The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXV

The girl's word was like a blow in the face. It toppled over any self-complacency that had survived these last disintegrating months. Was he as mean a thing as that? So little that a girl whom he had always treated with jovial condescension might insult him, unprovoked? Probably others, all those people whose acquaintance he valued, had a like contempt for him, which they refrained, conventionally, from expressing. At first he did not resent their judgment; he was too much dazed.

In this plight he walked south on the avenue, without minding where he was going, and then turned west, automatically, at Twenty-second Street, walking until he came to the region of dance halls and flashy saloons. In this unfamiliar neighborhood there was a glare of light from the great electric signs which decorated the various places of resort, and the street was crowded with men and women, who loitered about the saloons and dance halls, enjoying the fitful mildness of the April evening. At this early hour there were more women than men on the street, and their dresses of garish spring colors, their loud, careless voices, and air of reckless ease, reminded the architect faintly, very faintly, of the boulevards he had loved in his happy student years. In this spot of the broad American city coarse license flourished, and the one necessity for him who sought forgetfulness was the price of pleasure. The scene distracted his mind for the moment from the sting of the girl's contempt.

He entered one of the larger saloons on the corner of an avenue, and sat down at a small table. When the waiter darted to him, and, impudently leering across the table into his face, asked, "What's yours, gent?" he answered quickly: "Champagne! Bring me a bottle and ice." His heavy spirit craved the amber wine, which, in association at least, heartens man. At the tables all about him sat the women of the neighborhood, large-boned and heavy creatures, drinking beer by themselves, or taking champagne with stupid-looking rough men, probably buyers and sellers of stock at the Yards, which were not far away. The women had the blanched faces of country girls over whom the city has passed like the plates of a mighty roller. The men had the tan of the distant prairies, from which they had come with their stock. Their business over, the season's profit obtained, they had set themselves to deliberate debauch that should last for days,—as long as the "wad" held out and the brute lust in their bodies remained unquenched.

Presently the waiter returned with the heavy bottle and slopped some of the wine into a glass. The architect raised it and drank. It was execrable, sweetened stuff, but he drank the glass at a draught, and poured another and drank it. The girl's inexplicable insult swept over him afresh in a wave of anger. He should find a way somehow to call her to account....

"Say, mister, you don't want to drink all that wine by yourself, do you?"

A woman at the next table, who was sitting alone before an empty beer glass and smoking a cigarette, had spoken to him in a furtive voice.

"Come over, then," he answered, roughly pushing a chair to the table. "Here, waiter, bring another glass."

The woman slid, rather than walked, to the chair by his side, and drank the champagne like a parched animal. He ordered another bottle.

"Enjoying yourself?" she inquired politely, having satisfied her first thirst. "Been in the city long? I ain't seen you here at Dove's before."

He looked at her with languid curiosity. She recalled to him the memory of her Paris sisters, with whom he had shared many a consommation in those blessed days that he had almost forgotten. But she had none of the sparkle, the human charm, of her Latin sisters. She was a coarse vessel, and he wondered at the men who sought joy in her.

"Where do you come from?" he demanded.

"Out on the coast. San Diego's my home. But I was in Philadelphia last winter. I guess I shall go back to the East pretty soon. I don't like Chicago much—it's too rough out here to suit me."

She found Chicago inferior! He laughed with the humor of the idea. It was a joke he should like to share with his respectable friends. They drank and talked while the evening sped, and he plied her with many questions in idle curiosity, touched with that interest in women of her class which most men have somewhere in the dregs of their natures. She chatted volubly, willing enough to pay for her entertainment.

As he listened to her, this creature of the swift instants, whose only perception was the moment's sensation, he grew philosophical. The other world, his proper world of care and painful forethought, faded from his vision. Here in Dove's place he was a thousand miles from the respectabilities in which he had his being. Here alone in the city one might forget them, and nothing mattered,—his troubles, his wife's judgment of him, the girl's contempt.

At last he had loosened that troublesome coil of things, which lately had weighed him down, and it seemed easy enough to cut himself free from it for good and walk the earth once more unhampered, like these, the flotsam of the city.

"Come! Let's go over to Grinsky's hall," the woman suggested, noticing the architect's silence, and seeing no immediate prospect of another bottle of wine. "We'll find something doing over there, sure."

