A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview

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Chapter 22

 

The new movement was growing rapidly, and with a surprising catholicity of range. Already it included lawyers and doctors, chauffeurs, butchers, clergymen, clerks of all sorts, truck gardeners from the surrounding county, railroad employees, and some of the strikers from the mills, men who had obeyed their union order to quit work, but had obeyed it unwillingly; men who resented bitterly the invasion of the ranks of labor by the lawless element which was fomenting trouble.

Dan had joined.

On the day that Lily received her engagement ring from Louis Akers, one of the cards of the new Vigilance Committee was being inspected with cynical amusement by two clerks in a certain suite of offices in the Searing Building. They studied it with interest, while the man who had brought it stood by.

"Where'd you pick it up, Cusick?"

"One of our men brought it into the store. Said you might want to see it." The three men bent over it. The Myers Housecleaning Company had a suite of three rooms. During the day two stenographers, both men, sat before machines and made a pretense of business at such times as the door opened, or when an occasional client, seeing the name, came in to inquire for rates. At such times the clerks were politely regretful. The firm's contracts were all they could handle for months ahead.

There was a constant ebb and flow of men in the office, presumably professional cleaners. They came and went, or sat along the walls, waiting. A large percentage were foreigners but the clerks proved to be accomplished linguists. They talked, with more or less fluency, with Croats, Serbs, Poles and Slavs.

There was a supply room off the office, a room filled with pails and brushes, soap and ladders. But there was a great safe also, and its compartments were filled with pamphlets in many tongues, a supply constantly depleted and yet never diminishing. Workmen, carrying out the pails of honest labor, carried them loaded down with the literature it was their only business to circulate.

Thus, openly, and yet with infinite caution, was spread the doctrine of no God; of no government, and of no church; of the confiscation of private property; of strikes and unrest; of revolution, rape, arson and pillage.

And around this social cancer the city worked and played. Its theatres were crowded, its expensive shops, its hotels. Two classes of people were spending money prodigally; women with shawls over their heads, women who in all their peasant lives had never owned a hat, drove in automobiles to order their winter supply of coal, and vast amounts of liquors were being bought by the foreign element against the approaching prohibition law, and stored in untidy cellars.

On the other hand, the social life of the city was gay with reaction from war. The newspapers were filled with the summer plans of the wealthy, and with predictions of lavish entertaining in the fall. Among the list of debutantes Lily's name always appeared.

And, in between the upper and the nether millstone, were being ground the professional and salaried men with families, the women clerks, the vast army who asked nothing but the right to work and live. They went through their days doggedly, with little anxious lines around their eyes, suffering a thousand small deprivations, bewildered, tortured with apprehension of to-morrow, and yet patiently believing that, as things could not be worse, they must soon commence to improve.

"It's bound to clear up soon," said Joe Wilkinson over the back fence one night late in June, to Willy Cameron. Joe supported a large family of younger brothers and sisters in the house next door, and was employed in a department store. "I figure it this way - both sides need each other, don't they? Something like marriage, you know. It'll all be over in six months. Only I'm thanking heaven just now it's summer, because our kids are hell on shoes."

"I hope so," said Willy Cameron. "What are you doing over there, anyhow?"

"Wait and see," said Joe, cryptically. "If you think you're going to be the only Central Park in this vicinity you've got to think again." He hesitated and glanced around, but the small Wilkinsons were searching for worms in the overturned garden mold. "How's Edith?" he asked.

"She's all right, Joe." "Seeing anybody yet?”

"Not yet. In a day or so she'll be downstairs." "You might tell her I've been asking about her." There was something in Joel's voice that caught Willy Cameron's attention. He thought about Joe a great deal that night. Joe was another one who must never know about Edith's trouble. The boy had little enough, and if he had built a dream about Edith Boyd he must keep his dream. He was rather discouraged that night, was Willy Cameron, and he began to think that dreams were the best things in life. They were a sort of sanctuary to which one fled to escape realities. Perhaps no reality was ever as beautiful as one's dream of it.

Lily had passed very definitely out of his life. Sometimes during his rare leisure he walked to Cardew Way through the warm night, and past the Doyle house, but he never saw her, and because it did not occur to him that she might want to see him he never made an attempt to call. Always after those futile excursions he was inclined to long silences, and only Jinx could have told how many hours he sat in his room at night, in the second-hand easy chair he had bought, pipe in hand and eyes on nothing in particular, lost in a dream world where the fields bore a strong resemblance to the parade ground of an army camp, and through which field he and Lily wandered like children, hand in hand.

