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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

Broken to the Plow online

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about the man you killed for smashing your thumb?"

He laughed with charming naivete, and began at once. But it was all
disappointingly simple. It had happened aboard ship. A hulking Finn,
one of the crew's bullies, had accused Hilmer of stealing his tobacco.
A scuffle followed, blows, blood drawn. Upon the slippery deck Hilmer
had fallen prone in an attempt to place a swinging blow. The Finn had
seized this opportunity and flung a bit of pig iron upon Hilmer's
sprawling right hand. Hilmer had leaped to his feet at once and,
seizing the bar of iron in his dripping fingers, had crushed the
bully's head with one sure, swift blow.

"He fell face downward ... his head split open like a rotten melon."

Helen Starratt shuddered. "How ... how perfectly fascinating!" escaped
her.

Starratt stared. He had never seen his wife so kindled with morbid
excitement.

"I ... I thought you didn't like to hear unpleasant stories," he threw
at her, disagreeably.

She tossed the flaming cushion, upon which she had been leaning, into
a corner, a certain insolence in her quick gesture.

"I don't like to _read_ about them," she retorted, and she turned a
wanton smile in the direction of Hilmer.

At this juncture the maid opened the folding doors between the dining
room and the living room. She had on her hat and coat, and, as she
retreated to the kitchen, Helen Starratt flashed a significant look at
her husband.

He followed the woman reluctantly. When he entered the kitchen she was
leaning against the sink, smoothing on a pair of faded silk gloves.

"I'm sorry," he began, awkwardly, "but I forgot to cash a check
to-day. How much do you charge?"

The woman's hands flew instinctively to her hips as she braced herself
into an attitude of defiance.

"Three dollars!" she snapped. "And my car fare."

He searched his pockets and held out a palm filled with silver for her
inspection. "I've just got two forty," he announced, apologetically.
"You see, we usually have Mrs. Finn. She knows us and I felt sure
she'd wait until next time. If you give me your address I can send you
the difference to-morrow."

She tossed back her head. "Nothing doing!" she retorted. "I don't give
a damn what you thought. I want my money now or, by Gawd, I'll start
something!"

Her voice had risen sharply. Starratt was sure that everybody could
hear.

"I haven't got three dollars," he insisted, in a low voice. "Can't you
see that I haven't?"

"Ask your wife, then."

"She hasn't a cent... I should have cashed a check to-day, but I
forgot... You forget things sometimes, don't you?"

He was conscious that his voice had drawn out in a snuffling appeal,
but he simply had to placate this female ogress in some way.

"Ask your swell friends, then."

"Why, I can't do that... I don't know them well enough. This is the
first time - "

She cut him short with a snap of her ringers. "You don't know me,
either ... and I don't know you. That's the gist of the whole thing.
If you can ask a strange woman who's done an honest night's work to
wait for her money, you can ask a strange man to lend you sixty
cents... And, what's more, I'll wait right here until you do!"

"Well, wait then!" he flung out, suddenly, as he pocketed the silver.

He kicked open the swinging door and gained the dining room. She
followed close upon his heels.

"Oh, I know your kind!" he heard her spitting out at him. "You're a
cheap skate trying to put up a front! But you won't get by with me,
not if I know it!... You come through with three dollars or I'll wreck
this joint!"

A crash followed her harangue. Starratt turned. A tray of Haviland
cups and saucers lay in a shattered heap upon the floor.

He raised a threatening finger at her. "Will you be good enough to
leave this house!" he commanded.

She thrust a red-knuckled fist into his face. "Not much I won't!" she
defied him, swinging her head back and forth.

He fell back sharply. What was he to do? He couldn't kick her out...
He heard a chair scraped back noisily upon the hardwood floor of the
living room. Presently Hilmer stood at his side.

"Let me handle her!" Hilmer said, quietly.

Starratt gave a gesture of assent.

His guest took one stride toward the obstreperous female. "Get out!
Understand?"

She stopped the defiant seesawing of her head.

"Wot in hell..." she was beginning, but her voice suddenly broke into
tearful blubbering. "I'm a poor, lone widder woman - "

He took her arm and gave her a significant shove.

"Get out!" he repeated, with brief emphasis.

She cast a look at him, half despair and half admiration. He pointed
to the door. She went.

