A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The strike had been carried on with comparatively little disorder. In some cities there had been rioting, but half-hearted and easily controlled. Almost without exception it was the foreign and unassimilated element that broke the peace. Alien women spat on the state police, and flung stones at them. Here and there property was destroyed. A few bomb outrages filled the newspapers with great scare-heads, and sent troops and a small army of secret service men here and there.
In the American Federation of Labor a stocky little man grimly fought to oppose the Radical element, which was slowly gaining ground, and at the same time to retain his leadership. The great steel companies, united at last by a common danger and a common fate if they yielded, stood doggedly and courageously together, waiting for a return of sanity to the world. The world seemed to have gone mad. Everywhere in the country production was reduced by the cessation of labor, and as a result the cost of living was mounting.
And every strike lost in the end. Labor had yet to learn that to cease to labor may express a grievance, but that in itself it righted no wrongs. Rather, it turned that great weapon, public opinion, without which no movement may succeed, against it. And that to stand behind the country in war was not enough. It must stand behind the country in peace.
It had to learn, too, that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The weak link in the labor chain was its Radical element. Rioters were arrested with union cards in their pockets. In vain the unions protested their lack of sympathy with the unruly element. The vast respectable family of union labor found itself accused of the sins of the minority, and lost standing thereby.
At Friendship the unruly element was very strong. For a time it held its meetings in a hall. When that was closed it resorted to the open air.
On the fifteenth of July it held an incendiary meeting on the unused polo field, and the next day awakened to the sound of hammers, and to find a high wooden fence, reenforced with barbed wire, being built around the field, with the state police on guard over the carpenters. In a few days the fence was finished, only to be partly demolished the next night, secretly and noiselessly. But no further attempts were made to hold meetings there. It was rumored that meetings were being secretly held in the woods near the town, but the rendezvous was not located.
On the restored fence around the polo grounds a Red flag was found one morning, and two nights later the guard at the padlocked gate was shot through the heart, from ambush.
Then, about the first of August, out of a clear sky, sporadic riotings began to occur. They seemed to originate without cause, and to end as suddenly as they began. Usually they were in the outlying districts, but one or two took place in the city itself. The rioters were not all foreign strikers from the mills. They were garment workers, hotel waiters, a rabble of the discontented from all trades. The riots were to no end, apparently. They began with a chance word, fought their furious way for an hour or so, and ended, leaving a trail of broken heads and torn clothing behind them.
On toward the end of July one such disturbance grew to considerable size. The police were badly outnumbered, and a surprising majority of the rioters were armed, with revolvers, with wooden bludgeons, lengths of pipe and short, wicked iron bars. Things were rather desperate until the police found themselves suddenly and mysteriously reenforced by a cool-headed number of citizens, led by a tall thin man who limped slightly, and who disposed his heterogeneous support with a few words and considerable skill.
The same thin young man, stopping later in an alley way to investigate an arm badly bruised by an iron bar, overheard a conversation between two roundsmen, met under a lamppost after the battle, for comfort and a little conversation.
"Can you beat that, Henry?" said one. "Where the hell'd they come from?"
"Search me," said Henry. "D'you see the skinny fellow? Limped, too. D'you notice that? Probably hurt in France. But he hasn't forgotten how to fight, I'll tell the world."
The outbreaks puzzled the leaders of the Vigilance Committee. Willy Cameron was inclined to regard them as without direction or intention, purely as manifestations of hate, and as such contrary to the plans of their leaders. And Mr. Hendricks, nursing a black eye at home after the recent outburst, sized up the situation shrewdly.
"You can boil a kettle too hard," he said, "and then the lid pops off. Doyle and that outfit of his have been burning the fire a little high, that's all. They'll quit now, because they want to get us off guard later. You and your committee can take a vacation, unless you can set them to electioneering for me. They've had enough for a while, the devils. They'll wait now for Akers to get in and make things easy for them. Mind my words, boy. That's the game."
And the game it seemed to be. Small violations of order still occurred, but no big ones. To the headquarters in the Denslow Bank came an increasing volume of information, to be duly docketed and filed. Some of it was valueless. Now and then there came in something worth following up. Thus one night Pink and a picked band, following a vague clew, went in automobiles to the state borderline, and held up and captured two trucks loaded with whiskey and destined for Friendship and Baxter. He reported to Willy Cameron late that night.
"Smashed it all up and spilled it in the road," he said. "Hurt like sin to do it, though. Felt like the fellow who shot the last passenger pigeon."
But if the situation in the city was that of armed neutrality, in the Boyd house things were rapidly approaching a climax, and that through Dan. He was on edge, constantly to be placated and watched. The strike was on his nerves; he felt his position keenly, resented Willy Cameron supporting the family, and had developed a curious jealousy of his mother's affection for him.
Toward Edith his suspicions had now become certainty, and an open break came on an evening when she said that she felt able to go to work again. They were at the table, and Ellen was moving to and from the kitchen, carrying in the meal. Her utmost thrift could not make it other than scanty, and finally Dan pushed his plate away.
"Going back to work, are you?" he sneered. "And how long do you think you'll be able to work?"
"You keep quiet," Edith flared at him. "I'm going to work. That's all you need to know. I can't sit here and let a man who doesn't belong to us provide every bite we eat, if you can." Willy Cameron got up and closed the door, for Mrs. Boyd an uncanny ability to hear much that went on below.
"Now," he said when he came back, "we might as well have this out. Dan has a right to be told, Edith, and he can help us plan something." He turned to Dan. "It must be kept from your mother, Dan."
"Plan something!" Dan snarled. "I know what to plan, all right. I'll find the - " he broke into foul, furious language, but suddenly Willy Cameron rose, and there was something threatening in his eyes.
"I know who it is," Dan said, more quietly, "and he's got to marry her, or I'll kill him."
"You know, do you? Well, you don't," Edith said, "and I won't marry him anyhow."
"You will marry him. Do you think I'm going to see mother disgraced, sick as she is, and let you get away with it? Where does Akers live? You know, don't you? You've been there, haven't you?"
All Edith's caution was forgotten in her shame and anger.
"Yes, I know," she said, hysterically, "but I won't tell you. And I won't marry him. I hate him. If you go to him he'll beat you to death." Suddenly the horrible picture of Dan in Akers' brutal hands overwhelmed her. "Dan, you won't go?" she begged. "He'll kill you."
"A lot you'd care," he said, coldly. "As if we didn't have enough already! As if you couldn't have married Joe Wilkinson, next door, and been a decent woman. And instead, you're a - "
"Be quiet, Dan," Willy Cameron interrupted him. "That sort of talk doesn't help any. Edith is right. If you go to Akers there will be a fight. And that's no way to protect her."
"God!" Dan muttered. "With all the men in the world, to choose that rotten anarchist!"
It was sordid, terribly tragic, the three of them sitting there in the badly lighted little room around the disordered table, with Ellen grimly listening in the doorway, and the odors of cooking still heavy in the air. Edith sat there, her hands on the table, staring ahead, and recounted her wrongs. She had never had a chance. Home had always been a place to get away from. Nobody had cared what became of her. And hadn't she tried to get out of the way? Only they all did their best to make her live. She wished she had died.
Dan, huddled low in his chair, his legs sprawling, stared at nothing with hopeless eyes.
Afterwards Willy Cameron could remember nothing of the scene in detail. He remembered its setting, but of all the argument and quarreling only one thing stood out distinctly, and that was Edith's acceptance of Dan's accusation. It was Akers, then. And Lily Cardew was going to marry him. Was in love with him.
"Does he know how things are?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yes."
"Does he offer to do anything?"
"Him? He does not. And don't you go to him and try to get him to marry me. I tell you I'd die first."
He left them there, sitting in the half light, and going out into the hall picked up his hat. Mrs. Boyd heard him and called to him, and before he went out he ran upstairs to her room. It seemed to him, as he bent over her, that her lips were bluer than ever, her breath a little shallower and more difficult. Her untouched supper tray was beside her.
"I wasn't hungry," she explained. "Seems to me, Willy, if you'd let me go downstairs so I could get some of my own cooking I'd eat better. Ellen's all right, but I kind o' crave sweet stuff, and she don't like making desserts."
"You'll be down before long," he assured her. "And making me pies. Remember those pies you used to bake?"
"You always were a great one for my pies," she said, complacently.
He kissed her when he left. He had always marveled at the strange lack of demonstrativeness in the household, and he knew that she valued his small tendernesses.
"Now remember," he said, "light out at ten o'clock, and no going downstairs in the middle of the night because you smell smoke. When you do, it's my pipe."
