A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The surface peace of the house on Cardew Way, the even tenor of her days there, the feeling she had of sanctuary did not offset Lily's clear knowledge that she had done a cruel and an impulsive thing. Even her grandfather, whose anger had driven her away, she remembered now as a feeble old man, fighting his losing battle in a changing world, and yet with a sort of mistaken heroism hoisting his colors to the end.
She had determined, that first night in Elinor's immaculate guest room, to go back the next day. They had been right at home, by all the tenets to which they adhered so religiously. She had broken the unwritten law not to break bread with an enemy of her house. She had done what they had expressly forbidden, done it over and over.
"On top of all this," old Anthony had said, after reading the tale of her delinquencies from some notes in his hand, "you dined last night openly at the Saint Elmo Hotel with this same Louis Akers, a man openly my enemy, and openly of impure life."
"I do not believe he is your enemy."
"He is one of the band of anarchists who have repeatedly threatened to kill me."
"Oh, Lily, Lily!" said her mother.
But it was to her father, standing grave and still, that Lily replied.
"I don't believe that, father. He is not a murderer. If you would let him come here - "
"Never in this house," said old Anthony, savagely crushing notes in his hand. "He will come here over my dead body."
"You have no right to condemn a man unheard."
"Unheard! I tell you I know all about him. The man is an anarchist, a rake, a - dog."
"Just a moment, father," Howard had put in, quietly. "Lily, do you care for this man? I mean by that, do you want to marry him?"
"He has asked me. I have not given him any answer yet. I don't want to marry a man my family will not receive. It wouldn't be fair to him."
Which speech drove old Anthony into a frenzy, and led him to a bitterness of language that turned Lily cold and obstinate. She heard him through, with her father vainly trying to break in and save the situation; then she said, coldly:
"I am sorry you feel that way about it," and turned and left the room.
She had made no plan, of course. She hated doing theatrical things. But shut in her bedroom with the doors locked, Anthony's furious words came back, his threats, his bitter sneers. She felt strangely alone, too. In all the great house she had no one to support her. Mademoiselle, her father and mother, even the servants, were tacitly aligned with the opposition. Except Ellen. She had felt lately that Ellen, in her humble way, had espoused her cause.
She had sent for Ellen.
In spite of the warmth of her greeting, Lily had felt a reserve in Aunt Elinor's welcome. It was as though she was determinedly making the best of a bad situation.
"I had to do it, Aunt Elinor," she said, when they had gone upstairs. There was a labor conference, Doyle had explained, being held below.
"I know," said Elinor. "I understand. I'll pin back the curtains so you can open your windows. The night air is so smoky here."
"I am afraid mother will grieve terribly."
"I think she will," said Elinor, with her quiet gravity. "You are all she has."
"She has father. She cares more for him than for anything in the world."
"Would you like some ice-water, dear?"
Some time later Lily roused from the light sleep of emotional exhaustion. She had thought she heard Willy Cameron's voice. But that was absurd, of course, and she lay back to toss uneasily for hours. Out of all her thinking there emerged at last her real self, so long overlaid with her infatuation. She would go home again, and make what amends she could. They were wrong about Louis Akers, but they were right, too.
Lying there, as the dawn slowly turned her windows to gray, she saw him with a new clarity. She had a swift vision of what life with him would mean. Intervals of passionate loving, of boyish dependence on her, and then - a new face. Never again was she to see him with such clearness. He was incapable of loyalty to a woman, even though he loved her. He was born to be a wanderer in love, an experimenter in passion. She even recognized in him an incurable sensuous curiosity about women, that would be quite remote from his love for her. He would see nothing wrong in his infidelities, so long as she did not know and did not suffer. And he would come back to her from them, watchful for suspicion, relieved when he did not find it, and bringing her small gifts which would be actually burnt offerings to his own soul.
She made up her mind to give him up. She would go home in the morning, make her peace with them all, and never see Louis Akers again.
She slept after that, and at ten o'clock Elinor wakened her with the word that her father was downstairs. Elinor was very pale. It had been a shock to her to see her brother in her home after all the years, and a still greater one when he had put his arm around her and kissed her.
