The Common Lot

XXI.

HUSBAND and wife did not speak while they were being driven across the city to their home. That which lay between them was too heavy to be touched upon at once in words. Several times the architect glanced fearfully at his wife. She rested limply on the carriage cushion, with closed eyes, and occasionally a convulsive tremor twitched her body. The summer heat, which had raged untempered for weeks, had already sapped her usual strength, and now her face had a bloodless pallor that made the man wince miserably. When their cab stopped at the North Side Bridge, a burly vessel was being pulled through the draw. Helen opened her eyes languidly; once or twice she sought her husband’s face, which was turned blankly toward the crowded street. Her lips moved, and then she closed her eyes again. As they got out of the cab, a neighbor who was passing spoke to them and made a little joke, to which Hart replied pleasantly, with perfect self-control. The woman leaning on his arm shivered, as if a fresh chill had seized her.

The children were spending a month in Wisconsin with Jackson’s mother, and so the two sat down to a silent dinner. When the maid had come and gone for the last time, Hart looked furtively across the table to his wife, and said gently, —

“Won’t you go upstairs, Nell? You don’t look able to sit up.”

She shook her head and tried to speak, but her voice was gone. Finally she whispered, —

“ Francis, you must tell me all about it, — everything ! ”

He frowned and said nothing, until she repeated, “ Everything, you must tell me ! ” and then he said, —

“See here, Nell, we’d better drop this thing and not think of it again. That man Pemberton, who has pestered the life out of me all along, has made a row. That’s all! And he ’ll repent it, too ! He can’t do anything to me. It’s a business quarrel, and I don’t want you to worry over it.”

He was cool and assured, and spoke with the kindly authority of a husband.

“ No, Francis ! ” She shook her head wearily. “ That can’t be. I must know, — I must help you ! ”

“ You can’t help me,” he replied calmly. “ I have told you enough. They can’t do anything. I don’t want to go any further into that business.”

“ I must know ! ” she cried.

He was startled at the new force in her voice, the sign of a will erecting itself with its own authority against him.

“ Know what ? What that fool Pemberton thinks of me ? You heard enough of that, I guess ! ”

“ Don’t put me off! Don’t put me away from you, Francis! If we are to love each other, if we are to live together, I must know you, all of you. I am in a fog. There is something wrong all about me, and it gets between us and kills our love. I cannot — bear — it! ” Her voice broke into pleading, and ended in a sob. But controlling herself quickly, she added, —

“ Mr. Pemberton is a fair man, a just man. But if he’s wrong, I want to know that, too. I want to hate him for what he said to you.”

“You would like to judge me, to judge your husband! ” he retorted coldly. “ That is not the way to love. I thought you would believe in me, all through to the end.”

“ So I shall — if you will tell me all the truth ! I would go with you anywhere, to prison if need be, if you would be open with me ! ”

“We need n’t talk of going to prison yet! ” he exclaimed in exasperation.

He went to the sideboard, and pouring himself a glass of whiskey, set the decanter on the table.

“ They can’t do anything but talk ! ” he repeated. Then, warmed by the liquor, he began to be more insolent, to speak defiantly.

“ Pemberton ’s been after me from the start. He wanted Wright to get the work, and he’s tried to put every obstacle he could in my way. It was first one thing and then another. He has made life unendurable with his prying and his suspicions. But I won’t stand it another day. I’m going to Everett to-morrow and tell him that I shall get out if Pemberton is to interfere with my orders. And they can’t lay a finger on me, I tell you. Pemberton can just talk ! ”

Helen had put her head between her hands, and she was sobbing. Every hot word that he spoke drove conviction against him into her heart. At last she raised her tear-stained face and cried out with a new access of power, —

“ Stop! Stop ! ”

Then she rose, took the decanter of whiskey, replaced it on the sideboard, and seated herself by his side, putting her hand on his arm.

“ Francis, if you care for me, if you want us ever to love each other again, answer me honestly! Have you and that contractor done anything wrong about the school? ”

“You can’t understand ! ” he replied roughly, drawing his arm from her touch. “ You are making a great deal out of your own imagination.”

“ Answer me ! ” she said, in the same tense tone of pure will. “ Have you let that man Graves cheat, — do anything dishonest, — and shut your eyes to it ? ” “ Pemberton claims he has n’t lived up to the specifications,” the architect admitted sullenly.

“ And you knew it ? ”

“ So he says.”

There was a moment’s silence between them, while the vision of this fraud filled their minds. She seemed to hesitate before the evil thing which she had raised, and then she asked again, —

“ Have you — did you make any money from it ? ”

He did not reply.

“ Tell me, Francis ! ” she persisted. “ Did this man give you anything for letting him — cheat the trustees ? Tell me ! ”

He was cold and careless now. This new will in his wife, unexpected, unlike her gentle, yielding nature, compelled him to reveal some part of the truth. In this last resort her will was the stronger. He said slowly : —

“ If he made a good sum from the school contract, there was an understanding that he was to give me some stock. It was involved with other business.”

“ He was to give you stock ? ”

“ Yes ; stock in a hotel that he’s been building, — another piece of work.” “ And he has given you this stock ? ”

“ Some of it.”

