A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
All through her teens Lily had wondered about the mystery concerning her Aunt Elinor. There was an oil portrait of her in the library, and one of the first things she had been taught was not to speak of it.
Now and then, at intervals of years, Aunt Elinor came back. Her mother and father would look worried, and Aunt Elinor herself would stay in her rooms, and seldom appeared at meals. Never at dinner. As a child Lily used to think she had two Aunt Elinors, one the young girl in the gilt frame, and the other the quiet, soft-voiced person who slipped around the upper corridors like a ghost.
But she was not to speak of either of them to her grandfather.
Lily was not born in the house on lower East Avenue.
In the late eighties Anthony built himself a home, not on the farm, but in a new residence portion of the city. The old common, grazing ground of family cows, dump and general eye-sore, had become a park by that time, still only a potentially beautiful thing, with the trees that were to be its later glory only thin young shoots, and on the streets that faced it the wealthy of the city built their homes, brick houses of square solidity, flush with brick pavements, which were carefully reddened on Saturday mornings. Beyond the pavements were cobble-stoned streets. Anthony Cardew was the first man in the city to have a rubber-tired carriage. The story of Anthony Cardew's new home is the story of Elinor's tragedy. Nor did it stop there. It carried on to the third generation, to Lily Cardew, and in the end it involved the city itself. Because of the ruin of one small home all homes were threatened. One small house, and one undying hatred.
Yet the matter was small in itself. An Irishman named Doyle owned the site Anthony coveted. After years of struggle his small grocery had begun to put him on his feet, and now the new development of the neighborhood added to his prosperity. He was a dried-up, sentimental little man, with two loves, his wife's memory and his wife's garden, which he still tended religiously between customers; and one ambition, his son. With the change from common to park, and the improvement in the neighborhood, he began to flourish, and he, too, like Anthony, dreamed a dream. He would make his son a gentleman, and he would get a shop assistant and a horse and wagon. Poverty was still his lot, but there were good times coming. He saved carefully, and sent Jim Doyle away to college.
He would not sell to Anthony. When he said he could not sell his wife's garden, Anthony's agents reported him either mad or deeply scheming. They kept after him, offering much more than the land was worth. Doyle began by being pugnacious, but in the end he took to brooding.
"He'll get me yet," he would mutter, standing among the white phlox of his little back garden. "He'll get me. He never quits."
Anthony Cardew waited a year. Then he had the frame building condemned as unsafe, and Doyle gave in. Anthony built his house. He put a brick stable where the garden had been, and the night watchman for the property complained that a little man, with wild eyes, often spent half the night standing across the street, quite still, staring over. If Anthony gave Doyle a thought, it was that progress and growth had their inevitable victims. But on the first night of Anthony's occupancy of his new house Doyle shot himself beside the stable, where a few stalks of white phlox had survived the building operations.
It never reached the newspapers, nor did a stable-boy's story of hearing the dying man curse Anthony and all his works. But nevertheless the story of the Doyle curse on Anthony Cardew spread. Anthony heard it, and forgot it. But two days later he was dragged from his carriage by young Jim Doyle, returned for the older Doyle's funeral, and beaten insensible with the stick of his own carriage whip.
Young Doyle did not run away. He stood by, a defiant figure full of hatred, watching Anthony on the cobbles, as though he wanted to see him revive and suffer.
"I didn't do it to revenge my father," he said at the trial. "He was nothing to me - I did it to show old Cardew that he couldn't get away with it. I'd do it again, too."
Any sentiment in his favor died at that, and he was given five years in the penitentiary. He was a demoralizing influence there, already a socialist with anarchical tendencies, and with the gift of influencing men. A fluent, sneering youth, who lashed the guards to fury with his unctuous, diabolical tongue.
The penitentiary had not been moved then. It stood in the park, a grim gray thing of stone. Elinor Cardew, a lonely girl always, used to stand in a window of the new house and watch the walls. Inside there were men who were shut away from all that greenery around them. Men who could look up at the sky, or down at the ground, but never out and across, as she could.
She was always hoping some of them would get away. She hated the sentries, rifle on shoulder, who walked their monotonous beats, back and forward, along the top of the wall.
Anthony's house was square and substantial, with high ceilings. It was paneled with walnut and furnished in walnut, in those days. Its tables and bureaus were of walnut, with cold white marble tops. And in the parlor was a square walnut piano, which Elinor hated because she had to sit there three hours each day, slipping on the top of the horsehair-covered stool, to practice. In cold weather her German governess sat in the frigid room, with a shawl and mittens, waiting until the onyx clock on the mantel-piece showed that the three hours were over.