"I don't think you hardly ever go to bed, Willy."
"Me? Get too much sleep. I'm getting fat with it."
The stale little joke was never stale with her. He left her smiling, and went down the stairs and out into the street.
He had no plan in his mind except to see Louis Akers, and to find out from him if he could what truth there was in Edith Boyd's accusation. He believed Edith, but he must have absolute certainty before he did anything. Girls in trouble sometimes shielded men. If he could get the facts from Louis Akers - but he had no idea of what he would do then. He couldn't very well tell Lily, but her people might do something. Or Mrs. Doyle.
He knew Lily well enough to know that she would far rather die than marry Akers, under the circumstances. That her failure to marry Louis Akers would mean anything as to his own relationship with her he never even considered. All that had been settled long ago, when she said she did not love him.
At the Benedict he found that his man had not come home, and for an hour or two he walked the streets. The city seemed less majestic to him than usual; its quiet by-streets were lined with homes, it is true, but those very streets hid also vice and degradation, and ugly passions. They sheltered, but also they concealed.
At eleven o'clock he went back to the Benedict, and was told that Mr. Akers had come in.
It was Akers himself who opened the door. Because the night was hot he had shed coat and shirt, and his fine torso, bare to the shoulders and at the neck, gleamed in the electric light. Willy Cameron had hot seen him since those spring days when he had made his casual, bold-eyed visits to Edith at the pharmacy, and he had a swift insight into the power this man must have over women. He himself was tall; but Akers was taller, fully muscled, his head strongly set on a neck like a column. But he surmised that the man was soft, out of condition. And he had lost the first elasticity of youth.
Akers' expression had changed from one of annoyance to watchfulness when he opened the door.
"Well!" he said. "Making a late call, aren't you?"
"What I had to say wouldn't wait."
Akers had, rather unwillingly, thrown the door wide, and he went in. The room was very hot, for a small fire, littered as to its edges with papers, burned in the grate. Although he knew that Akers had guessed the meaning of his visit at once and was on guard, there was a moment or two when each sparred for an opening.
"Sit down. Have a cigarette?"
"No, thanks." He remained standing.
"Or a high-ball? I still have some fairly good whiskey."
"No. I came to ask you a question, Mr. Akers."
"Well, answering questions is one of the best little things I do."
"You know about Edith Boyd's condition. She says you are responsible. Is that true?"
Louis Akers was not unprepared. Sooner or later he had known that Edith would tell. But what he had not counted on was that she would tell any one who knew Lily. He had felt that her leaving the pharmacy had eliminated that chance. "What do you mean, her condition?"
"You know. She says she has told you."
"You're pretty thick with her yourself, aren't you?"
"I happen to live at the Boyd house."
He was keeping himself well under control, but Akers saw his hand clench, and resorted to other tactics. He was not angry himself, but he was wary now; he considered that life was unnecessarily complicated, and that he had a distinct grievance.
"I have asked you a question, Mr. Akers."
"You don't expect me to answer it, do you?"
"If you have come here to talk to me about marrying her - "
"She won't marry you," Willy Cameron said steadily. "That's not the point I want your own acknowledgment of responsibility, that's all."
Akers was puzzled, suspicious, and yet relieved. He lighted a cigarette and over the match stared at the other man's quiet face.
"No!" he said suddenly. "I'm damned if I'll take the responsibility. She knew her way around long before I ever saw her. Ask her. She can't lie about it. I can produce other men to prove what I say. I played around with her, but I don't know whose child that is, and I don't believe she does."
"I think you are lying."
"All right. But I can produce the goods."
Willy Cameron went very pale. His hands were clenched again, and Akers eyed him warily.
"None of that," he cautioned. "I don't know what interest you've got in this, and I don't give a God-damn. But you'd better not try any funny business with me."
Willy Cameron smiled. Much the sort of smile he had worn during the rioting.
"I don't like to soil my hands on you," he said, "but I don't mind telling you that any man who ruins a girl's life and then tries to get out of it by defaming her, is a skunk."
Akers lunged at him.
Some time later Mr. William Wallace Cameron descended to the street. He wore his coat collar turned up to conceal the absence of certain articles of wearing apparel which he had mysteriously lost. And he wore, too, a somewhat distorted, grim and entirely complacent smile.