A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Elinor Doyle was up and about her room. She walked slowly and with difficulty, using crutches, and she spent most of the time at her window, watching and waiting. From Lily there came, at frequent intervals, notes, flowers and small delicacies. The flowers and food Olga brought to her, but the notes she never saw. She knew they came. She could see the car stop at the curb, and the chauffeur, his shoulders squared and his face watchful, carrying a white envelope up the walk, but there it ended.
She felt more helpless than ever. The doctor came less often, but the vigilance was never relaxed, and she had, too, less and less hope of being able to give any warning. Doyle was seldom at home, and when he was he had ceased to give her his taunting information. She was quite sure now of his relations with the Russian girl, and her uncertainty as to her course was gone. She was no longer his wife. He held another woman in his rare embraces, a traitor like himself. It was sordid. He was sordid.
Woslosky had developed blood poisoning, and was at the point of death, with a stolid policeman on guard at his bedside. She knew that from the newspapers she occasionally saw. And she connected Doyle unerringly with the tragedy at the farm behind Friendship. She recognized, too, since that failure, a change in his manner to her. She saw that he now both hated her and feared her, and that she had become only a burden and a menace to him. He might decide to do away with her, to kill her. He would not do it himself; he never did his own dirty work, but the Russian girl - Olga was in love with Jim Doyle. Elinor knew that, as she knew many things, by a sort of intuition. She watched them in the room together, and she knew that to Doyle the girl was an incident, the vehicle of his occasional passion, a strumpet and a tool. He did not even like her; she saw him looking at her sometimes with a sort of amused contempt. But Olga's somber eyes followed him as he moved, lit with passion and sometimes with anger, but always they followed him.
She was afraid of Olga. She did not care particularly about death, but it must not come before she had learned enough to be able to send out a warning. She thought if it came it might be by poison in the food that was sent up, but she had to eat to live. She took to eating only one thing on her tray, and she thought she detected in the girl an understanding and a veiled derision.
By Doyle's increasing sullenness she knew things were not going well with him, and she found a certain courage in that, but she knew him too well to believe that he would give up easily. And she drew certain deductions from the newspapers she studied so tirelessly. She saw the announcement of the unusual number of hunting licenses issued, for one thing, and she knew the cover that such licenses furnished armed men patrolling the country. The state permitted the sale of fire-arms without restriction. Other states did the same, or demanded only the formality of a signature, never verified.
Would they never wake to the situation?
She watched the election closely. She knew that if Akers were elected the general strike and the chaos to follow would be held back until he had taken office and made the necessary changes in the city administration, but that if he went down to defeat the Council would turn loose its impatient hordes at once.
She waited for election day with burning anxiety. When it came it so happened that she was left alone all day in the house. Early in the morning Olga brought her a tray and told her she was going out. She was changed, the Russian; she had dropped the mask of sodden servility and stood before her, erect, cunningly intelligent and oddly powerful.
"I am going to be away all day, Mrs. Doyle," she said, in her excellent English. "I have work to do."
"Work?" said Elinor. "Isn't there work to do here?"
"I am not a house-worker. I came to help Mr. Doyle. To-day I shall make speeches."
Elinor was playing the game carefully. "But - can you make speeches?" she asked.
"Me? That is my work, here, in Russia, everywhere. In Russia it is the women who speak, the men who do what the women tell them to do. Here some day it will be the same."
Always afterwards Elinor remembered the five minutes that followed, for Olga, standing before her, suddenly burst into impassioned oratory. She cited the wrongs of the poor under the old regime. She painted in glowing colors the new. She was excited, hectic, powerful. Elinor in her chair, an aristocrat to the finger-tips, was frightened, interested, thrilled.
Long after Olga had gone she sat there, wondering at the real conviction, the intensity of passion, of hate and of revenge that actuated this newest tool of Doyle's. Doyle and his associates might be actuated by self-interest, but the real danger in the movement lay not with the Doyles of the world, but with these fanatic liberators. They preached to the poor a new religion, not of creed or of Church, but of freedom. Freedom without laws of God or of man, freedom of love, of lust, of time, of all responsibility. And the poor, weighted with laws and cares, longed to throw off their burdens.
Perhaps it was not the doctrine itself that was wrong. It was its imposition by force on a world not yet ready for it that was wrong; its imposition by violence. It might come, but not this way. Not, God preventing, this way.
There was a polling place across the street, in the basement of a school house. The vote was heavy and all day men lounged on the pavements, smoking and talking. Once she saw Olga in the crowd, and later on Louis Akers drove up in an open automobile, handsome, apparently confident, and greeted with cheers. But Elinor, knowing him well, gained nothing from his face.
Late that night she heard Doyle come in and move about the lower floor. She knew every emphasis of his walk, and when in the room underneath she heard him settle down to steady, deliberate pacing, she knew that he was facing some new situation, and, after his custom, thinking it out alone.
