When Integrity Told
Edward J. Moore
“Tell you what I’ll do, Steel,” said the senior partner, studying the young man as he spoke, “cut down those estimates for the rest of it by about thirty thousand and I’ll share even with you on the profits.”
The partners had been looking over blueprints and estimates for a new skyscraper which the firm was running up for the Standard Company down on St. Paul Street.
“You can do it mighty easy,” Barclay continued eagerly. “You’ve sunk a good deal more than I expected in those caissons and concrete in the foundation. Looks as if you expected to hold up the whole town instead of a hundred feet of it, but that’s done now and can’t be helped. You can clear yourself on the steel work in the upper stories. Why can’t you stick in some lighter ‘T’ beams for those eighteen-inch pieces in the main frames above the seventh story and cut down on the steel all round. We’ve got to do it some way.”
Steel’s eyes came up from the blueprints with a jerk, but his face showed even more determination than surprise. The evening’s conference had revealed some hitherto unexpected characteristics in his new partner.
“I can’t see how, Mr. Barclay,” he said decisively. “You know I’ve cut those estimates down to the last possible safety notch working along the lines of the engineer’s specifications, and—”
“Hang the specifications,” broke in Barclay. “What difference do they make? You know how I stand with the city hall gang. If I didn’t we wouldn’t have had this contract. A word to Jennings will insure that the inspection goes all right. It’s only a farce anyway.
“It seems to me you’re a little kittenish, Steel,” Barclay continued, defiantly. “You’re trying to make your pile the same as the rest of them. Why won’t you use the same tools? How did Mead and Pollock get up where they are? Got a set of plans passed by the city architect, worked from ‘fixed’ ones and cut out a tidy bit of stuff from each contract. The inspection didn’t amount to anything and nobody outside the ring is any wiser. Their buildings are safe enough.”
“Perhaps they are,” said Steel, sharply, “but next time you go down William street squint up the east corner of the Towning Wedge—you know Pollock put that up in four months two years ago—and see if you can’t see where the overhang is sagging. And if you go up to the first story below the roof,” Steel looked out of the window contemplatively, “the seventeenth, I think, and go to a little hallway at the back, you can look down beside the fire escape and see where the wall has buckled about a foot on the outside of the elevator shaft. I ran a plumb down there one day when nobody was around.”
“Oh, those are petty things,” said Barclay, impatiently, “and only one man in a thousand, a crank like you who’s looking for ’em, would find them. The people know nothing about it and trust to us without bothering their heads. Look at the Scotia building, Murphy’s new job, just across from ours. It looks all right and he’s four stories ahead of you now. Clarke told me the the other day that Murphy expects to clear up forty thousand on the job. Why shouldn’t we do the same? Well,” as Steel did not reply at once, “I’ve made you my offer.”
In the meantime Steel was busy with a little mental conflict. For several reasons it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to reject Barclay’s proposition. Only a few months before a plump little God who is usually pictured with an archery outfit but minus his trousers, had pumped a few telling missiles into a vital spot in the young man’s anatomy and in consequence he was anxiously fighting for recognition and a small fortune to found a home of his own. However, the grit instilled in him by a long line of straightforward grandfathers stood him in good stead. Barclay noticed that his jaw was set even firmer than usual when he looked up to reply.
“If you want me to inch on my estimates and go below the safety point for a few extra thousands, Barclay, you’ve gripped the wrong man. I don’t care to carry the responsibility for the safety of a couple of thousand of my fellow citizens on my conscience. Very evidently that idea doesn’t bother these other big fellows very much. I tell you, Barclay,” Steel was getting vehement, “I’m hot on this thing. Your gang and others like them have no more regard for human life than you have for a sack of cement. It’s altogether an unconsidered element with you. And it’s not only in this town and in building construction that the thing’s felt. You can see it around you everywhere. It’s simply a case of graft and grab above any consideration for human safety.”
Steel was talking excitedly and his eyes shone as his thoughts were given rapid expression.
“A chap nowadays gets a bridge contract through a pull,” he continued, “or by buying up a couple of directors. Then he goes to work and calculates how he can follow the official plans in seeming and at the same time cut down on the original estimate. He takes a big chance, puts in some light steel or beds his piers in the mud, has the inspector ‘fixed’ by the ring and his job is passed as O. K. It may stand for a month or five years but some day, after an ice jam, one of the piers gives way under an excursion train, and the papers are black with a casualty list.
What’s the result? The thing is howled over for a day but is hushed up by the system and mighty soon forgotten and the beggar who murdered that bunch of people gets off scot free and does the same thing over again.
“Isn’t it true?” Steel queried, and without waiting for reply, “The same thing happens every day. Look at the Destroyer Perth, whose port boilers blew up in Prince Rupert harbor the other day and roasted sixty of the poor devils in her. The inspector had been over her at Vancouver a month before but had been bought up by the Old Country builders and passed everything as first class. Old man Simmons told me yesterday that the officer whispered to him that the middle boiler—they were Bellevilles, you know—was full of rotten tubing.
