The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book II. The Two Helens
Chapter XVI. Her Own People
"A lady to see you, sir."
John did not take his eyes from the work on his desk. "All right, Jimmy, show her in."
The general manager read on to the bottom of the typewritten page, signed his name to the sheet, placed it in the proper basket and turned in his chair.
Little Maggie's princess lady was so lovely that afternoon, as she stood there framed in the doorway of the manager's office that even her brother noticed.
She was laughing at his surprise, and there was a half teasing, half serious look in her eyes that was irresistible.
"By George, you are a picture, Helen!" John exclaimed, with not a little brotherly pride in his face and voice. "But what is the idea? What are you down here for--all dolled up like this?"
She blushed with pleasure at his compliment. "That is very nice of you, John; you are a dear to notice it. Are you going to ask me to sit down, or must you put me out for interrupting?"
He was on his feet instantly. "Forgive me; I am so stunned by the unexpected honor of your visit that I forget my manners."
When she was seated, he continued, "And now what is it? what can I do for you, sister?"
She looked about the office--at his desk and through the open door into the busy outer room. "Are you quite sure that you have time for me?"
"Surest thing in the world," he returned, with a reassuring smile. Then to a man who at that moment appeared in the doorway, "All right, Tom." And to Helen, "Excuse me just a second, dear."
She watched him curiously as he turned sheet after sheet of the papers the man handed him, seeming to absorb the pages at a glance, while a running fire of quick questions, short answers, terse comments and clear-cut instructions accompanied the examination.
Helen had never before been inside the doors of the industrial plant to which her father had literally given his life. In those old-house days, when Adam worked with Pete and the Interpreter, she had gone sometimes to the outer gate to meet her father when his day's work was done. On rare occasions her automobile had stopped in front of the office. That was all.
In a vague, indefinite way the young woman realized that her education, her pleasures, the dresses she wore, her home on the hill, everything that she had, in fact, came to her somehow from those great dingy, unsightly buildings. She knew that people who were not of her world worked there for her father. Sometimes there were accidents--men were killed. There had been strikes that annoyed her father. But no part of it all had ever actually touched her. She accepted it as a matter of course--without a thought--as she accepted all of the established facts in nature. The Mill existed for her as the sun existed. It never occurred to her to ask why. There was for her no personal note in the droning, moaning voice of its industry. There was nothing of personal significance in the forest of tall stacks with their overhanging cloud of smoke. Indeed, there had been, rather, something sinister and forbidding about the place. The threatening aspect of the present industrial situation was in no way personal to her except, perhaps, as it excited her father and disturbed John.
"You've got it all there, Tom," said the manager, finishing his examination of the papers. "Good work, too. Baird will have those specifications on that Miller and Wilson job in to-morrow, will he?"
"Good, that's the stuff!"
The man was smiling as he moved toward the door.
"Oh, Tom, just a moment."
Still smiling, the man turned back.
"I want you to meet my sister. Helen, may I present Mr. Conway? Tom is one of our Mill family, you know, mighty important member, too--regular shark at figuring all sorts of complicated calculations that I couldn't work out in a month of Sundays." He laughed with boyish happiness and pride in Tom's superior accomplishments.
It was a simple little incident, but there was something in it somewhere that moved Helen Ward strangely. A spirit that was new to her seemed to fill the room. She felt it as one may feel the bigness of the mountains or sense the vast reaches of the ocean. These two men, employer and employee, were in no way conscious of their relationship as she understood it. Tom did not appear to realize that he was working for John--he seemed rather to feel that he was working with John.
When the man was gone, she asked again, timidly, "Are you sure, brother, that I am not in the way?"
"Forget it!" he cried. "Tell me what I can do for you."
"I want to see the Mill," she answered.
John did not apparently quite understand her request. "You want to see the Mill?" he repeated.
She nodded eagerly. "I want to see it all--not just the office but where the men work--everything."
She laughed at his bewildered expression as the sincerity of her wish dawned upon him.
"But what in the world"--he began--"why this sudden interest in the Mill, Helen?"
Half teasing, half laughing, she answered, "You didn't really think, did you, John, that I would forget everything you said to me at the old house?"
"No," he said, doubtfully. "At least, I suppose I didn't. But, honestly, I didn't think that I had made much of an impression."
