Part 2 out of 5
"If Hilmer wants to break even on the fire business he gives us, why
can't we make it up some other way?... There's nothing against giving
him _all_ the commissions on that automobile liability policy we
placed the other day. We can do what we please with _that_ profit."
Starratt flushed. "Can't you see, Brauer, that the principle is the
"Principle! Oh, shoot!... We're out to make money, not to reform
Starratt made no further reply, but Brauer's attitude rankled. He
began to wish that he hadn't allowed Brauer to go in on his venture.
'But it had taken money ... more than he had imagined. They had to put
a good deposit down on the office furniture, and the rent was, of
course, payable in advance. Then came the fee for joining the Broker's
Exchange, and he had to borrow money for his personal expenses in the
face of his diminished salary check from Ford, Wetherbee & Co. He
realized, too, that the difficulties would scarcely decrease, even in
the face of brisk business. The office furnishings would one day have
to be met in full, the typewriting machine paid for, the stationery
and printing bills settled. During all this time he and Helen would
have to live and keep up a decent, not to say prosperous, appearance.
Yes, even with Helen saving the price of a stenographer, the problem
would not be easy. A day would come finally when he would feel
compelled to provide Helen with a fair salary. A man couldn't expect
even his own wife to go on pounding a typewriting machine for nothing.
What he really hoped was that when things began to run smoothly Helen
would retire... He had heard her in the old days voice her scorn of
the married woman who went out to earn a salary.
"I wouldn't marry a man who couldn't support me!" she used to blaze.
As a matter of fact, he had felt the same way about it--he felt that
way still. It hurt him to think that Helen should be wearing the badge
of his inefficiency. And then, deep down, he had a masculine distaste
for sharing his workday world with a woman. He liked to preserve the
mystery of those hours spent in the fight for existence, because he
knew instinctively that battle grounds lost their glamour at close
range. His Californian inheritance had fostered the mining-camp
attitude toward females--they were one of two things: men's moral
equals or men's moral superiors. It was well enough to meet an equal
on common ground, but one felt in duty bound to enshrine a superior
being in reasonable seclusion.
At first he had been doubtful of Helen's ability to adapt herself to
such a radical change. Her performance soon set his mind at rest on
that score, but he still could not recover quite from the surprise of
her unexpected decision. Indifference, amazement, opposition--nothing
seemed able to sway her from her purpose. In the end he had been too
touched by her attitude to put his foot down firmly against the
move... She got on well with Hilmer, too, he noticed. Usually at the
end of one of these late afternoon conferences with their chief patron
Fred and Hilmer ended up by shaking for an early evening cocktail at
Collins & Wheeland's, just around the corner. Hilmer always saw to it
that Fred returned to the office with something for Helen--a handful
of ginger-snaps from the free-lunch counter, a ham sandwich, or a
paper of ripe olives. Once he stopped in a candy shop on Leidesdorff
Street and bought two ice-cream cornucopias. Fred used to shake a
puzzled head as he deposited these gastronomic trifles upon Helen's
desk as he said:
"I don't get this man Hilmer... One minute he insults you and the next
minute he's as considerate as a canteen worker... What's he throwing
business my way for?"
Helen, munching a gingersnap, would go on with her laborious
typewriting, and return:
"Why look a gift horse in the mouth, Freddie?... Women aren't the only
riddles in the world."
"I think he comes to see you," he used to throw out in obvious jest.
"That's the only way I can figure it."
"He's like every man ... he wants an audience... I guess Mother Hilmer
is tired of hearing him rave."
And so the banter would go on until Fred would pull up with a round
turn, realizing quite suddenly that he was talking to his wife and not
just to his stenographer.
"He'll be at me one of these days on that commission question, you
mark my words," he would venture.
"And what are you going to do?"
"Why, refuse, of course, and lose the business."
"Well, don't cross the bridge till you come to it."
She puzzled him more and more. She seemed disturbed at nothing, and
yet she glowed with a leashed restlessness that he could not define.
"It's the strain," he would conclude. "She's putting more into this
venture of mine than she's willing to admit... After all, women are
amazing... They pull and cling at you and drag you back ... and then,
all of a sudden, they take the bit in their teeth and you can't hold
them in... Who would have thought that Helen..."
And here he would halt, overcome with the soft wonder of it.
Business began to pour in from Brauer and, frankly, Fred was
disturbed. He wasn't sure of Brauer's business scruples.
"I wonder if he's promising these people rebates," he said to Helen
one day, following an avalanche of new risks.
"Well, you'll know soon enough when he begins to collect the
premiums," she replied, indifferently.
"But I don't want to wait until then... They tell me this man Kendrick
is getting awfully sore at losing so much of Hilmer's business. He'd
like nothing better than to hop on to some irregularity in my methods
and get me fired from the Exchange... It takes a thief to catch one,
"Oh, why worry?" Helen almost snapped at him. "If Brauer gets us into
a mess we can always throw him out."
Starratt's eyes widened. Where did Helen get this ruthless philosophy?
Had it always lain dormant in her, or was this business life already
putting a ragged edge upon her finer perceptions? But he made no
answer. He had never admitted to Helen that Brauer had insisted upon
drawing up a hard-and-fast partnership agreement, and taking his note
for half of the money advanced in the bargain. It was one of the
business secrets which he decided he would not share with anybody--he
had a childish wish to preserve some mystery in connection with his
venture against the soft and dubious encroachments of his wife.
"Anyway," Helen went on, "as soon as we get running smoothly we can
split. No doubt _he'll_ want to pull out when he sees that he can get
along without us... Just now he isn't taking any chances. He's holding
down his own job and letting us do all the work and the worrying...
Oh, he's German, all right, from the ground up."
Fred had often shared this same hope, although he had never voiced it.
When the time came, no doubt Brauer would eliminate himself--for a
consideration--and set up his own office. But it amazed him to find
how swiftly and completely Helen had figured all these things out. Had
her mind always worked so coldly and logically under her rather
indifferent surface? He still wondered, too, at her efficiency. Was
this a product of her social service with the Red Cross during war
times?... Being a man, he couldn't concede that a proper domestic
training was a pretty good schooling in any direction. He didn't see
any relationship between a perfectly baked apple pie and a neatly kept
cash book. He had expected his wife to fall down on the mechanical
aspects of typewriting, but he forgot that she had been running a
sewing machine since she was fifteen years old. And even in his wife's
early childhood people were still using lamps for soft effects and
intensive reading. Any woman who knew the art of keeping a kerosene
lamp in shape must of necessity find the oiling and cleaning of a
typewriting machine mere child's play. He didn't realize the
affinities of training. It would never have occurred to him to fancy
that because he kept his office desk in perfect order he was qualified
to do the same thing with a kitchen stove, or that the method he had
acquired as office boy, copying letters in the letterpress, would have
stood him in good stead if he suddenly had been called upon to make up
his own bed. What he did realize was that the leveling process which
goes hand in hand with the mingling of sexes in a workday world was
setting in. And he resented it. He wanted to coddle illusion ... he
had no wish for a world practical to the point of bleakness.
One afternoon Hilmer came in at the usual time with a handful of
memoranda. It was a violently rainy day--an early March day, to be
exact--the sort that refused to be softened even by the beguilements
of California. The rain wind, generally warm and humid, had been
chilled in its flight over the snow-piled Sierras, and it had pelted
down in a wintry flood, banking up piles of stinging hail between
warmer showerings. Fred had decided to forgo his soliciting and stay
indoors instead. Hilmer greeted him with biting raillery.
"Well, I should think this was a good day to bag a prospective
customer," he flung out as he laid his umbrella aside. "Or is business
Fred tossed back a trite rejoinder. Helen went on pounding her machine
... she did not even lift her eyes.
"I've got something for you to-day," Hilmer went on, as he unbound the
bundle of papers and sat down beside Fred.
Starratt saw the edge of a blue print in Hilmer's hand. This spelled
all manner of possibilities, but he checked a surge of illogical hope.
"That's fine," he answered, heartily. "But why didn't you send for me?
I could have come over. It's bad enough to take your business without
letting you bring it in on a day like this..."
Hilmer made a contemptuous gesture. "Wind and weather never made any
difference to me... I've traveled twenty miles in a blizzard to court
"Oh, when a woman's involved, that's different," Fred laughed back.
"There's nothing as alluring here."
"Well, Mrs. Starratt, what do you say?" Hilmer called out to her.
"Your husband doesn't seem to count you in at all."
Helen was erasing a misspelled word. "Married women are used to that,"
she retorted, flippantly. "Sometimes it's just as well that they
overlook us. We get a chance to play our own hand once in a while."
Everybody laughed, including Fred, but the effort hurt him. There was
a suggestion of unpleasant mockery in Helen's tone. She seemed to be
hiding her contempt behind a thin veil of acrid humor. And somehow
this revelation in the presence of Hilmer stung him.
"I'll bet you can't guess what I've got here," Hilmer began again,
tapping the bundle of papers with his ringer.
Starratt shook his head and Hilmer tossed him the blue print.
"Not the insurance on your shipbuilding plant?" escaped Fred,
Hilmer crossed his legs and settled back in his chair.
"You said it!" he announced. "And it's all going to you after we've
settled one question... I've been bringing you in little odds and ends
as I've had them ... not enough to matter much one way or another ...
so I haven't bothered to really get down and talk business. This is a
half-million-dollar line and a little bit different. It means about
fifteen thousand dollars in premiums, to be exact. You can figure what
your commission will be at fifteen per cent, to say nothing of how
solid this will make you with the street... Later on there 'll be
workmen's compensation, boiler insurance, public liability. It's a
pretty nice little plum, if I do say so."
Helen stopped her typing. Fred could feel his lips drying with mingled
anticipation and apprehension. He knew just what demand Hilmer
"The question is," Hilmer continued, "how much of the commission are
you going to split up with me?"
Fred shrugged. "You know the rules of the Broker's Exchange as well as
I do, Hilmer. I've pledged myself not to do any rebating."
