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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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woman came from the stuffy cabin and took a seat in a sheltered corner
outside that he had the slightest realization of the nearness of his
old environment. As she passed close to his pacing form a sickly sweet
odor enveloped him. He looked after her retreating figure. She was
carrying a yellow armful of blossoming acacia. The perfume evoked a
sad memory of virginal springs innumerable ... springs that seemed to
go back wistfully beyond his own existence ... springs long dead and
never to be revived. Dead? No, perhaps not quite that, but springs
never to be again his portion. This perfume of the blossoming acacia
... how in the old days it had always brought home a sense of
awakening, a sense of renewal to a land burned and seared and ravished
in the hot and tearless passion of summer! Following the first rains
would come the faint flush of green upon the hillsides, growing a
little deeper as the healing floods released themselves, and then, one
day, suddenly, almost overnight, the acacia would bend beneath a
yellow burden, sending a swooning fragrance out to match the yellow
sunlight of February. From that moment on the pageant was continuous,
bud and blossom and virginal leaf succeeding one another in showering
abundance. But nothing that followed quite matched the heavy beauty of
these first golden boughs, nothing that could evoke quite the same
infinite yearning for hidden and heroic destinies. He defined the
spell of the perfume again, but he did not feel it. It shook his
memory to its foundations, but it left his senses cold. And the city
before him was as sharply revealed and as cruelly unmoving.

Suddenly he was done with a desire for solitude and he went below. A
half score of men were idling upon the lower deck. He began his
restless pacings again, stroking his faded beard with a strangely
white hand. Finally he stopped, gazing wistfully at the dark beauty of
the ferry tower, sending its winsome shaft up into the quivering
night. A man at his elbow began to speak in the characteristically
Californian fashion about the weather.

"Yes," Fred assented, briefly, "it _is_ a fine night."

"Too fine," the stranger returned. "We need rain."

"Haven't you had much down this way, either?" Fred found himself
inquiring, glad of a chance to escape for the moment into the
commonplace.

"At the beginning of the season it came on a bit, but since Christmas
there has been scarcely a drop. How does the country look?"

Fred leaned against a water barrel and continued to stroke his beard.

"Pretty well burned up. But the fruit trees will soon be blossoming in
spite of everything... The worst of it is there isn't any snow in the
mountains."

"Ah, then you've been up into the Sierras."

"Yes, since December... I had to make my way through the northern
passes just after Christmas. Folks told me it couldn't be done... I
guess it would have been almost impossible in a wet season. But things
were the same way up north. No end of rain in the fall and none to
speak of since the holidays. But at that I've been through some tough
times... How are things in town?"

The stranger unbuttoned his shabby overcoat and took out a bag of
tobacco. His indifferent suit and thick blue-flannel shirt, which
ordinarily would have stamped him as an artisan, was belied by the
quality of his speech.

"Things are rotten. Everybody is striking. You can't get work anywhere
except you want to scab... You'd better have stayed where you came
from."

There was a tentative quality in this observation that roused in Fred
a vague speculation. He had a feeling that the stranger was leading up
cautiously to some subject. He looked again, this time sharply, at his
companion of the moment. There was nothing extraordinary in the face
except the eyes burning fitfully under the gloom of incredibly thick,
coarse, reddish eyebrows. His mouth was a curious mixture of softness
and cruelty, and his hands were broad, but not ungraceful.

"Well, if a man is starving he'll do almost anything, I guess," Fred
returned, significantly.

"Do you mean that _you_ would - if you were starving?"

"I'm starving now!" escaped Fred Starratt, almost involuntarily.

"I thought so," said the other, quietly.

"Why?"

"I've seen plenty of starving men in my day. I know the look. And
you're suffering in the bargain. Not physically. But you've been
through a hell of some kind. Am I right?"

"Yes ... you're quite right."

The boat was swinging into the slip. Already a crowd was moving down
upon them.

"That's why I spoke to you. A man who's been through hell is like a
field freshly broken to the plow. He's ready for seed."

Fred cast an ironical glance at the man before him. "And you, I
suppose, are the sower," he said, mockingly. "A parson?"