“ What have you done with it ? ”

“ Sold it.”

“You have sold it?”

“ Yes! It was a kind of bonus he gave me for getting him the contract and for doing the hotel, too.”

Further than that he would not go. They left the subject late at night. He was sullen and hard, and resented her new tone of authority to him ; for he had always counted on her acquiescence and tenderness as his immutable rights.

In the morning this feeling of resentment was more firmly fixed. He regretted that in a moment of weakness he had told her what he had the night before. When she came to him as he was preparing to leave the house, and, putting her hands on his arms, begged him to talk with her again before going, he listened moodily and said that he was pressed for time.

“Won’t you go to them, to the trustees, to Everett anyway, and tell them everything you know ? And give them that money, the money you got from the stock! ”

“ That’s a woman’s plan ! That would make a nice mess, would n’t it ? I told you I got that as a bonus. It’s often done, something like that. You’d like to see me get into trouble, — be disgraced for good and all ? ”

“ That cannot be helped now,” she answered quietly. “ The disgrace cannot be helped! ”

“ What rot! ” he sneered. “You make me out a thief at once. Suppose you look at what some of your acquaintances do, — the good, rich people in this town, — and see how they make their money! Ask people how Silas Stewart gets his rebates from the railroads. Ask any one about the way Strauss grades his wheat.” . . .

“ I don’t want to know. That has nothing to do with this matter.”

He left her impatiently. They did not reopen the matter that evening, nor the next day. Her face was set and stern, with a kind of dreary purpose in it, which made him unhappy. He went out of the city on business, and did not return for several days. When he came home no mention was made of his absence, and for another week they lived silently. The night before the children were to return from their vacation with their grandmother, while husband and wife lay awake, each troubled by the common thought, she spoke again.

“ Francis,” she said firmly, “ we can’t go on like this. The boys are coming to-morrow. They must n’t see us living this way. And it’s bad for you, Francis, and I can’t stand it! I have been thinking it over. I must go away with the boys. I shall go to uncle Powers’s house in Vernon Falls.”

“ You are going to leave me, and take the children with you, because you think I am in trouble,” he said accusingly.

“You know that isn’t true! If you will only meet it honorably, like the man I loved and married, I will stay, and be with you always, no matter what comes. Will you?”

“ So you want to make conditions ! ”

“ Just one ! ”

“ You had better go, then.”

The next day she telephoned her mother to come to her, and when Mrs. Spellman arrived she said quietly, — “Mother, I am going to Vermont, to the farm. It may be for a long time. Will you come with me ? ”

Mrs. Spellman, who was a wise woman, took her daughter’s face between her hands and kissed her

“ Of course ! ” she answered simply.

That day they made the necessary preparations for themselves and the children. When the architect returned from his office and saw what was going forward, he said to his wife, —

“ So you are determined to leave me?” “ Yes, I must go.”

“ I have seen Everett. They are n’t going to do anything. I told you it was all bluff on Pemberton’s part.”

She hesitated, uncertain what to think, and then she asked searchingly, —

“ Why are n’t they going to do anything ? What does it mean ? ”

“ Oh, I guess the others have brought Pemberton to his senses,” he replied evasively.

“No, Francis! It isn’t made right yet. You would be different if it were. Somehow, from the beginning, when there first was talk of this school, it has been wrong. I hate it! I hate it! And it goes back of that, too. It starts from the very beginning, when we were married, and began to live together. We have always done as the others do all around us, and it is all wrong. I see it now ! We can never go on the same way ” —

“ What way ? I don’t understand you,” he interrupted.

“ Why, earning and spending money, trying to get more and more, trying to get things. It’s spoiled your work ; it’s spoiled you ; and I have been blind and weak, to let us drift on like the others, getting and spending, struggling to get ahead, until it has come to this, to this, — something dreadful that you will not tell me. Something you have done to make money. Oh, how low and mean it is! How mean it makes men and women! ” “ That’s life ! ” he retorted neatly. “No, no, never ! That was n’t what you and I thought on the steamer when we were coming home from Europe. I wish you were a clerk, a laborer, a farmhand, — anything, so that we could be honest, and think of something besides ambition. Let us begin again, from the very beginning, and live like the common people, and live for your work, for the thing you do ! Then we should be happy. Never this way, not if you make millions, millions! ”

“Well, I can’t see why you are leaving,” the architect answered, content to see her mind turn from the practical question.

“ Tell me! ” she exclaimed passionately. “ Tell me ! Are you honest ? Are you an honest man ? Is it all right with that building ? With that contractor ? Tell me, and I will believe you.”

“ I have said all that I am going to say about that,” he answered.

“ Then, Francis, I go ! ”

The next afternoon the architect met them at the train and saw them start, punctiliously doing all the little things that might make their journey pleasant. He referred to their going as a short vacation trip, and joked with the boys. Just before the train started, while Mrs. Spellman settled the children in their section, Helen walked up and down the platform with him. As the signal for starting was given, she raised her veil, revealing the tears in her eyes, and leaning toward him, kissed him. She put into his hands a little card, which she had been holding clasped in her palm. He raised his hat and stood on the platform until the long train had pulled out of the shed. Then he glanced at the card in his hand and read: —

“ You know that I shall come to you when you really want me. H.”

