BROKEN TO THE PLOW
A Novel by
CHARLES CALDWELL DOBIE
Author of "THE BLOOD RED DAWN"
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
* * * * *
Printed in the United States of America
TO MY BROTHER Who Helped Make My Literary Career Possible.
BROKEN TO THE PLOW
Toward four o'clock in the afternoon Fred Starratt remembered that he had been commissioned by his wife to bring home oyster cocktails for dinner. Of course, it went without saying that he was expected to attend to the cigars. That meant he must touch old Wetherbee for money. Five dollars would do the trick, but, while he was about it, he decided that he might as well ask for twenty-five. There were bound to be other demands before the first of the month, and the hard-fisted cashier of Ford, Wetherbee & Co. seemed to grow more and more crusty over drafts against the salary account. If one caught him in a good humor it was all right. Usually a risque story was the safest road to geniality. Starratt raked his brains for a new one, to no purpose. Every moment of delay added greater certainty to the conviction that he was in for a disagreeable encounter. At four o'clock Wetherbee always began to balance his cash for the day and he was particularly vicious at any interruptions during this precise performance. What in the world had possessed Helen to give this absurd dinner party to two people Starratt had never met? At least she might have put the thing off until pay day, when money was more plentiful.
How did others manage? Starratt asked himself. Because there was a small minority in the office who received their full month's salary without a break during the entire year. Take young Brauer, for instance. He got a little over a hundred a month and yet he never seemed short. He dressed well, too—or neatly, to be nearer the truth; there was no great style to his make-up. Of course, Brauer was not married, but Starratt could never remember a time, even before he took the plunge into matrimony, when he was not going through the motions of smoothing old Wetherbee into a good-humored acceptance of an IOU tag. Starratt did not think himself extravagant, and it always had puzzled him to observe how free some of his salaried friends were with their coin. Only that morning his wife had reflected his own mood with exaggerated petulancy when she had said:
"I'm sure I don't know where all the money goes! We don't spend it on cafes, and we haven't a car, and goodness knows I only buy what I have to when it comes down to clothes."
What she had to! He thought over the phrase not with any desire to put Helen in the pillory, but merely to uncover, if possible, the source of their economic ills.
In days gone by, when his mother was alive, he had heard almost the same remark leveled at his father:
"Well, I suppose some people could save on our income. But we've got to be decent—we can't go about in rags!"
He knew from long experience just the sort his mother had meant by the term "some people." Brauer was a case in point. Mrs. Starratt always spoke of such as he with lofty tolerance.
"Oh, of course, foreigners always get on! They're accustomed to live that way!"
Fred Starratt had not altogether accepted his mother's philosophy that everybody lacking the grace of an Anglo-Saxon or Scotch name was a foreigner. There were times when he was given to wonder vaguely why the gift of "getting on" had been given to "foreigners" and denied him. Once in a while he rebelled against the implied gentility which had been wished on him. Were rags necessary to achieve economy? Granting the premises, in moments of rare revolt he became hospitable to any contingency that would free him from the ever-present humiliation of an empty purse.
He soon had learned that the term "rags" was a mere figure of speech, which stood for every pretense offered up as a sacrifice upon the altar of appearances. His mother had never been a spendthrift and certainly one could not convict Helen on such a charge. But they both had one thing in common—they "had to have things" for almost any and every occasion. If a trip were planned or a dancing party arranged or a tea projected—well, one simply couldn't go looking like a fright, and that was all there was to it. His father never thought to argue such a question. Women folks had to have clothes, and so he accepted the situation with the philosophy born of bowing gracefully to the inevitable. But Starratt himself occasionally voiced a protest.
"Nothing to wear?" he would echo, incredulously. "Why, how about that pink dress? That hasn't worn out yet."
"No, that's just it! It simply won't! I'm sick and tired of putting it on. Everybody knows it down to the last hook and eye... Oh, well, I'll stay home. It isn't a matter of life and death. I've given things up before."
When a woman took that tone of martyrdom there really was nothing to do but acknowledge defeat. Other men were able to provide frocks for their wives and he supposed he ought to be willing to do the same thing. There was an element of stung pride in his surrender. He had the ingrained Californian's distaste for admitting, even to himself, that there was anything he could not afford. And in the end it was this feeling rising above the surface of his irritation which made him a bit ashamed of his attitude toward Helen's dinner party. After all, it would be the same a thousand years from now. A man couldn't have his cake and eat it, and a man like Brauer must live a dull sort of life. What could be the use of saving money if one forgot how to spend it in the drab process? As a matter of fact, old Wetherbee wouldn't gobble him. He'd grunt or grumble or even rave a bit, but in the end he would yield up the money. He always did. And suddenly, while his courage had been so adroitly screwed to the sticking point, he went over to old Wetherbee's desk without further ado.
The cashier was absorbed in adding several columns of figures and he let Starratt wait. This was not a reassuring sign. Finally, when he condescended to acknowledge the younger man's presence he did it with the merest uplift of the eyebrows. Starratt decided at once against pleasantries. Instead, he matched Wetherbee's quizzical pantomime by throwing the carefully written IOU tag down on the desk.
Wetherbee tossed the tag aside. "You got twenty-five dollars a couple of days ago!" he bawled out suddenly.
Starratt was surprised into silence. Old Wetherbee was sometimes given to half-audible and impersonal grumblings, but this was the first time he had ever gone so far as to voice a specific objection to an appeal for funds.
"What do you think this is?" Wetherbee went on in a tone loud enough to be heard by all the office force. "The Bank of England?... I've got something else to do besides advance money every other day to a bunch of joy-riding spendthrifts. In my day a young man ordered his expenditures to suit his pocketbook. We got our salary once a month and we saw to it that it lasted... What's the matter—somebody sick at home?"
Starratt could easily have lied and closed the incident quickly, but an illogical pride stirred him to the truth.
"No," he returned, quietly, "I'm simply short. We're having some company in for dinner and there are a few things to get—cigars and—well, you know what."
Wetherbee threw him a lip-curling glance. "Cigars? Well, twopenny clerks do keep up a pretty scratch and no mistake. In my day—"
Starratt cut him short with an impatient gesture.
"Times have changed, Mr. Wetherbee."
"Yes, I should say they have," the elder man sneered, as he reached for the key to the cash drawer.
For a moment Starratt felt an enormous relief at the old man's significant movement. He was to get the money, after all! But almost at once he was moved to sudden resentment. What right had Wetherbee to humiliate him before everybody within earshot? He knew that the eyes of the entire force were being leveled at him, and he felt a surge of satisfaction as he said, very distinctly:
"Don't bother, Mr. Wetherbee... It really doesn't make the slightest difference. I'll manage somehow."
Old Wetherbee shrugged and went on adding figures. Starratt felt confused. The whole scene had fallen flat. His suave heroics had not even made Wetherbee feel cheap. He went back to his desk.
Presently a hand rested upon his shoulder. He knew Brauer's fawning, almost apologetic, touch. He turned.
"If you're short—" Brauer was whispering.
Starratt hesitated. Deep down he never had liked Brauer; in fact, he always had just missed snubbing him. Still it was decent of Brauer to...
"That's very kind, I'm sure. Could you give me—say, five dollars?"
Brauer thrust two lean, bloodless fingers into his vest pocket and drew out a crisp note.
"Thanks, awfully," Starratt said, quickly, as he reached for the money.
Brauer's face lit up with a swift glow of satisfaction. Starratt almost shrank back. He felt a clammy hand pressing the bill against his palm.
"Thanks, awfully," he murmured again.
Brauer dropped his eyes with a suggestion of unpleasant humility.
"I wish," flashed through Starratt's mind, "that I had asked for ten dollars."
* * * * *
As Fred Starratt came down the steps leading from the California Market with a bottle of oyster cocktails held gingerly before him he never remembered when he had been less in the mood for guests. A passing friend invited him to drop down for a drink at Collins & Wheeland's, but the state of his finances urged a speedy flight home instead. At this hour the California Street cars were crowded, but he managed to squeeze into a place on the running board. He always enjoyed the glide of this old-fashioned cable car up the stone-paved slope of Nob Hill, and even the discomfort of a huddled foothold was more than discounted by the ability to catch backward glimpses of city and bay falling away in the slanting gold of an early spring twilight like some enchanted and fabulous capital.
At Hyde Street he changed cars, continuing his homeward flight in the direction of Russian Hill. He prided himself on the fact that he still clung to one of the old quarters of the town, scorning the outlying districts with all the disdain of a San Franciscan born and bred of pioneer stock. He liked to be within easy walking distance of work, and only a trifle over fifteen minutes from the shops and cafes and theaters. And his present quarters in a comparatively new apartment house just below the topmost height of Green Street answered these wishes in every particular.
