The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book II. The Two Helens
Chapter XIV. The Way Back
That walk from her home to the little white cottage next door to the old house was the most eventful journey that Helen Ward ever made. She felt this in a way at the time, but she could not know to what end her sudden impulse to visit again the place of her girlhood would eventually lead.
As she made her way down the hill toward that tree-arched street, she realized a little how far the years had carried her from the old house. She had many vivid and delightful memories of that world of her childhood, it is true, but the world to which her father's material success had removed her in the years of her ripening womanhood had come to claim her so wholly that she had never once gone back. She had looked back at first with troubled longing. But Adam Ward's determined efforts to make the separation of the two families final and complete, together with the ever-increasing bitterness of his strange hatred for his old workman friend, had effectually prevented her from any attempt at a continuation of the old relationship. In time, even the thought of taking so much as a single step toward the intimacies from which she had come so far, had ceased to occur to her. And now, suddenly, without plan or premeditation, she was on her way actually to touch again, if only for a few moments, the lives that had been so large a part of the simple, joyous life which she had known once, but which was so foreign to her now.
Nor was it at all clear to her why she was going or what she would do. As she had observed with increasing interest the change in her brother's attitude toward the pleasures that had claimed him so wholly before the war, she had wondered often at his happy contentment in contrast to her own restless and dissatisfied spirit. McIver's words had suddenly forced one fact upon her with startling clearness: John, through his work in the Mill, his association with Captain Charlie and his visits to the Martin home, was actually living again in the atmosphere of that world which she felt they had left so far behind. It was as though her brother had already gone back.
And McIver's challenging question, "What do you know about Mary Martin?" had raised in her mind a doubt, not of her brother and his relationship to these old friends of their childhood, but of herself and all the relationships that made her present life such a contrast to her life in the old house.
With her mind and heart so full of doubts and questionings, she turned into the familiar street and saw her brother's car still before the Martin home.
As she went on, a feeling of strange eagerness possessed her. Her face glowed with warm color, her eyes shone with glad anticipation, her heart beat more quickly. As one returning to well loved home scenes after many years in a foreign land, the daughter of Adam Ward went down the street toward the place where she was born. In front of the old house she stopped. The color went from her cheeks--the brightness from her eyes.
In her swiftly moving automobile, nearly always with gay companions, Helen had sometimes passed the old house and had noticed with momentary concern its neglected appearance. But these fleeting glimpses had been so quickly forgotten that the place was most real to her as she saw it in her memories. But now, as she stood there alone, in the mood that had brought her to the spot, the real significance of the ruin struck her with appalling force.
Those rooms with their shattered windowpanes, their bare, rotting casements and sagging, broken shutters appealed to her in the mute eloquence of their empty loneliness for the joyous life that once had filled them. The weed-grown yard, the tumbledown fence, the dilapidated porch, and even the chimneys that were crumbling and ragged against the sky, cried out to her in sorrowful reproach. A rushing flood of home memories filled her eyes with hot tears. With the empty loneliness of the old house in her heart, she went blindly on to the little cottage next door. There was no thought as to how she would explain her unusual presence there. She did not, herself, really know clearly why she had come.
Timidly she paused at the white gate. There was no one in the yard to bid her welcome. As one in a dream, she passed softly into the yard. She was trembling now as one on the threshold of a great adventure. What was it? What did it mean--her coming there?
Wonderingly she looked about the little yard with its bit of lawn--at the big shade tree--the flowers--it was all just as she had always known it. Where were they?--John and Mary and Charlie? Why was there no sound of their voices? Her cheeks were suddenly hot with color. What if Charlie Martin should suddenly appear! As one awakened from strange dreams to a familiar home scene, Helen Ward was all at once back in those days of her girlhood. She had come as she had come so many, many times from the old house next door, to find her brother and their friends. Her heart was eager with the shy eagerness of a maid for the expected presence of her first boyish lover.
* * * * *
Then Peter Martin, coming around the house from the garden, saw her standing there.
The old workman stopped, as if at the sight of an apparition. Mechanically he placed the garden tool he was carrying against the corner of the house; deliberately he knocked the ashes from his pipe and placed it methodically in his pocket.
With a little cry, Helen ran to him, her hands outstretched, "Uncle Pete!"
The old workman caught her and for a few moments she clung to him, half laughing, half crying, while they both, in the genuineness of their affection, forgot the years.
"Is it really you, Helen?" he said, at last, and she saw a suspicious moisture in the kindly eyes. "Have you really come back to see the old man after all these years?"
Then, with quick anxiety, he asked, "But what is the matter, child? Your father--your mother--are they all right? Is there anything wrong at your home up on the hill yonder?"
His very natural inquiry broke the spell and placed her instantly back in the world to which she now belonged. Drawing away from him, she returned, with characteristic calmness, "Oh, no, Uncle Pete, father and mother are both very well indeed. But why should you think there must be something wrong, simply because I chanced to call?"
The old workman was clearly confused at this sudden change in her manner. He had welcomed the girl--the Helen of the old house--this self-possessed young woman was quite a different person. She was the princess lady of little Maggie and Bobby Whaley's acquaintance, who sometimes condescended to recognize him with a cool little nod as her big automobile passed him swiftly by.