Elinor had never heard the story of old Michael Doyle, or of his son Jim. But one night - she was seventeen then, and Jim Doyle had served three years of his sentence - sitting at dinner with her father, she said:
"Some convicts escaped from the penitentiary today, father."
"Don't believe it," said Anthony Cardew. "Nothing about it in the newspapers."
"Fraulein saw the hole."
Elinor had had an Alsatian governess. That was one reason why Elinor's niece had a French one.
"Hole? What do you mean by hole?"
Elinor shrank back a little. She had not minded dining with her father when Howard was at home, but Howard was at college. Howard had a way of good-naturedly ignoring his father's asperities, but Elinor was a suppressed, shy little thing, romantic, aloof, and filled with undesired affections. "She said a hole," she affirmed, diffidently. "She says they dug a tunnel and got out. Last night."
"Very probably," said Anthony Cardew. And he repeated, thoughtfully, "Very probably."
He did not hear Elinor when she quietly pushed back her chair and said "good-night." He was sitting at the table, tapping on the cloth with finger-tips that were slightly cold. That evening Anthony Cardew had a visit from the police, and considerable fiery talk took place in his library. As a result there was a shake-up in city politics, and a change in the penitentiary management, for Anthony Cardew had a heavy hand and a bitter memory. And a little cloud on his horizon grew and finally settled down over his life, turning it gray. Jim Doyle was among those who had escaped. For three months Anthony was followed wherever he went by detectives, and his house was watched at night. But he was a brave man, and the espionage grew hateful. Besides, each day added to his sense of security. There came a time when he impatiently dismissed the police, and took up life again as before.
Then one day he received a note, in a plain white envelope. It said: "There are worse things than death." And it was signed: "J. Doyle."
Doyle was not recaptured. Anthony had iron gratings put on the lower windows of his house after that, and he hired a special watchman. But nothing happened, and at last he began to forget. He was building the new furnaces up the river by that time. The era of structural steel for tall buildings was beginning, and he bought the rights of a process for making cement out of his furnace slag. He was achieving great wealth, although he did not change his scale of living.
Now and then Fraulein braved the terrors of the library, small neatly-written lists in her hands. Miss Elinor needed this or that. He would check up the lists, sign his name to them, and Elinor and Fraulein would have a shopping excursion. He never gave Elinor money.
On one of the lists one day he found the word, added in Elinor's hand: "Horse."
"Horse?" he said, scowling up at Fraulein. "There are six horses in the stable now."
"Miss Elinor thought - a riding horse - "
"Nonsense!" Then he thought a moment. There came back to him a picture of those English gentlewomen from among whom he had selected his wife, quiet-voiced, hard-riding, high-colored girls, who could hunt all day and dance all night. Elinor was a pale little thing. Besides, every gentlewoman should ride.
"She can't ride around here."
"Miss Elinor thought - there are bridle paths near the riding academy."
It was odd, but at that moment Anthony Cardew had an odd sort of vision. He saw the little grocer lying stark and huddled among the phlox by the stable, and the group of men that stooped over him.
"I'll think about it," was his answer.
But within a few days Elinor was the owner of a quiet mare, stabled at the academy, and was riding each day in the tan bark ring between its white-washed fences, while a mechanical piano gave an air of festivity to what was otherwise rather a solemn business.
Within a week of that time the riding academy had a new instructor, a tall, thin young man, looking older than he was, with heavy dark hair and a manner of repressed insolence. A man, the grooms said among themselves, of furious temper and cold eyes.
And in less than four months Elinor Cardew ran away from home and was married to Jim Doyle. Anthony received two letters from a distant city, a long, ecstatic but terrified one from his daughter, and one line on a slip of paper from her husband. The one line read: "I always pay my debts."
Anthony made a new will, leaving Howard everything, and had Elinor's rooms closed. Frau1ein went away, weeping bitterly, and time went on. Now and then Anthony heard indirectly from Doyle. He taught in a boys' school for a time, and was dismissed for his radical views. He did brilliant editorial work on a Chicago newspaper, but now and then he intruded his slant-eyed personal views, and in the end he lost his position. Then he joined the Socialist party, and was making speeches containing radical statements that made the police of various cities watchful. But he managed to keep within the letter of the law.
Howard Cardew married when Elinor had been gone less than a year. Married the daughter of a small hotel-keeper in his college town, a pretty, soft-voiced girl, intelligent and gentle, and because Howard was all old Anthony had left, he took her into his home. But for many years he did not forgive her. He had one hope, that she would give Howard a son to carry on the line. Perhaps the happiest months of Grace Cardew's married life were those before Lily was born, when her delicate health was safeguarded in every way by her grim father-in-law. But Grace bore a girl child, and very nearly died in the bearing. Anthony Cardew would never have a grandson.
