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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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wife in silence, but he was sure that his face betrayed his feelings.

Presently he felt her standing very close to him. He turned about
sharply, almost in irritation. Her mouth was raised temptingly. He
bent over and kissed her, but he withdrew as swiftly. Her lips left a
bitter taste that he could not define.




CHAPTER VI


March passed in a blur of wind and cold, penetrating rains. Except for
the placing of the insurance on the Hilmer shipbuilding plant,
business was dull. Fred began to make moves toward getting in money.
But it was heartbreaking work. The people who had yielded up their
consent so smilingly to Fred for personal accident policies, or
automobile insurance, passed him furtively on the street or sent word
out to him when he called at their offices that they were busy or
broke or leaving town. He did not attempt to do much toward collecting
the fire-insurance premiums. Most people with fire policies knew their
rights and stood by them. The premiums on March business were not due
until the end of May and it was useless to make the rounds much before
the middle of that month.

The whisperings on the street continued, and a few surly growls from
Kendrick reached Fred's ears. One day a close friend of Fred, who knew
something of Insurance Exchange matters, said to him:

"There's something going on inside, but I can't quite get the dope...
I hope you're not giving Kendrick the chance to have you called for
rebating... He's an ugly customer when he gets in action."

Fred was annoyed. "I've told you again and again," he retorted, "that
I'm not yielding a cent on the Hilmer business."

"It isn't that," was the reply. "Kendrick knows better than to stir up
a situation he's helped to befoul himself... No, it's another matter."

Fred shrugged and changed the subject, but his thoughts flew at once
to Brauer. He decided not to say anything to his partner until he made
a move toward investigating, himself.

The next morning he took a half dozen names of Brauer's customers at
random from the ledger and he made out bills for their premiums.
Practically all of Brauer's business was fire insurance, so Fred had
typical cases for his test. The first man he called on produced a
receipt from Brauer for the premium paid on the very day the policy
was issued. The second man protested that he had paid Brauer only the
day before. The third man stated brusquely that he had placed his
business through Brauer and he was the man he intended to settle with.
The fourth was noncommittal, but it was the fifth client who produced
the straw that betrayed the direction of the wind.

"I want to see Brauer," the man said. "He promised to do something for
me."

The sixth customer was even more direct.

"There's something to come off the premium," he said. "Brauer knows."

Fred did not wait for Brauer to come into the office - he went and took
him to lunch instead, where he could prod him away from Helen's sight
and hearing.

"I'm surprised at you, Brauer," Starratt broke out suddenly, once they
were seated at Grover's and had given the girl their order.

"Over what?" Brauer's face clouded craftily.

"Why do you go about collecting premiums and holding them back from
the office?... That isn't sound business tactics."

Brauer's sharp teeth glistened savagely in spite of his weak and
bloodless mouth. "What have you been doing ... bothering _my_ people?
I'll trouble you to let me attend to my own clients in future. Those
premiums aren't due for a good six weeks yet. When they are I'll turn
them in."

Fred cooled a little in the face of Brauer's vehemence. "Oh, come now,
what's the use of talking like that? I'm not intending to bother your
customers, but there are some things due me... My name is on every one
of those policies. Therefore I ought to know when they are paid and
anything else about the business that concerns me. You know as well as
I do what is reasonable and just. Suppose you were taken ill. It
doesn't look right for a firm to go about making attempts to collect
premiums that have been paid."

"Well ... you're pretty previous, Starratt, dogging folks in March for
money that isn't due until May," Brauer grumbled back. "What's the
idea, anyway?"

Starratt leaned forward. "Just this, Brauer. I heard some ugly gossip
yesterday, and I wanted to find out if it had any justification. It
seems Kendrick is after us. He's going to try and get us on a rebating
charge. I saw six of your people ... and I'm reasonably sure that two
out of that six have been promised a rake-off... Do you call that fair
to me?"

"That's a lie!" Brauer broke out, too emphatically.

"I doubt it!" Starratt replied, coldly. "But that's neither here nor
there. What's done is done. But I don't want any more of it. I'm
playing a square game. I was ready to throw Hilmer overboard rather
than compromise, and I'll - "

"Do the same thing to me, I suppose!" Brauer challenged.

Fred looked at him steadily. "Precisely," he answered.

