The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXII

Powers Jackson had given the old Jackson homestead and farm at Vernon Falls in Vermont to Helen, and with it a small legacy of twelve thousand dollars "as a maintenance fund." She had opened the house but once or twice since her marriage, because Jackson was always too busy to take a long vacation, and she did not like to leave him. Latterly she had thought about the old man's gift a good deal, and there had been some talk of her spending the summer in Vernon Falls with the children and her mother. Instead of this they had gone to the Shoreham Club for a few weeks in August, putting off the journey East till the fall. She had never touched the legacy, leaving it in Everett Wheeler's hands, securely invested, and had paid what was needed to maintain the old place from her allowance. Now, however, a number of repairs on the buildings had accumulated, and it occurred to her one day, when she was in the city, to find out from Wheeler how much surplus she had at her disposal. They had joked a good deal about her estate, and the lawyer had scolded her for not coming to his office to examine the papers and see what he was doing with her money. It was late in the afternoon when she had finished other, more urgent errands, and, turning into the lofty La Salle Street building, was whirled up to the twelfth floor. The middle-aged stenographer in Wheeler's office looked up on her entrance, and said that the lawyer had not left, but was engaged with some gentlemen. Would she wait? She sat down in the quiet, carpeted outer office, from which radiated several small offices. The doors of all these rooms were open except one, and through the ground-glass panel in this door she could see the dark forms of several men. Presently the stenographer pushed her papers into the drawer of her desk, and fetched her hat and coat. "I think they must be 'most through," she remarked pleasantly. "You go right in when they come out." Then she gathered up her gloves and left. Little noise came from the hall, except the occasional sliding back and forth of elevator gates. The vast hive seemed to be deserted at this hour, and few places in the city were so quiet and lonesome as this sober law office. The murmur of voices in the inner room was the only sound of life. Gradually the voices grew louder, but Helen paid no attention to them until a man's voice, clear and shrill with exasperation, penetrated distinctly to the outer office. "No, Wheeler!" the man almost shouted. "We won't compromise this. I won't have it covered up or whitewashed. We'll go to the bottom, here and now. Let us find out what all this double-dealing means. Let us know, now, whether the work on that building is being done honestly or not, and whether our architect is working for us or for the contractor against us." It was Pemberton's voice, and Helen recognized it. From the first words she had grasped the arms of her chair—a sudden clutch at her heart. She held herself rigid, while behind the door a confused murmur of men all talking at once drowned Pemberton's voice. She tried to think whether she ought to leave the office, but her strength had gone, and she trembled in her chair. Presently Pemberton's high voice rang out again:— "No, sir! We've given you this opportunity to explain your conduct and clear yourself. You haven't done it, sir! You try to bluster it through. There is something wrong in this business, and we shall find out what it is. Not another dollar will be paid out on your vouchers until our experts have gone through all the papers and examined every foot of the construction so far done. No, Wheeler, I will resign if you like. You asked me to join you. I was glad to do so. I considered it an honor and a duty, and I have made sacrifices for this trust. But if I stay on the board, this thing must be cleared up!" Another high and angry voice answered this time:— "You'd better not make loose charges, Mr. Pemberton, until you are in a position to prove what you say. I won't stand your talk; I don't propose to stay here and let you bully me—I'm going!" Helen recognized her husband's voice, and she got to her feet, still clutching the chair. Then she stepped forward unsteadily toward the inner office. The handle of the door moved a little, and against the glass panel the form of a man stood out sharply. "What are you going to do about it? Sue Graves? Or sue me? You can discharge me if you like. But I am your agent and have full powers. Remember that! That's the way the contract is drawn. And if I back up Graves, what are you going to do about it? He's got your agent's signature for what he's done.... You'd better hold your temper and talk sense." ... "Don't threaten me, sir!" Pemberton retorted. "I have all the proof I want that you are a rascal, that you have entered into a conspiracy with this man Graves to swindle." ... There were sounds of a scuffle within the office,—the noise of falling chairs, the voices of excited men. Above all the clamor rose the cool tones of Wheeler:— "Come, come, gentlemen! This is not business." As he spoke, a weight fell against the door from the outside. The man nearest the outer office, who happened to be Judge Phillips, opened the door, and Helen fell, rather than walked, into the room, her face white, her hands stretched before her. "Francis! Francis!" she called. It was not her husband, however, who sprang to her aid. He was too startled to move. Wheeler, who was leaning against his desk with his hands in his pockets, leaped forward, caught her, and carried her from the room. "Nell, Nell!" he muttered to himself. "Why did you come here!"


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