The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXXIII

But if in her heroic soul she was ready to pay, and to make him pay, at the price of public shame for her and her children, the full penalty of his misdeeds, it was not to be so. He was to escape the full measure of retribution, shielded by the accident of his class. Unknown to him, the tangled threads of his fate were being sorted in the great city, and the vengeance of society was being averted, so far, at least, as legal punishment was concerned. Everett Wheeler, once recovered from his disgust at the sentimental folly of the architect's confession at the inquest, had no mind to see his cousin on trial for manslaughter. His mood was invariably to settle things, to cover them up, to bury them! As has been said, he had political influence, enough to reach even to the district attorney's office, enough to close the mouth of the Chicago Buzzard, to quiet the snarls of the Thunderer. So the case against the men held to the Grand Jury for the hotel disaster was quietly dropped. The mayor put another man in Bloom's place as chief building inspector, and very soon things went merrily on in their old way. And that was the end of it all! The seventeen human beings who had lost their lives in the fire had not even pointed a moral by their agonizing death. For a few summer months the gaunt, smoke-blackened pit of ruins on the boulevard served to remind the passers-by of a grewsome tale. Then, by the beginning of the new year, in its place rose a splendid apartment building, faced with cut stone and trimmed with marble.

Wheeler notified the architect in a curt note that the case had been dismissed, and Jackson showed the letter to his wife.

"Thank God!" he exclaimed fervently, "that is the end. I shan't drag you into the mud any farther."

Helen looked up from the lawyer's letter with a troubled face. She had hardened herself to the coming trial, which she had fully expected. Now that it had been spared, all was not yet right to her scrupulous perception. A terrible wrong had been committed, a wrong to the poor souls who had lost their lives, a wrong, too, to the city and to society, making an evil pool of corruption. And in some mysterious way this had been covered up, hidden, and all was to go on as before! She had a primitive idea that all evil necessitated exact payment, and as long as this payment was deferred, so long was the day of light, of health, put off.

But the man, realizing more clearly than she the indirect penalties which his situation inevitably imposed, gave no further thought to the abstract question of justice. The outlook was bad enough as it was. He saw nothing before him in this city where he naturally belonged.

"What would you think of our moving to St. Louis?" he asked, a few days after he had received the lawyer's letter. "There is some sort of an opening there for me. Of course I had rather be in New York, but it is out of the question. It would take too long to get started. Or we might try Denver. I have done some work there, and it's a growing place."

"Do you think that we must leave Chicago?" she asked.

"Why!" he exclaimed, surprised that she should consider for a moment the possibility of their remaining where he had made such a failure of his life. "Do you want to stay here and be dropped by every soul you have known?"

"I don't care very much for that!"

"Well, there's nothing here for me. Stewart will take the office. He let me know mighty quick that we had better part! I am a dead dog in Chicago. Only yesterday I got a letter from the Kicker Brothers turning me down after telling me last month to go ahead. They pay for the work done so far, and that is all. You see it is out of the question to stay here!"

He spoke gloomily, as if in spite of all that had happened he had some grounds for feeling a little sore.

"But I don't mean to let this down me, not yet," he continued more buoyantly. "I owe it to you, at least, to make good. And I can do it somewhere else, where the sight of this mess isn't always in my eyes! It'll only be a matter of a few years, Nell."

Already the bitterness of the crisis was passing away, and he was beginning to plan for the future, for a career, for success,—built on a surer foundation, but nevertheless success and repute in the world. His wife realized it and understood. She was standing by his side, as he sat with his elbows resting on his knees, studying the faded figure in the carpet. She put her hands on his head and drew it toward her, protectingly, pityingly, as she would the bruised head of a child.

"So you think you must begin somewhere else?" she said gently, sitting down by his side.

"It's the only thing to do. The question is where!"

She made no reply and seemed buried in her thoughts.

