The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXVI

The next morning Hart found himself on a sofa in a bare, dusky room that looked as if it was a doctor's office. He sat up and tried to think what had happened to him overnight. Suddenly the picture of the burning hotel swept across his memory, and he groaned with a fresh sense of sharp pain. Some one was whistling in the next room, and presently the door opened, and Dr. Coburn appeared in trousers and undershirt, mopping his face with a towel. The architect recognized him now, and knew that he was the one who had struggled with him in his dreams.

"Hello, Jack Hart!" the doctor called out boisterously. "How are you feeling? Kind of dopey? My, but you were full of booze last night! I had to jam a hypodermic into you to keep you quiet, when I got you over here. Do you get that way often?"

"Was I drunk?" the architect asked dully.

"Well, I rather think. Don't you feel it this morning?"

He grinned at the dishevelled figure on the sofa and continued to mop his face.

"You were talking dotty, too, about killing folks. I thought maybe you might have a gun on you. But I couldn't find anything. What have you been doing?"

"It was the fire," Hart answered slowly, "a terrible fire. People were killed—I saw them. My God! it was awful!"

He buried his face in his hands and shuddered.

"Shook you up considerable, did it? Your nerves are off. Here, wait a minute! I'll fix you something."

The doctor went back into the inner room and returned presently with a small glass.

"Drink this. It will give you some nerve."

The architect took the stimulant and then lay down once more with his face to the wall. Before long he pulled himself together and drank a cup of coffee, which the doctor had prepared. Then he took himself off, saying that he must get to his office at once. He went away in a daze, barely thanking the doctor for his kindness. When he had left, Coburn began to whistle again, thinking, "There's something more'n drink or that fire the matter with him!"

Hart bought a newspaper at the first stand. It was swelled with pages of coarse cuts and "stories" of the "Glenmore Hotel Tragedy." On the elevated train, which he took to reach the city, all the passengers were buried in the voluminous sheets of their newspapers, avidly sucking in the details of the disaster. For a time he stared at the great cut on the first page of his paper, which purported to represent the scene at the fire when the south wall fell. But in its place he saw the sheer stretch of pitiless wall, the miserable figures on the iron ladder being swept into the flames. Then he read the headlines of the account of the fire. Seventeen persons known to have been in the hotel were missing; the bodies of ten had been found. Had it not been for the heroism of a colored elevator boy, Morris by name, who ran his car up and down seven times through the burning shaft, the death list would have been far longer. On the second trip, so the account ran, the elevator had been caught by a broken gate on the third floor. Morris had coolly run his car back to the top, then opened the lever to full speed, and crashed his way triumphantly through the obstacle. It was one of those acts of unexpected intelligence, daring, and devotion to duty which bring tears to the eyes of thousands all over the land. The brave fellow had been caught in the collapse of the upper floors, and his body had not yet been found. It was buried under tons of brick and iron in the wrecked building.

The newspaper account wandered on, column after column, repeating itself again and again, confused, endlessly prolix, but in the waste of irrelevancy a few facts slowly emerged. The Glenmore, fortunately, had not been half full. It had been opened only six weeks before as a family hotel,—one of those shoddy places where flock young married people with the intention of avoiding the cares of children and the trials of housekeeping in modest homes; where there is music twice a week and dancing on Saturday evenings; where the lower windows are curtained by cheap lace bearing large monograms, and electric candles and carnations are provided for each table in the dining-room. Another year from this time there would have been three or four hundred people in the burning tinder box.

The fire had started somewhere in the rear of the second floor, from defective electric wiring, it was supposed, and had shot up the rear elevator shaft, which had no pretence of fireproof protection. The east wall had bulged almost at once, pulling out the supports for the upper three floors. It was to be doubted whether the beams, bearing-walls, and main partitions were of fireproof materials. The charred remains of Georgia pine and northern spruce seemed to indicate that they were not. At any rate, the incredible rapidity with which the fire had spread and the dense smoke showed that the "fireproofing" was of the flimsiest description. And, to cap all, there was but one small fire-escape on the rear wall, difficult of access! "The Glenmore," so the Chicago Thunderer pronounced, "was nothing but an ornamental coffin."

