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The Ancient Grudge/Chapter 21

 

XXI

THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY

Stewart Lee had received a fresh impetus toward architecture; it seemed to him that at last his decisive opportunity had come. For a week there had been industrious activity among the draughtsmen in his office, and two evenings he had kept them working there with him until after eleven o'clock, an almost unprecedented happening. One of these evenings he took them to dine with him at the club and the other at the hotel, and he paid them well for their time besides; they responded with an honest zeal to their employer's sudden animation. Stewart himself was working with a mysterious energy. He had spent a morning walking over the wide open lots that lay opposite the entrance to the Halket Park of Avalon. There were thirty acres reaching up to the summit of the low hill, the bare ridge of which marked for one passing in the street the nearest horizon line. Standing on this ridge, one might look over a slant of little houses down upon the Yolin River and its fringe of furnaces. Facing the opposite way, one saw spread out in all the green luxuriance of midsummer the great park, with its gardens and hedges and fountains; its winding drives and avenues of trees. This vacant stretch of thirty acres lay between two populous sections of the city; on one side of it was a schoolhouse; on the other it adjoined a wealthy merchant's estate. Although the taxes on it had in the last few years been heavily increased, no advertisement of it for sale had ever been displayed and no improvement of it had even been attempted. For some time people had been wondering why Colonel Halket clung to it without making an effort to develop its value. Now it was about to become the property of the city.

Stewart Lee walked about on it, studying the outlook from all points; he walked up and down the street and sat in the park, viewing the stretch of open land with a critical interest, and now and then making a sketch in a note-book. A method of dealing with the problem sprang suddenly into his mind; a few swift pencil strokes gave him more distinctly the visual image. From that ardent moment he never questioned that he had conceived the arrangement ideally adapted to the site. His eyes sparkled and he closed the note-book with a snap, congratulating himself on the flash of insight that had presented the solution so immediately. Indeed he tingled with the ecstatic conviction of creation; instead of groping in discouragement for days for a fundamental motive, he had suddenly developed, as by an unconscious involuntary mental process, a complete architectural plan which he saw vividly and which filled him with delight. His first impulse was to reward himself for this inspiration by taking a holiday and playing golf all the afternoon; but a spirit of unusual sternness ruled him; he returned hastily to his office, meaning to proceed at once to work; then he spread out a lot of photographs and looked at them idly for a couple of hours, turning them over and whistling in vast contentment. The next day he threw himself with energy into the patient contriving of detail; he began to read up on hospitals; for practical advice he went to an eminent family physician; he personally consulted builders, steam-fitters, electricians, stone-cutters, and plumbers about matters which he usually left in the hands of Ayres, his first assistant.

Stewart did not confide the purpose of all this enterprise to Lydia until several days of it had made him thoroughly sanguine. Then one evening after dinner, as they sat together on the vine-screened piazza, he said to her,—

"Lydia, you remember that Women's Club-House I built a couple of years ago out at New Rome?"

"Yes," she said. "Why?"

"I didn't do a good job with that," he answered. "I've never liked to confess it—but I did n't. And I've always thought I should like to make it up somehow to Floyd."

"I'm glad to hear you say that, dear. I can tell you now; that was one of the few times when you ever disappointed me."

"Yes, and I want to redeem myself. And I've got my chance. Lydia, I've been working on plans for the Halket Hospitals."

Lydia uttered a low exclamation. "Have you been chosen?" she asked. "Papa has n't said a word to me about it."

"No, I have n't been chosen—yet," Stewart answered. "But I think I can show good reason now why I should be. And with your father and Floyd for me, I guess there won't be any opposition from Mr. Barstow; he's the third trustee, you remember."