He crushed the card in his fist and threw it into the roadbed.

XXII.

As the architect had said to his wife, the trustees did nothing. 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, but Trimble was to have 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 Graves was 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 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 brusquely. “ That was a dirty blow she got, — straight between the eyes ! I never thought she ’d come here that afternoon.”

“ Helen has gone east with the boys and her mother, — to that place in Vermont. She needs the rest.”

“ Oh, um, I see,” the lawyer commented, comprehending what this journey meant. He was surprised that Helen should desert her husband at this crisis. 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 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 directly. 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 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: 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. “ 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. Oh, I know all your troubles, of course. Has n’t that pleasant brotherin-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 work. I did n’t corrupt you, did I ? ”

So 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 interminable strikes, but fortunately he could keep himself busy with the hotel and a large country house in the centre of the state, which took him often 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 their own situation, 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 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, you know, the one we are all trying to help,” she said, giving him a hand. “ 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 we 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 is n’t that,” he protested.

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 defense ; “ 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 had n’t any moral sense, and I suppose I have n’t, of his sort. You should have had your uncle’s money, or a part at any rate, and it’s natural that you should try to get all you can of it, 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 ! 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 think she’s been silly. ... I am going over. 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. I sail on the Kronprinz, the 20th of next month ! ”

The invitation to him was implied in the pause that followed. The gleam in Hart’s eyes showed his interest in her suggestion, but he said nothing.

“ There’s nothing to do in your business, as you said, and you should give these good people a chance to forget! We could have a good time over there. You could buy 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 replied, 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 was essentially healthyminded. 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, —

“ I think you are right. I need to get away from this town 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 is n’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 ! ”

XXIII.

The girl’s word was like a blow in the face. It toppled over any self-complacency that had survived these last disintegrating months. Was he as mean a thing as that ? So little that a girl whom he had always treated with jovial condescension might insult him, unprovoked ? Probably others, all those people whose acquaintance he valued, had a like contempt for him. At first he did not resent their judgment; he was too much dazed.

In this plight he walked south on the avenue, without minding where he was going, and then turned west, automatically, at Twenty-Second Street, walking until he came to the region of dance-halls and flashy saloons. In this unfamiliar neighborhood there was a glare of light from the great electric signs which decorated the various places of resort. The street was crowded with men and women loitering about the saloons and dancehalls, enjoying the fitful mildness of the April evening. At this early hour there were more women than men on the street, and their dresses of garish spring colors, their loud, careless voices, and air of reckless ease, reminded the architect faintly, very faintly, of the boulevards he had loved in his happy student years. In this spot of the broad city there flourished coarse license, and the one necessity was the price of pleasure. The scene distracted his mind from the sting of the girl’s contempt.

He entered one of the larger saloons on the corner of an avenue, and sat down at a small table. When the waiter darted to him, and, impudently leering into his face across the table, asked, “ What’s yours, gent ? ” he answered quickly, “ Champagne ! Bring me a bottle and ice.” His heavy heart craved the amber wine, which, in association at least, heartens man. At the tables all about him sat the women of the neighborhood, large-boned and heavy creatures, drinking beer by themselves, or taking champagne with stupid-looking, rough men, probably buyers and sellers of stock at the Yards, which were not far away. The women had the blanched faces of country girls over whom the city has passed like the plates of a mighty roller. The men had the tan of the distant prairies, from which they had come with their stock. They had set themselves to deliberate debauch that should last for days, — as long as the “ wad ” held out and the brute lust in their bodies remained unquenched.

Presently the waiter returned with the heavy bottle and slopped some of the wine into a glass. The architect raised it and drank. It was execrable, sweetened stuff, but he drank the glass at a draught, and poured another and drank it. The girl’s inexplicable insult swept over him afresh in a wave of anger. He should find a way to call her to account. . . . He paid for her admission to the dancehall, dropped a dollar in her hand, and left her. Then where to go ? How to pass the hours ? He was at an utter loss what to do with himself, like all properly married, respectable American men, when the domestic pattern of their lives is disturbed for any reason. He began to stroll east in the direction of the lake, taking off his hat to let the night wind cool his head. He found walking pleasant in the mild spring air, and when he came to the end of the street he turned south into a deserted avenue that was starred in the dark night by a line of arc lamps. It was a dull, respectable, middle-class district, quite unfamiliar to him, and he stared inquiringly at the monotonous blocks of brick houses and cheap apartment buildings. Here was the ugly, comfortable housing of the modern city, where lived a mass of good citizens, — clerks and small business men. He wondered vaguely if this was what his wife would have them come to, this dreary monotony of small homes, each one like its neighbor, where the two main facts of existence were shelter and food !

“ Say, Mister, you don’t want to drink all that wine by yourself, do you ? ”

A woman at the next table, who was sitting by herself before an empty beerglass, and smoking a cigarette, had spoken to him in a furtive voice.

“ Come over, then ! ” he answered, roughly pushing a chair to the table.

“ Here, waiter, bring another glass.”

The woman slid, rather than walked, to the chair by his side, and drank the champagne like a parched animal. He ordered another bottle.

