The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter XII. Two Sides of a Question
That evening the new manager of the Mill stayed for supper at the Martin cottage. It was the first time since he had left the old house next door for his school in a distant city that he had eaten a meal with these friends of his boyhood.
Perhaps because their minds were so filled with things they could not speak, their talk was a little restrained. Captain Charlie attempted a jest or two; John did his best, and Mary helped them all she could. The old workman, save for a kindly word now and then to make the son of Adam Ward feel at home, was silent.
But when the supper was over and the twilight was come and they had carried their chairs out on the lawn where, in their boy and girl days they had romped away so many twilight hours, the weight of the present was lifted. While Peter Martin smoked his pipe and listened, the three made merry over the adventures of their childhood, until the old house next door, so deserted and forlorn, must have felt that the days so long past were come again.
It was rather late when John finally said goodnight. As he drove homeward he told himself many times that it had been one of the happiest evenings he had ever spent. He wondered why.
The big house on the hill, as he approached the iron gates, seemed strangely grim and forbidding. The soft darkness of the starlit night invited him to stay out of doors. Reluctantly, half in mind to turn back, he drove slowly up the long driveway. The sight of McIver's big car waiting decided him. He did not wish to meet the factory owner that evening. He would wait a while before going indoors. Finding a comfortable lawn chair not far from the front of the house, he filled his pipe.
As he sat there, many things unbidden and apparently without purpose passed in leisurely succession through his mind. Bits of boyhood experiences, long forgotten and called up now, no doubt, by his evening at the cottage that had once been as much his home as the old house itself. How inseparable the four children had been! Fragments of his army life--what an awakening it had all been for him! The coming struggle with the followers of Jake Vodell--his new responsibilities. He had feared that his comradeship with Charlie might be weakened--well, that was settled now. He was glad they had had their talk.
The door of the house opened and McIver came down the steps to his automobile. For a moment Helen stood framed against the bright light of the interior, then the car rolled away. The door was closed.
John recalled what his father had said. Would his sister finally accept McIver? For a long time the factory owner had been pressing his suit. Would she marry him at last? A combination of the Ward Mill and the McIver factory would be a mighty power in the manufacturing world. He dismissed the thought. He wished that Helen were more like Mary. His sister was a wonderful woman in his eyes--he was proud of her; but again his mind went back to the workman's home and to his happy evening there. His own home was so different. His mother! What a splendid old man Uncle Peter was!
John Ward's musings were suddenly disturbed by a faint sound. Turning his head, he saw the form of a man, dark and shadowy in the faint light of the stars, moving toward the house. John held his place silently, alert and ready. Cautiously the dark form crept forward with frequent pauses as if to look about. Then, as the figure stood for a moment silhouetted against a lighted window of the house, John recognized his father.
At the involuntary exclamation which escaped the younger man Adam whirled as if to run.
John spoke, quietly, "That you, father?"
The man came quickly to his son. With an odd nervous laugh, he said, "Lord, boy, but you startled me! What are you doing out here at this time of the night?"
"Just enjoying a quiet smoke and looking at the stars," John answered, easily.
It was evident that Adam Ward was intensely excited. His voice shook with nervous agitation and he looked over his shoulder and peered into the surrounding darkness as if dreading some lurking danger.
"I couldn't sleep," he muttered, in a low cautious tone. "Dreams--nothing in them of course--all foolishness--nerves are all shot to pieces."
He dropped down on the seat beside his son, then sprang to his feet again. "Did you hear that?" he whispered, and stooping low, he tried to see into the shadows of the shrubbery behind John.
The younger man spoke soothingly. "There is nothing here, father, sit down and take it easy."
"You don't know what you're talking about," retorted Adam Ward. "I tell you they are after me--there's no telling what they will do--poison--a gun--infernal machines through the mail--bomb. No one has any sympathy with me, not even my family. All these years I have worked for what I have and now nobody cares. All they want is what they can get out of me. And you--you'll find out! I saw your car in front of Martin's again this evening. You'd better keep away from there. Peter Martin is dangerous. He would take everything I have away from me if he could."
John tried in vain to calm his father, but in a voice harsh with passion he continued, and as he spoke, he moved his hands and arms constantly with excited and vehement gestures.
"That process is mine, I tell you. The best lawyers I could get have fixed up the patents. Pete Martin is an old fool. I'll see him in his grave before--" he checked himself as if fearing his own anger would betray him. As he paced up and he muttered to himself, "I built up the business and I can tear it down. I'll blow up the Mill. I--" his voice trailed off into hoarse unintelligible sounds.
John Ward could not speak. He believed that his father's strange fears for the loss of his property were due to nothing more than his nervous trouble. Peter Martin's name, which Adam in his most excited moments nearly always mentioned in this manner, meant nothing more to John than the old workman's well-known leadership in the Mill workers' union.
