A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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On the first day of May, William Wallace Cameron moved his trunk, the framed photograph of his mother, eleven books, an alarm clock and Jinx to the Boyd house. He went for two reasons. First, after his initial call at the dreary little house, he began to realize that something had to be done in the Boyd family. The second reason was his dog.
He began to realize that something had to be done in the Boyd family as soon as he had met Mrs. Boyd.
"I don't know what's come over the children," Mrs. Boyd said, fretfully. She sat rocking persistently in the dreary little parlor. Her chair inched steadily along the dull carpet, and once or twice she brought up just as she was about to make a gradual exit from the room. "They act so queer lately."
She hitched the chair into place again. Edith had gone out. It was her idea of an evening call to serve cakes and coffee, and a strong and acrid odor was seeping through the doorway. "There's Dan come home from the war, and when he gets back from the mill he just sits and stares ahead of him. He won't even talk about the war, although he's got a lot to tell."
"It takes some time for the men who were over to get settled down again, you know."
"Well, there's Edith," continued the querulous voice. "You'd think the cat had got her tongue, too. I tell you, Mr. Cameron, there are meals here when if I didn't talk there wouldn't be a word spoken."
Mr. Cameron looked up. It had occurred to him lately, not precisely that a cat had got away with Edith's tongue, but that something undeniably had got away with her cheerfulness. There were entire days in the store when she neglected to manicure her nails, and stood looking out past the fading primrose in the window to the street. But there were no longer any shrewd comments on the passers-by.
"Of course, the house isn't very cheerful," sighed Mrs. Boyd. "I'm a sick woman, Mr. Cameron. My back hurts most of the time. It just aches and aches."
"I know," said Mr. Cameron. "My mother has that, sometimes. If you like I'll mix you up some liniment, and Miss Edith can bring it to you."
"Thanks. I've tried most everything. Edith wants to rent a room, so we can keep a hired girl, but it's hard to get a girl. They want all the money on earth, and they eat something awful. That's a nice friendly dog of yours, Mr. Cameron."
It was perhaps Jinx who decided Willy Cameron. Jinx was at that moment occupying the only upholstered chair, but he had developed a strong liking for the frail little lady with the querulous voice and the shabby black dress. He had, indeed, insisted shortly after his entrance on leaping into her lap, and had thus sat for some time, completely eclipsing his hostess.
"Just let him sit," Mrs. Boyd said placidly. "I like a dog. And he can't hurt this skirt I've got on. It's on its last legs."
With which bit of unconscious humor Willy Cameron had sat down. Something warm and kindly glowed in his heart. He felt that dogs have a curious instinct for knowing what lies concealed in the human heart, and that Jinx had discovered something worth while in Edith's mother.
It was later in the evening, however, that he said, over Edith's bakery cakes and her atrocious coffee:
"If you really mean that about a roomer, I know of one." He glanced at Edith. "Very neat. Careful with matches. Hard to get up in the morning, but interesting, highly intelligent, and a clever talker. That's his one fault. When he is interested in a thing he spouts all over the place."
"Really?" said Mrs. Boyd. "Well, talk would be a change here. He sounds kind of pleasant. Who is he?"
"This paragon of beauty and intellect sits before you," said Willy Cameron.
"You'll have to excuse me. I didn't recognize you by the description," said Mrs. Boyd, unconsciously. "Well, I don't know. I'd like to have this dog around."
Even Edith laughed at that. She had been very silent all evening, sitting most of the time with her hands in her lap, and her eyes on Willy Cameron. Rather like Jinx's eyes they were, steady, unblinking, loyal, and with something else in common with Jinx which Willy Cameron never suspected.
"I wouldn't come, if I were you," she said, unexpectedly. "Why, Edie, you've been thinking of asking him right along.”
"We don't know how to keep a house," she persisted, to him. "We can't even cook - you know that's rotten coffee. I'll show you the room, if you like, but I won't feel hurt if you don't take it, I'll be worried if you do."