"And what makes you think that Papa and Floyd will want to have you for architect? It is n't as if it were just a little house that one would naturally ask a friend to build; three great hospitals, that are to belong to the city, and to cost two million dollars!—"

"Ah, but when they see my plans!" Stewart exclaimed in gay assurance. "Lydia, a fellow knows when he s got a positive inspiration. It came to me as I sat in the park the other day, looking up at the site; it came to me slowly, as if it were emerging from a dream;—but at last it was all as distinct in my mind as a little foreign picture of something I had seen. A sort of Grecian effect and atmosphere—that was the thing for hospitals—to give the serenity, the calm and quiet, having some soothing charm; I began to see there was nothing for this but Greek. And then, as I say, the picture began to emerge. More than halfway up the slope, lying parallel with the ridge, the General Hospital, the largest of the three buildings, white marble, with Doric columns, and lower down, flanking it and facing each other, the Children's and the Incurables';—white marble, too, though smaller—the lines of each one perfect in themselves, yet made to conform and harmonize with those of the others—yes, I think the lines are really perfect, Lydia."

She smiled at him, though the moonlight flickering through the vines hardly revealed it. "So soon, Stewart?—perfect so soon?"

"It was inspiration, really," he protested. "I could work a lifetime and never get anything more perfect than those lines. I saw it, Lydia; I saw it! And then, one will view them brokenly—through a little grove of oaks and maybe a garden, in the court; I tell you, Lydia, it will be so beautiful it will be a place to get well in."

"I suppose Colonel Halket had an idea of that sort in mind," said Lydia, "when he made a bequest of that site looking down on the park—it's the prettiest view in Avalon—what sick people ought to have.—You're not going to shut it off from them with your grove of oaks, are you?" she asked with a smile.

"Oh, that won't shut it off much—and, anyway, it will be just as beautiful itself. It's going to be simply the loveliest thing in this part of the world. And when it's done—well, there will be other things—a new city hall and a new court-house sometime—and I'll have got my start at last."

Lydia was silent for a few moments. Then she said,—

"Stewart, it all may be as beautiful as you have planned it. But are you sure you can execute it?—are you sure you can make it something else than a mental picture? You would n't want to disappoint Floyd again."

"Oh, I'm sure," Stewart declared. "Why, I've been driving my men on it; the scheme is being worked out in detail. To-morrow I'll be able to show some of the plans to your father."

"Do architects walk right up to people that way and ask for commissions, Stewart?"

"Why, I'm not doing that—just showing some plans as possibilities. Besides, to your father, Lydia—and to Floyd!" His tone was reproachful; he felt that Lydia had charged him with an indelicacy.

"Oh, I suppose in this case it would be all right," she conceded, though somewhat doubtfully. "So long as you don't seem to suggest anything too openly. Of course I don't know what the ethics of your profession are, and you do."

"Of course," he agreed, with a laugh. "Well, I'll tell you one thing anyway that there can't be any ethical question about, and that is the right of an architect's wife to use her influence with her father. You'll see him to-morrow before I will, Lydia; you might sort of prepare him for what I'm doing—and get him into a state of mind where he'll be ready to look at the plans."

This seemed an innocent enough intrigue, and the next morning when Stewart had gone to his office, Lydia telephoned to her father and asked him to lunch with her. His own house was closed, and he had been living at the club; a week before he had left his Chester house upon receiving Floyd's message and had hurried back to Avalon to serve as one of the pall-bearers at Colonel Halket's funeral. He had then been gratified to learn that Colonel Halket had named him co-executor with Floyd and Barstow; his duties in settling the estate were now detaining him in Avalon. The most important part of his work was still before him—the duties required of him by the Rebecca Halket Hospital bequest. Colonel Halket had been very definite and precise in his will in determining the names by which the buildings should be known; they were not to be called simply the Halket Hospitals; they were to be the Rebecca Halket Hospital for Children, the Rebecca Halket Hospital for Incurables, the Rebecca Halket General Hospital. By an odd provision, which in the eyes of many showed acute forethought and distrust of the methods prevailing in municipal affairs, the executors were charged with the responsibility of building the three hospitals, at an expense of not more than two million dollars, and—then turning them and the thirty acres of land over to the city, together with a two million dollar endowment. Mr. Dunbar had felt a grave, exalted pleasure not only at being chosen an agent in so great a work, but also in being exhibited publicly as Colonel Halket's intimate, trusted friend. The bequest was one for which even the scoffing, unsympathetic newspaper that had so often twitted Colonel Halket during his life had only charity and a sort of remorseful admiration.

