The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXVIII

The architect had a long time to wait in Wheeler's office that morning. The lawyer rarely came in before ten, so the stenographer said, looking suspiciously into the man's white, unshaven face. She knew Hart quite well, and she was wondering what was the matter with him—whether he was in trouble or had been on a spree overnight. He sat in one of the armchairs of the outer office provided for waiting clients, and, absorbed in his own thoughts, stared at the square of green carpet beneath his feet. When Wheeler finally entered, he threw a careless glance at the seated figure and said blankly:—

"Come in here!"

The lawyer opened the door to his little office, where he had confessed many a man, and without a word pointed to a chair beside his littered desk. Then he sat down and waited, examining the architect's face with his dispassionate eyes.

"Everett, I wanted to see you about something," Hart began. Then he stopped as though surprised by his own voice, which sounded far away, unfamiliar, and unused. The lawyer waited a moment for him to continue, and then he asked in his indifferent manner:—

"So you wanted to see me?"

"Yes, I want to tell you something," Jackson began again.

The lawyer wheeled toward his desk, and picked up a little silver letter-opener, which he fingered.

"About that fire?" he asked.

"Yes—that and other things."

Wheeler went to the door, closed it, and returning to his chair, wheeled his face away from his cousin.

"Well, what about it?"

"You know—you saw it in the papers—how the Glenmore burned? It was one of Graves's buildings, and I did the plans for him. Well, the newspapers were right; there was crooked work. The plans were all altered after they had been through the building department. Graves is in with the whole gang over there. He has all the inspectors in his pocket."

Then Hart paused again. He was not saying what he came there to tell. His mind seemed strangely unreliant and confused. While he stumbled, the frown on his cousin's face deepened into an ugly crease between the eyes. It said as plainly as words, "What in hell do you come here for, blabbing this to me?" Jackson, reading the look, caught himself and continued more steadily:—

"But I didn't come here to talk of the fire. It's about the school. Pemberton was right about that. It was crooked, too. I want to tell you what I know about that."

Wheeler put down the letter-opener and rested his chin on the tips of his fingers. The architect told his story slowly, without excitement, trying to give all the details and the exact figures, busying himself with being precise. The matter was complicated, and it led him to speak again of the hotel and of other affairs, of his entire connection with the contractor,—to tell the complete story of his business career in the city. The lawyer did not try to stop him, although his face betrayed no special interest or desire to comment.

"Well, the upshot of the matter is," Hart ended, "that I am through with the whole business, Everett. I am going to get out of it somehow and square what I can. And first, I wanted you to know the truth about the school, and to take this for the trustees."

He laid on the desk a large, fat envelope, which he had filled that morning from his safety deposit box.

"There's about thirty thousand there, in stocks and bonds and some land. I thought I wouldn't wait to put it into cash," he explained. "It's pretty nearly all I have got, Everett. Part of that stock in the Glenmore which Graves gave me represented my legitimate commission on the building, but I have put that in, too. You can force Graves to make good the rest. I can figure out for you what he should pay. And I'll do what I can to help you make him do the right thing. If you can't get hold of Graves, why, I'm ready to give you my personal note for the rest and pay it as soon as I can."

Wheeler poked the envelope on the desk without taking it up.

"Conscience money?" he remarked slowly. "I don't want your wad. I wish you had chucked it in the river, done anything with it but brought it here, fixed that matter up once, didn't I?"

Hart was able to realize the contempt, the ironical humor, with which the lawyer's tone was charged, and his lips tightened. But he made no reply. After the experiences of the last two days he cared little for what his cousin might say or think. In some manner he had passed completely outside of the world where such matters counted. He was for the time dulled to all but a few considerations.

"Say," the lawyer iterated, "I thought we'd closed that little matter for good. But I can tell you there's one person who'll be tickled," he laughed disgustedly. "And that's old Pemberton. He thought you were a scamp from the word go. Now he'll be well set up when the judge tells him this. He'll take an irreligious pleasure in it."

Jackson said nothing, and the two men faced each other sombrely. Finally the lawyer exclaimed:—

"So you lost your nerve!"

It had not presented itself to the architect in that way, and he winced perceptibly as he replied:—

"Well, you can call it that. And I guess that if you had seen those people dropping into that burning building, and known what I knew about the way it was put together— Well, what's the use of talking! I am done with the whole thing—done with it for good."