Editorially, the Thunderer had already begun its denunciation of the building department for permitting a contractor to erect such an obvious "fire-trap," and for granting the lessees a license to open it as a hotel. There had been too many similar horrors of late,—the lodging-house on West Polk Street, where five persons had lost their lives, the private hospital on the North Side, where fourteen men and women had been burned, etc. In all these cases it was known that the building ordinances had been most flagrantly violated. There was the usual clamor for "investigation," for "locating the blame," and "bringing the real culprits before the Grand Jury." It should be said that the Thunderer was opposed politically to the City Hall.

In the architect's office there was an air of subdued excitement. No work was in progress when Hart let himself into his private room from the hall. Instead, the men were poring over the broad sheets of the newspapers spread out on the tables. When he stepped into the draughting-room, they began awkwardly to fold up the papers and start their work. Cook, Hart noticed, was not there. The stenographer came in from the outer office and announced curtly:—

"The 'phone's been ringing every minute, Mr. Hart." She looked at the architect with mingled aloofness and curiosity. "They were mostly calls from the papers, and some of the reporters are in there now, waiting. What shall I say to 'em?"

"Say I am out of town," Hart ordered, giving the usual formula when reporters called at the office. Then he went back to his private room and shut the door. He dropped the bulky newspaper on the floor and tried to think what he should do. There were some memoranda on the desk of alterations which he was to make in a country house, and these he took up to examine. Soon his desk telephone rang, and when he put the receiver to his ear, Graves's familiar tones came whispering over the line. The contractor talked through the telephone in a subdued voice, as if he thought to escape eavesdropping at the central office by whispering.

"Is that you, Hart? Where have you been? I've been trying to get you all the morning. Say, can't you come over here quick?"

"What do you want?" the architect demanded sharply. The sound of the man's voice irritated him.

"Well, I want a good many things," Graves replied coldly. "I guess we had better get together on this business pretty soon."

"You can find me over here the rest of the morning," Hart answered curtly.

There was a pause of several seconds, and then the contractor telephoned cautiously:—

"Say, I can't leave just now. That Dutchman's in here pretty drunk, and I don't want him to get loose. Come over, quick!"

"All right," the architect muttered dully, hanging up his telephone. He was minded to refuse, but he realized that it would be best to see what was the matter. Some plan of action must be decided upon. Meyer was one of the officers and directors of the Glenmore Hotel Corporation. The architect and a couple of clerks in the contractor's office were the other dummies in this corporation, which had been organized solely to create bonds and stock and to escape personal liability.

Hart gathered up the memoranda on his desk, and telling the stenographer that he was going out to Eversley to see the Dixon house, he left the office. As he stepped into the hall, he met Cook, who had just come from the elevator. He nodded to the draughtsman and hailed a descending car.

"Say, Hart," Cook said in a quiet voice, "can I have a word with you?"

Hart stepped back into the hall and waited to hear what the draughtsman had to say.

"I must have been pretty near crazed last night, I guess," Cook began, turning his face away from the architect, "and I said things I had no call to say."

"Come in," Hart murmured, unlocking the door to his private office.

"Of course, it wasn't my business, anyway," Cook continued, "to accuse you, no matter what happened. But I saw a friend of mine this morning, a man on the Thunderer, and he had just come from the city hall, where he'd been to examine the Glenmore plans. He says they're all right. Same as ours in the office. I can't understand what happened to the old thing unless Graves— Well, that's not our business."

There was a pause, while the two men stood and looked at each other. Finally Cook added:—

"So I wanted to tell you I was wrong,—I had no call to talk that way."

"That's all right, Cook," the architect replied slowly. Somehow the man's apology hurt him more than his curses. They still stood waiting. Suddenly Hart exclaimed:—

"You needn't apologize, man! The plans are all right. But that doesn't let me out. I knew what Graves was going to do with 'em. I knew it from the start."

