Copyright
Charles Caldwell Dobie.

Broken to the Plow online

. (page 4 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 4 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


daily papers discovers so many men do under provocation or otherwise.
But, on the other hand, he hadn't made a fortune or bought a car or
given her any reason for feeling compensated for the lack of marital
excitement. His friends called him a nice fellow - in some ways as
damning a thing as one could say about anybody - and let it go at that.
However, Helen Starratt's vocabulary was just as limited when it came
to characterizing her conventional aims and ambitions. If,
occasionally, her speculations stirred the muddy reaches of certain
furtive desires, she took care that they did not become articulate.
This term "nice" included every desirable virtue. One married nice
men, and one lived in a nice neighborhood, and one made nice
acquaintances. In her mother's day she had heard people say:

"I believe in having the young folks identified with church work - they
meet such nice people."

And years later a friend, attempting to interest her in the activities
of a local orphan asylum, had clinched every other argument by
stating, blandly:

"You really ought to go in for it, Helen - you've no idea what nice
people you meet."

When America's entry into the war brought up the question of Red Cross
endeavor, her first thought had been:

"I really ought to do something, I suppose. And, besides, I'll meet
lots of nice people."

Well, she had met a lot of nice people, but the only fruitful yield
socially had been Mrs. Hilmer. And somehow it never occurred to Helen
to apply such a discriminating term as nice to her latest acquisition.
Mrs. Hilmer was wholesome and good hearted and a dear, and no doubt
she was nice in a negative way, but one never thought about saying so.
And Hilmer...? No, he was not what one would call a nice man, but he
was tremendously interesting and in the hands of the right woman...
You see, Mrs. Hilmer was a good soul, but, of course, she didn't quite
... that is, she was a bit old fashioned and ... well, she didn't know
how, poor dear!

Thus it was that over her household tasks on this particular February
morning Helen Starratt dawdled as her mind played with the fiction of
what Hilmer might become under the proper influence. Now, if _she_ had
married him!...

It was all very well for Mrs. Hilmer to see that her lord and master
was fed properly, but why did she waste hours over a custard when she
had money enough to hire it done? That course didn't get either of
them anywhere - Hilmer remained at a level of torpid content, and
naturally he looked down on his wife as a sort of sublimated servant
girl who wasn't always preparing to leave and demanding higher
wages... No, most men fell too easily in the trap of their personal
comforts. Even Fred had become self-satisfied. Beyond his dinner and
paper and an occasional sober flight at the movies or bridge with old
friends he didn't seem to have any stirring ambitions. That was where
a wife came in. Hadn't she been casting around for bait that would
make Fred rise to something new? Hadn't she invited the Hilmers to
dinner in the hope that the two men would hit it off? The very first
time she had met Hilmer she had thought, "There's a man that Fred
ought to know."

She was perfectly willing to concede certain virtues to her husband,
and she flattered herself that with the materials at her command she
had managed to keep Fred pretty well up to the scratch. The only thing
that had been lacking was plenty of money. If she had had one quarter
of Hilmer's income she would have evolved a husband that any woman
could have been proud of, instead of one that most women would have
found merely satisfactory... This was the way she had argued before
her absurd dinner party. She had to admit, after it was all over, that
her husband had managed to make her thoroughly ashamed of him. It was
better to have an outrageous husband than a ridiculous one. And she
fancied that Hilmer could be outrageous if he chose... But she was
sure of one thing ... if Hilmer came home and announced that he had
given up his position and had decided to plunge in boldly for himself,
his wife would scarcely give the matter a second thought. Hilmer would
carry the thing through ... _some way_. A man who could brain an
assailant and fight for a mouthful of bread would put things over by
hook or crook. There wasn't much chance for failure there. But Fred
Starratt ... well, he was apt to have some ridiculous scruple or too
keen a sense of business courtesy or a sensitiveness to rebuffs. Take
his passage at arms with the drunken maid ... if he had thrown her out
promptly, or come in and frankly borrowed the money from Hilmer, it
would have at least shown decision.

Of course she couldn't do anything, now that he was committed to this
new business venture. It was all very well for him to snarl: "Don't
worry... I sha'n't ask you to do without any more than you've done
without so far."

