Fred tossed about, oppressed by the close air. But, in the end, even he fell into a series of fitful dozes. He dreamed the room in which he was sleeping was suddenly transformed into a huge spider web from which there was no escape. And he caught glimpses of Storch himself hanging spider-wise from a gossamer thread, spinning dizzily in midair… He awoke repeatedly, returning as often to the same dream. Toward morning he heard a faint stirring about. But he lay huddled in a pretense of sleep… Finally the door banged and he knew that Storch had left… He let out a profound sigh and turned his face from the light…
When Fred Starratt awoke a noonday sun was flooding in at the single window. Consciousness brought no confusion … he was beginning to grow accustomed to sudden shifts in fortune and strange environments had long since ceased to be a waking novelty. Outside he could hear the genial noises of a thickly populated lane–shrilly cried bits of neighborhood gossip bandied from doorstep to doorstep … the laughter of children … the call of a junkman … even a smothered cackling from some captive hen fulfilling its joyful function in spite of restraint. He did not rise at once, but he lay there thinking, trying to force the realization that he was again in San Francisco… He wondered dimly at the power of the homing instinct that had driven him back. It was plain to him now that almost any other environment would have been materially better. He had had the whole state of California to choose from, indeed he might have flown even farther afield. But from the very beginning his feet had turned homeward with uncanny precision. On those first days and nights when he had lain huddled in any uncertain shelter that came to hand the one thought that had goaded him on was the promise of this return.
And those first hours of freedom had been at once the sweetest and the bitterest. Wet to the skin, starved, furtive, like a lean, dog-harried coyote he had achieved the mountains and safety more dead than alive. Looking back, he could see that only the sheerest madness had tempted him to flight in the first place. Without an ounce of provisions, without blankets, at the start lacking even a hat, he had defied the elements and won. God was indeed tender with all fools and madmen!
He knew now that under ordinary circumstances he must have perished in the mountain passes. But the weather had been warm there all during December and more rain than snow had fallen, keeping the beaten paths reasonably open… He had thought always of these snow-pent places as quite devoid of any life at the winter season, and he was amazed to find how many human beings burrowed in and hibernated during the storm-bound months. Elsewhere, the skulking traveler received a chary welcome, but in the silent fastness of the hills latchstring and hearthstone and tobacco store were for genial sharing. In almost any one of these log shelters that he chanced upon he might have settled himself in content and found an indefinite welcome, but the urge to be up and on sent him forward to the next rude threshold. Thus mountain cabin succeeded mountain cabin until, presently, one day Fred Starratt found himself swinging down to the plains again–to the broad-bosomed valleys lying parched and expectant under the cruel spell of drought. Now people regarded him suspiciously, dogs snapped at his heels, and farmers’ women thrust him doles of food through half-opened kitchen doors. Here and there he picked up a stray job or two. But he was plainly inefficient for most tasks assigned him… In the small towns there were not enough jobs to go round … young men were returning from overseas and dislodging the incompetents who had achieved prosperity because of the labor shortage. The inland cities were in the grip of strikes … there were plenty of jobs, but few with the temerity to attempt to fill them. And, besides, what had Fred Starratt to offer in the way either of skill or brawn?… He grew to know the meaning of impotence. No, he was a creature of the paved streets, and to the paved streets he returned as swiftly as his feet and his indifferent fortune could carry him. Besides, he had grown hungry for familiar sights and faces, and perhaps, down deep, curiosity had been the mainspring of his return. Even bitter ties have a pull that cannot always be denied. At Fairview the presence of Monet had held him almost a willing captive. There was something about the flame burning in that almost frail body that had lighted even the ugliness of Fairview with a strange beauty. He could not think of him as dead. That last moment had been too tinged with the haunting poetry of life. How often he had reconstructed that scene–the gray, sullen rain pattering on the spent leaves, the quick-rushing sound of a body in flight, the sudden leap of a soul toward greater freedom! And then the vision of the churning pool below closing in triumphantly as it might have done upon some reclaimed pagan creature that had tasted the bitter wine of exile and returned in leaping joy to its chosen element! It was not the shock and sadness of death that had sent Fred Starratt for a moment stark mad into the storm and freedom, but rather an ecstasy of loneliness … a yearning to match daring with daring.
And now he was home again, in his own gray-green city, lying beneath tattered quilts in a hovel, with the selfsame February sun that had once pricked him to a spiritual adventure flooding in upon him! He rose and threw open the door. The soft noontide air floated in, displacing the fetid atmosphere. He looked about the room searchingly. In the daylight it seemed even more unkempt, but less forbidding. A two-burner kerosene stove stood upon an empty box just under the window. On another upturned box at its side lay a few odds and ends of cooking utensils, shriveling bits of food, a plate or two. He found a loaf of dry bread and cut a slice from it. This, together with a glass of water, completed his breakfast.
He tried to brush his weather-beaten clothes into decency with a stump of a whisk broom and to wipe the dust of the highroad from his almost spent shoes. But, somehow, these feeble attempts at gentility seemed to increase his forlorn appearance.
He went over and straightened out the bedcoverings. At least he would leave the couch in some semblance of order. What did Storch expect him to do? Come back again for shelter? He had no plans, but as he went out, banging the door, he felt no wish to return.
His first thought now was to see Ginger. He went to the Turk Street address. He found a huge frame mansion of the ‘eighties converted into cheap lodgings. The landlady, wearing large jet and gold ornaments, eyed him suspiciously. Miss Molineaux no longer lived there. Her present address? She had left none. Thus dismissed, he turned his steps toward the Hilmers’.
He had expected to come upon the vision of his wife wheeling Mrs. Hilmer up and down the sidewalk, and yet, when these expectations were realized, he experienced a shock. There she was, Helen Starratt, in a black dress and a black hat, pacing with drab patience the full length of the block and back again. He could not get a good view of her face because her hat shaded her eyes. Mrs. Hilmer’s figure, equally indistinct, was a shapeless mass of humanity. A child, coming out of a nearby house with a pair of roller skates in her hand, stood off and answered his questions, at first reluctantly, but finally with the importance of encouraged childhood… Who was the lady in the wheeled chair? Mrs. Hilmer. And the other one in black? Her name was Starratt. No, she didn’t know her very well. But people said she was very sad. She dressed in black and looked unhappy. Why? Because her husband was dead. No, there was no mistake–she had heard her mother say so many times–Mrs. Starratt’s husband was dead, quite dead!…
He turned back toward town. _Dead, quite dead_! Well, the child had reckoned better than she knew!
He retraced his steps slowly, resting upon many hospitable doorsteps that afternoon. The noise of the city confused him, the stone pavements hurt his ankles, he was hungry and faint. He did not know what to do or where to go. Only one shelter lay open to him. Should he go back to Storch?
Finally, toward five o’clock, he found himself standing upon the corner of California and Montgomery streets, watching the tide of office workers flooding homeward. A truant animation was flaming them briefly. Familiar face after familiar face passed, lighted with the joy of sudden release from servitude. Fred Starratt was curiously unmoved. He had fancied that he would feel a great yearning toward all this well-ordered sanity. He had fancied that he would be overwhelmed with memories, with regrets, with futile tears. But he knew now that even if it were possible to re-enter the world in which he had once moved he would refuse scornfully. Was it always so with those who achieved death? Ah yes, death was the great progression, one never re-entered the circle of life one quitted. Dead, quite dead! Or, as Storch put it, “A field freshly broken to the plow!” A field awaiting the eternal upspringing and the inevitable harvest… And so on, again and again, to the end of time!
He came out of his musings with a renewed sense of faintness and the realization that the street was rapidly being emptied of its throng. A few stragglers hurried toward the ferry. He roused himself. A green-gold light was enlivening the west and giving a ghostly unreality to the street lamps twinkling in a premature blossoming.
He was turning to go when he saw a familiar figure coming up the street. He looked twice to assure himself that he was not mistaken. It was Brauer!
He stood a moment longer, roused to indifferent curiosity, but, as Brauer brushed close, a sudden malevolent hatred shook him. He squared himself and said in a hoarse tone:
“I’m starving… I want money … to eat!” Brauer turned a face of amazed and insolent incredulity toward Fred.
“Well, you won’t get it from me!” he flung back.
Fred Starratt grasped Brauer’s puny wrist in a ferocious grip.
“Oh yes, I will… Do you know who I am?”
“You? … No… Let me go; you’re hurting me!”
“Look at me closely!”
“I tell you I don’t know you. Are you crazy?”
“Perhaps… I’ve been in an insane asylum… Now do you know who I am?”
Brauer fell back. “No,” he breathed: “it can’t be possible! Fred Starratt is dead.”
Fred began to laugh. “You’re right. But I want something to eat just the same. You’re going to take me into Hjul’s … and buy me a meal. … And after I’ve eaten perhaps you’ll hear how I died and who killed me.”
He could feel Brauer trembling in his grasp. A rising cruelty overwhelmed him. He flung Brauer from him with a gesture of contempt.
“Are we going to eat?” he asked, coldly.
“Yes … whatever you say.”
Fred nodded and together the two drifted down Montgomery Street.
Sitting over a generous platter of pot roast and spaghetti at Hjul’s, with Brauer’s pallid face staring up at him, Fred Starratt had the realization that there was at least one mouselike human to whom he could play the role of cat.
Brauer did not need to be prodded to speech. He told everything with the eagerness of a child caught in a fault and seeking to curry the favor of his questioner. He and Kendricks were placing all the Hilmer insurance. Yes, they were rebating–that went without saying. And what else lay at the bottom of Hilmer’s generosity? Fred Starratt put the question insinuatingly. Ah yes, the little matter of standing by when Starratt had been sent to Fairview. No, Hilmer had made no demand, but he had advised Brauer to be firm–through his lawyer, of course … a hint, nothing more–that some sort of example should be made of men who…
Yes, that was just as it had happened.
