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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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but a serious accident had laid her low. Now, though she was unable to
perform the rite herself, she had intrusted her part to her faithful
friend, Mrs. Starratt. It was to be done by proxy, as it were, with
Mrs. Hilmer carried to the grand stand, where she was to repeat the
mystic formula, giving the ship a name at the moment when Helen
Starratt brought the foaming bottle of champagne crashing against the
vessel's side. The whole article, even down to this obvious dash of
"sob stuff," was at once Hilmer's challenge to the strikers and his
appeal to the gallery. There was a certain irony in realizing that all
these carefully planned effects had been seized upon for Hilmer's own
undoing. He was working in the dark, very much as Fred Starratt had
worked during those heartbreaking months when he had battled for place
in the business world. Then Hilmer had held him in the palm of his
hand. Now the situation was reversed - he held Axel Hilmer's fate in
his own keeping, and it was his finger that would spin the wheel of
destiny. Any fool could demand an eye for an eye; so much for so much
was the cut-and-dried morality of the market place. It took a poet to
bestow a wage out of all proportion to the workday, to turn the cheek
of humility to the blows of arrogance, to commend the extravagant gift
of the magdalene. And it was the poetry of life, after all, which
counted. Fred Starratt knew that now. A year ago he had thought of
poetry as strings of high-sounding words which produced a pleasant
mental reaction, something abstract and exotic. He had never fancied
that poetry was a thing to be seen and understood and lived, and that
such common things as bread and wine and love and hatred were shot
through with the pure gold of mystery. Once, if he had been moved to
magnanimity it would have been through an impulse of weak and
bloodless sentimentality ... now he had risen to generosity on the
wings of a supreme indifference, a magnificent contempt for
unessentials, a full-blooded understanding. Not that he had achieved a
cold and pallid philosophy ... a system of lukewarm expediencies. He
could still be swept by gusts of feeling ... he could even risk his
life to preserve it.

He turned the pages of the newspaper over mechanically, reading word
upon word which held not the slightest meaning. He felt Storch's eyes
upon him, drawn, no doubt, by a mixture of subtle doubts and vague
appraisals. His thoughts flew to Ginger. What was she doing at this
moment? Was there any chance of _her_ failure? For answer another
question shaped itself: Had she _ever_ failed? Yet, this time she was
beset with dangers. And in his imagination he saw her treading the
thin ice of destiny with the same glorified contempt which lured him
to the poetical depths of life... And again Monet was at his side...
vague, mysterious, impalpable, the essence of things unseen but hoped
for, the solved riddle made spirit, the vast patience of eternity
realized. And still Storch's restless eyes were fixed upon him.

Presently he heard Storch's voice coming to his ears out of a friendly
dusk:

"It's nine-thirty...I guess we had better be moving."

He did not stir at first...he merely sat staring at Storch, very much
as a man waking suddenly and not yet alive to the precise details of
his environment. "Moving...where?" he finally inquired.

Storch crumpled the newspaper in his hand viciously. "Come...you've
been dreaming!" he flung out. "That's dangerous!"

Fred braced himself in his chair. "I'm not going," he said, quietly.
"I've changed my mind!"

Storch's mouth widened, not in a smile this time, but in a vicious
snarl. He took out a cheap watch from his pocket, glanced at it, and
put it back.

"It's just twenty-five minutes to ten," he said, quietly. "I'll give
you five more minutes."

Fred put both his arms upon the cluttered table, leaning forward, as
he answered:

"Nothing can alter my decision now, Storch... You should have known
better than to have counted on one of my sort...In the end, you see,
my standards _have_ shackled me."

"Counted on your sort!" Storch laughed back, sarcastically. "Do you
suppose for one moment that I ever count on anyone?... I like a game
of chance ... that's why I chose you. I like to triumph in spite of a
poor hand ... and you have been in some ways the poorest deal I've
ever risked a play on. But if I'd gotten you I'd have chuckled to my
dying day ... even in spite of the fact that it would have shattered
all my theories. I catch my fish upon the lowest and highest tides ...
slack water never yields much."

