The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter X. Concerning the New Manager
When the Mill whistle sounded at the close of that pay day, Mary was sitting under the tree in the yard with her sewing basket--a gift from the Interpreter--on the grass beside her chair. The sunlight lay warm and bright on the garden where the ever industrious bees were filling their golden bags with the sweet wealth of the old-fashioned flowers. Bright-winged butterflies zigzagged here and there above the shrubbery along the fence and over her head; in the leafy shadows of the trees her bird friends were cheerfully busy with their small duties. Now and then a passing neighbor paused to exchange a word or two of their common interests. Presently workmen from the Mill went by--men of her father's class who lived in that vicinity of well-kept cottage homes; and each one called a greeting to the daughter of his friend.
And so, at last, Peter Martin himself and Captain Charlie turned in at the little white gate and came to sit down on the grass at her feet.
"You are late to-day," said Mary, smiling. "I suppose you both have forgotten that the vegetable garden is to be hoed this afternoon and that you, Charlie, promised to beat the rugs for me."
Captain Charlie stretched himself lazily on the cool grass. "We should worry about gardens and rugs and things," he returned. "This is the day we celebrate."
The father laughed quietly at his daughter's look of puzzled inquiry.
"The day you celebrate?" said Mary. "Celebrate what?"
Charlie answered with a fair imitation of a soapbox orator, "This, my beloved sister, is the day of our emancipation from the iron rule of that cruel capitalist, who has for so many years crushed the lives of his toiling slaves in his Mill of hell, and coined our heart's blood into dollars to fill his selfish coffers of princely luxury. Down through the ringing ages of the future this day will be forever celebrated as the day that signals the dawning of a new era in the industrial world of--uh-wow! Stop it!"
Captain Charlie was ticklish and the toe of Mary's slippered foot had found a vital spot among his ribs.
"You sound like that Jake Vodell," she said. "Stop your nonsense this minute and tell me what you mean or--" Her foot advanced again threateningly.
Captain Charlie rolled over to a safe distance and sat up to grin at her with teasing impudence.
"What's the matter with him, father?" she demanded.
But Pete only laughed and answered, "I guess maybe he thinks he's going to get promoted to some higher-up position in the Mill."
"No such luck for me!" said Charlie quickly. "John will need me too much right where I am."
A bright color swept into Mary's cheeks and her eyes shone with glad excitement. "Do you mean that John--that his father has--" She looked from her father's face to her brother and back to her father again.
Pete nodded silently.
"You've guessed it, sister," said Charlie. "Old Adam walked out for good to-day, turned the whole works over to John--troubles, triumphs, opportunities, disasters and all. And it's a man's sized job the boy has drawn, believe me--especially right now, with Jake Vodell as busy as he is."
"The men in the Mill were all pleased with the change, weren't they?" asked Mary.
"They will be, when they hear of it," answered Captain Charlie, getting to his feet. "That is," he added, as he met his father's look, "most of them will be."
"There's some in the Mill that it won't make any difference to, I'm afraid," said Peter Martin, soberly.
Then the two men went into the house to, as they said, "clean up"--an operation that required a goodly supply of water with plenty of soap and a no little physical effort in the way of vigorous rubbing.
When her father and brother were gone, Mary Martin sat very still. So still was she that a butterfly paused in its zigzag flight about the yard to rest on the edge of the work basket at her side. At last the young woman rose slowly to her feet, dropping the sewing she had held on the other things in the basket. The startled butterfly spread its gorgeous wings and zigzagged away unnoticed. Crossing the little lawn, Mary made her way among the flowers in the garden until she stood half hidden in the tall bushes which grew along the fence that separated the Martin home from the neglected grounds about the old house. When her father and brother went to their pleasant task in the vegetable garden she was still standing there, but the men did not notice.
* * * * *
Later, when Mary called the men to supper, the change in the management of the Mill was again mentioned. And all during the evening meal it was the topic of their conversation. It was natural that the older man should recall the days when he and Adam and the Interpreter had worked together.