“Enjoying yourself?” she inquired politely, having satisfied her first thirst. “Been in the city long? I ain’t seen you here at Dove’s before.”

He looked at her with languid curiosity. She recalled to him the memory of her Paris sisters, with whom he had shared many a consommation in those blessed days that he had almost forgotten. But she had none of the sparkle, the human charm of her Latin sisters. She was a mere coarse vessel, and he wondered at the men who sought joy in her.

“ Where do you come from ? ” he demanded.

“ Out on the coast. San Diego’s my home. But I was in Philadelphia last winter. I guess I shall go back to the East pretty soon. I don’t like Chicago much, — it’s too rough out here to suit me.”

She found Chicago inferior! He laughed with the humor of the idea. It was a joke he should like to share with his respectable friends. They drank and talked while the evening sped, and he plied her with many questions in idle curiosity, touched with that interest in women of her class which most men have somewhere in the dregs of their natures. She chattered volubly, willing enough to pay for her entertainment.

As he listened to her, this creature of the swift instants, whose only perception was the moment’s sensation, he grew philosophical. The other world, his proper world of care and painful forethought, faded from his vision. Here in Dove’s place he was a tlumsand miles from the respectabilities in which he had his being. Here alone in the city one might forget them : nothing mattered, — his troubles, his wife’s judgment of him, the girl’s contempt.

He had loosened that troublesome coil of things, which lately had weighed him down. It seemed easy enough to cut himself free from it and walk the earth once more unhampered, like these, the flotsam of the city.

“ Come! Let’s go over to Grinsky’s hall,” the woman suggested, noticing the architect’s silence, and seeing no immediate prospect of another bottle of wine.

“ We ’ll find something doing over there, sure! ”

But he was already tired of the woman ; she offended his cultivated sensibilities. So he shook his head, paid for the wine, said good-evening to her, and started to leave the place. She followed him, talking volubly, and when they reached the street she took his arm, clinging to him with all the weight of her dragging will.

“You don’t want to go home yet,” she coaxed. “ You ’re a nice gentleman ! Come in here to Grinsky’s and give me a dance.”

Her entreaties disgusted him. People on the street looked and smiled. At the bottom he was a thoroughly clean-minded American: he could not even coquette with debauch without shame and timidity. She and her class were nauseating to him, like evil-smelling rooms and foul sights. That was not his vice !

A wave of self-pity swept over him, and his thoughts returned to his old grievance: if his wife had stayed by him all would have been well. He wanted his children ; he wanted his home, his wife, his neighbors, his little accustomed world of human relationships, — all as it had been before. And he blamed her for destroying this, shutting his mind obstinately to any other consideration, unwilling to admit even to his secret self that his greed, his thirsty ambition, had aught to do with the case. He had striven with all his might, even as the bread-winners in these houses strove daily, to get a point of vantage in the universal struggle. They doubtless had their modicum of content, while he had missed his reward. That heavy weight of depression, which the wine had dissipated temporarily, returned to oppress his spirits.

He must have walked many blocks on this avenue between the monotonous small houses. In the distance beyond him to the south, he saw a fiery glow in the soft heavens, which he took to be the nightly reflection from the great blast furnaces of the steel works in South Chicago. Presently he emerged upon a populous cross street, and the light seemed nearer, and, unlike the soft effulgence from the blast furnaces, the red sky was streaked with black. On the corners of the street there was an unwonted excitement, — men gaping upwards at the fiery cloud, then running eastward, in the direction of the lake. From the west there sounded the harsh gong of a fire-engine, which was pounding rapidly down the car tracks. It came, rocking in a whirlwind of galloping horses and swaying men. The crowd on the street broke into a run, streaming along the sidewalks in the wake of the engine.

The architect woke from his dead thoughts and ran with the crowd. Two, three, four blocks, they sped toward the lake, which curves eastward at this point, and as he ran, the street became strangely familiar to him. The crowd turned south along a broad avenue that led to the park. Some one cried, “ There it is ! It’s the hotel! ” A moment more, and the architect found himself at the corner of the park opposite the lofty hotel, out of whose upper stories broad billows of smoke, broken by sheets of flame, were pouring.

There, in the corner made by the boulevard and the park, where formerly was the weedy ruin, rose the great building, which Graves had finished late in the winter, and had turned over to the hotel company. Its eight stories towered loftily above the houses and apartments in the neighborhood. The countless windows along the broad front gleamed portentously with the reflection from the flames above. At the west corner, overlooking the park, above a steep ascent of flaunting bay windows, there floated a light blue pennon, bearing a name in black letters, — THE GLENMORE.