Pete Martin could not know, as the Interpreter would have known, how at that very moment the Helen of the old house and the princess lady were struggling for supremacy.
Removing his hat and handling it awkwardly, he said, with a touch of dignity in his tone and manner in spite of his embarrassment, "I'm glad the folks are well, Helen. Won't you take a seat and rest yourself?"
As they went toward the chairs in the shade of the tree, he added, "It is a long time since we have seen you in this part of town--walking, I mean."
The Helen of the old house wanted to answer--she longed to cry out in the fullness of her heart some of the things that were demanding expression, but it was the princess lady who answered, "I saw my brother's car here and thought perhaps he would let me ride home with him."
The old workman was studying her now with kind but frankly understanding eyes. "John and Mary have gone to see some of the folks that she is looking after in the Flats," he said, slowly. "They'll be back any minute now, I should think."
She did not know what to reply to this. There were so many things she wanted to know--so many things that she felt she must know. But she felt herself forced to answer with the mere commonplace, "You are all well, I suppose, Uncle Pete?"
"Fine, thank you," he answered. "Mary is always busy with her housework and her flowers and the poor sick folks she's always a-looking after--just like her mother, if you remember. Charlie, he's working late to-day--some breakdown or something that's keeping him overtime. That brother of yours is a fine manager, Miss Helen, and," he added, with a faint note of something in his voice that brought a touch of color to her cheeks, "a finer man."
Again she felt the crowding rush of those questions she wanted to ask, but she only said, with an air of calm indifference, "John has changed so since his return from France--in many ways he seems like a different man."
"As for that," he replied, "the war has changed most people in one way or another. It was bound to. Everybody talks about getting back to normal again, but as I see it there'll be no getting back ever to what used to be normal before the war started."
She looked at him with sudden, intense interest. "How has it so changed every one, Uncle Pete? Why can't people be just as they were before it happened? The change in business conditions and all that, I can understand, but why should it make any difference to--well, to me, for example?"
The old workman answered, slowly, "The people are thinking deeper and feeling deeper. They're more human, as you might say. And I've noticed generally that the way the people think and feel is at the bottom of everything. It's just like the Interpreter says, 'You can't change the minds and hearts of folks without changing what they do.' Everybody ain't changed, of course, but so many of them have that the rest will be bound to take some notice or feel mighty lonesome from now on."
Helen was about to reply when the old workman interrupted her with, "There come John and Mary now."
The two coming along the street walk to the gate did not at first notice those who were watching them with such interest. John was carrying a market basket and talking earnestly to his companion, whose face was upturned to his with eager interest. At the gate they paused a moment while the man, with his hand on the latch, finished whatever it was that he was saying. And Helen, with a little throb of something very much like envy in her heart, saw the light of happiness in the eyes of the young woman who through all the years of their girlhood had been her inseparable playmate and loyal friend.
When John finally opened the gate for her to pass, Mary was laughing, and the clear ringing gladness in her voice brought a faint smile of sympathy even to the face of the now coolly conventional daughter of Adam Ward.
Mary's laughter was suddenly checked; the happiness fled from her face. With a little gesture of almost appealing fear she put her hand on her companion's arm.
In the same instant John saw and stood motionless, his face blank with amazement. Then, "Helen! What in the world are you doing here?"
John Ward never realized all that those simple words carried to the three who heard him. Peter Martin's face was grave and thoughtful. Mary blushed in painful embarrassment. His sister, calm and self-possessed, came toward them, smiling graciously.
"I saw your roadster and thought I might ride home with you. Uncle Pete and I have been having a lovely little visit. It is perfectly charming to see you again like this, Mary. Your flowers are beautiful as ever, aren't they?"
"But, Helen, how do you happen to be wandering about in this neighborhood alone and without your car?" demanded the still bewildered John.
"Don't be silly," she laughed. "I was out for a walk--that is all. I do walk sometimes, you know." She turned to Mary. "Really, to hear this brother of mine, one would think me a helpless invalid and this part of Millsburgh a very dangerous community."
Mary forced a smile, but the light in her eyes was not the light of happiness and her cheeks were still a burning red.
"Don't you think we should go now, John?" suggested Helen.
The helpless John looked from Mary to her father appealingly.
"Better sit down awhile," Pete offered, awkwardly.
John looked at his watch. "I suppose we really ought to go." To Mary he added, "Will you please tell Charlie that I will see him to-morrow?"
She bowed gravely.
Then the formal parting words were spoken, and Helen and John were seated in the car. Mary had moved aside from the gate and stood now very still among her flowers.
* * * * *
Before John had shifted the gears of his machine to high, he heard a sound that caused him to look quickly at his sister. Little Maggie's princess lady was sobbing like a child.
"Why, Helen, what in the world--"
She interrupted him. "Please, John--please, don't--don't take me home now. I--I--Let us stop here at the old house for a few minutes. I--I can't go just yet."
Without a word John Ward turned into the curb. Tenderly he helped her to the ground. Reverently he lifted aside the broken-down gate and led her through the tangle of tall grass and weeds that had almost obliterated the walk to the front porch. Over the rotting steps and across the trembling porch he helped her with gentle care. Very softly he pushed open the sagging door.