The Common Lot
THERE was a stir among the reporters gathered in the little room where the coroner’s inquest on the Glenmore fire was being held, when it became known that the architect was present and was to be examined. Graves’s man, Gotz, the president of the hotel company, had finished his testimony on the previous day, having displayed a marvelous capacity for ignorance. Under advice from his lawyer he had refused to answer every important question put to him, on the plea that it was irrelevant. The coroner had been scarcely more successful with other witnesses in his endeavors to determine the exact causes for the large loss of life in the new hotel, and his inquest was closing in failure. The yelping pack of newspapers had already raised their cry in another field; public interest in the Glenmore disaster had begun to wane; and it was generally believed that nothing would come of the inquest, not even a hearing before the Grand Jury. The whole affair was but another instance of the impotence of our system of government in getting at the real offenders against society, if they are cunning and powerful.
That morning, as the Harts were preparing to go to the hearing, the doctor had called to see little Powers, for the child’s feverish cold threatened to develop into pneumonia. After the doctor had gone, the architect went upstairs to the sickroom, where Helen was seated on the bed playing with Powers, and trying to soothe him. As he watched them, he was devoured by a sudden fear, a terrible presentiment, that the child was to die, and thus he was to pay for his sins, and not only he, but Helen. She was to pay with him, even more than he! He tried to rid himself of the hysterical and foolish idea, but it persisted, prompted by that rough sense of retribution — an acknowledgment of supreme justice — that most men retain all their lives.
“ I shall have to go now,” he said to her at last. “But you must n’t think of coming. You must stay with the boy.”
“Oh no!” Helen exclaimed quickly, looking closely at the child. “ The doctor says there is nothing to fear yet. Everything has been done that I can do, and your mother will stay with him while we are away. It won’t be long, anyway!”
“Why do you insist upon coming ?” he protested almost irritably. “It won’t be exactly pleasant, and you may have to hang around there for hours.”
“Don’t you want me to go with you, and be there, Francis?”
He made no reply, feeling ashamed to confess that it would make the coming scene all the more painful to know that she was hearing again in all its repulsive detail the story of his participation in the criminal construction of the Glenmore hotel.
“I think I had better go,” she said finally, “and I want to go!”
She wished to be near him at the end, after he had performed this difficult act; to be near him when he came out of the hearing and walked home with the knowledge of the public disgrace preparing for him at the hands of the hungry reporters. Then, she divined, he would feel the full bitterness of his position.
The hearing proceeded slowly, and it was the middle of the afternoon before the architect was called. The coroner, a grizzled little German-American with an important manner, put on his spectacles to examine the new witness, and the members of the coroner’s jury, who knew that the architect had left the city immediately after the fire and were surprised at his return, evinced their curiosity by leaning forward and staring at Hart.
Copyright, 1903, by ROBERT HERRICK.
The first questions put to him were directed toward gaining information about the corporation that owned the building. As Mr. Hart was the treasurer of the Glenmore company, presumably he held stock in the corporation ? A large amount ? No, he had had some stock, but had disposed of it. Recently ? Some time ago. To whom ? The witness refused to answer. Had he paid cash for his stock ? The witness refused to answer: he had been told by his lawyer that all such questions were not pertinent to the present inquiry. But who, then, were the chief stockholders ? who were, in fact, the Glenmore company ? Again the architect refused to answer; indeed, he was not sure that he knew. The coroner, baffled on this line, and knowing well enough in a general way at least from previous witnesses that nothing was to be unearthed here, turned to more vital matters.
“Mr. Hart,” he said, clearing his throat and looking gravely at the witness, “ I understand that you were the architect for this hotel ? ”
“ You drew the plans and specifications for the Glenmore ?”
“Yes, they were prepared in my office.”
“Were they the same that you see here?”
The coroner motioned toward the roll of plans that had been taken from the files of the Building Department.
“Yes,” the architect answered readily, merely glancing at the plans, “ those were the plans for the hotel as originally prepared by me.”
“Now I want to ask if the Glenmore hotel was built according to these plans ? ”
The architect hesitated. Every one in the room knew well enough by this time that the building destroyed by fire had not been erected according to these plans, but, nevertheless, they waited eagerly for the reply.
“Few buildings,” Hart began explanatorily, “are completed in all respects according to the original plans and specifications.”
“Ah, is that so ?”
“But these plans were very considerably altered,” the witness continued voluntarily.
“By whom? By you? With your consent, your approval?”
The architect hesitated again for a few moments, and then answered rapidly: —
“With my knowledge, certainly; yes, you may say with my consent!”
There was a little delay in the inquiry at this point, while the coroner consulted with his counsel as to the next questions that should be addressed to the witness. The architect gazed doggedly before him, keeping his eyes on the dirty window above the heads of the jury. In the dingy light of the little room, his face appeared yellow and old. His mouth twitched occasionally beneath his mustache, but otherwise he stood with composure waiting for the next question, which he knew would pierce to the heart of the matter.
“Mr. Hart,” the coroner resumed, “will you describe to us what those alterations in the plans for the Glenmore were, what was the nature of them ?”
The witness considered how he was to answer the question, and then he proceeded to explain the most important discrepancies between the building as it had been erected by Graves and the plans that had been filed with the Building Department. He described the use of the old walls and foundations, the reduction in the thickness of the bearing-walls and partitions, the chief substitutions of wood for steel in the upper stories, the omitting of fireproof partitions and refi-escapes, etc., — in short, all the methods of “skinning ” the construction, in which the contractor was such an adept. He referred from time to time to the plans, and used technical terms, which he was asked to explain. But the jury listened with absorbed interest, and he kept on until he had answered the question thoroughly
“As an architect,” the coroner asked, when Hart had completed his explanation, “will you state whether, in your judgment, these changes that you have described, especially the substitution of inflammable material for fireproofing and the weakening of the main walls, were sufficient to account for the great loss of life in the fire ?”
