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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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lifted his eyes from the printed page as he said:

"We won't have any more meetings here... Things are getting a little
too dangerous... How soon will the job be finished?"

Fred rose, shaking himself. "Within two weeks, if it is finished at
all!"

He went close to Storch and put a hand upon his shoulder. "You know
every bitter thing ... tell me, why does a man love?"

Storch laughed unpleasantly. "To breed hatred!"

Fred Starratt sat down again with a gesture of despair.




CHAPTER XX


From this moment on Fred Starratt's existence had the elements of a
sleepwalking dream. He felt himself going through motions which he was
powerless to direct. Already Storch and his associates were allowing
him a certain aloofness - letting him set himself apart with the
melancholy arrogance of one who had been chosen for a fanatical
sacrifice.

Replying to Storch's question regarding his plans, he said, decidedly:

"I leave all that to you... Give me instructions and I'll act. But I
want to know nothing until the end."

"Within two weeks... Is there a special reason why ..."

"Yes ... a very special reason."

Storch turned away. But the next day he said, "Have you that card that
Hilmer gave you?"

Fred yielded it up.

Storch smiled his wide, green smile. Fred asked no questions, but he
guessed the plans. A spy was to be worked in upon Hilmer.

Every morning now Fred Starratt found a silver dollar upon the
cluttered table at Storch's. He smiled grimly as he pocketed the
money. He was to have not a care in the world. Like a perfect youth of
the ancients marked for a sweet-scented offering to the gods, he was
to go his way in perfect freedom until his appointed time. There was
an element of grotesqueness in it all that dulled the edge of horror
which he should have felt.

Sometimes he would sally forth in a noonday sun, intent on solitude,
but usually he craved life and bustle and the squalor of cluttered
foregrounds. With his daily dole of silver jingling in his pocket he
went from coffeehouse to coffeehouse or drowsed an hour or two in a
crowded square or stood with his foot upon the rail of some
emasculated saloon, listening to the malcontents muttering over their
draughts of watery beer.

"Ah yes," he would hear these last grumble, "the rich can have their
grog... But the poor man - he can get it only when he is dying ...
providing he has the price."

And here would follow the inevitable reply, sharpened by bitter
sarcasm:

"But all this is for the poor man's good ... you understand. Men work
better when they do not indulge in follies... They will stop dancing
next. Girls in factories should not come to work all tired out on
Monday morning. They would find it much more restful to spend the time
upon their knees."

It was not what they said, but the tone of it, that made Fred Starratt
shudder. Their laughter was the terrible laughter of sober men without
either the wit or circumstance to escape into a temperate gayety of
spirit. He still sat apart, as he had done at Fairview and again at
Storch's gatherings. He had not been crushed sufficiently, even yet,
to mingle either harsh mirth or scalding tears with theirs. But he was
feeling a passion for ugliness ... he wanted to drain the bitter
circumstance of life to the lees. He was seeking to harden himself to
his task past all hope of reconsideration.

He liked especially to talk to the cripples of industry. Here was a
man who had been blinded by a hot iron bolt flung wide of its mark,
and another with his hand gnawed clean by some gangrenous product of
flesh made raw by the vibrations of a riveting machine. And there were
the men deafened by the incessant pounding of boiler shops, and one
poor, silly, lone creature whose teeth had been slowly eaten away by
the excessive sugar floating in the air of a candy factory. Somehow
this last man was the most pathetic of all. In the final analysis, his
calling seemed so trivial, and he a sacrifice upon the altar of a
petty vanity. Once he met a man weakened into consumption by the
deadly heat of a bakeshop. These men did not whine, but they exhibited
their distortions with the malicious pride of beggars. They demanded
sympathy, and somehow their insistence had a humiliating quality. He
used to wonder, in rare moments of reflection, how long it would take
for all this foul seepage to undermine the foundations of life. Or
would it merely corrode everything it came in contact with, very much
as it had corroded him? Only occasionally did he have an impulse to
escape from the terrible estate to which his rancor had called him. At
such intervals he would turn his feet toward the old quarter of the
town and stand before the garden that had once smiled upon his
mother's wooing, seeking to warm himself once again in the sunlight of
traditions. The fence, that had screened the garden from the nipping
wind which swept in every afternoon from the bay, was rotting to a
sure decline, disclosing great gaps, and the magnolia tree struggling
bravely against odds to its appointed blossoming. But it was growing
blackened and distorted. Some day, he thought, it would wither
utterly... He always turned away from this familiar scene with the
profound melancholy springing from the realization that the past was a
pale corpse lighted by the tapers of feeble memory.

