A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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Howard Cardew was in his dressing room, sitting before the fire. His man had put out his dinner clothes and retired, and Howard was sifting before the fire rather listlessly.
In Grace's room, adjoining, he could hear movements and low voices. Before Lily's return, now and then when he was tired Grace and he had dined by the fire in her boudoir. It had been very restful. He was still in love with his wife, although, as in most marriages, there was one who gave more than the other. In this case it was Grace who gave, and Howard who received. But he loved her. He never thought of other women. Only his father had never let him forget her weaknesses.
Sometimes he was afraid that he was looking at Grace with his father's eyes, rather than his own.
He had put up a hard fight with his father. Not about Grace. That was over and done with, although it had been bad while it lasted. But his real struggle had been to preserve himself, to keep his faiths and his ideals, and even his personality. In the inessentials he had yielded easily, and so bought peace. Or perhaps a truce, of a sort. But for the essentials he was standing with a sort of dogged conviction that if he lowered his flag it would precipitate a crisis. He was not brilliant, but he was intelligent, progressive and kindly. He knew that his father considered him both stupid and obstinate.
There was going to be a strike. The quarrel now was between Anthony's curt "Let them strike," and his own conviction that a strike at this time might lead to even worse things. 'The men's demands were exorbitant. No business, no matter how big, could concede them and live. But Howard was debating another phase of the situation.
Not all the mills would go down. A careful canvass of some of the other independent concerns had shown the men eighty, ninety, even one hundred per cent, loyal. Those were the smaller plants, where there had always been a reciprocal good feeling between the owners and the men; there the men knew the owners, and the owners knew the men, who had been with them for years.
But the Cardew Mills would go down. There had been no liaison between the Cardews and the workmen. The very magnitude of the business forbade that. And for many years, too, the Cardews had shown a gross callousness to the welfare of the laborers. Long ago he had urged on his father the progressive attitude of other steel men, but Anthony had jeered, and when Howard had forced the issue and gained concessions, it was too late. The old grievances remained in too many minds. To hate the Cardews bad become a habit. Their past sins would damn them now. The strike was wrong, a wicked thing. It was without reason and without aim. The men were knocking a hole in the boat that floated them. But-
There was a tap at his door, and he called "Come in." From her babyhood Lily had had her own peculiar method of signaling that she stood without, a delicate rapid tattoo of finger nails on the panel. He watched smilingly for her entrance.
"Well!" she said. "Thank goodness you haven't started to dress. I tried to get here earlier, but my hair wouldn't go up, I want to make a good impression to-night."
"Is there a dinner on? TI didn't know it."
"Not a dinner. A young man. I came to see what you are going to wear."
"Really! Well, I haven't a great variety. The ordinary dinner dress of a gentleman doesn't lend itself to any extraordinary ornamentation. If you like, I'll pin on that medal from the Iron and Steel - Who's coming, Lily?"
"Grayson says grandfather's dining out."
"I believe so.”
"What a piece of luck! I mean - you know what he'd say if I asked him not to dress for dinner."
"Am I to gather that you are asking me?"
"You wouldn't mind, would you? He hasn't any evening clothes."
"Look here, Lily," said her father, sitting upright.
"Who is coming here to-night? And why should he upset the habits of the entire family?"
"Willy Cameron. You know, father. And he has the queerest ideas about us. Honestly. And I want him to like us, and it's such a good chance, with grandfather out."
He ignored that.
"How about our liking him?"
"Oh, you'll like him. Everybody does. You will try to make a good impression, won't you, father?"
He got up, and resting his hands on her shoulders, smiled down into her upturned face. "I will," he said. "But I think I should tell you that your anxiety arouses deep and black suspicions in my mind. Am I to understand that you have fixed your young affections on this Willy Cameron, and that you want your family to help you in your dark designs?"
"I love him," she said. "I really do. I could listen to him for hours. But people don't want to marry Willy Cameron. They just love him."
There was born in Howard's mind a vision of a nice pink and white young man, quite sexless, whom people loved but did not dream of marrying.
