His Job by Grace Sartwell Mason
From Scribner's Magazine
Against an autumn sunset the steel skeleton of a twenty-story office
building in process of construction stood out black and bizarre. It
flung up its beams and girders like stern and yet airy music, orderly,
miraculously strong, and delicately powerful. From the lower stories,
where masons made their music of trowel and hammer, to the top, where
steam-riveters rapped out their chorus like giant locusts in a summer
field, the great building lived and breathed as if all those human
energies that went to its making flowed warm through its steel veins.
In the west window of a womans' club next door one of the members
stood looking out at this building. Behind her at a tea-table three
other women sat talking. For some moments their conversation had had a
plaintive if not an actually rebellious tone. They were discussing the
relative advantages of a man's work and a woman's, and they had arrived
at the conclusion that a man has much the best of it when it comes to a
matter of the day's work.
Take a man's work, said Mrs. Van Vechten, pouring herself a second
cup of tea. He chooses it; then he is allowed to go at it with
absolute freedom. He isn't hampered by the dull, petty details of life
that hamper us. He
Details! My dear, there you are right, broke in Mrs. Bullen. Two
men, first Mrs. Bullen's father and then her husband, had seen to it
that neither the biting wind of adversity nor the bracing air of
experience should ever touch her. Details! Sometimes I feel as if I
were smothered by them. Servants, and the house, and now these relief
She was in her turn interrupted by Cornelia Blair. Cornelia was a
spinster with more freedom than most human beings ever attain, her
father having worked himself to death to leave her well provided for.
The whole fault is the social system, she declared. Because of it
men have been able to take the really interesting work of the world for
themselves. They've pushed the dull jobs off onto us.
You're right, Cornelia, cried Mrs. Bullen. She really had nothing
to say, but she hated not saying it. I've always thought, she went on
pensively, that it would be so much easier just to go to an office in
the morning and have nothing but business to think of. Don't you feel
that way sometimes, Mrs. Trask?
The woman in the west window turned. There was a quizzical gleam in
her eyes as she looked at the other three. The trouble with us women
is we're blind and deaf, she said slowly. We talk a lot about men's
work and how they have the best of things in power and freedom, but
does it occur to one of us that a man pays for power and
freedom? Sometimes I think that not one of the women of our comfortable
class would be willing to pay what our men pay for the power and
freedom they get.
What do they pay? asked Mrs. Van Vechten, her lip curling.
Mrs. Trask turned back to the window. There's something rather
wonderful going on out here, she called. I wish you'd all come and
Just outside the club window the steel-workers pursued their
dangerous task with leisurely and indifferent competence, while over
their head a great derrick served their needs with uncanny
intelligence. It dropped its chain and picked a girder from the floor.
As it rose into space two figures sprang astride either end of it. The
long arm swung up and out; the two bronco-busters of the sky were
black against the flame of the sunset. Some one shouted; the signalman
pulled at his rope; the derrick-arm swung in a little with the girder
teetering at the end of the chain. The most interesting moment of the
steel-man's job had come, when a girder was to be jockeyed into place.
The iron arm swung the girder above two upright columns, lowered it,
and the girder began to groove into place. It wedged a little. One of
the men inched along, leaned against space, and wielded his bar. The
women stared, for the moment taken out of themselves. Then, as the
girder settled into place and the two men slid down the column to the
floor, the spectators turned back to their tea-table.
Very interesting, murmured Mrs. Van Vechten; but I hardly see how
it concerns us.
A flame leaped in Mary Trask's face. It's what we've just been
talking about, one of men's jobs. I tell you, men are working miracles
all the time that women never see. We envy them their power and
freedom, but we seldom open our eyes to see what they pay for them.
Look here, I'd like to tell you about an ordinary man and one of his
jobs. She stopped and looked from Mrs. Bullen's perplexity to Cornelia
Blair's superior smile, and her eyes came last to Sally Van Vechten's
rebellious frown. I'm going to bore you, maybe, she laughed grimly.
But it will do you good to listen once in a while to something real.
