A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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For three weeks Lily did not see Louis Akers, nor did she go back to the house on Cardew Way. She hated doing clandestine or forbidden things, and she was, too, determined to add nothing to the tenseness she began to realize existed at home. She went through her days, struggling to fit herself again into the old environment, reading to her mother, lending herself with assumed enthusiasm to such small gayeties as Lent permitted, and doing penance in a dozen ways for that stolen afternoon with Louis Akers.
She had been forbidden to see him again. It had come about by Grace's confession to Howard as to Lily's visit to the Doyles. He had not objected to that.
"Unless Doyle talks his rubbish to her," he said. "She said something the other night that didn't sound like her. Was any one else there?"
"An attorney named Akers," she said. And at that Howard had scowled.
"She'd better keep away altogether," he observed, curtly. "She oughtn't to meet men like that."
"Shall I tell her?"
"I'll tell her," he said. And tell her he did, not too tactfully, and man-like shielding her by not telling her his reasons.
"He's not the sort of man I want you to know," he finished. "That ought to be sufficient. Have you seen him since?"
Lily flushed, but she did not like to lie.
"I had tea with him one afternoon. I often have tea with men, father. You know that."
"You knew I wouldn't approve, or you would have mentioned it."
Because he felt that he had been rather ruthless with her, he stopped in at the jeweler's the next morning and sent her a tiny jeweled watch. Lily was touched and repentant. She made up her mind not to see Louis Akers again, and found a certain relief in the decision. She was conscious that he had a peculiar attraction for her, a purely emotional appeal. He made her feel alive. Even when she disapproved of him, she was conscious of him. She put him resolutely out of her mind, to have him reappear in her dreams, not as a lover, but as some one dominant and insistent, commanding her to do absurd, inconsequential things.
Now and then she saw Willy Cameron, and they had gone back, apparently, to the old friendly relationship. They walked together, and once they went to the moving pictures, to Grace's horror. But there were no peanuts to eat, and instead of the jingling camp piano there was an orchestra, and it was all strangely different. Even Willy Cameron was different. He was very silent, and on the way home he did not once speak of the plain people.
Louis Akers had both written and telephoned her, but she made excuses, and did not see him, and the last time he had hung up the receiver abruptly. She felt an odd mixture of relief and regret.
Then, about the middle of April, she saw him again.
Spring was well on by that time. Before the Doyle house on Cardew Way the two horse-chestnuts were showing great red-brown buds, ready to fall into leaf with the first warm day, and Elinor, assisted by Jennie, the elderly maid, was finishing her spring house-cleaning. The Cardew mansion showed window-boxes at each window, filled by the florist with spring flowers, to be replaced later by summer ones. A potted primrose sat behind the plate glass of the Eagle Pharmacy, among packets of flower seeds and spring tonics, its leaves occasionally nibbled by the pharmacy cat, out of some atavistic craving survived through long generations of city streets.
The children's playground near the Lily furnace was ready; Howard Cardew himself had overseen the locations of the swings and chute-the-chutes. And at Friendship an army of workers was sprinkling and tamping the turf of the polo field. After two years of war, there was to be polo again that spring and early summer. The Cherry Hill Hunt team was still intact, although some of the visiting outfits had been badly shot to pieces by the war. But the war was over. It lay behind, a nightmare to be forgotten as soon as possible. It had left its train of misery and debt, but - spring had come.
On a pleasant Monday, Lily motored out to the field with Pink Denslow. It had touched her that he still wanted her, and it had offered an escape from her own worries. She was fighting a sense of failure that day. It seemed impossible to reconcile the warring elements at home. Old Anthony and his son were quarreling over the strike, and Anthony was jibing constantly at Howard over the playground. It was not so much her grandfather's irritability that depressed her as his tyranny over the household, and his attitude toward her mother roused her to bitter resentment.
The night before she had left the table after one of his scourging speeches, only to have what amounted to a scene with her mother afterward.
"But I cannot sit by while he insults you, mother."
"It is just his way. I don't mind, really. Oh, Lily, don't destroy what I have built up so carefully. It hurts your father so."
"Sometimes," Lily said slowly, "he makes me think Aunt Elinor's husband was right. He believes a lot of things - "
"What things?" Grace had asked, suspiciously. Lily hesitated.
"Well, a sort of Socialism, for one thing, only it isn't exactly that. It's individualism, really, or I think so; the sort of thing that this house stifles." Grace was too horrified for speech. "I don't want to hurt you, mother, but don't you see? He tyrannizes over all of us, and it's bad for our souls. Why should he bellow at the servants? Or talk to you the way he did to-night?" She smiled faintly. "We're all drowning, and I want to swim, that's all. Mr. Doyle - "
"You are talking nonsense," said Grace sharply. "You have got a lot of ideas from that wretched house, and now you think they are your own. Lily, I warn you, if you insist on going back to the Doyles I shall take you abroad."