At midnight he came up the stairs and unlocked her door. He entered, closing the door behind him, and stood looking at her. His face was so strange that she wondered if he had decided to do away with her.
"To-morrow," he said, in an inflectionless voice, "you will be moved by automobile to a farm I have selected in the country. You will take only such small luggage as the car can carry."
"Is Olga going with me?"
"No. Olga is needed here."
"I suppose I am to understand from this that Louis has been defeated and there is no longer any reason for delay in your plans."
"You can understand what you like."
"Am I to know where I am going?"
"You will find that out when you get there. I will tell you this: It is a lonely place, without a telephone. You'll be cut off from your family, I am afraid."
She gazed at him. It seemed unbelievable to her that she had once lain in this man's arms.
"Why don't you kill me, Jim? I know you've thought about it."
"Yes, I've thought of it. But killing is a confession of fear, my dear. I am not afraid of you."
"I think you are. You are afraid now to tell me when you are going to try to put this wild plan into execution."
He smiled at her with mocking eyes.
"Yes," he agreed again. "I am afraid. You have a sort of diabolical ingenuity, not intelligence so much as cunning. But because I always do the thing I'm afraid to do, I'll tell you. Of course, if you succeed in passing it on - " He shrugged his shoulders. "Very well, then. With your usual logic of deduction, you have guessed correctly. Louis Akers has been defeated. Your family - and how strangely you are a Cardew! - lost its courage at the last moment, and a gentleman named Hendricks is now setting up imitation beer and cheap cigars to his friends."
Behind his mocking voice she knew the real fury of the man, kept carefully in control by his iron will.
"As you have also correctly surmised," he went on, "there is now nothing to be gained by any delay. A very few days, three or four, and - " His voice grew hard and terrible - "the first stone in the foundation of this capitalistic government will go. Inevitable law, inevitable retribution - " His voice trailed off. He turned like a man asleep and went toward the door. There he stopped and faced her.
"I've told you," he said darkly. "I am not afraid of you. You can no more stop this thing than you can stop living by ceasing to breathe. It has come."
She heard him in his room for some time after that, and she surmised from the way he moved, from closet to bed and back again, that he was packing a bag. At two o'clock she heard Olga coming in; the girl was singing in Russian, and Elinor had a sickening conviction that she had been drinking. She heard Doyle send her off to bed, his voice angry and disgusted, and resume his packing, and ten minutes later she heard a car draw up on the street, and knew that he was off, to begin the mobilization of his heterogeneous forces.
Ever since she had been able to leave her bed Elinor had been formulating a plan of escape. Once the door had been left unlocked, but her clothing had been removed from the room, and then, too, she had not learned the thing she was waiting for. Now she had clothing, a dark dressing gown and slippers, and she had the information. But the door was securely locked.
She had often thought of the window, In the day time it frightened her to look down, although it fascinated her, too. But at night it seemed much simpler. The void below was concealed in the darkness, a soft darkness that hid the hard, inhospitable earth. A darkness one could fall into and onto.
She was not a brave woman. She had moral rather than physical courage. It was easier for her to face Doyle in a black mood than the gulf below the window-sill, but she knew now that she must get away, if she were to go at all. She got out of bed, and using her crutches carefully moved to the sill, trying to accustom herself to the thought of going over the edge. The plaster cast on her leg was a real handicap. She must get it over first. How heavy it was, and unwieldy!
She found her scissors, and, stripping the bed, sat down to cut and tear the bedding into strips. Prisoners escaped that way; she had read about such things. But the knots took up an amazing amount of length. It was four o'clock in the morning when she had a serviceable rope, and she knew it was too short. In the end she tore down the window curtains and added them, working desperately against time.
She began to suspect, too, that Olga was not sleeping. She smelled faintly the odor of the long Russian cigarettes the girl smoked. She put out her light and worked in the darkness, a strange figure of adventure, this middle-aged woman with her smooth hair and lined face, sitting in her cambric nightgown with her crutches on the floor beside her.
She secured the end of the rope to the foot of her metal bed, pushing the bed painfully and cautiously, inch by inch, to the window. And in so doing she knocked over the call-bell on the stand, and almost immediately she heard Olga moving about.
The girl was coming unsteadily toward the door. If she opened it -
"I don't want anything, Olga," she called, "I knocked the bell over accidentally."
Olga hesitated, muttered, moved away again. Elinor was covered with a cold sweat.
She began to think of the window as a refuge. Surely nothing outside could be so terrible as this house itself. The black aperture seemed friendly; it beckoned to her with friendly hands.
She dropped her crutches. They fell with two soft thuds on the earth below and it seemed to her that they were a long time in falling. She listened after that, but Olga made no sign. Then slowly and painfully she worked her injured leg over the sill, and sat there looking down and breathing with difficulty. Then she freed her dressing gown around her, and slid over the edge.