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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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lodged and she was standing with an air of inconsequence as if she had
nothing of any purpose on her mind except an appreciation of the
night's dark beauty. He looked at her steadily ... It _was_ Ginger!

She continued to stand, immobile, wrapped in the sinister patience of
her calling. Fred could not take his eyes from her.

"She's waiting for you," Storch said.

Fred smiled wanly.

"Do you want to go? ... If you do I'll wait - here!"

Fred tried to conceal his conflicting emotions. He did not want to
betray his surprise at Storch's sudden and irrational indiscretion.

"Well, if you don't mind," he began to flounder, "I'll - "

Storch gave him a contemptuous shove. "Go on ... go on!" he cried,
almost impatiently, and the next moment Fred Starratt found himself at
Ginger's side... For an instant she stood transfixed as she lifted her
eyes to his.

"Don't scream!" he commanded between his locked lips. "I don't want
that man to know that - "

She released her breath sharply. "Shall we go in?" she whispered.

He nodded. Storch was pretending to be otherwise absorbed, but Fred
knew that he had been intent on their pantomime.

Her room was bare, pitifully bare, swept clean of all the tawdry
fripperies that one might expect from such an environment and
circumstance. She motioned him wearily to an uncompromising chair,
standing herself with an air of profound resignation as she leaned
against the cheaply varnished bureau.

"Is this the first time - " she began, and stopped short.

"No ... I've watched you every night for nearly two weeks."

"What was the idea?" she threw out, with an air of banter.

He stood up suddenly. "I wanted to see how much I _could_ stand," he
answered.

She closed her eyes for a moment ... her immobility was full of
tremulous fear and hope.

"Ah!" she said, finally. "So you did care, after all!"

"Yes ... when it was too late."

She crossed over to him, putting one wan finger on his trembling lips
in protest. She did not speak, but he read the thrilling simplicity of
her silence completely. "Love is never too late!" was what her
eloquent gesture implied.

He thrust her forward at arm's length, searching her eyes. "You are
right," he said, slowly. "And yet it can be bitter!"

She released herself gently. "You shouldn't have watched me like that
... it wasn't fair."

"I didn't think you would ever know... And that first night I didn't
intend to watch ... not really. After that it got to be habit...
You've no idea the capacity for suffering an unhappy man can acquire."

She took off her hat and flung it on the bed. "What made you follow me
to-night?"

"You came out of a clear sky ... when I needed you most ... as you
have always done... I didn't think I could ever escape that man
waiting for me below - not even for an instant... To-morrow, at this
time, I may be dead ... or worse."

"Dead?"

"To-morrow, at noon, I'm scheduled to blow up Axel Hilmer... There
will be five others in the party ... my wife and his among them."

Her body was rigid ... only her lips moved. "You are going to do it?"

"No."

She passed a fluttering hand over her forehead. "But you spoke of
death..."

He smiled bitterly. "Either I shall be dead - or the man waiting for me
on the street corner... I shall not tell him my decision until the
last moment. I don't want to give him the chance to work in an
understudy or complete the job himself... Will you go to Hilmer
to-morrow and warn him?... He arrives from the south at the Third and
Townsend depot somewhere around eleven o'clock. Advise him to postpone
the launching. And have the approaches to the shipyards combed for
radicals... Let them watch particularly for a man with a kodak on the
roof of the stores opposite the north gate."

She picked up her hat quickly. "I'll go out now and warn the police
... indirectly. I have ways, you know."

He put out a restraining hand. "No ... that's risky. My friend Storch
has spies everywhere. He's giving me a little rope here ... he may be
waiting just to see how foolishly I use it. If you lie low until
to-morrow there will be less of a chance of things going wrong...
Besides, I owe this man something. He's fed and sheltered me. I'm
going to give him an even break. You would do that much, I'm sure."

She threw her arms suddenly about him. "Let me go down to him," she
whispered. "Perhaps I can persuade him. Maybe he'll go away, then, and
leave you in peace."

He stroked her hair. "No, I can't escape him now. Sooner or later he
would get me. You don't understand his power. All my life I've dodged
issues. But now I've run up against a stone wall. Either I scale it or
I break my neck in the attempt."

She shivered as if his touch filled her with an exquisite fear as she
drew away.

