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Charles Caldwell Dobie.

Broken to the Plow online

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hole, too, just for that very reason... Because you haven't got the
face to be nasty..."

He crumpled the unlighted cigarette in his hand and flung it from him.

"What do you know about me?" he asked.

"Women aren't fools!" she retorted. "And least of all women like me!
... I wish to God I'd known you sooner!"

He watched the quivering revelations run in startled flight across her
face, hiding themselves as swiftly behind the dull shadows of
indifference. For a moment the room seemed flooded in a truant flash
of sunshine. She seemed at once incredibly old and as incredibly
touched with a vagrant youth. How eagerly she must have given herself!
How eagerly she could give herself again!

He rose in his seat, confused. She seemed to have taken it for a sign
of dismissal, for she followed his example.

"Maybe it isn't too late," she faltered. "Maybe I could work that pull
I've got ... if you want me to."

He shook his head. "It's out of my hands," he answered. She moved to
the door, as if to place a proper distance between them.

"What does your wife think about it?"

He shrugged.

"You won't like what I'm going to say," she flung out, defiantly. "But
that night when I saw your wife _I_ knew."

"Knew what?"

"That she wasn't playing fair..." Her face was lighted with a
primitive malevolence. "She isn't straight!"

He tried to pull himself up in prideful refutation, but the effort
failed. He was turning away defeated when a knock sounded on the door.
Watson entered. Ginger drew herself flatly against the wall. The
attorney gave a significant glance in her direction as he said to
Starratt:

"Your wife is waiting in the hall ... just around the corner. I
thought it best to ..."

Ginger came forward quickly. "Good-by!" she said, hurriedly.

He put out a hand to her. She moved a little nearer and, suddenly,
quite suddenly, she kissed him. He drew back a little, and presently
she was gone...

He looked up to find Helen standing before him. She was a little pale
and her lips more scarlet than ever, and her thick, black eyebrows
sharply defined. He had never seen her look so disagreeably handsome.

"That woman who just went out," she began, coolly, "she's the same one
who - "

"Yes," he interrupted, crisply.

"Who is she?"

He looked at her steadily; she did not flinch. "A friend of mine."

Her lip curled disdainfully. "Oh!" she said, and she sat down.

* * * * *

Toward evening they came for him, or rather Watson did, with a
taxicab.

"Everything has gone nicely," Watson explained, pridefully. "You
certainly were lucky in having Hilmer for a friend ... no humiliation,
no publicity."

Fred, standing before the bureau mirror, brushed his hair. "Where are
you taking me now?" he inquired.

"To the detention hospital... You'll stay there a week or so for
observation... It's a mere form."

"And from there?"

"To the state hospital at Fairview."

Fred Starratt flung down the brush. "Why don't you call it by its
right name? ... I'm told it's an insane asylum."

Watson stared and then came forward with a little threatening gesture.
"You better not start any rough-house, Starratt - at the eleventh
hour!" he admonished, with a significant warmth.

Fred turned slowly, breaking into a laugh. "Rough-house?" he echoed.
"Don't be afraid. ... I've got to the curious stage now. I want to see
the whole picture." He reached for his hat. "I'm ready ... let's go."

A half hour later Fred Starratt was booked at the detention hospital.
They took away his clothes and gave him a towel and a nightgown and
led him to a bathroom... Presently he was shown to his cell-like room.
Overhead the fading day filtered in ghostly fashion through a
skylight; an iron bed stood against the wall. There was not another
stick of furniture in sight.

He crawled into his bed and the attendant left him, switching on an
electric light from the outside. A nurse with supper followed
shortly - a bowl of thin soup and two slices of dry bread. Fred
Starratt lifted the bowl to his lips and drank a few mouthfuls. The
stuff was without flavor, but it quenched his burning thirst... After
a while he broke the bread into small bits - not only because he was
hungry, but because he was determined to eat this bitter meal to the
last crumb. When he had finished he felt mysteriously sealed to
indifference.

The nurse came in for the tray and he asked her to switch off the
light. He lay for hours, open-eyed, in the gloom, while wraithlike
memories materialized and vanished as mysteriously. Somehow the
incidents of his life nearest in point of time seemed the remotest.
Only his youth lay within easy reach, and his childhood nearest of
all. He was traveling back ... back ... perhaps in the end

oblivion would wrap him in its healing mantle and he would
wait to be made perfect and whole again in the flaming
crucible of a new birth... Gradually the mists of
remembrance faded, lost their outline ... became confused,
and he slept.