But he was already tired of the woman; she offended his cultivated sensibilities. So he shook his head, paid for the wine, said good evening to her, and started to leave the place. She followed him, talking volubly, and when they reached the street she took his arm, clinging to him with all the weight of her dragging will.

"You don't want to go home yet," she coaxed. "You're a nice gentleman. Come in here to Grinsky's and give me a dance."

Her entreaties disgusted him. People on the street looked and smiled. At the bottom he was a thoroughly clean-minded American; he could not even coquette with debauch without shame and timidity. She and her class were nauseating to him, like evil-smelling rooms and foul sights. That was not his vice.

He paid for her admission to the dance-hall, dropped a dollar in her hand, and left her. Then where to go? How to pass the hours? He was at an utter loss what to do with himself, like all properly married, respectable men, when the domestic pattern of their lives is disturbed for any reason. So, vaguely, without purpose, he began to stroll east in the direction of the lake, taking off his hat to let the night wind cool his head. He found walking pleasant in the mild spring air, and when he came to the end of the street he turned south into a deserted avenue that was starred in the dark night by a line of arc lamps. It was a dull, respectable, middle-class district, quite unfamiliar to him, and he stared inquiringly at the monotonous blocks of brick houses and cheap apartment buildings. Here was the ugly, comfortable housing of the modern city, where lived a mass of good citizens,—clerks and small business men with their wives and children. He wondered vaguely if this was what his wife would have him come to, this dreary monotony of small homes, each one like its neighbor, where the two main facts of existence were shelter and food.

A wave of self-pity swept over him, and his thoughts returned to his old grievance: if Helen had stayed by him all would have been well. He wanted his children; he wanted his home, his wife, his neighbors, his little accustomed world of human relationships,—all as it had been before. And he blamed her for destroying his happiness, shutting his mind obstinately to any other consideration, unwilling to admit even to his secret self that his greed, his thirst for luxury, had aught to do with the case. He had striven with all his might, even as the bread winners in these houses strove daily, to get a point of vantage in the universal struggle. Doubtless these humble citizens had their modicum of content. But why should he, with his larger appetite, be condemned to their level? The idea was utterly repugnant to him, and gradually that heavy weight of depression, which the wine had temporarily lifted, pressed on his spirits.

He must have walked many blocks on this avenue between the monotonous small houses. In the distance beyond him, to the south, he saw a fiery glow on the soft heavens, which he took to be the nightly reflection from the great blast furnaces of the steel works in South Chicago. Presently as he emerged upon a populous cross street, the light seemed suddenly much nearer, and, unlike the soft effulgence from the blast furnaces, the red sky was streaked with black. On the corners of the street there was an unwonted excitement,—men gaping upward at the fiery cloud, then running eastward, in the direction of the lake. From the west there sounded the harsh gong of a fire-engine, which was pounding rapidly down the car tracks. It came, rocking in a whirlwind of galloping horses and swaying men. The crowd on the street broke into a run, streaming along the sidewalks in the wake of the engine.

The architect woke from his dead thoughts and ran with the crowd. Two, three, four blocks, they sped toward the lake, which curves eastward at this point, and as he ran the street became strangely familiar to him. The crowd turned south along a broad avenue that led to the park. Some one cried: "There it is! It's the hotel!" A moment more, and the architect found himself at the corner of the park opposite the lofty building, out of whose upper stories broad billows of smoke, broken by tongues of flame, were pouring.

There, in the corner made by the boulevard and the park, where formerly was the weedy ruin, rose the great building, which Graves had finished late in the winter, and had turned over to the hotel company. Its eight stories towered loftily above the other houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhood. The countless windows along the broad front gleamed portentously with the reflection from the flames above. At the west corner, overlooking the park, above a steep ascent of jutting bay windows, there floated a light blue pennon, bearing a name in black letters,—THE GLENMORE.

At first the architect scarcely realized that this building which was burning was Graves's hotel, his hotel. The excitement of the scene stupefied him. Already the police had roped off the streets beneath the fire, in which the crowd was thickening rapidly. From many points in the adjoining blocks came the shrill whistles of the throbbing engines, answering one another. The fire burned quietly aloft in the sky, while below there rose the clamor of excited men and screeching engines. The crowd grew denser every moment, and surged again and again nearer the building, packing solidly about the fire lines. Hart was borne along in the current.

