A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
There was a little city, and few men within it; And there came a great king against it, and besieged it, And built great bulwarks against it; Now there was found in it a Poor Wise Man, And he by his wisdom delivered the city. - Ecclesiastes IX :14, 15.
The general strike occurred two days later, at mid-day. During the interval a joint committee representing the workers, the employers and the public had held a protracted sitting, but without result, and by one o'clock the city was in the throes of a complete tie-up. Laundry and delivery wagons were abandoned where they stood. Some of the street cars had been returned to the barns, but others stood in the street where the crews had deserted them.
There was no disorder, however, and the city took its difficulties with a quiet patience and a certain sense of humor. Bulletins similar to the ones used in Seattle began to appear.
"Strikers, the world is the workers' for the taking, and the workers are the vast majority in society. Your interests are paramount to those of a small, useless band of parasites who exploit you to their advantage. You have nothing to lose but your chains and you have a world to gain. The world for the workers."
There was one ray of light in the darkness, however. The municipal employees had refused to strike, and only by force would the city go dark that night. It was a blow to the conspirators. In the strange psychology of the mob, darkness was an essential to violence, and by three o'clock that afternoon the light plant and city water supply had been secured against attack by effectual policing. The power plant for the car lines was likewise protected, and at five o'clock a line of street cars, stalled on Amanda Street, began to show signs of life.
The first car was boarded by a half dozen youngish men, unobtrusively ready for trouble, and headed by a tall youth who limped slightly and wore an extremely anxious expression. He went forward and commenced a series of experiments with levers and brake, in which process incidentally he liberated a quantity of sand onto the rails. A moment later the car lurched forward, and then stopped with a jerk.
Willy Cameron looked behind him and grinned. The entire guard was piled in an ignoble mass on the floor.
By six o'clock volunteer crews were running a number of cars, and had been subjected to nothing worse than abuse. Strikers lined the streets and watched them, but the grim faces of the guards kept them back. They jeered from the curbs, but except for the flinging of an occasional stone they made no inimical move.
By eight o'clock it was clear that the tie-up would be only partial. Volunteers from all walks of life were in line at the temporary headquarters of the Vigilance Committee and were being detailed, for police duty, to bring in the trains with the morning milk, to move street cars and trucks. The water plant and the reservoirs were protected. Willy Cameron, abandoning his car after the homeward rush of the evening, found a line before the Committee Building which extended for blocks down the street.
Troops had been sent for, but it took time to mobilize and move them. It would be morning before they arrived. And the governor, over the long distance wire to the mayor, was inclined to be querulous.
"We'll send them, of course," he said. "But if the strikers are keeping quiet - I don't know what the country's coming to. We're holding a conference here now. There's rioting breaking out all over the state."
* * * * *
There was a conference held in the Mayor's office that night: Cameron and Cardew and one or two others of the Vigilance Committee, two agents of the government secret service, the captains of the companies of state troops and constabulary, the Chief of Police, the Mayor himself, and some representatives of the conservative element of organized labor. Quiet men, these last, uneasy and anxious, as ignorant as the others of which way the black cat, the symbol of sabotage and destruction, would jump. The majority of their men would stand for order, they declared, but there were some who would go over. They urged, to offset that reflection on their organization that the proletariat of the city might go over, too.
But, by midnight, it seemed as though the situation was solving itself. In the segregated district there had been a small riot, and another along the river front, disturbances quickly ended by the police and the volunteer deputies. The city had not gone dark. The bombs had not exploded. Word came in that by back roads and devious paths the most rabid of the agitators were leaving town. And before two o'clock Howard Cardew and some of the others went home to bed.
At three o'clock the Cardew doorbell rang, and Howard, not asleep, flung on his dressing gown and went out into the hall. Lily was in her doorway, intent and anxious.
"Don't answer it, father," she begged. "You don't know what it may be."
Howard smiled, but went back and got his revolver. The visitor was Willy Cameron.
"I don't like to waken you," he said, "but word has come in of suspicious movements at Baxter and Friendship, and one or two other places. It looks like concerted action of some sort."
"What sort of concerted action?"
"They still have one card to play. The foreign element outside hasn't been heard from. It looks as though the fellows who left town to-night have been getting busy up the river.
"They wouldn't be such fools as to come to the city."
"They've been made a lot of promises. They may be out of hand, you know."
While Howard was hastily dressing, Willy Cameron waited below. He caught a glimpse of himself in the big mirror and looked away. His face was drawn and haggard, his eyes hollow and his collar a wilted string. He was dusty and shabby, too, and to Lily, coming down the staircase, he looked almost ill.
Lily was in a soft negligee garment, her bare feet thrust into slippers, but she was too anxious to be self-conscious.
"Willy," she said, "there is trouble after all?"
"Not in the city. Things are not so quiet up the river.
She placed a hand on his arm.
"Are you and father going up the river?"
He explained, after a momentary hesitation. "It may crystallize into something, or it may not," he finished.
"You think it will, don't you?"
"It will be nothing more, at the worst, than rioting."
"But you may be hurt!"
"I may have one chance to fight for my country," he said, rather grimly. "Don't begrudge me that." But he added: "I'll not be hurt. The thing will blow up as soon as it starts."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
"I know they'll never get into the city."
But as he moved away she called him back, more breathlessly than ever, and quite white.
"I don't want you to go without knowing - Willy, do you remember once that you said you cared for me?"
"I remember." He stared straight ahead.
"Are you - all over that?"
"You know better than that, don't you?"
"But I've done so many things," she said, wistfully. "You ought to hate me." And when he said nothing, for the simple reason that he could not speak: "I've ruined us both, haven't I?"
Suddenly he caught up her hand and, bending over it, held it to his lips.
"Always," he said, huskily, "I love you, Lily. I shall always love you."