The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book I. The Interpreter
Chapter II. Little Maggie's Princess Lady
By nine out of ten of the Millsburgh people, the Interpreter would be described as a strange character. But the judge once said to the cigar-store philosopher, when that worthy had so spoken of the old basket maker, "Sir, the Interpreter is more than a character; he is a conviction, a conscience, an institution."
It was about the time when the patents on the new process were issued that the Interpreter--or Wallace Gordon, as he was then known--appeared from no one knows where, and went to work in the Mill. Because of the stranger's distinguished appearance, his evident culture, and his slightly foreign air, there were many who sought curiously to learn his history. But Wallace Gordon's history remained as it, indeed, remains still, an unopened book. Within a few months his ability to speak several of the various languages spoken by the immigrants who were drawn to the manufacturing city caused his fellow workers to call him the Interpreter.
Working at the same bench in the Mill with Adam Ward and Peter Martin, the Interpreter naturally saw much of the two families that, in those days, lived such close neighbors. Sober, hard working, modest in his needs, he acquired, during his first year in the Mill, that little plot of ground on the edge of the cliff, and built the tiny hut with its zigzag stairway. But often on a Sunday or a holiday, or for an hour of the long evenings after work, this man who was so alone in the world would seek companionship in the homes of his two workmen friends. The four children, who were so much together that their mothers used to say laughingly they could scarcely tell which were Wards and which were Martins, claimed the Interpreter as their own. With his never-failing fund of stories, his ultimate acquaintance with the fairies, his ready understanding of their childish interests, and his joyous comradeship in their sports, he won his own peculiar place in their hearts.
It was during the second year of his residence in Millsburgh that he adopted the deaf and dumb orphan boy, Billy Rand.
That such a workman should become a leader among his fellow workers was inevitable. More and more his advice and counsel were sought by those who toiled under the black cloud that rolled up in ever-increasing volumes from the roaring furnaces.
The accident which so nearly cost him his life occurred soon after the new process had taken Adam from his bench to a desk in the office of the Mill. Helen and John were away at school. At the hospital they asked him about his people. He smiled grimly and shook his head. When the surgeons were finally through with him, and it was known that he would live but could never stand on his feet again, he was still silent as to his family and his life before he came to the Mill. So they carried him around by the road on the hillside to his little hut on the top of the cliff where, with Billy Rand to help him, he made baskets and lived with his books, which he purchased as he could from time to time during the more profitable periods of his industry.
As the years passed and the Mill, under Adam Ward's hand, grew in importance, Millsburgh experienced the usual trials of such industrial centers. Periodic labor wars alternated with times of industrial peace. Months of prosperity were followed by months of "hard times," and want was in turn succeeded by plenty. When the community was at work the more intelligent and thrifty among those who toiled with their hands and the more conservative of those who labored in business were able to put by in store enough to tide them over the next period of idleness and consequent business depression.
From his hut on the cliff the Interpreter watched it all with never-failing interest and sympathy. Indeed, although he never left his work of basket making, the Interpreter was a part of it all. For more and more the workers from the Mill, the shops and the factories, and the workers from the offices and stores came to counsel with this white-haired man in the wheel chair.
The school years of John and Helen, the new home on the hill, and all the changes brought by Adam Ward's material prosperity separated the two families that had once been so intimate. But, in spite of the wall that the Mill owner had built between himself and his old workmen comrades, the children of Adam Ward and the children of Peter Martin still held the Interpreter in their hearts. To the man condemned to his wheel chair and his basket making, little Maggie's princess lady was still the Helen of the old house.
Sam Whaley's children sitting on the lower step of the zigzag stairway that afternoon had no thought for the Interpreter's Helen of the old house. Bobby's rapt attention was held by that imposing figure in uniform. Work in the Mill when he became a man! Not much! Not as long as there were automobiles like that to drive and clothes like those to wear while driving them! Little Maggie's pathetically serious eyes saw only the beautiful princess of the Interpreter's story--the princess who lived in a wonderful palace and who because her heart was so kind was told by the fairy how to find the jewel of happiness. Only this princess lady did not look as though she had found her jewel of happiness yet. But she would find it--the fairies would be sure to help her because her heart was kind. How could any princess lady--so beautiful, with such lovely clothes, and such a grand automobile, and such a wonderful servant--how could any princess lady like that help having a kind heart!
"Tom, send those dirty, impossible children away!"
The man touched his cap and turned to obey.
Poor little Maggie could not believe. It was not what the lady said; it was the tone of her voice, the expression of her face, that hurt so. The princess lady must be very unhappy, indeed, to look and speak like that. And the tiny wisp of humanity, with her thin, stooping shoulders and her tired little face--dirty, half clothed and poorly fed--felt very sorry because the beautiful lady in the automobile was not happy.
But Bobby's emotions were of quite a different sort. Sam Whaley would have been proud of his son had he seen the boy at that moment. Springing to his feet, the lad snarled with all the menacing hate he could muster, "Drive us away, will yer! I'd just like to see yer try it on. These here are the Interpreter's steps. If the Interpreter lets us come to see him, an' gives us cookies, an' tells us stories, I guess we've got a right to set on his steps if we want to."
"Go on wid ye--git out o' here," said the man in livery. But Bobby's sharp eyes saw what the lady in the automobile could not see--a faint smile accompanied the chauffeur's attempt to obey his orders.
"Go on yerself," retorted the urchin, defiantly, "I'll go when I git good an' ready. Ain't no darned rich folks what thinks they's so grand--with all their autermobiles, an' swell drivers, 'n' things--can tell me what to do. I know her--she's old Adam Ward's daughter, she is. An' she lives by grindin' the life out of us poor workin' folks, that's what she does; 'cause my dad and Jake Vodell they say so. Yer touch me an' yer'll see what'll happen to yer, when I tell Jake Vodell."