Lily turned and walked out of the room, and there was something suggestive of old Anthony in the pitch of her shoulders. Her anger did not last long, but her uneasiness persisted. Already she knew that she was older in many ways than Grace; she had matured in the past year more than her mother in twenty, and she felt rather like a woman obeying the mandates of a child.
But on that pleasant Monday she was determined to be happy.
"Old world begins to look pretty, doesn't it?" said Pink, breaking in on her thoughts.
"It's not a bad place to live in, after all," said Pink, trying to cheer his own rather unhappy humor. "There is always spring to expect, when we get low in winter. And there are horses and dogs, and - and blossoms on the trees, and all that." What he meant was, "If there isn't love."
"You are perfectly satisfied with things just as they are, aren't you?" Lily asked, half enviously.
"Well, I'd change some things." He stopped. He wasn't going to go round sighing like a furnace. "But it's a pretty good sort of place. I'm for it."
"Have you sent your ponies out?"
"Only two. I want to show you one I bought from the Government almost for nothing. Remount man piped me off. Light in flesh, rather, but fast. Handy, light mouth - all he needs is a bit of training."
They had been in the open country for some time, but now they were approaching the Cardew's Friendship plant. The furnaces had covered the fields with a thin deposit of reddish ore dust. Such blighted grass as grew had already lost its fresh green, and the trees showed stunted blossoms. The one oasis of freshness was the polo field itself, carefully irrigated by underground pipes. The field, with its stables and grandstand, had been the gift of Anthony Cardew, thereby promoting much discussion with his son. For Howard had wanted the land for certain purposes of his own, to build a clubhouse for the men at the plant, with a baseball field. Finding his father obdurate in that, he had urged that the field be thrown open to the men and their families, save immediately preceding and during the polo season. But he had failed there, too. Anthony Cardew had insisted, and with some reason, that to use the grounds for band concerts and baseball games, for picnics and playgrounds, would ruin the turf for its legitimate purpose.
Howard had subsequently found other land, and out of his own private means had carried out his plans, but the location was less desirable. And he knew what his father refused to believe, that the polo ground, taking up space badly needed for other purposes, was a continual grievance.
Suddenly Pink stared ahead.
"I say," he said, "have they changed the rule about that sort of thing?"
He pointed to the field. A diamond had been roughly outlined on it with bags of sand, and a ball-game was in progress, boys playing, but a long line of men watching from the side lines.
"I don't know, but it doesn't hurt anything."
"Ruins the turf, that's all." He stopped the car and got out. "Look at this sign. It says 'ball-playing or any trespassing forbidden on these grounds.' I'll clear them off."
"I wouldn't, Pink. They may be ugly."
But he only smiled at her reassuringly, and went off. She watched him go with many misgivings, his sturdy young figure, his careful dress, his air of the young aristocrat, easy, domineering, unconsciously insolent. They would resent him, she knew, those men and boys. And after all, why should they not use the field? There was injustice in that sign.
Yet her liking and real sympathy were with Pink. "Pink!" she called, "Come back here. Let them alone.”
He turned toward her a face slightly flushed with indignation and set with purpose.
"Sorry. Can't do it, Lily. This sort of thing's got to be stopped."
She felt, rather hopelessly, that he was wrong, but that he was right, too. The grounds were private property. She sat back and watched.
Pink was angry. She could hear his voice, see his gestures. He was shooing them off like a lot of chickens, and they were laughing. The game had stopped, and the side lines were pressing forward. There was a moment's debate, with raised voices, a sullen muttering from the crowd, and the line closing into a circle. The last thing she saw before it closed was a man lunging at Pink, and his counter-feint. Then some one was down. If it was Pink he was not out, for there was fighting still going on. The laborers working on the grounds were running.
Lily stood up in the car, pale and sickened. She was only vaguely conscious of a car that suddenly left the road, and dashed recklessly across the priceless turf, but she did see, and recognize, Louis Akers as he leaped from it and flinging men this way and that disappeared into the storm center. She could hear his voice, too, loud and angry, and see the quick dispersal of the crowd. Some of the men, foreigners, passed quite near to her, and eyed her either sullenly or with mocking smiles. She was quite oblivious of them. She got out and ran with shaking knees across to where Pink lay on the grass, his profile white and sharply chiseled, with two or three men bending over him.
Pink was dead. Those brutes had killed him. Pink. He was not dead. He was moving his arms.
Louis Akers straightened when he saw her and took off his hat.
"Nothing to worry about, Miss Cardew," he said. "But what sort of idiocy - ! Hello, old man, all right now?"