Lydia did not find it difficult to enlist her father's interest in Stewart's plans; Mr. Dunbar had a curious pride and ambition for his son-in-law. "No nepotism, Lydia, no nepotism!" he declared. But secretly he was pleased by the unusual enterprise Stewart had displayed in going immediately to work and producing something to meet the necessities of the case in advance of any other architect.

"I did n't credit him with so much business sense," he said to Lydia, with a laugh. "Of course artistically he'd do a good job—and if he means business this way—well, I'll see what he has to say for himself."

Stewart was never deficient when it came to urging his own claims, though he could do this so tactfully as almost to disguise his purpose. When his father-in-law questioned him rather quizzically as to what work his office was now doing, Stewart burst forth into an eloquent statement of the way in which Colonel Halket's bequest had seized upon his imagination. "I've put everything that I could temporarily to one side," he said. "It is n't only the glory and reputation I'd get that appeals to me,—though that does appeal, of course,—but it's the idea of having a hand in such a splendid monument—and of winning the power through it to do other splendid things. In all the work I've ever done, I've never had anything like the conviction of my power to do it right that I have now about this—to do it really nobly;—that sounds conceited, but nevertheless the conviction has been growing on me all along as I've studied out the problems. Hospitals have been a sort of hobby of mine in architecture,—not that I've ever built any, but I've been interested for a long time in the special problems that they offer; most of them are so monotonous, so obviously utilitarian—barracks for the sick;—and I've studied in a desultory way the best work of that kind that's been done, and I've thought about it a good deal. And since Colonel Halket's will has been made public, I've consulted doctors and surgeons to make sure of meeting all the practical requirements. Did Lydia tell you how the plan for the whole thing came to me one afternoon while I was sitting in the park?"

"She mentioned that that was the historic spot," replied Mr. Dunbar facetiously.

"Ah well," Stewart laughed, "I don't mean to make too much of my inspirations. I have them seldom enough; I ought to be allowed to be enthusiastic over them when they come. And this was one of my best; I'm afraid I never shall surpass it. Would you look at some of my drawings? I brought them home; of course they're rather undeveloped, but they'll give you an idea."

Mr. Dunbar was densely ignorant of the principles of architecture; but because the buildings of Stewart's plans seemed to him to suggest the Capitol at Washington—without the dome—a resemblance which he did not venture to mention for fear of being told that it did not exist—he concluded that they were good. He allowed Stewart to explain at length all the arrangements and beauties, but after a short time he ceased to listen. Stewart was a thoroughly competent architect; that fact anyway was beyond dispute—as was the fact that he was the best educated architect in Avalon. No doubt there were men of greater resource and experience in New York—though probably none of greater talent. Certainly with a man of such exceptional ability at home, it was not necessary to send to New York for architects. Colonel Halket had always supported the principle which he himself had phrased—"Avalon should be built from within rather than from without." It was this wise fostering of home industry which had made Avalon so prosperous and self-respecting a community.

Stewart was expatiating on his plans long after Mr. Dunbar had made up his mind that it would be false modesty and false delicacy not to push the claims of the best man simply because the best man happened to be his son-in-law.

"Yes," he said finally, "I like your scheme; I like it very much. I shall feel at liberty to recommend it; perhaps the best thing would be for me to speak about it to Floyd."

"I think so," said Stewart. "I'd rather he should hear of it first from you than from me. I don't want to seem even to Floyd, old friend though he is, to be pushing myself."

"Quite right, quite right. I have no doubt that Floyd will be hospitable to the idea—and between us we can manage Barstow."

Mr. Dunbar laughed at the idea of such a droll little conspiracy.

"You might let Floyd know that I'm ready at any time to show him my plans," suggested Stewart.

