The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter XI. Comrades
Mary was in the flower garden that Sunday forenoon when John Ward stopped his big roadster in front of the Martin cottage.
It was not at all unusual for the one-time private, John, to call that way for his former superior officer. Nearly every Sunday when the weather was fine the comrades would go for a long ride in John's car somewhere into the country. And always they carried a lunch prepared by Captain Charlie's sister.
Sometimes there might have been a touch of envy in Mary's generous heart, as she watched the automobile with her brother and his friend glide away up the green arched street. After all, Mary was young and loved the country, and John Ward's roadster was a wonderful machine, and the boy who had lived in the old house next door had been, in her girlhood days, a most delightful comrade and playfellow.
The young woman could no more remember her first meeting with John or his sister Helen than she could recall the exact beginning of her acquaintance with Charlie. From her cradle days she had known the neighbor children as well as she had known her own brother. Then the inevitable separation of the playmates had come with Adam Ward's increasing material prosperity. The school and college days of John and Helen and the removal of the family from the old house to the new home on the hill had brought to them new friends and new interests--friends and interests that knew nothing of Pete Martin's son and daughter. But in Mary's heart, because it was a woman's heart, the memories of the old house lived. The old house itself, indeed, served to keep those memories alive.
John did not see her at first, but called a cheery greeting to her father, who with his pipe and paper was sitting under the tree on the lawn side of the walk.
Mary drew a little back among the flowers and quietly went on with her work.
"Is Charlie here, Uncle Pete?" asked John, as he came through the gate.
"He's in the house, I think, John, or out in the back yard, maybe," answered the old workman. And, then, in his quiet kindly way, Peter Martin spoke a few words to Adam Ward's son about the change in the management of the Mill--wishing John success, expressing his own gratification and confidence, and assuring him of the hearty good will that prevailed, generally, among the employees.
Presently, as the two men talked together, Mary went to express her pleasure in the promotion of her old playmate to a position of such responsibility and honor in the industrial world. And John Ward, when he saw her coming toward him with an armful of flowers, must at least have noticed the charming picture she made against that background of the garden, with its bright-colored blossoms in the flood of morning sunlight.
Certainly the days of their childhood companionship must have stirred in his memory, for he said, presently, "Do you know, Mary, you make me think of mother and the way she used to go among her flowers every Sunday morning when we lived in the old house there." He looked thoughtfully toward the neighboring place.
"How is your mother these days, John?" asked Mary's father.
"She is well, thank you, Uncle Pete," returned John. "Except of course," he added, soberly, "she worries a good deal about father's ill health."
"Your father will surely be much better, now that he is relieved from all his business care," said Mary.
"We are all hoping so," returned John.
There was an awkward moment of silence.
As if the mention of his father's condition had in some way suggested the thought, or, perhaps, because he wished to change the subject, John said, "The old house looks pretty bad, doesn't it? It is a shame that we have permitted it to go to ruin that way."
Neither Peter Martin nor his daughter made reply to this. There was really nothing they could say.
John was about to speak again when Captain Charlie, coming from the house with their lunch basket in his hand, announced that he was ready, and the two men started on their way.
Standing at the gate, Mary waved good-by as her brother turned to look back. Even when the automobile had finally passed from sight she stood there, still looking in the direction it had gone.
Peter Martin watched his daughter thoughtfully.
Without speaking, Mary went slowly into the house.
Her father sat for some minutes looking toward the door through which she had passed. At last with deliberate care he refilled his pipe. But the old workman did not, for an hour or more, resume the reading of his Sunday morning paper.
Beyond a few casual words, the two friends in the automobile seemed occupied, each with his own thoughts. Neither asked, "Where shall we go?" or offered any suggestion for the day's outing. As if it were understood between them, John turned toward the hill country and sent the powerful machine up the long, winding grade, as if on a very definite mission. An hour's driving along the ridges and the hillsides, and they turned from the main thoroughfare into a narrow lane between two thinly wooded pastures. A mile of this seldom traveled road and John stopped his car beside the way. Here they left the automobile, and, taking the lunch basket, climbed the fence and made their way up the steep side of the hill to a clump of trees that overlooked the many miles of winding river and broad valley and shaded hills. The place was a favorite spot to which they often came for those hours of comradeship that are so necessary to all well-grounded and enduring friendships.
