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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

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upon a bedraggled pavilion of dubious gayety which lured them
downstairs with its ear-splitting jazz orchestra. A horde of rapacious
females descended upon them like starving locusts. Suddenly everybody
in the party seemed moved with a desire for dancing - except Fred.
While the others whirled away he sank into a seat, staring vacantly
ahead. He had reached the extreme point of his drunkenness and he was
pulling toward sobriety again... He came out of his tentative stupor
with the realization that a woman was seating herself opposite him.

"What's your name?" he demanded, thickly.

"Ginger," she replied.

He took a sharper look. A pale, somewhat freckled face, topped by a
glory of fading red hair, thrust itself rather wistfully forward for
his inspection.

"Go 'way!" he waved, disconsolately. "Go 'way. I don't wanna dance!"

She smiled with the passive resistance of her kind. "Neither do I,"
she assented. "Let's just sit here and talk."

"Don't wanna talk!" he threw back, sullenly.

"All right," she agreed; "anything you say... Got a cigarette?"

He drew out a box and she selected one. The waiter hovered about
significantly. Fred ordered coffee ... Ginger took Whiterock. They
were silent. The music crashed and banged and whinnied, and the air
grew thick with the mingled odors of smoke and stale drinks and sex.

Finally Fred leaned forward and said in a whisper, "Tell me - has a
snaky-looking dub come into this joint?"

Ginger swept the room with her glance. "In a gray derby and a green
tie?"

"Yes."

"He's over in the corner - talking to a couple of fly cops."

He reached for a cigarette himself. His voice was becoming steadier.
"What do you think his game is?"

She pursed her lips. "Oh, I guess he's a private detective," she
appraised, shrewdly. "He isn't quite heavy enough for a real bull."

He struck a match. "He's been following me all day," he admitted.

"Somebody's keeping tab, eh?... Is friend wife on the trail?"

He laughed tonelessly and cast the match aside. The sharp little face
opposite was quickening with interest.

"No ... I let a bad check get out... _You_ know - no funds."

"Whew!" escaped her. "That isn't pretty!"

"You're damned right it isn't!" he echoed, emphatically.

She clutched at his wrist. "Say, the whole three are coming this
way... I guess they've got a warrant... Don't fight back, whatever you
do!"

Her words sobered him. She was right - three men were coming toward his
table. He rose with a flourish of dignity.

"Looking for me?" he asked.

"If your name is Starratt, we are," one of the men said, moving up
closely.

"What's the idea?"

The spokesman of the group flashed his star. "You're wanted on a
bad-check charge."

Fred reached for his hat. "All right... Let's get out quietly."

His brain was perfectly clear, but he staggered a trifle as he
followed the men along the edge of the dancing space to the stairway.
The music crashed furiously. Fred's associates were giving all their
attention to treading the uncertain steps of their tawdry bacchanal,
so they missed his exit.

Halfway up the stair leading to the sidewalk Fred was halted by a
touch upon his arm. He had forgotten Ginger, but there she stood with
that childish, almost wistful, look on her face.

"Say," she demanded, "can I do anything? I've got a pull if I want to
use it."

The other three men turned about and waited. The snaky one laughed.
Fred looked at her curiously.

"You might phone my wife," he returned. "But don't say anything to the
boys!"

"Where does she live?... I'll go now and see her. That is - if - "

For a moment Fred Starratt hesitated. Would it be quite the thing to
let a woman like this... But as quickly a sense of his ingratitude
swept him. Whether it was the thing or not, it was impossible to wound
the one person who stood so ready to serve him. A great compassion
seemed suddenly to flood him - for a moment he forgot his own plight.

"I don't remember the number of the house ... she's with friends.
You'll find the name in the telephone book... Hilmer - Fourteenth
Avenue. Ask for Mrs. Starratt."

"Axel Hilmer ... the man who - "

"He's a shipbuilder. Do you know him?"

She smiled wanly. "Yes ... I know lots of people."

Fred felt his arm jerked roughly, and the next thing he found himself
half flung, half dragged toward the curb. Instinctively he shook
himself free.

"What's the matter?" he demanded.

The ringleader of the group reached forward and grabbed him roughly.

"D'yer think we've got all night to stand around here while you turn
on sob stuff with a dance-hall tart? You shut up and come with us!"

"I'm coming as quickly as I can," Starratt retorted.

