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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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precisely draped, imitation mandarin skirt and a convenient shelf for
family photographs and hand-painted vases. On the mantel an elaborate
onyx-and-bronze clock ticked inaudibly.

Helen sat apart, almost with the detachment of a hostess receiving a
casual acquaintance, as she recounted the incidents of the disastrous
ride. Hilmer had been driving fairly carefully, but in swerving to
avoid running down a cow that suddenly had made its appearance in the
road the machine had skidded and gone over a steep bank. Mrs. Hilmer's
condition was really quite serious. The doctor had intimated that even
if she pulled through she might never walk again. They had a nurse, of
course - two, in fact - but some one had to be there to look after
things. The servant girl was just a raw Swede who did the heavy
work - Mrs. Hilmer always had done most of the cooking herself.

Fred inquired for Hilmer. He had a broken wrist and several bad
sprains and bruises, but he was resting easily.

"I didn't get that check for the premiums to-day," Fred said.

Helen rose from her seat. "I'll speak to him about it to-morrow," she
returned, lightly.

Her movement implied dismissal. Fred left his seat and stood for a
moment, awkwardly fingering his hat.

"I suppose," he faltered, "you don't know just how long you'll be
needed here."

"That depends," she answered, shrugging.

"Then I'd better get some one in temporarily at the office."

She nodded.

"Well, good night," he said.

She kissed him perfunctorily and presently he found himself in the
street again, bound for home.

A low fog was whitening the air and the breeze blowing in fresh from
the ocean was sharp of tooth. Fred shivered slightly and buttoned his
overcoat.

"I guess she's still kind of dazed," he muttered to himself. But above
his perplexity soared a fresh determination. He would get a woman in
his wife's place in the office and he would keep her there. It was
time Helen stayed home where she belonged.

The next morning he went early to Hilmer's office. The cashier took
him aside.

"Hilmer has authorized me to sign checks," he explained. "But I
understand you're in wrong with the Exchange... I think I'll make out
checks direct to the different companies. That's always the safest
thing to do in a jam."

Fred was too furious even to protest. "I don't quite get the idea," he
returned. "But that's up to you. If you want to write thirty-odd
checks instead of one, that's your business, I suppose."

"Oh, that isn't any trouble," returned the man, complacently.

Fred swung back to his office. Kendrick must have been gossiping with
a vengeance! What would the insurance offices on the street think when
they received their checks direct from the Hilmer company? It was
insulting! And now he would have to trail about collecting his
commissions instead of merely withholding them from the remittance
that should have been put in his hand. Still, on second thought, he
did feel relieved to know that the matter wouldn't drag on any
longer - that he wouldn't have to ask Brauer to hold off with his bank
deposit another moment. He waited until after the noon hour to begin
the collection of his commissions. Hilmer's cashier had promised to
send his messenger around to the different companies before eleven
o'clock.

He went into the first office with an assumption of buoyance. The
cashier looked down at him through quizzical spectacles. Yes, the
Hilmer premium was in, but he was very sorry - he couldn't pay Starratt
& Co. anything.

"Why?" Fred demanded, hotly.

Because the Insurance Broker's Exchange had sent out a circular asking
the companies to withhold any commissions due that firm until certain
charges of rebating were investigated further and disproved.

Fred fled to the Exchange. The secretary was out, but his stenographer
confirmed the circular. Fred went back to his office to think things
over. Again he was tempted to repudiate the Brauer check at the bank
and let Brauer do his worst. But he drew back from such a course with
his usual repugnance. He saw now that all his high-flown theory about
standing on his own feet was the merest sophistry. So far, he was
nothing but the product of Hilmer's puzzling benevolence. One jam in
the wheel and everything halted. He thought the whole matter out. He
was still what Hilmer had intimated on the night of that disturbing
dinner party - a creature with a back bent by continual bowing and
scraping - a full-grown man with standards inherited instead of
acquired. Why didn't he go around to the office of Ford, Wetherbee &
Co. and beat up his nasty little ex-partner? Why didn't he meet
Kendrick's gumshoe activities with equal stealth? It should have been
possible to snare Kendrick if one had the guts. And why accept a
gratuity from Hilmer in the shape of two thousand dollars more or less
for commissions on business that one never really had earned the right
to? He began to suspect that Hilmer had instructed his cashier to pay
the companies direct. It was probably his patron's way of forcing home
the idea that the commissions _were_ a gratuity. No doubt even now he
was chuckling at the spectacle of Starratt running about the street
picking up the doles. He decided, once and for all, that he wouldn't
go on being an object of satirical charity. He wouldn't refuse the
Hilmer business, but he would put it on the proper basis. He would put
a proposition squarely up to Hilmer whereby Hilmer would become a
definite partner in the firm - Hilmer, Starratt & Co., to be exact.
This would mean not only an opportunity to handle all the Hilmer
business itself, but to control other insurance that Hilmer had his
finger in. There would be no silent partners, no gratuitous assistance
from either clients or wife, no evasions. From this moment on
everything was to be upon a frank and open basis.

