The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XV

Jackson had lately bought a couple of hunters, and Sundays, when it was good weather, Helen and he often went over to the club stables to see the horses and the hounds. It was a pleasant spot of a fine summer morning. The close-cropped turf rolled gently westward from the brow of the hill on which the club-house stood to a large horizon of fields, where a few isolated trees, branching loftily, rose against a clear sky. The stables were hidden in a little hollow some distance from the house, and beyond them was a paddock where a yelping pack of hounds was kennelled. Close at hand some captive foxes crouched in their pen, listening sharp-eyed and fearful to the noisy chorus of their enemies.

No sports of any kind were allowed on Sundays, for the community was severely orthodox in regard to the observance of Sunday, as in other merely moral matters. But when the weather was good there were usually to be found about the stables a number of young men and women, preparing for tête-à-tête rides over the country roads or practising jumps at the stone wall beside the paddock. Later in the morning they would stroll back to the club veranda for a cool drink, and gossip until the church-going members returned from service, and it was time to dress for luncheon.

Of the younger set Venetia Phillips was most often to be found down by the stone wall on a Sunday morning. She had come home from Europe this last time handsome, tall, and fearless, thirsty for excitement of all sorts, and had made much talk in the soberer circles of suburban society. She was a great lover of dogs and horses, and went about followed by a troop of lolloping dogs—an immense bull presented by an English admirer, and a wolf hound specially imported, being the leaders of the pack. She was one of the young women who still played golf now that it was no longer fashionable, and on hot days she might be seen on the links, her brown arms bare to the shoulders, and her blue black hair hanging down her back in a flood. She rode to all the hunts, not excepting the early morning meets late in the season. It was said, also, that she drank too much champagne at the hunt dinners, and occasionally allowed a degree of familiarity to her admirers that shocked public opinion in a respectable and censorious society which had found it hard to tolerate the mother.

Indeed, Mrs. Phillips could do nothing with her; she even confided her troubles to Helen. "My dear, the girl has had every chance over there abroad;—we had the very best introductions. She spoiled it all by her idiocy. Stanwood is making a fool of himself with a woman, too. Enjoy your children now, while you can spank them when they are naughty."

And Helen, although she had scant sympathy with the domestic tribulations of the rich, was puzzled by the girl. The friendship between them, which had begun so prosperously over Pete's sick-bed, had largely faded away. The winter after their visits to Dr. Coburn's laboratory Venetia had spent in a famous Eastern school, where Western girls of her class were sent to acquire that finish of manner which is still supposed to be the peculiar property of the older communities. On her return she was no longer the impulsive girl that stared wide-eyed at the eccentric doctor's opinions; there were reticencies in her which the married woman could not overcome. Since then their paths had crossed more rarely, and when they met there was a certain teasing bravado in Venetia's attitude which prevented intimacy.

Mrs. Buchanan's pungent gossip about the girl, and the widow's bitter complaint of her daughter, rose to Helen's mind one Sunday as they stood together at the stone wall by the club stables, watching Lane, who was trying a new hunter. Lane's temper was notoriously bad; the Kentucky horse was raw and nervous; he refused the jump, almost throwing his rider. Lane, too conscious of the spectators, his vanity touched, beat the horse savagely on the head.

"Low!" Venetia grumbled audibly, turning her back on the scene. "Come!" she said to Helen, seizing her arm. "Haven't you had enough of brutes for one morning? Come up to the club and have a talk. That's the man madam my mother would like to have me marry! Do you suppose he'd use the whip on his wife?"

"He has his good side, even if his temper is short," Helen objected, as they strolled across the links toward the club-house. "You might do worse, Venetia."

"Quite the picture of a young girl's fancy! Forty-eight, and he's asked every eligible girl in the city to marry him, and they have all shied. So do I, though I wasn't in the running over there in London—in spite of all the fuss the Chicago papers made about me, I wasn't—you know Mrs. Phillips runs a regular press bureau! But I am not quite down to him yet."

They had the club veranda to themselves at that mid-morning hour. Venetia flung herself into a chair and flicked the tips of her boots with her whip. The small Francis, who had followed his mother, tumbled on the grass with the terrier Pete. Now and then Pete, who was privileged on Sundays, would hobble to the veranda and look at his mistress.

"You wouldn't marry a man like that, now would you? Well? You want to say something disagreeable, don't you! You have had it on your conscience for weeks. I could see it in your eye the other afternoon when you were with Mrs. Freddie Stewart—that nice little cat. Come, spit it out, as the boys say."

"Yes, I have had something on my mind."

"You don't like me now that I have grown up?"

"I thought we should be so much better friends," Helen admitted frankly.

"I am not the nice little girl you used to know when the doctor entertained us and Pete with scientific conversation mixed with social philosophy—that's what troubles you?"

"Why—why are you so different?"

"You mean, why do I smoke? drink champagne? and let men kiss me?"

She laughed at the look of consternation on Helen's face.