"Well, Mister Ward," said Captain Charlie, when they were comfortably seated and their pipes were going well, "how does it feel to be one of the cruel capitalist class a-grindin' the faces off us poor?"
The workman spoke lightly, but there was something in his voice that made John look at him sharply. It was a little as though Captain Charlie were nerving himself to say good-by to his old comrade.
The new general manager smiled, but it was a rather serious smile. "Do you remember how you felt when you received your captain's commission?" he asked.
"I do that," returned Charlie. "I felt that I had been handed a mighty big job and was scared stiff for fear I wouldn't be able to make good at it."
"Exactly," returned John. "And I'll never forget how I felt when they stepped you up the first time and left me out. And when you had climbed on up and Captain Wheeler was killed and you received your commission, with me still stuck in the ranks--well--I never told you before but I'll say now that I was the lonesomest, grouchiest, sorest man in the whole A.E.F. It seemed to me about then that being a private was the meanest, lowest, most no-account job on earth, and I was darned near deserting and letting the Germans win the war and be hanged. I thought it would serve the Allies right if I was to let 'em get licked good and plenty just for failing to appreciate me."
Captain Charlie laughed.
"Oh, yes, you can laugh," said the new general manager of the Mill. "It's darned funny now, but I can tell you that there wasn't much humor in it for me then. We had lived too close together from that first moment when we found ourselves in the same company for me to feel comfortable as a common buck private, watchin' you strut around in the gentleman officer class, and not daring even to tell you to go to--"
"You poor old fool," said Charlie, affectionately. "You knew my promotion was all an accident."
"Exactly," returned John dryly. "We've settled all that a hundred times."
"And you ought to have known," continued Captain Charlie, warmly, "that my feeling toward you would have been no different if they had made me a general."
"Sure, I ought to have known," retorted John, with an air of triumph.
And then it appeared that John Ward had a very definite purpose in thus turning his comrade's mind to their army life in France. "And you should have sense enough to understand that my promotion in the Mill is not going to make any difference in our friendship. Your promotion was the result of an accident, Charlie, exactly as my position in the Mill to-day is the result of an accident. Your superior officer happened to see you. I happen to be the son of Adam Ward. If I should have known then that your rank would make no difference in your feeling toward me, you have got to understand now that my position can make no difference in my feeling toward you."
Charlie Martin's silence revealed how accurately John had guessed his Mill comrade's hidden thoughts.
The new manager continued, "The thing that straightened me out on the question of our different ranks was that scrap where Captain Charlie and Private John found themselves caught in the same shell hole with no one else anywhere near except friend enemy, and somebody had to do something darned quick. Do you remember our argument?"
"Do I remember!" exclaimed Charlie. "I remember how you said it was your job to take the chance because I, being an officer, was worth more to the cause and because the loss of a private didn't matter so much anyhow."
John retorted quickly, "And you said that it was up to you to take the chance because it was an officer's duty to take care of his men."
"And then," said Charlie, "you told me to go to hell, commission and all. And I swore that I'd break you for insolence and insubordination if we ever got out of the scrape alive."
"And so," grinned John, "we compromised by pulling it off together. And from that time on I felt different and was as proud of you and your officer's swank as if I had been the lucky guy myself."
"Yes," said Captain Charlie, smiling affectionately, "and I could see the grin in your eyes every time you saluted."
"No one else ever saw it, though," returned Private Ward, proudly.
"Don't think for a minute that I overlooked that either," said Captain Martin. "If any one else had seen it, I would have disciplined you for sure."
"And don't you think for a minute that I didn't know that, too," retorted John. "I could feel you laying for me, and every man in the company knew it just as be knew our friendship. That's what made us all love you so. We used to say that if Captain Charlie would just take a notion to start for Berlin and invite us to go along the war would be over right there."
Charlie Martin laughed appreciatively. Then he said, earnestly, "After all, old man, it wasn't an officers' war and it wasn't a privates' war, was it? Any more than it was the war of America, or England, or France, or Australia, or Canada--it was our war. And that, I guess, is the main reason why it all came out as it did."
