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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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unreality to the street lamps twinkling in a premature blossoming.

He was turning to go when he saw a familiar figure coming up the
street. He looked twice to assure himself that he was not mistaken. It
was Brauer!

He stood a moment longer, roused to indifferent curiosity, but, as
Brauer brushed close, a sudden malevolent hatred shook him. He squared
himself and said in a hoarse tone:

"I'm starving... I want money ... to eat!" Brauer turned a face of
amazed and insolent incredulity toward Fred.

"Well, you won't get it from me!" he flung back.

Fred Starratt grasped Brauer's puny wrist in a ferocious grip.

"Oh yes, I will... Do you know who I am?"

"You? ... No... Let me go; you're hurting me!"

"Look at me closely!"

"I tell you I don't know you. Are you crazy?"

"Perhaps... I've been in an insane asylum... Now do you know who I
am?"

Brauer fell back. "No," he breathed: "it can't be possible! Fred
Starratt is dead."

Fred began to laugh. "You're right. But I want something to eat just
the same. You're going to take me into Hjul's ... and buy me a meal.
... And after I've eaten perhaps you'll hear how I died and who killed
me."

He could feel Brauer trembling in his grasp. A rising cruelty
overwhelmed him. He flung Brauer from him with a gesture of contempt.

"Are we going to eat?" he asked, coldly.

"Yes ... whatever you say."

Fred nodded and together the two drifted down Montgomery Street.

Sitting over a generous platter of pot roast and spaghetti at Hjul's,
with Brauer's pallid face staring up at him, Fred Starratt had the
realization that there was at least one mouselike human to whom he
could play the role of cat.

Brauer did not need to be prodded to speech. He told everything with
the eagerness of a child caught in a fault and seeking to curry the
favor of his questioner. He and Kendricks were placing all the Hilmer
insurance. Yes, they were rebating - that went without saying. And what
else lay at the bottom of Hilmer's generosity? Fred Starratt put the
question insinuatingly. Ah yes, the little matter of standing by when
Starratt had been sent to Fairview. No, Hilmer had made no demand, but
he had advised Brauer to be firm - through his lawyer, of course ... a
hint, nothing more - that some sort of example should be made of men
who...
Yes, that was just as it had happened.

"And you knew where they were sending me?" Fred was moved to demand,
harshly.

"Well ... yes... But Hilmer's lawyer put it so convincingly...
Everything was to be for the best."

"Including your share in the Hilmer business?"

Brauer had the grace to wince. "Well, there was nothing said
absolutely."

"And what did you figure was Hilmer's reason for ... well, wanting me
to summer at Fairview?"

Brauer toyed with a spoon. "There could only be one reason."

"Don't be afraid. You mean that my wife..."

"Yes ... just that!"

Fred Starratt had a sense that he should have been stirred to anger,
but instead a great pity swept him, pity for a human being who could
sell another so shamelessly and not have the grace to deny it. Yes, he
realized now that there were times when a lie was the most
self-respecting and admirable thing in the world.

"It appears that I am dead also. I saw my wife to-day mourning for me
in the most respectable of weeds."

"Your hat, you see - it was found in the water ... not far from the
dead body of your friend... Naturally..."

"Yes, naturally, the wish was father to the thought. Just so!"

And with that Fred Starratt laughed so unpleasantly that Brauer
shivered and his face reddened.

By this time Fred Starratt had finished eating. Brauer paid the check
and the two departed. At the first street corner Brauer attempted to
slip a five-dollar bill into Starratt's hand. He refused scornfully.

"Money? I don't want your money. There is only one thing that will buy
my good will - _your silence_. Do you understand what I mean? ... I'm
not the same man you tricked last July. Then I thought I had
everything to lose. Now I know that no one ever loses anything... You
don't understand me, do you? ... Oh, well, it doesn't matter."

Brauer's frightened lips scarcely moved as he asked:

"Where are you staying?"

"Anywhere I can find a shelter... Last night I spent with an
anarchist... I think he'd blow up almost anyone for just the sheer joy
of it."

Brauer shuddered. "Where will you spend to-night?"

"I think I'll go back to the same place... This morning I was
undecided. But I've heard a lot of things since then... I'm taking an
interest in life again... By the way, the man I'm staying with knows
Hilmer... And I don't think he likes him, either... I'll give you one
tip, Brauer. Never get an anarchist sore at you... _They_ haven't
anything to lose, either."

