The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XVIII

Everett Wheeler could hardly be reckoned as a man of sentiment. Yet in the matter of selecting an architect for the new school he stood out persistently against the wishes of Pemberton and Judge Phillips, with but one sentimental argument,—the Powers Jackson trustees must give the commission for building the great school to the nephew of the founder, without holding a competitive trial of any sort.

"It's only square," he insisted. "Jackson was disappointed about the will. He had some grounds for feeling badly used, too. He might have made us a good deal of trouble at the time, and he didn't."

"Powers would think it queer to pass him by," Hollister urged also, "seeing he gave the boy a first-class education to be an architect. And he's a hustling, progressive fellow from all I hear. I must say I admire the way he's settled into the collar since his uncle died. Why shouldn't we give him this boost?"

These remarks were made at one of the many informal meetings of the trustees, which were held almost daily now that the plans for the school were shaping themselves toward action. Pemberton, with whom the others happened to be taking their luncheon, glanced sharply at Wheeler. Although not given to suspecting his neighbors of indirect motives, Pemberton understood Wheeler well enough to know that when the lawyer fell back upon sentiment there must be another motive in the background. The close relationship between the men was not sufficient to account wholly for the cold lawyer's unexpected zeal in behalf of the young architect. Everett Wheeler was not one to be moved by family ties. Pemberton had not forgotten Mrs. Hart's sudden interest in this commission, which he had attributed to an unwise eagerness for her husband's profit. It occurred to him now that he had once heard in past years of Everett Wheeler's devotion to Nellie Spellman.

"I can't see that it follows that we should put this plum into his mouth," the judge remarked testily. "If Powers had wanted to give the chap any more money, he would have left it to him. You must excuse me, Everett, for speaking my mind about your cousin; but, frankly, I don't altogether like the fellow. He's too smooth, too easy with all the world."

"That's all right, judge. I'm not urging him because he's my cousin. But we know why you are down on him," Wheeler answered, with a smile. "He did let your sister-in-law in for a good deal."

"Well, it isn't just that. Of course he was beginning then, and wanted to make his first job as big as possible—that's natural enough. And I guess Louise— Well, it's her affair. She manages her own property, and I wouldn't let her spend any of the children's money. But I don't like Hart's methods. Raymond was telling me the other day how he worked him for that railroad job—through—through a woman. I suppose it's all right; the man must get business where he can. It's hard for youngsters to make a living these days. But to get a woman to pull off a thing like that for you! And Raymond told me they had to drop him, too—he didn't do the work economically, or something of the sort."

"I guess there's another story to that, perhaps," Wheeler answered patiently. "Jack wasn't willing to let Bushfield make all he wanted to off the contracts. I happen to know that. And I don't see why you should have it in for him because he got a lady to say a good word for him with Raymond. You know well enough that pretty nearly all the big commissions for public buildings in this city have gone by favor,—family or social or political pull. It's got to be so. You're bound to think that the man you know is bigger than the other fellow you don't know."

"That is not a good reason, Mr. Wheeler, why we should do the same thing in this case," Pemberton objected stiffly. "It would have been well for American architecture if it had happened less often. The proper way in the case of all public buildings is to hold an open competition."

"Well, we won't argue that question. But this is a special case. Here is a man who happens to be a nephew of the founder, who knows more of our plans than any other architect, naturally, and can give us pretty much all his attention. He'll push the work faster."

"We can wait," Pemberton still demurred. "There is no need for undue haste."

"No, no, John," Judge Phillips protested. "I am getting to be an old man. I want to see the school started and feel that my duty's done. We've thrashed this out long enough. Let us try Hart and be done with it."

Pemberton had been added to their number at the suggestion of the judge, because of his well-known public spirit and his interest in educational and philanthropic enterprises. He had undertaken his duties with his accustomed energy and conscientiousness, and at times wearied even the judge with his scruples. The others had rather hazy ideas as to the exact form, educationally, that the large fund in their charge should assume. Wheeler concerned himself mainly with the financial side of the trust. Hollister, who had got his education in a country school, and Judge Phillips, who was a graduate of a small college, merely insisted that the school should be "practical," with "no nonsense." After they had rejected the plan of handing over the bequest to a university, Pemberton had formed the idea of founding a technological school, modelled closely after certain famous Eastern institutions. This conception Helen had somewhat disturbed by her talk with him, in which she had vigorously presented the founder's democratic ideas on education. Her views had set him to thinking on the problem once more, and he had discussed the matter with the intimate friends of the founder, seeking to discover the old man's real purpose in his benefaction.

