“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 same?”
“Principle! Oh, shoot!… We’re out to make money, not to reform business methods.”
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, you know.”
“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 swamping you?”
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 a girl.”
“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, incredulously.
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 intended making.
“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 way.”
“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 futile.
“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 commanded.
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 the forms.
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, deliberately:
“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 person.
“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 typewriter.
“Well, what’s all the rush?” he asked.
“I’m getting out the forms on Hilmer’s shipping plant,” she returned, nonchalantly.
“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 commiserating smile.
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 automobile?”
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 me.”
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 and hearing.
“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 them in.”
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 idea, anyway?”
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 to me?”
“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 it?”
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 death…”
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 indifferently.
“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 disquieting odors.
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 vision.
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, significantly.
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 partnership agreement.
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 elevator.
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 Exchange to-morrow.”
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 lapse.”
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 begin fresh.
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 returned, lightly.
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 needed here.”
“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 overcoat.
“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 him aside.
“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 o’clock.
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, finally.
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 implied.
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 that far!”
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 he won.
“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 charity!”
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 ill-natured irritation.
“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 her hand.
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 again to-morrow.
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 situation.
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 fell to.
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 friends.
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 his inspection.
“Go ‘way!” he waved, disconsolately. “Go ‘way. I don’t wanna dance!”
She smiled with the passive resistance of her kind. “Neither do I,” she assented. “Let’s just sit here and talk.”
“Don’t wanna talk!” he threw back, sullenly.
“All right,” she agreed; “anything you say… Got a cigarette?”
He drew out a box and she selected one. The waiter hovered about significantly. Fred ordered coffee … Ginger took Whiterock. They were silent. The music crashed and banged and whinnied, and the air grew thick with the mingled odors of smoke and stale drinks and sex.
Finally Fred leaned forward and said in a whisper, “Tell me–has a snaky-looking dub come into this joint?”
Ginger swept the room with her glance. “In a gray derby and a green tie?”
“He’s over in the corner–talking to a couple of fly cops.”
He reached for a cigarette himself. His voice was becoming steadier. “What do you think his game is?”
She pursed her lips. “Oh, I guess he’s a private detective,” she appraised, shrewdly. “He isn’t quite heavy enough for a real bull.”
He struck a match. “He’s been following me all day,” he admitted.
“Somebody’s keeping tab, eh?… Is friend wife on the trail?”
He laughed tonelessly and cast the match aside. The sharp little face opposite was quickening with interest.
“No … I let a bad check get out… _You_ know–no funds.”
“Whew!” escaped her. “That isn’t pretty!”
“You’re damned right it isn’t!” he echoed, emphatically.
She clutched at his wrist. “Say, the whole three are coming this way… I guess they’ve got a warrant… Don’t fight back, whatever you do!”
Her words sobered him. She was right–three men were coming toward his table. He rose with a flourish of dignity.
“Looking for me?” he asked.
“If your name is Starratt, we are,” one of the men said, moving up closely.
“What’s the idea?”
The spokesman of the group flashed his star. “You’re wanted on a bad-check charge.”
Fred reached for his hat. “All right… Let’s get out quietly.”
His brain was perfectly clear, but he staggered a trifle as he followed the men along the edge of the dancing space to the stairway. The music crashed furiously. Fred’s associates were giving all their attention to treading the uncertain steps of their tawdry bacchanal, so they missed his exit.
Halfway up the stair leading to the sidewalk Fred was halted by a touch upon his arm. He had forgotten Ginger, but there she stood with that childish, almost wistful, look on her face.
“Say,” she demanded, “can I do anything? I’ve got a pull if I want to use it.”
The other three men turned about and waited. The snaky one laughed. Fred looked at her curiously.
“You might phone my wife,” he returned. “But don’t say anything to the boys!”
“Where does she live?… I’ll go now and see her. That is–if–“
For a moment Fred Starratt hesitated. Would it be quite the thing to let a woman like this… But as quickly a sense of his ingratitude swept him. Whether it was the thing or not, it was impossible to wound the one person who stood so ready to serve him. A great compassion seemed suddenly to flood him–for a moment he forgot his own plight.
“I don’t remember the number of the house … she’s with friends. You’ll find the name in the telephone book… Hilmer–Fourteenth Avenue. Ask for Mrs. Starratt.”
“Axel Hilmer … the man who–“
“He’s a shipbuilder. Do you know him?”
