The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXII. Old Friends
It was Sunday morning and the church bells were ringing over the little city as the old workman climbed the hill to Adam Ward's estate.
There was a touch of frost in the air. The hillside back of the interpreter's hut was brown. But the sun was bright and warm and in every quarter of the city the people were going to their appointed places of worship. The voice of the Mill was silenced.
Pete wondered if he would find Adam at home. He had not thought about it when he left the cottage--his mind had been so filled with the object of his visit to the man who had once been his working comrade and friend.
But Adam Ward was not at church.
The Mill owner's habits of worship were very simply regulated. If the minister said things that pleased him, and showed a properly humble gratification at Adam's presence in the temple of God, Adam attended divine services. If the reverend teacher in the pulpit so far forgot himself as to say anything that jarred Adam's peculiar spiritual sensitiveness, or failed to greet this particular member of his flock with proper deference, Adam stayed at home and stopped his subscription to the cause. Nor did he ever fail to inform his pastor and the officers of the congregation as to the reason for his nonattendance; always, at the time, assuring them that whenever the minister would preach the truths that he wanted to hear, his weekly offerings to the Lord would be renewed. Thus Adam Ward was just and honest in his religious life as he was in his business dealings. He was ready always, to pay for that which he received, but, as a matter of principle, he was careful always to receive exactly what he paid for.
This Sunday morning Adam Ward was at home.
When Pete reached the entrance to the estate the heavy gates were closed. As Mary's father stood in doubt before the iron barrier a man appeared on the inside.
"Good-morning, Uncle Pete," he said, in hearty greeting, when he saw who it was that sought admittance.
"Good-morning, Henry--and what are you doing in there?" returned the workman, who had known the man from his boyhood.
The other grinned. "Oh, I'm one of the guards at this institution now."
Pete looked at him blankly. "Guards? What are you guarding, Henry?"
Standing close to the iron bars of the gate, Henry glanced over his shoulder before he answered in a low, cautious tone, "Adam."
The old workman was shocked. "What! you don't mean it!" He shook his grizzly head sadly. "I hadn't heard that he was that bad."
Henry laughed. "We're not keepin' the old boy in, Uncle Pete--not yet. So far, our orders are only to keep people out. Dangerous people, I mean--the kind that might want to run away with the castle, or steal a look at the fountain, or sneak a smell of the flowers or something--y' understand."
Pete smiled. "How do you like your job, Henry?"
"Oh, it's all right just now when the strike is on. But was you wantin' to come in, Uncle Pete, or just passing' by?"
"I wanted to see Adam if I could."
The man swung open the gate. "Help yourself, Uncle Pete, just so you don't stick a knife into him or blow him up with a bomb or poison him or something." He pointed toward that part of the grounds where Helen had watched her father from the arbor. "You'll find him over there somewhere, I think. I saw him headed that way a few minutes ago. The rest of the family are gone to church."
"Is Adam's life really threatened, Henry?" asked Pete, as he stepped inside and the gates were closed behind him.
"Search me," returned the guard, indifferently. "I expect if the truth were known it ought to be by rights. He sure enough thinks it is, though. Why, Uncle Pete, there can't a butterfly flit over these grounds that Adam ain't a yellin' how there's an aeroplane a sailin' around lookin' fer a chance to drop a monkey wrench on his head or something."
"Poor Adam!" murmured the old workman. "What a way to live!"
"Live?" echoed the guard. "It ain't livin' at all--it's just bein' in hell before your time, that's what it is--if you ask me."
* * * * *
When Peter Martin, making his slow way through the beautiful grounds, first caught sight of his old bench mate, Adam was pacing slowly to and fro across a sunny open space of lawn. As he walked, the Mill owner was talking to himself and moving his arms and hands in those continuous gestures that seemed so necessary to any expression of his thoughts. Once Pete heard him laugh. And something in the mirthless sound made the old workman pause. It was then that Adam saw him.
There was no mistaking the sudden fear that for a moment seemed to paralyze the man. His gray face turned a sickly white, his eyes were staring, his jaw dropped, his body shook as if with a chill. He looked about as if he would call for help, and started as if to seek safety in flight.
"Good-morning, Adam Ward," said Pete Martin.
