A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Ellen was staying at the Boyd house. She went downstairs the morning after her arrival, and found the bread - bakery bread-toasted and growing cold on the table, while a slice of ham, ready to be cooked, was not yet on the fire, and Mrs. Boyd had run out to buy some milk.
Dan had already gone, and his half-empty cup of black coffee was on the kitchen table. Ellen sniffed it and raised her eyebrows.
She rolled up her sleeves, put the toast in the oven and the ham in the frying pan, with much the same grimness with which she had sat the night before listening to Mrs. Boyd's monologue. If this was the way they looked after Willy Cameron, no wonder he was thin and pale. She threw out the coffee, which she suspected had been made by the time-saving method of pouring water on last night's grounds, and made a fresh pot of it. After that she inspected the tea towels, and getting a tin dishpan, set them to boil in it on the top of the range.
"Enough to give him typhoid," she reflected.
Ellen disapproved of her surroundings; she disapproved of any woman who did not boil her tea towels. And when Edith came down carefully dressed and undeniably rouged she formed a disapproving opinion of that young lady, which was that she was trying to land Willy Cameron, and that he would be better dead than landed.
She met Edith's stare of surprise with one of thinly veiled hostility.
"Hello!" said Edith. "When did you blow in, and where from?"
"I came to see Mr. Cameron last night, and he made me stay."
"A friend of Willy's! Well, I guess you needn't pay for your breakfast by cooking it. Mother's probably run out for something - she never has anything in the house - and is talking somewhere. I'll take that fork."
But Ellen proceeded to turn the ham.
"I'll do it," she said. "You might spoil your hands."
But Edith showed no offense.
"All right," she acceded indifferently. "If you're going to eat it you'd better cook it. We're rotten housekeepers here."
"I should think, if you're going to keep boarders, somebody would learn to cook. Mr. Cameron's mother is the best housekeeper in town, and he was raised on good food and plenty of it."
Her tone was truculent. Ellen's world, the world of short hours and easy service, of the decorum of the Cardew servants' hall, of luxury and dignity and good pay, had suddenly gone to pieces about her. She was feeling very bitter, especially toward a certain chauffeur who had prophesied the end of all service. He had made the statement that before long all people would be equal. There would be no above and below-stairs, no servants' hall.
"They'll drive their own cars, then, damn them," he had said once, "if they can get any to drive. And answer their own bells, if they've got any to ring. And get up and cook their own breakfasts."
"Which you won't have any to cook," Grayson had said irritably, from the head of the long table. "Just a word, my man. That sort of talk is forbidden here. One word more and I go to Mr. Cardew."
The chauffeur had not sulked, however. "All right, Mr. Grayson," he said affably. "But I can go on thinking, I daresay. And some of these days you'll be wishing you'd climbed on the band wagon before it's too late."
Ellen, turning the ham carefully, was conscious that her revolt had been only partially on Lily's account. It was not so much Lily's plight as the abuse of power, although she did not put it that way, that had driven her out. Ellen then had carried out her own small revolution, and where had it put her? She had lost a good home, and what could she do? All she knew was service.
Edith poured herself a cup of coffee, and taking a piece of toast from the oven, stood nibbling it. The crumbs fell on the not over-clean floor.
"Why don't you go into the dining-room to eat?" Ellen demanded.
"Got out of the wrong side of the bed, didn't you?" Edith asked. "Willy's bed, I suppose. I'm not hungry, and I always eat breakfast like this. I wish he would hurry. We'll be late."
Ellen stared. It was her first knowledge that this girl, this painted hussy, worked in Willy's pharmacy, and her suspicions increased. She had a quick vision, as she had once had of Lily, of Edith in the Cameron house; Edith reading or embroidering on the front porch while Willy's mother slaved for her; Edith on the same porch in the evening, with all the boys in town around her. She knew the type, the sort that set an entire village by the ears and in the end left home and husband and ran away with a traveling salesman.
Ellen had already got Willy married and divorced when Mrs. Boyd came in. She carried the milk pail, but her lips were blue and she sat down in a chair and held her hand to her heart.
"I'm that short of breath!" she gasped. "I declare I could hardly get back."
"I'll give you some coffee, right off."