“And you knew where they were sending me?” Fred was moved to demand, harshly.
“Well … yes… But Hilmer’s lawyer put it so convincingly… Everything was to be for the best.”
“Including your share in the Hilmer business?”
Brauer had the grace to wince. “Well, there was nothing said absolutely.”
“And what did you figure was Hilmer’s reason for … well, wanting me to summer at Fairview?”
Brauer toyed with a spoon. “There could only be one reason.”
“Don’t be afraid. You mean that my wife…”
“Yes … just that!”
Fred Starratt had a sense that he should have been stirred to anger, but instead a great pity swept him, pity for a human being who could sell another so shamelessly and not have the grace to deny it. Yes, he realized now that there were times when a lie was the most self-respecting and admirable thing in the world.
“It appears that I am dead also. I saw my wife to-day mourning for me in the most respectable of weeds.”
“Your hat, you see–it was found in the water … not far from the dead body of your friend… Naturally…”
“Yes, naturally, the wish was father to the thought. Just so!”
And with that Fred Starratt laughed so unpleasantly that Brauer shivered and his face reddened.
By this time Fred Starratt had finished eating. Brauer paid the check and the two departed. At the first street corner Brauer attempted to slip a five-dollar bill into Starratt’s hand. He refused scornfully.
“Money? I don’t want your money. There is only one thing that will buy my good will–_your silence_. Do you understand what I mean? … I’m not the same man you tricked last July. Then I thought I had everything to lose. Now I know that no one ever loses anything… You don’t understand me, do you? … Oh, well, it doesn’t matter.”
Brauer’s frightened lips scarcely moved as he asked:
“Where are you staying?”
“Anywhere I can find a shelter… Last night I spent with an anarchist… I think he’d blow up almost anyone for just the sheer joy of it.”
Brauer shuddered. “Where will you spend to-night?”
“I think I’ll go back to the same place… This morning I was undecided. But I’ve heard a lot of things since then… I’m taking an interest in life again… By the way, the man I’m staying with knows Hilmer… And I don’t think he likes him, either… I’ll give you one tip, Brauer. Never get an anarchist sore at you… _They_ haven’t anything to lose, either.”
He had never seen such pallor as that which shook the color from Brauer’s face. He decided not to torment him further.
He had established a sense of the unfathomable for the present and future terror of his trembling little ex-partner. His revenge, so far as Brauer was concerned, was complete. He had not the slightest wish to see Brauer again.
He let his hands close once more tightly about Brauer’s puny wrists.
“Remember … you have not seen me. Do you understand?”
“Not a living soul … you are not to even suggest that … otherwise … well, I am living with an anarchist, and a word to the wise …”
He turned abruptly and left his companion standing on the street corner, staring vacantly after him.
Instinctively his footsteps found their way to Storch’s shack. A light was glimmering inside. Fred beat upon the door. It swung open quickly, revealing Storch’s greenish teeth bared in a wide smile of satisfaction.
“Come in … come in!” Storch cried out gayly. “Have a good day?”
“Excellent!” Fred snapped back, venomously. “I learned, among other things, that I am legally dead.”
Storch rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. “A clean slate! Do you realize how wonderful it is, my man, to start fresh?”
Fred threw himself into a chair. He felt tired. Sharp, darting pains were stabbing his eyes. “I think I’m going to be ill!” he said, with sudden irrelevance.
Storch lighted the oil stove. “Crawl into bed and I’ll get you something hot to drink!”
Storch’s tone was kind to a point of softness, and yet, later, when he bent over the couch with a steaming glass in his hand Fred experienced a sharp revulsion.
“I dreamed all last night,” Fred said, almost defiantly, “that this room was a cobweb and that you were a huge spider, dangling on a thread.”
“And you were the fly, I suppose,” Storch replied, sneeringly.
The next instant he had touched Fred’s forehead gently, almost tenderly, but his eyes glittered beneath their shaggy brows with an insane ferocity… Fred took the glass. He was too ill to care much one way or the other.
Next morning Fred Starratt knew that he was too ill to rise. Then everything became hazy. He had moments of consciousness when he sensed Storch’s figure moving in a sort of mist, flashing a green smile through the gloom. He saw other figures, too—Helen Starratt, swathed in clinging black; Hilmer, displaying his mangled thumb; Monet with eyes of gentle reproach; and Ginger, very vague and very wistful. There were times when the room seemed crowded with strange people who came and went and gesticulated, people gathering close to the dim lamp which Storch lighted at nightfall.
The visions of Monet were a curious mixture of shadow and reality. Sometimes he seemed very elusive, but, again, his face would grow clear to the point of dazzling brightness. At such moments Fred would screen his eyes and turn away, only in the end to catch a melting glimpse of Monet fading gradually with a gesture of resignation and regret. But slowly the outlines of Monet grew less and less tangible and the personality of Storch more and more shot through with warm-breathed vitality, and the strange company that gathered at dusk about the lamp became living things instead of shadows. Yet it took him some time to realize that these nightly gatherings at Storch’s were composed of real flesh and blood.
At first he was content to lie in a drowse and listen to the incoherent babblings of these nocturnal visitors, but, as he grew stronger, detached bits of conversation began to impress themselves upon him. These people had each some pet grievance and it remained for Storch to pick upon the strings of their discontents with unerring accuracy. At about eight o’clock every night the first stragglers would drift in, reinforced by a steady stream, until midnight saw a room stuffed with sweating humanity releasing their emotions in a biting flood of protests. They protested at everything under the sun–at custom, at order, at work, at play, at love, at life itself. And Storch, for the most part silent, would sit with folded arms, puffing at his pipe, a suggestion of genial malice on his face, throwing out a phrase here and there that set the pack about him leaping like hungry dogs to the lure of food. In confused moments Fred Starratt fell to wondering whether he really had escaped from Fairview, whether the forms about him were not the same motley assembly that used to gather in the open and exchange whines. The wails now seemed keyed to howls of defiance, but the source was essentially the same.
Fred wondered how he lived through these dreadful evenings with the air thick to choking. Indeed, he used to wonder what had saved him from death at any stage of the game. Storch had permitted him the use of a maggoty couch, had shared scraps of indifferent food at irregular intervals, and set a cracked pitcher of water within reach. But beyond that, he had been ignored. The nightly assembly did not even cast their glances his way.
During the day Fred was left alone for the most part, and he felt a certain luxury in this personal solitude after the months at Fairview with its unescapable human contacts. He would lie there, his ears still ringing with the echoes from the nightly gathering of malcontents, trying to reconstruct his own quarrel with life. He had a feeling that he would remain a silent onlooker only until Storch decreed otherwise. If he stayed long enough the night would come when Storch would call upon him for a testimonial of hatred. He knew that deep down somewhere within him rancors were stirring to sinister life. He had experienced the first glimmerings of cruelty in that moment when he had felt Brauer tremble under his grasp. What would have been his reaction to physical fear on Helen Starratt’s part? Suppose on that afternoon when he had watched her wheeling Mrs. Hilmer up and down with deceitful patience he had gone over and struck her the blow which was primitively her portion? Would the sight of her whimpering fear have stirred him to further elemental cruelties? Would he have ended by killing her? … Physically weak as he was, he could still feel the thrill of cruelty that had shaken him at the realization of Brauer’s dismay. As a child, when a truant gust of deviltry had swept him, he had felt the same satisfaction in pummeling a comrade who backed away from friendly cuffs turned instantly to blows of malice. Even now he had occasionally a desire to seek out Brauer again and worry him further. He was fearing indifference. What if, after all that he had suffered at the hands of others, he should find himself in the pale clutch of an impotent indifference? He felt a certain shame back of the possibility, and at such moments the words of Storch used to ring in his ears:
“Wounds heal so quickly … so disgustingly quickly!”
And again, watching Storch at night, touching the quivering cords which might otherwise have rusted in inactive silence, he remembered further the introduction to this contemptuous phrase:
“I like to get my recruits when they’re bleeding raw. I like them when the salt of truth can sting deep…”
How Storch lived Fred could only guess. But he managed always to jingle a silver coin or two and keep a crust of bread in the house. His fare was frugal to the point of being ascetic. Once or twice, as if moved by Fred’s physical weakness, he brought some scraps of beef home and brewed a few cups of steaming bouillon, and again, one Sunday morning he went out and bought a half dozen eggs which he converted into an impossibly tough omelet. But for the most part he lived on coffee and fresh French bread and cheese. It was on this incredible fare that Fred Starratt won back his strength. His exhaustion was an exhaustion of the spirit, and food seemed to have little part in either his disorder or his recovery.
Whatever Storch’s specific grievance with life, he never voiced it and in this he won Fred’s admiration. He liked to jangle the discordant passions of others, but his own he muffled into complete silence. He had worked at almost every known calling. It seemed that he came and disappeared always as suddenly and in his wake a furrow of men harrowed to supreme unrest yielded up a harvest sown of dragon’s teeth. He was an idea made flesh, patient, relentless, almost intangible. He flashed upon new horizons like a cloud from the south and he vanished as completely once he had revived hatred with his insinuating showers. He was, as he had said on that first meeting with Fred, a fanatic, a high priest. He called many, but he chose few.
One night after the others had left Fred said to him:
“Do you realize what you are doing? … You are working up these men to a frenzy. Some morning we shall wake to find murder done.”
“How quickly you are learning,” Storch answered, flinging his coat aside.
“Are you fair?” Fred went on, passionately. “If you have your convictions, why not risk your own hide to prove them? Why make cats’-paws of the others?”
Storch took out his pipe and lighted it deliberately. “Prospective martyrs are as plentiful as fish in a net,” he answered. “Of what good is the sea’s yield without fishermen? … I sacrifice myself and who takes my place? Will you?”
