The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXI

Late in March the corner-stone for the Jackson Institute was laid. It was a desolate winterish day, and the prairie wind chilled to the bone the little group of interested people seated on the platform erected for the occasion. There were brief speeches by Judge Phillips and Dr. Everest, and an address by a celebrated college president on the "new education." To Helen, who sat just behind him in sight of the piles of excavated sand and the dirty brick walls of the neighboring stores, the scene was scarcely in harmony with the orator's glowing generalizations. "The mighty energies of this industrial cosmopolis will now respond to the higher call of man's ideals.... On industry rests thrift, and on thrift must rest all education." As the neat periods slipped forth, Cook, who was standing by the mason's windlass, caught Helen's eye and smiled. He looked brisk and happy, and she could fancy him calling out: "Hey! What does the guy know about industry? But ain't this the best yet? F. J. Hart is all right!"

The architect, smartly dressed for the occasion in a new frock coat and shining silk hat, stepped forward at the proper moment, dusted the upper surface of the great stone with a brush, and handed the judge a silver trowel. Cook pushed up to them a bucket of mortar, into which the old man thrust the trowel, and tremblingly bespattered the stone. Then the windlass creaked, and down came the massive block of Indiana limestone, covering the recess into which had been stuffed some records of the present day. Then the architect and Cook busied themselves adjusting the block, while the judge stepped backward to his seat, a look of relief coming over his red face, as if he felt that he had virtually executed the trust left him by his old friend.

As the gathering dispersed, Helen's eyes fell upon a great wooden sign surmounting the workmen's shed: THE GRAVES CONSTRUCTION COMPANY—GENERAL CONTRACTORS—CHICAGO AND NEW YORK.

So this was the company that had finally secured the general contract for the building. As Helen knew, there had been vexatious delays over the bids. The first figures had been very much in excess of the sum the trustees had intended to spend upon the building. They had forced the architect to modify his plans somewhat and to ask for new bids. Pemberton had been especially obstinate, and Hart had grumbled about him to his wife:—

"Why does the old duffer chew the rag over a couple of hundred thousand, when they have over three millions, anyway? It doesn't come out of his pocket!"

At last, after some wrangling, the trustees had accepted the lowest bid, though it was still considerably beyond the figure they had set. Hart regarded it as a triumph: he had saved substantially the integrity of his design, and the Graves Company got the contract.

Now all was serene. From the hour that the contract was signed, the building rose from nothingness by leaps and bounds. Graves was always rapid in his operations, and for this building he seemed to have made every preparation beforehand. The labor situation, which was still unsettled, caused him no delay. His rivals said that he had the leaders in the unions on his pay-rolls, and could build when other contractors were tied up by strikes. Other firms could not get their steel from the mills for months, but Graves had some mysterious way of securing his material when he wanted it. The day after the corner-stone was laid he had an army of men at work; early in June the walls were up to the roof trusses; by the end of July the great edifice was completely roofed in, and the plasterers were at work.

The contracts once signed, the judge and Wheeler seemed to regard that their responsibilities were over. Hollister, who had been in poor health latterly, had gone to Europe. But Pemberton was the bane of the architect's life. He visited Hart's office almost daily, looked carefully at every voucher before ordering it paid, and spent long afternoons at the works. He examined the building from foundation to roof with his thrifty New England eye, and let no detail escape him, stickling over unimportant trifles, and delaying the numerous orders for extras or alterations. The whole operation of modern building was an unknown language to him. He knew that he was ignorant of what was going on before his eyes, and his helplessness made him improperly suspicious of the architect and the contractor. Many a time he strained Hart's habitual tact. They nearly came to blows over some window frames, which the architect had seen fit to alter without consulting the building committee.

One morning Hart found Pemberton at the school in company with a stranger, who made notes in a little memorandum book. The trustee nodded curtly to the architect, and, as he was preparing to leave, remarked casually:—

"This is Mr. Trimble, Mr. Hart. Mr. Trimble is an engineer, who has been in my employ from time to time. He will look through the works and make a report. Mr. Trimble will not interfere with you in any way, Mr. Hart. He will report to me."