The answer to such a question could be only an individual opinion, and the witness might properly refuse to commit himself. The architect hesitated, and then with a quick motion of the head, as if he were sick of evasions, said: —
“There are a good many buildings here in Chicago and in other large cities that are no safer than the Glenmore was. But if you want my opinion, I will say that such alterations as I have indicated tended to weaken the walls, and in other ways to bring the building below the danger limit.”
“It was what might be called a firetrap, then ?”
“I did not say that!”
Feeling that at last he had found an easy witness, the coroner began to bully, and there ensued a wrangle between him and the architect in which both men became heated.
“Well, Mr. Hart,” a member of the jury finally interposed with a question, “can you say that the Glenmore as it was built conformed to the building ordinances of the city of Chicago ?”
“It would take a number of experts and a good lawyer to interpret those ordinances!” the architect answered testily. “I should say that they were drawn for the express purpose of being violated.”
There was a laugh along the reporters’ seat at this retort. But the witness quickly added in his former contained manner : —
“No, the Glenmore violated the ordinances in a number of important particulars.”
There was a sudden hush in the room. This point had been established before by different persons who had been examined. Nevertheless, the admission coming from the architect of the ill-fated building was an important point. It might lead to other interesting admissions.
“You were aware, then, when the Glenmore was being erected that it violated the ordinances ?”
“Did you make any protest?”
“Did you know when you undertook the plans that the hotel was to be built in this manner ?”
“I knew that it was to be put up for a certain sum, an that a first-class fireproof building conforming to the ordinances could not be built for that money. ”
A number of questions followed in regard to the actual cost of the hotel and the connection of the Graves Construction Company with the owners of the building, many of which the architect refused to answer. At last the coroner returned to the one point on which he had been successful in eliciting vital information,— the character of the burned building, and the circumstances of its construction.
“I suppose the building was inspected during the construction?”
“By whom ?”
“As usual, by different inspectors from the Building Department. Mr. Murphy was there several times, I remember, and Mr. Lagrange, among others. But I think chiefly Mr. Murphy.”
“Were you present during their inspection ?”
“Did either of these gentlemen find anything to object to in the method of construction ?”
“I never heard of any objection. Nothing was ever said to me. The inspector might have talked to the contractors. But I don’t think any one of them did.”
“ Have you reason to believe that there was any collusion between the inspectors and the Graves Company?”
Every one in the room knew that there must have been collusion. Nevertheless, the architect, after hesitation, said: —
“I shan’t answer that, sir.”
“You refuse to reply ?”
“See here, Mr. Coroner! I am here to tell you what I know about the Glenmore, — at least so far as it concerns my own responsibility, my own work. But I am not here to testify against the Graves Construction Company. Understand that!”
“Well, I should say that you and the Graves Company were pretty well mixed in this matter. You were an officer of the corporation which employed the Graves Company to build a hotel on your plans. Could there be any closer connection than that, do you think ?”
To this observation Hart made no reply, and finally the member of the jury who had interposed before put another question to the witness: —
“You have told us that the Glenmore was not properly built, was not what it pretended to be, a fireproof building, and generally violated the ordinance for that class of building. Do you consider yourself in any way responsible for those violations ?”
“Yes,” the architect replied slowly, “I suppose so. At least I knew all about it! ”
“You considered it a dangerous building?”
“I can’t say that I did. I should consider it so now. I did n’t think much about it then.”
The witness’s admission came with evident effort; the juryman continued insinuatingly : —
“Mr. Hart, I believe that you were present at the fire ?”
“Did you then believe that if the hotel had been built according to these plans ” — he pointed to the roll of blue prints on the table — “the large loss of life would not have occurred ?”
”I felt so, — yes, I believe so now!”
“ May I ask one more question ? Was it for your interest to make these changes ? Did you make any money out of the job beyond your customary commissions ?”
It was a question that the witness might properly refuse to answer as having no direct bearing on the object of the inquest. But the architect was weary of quibbles, indeed eager to make his testimony as thorough as might be.
“Not directly, but I was an officer of the company, and beside” —
“Indirectly, then, you benefited?”
“That is all, Mr. Hart.”
A few more questions were asked by the coroner about the inspection of the building by Murphy and Lagrange, and also in regard to the architect’s previous relations with the Graves Company. Then the witness was excused.
When the architect stepped back into the room, he saw Wheeler sitting beside Helen in the rear. They waited for him at the door, and together the three went out to the street. The lawyer, who had reached the hearing in time for most of the testimony, smiled rather grimly as he remarked to his cousin: —
“Well, Jack, you gave them about everything they were after! You need n’t have turned yourself quite inside out.”
“It was perfect!” Helen exclaimed, taking her husband’s arm. “Everything you said was right. I would n’t have had you change a word.”
Wheeler buttoned his coat against the east wind and smiled tolerantly at the woman’s fervor.
“Will that be all, Everett ?” she asked a little defiantly.
“For the present,” he replied after a pause, and then he nodded good-by.
“What did he mean ?” she asked her husband, as they threaded the crowded street leading to the North Side Bridge.
“That they will hold me to the Grand Jury, I suppose.”
Her grip tightened on his arm, and they continued their way silently to the old Ohio Street house.
When they entered the house, Helen hurried upstairs to the child, who had been calling for her, Mrs. Hart said. Presently the doctor came for his evening visit, and when, after a long time, he left the sickroom, Jackson met him in the hall, but lacked the courage to ask any question. The doctor spoke brusquely about the bad weather, and hurried off. Then Hart walked to and fro in the gloomy dining-room until his mother came down for dinner, which they ate in silence.
Before they had finished their meal the bell rang, and in reply to the maid’s excuses at the door there sounded in the hall a strong woman’s voice.
“But I must see them!”
Hart, recognizing Venetia Phillips’s voice, stepped into the hall.
“ Oh, Jack! I have just heard that you were all here. Everett told me all about it. Jack, it was fine! I did n’t think you had it in you, Jackie, dear. To stand up there and give everything away, —it took real stuff. I know it!” She held out her hand in enthusiastic heartiness, repeating, “It was fine, fine! ” Suddenly she turned back to the door where Coburn stood.
