A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mr. William Wallace Cameron, that evening of Lily's return, took a walk. From his boarding house near the Eagle Pharmacy to the Cardew residence was a half-hour's walk. There were a number of things he had meant to do that evening, with a view to improving his mind, but instead he took a walk. He had made up a schedule for those evenings when he was off duty, thinking it out very carefully on the train to the city. And the schedule ran something like this:
Monday: 8-11. Read History. Wednesday: 8-11. Read Politics and Economics. Friday: 8-9:30. Travel. 9:30-11. French. Sunday: Hear various prominent divines.
He had cut down on the travel rather severely, because travel was with him an indulgence rather than a study. The longest journey he had ever taken in his life was to Washington. That was early in the war, when it did not seem possible that his country would not use him, a boy who could tramp incredible miles in spite of his lameness and who could shoot a frightened rabbit at almost any distance, by allowing for a slight deflection to the right in the barrel of his old rifle.
But they had refused him.
"They won't use me, mother," he had said when he got home, home being a small neat house on a tidy street of a little country town. "I tried every branch, but the only training I've had - well, some smart kid said they weren't planning to serve soda water to the army. They didn't want cripples, you see."
"I wish you wouldn't, Willy."
He had been frightfully sorry then and had comforted her at some length, but the fact remained.
"And you the very best they've ever had for mixing prescriptions!" she had said at last. "And a graduate in chemistry!"
"Well," he said, "that's that, and we won't worry about it. There's more than one way of killing a cat."
"What do you mean, Willy? More than one way?"
There was no light of prophecy in William Wallace Cameron's gray eyes, however, when he replied: "More than one way of serving my country. Don't you worry. I'll find something."
So he had, and he had come out of his Red Cross work in the camp with one or two things in his heart that had not been there before. One was a knowledge of men. He could not have put into words what he felt about men. It was something about the fundamental simplicity of them, for one thing. You got pretty close to them at night sometimes, especially when the homesick ones had gone to bed, and the phonograph was playing in a corner of the long, dim room. There were some shame-faced tears hidden under army blankets those nights, and Willy Cameron did some blinking on his own account.
Then, under all the blasphemy, the talk about women, the surface sordidness of their daily lives and thoughts, there was one instinct common to all, one love, one hidden purity. And the keyword to those depths was "home."
"Home," he said one day to Lily Cardew. "Mostly it's the home they've left, and maybe they didn't think so much of it then. But they do now. And if it isn't that, it's the home they want to have some day." He looked at Lily. Sometimes she smiled at things he said, and if she had not been grave he would not have gone on. "You know," he continued, "there's mostly a girl some place. All this talk about the nation, now - " He settled himself on the edge of the pine table where old Anthony Cardew's granddaughter had been figuring up her week's accounts, and lighted his pipe, "the nation's too big for us to understand. But what is the nation, but a bunch of homes?"
"Willy dear," said Lily Cardew, "did you take any money out of the cigar box for anything this week?"
"Dollar sixty-five for lard," replied Willy dear. "As I was saying, we've got to think of this country in terms of homes. Not palaces like yours - "
"Good gracious!" said Lily, "I don't live in a palace. Get my pocket-book, will you? I'm out three dollars somehow, and I'd rather make it up myself than add these figures over again. Go on and talk, Willy. I love hearing you."
"Not palaces like yours," repeated Mr. Cameron, "and not hovels. But mostly self-respecting houses, the homes of the plain people. The middle class, Miss Cardew. My class. The people who never say anything, but are squeezed between capital, represented by your grandfather, with its parasites, represented by you, and - "
"You represent the people who never say anything," observed the slightly flushed parasite of capital, "about as adequately as I represent the idle rich."
Yet not even old Anthony could have resented the actual relationship between them. Lily Cardew, working alone in her hut among hundreds of men, was as without sex consciousness as a child. Even then her flaming interest was in the private soldiers. The officers were able to amuse themselves; they had money and opportunity. It was the doughboys she loved and mothered. For them she organized her little entertainments. For them she played and sang in the evenings, when the field range in the kitchen was cold, and her blistered fingers stumbled sometimes over the keys of the jingling camp piano.
Gradually, out of the chaos of her early impressions, she began to divide the men in the army into three parts. There were the American born; they took the war and their part in it as a job to be done, with as few words as possible. And there were the foreigners to whom America was a religion, a dream come true, whose flaming love for their new mother inspired them to stuttering eloquence and awkward gestures. And then there was a third division, small and mostly foreign born, but with a certain percentage of native malcontents, who hated the war and sneered among themselves at the other dupes who believed that it was a war for freedom. It was a capitalists' war. They considered the state as an instrument of oppression, as a bungling interference with liberty and labor; they felt that wealth inevitably brought depravity. They committed both open and overt acts against discipline, and found in their arrest and imprisonment renewed grievances, additional oppression, tyranny. And one day a handful of them, having learned Lily's identity, came into her hut and attempted to bait her.
