Watson reached into his inner coat pocket.
“I’ve a note from her here,” he said, handing Starratt a square envelope.
Fred broke the seal and unfolded the contents deliberately. He read very slowly… When he had finished he read it through again. He sat for some moments on the edge of the bed, tapping his lips with a tentative finger. Finally he rose.
“Well, Mr. Watson,” he said, bitterly, “I said I’d stand by Mrs. Starratt’s decision. And I’m a man of my word.”
Watson rose also. “You won’t regret this, I’m sure,” he ventured, heartily. “Meanwhile I’ll get busy pulling wires at once. It won’t do to let this thing get cold. I’ll go right out and see Hilmer now… Any message you’d like to give your wife?”
Fred looked at the man before him searchingly. “No … none!”
Watson bowed himself out… Fred Starratt put both hands to his temples.
The days that followed passed in a blur. Fred Starratt went through the motions of living, but they were only motions. Between the intervals of legal adjustments, court examinations, and formal red tape he would lie upon his narrow bed at the hotel reading his wife’s message–that sharp-edged message which had shorn him of his strength–as if to dull further his blunted sensibilities. In all this time he saw only Watson. He did not ask for Hilmer or Helen. But one day the attorney said to him:
“Your wife is still ill, otherwise–” “Yes, yes … of course,” Fred assented, dismissing the subject with an impatient shrug.
Finally, on a certain afternoon at about two o’clock, Watson came in quite unexpectedly.
“I think by to-night everything will be settled. … What can I do for you? … Perhaps you would like to go to your apartment and get some things together… Or see a friend… Just say the word.” Fred roused himself. A fleeting rebellion flickered and died. He wanted nothing … least of all to so much as see his former dwelling place. He made only one request.
“If you’re passing that dance hall where they arrested me–you know, near Jackson Street–drop in and ask for a girl called Ginger. I’d like to see her.”
Watson smiled widely…
The girl Ginger came that very afternoon. She was dressed very quietly in black, with only a faint trace of make-up on her cheeks. Almost anyone would have mistaken her for a drab little shopgirl. Fred felt awkward in her presence.
“I’m going away to-night–for some time,” he said, when she had seated herself. “And I wanted to thank you for your interest when–“
She shook her head. “That wasn’t anything,” she answered.
He wondered what next to say. It was she who spoke finally.
“I suppose you got out of your mess all right,” she half queried.
He opened his cigarette case and offered her a smoke. She declined.
“Well, not altogether… My friend Hilmer worked a compromise… I’m going to a place to sober up.” He laughed bitterly.
She folded her hands. “One of those private sanitariums, I suppose, where rich guys bluff it out until everything blows over.”
“No, you’re wrong again… I’m going summering in a state hospital.”
Her hands, suddenly unclasped, lifted and fell in startled flight. “An insane asylum?” she gasped. He leaned forward. “Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s the only place in this state where they send drunks… I know plenty who’ve been through that game… You can’t tell me anything about that.”
He stared at her in silence and presently she said:
“What are they doing to you, anyway? Railroading you? I don’t believe you know where you _are_ going.”
He shrugged wearily. “No; you’re right. And I don’t much care.”
“Why didn’t you send for me?” she demanded. “That night when they got you I told you I had a pull… I’m not a Hilmer, but I can work a few people myself… I haven’t always been a cheap skate. There was a time when I had them fighting over me. And that wasn’t so long ago, either… I’m still young–younger than a lot that get by. But, anyway, I’ve got a lot of old-memory stuff up my sleeve that can make some people step about pretty lively… There’s more than one man in this town who would just as soon I kept my mouth shut… I could even run Hilmer around the ring once or twice if I wanted to.”
He felt a bit tremulous, but he put a tight rein upon his emotions.
“It’s very good of you,” he said, “but, really, I couldn’t quite have that, you know… I don’t mean to be ungrateful or unkind, but there are some things that–“
She laughed. “Oh yes, I know… You feel that way now, of course… You’re a gentleman; I understand that… And I haven’t run up against many gentlemen in my day… Oh, there were a lot who had plenty of money and they were polite enough when it didn’t matter … but … Well, I know the real thing when I see it… You’re going to that hell hole, too, just for that very reason… Because you haven’t got the face to be nasty…”
He crumpled the unlighted cigarette in his hand and flung it from him.
“What do you know about me?” he asked.
“Women aren’t fools!” she retorted. “And least of all women like me! … I wish to God I’d known you sooner!”
He watched the quivering revelations run in startled flight across her face, hiding themselves as swiftly behind the dull shadows of indifference. For a moment the room seemed flooded in a truant flash of sunshine. She seemed at once incredibly old and as incredibly touched with a vagrant youth. How eagerly she must have given herself! How eagerly she could give herself again!
He rose in his seat, confused. She seemed to have taken it for a sign of dismissal, for she followed his example.
“Maybe it isn’t too late,” she faltered. “Maybe I could work that pull I’ve got … if you want me to.”
He shook his head. “It’s out of my hands,” he answered. She moved to the door, as if to place a proper distance between them.
“What does your wife think about it?”
“You won’t like what I’m going to say,” she flung out, defiantly. “But that night when I saw your wife _I_ knew.”
“That she wasn’t playing fair…” Her face was lighted with a primitive malevolence. “She isn’t straight!”
He tried to pull himself up in prideful refutation, but the effort failed. He was turning away defeated when a knock sounded on the door. Watson entered. Ginger drew herself flatly against the wall. The attorney gave a significant glance in her direction as he said to Starratt:
“Your wife is waiting in the hall … just around the corner. I thought it best to …”
Ginger came forward quickly. “Good-by!” she said, hurriedly.
He put out a hand to her. She moved a little nearer and, suddenly, quite suddenly, she kissed him. He drew back a little, and presently she was gone…
He looked up to find Helen standing before him. She was a little pale and her lips more scarlet than ever, and her thick, black eyebrows sharply defined. He had never seen her look so disagreeably handsome.
“That woman who just went out,” she began, coolly, “she’s the same one who–“
“Yes,” he interrupted, crisply.
“Who is she?”
He looked at her steadily; she did not flinch. “A friend of mine.”
Her lip curled disdainfully. “Oh!” she said, and she sat down.
* * * * *
Toward evening they came for him, or rather Watson did, with a taxicab.
“Everything has gone nicely,” Watson explained, pridefully. “You certainly were lucky in having Hilmer for a friend … no humiliation, no publicity.”
Fred, standing before the bureau mirror, brushed his hair. “Where are you taking me now?” he inquired.
“To the detention hospital… You’ll stay there a week or so for observation… It’s a mere form.”
“And from there?”
“To the state hospital at Fairview.”
Fred Starratt flung down the brush. “Why don’t you call it by its right name? … I’m told it’s an insane asylum.”
Watson stared and then came forward with a little threatening gesture. “You better not start any rough-house, Starratt–at the eleventh hour!” he admonished, with a significant warmth.
Fred turned slowly, breaking into a laugh. “Rough-house?” he echoed. “Don’t be afraid. … I’ve got to the curious stage now. I want to see the whole picture.” He reached for his hat. “I’m ready … let’s go.”
A half hour later Fred Starratt was booked at the detention hospital. They took away his clothes and gave him a towel and a nightgown and led him to a bathroom… Presently he was shown to his cell-like room. Overhead the fading day filtered in ghostly fashion through a skylight; an iron bed stood against the wall. There was not another stick of furniture in sight.
He crawled into his bed and the attendant left him, switching on an electric light from the outside. A nurse with supper followed shortly–a bowl of thin soup and two slices of dry bread. Fred Starratt lifted the bowl to his lips and drank a few mouthfuls. The stuff was without flavor, but it quenched his burning thirst… After a while he broke the bread into small bits–not only because he was hungry, but because he was determined to eat this bitter meal to the last crumb. When he had finished he felt mysteriously sealed to indifference.
The nurse came in for the tray and he asked her to switch off the light. He lay for hours, open-eyed, in the gloom, while wraithlike memories materialized and vanished as mysteriously. Somehow the incidents of his life nearest in point of time seemed the remotest. Only his youth lay within easy reach, and his childhood nearest of all. He was traveling back … back … perhaps in the end
oblivion would wrap him in its healing mantle and he would wait to be made perfect and whole again in the flaming crucible of a new birth… Gradually the mists of remembrance faded, lost their outline … became confused, and he slept.
He awoke with a shiver. A piercing scream was curdling the silence. From the other side of the thin partition came shrieks, curses, mad laughter. He heard the heavy tramp of attendants in the hallway … doors quickly opened and slammed shut. … There followed the sounds of scuffling, the reeling impact of several bodies against the wall … then blows of shuddering softness, one last shriek … dead silence!
He sat up in bed–alive and quivering. Was this the rebirth that the swooning hours had held in store for him? … Quickly life came flooding back. Indifference fell from him. In one blinding flash his new condition was revealed. His life had been a futile compromise. He had sowed passivity and he had reaped a barren harvest of negative virtues. He would compromise again, and he would be passive again, and he would bow his neck to authority … but from this moment on he would wither the cold fruits of such enforced planting in a steadily rising flame of understanding. He knew now the meaning of the word “revelation.”
They kept Fred Starratt in bed for two weeks, and one morning when the sun was flooding through the skylight with soul-warming radiance they brought him his clothes and he knew that the prologue to the drama of his humiliation was over. He crawled to his feet and looked down upon his body wasted by days of enforced idleness and fasting. He dropped back upon the bed, exhausted. The sun, striking him squarely, gradually flamed him with feeble energy. He straightened himself and dressed slowly.