"Now," said John, with hearty enthusiasm, "you are talking sense."
"But it is all very different now, John," said Charlie, slowly. "Millsburgh is not France and the Mill is not the United States Army."
"No," returned John, "and yet there is not such a lot of difference, when you come to think it out."
"We can't disguise the facts," said Captain Martin stubbornly.
"We are not going to disguise anything," retorted John. "I had an idea how you would feel over my promotion, and that is why I wanted you out here to-day. You've got to get this 'it's all very different now' stuff out of your system. So go ahead and shoot your facts."
"All right," said Charlie. "Let's look at things as they are. It was all very well for us to moon over what we would do if we ever got back home when we knew darned well our chances were a hundred to one against our ever seeing the old U.S. again. We spilled a lot of sentiment about comradeship and loyalty and citizenship and equality and all that, but--"
"Can your chatter!" snapped John. "Drag out these facts that you are so anxious to have recognized. Let's have a good look at whatever it is that makes you rough-neck sons of toil so superior to us lily-fingered employers. Go to the bat."
"Well," offered Charlie, reluctantly, "to begin with, you are a millionaire, a university man, member of select clubs; I am nothing but a common workman."
John returned, quickly, "We are both citizens of the United States. In the duties and privileges of our citizenship we stand on exactly the same footing, just as in the army we stood on the common ground of loyalty. And we are both equally dependent upon the industries of our country--upon the Mill, and upon each other. Exactly as we were both dependent upon the army and upon each other in France."
"You are the general manager of the Mill, practically the owner," said Charlie. "I am only one of your employees."
The son of Adam Ward answered scornfully, "Yes, over there it was Captain Charlie Martin and Private John Ward of the United States Army. I suppose it is a lot different now that it is Captain John Ward and Private Charlie Martin of the United States Industries."
Charlie continued, "You live in a mansion in a select district on the hill, I live in a little cottage on the edge of the Flats!"
"Over there it was officers' quarters and barracks," said John, shortly.
Charlie tried again, "You wear white collars and tailored clothes at your work--I wear dirty overalls."
"We used to call 'em uniforms," barked John.
Captain Charlie hesitated a little before he offered his next fact, and when he spoke it was with a little more feeling. "There are our families to take into account too, John. Your sister--well--isn't it a fact that your sister would no more think of calling on Mary than she would think of putting on overalls and going to work in the Mill?"
It was John's turn now to hesitate.
"Don't you see?" continued Charlie, "we belong to different worlds, I tell you, John."
Deliberately Helen's brother knocked the ashes from his pipe and refilled it with thoughtful care.
Then he said, gravely, "Helen doesn't realize, as we do, old man. How could she? The girl has not had a chance to learn what the war taught us. She is exactly like thousands of other good women, and men, too, for that matter. They simply don't understand. Good Lord!" he exploded, suddenly "when I think what a worthless snob I was before I enlisted I want to kick my fool self to death. But we are drifting away from the main thought," he finished.
"Oh, I don't know," returned the other.
"I thought we were discussing the question of rank," said John.
"Well," retorted Charlie, dryly, "isn't that exactly the whole question as your sister sees it?"
"You give me a pain!" growled John. "I'll admit that Helen, right now, attaches a great deal of importance to some things that--well, that are not so very important after all. But she is no worse than I was before I learned better. And you take my word she'll learn, too. Sister visits the old Interpreter too often not to absorb a few ideas that she failed to acquire at school. He will help her to see the light, just as he helped me. But for him, I would have been nothing but a gentleman slacker myself--if there is any such animal. But what under heaven has all this to do with our relation as employer and employee in the Mill? What effect would Mary have had on you over there if she had gone to you with 'Oh, Charlie dear, you mustn't go out in that dreadful No Man's Land to-night. It is so dirty and wet and cold. Remember that you are an officer, Charlie dear, and let Private John go.'"
Captain Charlie laughed--this new general manager of the Mill was so like the buddie he had loved in France. "Do you remember that night--" he began, but his comrade interrupted him rudely.