That was the lofty way most men theorized when their vanity was
wounded. But she knew enough to realize that if he failed she would
have to share that failure. Of course, if Fred could interest
Hilmer... Perhaps she could help things along in some way ... with a
chance remark to Mrs. Hilmer. Would it be better to cast the seed more
directly?... If she could only manage to run across Hilmer - she
wouldn't want to seem to be putting in her oar... Would it be very
dreadful if she were to think up some excuse and go beard the lion in
his den?

She was still interested in her orphan asylum. Why not go ask him for
a subscription? She wondered if he would be very brusque; insulting,
even. The possibilities fascinated her. She felt that she would like a
passage at arms with him. He was a man worth worsting. Under such
circumstances Fred Starratt would be either liberal beyond his means
or profusely apologetic. Not by any chance would he give a prompt and
emphatic refusal... The more she thought about it the more enticing
the prospect became. She felt sure that if Hilmer didn't approve of
her charity he would say so frankly, perhaps disagreeably. And if he
didn't think much of her husband's venture he would be equally direct.
She rather wanted to know what he _did_ think about Fred Starratt. She
ended by coming to an emphatic decision. She would not only go, but
she would go that very afternoon. If there were any chance for her to
prepare an easy road for Fred's advance it lay in speedy action.

When she finished dressing for the encounter and stood surveying
herself in the long mirror set into the closet door of her bedroom she
had to admit that she had missed none of her points. Most women at her
age would have been sagging a bit, the cords of youth slackened by the
weight of maternity or the continual pull against ill health and
genteel poverty. Or they would have been smothered in the plump
content of Mrs. Hilmer. Helen Starratt's slenderness had still a
virginal quality and she knew every artifice that heightened this
effect. To-day she was a trifle startled at quite the lengths she had
gone to strike a note of sophisticated youth. She had long since
ceased dressing consciously for her husband, and dressing for other
women was more a matter of perfect detail than attempted beguilement.
She was curious, she told herself, to see whether a man like Hilmer
would be impressed by feminine artifice... Did a black silk gown, with
spotless lace at wrist and throat, spell the acme of Hilmer's ideal of
womanhood? Was woman to him something durable and utilitarian or did
his fancy sometimes carry him to more decorative ideals?

She did not go directly to his office; instead, she dawdled a bit over
the shop windows. Things were appallingly high, she noted with growing
dismay, especially the evening gowns. On the shrugging, simpering
French wax figures they were at once very scant and very vivid ...
strung with beads and shot through with gold thread or spangled with
flashing sequins. She tried to imagine Mrs. Hilmer in one of these
gaudy confections. Almost any of them would have looked well on Helen
herself. But any woman who went in for dressing at all would need a
trunkload, she concluded, if one were to decently last out a season.
She found herself speculating on just what class of people would
invest in these hectic flesh coverings. Certainly not the enormously
rich ... they didn't buy their provocative draperies from show
windows. And even the comfortably off might pause, she thought, before
throwing a couple of hundred dollars into a wisp of veiling that
didn't reach much below the knees and would look like a weather-beaten
cobweb after the second wearing. With all this talk about profiteering
and economy and the high cost of living, even Helen Starratt had to
admit that one could go without an evening gown at two hundred
dollars. But, judging from the shoppers on the street, there didn't
seem to be many who intended to do without them. She began to wonder
what her chances were for at least a spring tailor-made. She supposed
now, with Fred going into business, she would be expected to make her
old one do. Well, she decided she wouldn't make it do if she had to
beg on the street corner. She'd had it a year and a half, and during
war times that was quite all right. The best people had played
frumpish parts then. But now everybody was perking up. As for an
evening gown ... well, she simply couldn't conceive where even a
hundred dollars would be available for one of these spangled harem
veils that was passing muster as a full-grown dress... If she had
possessed untold wealth, all this flimsiness, this stylistic froth,
would have appealed to her; as it was, she was irritated by it. What
were things coming to? she demanded. Just when you thought you were up
to the minute, the styles changed overnight. It was the same with
household furniture. Ten years ago, when she and Fred had set up
housekeeping, everybody had exclaimed over her quaint bits of
mahogany, her neutral window drapes, even at her wonderful porcelain
gas range. Now, everything, from bed to dining-room table, was painted
in dull colors pricked by gorgeous designs; the hangings at the
windows screamed with color; electric stoves were coming in. The day
of polished surfaces and shining brass was over - antiques were no
longer the rage.