“Who suffers for this? The inspector? The builder? You know how the thing works out. I tell you, Barclay, God Almighty has a tremendous score written down against some of these fellows. And,” Steel continued, more quietly, though with even greater earnestness, “I want you to know that I don’t propose to be one of the number. It’ll ruin me, I suppose, to get out of the firm as things stand just now, but I’ll do it, yes and a hundred times more before I’ll cut down on those estimates you’ve seen to-night.
“I did spend more than I expected on the piling and concrete in the foundation but it struck me just at the last moment that the shaft of the new Verdun tube would pass that corner. You can never depend on how those big tunnels will juggle with the ground around your pier beds, particularly if you’re in quick sand, which we struck there, so I had to run down those caissons and fill ’em up with concrete to provide for that.”
Barclay had been studying his young partner closely during this lengthy speech but years of political experience seemed to have hardened his sensibilitis.
“Quite a sermon, Steel, quite a sermon,” he said with a somewhat forced laugh. “You take these everyday affairs very hard. But I see your mind’s
made up. Think the matter over for a week or so.”
Steel had become thoroughly roused. He grabbed up the bunch of estimates, jammed them in his inside pocket and flung himself out of the office without even a “good-night” to his partner. The elevators had stopped hours before so he ran down the several flights of stairs and out into the street.
A few minutes of rapid walking brought him to a more rational mood, and he began to think of things about him. The thought that Murphy’s building was ahead of his own and that the other contractor was apparently so successful, troubled him a good deal and after a moment’s consideration he decided to walk down to the new Scotia building to have a look at what the contractor was doing. As he neared the corner the web-like steel framework of the new buildings, Murphy’s near him and his own across the corner, were accentuated in the moonlight. The Scotia building was enclosed somewhat further up than his own but beyond that no appreciable difference was at first evident. A word to the watchman, a former employee of his, gained him passage through a gate in the shelter sheds and he began to look about him. He had no compunction in invading the enemy’s camp, as it were, for he knew Murphy had been all over his own building some little time before. Steel indeed laid to this visit and to Murphy’s interference a good deal of the trouble he had had with Barclay.
The watchman’s lantern only served to light its immediate vicinity and all around was in shadow. He could see, however, piles of massive steel beams, which would later be hoisted and riveted into place in the upper framework and huge heaps of fat sacks of cement for the concrete wall, which lay around everywhere. The end of a pile protruding from one of these heaps drew his attention and he called the watchman with his lantern over for a closer inspection.
_ “So Murphy has it standing on cedar piling,” he said to himself. “Wonder how long he thinks they’ll carry the weight in this quicksand?” His own
building rested on half a dozen concrete pillars built up from bed rock by the caisson method. “Wonder if the rest of the thing is run on the same plan?” he soliloquized.
A few moments’ climb up the workmen’s ladders connecting the several floors brought him up to the level of the enclosing concrete. Here the steelwork was finely put together and everything appeared substantial. When he walked over and examined the wall, however, he started in surprise. The concrete was only three inches thick. True, it was fairly well reinforced with light steel but such a covering seemed a mere paste over the framework of the towering structure.
Steel went further upward till progress became difficult and then, looking about him, realized that the framework was without the usual amount of wind bracing. In the street he had noticed no breeze, but at that height the wind was quite strong and he fancied he could see the corner piers, far above him, swaying slightly. What would happen when the framework was enclosed by a wall which would present itself like a gigantic sail above the surrounding buildings? Murphy had certainly calculated closely and was taking some big chances.
Steel had seen enough to substantiate his suppositions. He made his way carefully downward.
Three weeks later Steel was enjoying a breezy afternoon in a cat boat on the harbor. His fiancee was with him and he had been telling her something of his conversation with Barclay and of its probable consequences. Then they bore off on a new tack and the wind began to come in glorious puffs, heeling the light boat over till the deck ran awash and the breeze spilled over the top of the big mainsail. As they came round the end of the island the city loomed up quite distinctly before them, and gaining the lee of the breakwater they got into temporary shelter. Then Steel had a chance to point out the new skyscrapers, which, side by side, towered over the buildings around theim
The Scotia structure appeared to be almost completed. Murphy had forced his concrete workers to chase up after the steelwork and almost the whole building was enclosed with a white, substantial-looking wall. Though they were gazing at one side they could see in profile the many-windowed front, showing the unique architecture of the reinforced-concrete building. It was a magnificent structure.
The building adjacent seefried rather disappointing. The brickwork had gone up somewhat slowly and now the outer wall only enclosed nine rows of stories completed. Above this the great steel framework rosé in very evident slenderness, for the network of bracing arid trusswork was scarcely visible at that distance.
“If I hadn’t faith in you, Frank,” said the girl, “I’d be inclined to think Mr. Barclay was right. Murphy does seem to be ahead of you this time.”