The other laughed, disclosing greenish teeth. "Of a sort... Perhaps
high priest would be nearer the truth. There's a certain purposeful
cruelty about that term which appeals to me. I'm a bit of a fanatic,
you know... But I like to get my recruits when they're bleeding raw. I
like them when the salt of truth can sting deep... Wounds heal so
quickly ... so disgustingly quickly."

He spat contemptuously and began to cram a blackened pipe to
overflowing. The boat had landed and already the crowd was moving up
the apron. Fred and his companion felt themselves urged forward by the
pressure of this human tide.

"Come and have some coffee with me," Fred heard the man at his side
say in a half-commanding tone. "My name is Storch. What shall I call
you?"

"Anything you like!" Fred snapped, viciously.

The other laughed. "You're in capital form! Upon my word we'll get on
famously together." And he spat again, this time with satisfaction and
rare good humor.

Fred Starratt looked up. They had emerged suddenly from the uncertain
twilight of a stone-flanked corridor into a harsh blue-white flood of
electricity. A confused babble of noises fell upon his ears. He put
out his hand instinctively and clutched the arm of the man at his
side.

"Yes ... yes..." the voice of his companion broke in, reassuringly.
"You're all right. In a moment ... after you've had coffee things
will..."

He clutched again and presently, like a drowning man borne upon the
waves by a superior force, he felt himself guided through a maze of
confusing details, into swift and certain safety.

* * * * *

The coffee house into which Fred Starratt had been led by Storch was
choked with men and the thick odor of coffee and fried ham. To a man
who had eaten sparingly for days the smell of food was nauseating.
Storch ordered coffee for himself and a bowl of soup for Fred. This
last was a good choice in spite of the fact that for a moment Fred
felt instinctive rebellion. These pale, watery messes were too
suggestive of Fairview. But in the end the warm fluid dissipated his
weakness and he began to experience a normal hunger.

Storch finished his cup of coffee and wiped a dark-brown ooze from his
upper lip with a paper napkin.

"Better take a slice of bread or two," he advised Fred, "and then call
it quits. You'll feel better in the long run. A starved stomach
shouldn't be surprised with too much food."

Fred obeyed. He could see that this man understood many things.

Gradually the crowd thinned. Soon only Fred and Storch were left at
the particular table that they had chosen. Stragglers came and went,
but still Storch made no move to go, and Fred was equally inactive. He
felt warm and comfortably drowsy and, on the whole, quite content. The
waiter cleared away the empty dishes and then discreetly ignored them.
Fred fell to studying his reflection in the polished mirror running
the length of the room. He had to acknowledge that he looked savage,
with his hair long and untidy and a bristling, sunburnt beard
smothering his features. And suddenly, in the intensity of his
concentration, he felt a swooning sense of nonexistence, as if his
inner consciousness had detached itself someway from the egotism of
the flesh and stood apart, watching... He was recalled by Storch's
voice. He shuddered slightly and turned his face toward his
questioner.

"I didn't hear what you said," escaped him.

Storch leaned forward. "I was asking what you were doing ... up north
in the mountains during December. Only a desperate man or a fool would
take a chance like that... And I can see you're not a fool... There
aren't any prisons up that way that I know of."

"_Prisons_! What do you mean?"

"You've escaped from somewhere."

"How do you know?"

"You're still furtive in spite of your pretended calm. I know the
look. I know the feeling. I've seen scores of men who have been
through the mill. I've been through the mill myself. Not once, but
several times. I've been in nearly every jail in the country worth
putting up at... Even the Federal prisons haven't been proof against
me. I've beat them all. It's a game I like to play. Just as one man
plunges into stocks, or another breaks strikes, or another leads a
howling mob to victory... Every man has his game. What's yours?"

Fred shrugged. "Why are you telling me all this?" he countered. "You
don't know me."

Storch laughed, showing his greenish teeth again. "What difference
does that make?... I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I think
I've got you right. You might play a rough game, but it would be
square - according to your standards... I question most standards, but
that is neither here nor there. They shackle some people
extraordinarily. Just now you're drifting about without any. But
you'll tie to some sort of anchor pretty soon... That's why you
interest me. I want to get you while you're still drifting."

Fred felt a sudden chill. He was suspicious of this ironically genial
man opposite him who bought him food and then prodded for his secret.
There was something diabolical about the way he calmly admitted an
impersonal but curiously definite interest.