But he had many things to think of. So grave were the immediate problems, of food and rent, of Mrs. Boyd and Edith, that a little of his fine frenzy as to the lurking danger of revolution departed from him. The meetings in the back room at the pharmacy took on a political bearing, and Hendricks was generally the central figure. The ward felt that Mr. Hendricks was already elected, and called him "Mr. Mayor." At the same time the steel strike pursued a course of comparative calm. At Friendship and at Baxter there had been rioting, and a fatality or two, but the state constabulary had the situation well in hand. On a Sunday morning Willy Cameron went out to Baxter on the trolley, and came home greatly comforted. The cool-eyed efficiency of the state police reassured him. He compared them, disciplined, steady, calm with the calmness of their dangerous calling, with the rabble of foreigners who shuffled along the sidewalks, and he felt that his anxiety had been rather absurd.

He was still making speeches, and now and then his name was mentioned in the newspapers. Mrs. Boyd, now mostly confined to her room, spent much time in searching for these notices, and then in painfully cutting them out and pasting them in a book. On those days when there was nothing about him she felt thwarted, and was liable to sharp remarks on newspapers in general, and on those of the city in particular.

Then, just as he began to feel that the strike would pass off like other strikes, and that Doyle and his crowd, having plowed the field for sedition, would find it planted with healthier grain, he had a talk with Edith.

She came downstairs for the first time one Wednesday evening early in July, the scars on her face now only faint red blotches, and he placed her, a blanket over her knees, in the small parlor. Dan had brought her down and had made a real effort to be kind, but his suspicion of the situation made it difficult for him to dissemble, and soon he went out. Ellen was on the doorstep, and through the open window came the shrieks of numerous little Wilkinsons wearing out expensive shoe-leather on the brick pavement.

They sat in the dusk together, Edith very quiet, Willy Cameron talking with a sort of determined optimism. After a time he realized that she was not even listening.

"I wish you'd close the window," she said at last.

"Those crazy Wilkinson kids make such a racket. I want to tell you something."

"All right." He closed the window and stood looking down at her.

"Are you sure you want me to hear it?" he asked gravely.

"Yes. It is not about myself. I've been reading the newspapers while I've been shut away up there, Willy. It kept me from thinking. And if things are as bad as they say I'd better tell you, even if I get into trouble doing it. I will, probably. Murder's nothing to them."

"Who are 'them'?"

"You get the police to search the Myers Housecleaning Company, in the Searing

Building."

"Don't you think you'd better tell me more than that? The police will want something definite to go on."

She hesitated.

"I don't know very much. I met somebody there, once or twice, at night. And I know there's a telephone hidden in the drawer of the desk in the back room. I swore not to tell, but that doesn't matter now. Tell them to examine the safe, too. I don't know what's in it. Dynamite, maybe."

"What makes you think the company is wrong? A hidden telephone isn't much to go on."

"When a fellow's had a drink or two, he's likely to talk," she said briefly, and before that sordid picture Willy Cameron was silent. After a time he said:

"You won't tell me the name of the man you met there?"

"No. Don't ask me, Willy. That's between him and me." He got up and took a restless turn or two about the little rooms Edith's problem had begun to obsess him. Not for long would it he possible to keep her condition from Mrs. Boyd. He was desperately at a loss for some course to pursue.

"Have you ever thought," he said at last, "that this man, whoever he is, ought to marry you?"

Edith's face set like a flint.

"I don't want to marry him," she said.

"I wouldn't marry him if he was the last man on earth."

He knew very little of Edith's past. In his own mind he had fixed on Louis Akers, but he could not be sure.

"I won't tell you his name, either," Edith added, shrewishly. Then her voice softened. "I will tell you this, Willy," she said wistfully. "I was a good girl until I knew him. I'm not saying that to let myself out. It's the truth."

"You're a good girl now," he said gravely.

Some time after he got his hat and came in to tell her he was going out.

"I'll tell what you've told me to Mr. Hendricks," he said.

"And we may go on and have a talk with the Chief of Police. If you are right it may be important."

After that for an hour or two Edith sat alone, save when Ellen now and then looked in to see if she was comfortable.

Edith's mind was chaotic. She had spoken on impulse, a good impulse at that. But suppose they trapped Louis Akers in the Searing Building?

Ellen went now and then to the Cardew house, and brought back with her the news of the family. At first she had sternly refused to talk about the Cardews to Edith, but the days in the sick room had been long and monotonous, and Edith's jealousy of Lily had taken the form, when she could talk, of incessant questions.

So Edith knew that Louis Akers had been the cause of Lily's leaving home, and called her a poor thing in her heart. Quite lately she had heard that if Lily was not already engaged she probably would be, soon. Now her motives were mixed, and her emotions confused. She had wanted to tell Willy Cameron what she knew, but she wanted Lily to marry Louis Akers. She wanted that terribly. Then Lily would be out of the way, and - Willy was not like Dan; he did not seem to think her forever lost. He had always been thoughtful, but lately he had been very tender with her. Men did strange things sometimes. He might be willing to forget, after a long time. She could board the child out somewhere, if it lived. Sometimes they didn't live.