He was answered by a hard-fisted blow in the pit of the stomach. He
doubled up with a gasping groan. A crowd began to gather. Presently he
recovered his breath. The blow had completely sobered and calmed him.
He felt that he could face anything now. The jail was just across the
street, so they walked, pursued by a knot of curious idlers.

They went through a narrow passageway, separating the Hall of Justice
from the jails, and rang a bell for the elevator. In stepping into the
cage Fred Starratt tripped and lurched forward. He was rewarded by a
stinging slap upon the face. He drew himself up, clenching his fists.
He had often wondered how it felt to be seized with a desire to shoot
a man down in cold blood. Now he knew.




CHAPTER IX


The men at the booking desk treated Fred Starratt with a rough
courtesy. They did not make the required search of his person unduly
humiliating, and, when they were through, one of the men said, not
unkindly:

"We can ring for a messenger if you want to send word to your folks;
... it's against the rules to telephone."

"I've notified them," Fred returned, crisply. It was curious to
discover that he had no doubts concerning Ginger's delivery of his
message.

"Is there a chance for you to get bailed out to-night?" the same man
inquired.

Fred hesitated. "There may be," he said, finally.

They put him in a temporary cell with three others - two white men and
a Chinese, who had been arrested for smuggling opium. The floor was of
thick boards sloping toward the center, and in a corner was a
washbasin. There were no seats. One of the white men was pacing up and
down with the aimless ferocity of an animal freshly caged. At Fred's
entrance the younger and quieter of these two looked up and said,
eagerly:

"Got a smoke?"

Fred drew out a box of cigarettes and tossed it to him. The other
white man came forward; even the Chinese was moved to interest.

Fred saw the box passed from one to the other. There did not seem to
be any color line drawn about this transient solace. Fred took a smoke
himself.

"What are you up for?" the younger man inquired.

Fred experienced a shock. "Oh ... you see ... I just got caught in a
jam. It will come out all right."

It sounded ridiculous - this feeble attempt at pride, and Fred
regretted it, once it escaped him. But his questioner was not put out
of countenance.

"Well, if you've got a pull, it's easy; otherwise - " He finished with
a shrug and went on smoking.

Fred looked at him intently. He was a lad not much over twenty, with
thick black hair and very deep-blue eyes and an indefinable quality
which made his rather irregular features seem much more delicate than
they really were.

"What's _your_ trouble?" Fred asked, suddenly.

The boy grinned. "I rolled a guy for twenty dollars in Portsmouth
Square... He was drunk, at that," he finished, as if in justification.

At this moment the door of the cell was opened. The three white men
started forward expectantly. But it was the Chinese who was wanted. A
group of his countrymen had come to bail him out.

The man who had been silent suddenly spoke to the policeman as he was
closing the door again.

"You might as well lock me up proper for the night," he flung out,
bitterly. "I guess they're not coming to get me now."

The policeman led him away, in the wake of the disappearing Chinese.
The youth turned to Starratt with a chuckle:

"The old boy's kinda peeved, ain't he? Well, he'll get over that after
a while... The first time they jugged me I thought - "

"Then you've been up before?"

"Before?... Say, do I look like a dead one? This isn't a bad habit
after you get used to it... So far I've only made the county jails.
Some day I suppose I'll graduate... But I'm pretty wise - vagrancy is
about all they've ever pinned on me."

Fred looked at his new friend curiously. There didn't seem to be
anything particularly vicious about the youth. He merely had learned
how to get his hands on easy money and jails were an incident in his
career. Without being asked, he described his first tilt with the law.
He had come, a youth of seventeen, from a country town up North. He
had run away from home, to be exact; there was a stepmother or some
equally ancient and honorable excuse. He had arrived in San Francisco
in January without money or friends or any great moral equipment, and
after a week of purposeless bumming he had been picked up by a
policeman and charged with vagrancy. The obliging judge who heard his
case gave him twenty-four hours to leave town. He went, in company
with a professional tramp, upon the brake beams of a freight train
that pulled out for Stockton that very night. But at Stockton the
train was overhauled by policemen in wait for just these unwelcome
strangers from a rival town, and the two were told to go back promptly
where they came from. They got into San Francisco more dead than
alive, and then the inevitable happened. They were haled before the
selfsame judge who had given the youth such an amazing chance to get
started right. He treated them both to thirty days in the county jail,
and the youth emerged a wiser but by no means a sadder man. He had
learned, among other things, that if one were to be jailed one might
just as well be jailed for cause. The charge of vagrancy was very
inclusive, and a man could skirt very near the edge of felony and
still manage to achieve a nominal punishment. He told all this simply,
naturally, naively - as if he were entertaining an acquaintance with a
drawing-room anecdote. When he finished, Fred inquired:

"And how about bail to-night?"

