The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Chapter XXXV

That small fragment of Chicago society which had known the Jackson Harts, and interested itself in their doings, was mildly stirred over the news that the brilliant and promising young architect had been obliged to close his office, and had gone to work for his old employer. Indeed, for some weeks the Harts furnished the Forest Park dinner-tables with a fresh topic of conversation that took the place of the strikes and poor Anthony Crawford's scattered fortune. It contained quite as much food for marvel and moral reflection as either of the others.

More information about the architect's troubles than that provided by the press had got abroad in Forest Park and the Shoreham Club. It was well known, for instance, that Hart had been obliged to dissolve his partnership with Freddie Stewart, owing to grave business irregularities, which extended beyond his connection with the recent disaster. It was generally agreed that his offences must have been very grave indeed to necessitate, at his age, with his influential connection, such a radical change of caste as had happened. Men commonly expressed their contempt because at a crisis he had shown such a deplorable "lack of nerve." They said, and among them were some of the architect's more intimate friends, that nothing he had done could justify this tame submission. "Why!" Mrs. Phillips exclaimed when she heard of it, "we've seen men live down things ten times worse. There was Peter Sewall, and old Preston, and the banker Potts, and a dozen more. They are as good as any of us to-day! And he needn't have told everything he knew, anyhow, to that old coroner." The measure of a man's guilt, in her eyes and those of many others, was what he was willing to admit to the world. "But it's that wife of his!" the widow continued bitterly. "She never had any spirit; she was cut out for a clerk's wife. I have always felt that she was responsible for Venetia's trouble. Well, she's got to her level at last!"

Finally, this portion of the great public held that under the circumstances the architect had shown singularly little judgment in staying on in the city: there was no "future" for him, under the circumstances, in Chicago. If he felt himself unable to hold his own against scandal, they argued, he should have the wit to leave the city where he had gone wrong and seek his fortune under new skies, where the faces of his successful friends would not remind him constantly of ignoble defeat.

Not that Jackson Hart had many opportunities of encountering his successful friends in the great city of Chicago. He had resigned from his club, and the Harts had moved very far away from the pleasant suburbs along the lake which were filled with their old acquaintances. They had gone to live in one of those flimsy flat-buildings in the southern part of the city, concerning which the architect had speculated the night the Glenmore was burned. It was near the street-car line, for the matter of a nickel fare was now of importance in their domestic economy. Occasionally, some one of the Forest Park ladies would report on her return from the city that she had run across Mrs. Hart at Steele's, "looking old and queerer than ever, dressed in the old things she wore out here, as if she didn't care whether school kept or not, poor thing!" But in the murky light of Steele's great shop, they could not have seen the serene, almost radiant beauty of the woman's face, the beauty of a soul content with its vision of the world, in harmony with itself.

And Jackson, "reduced to the ranks" by a few grades, in that career of his, which he dubbed good-humoredly "From shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves, in three acts," was developing certain patient virtues of inestimable charm in the domestic circles of plain life, though not essential for brilliant success. In his box of an office next Wright's large draughting-room, he worked almost side by side with his former draughtsman Cook, who had also come back to the old firm. For some months they hardly spoke to each other; indeed, the men in Wright's generally held aloof from Hart. But they have accepted him at last. Cook has begun, even, to regain some of his old admiration for his chief, comprehending, perhaps, that in the office by his side there is slowly working out a career of real spiritual significance, if of little outward display.

As to Wright, who knows more of the man's real story than the others, he treats his old employee with a fine consideration and respect, realizing that this man is doing handsomely a thing that few men have the character to do at all. His admiration for Hart's work has grown, also, and he frankly admits that the younger man has a better talent for architecture than he himself ever possessed, as well as great cleverness and ingenuity, so necessary in an art which is intimately allied with mechanics. For it is true that after sluggish years there has revived within Hart the creative impulse, that spirit of the artist, inherent to some extent in all men, which makes the work of their hands an engrossing joy. The plans of a group of buildings, which the firm have undertaken for a university in a far Western state, have been entrusted very largely to Hart. As they grow from month to month in the voluminous sheets of drawings, they are becoming the pride of the office. And Wright generously allots the praise for their beauty where it largely belongs.

Thus the social waters of the fast-living city are rapidly rolling over the Jackson Harts. In all probability they will never again in this life come to the surface, and call for comment; for the architect and his wife have already sunk into the insignificance of the common lot, so much praised by the poets, so much despised by our good Americans of the "strenuous" school. They have had their opportunities to better themselves in the worldly scale, but there has never been any question between husband and wife of a change in their social or material condition. They even contemplate with equanimity leaving their children in the universal struggle no better equipped than with the possession of health and a modest education,—there to meet their fate as their parents have done before them.

Almost the last public appearance of the Jackson Harts in that portion of the Chicago world which had formerly known them occurred at the elaborate dedicatory exercises of the JACKSON INDUSTRIAL INSTITUTE. When the handsomely engraved invitation came to them, the architect was disinclined to attend; but Helen, who thought only of the old man's probable wish in the matter, induced her husband to take her. The exercises were held in the pretty little auditorium which occupied one wing of the large school building. There was much ceremony, and numerous speeches, besides the oration delivered by the director, Dr. Everest, on "Modern Industrialism," which was considered a masterpiece of its kind and was afterwards printed and circulated by the trustees. A bust of the founder, which fronted the stage, was first unveiled amid great applause. Dr. Everest in the introduction of his oration turned from time to time to apostrophize its rugged marble features, while he paid his tribute to the founder of the institution. What the old man—who had always avoided voluble people like the pest—would have thought of the liberal eulogy scattered on his head, and of the eloquent discourse that followed, on the future of education and the working-man, no one will ever know. The rough old face looking inscrutably down on the little, bald-headed figure of the director gave no sign.