"I'm wondering if you are quite real," she said, wistfully. "Sometimes
I've thought of you as dead, and, again, it didn't seem possible...
Always at night upon the street I've really looked for you. In every
face that stared at me I had a hope that your eyes would answer
mine... I think I've looked for you all my life... It isn't always
necessity that drives a woman to the streets... Sometimes it is the
search for happiness... I suppose you can't understand that..."

"I understand anything you tell me _now_!"

She went over to him again and took his hand. "You _are_ real, aren't
you?... Because I couldn't bear it ... if I were to wake up and find
this all a dream... Nothing else matters ... nothing in my whole life
... but this moment. And when it is over nothing will ever matter ...
again."

He sat there stroking her hand foolishly. There were no words with
which to answer her... Presently she put her lips close to his and he
kissed her, and he knew then that only a woman who had tasted the
bitter wormwood of infamy could put such purity into a kiss. How many
times she must have hungered for this moment! How many times must she
have felt her soul rising to her lips only to find it betrayed!

He loved her for her words and he loved her for her silence. Once he
would have sat waiting passionately for her to defend herself. He
would have been tricked into believing that any course of action
_could_ be justified. But she brought no charges, she placed no blame,
she offered no excuse. "It isn't always necessity that drives a woman
to the streets!" It took a great soul to be that honest. She might
have reproached him, too, for his neglect of her - for his fear to take
his happiness on any terms. But all she had said was, "You shouldn't
have watched me like that ... it wasn't fair."

He rose, finally, shaking himself into the world of reality again.

"I must be going now," he said, quietly. "Storch will begin to be
impatient."

She picked a gilt hairpin from the floor. "Let me see if I've got
everything straight. To-morrow at eleven o'clock I am to see Hilmer
and tell him to postpone the launching. And to watch at the north gate
for a man with a kodak... And then?"

He reached for his hat. "If you do not hear from me you might come and
look me up. I'll be at Storch cottage on Rincon Hill ... at the foot
of Second Street. Anyone about can tell you which house is his."

Her lips were an ashen gray. "You mean you'll be there ... _dead?_"

"If you are afraid ..."

"_Afraid!_" She drew herself up proudly.

"Well ... there is danger for you, too... I should have thought of
that!"

"You do not understand even now." She went and stood close to him. "I
_love_ you ... can't you realize that?"

He felt suddenly abashed, as if he stood convicted of being a cup too
shallow to hold her outpouring.

"Good-by," he whispered.

She closed her eyes, lifting her brow for his waiting kiss. The heavy
perfume of her hair seemed to draw his soul to a prodigal outpouring.
He found her lips again, clasping her close.

"Good-by," he heard her answer.

And at that moment he felt the mysterious Presence that had swept so
close to him on that heartbreaking Christmas Eve at Fairview.




CHAPTER XXII


Storch was standing at the lodging-house door when Fred stepped into
the street.

"Well, what now?" Storch inquired, with mock politeness.

"Let's go home!" Fred returned, emphatically.

Almost as soon as the phrase had escaped him he had a sense of its
grotesqueness. Home! Yes, he had to admit that he felt a certain
affection for that huddled room which had witnessed so much spiritual
travail. Somehow its dusty rafters seemed saturated with a human
quality, as if they had imprisoned all the perverse longings and
bitter griefs of the company that once sat in the dim lamplight and
chanted their litany of hate. He never really had been a part of this
company ... he never really had been a part of any company. At the
office of Ford, Wetherbee & Co., at Fairview, at Storch's gatherings,
he had mingled with his fellow-men amiably or tolerantly or
contemptuously, as the case might be, but never with sympathy or
understanding. He knew now the reason - he always had judged them, even
to the last moment, using the uncompromising foot rule of prejudice,
inherent or acquired. In the old days he had thought of these
prejudices as standards, mistaking aversions for principles. He had
tricked his loves, his hates, his preferences in a masquerade of
pretenses ... he had labels for everybody and he pigeonholed them with
the utmost promptitude. A man was a murderer or a saint or a
bricklayer, and he was nothing else. But at this moment, standing in
the light-flooded entrance to Ginger's lodgings, waiting for Storch to
lead him back to his figurative cell, he knew that a man could be a
murderer and a saint and a bricklayer and a thousand other things
besides. And if he were to sit again about that round table of
violence and despair he felt that, while he might find much to stir
hatred, he would never again give scope to contempt.