Hilmer did not betray the slightest surprise at Starratt's reply.
Evidently he had heard something of the same argument before.
"Everybody does it," was his calmly brief rejoinder.
"You mean Kendrick, to be exact... I'm sorry, but I don't see it that
"Do you mean that you would rather pass up a half-million-dollar line
than share the spoils?"
"It isn't a question of choice, Hilmer. You must know I don't want to
lose five cents' worth of business. But there are some things a
gentleman doesn't do."
He was sorry once the last remark had escaped him, but Hilmer didn't
seem disconcerted by the covert inference.
"Scruples are like laws," Hilmer returned, affably. "I never saw one
yet that couldn't be gotten round legitimately."
"Oh yes, you can subscribe to any one of the Ten Commandments with
your fingers crossed, if you like that kind of a game. But I don't."
Hilmer moved in his seat with an implication of leave-taking. "Well,
every man to his own taste," he said, as he reached for the blue print
and proceeded to fold it up.
Starratt leaned toward him. His attitude was strangely earnest.
"Do you really like to participate in a game you know to be unfair,
Hilmer?--dishonest, in fact?"
"Participating? I haven't signed any Broker's Exchange agreement. I'm
not breaking any pledge when I accept a share of insurance commission.
That's up to the other fellow."
"Ah, but you know that he is breaking faith... And a man that will
double cross his associates will double cross you if the opportunity
presents itself... Would you put a man in charge of your cash drawer
when you knew that he had looted some one else's safe?"
"That's not the same thing," Hilmer sneered. "That is, it's only the
same in theory. Practically, an insurance broker couldn't double cross
me if he wanted to... I wouldn't put a thief in charge of my cash
drawer, but I might make him a night watchman. He'd know all the
tricks of the trade."
"Including the secret entrances that those on the outside wouldn't
know... A crook wouldn't stay all his life on the night-watchman's
job, believe me."
He noticed that Helen was regarding him keenly and her glance
registered indulgent surprise rather than disapproval. Hilmer, too,
had grown a bit more tolerant. He felt a measure of pride in the
realization that he could make his points so calmly and
dispassionately, putting this rough-hewn man before him on the
defensive. But Hilmer's wavering was only momentary; he was not a man
to waste time in argument when he discovered that such a weapon was
"Then I understand you don't want the business?"
"Not on those terms."
Helen leaned forward and put out a hand. "Let's see!" she half
Hilmer gave her the blue print and the package of memoranda. She began
to unfold one of the insurance forms, bending over it curiously. Fred
was puzzled. He knew that Helen was too unacquainted with insurance
matters to have any knowledge of the printed schedule she was
studying, yet he had to concede that she was giving a splendid
imitation of an experienced hand. Her acting annoyed him. He turned
toward Hilmer with an indifferent comment on the weather and the talk
veered to inconsequential subjects. Helen continued her scrutiny of
Finally Hilmer rose to go. Helen made no move to return the memoranda.
Fred cleared his throat and even coughed significantly, but Helen was
oblivious. Presently Starratt went up to his wife and said,
"Hilmer is going ... you better give him back his papers."
She turned a glance of startled innocence upon them both. "Oh!" she
exclaimed, petulantly. "How disappointing...and just as I was becoming
interested... Why don't you men go have your usual drink? I'll be
through with them then."
Hilmer gave a silent assent and Fred followed him. There didn't seem
to be anything else to do. On the way out they met Hilmer's office boy
in the corridor. Hilmer was wanted on a matter of importance at the
office. He waved a brief farewell to Fred and left.
Fred went back to his wife. She had abandoned the forms and was
lolling in her chair, sucking at an orange.
"Hilmer's been called suddenly to his office on business," he said,
brusquely. She turned and faced him. "You'd better put those papers in
the safe. I'll take them back myself to-morrow. I can't see what
possessed you to insist on looking them over, anyway."
She squeezed the orange in her hand. "Well, when we get ready to
handle the business I want to know something about it."
He stared. "Handle the business? You heard what I said, didn't you?"
"Yes, I heard," she said, wearily, and she went on with her orange.
He did not say anything further, but the next morning a telephone
message put to rout his resolve to return Hilmer's insurance forms in
"I've got to go up Market Street to see a man about some workmen's
compensation," he explained to Helen. "You'd better put on your hat
and take those things to Hilmer yourself."
She did not answer...
He returned at three o'clock. Helen was very busy pounding away at the
"Well, what's all the rush?" he asked.
"I'm getting out the forms on Hilmer's shipping plant," she returned,
"What do you mean?... Didn't you..."
"No ... he's decided to let us handle the business."
"Why ... on what grounds?"
She waved a bit of carbon paper in the air. "How should I know? I
didn't ask him!"
Her contemptuous indifference irritated him. "You ought to have waited
until I got back... You've probably got everything mixed up... It
takes experience to map out a big schedule like that."
"Hilmer showed me what to do," she retorted, calmly.
"Then he's been over here?"
"Yes ... all morning."
He narrowed his eyes. She went on with her typewriting.
"Well, I'll be damned!" escaped him.
His wife replied with a tripping laugh.
At that moment Brauer came in. "I hear you've got the Hilmer line," he
broke out, excitedly. "They say Kendrick is wild... How much did you
have to split?"
"Nothing," Starratt said, coldly.
"Nothing?" Brauer's gaze swept from Starratt to Helen and back again.
"How did you land it, then?"
Helen stood up, thrusting a pencil into her hair.
"I landed it, Mr. Brauer," she said, sweetly, tossing her husband a
Brauer's thin lips parted unpleasantly. "I told you at the start,
Starratt, that a good stenographer would work wonders."
Fred forced a sickly laugh. He wished that Helen Starratt had stayed
at home where she belonged.
It had been a long time since the insurance world on California Street
had been given such a chance for gossip as the shifting of the Hilmer
insurance provided. Naturally, business changes took place every day,
but it was unusual to have such a rank beginner at the brokerage game
put over so neat a trick. Speculation was rife. Some said that Hilmer
was backing the entire Starratt venture, that he, in fact, was
Starratt & Co., with Fred merely a salaried man, allowing his name to
be used. Others conceded a partnership arrangement. But Kendrick
announced in a loud tone up and down the street:
"Partnership nothing! I know Hilmer. He's got too many irons in the
fire now. He wouldn't be annoyed with the insurance game. This fellow
Starratt is rebating--that's what he is!"
Of course the street laughed. Kendrick's indignation was quite too
comic, considering his own reputation. To this argument, those who
held to the proprietor and partnership theories replied:
"That may all be, but he wastes an awful lot of time in Starratt's
office for a fellow who's so rushed with his other ventures."
It was at this point that a few people raised their eyebrows
significantly as they said:
"Well, the old boy always did have a pretty keen eye for a skirt."
It was impossible for Fred Starratt to move anywhere without hearing
fragments of all this gossip. During the noon hour particularly it
filtered through the midday tattle of business, pleasure, and
obscenity--at the Market, at Collins & Wheeland's, at Hjul's coffee
house, at Grover's Lunchroom--everywhere that clerks forgathered to
appease their hunger and indulge in idle speculations. Sometimes he
got these things indirectly through chance slips in talks with his
friends, again scraps of overheard conversation reached his ears.
Quite frequently a frank or a coarse acquaintance, without
embarrassment or reserve, would tell him what had been said. He soon
got over protesting. If he convinced anybody that he was getting
Hilmer's business without financial concessions, he had to take the
nasty alternative which the smirks of his audience betrayed... It
would not have been so bad if he could have explained the situation to
himself, but any attempt to solve the riddle moved in a vicious
circle. He used to long for a simplicity that would make him accept
Hilmer's favors on their face value. Why couldn't one believe in
friendship and disinterestedness? Perhaps it would have been easier if
he had lacked any knowledge of Hilmer's philosophy of life. Starratt
couldn't remember anything in the recital of Hilmer's past performance
or his present attitude that dovetailed with benevolence... He
retreated, baffled from these speculative tilts, to the refuge of a
comforting conviction that fortunately no man was thoroughly
consistent. Perhaps therein lay the secret of Hilmer's puzzling
prodigality--because, boiled down to hard facts, it was apparent that
Hilmer was making Starratt & Co. a present of several hundred dollars
a year. Sometimes, in a wild flight of conjecture, he used to wonder
how far his argument with Hilmer regarding the ethics of being a
negative party to another man's dishonesty had been borne home? It
seemed almost too fantastic to fancy that he could have put over his
rather finely spun business morality in such a brief flash, if at all.
At first he had plunged in too speedily to his venture to formulate
many ideals of business conduct, but as he had progressed he found his
standards springing to life full grown.
He had been long enough in the insurance business to realize the
estimate that average clients had of an insurance broker--they looked
upon him as a struggling friend or a poor relation or an agreeable,
persuasive grafter, whose only work consisted in talking them into
indifferent acceptance of an insurance policy and then pestering them
into a reluctant payment of the premium. Of course big business firms
recognized a broker's expertness or lack of it, though, quite
frequently, as in Hilmer's case, they were more snared by a share in
the profits than by the claims of efficiency. But Starratt wanted to
succeed merely on his merit. He wanted to teach people to say of him:
"I go to Fred Starratt because he's the keenest, the most reliable man
in the field. And for no other reason."
In short, he wished to earn his commission, and not to share it. He
wanted to prove to people that an insurance broker was neither a
barbered mendicant nor a genial incompetent. Had he known that a
conviction of his ability lay at the bottom of Hilmer's sudden change
in business tactics he would have been content. As it was, in spite of
the impetus this sudden push gave his career he had moments when he
would have felt happier without such dubious patronage. As a matter of
fact, Hilmer rather ignored him. He brought in his business usually
during Fred's absence from the office, and Helen, under his guidance,
had everything ready before her husband had time to suggest any line
of action. Forms, apportionments, applications--there did not seem to
be a detail that Hilmer had overlooked or Helen had failed to execute.
