The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book II. The Two Helens
Chapter XIII. The Awakening
"O Guns, fall silent till the dead men hear Above their heads the legions pressing on:
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Bid them be patient, and some day, anon, They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep; Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn, And in content may turn them to their sleep."
Immediately following that day when she had watched her father from the arbor and had talked with Bobby and Maggie Whaley on the old road, Helen Ward had thrown herself into the social activities of her circle as if determined to find, in those interests, a cure for her discontent and unhappiness.
Several times she called for a few minutes at the little hut on the cliff. But she did not again talk of herself or of her father to the old basket maker as she had talked that day when she first met the children from the Flats. Two or three times she saw the children. But she passed them quickly by with scarcely a nod of greeting. And yet, the daughter of Adam Ward felt with increasing certainty that she could never be content with the busy nothingness which absorbed the lives of so many of her friends. Her father, since his retirement, seemed a little better. But she could not put out of her mind the memory of what she had seen. For her, the dreadful presence of the hidden thing always attended him. Because she could not banish the feeling and because there was nothing she could do, she sought relief by escaping from the house as often as possible on the plea of social duties.
There were times when the young woman thought that her mother knew. At times she fancied that her brother half guessed the secret that so overshadowed their home. But Mrs. Ward and her children alike shrank from anything approaching frankness in mentioning the Mill owner's condition. And so they went on, feeling the hidden thing, dreading they knew not what--deceiving themselves and each other with hopes that in their hearts they knew were false.
The mother, brave, loyal soul, seeing her daughter's unhappiness and wishing to protect her from the thing that had so saddened her own life, encouraged Helen to find what relief she could in the pleasures that kept her so many hours from home. John, occupied by the exacting duties of his new position, needed apparently nothing more. Indeed, to Helen, her brother's attitude toward his work, his views of life and his increasing neglect of what she called the obligations of their position in Millsburgh, were more and more puzzling. She had thought that with John's advancement to the general managership of the Mill his peculiar ideas would be modified. But his promotion seemed to have made no sign of a change in his conception of the relationship between employer and employee, or in his attitude toward the unions or toward the industrial situation as a whole.
Of one thing Helen was certain--her brother had found that which she, in her own life, was somehow missing. And so the young woman observed her brother with increasing interest and a growing feeling that approached envy. At every opportunity she led him to talk of his work or rather of his attitude toward his work, and encouraged him to express the convictions that had so changed his own life and that were so foreign to the tenets of Helen and her class. And always their talks ended with John's advice: "Go ask the Interpreter; he knows; he will make it so much clearer than I can."
But with all John's absorbing interest in his work and in the general industrial situation of Millsburgh, which under the growing influence of Jake Vodell was becoming every day more difficult and dangerous, the general manager could not escape the memories of that happy evening at the Martin cottage. The atmosphere of this workman's home was so different from the atmosphere of his own home in the big house on the hill. There was a peace, a contentment, a feeling of security in the little cottage that was sadly wanting in the more pretentious residence. Following, as it did, his father's retirement from the Mill with his own promotion to the rank of virtual ownership and his immediate talk with Captain Charlie, that evening had reestablished for him, as it were, the relationship and charm of his boyhood days. It was as though, having been submitted to a final test, he was now admitted once more, without reserve, to the innermost circle of their friendship.
On his way to and from his office he nearly always, now, drove past the Martin cottage. The distance was greater, it is true, but John thought that the road was enough better to more than make up for that. Besides, he really did enjoy the drive down the tree-arched street and past the old house. It was all so rich in memories of his happy boyhood, and sometimes--nearly always, in fact--he would catch a glimpse of Mary among her flowers or on the porch or perhaps at the gate.
Occasionally this young manager of the Mill, with his strange ideas of industrial comradeship, found it necessary to spend an evening with these workmen who were leaders in the union that was held by his father and by McIver to be a menace to the employer class. It in no way detracted from the value of these consultations with Captain Charlie and his father that Mary was always present. In fact, Mary herself was in a position materially to help John Ward in his study of the industrial problems that were of such vital interest to him. No one knew better than did Pete Martin's daughter the actual living conditions of the class of laboring people who dwelt in the Flats. Certainly, as he watched the progress of Jake Vodell's missionary work among them, John could not ignore these Sam Whaleys of the industries as an important factor in his problem.
So it happened, curiously enough, that Helen herself was led to call at the little home next door to the old house where she had lived in those years of her happy girlhood.
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Helen was downtown that afternoon on an unimportant shopping errand. She had left the store after making her purchases and was about to enter her automobile, when McIver, who chanced to be passing, stopped to greet her.
There was no doubting the genuineness of the man's pleasure in the incident, nor was Helen herself at all displeased at this break in what had been, so far, a rather dull day.
"And what brings you down here at this unreasonable hour?" he asked; "on Saturday, too? Don't you know that there is a tennis match on at the club?"
"I didn't seem to care for the tennis to-day somehow," she returned. "Mother wanted some things from Harrison's, so I came downtown to get them for her."
He caught a note in her voice that made him ask with grave concern, "How is your father, Helen?"
She answered, quickly, "Oh, father is doing nicely, thank you." Then, with a cheerfulness that was a little forced, she asked in turn, "And why have you deserted the club yourself this afternoon?"