He awoke with a shiver. A piercing scream was curdling the silence.
From the other side of the thin partition came shrieks, curses, mad
laughter. He heard the heavy tramp of attendants in the hallway ...
doors quickly opened and slammed shut. ... There followed the sounds
of scuffling, the reeling impact of several bodies against the wall
... then blows of shuddering softness, one last shriek ... dead
silence!

He sat up in bed - alive and quivering. Was this the rebirth that the
swooning hours had held in store for him? ... Quickly life came
flooding back. Indifference fell from him. In one blinding flash his
new condition was revealed. His life had been a futile compromise. He
had sowed passivity and he had reaped a barren harvest of negative
virtues. He would compromise again, and he would be passive again, and
he would bow his neck to authority ... but from this moment on he
would wither the cold fruits of such enforced planting in a steadily
rising flame of understanding. He knew now the meaning of the word
"revelation."




CHAPTER XI


They kept Fred Starratt in bed for two weeks, and one morning when the
sun was flooding through the skylight with soul-warming radiance they
brought him his clothes and he knew that the prologue to the drama of
his humiliation was over. He crawled to his feet and looked down upon
his body wasted by days of enforced idleness and fasting. He dropped
back upon the bed, exhausted. The sun, striking him squarely,
gradually flamed him with feeble energy. He straightened himself and
dressed slowly.

When he had finished the sun still poured its golden shower into the
room. He rose to his feet and lifted his chilled hands high to receive
its blessing. He felt the blood tingle through his transparent
fingers.

In the next room he heard the tramping of feet and a feeble curse or
two. He dropped his hands and sat down again. The nurse came in with
his breakfast.

"The man next door?" he asked. "Is he leaving to-day, too?"

"Yes."

"Where does he go?"

"To Fairview."

A memory of that first night with its piercing terror sent a shiver
through him.

"They brought him in the same day I came," he ventured, half musingly.
"At the beginning he made a lot of noise, but lately..."

She set the tray down upon the bed. "They had to put him in a
strait-jacket," she said, significantly. "He's quite hopeless. He
tried to kill his wife and his child ... and he set fire to the home.
He's an Italian."

"Yes ... so I was told."

The nurse departed and he drank the cup of muddy coffee on the tray.
He laid the cup down and sat staring at the square cut in the center
of the thick oak door leading into the corridor. Presently he heard
the swish of a woman's skirt passing the opening, followed by the
pattering footsteps of childhood. There came the sound of soft weeping
... the swishing skirt passed again, and the pattering footsteps died
away. The nurse returned.

"The Italian's wife and child have just been here," she said. "They
let the woman look for the last time at her husband through the hole
in the door."

Fred put his head between his hands. "He tried to murder her and yet
she came to see him," he muttered, almost inaudibly. "I dare say he
abused her in his day, too."

The woman gave him a sharp glance. "You're married, aren't you?"

He looked up suddenly, reading the inference in her question. "Yes ...
but my wife won't come..."

The nurse left the room and he put his face in his hands again. The
sun was traveling swiftly. He shifted his position so that he could
get the full benefit of its warmth. He thought that he had banished
the memory of Helen Starratt forever, but he found his mind
re-creating that final scene with her in all its relentless
bitterness... She had come that day to salve her conscience ... to pay
her tithe to form and respectability ... perhaps moved to fleeting
pity. He had seen through every word, every gesture, every glance. Her
transparency was loathsome. Why did he read her so perfectly now? Was
it because she felt herself too secure for further veilings, or had
his eyes been suddenly opened?

She was not flaming nor reckless nor consumed utterly; instead, there
was a complacent coolness about her, as if passion had drawn every
warmth within her for its own consummation. She had still her
instincts in the leash of calculation, going through the motions of
conventionality. The lifted eyebrows and curling lip which she had
directed at Ginger's departing figure were not inconsistent.
Dissimulation was such an art with her that it was unconscious.

He had asked her only one question:

"And how is Mrs. Hilmer?"

Even now he shuddered at the completeness with which her words
betrayed her.

"There is no change ... we are simply waiting."

