But Storch didn’t take the couch. He threw his coat aside and crept into his wretched pile of quilts on the floor, as he said:
“You may want to snatch forty winks or so before the night is over.”
There was a warm note in his voice, a bit of truant fatherliness that added an element of grotesqueness to the situation. He might have used the same words and tone to a son about to take the highroad to fortune on the morrow. Or to a lad determined to start upon a sunrise fishing trip, and impatient of the first flush of dawn. After all, it took great simplicity to approach the calamitous moments of life through the channels of the commonplace.
Presently Storch was snoring with the zest which he always brought to sleep. The night air had chilled the room past the point of comfort and the lamp seemed to make little headway with its thin volume of ascending warmth. Fred wrapped himself in a blanket and sat half shivering in the gloom. At first, detached and unrelated thoughts ran through his brain, but gradually his musing assumed a coherence. To-morrow, at this time, he might be either a hunted murderer or a victim himself of Storch’s desperation. In any case, he would be furnishing the text for many a newspaper sermon. How eagerly they would trace his downfall, sniffing out the salacious bits for the furtive enjoyment of the chemically pure! For there would be salacious bits. Had he not spent the preceding night in the company of a fallen woman? One by one the facts would be brought out, added to and subtracted from, until the whole affair was a triumph of the transient story-teller art, unrelieved by the remotest flash of understanding. They would interview his former employers first. Mr. Ford would say:
“A steady, conscientious, faithful employee until he became bitten with parlor radicalism.”
And Brauer, rather frightened, yet garrulous, would add, for want of anything better:
“An honest partner until he began hitting the booze.”
There would be his wife, too. “I did all I could. Stood by him to the last … even when I discovered that there was another woman.”
The authorities at Fairview would doubtless add their note to the general chorus:
“An exceptional patient. He seemed to have planned deliberately to get our confidence and then betray it… He was directly responsible for Felix Monet’s death. Without his influence Monet would never have thought of escape.”
And in summing up, the police would declare:
“A bad actor from the word go. One of the sort who reach a certain point in respectability and then run amuck. A danger to the community because of his brains.”
But what of Hilmer? Fred Starratt had a feeling that Hilmer would be discreet to a point of silence.
He could see every printed phrase as plainly as if he were reading it all himself. How many times in the old days had he not perused some such story over his morning coffee, thanking himself unconsciously that he was not as other men! How perfectly and smugly he had played the Pharisee for his own delight and satisfaction! He had not bothered then to cry his virtues aloud in the market place or to thank God publicly for his salvation. No, he was too self-sufficient to take the trouble to advertise his worthiness.
To-night he was on the brink of disaster, and yet he found himself shuddering at the colorless fate to which his complacence might have condemned him. To have gone on forever in a state of drowsy contentment … to have been surrounded on all sides by the thunderous cataracts of life and caught only the pretty significance of rainbows through the spray … to have remained untouched by any and every primitive impulse and feeling–he could not now imagine anything more tragic. And yet, to-morrow, people would hold up the desirability of his former estate, pointing to him in warning for the soft-armed profit of an oncoming generation. He saw himself as he might have been, going on to the end of time in the service of Ford, Wetherbee & Co., rising from map clerk to counter man, to special agent, perhaps even to a managership, writing sharp or conciliatory letters to agents according to their importance, trimming office expense and shaving salaries, heckling green office boys, and, his workday ended, going home to _The Literary Digest_ and Helen, fresh from the triumphs of the golf links or the card table. Yes, no doubt Helen would have matched his own rise in fortune with equal gentility. Perhaps he might have taken an hour between office closing and dinner to wield a golf club himself … bringing back a desirable guest to dinner or proposing through the telephone to Helen that they dine at the Palace or St. Francis… Yes, even at best his imagination could not do more with the material in hand. Indeed, he knew that he had crowded the very most that was possible on so small a canvas.
This, then, had been his unconscious life plan, his unvoiced fate. Thus had he sketched it hazily, as a teller of tales sketches the plot of a story, such and such a sum being the total of all the characters and circumstances. But as he had gone on developing it, suddenly a new character had appeared to change the final figures–a wrench thrown into the wheel of continuity … a wrench that bore the name of Axel Hilmer… He felt no bitterness now for the man. Had he ever felt it?