“You know Dr. Coburn, Jack! I brought him along, too. I was in such a hurry to see you all. Where’s Helen ? ”
“Yes, I just butted in,” Coburn said, laughing. “ I would n’t let her come without me. I wanted to shake on it, too! ”
“But where’s that sainted wife of yours?” Venetia persisted.
When Hart told her of little Powers’s illness, she asked to go upstairs. There was an awkward silence between the two men, left alone with the common memory of that last time, barely a week before, that they had met. Coburn, having now an explanation for the architect’s erratic behavior, refrained from his usual blunt speech. The architect saw through a mist of accumulated impressions, as in a long vista, that night after the fire when Coburn had found him under the spell of fearful visions. That experience was removed, as if it belonged to distant years. He had never liked Coburn the few times that he had seen him, but as they stood awkwardly in the old library a kind of sympathy grew between them.
“You must have thought I was crazy that night,” the architect remarked apologetically. “I did n’t know much what I was up to!”
“That’s all right, man,” Coburn interrupted warmly. “Don’t think about it again. It was damn good luck my running across you. If I’d known, of course — Say! that took sand, what you did today. Wheeler told Venetia all about it, and she told me. It makes a man feel good to know some one has got the nerve to stand up and take medicine, and not try everlastingly to sneak out of things! If more folks nowadays would do that, it would be better for us all. Don’t you mind what the papers say. They have to fling mud, — that’s their game!”
“Well, it does n’t make much difference now what they say except, — except for my wife,” Hart answered dully. “And that can’t be helped.”
“Oh, I guess it won’t last long. And somehow women don’t mind those things half as much as you’d think, at least the best ones don’t. And from what Venetia says, yours is one of the best!”
They had nothing further to say to each other, and sat silently until Venetia came back. Her exuberance had gone, and as she entered the room she was wiping away the traces of tears.
“Poor little Powers!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Jack! I am terribly sorry.”
“What’s the matter?” Coburn demanded.
“It’s pneumonia, poor little man!”
Hart’s lip trembled beneath his mustache.
“Yes, I supposed it would be. It’s as bad as it well could be, for her!”
“I know he’ll come through, — he must! ’ Venetia exclaimed helplessly, and added in a burst of admiration, “That couldn’t happen to Helen — it just couldn’t! She’s so splendid, Jack! It’s a big thing to know there are such women about. She’s holding him up there, with a smile on her face!”
After Coburn and Venetia had left, Hart sat for a while in the dark room, and then, pulling himself together, went upstairs to his wife and child.
Again and again during the days that followed, while they worked for the child’s life, and when all was done watched and waited together for what might come, that miserable foreboding of the first day came back to him. An evil fate seemed close on his heels, ready to lay hand on him here or there. The illness of the child related itself in some unknown manner with that other catastrophe. The old idea of retribution, that barbaric conception of blood sacrifice, tormented him, as it torments the most skeptical in the hour of crisis. It appeared that for his cowardice of nature, for all his weak and evil deeds, for the unknown dead in whose death he had connived, he was about to be called to pay with the life of his own child. And the mother, guiltless, in the inscrutable cruelty of fate, must pay with him and pay the larger share of the price of his evil, of his nature!
But during these days of dread the woman went her way calmly, serenely, prepared, outwardly at least, for any event. What the child’s death would mean to her was known only to herself, for she consumed her grief patiently in the silence of the watch. The house grew more sombre, as day by day the child’s struggle for life moved on to its crisis. Little Powers, like his mother, made his fight with unchildish patience. He had always been the quieter, less demonstrative one of the two boys, possessing a singular power of silence and abstraction, which had been put down to physical weakness. Yet under the stress of disease he showed an unexpected resistance and vitality. The father, seeing him lying in the great bed, with pathetic moments of playfulness even in the height of his fever, could not stay by his side. . . .
The suspense of the child’s illness mercifully threw all outer happenings into shade. Jackson was able to keep the newspapers away from Helen, and she asked no questions. His testimony at the inquest had revived to some extent the waning public interest in the Glenmore fire. Especially the Buzzard, which had assumed to itself all the credit for airing the conditions in the Building Department, made merry over Hart’s replies to the coroner. It printed full page cuts of scenes at the inquest that last day, when the architect was on the stand, — dramatic sketches of “tilts between the coroner and Hart,” “Hart’s insolent retorts, " etc.; and it denounced editorially the “systematic corruption of the city’s officials by Graves, Hart, and their allies.” But the Thunderer and the more respectable papers refrained from all such bitter insinuations. For some reason they forbore to pillory the only man who had voluntarily come forward and told all that he knew. Perhaps they respected the courage of the act; perhaps they were aware that their patrons were tired of “the Glenmore tragedy;” perhaps they felt that the real guilt lay too deep to be reached by their editorial darts. However that might be, the matter rested now with the district attorney and the Grand Jury.
For the inquest was concluded and the coroner’s report was published. It covered lengthily all the points touched upon by the many witnesses, and it contained much “scoring” of the city authorities. The contractor, Graves, the inspectors, Murphy and Lagrange, Gotz, the president of the defunct corporation, and Hart, were held to the Grand Jury for complicity in the death of the seventeen persons who had perished in the Glenmore fire. . . .
The worst hour of their anxiety for the child’s life came, and Helen knelt by the bed holding the little body in her arms, devouring his face with her shining eyes. The hour passed, the child lived, there was hope of his recovery. Then the next morning Jackson was obliged to tell Helen what had happened the last days. She listened as to a message from a far land, her face blanched and set from the hours of fear through which she had passed. When he said that he, with the others, had been held to the Grand Jury, she asked: —
“When will that be?”
“Very soon, less than a fortnight, Everett says. He called here yesterday. He advised me to leave the city, — he came to see about that.”
“What will they do?” she asked, not heeding the last remark.
“If they find a true bill, it will go to the trial jury. And,” he added slowly, “the charge will be manslaughter.”
She started as he pronounced the word. In her ears it was the legal synonym for murder, and before the awfulness of that conception her heart recoiled.
