A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Lily had known Alston Denslow most of her life. The children of that group of families which formed the monied aristocracy of the city knew only their own small circle. They met at dancing classes, where governesses and occasionally mothers sat around the walls, while the little girls, in handmade white frocks of exquisite simplicity, their shining hair drawn back and held by ribbon bows, made their prim little dip at the door before entering, and the boys, in white Eton collars and gleaming pumps, bowed from the waist and then dived for the masculine corner of the long room.
No little girl ever intruded on that corner, although now and then a brave spirit among the boys would wander, with assumed unconsciousness but ears rather pink, to the opposite corner where the little girls were grouped like white butterflies milling in the sun.
The pianist struck a chord, and the children lined up, the girls on one side, the boys on the other, a long line, with Mrs. Van Buren in the center. Another chord, rather a long one. Mrs. Van Buren curtsied to the girls. The line dipped, wavered, recovered itself. Mrs. Van Buren turned. Another chord. The boys bent, rather too much, from the waist, while Mrs. Van Buren swept another deep curtsey. The music now, very definite as to time. Glide and short step to the right. Glide and short step to the left. Dancing school had commenced. Outside were long lines of motors waiting. The governesses chatted, and sometimes embroidered. Mademoiselle tatted.
Alton Denslow was generally known as Pink, but the origin of the name was shrouded in mystery. As "Pink" he had learned to waltz at the dancing class, at a time when he was more attentive to the step than to the music that accompanied it. As Pink Denslow he had played on a scrub team at Harvard, and got two broken ribs for his trouble, and as Pink he now paid intermittent visits to the Denslow Bank, between the hunting season in October and polo at eastern fields and in California. At twenty-three he was still the boy of the dancing class, very careful at parties to ask his hostess to dance, and not noticeably upset when she did, having arranged to be cut in on at the end of the second round.
Pink could not remember when he had not been in love with Lily Cardew. There had been other girls, of course, times when Lily seemed far away from Cambridge, and some other fair charmer was near. But he had always known there was only Lily. Once or twice he would have become engaged, had it not been for that. He was a blond boy, squarely built, good-looking without being handsome, and on rainy Sundays when there was no golf he went quite cheerfully to St. Peter's with his mother, and watched a pretty girl in the choir.
He wished at those times that he could sing.
A pleasant cumberer of the earth, he had wrapped his talents in a napkin and buried them by the wayside, and promptly forgotten where they were. He was to find them later on, however, not particularly rusty, and he increased them rather considerably before he got through.
It was this pleasant cumberer of the earth, then, who on the morning after Lily's return, stopped his car before the Cardew house and got out. Immediately following his descent he turned, took a square white box from the car, ascended the steps, settled his neck in his collar and his tie around it, and rang the bell.
The second man, hastily buttoned into his coat and with a faint odor of silver polish about him, opened the door. Pink gave him his hat, but retained the box firmly.
"Mrs. Cardew and Miss Cardew at home?" he asked. "Yes? Then you might tell Grayson I'm here to luncheon - unless the family is lunching out."
"Yes, sir," said the footman. "No, sir, they are lunching at home."
Pink sauntered into the library. He was not so easy as his manner indicated. One never knew about Lily. Sometimes she was in a mood when she seemed to think a man funny, and not to be taken seriously. And when she was serious, which was the way he liked her - he rather lacked humor - she was never serious about him or herself. It had been religion once, he remembered. She had wanted to know if he believed in the thirty-nine articles, and because he had seen them in the back of the prayer-book, where they certainly would not be if there was not authority for them, he had said he did.
"Well, I don't," said Lily. And there had been rather a bad half-hour, because he had felt that he had to stick to his thirty-nine guns, whatever they were. He had finished on a rather desperate note of appeal.
"See here, Lily," he had said. "Why do you bother your head about such things, anyhow?"
"Because I've got a head, and I want to use it."
"Life's too short."
"Eternity's pretty long. Do you believe in eternity?" And there they were, off again, and of course old Anthony had come in after that, and had wanted to know about his Aunt Marcia, and otherwise had shown every indication of taking root on the hearth rug.
