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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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in the plates of steaming food, doling out sugar for the tea, passing
the dishpan about at the end of the meal for the inmates to yield up
their knives and forks. But after the first day Fred was swept with a
healing humility. It was necessary for even the humblest occupation to
be lighted with flickerings of skill.

He liked setting the table best, especially in the morning after the
breakfast crowd had gone. Then the sun was not yet too hot for comfort
and the long dining room was bathed in a golden mist. In a corner near
one of the windows a canary hopped blithely about its bobbing cage and
released its soul in a flood of song. He would begin by laying the
plates first, inverted, in long, precise rows. Then carefully he would
group the knives and forks about them. Not only carefully, but slowly,
so that the task might not be accomplished too readily. And all the
time his thoughts would be flying back and forth ... back and forth,
like a weaver's shuttle. At first these thoughts would pound harshly;
but gradually, under the spell of his busy hands, he would find his
mental process growing less and less painful, until he would wake up
suddenly and find that he had been day dreaming, escaping for a time
into a heaven of forgetfulness.

Toward the end of the month a crew was picked among the inmates of
Ward 6 to man a construction camp a few miles to the north where the
state was building a dam. Clancy was among the number, and Fordham and
Wainright, junior. Monet was offered the choice of assisting Fred
Starratt in the dining room or going out with the kitchen staff to
camp. He chose the dining-room job.

The only personal news from the outside world came to Fred in a weekly
letter from Helen, which arrived every Saturday night. He used to tear
the envelopes open viciously and read every word with cold disdain. He
never thought of answering one ... indeed, many a time he had an
impulse to send them back unopened. But curiosity always got the
better hand. Not that he found her news of such moment, but her
dissimulation fascinated him. She never chided him for not replying
... she never complained ... but every line was flavored with the
self-justification of all essential falseness. She was playing a game
with herself as completely as if she had written the letters and then
scribbled her own name upon the envelope. She was looking forward to
the day when she could say:

"I did my duty ... I helped start him in business ... I saved him from
jail ... I wrote him a letter every week, in spite of the fact that he
never answered me... What more would you have a woman do?"

What more, indeed? How completely he read her now! Yes, even between
the lines of her nonchalant gossipings he could glimpse her soul in
all its intricate completeness. Her letters were salt on his deadened
wound. Perhaps that was why he did not return them unopened. He felt
vaguely that it would be a shameful thing to be ultimately sealed to
indifference.

But one Saturday night two letters were put into his hand. He read the
strange one first.

I have not written you before because I had no news for you.
Yesterday I passed Hilmer's house and saw your wife wheeling
Mrs. Hilmer up and down the sidewalk. Some day when I get a
chance I shall speak to Mrs. Hilmer.

I am living in a lodging house on Turk Street. My name is
Sylvia Molineaux. You will find my address below. Write and
tell me what you want. And always remember that I am here
watching.

GINGER.




CHAPTER XV


Toward the middle of the following week Fred answered Ginger's letter.
But his phrases were guarded and his description of life at the
hospital full of studied distortion. He knew quite well that every
letter which left the institution was opened and censored, but, with
certain plans lying fallow in his brain, he had a method back of the
exaggerated contentment he pictured. He had a feeling that Ginger
would not be misled altogether. She knew the deceitful bravado of life
too well and, according to her own report, something of the existence
he was leading in the bargain. He found himself curiously willing to
take anything from her hand that was in her power to supply. He felt
no sense of awkwardness, no arrogant pride, no irritating obligation.
She had become for him one of the definite, though unexplainable,
facts of existence which he accepted with all the simplicity of a
child of misfortune.

She answered promptly, sending cigarettes and tobacco and a pipe. But
her letter was devoid of news - -except that she had passed Hilmer's
again and found Helen wheeling Mrs. Hilmer back and forth in the
sunshine at the appointed hour. But, as time wore on, it transpired
that this seemingly innocent passing and repassing of the Hilmer house
carried unmistakable point. Presently, to Mrs. Hilmer, basking in the
sun and deserted for a moment, Ginger had nodded a brief good-morning.
There followed other opportunities for even more prolonged greetings
until the moment when Ginger had boldly carried on a short
conversation in the coldly calm presence of Helen Starratt. Helen must
have known Ginger. It was inconceivable that any woman, under the
circumstances, could have forgotten. But either indecision or a veiled
purpose made her assume indifference, and Ginger's progress was
registered in a short sentence at the end of a brief scrawl which
said:

To-day I took a book out and read to Mrs. Hilmer for an hour
in the sunshine.