“Manslaughter!” she repeated involuntarily.
“Yes, but Everett thinks it is very doubtful whether the Grand Jury will find a true bill against any one. It would be almost unheard of. Of course, Graves will stay away until he sees how it will turn out, and probably the others will keep out of reach. Everett wants me to go " —
“No, no!” she cried, “never! You have come all this way on the hard road, and we must wait for the very end, no matter what that is.”
“So I thought you would feel,” he answered gently. “I said the same thing to Everett. Of course the justice of it is n’t very clear. It’s mixed up with politics, anyway. I don’t know that it would do much good to stay and be tried. But if you feel that way ” —
She laid her hand on his arm, imploring him mutely not to give her all the responsibility.
“Think what it might mean, if—if they found me guilty!”
“I know,” she shuddered. “But Francis, we must pay somehow, you and I We must pay!”
But if in her heroic soul she was ready to pay, and to make him pay, at the price of public shame for her and her children, the full penalty of his misdeeds, it was not to be so. He was to escape the full measure of retribution, shielded by the accident of his class. Unknown to him, the tangled threads of his fate were being sorted in the great city, and the vengeance of society was being averted, so far, at least, as legal punishment was concerned. Everett Wheeler, once recovered from his disgust at the sentimental folly of the architect’s answers to the coroner’s questions, had no mind to see his cousin on trial for manslaughter. His mood was invariably to settle things, to cover them up, to bury them! As has been said, he had political influence, enough to reach even to the district attorney’s office, enough to close the mouth of the Chicago Buzzard, to quiet the snarls of the Thunderer. So the case against the men held to the Grand Jury for the hotel disaster was quietly dropped. The mayor put another man in Bloom’s place as chief Building Inspector, and things went merrily on in their old way. And that was the end of it all! The seventeen human beings who had lost their lives in the fire had not even pointed a moral by their agonizing death. For a few summer months the gaunt, smoke-blackened pit of ruins on the boulevard served to remind the passers-by of a gruesome tale. Then, by the beginning of the new year, in its place rose a splendid apartment building, faced with cut stone and trimmed with marble.
Wheeler notified the architect in a curt note that the case had been dismissed, and Jackson showed the letter to his wife.
“ Thank God! ” he exclaimed fervently, “that is the end. I shan’t drag you into the mud any further.”
Helen looked up from the lawyer s letter with a troubled face. She had hardened herself to the coming trial, which she had fully expected. Now that it had been spared, all was not yet right to her scrupulous perception. A terrible wrong had been committed, a wrong to the poor souls who had lost their lives, a wrong, too, to the city and to society, making an evil pool of corruption. And in some mysterious way this had been covered up, hidden, and all was to go on as before! She had a primitive idea that all evil necessitated exact payment, and as long as this payment was deferred, so long was the day of light, of health, put off.
But the man, realizing more clearly than she the indirect penalties which his situation imposed, gave no further thought to the abstract question of justice. The outlook was bad enough as it was. He saw nothing before him in this city where he naturally belonged.
“What would you think of our trying St. Louis?” he asked after a little time. “There is some sort of an opening there for me. Of course I had rather be in New York, but it is out of the question. It would take too long to get started. Or we might try Denver. I have done some work there, and it’s a growing place.”
“Why do you think that we must leave Chicago?” she asked.
“Why!” he exclaimed, surprised that she should consider for a moment the possibility of their remaining where he had made such a failure of his life. “Do you want to stay here and be dropped by every soul you have known ?”
“I don’t care for that!”
“Well, there’s nothing here for me. Stewart will take the office. He let me know mighty quick that we had better part! I am a dead dog in Chicago. Only yesterday I got a letter from the Ricker Brothers turning me down after telling me last month to go ahead. They pay for the work done so far, and that is all. You see it is out of the question to stay here!”
He spoke gloomily, as if conscious of harsh treatment.
“ But I don’t mean to let this down me, not yet,” he continued more buoyantly. “I owe it to you to make good. And I can do it somewhere else, where the sight of this mess isn’t always in my eyes! It’ll only be a matter of a few years.”
Already the bitterness of the crisis was passing away, and he was beginning to plan for the future, for a career, for success, built on a surer foundation, but nevertheless success and repute in the world. She saw it and understood. She was standing by his side, as he sat with his elbows resting on his knees, the lawyer’s letter crumpled in his hands. She put her hands on his head and drew it toward her, protectingly, pityingly, as she would the bruised head of a child.
“So you think you must begin somewhere else?” she said gently, sitting down by his side.
“It’s the only thing to do. The question is where!”
She made no reply and seemed buried in her thoughts.
“By the way,” he remarked, “whom do you think I saw on the street to-day ? Wright. He was staring at Letterson’s new store, — you know Frank Peyton did it. The old man stopped me and seemed glad to see me. I suppose he knows, too,” he added musingly.
The incident comforted him greatly. He had seen Wright and had looked away from him, meaning to hurry past, but the older man had stretched out his long arm and good - naturedly drawn Hart to one side out of the press of the street.
“How are you, Hart?” he had said cordially, with his boyish smile. “What do you think of this thing? Bold, is n’t it? That Peyton’s got nerve to put up this spider-web right here in State Street. Now I could n’t do that! But I guess he’s on the right track. What do you think ?”
They had walked down the street together, and Wright had continued to talk of Peyton and the other young architects in the city, and of their work.
“I tell you, those youngsters have got the future. They have the courage to try experiments. That won’t do for an old fellow like me. My clients would kick, too. But I like to see them do it. . . . What are you doing ?” he had asked abruptly. “Come in to see me, won’t you ? I shall be here two or three weeks. Be sure to come in!”
They had shaken hands, and the older architect had looked searchingly into Hart’s face, his boyish smile changing subtly into an expression of concern and sweetness, as if there was something on the tip of his tongue which he refrained from saying there in the crowded street. The memory of the little meeting came back to the man now, and he felt more grateful for Wright’s cordiality than he had at the time.
