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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

Broken to the Plow online

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the face of brisk business. The office furnishings would one day have
to be met in full, the typewriting machine paid for, the stationery
and printing bills settled. During all this time he and Helen would
have to live and keep up a decent, not to say prosperous, appearance.
Yes, even with Helen saving the price of a stenographer, the problem
would not be easy. A day would come finally when he would feel
compelled to provide Helen with a fair salary. A man couldn't expect
even his own wife to go on pounding a typewriting machine for nothing.
What he really hoped was that when things began to run smoothly Helen
would retire... He had heard her in the old days voice her scorn of
the married woman who went out to earn a salary.

"I wouldn't marry a man who couldn't support me!" she used to blaze.

As a matter of fact, he had felt the same way about it - he felt that
way still. It hurt him to think that Helen should be wearing the badge
of his inefficiency. And then, deep down, he had a masculine distaste
for sharing his workday world with a woman. He liked to preserve the
mystery of those hours spent in the fight for existence, because he
knew instinctively that battle grounds lost their glamour at close
range. His Californian inheritance had fostered the mining-camp
attitude toward females - they were one of two things: men's moral
equals or men's moral superiors. It was well enough to meet an equal
on common ground, but one felt in duty bound to enshrine a superior
being in reasonable seclusion.

At first he had been doubtful of Helen's ability to adapt herself to
such a radical change. Her performance soon set his mind at rest on
that score, but he still could not recover quite from the surprise of
her unexpected decision. Indifference, amazement, opposition - nothing
seemed able to sway her from her purpose. In the end he had been too
touched by her attitude to put his foot down firmly against the
move... She got on well with Hilmer, too, he noticed. Usually at the
end of one of these late afternoon conferences with their chief patron
Fred and Hilmer ended up by shaking for an early evening cocktail at
Collins & Wheeland's, just around the corner. Hilmer always saw to it
that Fred returned to the office with something for Helen - a handful
of ginger-snaps from the free-lunch counter, a ham sandwich, or a
paper of ripe olives. Once he stopped in a candy shop on Leidesdorff
Street and bought two ice-cream cornucopias. Fred used to shake a
puzzled head as he deposited these gastronomic trifles upon Helen's
desk as he said:

"I don't get this man Hilmer... One minute he insults you and the next
minute he's as considerate as a canteen worker... What's he throwing
business my way for?"

Helen, munching a gingersnap, would go on with her laborious
typewriting, and return:

"Why look a gift horse in the mouth, Freddie?... Women aren't the only
riddles in the world."

"I think he comes to see you," he used to throw out in obvious jest.
"That's the only way I can figure it."

"He's like every man ... he wants an audience... I guess Mother Hilmer
is tired of hearing him rave."

And so the banter would go on until Fred would pull up with a round
turn, realizing quite suddenly that he was talking to his wife and not
just to his stenographer.

"He'll be at me one of these days on that commission question, you
mark my words," he would venture.

"And what are you going to do?"

"Why, refuse, of course, and lose the business."

"Well, don't cross the bridge till you come to it."

She puzzled him more and more. She seemed disturbed at nothing, and
yet she glowed with a leashed restlessness that he could not define.

"It's the strain," he would conclude. "She's putting more into this
venture of mine than she's willing to admit... After all, women are
amazing... They pull and cling at you and drag you back ... and then,
all of a sudden, they take the bit in their teeth and you can't hold
them in... Who would have thought that Helen..."

And here he would halt, overcome with the soft wonder of it.

Business began to pour in from Brauer and, frankly, Fred was
disturbed. He wasn't sure of Brauer's business scruples.

"I wonder if he's promising these people rebates," he said to Helen
one day, following an avalanche of new risks.

"Well, you'll know soon enough when he begins to collect the
premiums," she replied, indifferently.

"But I don't want to wait until then... They tell me this man Kendrick
is getting awfully sore at losing so much of Hilmer's business. He'd
like nothing better than to hop on to some irregularity in my methods
and get me fired from the Exchange... It takes a thief to catch one,
you know."

"Oh, why worry?" Helen almost snapped at him. "If Brauer gets us into
a mess we can always throw him out."