On the Hyde Street car he found a seat, and, without the distraction of maintaining his foothold or the diversion of an unfolding panorama, his thoughts turned naturally on his immediate problems. The five dollars had gone a ridiculously small way. Four oyster cocktails came to a dollar and a quarter, and he had to have at least six cigars at twenty-five cents apiece. This left him somewhat short of the maid's wage of three dollars for cooking and serving dinner and washing up the dishes. If Helen had engaged Mrs. Finn, everything would be all right. She knew them and she would wait. Still, he didn't like putting anybody off—he was neither quite too poor nor quite too affluent to be nonchalant in his postponement of obligations.
When he arrived home he found that Helen had been having her troubles, too. Mrs. Finn had disappointed her and sent a frowsy female, who exuded vile whisky and the unpleasant odors of a slattern.
"I think she's half drunk," Helen had confessed, brutally. "You can't depend on anyone these days. Servants are getting so independent!"
The roast had been delivered late, too, and when Helen had called up the shop to protest she had been met with cool insolence.
"I told the boy who talked to me that I'd report him to the boss. And what do you suppose he said? 'Go as far as you like! We're all going out on a strike next week, so we should worry!' Fancy a butcher talking like that to me! I don't know what things are coming to."
Frankly, neither did Fred Starratt, but he held his peace. He was thinking just where he would gather enough money together to pay Mrs. Finn's questionable substitute.
The guests arrived shortly and there were the usual stiff, bromidic greetings. Mrs. Hilmer had been presented to Fred first ... a little, spotless, homey Scandinavian type, who radiated competent housekeeping and flawless cooking. The Starratts had once had just such a shining-faced body for a neighbor—a woman who ran up the back stairs during the dinner hour with a bit of roasted chicken or a pan of featherweight pop-overs or a dish of crumbly cookies for the children. Mrs. Starratt, senior, had acknowledged her neighbor's culinary merits ungrudgingly, tempering her enthusiasm, however, with a swift dab of criticism directed at the lady's personality.
"My, but isn't she Dutch, though!" frequently had escaped her.
Somehow the characterization had struck Fred Starratt as very apt even in his younger days. And as he shook hands with Mrs. Hilmer these same words came to mind.
Hilmer disturbed him. He was a huge man with a rather well-chiseled face, considering his thickness of limb, and his blond hair fell in an untidy shower about his prominent and throbbing temples. Fred felt him to be a man without any inherited social graces, yet he contrived to appear at ease. Was it because he was disposed to let the women chatter? No, that could not account for his acquired suavity, for silence is very often much more awkward than even clumsy attempts at speech.
As the dinner progressed, Fred Starratt began to wonder just what had tempted Helen to arrange this little dinner party for the Hilmers. When she had broached the matter, her words had scarcely conveyed their type. A woman who had helped his wife out at the Red Cross Center during the influenza epidemic could be of almost any pattern. But immediately he had gauged her as one of his wife's own kind. Helen and her women friends were not incompetent housewives, but their efforts leaned rather to an escape from domestic drudgery than to a patient yielding to its yoke. If they discussed housekeeping at all, it was with reference to some new labor-saving device flashing across the culinary horizon. But Mrs. Hilmer's conversation thrilled with the pride of her gastronomic achievements without any reference to the labor involved. She invested her estate as housekeeper for her husband with a commendable dignity. It appeared that she took an enormous amount of pains with the simplest dishes. It was incredible, for instance, how much thought and care and time went into a custard which she described at great length for Helen's benefit.
"But that takes hours and hours!" Helen protested.
"But it's a real custard," Hilmer put in, dryly.
Fred Starratt felt himself flushing. Hilmer's scant speech had the double-edged quality of most short weapons. Could it be that his guest was sneering by implication at the fare that Helen had provided? No, that was hardly it, because Helen had provided good fare, even if she had prepared most of it vicariously. Hilmer's covert disdain was more impersonal, yet it remained every whit as irritating, for all that. Perhaps a bit more so, since Fred Starratt found it hard to put a finger on its precise quality. He had another taste of it later when the inevitable strike gossip intruded itself. It was Helen who opened up, repeating her verbal passage with the butcher.
"They want eight hours a day and forty-five dollars a week," she finished. "I call that ridiculous!"
"Why?" asked Hilmer, abruptly.
"For a butcher?" Helen countered, with pained incredulity.
"How long does your husband work?" Hilmer went on, calmly.
"I'm sure I don't know. How long do you work, Fred?"
Starratt hesitated. "Let me see ... nine to twelve is three hours ... one to five is four hours—seven in all."
Hilmer smiled with cryptic irritation. "There you have it!... What's wrong with a butcher wanting eight hours?"
Helen shrugged. "Well, a butcher doesn't have to use his brains very much!" she threw out, triumphantly.
"And your husband does. I see!"
Starratt winced. He felt his wife's eye turned expectantly upon him. "Seven hours is a normal day's work," he put in, deciding to ignore Hilmer's insolence, "but as an employer of an office force you must know how much overtime the average clerk puts in. We're not afraid to work a little bit more than we're paid for. We're thinking of something else besides money."
Hilmer buttered a roll. "What, for instance?"
"Why, the firm's interest ... our own advancement, of course ... the enlarged capacity that comes with greater skill and knowledge." He leaned back in his seat with a self-satisfied smile.
Hilmer laid down his butter knife very deliberately. "That's very well put," he said; "very well put, indeed! And would you mind telling me just what your duties are in the office where you work?"
"I'm in the insurance business ... fire. We have a general agency here for the Pacific coast. That means that all the subagents in the smaller towns report the risks they have insured to us. I'm what they call a map clerk. I enter the details of every risk on bound maps of the larger towns which every insurance company is provided with. In this way we know just how much we have at risk in any building, block, or section of any city. And we are able to keep our liability within proper limits."
"You do this same thing ... for seven hours every day ... not to speak of overtime?"
"And how long have you been doing this?"
"About five years."
"And how long will you continue to do it?"
Hilmer rested both hands on the white cloth. They were shapely hands in spite of their size, with healthy pink nails, except on a thumb and forefinger, which had been badly mangled. "For five years you have worked seven hours every day on this routine ... and in order to enlarge your capacity and skill and knowledge you have worked many hours overtime on this same routine, I suppose without any extra pay... It seems to me that a man who only gets a chance to exercise with dumb-bells might keep in condition, but he'd hardly grow more skillful... Of course, that still leaves two theories intact—working for your own advancement ... and the interest of your firm. I suppose the advancement has come, I suppose you've been paid for your overtime ... in increased salary."
Helen made a scornful movement. "If you call an increase of ten dollars a month in two years an advancement," she ventured, bitterly.
"That leaves only one excuse for overtime. And that excuse is usually a lie. Why should you have the interest of your firm at heart when it does nothing for you beyond what it is forced to do?"
Fred Starratt bared his teeth in sudden snapping anger. "Well, and what do you do, Mr. Hilmer, for your clerks?"
"Nothing ... absolutely nothing ... unless they demand it. And even then it's only the exceptional man who can force me into a corner. The average clerk in any country is like a gelded horse. He's been robbed of his power by education ... of a sort. He's a reasonable, rational, considerate beast that can be broken to any harness."
"What do you want us to do? Go on a strike and heave bricks into your plate-glass window?... What would you do in our place?"
"I wouldn't be there, to begin with. I've heaved bricks in my day." He leaned forward, exhibiting his smashed thumb and forefinger. "I killed the man who did that to me. I was born in a Norwegian fishing village and after a while I followed the sea. That's a good school for action. And what education you get is thrashed into you. The little that sticks doesn't do much more than toughen you. And if you don't want any more it does well enough. Later on, if you have a thirst for knowledge, you drink the brand you pick yourself and it doesn't go to your head. Now with you ... you didn't have any choice. You drank up what they handed out and, at the age when you could have made a selection, your taste was formed ... by others... I don't mind people kicking at the man who works with his hands if they know what they're talking about. But most of them don't. They get the thing second hand. They're chock full of loyalty to superiors and systems and governments, just from habit... I've worked with my hands, and I've fought for a half loaf of bread with a dirk knife, and I know all the dirty, rotten things of life by direct contact. So when I disagree with the demands of the men who build my vessels I know why I'm disagreeing. And I usually do disagree ... because if they've got guts enough in them they'll fight. And I like a good fight. That's why potting clerks is such a tame business. It's almost as sickening as a rabbit drive."
He finished with a gesture of contempt and reached for his goblet of water.
Starratt decided not to dodge the issue; if Hilmer wished to throw any further mud he was perfectly ready to stand up and be the target.
"Well, and what's the remedy for stiffening the backbone of my sort?" he asked, with polite insolence.
"Stiffening the backbone of the middle class is next to impossible. They've been bowing and scraping until there's a permanent kink in their backs!"
"The 'middle class'?" Helen echoed, incredulously.