When he had finished the sun still poured its golden shower into the room. He rose to his feet and lifted his chilled hands high to receive its blessing. He felt the blood tingle through his transparent fingers.
In the next room he heard the tramping of feet and a feeble curse or two. He dropped his hands and sat down again. The nurse came in with his breakfast.
“The man next door?” he asked. “Is he leaving to-day, too?”
“Where does he go?”
A memory of that first night with its piercing terror sent a shiver through him.
“They brought him in the same day I came,” he ventured, half musingly. “At the beginning he made a lot of noise, but lately…”
She set the tray down upon the bed. “They had to put him in a strait-jacket,” she said, significantly. “He’s quite hopeless. He tried to kill his wife and his child … and he set fire to the home. He’s an Italian.”
“Yes … so I was told.”
The nurse departed and he drank the cup of muddy coffee on the tray. He laid the cup down and sat staring at the square cut in the center of the thick oak door leading into the corridor. Presently he heard the swish of a woman’s skirt passing the opening, followed by the pattering footsteps of childhood. There came the sound of soft weeping … the swishing skirt passed again, and the pattering footsteps died away. The nurse returned.
“The Italian’s wife and child have just been here,” she said. “They let the woman look for the last time at her husband through the hole in the door.”
Fred put his head between his hands. “He tried to murder her and yet she came to see him,” he muttered, almost inaudibly. “I dare say he abused her in his day, too.”
The woman gave him a sharp glance. “You’re married, aren’t you?”
He looked up suddenly, reading the inference in her question. “Yes … but my wife won’t come…”
The nurse left the room and he put his face in his hands again. The sun was traveling swiftly. He shifted his position so that he could get the full benefit of its warmth. He thought that he had banished the memory of Helen Starratt forever, but he found his mind re-creating that final scene with her in all its relentless bitterness… She had come that day to salve her conscience … to pay her tithe to form and respectability … perhaps moved to fleeting pity. He had seen through every word, every gesture, every glance. Her transparency was loathsome. Why did he read her so perfectly now? Was it because she felt herself too secure for further veilings, or had his eyes been suddenly opened?
She was not flaming nor reckless nor consumed utterly; instead, there was a complacent coolness about her, as if passion had drawn every warmth within her for its own consummation. She had still her instincts in the leash of calculation, going through the motions of conventionality. The lifted eyebrows and curling lip which she had directed at Ginger’s departing figure were not inconsistent. Dissimulation was such an art with her that it was unconscious.
He had asked her only one question:
“And how is Mrs. Hilmer?”
Even now he shuddered at the completeness with which her words betrayed her.
“There is no change … we are simply waiting.”
He had turned away from this crowning disclosure. _Waiting_? No wonder she could veil her desire in such disarming patience! He had intended asking her plans. Now it was unnecessary. And he had thought at once of that last night when he had called at Hilmer’s, remembering the sprawling magazine on the floor, the bowl of wanton flowers upon the mantelshelf, the debonairly flung mandarin skirt clinging to the piano–these had been the first marks of conquest.
As she was leaving she had said, “I shall see you again, of course.”
In spite of its inconsistency he had sensed a certain habitual tenderness in her voice, as if custom were demanding its due. And, for a moment, the old bond between them touched him with its false warmth. But a swift revulsion swept him.
“Why bother?” he had thrown back at her.
“You mean you don’t want me to come?”
“Yes, just that!”
He had taken her breath away, perhaps even wounded her, momentarily, but she had recovered herself quickly. Her smile had been full of the smug satisfaction of one who has washed his hands in public self-justification.
She had left soon after that passage at arms, achieving the grace to dispense with the empty formality of either a kiss or a farewell embrace… He remembered how he had flung up the window as if to clear the room of her poisonous presence…
To-day, sitting upon his narrow bed, instinctively following the patch of yellow sunlight as it gilded the gloom, he felt that the maniac next door had the better part. Of what use was reason when it ceased to function except in terms of withering unbelief?
He sat motionless for hours, waiting patiently for them to come and release him to sharper sorrows. He had a passive eagerness to taste bitterness to the lees… When he heard the door open finally he did not rise. He kept his face buried. A light footstep came nearer and he was conscious of the pressure of icy fingers upon his hands. He looked up. Ginger stood before him.
“I brought you some smokes,” she said, simply, “but they wouldn’t let me bring them in.”
He tried to speak, but suddenly great sobs shook him.
She put her fingers in his hair, drawing him to his feet, and presently he felt her own tears splashing his cheek.
He was smiling when they finally came for him. But he felt weaker than ever, and as they walked out into the glare of the street he was glad to lean upon Ginger’s arm. The sheriff’s van was drawn up to the curb. Two deputies helped him in. He turned for a last look at Ginger. Her pale little face was twisted, but she waved a gay farewell. In a far corner of the lumbering machine Fred could see two catlike eyes glimmering. Slowly his gaze penetrated the gloom, and the figure of a battered man shaped itself, his two hands strapped to his sides. The deputies got in, the door was shut sharply, and the van shot forward.
In less than fifteen minutes they had reached the ferry.
The train was late, and it was long after nine o’clock when it pulled into the Fairview station. The day had been hot, and the breath of evening was bringing out grateful and cooling odors from the sunburnt stubble of the hillside as Fred Starratt and his keeper stepped upon the station platform. The insane Italian followed between two guards. An automobile swung toward them. They got in and rode through the thickening gloom for about three miles… Presently one of the deputies leaned toward Fred, pointing a finger in the direction of a cluster of lights, as he said:
“There’s your future home, old man. Keep a stiff upper lip. You’ll need all your grit.”
Fred Starratt rested surprisingly well that first night. But two weeks in the detention hospital had taken the sting out of institutional preliminaries. The officials at Fairview put him through precisely the same paces, except upon a somewhat larger scale. There was the selfsame questioning, the same yielding up of personal effects, the same inevitable bath. And almost the same solitary room, except that this one peered out upon the free world through a heavily barred window instead of through a skylight, and boasted a kitchen chair. He was to be alone then!… He thanked God for this solitude and slept.
He awoke at six o’clock to the clipped shriek of a whistle. Shortly after, a key turned in his door. There followed the sound of scores of bare feet pattering up and down the hall. Was it imagination or did these muffled footfalls have an inhuman softness?… Suddenly his door flew open. He shrank beneath the bedclothes, peering out with one unscreened eye.
A knot of gesticulating and innocent madmen were gazing at him with all the simplicity of children. After a few moments, their curiosity satisfied, they pattered on their ghostly way again.
This, he afterward learned, was the daily morning inspection of newcomers.
Presently the whistle blew again and a bell sounded through the corridors. A rush of answering feet swept past; a great silence fell.
A half hour later a monstrous man with glittering eyes and clawlike fingers came in, carrying breakfast–a large dishpan filled with a slimy mush, two slices of dry bread, and a mound of greasy hash. Fred turned away with a movement of supreme disgust. The gigantic attendant laughed.
There came a call of, “All outside!” echoing through the halls; a rush of feet again, a hushed succeeding silence. The half-mad ogre went to the window and slyly beckoned Fred to follow. He crawled out of bed and took his place before the iron bars. The man pointed a skinny finger; Fred’s gaze followed. He found himself looking down upon a stone-paved yard filled with loathsome human wreckage–gibbering cripples, drooling monsters, vacant-eyed corpses with only the motions of life. Some had their hands strapped to their sides, others were almost naked. They sang, shouted, and laughed, prayed or were silent, according to their mental infirmities. It was an inferno all the more horrible because of its reality, a relentless nightmare from which there was no awakening.
Fred heard the man at his side chuckling ferociously.
His tormentor was laughing with insane cruelty. “The bull pen! Ha, ha, ha!”
Fred made his way back to his bed. Midway he stopped.
“Does everybody …” he began to stammer–“does everybody … or only those who …”
He broke off in despair. What could this mad giant tell him? But almost before the thought had escaped him his companion read his thought with uncanny precision.
“You think I don’t know!” the man said, tapping his head significantly. “But everybody … they all ask me the same question. Yes … you’ll take your turn, my friend. Don’t be afraid. They’ll give you the air in the bull pen, all right! Ha, ha, ha!” And with that he picked up the dishpan of untasted breakfast and hurried from the room.
Fred Starratt sank down upon the bed. His temples were throbbing and his body wet with an icy sweat.
* * * * *
He was roused by a vigorous but not ungentle tap upon the shoulder. He stumbled to his feet, shaking himself into a semblance of courage. But instead of the malevolent giant of the breakfast hour, a genial man of imposing bulk stood before him. “My name is Harrison,” his visitor began, kindly; “I’m an assistant to the superintendent… Perhaps you’d like to tell me something about yourself?”
Fred drew back a trifle. “Must I?…”
Harrison smiled as he seated himself in the chair.
“No … but they usually do … after the first night… It helps, sometimes, to talk.”
“I am afraid there’s nothing to tell… I’m here, and I’ll make the best of it…”
Fred wiped the clammy sweat from his forehead with a gesture of despair.
Harrison leaned forward. “Don’t you feel well?” he inquired.
“It’s nothing… I looked out into the yard this morning… I dare say one gets used to it–but for the moment… You have other yards, I suppose… That is, I sha’n’t have to take the air there … shall I … in the bull pen?”
“It’s usual … for the first day or two. But perhaps in your case–” Harrison broke off. “However, I can’t promise anything… If you’ll come to the office I’ll give you back your clothes.”
They went into the office together and Fred received his clothing duly marked with his name and ward. But his shoes were withheld and in their place he was given a pair of mismated slippers which proved too large. Harrison handed him two rag strips with which he tied them on. Looking down at the shapeless, flapping footgear, Fred Starratt felt his humiliation to be complete. He walked slowly back to his room.