“Wright asked me to come in and see him. I think I will,” he added presently.
“Why not give up the idea of starting your own office?” Helen asked suddenly, her thoughts having come to a definite point.
“What do you mean ? Try something else ? It would be pretty risky,” he answered doubtfully, surprised that she should want him to abandon his profession, to admit defeat.
“ I did n’t mean that, exactly. Listen! ”
She slipped from the lounge where she had been sitting and knelt beside him, taking the lapels of his coat in her hands, her face aglow with a sudden enthusiasm.
“I’ve been thinking of so many things these last months, and lately, while Powers has been so sick, I’ve thought of everything since we were in Italy together, since I loved you, — all those talks we had, and the plans we made, the work you did, the sketches, those first ones.” She paused, trying to put her tumultuous thoughts in order.
“I grow so slowly! I was so ignorant of everything, of myself and you. It has taken me a long time to understand, to grow up!” she exclaimed, her lips trembling in a little smile.
“We stumbled almost at the start, you and I. You started your office and worked hard, always striving to get ahead, to get us comforts and position, and not because you liked the things you were doing. You took anything that promised to bring money. And it got worse and worse, the more we had. It used to trouble me then, ’way back, but I did n’t know what was the matter with it all. We lived out there with all those rich people around us. And those that were n’t very rich were all trying to get richer, to have the things the others had. We did what they did, and thought what they thought. It was n’t honest!”
“What do you mean by that?” he asked blankly.
“I’ll say it clearly; just give me time, dear! You worked just to get money, and we spent it all on ourselves, or pretty nearly all. And the more we had, the more we seemed to need. No man ought to work that way! It ruins him. That’s why there are so many common, brutal men and women everywhere. They work for the pay, and for nothing else.”
“Oh, not always.”
“Most of those we knew did,” she replied confidently.
“It’s the law of life,” he protested, with a touch of his old superiority in his tone.
“No, it is n’t, it is n’t!” she exclaimed vehemently. “Never! There are other laws. Work is good in itself, and we must live so that the pay makes less difference, so that we have n’t to think of the pay!”
“I don’t see what this has to do with our going to St. Louis!” he interjected impatiently, disinclined for a theoretic discussion of the aims of life.
“But it has, Francis, dear. It has! If you go there, you will try to live the old way. You will try to get ahead, to struggle up in the world as it is called, and that is the root of all the trouble! That is what I have come to see. We are all trying to get out of the ranks, to leave the common work to be done by others, to be leaders. We think it a disgrace to stay in the ranks, to work for the work’s sake, to bear the common lot, which is to live humbly and labor! Don’t let us struggle that way any longer, dear. It is wrong, — it is a curse. It will never give us happiness — never! ”
He began to see the drift of her purpose, and resented it with all the prejudice of his training, — resented, at least, the application of it to him.
“The ranks are crowded enough as it is! I don’t see the call for a man to put himself into them if he has the ability to do any better, I must say!”
“ Not if — not after all that has happened?” she asked mournfully.
“Oh! You think that it’s only I who should go down, meekly give up all ambition, because I can’t be trusted. You are afraid that I will go wrong ?” he retorted bitterly.
“No, not that! Yet” — she hesitated, aware that the new love between them hung in the balance. Then she went on courageously. “No, I have no fear of that. You could n’t! But the temptation to make money will be before you every moment, and to-day few men can resist that. It is better to be in the ranks than to struggle to lead, and then lead falsely, trying for false things, — false things!”
“That is what you think of me!” he repeated mournfully.
In spite of all the experience which had come to him the last weeks, all that he had confessed to himself and to his wife, it was bitter to realize that she refused him that absolute faith and blind confidence in his guidance which had made courtship and the first years of marriage such a pleasant tribute to his egotism. He had come back to her repentant; he had said, “ I have erred. I repent. Will you forgive me and love me ? ” And she had taken him to herself again with a deeper acceptance than at first. Yet when it came to the point of action, she seemed to be withdrawing her forgiveness, to be judging and condemning.
In this he wronged her. What she was trying hesitantly and imperfectly to say to him was not merely the lesson of his catastrophe,but the fruited thought of her life, — what had come to her through her imperfect, groping education, through the division of their marriage, through her children, through the empty dinner parties in the society he had sought, through the vacancy in her heart, yes! through the love that she had for him. While she was silent, clinging to him, baffled, he spoke again: —
“Don’t you see that I want to retrieve myself, and make some amends to you for all that I have made you suffer ? You would kill every ambition in me, even the one to work for you and the boys!”
“That would not make me happy, not if you made as great a fortune as uncle Powers! Not that way!”
“What would, then?”
“Do you remember some of those first things you did? The little country club at Oak Hills ? I was awfully happy when you showed me that,” she said softly, irrelevantly. “Somehow I know you could do that again and better things, too, if — if you could forget the money and all that. Real, honest work! You could be the artist I know you are, the maker of honest, fine buildings!”
In the enthusiasm of her face he read dimly once more the long past dream of his youth, the talk of young men in the studios, the hours by her side on the steamer, when they had come together in the imperfect attraction of youth. It was but the flicker of a distant light, however; he had learned the lesson of the city too well!
“That sounds very well. But it is n’t practical. If you want to do big work, you have to be your own master, and not work for some one else! And art, especially architecture, lives on the luxury of the rich, whom you seem to despise!”
“What does it matter whose name goes on the plans? It’s the work that makes it that counts, and no one can have that but the one who does it.”
“Now, you’re talking poetry, Nell, not sense!” he exclaimed good-naturedly, getting up from the lounge and walking to and fro. “This world does n’t run on those lines, and you and I are n’t going to make it over, either. You’re talking like a romantic girl!”
“There is n’t much of the girl left in me!” she smiled wistfully back to him.
“Just look at it practically! If I go out of business for myself, I could n’t earn more than two hundred a month working for some firm. That’s as much as Wright ever pays his best men. What wmuld that be to live on ? For you and me and the boys?”
“We could make it do.”
“ Next you ’ll want to take in washing! ”
“I had rather do the cooking!” she flashed back.