The lawyer eyed him sharply, unsympathetically, curious, in a cold manner, of the psychology of the man before him. Hart's sturdy body, which was a trifle inclined to fleshiness, seemed to have shrunken and to be loose in his clothes. The bones of his jaw came out heavily in his unshaven face, and below his eyes the skin was black, shading into gray. His tweed office suit was rumpled out of shape, and there were signs of the muddy roads on his trousers and boots. Usually so careful and tidy in dress, he seemed to have lost for once all consciousness of his appearance.

Wheeler had never felt much respect for his cousin as a young man. Then the lawyer considered him to be somewhat "light-weight," given to feminine interests in art and literature, feeling himself to be above his homely American environment. But since their uncle's death Jackson had won his approval by the practical ability he had shown in pushing his way in the Chicago world, in getting together a flourishing business, and making a success of his profession. Now that there was revealed to him the uncertain means by which this outward success had been obtained, he reverted easily to his earlier judgment. The man was really a light-weight, a weakling, he concluded. The lawyer despised weaklings; they made the real troubles in this life. He could not see to its depth the tragedy before him, even as the stern Pemberton might have seen it. He merely saw another nasty mess, a scandal that would probably get about the city, even if his cousin and the contractor escaped the Grand Jury for this Glenmore affair. He had little use for men who went wrong and "lost their nerve."

"Well," he said at last, "you needn't bother about that note just yet. You'll have troubles enough for one while, I expect. I suppose I shall have to take this, though,"—he tapped the fat envelope,—"and lay the matter before the trustees. I'll let you know what they decide to do."

"All right," Hart answered. As he did not rise immediately from his chair, the lawyer turned to his desk with an air of dismissal. When the architect at last got wearily to his feet, Wheeler asked, without looking up:—

"Have you seen that man Graves this morning?"

"No, I went to the bank and then came here the first thing."

"He was in here to see me late yesterday. He seemed afraid that you might split on him in this Glenmore business."

Hart listened, his eyes looking over his cousin's head far out through the office window, his mind concerned with other matters.

"Hadn't you better get out of the city for a few weeks?" the lawyer suggested casually. "Take a vacation. You seem to need a rest, bad. The papers'll quiet down after a while—they always do," he added explanatorily.

As a matter of fact, he had promised the contractor that he would do what he could to keep Hart from making any trouble. It was obviously best for the architect to be out of sight for the present, in some safe place where he could not be got at for awkward explanations.

"I've been thinking of going away for a few days," Jackson replied slowly, a flush spreading over his pallid face. "I'm going on to the Falls to see Helen. But I shan't hide, if that's what you mean. They can find me when they want me. And I shall be back before long, anyway."

Wheeler did not tell him that the coroner had already formed his jury, and that the first inquiry into the Glenmore fire was to begin the next day. If the architect had made up his mind to go to Vermont, it was just as well that he should get away before he could be summoned by the coroner.

"Well," he said, taking another look at his cousin, "whatever you do, get your nerve together. Men like you shouldn't play with fire. They'd better stick to the straight game."

The architect knew well enough what that meant. If he had been some cunning promoter who had had the wit to swindle the public out of any sum of money that ran into the millions, or if he had been some banker who had known how to ruin the credit of an enterprise which he wished to buy cheaply, Wheeler would have extended to him a cynical tolerance, and if his honesty were questioned, would have admitted merely that "there were stories about, of course—there always were stories when a man was smart enough to make some money quick." But, unfortunately, he belonged to the category of unsuccessful, petty criminals, and he "had lost his nerve."

He realized all this, and yet in the wreck which he had made of his life, he was indifferent to the world's injustice. What men thought or said about him had marvellously little importance just now. This crisis had wonderfully simplified life for him; he saw a few things which must be done, and to these he was setting himself with a slow will. His face, as he gazed down at his cousin, held new, grave lines, which gave it a sort of manliness that it had not possessed before.

"You'd better see Graves before you leave, and get together on this thing," Wheeler concluded. "You won't do any good by making a bad matter worse and spreading the stink, you know."

"I can't see any use in talking with Graves," Jackson protested slowly. "I saw him yesterday and told him my views. He made me the treasurer of his company, and I was the architect for the building. If they get me up and ask me questions—why, I shall tell what I know about it. That's all there is to that."

"Well, we'll see about that when the time comes," the lawyer replied, and then asked bluntly:—

"Are you going to tell Helen the whole story, too?"

"Yes. That's why I'm going down there." The architect's face turned red with humiliation for the first time since he had begun his story.

"I suppose she'll have to know," Wheeler admitted softly. "It will cut her pretty deep."

