A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The atmosphere of the Cardew house was subtly changed and very friendly. Willy Cameron found himself received as an old friend, with no tendency to forget the service he had rendered, or that, in their darkest hour, he had been one of them.
To his surprise Pink Denslow was there, and he saw at once that Pink had been telling them of the night at the farm house. Pink was himself again, save for a small shaved place at the back of his head, covered with plaster.
"I've told them, Cameron," he said. "If I could only tell it generally I'd be the most popular man in the city, at dinners."
"Pair of young fools," old Anthony muttered, with his sardonic smile. But in his hand-clasp, as in Howard's, there was warmth and a sort of envy, envy of youth and the adventurous spirit of youth.
Lily was very quiet. The story had meant more to her than to the others. She had more nearly understood Pink's reference to the sealed envelope Willy Cameron had left, and the help sent by Edith Boyd. She connected that with Louis Akers, and from that to Akers' threat against Cameron was only a step. She was frightened and somewhat resentful, that this other girl should have saved him from a revenge that she knew was directed at herself. That she, who had brought this thing about, had sat quietly at home while another woman, a woman who loved him, had saved him.
She was puzzled at her own state of mind.
Dinner was almost gay. Perhaps the gayety was somewhat forced, with Pink keeping his eyes from Lily's face, and Howard Cardew relapsing now and then into abstracted silence. Because of the men who served, the conversation was carefully general. It was only in the library later, the men gathered together over their cigars, that the real reason for Willy Cameron's summons was disclosed.
Howard Cardew was about to withdraw from the contest. "I'm late in coming to this decision," he said. "Perhaps too late. But after a careful canvas of the situation, I find you are right, Cameron. Unless I withdraw, Akers" - he found a difficulty in speaking the name - "will be elected. At least it looks that way."
"And if he is," old Anthony put in, "he'll turn all the devils of hell loose on us."
It was late; very late. The Cardews stood ready to flood the papers with announcements of Howard's withdrawal, and urging his supporters to vote for Hendricks, but the time was short. Howard had asked his campaign managers to meet there that night, and also Hendricks and one or two of his men, but personally he felt doubtful.
And, as it happened, the meeting developed more enthusiasm than optimism. Cardew's withdrawal would be made the most of by the opposition. They would play it up as the end of the old regime, the beginning of new and better things.
Before midnight the conference broke up, to catch the morning editions. Willy Cameron, detained behind the others, saw Lily in the drawing-room alone as he passed the door, and hesitated.
"I have been waiting for you, Willy," she said.
But when he went in she seemed to have nothing to say. She sat in a low chair, in a soft dark dress which emphasized her paleness. To Willy Cameron she had never seemed more beautiful, or more remote.
"Do you remember how you used to whistle 'The Long, Long Trail,' Willy?" she said at last. "All evening I have been sitting here thinking what a long trail we have both traveled since then."
"A long, hard trail." he assented.
"Only you have gone up, Willy. And I have gone down, into the valley. I wish" - she smiled faintly - "I wish you would look down from your peak now and then. You never come to see me."
"I didn't know you wanted me," he said bluntly.
"Why shouldn't I want to see you?"
"I couldn't help reminding you of things."
"But I never forget them, anyhow. Sometimes I almost go mad, remembering. It isn't quite as selfish as it sounds. I've hurt them all so. Willy, do you mind telling me about the girl who opened that letter and sent you help?"
"About Edith Boyd? I'd like to tell you, Lily. Her mother is dead, and she lost her child. She is in the Memorial Hospital."
"Then she has no one but you?"
"She has a brother."
"Tell me about her sending help that night. She really saved your life, didn't she?"
While he was telling her she sat staring straight ahead, her fingers interlaced in her lap. She was telling herself that all this could not possibly matter to her, that she had cut herself off, finally and forever, from the man before her; that she did not even deserve his friendship.
Quite suddenly she knew that she did not want his friendship. She wanted to see again in his face the look that had been there the night he had told her, very simply, that he loved her. And it would never be there; it was not there now. She had killed his love. All the light in his face was for some one else, another girl, a girl more unfortunate but less wicked than herself.