"Yes; he'll hardly hold out against them.—In another week we ought to get the matter definitely closed up; I expect I shall be detained here a week longer at least. If you should be awarded the job, Stewart, I suppose it would mean your staying in Avalon and working all the rest of the summer."

"Yes, probably," Stewart said. "But Lydia and the baby have got to clear out—soon, too. I've objected to their staying here so late as this—but Lydia's been insisting that she would n't go till I did—"

"She shall go to Chester when I go," said her father decisively. "Her mother wants her and your mother wants her, and I want the baby, and—"

"Oh, I'm going, I'm going," cried Lydia. "Only I can't leave until this hospital matter is settled one way or the other; I'm too excited over it, and I should n't be able to sleep away from home."

"Well, it will be settled," said her father, with the dignified assurance that was becoming to Colonel Halket's successor.

The next day Mr. Dunbar visited Floyd in his office.

"I had some rather unexpected light on the hospital matter yesterday," he began. "I thought I'd let you know about it at once. It appears that as soon as the announcement was made, Stewart—my son-in-law—began trying his hand—in just a tentative way at first—at some plans."

Floyd frowned at his blotter and turned his desk-key back and forth, back and forth nervously. But Mr. Dunbar did not observe his disturbed expression; finding it rather difficult to continue in the most tactful manner, he was looking temporarily out of the window for suggestion.

"Well," he resumed, "from having gone into the thing just to see what he could do with such a problem, Stewart seems to me really to have arrived—as the French say. I was looking at his plans last night, and they're really extraordinary—both from the æsthetic and utilitarian point of view. I never knew before what a thorough study the boy has made of hospitals—they've been a kind of hobby of his in an architectural way, it appears—and the composition of the buildings—I dare say that's not the right term, but you know what I mean—the general effect—is beautiful—so restful and serene—just what would seem the ideal effect to aim at in a hospital. Now I thought if some time you would take a look at the drawings—"

"Mr. Dunbar," Floyd interrupted, "in a matter of this kind—a public matter—I am convinced that our only proper course is to invite a competition of the most distinguished architects. It seems to me out of the question that we should choose an architect arbitrarily—on our own responsibility."

"But if you could see Stewart's plans," Mr. Dunbar argued earnestly, "I am sure you would not think so. When you have a thing so perfectly adapted in every way, why go to the needless expense and delay that would be involved by a competition?"

"I have also made up my mind," Floyd said, not directly answering Mr. Dunbar's plea, "that three men like ourselves could n't possibly pass on architectural matters. Mr. Barstow is of my opinion. My idea is that we should invite eight or ten of the best architects in New York and Philadelphia and Boston, and also Stewart and Bennett & Durant to represent Avalon; I'd allow them three months in which to prepare their plans; and then I should have the award made by a committee of three—an architect, doctor, and—" Floyd hesitated in visible embarrassment, and then added firmly—"myself."

Mr. Dunbar sat for a moment in displeased silence.

"By the terms of the will the executors are instructed to keep this matter in charge until the buildings are completed and turned over to the city," he said.

"Yes; but that does not prevent them from assigning the arrangement of certain details to a sub-committee of their own appointing," Floyd replied. "The duty of the executors is, I think, to put the award in the hands of the persons most competent to render it, and themselves to deal with all financial transactions arising in the course of the work. You probably think it odd that I should name myself on the committee; why I should specify an architect and a doctor is clear enough, of course. Well, I think that my grandfather and my grandmother should have their personal representative in this affair. It is n't. just because of sentiment, but I think it's right that so far as the views they might have held don't conflict with those of the doctor and the architect, they should be adopted."

"If you think it would be your grandfather's wish that the men he named as executors should be reduced to mere—mere figureheads," commented Mr. Dunbar rather bitterly.

"Oh, you won't be a figurehead, Mr. Dunbar; we won't allow you to be," Floyd assured him, with a laugh. "But," he added, "Mr. Barstow approves of what I've just suggested; he thinks it's the right way to manage."