Fred turned on him suddenly. “You are not training me to be your successor, I hope,” he said, with a slight sneer. “Because I lie here without protest is no reason that I approve. Indeed, I wonder sometimes if I do quite right to permit all this… There are authorities, you know.”
Storch looked at him steadily. “The door is open, my friend.”
Fred gave a little gesture of resignation.
“You know perfectly well that I’m not built to betray the man who gives me shelter.”
“Oh, I’m not sheltering you for love!”
“You have some purpose, of course. I understand that. But you’re wasting time.”
“Well, I’ll risk it… I know well enough you’re not a man easily won to an abstract hatred… But a personal hatred very often serves as good a turn… Everything is grist to my mill.”
“A personal hatred?” echoed Fred.
Storch blew out the light.
“You’re duller than I thought,” he called through the gloom.
Fred turned his face away and tried to sleep.
The next day he decided to crawl out of bed and begin to win back his strength. He couldn’t lie there forever sharing Storch’s roof and crust. But the effort left him exhausted and he was soon glad to fling himself back upon the couch.
Each succeeding day he felt a little stronger, until the time came when he was able to drag himself to the open door and sit in the sunshine. He had never thought much about sunshine in the old days. A fine day had been something to be remarked, but scarcely hoarded. With the steam radiator working, it had not mattered so much whether the sun shone or not… He remembered the first time that a real sense of the sun’s beauty had struck him–on that morning which now seemed so remote–when he had risen weakly from his cot at the detention hospital and made ready for exile at Fairview. Less than a year ago! How many things had assumed new values since then! Now, he could exploit every sunbeam to its minutest warmth, he could wring sustenance from a handful of crumbs, he knew what a cup of cold water meant. He was on speaking terms with hunger, he had been comrade to madness, he had looked upon sudden death, he was an outcast and, in a sense, a criminal. He felt that he could almost say with Hilmer:
“I know all the dirty, rotten things of life by direct contact.”
All but murder–yet it had brushed close to him. Even now he could evoke the choking rage that had engulfed him on that night of his arrest when his defenseless cheek had reddened to the blow of humiliation. This had been, however, a flash of passion. But once, meeting a man who blocked his path in the first upper reaches of the hills, beyond Fairview, he had felt the even more primitive itch of self-preservation urging him to the ultimate crime. Would he end by going a step farther and planning the destruction of life in cold blood?
It was curious how constant association with a sensational idea dulled the edge of its novelty. The first time he had heard deliberate and passionless murder all but plotted in Storch’s huddled room he had felt a quick heartbeat of instinctive protest. Had he been stronger at that moment he would have leaped to his feet in opposition. But the moment passed and when he heard the subject broached again he listened curiously. Finally he ceased to feel the slightest tremor of revolt. Was indifference always the first step toward surrender?
Finally Fred grew strong enough to desert his couch at evening. Up to this point he had been ignored by the nightly visitors, but now they made a place for him in the circle about the sputtering lamp. It seemed, also, that, with his active presence, the talk began to assume general point and direction. Storch had been giving them plenty of tether, but now he was beginning to pull up sharply, putting their windy theories to the test. They were for clearing the ground, were they? Well, so far so good. But generalities led nowhere. Why not something specific? Wasn’t the time ripe for action–thousands of men, walking the streets, locked out because they dared to demand a decent and even break? And this in the face of all the altruistic rumble-bumble which war had evoked? He played this theme over and over again, and finally one night with an almost casual air he said:
“Take the shipyards, for instance … forty-odd thousand men locked out while the owners lay plans to shackle them further. Now is the chance. Quit talking and get busy!”
It ended in a list being made of the chief offenders–owners, managers, irascible foremen. Fred Starratt listened like a man in a dream. When Hilmer was named he found himself shivering. These people were plotting murder now–cool, calm, passionless murder! There was something fascinating in the very nonchalance of it.
Storch’s eyes glittered more and more savagely. He drew up plans, arranged incredible details, delivered specific offenders into the hands of certain of his henchmen.
“You are responsible for this man, now,” he used to fling at the chosen one. “How or where or when does not interest me–but get him, you understand, _get him_!”
One night a member said, significantly:
“Everybody’s been picked but Hilmer… What’s the matter, Storch, are you saving that plum for yourself?”
Storch rubbed his hands together, flashing a look at Fred.
“No… There’s an option on Hilmer!” he cried, gleefully.
Fred tried to ignore the implication, but all night the suggestion burned itself into his brain. So some one was to get Hilmer, after all! Well, why not? Hilmer liked men with guts enough to fight–rabbit drives were not to his taste… Among all the names brought up and discussed at these sinister gatherings about Storch’s round table Hilmer’s stood out as the ultimate prize. No one spoke a good word for him and yet Fred had to admit that the revilings were flavored with a certain grudging respect. He was an open and consistent tyrant, at any rate.
An option on Hilmer! What a trick Storch had for illuminating phrases! … And his divinations were uncanny. Why should he assume that Hilmer was in any way bound up in Fred Starratt’s life?
The next morning Fred decided to chance a walk in the open. He had a vague wish to try his wings again, now that he had grown stronger. The situation reminded him remotely of Fairview on those first days when Monet and he had attempted to harden their muscles against the day of escape. But this time he was struggling to free himself from a personality, from an idea. He must leave Storch and his motley brood as soon as possible; somehow the acid of their ruthless philosophy was eating away the remnants of any inner beauty which had been left him. At first he had been all revolt, but now there were swift moments in which he asked himself what quarrel he could have with any blows struck at authority. What had established order done for him? Acted as a screen for villainy and inconstancy for the most part.
He turned all this over in his mind as he slunk furtively along the water front, trying vaguely to shape a plan of action. He felt himself to be a very unusual and almost terrible figure, and yet no one paid any heed to him. His beard had lost its sunburned character and grown jet black, his face, and particularly his hands, were pale to transparence, his eyes burned too brightly in their sunken sockets. He was not even a ghost of his former self, but rather a sinister reincarnation. He felt that he was even more forbidding than on that night when he had sent Brauer shivering from his presence. He doubted whether Brauer would recognize him again, so subtle and marked was the change. He hardly recognized himself, and the transformation was not solely a matter of physical degeneration. No, there was something indefinable in the quality of his decline.
He fluttered about the town, at first aimlessly, like a defenseless fledgling thrust before its time from the nest. He was weak and tremulous and utterly miserable. Yet he felt compelled to go forward. He must escape from Storch! _He must_!
The docks, usually full of bustle, were silent and almost deserted. Fred questioned a man loafing upon a pile of lumber. It appeared that a strike of stevedores was the cause of this outward sign of inactivity. Boats were being loaded quietly, but the process was furtive and sullen. Occasionally, out of the wide expanse of brooding indolence a knot of men would gather flockwise, and melt as quickly. There was an ominous quality in the swiftness with which these cloudlike groups congealed and disintegrated. The sinister blight of repression was over everything–repressed desires, repressed joys, repressed hatreds. It was almost as sad as the noonday silence of Fairview.
Fred slunk along in deep dejection. He wanted the color and life and bustle of accomplishment. A slight activity before one of the docks beguiled him from his depression. A passenger steamer was preparing for its appointed flight south and a knot of blue-coated policemen maintained a safe path from curb to dock entrance. Here was a touch of liveliness and gayety–the released laughter of people bent on a holiday, hopeful farewells called out heartily, taxicabs dashing up with exaggerated haste. He was warming himself at the flame of this genial pageant, when an opulent machine came rolling up to the curb. A sudden surge of arrivals had pressed into service every available porter, and the alighting occupants, a man and a woman, stood waiting for some one to help them with their luggage. Fred stared with impersonal curiosity. Then, as instinctively, he fell back. The man was Axel Hilmer and the woman was Helen Starratt! His shrinking movement must have singled him out for attention, because a policeman began to hustle him on, and the next instant he was conscious that Hilmer was calling in his voice of assured authority:
“Here, there, don’t send that man away! I need some one to help me with these grips. This lady has got to catch the boat!”
The officer touched his hat respectfully and Fred felt himself gently impelled toward Helen Starratt. He did not have time to protest nor shape any plan of action. Instead, he answered Hilmer’s imperious pantomime by grasping a suitcase in one hand and a valise in the other and staggering after them toward the waiting vessel.
They had arrived not a moment too soon; already the steamer was preparing to cast off. In the confusion which followed, Fred had very little sense of what was happening. He knew that a porter had relieved him of his burden and that Helen Starratt had pressed a silver coin into his hand. There was a scramble up the gangplank, a warning whistle, a chorus of farewell, and then silence… He had a realization that he had all but fainted–he looked up to find Hilmer at his side.
“What’s the matter?” Hilmer was asking, brusquely. “Are you sick?”
He roused himself with a mighty effort.
“You look half starved, too… Why don’t you go to work? Or are you one of those damned strikers?”
“No,” he heard himself answer. “I’m just a man who’s … who’s up against it.”
Hilmer took out a card and scribbled on it.
“Here, look up my superintendent at the yard to-morrow. He’ll give you a job. There’s plenty of work for those who want it. But don’t lose that card … otherwise they won’t let you see him.”
Fred took the proffered pasteboard and as he did so his fingers closed over Hilmer’s mangled thumb. He could feel himself trembling from head to foot… He waited until Hilmer was gone. Then he crawled slowly in the direction of the street again. Midway he felt some force impelling him to a backward glance. He turned about–a green smile betrayed Storch’s sinister presence; Fred felt him swing close and whisper, triumphantly:
“That was your wife, wasn’t it?”
“How do you know?”
“Never mind. Answer me–it was your wife?”
“How much did she give you?”