She sat down and leaned her elbows on the table. I said that he is
an ordinary man, she began; what I meant is that he started in like
the average, without any great amount of special training, without
money, and without pull of any kind. He had good health, good stock
back of him, an attractive personality, and two years at a technical
schoolthose were his total assets. He was twenty when he came to New
York to make a place for himself, and he had already got himself
engaged to a girl back home. He had enough money to keep him for about
three weeks, if he lived very economically. But that didn't prevent his
feeling a heady exhilaration that day when he walked up Fifth Avenue
for the first time and looked over his battle-field. He has told me
often, with a chuckle at the audacity of it, how he picked out his
employer. All day he walked about with his eyes open for contractors'
signs. Whenever he came upon a building in the process of construction
he looked it over critically, and if he liked the look of the job he
made a note of the contractor's name and address in a little green
book. For he was to be a builderof big buildings, of course! And that
night, when he turned out of the avenue to go to the cheap
boarding-house where he had sent his trunk, he told himself that he'd
give himself five years to set up an office of his own within a block
of Fifth Avenue.
Next day he walked into the offices of Weil &Streetthe first that
headed the list in the little green bookasked to see Mr. Weil, and,
strangely enough, got him, too. Even in those raw days Robert had a
cheerful assurance tempered with rather a nice deference that often got
him what he wanted from older men. When he left the offices of Weil &
Street he had been given a job in the estimating-room, at a salary that
would just keep him from starving. He grew lean and lost his country
color that winter, but he was learning, learning all the time, not only
in the office of Weil &Street, but at night school, where he studied
architecture. When he decided he had got all he could get out of the
estimating and drawing rooms he asked to be transferred to one of the
jobs. They gave him the position of timekeeper on one of the contracts,
at a slight advance in salary.
A man can get as much or as little out of being timekeeper as he
chooses. Robert got a lot out of it. He formulated that summer a
working theory of the length of time it should take to finish every
detail of a building. He talked with bricklayers, he timed them and
watched them, until he knew how many bricks could be laid in an hour;
and it was the same way with carpenters, fireproofers, painters,
plasterers. He soaked in a thousand practical details of building: he
picked out the best workman in each gang, watched him, talked with him,
learned all he could of that man's particular trick; and it all went
down in the little green book. For at the back of his head was always
the thought of the time when he should use all this knowledge in his
own business. Then one day when he had learned all he could learn from
being timekeeper, he walked into Weil's office again and proposed that
they make him one of the firm's superintendents of construction.
Old Weil fairly stuttered with the surprise of this audacious
proposition. He demanded to know what qualifications the young man
could show for so important a position, and Robert told him about the
year he had had with the country builder and the three summer vacations
with the country surveyorwhich made no impression whatever on Mr.
Weil until Robert produced the little green book. Mr. Weil glanced at
some of the figures in the book, snorted, looked hard at his ambitious
timekeeper, who looked back at him with his keen young eyes and waited.
When he left the office he had been promised a tryout on a small job
near the offices, where, as old Weil said, they could keep an eye on
him. That night he wrote to the girl back home that she must get ready
to marry him at a moment's notice.
Mrs. Trask leaned back in her chair and smiled with a touch of
sadness. The wonder of youth! I can see him writing that letter,
exuberant, ambitious, his brain full of dreams and plansand a very
inadequate supper in his stomach. The place where he livedhe pointed
it out to me oncewas awful. No girl of Rob's classback home his
folks were 'nice'would have stood that lodging-house for a night,
would have eaten the food he did, or gone without the pleasures of life
as he had gone without them for two years. But there, right at the
beginning, is the difference between what a boy is willing to go
through to get what he wants and what a girl would or could put up
with. And along with a better position came a man's responsibility,
which he shouldered alone.
'I was horribly afraid I'd fall down on the job,' he told me long
afterward. 'And there wasn't a living soul I could turn to for help.
The thing was up to me alone!'