"That's what you mean, isn't it? My sporting around generally, and drinking too much wine at that dinner last fall, and supplying these veranda tabbies with so much food for thought? Why can't I be the nice, sweet young woman you were before you were married? A comfort to Mrs. Phillips and an ornament to Forest Manor!"

"You needn't be all that, and yet strike a pleasanter note," the older woman laughed back.

"My dear gray mouse, I'm lots worse than that. Do you know where I was the other night when mamma was in such a temper because I hadn't come home, and telephoned all around to the neighbors?"

"At the Bascoms'?"

"Of course, all sweetly tucked up in bed. Not a bit of it! A lot of us had dinner and went to see a show—that was all on the square. But afterward Teddy Stearns and I did the Clark Street levee, at one in the morning, and quite by ourselves. We saw heaps and heaps—it was very informing—I could tell you such stories! And it went all right until Teddy, like a little fool, got into trouble at one of the places. Some one said something to me not quite refined, and Ted was just enough elated to be on his dignity. If we hadn't had an awful piece of luck, there would have been a little paragraph in the papers the next morning. Wouldn't that have made a noise?"

"You little fool!" groaned Helen.

"Oh! I don't know," Venetia continued imperturbably. "Let me tell you about it. Just as I had hold of Ted and was trying to calm him down, somebody hit him, and there was a general scrap. Ted isn't so much of a fool when he is all sober. Just then a man grabbed me, and I found myself on the street. It was— Well, no matter just now who it was. Then the man went back for Ted, and after a time he got him, rather the worse for his experience. We had to send him to a hotel, and then my rescuer saw me home to the Bascoms'. My, what a talking he put up to me on the way to the North Side!"

She waited to see what effect she had produced, but as Helen said nothing she continued with a laugh:—

"I suppose you are thinking I am a regular little red devil. But you don't know what girls do. I've seen a lot of girls all over. And most of 'em, if they travel in a certain class, do just as fool things as that. On the quiet, you understand, and most of them don't get into trouble, either. They marry all right in the end, and become quiet little mammas like you, dear. Sometimes, when they are silly, or weak, or have bad luck, there's trouble. Now, I am not talking loose, as Ted would say. I've known Baltimore girls, and New York girls, and Philadelphia girls, and Boston girls,—and the Boston ones are the worst ever!

"Why should the women be so different from the men, anyway? They are the same flesh and blood as their fathers and brothers, and other girls' fathers and brothers, too.... Don't make that face at me! I'm nice enough, too, at least a little nice. Didn't you ever sit here evenings, or over at the Eversley Club, and watch the nice little girls? But perhaps you couldn't tell what it means when they do things and say things. You ought to get a few points from me or some other girl who is next them. We could tell you what they've been up to ever since they left school, day by day."

The small Francis was rolling over and over on the green turf, rejoicing in the freedom of soiling his white suit. Beyond the polo field a couple on horseback were passing slowly along the curving road into the woods. The cicadas sang their piercing August song among the shrubs. It was a drowsy, decorous scene.

"It isn't all like that," the older woman protested, looking out on the pleasant landscape. "You can choose what you will have."

"Do you think I should do any better if I chose your kind, my dear?" Venetia asked quietly. "Or my mother's? Is Maida Rainbow's conversation an improvement on Ted's? It isn't any more grammatical. And Mrs. Ollie Buchanan's talk is worse than mine. Come now, dear lady, tell me the truth! After several winters by the suburban fireside do you still find your heart beating warmly when hubbie plods up the street at eve in his new auto? Do you advise me to marry Mr. Stephen Lane and transfer my activities to Breathett Lodge,—join the tabby chorus, just to keep the tabbies quiet? Is the married state of all these people you and I know out here to be so much desired?"

"Most of the men and women you know here in Chicago are not bad."

"Oh, no! They're good out here, most of 'em, and dull, damn dull. They're afraid to take off their gloves for fear it isn't the correct thing. A lot of 'em aren't used to good clothes, like that Mrs. Rainbow. As uncle says, 'Our best people are religious and moral.' But there's more going on than you dream of, gray mouse."

"You are too wise, Venetia."

"I'll tell you the reason why we sport. We're dull, and we are looking for some fun. The men get all the excitement they need scrambling for money. Girls want to be sports, too, and they can't do the money act. So they sport—otherwise. That's the why."

She rapped the floor with her whip, and laughed at Helen's perplexity.

"I want to be a real sport, and know what men are like, really, when they are off parade, as you nice women don't know 'em."

"Well, what are they like?"

"Some beasts, some cads, some good fellows," Venetia pronounced definitively. "Do you know why I let men kiss me sometimes? To see if they will, if that sort of thing is all they want of me. And most of 'em do want just that, married or single. When a man has the chance, why, he goes back to the ape mighty quick."

She nodded sagely when Helen laughed at her air of wisdom, and she continued undisturbed:—

"There are some of them now, coming up from the paddock. They have had their little Sunday stroll, and now they want a drink to make them feel cool and comfy, and some conversation with the ladies. We must trot out our prettiest smiles and smoothest talk while they sit tight and are amused."

