Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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A Novel by


_Author of_ "THE BLOOD RED DAWN"



* * * * *

Printed in the United States of America

Who Helped Make My Literary Career Possible.



Toward four o'clock in the afternoon Fred Starratt remembered that he
had been commissioned by his wife to bring home oyster cocktails for
dinner. Of course, it went without saying that he was expected to
attend to the cigars. That meant he must touch old Wetherbee for
money. Five dollars would do the trick, but, while he was about it, he
decided that he might as well ask for twenty-five. There were bound to
be other demands before the first of the month, and the hard-fisted
cashier of Ford, Wetherbee & Co. seemed to grow more and more crusty
over drafts against the salary account. If one caught him in a good
humor it was all right. Usually a _risqué_ story was the safest road
to geniality. Starratt raked his brains for a new one, to no purpose.
Every moment of delay added greater certainty to the conviction that
he was in for a disagreeable encounter. At four o'clock Wetherbee
always began to balance his cash for the day and he was particularly
vicious at any interruptions during this precise performance. What in
the world had possessed Helen to give this absurd dinner party to two
people Starratt had never met? At least she might have put the thing
off until pay day, when money was more plentiful.

How did others manage? Starratt asked himself. Because there was a
small minority in the office who received their full month's salary
without a break during the entire year. Take young Brauer, for
instance. He got a little over a hundred a month and yet he never
seemed short. He dressed well, too - or neatly, to be nearer the truth;
there was no great style to his make-up. Of course, Brauer was not
married, but Starratt could never remember a time, even before he took
the plunge into matrimony, when he was not going through the motions
of smoothing old Wetherbee into a good-humored acceptance of an IOU
tag. Starratt did not think himself extravagant, and it always had
puzzled him to observe how free some of his salaried friends were with
their coin. Only that morning his wife had reflected his own mood with
exaggerated petulancy when she had said:

"I'm sure I don't know where all the money goes! We don't spend it on
cafés, and we haven't a car, and goodness knows I only buy what I have
to when it comes down to clothes."

What she _had_ to! He thought over the phrase not with any desire to
put Helen in the pillory, but merely to uncover, if possible, the
source of their economic ills.

In days gone by, when his mother was alive, he had heard almost the
same remark leveled at his father:

"Well, I suppose _some_ people could save on our income. But we've got
to be decent - we can't go about in rags!"

He knew from long experience just the sort his mother had meant by the
term "some people." Brauer was a case in point. Mrs. Starratt always
spoke of such as he with lofty tolerance.

"Oh, of course, _foreigners_ always get on! They're accustomed to live
that way!"

Fred Starratt had not altogether accepted his mother's philosophy that
everybody lacking the grace of an Anglo-Saxon or Scotch name was a
foreigner. There were times when he was given to wonder vaguely why
the gift of "getting on" had been given to "foreigners" and denied
him. Once in a while he rebelled against the implied gentility which
had been wished on him. Were rags necessary to achieve economy?
Granting the premises, in moments of rare revolt he became hospitable
to any contingency that would free him from the ever-present
humiliation of an empty purse.

He soon had learned that the term "rags" was a mere figure of speech,
which stood for every pretense offered up as a sacrifice upon the
altar of appearances. His mother had never been a spendthrift and
certainly one could not convict Helen on such a charge. But they both
had one thing in common - they "had to have things" for almost any and
every occasion. If a trip were planned or a dancing party arranged or
a tea projected - well, one simply couldn't go looking like a fright,
and that was all there was to it. His father never thought to argue
such a question. Women folks had to have clothes, and so he accepted
the situation with the philosophy born of bowing gracefully to the
inevitable. But Starratt himself occasionally voiced a protest.

"Nothing to wear?" he would echo, incredulously. "Why, how about that
pink dress? That hasn't worn out yet."