During the lengthy oration the architect's thoughts went wandering far astray back into his past, so closely involved with this handsome building. But Helen listened attentively to the director's flowing periods, searching his phrases for an interpretation of his purposes in regard to the school. Dr. Everest, however, was far too wary an educator to commit himself to positive ideas. Yet in the maze of his discourse there might be gathered hints of his attitude toward the problem of industrial education. After the opening tribute to the founder, "whom we may call a typical leader of our triumphant industrial democracy," the speaker dwelt glowingly on the advanced position of our country among the nations of the earth, attributing its phenomenal progress to the nature of its political and educational institutions, which had developed and encouraged the energies of such men as Powers Jackson:—

"We lead the nations of the world in the arts of peace, owing to the energy and genius of men like our noble benefactor, owing, I may say, still more to the character of our institutions, political and educational, which produce such men as he was!" Then followed a flattering contrast between the "aristocratic and mediæval education" of the English universities and the older American colleges, and the broad, liberal spirit of newer institutions, especially technical schools. The intention of the founder of the Jackson Industrial Institute, he said, was to broaden the democratic ideal, "to bring within the reach of every child in this greatest of industrial metropoli, not only the rudiments of an education, but the most advanced technical training, by means of which he may raise himself among his fellows and advance the illimitable creative ingenuity of our race. Here will come the boy whose father labors at the bottom of the industrial ladder, and if he be worthy, if he have the necessary talent and the industry, here in our workshops and laboratories he may fit himself to mount to the very top of that ladder, and become in turn a master and leader of men, like our great benefactor! And we may well believe that the sight of those benignant features will be an inspiration to the youth to strive even as he strove. That face will kindle the noble ambitions of the learner, who will remember that our good founder once labored with his own hands at the forge not far from this monument to his greatness, and that he rose by his own unaided industry and ability to command thousands of operatives, to control millions of capital, yes, to influence the wide industrial world!

"In America, thank God, the poor man may yet rise to a position of leadership, if he be worthy. And what the world needs to-day more than all else is leaders, leaders of men. May we not prophesy that the Jackson Industrial Institute will be a large factor, yes, the largest factor of this great city, in educating leaders, and thus assisting to put an end to that wasteful and distressing antagonism between capital and labor? By the means of the education here provided, young men may raise themselves from the ranks of common labor to the position and responsibilities of capital! Let us hope that this will be the happy result of an educational foundation provided by a great captain of industry, and placed here in the heart of the workshops of Chicago. Thus may we assist in preserving and fostering the spirit of our noble institutions by means of which man is given freedom to reap the fruits of his own labor and intelligence!" ...

And Dr. Everest continued on this plane of eloquence for another half-hour, until even Judge Phillips, who had listened with rapt attention, began to nod in his chair. At last, when the doctor sat down, stroking his thick black beard and wiping his shining brow, loud applause broke forth from all parts of the auditorium. The applause sounded much like the ironic laughter of the gods over the travesty of the old man's purpose, to which they had just listened.

To Helen, especially, it seemed that no more complete twisting of his idea in thus bestowing his wealth were possible! However, the great school stands there, in the neighborhood where his old operatives live,—stands there and will stand there for many years, mistaken or not in its aims as one looks at this world of ours; and some day, maybe, when Dr. Everest has grasped some new form of the educational main chance, it may fall into other hands and become more nearly what its founder meant it to be,—a source of help and inspiration to the common man, who must labor all his days at common tasks, and can look to no material advancement in this life.

After the exercises the rooms of the building were thrown open for inspection, and the guests strolled through the laboratories and workshops in little parties, discussing the oration and exclaiming over the magnificence of the appointments. The Harts wandered over the school with the rest, and the architect looked about him with a certain curiosity. As they returned to the main hall under the rotunda, he exclaimed, peering up into the dome, "Nell, I can't seem to remember this place: it looks queer and strange to me, as if somebody else had done the plans, and I had just looked over them!"

"Somebody else did do them," she answered, drawing him away from a group of people who had come out of one of the adjoining rooms.

In a little while they got their wraps and prepared to leave the institution, having a long journey before them to reach their home. As they crossed the entrance hall, they ran into Pemberton, who was alone. He bowed to Helen as though he meant to speak to her, and then catching sight of Jackson, who was behind her, he merely bent his head the fraction of an inch, and, stepping to one side, passed on. He could not, evidently, forgive a stain upon a man's honor, arrogating to himself, as so many of us do, the privileges of deity. The architect's face flushed at the slight, and he hurried his steps toward the vestibule. As they passed through the broad doorway, he said to his wife:—

"Well, Nell, I suppose I deserved it,—the old Turk!"

"No, you did not deserve it!" she replied swiftly. "But it makes no difference, dear!"

And, fortunately, there are few things that do make any great difference to real men and women,—and one of the least is the casual judgment of their fellow-men.


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