The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXI. Peter Martin's Problem
It was not long until the idle workmen began to feel the want of their pay envelopes. The grocers and butchers were as dependent upon those pay envelopes as were the workmen themselves.
The winter was coming on. There was a chill in the air. In the homes of the strikers the mothers and their little ones needed not only food but fuel and clothing as well. The crowds at the evening street meetings became more ominous. Through the long, idle days grim, sullen-faced men walked the streets or stood in groups on the corners watching their fellow citizens and muttering in low, guarded tones. Members of the Mill workers' union were openly branded as cowards and traitors to their class. The suffering among the women and children became acute.
But Jake Vodell was a master who demanded of his disciples most heroic loyalty, without a thought of the cost--to them.
McIver put an armed guard about his factory and boasted that he could live without work. The strikers, he declared, could either starve themselves and their families or accept his terms.
The agitator was not slow in making capital of McIver's statements.
The factory owner depended upon the suffering of the women and children to force the workmen to yield to him. Jake Vodell, the self-appointed savior of the laboring people, depended upon the suffering of women and children to drive his followers to the desperate measures that would further his peculiar and personal interests.
Through all this, the Mill workers' union still refused to accept the leadership of this man whose every interest was anti-American and foreign to the principles of the loyal citizen workman. But the fire of Jake Vodell's oratory and argument was not without kindling power, even among John Ward's employees. As the feeling on both sides of the controversy grew more bitter and intolerant, the Mill men felt with increasing force the pull of their class. The taunts and jeers of the striking workers were felt. The cries of "traitor" hurt. The suffering of the innocent members of the strikers' families appealed strongly to their sympathies.
When McIver's imperialistic declaration was known, the number who were in favor of supporting Jake Vodell's campaign increased measurably.
Nearly every day now at some hour of the evening or night, Pete and Captain Charlie, with others from among their union comrades, might have been found in the hut on the cliff in earnest talk with the man in the wheel chair. The active head of the union was Captain Charlie, as his father had been before him, but it was no secret that the guiding counsel that held the men of the Mill steady cane from the old basket maker.
For John Ward the days were increasingly hard. He could not but sense the feeling of the men. He knew that if Jake Vodell could win them, such disaster as the people of Millsburgh had never seen would result. The interest and sympathy of Helen, the comradeship of Captain Charlie, and the strength of the Interpreter gave him courage and hope. But there was nothing that he could do. He felt as he had felt sometimes in France when he was called upon to stand and wait. It was a relief to help Mary as he could in her work among the sufferers. But even this activity of mercy was turned against him by both McIver and Vodell. The factory man blamed him for prolonging the strike and thus working injury to the general business interests of Millsburgh. The strike leader charged him with seeking to win the favor of the working class in order to influence his own employees against, what he called the fight for their industrial freedom.
The situation was rapidly approaching a crisis when Peter Martin and Captain Charlie, returning home from a meeting of their union laid one evening, found the door of the house locked.
The way the two men stood facing each other without a word revealed the tension of their nerves. Captain Charlie's hand shook so that his key rattled against the lock. But when they were inside and had switched on the light, a note which Mary had left on the table for them explained.
The young woman had gone to the Flats in answer to a call for help. John was with her. She had left the note so that her father and brother would not be alarmed at her absence in case they returned home before her.
In their relief, the two men laughed. They were a little ashamed of their unspoken fears.
"We might have known," said Pete, and with the words seemed to dismiss the incident from his mind.
But Captain Charlie did not recover so easily. While his father found the evening paper and, settling himself in an easy-chair by the table, cleaned his glasses and filled and lighted his pipe, the younger man went restlessly from room to room, turning on the lights, turning them off again--all apparently for no reason whatever. He finished his inspection by returning to the table and again picking up Mary's note.
When he had reread the message he said, slowly, "I thought John expected to be at the office to-night."
Something in his son's voice caused the old workman to look at him steadily, as he answered, "John probably came by on his way to the Mill and dropped in for a few minutes."
"I suppose so," returned Charlie. Then, "Father, do you think it wise for sister to be so much with John?"
The old workman laid aside his paper. "Why, I don't know--I hadn't thought much about it, son. It seems natural enough, considering the way you children was all raised together when you was youngsters."
"It's natural enough all right," returned Captain Charlie, and, with a bitterness that was very unlike his usual self, he added, "That's, the hell of it--it's too natural--too human--too right for this day and age."
Pete Martin's mind worked rather slowly but he was fully aroused now--Charlie's meaning was clear. "What makes you think that Mary and John are thinking of each other in that way, son?"
"How could they help it?" returned Captain Charlie. "Sister is exactly the kind of woman that John would choose for a wife. Don't I know what he thinks of the light-headed nonentities in the set that he is supposed to belong to? Hasn't he demonstrated his ideas of class distinctions? It would never occur to him that there was any reason why John Ward should not love Mary Martin. As for sister--when you think of the whole story of their childhood together, of how John and I were all through the war, of how he has been in the Mill since we came home, of their seeing each other here at the house so much, of the way he has been helping her with her work among the poor in the Flats--well, how could any woman like sister help loving him?"
While the older man was considering his son's presentation of the case, Captain Charlie added, with characteristic loyalty, "God may have made finer men than John Ward, but if He did they don't live around Millsburgh."
"Well, then, son," said Peter Martin, with his slow smile, "what about it? Suppose they are thinking of each other as you say?"
