A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
"I wish you'd stop whistling that thing," said Miss Boyd, irritably. "It makes me low in my mind."
"Sorry," said Willy Cameron. "I do it because I'm low in my mind."
"What are you low about?" Miss Boyd had turned toward the rear of the counter, where a mirror was pasted to a card above a box of chewing gum, and was carefully adjusting her hair net. "Lady friend turned you down?"
Willy Cameron glanced at her.
"I'm low because I haven't got a lady friend, Miss Boyd." He held up a sheet of prescription paper and squinted at it. "Also because the medical profession writes with its feet, apparently. I've done everything to this but dip it in acid. I've had it pinned to the wall, and tried glancing at it as I went past. Sometimes you can surprise them that way. But it does no good. I'm going to take it home and dream on it, like bride's cake."
"They're awful, aren't they?"
"When I get into the Legislature," said Willy Cameron, "I'm going to have a bill passed compelling doctors to use typewriters. Take this now. Read upside down, its horse liniment. Read right side up, it's poison. And it's for internal use."
"What d'you mean you haven't got a lady friend?"
"The exact and cruel truth." He smiled at her, and had Miss Boyd been more discerning she might have seen that the smile was slightly forced. Also that his eyes were somewhat sunken in his head. Which might, of course, have been due to too much political economy and history, and the eminent divines on Sunday evenings. Miss Boyd, however, was not discerning, and moreover, she was summoning her courage to a certain point.
"Why don't you ask me to go to the movies some night?" she said. "I like the movies, and I get sick of going alone."
"My dear child," observed Willy Cameron, "if that young man in the sack suit who comes in to see you every day were three inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter, I'd ask you this minute."
"Oh, him!" said Miss Boyd, with a self-conscious smile. "I'm through with him. He's a Bolshevik!"
"He has the Bolshevist possessive eye," agreed Willy Cameron, readily. "Does he know you are through with him? Because that's important, too. You may know it, and I may know it, but if he doesn't know it
"Why don't you say right out you don't want to take me? Willy Cameron's chivalrous soul was suddenly shocked. To his horror he saw tears in Miss Boyd's eyes.
"I'm just a plain idiot, Miss Edith," he said. "I was only fooling. It will mean a lot to me to have a nice girl go with me to the movies, or anywhere else. We'll make it to-night, if that suits you, and I'll take a look through the neighborhood at noon and see what's worth while."
The Eagle Pharmacy was a small one in a quiet neighborhood. During the entire day, and for three evenings a week, Mr. William Wallace Cameron ran it almost single-handed, having only the preoccupied assistance of Miss Boyd in the candy and fancy goods. At the noon and dinner hours, and four evenings a week, he was relieved by the owner, Mr. Davis, a tired little man with large projecting ears and worried, child-like eyes, who was nursing an invalid wife at home. A pathetic little man, carrying home with unbounded faith day after day bottles of liquid foods and beef capsules, and making wistful comments on them when he returned.
"She couldn't seem to keep that last stuff down, Mr. Cameron," he would say. "I'll try something else."
And he would stand before his shelves, eyes upturned, searching, eliminating, choosing.
Miss Boyd attended to the general merchandise, sold stationary and perfumes, candy and fancy soaps, and in the intervals surveyed the world that lay beyond the plate glass windows with shrewd, sophisticated young eyes.
"That new doctor across the street is getting busier," she would say. Or, "The people in 42 have got a Ford. They haven't got room for a garage, either. Probably have to leave it out at nights."
Her sophistication was kindly in the main. She combined it with an easy tolerance of weakness, and an invincible and cheery romanticism, as Willy Cameron discovered the night they first went to a moving picture theater together. She frankly wept and joyously laughed, and now and then, delighted at catching some film subtlety and fearful that he would miss it, she would nudge him with her elbow.
