A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
"Well, grandfather," said Lily Cardew, "the last of the Cardews is home from the wars."
"So I presume," observed old Anthony. "Owing, however, to your mother's determination to shroud this room in impenetrable gloom, I can only presume. I cannot see you."
His tone was less unpleasant than his words, however. He was in one of the rare moods of what passed with him for geniality. For one thing, he had won at the club that afternoon, where every day from four to six he played bridge with his own little group, reactionaries like himself, men who viewed the difficulties of the younger employers of labor with amused contempt. For another, he and Howard had had a difference of opinion, and he had, for a wonder, made Howard angry.
"Well, Lily," he inquired, "how does it seem to be at home?"
Lily eyed him almost warily. He was sometimes most dangerous in these moods.
"I'm not sure, grandfather."
"Not sure about what?"
"Well, I am glad to see everybody, of course. But what am I to do with myself?"
"Tut." He had an air of benignantly forgiving her. "You'll find plenty. What did you do before you went away?"
"That was different, grandfather."
"I'm blessed," said old Anthony, truculently, "if I understand what has come over this country, anyhow. What is different? We've had a war. We've had other wars, and we didn't think it necessary to change the Constitution after them. But everything that was right before this war is wrong after it. Lot of young idiots coming back and refusing to settle down. Set of young Bolshevists!"
He had always managed to arouse a controversial spirit in the girl.
"Maybe, if it isn't right now, it wasn't right before." Having said it, Lily immediately believed it. She felt suddenly fired with an intense dislike of anything that her grandfather advocated.
"Meaning what?" He fixed her with cold but attentive eyes.
"Oh - conditions," she said vaguely. She was not at all sure what she meant. And old Anthony realized it, and gave a sardonic chuckle.
"I advise you to get a few arguments from your father, Lily. He is full of them. If he had his way I'd have a board of my workmen running my mills, while I played golf in Florida."
Dinner was a relatively pleasant meal. In her gradual rehabilitation of the house Grace had finally succeeded in doing over the dining room. Over the old walnut paneling she had hung loose folds of faded blue Italian velvet, with old silver candle sconces at irregular intervals along the walls. The great table and high-backed chairs were likewise Italian, and the old-fashioned white marble fireplace had been given an over-mantel, also white, enclosing an old tapestry. For warmth of color there were always flowers, and that night there were red roses.
Lily liked the luxury of it. She liked the immaculate dinner dress of the two men; she liked her mother's beautiful neck and arms; she liked the quiet service once more; she even liked herself, moderately, in a light frock and slippers. But she watched it all with a new interest and a certain detachment. She felt strange and aloof, not entirely one of them. She felt very keenly that no one of them was vitally interested in this wonder-year of hers. They asked her perfunctory questions, but Grace's watchful eyes were on the service, Anthony was engrossed with his food, and her father -
Her father was changed. He looked older and care-worn. For the first time she began to wonder about her father. What was he, really, under that calm, fastidiously dressed, handsome exterior? Did he mind the little man with the sardonic smile and the swift unpleasant humor, whose glance reduced the men who served into terrified menials? Her big, blond father, with his rather slow speech, his honest eyes, his slight hesitation before he grasped some of the finer nuances of his father's wit. No, he was not brilliant, but he was real, real and kindly. Perhaps he was strong, too. He looked strong.
With the same pitiless judgment she watched her mother. Either Grace was very big, or very indifferent to the sting of old Anthony's tongue. Sometimes women suffered much in silence, because they loved greatly. Like Aunt Elinor. Aunt Elinor had loved her husband more than she had loved her child. Quite calmly Lily decided that, as between her husband and herself, her mother loved her husband. Perhaps that was as it should be, but it added to her sense of aloofness. And she wondered, too, about these great loves that seemed to feed on sacrifice.
Anthony, who had a most unpleasant faculty of remembering things, suddenly bent forward and observed to her, across the table:
"I should be interested to know, since you regard present conditions as wrong, and, I inferred, wrong because of my mishandling of them, just what you would propose to do to right them."
"But I didn't say they were wrong, did I?"
"Don't answer a question with a question. It's a feminine form of evasion, because you have no answer and no remedy. Yet, heaven save the country, women are going to vote!" He pushed his plate away and glanced at Grace. "Is that the new chef's work?"
"Yes. Isn't it right?"
"Right? The food is impossible."
"He came from the club."
"Send him back," ordered Anthony. And when Grace observed that it was difficult to get servants, he broke into a cold fury. What had come over the world, anyhow? Time was when a gentleman's servants stayed with the family until they became pensioners, and their children took their places. Now - !
Grace said nothing. Her eyes sought Howard's, and seemed to find some comfort there. And Lily, sorry for her mother, said the first thing that came into her head.
"The old days of caste are gone, grandfather. And service, in your sense of the word, went with them."
"Really?" he eyed her. "Who said that? Because I daresay it is not original."
"A man I knew at camp."
"His name was Willy Cameron."
"Willy Cameron! Was this - er - person qualified to speak? Does he know anything about what he chooses to call caste?"
"He thinks a lot about things."
"A little less thinking and more working wouldn't hurt the country any," observed old Anthony. He bent forward. "As my granddaughter, and the last of the Cardews," he said, "I have a certain interest in the sources of your political opinions. They will probably, like your father's, differ from mine. You may not know that your father has not only opinions, but ambitions." She saw Grace stiffen, and Howard's warning glance at her. But she saw, too, the look in her mother's eyes, infinitely loving and compassionate. "Dear little mother," she thought, "he is her baby, really. Not I."
She felt a vague stirring of what married love at its best must be for a woman, its strange complex of passion and maternity. She wondered if it would ever come to her. She rather thought not. But she was also conscious of a new attitude among the three at the table, her mother's tense watchfulness, her father's slightly squared shoulders, and across from her her grandfather, fingering the stem of his wineglass and faintly smiling.
