The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book II. The Two Helens
Chapter XVII. In the Night
Helen knew, even as she told the chauffeur to drive her home, that she did not wish to return just then to the big house on the hill. Her mind was too crowded with thoughts she could not entertain in the atmosphere of her home; her heart was too deeply moved by emotions that she scarcely dared acknowledge even to herself.
She thought of the country club, but that, in her present mood, was impossible. The Interpreter--she was about to tell Tom that she wished to call at the hut on the cliff, but decided against it. She feared that she might reveal to the old basket maker things that she wished to hide. She might go for a drive in the country, but she shrank from being alone. She wanted some one who could take her out of herself--some one to whom she could talk without betraying herself.
Not far from the Mill a number of children were playing in the dusty road.
Helen did not notice the youngsters, but Tom, being a careful driver, slowed down, even though they were already scurrying aside for the automobile to pass. Suddenly she was startled by a shrill yell. "Hello, there! Hello, Miss!"
Bobby Whaley, in his frantic efforts to attract her attention, was jumping up and down, waving his cap and screeching like a wild boy, while his companions looked on in wide-eyed wonder, half in awe at his daring, half in fear of the possible consequence.
To the everlasting honor and glory of Sam Whaley's son, the automobile stopped. The lady, looking back, called, "Hello, Bobby!" and waited expectantly for him to approach.
With a look of haughty triumph at Skinny and Chuck, the lad swaggered forward, a grin of overpowering delight at his achievement on his dirty, freckled countenance.
"I am so glad you called to me," Helen said, when he was close. "I was just wishing for some one to go with me for a ride in the country. Would you like to come?"
"Gee," returned the urchin, "I'll say I would."
"Do you think your mother would be willing for you to go?"
"Lord, yes--ma, she ain't a-carin' where we kids are jest so's we ain't under her feet when she's a-workin'."
"And could you find Maggie, do you think? Perhaps she would enjoy the ride, too."
Bobby lifted up his voice in a shrill yell, "Mag! Oh--oh--Mag!"
The excited cry was caught up by the watching children, and the neighborhood echoed their calls. "Mag! Oh, Mag! Somebody wants yer, Mag! Come a-runnin'. Hurry up!"
Their united efforts were not in vain. From the rear of a near-by house little Maggie appeared. A dirty, faded old shawl was wrapped about her tiny waist, hiding her bare feet and trailing behind. A sorry wreck of a hat trimmed with three chicken feathers crowned her uncombed hair, and the ragged remnants of a pair of black cotton gloves completed her elegant costume. In her thin little arms she held, with tender mother care, a doll so battered and worn by its long service that one wondered at the imaginative power of the child who could make of it anything but a shapeless bundle of dirty rags.
"Get a move on yer, Mag!" yelled the masterful Bobby, with frantic gestures. "The princess lady is a-goin' t' take us fer a ride in her swell limerseen with her driver 'n' everything."
For one unbelieving moment, little Maggie turned to the two miniature ladies who, in costumes that rivaled her own, had come to ask the cause of this unseemly disturbance of their social affair. Then, at another shout from her brother, she discarded her finery and, holding fast to her doll with true mother instinct, hurried timidly to the waiting automobile.
On that day when Helen had sent her servant to take them for a ride, these children of the Flats had thought that no greater happiness was possible to mere human beings. But now, as they sat with their beautiful princess lady between them on the deep-cushioned seat, and watched the familiar houses glide swiftly past, even Bobby was silent. It was all so unreal--so like a dream. Their former experience was so far surpassed that they would not have been surprised had the automobile been suddenly transformed into a magic ship of the air, with Tom a fairy pilot to carry them away up among the clouds to some wonderful sunshine castle in the sky.
It is true that Bobby's conscience stirred uneasily when he felt an arm steal gently about him and he was drawn a little closer to the princess lady's side. A feller with a proper pride does not readily permit such familiarities. It had been a long time since any one had put an arm around Bobby--he did not quite understand.