Starratt tried not to appear irritated. He didn't like to admit even
to himself that he could be small enough to resent his wife's curious
efficiency. But he wished she weren't there. One day he said to her,
as inconsequentially as he could:
"I really think, my dear, that I ought to be planning to get a woman
here in your place... Now that Hilmer's business is reasonably
assured, I can afford it... It's too much to ask of you--keeping up
your house and doing this, too."
"Well," she shrugged, "we can board if it gets too much for me."
"You know I detest boarding."
"I can hire help, then. Mrs. Finn would come in by the day. But, as a
matter of fact, this isn't any more strenuous than my year of the Red
Cross work. I managed then; I guess I can manage now."
"But I thought you didn't like business life."
"I'm not crazy about it ... but I want to get you started right.
Suppose you got a girl in here who didn't know how to manage Hilmer?"
He checked the retort that rose to his lips... He couldn't help
getting the nasty inferences that people on the street threw at him
unconsciously or maliciously, but he _could_ help voicing them or
admitting them even to himself.
"Is ... is Hilmer so hard to manage?" he found himself inquiring.
Helen looked up sharply. "No harder than most men," she answered,
slipping easily from the traces of his cross-examination.
His rancor outran his reserve. "I guess I'm vain," he threw out
bitterly, "but I'd like to feel that I could land one piece of
business without _anybody's_ help."
She laughed indulgently. "Why, Freddie, that isn't nice! You landed
Hilmer at the start... Don't you remember that very first line? On his
There was something insincere in her tone, in the lift of her eyes, in
her cryptic smile. But he smothered such unworthy promptings. It was
fresh proof of his own unreasonable conceit. He turned away from his
wife in silence, but he was sure that his face betrayed his feelings.
Presently he felt her standing very close to him. He turned about
sharply, almost in irritation. Her mouth was raised temptingly. He
bent over and kissed her, but he withdrew as swiftly. Her lips left a
bitter taste that he could not define.
March passed in a blur of wind and cold, penetrating rains. Except for
the placing of the insurance on the Hilmer shipbuilding plant,
business was dull. Fred began to make moves toward getting in money.
But it was heartbreaking work. The people who had yielded up their
consent so smilingly to Fred for personal accident policies, or
automobile insurance, passed him furtively on the street or sent word
out to him when he called at their offices that they were busy or
broke or leaving town. He did not attempt to do much toward collecting
the fire-insurance premiums. Most people with fire policies knew their
rights and stood by them. The premiums on March business were not due
until the end of May and it was useless to make the rounds much before
the middle of that month.
The whisperings on the street continued, and a few surly growls from
Kendrick reached Fred's ears. One day a close friend of Fred, who knew
something of Insurance Exchange matters, said to him:
"There's something going on inside, but I can't quite get the dope...
I hope you're not giving Kendrick the chance to have you called for
rebating... He's an ugly customer when he gets in action."
Fred was annoyed. "I've told you again and again," he retorted, "that
I'm not yielding a cent on the Hilmer business."
"It isn't that," was the reply. "Kendrick knows better than to stir up
a situation he's helped to befoul himself... No, it's another matter."
Fred shrugged and changed the subject, but his thoughts flew at once
to Brauer. He decided not to say anything to his partner until he made
a move toward investigating, himself.
The next morning he took a half dozen names of Brauer's customers at
random from the ledger and he made out bills for their premiums.
Practically all of Brauer's business was fire insurance, so Fred had
typical cases for his test. The first man he called on produced a
receipt from Brauer for the premium paid on the very day the policy
was issued. The second man protested that he had paid Brauer only the
day before. The third man stated brusquely that he had placed his
business through Brauer and he was the man he intended to settle with.
The fourth was noncommittal, but it was the fifth client who produced
the straw that betrayed the direction of the wind.
"I want to see Brauer," the man said. "He promised to do something for
The sixth customer was even more direct.
"There's something to come off the premium," he said. "Brauer knows."
Fred did not wait for Brauer to come into the office--he went and took
him to lunch instead, where he could prod him away from Helen's sight
"I'm surprised at you, Brauer," Starratt broke out suddenly, once they
were seated at Grover's and had given the girl their order.
"Over what?" Brauer's face clouded craftily.
"Why do you go about collecting premiums and holding them back from
the office?... That isn't sound business tactics."
Brauer's sharp teeth glistened savagely in spite of his weak and
bloodless mouth. "What have you been doing ... bothering _my_ people?
I'll trouble you to let me attend to my own clients in future. Those
premiums aren't due for a good six weeks yet. When they are I'll turn
Fred cooled a little in the face of Brauer's vehemence. "Oh, come now,
what's the use of talking like that? I'm not intending to bother your
customers, but there are some things due me... My name is on every one
of those policies. Therefore I ought to know when they are paid and
anything else about the business that concerns me. You know as well as
I do what is reasonable and just. Suppose you were taken ill. It
doesn't look right for a firm to go about making attempts to collect
premiums that have been paid."
"Well ... you're pretty previous, Starratt, dogging folks in March for
money that isn't due until May," Brauer grumbled back. "What's the
Starratt leaned forward. "Just this, Brauer. I heard some ugly gossip
yesterday, and I wanted to find out if it had any justification. It
seems Kendrick is after us. He's going to try and get us on a rebating
charge. I saw six of your people ... and I'm reasonably sure that two
out of that six have been promised a rake-off... Do you call that fair
"That's a lie!" Brauer broke out, too emphatically.
"I doubt it!" Starratt replied, coldly. "But that's neither here nor
there. What's done is done. But I don't want any more of it. I'm
playing a square game. I was ready to throw Hilmer overboard rather
than compromise, and I'll--"
"Do the same thing to me, I suppose!" Brauer challenged.
Fred looked at him steadily. "Precisely," he answered.
The waitress arrived with their orders and Starratt changed the
subject... Brauer recovered his civility, but hardly his good temper.
At the close of the meal they parted politely. Fred could see that
Brauer was bursting with spite. For himself, he decided then and there
to eliminate Brauer at the first opportunity.
A few days later Brauer came into the office with an order to place a
workmen's compensation policy. It covered the entire force of a
canning concern, and the premium was based upon a large pay roll.
"I've had to split the commission with them," Brauer announced,
defiantly. "That's legitimate enough with this sort of business, isn't
Starratt nodded. "It's done, but I'm not keen for it. However, there
isn't any law against it."
The policy was made out and delivered to Brauer, and almost
immediately he came back with a check for the premium. "They paid me
at once," he exulted.
Starratt refused to express any enthusiasm. Brauer sat down at a desk
and drew out his check book. "I guess I might as well settle up for
the other premiums I've collected," he said, "while I'm about it."
He made out a long list of fire premiums and drew his check for their
full amount, plus the workmen's compensation premium in his
possession. But he took 5 per cent off the latter item.
Starratt made no comment. But he was willing to stake his life that
the check from the canning company to Brauer was for a full premium
without any 5-per-cent reduction, and that Brauer, himself, was
withholding this alleged rebate and applying it to making up the
deficits on the fire premiums he had discounted.
The next day Fred's friend said again: "Kendrick's doing some gum-shoe
work, Starratt... You'd better go awful slow."
With the coming of May other anxieties claimed Starratt's attention.
Bills that he had forgotten or neglected began to pour in. There was
his tailor bill, long overdue, and two accounts with dry-goods stores
that Helen had run up in the days when the certainty of a fixed salary
income had seemed sure. A dentist bill for work done in December made
its appearance and, of course, the usual household expenditures went
merrily on. The rent of their apartment was raised. Collections were
slow. In March the commissions on collected premiums had just about
paid the office rent and the telephone... April showed up better, but
May, of course, held great promise. At the end of May the Hilmer
premiums would be due and the firm of Starratt & Co. on its feet, with
over two thousand dollars in commissions actually in hand. On the
strength of these prospects Helen began to order a new outfit. Fred
Starratt did not have the heart to complain. Helen had earned every
stitch of clothing that she was buying--there was no doubt about that;
still, he would have liked to be less hasty in her expenditures. He
had been too long in business to count much on prospects. He disliked
borrowing more money from Brauer, but there was no alternative. Brauer
fell to grumbling quite audibly over these advances, and he saw to it
that Fred's notes for the amounts always were forthcoming. Hilmer did
not come in quite so often to the office; a rush of shipbuilding
construction took him over to his yards in Oakland nearly every day.
But Mrs. Hilmer was in evidence a good deal. Helen was constantly
calling her up and asking her to drop downtown for luncheon or for a
bit of noonday shopping uptown or just for a talk.
"She's a dear!" Helen used to say to Fred. "And I just love her to
Fred could not fathom Helen. A year ago he felt sure that Mrs. Hilmer
was the last woman in the world that Helen would have found bearable,
much less attractive... He concluded that Helen was enjoying the
novelty of watching Mrs. Hilmer nibble at a discreet feminine
frivolity to which she was unaccustomed. After a while he looked for
outward changes in Mrs. Hilmer's make-up. He figured that the shopping
tours with Helen might be reflected in a sprightlier bonnet or a
narrower skirt or a higher heel on her shoe. But no such
transformation took place. Indeed, her costuming seemed to grow more
and more uncompromising--more Dutch, to use the time-worn phrase, made
significant to Fred Starratt by his mother. But Helen always made a
point to compliment her on her appearance.
"You look too sweet for anything!" Helen would exclaim, rushing upon
her new friend with an eager kiss.
At this Mrs. Hilmer always dimpled with wholesome pleasure. Well, she
did look sweet, in a motherly, bovine way, Fred admitted, when the
note of insincerity in his wife's voice jarred him.
One day Mrs. Hilmer brought down a hat the two had picked out and
which had been altered at Helen's suggestion. She tried it on for
Helen's approval, and Fred stood back in a corner while Helen went
into ecstasies over it. Even a man could not escape the fact that it
was unbecoming. Somehow, in a subtle way, it seemed to accent all of
Mrs. Hilmer's unprepossessing features. When she left the office Fred
said to Helen, casually:
"I don't think much of your taste, old girl. That hat was awful!"