"What d'you think of that?" she would say. "D'you get it? He thinks he's getting her - Alice Joyce, you know - on the telephone, and it's a private wire to the gang." She was rather quiet after that particular speech. Then she added: "I know a place that's got a secret telephone." But he was absorbed in the picture, and made no comment on that. She seemed rather relieved.
Once or twice she placed an excited hand on his knee. He was very uncomfortable until she removed it, because he had a helpless sort of impression that she was not quite so unconscious of it as she appeared. Time had been, and not so long ago, when he might have reciprocated her little advance in the spirit in which it was offered, might have taken the hand and held it, out of the sheer joy of youth and proximity. But there was nothing of the philanderer in the Willy Cameron who sat beside Edith Boyd that night in body, while in spirit he was in another state, walking with his slight limp over crisp snow and sodden mud, but through magic lands, to the little moving picture theater at the camp.
Would he ever see her again? Ever again? And if he did, what good would it be? He roused himself when they started toward her home. The girl was chattering happily. She adored Douglas Fairbanks. She knew a girl who had written for his picture but who didn't get one. She wouldn't do a thing like that. "Did they really say things when they moved their lips?"
"I think they do," said Willy Cameron. "When that chap was talking over the telephone I could tell what he was saying by - Look here, what did you mean when you said you knew of a place that has a secret telephone?"
"I was only talking."
"No house has any business with a secret telephone," he said virtuously.
"Oh, forget it. I say a lot of things I don't mean." He was a little puzzled and rather curious, but not at all disturbed.
"Well, how did you get to know about it?"
"I tell you I was only talking."
He let it drop at that. The street crowds held and interested him. He liked to speculate about them; what life meant to them, in work and love and play; to what they were going on such hurrying feet. A country boy, the haste of the city impressed him.
"Why do they hurry so?" he demanded, almost irritably.
"Hurrying home, most of them, because they've got to get up in the morning and go to work."
"Do you ever wonder about the homes they are hurrying to?"
"Me? I don't wonder. I know. Most of them have to move fast to keep up with the rent."
"I don't mean houses," he explained, patiently. "I mean - A house isn't a home."
"You bet it isn't."
"It's the families I'm talking about. In a small town you know all about people, who they live with, and all that." He was laboriously talking down to her. "But here - "
He saw that she was not interested. Something he had said started an unpleasant train of thought in her mind. She was walking faster, and frowning slightly. To cheer her he said:
"I am keeping an eye out for the large young man in the sack suit, you know. If he jumps me, just yell for the police, will you? Because I'll probably not be able to."
"I wish you'd let me forget him."
"I will. The question is, will he?" But he saw that the subject was unpleasant.
"We'll have to do this again. It's been mighty nice of you to come."
"You'll have to ask me, the next time."
"I certainly will. But I think I'd better let your family look me over first, just so they'll know that I don't customarily steal the silver spoons when I'm asked out to dinner. Or anything like that."
"We're just - folks."
"So am I, awfully - folks! And pretty lonely folks at that. Something like that pup that has adopted me, only worse. He's got me, but I haven't anybody."
"You'll not be lonely long." She glanced up at him.
"That's cheering. Why?"
"Well, you are the sort that makes friends," she said, rather vaguely. "That crowd that drops into the shop on the evenings you're there - they're crazy about you. They like to hear you talk."
"Great Scott! I suppose I've been orating all over the place!"
"No, but you've got ideas. You give them something to think about when they go home. I wish I had a mind like yours."
He was so astonished that he stopped dead on the pavement. "My Scottish blood," he said despondently. "A Scot is always a reformer and a preacher, in his heart. I used to orate to my mother, but she liked it. She is a Scot, too. Besides, it put her to sleep. But I thought I'd outgrown it."
"You don't make speeches. I didn't mean that."
But he was very crestfallen during the remainder of the way, and rather silent. He wondered, that night before he went to bed, if he had been didactic to Lily Cardew. He had aired his opinions to her at length, he knew. He groaned as he took off his coat in his cold little room at the boarding house which lodged and fed him, both indifferently, for the sum of twelve dollars per week.