The waitress arrived with their orders and Starratt changed the
subject... Brauer recovered his civility, but hardly his good temper.
At the close of the meal they parted politely. Fred could see that
Brauer was bursting with spite. For himself, he decided then and there
to eliminate Brauer at the first opportunity.

A few days later Brauer came into the office with an order to place a
workmen's compensation policy. It covered the entire force of a
canning concern, and the premium was based upon a large pay roll.

"I've had to split the commission with them," Brauer announced,
defiantly. "That's legitimate enough with this sort of business, isn't
it?"

Starratt nodded. "It's done, but I'm not keen for it. However, there
isn't any law against it."

The policy was made out and delivered to Brauer, and almost
immediately he came back with a check for the premium. "They paid me
at once," he exulted.

Starratt refused to express any enthusiasm. Brauer sat down at a desk
and drew out his check book. "I guess I might as well settle up for
the other premiums I've collected," he said, "while I'm about it."

He made out a long list of fire premiums and drew his check for their
full amount, plus the workmen's compensation premium in his
possession. But he took 5 per cent off the latter item.

Starratt made no comment. But he was willing to stake his life that
the check from the canning company to Brauer was for a full premium
without any 5-per-cent reduction, and that Brauer, himself, was
withholding this alleged rebate and applying it to making up the
deficits on the fire premiums he had discounted.

The next day Fred's friend said again: "Kendrick's doing some gum-shoe
work, Starratt... You'd better go awful slow."

With the coming of May other anxieties claimed Starratt's attention.
Bills that he had forgotten or neglected began to pour in. There was
his tailor bill, long overdue, and two accounts with dry-goods stores
that Helen had run up in the days when the certainty of a fixed salary
income had seemed sure. A dentist bill for work done in December made
its appearance and, of course, the usual household expenditures went
merrily on. The rent of their apartment was raised. Collections were
slow. In March the commissions on collected premiums had just about
paid the office rent and the telephone... April showed up better, but
May, of course, held great promise. At the end of May the Hilmer
premiums would be due and the firm of Starratt & Co. on its feet, with
over two thousand dollars in commissions actually in hand. On the
strength of these prospects Helen began to order a new outfit. Fred
Starratt did not have the heart to complain. Helen had earned every
stitch of clothing that she was buying - there was no doubt about that;
still, he would have liked to be less hasty in her expenditures. He
had been too long in business to count much on prospects. He disliked
borrowing more money from Brauer, but there was no alternative. Brauer
fell to grumbling quite audibly over these advances, and he saw to it
that Fred's notes for the amounts always were forthcoming. Hilmer did
not come in quite so often to the office; a rush of shipbuilding
construction took him over to his yards in Oakland nearly every day.
But Mrs. Hilmer was in evidence a good deal. Helen was constantly
calling her up and asking her to drop downtown for luncheon or for a
bit of noonday shopping uptown or just for a talk.

"She's a dear!" Helen used to say to Fred. "And I just love her to
death..."

Fred could not fathom Helen. A year ago he felt sure that Mrs. Hilmer
was the last woman in the world that Helen would have found bearable,
much less attractive... He concluded that Helen was enjoying the
novelty of watching Mrs. Hilmer nibble at a discreet feminine
frivolity to which she was unaccustomed. After a while he looked for
outward changes in Mrs. Hilmer's make-up. He figured that the shopping
tours with Helen might be reflected in a sprightlier bonnet or a
narrower skirt or a higher heel on her shoe. But no such
transformation took place. Indeed, her costuming seemed to grow more
and more uncompromising - more Dutch, to use the time-worn phrase, made
significant to Fred Starratt by his mother. But Helen always made a
point to compliment her on her appearance.

"You look too sweet for anything!" Helen would exclaim, rushing upon
her new friend with an eager kiss.

At this Mrs. Hilmer always dimpled with wholesome pleasure. Well, she
did look sweet, in a motherly, bovine way, Fred admitted, when the
note of insincerity in his wife's voice jarred him.

One day Mrs. Hilmer brought down a hat the two had picked out and
which had been altered at Helen's suggestion. She tried it on for
Helen's approval, and Fred stood back in a corner while Helen went
into ecstasies over it. Even a man could not escape the fact that it
was unbecoming. Somehow, in a subtle way, it seemed to accent all of
Mrs. Hilmer's unprepossessing features. When she left the office Fred
said to Helen, casually:

"I don't think much of your taste, old girl. That hat was awful!"