The youth shrugged. "Well, I dunno. I sent word to a girl who - "

At that moment the attendant appeared again. He had come after the
youth - evidently the girl had proved herself.

"So long," the boy said to Fred, as he went through the door. "If
you've got a dame stuck on you there's always a chance."

Fred went over and leaned against the washbasin. His companions had
been diverting. In their company he had ceased to think very
definitely about his own plight. Now he was alone. He wondered what
Helen would do... He put his hand to his cheek - it was still smarting
from the blow that had waked his primitive hatred...

He was standing in this same position before the washbasin, smoking
furiously, when the attendant came for him.

"It's past midnight," the man said. "I guess your folks ain't coming."

Fred stirred. "No, I guess not," he echoed, with resignation.

The officer took his arm. "Well, we'll have to get fixed up for the
night," he announced.

Fred threw his cigarette butt on the floor and stepped on it.

* * * * *

The next morning at eleven o'clock Fred Starratt heard his name bawled
through the corridors and he was led out to the room where prisoners
were allowed to receive their lawyers or converse with relatives and
friends through the barred and screened opening.

A man was exchanging tearful confidences with his wife and baby as he
clung to the bars. The woman was sending a brave smile across, but the
wire mesh between gave her face the same unreality that a gauze drop
in a play gives to the figures on the other side. A strange man was
ushered in.

"Mr. Starratt?" he inquired.

Fred inclined his head.

"My name is Watson - from the firm of Kimball & Devine. We're attorneys
for Mr. Hilmer. He asked me to run in and see you this morning. Just
what _did_ happen?"

Fred recited the events briefly. When he had finished, the attorney
said:

"Everything depends on this man Brauer. I'll have to get in touch with
him to-day. Hilmer told me to use my own judgment about bail... I
guess it's all right."

A hot flush overspread Fred's face, but it died quickly. He could
stand any insult now. All night he had been brooding on that slap upon
the cheek. A clenched fist had an element of fairness in it, but the
bare palm was always the mark of a petty tyrant. It was thus that a
woman struck ... or a piddling official ... or a mob bent on
humiliation. They smote Christ in the same way - _with their hands_. He
remembered the phrase perfectly and the circumstance that had
impressed it so indelibly on his mind. His people had seen to it that
he had attended Sabbath school, but he was well past ten before they
had taken him to church. And, out of the hazy impression of the first
sermon he had fidgeted through, he remembered the picture of Christ
which the good man in the pulpit had drawn, sitting in a mockery of
purple, receiving the open-palmed blows of cowards. In his extremity
the story recurred with sharp insistence and all night he had been
haunted by this thorn-crowned remembrance.

Hilmer's messenger was waiting for him to speak. He gave a shrug.

"It really doesn't matter," he said.

"Oh, come now, Mr. Starratt," Watson broke in, reprovingly. "That
isn't any way to talk. You've got to keep your spirits up. Things
might be worse. It's lucky you've got a friend like Hilmer. He's a man
that can do things for you, if anyone can."

Fred smiled wanly. "I don't suppose you saw my wife, by any chance,"
he ventured.

"No... Fact is, she's in bed... Hilmer said the news completely bowled
her over... That's another reason you've got to buck up - for _her_
sake, you know!"

It ended in Watson putting up the bail money and their departing in a
yellow taxicab for an obscure hotel in Ellis Street.

"This is the best arrangement, under the circumstances," Watson
explained. "You'll want to be quiet and lie low."

Fred assented indifferently. He was very tired and all he longed for
was a chance to sleep.

In less than fifteen minutes after his release Fred Starratt found
himself alone in the narrow impersonal room where Hilmer's emissary
had installed him. He did not wait to undress - he threw himself upon
the bed and slept until midnight.

