A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Ellen was greatly disturbed. At three o'clock that afternoon she found Edith and announced her intention of going out.
"I guess you can get the supper for once," she said ungraciously.
Edith looked up at her with wistful eyes.
"I wish you didn't hate me so, Ellen."
"I don't hate you." Ellen was slightly mollified. "But when I see you trying to put your burdens on other people - "
Edith got up then and rather timidly put her arms around Ellen's neck.
"I love him so, Ellen," she whispered, "and I'll try so hard to make him happy."
Unexpected tears came into Ellen's eyes. She stroked the girl's fair hair.
"Never mind," she said. "The Good Man's got a way of fixing things to suit Himself. And I guess He knows best. We do what it's foreordained we do, after all."
Mrs. Boyd was sleeping. Edith went back to her sewing. She had depended all her life on her mother's needle, and now that that had failed her she was hastily putting some clothing into repair. In the kitchen near the stove the suit she meant to be married in was hung to dry, after pressing. She was quietly happy.
Willy Cameron found her there. He told her of Mrs. Davis' death, and then placed the license on the table at her side.
"1 think it would be better to-morrow, Edith," he said. He glanced down at the needle in her unaccustomed fingers; she seemed very appealing, with her new task and the new light in her eyes. After all, it was worth while, even if it cost a lifetime, to take a soul out of purgatory.
"I had to tell mother, Willy."
"That's all right Did it cheer her any?"
"Wonderfully. She's asleep now."
He went up to his room, and for some time she heard him moving about. Then she heard the scraping of his chair as he drew it to his desk, and vaguely wondered. When he came down he had a sealed envelope in his hand.
"I am going out, Edith," he said. "I shall be late getting back, and - I am going to ask you to do something for me."
She loved doing things for him. She flushed slightly.
"If I am not back here by two o'clock to-night," he said, "I want you to open that letter and read it. Then go to the nearest telephone, and call up the number I've written down. Ask for the man whose name is given, and read him the message."
"Willy!" she gasped. "You are doing something dangerous!"
"What I really expect," he said, smiling down at her, "is to be back, feeling more or less of a fool, by eleven o'clock. I'm providing against an emergency that will almost surely never happen, and I am depending on the most trustworthy person I know."
Very soon after that he went away. She sat for some time after he had gone, fingering the blank white envelope and wondering, a little frightened but very proud of his trust.
Dan came in and went up the stairs. That reminded her of the dinner, and she sat down in the kitchen with a pan of potatoes on her knee. As she pared them she sang. She was still singing when Ellen came back.
Something had happened to Ellen. She stood in the kitchen, her hat still on, drawing her cotton gloves through her fingers and staring at Edith without seeing her.
"You're not sick, are you, Ellen?"
Ellen put down her gloves and slowly took off her hat, still with the absorbed eyes of a sleep-walker.
"I'm not sick," she said at last. "I've had bad news."
"Sit down and I'll make you a cup of tea. Then maybe you'll feel like talking about it."
"I don't want any tea. Do you know that that man Akers has married Lily Cardew?"
"The devil out of hell that he is." Ellen's voice was terrible. "And all the time knowing that you - She's at home, the poor child, and Mademoiselle just sat and cried when she told me. It's a secret," she added, fiercely. "You keep your mouth shut about it. She never lived with him. She left him right off. I wouldn't know it now but the servants were talking about the house being forbidden to him, and I went straight to Mademoiselle. I said: 'You keep him away from Miss Lily, because I know something about him.' It was when I told her that she said they were married."
She went out and up the stairs, moving slowly and heavily. Edith sat still, the pan on her knee, and thought. Did Willy know? Was that why he was willing to marry her? She was swept with bitter jealousy, and added to that came suspicion. Something very near the truth flashed into her mind and stayed there. ln her bitterness she saw Willy telling Lily of Akers and herself, and taking her away, or having her taken. It must have been something like that, or why had she left him?
But her anger slowly subsided; in the end she began to feel that the new situation rendered her own position more secure, even justified her own approaching marriage. Since Lily was gone, why should she not marry Willy Cameron? If what Ellen had said was true she knew him well enough to know that he would deliberately strangle his love for Lily. If it were true, and if he knew it.
She moved about the kitchen, making up the fire, working automatically in that methodless way that always set Ellen's teeth on edge, and thinking. But subconsciously she was listening, too. She had heard Dan go into his mother's room and close the door. She was bracing herself against his coming down.
Dan was difficult those days, irritable and exacting. Moody, too, and much away from home. He hated idleness at its best, and the strike was idleness at its worst. Behind the movement toward the general strike, too, he felt there was some hidden and sinister influence at work, an influence that was determined to turn what had commenced as a labor movement into a class uprising.
That very afternoon, for the first time, he had heard whispered the phrase: "when the town goes dark." There was a diabolical suggestion in it that sent him home with his fists clenched.