He had never seen such pallor as that which shook the color from
Brauer's face. He decided not to torment him further.

He had established a sense of the unfathomable for the present and
future terror of his trembling little ex-partner. His revenge, so far
as Brauer was concerned, was complete. He had not the slightest wish
to see Brauer again.

He let his hands close once more tightly about Brauer's puny wrists.

"Remember ... you have not seen me. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Not a living soul ... you are not to even suggest that ... otherwise
... well, I am living with an anarchist, and a word to the wise ..."

He turned abruptly and left his companion standing on the street
corner, staring vacantly after him.

Instinctively his footsteps found their way to Storch's shack. A light
was glimmering inside. Fred beat upon the door. It swung open quickly,
revealing Storch's greenish teeth bared in a wide smile of
satisfaction.

"Come in ... come in!" Storch cried out gayly. "Have a good day?"

"Excellent!" Fred snapped back, venomously. "I learned, among other
things, that I am legally dead."

Storch rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. "A clean slate! Do
you realize how wonderful it is, my man, to start fresh?"

Fred threw himself into a chair. He felt tired. Sharp, darting pains
were stabbing his eyes. "I think I'm going to be ill!" he said, with
sudden irrelevance.

Storch lighted the oil stove. "Crawl into bed and I'll get you
something hot to drink!"

Storch's tone was kind to a point of softness, and yet, later, when he
bent over the couch with a steaming glass in his hand Fred experienced
a sharp revulsion.

"I dreamed all last night," Fred said, almost defiantly, "that this
room was a cobweb and that you were a huge spider, dangling on a
thread."

"And you were the fly, I suppose," Storch replied, sneeringly.

The next instant he had touched Fred's forehead gently, almost
tenderly, but his eyes glittered beneath their shaggy brows with an
insane ferocity... Fred took the glass. He was too ill to care much
one way or the other.




CHAPTER XVIII


Next morning Fred Starratt knew that he was too ill to rise. Then
everything became hazy. He had moments of consciousness when he sensed
Storch's figure moving in a sort of mist, flashing a green smile
through the gloom. He saw other figures, too - -Helen Starratt, swathed
in clinging black; Hilmer, displaying his mangled thumb; Monet with
eyes of gentle reproach; and Ginger, very vague and very wistful.
There were times when the room seemed crowded with strange people who
came and went and gesticulated, people gathering close to the dim lamp
which Storch lighted at nightfall.

The visions of Monet were a curious mixture of shadow and reality.
Sometimes he seemed very elusive, but, again, his face would grow
clear to the point of dazzling brightness. At such moments Fred would
screen his eyes and turn away, only in the end to catch a melting
glimpse of Monet fading gradually with a gesture of resignation and
regret. But slowly the outlines of Monet grew less and less tangible
and the personality of Storch more and more shot through with
warm-breathed vitality, and the strange company that gathered at dusk
about the lamp became living things instead of shadows. Yet it took
him some time to realize that these nightly gatherings at Storch's
were composed of real flesh and blood.

At first he was content to lie in a drowse and listen to the
incoherent babblings of these nocturnal visitors, but, as he grew
stronger, detached bits of conversation began to impress themselves
upon him. These people had each some pet grievance and it remained for
Storch to pick upon the strings of their discontents with unerring
accuracy. At about eight o'clock every night the first stragglers
would drift in, reinforced by a steady stream, until midnight saw a
room stuffed with sweating humanity releasing their emotions in a
biting flood of protests. They protested at everything under the
sun - at custom, at order, at work, at play, at love, at life itself.
And Storch, for the most part silent, would sit with folded arms,
puffing at his pipe, a suggestion of genial malice on his face,
throwing out a phrase here and there that set the pack about him
leaping like hungry dogs to the lure of food. In confused moments Fred
Starratt fell to wondering whether he really had escaped from
Fairview, whether the forms about him were not the same motley
assembly that used to gather in the open and exchange whines. The
wails now seemed keyed to howls of defiance, but the source was
essentially the same.

