The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Part I - The Will, Chapter I

From time to time the door opened to admit some tardy person. Then the May sunlight without flooded the dim, long hall with a sudden radiance, even to the arched recess in the rear, where the coffin was placed. The late-comers sank into the crowd of black-coated men, who filled the hall to the broad stairs. Most of these were plainly dressed, with thick, grizzled beards and lined faces: they were old hands from the Bridge Works on the West Side, where they had worked many years for Powers Jackson. In the parlors at the left of the hall there were more women than men, and more fashionable clothes than in the hall. But the faces were scarcely less rugged and lined; for these friends of the old man who lay in the coffin were mostly life-worn and gnarled, like himself. Their luxuries had not sufficed to hide the scars of the battles they had waged with fortune.

When the minister ceased praying, the men and the women in the warm, flower-scented rooms moved gratefully, trying to get easier positions for their cramped bodies. Some members of a church choir, stationed at the landing on the stairs, began to sing. Once more the door opened silently in the stealthy hands of the undertaker, and this time it remained open for several seconds. A woman entered, dressed in fashionable widow's mourning. She moved deliberately, as if she realized exactly the full effect of her entrance at that moment among all these heated, tired people. The men crowded in the hall made way for her instinctively, so that she might enter the dining-room, to the right of the coffin, where the family and a few intimate friends of the dead man were seated. Here, a young man, the nephew of Powers Jackson, rose and surrendered his chair to the pretty widow, whispering:—

"Take this, Mrs. Phillips! I am afraid there is nothing inside."

She took his place by the door with a little deprecatory smile, which said many things at the same time: "I am very late, I know; but I really couldn't help it! You will forgive me, won't you?"

And also: "You have come to be a handsome young man! When I saw you last you were only a raw boy, just out of college! Now we must reckon with you, as the old man's heir,—the heir of so much money!"

Then again: "It is a long time since we met over there across the sea. And I have had my sorrows, too!"

All this her face seemed to speak swiftly, especially to the young man, whose attention she had quite distracted, as indeed she had disturbed every one in the other rooms by her progress through the hall. By the time she had settled herself, and made a first survey of the scene, the hymn had come to an end, and the minister's deep voice broke forth in the words of ancient promise, "I am the Resurrection and the Life"...

At this note of triumph the pretty widow's interruption was forgotten. Something new stirred in the weary faces of those standing in the hall, touching each one according to his soul, vibrating in his heart with a meaning personal to him, to her, quite apart from any feeling that they might have for their old friend, in the hope for whose immortality it had been spoken....

"I am the Resurrection and the Life" ... "yet in my flesh shall I see God"...

The words fell fatefully into the close rooms. The young man who had given his chair to Mrs. Phillips unconsciously threw back his head and raised his eyes from the floor, as though he were following some point of light which had burst into sight above his head. His gaze swept over his mother's large, inexpressive countenance, his cousin Everett's sharp features, the solemn, blank faces of the other mourners in the room. It rested on the face of a young woman, who was seated on the other side of the little room, almost hidden by the roses and the lilies that were banked on the table between them. She, too, had raised her face at the triumphant prophecy, and was seeing something beyond the walls of the room, beyond the reach of the man's eyes. Her lips had parted in a little sigh of wonder; her blue eyes were filled with unwept tears. The young man's attention was arrested by those eyes and trembling lips, and he forgot the feeling that the minister's words had roused, in sudden apprehension of the girl's beauty and tenderness. He had discovered the face in a moment of its finest illumination, excited by a vague yet pure emotion, so that it became all at once more than it had ever promised.

The tears trembled at the eyelids, then dropped unnoticed to the face. The young man looked away hastily, with an uncomfortable feeling in beholding all this emotion. He could not see why Helen Spellman should take his uncle's death so much to heart, although the old man had always been kind to her and to her mother. She had come to the house a great deal, for her mother and his uncle had been life-long friends, and the old man loved to have the girl about his home. Yet he did not feel his uncle's death that way; he wondered whether he ought to be affected by it as Helen was. He was certainly much nearer to the dead man than she,—his nephew, the son of his sister Amelia, who had kept his house all the many years of her widowhood. And—he was aware that people were in the habit of saying it—he was his favorite relative, the one who would inherit the better part of the property. This last reflection set his mind to speculating on the impending change in his own world,—that new future which he pleasantly dreamed might bring him nearer to her. For the last few days, ever since the doctors had given up all hope of the old man's recovery, he had not been able to keep his imagination from wandering in the fields of this strange, delightful change in his affairs, which was so near at hand....

"There is a natural body," so the minister was saying solemnly, "and there is a spiritual body.... For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.".....

The young man tried to curb his imagination, to feel the significance of the fact before him in some other way than as it might affect his own material fate. His eyes rested on the great coffin with its load of cut flowers, and he thought of the silent face that lay therein, and wondered. But the state of death was inexplicable to him.

When the minister began his remarks about the dead man's personality, the tired people roused themselves and their wandering thoughts came back to their common earth. What could he say on this delicate theme? The subject was full of thorns! Powers Jackson had not been a bad man, take his life all in all, but he had been accused, justly, of some ruthless, selfish acts. He had forced his way, and he had not been nice about it. His private morality, also, had never quite satisfied the ideals of his neighbors, and he could not be called, in any sense of the word known to the officiating minister, a religious man.

