The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XX

Hart's design for the school had finally been accepted by the trustees, and the plans were placed on exhibition in the Art Institute. Little knots of people—students, draughtsmen, and young architects—gathered in the room on the second floor, where the elevations had been hung, and had their say about the plans. Occasionally a few older men and women, interested in the nobler aspects of civic life, drifted into the room, having stolen some moments from their busy days to see what the architect had done with his great opportunity.

"Gee! Ain't it a hummer, now!" exclaimed one of Wright's men, who had known Hart in the old days. "He's let himself out this time, sure. It will cover most two blocks."

"The main part of the design is straight from the Hotel de Ville," one of the young architects objected disdainfully. He and his friends thought there were many better architects in the city than F. Jackson Hart, and grumbled accordingly. "I bet I could find every line in the design from some French thing or other. Hart's an awful thief; he can't think for himself."

"Where is the purpose of the structure expressed?" another demanded severely. "It would do just as well for the administration building of a fair as for a school!"

"A voluptuous and ornamental design; the space is wickedly wasted in mere display. The money that ought to go into education will be eaten up in this pretentious, flaunting building that will cover all the land." ...

"What have I been telling you?" commented an admiring citizen to his neighbor. "Chicago ain't a village any more. A few buildings like this and the university ones, and the world will begin to see what we are doing out here!"

"What's the dome for?" ...

"I say the people should have the best there is."

"Pull, pull—that's what's written all over this plan! The architect was some sort of relation to the man who gave the school, wasn't he?"

Even Wright, who happened to be in the city, stepped into the Institute to look at the plans. He studied them closely for a few minutes, and then, with a smile on his face, moved off.

Hart had, indeed, "let himself out." It was to be a master work, and by its achievement raise him at once into the higher ranks of his profession. For the first time he had felt perfectly free to create. As often happens, when the artist comes to this desired point and looks into his soul, he finds nothing there. The design was splendid, in a sense—very large and imposing: an imperial flight of steps, a lofty dome which fastened the spectator's eyes, and two sweeping wings to support the central mass. Nevertheless, the architect had not escaped from his training; it was another one of the Beaux Arts exercises that Wright used to "trim." Years hence the expert would assign it to its proper place in the imitative period of our arts, as surely as the literary expert has already placed there the poet Longfellow. Though Hart had learned much in the past six years, it had been chiefly in the mechanics of his art: he was a cleverer architect, but a more wooden artist. For the years he had spent in the workshop of the great city had deadened his sense of beauty. The clamor and excitement and gross delight of living had numbed his sense of the fine, the noble, the restrained. He had never had time to think, only to contrive, and facility had supplied the want of ideas. Thus he had forgotten Beauty, and been content to live without that constant inner vision of her which deadens bodily hunger and feeds the soul of the artist.

So Wright read the dead soul beneath the ambitious design.

Mrs. Phillips came rustling in with friends, to whom she exhibited the plans with an air of ownership in the architect.

"It's the cleverest thing that has been done in this city; every one says so. I tell Harrison that he has me to thank for this. It was a case of poetic justice, too. You know the story? One forgets so easily here; it's hard to remember who died last month. Why, the old man Jackson left pretty nearly every cent of his money to found this school. I think he was crazy, and I should have fought the will if I had been a relative. At any rate, it was a nasty joke on this Mr. Hart, who was his nephew and every one thought would be his heir.

"But he has made such a plucky fight, got the respect of every one, gone right along, and succeeded splendidly in his profession. He married foolishly, too. Poor girl, not a cent, and not the kind to help him one bit, you know,—no style, can't say a word for herself. She's done a good deal to keep him back, but he has managed to survive even that. I wonder he hasn't broken with her. I do, really! They haven't a thing in common. They had a pleasant home out in the Park, you know, and a good position—every one knew them there. He is the kind to make friends everywhere. And what do you think? She made him give up his house and come into town to live! The Park was too far away from her friends, or something of the sort—wanted to educate her children in the city, and all that. I believe it was jealousy of him. He was popular, and she wasn't. No woman will stand that sort of thing, of course.