Starratt's eyes widened. Where did Helen get this ruthless philosophy?
Had it always lain dormant in her, or was this business life already
putting a ragged edge upon her finer perceptions? But he made no
answer. He had never admitted to Helen that Brauer had insisted upon
drawing up a hard-and-fast partnership agreement, and taking his note
for half of the money advanced in the bargain. It was one of the
business secrets which he decided he would not share with anybody - he
had a childish wish to preserve some mystery in connection with his
venture against the soft and dubious encroachments of his wife.

"Anyway," Helen went on, "as soon as we get running smoothly we can
split. No doubt _he'll_ want to pull out when he sees that he can get
along without us... Just now he isn't taking any chances. He's holding
down his own job and letting us do all the work and the worrying...
Oh, he's German, all right, from the ground up."

Fred had often shared this same hope, although he had never voiced it.
When the time came, no doubt Brauer would eliminate himself - for a
consideration - and set up his own office. But it amazed him to find
how swiftly and completely Helen had figured all these things out. Had
her mind always worked so coldly and logically under her rather
indifferent surface? He still wondered, too, at her efficiency. Was
this a product of her social service with the Red Cross during war
times?... Being a man, he couldn't concede that a proper domestic
training was a pretty good schooling in any direction. He didn't see
any relationship between a perfectly baked apple pie and a neatly kept
cash book. He had expected his wife to fall down on the mechanical
aspects of typewriting, but he forgot that she had been running a
sewing machine since she was fifteen years old. And even in his wife's
early childhood people were still using lamps for soft effects and
intensive reading. Any woman who knew the art of keeping a kerosene
lamp in shape must of necessity find the oiling and cleaning of a
typewriting machine mere child's play. He didn't realize the
affinities of training. It would never have occurred to him to fancy
that because he kept his office desk in perfect order he was qualified
to do the same thing with a kitchen stove, or that the method he had
acquired as office boy, copying letters in the letterpress, would have
stood him in good stead if he suddenly had been called upon to make up
his own bed. What he did realize was that the leveling process which
goes hand in hand with the mingling of sexes in a workday world was
setting in. And he resented it. He wanted to coddle illusion ... he
had no wish for a world practical to the point of bleakness.

One afternoon Hilmer came in at the usual time with a handful of
memoranda. It was a violently rainy day - an early March day, to be
exact - the sort that refused to be softened even by the beguilements
of California. The rain wind, generally warm and humid, had been
chilled in its flight over the snow-piled Sierras, and it had pelted
down in a wintry flood, banking up piles of stinging hail between
warmer showerings. Fred had decided to forgo his soliciting and stay
indoors instead. Hilmer greeted him with biting raillery.

"Well, I should think this was a good day to bag a prospective
customer," he flung out as he laid his umbrella aside. "Or is business
swamping you?"

Fred tossed back a trite rejoinder. Helen went on pounding her machine
... she did not even lift her eyes.

"I've got something for you to-day," Hilmer went on, as he unbound the
bundle of papers and sat down beside Fred.

Starratt saw the edge of a blue print in Hilmer's hand. This spelled
all manner of possibilities, but he checked a surge of illogical hope.
"That's fine," he answered, heartily. "But why didn't you send for me?
I could have come over. It's bad enough to take your business without
letting you bring it in on a day like this..."

Hilmer made a contemptuous gesture. "Wind and weather never made any
difference to me... I've traveled twenty miles in a blizzard to court
a girl."

"Oh, when a woman's involved, that's different," Fred laughed back.
"There's nothing as alluring here."

"Well, Mrs. Starratt, what do you say?" Hilmer called out to her.
"Your husband doesn't seem to count you in at all."

Helen was erasing a misspelled word. "Married women are used to that,"
she retorted, flippantly. "Sometimes it's just as well that they
overlook us. We get a chance to play our own hand once in a while."

Everybody laughed, including Fred, but the effort hurt him. There was
a suggestion of unpleasant mockery in Helen's tone. She seemed to be
hiding her contempt behind a thin veil of acrid humor. And somehow
this revelation in the presence of Hilmer stung him.

"I'll bet you can't guess what I've got here," Hilmer began again,
tapping the bundle of papers with his ringer.

Starratt shook his head and Hilmer tossed him the blue print.

"Not the insurance on your shipbuilding plant?" escaped Fred,
incredulously.

Hilmer crossed his legs and settled back in his chair.

