A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
For a time Lily remained hidden in the house on Cardew Way, walking out after nightfall with Louis occasionally, but shrinkingly keeping to quiet back streets. She had a horror of meeting some one she knew, of explanations and of gossip. But after a time the desire to see her mother became overwhelming. She took to making little flying visits home at an hour when her grandfather was certain to be away, going in a taxicab, and reaching the house somewhat breathless and excited. She was driven by an impulse toward the old familiar things; she was homesick for them all, for her mother, for Mademoiselle, for her own rooms, for her little toilet table, for her bed and her reading lamp. For the old house itself.
She was still an alien where she was. Elinor Doyle was a perpetual enigma to her; now and then she thought she had penetrated behind the gentle mask that was Elinor's face, only to find beyond it something inscrutable. There was a dead line in Elinor's life across which Lily never stepped. Whatever Elinor's battles were, she fought them alone, and Lily had begun to realize that there were battles.
The atmosphere of the little house had changed. Sometimes, after she had gone to bed, she heard Doyle's voice from the room across the hall, raised angrily. He was nervous and impatient; at times he dropped the unctuousness of his manner toward her, and she found herself looking into a pair of cold blue eyes which terrified her.
The brilliant little dinners had entirely ceased, with her coming. A sort of early summer lethargy had apparently settled on the house. Doyle wrote for hours, shut in the room with the desk; the group of intellectuals, as he had dubbed them, had dispersed on summer vacations. But she discovered that there were other conferences being held in the house, generally late at night.
She learned to know the nights when those meetings were to occur. On those evenings Elinor always made an early move toward bed, and Lily would repair to her hot low-ceiled room, to sit in the darkness by the window and think long, painful thoughts.
That was how she learned of the conferences. She had no curiosity about them at first. They had something to do with the strike, she considered, and with that her interest died. Strikes were a symptom, and ultimately, through great thinkers like Mr. Doyle, they would discover the cure for the disease that caused them. She was quite content to wait for that time.
Then, one night, she went downstairs for a glass of ice water, and found the lower floor dark, and subdued voices coming from the study. The kitchen door was standing open, and she closed and locked it, placing the key, as was Elinor's custom, in a table drawer. The door was partly glass, and Elinor had a fear of the glass being broken and thus the key turned in the lock by some intruder.
On toward morning there came a violent hammering at her bedroom door, and Doyle's voice outside, a savage voice that she scarcely recognized. When she had thrown on her dressing gown and opened the door he had instantly caught her by the shoulder, and she bore the imprints of his fingers for days.
"Did you lock the kitchen door?" he demanded, his tones thick with fury.
"Yes. Why not?" She tried to shake off his hand, but failed.
"None of your business why not," he said, and gave her an angry shake. "Hereafter, when you find that door open, you leave it that way. That's all."
"Take your hands off me!" She was rather like her grandfather at that moment, and his lost caution came back. He freed her at once and laughed a little.
"Sorry!" he said. "I get a bit emphatic at times. But there are times when a locked door becomes a mighty serious matter."
The next day he removed the key from the door, and substituted a bolt. Elinor made no protest.
Another night Elinor was taken ill, and Lilly had been forced to knock at the study door and call Doyle. She had an instant's impression of the room crowded with strange figures. The heavy odors of sweating bodies, of tobacco, and of stale beer came through the half-open door and revolted her. And Doyle had refused to go upstairs.
She began to feel that she could not remain there very long. The atmosphere was variable. It was either cynical or sinister, and she hated them both. She had a curious feeling, too, that Doyle both wanted her there and did not want her, and that he was changing his attitude toward her Aunt Elinor. Sometimes she saw him watching Elinor from under half-closed eyelids.
But she could not fill her days with anxieties and suspicions, and she turned to Louis Akers as a flower to the open day. He at least was what he appeared to be. There was nothing mysterious about him.
He came in daily, big, dominant and demonstrative, filling the house with his presence, and demanding her in a loud, urgent voice. Hardly had the door slammed before he would call:
"Lily! Where are you?"
Sometimes he lifted her off her feet and held her to him.
"You little whiffet!" he would say. "I could crush you to death in my arms."
Had his wooing all been violent she might have tired sooner, because those phases of his passion for her tired her. But there were times when he put her into a chair and sat on the floor at her feet, his handsome face uplifted to hers in a sort of humble adoration, his arms across her knees. It was not altogether studied. He was a born wooer, but he had his hours of humility, of vague aspirations. His insistent body was always greater than his soul, but now and then, when he was physically weary, he had a spiritual moment.
"I love you, little girl," he would say.
It was in one of those moments that she extracted a promise from him. He had been, from his position on the floor, telling her about the campaign.
"I don't like your running against my father, Louis."
"He couldn't have got it, anyhow. And he doesn't want it. I do, honey. I need it in my business. When the election's over you're going to marry me."
She ignored that.
"I don't like the men who come here, Louis. I wish they were not friends of yours."
"Friends of mine! That bunch?"
"You are always with them."
