Charles Caldwell Dobie.

Broken to the Plow online

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After a while Monet detached himself from the rest of the walking
throng and fell back with Starratt. He seemed to have an instinctive
gift for sensing moods, and Fred was grateful for his silence.

They were passing by a two-story concrete building in the Colonial
style when Monet touched Fred's arm.

"That's the famous Ward Six," Monet explained, softly. "You'll get
there finally if you work it right... It's not heaven ... but
alongside the other wards it comes pretty near being."

They turned about shortly after this and began to retrace their steps.
Presently a man came in sight, pulling a cardboard box mounted upon
four spools.

"An inventor," Monet said, as Fred threw out a questioning glance. "He
has an idea that he's perfected a wonderful automobile... You'll get
used to them after a while."

A little farther on they met a haughty-looking Japanese coming toward
them. Monet plucked at Fred's sleeve. "Better step to one side," he
cautioned; "that fellow thinks he is the Emperor of Japan!"

Fred did as he was bidden and the Japanese swept past gloomily.

"Well, at least he's happy, in his own way!" Monet commented, with a
tinge of irony.

Soon after that another man passed, weeping bitterly.

"They call him the Weeping Willow," Monet explained. "He weeps because
he can find no one who will kill him."

Fred shuddered.

By this time they had reached their starting point. Fred felt suddenly
tired. "Let's rest a bit under the trees," he proposed.

Monet assented, and the two threw themselves into the first shade.
Fred closed his eyes. He had a sense that he was dreaming - that all
the scenes that he had witnessed these many days were unreal.
Presently he would wake up to the old familiar ring of his alarm
clock, and gradually all the outlines of his bedroom would shape
themselves to his recovered senses... There would stand Helen by her
dressing table, stooping down to the mirror's level as she popped her
thick braids under her pink boudoir cap... In a few minutes the first
whiffs of coffee would come floating in from the kitchenette. Then he
would crawl slowly out from the warm bedclothes and stretch himself
comfortably and give a sudden dash for the bathroom and his cold
plunge. There would follow breakfast and the walk over the hill down
to the office of Ford, Wetherbee & Co. in a mist-golden morning. And
he would hear again the exchange of greetings, and find himself
replying to the inevitable question:

"Well, what's new?"

With the equally inevitable answer:

"Not a thing in the world!"

Some one was shaking him. He gave a quick gasp that ended in a groan
as he opened his eyes. Monet was bending over him.

"You've been asleep," his companion said. "Come, it's time to go in...
The bell for supper has rung... And you were dreaming, too ... I knew
that because you smiled!"

Fred Starratt grasped Monet's hand fervently.

"It was good of you to keep watch," he murmured.

Monet answered with a warm pressure. And at that moment something deep
and indefinable passed between them ... a silent covenant too precious
for words.

Fred Starratt rose to his feet.

"Let us go in!" he said.

* * * * *

At supper Fred Starratt nibbled at some dry bread and drank another
strong draught of tea. But he had to force himself to even this scant
compromise with expediency. There followed smoking in the lavatory and
at seven o'clock the call to turn in. Fred scurried confidently to his
cell-like room ... he was quite ready for solitude.

An attendant was moving about. "You sleep in the first dormitory
to-night," he explained to Fred. "It's at the end of the hall."

Fred turned away in fresh despair.

Before the door of the first dormitory a number of men were
undressing. Monet was in the group and a newspaper man named Clancy
that Fred had met that afternoon. Fred stood a moment in indecision.

"You'll have to strip out here," Monet said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Just leave your clothes in a pile close against the wall."

Fred obeyed. The rest of the company regarded him with sinister
curiosity. Except for Monet and Clancy all seemed obviously insane.
One by one they filed into the room. Fred followed. Twelve spotlessly
clean cots gleamed in the twilight.

The twelve men crawled into bed; the door was shut with a bang. Fred
heard a key turn... They were locked in!

The ghostly day faded and night settled in. Fitful snorings and groans
and incoherent mutterings broke the stillness. At intervals a man near
the door would jump to his feet, proclaiming the end of the world.
Sometimes his paroxysm was brief, but again he would keep up his
leaping and solemn chanting until he fell to the floor in sheer
exhaustion... Gradually even he became quiet, and nothing was audible
except heavy breathing and the sound of the watchman in the corridor
as he passed by regularly, flashing his light into the room through
the slits in the door.