He was rising to his feet. His face was a placid mask, but his voice
dripped venom. Fred matched his movements with equal quiet.

"Still you did have hopes for me," Fred threw at him in grim raillery.
"I may have been the poorest prospect, but I have been the most
uncertain also... You might just as well admit that."

He saw Storch's eyes widen at the arrogance of this unexpected thrust.

"Slack water is always uncertain," Storch replied, "unless you know
which turn in the tide is to follow."

They stood gazing at each other for a fraction of time, which seemed
eternity. And in that swift and yet prolonged exchange of glances Fred
Starratt read Storch's purpose completely...

There followed a moment of swift action in which Storch made a clipt
movement toward his hip pocket, and in a trice Fred Starratt felt
himself bear quickly down upon the shattered lamp, grasp it firmly in
his two hands, and bring it crashing against Storch's upflung
forehead.

He was not conscious of seeing Storch crumple over, but he felt a thud
shake the cluttered room to its foundations... He went over quietly
and closed the open door. Then he put on his hat. Storch lay quite
still and an ugly red pool was already luring flies to a crimson
feast. The floor was covered with bits of shattered glass glistening
in the sun.

Presently he opened the door again. A child had crept up to the
doorstep and sat prattling to her tattered doll. He stepped aside so
as not to disturb her, shut the door with a sharp bang, and walked
swiftly to the edge of the cliff. But this time he plunged down. He
looked back once. Not a soul followed him.




CHAPTER XXIV


He was sitting on a pile of lumber when, an hour later, his thoughts
began to run in rational channels again. Before him lay a patch of
gray-green bay, flanked on either side by wharves upon which two
black-hulled lumber schooners were disgorging their resinous cargo.
The strike of the longshoremen was still in progress and the
Embarcadero as good as deserted. Armed guards paraded before the
entrance to the docks and only occasional idlers sunned themselves and
viewed the silent and furtive loading of restive craft straining at
their moorings.

He began to wonder dimly whether he had left Storch dead or merely
stunned, and, granting either alternative, how definitely this
circumstance would halt the plot against Hilmer's life. It was
conceivable to him now that Storch might have provided against the
possibility of failure, given the role of assassin into the hands of
an understudy, to be exact. Suppose Ginger should fail in her warning?
Not that he doubted her, but there was a chance that she had been
hedged about with all manner of difficulties - perhaps even death.
Suddenly with an arresting irrelevance he thought of the child upon
Storch's doorstep, hugging her doll close, and as swiftly he
remembered the black kodak case upon the center table. He wondered if
the child were still sitting there ... Perhaps, by this time, a swarm
of children were tumbling about the weather-beaten steps. He asked a
passer-by the hour. Eleven-thirty! In fifteen more minutes, if the
ticking clock within that sinister case performed its function,
Storch's dwelling would be tumbling in upon his prostrate body. And,
in the face of this, children might be prattling before the threshold.
He must go back again!

He jumped to his feet and began to run. In an instant a conflagration
of potential disasters leaped up from the spark of the immediate
danger. He flew along faster, colliding with irate pedestrians,
escaping the wheels of skimming automobiles ... Presently the familiar
cliff and the tawny path scaling it loomed ahead. He began to climb
upward, almost on all-fours, digging his finger nails into the yellow
clay in an instinctive effort to pull himself forward. Finally he
gained the top ... The street, somnolent with approaching noon, was
deserted - the child had disappeared. He recovered his whirling senses
and looked again. This time he saw that the door of the shack stood
open. He took a step forward. A figure loomed in the doorway. He
shaded his eyes from the sun's glare and narrowed his lids. It was a
woman!

The unexpectedness of this presence overwhelmed him as completely as
if he had seen an apparition. For an instant he did not grasp its
significance.