"Gentlemen," said one of them, "we have here an example of one of the idle rich, sacrificing herself to make us happy. Now, boys, be happy. Are we all happy?" He surveyed the group. "Here, you," he addressed a sullen-eyed squat Hungarian. "Smile when I tell you. You're a slave in one of old Cardew's mills, aren't you? Well, aren't you grateful to him? Here he goes and sends his granddaughter - "
Willy Cameron had entered the room with a platter of doughnuts in his hand, and stood watching, his face going pale. Quite suddenly there was a crash, and the gang leader went down in a welter of porcelain and fried pastry. Willy Cameron was badly beaten up, in the end, and the beaters were court-martialed. But something of Lily's fine faith in humanity was gone.
"But," she said to him, visiting him one day in the base hospital, where he was still an aching, mass of bruises, "there must be something behind it. They didn't hate me. They only hated my - well, my family."
"My dear child," said Willy Cameron, feeling very old and experienced, and, it must be confessed, extremely happy, "of course there's something behind it. But the most that's behind it is a lot of fellows who want without working what the other fellow's worked to get."
It was about that time that Lily was exchanged into the town near the camp, and Willy Cameron suddenly found life a stale thing, and ashes in the mouth. He finally decided that he had not been such a hopeless fool as to fall in love with her, but that it would be as well not to see her too much.
"The thing to do," he reasoned to himself, "is, first of all, not to see her. Or only on Friday nights, because she likes the movies, and it would look queer to stop." Thus Willy Cameron speciously to himself, and deliberately ignoring the fact that some twenty-odd officers stood ready to seize those Friday nights. "And then to work hard, so I'll sleep better, and not lie awake making a fool of myself. And when I get a bit of idiocy in the daytime, I'd better just walk it off. Because I've got to live with myself a long time, probably, and I'm no love-sick Romeo."
Which excellent practical advice had cost him considerable shoe-leather at first. In a month or two, however, he considered himself quite cured, and pretended to himself that he was surprised to find it Friday again. But when, after retreat, the band marched back again to its quarters playing, for instance, "There's a Long, Long Trail," there was something inside him that insisted on seeing the years ahead as a long, long trail, and that the trail did not lead to the lands of his dreams.
He got to know that very well indeed during the winter that followed the armistice. Because there was work to do he stayed and finished up, as did Lily Cardew. But the hut was closed and she was working in the town, and although they kept up their Friday evenings, the old intimacy was gone. And one night she said:
"Isn't it amazing, when you are busy, how soon Friday night comes along?"
And on each day of the preceding week he had wakened and said to himself: "This is Monday - " - or whatever it might be - "and in four more days it will be Friday."
In February he was sent home. Lily stayed on until the end of March. He went back to his little village of plain people, and took up life again as best he could. But sometimes it seemed to him that from behind every fire-lit window in the evenings - he was still wearing out shoe-leather, particularly at nights - somebody with a mandolin was wailing about the long, long trail.
His mother watched him anxiously. He was thinner than ever, and oddly older, and there was a hollow look about his eyes that hurt her.
"Why don't you bring home a bottle of tonic from the store, Willy," she said, one evening when he had been feverishly running through the city newspaper. He put the paper aside hastily.
"Tonic!" he said. "Why, I'm all right, mother. Anyhow, I wouldn't take any of that stuff." He caught her eye and looked away. "It takes a little time to get settled again, that's all, mother."
"The Young People's Society is having an entertainment at the church to-night, Willy."
"Well, maybe I'll go," he agreed to her unspoken suggestion. "If you insist on making me a society man - "
But some time later he came downstairs with a book.
"Thought I'd rather read," he explained. "Got a book here on the history of steel. Talk about romances! Let me read some of it to you. You sit there and close your eyes and just listen to this: 'The first Cardew furnace was built in 1868. At that time - '"
Some time later he glanced up. His mother was quietly sleeping, her hands folded in her lap. He closed the book and sat there, fighting again his patient battle with himself. The book on his knee seemed to symbolize the gulf between Lily Cardew and himself. But the real gulf, the unbridgeable chasm, between Lily and himself, was neither social nor financial.
"As if that counted, in America," he reflected scornfully.
No. It was not that. The war had temporarily broken down the old social barriers. Some of them would never be erected again, although it was the tendency of civilization for men to divide themselves, rather than to be divided, into the high, the middle and the low. But in his generation young Cameron knew that there would be no uncrossable bridge between old Anthony's granddaughter and himself, were it not for one thing.
She did not love him. It hurt his pride to realize that she had never thought of him in any terms but that of a pleasant comradeship. Hardly even as a man. Men fought, in war time. They did not fry doughnuts and write letters home for the illiterate. Any one of those boys in the ranks was a better man than he was. All this talk about a man's soul being greater than his body, that was rot. A man was as good as the weakest part of him, and no more.
