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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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him of his burden and that Helen Starratt had pressed a silver coin
into his hand. There was a scramble up the gangplank, a warning
whistle, a chorus of farewell, and then silence... He had a
realization that he had all but fainted - he looked up to find Hilmer
at his side.

"What's the matter?" Hilmer was asking, brusquely. "Are you sick?"

He roused himself with a mighty effort.

"Yes."

"You look half starved, too... Why don't you go to work? Or are you
one of those damned strikers?"

"No," he heard himself answer. "I'm just a man who's ... who's up
against it."

Hilmer took out a card and scribbled on it.

"Here, look up my superintendent at the yard to-morrow. He'll give you
a job. There's plenty of work for those who want it. But don't lose
that card ... otherwise they won't let you see him."

Fred took the proffered pasteboard and as he did so his fingers closed
over Hilmer's mangled thumb. He could feel himself trembling from head
to foot... He waited until Hilmer was gone. Then he crawled slowly in
the direction of the street again. Midway he felt some force impelling
him to a backward glance. He turned about - a green smile betrayed
Storch's sinister presence; Fred felt him swing close and whisper,
triumphantly:

"That was your wife, wasn't it?"

"How do you know?"

"Never mind. Answer me - it was your wife?"

"Yes."

"How much did she give you?"

Fred looked down at the coin in his hand.

"Fifty cents."

"Fifty cents ... for carrying two grips a hundred yards... Well, she
must have money... And she's taking a little trip south - for her
health, I suppose!... I wonder when friend Hilmer will follow?"

Fred tried to draw away, but Storch's insinuating clutch was too firm.

"Let me go!" he half begged and half commanded. "What business is all
this of yours?... Who has told you all this about me?"

Storch continued to hang upon Fred's arm. "You told me yourself."

"I told you? When?"

"You were delirious for a good week... Don't you suppose you babbled
then?"

"How much do you know?"

"Nearly everything, _Fred Starratt_! Nearly everything."

"Even my name!"

"Yes, even that."

Fred stood still for a moment and he closed both his eyes.

"Let's go home!" he said, hopelessly.

He heard Storch's malevolent chuckle answering him.

When they arrived at Storch's shack Fred was exhausted. He threw
himself at once upon the couch, drawing the tattered quilts over his
head, and thus he lay all night in a semistupor. He heard the nightly
gathering drift in, and there were times when its babble reached him
in vague faraway echoes. He sensed its departure, too, and the fact
that Storch was flinging himself upon the pile of rags which served as
his bed. His sleep was broken by a harried idea that he was attempting
to catch a steamer which forever eluded him, trotting aimlessly up and
down a gangplank which led nowhere, picking up a litter that spilled
continually from a suitcase in his hand. It was not a dreaming state,
but the projection of the main events of the preceding day distorted
by fancy.

Toward morning he fell into a heavy sleep. He did not hear Storch
leave. He woke at intervals during the day and relapsed into delicious
dozes. It was evening when he finally roused himself. He rose. He felt
extraordinarily refreshed, stronger, in fact, than he had been for
weeks. Storch came in shortly after. He had his inevitable loaf of
crisp French bread and a slice of cheese and in his hip pocket he had
smuggled a pint bottle of thin red wine.

Fred laid the table with the simple utensils that such a meal required
and the two sat down. Storch poured out two glasses of wine.

"I have had great fun to-day!" Storch said, gulping his claret with a
flourish. "They're on my track again. You should have seen how easily
I gave them the slip! As a matter of fact there is nothing duller than
a detective. He usually has learned every formula laid down for the
conduct of criminals and if you don't run true to form he gets sore."

"You mean you're being watched - shadowed?"

"Just that."

"What do you intend to do?"

Storch shrugged. "Being arrested and jailed is losing its novelty.
I'll stick around awhile longer until a pet job or two is
accomplished... I'm particularly anxious to see Hilmer winged...
What's your plan?"

"Plan?... I have no plan. I can't imagine what you're talking about. I
know one thing, though ... I'm going to leave this place at once."

Storch smiled evilly. "Going to start plunging on that capital your
wife threw your way yesterday?... Well, well, you've got more
initiative than I thought... But, one piece of advice, my friend - the
easiest way to walk into a trap is to suddenly try to change your
habits ... to rush headlong in an opposite direction. You'd better
stay here awhile and bluff it out. They'd gobble you in one mouthful."