"What is your business, anyway?" Fred shot out, suddenly.

"I'm a fisher for men," he replied, cryptically. "Some people build up
... others destroy. There must be always those who clear the
ground - the wreckers, in other words... There's too much attention
paid to building. Folks are in such a hurry they go about rearing all
kinds of crazy structures on rotten foundations... I'm looking for
some human dynamite to make a good job."

Fred drew back. "You've got me wrong," he said. "I'm not a radical."

"Not yet, of course. Your kind take a lot of punishment before they
see the light. But you're a good prospect - a damned good prospect.
You're a good deal like a young fellow I met last fall when I was
working over in the shipyards in Oakland. He - "

"Shipyards?" interrupted Fred. "Not Hilmer's shipyards, by any
chance?"

Storch leaned forward, drawing his shaggy eyebrows together. "Why?"

"I know Hilmer, that's all."

Storch continued his searching scrutiny. Fred felt uneasy - it seemed
as if this man opposite him was drawing the innermost secret of his
soul to the surface. Finally Storch rubbed his hands together with an
air of satisfaction as he said:

"So you know Hilmer!... That makes you all the more interesting...
Well, well, let's be moving. I'll put you up for the night. I've got a
shelter, such as it is."

Fred rose. He had an impulse to refuse. There was something uncanny
about the power of Storch. He was at once fascinating and repulsive.
But, on second thought, any shelter was better than a night spent on
the streets. He had had two months of buffeting and he was ready for
even an indifferent comfort.

He ended by going with his new-found friend. They trotted south along
the Embarcadero, hugging the shadows close. This street, once noisy
with a coarse, guzzling gayety, was silent. A few disconsolate men
hung about the emasculated bars trying to rouse their sluggish spirits
on colicky draughts of near beer and grape juice, but the effect was
dismal and forbidding. Fred felt a great depression overwhelm him.

He had grown accustomed to the silence of the open spaces, but this
silence of the city had a portentous quality which frightened him. It
reminded him of that ominous quiet that had settled down on Fairview
after that heartbreaking celebration on Christmas Eve. What were men
doing with their idle moments? How were they escaping from the drab
to-day? Did the crowded lobbies of the sailors' lodging houses spell
the final word in the bleak entertainment that intolerance had left
them? Upon one of the street corners a Salvation Army lassie harangued
an indifferent handful. But there seemed nothing now from which to
save these men except monotony, and religion of the fife-and-drum
order was offering only a very dreary escape. Did the moral values of
negative virtue make men any more admirable? he found himself
wondering.

Storch led the way in silence. Finally they turned up toward the
slopes of Rincon Hill. A cluster of shacks, clinging crazily to the
tawny banks, loomed ahead in the darkness. Storch clambered along a
beaten trail and presently he leaped toward the broader confines of a
street which opened its arms abruptly to receive them. Fred followed.
The thoroughfare upon which he found himself standing was little more
than a lane, hedged on either side by crazy structures that nearly all
had sprung to rambling life from one-roomed refugee shacks which had
dotted the city after the fire and earthquake. Most of them were vine
clad and brightened with beds of scarlet geraniums, but the house
before which Storch halted rose uncompromisingly from the sun-baked
ground without the charity of a covering. Storch turned the key and
threw the door open, motioning Fred to enter. Fred did as he was
bidden and found himself in a cluttered room, showing harshly in the
light streaming in from a near-by street lamp. The air was foul with
stale tobacco, refuse, and imprisoned odors of innumerable greasy
meals and the sweaty apparel of men who work with their hands.

Storch lighted a lamp. A tumble-down couch stood against the wall, and
in an opposite corner a heap of tattered quilts had been flung
disdainfully. Tables and chairs and even the floor were piled with
papers and cheaply covered books and tattered magazines.

Storch pointed to the couch. "You sleep there to-night. I'll roll up
on the floor."

It never occurred to Fred to protest. The two began to shed their
outer garments. Fred crawled in between the musty quilts. Storch blew
out the lamp, and Fred saw him move toward the quilts in the corner.
Without bothering to straighten them out he flung himself down and
pulled a covering over him. The light from the street lamp continued
to flood the room. Presently Fred heard Storch chuckling.

