A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
On clear Sundays Anthony Cardew played golf all day. He kept his religious observances for bad weather, but at such times as he attended service he did it with the decorum and dignity of a Cardew, who bowed to his God but to nothing else. He made the responses properly and with a certain unction, and sat during the sermon with a vigilant eye on the choir boys, who wriggled. Now and then, however, the eye wandered to the great stained glass window which was a memorial to his wife. It said beneath: "In memoriam, Lilian Lethbridge Cardew."
He thought there was too much yellow in John the Baptist. On the Sunday afternoon following her ride into the city with Louis Akers, Lily found herself alone. Anthony was golfing and Grace and Howard had motored out of town for luncheon. In a small office near the rear of the hall the second man dozed, waiting for the doorbell. There would be people in for tea later, as always on Sunday afternoons; girls and men, walking through the park or motoring up in smart cars, the men a trifle bored because they were not golfing or riding, the girls chattering about the small inessentials which somehow they made so important.
Lily was wretchedly unhappy. For one thing, she had begun to feel that Mademoiselle was exercising over her a sort of gentle espionage, and she thought her grandfather was behind it. Out of sheer rebellion she had gone again to the house on Cardew Way, to find Elinor out and Jim Doyle writing at his desk. He had received her cordially, and had talked to her as an equal. His deferential attitude had soothed her wounded pride, and she had told him something - very little - of the situation at home.
"Then you are still forbidden to come here?"
"Yes. As if what happened years ago matters now, Mr. Doyle."
He eyed her.
"Don't let them break your spirit, Lily," he had said. "Success can make people very hard. I don't know myself what success would do to me. Plenty, probably." He smiled. "It isn't the past your people won't forgive me, Lily. It's my failure to succeed in what they call success."
"It isn't that," she had said hastily. "It is - they say you are inflammatory. Of course they don't understand. I have tried to tell them, but - "
"There are fires that purify," he had said, smilingly.
She had gone home, discontented with her family's lack of vision, and with herself.
She was in a curious frame of mind. The thought of Louis Akers repelled her, but she thought of him constantly. She analyzed him clearly enough; he was not fine and not sensitive. He was not even kind. Indeed, she felt that he could be both cruel and ruthless. And if she was the first good woman he had ever known, then he must have had a hateful past.
The thought that he had kissed her turned her hot with anger and shame at such times, but the thought recurred.
Had she had occupation perhaps she might have been saved, but she had nothing to do. The house went on with its disciplined service; Lent had made its small demands as to church services, and was over. The weather was bad, and the golf links still soggy with the spring rains. Her wardrobe was long ago replenished, and that small interest gone.
And somehow there had opened a breach between herself and the little intimate group that had been hers before the war. She wondered sometimes what they would think of Louis Akers. They would admire him, at first, for his opulent good looks, but very soon they would recognize what she knew so well - the gulf between him and the men of their own world, so hard a distinction to divine, yet so real for all that. They would know instinctively that under his veneer of good manners was something coarse and crude, as she did, and they would politely snub him. She had no name and no knowledge for the urge in the man that she vaguely recognized and resented. But she had a full knowledge of the obsession he was becoming in her mind.
"If I could see him here," she reflected, more than once, "I'd get over thinking about him. It's because they forbid me to see him. It's sheer contrariness."
But it was not, and she knew it. She had never heard of his theory about the mark on a woman.
She was hating herself very vigorously on that Sunday afternoon. Mademoiselle and she had lunched alone in Lily's sitting-room, and Mademoiselle had dozed off in her chair afterwards, a novel on her knee. Lily was wandering about downstairs when the telephone rang, and she had a quick conviction that it was Louis Akers. It was only Willy Cameron, however, asking her if she cared to go for a walk.
"I've promised Jinx one all day," he explained, "and we might as well combine, if you are not busy."
She smiled at that.
"I'd love it," she said. "In the park?"
"Wait a moment." Then: "Yes, Jinx says the park is right."
His wholesome nonsense was good for her. She drew a long breath.
"You are precisely the person I need to-day," she said. "And come soon, because I shall have to be back at five."