She smiled wanly. “Yes … I know lots of people.”
Fred felt his arm jerked roughly, and the next thing he found himself half flung, half dragged toward the curb. Instinctively he shook himself free.
“What’s the matter?” he demanded.
The ringleader of the group reached forward and grabbed him roughly.
“D’yer think we’ve got all night to stand around here while you turn on sob stuff with a dance-hall tart? You shut up and come with us!”
“I’m coming as quickly as I can,” Starratt retorted.
He was answered by a hard-fisted blow in the pit of the stomach. He doubled up with a gasping groan. A crowd began to gather. Presently he recovered his breath. The blow had completely sobered and calmed him. He felt that he could face anything now. The jail was just across the street, so they walked, pursued by a knot of curious idlers.
They went through a narrow passageway, separating the Hall of Justice from the jails, and rang a bell for the elevator. In stepping into the cage Fred Starratt tripped and lurched forward. He was rewarded by a stinging slap upon the face. He drew himself up, clenching his fists. He had often wondered how it felt to be seized with a desire to shoot a man down in cold blood. Now he knew.
The men at the booking desk treated Fred Starratt with a rough courtesy. They did not make the required search of his person unduly humiliating, and, when they were through, one of the men said, not unkindly:
“We can ring for a messenger if you want to send word to your folks; … it’s against the rules to telephone.”
“I’ve notified them,” Fred returned, crisply. It was curious to discover that he had no doubts concerning Ginger’s delivery of his message.
“Is there a chance for you to get bailed out to-night?” the same man inquired.
Fred hesitated. “There may be,” he said, finally.
They put him in a temporary cell with three others–two white men and a Chinese, who had been arrested for smuggling opium. The floor was of thick boards sloping toward the center, and in a corner was a washbasin. There were no seats. One of the white men was pacing up and down with the aimless ferocity of an animal freshly caged. At Fred’s entrance the younger and quieter of these two looked up and said, eagerly:
“Got a smoke?”
Fred drew out a box of cigarettes and tossed it to him. The other white man came forward; even the Chinese was moved to interest.
Fred saw the box passed from one to the other. There did not seem to be any color line drawn about this transient solace. Fred took a smoke himself.
“What are you up for?” the younger man inquired.
Fred experienced a shock. “Oh … you see … I just got caught in a jam. It will come out all right.”
It sounded ridiculous–this feeble attempt at pride, and Fred regretted it, once it escaped him. But his questioner was not put out of countenance.
“Well, if you’ve got a pull, it’s easy; otherwise–” He finished with a shrug and went on smoking.
Fred looked at him intently. He was a lad not much over twenty, with thick black hair and very deep-blue eyes and an indefinable quality which made his rather irregular features seem much more delicate than they really were.
“What’s _your_ trouble?” Fred asked, suddenly.
The boy grinned. “I rolled a guy for twenty dollars in Portsmouth Square… He was drunk, at that,” he finished, as if in justification.
At this moment the door of the cell was opened. The three white men started forward expectantly. But it was the Chinese who was wanted. A group of his countrymen had come to bail him out.
The man who had been silent suddenly spoke to the policeman as he was closing the door again.
“You might as well lock me up proper for the night,” he flung out, bitterly. “I guess they’re not coming to get me now.”
The policeman led him away, in the wake of the disappearing Chinese. The youth turned to Starratt with a chuckle:
“The old boy’s kinda peeved, ain’t he? Well, he’ll get over that after a while… The first time they jugged me I thought–“
“Then you’ve been up before?”
“Before?… Say, do I look like a dead one? This isn’t a bad habit after you get used to it… So far I’ve only made the county jails. Some day I suppose I’ll graduate… But I’m pretty wise–vagrancy is about all they’ve ever pinned on me.”