"You said it!" he announced. "And it's all going to you after we've
settled one question... I've been bringing you in little odds and ends
as I've had them ... not enough to matter much one way or another ...
so I haven't bothered to really get down and talk business. This is a
half-million-dollar line and a little bit different. It means about
fifteen thousand dollars in premiums, to be exact. You can figure what
your commission will be at fifteen per cent, to say nothing of how
solid this will make you with the street... Later on there 'll be
workmen's compensation, boiler insurance, public liability. It's a
pretty nice little plum, if I do say so."

Helen stopped her typing. Fred could feel his lips drying with mingled
anticipation and apprehension. He knew just what demand Hilmer
intended making.

"The question is," Hilmer continued, "how much of the commission are
you going to split up with me?"

Fred shrugged. "You know the rules of the Broker's Exchange as well as
I do, Hilmer. I've pledged myself not to do any rebating."

Hilmer did not betray the slightest surprise at Starratt's reply.
Evidently he had heard something of the same argument before.

"Everybody does it," was his calmly brief rejoinder.

"You mean Kendrick, to be exact... I'm sorry, but I don't see it that
way."

"Do you mean that you would rather pass up a half-million-dollar line
than share the spoils?"

"It isn't a question of choice, Hilmer. You must know I don't want to
lose five cents' worth of business. But there are some things a
gentleman doesn't do."

He was sorry once the last remark had escaped him, but Hilmer didn't
seem disconcerted by the covert inference.

"Scruples are like laws," Hilmer returned, affably. "I never saw one
yet that couldn't be gotten round legitimately."

"Oh yes, you can subscribe to any one of the Ten Commandments with
your fingers crossed, if you like that kind of a game. But I don't."

Hilmer moved in his seat with an implication of leave-taking. "Well,
every man to his own taste," he said, as he reached for the blue print
and proceeded to fold it up.

Starratt leaned toward him. His attitude was strangely earnest.

"Do you really like to participate in a game you know to be unfair,
Hilmer? - dishonest, in fact?"

"Participating? I haven't signed any Broker's Exchange agreement. I'm
not breaking any pledge when I accept a share of insurance commission.
That's up to the other fellow."

"Ah, but you know that he is breaking faith... And a man that will
double cross his associates will double cross you if the opportunity
presents itself... Would you put a man in charge of your cash drawer
when you knew that he had looted some one else's safe?"

"That's not the same thing," Hilmer sneered. "That is, it's only the
same in theory. Practically, an insurance broker couldn't double cross
me if he wanted to... I wouldn't put a thief in charge of my cash
drawer, but I might make him a night watchman. He'd know all the
tricks of the trade."

"Including the secret entrances that those on the outside wouldn't
know... A crook wouldn't stay all his life on the night-watchman's
job, believe me."

He noticed that Helen was regarding him keenly and her glance
registered indulgent surprise rather than disapproval. Hilmer, too,
had grown a bit more tolerant. He felt a measure of pride in the
realization that he could make his points so calmly and
dispassionately, putting this rough-hewn man before him on the
defensive. But Hilmer's wavering was only momentary; he was not a man
to waste time in argument when he discovered that such a weapon was
futile.

"Then I understand you don't want the business?"

"Not on those terms."

Hilmer shrugged.

Helen leaned forward and put out a hand. "Let's see!" she half
commanded.

Hilmer gave her the blue print and the package of memoranda. She began
to unfold one of the insurance forms, bending over it curiously. Fred
was puzzled. He knew that Helen was too unacquainted with insurance
matters to have any knowledge of the printed schedule she was
studying, yet he had to concede that she was giving a splendid
imitation of an experienced hand. Her acting annoyed him. He turned
toward Hilmer with an indifferent comment on the weather and the talk
veered to inconsequential subjects. Helen continued her scrutiny of
the forms.

Finally Hilmer rose to go. Helen made no move to return the memoranda.
Fred cleared his throat and even coughed significantly, but Helen was
oblivious. Presently Starratt went up to his wife and said,
deliberately:

"Hilmer is going ... you better give him back his papers."

She turned a glance of startled innocence upon them both. "Oh!" she
exclaimed, petulantly. "How disappointing...and just as I was becoming
interested... Why don't you men go have your usual drink? I'll be
through with them then."