"It's time somebody went into city politics for some purpose other than graft," said Howard. "I am going to run for mayor, Lily. I probably won't get it."
"You can see," said old Anthony, "why I am interested in your views, or perhaps I should say, in Willy Cameron's. Does your father's passion for uplift, for instance, extend to you?"
"Why won't you be elected, father?"
"Partly because my name is Cardew."
Old Anthony chuckled.
"What!" he exclaimed, "after the bath-house and gymnasium you have built at the mill? And the laundries for the women - which I believe they do not use. Surely, Howard, you would not accuse the dear people of ingratitude?"
"They are beginning to use them, sir." Howard, in his forties, still addressed his father as "Sir!"
"Then you admit your defeat beforehand."
"You are rather a formidable antagonist."
"Antagonist!" Anthony repeated in mock protest. "I am a quiet onlooker at the game. I am amused, naturally. You must understand," he said to Lily, "that this is a matter of a principle with your father. He believes that he should serve. My whole contention is that the people don't want to be served. They want to be bossed. They like it; it's all they know. And they're suspicious of a man who puts his hand into his own pocket instead of into theirs."
He smiled and sipped his wine.
"Good wine, this," he observed. "I'm buying all I can lay my hands on, against the approaching drought."
Lily's old distrust of her grandfather revived. Why did people sharpen like that with age? Age should be mellow, like old wine. And - what was she going to do with herself? Already the atmosphere of the house began to depress and worry her; she felt a new, almost violent impatience with it. It was so unnecessary.
She went to the pipe organ which filled the space behind the staircase, and played a little, but she had never been very proficient, and her own awkwardness annoyed her. In the dining room she could hear the men talking, Howard quietly, his father in short staccato barks. She left the organ and wandered into her mother's morning room, behind the drawing room, where Grace sat with the coffee tray before her.
"I'm afraid I'm going to be terribly on your hands, mother," she said, "I don't know what to do with myself, so how can you know what to do with me?"
"It is going to be rather stupid for you at first, of course," Grace said. "Lent, and then so many of the men are not at home. Would you like to go South?"
"Why, I've just come home!"
"We can have some luncheons, of course. Just informal ones. And there will be small dinners. You'll have to get some clothes. I saw Suzette yesterday. She has some adorable things."
"I'd love them. Mother, why doesn't he want father to go into politics?"
"He doesn't like change, for one thing. But I don't know anything about politics. Suzette says - "
"Will he try to keep him from being elected?"
"He won't support him. Of course I hardly think he would oppose him. I really don't understand about those things."
"You mean you don't understand him. Well, I do, mother. He has run everything, including father, for so long - "
"I must, mother. Why, out at the camp - " She checked herself. "All the papers say the city is badly governed, and that he is responsible. And now he is going to fight his own son! The more I think about it, the more I understand about Aunt Elinor. Mother, where do they live?"
Grace looked apprehensively toward the door. "You are not allowed to visit her."
"That's different. And I only go once or twice a year."
"Just because she married a poor man, a man whose father - "
"Not at all. That is all dead and buried. He is a very dangerous man. He is running a Socialist newspaper, and now he is inciting the mill men to strike. He is preaching terrible things. I haven't been there for months."
"What do you mean by terrible things, mother?"
"Your father says it amounts to a revolution. I believe he calls it a general strike. I don't really know much about it."
Lily pondered that.
"Socialism isn't revolution, mother, is it? But even then - is all this because grandfather drove his father to - "
"I wish you wouldn't, Lily. Of course it is not that. I daresay he believes what he preaches. He ought to be put into jail. Why the country lets such men go around, preaching sedition, I don't understand."
Lily remembered something else Willy Cameron had said, and promptly repeated it.
"We had a muzzled press during the war," she said, "and now we've got free speech. And one's as bad as the other. She must love him terribly, mother," she added.
But Grace harked back to Suzette, and the last of the Cardews harked with her. Later on people dropped in, and Lily made a real attempt to get back into her old groove, but that night, when she went upstairs to her bedroom, with its bright fire, its bed neatly turned down, her dressing gown and slippers laid out, the shaded lamps shining on the gold and ivory of her dressing table, she was conscious of a sudden homesickness. Homesickness for her bare little room in the camp barracks, for other young lives, noisy, chattering, often rather silly, occasionally unpleasant, but young. Radiantly, vitally young. The great house, with its stillness and decorum, oppressed her. There was no youth in it, save hers.
She went to her window and looked out. Years ago, like Elinor, she had watched the penitentiary walls from that window, with their endlessly pacing sentries, and had grieved for those men who might look up at the sky, or down at the earth, but never out and across, to see the spring trees, for instance, or the children playing on the grass. She remembered the story about Jim Doyle's escape, too. He had dug a perilous way to freedom. Vaguely she wondered if he were not again digging a perilous way to freedom.
Men seemed always to be wanting freedom, only they had so many different ideas of what freedom was. At the camp it had meant breaking bounds, balking the Military Police, doing forbidden things generally. Was that, after all, what freedom meant, to do the forbidden thing? Those people in Russia, for instance, who stole and burned and appropriated women, in the name of freedom. Were law and order, then, irreconcilable with freedom?
After she had undressed she rang her bell, and Castle answered it.
"Please find out if Ellen has gone to bed," she said. "If she has not, I would like to talk to her."
The maid looked slightly surprised.
"If it's your hair, Miss Lily, Mrs. Cardew has asked me to look after you until she has engaged a maid for you."
"Not my hair," said Lily, cheerfully. "I rather like doing it myself. I just want to talk to Ellen."
It was a bewildered and rather scandalized Castle who conveyed the message to Ellen.