* * * * *

He awoke startled and unrefreshed. A newsboy just under his window was
calling the morning papers with monotonous stridency. Fred jumped to
his feet and peered out. People drifted by on the homeward stretch in
little pattering groups - actors, chorus girls, waiters, and melancholy
bartenders. The usual night wind had died ... it had grown warmer. He
turned toward his bed again. The walls of the room seemed suddenly to
contract. He had a desire to get out into the open... He freshened up
and felt better.

He did not wait for the elevator, but walked down the dim stairway to
the narrow hotel lobby, flooded by a white, searching light. For a
moment he stood in curious confusion at the foot of the stairs that
had so suddenly spewed him from half-light to glare, his eyes blinking
aimlessly. At that moment he saw a familiar figure rising from one of
the morris chairs near the plate-glass window. He stared - it was the
private detective who had hounded him all day Saturday. Slowly he
retraced his steps and found his way back to his room again... No
doubt Brauer, fearful lest his victim would escape before he arranged
the proper warrants for arrest, had been responsible for this man's
presence in the first instance, but who was hiring him now?...
Hilmer?... Well, why not? Surely a man who risked bail money was
justified in seeing that the object of his charity kept faith... Fred
Starratt sat down and laughed unpleasantly. What a contempt everybody
must have for him! What a contempt he had for himself! He threw
himself sprawling his full length upon the rumpled bed. But this time
it was not to sleep. Instead, he stared up at the ceiling and puffed
cigarette after cigarette until morning flooded the room... At eight
o'clock he phoned down to have his breakfast sent up.

* * * * *

Toward noon Watson came in. "I saw Brauer yesterday and again this
morning... What did you do to make him so sore?"

Fred shrugged. "I guess I took a superior air... A man who plays up
his honesty is always nasty... I meant well - most fools do!"

Watson stared uncomprehendingly. "The best thing I can get this man
Brauer to agree to is a compromise... He's eager for his pound of
flesh."

"What do you mean?"

"He wants to punish you ... even the score some way... After I saw him
yesterday I went out and talked to Hilmer... We outlined a plan that
Brauer is willing to accept. Hilmer has a pull, you know ... and if
the scheme goes through there'll be no trial, no notoriety, nothing
disagreeable... We'll make it plain to the authorities that you gave
out this check when you were drunk. Habitual intemperance ... that's
to be our plea... It means a few months for you at the state's Home
for Inebriates ... a bit of a rest, really... I'd say you were
extremely lucky."

Fred was beyond so futile an emotion as anger. Somehow he was not even
surprised, but he had energy enough left for sarcasm. He looked
squarely at Watson as he said:

"Why not tell the truth? If any judge is willing to convict me on my
intentions I'll go to jail gladly. It seems to me that it ought to be
easy enough to prove that I gave that check to Brauer with every
prospect in the world that I could cover it. He tricked me, really."

"Yes, but how can you prove it?"

"Why, there's my wife. She heard every bit of the - "

"My dear man, you're not going to drag _her_ into this mess, I hope.
What we're trying to do is to hush this thing up, so that in due time
you can come back and take your place in society again without
scandal."

"How are you going to stop Brauer's tongue?"

"Oh, we'll see that he keeps his counsel... Hilmer will throw him a
sop... He's going in with this man Kendrick, you know."

Fred rose and went over to the washbasin and drew himself a drink.
Finally he spoke. "It's a damned lie - the whole thing. That is enough
to queer it with me. I'm not a common drunkard, and you know it."

"You were drunk when they arrested you."

"Well ... yes."

"And that's what gives us such a good chance... Now look here,
Starratt, you can take a tip from me or leave it, just as you see fit.
A trial for a charge such as you're up against is a damned nasty
business. You get publicity that you never live down. And just now
there's a big sentiment developing against letting people off easily
once the thing is made public. The judges are soaking people hard...
You might get off, and then again you _might not_. Would you like to
put your wife in the position of having a convict for a husband? ...
Think it over."

Fred sat down. He was not beaten yet. After all, what did Helen think
about this arrangement? Had they spoken to her? Some of her methods in
the past had not been to his taste, but they were the best means to an
end that she knew. And she always had been loyal. Ah yes, in a scratch
women did rise to the occasion! For an instant he remembered the
parting comment of his cell companion of Saturday night:

"If you've got a dame stuck on you there's always a chance."

He turned to Watson with a smile of triumph.

"I'll leave the thing to Mrs. Starratt," he said, confidently. "I
think I can depend upon her to stand by me, whatever happens..."