Mrs. Boyd watched them perplexedly as they went out, the tall young man with his uneven step, and Edith, who had changed so greatly in the last few weeks, and blew hot one minute and cold the next. Now that she had seen Willy Cameron, Mrs. Boyd wanted him to come. He would bring new life into the little house. He was cheerful. He was not glum like Dan or discontented like Edie. And the dog - She got up slowly and walked over to the chair where Jinx sat, eyes watchfully on the door.
"Nice Jinx," she said, and stroked his head with a thin and stringy hand. "Nice doggie."
She took a cake from the plate and fed it to him, bit by bit. She felt happier than she had for a long time, since her children were babies and needed her.
"I meant it," said Edith, on the stairs. "You stay away. We're a poor lot, and we're unlucky, too. Don't get mixed up with us."
"Maybe I'm going to bring you luck."
"The best luck for me would be to fall down these stairs and break my neck."
He looked at her anxiously, and any doubts he might have had, born of the dreariness, the odors of stale food and of the musty cellar below, of the shabby room she proceeded to show him, died in an impulse to somehow, some way, lift this small group of people out of the slough of despondency which seemed to be engulfing them all.
"Why, what's the matter with the room?" he said. "Just wait until I've got busy in it! I'm a paper hanger and a painter, and - "
"You're a dear, too," said Edith.
So on the first of May he moved in, and for some evenings Political Economy and History and Travel and the rest gave way to anxious cuttings and fittings of wall paper, and a pungent odor of paint. The old house took on new life and activity, the latter sometimes pernicious, as when Willy Cameron fell down the cellar stairs with a pail of paint in his hand, or Dan, digging up some bricks in the back yard for a border the seeds of which were already sprouting in a flat box in the kitchen, ran a pickaxe into his foot.
Some changes were immediate, such as the white-washing of the cellar and the unpainted fence in the yard, where Willy Cameron visualized, later on, great draperies of morning glories. He papered the parlor, and coaxed Mrs. Boyd to wash the curtains, although she protested that, with the mill smoke, it was useless labor.
But there were some changes that he knew only time would effect. Sometimes he went to his bed worn out both physically and spiritually, as though the burden of lifting three life-sodden souls was too much. Not that he thought of that, however. What he did know was that the food was poor. No servant had been found, and years of lack of system had left Mrs. Boyd's mind confused and erratic. She would spend hours concocting expensive desserts, while the vegetables boiled dry and scorched and meat turned to leather, only to bring pridefully to the table some flavorless mixture garnished according to a picture in the cook book, and totally unedible.
She would have ambitious cleaning days, too, starting late and leaving off with beds unmade to prepare the evening meal. Dan, home from the mill and newly adopting Willy Cameron's system of cleaning up for supper, would turn sullen then, and leave the moment the meal was over.
"Hell of a way to live," he said once. "I'd get married, but how can a fellow know whether a girl will make a home for him or give him this? And then there would be babies, too."
The relations between Dan and Edith were not particularly cordial. Willy Cameron found their bickering understandable enough, but he was puzzled, sometimes, to find that Dan was surreptitiously watching his sister. Edith was conscious of it, too, and one evening she broke into irritated speech.
"I wish you'd quit staring at me, Dan Boyd."
"I was wondering what has come over you," said Dan, ungraciously. "You used to be a nice kid. Now you're an angel one minute and a devil the next."
Willy spoke to him that night when they were setting out rows of seedlings, under the supervision of Jinx.
"I wouldn't worry her, Dan," he said; "it is the spring, probably. It gets into people, you know. I'm that way myself. I'd give a lot to be in the country just now."
Dan glanced at him quickly, but whatever he may have had in his mind, he said nothing just then. However, later on he volunteered:
"She's got something on her mind. I know her. But I won't have her talking back to mother."
A week or so after Willy Cameron had moved, Mr. Hendricks rang the bell of the Boyd house, and then, after his amiable custom, walked in. "Oh, Cameron!" he bawled.
"Upstairs," came Willy Cameron's voice, somewhat thickened with carpet tacks. So Mr. Hendricks climbed part of the way, when he found his head on a level with that of the young gentleman he sought, who was nailing a rent in the carpet.
"Don't stop," said Mr. Hendricks. "Merely friendly call. And for heaven's sake don't swallow a tack, son. I'm going to need you."