Fred Starratt did not close his eyes.


The first week passed in an inferno of idleness. Fred Starratt grew to
envy even the wretches who were permitted to carry swill to the pigs.
There once had been a time in his life when ambition had pricked him
with a desire for affluent ease... He had been grounded in the
religious conviction that work had been wished upon a defenseless
humanity as a curse. He still remembered his Sabbath-school stories,
particularly the scornful text with which the Lord had banished those
two erring souls from Eden. Henceforth they were to work! To earn
their bread by the sweat of their brows! He had a feeling now that
either God had been tricked into granting a boon or else the scowl
which had accompanied the tirade had been the scowl that a genial
Father threw at his children merely for the sake of seeming
impressive. At heart the good Lord must have had only admiration for
these two souls who refused to be beguiled by all the slothful ease of
Eden, preferring to take their chances in a world of their own
making... And he began to question, too, either the beauty or
contentment of the heaven which offered the vacuous delights of
idleness. It seemed, perhaps, that the theologians had mixed their
revelations, and that the paradise they offered so glibly was really a
sinister hell in disguise.

After the first day the sights which had sent shudders through him
gradually began to assume the inevitability of custom. Even the vision
of the Weeping Willow, sorrowing at death withheld, failed to shake
him. The third night he slept undisturbed in the lap of frenzy and
madness. There was something at once pathetic and sublime in his
adaptability to the broken suits of fortune. He was learning what
every man learns sooner or later - to play the hand that is dealt, even
in the face of a losing game.

Deep within him he found two opposing currents struggling for
mastery - one an overwhelming tide of disillusionment, the other a
faith in things hitherto withheld. Against the uncloaked figures of
Helen Starratt and Hilmer loomed Ginger and Monet. Did life always
yield compensations, if one had the wit to discern them? In the still
watches of the night, when some fleeting sound had waked him, he used
to think of Ginger as he had thought when a child of some intangible
and remote vision that he could sense, but not define. Would he ever
see her again? Suddenly, one night, he realized that he did not even
know her name... And Monet, who slept so quietly upon the cot next to
him - what would he have done without his companionship? He used to
raise himself on his elbow at times and look in the ghostly light of
morning at Monet's face, white and immobile, the thin and shapely lips
parted ever so slightly, and marvel at the bland and childlike faith
that was the basis of this almost breathless and inaudible sleep. Fred
had made friendships in his life, warm, hand-clasping,
shoulder-thumping friendships, but they had been of gradual unfolding.
Never before had anyone walked full-grown into his affections.

On the third afternoon, sitting in the thick shade of a gracious tree,
Monet had told Fred something of his story. He was of mixed
breed - French and Italian, with a bit of Irish that had made him
blue-eyed, and traces of English and some Dutch. A brood of races that
were forever at war within him. And he had been a musician in the
bargain, and this in the face of an implacable father who dealt in
hides and tallow. There had been all the weakness and flaming and
_naïveté_ of a potential artist ground under the heel of a relentless
sire. His mother was long since dead. The father had attempted to
force the stream of desire from music to business. He had succeeded,
after a fashion, but the youth had learned to escape from the dull
pain of his slavery into a rosy and wine-red Eden. ... Three times he
had been sent to Fairview "to kick the nonsense out of him!" to use
his father's words. He was not embittered nor overwhelmed, but he was
passive, stubbornly passive, as if he had all a lifetime to cross
words with Monet, senior. It was inevitable that he would win in the
end. He was a child ... he always would be one ... and childhood might
be cowed, but it was never really conquered. He was gentle, too, like
a child, and sensitive. Yet the horrors which surrounded him seemed to
leave him untroubled. It could not be that he was insensible to
ugliness, but he rose above it on the wings of some inner beauty...
Once Fred Starratt would have felt some of the father's scorn for
Felix Monet - the patronizing scorn most men bring to an estimate of
the incomprehensible. What could one expect of a fiddler? Yes, he
would have felt something worse than scorn - he would have been moved
to tolerance.