In his perplexity Pemberton had gone East to see the president of a university, of which he was one of the trustees, and there he had met a professor in the scientific department, one Dr. Everest, a clever organizer of educational enterprises. Dr. Everest did not find it difficult to convince the puzzled trustee that his dilemma was an imaginary one, that all warring ideals of education might be easily "harmonized" by a little judicious "adjustment." There should be some domestic science for the girls, manual training combined with technical and commercial courses for the boys, and all would be right, especially if the proper man were employed to mix these ingredients. In brief, the doctor came to Chicago at the invitation of the trustees, looked over the ground, and spoke at several public dinners on the "ideals of modern education." His eloquent denunciation of a "mediæval" education, his plea for a business education for a business people, and especially his alert air and urbane manners convinced the trustees that they had found a treasure. Dr. Everest was invited to become the head of the new school, which was to be called the JACKSON INDUSTRIAL INSTITUTE.

Hart attended one of the dinners where the new director spoke, and afterward engaged Dr. Everest in a long conversation about the new school. They found themselves agreed that it ought to be housed "monumentally," whatever happened. Later, Dr. Everest spoke warmly to Pemberton of the intelligent young architect, whom he understood might be asked to design the building. His views, he said, were "progressive" and "inspiring," and Jackson praised the director warmly to his wife; but Helen, who had read all his utterances in the papers, felt that the clever doctor, however much of an "educator" he might be, knew absolutely nothing about the one class in the community he had been engaged to work for. His ideas about education were strictly those of the merchant class, the only class in America that the "higher education" concerned itself with.

However all that might be, Dr. Everest's good word, more than Wheeler's persistency, prevailed against Pemberton's prejudices. The architect was in a fair way of winning the long-coveted prize.

When Everett Wheeler had finally obtained the consent of his associates to ask the architect to meet the trustees and the new director and discuss plans for the building, the lawyer was so pleased that he broke an engagement for dinner, and took the train to Forest Park instead. He might have telephoned the architect at his office, but, sluggish as he was temperamentally, he had long promised himself the pleasure of telling Helen personally the good news. Of late she had not seemed wholly happy, and he supposed that there were money troubles in the household which would now be relieved.

He found a number of people in the studio on the bluff, and sat down patiently to wait. It had been a warm day, and the men and women were lounging comfortably on the grass mats, gossiping and enjoying the cool air from the lake. Jackson was in high spirits, telling Irish stories, a social gift which he had recently cultivated. Wheeler found himself near Venetia Phillips, who was nursing a sprained elbow, the result of being pitched against a fence by a vicious horse.

"Why don't you go over there and try your charms on Helen?" she asked Wheeler peevishly. "She's been out of sorts all this summer. When you see the solemn way good married women take their happiness, it doesn't encourage you to try your luck and be good. I wonder if she and Jackie scrap? She looks as if she had a very dull life."

"Are you thinking of trying your chances?" the lawyer asked with a heavy attempt at the flippant tone. "You ought to have let me know."

"Do you mean that as an offer? Does it lead up to anything?"

"I'll put it in legal form, if you will give me the chance."

"Should I consent to be bored with one Everett Wheeler, a lawyer, specially successful in making bad corporations, something of a politician, not yet fifty, no known vices, easy with women? Is that the question?"

"You flatter me."

"Wait a moment. I want a good man—a blue-ribbon, high-geared saint; or something equally clever of the other kind. Are you good enough?"

"Well, I guess I could pass with the rest."

"That's the trouble. You are just about up to the average of the crowd. You wouldn't steal, and you wouldn't run away with any one's wife. You're too knowing; it wouldn't pay."

"You're right there!"

"And if I get into trouble any time, you're just the man I'd go to. You wouldn't make remarks of a moral nature, and you would know how to squeeze me through a little hole. But you wouldn't do to marry."

"Oh, I don't know—I'd be easy."

"Too tolerant—that's the trouble."

"You are a wise young woman."

"Yes, I'm very wise about men. I'm going to write a book about men I have known well. It will be read, too. Do you want to go in?"

"Well, let's drop me. What about Helen and Jack? What's the matter?"

"I can't make out exactly. Unsatisfied aspirations, or something of the sort. I should guess that our Jackson doesn't come up to specifications. She sighs for the larger world. Did you ever meet a chap who used to give lessons in binding paper books? That was some years ago, when earnest ladies were all trying to do something with their hands to revive the arts and crafts. His name was Hussey. He was a poor, thin little man, with a wife dying from consumption or something of the sort. I have always thought Helen wanted to run away with Mr. Hussey, but couldn't get up her courage. They used to talk socialism and anarchy and strikes until the air was red, so Maida told me. It was sport to see him and Jackson get together. Jack would offer him a cigar,—the bad kind he keeps for the men on his buildings. Hussey would turn him down, and then Helen would ask the bookbinder to luncheon or dinner, and that would give Jack a fit. But Hussey wouldn't stay. He had ideas about the masses not mixing with the classes until the millennium comes. Helen would argue with him, but it was no use. He thought nothing was on the square. Well, one day he got huffy about something Jack said, so Maida says, and went off and never turned up again at the class. Helen tried to find him; I don't think she ever got over it. And only the other day she ran across him again, Jack told me. I believe that Hussey was the man for her. She is another unsatisfied soul. I am going now, and you had better try to cheer her up."