When Willy Cameron had finished his breakfast she followed him into the parlor. His pallor was not lost on her, or his sunken eyes. He looked badly fed, shabby, and harassed, and he bore the marks of his sleepless night on his face. "Are you going to stay here?" she demanded.
"Why, yes, Miss Ellen."
"Your mother would break her heart if she knew the way you're living."
"I'm very comfortable. We've tried to get a ser - " He changed color at that. In the simple life of the village at home a woman whose only training was the town standard of good housekeeping might go into service in the city and not lose caste. But she was never thought of as a servant. " - help," he substituted. "But we can't get any one, and Mrs. Boyd is delicate. It is heart trouble."
"Does that girl work where you do?"
"Is she engaged to you? She calls you Willy." He smiled into her eyes.
"Not a bit of it, or thinking of it."
"How do you know what she's thinking? It's all over her. It's Willy this and Willy that - and men are such fools."
There flashed into his mind certain things that he had tried to forget; Edith at his doorway, with that odd look in her eyes; Edith never going to sleep until he had gone to bed; and recently, certain things she had said, that he had passed over lightly and somewhat uncomfortably.
"That's ridiculous, Miss Ellen. But even if it were true, which it isn't, don't you think it would be rather nice of her?" He smiled.
"I do not. I heard you going out last night, Willy. Did you find her?".
"She is at the Doyles'. I didn't see her."
"That'll finish it," Ellen prophesied, somberly. She glanced around the parlor, at the dust on the furniture, at the unwashed baseboard, at the unwound clock on the mantel shelf.
"If you're going to stay here I will," she announced abruptly. "I owe that much to your mother. I've got some money. I'll take what they'd pay some foreigner who'd throw out enough to keep another family." Then, seeing hesitation in his eyes: "That Woman's sick, and you've got to be looked after. I could do all the work, if that - if the girl would help in the evenings."
He demurred at first. She would find it hard. They had no luxuries, and she was accustomed to luxury. There was no room for her. But in the end he called Edith and Mrs. Boyd, and was rather touched to find Edith offering to share her upper bedroom.
"It's a hole," she said, "cold in winter and hot as blazes in summer. But there's room for a cot, and I guess we can let each other alone."
"I wish you'd let me move up there, Edith," he said for perhaps the twentieth time since he had found out where she slept, "and you would take my room."
"No chance," she said cheerfully. "Mother would raise the devil if you tried it." She glanced at Ellen's face. "If that word shocks you, you're due for a few shocks, you know."
"The way you talk is your business, not mine," said Ellen austerely.
When they finally departed on a half-run Ellen was established as a fixture in the Boyd house, and was already piling all the cooking utensils into a wash boiler and with grim efficiency was searching for lye with which to clean them.
Two weeks later, the end of June, the strike occurred. It was not, in spite of predictions, a general walk-out. Some of the mills, particularly the smaller plants, did not go down at all, and with reduced forces kept on, but the chain of Cardew Mills was closed. There was occasional rioting by the foreign element in outlying districts, but the state constabulary handled it easily.
Dan was out of work, and the loss of his pay was a serious matter in the little house. He had managed to lay by a hundred dollars, and Willy Cameron had banked it for him, but there was a real problem to be faced. On the night of the day the Cardew Mills went down Willy called a meeting of the household after supper, around the dining room table. He had been in to see Mr. Hendricks, who had been laid up with bronchitis, and Mr. Hendricks had predicted a long strike.
"The irresistible force and the immovable body, son," he said. "They'll stay set this time. And unless I miss my guess that is playing Doyle's hand for him, all right. His chance will come when the men have used up their savings and are growing bitter. Every strike plays into the hands of the enemy, son, and they know it. The moment production ceases prices go up, and soon all the money in the world won't pay them wages enough to live on."
He had a store of homely common sense, and a gift of putting things into few words. Willy Cameron, going back to the little house that evening, remembered the last thing he had said.
"The only way to solve this problem of living," he said, "is to see how much we can work, and not how little. Germany's working ten hours a day, and producing. We're talking about six, and loafing and fighting while we talk."