And later another statement forwarded this curious drama with pregnant
swiftness:

Yesterday, I told Mrs. Hilmer about you.

Fred read this sentence over and over again. To what purpose did
Ginger discuss him with Mrs. Hilmer? ... Surely not altogether in the
name of entertainment.

Meanwhile, summer died, hot and palpitant and arid to the end. And
autumn came gently with cool, foggy mornings and days of sunshine
mellowed like old gold. Fred Starratt rose in rapid succession to the
position of pantryman, head waiter to the attendants, assistant
bookkeeper in the office. He was given more and more freedom. Indeed,
between the working intervals, undisturbed by even a formal
surveillance, he and Monet fell to taking walks far afield. He found
the shorter days more tolerable. With dusk coming on rapidly, it was
easier to accept the inflexible rule that required everyone to be in
bed and locked up by seven o'clock.

New faces made their appearance in Ward 6, old ones vanished. Clancy
made a get-away sometime in September just before the construction
camp broke up. Fordham tried also, but was unsuccessful, and got a
month in the bull pen for his pains. These adventures stirred everyone
to vague restlessness. Fred began to speculate on chances, talking
them over with Monet. But the boy seemed listless and depressed,
without enthusiasm for anything. He brooded a great deal apart.
Finally one day Fred asked him what was troubling him.

"I miss my music," he said, briefly.

Fred prodded further. His need was, of course, for a violin.

"We'll write Ginger," Fred decided at once.

It had seemed quite a matter of course until he sat down with pen in
hand and then he had a feeling that this last demand was excessive. He
fancied she would achieve it someway, and he was not mistaken. The
violin came and, everything considered, it was not a bad one. Monet's
joy was pathetic. Fred wrote back their thanks. "How did you manage
it?" he asked.

Her reply was brief and significant: "You forget I know all kinds of
people."

From the moment the violin arrived Monet was a changed man. Suddenly
he became full of nervous reactions to everything about him. He lost
all his sluggish indifference, he talked of flight now with
fascinating ardor.

"When shall it be? Let us get out quickly. We can make our way easily
with this!" he would cry, tapping the violin lovingly. "While I play
on street corners you can collect the dimes and nickels."

Monet had meant to be absurd, of course, but Fred was finding nothing
absurd or impossible these days. The youth's laughing suggestions
flamed him with a sudden yearning for vagabondage. He wanted, himself,
to be up and off. But by this time October was upon them, ushered in
by extraordinary rainfall. The coming rain gave him pause. He used to
look searchingly at Monet's delicate face, and finally one day, in
answer to the oft-repeated question, Fred replied:

"I think we'll have to stand it until spring... If we want to go east,
over the mountains - this is no time."

They had often speculated as to a route. Most runaways took the road
toward the coast and achieved capture even in the face of comparative
indifference. The trails to the east led into the heart of the Sierra
Nevada Mountains. With the first breath of autumn these byways,
difficult of achievement in any case, became more and more impassable.
And, while flight toward the west might be successful, it was too
charged with a suggestion of failure to be tempting.

"We don't just want to _attempt_ to escape," Starratt used to explain.
"We want to _do_ it!"

"But, spring!" Monet would echo. "That means May at the earliest. The
mountain passes will be impossible even in April. Let's try!"

"Come, come! Why this sudden restlessness? I thought your music would
be a solace. But it seems to have made you dissatisfied. I can't
understand it."

"We live by desire! I am happy only when I am burning! When the flame
is out there are only ashes."

Fred yielded finally to the extent of starting plans. Food was the
first consideration. Monet was still in the dining room at Ward 6.
About the first of November he began hoarding sugar and rice. A hollow
tree in an obscure corner of the grounds back of the barns was the
hiding place. Everyday a little more was added to the store. The
process communicated a feeling of extraordinary interest to them both.
Around this almost trivial circumstance whirled the shadows of
infinite romance. Escape! At last these two men had a goal ... they
were no longer drifting.