Yet there was scarcely a person present to whom Powers Jackson had not done in the course of his life some kind and generous act. Each one in his heart knew the dead man to have been good and human, and forgave him his sins, public and private. What did it matter to old Jim Ryan, the office porter, who was standing in the corner with his son and grandson, whether Powers Jackson had or had not conspired with certain other men to secure illegally a large grant of Texas land! He and his family had lived in the sun of the dead man's kindness. So it went with the others.

While the minister was saying what every one agreed to in his heart,—that their dead friend was a man of large stature, big in heart as in deed, strong for good as for evil,—his nephew's thoughts kept returning to that glowing, personal matter,—what did it all mean to him? Of course, his uncle had been good to him, had given him the best kind of an education and training in his profession; his mother's comfort and his own nurture were due to this uncle. But now the old man was about to give him the largest gift of all,—freedom for his whole lifetime, freedom to do with himself what he pleased, freedom first of all to leave this dull, dirty city, to flee to those other more sympathetic parts of the earth which he knew so well how to enjoy!...

The pretty widow in the chair beside him fidgeted. She was exceedingly uncomfortable in the close, stuffy room, and the minister's skilful words roused merely a wicked sense of irony in her. She could have told the reverend doctor a thing or two about old Powers! There were current in her set stories about the man which would not have tallied altogether with his appreciative remarks. She had seen him at close range, and he was a man, like the others. She threw back her jacket, revealing an attractive neck and bust. During the service she had already scanned the faces of most of those in the rooms, and, with great rapidity, had cast up mentally their score with the dead. This handsome young nephew was the only one of them all that counted in her own estimation. What would he do with the old fellow's money? She threw a speculative, appreciative look at him.

Across the room the girl's face had settled into sober thought, the tears drying on her cheeks where they had fallen. With that glorious promise of Life Everlasting still reverberating in her soul, she felt that the only real Life which poor human beings might know was that life of the "spiritual body," the life of the good, which is all one and alike! To her, Powers Jackson was simply a good man, the best of men. For she had known him all her life, and had seen nothing but good in him. She loved him, and she knew that he could not be evil!

Finally, the minister rounded out his thought and came to the end of his remarks. The singers on the stairs began to chant softly, "Now, O Lord, let thy servant depart in peace!" And the tired faces of the mourners relaxed from their tense seriousness. Somehow, the crisis of their emotion had been reached and passed. Comforted and reassured, they were about to leave this house of mourning. An old man, childless, a widower of many years, who had done his work successfully in this world, and reaped the rewards of it,—what can any one feel for his death but a solemn sense of mystery and peace! Perhaps to one only, the girl hidden behind the lilies and the roses in the dining-room, was it a matter of keen, personal grief. He had left her world,—he who had stroked her head and kissed her, who had loved her as a father might love her, who had always smiled when she had touched him.

On the sidewalk outside the people gathered in little knots, speaking in subdued tones to one another, yet luxuriating in the riotous spring air. Then they moved away slowly. After the house was nearly emptied, those mourners who had been in the dining-room appeared, to take carriages for the cemetery. Mrs. Phillips came first, talking to young Jackson Hart. She was saying:—

"The service was beautiful. It was all quite what the dear old gentleman would have liked, and such good taste,—that was your part, I know!"

He murmured a protest to her compliment as he handed her into her carriage. She leaned toward him, with a very personal air:—

"It is so different from the last time we met! Do you remember? You must come and see me, soon. Don't forget!"

As the young man turned away from her, he met Helen Spellman descending the long flight of steps. The girl was carrying in her arms a great mass of loose flowers, and his cousin Everett who followed her was similarly burdened.

"Are you going on ahead of us?" Jackson asked anxiously.

"Yes. I want to put these flowers there first; so that it won't seem so bare and lonely when he comes. See! I have taken those he liked to have in his library, and yours and your mother's, too!"

She smiled over the flowers, but her eyes were still dull with tears. Again she brought his thoughts back from self, from his futile, worldly preoccupations, back to her love for the dead man, which seemed so much greater, so much purer than his.

"That will be very nice," he said, taking the flowers from her hands and placing them in a carriage that had driven up to the curb. "I am sure he would have liked your thought for him. He was always so fond of what you did, of you!"

"Dear uncle," she murmured to herself.

Although the dead man was not connected with her by any ties of blood, she had grown into the habit of calling him uncle, first as a joke, then in affection.

"He always had me select the flowers when he wanted to give a really truly dinner!" she added, a smile coming to her face. "I know he will like to have me take these out to him there now."

She spoke of the dead in the present tense, with a strong feeling for the still living part of the one gone.

"I should like to drive out with you!" the young man exclaimed impulsively. "May I?"

"Oh, no! You mustn't," she replied quickly. "There's your mother, who is expecting you to go with her, and then,"—she blushed and stepped away from him a little space,—"I had rather be alone, please!"

