A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
It was at this time that Doyle showed his hand, with his customary fearlessness. He made a series of incendiary speeches, the general theme being that the hour was close at hand for putting the fear of God into the exploiting classes for all time to come. His impassioned oratory, coming at the psychological moment, when the long strike had brought its train of debt and evictions, made a profound impression. Had he asked for a general strike vote then, he would have secured it.
As it was, it was some time before all the unions had voted for it. And the day was not set. Doyle was holding off, and for a reason. Day by day he saw a growth of the theory of Bolshevism among the so-called intellectual groups of the country. Almost every university had its radicals, men who saw emerging from Russia the beginning of a new earth. Every class now had its Bolshevists. They found a ready market for their propaganda, intelligent and insidious as it was, among a certain liberal element of the nation, disgruntled with the autocracy imposed upon them by the war.
The reaction from that autocracy was a swinging to the other extreme, and, as if to work into the hands of the revolutionary party, living costs remained at the maximum. The cry of the revolutionists, to all enough and to none too much, found a response not only in the anxious minds of honest workmen, but among an underpaid intelligentsia. Neither political party offered any relief; the old lines no longer held, and new lines of cleavage had come. Progressive Republicans and Democrats had united against reactionary members of both parties. There were no great leaders, no men of the hour.
The old vicious cycle of empires threatened to repeat itself, the old story of the many led by the few. Always it had come, autocracy, the too great power of one man; then anarchy, the overthrow of that power by the angry mob. Out of that anarchy the gradual restoration of order by the people themselves, into democracy. And then in time again, by that steady gravitation of the strong up and the weak down, some one man who emerged from the mass and crowned himself, or was crowned. And there was autocracy again, and again the vicious circle.
But such movements had always been, in the last analysis, the work of the few. It had always been the militant minority which ruled. Always the great mass of the people had submitted. They had fought, one way or the other when the time came, but without any deep conviction behind them. They wanted peace, the right to labor. They warred, to find peace. Small concern was it, to the peasant plowing his field, whether one man ruled over him or a dozen. He wanted neither place nor power.
It came to this, then, Willy Cameron argued to himself. This new world conflict was a struggle between the contented and the discontented. In Europe, discontent might conquer, but in America, never. There were too many who owned a field or had the chance to labor. There were too many ways legitimately to aspire. Those who wanted something for nothing were but a handful to those who wanted to give that they might receive.
* * * * *
Three days before the election, Willy Cameron received a note from Lily, sent by hand.
"Father wants to see you to-night," she wrote, "and mother suggests that as you are busy, you try to come to dinner. We are dining alone. Do come, Willy. I think it is most important."
He took the letter home with him and placed it in a locked drawer of his desk, along with a hard and shrunken doughnut, tied with a bow of Christmas ribbon, which had once helped to adorn the Christmas tree they had trimmed together. There were other things in the drawer; a postcard photograph, rather blurred, of Lily in the doorway of her little hut, smiling; and the cigar box which had been her cash register at the camp.
He stood for some time looking down at the post card; it did not seem possible that in the few months since those wonderful days, life could have been so cruel to them both. Lily married, and he himself -
Ellen came up when he was tying his tie. She stood behind him, watching him in the mirror.
"I don't know what you've done to your hair, Willy," she said; "it certainly looks queer."
"It usually looks queer, so why worry, heart of my heart?" But he turned and put an arm around her shoulders. "What would the world be without women like you, Ellen?" he said gravely.
"I haven't done anything but my duty," Ellen said, in her prim voice. "Listen, Willy. I saw Edith again to-day, and she told me to do something."
"To go home and take a rest? That's what you need."
"No. She wants me to tear up that marriage license."
He said nothing for a moment. "I'll have to see her first."
"She said it wouldn't be any good, Willy. She's made up her mind." She watched him anxiously. "You're not going to be foolish, are you? She says there's no need now, and she's right."
"Somebody will have to look after her."