When he stopped she was silent. Then:
"I wonder if you know how much you have told me that you did not intend to tell?"
"That I didn't intend to tell? I have made no reservations, Lily."
"Are you sure? Or don't you realize it yourself?"
"Realize what?" He was greatly puzzled.
"I think, Willy," she said, quietly. "that you care a great deal more for Edith Boyd than you think you do.
He looked at her in stupefaction. How could she say that? How could she fail to know better than that? And he did not see the hurt behind her careful smile.
"You are wrong about that. I - " He made a little gesture of despair. He could not tell her now that he loved her. That was all over.
"She is in love with you."
He felt absurd and helpless. He could not deny that, yet how could she sit there, cool and faintly smiling, and not know that as she sat there so she sat enshrined in his heart. She was his saint, to kneel and pray to; and she was his woman, the one woman of his life. More woman than saint, he knew, and even for that he loved her. But he did not know the barbarous cruelty of the loving woman.
"I don't know what to say to you, Lily," he said, at last. "She - it is possible that she thinks she cares, but under the circumstances - "
"Ellen told Mademoiselle you were going to marry her. That's true, isn't it?"
"You always said that marriage without love was wicked, Willy."
"Her child had a right to a name. And there were other things. I can't very well explain them to you. Her mother was ill. Can't you understand, Lily? I don't want to throw any heroics." In his excitement he had lapsed into boyish vernacular. "Here was a plain problem, and a simple way to solve it. But it is off now, anyhow; things cleared up without that."
She got up and held out her hand.
"It was like you to try to save her," she said.
"Does this mean I am to go?"
"I am very tired, Willy."
He had a mad impulse to take her in his arms, and holding her close to rest her there. She looked so tired. For fear he might do it he held his arms rigidly at his sides.
"You haven't asked me about him," she said unexpectedly.
"I thought you would not care to talk about him. That's over and done, Lily. I want to forget about it, myself."
She looked up at him, and had he had Louis Akers' intuitive knowledge of women he would have understood then.
"I am never going back to him, Willy. You know that, don't you?"
"I hoped it, of course."
"I know now that I never loved him."
But the hurt of her marriage was still too fresh in him for speech. He could not discuss Louis Akers with her.
"No," he said, after a moment, "I don't think you ever did. I'll come in some evening, if I may, Lily. I must not keep you up now."
How old he looked, for him! How far removed from those busy, cheerful days at the camp! And there were new lines of repression in his face; from the nostrils to the corners of his mouth. Above his ears his hair showed a faint cast of gray.
"You have been having rather a hard time, Willy, haven't you'?" she said, suddenly.
"I have been busy, of course."
"Sometimes. But things are clearing up now."
She was studying him with the newly opened eyes of love. What was it he showed that the other men she knew lacked? Sensitiveness? Kindness? But her father was both sensitive and kind. So was Pink, in less degree. In the end she answered her own question, and aloud.
"I think it is patience," she said. And to his unspoken question: "You are very patient, aren't you?"
"I never thought about it. For heaven's sake don't turn my mind in on myself, Lily. I'll be running around in circles like a pup chasing his tail."
He made a movement to leave, but she seemed oddly reluctant to let him go.
"Do you know that father says you have more influence than any other man in the city?"
"That's more kind than truthful."
"And - I think he and grandfather are planning to try to get you, when the mills reopen. Father suggested it, but grandfather says you'd have the presidency of the company in six months, and he'd be sharpening your lead pencils."
Suddenly Willy Cameron laughed, and the tension was broken.
"If he did it with his tongue they'd be pretty sharp," he said.
For just a moment, before he left, they were back to where they had been months ago, enjoying together their small jokes and their small mishaps. The present fell away, with its hovering tragedy, and they were boy and girl together. Exaltation and sacrifice were a part of their love, as of all real and lasting passion, but there was always between them also that soundest bond of all, liking and comradeship.
"I love her. I like her. I adore her," was the cry in Willy Cameron's heart when he started home that night.