His sensitive face in the lamplight was etched with lines of tragedy. He put the book on the table, and suddenly flinging his arms across it, dropped his head on them. The slight movement wakened his mother.
"Why, Willy!" she said.
After a moment he looked up. "I was almost asleep," he explained, more to protect her than himself. "I - I wish that fool Nelson kid would break his mandolin - or his neck," he said irritably. He kissed her and went upstairs. From across the quiet street there came thin, plaintive, occasionally inaccurate, the strains of the long, long trail.
There was the blood of Covenanters in Willy Cameron's mother, a high courage of sacrifice, and an exceedingly shrewd brain. She lay awake that night, carefully planning, and when everything was arranged in orderly fashion in her mind, she lighted her lamp and carried it to the door of Willy's room. He lay diagonally across his golden-oak bed, for he was very long, and sleep had rubbed away the tragic lines about his mouth. She closed his door and went back to her bed.
"I've seen too much of it," she reflected, without bitterness. She stared around the room. "Too much of it," she repeated. And crawled heavily back into bed, a determined little figure, rather chilled.
The next morning she expressed a desire to spend a few months with her brother in California.
"I coughed all last winter, after I had the flu," she explained, "and James has been wanting me this long time. I don't want to leave you, that's all, Willy. If you were in the city it would be different."
He was frankly bewildered and a little hurt, to tell the truth. He no more suspected her of design than of crime.
"Of course you are going," he said, heartily. "It's the very thing. But I like the way you desert your little son!"
"I've been thinking about that, too," she said, pouring his coffee. "I - if you were in the city, now, there would always be something to do."
He shot her a suspicious glance, but her face was without evidence of guile.
"What would I do in the city?"
"They use chemists in the mills, don't they?"
"A fat chance I'd have for that sort of job," he scoffed. "No city for me, mother."
But she knew. She read his hesitation accurately, the incredulous pause of the bird whose cage door is suddenly opened. He would go.
"I'd think about it, anyhow, Willy."
But for a long time after he had gone she sat quietly rocking in her rocking chair in the bay window of the sitting room. It was a familiar attitude of hers, homely, middle-class, and in a way symbolic. Had old Anthony Cardew ever visualized so imaginative a thing as a Nemesis, he would probably have summoned a vision of a huddled figure in his stable-yard, dying, and cursing him as he died. Had Jim Doyle, cunningly plotting the overthrow of law and order, been able in his arrogance to conceive of such a thing, it might have been Anthony Cardew he saw. Neither of them, for a moment, dreamed of it as an elderly Scotch Covenanter, a plain little womanly figure, rocking in a cane-seated rocking chair, and making the great sacrifice of her life.
All of which simply explains how, on a March Wednesday evening of the great year of peace after much tribulation, Mr. William Wallace Cameron, now a clerk at the Eagle Pharmacy, after an hour of Politics, and no Economics at all, happened to be taking a walk toward the Cardew house. Such pilgrimages has love taken for many years, small uncertain ramblings where the fancy leads the feet and far outstrips them, and where heart-hunger hides under various flimsy pretexts; a fine night, a paper to be bought, a dog to be exercised.
Not that Willy Cameron made any excuses to himself. He had a sort of idea that if he saw the magnificence that housed her, it would through her sheer remoteness kill the misery in him. But he regarded himself with a sort of humorous pity, and having picked up a stray dog, he addressed it now and then.
"Even a cat can look at a king," he said once. And again, following some vague train of thought, on a crowded street: "The People's voice is a queer thing. 'It is, and it is not, the voice of God.' The people's voice, old man. Only the ones that count haven't got a voice."
There were, he felt, two Lily Cardews. One lived in an army camp, and wore plain clothes, and got a bath by means of calculation and persistency, and went to the movies on Friday nights, and was quite apt to eat peanuts at those times, carefully putting the shells in her pocket.
And another one lived inside this great pile of brick, - he was standing across from it, by the park railing, by that time - where motor cars drew up, and a footman with an umbrella against a light rain ushered to their limousines draped women and men in evening clothes, their strong blacks and whites revealed in the light of the street door. And this Lily Cardew lived in state, bowed to by flunkeys in livery, dressed and undressed - his Scotch sense of decorum resented this - by serving women. This Lily Cardew would wear frivolous ball-gowns, such things as he saw in the shop windows, considered money only as a thing of exchange, and had traveled all over Europe a number of times.
He took his station against the park railings and reflected that it was a good thing he had come, after all. Because it was the first Lily whom he loved, and she was gone, with the camp and the rest, including war. What had he in common with those lighted windows, with their heavy laces and draperies?
"Nothing at all, old man," he said cheerfully to the dog, "nothing at all."
But although the ache was gone when he turned homeward, the dog still at his heels, he felt strangely lonely without it. He considered that very definitely he had put love out of his life. Hereafter he would travel the trail alone. Or accompanied only by History, Politics, Economics, and various divines on Sunday evenings.