"You want to go home, eh?" Storch was repeating, almost with a note of
obscene mirth. "Well, our walk has been quieting, at all events."

Fred Starratt said nothing. He was not in a mood for talk. But when
they were inside the house again, with the cracked lamp shade spilling
a tempered light about the room, he turned to Storch and said,
quietly:

"I sha'n't go to sleep to-night, Storch... You throw yourself on the
couch; I've kept you from it long enough."

Storch made a movement toward the door.

"Don't bother to lock it ... I'm not going to run away. I'm not quite
a fool! I know that if I did try anything like that I wouldn't get
farther than the edge of the cliff."

Storch gave him a puzzled glance. Fred could see that he was
uncertain, baffled... But in the end he turned away from the unlocked
door with a shrug.

Fred Starratt smiled with inner satisfaction. He was glad that he had
come back to give Storch that "even break." It was something of an
achievement to have compelled Storch's faith in so slight a thing as a
literal honesty.

But Storch didn't take the couch. He threw his coat aside and crept
into his wretched pile of quilts on the floor, as he said:

"You may want to snatch forty winks or so before the night is over."

There was a warm note in his voice, a bit of truant fatherliness that
added an element of grotesqueness to the situation. He might have used
the same words and tone to a son about to take the highroad to fortune
on the morrow. Or to a lad determined to start upon a sunrise fishing
trip, and impatient of the first flush of dawn. After all, it took
great simplicity to approach the calamitous moments of life through
the channels of the commonplace.

Presently Storch was snoring with the zest which he always brought to
sleep. The night air had chilled the room past the point of comfort
and the lamp seemed to make little headway with its thin volume of
ascending warmth. Fred wrapped himself in a blanket and sat half
shivering in the gloom. At first, detached and unrelated thoughts ran
through his brain, but gradually his musing assumed a coherence.
To-morrow, at this time, he might be either a hunted murderer or a
victim himself of Storch's desperation. In any case, he would be
furnishing the text for many a newspaper sermon. How eagerly they
would trace his downfall, sniffing out the salacious bits for the
furtive enjoyment of the chemically pure! For there would be salacious
bits. Had he not spent the preceding night in the company of a fallen
woman? One by one the facts would be brought out, added to and
subtracted from, until the whole affair was a triumph of the transient
story-teller art, unrelieved by the remotest flash of understanding.
They would interview his former employers first. Mr. Ford would say:

"A steady, conscientious, faithful employee until he became bitten
with parlor radicalism."

And Brauer, rather frightened, yet garrulous, would add, for want of
anything better:

"An honest partner until he began hitting the booze."

There would be his wife, too. "I did all I could. Stood by him to the
last ... even when I discovered that there was another woman."

The authorities at Fairview would doubtless add their note to the
general chorus:

"An exceptional patient. He seemed to have planned deliberately to get
our confidence and then betray it... He was directly responsible for
Felix Monet's death. Without his influence Monet would never have
thought of escape."

And in summing up, the police would declare:

"A bad actor from the word go. One of the sort who reach a certain
point in respectability and then run amuck. A danger to the community
because of his brains."

But what of Hilmer? Fred Starratt had a feeling that Hilmer would be
discreet to a point of silence.

He could see every printed phrase as plainly as if he were reading it
all himself. How many times in the old days had he not perused some
such story over his morning coffee, thanking himself unconsciously
that he was not as other men! How perfectly and smugly he had played
the Pharisee for his own delight and satisfaction! He had not bothered
then to cry his virtues aloud in the market place or to thank God
publicly for his salvation. No, he was too self-sufficient to take the
trouble to advertise his worthiness.

