A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Willy Cameron came home from a night class in metallurgy the evening after the day Lily had made her declaration of independence, and let himself in with his night key. There was a light in the little parlor, and Mrs. Boyd's fragile silhouette against the window shade.
He was not surprised at that. She had developed a maternal affection for him stronger than any she showed for either Edith or Dan. She revealed it in rather touching ways, too, keeping accounts when he accused her of gross extravagance, for she spent Dan's swollen wages wastefully; making him coffee late at night, and forcing him to drink it, although it kept him awake for hours; and never going to bed until he was safely closeted in his room at the top of the stairs.
He came in as early as possible, therefore, for he had had Doctor Smalley in to see her, and the result had been unsatisfactory.
"Heart's bad," said the doctor, when they had retired to Willy's room. "Leaks like a sieve. And there may be an aneurism. Looks like it, anyhow."
"What is there to do?" Willy asked, feeling helpless and extremely shocked. "We might send her somewhere."
"Nothing to do. Don't send her away; she'd die of loneliness. Keep her quiet and keep her happy. Don't let her worry. She only has a short time, I should say, and you can't lengthen it. It could be shortened, of course, if she had a shock, or anything like that."
"Shall I tell the family?"
"What's the use?" asked Doctor Smalley, philosophically. "If they fuss over her she'll suspect something."
As he went down the stairs he looked about him. The hall was fresh with new paper and white paint, and in the yard at the rear, visible through an open door, the border of annuals was putting out its first blossoms.
"Nice little place you've got here," he observed. "I think I see the fine hand of Miss Edith, eh?"
"Yes," said Willy Cameron, gravely.
He had made renewed efforts to get a servant after that, but the invalid herself balked him. When he found an applicant Mrs. Boyd would sit, very much the grande dame, and question her, although she always ended by sending her away.
"She looked like the sort that would be running out at nights," she would say. Or: "She wouldn't take telling, and I know the way you like your things, Willy. I could see by looking at her that she couldn't cook at all."
She cherished the delusion that he was improving and gaining flesh under her ministrations, and there was a sort of jealousy in her care for him. She wanted to yield to no one the right to sit proudly behind one of her heavy, tasteless pies, and say:
"Now I made this for you, Willy, because I know country boys like pies. Just see if that crust isn't nice."
"You don't mean to say you made it!"
"I certainly did." And to please her he would clear his plate. He rather ran to digestive tablets those days, and Edith, surprising him with one at the kitchen sink one evening, accused him roundly of hypocrisy.
"I don't know why you stay anyhow," she said, staring into the yard where Jinx was burying a bone in the heliotrope bed. "The food's awful. I'm used to it, but you're not."
"You don't eat anything, Edith."
"I'm not hungry. Willy, I wish you'd go away. What right we got to tie you up with us, anyhow? We're a poor lot. You're not comfortable and you know it. D'you know where she is now?"
"She" in the vernacular of the house, was always Mrs. Boyd.
"She forgot to make your bed, and she's doing it now."
He ran up the stairs, and forcibly putting Mrs. Boyd in a chair, made up his own bed, awkwardly and with an eye on her chest, which rose and fell alarmingly. It was after that that he warned Edith.
"She's not strong," he said. "She needs care and - well, to be happy. That's up to the three of us. For one thing, she must not have a shock. I'm going to warn Dan against exploding paper bags; she goes white every time."
Dan was at a meeting, and Willy dried the supper dishes for Edith. She was silent and morose. Finally she said:
"She's not very strong for me, Willy. You needn't look so shocked. She loves Dan and you, but not me. I don't mind, you know. She doesn't know it, but I do."
"She is very proud of you."
"That's different. You're right, though. Pride's her middle name. It nearly killed her at first to take a roomer, because she is always thinking of what the neighbors will say. That's why she hates me sometimes."
"I wish you wouldn't talk that way."
"But it's true. That fool Hodge woman at the corner came here one day last winter and filled her up with a lot of talk about me, and she's been queer to me ever since."
"You are a very good daughter."
She eyed him furtively. If only he wouldn't always believe in her! It was almost worse than to have him know the truth. But he went along with his head in the clouds; all women were good and all men meant well. Sometimes it worked out; Dan, for instance. Dan was trying to live up to him. But it was too late for her. Forever too late.
It was Willy Cameron's night off, and they went, the three of them, to the movies that evening. To Mrs. Boyd the movies was the acme of dissipation. She would, if warned in advance, spend the entire day with her hair in curlers, and once there she feasted her starved romantic soul to repletion. But that night the building was stifling, and without any warning Edith suddenly got up and walked toward the door. There was something odd about her walk and Willy followed her, but she turned on him almost fiercely outside.