At first the architect scarcely realized that this building, which was burning, was Graves’s hotel, his hotel. Already the police had roped off the street beneath the fire, in which the crowd was thickening rapidly. All about the place, for a space of two blocks, could be heard the throbbing engines, and the shrill whistling with which they answered one another. The fire burned quietly aloft in the sky above their heads, while below there was the clamor of excited men and screeching engines. The dense crowd packed ever closer, and surged solidly toward the fire lines, bearing the architect in the current. Within the massive structure, the architect realized vaguely, there was being enacted one of those modern tragedies which mock the pride and vanity of man. In that furnace human beings were fighting for their lives, or, penned in, cut off by the swift flames, were waiting in delirious fear for aid that was beyond the power of men to give them. A terrible horror clutched him. It was his building which was being eaten up like grass before the flame. He dodged beneath the fire line and began to run toward the east end, with an idea that in some way he could help. It was his building ; he knew it from cornice to foundation ; he might know how to get at those within ! A policeman seized him roughly and thrust him back behind the line. He fought his way to the front again, while the dense crowd elbowed and cursed him. He lost his hat; his coat was torn from his shoulders. But he struggled frantically forward. “ Damn you ! you —! ” he stammered, shaking his fist at him. “ There were n’t any steel in the thing! It was rotten cheese. That’s you, you, you!” He turned and ran toward the burning mass, distracted, shouting, as he ran, “ Rotten cheese! Just rotten cheese! ” But the architect stayed there in the alley, rooted in horror, stupefied. High above him, in a window of the south wall, which was still untouched by the fire, he saw a woman standing on the narrow ledge of the brick sill. She clung with one hand to an awning rope and put the other before her eyes. He shouted something to her, but he could not hear the sound of his own voice. She swayed back and forth, and then as a swirl of flame shot up in the room behind her, she fell forward into the abyss of the night. . . . A boy’s face appeared at one of the lower windows. He was trying to break the pane of heavy glass. Finally he smashed a hole with his fist, and stood there, dazed, staring down into the alley ; then he dropped backwards into the room, and a jet of smoke poured from the vent he had made.

“ They’ve pulled the third alarm,” one man said, chewing excitedly on a piece of gum. “ There’s fifty people in there yet.”

“ They say the elevators are going! ” another one exclaimed.

“ Where’s the fire-escapes ? ”

“ Must be on the rear or over by the alley. There ain’t none this side sure enough.”

“ Yes, they ’re in back,” the architect said authoritatively.

He tried to think just where they were and where they opened in the building, but could not remember. A voice wailed dismally through a megaphone, —

“ Look out, boys ! Back ! ”

On the edge of the cornice appeared three little figures with a line of hose. At that height they looked like willing gnomes on the crust of a flaming world.

“ Gee! Look at that roof ! Look at it!”

The cry from the megaphone had come too late. Suddenly, without warning, the top of the hotel rose straight into the air, and in the sky above there was a great report, like the detonation of a cannon at close range. The roof had blown up. For an instant darkness followed, as if the flame had been smothered, snuffed out. Then, with a mighty roar, the pentup gases that had caused the explosion ignited, and burst forth in a broad sheet of beautiful blue flame, covering the doomed building with a crown of fire.

Hart looked for the men with the hose. One had caught on the sloping roof of a line of bay windows, and clung there seven stories above the ground.

“ He’s a goner ! ” some one groaned.

Large strips of burning tar paper began to float above the heads of the crowd, causing a stampede. In the rush, Hart got nearer the fire lines, more immediately in front of the hotel, which irresistibly drew him closer. Now he could hear the roar of the flame as it swept through the upper stories and streamed out into the dark night. The fierce light illumined the silk streamer, which still waved from the pole at the corner of the building, untouched by the explosion. Across the east wall, under the cornice, was painted the sign: THE GLENMORE FAMILY HOTEL ; and beneath, in letters of boastful size, FIREPROOF BUILDING.

The policeman at the line pointed derisively to the legend with his billy.

“ Now ain’t that fireproof ! ”

“Burns like rotten timber!” a man answered.

It was going frightfully fast! The flames were now galloping through the upper stories, sweeping the lofty structure from end to end, and smoke had begun to pour from many points in the lower stories, showing that the fount of flame had its roots far down in the heart of the building. Vague reports circulated through the crowd : — A hundred people or more were still in the hotel. All were out. Thirty were penned in the rear rooms of the sixth floor. One elevator was still running. It had been caught at the time of the explosion, etc. For the moment the firemen were making their fight in the rear, and the north front was left in a splendid peace of silent flame and smoke, — a spectacle for the crowd in the street.

“You here, Hart! What are you after ? ”

Some one stretched out a detaining hand and drew him out of the press. It was Cook, his draughtsman. Cook was chewing gum, his jaws working nervously, grinding and biting viciously in his excitement. The fierce glare revealed the deep lines of the man’s face.

“ You can’t get out that way. It’s packed solid ! ” Cook bellowed into his ear. “ God alive, how fast it’s going! That’s your steel frame, tile partition, fireproof construction, is it ? To hell with it! ”

Suddenly he clutched the architect’s arm again and shouted, —

“ Where are the east-side fire-escapes ?

I can’t see nothing up that wall, can you ? ”

The architect peered through the wreaths of smoke. There should have been an iron ladder between each tier of bays on this side of the building.

“ They are all in back,” he answered, remembering now that the contractor had cut out those on the east wall as a “ disfigurement.” “ Let’s get around to the rear,” he shouted to the draughtsman, his anxiety whipping him once more.

After a time they managed to reach an alley at the southwest angle of the hotel, where two engines were pumping from a hydrant. Here they could see the reach of the south wall, up which stretched the spidery lines of a solitary fire-escape. Cook pointed to it in mute wonder and disgust.