"Shut up! I've got to get this thing off my chest and you've got to hear me out. This country of ours started out all right with the proposition that all men are created free and equal. But ninety per cent of our troubles are caused by our crazy notions as to what that equality really means. The rest of our grief comes from our fool claims to superiority of one sort or another. It looks to me as though you and Helen agreed exactly on this question of rank and I am here to tell you that you are both wrong."
Captain Charlie Martin sat up at this, but before he could speak John shot a question at him. "Tell me, when Private Ward saluted Captain Martin as the regulations provide, was the action held by either the officer or the private to be a recognition of the superiority of Captain Martin or the inferiority of Private Ward--was it?"
"Not that any one could notice," answered Charlie with a grin.
"You bet your life it wasn't," said John. "Well, then," he continued, "what was it that the salute recognized?"
"Why, it was the captain's rank."
"Exactly; and what determined that rank?"
"The number of men he commanded."
"That's it!" cried John. "The rank of the captain represented the--the"--he searched for a word--"the oneness of all the men in his command. And so you see the thing that the individual private really saluted as superior to himself was the oneness of all his comrades, both privates and officers in the company."
"Sure," said Charlie, looking a little puzzled, as if he did not quite see what the manager of the Mill was driving at. "The salute was merely a sign of the individual's surrender of his own personal will to the authority of the rank that represented all his fellow individuals."
"Yes," said John, "and when Jack Pershing stood up there with the rest of the kings and we paraded past, were we humiliated because we were not dressed exactly like the reviewing generals? We were not. We stuck out our chests and pulled in our chins as if the whole show was framed to honor us. And that is exactly what it was, Charlie, because we were all included in Pershing's rank. The army was not honoring Pershing the man, it was honoring itself."
"Yes," said Charlie, as if he still did not quite grasp his comrade's purpose.
"Here," said John, "this is the idea. You remember how when we were kids we used to get hold of an old magnifying glass and use it as a burning glass?"
"I remember we darned near set fire to Hank Webster's barn once," smiled Charlie.
"Well," returned John, "think of the army as a sun, and of every loyal individual soldier, officer and private alike, as a ray of that sun and there is your true equality. Pershing's rank was simply the burning glass that focused our two million individual rays to a point of such equality that they could move as one. And I noticed another thing in that review, too," continued John, earnestly, "even if I was supposed to have my eyes front, I noticed that General Pershing saluted the colors. And that meant simply this, that as each individual soldier honored the whole army in his recognition of the general's rank, the army itself, through its commander, honored the greater oneness of the nation. And so Foch's rank was a burning glass that focused the different allied nations into a still greater oneness, and drew their strength to such a point of equality that it lighted a fire under old Kaiser Bill."
"But what has all this to do with you and me now?" demanded Charlie. "It looks to me as though you are the one that is getting away from the main thought."
"I am not," returned John. "It has this to do with you and me: Our little part as a nation in that world job in France is finished all right, and the national job that we have to tackle now, here at home, is a little different, but the principle of unity involved is exactly the same. Our everyday work can no more be done by those who work with their hands alone than the Germans could have been whipped by privates alone. Nor can our industries be carried on by those who do the planning and managing alone any more than the army could have carried out a campaign with nothing but officers."
"Oh, I see now what you are getting at," said Charlie.
"It's about time that you woke up," retorted John.
"You mean," continued Charlie, carefully, "that just as the unity of the army was in the different ranks that focused the individual soldier rays upon one common purpose, so the true equality of our industries is possible only through the difference in rank, such as--well, such as yours and mine--manager and workman or employer and employee."
"Now you're getting wise," cried John. "Really at times you show signs of almost human intelligence."
Charlie returned, doubtfully, "How do you suppose Sam Whaley and a few others I could name in our union would take to this equality stuff of yours?"
"And how do you suppose McIver and others like him would take to it?" retorted John. "All the men in your union are not Sam Whaleys by a long shot, neither are all employers like McIver. As I remember, you had to discipline a man now and then in Company K. And you have heard of officers being cashiered, haven't you?"
"That's all right," returned the captain, "but how will the rank and file of our industrial army as a whole ever get it?"
For some time John Ward did not reply to this, but sat brooding over the question, while his former superior officer waited expectantly.