Captain Charlie did not answer for a long minute. And the father, watching, saw in that strong young face the shadow of a hurt which the soldier workman could not hide.
"It is all so hopeless," said Charlie, at last, in a tone that told more clearly than words could have done his own hopelessness. "I--it don't seem right for Mary to have to bear it, too."
"I'm sorry, son," was all that the old workman said, but Captain Charlie knew that his father understood.
After that they did not speak until they heard an automobile stop in front of the house.
"That must be Mary now," said Pete, looking at his watch. "They have never been so late before."
They heard her step on the porch. The sound of the automobile died away in the distance.
When Mary came in and they saw her face, they knew that Charlie was right. She tried to return their greetings in her usual manner but failed pitifully and hurried on to her room.
The two men looked at each other without a word.
Presently Mary returned and told them a part of her evening's experience. Soon after her father and brother had left the house for the meeting of their union, a boy from the Flats came with the word that the wife of one of Jake Vodell's followers was very ill. Mary, knowing the desperate need of the case but fearing to be alone in that neighborhood at night, had telephoned John at the Mill and he had taken her in his car to the place. The woman, in the agonies of childbirth, was alone with her three little girls. The husband and father was somewhere helping Jake Vodell in the agitator's noble effort to bring happiness to the laboring class. While Mary was doing what she could in the wretched home, John went for a doctor, and to bring fuel and blankets and food and other things that were needed. But, in spite of their efforts, the fighting methods of McIver and Vodell scored another point, that they each might claim with equal reason as in his favor--to God knows what end.
"I can't understand why you Mill men let them go on," Mary cried, with a sudden outburst of feeling, as she finished her story. "You could fight for the women and children during the war. Whenever there is a shipwreck the papers are always full of the heroism of the men who cry 'women and children first!' Why can't some one think of the women and children in these strikes? They are just as innocent as the women and children of Belgium. Why don't you talk on the streets and hold mass meetings and drive Jake Vodell and that beast McIver out of the country?"
"Jake Vodell and McIver are both hoping that some one will do just that, Mary," returned Captain Charlie. "They would like nothing better than for some one to start a riot. You see, dear, an open clash would result in bloodshed--the troops would be called in by McIver, which is exactly what he wants. Vodell would provoke an attack on the soldiers, some one would be killed, and we would have exactly the sort of war against the government that he and his brotherhood are working for."
The old workman spoke. "Charlie is right, daughter; these troubles will never be settled by McIver's way nor Vodell's way. They will be settled by the employers like John getting together and driving the McIvers out of business--and the employees like Charlie here and a lot of the men in our union getting together with John and his crowd and sending the Jake Vodells back to whatever country they came from." When her father spoke John's name, the young woman's face colored with a quick blush. The next moment, unable to control her overwrought emotions, she burst into tears and started to leave the room. But at the door Captain Charlie caught her in his arms and held her close until the first violence of her grief was over.
When she had a little of her usual calmness, her brother whispered, "I know all about it, dear."
She raised her head from his shoulder and looked at him with tearful doubt. "You know about--about John?" she said, wonderingly.
"Yes," he whispered, with an encouraging smile, "I know--father and I were talking about it before you came home. I am going to leave you with him now. You must tell father, you know. Goodnight, dear--good-night, father."
Slowly Mary turned back into the room. The old workman, sitting there in his big chair, held out his arms. With a little cry she ran to him as she had gone to him all the years of her life.
When she had told him all--how John that very evening on their way home from the Flats had asked her to be his wife--and how she, in spite of her love for him, had forced herself to answer, "No," Pete Martin sat with his head bowed as one deep in thought.
Mary, knowing her father's slow way, waited.
When the old workman spoke at last it was almost as though, unconscious of his daughter's presence, he talked to himself. "Your mother and I used to think in the old days when you children were growing up together that some time perhaps the two families would be united. But when we watched Adam getting rich and saw what his money was doing to him and to his home, we got to be rather glad that you children were separated. We were so happy ourselves in our own little home here that we envied no man. We did not want wealth even for you and Charlie when we saw all that went with it. We did not dream that Adam's success could ever stand in the way of our children's happiness like this. But I guess that is the way it is, daughter. I remember the Interpreter's saying once that no man had a right to make even himself miserable because no man could be miserable alone."
The old workman's voice grew still more reflective. "It was the new process that made Adam rich. He was no better man at the bench than I. I never considered him as my superior. He happened to be born with a different kind of a brain, that is all. And he thought more of money, while I cared more for other things. But there is a good reason why his money should not be permitted to stand between his children and my children. There is a lot of truth, after all, in Jake Vodell's talk about the rights of men who work with their hands. The law upholds Adam Ward in his possessions, I know. And it would uphold him Just the same if my children were starving. But the law don't make it right. There should be some way to make a man do what is right--law or no law. You and John--"
"Father!" cried Mary, alarmed at his words. "Surely you are not going to hold with Jake Vodell about such things. What do you mean about making a man do what is right--law or no law?"
"There, there, daughter," said the old workman, smiling. "I was just thinking out loud, I guess. It will be all right for you and John. Run along to bed now, and don't let a worry come, even into your dreams."
"I would rather give John up a thousand times than have you like Jake Vodell," she said. "You shan't even think that way."
When she was gone, Peter Martin filled and lighted his pipe again, and for another hour sat alone.
Whether or not his thoughts bore any relation to the doctrines of Jake Vodell, they led the old workman, on the following day, to pay a visit to Adam Ward at his home on the hill.