A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The strike had apparently settled down to the ordinary run of strikes. The newspaper men from New York were gradually recalled, as the mill towns became orderly, and no further acts of violence took place. Here and there mills that had gone down fired their furnaces again and went back to work, many with depleted shifts, however.
But the strikers had lost, and knew it. Howard Cardew, facing the situation with his customary honesty, saw in the gradual return of the men to work only the urgency of providing for their families, and realized that it was not peace that was coming, but an armed neutrality. The Cardew Mills were still down, but by winter he was confident they would be open again. To what purpose? To more wrangling and bickering, more strikes? Where was the middle ground? He was willing to give the men a percentage of the profits they made. He did not want great wealth, only an honest return for his invested capital. But he wanted to manage his own business. It was his risk.
The coal miners were going out. The Cardews owned coal mines. The miners wanted to work a minimum day for a maximum wage, but the country must have coal. Shorter hours meant more men for the mines, and they would have to be imported. But labor resented the importation of foreign workers.
Again, what was the answer?
Still, he was grateful for peace. The strike dragged on, with only occasional acts of violence. From the hill above Baxter a sniper daily fired with a long range rifle at the toluol tank in the center of one of the mills, and had so far escaped capture, as the tank had escaped damage. But he knew well enough that a long strike was playing into the hands of the Reds. It was impossible to sow the seeds of revolution so long as a man s dinner-pail was full, his rent paid, and his family contented. But a long strike, with bank accounts becoming exhausted and credit curtailed, would pave the way for revolution.
Old Anthony had had a drastic remedy for strikes.
"Let all the storekeepers, the country over, refuse credit to the strikers, and we'd have an end to this mess," he said.
"We'd have an end to the storekeepers, too," Howard had replied, grimly.
One good thing had come out of the bomb outrages. They had had a salutary effect on the honest labor element. These had no sympathy with such methods and said so. But a certain element, both native and foreign born, secretly gloated and waited.
One thing surprised and irritated Howard. Public sentiment was not so much with the strikers, as against the mill owners. The strike worked a hardship to the stores and small businesses dependent on the great mills; they forgot the years when the Cardews had brought them prosperity, had indeed made them possible, and they felt now only bitter resentment at the loss of trade. In his anger Howard saw them as parasites, fattening on the conceptions and strength of those who had made the city. They were men who built nothing, originated nothing. Men who hated the ladder by which they had climbed, who cared little how shaky its foundation, so long as it stood.
In September, lured by a false security, the governor ordered the demobilization of the state troops, save for two companies. The men at the Baxter and Friendship plants, owned by the Cardews, had voted to remain out, but their leaders appeared to have them well in hand, and no trouble was anticipated. The agents of the Department of Justice, however, were still suspicious. The foreigners had plenty of money. Given as they were to hoarding their savings in their homes, the local banks were unable to say if they were drawing on their reserves or were being financed from the outside.
Shortly before the mayoralty election trouble broke out in the western end of the state, and in the north, in the steel towns. There were ugly riotings, bombs were sent through the mails, the old tactics of night shootings and destruction of property began. In the threatening chaos Baxter and Friendship, and the city nearby, stood out by contrast for their very orderliness. The state constabulary remained in diminished numbers, a still magnificent body of men but far too few for any real emergency, and the Federal agents, suspicious but puzzled, were removed to more turbulent fields.
The men constituting the Vigilance Committee began to feel a sense of futility, almost of absurdity. They had armed and enrolled themselves - against what? The growth of the organization slowed down, but it already numbered thousands of members. Only its leaders retained their faith in its ultimate necessity, and they owed perhaps more than they realized to Willy Cameron's own conviction.
It was owing to him that the city was divided into a series of zones, so that notification of an emergency could be made rapidly by telephone and messenger. Owing to him, too, was a new central office, with some one on duty day and night. Rather ironically, the new quarters were the dismantled rooms of the Myers Housecleaning Company.
On the day after his proposal to Edith, Willy Cameron received an unexpected holiday. Mrs. Davis, the invalid wife of the owner of the Eagle Pharmacy, died and the store was closed. He had seen Edith for only a few moments that morning, but it was understood then that the marriage would take place either that day or the next.
He had been physically so weary the night before that he had slept, but the morning found him with a heaviness of spirit that he could not throw off. The exaltation of the night before was gone, and all that remained was a dogged sense of a duty to be done. Although he smiled at Edith, his face remained with her all through the morning.
"I'll make it up to him," she thought, humbly. "I'll make it up to him somehow."
Then, with Ellen out doing her morning marketing, she heard the feeble thump of a cane overhead which was her mother's signal. She was determined not to see her mother again until she could say that she was married, but the thumping continued, and was followed by the crash of a broken glass.
"She's trying to get up!" Edith thought, panicky. "If she gets up it will kill her."
