A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
It was not until a week had passed after Louis Akers' visit to the house that Lily's family learned of it.
Lily's state of mind during that week had been an unhappy one. She magnified the incident until her nerves were on edge, and Grace, finding her alternating between almost demonstrative affection and strange aloofness, was bewildered and hurt. Mademoiselle watched her secretly, shook her head, and set herself to work to find out what was wrong. It was, in the end, Mademoiselle who precipitated the crisis.
Lily had not intended to make a secret of the visit, but as time went on she found it increasingly difficult to tell about it. She should, she knew, have spoken at once, and it would be hard to explain why she had delayed.
She meant to go to her father with it. It was he who had forbidden her to see Akers, for one thing. And she felt nearer to her father than to her mother, always. Since her return she had developed an almost passionate admiration for Howard, founded perhaps on her grandfather's attitude toward him. She was strongly partizan. and she watched her father, day after day, fighting his eternal battles with Anthony, sometimes winning, often losing, but standing for a principle like a rock while the seas of old Anthony's wrath washed over and often engulfed him.
She was rather wistful those days, struggling with her own perplexities, and blindly reaching out for a hand to help her. But she could not bring herself to confession. She would wander into her father's dressing-room before she went to bed, and, sitting on the arm of his deep chair, would try indirectly to get him to solve the problems that were troubling her. But he was inarticulate and rather shy with her. He had difficulty, sometimes, after her long absence at school and camp, in realizing her as the little girl who had once begged for his neckties to make into doll frocks.
Once she said:
"Could you love a person you didn't entirely respect, father?"
"Love is founded on respect, Lily."
She pondered that. She felt that he was wrong.
"But it does happen, doesn't it?" she had persisted.
He had been accustomed to her searchings for interesting abstractions for years. She used to talk about religion in the same way. So he smiled and said:
"There is a sort of infatuation that is based on something quite different."
But he had rather floundered there. He could not discuss physical attraction with her.
"We're getting rather deep for eleven o'clock at night, aren't we?"
After a short silence:
"Do you mind speaking about Aunt Elinor, father?"
"No, dear. Although it is rather a painful subject."
"But if she is happy, why is it painful?"
"Well, because Doyle is the sort of man he is."
"You mean-because he is unfaithful to her? Or was?"
He was very uncomfortable.
"That is one reason for it, of course. There are others."
"But if he is faithful to her now, father? Don't you think, whatever a man has been, if he really cares for a woman it makes him over?"
"Sometimes, not always." The subject was painful to him. He did not want his daughter to know the sordid things of life. But he added, gallantly: "Of course a good woman can do almost anything she wants with a man, if he cares for her."
She lay awake almost all night, thinking that over.
On the Sunday following Louis Akers' call Mademoiselle learned of it, by the devious route of the servants' hall, and she went to Lily at once, yearning and anxious, and in her best lace collar. She needed courage, and to be dressed in her best gave her moral strength.
"It is not," she said, "that they wish to curtail your liberty, Lily. But to have that man come here, when he knows he is not wanted, to force himself on you - "
"I need not have seen him. I wanted to see him."
Mademoiselle waved her hands despairingly.
"If they find it out!" she wailed.
"They will. I intend to tell them."
But Mademoiselle made her error there. She was fearful of Grace's attitude unless she forewarned her, and Grace, frightened, immediately made it a matter of a family conclave. She had not intended to include Anthony, but he came in on an excited speech from Howard, and heard it all.
The result was that instead of Lily going to them with her confession, she was summoned, to find her family a unit for once and combined against her. She was not to see Louis Akers again, or the Doyles.
They demanded a promise, but she refused. Yet even then, standing before them, forced to a defiance she did not feel, she was puzzled as well as angry. They were wrong, and yet in some strange way they were right, too. She was Cardew enough to get their point of view. But she was Cardew enough, too, to defy them.
She did it rather gently.
"You must understand," she said, her hands folded in front of her, "that it is not so much that I care to see the people you are talking about. It is that I feel I have the right to choose my own friends."
"Friends!" sneered old Anthony. "A third-rate lawyer, a - "
"That is not the point, grandfather. I went away to school when I was a little girl. I have been away for five years. You cannot seem to realize that I am a woman now, not a child. You bring me in here like a bad child."
In the end old Anthony had slammed out of the room. There were arguments after that, tears on Grace's part, persuasion on Howard's; but Lily had frozen against what she considered their tyranny, and Howard found in her a sort of passive resistance, that drove him frantic.