"I see," he said slowly. "Like a puppy."
"Not at all like a puppy.”
"I'm afraid I'm not subtle, my dear. Well, ring for Adams, and - you think he wouldn't care for the medal?"
"I think he'd love it. He'd probably think some king gave it to you. I'm sure he believes that you and grandfather habitually hobnob with kings." She turned to go out. "He doesn't approve of kings."
"You are making me extremely uneasy," was her father's shot. "I only hope I acquit myself well."
"Hurry, then. He is sure to be exactly on the hour." Howard was still smiling slightly to himself when, a half-hour later, he descended the staircase. But he had some difficulty first in reconciling his preconceived idea of Willy with the tall young man, with the faint unevenness of step, who responded to his greeting so calmly and so easily. "We are always glad to see any of Lily's friends."
"It is very good of you to let me come, sir."
Why, the girl was blind. This was a man, a fine, up-standing fellow, with a clean- cut, sensitive face, and honest, almost beautiful eyes. How did women judge men, anyhow?
And, try as he would, Howard Cardew could find no fault with Willy Cameron that night. He tried him out on a number of things. In religion, for instance, he was orthodox, although he felt that the church had not come up fully during the war.
"Religion isn't a matter only of churches any more," said Mr. Cameron. "It has to go out into the streets, I think, sir. It's a-well, Christ left the tabernacle, you remember."
That was all right. Howard felt that himself sometimes. He was a vestryman at Saint Peter's, and although he felt very devout during the service, especially during the offertory, when the music filled the fine old building, he was often conscious that he shed his spirituality at the door, when he glanced at the sky to see what were the prospects for an afternoon's golf.
In politics Willy Cameron was less satisfactory.
"I haven't decided, yet," he said. "I voted for Mr. Wilson in 1916, but although I suppose parties are necessary, I don't like to feel that I am party-bound. Anyhow, the old party lines are gone. I rather look - "
He stopped. That terrible speech of Edith Boyd's still rankled.
"Go on, Willy," said Lily. "I told them they'd love to you talk.”
"That's really all, sir," said Willy Cameron, unhappily. "I am a Scot, and to start a
Scot on reform is fatal."
"Ah, you believe in reform?"
"We are not doing very well as we are, sir."
"I should like extremely to know how you feel about things," said Howard, gravely.
"Only this: So long as one party is, or is considered, the representative of capital, the vested interests, and the other of labor, the great mass of the people who are neither the one nor the other cannot be adequately represented."
"And the solution?"
"Perhaps a new party. Or better still, a liberalizing of the Republican."
"Before long," said Lily suddenly, "there will be no state. There will be enough for everybody, and nobody will have too much."
Howard smiled at her indulgently.
"How do you expect to accomplish this ideal condition?"
"That's the difficulty about it," said Lily, thoughtfully. "It means a revolution. It would be peaceful, though. The thing to do is to convince people that it is simple justice, and then they will divide what they have."
"Why, Lily!" Grace's voice was anxious. "That's Socialism."
But Howard only smiled tolerantly, and changed the subject. Every one had these attacks of idealism in youth. They were the exaggerated altruism of adolescence; a part of its dreams and aspirations. He changed the subject.
"I like the boy," he said to Grace, later, over the cribbage board in the morning room. "He has character, and a queer sort of magnetism. It mightn't be a bad thing - "
Grace was counting.
"I forgot to tell you; I think she refused Pink Denslow the other day."
"I rather gathered, from the way she spoke of young Cameron, that she isn't interested there either."
"Not a bit," said Grace, complacently. "You needn't worry about him."
Howard smiled. He was often conscious that after all the years of their common life, his wife's mind and his traveled along parallel lines that never met.
Willy Cameron was extremely happy. He had brought his pipe along, although without much hope, but the moment they were settled by the library fire Lily had suggested it.
"You know you can't talk unless you have it in your hand to wave around," she said. "And I want to know such a lot of things. Where you live, and all that."