Hilmer laughed and regained the living room. Starratt hesitated.

"I guess I'd better pick up the mess," he said, with an attempt at
nonchalance.

Nobody made any reply. He bent over the litter. Above the faint tinkle
of shattered porcelain dropping upon the lacquered tray he heard his
wife's voice cloying the air with unpleasant sweetness as she said:

"Oh yes, Mr. Hilmer, you were telling us about the time you fought a
man with a dirk knife ... for a half loaf of bread."




CHAPTER II


When the Hilmers left, about half past eleven, Starratt went down to
the curb with them, on the pretext of looking at Hilmer's new car. It
proved to be a very late and very luxurious model.

"Is it insured?" asked Starratt, as he lifted Mrs. Hilmer in.

"What a hungry bunch you insurance men are!" Hilmer returned. "You're
the fiftieth man that's asked me that."

Starratt flushed. The business end of his suggestion had been the last
thing in his mind. He managed to voice a commonplace protest, and
Hilmer, taking his place at the wheel, said:

"Come in and talk it over sometime... Perhaps _you_ can persuade me."

Starratt smiled pallidly and the car shot forward. He watched it out
of sight. Instead of going back into the house he walked aimlessly
down the block. He had no objective beyond a desire to kill the time
and give Helen a chance to retire before he returned. He wasn't in a
mood for talking.

It was not an unusual thing for him to take a stroll before turning
in, and habit led him along a beaten path. He always found it
fascinating to dip down the Hyde Street hill toward Lombard Street,
where he could glimpse both the bay and the opposite shore. Then, he
liked to pass the old-fashioned gardens spilling the mingled scent of
heliotrope and crimson sage into the lap of night. There was something
fascinating and melancholy about this venerable quarter that had been
spared the ravages of fire ... overlooked, as it were, by the
relentless flames, either in pity or contempt. There had been
marvelous tales concerning this section's escape from the holocaust of
1906, when San Francisco had been shaken by earthquake and shriveled
by flames. One house had been saved by a crimson flood of wine
siphoned from its fragrant cellar, another by pluck and a garden hose,
a third by quickly hewn branches of eucalyptus and cypress piled
against the outside walls as a screen to the blistering heat. Trees
and hedges and climbing honeysuckle had contributed, no doubt, to the
defense of these relics of a more genial day, but the dogged
determination of their owners to save their old homes at any cost must
have been the determining factor, Starratt had often thought, as he
lingered before the old picket fences, in an attempt to revive his
memories of other days. He could not remember, of course, quite back
to the time when the Hyde Street hill had been in an opulent heyday,
but the flavor of its quality had trickled through to his generation.
This was the section where his mother had languished in the prim gloom
of her lamp-shaded parlor before his father's discreet advances. The
house was gone ... replaced by a bay-windowed, jig-sawed horror of the
'80s, but the garden still smiled, its quaint fragrance reënforced at
the proper season by the belated blossoms of a homesick and
wind-bitten magnolia. He was sure, judged by present-day standards,
that his mother's old home must have been a very modest, genial sort
of place ... without doubt a clapboard, two-storied affair with a
single wide gable and a porch running the full length of the front.
But, in a day when young and pretty women were at a premium, one did
not have to live in a mansion to attract desirable suitors, and Fred
Starratt had often heard his mother remind his father without
bitterness of the catches that had been thrown her way. Not that
Starratt, senior, had been a bad prospect matrimonially. Quite the
contrary. He had come from Boston in the early '70s, of good
substantial family, and with fair looks and a capacity for getting on.
Likewise, a chance for inside tips on the stock market, since he had
elected to go in with a brokerage firm. And so they were married, with
all of conservative San Francisco at the First Unitarian Church to see
the wedding, leavened by a sprinkling of the very rich and a dash of
the ultrafashionable. Unfortunately, the inside tips didn't pan out
... absurd and dazzling fortune was succeeded by appalling and
irretrievable failure. Starratt, senior, was too young a man to
succumb to the scurvy trick of fate, but he never quite recovered.
Gradually the Starratt family fell back a pace. To the last there were
certain of the old guard who still remembered them with bits of
coveted pasteboard for receptions or marriages or anniversary
celebrations ... but the Starratts became more and more a memory
revived by sentiment and less and less a vital reality.