Hilmer was smiling widely. There was a strange, embarrassed silence. Starratt was the first to recover himself. "Why, of course!... Why not? You didn't think we belonged to any other class, did you?"
It was Mrs. Hilmer who changed the subject. "What nice corn pudding this is, Mrs. Starratt! Would you mind telling me how you made it?"
Hostilities ceased with the black coffee, and in the tiny living room Hilmer grew almost genial. His life had been varied and he was rather proud of it—that is, he was proud of the more sordid details, which he recounted with an air of satisfaction. He liked to dwell on his poverty, his lack of opportunity, his scant education. He had the pride of his achievements, and he was always eager to throw them into sharper relief by dwelling upon the depths from which he had sprung. He had his vulgarities, of course, but it was amazing how well selected they were—the vulgarities of simplicity rather than of coarseness. And while he talked he moved his hands unusually for a man of northern blood, revealing the sinister thumb and forefinger, which to Fred Starratt grew to be a symbol of his guest's rough-hewn power. Hilmer was full of raw-boned stories of the sea and he had the seafarer's trick of vivid speech. Even Helen Starratt was absorbed ... a thing unusual for her. At least in her husband's hearing she always disclaimed any interest in the brutalities. She never read about murders or the sweaty stories in the human-interest columns of the paper or the unpleasant fictioning of realists. Her excuse was the threadbare one that a trivial environment always calls forth, "There are enough unpleasant things in life without reading about them!"
The unpleasant things in Helen Starratt's life didn't go very far beyond half-tipsy maids and impertinent butcher boys.
Hilmer's experiences were not quite in the line of drawing-room anecdotes, and Starratt had seen the time when his wife would have recoiled from them with the disdainful grace of a feline shaking unwelcome moisture from its paws. But to-night she drew her dark eyebrows together tensely and let her thin, vivid lips part with frank eagerness. Her interest flamed her with a new quality. Fred Starratt had always known that his wife was attractive; he would not have married her otherwise; but, as she leaned forward upon the arm of her chair, resting her elbows upon an orange satin pillow, he saw that she was handsome. And, somehow, the realization vaguely disturbed him.
Hilmer's stories of prosperity were not so moving. From a penniless emigrant in New York until he had achieved the distinction of being one of the leading shipbuilders of the Pacific coast, his narrative steadily dwindled in power, the stream of his life choked with stagnant scum of good fortune. Indeed, he grew so dull that Helen Starratt, stifling a yawn, said:
"If it's not too personal ... won't you please tell us ... about ... about the man you killed for smashing your thumb?"
He laughed with charming naivete, and began at once. But it was all disappointingly simple. It had happened aboard ship. A hulking Finn, one of the crew's bullies, had accused Hilmer of stealing his tobacco. A scuffle followed, blows, blood drawn. Upon the slippery deck Hilmer had fallen prone in an attempt to place a swinging blow. The Finn had seized this opportunity and flung a bit of pig iron upon Hilmer's sprawling right hand. Hilmer had leaped to his feet at once and, seizing the bar of iron in his dripping fingers, had crushed the bully's head with one sure, swift blow.
"He fell face downward ... his head split open like a rotten melon."
Helen Starratt shuddered. "How ... how perfectly fascinating!" escaped her.
Starratt stared. He had never seen his wife so kindled with morbid excitement.
"I ... I thought you didn't like to hear unpleasant stories," he threw at her, disagreeably.
She tossed the flaming cushion, upon which she had been leaning, into a corner, a certain insolence in her quick gesture.
"I don't like to read about them," she retorted, and she turned a wanton smile in the direction of Hilmer.
At this juncture the maid opened the folding doors between the dining room and the living room. She had on her hat and coat, and, as she retreated to the kitchen, Helen Starratt flashed a significant look at her husband.
He followed the woman reluctantly. When he entered the kitchen she was leaning against the sink, smoothing on a pair of faded silk gloves.
"I'm sorry," he began, awkwardly, "but I forgot to cash a check to-day. How much do you charge?"
The woman's hands flew instinctively to her hips as she braced herself into an attitude of defiance.
"Three dollars!" she snapped. "And my car fare."
He searched his pockets and held out a palm filled with silver for her inspection. "I've just got two forty," he announced, apologetically. "You see, we usually have Mrs. Finn. She knows us and I felt sure she'd wait until next time. If you give me your address I can send you the difference to-morrow."
She tossed back her head. "Nothing doing!" she retorted. "I don't give a damn what you thought. I want my money now or, by Gawd, I'll start something!"
Her voice had risen sharply. Starratt was sure that everybody could hear.
"I haven't got three dollars," he insisted, in a low voice. "Can't you see that I haven't?"
"Ask your wife, then."
"She hasn't a cent... I should have cashed a check to-day, but I forgot... You forget things sometimes, don't you?"
He was conscious that his voice had drawn out in a snuffling appeal, but he simply had to placate this female ogress in some way.
"Ask your swell friends, then."
"Why, I can't do that... I don't know them well enough. This is the first time—"
She cut him short with a snap of her ringers. "You don't know me, either ... and I don't know you. That's the gist of the whole thing. If you can ask a strange woman who's done an honest night's work to wait for her money, you can ask a strange man to lend you sixty cents... And, what's more, I'll wait right here until you do!"
"Well, wait then!" he flung out, suddenly, as he pocketed the silver.
He kicked open the swinging door and gained the dining room. She followed close upon his heels.
"Oh, I know your kind!" he heard her spitting out at him. "You're a cheap skate trying to put up a front! But you won't get by with me, not if I know it!... You come through with three dollars or I'll wreck this joint!"
A crash followed her harangue. Starratt turned. A tray of Haviland cups and saucers lay in a shattered heap upon the floor.
He raised a threatening finger at her. "Will you be good enough to leave this house!" he commanded.
She thrust a red-knuckled fist into his face. "Not much I won't!" she defied him, swinging her head back and forth.
He fell back sharply. What was he to do? He couldn't kick her out... He heard a chair scraped back noisily upon the hardwood floor of the living room. Presently Hilmer stood at his side.
"Let me handle her!" Hilmer said, quietly.
Starratt gave a gesture of assent.
His guest took one stride toward the obstreperous female. "Get out! Understand?"
She stopped the defiant seesawing of her head.
"Wot in hell..." she was beginning, but her voice suddenly broke into tearful blubbering. "I'm a poor, lone widder woman—"
He took her arm and gave her a significant shove.
"Get out!" he repeated, with brief emphasis.
She cast a look at him, half despair and half admiration. He pointed to the door. She went.
Hilmer laughed and regained the living room. Starratt hesitated.
"I guess I'd better pick up the mess," he said, with an attempt at nonchalance.
Nobody made any reply. He bent over the litter. Above the faint tinkle of shattered porcelain dropping upon the lacquered tray he heard his wife's voice cloying the air with unpleasant sweetness as she said:
"Oh yes, Mr. Hilmer, you were telling us about the time you fought a man with a dirk knife ... for a half loaf of bread."
When the Hilmers left, about half past eleven, Starratt went down to the curb with them, on the pretext of looking at Hilmer's new car. It proved to be a very late and very luxurious model.
"Is it insured?" asked Starratt, as he lifted Mrs. Hilmer in.
"What a hungry bunch you insurance men are!" Hilmer returned. "You're the fiftieth man that's asked me that."
Starratt flushed. The business end of his suggestion had been the last thing in his mind. He managed to voice a commonplace protest, and Hilmer, taking his place at the wheel, said:
"Come in and talk it over sometime... Perhaps you can persuade me."
Starratt smiled pallidly and the car shot forward. He watched it out of sight. Instead of going back into the house he walked aimlessly down the block. He had no objective beyond a desire to kill the time and give Helen a chance to retire before he returned. He wasn't in a mood for talking.
