Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Keith M. Eckrich and the PG Online Distributed
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
Brauer's face lit up with a swift glow of satisfaction. Starratt
almost shrank back. He felt a clammy hand pressing the bill against
"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
* * * * *
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
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
"You do this same thing ... for seven hours every day ... not to speak
"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
He finished with a gesture of contempt and reached for his goblet of
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
"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
Starratt stared. He had never seen his wife so kindled with morbid
"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
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
Her voice had risen sharply. Starratt was sure that everybody could
"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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
"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
The clock in the hallway was chiming two when the bedroom door opened
"Aren't you coming to bed?" he heard his wife's voice call with sharp
"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
"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
"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
The youth came back promptly. "He says for you to come," was his brief
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
"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
"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
"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
Starratt had an impulse to refuse, but instead he said, as evenly as
"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
"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
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
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
"What are you going to do?"
"I haven't decided... Perhaps...I don't know ... I _may_ become an
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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.
"I suppose you're wondering why I'm here," she began, tritely.
He swung his swivel chair toward her and sat down. "Yes, naturally,"
he returned, with disconcerting candor.
She touched the petals of her daffodils with a pensive finger. "Well,
really, you know, I'd quite made up my mind to pretend at first...
Women never like to come directly to the point. I thought up a silly
excuse--begging for an orphan asylum, to be exact. But I can see that
wouldn't go here... And I don't believe you're the least bit
interested in orphans."
"Why should I be?" he asked, bluntly.
She had a dozen arguments that might have won the ordinary man, but
she knew it would take more than stock phrases to convince him, so she
ignored the challenge. "You see, my husband has decided to go into
business ... and ... well, I thought perhaps if you had any insurance
... a stray bit, don't you know, that isn't pledged or spoken for ...
it would all be _so_ encouraging!"
He smoothed his cheek with an appraising gesture. Against the blond
freshness of his skin his mangled thumb stood out vividly.
"Why doesn't your husband come to see me himself?"
She drew back a trifle, but her recovery was swift. "Oh, he intends
to, naturally. I'm just preparing the way... Fred's a perfect dear and
all that, but he is a little bit reserved about some things... It
would be so much easier for him to ask a favor for some one else... Of
course, he'd be perfectly furious if he knew that I had come here. But
you understand, Mr. Hilmer, I want to do all I can... I'd make _any_
sacrifice for Fred."
She paused to give him a chance to put in a word, but he sat silent.
It was plain that he didn't intend to help out her growing
"It's all come out of a clear sky," she went on, trailing the fringe
of her beaded hand bag across her shoe tops. "He only told me last
night... There isn't any use pretending ... he hasn't any capital to
work on. And until the premiums begin to come in there'll be office
rent and a stenographer's salary piling up ... and our living expenses
in the bargain... A friend of his is putting up some money, but I
can't imagine it's a whole lot... I'm a little bit upset about it, of
course. I wish I could really do something to help him."
She knew from his look that he intended to hurl another disconcerting
question at her.
"Well, if you want to help him, why don't you?" he quizzed.
"Why, I ... why, I'm not fit for anything, really," she tried to throw
"My wife said you were pretty efficient at the Red Cross."
"Oh, but that was different!"
"Well, I can't just explain, but it's easy to do something you ...
"Feel you don't have to," he finished for her, ironically.
She shrugged petulantly. "What do you want me to do? Solicit
He smiled. "That's what you're doing now, isn't it?"
"Mr. _Hilmer_!" She rose majestically in her seat.
He continued to sit, but she was conscious that his eyes were sweeping
her from head to foot with frank appraisal.
"A pretty woman has a good chance to get by with almost anything she
sets her mind on," he said, finally.
She drew in a barely perceptible breath. The blunt tip of his shoe was
jammed squarely against her toe. She withdrew her foot, but she sat
"I really ought to be angry with you, Mr. Hilmer," she purred at him,
archly. "It's very nice of you to attempt to be so gallant, but, after
all, talk _is_ pretty cheap, isn't it?... So far I don't seem to be
making good as a solicitor. So what else is there left?"
"How about being your husband's stenographer?" he asked, without a
trace of banter.
She forgot to be amazed. "I don't know anything about shorthand," she
"Well, you could soon learn to run a typewriter," he insisted. "I have
a young woman in my office who takes my letters direct on the machine
as I dictate them. She's as good as, if not better than, my chief
stenographer. That would save your husband at least seventy-five
dollars a month."
She had an impulse to rise and sweep haughtily out of the room. What
right had this man to tell her what she could or could not do? The
impudence of him! But she didn't want to appear absurd. She leaned
back and looked at him through her half-closed eyelids as she said,
with a slight drawl:
"Would my presence in the office be a bid for your support, Mr.
"It might," he said, looking at her keenly.
She did not flinch, but his steady gaze cut her composure like a
knife. She got to her feet again.
"What silly little flowers!" escaped her, as she took a step near his
desk and pulled a faded blossom from the blue vase.