Mrs. Trask looked from Mrs. Bullen to Mrs. Van Vechten. Mostly they
fight alone, she said, as if she thought aloud. That's one thing
about men we don't always graspthe business of existence is up to the
average man alone. If he fails or gets into a tight place he has no one
to fall back on, as a woman almost always has. Our men have a prejudice
against taking their business difficulties home with them. I've a
suspicion it's because we're so ignorant they'd have to do too much
explaining! So in most cases they haven't even a sympathetic
understanding to help them over the bad places. It was so with Robert
even after he had married the girl back home and brought her to the
city. His idea was to keep her from all worry and anxiety, and so, when
he came home at night and she asked him if he had had a good day, or if
the work had gone well, he always replied cheerfully that things had
gone about the same as usual, even though the day had been a
particularly bad one. This was only at first, however. The girl
happened to be the kind that likes to know things. One night, when she
wakened to find him staring sleepless at the ceiling, the thought
struck her that, after all, she knew nothing of his particular
problems, and if they were partners in the business of living why
shouldn't she be an intelligent member of the firm, even if only a
So she began to read everything she could lay her hands on about
the business of building construction, and very soon when she asked a
question it was a fairly intelligent one, because it had some knowledge
back of it. She didn't make the mistake of pestering him with questions
before she had any groundwork of technical knowledge to build on, and
I'm not sure that he ever guessed what she was up to, but I do know
that gradually, as he found that he did not, for instance, have to draw
a diagram and explain laboriously what a caisson was because she
already knew a good deal about caissons, he fell into the habit of
talking out to her a great many of the situations he would have to meet
next day. Not that she offered her advice nor that he wanted it, but
what helped was the fact of her sympathyI should say her intelligent
sympathy, for that is the only kind that can really help.
So when his big chance came along she was ready to meet it with
him. If he succeeded she would be all the better able to appreciate his
success; and if he failed she would never blame him from ignorance. You
must understand that his advance was no meteoric thing. He somehow, by
dint of sitting up nights poring over blueprints and text-books and by
day using his wits and his eyes and his native shrewdness, managed to
pull off with fair success his first job as superintendent; was given
other contracts to oversee; and gradually, through three years of hard
work, learning, learning all the time, worked up to superintending some
of the firm's important jobs. Then he struck out for himself.
Mrs. Trask turned to look out of the west window. It sounds so
easy, she mused. 'Struck out for himself.' But I think only a man can
quite appreciate how much courage that takes. Probably, if the girl had
not understood where he was trying to get to, he would have hesitated
longer to give up his good, safe salary; but they talked it over, she
understood the hazards of the game, and she was willing to take a
chance. They had saved a tiny capital, and only a little over five
years from the day he had come to New York he opened an office within a
block of Fifth Avenue.
I won't bore you with the details of the next two years, when he
was getting together his organization, teaching himself the details of
office work, stalking architects and owners for contracts. He acquired
a slight stoop to his shoulders in those two years and there were days
when there was nothing left of his boyishness but the inextinguishable
twinkle in his hazel eyes. There were times when it seemed to him as if
he had put to sea in a rowboat; as if he could never make port; but
after a while small contracts began to come in, and then came along the
big opportunity. Up in a New England city a large bank building was to
be built; one of the directors was a friend of Rob's father, and Rob
was given a chance to put in an estimate. It meant so much to him that
he would not let himself count on getting the contract; he did not even
tell the partner at home that he had been asked to put in an estimate
until one day he came tearing in to tell her that he had been given the
job. It seemed too wonderful to be true. The future looked so dazzling
that they were almost afraid to contemplate it. Only something wildly
extravagant would express their emotion, so they chartered a hansom cab
and went gayly sailing up-town on the late afternoon tide of Fifth
Avenue; and as they passed the building on which Robert had got his job
as timekeeper he took off his hat to it, and she blew a kiss to it, and
a dreary old clubman in a window next door brightened visibly!
Mrs. Trask turned her face toward the steel skeleton springing up
across the way like the magic beanstalk in the fairy-tale. The things
men have taught themselves to do! she cried. The endurance and skill,
the inventiveness, the precision of science, the daring of human wits,
the poetry and fire that go into the making of great buildings! We
women walk in and out of them day after day, blindlyand this
indifference is symbolical, I think, of the way we walk in and out of
our men's lives.... I wish I could make you see that job of young
Robert's so that you would feel in it what I dothe patience of men,
the strain of the responsibility they carry night and day, the things
life puts up to them, which they have to meet alone, the dogged
endurance of them....