It was not an unusual thing for him to take a stroll before turning in, and habit led him along a beaten path. He always found it fascinating to dip down the Hyde Street hill toward Lombard Street, where he could glimpse both the bay and the opposite shore. Then, he liked to pass the old-fashioned gardens spilling the mingled scent of heliotrope and crimson sage into the lap of night. There was something fascinating and melancholy about this venerable quarter that had been spared the ravages of fire ... overlooked, as it were, by the relentless flames, either in pity or contempt. There had been marvelous tales concerning this section's escape from the holocaust of 1906, when San Francisco had been shaken by earthquake and shriveled by flames. One house had been saved by a crimson flood of wine siphoned from its fragrant cellar, another by pluck and a garden hose, a third by quickly hewn branches of eucalyptus and cypress piled against the outside walls as a screen to the blistering heat. Trees and hedges and climbing honeysuckle had contributed, no doubt, to the defense of these relics of a more genial day, but the dogged determination of their owners to save their old homes at any cost must have been the determining factor, Starratt had often thought, as he lingered before the old picket fences, in an attempt to revive his memories of other days. He could not remember, of course, quite back to the time when the Hyde Street hill had been in an opulent heyday, but the flavor of its quality had trickled through to his generation. This was the section where his mother had languished in the prim gloom of her lamp-shaded parlor before his father's discreet advances. The house was gone ... replaced by a bay-windowed, jig-sawed horror of the '80s, but the garden still smiled, its quaint fragrance reenforced at the proper season by the belated blossoms of a homesick and wind-bitten magnolia. He was sure, judged by present-day standards, that his mother's old home must have been a very modest, genial sort of place ... without doubt a clapboard, two-storied affair with a single wide gable and a porch running the full length of the front. But, in a day when young and pretty women were at a premium, one did not have to live in a mansion to attract desirable suitors, and Fred Starratt had often heard his mother remind his father without bitterness of the catches that had been thrown her way. Not that Starratt, senior, had been a bad prospect matrimonially. Quite the contrary. He had come from Boston in the early '70s, of good substantial family, and with fair looks and a capacity for getting on. Likewise, a chance for inside tips on the stock market, since he had elected to go in with a brokerage firm. And so they were married, with all of conservative San Francisco at the First Unitarian Church to see the wedding, leavened by a sprinkling of the very rich and a dash of the ultrafashionable. Unfortunately, the inside tips didn't pan out ... absurd and dazzling fortune was succeeded by appalling and irretrievable failure. Starratt, senior, was too young a man to succumb to the scurvy trick of fate, but he never quite recovered. Gradually the Starratt family fell back a pace. To the last there were certain of the old guard who still remembered them with bits of coveted pasteboard for receptions or marriages or anniversary celebrations ... but the Starratts became more and more a memory revived by sentiment and less and less a vital reality.
Fred Starratt used to speculate, during his nocturnal wandering among the shadows of his parents' youthful haunts, just what his position would have been had these stock-market tips proved gilt edged. He tried to imagine himself the master of a splendid estate down the peninsula—preferably at Hillsboro—possessed of high-power cars and a string of polo ponies ... perhaps even a steam yacht... But these dazzling visions were not always in the ascendant. There were times when a philanthropic dream moved him more completely and he had naive and varied speculations concerning the help that he could have placed in the way of the less fortunate had he been possessed of unlimited means. Or, again, his hypothetical wealth put him in the way of the education that placed him easily at the top of a stirring profession.
"If I'd only had half a chance!" would escape him.
This was a phrase borrowed unconsciously from his mother. She was never bitter nor resentful at their profitless tilt with fortune except as it had reacted on her son.
"You should have gone to college," she used to insist, regretfully, summing up by implication his lack of advancement. At first he took a measure of comfort in her excuse; later he came to be irritated by it. And in moments of truant self-candor he admitted he could have made the grade with concessions to pride. There were plenty of youths who worked their way through. But he always had moved close to the edge of affluent circles, where he had caught the cold but disturbing glow of their standards. He left high school with pallid ideals of gentility, ideals that expressed themselves in his reasons for deciding to enter an insurance office. Insurance, he argued, was a nice business, one met nice people, one had nice hours, one was placed in nice surroundings. He had discovered later that one drew a nice salary, too. Well, at least, he had had the virtue of choosing without a very keen eye for the financial returns.
Ten years of being married to a woman who demanded a nice home and nice clothes and a circle of nice friends had done a great deal toward making him a little skeptical about the soundness of his standards. But his moments of uncertainty were few and fleeting, called into life by such uncomfortable circumstances as touching old Wetherbee for money or putting his tailor off when the date for his monthly dole fell due. He had never been introspective enough to quite place himself in the social scale, but when, in his thought or conversation, he referred to people of the better class he unconsciously included himself. He was not a drunken, disorderly, or radical member of society, and he didn't black boots, or man a ship, or sell people groceries, or do any of the things that were done in overalls and a soft shirt, therefore it went without saying that he belonged to the better class. That was synonymous with admitting that one kept one's ringer nails clean and used a pocket handkerchief.
Suddenly, with the force of a surprise slap in the face, it had been borne in upon him that he was not any of the fine things he imagined. He was sure that his insolent guest, Hilmer, had not meant to be disagreeable at the moment when he had said:
"Stiffening the backbone of the middle class is next to impossible!"
"The middle class"! The phrase had brought up even Helen Starratt with a round turn. One might have called them both peasants with equal temerity. No, Hilmer had not made that point consciously, and therein lay its sting.
To-night, as he accomplished his accustomed pilgrimage to the tangible shrine of his ancestors, and stood leaning against the gate which opened upon the garden that had smiled upon his mother's wooing, he determined once and for all to establish his position in life... Did he belong to the middle class, and, granting the premises, was it a condition from which one could escape or a fixed heritage that could neither be abandoned nor denied? In a country that made flamboyant motions toward democracy, he knew that the term was used in contempt, if not reproach. Had the class itself brought on this disesteem? Did it really exist and what defined it? Was it a matter of scant worldly possessions, or commonplace brain force, or breeding, or just an attitude of mind? Was it a term invented by the crafty to dash cold water upon the potential unity of a scattered force? Was it a scarecrow for frightening greedy and resourceful flocks from a concerted assault upon the golden harvests of privilege?... The questions submerged him in a swift flood. He did not know ... he could not tell. Unaccustomed as he was to thinking in the terms of group consciousness, he fell back, naturally, upon the personal aspects of the case. He was sure of one thing—Hilmer's contempt and scorn. In what class did Hilmer place himself? Above or below?... But the answer came almost before it was framed—Hilmer looked down upon him. That almost told the story, but not quite. Had Hilmer climbed personally to upper circles or had the strata in which he found himself embedded been pushed up by the slow process of time? Had the term "middle class" become a misnomer? Was it really on the lowest level now? Perhaps it was ... perhaps it always had been... But so was the foundation of any structure. Foundation?... The thought intrigued him, but only momentarily. Who wanted to bear the crushing weight of arrogant and far-flung battlements?
He retraced his steps, his thoughts still busy with Hilmer. Here was a typical case of what America could yield to the nature that had the insolence to ravish her. America was still the tawny, primitive, elemental jade who gave herself more readily to a rough embrace than a soft caress. She reserved her favors for those who wrested them from her...she had no patience with the soft delights of persuasion. It was strange how much rough-hewn vitality had poured into her embrace from the moth-eaten civilization of the Old World. Starratt was only a generation removed from a people who had subdued a wilderness ... he was not many generations removed from a people who wrestled naked with God for a whole continent—that is, they had begun to wrestle; the years that had succeeded found them still eager and shut-lipped for the conflict. They had abandoned the struggle only when they had found their victory complete. Naturally, soft days had followed. Was eternal conflict the price of strength? Starratt found himself wondering. And was he a product of these soft days, the rushing whirlwinds of Heaven stilled, the land drowsy with the humid heat of a slothful noonday? He had never thought of these things before. Even when he had thrilled to the vision of line upon line of his comrades marching away to the blood-soaked fields of France he had surrendered to a primitive emotion untouched by the poetry of deep understanding. He thrilled not because he knew that these people were doing the magnificent, the decent thing ... but because he merely felt it. He had his faiths, but he had not troubled to prove them ... he had not troubled even to doubt them.
His disquiet sharpened all of his perceptions. He never remembered a time when the cool fragrance of the night had fallen upon his senses with such a personal caress. He had come out into its starlit presence flushed with narrow, sordid indignation ... smarting under the trivial lashes which insolence and circumstance had rained upon his vanity. His walk in the dusky silence had not stilled his restlessness, but it had given his impatience a larger scope ... and as he stood for one last backward glimpse at the twinkling magnificence of this February night he felt stirred by almost heroic rancors. The city lay before him in crouched somnolence, ready to leap into life at the first flush of dawn, and, in the chilly breath of virgin spring, little truant warmths and provocative perfumes stirred the night with subtle prophecies of summer.
His exaltation persisted even after he had turned the key in his own door to find the light still blazing, betraying the fact of Helen's wakeful presence. He dallied over the triviality of hanging up his hat.
She was reading when he gained the threshold of the tiny living room. At the sound of his footsteps she flung aside the magazine in her hand. Her thick brows were drawn together in insolent impatience.
"Oh," he exclaimed, inadequately, "I thought you'd be asleep!"
"Asleep?" she queried, in a voice that cut him with its swift stroke. "You didn't fancy that I could compose myself that quickly ... after everything that's happened to-night ... did you? I've been humiliated more than once in my life, but never quite so badly. Uncalled for, too ... that's the silly part of it."
He stood motionless in the doorway. "I'm sorry I forgot the money," he returned, dully. "But it's all past and gone now. And I think the Hilmers understood."
"Yes ... they understood. That's another humiliating thing." She laughed tonelessly. "It must be amusing to watch people like us attempting to be somebody and do something on an income that can't be stretched far enough to pay a sloppy maid her wages."