But as for that, the princess lady herself did not quite understand either. Perhaps the sight of little Maggie and her play lady friends so elegantly costumed for their social function had suddenly convinced her that these children of the Flats were of her world after all. Perhaps the shouting children had awakened memories that banished for the moment the sadness of her grown-up years. Or it may have been simply the way that wee Maggie held her battered doll. It may have been that the mother instinct of this wistful mite of humanity quickened in the heart of the young woman something that was deeper, more vital, more real to her womanhood than the things to which she had so far given herself. As the Helen of the old house had longed to cry aloud in the Mill her recognition of her man, she hungered now with a strange woman hunger for the feel of a child in her arms.
And so, with no care for her gown, which was sure to be ruined by this contact with the grime of the Flats, with no question as to what people might think, with no thought for class standards or industrial problems, the daughter of Adam Ward took the children of Sam Whaley in her arms and carried them away from the shadow of that dark cloud that hung always above the Mill. From the smoke and dust and filth of their heritage, she took them into the clean, sunny air of the hillside fields and woods. From the hovels and shanties of their familiar haunts she took them where birds made their nests and the golden bees and bright-winged butterflies were busy among their flowers. From the squalid want and cruel neglect of their poverty she took them into a fairyland that was overflowing with the riches that belong to childhood.
And then, when the sun was red above the bluff where the curving line of cliffs end at the river's edge, she brought them back.
For some reason that has never been made satisfactorily clear by the wise ones who lead the world's thinking, Bobby and Maggie must always be brought back to their home in the Flats, the princess lady must always return to her castle on the hill.
* * * * *
Charlie Martin was unusually quiet when he returned home from his work that day. The father mentioned Helen's visit to the Mill, and Mary had many questions to ask, but the soldier workman, usually so ready to talk and laugh with his sister, answered only in monosyllables or silently permitted the older man to carry the burden of the conversation.
When supper was over and it was dark, Charlie, saying that he thought he ought to attend Jake Vodell's street meeting that evening, left the house.
But Captain Charlie did not go to hear the agitator's soap-box oration that night. For an hour or more, under cover of the darkness, the workman sat on the porch of the old house next door to his home.
He had pushed aside the broken gate and made his way up the weed-tangled walk so quietly that neither his sister nor his father, who were on the porch of the cottage, heard a sound. So still was he that two neighborhood lovers, who paused in their slow walk, as if tempted by the friendly shadow of the lonely old place, did not know that he was there. Then at something her father said, Mary's laugh rang out, and the lovers moved on.
A little later Captain Charlie stole softly out of the yard and up the street in the direction from which Helen had come the day of her visit to the old house. When the sound of his feet on the walk could not be heard at the cottage, the workman walked briskly, taking the way that led toward the Interpreter's hut.
One who knew him would have thought that he was going for an evening call on the old basket maker. He saw the light of the little house on the cliff presently, and for a moment walked slowly, as if debating whether or not he should go on as he had intended. Then he turned off from the way to the Interpreter's and took that seldom used road that led up the hill toward the home of Adam Ward. With a strong, easy stride he swung up the grade until he came to the corner of the iron fence. Slowly and quietly he moved on now in the deeper shadows of the trees. When he could see the gloomy mass of the house unobstructed against the sky, he stopped.
The lower floor was brightly lighted. The windows above were dark. With his back against the trunk of a tree Captain Charlie waited.
An automobile came out between the stone columns of the big gate and thundered away down the street with reckless speed. Adam Ward, thought the man under the tree--even John never drove like that. And he wondered where the old Mill owner could be going at such an hour of the night.
Still he waited.
Suddenly a light flashed out from the windows of an upper room. A moment, and the watcher saw the form of a woman framed in the casement against the bright background. For some time she stood there, her face, shaded by her hands, pressed close to the glass, as if she were trying to see into the darkness of the night. Then she drew back. The shade was drawn.
Very slowly Captain Charlie went back down the hill.