Helen laughed maliciously. "Of course it was!" she flung back.

Starratt shrugged and said no more. There was kindliness back of many
deceits, but he knew now that Helen's insincerities with Mrs. Hilmer
were not justified by even so dubious virtue.

At the moment when the Hilmer shipyard insurance had been turned over
to Fred Starratt he had at once made a move toward a reduction in the
rate. Having gone over the schedule at the Board of Fire Underwriters,
he had discovered that they had failed to give Hilmer credit in the
rating for certain fire protection. On the strength of Starratt's
application for a change a new rate was published about the middle of
May. Starratt was jubilant. Here was proof for Hilmer that his
interests were being guarded and that it paid to employ an efficient
broker. He flew at once to Hilmer's office.

"Let me have your policies," he burst out.
"I've secured a new rate for you and I want the reduction indorsed."

Hilmer did not appear to be moved by the announcement.

"Better cancel and rewrite the bunch," he replied, briefly.

Fred gasped. This meant that only about a sixth of the premium on the
present policies would be due and payable at the end of the month and
the prospects of a big clean-up on commissions delayed until July.

"Oh, that won't be necessary," he tried to say, calmly. "This
reduction applies from the original date of the policies. It's just as
if they had been written up at the new rate."

Hilmer ripped open a letter that he had been toying with. "Better
cancel," he announced, dryly. "It's a good excuse, and I'm a little
pressed for money. It will delay a big expenditure."

There was no room for further argument. Fred left, crestfallen. Was
Hilmer making sport of him, he wondered. He must wait then until July
for an easy financial road. And would July see him? out of the woods?
Suppose Hilmer were to conjure up another excuse for canceling and
reissuing just as the second batch of premiums fell due?

He voiced his fears and anxieties to Helen. She shrugged
indifferently.

"You told me when you went into business that you weren't counting on
Hilmer," she observed, with a suggestion of a sneer.

So he had thought or, at least, so he had pretended. What colossal
braveries he had assumed in his attempts to play a swaggering role! He
had started in with the determination to set a new standard in the
insurance world. _He_ was going to show people that a young man could
begin with nothing but honesty and merit and walk away with the
biggest kind of business. He knew that his hands were clean, but he
realized that not one in ten believed it. He had to confess that
appearances were against him. Scarcely anyone believed the Hilmer
myth. And underneath the surface was Brauer. Fred felt sure that
Brauer's ethical lapses were still in progress. At intervals Brauer
always contrived to place an insurance line other than fire and insist
that he was compelled to grant a discount. These premiums were always
settled promptly and, in their wake, a list of fire premiums paid in
full were turned in by Brauer. It was plain that Peter was being
robbed to pay Paul. Starratt even grew to fancy that there was a
substantial balance left over from these alleged discounts to clients,
which Brauer pocketed himself. But he had to smile and pretend that he
did not suspect. Were his hands clean, after all? Well, just as soon
as it was possible he intended to rid himself of Brauer. But how soon
_would_ that be possible? And meanwhile Kendrick was sniffing out
disquieting odors.

He rallied from his first depression with a tight-lipped
determination. He was not trying out a business venture so much as he
was trying out himself. Previously he had always figured success and
failure as his performance reacted on his audience. He was learning
that one could impress a stupendous crowd and really fail, or strut
upon the boards of an empty playhouse and still succeed. He began to
realize just what was meant by the term self-esteem - how hard and
uncompromising and exacting it was. To disappoint another was a
humiliation; to disappoint oneself was a tragedy. And the tragedy
became deep in proportion to the ability to be self-searching. There
were moments when he closed his eyes to self-analysis...when it seemed
better to press on without disturbing glimpses either backward or
forward. He was eager to gain an economic foothold first - there would
be time later for recapitulations and readjustments to his widening
vision.