Mrs. Trask leaned forward and traced a complicated diagram on the
table-cloth with the point of a fork. It was his first big job, you
understand, and he had got it in competition with several older
builders. From the first they were all watching him, and he knew it,
which put a fine edge to his determination to put the job through with
credit. To be sure, he was handicapped by lack of capital, but his past
record had established his credit, and when the foundation work was
begun it was a very hopeful young man that watched the first shovelful
of earth taken out. But when they had gone down about twelve feet, with
a trench for a retaining-wall, they discovered that the owners' boring
plan was not a trustworthy representation of conditions; the job was
going to be a soft-ground proposition. Where, according to the owners'
preliminary borings, he should have found firm sand with a normal
amount of moisture, Rob discovered sand that was like saturated
oatmeal, and beyond that quicksand and water. Water! Why, it was like a
subterranean lake fed by a young river! With the pulsometer pumps
working night and day they couldn't keep the water out of the test pier
he had sunk. It bubbled in as cheerfully as if it had eternal springs
behind it, and drove the men out of the pier in spite of every effort.
Rob knew then what he was up against. But he still hoped that he could
sink the foundations without compressed air, which would be an immense
expense he had not figured on in his estimate, of course. So he devised
a certain kind of concrete crib, the first one was drivenand when
they got it down beneath quicksand and water about twenty-five feet, it
hung up on a boulder! You see, below the stratum of sand like saturated
oatmeal, below the water and quicksand, they had come upon something
like a New England pasture, as thick with big boulders as a bun with
currants! If he had spent weeks hunting for trouble he couldn't have
found more than was offered him right there. It was at this point that
he went out and wired a big New York engineer, who happened to be a
friend of his, to come up. In a day or two the engineer arrived, took a
look at the job, and then advised Rob to quit.
'It's a nasty job,' he told him. 'It will swallow every penny of
your profits and probably set you back a few thousands. It's one of the
worst soft-ground propositions I ever looked over.'
Well that night young Robert went home with a sleep-walking
expression in his eyes. He and the partner at home had moved up to
Rockford to be near the job while the foundation work was going on, so
the girl saw exactly what he was up against and what he had to decide
'I could quit,' he said that night, after the engineer had taken
his train back to New York, 'throw up the job, and the owners couldn't
hold me because of their defective boring plans. But if I quit there'll
be twenty competitors to say I've bit off more than I can chew. And if
I go on I lose money; probably go into the hole so deep I'll be a long
time getting out.'
You see, where his estimates had covered only the expense of normal
foundation work he now found himself up against the most difficult
conditions a builder can face. When the girl asked him if the owners
would not make up the additional cost he grinned ruefully. The owners
were going to hold him to his original estimate; they knew that with
his name to make he would hate to give up; and they were inclined to be
almost as nasty as the job.
'Then you'll have all this work and difficulty for nothing?' the
girl asked. 'You may actually lose money on the job?'
'Looks that way,' he admitted.
'Then why do you go on?' she cried.
His answer taught the girl a lot about the way a man looks at his
job. 'If I take up the cards I can't be a quitter,' he said. 'It would
hurt my record. And my record is the equivalent of credit and capital.
I can't afford to have any weak spots in it. I'll take the gaff rather
than have it said about me that I've lain down on a job. I'm going on
with this thing to the end.'
Little shrewd, reminiscent lines gathered about Mrs. Trask's eyes.
There's something exhilarating about a good fight. I've always thought
that if I couldn't be a gunner I could get a lot of thrills out of just
handing up the ammunition.... Well, Rob went on with the contract. With
the first crib hung up on a boulder and the water coming in so fast
they couldn't pump it out fast enough to dynamite, he was driven to use
compressed air, and that meant the hiring of a compressor, locks,
shaftinga terribly costly businessas well as bringing up to the job
a gang of the high-priced labor that works under air. But this was
done, and the first crib for the foundation piers went down slowly,
with the sand-hogsmen that work in the caissonsdrilling and
blasting their way week after week through that underground New England
pasture. Then, below this boulder-strewn stratum, instead of the ledge
they expected they struck four feet of rotten rock, so porous that when
air was put on it to force the water back great air bubbles blew up all
through the lot, forcing the men out of the other caissons and
trenches. But this was a mere dull detail, to be met by care and
ingenuity like the others. And at last, forty feet below street level,
they reached bed-rock. Forty-six piers had to be driven to this ledge.
Rob knew now exactly what kind of a job was cut out for him. He
knew he had not only the natural difficulties to overcome, but he was
going to have to fight the owners for additional compensation. So one
day he went into Boston and interviewed a famous old lawyer.