The only other man in Ward 1 who was sane was Clancy, the newspaper
reporter. But in the afternoons the knot of rational inmates from the
famous Ward 6 herded together and exchanged griefs. Fred Starratt sat
and listened, but he felt apart. Somehow, most of the stories did not
ring quite true. He never had realized before how eager human beings
were to deny all blame. To hear them one would fancy that the busy
world had paused merely to single them out as targets for misfortune.
And the more he listened to their doleful whines the more he turned
the searching light of inquiry upon his own case. In the end, there
was something beyond reserve and arrogance in the reply he would make
to their direct inquiries:

"What brought me here? ... Myself!"

But his attitude singled him out for distrust. He was incomprehensible
to these burden shifters, these men who had been trained to cast their
load upon the nearest object and, failing everything else, upon the
Lord... They were all either drug users or victims of drink. And, to a
man, they were furiously in favor of prohibition with all the strength
of their weak, dog-in-the-manger souls. Like every human being, they
hated what they abused. They wanted to play the game of life with
failure eliminated, and the god that they fashioned was a venerable
old man who had the skill to worst them, but who genially let them
walk away with victory.

As Fred Starratt listened day after day to their chatter he withdrew
more and more from any mental contact with them. And yet there were
times when he felt a longing to pour out his grief into the ears of
understanding... He knew that Monet was waiting for his story, but
pride still held him in its grip... After all, there was a ridiculous
side to his plight. When a man permitted himself to be blindfolded he
could not quarrel at being pushed and shoved and buffeted... How
absurd he must have seemed to Watson on that day when he had announced
so dramatically:

"I said I'd stand by Mrs. Starratt's decision. And I'm a man of my

How much a man would endure simply for the sake of making a fine
flourish! He had thought himself heroic at that moment, poor, empty
fool that he was, when he really had been the victim of cowardice. A
brave man would have cried:

"I said I'd stand by Mrs. Starratt's decision, but I'm not quite an

One other topic flamed these poor souls, seeking to kindle a warmth of
sympathy for their failures. When the lamentations ceased, they talked
of flight. Fred Starratt sat mentally apart and listened. Everybody
had a plan. They discussed prospects, previous attempts, chances for
failure. Fred learned, among other things, that the search for escaped
nationals did not extend much beyond the environs of Fairview. If a
man from Ward 6 made a good get-away he held his freedom, unless his
kinsfolk constituted themselves a pack of moral bloodhounds. He
realized now that there was nothing as relentless as family pride. It
was not so much the alcoholic excess that was resented, but the fact
that it led to unkept linen and dirty finger nails and, by the same
token, to neighborhood scorn. Concern for a man's soul did not send
him to Fairview... But was anybody really concerned for a man's soul?
... Why should they be? ... He ended by quarreling only with the

Escape! Escape! To get back to the world that they were forever
reviling! Like men in the grip of some wanton mistress who could bring
them neither happiness nor heroics, either in her company or away from
her. Take Fordham, for instance, a lean, purple-faced clerk, who had
been sent up for the third time by his wife after two sensational
escapes. He hadn't disturbed her, looked her up, gone near her, in
fact. But he had laid up alongside an amber-filled bottle in a moldy
wine shop somewhere near the Barbary coast. Yes, he had achieved it
even in the face of prohibition. And she had got wind of it. Folks had
seen him, red-eyed and greasy-coated and bilious-hued, emerging from
his haunt in some harsh noon that set him blinking, like a startled
owl. Well, she couldn't quite have that, you know! She couldn't have
her husband making a spectacle of himself, sinking lower and lower in
the hell of his own choosing. No! Far better to pick out a hell for
him ... a hell removed discreetly from the gaze of the scornful. ...
And there was Wainright, who, like Monet, had a father. He had married
a Runway Girl of the Bearcat Follies ... the sort that patters down
from the stage to imprint carmine kisses and embarrassment upon the
shining pate of the first old rounder that has an aisle seat. Well,
father could not have that, either. He was impatient with the whole
performance. Indeed, a less impatient man would have waited and
watched Wainright, junior, wind himself in the net which his own hands
had set. Instead, he went to the trouble of digging a pit for his son
which hastened the inevitable, but did not cure the folly... Wainright
had escaped, too, quite casually, one fine spring day when he had been
sent out to the barn to help milk the cows. The Runway Girl, in need
of publicity, had telegraphed the details to her press agent,
following receipt of her husband's letter telling of his exploit. A
Runway Girl whose husband-lover broke jail, so to speak, for her, had
professional assets that could not be gainsaid.