"No, that's just it! It simply won't! I'm sick and tired of putting it
on. Everybody knows it down to the last hook and eye... Oh, well, I'll
stay home. It isn't a matter of life and death. I've given things up

When a woman took that tone of martyrdom there really was nothing to
do but acknowledge defeat. Other men were able to provide frocks for
their wives and he supposed he ought to be willing to do the same
thing. There was an element of stung pride in his surrender. He had
the ingrained Californian's distaste for admitting, even to himself,
that there was anything he could not afford. And in the end it was
this feeling rising above the surface of his irritation which made him
a bit ashamed of his attitude toward Helen's dinner party. After all,
it would be the same a thousand years from now. A man couldn't have
his cake and eat it, and a man like Brauer must live a dull sort of
life. What could be the use of saving money if one forgot how to spend
it in the drab process? As a matter of fact, old Wetherbee wouldn't
gobble him. He'd grunt or grumble or even rave a bit, but in the end
he would yield up the money. He always did. And suddenly, while his
courage had been so adroitly screwed to the sticking point, he went
over to old Wetherbee's desk without further ado.

The cashier was absorbed in adding several columns of figures and he
let Starratt wait. This was not a reassuring sign. Finally, when he
condescended to acknowledge the younger man's presence he did it with
the merest uplift of the eyebrows. Starratt decided at once against
pleasantries. Instead, he matched Wetherbee's quizzical pantomime by
throwing the carefully written IOU tag down on the desk.

Wetherbee tossed the tag aside. "You got twenty-five dollars a couple
of days ago!" he bawled out suddenly.

Starratt was surprised into silence. Old Wetherbee was sometimes given
to half-audible and impersonal grumblings, but this was the first time
he had ever gone so far as to voice a specific objection to an appeal
for funds.

"What do you think this is?" Wetherbee went on in a tone loud enough
to be heard by all the office force. "The Bank of England?... I've got
something else to do besides advance money every other day to a bunch
of joy-riding spendthrifts. In my day a young man ordered his
expenditures to suit his pocketbook. We got our salary once a month
and we saw to it that it lasted... What's the matter - somebody sick at

Starratt could easily have lied and closed the incident quickly, but
an illogical pride stirred him to the truth.

"No," he returned, quietly, "I'm simply short. We're having some
company in for dinner and there are a few things to get - cigars
and - well, you know what."

Wetherbee threw him a lip-curling glance. "Cigars? Well, twopenny
clerks do keep up a pretty scratch and no mistake. In my day - "

Starratt cut him short with an impatient gesture.

"Times have changed, Mr. Wetherbee."

"Yes, I should say they have," the elder man sneered, as he reached
for the key to the cash drawer.

For a moment Starratt felt an enormous relief at the old man's
significant movement. He was to get the money, after all! But almost
at once he was moved to sudden resentment. What right had Wetherbee to
humiliate him before everybody within earshot? He knew that the eyes
of the entire force were being leveled at him, and he felt a surge of
satisfaction as he said, very distinctly:

"Don't bother, Mr. Wetherbee... It really doesn't make the slightest
difference. I'll manage somehow."

Old Wetherbee shrugged and went on adding figures. Starratt felt
confused. The whole scene had fallen flat. His suave heroics had not
even made Wetherbee feel cheap. He went back to his desk.

Presently a hand rested upon his shoulder. He knew Brauer's fawning,
almost apologetic, touch. He turned.

"If you're short - " Brauer was whispering.

Starratt hesitated. Deep down he never had liked Brauer; in fact, he
always had just missed snubbing him. Still it was decent of Brauer

"That's very kind, I'm sure. Could you give me - say, five dollars?"

Brauer thrust two lean, bloodless fingers into his vest pocket and
drew out a crisp note.

"Thanks, awfully," Starratt said, quickly, as he reached for the

Brauer's face lit up with a swift glow of satisfaction. Starratt
almost shrank back. He felt a clammy hand pressing the bill against
his palm.

"Thanks, awfully," he murmured again.

Brauer dropped his eyes with a suggestion of unpleasant humility.

"I wish," flashed through Starratt's mind, "that I had asked for ten

* * * * *

As Fred Starratt came down the steps leading from the California
Market with a bottle of oyster cocktails held gingerly before him he
never remembered when he had been less in the mood for guests. A
passing friend invited him to drop down for a drink at Collins &
Wheeland's, but the state of his finances urged a speedy flight home
instead. At this hour the California Street cars were crowded, but he
managed to squeeze into a place on the running board. He always
enjoyed the glide of this old-fashioned cable car up the stone-paved
slope of Nob Hill, and even the discomfort of a huddled foothold was
more than discounted by the ability to catch backward glimpses of city
and bay falling away in the slanting gold of an early spring twilight
like some enchanted and fabulous capital.