He did not go to his mother's room at once. Instead, he drew a chair to his window and sat there staring out on the little street. When the town went dark, what about all the little streets like this one?
After an hour or so of ominous quiet Edith heard him go into his mother's room. Her hands trembled as she closed her door.
She heard him coming down at last, and suddenly remembering the license, hid it in a drawer. She knew that he would destroy it if he saw it. And Dan's face justified the move. He came in and stood glowering at her, his hands in his pockets.
"What made you tell that lie to mother?" he demanded,
"She was worried, Dan. And it will be true to-morrow. You - Dan, you didn't tell her it was a lie, did you?"
"I should have, but I didn't. What do you mean, it will be true to-morrow?"
"We are going to be married to-morrow."
"I'll lock you up first," he said, angrily. "I've been expecting something like that. I've watched you, and I've seen you watching him. You'll not do it, do you hear? D'you think I'd let you get away with that? Isn't it enough that he's got to support us, without your coaxing him to marry you?"
She made no reply, but went on with a perfunctory laying of the table. Her mouth had gone very dry.
"The poor fish," Dan snarled. "I thought he had some sense. Letting himself in for a nice life, isn't he? We're not his kind, and you know it. He knows more in a minute than you'll know all your days. In about three months he'll hate the very sight of you, and then where'll you be?"
When she made no reply, he called to the dog and went out into the yard. She saw him there, brooding and sullen, and she knew that he had not finished. He would say no more to her, but he would wait and have it out with Willy himself.
Supper was silent. No one ate much, and Ellen, coming down with the tray, reported Mrs. Boyd as very tired, and wanting to settle down early.
"She looks bad to me," she said to Edith. "I think the doctor ought to see her."
"I'll go and send him."
Edith was glad to get out of the house. She had avoided the streets lately, but as it was the supper hour the pavements were empty. Only Joe Wilkinson, bare-headed, stood in the next doorway, and smiled and flushed slightly when he saw her.
"How's your mother?" he asked.
"She's not so well. I'm going to get the doctor."
"Do you mind if I get my hat and walk there with you?"
"I'm going somewhere else from there, Joe."
"Well, I'll walk a block or two, anyhow."
She waited impatiently. She liked Joe, but she did not want him then. She wanted to think and plan alone and in the open air, away from the little house with its odors and its querulous thumping cane upstairs; away from Ellen's grim face and Dan's angry one.
He came out almost immediately, followed by a string of little Wilkinsons, clamoring to go along.
"Do you mind?" he asked her. "They can trail along behind. The poor kids don't get out much."
"Bring them along, of course," she said, somewhat resignedly. And with a flash of her old spirit: "I might have brought Jinx, too. Then we'd have had a real procession.
They moved down the street, with five little Wilkinsons trailing along behind, and Edith was uncomfortably aware that Joe's eyes were upon her.
"You don't look well," he said at last. "You're wearing yourself out taking care of your mother, Edith."
"I don't do much for her."
"You'd say that, of course. You're very unselfish."
"Am I?" She laughed a little, but the words touched her. "Don't think I'm better than I am, Joe."
"You're the most wonderful girl in the world. I guess you know how I feel about that."
But at that moment a very little Wilkinson fell headlong and burst into loud, despairing wails. Joe set her on her feet, brushed her down with a fatherly hand, and on her refusal to walk further picked her up and carried her. The obvious impossibility of going on with what he had been saying made him smile sheepishly.
"Can you beat it?" he said helplessly, "these darn kids - !" But he held the child close.
At the next corner he turned toward home. Edith stopped and watched his valiant young back, his small train of followers. He was going to be very sad when he knew, poor Joe, with his vicarious fatherhood, his cluttered, noisy, anxious life.
Life was queer. Queer and cruel.
>From the doctor's office, the waiting room lined with patient figures, she went on. She had a very definite plan in mind, but it took all her courage to carry it through. Outside the Benedict Apartments she hesitated, but she went in finally, upheld by sheer determination.
The chair at the telephone desk was empty, but Sam remembered her.
"He's out, miss," he said. "He's out most all the time now, with the election coming on."
"What time does he usually get in?"
"Sometimes early, sometimes late," said Sam, watching her. Everything pertaining to Louis Akers was of supreme interest those days to the Benedict employees. The beating he had received, the coming election, the mysterious young woman who had come but once, and the black days that had followed his return from the St. Elmo - out of such patchwork they were building a small drama of their own. Sam was trying to fit in Edith's visit with the rest.
The Benedict was neither more moral nor less than its kind. An unwritten law kept respectable women away, but the management showed no inclination to interfere where there was no noise or disorder. Employees were supposed to see that no feminine visitors remained after midnight, that was all.
"You might go up and wait for him," Sam suggested. "That is, if it's important."
"It's very important."
He threw open the gate of the elevator hospitably.