Fred made no reply. Indeed, the meal was finished in silence.

Presently Storch's disciples began to drift in. The meeting lasted
almost until midnight. They were all at fever heat, strung tensely by
Storch's unerring pressure. At the last moment the man who had
previously put the question concerning Hilmer prodded Storch again.

Storch fixed Fred suddenly with a gaze that pierced him through. A
silence fell upon the room. Fred could feel every eye turned his way.
He rose with a curious fluttering movement of escape.

"There's one man in this room who has earned the honor of getting
Hilmer, if any man has," Storch said, finally, in an extraordinarily
cool and biting voice. "Losing a wife isn't of any great moment ...
but to be laughed at - that's another matter."

The silence continued. Fred Starratt sat down again... Shortly after
this the gathering broke up. Storch went to sleep immediately. Fred
blew out the light. But he did not throw himself upon his couch this
time. Instead he opened the door softly and crept out.

A bright moon was riding high in the sky. He went swiftly down the
lane and stood for a moment upon the edge of the cliff which plunged
down toward the docks. The city seemed like a frozen bit of
loveliness, waiting to be melted to fluid beauty by the fires of
morning. He must leave Storch at once, forever! He turned for a
backward glimpse of the house that had sheltered and almost entrapped
him. A figure darted in front of the lone street lamp and retreated
instantly. _Shadowed!_ Storch was right!

Suddenly Fred began to whistle - gayly, loudly, with unquestionable
defiance. Then slowly, very slowly, he went back into the house and
closed the door... Storch was snoring contentedly.




CHAPTER XIX


The next afternoon Fred Starratt took the fifty-cent piece that he had
earned as flunky to his wife and spent every penny of it in a cheap
barber shop on the Embarcadero. He emerged with an indifferently
trimmed beard and his hair clipped into a semblance of neatness. He
felt better, in spite of his tattered suit and gaping footgear.
Hilmer's card was still in his pocket.

His plans were hazy, nebulous, in fact. He was not quite sure as to
his next move. It seemed useless to attempt to flee from Storch's
shelter. He had no money and scarcely strength enough to tackle any
job that would be open to him. Even if he elected to become a strike
breaker he would have to qualify at least with brawn. The prospect of
snaring a berth from Hilmer had a certain fascination. It would be
interesting to stare defiantly at his enemy at close range, to speak
with him again man to man, to lure him into further bravados. And
then, if Storch's plans for Hilmer had any merits... He stopped short,
a bit frightened at the realization that the idea had presented itself
to him with such directness... He had a sudden yearning to talk to
some human being who would understand. If he could only see Ginger!

He had a feeling that somehow she must have experienced every
exaltation and every degradation in the calendar. Tenderness and
passion and the gift of murder itself were ever the mixed language of
the street. He remembered the gesture he first had made to her almost
timid advances toward helping him. He had been outwardly polite, but
inwardly how scornful of her suggestions! And once he even had
hesitated to let her carry a message to his wife! Now he was ready to
stand or fall upon the bitter fruits of her experience. He felt,
curiously, on common ground with her. And yet there were certain
intangibilities he had never attempted to make positive. Somehow the
mere fact of her existence had enveloped him like warm currents of air
which he could feel, but not visualize. But at this moment he felt the
need of a contact more personal. Suddenly, out of a clear sky, it came
to him that Mrs. Hilmer could tell him something of Ginger's
whereabouts. Mrs. Hilmer? Well, why not? The more he thought the idea
over the more it appealed to him. He ended by turning his steps in the
direction of the Hilmer home.

The maid who opened the door eyed him with more curiosity than
caution, and her protests that Mrs. Hilmer could see no one seemed
rather tentative and perfunctory. Fred had a curious feeling that she
was demanding a more or less conventional excuse for admitting him,
and in the end he flung out as a chance:

"Tell Mrs. Hilmer I have a message from Sylvia Molineaux."

The girl's pale-blue eyes sparkled with a curious glint of humor, and
without further protest she went away, and came back as swiftly with
an invitation for him to step inside. There was something
inexplainable about this maid who veiled her eagerness to admit him
with such transparencies. Even a fool would scarcely have left so
forbidding a character to dawdle about the living room while she went
to fetch her mistress.