When he came he was very neat indeed, and most scrupulous as to his heels being polished. He was also slightly breathless.
"Had to sew a button on my coat," he explained. "Then I found I'd sewed in one of my fingers and had to start all over again."
Lily was conscious of a change in him. He looked older, she thought, and thinner. His smile, when it came, was as boyish as ever, but he did not smile so much, and seen in full daylight he was shabby. He seemed totally unconscious of his clothes, however.
"What do you do with yourself, Willy?" she asked. "I mean when you are free?"
"Read and study. I want to take up metallurgy pretty soon. There's a night course at the college."
"We use metallurgists in the mill. When you are ready I know father would be glad to have you."
He flushed at that.
"Thanks," he said. "I'd rather get in, wherever I go, by what I know, and not who I know."
She felt considerably snubbed, but she knew his curious pride. After a time, while he threw a stick into the park lake and Jinx retrieved it, he said:
"What do you do with yourself these days, Lily?"
"Nothing. I've forgotten how to work, I'm afraid. And I'm not very happy, Willy. I ought to be, but I'm just - not."
"You've learned what it is to be useful," he observed gravely, "and now it hardly seems worth while just to live, and nothing else. Is that it?"
"Isn't there anything you can do?"
"They won't let me work, and I hate to study."
There was a silence. Willy Cameron sat on the bench, bent and staring ahead. Jinx brought the stick, and, receiving no attention, insinuated a dripping body between his knees. He patted the dog's head absently.
"I have been thinking about the night I went to dinner at your house," he said at last. "I had no business to say what I said then. I've got a miserable habit of saying just what comes into my mind, and I've been afraid, ever since, that it would end in your not wanting to see me again. Just try to forget it happened, won't you?"
"I knew it was an impulse, but it made me very proud, Willy."
"All right," he said quietly. "And that's that. Now about your grandfather. I've had him on my mind, too. He is an old man, and sometimes they are peculiar. I am only sorry I upset him. And you are to forget that, too."
In spite of herself she laughed, rather helplessly.
"Is there anything I am to remember?"
He smiled too, and straightened himself, like a man who has got something off his chest.
"Certainly there is, Miss Cardew. Me. Myself. I want you to know that I'm around, ready to fetch and carry like Jinx here, and about as necessary, I suppose. We are a good bit alike, Jinx and I. We're satisfied with a bone, and we give a lot of affection. You won't mind a bone now and then?"
His cheerful tone reassured the girl. There was no real hurt, then.
"That's nice of you, you know."
"Well," he said slowly, "you know there are men who prefer a dream to reality. Perhaps I'm like that. Anyhow, that's enough about me. Do you know that there is a strike coming?"
"Yes. I ought to tell you, Willy. I think the men are right."
He stared at her incredulously.
"Right?" he said. "Why, my dear child, most of them want to strike about as much as I want delirium tremens. I've talked to them, and I know."
"A slave may be satisfied if he has never known freedom."
"Oh, fudge," said Willy Cameron, rudely. "Where do you get all that? You're quoting; aren't you? The strike, any strike, is an acknowledgment of weakness. It is a resort to the physical because the collective mentality of labor isn't as strong as the other side. Or labor thinks it isn't, which amounts to the same thing. And there is a fine line between the fellow who fights for a principle and the one who knocks people down to show how strong he is."
"This is a fight for a principle, Willy."
"Fine little Cardew you are!" he scoffed. "Don't make any mistake. There have been fights by labor for a principle, and the principle won, as good always wins over evil. But this is different. It's a direct play by men who don't realize what they are doing, into the hands of a lot of - well, we'll call them anarchists. It's Germany's way of winning the war. By indirection."
"If by anarchists you mean men like my uncle - "
"I do," he said grimly. "That's a family accident and you can't help it. But I do mean Doyle. Doyle and a Pole named Woslosky, and a scoundrel of an attorney here in town, named Akers, among others."
"Mr. Akers is a friend of mine, Willy."
He stared at her.
"If they have been teaching you their dirty doctrines, Lily," he said at last, "I can only tell you this. They can disguise it in all the fine terms they want. It is treason, and they are traitors. I know. I've had a talk with the Chief of Police."