Axel Hilmer had long ceased to be a living personality to Fred Starratt. Instead, he had taken on almost the significance of a strange divinity … an eternal questioner. At their very first meeting he had started the ferment in Fred Starratt’s soul with the directness of his interrogations. He was not a man who declared his own faiths … he merely asked you to prove yours. The questions he had asked Fred Starratt on that first night had been insignificant in themselves. Why was it ridiculous for a butcher to want an eight-hour day? Why should one have the firm’s interest at heart? And yet the sparks from such verbal flint stones had kindled a revolt that had wrecked Fred Starratt’s complacence.
One’s sight becomes strengthened to destructive ideas by gradual perception. And ideas of any kind are destructive flashed on consciousness unawares. Fred had thought at first that Hilmer had but opened his eyes to things standing in his range of vision, when, as a matter of fact, Hilmer had merely loaned him his spectacles. Everything he had seen from that first moment had been through Hilmer’s medium. A wise man would have proceeded slowly, building himself up for the struggle. But Fred Starratt had had all the wistful enthusiasm of a fool seeking to achieve power overnight. Yes, only a fool could have been ashamed of his heritage. And when Hilmer had placed him calmly in the ranks of the middle class the wine of content had turned suddenly sour. A year ago his efforts were being directed at escape from so contemptuous a characterization; to-night he was content to acknowledge the impeachment and find a pride in the circumstance. And, as he sat there shivering in the gloom of Storch’s cracked lamp, he had a vision of this scorned company to which he unquestionably belonged, sterile and barren in the glare of accepted standards, broken gradually by the plowshare of disillusionment and harrowed to great potentialities by a deeper sense of their faiths and needs. Yes, he had a conviction that what could take place in one soul could take place in the soul of the mass … he had not changed his standards so much as he had proved them. The shape and color and perfume of love and loyalty and faith had not been altered for him, but he could discover their blossoming among the shadowy places.
At a black hour, before the first greenish glow was quickening the east, he tiptoed and stood gazing down at Storch. He had never seen a face more placid and untroubled. He felt that any man must have an extraordinary sense of self-righteousness to yield so completely to serenity in the face of deliberate crime. But Storch was of the stuff of which all fanatics were made. Ends to him always justified means. Of such were the Inquisitors of Spain, the Puritans of the Reformation, the radicals of to-day. They had neither doubts nor fears nor pity, and the helmets of their faith were a screen behind which they hid their overweening egotism. They were ever seeking to entrap humanity and humanity was forever in the end eluding them. And if Hilmer were the eternal questioner made flesh, the gamekeeper beating the furtive birds from the brush, this man Storch was the eternal hunter, at once patient and relentless for his quarry.
And now the hunter slept with a smile on his lips. Of what could he be dreaming? Was it possible to dream of smile-fashioning themes with potential destruction within a stone’s throw? In a corner of this room, in a well-packed square case, reposed the force that, once set in motion at the proper or miscalculated moment, could hurl both Storch and Fred Starratt to eternity, and yet Storch slept undisturbed. Well, was not the broader canvas of life full of just such profound faith or profound indifference? Did not society itself sleep with the repressed hatreds of the submerged waiting their appointed season? And while new worlds flew flaming from the wheel of creation, and old ones died in an eye’s twinkling, did not the race dream on contemptuous of the changes which lurked in the restless heavens? Yes, the meanest coward in existence had his innate courage and there was a note of bravery in life on any terms.
Fred stood before Storch’s sleeping form a long time, and all manner of impulses stirred him. There was even a moment when it came to him that he might fall upon his gaoler while he slept and achieve a swift freedom. And every ignoble murder of legend or history beckoned him with the hands of red expediency. He ended by going to the door and opening it cautiously as he had done the night before. But this time the operation was more skillful and no warning click disturbed the slumberer. He crept out into the night, down the cliff’s edge, looking back for the betraying shadow of a hidden spy. But there seemed to be nothing to block his freedom. A virginal moon was languishing upon the western rim of hills…a solitary cock crew lustily…occasional footfalls floated up from the paved streets below…a cart rumbled in the gloom. All these noises of the night were extraordinarily friendly…like the smothered murmurings of a youth escaping from the chains of sleep in pleasant dreaming.
