The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXIII

Husband and wife did not speak while they were being driven across the city to their home. That which lay between them was too heavy to be touched upon at once in words. Several times the architect glanced fearfully at his wife. She rested limply on the carriage cushion, with closed eyes, and occasionally a convulsive tremor twitched her body. The summer heat, which had raged untempered for weeks, had already sapped her usual strength, and now her face had a bloodless pallor that made the man wince miserably. When the cab stopped at the North Side bridge, where a burly vessel was being pulled through the draw, Helen opened her eyes languidly; once or twice she sought her husband's face, which was turned blankly toward the crowded street. Her lips moved, and then she closed her eyes again. As they got out of the cab, a neighbor who was passing spoke to them and made a little joke, to which Jackson replied pleasantly, with perfect self-control. The woman leaning on his arm shivered, as if a fresh chill had seized her.

The children were spending the month in Wisconsin with Jackson's mother, and so the two sat down to a silent dinner. When the maid had come and gone for the last time, Hart looked furtively across the table to his wife and said gently:—

"Won't you go upstairs, Nell? You don't look able to sit up."

She shook her head and tried to speak, but her voice was gone. Finally she whispered:—

"Francis, you must tell me all about it,—everything!"

He frowned and said nothing, until she repeated, "Everything, you must tell me!" and then he replied:—

"See here, Nell, you'd better drop this thing and not think of it again. That man Pemberton, who has pestered the life out of me all along, has made a row. He's an ill-tempered beast. That's all. And he'll repent it, too! He can't do anything to me. It's a business quarrel, and I don't want you to worry over it."

He was cool and assured, and spoke with the kindly authority of a husband.

"No, Francis!" She shook her head wearily. "That can't be all. I must know what it is—I must help you."

"You can't help me," he replied calmly. "I have told you enough. They can't do anything. I don't want to go any further into that business."

"I must know!" she cried.

He was startled at the new force in her voice, the sign of a will erecting itself with its own authority against him.

"Know what? What that fool Pemberton thinks of me? You heard enough of that, I guess."

"Don't put me off! Don't put me away from you, now, Francis! If we are to love each other, if we are to live together, I must know you, all of you. I am in a fog. There is something wrong all about me, and it gets between us and kills our love. I cannot—bear—it!"

Her voice broke into pleading, and ended in a sob. But controlling herself quickly, she added:—

"Mr. Pemberton is a fair man, a just man. But if he's wrong, I want to know that, too. I want to hate him for what he said to you."

"You would like to judge me, to judge your husband!" he retorted coldly. "That is not the way to love. I thought you would believe in me, all through to the end."

"So I shall—if you will tell me all the truth. I would go with you anywhere, to prison if need be, if you would be open with me."

"We needn't talk of going to prison yet awhile!" he exclaimed in exasperation.

He went to the sideboard, and pouring himself a glass of whiskey, set the decanter on the table.

"They can't do anything but talk," he repeated. Then, warmed by the liquor, he began to be more insolent, to speak defiantly.

"Pemberton's been after me from the start. He wanted Wright to get the work in the first place, and he's tried to put every obstacle he could in my way. It was first one thing and then another. He has made life unendurable with his prying and his suspicions. But I won't stand it another day. I'm going to Everett to-morrow and tell him that I shall get out if Pemberton is to interfere with my orders. And they can't lay a finger on me, I tell you! Pemberton can just talk!"

Helen had put her head between her hands, and she was sobbing. Every hot word that he spoke drove conviction against him into her heart. At last she raised her tear-stained face and cried out with a new access of power:—

"Stop! Stop!"

Then she rose, took the decanter of whiskey, replaced it on the sideboard, and seated herself by his side, putting her hand on his arm.

"Francis, if you care for me, if you want us ever to love each other again, answer me honestly. Have you and that contractor done anything wrong about the school?"

"You can't understand," he replied roughly, drawing his arm from her touch. "You are making a great deal out of your own imagination."

"Answer me!" she said, in the same tense tone of pure will. "Have you let that man Graves cheat the trustees,—do anything dishonest,—and shut your eyes to it?"

"Pemberton claims he hasn't lived up to the specifications," the architect admitted sullenly.

"And you knew it?"

"So he says."

There was a moment's silence between them while the vision of this fraud filled their minds. She seemed to hesitate before the evil thing that she had raised, and then she asked again, quickly:—

"Have you—did you make any money from it?"

He did not reply.

"Tell me, Francis!" she persisted. "Did this man give you anything for letting him—cheat the trustees? Tell me!"

He was cold and careless now. This new will in his wife, unexpected, so totally unlike her gentle, yielding nature, compelled him to reveal some part of the truth. In this last resort her will was the stronger. He said slowly:—

"If he got the school contract, there was an understanding that he was to give me some stock in a corporation. It was involved with other business."

"He was to give you stock?"

"Yes; stock in a hotel that he's been building—another piece of work."

"And he gave you this stock?"

"Some of it."

"What have you done with it?"

"Sold it."

"You have sold it?"

"Yes. It was a kind of bonus he gave me for getting him the contract and for doing the plans for the hotel, too."