Then the manager said, earnestly, "Charlie, what was it that drew over four million American citizens of almost every known parentage from every walk of life, and made them an army with one purpose? And what was it that inspired one hundred million more to back them?
"I'll tell you what it was," he continued, when his companion did not answer, "it was the Big Idea.
"Oh, yes, I know there were all kinds of graft and incompetency and jealousy and mutiny and outrages. And there were traitors and profiteers and slackers of every sort. But the Big Idea that focused the strength of the nation as a whole, Charlie, was so much bigger than any individual or group that it absorbed all. It took possession of us all--inspired us all--dominated and drove us all, into every conceivable effort and sacrifice, until it made heroism a common thing. And this Big Idea was so big that it not only absorbed disloyalty and selfishness as a great living river takes in a few drops of poison, but it assimilated, as well, every brand of class and caste. It made no distinction between officer and private, it ruled General Pershing and Private Jones alike. It recognized no difference between educated and uneducated and sent university professors and bootblacks over the top side by side. And this Big Idea that so focused the individual rays of our nation against German imperialism was nothing more or less than the idea of the oneness of all humanity. It may be lost in a scramble for the spoils of victory, it is true, but it was the Big Idea that won the victory just the same."
John Ward was on his feet now, pacing back and forth. His face was flushed and eager, his eyes were glowing, as he himself was possessed of the Big Idea which he strove to put into words.
And Captain Charlie's pipe was forgotten as he watched his friend and listened. This John Ward was a John Ward that few people in Millsburgh knew. But Captain Charlie knew him. Captain Charlie had seen him tested in all the ways that war tests men. In cold and hunger and the unspeakable discomforts of mud and filth and vermin--in the waiting darkness when an impatient whisper or a careless move to ease overstrained nerves meant a deluge of fire and death--in the wild frenzy of actual conflict--in the madness of victory--in the delirium of defeat--in the dreary marking time--in the tense readiness for the charge--in those many moments when death was near enough to strip the outward husks from these two men and leave their naked souls face to face--Captain Charlie had learned to know John Ward.
"Do you remember what the Interpreter said to us the first time we went to see him after we got home?" demanded John.
Charlie nodded. "He said for us not to make the mistake of thinking that the war was over just because the Armistice was signed and we were at home in Millsburgh again. I'm afraid a good many people, though, are making just that mistake."
"I didn't understand what our old friend meant then, Charlie," continued John, "but I know now. He meant that the same old fight between the spirit of imperialism that seeks the selfish dominion of an individual or class and the spirit of democracy that upholds the oneness of all for all, is still on, right here at home. The President said that the war was to make the world safe for democracy, and there are some wild enthusiasts who say that we Americans won it."
"That 'we won the war' stuff is all bunk," interrupted Charlie, in a tone of disgust.
"'Bunk' is right," agreed John. "The old A.E.F. did have a hand, though, in putting a crimp in the Kaiser's little plan for acquiring title to the whole human race for himself and family. But if the American people don't wake up to the fact that the same identical principles of human right and human liberty that sent us to France are involved in our industrial controversies here at home, we might as well have saved ourselves the trouble of going over there at all."
"That is all true enough," agreed Captain Charlie, "but what is going to wake us up? What is going to send us as a nation against the Kaiser Bills of capital and the Kaiser Bills of labor, or, if you like it better, the imperialistic employers and the equally imperialistic employees?"
John Ward fairly shouted his answer, "The Big Idea, my boy--the same Big Idea that sent us to war against imperialism over there will wake us up to drive the spirit of imperialism out of our American industries here at home."
Charlie shook his head doubtfully. "It was different during the World War, John. Then the Big Idea was held up before the people to the exclusion of everything else. When we think of the speeches and parades and rallies and sermons and books and newspapers and pictures and songs that were used in the appeal to our patriotism and our common humanity, it was no wonder that we all felt the pull of it all. But no one now is saying anything about the Big Idea, except for an occasional paragraph here and there. And certainly no one is making much noise about applying it in our industries."