Then, in another moment, understanding began to flood in upon him. He
felt a great weakness ... but he managed to make a trumpet with his
hands, calling in a voice that sounded remote:

"Come out! For God's sake, come out!"

He saw the woman start back in a movement of quick confusion, and
heard himself call again, this time with muffled agony:

"Ginger!"

There was a tremendous roar ... he felt a shower of stones hitting him
sharply in the face ... He pressed forward ... sheets of flame were
leaping greedily toward the sky and a string of people poured out into
the sun-baked street.

At midnight Fred Starratt, making his way from the outlying districts
toward the center of the town, came out of a mental turmoil that had
flung him about all day in a series of blind impulses. The air was
raucous with the shrill cry of newsboys announcing the details of the
morning's sensation. He knew how the journalistic tale would run
without bothering to glimpse the headlines. At this time it would be
made up for the most part of vague speculations as to who was the
prime mover of the enterprise.

The moments following the disaster were now fathomless, but he fancied
that he had been outwardly cool, chilled into subconscious calculation
by the very violence of the shock ... The frenzy had come later when
he found himself aboard a ferryboat bound for Oakland. He could not
disentangle the mixed impulses which had sent him upon this irrational
errand, but he remembered now that a consuming desire to see Hilmer
had possessed him. Perhaps an itching for revenge again had sprung
into life, perhaps a fury to release a measure of his scorn and
contempt, perhaps a mere curiosity to glimpse once more this man whose
armor of arrogance remained unpierced ... Whatever the urge, it had
keyed him to a quivering determination. He had wondered what stupidity
possessed him to send Ginger in warning to a man like Hilmer. ... With
almost psychic power he had created for himself the scene at the depot
with Ginger pouring her tremulous message into contemptuous ears. For
it was certain that Hilmer had been contemptuous. ... Afterward,
standing before the north gate of Hilmer's shipyards, a man at his
side confirmed his intuitions between irritating puffs from a
blackened pipe:

"Nobody can double-cross Hilmer ... and they'd better give up trying
... He said a launching at noon and it _was_ at noon, you can bet your
life on that! ... They say a woman tried to scare the old man this
morning ... He just laughed in her face and came on over."

Almost as the man had finished speaking the crowd surged forward. And
in a twinkling Hilmer's machine had swept past, leaving Fred,
trembling from head to foot, staring stupidly into a cloud of dust ...
He had not even glimpsed the occupants! But his failure to achieve
whatever vague plan was buffeting him about drove him back to San
Francisco. His confused mind had worked with the rational capacity for
details which characterizes madness. He knew that Hilmer must wait for
the automobile ferry...that the regular passenger boat would reach the
other side at least a half hour in advance.

He had been prepared this time for the appearance of Hilmer's car. It
came off the boat preceded by a thin line of automobiles, moving
slowly. ... For a moment he wondered how he would achieve his purpose,
and the next thing he knew he had leaped aboard the running board...
He remembered long after that his wife had given a cry, that Mrs.
Hilmer had stirred ever so slightly, that Hilmer's eyes had widened.
Then out of a tense moment of suppressed confusion he had heard his
wife's voice floating toward him as she said:

"Ah, then you were not drowned, after all!"

With amazing effrontery he threw open the door and pressed down the
emergency seat opposite her.

"No... I swam out of that black pool!"

A slight tremor ran through her. Mrs. Hilmer smiled.

Recalling the scene, he remembered how outwardly commonplace were the
moments which followed. Even Hilmer had been surprised into
banalities. Fred Starratt might have parted with them but yesterday,
for any indications to the contrary, and for an instant he had found
all sense of tragedy swallowed up in amazement at the passive tenacity
of the conventions.

