The Helen of the Old House by Harold Bell Wright
Book III. The Strike
Chapter XXIII. A Last Chance
Jake Vodell greeted the old workman cordially. "You have been to church this fine morning, I suppose, heh?" he said, with a sneering laugh that revealed how little his interview with Captain Charlie was contributing to his satisfaction.
"No," returned Pete. "I did not attend church this morning--I do go, though, generally."
"Oh-ho! you worship the God of your good master Adam Ward, I suppose."
But Pete Martin was in no way disturbed by the man's sarcasm. "No," he said, slowly, "I do not think that Adam and I worship the same God."
"Is it so? But when the son goes to war so bravely and fights for his masters one would expect the father to say his prayers to his masters' God, heh?"
Captain Charlie retorted, sharply, "The men who fought in the war fought for this nation--for every citizen in it. We fought for McIver just as we fought for Sam Whaley. Our loyalty in this industrial question is exactly the same. We will save the industries of this country for every citizen alike because our national life is at stake. Did you ever hear of a sailor refusing to man the pumps on a sinking ship because the vessel was not his personal property?"
"Bah!" growled Jake Vodell. "Your profession of loyalty to your country amuses me. Your country! It is McIver's country--Adam Ward's country, I tell you. It is my little band of live, aggressive heroes who are the loyal ones. We are the ones who will save the industries, but we will save them for the laboring people alone. And you shirkers in your Mill workers' union are willing to stand aside and let us do your fighting for you. Have you no pride for your class at all?"
"Oh, yes," returned Captain Charlie, "we have plenty of class pride. Only you see, Vodell, we don't consider ourselves in your class. You are no more loyal to the principles of our American unions than you are to the principles of our government. You don't represent our unions. You represent something foreign to the interests of every American citizen. You are trying to use our unions in your business, that is all. And because you manage to get hold of a few poor fellows like Sam Whaley, you think you can lead the working people. If you really think our loyalty to our country is a joke, drop in at an American Legion meeting some evening--bring along your foreign flag and all your foreign friends. I'll promise you a welcome that will, I think, convince you that we have some class pride after all."
The agitator rose heavily to his feet. "It is your friendship with this John Ward that makes you turn from your own class. I have known how it would be with you. But it is no matter. You shall see. We will make a demonstration in Millsburgh that will win the men of your union in spite of you and your crippled old basket maker. If you had a personal grievance against Adam Ward as so many others have you would be with me fast enough. But he and his son have made you blind with their pretended kindness."
Pete Martin spoke now with a dignity and pride that moved Captain Charlie deeply. "Mr. Vodell, you are wrong. My son is too big to be influenced in this matter by any personal consideration. Whatever there is that is personal between Charlie and John or between Adam Ward and myself will never be brought into this controversy."
Jake Vodell shrugged his heavy shoulders. "Very well--I will go now. You will see that in the end the working people will know who are for their interests and who are against them, and we will know, too, how to reward our friends and punish our enemies. I am sorry. I have given you to-day your last chance. You have a pretty little place here, heh?"
There was a look in his dark face, as he gazed about appraisingly, that made Captain Charlie go a step toward him. "You have given us our last chance? Is this a sample of the freedom that you offer so eloquently to the people? Instead of the imperialist McIver we are to have the imperialist Vodell, are we? Between the two of you I prefer McIver. He is at least sane enough to be constructive in his imperialism. My father and I have lived here all our lives, as most of our neighbors have. The majority of the workmen in this community own their homes just as we do. We are a part of the life of this city. What have you at stake? Where is your home and family? What is your nationality? What is your record of useful industry? Before you talk about giving a last chance to workmen like my father you will need to produce the credentials of your authority. We have your number, Jake Vodell. You may as well go back to the land where you belong, if you belong anywhere on earth. You will never hang your colors in the union Mill workers' hall. We have a flag there now that suits us. The chance you offer, last or first, is too darned big a chance for any sane American workman to monkey with."
Jake Vodell answered harshly as he turned to go. "At least I know now for sure who it is that makes the Mill workers such traitors to their class." He looked at Pete. "Your son has made his position very clear. We shall see now how bravely the noble Captain will hold his ground. As for you, well--always the old father can pray to his God for his son. It is so, heh?"