He went out at once to see Hilmer. His wife answered the door as she
had done previously and he sat in the same seat he had occupied the
night before. He had a sense of intrusion - he felt that he was being
tolerated. Helen had removed the bandage from her wrist and she looked
very handsome in the half-light of a screened electric bulb. He
noticed that flowers had been placed in one of the vases on the
mantelshelf and that the mandarin skirt clung a trifle less precisely
to the polished surface of the oak piano. A magazine sprawled face
downward on the floor. Already the impress of Mrs. Hilmer on the
surroundings was becoming a trifle blurred.

He came at once to the point - he had a business proposition to make to
Hilmer and he wished to see him.

But Helen was not to be excluded from the secret of his mission that
easily. The doctor had denied anybody access to Hilmer; therefore,
unless it was very urgent...

"I want to see about a partnership arrangement," Fred explained,
finally.

Helen stirred in her seat. "You mean that you want him to go in with
us?... What's the reason? He's satisfied."

Fred drew himself up. "But I'm not!" he answered, decidedly.

She shrugged. "We've had one experience...we'd better think twice
before we make another break."

"_I've_ thought it all over," he replied, pointedly.

She colored and flashed a sharp glance at him. "I spoke to him about
the premiums this morning... He tells me he ordered them paid." "Yes
... direct to the companies... That's one of the reasons that made me
decide to get things on a better working basis... I'm tired of being
an object of charity."

She smiled coldly. Well, Hilmer simply wouldn't receive anyone now,
and she herself didn't see the reason for haste. He ended by telling
her the reason ... there was no other way out of the situation.

"Oh," she drawled, when he had finished, "so getting rid of Brauer was
_too_ easy, after all!" She made no other comment, but he read her
scornful glance. "Any fool would have guessed that!" was what it
implied.

Still, even with the fact of Brauer's craftiness exposed, she could
not be persuaded that the proposition was quite that urgent.

"You don't?" he inquired, with growing irritation. "Well, you've
forgotten that check for some six hundred-odd dollars I wrote for
Brauer the other day... I presume you know it's a felony to give out
checks when there aren't sufficient funds on deposit."

She stared at him. "That's absurd!" she exclaimed. "Brauer wouldn't go
that far!"

He quite agreed there, but he didn't say so. Instead, he insisted that
anything was possible. They argued the matter scornfully. In the end
he won.

"Well, I'll try," she announced, coldly. "I'll do my best... But I'm
sure he won't see you."

She left the room with an indefinable air of boredom. He rose from his
seat and began to pace up and down. The whole situation had a
suggestion of unreality. In pleading with Helen for a chance to talk
to Hilmer he had a sense of crossing swords with some intangible and
sinister shadow; his wife seemed suddenly to have arrived at a state
toward which she had been traveling all these last uncertain weeks ...
fading, fading from the frame of his existence. Was he growing
hypersensitive or merely unreasonable?

Fifteen minutes passed ... a half hour...an hour. Starratt stopped his
restless movements and picked up the sprawling magazine... Presently
Helen came into the room. He rose.

Her thin-lipped smile shaped itself with a tolerant geniality as she
came toward him with complacent triumph.

"Well," she began, easily, "I got a thousand dollars out of him."

He went up close to her. "A thousand... I don't quite understand."

She flourished a check in his face. "Oh, he can sign checks with his
left hand," she threw back, gayly.

"You mean you've spoken to him about the partnership and..."

"Of course not ... he wasn't in any humor for that."

"Well, then, what is this check for?"