Further than that admission he would not go, and they left the subject late at night. He was sullen and hard, and resented her new tone of authority to him; for he had always counted on her acquiescence and tenderness as his immutable rights.

In the morning this feeling of resentment was more firmly fixed. He regretted that in a moment of weakness he had admitted what he had the night before. When she came to him as he was preparing to leave the house, and, putting her hands on his arms, begged him to talk with her again before going to the office, he listened moodily and said that he was pressed for time.

"Won't you go to them, to the trustees, to Everett, anyway, and tell them everything you know? And give them that money—the money you got from the stock?"

"That's a woman's plan! That would make a nice mess, wouldn't it? I told you I got that as a bonus. I have worked a lot for this contractor, and he offered me this chance to make some money in one of his schemes. It's often done, something like that. You'd like to see me get into trouble—be disgraced for good and all?"

"That can make no difference now," she answered quietly. "The disgrace cannot be helped."

"What rot!" he sneered. "You make me out a thief at once. Suppose you look at what some of your acquaintances do,—the good, rich people in this town,—and find out how they make their money. Ask people how Silas Stewart gets his rebates from the railroads. Ask any one about the way Strauss grades his wheat."

"I don't want to know," she interrupted sadly. "That has nothing to do with this matter."

He left her impatiently. They did not reopen the sore that evening, nor the next day. Her face was set and stern, with a kind of dreary purpose in it, which made him unhappy. He went out of the city on business, and did not return for several days. When he came home no mention was made of his absence, and for another week they lived silently. The night before the children were to return from their vacation with their grandmother, while husband and wife lay awake, each troubled by the common thought, she spoke again.

"Francis," she said firmly, "we can't go on like this. The boys are coming home to-morrow. They mustn't see us living this way. And it's bad for you, Francis, and I can't stand it! I have been thinking it over. I must go away with the boys. I shall go to uncle Powers's house in Vernon Falls."

"You are going to leave me and take the children with you because you think I am in trouble," he said accusingly.

"You know that isn't true. If you will only meet this trouble honorably, like the man I loved and married, I will stay, and be with you always, no matter what comes. Will you?"

"So you want to make conditions?"

"Just one."

"You had better go, then."

She turned her face to her pillow and wept in the dreary realization that she could touch him in no way. The next day she telephoned her mother to come to her, and when Mrs. Spellman arrived, she said quietly:—

"Mother, I am going to Vermont, to the farm. It may be for a long time. Will you come with me and the boys?"

Mrs. Spellman, who was a wise woman, took her daughter's face between her hands and kissed her.

"Of course," she answered simply.

That day they made the necessary preparations for themselves and the children. When the architect returned from his office and saw what was going forward, he said to his wife:—

"So you are determined to leave me?"

"Yes, I must go unless—"

"I have seen Everett. They aren't going to do anything. I told you it was all bluff on Pemberton's part."

She hesitated, uncertain what to think, and then she asked searchingly:—

"Why aren't they going to do anything? What does it mean?"

"Oh, I guess the others have brought Pemberton to his senses," he replied evasively. "At any rate, it's blown over, as I told you it would."

"No, Francis! It isn't made right yet. You would be different if it were. Somehow, from the beginning, when first there was talk of this school, it has all been wrong. I hate it! I hate it! And the trouble goes back of that, too. It starts from the very beginning, when we were married, and began to live together. We have always done as the others do all around us, and it is all wrong. I see it now. We can never go on again in the same way—"

"What way? I don't understand you in the least," he interrupted.

"Why, just earning and spending money, trying to get more and more, trying to get things. It's spoiled your work; it's spoiled you; and I have been blind and weak to let us drift on like the others, getting and spending, struggling to get ahead, until it has come to this, to this,—something dreadful that you will not tell me,—something base that you have done to make money. Oh, how low and mean it is! How mean it makes men and women!"

"That's life," he retorted neatly.

"No, no, never! That wasn't what you and I thought before we married. I wish you were a clerk, a laborer, a farm-hand,—anything, so that we could be honest, and think of something besides making money. Let us begin again, from the very beginning, and live like the common people from day to day—live for your work, for the thing you do. Then we should be happy. Never this way, not if you make millions, millions!"

"Well, I can't see why you are set on going away," the architect answered, content to see her mind turn from the practical question.

"Tell me!" she exclaimed passionately. "Tell me! Is it all right with that building? With that contractor? Are you honest? Are you an honest man? Tell me, and I will believe you."

"I have said all that I am going to say about that matter," he answered stubbornly.

"Then, Francis, I go!"

The next afternoon the architect met his family at the train and saw them start, punctiliously doing all the little things that he could to make their journey comfortable. He referred to their going as a short vacation trip, and joked with the boys about the farm. Just before the train started, while Mrs. Spellman settled the children in their section, Helen walked up and down the platform with him. As the signal for starting was given she raised her veil, revealing the tears in her eyes, and leaning toward him kissed him. She put into his hands a little card, which she had been holding clasped in her palm. He raised his hat and stood on the platform until the long train had pulled out of the shed. Then he glanced at the card in his hand, which read:—

"I shall wait for you to come to me when you really want me. H."

He crushed the card in his fist and threw it into the roadbed.


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