“I can see us in a four-room flat somewhere south on one of those God-forsaken prairie streets! One slovenly maid, and the food! No, thank you! I am not quite so far gone as that yet, my dear. You don’t realize the facts.”
His mind was not open to her conception, even in its simplest application. To him such a manner of life meant simply degradation. She saw, as never before, how Chicago had moulded him and had left his nature set in a hard crust of prejudice. The great industrial city where he had learned the lesson of life throttled the finer aspirations of men like a remorseless giant, converting its youth into ironclawed beasts of prey, answering to the one hoarse cry, “ Success, Success!”
“And how should we educate the boys ? Think of it! How could we give them as good a start in life as we had? Why, it would be criminal to them! It’s nonsense!”
“I have thought of them,” she replied calmly. “And I am willing to take the risks for them, too. I am willing to see them start in life poor, with just what we could do for them. Perhaps, in the world to which they will grow up, things will be different, anyway.”
He had tested her in the tenderest point, and she was stanch. He began to see how far this theory went with her. She was ready to put herself outside her own class, and her children also, for the sake of an idea, a feeling that she had about man’s true purpose in life.
“I must go to Powers, now,” she said at last, a little sadly. Impulsively she went up to him and leaned her head against his breast for a moment. “Perhaps in time you will come to feel more as I do. And, Francis, there’s another reason why I should hate to have us leave this place. I don’t want to think that you are running away from the disgrace, from the trouble which has happened here! ” She raised her head proudly. “That is what all cheap people do, go to some place where they are n’t known; as if it mattered to us now what people think or say! I want you to stay right here, where it happened, and make a new life here.”
After she had left him, he continued to walk to and fro in his uncle’s old library, between the heavy black-walnut bookcases, where it was permitted to him now to smoke as many cigarettes as he liked. The house had been left very much as it was during the old man’s life. Now that Mrs. Hart had freedom to make the changes which had been denied to her while the owner lived, she had never come to the necessary resolution. Powers Jackson’s will was still strangely effective with her, even in death.
The architect thought of the old man, wondering vaguely what he would have said to Helen’s argument. He was not so sure as formerly that he understood the rough old fellow, who apparently had grasped the main chance and wrung it dry. His uncle’s idea in endowing that school struck him suddenly as complex, and also his treatment of himself. Possibly he, too, — the successful man of his day, — having exploited the world for forty years, had come to the belief that ambition in the ordinary sense of the word was futile. . .
Jackson had not thought to sneak away from the place where he had gone to failure when he suggested to his wife starting life once more in a new city. It had seemed merely ordinary good judgment. to go where he should not be hampered by a past. And he resented his wife’s feeling that he should remain and do a kind of penance for the sins that he had confessed, repented, and repaired so far as he was able. She asked too much of him! He had given up all the money he had, and was ready to begin the struggle for bread with a fairer view of his duties. But it seemed that that was not enough for her: she demanded now that he sacrifice his ambition, that he return to the ranks, as a draughtsman, a clerk, a hireling!
Nevertheless, her words worked unconsciously in him, for hers was the stronger nature. He had lived his own way and had failed. What she wanted must, perforce, guide him increasingly. Presently he went upstairs to the child’s room. There in the darkened chamber Helen was kneeling beside the bed holding little Powers in her strong arms. The child was asleep, his thin arms stretched above his head along the pillow. In the large bed the little figure, white and wasted with the lingering fever of his disease, lay peacefully. Helen turned her face to her husband as he entered, and he could see the smile that belied the tears in her eyes. And as he stood there in the silent room watching the two, the calm of elemental feeling stole over him. The woman and the child! These were the ancient, unalterable factors of human life; outside of them the multitudinous desires of men were shifting, trivial, little. For the first time in his life an indifference to all else in the world swept over him in gratitude for these two gifts. . . .
In the weeks that followed, while the child was recovering, husband and wife recurred to the urgent question of the future. Both knew that the decision lay before them, and could not be deferred long. Yet neither was willing to press the question. One day Jackson mentioned casually that he thought of going to see Wright. That evening when they were alone, he said: —
“ Well, I had a talk with Wright, Nell! ”
“ He’s a good deal more of a man than I used to think him!” he went on slowly. “There were a lot of people waiting to see him, and he had to go somewhere, but he did n’t seem to mind that. I was there with him a long time. I guess he knows pretty nearly all that has happened.”
Wright had said nothing about the Glenmore or Graves, however, and Hart had not gone into his story very far. But the older man had heard, it is true, something here and there, from this man and that, over the lunch table at his club, from one or two men in his office. And he had imagination enough to picture the whole story.
“I told him I was thinking of going somewhere else,” Jackson went on.
“What did he say ?”
“Oh, a good many things, — he’s a pretty human fellow — Well, at the end he offered me a place with him! Not the old thing, — he’s got some new men in, and can’t put any one ahead of them. I guess he would have to make a place!”
She leaned forward, repressing the question that rose swiftly to her lips. But after a few moments, Jackson answered it slowly.
“ I told him that I would like to think it over for a day or two.”
They were in the habit of walking for an hour these warm evenings, and tonight they strolled down to the lake, as usual, following the shore to the Park. The great houses on the boulevard were already deserted by their occupants, who had begun the annual migration. As the architect looked at the dark façades of those monstrous piles of brick and stone, to which the toilsome steps of the city’s rich led, he remembered how as a boy he had wondered why in this world, which seemed to hold so many pleasant things, the owners of these houses could content themselves to live here in their ugly piles. Then the ambition to encase one’s self in a great house such as these had seemed so mean! Since then he had not questioned it. Now again he looked at their burly shadows and speculated without envy.
They loitered arm in arm beside the wall, listening to the heaving lake, the splash of cool water on the concrete embankment.
“We’ll try it, Nell,” he remarked, after a long period of silence. “It’s pretty good of the old boy to take back a man who’s been on his knees!”
“ Don’t! ” she murmured. “ That hurts! And you mustn’t do it just for my sake.”