"They've pulled the third alarm," one man said in his ear, chewing excitedly on a piece of gum. "There's more'n fifty in there yet!"

"They say the elevators are going still!" another one exclaimed.

"Where's the fire-escapes?"

"Must be on the rear or over by the alley. There ain't none this side, sure enough."

"Yes, they're in back," the architect said authoritatively.

He tried to think just where they were and where they opened in the building, but could not remember. A voice wailed dismally through a megaphone:—

"Look out, boys! Back!"

On the edge of the cornice appeared three little figures with a line of hose. At that height they looked like willing gnomes on the crust of a flaming world.

"Gee! Look at that roof! Look at it!"

The cry from the megaphone had come too late. Suddenly, without warning, the top of the hotel rose straight into the air, and from the sky above there sounded a great report, like the detonation of a cannon at close range. The roof had blown up. For an instant darkness followed, as if the flame had been smothered, snuffed out. Then with a mighty roar the pent-up gases that had caused the explosion ignited and burst forth in a broad sheet of beautiful blue flame, covering the doomed building with a crown of fire.

Hart looked for the men with the hose. One had caught on the sloping roof of a line of bay windows, and clung there desperately seven stories above the ground.

"He's a goner!" some one near him groaned.

Large strips of burning tar paper began to float above the heads of the crowd, causing a stampede. In the rush, Hart got nearer the fire lines, more immediately in front of the hotel, which irresistibly drew him closer. Now he could hear the roar of the flame as it swept through the upper stories and streamed out into the dark night. The fierce light illumined the silk streamer, which still waved from the pole at the corner of the building, untouched by the explosion. Across the east wall, under the cornice, was painted the sign: THE GLENMORE FAMILY HOTEL; and beneath, in letters of boastful size, FIREPROOF BUILDING. Tongues of flame danced over the words.

The policeman at the line pointed derisively to the legend with his billy.

"Now ain't that fireproof!"

"Burns like rotten timber!" a man answered.

It was going frightfully fast! The flames were now galloping through the upper stories, sweeping the lofty structure from end to end, and smoke had begun to pour from many points in the lower stories, showing that the fount of flame had its roots far down in the heart of the building. Vague reports circulated through the crowd: A hundred people or more were still in the hotel. All were out. Thirty were penned in the rear rooms of the sixth floor. One elevator was still running. It had been caught at the time of the explosion, etc.... For the moment the firemen were making their fight in the rear, and the north front was left in a splendid peace of silent flame and smoke—a spectacle for the crowd in the street.

Within the lofty structure, the architect realized vaguely, there was being enacted one of those modern tragedies which mock the pride and vanity of man. In that furnace human beings were fighting for their lives, or, penned in, cut off by the swift flames, were waiting in delirious fear for aid that was beyond the power of men to give them. A terrible horror clutched him. It was his building which was being eaten up like grass before the flame. He dodged beneath the fire line and began to run toward the east end, driven by a wild impulse that he could not control. He must do something,—must help! It was his building; he knew it from cornice to foundation; he might know how to get at those within! A policeman seized him roughly and thrust him back behind the line. He fought his way to the front again, while the dense crowd elbowed and cursed him. He lost his hat; his coat was half torn from his shoulders. But he struggled frantically forward.

"You here, Hart! What are you after?"

Some one stretched out a detaining hand and drew him out of the press. It was Cook, his draughtsman. Cook was chewing gum, his jaws working nervously, grinding and biting viciously in his excitement. The fierce glare revealed the deep lines of the man's face.

"You can't get out that way. The street's packed solid!" Cook bellowed into his ear. "God alive, how fast it's going! That's your steel frame, tile partition, fireproof construction, is it? To hell with it!"

Suddenly he clutched the architect's arm again and shouted:—

"Where are the east-side fire-escapes? I can't see nothing up that wall, can you?"

The architect peered through the wreaths of smoke. There should have been an iron ladder between every two tiers of bay windows on this side of the building.

"They are all in back," he answered, remembering now that the contractor had cut out those on the east wall as a "disfigurement." "Let's get around to the rear," he shouted to the draughtsman, his anxiety whipping him once more.

After a time they managed to reach an alley at the southwest angle of the hotel, where two engines were pumping from a hydrant. Here they could see the reach of the south wall, up which stretched the spidery lines of a single fire-escape. Cook pointed to it in mute wonder and disgust.

