A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Late that afternoon Joe Wilkinson and Dan came slowly up the street, toward the Boyd house. The light of battle was still in Dan's eyes, his clothes were torn and his collar missing, and he walked with the fine swagger of the conqueror.
"Y'ask me," he said, "and I'll tell the world this thing's done for. It was just as well to let them give it a try, and find out it won't work."
Joe said nothing. He was white and very tired, and a little sick.
"If you don't mind I'll go in your place and wash up," he remarked, as they neared the house. "I'll scare the kids to death if they see me like this."
Edith was in the parlor. She had sat there almost all day, in an agony of fear. At four o'clock the smallest Wilkinson had hammered at the front door, and on being admitted had made a shameless demand.
"Bed and thugar," she had said, looking up with an ingratiating smile.
"You little beggar!"
"Bed and thugar."
Edith had got the bread and sugar, and, having lured the baby into the parlor, had held her while she ate, receiving now and then an exceedingly sticky kiss in payment. After a little the child's head began to droop, and Edith drew the small head down onto her breast. She sat there, rocking gently, while the chair slowly traveled, according to its wont, about the room.
The child brought her comfort. She began to understand those grave rocking figures in the hospital ward, women who sat, with eyes that seemed to look into distant places, with a child's head on their breasts.
After all, that was life for a woman. Love was only a part of the scheme of life, a means to an end. And that end was the child.
For the first time she wished that her child had lived.
She felt no bitterness now, and no anger. He was dead. It was hard to think of him as dead, who had been so vitally alive. She was sorry he had had to die, but death was like love and children, it was a part of some general scheme of things. Suppose this had been his child she was holding? Would she so easily have forgiven him? She did not know.
Then she thought of Willy Cameron. The bitterness had strangely gone out of that, too. Perhaps, vaguely, she began to realize that only young love gives itself passionately and desperately, when there is no hope of a return, and that the agonies of youth, although terrible enough, pass with youth itself.
She felt very old.
Joe found her there, the chair displaying its usual tendency to climb the chimney flue, and stood in the doorway, looking at her with haunted, hungry eyes. There was a sort of despair in Joe those days, and now he was tired and shaken from the battle.
"I'll take her home in a minute," he said, still with the strange eyes!"
He came into the room, and suddenly he was kneeling beside the chair, his head buried against the baby's warm, round body. His bent shoulders shook, and Edith, still with the maternal impulse strong within her, put her hand on his bowed head.
He looked up.
"I loved you so, Edith!"
"Don't you love me now?"
"God knows I do. I can't get over it. I can't. I've tried, Edith."
He sat back on the floor and looked at her.
"I can't," he repeated. "And when I saw you like that just now, with the kid in your arms - I used to think that maybe you and I - "
"I know, Joe. No decent man would want me now."
She was still strangely composed, peaceful, almost detached.
"That!" he said, astonished. "I don't mean that, Edith. I've had my fight about that, and got it over. That's done with. I mean - " he got up and straightened himself. "You don't care about me."
"But I do care for you. Perhaps not quite the way you care, Joe but I've been through such a lot. I can't seem to feel anything terribly. I just want peace."
"I could give you that," he said eagerly.
Edith smiled. Peace, in that noisy house next door, with children and kittens and puppies everywhere! And yet it would be peace, after all, a peace of the soul, the peace of a good man's love. After a time, too, there might come another peace, the peace of those tired women in the ward, rocking.
"If you want me, I'll marry you," she said, very simply. "I'll be a good wife, Joe. And I want children. I want the right to have them."
He never noticed that the kiss she gave him, over the sleeping baby, was slightly tinged with granulated sugar.