A swarm of platitudes surging through his brain urged him to flight. But in the end self-esteem gave him his final cue, and he knew in a flash how futile would be any truce with cowardice. A locked door would have justified escape, but in the face of an unlatched threshold there was only one course conceivable.
Fred Starratt went back and wrapped himself in his blanket. Toward daylight Storch arose and filled a pot with coffee. But neither spoke a word.
As Storch cleared away the primitive evidences of the morning meal and stood before the sink letting a thin trickle of cold water wash clean the cups he said:
“If we get the ten-o’clock boat to Oakland we will be in plenty of time.”
Starratt rolled a cigarette. “Ah, then you are going, too!”
“Naturally,” Storch replied, as he turned off the water.
Fred began to dress himself carefully. Storch loaned him an indifferent razor. The shaving process was slow but in the end it was accomplished. Fred was amazed at the freshness of his appearance. Only once before in his life had he deliberately sat up all night without either the desire or determination to sleep, and that was on that night which now seemed so remote when he had felt the first budding of Helen’s scorn. He recalled that he had been just as alert and clear-minded on the following morning as he was now. And just as uncertain as to what the future held in store.
Storch also made a careful toilet–for him. He rummaged for a clean flannel shirt, combed his reddish beard, dusted off his clumsy boots. But they were ready much too soon, like a couple of children promptly dressed for an excursion, impatiently awaiting the hour of departure. Of the two, Storch evinced the more nervousness. He poked into nooks and corners of the room upon all sorts of pretended orderliness. Fred sat and eyed him calmly–smoking cigarette after cigarette. Finally, Storch lifted the kodak case from its hiding place and set it on the center table. Cautiously he pried loose the false top and peered into its depths. There followed a tense moment during which he bent in a close inspection over its fascinating depths. Presently Fred caught a distinct ticking sound, and he knew that Storch had set in motion the clock upon which depended the bomb’s explosion at the appointed hour. But withal he remained curiously unmoved.
The cry of a belated newsboy floated through the open front door. Storch went out and bought a paper, flinging a section of it at Fred. A thickly headlined account of the launching at the Hilmer yards occupied chief place on the first page of the local news section. There was a picture of the hull that had been put through on schedule time in spite of strikes and lockouts, and another one of Hilmer, and a second photograph of a woman. Fred looked twice before he realized that the face of his wife was staring up at him from the printed sheet. Helen Starratt was to be the ship’s sponsor and there was a pretty and touching story in this connection. It had always been Mrs. Hilmer’s ambition to christen a seagoing giant, and she had been chosen to act as godmother to a huge oil-tanker only a year before, but a serious accident had laid her low. Now, though she was unable to perform the rite herself, she had intrusted her part to her faithful friend, Mrs. Starratt. It was to be done by proxy, as it were, with Mrs. Hilmer carried to the grand stand, where she was to repeat the mystic formula, giving the ship a name at the moment when Helen Starratt brought the foaming bottle of champagne crashing against the vessel’s side. The whole article, even down to this obvious dash of “sob stuff,” was at once Hilmer’s challenge to the strikers and his appeal to the gallery. There was a certain irony in realizing that all these carefully planned effects had been seized upon for Hilmer’s own undoing. He was working in the dark, very much as Fred Starratt had worked during those heartbreaking months when he had battled for place in the business world. Then Hilmer had held him in the palm of his hand. Now the situation was reversed–he held Axel Hilmer’s fate in his own keeping, and it was his finger that would spin the wheel of destiny. Any fool could demand an eye for an eye; so much for so much was the cut-and-dried morality of the market place. It took a poet to bestow a wage out of all proportion to the workday, to turn the cheek of humility to the blows of arrogance, to commend the extravagant gift of the magdalene. And it was the poetry of life, after all, which counted. Fred Starratt knew that now. A year ago he had thought of poetry as strings of high-sounding words which produced a pleasant mental reaction, something abstract and exotic. He had never fancied that poetry was a thing to be seen and understood and lived, and that such common things as bread and wine and love and hatred were shot through with the pure gold of mystery. Once, if he had been moved to magnanimity it would have been through an impulse of weak and bloodless sentimentality … now he had risen to generosity on the wings of a supreme indifference, a magnificent contempt for unessentials, a full-blooded understanding. Not that he had achieved a cold and pallid philosophy … a system of lukewarm expediencies. He could still be swept by gusts of feeling … he could even risk his life to preserve it.