Hilmer gave a silent assent and Fred followed him. There didn't seem
to be anything else to do. On the way out they met Hilmer's office boy
in the corridor. Hilmer was wanted on a matter of importance at the
office. He waved a brief farewell to Fred and left.

Fred went back to his wife. She had abandoned the forms and was
lolling in her chair, sucking at an orange.

"Hilmer's been called suddenly to his office on business," he said,
brusquely. She turned and faced him. "You'd better put those papers in
the safe. I'll take them back myself to-morrow. I can't see what
possessed you to insist on looking them over, anyway."

She squeezed the orange in her hand. "Well, when we get ready to
handle the business I want to know something about it."

He stared. "Handle the business? You heard what I said, didn't you?"

"Yes, I heard," she said, wearily, and she went on with her orange.

He did not say anything further, but the next morning a telephone
message put to rout his resolve to return Hilmer's insurance forms in
person.

"I've got to go up Market Street to see a man about some workmen's
compensation," he explained to Helen. "You'd better put on your hat
and take those things to Hilmer yourself."

She did not answer...

He returned at three o'clock. Helen was very busy pounding away at the
typewriter.

"Well, what's all the rush?" he asked.

"I'm getting out the forms on Hilmer's shipping plant," she returned,
nonchalantly.

"What do you mean?... Didn't you..."

"No ... he's decided to let us handle the business."

"Why ... on what grounds?"

She waved a bit of carbon paper in the air. "How should I know? I
didn't ask him!"

Her contemptuous indifference irritated him. "You ought to have waited
until I got back... You've probably got everything mixed up... It
takes experience to map out a big schedule like that."

"Hilmer showed me what to do," she retorted, calmly.

"Then he's been over here?"

"Yes ... all morning."

He narrowed his eyes. She went on with her typewriting.

"Well, I'll be damned!" escaped him.

His wife replied with a tripping laugh.

At that moment Brauer came in. "I hear you've got the Hilmer line," he
broke out, excitedly. "They say Kendrick is wild... How much did you
have to split?"

"Nothing," Starratt said, coldly.

"Nothing?" Brauer's gaze swept from Starratt to Helen and back again.
"How did you land it, then?"

Helen stood up, thrusting a pencil into her hair.

"I landed it, Mr. Brauer," she said, sweetly, tossing her husband a
commiserating smile.

Brauer's thin lips parted unpleasantly. "I told you at the start,
Starratt, that a good stenographer would work wonders."

Fred forced a sickly laugh. He wished that Helen Starratt had stayed
at home where she belonged.

It had been a long time since the insurance world on California Street
had been given such a chance for gossip as the shifting of the Hilmer
insurance provided. Naturally, business changes took place every day,
but it was unusual to have such a rank beginner at the brokerage game
put over so neat a trick. Speculation was rife. Some said that Hilmer
was backing the entire Starratt venture, that he, in fact, was
Starratt & Co., with Fred merely a salaried man, allowing his name to
be used. Others conceded a partnership arrangement. But Kendrick
announced in a loud tone up and down the street:

"Partnership nothing! I know Hilmer. He's got too many irons in the
fire now. He wouldn't be annoyed with the insurance game. This fellow
Starratt is rebating - that's what he is!"

Of course the street laughed. Kendrick's indignation was quite too
comic, considering his own reputation. To this argument, those who
held to the proprietor and partnership theories replied:

"That may all be, but he wastes an awful lot of time in Starratt's
office for a fellow who's so rushed with his other ventures."

It was at this point that a few people raised their eyebrows
significantly as they said:

"Well, the old boy always did have a pretty keen eye for a skirt."

