The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book II. The Two Helens
Chapter XV. At the Old House
From room to room in the empty old house the brother and sister went silently or with low, half-whispered words. They moved softly, as if fearing to disturb some unseen tenant of those bare and dingy rooms. Often they paused, and, drawing close to each other, stood as if in the very presence of some spirit that was not of their material world. At last they came to the back porch, which was hidden from the curious eyes of any chance observer in the neighborhood by a rank growth of weeds and bushes and untrimmed trees.
As John Ward looked at his sister now, that expression of wondering amazement with which he had greeted her was gone. In its place there was gentle understanding.
With a little smile, Helen sat down on the top step of the porch and motioned him to a seat beside her. "Won't you tell me about it, John?" she said, softly.
"Tell you about what, Helen?"
"About everything--your life, your work, your friends." She made a little gesture toward the cottage next door.
They could see the white gable through the screen of tangled boughs.
"What is it that has changed you so?" she went on. "Your interests are so different now. You are so happy and contented--so--so alive--and I"--her voice broke--"I feel as if you were going away off somewhere and leaving me behind. I am so miserable. John, won't you tell me about things?"
"You poor old girl!" exclaimed John with true brotherly affection. "I've been a blind fool. I ought to have seen. That's nearly always the way, though, I guess," he went on, reflectively. "A fellow gets so darned interested trying to make things go right outside his own home that he forgets to notice how the people that he really loves most of all are getting along. It looks as though I have not been doing so much better than poor old Sam Whaley, after all."
He paused and seemed to be following his thoughts into fields where only he could go. Helen moved a little closer, and he came back to her.
"I never dreamed that you were feeling anything like this, sister. I knew that you were worried about father, of course, as we all are, but aside from that you seemed to be so occupied with your various interests and with McIver--" He paused, then finished, abruptly, "Look here, Helen, what about you and McIver anyway; have you given him his answer yet?"
"Has that anything to do with it?" she answered, doubtfully. "There is nothing that I can tell you about McIver. I don't seem to be able to make up my mind, that is all. But McIver is only a part of the whole trouble, John. Oh, can't you understand! How am I to know whether or not I want to marry him or any one else until--until I have found myself--until I know where I really belong."
He looked at her blankly for a second, then a smile broke over his face. "By George!" he exclaimed "that is exactly what I had to do--find myself and find where I belonged. I never dreamed that my sister might be compelled to go through the same experience."
"Was it your army life that helped you to know?"
His face was serious now. "It was the things I saw and experienced while in France."
"Tell me," she demanded. "I mean, tell me some of the things that you men never talk about--the things you were forced to think and feel and believe--that showed you your own real self--that changed you into what you are to-day."
And because John Ward was able that afternoon to understand his sister's need, he did as she asked. It may have been the influence of the old house that enabled him to lay bare for her those experiences of his innermost self--those soul adventures about which, as she had so truly said, men never talk. Certainly he could never have spoken in their home on the hill as he spoke in that atmosphere from which their father and his material prosperity had so far removed them. And Helen, as she listened, knew that she had found at last the key to all in her brother's life that had so puzzled her.
But after all, she reflected, when he had finished, John's experience could not solve her problem. She could not find herself in the things that he had thought and felt.
"If only I could have been with you over there." she murmured.
"But, Helen," he cried, eagerly, "it is all right here at home. The same things are happening all about us every day--don't you understand? The one biggest thing that came to me out of the war is the realization that, great and terrible though it was, it was in reality only a part of the greater war that is being fought all the time."
She shook her head with a doubtful smile at his earnestness.
And then he tried to tell her of the Mill as he saw it in its relation to human life--of the danger that threatened the nation through the industrial situation--of the menace to humanity that lay in the efforts of those who were setting class against class in a deadly hatred that would result in revolution with all its horrors. He tried to make her feel the call of humanity's need in the world's work, as it was felt in the need of the world's war. He sought to apply for her the principles of heroism and comradeship and patriotism and service to this war that was still being waged against the imperialistic enemies of the nation and the race.
But when he paused at last, she only smiled again, doubtfully. "You are wonderful in your enthusiasm, John dear," she said, "and I love you for it. I think I understand you now, and for yourself it is right, of course, but for me--it is all so visionary--so unreal."
"And yet," he returned, "you were very active during the war--you made bandages and lint and sweaters, and raised funds for the Red Cross. Was it all real to you?"
"Yes," she answered, honestly, "it was very real John; it was so real that in contrast nothing that I do now seems of any importance."
"But you never saw a wounded soldier--you never witnessed the horrors--you never came in actual touch with the suffering, did you?"
"And yet you say the war was real to you."
"Very real," she replied.
"Do you think, Helen," he said, slowly, "that the Interpreter's suffering would have been more real if he had lost his legs by a German machine gun instead of by a machine in father's mill?"
"John!" she exclaimed, in a shocked tone.
"You say the suffering away over there in France was real to you," he continued. "Well, less than a mile from this spot, I called this afternoon on a man who is dying by inches of consumption, contracted while working in our office. For eight years he was absent from his desk scarcely a day. The force nicknamed him 'Old Faithful.' When he dropped in his tracks at last they carried him out and stopped his pay. He has no care--nothing to eat, even, except the help that the Martins give him. Another case: A widow and four helpless children--the man was killed in McIver's factory last week. He died in agony too horrible to describe. The mother is prostrated, the children are hungry. God knows what will become of them this next winter. Another: A workman who was terribly burned in the Mill two years ago. He is blind and crippled in the bargain--"
She interrupted him with a protesting cry, "John, John, for pity's sake, stop!"
"Well, why are not these things right here at home as real to you as you say the same things were when they happened in France?" he demanded.
She did not attempt to answer his question but instead asked, gently, "Is that why you have been going to the Flats with Mary?"
If he noticed any special significance in her words he ignored it. "Mary visits the people in the Flats as her mother did--as our mother used to do. She told me about some of the cases, and I have been going with her now and then to see for myself--that is all."
Then they left the old house and drove back to their pretentious home on the hill, where Adam Ward suffered his days of mental torture and was racked by his nightly dreams of hell. And the dread shadow of that hidden thing was over them all.
* * * * *
That night when John told the Interpreter of his afternoon with his sister the old basket maker listened silently. His face was turned toward the scene that, save for the twinkling lights, lay wrapped in darkness before them. And he seemed to be listening to the voice of the Mill. When John had finished, the man in the wheel chair said very little.
But when John was leaving, the Interpreter asked, as an afterthought, "And where was Captain Charlie this afternoon, John?"
"At the Mill," John answered. "I'm glad he wasn't at home, too; it was bad enough as it was."
"Perhaps it was just as well," said the old basket maker. And John Ward, in the darkness, could not see that the Interpreter was smiling.