The two months following were rough and uneven. He had to borrow
continually from Brauer, meet Hilmer with a bland smile, suffer the
covert sarcasms of his wife. Some money came in, but it barely kept
things moving. His broker friend had been right - the payment of any
premiums but fire premiums dragged on "till the cows came home." Many
of the policies that had seemed so easy to write up came back for
total cancellation. This man had buried a father, another had married
a wife, a third had bought a piece of ground - the excuses were all
valid, and they came from friends, so there was nothing to do but
smile and assure them that it didn't matter.

But somehow Starratt weathered the storm and the day came when the
Hilmer insurance fell due. Fred found Hilmer absent from his desk, but
the cashier received him blandly. Yes, they were ready to pay, in fact
the check was drawn and only awaited Hilmer's signature. To-morrow, at
the latest, it would be forthcoming. Fred drew a long sigh of relief.
He went back to his office whistling.

In the hallway he met Brauer.

"I want to have a talk with you," Brauer began, almost apologetically.

Fred waved him in and Brauer came direct to the point. He was
dissatisfied with the present arrangement and he was ready to pull out
if Fred were in a position to square things. His demands were
extraordinarily fair - he asked to have the notes for any advances met,
plus 50 per cent of the profit on any business he had turned in. He
claimed no share of the profits on Fred's business.

"I suppose you've collected the Hilmer premiums," he threw out,
significantly.

Fred nodded and began a rapid calculation. It turned out that he had
borrowed about $500 from his partner and that 50 per cent of the
commissions on the Brauer business came to a scant $125. Well, his
profits on the Hilmer insurance would be in the neighborhood of $1,900
under the new rate. To-morrow he would be in possession of this sum.
It was too easy! He drew out his check book, deciding to close the
deal before Brauer had a chance to change his mind. Brauer received
the check with a bland smile and surrendered the notes and the
partnership agreement.

At the door they shook hands heartily. Brauer said at parting:

"Well, good luck, old man... I hope you aren't sore."

Fred tried to suppress his delight. "Oh no, nothing like that! If it
_had_ to come I'm glad to see everything end pleasantly."

And as Brauer drifted down the hall Starratt called out, suddenly:

"I say, Brauer, don't put that check through the bank until day after
to-morrow, will you?"

Brauer nodded a swift acquiescence and disappeared into a waiting
elevator.

Fred retreated to his desk. "Well," he said to Helen, as he let out a
deep sigh, "that's what I call easy!"

She looked up from her work. "Almost too easy," she answered. He made
no reply and presently she said: "You didn't tell me how tightly you
let him sew us up. With signed notes and that agreement he could have
been nasty... It's strange he didn't wait a day or two and then claim
half of the Hilmer commissions... I wonder why he was in such a rush?"

Fred shrugged. Helen's shrewdness annoyed him.

That evening just as Helen and he were getting ready to leave, a
messenger from the Broker's Exchange handed him a note. He broke the
seal and read a summons to appear before the executive committee on
the following morning. His face must have betrayed him, for Helen
halted the adjustment of her veil as she inquired:

"What's wrong? Any trouble?"

He recovered himself swiftly. "Oh no ... just a meeting at the
Exchange to-morrow."

But as he folded up the letter and slipped it into his coat pocket he
began to have a suspicion as to the reason for Brauer's haste.




CHAPTER VII


The next morning Fred Starratt went down to the office alone. Mrs.
Hilmer had telephoned the night before an invitation for Helen to join
them in a motor trip down the Ocean Shore Boulevard to Half moon Bay
and home by way of San Mateo. Hilmer was entertaining a party of Norse
visitors. Helen demurred at first, but Fred interrupted the
conversation to insist:

"Go on ... by all means! The change will be good for you. I can run
the office for a day."

Secretly he was glad to be rid of his wife's presence. He didn't know
what trouble might be impending and he wanted to face the music
without the irritation of a prying audience.

His fears were confirmed. He had been brought before the executive
committee on a charge of rebating preferred by Kendrick. The evidence
was complete in at least three cases and they all involved Brauer's
clients. In short, Kendrick had sworn affidavits from three people to
the effect that a representative of Starratt & Co. had granted a
discount on fire-insurance business. Obviously all three cases had
been planted by Kendrick, and Brauer had walked into the trap with
both feet. There was nothing for Fred to do but to explain the whole
situation - who Brauer was and why he had an interest in the firm. He
found the committee reasonably sympathetic, but they still had their
suspicions. Fred could see that even the sudden withdrawal of Brauer
from partnership with him had its questionable side. It looked a bit
like clever connivance. However, his inquisitors promised to look
fairly into the question before presenting an ultimatum.