She drew back a little. "Why, it's to help you out, of course. Don't
you want it?"

He felt himself grow suddenly cold as he stood and watched her recoil
momentarily from his two-edged glance. "No!" he retorted.

She continued to back away from him. He followed her retreat.

"I don't think you quite get me, Helen," he heard himself say, with
icy sharpness. "I wanted to see Hilmer _myself! I had a business
proposition to put up to him. I want co-operation - not questionable
charity!"

She flung back her head, but her voice lacked defiance as she said:

"Was that meant as an insult?"

"No," he returned, quietly, "as a warning."

She stood silent, facing him with that clear, disarming gaze that she
knew how to achieve so perfectly. He felt a great yearning overwhelm
him ... a desire to meet her halfway ... a vagrant displeasure at his
ill-natured irritation.

"How is Mrs. Hilmer?" he asked, suddenly, as he reached for his hat.

She shrugged. "There isn't any change," she replied, almost inaudibly.

"Shall I bring you anything from the apartment?"

"No... I'll go myself this afternoon and get some things together... I
need a little air, anyway." She followed him to the door. "Then I
understand you don't want this?" she inquired, indicating the check in
her hand.

His only answer was an incredulous stare.

"What excuse shall I make him?"

He put on his hat. The flame of his displeasure had cooled, but he was
still inflexible. "None, so far as I am concerned."

A retort died on her lips. He could see that she was puzzled.

"Well, so long," he ventured.

She drew herself up with the swift movement of one parrying a blow.

"So long!" she echoed, and the door closed sharply.

He went down the steps. There was an air of finality in his retreat...
At the office he found a note from Brauer.

Your check has been returned to me... I shall put it through the bank
again to-morrow.

He crumpled the sheet of paper and dropped it into the waste basket.
How much would Brauer dare? he wondered.

That night the friend who had first warned him against Kendrick met
him on California Street.

"I see my prophecy came true, Fred," he hazarded. "Why didn't you tell
me that Brauer was your partner?... By the way, I saw Kendrick and him
going to lunch together to-day. What's the idea?"

Fred lifted his eyebrows and laughed a toneless reply. What _was_ the
idea? He wished he knew.




CHAPTER VIII


The next day passed in complete inaction. Frankly, Starratt did not
know what move to make. He felt that he should have been trying to
square matters, but to raise offhand six hundred-odd dollars was a
feat too impossible to even attempt. He had few relations, and these
few were remote and penniless, and his friends were equally lacking in
financial resource. He was confident that he could convince Hilmer of
the soundness of his new plan once he achieved an interview. But all
his pride rose up to combat the suggestion that he present himself
before Helen and plead for an audience. Once he had an impulse to go
to the president of the bank and ask for an advance at the proper rate
of interest. He knew scores of cases where banks loaned money on
personality; he had heard many a bank official express himself to the
effect that a poor man with a vision and integrity was a better chance
any day than a millionaire lacking a goal or scruples. But in the end
he was swung from any initiative by a passive desire to even his score
with Brauer. After all, it was diverting to wait for his ex-partner's
next move. Brauer had had no compunctions in tricking him. Why, then,
should he worry? No, it would be fun just to let Brauer stew in a
sample of his own Teutonic duplicity.

He felt a relief at Helen's absence from the office. He had never
wanted her there and he was determined not to have her back. Last
night she had entirely misread the reason back of his desire for an
interview with Hilmer, and he had been moved to a nasty rancor. But
now he felt tolerant, rather than displeased. Women were often like
that, a bit unethical regarding money. In wheedling a check out of
Hilmer she had used the easiest weapons a woman possessed. She had
meant well, Fred concluded, using that time-worn excuse which has
served nearly every questionable act since the world began. And in the
final analysis, he really blamed himself. Such humiliation was usually
the price a man paid when he let the women of his household share in
the financial responsibility. He should have hoed his own row and
wiped the sweat of his labors upon his own coat sleeve. Well, Hilmer
would be about in a few days and meanwhile Brauer would have some
uncomfortable hours. In the end, no doubt, after Brauer had collected
his six hundred dollars, he would go into a partnership with Kendrick.
That explained the mystery of these two linen-collared crooks lunching
together... After all, there was an element of humor in the whole
situation.

