The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXXII

When they entered the house, Helen hurried upstairs to the child, who had been calling for her, Mrs. Hart said. Presently the doctor came for his evening visit, and when, after a long time, he left the sickroom, Jackson met him in the hall, but lacked the courage to ask any question. The doctor spoke bruskly about the bad weather, and hurried off. Then Hart walked to and fro in the gloomy dining-room until his mother came down for dinner, which they ate in silence.

Before they had finished their meal the bell rang, and in reply to the maid's excuses at the door there sounded in the hall a strong woman's voice.

"But I must see them!"

Jackson, recognizing Venetia Phillips's voice, stepped into the hall.

"Oh, Jack! I have just heard that you were all here. We met Everett at the station, and he told me all about it. Jack, it was fine! I didn't think you had it in you, Jackie, dear. To stand up there and give everything away,—it took real stuff. I know it!" She held out her hand in enthusiastic heartiness, repeating, "It was fine, fine!" Suddenly she turned back to the door, where Coburn stood.

"You know Dr. Coburn, Jack! I brought him along, too—I was in such a hurry to see you all. Where's Helen?"

"Yes, I just butted in," Coburn said, laughing. "I wouldn't let her come without me. I wanted to shake on it, too!"

"But where's that sainted wife of yours?" Venetia persisted.

When Jackson told her of the boy's illness, she hurried upstairs without another word, leaving the two men standing in the library. At first, when they were alone, with the common memory of that last meeting in the doctor's rooms barely a week before, there was an awkward silence. Coburn had now an explanation for the architect's erratic behavior on that occasion, and he refrained from his usual blunt speech. And the architect, seeing through the mist of accumulated impressions, as in a long vista, that night after the fire when Coburn had found him half-crazed, a prey to horrible visions, could not speak. Yet that experience seemed removed from the present, as if it rose from distant years, and somehow belonged to another person. Although he had never liked Coburn in the old days, he felt a kind of sympathy in the doctor's bearing, and was grateful for it.

"You must have thought I was crazy the other night," the architect remarked apologetically at last. "I didn't know much what I was up to!"

"That's all right, man," Coburn interrupted warmly. "Don't think about it again. It was damn good luck my running across you, that's all. If I'd known, of course— Say! that took sand, what you did to-day. Wheeler told Venetia all about it, and she told me. It makes a man feel good to see some one who has got the nerve to stand up and take medicine, and not try everlastingly to sneak out of things! If more folks nowadays would do that, it would be better for us all. Don't you mind what the papers say. They have to fling mud,—that's their game!"

"Well, it doesn't make much difference now what they say except,—except for my wife," Jackson answered dully. "And that can't be helped."

"Oh, I guess it won't last long. And somehow women don't mind those things half as much as you'd think, at least the best ones don't. And from what Venetia says, yours is one of the best!"

"Yes! That doesn't make it any easier. But I haven't congratulated you!" he exclaimed, repressing the confession of his own pain. "She is a splendid woman, lots of spirit," he remarked awkwardly.

"I rather think so!" A pleased smile illuminated the doctor's grave face. "She's just about the best ever!"

"I hope you will be happy," Jackson continued conventionally.

"Well, we expect to—don't see why we shouldn't. I guess we know pretty much what's to be found on both sides, and won't make ourselves uncomfortable looking for what ain't there."

Venetia came down the stairs very quietly, her exuberance all gone, and as she entered the room she was still wiping away the traces of tears.

"Poor little Powers!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Jack! I am terribly sorry."

"What's the matter?" Coburn demanded.

"It's pneumonia, poor little man!"

Jackson's lip trembled beneath his mustache, as he murmured to himself:—

"Yes, I supposed it would be. It's as tough as it well could be, for her!"

"I know he'll come through,—he must!" Venetia exclaimed helplessly, and added in a burst of admiration, "That trouble couldn't happen to Helen—it just couldn't! She's so splendid, Jack! It's a big thing to know there are such women about. She's holding him up there now, with a smile on her face!"

Jackson turned away from her eager eyes.