“ It’s just a question if the beams will hold into the walls until they can get all the folks out,” he shouted. “ I heard that one elevator boy was still running his machine and taking ’em out. As long as the floors hold together he can run his elevator. But don’t talk to me about your fireproof hotels ! Why, the bloody thing ain’t been burning twenty minutes, and look at it ! ”

As he spoke there was a shrill whistle from the fire marshal, and then a wrenching, crashing, plunging noise, like the sound of an avalanche. The upper part of the east wall had gone, toppling outward into the alley, like the side of a rotten box. In another moment followed a lesser crash. The upper floors had collapsed, slipping down into the inner gulf of the building. There was a time of silence and awful quiet; but almost immediately the blue flames, shot with orange, leaped upwards once more. From the precipitous wall above, along the line of the fire-escape, came horrid human cries, and through the smoke and flame could be seen a dozen figures clinging here and there like insects to the window frames.

Cook swayed against the architect like a man with nausea.

“ They ’re done for now, sure, all that ain’t out. And I guess there ain’t many out. It just slumped, just slumped,” he repeated with a nervous quiver of the mouth. Suddenly he turned his pale face to the architect and glared into his eyes.

In front of the hotel there were fresh shouts : they were using the nets. The architect covered his face with his hands, and, moaning to himself, began to run, to flee from the horrible spot. But a cry arrested him, a wail of multitudinous voices, which rose above the throb of the engines, the crackle of the fire, the clamor of the catastrophe. He looked up once more to the fire-eaten ruin. The lofty south wall, hitherto intact, had begun to waver along the east edge. It tottered, hung, then slid backwards, shaking off the figures on the fire-escape as if they had been frozen flies. ... In the avenue he heard the crowd groaning with rage and pity. As he ran he saw beside the park a line of ambulances and patrol wagons ready for their burdens.

How long he ran, or in what direction, he never knew. He had a dim memory of himself, sitting in some place with a bottle of whiskey before him. The liquor seemed to make no impression on his brain. His hand still shook with the paralysis of fear. He remembered his efforts to pour the whiskey into the glass. After a time a face, vaguely familiar, entered his nightmare, and the man, who carried a little black bag, such as doctors use, sat down beside him and shouted at him: —

“ What are you doing here ? What do you want with that whiskey ? Give it to me. You have had all the booze that’s good for you, I guess.”

And in his stupor he said to the man tearfully: —

“ Don’t take it away, doctor! For heaven’s sake, don’t take the whiskey away ! I tell you, I have killed people to-night. Eight, ten, forty, — no, I killed eight people. Yes, eight men and women. I see ’em dying now. Give me the whiskey ! ”

“ You ’re off your nut, man ! ” the doctor replied impatiently. “ You have n’t killed any one. You have been boozing, and you ’ll kill yourself, if you don’t quit. Here, give me that! ”

He remembered rising to his feet obediently and saying very solemnly : —

“ Very well, my friend, I won’t drink any more if you say so. But listen to me ! I killed a lot of people, eight of ’em, and I don’t know how many more beside. Over there in a great fire. I saw’em dying, like flies, like flies. Now give me one more drink! ”

“ All right, you killed ’em, if you say so!”

“ Don’t leave me, doctor ! It’s a terrible thing to kill so many people, all at once, like flies, like flies! ”

And he burst into tears, sobbing and shaking with the awful visions of his brain, his head buried in his arms.

XXIV.

The next morning Hart found himself on a sofa in a bare, dusty room that looked as if it was a doctor’s office. He sat up and tried to think what had happened to him overnight. Suddenly the picture of the burning hotel swept across his mind, and he groaned with a fresh sense of the sharp pain. Some one was whistling in the next room, and presently the door opened, and Dr. Coburn appeared in trousers and undershirt, mopping his face with a towel. The newspaper account wandered on, column after column, repeating itself again and again, confused, endlessly prolix, but in the waste of irrelevancy a few facts slowly emerged. The Glenmore, fortunately, had been by no means full. It had been opened only six weeks before as a family hotel, — one of those shoddy places where flock young married people, with the intention of avoiding the cares of children and the trials of housekeeping in modest homes; where there is music twice a week and dancing on Saturdays ; where the lower windows are curtained by cheap lace bearing large monograms, and electric candles and carnations are provided for each table in the diningroom. Another year from this time there would have been three hundred people in the burning tinder-box.

“Hello, Jack Hart!” he called out boisterously. “ How are you feeling ? Kind of dopey ? My, but you were full of booze last night! I had to jam a hypodermic into you to keep you quiet, when I got you over here. Do you get that way often ? ”

“ Was I drunk?” the architect asked dully.

“Well, I rather think! Don’t you feel it this morning ? ”

He grinned at the disheveled figure on the sofa, and continued to mop his face.

“ You were talking dotty, too, about killing folks. I thought maybe you might have a gun on you. But I could n’t find anything. What have you been doing ? ”

“It was the fire,” Hart answered slowly, “ a terrible fire! People were killed, — I saw them. My God ! it was awful! ”

He buried his face in his hands and shuddered.

“ Shook you up considerable, did it ? Here, wait a minute ! I ’ll fix you something.”

The doctor went back into the inner room, and returned with a small glass.

“Drink this. It will give you some nerve.”