The noise from the bull pen was deafening. He went to the window and steeled himself against the sight below… At first he shuddered, but gradually his hands became clenched, in answer to a rising determination. Why should he flinch from anything God himself could look upon?… He was still standing by the window when the gong for the midday meal sounded. The bull pen had long since been deserted and, with the foreground swept clean of its human excrescence, his purposeless gaze had wandered instinctively toward the promise of the forest-green hills in the distance.
He heard the familiar rush of feet toward the dining room and he was vaguely conscious that some one had halted before his door. He turned about. A young man, not over twenty-five, with a delicately chiseled face, was stepping into the room. As he drew closer Fred received the wistful impression of changing-blue eyes and a skin clear to the point of transparency. Fred met his visitor halfway.
“You came last night, didn’t you?” the youth began, offering a shy hand. “I saw you this morning. I was in the crowd that looked you over just before breakfast… What are you here for?”
Fred lifted his hand and let it fall again. “I made a mess of things… And you?”
“Booze,” the other replied, laconically. “I’ve been in three times… Let’s go down to lunch.” He slipped a friendly arm into Fred’s and together they walked with the rushing throng into the dining room.
It was a small room, everything considered, with tables built around the four walls and one large table in the center that seated about twenty-five people. Starratt and his new-found friend discovered two vacant seats upon the rude bench in front of the center table and sat down. They were each given a plate upon which was a potato and a small piece of cold beef and the inevitable hunk of dry bread. A large pitcher of tea stood within reach. There was neither milk nor sugar nor butter in evidence. A tablespoon and a tin cup were next handed them. Fred felt a sudden nausea. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he looked up his plate had been swept clean of food.
“You’ve got to watch sharp,” the youth was saying. “They steal everything in sight if you let them… Here, have some of mine.”
Fred made a gesture of refusal. “It doesn’t matter,” he explained. “I’m not hungry.”
“You’d better eat something… Have some hot tea!”
It was a black, hair-raising brew, but Fred managed to force down a draught of it. About him on all sides men were tearing their meat with clawlike hands, digging their fangs into it in wolfish ferocity… A dishpan of rice was circulated. Fred took a few spoonfuls. Within fifteen minutes the meal was over and the dishpan, emptied of its rice, was passed again. Fred saw his companions flinging their spoons into it. He did likewise.
The youth arose. “Let’s get out of this and have a smoke… I’ve got the makings.”
A great surge of relief swept over Fred. A smoke! Somehow, he had forgotten that such a solace existed in this new world of terror and pain.
It appeared that the only place indoors where smoking was permitted was the lavatory, but when they reached the corridor they found a line forming ready to march out to take the air. They decided to wait and have their smoke in the open. Fred and his companion exchanged names. The youth was Felix Monet.
“I’m not sure whether you go out with us,” Monet admitted, as they swung into place. “This crowd is bound for the front parade ground. It’s not usual for newcomers to have that privilege.”
Fred made no reply. The line of men shuffled forward.
“We go downstairs first for our shoes,” the youth finished.
Presently they found themselves upon the ground floor, in a small room where an attendant distributed shoes and hats. It appeared that Fred’s shoes were there, duly labeled. The man in charge made no objection to yielding them up.
“You must have a pull,” Monet remarked, as Fred sat down upon a stool to draw on his shoes.
Fred shook his head in silence. Evidently the assistant superintendent had said a word for him. … He was not to be put to the torture of the bull pen, then!
Outside, the air was warm and the sunlight dazzling. Fred felt a surge of red-blooded life sweep him as his quivering nostrils drank in the pungent odors from the midsummer foliage. Waves of heat floated wraithlike from the yellow stubble, bathing the distant hills in an arid-blue haze. At convenient intervals clumps of dark-green trees threw contrasting patches of shade upon the tawny, sun-bleached sod. But Fred ignored their cool invitation. He always had hated hot weather with all his coast-bred soul, but to-day a hunger for warmth possessed him completely.
Monet and he took a broad path which circled for about a quarter of a mile about the grounds. As they progressed, several joined them. Fred was introduced to each in turn, but he responded listlessly. Almost at once the newcomers hurled questions at him… Why was he there? … How long was he in for? … What did he think were the chances of escape? Inevitably, every conversation turned upon this last absorbing topic. These men seemed eager for confidences, they wanted to share their experiences, their grievances, their hopes. But Fred Starratt recoiled. He had not yet reached the stage when a thin trickle of words fell gratefully upon his ears. He had no desire to either hear or speak. All he craved was the healing silence of open spaces. But he was soon to learn that this new life held no such soul-cleansing solace. Gradually he fell a bit apart from his chattering comrades.
They passed an ill-kept croquet ground and some patches of garden where those who were so disposed could raise vegetables or flowers. There was something pathetic about the figures bending with childlike faith over their labor of love–attempting to make nature smile upon them. Without the vision of the bull pen Fred Starratt would have found much that afternoon that was revolting. But one glimpse into the horrible inferno of the morning had made him less sensitive to milder impressions.
After a while Monet detached himself from the rest of the walking throng and fell back with Starratt. He seemed to have an instinctive gift for sensing moods, and Fred was grateful for his silence.
They were passing by a two-story concrete building in the Colonial style when Monet touched Fred’s arm.
“That’s the famous Ward Six,” Monet explained, softly. “You’ll get there finally if you work it right… It’s not heaven … but alongside the other wards it comes pretty near being.”
They turned about shortly after this and began to retrace their steps. Presently a man came in sight, pulling a cardboard box mounted upon four spools.
“An inventor,” Monet said, as Fred threw out a questioning glance. “He has an idea that he’s perfected a wonderful automobile… You’ll get used to them after a while.”
A little farther on they met a haughty-looking Japanese coming toward them. Monet plucked at Fred’s sleeve. “Better step to one side,” he cautioned; “that fellow thinks he is the Emperor of Japan!”
Fred did as he was bidden and the Japanese swept past gloomily.
“Well, at least he’s happy, in his own way!” Monet commented, with a tinge of irony.
Soon after that another man passed, weeping bitterly.
“They call him the Weeping Willow,” Monet explained. “He weeps because he can find no one who will kill him.”
By this time they had reached their starting point. Fred felt suddenly tired. “Let’s rest a bit under the trees,” he proposed.
Monet assented, and the two threw themselves into the first shade. Fred closed his eyes. He had a sense that he was dreaming–that all the scenes that he had witnessed these many days were unreal. Presently he would wake up to the old familiar ring of his alarm clock, and gradually all the outlines of his bedroom would shape themselves to his recovered senses… There would stand Helen by her dressing table, stooping down to the mirror’s level as she popped her thick braids under her pink boudoir cap… In a few minutes the first whiffs of coffee would come floating in from the kitchenette. Then he would crawl slowly out from the warm bedclothes and stretch himself comfortably and give a sudden dash for the bathroom and his cold plunge. There would follow breakfast and the walk over the hill down to the office of Ford, Wetherbee & Co. in a mist-golden morning. And he would hear again the exchange of greetings, and find himself replying to the inevitable question:
“Well, what’s new?”
With the equally inevitable answer:
“Not a thing in the world!”
Some one was shaking him. He gave a quick gasp that ended in a groan as he opened his eyes. Monet was bending over him.
“You’ve been asleep,” his companion said. “Come, it’s time to go in… The bell for supper has rung… And you were dreaming, too … I knew that because you smiled!”
Fred Starratt grasped Monet’s hand fervently.
“It was good of you to keep watch,” he murmured.
Monet answered with a warm pressure. And at that moment something deep and indefinable passed between them … a silent covenant too precious for words.
Fred Starratt rose to his feet.
“Let us go in!” he said.
* * * * *
At supper Fred Starratt nibbled at some dry bread and drank another strong draught of tea. But he had to force himself to even this scant compromise with expediency. There followed smoking in the lavatory and at seven o’clock the call to turn in. Fred scurried confidently to his cell-like room … he was quite ready for solitude.
An attendant was moving about. “You sleep in the first dormitory to-night,” he explained to Fred. “It’s at the end of the hall.”
Fred turned away in fresh despair.
Before the door of the first dormitory a number of men were undressing. Monet was in the group and a newspaper man named Clancy that Fred had met that afternoon. Fred stood a moment in indecision.
“You’ll have to strip out here,” Monet said, in a matter-of-fact tone. “Just leave your clothes in a pile close against the wall.”
Fred obeyed. The rest of the company regarded him with sinister curiosity. Except for Monet and Clancy all seemed obviously insane. One by one they filed into the room. Fred followed. Twelve spotlessly clean cots gleamed in the twilight.
The twelve men crawled into bed; the door was shut with a bang. Fred heard a key turn… They were locked in!
The ghostly day faded and night settled in. Fitful snorings and groans and incoherent mutterings broke the stillness. At intervals a man near the door would jump to his feet, proclaiming the end of the world. Sometimes his paroxysm was brief, but again he would keep up his leaping and solemn chanting until he fell to the floor in sheer exhaustion… Gradually even he became quiet, and nothing was audible except heavy breathing and the sound of the watchman in the corridor as he passed by regularly, flashing his light into the room through the slits in the door.
Fred Starratt did not close his eyes.