One afternoon, accomplishing again this vain pilgrimage, he found the
tree snapped to an untimely end. It had gone down ingloriously in a
twisting gale that had swept the garden the night before.

In answer to his question, the man intent on clearing away the
wreckage said:

"The wind just caught it right... It was dying, anyway."

Fred Starratt retraced his steps. It was as if the old tree had stood
as a symbol of his own life.

He never went back to view the old garden again, but, instead, he
stood at midnight upon the corner past which Ginger walked with such
monotonous and terrible fidelity. He would stand off in the shadows
and see her go by, sometimes alone, but more often in obscene company.
And in those moments he tasted the concentrated bitterness of life.
Was this really a malicious jest or a test of his endurance? To what
black purpose had belated love sprung up in his heart for this woman
of the streets? And to think that once he had fancied that so
withering a passion was as much a matter of good form as of cosmic
urging! There had been conventions in love - and styles and seasons!
One loved purity and youth and freshness. Yes, it had been as easy as
that for him. Just as it had been as easy for him to choose a nice and
pallid calling for expressing his work-day joy. He could have
understood a feeling of sinister passion for Sylvia Molineaux and
likewise he could have indulged it. But the snare was more subtle and
cruel than that. He was fated to feel the awe and mystery and beauty
of a rose-white love which he saw hourly trampled in the grime of the
streets. He had fancied once that love was a matter of give and take
... he knew now that it was essentially an outpouring ... that to love
was sufficient to itself ... that it could be without reward, or wage,
or even hope. He knew now that it could spring up without sowing,
endure without rain, come to its blossoming in utter darkness. And yet
he did not have the courage of these revelations. He felt their
beauty, but it was the beauty of nakedness, and he had no skill to
weave a philosophy with which to clothe them. If it had been possible
a year ago for him to have admitted so cruel a love he knew what he
would have done. He would have waited for her upon this selfsame
street corner and shot her down, turning the weapon upon himself. Yes,
he would have been full of just such empty heroics. Thus would he have
expressed his contempt and scorn of the circumstance which had tricked
him. But now he was beyond so conventional a settlement.

The huddled meetings about Storch's shattered lamp were no more, but
in small groups the scattered malcontents exchanged whispered
confidences in any gathering place they chanced upon. Fred Starratt
listened to the furtive reports of their activities with morbid
interest. But he had to confess that, so far, they were proving empty
windbags. The promised reign of terror seemed still a long way off.
There were moments even when he would speculate whether or not he was
being tricked into unsupported crime. But he raised the question
merely out of curiosity... Word seemed to have been passed that he was
disdainful of all plans for setting the trap which he was to spring.
But one day, coming upon a group unawares in a Greek coffeehouse on
Folsom Street, he caught a whispered reference to Hilmer. Upon the
marble-topped table was spread a newspaper - Hilmer's picture smiled
insolently from the printed page. The gathering broke up in quick
confusion on finding him a silent auditor. When they were gone he
reached for the newspaper. A record-breaking launching was to be
achieved at Hilmer's shipyard within the week. The article ended with
a boastful fling from Hilmer to the effect that his plant was running
to full capacity in spite of strikes and lockouts. Fred threw the
paper to the floor. A chill enveloped him. He had caught only the
merest fragments of conversation which had fallen from the lips of the
group he had surprised, but his intuitions had been sharpened by
months of misfortune. He knew at once what date had been set for the
consummation of Storch's sinister plot. He rose to his feet, shivering
until his teeth chattered. He felt like a man invested with all the
horrid solemnity of the death watch.




CHAPTER XXI


That night Storch confirmed Fred's intuitions. He said, pausing a
moment over gulping his inevitable bread and cheese:

"I have planned everything for Saturday."

Fred cut himself a slice of bread. "So I understand," he said, coldly.

"Who told you?"

"Your companions are great gossips ... and I have ears."

The insolence in Fred's tone made Storch knit his brows.