"What do you say?" the draughtsman demanded, bewildered.

"The hotel was a job from the start," Hart repeated.

There was another pause, which was broken by Cook.

"Well, I suppose after this you won't want me any more?"

"I suppose not," the architect answered in a colorless tone.

"All right; I'll go to-day if you say so."

"As you please."

And they parted. Cook was an honest, whole-souled man. It was best that he should leave the office, Hart reflected, as he went down in the elevator—best for Cook and for him too. The draughtsman's admiration for him had been his daily incense, and it would be intolerable to see him daily with this matter between them, even if Cook would stay.

Hart found Graves in his inner office, while a clerk held at bay a roomful of men who wanted to get at the contractor. Graves looked serious, but undisturbed, manifesting no more outward emotion than if he had come from the funeral of a distant relative.

"It's a pretty bad mess, ain't it?" he said to the architect, offering him a cigar. "I guess you were right. Those first story walls weren't solid. They must have bulged and pulled the whole business down.... Of course the papers are hot. They always yap considerable when anything happens. They'll spit fire a week or so, and then forget all about it. Everything is straight over at the city hall so far. There'll be the coroner's inquest, of course. But he won't find much. The only danger is this cuss Meyer. He's been on a spree and is pretty well shook up. If they get hold of him, and ask him questions at the inquest, he's liable to tell all he knows, and more too. What I want you to do is to take care of the Dutchman."

"What do you mean to do about the inquest?" Hart asked abruptly.

"Do? Well, the best thing for all of us who have been concerned with the Glenmore is to be called out of the city for two or three weeks or so. I have got to go to Philadelphia to-night or to-morrow, if I can get away. Gotz will be here to go on the stand if they want to get after the hotel corporation. They won't make much out of him. Now, if you can take care of the Dutchman—"

"What do you mean?"

Graves looked at the architect critically before answering.

"Don't lose your nerve, Hart. It'll come out all right. I've seen my lawyer this morning, and I know just what they can do with us, and it ain't much. They can get after the building department, but they're used to that. And they can bring a civil suit against the corporation, which will do no harm. You keep out of the way for a while, and you won't get hurt a particle. Take the Dutchman up to Milwaukee and drown him. Keep him drunk—he's two-thirds full now. Lucky he came here instead of blabbing to one of those newspaper fellers! Keep him drunk, and ship him up north on the lakes. By the time he finds his way back, his story won't be worth telling."

Hart looked at the big mass of a man before him, and loathed him with all his being. He wanted to take him by one of his furry ears and shake the flesh from his bones. The same impulse that had prompted him to admit his guilt to Cook, the impulse to free his mind from the intolerable coil of fraud, cost what it might, was stirring again within him.

"Well?" Graves inquired.

"I am going to quit," the architect said, almost involuntarily. "I'm sick of the business, and I shan't run away. You can look after Meyer yourself—"

"Perhaps you're looking for some money, too?" the contractor sneered.

"No more of yours, I know that!" Hart answered, rising from his chair and taking his hat. "I'm sick of the whole dirty job, and if they want me to, I'll talk, too, I suppose."

"You damned, white-livered sneak! Ain't you got enough gut in you to sit tight? You—"

But the contractor was swearing at the blank wall of his office.

When the architect reached the street he hesitated. Instead of taking the train for Eversley, as he had intended to do, he got on an electric car that ran far out into the northern suburbs. He kept saying to himself that he wanted time to think, that he must think it all out before he returned to his office. For he was not yet sure that it would be best to stay and bear the brunt of the coming investigation, as he had said to the contractor. He was not clear whether that would do any good.

But he did not think. Instead, he brooded over the visions of the past night, which beset him. When the car stopped he got out and walked north along the lake shore, vaguely intending to reach Eversley in that way. He was still trying to think, but he saw nothing clearly—nothing but that terrible picture of the burning hotel, the dying men and women. Thus he walked on and on, still trying to think, to find himself....


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