"I am so sorry, Howard," she had said. The sight of him had set her lips trembling. He patted her shoulder.
"Poor Elinor," he said. "Poor old girl! We're a queer lot, aren't we?"
"All but you."
"An obstinate, do-and-be-damned lot," he said slowly. "I'd like to see my little girl, Nellie. We can't have another break in the family."
He held Lily in much the same way when she came down, an arm around her, his big shoulders thrown back as though he would guard her against the world. But he was very uneasy and depressed, at that. He had come on a difficult errand, and because he had no finesse he blundered badly. It was some time before she gathered the full meaning of what he was saying.
"Aunt Cornelia's!" she exclaimed.
"Or, if you and your mother want to go to Europe," he put in hastily, seeing her puzzled face, "I think I can arrange about passports."
"Does that mean he won't have me back, father?"
"Lily, dear," he said, hoarse with anxiety, "we simply have to remember that he is a very old man, and that his mind is not elastic. He is feeling very bitter now, but he will get over it."
"And I am to travel around waiting to be forgiven! I was ready to go back, but - he won't have me. Is that it?"
"Only just for the present." He threw out his hands. "I have tried everything. I suppose, in a way, I could insist, make a point of it, but there are other things to be considered. His age, for one thing, and then - the strike. If he takes an arbitrary stand against me, no concession, no argument with the men, it makes it very difficult, in many ways."
"I see. It is wicked that any one man should have such power. The city, the mills, his family - it's wicked." But she was conscious of no deep anger against Anthony now. She merely saw that between them, they, she and her grandfather, had dug a gulf that could not be passed. And in Howard's efforts she saw the temporizing that her impatient youth resented.
"I am afraid it is a final break, father," she said. "And if he shuts me out I must live my own life. But I am not going to run away to Aunt Cornelia or Europe. I shall stay here."
He had to be content with that. After all, his own sister - but he wished it were not Jim Doyle's house. Not that he regarded Lily's shift toward what he termed Bolshevism very seriously; all youth had a slant toward socialism, and outgrew it. But he went away sorely troubled, after a few words with Elinor Doyle alone.
"You don't look unhappy, Nellie."
"Things have been much better the last few years."
"Is he kind to you?"
"Not always, Howard. He doesn't drink now, so that is over. And I think there are no other women. But when things go wrong I suffer, of course." She stared past him toward the open window.
"Why don't you leave him?"
"I couldn't go home, Howard. You know what it would be. Worse than Lily. And I'm too old to start out by myself. My habits are formed, and besides, I - " She checked herself.
"I could take a house somewhere for both of you, Lily and yourself," he said eagerly; "that would be a wonderful way out for everybody."
She shook her head.
"We'll manage all right," she said. "I'll make Lily comfortable and as happy as I can."
He felt that he had to make his own case clear, or he might have noticed with what care she was choosing her words. His father's age, his unconscious dependence on Grace, his certainty to retire soon from the arbitrary stand he had taken. Elinor hardly heard him. Months afterwards he was to remember the distant look in her eyes, a sort of half-frightened determination, but he was self-engrossed just then.
"I can't persuade you?" he finished.
"No. But it is good of you to think of it."
"You know what the actual trouble was last night? It was not her coming here."
"I know, Howard."
"Don't let her marry him, Nellie! Better than any one, you ought to know what that would mean."
"I knew too, Howard, but I did it."
In the end he went away not greatly comforted, to fight his own battles, to meet committees from the union, and having met them, to find himself facing the fact that, driven by some strange urge he could not understand, the leaders wished a strike. There were times when he wondered what would happen if he should suddenly yield every point, make every concession. They would only make further demands, he felt. They seemed determined to put him out of business. If only he could have dealt with the men directly, instead of with their paid representatives, he felt that he would get somewhere. But always, interposed between himself and his workmen, was this barrier of their own erecting.
It was like representative government. It did not always represent. It, too, was founded on representation in good faith; but there was not always good faith. The union system was wrong. It was like politics. The few handled the many. The union, with its all-powerful leaders, was only another form of autocracy. It was Prussian. Yet the ideal behind the union was sound enough.