He had turned away from this crowning disclosure. _Waiting_? No wonder
she could veil her desire in such disarming patience! He had intended
asking her plans. Now it was unnecessary. And he had thought at once
of that last night when he had called at Hilmer's, remembering the
sprawling magazine on the floor, the bowl of wanton flowers upon the
mantelshelf, the debonairly flung mandarin skirt clinging to the
piano - these had been the first marks of conquest.

As she was leaving she had said, "I shall see you again, of course."

In spite of its inconsistency he had sensed a certain habitual
tenderness in her voice, as if custom were demanding its due. And, for
a moment, the old bond between them touched him with its false warmth.
But a swift revulsion swept him.

"Why bother?" he had thrown back at her.

"You mean you don't want me to come?"

"Yes, just that!"

He had taken her breath away, perhaps even wounded her, momentarily,
but she had recovered herself quickly. Her smile had been full of the
smug satisfaction of one who has washed his hands in public
self-justification.

She had left soon after that passage at arms, achieving the grace to
dispense with the empty formality of either a kiss or a farewell
embrace... He remembered how he had flung up the window as if to clear
the room of her poisonous presence...

To-day, sitting upon his narrow bed, instinctively following the patch
of yellow sunlight as it gilded the gloom, he felt that the maniac
next door had the better part. Of what use was reason when it ceased
to function except in terms of withering unbelief?

He sat motionless for hours, waiting patiently for them to come and
release him to sharper sorrows. He had a passive eagerness to taste
bitterness to the lees... When he heard the door open finally he did
not rise. He kept his face buried. A light footstep came nearer and he
was conscious of the pressure of icy fingers upon his hands. He looked
up. Ginger stood before him.

"I brought you some smokes," she said, simply, "but they wouldn't let
me bring them in."

He tried to speak, but suddenly great sobs shook him.

She put her fingers in his hair, drawing him to his feet, and
presently he felt her own tears splashing his cheek.

He was smiling when they finally came for him. But he felt weaker than
ever, and as they walked out into the glare of the street he was glad
to lean upon Ginger's arm. The sheriff's van was drawn up to the curb.
Two deputies helped him in. He turned for a last look at Ginger. Her
pale little face was twisted, but she waved a gay farewell. In a far
corner of the lumbering machine Fred could see two catlike eyes
glimmering. Slowly his gaze penetrated the gloom, and the figure of a
battered man shaped itself, his two hands strapped to his sides. The
deputies got in, the door was shut sharply, and the van shot forward.

In less than fifteen minutes they had reached the ferry.

The train was late, and it was long after nine o'clock when it pulled
into the Fairview station. The day had been hot, and the breath of
evening was bringing out grateful and cooling odors from the sunburnt
stubble of the hillside as Fred Starratt and his keeper stepped upon
the station platform. The insane Italian followed between two guards.
An automobile swung toward them. They got in and rode through the
thickening gloom for about three miles... Presently one of the
deputies leaned toward Fred, pointing a finger in the direction of a
cluster of lights, as he said:

"There's your future home, old man. Keep a stiff upper lip. You'll
need all your grit."




CHAPTER XII


Fred Starratt rested surprisingly well that first night. But two weeks
in the detention hospital had taken the sting out of institutional
preliminaries. The officials at Fairview put him through precisely the
same paces, except upon a somewhat larger scale. There was the
selfsame questioning, the same yielding up of personal effects, the
same inevitable bath. And almost the same solitary room, except that
this one peered out upon the free world through a heavily barred
window instead of through a skylight, and boasted a kitchen chair. He
was to be alone then!... He thanked God for this solitude and slept.

He awoke at six o'clock to the clipped shriek of a whistle. Shortly
after, a key turned in his door. There followed the sound of scores of
bare feet pattering up and down the hall. Was it imagination or did
these muffled footfalls have an inhuman softness?... Suddenly his door
flew open. He shrank beneath the bedclothes, peering out with one
unscreened eye.

A knot of gesticulating and innocent madmen were gazing at him with
all the simplicity of children. After a few moments, their curiosity
satisfied, they pattered on their ghostly way again.

This, he afterward learned, was the daily morning inspection of
newcomers.

Presently the whistle blew again and a bell sounded through the
corridors. A rush of answering feet swept past; a great silence fell.