'Would you object,' he asked the lawyer, 'to taking a case against
personal friends of yours, the owners of the Rockford bank building?'
'Not at alland if you're right, I'll lick 'em! What's your case?'
Rob told him the whole story. When he finished the famous man
refused to commit himself one way or the other; but he said that he
would be in Rockford in a few days, and perhaps he'd look at Robert's
little job. So one day, unannounced, the lawyer appeared. The
compressor plant was hard at work forcing the water back in the
caissons, the pulsometer pumps were sucking up streams of water that
flowed without ceasing into the settling tank and off into the city
sewers, the men in the caissons were sending up buckets full of
silt-like gruel. The lawyer watched operations for a few minutes, then
he asked for the owners' boring plan. When he had examined this he
grunted twice, twitched his lower lip humorously, and said: 'I'll put
you out of this. If the owners wanted a deep-water lighthouse they
should have specified onenot a bank building.'
So the battle of legal wits began. Before the building was done
Joshua Kent had succeeded in making the owners meet part of the
additional cost of the foundation, and Robert had developed an acumen
that stood by him the rest of his life. But there was something for him
in this job bigger than financial gain or loss. Week after week, as he
overcame one difficulty after another, he was learning, learning, just
as he had done at Weil &Street's. His hazel eyes grew keener, his face
thinner. For the job began to develop every freak and whimsy possible
to a growing building. The owner of the department store next door
refused to permit access through his basement, and that added many
hundred dollars to the cost of building the party wall; the fire and
telephone companies were continually fussing around and demanding
indemnity because their poles and hydrants got knocked out of plumb;
the thousands of gallons of dirty water pumped from the job into the
city sewers clogged them up, and the city sued for several thousand
dollars' damages; one day the car-tracks in front of the lot settled
and valuable time was lost while the men shored them up; now and then
the pulsometer engines broke down; the sand-hogs all got drunk and lost
much time; an untimely frost spoiled a thousand dollars' worth of
concrete one night. But the detail that required the most handling was
the psychological effect on Rob's subcontractors. These men, observing
the expensive preliminary operations, and knowing that Rob was losing
money every day the foundation work lasted, began to ask one another if
the young boss would be able to put the job through. If he failed, of
course they who had signed up with him for various stages of the work
would lose heavily. Panic began to spread among all the little army
that goes to the making of a big building. The terra-cotta-floor men,
the steel men, electricians and painters began to hang about the job
with gloom in their eyes; they wore a path to the architect's door, and
he, never having quite approved of so young a man being given the
contract, did little to allay their apprehensions. Rob knew that if
this kept up they'd hurt his credit, so he promptly served notice on
the architect that if his credit was impaired by false rumors he'd hold
him responsible; and he gave each subcontractor five minutes in which
to make up his mind whether he wanted to quit or look cheerful. To a
man they chose to stick by the job; so that detail was disposed of. In
the meantime the sinking of piers for one of the retaining-walls was
giving trouble. One morning at daylight Rob's superintendent telephoned
him to announce that the street was caving in and the buildings across
the way were cracking. When Rob got there he found the men standing
about scared and helpless, while the plate-glass windows of the store
opposite were cracking like pistols and the building settled. It
appeared that when the trench for the south wall had gone down a
certain distance water began to rush in under the sheeting as if from
an underground river, and, of course, undermined the street and the
store opposite. The pumps were started like mad, two gangs were put at
work, with the superintendent swearing, threatening, and pleading to
make them dig faster, and at last concrete was poured and the water
stopped. That day Rob and his superintendent had neither breakfast nor
lunch; but they had scarcely finished shoring up the threatened store
when the owner of the store notified Rob that he would sue for damages,
and the secretary of the Y. W. C. A. next door attempted to have the
superintendent arrested for profanity. Rob said that when this happened
he and his superintendent solemnly debated whether they should go and
get drunk or start a fight with the sand-hogs; it did seem as if they
were entitled to some emotional outlet, all the circumstances
So after months of difficulties the foundation work was at last
finished. I've forgotten to mention that there was some little
difficulty with the eccentricities of the sub-basement floor. The wet
clay ruined the first concrete poured, and little springs had a way of
gushing up in the boiler-room. Also, one night a concrete shell for the
elevator pit completely disappearedsank out of sight in the soft
bottom. But by digging the trench again and jacking down the bottom and
putting hay under the concrete, the floor was finished; and that detail
The remainder of the job was by comparison uneventful. The things
that happened were all more or less in the day's work, such as a
carload of stone for the fourth story arriving when what the masons
desperately needed was the carload for the second, and the carload for
the third getting lost and being discovered after three days' search
among the cripples in a Buffalo freight-yard. And there was a strike of
structural-steel work workers which snarled up everything for a while;
and always, of course, there were the small obstacles and differences
owners and architects are in the habit of hatching up to keep a builder
from getting indifferent. But these things were what every builder
encounters and expects. What Rob's wife could not reconcile herself to
was the fact that all those days of hard work, all those days and
nights of strain and responsibility, were all for nothing. Profits had
long since been drowned in the foundation work; Robert would actually
have to pay several thousand dollars for the privilege of putting up
that building! When the girl could not keep back one wail over this
detail her husband looked at her in genuine surprise.