She made a little gesture of helpless resignation. "Here I am just the same and so much interested already that I can't tear myself away. Come on, let's start--that is, if you really have the time to take me."
Time to take her! John Ward would have lost the largest contract he had ever dreamed of securing rather than miss taking Helen through the Mill.
* * * * *
With an old linen duster, which had hung in the office closet since Adam Ward's day, to cover her from chin to shoes, and a cap that John himself often wore about the plant, to replace her hat, they set out.
Helen's first impression, as she stood just inside the door to the big main room of the plant, was fear. To her gentle eyes the scene was one of terrifying confusion and unspeakable dangers.
Those great machines were grim and threatening monsters with ponderous jaws and arms and chains that seemed all too light to control their sullen strength. The noise--roaring, crashing, clanking, moaning, shrieking, hissing--was overpowering in its suggestion of the ungoverned tumult that belonged to some strange, unearthly realm. Everywhere, amid this fearful din and these maddening terrors, flitting through the murky haze of steam and smoke and dust, were men with sooty faces and grimy arms. Never had the daughter of Adam Ward seen men at work like this. She drew closer to John's side and held to his arm as though half expecting him to vanish suddenly and leave her alone in this monstrous nightmare.
Looking down at her, John laughed aloud and put his arm about her reassuringly. "Great game, old girl!" he said, with a wholesome pride in his voice. "This is the life!"
And all at once she remembered that this was, indeed, life--life as she had never seen it, never felt it before. And this life game--this greatest of all games--was the game that John played with such absorbing interest day after day.
"I can understand now why you are not so devoted to tennis and teas as you used to be," she returned, laughing back at him with a new admiration in her face.
Then John led her into the very midst of the noisy scene. Carefully he guided her steps through the seeming hurry and confusion of machinery and men. Now they paused before one of those grim monsters to watch its mighty work. Now they stopped to witness the terrific power displayed by another giant that lifted, with its great arms of steel, a weight of many tons as easily as a child would handle a toy. Again, they stepped aside from the path of an engine on its way to some distant part of the plant, or stood before a roaring furnace, or paused to watch a group of men, or halted while John exchanged a few brief words with a superintendent or foreman. And always with boyish enthusiasm John talked to her of what they saw, explaining, illustrating, making the purpose and meaning of every detail clear.
Gradually, as she thus went closer to this life that was at first so terrifying to her, the young woman was conscious of a change within herself. The grim monsters became kind and friendly as she saw how their mighty strength was obedient always to the directing eye and hand of the workmen who controlled them. The many noises, as she learned to distinguish them, came to blend into one harmonious whole, like the instruments in a great orchestra. The confusion, as she came to view it understandingly, resolved itself into orderly movement. As she recalled some of the things that her brother had said to her as they sat on the back porch of the old house, her mind reached out for the larger truth, and she thrilled to the feeling that she was standing, as it were, in the living, beating heart of the nation. The things that she had been schooled to hold as of the highest value she saw now for the first time in their just relation to the mighty underlying life of the Mill. The petty refinements that had so largely ruled her every thought and deed were no more than frothy bubbles on the surface of the industrial ocean's awful tidal power. The male idlers of her set were suddenly contemptible in her eyes, as she saw them in comparison with her brother or with his grimy, sweating comrades.
Presently John was saying, "This is where father used to work--before the days of the new process, I mean. That bench there is the very one he used, side by side with Uncle Pete and the Interpreter."
Helen stared at the old workbench that stood against the wall and at the backs of the men, as though under a spell. Her father working there!
Her brain all at once was crowded with questions to which there were no answers. What if Adam Ward were still a workman at that bench? What if it had been the Interpreter who had discovered the new process? What if her father had lost his legs? What if John, instead of being the manager, were one of those men who worked with their hands? What if they had never left the old house next door to Mary and Charlie? What if--
"Uncle Pete," said John, "look here and see who's with us this afternoon."
Mary's father turned from his work and they laughed at the expression on his face when he saw her standing there.
And it was the Helen of the old house who greeted him, and who was so interested in what he was doing and asked so many really intelligent questions that he was proud of her.