It was not so much what she said, but her manner that chilled him to sudden cold anger. "Well ... you know our income, down to the last penny... You know just how much I've overdrawn this month, too. Why do you invite strangers to dinner under such conditions?"
She rose, drawing herself up to an arrogant height. "I invite them for your sake," she said, with slow emphasis. "If you played your cards well you might get in right with Hilmer. He's a big man."
"Yes," he flung back, dryly, "and a damned insolent one, too."
"He has his faults," she defended. "He's not polished, but he's forceful." She turned a malevolent smile upon her husband. "When he told that drunken servant girl to go, she went!"
Starratt could feel the rush of blood dyeing his temples. "That's just in his line!" he sneered. "He's taken degrading orders, and so he knows how to give them... He may have money now, but he hasn't always been so fortunate. I've been short of funds in my day, but I never fought with a dirk for a half loaf of bread... You've heard the story of his life... What has he got to make him proud?"
"Just that ... he's pulled himself out of it. While we... Tell me, where are we? Where will we be ten years from now?... Twenty? Why aren't you doing something?... Everybody else is."
He folded his arms and leaned against the doorway. "Perhaps I am," he said, quietly. "You don't know everything."
She made a movement toward him. He stepped aside to let her pass.
"What can you do?" she taunted as she swept out of the room.
He stood for a moment dazed at the sudden and unexpected budding of her scorn. He heard her slam the door of the bedroom. He went over to the chair from which she had risen and dropped into it, shading his eyes.
The clock in the hallway was chiming two when the bedroom door opened again.
"Aren't you coming to bed?" he heard his wife's voice call with sharp irritation.
"No," he answered.
It was extraordinary how wide awake Fred Starratt felt next morning. He was full of tingling reactions to the sharp chill of disillusionment. At the breakfast table he met his wife's advances with an air of tolerant aloofness. In the past, the first moves toward adjusting a misunderstanding had come usually from him. He had an aptitude for kindling the fires of domestic harmony, but he had discovered overnight the futility of fanning a hearthstone blaze when the flue was choked so completely. Before him lay the task of first correcting the draught. Temporary genialities had no place in his sudden, bleak speculations. Helen shirred his eggs to a turn, pressed the second cup of coffee on him, browned him a fresh slice of toast ... he suffered her favors, but he was unmoved by them. They did not even annoy him. When he kissed her good-by he felt the relaxation of her body against his, as she stood for a moment languishing in provocative surrender. He put her aside sharply. Her caress had a new quality which irritated him.
Outside, the morning spread its blue-gold tail in wanton splendor. February in San Francisco! Fred Starratt drew in a deep breath and wondered where else in the whole world one could have bettered that morning at any season of the year. Like most San Franciscans, he had never flown very far afield, but he was passionate in his belief that his native city "had it on any of them," to use his precise term. And he was resentful to a degree at any who dared in his presence to establish other claims or to even suggest another preference. He looked forward to New York as an experience, but never as a goal. No, San Francisco was good enough for him!
He felt the same conviction this morning, but a vague gypsying stirred his blood also, and a wayfaring urge swept him. The sky was indescribably blue, washed clean by a moist January that had drenched the hills to lush-green life. The bay lay in a sapphire drowse, flecked by idle-winged argosies, unfolding their storm-soaked sails to the caressing sunlight. Soaring high above the placid gulls, an airplane circled and dipped like a huge dragon fly in nuptial flight. Through the Golden Gate, shrouded in the delicate mists evoked by the cool night, an ocean liner glided with arrogant assurance.
From the last vantage point, before he slipped townward to his monotonous duties, Starratt stood, shading his eyes, watching the stately exit of this maritime giant. This was a morning for starting adventure...for setting out upon a quest!... He had been stirred before to such Homeric longings ... spring sunshine could always prick his blood with sharp-pointed desire. But to-day there was a poignant melancholy in his flair for a wider horizon. He was touched by weariness as well as longing. He was like a pocket hunter whose previous borrowings had beguiled him with flashing grains that proved valueless. He would not abandon his search, but he must pack up and move on to new, uncertain, unproved ground. And he felt all the weight of hidden and heartbreaking perils with which his spiritual faring forth must of necessity be hedged.
At the corner of California and Montgomery streets he met the tide of nine-o'clock commuters surging toward the insurance offices and banks. His widened vision suddenly contracted. Middle class! The phrase leaped forward from the flock mind which this standardized concourse diffused. In many of the faces he read the potentialities of infinite variety, smothered by a dull mask of conformity. What a relief if but one in that vast flood would go suddenly mad! He tried fantastically to picture the effect upon the others—the momentary cowardice and braveries that such an event would call into life. For a few brief moments certain personalities and acts would stand out sharply glorified, like grains of dust dancing in the slanting rays of the sun. Then, the angle of yellow light restored to white normality, the whirling particles would drift back into their colorless oblivion.
For a moment he had a taste of desire for unspringing power. If he could but be the wind to shake these dry reeds of custom into a semblance of life!... One by one they passed him with an air of growing preoccupation ... each step was carrying them nearer to the day's pallid slavery, and an unconscious sense of their genteel serfdom seemed gradually to settle on them. There were no bent nor broken nor careworn toilers among this drab mass...the stamp of long service here was a withered, soul-quenched gentility that came of accepting life instead of struggling against it.
Gradually the temper of the crowd communicated itself to him. It was time to descend from his speculative heights and face the problems of his workday world. He turned sharply toward his office. Young Brauer was just mounting the steps.
"Well, what's new?" Brauer threw out, genially.
"Not a thing in the world!" escaped Starratt.
They went into the office together.
Old Wetherbee was carrying his cash book out of the safe. The old man smiled. He was usually in good humor early in the morning.
"Well, what's new?" he inquired, gayly.
"Not a thing in the world!" they chimed, almost in chorus.
At the rear of the office they slipped on their office coats. Brauer took a comb from his pocket and began carefully to define the part in his already slick hair. Starratt went forward.
In the center of the room the chief stenographer stood, putting her formidable array of pencils through the sharpener. She glanced up at Starratt with a complacent smile.
"Oh, good morning, Mr. Starratt!" she purred, archly. "What's new with you?"
"Not a thing in the world," he answered, ironically, and he began to arrange some memoranda in one of the wire baskets on his desk... At nine thirty the boy brought him his share of the mail from the back office, and in ten minutes he was deeply absorbed in sorting the "daily reports" from the various agencies. He worked steadily, interrupted by an occasional phone call, an order from the chief clerk, the arrival and departure of business associates and clients. Above the hum of subdued office conversation the click of typewriting machines and the incessant buzzing of the desk telephones, he was conscious of hearing the same question repeated with monotonous fidelity:
"Hello! What's new with you?"
And as surely, either through his own lips or the lips of another, the identical reply always came:
"Not a thing in the world!"
At half past eleven he stopped deliberately and stood for a moment, nervously fingering his tie. He was thinking about the course of action that he had decided upon in that long, unusual vigil of the night before. His uncertainty lasted until the remembrance of his wife's scornful question swept over him:
"Why aren't you doing something?... Everybody else is!"
But it was the answer he had made that committed him irrevocably to his future course:
"Perhaps I am. You don't know everything."
He had felt a sense of fatality bound up in these words of defiant pretense, once they had escaped him...a fatality which the blazing contempt of his wife's retort had emphasized. Even now his cheeks burned with the memory of that unleashed insult:
"What can you do?"
No, there was no turning back now. His own self-esteem could not deny so clear-cut a challenge.
He called his assistant. "I wish you'd go into the private office and see if Mr. Ford is at leisure," he ordered. "I want to have a talk with him."
The youth came back promptly. "He says for you to come," was his brief announcement.
Fred Starratt stared a moment and, recovering himself, walked swiftly in upon his employer. Mr. Ford was signing insurance policies.
"Well, Starratt," he said, looking up smilingly, "what's the good word?... What's new with you?"
Starratt squared himself desperately. "Nothing...except I find it impossible to live upon my salary."
Mr. Ford laid aside his pen. "Oh, that's unfortunate!... Suppose you sit down and we'll talk it over."
Starratt dropped into the nearest seat.
Mr. Ford let his eyeglasses dangle from their cord. He was not in the least disturbed. Indeed, he seemed to be approaching the issue with unqualified pleasure.
"Now, Starratt, let's get at the root of the trouble... Of course you're a reasonable man otherwise..."
Starratt smiled ironically. A vivid remembrance of Hilmer's words flashed over him. His lip-curling disdain must have communicated itself to Mr. Ford, because that gentleman hesitated, cleared his throat, and began all over again.
"You're a reasonable man, Starratt, and I know that you have the interest of the firm at heart."
