A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
While Grace rested that afternoon of Lily's return, Lily ranged over the house. In twenty odd years the neighborhood had changed, and only a handful of the old families remained. Many of the other large houses were prostituted to base uses. Dingy curtains hung at their windows, dingy because of the smoke from the great furnaces and railroads. The old Osgood residence, nearby, had been turned into apartments, with bottles of milk and paper bags on its fire-escapes, and a pharmacy on the street floor. The Methodist Church, following its congregation to the vicinity of old Anthony's farm, which was now cut up into city lots, had abandoned the building, and it had become a garage. The penitentiary had been moved outside the city limits, and near its old site was a small cement-lined lake, the cheerful rendezvous in summer of bathing children and thirsty dogs.
Lily was idle, for the first time in months. She wandered about, even penetrating to those upper rooms sacred to her grandfather, to which he had retired on Howard's marriage. How strangely commonplace they were now, in the full light of day, and yet, when he was in them, the doors closed and only Burton, his valet, in attendance, how mysterious they became!
Increasingly, in later years, Lily had felt and resented the domination of the old man. She resented her father's acquiescence in that domination, her mother's good-humored tolerance of it. She herself had accepted it, although unwillingly, but she knew, rather vaguely, that the Lily Cardew who had gone away to the camp and the Lily Cardew who stood that day before her grandfather's throne-like chair under its lamp, were two entirely different people.
She was uneasy rather than defiant. She meant to keep the peace. She had been brought up to the theory that no price was too great to pay for peace. But she wondered, as she stood there, if that were entirely true. She remembered something Willy Cameron had said about that very thing.
"What's wrong with your grandfather," he had said, truculently, and waving his pipe, "is that everybody gets down and lets him walk on them. If everybody lets a man use them as doormats, you can't blame him for wiping his feet on them. Tell him that sometime, and see what happens."
"Tell him yourself!" said Lily.
He had smiled cheerfully. He had an engaging sort of smile.
"Maybe I will," he said. "I am a rising young man, and my voice may some day be heard in the land. Sometimes I feel the elements of greatness in me, sweet child. You haven't happened to notice it yourself, have you?"
He had gazed at her with solemn anxiety through the smoke of his pipe, and had grinned when she remained silent.
Lily drew a long breath. All that delightful fooling was over; the hard work was over. The nights were gone when they would wander like children across the parade grounds, or past the bayonet school, with its rows of tripods upholding imitation enemies made of sacks stuffed with hay, and showing signs of mortal injury with their greasy entrails protruding. Gone, too, were the hours when Willy sank into the lowest abyss of depression over his failure to be a fighting man.
"But you are doing your best for your country," she would say.
"I'm not fighting for it, or getting smashed up for it. I don't want to be a hero, but I'd like to have had one good bang at them before I quit."
Once she had found him in the hut, with his head on a table. He said he had a toothache.
Well, that was all over. She was back in her grandfather's house, and -
"He'll get me too, probably," she reflected, as she went down the stairs, "just as he's got all the others."
Mademoiselle was in Lily's small sitting room, while Castle was unpacking under her supervision. The sight of her uniforms made Lily suddenly restless.
"How you could wear these things!" cried Mademoiselle. "You, who have always dressed like a princess!"
"I liked them," said Lily, briefly. "Mademoiselle, what am I going to do with myself, now?"
"Do?" Mademoiselle smiled. "Play, as you deserve, Cherie. Dance, and meet nice young men. You are to make your debut this fall. Then a very charming young man, and marriage."
"Oh!" said Lily, rather blankly. "I've got to come out, have I? I'd forgotten people did such things. Please run along and do something else, Castle. I'll unpack."
"That is very bad for discipline," Mademoiselle objected when the maid had gone. "And it is not necessary for Mr. Anthony Cardew's granddaughter."
"It's awfully necessary for her," Lily observed, cheerfully. "I've been buttoning my own shoes for some time, and I haven't developed a spinal curvature yet." She kissed Mademoiselle's perplexed face lightly. "Don't get to worrying about me," she added. "I'll shake down in time, and be just as useless as ever. But I wish you'd lend me your sewing basket."
"Why?" asked Mademoiselle, suspiciously.
"Because I am possessed with a mad desire to sew on some buttons."
A little later Lily looked up from her rather awkward but industrious labors with a needle, and fixed her keen young eyes on Mademoiselle.
"Is there any news about Aunt Elinor?" she asked.
"She is with him," said Mademoiselle, shortly. "They are here now, in the city. How he dared to come back!"