The first week passed in an inferno of idleness. Fred Starratt grew to envy even the wretches who were permitted to carry swill to the pigs. There once had been a time in his life when ambition had pricked him with a desire for affluent ease… He had been grounded in the religious conviction that work had been wished upon a defenseless humanity as a curse. He still remembered his Sabbath-school stories, particularly the scornful text with which the Lord had banished those two erring souls from Eden. Henceforth they were to work! To earn their bread by the sweat of their brows! He had a feeling now that either God had been tricked into granting a boon or else the scowl which had accompanied the tirade had been the scowl that a genial Father threw at his children merely for the sake of seeming impressive. At heart the good Lord must have had only admiration for these two souls who refused to be beguiled by all the slothful ease of Eden, preferring to take their chances in a world of their own making… And he began to question, too, either the beauty or contentment of the heaven which offered the vacuous delights of idleness. It seemed, perhaps, that the theologians had mixed their revelations, and that the paradise they offered so glibly was really a sinister hell in disguise.
After the first day the sights which had sent shudders through him gradually began to assume the inevitability of custom. Even the vision of the Weeping Willow, sorrowing at death withheld, failed to shake him. The third night he slept undisturbed in the lap of frenzy and madness. There was something at once pathetic and sublime in his adaptability to the broken suits of fortune. He was learning what every man learns sooner or later–to play the hand that is dealt, even in the face of a losing game.
Deep within him he found two opposing currents struggling for mastery–one an overwhelming tide of disillusionment, the other a faith in things hitherto withheld. Against the uncloaked figures of Helen Starratt and Hilmer loomed Ginger and Monet. Did life always yield compensations, if one had the wit to discern them? In the still watches of the night, when some fleeting sound had waked him, he used to think of Ginger as he had thought when a child of some intangible and remote vision that he could sense, but not define. Would he ever see her again? Suddenly, one night, he realized that he did not even know her name… And Monet, who slept so quietly upon the cot next to him–what would he have done without his companionship? He used to raise himself on his elbow at times and look in the ghostly light of morning at Monet’s face, white and immobile, the thin and shapely lips parted ever so slightly, and marvel at the bland and childlike faith that was the basis of this almost breathless and inaudible sleep. Fred had made friendships in his life, warm, hand-clasping, shoulder-thumping friendships, but they had been of gradual unfolding. Never before had anyone walked full-grown into his affections.
On the third afternoon, sitting in the thick shade of a gracious tree, Monet had told Fred something of his story. He was of mixed breed–French and Italian, with a bit of Irish that had made him blue-eyed, and traces of English and some Dutch. A brood of races that were forever at war within him. And he had been a musician in the bargain, and this in the face of an implacable father who dealt in hides and tallow. There had been all the weakness and flaming and _naivete_ of a potential artist ground under the heel of a relentless sire. His mother was long since dead. The father had attempted to force the stream of desire from music to business. He had succeeded, after a fashion, but the youth had learned to escape from the dull pain of his slavery into a rosy and wine-red Eden. … Three times he had been sent to Fairview “to kick the nonsense out of him!” to use his father’s words. He was not embittered nor overwhelmed, but he was passive, stubbornly passive, as if he had all a lifetime to cross words with Monet, senior. It was inevitable that he would win in the end. He was a child … he always would be one … and childhood might be cowed, but it was never really conquered. He was gentle, too, like a child, and sensitive. Yet the horrors which surrounded him seemed to leave him untroubled. It could not be that he was insensible to ugliness, but he rose above it on the wings of some inner beauty… Once Fred Starratt would have felt some of the father’s scorn for Felix Monet–the patronizing scorn most men bring to an estimate of the incomprehensible. What could one expect of a fiddler? Yes, he would have felt something worse than scorn–he would have been moved to tolerance.
The only other man in Ward 1 who was sane was Clancy, the newspaper reporter. But in the afternoons the knot of rational inmates from the famous Ward 6 herded together and exchanged griefs. Fred Starratt sat and listened, but he felt apart. Somehow, most of the stories did not ring quite true. He never had realized before how eager human beings were to deny all blame. To hear them one would fancy that the busy world had paused merely to single them out as targets for misfortune. And the more he listened to their doleful whines the more he turned the searching light of inquiry upon his own case. In the end, there was something beyond reserve and arrogance in the reply he would make to their direct inquiries:
“What brought me here? … Myself!”
But his attitude singled him out for distrust. He was incomprehensible to these burden shifters, these men who had been trained to cast their load upon the nearest object and, failing everything else, upon the Lord… They were all either drug users or victims of drink. And, to a man, they were furiously in favor of prohibition with all the strength of their weak, dog-in-the-manger souls. Like every human being, they hated what they abused. They wanted to play the game of life with failure eliminated, and the god that they fashioned was a venerable old man who had the skill to worst them, but who genially let them walk away with victory.
As Fred Starratt listened day after day to their chatter he withdrew more and more from any mental contact with them. And yet there were times when he felt a longing to pour out his grief into the ears of understanding… He knew that Monet was waiting for his story, but pride still held him in its grip… After all, there was a ridiculous side to his plight. When a man permitted himself to be blindfolded he could not quarrel at being pushed and shoved and buffeted… How absurd he must have seemed to Watson on that day when he had announced so dramatically:
“I said I’d stand by Mrs. Starratt’s decision. And I’m a man of my word!”
How much a man would endure simply for the sake of making a fine flourish! He had thought himself heroic at that moment, poor, empty fool that he was, when he really had been the victim of cowardice. A brave man would have cried:
“I said I’d stand by Mrs. Starratt’s decision, but I’m not quite an idiot!”
One other topic flamed these poor souls, seeking to kindle a warmth of sympathy for their failures. When the lamentations ceased, they talked of flight. Fred Starratt sat mentally apart and listened. Everybody had a plan. They discussed prospects, previous attempts, chances for failure. Fred learned, among other things, that the search for escaped nationals did not extend much beyond the environs of Fairview. If a man from Ward 6 made a good get-away he held his freedom, unless his kinsfolk constituted themselves a pack of moral bloodhounds. He realized now that there was nothing as relentless as family pride. It was not so much the alcoholic excess that was resented, but the fact that it led to unkept linen and dirty finger nails and, by the same token, to neighborhood scorn. Concern for a man’s soul did not send him to Fairview… But was anybody really concerned for a man’s soul? … Why should they be? … He ended by quarreling only with the pretense.
Escape! Escape! To get back to the world that they were forever reviling! Like men in the grip of some wanton mistress who could bring them neither happiness nor heroics, either in her company or away from her. Take Fordham, for instance, a lean, purple-faced clerk, who had been sent up for the third time by his wife after two sensational escapes. He hadn’t disturbed her, looked her up, gone near her, in fact. But he had laid up alongside an amber-filled bottle in a moldy wine shop somewhere near the Barbary coast. Yes, he had achieved it even in the face of prohibition. And she had got wind of it. Folks had seen him, red-eyed and greasy-coated and bilious-hued, emerging from his haunt in some harsh noon that set him blinking, like a startled owl. Well, she couldn’t quite have that, you know! She couldn’t have her husband making a spectacle of himself, sinking lower and lower in the hell of his own choosing. No! Far better to pick out a hell for him … a hell removed discreetly from the gaze of the scornful. … And there was Wainright, who, like Monet, had a father. He had married a Runway Girl of the Bearcat Follies … the sort that patters down from the stage to imprint carmine kisses and embarrassment upon the shining pate of the first old rounder that has an aisle seat. Well, father could not have that, either. He was impatient with the whole performance. Indeed, a less impatient man would have waited and watched Wainright, junior, wind himself in the net which his own hands had set. Instead, he went to the trouble of digging a pit for his son which hastened the inevitable, but did not cure the folly… Wainright had escaped, too, quite casually, one fine spring day when he had been sent out to the barn to help milk the cows. The Runway Girl, in need of publicity, had telegraphed the details to her press agent, following receipt of her husband’s letter telling of his exploit. A Runway Girl whose husband-lover broke jail, so to speak, for her, had professional assets that could not be gainsaid.
And so the story was flashed on the front page of every newspaper in the country, with the result that father dug another pit.
And so tale succeeded tale. Fred grew to accept most of them with large dashes of salt. Not that he doubted the broader strokes with which the effects were achieved, but he mistrusted that many of the finer shadings had been discreetly painted out. He was learning that there was nothing so essentially untruthful as a studied veracity… Had not he tricked himself with just such carefully heightened details? What he had mistaken for a background of solid truth had proved nothing but pasteboard scenery flooded with a semblance of reality achieved by skillful manipulation of spotlights. He had been satisfied with the illusion because he had wished for nothing better. And at this moment he was more desolate than any in this sad company, because he seemed the only one who had lost the art of escaping into a world of lies. He had no more spotlights to manipulate. He sat in a gloomy playhouse and he heard only confused voices coming from the stage. He was not even sorry for himself. Whether he was sorry for others he could not yet determine.
One afternoon at the close of the first week, as he was walking back to Ward 1 with Monet, following one of these inevitable experience meetings, he turned to the youth and said:
“You have been here three times now. Have _you_ never thought of escape?”
Monet shrugged. “Yes … in a way. But I’m no great hand at doing things alone.”
They walked on in silence. Finally Fred spoke.
“Suppose you and I try it sometime? … It will give us something to think about… But we’ll go slow. It will just be a game, you understand.”
Monet’s eyes lit up and his breath came quickly between his parted lips. “You’re splendid to me!” he cried. “But the others–you seem to hate them. Why?”
Fred kicked a fallen branch out of his path. “They whine too much!” he muttered.
The boy was right, he _did_ hate them!
