A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
In the Boyd house things went on much as before, but with a new heaviness. Ellen, watching keenly, knew why the little house was so cheerless and somber. It had been Willy Cameron who had brought to it its gayer moments, Willy determinedly cheerful, slamming doors and whistling; Willy racing up the stairs with something hot for Mrs. Boyd's tray; Willy at the table, making them forget the frugality of the meals with campaign anecdotes; Willy, lamenting the lack of a chance to fish, and subsequently eliciting a rare smile from Edith by being discovered angling in the kitchen sink with a piece of twine on the end of his umbrella.
Rather forced, some of it, but eminently good for all of them. And then suddenly it ceased. He made an effort, but there was no spontaneity in him. He came in quietly, never whistled, and ate very little. He began to look almost gaunt, too, and Edith, watching him with jealous, loving eyes, gave voice at last to the thought that was in her mind.
"I wish you'd go away," she said, "and let us fight this thing out ourselves. Dan would have to get something to do, then, for one thing."
"But I don't want to go away, Edith."
"Then you're a fool," she observed, bitterly. "You can't help me any, and there's no use hanging mother around your neck."
"She won't be around any one's neck very long, Edith dear."
"After that, will you go away?"
"Not if you still want me."
Dan was out, and Ellen had gone up for the invalid's tray. They were alone together, standing in the kitchen doorway.
Suddenly Edith, beside him, ran her hand through his arm.
"If I had been a different sort of girl, Willy, do you think - could you ever have cared for me?"
"I never thought about you that way," he said, simply. "I do care for you. You know that."
She dropped her hand.
"You are in love with Lily Cardew. That's why you don't - I've known it all along, Willy. I used to think you'd get over it, never seeing her and all that. But you don't, do you?" She looked up at him. "The real thing lasts, I suppose. It will with me. I wish to heaven it wouldn't."
He was most uncomfortable, hut he drew her hand within his arm again and held it there.
"Don't get to thinking that you care anything about me," he said. "There's not as much love in the world as there ought to be, and we all need to hold hands, but - don't fancy anything like that."
"I wanted to tell you. If I hadn't known about her I wouldn't have told you, but - you said it when you said there's not as much love as there ought to be. I'm gone, but I guess my caring for you hasn't hurt me any. It's the only reason I'm alive to-day."
She freed her hand, and stood staring out over the little autumn garden. There was such brooding trouble in her face that he watched her anxiously.
"I think mother suspects," she said at last.
"I hope not, Edith."
"I think she does. She watches me all the time, and she asked to see Dan to-night. Only he didn't come home."
"You must deny it, Edith," he said, almost fiercely. "She must not know, ever. That is one thing we can save her, and must save her."
But, going upstairs as usual before he went out, he realized that Edith was right, and that matters had reached a crisis. The sick woman had eaten nothing, and her eyes were sunken and anxious. There was an unspoken question in them, too, as she turned them on him. Most significant of all, the little album was not beside her, nor the usual litter of newspapers on the bed.
"I wish you weren't going out, Willy," she said querulously. "I want to talk to you about something."
"Can't we discuss it in the morning?"
"I won't sleep till I get it off my mind, Willy." But he could not face that situation then. He needed time, for one thing. Surely there must be some way out, some way to send this frail little woman dreamless to her last sleep, life could not be so cruel that death would seem kind.
He spoke at three different meetings that night, for the election was close at hand. Pink Denslow took him about in his car, and stood waiting for him at the back of the crowd. In the intervals between hall and hall Pink found Willy Cameron very silent and very grave, but he could not know that the young man beside him was trying to solve a difficult question. Which was: did two wrongs ever make a right?
At the end of the last meeting Willy Cameron decided to walk home.
"I have some things to think over. Pink," he said. "Thanks for the car. It saves a lot of time."
Pink sat at the wheel, carefully scrutinizing Willy. It struck him then that Cameron looked fagged and unhappy.
"Nothing I can do, I suppose?"
Pink knew nothing of Lily's marriage, nor of the events that had followed it. To his uninquiring mind all was as it should be with her; she was at home again, although strangely quiet and very sweet, and her small world was at peace with her. It was all right with her, he considered, although all wrong with him. Except that she was strangely subdued, which rather worried him. It was not possible, for instance, to rouse her to one of their old red-hot discussions on religion, or marriage, or love.
"I saw Lily Cardew this afternoon, Cameron."
"Is she all right?" asked Willy Cameron, in a carefully casual tone.
"I don't know." Pink's honest voice showed perplexity. "She looks all right, and the family's eating out of her hand.. But she's changed somehow. She asked for you."
"Thanks. Well, good-night, old man."
Willy Cameron was facing the decision of his life that night, as he walked home. Lily was gone, out of his reach and out of his life. But then she had never been within either. She was only something wonderful and far away, like a star to which men looked and sometimes prayed. Some day she would be free again, and then in time she would marry. Some one like Pink, her own sort, and find happiness.
But he knew that he would always love her, to the end of his days, and even beyond, in that heaven in which he so simply believed. All the things that puzzled him would be straightened out there, and perhaps a man who had loved a woman and lost her here would find her there, and walk hand in hand with her, through the bright days of Paradise.
Not that that satisfied him. He was a very earthly lover, with the hungry arms of youth. He yearned unspeakably for her. He would have died for her as easily as he would have lived for her, but he could do neither.
That was one side of him. The other, having put her away in that warm corner of his heart which was hers always, was busy with the practical problem of the Boyds. He saw only one way out, and that way he had been seeing with increasing clearness for several days. Edith's candor that night, and Mrs. Boyd's suspicions, clearly pointed to it. There was one way by which to save Edith and her child, and to save the dying woman the agony of full knowledge.
Edith was sitting on the doorstep, alone. He sat down on the step below her, rather silent, still busy with his problem. Although the night was warm, the girl shivered.
"She's not asleep. She's waiting for me to go up, Willy. She means to call me in and ask me"
"Then I'd better say what I have to say quickly. Edith, will you marry me?"
She drew off and looked at him.
"I'd better explain what I mean," he said, speaking with some difficulty. "I mean - go through the ceremony with me. I don't mean actual marriage. That wouldn't be fair to either of us, because you know that I care for some one else."
"But you mean a real marriage?"
"Of course. Your child has the right to a name, dear. And, if you don't mind telling a lie to save our souls, and for her peace of mind, we can say that it took place some time ago."
She gazed at him dazedly. Then something like suspicion came into her face.
"Is it because of what I told you to-night?"
"I had thought of it before. That helped, of course."
It seemed so surprisingly simple, put into words, and the light on the girl's face was his answer. A few words, so easily spoken, and two lives were saved. No, three, for Edith's child must be considered.
"You are like God," said Edith, in a low voice. "Like God." And fell to soft weeping. She was unutterably happy and relieved. She sat there, not daring to touch him, and looked out into the quiet street. Before her she saw all the things that she had thought were gone; honor, a place in the world again, the right to look into her mother's eyes; she saw marriage and happy, golden days. He did not love her, but he would be hers, and perhaps in His own good time the Manager of all destinies would make him love her. She would try so hard to deserve that.
Mrs. Boyd was asleep when at last Edith went up the staircase, and Ellen, lying sleepless on her cot in the hot attic room, heard the girl softly humming to herself as she undressed, and marveled.