The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XVI

Season shifted into season, and meanwhile an impalpable veil of difference was falling between the architect and his wife. The peaceful days of winter, early spring, and late autumn were precious to the woman—days when the silent processes of nature touched her senses softly, and she could live undisturbed by calls and dinners with their array of familiar faces. Then she heard the birds in the trees behind the house, and listened to the rustling of the tall poplars beneath her windows, and watched the vivid colors of the lake. This harmony of nature, this great enveloping organism of peace, she was beginning to feel, was all that life held for her,—nature and her children, whose wants she fulfilled. Yet ever in the background, not far away, there hung in the horizon that black cloud above the city, which could not wholly be shut out in any revery of country peace. For with it she and her children were linked by all the cords of modern life.

She had felt the sly reproach in Venetia's references to Dr. Coburn. The seedy doctor had drawn her strongly, and yet in the face of her husband's contemptuous indifference to him she had made but one or two feeble attempts to reach him. A few times, also, she had visited the bookbinder's sickly wife, and after the birth of little Francis had revived the class in bookbinding. Jackson had fitted up a studio for the class out of an old teahouse on the bluff, where during mild weather they received their friends in æsthetic informality. But the class had soon dwindled, the young married women of whom it was composed flitting to other pursuits, and the taciturn bookbinder taking offence at a fancied slight suddenly ceased his visits. Some weeks later when Helen called at the Husseys' rooms to see the wife, she found that they had moved away, and having written Dr. Coburn for their address without success, she had made no further attempt to find them.

Thus ended her efforts to reach that world which lay outside her own circle. More and more, as her married life went on, she had succumbed to the milieu that her husband had chosen. As his struggle for success grew hotter, she, too, in her way, had been absorbed into it, and had become the domestic and social satellite which he needed in his relations with rich clients. And so Venetia's careless defence of herself pricked her. Was there, after all, anything more admirable in the decent life that she and her husband led with its little circle of selfish activities than in the crude outbreaks of Venetia Phillips which had caused so much perturbation in Forest Park? They were not vicious to be sure,—the people she lived with; they were merely dull and negative.

One of these brooding days shortly after the talk on the club veranda, Helen set forth to a neighbor's with a bundle of books and some flowers for Mrs. Buchanan, who was giving a dinner that evening. She had reached the point in the winding road where a long bridge crossed a deep ravine on the level with the topmost branches of lofty trees. At the other end of the bridge a man was standing looking down into the green depths below. He was so much absorbed in the ravine that he did not hear the woman's steps as she drew near. When she passed behind him, he glanced up with a startled look in his black eyes, and grasping the bicycle by his side was moving off.

"Don't you remember me, Mr. Hussey?" Helen asked, holding out her hand. "How are you? I am so glad to see you again. Did you ride out all the way from the city? We don't see many bicycles these days."

She poured forth her little flood of amiable sentences, while the bookbinder stood quietly holding his wheel.

"Yes," he answered slowly, when she paused. "I rode out on my wheel. I wanted to see how the country looked."

He paused and then continued: "Yes, I've been out of the city considerable after my wife died. I went West, to Kansas City. But I came back. I'm used to this place. My woman died here, and the child, too."

"I tried to find you after the class broke up," Helen explained. "I wanted to get your wife to come out here and visit me."

"That was nice and kind of you," he answered dryly.

"I have an errand a little way from here. Won't you go with me and then come back to the house?" she persisted, piqued by his tone.

"Thank you, I don't believe I will. It's time I was starting back to the city."

"You had better rest awhile first."

"I ain't particularly tired. You are very good. What do you want me to come for?" he asked abruptly, and then continued to speak as if he were talking to himself: "You and I ain't the same kind of folks. We are placed different on this earth, and there's no getting away from the fact. It's best for us both to keep where we belong."

"Nonsense!" she retorted.

"As I have looked about among folks," he went on calmly, "I've seen that's the best way, in the long run—for the rich and the poor to keep to themselves. That's why you didn't see nothing of me after the ladies got tired of binding books. Not that I've got anything against those better fortuned than me. It's just the way things are made to run. So long as the present order lasts, man is divided from man—and that's all there is to it. The only use the poor man has for the rich man is to get work from him and some pay for it. The only use the rich man has for the poor man is to get his work done. And they'd better do their business apart, as far apart as they can."

