The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XVII

The Harts were to dine at the Elisha Stewarts' that evening, and the architect had considered this engagement of sufficient importance to bring him back to Chicago all the way from Indianapolis. Elisha Stewart had made his money many years ago, when he commanded a vessel on the lakes, by getting control of valuable ore properties. The Elisha Stewarts had lived in Shoreham for nearly a generation, and were much considered,—very good people, indeed. Their rambling, old-fashioned white house, with a square cupola projecting from the roof, was one of the village landmarks. The place was surrounded by a grove of firs set out by Elisha himself when he built the house.

It was a large dinner, and most of the guests, who were of the older set, were already assembled in the long drawing-room when Helen and Jackson arrived. The people in the room were all talking very earnestly about a common topic.

"It's the Crawfords," Mrs. Stewart murmured asthmatically into Helen's ear. "You know they find his affairs in such a frightful tangle. They say there won't be much left."

"Indeed!" Jackson exclaimed sympathetically.

"Anthony wasn't all right, not fit for business for more than a year before he died," Colonel Raymond was saying to the group. "And he snarled things up pretty well by what I hear."

"That slide in copper last March must have squeezed him."

"Squeezed? I should say it did."

"It wasn't only copper."

"No, no, it wasn't only copper," assented several men.

Among the women, the more personal application of the fact was openly made.

"Poor old Anthony! It must have troubled him to know there wasn't one of his family who could look out for himself. Morris was a pleasant fellow, but after he got out of Harvard he never seemed to do much. It will come hard on Linda."

"What has the youngest boy been up to lately?"

"The same thing, I guess."

"I heard he'd been doing better since he went on the ranch."

"He couldn't get into much trouble out there."

"Isn't there anything left?"

"Oh, the widow will have a little. But the in-laws will have to hunt jobs. One is out in California, isn't he?"

The company did not seem able to get away from the topic. Even after they went out to dinner, it echoed to and fro around the table.

"I say it's a shame, a crime!" Mr. Buchanan pronounced with confident earnestness. "A man with that sort of family has no right to engage in speculative enterprises without settling a proper sum on his family first. There's his eldest daughter married to an invalid, his youngest daughter engaged to be married to a parson, and neither of his sons showing any business ability."

"That's a fact, Oliver," Mr. Stewart nodded. "But you know Anthony always loved deep water."

"And now it's his family who have got to swim in it."

"He was a most generous man," Pemberton remarked in a milder tone. "I hardly know of a man who's done more first and last for this town, and no one ever had to ask twice for his help in any public enterprise."

"Seems to have looked after other people's affairs better'n his own. It's a pity now the boys weren't brought up to business."

"That isn't the way nowadays. He was always ready for a gamble, and she didn't want her sons in the business."

From time to time there were feeble efforts to move the talk out of the rut in which it had become fixed. But the minds of most of those about the table were fascinated by the spectacle of ruin so closely presented to them. The picture of a solid, worldly estate crumbling before their eyes stirred their deepest emotions. For the moment it crowded out that other great topic of the new strike in the building trades. Every one at the table held substantially the same views on both these matters, but the ruin of the Crawford fortune was more immediately dramatic than the evils of unionism.

"When are you fellows going to start that school, Pemberton?" some one asked at last.

"Not until these strikes let up, and there's no telling when that will be. If these labor unions only keep on long enough, they will succeed in killing every sort of enterprise."

"Yes, they're ruining business."

Then Pemberton, who was seated next to Helen, remarked to her:—

"You will be glad to know, Mrs. Hart, that the trustees have decided not to hand the work over to any institution, at least for the present."

"I am so glad of that," she replied.

"That's about as far as we have got."

Sensitively alive to her former blunder in expressing her wish that her husband might draw the plans for the school, she took this as a hint, and dropped the subject altogether, although she had a dozen questions on the tip of her tongue.

She noticed that Jackson, who was seated between Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. Phillips, was drinking a good deal of champagne. She thought that he was finding the dinner as intolerably dull as she found it, for he rarely drank champagne. When the women gathered in the drawing-room for coffee, the topic of the Crawfords' disaster had reached the anecdotal stage.

"Poor Linda! Do you remember how she hated Chicago? She's been living at Cannes this season, hasn't she? I suppose she'll come straight home now. Does she own that place in the Berkshires?"

"No, everything was in his name."

"He was one of the kind who would keep everything in his own hands."

"Even that ranch doesn't belong to Ted, I hear."

"My, what a tragedy it is!"

There seemed to be no end to the talk about the lost money. Helen sat limply in her chair. The leaden dulness of the dinner-talk, the dead propriety and conventionality of the service, the dishes, the guests, had never before so whelmed her spirit as they did to-night. These good people were stung into unusual animation because a man had died leaving his family not poor, but within sight of poverty. For poverty is the deadliest spectre to haunt the merchant class at their lying down and at their uprising.

When the men came in, murmuring among themselves fragments of the same topic, Helen felt as though she might shriek out or laugh hysterically, and as soon as she could she clutched her husband, just as he was sitting down beside Mrs. Pemberton.