"It's just a question if the beams will hold into the walls until they can get all the folks out," he shouted. "I heard that one elevator boy was still running his machine and taking 'em down. As long as the floors hold together, he can run his elevator. But don't talk to me about your fireproof hotels! Why, the bloody thing ain't been burning twenty minutes, and look at it!"

As he spoke there was a shrill whistle from the fire marshal, and then a wrenching, crashing, plunging noise, like the sound of an avalanche. The upper part of the east wall had gone, toppling outward into the alley like the side of a fragile box. In another moment followed a lesser crash. The upper floors had collapsed, slipping down into the inner gulf of the building. There was a time of silence and awful quiet; but almost immediately the blue flames, shot with orange, leaped upward once more. From the precipitous wall above, along the line of the fire-escape, came horrid human cries, and in the blinding smoke and flame appeared a dozen figures clinging here and there to the window frames like insects, as if the heat had driven them outward.

Cook swayed against the architect like a man with nausea.

"They're done for now, sure, all that ain't out. And I guess there ain't many out. It just slumped, just slumped," he repeated with a nervous quiver of the mouth. Suddenly he turned his pale face to the architect and glared into his eyes.

"Damn you, you son of a bitch! Damn you—you—" he stammered, shaking his fist at him. "There wasn't any steel in the bloody box! It was rotten cheese. That's you, you, you!" He turned and ran toward the burning mass, distracted, shouting as he ran: "Rotten cheese! Just rotten cheese!"

But the architect still stood there in the alley, rooted in horror, stupefied. High above him, in a window of the south wall, which was still untouched by the fire, he saw a woman crouching on the narrow ledge of the brick sill. She clung with one hand to an awning rope and put the other before her eyes. He shouted something to her, but he could not hear the sound of his own voice. She swayed back and forth, and then as a swirl of flame shot up in the room behind her, she fell forward into the abyss of the night.... A boy's face appeared at one of the lower windows. He was trying to break the pane of heavy glass. Finally he smashed a hole with his fist and stood there, dazed, staring down into the alley; then he dropped backward into the room, and a jet of smoke poured from the vent he had made.

In front of the hotel there were fresh shouts; they were using the nets, now. The architect covered his face with his hands, and moaning to himself began to run, to flee from the horrible spot. But a cry arrested him, a wail of multitudinous voices, which rose above the throb of the engines, the crackle of the fire, all the tumult of the catastrophe. He looked up once more to the fire-eaten ruin. The lofty south wall, hitherto intact, had begun to waver along the east edge. It tottered, hung, then slid backward, shaking off the figures on the fire-escape as if they had been frozen flies.... He put his hands to his eyes and ran. He could hear the crowd in the street groaning with rage and pity. As he ran he saw beside the park a line of ambulances and patrol wagons ready for their burdens.

How long he ran, or in what direction, he never knew. He had a dim memory of himself, sitting in some place with a bottle of whiskey before him. The liquor seemed to make no impression on his brain; his hand still shook with the paralysis of fear. He remembered his efforts to pour whiskey into the glass without spilling it. After a time a face, vaguely familiar, entered his nightmare, and the man, who carried a little black bag such as doctors use, sat down beside him and shouted at him:—

"What are you doing here? What do you want with that whiskey? Give it to me. You have had all the booze that's good for you, I guess."

And in his stupor he said to the man tearfully:—

"Don't take it away, doctor. For heaven's sake don't take the whiskey away! I tell you, I have killed people to-night. Eight, ten, forty—no, I killed eight people. Yes, eight men and women. I see 'em dying now. Give me the whiskey!"

"You're off your nut, man," the doctor replied impatiently. "You haven't killed any one. You have been boozing, and you'll kill yourself if you don't quit. Here, give me that!"

He remembered rising to his feet obediently and saying very solemnly:—

"Very well, my friend, I won't drink any more if you say so. But listen to me. I killed a lot of people, eight of 'em, and I don't know how many more besides—over there in a great fire. I saw 'em dying, like flies, like flies! Now give me one more drink."

"All right, you killed 'em, if you say so."

"Don't leave me, doctor! It's a terrible thing to kill so many people, all at once, like flies, like flies!"

And he burst into tears, sobbing and shaking with the awful visions of his brain, his head buried in his arms.


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