But if they arrested Louis, Lily Cardew would fling him aside like an old shoe. She closed her eyes. That opened a vista of possibilities she would not face. She stopped in her mother's room on her slow progress upstairs, moved to sudden pity for the frail life now wearing to its close. If that were life she did not want it, with its drab days and futile effort, its incessant deprivations, its hands, gnarled with work that got nowhere, its greatest blessing sleep and forgetfulness.

She wondered why her mother did not want to die, to get away.

"I'll soon be able to look after you a bit, mother," she said from the doorway. "How's the pain down your arm?"

"Bring me the mucilage, Edie," requested Mrs. Boyd. She was propped up in bed and surrounded by newspapers.

"I've found Willy's name again. I've got fourteen now. Where's the scissors?"

Eternity was such a long time. Did she know? Could she know, and still sit among her pillows, snipping?

"I wonder," said Mrs. Boyd, "did anybody feed Jinx? That Ellen is so saving that she grudges him a bone."

"He looks all right," said Edith, and went on up to bed. Maybe the Lord did that for people, when they reached a certain point. Maybe He took away the fear of death, by showing after years of it that life was not so valuable after all. She remembered her own facing of eternity, and her dread of what lay beyond. She had prayed first, because she wanted to have some place on the other side. She had prayed to be received young and whole and without child. And her mother -

Then she had a flash of intuition. There was something greater than life, and that was love. Her mother was upheld by love. That was what the eternal cutting and pasting meant. She was lavishing all the love of her starved days on Willy Cameron; she was facing death, because his hand was close by to hold to.

For just a moment, sitting on the edge of her bed, Edith Boyd saw what love might be, and might do. She held out both hands in the darkness, but no strong and friendly clasp caught them close. If she could only have him to cling to, to steady her wavering feet along the gray path that stretched ahead, years and years of it. Youth. Middle age. Old age.

"I'd only drag him down," she muttered bitterly.

Willy Cameron, meanwhile, had gone to Mr. Hendricks with Edith's story, and together late that evening they saw the Chief of Police at his house. Both Willy Cameron and Mr. Hendricks advocated putting a watch on the offices of the Myers Housecleaning Company and thus ultimately getting the heads of the organization. But the Chief was unwilling to delay.

"Every day means more of their infernal propaganda," he said, "and if this girl's telling a straight story, the thing to do is to get the outfit now. Those clerks, for instance - we'll get some information out of them. That sort always squeals. They're a cheap lot."

"Going to ball it up, of course," Mr. Hendricks said disgustedly, on the way home.

"Won't wait, because if Akers gets in he's out, and he wants to make a big strike first. I'll drop in to-morrow evening and tell you what's happened."

He came into the pharmacy the next evening, with a bundle of red-bound pamphlets under his arm, and a look of disgust on his face.

"What did I tell you, Cameron?" he demanded, breathing heavily.

"Yes, they got them all right. Got a safe full of stuff so inflammable that, since I've read some of it, I'm ready to blow up myself. It's worse than that first lot I showed you. They got the two clerks, and a half-dozen foreigners, too. And that's all they got."

"They won't talk?"

"Talk? Sure they'll talk. They say they're employed by the Myers Housecleaning Company, that they never saw the inside of the vault, and they're squealing louder than two pigs under a gate about false arrest. They'll have to let them go, son. Here. You can do most everything. Can you read Croatian? No? Well, here's something in English to cut your wisdom teeth on. Overthrowing the government is where these fellows start."

It was intelligent, that propaganda. Willy Cameron thought he saw behind it Jim Doyle and other men like Doyle, men who knew the discontents of the world, and would fatten by them; men who, secretly envious of the upper classes and unable to attain to them, would pull all men to their own level, or lower. Men who cloaked their own jealousies with the garb of idealism. Intelligent it was, dangerous, and imminent.

The pamphlets spoke of "the day." It was a Prussian phrase. The revolution was Prussian. And like the Germans, they offered loot as a reward. They appealed to the ugliest passions in the world, to lust and greed and idleness.

At a signal the mass was to arise, overthrow its masters and rule itself.

Mr. Hendricks stood in the doorway of the pharmacy and stared out at the city he loved.

"Just how far does that sort of stuff go, Cameron?" he asked.

"Will our people take it up? Is the American nation going crazy?"

"Not a bit of it," said Willy Cameron stoutly." They're about as able to overthrow the government as you are to shove over the Saint Elmo Hotel.”

 "I could do that, with a bomb."

"No, you couldn't. But you could make a fairly sizeable hole in it. It's the hole we don't want."

Mr. Hendricks went away, vaguely comforted.