"So you know Hilmer!" he was repeating again, making a sound of
satisfaction, as one does over a succulent morsel. "Well ... well ...
fancy how things turn out!"

Fred made no reply, and after a time a gentle snoring told that Storch
had fallen asleep.

Fred tossed about, oppressed by the close air. But, in the end, even
he fell into a series of fitful dozes. He dreamed the room in which he
was sleeping was suddenly transformed into a huge spider web from
which there was no escape. And he caught glimpses of Storch himself
hanging spider-wise from a gossamer thread, spinning dizzily in
midair... He awoke repeatedly, returning as often to the same dream.
Toward morning he heard a faint stirring about. But he lay huddled in
a pretense of sleep... Finally the door banged and he knew that Storch
had left... He let out a profound sigh and turned his face from the
light...




CHAPTER XVII


When Fred Starratt awoke a noonday sun was flooding in at the single
window. Consciousness brought no confusion ... he was beginning to
grow accustomed to sudden shifts in fortune and strange environments
had long since ceased to be a waking novelty. Outside he could hear
the genial noises of a thickly populated lane - shrilly cried bits of
neighborhood gossip bandied from doorstep to doorstep ... the laughter
of children ... the call of a junkman ... even a smothered cackling
from some captive hen fulfilling its joyful function in spite of
restraint. He did not rise at once, but he lay there thinking, trying
to force the realization that he was again in San Francisco... He
wondered dimly at the power of the homing instinct that had driven him
back. It was plain to him now that almost any other environment would
have been materially better. He had had the whole state of California
to choose from, indeed he might have flown even farther afield. But
from the very beginning his feet had turned homeward with uncanny
precision. On those first days and nights when he had lain huddled in
any uncertain shelter that came to hand the one thought that had
goaded him on was the promise of this return.

And those first hours of freedom had been at once the sweetest and the
bitterest. Wet to the skin, starved, furtive, like a lean, dog-harried
coyote he had achieved the mountains and safety more dead than alive.
Looking back, he could see that only the sheerest madness had tempted
him to flight in the first place. Without an ounce of provisions,
without blankets, at the start lacking even a hat, he had defied the
elements and won. God was indeed tender with all fools and madmen!

He knew now that under ordinary circumstances he must have perished in
the mountain passes. But the weather had been warm there all during
December and more rain than snow had fallen, keeping the beaten paths
reasonably open... He had thought always of these snow-pent places as
quite devoid of any life at the winter season, and he was amazed to
find how many human beings burrowed in and hibernated during the
storm-bound months. Elsewhere, the skulking traveler received a chary
welcome, but in the silent fastness of the hills latchstring and
hearthstone and tobacco store were for genial sharing. In almost any
one of these log shelters that he chanced upon he might have settled
himself in content and found an indefinite welcome, but the urge to be
up and on sent him forward to the next rude threshold. Thus mountain
cabin succeeded mountain cabin until, presently, one day Fred Starratt
found himself swinging down to the plains again - to the broad-bosomed
valleys lying parched and expectant under the cruel spell of drought.
Now people regarded him suspiciously, dogs snapped at his heels, and
farmers' women thrust him doles of food through half-opened kitchen
doors. Here and there he picked up a stray job or two. But he was
plainly inefficient for most tasks assigned him... In the small towns
there were not enough jobs to go round ... young men were returning
from overseas and dislodging the incompetents who had achieved
prosperity because of the labor shortage. The inland cities were in
the grip of strikes ... there were plenty of jobs, but few with the
temerity to attempt to fill them. And, besides, what had Fred Starratt
to offer in the way either of skill or brawn?... He grew to know the
meaning of impotence. No, he was a creature of the paved streets, and
to the paved streets he returned as swiftly as his feet and his
indifferent fortune could carry him. Besides, he had grown hungry for
familiar sights and faces, and perhaps, down deep, curiosity had been
the mainspring of his return. Even bitter ties have a pull that cannot
always be denied. At Fairview the presence of Monet had held him
almost a willing captive. There was something about the flame burning
in that almost frail body that had lighted even the ugliness of
Fairview with a strange beauty. He could not think of him as dead.
That last moment had been too tinged with the haunting poetry of life.
How often he had reconstructed that scene - the gray, sullen rain
pattering on the spent leaves, the quick-rushing sound of a body in
flight, the sudden leap of a soul toward greater freedom! And then the
vision of the churning pool below closing in triumphantly as it might
have done upon some reclaimed pagan creature that had tasted the
bitter wine of exile and returned in leaping joy to its chosen
element! It was not the shock and sadness of death that had sent Fred
Starratt for a moment stark mad into the storm and freedom, but rather
an ecstasy of loneliness ... a yearning to match daring with daring.