Fred wondered how he lived through these dreadful evenings with the
air thick to choking. Indeed, he used to wonder what had saved him
from death at any stage of the game. Storch had permitted him the use
of a maggoty couch, had shared scraps of indifferent food at irregular
intervals, and set a cracked pitcher of water within reach. But beyond
that, he had been ignored. The nightly assembly did not even cast
their glances his way.

During the day Fred was left alone for the most part, and he felt a
certain luxury in this personal solitude after the months at Fairview
with its unescapable human contacts. He would lie there, his ears
still ringing with the echoes from the nightly gathering of
malcontents, trying to reconstruct his own quarrel with life. He had a
feeling that he would remain a silent onlooker only until Storch
decreed otherwise. If he stayed long enough the night would come when
Storch would call upon him for a testimonial of hatred. He knew that
deep down somewhere within him rancors were stirring to sinister life.
He had experienced the first glimmerings of cruelty in that moment
when he had felt Brauer tremble under his grasp. What would have been
his reaction to physical fear on Helen Starratt's part? Suppose on
that afternoon when he had watched her wheeling Mrs. Hilmer up and
down with deceitful patience he had gone over and struck her the blow
which was primitively her portion? Would the sight of her whimpering
fear have stirred him to further elemental cruelties? Would he have
ended by killing her? ... Physically weak as he was, he could still
feel the thrill of cruelty that had shaken him at the realization of
Brauer's dismay. As a child, when a truant gust of deviltry had swept
him, he had felt the same satisfaction in pummeling a comrade who
backed away from friendly cuffs turned instantly to blows of malice.
Even now he had occasionally a desire to seek out Brauer again and
worry him further. He was fearing indifference. What if, after all
that he had suffered at the hands of others, he should find himself in
the pale clutch of an impotent indifference? He felt a certain shame
back of the possibility, and at such moments the words of Storch used
to ring in his ears:

"Wounds heal so quickly ... so disgustingly quickly!"

And again, watching Storch at night, touching the quivering cords
which might otherwise have rusted in inactive silence, he remembered
further the introduction to this contemptuous phrase:

"I like to get my recruits when they're bleeding raw. I like them when
the salt of truth can sting deep..."

How Storch lived Fred could only guess. But he managed always to
jingle a silver coin or two and keep a crust of bread in the house.
His fare was frugal to the point of being ascetic. Once or twice, as
if moved by Fred's physical weakness, he brought some scraps of beef
home and brewed a few cups of steaming bouillon, and again, one Sunday
morning he went out and bought a half dozen eggs which he converted
into an impossibly tough omelet. But for the most part he lived on
coffee and fresh French bread and cheese. It was on this incredible
fare that Fred Starratt won back his strength. His exhaustion was an
exhaustion of the spirit, and food seemed to have little part in
either his disorder or his recovery.

Whatever Storch's specific grievance with life, he never voiced it and
in this he won Fred's admiration. He liked to jangle the discordant
passions of others, but his own he muffled into complete silence. He
had worked at almost every known calling. It seemed that he came and
disappeared always as suddenly and in his wake a furrow of men
harrowed to supreme unrest yielded up a harvest sown of dragon's
teeth. He was an idea made flesh, patient, relentless, almost
intangible. He flashed upon new horizons like a cloud from the south
and he vanished as completely once he had revived hatred with his
insinuating showers. He was, as he had said on that first meeting with
Fred, a fanatic, a high priest. He called many, but he chose few.

One night after the others had left Fred said to him:

"Do you realize what you are doing? ... You are working up these men
to a frenzy. Some morning we shall wake to find murder done."

"How quickly you are learning," Storch answered, flinging his coat
aside.

"Are you fair?" Fred went on, passionately. "If you have your
convictions, why not risk your own hide to prove them? Why make
cats'-paws of the others?"

Storch took out his pipe and lighted it deliberately. "Prospective
martyrs are as plentiful as fish in a net," he answered. "Of what good
is the sea's yield without fishermen? ... I sacrifice myself and who
takes my place? Will you?"

Fred turned on him suddenly. "You are not training me to be your
successor, I hope," he said, with a slight sneer. "Because I lie here
without protest is no reason that I approve. Indeed, I wonder
sometimes if I do quite right to permit all this... There are
authorities, you know."

Storch looked at him steadily. "The door is open, my friend."

Fred gave a little gesture of resignation.

