A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Lily did not sleep very well that night. She was repentant, for one thing, for her mother's evening alone, and for the anxiety in her face when she arrived.
"I've been so worried," she said, "I was afraid your grandfather would get back before you did."
"I'm sorry, mother dear. I know it was selfish. But I've had a wonderful evening."
"All sorts of talk," Lily said, and hesitated. After all, her mother would not understand, and it would only make her uneasy. "I suppose it is rank hearsay to say it, but I like Mr. Doyle."
"I detest him."
"But you don't know him, do you?"
"I know he is stirring up all sorts of trouble for us. Lily, I want you to promise not to go back there."
There was a little silence. A small feeling of rebellion was rising in the girl's heart.
"I don't see why. She is my own aunt."
"Will you promise?"
"Please don't ask me, mother. I - oh, don't you understand? It is interesting there, that's all. It isn't wrong to go. And the moment you forbid it you make me want to go back."
"Were there any other people there to dinner?" Grace asked, with sudden suspicion.
"Only one man. A lawyer named Akers."
The name meant nothing to Grace Cardew.
"A young man?"
"Not very young. In his thirties, I should think," Lily hesitated again. She had meant to tell her mother of the engagement for the next day, but Grace's attitude made it difficult. To be absolutely forbidden to meet Louis Akers at the gallery, and to be able to give no reason beyond the fact that she had met him at the Doyle house, seemed absurd.
"I hardly know," Lily said frankly. "In your sense of the word, perhaps not, mother. But he is very clever."
Grace Cardew sighed and picked up her book. She never retired until Howard came in. And Lily went upstairs, uneasy and a little defiant. She must live her own life, somehow; have her own friends; think her own thoughts. The quiet tyranny of the family was again closing down on her. It would squeeze her dry, in the end, as it had her mother and Aunt Elinor.
She stood for a time by her window, looking out at the city. Behind her was her warm, luxurious room, her deep, soft bed. Yet all through the city there were those who did not sleep warm and soft. Close by, perhaps, in that deteriorated neighborhood, there were children that very night going to bed hungry.
Because things had always been like that, should they always be so? Wasn't Mr. Doyle right, after all? Only he went very far. You couldn't, for instance, take from a man the thing he had earned. What about the people who did not try to earn?
She rather thought she would be clearer about it if she talked to Willy Cameron.
She went to bed at last, a troubled young thing in a soft white night-gown, passionately in revolt against the injustice which gave to her so much and to others so little. And against that quiet domestic tyranny which was forcing her to her first deceit.
Yet the visit to the gallery was innocuous enough. Louis Akers met her there, and carefully made the rounds with her. Then he suggested tea, and chose a quiet tea-room, and a corner.
"I'll tell you something, now it's over," he said, his bold eyes fixed on hers. "I loathe galleries and pictures. I wanted to see you again. That's all. You see, I am starting in by being honest with you."
She was rather uncomfortable.
"Why don't you like pictures?"
"Because they are only imitations of life. I like life." He pushed his teacup away. "I don't want tea either. Tea was an excuse, too." He smiled at her. "Perhaps you don't like honesty," he said. "If you don't you won't care for me."
She was too inexperienced to recognize the gulf between frankness and effrontery, but he made her vaguely uneasy. He knew so many things, and yet he was so obviously not quite a gentleman, in her family's sense of the word. He had a curious effect on her, too, one that she resented. He made her insistently conscious of her sex.
And of his. His very deference had something of restraint about it. She thought, trying to drink her tea quietly, that he might be very terrible if he loved any one. There was a sort of repressed fierceness behind his suavity.
But he interested her, and he was undeniably handsome, not in her father's way but with high-colored, almost dramatic good looks. There could be no doubt, too, that he was interested in her. He rarely took his eyes off hers. Afterwards she was to know well that bold possessive look of his.
It was just before they left that he said:
"I am going to see you again, you know. May I come in some afternoon?"
Lily had been foreseeing that for some moments, and she raised frank eyes to his.
"I am afraid not," she said. "You see, you are a friend of Mr. Doyle's, and you must know that my people and Aunt Elinor's husband are on bad terms."
"What has that got to do with you and me?" Then he laughed. "Might be unpleasant, I suppose. But you go to the Doyles'."
She was very earnest.
"My mother knows, but my grandfather wouldn't permit it if he knew."
"And you put up with that sort of thing?" He leaned closer to her. "You are not a baby, you know. But I will say you are a good sport to do it, anyhow."
"I'm not very comfortable about it."
"Bosh," he said, abruptly. "You go there as often as you can. Elinor Doyle's a lonely woman, and Jim is all right. You pick your own friends, my child, and live your own life. Every human being has that right."