"Very well," he said finally. "You have the arrogance of youth, and its cruelty, Lily. And you are making us all suffer without reason."
"Don't you think I might say that too, father?"
"Are you in love with this man?"
"I have only seen him four times. If you would give me some reasons for all this fuss - "
"There are things I cannot explain to you. You wouldn't understand."
"About his moral character?"
Howard was rather shocked. He hesitated:
"Will you tell me what they are?"
"Good heavens, no!" he exploded. "The man's a radical, too. That in itself ought to be enough."
"You can't condemn a man for his political opinions."
"Besides," she said, looking at him with her direct gaze, "isn't there some reason in what the radicals believe, father? Maybe it is a dream that can't come true, but it is rather a fine dream, isn't it?"
It was then that Howard followed his father's example, and flung out of the room.
After that Lily went, very deliberately and without secrecy, to the house on Cardew Way. She found a welcome there, not so marked on her Aunt Elinor's part as on Doyle's, but a welcome. She found approval, too, where at home she had only suspicion and a solicitude based on anxiety. She found a clever little circle there, and sometimes a cultured one; underpaid, disgruntled, but brilliant professors from the college, a journalist or two, a city councilman, even prosperous merchants, and now and then strange bearded foreigners who were passing through the city and who talked brilliantly of the vision of Lenine and the future of Russia.
She learned that the true League of Nations was not a political alliance, but a union of all the leveled peoples of the world. She had no curiosity as to how this leveling was to be brought about. All she knew was that these brilliant dreamers made her welcome, and that instead of the dinner chat at home, small personalities, old Anthony's comments on his food, her father's heavy silence, here was world talk, vast in its scope, idealistic, intoxicating.
Almost always Louis Akers was there; it pleased her to see how the other men listened to him, deferred to his views, laughed at his wit. She did not know the care exercised in selecting the groups she was to meet, the restraints imposed on them. And she could not know that from her visits the Doyle establishment was gaining a prestige totally new to it, an almost respectability.
Because of those small open forums, sometimes noted in the papers, those innocuous gatherings, it was possible to hold in that very room other meetings, not open and not innocuous, where practical plans took the place of discontented yearnings, and where the talk was more often of fighting than of brotherhood.
She was, by the first of May, frankly infatuated with Louis Akers, yet with a curious knowledge that what she felt was infatuation only. She would lie wide-eyed at night and rehearse painfully the weaknesses she saw so clearly in him. But the next time she saw him she would yield to his arms, passively but without protest. She did not like his caresses, but the memory of them thrilled her.
She was following the first uncurbed impulse of her life. Guarded and more or less isolated from other youth, she had always lived a strong inner life, purely mental, largely interrogative. She had had strong childish impulses, sometimes of pure affection, occasionally of sheer contrariness, but always her impulses had been curbed.
"Do be a little lady," Mademoiselle would say.
She had got, somehow, to feel that impulse was wrong. It ranked with disobedience. It partook of the nature of sin. People who did wicked things did them on impulse, and were sorry ever after; but then it was too late.
As she grew older, she added something to that. Impulses of the mind led to impulses of the body, and impulse was wrong. Passion was an impulse of the body. Therefore it was sin. It was the one sin one could not talk about, so one was never quite clear about it. However, one thing seemed beyond dispute; it was predominatingly a masculine wickedness. Good women were beyond and above it, its victims sometimes, like those girls at the camp, or its toys, like the sodden creatures in the segregated district who hung, smiling their tragic smiles, around their doorways in the late afternoons.
But good women were not like that. If they were, then they were not good. They did not lie awake remembering the savage clasp of a man's arms, knowing all the time that this was not love, but something quite different. Or if it was love, that it was painful and certainly not beautiful.
Sometimes she thought about Willy Cameron. He had had very exalted ideas about love. He used to be rather oratorical about it.
"It's the fundamental principle of the universe," he would say, waving his pipe wildly. "But it means suffering, dear child. It feeds on martyrdom and fattens on sacrifice. And as the h.c. of l. doesn't affect either commodity, it lives forever."
"What does it do, Willy, if it hasn't any martyrdom and sacrifice to feed on? Do you mean to say that when it is returned and everybody is happy, it dies?"
"Practically," he had said. "It then becomes domestic contentment, and expresses itself in the shape of butcher's bills and roast chicken on Sundays."
But that had been in the old care-free days, before Willy had thought he loved her, and before she had met Louis.