At Hyde Street he changed cars, continuing his homeward flight in the
direction of Russian Hill. He prided himself on the fact that he still
clung to one of the old quarters of the town, scorning the outlying
districts with all the disdain of a San Franciscan born and bred of
pioneer stock. He liked to be within easy walking distance of work,
and only a trifle over fifteen minutes from the shops and cafés and
theaters. And his present quarters in a comparatively new apartment
house just below the topmost height of Green Street answered these
wishes in every particular.

On the Hyde Street car he found a seat, and, without the distraction
of maintaining his foothold or the diversion of an unfolding panorama,
his thoughts turned naturally on his immediate problems. The five
dollars had gone a ridiculously small way. Four oyster cocktails came
to a dollar and a quarter, and he had to have at least six cigars at
twenty-five cents apiece. This left him somewhat short of the maid's
wage of three dollars for cooking and serving dinner and washing up
the dishes. If Helen had engaged Mrs. Finn, everything would be all
right. She knew them and she would wait. Still, he didn't like putting
anybody off - he was neither quite too poor nor quite too affluent to
be nonchalant in his postponement of obligations.

When he arrived home he found that Helen had been having her troubles,
too. Mrs. Finn had disappointed her and sent a frowsy female, who
exuded vile whisky and the unpleasant odors of a slattern.

"I think she's half drunk," Helen had confessed, brutally. "You can't
depend on anyone these days. Servants are getting so independent!"

The roast had been delivered late, too, and when Helen had called up
the shop to protest she had been met with cool insolence.

"I told the boy who talked to me that I'd report him to the boss. And
what do you suppose he said? 'Go as far as you like! We're all going
out on a strike next week, so we should worry!' Fancy a butcher
talking like that to me! I don't know what things are coming to."

Frankly, neither did Fred Starratt, but he held his peace. He was
thinking just where he would gather enough money together to pay Mrs.
Finn's questionable substitute.

The guests arrived shortly and there were the usual stiff, bromidic
greetings. Mrs. Hilmer had been presented to Fred first ... a little,
spotless, homey Scandinavian type, who radiated competent housekeeping
and flawless cooking. The Starratts had once had just such a
shining-faced body for a neighbor - a woman who ran up the back stairs
during the dinner hour with a bit of roasted chicken or a pan of
featherweight pop-overs or a dish of crumbly cookies for the children.
Mrs. Starratt, senior, had acknowledged her neighbor's culinary merits
ungrudgingly, tempering her enthusiasm, however, with a swift dab of
criticism directed at the lady's personality.

"My, but isn't she Dutch, though!" frequently had escaped her.

Somehow the characterization had struck Fred Starratt as very apt even
in his younger days. And as he shook hands with Mrs. Hilmer these same
words came to mind.

Hilmer disturbed him. He was a huge man with a rather well-chiseled
face, considering his thickness of limb, and his blond hair fell in an
untidy shower about his prominent and throbbing temples. Fred felt him
to be a man without any inherited social graces, yet he contrived to
appear at ease. Was it because he was disposed to let the women
chatter? No, that could not account for his acquired suavity, for
silence is very often much more awkward than even clumsy attempts at

As the dinner progressed, Fred Starratt began to wonder just what had
tempted Helen to arrange this little dinner party for the Hilmers.
When she had broached the matter, her words had scarcely conveyed
their type. A woman who had helped his wife out at the Red Cross
Center during the influenza epidemic could be of almost any pattern.
But immediately he had gauged her as one of his wife's own kind. Helen
and her women friends were not incompetent housewives, but their
efforts leaned rather to an escape from domestic drudgery than to a
patient yielding to its yoke. If they discussed housekeeping at all,
it was with reference to some new labor-saving device flashing across
the culinary horizon. But Mrs. Hilmer's conversation thrilled with the
pride of her gastronomic achievements without any reference to the
labor involved. She invested her estate as housekeeper for her husband
with a commendable dignity. It appeared that she took an enormous
amount of pains with the simplest dishes. It was incredible, for
instance, how much thought and care and time went into a custard which
she described at great length for Helen's benefit.