He helped her into a taxi at the door of the tea shop, giving her rather more assistance than she required, and then standing bare-headed in the March wind until the car had moved away. Lily, sitting back in her corner, was both repelled and thrilled. He was totally unlike the men she knew, those carefully repressed, conventional clean-cut boys, like Pink Denslow. He was raw, vigorous and possibly brutal. She did not quite like him, but she found herself thinking about him a great deal.
The old life was reaching out its friendly, idle hands toward her. The next day Grace gave a luncheon for her at the house, a gay little affair of color, chatter and movement. But Lily found herself with little to say. Her year away had separated her from the small community of interest that bound the others together, and she wondered, listening to them in her sitting room later, what they would all talk about when they had exchanged their bits of gossip, their news of this man and that. It would all be said so soon. And what then?
Here they were, and here they would always be, their own small circle, carefully guarded. They belonged together, they and the men who likewise belonged. Now and then there would be changes. A new man, of irreproachable family connections would come to live in the city, and cause a small flurry. Then in time he would be appropriated. Or a girl would come to visit, and by the same system of appropriation would come back later, permanently. Always the same faces, the same small talk. Orchids or violets at luncheons, white or rose or blue or yellow frocks at dinners and dances. Golf at the country club. Travel, in the Cardew private car, cut off from fellow travelers who might prove interesting. Winter at Palm Beach, and a bit of a thrill at seeing moving picture stars and theatrical celebrities playing on the sand. One never had a chance to meet them.
And, in quiet intervals, this still house, and grandfather shut away in his upstairs room, but holding the threads of all their lives as a spider clutches the diverging filaments of its web.
"Get in on this, Lily," said a clear young voice. "We're talking about the most interesting men we met in our war work. You ought to have known a lot of them."
"I knew a lot of men. They were not so very interesting. There was a little nurse -
"Men, Lily dear."
"There was one awfully nice boy. He wasn't a soldier, but he was very kind to the men. They adored him."
"Did he fall in love with your?"
"Not a particle."
"Why wasn't he a soldier?"
"He is a little bit lame. But he is awfully nice."
"But what is extraordinary about him, then?"
"Not a thing, except his niceness.
But they were surfeited with nice young men. They wanted something dramatic, and Willy Cameron was essentially undramatic. Besides, it was quite plain that, with unconscious cruelty, his physical handicap made him unacceptable to them.
"'Don't be ridiculous, Lily. You're hiding some one behind this kind person. You must have met somebody worth while."
"Not in the camp. I know a perfectly nice Socialist, but he was not in the army. Not a Socialist, really. Much worse. He believes in having a revolution."
That stirred them somewhat. She saw their interested faces turned toward her.
"With a bomb under his coat, of course, Lily."
"He didn't bulge."
"How old is he, Lily?" one of them asked, suspiciously.
"Almost fifty, I should say."
Their interest died. She could have revived it, she knew, if she mentioned Louis Akers; he would have answered to their prime requisite in an interesting man. He was both handsome and young. But she felt curiously disinclined to mention him.
The party broke up. By ones and twos luxuriously dressed little figures went down the great staircase, where Grayson stood in the hall and the footman on the doorstep signaled to the waiting cars. Mademoiselle, watching from a point of vantage in the upper hall, felt a sense of comfort and well-being after they had all gone. This was as it should be. Lily would take up life again where she had left it off, and all would be well.
It was now the sixth day, and she had not yet carried out that absurd idea of asking Ellen's friend to dinner.
Lily was, however, at that exact moment in process of carrying it out.
"Telephone for you, Mr. Cameron."
"Thanks. Coming," sang out Willy Cameron.
Edith Boyd sauntered toward his doorway.
"It's a lady."
"Woman," corrected Willy Cameron. "The word 'lady' is now obsolete, since your sex has entered the economic world. He put on his coat.
"I said 'lady' and that's what I mean," said Edith. "'May I speak to Mr. Cameron?'" she mimicked. "Regular Newport accent."
Suddenly Willy Cameron went rather pale. If it should be Lily Cardew - but then of course it wouldn't be. She had been home for six days, and if she had meant to call -
"Hello," he said.
It was Lily. Something that had been like a band around his heart suddenly loosened, to fasten about his throat. His voice sounded strangled and strange.
"Why, yes," he said, in the unfamiliar voice. "I'd like to come, of course."
Edith Boyd watched and listened, with a slightly strained look in her eyes.
"To dinner? But - I don't think I'd better come to dinner."
"Why not, Willy?"
Mr. William Wallace Cameron glanced around. There was no one about save Miss Boyd, who was polishing the nails of one hand on the palm of the other.
"May I come in a business suit?"
"Why, of course. Why not?"
"I didn't know," said Willy Cameron. "I didn't know what your people would think. That's all. To-morrow at eight, then. Thanks."