The architect's face grew white with suppressed rage, and his lips trembled as he answered:—

"What is your reason for taking this step, Mr. Pemberton? When I was given the commission, nothing was said about having a superintendent. If there is to be one, he should report to me. As you know quite well, I have devoted my entire time to this building, and given up other work in order that I might be out here every day. I shall speak to the other trustees about this, and I'll not stand the insult, Mr. Pemberton!"

"Tut, tut, no insult, Mr. Hart. You must know that it's quite usual in work of this magnitude for the owners to have their representative at the works. There will be no interference with you or the contractor, if the building goes right."

The architect swallowed his anger for the time, merely answering sulkily: "Mr. Graves will take no orders except from me, of course. The contracts are so drawn."

"What's that!" Pemberton exclaimed. "I hope there will be no occasion to alter that arrangement."

The architect bowed and left the building.

"Snarling, prying old fogy," he spluttered to his wife, who was waiting outside in the automobile. "Let him put in his superintendent. I guess we can give him a run for his money."

The woman's heart sank. Somehow this school, this bit of great-hearted idealism on the part of the old man she loved, had thus far stirred up a deal of mud.

Pemberton did not think it necessary to discuss with the architect his reasons for engaging Mr. Trimble as superintendent, but he had what seemed to him sufficient cause to look into the building more thoroughly than he was able to himself. After the contract had been let, the trustees had received a number of anonymous letters, which made charges that all had not been square in getting the bids for the building. These letters had gone into the waste basket, as mere cowardly attacks from some disgruntled contractor. Then, one day while the building was still in the rough, and the tile was going in, Pemberton overheard one of the laborers say to his mate:—

"Look at that stuff, now. It ain't no good at all," and the man gave the big yellow tile a kick with his foot; "it's nothin' but dust. Them's rotten bad tiles, I tell yer."

And the other Paddy answered reflectively, scratching his elbow the while:—

"It'll go all the same. Sure, it's more money in his pocket. Ain't that so, boss?"

He appealed to Pemberton, whom he took for one of the passers-by gaping idly at the building.

"What do you mean?" the trustee demanded sharply.

"Mane? The less you pay the more you git in this wurld!"

"Hist, you fule," the other one warned, twisting his head in the direction of the boss mason, who was not far away.

Pemberton was not the man to take much thought of a laborer's idle talk. But the words remained in his mind, and a few weeks later, happening to meet the superintendent of a large construction company in the smoking-car of the Forest Park train, he asked the man some questions about fireproof building.

"Why did your people refuse to bid the second time?" he inquired finally.

"They saw it was just a waste of time and money," the man replied frankly.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Why, the job was slated for Graves—that was all. It was clear enough to us. There's mighty little that goes out of that office except to Graves."

"Is that so? I asked Mr. Hart particularly to have your company bid on the contracts."

Then the man became confidential, and explained how a certain ambiguity in the wording of the specifications made it risky for a contractor to bid unless he knew just how the architect would treat him; for the contractor might easily "get stuck" for much more than the possible profits, though bidding in perfect good faith. The man was willing enough to talk, once started on the subject, and in the course of half an hour he explained to the layman some of the chicanery of the building business.

"So you see, Mr. Pemberton, the contractor, to protect himself when he doesn't know his man, bids pretty high, and then the favored contractor can safely go a good bit lower. He has an understanding with the architect, maybe, and it all depends on how the specifications are going to be interpreted."

And he told other things,—how some of the firms who had bid had since got parts of the general contract from the Graves Company, but with an altered set of specifications.

"It's queer," he ended finally. "We can't see how they'll make a cent on the contract unless Graves is goin' to rot it clear through."

He explained what he meant by "rotting" it,—the use of cheap grades of materials and inferior labor, from the foundation stones to the cornice. In other words, the building would be a "job."

"For those specifications called for a first-class building, and no mistake,—awful heavy steel work, and cabinet finish, and all that. If it's built according to specification, you're going to have a first-class school all right."