"But that takes hours and _hours_!" Helen protested.

"But it's a real custard," Hilmer put in, dryly.

Fred Starratt felt himself flushing. Hilmer's scant speech had the
double-edged quality of most short weapons. Could it be that his guest
was sneering by implication at the fare that Helen had provided? No,
that was hardly it, because Helen had provided good fare, even if she
had prepared most of it vicariously. Hilmer's covert disdain was more
impersonal, yet it remained every whit as irritating, for all that.
Perhaps a bit more so, since Fred Starratt found it hard to put a
finger on its precise quality. He had another taste of it later when
the inevitable strike gossip intruded itself. It was Helen who opened
up, repeating her verbal passage with the butcher.

"They want eight hours a day and forty-five dollars a week," she
finished. "I call that ridiculous!"

"Why?" asked Hilmer, abruptly.

"For a butcher?" Helen countered, with pained incredulity.

"How long does your husband work?" Hilmer went on, calmly.

"I'm sure I don't know. How long do you work, Fred?"

Starratt hesitated. "Let me see ... nine to twelve is three hours ...
one to five is four hours - seven in all."

Hilmer smiled with cryptic irritation. "There you have it!... What's
wrong with a butcher wanting eight hours?"

Helen shrugged. "Well, a butcher doesn't have to use his brains very
much!" she threw out, triumphantly.

"And your husband does. I see!"

Starratt winced. He felt his wife's eye turned expectantly upon him.
"Seven hours is a normal day's work," he put in, deciding to ignore
Hilmer's insolence, "but as an employer of an office force you must
know how much overtime the average clerk puts in. We're not afraid to
work a little bit more than we're paid for. We're thinking of
something else besides money."

Hilmer buttered a roll. "What, for instance?"

"Why, the firm's interest ... our own advancement, of course ... the
enlarged capacity that comes with greater skill and knowledge." He
leaned back in his seat with a self-satisfied smile.

Hilmer laid down his butter knife very deliberately. "That's very well
put," he said; "very well put, indeed! And would you mind telling me
just what your duties are in the office where you work?"

"I'm in the insurance business ... fire. We have a general agency here
for the Pacific coast. That means that all the subagents in the
smaller towns report the risks they have insured to us. I'm what they
call a map clerk. I enter the details of every risk on bound maps of
the larger towns which every insurance company is provided with. In
this way we know just how much we have at risk in any building, block,
or section of any city. And we are able to keep our liability within
proper limits."

"You do this same thing ... for seven hours every day ... not to speak
of overtime?"


"And how long have you been doing this?"

"About five years."

"And how long will you continue to do it?"

"God knows!"

Hilmer rested both hands on the white cloth. They were shapely hands
in spite of their size, with healthy pink nails, except on a thumb and
forefinger, which had been badly mangled. "For five years you have
worked seven hours every day on this routine ... and in order to
enlarge your capacity and skill and knowledge you have worked many
hours overtime on this same routine, I suppose without any extra
pay... It seems to me that a man who only gets a chance to exercise
with dumb-bells might keep in condition, but he'd hardly grow more
skillful... Of course, that still leaves two theories intact - working
for your own advancement ... and the interest of your firm. I suppose
the advancement _has_ come, I suppose you've been paid for your
overtime ... in increased salary."

Helen made a scornful movement. "If you call an increase of ten
dollars a month in two years an advancement," she ventured, bitterly.

Starratt flushed.

"That leaves only one excuse for overtime. And that excuse is usually
a lie. Why should you have the interest of your firm at heart when it
does nothing for you beyond what it is forced to do?"

Fred Starratt bared his teeth in sudden snapping anger. "Well, and
what do _you_ do, Mr. Hilmer, for your clerks?"

"Nothing ... absolutely nothing ... unless they demand it. And even
then it's only the exceptional man who can force me into a corner. The
average clerk in any country is like a gelded horse. He's been robbed
of his power by education ... of a sort. He's a reasonable, rational,
considerate beast that can be broken to any harness."

"What do you want us to do? Go on a strike and heave bricks into your
plate-glass window?... What would you do in our place?"