And now he was home again, in his own gray-green city, lying beneath
tattered quilts in a hovel, with the selfsame February sun that had
once pricked him to a spiritual adventure flooding in upon him! He
rose and threw open the door. The soft noontide air floated in,
displacing the fetid atmosphere. He looked about the room searchingly.
In the daylight it seemed even more unkempt, but less forbidding. A
two-burner kerosene stove stood upon an empty box just under the
window. On another upturned box at its side lay a few odds and ends of
cooking utensils, shriveling bits of food, a plate or two. He found a
loaf of dry bread and cut a slice from it. This, together with a glass
of water, completed his breakfast.

He tried to brush his weather-beaten clothes into decency with a stump
of a whisk broom and to wipe the dust of the highroad from his almost
spent shoes. But, somehow, these feeble attempts at gentility seemed
to increase his forlorn appearance.

He went over and straightened out the bedcoverings. At least he would
leave the couch in some semblance of order. What did Storch expect him
to do? Come back again for shelter? He had no plans, but as he went
out, banging the door, he felt no wish to return.

His first thought now was to see Ginger. He went to the Turk Street
address. He found a huge frame mansion of the 'eighties converted into
cheap lodgings. The landlady, wearing large jet and gold ornaments,
eyed him suspiciously. Miss Molineaux no longer lived there. Her
present address? She had left none. Thus dismissed, he turned his
steps toward the Hilmers'.

He had expected to come upon the vision of his wife wheeling Mrs.
Hilmer up and down the sidewalk, and yet, when these expectations were
realized, he experienced a shock. There she was, Helen Starratt, in a
black dress and a black hat, pacing with drab patience the full length
of the block and back again. He could not get a good view of her face
because her hat shaded her eyes. Mrs. Hilmer's figure, equally
indistinct, was a shapeless mass of humanity. A child, coming out of a
nearby house with a pair of roller skates in her hand, stood off and
answered his questions, at first reluctantly, but finally with the
importance of encouraged childhood... Who was the lady in the wheeled
chair? Mrs. Hilmer. And the other one in black? Her name was Starratt.
No, she didn't know her very well. But people said she was very sad.
She dressed in black and looked unhappy. Why? Because her husband was
dead. No, there was no mistake - she had heard her mother say so many
times - Mrs. Starratt's husband was dead, quite dead!...

He turned back toward town. _Dead, quite dead_! Well, the child had
reckoned better than she knew!

He retraced his steps slowly, resting upon many hospitable doorsteps
that afternoon. The noise of the city confused him, the stone
pavements hurt his ankles, he was hungry and faint. He did not know
what to do or where to go. Only one shelter lay open to him. Should he
go back to Storch?

Finally, toward five o'clock, he found himself standing upon the
corner of California and Montgomery streets, watching the tide of
office workers flooding homeward. A truant animation was flaming them
briefly. Familiar face after familiar face passed, lighted with the
joy of sudden release from servitude. Fred Starratt was curiously
unmoved. He had fancied that he would feel a great yearning toward all
this well-ordered sanity. He had fancied that he would be overwhelmed
with memories, with regrets, with futile tears. But he knew now that
even if it were possible to re-enter the world in which he had once
moved he would refuse scornfully. Was it always so with those who
achieved death? Ah yes, death was the great progression, one never
re-entered the circle of life one quitted. Dead, quite dead! Or, as
Storch put it, "A field freshly broken to the plow!" A field awaiting
the eternal upspringing and the inevitable harvest... And so on, again
and again, to the end of time!

He came out of his musings with a renewed sense of faintness and the
realization that the street was rapidly being emptied of its throng. A
few stragglers hurried toward the ferry. He roused himself. A
green-gold light was enlivening the west and giving a ghostly


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 12 of 17)