"I don't believe it."
"How well do you know Louis Akers?"
"Not very well." But there were spots of vivid color flaming in her cheeks. He drew a long breath.
"I can't retract it," he said. "I didn't know, of course. Shall we start back?"
They were very silent as they walked. Willy Cameron was pained and anxious. He knew Akers' type rather than the man himself, but he knew the type well. Every village had one, the sleek handsome animal who attracted girls by sheer impudence and good humor, who made passionate, pagan love promiscuously, and put the responsibility for the misery they caused on the Creator because He had made them as they were.
He was agonized by another train of thought. For him Lily had always been something fine, beautiful, infinitely remote. There were other girls, girls like Edith Boyd, who were touched, some more, some less, with the soil of life. Even when, they kept clean they saw it all about them, and looked on it with shrewd, sophisticated eyes. But Lily was - Lily. The very thought of Louis Akers looking at her as he had seen him look at Edith Boyd made him cold with rage.
"Do you mind if I say something?"
"That sounds disagreeable. Is it?"
"Maybe, but I'm going to anyhow, Lily. I don't like to think of you seeing Akers. I don't know anything against him, and I suppose if I did I wouldn't tell you. But he is not your sort."
An impulse of honesty prevailed with her.
"I know that as well as you do. I know him better than you do. But, he stands for something, at least," she added rather hotly. "None of the other men I know stand for anything very much. Even you, Willy."
"I stand for the preservation of my country," he said gravely. "I mean, I represent a lot of people who - well, who don't believe that change always means progress, and who do intend that the changes Doyle and Akers and that lot want they won't get. I don't believe - if you say you want what they want - that you know what you are talking about."
"Perhaps I am more intelligent than you think I am."
He was, of course, utterly wretched, impressed by the futility of arguing with her.
"Do your people know that you are seeing Louis Akers!"
"You are being rather solicitous, aren't you?"
"I am being rather anxious. I wouldn't dare, of course, if we hadn't been such friends. But Akers is wrong, wrong every way, and I have to tell you that, even if it means that you will never see me again. He takes a credulous girl - "
"And talks bunk to her and possibly makes love to her - "
"Haven't we had enough of Mr. Akers?" Lily asked coldly. "If you cannot speak of anything else, please don't talk."
The result of which was a frozen silence until they reached the house.
"Good-by," she said primly. "It was very nice of you to call me up. Good-by, Jinx." She went up the steps, leaving him bare-headed and rather haggard, looking after her.
He took the dog and went out into the country on foot, tramping through the mud without noticing it, and now and then making little despairing gestures. He was helpless. He had cut himself off from her like a fool. Akers. Akers and Edith Boyd. Other women. Akers and other women. And now Lily. Good God, Lily!
Jinx was tired. He begged to be carried, planting two muddy feet on his master's shabby trouser leg, and pleading with low whines. Willy Cameron stooped and, gathering up the little animal, tucked him under his arm. When it commenced to rain he put him under his coat and plunged his head through the mud and wet toward home.
Lily had entered the house in a white fury, but a moment later she was remorseful. For one thing, her own anger bewildered her. After all, he had meant well, and it was like him to be honest, even if it cost him something he valued.
She ran to the door and looked around for him, but he had disappeared. She went in again, remorseful and unhappy. What had come over her to treat him like that? He had looked almost stricken.
"Mr. Akers is calling, Miss Cardew," said the footman. "He is in the drawing-room."
Lily went in slowly.
Louis Akers had been waiting for some time. He had lounged into the drawing-room, with an ease assumed for the servant's benefit, and had immediately lighted a cigarette. That done, and the servant departed, he had carefully appraised his surroundings. He liked the stiff formality of the room. He liked the servant in his dark maroon livery. He liked the silence and decorum. Most of all, he liked himself in these surroundings. He wandered around, touching a bowl here, a vase there, eyeing carefully the ancient altar cloth that lay on a table, the old needle-work tapestry on the chairs.