A half hour later a monstrous man with glittering eyes and clawlike
fingers came in, carrying breakfast - a large dishpan filled with a
slimy mush, two slices of dry bread, and a mound of greasy hash. Fred
turned away with a movement of supreme disgust. The gigantic attendant
laughed.

There came a call of, "All outside!" echoing through the halls; a rush
of feet again, a hushed succeeding silence. The half-mad ogre went to
the window and slyly beckoned Fred to follow. He crawled out of bed
and took his place before the iron bars. The man pointed a skinny
finger; Fred's gaze followed. He found himself looking down upon a
stone-paved yard filled with loathsome human wreckage - gibbering
cripples, drooling monsters, vacant-eyed corpses with only the motions
of life. Some had their hands strapped to their sides, others were
almost naked. They sang, shouted, and laughed, prayed or were silent,
according to their mental infirmities. It was an inferno all the more
horrible because of its reality, a relentless nightmare from which
there was no awakening.

Fred heard the man at his side chuckling ferociously.

His tormentor was laughing with insane cruelty. "The bull pen! Ha, ha,
ha!"

Fred made his way back to his bed. Midway he stopped.

"Does everybody ..." he began to stammer - "does everybody ... or only
those who ..."

He broke off in despair. What could this mad giant tell him? But
almost before the thought had escaped him his companion read his
thought with uncanny precision.

"You think I don't know!" the man said, tapping his head
significantly. "But everybody ... they all ask me the same question.
Yes ... you'll take your turn, my friend. Don't be afraid. They'll
give you the air in the bull pen, all right! Ha, ha, ha!" And with
that he picked up the dishpan of untasted breakfast and hurried from
the room.

Fred Starratt sank down upon the bed. His temples were throbbing and
his body wet with an icy sweat.

* * * * *

He was roused by a vigorous but not ungentle tap upon the shoulder. He
stumbled to his feet, shaking himself into a semblance of courage. But
instead of the malevolent giant of the breakfast hour, a genial man of
imposing bulk stood before him. "My name is Harrison," his visitor
began, kindly; "I'm an assistant to the superintendent... Perhaps
you'd like to tell me something about yourself?"

Fred drew back a trifle. "Must I?..."

Harrison smiled as he seated himself in the chair.

"No ... but they usually do ... after the first night... It helps,
sometimes, to talk."

"I am afraid there's nothing to tell... I'm here, and I'll make the
best of it..."

Fred wiped the clammy sweat from his forehead with a gesture of
despair.

Harrison leaned forward. "Don't you feel well?" he inquired.

"It's nothing... I looked out into the yard this morning... I dare say
one gets used to it - but for the moment... You have other yards, I
suppose... That is, I sha'n't have to take the air there ... shall I
... in the bull pen?"

"It's usual ... for the first day or two. But perhaps in your case - "
Harrison broke off. "However, I can't promise anything... If you'll
come to the office I'll give you back your clothes."

They went into the office together and Fred received his clothing duly
marked with his name and ward. But his shoes were withheld and in
their place he was given a pair of mismated slippers which proved too
large. Harrison handed him two rag strips with which he tied them on.
Looking down at the shapeless, flapping footgear, Fred Starratt felt
his humiliation to be complete. He walked slowly back to his room.

The noise from the bull pen was deafening. He went to the window and
steeled himself against the sight below... At first he shuddered, but
gradually his hands became clenched, in answer to a rising
determination. Why should he flinch from anything God himself could
look upon?... He was still standing by the window when the gong for
the midday meal sounded. The bull pen had long since been deserted
and, with the foreground swept clean of its human excrescence, his
purposeless gaze had wandered instinctively toward the promise of the
forest-green hills in the distance.

He heard the familiar rush of feet toward the dining room and he was
vaguely conscious that some one had halted before his door. He turned
about. A young man, not over twenty-five, with a delicately chiseled
face, was stepping into the room. As he drew closer Fred received the
wistful impression of changing-blue eyes and a skin clear to the point
of transparency. Fred met his visitor halfway.

"You came last night, didn't you?" the youth began, offering a shy
hand. "I saw you this morning. I was in the crowd that looked you over
just before breakfast... What are you here for?"

Fred lifted his hand and let it fall again. "I made a mess of
things... And you?"