He hung up the receiver and walked to the door, where he stood looking out and seeing nothing. She had not forgotten. He was going to see her. Instead of standing across the street by the park fence, waiting for a glimpse of her which never came, he was to sit in the room with her. There would be - eight from eleven was three - three hours of her.
What a wonderful day it was! Spring was surely near. He would like to be able to go and pick up Jinx, and then take a long walk through the park. He needed movement. He needed to walk off his excitement or he felt that he might burst with it.
"Eight o'clock!" said Edith. "I wish you joy, waiting until eight for supper."
He had to come back a long, long way to her.
"'May I come in a business suit?'" she mimicked him. "My evening clothes have not arrived yet. 'My valet's bringing them up to town to-morrow."
Even through the radiant happiness that surrounded him like a mist, he caught the bitterness under her raillery. It puzzled him.
"It's a young lady I knew at camp. I was in an army camp, you know."
"Is her name a secret?"
"Why, no. It is Cardew. Miss Lily Cardew."
"I believe you - not."
"But it is," he said, genuinely concerned. "Why in the world should I give you a wrong name?"
Her eyes were fixed on his face.
"No. You wouldn't. But it makes me laugh, because - well, it was crazy, anyhow."
"What was crazy?"
"Something I had in my mind. Just forget it. I'll tell you what will happen, Mr. Cameron. You'll stay here about six weeks. Then you'll get a job at the Cardew Mills. They use chemists there, and you will be - "
She lifted her finger-tips and blew along them delicately.
"Gone - like that," she finished.
Sometimes Willy Cameron wondered about Miss Boyd. The large young man, for instance, whose name he had learned was Louis Akers, did not come any more. Not since that telephone conversation. But he had been distinctly a grade above that competent young person, Edith Boyd, if there were such grades these days; fluent and prosperous-looking, and probably able to offer a girl a good home. But she had thrown him over. He had heard her doing it, and when he had once ventured to ask her about Akers she had cut him off curtly.
"I was sick to death of him. That's all," she had said.
But on the night of Lily's invitation he was to hear more of Louis Akers.
It was his evening in the shop. One day he came on at seven-thirty in the morning and was off at six, and the next he came at ten and stayed until eleven at night. The evening business was oddly increasing. Men wandered in, bought a tube of shaving cream or a tooth-brush, and sat or stood around for an hour or so; clerks whose families had gone to the movies, bachelors who found their lodging houses dreary, a young doctor or two, coming in after evening office hours to leave a prescription, and remaining to talk and listen. Thus they satisfied their gregarious instinct while within easy call of home.
The wealthy had their clubs. The workmen of the city had their balls and sometimes their saloons. But in between was that vast, unorganized male element which was neither, and had neither. To them the neighborhood pharmacy, open in the evening, warm and bright, gave them a rendezvous. They gathered there in thousands, the country over. During the war they fought their daily battles there, with newspaper maps. After the war the League of Nations, local politics, a bit of neighborhood scandal, washed down with soft drinks from the soda fountain, furnished the evening's entertainment.
The Eagle Pharmacy had always been the neighborhood club, but with the advent of Willy Cameron it was attaining a new popularity. The roundsman on the beat dropped in, the political boss of the ward, named Hendricks, Doctor Smalley, the young physician who lived across the street, and others. Back of the store proper was a room, with the prescription desk at one side and reserve stock on shelves around the other three. Here were a table and a half dozen old chairs, a war map, still showing with colored pins the last positions before the great allied advance, and an ancient hat-rack, which had held from time immemorial an umbrella with three broken ribs and a pair of arctics of unknown ownership.
"Going to watch this boy," Hendricks confided to Doctor Smalley a night or two after Lily's return, meeting him outside. "He sure can talk."
Doctor Smalley grinned.
"He can read my writing, too, which is more than I can do myself. What do you mean, watch him?"
But whatever his purposes Mr. Hendricks kept them to himself. A big, burly man, with a fund of practical good sense a keen knowledge of men, he had gained a small but loyal following. He was a retired master plumber, with a small income from careful investments, and he had a curious, almost fanatic love for the city.
"I was born here," he would say, boastfully. "And I've seen it grow from fifty thousand to what it's got now. Some folks say it's dirty, but it's home to me, all right."
But on the evening of Lily's invitation the drug store forum found Willy Cameron extremely silent. He had been going over his weaknesses, for the thought of Lily always made him humble, and one of them was that he got carried away by things and talked too much. He did not intend to do that the next night, at the Cardew's.
"Something's scared him off," said Mr. Hendricks to Doctor Smalley, after a half hour of almost taciturnity, while Willy Cameron smoked his pipe and listened. "Watch him rise to this, though." And aloud:
"Why don't you fellows drop the League of Nations, which none of you knows a damn about anyhow, and get to the thing that's coming in this country?"
"I'll bite," said Mr. Clarey, who sold life insurance in the daytime and sometimes utilized his evenings in a similar manner. "What's coming to this country?"