Fred looked down at the coin in his hand.
“Fifty cents … for carrying two grips a hundred yards… Well, she must have money… And she’s taking a little trip south–for her health, I suppose!… I wonder when friend Hilmer will follow?”
Fred tried to draw away, but Storch’s insinuating clutch was too firm.
“Let me go!” he half begged and half commanded. “What business is all this of yours?… Who has told you all this about me?”
Storch continued to hang upon Fred’s arm. “You told me yourself.”
“I told you? When?”
“You were delirious for a good week… Don’t you suppose you babbled then?”
“How much do you know?”
“Nearly everything, _Fred Starratt_! Nearly everything.”
“Even my name!”
“Yes, even that.”
Fred stood still for a moment and he closed both his eyes.
“Let’s go home!” he said, hopelessly.
He heard Storch’s malevolent chuckle answering him.
When they arrived at Storch’s shack Fred was exhausted. He threw himself at once upon the couch, drawing the tattered quilts over his head, and thus he lay all night in a semistupor. He heard the nightly gathering drift in, and there were times when its babble reached him in vague faraway echoes. He sensed its departure, too, and the fact that Storch was flinging himself upon the pile of rags which served as his bed. His sleep was broken by a harried idea that he was attempting to catch a steamer which forever eluded him, trotting aimlessly up and down a gangplank which led nowhere, picking up a litter that spilled continually from a suitcase in his hand. It was not a dreaming state, but the projection of the main events of the preceding day distorted by fancy.
Toward morning he fell into a heavy sleep. He did not hear Storch leave. He woke at intervals during the day and relapsed into delicious dozes. It was evening when he finally roused himself. He rose. He felt extraordinarily refreshed, stronger, in fact, than he had been for weeks. Storch came in shortly after. He had his inevitable loaf of crisp French bread and a slice of cheese and in his hip pocket he had smuggled a pint bottle of thin red wine.
Fred laid the table with the simple utensils that such a meal required and the two sat down. Storch poured out two glasses of wine.
“I have had great fun to-day!” Storch said, gulping his claret with a flourish. “They’re on my track again. You should have seen how easily I gave them the slip! As a matter of fact there is nothing duller than a detective. He usually has learned every formula laid down for the conduct of criminals and if you don’t run true to form he gets sore.”
“You mean you’re being watched–shadowed?”
“What do you intend to do?”
Storch shrugged. “Being arrested and jailed is losing its novelty. I’ll stick around awhile longer until a pet job or two is accomplished… I’m particularly anxious to see Hilmer winged… What’s your plan?”
“Plan?… I have no plan. I can’t imagine what you’re talking about. I know one thing, though … I’m going to leave this place at once.”
Storch smiled evilly. “Going to start plunging on that capital your wife threw your way yesterday?… Well, well, you’ve got more initiative than I thought… But, one piece of advice, my friend–the easiest way to walk into a trap is to suddenly try to change your habits … to rush headlong in an opposite direction. You’d better stay here awhile and bluff it out. They’d gobble you in one mouthful.”
Fred made no reply. Indeed, the meal was finished in silence.
Presently Storch’s disciples began to drift in. The meeting lasted almost until midnight. They were all at fever heat, strung tensely by Storch’s unerring pressure. At the last moment the man who had previously put the question concerning Hilmer prodded Storch again.
Storch fixed Fred suddenly with a gaze that pierced him through. A silence fell upon the room. Fred could feel every eye turned his way. He rose with a curious fluttering movement of escape.
“There’s one man in this room who has earned the honor of getting Hilmer, if any man has,” Storch said, finally, in an extraordinarily cool and biting voice. “Losing a wife isn’t of any great moment … but to be laughed at–that’s another matter.”
The silence continued. Fred Starratt sat down again… Shortly after this the gathering broke up. Storch went to sleep immediately. Fred blew out the light. But he did not throw himself upon his couch this time. Instead he opened the door softly and crept out.
A bright moon was riding high in the sky. He went swiftly down the lane and stood for a moment upon the edge of the cliff which plunged down toward the docks. The city seemed like a frozen bit of loveliness, waiting to be melted to fluid beauty by the fires of morning. He must leave Storch at once, forever! He turned for a backward glimpse of the house that had sheltered and almost entrapped him. A figure darted in front of the lone street lamp and retreated instantly. _Shadowed!_ Storch was right!
Suddenly Fred began to whistle–gayly, loudly, with unquestionable defiance. Then slowly, very slowly, he went back into the house and closed the door… Storch was snoring contentedly.
The next afternoon Fred Starratt took the fifty-cent piece that he had earned as flunky to his wife and spent every penny of it in a cheap barber shop on the Embarcadero. He emerged with an indifferently trimmed beard and his hair clipped into a semblance of neatness. He felt better, in spite of his tattered suit and gaping footgear. Hilmer’s card was still in his pocket.
His plans were hazy, nebulous, in fact. He was not quite sure as to his next move. It seemed useless to attempt to flee from Storch’s shelter. He had no money and scarcely strength enough to tackle any job that would be open to him. Even if he elected to become a strike breaker he would have to qualify at least with brawn. The prospect of snaring a berth from Hilmer had a certain fascination. It would be interesting to stare defiantly at his enemy at close range, to speak with him again man to man, to lure him into further bravados. And then, if Storch’s plans for Hilmer had any merits… He stopped short, a bit frightened at the realization that the idea had presented itself to him with such directness… He had a sudden yearning to talk to some human being who would understand. If he could only see Ginger!
He had a feeling that somehow she must have experienced every exaltation and every degradation in the calendar. Tenderness and passion and the gift of murder itself were ever the mixed language of the street. He remembered the gesture he first had made to her almost timid advances toward helping him. He had been outwardly polite, but inwardly how scornful of her suggestions! And once he even had hesitated to let her carry a message to his wife! Now he was ready to stand or fall upon the bitter fruits of her experience. He felt, curiously, on common ground with her. And yet there were certain intangibilities he had never attempted to make positive. Somehow the mere fact of her existence had enveloped him like warm currents of air which he could feel, but not visualize. But at this moment he felt the need of a contact more personal. Suddenly, out of a clear sky, it came to him that Mrs. Hilmer could tell him something of Ginger’s whereabouts. Mrs. Hilmer? Well, why not? The more he thought the idea over the more it appealed to him. He ended by turning his steps in the direction of the Hilmer home.
The maid who opened the door eyed him with more curiosity than caution, and her protests that Mrs. Hilmer could see no one seemed rather tentative and perfunctory. Fred had a curious feeling that she was demanding a more or less conventional excuse for admitting him, and in the end he flung out as a chance:
“Tell Mrs. Hilmer I have a message from Sylvia Molineaux.”
The girl’s pale-blue eyes sparkled with a curious glint of humor, and without further protest she went away, and came back as swiftly with an invitation for him to step inside. There was something inexplainable about this maid who veiled her eagerness to admit him with such transparencies. Even a fool would scarcely have left so forbidding a character to dawdle about the living room while she went to fetch her mistress.
He had expected to find this room changed, and yet he was not prepared for quite the quality of familiarity which it possessed. Most of the old Hilmer knickknacks had been swept aside, their places taken by bits that had once enlivened the Starratt household. Here was a silver vase that he had bought Helen for an anniversary present, and there a Whistler etching that had been their wedding portion. His easy-chair was in a corner, and Helen’s music rack filled with all the things she used to play for his delight. And on the mantel, in a silver frame, his picture, with a little bowl of fading flowers before it… He went over and picked it up. Instinctively he glanced in the mirror just in front of him… _Dead … quite dead!_ No wonder his wife put flowers before this photographic shrine… For a moment he had a swooning hope that he had misjudged her … that he had misread everybody … that they had done everything for him that they thought was best. But he emerged from this brief deception with a shuddering laugh… He would not have cared so much if his wife had swept him from her life completely … but to trample on him and still use his shadow as a screen–this was too much! What really pallid creatures these women of convention were! How little they were prepared to risk anything! He could almost hear the comments that Helen inspired:
“Poor Helen Starratt! She has had an awful time!… I don’t know what she would have done without the Hilmers… She’s so devoted to Mrs. Hilmer… I do think it’s lovely that they can be together.”
He felt that he could have admired a Helen Starratt with the courage of her primitive instincts. As it was, he was ashamed to own that he experienced even rancor at her pretenses.
He heard the sound of a wheeled chair coming toward the living room and he made a pretense of staring aimlessly into the street. Presently a sepulchral voice broke the silence. He turned–Mrs. Hilmer was leaning forward in her chair, regarding him attentively, while the maid stood a little to one side. He had expected to come upon a huddle of blond plumpness, an inanimate mass of forceless flesh robbed of its bovine suavity by inactivity. What he saw was a body thin to emaciation and a face drawn into a tight-lipped discontent. The old curves of flesh had melted, displaying the heaviness of the framework which had supported them. The eyes were restless and glittering, the once-plump hands shrunken into claws.
“You … you have a message from Sylvia Molineaux?”
She tossed the question toward him with biting directness. Could it be possible that this was the same woman who had purred so contentedly over a receipt for corn pudding somewhat over a year ago?
He moved a step nearer. “Yes … but it is private.”
The maid made a slight grimace and put her hand protectingly upon Mrs. Hilmer’s chair. Mrs. Hilmer shifted about impatiently.
“Never mind, Hilda,” she snapped out. “I am not afraid.”
The maid shrugged and departed.
“I have wanted to see her,” Mrs. Hilmer went on, coldly. “But who could I send? … Few people understand her life.”
“Ah, then you have guessed?”
“Guessed? … She has told me everything.”
A shade of bitter malice crept into her face–the malice of a woman who has learned truths and is no longer shocked by them. Fred Starratt put his hat aside and he went up close to her.