But sitting there, facing this trio, each busy with his own swift
thought, it gradually dawned upon Fred Starratt that now they were
afraid of him. Like a captured and blinded Samson he was in a position
to bring the temple walls crashing down upon them all. _They_ might
elect to be silent, but what a voice _he_ could raise!... He had come
out of a chuckling silence to hear Hilmer saying between almost shut
teeth:

"I suppose you'll be needing money now, Starratt... Railroad rates
have all been raised."

He felt at that moment the same triumph as when Storch had turned the
key in its lock... Hilmer always did walk directly to his objective
... but there were times when subtleties had more power. He remembered
the quiet thrust of his own voice measuring his adversary's
expectancy:

"A man in my situation needs nothing, Hilmer ... least of all
_money_!"

He never forgot the look of contempt which Hilmer threw at him ... but
this time it had been a contempt for the unfathomable. Helen's face
was white; only Mrs. Hilmer had continued to smile ... a set, ghastly,
cruel smile of complete satisfaction. And, in the silence which
followed, it was Mrs. Hilmer's voice that brought them all back with a
start as she said:

"Well, here we are ... home again!"

It was the same voice that had broken in upon another tense situation
months before with:

"What nice corn pudding this is, Mrs. Starratt...Would you mind
telling me how you made it?"

Had they been moving in a circle since that fatal evening, Fred had
found himself wondering...or had he merely been dreaming?

The scene which followed had been unforgetable - the chauffeur and
Hilmer lifting Mrs. Hilmer into her wheeled chair; Helen Starratt
coming forward considerately with a steamer rug for the invalid's
comfort; Fred, standing outside the pale of all this activity like a
dreamer constructing stage directions for the puppets of his
imagination. And out of the almost placid atmosphere of domestic
bustle the voice of Mrs. Hilmer again breaking the stillness, this
time with a cool and knifelike precision as she said, turning her
pale, icy eyes on Helen Starratt:

"My dear, your nurse-girl days are over...We've had you a long time
and we can't be too selfish - now that your husband is back!"

Could Fred ever wipe from his memory the startled look which had swept
Helen's face as she released her hold on the wheeled chair? Or the
diabolical content with which Mrs. Hilmer settled back as she went on
slowly, clearly, as if the steady drip of her words fascinated her:

"You wouldn't want to stay here...this is no place for lovers...And,
besides, there isn't room for _two_!"

Helen's hands had fallen inertly at her sides as she stood facing
Hilmer, as if waiting for his decision. But he had made no move, he
merely had returned her gaze in equal silence. At that moment Mrs.
Hilmer's clawlike fingers closed over her husband's mangled thumb with
a clutch of triumph and she had turned with a painful twist to dart
her venomous scorn at Helen. A fortnight ago the doctors had given
Mrs. Hilmer a scant six months of life. But now Fred Starratt knew
that she would live as long as her spirits had vengeance to feed upon.

Thus had the door closed upon Hilmer and his crippled gaoler. Already
Helen Starratt had gained the street corner. Fred was seized with an
impulse to overtake her, but it had died as quickly. There was nothing
he could offer ... not even a lodging for the night. Instead he had
turned and walked briskly in an opposite direction.

* * * * *

As he drew nearer town the cries of the newsboys grew more insistent
... so insistent that Fred bought a paper. By this time they had
cleared away the charred wreckage of Storch's shack, discovering the
secret which its ruins had concealed. He found himself wondering how
soon they would link him with the still-born plot which had achieved
so much tragedy in spite of its miscarriage. Of Ginger there was
little trace. She had been caught up in a winding sheet of flame, a
chariot of fire which had swept clean her pitiful and outraged body...
Again he saw her face, wistful in the glare of that portentous noon,
framed by the outline of Storch's doorway, heard himself call her name
in agony, and woke to find only a memory answering him. And there came
to him a realization of the terrible beauty of that moment which had
released her spirit in white-heated transfiguration.

