The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXVII

... He had been lying there long hours close to the warm earth that was preparing for a new life. The thin branches of the trees rose bare and severe between him and the blue sky, mementos of the silent winter. The ground about their trunks was matted with dead leaves, through which nothing green had yet pushed its way. Nevertheless, the earth seemed yeasty with promise. The intense, unwonted heat of the April days had broken the crust of soil and set the sap of life in motion once more. The air was heavy with earthy odors,—a fragrant forecast of Nature's regeneration. Deep down in the little ravines, and among the pools of the meadowland beyond, frogs were croaking harshly, filling the solitude of the still slumbering woods with the clamor of awakening life. And through the brown tree trunks, above the tracery of the topmost branches, over the flat fields, there swam the haze of earliest spring—a vague atmosphere of renascence, the warm breath of mother earth.

The man lay there, empty of thought, feeling remotely the mighty movement of things around him—an inert mass in a vital world. The odors of the earth stirred in him faintly old sensations of vivid springtimes in his youth, when the ecstasy of the great world of sun and sky and cloud, of distant fields and mounting uplands, had thrilled his heart. He saw again the morning mist swimming above the little Wisconsin lakes where he used to hunt, and felt the throb of joy for the on-coming spring. And he remembered how this outer world had spoken to him one day while he was sitting at his work in Paris. Something imperceptible had crept into the room over the endless roofs, and called to him in a low, persistent voice. Then he had listened, joyously putting aside his task, and obeyed the invitation, wandering idly forth into the germinating fields, which in some mysterious way had purified his soul of all petty things. In his youth that experience had come to him again and again, an impulse from beyond his world, which had led him forth from himself, from the soil of living, to fresh vigor and purity. Latterly there had come to him no call like this; he had known no abandonment of self in the enveloping force of Nature, no purification of spirit. The trees and the grass, the earth and the sky, all the multitudinous voices of unconscious life, had not spoken to him. Shut within himself, driven by the bitter furies of his own little being, he had worked from season to season, forgetting the face of Nature. True, he had lived the outdoor life of the world, passed through the beautiful fields each season, just as he had gone to the theatre or the opera. But the earth had not spoken to him, alone, personally, out of her abundant wisdom, garnered through the limitless years. For all the period of his maturity he had forgotten the great mother of life.

Now, wrecked and bruised, he lay there on her breast, as a sick man might lie in the silent room of a hospital and listen to the large commotion of life without. He was content to rest there on the warm earth, waiting and listening for the voice which should come from beyond, content to forget himself,—a creature that had been industriously shaped for eight busy years, a creature of the city and of men, with a self that was his in part only, and was mixed with all those others whom he had touched. That figure of deformity, made in the strife of the city, he no longer recognized to be his. The richer heart of youth, with its pictured hopes, the beauty of early days, came back to him and blessed him.... The sun sank into the deepening blue haze of the heavens; the thin shadows of the trees faded from the brown earth; the south wind from the prairies began to rise, blowing strongly, scented by the breeding land over which it had come. And as the day drew to its close, the murmuring voices of re-created life ascended from all parts of the earth with a strengthened note. The tree-toads were chorusing in the damp hollows, and the spice of roots and mould sucked out by the hot sun was descending once more in damp fragrance to the earth. The moist, crumbling soil beneath the man's body was opening itself—stirring, awakening, preparing, for the gigantic tasks of renewal, of re-creation, of conception and birth. An immense, powerful, impersonal life, the greatest Life of all, was going forward all about him. In the midst of this large mystery he felt that he was but an atom—an accident which counted for nothing.

That terrible vision of dying men and women no longer haunted the man's mind. The catastrophe which had shaken him to the roots of his being sank into its place behind the long procession of those acts, which had made him what he was. Now, at last, he began to think coherently, to see himself in the whole of his being, step by step, as he had come to be. The old man's death and funeral rose before him, and he remembered his restless preoccupation with the money so soon to be his, while others sorrowed and prayed. Then came the will, which he had resented, and the growing lust for the money that had slipped from his grasp. Born of that lust, bred in envy and hot desire, was the will to succeed. From the first day of his struggle for success there came before his eyes the man Graves. The contractor's fat, bearded face was the sordid image of his sin, familiar in its cupidinous look. It was the image of that greed to which he had submitted himself, with which he had consented to do evil. From the very hour when he had caught the contractor's eye in the Canostota, and the two had committed fraud over the weight of steel in an I-beam, there had set forth a long, long train of petty dishonesties, which had created in him the vitiating habit of insincerity. One by one he recalled the fraudulent works in which he had had a part,—the school from which he had tried to steal some of the money his uncle had denied him, and finally this hotel, which had crumbled at the touch of fire. That was the strange, dramatic climax of the story, fated so to be from the first petty lust for money, from the first fraud.

Greed, greed! The spirit of greed had eaten him through and through, the lust for money, the desire for the fat things of the world, the ambition to ride high among his fellows. In the world where he had lived this passion had a dignified name; it was called enterprise and ambition. But now he saw it for what it was,—greed and lust, nothing more. It was in the air of the city which he had breathed for eight years.... In his pride he had justified knavery by Success. He had judged himself mean and small merely because he had failed to cheat and steal and trick "in a large way." Only the little and the weak need be honest; to the strong all things were right—he had said glibly. Now, for the first day since the strength of his manhood, he saw acts, not blurred by his own passions, not shifting with the opinions of the day; but he saw them fixed and hard,—living, human acts, each one in its own integrity, with its own irrevocable fate; acts expressed in lowered eyelids of consent, in shrugs, in meaningful broken phrases; acts unprofessional, sharp, dishonest, criminal.