"Whaffor?" inquired Willy Cameron, through his nose.
"Don't know yet. Make speeches, probably. If Howard Cardew, or any Cardew, thinks he's going to be mayor of this town, he's got to think again."
"I don't give a tinker's dam who's mayor of this town, so long as he gives it honest government."
"That's right," said Mr. Hendricks approvingly. "Old Cardew's been running it for years, and you could put all the honest government he's given us in a hollow tooth. If you'll stop that hammering, I'd like to make a proposition to you."
Willy Cameron took an admiring squint at his handiwork.
"Sorry to refuse you, Mr. Hendricks, but I don't want to be mayor."
Mr. Hendricks chuckled, as Willy Cameron led the way to his room. He wandered around the room while Cameron opened a window and slid the dog off his second chair.
"Great snakes!" he said. "Spargo's Bolshevism! Political Economy, History of -. What are you planning to be? President?"
"I haven't decided yet. It's a hard job, and mighty thankless. But I won't be your mayor, even for you."
Mr. Hendricks sat down.
"All right," he said. "Of course if you'd wanted it!" He took two large cigars from the row in his breast pocket and held one out, but Willy Cameron refused it and got his pipe.
"Well?" he said.
Mr. Hendrick's face became serious and very thoughtful. "I don't know that I have ever made it clear to you, Cameron," he said, "but I've got a peculiar feeling for this city. I like it, the way some people like their families. It's - well, it's home to me, for one thing. I like to go out in the evenings and walk around, and I say to myself: 'This is my town. And we, it and me, are sending stuff all over the world. I like to think that somewhere, maybe in China, they are riding on our rails and fighting with guns made from our steel. Maybe you don't understand that."
"I think I do."
"Well, that's the way I feel about it, anyhow. And this Bolshevist stuff gets under my skin. I've got a home and a family here. I started in to work when I was thirteen, and all I've got I've made and saved right here. It isn't much, but it's mine."
Willy Cameron was lighting his pipe. He nodded. Mr. Hendricks bent forward and pointed a finger at him.
"And to govern this city, who do you think the labor element is going to put up and probably elect? We're an industrial city, son, with a big labor vote, and if it stands together - they're being swindled into putting up as an honest candidate one of the dirtiest radicals in the country. That man Akers."
He got up and closed the door.
"I don't want Edith to hear me," he said. "He's a friend of hers. But he's a bad actor, son. He's wrong with women, for one thing, and when I think that all he's got to oppose him is Howard Cardew - " Mr. Hendricks got up, and took a nervous turn about the room.
"Maybe you know that Cardew has a daughter?"
"Well, I hear a good many things, one way and another, and my wife likes a bit of gossip. She knows them both by sight, and she ran into them one day in the tea room of the Saint Elmo, sitting in a corner, and the girl had her back to the room. I don't like the look of that, Cameron."
Willy Cameron got up and closed the window. He stood there, with his back to the light, for a full minute. Then:
"I think there must be some mistake about that, Mr. Hendricks. I have met her. She isn't the sort of girl who would do clandestine things."
Mr. Hendricks looked up quickly. He had made it his business to study men, and there was something in Willy Cameron's voice that caught his attention, and turned his shrewd mind to speculation.
"Maybe," he conceded. "Of course, anything a Cardew does is likely to be magnified in this town. If she's as keen as the men in her family, she'll get wise to him pretty soon. Willy Cameron came back then, but Mr. Hendricks kept his eyes on the tip of his cigar.
"We've got to lick Cardew," he said, "but I'm cursed if I want to do it with Akers." When there was no comment, he looked up. Yes, the boy had had a blow. Mr. Hendricks was sorry. If that was the way the wind blew it was hopeless. It was more than that; it was tragic.
"Sorry I said anything, Cameron. Didn't know you knew her."
"That's all right. Of course I don't like to think she is being talked about."
"The Cardews are always being talked about. You couldn't drop her a hint, I suppose?"
"She knows what I think about Louis Akers."
He made a violent effort and pulled himself together. "So it is Akers and Howard Cardew, and one's a knave and one's a poor bet."
