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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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whirling particles would drift back into their colorless oblivion.

For a moment he had a taste of desire for unspringing power. If he
could but be the wind to shake these dry reeds of custom into a
semblance of life!... One by one they passed him with an air of
growing preoccupation ... each step was carrying them nearer to the
day's pallid slavery, and an unconscious sense of their genteel
serfdom seemed gradually to settle on them. There were no bent nor
broken nor careworn toilers among this drab mass...the stamp of long
service here was a withered, soul-quenched gentility that came of
accepting life instead of struggling against it.

Gradually the temper of the crowd communicated itself to him. It was
time to descend from his speculative heights and face the problems of
his workday world. He turned sharply toward his office. Young Brauer
was just mounting the steps.

"Well, what's new?" Brauer threw out, genially.

"Not a thing in the world!" escaped Starratt.

They went into the office together.

Old Wetherbee was carrying his cash book out of the safe. The old man
smiled. He was usually in good humor early in the morning.

"Well, what's new?" he inquired, gayly.

"Not a thing in the world!" they chimed, almost in chorus.

At the rear of the office they slipped on their office coats. Brauer
took a comb from his pocket and began carefully to define the part in
his already slick hair. Starratt went forward.

In the center of the room the chief stenographer stood, putting her
formidable array of pencils through the sharpener. She glanced up at
Starratt with a complacent smile.

"Oh, good morning, Mr. Starratt!" she purred, archly. "What's new with
you?"

"Not a thing in the world," he answered, ironically, and he began to
arrange some memoranda in one of the wire baskets on his desk... At
nine thirty the boy brought him his share of the mail from the back
office, and in ten minutes he was deeply absorbed in sorting the
"daily reports" from the various agencies. He worked steadily,
interrupted by an occasional phone call, an order from the chief
clerk, the arrival and departure of business associates and clients.
Above the hum of subdued office conversation the click of typewriting
machines and the incessant buzzing of the desk telephones, he was
conscious of hearing the same question repeated with monotonous
fidelity:

"Hello! What's new with you?"

And as surely, either through his own lips or the lips of another, the
identical reply always came:

"Not a thing in the world!"

At half past eleven he stopped deliberately and stood for a moment,
nervously fingering his tie. He was thinking about the course of
action that he had decided upon in that long, unusual vigil of the
night before. His uncertainty lasted until the remembrance of his
wife's scornful question swept over him:

"Why aren't you doing something?... Everybody else is!"

But it was the answer he had made that committed him irrevocably to
his future course:

"Perhaps I am. You don't know everything."

He had felt a sense of fatality bound up in these words of defiant
pretense, once they had escaped him...a fatality which the blazing
contempt of his wife's retort had emphasized. Even now his cheeks
burned with the memory of that unleashed insult:

"What can _you_ do?"

No, there was no turning back now. His own self-esteem could not deny
so clear-cut a challenge.

He called his assistant. "I wish you'd go into the private office and
see if Mr. Ford is at leisure," he ordered. "I want to have a talk
with him."

The youth came back promptly. "He says for you to come," was his brief
announcement.

Fred Starratt stared a moment and, recovering himself, walked swiftly
in upon his employer. Mr. Ford was signing insurance policies.

"Well, Starratt," he said, looking up smilingly, "what's the good
word?... What's new with you?"

Starratt squared himself desperately. "Nothing...except I find it
impossible to live upon my salary."

Mr. Ford laid aside his pen. "Oh, that's unfortunate!... Suppose you
sit down and we'll talk it over."

Starratt dropped into the nearest seat.

Mr. Ford let his eyeglasses dangle from their cord. He was not in the
least disturbed. Indeed, he seemed to be approaching the issue with
unqualified pleasure.

"Now, Starratt, let's get at the root of the trouble... Of course
you're a reasonable man otherwise..."

Starratt smiled ironically. A vivid remembrance of Hilmer's words
flashed over him. His lip-curling disdain must have communicated
itself to Mr. Ford, because that gentleman hesitated, cleared his
throat, and began all over again.

"You're a reasonable man, Starratt, and I know that you have the
interest of the firm at heart."