He turned the pages of the newspaper over mechanically, reading word upon word which held not the slightest meaning. He felt Storch’s eyes upon him, drawn, no doubt, by a mixture of subtle doubts and vague appraisals. His thoughts flew to Ginger. What was she doing at this moment? Was there any chance of _her_ failure? For answer another question shaped itself: Had she _ever_ failed? Yet, this time she was beset with dangers. And in his imagination he saw her treading the thin ice of destiny with the same glorified contempt which lured him to the poetical depths of life… And again Monet was at his side… vague, mysterious, impalpable, the essence of things unseen but hoped for, the solved riddle made spirit, the vast patience of eternity realized. And still Storch’s restless eyes were fixed upon him.
Presently he heard Storch’s voice coming to his ears out of a friendly dusk:
“It’s nine-thirty…I guess we had better be moving.”
He did not stir at first…he merely sat staring at Storch, very much as a man waking suddenly and not yet alive to the precise details of his environment. “Moving…where?” he finally inquired.
Storch crumpled the newspaper in his hand viciously. “Come…you’ve been dreaming!” he flung out. “That’s dangerous!”
Fred braced himself in his chair. “I’m not going,” he said, quietly. “I’ve changed my mind!”
Storch’s mouth widened, not in a smile this time, but in a vicious snarl. He took out a cheap watch from his pocket, glanced at it, and put it back.
“It’s just twenty-five minutes to ten,” he said, quietly. “I’ll give you five more minutes.”
Fred put both his arms upon the cluttered table, leaning forward, as he answered:
“Nothing can alter my decision now, Storch… You should have known better than to have counted on one of my sort…In the end, you see, my standards _have_ shackled me.”
“Counted on your sort!” Storch laughed back, sarcastically. “Do you suppose for one moment that I ever count on anyone?… I like a game of chance … that’s why I chose you. I like to triumph in spite of a poor hand … and you have been in some ways the poorest deal I’ve ever risked a play on. But if I’d gotten you I’d have chuckled to my dying day … even in spite of the fact that it would have shattered all my theories. I catch my fish upon the lowest and highest tides … slack water never yields much.”
He was rising to his feet. His face was a placid mask, but his voice dripped venom. Fred matched his movements with equal quiet.
“Still you did have hopes for me,” Fred threw at him in grim raillery. “I may have been the poorest prospect, but I have been the most uncertain also… You might just as well admit that.”
He saw Storch’s eyes widen at the arrogance of this unexpected thrust.
“Slack water is always uncertain,” Storch replied, “unless you know which turn in the tide is to follow.”
They stood gazing at each other for a fraction of time, which seemed eternity. And in that swift and yet prolonged exchange of glances Fred Starratt read Storch’s purpose completely…
There followed a moment of swift action in which Storch made a clipt movement toward his hip pocket, and in a trice Fred Starratt felt himself bear quickly down upon the shattered lamp, grasp it firmly in his two hands, and bring it crashing against Storch’s upflung forehead.
He was not conscious of seeing Storch crumple over, but he felt a thud shake the cluttered room to its foundations… He went over quietly and closed the open door. Then he put on his hat. Storch lay quite still and an ugly red pool was already luring flies to a crimson feast. The floor was covered with bits of shattered glass glistening in the sun.
Presently he opened the door again. A child had crept up to the doorstep and sat prattling to her tattered doll. He stepped aside so as not to disturb her, shut the door with a sharp bang, and walked swiftly to the edge of the cliff. But this time he plunged down. He looked back once. Not a soul followed him.
He was sitting on a pile of lumber when, an hour later, his thoughts began to run in rational channels again. Before him lay a patch of gray-green bay, flanked on either side by wharves upon which two black-hulled lumber schooners were disgorging their resinous cargo. The strike of the longshoremen was still in progress and the Embarcadero as good as deserted. Armed guards paraded before the entrance to the docks and only occasional idlers sunned themselves and viewed the silent and furtive loading of restive craft straining at their moorings.