And at the gentle kindliness in the workman's voice Adam's manner, with a suddenness that was startling, changed. With an elaborate show of friendliness he came eagerly forward. His gray face, twitching with nervous excitement, beamed with joyous welcome. As he hurried across the bit of lawn between them, he waved his arms and rubbed his hands together in an apparent ecstasy of gladness at this opportunity to receive such an honored guest. His voice trembled with high-pitched assurance of his happiness in the occasion. He laughed as one who could not contain himself.
"Well, well, well--to think that you have actually come to see me at last." He grasped the workman's hand in both his own with a grip that was excessive in its hearty energy. With affectionate familiarity he almost shouted, "You old scoundrel! I can't believe it is you. Where have you been keeping yourself? How are Charlie and Mary? Lord, but it's good to see you here in my own home like this."
While Pete was trying to make some adequate reply to this effusive and startling reception, Adam looked cautiously about to see if there were any chance observers lurking near.
Satisfied that no one was watching, he said, nervously, "Come on, let's sit over here where we can talk." And with his hand on Pete's arm, he led his caller to lawn chairs that were in the open, well beyond hearing of any curious ear in the shrubbery.
Giving the workman opportunity for no more than an occasional monosyllable in reply, he poured forth a flood of information about his estate: The architectural features of his house--the cost; the loveliness of his trees--the cost; the coloring of his flowers--the cost; the magnificence of his view, And all the while he studied his caller's face with sharp, furtive glances, trying to find some clew to the purpose of the workman's visit.
Peter Martin's steady eyes, save for occasional glances at the objects of Adam's interest as Adam pointed them out, were fixed on the Mill owner with a half-wondering, half-pitying expression. Adam's evident nervousness increased. He talked of his Mill--how he had built it up from nothing almost, to its present magnitude--of the city and what he had done for the people.
The old workman listened without comment.
At last, apparently unable to endure the suspense a moment longer, Adam Ward said, nervously, "Well, Pete, out with it! What do you want? I can guess what you are here for. We might as well get done with it."
In his slow, thoughtful manner of speech that was so different from the Mill owner's agitated expressions, the old workman said, "I have wanted for nothing, Adam. We have been contented and happy in our little home. But now," he paused as if his thoughts were loath to form themselves into words.
The last vestige of pretense left Adam Ward's face as suddenly as if he had literally dropped a mask. "It's a good thing you have been satisfied," he said, coldly. "You had better continue to be. You know that you owe everything you have in the world to me! You need not expect anything more."
"Have you not made a big profit on every hour's work that I have done in your Mill, Adam?"
"Whatever profit I have or have not made on your work is none of your business, sir," retorted Adam. "I have given you a job all these years. I could have thrown you out. You haven't a thing on earth that you did not buy with the checks you received from me. I have worn myself out--made an invalid of myself--building up the business that has enabled you and the rest of my employees to make a living. Every cent that I ever received from that new process I put back into the Mill. You have had more out of it than I ever did."
Peter Martin looked slowly about at the evidence of Adam Ward's wealth. When he again faced the owner of the estate he spoke as if doubting that he had heard him clearly. "But the Mill is yours, Adam?" he said, at last. "And all this is yours. How--where did it come from?"
"Certainly the Mill is mine. Didn't I make it what it is? As for the place here--it came from the profits of my business, of course. You know I was nothing but a common workman when I started out."
"I know," returned Pete. "And it was the new process that enabled you to get control of the Mill--to buy it and build it up--wasn't it? If you hadn't happened to have had the process the Mill would have made all this for some one else, wouldn't it? We never dreamed that the process would grow into such a big thing for anybody when we used to talk it over in the old days, did we, Adam?"
Adam Ward looked cautiously around at the shrubbery that encircled the bit of lawn. There was no one to be seen within hearing distance.
When he faced his companion again the Mill owner's eyes were blazing, but he controlled his voice by a supreme effort of will. "Look here, Pete, I'm not going even to discuss that matter with you. I have kept you on at the Mill and taken care of you all these years because of our old friendship and because I was sorry for you. But if you don't appreciate what I have done for you, if you attempt to start any talk or anything I'll throw you and Charlie out of your jobs to-morrow. And I'll fix it, too, so you will never either of you get another day's work in Millsburgh. That process is my property. No one has any interest in the patents in any way. I have it tied up so tight that all the courts in the world couldn't take it away from me. Law is law and I propose to keep what the law says is mine. I have thousands of dollars to spend in defense of my legal rights where you have dimes. You needn't whine about moral obligations either. The only obligations that are of any force in business are legal! If you haven't brains enough to look after your own interests you can't expect any one else to look after them for you."