Once a week Fred continued to receive two letters - one from his wife
and one from Ginger. It was curious to compare them - reading an
ironical comedy between the lines ... creating the scenes that were
being enacted by the triangle of women in front of the Hilmer dwelling
every day in the early morning sunshine. For, as time went on, it
appeared that Ginger walked through her inscrutable part with
irritating fidelity - that is, irritating to Helen Starratt. It could
not be otherwise, Fred decided, remembering the look of cool contempt
which his wife had thrown at Ginger's departing figure on the day of
their last interview. He saw Mrs. Hilmer only vaguely, in a
half-light, and yet out of the fragmentary sentences he got a sense of
something patient and brooding and terrible waiting an appointed
season. She seemed to be sitting back like some veiled and mystic
chorus, watching the duel of the other two and somehow shaping it to
her passive purpose.

And where was Hilmer in it all? Somehow, in spite of his masculine
virility, he seemed to have no place nor footing upon the narrow ledge
of feminine subtleties. No doubt, as usual, he was proceeding in his
direct and complacent line, unaware of anything save the brutally
obvious... Perhaps only the brutally obvious had any existence,
perhaps Fred Starratt was spinning fantasies out of threads which came
to his hand. He did not know, he could not say, but in the still
watches of the night the figures of these three women circled round
and round the seething caldron of the future like skinny witches upon
a blasted heath.

Meanwhile, rain succeeded rain. Fred Starratt knew that escape was
impossible under these conditions, but he let Monet chatter away and
continue his hoarding. Thus they passed Thanksgiving, and suddenly
Fred felt that Christmas would soon be upon them, with all its
heartbreaking melancholy.

As Christmas drew near a bitter restlessness began to pervade Ward 6.
The rain fell in torrents for days. There was little chance for fresh
air or exercise except in the bull pen, which was provided with a shed
that ran the length of the wall. Into this dismal and jail-like yard
poured the entire human wreckage of Fairview. Fred and Monet went with
the others for one or two days, but finally Monet said:

"Let's walk in the rain ... anything would be better than this."

And so the next day, waiting until a pelting shower had merged
gradually into a faint mist, the two took a quick-step run about the
parade ground. They came back splashed with mud and dripping wet, but
their cheeks glowed and their hearts beat quickly. After that, no
matter how violent the downpour, they managed to take a turn in the
open. Sometimes they circled the grounds repeatedly. Again, if the
rain proved too drenching, one short run was all they could achieve.

At the end of a week of such heroic exercising Monet said,
significantly:

"You see how well I am standing this! Every day toughens us up... We
ought to be leaving soon."

"After Christmas," Fred conceded, briefly.

There followed a brief respite of clear, crisp days, warming to
mellowness at noon. After the midday meal everyone crawled out into
the sunlight, standing in little shivering groups, while Monet played
upon his violin. The cracked inventor, pulling his cardboard box on
its ridiculous spools, stopped to listen; Weeping Willow forgot his
grief and almost achieved a smile. Only the Emperor of Japan continued
his pacing back and forth, his royal gloom untouched by any responsive
chord.

But the reaction from this sedative of music was in every case
violent. The remainder of the afternoon passed in tragic unquiet. One
day Harrison called Fred aside. The assistant superintendent was daily
yielding more and more to Fred's judgment.

"What do you think about a Christmas tree for Ward Six?"

For a moment Fred was uncertain. He knew the poignance of disturbing
memories. But, in the end, he felt that perhaps the floodgate of grief
had best be lifted. He knew by this time the cleansing solace of
tears.

"We've never done it before," Harrison went on.

"There has been a prejudice against bringing old days back too clearly
to these wretches... But Monet's been playing his music and they seem
to like that."