Fred went back to his office reassured. He had a feeling that in the
end the committee would purge him or at least give him another chance.
It was inconceivable that they would pronounce the penalty of
expulsion, although they might impose a fine. He was so glad to be rid
of Brauer, though, that he counted the whole circumstance as little
short of providential.

He found a large mail at the office and quite a few remittances, but
the Hilmer check was not in evidence. He remembered now, with chagrin,
that Hilmer was away for the day. Still, there was a possibility that
he had signed the check late last night. He called up Hilmer's office.
No, the check had not been signed. Fred reminded the cashier that this
was the last day to get the money into the companies. But the watchdog
of the Hilmer treasury had been through too many financial pressures
to be disturbed.

"They'll have to give us the usual five-day cancellation notice," he
returned, blandly. "And payment will be made before the five days
lapse."

Fred hung up the phone and cursed audibly. Of course a day or two or
three wouldn't have made any difference ordinarily. But there was that
damn check out to Brauer. Well, he had told Brauer to hold it until
Friday. There was still another day. He hated to go around and ask any
further favors of his contemptible ex-partner, and he hoped he
wouldn't have to request another postponement to the formality of
putting the Brauer check through. Of course he had had no business
making out a check for funds not in hand. But under the
circumstances... What in hell was he worrying for? Everything would
come out all right. What could Brauer do about it, anyway? As a matter
of fact, he figured that under the circumstances he had a perfect
right to stop payment on that Brauer check if he had been so disposed.
For a moment the thought allured him. But his surrender to such a
petty retaliation, passed swiftly. No, he wouldn't tar himself with
any such defiling brush. He'd simply wipe Brauer from the slate and
begin fresh.

He kept to his office all day. He didn't want to run afoul of either
Kendrick or Brauer on the street, and, besides, with Helen away, it
was a good day to clean up a lot of odds and ends that had been
neglected during the pressure of soliciting business. It was six
o'clock when he slammed down his roll-top desk and prepared to leave.
He had planned to meet Helen for dinner at Felix's. He found himself a
bit fagged and he grew irritated at the thought that prohibition had
robbed him of his right of easy access to a reviving cocktail. He knew
many places where he could buy bad drinks furtively, but he resented
both the method and the vileness of the mixtures. He was putting on
his coat when he heard a rap at the door. He crossed over and turned
the knob, admitting a man standing upon the threshold.

"Is this Mr. Starratt?" the stranger began.

Fred nodded.

"Well, I'm sorry to bring bad news, but there's been a nasty accident.
Mr. Hilmer's car went over a bank near Montara this afternoon... Mrs.
Hilmer was hurt pretty badly, but everybody else is fairly well off...
Your wife asked me to drop in and see you. I drove the car that helped
rescue them... Don't be alarmed; Mrs. Starratt isn't hurt beyond a
tough shaking up. But she feels she ought to stay with Mrs.
Hilmer - under the circumstances."

Fred tried to appear calm. "Oh yes, of course ... naturally... And how
about Hilmer himself?"

The man shrugged. "He's pretty fair. So far a broken arm is all
they've found wrong with him."

"His right arm, I suppose?" Fred suggested, with an air of
resignation. He was wondering whether anybody at Hilmer's office had
authority to sign checks.

"Yes," the visitor assented, briefly.

Fred Starratt had a hasty meal and then he took a direct car line for
the Hilmers'. He had never been to their house, but he found just
about what he had expected - a two-story hand-me-down dwelling in the
Richmond district, a bit more pretentious and boasting greater garden
space than most of the homes in the block. Helen answered his ring.
She had her wrist in a tight bandage.

"Just a sprain," she explained, rather loftily. "The doctor says it
will be all right in a day or two."

Fred sat down in an easy-chair and glanced up and down the living
room. It was scrupulously neat, reflecting a neutral taste. The
furniture was a mixture of golden and fumed oak done in heavy mission
style and the pictures on the wall consisted of dubious oil paintings
and enlarged photographs. A victrola stood in a corner, and the
upright piano near the center of the room formed a background for a


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 6 of 17)