He began to wonder dimly whether he had left Storch dead or merely stunned, and, granting either alternative, how definitely this circumstance would halt the plot against Hilmer’s life. It was conceivable to him now that Storch might have provided against the possibility of failure, given the role of assassin into the hands of an understudy, to be exact. Suppose Ginger should fail in her warning? Not that he doubted her, but there was a chance that she had been hedged about with all manner of difficulties–perhaps even death. Suddenly with an arresting irrelevance he thought of the child upon Storch’s doorstep, hugging her doll close, and as swiftly he remembered the black kodak case upon the center table. He wondered if the child were still sitting there … Perhaps, by this time, a swarm of children were tumbling about the weather-beaten steps. He asked a passer-by the hour. Eleven-thirty! In fifteen more minutes, if the ticking clock within that sinister case performed its function, Storch’s dwelling would be tumbling in upon his prostrate body. And, in the face of this, children might be prattling before the threshold. He must go back again!
He jumped to his feet and began to run. In an instant a conflagration of potential disasters leaped up from the spark of the immediate danger. He flew along faster, colliding with irate pedestrians, escaping the wheels of skimming automobiles … Presently the familiar cliff and the tawny path scaling it loomed ahead. He began to climb upward, almost on all-fours, digging his finger nails into the yellow clay in an instinctive effort to pull himself forward. Finally he gained the top … The street, somnolent with approaching noon, was deserted–the child had disappeared. He recovered his whirling senses and looked again. This time he saw that the door of the shack stood open. He took a step forward. A figure loomed in the doorway. He shaded his eyes from the sun’s glare and narrowed his lids. It was a woman!
The unexpectedness of this presence overwhelmed him as completely as if he had seen an apparition. For an instant he did not grasp its significance.
Then, in another moment, understanding began to flood in upon him. He felt a great weakness … but he managed to make a trumpet with his hands, calling in a voice that sounded remote:
“Come out! For God’s sake, come out!”
He saw the woman start back in a movement of quick confusion, and heard himself call again, this time with muffled agony:
There was a tremendous roar … he felt a shower of stones hitting him sharply in the face … He pressed forward … sheets of flame were leaping greedily toward the sky and a string of people poured out into the sun-baked street.
At midnight Fred Starratt, making his way from the outlying districts toward the center of the town, came out of a mental turmoil that had flung him about all day in a series of blind impulses. The air was raucous with the shrill cry of newsboys announcing the details of the morning’s sensation. He knew how the journalistic tale would run without bothering to glimpse the headlines. At this time it would be made up for the most part of vague speculations as to who was the prime mover of the enterprise.
The moments following the disaster were now fathomless, but he fancied that he had been outwardly cool, chilled into subconscious calculation by the very violence of the shock … The frenzy had come later when he found himself aboard a ferryboat bound for Oakland. He could not disentangle the mixed impulses which had sent him upon this irrational errand, but he remembered now that a consuming desire to see Hilmer had possessed him. Perhaps an itching for revenge again had sprung into life, perhaps a fury to release a measure of his scorn and contempt, perhaps a mere curiosity to glimpse once more this man whose armor of arrogance remained unpierced … Whatever the urge, it had keyed him to a quivering determination. He had wondered what stupidity possessed him to send Ginger in warning to a man like Hilmer. … With almost psychic power he had created for himself the scene at the depot with Ginger pouring her tremulous message into contemptuous ears. For it was certain that Hilmer had been contemptuous. … Afterward, standing before the north gate of Hilmer’s shipyards, a man at his side confirmed his intuitions between irritating puffs from a blackened pipe:
“Nobody can double-cross Hilmer … and they’d better give up trying … He said a launching at noon and it _was_ at noon, you can bet your life on that! … They say a woman tried to scare the old man this morning … He just laughed in her face and came on over.”
Almost as the man had finished speaking the crowd surged forward. And in a twinkling Hilmer’s machine had swept past, leaving Fred, trembling from head to foot, staring stupidly into a cloud of dust … He had not even glimpsed the occupants! But his failure to achieve whatever vague plan was buffeting him about drove him back to San Francisco. His confused mind had worked with the rational capacity for details which characterizes madness. He knew that Hilmer must wait for the automobile ferry…that the regular passenger boat would reach the other side at least a half hour in advance.