At the office he found that a package had come for him in the mail, and a letter. Both had been opened by the authorities. He read the letter first. It was from Helen. She had heard that cigarettes were a great solace to men in his situation, and so she had sent him a large carton of them. She expressed the hope that everything was going well, and she filled the rest of her letter with gossip of the Hilmers. Mrs. Hilmer was a little better and she was wheeling her out on fine days just in front of the house. The nurse had gone and she was doing everything. But these people had been so good to her! What else was there left to do? She ended with a restrained dignity. She offered neither sympathy nor reproaches. Fred had to concede that it was a master stroke of implied martyrdom. He flung the letter into the nearest wastebasket. He had an impulse to do the same thing with the cigarettes, but the thought of Monet’s pleasure in them restrained him. He took the package to the dormitory. Monet had gone up before him.
Fred threw his burden on Monet’s bed. The youth gave a low whistle of delight.
“Pall Malls!” he cried, incredulously. “Where did you get them?”
“They came from my wife.”
“Oh! … Don’t you want any of them?”
At the smoking hour Fred saw Monet take out his pitiful little bag of cheap tobacco and roll the usual cigarette.
“What? … Aren’t you smoking Pall Malls?” he asked, with a shade of banter in his voice.
Monet shook his head. “I don’t want them, either… What shall we do? Give them to the others?”
Fred stared through a sudden mist. “Why–yes. Just whatever you like.”
That night, when everyone else was asleep, Fred Starratt told Felix Monet his story…
One morning, at the beginning of the second week of Fred Starratt’s stay at Fairview, as he and Monet were swinging back to lunch after a brisk walk, they received orders to fall in line with the inmates of Ward 6.
“Things will be better now,” Monet said, with his usual air of quiet reassurance.
And so it proved.
Fred’s first introduction was to the dining room. It was not an extraordinary place, and yet Fred gave a little gasp as he entered it and stood staring almost foolishly at the tables set with clean linen. Three of its sides were made up almost entirely of windows, before which the shades were drawn to shut out the hot noonday sun, and its floor of polished hardwood glistened even in the subdued light. They sat down in the first seats that came to hand, and it was not until some cold meat was passed that Fred discovered a knife and fork at his place. The meat was neither choice nor dainty, but somehow just the fact of this knife and fork gave it extraordinary zest. Later on, small pats of butter were circulated and a spoonful of sugar apiece for the tea. And once again he listened to people talk while they ate … heard a subdued, but sane, laugh or two… There was a smoking room also, not overlarge, but adequate.
The inmates of Ward 6, from whom Fred had stood aloof, welcomed him warmly. He was at a loss to know why until Monet explained.
“It’s the cigarettes.”
“Ah, then you distributed them here? I thought they went to the other poor devils.”
The youth turned a wistful glance toward him. “I knew you’d get over to this place finally … and I wanted them to like you…”
Fred fell silent over the implied rebuke.
The dormitories were large and light and airy and scrupulously clean, but the usual institutional chill pervaded everything… Yet, for a season, Fred Starratt found all discrimination smothered in his reaction to normal sights and sounds. But, after a day or two, the same human adaptability that had made him accept the life in Ward 1 as a matter of course rose to the new environment and occasion. Presently his critical faculty flooded back again–almost for the first time since his arrest. And he knew instinctively that he was standing again on surer ground. He began to wonder, for instance, just what the commonwealth was doing for these human derelicts which it shed such facile tears over… He knew, of course, what it had done in his case. It had given him three indifferent meals, vaccinated him, put him through a few stereotyped quizzes to assure itself that he was neither insane nor criminal, and finally moved him on to a less trying but an equally vacuous existence. He used to wonder just what tortures the others had endured during that week of probation in Ward 1, which, in nearly every case, so far as he could learn, included the experience of the bull pen. For, after all, these other men were physically shaken from excess–weak, spent, tremulous. He had been through mental tortures, but, at least, his body and soul had had some fitness for the strain upon him. How close did the winds of madness come to snapping clean these empty reeds … how many were broken utterly? He asked Monet.
“Lots of them go under,” Felix Monet had returned. “I think I came very near it myself… I remember that first night I spent alone in Ward One… I’d been three weeks without a drop of anything to drink. Cut off, suddenly, like that!” He made a swift gesture. “And all at once I found myself in a madhouse. I actually knocked my head against the wall that night… And, in the morning, came the bull pen… They knew I wasn’t insane. My record–everything–proved that! … When I protested, their excuse was that everyone was equal here … there were no favorites. … More lies in the name of equality! The thing doesn’t exist–it never has existed. Nothing is equal, and trying to make it so produces hell. They’re always trying to level … level. They want to strip you of everything but your flock mind. Ah yes, timid sheep make easy herding!”
For the first time Fred Starratt saw Monet quivering with unleashed conviction, and he glimpsed the hidden turbulence of spirit which churned under the placid surface.
“After a while,” Monet went on, “when I got almost to the snapping point, they sent me to Ward Six. You know how it is–like a clear, cold plunge … it wakes you up… There’s a method in it all. They know that after a week in hell you find even purgatory desirable.”
“And yet, once you got away, you traveled the same road that had brought you here in the first place… Was the game worth the candle?”
“It was an escape while it lasted, even though it did lead me to prison again… But isn’t that where escape always leads? The world is a good deal like Fairview–a rule-ridden institution on a larger scale… We escape for a time in our work, in our play, in our loves, but the tether’s pretty short. … And finally, one day, death swings the door open and we go farther afield.”
“To another institution with a little more garden space?” Fred queried, pensively.
Monet shrugged. “Perhaps… Who knows?”
* * * * *
There followed another week of idleness, and one day, as Fred Starratt was dawdling in the sun, Harrison came up to him and said:
“The head waiter in the dining room at Ward Six goes out to-morrow. Would you like his job?”
“Like it?” Fred found himself echoing, incredulously. “Can I begin at once … now?”
Harrison chuckled with rare good nature. “Well, to-morrow, anyway. Just report in the kitchen after breakfast.”
He could hardly wait for the next morning to come. He bungled things horribly at first. It looked easy enough from the side lines–bringing in the plates of steaming food, doling out sugar for the tea, passing the dishpan about at the end of the meal for the inmates to yield up their knives and forks. But after the first day Fred was swept with a healing humility. It was necessary for even the humblest occupation to be lighted with flickerings of skill.
He liked setting the table best, especially in the morning after the breakfast crowd had gone. Then the sun was not yet too hot for comfort and the long dining room was bathed in a golden mist. In a corner near one of the windows a canary hopped blithely about its bobbing cage and released its soul in a flood of song. He would begin by laying the plates first, inverted, in long, precise rows. Then carefully he would group the knives and forks about them. Not only carefully, but slowly, so that the task might not be accomplished too readily. And all the time his thoughts would be flying back and forth … back and forth, like a weaver’s shuttle. At first these thoughts would pound harshly; but gradually, under the spell of his busy hands, he would find his mental process growing less and less painful, until he would wake up suddenly and find that he had been day dreaming, escaping for a time into a heaven of forgetfulness.
Toward the end of the month a crew was picked among the inmates of Ward 6 to man a construction camp a few miles to the north where the state was building a dam. Clancy was among the number, and Fordham and Wainright, junior. Monet was offered the choice of assisting Fred Starratt in the dining room or going out with the kitchen staff to camp. He chose the dining-room job.
The only personal news from the outside world came to Fred in a weekly letter from Helen, which arrived every Saturday night. He used to tear the envelopes open viciously and read every word with cold disdain. He never thought of answering one … indeed, many a time he had an impulse to send them back unopened. But curiosity always got the better hand. Not that he found her news of such moment, but her dissimulation fascinated him. She never chided him for not replying … she never complained … but every line was flavored with the self-justification of all essential falseness. She was playing a game with herself as completely as if she had written the letters and then scribbled her own name upon the envelope. She was looking forward to the day when she could say:
“I did my duty … I helped start him in business … I saved him from jail … I wrote him a letter every week, in spite of the fact that he never answered me… What more would you have a woman do?”
What more, indeed? How completely he read her now! Yes, even between the lines of her nonchalant gossipings he could glimpse her soul in all its intricate completeness. Her letters were salt on his deadened wound. Perhaps that was why he did not return them unopened. He felt vaguely that it would be a shameful thing to be ultimately sealed to indifference.
But one Saturday night two letters were put into his hand. He read the strange one first.
I have not written you before because I had no news for you. Yesterday I passed Hilmer’s house and saw your wife wheeling Mrs. Hilmer up and down the sidewalk. Some day when I get a chance I shall speak to Mrs. Hilmer.
I am living in a lodging house on Turk Street. My name is Sylvia Molineaux. You will find my address below. Write and tell me what you want. And always remember that I am here watching.
Toward the middle of the following week Fred answered Ginger’s letter. But his phrases were guarded and his description of life at the hospital full of studied distortion. He knew quite well that every letter which left the institution was opened and censored, but, with certain plans lying fallow in his brain, he had a method back of the exaggerated contentment he pictured. He had a feeling that Ginger would not be misled altogether. She knew the deceitful bravado of life too well and, according to her own report, something of the existence he was leading in the bargain. He found himself curiously willing to take anything from her hand that was in her power to supply. He felt no sense of awkwardness, no arrogant pride, no irritating obligation. She had become for him one of the definite, though unexplainable, facts of existence which he accepted with all the simplicity of a child of misfortune.