Again and again during the days that followed, while they worked for the child's life, and when all was done watched and waited together for what might come, that miserable foreboding of the first day came back to the man. An evil fate seemed close on his heels, ready to lay hand on him here or there. The illness of the child related itself in some unseen manner with the great catastrophe of his life. The old idea of retribution, that barbaric conception of blood sacrifice, tormented him, as it torments the most sceptical in the hour of crisis. It appeared to him that for his cowardice of nature, for all his weak and evil deeds, for the unknown dead in whose death he had connived, he was about to be called to pay with the life of his own child. And the mother, guiltless, in the inscrutable cruelty of fate, must pay with him and pay the larger share of the price of his evil, of his nature!

But during these days of dread the woman went her way calmly, serenely, prepared, outwardly at least, for any event. What the child's death would mean to her was known only to herself, for she consumed her grief patiently in the silence of the watch. The house grew more sombre, as day by day the struggle for life moved on to its crisis. Little Powers, like his mother, made his fight with unchildish patience. He had always been the quieter, less demonstrative one of the two boys, possessing a singular power of silence and abstraction, which had been attributed to physical weakness. Yet under the stress of disease he showed an unexpected resistance and vitality. The father, when he saw him lying in the great bed, with pathetic moments of playfulness even in the height of his fever, could not stay by his side....

The suspense of the child's illness mercifully threw all outer happenings into shade. Jackson was able to keep the newspapers away from Helen, and she asked no questions. His testimony at the inquest had revived to some extent the waning public interest in the Glenmore fire. Especially the Buzzard, which had assumed to itself all the credit for airing the conditions in the building department, made merry over Hart's replies to the coroner. It printed full-page cuts of scenes at the inquest that last day, when the architect was on the stand,—dramatic sketches of "tilts between the coroner and Hart," "Hart's insolent retorts," etc.; and it denounced editorially, with its peculiar unction of self-esteem, the "systematic corruption of the nation by such men as Graves, Hart, and their allies." But the Thunderer and the more respectable papers refrained from all such bitter insinuations. For some reason they forbore to pillory the only man who had voluntarily come forward and told all that he knew. Perhaps they respected the courage of the act; perhaps they were aware that their patrons had tired of "the Glenmore tragedy"; perhaps they felt that the real guilt lay too deep to be reached by their editorial darts. However that might be, the matter rested now with the district attorney and the Grand Jury.

For the inquest had been concluded and the coroner's report was published. It covered lengthily all the points touched upon by the many witnesses, and it contained much "scoring" of the city authorities. The contractor, Graves, the inspectors, Murphy and Lagrange, Gotz, the president of the defunct corporation, and Hart, were held to the Grand Jury for complicity in the death of the seventeen persons who had perished in the Glenmore fire....

Meanwhile the worst hour of anxiety for the child's life came, and Helen knelt by the bed holding the little body in her arms, devouring his face with her shining eyes. The hour passed, the child lived, there was hope of his recovery. Yet for a period they went to and fro softly, with that peculiar hush of fear scarcely relieved, lest their hopes might be too strong.

At last, however, Jackson was obliged to tell Helen what had happened at the inquest. She listened as to a message from a far land, her face blanched and set from the hours of fear through which she had passed. When he said that he, with the others, had been held to the Grand Jury, she merely asked:—

"When will that be?"

"Very soon, less than a fortnight, Everett says. He called here yesterday. He advised me to leave the city,—he came to see about that."

"What will they do?" she asked, not heeding the last remark.

"If they find a true bill, it will go to the trial jury. And," he added slowly, "the charge will be manslaughter."

She started as he pronounced the word. In her ears it was the legal synonym for murder, and before the awfulness of that conception her heart recoiled.

"Manslaughter!" she repeated involuntarily.

"Yes, but Everett thinks it is very doubtful whether the Grand Jury will find a true bill against any one. It would be almost an unheard-of thing to do. Of course, Graves will stay away until he sees how it will turn out, and probably the others will keep out of reach. Everett wants me to go—"

"No, no!" she cried, "never! You have come all this way on the hard road, and we must go on to the very end, no matter what that is."

"So I thought you would feel," he answered gently. "I said the same thing to Everett. Of course, the justice of it isn't very clear. It's mixed up with politics, anyway. I don't know that it would do much good to any one to stay and be tried. But if you feel that way—"

She laid her hand on his arm, imploring him mutely not to give her all the responsibility for the decision.

"Think what it might mean, if—if they found me guilty!" he muttered gloomily.

"I know," she shuddered. "But Francis, we must pay somehow, you and I. We must pay!"


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