"Business," he returned. "There will be no more Saturday afternoons off for me for some time to come, I fear." Then he added, quickly, "But look here, Helen, there is no need of our losing the day altogether. Send your man on, and come with me for a little spin. The roadster is in the next block. I'll take you home in an hour and get on back to my office."
"The ride will do you good."
"Sure you can spare the time?"
"Sure. It will do me good, too."
"And you're not asking me just to be nice--you really want me?"
"Don't you know by this time whether I want you or not?" he returned, in a tone that brought the color to her cheeks. "Please come!"
"All right," she agreed.
When they were seated in McIver's roadster, she added, "I really can't deny myself the thrilling triumph of taking a business man away from his work during office hours."
"You take my thoughts away from my work a great many times during office hours, Helen," he retorted, as the car moved away. "Must I wait much longer for my answer, dear?"
She replied, hurriedly, "Please, Jim, not that to-day. Let's not think about it even."
"All right," he returned, grimly. "I just want you to know, though, that I am waiting."
"I know, Jim--and--and you are perfectly wonderful but--Oh, can't we forget it just for an hour?"
As if giving himself to her mood, McIver's voice and manner changed. "Do you mind if we stop at the factory just a second? I want to leave some papers. Then we can go on up the river drive."
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An hour later they were returning, and because it was the prettiest street in that part of Millsburgh, McIver chose the way that would take them past the old house.
John Ward's machine was standing in front of the Martin cottage.
McIver saw it and looked quickly at his companion. There was no need to ask if Helen had recognized her brother's car.
The factory owner considered the new manager of the Mill a troublesome obstacle in his own plans for making war on the unions. He felt, too, that with John now in control of the business, his chances of bringing about the combination of the two industries were materially lessened. He had wondered, at times, if it was not her brother's influence that caused Helen to put off giving him her final answer to his suit.
When he saw that Helen had recognized John's car, he remarked, with an insinuating laugh, "Evidently I am not the only business man who can be lured from his office during working hours."
"Jim, how can you?" she protested. "You know John is there on business to see Charlie or his father."
"It is a full hour yet before quitting time at the Mill," he returned.
She had no reply to this, and the man continued with a touch of malicious satisfaction, "After all, Helen, John is human, you know, and old Pete Martin's daughter is a mighty attractive girl."
Helen Ward's cheeks were red, but she managed to control her voice, as she said, "Just what do you mean by that, Jim?"
"Is it possible that you really do not know?" he countered.
"I know that my brother, foolish as he may be about some things, would never think of paying serious attention to the daughter of one of his employees," she retorted, warmly.
"That is exactly the situation," he returned. "No one believes for a moment that the affair is serious on John's part."
The color was gone from Helen's face now. "I think you have said too much not to go on now, Jim. Do you mean that people are saying that John is amusing himself with Mary Martin?"
"Well," he returned, coolly, "what else can the people think when they see him going there so often; when they see the two together, wandering about the Flats; when they hear his car tearing down the street late in the evening; when they see her every morning at the gate watching for him to pass on his way to work? Your brother is not a saint, Helen. He is no different, in some ways, from other men. I always did feel that there was something back of all this comrade stuff between him and Charlie Martin. As for the girl, I don't think you need to worry about her. She probably understands it all right enough."
"Jim, you must not say such things to me about Mary! She is not at all that kind of girl. The whole thing is impossible."
"What do you know about Mary Martin?" he retorted. "I'll bet you have never even spoken to her since you moved from the old house."
Helen did not speak after this until they were passing the great stone columns at the entrance to the Ward estate, then she said, quietly, "Jim, do you always believe the worst possible things about every one?"
"That's an odd thing for you to ask," he returned, doubtfully, as they drove slowly up the long curving driveway. "Why?"
"Because," she answered, "it sometimes seems to me as if no one believed the best things about people these days. I know there is a world of wickedness among us, Jim, but are we all going wholly to the bad together?"
McIver laughed. "We are all alike in one thing, Helen. No matter what he professes, you will find that at the last every man holds to the good old law of 'look out for number one.' Business or pleasure, it's all the same. A man looks after his own interests first and takes what he wants, or can get, when and where and how he can."
"But, Jim, the war--"
He laughed cynically. "The war was pure selfishness from start to finish. We fed the fool public a lot of patriotic bunk, of course--we had to--we needed them. And the dear people fell for the sentimental hero business as they always do." With the last word he stopped the car in front of the house.
When Helen was on the ground she turned and faced him squarely. "Jim McIver, your words are an insult to my brother and to ninety-nine out of every hundred men who served under our flag, and you insult my intelligence if you expect me to accept them in earnest. If I thought for a minute that you were capable of really believing such abominable stuff I would never speak to you again. Good-by, Jim. Thank you so much for the ride."
Before the man could answer, she ran up the steps and disappeared through the front door.
But McIver's car was no more than past the entrance when Helen appeared again on the porch. For a moment she stood, as if debating some question in her mind. Then apparently, she reached a decision. Ten minutes later she was walking hurriedly down the hill road--the way Bobby and Maggie had fled that day when Adam Ward drove them from the iron fence that guarded his estate. It was scarcely a mile by this road to the old house and the Martin cottage.