On Saturday morning Starratt overslept and he did not get down to the
office until nearly ten o'clock. He was picking up the mail that had
been dropped through the door when the janitor came close to him. Fred
gave a sharp glance and the man said:

"There's been a guy waiting around since eight o'clock, watching your
door... I think he must have a paper or something to serve on you...
Matter of fact, he looked like a fly cop to me... I asked him what he
wanted and he just smiled..."

Fred laughed a careless rejoinder and the janitor went down the hall,
brushing the marble dado with his bedraggled feather duster.

Fred Starratt closed the door softly and sat down at his desk, trying
to concentrate on his mail. He felt a sudden chill. But he managed,
after a fashion, to fix his mind upon immediate problems. Twice during
the morning he made a move toward leaving to do some soliciting, but
almost at once he invented an excuse which dissuaded him.

When he went out to lunch he passed a man loitering in the hall. A
crowded elevator shot past. Fred decided to walk down the stairs ...
the man followed at a nonchalant and discreet distance. Starratt
lingered in the marble-flanked doorway... The man crossed the street
and stood on the corner.

Fred decided to lunch at Hjul's. During the short walk to his
destination he dismissed everything from his mind except the
anticipation of food. He discovered he was very hungry and it struck
him that he had forgotten to breakfast. He had come away from the
house with the idea of getting a cup of coffee in a waffle kitchen on
Kearny Street and his preoccupation had routed this vague plan. He was
chuckling over his lapse when he swung into Hjul's and took a seat
near the window. He ordered a hot roast-beef sandwich and coffee as he
shared his joke with the waitress. She brushed some crumbs from the
table with a napkin, laughed, and went scampering for the order.
Fred's eyes followed her retreat and fell sharply upon the line of men
drifting in the narrow entrance. At the tag end loomed the figure of
the man who had followed him down the stairs from his office. Fred
picked up a newspaper. The man sat down at a table in a far corner.
Over the edge of the newspaper Fred stole a furtive glance. The man
was of slippery slenderness, with a rather round, expressionless face.
His eyes were beady and shifting, and his lips thin and pale and
cruel. The waitress came tripping back with Starratt's order. Fred
fell to.

Presently Fred finished. He rose deliberately, taking time to brush
every crumb from his lap. At the door he reached for a whisk broom and
wielded it conspicuously. He could not have said whether bravado or
contempt was moving him to such flamboyant dawdling. Or was he merely
trying to persuade himself that he had nothing to fear in any case? He
stepped out into a shower of noonday sunshine flooding through a rift
in the high fog of a July morning in San Francisco. A delicious thrill
from open spaces communicated itself to him. No, he would not go back
to the office - it was Saturday, anyway, and, besides, he felt a vague
desire for freedom and the tang of wind-clean air. He would ride out
to Golden Gate Park and stroll leisurely through its length to the
ocean... He walked briskly down Montgomery Street to Market, waited a
few seconds at a safety station, and finally swung on a car... He was
standing before a tiny lake at the Haight Street entrance to the Park,
watching a black swan ruffling its feathers, when he felt a presence
near him. He did not lift his eyes for some moments, but when he did
look up it was to see his shifty friend of the morning pretending to
be amused at a group of noisy sparrows quarreling over a windfall of
crumbs... Fred Starratt moved on.

All afternoon Fred Starratt wandered about - sometimes dawdling
defiantly, sometimes dropping into a brisk pace, but at every turn his
new-found shadow followed at an inconspicuous distance. The afternoon
sun was gracious, tinged with a pleasant coolness, and far to the west
a blue-gray fog bank waited for evening to let down the day's warm
barriers. Fred Starratt's thoughts were abrupt and purposeless, like
the unsustained flights of wing-clipped birds. He knew that he was
being followed, and he had a confused sense of something impending,
and yet he was unable or unwilling to face the issue honestly. There
were moments when he glimpsed the truth, but he seemed unmoved by
these truant realizations. Was he too tired to care? He used to
wonder, when he read in the newspapers of some man overtaken by an
overwhelming disgrace, how it was possible to go on living under such
circumstances. Was his indifference of this afternoon the preliminary
move in a long series of heartbreaking compromises and retreats? he
asked himself. But he did not attempt to answer any of these darting
questions. After all, the sun was shining and about him the world
seemed to be swinging on with disarming normality. Upon the trimmed
lawns peacocks strutted and shrieked and from remoter distances the
soft call of the quail echoed caressingly. It was good to be alive,
with one's feet firmly planted on the earth. To be alive and _free_!