To-night he was on the brink of disaster, and yet he found himself
shuddering at the colorless fate to which his complacence might have
condemned him. To have gone on forever in a state of drowsy
contentment ... to have been surrounded on all sides by the thunderous
cataracts of life and caught only the pretty significance of rainbows
through the spray ... to have remained untouched by any and every
primitive impulse and feeling - he could not now imagine anything more
tragic. And yet, to-morrow, people would hold up the desirability of
his former estate, pointing to him in warning for the soft-armed
profit of an oncoming generation. He saw himself as he might have
been, going on to the end of time in the service of Ford, Wetherbee &
Co., rising from map clerk to counter man, to special agent, perhaps
even to a managership, writing sharp or conciliatory letters to agents
according to their importance, trimming office expense and shaving
salaries, heckling green office boys, and, his workday ended, going
home to _The Literary Digest_ and Helen, fresh from the triumphs of
the golf links or the card table. Yes, no doubt Helen would have
matched his own rise in fortune with equal gentility. Perhaps he might
have taken an hour between office closing and dinner to wield a golf
club himself ... bringing back a desirable guest to dinner or
proposing through the telephone to Helen that they dine at the Palace
or St. Francis... Yes, even at best his imagination could not do more
with the material in hand. Indeed, he knew that he had crowded the
very most that was possible on so small a canvas.

This, then, had been his unconscious life plan, his unvoiced fate.
Thus had he sketched it hazily, as a teller of tales sketches the plot
of a story, such and such a sum being the total of all the characters
and circumstances. But as he had gone on developing it, suddenly a new
character had appeared to change the final figures - a wrench thrown
into the wheel of continuity ... a wrench that bore the name of Axel
Hilmer... He felt no bitterness now for the man. Had he ever felt it?

Axel Hilmer had long ceased to be a living personality to Fred
Starratt. Instead, he had taken on almost the significance of a
strange divinity ... an eternal questioner. At their very first
meeting he had started the ferment in Fred Starratt's soul with the
directness of his interrogations. He was not a man who declared his
own faiths ... he merely asked you to prove yours. The questions he
had asked Fred Starratt on that first night had been insignificant in
themselves. Why was it ridiculous for a butcher to want an eight-hour
day? Why should one have the firm's interest at heart? And yet the
sparks from such verbal flint stones had kindled a revolt that had
wrecked Fred Starratt's complacence.

One's sight becomes strengthened to destructive ideas by gradual
perception. And ideas of any kind are destructive flashed on
consciousness unawares. Fred had thought at first that Hilmer had but
opened his eyes to things standing in his range of vision, when, as a
matter of fact, Hilmer had merely loaned him his spectacles.
Everything he had seen from that first moment had been through
Hilmer's medium. A wise man would have proceeded slowly, building
himself up for the struggle. But Fred Starratt had had all the wistful
enthusiasm of a fool seeking to achieve power overnight. Yes, only a
fool could have been ashamed of his heritage. And when Hilmer had
placed him calmly in the ranks of the middle class the wine of content
had turned suddenly sour. A year ago his efforts were being directed
at escape from so contemptuous a characterization; to-night he was
content to acknowledge the impeachment and find a pride in the
circumstance. And, as he sat there shivering in the gloom of Storch's
cracked lamp, he had a vision of this scorned company to which he
unquestionably belonged, sterile and barren in the glare of accepted
standards, broken gradually by the plowshare of disillusionment and
harrowed to great potentialities by a deeper sense of their faiths and
needs. Yes, he had a conviction that what could take place in one soul
could take place in the soul of the mass ... he had not changed his
standards so much as he had proved them. The shape and color and
perfume of love and loyalty and faith had not been altered for him,
but he could discover their blossoming among the shadowy places.

At a black hour, before the first greenish glow was quickening the
east, he tiptoed and stood gazing down at Storch. He had never seen a
face more placid and untroubled. He felt that any man must have an
extraordinary sense of self-righteousness to yield so completely to
serenity in the face of deliberate crime. But Storch was of the stuff
of which all fanatics were made. Ends to him always justified means.
Of such were the Inquisitors of Spain, the Puritans of the
Reformation, the radicals of to-day. They had neither doubts nor fears
nor pity, and the helmets of their faith were a screen behind which
they hid their overweening egotism. They were ever seeking to entrap
humanity and humanity was forever in the end eluding them. And if
Hilmer were the eternal questioner made flesh, the gamekeeper beating
the furtive birds from the brush, this man Storch was the eternal
hunter, at once patient and relentless for his quarry.

