A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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In one way Howard had been correct in his surmise. It had been Lily's idea to go to a hotel until she had made some definite plan. She would telephone Louis then, and the rest - she did not think beyond that. She called a taxi and took a small bag with her, but in the taxicab she suddenly realized that she could not go to any of the hotels she knew. She would be recognized at once.
She wanted a little time to herself, time to think. And before it was discovered that she had left Cardew Way she must see Louis, and judge again if he intended to act in good faith. While he was with her, reiterating his promises, she believed him, but when he was gone, she always felt, a curious doubt.
She thought then of finding a quiet room somewhere, and stopping the cab, bought a newspaper. It was when she was searching for the "rooms for rent" column that she saw he had been attacked and slightly injured.
They had got him. He had said that if they ever suspected him of playing them false they would get him, and now they had done so. That removed the last doubt of his good faith from her mind. She felt indignation and dismay, and a sort of aching consciousness that always she brought only trouble to the people who cared for her; she felt that she was going through her life, leaving only unhappiness behind her.
He had suffered, and for her.
She told the chauffeur to go to the Benedict Apartments, and sitting back read the notice again. He had been attacked by two masked men and badly bruised, after putting up a terrific resistance. They would wear masks, of course. They loved the theatrical. Their very flag was theatrical. And he had made a hard fight That was like him, too; he was a fighter.
She was a Cardew, and she loved strength. There were other men, men like Willy Cameron, for instance, who were lovable in many ways, but they were not fighters. They sat back, and let life beat them, and they took the hurt bravely and stoically. But they never got life by the throat and shook it until it gave up what they wanted.
She had never been in a bachelors' apartment house before, and she was both frightened and self-conscious. The girl at the desk eyed her curiously while she telephoned her message, and watched her as she moved toward the elevator. "Ever seen her before?" she said to the hall boy.
"No. She's a new one."
"Face's kind of familiar to me," said the telephone girl, reflectively. "Looks worried, doesn't she? Two masked men! Huh! All Sam took up there last night was a thin fellow with a limp."
The hall boy grinned.
"Then his limp didn't bother him any. Sam says y'ought to seen that place."
In the meantime, outside the door of Akers' apartment, Lily's fine courage almost left her. Had it not been for the eyes of the elevator man, fixed on her while he lounged in his gateway, she might have gone away, even then. But she stood there, committed to a course of action, and rang.
Louis himself admitted her, an oddly battered Louis, in a dressing gown and slippers; an oddly watchful Louis, too, waiting, after the manner of men of his kind the world over, to see which way the cat would jump. He had had a bad day, and his nerves were on edge. All day he had sat there, unable to go out, and had wondered just when Cameron would see her and tell her about Edith Boyd. For, just as Willy Cameron rushed him for the first time, there had been something from between clenched teeth about marrying another girl, under the given circumstances. Only that had not been the sort of language in which it was delivered.
"I just saw about it in the newspaper," Lily said. "How dreadful, Louis."
He straightened himself and drew a deep breath. The game was still his, if he played it right.
"Bad enough, dear," he said, "but I gave them some trouble, too." He pushed a chair toward her. "It was like you to come. But I don't like your seeing me all mussed up, little girl."
He' made a move then to kiss her, but she drew back.
"Please!" she said. "Not here. And I can't sit down. I can't stay. I only came because I wanted to tell you something and I didn't want to telephone it. Louis, Jim Doyle knew about those bombs last night. He didn't want it to happen before the election, but - that doesn't alter the fact, does it?"
"How do you know he knew?"
"I do know. That's all. And I have left Aunt Elinor's"
"I couldn't stay, could I?" She looked up at him, the little wistful glance that Willy always found so infinitely touching, like the appeal of a willful but lovable child, that has somehow got into trouble. "And I can't go home, Louis, unless I - "
"Unless you give me up," he finished for her. "Well?"
She hesitated. She hated making terms with him, and yet somehow she must make terms.
"Well?" he repeated. "Are you going to throw me over?"