When the heavy gates of the vault in Rose Hill had closed upon Powers Jackson forever, the little group of intimate friends, who had come with him to his grave, descended silently the granite steps to their carriages. Insensibly a wave of relief stole over the spirit of the young nephew, as he turned his back upon the ugly tomb, in the American-Greek style, with heavy capitals and squat pillars. It was not a selfish or heartless desire to get away from the dead man, to forget him now that he no longer counted in this world; it was merely the reaction from a day of gloom and sober thoughts. He felt stifled in his tall silk hat, long frock coat, patent-leather shoes, and black gloves. His spirit shrank from the chill of the tomb, to which the day had brought him near.

"Let's send all the women back together, Everett," he suggested to his cousin, "and then we can smoke. I am pretty nearly dead!"

As the three men of the party got into their carriage, Jackson took out his cigarette-case and offered it to his cousin; but Everett shook his head rather contemptuously and drew a cigar from his breast pocket.

"I never got in the habit of smoking those things," he remarked slowly. There was an implication in his cool tone that no grown man indulged himself in that boyish habit.

"He never liked cigarettes either,—wouldn't have one in the house," Jackson commented lightly.

The other man, Hollister, had taken one of Everett's cigars, and the three smoked in silence while the carriage bumped at a rapid pace over the uneven streets that led through the suburbs of Chicago. Hart wondered what the two men opposite him were thinking about. Hollister, so he reflected, must know what was in the will. He had been the old man's confidential business agent for a good many years, and was one of the executors. Everett Wheeler, who was a lawyer with a large and very highly paid practice, was another.

Perhaps this second cousin of his was to get a good slice of the property after all, though his uncle had never displayed any great fondness for Everett. Yet the lawyer had always done the best that was expected of him. He had entered a Chicago law office from the high school in Michigan, preferring to skip the intermediate years of college training which Powers Jackson had offered him, and he never ceased referring to his success in his profession as partly due to the fact he had "fooled no time away at college." So far as his business went, which was to patch together crazy corporations, he had no immediate use for a liberal education. He had no tastes whatsoever outside of this business and a certain quiet interest in politics. His dull white features, sharpened to a vulpine point at the nose and chin, betrayed his temperament. He was a silent, cool-blooded, unpassionate American man of affairs, and it would be safe to say that he would die rich. Thus far he had not had enough emotion, apparently, to get married. No! his cousin reflected, Everett was not a man after Powers Jackson's heart! The old man was not cold, passionless....

Those two men opposite him knew what was the fact in this matter so momentous to him. They smoked, wrapped in their own thoughts.

"I wonder who was the joker who put up that monstrous Greek temple out there in the cemetery?" Jackson finally observed, in a nervous desire to say something.

"You mean the family mausoleum?" Everett asked severely, removing his cigar from his lips and spitting carefully out of the half-opened window. "That was done by a fellow named Roly, and it was considered a very fine piece of work. It was built the time aunt Frankie died."

"It's a spooky sort of place to put a man into!"

"I think the funeral was what your uncle would have liked," Hollister remarked, as if to correct this irrelevant talk. "He hated to be eccentric, and yet he despised pretentious ceremonies. Everything was simple and dignified. The parson was good, too, in what he said. And the old men turned out in great numbers. I was glad of that! But I was surprised. It's nearly two years since he gave up the Works, and memories are short between master and man."

"That's a fact. But he knew every man Jack about the place in the old days," Everett observed, removing his silk hat as if it were an ornamental incumbrance.

"Yes," said Hollister, taking up the theme. "I remember how he would come into the front office on pay days, and stand behind the grating while the men were signing off. He could call every one by a first name. It was Pete and Dave and Jerry and Steve,—there wasn't so much of that European garbage, then,—these Hungarians and Slavs."

"But he was stiff with 'em in the strike, though," the lawyer put in, a smile wrinkling his thin, pallid lips. "He fired every one who went out with the union,—never'd let 'em back, no matter what they said or did. Those there to-day were mostly the old ones that didn't strike."

The two older men began to exchange stories about the dead man, of things they had seen while they were working for him,—his tricks of temper, whims of mind. Hollister spoke gently, almost tenderly, of the one he had worked with, as of one whose faults were flaws in a great stone. The lawyer spoke literally, impassively, as of some phenomenon of nature which he had seen often and had thoroughly observed.

Young Hart lit another cigarette, and as he listened to the stories he thought of the girl's face just as he had seen it that day, utterly moved and transfixed with a strange emotion of tender sorrow that was half happiness. The expression puzzled him, and he ended by saying to himself that she was religious, meaning by that word that she was moved by certain feelings other than those which affected him or Everett or his mother even. And this new thought of her made her more precious in his eyes. He looked for her when they reached the sombre old house on Ohio Street, but she had already gone home.

As Hollister was leaving the house, he said to the young man:—

"Can you come over to Wheeler's office to-morrow about four? Judge Phillips will be there, the other executor. We are to open the will. They have suggested that I ask you to join us," he added hastily, with an effort to be matter of fact.

"All right, Hollister," the young man answered, with an equal effort to appear unconcerned. "I'll be over!"

But his heart thumped strangely.


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