"By the way," he remarked, "whom do you think I saw on the street to-day? Wright. He was staring at Letterson's new store,—you know Frank Peyton did it. The old man stopped me and seemed really glad to see me. I suppose he knows everything, too," he added musingly.

The incident comforted him greatly. He had seen Wright in the crowded street, and had looked away from him, meaning to hurry past, but the older man had stretched out his long arm and good-naturedly drawn Hart to one side out of the press of the street.

"How are you, Hart?" he had said cordially, with his boyish smile. "What do you think of this thing? Bold, isn't it? That Peyton's got nerve to put up this spiderweb right here in State Street. Now, I couldn't do that! But I guess he's on the right track. That's what we are coming to. What do you think?"

They had walked down the street together, and Wright had continued to talk of Peyton and the other young architects in the city, and of their work.

"I tell you, those youngsters have got the future. They have the courage to try experiments. That won't do for an old fellow like me. My clients would kick, too, if I took to anything new. But I like to see the young ones try it.... What are you doing?" he had asked abruptly. "Come in to see me, won't you? I shall be here two or three weeks. Be sure to come in, now!"

They had shaken hands, and the older architect had looked searchingly into Hart's face, his boyish smile changing subtly into an expression of concern and sweetness, as if there was something on the tip of his tongue which he refrained from saying there in the crowded street. The memory of the little meeting came back to the man now, and he felt more grateful for Wright's cordiality than he had at the time.

"Wright asked me to come in and see him. I think I will do it some day," he remarked presently.

"Why not give up the idea of starting your own office?" Helen asked suddenly, her thoughts having come to a definite point.

"What do you mean? Try something else? It would be pretty risky," he answered doubtfully, surprised that she should want him to abandon his profession, to admit defeat.

"I didn't mean that, exactly. It wouldn't do at all for you to give up architecture. That never entered my mind. Only—listen!"

She slipped from the lounge where she had been sitting and knelt beside him, taking the lapels of his coat in her hands, her face aglow with a sudden enthusiasm.

"I've been thinking of so many things these last months, and lately, while Powers has been so sick, I've thought of everything since we were in Italy together, since I loved you,—all those talks we had, and the plans we made, the work you did, the sketches—those first ones." She paused, trying to put her tumultuous thoughts in order.

"I grow so slowly! I was so ignorant of everything, of myself and you in those days. It has taken me a long time, dear, to understand, to grow up!" she exclaimed, her lips trembling in a little smile.

"We stumbled almost at the start, you and I. You started your office and worked hard, always striving to get ahead, to get us comforts and position, and not because you liked the things you were doing. You took anything that promised to bring in money. And it got worse and worse, the more we had. It used to trouble me then, 'way back, but I didn't know what was the matter with it all. We lived out there with all those rich people around us. And those we knew that weren't very rich were all trying to get richer, to have the same things the others had. We did what they did, and thought what they thought, and tried to live as they did. It wasn't honest!"

"What do you mean by that?" he asked blankly.

"I'll say it clearly; just give me time, dear! It is true, but it is made up of so many little, unimportant trifles. You worked just to get money, and we spent it all on ourselves, or pretty nearly all. And the more we had, the more we seemed to need. No man ought to work that way! It ruins him in the end. That's why there are so many common, brutal men and women everywhere. They work for the pay, and for nothing else."

"Oh, not always."

"Most of those we knew did," she replied confidently.

"Well, it's the law of life," he protested with a touch of his old superiority in his tone.

"No, it isn't, it isn't!" she exclaimed vehemently. "Never! There are other laws. Work is good in itself, not just for the pay, and we must live so that the pay makes less difference, so that we haven't to think of the pay!"

"I don't see what this has to do with our going to St. Louis!" he interjected impatiently, disinclined for a theoretic discussion of the aims of life, when the question of bread and butter was immediately pressing.