Her dissatisfaction finally drove her toward Hilmer's office. She
stopped at one of the flower stands on Grant Avenue and bought a half
dozen daffodils. She begrudged the price she had to give for them, but
they did set off the dull raisin shade of her dress with a proper
flare of color. She concluded she would play up the yellow note in her
costuming oftener. Somehow it kindled her. She wondered for the first
time in her life what gypsy strain had flooded her with such dark
beauty. She stopped before a millinery shop and peered critically at
her reflection in a window mirror. Yes, the yellow note was a good
one, but she was still a trifle cold. If her lips had been a little
fuller... Strange she had never thought about that before. Well, next
time she would touch them ever so deftly into a suggestion of ripe
opulence. She sauntered slowly down Post Street, turned into
Montgomery. There were scarcely any women on the street and the men
who passed were, for the most part, in preoccupied flight. Yet she saw
more than one pair of eyes widen with brief appraisal as she went by.
Hilmer's offices were in the Merchants' Exchange Building. Helen
decided to slip in through the Montgomery Street entrance. She felt
that there might be a chance of running into Fred on California Street
and she didn't want to do that.

As she shot up toward the eleventh story in the elevator she rehearsed
her opening scene with Hilmer. She decided to take her cue flippantly.
She would banter him at first and gradually veer to more serious
topics... But once she stood in his rather austere inner shrine of
business, she decided against subterfuges. He had stepped into the
main office, the boy who showed her in explained. Would she have a
seat? She dropped into a chair, taking in her background with feminine
swiftness. A barometer, a map, two stiffly painted pictures exhibiting
as many sailing vessels in full flight, a calendar bearing the
advertisement of a ship-chandlery firm - this was the extent of the
wall decoration. The office furniture was golden oak, the rugs of
indifferent neutrality. On his desk he had a picture of Mrs. Hilmer,
taken in a bygone day, very plump and blond and youthful in a soft,
tranquil way. And by its side, in a little ridiculously-blue glass
vase, some spring wild flowers languished, pallidly white and withered
by the heat of captivity. She checked an impulse to rise when he came
in. For a moment his virility had overwhelmed her into a feeling of
deference, but she recovered herself sufficiently to droop
nonchalantly into her seat as he gave her his hand. He was not in the
least put out of countenance by her unexpected presence, and she felt
a fleeting sense of disappointment, almost of pique.

"I suppose you're wondering why I'm here," she began, tritely.

He swung his swivel chair toward her and sat down. "Yes, naturally,"
he returned, with disconcerting candor.

She touched the petals of her daffodils with a pensive finger. "Well,
really, you know, I'd quite made up my mind to pretend at first...
Women never like to come directly to the point. I thought up a silly
excuse - begging for an orphan asylum, to be exact. But I can see that
wouldn't go here... And I don't believe you're the least bit
interested in orphans."

"Why should I be?" he asked, bluntly.

She had a dozen arguments that might have won the ordinary man, but
she knew it would take more than stock phrases to convince him, so she
ignored the challenge. "You see, my husband has decided to go into
business ... and ... well, I thought perhaps if you had any insurance
... a stray bit, don't you know, that isn't pledged or spoken for ...
it would all be _so_ encouraging!"

He smoothed his cheek with an appraising gesture. Against the blond
freshness of his skin his mangled thumb stood out vividly.

"Why doesn't your husband come to see me himself?"

She drew back a trifle, but her recovery was swift. "Oh, he intends
to, naturally. I'm just preparing the way... Fred's a perfect dear and
all that, but he is a little bit reserved about some things... It
would be so much easier for him to ask a favor for some one else... Of
course, he'd be perfectly furious if he knew that I had come here. But
you understand, Mr. Hilmer, I want to do all I can... I'd make _any_
sacrifice for Fred."

She paused to give him a chance to put in a word, but he sat silent.
It was plain that he didn't intend to help out her growing
embarrassment.