"Well, why won't you look at Stewart's plans anyway?" insisted Mr. Dunbar. "I know they're good; I think maybe if you looked at them they'd convince you it would be a waste of time and effort to look any further."

"I can't look at anybody's plans—Stewart's or anybody else's," Floyd answered. "If the competition is to be fairly conducted, as I intend it shall be, no member of the committee should have any knowledge as to the authorship of the plans submitted."

Mr. Dunbar rose to go, his usual good humor seriously impaired.

"It seems to me that it would be showing no more than a friendly interest to glance at a man's drawings," he said. "However, I'll spare you any further urging."

He was so chagrined over his failure that he could not be induced to give any full account of it, even to Stewart. All he would say was that Floyd seemed bent on having a competition and running it all himself, and that he apparently had no interest in having Stewart chosen architect or even in examining his plans. Stewart was not meek in accepting a rebuff. It seemed too improbable that Floyd could have rejected him outright, and he attributed the ill success of the interview to his father-in-law's want of tact. He decided to make an appeal to Floyd in person; in a matter of this importance one had to pocket one's pride.

Arming himself with some of his drawings one morning, he set out for Floyd's office. He had seen Floyd once before since Colonel Halket's death, and had thought then that the sadness of his friend's face was only a passing expression. Now, though Floyd came forward to welcome him with a smile, it was with the same air of sadness, and it chilled Stewart a little; he began to feel that it was a permanent habit of mind which had fastened on Floyd, and which somehow would render him less accessible. In black, too, Floyd seemed more sophisticated than Stewart had liked to think him; formerly his careless way of wearing his clothes had borne out Stewart's conception of him as still not much more than a raw, undeveloped boy. But in black he seemed very different; he seemed not only to have aged in experience but also to have gained in grace. Altogether the undisturbed confidence with which he led his visitor to a seat and said, "Well, Stewart, what's the news to-day?" was not reassuring.

Stewart nevertheless plunged into the subject at once.

"I'm afraid my father-in-law made rather a mess of things," he said. "As nearly as I can make out, he must have represented me as bidding for the job of architect of the hospitals; he seems to have made himself a sort of advance agent for my boom. When I found it out, Floyd, I wanted to come and clear myself of the suspicion of having tried to work you."

"Oh, that's all right," Floyd said. "I know Mr. Dunbar; and I did n't suppose you were trying to work me."

"The fact is, I may as well tell you frankly," Stewart proceeded, "that ever since I built that Women's Club at New Rome, I've had it on my mind. You were good to say so little about it—but I appreciated just the same what a great disappointment it was to you; I can tell you it was a bitter mortification to me, and I hope it taught me a lesson. A thing you were doing for your grandmother—not to do it well—I felt sore enough at myself, you can believe. And when I heard of the hospitals that your grandfather had committed to you to build as a memorial to her, I set to work making plans—not because I had the least expectation of being given the work after my other performance, but just from the feeling that if by any toss-up or turn of chance whatever I should have something to do with it, I should be prepared to do it decently—perhaps well enough to atone in some measure for the other thing. You see I'm making a perfectly clean breast of it, Floyd."

"Oh, that's all right," Floyd answered. He was a little embarrassed by Stewart's unusual self-abasement.

"Well, that's the way it started," continued Stewart. "Then I got more and more interested in the matter; finally I could n't think of anything else, and I practically threw over all my other work to give all my time to developing the hospital scheme that had come to me. Why,"—he laughed,—"I used to work downtown till midnight, and kept my draughtsmen working too, I got so interested. But there was n't ever any idea on my part of coming to you and asking you out of friendship to give me the job."

"Oh, I understand," Floyd said. "I understand perfectly. You don't need to feel obliged to explain anything, Stewart."

"Ah, but I must, to satisfy my New England conscience if not you," Stewart insisted genially. "Well, the trouble all resulted from my getting too enthusiastic over my plans and showing them to Mr. Dunbar. He became even more enthusiastic than I was, and rushed off to you—to urge my claims. Of course I should n't have made any such appeal—much as I should like to have the opportunity of redeeming myself in your eyes for that fiasco, and confident as I feel that this would square me. But Mr. Dunbar tells me that you mean to place the decision in the hands of a committee—an architect, a doctor, and possibly yourself—was n't that it?"