"Right," said Mr. Hendricks. "And one's Bolshevist, if I know anything, and the other is capital, and has about as much chance as a rich man to get through the eye of a needle."
Which was slightly mixed, owing to a repressed excitement now making itself evident in Mr. Hendricks's voice.
"Why not run an independent candidate?" Willy Cameron asked quietly. "I've been shouting about the plain people. Why shouldn't they elect a mayor? There is a lot of them."
"That's the talk," said Mr. Hendricks, letting his excitement have full sway. "They could. They could run this town and run it right, if they'd take the trouble. Now look here, son, I don't usually talk about myself, but - I'm honest. I don't say I wouldn't get off a street-car without paying my fare if the conductor didn't lift it! But I'm honest. I don't lie. I keep my word. And I live clean - which you can't say for Lou Akers. Why shouldn't I run on an independent ticket? I mightn't be elected, but I'd make a damned good try."
He stood up, and Willy Cameron rose also and held out his hand.
"I don't know that my opinion is of any value, Mr. Hendricks. But I hope you get it, and I think you have a good chance. If I can do anything - "
"Do anything! What do you suppose I came here for? You're going to elect me. You're going to make speeches and kiss babies, and tell the ordinary folks they're worth something after all. You got me started on this thing, and now you've got to help me out."
The future maker of mayors here stepped back in his amazement, and Jinx emitted a piercing howl. When peace was restored the F.M. of M. had got his breath, and he said:
"I couldn't remember my own name before an audience, Mr. Hendricks."
"You're fluent enough in that back room of yours.”
"The people we're going after don't want oratory. They want good, straight talk, and a fellow behind it who doesn't believe the country's headed straight for perdition. We've had enough calamity bowlers. You've got the way out. The plain people. The hope of the nation. And, by God, you love your country, and not for what you can get out of it. That's a thing a fellow's got to have inside him. He can't pretend it and get it over."
In the end the F.M. of M. capitulated.
It was late when Mr. Hendricks left. He went away with all the old envelopes in his pockets covered with memoranda.
"Just wait a minute, son," he would say. "I've got to make some speeches myself. Repeat that, now. 'Sins of omission are as great, even greater than sins of commission. The lethargic citizen throws open the gates to revolution.' How do you spell 'lethargic'?"
But it was not Hendricks and his campaign that kept the F.M. of M. awake until dawn. He sat in front of his soft coal fire, and when it died to gray-white ash he still sat there, unconscious of the chill of the spring night. Mostly he thought of Lily, and of Louis Akers, big and handsome, of his insolent eyes and his self- indulgent mouth. Into that curious whirlpool that is the mind came now and then other visions: His mother asleep in her chair; the men in the War Department who had turned him down; a girl at home who had loved him, and made him feel desperately unhappy because he could not love her in return. Was love always like that? If it was what He intended, why was it so often without reciprocation?
He took to walking about the room, according to his old habit, and obediently Jinx followed him.
It was four by his alarm clock when Edith knocked at his door. She was in a wrapper flung over her nightgown, and with her hair flying loose she looked childish and very small.
"I wish you would go to bed," she said, rather petulantly. "Are you sick, or anything?"
"I was thinking, Edith. I'm sorry. I'll go at once. Why aren't you asleep?"
"I don't sleep much lately." Their voices were cautious. "I never go to sleep until you're settled down, anyhow."
"Why not? Am I noisy?"
"It's not that.”
She went away, a drooping, listless figure that climbed the stairs slowly and left him in the doorway, puzzled and uncomfortable.
At six that morning Dan, tip-toeing downstairs to warm his left-over coffee and get his own breakfast, heard a voice from Willy Cameron's room, and opened the door. Willy Cameron was sitting up in bed with his eyes closed and his arms extended, and was concluding a speech to a dream audience in deep and oratorical tones.
"By God, it is time the plain people know their power."
Dan grinned, and, his ideas of humor being rather primitive, he edged his way into the room and filled the orator's sponge with icy water from the pitcher.
"All right, old top," he said, "but it is also time the plain people got up." Then he flung the sponge and departed with extreme expedition.