So Willy went home and called his meeting, and knowing Mrs. Boyd's regard for figures, set down and added or subtracted, he placed a pad and pencil on the table before him. It was an odd group: Dan sullen, resenting the strike and the causes that had led to it; Ellen, austere and competent; Mrs. Boyd with a lace fichu pinned around her neck, now that she had achieved the dignity of hired help, and Edith. Edith silent, morose and fixing now and then rather haggard eyes on Willy Cameron's unruly hair. She seldom met his eyes.
"First of all," said Willy, "we'll take our weekly assets. Of course Dan will get something temporarily, but we'll leave that out for the present."
The weekly assets turned out to be his salary and Edith's.
"Why, Willy," said Mrs. Boyd, "you can't turn all your money over to us."
"You are all the family I have just now. Why not? Anyhow, I'll have to keep out lunch money and carfare, and so will Edith. Now as to expenses."
Ellen had made a great reduction in expenses, but food was high. And there was gas and coal, and Dan's small insurance, and the rent. There was absolutely no margin, and a sort of silence fell.
"What about your tuition at night school?" Edith asked suddenly.
"Spring term ended this week."
"But you said there was a summer one."
"Well, I'll tell you about that," Willy said, feeling for words. "I'm going to be busy helping Mr. Hendricks in his campaign. Then next fall - well, I'll either go back or Hendricks will make me chief of police, or something." He smiled around the table. "I ought to get some sort of graft out of it."
"Mother!" Edith protested. "He mustn't sacrifice himself for us. What are we to him anyhow? A lot of stones hung around his neck. That's all."
It was after Willy had declared that this was his home now, and he had a right to help keep it going, and after Ellen had observed that she had some money laid by and would not take any wages during the strike, that the meeting threatened to become emotional. Mrs. Boyd shed a few tears, and as she never by any chance carried a handkerchief, let them flow over her fichu. And Dan shook Willy's hand and Ellen's, and said that if he'd had his way he'd be working, and not sitting round like a stiff letting other people work for him. But Edith got up and went out into the little back garden, and did not come back until the meeting was both actually and morally broken up. When she heard Dan go out, and Ellen and Mrs. Boyd go upstairs, chatting in a new amiability brought about by trouble and sacrifice, she put on her hat and left the house.
Ellen, rousing on her cot in Edith's upper room, heard her come in some time later, and undress and get into bed. Her old suspicion of the girl revived, and she sat upright.
"Where I come from girls don't stay out alone until all hours," she said.
"Oh, let me alone."
Ellen fell asleep, and in her sleep she dreamed that Mrs. Boyd had taken sick and was moaning. The moaning was terrible; it filled the little house. Ellen wakened suddenly. It was not moaning; it was strange, heavy breathing, strangling; and it came from Edith's bed.
"Are you sick?" she called, and getting up, her knees hardly holding her, she lighted the gas at its unshaded bracket on the wall and ran to the other bed.
Edith was lying there, her mouth open, her lips bleached and twisted. Her stertorous breathing filled the room, and over all was the odor of carbolic acid.
"Edith, for God's sake!"
The girl was only partially conscious. Ellen ran down the stairs and into Willy's room.
"Get up," she cried, shaking him. "That girl's killed herself."
"No, Edith. Carbolic acid."
Even then he remembered her mother.
"Don't let her hear anything, It will kill her," he said, and ran up the stairs. Almost immediately he was down again, searching for alcohol; he found a small quantity and poured that down the swollen throat. He roused Dan then, and sent him running madly for Doctor Smalley, with a warning to bring him past Mrs. Boyd's door quietly, and to bring an intubation set with him in case her throat should close. Then, on one of his innumerable journeys up and down the stairs he encountered Mrs. Boyd herself, in her nightgown, and terrified.
"What's the matter, Willy?" she asked. "Is it a fire?"
"Edith is sick. I don't want you to go up. It may be contagious. It's her throat."
And from that Mrs. Boyd deduced diphtheria; she sat on the stairs in her nightgown, a shaken helpless figure, asking countless questions of those that hurried past. But they reassured her, and after a time she went downstairs and made a pot of coffee. Ensconced with it in the lower hall, and milk bottle in hand, she waylaid them with it as they hurried up and down.
Upstairs the battle went on. There were times when the paralyzed muscles almost stopped lifting the chest walls, when each breath was a new miracle. Her throat was closing fast, too, and at eight o'clock came a brisk young surgeon, and with Willy Cameron's assistance, an operation was performed. After that, and for days, Edith breathed through a tube in her neck.