"And so you think this is all, just these women and men you see here and in other places like this? And the millions and millions of others who are trying to live decent lives, who work and struggle?"

"I talk of those I know, dearie. What are the rest to me? Just dull, ordinary people you never meet except on the street or in the train. We are the top of it all.... I don't care for books and all that sort of thing, or for slumming and playing with the poor. If you knew them, too, I guess you'd find much the same little game going on down there."

"What a horrid world!"

"It is a bit empty," the girl yawned. "I suppose the only thing, after you have had your run, is to marry the decentest man you can find, who won't get drunk, or spend your money, or beat you, and have a lot of children. Yours are awfully nice! I'd like to have the kids without the husband—only that would make such a row!"

"That would please your mother, to have you married."

"Oh, mother! I suppose it would please her to have me marry Mr. Stephen Lane," Venetia answered coldly. "One doesn't talk about one's mother, or I'd like to tell you a thing or two on that head. She needn't worry over me. She's had her fun, and is taking what she can get now."

The group of men and women drew near the club-house. Jackson stopped to speak to a man who had just driven up. Venetia pointed to him derisively.

"There! See Jackie, your good man? He's buzzing old Pemberton, that crusty pillar of society, because he's got a little game to play with him. He's after old Pemby's vote for that school house. You mustn't look so haughty, dear wife. It's your business, too, to be nice to dear Mr. Pemberton. I shall leave you when he comes up, so that you can beguile him with your sweet ways. It's money in thy husband's purse, mouse, and hence in thy children's mouths. Now if we women could scramble for the dollars,—why, we shouldn't want other kinds of mischief. I'd like to be a big broker, like Rainbow, and handle deals, and make the other fellows pay, pay, pay!"

She swung the small Francis over her head and tumbled him in the grass, to the delight of Pete, who hobbled about his mistress, yelping with joy.

There was something hard and final in the girl's summary of her experience. And yet in spite of the obvious injustice of her accusations, Helen felt startled and ashamed before her railing. After all, was there such an infinite distance between the decent lives of herself, her husband, and their friends and the heedless career of this undisciplined girl? Were they governed by finer ends than hers? Vigorous, hot-blooded, and daring, Venetia would have battled among men as an equal, and got from the fight for existence health, and sanity, and joy. As it was, she was rich enough to be protected in the struggle for existence, and was tied down by the prejudices of her class. She was bottled passion!

The architect still held Pemberton in conversation on the drive, and Venetia presently returned to Helen, smiling slyly into her face.

"That doctor man was an amusing chap, wasn't he? I mean Dr. Coburn, the one who mended up Pete when I was a young miss, and outraged mamma by sending her a receipted bill for two hundred and fifty dollars. He asks about you still. Why did you drop him? I always thought that was a bit queer in you, you know. You liked him, but he wasn't your kind, and you dropped him."

"Where have you seen him?" Helen asked evasively.

"Oh, here and there. He writes me pretty often, too. Why not? He was the man who helped me out of that scrape with Teddy. Wouldn't Jackie let you have anything to do with him? Jack is an awful snob, you know."

"Francis didn't like him," Helen admitted a little sadly. "I am afraid I didn't make much of an effort either with him or with that poor Mr. Hussey. It's so hard to do some things, to know people you like when they're out of your path."

Venetia scrutinized the older woman's face and laughed.

"Just so! What did I tell you?"

"How is he?"

"Just as always,—poor, down at the heel and all over, an out-and-out crank."

"How do you meet him?" Helen asked pointedly.

"Sometimes at his hang-out, as he calls it. I've had supper there once or twice with Molly Bascom. You needn't be alarmed. We talk science, and he abuses doctors. He trundled off to Paris or Vienna with that queer machine of his, and got some encouragement over there. You should hear him talk about Europe! Now he's crazy over some new bugs he's found. He may not make good from Jack's point of view. But you see that doesn't prevent me from liking him. He has a great time thinking all by himself. He'd starve himself to death if he had to, to do what he's after. That's the real thing. I offered him money once to help him out."

"Venetia, not that!"

"Yes. I said, 'See here, my friend, I've more of this than I want,' which was a lie. But I was willing to sell a horse or two. 'Help yourself,' I said, 'and when I want it I'll ask you.' I put a cardcase I had with me on the table, stuffed of course. He took it up, took out what was in it, handed the money back, and dropped the case in a drawer. 'None of that,' he said. 'I don't take money from a woman.' I was glad afterward that he didn't take it, though I don't know why—he looked specially hard up. I suppose I might have done it a nicer way, but I thought he would understand and treat me like a little girl, as he always has.... Well, here comes Jack at last."

She gave the architect a hand, which he shook with mock impressiveness.

"How do, Jackie! I've been teaching your domestic angel a thing or two."

"I guess you can't corrupt her."

It was evident that she and Jackson understood each other very well.


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