He lay in the gathering twilight, listened, and saw. And at last the soul of the man, which had been long in hiding, came back, and flowed into him once more. A deep, new longing filled his heart, a desire to be once again as he had been before, to rise from his debasement and become clean, to slough off this parasitic self into which he had grown all these years of his strife in the city, to be born anew like the springtime earth—such longings as come to men when they are sickened with the surfeit of their passions.

... He knew now why his wife had left him. She had felt the leper taint, which had been eating at his heart all the years of their marriage, and had repudiated it. She had cried out against the mere getting and spending of money, to which low ebb those lofty ambitions of his youth had descended before her eyes. She had loved him as the creator, the builder; and he had given her no visions, but only the sensualities of modern wealth. "Let us begin again and live the common life," she had cried out to him. "Let us live for work and not for money." He had put her aside with contempt, and refused to open the dark places of his life to her. Now he knew that she had done well to leave him to his own day of judgment. And the first impulse in the man's new soul was to go to her, humbly, and say to her: "You were right. I have sinned against myself, against you, against life, all along the way. Will you accept my repentance, and love me again from the beginning, knowing now the truth?" Ardently he desired to hear her answer; but his heart left him in doubt as to what that answer might be. For he understood at last that he had never known this woman, who had been his wife for eight years.

Nevertheless, despite this hunger of his heart for the woman he loved, there rose in him slowly a purging sense of relief from crime and sin committed. It had passed away, was put off from himself. Surely he was to come once more into peace! The upspringing life of the reincarnated earth chanted all about him but one song: "Here I leave my uncleanness. Life is strong and good. There is, for all, forgiveness and peace. Here I bury the filth of my deeds, and renew my hope." Thus man rises again and again from the depths of his abasement; thus springs in him a new hope, a vital, imperishable element, the soul of his being; and he is prepared afresh for the struggle. Deep within him there lies forever the unconquerable conviction of his power to rise, to renew himself.

So, after the tempest of debauch, little men wake from their carnal desires, and, leaving behind them the uncleanness of their flesh, go forth into the pure morning, subdued and ashamed, yet irresistibly sure that life is good and holds forgiveness and hope for them. With the new day they will become like their dreams, clean and pure. Thus, also, those larger men, not eaten by bodily lusts, those greater sinners who are caught on the whirling spikes of bolder passions, who are torn and twisted—these, also, return at certain hours to the soul within them, and renew there the pure fire of their natures, so that they may enter again the endless contest having hope and health. Thus, above all, the great heart of things, the abundant mother of life, the earth, renews herself eternally according to the laws of her being, and comes forth afresh and undiminished for the business of living.

The mere lump of man lying there inert upon the ground felt this great process of renewal all about him, and sucked in fresh life and health. In like manner, years before, in his youth, he had gone down to the sea, and there had known something of this mysterious sensation of renewal. His body plunged in cool, black sea-water, he had drawn through the pores of his flesh the elemental currents of life. He longed now to escape again from men, to go down to the sea and touch those waters washing in from their remote tidal courses up and down the earth. By such means Nature cleanses and teaches man. Heedless of man, unconcerned with his follies and vices, impersonal, irresistible, majestic, she receives his head upon her breast, and renews within him his spirit,—the power to battle, the power to live.

The fruitful earth holds in her bosom death and life, both together, and out of her comes health. In like manner there lie in the heart of man diverse instincts,—seeds of good and evil, ready to germinate. For long seasons seeds of one kind burst forth in the soil of a man's nature and thrive. Accident, the intricate web of fate, gives them their fit soil, their heat, their germinating impulse. And the world about them, seeing the fruit of these seeds alone, calls the man good or bad, and thus makes its rude analysis of character, as something set and fixed, stamped upon the soul forever. But in their own time other seeds, perchance ripening late and slowly, come to their day of germination, seeds of unlike nature, with diverse fruit. Such sprout and send their life forth into the man, creating a new nature which the world will not recognize as his. Thus it was happening with this man: commingled in his heart and brain there had lain diverse seeds of many kinds,—seeds of decay and seeds of life. Impulses of creative purpose, of unselfish work—these had been long dormant; impulses of lust and greed and deceit—these had grown rankly in the feverish life of the city until they had flowered in crime. Now had come to him the time of fate; the first harvest of his acts was garnered; and the new seeds of his life were ready to wake from their sleep in the depths of his being, to put forth their energies, their demands. Some great shock—the agony of dying men and women—had quickened this new growth. So happened the miracle of rebirth, hidden far away from all human observation, first revealing itself in the consciousness of purification and renewed health.

The song of the springtime earth rose ever upward, calming and healing the man, who at last had caught its message. It said to him: "Another sun, a new day, an earth ever fresh from the hand of God! Eternal hope—the burial of the corrupt body with its misdeeds; health, and not decay; life, and not death. For life is good. There is forgiveness and renewal for all those who heed." ... Through the misty heavens above the trees the stars glimmered faintly. Over the prairie, fields, and woodland the night wind passed, soft, odorous, charged with the breath of the earth in the conceiving time of life....

Under the starlight of the spring night there might be seen the figure of a man walking southward toward the black horizon of the great city. He walked neither fast nor slow, but steadily, evenly, as if urged by one powerful purpose,—some magnetic end that set his nerves and his muscles to the rhythm of action.


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