Fred looked at his new friend curiously. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly vicious about the youth. He merely had learned how to get his hands on easy money and jails were an incident in his career. Without being asked, he described his first tilt with the law. He had come, a youth of seventeen, from a country town up North. He had run away from home, to be exact; there was a stepmother or some equally ancient and honorable excuse. He had arrived in San Francisco in January without money or friends or any great moral equipment, and after a week of purposeless bumming he had been picked up by a policeman and charged with vagrancy. The obliging judge who heard his case gave him twenty-four hours to leave town. He went, in company with a professional tramp, upon the brake beams of a freight train that pulled out for Stockton that very night. But at Stockton the train was overhauled by policemen in wait for just these unwelcome strangers from a rival town, and the two were told to go back promptly where they came from. They got into San Francisco more dead than alive, and then the inevitable happened. They were haled before the selfsame judge who had given the youth such an amazing chance to get started right. He treated them both to thirty days in the county jail, and the youth emerged a wiser but by no means a sadder man. He had learned, among other things, that if one were to be jailed one might just as well be jailed for cause. The charge of vagrancy was very inclusive, and a man could skirt very near the edge of felony and still manage to achieve a nominal punishment. He told all this simply, naturally, naively–as if he were entertaining an acquaintance with a drawing-room anecdote. When he finished, Fred inquired:
“And how about bail to-night?”
The youth shrugged. “Well, I dunno. I sent word to a girl who–“
At that moment the attendant appeared again. He had come after the youth–evidently the girl had proved herself.
“So long,” the boy said to Fred, as he went through the door. “If you’ve got a dame stuck on you there’s always a chance.”
Fred went over and leaned against the washbasin. His companions had been diverting. In their company he had ceased to think very definitely about his own plight. Now he was alone. He wondered what Helen would do… He put his hand to his cheek–it was still smarting from the blow that had waked his primitive hatred…
He was standing in this same position before the washbasin, smoking furiously, when the attendant came for him.
“It’s past midnight,” the man said. “I guess your folks ain’t coming.”
Fred stirred. “No, I guess not,” he echoed, with resignation.
The officer took his arm. “Well, we’ll have to get fixed up for the night,” he announced.
Fred threw his cigarette butt on the floor and stepped on it.
* * * * *
The next morning at eleven o’clock Fred Starratt heard his name bawled through the corridors and he was led out to the room where prisoners were allowed to receive their lawyers or converse with relatives and friends through the barred and screened opening.
A man was exchanging tearful confidences with his wife and baby as he clung to the bars. The woman was sending a brave smile across, but the wire mesh between gave her face the same unreality that a gauze drop in a play gives to the figures on the other side. A strange man was ushered in.
“Mr. Starratt?” he inquired.
Fred inclined his head.
“My name is Watson–from the firm of Kimball & Devine. We’re attorneys for Mr. Hilmer. He asked me to run in and see you this morning. Just what _did_ happen?”
Fred recited the events briefly. When he had finished, the attorney said:
“Everything depends on this man Brauer. I’ll have to get in touch with him to-day. Hilmer told me to use my own judgment about bail… I guess it’s all right.”
A hot flush overspread Fred’s face, but it died quickly. He could stand any insult now. All night he had been brooding on that slap upon the cheek. A clenched fist had an element of fairness in it, but the bare palm was always the mark of a petty tyrant. It was thus that a woman struck … or a piddling official … or a mob bent on humiliation. They smote Christ in the same way–_with their hands_. He remembered the phrase perfectly and the circumstance that had impressed it so indelibly on his mind. His people had seen to it that he had attended Sabbath school, but he was well past ten before they had taken him to church. And, out of the hazy impression of the first sermon he had fidgeted through, he remembered the picture of Christ which the good man in the pulpit had drawn, sitting in a mockery of purple, receiving the open-palmed blows of cowards. In his extremity the story recurred with sharp insistence and all night he had been haunted by this thorn-crowned remembrance.
Hilmer’s messenger was waiting for him to speak. He gave a shrug.
“It really doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Oh, come now, Mr. Starratt,” Watson broke in, reprovingly. “That isn’t any way to talk. You’ve got to keep your spirits up. Things might be worse. It’s lucky you’ve got a friend like Hilmer. He’s a man that can do things for you, if anyone can.”
Fred smiled wanly. “I don’t suppose you saw my wife, by any chance,” he ventured.
“No… Fact is, she’s in bed… Hilmer said the news completely bowled her over… That’s another reason you’ve got to buck up–for _her_ sake, you know!”
It ended in Watson putting up the bail money and their departing in a yellow taxicab for an obscure hotel in Ellis Street.
“This is the best arrangement, under the circumstances,” Watson explained. “You’ll want to be quiet and lie low.”
Fred assented indifferently. He was very tired and all he longed for was a chance to sleep.
In less than fifteen minutes after his release Fred Starratt found himself alone in the narrow impersonal room where Hilmer’s emissary had installed him. He did not wait to undress–he threw himself upon the bed and slept until midnight.