Starratt leaned back in his seat and listened, but he might have spared himself the pains. Somehow he anticipated every word, every argument, before Mr. Ford had a chance to voice them. Business conditions were uncertain, overhead charges extraordinarily increased, the loss ratio large and bidding fair to cut their bonus down to nothing. Therefore ... well, of course, next year things might be different. The firm was hoping that by next year they would be in a position to deal handsomely with those of their force who had been patient... Mr. Ford did not stop there, he did not expect Starratt to take his word for anything. He reached for a pencil and pad and he went into a mathematic demonstration to show just how near the edge of financial disaster the firm of Ford, Wetherbee & Co. had been pushed. Starratt could not doubt the figures, and yet his eyes traveled instinctively to the bag of golf sticks in a convenient corner. Somehow, nothing in either Ford's argument or his sleek presence irritated Starratt so much as these golf sticks. For, in this particular instance, they became the symbol of a self-sufficient prosperity whose first moves toward economy were directed at those who serve... If all this were so, why didn't Ford begin by cutting down his own allowance, by trimming his own expenses to the bone? Golf, as Mr. Ford played it, was an expensive luxury. No doubt the exercise was beneficial, but puttering about a garden would have done equally. Starratt might have let all this pass. He was by heart and nature and training a conservative and he had sympathy for the genial vanities of life. It was Ford's final summary, the unconscious patronage, the quiet, assured insolence of his words, which gave Starratt his irrevocable cue.
"We rather look to men like you, Starratt," Mr. Ford was saying, his voice suave to the point of insincerity, "to tide us over a crisis. Just now, when the laboring element is running amuck, it's good to feel that the country has a large percentage of people who can be reasonable and understand another viewpoint except their own... After everything is said and done, in business a man's first loyalty is to the firm he works for."
"Why?" Starratt threw out sharply.
Ford's pallid eyes widened briefly. "I think the answer is obvious, Starratt. Don't you? The hand that feeds a man is..."
"Feeds? That may work both ways."
"I don't quite understand."
Starratt's glance traveled toward the golf sticks. "Well, it seems to me it's a case of one man cutting down on necessities to provide another with luxuries." He hated himself once he had said it. It outraged his own sense of breeding.
Mr. Ford shoved the pencil and pad to one side. "A parlor radical, eh?... Well, this from you is surprising!... If there was one man in my employ whom I counted on, it was you. You've been with me over fifteen years ... began as office boy, as I remember. And in all that time you've never even asked for a privilege... I'm sorry to see such a fine record broken!"
Yesterday Starratt would have agreed with him, but now he felt moved to indignation and shame at Ford's summary of his negative virtues. He had been born with a voice and he had never lifted it to ask for his rights, much less a favor. No wonder Hilmer could sneer and Helen Starratt cut him with the fine knife of her scorn! The words began to tumble to his lips. They came in swirling flood. He lost count of what he was saying, but the angry white face of his employer foreshadowed the inevitable end of this interview. He gave his rancor its full scope ... protests, defiance, insults, even, heaping up in a formidable pile.
"You ask me to be patient," he flared, "because you think I'm a reasonable, rational, considerate beast that can be broken to any harness!" He recognized Hilmer's words, but he swept on. "If you were in a real flesh-and-blood business you'd have felt the force of things ... you'd have had men with guts to deal with ... you'd have had a brick or two heaved into your plate-glass window. A friend of mine said last night that potting clerks was as sickening as a rabbit drive. He was right, it is sickening!"
Mr. Ford raised his hand. Starratt obeyed with silence.
"I'm sorry, Starratt, to see you bitten with this radical disease... Of course, you can't stay on here, after this. Your confidence in us seems to have been destroyed and it goes without saying that my confidence in you has been seriously undermined. We'll give you a good recommendation and a month's salary... But you had better leave at once. A man in your frame of mind isn't a good investment for Ford, Wetherbee & Co."
Starratt was still quivering with unleashed heroics. "The recommendation is coming to me," he returned, coldly. "The month's salary isn't. I'll take what I've earned and not a penny more."
"Very well; suit yourself there."
Mr. Ford reached for his pen and began where he had left off at Starratt's entrance ... signing insurance policies... Starratt rose and left without a word. The interview was over.
Already, in that mysterious way with which secrets flash through an office with lightninglike rapidity, a hint of Starratt's brush with Ford was illuminating the dull routine.
"I think he's going into business for himself, or something," Starratt heard the chief stenographer say in a stage whisper to her assistant, as he passed.
And at his desk he found Brauer waiting to waylay him with a bid for lunch, his little ferret eyes attempting to confirm the general gossip flying about.
Starratt had an impulse to refuse, but instead he said, as evenly as he could:
"All right ... sure! Let's go now!"
Brauer felt like eating oysters, so they decided to go up to one of the stalls in the California Market for lunch. He was in an expansive mood.
"Let's have beer, too," he insisted, as they seated themselves. "After the first of July they'll slap on war-time prohibition and it won't be so easy."
Starratt acquiesced. He usually didn't drink anything stronger than tea with the noonday meal, because anything even mildly alcoholic made him loggy and unfit for work, but the thought that to-day he was free intrigued him.
The waiter brought the usual plate of shrimps that it was customary to serve with an oyster order, and Starratt and Brauer fell to. A glass of beer foamed with enticing amber coolness before each plate. Brauer reached over and lifted his glass.
"Well, here's success to crime!" he said, with pointed facetiousness.
Starratt ignored the lead. He had never liked Brauer and he did not find this sharp-nosed inquisitiveness to his taste. He began to wonder why he had come with him. Lunching with Brauer had never been a habit. Occasionally, quite by accident, they managed to achieve the same restaurant and the same table, but it was not a matter of prearrangement. Indeed, Starratt had always prided himself at his ability to keep Brauer at arm's length. A subtle change had occurred. Was it possible that a borrowed five-dollar bill could so reshape a relationship? Well, he would pay him back once he received his monthly salary, and get over with the obligation. His monthly salary?... Suddenly it broke over him that he had received the last full month's salary that he would ever get from Ford, Wetherbee & Co. It was the 20th of February, which meant, roughly, that about two thirds of his one hundred and fifty dollars would be coming to him if he still held to his haughty resolve to take no more than he had earned. Two thirds of one hundred and fifty, less sixty-odd dollars overdrawn... He was recalled from his occupation by Brauer's voice rising above the clatter of carelessly flung crockery and tableware.
"Is it true you're leaving the first of the month?"
He liked Brauer better for this direct question, although the man's presumption still rankled.
"I'm leaving to-day," he announced, dryly, not without a feeling of pride.
"What are you going to do?"
"I haven't decided... Perhaps...I don't know ... I may become an insurance broker."
Brauer picked through the mess in his plate for an unshelled shrimp. "That takes money," he ventured, dubiously.
"Oh, not a great deal," Starratt returned, ruffling a trifle. "Office rent for two or three months before the premiums begin to come in ... a little capital to furnish up a room. I might even get some one to give me a desk in his office until I got started. It's done, you know."
Brauer neatly extracted a succulent morsel from its scaly sheath. "Don't you think it's better to put up a front?" he inquired. "If you've got a decent office and your own phone and a good stenographer it makes an impression when you're going after business... Why don't you go in with somebody?... There ought to be plenty of fellows ready to put up their money against your time."
"Who, for instance?" escaped Starratt, involuntarily.
Brauer shoved his plate of husked shrimps to one side. "Take me. I've saved up quite a bit, and..."
The waiter broke in upon them with the oysters.
Starratt knitted his brows. "Well, why not?" was his mental calculation.
Brauer ordered two more pints of beer.
Starratt had leaned at first toward keeping his business venture a secret from Helen. But in the end a boyish eagerness to sun himself in the warmth of her surprise unlocked his reserve.
"I've quit Ford-Wetherbee," he said, quietly, that night, as she was seating herself after bringing on the dessert.
He had never seen such a startled look flash across her face.
"What! Did you have trouble?"
He decided swiftly not to give her the details. He didn't want her to think that any outside influence had pushed him into action.
"Oh no!..." he drawled, lightly. "I've been thinking of leaving for some time. Working for another person doesn't get you anywhere."
He could see that she was puzzled, perhaps a little annoyed. Last night in a malicious moment she had been quite ready to sneer at her husband's inactivity, but now, with the situation a matter of practice rather than theory, Starratt felt that she was having her misgivings. A suggestion of a frown hovered above her black eyebrows.
"You can't mean that you're going into business!" she returned, as she passed him a dish of steaming pudding.
There was a suggestion of last night's scorn in her incredulity.
"No?... And why not?"
She cast a sidelong glance at him. "That takes money," she objected.
He knew now, from her tone, what was behind the veil of her intimations and he found a curious new pleasure in watching her squirm.
"Oh, well," he half mused, "I guess we'll struggle through somehow. We've always managed to."