The fiction of diphtheria was kept up, and Mrs. Boyd, having a childlike faith in medical men, betrayed no anxiety after the first hour or two. She saw nothing incongruous in Ellen going down through the house while she herself was kept out of that upper room where Edith lay, conscious now but sullen, disfigured, silent. She was happy, too, to have her old domain hers again, while Ellen nursed; to make again her flavorless desserts, her mounds of rubberlike gelatine, her pies. She brewed broths daily, and when Edith could swallow she sent up the results of hours of cooking which Ellen cooled, skimmed the crust of grease from the top, and heated again over the gas flame.
She never guessed the conspiracy against her.
Between Ellen and Edith there was no real liking. Ellen did her duty, and more; got up at night; was gentle with rather heavy hands; bathed the girl and brushed and braided her long hair. But there were hours during that simulated quarantine when a brooding silence held in the sick-room, and when Ellen, turning suddenly, would find Edith's eyes on her, full of angry distrust. At those times Ellen was glad that Edith could not speak.
For at the end of a few days Ellen knew, and Edith knew she knew.
Edith could not speak. She wrote her wants with a stub of pencil, or made signs. One day she motioned toward a mirror and Ellen took it to her.
"You needn't be frightened," she said. "When those scabs come off the doctor says you'll hardly be marked at all."
But Edith only glanced at herself, and threw the mirror aside.
Another time she wrote: "Willy?"
"He's all right. They've got a girl at the store to take your place, but I guess you can go back if you want to." Then, seeing the hunger in the girl's eyes: "He's out a good bit these nights. He's making speeches for that Mr. Hendricks. As if he could be elected against Mr. Cardew!"
The confinement told on Ellen. She would sit for hours, wondering what had become of Lily. Had she gone back home? Was she seeing that other man? Perhaps her valiant loyalty to Lily faded somewhat during those days, because she began to guess Willy Cameron's secret. If a girl had no eyes in her head, and couldn't see that Willy Cameron was the finest gentleman who ever stepped in shoe leather, that girl had something wrong about her.
Then, sometimes, she wondered how Edith's condition was going to be kept from her mother. She had measured Mrs. Boyd's pride by that time, her almost terrible respectability. She rather hoped that the sick woman would die some night, easily and painlessly in her sleep, because death was easier than some things. She liked Mrs. Boyd; she felt a slightly contemptuous but real affection for her.
Then one night Edith heard Willy's voice below, and indicated that she wanted to see him. He came in, stooping under the sheet which Mrs. Boyd had heard belonged in the doorway of diphtheria, and stood looking down at her. His heart ached. He sat down on the bed beside her and stroked her hand.
"Poor little girl," he said. "We've got to make things very happy for her, to make up for all this!"
But Edith freed her hand, and reaching out for paper and pencil stub, wrote something and gave it to Ellen.
Ellen read it.
"I don't want to, Edith. You wait and do it yourself."
But Edith made an insistent gesture, and Ellen, flushed and wretched, had to tell. He made no sign, but sat stroking Edith's hand, only he stared rather fixedly at the wall, conscious that the girl's eyes were watching him for a single gesture of surprise or anger. He felt no anger, only a great perplexity and sadness, an older-brother grief.
"I'm sorry, little sister," he said, and did the kindest thing he could think of, bent over and kissed her on the forehead. "Of course I know how you feel, but it is a big thing to bear a child, isn't it? It is the only miracle we have these days."
"A child with no father," said Ellen, stonily.
"Even then," he persisted, "it's a big thing. We would have this one come under happier circumstances if we could, but we will welcome and take care of it, anyhow. A child's a child, and mighty valuable. And," he added - "I appreciate your wanting me to know, Edith."
He stayed a little while after that, but he read aloud, choosing a humorous story and laughing very hard at all the proper places. In the end he brought a faint smile to Edith's blistered lips, and a small lift to the cloud that hung over her now, day and night.
He made a speech that night, and into it he put all of his aching, anxious soul; Edith and Dan and Lily were behind it. Akers and Doyle. It was at a meeting in the hall over the city market, and the audience a new men's non-partisan association.