Unseen by his mistress, the smile on the servant's face grew more pronounced; and the small defender of the rights of the poor saw one of the man's blue Irish eyes close slowly in a deliberate wink of good fellowship. In a voice too low to be heard distinctly in the automobile behind him, he said, "Yer all right, kid, but fer the love o' God beat it before I have to lay hands on ye." Then, louder, he added gruffly, "Get along wid ye or do ye want me to help ye?"
Bobby retreated in good order to a position of safety a little way down the road where his sister was waiting for him.
With decorous gravity the imposing chauffeur went back to his place at the door of the automobile.
"Gee!" exclaimed Bobby. "What do yer know about that! Old Adam Ward's swell daughter a-goin' up to see the Interpreter. Gee!"
On the lower step of the zigzag stairway, with her hand on the railing, the young woman paused suddenly and turned about. To the watching children she must have looked very much indeed like the beautiful princess of the Interpreter's fairy tale.
"Tom--" She hesitated and looked doubtfully toward the children.
"What was it that boy said about his rights?"
"He said, Miss, as how they had just been to visit the Interpreter an' the old man give 'em cookies, and so they thought they was privileged to sit on his steps."
A puzzled frown marred the really unusual loveliness of her face. "But that was not all he said, Tom."
She looked upward to the top of the cliff where one corner of the Interpreter's hut was just visible above the edge of the rock. And then, as the quick light of a smile drove away the trouble shadows, she said to the servant, "Tom, you will take those children for a ride in the car. Take them wherever they wish to go, and return here for me. I shall be ready in about an hour."
The man gasped. "But, Miss, beggin' yer pardon,--the car--think av the upholsterin'--an' the dirt av thim little divils--beggin' yer pardon, but 'tis ruined the car will be--an' yer gowns! Please, Miss, I'll give them a dollar an' 'twill do just as well--think av the car!"
"Never mind the car, Tom, do as I say, please."
In spite of his training, a pleased smile stole over the Irish face of the chauffeur; and there was a note of ungrudging loyalty and honest affection in his voice as he said, touching his cap, "Yes, Miss, I will have the car here in an hour--thank ye, Miss."
A moment later the young woman saw her car stop beside the wondering children. With all his high-salaried dignity the chauffeur left the wheel and opened the door as if for royalty itself.
The children stood as if petrified with wonder, although the boy was still a trifle belligerent and suspicious.
In his best manner the chauffeur announced, "Miss Ward's compliments, Sir and Miss, an' she has ordered me to place her automobile at yer disposal if ye would be so minded as to go for a bit of a pleasure ride."
"Oh!" gulped little Maggie.
"Aw, what are yer givin' us!" said Bobby.
The man's voice changed, but his manner was unaltered. "'Tis the truth I'm a-tellin' ye, kids, wid the lady herself back there a-watchin' to see that I carry out her orders. So hop in, quick, and don't keep her a-waitin'."
"Gee!" exclaimed the boy.
Maggie looked at her brother doubtfully. "Dast we, Bobby? Dast we?"
"Dast we!--Huh! Who's afraid? I'll say we dast."
Another second and they were in the car. The chauffeur gravely touched his cap. "An' where will I be drivin' ye, Sir?"
"Where is it ye would like for to go?"
The two children looked at each other questioningly. Then a grin of wild delight spread itself over the countenance of the boy and he fairly exploded with triumphant glee, "Gee! Mag, now's our chance." To the man he said, eagerly, "Just you take us all 'round the Flats, mister, so's folks can see. An'--an', mind yer, toot that old horn good an' loud, so as everybody'll know we're a-comin'." As the automobile moved away he beamed with proud satisfaction. "Some swells we are--heh? Skinny an' Chuck an' the gang'll be plumb crazy when they see us. Some class, I'll tell the world."
"Well, why not?" demanded the cigar-stand philosopher, when Tom described that triumphant drive of Sam Whaley's children through the Flats. "Them kids was only doin' what we're all a-tryin' to do in one way or another."
The lawyer, who had stopped for a light, laughed. "I heard the Interpreter say once that 'to live on some sort of an elevation was to most people one of the prime necessities of life.'"
"Sure," agreed the philosopher, reaching for another box for the real-estate agent, "I'll bet old Adam Ward himself is just as human as the rest of us if you could only catch him at it."
For some time after her car, with Bobby and Maggie, had disappeared in its cloud of dust, among the wretched buildings of the Flats, Helen stood there, on the lower step of the zigzag stairway, looking after them. She was thinking, or perhaps she was wondering a little at herself. She might even have been living again for the moment those old-house days when, with her brother and Mary and Charlie Martin, she had played there on these same steps.
Those old-house days had been joyous and carefree. Her school years, too, had been filled with delightful and satisfying activities. After her graduation she had been content with the gayeties and triumphs of the life to which she had been arbitrarily removed by her father and the new process, and for which she had been educated. She had felt the need of nothing more. Then came the war, and, in her brother's enlistment and in her work with the various departments of the women forces at home, she had felt herself a part of the great world movement. But now when the victorious soldiers--brothers and sweethearts and husbands and friends--had returned, and the days of excited rejoicing were past, life had suddenly presented to her a different front. It would have been hard to find in all Millsburgh, not excepting the most wretched home in the Flats, a more unhappy and discontented person than this young woman who was so unanimously held to have everything in the world that any one could possibly desire.
Slowly she turned to climb the zigzag stairway to the Interpreter's hut.