"Well, knowing so much, you must be ready for details now," he flung
out.

Fred nodded.

Storch lighted his pipe and glowered. "The launching is to take place
at noon. Hilmer has planned to arrive at the yards promptly at eleven
forty-five at the north gate. Everything is ready, down to the last
detail."

"Including the bomb?" Fred snapped, suddenly.

"Including the bomb," Storch repeated, malevolently, caressing the
phrase with a note of rare affection. "It is the most skillful
arrangement I have seen in a long time ... in a kodak case. By the way
... are you accurate at heaving things?... You are to stand upon the
roof of a row of one-story stores quite near the entrance and promptly
at the precise minute - "

"Ah, a time bomb!"

"Naturally."

"And if Hilmer should be late?"

"He is always on time... And, besides, there is a special reason. He
wants the launching accomplished on the stroke of noon."

"And if he comes too early?"

"Impossible. He went south last week ... you knew that, of course. And
he doesn't get into San Francisco until late that morning. He is to be
met at Third and Townsend streets and go at once to Oakland in his
machine... There will be four in the party ... perhaps six."

Fred Starratt stood up slowly, repressing a desire to leap suddenly to
his feet. He walked up and down the cluttered room twice. Storch
watched him narrowly.

"Six in the party?" Fred echoed. "Any women?"

Storch rubbed his palms together. "There may be two ... providing your
wife comes back with him... Mrs. Hilmer sent for her."

"Mrs. Hilmer!"

Storch smiled his usual broad smile, exhibiting his green teeth.

"She developed a whim to attend the launching... Naturally she wished
her _dearest_ friend with her."

Fred Starratt sat down. He was trembling inwardly, but he knew
instinctively that he must appear nonchalant and calm. He guessed at
once that it would not do for him to betray the fact that suddenly he
realized how completely he had been snared. Yet his trepidation must
have communicated itself, for Storch leaned forward with the
diabolical air of an inquisitor and said:

"Does it matter in the least whether there is one victim or six?"

Fred managed to reply, coolly, "Not the slightest ... but I have been
thinking in terms of one."

Storch smiled evilly. "That would have been absurd in any case. There
are always a score or so of bystanders who ..."

"Yes, of course, of course. Just so!" Fred interrupted.

Storch laid his pipe aside and drained a half-filled glass of red wine
standing beside his plate.

"I think I've turned a very neat trick," he said, smacking his lips in
satisfaction. "It's almost like a Greek tragedy - Hilmer, his wife, and
yours in one fell swoop, and at your hand. There is an artistic unity
about this affair that has been lacking in some of my other triumphs."

Fred rose again, and this time he turned squarely on Storch as he
asked:

"How long have you and Mrs. Hilmer been plotting this together?"

Storch's eyes widened in surprise. "You're getting keener every
moment... Well, you've asked a fair question. I planted that maid in
the house soon after I knew the story."

"After the fever set me to prattling?"

"Precisely."

Fred Starratt stood motionless for a moment, but presently he began to
laugh.

Storch looked annoyed, then rather puzzled. Fred took the hint and
fell silent. For the first time since his escape from Fairview he was
experiencing the joy of alert and sharpened senses. He had ceased to
drift. From this moment on he would be struggling. And a scarcely
repressed joy rose within him.

That night Fred Starratt did not sleep. His mind was too clear, his
senses too alert. He was like a man coming suddenly out of a mist into
the blinding sunshine of some valley sheltered from the sea.

"Does it matter in the least whether there is one victim or six?"

He repeated Storch's question over and over again. Yes, it did
matter - why, he could not have said. But even in a vague way there had
been a certain point in winging Hilmer. Hilmer had grown to be more
and more an impersonal effigy upon which one could spew forth malice
and be forever at peace. He had fancied, too, that Hilmer was his
enemy. Yet, Hilmer had done nothing more than harry him. It was Storch
who had captured him completely.

It was not that Storch was unable to discover a score of men ready and
willing to murder Hilmer, but he was finding an ironic diversion in
shoving a weary soul to the brink. He liked to confirm his faith in
the power of sorrow and misery and bitterness ... he liked to triumph
over that healing curse of indifference which time accomplished with
such subtlety. He took a delight in cutting the heart and soul out of
his victims and reducing them to puppets stuffed with sawdust,
answering the slightest pressure of his hands. How completely Fred
Starratt understood all this now! And in the blinding flash of this
realization he saw also the hidden spring that had answered Storch's
pressure. Storch may have been prodding for rancor, but he really had
touched the mainspring of all false and empty achievement - vanity.