Helen laughed maliciously. "Of course it was!" she flung back.
Starratt shrugged and said no more. There was kindliness back of many
deceits, but he knew now that Helen's insincerities with Mrs. Hilmer
were not justified by even so dubious virtue.
At the moment when the Hilmer shipyard insurance had been turned over
to Fred Starratt he had at once made a move toward a reduction in the
rate. Having gone over the schedule at the Board of Fire Underwriters,
he had discovered that they had failed to give Hilmer credit in the
rating for certain fire protection. On the strength of Starratt's
application for a change a new rate was published about the middle of
May. Starratt was jubilant. Here was proof for Hilmer that his
interests were being guarded and that it paid to employ an efficient
broker. He flew at once to Hilmer's office.
"Let me have your policies," he burst out.
"I've secured a new rate for you and I want the reduction indorsed."
Hilmer did not appear to be moved by the announcement.
"Better cancel and rewrite the bunch," he replied, briefly.
Fred gasped. This meant that only about a sixth of the premium on the
present policies would be due and payable at the end of the month and
the prospects of a big clean-up on commissions delayed until July.
"Oh, that won't be necessary," he tried to say, calmly. "This
reduction applies from the original date of the policies. It's just as
if they had been written up at the new rate."
Hilmer ripped open a letter that he had been toying with. "Better
cancel," he announced, dryly. "It's a good excuse, and I'm a little
pressed for money. It will delay a big expenditure."
There was no room for further argument. Fred left, crestfallen. Was
Hilmer making sport of him, he wondered. He must wait then until July
for an easy financial road. And would July see him? out of the woods?
Suppose Hilmer were to conjure up another excuse for canceling and
reissuing just as the second batch of premiums fell due?
He voiced his fears and anxieties to Helen. She shrugged
"You told me when you went into business that you weren't counting on
Hilmer," she observed, with a suggestion of a sneer.
So he had thought or, at least, so he had pretended. What colossal
braveries he had assumed in his attempts to play a swaggering role! He
had started in with the determination to set a new standard in the
insurance world. _He_ was going to show people that a young man could
begin with nothing but honesty and merit and walk away with the
biggest kind of business. He knew that his hands were clean, but he
realized that not one in ten believed it. He had to confess that
appearances were against him. Scarcely anyone believed the Hilmer
myth. And underneath the surface was Brauer. Fred felt sure that
Brauer's ethical lapses were still in progress. At intervals Brauer
always contrived to place an insurance line other than fire and insist
that he was compelled to grant a discount. These premiums were always
settled promptly and, in their wake, a list of fire premiums paid in
full were turned in by Brauer. It was plain that Peter was being
robbed to pay Paul. Starratt even grew to fancy that there was a
substantial balance left over from these alleged discounts to clients,
which Brauer pocketed himself. But he had to smile and pretend that he
did not suspect. Were his hands clean, after all? Well, just as soon
as it was possible he intended to rid himself of Brauer. But how soon
_would_ that be possible? And meanwhile Kendrick was sniffing out
He rallied from his first depression with a tight-lipped
determination. He was not trying out a business venture so much as he
was trying out himself. Previously he had always figured success and
failure as his performance reacted on his audience. He was learning
that one could impress a stupendous crowd and really fail, or strut
upon the boards of an empty playhouse and still succeed. He began to
realize just what was meant by the term self-esteem--how hard and
uncompromising and exacting it was. To disappoint another was a
humiliation; to disappoint oneself was a tragedy. And the tragedy
became deep in proportion to the ability to be self-searching. There
were moments when he closed his eyes to self-analysis...when it seemed
better to press on without disturbing glimpses either backward or
forward. He was eager to gain an economic foothold first--there would
be time later for recapitulations and readjustments to his widening
The two months following were rough and uneven. He had to borrow
continually from Brauer, meet Hilmer with a bland smile, suffer the
covert sarcasms of his wife. Some money came in, but it barely kept
things moving. His broker friend had been right--the payment of any
premiums but fire premiums dragged on "till the cows came home." Many
of the policies that had seemed so easy to write up came back for
total cancellation. This man had buried a father, another had married
a wife, a third had bought a piece of ground--the excuses were all
valid, and they came from friends, so there was nothing to do but
smile and assure them that it didn't matter.
But somehow Starratt weathered the storm and the day came when the
Hilmer insurance fell due. Fred found Hilmer absent from his desk, but
the cashier received him blandly. Yes, they were ready to pay, in fact
the check was drawn and only awaited Hilmer's signature. To-morrow, at
the latest, it would be forthcoming. Fred drew a long sigh of relief.
He went back to his office whistling.
In the hallway he met Brauer.
"I want to have a talk with you," Brauer began, almost apologetically.
Fred waved him in and Brauer came direct to the point. He was
dissatisfied with the present arrangement and he was ready to pull out
if Fred were in a position to square things. His demands were
extraordinarily fair--he asked to have the notes for any advances met,
plus 50 per cent of the profit on any business he had turned in. He
claimed no share of the profits on Fred's business.
"I suppose you've collected the Hilmer premiums," he threw out,
Fred nodded and began a rapid calculation. It turned out that he had
borrowed about $500 from his partner and that 50 per cent of the
commissions on the Brauer business came to a scant $125. Well, his
profits on the Hilmer insurance would be in the neighborhood of $1,900
under the new rate. To-morrow he would be in possession of this sum.
It was too easy! He drew out his check book, deciding to close the
deal before Brauer had a chance to change his mind. Brauer received
the check with a bland smile and surrendered the notes and the
At the door they shook hands heartily. Brauer said at parting:
"Well, good luck, old man... I hope you aren't sore."
Fred tried to suppress his delight. "Oh no, nothing like that! If it
_had_ to come I'm glad to see everything end pleasantly."
And as Brauer drifted down the hall Starratt called out, suddenly:
"I say, Brauer, don't put that check through the bank until day after
to-morrow, will you?"
Brauer nodded a swift acquiescence and disappeared into a waiting
Fred retreated to his desk. "Well," he said to Helen, as he let out a
deep sigh, "that's what I call easy!"
She looked up from her work. "Almost too easy," she answered. He made
no reply and presently she said: "You didn't tell me how tightly you
let him sew us up. With signed notes and that agreement he could have
been nasty... It's strange he didn't wait a day or two and then claim
half of the Hilmer commissions... I wonder why he was in such a rush?"
Fred shrugged. Helen's shrewdness annoyed him.
That evening just as Helen and he were getting ready to leave, a
messenger from the Broker's Exchange handed him a note. He broke the
seal and read a summons to appear before the executive committee on
the following morning. His face must have betrayed him, for Helen
halted the adjustment of her veil as she inquired:
"What's wrong? Any trouble?"
He recovered himself swiftly. "Oh no ... just a meeting at the
But as he folded up the letter and slipped it into his coat pocket he
began to have a suspicion as to the reason for Brauer's haste.
The next morning Fred Starratt went down to the office alone. Mrs.
Hilmer had telephoned the night before an invitation for Helen to join
them in a motor trip down the Ocean Shore Boulevard to Half moon Bay
and home by way of San Mateo. Hilmer was entertaining a party of Norse
visitors. Helen demurred at first, but Fred interrupted the
conversation to insist:
"Go on ... by all means! The change will be good for you. I can run
the office for a day."
Secretly he was glad to be rid of his wife's presence. He didn't know
what trouble might be impending and he wanted to face the music
without the irritation of a prying audience.
His fears were confirmed. He had been brought before the executive
committee on a charge of rebating preferred by Kendrick. The evidence
was complete in at least three cases and they all involved Brauer's
clients. In short, Kendrick had sworn affidavits from three people to
the effect that a representative of Starratt & Co. had granted a
discount on fire-insurance business. Obviously all three cases had
been planted by Kendrick, and Brauer had walked into the trap with
both feet. There was nothing for Fred to do but to explain the whole
situation--who Brauer was and why he had an interest in the firm. He
found the committee reasonably sympathetic, but they still had their
suspicions. Fred could see that even the sudden withdrawal of Brauer
from partnership with him had its questionable side. It looked a bit
like clever connivance. However, his inquisitors promised to look
fairly into the question before presenting an ultimatum.
Fred went back to his office reassured. He had a feeling that in the
end the committee would purge him or at least give him another chance.
It was inconceivable that they would pronounce the penalty of
expulsion, although they might impose a fine. He was so glad to be rid
of Brauer, though, that he counted the whole circumstance as little
short of providential.
He found a large mail at the office and quite a few remittances, but
the Hilmer check was not in evidence. He remembered now, with chagrin,
that Hilmer was away for the day. Still, there was a possibility that
he had signed the check late last night. He called up Hilmer's office.
No, the check had not been signed. Fred reminded the cashier that this
was the last day to get the money into the companies. But the watchdog
of the Hilmer treasury had been through too many financial pressures
to be disturbed.
"They'll have to give us the usual five-day cancellation notice," he
returned, blandly. "And payment will be made before the five days
Fred hung up the phone and cursed audibly. Of course a day or two or
three wouldn't have made any difference ordinarily. But there was that
damn check out to Brauer. Well, he had told Brauer to hold it until
Friday. There was still another day. He hated to go around and ask any
further favors of his contemptible ex-partner, and he hoped he
wouldn't have to request another postponement to the formality of
putting the Brauer check through. Of course he had had no business
making out a check for funds not in hand. But under the
circumstances... What in hell was he worrying for? Everything would
come out all right. What could Brauer do about it, anyway? As a matter
of fact, he figured that under the circumstances he had a perfect
right to stop payment on that Brauer check if he had been so disposed.