When Adam Ward finished his countenance was distorted with hate and fear. Before this simple, kindly old workman, in whose honest soul there was no shadow of a wish to harm any one in any way, the Mill owner was like a creature of evil at bay.
"I did not come to talk of the past, Adam Ward," said Pete, sadly. "And I didn't come to threaten you or to ask anything for myself."
At the gentle sadness of his old friend's manner and words, Adam's eyes gleamed with vicious triumph. "Well, out with it!" he demanded, harshly. "What are you here for?"
"Your boy and my girl love each other, Adam."
An ugly grin twisted the gray lips of Pete's employer.
But Mary's father went on as though he had not seen. "The children were raised together, Adam. I have always thought of John almost as if he were my own son. It seems exactly right that he should want Mary and that she should want him. There is no man in the world I would rather it would be."
Adam listened, still grinning, as the old workman continued in his slow, quiet speech.
"I never cared before for all that the new process made for you. You wanted money--I didn't. But it don't seem right that what you have--considering how you got it--should stand in the way of Mary's happiness. I understand that there is nothing I can do about it, but I thought that, considering everything, you might be willing to--"
Adam Ward laughed aloud--laughed until the tears of his insane glee filled his eyes. "So that's your game," he said, at last, when he could speak. "You hadn't brains enough to protect yourself to start out with and you have found out that you haven't a chance in the world against me in the courts. So you try to make it by setting your girl up to catch John."
"You must stop that sort of talk, Adam Ward." Peter Martin was on his feet, and there was that in his usually stolid countenance which made the Mill owner shrink back. "I was a fool, as you say. But my mistake was that I trusted you. I believed in your pretended friendship for me. I thought you were as honest and honorable as you seemed to be. I didn't know that your religion was all such a rotten sham. I have never cared that you grew rich while I remained poor. All these years I have been sorry for you because I have had so much of the happiness and contentment and peace that you have lost. But you must understand, sir, that there are some things that I will do in defense of my children that I would not do in defense of myself."
Adam, white and trembling, drew still farther away. "Be careful," he cried, "I can call half a dozen men before you can move."
Pete continued as if the other had not spoken. "There is no reason in the world why John and Mary should not marry."
Adam Ward's insane hatred for the workman and his evil joy over this opportunity to make his old comrade suffer was stronger even than his fear. With another snarling laugh he retorted, viciously, "There is the best reason in the world why they will never marry. I am the reason, Pete Martin! And I'd like to see you try to do anything about it."
Mary's father answered, slowly, "I do not understand your hatred for me, Adam. All these years I have been loyal to you. I have never talked of our affairs to any one--"
Adam interrupted him with a burst of uncontrollable rage. "Talk, you fool! Talk all you please. Tell everybody anything you like. Who will believe you? You will only get yourself laughed at for being the short-sighted idiot you were. That process is patented in my name. I own it. You don't need to keep still on my account, but I tell you again that if you do try to start anything I'll ruin you and I'll ruin your children." Suddenly, as if in fear that his rage would carry him too far, his manner changed and he spoke with forced coldness. "I am sorry that I cannot continue this interview, Pete. You have all that you will ever get from me--children or no children. Go on about your business as usual and you may hold your job in the Mill as long as you are able to do your work. I had thought that I might give you some sort of a little pension when you got too old to keep up your end with the rest of the men."
And then Adam Ward added the crowning insolent expression of his insane and arrogant egotism. With a pious smirk of his gray, twitching face, he said, "I want you to know, too, Pete, that you can approach me any time without any feeling of humiliation."
He turned abruptly away and a moment later the old workman, watching, saw him disappear behind some tall bushes.
As Pete Martin went slowly back to the entrance gate he did not know that the owner of the estate was watching him. From bush to bush Adam crept with the stealthy care of a wild creature, following its prey--never taking his eyes from his victim, save for quick glances here and there to see that he himself was not observed. Not until Pete had passed from sight down the hill road did Adam appear openly. Then, going to the watchman at the gate, he berated him for admitting the old workman and threatened him with the loss of his position if he so offended Again.
* * * * *
When Peter Martin arrived home he found Jake Vodell and Charlie discussing the industrial situation. The strike leader had come once more to try to enlist the support of the old workman and his son in his war against the employer class.