He had been prepared this time for the appearance of Hilmer’s car. It came off the boat preceded by a thin line of automobiles, moving slowly. … For a moment he wondered how he would achieve his purpose, and the next thing he knew he had leaped aboard the running board… He remembered long after that his wife had given a cry, that Mrs. Hilmer had stirred ever so slightly, that Hilmer’s eyes had widened. Then out of a tense moment of suppressed confusion he had heard his wife’s voice floating toward him as she said:
“Ah, then you were not drowned, after all!”
With amazing effrontery he threw open the door and pressed down the emergency seat opposite her.
“No… I swam out of that black pool!”
A slight tremor ran through her. Mrs. Hilmer smiled.
Recalling the scene, he remembered how outwardly commonplace were the moments which followed. Even Hilmer had been surprised into banalities. Fred Starratt might have parted with them but yesterday, for any indications to the contrary, and for an instant he had found all sense of tragedy swallowed up in amazement at the passive tenacity of the conventions.
But sitting there, facing this trio, each busy with his own swift thought, it gradually dawned upon Fred Starratt that now they were afraid of him. Like a captured and blinded Samson he was in a position to bring the temple walls crashing down upon them all. _They_ might elect to be silent, but what a voice _he_ could raise!… He had come out of a chuckling silence to hear Hilmer saying between almost shut teeth:
“I suppose you’ll be needing money now, Starratt… Railroad rates have all been raised.”
He felt at that moment the same triumph as when Storch had turned the key in its lock… Hilmer always did walk directly to his objective … but there were times when subtleties had more power. He remembered the quiet thrust of his own voice measuring his adversary’s expectancy:
“A man in my situation needs nothing, Hilmer … least of all _money_!”
He never forgot the look of contempt which Hilmer threw at him … but this time it had been a contempt for the unfathomable. Helen’s face was white; only Mrs. Hilmer had continued to smile … a set, ghastly, cruel smile of complete satisfaction. And, in the silence which followed, it was Mrs. Hilmer’s voice that brought them all back with a start as she said:
“Well, here we are … home again!”
It was the same voice that had broken in upon another tense situation months before with:
“What nice corn pudding this is, Mrs. Starratt…Would you mind telling me how you made it?”
Had they been moving in a circle since that fatal evening, Fred had found himself wondering…or had he merely been dreaming?
The scene which followed had been unforgetable–the chauffeur and Hilmer lifting Mrs. Hilmer into her wheeled chair; Helen Starratt coming forward considerately with a steamer rug for the invalid’s comfort; Fred, standing outside the pale of all this activity like a dreamer constructing stage directions for the puppets of his imagination. And out of the almost placid atmosphere of domestic bustle the voice of Mrs. Hilmer again breaking the stillness, this time with a cool and knifelike precision as she said, turning her pale, icy eyes on Helen Starratt:
“My dear, your nurse-girl days are over…We’ve had you a long time and we can’t be too selfish–now that your husband is back!”
Could Fred ever wipe from his memory the startled look which had swept Helen’s face as she released her hold on the wheeled chair? Or the diabolical content with which Mrs. Hilmer settled back as she went on slowly, clearly, as if the steady drip of her words fascinated her:
“You wouldn’t want to stay here…this is no place for lovers…And, besides, there isn’t room for _two_!”
Helen’s hands had fallen inertly at her sides as she stood facing Hilmer, as if waiting for his decision. But he had made no move, he merely had returned her gaze in equal silence. At that moment Mrs. Hilmer’s clawlike fingers closed over her husband’s mangled thumb with a clutch of triumph and she had turned with a painful twist to dart her venomous scorn at Helen. A fortnight ago the doctors had given Mrs. Hilmer a scant six months of life. But now Fred Starratt knew that she would live as long as her spirits had vengeance to feed upon.
Thus had the door closed upon Hilmer and his crippled gaoler. Already Helen Starratt had gained the street corner. Fred was seized with an impulse to overtake her, but it had died as quickly. There was nothing he could offer … not even a lodging for the night. Instead he had turned and walked briskly in an opposite direction.
* * * * *
As he drew nearer town the cries of the newsboys grew more insistent … so insistent that Fred bought a paper. By this time they had cleared away the charred wreckage of Storch’s shack, discovering the secret which its ruins had concealed. He found himself wondering how soon they would link him with the still-born plot which had achieved so much tragedy in spite of its miscarriage. Of Ginger there was little trace. She had been caught up in a winding sheet of flame, a chariot of fire which had swept clean her pitiful and outraged body… Again he saw her face, wistful in the glare of that portentous noon, framed by the outline of Storch’s doorway, heard himself call her name in agony, and woke to find only a memory answering him. And there came to him a realization of the terrible beauty of that moment which had released her spirit in white-heated transfiguration.