For a moment the thought allured him. But his surrender to such a
petty retaliation, passed swiftly. No, he wouldn't tar himself with
any such defiling brush. He'd simply wipe Brauer from the slate and
He kept to his office all day. He didn't want to run afoul of either
Kendrick or Brauer on the street, and, besides, with Helen away, it
was a good day to clean up a lot of odds and ends that had been
neglected during the pressure of soliciting business. It was six
o'clock when he slammed down his roll-top desk and prepared to leave.
He had planned to meet Helen for dinner at Felix's. He found himself a
bit fagged and he grew irritated at the thought that prohibition had
robbed him of his right of easy access to a reviving cocktail. He knew
many places where he could buy bad drinks furtively, but he resented
both the method and the vileness of the mixtures. He was putting on
his coat when he heard a rap at the door. He crossed over and turned
the knob, admitting a man standing upon the threshold.
"Is this Mr. Starratt?" the stranger began.
"Well, I'm sorry to bring bad news, but there's been a nasty accident.
Mr. Hilmer's car went over a bank near Montara this afternoon... Mrs.
Hilmer was hurt pretty badly, but everybody else is fairly well off...
Your wife asked me to drop in and see you. I drove the car that helped
rescue them... Don't be alarmed; Mrs. Starratt isn't hurt beyond a
tough shaking up. But she feels she ought to stay with Mrs.
Hilmer--under the circumstances."
Fred tried to appear calm. "Oh yes, of course ... naturally... And how
about Hilmer himself?"
The man shrugged. "He's pretty fair. So far a broken arm is all
they've found wrong with him."
"His right arm, I suppose?" Fred suggested, with an air of
resignation. He was wondering whether anybody at Hilmer's office had
authority to sign checks.
"Yes," the visitor assented, briefly.
Fred Starratt had a hasty meal and then he took a direct car line for
the Hilmers'. He had never been to their house, but he found just
about what he had expected--a two-story hand-me-down dwelling in the
Richmond district, a bit more pretentious and boasting greater garden
space than most of the homes in the block. Helen answered his ring.
She had her wrist in a tight bandage.
"Just a sprain," she explained, rather loftily. "The doctor says it
will be all right in a day or two."
Fred sat down in an easy-chair and glanced up and down the living
room. It was scrupulously neat, reflecting a neutral taste. The
furniture was a mixture of golden and fumed oak done in heavy mission
style and the pictures on the wall consisted of dubious oil paintings
and enlarged photographs. A victrola stood in a corner, and the
upright piano near the center of the room formed a background for a
precisely draped, imitation mandarin skirt and a convenient shelf for
family photographs and hand-painted vases. On the mantel an elaborate
onyx-and-bronze clock ticked inaudibly.
Helen sat apart, almost with the detachment of a hostess receiving a
casual acquaintance, as she recounted the incidents of the disastrous
ride. Hilmer had been driving fairly carefully, but in swerving to
avoid running down a cow that suddenly had made its appearance in the
road the machine had skidded and gone over a steep bank. Mrs. Hilmer's
condition was really quite serious. The doctor had intimated that even
if she pulled through she might never walk again. They had a nurse, of
course--two, in fact--but some one had to be there to look after
things. The servant girl was just a raw Swede who did the heavy
work--Mrs. Hilmer always had done most of the cooking herself.
Fred inquired for Hilmer. He had a broken wrist and several bad
sprains and bruises, but he was resting easily.
"I didn't get that check for the premiums to-day," Fred said.
Helen rose from her seat. "I'll speak to him about it to-morrow," she
Her movement implied dismissal. Fred left his seat and stood for a
moment, awkwardly fingering his hat.
"I suppose," he faltered, "you don't know just how long you'll be
"That depends," she answered, shrugging.
"Then I'd better get some one in temporarily at the office."
"Well, good night," he said.
She kissed him perfunctorily and presently he found himself in the
street again, bound for home.
A low fog was whitening the air and the breeze blowing in fresh from
the ocean was sharp of tooth. Fred shivered slightly and buttoned his
"I guess she's still kind of dazed," he muttered to himself. But above
his perplexity soared a fresh determination. He would get a woman in
his wife's place in the office and he would keep her there. It was
time Helen stayed home where she belonged.
The next morning he went early to Hilmer's office. The cashier took
"Hilmer has authorized me to sign checks," he explained. "But I
understand you're in wrong with the Exchange... I think I'll make out
checks direct to the different companies. That's always the safest
thing to do in a jam."
Fred was too furious even to protest. "I don't quite get the idea," he
returned. "But that's up to you. If you want to write thirty-odd
checks instead of one, that's your business, I suppose."
"Oh, that isn't any trouble," returned the man, complacently.
Fred swung back to his office. Kendrick must have been gossiping with
a vengeance! What would the insurance offices on the street think when
they received their checks direct from the Hilmer company? It was
insulting! And now he would have to trail about collecting his
commissions instead of merely withholding them from the remittance
that should have been put in his hand. Still, on second thought, he
did feel relieved to know that the matter wouldn't drag on any
longer--that he wouldn't have to ask Brauer to hold off with his bank
deposit another moment. He waited until after the noon hour to begin
the collection of his commissions. Hilmer's cashier had promised to
send his messenger around to the different companies before eleven
He went into the first office with an assumption of buoyance. The
cashier looked down at him through quizzical spectacles. Yes, the
Hilmer premium was in, but he was very sorry--he couldn't pay Starratt
& Co. anything.
"Why?" Fred demanded, hotly.
Because the Insurance Broker's Exchange had sent out a circular asking
the companies to withhold any commissions due that firm until certain
charges of rebating were investigated further and disproved.
Fred fled to the Exchange. The secretary was out, but his stenographer
confirmed the circular. Fred went back to his office to think things
over. Again he was tempted to repudiate the Brauer check at the bank
and let Brauer do his worst. But he drew back from such a course with
his usual repugnance. He saw now that all his high-flown theory about
standing on his own feet was the merest sophistry. So far, he was
nothing but the product of Hilmer's puzzling benevolence. One jam in
the wheel and everything halted. He thought the whole matter out. He
was still what Hilmer had intimated on the night of that disturbing
dinner party--a creature with a back bent by continual bowing and
scraping--a full-grown man with standards inherited instead of
acquired. Why didn't he go around to the office of Ford, Wetherbee &
Co. and beat up his nasty little ex-partner? Why didn't he meet
Kendrick's gumshoe activities with equal stealth? It should have been
possible to snare Kendrick if one had the guts. And why accept a
gratuity from Hilmer in the shape of two thousand dollars more or less
for commissions on business that one never really had earned the right
to? He began to suspect that Hilmer had instructed his cashier to pay
the companies direct. It was probably his patron's way of forcing home
the idea that the commissions _were_ a gratuity. No doubt even now he
was chuckling at the spectacle of Starratt running about the street
picking up the doles. He decided, once and for all, that he wouldn't
go on being an object of satirical charity. He wouldn't refuse the
Hilmer business, but he would put it on the proper basis. He would put
a proposition squarely up to Hilmer whereby Hilmer would become a
definite partner in the firm--Hilmer, Starratt & Co., to be exact.
This would mean not only an opportunity to handle all the Hilmer
business itself, but to control other insurance that Hilmer had his
finger in. There would be no silent partners, no gratuitous assistance
from either clients or wife, no evasions. From this moment on
everything was to be upon a frank and open basis.
He went out at once to see Hilmer. His wife answered the door as she
had done previously and he sat in the same seat he had occupied the
night before. He had a sense of intrusion--he felt that he was being
tolerated. Helen had removed the bandage from her wrist and she looked
very handsome in the half-light of a screened electric bulb. He
noticed that flowers had been placed in one of the vases on the
mantelshelf and that the mandarin skirt clung a trifle less precisely
to the polished surface of the oak piano. A magazine sprawled face
downward on the floor. Already the impress of Mrs. Hilmer on the
surroundings was becoming a trifle blurred.
He came at once to the point--he had a business proposition to make to
Hilmer and he wished to see him.
But Helen was not to be excluded from the secret of his mission that
easily. The doctor had denied anybody access to Hilmer; therefore,
unless it was very urgent...
"I want to see about a partnership arrangement," Fred explained,
Helen stirred in her seat. "You mean that you want him to go in with
us?... What's the reason? He's satisfied."
Fred drew himself up. "But I'm not!" he answered, decidedly.
She shrugged. "We've had one experience...we'd better think twice
before we make another break."
"_I've_ thought it all over," he replied, pointedly.
She colored and flashed a sharp glance at him. "I spoke to him about
the premiums this morning... He tells me he ordered them paid." "Yes
... direct to the companies... That's one of the reasons that made me
decide to get things on a better working basis... I'm tired of being
an object of charity."
She smiled coldly. Well, Hilmer simply wouldn't receive anyone now,
and she herself didn't see the reason for haste. He ended by telling
her the reason ... there was no other way out of the situation.
"Oh," she drawled, when he had finished, "so getting rid of Brauer was
_too_ easy, after all!" She made no other comment, but he read her
scornful glance. "Any fool would have guessed that!" was what it
Still, even with the fact of Brauer's craftiness exposed, she could
not be persuaded that the proposition was quite that urgent.
"You don't?" he inquired, with growing irritation. "Well, you've
forgotten that check for some six hundred-odd dollars I wrote for
Brauer the other day... I presume you know it's a felony to give out
checks when there aren't sufficient funds on deposit."
She stared at him. "That's absurd!" she exclaimed. "Brauer wouldn't go
He quite agreed there, but he didn't say so. Instead, he insisted that
anything was possible. They argued the matter scornfully. In the end
"Well, I'll try," she announced, coldly. "I'll do my best... But I'm
sure he won't see you."
She left the room with an indefinable air of boredom. He rose from his
seat and began to pace up and down. The whole situation had a
suggestion of unreality. In pleading with Helen for a chance to talk
to Hilmer he had a sense of crossing swords with some intangible and
sinister shadow; his wife seemed suddenly to have arrived at a state
toward which she had been traveling all these last uncertain weeks ...
fading, fading from the frame of his existence. Was he growing
hypersensitive or merely unreasonable?