Fred Starratt used to speculate, during his nocturnal wandering among
the shadows of his parents' youthful haunts, just what his position
would have been had these stock-market tips proved gilt edged. He
tried to imagine himself the master of a splendid estate down the
peninsula - preferably at Hillsboro - possessed of high-power cars and a
string of polo ponies ... perhaps even a steam yacht... But these
dazzling visions were not always in the ascendant. There were times
when a philanthropic dream moved him more completely and he had naïve
and varied speculations concerning the help that he could have placed
in the way of the less fortunate had he been possessed of unlimited
means. Or, again, his hypothetical wealth put him in the way of the
education that placed him easily at the top of a stirring profession.

"If I'd only had half a chance!" would escape him.

This was a phrase borrowed unconsciously from his mother. She was
never bitter nor resentful at their profitless tilt with fortune
except as it had reacted on her son.

"You should have gone to college," she used to insist, regretfully,
summing up by implication his lack of advancement. At first he took a
measure of comfort in her excuse; later he came to be irritated by it.
And in moments of truant self-candor he admitted he could have made
the grade with concessions to pride. There were plenty of youths who
worked their way through. But he always had moved close to the edge of
affluent circles, where he had caught the cold but disturbing glow of
their standards. He left high school with pallid ideals of gentility,
ideals that expressed themselves in his reasons for deciding to enter
an insurance office. Insurance, he argued, was a _nice_ business, one
met _nice_ people, one had _nice_ hours, one was placed in _nice_
surroundings. He had discovered later that one drew a _nice_ salary,
too. Well, at least, he had had the virtue of choosing without a very
keen eye for the financial returns.

Ten years of being married to a woman who demanded a _nice_ home and
_nice_ clothes and a circle of _nice_ friends had done a great deal
toward making him a little skeptical about the soundness of his
standards. But his moments of uncertainty were few and fleeting,
called into life by such uncomfortable circumstances as touching old
Wetherbee for money or putting his tailor off when the date for his
monthly dole fell due. He had never been introspective enough to quite
place himself in the social scale, but when, in his thought or
conversation, he referred to people of the _better class_ he
unconsciously included himself. He was not a drunken, disorderly, or
radical member of society, and he didn't black boots, or man a ship,
or sell people groceries, or do any of the things that were done in
overalls and a soft shirt, therefore it went without saying that he
belonged to the better class. That was synonymous with admitting that
one kept one's ringer nails clean and used a pocket handkerchief.

Suddenly, with the force of a surprise slap in the face, it had been
borne in upon him that he was not any of the fine things he imagined.
He was sure that his insolent guest, Hilmer, had not meant to be
disagreeable at the moment when he had said:

"Stiffening the backbone of the _middle class_ is next to impossible!"

"The middle class"! The phrase had brought up even Helen Starratt with
a round turn. One might have called them both peasants with equal
temerity. No, Hilmer had not made _that_ point consciously, and
therein lay its sting.

To-night, as he accomplished his accustomed pilgrimage to the tangible
shrine of his ancestors, and stood leaning against the gate which
opened upon the garden that had smiled upon his mother's wooing, he
determined once and for all to establish his position in life... _Did_
he belong to the middle class, and, granting the premises, was it a
condition from which one could escape or a fixed heritage that could
neither be abandoned nor denied? In a country that made flamboyant
motions toward democracy, he knew that the term was used in contempt,
if not reproach. Had the class itself brought on this disesteem? Did
it really exist and what defined it? Was it a matter of scant worldly
possessions, or commonplace brain force, or breeding, or just an
attitude of mind? Was it a term invented by the crafty to dash cold
water upon the potential unity of a scattered force? Was it a
scarecrow for frightening greedy and resourceful flocks from a
concerted assault upon the golden harvests of privilege?... The
questions submerged him in a swift flood. He did not know ... he could
not tell. Unaccustomed as he was to thinking in the terms of group
consciousness, he fell back, naturally, upon the personal aspects of
the case. He was sure of one thing - Hilmer's contempt and scorn. In
what class did Hilmer place himself? Above or below?... But the answer
came almost before it was framed - Hilmer looked _down_ upon him. That
almost told the story, but not quite. Had Hilmer climbed personally to
upper circles or had the strata in which he found himself embedded
been pushed up by the slow process of time? Had the term "middle
class" become a misnomer? Was it really on the lowest level now?
Perhaps it was ... perhaps it always had been... But so was the
foundation of any structure. Foundation?... The thought intrigued him,
but only momentarily. Who wanted to bear the crushing weight of
arrogant and far-flung battlements?