"Sometimes," he said, "I am asked what it is that we want, we men who are standing behind Hendricks as an independent candidate." He was supposed to bring Mr. Hendricks' name in as often as possible. "I answer that we want honest government, law and order, an end to this conviction that the country is owned by the unions and the capitalists, a fair deal for the plain people, which is you and I, my friends. But I answer still further, we want one thing more, a greater thing, and that thing we shall have. All through this great country to-night are groups of men hoping and planning for an incredible thing. They are not great in numbers; they are, however, organized, competent, intelligent and deadly. They plow the land with discord to sow the seeds of sedition. And the thing they want is civil war.
"And against them, what? The people like you and me; the men with homes they love; the men with little businesses they have fought and labored to secure; the clerks; the preachers; the doctors, the honest laborers, the God-fearing rich. I tell you, we are the people, and it is time we knew our power.
"And this is the thing we want, we the people; the greater thing, the thing we shall have; that this government, this country which we love, which has three times been saved at such cost of blood, shall survive."
It was after that speech that he met Pink Denslow for the first time. A square, solidly built young man edged his way through the crowd, and shook hands with him.
"Name's Denslow," said Pink. "Liked what you said. Have you time to run over to my club with me and have a high-ball and a talk?"
"I've got all the rest of the night."
"Right-o!" said Pink, who had brought back a phrase or two from the British.
It was not until they were in the car that Pink said:
"I think you're a friend of Miss Cardew's, aren't you?"
"I know Miss Cardew," said Willy Cameron, guardedly. And they were both rather silent for a time.
That night proved to be a significant one for them both, as it happened. They struck up a curious sort of friendship, based on a humble admiration on Pink's part, and with Willy Cameron on sheer hunger for the society of his kind. He had been suffering a real mental starvation. He had been constantly giving out and getting nothing in return.
Pink developed a habit of dropping into the pharmacy when he happened to be nearby. He was rather wistfully envious of that year in the camp, when Lily Cardew and Cameron had been together, and at first it was the bond of Lily that sent him to the shop. In the beginning the shop irritated him, because it seemed an incongruous background for the fiery young orator. But later on he joined the small open forum in the back room, and perhaps for the first time in his idle years he began to think. He had made the sacrifice of his luxurious young life to go to war, had slept in mud and risked his body and been hungry and cold and often frightfully homesick. And now it appeared that a lot of madmen were going to try to undo all that he had helped to do. He was surprised and highly indignant. Even a handful of agitators, it seemed, could do incredible harm.
One night he and Willy Cameron slipped into a meeting of a Russian Society, wearing old clothes, which with Willy was not difficult, and shuffling up dirty stairs without molestation. They came away thoughtful.
"Looks like it's more than talk," Pink said, after a time.
"They're not dangerous," Willy Cameron said. "That's talk. But it shows a state of mind. The real incendiaries don't show their hand like that."
"You think it's real, then?"
"Some boils don't come to a head. But most do."
It was after a mob of foreigners had tried to capture the town of Donesson, near Pittsburgh, and had been turned back by a hastily armed body of its citizens, doctors, lawyers and shop-keepers, that a nebulous plan began to form in Willy Cameron's active mind.
If one could unite the plain people politically, or against a foreign war, why could they not be united against an enemy at home? The South had had a similar problem, and the result was the Ku Klux Klan.
The Chief of Police was convinced that a plan was being formulated to repeat the Seattle experiment against the city. The Mayor was dubious. He was not a strong man; he had a conviction that because a thing never had happened it never could happen.
"The mob has done it before," urged the Chief of Police one day. "They took Paris, and it was damned disagreeable."
The Mayor was a trifle weak in history.
"Maybe they did," he agreed. "But this is different. This is America."
He was rather uneasy after that. It had occurred to him that the Chief might have referred to Paris, Illinois.
Now and then Pink coaxed Willy Cameron to his club, and for those rare occasions he provided always a little group of men like themselves, young, eager, loyal, and struggling with the new problems of the day. In this environment Willy Cameron received as well as gave.
Most of the men had been in the army, and he found in them an eager anxiety to face the coming situation and combat it. In the end the nucleus of the new Vigilance Committee was formed there.
Not immediately. The idea was of slow growth even with its originator, and it only reached the point of speech when Mr. Hendricks stopped in one day at the pharmacy and brought a bundle which he slapped down on the prescription desk.