"You know perfectly well that I'm not built to betray the man who
gives me shelter."

"Oh, I'm not sheltering you for love!"

"You have some purpose, of course. I understand that. But you're
wasting time."

"Well, I'll risk it... I know well enough you're not a man easily won
to an abstract hatred... But a personal hatred very often serves as
good a turn... Everything is grist to my mill."

"A personal hatred?" echoed Fred.

Storch blew out the light.

"You're duller than I thought," he called through the gloom.

Fred turned his face away and tried to sleep.

The next day he decided to crawl out of bed and begin to win back his
strength. He couldn't lie there forever sharing Storch's roof and
crust. But the effort left him exhausted and he was soon glad to fling
himself back upon the couch.

Each succeeding day he felt a little stronger, until the time came
when he was able to drag himself to the open door and sit in the
sunshine. He had never thought much about sunshine in the old days. A
fine day had been something to be remarked, but scarcely hoarded. With
the steam radiator working, it had not mattered so much whether the
sun shone or not... He remembered the first time that a real sense of
the sun's beauty had struck him - on that morning which now seemed so
remote - when he had risen weakly from his cot at the detention
hospital and made ready for exile at Fairview. Less than a year ago!
How many things had assumed new values since then! Now, he could
exploit every sunbeam to its minutest warmth, he could wring
sustenance from a handful of crumbs, he knew what a cup of cold water
meant. He was on speaking terms with hunger, he had been comrade to
madness, he had looked upon sudden death, he was an outcast and, in a
sense, a criminal. He felt that he could almost say with Hilmer:

"I know all the dirty, rotten things of life by direct contact."

All but murder - yet it had brushed close to him. Even now he could
evoke the choking rage that had engulfed him on that night of his
arrest when his defenseless cheek had reddened to the blow of
humiliation. This had been, however, a flash of passion. But once,
meeting a man who blocked his path in the first upper reaches of the
hills, beyond Fairview, he had felt the even more primitive itch of
self-preservation urging him to the ultimate crime. Would he end by
going a step farther and planning the destruction of life in cold
blood?

It was curious how constant association with a sensational idea dulled
the edge of its novelty. The first time he had heard deliberate and
passionless murder all but plotted in Storch's huddled room he had
felt a quick heartbeat of instinctive protest. Had he been stronger at
that moment he would have leaped to his feet in opposition. But the
moment passed and when he heard the subject broached again he listened
curiously. Finally he ceased to feel the slightest tremor of revolt.
Was indifference always the first step toward surrender?

Finally Fred grew strong enough to desert his couch at evening. Up to
this point he had been ignored by the nightly visitors, but now they
made a place for him in the circle about the sputtering lamp. It
seemed, also, that, with his active presence, the talk began to assume
general point and direction. Storch had been giving them plenty of
tether, but now he was beginning to pull up sharply, putting their
windy theories to the test. They were for clearing the ground, were
they? Well, so far so good. But generalities led nowhere. Why not
something specific? Wasn't the time ripe for action - thousands of men,
walking the streets, locked out because they dared to demand a decent
and even break? And this in the face of all the altruistic
rumble-bumble which war had evoked? He played this theme over and over
again, and finally one night with an almost casual air he said:

"Take the shipyards, for instance ... forty-odd thousand men locked
out while the owners lay plans to shackle them further. Now is the
chance. Quit talking and get busy!"

It ended in a list being made of the chief offenders - owners,
managers, irascible foremen. Fred Starratt listened like a man in a
dream. When Hilmer was named he found himself shivering. These people
were plotting murder now - cool, calm, passionless murder! There was
something fascinating in the very nonchalance of it.

Storch's eyes glittered more and more savagely. He drew up plans,
arranged incredible details, delivered specific offenders into the
hands of certain of his henchmen.

"You are responsible for this man, now," he used to fling at the
chosen one. "How or where or when does not interest me - but get him,
you understand, _get him_!"

One night a member said, significantly:

"Everybody's been picked but Hilmer... What's the matter, Storch, are
you saving that plum for yourself?"

Storch rubbed his hands together, flashing a look at Fred.

"No... There's an option on Hilmer!" he cried, gleefully.