He retraced his steps, his thoughts still busy with Hilmer. Here was a
typical case of what America could yield to the nature that had the
insolence to ravish her. America was still the tawny, primitive,
elemental jade who gave herself more readily to a rough embrace than a
soft caress. She reserved her favors for those who wrested them from
her...she had no patience with the soft delights of persuasion. It was
strange how much rough-hewn vitality had poured into her embrace from
the moth-eaten civilization of the Old World. Starratt was only a
generation removed from a people who had subdued a wilderness ... he
was not many generations removed from a people who wrestled naked with
God for a whole continent - that is, they had begun to wrestle; the
years that had succeeded found them still eager and shut-lipped for
the conflict. They had abandoned the struggle only when they had found
their victory complete. Naturally, soft days had followed. Was eternal
conflict the price of strength? Starratt found himself wondering. And
was he a product of these soft days, the rushing whirlwinds of Heaven
stilled, the land drowsy with the humid heat of a slothful noonday? He
had never thought of these things before. Even when he had thrilled to
the vision of line upon line of his comrades marching away to the
blood-soaked fields of France he had surrendered to a primitive
emotion untouched by the poetry of deep understanding. He thrilled not
because he knew that these people were doing the magnificent, the
decent thing ... but because he merely felt it. He had his faiths, but
he had not troubled to prove them ... he had not troubled even to
_doubt_ them.

His disquiet sharpened all of his perceptions. He never remembered a
time when the cool fragrance of the night had fallen upon his senses
with such a personal caress. He had come out into its starlit presence
flushed with narrow, sordid indignation ... smarting under the trivial
lashes which insolence and circumstance had rained upon his vanity.
His walk in the dusky silence had not stilled his restlessness, but it
had given his impatience a larger scope ... and as he stood for one
last backward glimpse at the twinkling magnificence of this February
night he felt stirred by almost heroic rancors. The city lay before
him in crouched somnolence, ready to leap into life at the first flush
of dawn, and, in the chilly breath of virgin spring, little truant
warmths and provocative perfumes stirred the night with subtle
prophecies of summer.

His exaltation persisted even after he had turned the key in his own
door to find the light still blazing, betraying the fact of Helen's
wakeful presence. He dallied over the triviality of hanging up his
hat.

She was reading when he gained the threshold of the tiny living room.
At the sound of his footsteps she flung aside the magazine in her
hand. Her thick brows were drawn together in insolent impatience.

"Oh," he exclaimed, inadequately, "I thought you'd be asleep!"

"Asleep?" she queried, in a voice that cut him with its swift stroke.
"You didn't fancy that I could compose myself that quickly ... after
everything that's happened to-night ... did you? I've been humiliated
more than once in my life, but never quite so badly. Uncalled for, too
... that's the silly part of it."

He stood motionless in the doorway. "I'm sorry I forgot the money," he
returned, dully. "But it's all past and gone now. And I think the
Hilmers understood."

"Yes ... they understood. That's another humiliating thing." She
laughed tonelessly. "It must be amusing to watch people like us
attempting to be somebody and do something on an income that can't be
stretched far enough to pay a sloppy maid her wages."

It was not so much what she said, but her manner that chilled him to
sudden cold anger. "Well ... you know our income, down to the last
penny... You know just how much I've overdrawn this month, too. Why do
you invite strangers to dinner under such conditions?"

She rose, drawing herself up to an arrogant height. "I invite them for
_your_ sake," she said, with slow emphasis. "If you played your cards
well you might get in right with Hilmer. He's a big man."

"Yes," he flung back, dryly, "and a damned insolent one, too."

"He has his faults," she defended. "He's not polished, but he's
forceful." She turned a malevolent smile upon her husband. "When he
told that drunken servant girl to go, she went!"

Starratt could feel the rush of blood dyeing his temples. "That's just
in his line!" he sneered. "He's taken degrading orders, and so he
knows how to give them... He may have money now, but he hasn't always
been so fortunate. I've been short of funds in my day, but I never
fought with a dirk for a half loaf of bread... You've heard the story
of his life... What has he got to make him proud?"