Watson reached into his inner coat pocket.

"I've a note from her here," he said, handing Starratt a square
envelope.

Fred broke the seal and unfolded the contents deliberately. He read
very slowly... When he had finished he read it through again. He sat
for some moments on the edge of the bed, tapping his lips with a
tentative finger. Finally he rose.

"Well, Mr. Watson," he said, bitterly, "I said I'd stand by Mrs.
Starratt's decision. And I'm a man of my word."

Watson rose also. "You won't regret this, I'm sure," he ventured,
heartily. "Meanwhile I'll get busy pulling wires at once. It won't do
to let this thing get cold. I'll go right out and see Hilmer now...
Any message you'd like to give your wife?"

Fred looked at the man before him searchingly. "No ... none!"

Watson bowed himself out... Fred Starratt put both hands to his
temples.




CHAPTER X


The days that followed passed in a blur. Fred Starratt went through
the motions of living, but they were only motions. Between the
intervals of legal adjustments, court examinations, and formal red
tape he would lie upon his narrow bed at the hotel reading his wife's
message - that sharp-edged message which had shorn him of his
strength - as if to dull further his blunted sensibilities. In all this
time he saw only Watson. He did not ask for Hilmer or Helen. But one
day the attorney said to him:

"Your wife is still ill, otherwise - " "Yes, yes ... of course," Fred
assented, dismissing the subject with an impatient shrug.

Finally, on a certain afternoon at about two o'clock, Watson came in
quite unexpectedly.

"I think by to-night everything will be settled. ... What can I do for
you? ... Perhaps you would like to go to your apartment and get some
things together... Or see a friend... Just say the word." Fred roused
himself. A fleeting rebellion flickered and died. He wanted nothing
... least of all to so much as see his former dwelling place. He made
only one request.

"If you're passing that dance hall where they arrested me - you know,
near Jackson Street - drop in and ask for a girl called Ginger. I'd
like to see her."

Watson smiled widely...

The girl Ginger came that very afternoon. She was dressed very quietly
in black, with only a faint trace of make-up on her cheeks. Almost
anyone would have mistaken her for a drab little shopgirl. Fred felt
awkward in her presence.

"I'm going away to-night - for some time," he said, when she had seated
herself. "And I wanted to thank you for your interest when - "

She shook her head. "That wasn't anything," she answered.

He wondered what next to say. It was she who spoke finally.

"I suppose you got out of your mess all right," she half queried.

He opened his cigarette case and offered her a smoke. She declined.

"Well, not altogether... My friend Hilmer worked a compromise... I'm
going to a place to sober up." He laughed bitterly.

She folded her hands. "One of those private sanitariums, I suppose,
where rich guys bluff it out until everything blows over."

"No, you're wrong again... I'm going summering in a state hospital."

Her hands, suddenly unclasped, lifted and fell in startled flight. "An
insane asylum?" she gasped. He leaned forward. "Why do you say that?"

"Because it's the only place in this state where they send drunks... I
know plenty who've been through that game... You can't tell me
anything about that."

He stared at her in silence and presently she said:

"What are they doing to you, anyway? Railroading you? I don't believe
you know where you _are_ going."

He shrugged wearily. "No; you're right. And I don't much care."

"Why didn't you send for me?" she demanded. "That night when they got
you I told you I had a pull... I'm not a Hilmer, but I can work a few
people myself... I haven't always been a cheap skate. There was a time
when I had them fighting over me. And that wasn't so long ago,
either... I'm still young - younger than a lot that get by. But,
anyway, I've got a lot of old-memory stuff up my sleeve that can make
some people step about pretty lively... There's more than one man in
this town who would just as soon I kept my mouth shut... I could even
run Hilmer around the ring once or twice if I wanted to."

He felt a bit tremulous, but he put a tight rein upon his emotions.

"It's very good of you," he said, "but, really, I couldn't quite have
that, you know... I don't mean to be ungrateful or unkind, but there
are some things that - "

She laughed. "Oh yes, I know... You feel that way now, of course...
You're a gentleman; I understand that... And I haven't run up against
many gentlemen in my day... Oh, there were a lot who had plenty of
money and they were polite enough when it didn't matter ... but ...
Well, I know the real thing when I see it... You're going to that hell


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 8 of 17)