"Take me away, Francis. It's awful," she whispered.

"What's the matter?" he asked in quick concern. "Don't you feel well?"

"Yes, yes, I am all right. No, I am tired. My head aches. Can't we leave? I shall do something silly—come!"

As they got into their carriage, he demanded, "What was the matter?"

"Nothing,—just the awful dulness of it,—such people,—such talk, talk, talk about poor Mr. Crawford's money!"

"I thought the crowd was all right," he grumbled. "The best out here—what was the matter? Your nerves must be wrong."

"Yes, my nerves are wrong," she assented.

Then they were silent, and from the heat, fatigue, and champagne he relapsed into a doze on the way home. But when they reached the house he woke up briskly enough and began to talk of the dinner again:—

"Nell, Mrs. Phillips was speaking to me to-night about Venetia. She's worried to death over the girl. The men say pretty rough things about her, you know. Little fool! She'd better marry Lane if he wants her still, and keep quiet."

"Like mother, like daughter," Helen replied dryly. "And of the two I prefer the daughter."

"What makes you say that? Louise is all right; just likes to have her hand squeezed now and then."

"Phew!" Helen exclaimed impatiently.

There was something so short and hard in his wife's voice that Jackson looked at her in surprise. They went to their dressing-room; now that he had got his eyes open once more he made no haste to go to bed. There was something he wanted to say to his wife which needed delicate phrasing. He lit a cigarette and leaned back against the open window, through which the night air was drawing gently. After a little time he remarked:—

"The judge was talking some about the school. They are getting ready to build as soon as the strikes are settled. Has Everett said anything to you about it?"

"Not lately. I haven't seen him since we were at the Buchanans'. Why?"

"Why! I am counting on Everett, and the last time I saw him he seemed to me to be side-stepping. I've seen Pemberton once or twice, but he always avoids the subject. I asked him point-blank to-night what their plans were, and he said the papers had everything that had been settled. He's a stiff one! I saw you were talking to him. Did he say anything about the school?"

Helen, who had been moving about the room here and there, preparing to undress, suddenly stood quite still. The memory of her remark to Pemberton that morning on the train swept over her again, coloring her cheeks. She answered the question after a moment of hesitation:—

"Yes, he spoke about their not giving the money to the university, but that was all. And I didn't like to ask questions."

"Oh!" Jackson murmured in a disappointed tone. "You might have drawn him out. He's likely to have a good deal to say about what is done. The judge is down on me, never liked me since I built for Louise—thinks I stuck her, I suppose. Wasn't his money, though. Hollister is on the fence; he'll do what Everett tells him. It rests with Pemberton, mostly."

Helen turned toward where he was standing and asked swiftly, "Why do you want them to give it to you so much?"

"Why?" The architect opened his mouth in astonishment. "Don't you know the size of the thing? They're going to spend a million or more on the school, put up one large building or several smaller ones. It's a chance that doesn't come every week to do a great public building."

She had begun to unhook her dress, and her nervous fingers tangled the lace about the hooks. Jackson, seeing her predicament, put down his cigarette and stepped forward to help her. But she swerved away from him unconsciously, tugging at the lace until it broke loose from the hook.

"Francis!" she exclaimed, with a kind of solemnity. "You would not do it for money, just like any ordinary building?"

"And why not?" he asked, puzzled. "Am I drawing plans for fun these days? I'll tell you what, Nell, I need the money, and I need it badly. Something must turn up, and right away. Since the strikes began there hasn't been much new business coming into the office, of course, and it costs us a lot to live as we do. That's plain enough."

"We can live differently. I've often thought it would be better if we did, too."

"But I don't want to live differently. That's nonsense!"

They were silent for a little while before their unfinished thoughts. He broke the silence first:—

"Perhaps I ought to tell you that I've been caught in an—investment, some stocks I bought. A friend of mine advised me, a broker who is in with Rainbow. But the thing went wrong. I don't believe those fellows know as much as the man outside. Well, instead of making a good thing by it, I must find ten or twelve thousand dollars, and find it mighty quick. Now if I get this commission, I can borrow the money all right. I know who will let me have it. And then by the end of the year it will straighten out. And the next time I go to buy stocks, well—"

"But that building—the school?" Helen interrupted. She pulled a thin dressing-sack over her shoulders and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking breathlessly into his face. What he had said about his losses in the stock market had made no impression on her. "That work is uncle Powers's gift, his legacy to the people. You can't do it just to make money out of it!"

"Why not?" he demanded shortly, and then added, with a dry little laugh: "I should say that building rather than any other. I'd like to pick up a few crumbs from the old man's cake. It's only common justice, seeing he did me out of all the rest."

She stared at him with bewildered eyes. Perhaps she was not a very quick woman, if after five years of daily contact with her husband she did not know his nature. But the conceptions she had cherished of him were too deep to be effaced at once. She could not even yet understand what he meant.

"'Did you out of all the rest'?" she queried in a low voice.

"Yes!" he exclaimed hardily. "And I think the trustees should take it into consideration that I didn't contest the will when I had the best kind of case and could have given them no end of trouble. I was a fool to knuckle under so quickly. I might at least have had an agreement with them about this matter."