"But it has, Francis, dear. It has! If you go there, you will try to live the old way. You will try to get ahead, to struggle up in the world, as it is called, and that is the root of all the trouble! That is what I have come to see all these months. We are all trying to get out of the ranks, to leave the common work to be done by others, to be leaders. We think it a disgrace to stay in the ranks, to work for the work's sake, to bear the common lot, which is to live humbly and labor! Don't let us struggle that way any longer, dear. It is wrong,—it is a curse. It will never give us happiness—never!"

He began to see the drift of her purpose, and resented it with all the prejudice of his training,—resented, at least, the application of it to him.

"The ranks are crowded enough as it is! I don't see the call for a man to put himself into them if he has the ability to do any better, I must say!"

"Not if—not after all that has happened?" she asked mournfully.

"Oh! that's it. You think that it's only I who should go down, meekly give up all ambition, because I can't be trusted? You are afraid that I will go wrong?" he retorted bitterly.

"No, not that quite! Yet—" she hesitated, aware that the new love between them hung in the balance. Then she went on courageously: "No, I have no fear of that. You couldn't! But the temptation to make money will be before you every moment, and to-day few men can resist that. It is better to be in the ranks than to struggle to lead, and then lead falsely, trying for false things,—false things!"

"That is what you think of me!" he repeated mournfully.

In spite of all the experience which had come to him the last weeks, all that he had confessed to himself and to his wife, it was bitter to realize that she refused him now that absolute faith and blind confidence in his guidance which had made courtship and the first years of marriage such a pleasant tribute to his egotism. He had come back to her repentant; he had said, "I have erred. I repent. Will you forgive me and love me?" And she had taken him to herself again with a deeper acceptance than at first. Yet when it came to the point of action, she seemed to be withdrawing her forgiveness, to be judging and condemning him.

In this he wronged her. What she was trying hesitantly and imperfectly to say to him was not merely the lesson of his catastrophe, but the fruited thought of her life,—what had come to her through her imperfect, groping education, through the division of their marriage, through her children, through the empty dinner parties in the society he had sought, through the vacancy in her heart,—yes! through the love that she had for him. While she was silent, clinging to him, baffled, he spoke again:—

"Don't you see that I want to retrieve myself, and make some amends to you for all that I have made you suffer? You would kill every ambition in me, even the one to work for you and the boys!"

"That would not make me happy, not if you made as great a fortune as uncle Powers! Not that way!"

"What would, then?"

"Do you remember some of those first things you did? The little country club at Oak Hills? I was awfully happy when you showed me that," she said softly, irrelevantly. "Somehow I know you could do that again and better things, too, if—if you could forget the money and all that. Real, honest work! You could be the artist I know you are, the maker of honest, fine buildings!"

In the enthusiasm of her face he read dimly once more the long-past dream of his youth, the talk of young men in the studios, the hours by her side on the steamer, when they had come together in the imperfect attraction of sex. It was but the flicker of a distant light, however; he had learned the lesson of the city too well.

"That sounds very well. But it isn't practical. If you want to do big work, you have to be your own master, and not work for some one else! And art, especially architecture, lives on the luxury of the rich, whom you seem to despise!"

"What does it matter whose name goes on the plans? It's the work that makes it that counts, and no one can have that but the one who does it."

"Now, you're talking poetry, Nell, not sense!" he exclaimed good-naturedly, getting up from the lounge and walking to and fro. "This world doesn't run on those lines, and you and I aren't going to make it over, either. You're talking like a romantic girl!"

"There isn't much else of the girl left in me!" she smiled wistfully back to him.

"Just look at it practically. If I go out of business for myself, I couldn't earn more than two hundred a month working for some firm. That's as much as Wright ever pays his best men. What would that be to live on? For you and me and the boys?"

"We could make it do. There are many others who have less."

"Next you will want to take in washing."

"I had rather do the cooking, when it comes to that," she flashed back.