“I lied to get in here,” he said, quickly. “I am looking for Sylvia Molineaux myself.”
“Why don’t you try the streets, then?” she flung out, venomously.
He felt almost as if an insult had been hurled at _him_. He searched Mrs. Hilmer’s face. Something more than physical pain had harrowed the woman before him to such deliberate mockery.
“You, too!” he cried. “How you must have suffered!”
She gave a little cackling laugh that made him shudder. “What about yourself?” she queried. “You do not look like a happy man.”
“Would you be … if … Look at me closely, Mrs. Hilmer! Have you ever seen me before?”
He bent toward her. She took his face between her two clawlike fingers. Her eyes were points of greedy flame.
When she finally spoke her voice had almost a pensive quality to it.
“You might have been Fred Starratt, _once_,” she said, evenly.
He rose to his feet.
“I knew you were not dead,” he heard her saying. “And I don’t think she felt sure, either… Ah, how I have worried her since that day! Every morning I used to say: ‘I dreamed of your husband last night. He was swimming out of a black pool … a very black pool.'”
She chuckled at the memory of her sinister banter. So Helen Starratt did not have everything her own way! There were weapons which even weakness could flourish.
“Where has she gone?” he asked, suddenly.
“South, for a change… I’ve worried her sick with my black pool. Whenever the doorbell would ring I would say as sweetly as I could, ‘What if that should be your husband?’ I drove her out with just that… You’ve come just the right time to help. It couldn’t have been planned any better.”
She might have been Storch, masquerading in skirts, as she sat there casting significantly narrow glances at him. He wondered why he had come. He felt like a fly struggling from the moist depths of a cream jug only to be thrust continually back by a ruthless force. Was everybody bent on plunging him into the ultimate despair? He moved back with a poignant gesture of escape.
“You mustn’t count on me, Mrs. Hilmer!” he cried, desperately. “I’m nothing but a poor, spent man. I’ve lost the capacity for revenge.”
She smiled maliciously. “You see me here–helpless. And yet, in all these months I’ve prayed for only one thing–to have strength enough one day to rise in this chair and throw myself upon them both… Oh, but I should like to kill them!… You talk about suffering … but do you know what it is to feel the caress of hands that are waiting to lay hold of everything that was once yours?… I have six months more to live. The doctor told me yesterday… Six months more, getting weaker every day, until at last–“
She brought her hands up in a vigorous flourish, which died pitifully. He felt a contempt for his impotence. He dropped into a seat opposite her.
“Tell me about it … all … from the beginning,” he begged.
She opened the floodgates cautiously at first … going back to the day when it had come upon her that she was a stranger in her own house. … Hilmer’s moral lapses had never affronted her. She knew men–or her father, to be exact, and his father before him. They were as God made them, no better and no worse. Perhaps she had never admitted it, but she would no doubt have felt a contempt for a man without the capacity for truant inconstancies. But she had her place from which it was inconceivable that she could be dislodged. … On that day when she had realized that this position was threatened she had been put to one of two alternatives–open revolt or deceitful acceptance. She had chosen the latter. In the end her choice was justified, for she had begun to undermine Helen Starratt’s content with subtle purring which dripped a steady pool of disquiet.
“She hasn’t abandoned herself yet,” she said, moving her claws restlessly. “She’s too clever for that… She wants _my_ place. Hilmer’s like all men–he won’t have a mistress for a wife… And she never would be any man’s mistress while she saw a chance for the other thing … she’s too–“
She broke off suddenly, unable to find a word inclusive enough for all the contempt she wished to crowd into it. He was learning things. She could have ignored a frank courtesan with disdainful aloofness, but discreetly veiled wantonness made her articulate. When she mentioned Ginger her voice took a soft pity, mixed with certain condescension. She was sympathetic, but there were still many things she could not understand.
“She used to come and pass me every morning,” Mrs. Hilmer explained, “and your wife would look at her from head to foot. One day I said, ‘Who is that woman?’ … ‘How should I know?’ she answered me. And I knew from her manner that she was lying. The next day I spoke deliberately. After that it was easy… She is a strange girl. She would come and read me such beautiful things and then go away to _that_! … ‘How is it possible for one woman to be so good and so bad?’ I asked her once. And all she said was, ‘How would you have us–all devil or all saint?’ … During all this your wife said nothing. When she _would_ see Sylvia Molineaux coming down the street she would wheel my chair into a quiet corner and walk calmly into the house… One day Sylvia Molineaux spoke of you. She told me the whole story and in the end she said: ‘I don’t come here altogether to be kind to you … I come here to worry her. You cannot imagine how I hate her!’ The next morning I said to Helen Starratt, ‘Did you know that Sylvia Molineaux was a friend of your husband?’ She had to answer me civilly. There was no other way out. But after that I said, whenever I could, ‘Sylvia Molineaux tells me this,’ or, ‘Sylvia Molineaux tells me that.’ And I would give her the tattle of Fairview… I know she could have strangled me, because she smiled too sweetly. But she made no protest, no comment. She merely walked into the house whenever Sylvia Molineaux appeared. But it worried her–yes, almost as much as that black pool from which I had you swimming every morning… And so it went on until the day after word had come that you had been drowned. I had not seen Sylvia for some days. She came down the street at the usual time. Helen was still up in her room … the maid had wheeled me out. She said nothing about what had happened. But she looked very pale as she opened her book to read to me. In the midst of all this your wife came out and stood for a moment upon the landing. We looked up. She was in black. I gave one glance at Sylvia. She closed her book with a bang and suddenly she was on her feet. ‘Black! _Black_!’ she cried out in a loud voice. ‘How _can_ you!’ Your wife grew pale and walked quickly back into the house. Sylvia’s face was dreadful. ‘I can’t trust myself to come here again!’ she said, turning on me fiercely. ‘Fancy, _she_ can wear black. The hussy … the…’ No, I shall not repeat what else she said… But when she had finished I caught her hand and I said: ‘Come back and kill her! Come back and kill her, Sylvia Molineaux!’ She gave a cry and left me. I have not seen her since.”
He sat staring at the wasted figure before him. Who would have thought, seeing her in a happier day, that she could quiver with such red-fanged energy! After all, she was more primitive even than Ginger. She was like some limpid, prattling stream swollen to sudden fury by a cloudburst of bitterness.
He was recalled from his scrutiny of the terrible figure before him by the sound of her voice, this time dropping into a monologue which held a half-musing quality. Hilmer was puzzling her a bit. She could not quite understand why a man accustomed to hew his way without restraint should be possessing his soul in such patience before Helen Starratt’s provocative advances and discreet retreats. Either she was unable or unwilling to fathom the fascination which a subtle game sometimes held for a man schooled only in elemental approaches toward his goal. Was he enthralled or confused or merely curious? And how long would he continue to give his sufferance scope? How long would he pretend to play the moth to Helen Starratt’s fitful flamings? Mrs. Hilmer, raising the question, answered it tentatively by a statement that held a curious mixture of hope and fear.
“Hilmer’s going south himself next week… On business, he _says_.” She laughed harshly. “I wonder if they both think me quite a fool! … If he succeeds this time she’s done for!”
Fred Starratt stirred in his seat.
“Don’t deceive yourself,” he found himself saying, coldly; “whatever else my wife is, she’s no fool… Remember, she wrote me a letter every week. She looks over her cards before she plays them…A few months more or less don’t–“
He broke off, suddenly amazed at his cruelty. Mrs. Hilmer’s expression changed from arrested exultation to fretful appeal.
“I have only six months to live,” she wailed. “If I could walk just for a day…an hour…five minutes!”
She covered her face in her hands.
“What do you expect _me_ to do?” he asked, helplessly, with a certain air of resignation.
She took her fingers from her eyes. A crafty smile illumined her features. “How should I know? …What do men do in such cases?…She will be gone two weeks. I pray God she may never enter this house again. But that is in your hands.”
He felt suddenly cold all over, as if she had delivered an enemy into his keeping. She still loved Axel Hilmer…loved him to the point of hatred. What she wished for was his head upon a charger. With other backgrounds and other circumstances crowding her to fury she would have danced for her boon like the daughter of Herodias. As it was, she sat like some pagan goddess, full of sinister silences, impotent, yet unconquered.
And again Storch’s prophetic words swept him:
“Like a field broken to the plow!”
There was a terrible beauty in the phrase. Was sorrow the only plowshare that turned the quiescent soul to bountiful harvest? Was it better to reap a whirlwind than to see a shallow yield of unbroken content wither to its sterile end?
* * * * *
He found Ginger’s lodgings that night, in a questionable quarter of the town, but she did not respond to his knock upon the door.
“Why don’t you try the streets, then?” Mrs. Hilmer’s sneer recurred with all its covert bitterness.
The suggestion made him sick. And he had fancied all along that ugliness had lost the power to move him … that he was prepared for the harsh facts of existence!
He waited an hour upon the street corner, and when she came along finally she was in the company of a man… He grew suddenly cold all over. When they passed him he could almost hear his teeth chattering. They disappeared, swallowed up in the sinister light of a beguiling doorway. He stared for a moment stupidly, then turned and fled, looking neither to the right nor to the left. He realized now that he had reached the heights of bitterest ecstasy and the depths of profound humiliation.
Storch was alone, bending close to the lamp, reading, when Fred Starratt broke in upon him. He did not lift his head.
Fred went softly into a corner and sat down… Finally, after a while, Storch laid his book aside. He gave one searching look at Fred’s face.
“Well, have you decided?” he asked, with calm directness.
Fred’s hands gave a flourish of resignation. “Yes… I’ll do it!” he answered in a whisper.
Storch picked up his book again and went on reading. Presently he lifted his eyes from the printed page as he said:
“We won’t have any more meetings here… Things are getting a little too dangerous… How soon will the job be finished?”