The crowd laughed.
"All right," said Mr. Hendricks. "Laugh while you can. I saw the Chief of Police to-day, and he's got a line of conversation that makes a man feel like taking his savings out of the bank and burying them in the back yard."
Willy Cameron took his pipe out of his mouth, but remained dumb.
Mr. Hendricks nudged Doctor Smalley, who rose manfully to the occasion. "What does he say?"
"Says the Russians have got a lot of paid agents here. Not all Russians either. Some of our Americans are in it. It's to begin with a general strike."
"In this town?"
"All over the country. But this is a good field for them. The crust's pretty thin here, and where that's the case there is likely to be earthquakes and eruptions. The Chief says they're bringing in a bunch of gunmen, wobblies and Bolshevists from every industrial town on the map. Did you get that, Cameron? Gunmen!"
"Any of you men here dissatisfied with this form of government?" inquired Willy, rather truculently.
"Not so you could notice it," said Mr. Clarey. "And once the Republican party gets in - "
"Then there will never be a revolution."
"That's why," said Willy Cameron. "Of course you are worthless now. You aren't organized. You don't know how many you are or how strong you are. You can't talk. You sit back and listen until you believe that this country is only capital and labor. You get squeezed in between them. You see labor getting more money than you, and howling for still more. You see both capital and labor raising prices until you can't live on what you get. There are a hundred times as many of you as represent capital and labor combined, and all you do is loaf here and growl about things being wrong. Why don't you do something? You ought to be running this country, but you aren't. You're lazy. You don't even vote. You leave running the country to men like Mr. Hendricks here."
Mr. Hendricks was cheerfully unirritated.
"All right, son," he said, "I do my bit and like it. Go on. Don't stop to insult me. You can do that any time."
"I've been buying a seditious weekly since I came," said Willy Cameron. "It's preaching a revolution, all right. I'd like to see its foreign language copies. They'll never overthrow the government, but they may try. Why don't you fellows combine to fight them? Why don't you learn how strong you are? Nine-tenths of the country, and milling like sheep with a wolf around!"
Mr. Hendricks winked at the doctor.
"What'd I tell you?" whispered Hendricks. "Got them, hasn't he? If he'd suggest arming them with pop bottles and attacking that gang of anarchists at the cobbler's down the street, they'd do it this minute."
"All right, son," he offered. "We'll combine. Anything you say goes. And we'll get the Jim Doyle-Woslosky-Louis Akers outfit first. I know a first-class brick wall - "
"Akers?" said Willy Cameron. "Do you know him?"
"I do," said Hendricks. "But that needn't prejudice you against me any. He's a bad actor, and as smooth as butter. D'you know what their plan is? They expect to take the city. This city! The - " Mr. Hendrick's voice was lost in fury.
"Talk!" said the roundsman. "Where'd the police be, I'm asking?"
"The police," said Mr. Hendricks, evidently quoting, "are as filled with sedition as a whale with corset bones. Also the army. Also the state constabulary."
"The hell they are," said the roundsman aggressively. But Willy Cameron was staring through the smoke from his pipe at the crowd.
"They might do it, for a while," he said thoughtfully. "There's a tremendous foreign population in the mill towns around, isn't there? Does anybody in the crowd own a revolver? Or know how to use it if he has one
"I've got one," said the insurance agent. "Don't know how it would work. Found my wife nailing oilcloth with it the other day."
"Very well. If we're a representative group, they wouldn't need a battery of eight-inch guns, would they?"
A little silence fell on the group. Around them the city went about its business; the roar of the day had softened to muffled night sounds, as though one said: "The city sleeps. Be still." The red glare of the mills was the fire on the hearth. The hills were its four protecting walls. And the night mist covered it like a blanket.
"Here's one representative of the plain people," said Mr. Hendricks, "who is going home to get some sleep. And tomorrow I'll buy me a gun, and if I can keep the children out of the yard I'll learn to use it."
For a long time after he went home that night Willy Cameron paced the floor of his upper room, paced it until an irate boarder below hammered on his chandelier. Jinx followed him, moving sedately back and forth, now and then glancing up with idolatrous eyes. Willy Cameron's mind was active and not particularly coordinate. The Cardews and Lily; Edith Boyd and Louis Akers; the plain people; an army marching to the city to loot and burn and rape, and another army meeting it, saying: "You shall not pass"; Abraham Lincoln, Russia, Lily.
His last thought, of course, was of Lily Cardew. He had neglected to cover Jinx, and at last the dog leaped on the bed and snuggled close to him. He threw an end of the blanket over him and lay there, staring into the darkness. He was frightfully lonely. At last he fell asleep, and the March wind, coming in through the open window, overturned a paper leaning against his collar box, on which he had carefully written:
Have suit pressed. Buy new tie. Shirts from laundry.