He was wondering whether she could forgive this weak fellow, crawling back to her now, his courage gone, broken for life, as he judged. He suspected that she might pardon him even now, though she had left him inexplicably. She would forgive her husband when he was at the end of his rope; she was made that way. The softness of character in such women irritated him, for the moment. There were other women whom he liked and admired less than her,—Mrs. Phillips was one,—who would not tolerate a flabby sinner like this man. But to Helen, disgrace would make little difference, perhaps would cause her to cling more closely to the dishonored man. And he was sorry for it all, because he loved the woman, and he could feel her tragedy, though he was impervious to the man's.

"Women have bum luck sometimes," he reflected aloud. "They have to take all the man's troubles as well as their own." Then he added not unkindly: "You had better think well what it means to her and to the children before you do anything to make matters worse. I'll keep an eye on what goes on here and let you know if you're needed—if you can do any good."

Neither offered to shake hands, and Hart went out of the office without replying to the last remark. In the vestibule of the building he hesitated a moment, as if to get his bearings, and then slowly walked down the crowded street in the direction of his office. The city sights were curiously foreign to him, as if he had come back to them after a long period of absence. The jostle of human beings on the pavement, the roar of the streets, were like the meaningless gyrations of a machine. With a repugnance that weighted his steps, he turned in at the door of his building and crowded into one of the cages that were swallowing and disgorging their human burdens in the mid-forenoon. In his office there had settled an air of listless idleness, now that Cook, the mainspring of the place, was no longer at his post. Without looking at the accumulated mail on his desk, Hart called the stenographer and dictated to her some instructions for his partner, Stewart, who had just landed in New York on his way home from a vacation in Europe. The girl received his dictation with an offish, impertinent glance in her eyes that said, "Something's wrong with this place, I guess." When the architect had finished, she said:—

"Say, Graves was in here twice this morning and wanted me to let him know as soon as you came in. He wanted to know where you were. What shall I say to him?"

Hart thought a moment before replying. He did not wish to see the contractor,—that was very clear,—and yet he was unwilling to seem to run away, to avoid the man. Moreover, he realized vaguely since his talk with his cousin that there was a certain claim in complicity. There was trouble ahead for them both, surely, and Graves had his right to be considered.

"If Mr. Graves calls, bring him in here," he said to the stenographer, as he turned to his mail.

He had some final matters to attend to, and then he should take the train. If the contractor came back before he got away, he would see him. Half an hour later, while he was still tearing open his letters and jotting notes for the answers, his door opened and Graves walked in. He had less assurance than on the afternoon before; the strain of the situation was beginning to tell even on his coarse fibre.

"So you've come to!" he exclaimed with an attempt to be at his ease, taking a chair beside the desk.

"What do you want?" the architect demanded sharply.

"Say, did you see the papers this morning?" Graves asked, ignoring the question.

Hart shook his head; he had no curiosity to know what the newspapers were saying.

"They're making an awful kick, worse than I expected. It's mostly politics, of course. They've got the mayor on the run already. He's suspended the head of the department, and Bloom was a good friend of mine. That'll scare the rest considerable. And then there's talk of bringing civil suits against the hotel company and the officers individually."

He paused to see what impression this news might make on the architect.

"They can't get much out of me," Hart answered quietly. "I turned over to Wheeler pretty nearly every dollar I have got. That's on account of the school business," he added, thinking the contractor would not comprehend rightly his meaning. "It came out of the school and might as well go back to the trustees."

Graves stared at him in disgust. He had had some idea of forcing the architect to pay part of the expense of "keeping the City Hall quiet." Now the man had outwitted him and put his money beyond his reach.

"So you've seen Mr. Wheeler?"

"Just come from there."

"He told you he'd help us out of this hole?"

"We didn't discuss it."

"I've seen to Meyer myself. He's where he can't do no harm. And I guess it's all right over there,"—he pointed with his thumb in the direction of the city hall,—"though it'll cost a sight of money if those fellers lose their jobs. Now, if we keep quiet, they can't do nothing but bring their suits for damages. I ain't afraid of that."

"I suppose not," Hart replied dryly. "It doesn't touch you. They're all straw names in the corporation papers but mine, aren't they?"

"Just now there's this damned coroner," Graves went on, ignoring the last remark. "The inquest begins to-morrow. He'll try to fix the blame, of course, and hold some one to the Grand Jury. He's got to, to quiet the papers."

"I suppose so," Hart assented wearily.