"I can see us in a four-room flat somewhere south on one of those God-forsaken prairie streets. One slovenly maid, and the food! A cigar on Sundays and holidays! You would buy your clothes over the counter at Letterson's and go bargain-hunting for your weekly amusement. No, thank you! I am not quite so far gone yet as that, my dear. You don't realize the facts."

His mind was not open to her conception, even in its simplest application. To him a small income with its manner of life meant merely degradation. She saw, as never before, how Chicago had moulded him and had left his nature set in a hard crust of prejudice. The great industrial city where he had learned the lesson of life throttled the finer aspirations of men like a remorseless giant, converting its youth into iron-clawed beasts of prey, answering to the one hoarse cry, "Success, Success, Success!"

"And how should we educate the boys? Think of it! How could we give them as good a start in life as we had? Why, it would be criminal to them. It's nonsense!"

"I have thought of them," she replied calmly. "And I am willing to take the risks for them, too. I am willing to see them start in life poor, with just what we could do for them. Perhaps in the world to which they will grow up, things will be different, anyway."

He had tested her in the tenderest point, and she was stanch. He began to see how far this theory of living and working in the world went with her. She was ready to put herself outside her own class, and her children also, for the sake of an idea, a feeling that she had about man's true purpose in life.

"I must go to Powers, now," she said at last, a little sadly. Before she left the room she went up to him impulsively and leaned her head against his breast for a moment. "Perhaps in time you will come to feel more as I do. And, Francis, there's another reason why I should hate to have us leave this place. I don't want to think that you are running away from the disgrace, from the trouble which has happened here!" She raised her head proudly. "That is what all cheap people do, go to some place where they aren't known; as if it mattered to us now what people think or say! I want you to stay right here, where it happened, and make a new life here."

After she had left him, he continued to walk to and fro in his uncle's old library, between the heavy black-walnut bookcases, where it was permitted to him now to smoke as many cigarettes as he liked. The house had been left very much as it was during the old man's life. Now that Mrs. Amelia Hart was free to make those domestic changes which had been denied to her while the owner lived, she had never come to the necessary resolution. Powers Jackson's will was still effective with her, even in death.

The architect thought of the old man, wondering vaguely what he would have said to Helen's argument. He was not so sure as formerly that he understood the rough old fellow, who apparently had grasped the main chance and wrung it dry. His uncle's purpose in endowing that school struck him suddenly as complex, and also his treatment of himself. Possibly he, too,—the successful man of his day,—having exploited the world for forty years, had come to the belief that ambition in the ordinary sense of the word was futile....

The architect had not thought to sneak away from the place where he had gone to failure when he suggested to his wife starting life once more in a new city. It had seemed merely ordinary good judgment to go where he should not be hampered by a clouded past. And he resented his wife's feeling that he should remain and do a kind of penance for the sins that he had confessed, repented, and repaired so far as he was able. She asked too much of him! He had given up all the money he had, and was ready to begin the struggle for bread with a fairer view of his duties. But it seemed that that was not enough for her: she demanded now that he sacrifice his ambition, that he return to the ranks, as a draughtsman, a clerk, a hireling!

Nevertheless, her words worked unconsciously in him, for hers was the stronger nature. He had lived his own way and had failed, rather miserably. What she wanted must, perforce, guide him increasingly and determine his life. Presently he went upstairs to the child's room. There in the darkened chamber Helen was kneeling beside the bed holding little Powers in her strong arms. The child was asleep, his thin arms stretched above his head along the pillow. In the large bed the little figure, white and wasted with the lingering fever of his disease, lay peacefully. Helen turned her face to her husband as he entered, and he could see the smile that belied the tears in her eyes. And as he stood there in the silent room watching the two, the calm of elemental feeling stole over him. The woman and the child! These were the ancient, unalterable factors of human life; outside of them the multitudinous desires of men were shifting, trivial, little. For the first time in his life an indifference to all else in the world swept over him in gratitude for these two gifts....


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