A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Election night found various groups in various places. In the back room of the Eagle Pharmacy was gathered once again the neighborhood forum, a wildly excited forum, which ever and anon pounded Mr. Hendricks on the back, and drank round after round of soda water and pop. Doctor Smalley, coming in rather late found them all there, calling Mr. Hendricks "Mr. Mayor" or "Your Honor," reciting election anecdotes, and prophesying the end of the Reds. Only Willy Cameron, sitting on a table near the window, was silent.
Mr. Hendricks, called upon for a speech, rose with his soda water glass in his hand.
"I've got a toast for you, boys," he said. "You've been talking all evening about my winning this election. Well, I've been elected, but I didn't win it. It was the plain people of this town who elected me, and they did it because my young friend on the table yonder told them to." He raised his glass. "Cameron!" he said.
"Cameron! Cameron!" shouted the crowd. "Speech! Cameron!"
But Willy shook his head.
"I haven't any voice left," he said, "and you've heard me say all I know a dozen times. The plain truth is that Mr. Hendricks got the election because he was the best man, and enough people knew it. That's all."
To Mr. Hendricks the night was one of splendid solemnity. He felt at once very strong and very weak, very proud and very humble. He would do his best, and if honesty meant anything, the people would have it, but he knew that honesty was not enough. The city needed a strong man; he hoped that the Good Man who made cities as He made men, both evil and good, would lend him a hand with things. As prayer in his mind was indissolubly connected with church, he made up his mind to go to church the next Sunday and get matters straightened out.
At the same time another group was meeting at the Benedict.
Louis Akers had gone home early. By five o'clock he knew that the chances were against him, but he felt a real lethargy as to the outcome. He had fought, and fought hard, but it was only the surface mind of him that struggled. Only the surface mind of him hated, and had ambitions, dreamed revenge. Underneath that surface mind was a sore that ate like a cancer, and that sore was his desertion by Lily Cardew. For once in his life he suffered, who had always inflicted pain.
At six o'clock Doyle had called him on the telephone and told him that Woslosky was dead, but the death of the Pole had been discounted in advance, and already his place had been filled by a Russian agent, who had taken the first syllable of his name and called himself Ross. Louis Akers heard the news apathetically, and went back to his chair again.
By eight o'clock he knew that he had lost the election, but that, too, seemed relatively unimportant. He was not thinking coherently, but certain vague ideas floated through his mind. There was a law of compensation in the universe: it was all rot to believe that one was paid or punished in the hereafter for what one did. Hell was real, but it was on earth and its place was in a man's mind. He couldn't get away from it, because each man carried his own hell around with him. It was all stored up there; nothing he had done was left out, and the more he put into it the more he got out, when the time came.
This was his time.
Ross and Doyle, with one or two others, found him there at nine o'clock, an untasted meal on the table, and the ends of innumerable cigarettes on the hearth. In the conference that followed he took but little part. The Russian urged immediate action, and Doyle by a saturnine silence tacitly agreed with him. But Louis only half heard them. His mind was busy with that matter of hell. Only once he looked up. Ross was making use of the phrase: "Militant minority."
"Militant minority!" he said scornfully, "you overwork that idea, Ross. What we've got here now is a militant majority, and that's what elected Hendricks. You're licked before you begin. And my advice is, don't begin."
But they laughed at him.
"You act like a whipped dog," Doyle said, "crawling under the doorstep for fear somebody else with a strap comes along."
"They're organized against us. We could have put it over six months ago. Not now."
"Then you'd better get out," Doyle said, shortly.
"I'm thinking of it."
But Doyle had no real fear of him. He was sulky. Well, let him sulk.
Akers relapsed into silence. His interest in the conspiracy had always been purely self-interest; he had never had Woslosky's passion, or Doyle's cold fanaticism. They had carried him off his feet with their promises, but how much were they worth? They had failed to elect him. Every bit of brains, cunning and resource in their organization had been behind him, and they had failed.
This matter of hell, now? Suppose one put by something on the other account? Suppose one turned square? Wouldn't that earn something? Suppose that one went to the Cardews and put all his cards on the table, asking nothing in return? Suppose one gave up the by-paths of life, and love in a hedgerow, and did the other thing? Wouldn't that earn something?
He roused himself and took a perfunctory part in the conversation, but his mind obstinately returned to itself. He knew every rendezvous of the Red element in the country; he knew where their literature was printed; he knew the storehouses of arms and ammunition, and the plans for carrying on the city government by the strikers after the reign of terrorization which was to subdue the citizens.
Suppose he turned informer? Could he set a price, and that price Lily? But he discarded that. He was not selling now, he was earning. He would set himself right first, and - provided the government got the leaders before those leaders got him, as they would surely try to do - he would have earned something, surely.
Lily had come to him once when he called. She might come again, when he had earned her.
Doyle sat back in his chair and watched him. He saw that he had gone to pieces under defeat, and men did strange things at those times. With uncanny shrewdness he gauged Akers' reaction; his loss of confidence and, he surmised, his loyalty. He would follow his own interest now, and if he thought that it lay in turning informer, he might try it. But it would take courage.
When the conference broke up Doyle was sure of where his man stood. He was not worried. They did not need Akers any longer. He had been a presentable tool, a lay figure to give the organization front, and they had over-rated him, at that. He had failed them. Doyle, watching him contemptuously, realized in him his own fallacious judgment, and hated Akers for proving him wrong.
Outside the building Doyle drew the Russian aside, and spoke to him. Ross started, then grinned.
"You're wrong," he said. "He won't try it. But of course he may, and we'll see that he doesn't get away with it."
>From that time on Louis Akers was under espionage.