"So now they have taken a house on Scott Street,—a little, uncomfortable box, the kind of place that is all hall and dining-room. Of course they don't have to live like that; he's making money. But she says she doesn't want to be bothered—has ideas about simple living. The trouble is, she hasn't any ambition, and he's brimful of it. He could get anywhere if it weren't for her. It's a shame! I don't believe she half appreciates even this. Isn't it splendid? He has such large ideas!

"Venetia is thick with her, of course. You might know she would be. It's through Mrs. Hart she meets those queer, tacky people. I tell you, the woman counts much more than the man when it comes to making your way in the world; don't you think so?" ...

And with further words of praise for the plans and commiseration for the architect, the widow wandered into the next room with her friends, then descended to her carriage, dismissing art and life together in the prospect of dinner.

Helen made a point of taking the boys to see their father's work, and explained carefully to them what it all meant. They followed her open-eyed, tracing with their little fingers the main features of the design as she pointed them out, and saying over the hard names. It was there Venetia Phillips found her, seated before the large sketch of the south elevation, dreaming, while the boys, their lesson finished, had slipped into the next room to look at the pictures.

"Have you seen my mother?" she asked breathlessly, seating herself beside Helen. "I brought Dr. Coburn, and we almost ran into Mrs. Phillips the first thing. So I dodged into the Greek room and left him there to study anatomy. She had that horrid Rainbow woman with her and would have been nasty to the doctor. Mother is such a splendid snob!" she explained frankly.

"Well, well, our Jackie has done himself proud this time, hasn't he? He's a little given to the splurge, though, don't you think?"

Helen did not answer. She did not like to admit even to herself that her husband's greatest effort was a failure. Yet she was a terribly honest woman, and there was no glow in her heart. Indeed, the school and all about it had become unpleasant to her, covered as it was with sordid memories of her husband's efforts to get the work. Latterly there had been added to these the almost daily bickerings with the trustees, which the architect reported. The plans had not been accepted easily.

"All the same, Jack's got some good advertising out of it," Venetia continued encouragingly, noticing Helen's silence. "The newspapers are throwing him polite remarks, I see. But I want to talk to you about something else. Mamma has been losing a lot of money; bad investments made in boom times; sure things, you know, like copper and steel. She's very much pressed, and she wants to put my money up to save some of the stocks. Uncle Harry is raging, and wants me to promise him not to let her have a cent. Stanwood has come home—there doesn't seem to be anything else for him to do. It's all rather nasty. I don't know what to say about the money; it seems low to hold your mother up in her second youth. And yet the pace Mrs. Phillips keeps would finish my money pretty soon. It's a pity Mrs. Raymond won't die and give mother a chance to make a good finish."


"What's the harm in my saying what all the world that knows us is saying? It's been a ten years' piece of gossip. I feel sorry for her, too. It must be rough to get along in life and see you have muckered your game.... Do you know, I am terribly tempted to let her have the money, all of it, and skip out myself. Perhaps some of these days you'll read a little paragraph in the morning paper,—'Mysterious Disappearance of a Well-known Young Society Woman.' Wouldn't that be original? Just to drop out of everything and take to the road!"

"What would you do?"

"Anything, everything—make a living. Don't you think I could do that?" She embroidered this theme fancifully for a time and then lapsed into silence. Finally she burst forth again: "Good Lord, why can't we get hold of life before it's too late? It's going on all around us,—big, and rich, and full of blood. And folks like you and me sit on the bank, eating a picnic lunch."

"Perhaps," mused Helen, "it would be different if one had to earn the lunch."

"Who knows? Will you try it? Will you cut loose from Jackie?"

A rather sad smile crossed the older woman's face, and Venetia seizing her arm impulsively gave it a little squeeze. Just then Coburn strolled into the room with the boys, whom he had found in the corridor, and nodding abruptly toward Helen, stood before the plans, studying them with his sharp, black eyes. His little ironical smile hung on his parted lips. Turning to Venetia, he said good-humoredly:—

"Thinks he's doing something, don't he, Venetia?"

Helen rose and called the boys.

"A building is just four walls and a roof to me," he continued, addressing Helen. "But Jack Hart seems to have got what he wanted—that's the chief thing, ain't it?"

Helen nodded, and they left the room without looking again at the plans. As they descended the broad flight of steps to the street, Venetia laid her hand on Helen's arm.