Fred rose, shaking himself. “Within two weeks, if it is finished at all!”
He went close to Storch and put a hand upon his shoulder. “You know every bitter thing … tell me, why does a man love?”
Storch laughed unpleasantly. “To breed hatred!”
Fred Starratt sat down again with a gesture of despair.
From this moment on Fred Starratt’s existence had the elements of a sleepwalking dream. He felt himself going through motions which he was powerless to direct. Already Storch and his associates were allowing him a certain aloofness–letting him set himself apart with the melancholy arrogance of one who had been chosen for a fanatical sacrifice.
Replying to Storch’s question regarding his plans, he said, decidedly:
“I leave all that to you… Give me instructions and I’ll act. But I want to know nothing until the end.”
“Within two weeks… Is there a special reason why …”
“Yes … a very special reason.”
Storch turned away. But the next day he said, “Have you that card that Hilmer gave you?”
Fred yielded it up.
Storch smiled his wide, green smile. Fred asked no questions, but he guessed the plans. A spy was to be worked in upon Hilmer.
Every morning now Fred Starratt found a silver dollar upon the cluttered table at Storch’s. He smiled grimly as he pocketed the money. He was to have not a care in the world. Like a perfect youth of the ancients marked for a sweet-scented offering to the gods, he was to go his way in perfect freedom until his appointed time. There was an element of grotesqueness in it all that dulled the edge of horror which he should have felt.
Sometimes he would sally forth in a noonday sun, intent on solitude, but usually he craved life and bustle and the squalor of cluttered foregrounds. With his daily dole of silver jingling in his pocket he went from coffeehouse to coffeehouse or drowsed an hour or two in a crowded square or stood with his foot upon the rail of some emasculated saloon, listening to the malcontents muttering over their draughts of watery beer.
“Ah yes,” he would hear these last grumble, “the rich can have their grog… But the poor man–he can get it only when he is dying … providing he has the price.”
And here would follow the inevitable reply, sharpened by bitter sarcasm:
“But all this is for the poor man’s good … you understand. Men work better when they do not indulge in follies… They will stop dancing next. Girls in factories should not come to work all tired out on Monday morning. They would find it much more restful to spend the time upon their knees.”
It was not what they said, but the tone of it, that made Fred Starratt shudder. Their laughter was the terrible laughter of sober men without either the wit or circumstance to escape into a temperate gayety of spirit. He still sat apart, as he had done at Fairview and again at Storch’s gatherings. He had not been crushed sufficiently, even yet, to mingle either harsh mirth or scalding tears with theirs. But he was feeling a passion for ugliness … he wanted to drain the bitter circumstance of life to the lees. He was seeking to harden himself to his task past all hope of reconsideration.
He liked especially to talk to the cripples of industry. Here was a man who had been blinded by a hot iron bolt flung wide of its mark, and another with his hand gnawed clean by some gangrenous product of flesh made raw by the vibrations of a riveting machine. And there were the men deafened by the incessant pounding of boiler shops, and one poor, silly, lone creature whose teeth had been slowly eaten away by the excessive sugar floating in the air of a candy factory. Somehow this last man was the most pathetic of all. In the final analysis, his calling seemed so trivial, and he a sacrifice upon the altar of a petty vanity. Once he met a man weakened into consumption by the deadly heat of a bakeshop. These men did not whine, but they exhibited their distortions with the malicious pride of beggars. They demanded sympathy, and somehow their insistence had a humiliating quality. He used to wonder, in rare moments of reflection, how long it would take for all this foul seepage to undermine the foundations of life. Or would it merely corrode everything it came in contact with, very much as it had corroded him? Only occasionally did he have an impulse to escape from the terrible estate to which his rancor had called him. At such intervals he would turn his feet toward the old quarter of the town and stand before the garden that had once smiled upon his mother’s wooing, seeking to warm himself once again in the sunlight of traditions. The fence, that had screened the garden from the nipping wind which swept in every afternoon from the bay, was rotting to a sure decline, disclosing great gaps, and the magnolia tree struggling bravely against odds to its appointed blossoming. But it was growing blackened and distorted. Some day, he thought, it would wither utterly… He always turned away from this familiar scene with the profound melancholy springing from the realization that the past was a pale corpse lighted by the tapers of feeble memory.
One afternoon, accomplishing again this vain pilgrimage, he found the tree snapped to an untimely end. It had gone down ingloriously in a twisting gale that had swept the garden the night before.
In answer to his question, the man intent on clearing away the wreckage said:
“The wind just caught it right… It was dying, anyway.”
Fred Starratt retraced his steps. It was as if the old tree had stood as a symbol of his own life.
He never went back to view the old garden again, but, instead, he stood at midnight upon the corner past which Ginger walked with such monotonous and terrible fidelity. He would stand off in the shadows and see her go by, sometimes alone, but more often in obscene company. And in those moments he tasted the concentrated bitterness of life. Was this really a malicious jest or a test of his endurance? To what black purpose had belated love sprung up in his heart for this woman of the streets? And to think that once he had fancied that so withering a passion was as much a matter of good form as of cosmic urging! There had been conventions in love–and styles and seasons! One loved purity and youth and freshness. Yes, it had been as easy as that for him. Just as it had been as easy for him to choose a nice and pallid calling for expressing his work-day joy. He could have understood a feeling of sinister passion for Sylvia Molineaux and likewise he could have indulged it. But the snare was more subtle and cruel than that. He was fated to feel the awe and mystery and beauty of a rose-white love which he saw hourly trampled in the grime of the streets. He had fancied once that love was a matter of give and take … he knew now that it was essentially an outpouring … that to love was sufficient to itself … that it could be without reward, or wage, or even hope. He knew now that it could spring up without sowing, endure without rain, come to its blossoming in utter darkness. And yet he did not have the courage of these revelations. He felt their beauty, but it was the beauty of nakedness, and he had no skill to weave a philosophy with which to clothe them. If it had been possible a year ago for him to have admitted so cruel a love he knew what he would have done. He would have waited for her upon this selfsame street corner and shot her down, turning the weapon upon himself. Yes, he would have been full of just such empty heroics. Thus would he have expressed his contempt and scorn of the circumstance which had tricked him. But now he was beyond so conventional a settlement.
The huddled meetings about Storch’s shattered lamp were no more, but in small groups the scattered malcontents exchanged whispered confidences in any gathering place they chanced upon. Fred Starratt listened to the furtive reports of their activities with morbid interest. But he had to confess that, so far, they were proving empty windbags. The promised reign of terror seemed still a long way off. There were moments even when he would speculate whether or not he was being tricked into unsupported crime. But he raised the question merely out of curiosity… Word seemed to have been passed that he was disdainful of all plans for setting the trap which he was to spring. But one day, coming upon a group unawares in a Greek coffeehouse on Folsom Street, he caught a whispered reference to Hilmer. Upon the marble-topped table was spread a newspaper–Hilmer’s picture smiled insolently from the printed page. The gathering broke up in quick confusion on finding him a silent auditor. When they were gone he reached for the newspaper. A record-breaking launching was to be achieved at Hilmer’s shipyard within the week. The article ended with a boastful fling from Hilmer to the effect that his plant was running to full capacity in spite of strikes and lockouts. Fred threw the paper to the floor. A chill enveloped him. He had caught only the merest fragments of conversation which had fallen from the lips of the group he had surprised, but his intuitions had been sharpened by months of misfortune. He knew at once what date had been set for the consummation of Storch’s sinister plot. He rose to his feet, shivering until his teeth chattered. He felt like a man invested with all the horrid solemnity of the death watch.
That night Storch confirmed Fred’s intuitions. He said, pausing a moment over gulping his inevitable bread and cheese:
“I have planned everything for Saturday.”
Fred cut himself a slice of bread. “So I understand,” he said, coldly.
“Who told you?”
“Your companions are great gossips … and I have ears.”
The insolence in Fred’s tone made Storch knit his brows.
“Well, knowing so much, you must be ready for details now,” he flung out.
Storch lighted his pipe and glowered. “The launching is to take place at noon. Hilmer has planned to arrive at the yards promptly at eleven forty-five at the north gate. Everything is ready, down to the last detail.”
“Including the bomb?” Fred snapped, suddenly.
“Including the bomb,” Storch repeated, malevolently, caressing the phrase with a note of rare affection. “It is the most skillful arrangement I have seen in a long time … in a kodak case. By the way … are you accurate at heaving things?… You are to stand upon the roof of a row of one-story stores quite near the entrance and promptly at the precise minute–“
“Ah, a time bomb!”
“And if Hilmer should be late?”
“He is always on time… And, besides, there is a special reason. He wants the launching accomplished on the stroke of noon.”
“And if he comes too early?”
“Impossible. He went south last week … you knew that, of course. And he doesn’t get into San Francisco until late that morning. He is to be met at Third and Townsend streets and go at once to Oakland in his machine… There will be four in the party … perhaps six.”
Fred Starratt stood up slowly, repressing a desire to leap suddenly to his feet. He walked up and down the cluttered room twice. Storch watched him narrowly.
“Six in the party?” Fred echoed. “Any women?”
Storch rubbed his palms together. “There may be two … providing your wife comes back with him… Mrs. Hilmer sent for her.”
Storch smiled his usual broad smile, exhibiting his green teeth.
“She developed a whim to attend the launching… Naturally she wished her _dearest_ friend with her.”
Fred Starratt sat down. He was trembling inwardly, but he knew instinctively that he must appear nonchalant and calm. He guessed at once that it would not do for him to betray the fact that suddenly he realized how completely he had been snared. Yet his trepidation must have communicated itself, for Storch leaned forward with the diabolical air of an inquisitor and said:
“Does it matter in the least whether there is one victim or six?”