He was deeply resentful. The proud fabric of his own weaving would descend in the fullness of time to a woman. And Howard himself - old Anthony was pitilessly hard in his judgments - Howard was not a strong man. A good man. A good son, better than he deserved. But amiable, kindly, without force.
Once the cloud had lifted, and only once. Elinor had come home to have a child. She came at night, a shabby, worn young woman, with great eyes in a chalk-white face, and Grayson had not recognized her at first. He got her some port from the dining-room before he let her go into the library, and stood outside the door, his usually impassive face working, during the interview which followed. Probably that was Grayson's big hour, for if Anthony turned her out he intended to go in himself, and fight for the woman he had petted as a child.
But Anthony had not turned her out. He took one comprehensive glance at her thin face and distorted figure. Then he said:
"So this is the way you come back."
"He drove me out," she said dully. "He sent me here. He knew I had no place else to go. He knew you wouldn't want me. It's revenge, I suppose. I'm so tired, father."
Yes, it was revenge, surely. To send back to him this soiled and broken woman, bearing the mark he had put upon her - that was deviltry, thought out and shrewdly executed. During the next hour Anthony Cardew suffered, and made Elinor suffer, too. But at the end of that time he found himself confronting a curious situation. Elinor, ashamed, humbled, was not contrite. It began to dawn on Anthony that Jim Doyle's revenge was not finished. For - Elinor loved the man.
She both hated him and loved him. And that leering Irish devil knew it.
He sent for Grace, finally, and Elinor was established in the house. Grace and little Lily's governess had themselves bathed her and put her to bed, and Mademoiselle had smuggled out of the house the garments Elinor had worn into it. Grace had gone in the motor - one of the first in the city - and had sent back all sorts of lovely garments for Elinor to wear, and quantities of fine materials to be made into tiny garments. Grace was a practical woman, and she disliked the brooding look in Elinor's eyes.
"Do you know," she said to Howard that night, "I believe she is quite mad about him still."
"He ought to be drawn and quartered," said Howard, savagely.
Anthony Cardew gave Elinor sanctuary, but he refused to see her again. Except once.
"Then, if it is a boy, you want me to leave him with you?" she asked, bending over her sewing.
"Leave him with me! Do you mean that you intend to go back to that blackguard?"
"He is my husband. He isn't always cruel."
"Good God!" shouted Anthony. "How did I ever happen to have such a craven creature for a daughter?"
"Anyhow," said Elinor, "it will be his child, father."
"When he turned you out, like any drab of the streets!" bellowed old Anthony. "He never cared for you. He married you to revenge himself on me. He sent you back here for the same reason. He'll take your child, and break its spirit and ruin its body, for the same reason. The man's a maniac.
But again, as on the night she came, he found himself helpless against Elinor's quiet impassivity. He knew that, let Jim Doyle so much as raise a beckoning finger, and she would go to him. He did not realize that Elinor had inherited from her quiet mother the dog-like quality of love in spite of cruelty. To Howard he stormed. He considered Elinor's infatuation indecent. She was not a Cardew. The Cardew women had some pride. And Howard, his handsome figure draped negligently against the library mantel, would puzzle over it, too.
"I'm blessed if I understand it," he would say.
Elinor's child had been a boy, and old Anthony found some balm in Gilead. Jim Doyle had not raised a finger to beckon, and if he knew of his son, he made no sign. Anthony still ignored Elinor, but he saw in her child the third generation of Cardews. Lily he had never counted. He took steps to give the child the Cardew name, and the fact was announced in the newspapers. Then one day Elinor went out, and did not come back. It was something Anthony Cardew had not counted on, that a woman could love a man more than her child.
"I simply had to do it, father," she wrote. "You won't understand, of course. I love him, father. Terribly. And he loves me in his way, even when he is unfaithful to me. I know he has been that. Perhaps if you had wanted me at home it would have been different. But it kills me to leave the baby. The only reason I can bring myself to do it is that, the way things are, I cannot give him the things he ought to have. And Jim does not seem to want him. He has never seen him, for one thing. Besides - I am being honest - I don't think the atmosphere of the way we live would be good for a boy."
There was a letter to Grace, too, a wild hysterical document, filled with instructions for the baby's care. A wet nurse, for one thing. Grace read it with tears in her eyes, but Anthony saw in it only the ravings of a weak and unbalanced woman.
He never forgave Elinor, and once more the little grocer's curse thwarted his ambitions. For, deprived of its mother's milk, the baby died. Old Anthony sometimes wondered if that, too, had been calculated, a part of the Doyle revenge.