Apparently merely putting the thought into words crystallized all his fears of the past hours; seeing her there, too, had intensified his want of her. She stood there, where he had so often dreamed of seeing her, but still holding him off with the aloofness that both chilled and inflamed him, and with a question in her eyes. He held out his arms, but she drew back.
"Do you mean what you have said, Louis, about leaving them, if I marry you, and doing all you can to stop them?"
"You know I mean it." "Then - I'll not go home.”
"You are going to marry me? Now?"
"Whenever you say.
Suddenly she was trembling violently, and her lips felt dry and stiff. He pushed her into a chair, and knelt down beside her.
"You poor little kid," he said, softly.
Through his brain were racing a hundred thoughts; Lily his, in his arms, in spite of that white-faced drug clerk with the cold eyes; himself in the Cardew house, one of them, beating old Anthony Cardew at his own cynical game; and persistently held back and often rising again to the surface, Woslosky and Doyle and the others, killers that they were, pursuing him with their vengeance over the world. They would have to be counted in; they were his price, as he, had he known it, was Lily's.
"My wife!" he said. "My wife." She stiffened in his arms.
"I must go, Louis," she said. "I can't stay here. I felt very queer downstairs. They all stared so."
There was a clock on the mantel shelf, and he looked at it. It was a quarter before five.
"One thing is sure, Lily," he said.
"You can't wander about alone, and you are right - you can't stay here. They probably recognized you downstairs. You are pretty well known."
For the first time it occurred to her that she had compromised herself, and that the net, of her own making, was closing fast about her.
"I wish I hadn't come."
"Why? We can fix that all right in a jiffy."
But when he suggested an immediate marriage she made a final struggle. In a few days, even to-morrow, but not just then. He listened, impatiently, his eyes on the clock. Beside it in the mirror he saw his own marred face, and it added to his anger. In the end he took control of the situation; went into his bedroom, changed into a coat, and came out again, ready for the street. He telephoned down for a taxicab, and then confronted her, his face grim.
"I've let you run things pretty much to suit yourself, Lily," he said.
"Now I'm in charge. It won't be to-morrow or next week or next month. It will be now. You're here. You've given them a chance to talk downstairs. You've nowhere to go, and you're going to marry me at once."
In the cab he explained more fully. They would get a license, and then go to one of the hotels. There they could be married, in their own suite.
"All regularly and in order, honey," he said, and kissed her hand. She had hardly heard. She was staring ahead, not thinking, not listening, not seeing, fighting down a growing fear of the man before her, of his sheer physical proximity, of his increasing exuberance.
"I'm mad about you, girl," he said. "Mad. And now you are going to be mine, until death do us part."
She shivered and drew away, and he laughed a little. Girls were like that, at such times. They always took a step back for every two steps forward. He let her hand go, and took a careful survey of his face in the mirror of the cab. The swelling had gone down, but that bruise below his eye would last for days. He cursed under his breath.
It was after nine o'clock when one of the Cardew cars stopped not far from the Benedict Apartments, and Willy Cameron got out.
He was quite certain that Louis Akers would know where Lily was, and he anticipated the interview with a sort of grim humor. There might be another fight; certainly Akers would try to get back at him for the night before. But he set his jaw. He would learn where Lily was if he had to choke the knowledge out of that leering devil's thick white throat. His arrival in the foyer of the Benedict Apartments caused more than a ripple of excitement.
"Well, look who's here!" muttered the telephone girl, and watched his approach, with its faint limp, over the top of her desk. Behind, from his cage, the elevator man was staring with avid interest.
"I suppose Mr. Akers is in?" said Willy Cameron, politely. The girl smiled up at him.
"I'll say he ought to be, after last night! What're you going to do now? Kill him?" In spite of his anxiety there was a faint twinkle in Willy Cameron's eyes.
"No," he said slowly. "No. I think not. I want to talk to him."
"Sam," called the telephone girl, "take this gentleman up to forty-three."