Starratt leaned back in his seat and listened, but he might have
spared himself the pains. Somehow he anticipated every word, every
argument, before Mr. Ford had a chance to voice them. Business
conditions were uncertain, overhead charges extraordinarily increased,
the loss ratio large and bidding fair to cut their bonus down to
nothing. Therefore ... well, of course, next year things might be
different. The firm was hoping that by next year they would be in a
position to deal handsomely with those of their force who had been
patient... Mr. Ford did not stop there, he did not expect Starratt to
take his word for anything. He reached for a pencil and pad and he
went into a mathematic demonstration to show just how near the edge of
financial disaster the firm of Ford, Wetherbee & Co. had been pushed.
Starratt could not doubt the figures, and yet his eyes traveled
instinctively to the bag of golf sticks in a convenient corner.
Somehow, nothing in either Ford's argument or his sleek presence
irritated Starratt so much as these golf sticks. For, in this
particular instance, they became the symbol of a self-sufficient
prosperity whose first moves toward economy were directed at those who
serve... If all this were so, why didn't Ford begin by cutting down
his own allowance, by trimming his own expenses to the bone? Golf, as
Mr. Ford played it, was an expensive luxury. No doubt the exercise was
beneficial, but puttering about a garden would have done equally.
Starratt might have let all this pass. He was by heart and nature and
training a conservative and he had sympathy for the genial vanities of
life. It was Ford's final summary, the unconscious patronage, the
quiet, assured insolence of his words, which gave Starratt his
irrevocable cue.

"We rather look to men like you, Starratt," Mr. Ford was saying, his
voice suave to the point of insincerity, "to tide us over a crisis.
Just now, when the laboring element is running amuck, it's good to
feel that the country has a large percentage of people who can be
reasonable and understand another viewpoint except their own... After
everything is said and done, in business a man's first loyalty is to
the firm he works for."

"Why?" Starratt threw out sharply.

Ford's pallid eyes widened briefly. "I think the answer is obvious,
Starratt. Don't you? The hand that feeds a man is..."

"_Feeds?_ That may work both ways."

"I don't quite understand."

Starratt's glance traveled toward the golf sticks. "Well, it seems to
me it's a case of one man cutting down on necessities to provide
another with luxuries." He hated himself once he had said it. It
outraged his own sense of breeding.

Mr. Ford shoved the pencil and pad to one side. "A parlor radical,
eh?... Well, this from _you_ is surprising!... If there was one man in
my employ whom I counted on, it was you. You've been with me over
fifteen years ... began as office boy, as I remember. And in all that
time you've never even asked for a privilege... I'm sorry to see such
a fine record broken!"

Yesterday Starratt would have agreed with him, but now he felt moved
to indignation and shame at Ford's summary of his negative virtues. He
had been born with a voice and he had never lifted it to ask for his
rights, much less a favor. No wonder Hilmer could sneer and Helen
Starratt cut him with the fine knife of her scorn! The words began to
tumble to his lips. They came in swirling flood. He lost count of what
he was saying, but the angry white face of his employer foreshadowed
the inevitable end of this interview. He gave his rancor its full
scope ... protests, defiance, insults, even, heaping up in a
formidable pile.

"You ask me to be patient," he flared, "because you think I'm a
reasonable, rational, considerate beast that can be broken to any
harness!" He recognized Hilmer's words, but he swept on. "If you were
in a real flesh-and-blood business you'd have felt the force of things
... you'd have had men with guts to deal with ... you'd have had a
brick or two heaved into your plate-glass window. A friend of mine
said last night that potting clerks was as sickening as a rabbit
drive. He was right, it is sickening!"

Mr. Ford raised his hand. Starratt obeyed with silence.

"I'm sorry, Starratt, to see _you_ bitten with this radical disease...
Of course, you can't stay on here, after this. Your confidence in us
seems to have been destroyed and it goes without saying that my
confidence in you has been seriously undermined. We'll give you a good
recommendation and a month's salary... But you had better leave at
once. A man in your frame of mind isn't a good investment for Ford,
Wetherbee & Co."

Starratt was still quivering with unleashed heroics. "The
recommendation is coming to me," he returned, coldly. "The month's
salary isn't. I'll take what I've earned and not a penny more."

"Very well; suit yourself there."

Mr. Ford reached for his pen and began where he had left off at
Starratt's entrance ... signing insurance policies... Starratt rose
and left without a word. The interview was over.

