A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
OLD Anthony's body had been brought home, and lay in state in his great bed. There had been a bad hour; death seems so strangely to erase faults and leave virtues. Something strong and vital had gone from the house, and the servants moved about with cautious, noiseless steps. In Grace's boudoir, Howard was sitting, his arms around his wife, telling her the story of the day. At dawn he had notified her by telephone of Akers' murder.
"Shall I tell Lily?" she had asked, trembling.
"Do you want to wait until I get back?"
"I don't know how she will take it, Howard. I wish you could be here, anyhow."
But then had come the battle and his father's death, and in the end it was Willy Cameron who told her. He had brought back all that was mortal of Anthony Cardew, and, having seen the melancholy procession up the stairs, had stood in the hall, hating to intrude but hoping to be useful. Howard found him there, a strange, disheveled figure, bearing the scars of battle, and held out his hand.
"It's hard to thank you, Cameron," he said; "you seem to be always about when we need help. And" he paused. "We seem to have needed it considerably lately."
Willy Cameron flushed.
"I feel rather like a meddler, sir."
"Better go up and wash," Howard said. "I'll go up with you."
It happened, therefore, that it was in Howard Cardew's opulent dressing-room that Howard first spoke to Willy Cameron of Akers' death, pacing the floor as he did so.
"I haven't told her, Cameron." He was anxious and puzzled. "She'll have to be told soon, of course. I don't know anything about women. I don't know how she'll take it."
"She has a great deal of courage. It will be a shock, but not a grief. But I have been thinking - " Willy Cameron hesitated. "She must not feel any remorse," he went on. "She must not feel that she contributed to it in any way. If you can make that clear to her - "
"Are you sure she did not?"
"It isn't facts that matter now. We can't help those. And no one can tell what actually led to his change of heart. It is what she is to think the rest of her life."
"I wish you would tell her," he said. "I'm a blundering fool when it comes to her. I suppose I care too much."
He caught rather an odd look in Willy Cameron's face at that, and pondered over it later.
"I will tell her, if you wish."
And Howard drew a deep breath of relief. It was shortly after that he broached another matter, rather diffidently.
"I don't know whether you realize it or not, Cameron," he said, "but this thing to-day might have been a different story if it had not been for you. And - don't think I'm putting this on a reward basis. It's nothing of the sort - but I would like to feel that you were working with me. I'd hate like thunder to have you working against me," he added.
"I am only trained for one thing."
"We use chemists in the mills."
But the discussion ended there. Both men knew that it would be taken up later, at some more opportune time, and in the meantime both had one thought, Lily.
So it happened that Lily heard the news of Louis Akers' death from Willy Cameron. She stood, straight and erect, and heard him through, watching him with eyes sunken by her night's vigil and by the strain of the day. But it seemed to her that he was speaking of some one she had known long ago, in some infinitely remote past.
"I am sorry," she said, when he finished. "I didn't want him to die. You know that, don't you? I never wished him - Willy, I say I am sorry, but I don't really feel anything. It's dreadful."
Before he could catch her she had fallen to the floor, fainting for the first time in her healthy young life.
* * * * *
An hour later Mademoiselle went down to the library door. She found Willy Cameron pacing the floor, a pipe clenched in his teeth, and a look of wild despair in his eyes.
Mademoiselle took a long breath. She had changed her view-point somewhat since the spring. After all, what mattered was happiness. Wealth and worldly ambition were well enough, but they brought one, in the end, to the thing which waited for all in some quiet upstairs room, with the shades drawn and the heavy odors of hot-house flowers over everything.
"She is all right, quite, Mr. Cameron," she said. "It was but a crisis of the nerves, and to be expected. And now she demands to see you."
Grayson, standing in the hall, had a swift vision of a tall figure, which issued with extreme rapidity from the library door, and went up the stairs, much like a horse taking a series of hurdles. But the figure lost momentum suddenly at the top, hesitated, and apparently moved forward on tiptoe. Grayson went into the library and sniffed at the unmistakable odor of a pipe. Then, having opened a window, he went and stood before a great portrait of old Anthony Cardew. Tears stood in the old man's eyes, but there was a faint smile on his lips. He saw the endless procession of life. First, love. Then, out of love, life. Then death. Grayson was old, but he had lived to see young love in the Cardew house. Out of love, life. He addressed a little speech to the picture.
"Wherever you are, sir," he said, "you needn't worry any more. The line will carry on, sir. The line will carry on."
Upstairs in the little boudoir Willy Cameron knelt beside the couch, and gathered Lily close in his arms.