She made a desperate effort one day to talk to her mother. She wanted, somehow, to be set right in her own eyes. But Grace could not meet her even half way; she did not know anything about different sorts of love, but she did know that love was beautiful, if you met the right man and married him. But it had to be some one who was your sort, because in the end marriage was only a sort of glorified companionship.
The moral in that, so obviously pointed at Louis Akers, invalidated the rest of it for Lily.
She was in a state of constant emotional excitement by that time, and it was only a night or two after that she quarreled with her grandfather. There had been a dinner party, a heavy, pompous affair, largely attended, for although spring was well advanced, the usual May hegira to the country or the coast had not yet commenced. Industrial conditions in and around the city were too disturbed for the large employers to get away, and following Lent there had been a sort of sporadic gayety, covering a vast uneasiness. There was to be no polo after all.
Lily, doing her best to make the dinner a success, found herself contrasting it with the gatherings at the Doyle house, and found it very dull. These men, with their rigidity of mind, invited because they held her grandfather's opinions, or because they kept their own convictions to themselves, seemed to her of a bygone time. She did not see in them a safe counterpoise to a people which in its reaction from the old order, was ready to swing to anything that was new. She saw only a dozen or so elderly gentlemen, immaculate and prosperous, peering through their glasses after a world which had passed them by.
They were very grave that night. The situation was serious. The talk turned inevitably to the approaching strike, and from that to a possible attempt on the part of the radical element toward violence. The older men pooh-poohed that, but the younger ones were uncertain. Isolated riotings, yes. But a coordinated attempt against the city, no. Labour was greedy, but it was law-abiding. Ah, but it was being fired by incendiary literature. Then what were the police doing? They were doing everything. They were doing nothing. The governor was secretly a radical. Nonsense. The governor was saying little, but was waiting and watching. A general strike was only another word for revolution. No. It would be attempted, perhaps, but only to demonstrate the solidarity of labor.
After a time Lily made a discovery. She found that even into that carefully selected gathering had crept a surprising spirit, based on the necessity for concession; a few men who shared her father's convictions, and went even further. One or two, even, who, cautiously for fear of old Anthony's ears, voiced a belief that before long invested money would be given a fixed return, all surplus profits to be divided among the workers, the owners and the government.
"What about the lean years?" some one asked.
The government's share of all business was to form a contingent fund for such emergencies, it seemed.
Lily listened attentively. Was it because they feared that if they did not voluntarily divide their profits they would be taken from them? Enough for all, and to none too much. Was that what they feared? Or was it a sense of justice, belated but real?
She remembered something Jim Doyle had said:
"Labor has learned its weakness alone, its strength united. But capital has not learned that lesson. It will not take a loss for a principle. It will not unite. It is suspicious and jealous, so it fights its individual battles alone, and loses in the end."
But then to offset that there was something Willy Cameron had said one day, frying doughnuts for her with one hand, and waving the fork about with the other.
"Don't forget this, oh representative of the plutocracy," he had said. "Capital has its side, and a darned good one, too. It's got a sense of responsibility to the country, which labor may have individually but hasn't got collectively."
These men at the table were grave, burdened with responsibility. Her father. Even her grandfather. It was no longer a question of profit. It was a question of keeping the country going. They were like men forced to travel, and breasting a strong head wind. There were some there who would turn, in time, and travel with the gale. But there were others like her grandfather, obstinate and secretly frightened, who would refuse. Who would, to change the figure, sit like misers over their treasure, an eye on the window of life for thieves.
She went upstairs, perplexed and thoughtful. Some time later she heard the family ascending, the click of her mother's high heels on the polished wood of the staircase, her father's sturdy tread, and a moment or two later her grandfather's slow, rather weary step. Suddenly she felt sorry for him, for his age, for his false gods of power and pride, for the disappointment she was to him. She flung open her door impulsively and con- fronted him.
"I just wanted to say good-night, grandfather," she said breathlessly. "And that I am sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"Sorry - " she hesitated. "Because we see things so differently."
Lily was almost certain that she caught a flash of tenderness in his eyes, and certainly his voice had softened.
"You looked very pretty to-night," he said. But he passed on, and she had again the sense of rebuff with which he met all her small overtures at that time. However, he turned at the foot of the upper flight.
"I would like to talk to you, Lily. Will you come upstairs?"
She had been summoned before to those mysterious upper rooms of his, where entrance was always by request, and generally such requests presaged trouble. But she followed him light-heartedly enough then. His rare compliment had pleased and touched her.