Fifteen minutes passed ... a half hour...an hour. Starratt stopped his
restless movements and picked up the sprawling magazine... Presently
Helen came into the room. He rose.
Her thin-lipped smile shaped itself with a tolerant geniality as she
came toward him with complacent triumph.
"Well," she began, easily, "I got a thousand dollars out of him."
He went up close to her. "A thousand... I don't quite understand."
She flourished a check in his face. "Oh, he can sign checks with his
left hand," she threw back, gayly.
"You mean you've spoken to him about the partnership and..."
"Of course not ... he wasn't in any humor for that."
"Well, then, what is this check for?"
She drew back a little. "Why, it's to help you out, of course. Don't
you want it?"
He felt himself grow suddenly cold as he stood and watched her recoil
momentarily from his two-edged glance. "No!" he retorted.
She continued to back away from him. He followed her retreat.
"I don't think you quite get me, Helen," he heard himself say, with
icy sharpness. "I wanted to see Hilmer _myself! I had a business
proposition to put up to him. I want co-operation--not questionable
She flung back her head, but her voice lacked defiance as she said:
"Was that meant as an insult?"
"No," he returned, quietly, "as a warning."
She stood silent, facing him with that clear, disarming gaze that she
knew how to achieve so perfectly. He felt a great yearning overwhelm
him ... a desire to meet her halfway ... a vagrant displeasure at his
"How is Mrs. Hilmer?" he asked, suddenly, as he reached for his hat.
She shrugged. "There isn't any change," she replied, almost inaudibly.
"Shall I bring you anything from the apartment?"
"No... I'll go myself this afternoon and get some things together... I
need a little air, anyway." She followed him to the door. "Then I
understand you don't want this?" she inquired, indicating the check in
His only answer was an incredulous stare.
"What excuse shall I make him?"
He put on his hat. The flame of his displeasure had cooled, but he was
still inflexible. "None, so far as I am concerned."
A retort died on her lips. He could see that she was puzzled.
"Well, so long," he ventured.
She drew herself up with the swift movement of one parrying a blow.
"So long!" she echoed, and the door closed sharply.
He went down the steps. There was an air of finality in his retreat...
At the office he found a note from Brauer.
Your check has been returned to me... I shall put it through the bank
He crumpled the sheet of paper and dropped it into the waste basket.
How much would Brauer dare? he wondered.
That night the friend who had first warned him against Kendrick met
him on California Street.
"I see my prophecy came true, Fred," he hazarded. "Why didn't you tell
me that Brauer was your partner?... By the way, I saw Kendrick and him
going to lunch together to-day. What's the idea?"
Fred lifted his eyebrows and laughed a toneless reply. What _was_ the
idea? He wished he knew.
The next day passed in complete inaction. Frankly, Starratt did not
know what move to make. He felt that he should have been trying to
square matters, but to raise offhand six hundred-odd dollars was a
feat too impossible to even attempt. He had few relations, and these
few were remote and penniless, and his friends were equally lacking in
financial resource. He was confident that he could convince Hilmer of
the soundness of his new plan once he achieved an interview. But all
his pride rose up to combat the suggestion that he present himself
before Helen and plead for an audience. Once he had an impulse to go
to the president of the bank and ask for an advance at the proper rate
of interest. He knew scores of cases where banks loaned money on
personality; he had heard many a bank official express himself to the
effect that a poor man with a vision and integrity was a better chance
any day than a millionaire lacking a goal or scruples. But in the end
he was swung from any initiative by a passive desire to even his score
with Brauer. After all, it was diverting to wait for his ex-partner's
next move. Brauer had had no compunctions in tricking him. Why, then,
should he worry? No, it would be fun just to let Brauer stew in a
sample of his own Teutonic duplicity.
He felt a relief at Helen's absence from the office. He had never
wanted her there and he was determined not to have her back. Last
night she had entirely misread the reason back of his desire for an
interview with Hilmer, and he had been moved to a nasty rancor. But
now he felt tolerant, rather than displeased. Women were often like
that, a bit unethical regarding money. In wheedling a check out of
Hilmer she had used the easiest weapons a woman possessed. She had
meant well, Fred concluded, using that time-worn excuse which has
served nearly every questionable act since the world began. And in the
final analysis, he really blamed himself. Such humiliation was usually
the price a man paid when he let the women of his household share in
the financial responsibility. He should have hoed his own row and
wiped the sweat of his labors upon his own coat sleeve. Well, Hilmer
would be about in a few days and meanwhile Brauer would have some
uncomfortable hours. In the end, no doubt, after Brauer had collected
his six hundred dollars, he would go into a partnership with Kendrick.
That explained the mystery of these two linen-collared crooks lunching
together... After all, there was an element of humor in the whole
On Saturday morning Starratt overslept and he did not get down to the
office until nearly ten o'clock. He was picking up the mail that had
been dropped through the door when the janitor came close to him. Fred
gave a sharp glance and the man said:
"There's been a guy waiting around since eight o'clock, watching your
door... I think he must have a paper or something to serve on you...
Matter of fact, he looked like a fly cop to me... I asked him what he
wanted and he just smiled..."
Fred laughed a careless rejoinder and the janitor went down the hall,
brushing the marble dado with his bedraggled feather duster.
Fred Starratt closed the door softly and sat down at his desk, trying
to concentrate on his mail. He felt a sudden chill. But he managed,
after a fashion, to fix his mind upon immediate problems. Twice during
the morning he made a move toward leaving to do some soliciting, but
almost at once he invented an excuse which dissuaded him.
When he went out to lunch he passed a man loitering in the hall. A
crowded elevator shot past. Fred decided to walk down the stairs ...
the man followed at a nonchalant and discreet distance. Starratt
lingered in the marble-flanked doorway... The man crossed the street
and stood on the corner.
Fred decided to lunch at Hjul's. During the short walk to his
destination he dismissed everything from his mind except the
anticipation of food. He discovered he was very hungry and it struck
him that he had forgotten to breakfast. He had come away from the
house with the idea of getting a cup of coffee in a waffle kitchen on
Kearny Street and his preoccupation had routed this vague plan. He was
chuckling over his lapse when he swung into Hjul's and took a seat
near the window. He ordered a hot roast-beef sandwich and coffee as he
shared his joke with the waitress. She brushed some crumbs from the
table with a napkin, laughed, and went scampering for the order.
Fred's eyes followed her retreat and fell sharply upon the line of men
drifting in the narrow entrance. At the tag end loomed the figure of
the man who had followed him down the stairs from his office. Fred
picked up a newspaper. The man sat down at a table in a far corner.
Over the edge of the newspaper Fred stole a furtive glance. The man
was of slippery slenderness, with a rather round, expressionless face.
His eyes were beady and shifting, and his lips thin and pale and
cruel. The waitress came tripping back with Starratt's order. Fred
Presently Fred finished. He rose deliberately, taking time to brush
every crumb from his lap. At the door he reached for a whisk broom and
wielded it conspicuously. He could not have said whether bravado or
contempt was moving him to such flamboyant dawdling. Or was he merely
trying to persuade himself that he had nothing to fear in any case? He
stepped out into a shower of noonday sunshine flooding through a rift
in the high fog of a July morning in San Francisco. A delicious thrill
from open spaces communicated itself to him. No, he would not go back
to the office--it was Saturday, anyway, and, besides, he felt a vague
desire for freedom and the tang of wind-clean air. He would ride out
to Golden Gate Park and stroll leisurely through its length to the
ocean... He walked briskly down Montgomery Street to Market, waited a
few seconds at a safety station, and finally swung on a car... He was
standing before a tiny lake at the Haight Street entrance to the Park,
watching a black swan ruffling its feathers, when he felt a presence
near him. He did not lift his eyes for some moments, but when he did
look up it was to see his shifty friend of the morning pretending to
be amused at a group of noisy sparrows quarreling over a windfall of
crumbs... Fred Starratt moved on.
All afternoon Fred Starratt wandered about--sometimes dawdling
defiantly, sometimes dropping into a brisk pace, but at every turn his
new-found shadow followed at an inconspicuous distance. The afternoon
sun was gracious, tinged with a pleasant coolness, and far to the west
a blue-gray fog bank waited for evening to let down the day's warm
barriers. Fred Starratt's thoughts were abrupt and purposeless, like
the unsustained flights of wing-clipped birds. He knew that he was
being followed, and he had a confused sense of something impending,
and yet he was unable or unwilling to face the issue honestly. There
were moments when he glimpsed the truth, but he seemed unmoved by
these truant realizations. Was he too tired to care? He used to
wonder, when he read in the newspapers of some man overtaken by an
overwhelming disgrace, how it was possible to go on living under such
circumstances. Was his indifference of this afternoon the preliminary
move in a long series of heartbreaking compromises and retreats? he
asked himself. But he did not attempt to answer any of these darting
questions. After all, the sun was shining and about him the world
seemed to be swinging on with disarming normality. Upon the trimmed
lawns peacocks strutted and shrieked and from remoter distances the
soft call of the quail echoed caressingly. It was good to be alive,
with one's feet firmly planted on the earth. To be alive and _free_!
He passed the conservatory and the sunken gardens, flamboyant with
purple-and-gold pansies; he dawdled over the aviary and the bear
cages. He even stopped for tea at the Japanese garden, throwing bits
of sweetened rice-flour cakes to the goldfishes in their
chocolate-colored pond near the tea pavilion. He found himself later
skirting Stow Lake, pursued by flocks of ubiquitous coots, bent upon
any stray crumbs flung in their direction. Finally he dipped suddenly
down into the wilder reaches of the Park, taking aimless trails that
wandered off into sandy wastes or fetched up quite suddenly upon the
trimly bordered main driveway. He always had preferred the untamed
stretches that lay beyond Stow Lake. Here, as a young boy, he had
organized scouting parties when it was still a remote, almost an
unforested sand pile. Later, when the trees had conquered its
bleakness, Helen and he had spent many a Saturday afternoon tramping
briskly through the pines to the ocean. How long ago that seemed, and
yet how very near! Not long in point of time, somehow, but long in
point of accessibility. He seemed to be standing, as it were, upon the
threshold of a past that he could glimpse, but not re-enter. Even
Helen seemed remote--a part of the background that had been, instead
of an equal spectator with him in a review of these dead events.