"Tell Jack we are all proud of him. Mamma brags of him daily. And look out for the paragraph in the paper. They'd give me a paragraph, don't you think?"

The winter twilight had descended upon the murky city, filling the long vistas of the cross streets with a veil of mystery. But the roar of the place mounted to the clouds above, which seemed to reverberate with the respirations of the Titan beneath. Here, in the heart of the city, life clamored with a more direct note than in any other spot in the world. Men were struggling fiercely for their desires, and their cries ascended to the dull heavens.

Helen walked home with the boys, soothed by the human contact of the streets. There was something exhilarating to her in the jostle of the throng,—the men and women leaving their labors, bent homeward for the night. Her heart expanded near them—those who won their daily bread by the toil of the day.

It was in part true, what the widow had said. For it was she who had willed to return to the city from the pleasant niche where she had spent her married life, desiring in the growing emptiness of her heart to get closer to the vast life of a human people, to feel once more the common lot of man. So she had taken the little house on Scott Street, and reduced their living to the simplest scale, declaring that she wanted her time for herself and her children. Her husband was so busy that as yet he hardly noticed any change in her. They went out less than they had gone in previous years, and sometimes he thought the people he found calling on his wife were "queer." Her interest in a new kind of education for the children bored him. She seemed to be going her own way without thought of him, and now and then he wondered what it meant. He did not like aggressive, faddish persons; he wanted women to be personal and sympathetic, with a touch of "style," social tact, and a little dash.

To-night he had come from his office early, and while he waited for Helen he looked about the little drawing-room disapprovingly, with a sense of aggrieved discomfort. Helen was taking to economy and simplicity altogether too seriously to please him. To be sure, she made no objection to his keeping his hunters at the Shoreham Club, or his polo-playing, or other expensive diversions.

In a vague way he was aware of the subtle separation of soul that existed between them. He looked at his wife closely when she came in with the boys. She seemed older, more severe in face than he had thought, than her photograph on his office desk said. When this school business was done with, he reflected, they must run over to Europe for a few months' vacation, get shaken up, and then live differently on their return....

"Nell," he said to her, when they were alone, "it's settled at last, you will be glad to know, everything. We let the contracts to-day."

"For the school?" she asked indifferently. "You must be relieved to have it off your mind."

Her lips, which curved so tenderly, had grown strangely firm. He put his arm over her shoulder and drew her toward him.

"Yes, it's a great relief. I thought at one time Pemberton would make them throw the whole thing up and start again. But the others had more sense. Well, when the building is finished, we must have a spree, and get to be lovers once more."

"Yes, dear. This afternoon I've been to the Institute with the boys to let them see the plans."

"They are well spoken of. I saw Wright to-day for a moment. He stopped to congratulate me, but I couldn't tell what he really thought. Well, after all the trouble with them, I got pretty much what I wanted, thanks to Everett and the doctor. Everett's been a good friend all through. The idea of their kicking so hard because the thing was going to cost a little more than they had made up their minds to spend on the building! Pemberton thinks he knows all about architecture. It's a pity he couldn't have drawn the plans himself."

"But you saved your design. There were only a few changes, I thought."

"Yes, I've won the second round all right."

In his joy over the thought he put his strong arms about his wife and lifted her bodily from the floor, as he had often done, boyishly, in the years before. Holding her close to him he kissed her lips and neck. She returned his kisses, but the touch of her lips was cool. She seemed limp in his arms, and he felt vaguely the want of something. She was less loving, less passionate than ever before. He missed the abandon, the utter self-forgetfulness, the rush of ecstatic emotion, which from the first moment of their love had made her for him all woman, the woman of women.... He let her slip from his embrace and looked at her. Was it age? Was it the penalty of living, which dampens the fire of passion and dulls desire? He was troubled, distressed for the loss of something precious that was getting beyond his reach, perhaps had gone forever.

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "It's bad to be always on the dead push. Come! Let's go out somewhere and have dinner and a bottle of champagne the way we used to."

She hesitated a moment, unwilling to disappoint him.

"I can't very well to-night, Francis. I promised Morton Carr I should be home this evening. He wants me to help him raise some money for his new building, and we were to discuss it."

"Oh!" he said, his egotism subtly wounded. "I remember you said something about it."


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