He passed the conservatory and the sunken gardens, flamboyant with
purple-and-gold pansies; he dawdled over the aviary and the bear
cages. He even stopped for tea at the Japanese garden, throwing bits
of sweetened rice-flour cakes to the goldfishes in their
chocolate-colored pond near the tea pavilion. He found himself later
skirting Stow Lake, pursued by flocks of ubiquitous coots, bent upon
any stray crumbs flung in their direction. Finally he dipped suddenly
down into the wilder reaches of the Park, taking aimless trails that
wandered off into sandy wastes or fetched up quite suddenly upon the
trimly bordered main driveway. He always had preferred the untamed
stretches that lay beyond Stow Lake. Here, as a young boy, he had
organized scouting parties when it was still a remote, almost an
unforested sand pile. Later, when the trees had conquered its
bleakness, Helen and he had spent many a Saturday afternoon tramping
briskly through the pines to the ocean. How long ago that seemed, and
yet how very near! Not long in point of time, somehow, but long in
point of accessibility. He seemed to be standing, as it were, upon the
threshold of a past that he could glimpse, but not re-enter. Even
Helen seemed remote - a part of the background that had been, instead
of an equal spectator with him in a review of these dead events.

It was nearly five o'clock when he drew near the first wind-stunted
pine trees heralding the ocean. He quickened his step. Already the
breeze was tearing across the unscreened spaces and carrying damp
wisps of fog with it. As he found his steps swinging into the ocean
highway he turned and looked back. His discreet pursuer had
disappeared. There was not a soul in sight!

His heart gave a sudden leap. He hurried forward. A street car was
rounding the terminal loop on its return to town. He clattered aboard.
He felt suddenly free and light hearted, almost gay. What would he do
now? Look up Helen at Hilmer's and persuade her to dine with him
somewhere downtown?... He remembered that he had not even telephoned
her for two days. The conviction that had settled upon him during his
walk through the Park woods descended again. Helen seemed impersonal
and unapproachable... He felt a desire for noise and conviviality and
laughter. He decided to look in at the St. Francis bar and see if he
could chance upon a hilarious friend or two.

Starratt had overlooked the fact of war-time prohibition when he
picked the St. Francis bar as a place of genial fellowship. The memory
of its old-time six-o'clock gayety was still fresh enough to trick
him. He swung into its screened entrance to find it practically
deserted. The old bustle and hoarse conversation and hearty laughter
were replaced by dreary silence. The provocative rattle of ice in the
highball glass, the appetizing smell of baked ham from the free-lunch
counter, the thick, pungent clouds of tobacco smoke - all had been
routed by chill, hypocritical virtue. One or two of the tables were
surrounded by solemn circles of males getting speedily drunk in an
effort to finish up the melancholy remains filched from some private
stock, but their attempts at light-heartedness were very sad and
maudlin. Fred was moving away when he heard his name called. He turned
to find a group of business associates from California Street sitting
before two bottles of Scotch, which were ministering to their rather
dour conviviality. Starratt started to wave a mingled greeting and
farewell when his raised hand fell heavily against his side - in the
polished depths of the bar's flawless mirror loomed the unwelcome
figure that had pursued him all day!... He went over and joined his
friends.

He had one drink ... two ... another. Then he lost count ... but the
supply seemed inexhaustible. A sudden rush of high spirits keyed him
tensely. He talked and laughed and waved his arms about, calling upon
everybody to witness his light-heartedness. Through the confused blur
of faces surrounding him he caught an occasional glimpse of the thin,
cruel lips and the shifting, beady eyes of his pursuer sitting over a
flat drink which he left untouched.

Presently somebody in the party suggested a round of the bohemian
joints. The motion was noisily seconded... Fred staggered to his feet.
They began with the uptown tenderloin, drifting in due time through
the Greek cafes on Third Street. Finally they crossed Market Street
and began to chatter into the tawdry dance halls of upper Kearny.
Everywhere the drinks flowed in covert streams, growing viler and more
nauseous as the pilgrimage advanced. Near Jackson Street they came


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 7 of 17)