He left his seat and stood beside her. "I got them down by St. Francis
Wood last Sunday," he admitted. "They reminded me of the early spring
blossoms in the old country ... the sort that shoot up almost at the
melting snow bank's edge... The flowers here are very gorgeous, but
somehow they never seem as sweet."
She looked at him curiously, almost with the expectation of finding
that he was jesting. This flowering of sentiment was unexpected. It
had come, as he had described his native spring blooms, almost at the
snow bank's edge. She reached out, gathered up the faded blossoms
ruthlessly, and dropped them into a convenient waste basket.
"Do you mind?" she asked, lifting her eyes heavily.
He did not answer.
Slowly she unpinned the flaming daffodils from her side and slipped
them into the empty vase. She stepped back to survey their sunlit
brilliance, resting a gloved hand upon the chair she had deserted. She
was conscious that another hand was bearing down heavily upon her
slender ringers. The weight crushed and pained her, yet she felt no
desire to withdraw...
The office boy came in. She moved forward quickly.
"There's a gentleman named Starratt waiting to see you," he announced.
She threw back her head defensively.
"This way!" Hilmer said, as he opened a private exit for her.
She found herself in the marble-flanked hallway and presently she
gained the sun-flooded street. The blood was pounding at her temples
and its throb hurt.
She walked home rapidly, swept by half-formulated impulses that
stirred her to almost adolescent self-revelations, yet when she
reached her apartment she was quite calm, almost too calm, and
That night over the black coffee Fred Starratt said to his wife, with
an air of restrained triumph:
"Well, I landed the insurance on Hilmer's car to-day."
She flashed him, an enigmatical smile. "Oh, lovely!"...
He sipped his coffee with preening satisfaction.
"Everything is going beautifully," he continued. "I hired an office
and began to connect up with two or three firms. That preliminary from
Hilmer was a great boost... A man named Kendrick handles all his
business, so I've sort of got the street guessing. They can't figure
how I could even get a look in... Of course I'm convinced that
Kendrick shares his commissions with Hilmer, which is against the
rules of the Broker's Exchange. But he didn't ask for any shakedown...
Brauer and I ordered some office furniture, and to-morrow I'll
advertise for a girl."
"I've got one for you already," she said, deliberately.
She reached across the shallow length of the table and touched his arm
"I've decided to do it myself," she purred.
He patted her hand as an incredulous stare escaped him. "You!" he
She suffered his indulgent and mildly contemptuous caress. "Don't
laugh, sonny," she drawled, almost disagreeably. "Your wife may prove
a lot more clever than she seems."
After the first two weeks Fred Starratt's business venture went
forward amazingly. His application for membership in the Insurance
Broker's Exchange was rushed through by influential friends and he
became, through this action, a full-fledged fire insurance broker. He
did not need this formality, however, to qualify him as a solicitor in
other insurance lines. There was a long list of free lances, where the
only seal of approval was an ability to get the business. Automobile
liability, personal accident, marine, life--underwriters representing
such insurances shared commissions with any and all who had a
reasonable claim to prospective success. Therefore, while he was
waiting for his final confirmation from fire-insurance circles he took
a flyer at these more liberal forms. There seemed no end to this
miscellaneous business which, he came to the conclusion, could be had
almost for the asking. And all the time he had fancied that the field
was overworked! He mentioned this one day to a seasoned veteran in the
"Writing up policies is one thing," this friend had assured him,
emphatically; "collecting the premiums is another matter... If your
fire-insurance premiums aren't paid up inside of two months, the
policies are canceled. But they let the others drag on until the cows
come home. There's nothing so intangible in this world as insurance.
And people hate to pay for intangibilities."
Starratt refused to be forewarned. The people he went after were
personal friends or gilt-edged business men. _They_ wouldn't deny
their obligations when the premiums fell due.
But the greatest rallying point for his business enthusiasm proved to
be Hilmer. It seemed that scarcely a day went by that Hilmer did not
drop a new piece of business Fred's way. Returning to the office at
four o'clock on almost any afternoon, he grew to feel almost sure that
he would find Hilmer there, bending over Helen's shoulder as he
pointed out some vital point in the contract they were both examining.
He was a trifle uneasy at first--dreading the day when Hilmer would
approach him on the matter of sharing commissions. It was a generally
assumed fact that Kendrick, the man who handled practically all of
Hilmer's business, was a notorious rebater--that he divided
commissions with his clients in the face of his sworn agreement with
the Broker's Exchange not to indulge in such a practice. Obviously,
then, Hilmer would not be a man to throw away chances to turn such an
Starratt voiced these fears to Brauer.
"Sure he expects a rake-off," Starratt's silent partner had said.
"Everybody gets it ... if they've got business enough to make it worth
"Well, he won't get it from me," Fred returned, decisively. "I've
signed my name to an agreement and that agreement will stick if I
starve doing it!"
Brauer, disconcerted by his friend's vehemence, merely had shrugged,
but at another time he said, craftily: