous effort, which our statesmen and orators are so fond of shouting forth, has its followers in the little Jackson Harts. Only, in putting forth their strong right arms, they often thrust them into their neighbors' pockets. And the irresponsible great ones, who have emerged beyond the reign of law, have their disciples in all the strata of society,—down, down to the boy who plays the races with the cash in his employer's till.

The architect went home to his wife and children with the honest love that he bore them. If they had entered his mind in connection with this day's experience, he would have believed that largely for their sakes, for their advancement in the social scheme of things, he had engaged upon a toilsome and disagreeable task. For he did not like slippery ways.


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