And now the hunter slept with a smile on his lips. Of what could he be
dreaming? Was it possible to dream of smile-fashioning themes with
potential destruction within a stone's throw? In a corner of this
room, in a well-packed square case, reposed the force that, once set
in motion at the proper or miscalculated moment, could hurl both
Storch and Fred Starratt to eternity, and yet Storch slept
undisturbed. Well, was not the broader canvas of life full of just
such profound faith or profound indifference? Did not society itself
sleep with the repressed hatreds of the submerged waiting their
appointed season? And while new worlds flew flaming from the wheel of
creation, and old ones died in an eye's twinkling, did not the race
dream on contemptuous of the changes which lurked in the restless
heavens? Yes, the meanest coward in existence had his innate courage
and there was a note of bravery in life on any terms.

Fred stood before Storch's sleeping form a long time, and all manner
of impulses stirred him. There was even a moment when it came to him
that he might fall upon his gaoler while he slept and achieve a swift
freedom. And every ignoble murder of legend or history beckoned him
with the hands of red expediency. He ended by going to the door and
opening it cautiously as he had done the night before. But this time
the operation was more skillful and no warning click disturbed the
slumberer. He crept out into the night, down the cliff's edge, looking
back for the betraying shadow of a hidden spy. But there seemed to be
nothing to block his freedom. A virginal moon was languishing upon the
western rim of hills...a solitary cock crew lustily...occasional
footfalls floated up from the paved streets below...a cart rumbled in
the gloom. All these noises of the night were extraordinarily
friendly...like the smothered murmurings of a youth escaping from the
chains of sleep in pleasant dreaming.

A swarm of platitudes surging through his brain urged him to flight.
But in the end self-esteem gave him his final cue, and he knew in a
flash how futile would be any truce with cowardice. A locked door
would have justified escape, but in the face of an unlatched threshold
there was only one course conceivable.

Fred Starratt went back and wrapped himself in his blanket. Toward
daylight Storch arose and filled a pot with coffee. But neither spoke
a word.




CHAPTER XXIII


As Storch cleared away the primitive evidences of the morning meal and
stood before the sink letting a thin trickle of cold water wash clean
the cups he said:

"If we get the ten-o'clock boat to Oakland we will be in plenty of
time."

Starratt rolled a cigarette. "Ah, then you are going, too!"

"Naturally," Storch replied, as he turned off the water.

Fred began to dress himself carefully. Storch loaned him an
indifferent razor. The shaving process was slow but in the end it was
accomplished. Fred was amazed at the freshness of his appearance. Only
once before in his life had he deliberately sat up all night without
either the desire or determination to sleep, and that was on that
night which now seemed so remote when he had felt the first budding of
Helen's scorn. He recalled that he had been just as alert and
clear-minded on the following morning as he was now. And just as
uncertain as to what the future held in store.

Storch also made a careful toilet - for him. He rummaged for a clean
flannel shirt, combed his reddish beard, dusted off his clumsy boots.
But they were ready much too soon, like a couple of children promptly
dressed for an excursion, impatiently awaiting the hour of departure.
Of the two, Storch evinced the more nervousness. He poked into nooks
and corners of the room upon all sorts of pretended orderliness. Fred
sat and eyed him calmly - smoking cigarette after cigarette. Finally,
Storch lifted the kodak case from its hiding place and set it on the
center table. Cautiously he pried loose the false top and peered into
its depths. There followed a tense moment during which he bent in a
close inspection over its fascinating depths. Presently Fred caught a
distinct ticking sound, and he knew that Storch had set in motion the
clock upon which depended the bomb's explosion at the appointed hour.
But withal he remained curiously unmoved.

The cry of a belated newsboy floated through the open front door.
Storch went out and bought a paper, flinging a section of it at Fred.
A thickly headlined account of the launching at the Hilmer yards
occupied chief place on the first page of the local news section.
There was a picture of the hull that had been put through on schedule
time in spite of strikes and lockouts, and another one of Hilmer, and
a second photograph of a woman. Fred looked twice before he realized
that the face of his wife was staring up at him from the printed
sheet. Helen Starratt was to be the ship's sponsor and there was a
pretty and touching story in this connection. It had always been Mrs.
Hilmer's ambition to christen a seagoing giant, and she had been
chosen to act as godmother to a huge oil-tanker only a year before,


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 16 of 17)