* * * * *
He awoke startled and unrefreshed. A newsboy just under his window was calling the morning papers with monotonous stridency. Fred jumped to his feet and peered out. People drifted by on the homeward stretch in little pattering groups–actors, chorus girls, waiters, and melancholy bartenders. The usual night wind had died … it had grown warmer. He turned toward his bed again. The walls of the room seemed suddenly to contract. He had a desire to get out into the open… He freshened up and felt better.
He did not wait for the elevator, but walked down the dim stairway to the narrow hotel lobby, flooded by a white, searching light. For a moment he stood in curious confusion at the foot of the stairs that had so suddenly spewed him from half-light to glare, his eyes blinking aimlessly. At that moment he saw a familiar figure rising from one of the morris chairs near the plate-glass window. He stared–it was the private detective who had hounded him all day Saturday. Slowly he retraced his steps and found his way back to his room again… No doubt Brauer, fearful lest his victim would escape before he arranged the proper warrants for arrest, had been responsible for this man’s presence in the first instance, but who was hiring him now?… Hilmer?… Well, why not? Surely a man who risked bail money was justified in seeing that the object of his charity kept faith… Fred Starratt sat down and laughed unpleasantly. What a contempt everybody must have for him! What a contempt he had for himself! He threw himself sprawling his full length upon the rumpled bed. But this time it was not to sleep. Instead, he stared up at the ceiling and puffed cigarette after cigarette until morning flooded the room… At eight o’clock he phoned down to have his breakfast sent up.
* * * * *
Toward noon Watson came in. “I saw Brauer yesterday and again this morning… What did you do to make him so sore?”
Fred shrugged. “I guess I took a superior air… A man who plays up his honesty is always nasty… I meant well–most fools do!”
Watson stared uncomprehendingly. “The best thing I can get this man Brauer to agree to is a compromise… He’s eager for his pound of flesh.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wants to punish you … even the score some way… After I saw him yesterday I went out and talked to Hilmer… We outlined a plan that Brauer is willing to accept. Hilmer has a pull, you know … and if the scheme goes through there’ll be no trial, no notoriety, nothing disagreeable… We’ll make it plain to the authorities that you gave out this check when you were drunk. Habitual intemperance … that’s to be our plea… It means a few months for you at the state’s Home for Inebriates … a bit of a rest, really… I’d say you were extremely lucky.”
Fred was beyond so futile an emotion as anger. Somehow he was not even surprised, but he had energy enough left for sarcasm. He looked squarely at Watson as he said:
“Why not tell the truth? If any judge is willing to convict me on my intentions I’ll go to jail gladly. It seems to me that it ought to be easy enough to prove that I gave that check to Brauer with every prospect in the world that I could cover it. He tricked me, really.”
“Yes, but how can you prove it?”
“Why, there’s my wife. She heard every bit of the–“
“My dear man, you’re not going to drag _her_ into this mess, I hope. What we’re trying to do is to hush this thing up, so that in due time you can come back and take your place in society again without scandal.”
“How are you going to stop Brauer’s tongue?”
“Oh, we’ll see that he keeps his counsel… Hilmer will throw him a sop… He’s going in with this man Kendrick, you know.”
Fred rose and went over to the washbasin and drew himself a drink. Finally he spoke. “It’s a damned lie–the whole thing. That is enough to queer it with me. I’m not a common drunkard, and you know it.”
“You were drunk when they arrested you.”
“Well … yes.”
“And that’s what gives us such a good chance… Now look here, Starratt, you can take a tip from me or leave it, just as you see fit. A trial for a charge such as you’re up against is a damned nasty business. You get publicity that you never live down. And just now there’s a big sentiment developing against letting people off easily once the thing is made public. The judges are soaking people hard… You might get off, and then again you _might not_. Would you like to put your wife in the position of having a convict for a husband? … Think it over.”
Fred sat down. He was not beaten yet. After all, what did Helen think about this arrangement? Had they spoken to her? Some of her methods in the past had not been to his taste, but they were the best means to an end that she knew. And she always had been loyal. Ah yes, in a scratch women did rise to the occasion! For an instant he remembered the parting comment of his cell companion of Saturday night:
“If you’ve got a dame stuck on you there’s always a chance.”
He turned to Watson with a smile of triumph.
“I’ll leave the thing to Mrs. Starratt,” he said, confidently. “I think I can depend upon her to stand by me, whatever happens…”