The Common Lot

by Robert Welch Herrick

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Part III - Into the Ranks, Chapter XXIV

As the architect had said to his wife, nothing of a serious nature was to happen. In the end Everett Wheeler settled the matter. After the first gust of passion it was clear enough that the trustees could not have a scandal about the building. If the contractor were prosecuted, the architect, the donor's nephew, would be involved; and, besides, it was plain that Wheeler could not continue as trustee and assist in ruining his cousin. When it came to this point, Pemberton, not wishing to embarrass his associates, resigned.

Hart was to continue nominally as the architect for the school, but Trimble was to have actual charge of the building henceforth, with orders to complete the work as soon as possible according to the original specifications. At first Graves had blustered and threatened to sue if certain vouchers issued by Hart were not paid, but Wheeler "read the riot act" to him, and he emerged from the lawyer's office a subdued and fearful man. The calm lawyer had a long arm, which reached far into the city, and he frightened the contractor so thoroughly that he was content to be allowed to complete the contract. Whatever parts of his work had been done crookedly, he was to rectify as far as was possible, and Trimble was to see that the construction which remained to be done came up to specification. As for the irrevocable, the bad work already accepted and paid for, the lawyer said nothing.

Thus the man of the world, the perfectly cynical lawyer, had his way, which was, on the whole, the least troublesome way for all concerned, and avoided scandal. He was the calm one of the men involved: it was his business to make arrangements with human weakness and frailty and "to avoid scandal." That at all costs!

He made his cousin no long reproaches.

"We've nipped your claws, young man," he admonished him.

He was disappointed in Jackson. Privately he considered him a dunderheaded ass, who had weakly given himself as a tool to the contractor. In his dealings with men, he had known many rascals, more than the public was aware were rascals, and he respected some of them. But they were the men, who, once having committed themselves to devious ways, used other men as their tools. For little, foolish rascals, who got befogged and "lost their nerve," he had only contempt.

"How's your wife?" he asked bruskly. "That was a dirty blow she got here the other day—straight between the eyes. I never thought she'd come in here that afternoon."

"Helen has gone East with the boys and her mother,—to that place in Vermont. She hasn't been feeling well lately, and she needs the rest."

"Oh, um, I see," the lawyer commented, comprehending quite well what this journey meant. He was a little surprised that Helen should desert her husband at this crisis. In his philosophy it was the part of a woman who had character to "back her husband," no matter what he might do, so long as he was faithful to his marriage oath. Jackson had been a fool, like so many men; there was trouble in the air, and she had run away. He would not have thought it of her.

Hart swallowed his humiliation before his cousin. He was much relieved at the outcome of the affair; it released him from further responsibility for the school, which had become hateful to him. He was chiefly concerned, now, lest the difficulty with the trustees should become known and hurt his reputation, especially lest the men in his office, to whom he was an autocrat and a genius, should suspect something. He began at once to push the work on the last details for the hotel, with the hope of forcing Graves to deliver another block of the "stock," which he argued was due him for his commission.

Now that the matter had been quietly adjusted without scandal, he was inclined to feel more aggrieved than ever over his wife's departure. "She might have waited to see how it turned out," he repeated to himself, obstinately refusing her the right to judge himself except where his acts affected her publicly. For some time he kept up with acquaintances the fiction of Helen's "visit in the East"; he even took a room at the Shoreham Club for the hunting season. But he soon fancied that the people at the club were cool to him; fewer engagements came his way; no one referred to the great building, which had given him so much reputation; the men he had known best seemed embarrassed when he joined them,—men, too, who would not have winked an eye at a "big coup." The women soon ceased to ask about Helen; it was getting abroad that there was "something wrong with the Jackson Harts." For it had leaked, more or less, as such matters always will leak. One man drops a word to his neighbor, and the neighbor's wife pieces that to something she has heard or surmised.

So before the season was over Hart gave up his room at the club, where his raw self-consciousness was too often bruised. Then, finding his empty house in the city insupportable, he went to live with his mother in his uncle's old home. There was a lull in building at this time, due to the high prices of materials, but fortunately he could keep himself busy with the hotel and a large country house in the centre of the state, which often made an excuse for him to get away from the city.

Helen wrote to him from time to time, filling her letters with details about the boys. She suggested that they should return to the city to visit their grandmother during the Christmas holidays. She never referred to the situation between them, apparently considering that he had it in his power to end it when he would. He was minded often when he received these letters to write her sternly in reply, setting forth the wrong which in her obstinacy she was doing to herself and their children. He went over these imaginary letters in his idle moments, working out their phrases with great care; they had a fine, dignified ring to them, the tolerant and condoning note. But when he tried to write he did not get very far with them. Sometimes he thought of writing simply, "I love you very much, Nell; I want you back; can you not forgive me?" But he knew well that he could not merely say, "I have done wrong, forgive me," if he would affect that new will in his wife, so gently stern. Even if he could bring himself to confess his dishonesty, that would not suffice. There was another and deeper gulf between them, one that he could not clearly fathom. "From the very beginning we have lived wrongly," she had cried that last time. "We can never go on again in the same way." ... No, he was not ready to accept her judgment of him.