"My husband isn't rich. We have to struggle, too."

Hussey smiled sceptically.

"I had all I could do when the woman was living to keep a decent room or two, and find enough to eat. There's some difference between us, ain't there? And I don't speak like you, and maybe I eat different at the table."

"That's all very important," Helen laughed.

"It's the little things that separate, not the big ones. You look around your own kind of folks and see if that's not so. It's just the silly scraps of ways that keep man from man."

"Well, it's too good a day to quarrel about that. At least, you and I can both enjoy those trees down there."

A victoria came toward them at a lively trot, making the wooden planking resound. The lady in the carriage leaned forward and bowed to Helen, and then cast a second, longer glance at her companion.

"She's wanting to know who that man is you're talking to," Hussey remarked ironically. "No, them trees and the country in general ain't the same to me and you. You folks squat right out here and buy up all the land you can lay your hands on, at least all that can be got at easily from the city. Perhaps, though, some day it will be different, and the beautiful parts of the country will be kept for all to have."

They began to cross the bridge, and Helen holding the man in talk wiled him as far as her own gate, with an unreasoning determination to make him come into her house.

"I suppose I ought to take that bundle there," Hussey observed as they walked, pointing to the parcel that Helen held in her hand.

"It's nothing."

"I notice that don't make any difference among your kind. Your men folks may let their women suffer in other ways, but they fetch and carry for you in public."

"Yes—that's so," Helen laughed.

"That bundle ain't nothing for you to carry. You wouldn't have started out with it if it had been. It's the same way about giving a woman a seat in a car. If she looks as if she needed it, why a humane man would give her his seat the same as he would to a tired man. But most times the man needs it more."

"You wouldn't have wanted your wife to stand?"

"Well, she weren't never real well, not after the child came."

He spoke more gently, and added without any polite delicacy, "There must have been something wrong happened then, for she got up weak, and couldn't bear children no more."

"You miss her!"

"Yes, sometimes, when work's plenty, and I feel strong, and there's something for her to live for. Most times I think it's just as well she's gone. And the child, too," he added softly. "You see it ain't as it is with you, with a working-man and his wife. They don't have so much love and notions, maybe. That don't stand long after the first weeks. The man's got to work and the woman, too. If she's a pretty-looking girl when he marries her, sweet and fresh, them looks don't last long. It's like anything you use all the time. There's no chance to lay it by and let it freshen up. Now you and my wife were about of an age, I judge. But she looked to be the mother of you, before she died. You are as pretty as you ever was or more so, and men would court you to-day if you were single. It wasn't so with my woman, and I did the best I could for her, too. Don't you suppose a working-man hates to see his wife grow old, through hard work and no chance to freshen up? He mayn't be as nice in his tastes as your sort, but he don't like to see his wife wear out."

Romantic love, so he seemed to hold, was one of the luxuries of the expensive classes. While he was talking they passed into the driveway and came to the house. Hussey finally got to the veranda, where he sat stiffly on the edge of a large steamer chair, holding his derby hat in his two hands. After a time he deposited the hat on the floor and gradually slipped into the comfortable depths of the chair and talked on more freely.

There was nothing new or wise in the bookbinder's talk. Yet certain things that he said, furtive, flame-like words of revolt which contained half truths, sank into Helen's receptive mind: "Man pays pretty high for his civilization, as he calls it, and what does he get for it? The police station and the fire department." "The Bible says that man must be born again. Yes—that's so! With a new kind of belly that knows when it's had enough." "The labor question always comes down to cutting the pie: because a man with one kind of a brain can think faster than his neighbor, ought he to get a bigger slice? Does he need it to make him think?"

There was a vein of character in the man himself, a passionate faith in a vision of society other than that which holds to-day. His talk was not vindictive, or greedy, or envious, but he assumed calmly that the present state of society was wasteful and unjust, and that already, here and there, men and women were beginning to wake from the individualistic nightmare and were ready to try an altogether new manner of living together.

"I get tired," he said in answer to a platitude that Helen made, "hearing what some folks are kind enough to do for society—how necessary they are to make it run. Don't you believe it, not for one second! If we could take account of stock in some way, and find out just what mere brains are good for and how much they do in gettin' food and clothes and shelter, I guess we'd put brains lower down. And what's more, if the only way you can get the best work out of smart men is to let them hog it, then human nature must be a pretty poor sort of outfit, and we'd better all starve. But the best workmen I've known didn't work because they had to: it was in 'em from the beginning of time to work better than the others."