The lamp beside his high-backed, almost throne-like chair was lighted, and in the dressing-room beyond his valet was moving about, preparing for the night. Anthony dismissed the man, and sat down under the lamp.
"You heard the discussion downstairs, to-night, Lily. Personally I anticipate no trouble, but if there is any it may be directed at this house." He smiled grimly. "I cannot rely on my personal popularity to protect me, I fear. Your mother obstinately refuses to leave your father, but I have decided to send you to your grand-aunt Caroline."
"Aunt Caroline! She doesn't care for me, grandfather. She never has."
"That is hardly pertinent, is it? The situation is this: She intends to open the Newport house early in June, and at my request she will bring you out there. Next fall we will do something here; I haven't decided just what."
There was a sudden wild surge of revolt in Lily. She hated Newport. Grand-aunt Caroline was a terrible person. She was like Anthony, domineering and cruel, and with even less control over her tongue.
"I need not point out the advantages of the plan," said Anthony suavely. "There may be trouble here, although I doubt it. But in any event you will have to come out, and this seems an excellent way.
"Is it a good thing to spend a lot of money now, grandfather, when there is so much discontent?"
Old Anthony had a small jagged vein down the center of his forehead, and in anger or his rare excitements it stood out like a scar. Lily saw it now, but his voice was quiet enough.
"I consider it vitally important to the country to continue its social life as before the war."
"You mean, to show we are not frightened?"
"Frightened! Good God, nobody's frightened. It will take more than a handful of demagogues to upset this government. Which brings me to a subject you insist on reopening, by your conduct. I have reason to believe that you are still going to that man's house."
He never called Doyle by name if he could avoid it.
"I have been there several times.
"After you were forbidden?"
His tone roused every particle of antagonism in her. She flushed.
"Perhaps because I was forbidden," she said, slowly. "Hasn't it occurred to you that I may consider your attitude very unjust?"
If she looked for an outburst from him it did not come. He stood for a moment, deep in thought.
"You understand that this Doyle once tried to assassinate me?"
"I know that he tried to beat you, grandfather. I am sorry, but that was long ago. And there was a reason for it, wasn't there?"
"I see," he said, slowly. "What you are conveying to me, not too delicately, is that you have definitely allied yourself with my enemies. That, here in my own house, you intend to defy me. That, regardless of my wishes or commands, while eating my food, you purpose to traffic with a man who has sworn to get me, sooner or later. Am I correct?"
"I have only said that I see no reason why I should not visit Aunt Elinor."
"And that you intend to. Do I understand also that you refuse to go to Newport?"
"I daresay I shall have to go, if you send me. I don't want to go.
"Very well. I am glad we have had this little talk. It makes my own course quite plain. Good-night."
He opened the door for her and she went out and down the stairs. She felt very calm, and as though something irrevocable had happened. With her anger at her grandfather there was mixed a sort of pity for him, because she knew that nothing he could do would change the fundamental situation. Even if he locked her up, and that was possible, he would know that he had not really changed things, or her. She felt surprisingly strong. All these years that she had feared him, and yet when it came to a direct issue, he was helpless! What had he but his wicked tongue, and what did that matter to deaf ears?
She found her maid gone, and Mademoiselle waiting to help her undress. Mademoiselle often did that. It made her feel still essential in Lily's life.
"A long seance!" she said. "Your mother told me to-night. It is Newport?"
"He wants me to go. Unhook me, Mademoiselle, and then run off and go to bed. You ought not to wait up like this."
"Newport!" said Mademoiselle, deftly slipping off the white and silver that was Lily's gown. "It will be wonderful, dear. And you will be a great success. You are very beautiful."
"I am not going to Newport, Mademoiselle."
Mademoiselle broke into rapid expostulation, in French. Every girl wanted to make her debut at Newport. Here it was all industry, money, dirt. Men who slaved in offices daily. At Newport was gathered the real leisure class of America, those who knew how to play, who lived. But Lily, taking off her birthday pearls before the mirror of her dressing table, only shook her head.
"I'm not going," she said. "I might as well tell you, for you'll hear about it later. I have quarreled with him, very badly. I think he intends to lock me up."
"C'est impossible!" cried Mademoiselle.
But a glance at Lily's set face in the mirror told her it was true.
She went away very soon, sadly troubled. There were bad times coming. The old peaceful quiet days were gone, for age and obstinacy had met youth and the arrogance of youth, and it was to be battle.