She leaned one elbow heavily on the table. "More economies, I suppose!"
He had trapped her too easily! It was his turn to be cutting. "Don't worry!... I sha'n't ask you to do without any more than you've done without so far. If you can stand it as it is awhile longer, why ..." He broke off with a shrug.
Her eyes swam in a sudden mist. "You're not fair!" she sniffed. "I'm thinking as much of you as I am of myself. Going into business isn't only a question of money. There are anxieties and worry ... and ... and ..." She recovered herself swiftly and looked at him with clear, though reproachful, eyes. "I'm always willing to help ... you know that!"
He melted at once. There was a moment of silence, and then he told her everything ... about Brauer, and what they purposed.
"He's to keep on at Ford-Wetherbee's until things are running smoothly. Of course, I'd rather not have it that way, but he holds the purse strings, so I've got to make concessions. We can get an office for twenty-five a month. It will be the salary of the stenographer that will count up."
"When do you start?"
"To-morrow. And do you know who I'm going after first thing?... Hilmer. He told me last night to come around and talk over insuring that car of his... I don't know that I'll land that. But I might line him up for something else. He must have a lot of insurance to place one way or another."
She smiled dubiously. "Well, I wouldn't count too much upon Hilmer," she said, with a superior air.
"I'm not counting on anything or anybody," he returned, easily. "Hilmer isn't the only fish in the sea."
It was noon before Helen Starratt finished her housework next morning—an unusually late hour for her, but she had been preoccupied, and her movements slow in consequence. A four-room apartment, with hardwood floors and a vacuum cleaner, was hardly a serious task for a full-grown woman, childless, and with a vigor that reacted perfectly to an ice-cold shower at 7 A.M. She used to look back occasionally at the contrast her mother's life had presented. Even with a servant, a three-storied, bay-windowed house had not given Mrs. Somers much leisure for women's clubs. The Ladies Aid Society and a Christmas festival in the church parlors were about as far along the road of alleged social service as the woman of the last generation had traveled. There was marketing to do, and sewing continually on hand, and house-cleaning at stated intervals. In Helen Somers's old home the daily routine had been as inflexible as its ancestor's original Calvinistic creed—Monday, washing; Tuesday, ironing; Wednesday, cleaning the silver; Thursday, at home to visitors; Friday, sweeping; Saturday, baking; and Sunday, the hardest day of all. For, withal, the Puritan sense of observance, that had not been utterly swamped by the blue and enticing skies of California, Sunday was a feast day, not in a lightsome sense, but in a dull, heavy, gastronomic way, unleavened by either wine or passable wit. On Sunday the men of the family returned home from church and gorged. If the day were fine, perhaps everybody save mother took a cable-car ride, or a walk, or something equally exciting. The sparkle of environment had won these people away from tombstone reading and family prayers as a Sabbath diversion, but even California could not be expected to make over a bluestocking in an eye's twinkling. Mother, of course, stayed home on Sunday to "pick up" and get ready for supper in the absence of the servant girl. A later generation had the grace to elevate these slatternly drudges to the title of maid, but a sterner ancestry found it expedient to be more practical and less pretentious in its terms. On these drab Sundays Helen Somers had passionately envied the children of foreign breed, who seemed less hedged about by sabbatical restrictions. Not that she wished her family to be of the questionable sort that went to El Campo or Shell Mound Park for Sunday picnics and returned in quarrelsome state at a late hour smelling of bad whisky and worse gin. Nor did she aspire to have sprung from the Teutonic stock that perpetrated more respectable but equally noisy outings in the vicinity of Woodward's Gardens. But she had a furtive and sly desire to float oil-like upon the surface of this turbid sea, touching it at certain points, yet scarcely mixing with it. Indeed, this inclination to taste the core of life without committing herself the further indiscretion of swallowing it grew to such proportions that at the age of fifteen she almost succumbed to its allurement. Even at this late date she could recall every detail of a seemingly casual conversation which she had held with the stalwart butcher boy who came daily to the kitchen door to deliver meat. The first day she merely had broached the subject of Sunday picnics; the second she had intrigued him into giving her one or two fleeting details; the third day she held him captive a full ten minutes while he enlarged upon his subject. And so on, until one morning he said, quite directly:
"Would you like to go to one?... If you do, I'll take you."
She had drawn back at first from this frontal attack, but in the end she decided to chance the experience. She pretended to her mother that she was going to see a girl friend who was sick. She met her crude cavalier at the ferry. She even boarded the boat with him. At first he had been a bit constrained and shy, but soon she felt the warm, moist pressure of his thick-fingered hands against hers. And presently his arm encircled her waist. With curious intuition she realized the futility of struggling against him... She had to admit, in the end, that she found his physical nearness pleasurable... She often had wondered, looking back on that day, what might have happened if she had gone through with this truant indiscretion. But halfway on the journey her escort had deserted her momentarily to buy a cigar. Left alone upon the upper deck of a ferryboat, crowded with a strident and raucous company, she had felt herself suddenly grow cold, not with fear, but with a certain haughty and disdainful anger. These people were not her kind! She had risen swiftly from her seat and hidden discreetly in the ladies' washroom until after the boat had landed and was on its way back to the city. When she got home she found the house in confusion. Her father had been taken suddenly ill.
"I came very near sending to Nellie's for you," her mother had said.
The incident had taught her a lesson, but there were times when she regretted its termination—when she was stirred to a certain morbid and profitless speculation as to what might have been.
Shortly after this a reaction began to set in against the dullness which certain people found desirable in the observation of what they were pleased to call with questionable humility the Lord's Day, and by the time Helen had budded to womanhood this new tide was at its flood. People, even piously inclined, were taking houses across the bay, at Belvedere or Sausalito or Mill Valley, for the summer. Somehow, one didn't go to church during this holiday. Friends came over for Saturday and Sunday to visit, and the term "week-end" became intelligible and acquired significance. The Somerses took a cottage for three successive seasons in Belvedere—that is, they spoke of it as a cottage. In reality, it was the abandoned hulk of a ferryboat that had been converted into rather uncomfortable quarters and set up on the slimy beach. The effect of this unconventional habitation slowly undermined the pale ghost of the Somers' family tradition. They became bohemian. Instead of the lugubrious Sunday feast of thick joints and heavy puddings, they began to make the acquaintance of the can opener. And from can opener to corkscrew it was only a brief step... It was at this point that Helen met Fred Starratt. Quite naturally the inevitable happened. Moonlight rowing in the cove at Belvedere, set to the tune of mandolins, was always providing a job for the parson, and, if the truth were told, for the divorce courts as well. It all had been pleasant enough, and normal enough, and the expected thing. That's what young people always did if the proper setting were provided, especially when the moon kept on the job.
Helen Starratt had read about the thrills that the heroines of novels received from the mating fever, but she had to confess that she had not experienced anything as exciting as a thrill during the entire period of her husband's wooing. She had felt satisfaction, a mild triumph, a gratified vanity, if you will, but that was as far as her emotional experience had gone. After all, her career had been marriage, and she had taken the most likely situation that had been offered. She presumed it was the same when one graduated from business college. You were expected to land a job and you did. Sometimes it was a good one, and then again it wasn't. Looking back, she conceded that her choice had been fair. Fred Starratt didn't drink to excess, he didn't beat or swear at her, he didn't make sarcastic remarks about her relations, or do any of the things which anyone who reads the daily papers discovers so many men do under provocation or otherwise. But, on the other hand, he hadn't made a fortune or bought a car or given her any reason for feeling compensated for the lack of marital excitement. His friends called him a nice fellow—in some ways as damning a thing as one could say about anybody—and let it go at that. However, Helen Starratt's vocabulary was just as limited when it came to characterizing her conventional aims and ambitions. If, occasionally, her speculations stirred the muddy reaches of certain furtive desires, she took care that they did not become articulate. This term "nice" included every desirable virtue. One married nice men, and one lived in a nice neighborhood, and one made nice acquaintances. In her mother's day she had heard people say:
"I believe in having the young folks identified with church work—they meet such nice people."
And years later a friend, attempting to interest her in the activities of a local orphan asylum, had clinched every other argument by stating, blandly:
"You really ought to go in for it, Helen—you've no idea what nice people you meet."
When America's entry into the war brought up the question of Red Cross endeavor, her first thought had been:
"I really ought to do something, I suppose. And, besides, I'll meet lots of nice people."
Well, she had met a lot of nice people, but the only fruitful yield socially had been Mrs. Hilmer. And somehow it never occurred to Helen to apply such a discriminating term as nice to her latest acquisition. Mrs. Hilmer was wholesome and good hearted and a dear, and no doubt she was nice in a negative way, but one never thought about saying so. And Hilmer...? No, he was not what one would call a nice man, but he was tremendously interesting and in the hands of the right woman... You see, Mrs. Hilmer was a good soul, but, of course, she didn't quite ... that is, she was a bit old fashioned and ... well, she didn't know how, poor dear!