He had expected to find this room changed, and yet he was not prepared
for quite the quality of familiarity which it possessed. Most of the
old Hilmer knickknacks had been swept aside, their places taken by
bits that had once enlivened the Starratt household. Here was a silver
vase that he had bought Helen for an anniversary present, and there a
Whistler etching that had been their wedding portion. His easy-chair
was in a corner, and Helen's music rack filled with all the things she
used to play for his delight. And on the mantel, in a silver frame,
his picture, with a little bowl of fading flowers before it... He went
over and picked it up. Instinctively he glanced in the mirror just in
front of him... _Dead ... quite dead!_ No wonder his wife put flowers
before this photographic shrine... For a moment he had a swooning hope
that he had misjudged her ... that he had misread everybody ... that
they had done everything for him that they thought was best. But he
emerged from this brief deception with a shuddering laugh... He would
not have cared so much if his wife had swept him from her life
completely ... but to trample on him and still use his shadow as a
screen - this was too much! What really pallid creatures these women of
convention were! How little they were prepared to risk anything! He
could almost hear the comments that Helen inspired:

"Poor Helen Starratt! She has had an awful time!... I don't know what
she would have done without the Hilmers... She's so devoted to Mrs.
Hilmer... I do think it's lovely that they can be together."

He felt that he could have admired a Helen Starratt with the courage
of her primitive instincts. As it was, he was ashamed to own that he
experienced even rancor at her pretenses.

He heard the sound of a wheeled chair coming toward the living room
and he made a pretense of staring aimlessly into the street. Presently
a sepulchral voice broke the silence. He turned - Mrs. Hilmer was
leaning forward in her chair, regarding him attentively, while the
maid stood a little to one side. He had expected to come upon a huddle
of blond plumpness, an inanimate mass of forceless flesh robbed of its
bovine suavity by inactivity. What he saw was a body thin to
emaciation and a face drawn into a tight-lipped discontent. The old
curves of flesh had melted, displaying the heaviness of the framework
which had supported them. The eyes were restless and glittering, the
once-plump hands shrunken into claws.

"You ... you have a message from Sylvia Molineaux?"

She tossed the question toward him with biting directness. Could it be
possible that this was the same woman who had purred so contentedly
over a receipt for corn pudding somewhat over a year ago?

He moved a step nearer. "Yes ... but it is private."

The maid made a slight grimace and put her hand protectingly upon Mrs.
Hilmer's chair. Mrs. Hilmer shifted about impatiently.

"Never mind, Hilda," she snapped out. "I am not afraid."

The maid shrugged and departed.

"I have wanted to see her," Mrs. Hilmer went on, coldly. "But who
could I send? ... Few people understand her life."

"Ah, then you have guessed?"

"Guessed? ... She has told me everything."

A shade of bitter malice crept into her face - the malice of a woman
who has learned truths and is no longer shocked by them. Fred Starratt
put his hat aside and he went up close to her.

"I lied to get in here," he said, quickly. "I am looking for Sylvia
Molineaux myself."

"Why don't you try the streets, then?" she flung out, venomously.

He felt almost as if an insult had been hurled at _him_. He searched
Mrs. Hilmer's face. Something more than physical pain had harrowed the
woman before him to such deliberate mockery.

"You, too!" he cried. "How you must have suffered!"

She gave a little cackling laugh that made him shudder. "What about
yourself?" she queried. "You do not look like a happy man."

"Would you be ... if ... Look at me closely, Mrs. Hilmer! Have you
ever seen me before?"

He bent toward her. She took his face between her two clawlike
fingers. Her eyes were points of greedy flame.

When she finally spoke her voice had almost a pensive quality to it.

"You might have been Fred Starratt, _once_," she said, evenly.

He rose to his feet.

"I knew you were not dead," he heard her saying. "And I don't think
she felt sure, either... Ah, how I have worried her since that day!
Every morning I used to say: 'I dreamed of your husband last night. He
was swimming out of a black pool ... a very black pool.'"

She chuckled at the memory of her sinister banter. So Helen Starratt
did not have everything her own way! There were weapons which even
weakness could flourish.

"Where has she gone?" he asked, suddenly.

"South, for a change... I've worried her sick with my black pool.
Whenever the doorbell would ring I would say as sweetly as I could,
'What if that should be your husband?' I drove her out with just
that... You've come just the right time to help. It couldn't have been
planned any better."