Suddenly Adam turned again to his son, and coming close asked in a whisper, "John--I--is there really a hell, John? I mean such as the preachers used to tell about. Does a man go from this life to the horrors of eternal punishment? Does he, son?"
"Why, father, I--" John started to reply, but Adam interrupted him with, "Never mind; you wouldn't know any more than any one else about it. The preachers ought to know, though. Seems like there must be some way of finding out. I dreamed--"
As if he had forgotten the presence of his son, he suddenly started away toward the house.
Not until John Ward had assured himself that his father was safely in his room and apparently sleeping at last, did he go to his own apartment.
But the new manager of the Mill did not at once retire. He did not even turn on the lights. For a long time he stood at the darkened window, looking out into the night. "What was it?" he asked himself again and again. "What was it his father feared?"
In the distance he could see a tiny spot of light shining high against the shadowy hillside above the darkness of the Flats. It was a lighted window in the Interpreter's hut.
* * * * *
As they sat in the night on the balcony porch, Jake Vodell said harshly to the old basket maker, "You shall tell me about this Adam Ward, comrade. I hear many things. From what you say of your friendship with him in the years when he was a workman in the Mill and from your friendship with his son and daughter you must know better than any one else. Is it true that it was his new patented process that made him so rich?"
"The new process was undoubtedly the foundation of his success," answered the Interpreter, "but it was the man's peculiar genius that enabled him to recognize the real value of the process and to foresee how it would revolutionize the industry. And it was his ability as an organizer and manager, together with his capacity for hard work, that enabled him to realize his vision. It is easily probable that not one of his fellow workmen could have developed and made use of the discovery as he has."
Jake Vodell's black brows were raised with quickened interest. "This new process was a discovery then? It was not the result of research and experiment?"
The Interpreter seemed to answer reluctantly. "It was an accidental discovery, as many such things are."
The agitator must have noticed that the old basket maker did not wish to talk of Adam Ward's patented process, but he continued his questions.
"Peter Martin was working in the Mill at the time of this wonderful discovery, was he?"
"Oh! and Peter and Adam were friends, too?"
The Interpreter's guest shrugged his shoulders and scowled his righteous indignation. "And all these years that Adam Ward has been building up this Mill that grinds the bodies and souls of his fellow men into riches for himself and makes from the life blood of his employees the dollars that his son and daughter spend in wicked luxury--all these years his old friend Peter Martin has toiled for him exactly as the rest of his slaves have toiled. Bah! And still the priests and preachers make the people believe there is a God of Justice."
The Interpreter replied, slowly, "It may be after all, sir, that Peter Martin is richer than Adam Ward."
"How richer?" demanded the other. "When he lives in a poor little house, with no servants, no automobiles, no luxuries of any kind, and must work every day in the Mill with his son, while his daughter Mary slaves at the housekeeping for her father and brother! Look at Adam Ward and his great castle of a home--look at his possessions--at the fortune he will leave his children. Bah! Mr. Interpreter, do not talk to me such foolishness."
"Is it foolishness to count happiness as wealth?" asked the Interpreter.
"Happiness?" growled the other. "Is there such a thing? What does the laboring man know of happiness?"
And the Interpreter answered, "Peter Martin, in the honorable peace and contentment of his useful years, and in the love of his family and friends, is the happiest man I have ever known. While Adam Ward--"
Jake Vodell sprang to his feet as if the Interpreter's words exhausted his patience, while he spoke as one moved by a spirit of contemptuous intolerance. "You talk like a sentimental old woman. How is it possible that there should be happiness and contentment anywhere when all is injustice and slavery under this abominable capitalist system? First we shall have liberty--freedom--equality--then perhaps we may begin to talk of happiness. Is Sam Whaley and his friends who live down there in their miserable hovels--is Sam Whaley happy?"
"Sam Whaley has had exactly the same opportunity for happiness that Peter Martin has had," answered the Interpreter. "Opportunity, yes," snarled the other. "Opportunity to cringe and whine and beg his master for a chance to live like a dog in a kennel, while he slaves to make his owners rich. Do you know what this man McIver says? I will tell you, Mr. Interpreter--you who prattle about a working man's happiness. McIver says that the laboring classes should be driven to their work with bayonets--that if his factory employees strike they will be forced to submission by the starvation of their women and children. Happiness! You shall see what we will do to this man McIver before we talk of happiness. And you shall see what will happen to this castle of Adam Ward's and to this Mill that he says is his."
"I think I should tell you, sir," said the Interpreter, calmly, "that in your Millsburgh campaign, at least, you are already defeated."
"Defeated! Hah! That is good! And who do you say has defeated me, before I have commenced even to fight, heh?"
"You are defeated by Adam Ward's retirement from business," came the strange reply.