And so the story was flashed on the front page of every newspaper in
the country, with the result that father dug another pit.

And so tale succeeded tale. Fred grew to accept most of them with
large dashes of salt. Not that he doubted the broader strokes with
which the effects were achieved, but he mistrusted that many of the
finer shadings had been discreetly painted out. He was learning that
there was nothing so essentially untruthful as a studied veracity...
Had not he tricked himself with just such carefully heightened
details? What he had mistaken for a background of solid truth had
proved nothing but pasteboard scenery flooded with a semblance of
reality achieved by skillful manipulation of spotlights. He had been
satisfied with the illusion because he had wished for nothing better.
And at this moment he was more desolate than any in this sad company,
because he seemed the only one who had lost the art of escaping into a
world of lies. He had no more spotlights to manipulate. He sat in a
gloomy playhouse and he heard only confused voices coming from the
stage. He was not even sorry for himself. Whether he was sorry for
others he could not yet determine.

One afternoon at the close of the first week, as he was walking back
to Ward 1 with Monet, following one of these inevitable experience
meetings, he turned to the youth and said:

"You have been here three times now. Have _you_ never thought of

Monet shrugged. "Yes ... in a way. But I'm no great hand at doing
things alone."

They walked on in silence. Finally Fred spoke.

"Suppose you and I try it sometime? ... It will give us something to
think about... But we'll go slow. It will just be a game, you

Monet's eyes lit up and his breath came quickly between his parted
lips. "You're splendid to me!" he cried. "But the others - you seem to
hate them. Why?"

Fred kicked a fallen branch out of his path. "They whine too much!" he

The boy was right, he _did_ hate them!

At the office he found that a package had come for him in the mail,
and a letter. Both had been opened by the authorities. He read the
letter first. It was from Helen. She had heard that cigarettes were a
great solace to men in his situation, and so she had sent him a large
carton of them. She expressed the hope that everything was going well,
and she filled the rest of her letter with gossip of the Hilmers. Mrs.
Hilmer was a little better and she was wheeling her out on fine days
just in front of the house. The nurse had gone and she was doing
everything. But these people had been so good to her! What else was
there left to do? She ended with a restrained dignity. She offered
neither sympathy nor reproaches. Fred had to concede that it was a
master stroke of implied martyrdom. He flung the letter into the
nearest wastebasket. He had an impulse to do the same thing with the
cigarettes, but the thought of Monet's pleasure in them restrained
him. He took the package to the dormitory. Monet had gone up before

Fred threw his burden on Monet's bed. The youth gave a low whistle of

"Pall Malls!" he cried, incredulously. "Where did you get them?"

"They came from my wife."

"Oh! ... Don't you want any of them?"


At the smoking hour Fred saw Monet take out his pitiful little bag of
cheap tobacco and roll the usual cigarette.

"What? ... Aren't you smoking Pall Malls?" he asked, with a shade of
banter in his voice.

Monet shook his head. "I don't want them, either... What shall we do?
Give them to the others?"

Fred stared through a sudden mist. "Why - yes. Just whatever you like."

That night, when everyone else was asleep, Fred Starratt told Felix
Monet his story...


One morning, at the beginning of the second week of Fred Starratt's
stay at Fairview, as he and Monet were swinging back to lunch after a
brisk walk, they received orders to fall in line with the inmates of
Ward 6.

"Things will be better now," Monet said, with his usual air of quiet

And so it proved.

Fred's first introduction was to the dining room. It was not an
extraordinary place, and yet Fred gave a little gasp as he entered it
and stood staring almost foolishly at the tables set with clean linen.
Three of its sides were made up almost entirely of windows, before
which the shades were drawn to shut out the hot noonday sun, and its
floor of polished hardwood glistened even in the subdued light. They
sat down in the first seats that came to hand, and it was not until
some cold meat was passed that Fred discovered a knife and fork at his
place. The meat was neither choice nor dainty, but somehow just the
fact of this knife and fork gave it extraordinary zest. Later on,
small pats of butter were circulated and a spoonful of sugar apiece
for the tea. And once again he listened to people talk while they ate
... heard a subdued, but sane, laugh or two... There was a smoking
room also, not overlarge, but adequate.