She stood at the foot of the stairs, scarcely breathing, and listened. There was a dreadful silence above. She stole up, finally, to where she could see her mother. Mrs. Boyd was still in her bed, but lying with open eyes, unmoving.
"Mother," she called, and ran in. "Mother."
Mrs. Boyd glanced at her.
"I thought that glass would bring you," she said sharply, but with difficulty. "I want you to stand over there and let me look at you."
Edith dropped on her knees beside the bed, and caught her mother's hand.
"Don't! Don't talk like that, mother," she begged. "I know what you mean. It's all right, mother. Honestly it is. I - I'm married, mother."
"You wouldn't lie to me, Edith?"
"No. I'm telling you. I've been married a long time. You - don't you worry, mother. You just lie there and quit worrying. It's all right."
There was a sudden light in the sick woman's eyes, an eager light that flared up and died away again.
"Who to?" she asked. "If it's some corner loafer, Edie - " Edith had gained new courage and new facility. Anything was right that drove the tortured look from her mother's eyes.
"You can ask him when he comes home this evening."
"Edie! Not Willy?"
"You've guessed it," said Edith, and burying her face in the bed clothing, said a little prayer, to be forgiven for the lie and for all that she had done, to be more worthy thereafter, and in the end to earn the love of the man who was like God to her.
There are lies and lies. Now and then the Great Recorder must put one on the credit side of the balance, one that has saved intolerable suffering, or has made well and happy a sick soul.
Mrs. Boyd lay back and closed her eyes.
"I haven't been so tickled since the day you were born," she said.
She put out a thin hand and laid it on the girl's bowed head. When Edith moved, a little later, her mother was asleep, with a new look of peace on her face.
It was necessary before Ellen saw her mother to tell her what she had done. She shrank from doing it. It was one thing for Willy to have done it, to have told her the plan, but Edith was secretly afraid of Ellen. And Ellen's reception of the news justified her fears.
"And you'd take him that way!" she said, scornfully. "You'd hide behind him, besides spoiling his life for him! It sounds like him to offer, and it's like you to accept."
"It's to save mother," said Edith, meekly.
"It's to save yourself. You can't fool me. And if you think I'm going to sit by and let him do it, you can think again."
"It's as good as done," Edith flashed. "I've told mother."
"That you're going to be, or that you are?"
"That we are married."
"All right," Ellen said triumphantly. "She's quiet and peaceful now, isn't she? You don't have to get married now, do you? You take my advice, and let it go at that."
It was then that Edith realized what she had done. He would still marry her, of course, but behind all his anxiety to save her had been the real actuating motive of his desire to relieve her mother's mind. That was done now. Then, could she let him sacrifice himself for her?
She could. She could and she would. She set her small mouth firmly, and confronted the future; she saw herself, without his strength to support her, going down and down. She remembered those drabs of the street on whom she had turned such cynical eyes in her virtuous youth, and she saw herself one of that lost sisterhood, sodden, hectic, hopeless.
When Willy Cameron left the pharmacy that day it was almost noon. He went to the house of mourning first, and found Mr. Davis in a chair in a closed room, a tired little man in a new black necktie around a not over-clean collar, his occupation of years gone, confronting a new and terrible leisure that he did not know how to use.
"You know how it is, Willy," he said, blinking his reddened eyelids. "You kind of wish sometimes that you had somebody to help you bear your burden, and then it's taken away, but you're kind of bent over and used to it. And you'd give your neck and all to have it back."
Willy Cameron pondered that on his way up the street.
There was one great longing in him, to see Lily again. In a few hours now he would have taken a wife, and whatever travesty of marriage resulted, he would have to keep away from Lily. He meant to play square with Edith.
He wondered if it would hurt Lily to see him, remind her of things she must be trying to forget. He decided in the end that it would hurt her, so he did not go. But he walked, on his way to see Pink Denslow at the temporary bank, through a corner of the park near the house, and took a sort of formal and heart-breaking farewell of her.
Time had been when life had seemed only a long, long trail, with Lily at the end of it somewhere, like water to the thirsty traveler, or home to the wanderer; like a camp fire at night. But now, life seemed to him a broad highway, infinitely crowded, down which he must move, surrounded yet alone.
But at least he could walk in the middle of the road, in the sunlight. It was the weaklings who were crowded to the side. He threw up his head.
It had never occurred to him that he was in any, danger, either from Louis Akers or from the unseen enemy he was fighting. He had a curious lack of physical fear. But once or twice that day, as he went about, he happened to notice a small man, foreign in appearance and shabbily dressed. He saw him first when he came out of the marriage license office, and again when he entered the bank.
He had decided to tell Pink of his approaching marriage and to ask him to be present. He meant to tell him the facts. The intimacy between them was now very close, and he felt that Pink would understand. He neither wanted nor expected approval, but he did want honesty between them. He had based his life on honesty.