Already, in that mysterious way with which secrets flash through an
office with lightninglike rapidity, a hint of Starratt's brush with
Ford was illuminating the dull routine.

"I think he's going into business for himself, or something," Starratt
heard the chief stenographer say in a stage whisper to her assistant,
as he passed.

And at his desk he found Brauer waiting to waylay him with a bid for
lunch, his little ferret eyes attempting to confirm the general gossip
flying about.

Starratt had an impulse to refuse, but instead he said, as evenly as
he could:

"All right ... sure! Let's go now!"

Brauer felt like eating oysters, so they decided to go up to one of
the stalls in the California Market for lunch. He was in an expansive
mood.

"Let's have beer, too," he insisted, as they seated themselves. "After
the first of July they'll slap on war-time prohibition and it won't be
so easy."

Starratt acquiesced. He usually didn't drink anything stronger than
tea with the noonday meal, because anything even mildly alcoholic made
him loggy and unfit for work, but the thought that to-day he was free
intrigued him.

The waiter brought the usual plate of shrimps that it was customary to
serve with an oyster order, and Starratt and Brauer fell to. A glass
of beer foamed with enticing amber coolness before each plate. Brauer
reached over and lifted his glass.

"Well, here's success to crime!" he said, with pointed facetiousness.

Starratt ignored the lead. He had never liked Brauer and he did not
find this sharp-nosed inquisitiveness to his taste. He began to wonder
why he had come with him. Lunching with Brauer had never been a habit.
Occasionally, quite by accident, they managed to achieve the same
restaurant and the same table, but it was not a matter of
prearrangement. Indeed, Starratt had always prided himself at his
ability to keep Brauer at arm's length. A subtle change had occurred.
Was it possible that a borrowed five-dollar bill could so reshape a
relationship? Well, he would pay him back once he received his monthly
salary, and get over with the obligation. His monthly salary?...
Suddenly it broke over him that he had received the last full month's
salary that he would ever get from Ford, Wetherbee & Co. It was the
20th of February, which meant, roughly, that about two thirds of his
one hundred and fifty dollars would be coming to him if he still held
to his haughty resolve to take no more than he had earned. Two thirds
of one hundred and fifty, less sixty-odd dollars overdrawn... He was
recalled from his occupation by Brauer's voice rising above the
clatter of carelessly flung crockery and tableware.

"Is it true you're leaving the first of the month?"

He liked Brauer better for this direct question, although the man's
presumption still rankled.

"I'm leaving to-day," he announced, dryly, not without a feeling of
pride.

"What are you going to do?"

"I haven't decided... Perhaps...I don't know ... I _may_ become an
insurance broker."

Brauer picked through the mess in his plate for an unshelled shrimp.
"That takes money," he ventured, dubiously.

"Oh, not a great deal," Starratt returned, ruffling a trifle. "Office
rent for two or three months before the premiums begin to come in ...
a little capital to furnish up a room. I might even get some one to
give me a desk in his office until I got started. It's done, you
know."

Brauer neatly extracted a succulent morsel from its scaly sheath.
"Don't you think it's better to put up a front?" he inquired. "If
you've got a decent office and your own phone and a good stenographer
it makes an impression when you're going after business... Why don't
you go in with somebody?... There ought to be plenty of fellows ready
to put up their money against your time."

"Who, for instance?" escaped Starratt, involuntarily.

Brauer shoved his plate of husked shrimps to one side. "Take me. I've
saved up quite a bit, and..."

The waiter broke in upon them with the oysters.

Starratt knitted his brows. "Well, why not?" was his mental
calculation.

Brauer ordered two more pints of beer.

Starratt had leaned at first toward keeping his business venture a
secret from Helen. But in the end a boyish eagerness to sun himself in
the warmth of her surprise unlocked his reserve.

"I've quit Ford-Wetherbee," he said, quietly, that night, as she was
seating herself after bringing on the dessert.

He had never seen such a startled look flash across her face.

"What! Did you have trouble?"

He decided swiftly not to give her the details. He didn't want her to
think that any outside influence had pushed him into action.

"Oh no!..." he drawled, lightly. "I've been thinking of leaving for
some time. Working for another person doesn't get you anywhere."