She answered promptly, sending cigarettes and tobacco and a pipe. But her letter was devoid of news—except that she had passed Hilmer’s again and found Helen wheeling Mrs. Hilmer back and forth in the sunshine at the appointed hour. But, as time wore on, it transpired that this seemingly innocent passing and repassing of the Hilmer house carried unmistakable point. Presently, to Mrs. Hilmer, basking in the sun and deserted for a moment, Ginger had nodded a brief good-morning. There followed other opportunities for even more prolonged greetings until the moment when Ginger had boldly carried on a short conversation in the coldly calm presence of Helen Starratt. Helen must have known Ginger. It was inconceivable that any woman, under the circumstances, could have forgotten. But either indecision or a veiled purpose made her assume indifference, and Ginger’s progress was registered in a short sentence at the end of a brief scrawl which said:
To-day I took a book out and read to Mrs. Hilmer for an hour in the sunshine.
And later another statement forwarded this curious drama with pregnant swiftness:
Yesterday, I told Mrs. Hilmer about you.
Fred read this sentence over and over again. To what purpose did Ginger discuss him with Mrs. Hilmer? … Surely not altogether in the name of entertainment.
Meanwhile, summer died, hot and palpitant and arid to the end. And autumn came gently with cool, foggy mornings and days of sunshine mellowed like old gold. Fred Starratt rose in rapid succession to the position of pantryman, head waiter to the attendants, assistant bookkeeper in the office. He was given more and more freedom. Indeed, between the working intervals, undisturbed by even a formal surveillance, he and Monet fell to taking walks far afield. He found the shorter days more tolerable. With dusk coming on rapidly, it was easier to accept the inflexible rule that required everyone to be in bed and locked up by seven o’clock.
New faces made their appearance in Ward 6, old ones vanished. Clancy made a get-away sometime in September just before the construction camp broke up. Fordham tried also, but was unsuccessful, and got a month in the bull pen for his pains. These adventures stirred everyone to vague restlessness. Fred began to speculate on chances, talking them over with Monet. But the boy seemed listless and depressed, without enthusiasm for anything. He brooded a great deal apart. Finally one day Fred asked him what was troubling him.
“I miss my music,” he said, briefly.
Fred prodded further. His need was, of course, for a violin.
“We’ll write Ginger,” Fred decided at once.
It had seemed quite a matter of course until he sat down with pen in hand and then he had a feeling that this last demand was excessive. He fancied she would achieve it someway, and he was not mistaken. The violin came and, everything considered, it was not a bad one. Monet’s joy was pathetic. Fred wrote back their thanks. “How did you manage it?” he asked.
Her reply was brief and significant: “You forget I know all kinds of people.”
From the moment the violin arrived Monet was a changed man. Suddenly he became full of nervous reactions to everything about him. He lost all his sluggish indifference, he talked of flight now with fascinating ardor.
“When shall it be? Let us get out quickly. We can make our way easily with this!” he would cry, tapping the violin lovingly. “While I play on street corners you can collect the dimes and nickels.”
Monet had meant to be absurd, of course, but Fred was finding nothing absurd or impossible these days. The youth’s laughing suggestions flamed him with a sudden yearning for vagabondage. He wanted, himself, to be up and off. But by this time October was upon them, ushered in by extraordinary rainfall. The coming rain gave him pause. He used to look searchingly at Monet’s delicate face, and finally one day, in answer to the oft-repeated question, Fred replied:
“I think we’ll have to stand it until spring… If we want to go east, over the mountains–this is no time.”
They had often speculated as to a route. Most runaways took the road toward the coast and achieved capture even in the face of comparative indifference. The trails to the east led into the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With the first breath of autumn these byways, difficult of achievement in any case, became more and more impassable. And, while flight toward the west might be successful, it was too charged with a suggestion of failure to be tempting.
“We don’t just want to _attempt_ to escape,” Starratt used to explain. “We want to _do_ it!”
“But, spring!” Monet would echo. “That means May at the earliest. The mountain passes will be impossible even in April. Let’s try!”
“Come, come! Why this sudden restlessness? I thought your music would be a solace. But it seems to have made you dissatisfied. I can’t understand it.”
“We live by desire! I am happy only when I am burning! When the flame is out there are only ashes.”
Fred yielded finally to the extent of starting plans. Food was the first consideration. Monet was still in the dining room at Ward 6. About the first of November he began hoarding sugar and rice. A hollow tree in an obscure corner of the grounds back of the barns was the hiding place. Everyday a little more was added to the store. The process communicated a feeling of extraordinary interest to them both. Around this almost trivial circumstance whirled the shadows of infinite romance. Escape! At last these two men had a goal … they were no longer drifting.
Once a week Fred continued to receive two letters–one from his wife and one from Ginger. It was curious to compare them–reading an ironical comedy between the lines … creating the scenes that were being enacted by the triangle of women in front of the Hilmer dwelling every day in the early morning sunshine. For, as time went on, it appeared that Ginger walked through her inscrutable part with irritating fidelity–that is, irritating to Helen Starratt. It could not be otherwise, Fred decided, remembering the look of cool contempt which his wife had thrown at Ginger’s departing figure on the day of their last interview. He saw Mrs. Hilmer only vaguely, in a half-light, and yet out of the fragmentary sentences he got a sense of something patient and brooding and terrible waiting an appointed season. She seemed to be sitting back like some veiled and mystic chorus, watching the duel of the other two and somehow shaping it to her passive purpose.
And where was Hilmer in it all? Somehow, in spite of his masculine virility, he seemed to have no place nor footing upon the narrow ledge of feminine subtleties. No doubt, as usual, he was proceeding in his direct and complacent line, unaware of anything save the brutally obvious… Perhaps only the brutally obvious had any existence, perhaps Fred Starratt was spinning fantasies out of threads which came to his hand. He did not know, he could not say, but in the still watches of the night the figures of these three women circled round and round the seething caldron of the future like skinny witches upon a blasted heath.
Meanwhile, rain succeeded rain. Fred Starratt knew that escape was impossible under these conditions, but he let Monet chatter away and continue his hoarding. Thus they passed Thanksgiving, and suddenly Fred felt that Christmas would soon be upon them, with all its heartbreaking melancholy.
As Christmas drew near a bitter restlessness began to pervade Ward 6. The rain fell in torrents for days. There was little chance for fresh air or exercise except in the bull pen, which was provided with a shed that ran the length of the wall. Into this dismal and jail-like yard poured the entire human wreckage of Fairview. Fred and Monet went with the others for one or two days, but finally Monet said:
“Let’s walk in the rain … anything would be better than this.”
And so the next day, waiting until a pelting shower had merged gradually into a faint mist, the two took a quick-step run about the parade ground. They came back splashed with mud and dripping wet, but their cheeks glowed and their hearts beat quickly. After that, no matter how violent the downpour, they managed to take a turn in the open. Sometimes they circled the grounds repeatedly. Again, if the rain proved too drenching, one short run was all they could achieve.
At the end of a week of such heroic exercising Monet said, significantly:
“You see how well I am standing this! Every day toughens us up… We ought to be leaving soon.”
“After Christmas,” Fred conceded, briefly.
There followed a brief respite of clear, crisp days, warming to mellowness at noon. After the midday meal everyone crawled out into the sunlight, standing in little shivering groups, while Monet played upon his violin. The cracked inventor, pulling his cardboard box on its ridiculous spools, stopped to listen; Weeping Willow forgot his grief and almost achieved a smile. Only the Emperor of Japan continued his pacing back and forth, his royal gloom untouched by any responsive chord.
But the reaction from this sedative of music was in every case violent. The remainder of the afternoon passed in tragic unquiet. One day Harrison called Fred aside. The assistant superintendent was daily yielding more and more to Fred’s judgment.
“What do you think about a Christmas tree for Ward Six?”
For a moment Fred was uncertain. He knew the poignance of disturbing memories. But, in the end, he felt that perhaps the floodgate of grief had best be lifted. He knew by this time the cleansing solace of tears.
“We’ve never done it before,” Harrison went on.
“There has been a prejudice against bringing old days back too clearly to these wretches… But Monet’s been playing his music and they seem to like that.”
It ended by Fred going out with Monet and one of the attendants into the hills and bringing back a beautiful fir tree. They set it up in a corner of the dining room and its bruised fragrance filled the entire building… There followed the problem of its trimming. At first some one suggested that it was more beautiful untricked with gauds, but to Fred, unlighted by any human touch its loveliness seemed too cold and impersonal and cruelly pagan. Presently the long afternoons were rilled with a pathetic bustle. Everyone became interested. They popped corn and strung it in snow-white garlands and some one from the kitchen sent in a bowl of cranberries which were woven into a blood-red necklace for the central branches. Harrison brought round a sack of walnuts and some liquid gilt and two brushes. Men began to quarrel good-naturedly for a chance at the gilding. A woman attendant, hearing about the tree, rode, herself, into the village and bought candles… Finally it was finished, and it stood in the early twilight of a dripping Christmas Eve, a fantastic captive from the hills, suffering its severe dignity to be melted in a cheap, but human, splendor… They had a late dinner by way of marking the event, and the usual turn of keys in the locks at seven o’clock was missing. At the close of the meal as they were bringing on plum pudding Fred rose from his place to light the candles… A little tremor ran through the room; Monet started to play… He played all the heartbreaking melodies–“Noel” and “Nazareth” and “Adeste Fideles.” Slowly the tears began to trickle, but they fell silently, welling up from mysterious reaches too deep for shallow murmurings. Suddenly a thin, quavering voice started a song.
“God rest you, merry gentlemen!”
The first line rang out in all its tremulous bravery.
“_Merry_ gentlemen!” flashed through Fred’s mind. “What mockery!”
But a swelling chorus took it up and in the next instant they were men again. They sang it all–every word to the last line … repeating each stanza after the little man who had begun it and who had risen and taken his place beside Monet.
“Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood Each other now embrace,
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.”