"I wish you'd let me alone," she said, and then swayed a little. But she did not faint.
"I'm going home," she said. "You stay with her. And for heaven's sake don't stare at me like that. I'm all right."
Nevertheless he had taken her home, Edith obstinately silent and sullen, and Willy anxious and perplexed. At the door she said:
"Now go back to her, and tell her I just got sick of the picture. It was the smells in that rotten place. They'd turn a pig's stomach."
"I wish you'd see a doctor."
She looked at him with suspicious eyes. "If you run Smalley in on me I'll leave home."
"Will you go to bed?"
"I'll go to bed, all right."
He had found things rather more difficult after that. Two women, both ill and refusing to acknowledge it, and the prospect of Dan's being called out by the union. Try as he would, he could not introduce any habit of thrift into the family. Dan's money came and went, and on Saturday nights there was not only nothing left, but often a deficit. Dan, skillfully worked upon outside, began to develop a grievance, also, and on his rare evenings at home or at the table he would voice his wrongs.
"It's just hand to mouth all the time," he would grumble. "A fellow working for the Cardews never gets ahead. What chance has he got, anyhow? It takes all he can get to live."
Willy Cameron began to see that the trouble was not with Dan, but with his women folks. And Dan was one of thousands. His wages went for food, too much food, food spoiled in cooking. There were men, with able women behind them, making less than Dan and saving money.
"Keep some of it out and bank it," he suggested, but Dan sneered.
"And have a store bill a mile long! You know mother as well as I do. She means well, but she's a fool with money."
He counted his hours from the time he entered the mill until he left it, but he revealed once that there were long idle periods when the heating was going on, when he and the other men of the furnace crew sat and waited, doing nothing.
"But I'm there, all right," he said. "I'm not playing golf or riding in my automobile. I'm on the job.",
"Well," said Willy Cameron, "I'm on the job about eleven hours a day, and I wear out more shoe leather than trouser seats at that. But it doesn't seem to hurt me."
"It's a question of principle," said Dan doggedly. "I've got no personal kick, y'understand. Only I'm not getting anywhere, and something's got to be done about it."
So, on the evening of the day after Lily had made her declaration of independence, Willy Cameron made his way rather heavily toward the Boyd house. He was very tired. He had made one or two speeches for Hendricks already, before local ward organizations, and he was working hard at his night class in metallurgy. He had had a letter from his mother, too, and he thought he read homesickness between the lines. He was not at all sure where his duty lay, yet to quit now, to leave Mr. Hendricks and the Boyds flat, seemed impossible.
He had tried to see Lily, too, and failed. She had been very gentle over the telephone, but, attuned as he was to every inflection of her voice, he had thought there was unhappiness in it. Almost despair. But she had pleaded a week of engagements.
"I'm sorry," she had said. "I'll call you up next week some time I have a lot of things I want to talk over with you."
But he knew she was avoiding him.
And he knew that he ought to see her. Through Mr. Hendricks he had learned something more about Jim Doyle, the real Doyle and not the poseur, and he felt she should know the nature of the accusations against him. Lily mixed up with a band of traitors, Lily of the white flame of patriotism, was unthinkable. She must not go to the house on Cardew Way. A man's loyalty was like a woman's virtue; it could not be questionable. There was no middle ground.
He heard voices as he entered the house, and to his amazement found Ellen in the parlor. She was sitting very stiff on the edge of her chair, her hat slightly crooked and a suit-case and brown paper bundle at her feet.
Mrs. Boyd was busily entertaining her.
"I make it a point to hold my head high," she was saying. "I guess there was a lot of talk when I took a boarder, but - Is that you, Willy?"
"Why, Miss Ellen!" he said. "And looking as though headed for a journey!"
Ellen's face did not relax. She had been sitting there for an hour, letting Mrs. Boyd's prattle pour over her like a rain, and thinking meanwhile her own bitter thoughts.
"I am, Willy. Only I didn't wait for my money and the bank's closed, and I came to borrow ten dollars, if you have it."
That told him she was in trouble, but Mrs. Boyd, amiably hospitable and reveling in a fresh audience, showed no sign of departing.
"She says she's been living at the Cardews," she put in, rocking valiantly. "I guess most any place would seem tame after that. I do hear, Miss Hart, that Mrs. Howard Cardew only wears her clothes once and then gives them away."
She hitched the chair away from the fireplace, where it showed every indication of going up the chimney.
"I call that downright wasteful," she offered.
Willy glanced at his watch, which had been his father's, and bore the inscription: "James Duncan Cameron, 1876" inside the case.