'Why, it's been worth the money to me, what I've learned,' he said.
'I've got an education out of that old hoodoo that some men go through
Tech and work twenty years without getting; I've learned a new wrinkle
in every one of the building trades; I've learned men and I've learned
law, and I've delivered the goods. It's been hell, but I wouldn't have
Mrs. Trask looked eagerly and a little wistfully at the three faces
in front of her. Her own face was alight. Don't you seethat's the
way a real man looks at his work; but that man's wife would never have
understood it if she hadn't been interested enough to watch his job.
She saw him grow older and harder under that job; she saw him often
haggard from the strain and sleepless because of a dozen intricate
problems; but she never heard him complain and she never saw him any
way but courageous and often boyishly gay when he'd got the best of
some difficulty. And furthermore, she knew that if she had been the
kind of a woman who is not interested in her husband's work he would
have kept it to himself, as most American husbands do. If he had, she
would have missed a chance to learn a lot of things that winter, and
she probably wouldn't have known anything about the final chapter in
the history of the job that the two of them had fallen into the habit
of referring to as the White Elephant. They had moved back to New York
then, and the Rockford bank building was within two weeks of its
completion, when at seven o'clock one morning their telephone rang. Rob
answered it and his wife heard him say sharply: 'Well, what are you
doing about it?' And then: 'Keep it up. I'll catch the next train.'
'What is it?' she asked, as he turned away from the telephone and
she saw his face.
'The department store next to the Elephant is burning,' he told
her. 'Fireproof? Well, I'm supposed to have built a fireproof
buildingbut you never can tell.'
His wife's next thought was of insurance, for she knew that Robert
had to insure the building himself up to the time he turned it over to
the owners. 'The insurance is all right?' she asked him.
But she knew by the way he turned away from her that the worst of
all their bad luck with the Elephant had happened, and she made him
tell her. The insurance had lapsed about a week before. Rob had not
renewed the policy because its renewal would have meant adding several
hundreds to his already serious deficit, and, as he put it, it seemed
to him that everything that could happen to that job had already
happened. But now the last stupendous, malicious catastrophe threatened
him. Both of them knew when he said good-by that morning and hurried
out to catch his train that he was facing ruin. His wife begged him to
let her go with him; at least she would be some one to talk to on that
interminable journey; but he said that was absurd; and, anyway, he had
a lot of thinking to do. So he started off alone.
At the station before he left he tried to get the Rockford bank
building on the telephone. He got Rockford and tried for five minutes
to make a connection with his superintendent's telephone in the bank
building, until the operator's voice came to him over the wire: 'I tell
you, you can't get that building, mister. It's burning down!'
'How do you know?' he besought her.
'I just went past there and I seen it,' her voice came back at him.
He got on the train. At first he felt nothing but a queer dizzy
vacuum where his brain should have been; the landscape outside the
windows jumbled together like a nightmare landscape thrown up on a
moving-picture screen. For fifty miles he merely sat rigidly still, but
in reality he was plunging down like a drowning man to the very bottom
of despair. And then, like the drowning man, he began to come up to the
surface again. The instinct for self-preservation stirred in him and
broke the grip of that hypnotizing despair. At first slowly and
painfully, but at last with quickening facility, he began to think, to
plan. Stations went past; a man he knew spoke to him and then walked
on, staring; but he was deaf and blind. He was planning for the future.