"But they've got nothing to go on if you only hold your tongue," Graves ripped out incautiously. "And you've got to hold your jaw!"

The man's dictatorial manner angered the architect. He rose hastily from his desk, gathering some papers and putting them into his bag.

"I told you yesterday, Graves, that I would have nothing more to do with you in this Glenmore business. I don't see what you came in here for. Let them go ahead and do what they can. I'll stand for my share of the trouble."

"You—" Graves burst out. "You—"

"I've got an engagement now, Mr. Graves, and there's no use in our talking this matter over any more."

He reached for his coat and hat.

"But I tell you, Hart, that you can't be a quitter in this business. Didn't your cousin tell you that, too?"

"It makes no difference to me what he might say," Hart retorted doggedly, holding open the door into the hall.

"I'll smash you, sure thing, if you do me up in this dirty way!"

The contractor crossed the room to where Hart stood, as if he meant to strike then and there. Hart looked at him indifferently. The man disgusted and irritated him; he wondered how he could ever have submitted himself to him. He held the door open, and Graves passed out into the hall, which was empty.

"I'll smash you!" he repeated, less loudly.

"All right!" the architect muttered. "I guess that won't matter much now."

Graves kept by his side in the elevator, and followed him out into the street.

"Say! Step over to Burke's place with me," he urged in a more conciliatory tone.

"See here!" the architect answered, stopping on the sidewalk. "It's no use talking, Graves, I've done with you and your methods. Can't you see that? I don't intend to get you into trouble if I can help it. But I don't mean to sneak out of this or tell any lies to save your hide. I'm on my way out of the city now, to see my family, and shall be away for a few days. Wheeler knows where I shall be, and he'll let me know when I am wanted. They won't get around to me for some little time yet, probably. If they summon me, why, I suppose I shall come back."

The contractor, hearing that Hart was about to leave the city, felt relieved for the moment. It would be easier to deal with his cousin, the lawyer, who might be able to keep the architect from making a fool of himself. So he walked on with Hart toward the station in a calmer frame of mind. As if he realized the mistake he had made in trying to bully his accomplice, he began to put forward his personal difficulties apologetically.

"This fire has hit me hard. Of course the Glenmore will be a dead loss, and the banks have begun to call my loans. Then it'll take a lot of ready money to keep those fellers over there quiet, in case the Grand Jury takes a hand. I was just getting where I couldn't be touched when this fire came, and now I shall have to begin over pretty nearly. You don't know, Hart, what hard sledding it's been to build up my business with nothing back of me to start on."

The architect realized that Graves was making an appeal to his sympathies, and although the wheedling tone, so unlike the man's usual blustering self-confidence, roused his contempt, he began to see more dispassionately the contractor's point of view. The man was fighting for his life, and there could be nothing reasonable to him in a determination to make a bad matter worse. For no amount of truth now could save those hapless victims of greed who had lost their lives in the wretched building.

"I don't want to ruin my family no more than you do, Mr. Hart," the contractor persisted. "And you can't make me so much trouble as you will yourself. You can see that," he added meaningly.

Hart turned on the man angrily:—

"I have heard about enough, Graves! It's no use your going on. I tell you I mean to come back and stand my share of the trouble—yes—if it breaks me! Do you hear? If it breaks me! Now good day."

The contractor turned away, scowling like a dog that had been kicked into the street. Hart hurried into the station and bought his ticket. He had not looked up his eastern connections, remembering merely that Helen had left Chicago by this road, and he took the first train east in his overwhelming desire to get to her, to tell her all, to submit. And already, as the heavy train moved slowly out of the station, he felt strangely relieved from the perplexities of the morning. The unconscious physical influence of mere motion, of going somewhere, soothed his irritated nerves.

He had been goaded into his final declaration to the contractor, for he had felt the ground slipping from his resolution under the persistent appeals of the man. As the train shot out into the prairie, however, he turned the matter over in his mind again and again, trying to consider it in all its varying aspects. After all, was it necessary that he should come back as he had said in his first singleness of resolution and bring on himself and his family the shame and disgrace of public exposure? He comforted himself with the thought that he had the courage to tell his story, that in leaving the city he was not merely running away to escape the consequences of his connivance with fraud. Yes, he could go back—if it were necessary; but for the time being he put the question out of his mind. While the train moved across the states, his heart grew calmer, stronger; whatever might be the outcome, he knew that his instinct had been right—that he had done well to go first to his wife. Then, whatever might seem best, he could bring himself somehow to do it.


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