"I wouldn't be there, to begin with. I've heaved bricks in my day." He
leaned forward, exhibiting his smashed thumb and forefinger. "I killed
the man who did that to me. I was born in a Norwegian fishing village
and after a while I followed the sea. That's a good school for action.
And what education you get is thrashed into you. The little that
sticks doesn't do much more than toughen you. And if you don't want
any more it does well enough. Later on, if you have a thirst for
knowledge, you drink the brand you pick yourself and it doesn't go to
your head. Now with you ... you didn't have any choice. You drank up
what they handed out and, at the age when you could have made a
selection, your taste was formed ... by _others_... I don't mind
people kicking at the man who works with his hands if they know what
they're talking about. But most of them don't. They get the thing
second hand. They're chock full of loyalty to superiors and systems
and governments, just from habit... I've worked with my hands, and
I've fought for a half loaf of bread with a dirk knife, and I know all
the dirty, rotten things of life by direct contact. So when I disagree
with the demands of the men who build my vessels I know why I'm
disagreeing. And I usually do disagree ... because if they've got guts
enough in them they'll fight. And I like a good fight. That's why
potting clerks is such a tame business. It's almost as sickening as a
rabbit drive."

He finished with a gesture of contempt and reached for his goblet of

Starratt decided not to dodge the issue; if Hilmer wished to throw any
further mud he was perfectly ready to stand up and be the target.

"Well, and what's the remedy for stiffening the backbone of my sort?"
he asked, with polite insolence.

"Stiffening the backbone of the middle class is next to impossible.
They've been bowing and scraping until there's a permanent kink in
their backs!"

"The 'middle class'?" Helen echoed, incredulously.

Hilmer was smiling widely. There was a strange, embarrassed silence.
Starratt was the first to recover himself. "Why, of course!... Why
not? You didn't think we belonged to any other class, did you?"

It was Mrs. Hilmer who changed the subject. "What nice corn pudding
this is, Mrs. Starratt! Would you mind telling me how you made it?"

Hostilities ceased with the black coffee, and in the tiny living room
Hilmer grew almost genial. His life had been varied and he was rather
proud of it - that is, he was proud of the more sordid details, which
he recounted with an air of satisfaction. He liked to dwell on his
poverty, his lack of opportunity, his scant education. He had the
pride of his achievements, and he was always eager to throw them into
sharper relief by dwelling upon the depths from which he had sprung.
He had his vulgarities, of course, but it was amazing how well
selected they were - the vulgarities of simplicity rather than of
coarseness. And while he talked he moved his hands unusually for a man
of northern blood, revealing the sinister thumb and forefinger, which
to Fred Starratt grew to be a symbol of his guest's rough-hewn power.
Hilmer was full of raw-boned stories of the sea and he had the
seafarer's trick of vivid speech. Even Helen Starratt was absorbed ...
a thing unusual for her. At least in her husband's hearing she always
disclaimed any interest in the brutalities. She never read about
murders or the sweaty stories in the human-interest columns of the
paper or the unpleasant fictioning of realists. Her excuse was the
threadbare one that a trivial environment always calls forth, "There
are enough unpleasant things in life without reading about them!"

The unpleasant things in Helen Starratt's life didn't go very far
beyond half-tipsy maids and impertinent butcher boys.

Hilmer's experiences were not quite in the line of drawing-room
anecdotes, and Starratt had seen the time when his wife would have
recoiled from them with the disdainful grace of a feline shaking
unwelcome moisture from its paws. But to-night she drew her dark
eyebrows together tensely and let her thin, vivid lips part with frank
eagerness. Her interest flamed her with a new quality. Fred Starratt
had always known that his wife was attractive; he would not have
married her otherwise; but, as she leaned forward upon the arm of her
chair, resting her elbows upon an orange satin pillow, he saw that she
was handsome. And, somehow, the realization vaguely disturbed him.

Hilmer's stories of prosperity were not so moving. From a penniless
emigrant in New York until he had achieved the distinction of being
one of the leading shipbuilders of the Pacific coast, his narrative
steadily dwindled in power, the stream of his life choked with
stagnant scum of good fortune. Indeed, he grew so dull that Helen
Starratt, stifling a yawn, said:

"If it's not too personal ... won't you please tell us ... about ...

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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 1 of 17)