Thus the winter wore away, forlornly, and early in April the first hint of spring came into the dirty city. On a Sunday afternoon the architect went to call on his old friend, Mrs. Phillips, who was one of the few persons who gave him any comfort these days. He found her cutting the leaves of an art journal.

"There's an article here about that German—the one we are all trying to help, you know," she said, giving him a hand. "Yes, I have taken to patronizing the arts; it's pleasanter than charities. I have graduated from philanthropy. And you have to do something nowadays, if you want to keep up."

She spoke with her usual bluntness, and then added a little cant in a conventional tone:—

"And I think those of us who have the time and the position should do something to help these poor artists who are struggling here in this commercial city. People won't buy their pictures.... But what is the matter with you? You look as if you had come to the end of everything. I suppose it's the old story. That cold Puritan wife of yours has gone for good. It's no use pretending to me; I knew from the start how it would be."

"But I don't know whether she has gone for good," he muttered.

"You might as well make up your mind to it. Two people like you two can't get along together."

"It isn't that," he protested. "We have been very happy until lately."

"Well, don't mope, whatever you do. Either go and eat your humble pie, or arrange for a divorce. You can't go on this way much longer. Oh, I know all your troubles, of course. Hasn't that pleasant brother-in-law of mine been in here rehearsing that story about the school,—well, what do you call it? And he seems to hold me responsible for the mess, because I liked you, and gave you your first chance. I didn't corrupt you, did I?"

The architect moved uneasily. The widow's levity displeased him, and roused his anger afresh against the trustees.

"I don't know what rot Judge Phillips has been telling you, but—"

"Come," she interrupted him in his defence, "sit down here by me and let me talk to you. You know me well enough to see that I don't care what the judge says. But I have something to say to you."

She made a place for him on the lounge, and tossed him a pillow to make him comfortable. Then, dropping her review on the floor, she locked her fingers behind her head and looked searchingly at the man.

"I don't know what you have been up to, and I don't care. Harrison always said I hadn't any moral sense, and I suppose I haven't of his sort. You should have had your uncle's money, or a good part at any rate, and it's natural that you should try to get all you can of it now, I say. But you must have been stupid to let that old square-toes Pemberton get in your way."

This cynical analysis of the situation was not precisely salve to the architect's wound. He was not ready to go as far as the woman lightly sketched. But he listened, for the sake of her sympathy, if for no other reason.

"Now, as I said, there's no use moping around here. Pick right up and get out for a few months. When you come back, people won't remember what was the matter. Or, if you still find it chilly, you can go to New York and start there. It's no use fighting things out and all that. Bury them."

She paused to give emphasis to her suggestion,

"Let your wife play by herself for a while; it will do her good. When she hears that you are in Europe, having a good time, she'll begin to see she's been silly.... I am going over, too. I've got to rent Forest Manor this summer. That Harris man went wrong the last time he advised me, and got me into all sorts of trouble,—industrials. Venetia pensions me! She won't go abroad, but she kindly gives me what she thinks I ought to spend for the summer and advises me to go over. I sail on the Kronprinz, the 20th."

The invitation to him was implied in the pause that followed. The gleam in the man's eyes showed his interest in her suggestion, but he made no reply.

"There's nothing to do in your business just now, as you said, and you should give these talky people a chance to forget. We could have a good time over there. You might buy some things and sell them here, and make your expenses that way easily. You know all the nice little places, and if Maida and her husband come over, we could take an auto and do them. Think of Italy in May!"

She unclasped her hands and leaned forward, resting one arm on the cushioned back of the lounge, and thus revealing a very pretty forearm and wrist. Two little red spots of enthusiasm glowed in her cheeks. What life and vitality at forty-three! the man thought, smiling appreciatively into her face. For the first time she moved him emotionally. He was lonely, miserable, and thoroughly susceptible to such charm as she had.

"It would be awfully pleasant," he said at last, leaning toward her, "to get away from this place, with you!" ...

His hand slipped to her beautiful arm. At that moment Venetia came into the room, unnoticed by the two on the lounge. She stood for a little while watching them, and then, with a smile on her expressive lips, noiselessly withdrew.

"Well, wire for a passage to-morrow," Mrs. Phillips murmured....

There was nothing more, nothing that would have offended the most scrupulous; for the architect, at least, was essentially healthy-minded. In a lonely moment he might satisfy the male need for sympathy by philandering with a pretty woman, who soothed his bruised egotism. But he did not have that kind of weakness—the woman weakness. A few minutes later he was leaving the room, saying as he looked into Louise Phillips's brown eyes:—

"Yes, I think you are right. I need to get away from this town for a while and rest my nerves."

"When you come back people will be only too glad to see you. They don't remember their scruples long."

"There isn't anything for them to worry over."

"The Kronprinz, then."

In the hall he met Venetia, who was slowly coming down the stairs, wrapped in a long cloak. She hesitated a moment, then continued to descend.

"Hello, Venetia!" Hart called out.

She swept down the remaining steps without replying, her eyes shining hotly. As she passed him, she turned and shot one word full in his face,—"Cad!"


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