"Dan can do that. He's changed, since she went." Ellen glanced toward Mrs. Boyd's empty room. "You've done enough, Willy. You've seen them through, all of them. I - isn't it time you began to think about yourself?"
He was putting on his coat, and she picked a bit of thread from it, with nervous fingers.
"Where are you going to-night, Willy?"
"To the Cardews. Mr. Cardew has sent for me."
She looked up at him.
"Willy, I want to tell you something. The Cardews won't let that marriage stand, and you know it. I think she cares for you. Don't look at me like that. I do."
"That's because you are fond of me," he said, smiling down at her. "I'm not the sort of man girls care about, Ellen. Let's face that. The General Manager said when he planned me, 'Here's going to be a fellow who is to have everything in the world, health, intelligence, wit and the beauty of an Adonis, but he has to lack something, so we'll make it that'."
But Ellen, glancing up swiftly, saw that although his tone was light, there was pain in his eyes.
He reflected on Edith's decision as he walked through the park toward the Cardew house. It had not surprised him, and yet he knew it had cost her an effort. How great an effort, man-like, he would never understand, but something of what she had gone through he realized. He wondered vaguely whether, had there never been a Lily Cardew in his life, he could ever have cared for Edith. Perhaps. Not the Edith of the early days, that was certain. But this new Edith, with her gentleness and meekness, her clear, suffering eyes, her strange new humility.
She had sent him a message of warning about Akers, and from it he had reconstructed much of the events of the night she had taken sick.
"Tell him to watch Louis Akers," she had said. "I don't know how near Willy was to trouble the other night, Ellen, but they're going to try to get him."
Ellen had repeated the message, watching him narrowly, but he had only laughed.
"Who are they" she had persisted.
"I'll tell you all about it some day," he had said. But he had told Dan the whole story, and, although he did not know it, Dan had from that time on been his self-constituted bodyguard. During his campaign speeches Dan was always near, his right hand on a revolver in his coat pocket, and for hours at a time he stood outside the pharmacy, favoring every seeker for drugs or soap or perfume with a scowling inspection. When he could not do it, he enlisted Joe Wilkinson in the evenings, and sometimes the two of them, armed, policed the meeting halls.
As a matter of fact, Joe Wilkinson was following him that night. On his way to the Cardews Willy Cameron, suddenly remembering the uncanny ability of Jinx to escape and trail him, remaining meanwhile at a safe distance in the rear, turned suddenly and saw Joe, walking sturdily along in rubber-soled shoes, and obsessed with his high calling of personal detective.
Joe, discovered, grinned sheepishly.
"Thought that looked like your back," he said. "Nice evening for a walk, isn't it?"
"Let me look at you, Joe," said Willy Cameron. "You look strange to me. Ah, now I have it. You look like a comet without a tail. Where's the family?"
"Making taffy. How - is Edith?"
"Doing nicely." He avoided the boy's eyes.
"I guess I'd better tell you. Dan's told me about her. I - " Joe hesitated. Then: "She never seemed like that sort of a girl," he finished, bitterly.
"She isn't that sort of girl, Joe."
"She did it. How could a fellow know she wouldn't do it again?"
"She has had a pretty sad sort of lesson."
Joe, his real business forgotten, walked on with eyes down and shoulders drooping.
"I might as well finish with it," he said, "now I've started. I've always been crazy about her. Of course now - I haven't slept for two nights."
"I think it's rather like this, Joe," Willy Cameron said, after a pause. "We are not one person, really. We are all two or three people, and all different. We are bad and good, depending on which of us is the strongest at the time, and now and then we pay so much for the bad we do that we bury that part. That's what has happened to Edith. Unless, of course," he added, "we go on convincing her that she is still the thing she doesn't want to be."
"I'd like to kill the man," Joe said. But after a little, as they neared the edge of the park, he looked up.
"You mean, go on as if nothing had happened?"
"Precisely," said Willy Cameron. "as though nothing had happened."