Jinx, the little hybrid dog, occupied the seat of his one comfortable chair. He eyed the animal somberly.
"Hereafter, old man," he said, "when I feel a spell of oratory coming on, you will have to be the audience." He took his dressing gown from a nail behind the door, and commenced to put it on. Then he took it off again and wrapped the dog in it.
"I can read in bed, which you can't," he observed. "Only, I can't help thinking, with all this town to pick from, you might have chosen a fellow with two dressing gowns and two chairs."
* * * * *
He was extremely quiet all the next day. Miss Boyd could hear him, behind the partition with its "Please Keep Out" sign, fussing with bottles and occasionally whistling to himself. Once it was the Long, Long Trail, and a moment later he appeared in his doorway, grinning.
"Sorry," he said. "I've got in the habit of thinking to the fool thing. Won't do it again."
"You must be thinking hard."
"I am," he replied, grimly, and disappeared. She could hear the slight unevenness of his steps as he moved about, but there was no more whistling. Edith Boyd leaned both elbows on the top of a showcase and fell into a profound and troubled thought. Mostly her thoughts were of Willy Cameron, but some of them were for herself. Up dreary and sordid by-paths her mind wandered; she was facing ugly facts for the first time, and a little shudder of disgust shook her. He wanted to meet her family. He was a gentleman and he wanted to meet her family. Well, he could meet them all right, and maybe he would understand then that she had never had a chance. In all her young life no man had ever proposed letting her family look him over. Hardly ever had they visited her at home, and when they did they seemed always glad to get away. She had met them on street corners, and slipped back alone, fearful of every creak of the old staircase, and her mother's querulous voice calling to her:
"Edie, where've you been all this time?" And she had lied. How she had lied!
"I'm through with all that," she resolved. "It wasn't any fun anyhow. I'm sick of hating myself."
Some time later Willy Cameron heard the telephone ring, and taking pad and pencil started forward. But Miss Boyd was at the telephone, conducting a personal conversation.
"No.... No, I think not.... Look here, Lou, I've said no twice."
There was a rather lengthy silence while she listened. Then: "You might as well have it straight, Lou. I'm through.... No, I'm not sick. I'm just through.... I wouldn't.... What's the use?"
Willy Cameron, retreating into his lair, was unhappily conscious that the girl was on the verge of tears. He puzzled over the situation for some time. His immediate instinct was to help any troubled creature, and it had dawned on him that this composed young lady who manicured her nails out of a pasteboard box during the slack portion of every day was troubled. In his abstraction he commenced again his melancholy refrain, and a moment later she appeared in the doorway:
"Oh, for mercy's sake, stop," she said. She was very pale.
"Look here, Miss Edith, you come in here and tell me what's wrong. Here's a chair. Now sit down and talk it out. It helps a lot to get things off your chest."
"There's nothing the matter with me. And if the boss comes in here and finds me - "
Quite suddenly she put her head down on the back of the chair and began to cry. He was frightfully distressed. He poured some aromatic ammonia into a medicine glass and picking up her limp hand, closed her fingers around it.
"Drink that," he ordered.
She shook her head.
"I'm not sick," she said. "I'm only a fool."
"If that fellow said anything over the telephone - !"
She looked up drearily.
"It wasn't him. He doesn't matter. It's just - I got to hating myself." She stood up and carefully dabbed her eyes. "Heavens, I must be a sight. Now don't you get to thinking things, Mr. Cameron. Girls can't go out and fight off a temper, or get full and sleep it off. So they cry."
Some time later he glanced out at her. She was standing before the little mirror above the chewing gum, carefully rubbing her cheeks with a small red pad. After that she reached into the show case, got out a lip pencil and touched her lips.
"You're pretty enough without all that, Miss Edith."
"You mind your own business," she retorted acidly.