"Booze," the other replied, laconically. "I've been in three times...
Let's go down to lunch." He slipped a friendly arm into Fred's and
together they walked with the rushing throng into the dining room.

It was a small room, everything considered, with tables built around
the four walls and one large table in the center that seated about
twenty-five people. Starratt and his new-found friend discovered two
vacant seats upon the rude bench in front of the center table and sat
down. They were each given a plate upon which was a potato and a small
piece of cold beef and the inevitable hunk of dry bread. A large
pitcher of tea stood within reach. There was neither milk nor sugar
nor butter in evidence. A tablespoon and a tin cup were next handed
them. Fred felt a sudden nausea. He closed his eyes for a moment, and
when he looked up his plate had been swept clean of food.

"You've got to watch sharp," the youth was saying. "They steal
everything in sight if you let them... Here, have some of mine."

Fred made a gesture of refusal. "It doesn't matter," he explained.
"I'm not hungry."

"You'd better eat something... Have some hot tea!"

It was a black, hair-raising brew, but Fred managed to force down a
draught of it. About him on all sides men were tearing their meat with
clawlike hands, digging their fangs into it in wolfish ferocity... A
dishpan of rice was circulated. Fred took a few spoonfuls. Within
fifteen minutes the meal was over and the dishpan, emptied of its
rice, was passed again. Fred saw his companions flinging their spoons
into it. He did likewise.

The youth arose. "Let's get out of this and have a smoke... I've got
the makings."

A great surge of relief swept over Fred. A smoke! Somehow, he had
forgotten that such a solace existed in this new world of terror and
pain.

It appeared that the only place indoors where smoking was permitted
was the lavatory, but when they reached the corridor they found a line
forming ready to march out to take the air. They decided to wait and
have their smoke in the open. Fred and his companion exchanged names.
The youth was Felix Monet.

"I'm not sure whether you go out with us," Monet admitted, as they
swung into place. "This crowd is bound for the front parade ground.
It's not usual for newcomers to have that privilege."

Fred made no reply. The line of men shuffled forward.

"We go downstairs first for our shoes," the youth finished.

Presently they found themselves upon the ground floor, in a small room
where an attendant distributed shoes and hats. It appeared that Fred's
shoes were there, duly labeled. The man in charge made no objection to
yielding them up.

"You must have a pull," Monet remarked, as Fred sat down upon a stool
to draw on his shoes.

Fred shook his head in silence. Evidently the assistant superintendent
had said a word for him. ... He was not to be put to the torture of
the bull pen, then!

Outside, the air was warm and the sunlight dazzling. Fred felt a surge
of red-blooded life sweep him as his quivering nostrils drank in the
pungent odors from the midsummer foliage. Waves of heat floated
wraithlike from the yellow stubble, bathing the distant hills in an
arid-blue haze. At convenient intervals clumps of dark-green trees
threw contrasting patches of shade upon the tawny, sun-bleached sod.
But Fred ignored their cool invitation. He always had hated hot
weather with all his coast-bred soul, but to-day a hunger for warmth
possessed him completely.

Monet and he took a broad path which circled for about a quarter of a
mile about the grounds. As they progressed, several joined them. Fred
was introduced to each in turn, but he responded listlessly. Almost at
once the newcomers hurled questions at him... Why was he there? ...
How long was he in for? ... What did he think were the chances of
escape? Inevitably, every conversation turned upon this last absorbing
topic. These men seemed eager for confidences, they wanted to share
their experiences, their grievances, their hopes. But Fred Starratt
recoiled. He had not yet reached the stage when a thin trickle of
words fell gratefully upon his ears. He had no desire to either hear
or speak. All he craved was the healing silence of open spaces. But he
was soon to learn that this new life held no such soul-cleansing
solace. Gradually he fell a bit apart from his chattering comrades.

They passed an ill-kept croquet ground and some patches of garden
where those who were so disposed could raise vegetables or flowers.
There was something pathetic about the figures bending with childlike
faith over their labor of love - attempting to make nature smile upon
them. Without the vision of the bull pen Fred Starratt would have
found much that afternoon that was revolting. But one glimpse into the
horrible inferno of the morning had made him less sensitive to milder
impressions.


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Online LibraryCharles Caldwell DobieBroken to the Plow → online text (page 9 of 17)