Pink was afraid of Anthony. He felt like a stammering fool when Anthony was around. That was why he had invited himself to luncheon. Old Anthony lunched at his club.
When he heard Lily coming down the stairs, Pink's honest heart beat somewhat faster. A good many times in France, but particularly on the ship coming back, he had thought about this meeting. In France a fellow had a lot of distractions, and Lily had seemed as dear as ever, but extremely remote. But once turned toward home, and she had filled the entire western horizon. The other men had seen sunsets there, and sometimes a ship, or a school of porpoises. But Pink had seen only Lily.
She came in. The dear old girl! The beautiful, wonderful, dear old girl! The -
"H - hello, Lily."
"Why, Pink - you're a man!"
"What'd you think I'd be? A girl?"
"Oh, now see here, Lily. I quit growing years ago."
"And to think you are back all right. I was so worried, Pink."
He flushed at that.
"Needn't have worried," he said, rather thickly. "Didn't get to the front until just before the end. My show was made a labor division in the south of France. If you laugh, I'll take my flowers and go home."
"Why, Pink dear, I wouldn't laugh for anything. And it was the man behind the lines who - "
"Won the war," he finished for her, rather grimly. "All right, Lily. We've heard it before. Anyhow, it's all done and over, and - I brought gardenias and violets. You used to like 'em."
"It was dear of you to remember."
"Couldn't help remembering. No credit to me. I - you were always in my mind."
She was busily unwrapping the box.
"Always," he repeated, unsteadily.
"What gorgeous things!" she buried her face in them.
"Did you hear what I said, Lily?"
"Yes, and it's sweet of you. Now sit down and tell me about things. I've got a lot to tell you, too."
He had a sort of quiet obstinacy, however, and he did not sit down. When she had done so he stood in front of her, looking down at her.
"You've been in a camp. I know that. I heard it over there. Anne Devereaux wrote me. It worried me because - we had girls in the camps over there, and every one of them had a string of suitors a mile long."
"Well, I didn't," said Lily, spiritedly. Then she laughed. He had been afraid she would laugh. "Oh, Pink, how dear and funny and masculine you are! I have a perfectly uncontrollable desire to kiss you."
Which she did, to his amazement and consternation. Nothing she could have done would more effectually have shown him the hopelessness of his situation than that sisterly impulse.
"Good Lord," he gasped, "Grayson's in the hall."
"If he comes in I shall probably do it again. Pink, you darling child, you are still the little boy at Mrs. Van Buren's and if you would only purse your lips and count one - two - three - Are you staying to luncheon?"
He was suffering terribly. Also he felt strangely empty inside, because something that he had carried around with him for a long time seemed to have suddenly moved out and left a vacancy.
"Thanks. I think not, Lily; I've got a lot to do to-day."
She sat very still. She had had to do it, had had to show him, somehow, that she loved him without loving him as he wanted her to. She had acted on impulse, on an impulse born of intention, but she had hurt him. It was in every line of his rigid body and set face.
"You're not angry, Pink dear?"
"There's nothing to be angry about," he said, stolidly. "Things have been going on, with me, and staying where they've always been, with you. That's all. I'm not very keen, you know, and I used to think - Your people like me. I mean, they wouldn't - "
"Everybody likes you, Pink."
"Well, I'll trot along." He moved a step, hesitated. "Is there anybody else, Lily?"
"You won't mind if I hang around a bit, then? You can always send me off when you are sick of me. Which you couldn't if you were fool enough to marry me."
"Whoever does marry you, dear, will be a lucky woman."
In the end he stayed to luncheon, and managed to eat a very fair one. But he had little lapses into silence, and Grace Cardew drew her own shrewd conclusions.
"He's such a nice boy, Lily," she said, after he had gone. "And your grandfather would like it. In a way I think he expects it."
"I'm not going to marry to please him, mother."
"But you are fond of Alston."
"I want to marry a man, mother. Pink is a boy. He will always be a boy. He doesn't think; he just feels. He is fine and loyal and honest, but I would loathe him in a month."
"I wish," said Grace Cardew unhappily, "I wish you had never gone to that camp."