"I draw a salary for being with them, honey."
"But what do you draw a salary for?" He was immediately on the alert, but her eyes were candid and unsuspicious. "They are strikers, aren't they?"
"Is it legal business?"
"Louis, is there going to be a general strike?"
"There may be some bad times coming, honey." He bent his head and kissed her hands, lying motionless in her lap. "I wish you would marry me soon. I want you. I want to keep you safe."
She drew her hands away.
"Safe from what, Louis?"
He sat back and looked up into her face.
"You must remember, dear, that for all your theories, which are very sweet, this is a man's world, and men have rather brutal methods of settling their differences."
"And you advocate brutality?"
"Well, the war was brutal, wasn't it? And you were in a white heat supporting it, weren't you? How about another war," - he chose his words carefully - "just as reasonable and just? You've heard Doyle. You know what I mean."
He was amazed at her horror, a horror that made her recoil from him and push his hands away when he tried to touch her. He got up angrily and stood looking down at her, his hands in his pockets.
"What the devil did you think all this talk meant?" he demanded. "You've heard enough of it."
"Does Aunt Elinor know?"
"And she approves?"
"I don't know and I don't care." Suddenly, with one of the quick changes she knew so well, he caught her hands and drawing her to her feet, put his arms around her. "All I know is that I love you, and if you say the word I'll cut the whole business."
He amended his offer somewhat.
"Marry me, honey," he begged. "Marry me now. Do you think I'll let anything in God's world come between us? Marry me, and I'll do more than leave them." He was whispering to her, stroking her hair. "I'll cut the whole outfit. And on the day I go into your house as your husband I'll tell your people some things they want to know. That's a promise."
"What will they do to you?"
He drew himself to his full height, and laughed.
"They'll try to do plenty, old girl," he said, "but I'm not afraid of them, and they know it. Marry me, Lily," he urged. "Marry me now. And we'll beat them out, you and I."
He gave her a sense of power, over him and over evil. She felt suddenly an enormous responsibility, that of a human soul waiting to be uplifted and led aright.
"You can save me, honey," he whispered, and kneeling suddenly, he kissed the toe of her small shoe.
He was strong. But he was weak too. He needed her. "I'll do it, Louis," she said. "You - you will be good to me, won't you?"
"I'm crazy about you."
The mood of exaltation upheld her through the night, and into the next day. Elinor eyed her curiously, and with some anxiety. It was a long time since she had been a girl, going about star-eyed with power over a man, but she remembered that lost time well.
At noon Louis came in for a hasty luncheon, and before he left he drew Lily into the little study and slipped a solitaire diamond on her engagement finger. To Lily the moment was almost a holy one, but he seemed more interested in the quality of the stone and its appearance on her hand than in its symbolism.
"Got you cinched now, honey. Do you like it?"
"It makes me feel that I don't belong to myself any longer."
"Well, you've passed into good hands," he said, and laughed his great, vibrant laugh. "Costing me money already, you mite!"
A little of her exaltation died then. But perhaps men were like that, shyly covering the things they felt deepest.
She was rather surprised when he suggested keeping the engagement a secret.
"Except the Doyles, of course," he said. "I am not taking any chances on losing you, child."
"Not unless you want to be kidnaped and taken home. It's only a matter of a day or two, anyhow."
"I want more time than that. A month, anyhow."
And he found her curiously obstinate and determined. She did not quite know herself why she demanded delay, except that she shrank from delivering herself into hands that were so tender and might be so cruel. It was instinctive, purely.
"A month," she said, and stuck to it.
He was rather sulky when he went away, and he had told her the exact amount he had paid for her ring.
Having forced him to agree to the delay, she found her mood of exaltation returning. As always, it was when he was not with he that she saw him most clearly, and she saw his real need for her. She had a sense of peace, too, now that at last something was decided. Her future, for better or worse, would no longer be that helpless waiting which had been hers for so long. And out of her happiness came a desire to do kind things, to pat children on the head, to give alms to beggars, and - to see Willy Cameron.
She came' downstairs that afternoon, dressed for the street.
"I am going out for a little while, Aunt Nellie," she said, "and when I come back I want to tell you something."
"Perhaps. I can guess."
"Perhaps you can."
She was singing to herself as she went out the door.
Elinor went back heavy-hearted to her knitting. It was very difficult always to sit by and wait. Never to raise a hand. Just to wait and watch." And pray.
Lily was rather surprised, when she reached the Eagle Pharmacy, to find Pink Denslow coming out. It gave her a little pang, too; he looked so clean and sane and normal, so much a part of her old life. And it hurt her, too, to see him flush with pleasure at the meeting.
"Why, Lily!" he said, and stood there, gazing at her, hat in hand, the sun on his gleaming, carefully brushed hair. He was quite inarticulate with happiness. "I - when did you get back?"
"I have not been away, Pink. I left home - it's a long story. I am staying with my aunt, Mrs. Doyle."
"Mrs. Doyle? You are staying there?"
"Why not? My father's sister."