He saw himself fitted into this environment, a part of it; coming down the staircase, followed by his wife, and getting into his waiting limousine; sitting at the head of his table, while the important men of the city listened to what he had to say. It would come, as sure as God made little fishes. And Doyle was a fool. He, Louis Akers, would marry Lily Cardew and block that other game. But he would let the Cardews know who it was who had blocked it and saved their skins. They'd have to receive him after that; they would cringe to him.
Then, unexpectedly, he had one of the shocks of his life. He had gone to the window and through it he saw Lily and Willy Cameron outside. He clutched at the curtain and cursed under his breath, apprehensively. But Willy Cameron did not come in; Akers watched him up the street with calculating, slightly narrowed eyes. The fact that Lily Cardew knew the clerk at the Eagle Pharmacy was an unexpected complication. His surprise was lost in anxiety. But Lily, entering the room a moment later, rather pale and unsmiling, found him facing the door, his manner easy, his head well up, and drawn to his full and rather overwhelming height. She found her poise entirely gone, and it was he who spoke first.
"I know," he said. "You didn't ask me, but I came anyhow."
She held out her hand rather primly.
"It is very good of you to come.
"Good! I couldn't stay away."
He took her outstretched hand, smiling down at her, and suddenly made an attempt to draw her to him.
"You know that, don't you?"
He let her go at once. He had not played his little game so long without learning its fine points. There were times to woo a woman with a strong arm, and there were other times that required other methods.
"Right-o," he said, "I'm sorry. I've been thinking about you so much that I daresay I have got farther in our friendship than I should. Do you know that you haven't been out of my mind since that ride we had together?"
"Really? Would you like some tea?"
"Thanks, yes. Do you dislike my telling you that?"
She rang the bell, and then stood Lacing him.
"I don't mind, no. But I am trying very hard to forget that ride, and I don't want to talk about it."
"When a beautiful thing comes into a man's life he likes to remember it."
"How can you call it beautiful?"
"Isn't it rather fine when two people, a man and a woman, suddenly find a tremendous attraction that draws them together, in spite of the fact that everything else is conspiring to keep them apart?"
"I don't know," she said uncertainly. "It just seemed all wrong, somehow."
"An honest impulse is never wrong."
"I don't want to discuss it, Mr. Akers. It is over."
While he was away from her, her attraction for him loomed less than the things she promised, of power and gratified ambition. But he found her, with her gentle aloofness, exceedingly appealing, and with the tact of the man who understands women he adapted himself to her humor.
"You are making me very unhappy; Miss Lily," he said. "If you'll only promise to let me see you now and then, I'll promise to be as mild as dish-water. Will you promise?"
She was still struggling, still remembering Willy Cameron, still trying to remember all the things that Louis Akers was not.
"I think I ought not to see you at all."
"Then," he said slowly, "you are going to cut me off from the one decent influence in my life."
She was still revolving that in her mind when tea came. Akers, having shot his bolt, watched with interest the preparation for the little ceremony, the old Georgian teaspoons, the Crown Derby cups, the bell-shaped Queen Anne teapot, beautifully chased, the old pierced sugar basin. Almost his gaze was proprietary. And he watched Lily, her casual handling of those priceless treasures, her taking for granted of service and beauty, her acceptance of quality because she had never known anything else, watched her with possessive eyes.
When the servant had gone, he said:
"You are being very nice to me, in view of the fact that you did not ask me to come. And also remembering that your family does not happen to care about me."
"They are not at home."
"I knew that, or I should not have come. I don't want to make trouble for you, child." His voice was infinitely caressing. "As it happens, I know your grandfather's Sunday habits, and I met your father and mother on the road going out of town at noon. I knew they had not come back."
"How do you know that?"
He smiled down at her. "I have ways of knowing quite a lot of things. Especially when they are as vital to me as this few minutes alone with you."
He bent toward her, as he sat behind the tea table.
"You know how vital this is to me, don't you?" he said. "You're not going to cut me off, are you?"
He stood over her, big, compelling, dominant, and put his hand under her chin.
"I am insane about you," he whispered, and waited.
Slowly, irresistibly, she lifted her face to his kiss.