"Eleven o'clock," he said sternly. "And me promising the doctor I'd have you in bed at ten sharp every night! Now off with you."
"But, Willy - "
" - or I shall have to carry you," he threatened. It was an old joke between them, and she rose, smiling, her thin face illuminated with the sense of being looked after.
"He's that domineering," she said to Ellen, "that I can't call my soul my own."
"Good-night," Ellen said briefly.
Willy stood at the foot of the stairs and watched her going up. He knew she liked him to do that, that she would expect to find him there when she reached the top and looked down, panting slightly.
"Good-night," he called. "Both windows open. I shall go outside to see."
Then he went back to Ellen, still standing primly over her Lares and Penates.
"Now tell me about it," he said.
"I've left them. There has been a terrible fuss, and when Miss Lily left to-night, I did too."
"She left her home?"
"It's awful, Willy. I don't know all of it, but they've been having her followed, or her grandfather did. I think there's a man in it. Followed! And her a good girl! Her grandfather's been treating her like a dog for weeks. We all noticed it. And to-night there was a quarrel, with all of them at her like a pack of dogs, and her governess crying in the hall. I just went up and packed my things."
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know. I got her a taxicab, and she only took one bag. I went right off to the housekeeper and told her I wouldn't stay, and they could send my money after me."
"Did you notice the number of the taxicab?"
"I never thought of it."
He saw it all with terrible distinctness, The man was Akers, of course. Then, if she had left her home rather than give him up, she was really in love with him. He had too much common sense to believe for a moment that she had fled to Louis Akers' protection, however. That was the last thing she would do. She would have gone to a hotel, or to the Doyle house.
"She shouldn't have left home, Ellen."
"They drove her out, I tell you," Ellen cried, irritably. "At least that's what it amounted to. There are things no high-minded girl will stand. Can you lend me some money, Willy?"
He felt in his pocket, producing a handful of loose money.
"Of course you can have all I've got," he said. "But you must not go to-night, Miss Ellen. It's too late. I'll give you my room and go in with Dan Boyd."
And he prevailed over her protests, in the end. It was not until he saw her settled there, hiding her sense of strangeness under an impassive mask, that he went downstairs again and took his hat from its hook.
Lily must go back home, he knew. It was unthinkable that she should break with her family, and go to the Doyles. He had too little self-consciousness to question the propriety of his own interference, too much love for her to care whether she resented that interference. And he was filled with a vast anger at Jim Doyle. He saw in all this, somehow, Doyle's work; how it would play into Doyle's plans to have Anthony Cardew's granddaughter a member of his household. He would take her away from there if he had to carry her.
He was a long time in getting to the mill district, and a longer time still in finding Cardew Way. At an all-night pharmacy he learned which was the house, and his determined movements took on a sort of uncertainty. It was very late. Ellen had waited for him for some time. If Lily were in that sinister darkened house across the street, the family had probably retired. And for the first time, too, he began to doubt if Doyle would let him see her. Lily herself might even refuse to see him.
Nevertheless, the urgency to get her away from there, if she were there, prevailed at last, and a strip of light in an upper window, as from an imperfectly fitting blind, assured him that some one was still awake in the house.
He went across the street and opening the gate, strode up the walk. Almost immediately he was confronted by the figure of a man who had been concealed by the trunk of one of the trees. He lounged forward, huge, menacing, yet not entirely hostile.
"Who is it?" demanded the figure blocking his way.
"I want to see Mr. Doyle."
"I'll tell him that," said Willy Cameron.
"What's your name?"
"That's my business, too," said Mr. Cameron, with disarming pleasantness.
"Damn private about your business, aren't you?" jeered the sentry, still in cautious tones. "Well, you can write it down on a piece of paper and mail it to him. He's busy now."
"All I want to do," persisted Mr. William Wallace Cameron, growing slightly giddy with repressed fury, "is to ring that doorbell and ask him a question. I'm going to do it, too."
There was rather an interesting moment then, because the figure lunged at Mr. Cameron, and Mr. Cameron, stooping low and swiftly, as well as to one side, and at the same instant becoming a fighting Scot, which means a cool-eyed madman, got in one or two rather neat effects with his fists. The first took the shadow just below his breast-bone, and the left caught him at that angle of the jaw where a small cause sometimes produces a large effect. The figure sat down on the brick walk and grunted, and Mr. Cameron, judging that he had about ten seconds' leeway, felt in the dazed person's right hand pocket for the revolver he knew would be there, and secured it. The sitting figure made puffing, feeble attempts to prevent him, but there was no real struggle.