It ended by Fred going out with Monet and one of the attendants into
the hills and bringing back a beautiful fir tree. They set it up in a
corner of the dining room and its bruised fragrance filled the entire
building... There followed the problem of its trimming. At first some
one suggested that it was more beautiful untricked with gauds, but to
Fred, unlighted by any human touch its loveliness seemed too cold and
impersonal and cruelly pagan. Presently the long afternoons were
rilled with a pathetic bustle. Everyone became interested. They popped
corn and strung it in snow-white garlands and some one from the
kitchen sent in a bowl of cranberries which were woven into a
blood-red necklace for the central branches. Harrison brought round a
sack of walnuts and some liquid gilt and two brushes. Men began to
quarrel good-naturedly for a chance at the gilding. A woman attendant,
hearing about the tree, rode, herself, into the village and bought
candles... Finally it was finished, and it stood in the early twilight
of a dripping Christmas Eve, a fantastic captive from the hills,
suffering its severe dignity to be melted in a cheap, but human,
splendor... They had a late dinner by way of marking the event, and
the usual turn of keys in the locks at seven o'clock was missing. At
the close of the meal as they were bringing on plum pudding Fred rose
from his place to light the candles... A little tremor ran through the
room; Monet started to play... He played all the heartbreaking
melodies - "No√Ђl" and "Nazareth" and "Adeste Fideles." Slowly the tears
began to trickle, but they fell silently, welling up from mysterious
reaches too deep for shallow murmurings. Suddenly a thin, quavering
voice started a song.

"God rest you, merry gentlemen!"

The first line rang out in all its tremulous bravery.

"_Merry_ gentlemen!" flashed through Fred's mind. "What mockery!"

But a swelling chorus took it up and in the next instant they were men
again. They sang it all - every word to the last line ... repeating
each stanza after the little man who had begun it and who had risen
and taken his place beside Monet.

"Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace,
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface."

Only Fred remained silent. He could not sing,
the bravery of it all smote him too deeply.

"This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface."

They were singing the last words over again.

Fred Starratt bowed his head. For the first and only time in his life
he felt Christ very near. But the Presence passed as quickly. When he
looked up the singing had ceased and the candles upon the tree were
guttering to a pallid end. Monet laid down his violin and blew out the
dying flames; his face was ashen and as he grasped the branches of the
tree his hand shook. A man in front rose to his feet. Flockwise the
others followed his lead. Christmas was over!... Fred Starratt had a
sense that it had died still-born.

The next morning came wrapped in a dreadful silence. Men stood about
in huddling groups and whispered. The exaltation of the night before
had been too violent. A great dreariness oppressed Fred Starratt. He
felt the inevitable sadness of a man who had met unveiled Beauty face
to face and as speedily found the vision dissolved. The tree still
swept the rooms and corridors with its fragrance, but in the harsh
daylight its cheap trappings gave it a wanton look. Somehow, it mocked
him, filled him with a sense of the vanity of life and all its
fleeting impressions. The rain came down in a tremulous flood,
investing everything with its colorless tears. The trees, the
buildings, the very earth itself seemed to be melting away in
silvery-gray grief.

Just before noon it lightened up a trifle and the rain stopped.

"Let's get out of this!" Monet said, sweeping the frozen assembly in
the smoking room with an almost scornful glance.

They found their hats and without further ado they started on a swing
about the grounds. It grew lighter and lighter ... it seemed for a
moment as if the sun would presently peep out from the clouds. They
achieved the full length of the parade ground and stopped, panting for
breath. Fred wiped his forehead with a huge handkerchief.

"Shall we keep going?" he asked.

Monet nodded. They swung into a wolfish trot again, across a stretch
of green turf, avoiding the clogging mud of the beaten trails. They
said nothing. Presently their rhythmic flight settled down to a
pleasurable monotony. They lost all sense of time and space.

Gradually their speed slackened, and they were conscious that they
were winding up ... up... It was Monet who halted first. They were on
a flat surface again, coming out of a thicket suddenly. There was a
level sweep of ground, ending abruptly in space.

"We're on Squaw Rock!" Fred Starratt exclaimed.

The two went forward to the edge of a precipice. The embryo plain
leaped violently down a sheer three hundred feet directly into the lap
of a foaming river pool. Fred peered over.

"There's the usual Indian legend, isn't there," he asked Monet,
"connected with this place?"

Monet moved back with a little shudder. "Yes ... I believe there is...
The inevitable lovelorn maiden and the leap to death... Well, it's a
good plunging place."

They both fell back a trifle, letting their gaze sweep the landscape
below, which was unfolding in theatrical unreality. At that moment the
sun came out, flooding the countryside with a flash of truant
splendor. To the south nestled the cluster of hospital buildings, each
sending out thin gray lines of smoke. Moving up the valley, hugging
the sinuous banks of the river, a train nosed its impudent way.