“Perhaps I have been a bit too careful,” said Steel, '“but when—”
A sudden squall heeled the boat over, cutting off further reply, and the storm which had swept up unnoticed while they had been studying the buildings was on them in sudden fury. For several moments Steel saw nothing but the approaching squall, wondering if he could manage to get another reef in the sail, but a sudden horrified cry from the girl at the other end of the cockpit made him wheel round and fix his eyes on the new buildings.
The sight photographed itself on his memory as if through a moving lens. Murphy’s building seemed to give a gigantic stagger, then, as if pushed by a titanic hand, it toppled over sideways, the front buckling outwards as it fell. A cloud of white dust floated upward for a moment but the storm closingdown suddenly blotted out everything at a distance.
“God help the poor wretches inside of it,” muttered Steel, between his teeth.
The girl sank sobbing into the bottom of the cockpit but in a moment recovered herself and sprang up to help Steel with the boat.
After seeing the girl in a cab Steel rushed to the scene of the disaster. He could hear the quick throbbing of the fire engines above the roar of the crowd, several blocks away. Turning a corner he drew a breath of thankfulness. His own building was standing solid as a mountain, though the lower stories were plastered with white dust.
The corner opposite showed a fearful sight. A horrible mass of twisted steel lay in stupendous confusion. Huge beams, some showing jagged ends, others doubled up like half-open jackknives, stuck out from the debris. The wreck lay half in the street and half in the ruins of a departmental store which had stood beside it. The falling mass had crushed in the roof of the lower building, and piercing to the very cellars had crushed out the lives of scores of unwarned human beings inside.
A cloud of odorous smoke ascending from the rear of the ruins and the presence of the fire engines suggested other horrors. Scores of begrimed firemen were working frantically, though seemingly unavailably, in the depths of the wreckage. At irregular intervals whitecovered stretchers bearing inanimate burdens were carried up to the crest of the ruins and out to a row of ambulances at the side. The crowd, which had earlier been hysterical and clamorous, became quieter as these added elements of the catastrophe became evident and only an occasional voice was heard calling for the name of the builder.
Steel fought his way through the crowd and with some difficulty got past the cordon of police. Getting round the corner he saw Murphy standing on a pile of broken concrete talking to a group of reporters. It was evident that the builder had been much excited but he was rapidly recovering his usual nonchalance.
“It was this new Verdun tunnel that did the mischief,” lie said coolly, pointing downward. “The retaining plates behind their shield forty feet down gave way just before the accident, roor joints, I guess. The quicksand rushed in, filled up the tunnel and drew away from the piling in our foundation. Just
then that cyclone came along and tipped her over. No one’s to blame. It couldn’t be helped.”
Just then someone burst in from the outside of the group and made for Murphy. It was Barclay. Coatless and dusty, for he had been helping in the rescue work, he shook his fist at the contractor.
“Couldn’t be helped, eh?” he burst out. “Then how do you account for the fact that the building behind you is still standing,” pointing to Steel’s structure across the corner. “Still,” after a moment’s consideration, “I can’t blame you much, Murphy, I would have done the same my sell.”
Then Barclay saw Steel and rushing round the edge of the group gripped his partner’s hand.
“Thstnk God for such a man as you, Frank,” he said joyfully. “I see it all now. You saved us from this horrible thing. I’m mighty thankful now you put in those caissons.
“I was here when the whole business happened,” he went on, rapidly. “Murphy had a man ’phone to the office that the ‘tube’ had caved in and might affect our foundations. I ran down and looked over your work, but everything was tight and solid. Then I went across the street. Down in the sub-cellar Murphy was on his knees looking at some long cracks in the cement around one of the main pillars. ‘It’s nothing,’ lie said, when I got near him ; ‘let’s see if your piers ain’t the same.’ We went over and were on the way
downstairs when the storm pushed his building over and buckled it üp like a cardboard box. Jove, but the crash was awful. One of those long, ripping, grinding roars which burn out your very nerves.”
“How did Murphy take it,” Steel asked quietly.
“I didn’t notice him much, only that he muttered something about windbracing. When he saw we were safe he groaned and said it would mean three hundred thousand to him. He seems to be taking it coot now.”
“He’s taking it cool,” Steel exclaimed, in a tone that was biting, “but Murphy’s time’s coming.”
They turned as another stretcher, weighed down with the usual burden, was carried out to the street. As it passed, a bit of cloth of a peculiar shade of purple hanging over the edge, part of a woman’s gown, caught Murphy’s attention. With a start and an exclamation he called to the bearers and rushed over. Steel noticed that his face had become suddenly white.
First he caught at the bit of projecting cloth, then groaned, then, as he reluctantly pulled the covering aside from the face, fell on his knees beside the stretcher, sobbing.
“God help him. It’s his daughter,” Barclay said pityingly, as he caught a glimpse of the young, upturned face.
Steel turned away with tears in his eyes. “Murphy’s time has come,” he said.