Fred managed to reply, coolly, “Not the slightest … but I have been thinking in terms of one.”
Storch smiled evilly. “That would have been absurd in any case. There are always a score or so of bystanders who …”
“Yes, of course, of course. Just so!” Fred interrupted.
Storch laid his pipe aside and drained a half-filled glass of red wine standing beside his plate.
“I think I’ve turned a very neat trick,” he said, smacking his lips in satisfaction. “It’s almost like a Greek tragedy–Hilmer, his wife, and yours in one fell swoop, and at your hand. There is an artistic unity about this affair that has been lacking in some of my other triumphs.”
Fred rose again, and this time he turned squarely on Storch as he asked:
“How long have you and Mrs. Hilmer been plotting this together?”
Storch’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re getting keener every moment… Well, you’ve asked a fair question. I planted that maid in the house soon after I knew the story.”
“After the fever set me to prattling?”
Fred Starratt stood motionless for a moment, but presently he began to laugh.
Storch looked annoyed, then rather puzzled. Fred took the hint and fell silent. For the first time since his escape from Fairview he was experiencing the joy of alert and sharpened senses. He had ceased to drift. From this moment on he would be struggling. And a scarcely repressed joy rose within him.
That night Fred Starratt did not sleep. His mind was too clear, his senses too alert. He was like a man coming suddenly out of a mist into the blinding sunshine of some valley sheltered from the sea.
“Does it matter in the least whether there is one victim or six?”
He repeated Storch’s question over and over again. Yes, it did matter–why, he could not have said. But even in a vague way there had been a certain point in winging Hilmer. Hilmer had grown to be more and more an impersonal effigy upon which one could spew forth malice and be forever at peace. He had fancied, too, that Hilmer was his enemy. Yet, Hilmer had done nothing more than harry him. It was Storch who had captured him completely.
It was not that Storch was unable to discover a score of men ready and willing to murder Hilmer, but he was finding an ironic diversion in shoving a weary soul to the brink. He liked to confirm his faith in the power of sorrow and misery and bitterness … he liked to triumph over that healing curse of indifference which time accomplished with such subtlety. He took a delight in cutting the heart and soul out of his victims and reducing them to puppets stuffed with sawdust, answering the slightest pressure of his hands. How completely Fred Starratt understood all this now! And in the blinding flash of this realization he saw also the hidden spring that had answered Storch’s pressure. Storch may have been prodding for rancor, but he really had touched the mainspring of all false and empty achievement–vanity.
“Losing a wife isn’t of such moment … but to be laughed at–that is another matter!”
The words with which Storch had held him up to the scorn of the crowd swept him now with their real significance. He had been afraid to seem uncourageous.
Thus also had Mrs. Hilmer prodded him with her sly “What do men do in such cases?”
Thus, also, had the terrible realization of his love for Sylvia Molineaux been turned to false account with a wish to still the stinging wounds of pride forever.
He had made just such empty gestures when he had battled for an increase in salary, using Hilmer’s weapons instead of his own, and again when he had committed himself to Fairview with such a theatrical flourish. He had performed then, he was performing now, with an eye to his audience. And his audience had done then, and was doing now, what it always did–treated him with the scorn men feel for any and all who play down to them.
Already Storch was sneering with the contempt of a man too sure of his power. He would not have risked the details of his plan otherwise. And deep down Fred Starratt knew that the first duty to his soul was to be rid of Storch at any cost–after that, perhaps, it would not matter whether he had one or six or a hundred victims marked for destruction. He was afraid of Storch and he had now to prove his courage to himself.
It was at the blackest hour before dawn that this realization grew to full stature. He raised himself upon his elbow, listening to the heavy breathing of Storch. He rose cautiously. Now was his chance. He would escape while his conviction was still glistening with the freshness of crystallization. Moving with a catlike tread toward the door, he put his hand upon the knob. It turned noisily. He heard Storch leap to his feet. He stood quite still until Storch came up to him.
“Go back to bed … where you belong!” Storch was commanding, coolly, with a shade of menace in his voice.
He shuffled back to his couch. He was no longer afraid of Storch, but a certain craftiness suddenly possessed him.
Presently he heard a key turn and he felt himself to be completely in the hands of his jailer. Yet the locked door became at once the symbol of both Storch’s strength and weakness. Storch was determined to have either his body or his soul. And, at that moment, Fred Starratt made his choice.
Next morning Storch was up early and bustling about with unusual clatter.
“Get up!” he cried, gayly, to Fred. “Do you realize this is Friday?… There are a thousand details to attend to.”
Fred pretended to find Storch’s manner infectious. He had never seen anyone so eager, so thrilling with anticipation.
“I’ve got to buy you a new outfit complete,” Storch went on, filling the coffeepot with water. “And you must be shaved and shorn and made human-looking again. Rags are well enough to wrap discontent in … but one should have a different make-up for achievement… What was the matter last night?”
“Oh, a bit of panic, I guess,” Fred returned, nonchalantly. “But I’m all right this morning.”
Storch rubbed his hands in satisfaction, and he smiled continually.
They went out shortly after nine o’clock and in San Francisco’s embryo ghetto at McAllister and Fillmore streets they bought a decent-looking misfit suit and a pair of second-hand shoes, to say nothing of a bargain in shirts. A visit to a neighboring barber followed. Storch permitted Fred to enter the shop alone, but he stood upon the corner and waited.
When the barber finished, Fred was startled. Standing before the mirror he gazed at his smooth-shaven cheek again and trembled. It was like a resurrection. Even Storch was startled. Fred caught a suggestion of doubt in the gaze his jailer threw at him. It was almost as if Storch said:
“You are not the man I thought you.”
After that Fred had a sense that Storch watched him more narrowly. Impulses toward forcing the issue at once assailed Fred, but he was too uncertain as to the outcome. He decided that the safest thing was to wait until the very last moment, trying to prolong the issue until it would be too late for Storch to lay other plans.
They went back to the shack for a bite of lunch. After they had eaten, Fred put on his new clothes. He felt now completely cut off from the cankerous life which had been so deliberately eating its way into his philosophy. Could it be possible that clothes did in some mysterious way make the man? Would his unkempt beard and gaping shoes and tattered clothing have kept him nearer the path of violence?
A little after three o’clock in the afternoon a man came to the door and handed Storch a carefully wrapped package. They did not exchange a word. Storch took the package and stowed it away in a corner, covering it with a ragged quilt.
“That is the bomb!” flashed through Fred’s mind.
From that moment on this suggestive corner of the room was filled with a mysterious fascination. It was like living on the edge of a volcano.
Later in the day he said to Storch:
“Are you sure the maker of that bomb was skillful?”
Storch bared his green teeth.
“One is sure of nothing!” he snapped back.
Fred tried to appear nonchalant. “Aren’t you rather bold, having this thing delivered in broad daylight?”
“What have we to fear?”
“I thought we were being watched.”
Storch threw back his head and roared with laughter. “_You_ have been watched … if that’s what you mean. I never believe in taking any unnecessary chances.”
Fred made no reply. But a certain contempt for Storch that hitherto had been lacking rose within him. He had always fancied certain elements of bigness in this man in spite of his fanaticism. Suddenly he was conscious that his silence had evoked a subtle uneasiness in Storch. At this moment he laughed heartily himself as he rose from his seat, slapping Storch violently on the back as he cried:
“Upon my word, Storch, you’re a master hand! No matter what happens now, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I was perfectly stage-managed.”
They kept close to the house until nearly midnight. At a few moments to twelve Storch drew a flask of smuggled brandy from his hip pocket.
“Here, take a good drink!” he said, passing the bottle to Fred.
Fred did as he was bidden. Storch followed suit.
“Would you like a turn in the open?” Storch inquired, not unkindly.
“Yes,” Fred assented.
They put on their hats. When they were outside Storch made a little gesture of surrender. “You lead … I’ll follow,” he said, indulgently.
The night was breathless–still touched with the vagrant warmth of an opulent April day. The spring of blossoming acacias was over, but an even fuller harvest of seasonal unfolding was sweeping the town. A fragrant east wind was flooding in from the blossom-starred valleys, and vacant lots yielded up a scent of cool, green grass. A soul-healing quality released itself from the heavily scented air–hidden and mysterious beauties of both body and spirit that sent little thrills through Fred Starratt. He had never been wrapped in a more exquisite melancholy–not even during the rain-raked days at Fairview. He knew that Storch was by his side, but, for the moment, this sinister personality seemed to lose its power and he felt Monet near him. It was as it had been during those days upon Storch’s couch with death beckoning–the nearer he approached the dead line, the more distinctly he saw Monet. To-night his vision was clouded, but a keener intuition gave him the sense of Monet’s presence. He knew that he was standing close to another brink.
For a time he surrendered completely to this luxury of feeling, as if it strengthened him to find stark reality threaded with so much haunting beauty. But he discovered himself suddenly yearning for the poetry of life rather than the poetry of death. He wanted to live, realizing completely that to-morrow might seal everything. He was not afraid, but he was alive, very much alive–so alive that he found himself rising triumphant from sorrow and shame and disillusionment.
He came out of his musings with a realization that Storch was regarding him with that puzzled air which his moods were beginning to evoke. And almost at the same time he was conscious that their feet were planted upon that selfsame corner past which Ginger walked at midnight. He put a hand on Storch’s shoulder.
“Let us wait here a few moments,” he said. “I am feeling a little tired.”
A newsboy bellowing the latest edition of the paper broke an unusual and almost profound stillness.
“There doesn’t seem to be many people about to-night,” Fred observed, casually.
Storch sneered. “To-day is Good Friday, I believe… Everyone has grown suddenly pious.”