"I live in a boarding house. More house than board, really. And the work's all right. I'm going to study metallurgy some day. There are night courses at the college, only I haven't many nights."
He had lighted his pipe, and kept his eyes on it mostly, or on the fire. He was afraid to look at Lily, because there was something he could not keep out of his eyes, but must keep from her. It had been both better and worse than he had anticipated, seeing her in her home. Lily herself had not changed. She was her wonderful self, in spite of her frock and her surroundings. But the house, her people, with their ease of wealth and position, Grace's slight condescension, the elaborate simplicity of dining, the matter-of-course-ness of the service. It was not that Lily was above him. That was ridiculous. But she was far removed from him.
"There is something wrong with you, Willy," she said unexpectedly. "You are not happy, or you are not well. Which is it? You are awfully thin, for one thing."
"I'm all right," he said, evading her eyes.
"Are you lonely? I don't mean now, of course."
"Well, I've got a dog. That helps. He's a helpless sort of mutt. I carry his meat home from the shop in my pocket, and I feel like a butcher's wagon, sometimes. But he's taken a queer sort of liking to me, and he is something to talk to."
"Why didn't you bring him along?"
Dogs were forbidden in the Cardew house, by old Anthony's order, as were pipes, especially old and beloved ones, but Lily was entirely reckless.
"He did follow me. He's probably sitting on the doorstep now. I tried to send him back, but he's an obstinate little beast."
Lily got up.
"I am going to bring him in," she said. "And if you'll ring that bell we'll get him some dinner."
"I'll get him, while you ring."
Half an hour later Anthony Cardew entered his house. He had spent a miserable evening. Some young whipper snapper who employed a handful of men had undertaken to show him where he, Anthony Cardew, was a clog in the wheel of progress. Not in so many words, but he had said: "Tempora mutantur, Mr. Cardew. And the wise employer meets those changes half-way."
"You young fools want to go all the way."
"Not at all. We'll meet them half-way, and stop."
"Bah!" said Anthony Cardew, and had left the club in a temper. The club was going to the dogs, along with the rest of the world. There was only a handful of straight-thinking men like himself left in it. Lot of young cravens, letting their men dominate them and intimidate them.
So he slammed into his house, threw off his coat and hat, and - sniffed. A pungent, acrid odor was floating through a partly closed door. Anthony Cardew flung open the door and entered.
Before the fire, on a deep velvet couch, sat his granddaughter. Beside her was a thin young man in a gray suit, and the thin young man was waving an old pipe about, and saying:
"Tempora mutantur, Lily. The wise employer - "
"I am afraid, sir," said Anthony, in a terrible voice, "that you are not acquainted with the rules of my house. I object to pipes. There are cigars in the humidor behind you."
"Very sorry, Mr. Cardew," Willy Cameron explained. "I didn't know. I'll put it away, sir."
But Anthony was not listening. His eyes had traveled from an empty platter on the hearth-rug to a deep chair where Jinx, both warm and fed at the same time, and extremely distended with meat, lay sleeping. Anthony put out a hand and pressed the bell beside him.
"I want you to meet Mr. Cameron, grandfather." Lily was rather pale, but she had the Cardew poise. "He was in the camp when I was."
Grayson entered on that, however, and Anthony pointed to Jinx.
"Put that dog out," he said, and left the room, his figure rigid and uncompromising.
"Grayson," Lily said, white to the lips, "that dog is to remain here. He's perfectly quiet. And, will you find Ellen and ask her to come here?"
"Haven't I made enough trouble?" asked Willy Cameron, unhappily. "I can see her again, you know."
"She's crazy to see you, Willy. And besides - " Grayson had gone, after a moment's hesitation.
"Don't you see?" she said. "The others have always submitted. I did, too. But I can't keep it up, Willy. I can't live here and let him treat me like that. Or my friends. I know what will happen. I'll run away, like Aunt Elinor."
"You must not do that, Lily." He was very grave.
"Why not? They think she is unhappy. She isn't. She ran away and married a man she cared about. I may call you up some day and ask you to marry me!" she added, less tensely. "You would be an awfully good husband, you know."