Pink sat up, then rose stiffly and awkwardly. He had a cut over one eye, and he felt for his handkerchief.
"Fouled me," he said. "Filthy lot, anyhow. Wonder they didn't walk on me when I was down." He turned to the grounds-keeper, who had come up. "You ought to know better than to let those fellows cut up this turf," he said angrily. "What're you here for anyhow?"
But he was suddenly very sick. He looked at Lily, his face drawn and blanched. "Got me right," he muttered. "I - “
"Get into my car," said Akers, not too amiably. "I'll drive you to the stables. I'll be back, Miss Cardew."
Lily went back to the car and sat down. She was shocked and startled, but she was strangely excited. The crowd had beaten Pink, but it had obeyed Louis Akers like a master. He was a man. He was a strong man. He must be built of iron. Mentally she saw him again, driving recklessly over the turf, throwing the men to right and left, hoarse with anger, tall, dominant, powerful.
It was more important that a man be a man than that he be a gentleman.
After a little he drove back across the field, sending the car forward again at reckless speed. Some vision of her grandfather, watching the machine careening over the still soft and spongy turf and leaving deep tracks behind it, made her smile. Akers leaped out.
"No need to worry about our young friend," he said cheerfully. "He is alternately being very sick at his stomach and cursing the poor working man. But I think I'd better drive you back. He'll be poor company, I'll say that."
He looked at her, his bold eyes challenging, belying the amiable gentleness of his smile.
"I'd better let him know."
"I told him. He isn't strong for me. Always hate the fellow who saves you, you know. But he didn't object."
Lily moved into his car obediently. She felt a strange inclination to do what this man wanted. Rather, it was an inability to oppose him. He went on, big, strong, and imperious. And he carried one along. It was easy and queer. But she did, unconsciously, what she had never done with Pink or any other man; she sat as far away from him on the wide seat as she could.
He noticed that, and smiled ahead, over the wheel. He had been infuriated over her avoidance of him, but if she was afraid of him -
"Bully engine in this car. Never have to change a gear." "You certainly made a road through the field.”
"They'll fix that, all right. Are you warm enough?" "Yes, thank you.”
"You have been treating me very badly, you know, Miss Cardew."
"I have been frightfully busy.”
'That's not true, and you know it. You've been forbidden to see me, haven't you?"
"I have been forbidden to go back to Cardew Way.”
"They don't know about me, then?"
"There isn't very much to know, is there?"
"I wish you wouldn't fence with me," he said impatiently. "I told you once I was frank. I want you to answer one question. If this thing rested with you, would you see me again?"
"I think I would, Mr. Akers," she said honestly.
Had she ever known a man like the one beside her, she would not have given him that opportunity. He glanced sharply around, and then suddenly stopped the car and turned toward her.
"I'm crazy about you, and you know it," he said. And roughly, violently, he caught her to him and kissed her again and again. Her arms were pinned to her sides, and she was helpless. After a brief struggle to free herself she merely shut her eyes and waited for him to stop.
"I'm mad about you," he whispered.
Then he freed her. Lily wanted to feel angry, but she felt only humiliated and rather soiled. There were men like that, then, men who gave way to violent impulses, who lost control of themselves and had to apologize afterwards. She hated him, but she was sorry for him, too. He would have to be so humble. She was staring ahead, white and waiting for his explanation, when he released the brake and started the car forward slowly.
"Well?" he said, with a faint smile.
"You will have to apologize for that, Mr. Akers."
"I'm damned if I will. That man back there, Denslow - he's the sort who would kiss a girl and then crawl about it afterwards. I won't. I'm not sorry. A strong man can digest his own sins. I kissed you because I wanted to. It wasn't an impulse. I meant to when we started. And you're only doing the conventional thing and pretending to be angry. You're not angry. Good God, girl, be yourself once in a while."
"I'm afraid I don't understand you." Her voice was haughty.
"And I must ask you to stop the car and let me get out."
"I'll do nothing of the sort, of course. Now get this straight, Miss Cardew. I haven't done you any harm. I may have a brutal way of showing that I'm crazy about you, but it's my way. I'm a man, and I'm no hand kisser."
And when she said nothing:
"You think I'm unrestrained, and I am, in a way. But if I did what I really want to do, I'd not take you home at all. I'd steal you. You've done something to me, God knows what."
"Then I can only say I'm sorry," Lily said slowly.
She felt strangely helpless and rather maternal. With all his strength this sort of man needed to be protected from himself. She felt no answering thrill whatever to his passion, but as though, having told her he loved her, he had placed a considerable responsibility in her hands.
"I'll be good now," he said. "Mind, I'm not sorry. But I don't want to worry you."