"Just that ... he's pulled himself out of it. While we... Tell me,
where are we? Where will we be ten years from now?... Twenty? Why
aren't you doing something?... Everybody else is."

He folded his arms and leaned against the doorway. "Perhaps I am," he
said, quietly. "You don't know everything."

She made a movement toward him. He stepped aside to let her pass.

"What can _you_ do?" she taunted as she swept out of the room.

He stood for a moment dazed at the sudden and unexpected budding of
her scorn. He heard her slam the door of the bedroom. He went over to
the chair from which she had risen and dropped into it, shading his
eyes.

The clock in the hallway was chiming two when the bedroom door opened
again.

"Aren't you coming to bed?" he heard his wife's voice call with sharp
irritation.

"No," he answered.




CHAPTER III


It was extraordinary how wide awake Fred Starratt felt next morning.
He was full of tingling reactions to the sharp chill of
disillusionment. At the breakfast table he met his wife's advances
with an air of tolerant aloofness. In the past, the first moves toward
adjusting a misunderstanding had come usually from him. He had an
aptitude for kindling the fires of domestic harmony, but he had
discovered overnight the futility of fanning a hearthstone blaze when
the flue was choked so completely. Before him lay the task of first
correcting the draught. Temporary genialities had no place in his
sudden, bleak speculations. Helen shirred his eggs to a turn, pressed
the second cup of coffee on him, browned him a fresh slice of toast
... he suffered her favors, but he was unmoved by them. They did not
even annoy him. When he kissed her good-by he felt the relaxation of
her body against his, as she stood for a moment languishing in
provocative surrender. He put her aside sharply. Her caress had a new
quality which irritated him.

Outside, the morning spread its blue-gold tail in wanton splendor.
February in San Francisco! Fred Starratt drew in a deep breath and
wondered where else in the whole world one could have bettered that
morning at any season of the year. Like most San Franciscans, he had
never flown very far afield, but he was passionate in his belief that
his native city "had it on any of them," to use his precise term. And
he was resentful to a degree at any who dared in his presence to
establish other claims or to even suggest another preference. He
looked forward to New York as an experience, but never as a goal. No,
San Francisco was good enough for him!

He felt the same conviction this morning, but a vague gypsying stirred
his blood also, and a wayfaring urge swept him. The sky was
indescribably blue, washed clean by a moist January that had drenched
the hills to lush-green life. The bay lay in a sapphire drowse,
flecked by idle-winged argosies, unfolding their storm-soaked sails to
the caressing sunlight. Soaring high above the placid gulls, an
airplane circled and dipped like a huge dragon fly in nuptial flight.
Through the Golden Gate, shrouded in the delicate mists evoked by the
cool night, an ocean liner glided with arrogant assurance.

From the last vantage point, before he slipped townward to his
monotonous duties, Starratt stood, shading his eyes, watching the
stately exit of this maritime giant. This was a morning for starting
adventure...for setting out upon a quest!... He had been stirred
before to such Homeric longings ... spring sunshine could always prick
his blood with sharp-pointed desire. But to-day there was a poignant
melancholy in his flair for a wider horizon. He was touched by
weariness as well as longing. He was like a pocket hunter whose
previous borrowings had beguiled him with flashing grains that proved
valueless. He would not abandon his search, but he must pack up and
move on to new, uncertain, unproved ground. And he felt all the weight
of hidden and heartbreaking perils with which his spiritual faring
forth must of necessity be hedged.

At the corner of California and Montgomery streets he met the tide of
nine-o'clock commuters surging toward the insurance offices and banks.
His widened vision suddenly contracted. Middle class! The phrase
leaped forward from the flock mind which this standardized concourse
diffused. In many of the faces he read the potentialities of infinite
variety, smothered by a dull mask of conformity. What a relief if but
one in that vast flood would go suddenly mad! He tried fantastically
to picture the effect upon the others - the momentary cowardice and
braveries that such an event would call into life. For a few brief
moments certain personalities and acts would stand out sharply
glorified, like grains of dust dancing in the slanting rays of the
sun. Then, the angle of yellow light restored to white normality, the


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 2 of 17)