The result of this chance conversation was that after consultation with Judge Phillips, Pemberton sent to Boston for the engineer Trimble, whom he knew to be absolutely honest and capable.

When Hart left Pemberton, he went directly to Wheeler's office and exploded to his cousin. His anger at the affront offered to him had entirely hidden the thought of the disagreeable complications that might follow. He took a high stand with Wheeler about the trustees' lack of confidence in him. But the cool lawyer, after hearing his remonstrances, said placidly:—

"If Pemberton wants this man Trimble to go over the building, I don't see how you can prevent it. And I don't see the harm in it myself. I suppose everything is all right. See that it is,—that's your business. Pemberton would be a bad man to deal with if he found any crooked work. You'd better look sharp after that fellow Graves."

The architect assured his cousin that there was no need to worry on that score. But he began to realize the dangers ahead, and felt a degree of comfort in the fact that Graves had only that week paid him in cash for the second block of his Glenmore hotel "stock." With the previous payment he had now thirty-five thousand dollars lying in his bank, and a large payment on the commission for the school would soon be due him.

Trouble was not long in coming. Trimble, who was a quiet little man, and looked like a bookseller's clerk, was waiting for Hart one morning at the office of the works. He made some pointed inquiries about the plumbing specifications. There seemed to be important discrepancies between the copy of the specifications at the works and the copy which Pemberton had given him from the office of the trustees.

"Yes, a good many changes were authorized. There were good reasons for making them," Hart responded gruffly.

The little man made no remarks; he seemed to have inquired out of curiosity. Then he asked questions about some blue-prints which did not correspond with the written specifications, explaining that he had gone to the mill where the interior finish was being turned out and had found other discrepancies in the details prepared for the woodwork. Hart answered indifferently that he would find a good many such changes, as was customary in all buildings. At this point Graves arrived; he came into the little shanty and looked Trimble over without speaking. After the engineer had left, Graves turned to the architect, an ugly frown on his heavy face:—

"Say, is that little cuss goin' to make trouble here?"

Hart explained briefly what had happened.

"Do you think we could fix him?" the contractor asked without further comment.

The architect noticed the "we" and sulked.

"I guess you'd better not try. He doesn't look like the kind you could fix. It's just as well that most of the work is done, for it seems to me he means trouble."

"All the finish and decoratin' is comin', ain't it?" the contractor growled. "I tell you what, if he holds up the mill work, and keeps fussin' round, there'll be more than one kind of trouble. I won't stand no nonsense from your damned trustees." He swore out his disgust and fumed, until Hart said:—

"Well, you'll have to do the best you can. And I'll try to keep the trustees quiet."

The Glenmore hotel was going up rapidly, and he thought of the twenty thousand dollars which would be coming to him on the completion of that building—if all went well. But if there should be a row, there would be no further profits for him on the hotel.

"The best I can!" Graves broke forth. "I guess you'll have to take care of them. You'd better see your cousin and get him to call this feller off, or there'll be trouble."

"I have seen Wheeler," the architect admitted.

"Well," the contractor blustered, "if they want a fight, let 'em come on. There'll be a strike on this building in twenty-four hours, I can tell you, and then it'll be years before they can get their school opened."

With this threat the contractor left the office, and Hart went over to the great building, which had become a thorn in his flesh these last weeks. It was not a bad piece of work, after all, as Chicago building was done, he reflected. Even if Graves had cut the work in places, and had made too much money on the steel, the stone, and here and there all over, the edifice would answer its purpose well enough, and the architect had no special interest in the everlasting qualities of his structures. Nothing was built to stand for more than a generation in this city. Life moved too swiftly for that.

For several weeks, as the end of August came near, there was a lull, while Pemberton was in the East on his vacation. The work on the school went forward as before; even the irritation of seeing Trimble's face was removed, for he had ceased to visit the works. Then, the first week in September, the storm burst. There came to the architect's office a peremptory summons to meet the trustees the next afternoon.


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