"The men generally showed a different spirit toward their work in those days," said the veteran. "They seemed to have a feeling of pride and a love for it that I don't see much of now. Of late years, it looks as though everybody hates his job and is ashamed of what he is doing. They all seem to think of nothing but their pay, and busy their minds with scheming how they can get the most and give the least. It's the regular thing to work with one eye on the foreman and the other on the clock, and to count it a great joke when a job is spoiled or a breakdown causes trouble." All of which was a speech of unusual length for Pete Martin. Captain Charlie asked, thoughtfully, "And don't you think, father, that Adam looks on the work of the Mill in exactly that spirit of 'get the most for the least' without regard to the meaning and purpose of the work itself?"
"There's no reason to doubt it, son, that I can see," returned the old workman.
"I have often wondered," said Charlie, "how much the attitude of the employees toward their work is due to the attitude of their employers toward that same work."
The old workman returned, heartily, "We'll be seeing a different feeling in the Mill under John, I am thinkin'--he's different."
"I should say he is different," agreed Charlie, quickly. "John would rather work at his job for nothing than do anything else for ten times the salary he draws. But was Adam always as he is now?"
"About his work do you mean?"
Adam Ward's old comrade answered, slowly, "I've often wondered that myself. I can't say for sure. As I look back now, I think sometimes that he used to have an interest in the work itself at first. Takin' his development of the new process and all--it almost seems that he must have had. And yet, there's some things that make me think that all the time it meant nothing to him but just what he could get out of it for himself."
"Helen will be happy over the change, won't she?" remarked Mary.
"Helen!" ejaculated Captain Charlie, with more emphasis perhaps than the occasion demanded.
"She won't give it so much as a thought. Why should she? She can go on with her dinners and card parties and balls and country club affairs with the silk-hatted slackers of her set, just the same as if nothing had happened."
Mary laughed. "Seems to me I have heard something like that before--'silk-hatted slackers'--it sounds familiar."
Captain Charlie watched her suspiciously.
The father laughed quietly.
"Oh, yes," she exclaimed, with an air of triumph. "It was Bobby Whaley who said it. I remember thinking at the time that it probably came to him from his father, who of course got it from Jake Vodell. Silk-hatted slackers--sounds like Jake, doesn't it, father?"
Captain Charlie grinned sheepishly. "I know it was a rotten thing to say," he admitted. "Some of the best and bravest men in our army were silk-hatters at home. They were in the ranks, too, a lot of them--just like John Ward. And some of the worst cowards and shirkers and slackers that ever lived belonged to our ancient and noble order of the horny-handed sons of toil, that Jake Vodell orates about. But what gets me, is the way some of those fellows who were everything but slackers in France act, now that they are back home. Over there they were on the job with everything they had, to the last drop of their blood. But now that they are back in their own home country again, they have simply thrown up their hands and quit--that is, a lot of them have. They seem to think that the signing of the Armistice ended it all and that they can do nothing now for the rest of their lives. Who was it said, 'Peace hath her victories,' or something like that? Well, peace hath her defeats, too. I'll be hanged if I can understand how a man who has it in him to be a one hundred per cent American hero in war can be a Simon-pure slacker in times of peace."
As he finished, Captain Charlie pushed his chair back from the table and, finding his pipe, proceeded to fill it with the grim determination of an old-time minuteman ramming home a charge in his Bunker Hill musket.
Later the two men went out to enjoy their pipes on the lawn in the cool of the evening. They were discussing the industrial situation when Mary, having finished her household work for the night, joined them.
"I forgot to tell you," she said, "that Jake Vodell called to-day."
"Again!" exclaimed Charlie.
"If Vodell wants to talk with us he'll have to come when we are at home," said Pete Martin, slowly, looking at his daughter.
With a laugh, the young woman returned, "But I don't think that it was you or Charlie that he wanted to see this time, father."
"What did he want?" demanded her brother quickly.
"He wanted me to go with him to a dance next Tuesday," she answered demurely.
"Huh," came in a tone of disgust from Charlie.