All afternoon Lily and Grace shopped. Lily was fitted into shining evening gowns, into bright little afternoon frocks, into Paris wraps. The Cardew name was whispered through the shops, and great piles of exotic things were brought in for Grace's critical eye. Lily's own attitude was joyously carefree. Long lines of models walked by, draped in furs, in satins and velvet and chiffon, tall girls, most of them, with hair carefully dressed, faces delicately tinted and that curious forward thrust at the waist and slight advancement of one shoulder that gave them an air of languorous indifference.
"The only way I could get that twist," Lily confided to her mother, "would be to stand that way and be done up in plaster of paris. It is the most abandoned thing I ever saw."
Grace was shocked, and said so.
Sometimes, during the few hours since her arrival, Lily had wondered if her year's experiences had coarsened her. There were so many times when her mother raised her eyebrows. She knew that she had changed, that the granddaughter of old Anthony Cardew who had come back from the war was not the girl who had gone away. She had gone away amazingly ignorant; what little she had known of life she had learned away at school. But even there she had not realized the possibility of wickedness and vice in the world. One of the girls had run away with a music master who was married, and her name was forbidden to be mentioned. That was wickedness, like blasphemy, and a crime against the Holy Ghost.
She had never heard of prostitution. Near the camp there was a district with a bad name, and the girls of her organization were forbidden to so much as walk in that direction. It took her a long time to understand, and she suffered horribly when she did. There were depths of wickedness, then, and of abasement like that in the world. It was a bad world, a cruel, sordid world. She did not want to live in it.
She had had to reorganize all her ideas of life after that. At first she was flamingly indignant. God had made His world clean and beautiful, and covered it with flowers and trees that grew, cleanly begotten, from the earth. Why had He not stopped there? Why had He soiled it with passion and lust?
It was a little Red Cross nurse who helped her, finally.
"Very well," she said. "I see what you mean. But trees and flowers are not God's most beautiful gift to the world."
"I think they are."
"No. It is love."
"I am not talking about love," said Lily, flushing.
"Oh, yes, you are. You have never loved, have you? You are talking of one of the many things that go to make up love, and out of that one phase of love comes the most wonderful thing in the world. He gives us the child."
"All bodies are not whole, and not all souls. It is wrong to judge life by its exceptions, or love by its perversions, Lily."
It had been the little nurse finally who cured her, for she secured Lily's removal to that shady house on a by-street, where the tragedies of unwise love and youth sought sanctuary. There were prayers there, morning and evening. They knelt, those girls, in front of their little wooden chairs, and by far the great majority of them quite simply laid their burdens before God, and with an equal simplicity, felt that He would help them out.
"We have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws.... Restore Thou those who are penitent, according to Thy promises.... And grant, Oh most merciful Father, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous and sober life."
After a time Lily learned something that helped her. The soul was greater and stronger than the body and than the mind. The body failed. It sinned, but that did not touch the unassailable purity and simplicity of the soul. The soul, which lived on, was always clean. For that reason there was no hell.
Lily rose and buttoned her coat. Grace was fastening her sables, and making a delayed decision in satins.
"Mother, I've been thinking it over. I am going to see Aunt Elinor."
Grace waited until the saleswoman had moved away.
"I don't like it, Lily."
"I was thinking, while we were ordering all that stuff. She is a Cardew, mother. She ought to be having that sort of thing. And just because grandfather hates her husband, she hasn't anything."
"That is rather silly, dear. They are not in want. I believe he is quite flourishing."
"She is father's sister. And she is a good woman. We treat her like a leper."
Grace was weakening. "If you take the car, your grandfather may hear of it."
"I'll take a taxi."
Grace followed her with uneasy eyes. For years she paid a price for peace, and not a small price. She had placed her pride on the domestic altar, and had counted it a worthy sacrifice for Howard's sake. And she had succeeded. She knew Anthony Cardew had never forgiven her and would never like her, but he gave her, now and then, the tribute of a grudging admiration.
And now Lily had come home, a new and different Lily, with her father's lovableness and his father's obstinacy. Already Grace saw in the girl the beginning of a passionate protest against things as they were. Perhaps, had Grace given to Lily the great love of her life, instead of to Howard, she might have understood her less clearly. As it was, she shivered slightly as she got into the limousine.