Fred tried to ignore the implication, but all night the suggestion
burned itself into his brain. So some one was to get Hilmer, after
all! Well, why not? Hilmer liked men with guts enough to fight - rabbit
drives were not to his taste... Among all the names brought up and
discussed at these sinister gatherings about Storch's round table
Hilmer's stood out as the ultimate prize. No one spoke a good word for
him and yet Fred had to admit that the revilings were flavored with a
certain grudging respect. He was an open and consistent tyrant, at any
rate.

An option on Hilmer! What a trick Storch had for illuminating phrases!
... And his divinations were uncanny. Why should he assume that Hilmer
was in any way bound up in Fred Starratt's life?

The next morning Fred decided to chance a walk in the open. He had a
vague wish to try his wings again, now that he had grown stronger. The
situation reminded him remotely of Fairview on those first days when
Monet and he had attempted to harden their muscles against the day of
escape. But this time he was struggling to free himself from a
personality, from an idea. He must leave Storch and his motley brood
as soon as possible; somehow the acid of their ruthless philosophy was
eating away the remnants of any inner beauty which had been left him.
At first he had been all revolt, but now there were swift moments in
which he asked himself what quarrel he could have with any blows
struck at authority. What had established order done for him? Acted as
a screen for villainy and inconstancy for the most part.

He turned all this over in his mind as he slunk furtively along the
water front, trying vaguely to shape a plan of action. He felt himself
to be a very unusual and almost terrible figure, and yet no one paid
any heed to him. His beard had lost its sunburned character and grown
jet black, his face, and particularly his hands, were pale to
transparence, his eyes burned too brightly in their sunken sockets. He
was not even a ghost of his former self, but rather a sinister
reincarnation. He felt that he was even more forbidding than on that
night when he had sent Brauer shivering from his presence. He doubted
whether Brauer would recognize him again, so subtle and marked was the
change. He hardly recognized himself, and the transformation was not
solely a matter of physical degeneration. No, there was something
indefinable in the quality of his decline.

He fluttered about the town, at first aimlessly, like a defenseless
fledgling thrust before its time from the nest. He was weak and
tremulous and utterly miserable. Yet he felt compelled to go forward.
He must escape from Storch! _He must_!

The docks, usually full of bustle, were silent and almost deserted.
Fred questioned a man loafing upon a pile of lumber. It appeared that
a strike of stevedores was the cause of this outward sign of
inactivity. Boats were being loaded quietly, but the process was
furtive and sullen. Occasionally, out of the wide expanse of brooding
indolence a knot of men would gather flockwise, and melt as quickly.
There was an ominous quality in the swiftness with which these
cloudlike groups congealed and disintegrated. The sinister blight of
repression was over everything - repressed desires, repressed joys,
repressed hatreds. It was almost as sad as the noonday silence of
Fairview.

Fred slunk along in deep dejection. He wanted the color and life and
bustle of accomplishment. A slight activity before one of the docks
beguiled him from his depression. A passenger steamer was preparing
for its appointed flight south and a knot of blue-coated policemen
maintained a safe path from curb to dock entrance. Here was a touch of
liveliness and gayety - the released laughter of people bent on a
holiday, hopeful farewells called out heartily, taxicabs dashing up
with exaggerated haste. He was warming himself at the flame of this
genial pageant, when an opulent machine came rolling up to the curb. A
sudden surge of arrivals had pressed into service every available
porter, and the alighting occupants, a man and a woman, stood waiting
for some one to help them with their luggage. Fred stared with
impersonal curiosity. Then, as instinctively, he fell back. The man
was Axel Hilmer and the woman was Helen Starratt! His shrinking
movement must have singled him out for attention, because a policeman
began to hustle him on, and the next instant he was conscious that
Hilmer was calling in his voice of assured authority:

"Here, there, don't send that man away! I need some one to help me
with these grips. This lady has got to catch the boat!"

The officer touched his hat respectfully and Fred felt himself gently
impelled toward Helen Starratt. He did not have time to protest nor
shape any plan of action. Instead, he answered Hilmer's imperious
pantomime by grasping a suitcase in one hand and a valise in the other
and staggering after them toward the waiting vessel.

They had arrived not a moment too soon; already the steamer was
preparing to cast off. In the confusion which followed, Fred had very
little sense of what was happening. He knew that a porter had relieved


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 13 of 17)