A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
When Lily had been at home for some time, and Louis Akers had made no attempt to see her, or to announce the marriage, the vigilance of the household began to relax. Howard Cardew had already consulted the family lawyer about an annulment, and that gentleman had sent a letter to Akers, which had received no reply.
Then one afternoon Grayson, whose instructions had been absolute as to admitting Akers to the house, opened the door to Mrs. Denslow, who was calling, and found behind that lady Louis Akers himself. He made an effort to close the door behind the lady, but Akers was too quick for him, and a scene at the moment was impossible.
He ushered Mrs. Denslow into the drawing room, and coming out, closed the doors.
"My instructions, sir, are to say to you that the ladies are not at home."
But Akers held out his hat and gloves with so ugly a look that Grayson took them.
"I have come to see my wife," he said. "Tell her that, and that if she doesn't see me here I'll go upstairs and find her."
When Grayson still hesitated he made a move toward the staircase, and the elderly servant, astounded at the speech and the movement, put down the hat and faced him.
"I do not recognize any one in the household by that name, sir.
"You don't, don't you? Very well. Tell Miss Cardew I am here, and that either she will come down or I'll go up. I'll wait in the library.
He watched Grayson start up the stairs, and then went into the library. He was very carefully dressed, and momentarily exultant over the success of his ruse, but he was uneasy, too, and wary, and inclined to regard the house as a possible trap. He had made a gambler's venture, risking everything on the cards he held, and without much confidence in them. His vanity declined to believe that his old power over Lily was gone, but he had held a purely physical dominance over so many women that he knew both his strength and his limitations.
What he could not understand, what had kept him awake so many nights since he had seen her, was her recoil from him on Willy Cameron's announcement. She had known he had led the life of his sort; he had never played the plaster saint to her. And she had accepted her knowledge of his connection with the Red movement, on his mere promise to reform. But this other, this-accident, and she had turned from him with a horror that made him furious to remember. These silly star-eyed virgins, who accepted careful abstractions and then turned sick at life itself, a man was a fool to put himself in their hands.
Mademoiselle was with Lily in her boudoir when Grayson came up, a thin, tired-faced, suddenly old Mademoiselle, much given those days to early masses, during which she prayed for eternal life for the man who had ruined Lily's life, and that soon. To Mademoiselle marriage was a final thing and divorce a wickedness against God and His establishment on earth.
Lily, rather like Willy Cameron, was finding on her spirit at that time a burden similar to his, of keeping up the morale of the household.
Grayson came in and closed the door behind him. Anger and anxiety were in his worn old face, and Lily got up quickly. "What is it, Grayson?"
"I'm sorry, Miss lily. He was in the vestibule behind Mrs. Denslow, and I couldn't keep him out. I think he had waited for some one to call, knowing I couldn't make a scene."
Mademoiselle turned to Lily.
"You must not see him," she said in rapid French. "Remain here, and I shall telephone for your father. Lock your door. He May come up. He will do anything, that man."
"I am going down," Lily said quietly. "I owe him that. You need not be frightened. And don't tell mother; it will only worry her and do no good."
Her heart was beating fast as she went down the stairs. From the drawing room came the voices of Grace and Mrs. Denslow, chatting amiably. The second man was carrying in tea, the old silver service gleaming. Over all the lower floor was an air of peace and comfort, the passionless atmosphere of daily life running in old and easy grooves.
When Lily entered the library she closed the door behind her. She had, on turning, a swift picture of Grayson, taking up his stand in the hall, and it gave her a sense of comfort. She knew he would remain there, impassively waiting, so long as Akers was in the house.
Then she faced the man standing by the center table. He made no move toward her, did not even speak at once. It left on her the burden of the opening, of setting the key of what was to come. She was steady enough now.
"Perhaps it is as well that you came, Louis," she said. "I suppose we must talk it over some time."
"Yes," he agreed, his eyes on her. "We must. I have married a wife, and I want her, Lily."
"You know that is impossible."
"Because of something that happened before I knew you? I never made any pretensions about my life before we met. But I did promise to go straight if you'd have me, and I have. I've lived up to my bargain. What about you?"
"It was not a part of my bargain to marry you while you - I have thought and thought, Louis. There is only one thing to be done. You will have to divorce me, and marry her."
"Marry her? A girl of the streets, who chooses to say that I am the father of her child! It's the oldest trick in the word. Besides - " He played his best card - "she won't marry me. Ask Cameron, who chose to make himself so damned busy about my affairs. He's in love with her. Ask him."
In spite of herself Lily winced. Out of the wreckage of the past few weeks one thing had seemed to remain, something to hold to, solid and dependable and fine, and that had been Willy Cameron. She had found, in these last days, something infinitely comforting in the thought that he cared for her. It was because he had cared that he had saved her from herself. But, if this were true -
"I am not going back to you, Louis. I think you know that. No amount of talking about things can change that."
"Why don't you face life and try to understand it?" he demanded, brutally. "Men are like that. Women are like that - sometimes. You can't measure human passions with a tape line. That's what you good women try to do, and you make life a merry little hell." He made an effort, and softened his voice. "I'll be true to you, Lily, if you'll come back."
"No," she said, "you would mean to be, but you would not. You have no foundation to build on."
"Meaning that I am not a gentleman."
"Not that. I know you, that's all. I understand so much that I didn't before. What you call love is only something different. When that was gone there would be the same thing again. You would be sorry, but I would be lost."
Her coolness disconcerted him. Two small triangular bits of color showed in his face. He had been prepared for tears, even for a refusal to return, but this clear-eyed appraisal of himself, and the accuracy of it, confused him. He took refuge in the only method he knew; he threw himself on her pity; he made violent, passionate love to her, but her only expression was one of distaste. When at last he caught her to him she perforce submitted, a frozen thing that told him, more than any words, how completely he had lost her. He threw her away from him, then, baffled and angry.
"You little devil!" he said. "You cold little devil!"
"I don't love you. That's all. I think now that I never did."
"You pretended damned well."
"Don't you think you'd better go?" Lily said wearily. "I don't like to hurt you. I am to blame for a great deal. But there is no use going on, is there? I'll give you your freedom as soon as I can. You will want that, of course."
"My freedom! Do you think I am going to let you go like that? I'll fight you and your family in every court in the country before I give you up. You can't bring Edith Boyd up against me, either. If she does that I'll bring up other witnesses, other men, and she knows it."
Lily was very pale, but still calm. She made a movement toward the bell, but he caught her hand before she could ring it.
"I'll get your Willy Cameron, too," he said, his face distorted with anger. "I'll get him good. You've done a bad thing for your friends and your family to-day, Lily. I'll go the limit on getting back at them. I've got the power, and by God, I'll use it."
He flung out into the hall, and toward the door. There he encountered Grayson, who reminded him of his hat and gloves, or he would have gone without them.
Grayson, going into the library a moment later, found Lily standing there, staring ahead and trembling violently. He brought her a cup of tea, and stood by, his old face working, while she drank it.