"So," she said, "you want to build the school to make up what you think uncle should have given you?"

"You needn't put it just like that. But I need every cent I can make. The bigger the building, the better for me. And I can do it as well for them as anybody. They're probably thinking of having a competition, and asking in a lot of fellows from New York and Boston. They ought to keep it in this city, anyway, and then the only man I'd hate to run up against would be Wright. He's got some mighty clever new men in his office."

He talked on as he stripped off his coat and waistcoat and hung them neatly on the clothes-tree, permitting her to see all the consideration he had given to his chances for securing this big commission. Evidently he had been turning it over and over in his mind, and he was desperately nervous lest he might lose what he had counted on having all along ever since his marriage. He refrained from telling his wife that he felt she had seconded him feebly in this matter; for she knew the judge, and Pemberton, and Everett, too, a great deal better than he did. They had always paid her rather marked attention.

Helen said nothing. There was nothing in her surprised and grieved heart to be said. For the first time she saw clearly what manner of man her husband was. She knew how he felt about his uncle. He was vindictive about him, and seemed to welcome this job as a chance to get even with the old man for slighting him in his will. For some reason unknown to her he had not tried at the time of his death to break his will and show his ingratitude, and now he regretted that he had displayed so much forbearance.

This sudden sight of the nakedness of the man she loved dulled her heart so that she could not view the thing simply. It was impossible for her to see that there was nothing very dreadful in her husband's attitude, nothing more than a little ordinary human selfishness, sharpened by that admirable system of civilized self-interest which our philosophers and statesmen so delight to praise. She had been dreaming that her husband might have the honor to design this great building as a testimonial, a monument of gratitude, to the man who had succored his youth, who had given him his education! Her sentiment turned rancid in her heart.

"Now if Everett or the judge should say anything to you, give you a chance, you know what it means to me," Jackson remarked finally, as he put his boots outside the door for the man to get in the morning. He had meant to say more than this, to point out to her in detail the service she could do them both. Something in her manner, however, restrained him, and he contented himself with this final hint.

But Helen had stepped back into the dressing-room and did not hear him. When she returned her husband was already in bed, and his eyelids were closed in sleep. She placed herself beside him and turned out the light.

She lay there a long, long time, her open eyes staring upward into the darkness, her arms stretched straight beside her, as she used to lie when she was a little child, and her nurse had told her to be good and not to stir. Something strange had happened that day, something impalpable, unnamable, yet true, and of enormous importance to the woman. The man who lay there beside her, her husband, the indivisible part of her, had been suddenly cut from her soul, and was once more his own flesh—some alien piece of clay, and ever so to be.

She did not cry or moan. She was too much stunned. All the little petty manifestations of character, unobserved through those five years of marriage, were suddenly numbered and revealed to her. It was not a question of blame. They declared themselves to her as finalities, just as if she had suddenly discovered that her husband had four toes instead of five. He was of his kind, and she was of her kind. Being what she was, she could no longer worship him, being what he was. And her nature craved the privilege of worship. That thin, colorless protestantism of her fathers had faded into a nameless moralism. She had no Christ before whom she could pour her adoration and love. Instead, she had taken to herself a man; and now the clay of his being was crumbling in her hands....

Outside the room the lake began to clamor on the sands beneath the bluff. It called her by its insistent moan. She rose from the bed and stepped out upon the little balcony that looked eastward from their room. The warm night was filled with a damp mist that swathed the tree trunks to their branches and covered the slow-moving waves of the lake. Through this earth fog there was moving a current from some distant point, touching the sleeping town.

All the unquiet feelings that latterly had been rising in her soul—Venetia's bold challenge, Hussey's harsh words, her own dissatisfaction with the empty life of getting and spending—now hardened into judgment. The poor bookbinder was right: it was useless, perhaps, to mix the two orders of life,—those that labor for mere living and those that labor for luxury. But here in the superb indifference of nature she knew herself to be kin with him, the man of the people, the common man, whose lot it was to labor for his scanty bread. Surely a new order of the world was to be born, wherein the glory of life should not be for the ferocious self-seekers, wherein all that was fine in man should not be tainted with greed!

She held her arms out to the mist, vaguely, blindly, demanding some compensation for living, some justification that she knew not of. And there in the vigil of the misty night the woman was born. From a soft, yielding, dreaming, feminine thing, there was born a new soul—definite, hard, and precise in its judgment of men and life....

In the house behind her slept her husband and her two boys,—her children and his. But only in the words of the sentimentalists are children a sufficient joy to woman's heart. Loving as she was by nature, nevertheless she asked more of God than her two boys, whose little lives no longer clung to hers by the bonds of extreme infancy. They were growing to become men; they, too, like her husband, would descend into the market for the game which all men play. The fear of it gripped her heart.

And at last she wept, miserably, for the forlorn wreck of her worship, longing for the glorious man she had once adored.

The next morning she said to her husband:—

"Francis, I want to go back to the city this winter."

"Well—there's time to think of it—you may change your mind by the fall."

She said no more, but the first step in her new life had been taken.


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