"Forty-three's out" Sam partly shut the elevator door; he had seen Forty-three's rooms the night before, and he had the discretion of his race. "Went out with a lady at quarter to five."
Willy Cameron took a step or two toward the cage. "You don't happen to be lying, I suppose?”
"No, sir!" said Sam.
"I'll take you up to look, if you like. And about an hour ago he sent a boy here with a note, to get some of his clothes. The young lady at the desk was out at the movies at the time."
"I was getting my supper, Sam." Willy Cameron had gone very white.
"Did the boy say where he was taking the things?"
"To the Saint Elmo Hotel, sir."
On the street again Willy Cameron took himself fiercely in hand. There were a half-dozen reasons why Akers might go to the Saint Elmo. He might, for one thing, have thought that he, Cameron, would go back to the Benedict. He might be hiding from Dan, or from reporters. But there had been, apparently, no attempt to keep his new quarters secret. If Lily was at the Saint Elmo -
He found a taxicab, and as it drew up at the curb before the hotel he saw the Cardew car moving away. It gave him his first real breath for twenty minutes. Lily was not there,
But Louis Akers was. He got his room number from a clerk and went up, still determinedly holding on to himself. Afterwards he had no clear recollection of any interval between the Benedict and the moment he found himself standing outside a door on an upper floor of the Saint Elmo. From that time on it was as clear as crystal, his own sudden calm, the overturning of a chair inside, a man's voice, slightly raised, which he recognized, and then the thin crash of a wineglass dropped or thrown to the floor.
He opened the door and went in.
In the center of the sitting room a table was set, and on it the remains of a dinner for two. Akers was standing by the table, his chair overturned behind him, a splintered glass at his feet, staring angrily at the window. Even then Willy Cameron saw that he had had too much to drink, and that he was in an ugly mood. He was in dinner clothes, but with his bruised face and scowling brows he looked a sinister imitation of a gentleman.
By the window, her back to the room, was Lily.
Neither of them glanced at the door. Evidently the waiter had been moving in and out, and Akers considered him as little as he would a dog.
"Come and sit down," he said angrily.
"I've quit drinking, I tell you. Good God, just because I've had a little wine - and I had the hell of a time getting it - you won't eat and won't talk. Come here."
"I'm not hungry."
"Stay where you are, Lily," said Willy Cameron, from inside the closed door.
"Or perhaps you'd better get your wraps. I came to take you home."
Akers had wheeled at the voice, and now stood staring incredulously. First anger, and then a grin of triumph, showed in his face. Drink had made him not so much drunk as reckless. He had lost last night, but to-day he had won.
"Hello, Cameron," he said. Willy Cameron ignored him.
"Will you come?" he said to Lily.
"I can't, Willy.”
"Listen, Lily dear," he said gravely. "Your father is searching the city for you. Do you know what that means? Don't you see that you must go home at once? You can't dine here in a private suite, like this, and not expose yourself to all sorts of talk."
"Go on," said Akers, leering. "I like to hear you."
"Especially," continued Willy Cameron, "with a man like this."
Akers took a step toward him, but he was not too sure of himself, and he knew now that the other man had a swing to his right arm like the driving rod of a locomotive. He retreated again to the table, and his hand closed over a knife there.
"Louis!" Lily said sharply.
He picked up the knife and smiled at her, his eyes cunning. "Not going to kill him, my dear," he said. "Merely to give him a hint that I'm not as easy as I was last night."
That was a slip, and he knew it. Lily had left the window and come forward, a stricken slip of a girl, and he turned to her angrily.
"Go into the other room and close the door," he ordered. "When I've thrown this fellow out, you can come back."
But Lily's eyes were fixed on Willy Cameron's face.
"It was you last night?”
"Because," Willy Cameron said steadily, "he had got a girl into trouble, and then insulted her. I wouldn't tell you, but you've got to know the truth before it's too late."
Lily threw out both hands dizzily, as though catching for support. But she steadied herself. Neither man moved.
"It is too late, Willy," she said. "I have just married him."