"Losing a wife isn't of such moment ... but to be laughed at - that is
another matter!"

The words with which Storch had held him up to the scorn of the crowd
swept him now with their real significance. He had been afraid to seem
uncourageous.

Thus also had Mrs. Hilmer prodded him with her sly "What do men do in
such cases?"

Thus, also, had the terrible realization of his love for Sylvia
Molineaux been turned to false account with a wish to still the
stinging wounds of pride forever.

He had made just such empty gestures when he had battled for an
increase in salary, using Hilmer's weapons instead of his own, and
again when he had committed himself to Fairview with such a theatrical
flourish. He had performed then, he was performing now, with an eye to
his audience. And his audience had done then, and was doing now, what
it always did - treated him with the scorn men feel for any and all who
play down to them.

Already Storch was sneering with the contempt of a man too sure of his
power. He would not have risked the details of his plan otherwise. And
deep down Fred Starratt knew that the first duty to his soul was to be
rid of Storch at any cost - after that, perhaps, it would not matter
whether he had one or six or a hundred victims marked for destruction.
He was afraid of Storch and he had now to prove his courage to
himself.

It was at the blackest hour before dawn that this realization grew to
full stature. He raised himself upon his elbow, listening to the heavy
breathing of Storch. He rose cautiously. Now was his chance. He would
escape while his conviction was still glistening with the freshness of
crystallization. Moving with a catlike tread toward the door, he put
his hand upon the knob. It turned noisily. He heard Storch leap to his
feet. He stood quite still until Storch came up to him.

"Go back to bed ... where you belong!" Storch was commanding, coolly,
with a shade of menace in his voice.

He shuffled back to his couch. He was no longer afraid of Storch, but
a certain craftiness suddenly possessed him.

Presently he heard a key turn and he felt himself to be completely in
the hands of his jailer. Yet the locked door became at once the symbol
of both Storch's strength and weakness. Storch was determined to have
either his body or his soul. And, at that moment, Fred Starratt made
his choice.

Next morning Storch was up early and bustling about with unusual
clatter.

"Get up!" he cried, gayly, to Fred. "Do you realize this is Friday?...
There are a thousand details to attend to."

Fred pretended to find Storch's manner infectious. He had never seen
anyone so eager, so thrilling with anticipation.

"I've got to buy you a new outfit complete," Storch went on, filling
the coffeepot with water. "And you must be shaved and shorn and made
human-looking again. Rags are well enough to wrap discontent in ...
but one should have a different make-up for achievement... What was
the matter last night?"

"Oh, a bit of panic, I guess," Fred returned, nonchalantly. "But I'm
all right this morning."

Storch rubbed his hands in satisfaction, and he smiled continually.

They went out shortly after nine o'clock and in San Francisco's embryo
ghetto at McAllister and Fillmore streets they bought a decent-looking
misfit suit and a pair of second-hand shoes, to say nothing of a
bargain in shirts. A visit to a neighboring barber followed. Storch
permitted Fred to enter the shop alone, but he stood upon the corner
and waited.

When the barber finished, Fred was startled. Standing before the
mirror he gazed at his smooth-shaven cheek again and trembled. It was
like a resurrection. Even Storch was startled. Fred caught a
suggestion of doubt in the gaze his jailer threw at him. It was almost
as if Storch said:

"You are not the man I thought you."

After that Fred had a sense that Storch watched him more narrowly.
Impulses toward forcing the issue at once assailed Fred, but he was
too uncertain as to the outcome. He decided that the safest thing was
to wait until the very last moment, trying to prolong the issue until
it would be too late for Storch to lay other plans.

They went back to the shack for a bite of lunch. After they had eaten,
Fred put on his new clothes. He felt now completely cut off from the
cankerous life which had been so deliberately eating its way into his
philosophy. Could it be possible that clothes did in some mysterious
way make the man? Would his unkempt beard and gaping shoes and
tattered clothing have kept him nearer the path of violence?