Thus it was that over her household tasks on this particular February morning Helen Starratt dawdled as her mind played with the fiction of what Hilmer might become under the proper influence. Now, if she had married him!...
It was all very well for Mrs. Hilmer to see that her lord and master was fed properly, but why did she waste hours over a custard when she had money enough to hire it done? That course didn't get either of them anywhere—Hilmer remained at a level of torpid content, and naturally he looked down on his wife as a sort of sublimated servant girl who wasn't always preparing to leave and demanding higher wages... No, most men fell too easily in the trap of their personal comforts. Even Fred had become self-satisfied. Beyond his dinner and paper and an occasional sober flight at the movies or bridge with old friends he didn't seem to have any stirring ambitions. That was where a wife came in. Hadn't she been casting around for bait that would make Fred rise to something new? Hadn't she invited the Hilmers to dinner in the hope that the two men would hit it off? The very first time she had met Hilmer she had thought, "There's a man that Fred ought to know."
She was perfectly willing to concede certain virtues to her husband, and she flattered herself that with the materials at her command she had managed to keep Fred pretty well up to the scratch. The only thing that had been lacking was plenty of money. If she had had one quarter of Hilmer's income she would have evolved a husband that any woman could have been proud of, instead of one that most women would have found merely satisfactory... This was the way she had argued before her absurd dinner party. She had to admit, after it was all over, that her husband had managed to make her thoroughly ashamed of him. It was better to have an outrageous husband than a ridiculous one. And she fancied that Hilmer could be outrageous if he chose... But she was sure of one thing ... if Hilmer came home and announced that he had given up his position and had decided to plunge in boldly for himself, his wife would scarcely give the matter a second thought. Hilmer would carry the thing through ... some way. A man who could brain an assailant and fight for a mouthful of bread would put things over by hook or crook. There wasn't much chance for failure there. But Fred Starratt ... well, he was apt to have some ridiculous scruple or too keen a sense of business courtesy or a sensitiveness to rebuffs. Take his passage at arms with the drunken maid ... if he had thrown her out promptly, or come in and frankly borrowed the money from Hilmer, it would have at least shown decision.
Of course she couldn't do anything, now that he was committed to this new business venture. It was all very well for him to snarl: "Don't worry... I sha'n't ask you to do without any more than you've done without so far."
That was the lofty way most men theorized when their vanity was wounded. But she knew enough to realize that if he failed she would have to share that failure. Of course, if Fred could interest Hilmer... Perhaps she could help things along in some way ... with a chance remark to Mrs. Hilmer. Would it be better to cast the seed more directly?... If she could only manage to run across Hilmer—she wouldn't want to seem to be putting in her oar... Would it be very dreadful if she were to think up some excuse and go beard the lion in his den?
She was still interested in her orphan asylum. Why not go ask him for a subscription? She wondered if he would be very brusque; insulting, even. The possibilities fascinated her. She felt that she would like a passage at arms with him. He was a man worth worsting. Under such circumstances Fred Starratt would be either liberal beyond his means or profusely apologetic. Not by any chance would he give a prompt and emphatic refusal... The more she thought about it the more enticing the prospect became. She felt sure that if Hilmer didn't approve of her charity he would say so frankly, perhaps disagreeably. And if he didn't think much of her husband's venture he would be equally direct. She rather wanted to know what he did think about Fred Starratt. She ended by coming to an emphatic decision. She would not only go, but she would go that very afternoon. If there were any chance for her to prepare an easy road for Fred's advance it lay in speedy action.
When she finished dressing for the encounter and stood surveying herself in the long mirror set into the closet door of her bedroom she had to admit that she had missed none of her points. Most women at her age would have been sagging a bit, the cords of youth slackened by the weight of maternity or the continual pull against ill health and genteel poverty. Or they would have been smothered in the plump content of Mrs. Hilmer. Helen Starratt's slenderness had still a virginal quality and she knew every artifice that heightened this effect. To-day she was a trifle startled at quite the lengths she had gone to strike a note of sophisticated youth. She had long since ceased dressing consciously for her husband, and dressing for other women was more a matter of perfect detail than attempted beguilement. She was curious, she told herself, to see whether a man like Hilmer would be impressed by feminine artifice... Did a black silk gown, with spotless lace at wrist and throat, spell the acme of Hilmer's ideal of womanhood? Was woman to him something durable and utilitarian or did his fancy sometimes carry him to more decorative ideals?
She did not go directly to his office; instead, she dawdled a bit over the shop windows. Things were appallingly high, she noted with growing dismay, especially the evening gowns. On the shrugging, simpering French wax figures they were at once very scant and very vivid ... strung with beads and shot through with gold thread or spangled with flashing sequins. She tried to imagine Mrs. Hilmer in one of these gaudy confections. Almost any of them would have looked well on Helen herself. But any woman who went in for dressing at all would need a trunkload, she concluded, if one were to decently last out a season. She found herself speculating on just what class of people would invest in these hectic flesh coverings. Certainly not the enormously rich ... they didn't buy their provocative draperies from show windows. And even the comfortably off might pause, she thought, before throwing a couple of hundred dollars into a wisp of veiling that didn't reach much below the knees and would look like a weather-beaten cobweb after the second wearing. With all this talk about profiteering and economy and the high cost of living, even Helen Starratt had to admit that one could go without an evening gown at two hundred dollars. But, judging from the shoppers on the street, there didn't seem to be many who intended to do without them. She began to wonder what her chances were for at least a spring tailor-made. She supposed now, with Fred going into business, she would be expected to make her old one do. Well, she decided she wouldn't make it do if she had to beg on the street corner. She'd had it a year and a half, and during war times that was quite all right. The best people had played frumpish parts then. But now everybody was perking up. As for an evening gown ... well, she simply couldn't conceive where even a hundred dollars would be available for one of these spangled harem veils that was passing muster as a full-grown dress... If she had possessed untold wealth, all this flimsiness, this stylistic froth, would have appealed to her; as it was, she was irritated by it. What were things coming to? she demanded. Just when you thought you were up to the minute, the styles changed overnight. It was the same with household furniture. Ten years ago, when she and Fred had set up housekeeping, everybody had exclaimed over her quaint bits of mahogany, her neutral window drapes, even at her wonderful porcelain gas range. Now, everything, from bed to dining-room table, was painted in dull colors pricked by gorgeous designs; the hangings at the windows screamed with color; electric stoves were coming in. The day of polished surfaces and shining brass was over—antiques were no longer the rage.
Her dissatisfaction finally drove her toward Hilmer's office. She stopped at one of the flower stands on Grant Avenue and bought a half dozen daffodils. She begrudged the price she had to give for them, but they did set off the dull raisin shade of her dress with a proper flare of color. She concluded she would play up the yellow note in her costuming oftener. Somehow it kindled her. She wondered for the first time in her life what gypsy strain had flooded her with such dark beauty. She stopped before a millinery shop and peered critically at her reflection in a window mirror. Yes, the yellow note was a good one, but she was still a trifle cold. If her lips had been a little fuller... Strange she had never thought about that before. Well, next time she would touch them ever so deftly into a suggestion of ripe opulence. She sauntered slowly down Post Street, turned into Montgomery. There were scarcely any women on the street and the men who passed were, for the most part, in preoccupied flight. Yet she saw more than one pair of eyes widen with brief appraisal as she went by. Hilmer's offices were in the Merchants' Exchange Building. Helen decided to slip in through the Montgomery Street entrance. She felt that there might be a chance of running into Fred on California Street and she didn't want to do that.
As she shot up toward the eleventh story in the elevator she rehearsed her opening scene with Hilmer. She decided to take her cue flippantly. She would banter him at first and gradually veer to more serious topics... But once she stood in his rather austere inner shrine of business, she decided against subterfuges. He had stepped into the main office, the boy who showed her in explained. Would she have a seat? She dropped into a chair, taking in her background with feminine swiftness. A barometer, a map, two stiffly painted pictures exhibiting as many sailing vessels in full flight, a calendar bearing the advertisement of a ship-chandlery firm—this was the extent of the wall decoration. The office furniture was golden oak, the rugs of indifferent neutrality. On his desk he had a picture of Mrs. Hilmer, taken in a bygone day, very plump and blond and youthful in a soft, tranquil way. And by its side, in a little ridiculously-blue glass vase, some spring wild flowers languished, pallidly white and withered by the heat of captivity. She checked an impulse to rise when he came in. For a moment his virility had overwhelmed her into a feeling of deference, but she recovered herself sufficiently to droop nonchalantly into her seat as he gave her his hand. He was not in the least put out of countenance by her unexpected presence, and she felt a fleeting sense of disappointment, almost of pique.