They had left Uncle Pete at his bench, and Helen's mind was again busy with those unanswerable questions--so busy, in fact, that she scarcely heard John saying, "I want to show you a lathe over here, Helen, that is really worth seeing. It is, on the whole, the finest and most intricate piece of machinery in the whole plant." And, he added, as they drew near the subject of his remarks, "You may believe me, it takes an exceptional workman to handle it. There are only three men in our entire force who are ever permitted to touch it. They are experts in their line and naturally are the best paid men we have."
As he finished speaking they paused beside a huge affair of black iron and gray steel, that to Helen seemed an incomprehensible tangle of wheels and levers.
A workman was bending over the machine, so absorbed apparently in the complications of his valuable charge that he was unaware of their presence.
Helen spoke close to her brother's ear, "Is he one of your three experts?"
John nodded. "He is the chief. The other two are really assistants--sort of understudies, you know."
At that moment the man straightened up, stood for an instant with his eyes still on his work, then, as he was turning to another part of the intricate mechanism, he saw them.
"Hello, Charlie!" said the grinning manager, and to his sister, "Surely you haven't forgotten Captain Martin, Helen?"
In the brief moments that followed Helen Ward knew that she had reached the point toward which she had felt herself moving for several months--impelled by strange forces beyond her comprehension.
Her brother's renewed and firmly established friendship with this playmate of their childhood years, together with the many stirring tales that John had told of his comrade captain's life in France, could not but awaken her interest in the boy lover whom she had, as she believed, so successfully forgotten. The puzzling change in her brother's life interests, has neglect of so many of his pre-war associates and his persistent comradeship with his fellow workman, had kept alive that interest; while Captain Martin's repeated refusals to accept John's invitations to the big home on the hill had curiously touched her woman's pride and at the same time had compelled her respect.
The clash between John's new industrial and social convictions and the class consciousness to which she had been so carefully schooled, with its background of her father's wretched mental condition, the unhappiness of her home and her own repeated failures to find contentment in the privileges of material wealth, raised in her mind questions which she had never before faced.
Her talks with the Interpreter, the slow forming of the lines of the approaching industrial struggle, with the sharpening of the contrast between McIver and John, her acquaintance with Bobby and Maggie, even--all tended to drive her on in her search for the answer to her problem.
And so she had been carried to the Martin cottage--to her talk with John at the old house--to the Mill--to this.
As one may intuitively sense the crisis in a great struggle between life and death, this woman knew that in this man all her disturbing life questions were centered. Deep beneath the many changes that her father's material success in life had brought to her, one unalterable life fact asserted itself with startling power: It was this man who had first awakened in her the consciousness of her womanhood. Face to face with this workman in her father's Mill, she fought to control the situation.
To all outward appearances she did control it. Her brother saw only a reserved interest in his workman comrade. Captain Martin saw only the daughter of his employer who had so coldly preferred her newer friends to the less pretentious companions of her girlhood.
But beneath the commonplace remarks demanded by the occasion, the Helen of the old house was struggling for supremacy. The spirit that she had felt in the office when John talked with his fellow workmen, she felt now in the presence of this workman. The power, the strength, the bigness, the meaning of the Mill, as it had come to her, were all personified in him. A strange exultation of possession lifted her up. She was hungry for her own; she wanted to cry out: "This work is my work--these people are my people--this man is my man!"
It was Captain Charlie who ended the interview with the excuse that the big machine needed his immediate attention. He had stood as they talked with a hand on one of the controls and several times he had turned a watchful eye on his charge. It was almost, Helen thought with a little thrill of triumph, as though the man sought in the familiar touch of his iron and steel a calmness and self-control that he needed. But now, when he turned to give his attention wholly to his work, with the effect of politely dismissing her, she felt as though he had suddenly, if ever so politely, closed a door in her face.
John must have felt it a little, too, for he became rather quiet as they went on and soon concluded their inspection of the plant.
At the office door, Helen paused and turned to look back, as if reluctant to leave the scene that had now such meaning for her, while her brother stood silently watching her. Not until they were back in the manager's office and Helen was ready to return to the outside world did John Ward speak.
Facing her with his straightforward soldierly manner, he said, inquiringly, "Well?"
She returned his look with steady frankness. "I can't tell you what I think about it all now, John dear. Sometime, perhaps, I may try. It is too big--too vital--too close. I am glad I came. I am sorry, too."
So he took her to her waiting car.
For a moment he stood looking thoughtfully after the departing machine and then, with an odd little smile, went back to his work.