"Does mother see her?"
"No. Certainly not."
"Why 'certainly' not? He is Aunt Elinor's husband. She isn't doing anything wicked."
"A woman who would leave a home like this," said Mademoiselle, "and a distinguished family. Position. Wealth. For a brute who beats her. And desert her child also!"
"Does he really beat her? I don't quite believe that, Mademoiselle."
"It is not a subject for a young girl."
"Because really," Lily went on, "there is something awfully big about a woman who will stick to one man like that. I am quite sure I would bite a man who struck me, but - suppose I loved him terribly - " her voice trailed off. "You see, dear, I have seen a lot of brutality lately. An army camp isn't a Sunday school picnic. And I like strong men, even if they are brutal sometimes."
Mademoiselle carefully cut a thread.
"This - you were speaking to Ellen of a young man. Is he a - what you term brutal?"
Suddenly Lily laughed.
"You poor dear!" she said. "And mother, too, of course! You're afraid I'm in love with Willy Cameron. Don't you know that if I were, I'd probably never even mention his name?"
"But is he brutal?" persisted Mademoiselle.
"I'll tell you about him. He is a thin, blond young man, tall and a bit lame. He has curly hair, and he puts pomade on it to take the curl out. He is frightfully sensitive about not getting in the army, and he is perfectly sweet and kind, and as brutal as a June breeze. You'd better tell mother. And you can tell her he isn't in love with me, or I with him. You see, I represent what he would call the monied aristocracy of America, and he has the most fearful ideas about us."
"An anarchist, then?" asked. Mademoiselle, extremely comforted.
"Not at all. He says he belongs to the plain people. The people in between. He is rather oratorical about them. He calls them the backbone of the country."
Mademoiselle relaxed. She had been too long in old Anthony's house to consider very seriously the plain people. Her world, like Anthony Cardew's, consisted of the financial aristocracy, which invested money in industries and drew out rich returns, while providing employment for the many; and of the employees of the magnates, who had recently shown strong tendencies toward upsetting the peace of the land, and had given old Anthony one or two attacks of irritability when it was better to go up a rear staircase if he were coming down the main one.
"Wait a moment," said Lily, suddenly. "I have a picture of him somewhere."
She disappeared, and Mademoiselle heard her rummaging through the drawers of her dressing table. She came back with a small photograph in her hand.
It showed a young man, in a large apron over a Red Cross uniform, bending over a low field range with a long-handled fork in his hand.
"Frying doughnuts," Lily explained. "I was in this hut at first, and I mixed them and cut them, and he fried them. We made thousands of them. We used to talk about opening a shop somewhere, Cardew and Cameron. He said my name would be fine for business. He'd fry them in the window, and I'd sell them. And a coffee machine - coffee and doughnuts, you know."
"Not - seriously?"
At the expression on Mademoiselle's face Lily laughed joyously.
"Why not?" she demanded. "And you could be the cashier, like the ones in France, and sit behind a high desk and count money all day. I'd rather do that than come out," she added.
"You are going to be a good girl, Lily, aren't you?"
"If that means letting grandfather use me for a doormat, I don't know."
"He's old, and I intend to be careful. But he doesn't own me, body and soul. And it may be hard to make him understand that."
Many times in the next few months Mademoiselle was to remember that conversation, and turn it aver in her shrewd, troubled mind. Was there anything she could have done, outside of warning old Anthony himself? Suppose she had gone to Mr. Howard Cardew?
"And how," said Mademoiselle, trying to smile, "do you propose to assert this new independence of spirit?"
"I am going to see Aunt Elinor," observed Lily. "There, that's eleven buttons on, and I feel I've earned my dinner. And I'm going to ask Willy Cameron to come here to see me. To dinner. And as he is sure not to have any evening clothes, for one night in their lives the Cardew men are going to dine in mufti. Which is military, you dear old thing, for the everyday clothing that the plain people eat in, without apparent suffering!"
Mademoiselle got up. She felt that Grace should be warned at once. And there was a look in Lily's face when she mentioned this Cameron creature that made Mademoiselle nervous.
"I thought he lived in the country."
"Then prepare yourself for a blow," said Lily Cardew, cheerfully. "He is here in the city, earning twenty-five dollars a week in the Eagle Pharmacy, and serving the plain people perfectly preposterous patent potions - which is his own alliteration, and pretty good, I say."
Mademoiselle went out into the hall. Over the house, always silent, there had come a death-like hush. In the lower hall the footman was hanging up his master's hat and overcoat. Anthony Cardew had come home for dinner.