The inmates of Ward 6, from whom Fred had stood aloof, welcomed him
warmly. He was at a loss to know why until Monet explained.

"It's the cigarettes."

"Ah, then you distributed them here? I thought they went to the other
poor devils."

The youth turned a wistful glance toward him. "I knew you'd get over
to this place finally ... and I wanted them to like you..."

Fred fell silent over the implied rebuke.

The dormitories were large and light and airy and scrupulously clean,
but the usual institutional chill pervaded everything... Yet, for a
season, Fred Starratt found all discrimination smothered in his
reaction to normal sights and sounds. But, after a day or two, the
same human adaptability that had made him accept the life in Ward 1 as
a matter of course rose to the new environment and occasion. Presently
his critical faculty flooded back again - almost for the first time
since his arrest. And he knew instinctively that he was standing again
on surer ground. He began to wonder, for instance, just what the
commonwealth was doing for these human derelicts which it shed such
facile tears over... He knew, of course, what it had done in his case.
It had given him three indifferent meals, vaccinated him, put him
through a few stereotyped quizzes to assure itself that he was neither
insane nor criminal, and finally moved him on to a less trying but an
equally vacuous existence. He used to wonder just what tortures the
others had endured during that week of probation in Ward 1, which, in
nearly every case, so far as he could learn, included the experience
of the bull pen. For, after all, these other men were physically
shaken from excess - weak, spent, tremulous. He had been through mental
tortures, but, at least, his body and soul had had some fitness for
the strain upon him. How close did the winds of madness come to
snapping clean these empty reeds ... how many were broken utterly? He
asked Monet.

"Lots of them go under," Felix Monet had returned. "I think I came
very near it myself... I remember that first night I spent alone in
Ward One... I'd been three weeks without a drop of anything to drink.
Cut off, suddenly, like that!" He made a swift gesture. "And all at
once I found myself in a madhouse. I actually knocked my head against
the wall that night... And, in the morning, came the bull pen... They
knew I wasn't insane. My record - everything - proved that! ... When I
protested, their excuse was that everyone was equal here ... there
were no favorites. ... More lies in the name of equality! The thing
doesn't exist - it never has existed. Nothing is equal, and trying to
make it so produces hell. They're always trying to level ... level.
They want to strip you of everything but your flock mind. Ah yes,
timid sheep make easy herding!"

For the first time Fred Starratt saw Monet quivering with unleashed
conviction, and he glimpsed the hidden turbulence of spirit which
churned under the placid surface.

"After a while," Monet went on, "when I got almost to the snapping
point, they sent me to Ward Six. You know how it is - like a clear,
cold plunge ... it wakes you up... There's a method in it all. They
know that after a week in hell you find even purgatory desirable."

"And yet, once you got away, you traveled the same road that had
brought you here in the first place... Was the game worth the candle?"

"It was an escape while it lasted, even though it did lead me to
prison again... But isn't that where escape always leads? The world is
a good deal like Fairview - a rule-ridden institution on a larger
scale... We escape for a time in our work, in our play, in our loves,
but the tether's pretty short. ... And finally, one day, death swings
the door open and we go farther afield."

"To another institution with a little more garden space?" Fred
queried, pensively.

Monet shrugged. "Perhaps... Who knows?"

* * * * *

There followed another week of idleness, and one day, as Fred Starratt
was dawdling in the sun, Harrison came up to him and said:

"The head waiter in the dining room at Ward Six goes out to-morrow.
Would you like his job?"

"Like it?" Fred found himself echoing, incredulously. "Can I begin at
once ... now?"

Harrison chuckled with rare good nature. "Well, to-morrow, anyway.
Just report in the kitchen after breakfast."

He could hardly wait for the next morning to come. He bungled things
horribly at first. It looked easy enough from the side lines - bringing

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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 10 of 17)