Quickly the man passed through the white gate and disappeared down the street toward the Flats.
"I am afraid that fellow means trouble, son," said Pete, slowly.
"Trouble," echoed Captain Charlie, "Jake Vodell has never meant anything but trouble."
* * * * *
Adam Ward did not join his family when they returned from church. A nervous headache kept him in his room.
In the afternoon John went for a long drive into the country. He felt that he must be alone--that he must think things out, for both Mary and himself.
As he looked back on it all now, it seemed to him that he had always loved this girl companion of his old-house days. In his boyhood he had accepted her as a part of his daily life just as he had accepted his sister. Those years of his schooling had been careless, thoughtless years, and followed, as they were, by his war experience, they seemed now to have had so small a part in the whole that they scarcely counted at all. His renewed comradeship with Charlie in the army had renewed also, through the letters that Charlie always shared with him, his consciousness of Mary. In the months just passed his love had ripened and become a definite thing, fixed and certain in his own mind and heart as the fact of life itself. He had no more thought of accepting as final Mary's answer than he had of turning the management of the Mill over to Jake Vodell or to Sam Whaley. But still there were things that he must think out.
On that favorite hillside spot where he and Charlie had spent so many hours discussing their industrial problems, John faced squarely the questions raised by Mary's "no."
Through the chill of the fall twilight John went home to spend the evening with his mother. But he did not speak to her of Mary. He could not, somehow, in the house that was so under the shadow of that hidden thing.
His father was still in his room.
On his way to his own apartment after his mother had retired, John stopped at his father's door to knock gently and ask if there was anything that he could do.
The answer came, "No, I will be all right--let me alone."
Later Helen returned from somewhere with McIver. Then John heard McIver leaving and Helen going to her mother for their usual good-night visit.
Seeing the light under his door, as she passed, she tapped the panel and called softly that it was tune all good little boys were fast asleep.
It was an hour, perhaps, after John had gone to bed that he was awakened by the sound of some one stealing quietly into his room. Against the dim night light in the hall, he caught the outline of an arm and shoulder as the intruder carefully closed the door. Reaching out to the lamp at the head of his bed, he snapped on the light and sprang to his feet.
"Sh--be careful, John, they will hear you!" Adam Ward's gray face was ghastly with nervous excitement and fear, and he was shaking as with a chill.
"No one must know I told you," he whispered, "but the new process is the source of everything we have--the Mill and everything. If it wasn't for my patent rights we would have nothing. You and I would be working in the Mill just like Pete and his boy."
John spoke soothingly. "Yes, father, I understand, but it will be all right--I'll take care of it."
Adam chuckled. "They're after it. But I've got it all sewed up so tight they can't touch it. That old fool, Pete, was here to feel me out to-day."
Adam grinned. "While you folks were at church."
"But what did he want, father?"
"They've got a new scheme now. They've set Mary after you. They figure that if the girl can land you they'll get a chance at what I have made out of the process that way. I told him you was too smart to be caught like that. But you've got to watch them. They'll do anything."
In spite of his pity for his father, John Ward drew from him, overcome by a feeling of disgust and shame which he could not wholly control.
Adam, unconscious of his son's emotions, went on. "I've made it all in spite of them, John, but I've had to watch them. They'll be after you now that I have turned things over to you, just as they have been after me. They'll never get it, though. They'll never get a penny of it. I'll destroy the Mill and everything before I'll give up a dollar of what I've made."
John Ward could not speak. It was too monstrous--too horrible. As one in a hideous dream, he listened. What was back of it all? Why did his father in his spells of nervous excitement always rave so about the patented process? Why did he hate Pete Martin so bitterly? What was this secret thing that was driving Adam Ward insane?
Thinking to find an answer to these perplexing questions, if there was any answer other than the Mill owner's mental condition, John forced himself to the pretense of sharing his father's fears. He agreed with Adam's arraignment of Pete, echoed his father's expression of hatred for the old workman, thanked Adam for warning him, boasted of his own ability to see through their tricks and schemes and to protect the property his father had accumulated.