“I think you are rather fussy!” he retorted. “Why else should I do it, my dear, dear wife?”
“ But you must n’t regret it! You must be sure, — not do it just to please me, but because you see it as I do, and know that it’s the only way for us to live and have peace.”
Doubtless she asked too much of the man she loved, for most beings — instinctive creatures — act from a philosophy of purely personal influences. Jackson Hart certainly would never have considered relinquishing his ambition to thrust himself forward, to have a career in this world, out of any intellectual convictions. Nor could it be said that his wife’s half - formulated arguments had persuaded him. But she herself had convinced him, the strong, self - contained womanhood in her, her undaunted spirit, with which he lived. Especially, these latter weeks of suspense and despair, while their child’s life was in the balance, had made him hers. If it were a victory for the woman, it was an emotional victory, which she had won over her husband, — and such are the only victories that endure in such matters. He felt her spirit as he had never felt anything else, and knew dimly, remotely, that in all the big questions of life she was right. Beautiful, loving, strong, and fearless, she was his! And what was his “career” against her heart and soul ?
“Perhaps you will regret it,” he remarked half playfully, “and will want me to change later! ”
“Never, never!” She drew his arm closer to her breast.
“Well, those fellows will grin when I walk into that office after my little splurge!” He swept his arm in an arc to describe the upward and downward course of a rocket. “Into the ranks at last!”
“To work and live and love, a little while,” she added softly.
“It is n’t exactly the way uncle Powers solved the question!” he remarked teasingly. “I suppose you would have had him stay milking cows on that Vermont farm ?”
“I did n’t marry him!” she answered quickly. “And perhaps if he had it to do again, he would stay to milk the cows.”
“You think so!” he exclaimed skeptically.
With her, at least, there was neither doubt nor hesitation. She answered surely the inarticulate call of the larger world, the call of the multitudes that labor and die without privilege, to share with them the common lot of life.
That small fragment of Chicago society which had known the Jackson Harts, and interested itself in their doings, was mildly stirred over the news that the brilliant and promising young architect had been obliged to close his office, and had gone to work for his old employer. Indeed, for some weeks the Harts furnished the Forest Park dinner - tables with a fresh topic of conversation that took the place of the strikes and poor Anthony Crawford’s scattered fortune. It contained quite as much food for marvel and moral reflection as either of the others.
More information about the architect’s troubles than that provided by the press had got abroad in Forest Park and the Shoreham Club. It was known, for instance, that Hart had been obliged to dissolve his partnership with Freddie Stewart, owing to grave business irregularities, which extended beyond the recent disaster. It was agreed that his offenses must have been very grave indeed to necessitate at his age, with his influential connection, such a radical change of caste as had happened. Men commonly expressed contempt because at a crisis he had shown such a deplorable “lack of nerve.” They said, and among them were some of the architect’s more intimate friends, that nothing he had done could justify this tame submission. “ Why,” Mrs. Phillips exclaimed when she heard of it, “we’ve seen men live down things ten times worse. There wasand-and-. They are as good as any one to-day! And he need n’t have told everything he knew, anyhow, to that old coroner.” The measure of a man’s guilt, in her eyes and those of many others, was what he was willing to admit to the world. And, finally, it was held that under the circumstances he had shown singularly little judgment in staying on in the city: there was no “future” for him,under the circumstances, in Chicago. If he felt himself unable to hold his own against scandal, they argued, he should have the wit to leave the city where he had gone wrong and seek his fortune under new skies, where the faces of his successful friends would not remind him constantly of ignoble defeat.
Not that Jackson Hart had many opportunities of encountering his successful friends in the great city of Chicago. He had resigned from his club, and the Harts had moved very far away from those pleasant northern suburbs along the lake which were filled with their old acquaintances. They had gone to live in one of those flimsy flat-buildings in the southern part of the city, concerning which the architect had speculated the night the Glenmore was burned. It was near the streetcar line, for the matter of a nickel fare was now of importance in their domestic economy. Occasionally some one of the Forest Park ladies would report on her return from the city that she had run across Mrs. Hart at Steele’s, “looking old and queerer than ever, dressed in the old things she wore out here, as if she did n’t care whether school kept or not, poor thing! ” But in the murky light of Steele’s great shop, they could not have seen the serene, almost radiant beauty of the face, the beauty of a soul content with its vision of the world, in harmony with itself.
And Jackson, “reduced to the ranks” by a few grades, in that career of his which he dubbed good-humoredly, " From shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves, in three acts,” was developing certain patient virtues of inestimable charm in the domestic circles of plain life, though not essential for brilliant success. In his box of an office next Wright’s large draughting-room, he worked almost side by side with his former draughtsman Cook, who had also come back to the old firm. For some months they hardly spoke to each other; indeed, the men at Wright’s generally held aloof from Hart. But they have accepted him at last. Cook has begun, even, to regain some of his old admiration for his chief, comprehending, perhaps, that there in the office by his side is working out a career of real spiritual significance if of little outward display.
As to Wright, who knows more of the man’s story than the others, he treats his old employee with a fine consideration and respect, realizing that this man is doing handsomely a thing that few men have the character to do at all. His admiration for Hart’s work has grown, also, and he frankly admits that the younger man has a better talent for architecture than he himself ever possessed, and also great cleverness and ingenuity, so necessary in an art which is intimately allied with mechanics. For it is true that after sluggish years there has revived within Hart the creative impulse, that spirit of the artist, inherent to some extent in all men, which makes the work of their hands an engrossing joy. The plans of a group of buildings that the firm have undertaken for a university in afar Western state have been entrusted very largely to Hart. As they grow from month to month in the voluminous sheets of drawings, they are becoming the pride of the office. And Wright generously allots the praise for their beauty where it largely belongs.
Thus the social waters of the fast-living city are rapidly rolling over the Jackson Harts. In all probability they will never again in this life come to the surface, and call for comment; for the architect and his wife have already sunk into the insignificance of the common lot, so much praised by the poets, so much despised by our good Americans of the “strenuous” school. There has never been any question between husband and wife of a change in their social or material condition; they contemplate with equanimity leaving their children in the universal struggle no better equipped than with the possession of health and a modest education, — there to meet their fate as their parents have done before them.