Only Fred remained silent. He could not sing, the bravery of it all smote him too deeply.
“This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.”
They were singing the last words over again.
Fred Starratt bowed his head. For the first and only time in his life he felt Christ very near. But the Presence passed as quickly. When he looked up the singing had ceased and the candles upon the tree were guttering to a pallid end. Monet laid down his violin and blew out the dying flames; his face was ashen and as he grasped the branches of the tree his hand shook. A man in front rose to his feet. Flockwise the others followed his lead. Christmas was over!… Fred Starratt had a sense that it had died still-born.
The next morning came wrapped in a dreadful silence. Men stood about in huddling groups and whispered. The exaltation of the night before had been too violent. A great dreariness oppressed Fred Starratt. He felt the inevitable sadness of a man who had met unveiled Beauty face to face and as speedily found the vision dissolved. The tree still swept the rooms and corridors with its fragrance, but in the harsh daylight its cheap trappings gave it a wanton look. Somehow, it mocked him, filled him with a sense of the vanity of life and all its fleeting impressions. The rain came down in a tremulous flood, investing everything with its colorless tears. The trees, the buildings, the very earth itself seemed to be melting away in silvery-gray grief.
Just before noon it lightened up a trifle and the rain stopped.
“Let’s get out of this!” Monet said, sweeping the frozen assembly in the smoking room with an almost scornful glance.
They found their hats and without further ado they started on a swing about the grounds. It grew lighter and lighter … it seemed for a moment as if the sun would presently peep out from the clouds. They achieved the full length of the parade ground and stopped, panting for breath. Fred wiped his forehead with a huge handkerchief.
“Shall we keep going?” he asked.
Monet nodded. They swung into a wolfish trot again, across a stretch of green turf, avoiding the clogging mud of the beaten trails. They said nothing. Presently their rhythmic flight settled down to a pleasurable monotony. They lost all sense of time and space.
Gradually their speed slackened, and they were conscious that they were winding up … up… It was Monet who halted first. They were on a flat surface again, coming out of a thicket suddenly. There was a level sweep of ground, ending abruptly in space.
“We’re on Squaw Rock!” Fred Starratt exclaimed.
The two went forward to the edge of a precipice. The embryo plain leaped violently down a sheer three hundred feet directly into the lap of a foaming river pool. Fred peered over.
“There’s the usual Indian legend, isn’t there,” he asked Monet, “connected with this place?”
Monet moved back with a little shudder. “Yes … I believe there is… The inevitable lovelorn maiden and the leap to death… Well, it’s a good plunging place.”
They both fell back a trifle, letting their gaze sweep the landscape below, which was unfolding in theatrical unreality. At that moment the sun came out, flooding the countryside with a flash of truant splendor. To the south nestled the cluster of hospital buildings, each sending out thin gray lines of smoke. Moving up the valley, hugging the sinuous banks of the river, a train nosed its impudent way.
“When shall we be leaving for good?” Monet asked, suddenly.
Fred let out a deep breath. “The first time it really clears!”
Monet rested his hand upon Fred’s shoulder. “If we go east we’ll have to cross the river.”
“We’ll follow the railroad track north for a mile or two. There’s a crossing near Pritchard’s. I saw it on the day we went after the tree.”
The train pulled into the station and was whistling on its way again. The hospital automobile swung toward the grounds. Suddenly the sun was snuffed out again; it grew dark and lowering.
“We had better be on our way,” Fred said, warningly. “It’s going to pour in less than no time.”
For a moment a silence fell between them, succeeded by an outburst from Monet.
“Let’s keep on!” he cried, harshly. “Let’s keep right on going! I don’t want to go back. I won’t, I tell you! I won’t!”
Fred took him by the shoulders … he was trembling violently. “Come … come! We can’t do that, you know!… We haven’t provisions or proper clothing. And the rain, my boy! We’d die of exposure … or … worse!”
“I don’t care!” Monet flung out, passionately. “I’m not afraid to die … not in the open.”
“And you haven’t your violin,” Fred put in, gently.
“I never want to play again–after last night. … It was horrible … horrible… ‘_God rest you, merry gentlemen_!’ What could have possessed them?”
“Come, now!… You’ll feel better to-morrow… And I promise you on the first clear day we’ll make it… The first morning we wake up and find a cloudless sky.”
Fred moved forward, urging Monet to follow. The youth gave a little shiver and suffered Fred’s guidance.
“If I go back now,” he said, sadly, “it will be forever. I shall never leave.”
Fred turned about and gave him a slight shake. “Nonsense! Last night made you morbid. Harrison ought to have known better. This is no place for Christmas! One day should be always like another.”
Monet shook his head. “While they were sing … something passed … I can’t describe it. But I grew cold all over … I knew at once that… Oh, well! what’s the use? You do not understand!”
He flung his hands up in a gesture of despair.
Fred looked up at the sky. It had grown ominously black. “We’d better speed up,” he said, significantly.
Monet squared himself doggedly. “You run if you want to… It doesn’t matter to me one way or another … I feel tired.”
The rain began to fall in great garrulous drops. Fred took Monet’s sleeve between his fingers; slowly they retraced their steps. For a few yards the youth surrendered passively, but as Fred neared the thicket again he felt the sharp release of Monet’s coat sleeve. He continued on his way… Suddenly he heard a noise of swift feet stirring up the rain-soaked leaves. He turned abruptly. Monet was running in the other direction–toward the precipice. A dreadful chill swept him. He tried to call, to run, but a great weakness transfixed him. The startled air made a foolish whistling sound. Monet’s figure flew on in silence, gave a quick leaping movement, and was lost!
Fred Starratt crawled back toward the precipice. The rain descended in torrents and a wind rose to meet its violence. He looked down. The pool below was churning to whitecapped fury, releasing a flood of greedy and ferocious gurglings. Gradually a bitter silence fell and a gloom gathered. Everything went black as midnight…
He felt a cold blast playing through his hair. Instinctively he put his hand to his head. His hat was gone.
Suddenly it came to him that he would have to go back to Fairview … _alone_.
He rose to his feet. “North … a mile or two!” he muttered. “If I can once cross the bridge!”
On a certain evening in February Fred Starratt, from the upper deck of a ferryboat, again saw the dusky outlines of San Francisco stretch themselves in faint allurement pricked with glittering splendor. It was a mild night–the skies clear, the air tinged with pleasant chill, the bay stilled to nocturnal quiet.
He had come out upon the upper deck to be alone. He wanted to approach the city of his birth in decent solitude, to feel the thrill of home-coming in all its poignant melancholy. He had expected the event to assume a special significance, to be fraught with hidden meaning, to set his pulses leaping. But he had to confess that neither the beauty of the night nor the uncommon quality of the event moved him. Had he been wrung dry of all emotional reaction? It was not until a woman came from the stuffy cabin and took a seat in a sheltered corner outside that he had the slightest realization of the nearness of his old environment. As she passed close to his pacing form a sickly sweet odor enveloped him. He looked after her retreating figure. She was carrying a yellow armful of blossoming acacia. The perfume evoked a sad memory of virginal springs innumerable … springs that seemed to go back wistfully beyond his own existence … springs long dead and never to be revived. Dead? No, perhaps not quite that, but springs never to be again his portion. This perfume of the blossoming acacia … how in the old days it had always brought home a sense of awakening, a sense of renewal to a land burned and seared and ravished in the hot and tearless passion of summer! Following the first rains would come the faint flush of green upon the hillsides, growing a little deeper as the healing floods released themselves, and then, one day, suddenly, almost overnight, the acacia would bend beneath a yellow burden, sending a swooning fragrance out to match the yellow sunlight of February. From that moment on the pageant was continuous, bud and blossom and virginal leaf succeeding one another in showering abundance. But nothing that followed quite matched the heavy beauty of these first golden boughs, nothing that could evoke quite the same infinite yearning for hidden and heroic destinies. He defined the spell of the perfume again, but he did not feel it. It shook his memory to its foundations, but it left his senses cold. And the city before him was as sharply revealed and as cruelly unmoving.
Suddenly he was done with a desire for solitude and he went below. A half score of men were idling upon the lower deck. He began his restless pacings again, stroking his faded beard with a strangely white hand. Finally he stopped, gazing wistfully at the dark beauty of the ferry tower, sending its winsome shaft up into the quivering night. A man at his elbow began to speak in the characteristically Californian fashion about the weather.
“Yes,” Fred assented, briefly, “it _is_ a fine night.”
“Too fine,” the stranger returned. “We need rain.”
“Haven’t you had much down this way, either?” Fred found himself inquiring, glad of a chance to escape for the moment into the commonplace.
“At the beginning of the season it came on a bit, but since Christmas there has been scarcely a drop. How does the country look?”
Fred leaned against a water barrel and continued to stroke his beard.
“Pretty well burned up. But the fruit trees will soon be blossoming in spite of everything… The worst of it is there isn’t any snow in the mountains.”
“Ah, then you’ve been up into the Sierras.”
“Yes, since December… I had to make my way through the northern passes just after Christmas. Folks told me it couldn’t be done… I guess it would have been almost impossible in a wet season. But things were the same way up north. No end of rain in the fall and none to speak of since the holidays. But at that I’ve been through some tough times… How are things in town?”
The stranger unbuttoned his shabby overcoat and took out a bag of tobacco. His indifferent suit and thick blue-flannel shirt, which ordinarily would have stamped him as an artisan, was belied by the quality of his speech.
“Things are rotten. Everybody is striking. You can’t get work anywhere except you want to scab… You’d better have stayed where you came from.”