In this vein they talked in confidential whispers until John felt that he could venture the question, "Just what is it about the process that they are after, father? If I knew the exact history of the thing I would be in a much better position to handle the situation as you want, wouldn't I?"
Adam Ward's manner changed instantly. With a look of sly cunning he studied John's face. "There is nothing about the process, son," he said, steadily. "You know all there is to know about it now."
But when John, thinking that his father had regained his self-control, urged him to go back to his bed, Adam's painful agitation returned.
For some moments he paced to and fro as if in nervous indecision, then, going close to John, he said in a low, half whisper, "John, there is something else I wanted to ask you. You have been to college and over there in the war, you must have seen a lot of men die--" He paused. "Yes, yes, you must have been close to death a good many times. Tell me, John, do you believe that there is anything after--I mean anything beyond this life? Does a man's conscious existence go on when he is dead?"
"Yes," said John, wondering at this apparent change in his father's thought. "I believe in a life beyond this. You believe in it, too, don't you, father?"
"Of course," returned Adam. "We can't know, though, for sure, can we? But, anyway, a man would be foolish to risk it, wouldn't he?"
"To risk what, father?"
"To risk the chance of there being no hell," came the startling answer. "My folks raised me to believe in hell, and the preachers all teach it. And if there should be such a place of eternal torment a man would be a fool not to fix up some way to get out of it, wouldn't he?"
John did not know what to say.
Adam Ward leaned closer to his son and with an air of secrecy whispered, "That's exactly what I've done, John--I've worked out a scheme to tie God up in a contract that will force Him to save me. The old Interpreter gave me the idea. You see if it should turn out that there is no hell my plan can't do any harm and if there is a hell it makes me safe anyway."
He chuckled with insane satisfaction. "They say that God knows everything--that nobody can figure out a way to beat Him, but I have--I have worked out a deal with God that is bound to give me the best of it. I've got Him tied up so tight that He'll be bound to save me. Some people think I'm crazy, but you wait, my boy--they'll find out how crazy I am. They'll never get me into hell. I have been figuring on this ever since the Interpreter told me I had better make a contract with God. And after Pete left this morning I got it all settled. A man can't afford to take any chances with God and so I made this deal with Him. Hell or no hell, I'm safe. God don't get the best of me,--And you are safe, too, son, with the new process, if you look after your own interests, as I have done, and don't overlook any opportunities. I wanted to tell you about this so you wouldn't worry about me. I'll go back to bed now. Don't tell mother and Helen what we have been talking about. No use to worry them--they couldn't understand anyway. And don't forget, John, what Pete told me about Mary. Their scheme won't work of course. I know you are too smart for them. But just the same you've got to be on your guard against her all the time. Never take any unnecessary chances. Don't talk over a deal with a man when any one can hear. If you are careful to have no witnesses when you arrange a deal you are absolutely safe. It is what you can slip into the written contract that counts--once you get your man's signature. That's always been my way. And now I have even put one over on God."
He stole cautiously out of the room and back to his own apartment.
Outside his father's door John waited, listening, until he was convinced that sleep had at last come to the exhausted man.
Late that same Sunday evening, when the street meeting held by Jake Vodell was over, there was another meeting in the room back of the pool hall. The men who sat around that table with the agitator were not criminals--they were workmen. Sam Whaley and two others were men with families. They were all American citizens, but they were under the spell of their leader's power. They had been prepared for that leadership by the industrial policies of McIver and Adam Ward.
This meeting of that inner circle was in no way authorized by the unions. The things they said Sam Whaley would not have dared to say openly in the Mill workers' organization. The plans they proposed to carry out in the name of the unions they were compelled to make in secret. In their mad, fanatical acceptance of the dreams that Vodell wrought for them; in their blind obedience to the leadership he had so cleverly established; in their reckless disregard of the consequences under the spell of his promised protection, they were as insane, in fact, as the owner of the Mill himself.
The supreme, incredible, pitiful tragedy of it all was this: That these workmen committed themselves to the plans of Jake Vodell in the name of their country's workmen.