The boys came home presently from a children's party at a neighbor's. They were dressed very prettily in white, with large collars of absurd shape and size. They wore neat little leather yachting caps with the names of men-of-war gaudily embossed in gold cord about the rims.

"They're healthy-looking chaps," Hussey observed as each one politely gave him a hand. "That's what rich folks can do for their children, if they've got good blood in 'em to start with. You can buy them the proper food and put them in cool, big rooms, and plant 'em out here in the country."

"Yes, I am on a committee of women that has charge of a country home," Helen answered idly.

"Charity?" He pronounced the word ironically. "Well, I must be starting. It will be dark before I get halfway to the city."

He rose and took a long look at the blue lake.

"This'll have to last me some time. It's been mighty pleasant sitting here on your piazza and jawing away about these big things, Mrs. Hart."

"You'd better come again, then."

"Well, maybe I'll be riding out this way sometime. But you remember what I said about mixing! You stick to your side of the fence, and I'll try to stick to mine."

"Suppose I'm not altogether content with my side?"

"I guess you'll have to grin and bear it. I don't reckon to spend much time pitying you. It looks to me rather pretty on your side."

As they were shaking hands, the chug of an automobile could be heard in the roadway.

"That must be my husband!" Helen exclaimed. "Won't you wait a minute and see him?"

The heavy, lumbering machine with its ugly fat wheels rolled up the driveway, and after a final heave and sigh came to a stand before the veranda. The driver leaped down and opened the little door in the rear for his master to descend. The architect was smoking a cigar and carried in his arms a heavy bag of papers and books.

"Hello, Nell!" he called cheerily, and then looked inquiringly at the man beside her.

"Francis, this is Mr. Hussey. You remember Mr. Hussey who gave us lessons in bookbinding?"

"How do you do?" The architect greeted Hussey with a pleasant nod. "Very glad to see you again."

He held out his free hand in the simple, cordial fashion that made him popular in his office and with the foremen on his buildings. He always made a point of being genial with working people. He got more out of them that way and often avoided friction. He usually carried about with him a handful of black and strong cigars, which he dealt out on the slightest occasion.

"Sit down again, won't you?" he remarked. "Have a cigar?"

He pulled out one of the proper variety from his inner pocket.

"I don't smoke," the bookbinder replied shortly.

He made no further remark, and the architect, also, found himself at the end of his cordiality. Helen realized that the two men had nothing whatsoever to talk about. Jackson could have discussed bindings in a dilettante fashion, meaning certain rich and costly specimens of the art that wealthy amateurs bought and locked up in cabinets, but he knew nothing about the ordinary trade.

"Mr. Hussey rode out from the city on a bicycle," Helen explained. "I met him on the bridge and induced him to come up here and rest for a little while."

"Yes, it's hot," Jackson answered. "Fearfully hot on the train from Indianapolis this morning. I haven't been cool all day until Fred let out the machine coming over from the station."

Hussey looked at the lumbering automobile sighing to itself below the veranda, and then at the chauffeur, who was waiting for orders.

"Good day," he said abruptly. "It's some longer to the city on a wheel than in one of them affairs."

Helen walked down the steps with her guest in a vague desire to be cordial. He mounted his wheel, and bending his little body over the frame, pedalled swiftly out of the driveway. Helen watched him for a moment, feeling that he would not call again, as she hoped he might. He had merely wandered their way this bright summer day like a chance stranger from some vast outer world,—a world that perpetually teased her spirit.

"What is he, Nell? Socialist or anarchist?" Jackson called out good-humoredly, when his wife returned to the veranda.

It was one of his jokes that his wife dabbled in socialism.

"I wish he would have stayed to dinner."

"But we're going out."

"Yes, I know. But he wouldn't have stayed anyway."

Her husband looked at her inquiringly, yet he was not sufficiently interested in Mr. Hussey to frame a question. He poured himself a glass of water, drank it, and when he set the glass down, the bookbinder had been washed into complete oblivion.

"Come! It must be time to dress," he said briskly.


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