He could see that she was puzzled, perhaps a little annoyed. Last
night in a malicious moment she had been quite ready to sneer at her
husband's inactivity, but now, with the situation a matter of practice
rather than theory, Starratt felt that she was having her misgivings.
A suggestion of a frown hovered above her black eyebrows.

"You can't mean that you're going into business!" she returned, as she
passed him a dish of steaming pudding.

There was a suggestion of last night's scorn in her incredulity.

"No?... And why not?"

She cast a sidelong glance at him. "That takes money," she objected.

He knew now, from her tone, what was behind the veil of her
intimations and he found a curious new pleasure in watching her
squirm.

"Oh, well," he half mused, "I guess we'll struggle through somehow.
We've always managed to."

She leaned one elbow heavily on the table. "_More_ economies, I
suppose!"

He had trapped her too easily! It was his turn to be cutting. "Don't
worry!... I sha'n't ask you to do without any more than you've done
without so far. If you can stand it as it is awhile longer, why ..."
He broke off with a shrug.

Her eyes swam in a sudden mist. "You're not fair!" she sniffed. "I'm
thinking as much of you as I am of myself. Going into business isn't
only a question of money. There are anxieties and worry ... and ...
and ..." She recovered herself swiftly and looked at him with clear,
though reproachful, eyes. "I'm always willing to help ... you know
that!"

He melted at once. There was a moment of silence, and then he told her
everything ... about Brauer, and what they purposed.

"He's to keep on at Ford-Wetherbee's until things are running
smoothly. Of course, I'd rather not have it that way, but he holds the
purse strings, so I've got to make concessions. We can get an office
for twenty-five a month. It will be the salary of the stenographer
that will count up."

"When do you start?"

"To-morrow. And do you know who I'm going after first thing?...
Hilmer. He told me last night to come around and talk over insuring
that car of his... I don't know that I'll land that. But I might line
him up for something else. He must have a lot of insurance to place
one way or another."

She smiled dubiously. "Well, I wouldn't count too much upon Hilmer,"
she said, with a superior air.

"I'm not counting on anything or anybody," he returned, easily.
"Hilmer isn't the only fish in the sea."




CHAPTER IV


It was noon before Helen Starratt finished her housework next
morning - an unusually late hour for her, but she had been preoccupied,
and her movements slow in consequence. A four-room apartment, with
hardwood floors and a vacuum cleaner, was hardly a serious task for a
full-grown woman, childless, and with a vigor that reacted perfectly
to an ice-cold shower at 7 A.M. She used to look back occasionally at
the contrast her mother's life had presented. Even with a servant, a
three-storied, bay-windowed house had not given Mrs. Somers much
leisure for women's clubs. The Ladies Aid Society and a Christmas
festival in the church parlors were about as far along the road of
alleged social service as the woman of the last generation had
traveled. There was marketing to do, and sewing continually on hand,
and house-cleaning at stated intervals. In Helen Somers's old home the
daily routine had been as inflexible as its ancestor's original
Calvinistic creed - Monday, washing; Tuesday, ironing; Wednesday,
cleaning the silver; Thursday, at home to visitors; Friday, sweeping;
Saturday, baking; and Sunday, the hardest day of all. For, withal, the
Puritan sense of observance, that had not been utterly swamped by the
blue and enticing skies of California, Sunday was a feast day, not in
a lightsome sense, but in a dull, heavy, gastronomic way, unleavened
by either wine or passable wit. On Sunday the men of the family
returned home from church and gorged. If the day were fine, perhaps
everybody save mother took a cable-car ride, or a walk, or something
equally exciting. The sparkle of environment had won these people away
from tombstone reading and family prayers as a Sabbath diversion, but
even California could not be expected to make over a bluestocking in
an eye's twinkling. Mother, of course, stayed home on Sunday to "pick
up" and get ready for supper in the absence of the servant girl. A
later generation had the grace to elevate these slatternly drudges to
the title of maid, but a sterner ancestry found it expedient to be
more practical and less pretentious in its terms. On these drab
Sundays Helen Somers had passionately envied the children of foreign
breed, who seemed less hedged about by sabbatical restrictions. Not
that she wished her family to _be_ of the questionable sort that went
to El Campo or Shell Mound Park for Sunday picnics and returned in
quarrelsome state at a late hour smelling of bad whisky and worse gin.
Nor did she aspire to have sprung from the Teutonic stock that
perpetrated more respectable but equally noisy outings in the vicinity
of Woodward's Gardens. But she had a furtive and sly desire to float
oil-like upon the surface of this turbid sea, touching it at certain
points, yet scarcely mixing with it. Indeed, this inclination to taste
the core of life without committing herself the further indiscretion
of swallowing it grew to such proportions that at the age of fifteen
she almost succumbed to its allurement. Even at this late date she
could recall every detail of a seemingly casual conversation which she
had held with the stalwart butcher boy who came daily to the kitchen
door to deliver meat. The first day she merely had broached the
subject of Sunday picnics; the second she had intrigued him into
giving her one or two fleeting details; the third day she held him
captive a full ten minutes while he enlarged upon his subject. And so
on, until one morning he said, quite directly:

"Would you like to go to one?... If you do, I'll take you."

She had drawn back at first from this frontal attack, but in the end
she decided to chance the experience. She pretended to her mother that
she was going to see a girl friend who was sick. She met her crude
cavalier at the ferry. She even boarded the boat with him. At first he
had been a bit constrained and shy, but soon she felt the warm, moist
pressure of his thick-fingered hands against hers. And presently his
arm encircled her waist. With curious intuition she realized the
futility of struggling against him... She had to admit, in the end,
that she found his physical nearness pleasurable... She often had
wondered, looking back on that day, what might have happened if she
had gone through with this truant indiscretion. But halfway on the
journey her escort had deserted her momentarily to buy a cigar. Left
alone upon the upper deck of a ferryboat, crowded with a strident and
raucous company, she had felt herself suddenly grow cold, not with
fear, but with a certain haughty and disdainful anger. These people
were not her kind! She had risen swiftly from her seat and hidden
discreetly in the ladies' washroom until after the boat had landed and
was on its way back to the city. When she got home she found the house
in confusion. Her father had been taken suddenly ill.

"I came very near sending to Nellie's for you," her mother had said.

The incident had taught her a lesson, but there were times when she
regretted its termination - when she was stirred to a certain morbid
and profitless speculation as to what might have been.

Shortly after this a reaction began to set in against the dullness
which certain people found desirable in the observation of what they
were pleased to call with questionable humility the Lord's Day, and by
the time Helen had budded to womanhood this new tide was at its flood.
People, even piously inclined, were taking houses across the bay, at
Belvedere or Sausalito or Mill Valley, for the summer. Somehow, one
didn't go to church during this holiday. Friends came over for
Saturday and Sunday to visit, and the term "week-end" became
intelligible and acquired significance. The Somerses took a cottage
for three successive seasons in Belvedere - that is, they spoke of it
as a cottage. In reality, it was the abandoned hulk of a ferryboat
that had been converted into rather uncomfortable quarters and set up
on the slimy beach. The effect of this unconventional habitation
slowly undermined the pale ghost of the Somers' family tradition. They
became bohemian. Instead of the lugubrious Sunday feast of thick
joints and heavy puddings, they began to make the acquaintance of the
can opener. And from can opener to corkscrew it was only a brief
step... It was at this point that Helen met Fred Starratt. Quite
naturally the inevitable happened. Moonlight rowing in the cove at
Belvedere, set to the tune of mandolins, was always providing a job
for the parson, and, if the truth were told, for the divorce courts as
well. It all had been pleasant enough, and normal enough, and the
expected thing. That's what young people always did if the proper
setting were provided, especially when the moon kept on the job.

Helen Starratt had read about the thrills that the heroines of novels
received from the mating fever, but she had to confess that she had
not experienced anything as exciting as a thrill during the entire
period of her husband's wooing. She had felt satisfaction, a mild
triumph, a gratified vanity, if you will, but that was as far as her
emotional experience had gone. After all, her career had been
marriage, and she had taken the most likely situation that had been
offered. She presumed it was the same when one graduated from business
college. You were expected to land a job and you did. Sometimes it was
a good one, and then again it wasn't. Looking back, she conceded that
her choice had been fair. Fred Starratt didn't drink to excess, he
didn't beat or swear at her, he didn't make sarcastic remarks about
her relations, or do any of the things which anyone who reads the


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 3 of 17)