"Yes, I know we can't expect any such hurrah as we had when men were needed to die for the cause in a foreign land. You go to France and get shot for humanity and you are a hero. Stay at home and sweat for the same cause and you are a nobody. From the publicity point of view" there seems to be a lot of difference between a starving baby in Belgium and a starving kid in our Millsburgh Flats. But just the same it is the Big Idea that will save us from the dangers that are threatening our industries and, through our industries, menacing the very life of out nation."
"But how will the people get it, John?"
"I don't know how it will come; but, somehow, the appeal must be made to the loyal citizens of this nation in behalf of the humanity that is dependent for life itself upon our industries, exactly as the appeal was made in behalf of the humanity that looked to us for help in time of war. We must, as a nation, learn, somehow, to feel our work as we felt our war. The same ideals of patriotism and sacrifice and heroism that were so exalted in the war must be held up in our everyday work. We must learn to see our individual jobs in the industrial organizations of our country as we saw our places in the nation's army. As a people we must grasp the mighty fact that humanity is the issue of our mills and shops and factories and mines, exactly as it was the issue of our campaigns in France. America, Charlie, has not only to face in her industries the same spirit of imperialism that we fought in France, but she has to contend with the same breed of disloyal grafters, profiteers and slackers that would have betrayed us during the war. And these traitors to our industries must be branded wherever they are found--among the business forces or in the ranks of labor, in our schools and churches or on our farms.
"The individual's attitude toward the industries of this nation must be a test of his loyal citizenship just as a man's attitude toward our army was a test. And Americans dare not continue to ignore the danger that lies in the work of those emissaries who are seeking to weaken the loyalty of our workmen and who by breeding class hatred and strife in our industries are trying to bring about the downfall of our government and replace the stars and stripes with the flag that is as foreign to our American independence as the flag of the German Kaiser himself."
Captain Charlie said, slowly, "That is all true, John, but at the same time you and I know that there is no finer body of loyal citizens anywhere in the world than the great army of our American workmen. And we know, too, that the great army of our American business men are just as fine and true and loyal."
"Exactly," cried John, "but if these loyal American citizens who work with their hands in the Mill and these loyal citizens who work in the office of the Mill don't hold together, in the same spirit of comradeship that united them in the war, to defend our industries against both the imperialism of capital and the equally dangerous imperialism of labor, we may as well run up a new flag at Washington and be done with it."
"You are right, of course, John," said Captain Charlie, "but how?"
"You and I may not know how," retorted the other, "any more than we knew how the war was going to be won when we enlisted. But we do know our little parts right here in Millsburgh clear enough. As I see it, it is up to us to carry the torch of Flanders fields into the field of our industries right here in our own home town."
He paced to and fro without speaking for a little while, the other watching him, waited.
"Of course," said John at last, "a lot of people will call us fanatics and cranks and idealists for saying that the Big Idea, of the war must dominate us in our industrial life. And, of course, it is going to be a darned sight harder in some ways to stand for the principles of our comradeship here at home than it was over there. 'Don't go out into No Man's Land to-night, Captain Charlie, it is so dirty and dark and wet and cold and dangerous; let Private John go.' But the darned fool, Captain Charlie, went into the cold and the wet and the danger because he and Private John were comrades in the oneness of the Big Idea."
His voice grew a little bitter as he finished. "Don't go into that awful Mill, Captain John, it is so dirty and dangerous and you will get so tired; let Private Charlie do the work while you stay at home and play tennis or bridge or attend to the social duties of your superior class."
With ringing earnestness Charlie Martin added, "But the darned fool fanatic and idealist Captain John will go just the same because he and Private Charlie are comrades in the oneness of the Big Idea of the Mill here at home."
For a few moments John stood looking into the distance as one who sees a vision, then he said, slowly, "And the Big Idea will win again, old man, as it has always won; and the traitors and slackers and yellow dogs will be saved with the rest, I suppose, just as they always have been saved from themselves."
He turned to see his comrade standing at attention. Gravely Captain Charlie saluted.
* * * * *
Perhaps Jake Vodell was right in believing that the friendship of John Ward and Charlie Martin was dangerous to his cause in Millsburgh.
The Vodells, who with their insidious propaganda, menace America through her industrial troubles, will be powerless, indeed, when American employers and employees can think in terms of industrial comradeship.