Already he had plumbed, measured, and put behind him the fact of the
fire; what he occupied himself with now was what he could save from the
ashes to make a new start with. And he told me afterwards that
actually, at the end of two hours of the liveliest thinking he had ever
done in his life, he began to enjoy himself! His fighting blood began
to tingle; his head steadied and grew cool; his mind reached out and
examined every aspect of his stupendous failure, not to indulge himself
in the weakness of regret, but to find out the surest and quickest way
to get on his feet again. Figuring on the margins of timetables, going
over the contracts he had in hand, weighing every asset he possessed in
the world, he worked out in minute detail a plan to save his credit and
his future. When he got off the train at Boston he was a man that had
already begun life over again; he was a general that was about to make
the first move in a long campaign, every move and counter-move of which
he carried in his brain. Even as he crossed the station he was
rehearsing the speech he was going to make at the meeting of his
creditors he intended to hold that afternoon. Then, as he hastened
toward a telephone-booth, he ran into a newsboy. A headline caught his
eye. He snatched at the paper, read the headlines, standing there in
the middle of the room. And then he suddenly sat down on the nearest
bench, weak and shaking.
On the front page of the paper was a half-page picture of the
Rockford bank building with the flames curling up against its west
wall, and underneath it a caption that he read over and over before he
could grasp what it meant to him. The White Elephant had not burned; in
fact, at the last it had turned into a good elephant, for it had not
only not burned but it had stopped the progress of what threatened to
be a very disastrous conflagration, according to a jubilant despatch
from Rockford. And Robert, reading these lines over and over, felt an
amazing sort of indignant disappointment to think that now he would not
have a chance to put to the test those plans he had so minutely worked
out. He was in the position of a man that has gone through the painful
process of readjusting his whole life; who has mentally met and
conquered a catastrophe that fails to come off. He felt quite angry and
cheated for a few minutes, until he regained his mental balance and saw
how absurd he was, and then, feeling rather foolish and more than a
little shaky, he caught a train and went up to Rockford.
There he found out that the report had been right; beyond a few
cracked wire-glass windowsfor which, as one last painful detail, he
had to payand a blackened side wall, the Elephant was unharmed. The
men putting the finishing touches to the inside had not lost an hour's
work. All that dreadful journey up from New York had been merely one
last turn of the screw.
Two weeks later he turned the Elephant over to the owners,
finished, a good, workmanlike job from roof to foundation-piers. He had
lost money on it; for months he had worked overtime his courage, his
ingenuity, his nerve, and his strength. But that did not matter. He had
delivered the goods. I believe he treated himself to an afternoon off
and went to a ball-game; but that was all, for by this time other jobs
were under way, a whole batch of new problems were waiting to be
solved; in a week the Elephant was forgotten.
Mrs. Trask pushed back her chair and walked to the west window. A
strange quiet had fallen upon the sky-scraper now; the workmen had gone
down the ladders, the steam-riveters had ceased their tapping. Mrs.
Trask opened the window and leaned out a little.
Behind her the three women at the tea-table gathered up their furs
in silence. Cornelia Blair looked relieved and prepared to go on to
dinner at another club, Mrs. Bullen avoided Mrs. Van Vechten's eye. In
her rosy face faint lines had traced themselves, as if vaguely some new
perceptiveness troubled her. She looked at her wristwatch and rose from
the table hastily.
I must run along, she said. I like to get home before John does.
You going my way, Sally?
Mrs. Van Vechten shook her head absently. There was a frown between
her dark brows; but as she stood fastening her furs her eyes went to
the west window, with an expression in them that was almost wistful.
For an instant she looked as if she were going over to the window
beside Mary Trask; then she gathered up her gloves and muff and went
out without a word.
Mary Trask was unaware of her going. She had forgotten the room
behind her and her friends at the tea-table, as well as the other women
drifting in from the adjoining room. She was contemplating, with her
little, absent-minded smile, her husband's name on the builder's sign
halfway up the unfinished sky-scraper opposite.
Good work, old Rob, she murmured. Then her hand went up in a
quaint gesture that was like a salute. To all good jobs and the men
behind them! she added.
Copyright, 1920, by Charles Scribner's Sons. Copyright, 1921,
by Grace Sartwell Mason.