His young face took on a certain sternness.
"If you knew what I suspect about Doyle, Lily, you wouldn't let the same roof cover you." But he added, rather wistfully, "I wish I might see you sometimes."
Lily's head had gone up a trifle. Why did her old world always try to put her in the wrong? She had had to seek sanctuary, and the Doyle house had been the only sanctuary she knew.
"Since you feel as you do, I'm afraid that's impossible. Mr. Doyle's roof is the only roof I have."
"You have a home," he said, sturdily.
"Not now. I left, and my grandfather won't have me back. You mustn't blame him, Pink. We quarreled and I left. I was as much responsible as he was."
For a moment after she turned and disappeared inside the pharmacy door he stood there, then he put on his hat and strode down the street, unhappy and perplexed. If only she had needed him, if she had not looked so self-possessed and so ever so faintly defiant, as though she dared him to pity her, he would have known what to do. All he needed was to be needed. His open face was full of trouble. It was unthinkable that Lily should be in that center of anarchy; more unthinkable that Doyle might have filled her up with all sorts of wild ideas. Women were queer; they liked theories. A man could have a theory of life and play with it and boast about it, but never dream of living up to it. But give one to a woman, and she chewed on it like a dog on a bone. If those Bolshevists had got hold of Lily - !
The encounter had hurt Lily, too. The fine edge of her exaltation was gone, and it did not return during her brief talk with Willy Cameron. He looked much older and very thin; there were lines around his eyes she had never seen before, and she hated seeing him in his present surroundings. But she liked him for his very unconsciousness of those surroundings. One always had to take Willy Cameron as he was.
"Do you like it, Willy?" she asked. It had dawned on her, with a sort of panic, that there was really very little to talk about. All that they had had in common lay far in the past.
"Well, it's my daily bread, and with bread costing what it does, I cling to it like a limpet to a rock."
"But I thought you were studying, so you could do something else."
"I had to give up the night school. But I'll get back to it sometime.
She was lost again. She glanced around the little shop, where once Edith Boyd had manicured her nails behind the counter, and where now a middle-aged woman stood with listless eyes looking out over the street.
"You still have Jinx, I suppose?"
"Yes. I - "
Lily glanced up as he stopped. She had drawn off her gloves, and his eyes had fallen on her engagement ring. To Lily there had always been a feeling of unreality about his declaration of love for her. He had been so restrained, so careful to ask nothing in exchange, so without expectation of return, that she had put it out of her mind as an impulse. She had not dreamed that he could still care, after these months of silence. But he had gone quite white.
"I am going to be married, Willy," she said, in a low tone. It is doubtful if he could have spoken, just then. And as if to add a finishing touch of burlesque to the meeting, a small boy with a swollen jaw came in just then and demanded something to "make it stop hurting."
He welcomed the interruption, she saw. He was very professional instantly, and so absorbed for a moment in relieving the child's pain that he could ignore his own.
"Let's see it," he said in a businesslike, slightly strained voice. "Better have it out, old chap. But I'll give you something just to ease it up a bit."
Which he proceeded to do. When he came back to Lily he was quite calm and self-possessed. As he had never thought of dramatizing himself, nor thought of himself at all, it did not occur to him that drama requires setting, that tragedy required black velvet rather than tooth-brushes, and that a small boy with an aching tooth was a comedy relief badly introduced.
All he knew was that he had somehow achieved a moment in which to steady himself, and to find that a man can suffer horribly and still smile. He did that, very gravely, when he came back to Lily.
"Can you tell me about it?"
"There is not very much to tell. It is Louis Akers."
The middle-aged clerk had disappeared.
"Of course you have thought over what that means, Lily."
"He wants me to marry him. He wants it very much, Willy. And - I know you don't like him, but he has changed. Women always think they have changed men, I know. But he is very different."
"I am sure of that," he said, steadily.
There was something childish about her, he thought. Childish and infinitely touching. He remembered a night at the camp, when some of the troops had departed for over-seas, and he had found her alone and crying in her hut. "I just can't let them go," she had sobbed. "I just can't. Some of them will never come back."
Wasn't there something of that spirit in her now, the feeling that she could not let Akers go, lest worse befall him? He did not know. All he knew was that she was more like the Lily Cardew he had known then than she had been since her return. And that he worshiped her.
But there was anger in him, too. Anger at Anthony Cardew. Anger at the Doyles. And a smoldering, bitter anger at Louis Akers, that he should take the dregs of his life and offer them to her as new wine. That he should dare to link his scheming, plotting days to this girl, so wise and yet so ignorant, so clear-eyed and yet so blind.
"Do they know at home?"
"I am going to tell mother to-day."
"Lily," he said, slowly, "there is one thing you ought to do. Go home, make your peace there, and get all this on the right footing. Then have him there. You have never seen him in that environment, yet that is the world he will have to live in, if you marry him. See how he fits there."
"What has that got to do with it?"
"Think a minute. Am I quite the same to you here, as I was in the camp?"
He saw her honest answer in her eyes.