At half past ten that night Louis Akers went back to his rooms. The telephone girl watched him sharply as he entered.
"There's a lady waiting for you, Mr. Akers."
He swung toward her eagerly.
"A lady? Did she give any name?"
"No. Sam let her in and took her up. He said he thought you wouldn't mind. She'd been here before."
The thought of Edith never entered Akers' head. It was Lily, Lily miraculously come back to him. Lily, his wife.
Going up in the elevator he hastily formulated a plan of action. He would not be too ready to forgive; she had cost him too much. But in the end he would take her in his arms and hold her close. Lily! Lily!
It was the bitterness of his disappointment that made him brutal. Wicked and unscrupulous as he was with men, with women he was as gentle as he was cruel. He put them from him relentlessly and kissed them good-by. It was his boast that any one of them would come back to him if he wanted her.
Edith, listening for his step, was startled at the change in his face when he saw her.
"You!" he said thickly. "What are you doing here?"
"I've been waiting all evening. I want to ask you something."
He flung his hat into a chair and faced her.
"Is it true that you are married to Lily Cardew?"
"If I am, what are you going to do about it?" His eyes were wary, but his color was coming back. He was breathing more easily.
"I only heard it to-day. I must know, Lou. It's awfully important."
"What did you hear?" He was watching her closely.
"I heard you were married, but that she had left you."
It seemed to him incredible that she had come there to taunt him, she who was responsible for the shipwreck of his marriage. That she could come there and face him, and not expect him to kill her where she stood.
He pulled himself together.
"It's true enough." He swore under his breath. "She didn't leave me. She was taken away. And I'll get her back if I - You little fool, I ought to kill you. If you wanted a cheap revenge, you've got it."
"I don't want revenge, Lou."
He caught her by the arm.
"Then what brought you here?"
"I wanted to be sure Lily Cardew was married."
"Well, she is. What about it?"
"That's not all. What about it?"
She looked up at him gravely.
"Because, if she is, I am going to marry Mr. Cameron tomorrow." At the sight of his astounded face she went on hastily: "He knows, Lou, and he offered anyhow."
"And what," he said slowly, "has my wife to do with that?"
"I wanted to be fair to him. And I think he is - I think he used to be terribly in love with her."
Quite apart from his increasing fear of Willy Cameron and his Committee, there had been in Akers for some time a latent jealousy of him. In a flash he saw the room at the Saint Elmo, and a cold-eyed man inside the doorway. The humiliation of that scene had never left him, of his own maudlin inadequacy, of hearing from beyond a closed and locked door, the closing of another door behind Lily and the man who had taken her away from him. A mad anger and jealousy made him suddenly reckless.
"So," he said, "he is terribly in love with my wife, and he intends to marry you. That's - interesting. Because, my sweet child, he's got a damn poor chance of marrying you, or anybody."
"Listen," he said deliberately. "Men who stick their heads into the lion's jaws are apt to lose them. Our young friend Cameron has done that. I'll change the figure. When a man tries to stop a great machine by putting his impudent fingers into the cog wheels, the man's a fool. He may lose his hand, or he may lose his life."
Fortunately for Edith he moved on that speech to the side table, and mixed himself a highball. It gave her a moment to summon her scattered wits, to decide on a plan of action. Her early training on the streets, her recent months of deceit, helped her now. If he had expected any outburst from her it did not come.
"If you mean that he is in danger, I don't believe it."
"All right, old girl. I've told you."
But the whiskey restored his equilibrium again.
"That is," he added slowly, "I've warned you. You'd better warn him. He's doing his best to get into trouble."
She knew him well, saw the craftiness come back into his eyes, and met it with equal strategy.
"I'll tell him," she said, moving toward the door. "You haven't scared me for a minute and you won't scare him. You and your machine!"
She dared not seem to hurry.
"You're a boaster," she said, with the door open. "You always were. And you'll never lay a hand on him. You're like all bullies; you're a coward!"
She was through the doorway by that time, and in terror for fear, having told her so much, he would try to detain her. She saw the idea come into his face, too, just as she slipped outside. He made a move toward her.
"I think - " he began.
She slammed the door and ran down the hallway toward the stairs. She heard him open the door and come out into the hall, but she was well in advance and running like a deer.
"Edith!" he called.
She stumbled on the second flight of stairs and fell a half-dozen steps, but she picked herself up and ran on. At the bottom of the lower flight she stopped and listened, but he had gone back. She heard the slam of his door as he closed it.
But the insistent need of haste drove her on, headlong. She shot through the lobby, past the staring telephone girl, and into the street, and there settled down into steady running, her elbows close to her sides, trying to remember to breathe slowly and evenly. She must get home somehow, get the envelope and follow the directions inside. Her thoughts raced with her. It was almost eleven o'clock and Willy had been gone for hours. She tried to pray, but the words did not come.