She might have been Storch, masquerading in skirts, as she sat there
casting significantly narrow glances at him. He wondered why he had
come. He felt like a fly struggling from the moist depths of a cream
jug only to be thrust continually back by a ruthless force. Was
everybody bent on plunging him into the ultimate despair? He moved
back with a poignant gesture of escape.

"You mustn't count on me, Mrs. Hilmer!" he cried, desperately. "I'm
nothing but a poor, spent man. I've lost the capacity for revenge."

She smiled maliciously. "You see me here - helpless. And yet, in all
these months I've prayed for only one thing - to have strength enough
one day to rise in this chair and throw myself upon them both... Oh,
but I should like to kill them!... You talk about suffering ... but do
you know what it is to feel the caress of hands that are waiting to
lay hold of everything that was once yours?... I have six months more
to live. The doctor told me yesterday... Six months more, getting
weaker every day, until at last - "

She brought her hands up in a vigorous flourish, which died pitifully.
He felt a contempt for his impotence. He dropped into a seat opposite
her.


"Tell me about it ... all ... from the beginning," he begged.

She opened the floodgates cautiously at first ... going back to the
day when it had come upon her that she was a stranger in her own
house. ... Hilmer's moral lapses had never affronted her. She knew
men - or her father, to be exact, and his father before him. They were
as God made them, no better and no worse. Perhaps she had never
admitted it, but she would no doubt have felt a contempt for a man
without the capacity for truant inconstancies. But she had her place
from which it was inconceivable that she could be dislodged. ... On
that day when she had realized that this position was threatened she
had been put to one of two alternatives - open revolt or deceitful
acceptance. She had chosen the latter. In the end her choice was
justified, for she had begun to undermine Helen Starratt's content
with subtle purring which dripped a steady pool of disquiet.

"She hasn't abandoned herself yet," she said, moving her claws
restlessly. "She's too clever for that... She wants _my_ place.
Hilmer's like all men - he won't have a mistress for a wife... And she
never would be any man's mistress while she saw a chance for the other
thing ... she's too - "

She broke off suddenly, unable to find a word inclusive enough for all
the contempt she wished to crowd into it. He was learning things. She
could have ignored a frank courtesan with disdainful aloofness, but
discreetly veiled wantonness made her articulate. When she mentioned
Ginger her voice took a soft pity, mixed with certain condescension.
She was sympathetic, but there were still many things she could not
understand.

"She used to come and pass me every morning," Mrs. Hilmer explained,
"and your wife would look at her from head to foot. One day I said,
'Who is that woman?' ... 'How should I know?' she answered me. And I
knew from her manner that she was lying. The next day I spoke
deliberately. After that it was easy... She is a strange girl. She
would come and read me such beautiful things and then go away to
_that_! ... 'How is it possible for one woman to be so good and so
bad?' I asked her once. And all she said was, 'How would you have
us - all devil or all saint?' ... During all this your wife said
nothing. When she _would_ see Sylvia Molineaux coming down the street
she would wheel my chair into a quiet corner and walk calmly into the
house... One day Sylvia Molineaux spoke of you. She told me the whole
story and in the end she said: 'I don't come here altogether to be
kind to you ... I come here to worry her. You cannot imagine how I
hate her!' The next morning I said to Helen Starratt, 'Did you know
that Sylvia Molineaux was a friend of your husband?' She had to answer
me civilly. There was no other way out. But after that I said,
whenever I could, 'Sylvia Molineaux tells me this,' or, 'Sylvia
Molineaux tells me that.' And I would give her the tattle of
Fairview... I know she could have strangled me, because she smiled too
sweetly. But she made no protest, no comment. She merely walked into
the house whenever Sylvia Molineaux appeared. But it worried her - yes,
almost as much as that black pool from which I had you swimming every
morning... And so it went on until the day after word had come that
you had been drowned. I had not seen Sylvia for some days. She came
down the street at the usual time. Helen was still up in her room ...
the maid had wheeled me out. She said nothing about what had happened.
But she looked very pale as she opened her book to read to me. In the
midst of all this your wife came out and stood for a moment upon the
landing. We looked up. She was in black. I gave one glance at Sylvia.
She closed her book with a bang and suddenly she was on her feet.
'Black! _Black_!' she cried out in a loud voice. 'How _can_ you!' Your
wife grew pale and walked quickly back into the house. Sylvia's face
was dreadful. 'I can't trust myself to come here again!' she said,
turning on me fiercely. 'Fancy, _she_ can wear black. The hussy ...
the...' No, I shall not repeat what else she said... But when she had
finished I caught her hand and I said: 'Come back and kill her! Come
back and kill her, Sylvia Molineaux!' She gave a cry and left me. I
have not seen her since."