It was impossible for Fred Starratt to move anywhere without hearing
fragments of all this gossip. During the noon hour particularly it
filtered through the midday tattle of business, pleasure, and
obscenity - at the Market, at Collins & Wheeland's, at Hjul's coffee
house, at Grover's Lunchroom - everywhere that clerks forgathered to
appease their hunger and indulge in idle speculations. Sometimes he
got these things indirectly through chance slips in talks with his
friends, again scraps of overheard conversation reached his ears.
Quite frequently a frank or a coarse acquaintance, without
embarrassment or reserve, would tell him what had been said. He soon
got over protesting. If he convinced anybody that he was getting
Hilmer's business without financial concessions, he had to take the
nasty alternative which the smirks of his audience betrayed... It
would not have been so bad if he could have explained the situation to
himself, but any attempt to solve the riddle moved in a vicious
circle. He used to long for a simplicity that would make him accept
Hilmer's favors on their face value. Why couldn't one believe in
friendship and disinterestedness? Perhaps it would have been easier if
he had lacked any knowledge of Hilmer's philosophy of life. Starratt
couldn't remember anything in the recital of Hilmer's past performance
or his present attitude that dovetailed with benevolence... He
retreated, baffled from these speculative tilts, to the refuge of a
comforting conviction that fortunately no man was thoroughly
consistent. Perhaps therein lay the secret of Hilmer's puzzling
prodigality - because, boiled down to hard facts, it was apparent that
Hilmer was making Starratt & Co. a present of several hundred dollars
a year. Sometimes, in a wild flight of conjecture, he used to wonder
how far his argument with Hilmer regarding the ethics of being a
negative party to another man's dishonesty had been borne home? It
seemed almost too fantastic to fancy that he could have put over his
rather finely spun business morality in such a brief flash, if at all.

At first he had plunged in too speedily to his venture to formulate
many ideals of business conduct, but as he had progressed he found his
standards springing to life full grown.

He had been long enough in the insurance business to realize the
estimate that average clients had of an insurance broker - they looked
upon him as a struggling friend or a poor relation or an agreeable,
persuasive grafter, whose only work consisted in talking them into
indifferent acceptance of an insurance policy and then pestering them
into a reluctant payment of the premium. Of course big business firms
recognized a broker's expertness or lack of it, though, quite
frequently, as in Hilmer's case, they were more snared by a share in
the profits than by the claims of efficiency. But Starratt wanted to
succeed merely on his merit. He wanted to teach people to say of him:

"I go to Fred Starratt because he's the keenest, the most reliable man
in the field. And for no other reason."

In short, he wished to earn his commission, and not to share it. He
wanted to prove to people that an insurance broker was neither a
barbered mendicant nor a genial incompetent. Had he known that a
conviction of his ability lay at the bottom of Hilmer's sudden change
in business tactics he would have been content. As it was, in spite of
the impetus this sudden push gave his career he had moments when he
would have felt happier without such dubious patronage. As a matter of
fact, Hilmer rather ignored him. He brought in his business usually
during Fred's absence from the office, and Helen, under his guidance,
had everything ready before her husband had time to suggest any line
of action. Forms, apportionments, applications - there did not seem to
be a detail that Hilmer had overlooked or Helen had failed to execute.
Starratt tried not to appear irritated. He didn't like to admit even
to himself that he could be small enough to resent his wife's curious
efficiency. But he wished she weren't there. One day he said to her,
as inconsequentially as he could:

"I really think, my dear, that I ought to be planning to get a woman
here in your place... Now that Hilmer's business is reasonably
assured, I can afford it... It's too much to ask of you - keeping up
your house and doing this, too."

"Well," she shrugged, "we can board if it gets too much for me."

"You know I detest boarding."

"I can hire help, then. Mrs. Finn would come in by the day. But, as a
matter of fact, this isn't any more strenuous than my year of the Red
Cross work. I managed then; I guess I can manage now."

"But I thought you didn't like business life."

"I'm not crazy about it ... but I want to get you started right.
Suppose you got a girl in here who didn't know how to manage Hilmer?"

He checked the retort that rose to his lips... He couldn't help
getting the nasty inferences that people on the street threw at him
unconsciously or maliciously, but he _could_ help voicing them or
admitting them even to himself.

"Is ... is Hilmer so hard to manage?" he found himself inquiring.

Helen looked up sharply. "No harder than most men," she answered,
slipping easily from the traces of his cross-examination.

His rancor outran his reserve. "I guess I'm vain," he threw out
bitterly, "but I'd like to feel that I could land one piece of
business without _anybody's_ help."

She laughed indulgently. "Why, Freddie, that isn't nice! You landed
Hilmer at the start... Don't you remember that very first line? On his
automobile?"

There was something insincere in her tone, in the lift of her eyes, in
her cryptic smile. But he smothered such unworthy promptings. It was
fresh proof of his own unreasonable conceit. He turned away from his


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 5 of 17)