He had no quarrel with the union. He puzzled it out, traveling unaccustomed mental paths. The country was founded on liberty. All men were created free and equal. Free, yes, but equal? Was not equality a long way ahead along a thorny road? Men were not equal in the effort they made, nor did equal efforts bring equal result. If there was class antagonism behind all this unrest, would there not always be those who rose by dint of ceaseless effort? Equality of opportunity, yes. Equality of effort and result, no.
To destroy the chance of gain was to put a premium on inertia; to kill ambition; to reduce the high without raising the low.
At noon on the same day Willy Cameron went back to the house on Cardew Way, to find Lily composed and resigned, instead of the militant figure he had expected. He asked her to go home, and she told him then that she had no longer a home to go to.
"I meant to go, Willy," she finished. "I meant to go this morning. But you see how things are."
He had stood for a long time, looking at nothing very hard. "I see," be said finally. "Of course your grandfather will be sorry in a day or two, but he may not swallow his pride very soon."
That rather hurt her.
"What about my pride?" she asked.
"You can afford to be magnanimous with all your life before you." Then he faced her. "Besides, Lily, you're wrong. Dead wrong. You've hurt three people, and all you've got out of it has been your own way."
"There is such a thing as liberty."
"I don't know about that. And a good many crimes have been committed in its name." Even in his unhappiness he was controversial. "We are never really free, so long as we love people, and they love us. Well - " He picked up his old felt hat and absently turned down the brim; it was raining. "I'll have to get back. I've overstayed my lunch hour as it is."
"You haven't had any luncheon?"
"I wasn't hungry," he had said, and had gone away, his coat collar turned up against the shower. Lily had had a presentiment that he was taking himself out of her life, that he had given her up as a bad job. She felt depressed and lonely, and not quite so sure of herself as she bad been; rather, although she did not put it that way, as though something fine had passed her way, like Pippa singing, and had then gone on.
She settled down as well as she could to her new life, making no plans, however, and always with the stricken feeling that she had gained her own point at the cost of much suffering. She telephoned to her mother daily, broken little conversations with long pauses while Grace steadied her voice. Once her mother hung up the receiver hastily, and Lily guessed that her grandfather had come in. She felt very bitter toward him.
But she found the small oneage interesting, in a quiet way; to make her own bed and mend her stockings - Grace had sent her a trunkful of clothing; and on the elderly maid's afternoon out, to help Elinor with the supper. She seldom went out, but Louis Akers came daily, and on the sixth day of her stay she promised to marry him.
She had not meant to do it, but it was difficult to refuse him. She had let him think she would do it ultimately, for one thing. And, however clearly she might analyze him in his absences, his strange attraction reasserted itself when he was near. But her acceptance of him was almost stoical.
"But not soon, Louis," she said, holding him off. "And - I ought to tell you - I don't think we will be happy together."
"Because - " she found it hard to put into words - "because love with you is a sort of selfish thing, I think."
"I'll lie down now and let you tramp on me," he said exultantly, and held out his arms. But even as she moved toward him she voiced her inner perplexity.
"I never seem to be able to see myself married to you."
"Then the sooner the better, so you can."
"You won't like being married, you know."
"That's all you know about it, Lily. I'm mad about you. I'm mad for you."
There was a new air of maturity about Lily those days, and sometimes a sort of aloofness that both maddened him and increased his desire to possess her. She went into his arms, but when he held her closest she sometimes seemed farthest away.
"I want you now."
"I want to be engaged a long time, Louis. We have so much to learn about each other."
He thought that rather childish. But whatever had been his motive in the beginning, he was desperately in love with her by that time, and because of that he frightened her sometimes. He was less sure of himself, too, even after she had accepted him, and to prove his continued dominance over her he would bully her.
"Come here," be would say, from the hearth rug, or by the window.
Sometimes she went, to be smothered in his hot embrace; sometimes she did not.
But her infatuation persisted, although there were times when his inordinate vitality and his caresses gave her a sense of physical weariness, times when sheer contact revolted her. He seemed always to want to touch her. Fastidiously reared, taught a sort of aloofness from childhood, Lily found herself wondering if all men in love were like that, always having to be held off.