It was nearly five o'clock when he drew near the first wind-stunted
pine trees heralding the ocean. He quickened his step. Already the
breeze was tearing across the unscreened spaces and carrying damp
wisps of fog with it. As he found his steps swinging into the ocean
highway he turned and looked back. His discreet pursuer had
disappeared. There was not a soul in sight!
His heart gave a sudden leap. He hurried forward. A street car was
rounding the terminal loop on its return to town. He clattered aboard.
He felt suddenly free and light hearted, almost gay. What would he do
now? Look up Helen at Hilmer's and persuade her to dine with him
somewhere downtown?... He remembered that he had not even telephoned
her for two days. The conviction that had settled upon him during his
walk through the Park woods descended again. Helen seemed impersonal
and unapproachable... He felt a desire for noise and conviviality and
laughter. He decided to look in at the St. Francis bar and see if he
could chance upon a hilarious friend or two.
Starratt had overlooked the fact of war-time prohibition when he
picked the St. Francis bar as a place of genial fellowship. The memory
of its old-time six-o'clock gayety was still fresh enough to trick
him. He swung into its screened entrance to find it practically
deserted. The old bustle and hoarse conversation and hearty laughter
were replaced by dreary silence. The provocative rattle of ice in the
highball glass, the appetizing smell of baked ham from the free-lunch
counter, the thick, pungent clouds of tobacco smoke--all had been
routed by chill, hypocritical virtue. One or two of the tables were
surrounded by solemn circles of males getting speedily drunk in an
effort to finish up the melancholy remains filched from some private
stock, but their attempts at light-heartedness were very sad and
maudlin. Fred was moving away when he heard his name called. He turned
to find a group of business associates from California Street sitting
before two bottles of Scotch, which were ministering to their rather
dour conviviality. Starratt started to wave a mingled greeting and
farewell when his raised hand fell heavily against his side--in the
polished depths of the bar's flawless mirror loomed the unwelcome
figure that had pursued him all day!... He went over and joined his
He had one drink ... two ... another. Then he lost count ... but the
supply seemed inexhaustible. A sudden rush of high spirits keyed him
tensely. He talked and laughed and waved his arms about, calling upon
everybody to witness his light-heartedness. Through the confused blur
of faces surrounding him he caught an occasional glimpse of the thin,
cruel lips and the shifting, beady eyes of his pursuer sitting over a
flat drink which he left untouched.
Presently somebody in the party suggested a round of the bohemian
joints. The motion was noisily seconded... Fred staggered to his feet.
They began with the uptown tenderloin, drifting in due time through
the Greek cafes on Third Street. Finally they crossed Market Street
and began to chatter into the tawdry dance halls of upper Kearny.
Everywhere the drinks flowed in covert streams, growing viler and more
nauseous as the pilgrimage advanced. Near Jackson Street they came
upon a bedraggled pavilion of dubious gayety which lured them
downstairs with its ear-splitting jazz orchestra. A horde of rapacious
females descended upon them like starving locusts. Suddenly everybody
in the party seemed moved with a desire for dancing--except Fred.
While the others whirled away he sank into a seat, staring vacantly
ahead. He had reached the extreme point of his drunkenness and he was
pulling toward sobriety again... He came out of his tentative stupor
with the realization that a woman was seating herself opposite him.
"What's your name?" he demanded, thickly.
"Ginger," she replied.
He took a sharper look. A pale, somewhat freckled face, topped by a
glory of fading red hair, thrust itself rather wistfully forward for
"Go 'way!" he waved, disconsolately. "Go 'way. I don't wanna dance!"
She smiled with the passive resistance of her kind. "Neither do I,"
she assented. "Let's just sit here and talk."
"Don't wanna talk!" he threw back, sullenly.
"All right," she agreed; "anything you say... Got a cigarette?"
He drew out a box and she selected one. The waiter hovered about
significantly. Fred ordered coffee ... Ginger took Whiterock. They
were silent. The music crashed and banged and whinnied, and the air
grew thick with the mingled odors of smoke and stale drinks and sex.
Finally Fred leaned forward and said in a whisper, "Tell me--has a
snaky-looking dub come into this joint?"
Ginger swept the room with her glance. "In a gray derby and a green
"He's over in the corner--talking to a couple of fly cops."
He reached for a cigarette himself. His voice was becoming steadier.
"What do you think his game is?"
She pursed her lips. "Oh, I guess he's a private detective," she
appraised, shrewdly. "He isn't quite heavy enough for a real bull."
He struck a match. "He's been following me all day," he admitted.
"Somebody's keeping tab, eh?... Is friend wife on the trail?"
He laughed tonelessly and cast the match aside. The sharp little face
opposite was quickening with interest.
"No ... I let a bad check get out... _You_ know--no funds."
"Whew!" escaped her. "That isn't pretty!"
"You're damned right it isn't!" he echoed, emphatically.
She clutched at his wrist. "Say, the whole three are coming this
way... I guess they've got a warrant... Don't fight back, whatever you
Her words sobered him. She was right--three men were coming toward his
table. He rose with a flourish of dignity.
"Looking for me?" he asked.
"If your name is Starratt, we are," one of the men said, moving up
"What's the idea?"
The spokesman of the group flashed his star. "You're wanted on a
Fred reached for his hat. "All right... Let's get out quietly."
His brain was perfectly clear, but he staggered a trifle as he
followed the men along the edge of the dancing space to the stairway.
The music crashed furiously. Fred's associates were giving all their
attention to treading the uncertain steps of their tawdry bacchanal,
so they missed his exit.
Halfway up the stair leading to the sidewalk Fred was halted by a
touch upon his arm. He had forgotten Ginger, but there she stood with
that childish, almost wistful, look on her face.
"Say," she demanded, "can I do anything? I've got a pull if I want to
The other three men turned about and waited. The snaky one laughed.
Fred looked at her curiously.
"You might phone my wife," he returned. "But don't say anything to the
"Where does she live?... I'll go now and see her. That is--if--"
For a moment Fred Starratt hesitated. Would it be quite the thing to
let a woman like this... But as quickly a sense of his ingratitude
swept him. Whether it was the thing or not, it was impossible to wound
the one person who stood so ready to serve him. A great compassion
seemed suddenly to flood him--for a moment he forgot his own plight.
"I don't remember the number of the house ... she's with friends.
You'll find the name in the telephone book... Hilmer--Fourteenth
Avenue. Ask for Mrs. Starratt."
"Axel Hilmer ... the man who--"
"He's a shipbuilder. Do you know him?"
She smiled wanly. "Yes ... I know lots of people."
Fred felt his arm jerked roughly, and the next thing he found himself
half flung, half dragged toward the curb. Instinctively he shook
"What's the matter?" he demanded.
The ringleader of the group reached forward and grabbed him roughly.
"D'yer think we've got all night to stand around here while you turn
on sob stuff with a dance-hall tart? You shut up and come with us!"
"I'm coming as quickly as I can," Starratt retorted.
He was answered by a hard-fisted blow in the pit of the stomach. He
doubled up with a gasping groan. A crowd began to gather. Presently he
recovered his breath. The blow had completely sobered and calmed him.
He felt that he could face anything now. The jail was just across the
street, so they walked, pursued by a knot of curious idlers.
They went through a narrow passageway, separating the Hall of Justice
from the jails, and rang a bell for the elevator. In stepping into the
cage Fred Starratt tripped and lurched forward. He was rewarded by a
stinging slap upon the face. He drew himself up, clenching his fists.
He had often wondered how it felt to be seized with a desire to shoot
a man down in cold blood. Now he knew.
The men at the booking desk treated Fred Starratt with a rough
courtesy. They did not make the required search of his person unduly
humiliating, and, when they were through, one of the men said, not
"We can ring for a messenger if you want to send word to your folks;
... it's against the rules to telephone."
"I've notified them," Fred returned, crisply. It was curious to
discover that he had no doubts concerning Ginger's delivery of his
"Is there a chance for you to get bailed out to-night?" the same man
Fred hesitated. "There may be," he said, finally.
They put him in a temporary cell with three others--two white men and
a Chinese, who had been arrested for smuggling opium. The floor was of
thick boards sloping toward the center, and in a corner was a
washbasin. There were no seats. One of the white men was pacing up and
down with the aimless ferocity of an animal freshly caged. At Fred's
entrance the younger and quieter of these two looked up and said,
"Got a smoke?"
Fred drew out a box of cigarettes and tossed it to him. The other
white man came forward; even the Chinese was moved to interest.
Fred saw the box passed from one to the other. There did not seem to
be any color line drawn about this transient solace. Fred took a smoke
"What are you up for?" the younger man inquired.
Fred experienced a shock. "Oh ... you see ... I just got caught in a
jam. It will come out all right."
It sounded ridiculous--this feeble attempt at pride, and Fred
regretted it, once it escaped him. But his questioner was not put out
"Well, if you've got a pull, it's easy; otherwise--" He finished with
a shrug and went on smoking.
Fred looked at him intently. He was a lad not much over twenty, with
thick black hair and very deep-blue eyes and an indefinable quality
which made his rather irregular features seem much more delicate than
they really were.
"What's _your_ trouble?" Fred asked, suddenly.
The boy grinned. "I rolled a guy for twenty dollars in Portsmouth
Square... He was drunk, at that," he finished, as if in justification.
At this moment the door of the cell was opened. The three white men
started forward expectantly. But it was the Chinese who was wanted. A
group of his countrymen had come to bail him out.
The man who had been silent suddenly spoke to the policeman as he was
closing the door again.
"You might as well lock me up proper for the night," he flung out,
bitterly. "I guess they're not coming to get me now."