Mr. Cameron himself was feeling extremely triumphant and as strong as a lion. He was rather sorry no one had seen the affair, but that of course was sub-conscious. And he was more cheerful than he had been for some days. He had been up against so many purely intangible obstacles lately that it was a relief to find one he could use his fists on.
"Now I'll have a few words with you, my desperate friend," he said. "I've got your gun, and I am hell with a revolver, because I've never fired one, and there's a sort of homicidal beginner's luck about the thing. If you move or speak, I'll shoot it into you first and when it's empty I'll choke it down your throat and strangle you to death."
After which ferocious speech he strolled up the path, revolver in hand, and rang the doorbell. He put the weapon in his pocket then, but he kept his hand upon it. He had read somewhere that a revolver was quite useable from a pocket. There was no immediate answer to the bell, and he turned and surveyed the man under the tree, faintly distinguishable in the blackness. It had occurred to him that the number of guns a man may carry is only limited to his pockets, which are about fifteen.
There were heavy, deliberate footsteps inside, and the door was flung open. No glare of light followed it, however. There was a man there, alarmingly tall, who seemed to stare at him, and then beyond him into the yard.
"Are you Mr. Doyle?"
"My name is Cameron, Mr. Doyle. T have had a small difference with your watch-dog, but he finally let me by."
"I'm afraid I don't understand. I have no dog."
"The sentry you keep posted, then." Mr. Cameron disliked fencing.
"Ah!" said Mr. Doyle, urbanely. "You have happened on one of my good friends, I see. I have many enemies, Mr. Cameron - was that the name? And my friends sometimes like to keep an eye on me. It is rather touching."
He was smiling, Mr. Cameron knew, and his anger rose afresh.
"Very touching," said Mr. Cameron, "but if he bothers me going out you may be short one friend. Mr. Doyle, Miss Lily Cardew left her home to-night. I want to know if she is here."
"Are you sent by her family?"
"I have asked you if she is here."
Jim Doyle apparently deliberated.
"My niece is here, although just why you should interest yourself - "
"May I see her?"
"I regret to say she has retired."
"I think she would see me."
A door opened into the hall, throwing a shaft of light on the wall across and letting out the sounds of voices.
"Shut that door," said Doyle, wheeling sharply. It was closed at once. "Now," he said, turning to his visitor, "I'll tell you this. My niece is here." He emphasized the "my." "She has come to me for refuge, and I intend to give it to her. You won't see her to-night, and if you come from her people you can tell them she came here of her own free will, and that if she stays it will be because she wants to. Joe!" he called into the darkness.
"Yes," came a sullen voice, after a moment's hesitation.
"Show this gentleman out."
All at once Willy Cameron was staring at a dosed door, on the inner side of which a bolt was being slipped. He felt absurd and futile, and not at all like a lion. With the revolver in his hand, he went down the steps.
"Don't bother about the gate, Joe," he said. "I like to open my own gates. And - don't try any tricks, Joe. Get back to your kennel."
Fearful mutterings followed that, but the shadow retired, and he made an undisturbed exit to the street. Once on the street-car, the entire episode became unreal and theatrical, with only the drag of Joe's revolver in his coat pocket to prove its reality.
It was after midnight when, shoes in hand, he crept up the stairs to Dan's room, and careful not to disturb him, slipped into his side of the double bed. He did not sleep at all. He lay there, facing the fact that Lily had delivered herself voluntarily into the hands of the enemy of her house, and not only of her house, an enemy of the country. That conference that night was a sinister one. Brought to book about it, Doyle might claim it as a labor meeting. Organizers planning a strike might - did indeed - hold secret conferences, but they did not post armed guards. They opened business offices, and brought in the press men, and shouted their grievances for the world to hear.
This was different. This was anarchy. And in every city it was going on, this rallying of the malcontents, the idlers, the envious and the dangerous, to the red flag. Organized labor gathered together the workmen, but men like Doyle were organizing the riff-raff of the country. They secured a small percentage of idealists and pseudo-intellectuals, and taught them a so-called internationalism which under the name of brotherhood was nothing but a raid on private property, a scheme of pillage and arson. They allied with themselves imported laborers from Europe, men with everything to gain and nothing to lose, and by magnifying real grievances and inflaming them with imaginary ones, were building out of this material the rank and file of an anarchist army.
And against it, what?
On toward morning he remembered something, and sat bolt upright in bed. Edith had once said something about knowing of a secret telephone. She had known Louis Akers very well. He might have told her what she knew, or have shown her, in some braggart moment. A certain type of man was unable to keep a secret from a woman. But that would imply - For the first time he wondered what Edith's relations with Louis Akers might have been.