A sudden pity for the living began to well up within him … for Hilmer in the relentless grip of the harpy who would tear at his content with her scrawny fingers … for Mrs. Hilmer, condemned to feed to the end upon the bitter fruits of hatred … for his wife, drifting to a pallid fate made up of petty adjustments and compromises. Yes … he found himself pitying Helen Starratt most of all. Because he had a feeling that she would go on to the end cloaking her primitive impulses in a curious covering of self-deception. She would never understand … never! She would always be restless, straining at the conventions, but unable or unwilling to pay the price of full freedom. And her remaining days would be spent in a futile pulling at the chains which her own cowardice had forged. She would not even have the memory of bitter-sweet delights.
He came from these musings to discover that his feet had strayed instinctively to the old garden which provoked the memory of his father and mother. But he found it destroyed utterly … its prim beds swept aside to make way for a huge apartment house. The last intangible link which had bound him to his old life had been destroyed.
He turned away, almost with a feeling of relief–the past was forever dead, burying itself in its own tragic oblivion. He climbed higher, to the topmost point of the Hyde Street Hill, up the steps leading to the reservoir. It was another night of provocative perfumes and promissory warmths. He skirted the sun-baked slopes, sown with blossoming alfalfa, and came upon a clump of wind-tortured acacia bushes facing the west. He threw himself down and lay in a sweet physical truce, gazing up at the twinkling sky. He was alone with the night, he had not even a disciple to betray him.
He knew that if he willed it so he could be up and off, forever eluding, forever flaunting the law’s ubiquitous presence. The sharp urge for subtle revenge which had come with realization of his power had passed, but he was done with any and all compromises, he had no heart for the decaying fruits of deception.
Would they find him here wrapped in the cool fragrance of the night, or must he go down to them, yielding himself up silently and without bitterness? He had touched life at every point. He could say, now, with Hilmer:
“I know all the dirty, rotten things of life by direct contact!”
Yes, even to murder.
And with Storch he could repeat:
“A man who’s been through hell is like a field broken to the plow. He’s ready for seed.”
He _was_ ready for seed, so freshly and deeply broken that he had a passion to lie fallow against a worthy sowing.
Presently, enveloped in the perfect and childlike faith which follows revelation, he slept, with his face turned toward the stars. And as he stirred ever so slightly he felt the nearness of two souls. Clearly and more clearly they defined themselves until he knew them for those two erring companions of his misery who had been made suddenly perfect in the crucible of sorrow and sacrifice. They came toward him in a white, silent beauty, until on one side stood Felix Monet and on the other Sylvia Molineaux.
And before him in review passed a motley company of every tragic group that he had ever known–business associates, jailbirds, the inmates of Fairview, Storch’s terrible companions. He recognized each group in its turn by their outer trappings. But suddenly their clothes melted and even their flesh dissolved, and he saw nothing but a company of skeletons stripped of all unessentials, and he could no longer mark them apart. And, in a flash, even these unmarked figures crumbled to dust, spreading out like a sunlit plain at noonday. And he saw clouds gather and rain fall and green blades spring up miraculously and blossom succeed blossom. And through it all Felix Monet stood on one side and Sylvia Molineaux on the other.
He awoke to the vigorous prod of a contemptuous boot. A policeman stood over him.
“What are you doing here?” the officer bellowed down at him.
He rose quickly. The sun was bathing the rejuvenated city in a flood of wonderful gold.
“My name is Fred Starratt,” he said, quietly. “And I’m wanted for murder … and some other things. You’d better take me down.”
The policeman grasped his arm and together they made their way down to the level stretches of the paved street.
They stood for a moment to let a street car swing past. It was crowded with clerks, standing on the running board. Above the warning clang of the bell a voice came ringing out with a note of surprised recognition:
“Hello, Fred Starratt! What’s new?”
He made a trumpet with his hands.
“Everything!” he cried back, loudly. “_Everything in the world_!”