A little after three o'clock in the afternoon a man came to the door
and handed Storch a carefully wrapped package. They did not exchange a
word. Storch took the package and stowed it away in a corner, covering
it with a ragged quilt.

"That is the bomb!" flashed through Fred's mind.

From that moment on this suggestive corner of the room was filled with
a mysterious fascination. It was like living on the edge of a volcano.

Later in the day he said to Storch:

"Are you sure the maker of that bomb was skillful?"

Storch bared his green teeth.

"One is sure of nothing!" he snapped back.

Fred tried to appear nonchalant. "Aren't you rather bold, having this
thing delivered in broad daylight?"

"What have we to fear?"

"I thought we were being watched."

Storch threw back his head and roared with laughter. "_You_ have been
watched ... if that's what you mean. I never believe in taking any
unnecessary chances."

Fred made no reply. But a certain contempt for Storch that hitherto
had been lacking rose within him. He had always fancied certain
elements of bigness in this man in spite of his fanaticism. Suddenly
he was conscious that his silence had evoked a subtle uneasiness in
Storch. At this moment he laughed heartily himself as he rose from his
seat, slapping Storch violently on the back as he cried:

"Upon my word, Storch, you're a master hand! No matter what happens
now, at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that I was
perfectly stage-managed."

They kept close to the house until nearly midnight. At a few moments
to twelve Storch drew a flask of smuggled brandy from his hip pocket.

"Here, take a good drink!" he said, passing the bottle to Fred.

Fred did as he was bidden. Storch followed suit.

"Would you like a turn in the open?" Storch inquired, not unkindly.

"Yes," Fred assented.

They put on their hats. When they were outside Storch made a little
gesture of surrender. "You lead ... I'll follow," he said,
indulgently.

The night was breathless - still touched with the vagrant warmth of an
opulent April day. The spring of blossoming acacias was over, but an
even fuller harvest of seasonal unfolding was sweeping the town. A
fragrant east wind was flooding in from the blossom-starred valleys,
and vacant lots yielded up a scent of cool, green grass. A
soul-healing quality released itself from the heavily scented
air - hidden and mysterious beauties of both body and spirit that sent
little thrills through Fred Starratt. He had never been wrapped in a
more exquisite melancholy - not even during the rain-raked days at
Fairview. He knew that Storch was by his side, but, for the moment,
this sinister personality seemed to lose its power and he felt Monet
near him. It was as it had been during those days upon Storch's couch
with death beckoning - the nearer he approached the dead line, the more
distinctly he saw Monet. To-night his vision was clouded, but a keener
intuition gave him the sense of Monet's presence. He knew that he was
standing close to another brink.

For a time he surrendered completely to this luxury of feeling, as if
it strengthened him to find stark reality threaded with so much
haunting beauty. But he discovered himself suddenly yearning for the
poetry of life rather than the poetry of death. He wanted to live,
realizing completely that to-morrow might seal everything. He was not
afraid, but he was alive, very much alive - so alive that he found
himself rising triumphant from sorrow and shame and disillusionment.

He came out of his musings with a realization that Storch was
regarding him with that puzzled air which his moods were beginning to
evoke. And almost at the same time he was conscious that their feet
were planted upon that selfsame corner past which Ginger walked at
midnight. He put a hand on Storch's shoulder.

"Let us wait here a few moments," he said. "I am feeling a little
tired."

A newsboy bellowing the latest edition of the paper broke an unusual
and almost profound stillness.

"There doesn't seem to be many people about to-night," Fred observed,
casually.

Storch sneered. "To-day is Good Friday, I believe... Everyone has
grown suddenly pious."

Fred turned his attention to the windows of a tawdry candy shop,
filled with unhealthy-looking chocolates and chromatic sweets. He was
wondering whether Ginger would pass again to-night. His musings were
answered by the suggestive pressure of Storch's hand on his.

"There's a skirt on the Rialto, anyway," Storch was saying, with
disdain.

Fred kept his gaze fixed upon the candy-shop window. He was afraid to
look up. Could it be that Ginger was passing before him, perhaps for
the last time? He caught the vague reflection of a feminine form in
the plate-glass window. A surge of relief swept him - at least she was
alone!

"She's looking back!" Storch volunteered.

Fred turned. The woman had gained the doorway of the place where she


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 15 of 17)