The architect took the stimulant and lay down once more with his face to the wall. Presently he pulled himself together and drank a cup of coffee which the doctor had prepared. Then he took himself off, saying that he must get to his office at once. He went away in a daze, barely thanking the doctor for his kindness. When he had left, Coburn began to whistle again, thinking, “ There’s something more ’n drink or that fire the matter with him !

Hart bought a newspaper at the first stand. It was swelled with pages of coarse cuts and “ stories ” of the “ Glenmore Hotel Tragedy.” On the elevated train, which he took to reach the city, the passengers were buried in the voluminous sheets of their newspapers, avidly sucking in the details of the disaster. For a time he stared at the great cut on the first page of his paper, which purported to represent the scene at the fire when the south wall fell in. But in its place he saw the sheer stretch of the pitiless wall, the miserable figures on the iron ladder being swept into the flames. Then he read the headlines of the account of the fire. Seventeen persons known to have been in the hotel were missing; the bodies of ten had been found. Had it not been for the heroism of a colored elevator boy, Morris by name, who ran his car up and down seven times through the burning shaft, the death list would have been far longer. On the second trip, so the account ran, the elevator had been caught by a broken gate on the third floor. Morris had coolly run the car up to the top, then opened his lever to full speed, and crashed his way triumphantly through the obstacle. It was one of those acts of unexpected intelligence, daring, and devotion to duty, which bring tears to the eyes of thousands all over the land. The brave fellow had been caught in the collapse of the upper floors, and his body had not yet been found. It was buried under tons of brick and iron in the wrecked building.

The fire had started somewhere in the rear of the second floor, from defective electric wiring, it was supposed, and had shot up the rear elevator shaft, which had no pretense of fireproof protection. The east wall had bulged almost at once, pulling out the supports for the upper three floors. It was to be doubted whether the beams, bearing-walls, and main partitions were of fireproof materials. The charred remains of Georgia pine and northern spruce seemed to indicate that they were not. At any rate, the incredible rapidity with which the fire had spread, and the dense smoke, showed that the “ fireproofing ” was of the flimsiest description. And, to cap all, there was but one small fire-escape on the rear wall, difficult of access ! “ The Glenmore,” so the Chicago Thunderer pronounced, “ was nothing but an ornamental coffin.”

Editorially, the Thunderer had already begun its denunciation of the building department for permitting a contractor to erect such an obvious “ fire-trap,” and for giving the lessees a license to open it as a hotel. There had been too many similar horrors of late, — the lodging-house on West Polk Street, where five persons had lost their lives, the private hospital on the North Side, where fourteen men and women had been burned, etc. In all these cases it was known that the building ordinances had been most flagrantly violated. There was the usual clamor for “ investigation,” for “ locating the blame,” and “ bringing the real culprits before the Grand Jury.” It should be said that the Thunderer was opposed politically to the City Hall.

In the architect’s office there was an air of subdued excitement. No work was in progress when Hart let himself into his private room from the hall. Instead, the men were poring over the broad sheets of the newspapers spread out on the tables. When he stepped into the draughting-room, they began awkwardly to fold up the papers and start their work. Cook, Hart noticed, was not there. The stenographer came in from the outer office and announced curtly, —

“ The ’phone’s been ringing every minute, Mr. Hart.” She looked at the architect with mingled aloofness and curiosity. “ They were mostly calls from the papers, and some of the reporters are in there now, waiting. What shall I say to ’em ? ”

“ Say I am out of town,” Hart ordered, giving the usual formula when reporters called at the office. Then he went back to his private room and shut the door. He put the bulky newspaper on his desk and tried to think what he should do. There were some memoranda on the desk of alterations which he was to make in a country house, and these he took up to examine. Soon his desk telephone rang, and when he put the receiver to his ear, Graves’s familiar tones came whispering over the line. The contractor talked through the telephone in a subdued tone, as if he thought to escape eavesdropping at the central office by lowering his voice.

“ Is that you, Hart ? Where have you been ? I’ve been trying to get you all the morning! Say, can’t you come over here quick ? ”

“ What do you want ? ” the architect demanded sharply. The sound of the man’s voice irritated him.

“ Well, I want a good many things,” Graves replied coldly. “ I guess we had better get together on this business pretty soon.”

“ You can find me over here the rest of the morning,” Hart answered curtly.

There was a pause of several seconds, and then the contractor telephoned cautiously : — “Say, I can’t leave. That Dutchman ’s in here pretty drunk, and I don’t want him to get loose. Come over, quick ! ” “ It’s a pretty bad mess, ain’t it ? ” he said to the architect, offering him a cigar. “ I guess you were right. Those first story walls weren’t solid. They bulged, and that must have pulled the whole business down. . . . Of course the papers are hot. They always yap considerable when anything happens. They ’ll spit fire a week or so, and then forget all about it. Everything is straight over at the city hall. There ’ll be the coroner’s inquest, of course. But he won’t find much ! The only bad point is this cuss Van Meyer. He’s been on a spree, and if they get hold of him, and ask him questions at the inquest, he ’s liable to tell all he knows, and more too. What I want you to do is to take care of the Dutchman.”