He made no further overtures to her during the ride, but he was neither sulky nor sheepish. He feigned an anxiety as to the threatened strike, and related at great length and with extreme cleverness of invention his own efforts to prevent it.
"I've a good bit of influence with the A.F.L.," he said. "Doyle's in bad with them, but I'm still solid. But it's coming, sure as shooting. And they'll win, too."
He knew women well, and he saw that she was forgiving him. But she would not forget. He had a cynical doctrine, to the effect that a woman's first kiss of passion left an ineradicable mark on her, and he was quite certain that Lily had never been so kissed before.
Driving through the park he turned to her:
"Please forgive me," he said, his mellow voice contrite and supplicating.
"You've been so fine about it that you make me ashamed."
"I would like to feel that it wouldn't happen again: That's all."
"That means you intend to see me again. But never is a long word. I'm afraid to promise. You go to my head, Lily Cardew." They were halted by the traffic, and it gave him a chance to say something he had been ingeniously formulating in his mind. "I've known lots of girls. I'm no saint. But you are different. You're a good woman. You could do anything you wanted with me, if you cared to."
And because she was young and lovely, and because he was always the slave of youth and beauty, he meant what he said. It was a lie, but he was lying to himself also, and his voice held unmistakable sincerity. But even then he was watching her, weighing the effect of his words on her. He saw that she was touched.
He was very well pleased with himself on his way home. He left the car at the public garage, and walked, whistling blithely, to his small bachelor apartment. He was a self-indulgent man, and his rooms were comfortable to the point of luxury. In the sitting room was a desk, as clean and orderly as Doyle's was untidy. Having put on his dressing gown he went to it, and with a sheet of paper before him sat for some time thinking.
He found his work irksome at times. True, it had its interest. He was the liaison between organized labor, which was conservative in the main, and the radical element, both in and out of the organization. He played a double game, and his work was always the same, to fan the discontent latently smoldering in every man's soul into a flame. And to do this he had not Doyle's fanaticism. Personally, Louis Akers found the world a pretty good place. He hated the rich because they had more than he had, but he scorned the poor because they had less. And he liked the feeling of power he had when, on the platform, men swayed to his words like wheat to a wind.
Personal ambition was his fetish, as power was Anthony Cardew's. Sometimes he walked past the exclusive city clubs, and he dreamed of a time when he, too, would have the entree to them. But time was passing. He was thirty-three years old when Jim Doyle crossed his path, and the clubs were as far away as ever. It was Doyle who found the weak place in his armor, and who taught him that when one could not rise it was possible to pull others down.
But it was Woslosky, the Americanized Pole; who had put the thing in a more appealing form.
"Our friend Doyle to the contrary," he said cynically, "we cannot hope to contend against the inevitable. The few will always govern the many, in the end. It will be the old cycle, autocracy, anarchy, and then democracy; but out of this last comes always the one man who crowns himself or is crowned. One of the people. You, or myself, it may be."
The Pole had smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Akers did not go to work immediately. He sat for some time, a cigarette in his hand, his eyes slightly narrowed. He believed that he could marry Lily Cardew. It would take time and all his skill, but he believed he could do it. His mind wandered to Lily herself, her youth and charm, her soft red mouth, the feel of her warm young body in his arms. He brought himself up sharply. Where would such a marriage take him?
He pondered the question pro and con. On the one hand the Cardews, on the other, Doyle and a revolutionary movement. A revolution would be interesting and exciting, and there was strong in him the desire to pull down. But revolution was troublesome. It was violent and bloody. Even if it succeeded it would be years before the country would be stabilized. This other, now -
He sat low in his chair, his long legs stretched out in his favorite position, and dreamed. He would not play the fool like Doyle. He would conciliate the family. In the end he would be put up at the clubs; he might even play polo. His thoughts wandered to Pink Denslow at the polo grounds, and he grinned.
"Young fool!" he reflected. "If I can't beat his time - " He ordered dinner to be sent up, and mixed himself a cocktail, using the utmost care in its preparation. Drinking it, he eyed himself complacently in the small mirror over the mantel. Yes, life was not bad. It was damned interesting. It was a game. No, it was a race where a man could so hedge his bets that he stood to gain, whoever won.
When there was a knock at the door he did not turn. "Come in," he said.
But it was not the waiter. It was Edith Boyd. He saw her through the mirror, and so addressed her.
"Hello, sweetie," he said. Then he turned. "You oughtn't to come here, Edith. I've told you about that."
"I had to see you, Lou."
"Well, take a good look, then," he said. Her coming fitted in well with the complacence of his mood. Yes, life was good, so long as it held power, and drink, and women.
He stooped to kiss her, but although she accepted the caress, she did not return it.
"Not mad at me, Miss Boyd, are you?" "No. Lou, I'm frightened!"