"It's all come out of a clear sky," she went on, trailing the fringe
of her beaded hand bag across her shoe tops. "He only told me last
night... There isn't any use pretending ... he hasn't any capital to
work on. And until the premiums begin to come in there'll be office
rent and a stenographer's salary piling up ... and our living expenses
in the bargain... A friend of his is putting up some money, but I
can't imagine it's a whole lot... I'm a little bit upset about it, of
course. I wish I could really do something to help him."

She knew from his look that he intended to hurl another disconcerting
question at her.

"Well, if you want to help him, why don't you?" he quizzed.

"Why, I ... why, I'm not fit for anything, really," she tried to throw
back.

"My wife said you were pretty efficient at the Red Cross."

"Oh, but that was different!"

"Why?"

"Well, I can't just explain, but it's easy to do something you ...
you..."

"Feel you don't have to," he finished for her, ironically.

She shrugged petulantly. "What do you want me to do? Solicit
insurance?"

He smiled. "That's what you're doing now, isn't it?"

"Mr. _Hilmer_!" She rose majestically in her seat.

He continued to sit, but she was conscious that his eyes were sweeping
her from head to foot with frank appraisal.

"A pretty woman has a good chance to get by with almost anything she
sets her mind on," he said, finally.

She drew in a barely perceptible breath. The blunt tip of his shoe was
jammed squarely against her toe. She withdrew her foot, but she sat
down again.

"I really ought to be angry with you, Mr. Hilmer," she purred at him,
archly. "It's very nice of you to attempt to be so gallant, but, after
all, talk _is_ pretty cheap, isn't it?... So far I don't seem to be
making good as a solicitor. So what else is there left?"

"How about being your husband's stenographer?" he asked, without a
trace of banter.

She forgot to be amazed. "I don't know anything about shorthand," she
replied, simply.

"Well, you could soon learn to run a typewriter," he insisted. "I have
a young woman in my office who takes my letters direct on the machine
as I dictate them. She's as good as, if not better than, my chief
stenographer. That would save your husband at least seventy-five
dollars a month."

She had an impulse to rise and sweep haughtily out of the room. What
right had this man to tell her what she could or could not do? The
impudence of him! But she didn't want to appear absurd. She leaned
back and looked at him through her half-closed eyelids as she said,
with a slight drawl:

"Would my presence in the office be a bid for your support, Mr.
Hilmer?"

"It might," he said, looking at her keenly.

She did not flinch, but his steady gaze cut her composure like a
knife. She got to her feet again.

"What silly little flowers!" escaped her, as she took a step near his
desk and pulled a faded blossom from the blue vase.

He left his seat and stood beside her. "I got them down by St. Francis
Wood last Sunday," he admitted. "They reminded me of the early spring
blossoms in the old country ... the sort that shoot up almost at the
melting snow bank's edge... The flowers here are very gorgeous, but
somehow they never seem as sweet."

She looked at him curiously, almost with the expectation of finding
that he was jesting. This flowering of sentiment was unexpected. It
had come, as he had described his native spring blooms, almost at the
snow bank's edge. She reached out, gathered up the faded blossoms
ruthlessly, and dropped them into a convenient waste basket.

"Do you mind?" she asked, lifting her eyes heavily.

He did not answer.

Slowly she unpinned the flaming daffodils from her side and slipped
them into the empty vase. She stepped back to survey their sunlit
brilliance, resting a gloved hand upon the chair she had deserted. She
was conscious that another hand was bearing down heavily upon her
slender ringers. The weight crushed and pained her, yet she felt no
desire to withdraw...

The office boy came in. She moved forward quickly.

"There's a gentleman named Starratt waiting to see you," he announced.

She threw back her head defensively.

"This way!" Hilmer said, as he opened a private exit for her.

She found herself in the marble-flanked hallway and presently she
gained the sun-flooded street. The blood was pounding at her temples
and its throb hurt.

She walked home rapidly, swept by half-formulated impulses that
stirred her to almost adolescent self-revelations, yet when she
reached her apartment she was quite calm, almost too calm, and
outwardly cold.

That night over the black coffee Fred Starratt said to his wife, with
an air of restrained triumph:

"Well, I landed the insurance on Hilmer's car to-day."

She flashed him, an enigmatical smile. "Oh, lovely!"...

He sipped his coffee with preening satisfaction.