Yet the thing was curiously hard to lead up to. It would be hard to set before any outsider the conditions at the Boyd house, or his own sense of obligation to help. Put into everyday English the whole scheme sounded visionary and mock-heroic.
In the end he did not tell Pink at all, for Pink came in with excitement written large all over him.
"I sent for you," he said, "because I think we've got something at last. One of our fellows has just been in, that storekeeper I told you about from Friendship, Cusick. He says he has found out where they're meeting, back in the hills. He's made a map of it. Look, here's the town, and here's the big hill. Well, behind it, about a mile and a half, there's a German outfit, a family, with a farm. They're using the barn, according to this chap."
"The barn wouldn't hold very many of them."
"That's the point. It's the leaders. The family has an alibi. It goes in to the movies in the town on meeting nights. The place has been searched twice, but he says they have a system of patrols that gives them warning. The hills are heavily wooded there, and he thinks they have rigged up telephones in the trees."
There was a short silence. Willy Cameron studied the rug.
"I had to swear to keep it to ourselves," Pink said at last. "Cusick won't let the Federal agents in on it. They've raided him for liquor twice, and he's sick as a poisoned pup."
"How about the county detectives?"
"You know them. They'll go in and fight like hell when the time comes, but they're likely to gum the game where there's any finesse required. We'd better find out for ourselves first."
Willy Cameron smiled.
"What you mean is, that it's too good a thing to throw to the other fellow. Well, I'm on, if you want me. But I'm no detective."
Pink had come armed for such surrender. He produced a road map of the county and spread it on the desk.
"Here's the main road to Friendship," he said, "and here's the road they use. But there's another way, back of the hills. Cusick said it was a dirt lane, but dry. It's about forty miles by it to a point a mile or so behind the farm. He says he doesn't think they use that road. It's too far around."
"All right," said Willy Cameron. "We use that road, and get to the farm, and what then? Surrender?"
"Not on your life. We hide in the barn. That's all."
"That's enough. They'll search the place, automatically. You're talking suicide, you know."
But his mind was working rapidly. He was a country boy, and he knew barns. There would be other outbuildings, too, probably a number of them. The Germans always had plenty of them. And the information was too detailed to be put aside lightly.
"When does he think they will meet again?"
"That's the point," Pink said eagerly. "The family has been all over the town this morning. It is going on a picnic, and he says those picnics of theirs last half the night. What he got from the noise they were making was that they were raising dust again, and something's on for to-night."
"They'll leave somebody there. Their stock has to be looked after."
"This fellow says they drop everything and go. The whole outfit. They're as busy raising an alibi as the other lot is raising the devil."
But Willy Cameron was a Scot, and hard-headed.
"It looks too simple, Pink," he said reflectively. He sat for some time, filling and lighting his pipe, and considering as he did so. He was older than Pink; not much, but he felt extremely mature and very responsible.
"What do we know about Cusick?" he asked, finally.
"One of the best men we've got. They've fired his place once, and he's keen to get them."
"You're anxious to go?"
"I'm going," said Pink, cheerfully.
"Then I'd better go along and look after you. But I tell you how I see it. After I've done that I'll go as far as you like. Either there is nothing to it and we're fools for our pains, or there's a lot to it, and in that case we are a pair of double-distilled lunatics to go there alone."
Pink laughed joyously.
Life had been very dull for him since his return from France. He had done considerable suffering and more thinking than was usual with him, but he had had no action. But behind his boyish zest there was something more, something he hid as he did the fact that he sometimes said his prayers; a deep and holy thing, that always gave him a lump in his throat at Retreat, when the flag came slowly down and the long lines of men stood at attention. Something he was half ashamed and half proud of, love of his country.
* * * * *
At the same time another conversation was going on in the rear room of a small printing shop in the heart of the city. It went on to the accompaniment of the rhythmic throb of the presses, and while two printers, in their shirt sleeves, kept guard both at the front and rear entrances.
Doyle sat with his back to the light, and seated across from him, smoking a cheap cigar, was the storekeeper from Friendship, Cusick. In a corner on the table, scowling, sat Louis Akers.
"I don't know why you're so damned suspicious, Jim," he was saying. "Cusick says the stall about the Federal agents went all right."
"Like a house a-fire," said Cusick, complacently.
"I think, Akers," Doyle observed, eyeing his subordinate, that you are letting your desire to get this Cameron fellow run away with your judgment. If we get him and Denslow, there are a hundred ready to take their places."
"Cameron is the brains of the outfit," Akers said sulkily.
"How do you know Cameron will go?"
Akers rose lazily and stretched himself.
"I've got a hunch. That's all."
A girl came in from the composing room, a bundle of proofs in her hand. With one hand Akers took the sheets from her; with the other he settled his tie. He smiled down at her.