It was beyond the lawyer's power, however, to penetrate Helen's mood. She seemed curiously removed from the scene. The banter and talk of the people on the veranda passed over her unheeded; while her eyes rested dreamily on the trees, among which the summer twilight was stealing. To rouse her attention, Wheeler brought forth his news.

"I came out here to tell you something, Nell," he said.

"What is it?" she asked indifferently.

"Jack is going to build the school. It has just been decided to-day."

She gave a little start, as though his words brought her back to the present, but she said nothing.

"The trustees have come around to it at last. You know Pemberton and the judge wanted a public competition, or something of the kind."

"Why don't they have a competition?" she asked quickly. And aroused suddenly, with nervous animation, as if she resented the suggestion of a special favor, she continued, "It would be much fairer to have an open competition!"

"Why should we? Isn't Jack the old man's nephew?"

She made no reply, and he said nothing more, dampened by the way she took his splendid news. In a little while the others left and they had dinner. Wheeler expected Helen would tell her husband of the decision, but she seemed to have forgotten it. So, finally, he was forced to repeat his announcement. He dropped it casually and coldly:—

"Well, Jack, we're getting that school business cleared up. Can you meet the trustees and the doctor at my office some day this week?"

Jackson bubbled over with glee.

"Hoorah!" he shouted. "Good for you, Everett! We must have up some champagne."

The lawyer, watching Helen's impassive face, felt inclined to moderate Jackson's enthusiasm.

"Of course, nothing's settled as to the commission. You'll be asked to prepare sketches after you have consulted with Dr. Everest. That's all."

That was enough for the architect. He thought that he could satisfy the director, and if he succeeded with him, the rest of the way was clear. When the champagne came, he pressed his thanks on his cousin.

"It's awfully good of you, Everett. I know all the trouble you have taken for me in this matter. You'll have to let me build that camp in the Adirondacks this fall. My heavens!" he went on, too excited to be cautious, "you don't know what a load it takes off my shoulders! I can feel myself free once more. It's a big thing, the first big thing that's come my way since I began. How much do the trustees mean to put into the building?"

"That depends," the lawyer answered cautiously. "It will be over half a million, anyway, I should suppose—maybe nearer a million."

"It's a great opportunity!" the architect exclaimed, conscious that the more elevated and ideal aspects of the subject were slipping out of sight. "It doesn't come every day, the chance to build a monument like the school."

"You're quite right," Wheeler assented.

In his excitement, Hart left his seat and began to pace the floor, his hands twisting his napkin nervously. Meanwhile Helen was watching the bubbles break in her champagne glass. Her face had remained utterly blank, although she seemed to be listening to her husband. Perhaps, thought the lawyer, she did not realize what this news meant. So he remarked deliberately:—

"It's a big commission, fast enough, if you get it, and there's no reason why you shouldn't have it. I don't know of another young fellow in your line in this city who's had the same chance to make his reputation at one stroke."

Even this did not rouse the wife to speech. A flush stole over her face at the lawyer's words; but her eyes remained buried in the champagne glass, which she twirled gently between her fingers, thus keeping up the effervescence. Jackson was jubilant enough for two.

"Dr. Everest and I were talking about the site the other day," he said. "You have only two blocks. There should be four, at least. You must give dignity to the main building by some kind of approach. The thing should be done in stone, if possible. But if that's too costly, we might try a glazed tile; you can get very good effects in that. But stone, of course, is the proper thing."

"You may find the judge and Pemberton pretty stubborn on matters of detail," Wheeler remarked cautiously.

But the architect flirted his napkin buoyantly. He had dealt with building committees before, and he had found that trustees usually took their duties lightly.

"Well, what do you think of it, Nell?" the lawyer asked finally.

"Oh! I?" She looked up blankly from the glass of wine. "It is a great chance, of course."

This joyless attitude, unremarked by her husband, caused Wheeler to suspect that there were deeper troubles in this household than money worries.

After a little more talk in which Helen did not take part the lawyer left to take his train for the city, and Jackson walked to the station with him. When he returned he found Helen still sitting at the empty table. His eyes were aflame with the golden light of opportunity. He put his hand over his wife's shoulder and pressed her cheek affectionately.

"It's great, isn't it, Nell?" he said.

She looked up into his face with a wistful smile. The good news had changed him wonderfully, even in this brief hour, erasing already some lines from his face. It seemed as if his nature was not one to grow strong in the storms of life, but needed, rather, the warmth of prosperity.

"It's great, isn't it?" he repeated, desiring to savor the good fortune with her.

"Yes, Francis," she replied slowly, and added almost pleadingly, "and you must do it greatly."

"Of course," he assented cheerily. "It'll be the best yet—don't you worry!"


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