"Everything is going beautifully," he continued. "I hired an office
and began to connect up with two or three firms. That preliminary from
Hilmer was a great boost... A man named Kendrick handles all his
business, so I've sort of got the street guessing. They can't figure
how I could even get a look in... Of course I'm convinced that
Kendrick shares his commissions with Hilmer, which is against the
rules of the Broker's Exchange. But he didn't ask for any shakedown...
Brauer and I ordered some office furniture, and to-morrow I'll
advertise for a girl."

"I've got one for you already," she said, deliberately.

"Who?"

She reached across the shallow length of the table and touched his arm
significantly.

"I've decided to do it myself," she purred.

He patted her hand as an incredulous stare escaped him. "You!" he
laughed.

She suffered his indulgent and mildly contemptuous caress. "Don't
laugh, sonny," she drawled, almost disagreeably. "Your wife may prove
a lot more clever than she seems."




CHAPTER V


After the first two weeks Fred Starratt's business venture went
forward amazingly. His application for membership in the Insurance
Broker's Exchange was rushed through by influential friends and he
became, through this action, a full-fledged fire insurance broker. He
did not need this formality, however, to qualify him as a solicitor in
other insurance lines. There was a long list of free lances, where the
only seal of approval was an ability to get the business. Automobile
liability, personal accident, marine, life - underwriters representing
such insurances shared commissions with any and all who had a
reasonable claim to prospective success. Therefore, while he was
waiting for his final confirmation from fire-insurance circles he took
a flyer at these more liberal forms. There seemed no end to this
miscellaneous business which, he came to the conclusion, could be had
almost for the asking. And all the time he had fancied that the field
was overworked! He mentioned this one day to a seasoned veteran in the
brokerage world.

"Writing up policies is one thing," this friend had assured him,
emphatically; "collecting the premiums is another matter... If your
fire-insurance premiums aren't paid up inside of two months, the
policies are canceled. But they let the others drag on until the cows
come home. There's nothing so intangible in this world as insurance.
And people hate to pay for intangibilities."

Starratt refused to be forewarned. The people he went after were
personal friends or gilt-edged business men. _They_ wouldn't deny
their obligations when the premiums fell due.

But the greatest rallying point for his business enthusiasm proved to
be Hilmer. It seemed that scarcely a day went by that Hilmer did not
drop a new piece of business Fred's way. Returning to the office at
four o'clock on almost any afternoon, he grew to feel almost sure that
he would find Hilmer there, bending over Helen's shoulder as he
pointed out some vital point in the contract they were both examining.
He was a trifle uneasy at first - dreading the day when Hilmer would
approach him on the matter of sharing commissions. It was a generally
assumed fact that Kendrick, the man who handled practically all of
Hilmer's business, was a notorious rebater - that he divided
commissions with his clients in the face of his sworn agreement with
the Broker's Exchange not to indulge in such a practice. Obviously,
then, Hilmer would not be a man to throw away chances to turn such an
easy trick.

Starratt voiced these fears to Brauer.

"Sure he expects a rake-off," Starratt's silent partner had said.
"Everybody gets it ... if they've got business enough to make it worth
while."

"Well, he won't get it from me," Fred returned, decisively. "I've
signed my name to an agreement and that agreement will stick if I
starve doing it!"

Brauer, disconcerted by his friend's vehemence, merely had shrugged,
but at another time he said, craftily:

"If Hilmer wants to break even on the fire business he gives us, why
can't we make it up some other way?... There's nothing against giving
him _all_ the commissions on that automobile liability policy we
placed the other day. We can do what we please with _that_ profit."

Starratt flushed. "Can't you see, Brauer, that the principle is the
same?"

"Principle! Oh, shoot!... We're out to make money, not to reform
business methods."

Starratt made no further reply, but Brauer's attitude rankled. He
began to wish that he hadn't allowed Brauer to go in on his venture.
'But it had taken money ... more than he had imagined. They had to put
a good deposit down on the office furniture, and the rent was, of
course, payable in advance. Then came the fee for joining the Broker's
Exchange, and he had to borrow money for his personal expenses in the
face of his diminished salary check from Ford, Wetherbee & Co. He
realized, too, that the difficulties would scarcely decrease, even in


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 4 of 17)