He sat staring at the wasted figure before him. Who would have
thought, seeing her in a happier day, that she could quiver with such
red-fanged energy! After all, she was more primitive even than Ginger.
She was like some limpid, prattling stream swollen to sudden fury by a
cloudburst of bitterness.

He was recalled from his scrutiny of the terrible figure before him by
the sound of her voice, this time dropping into a monologue which held
a half-musing quality. Hilmer was puzzling her a bit. She could not
quite understand why a man accustomed to hew his way without restraint
should be possessing his soul in such patience before Helen Starratt's
provocative advances and discreet retreats. Either she was unable or
unwilling to fathom the fascination which a subtle game sometimes held
for a man schooled only in elemental approaches toward his goal. Was
he enthralled or confused or merely curious? And how long would he
continue to give his sufferance scope? How long would he pretend to
play the moth to Helen Starratt's fitful flamings? Mrs. Hilmer,
raising the question, answered it tentatively by a statement that held
a curious mixture of hope and fear.

"Hilmer's going south himself next week... On business, he _says_."
She laughed harshly. "I wonder if they both think me quite a fool! ...
If he succeeds this time she's done for!"

Fred Starratt stirred in his seat.

"Don't deceive yourself," he found himself saying, coldly; "whatever
else my wife is, she's no fool... Remember, she wrote me a letter
every week. She looks over her cards before she plays them...A few
months more or less don't - "

He broke off, suddenly amazed at his cruelty. Mrs. Hilmer's expression
changed from arrested exultation to fretful appeal.

"I have only six months to live," she wailed. "If I could walk just
for a day...an hour...five minutes!"

She covered her face in her hands.

"What do you expect _me_ to do?" he asked, helplessly, with a certain
air of resignation.

She took her fingers from her eyes. A crafty smile illumined her
features. "How should I know? ...What do men do in such cases?...She
will be gone two weeks. I pray God she may never enter this house
again. But that is in your hands."

He felt suddenly cold all over, as if she had delivered an enemy into
his keeping. She still loved Axel Hilmer...loved him to the point of
hatred. What she wished for was his head upon a charger. With other
backgrounds and other circumstances crowding her to fury she would
have danced for her boon like the daughter of Herodias. As it was, she
sat like some pagan goddess, full of sinister silences, impotent, yet
unconquered.

And again Storch's prophetic words swept him:

"Like a field broken to the plow!"

There was a terrible beauty in the phrase. Was sorrow the only
plowshare that turned the quiescent soul to bountiful harvest? Was it
better to reap a whirlwind than to see a shallow yield of unbroken
content wither to its sterile end?

* * * * *

He found Ginger's lodgings that night, in a questionable quarter of
the town, but she did not respond to his knock upon the door.

"Why don't you try the streets, then?" Mrs. Hilmer's sneer recurred
with all its covert bitterness.

The suggestion made him sick. And he had fancied all along that
ugliness had lost the power to move him ... that he was prepared for
the harsh facts of existence!

He waited an hour upon the street corner, and when she came along
finally she was in the company of a man... He grew suddenly cold all
over. When they passed him he could almost hear his teeth chattering.
They disappeared, swallowed up in the sinister light of a beguiling
doorway. He stared for a moment stupidly, then turned and fled,
looking neither to the right nor to the left. He realized now that he
had reached the heights of bitterest ecstasy and the depths of
profound humiliation.

Storch was alone, bending close to the lamp, reading, when Fred
Starratt broke in upon him. He did not lift his head.

Fred went softly into a corner and sat down... Finally, after a while,
Storch laid his book aside. He gave one searching look at Fred's face.

"Well, have you decided?" he asked, with calm directness.

Fred's hands gave a flourish of resignation. "Yes... I'll do it!" he
answered in a whisper.

Storch picked up his book again and went on reading. Presently he


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 14 of 17)