There was a tentative quality in this observation that roused in Fred a vague speculation. He had a feeling that the stranger was leading up cautiously to some subject. He looked again, this time sharply, at his companion of the moment. There was nothing extraordinary in the face except the eyes burning fitfully under the gloom of incredibly thick, coarse, reddish eyebrows. His mouth was a curious mixture of softness and cruelty, and his hands were broad, but not ungraceful.
“Well, if a man is starving he’ll do almost anything, I guess,” Fred returned, significantly.
“Do you mean that _you_ would–if you were starving?”
“I’m starving now!” escaped Fred Starratt, almost involuntarily.
“I thought so,” said the other, quietly.
“I’ve seen plenty of starving men in my day. I know the look. And you’re suffering in the bargain. Not physically. But you’ve been through a hell of some kind. Am I right?”
“Yes … you’re quite right.”
The boat was swinging into the slip. Already a crowd was moving down upon them.
“That’s why I spoke to you. A man who’s been through hell is like a field freshly broken to the plow. He’s ready for seed.”
Fred cast an ironical glance at the man before him. “And you, I suppose, are the sower,” he said, mockingly. “A parson?”
The other laughed, disclosing greenish teeth. “Of a sort… Perhaps high priest would be nearer the truth. There’s a certain purposeful cruelty about that term which appeals to me. I’m a bit of a fanatic, you know… But I like to get my recruits when they’re bleeding raw. I like them when the salt of truth can sting deep… Wounds heal so quickly … so disgustingly quickly.”
He spat contemptuously and began to cram a blackened pipe to overflowing. The boat had landed and already the crowd was moving up the apron. Fred and his companion felt themselves urged forward by the pressure of this human tide.
“Come and have some coffee with me,” Fred heard the man at his side say in a half-commanding tone. “My name is Storch. What shall I call you?”
“Anything you like!” Fred snapped, viciously.
The other laughed. “You’re in capital form! Upon my word we’ll get on famously together.” And he spat again, this time with satisfaction and rare good humor.
Fred Starratt looked up. They had emerged suddenly from the uncertain twilight of a stone-flanked corridor into a harsh blue-white flood of electricity. A confused babble of noises fell upon his ears. He put out his hand instinctively and clutched the arm of the man at his side.
“Yes … yes…” the voice of his companion broke in, reassuringly. “You’re all right. In a moment … after you’ve had coffee things will…”
He clutched again and presently, like a drowning man borne upon the waves by a superior force, he felt himself guided through a maze of confusing details, into swift and certain safety.
* * * * *
The coffee house into which Fred Starratt had been led by Storch was choked with men and the thick odor of coffee and fried ham. To a man who had eaten sparingly for days the smell of food was nauseating. Storch ordered coffee for himself and a bowl of soup for Fred. This last was a good choice in spite of the fact that for a moment Fred felt instinctive rebellion. These pale, watery messes were too suggestive of Fairview. But in the end the warm fluid dissipated his weakness and he began to experience a normal hunger.
Storch finished his cup of coffee and wiped a dark-brown ooze from his upper lip with a paper napkin.
“Better take a slice of bread or two,” he advised Fred, “and then call it quits. You’ll feel better in the long run. A starved stomach shouldn’t be surprised with too much food.”
Fred obeyed. He could see that this man understood many things.
Gradually the crowd thinned. Soon only Fred and Storch were left at the particular table that they had chosen. Stragglers came and went, but still Storch made no move to go, and Fred was equally inactive. He felt warm and comfortably drowsy and, on the whole, quite content. The waiter cleared away the empty dishes and then discreetly ignored them. Fred fell to studying his reflection in the polished mirror running the length of the room. He had to acknowledge that he looked savage, with his hair long and untidy and a bristling, sunburnt beard smothering his features. And suddenly, in the intensity of his concentration, he felt a swooning sense of nonexistence, as if his inner consciousness had detached itself someway from the egotism of the flesh and stood apart, watching… He was recalled by Storch’s voice. He shuddered slightly and turned his face toward his questioner.
“I didn’t hear what you said,” escaped him.
Storch leaned forward. “I was asking what you were doing … up north in the mountains during December. Only a desperate man or a fool would take a chance like that… And I can see you’re not a fool… There aren’t any prisons up that way that I know of.”
“_Prisons_! What do you mean?”
“You’ve escaped from somewhere.”
“How do you know?”
“You’re still furtive in spite of your pretended calm. I know the look. I know the feeling. I’ve seen scores of men who have been through the mill. I’ve been through the mill myself. Not once, but several times. I’ve been in nearly every jail in the country worth putting up at… Even the Federal prisons haven’t been proof against me. I’ve beat them all. It’s a game I like to play. Just as one man plunges into stocks, or another breaks strikes, or another leads a howling mob to victory… Every man has his game. What’s yours?”
Fred shrugged. “Why are you telling me all this?” he countered. “You don’t know me.”
Storch laughed, showing his greenish teeth again. “What difference does that make?… I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I think I’ve got you right. You might play a rough game, but it would be square–according to your standards… I question most standards, but that is neither here nor there. They shackle some people extraordinarily. Just now you’re drifting about without any. But you’ll tie to some sort of anchor pretty soon… That’s why you interest me. I want to get you while you’re still drifting.”
Fred felt a sudden chill. He was suspicious of this ironically genial man opposite him who bought him food and then prodded for his secret. There was something diabolical about the way he calmly admitted an impersonal but curiously definite interest.
“What is your business, anyway?” Fred shot out, suddenly.
“I’m a fisher for men,” he replied, cryptically. “Some people build up … others destroy. There must be always those who clear the ground–the wreckers, in other words… There’s too much attention paid to building. Folks are in such a hurry they go about rearing all kinds of crazy structures on rotten foundations… I’m looking for some human dynamite to make a good job.”
Fred drew back. “You’ve got me wrong,” he said. “I’m not a radical.”
“Not yet, of course. Your kind take a lot of punishment before they see the light. But you’re a good prospect–a damned good prospect. You’re a good deal like a young fellow I met last fall when I was working over in the shipyards in Oakland. He–“
“Shipyards?” interrupted Fred. “Not Hilmer’s shipyards, by any chance?”
Storch leaned forward, drawing his shaggy eyebrows together. “Why?”
“I know Hilmer, that’s all.”
Storch continued his searching scrutiny. Fred felt uneasy–it seemed as if this man opposite him was drawing the innermost secret of his soul to the surface. Finally Storch rubbed his hands together with an air of satisfaction as he said:
“So you know Hilmer!… That makes you all the more interesting… Well, well, let’s be moving. I’ll put you up for the night. I’ve got a shelter, such as it is.”
Fred rose. He had an impulse to refuse. There was something uncanny about the power of Storch. He was at once fascinating and repulsive. But, on second thought, any shelter was better than a night spent on the streets. He had had two months of buffeting and he was ready for even an indifferent comfort.
He ended by going with his new-found friend. They trotted south along the Embarcadero, hugging the shadows close. This street, once noisy with a coarse, guzzling gayety, was silent. A few disconsolate men hung about the emasculated bars trying to rouse their sluggish spirits on colicky draughts of near beer and grape juice, but the effect was dismal and forbidding. Fred felt a great depression overwhelm him.
He had grown accustomed to the silence of the open spaces, but this silence of the city had a portentous quality which frightened him. It reminded him of that ominous quiet that had settled down on Fairview after that heartbreaking celebration on Christmas Eve. What were men doing with their idle moments? How were they escaping from the drab to-day? Did the crowded lobbies of the sailors’ lodging houses spell the final word in the bleak entertainment that intolerance had left them? Upon one of the street corners a Salvation Army lassie harangued an indifferent handful. But there seemed nothing now from which to save these men except monotony, and religion of the fife-and-drum order was offering only a very dreary escape. Did the moral values of negative virtue make men any more admirable? he found himself wondering.
Storch led the way in silence. Finally they turned up toward the slopes of Rincon Hill. A cluster of shacks, clinging crazily to the tawny banks, loomed ahead in the darkness. Storch clambered along a beaten trail and presently he leaped toward the broader confines of a street which opened its arms abruptly to receive them. Fred followed. The thoroughfare upon which he found himself standing was little more than a lane, hedged on either side by crazy structures that nearly all had sprung to rambling life from one-roomed refugee shacks which had dotted the city after the fire and earthquake. Most of them were vine clad and brightened with beds of scarlet geraniums, but the house before which Storch halted rose uncompromisingly from the sun-baked ground without the charity of a covering. Storch turned the key and threw the door open, motioning Fred to enter. Fred did as he was bidden and found himself in a cluttered room, showing harshly in the light streaming in from a near-by street lamp. The air was foul with stale tobacco, refuse, and imprisoned odors of innumerable greasy meals and the sweaty apparel of men who work with their hands.
Storch lighted a lamp. A tumble-down couch stood against the wall, and in an opposite corner a heap of tattered quilts had been flung disdainfully. Tables and chairs and even the floor were piled with papers and cheaply covered books and tattered magazines.
Storch pointed to the couch. “You sleep there to-night. I’ll roll up on the floor.”
It never occurred to Fred to protest. The two began to shed their outer garments. Fred crawled in between the musty quilts. Storch blew out the lamp, and Fred saw him move toward the quilts in the corner. Without bothering to straighten them out he flung himself down and pulled a covering over him. The light from the street lamp continued to flood the room. Presently Fred heard Storch chuckling.
“So you know Hilmer!” he was repeating again, making a sound of satisfaction, as one does over a succulent morsel. “Well … well … fancy how things turn out!”
Fred made no reply, and after a time a gentle snoring told that Storch had fallen asleep.