A sudden pity for the living began to well up within him ... for
Hilmer in the relentless grip of the harpy who would tear at his
content with her scrawny fingers ... for Mrs. Hilmer, condemned to
feed to the end upon the bitter fruits of hatred ... for his wife,
drifting to a pallid fate made up of petty adjustments and
compromises. Yes ... he found himself pitying Helen Starratt most of
all. Because he had a feeling that she would go on to the end cloaking
her primitive impulses in a curious covering of self-deception. She
would never understand ... never! She would always be restless,
straining at the conventions, but unable or unwilling to pay the price
of full freedom. And her remaining days would be spent in a futile
pulling at the chains which her own cowardice had forged. She would
not even have the memory of bitter-sweet delights.

He came from these musings to discover that his feet had strayed
instinctively to the old garden which provoked the memory of his
father and mother. But he found it destroyed utterly ... its prim beds
swept aside to make way for a huge apartment house. The last
intangible link which had bound him to his old life had been
destroyed.

He turned away, almost with a feeling of relief - the past was forever
dead, burying itself in its own tragic oblivion. He climbed higher, to
the topmost point of the Hyde Street Hill, up the steps leading to the
reservoir. It was another night of provocative perfumes and promissory
warmths. He skirted the sun-baked slopes, sown with blossoming
alfalfa, and came upon a clump of wind-tortured acacia bushes facing
the west. He threw himself down and lay in a sweet physical truce,
gazing up at the twinkling sky. He was alone with the night, he had
not even a disciple to betray him.

He knew that if he willed it so he could be up and off, forever
eluding, forever flaunting the law's ubiquitous presence. The sharp
urge for subtle revenge which had come with realization of his power
had passed, but he was done with any and all compromises, he had no
heart for the decaying fruits of deception.

Would they find him here wrapped in the cool fragrance of the night,
or must he go down to them, yielding himself up silently and without
bitterness? He had touched life at every point. He could say, now,
with Hilmer:

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

Yes, even to murder.

And with Storch he could repeat:

"A man who's been through hell is like a field broken to the plow.
He's ready for seed."

He _was_ ready for seed, so freshly and deeply broken that he had a
passion to lie fallow against a worthy sowing.

Presently, enveloped in the perfect and childlike faith which follows
revelation, he slept, with his face turned toward the stars. And as he
stirred ever so slightly he felt the nearness of two souls. Clearly
and more clearly they defined themselves until he knew them for those
two erring companions of his misery who had been made suddenly perfect
in the crucible of sorrow and sacrifice. They came toward him in a
white, silent beauty, until on one side stood Felix Monet and on the
other Sylvia Molineaux.

And before him in review passed a motley company of every tragic group
that he had ever known - business associates, jailbirds, the inmates of
Fairview, Storch's terrible companions. He recognized each group in
its turn by their outer trappings. But suddenly their clothes melted
and even their flesh dissolved, and he saw nothing but a company of
skeletons stripped of all unessentials, and he could no longer mark
them apart. And, in a flash, even these unmarked figures crumbled to
dust, spreading out like a sunlit plain at noonday. And he saw clouds
gather and rain fall and green blades spring up miraculously and
blossom succeed blossom. And through it all Felix Monet stood on one
side and Sylvia Molineaux on the other.

He awoke to the vigorous prod of a contemptuous boot. A policeman
stood over him.

"What are you doing here?" the officer bellowed down at him.

He rose quickly. The sun was bathing the rejuvenated city in a flood
of wonderful gold.

"My name is Fred Starratt," he said, quietly. "And I'm wanted for
murder ... and some other things. You'd better take me down."

The policeman grasped his arm and together they made their way down to
the level stretches of the paved street.

They stood for a moment to let a street car swing past. It was crowded
with clerks, standing on the running board. Above the warning clang of
the bell a voice came ringing out with a note of surprised
recognition:

"Hello, Fred Starratt! What's new?"

He made a trumpet with his hands.

"Everything!" he cried back, loudly. "_Everything in the world_!"




THE END








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