"Yes," Floyd acknowledged. He was again nervously turning the key of his desk, as he had done the day before when he began to perceive the drift of Mr. Dunbar's argument.

"Well, then I confess the idea did enter my head that you might be willing to let me submit my plans to this committee; they'd advise you whether they were suitable and had distinction; it would n't be as if you were acting entirely on your own judgment; here you'd be guided by experts—and it would be easy enough to turn me down. If the committee were really enthusiastic about the plans—more than enthusiastic—you could feel safe in following such a recommendation, could n't you? Oh, you don't know how I hate to be thrusting myself on your attention this way, Floyd; I only do it for two reasons—because I really have such complete confidence in my plans, and because I want to do personally this thing for you—this memorial—and make it as fine as the other one was contemptible. It's just because I want to do this thing well and for you."

Stewart derived emotion from the mere utterance of an appeal, and when he finished his plea, there was a gentle, wistful look in his eyes that declared his sincerity. Floyd, clicking the lock of his desk back and forth, did not glance up; his brows were knitted in a frown.

"Thank you, Stewart," he said after a moment. "We need n't talk about the other building; you've squared yourself all right. But about the hospitals—I don't see how we can manage matters as you'd like."

He hesitated, and Stewart's face hardened instantly, as if no concession had been granted him. But his voice was still soft as he asked, "Why not?"

"Because," Floyd answered, "I want the buildings to be the best attainable. Your plans may be so very good that they'd convince a committee right off—but unless we'd seen what the best architects of the country—the other best architects of the country," he corrected himself, with a smile—"can suggest, we could n't be sure that we had got the most suitable thing. We must have a competition, and of course it would n't do for the committee to have advance knowledge of any ompetitor's work. I hope you'll win the competition, Stewart; I'm almost sure you will, since you feel so confident yourself."

"I did n't say anything about feeling confident of winning a competition," declared Stewart testily. He was sitting with his legs crossed; now he began to swing one foot in sharp, angry excitement. "I have no use for competitions; half the time the award is a matter of chance, half the time it's the result of a compromise. The architect on your committee has a bias towards one style of building; your doctor has a personal bias about some matter of arrangement, and together they'll vote every time for an inferior set of plans if only it hits their particular prejudice. That's why I 'm anxious to have my plans considered without a competition. I know that in themselves they're so good that no mere individual prejudice could reject them—so long as they're not being compared with something of which individual prejudice may be enamoured. Do you see my point?"

"I think you overestimate the danger of prejudice," said Floyd. "I believe that generally in an architectural competition, as well as in other competitions, the best man wins. Anyway this seems to me a matter that requires a competition."

"Very well," said Stewart, and he rose from his chair with his lips compressed; his fingers trembled as they tightened upon plans which he had so vainly brought. "I shall enter your competition, and I shall doubtless have the pleasure of seeing an inferior contribution receive the award." He stood for a moment looking down on Floyd, and then his light eyes flashed with sudden anger. "I don't wish to strain our relations unnecessarily,—but perhaps it is just as well that I should say what is in my mind. I came here—you allowed me to acknowledge to you that I had been at fault in the past—you made no effort out of consideration for me to prevent my acknowledgment—and then, when I appealed to you for the chance to redeem myself, you denied me. It is an unpleasant thing to do—unpleasant for me as well as for you—but I cannot help recalling that episode of our college days when you allowed my overwhelming obligation to you to be always a rankling memory to me. And I regard it as a damned nasty trait of character which finds satisfaction in holding a friend at a disadvantage—in never giving him the chance to get upon even terms or to repair his fault—in keeping the upper hand- over a friend."

He turned sharply and left the room. Floyd, sunk low in his chair, continued to fumble absently at the key; after a time he sighed, and sitting up addressed himself to his work.