Fred turned his attention to the windows of a tawdry candy shop, filled with unhealthy-looking chocolates and chromatic sweets. He was wondering whether Ginger would pass again to-night. His musings were answered by the suggestive pressure of Storch’s hand on his.
“There’s a skirt on the Rialto, anyway,” Storch was saying, with disdain.
Fred kept his gaze fixed upon the candy-shop window. He was afraid to look up. Could it be that Ginger was passing before him, perhaps for the last time? He caught the vague reflection of a feminine form in the plate-glass window. A surge of relief swept him–at least she was alone!
“She’s looking back!” Storch volunteered.
Fred turned. The woman had gained the doorway of the place where she lodged and she was standing with an air of inconsequence as if she had nothing of any purpose on her mind except an appreciation of the night’s dark beauty. He looked at her steadily … It _was_ Ginger!
She continued to stand, immobile, wrapped in the sinister patience of her calling. Fred could not take his eyes from her.
“She’s waiting for you,” Storch said.
Fred smiled wanly.
“Do you want to go? … If you do I’ll wait–here!”
Fred tried to conceal his conflicting emotions. He did not want to betray his surprise at Storch’s sudden and irrational indiscretion.
“Well, if you don’t mind,” he began to flounder, “I’ll–“
Storch gave him a contemptuous shove. “Go on … go on!” he cried, almost impatiently, and the next moment Fred Starratt found himself at Ginger’s side… For an instant she stood transfixed as she lifted her eyes to his.
“Don’t scream!” he commanded between his locked lips. “I don’t want that man to know that–“
She released her breath sharply. “Shall we go in?” she whispered.
He nodded. Storch was pretending to be otherwise absorbed, but Fred knew that he had been intent on their pantomime.
Her room was bare, pitifully bare, swept clean of all the tawdry fripperies that one might expect from such an environment and circumstance. She motioned him wearily to an uncompromising chair, standing herself with an air of profound resignation as she leaned against the cheaply varnished bureau.
“Is this the first time–” she began, and stopped short.
“No … I’ve watched you every night for nearly two weeks.”
“What was the idea?” she threw out, with an air of banter.
He stood up suddenly. “I wanted to see how much I _could_ stand,” he answered.
She closed her eyes for a moment … her immobility was full of tremulous fear and hope.
“Ah!” she said, finally. “So you did care, after all!”
“Yes … when it was too late.”
She crossed over to him, putting one wan finger on his trembling lips in protest. She did not speak, but he read the thrilling simplicity of her silence completely. “Love is never too late!” was what her eloquent gesture implied.
He thrust her forward at arm’s length, searching her eyes. “You are right,” he said, slowly. “And yet it can be bitter!”
She released herself gently. “You shouldn’t have watched me like that … it wasn’t fair.”
“I didn’t think you would ever know… And that first night I didn’t intend to watch … not really. After that it got to be habit… You’ve no idea the capacity for suffering an unhappy man can acquire.”
She took off her hat and flung it on the bed. “What made you follow me to-night?”
“You came out of a clear sky … when I needed you most … as you have always done… I didn’t think I could ever escape that man waiting for me below–not even for an instant… To-morrow, at this time, I may be dead … or worse.”
“To-morrow, at noon, I’m scheduled to blow up Axel Hilmer… There will be five others in the party … my wife and his among them.”
Her body was rigid … only her lips moved. “You are going to do it?”
She passed a fluttering hand over her forehead. “But you spoke of death…”
He smiled bitterly. “Either I shall be dead–or the man waiting for me on the street corner… I shall not tell him my decision until the last moment. I don’t want to give him the chance to work in an understudy or complete the job himself… Will you go to Hilmer to-morrow and warn him?… He arrives from the south at the Third and Townsend depot somewhere around eleven o’clock. Advise him to postpone the launching. And have the approaches to the shipyards combed for radicals… Let them watch particularly for a man with a kodak on the roof of the stores opposite the north gate.”
She picked up her hat quickly. “I’ll go out now and warn the police … indirectly. I have ways, you know.”
He put out a restraining hand. “No … that’s risky. My friend Storch has spies everywhere. He’s giving me a little rope here … he may be waiting just to see how foolishly I use it. If you lie low until to-morrow there will be less of a chance of things going wrong… Besides, I owe this man something. He’s fed and sheltered me. I’m going to give him an even break. You would do that much, I’m sure.”
She threw her arms suddenly about him. “Let me go down to him,” she whispered. “Perhaps I can persuade him. Maybe he’ll go away, then, and leave you in peace.”
He stroked her hair. “No, I can’t escape him now. Sooner or later he would get me. You don’t understand his power. All my life I’ve dodged issues. But now I’ve run up against a stone wall. Either I scale it or I break my neck in the attempt.”
She shivered as if his touch filled her with an exquisite fear as she drew away.
“I’m wondering if you are quite real,” she said, wistfully. “Sometimes I’ve thought of you as dead, and, again, it didn’t seem possible… Always at night upon the street I’ve really looked for you. In every face that stared at me I had a hope that your eyes would answer mine… I think I’ve looked for you all my life… It isn’t always necessity that drives a woman to the streets… Sometimes it is the search for happiness… I suppose you can’t understand that…”
“I understand anything you tell me _now_!”
She went over to him again and took his hand. “You _are_ real, aren’t you?… Because I couldn’t bear it … if I were to wake up and find this all a dream… Nothing else matters … nothing in my whole life … but this moment. And when it is over nothing will ever matter … again.”
He sat there stroking her hand foolishly. There were no words with which to answer her… Presently she put her lips close to his and he kissed her, and he knew then that only a woman who had tasted the bitter wormwood of infamy could put such purity into a kiss. How many times she must have hungered for this moment! How many times must she have felt her soul rising to her lips only to find it betrayed!
He loved her for her words and he loved her for her silence. Once he would have sat waiting passionately for her to defend herself. He would have been tricked into believing that any course of action _could_ be justified. But she brought no charges, she placed no blame, she offered no excuse. “It isn’t always necessity that drives a woman to the streets!” It took a great soul to be that honest. She might have reproached him, too, for his neglect of her–for his fear to take his happiness on any terms. But all she had said was, “You shouldn’t have watched me like that … it wasn’t fair.”
He rose, finally, shaking himself into the world of reality again.
“I must be going now,” he said, quietly. “Storch will begin to be impatient.”
She picked a gilt hairpin from the floor. “Let me see if I’ve got everything straight. To-morrow at eleven o’clock I am to see Hilmer and tell him to postpone the launching. And to watch at the north gate for a man with a kodak… And then?”
He reached for his hat. “If you do not hear from me you might come and look me up. I’ll be at Storch cottage on Rincon Hill … at the foot of Second Street. Anyone about can tell you which house is his.”
Her lips were an ashen gray. “You mean you’ll be there … _dead?_”
“If you are afraid …”
“_Afraid!_” She drew herself up proudly.
“Well … there is danger for you, too… I should have thought of that!”
“You do not understand even now.” She went and stood close to him. “I _love_ you … can’t you realize that?”
He felt suddenly abashed, as if he stood convicted of being a cup too shallow to hold her outpouring.
“Good-by,” he whispered.
She closed her eyes, lifting her brow for his waiting kiss. The heavy perfume of her hair seemed to draw his soul to a prodigal outpouring. He found her lips again, clasping her close.
“Good-by,” he heard her answer.
And at that moment he felt the mysterious Presence that had swept so close to him on that heartbreaking Christmas Eve at Fairview.
Storch was standing at the lodging-house door when Fred stepped into the street.
“Well, what now?” Storch inquired, with mock politeness.
“Let’s go home!” Fred returned, emphatically.
Almost as soon as the phrase had escaped him he had a sense of its grotesqueness. Home! Yes, he had to admit that he felt a certain affection for that huddled room which had witnessed so much spiritual travail. Somehow its dusty rafters seemed saturated with a human quality, as if they had imprisoned all the perverse longings and bitter griefs of the company that once sat in the dim lamplight and chanted their litany of hate. He never really had been a part of this company … he never really had been a part of any company. At the office of Ford, Wetherbee & Co., at Fairview, at Storch’s gatherings, he had mingled with his fellow-men amiably or tolerantly or contemptuously, as the case might be, but never with sympathy or understanding. He knew now the reason–he always had judged them, even to the last moment, using the uncompromising foot rule of prejudice, inherent or acquired. In the old days he had thought of these prejudices as standards, mistaking aversions for principles. He had tricked his loves, his hates, his preferences in a masquerade of pretenses … he had labels for everybody and he pigeonholed them with the utmost promptitude. A man was a murderer or a saint or a bricklayer, and he was nothing else. But at this moment, standing in the light-flooded entrance to Ginger’s lodgings, waiting for Storch to lead him back to his figurative cell, he knew that a man could be a murderer and a saint and a bricklayer and a thousand other things besides. And if he were to sit again about that round table of violence and despair he felt that, while he might find much to stir hatred, he would never again give scope to contempt.
“You want to go home, eh?” Storch was repeating, almost with a note of obscene mirth. “Well, our walk has been quieting, at all events.”
Fred Starratt said nothing. He was not in a mood for talk. But when they were inside the house again, with the cracked lamp shade spilling a tempered light about the room, he turned to Storch and said, quietly:
“I sha’n’t go to sleep to-night, Storch… You throw yourself on the couch; I’ve kept you from it long enough.”
Storch made a movement toward the door.
“Don’t bother to lock it … I’m not going to run away. I’m not quite a fool! I know that if I did try anything like that I wouldn’t get farther than the edge of the cliff.”
Storch gave him a puzzled glance. Fred could see that he was uncertain, baffled… But in the end he turned away from the unlocked door with a shrug.
Fred Starratt smiled with inner satisfaction. He was glad that he had come back to give Storch that “even break.” It was something of an achievement to have compelled Storch’s faith in so slight a thing as a