The policeman led him away, in the wake of the disappearing Chinese.
The youth turned to Starratt with a chuckle:
"The old boy's kinda peeved, ain't he? Well, he'll get over that after
a while... The first time they jugged me I thought--"
"Then you've been up before?"
"Before?... Say, do I look like a dead one? This isn't a bad habit
after you get used to it... So far I've only made the county jails.
Some day I suppose I'll graduate... But I'm pretty wise--vagrancy is
about all they've ever pinned on me."
Fred looked at his new friend curiously. There didn't seem to be
anything particularly vicious about the youth. He merely had learned
how to get his hands on easy money and jails were an incident in his
career. Without being asked, he described his first tilt with the law.
He had come, a youth of seventeen, from a country town up North. He
had run away from home, to be exact; there was a stepmother or some
equally ancient and honorable excuse. He had arrived in San Francisco
in January without money or friends or any great moral equipment, and
after a week of purposeless bumming he had been picked up by a
policeman and charged with vagrancy. The obliging judge who heard his
case gave him twenty-four hours to leave town. He went, in company
with a professional tramp, upon the brake beams of a freight train
that pulled out for Stockton that very night. But at Stockton the
train was overhauled by policemen in wait for just these unwelcome
strangers from a rival town, and the two were told to go back promptly
where they came from. They got into San Francisco more dead than
alive, and then the inevitable happened. They were haled before the
selfsame judge who had given the youth such an amazing chance to get
started right. He treated them both to thirty days in the county jail,
and the youth emerged a wiser but by no means a sadder man. He had
learned, among other things, that if one were to be jailed one might
just as well be jailed for cause. The charge of vagrancy was very
inclusive, and a man could skirt very near the edge of felony and
still manage to achieve a nominal punishment. He told all this simply,
naturally, naively--as if he were entertaining an acquaintance with a
drawing-room anecdote. When he finished, Fred inquired:
"And how about bail to-night?"
The youth shrugged. "Well, I dunno. I sent word to a girl who--"
At that moment the attendant appeared again. He had come after the
youth--evidently the girl had proved herself.
"So long," the boy said to Fred, as he went through the door. "If
you've got a dame stuck on you there's always a chance."
Fred went over and leaned against the washbasin. His companions had
been diverting. In their company he had ceased to think very
definitely about his own plight. Now he was alone. He wondered what
Helen would do... He put his hand to his cheek--it was still smarting
from the blow that had waked his primitive hatred...
He was standing in this same position before the washbasin, smoking
furiously, when the attendant came for him.
"It's past midnight," the man said. "I guess your folks ain't coming."
Fred stirred. "No, I guess not," he echoed, with resignation.
The officer took his arm. "Well, we'll have to get fixed up for the
night," he announced.
Fred threw his cigarette butt on the floor and stepped on it.
* * * * *
The next morning at eleven o'clock Fred Starratt heard his name bawled
through the corridors and he was led out to the room where prisoners
were allowed to receive their lawyers or converse with relatives and
friends through the barred and screened opening.
A man was exchanging tearful confidences with his wife and baby as he
clung to the bars. The woman was sending a brave smile across, but the
wire mesh between gave her face the same unreality that a gauze drop
in a play gives to the figures on the other side. A strange man was
"Mr. Starratt?" he inquired.
Fred inclined his head.
"My name is Watson--from the firm of Kimball & Devine. We're attorneys
for Mr. Hilmer. He asked me to run in and see you this morning. Just
what _did_ happen?"
Fred recited the events briefly. When he had finished, the attorney
"Everything depends on this man Brauer. I'll have to get in touch with
him to-day. Hilmer told me to use my own judgment about bail... I
guess it's all right."
A hot flush overspread Fred's face, but it died quickly. He could
stand any insult now. All night he had been brooding on that slap upon
the cheek. A clenched fist had an element of fairness in it, but the
bare palm was always the mark of a petty tyrant. It was thus that a
woman struck ... or a piddling official ... or a mob bent on
humiliation. They smote Christ in the same way--_with their hands_. He
remembered the phrase perfectly and the circumstance that had
impressed it so indelibly on his mind. His people had seen to it that
he had attended Sabbath school, but he was well past ten before they
had taken him to church. And, out of the hazy impression of the first
sermon he had fidgeted through, he remembered the picture of Christ
which the good man in the pulpit had drawn, sitting in a mockery of
purple, receiving the open-palmed blows of cowards. In his extremity
the story recurred with sharp insistence and all night he had been
haunted by this thorn-crowned remembrance.
Hilmer's messenger was waiting for him to speak. He gave a shrug.
"It really doesn't matter," he said.
"Oh, come now, Mr. Starratt," Watson broke in, reprovingly. "That
isn't any way to talk. You've got to keep your spirits up. Things
might be worse. It's lucky you've got a friend like Hilmer. He's a man
that can do things for you, if anyone can."
Fred smiled wanly. "I don't suppose you saw my wife, by any chance,"
"No... Fact is, she's in bed... Hilmer said the news completely bowled
her over... That's another reason you've got to buck up--for _her_
sake, you know!"
It ended in Watson putting up the bail money and their departing in a
yellow taxicab for an obscure hotel in Ellis Street.
"This is the best arrangement, under the circumstances," Watson
explained. "You'll want to be quiet and lie low."
Fred assented indifferently. He was very tired and all he longed for
was a chance to sleep.
In less than fifteen minutes after his release Fred Starratt found
himself alone in the narrow impersonal room where Hilmer's emissary
had installed him. He did not wait to undress--he threw himself upon
the bed and slept until midnight.
* * * * *
He awoke startled and unrefreshed. A newsboy just under his window was
calling the morning papers with monotonous stridency. Fred jumped to
his feet and peered out. People drifted by on the homeward stretch in
little pattering groups--actors, chorus girls, waiters, and melancholy
bartenders. The usual night wind had died ... it had grown warmer. He
turned toward his bed again. The walls of the room seemed suddenly to
contract. He had a desire to get out into the open... He freshened up
and felt better.
He did not wait for the elevator, but walked down the dim stairway to
the narrow hotel lobby, flooded by a white, searching light. For a
moment he stood in curious confusion at the foot of the stairs that
had so suddenly spewed him from half-light to glare, his eyes blinking
aimlessly. At that moment he saw a familiar figure rising from one of
the morris chairs near the plate-glass window. He stared--it was the
private detective who had hounded him all day Saturday. Slowly he
retraced his steps and found his way back to his room again... No
doubt Brauer, fearful lest his victim would escape before he arranged
the proper warrants for arrest, had been responsible for this man's
presence in the first instance, but who was hiring him now?...
Hilmer?... Well, why not? Surely a man who risked bail money was
justified in seeing that the object of his charity kept faith... Fred
Starratt sat down and laughed unpleasantly. What a contempt everybody
must have for him! What a contempt he had for himself! He threw
himself sprawling his full length upon the rumpled bed. But this time
it was not to sleep. Instead, he stared up at the ceiling and puffed
cigarette after cigarette until morning flooded the room... At eight
o'clock he phoned down to have his breakfast sent up.
* * * * *
Toward noon Watson came in. "I saw Brauer yesterday and again this
morning... What did you do to make him so sore?"
Fred shrugged. "I guess I took a superior air... A man who plays up
his honesty is always nasty... I meant well--most fools do!"
Watson stared uncomprehendingly. "The best thing I can get this man
Brauer to agree to is a compromise... He's eager for his pound of
"What do you mean?"
"He wants to punish you ... even the score some way... After I saw him
yesterday I went out and talked to Hilmer... We outlined a plan that
Brauer is willing to accept. Hilmer has a pull, you know ... and if
the scheme goes through there'll be no trial, no notoriety, nothing
disagreeable... We'll make it plain to the authorities that you gave
out this check when you were drunk. Habitual intemperance ... that's
to be our plea... It means a few months for you at the state's Home
for Inebriates ... a bit of a rest, really... I'd say you were
Fred was beyond so futile an emotion as anger. Somehow he was not even
surprised, but he had energy enough left for sarcasm. He looked
squarely at Watson as he said:
"Why not tell the truth? If any judge is willing to convict me on my
intentions I'll go to jail gladly. It seems to me that it ought to be
easy enough to prove that I gave that check to Brauer with every
prospect in the world that I could cover it. He tricked me, really."
"Yes, but how can you prove it?"
"Why, there's my wife. She heard every bit of the--"
"My dear man, you're not going to drag _her_ into this mess, I hope.
What we're trying to do is to hush this thing up, so that in due time
you can come back and take your place in society again without
"How are you going to stop Brauer's tongue?"
"Oh, we'll see that he keeps his counsel... Hilmer will throw him a
sop... He's going in with this man Kendrick, you know."
Fred rose and went over to the washbasin and drew himself a drink.
Finally he spoke. "It's a damned lie--the whole thing. That is enough
to queer it with me. I'm not a common drunkard, and you know it."
"You were drunk when they arrested you."
"Well ... yes."
"And that's what gives us such a good chance... Now look here,
Starratt, you can take a tip from me or leave it, just as you see fit.
A trial for a charge such as you're up against is a damned nasty
business. You get publicity that you never live down. And just now
there's a big sentiment developing against letting people off easily
once the thing is made public. The judges are soaking people hard...
You might get off, and then again you _might not_. Would you like to
put your wife in the position of having a convict for a husband? ...
Think it over."
Fred sat down. He was not beaten yet. After all, what did Helen think
about this arrangement? Had they spoken to her? Some of her methods in
the past had not been to his taste, but they were the best means to an
end that she knew. And she always had been loyal. Ah yes, in a scratch
women did rise to the occasion! For an instant he remembered the
parting comment of his cell companion of Saturday night:
"If you've got a dame stuck on you there's always a chance."
He turned to Watson with a smile of triumph.
"I'll leave the thing to Mrs. Starratt," he said, confidently. "I
think I can depend upon her to stand by me, whatever happens..."