She looked up at him, still angry, but rather amused with this new conceit. "Don't!”
She was startled by the look on his face.
"You see," he said painfully, "what only amuses you in that idea is - well, it doesn't amuse me, Lily."
"I only meant - " she was very uncomfortable. "You are so real and dependable and kind, and I - "
"I know what you mean. Like Jinx, there. I'm sorry! I didn't mean that. But you must not talk about marrying me unless you mean it. You see, I happen to care."
"It won't hurt you to know, although I hadn't meant to tell you. And of course, you know, I am not asking you to marry me. Only I'd like you to feel that you can count on me, always. The one person a woman can count on is the man who loves her."
And after a little silence:
"You see, I know you are not in love with me. I cared from the beginning, but I
always knew that."
"I wish I did." She was rather close to tears. She had not felt at all like that with Pink. But, although she knew he was suffering, his quietness deceived her. She had the theory of youth about love, that it was a violent thing, tempestuous and passionate. She thought that love demanded, not knowing that love gives first, and then asks. She could not know how he felt about his love for her, that it lay in a sort of cathedral shrine in his heart. There were holy days when saints left their niches and were shown in city streets, but until that holy day came they remained in the church.
"You will remember that, won't you?" "I'll remember, Willy.”
"I won't be a nuisance, you know. I've never had any hope, so I won't make you unhappy. And don't be unhappy about me, Lily. I would rather love you, even knowing I can't have you, than be loved by anybody else."
Perhaps, had he shown more hurt, he would have made it seem more real to her. But he was frightfully anxious not to cause her pain.
"I'm really very happy, loving you," he added, and smiled down at her reassuringly. But he had for all that a wild primitive impulse which almost overcame him for a moment, to pick her up in his arms and carry her out the door and away with him. Somewhere, anywhere. Away from that grim old house, and that despotic little man, to liberty and happiness and - William Wallace Cameron.
Ellen came in, divided between uneasiness and delight, and inquired painstakingly about his mother, and his uncle in California, and the Presbyterian minister. But she was uncomfortable and uneasy and refused to sit down, and Willy watched her furtively slipping out again with a slight frown. It was not right, somehow, this dividing of the world into classes, those who served and those who were served. But he had an idea that it was those below who made the distinction, nowadays. It was the masses who insisted on isolating the classes. They made kings, perhaps that they might some day reach up and pull them off their thrones. At the top of the stairs Ellen found Mademoiselle, who fixed her with cold eyes.
"What were you doing down there," she demanded.
"Miss Lily sent for me, to see that young man I told you about."
"How dare you go down? And into the library?”
"I've just told you," said Ellen, her face setting. "She sent for me."
"Why didn't you say you were in bed?”
"I'm no liar, Mademoiselle. Besides, I guess it's no crime to see a boy I've known all his life, and his mother and me like sisters."
"You are a fool," said Mademoiselle, and turning clumped back in her bedroom slippers to her room.
Ellen went up to her room. Heretofore she had given her allegiance to Mademoiselle and Mrs. Cardew, and in a more remote fashion, to Howard. But Ellen, crying angry tears in her small white bed that night, sensed a new division in the family, with Mademoiselle and Anthony and Howard and Grace on one side, and Lily standing alone, fighting valiantly for the right to live her own life, to receive her own friends, and the friends of her friends, even though one of these latter might be a servant in her own house.
Yet Ellen, with the true snobbishness of the servants' hall, disapproved of Lily's course while she admired it.
"But they're all against her," Ellen reflected. "The poor thing! And just because of Willy Cameron. Well, I'll stand by her, if they throw me out for it."
In her romantic head there formed strange, delightful visions. Lily eloping with Willy Cameron, assisted by herself. Lily in the little Cameron house, astounding the neighborhood with her clothes and her charm, and being sponsored by Ellen. The excitement of the village, and the visits to Ellen to learn what to wear for a first call, and were cards necessary?
Into Ellen's not very hard-working but monotonous life had comes its first dream of romance.