"Read that dynamite," he said, his face flushed and lowering. "A man I know got it translated for me. Read it and then tell me whether I'm an alarmist and a plain fool, or if it means trouble around here."
There was no question in Willy Cameron's mind as to which it meant.
Louis Akers had by that time announced his candidacy for Mayor, and organized labor was behind him to an alarming extent. When Willy Cameron went with Pink to the club that afternoon, he found Akers under discussion, and he heard some facts about that gentleman's private life which left him silent and morose. Pink knew nothing of Lily's friendship with Akers. Indeed, Pink did not know that Lily was in the city, and Willy Cameron had not undeceived him. It had pleased Anthony Cardew to announce in the press that Lily was making a round of visits, and the secret was not his to divulge. But the question which was always in his mind rose again. What did she see in the man? How could she have thrown away her home and her family for a fellow who was so obviously what Pink would have called "a wrong one"?
He roused, however, at a question.
"He may," he said; "with three candidates we're splitting the vote three ways, and it's hard to predict. Mr. Cardew can't be elected, but he weakens Hendricks. One thing's sure. Where's my pipe?" Silence while Mr. Cameron searched for his pipe, and took his own time to divulge the sure thing. "If Hendricks is elected he'll clear out the entire bunch of anarchists. The present man's afraid. But if Akers can hypnotize labor into voting for him, and he gets it, it will be up to the city to protect itself, for he won't. He'll let them hold their infamous meetings and spread their damnable doctrine, and - you know what they've tried to do in other places." He explained what he had in mind then, finding them expectant and eager. There ought to be some sort of citizen organization, to supplement the state and city forces. Nothing spectacular; indeed, the least said about it the better. He harked back then to his idea of the plain people, with homes to protect.
"That needn't keep you fellows out," he said, with his whimsical smile. "But the rank and file will have to constitute the big end. We don't want a lot of busybodies, pussy-footing around with guns and looking for trouble. We had enough of that during the war. We would want some men who would answer a riot call if they were needed. That's all."
He had some of the translations Hendricks had brought him in his pocket, and they circulated around the group.
"Do you think they mean to attack the city?"
"That looks like it, doesn't it? And they are getting that sort of stuff all the time. There are a hundred thousand of them in this end of the state."
"Would you make it a secret organization?"
"Yes. I like doing things in the open myself, but you've got to fight a rat in his hole, if he won't come out."
"Would you hold office?" Pink asked.
Willy Cameron smiled.
"I'm a good bit like the boy who dug post holes in the daytime and took in washing at night to support the family. But I'll work, if that's what you mean."
"We'd better have a constitution and all that, don't you think?" Pink asked. "We can draw up a tentative one, and then fix it up at the first meeting. This is going to be a big thing. It'll go like a fire."
But Willy Cameron overruled that.
"We don't need that sort of stuff," he said, "and if we begin that we might as well put it in the newspapers. We want men who can keep their mouths shut, and who will sign some sort of a card agreeing to stand by the government and to preserve law and order. Then an office and a filing case, and their addresses, so we can get at them in a hurry if we need them. Get me a piece of paper, somebody."
Then and there, in twenty words, Willy Cameron wrote the now historic oath of the new Vigilance Committee, on the back of an old envelope. It was a promise, an agreement rather than an oath. There was a little hush as the paper passed from hand to hand. Not a man there but felt a certain solemnity in the occasion. To preserve the Union and the flag, to fight all sedition, to love their country and support it; the very simplicity of the words was impressive. And the mere putting of it into visible form crystallized their hitherto vague anxieties, pointed to a real enemy and a real danger. Yet, as Willy Cameron pointed out, they might never be needed.
"Our job," he said, "is only as a last resort. Only for real trouble. Until the state troops can get here, for instance, and if the constabulary is greatly outnumbered. It's their work up to a certain point. We'll fight if they need us. That's all."
It was very surprising to him to find the enterprise financed immediately. Pink offered an office in the bank building. Some one agreed to pay a clerk who should belong to the committee. It was practical, businesslike, and - done. And, although he had protested, he found himself made the head of the organization.
" - without title and without pay," he stipulated. "If you wish a title on me, I'll resign."
He went home that night very exalted and very humble.