The father asked, quietly, "And what did you say to him, Mary?"
"I told him that I went to dances only with my friends."
"Good!" said Captain Charlie.
"And what then?" asked Pete.
"Then," she hesitated, "then he said something about my being careful that I had the right sort of friends and referred to Charlie and John."
"Yes?" said Mary's father.
"He said that the only use John Ward had for Charlie was to get a line on the union and the plans of the men--that his friendship was only a pretext in order that he might use Charlie as a sort of spy and that the union men wouldn't stand for it."
Captain Charlie muttered something under his breath that he could not speak aloud in the presence of his sister.
Pete Martin deliberately knocked the ashes from his pipe.
"Then," continued Mary, "he talked about how everybody knew that John was nothing but a"--she laughed mockingly at her brother--"a silk-hatted swell who couldn't hold his job an hour if it wasn't that his father owned the Mill, and that Charlie was a hundred times more competent to manage the business. He said that anybody could see how Charlie's promotion in the army proved him superior to John, who was never anything but a common private."
Captain Charlie laughed aloud. "John and I understand all about that superiority business. I was lucky, that's all--our captain just happened to be looking in my direction. Believe me, good old John was just as busy as I ever dared to be, only it was his luck to be busy at some other point that the captain didn't see."
"Is that all Jake had to say, daughter?"
"No," answered the young woman, slowly. "I--I am afraid I was angry at what he called John--I mean at what he said about Charlie and John's friendship--and so I told him what I thought about him and Sam Whaley and their crowd, and asked him to go and not come back again except to see you or Charlie."
"Good for you, Mary!" exclaimed her brother.
But the old workman said nothing.
"And how did Jake take his dismissal?" asked Charlie, presently.
"He went, of course," she answered. "But he said that he would show me what the friendship of a man of John Ward's class meant to a working man; that the union men would find out who the loyal members were and when the time came they would know whom to reward and whom to treat as traitors to the Cause."
For a little while after this the three sat in silence. At last Peter Martin rose heavily to his feet. "Come, Charlie, it is time we were on our way to the meeting; we mustn't be late, you know."
When her father and brother were gone to the meeting of the Mill workers' union, Mary Martin locked the door of the cottage and walked swiftly away.
It was not far to the Interpreter's hut, and presently the young woman was climbing the old zigzag stairway to the little house on the edge of the cliff above. There was no light but the light of the stars--the faint breath of the night breeze scarcely stirred the leaves of the bushes or moved the tall weeds that grew on the hillside. At the top of the stairs Mary paused to look at the many lights of the Flats, the Mill, the business houses, the streets and the homes, that shone in the shadowy world below.
She was about to move toward the door of the hut when the sound of voices coming from the balcony-porch halted her. The Interpreter was speaking. She could not distinguish his words, but the deep tones of the old basket maker's voice were not to be mistaken. Then the young woman heard some one reply, and the laughing voice that answered the Interpreter was as familiar to Mary Martin as the laugh of her own brother. The evening visitor to the little hut on the cliff was the son of Adam Ward.
Very softly Mary Martin stole back down the zigzag steps to the road below. Slowly she went back through the deep shadows of the night to her little home, with its garden of old-fashioned flowers, next door to the deserted house where John Ward was born.
Late that night, while John was still at the Interpreter's hut, Adam Ward crept alone like some hunted thing about the beautiful grounds of his great estate. Like a haunted soul of wretchedness, the Mill owner had left his bed to escape the horror of his dreams and to find, if possible, a little rest from his torturing fears in the calm solitude of the night.
* * * * *
When Pete Martin, with Captain Charlie and their many industrial comrades, had returned to their homes after the meeting of their union, five men gathered in that dirty, poorly lighted room in the rear of Dago Bill's pool hall.
The five men had entered the place one at a time. They spoke together in low, guarded tones of John Ward and his management of the Mill, of Pete Martin and Captain Charlie, of the Interpreter and McIver.
And three of those five men had come to that secret place at Jake Vodell's call, directly from the meeting of the Mill workers' union.