“All right,” the architect muttered dully, hanging up his telephone. He was minded to refuse, but he realized that it would be best to see what was the matter. Van Meyer was one of the officers and directors of the Glenmore Hotel Corporation. The architect and a couple of clerks in the contractor’s office were the other dummies in this corporation, which had been organized solely to create bonds and stock, and to escape personal liability.

Hart gathered up the memoranda on his desk, and, telling the stenographer that he was going out to Eversley to see the Dixon house, he left the office. As he stepped into the hall, he met Cook, who had just come from the elevator. He nodded to the draughtsman, and hailed a descending car.

“ Say, Hart,” Cook said in a quiet voice, “ can I have a word with you ? ”

Hart stepped back into the hall and waited to hear what the draughtsman had to say.

“ I must have been pretty near crazed last night, I guess,” Cook began, turning his face away from the architect, “ and I said things I had no call to say.”

“ Come in,” Hart said, unlocking the door to his private office.

“ Of course, it was n’t my business anyway,” Cook continued, “ to accuse you, no matter what happened. But I saw a friend of mine this morning, a man on the Thunderer, and he had just come from the city hall, where he’d been to see the Glenmore plans. He says they ’re all right ! Same as ours in the office. I can’t understand what happened to the old thing, unless Graves — Well, that’s not our business.”

There was a pause, while the two men stood and looked at each other. Finally, Cook said, —

“ So I wanted to tell you I was wrong, — I had no call to talk that way! ”

“ That’s all right, Cook,” the architect replied slowly. Somehow the man’s apology hurt him more than his curses. They still stood waiting. Suddenly Hart said, —

“You needn’t apologize, man! The plans are all right. But that does n’t let me out. I knew what Graves was going to do with ’em. I knew it from the start.”

“What do you say?” the draughtsman exclaimed, bewildered.

“ The hotel was a job from the start,” Hart repeated.

There was another pause, which was broken by Cook.

“ Well, I suppose after this you won’t want me any more ? ”

“ I suppose not,” Hart answered in a colorless tone.

“ All right; I ’ll go to-day if you say so.”

“ As you please.”

And they parted. Cook was an honest, whole-souled man. It was best that they should part, Hart reflected, as he went down in the elevator, best for Cook and for him, too. The draughtsman’s admiration for him had been his daily incense, and he could not bear having him about with this matter between them, even if Cook would stay.

Hart found Graves in his inner office, while a clerk held at bay a roomful of men who wanted to get at the contractor. Graves looked serious, but undisturbed, manifesting no more emotion than if he had come from the funeral of a distant relative.

“ What do you mean to do ? ” Hart asked abruptly.

“ Do ? Well, the best thing for all of us who are connected with the Glenmore is to be called out of town for two or three weeks, or so. I have got to go to Philadelphia to-night. Gotz will be here to go on the stand if they want to get after the hotel corporation. They won’t make much out of him ! Now, if you can take care of the Dutchman ” —

“ What do you mean ? ”

Graves looked at the architect critically before answering.

“ Don’t lose your nerve, Hart. It ’ll come out all right. I’ve seen my lawyer this morning, and I know just what they can do with us, and it ain’t much. They can get after the building department, but they ’re used to that! And they can bring suit against the corporation, which will do no harm. You keep out of the way for a while, and you won’t get hurt a particle. Take the Dutchman up to Milwaukee and drown him. Keep him drunk, — he’s two thirds full now. Lucky he came here instead of blabbing to one of those newspaper fellers! Keep him drunk, and ship him up north on the lakes. By the time he finds his way back, his story won’t be worth telling.”

Hart looked at the big mass of a man before him, and loathed him with all his being. He wanted to take him by one of his furry ears and shake the flesh from his bones. The same impulse that had prompted him to admit his guilt to Cook, the impulse to cut loose from the whole business, cost what it might, was stirring within him.

“ Well ? ” Graves inquired.

“ I am going to quit,” the architect said, almost involuntarily. “ I’m sick of the business, and I shan’t run away. You can look after Van Meyer yourself ” —

“ Perhaps you ’re looking for some money ? ” the contractor sneered.

“ No more of yours, I know that! ” Hart answered, rising from his chair and taking his hat. “ I’m sick of the whole dirty job, and if they want me to, I ’ll talk, too, I suppose.”

“You damned, white-livered sneak ! Ain’t you got enough gut in you to sit tight? You” —

But the contractor was swearing at the blank wall of his office.

When the architect reached the street he hesitated. Instead of taking the train for Eversley, as he had intended to do, he got on an electric car that ran far out into the northern suburbs. He kept saying to himself that he wanted time to think, that he must “ think it out ” before he returned to his office. For he was not sure that it would be best to stay and bear the brunt of the investigation which would surely come, as he had said to the contractor. He was not clear what good that would do.

But he did not think. Instead, he brooded over the vision of the past night, which beset him. When the car stopped he got out and walked north along the lake shore, meaning to reach Eversley in that way. He was still trying to think, but saw nothing clearly ; nothing but that terrible picture of the burning hotel, the dying men and women. Thus he walked on and on, still trying to think, to find himself. . . .

Robert Herrick.

(To be continued.)

  1. Copyright, 1903, by ROBERT HERRICK.