"When shall we be leaving for good?" Monet asked, suddenly.

Fred let out a deep breath. "The first time it really clears!"

Monet rested his hand upon Fred's shoulder. "If we go east we'll have
to cross the river."

"We'll follow the railroad track north for a mile or two. There's a
crossing near Pritchard's. I saw it on the day we went after the
tree."

The train pulled into the station and was whistling on its way again.
The hospital automobile swung toward the grounds. Suddenly the sun was
snuffed out again; it grew dark and lowering.

"We had better be on our way," Fred said, warningly. "It's going to
pour in less than no time."

For a moment a silence fell between them, succeeded by an outburst
from Monet.

"Let's keep on!" he cried, harshly. "Let's keep right on going! I
don't want to go back. I won't, I tell you! I won't!"

Fred took him by the shoulders ... he was trembling violently. "Come
... come! We can't do that, you know!... We haven't provisions or
proper clothing. And the rain, my boy! We'd die of exposure ... or ...
worse!"

"I don't care!" Monet flung out, passionately. "I'm not afraid to die
... not in the open."

"And you haven't your violin," Fred put in, gently.

"I never want to play again - after last night. ... It was horrible ...
horrible... '_God rest you, merry gentlemen_!' What could have
possessed them?"

"Come, now!... You'll feel better to-morrow... And I promise you on
the first clear day we'll make it... The first morning we wake up and
find a cloudless sky."

Fred moved forward, urging Monet to follow. The youth gave a little
shiver and suffered Fred's guidance.

"If I go back now," he said, sadly, "it will be forever. I shall never
leave."

Fred turned about and gave him a slight shake. "Nonsense! Last night
made you morbid. Harrison ought to have known better. This is no place
for Christmas! One day should be always like another."

Monet shook his head. "While they were sing ... something passed ... I
can't describe it. But I grew cold all over ... I knew at once that...
Oh, well! what's the use? You do not understand!"

He flung his hands up in a gesture of despair.

Fred looked up at the sky. It had grown ominously black. "We'd better
speed up," he said, significantly.

Monet squared himself doggedly. "You run if you want to... It doesn't
matter to me one way or another ... I feel tired."

The rain began to fall in great garrulous drops. Fred took Monet's
sleeve between his fingers; slowly they retraced their steps. For a
few yards the youth surrendered passively, but as Fred neared the
thicket again he felt the sharp release of Monet's coat sleeve. He
continued on his way... Suddenly he heard a noise of swift feet
stirring up the rain-soaked leaves. He turned abruptly. Monet was
running in the other direction - toward the precipice. A dreadful chill
swept him. He tried to call, to run, but a great weakness transfixed
him. The startled air made a foolish whistling sound. Monet's figure
flew on in silence, gave a quick leaping movement, and was lost!

Fred Starratt crawled back toward the precipice. The rain descended in
torrents and a wind rose to meet its violence. He looked down. The
pool below was churning to whitecapped fury, releasing a flood of
greedy and ferocious gurglings. Gradually a bitter silence fell and a
gloom gathered. Everything went black as midnight...

He felt a cold blast playing through his hair. Instinctively he put
his hand to his head. His hat was gone.

Suddenly it came to him that he would have to go back to Fairview ...
_alone_.

He rose to his feet. "North ... a mile or two!" he muttered. "If I can
once cross the bridge!"




CHAPTER XVI


On a certain evening in February Fred Starratt, from the upper deck of
a ferryboat, again saw the dusky outlines of San Francisco stretch
themselves in faint allurement pricked with glittering splendor. It
was a mild night - the skies clear, the air tinged with pleasant chill,
the bay stilled to nocturnal quiet.

He had come out upon the upper deck to be alone. He wanted to approach
the city of his birth in decent solitude, to feel the thrill of
home-coming in all its poignant melancholy. He had expected the event
to assume a special significance, to be fraught with hidden meaning,
to set his pulses leaping. But he had to confess that neither the
beauty of the night nor the uncommon quality of the event moved him.
Had he been wrung dry of all emotional reaction? It was not until a


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 11 of 17)