Almost the last public appearance of the Jackson Harts in that portion of the Chicago world which had formerly known them occurred at the elaborate dedicatory exercises of the JACKSON INDUSTRIAL INSTITUTE. When the handsomely engraved invitation came to them, the architect was disinclined to attend; but Helen, who thought only of the old man’s desire, induced her husband to take her. The exercises were held in the pretty little auditorium which occupied one wing of the large school building. There was much ceremony, and numerous speeches, besides the oration delivered by the director, Dr. Everest, on “Modern Industrialism,” which was considered a masterpiece of its kind, and was afterwards printed and circulated by the trustees. A bust of the founder, which fronted the stage, was first unveiled amid great applause. Dr. Everest in the introduction of his oration would turn from time to time to apostrophize its rugged marble features, while he paid his tribute to the founder of the institution. What the old man, who had always avoided voluble people like the pest, would have thought of the liberal eulogy scattered on his head, and of the eloquent discourse that followed, on the future of education and the workingman, no one will ever know. The rough old face looking inscrutably down on the little, bald-headed figure of the director gave no sign.
During the lengthy oration the architect’s thoughts went wandering far astray back into his past, so closely involved with this handsome building. But Helen listened attentively to the director’s flowing periods, searching his phrases for an interpretation of his purposes in regard to the school. Dr. Everest, however, was far too wary an educator to commit himself to positive ideas. Yet in the maze of his discourse there might be gathered hints of his attitude toward the problem of industrial education. After the opening tribute to the founder, “whom we may call a typical leader of our triumphant industrial democracy,” the speaker dwelt glowingly on the advanced position of our country among the nations of the earth, attributing its phenomenal progress to the nature of its political and educational institutions, which had developed and encouraged the energies of such men as Powers Jackson:—
“We lead the nations of the world in the arts of peace, owing to the energy and genius of men like our noble benefactor, owing, I may say, still more to the character of our institutions, political and educational, which produce such men as he!” Then followed a flattering contrast between the “aristocratic and mediæval education” of the English universities and the older American colleges, and the broad, liberal spirit of newer institutions, especially technical schools. The intention of the founder of the Jackson Industrial Institute, he said, was to broaden the democratic ideal, “to bring within the reach of every child in this greatest of industrial metropoli, not only the rudiments of an education, but the most advanced technical training, by means of which he may raise himself among his fellows and advance the illimitable creative ingenuity of our race. Here may come the boy whose father labors at the bottom of the industrial ladder, and if he be worthy, if he have the talent and the industry, here in our workshops and laboratories he may fit himself to mount to the very top of that ladder, and become in turn a master and leader of men like our great benefactor! And we may well believe that the sight of those benignant features will be an inspiration to the youth to strive even as he strove. That face will kindle noble ambitions of youth, knowing that he once labored with his own hands at the forge not far from this monument to his greatness, and that he rose by his own unaided industry and ability to command thousands of operatives, to control millions of capital, yes, to influence the wide industrial world!
“In America, thank God, the poor man may yet rise to a position of leadership, if he be worthy. And what the world needs to-day more than all else is leaders, leaders of men. May we not prophesy that the Jackson Industrial Institute will be a large factor, yes, the largest factor of this great city, in educating leaders, and thus assisting to put an end to that wasteful and distressing antagonism between capital and labor ? By the means of the education here provided, young men may raise themselves from the ranks of common labor to the position and responsibilities of capital! Let us hope that this will be the happy result of an educational foundation provided by a great captain of industry, and placed here in the heart of the workshops of Chicago. Thus may we assist in preserving and fostering the spirit of our noble institutions by means of which man is given freedom to reap the fruits of his own labor and intelligence!” . . .
And Dr. Everest continued on this plane of eloquence for another half hour, until even Judge Phillips, who had listened with rapt attention, began to nod in his chair. At last, when the doctor sat down, stroking his thick black beard and wiping his shining brow, loud applause broke forth from all parts of the auditorium. It sounded like the ironic laughter of the gods over the travesty of the old man’s purpose, to which they had just listened. To Helen, especially, it seemed that no more complete twisting of his idea in thus bestowing his wealth were possible!
However, the great school stands there, in the neighborhood where his old operatives live,— stands there and will stand there for many years, mistaken or not in its aims as one looks at this world of ours; and some day, maybe, when Dr. Everest has grasped some other form of the educational main chance, it may fall into other hands and become more nearly what its founder meant it to be, — a source of help and inspiration to the common man, who must labor all his days at common tasks, and can look to no material advancement in this life.
After the exercises the rooms of the building were thrown open for inspection, and the guests wandered through the laboratories and workshops in little parties, discussing the oration and exclaiming over the magnificence of the appointments. The architect looked about him with a certain curiosity. As they returned to the main hall under the rotunda, he exclaimed, peering up into the dome, “Nell, I can’t seem to remember this place: it looks queer and strange to me, as if somebody else had done the plans, and I had just looked over them!”
“Somebody else did do them,” she answered, drawing him away from a group of people who had come out of one of the adjoining rooms.
In a little while they got their wraps and prepared to leave the institution, having a long journey before them to reach their home. As they crossed the entrance hall, they ran into Pemberton, who was alone. He bowed to Helen, and then catching sight of Hart, he merely bent his head the fraction of an inch, and, stepping to one side, passed on. He could not, evidently, forgive a stain upon a man’s honor, arrogating to himself, as so many of us do, the privileges of deity. The architect’s face flushed at the slight, and he hurried his steps toward the vestibule. As they passed through the broad doorway, he said to his wife, —
“Well, Nell, I suppose I deserved it, — the old Turk!”
“No, you did not deserve it,” she answered quickly. “ But it makes no difference, dear!”
And, fortunately, there are few things that do make any great difference to real men and women, — and one of the least is the casual judgment of their fellow men.